I am only a little older than Agnès Poirier, but my recollection of history teaching while I was growing up in France and my understanding of the concept of secularism are very different (“We French love our history teachers. Samuel Paty made us remember why”, Comment). I don’t remember being particularly inspired by any of my history teachers or their lessons encouraging me to think critically. Indeed, I can’t remember much being mentioned about difficult subjects such as the war with and subsequent independence of Algeria or the murky roles played by some French politicians (some still in power at the time) during the Second World War.
Yes, it is completely unacceptable for a teacher to be murdered for trying to teach his pupils tolerance and the use of a critical mind. However, seen from the UK, a nation that is more multicultural than France, laïcité too often seems to translate into anti-Muslim feelings and actions, rather than the state and education being independent from all religious influences. The French state would have a much stronger moral basis from which to condemn extremism if it targeted all religion equally, for example, if Virgin medals and cross necklaces were banned from the classroom because they are religious symbols just as much as headscarves.
Please don’t interrupt
What an interesting juxtaposition of articles in the magazine last Sunday: a piece by Nancy Kline that asks whether constantly interrupting others harms human relations (“Let me finish”), preceded by an interview with LBC’s James O’Brien, a professional contrarian who subjects his callers to constant interruptions and frequently tells them what point he judges they are trying to make while ensuring they are not allowed to make it (“‘I saw everything as a fight’”).
Now, considering he operates from the warmth and security of his comfort zone where he has total control of transmission whereas his callers are often nervous and if, as Kline points out, when we are interrupted the brain registers a physical assault, then surely O’Brien is little more than a bully.
The cold reality of poverty
The free school meal debate has at its heart a greater issue (“Top children’s doctors attack Tories over free school meals”, News). Before Covid, my husband and I took food donated by our church to a food bank. Once, I asked the organiser if we were collecting suitable items for the people they help. What she told me broke my heart.
She said: “Many of the people who use the food bank have children and live in bedsits and often there are no heating or cooking facilities. Tins can only be heated on radiators for those who can afford to have the heating on. So any food you would eat cold from a tin is suitable.”
Thank goodness some of these children get fed at the breakfast club when at school. Are we really living in the fifth richest country in the world?
London’s road to ruin?
Regarding the London congestion charge, we should emphasise that we are in a climate emergency, as declared by four-fifths of London councils and our parliament (“Why the row over congestion charge expansion could tear London apart”, Business). More than a fifth of UK greenhouse gas emissions come from road transport. We need fair measures that enable people to travel as necessary, while also reducing the death and devastation caused by climate breakdown and polluted air. Young people emphasise that we must not leave them a desolate planet. Compared with prices overall, the price of petrol and diesel has gone down in recent years, and fuel duty has been frozen since 2010.
A fairly small road charge per mile, linked to the pollution level of the car, and availability of public transport in that area, would be the fairest way for the mayor to raise the money needed. The scrappage payments helping drivers replace the most polluting cars should be substantially increased.
A millennium of subjugation
James Hawes is correct to draw attention to history and geography with regard to the north-south divide (“The north-south divide is as old as England itself. Unity is only ever fleeting”, Comment). I was once at a debate in Huddersfield where the leader of the English National Party talked about the need for an English parliament and a thousand glorious years of English history. I responded that it was really a thousand years of Norman subjugation, starting with “the harrying” over the winter of 1069-70 when William the Conqueror laid waste to the north.
It has never really recovered from the slaughter and pillage and the dividing lines, both physical and economic, between what are essentially two kingdoms remain the same.
Netherthong, Holmfirth, W Yorks
Pyrrhus was no loser
Re “Like Pyrrhus, Johnson loves to lay claim to victories, all of which are at our expense” (Comment): Pyrrhus was a narcissist and an opportunist who had children by at least three wives; there, any comparison ends. Johnson has won no victories (bar the last election), certainly not against either the EU or the virus. Pyrrhus had a fairly glittering military career (he was praised by no less than Hannibal), even if he could not help overreaching himself, his treasury and his armies.
He was a clever and canny negotiator, as he had to be, to survive. At his death, all his gains had come to nothing, which might be counted as failure, I suppose. However, his life could hardly be said to have been a failure, by the standards of his time.
Cartagena, Murcia, Spain
Orchestral death knell
This country has never supported orchestral musicians properly, freelance or otherwise (“Bail out our musicians or risk losing them for ever, say classical music stars”, News). Concert fees have always been derisory, making life in our provincial contract orchestras pretty lean.
Things were better in London due to the commercial music recording industry, until the advent of digital technology eroded the need for orchestral instrumentalists drastically. There is scarcely a studio left now in which to record anyone. We will lose the majority of orchestral players since it is no longer a viable way to make a living for more than a handful of people.
This erosion is not new and has been happening for decades. Covid-19 is just the final nail in the coffin.