Public intellectuals 1 28th June 2004
Your top British 100 public intellectuals poll (July) is the most pompously idiotic thing I have seen for many years. Viz once did an excellent parody of this sort of thing with their “Britain’s Best Bob” survey, in which Bob Charlton narrowly beat Bob Monkhouse because of his superior goal-scoring ability. Get a grip.
Peter Wilson Shipston on Stour
Public intellectuals 2
12th July 2004
We are not alone among friends and colleagues at expressing incredulity and disappointment at your choice of top intellectuals, particularly as your criteria of “distinction in some field of intellectual or cultural endeavour” as well as “the ability to articulate or represent an important strand of British cultural life” appeared to offer an enlightened breadth of reach. Your list of white, middle-aged male academics was lazy and parochial, betraying a major lack of engagement with British culture today.
Clare Cumberlidge and others General Public Agency
Public intellectuals 3
28th June 2004
David Herman, commenting on your list of intellectuals, suggests that philosophers are now less prominent in our public debates than they were 40 years ago. But the list contains six declared philosophers – John Gray, AC Grayling, Mary Midgley, Onora O’Neill, Mary Warnock and myself – together with at least four others (Noel Malcolm, Jonathan Sacks, Raymond Tallis and Rowan Williams) who would be described as philosophers were it not for the fact that they are also distinguished in other fields. Moreover, it is surely to the credit of our profession that half of Herman’s recognised philosophers are women, which gives us a special claim to be central to the intellectual life of the nation.
Herman also laments the passing of the polymath. His list shows the lament to be premature. Raymond Tallis, Melvyn Bragg, Matt Ridley, George Steiner, Tom Stoppard and several more are the equals of Bronowski in their range – so too is Lisa Jardine, Bronowski’s daughter. And if there has been a polymath in the past to match Noel Malcolm, who reads in every European language, has published authoritative works on Balkan history, on the music of George Enescu, on English Renaissance history and on central European politics, while entrenching an academic position as the leading editor and commentator on Thomas Hobbes, then I should like to know who he was.
Roger Scruton Brinkworth, Wiltshire
Public intellectuals 4
24th June 2004
Leaving aside the fact that I am not on your list, you do not seem to have got your parameters quite right. You’ve got your pundits, your propagandists and your policy wonks a bit mixed up. Melanie Phillips is a clever pundit; George Monbiot is a not so clever propagandist; Richard Layard is a fairly luminous policy wonk. I doubt, too, whether you should scatter your creatives around quite so freely: Amis is some sort of novelist, but is he any kind of intellectual? Frayn doesn’t say enough outside his plays (and works of art, even argumentative ones, shouldn’t quite do). Ferguson is indeed a public intellectual (and not so hot a historian?); Schama is a decent historian and a brilliant historical populariser, but not a public intellectual (what does he say, seriously?). Andrew Roberts would have nestled in better beside Ferguson.
Your public intellectual has got to have insights which are explosive and showy enough to disturb and resonate (that’s the public bit); he has to be systematic enough to make a claim to intellectualism. Having one idea (Lovelock) won’t do, especially if it is scientific. Robert May is an interesting marginal case, and I guess better in than out. I’d just allow Tariq Ali (though has he said anything that really shapes our thoughts?). But Rowan Williams? Really!
In short, you have proved we live in a lively intellectual climate, but you have not set your hurdles high enough.
Richard North Institute of Economic Affairs
Libraries in meltdown?
12th July 2004
You criticise (News & Curiosities, July) my Libri report “Who’s in Charge” for being alarmist about the decline of public libraries. My report was based on Cipfa statistics for 2001-02, which were the most recent when the document was written. Since it was published, Cipfa has published the national figures for 2002-03. The increase in use of libraries it reported amounts to 1.6 per cent in the year that ?100m was spent installing PCs in all public libraries. They also confirmed a substantial decline in use over five years. The Audit Commission at a recent ministerial seminar confirmed that the small increase cannot be seen as a resolution of the underlying trend, which is one of very serious decline in use and value for money.
Tim Coates London N1
Bumstead not Hampstead 28th June 2004
Gideon Rachman (July) says he gave up supporting Chelsea in the 1970s because of players like “hard-working but pedestrian” John Bumstead. Hard-working? Yes, and it was love of the club, not money, that motivated him. Pedestrian? John had his feet planted firmly on the ground, unlike some of today’s overpriced flights of fancy. Make no mistake, “Bummy” was one of the best, a true Chelsea great who would have done his country proud, too, given a chance. What Chelsea needs today is more Bumstead, less Hampstead, and the sooner Rachman takes his support back to north London where it belongs, the better.
Geoff Shedburgh Campaign for Real Chelsea
Worldly wealth 1 4th July 2004
Michael Lind (July) argues that it is “nonsense” for environmentalists to fear suburban sprawl, because far more wilderness is destroyed for pasture and farmland than for low-density housing. He misses the point. Sprawl is an ecological threat not because it eats up too much acreage, but because it makes us ever more dependent on the car and renders alternatives to it impractical.
Jay Bohren Tampa, Florida
Worldly wealth 2 27th June 2004
I read Michael Lind’s essay with building astonishment, but when I read, “In addition, solar panels might play at least some role in powering aircraft, if wings doubled as solar panels,” I nearly fell off my chair. If the solar panels were 100 per cent efficient, with zero weight or airflow penalty, they might produce a few kilowatts of power in a large aircraft – enough to power the cockpit interior lighting. Getting people off the ground is very expensive in energy. Technical fixes are one thing; magic is another.
Norman Gray Glasgow
East Asian alliance 5th May 2004
Eamonn Fingleton’s analysis (May) of the Sino-Japanese rapprochement is broadly accurate but he draws the wrong conclusions. The tacit alliance is driven by mutual self-interest, particularly in the economic sphere, rather than any latent desire to “eventually challenge the US-led west for global leadership.” For both sides a perpetuation of Pax Americana is preferable to an east Asia in which the other assumes the role of hegemon.
Chris Bacon Bath, Somerset
Spendthrift Scots opera 30th June 2004
I do not think that it is in the best Prospect tradition when one side of an acerbic Scottish debate is presented as if it were the whole argument. As you point out (Cultural tourist, June) Scottish Opera’s Ring cycle was indeed excellent (what about the rest?), but the fact is that Richard Armstrong’s company borrowed and spent ?5.5m of other people’s money and he doesn’t want to pay it back. Scotland is a small place with tremendous financial pressures, and money just has to be spent carefully. Before accusing ministers of being “philistine,” it might be a good idea to glance at the dance scene, where Scottish companies, one of which was given the bracing Scottish Opera treatment, can and regularly do hold rank with the best that Europe and America have to offer.
Martin Axford Bridge of Weir
New Labour, old mistakes 15th June 2004
John Denham’s article (June) was admirable in its willingness to admit that the government has made mistakes, but was marred by a characteristically New Labour flaw: a refusal to admit that it is ever possible to learn anything from the past, particularly past Labour governments.
A typical example was his comment on the pension system: “We cannot recreate the contributory system in the old sense of paying into the state pot for defined benefits – it was unfair towards women and anyone else with breaks in his or her working life.” These were the very problems which the pension reforms of 1977 solved. They have been re-created as a direct result of the present government’s undoing of those reforms. The greatest breach of the fairness code is the government’s retreat from its responsibilities towards citizens, while it continues to make greater and greater demands on them. People are keenly aware that there are social problems that governments can solve, and that past governments have solved, but that the present government refuses to solve.
Rory O’Kelly Beckenham, Kent
GM guinea pigs 5th May 2004
Dick Taverne (April) and many other advocates of GM products make the ritual nod in the direction of careful monitoring of GM foods, but fail to explain why monitoring is not taking place. There are many millions of human guinea pigs in the US who have been eating GM products for years but monitoring is impossible as GM food has become so prevalent that a control population free of GM cannot be found. We do not know if Americans are suffering ill effects from their consumption of GM food as there is no basis for a comparison.
Brian Chatterton Montegabbione, Italy
Suffering in history
16th June 2004
I join David Herman (June) in welcoming historians’ realisation that the significance of a historical event must include the experiences of those who lived through it, and not only its place in a larger historical narrative. However, I am concerned at the emphasis on suffering, especially as it appears in the simplified history taught at school. I am in the first generation of history students to have experienced this. Pre-GCSE history at my school did not just include suffering but positively sought it out; the topics chosen included the slave trade, the conquest of the Americas, the Irish potato famine and the Somme. So much time was spent deploring that there was little for understanding, either moral or historical. Schoolchildren end up laughing at the “stupid” attitudes and beliefs of people in the past, and therefore conclude that modern, western people could never do such things. This “goodies” and “baddies” picture also gives the impression that certain groups are always oppressed, making victimhood a crucial but surely unhealthy part of certain groups’ cultural identity. History at its best teaches that there are always two sides to a story.
Katherine Mill Merton College, Oxford