30 January 2015 Snow!
A quiet day 1 book sold and it snows again.
Colleen McCullough, the Australian writer, who has died aged 77, shot to fame when her second novel The Thorn Birds (1977), an epic story of a doomed romance between a Catholic priest and a woman in the Australian outback, became a global bestseller and was turned into an award-winning television miniseries in 1983, starring Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward.
Billed as Australia’s Gone with the Wind, the book sold 30 million copies and the paperback rights earned its author $1.9 million, a record at the time. Written in just three months in the evenings after her day job as a neurophysicist, the novel turned Colleen McCullough into a wealthy woman and (by her own account) put Australia on the map.
“I did the whole bloody thing,” she claimed. “I beat Paul Hogan to it; I even predated Rupert Murdoch.” Germaine Greer once described The Thorn Birds as the best bad book she had ever read.
Yet Colleen McCullough regarded her new-found celebrity as a mixed blessing. She hated the television adaptation (which earned her another $5 million), describing it as “instant vomit”, and accusing its producers, Warner Bros, of stripping her book of all nuance. “Ward couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag and Chamberlain wandered about all wet and wide-eyed,” she complained. “The filming was done in Hawaii, there was only one kangaroo on the set and everyone sounded American except Bryan Brown, whose Oz accent stuck out like a dingo’s bits.”
In the late 1970s Colleen McCullough moved to Norfolk Island, a remote Australian outpost in the Pacific, many of whose inhabitants claim descent from the Bounty mutineers, to avoid the pressures of fame. Much to her publisher’s frustration, she refused to consider a follow-up to The Thorn Birds and diversified mostly into “true historical fiction”, including a seven-novel series on the history of Rome. She did not pick up a copy of her most famous book for 25 years.
Colleen McCullough was born on June 1 1937 in Wellington, New South Wales, and spent much of her childhood in Sydney. Her Catholic mother was a New Zealander of Maori ancestry, while her Protestant father was an immigrant from Ulster who worked as a cane cutter.
An overweight, bookish child (she was later diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which causes weight gain), Colleen began writing almost as soon as she could wield a pen, to escape from her parents’ violent rows and in particular from her mother, “a dogmatic, volcanic woman”, who took her to the doctors and put her on endless diets. “She tried to make me into the child she wanted by dressing me up in ruffles,” Colleen McCullough recalled. “I looked like a Sherman tank with ribbons on it.”
Jean Simmons, Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward and Barbara Stanwyck in The Thorn Birds (1983) (EVERETT COLLECTION/REX)
Although the visits to the doctor did not help, they gave her a fascination with hospitals, and after education at Holy Cross College, Woollahra, she won a place at Sydney University to study Medicine. In her first year, however, she developed an allergy to surgical soap and was advised to give up her studies. Instead she switched to Neuroscience and worked at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney.
In 1963 she moved to Britain, where she spent four years working at hospitals in London and Birmingham. While there, she met the chairman of the neurology department at Yale University who was about to open a new neurophysiological research laboratory, and who offered her a job. Officially she became his chef de laboratoire — “which means I ran the joint” — but she was paid half the salary of her male peers and, not wanting to end up as a “70-year-old spinster in a cold-water walk-up with a 60-watt bulb”, she began writing in her spare time.
Her first novel, Tim (1974), about a middle-aged woman’s romance with a young, mentally disabled handyman, did well and in 1980 was made into a film starring Mel Gibson. The Thorn Birds, however, transformed her into a multi-millionairess.
Colleen McCullough wrote 25 novels ranging from love stories (An Indecent Obsession, The Ladies of Missalonghi) to crime fiction (a series of novels featuring small-town detective Carmine Delmonico) and from historical fiction to biography. Her 2008 sequel to Pride and Prejudice, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet (2008), upset Austen purists with its account of how the plain Bennet sister breaks out to become a crusading socialist and feminist, while the marriage between Elizabeth and Darcy ends in tears.
Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward in The Thorn Birds (1983) (MOVIESTORE COLLECTION/REX)
Colleen McCullough did not pick up a copy of The Thorn Birds for a quarter of a century, until Gloria Bruni, a German composer and opera singer, persuaded her to collaborate on a musical based on the book. It was given its world premiere in 2009 by Michael Bogdanov’s Wales Theatre Company to mostly unenthusiastic reviews. Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph complained that “some of the ballads are almost memorable in their syrupy excess”, while others “often backed by flavourless rock gyrations, are as soon forgotten”.
It was not until her mid-forties that Colleen McCullough found romance. In 1983, aged 46, she married Ric Robinson, a 33-year-old Norfolk islander whom she described as “a cross between Isaac Newton, a Samoan prince and a convict”, and who claimed direct descent from the Bounty mutineers Fletcher Christian, William McCoy, John Adams and Matthew Quintal.
Colleen McCullough suffered health problems for most of her life and wrote her final book, Bittersweet (2013) – the story of two sets of twin sisters growing up in provincial Australia during the Great Depression – to entertain herself after failing eyesight forced her to abandon her other passions: painting and drawing.
She is survived by her husband and two stepchildren.
Colleen McCullough, born June 1 1937, died January 29 2015
What gives you the impression (Editorial, 27 January) that by 2030 “gas will not be needed for power stations, only for domestic and industrial heating”? National Grid, which manages both the electricity and gas transmission networks, does not concur. Under the greenest of its future scenarios, by 2030 total gas demand would decline by 25%, including a 37% decline in power station use. However, this is swamped by smaller percentage decreases in gas use for domestic and industrial heating, which together account for three-quarters of UK gas consumption. Moreover, they amount to more than double the total energy consumed as electricity.
Four-fifths of UK households rely on gas for heating. They are the lucky ones: those without access to the gas grid are more than twice as likely to be in fuel poverty. And that is the most optimistic scenario. Far more likely is an increase in gas use for power generation, as coal-fired and nuclear plants are decommissioned, and we lack any alternative to balance the intermittency of wind and hydro. (Storage is economically and environmentally unviable at the scale of peak grid demand.)
As UK offshore gas production continues to decline rapidly, then we either produce gas onshore or import more – most likely from Russia, with all the geopolitical risks that entails. The worst outcome would be for us to mimic Germany, where problems in balancing renewables on the grid recently prompted a “dash for coal”, reversing decades of progress in reducing carbon emissions. So let’s have the serious debate you advocate – but can engineers please be given a hearing?
Professor Paul L Younger
School of Engineering, University of Glasgow
• Lancashire county council has deferred its decision on applications from Cuadrilla to begin fracking in the Fylde (Report, 29 January). In response to an LCC report recommending rejection of the applications on the grounds of unacceptable levels of noise pollution and traffic (Report, 22 January), Cuadrilla announced last-minute changes in its plans that would, it claimed, reduce these levels. LCC’s move to defer its decision was apparently taken in the light of advice from its legal team that Cuadrilla could sue the council if it did not consider the proposed changes before voting on the applications.
This sort of corporate blackmail has been going in other contexts. When Romania took the courageous decision to withdraw from opencast gold mining in Rosia Montana in September 2013 after weeks of public protest, the mining company Gabriel Resources responded by threatening to sue it. The Romanian government stood its ground under pressure from the population, and Gabriel did not sue. LCC should have done the same and called Cuadrilla’s bluff. Cuadrilla’s legal grounds for suing are not at all clear, and it would almost certainly not have been so dumb as to do so, but if it had sued it would have shown its colours for all to see.
Norman and Isabela Fairclough
• Prince Rupert’s sovereign, Charles I, would have recognised parallels between the objection of many today to relaxing the planning laws to make fracking easier and that of his own subjects affected by the search for saltpetre, an essential ingredient of gunpowder. Successive sovereigns declared saltpetre to be vital to national security and gave those licensed to search for it wide powers. Saltpetre occurs naturally through the action of microbes on decaying living tissue – long undisturbed earth floors were an ideal place to dig for it.
“Petermen” authorised by the crown dug up the floors of barns, houses and churches, often without permission, causing local outrage. In 1628, 20 bushels of saltpetre were dug from the floor of Chipping Norton church, tossing seats aside and leaving the ground so uneven the parishioners could not kneel.
• The House of Commons vote to allow the law of trespass to be overridden by fracking companies (Report, 26 September 2014) makes a mockery of the celebration of the sealing of Magna Carta 800 years ago. The word “liberty” also refers to the land over which I exercise my liberty. At a stroke the government has swept away a fundamental liberty guaranteed by Magna Carta, specifically clause 39, which states that no one shall be disseised (ie dispossessed) of his liberty (property). King John must be rubbing his hands in glee in hell.
Church Stretton, Shropshire
• Serious arguments demand serious consideration. Try to think of an environmental problem that is not an unforeseen side-effect of new technology. You can’t do it. This is why we need a moratorium, a “precautionary approach” to fracking.
Julie Walters (and others) are right (Could Rita get to Rada? Probably not, says Walters, 24 January), and it’s a problem across the creative industries. Grants for drama school would help – but the bigger problem is what follows. The really difficult part (unless parents are already in “the business” with contacts) is those crucial early years, when aspirants have to work for nothing, build a track record and be seen, almost all needing to live in London to do it.
Our two children both qualified for creative fields (where did we go wrong?) and for years both were offered plenty of unpaid work on films and in theatres, but turned most of it down because they had rent to pay and needed to eat, since we couldn’t go on supporting them. The brief 1960s flowering of working-class drama and actors couldn’t happen now that access favours the middle-class, and this must feed through into how society is reflected by the arts.
• Julie Walters says that “people like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today. I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.” She’d be pleased to know that the grant system still exists at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts and 18 other British colleges. Dance and drama awards (DaDAs), which are provided by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, offer means-tested grants to the most talented students and can cover up to three years’ full fees and a maintenance grant. DaDAs are available for a number of performance courses, including three-year diplomas in professional acting and musical theatre.
As a result the rehearsal studios at Mountview are filled with accents from across the land and 80% of our young actors have come to us from state secondary schools. It is time to redress the misconception that people from working-class backgrounds like Ms Walters (and me) can no longer afford to train as actors.
Artistic director/principal, Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts
Napoleon’s cloak, which is to go on display at Windsor Castle (Waterloo robe: Bonaparte’s cloak in exhibition on battle, 29 January), was apparently “taken” from his baggage train after the battle and is just one of many such artefacts that “came into the possession of the royal family”. Might we read “taken” as “stolen” or “looted”, and “came into the possession of” as a euphemism for “receiving stolen goods”.
Perhaps now would be a good time to return the cloak to Napoleon’s family, or to France (the country that presumably paid for the cloak of its emperor), along with all the other similarly acquired items. It might even encourage those who currently possess the Parthenon marbles to do the same.
Martin Shaw (Letters, 28 January) equates the Palestinian Nakba with genocide. Painful though it was, and proper that it should be acknowledged, it is not legitimate to classify it alongside the Holocaust or more recent mass slaughters of ethnic groups.
Labour, House of Lords
• I am afraid the idea that “those encouraging the use of Latinised plurals” should have “their recta kicked” (Letters, 28 January) has a fundamental error. The rectum (from rectum intestinum, “straight intestine”) is an internal organ and thus not directly kickable. Presumably your correspondent meant culi (buttocks).
• Oh, how I miss Simon Hoggart and his column. How can I now tell readers that I bought bath towels from Tesco because the label describes them as being “reversible” and “dual function”? I’ve never had towels like that before.
Helperby, North Yorkshire
• Ms Henley (Letters, 29 January) had it easy. When I was a young librarian in 1972 I had to share a room with a stranger, and the other person in the flat (and her friends) had to walk through our small room to get to the bath and lavatory (there was no basin so we cleaned our teeth in the bath). And the man in the room above had an active and noisy sex life, unlike us.
• In 1963 I realised two of my three German A-level exams would occur on the first day of my regular but agonising period (Letters, 29 January). When I asked my GP for the pill, to alter the day it started, he said: “No. I only prescribe it for a bridegroom’s convenience – where the wedding date turns out to coincide.” I failed that time – but got the required A when I retook it the following year.
• Daffs in Notts (Letters, 28 January)? There was one flowering at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire, around 20 December. But it felt like gazumping the festive season to say so at the time.
Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire
Sir, Your leader “Eat Less Meat” (Jan 28) comes at a critical point in the debate about food and farming.
Negotiations on global climate, food and development policy will soon take place and the results will affect all our lives and the Earth’s wellbeing. There is potential for real reform.
Global sustainable development goals — a UN initiative — are being finalised now. It is vital that the agricultural aims are based on humane ecological principles. We already produce more than enough to feed the 9.6 billion people expected to be alive in 2050, yet much farming policy is still driven by the erroneous assumption that we need to produce more.
Global farming policy should instead focus on producing food for a balanced diet for all, and achieving improved livelihoods for the poorest farmers. Industrial livestock systems must be avoided as these involve low-quality lives for sentient animals and pollute water, harm soils, reduce biodiversity and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
We are concerned, however, that the European Commission has not delivered its promised communication on sustainable food. This should give a new vision for food policy and address the high level of meat consumption in some populations, and the industrial farming model that this has generated. We call on the EC to reinstate the communication and to place the problems of industrial animal agriculture at its heart. These problems must also be recognised in the global negotiations on climate change which will culminate in Paris in December.
Joyce d’Silva, Compassion in World Farming, Dame Jane Goodall Joanna Lumley, Gordon Roddick, Jonathon Porritt, Tony Juniper, Bruce Kent, Prof Peter Singer, Prof Kurt Remele, Dr Jonathan Balcombe, Peter Egan, Peter Kindersley, Vivian Schellings, Prof Robert Lawrence, Prof Paulo Borges, Prof Dave Goulson, Prof Jan Willem Erisman, Prof William Greenway, Prof M S Swaminathan, Geoff Tansey, Prof Elizabeth Stuart, Prof Joy Carter, Fazlun Khalid, Annemiek Canjels, Dr Carola Strassner, Norma Alvares, Prof Ben Mepham, Prof Marita Candela, Dr Alex Richardson, Zhang Dan, Nithi Nesadurai, Rebecca Miller, Dr Brian Hare, Dr David Suzuki, Frantzis Alexandros, Sir David Madden, Timmie Kumar, Angus McIntosh, Dr Dan Brook, Brian Sherman, Prof Clive Phillips, Prof Steve Garlick, Julia Stephenson, Stanley Johnson, Dr Jeffrey Masson, Prof Julia Formosinho, Prof Mark Eisler, Dr Kate Rawles, Prof Mohan Munasinghe, Prof Michael Carolan, Prof Paul Krause, Dr Antoine Goetschel, Carol Royle, Dr David Nally, Dr Chinny Krishna, Prof Martin Kemp, Prof João Formosinho, Prof Duo Li, Marina Lewycka. Chris Mullin, Martin Palmer, Dr Deborah Jones, Dale W Jamieson. Sue Jameson, James Bolam, Audrey Eyton, Wendel Trio, Nitin Mehta, Miriam Margolyes, Prof John Webster, Prof Michael Reiss, Annemiek Canjels, Dr Eleanor Boyle, Prof Marc Bekoff, Mario Tozzi
Sir, Grazing livestock is the only way to utilise grassland — but it would seem that the Department of Energy and Climate Change (News, Jan 28) would have us planting trees over half the country, bankrupting the forestry industry and creating a wilderness. This approach reinforces my scepticism of the “climate change” proposition. Shave off your beards, throw away your sandals and wake up to reality, I say.
(retired farmer), Bradninch, Devon
Sir, DECC is to be commended for stating that we must reduce meat consumption in order to tackle global warming. A 100 per cent plant-based diet can do more to reduce your carbon footprint than giving up your car.
Campaigner, Animal Aid
Sir, Anyone considering a more sustainable diet should be aware that beef and lamb raised on pasture in the UK are particularly sustainable, and moderate consumption can contribute to a good diet. Poultry and pork, however, tend to be fed on soy, whose production affects forests and grasslands of global importance.
Sustainable food policy officer, WWF
Sir, We should cut food waste as a priority. On one estimate about 40 per cent of our food and a land area the size of Wales is squandered to produce food that is binned. Increasing the use of renewable energy across our food supply chains is another priority, and giving farmers an incentive to lock up more carbon in soils a third.
Senior rural policy campaigner, Campaign to Protect Rural England
Sir, The pasture near my home hosts a herd of beef cattle. What these “inefficient converters of farmland to food” do efficiently is to convert grass into dung, which is home to a vast number of insects. These in turn are food for birds — especially swallows and swifts. Perhaps turning forest into prairie is a crime against nature, but planting trees on pasture is simplistic and possibly ruinous.
Sir, We should not only eat less meat, but we should also eat all of the animal. How rarely are ox tongue, cheek, tail, stuffed hearts and kidney turbigo served these days? I have an excellent recipe for scrambled brain if anyone is interested.
Sir, Mine is a simple surname but it is often misspelt (letter, Jan 29). I have received mail to Mrs Cap, Cop, Catt, Carp and also, of course, Mrs Crap.
Sir, When I took my driving theory test (News, Jan 26, and letter, Jan 28) in South Africa I was wearing army uniform and the examiner assumed that I was related to the late Quentin Smythe, VC. He asked me only which side of the road we drove on and happily issued the certificate. At the practical stage, my examiner divulged that his wife was undergoing surgery at that moment, and that the surgeon was my father. He thought it prudent to pass me — without fuss.
West Malling, Kent
Sir, “Girls, don’t give up on that sex offender” read a subtitle during a rowing event in the last Olympics, while the commentator said: “Girls, don’t give up, don’t surrender” (“TV subtitles turn toddlers into ayatollahs”, Jan 29). Weeks of family rivalry failed to top it.
Sir, Many parents, educators and children are struggling to cope with the pressures of an increasingly sexualised world (“Violent porn online inspires murder”, Jan 28).
More parents ought to be shown how to talk to their children about these issues, and schools need to improve their sex and relationship education. Without frank information, young people will continue to rely on — and be conditioned by — inaccurate information, including portrayals from pornography.
Sir, Many UK cities are in the process of converting the majority of their roads from 30mph to area-wide 20mph limits, mostly without speed bumps (“20mph zones on the rise . . . and so are accidents”, Jan 28). As a result there has been a substantial increase in the 20mph road network.
Merely comparing casualties on 20mph roads between two years without taking the length of roads into account is a meaningless statistic. To compare the danger of 30mph and 20mph roads, in 2013 only one casualty in 500 in 20mph areas was a fatality compared with one in 200 on 30mph roads.
As far as signs are concerned, it would be better for a 20mph city to put repeater signs on the minority of roads that are the exceptions. This is a cost-saving change that the government should consider.
Founder, 20’s Plenty for Us
SIR – Drugs waste is estimated to cost the NHS £300 million a year (Letters, January 27). Half of this waste is unavoidable, through such things as changes in treatment as a disease progresses, but the remaining £150 million could be saved.
Between 30 and 50 per cent of people with long-term conditions don’t take their medicines as prescribed. A large-scale evaluation has shown that pharmacists can make a real impact on reducing waste by providing a service giving information and advice sessions to patients after they are first prescribed a medicine.
Currently this “New Medicine Service” only covers patients diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma or those needing blood-thinning medicine. This simple, practical and proven measure should be expanded to cover all long-term conditions to improve patient health and reduce unnecessary hospital admissions.
Chairman, Royal Pharmaceutical Society
SIR – If we are talking about waste in the NHS, what about non-returnable crutches, walking frames, perching stools and all the other aids so generously provided to an accident victim?
I took mine to the tip, as apparently cleaning them for re-use is too expensive.
SIR – I do not recognise the NHS crisis as identified on Wednesday’s front page by Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary.
In 2011 I was diagnosed with an incurable and potentially terminal condition. Since then I have attended my hospital around 70 times a year for blood tests, consultations and chemotherapy, under the care of a very able consultant and a team of equally able and caring nurses and nursing assistants.
The important point to make is that this hospital was ranked in the bottom division of the CQC league table and has recently been taken over by a higher ranking trust. My only fear is that the usual meddling by the new broom will do irreparable damage to my clinic.
SIR – I am a senior doctor working in an emergency department in a major northern teaching hospital.
My wife’s father, who is in his mid-eighties, recently went to his GP in Surrey complaining of a fever and cough with intermittent episodes of confusion. He was not examined and was told to attend his nearest A&E department should the confusion return, even though such temporary confusion during infections is a common presentation with elderly people.
Given the well-documented pressure on A&E departments, our GP colleagues need to be more proactive in finding ways to keep such patients out of hospital.
Dr Stephen Morton
Housing benefit cuts
SIR – Amid the fanfare of this week’s welfare announcements by David Cameron, the proposal to remove housing benefit for those aged 18-21 on Jobseeker’s Allowance slipped by largely unnoticed.
The numbers of people affected by this cut, and therefore the savings to the public purse, are small. Yet the impact on each of those young lives affected has the potential to be devastating, as people who have had to move away from home to escape abuse, to find work or to flee domestic violence suddenly find a vital lifeline cut off.
It is very easy for those of us who have had the advantage of a comfortable upbringing to imagine that there will always be a spare room in the family home to move back to, but the reality for these young adults is likely to be somewhat less rosy: it’s a choice between returning to whatever drove them from home in the first place or finding themselves homeless.
This policy needs to be rethought or those affected will pay a heavy price.
Chief Executive, Shelter
Chief Executive, Centrepoint
Chief Executive, National Housing Federation
Chief Executive, Crisis
Chief Executive, CIH Shelter
SIR – Reading about the hoax call to the Prime Minister gave me a sense of déjà vu.
A friend of mine, now sadly dead, suffered from schizophrenia and was a frequent caller to both Downing Street and Lambeth Palace. Lambeth soon rumbled him and he had regular conversations with a man he assumed was the Archbishop.
It was, in fact, the gate porter.
SIR – I wonder if the new management at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand will alter the bizarre dress code.
I once invited a Danish customer there for lunch. We were both wearing crew neck sweaters under our jackets and, on arrival, were informed of the “ties must be worn” rule. My guest tugged down his sweater to reveal that he was indeed wearing a tie. I wasn’t, so the head waiter lent me a tie to hide beneath my sweater.
After this incident my Danish friend could not bring himself to utter the word “British” without the prefix “crazy”.
Peter Le Feuvre
Funtington, West Sussex
SIR – Here is an idle and trivial observation. The Football League Championship table is topped and tailed by two seaside towns, Blackpool at the bottom and Bournemouth at the top. I think that is probably a measure of their comparative attractions as well.
American students could do more for Britain
SIR – I have read a lot about the decline, for social and political reasons, of the “special relationship” between America and Britain. This wasn’t helped by Fox News’s extraordinary claims about Birmingham being a “no-go zone” for non-Muslims.
However, the relationship is salvageable. British universities are world-renowned and, even with the tuition fee increase, significantly cheaper than their American counterparts. This alone should make more Americans willing to study in Britain, but Ucas and visas stand in the way.
The Ucas calendar is several months behind the usual American university admissions calendar, meaning that US students will already have been accepted and paid their deposits to American colleges before receiving responses to applications to British universities.
The British visa system – and particularly the end of the post-study work visa – means that most American students must head home soon after finishing their courses, abandoning a network they’ve spent years building, which could result in better opportunities for both them and the local economies.
Those who advance in their career should be offered the chance to stay, while those still in entry-level positions after a few years should be given a time limit on their stay.
Young Americans could contribute on both sides of the pond, raising awareness of the high standard of British education, contributing to the local economy, and bringing home an appreciation for British culture beyond Downton Abbey.
SIR – I welcome prenuptial agreements (report, January 3) becoming legally binding in Britain. Completing one in England is painful and expensive. Partners see separate lawyers, and this favours an adversarial approach from the outset.
This contrasts starkly with European countries that use a constitutional system based on Napoleonic law. Fortunately for my fiancée and me, in Belgium the prenuptial agreement consists of a standard, three-page document costing around 20 euros. All advice given by the solicitor is communicated in front of both partners.
I have long admired the non-adversarial, mature approach of continental legal systems and Britain should take note.
SIR – It is right that publicity has been given to the appalling flogging of Raif Badawi, a blogger in Saudi Arabia.
Similar attention should be given to the frequent executions occurring in Iran. More than 1,000 individuals, many under the age of 20, have been executed since “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani came to power.
SIR – The Speaker of the House of Commons wants to modernise voting in elections through the introduction of online voting in 2020.
With his support, the election of all the deputy speakers as well as most chairs and membership of select committees is now done by secret ballot. However, despite efforts to introduce a secret ballot for the re-election of the Commons Speaker, he has rejected and blocked this.
This suggests that his modernising zeal does not extend to matters that might affect his self-interest.
Simon Burns MP (Con)
No crumb left behind
SIR – I have the solution for Stuart Scholes (Letters, January 26): put the croissant on a bread board, warm it in the microwave and chop it up. Dip each piece into butter, then marmalade, then press it on to the pile of flakes on the board before eating it.
SIR – Mr Scholes should coat his fingers with his preferred spread. The crumbs will stick to his figures, which are easily licked clean. Failing this, he should consume his croissant as close to his shower room as possible.
Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire
Do a little digging to unearth pothole records
Hole new world: potholes and plunge pools in the Blyde River Canyon reserve in South Africa (Reinhard Tiburzy / Alamy )
SIR – Routine carriageway inspections primarily report on road surface degradation. New potholes will only be recorded following their first sighting; subsequent inspections will ignore them unless they have degraded further.
Motorists’ applications for compensation are sent to a loss adjuster who assesses any claim against the most recent inspection report and often rejects it on the grounds that a council cannot be held responsible for road damage that it was unaware of at the time of the damage.
The solution is to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain historic inspection data for the road in question and include this with any claim submitted; chances of success will increase greatly.
SIR – Our council plans to replace perfectly adequate street lights with huge new lights – presumably so that we may enjoy a clearer sight of our many potholes.
Haywards Heath, West Sussex
Globe and Mail:
Steve Hewitt is in the department of history at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of The British War on Terror: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism on the Home Front Since 9/11 and is currently working on a history of terrorism and counterterrorism in Canada.
Canada’s recent experience with terrorism is not unique. Nor is its government alone in seeking to introduce fresh counterterrorism laws and powers. Across the Atlantic, Britain is debating new legislation that would, among a range of changes, allow the government to block the return of Britons suspected of involvement in terrorism while abroad, require Internet providers to keep records of IP addresses so computer users could be identified, and legally require a variety of state institutions, including universities, to “prevent individuals being drawn into terrorism.”
As such, there are cautionary aspects of the British experience, both with the current legislation and with past efforts at reform, that should inform debate over the Canadian government bill being tabled Friday.
Top among the lessons is that skepticism about the need for new powers or laws should be the default reaction from parliamentarians, news media and the wider public. Over the past decade, and across seven significant counterterrorism bills introduced since Sept. 11, 2001, various British governments have preached that the counterterrorist sky would come crashing down without the introduction of new, supposedly essential measures.
Mandatory identity cards were needed to prevent terrorism, Tony Blair’s government warned. David Cameron’s government killed off this proposal in 2010.
Equally crucial, the same voices explained, was the ability to detain terrorism suspects without charge for up to 90 days in order to gather evidence. MPs, including 50 from Mr. Blair’s own party, eventually defeated the measure.
Mr. Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, tried to bring in a 42-day detention period without charge but parliamentary opposition over its impact on civil liberties forced him into retreat. Among the opponents was Lady Eliza Manningham-Buller, a member of the House of Lords who was head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, on the day of the July 7, 2005, bomb attacks in London, where 52 people were murdered by terrorists.
Driving the frenzy for new legislation has been a reactive impulse in which there is a continual assumption that the nature of the last terrorist attack will become the new norm. Hence, new laws became necessary to prevent the next 9/11, then the next 7/7, followed by “lone wolf” attacks and now plots involving jihadis who have gone to fight in Syria. The idea that a new type of attack automatically requires a new type of law needs to be reconsidered. There should be a principle that governments act effectively, not simply for the sake of being seen to respond in the eyes of public opinion.
Finally, and most importantly for the future, there has been an increasing acknowledgment (though still not universal) from the British state that, despite a raft of new laws and agency resources, you can’t arrest your way out of the terrorism problem. Counterterrorism needs to be holistic by nature.
In Britain, this has meant efforts to address what Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau might call “root causes”: countering extremism not through greater surveillance or longer prison sentences but by improving community relations, addressing wider issues connected to alienation (such as Islamophobia and economic deprivation) and, yes, having frank discussions about the connection between violent extremism and certain interpretations of Islam. There must equally be room – and here both Britain and Canada have far to go – for an honest conversation about the impact of Western foreign policy, past and present, as a recruiting sergeant for terrorism.
Terrorism is a scourge but it is not an existential threat to countries such as Britain and Canada, no matter what the doomsayers say. Responding thoughtfully and encouraging resiliency may lack appeal in the middle of an election cycle, but a measured approach may actually bring lasting results.
Sir, – Could the Taoiseach please set a date in May for the referendum on marriage equality? Those living abroad would like to book their flights home to vote Yes. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Unavoidably, a key part of the current debate centres on the word “marriage”, in which two quite distinct meanings are apparent. One is the established heterosexual monogamy meaning, which has been the social foundation of most societies throughout the world for a very long period. While the second meaning aims to invest the word with new ideas and ideals, which would then apply to two persons, without distinction as to their sex.
But is it really that easy or even acceptable to change radically the meaning of such an important social institution? While the proposed change to the Constitution is intended to introduce genuine equality by extending the meaning of marriage to include the second, new meaning, I suggest any attempt to alter this meaning does nothing to create genuine equality, but everything to create an illusion of the same.
This proposed fundamental change to our understanding of human society is based on the new vision in our emerging European social order that secularism now rules.
And we will probably be reminded that if we believe in generosity we ought to be happy to let same-sex pairs enjoy the same social privileges that traditional marriage brought.
I certainly believe in generosity, but it is not best shown by facilitating the marked devaluation of marriage as the social foundation of our society. – Yours, etc,
Gorey, Co Wexford.
Sir, – The debate on same-sex marriage has focused on the rights of children, and this is quite correct. Children are the most vulnerable members of our society. I agree with those who oppose same-sex marriage because they feel it undermines a child’s right to be raised by a mother and father, preferably their own. However, I have to admit that my opposition to same-sex marriage goes deeper still. It comes down to a question of how we view our social institutions. Do we see them as a legacy to be held in trust, or do we see them as a machine to be reassembled at will? I support the legitimate role of sentiment in social life.
Society is not a machine for living in, and the very word “marriage” has a hundred associations of masculinity and femininity, of romance and chivalry, of motherhood and fatherhood, of tradition and custom, that we should not feel ashamed of protecting.
The champions of same-sex marriage assure us that little will change if this referendum is passed, that marriage is being expanded rather than changed. Once the deal is sealed, do you think social radicals are going to hesitate to press the advantage? Do you think they will be slow to challenge and denounce every “heterosexist” or “archaic” assumption made about the redefined institution of marriage? Of course not. – Yours, etc,
Ballymun, Dublin 11.
Sir, – I think this “so-called Christian country’s” descent into “moral and spiritual decadence” (Robert A Sharpe, January 29th) had started long before the concept of same-sex marriage was ever on the agenda. Those responsible for the decline in religion and traditional moral values are the very institutions that now rail against what is in essence a basic human right. – Yours, etc,
Dalkey, Co Dublin.
Sir, – Goodness, Mr Sharpe, I’m afraid the moral and spiritual decadence has been around for quite some time. You should have seen some of the heterosexual weddings I have attended over the years. – Yours, etc,
Dr CIARAN KIRRANE,
Sir, – I also share a concern for “the children”. I am especially concerned for my own children. I have two sons, one of whom happens to be gay. I would like equal rights for both my sons. If the referendum is passed, my two sons will be afforded equal rights in their country of birth. It is a simple question with an obvious answer. Vote Yes. – Yours, etc,
MARY KNOX O’BRIEN,
Rathgar, Dublin 6.
Sir, – The new mortgage rules proposed by the Central Bank should help to prevent future house price bubbles and will, over time, prove beneficial to buyers.
A major risk, however, is that it may also prove to be a disincentive to builders and developers to supply new houses to the market, thus forcing ever more people into an already overheated rental market in major urban centres.
Perhaps this is the opportune time for the Government and local authorities to launch a major building programme to supply long-term rental accommodation to the working middle classes in our cities.
This accommodation would be available at market rents, with long-term tenancies available but without a right to purchase for tenants. Rents would be guaranteed to rise by no more than inflation and might be fixed for longer-term leases.
Such developments would provide alternative, secure long-term accommodation, while delivering a reasonable rate of return for the public monies invested and help to take some of the heat out of the private rental sector. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – The Central Bank’s new mortgage lending cap should have the desired effect of slowing down the rate of house price increases. This means that people in negative equity face the prospect of a now much longer wait before being able to sell homes and apartments that their families have outgrown.
While this is undoubtedly a sensible long-term move, it means that one generation of house buyers will now make a huge sacrifice for the good of future generations. In the interest of fairness, something has to be done for this group. Basing the property tax on the equity owned, rather than on the value of the property, would be a start. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – The people who bought from 2003 to 2008 will be most affected by the mortgage lending changes. People who, despite a deep recession, didn’t walk away from their debts and continued to pay their mortgages, when developers were washing their hands of their debts. I am one of these people and after seven years there was light at the end of the tunnel. I was about to hit parity on what I owed versus what I would get for my house and I had saved up my 10 per cent deposit. I had bought my house back in 2006 because I was approaching 30 and wanted to settle down.
I had been paying rent for about 10 years and I was in the financial position to buy. I bought a house that was within my means; in fact, I borrowed over €100,000 less than what was available.
I had to move but I couldn’t sell my house, not with the massive negative equity. I decided to keep paying in the hope that down the line I could finally sell and move on with my life. These changes have essentially put me and many others back years.
It is an extremely hard pill to swallow when I think that I could have just walked away and claimed insolvency and would be in a much better position that I am now. Could you imagine how bad our current financial situation would be if everybody who was burdened with negative equity walked away from their debts? We didn’t and this is how we are treated.
I cannot fathom how a first-time buyer is considered a lesser risk than somebody who has demonstrated the willingness and ability to pay during the recession we have endured.
All I ask is that our generation is considered before these changes are implemented. Surely there can be a caveat added to allow people who bought from 2003 onwards the same requirements as first-time buyers? – Yours, etc,
Portlaoise, Co Laois.
Sir, – Eugene Tannam (January 29th) fails to see that if buyers are no longer able to afford property at the current prices, prices will inevitably fall. People who call the measures “penal” are unwittingly advocating for higher property price. Although it seems anathema to the Irish psyche, lower prices will put home ownership within reach of more people without massive mortgage debt and can only be good for our economy and especially our competitiveness. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – I really must add my comments regarding the egregious behaviour of those people who insulted our President last week in Finglas.
Michael D Higgins is a delightful man, courteous and cultured, and we should all be proud of him.
Many people in this land are rightfully protesting about the imposition of water charges, but how will they now feel about peacefully protesting on this issue, and thereby being tainted by association?
This was a thoroughly disgraceful performance, and it beggars belief that Paul Murphy TD has defended the perpetrators. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – I hope poetry will help Michael D Higgins to see that the worst are full of passionate intensity. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Forgive me, but do I not recall our President in a former existence using a certain derogatory term, beginning with the letter “w”, when referring to an American radio host?
I do not recall a series of letters to your newspaper condemning his actions. Perhaps there are those who feel that only a certain class of people has the right to resort to personal abuse. – Yours, etc,
A chara, – The personal abuse levelled at the President and shown on social media was out of order but many people do instinctively understand that increasing inequality in our country is represented by the expansion of flat, regressive taxation and levies.
As in England, water for sale and for profit will represent an acceleration of ongoing inequality. This expanded inequality will be driven by such charges here and the deprivation of our poorest citizens and their children will be the inevitable result.
Much commentary has been made regarding the negative impact of increasing inequality but Government actions pull in the opposite direction and a social force has now developed to attempt to constrain this. – Is mise,
Sir, – While I abhor and completely reject the demonstration to which President Michael D Higgins and his wife were subjected, I cannot help but note that the incident took place on Thursday last, yet it did not hit the newspapers until Tuesday of this week. The cynic in me suspects that this is not unrelated to the water protest scheduled to take place on Saturday. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – I think that many of the contributors to this page on the issue of school patronage are missing the point.
The fact that some church-run schools welcome children of all faiths and none is irrelevant – the important point is that they are under no obligation to do so.
Section 7 of the Equal Status Act 2000 allows schools to discriminate in their enrollment policies against children who have not been baptised or are of a different religion. An oversubscribed church-run school can use religion as the first criterion to shorten an application list – and it is obvious that this is common practice, otherwise why have the discriminatory law at all?
Given that almost the entire Irish national school system is church-run, the difficulties facing non-religious parents are clear.
It is understandable that those unaffected by this do not realise that the mere existence of the discriminatory statutory provision introduces deeply unsettling uncertainty into the lives of many non-religious parents who have funded schools through their taxes just like their religious counterparts.
Parents should not have to rely on the goodwill of a benevolent principal or patron. All children should be guaranteed equal access to education regardless of the decisions their parents make regarding religion, but this is simply not the case in Ireland today. – Yours, etc,
Raheny, Dublin 5.
Sir, – Further to “Dublin school cancels workshops on homophobic bullying” (January 27th), as a recent ex-pupil of Coláiste Eoin, I would like to offer my opinion on some of the claims made. I have personal experience of ShoutOut and similar organisations, and fully support the decision of the school’s principal. I find such seminars to be severely lacking in any sense of empathy for heterosexual students and they employ sweeping generalisations and use outdated suppositions. Furthermore, they do nothing to correct antisocial behaviour in both heterosexual and homosexual participants, and do not even consider bullying within the gay community.
I never once experienced anything other than complete tolerance throughout my years in Coláiste Eoin. With regard to the principal, he has only my highest respect for offering his full support, knowing full well of my sexuality. I consider myself indebted to him, and to other teachers at the school. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – John A Murphy dismisses Martin McGuinness’s aspiration for a united Ireland as “bogus mystique” (January 28th). However, organisations such as the IRFU and GAA have operated on an island-wide basis for over a century. Why not work towards a creative solution that would allow people in the North to participate in an all-Ireland political structure? Long-term peace and reconciliation will best be served when both of the main communities in Ireland are able to fully embrace their identities. – Yours, etc,
Morristown, New Jersey.
Sir, – Dr Jacky Jones takes issue with RTÉ’s Operation Transformation programme (Second Opinion, January 27th), calling it “superficial”. Her definition differs from mine. Is it superficial to help create much broader public engagement around the risks and determinants of obesity, to inform campaigns for reform at government and industry levels, or to champion and promote important public health policies?
Safefood recognises that Operation Transformation has created a much-needed national debate about personal weight and long-term health. Prof Niall Moyna at the School of Health and Human Performance in DCU, as well as Prof Donal O’Shea, a leading expert on obesity and a consultant endocrinologist, both believe the series has a powerful message for the public.
Far from being a simplistic reality show, RTÉ’s Operation Transformation demonstrates that taking a holistic approach to food, fitness, lifestyle change, emotional wellbeing and mental health are key to making lasting changes.
RTÉ is proud of the contribution Operation Transformation has made to Irish health awareness over the last eight years. – Yours, etc,
Head of Lifestyle, RTÉ 1,
Donnybrook, Dublin 4.
The events in Greece represent the first major modern challenge to the laissez-faire, state-enabled capitalism for a generation. Many can be relied upon to ask the ‘right’ questions, such as, why should other EU states pay for Greek debt?
Of course, few have asked why did it come to pass that sovereign EU states should have said ‘Yes’ when billionaire hedge fund investors and sovereign wealth funds asked: “Can you please socialise our investment losses?” Or, perhaps more accurately, the mainstream media never derived a satisfactory answer to that question.
It is worth remembering the words of US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson, when he said that the first casualty of war is truth, ironically delivered when discussing a very different kind of war on Germany (in 1917), than that seemingly in the mind of the new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
In a sense, the truth has already been battered into submission, the reach of the mega-wealthy being so pervasive, and, most probably, the truth won’t show up again until history permits a distant, retrospective acknowledgement that ordinary bystanders paid too heavy a price to maintain the lives of the wealthy in our age.
So, how can ordinary citizens do more than bear witness to the historical injustice being perpetrated against us? Martin Luther King and Gandhi often used the term, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.
But surely even those two colossus-like figures in civil rights history would scratch their heads in frustration if they had to face the challenges of addressing the reality that most of the world’s wealth today is contained in fewer hands than at any point in history – with the trend going against the majority.
But this is where citizens can find a footing. We have a civil rights emergency in Europe.
Only when we begin to shift the focus from the truth-numbing language of mindless capitalism, to a recognition that even unfettered capitalism needs rescuing from the current crisis, will we begin a fight back.
The drama about to play out in Greece should not be seen as putting a nation of feckless foreigners in their ‘place’, but the beginning of a magnificent civil rights adventure.
Hypocrisy over free speech
Public disagreement and criticism should never include insulting language or behaviour, which betray a weak argument and insecurity of conviction.
I abhor the public insulting of any person or their beliefs, especially the president of our country, who appears to be a decent and caring individual doing his best to represent the interests of Irish people.
But I also abhor gross hypocrisy when exercised by politicians and media, who can adopt holier than thou attitudes one week and wholly different attitudes the following week when it suits them.
I refer to the outpouring of support for the Charlie Hebdo magazine in the interests of free speech.
This is a legitimate view held by many but it must be exercised consistently or not at all. Our Taoiseach was lauded for marching in Paris in support of “free speech” but quickly condemns it when it steps on his own toes.
His inconsistency does nothing to build respect for politics or democracy and neither does two-faced reporting and comment by an hysterical and frenzied media. If something is right and acceptable, it is right and acceptable in all instances; if it is wrong and unacceptable, it is wrong and unacceptable in all instances.
Anything less than consistency makes hypocrites of us all.
Tubbercurry, Co Sligo
Making a connection
Of late, a word has appeared frequently in the columns of the Irish Independent and yet I’d never encountered it previously.
So I opened ‘The Concise Oxford English Dictionary’ and looked it up and guess what – such a word doesn’t exist? The word bandied about so cavalierly recently is ‘connectivity’. Might your columnists explain its meaning? Here’s hoping . . .
Four Mile House, Roscommon
Lessons from history
Seamus Hanratty (Irish Independent Letters 29/01/2015) suggests politicians of today should study history, citing the 480 BC Battle of Thermopylae.
I strongly concur with his sentiments; but it is the events of October 1917 in Russia the “ruling elite” of today need to reflect upon. These bear a stronger resemblance to events unfolding today than the aforementioned ancient battle.
For those who don’t know, in October 1917, the serfs of Russia said “enough is enough” to the ruling elite of the day. Has Europe come full circle? This should be the burning question on the mind of the realpolitik (icians)
Caught in the rent trap
There is lots of talk these days from politicians and the Central Bank regarding first-time borrowers. Little mention of the young people who are in their thirties who cannot sell their apartments and have to let them. They in turn rent houses as their families increase. They are the ones in the real trap.
A significant percentage of these apartment owners have variable mortgages. One helpful gesture from the Government would be to find a way of fixing their mortgages at a low rate for say, 10 years. This should not be a great problem with the flood of money now available in Europe.
The last thing this army of people need is more smart comments like ‘they paid too much’. Neither the Central Bank nor the politicians were saying that 10 years ago – remember Bertie Ahern was urging them on, so let us have some solutions.
Glasnevin, Dublin 9
What planet are our bankers living on? How are a young couple to have any chance of saving a deposit for a house?
Where in Dublin are they supposed to get a house for under €220,000 to qualify for the 10pc deposit? Surely if the deposit stays at 10pc and the loan is geared to a loan/earnings ratio, that will control prices.
Why is the deposit for apartments higher than that of houses? If these were made equal, it would at least give young people a chance of getting a home of their own, as opposed to paying rent.
Ballyscartin, Co Wexford