With reference to Nicholas Lezard’s Twitter antagonist (Down and Out, 12 February), disdain for the banal might not be the evidence of high-minded seriousness some would assume. We find respect, even reverence, for the commonplace in poets such as William Blake, who famously wrote of seeing the world in a grain of sand, or the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (not noted for frivolity), who celebrated being able to “wallow in the habitual, the banal” after successful major surgery. Vermeer and other Dutch interior artists’ luminously detailed scenes of daily middle-class domesticity remain powerfully affecting; similarly, the contemporary artist Claire Kerr’s treatments of everyday scenes or discarded objects and fragments elicit a profound, response. In an age where constant, urgent demands on our attention can leave us feeling harried and helpless, it feels salutary occasionally to pause to appreciate the banal, everyday lives we lead.
Chris Deerin rightly points out that Boris Johnson is “hand-knitted to repulse Scots” (“A kingdom of fragments”, 12 February) while Robert Colls writes that Keir Starmer should focus on “revealing the venality (in government contracts) and fingering the incompetence” (“Where are we now?”, 12 February). If taking back control locally is the animating spirit of Scottish support for independence, it is also the route for Starmer to channel UK-wide frustration with the over-centralised responses of the Tory government and start gaining traction with voters, which Stephen Bush reports is absent (Politics, 5 February).
If Labour was to focus on promising fully devolved policymaking power and resources to new regional assemblies while constraining Westminster’s role to that of setting the economic and moral climate, it could present a unifying post-Covid, post-Brexit vision of reconstruction and renewal. Politically, it would offer empowerment to those in Britain who feel disenfranchised, neutralise the fear of an all-controlling Labour government, and simultaneously avoid an electoral bidding battle or being dragged into a culture war of the Tories’ choosing.
I have yet to read an article on Scotland that pinpoints why I – and I suspect many others who were unquestioning “No” voters in 2014 – would now vote for independence. Yes, Nicola Sturgeon has acquitted herself well during the pandemic; Brexit has moved the goalposts. But what would swing it for me is the fanatics who have taken over the Conservative Party, who represent a grave threat to our liberal democracy and our freedoms. Faced with a Labour Party cowed by Brexit and the culture war, there is every chance they will win again in 2024. Given a choice, would I stay on the old ship, increasingly unseaworthy and drifting off into mid-ocean after being boarded by pirates, or would I climb into the lifeboat, knowing that we’d face choppy waters but have a chance of reaching safety?
During the 1990s, the Soviet Union fragmented into a dozen or so independent states without too much worry about currency, national debt, savings, pensions, trade borders etc. Why would it be so difficult for the UK to fragment into its constituent parts? Scotland would regain its independence and join the EU (like Estonia), Northern Ireland would reunite with its parent country (like East Germany) and Wales might remain more closely linked to the motherland (like Belarus).
[see also: A kingdom of fragments]
Down to a T
It was great to see Gillian Keegan, minister for skills and apprenticeships, outline plans to revolutionise technical education in Spotlight (“Delivering a resilient economy”, 5 February). An important omission, though, was the DfE’s recent consultation into Level 3 qualifications (such as A-levels and BTECs). This has laid the ground for the full roll-out of T-levels, the development of which I oversaw as minister, an important addition. However, the consultation has put other vocational qualifications, including BTECs, in the firing line. BTECs are flexible qualifications, providing learners with a wealth of skills and knowledge. They enable people to be trained in the very industries Keegan is concerned about.
Crucially, they can be taken alongside other qualifications or a full-time job. BTECs simply must stay as an option for all.
Minister for skills and apprenticeships, 2017-19
In Peter Wilby’s review of Fall (The Critics, 5 February) he notes that Robert Maxwell’s only lasting legacy is in scientific publishing. This should not be seen as a positive. Scientific publishing is fundamentally broken, controlled by a small number of hegemonic corporations and driven by metrics over quality and fairness. The academic community has been trying for years to undo many of the changes driven by Maxwell’s Pergamon Press and its successors.
Not in Britain
Regarding Michael Henderson’s letter (Correspondence, 12 February): Ireland, North or south, has never been a part of Great Britain. Historically it was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Since 1921 it has been the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is not political point scoring, simply a statement of fact!
I appreciated much about your issue “The Lost” (29 January), but two articles stood out for me. One was Tracey Thorn’s column on gardening (Off the Record, 29 January), on the ideal garden existing in one’s head and sowing seeds in the hope of them growing – the sense of forward momentum that is lacking at the moment. The other was the doctor Rachel Clarke’s Q&A, in particular her final message: “Cherish what you have, burn bright while you can.”
Let us prey
Reading John Burnside’s column on birds of prey (Nature, 5 February) evoked William Blake’s words: “When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of genius; lift up thy head!” His point about their persecution by landowners brought to mind the RSPB report that showed a strong correlation between the illegal slaughter of birds of prey and the maintenance of moorland for grouse shoots. It’s said that you have more chance of seeing a falcon above Manchester than in the Peak District.
Marple, Greater Manchester
Nude next door
After reading Nicholas Lezard’s column (Down and Out, 12 February), I realised with both smug joy and not a little laughter that I too am “the naked neighbour”. It’s always nice to know you’re making a contribution to the local area in a time of need.
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This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth