Letters Hat

Every once in a while, I read something in the newspaper which either outrages me or which is misconceived. I used to let these go by, but of late I've taken to emailing the newspaper concerned (usually The Independent, which I began reading the from the day it came out - I have the first 15 copies hidden away in my attic somewhere). My hit-rate is surprisingly good - around 75%. The letters are normally cut down from the original, but I anticipate this by providing sufficient padding to give the editor some leeway (the letters aren't always cut, just usually - it depends on the space available). The titles are the newspaper's, which means that if mine is the second or third letter on a particular subject that day, it can be a little distant from what the heading implies.
Straw Boater MUD on a smart city number plate
The Independent
13th March, 1996
This was in response to an article concerning personalised number plates. The author mentioned MUD and MOO explicitly, but seemed to think they would mainly appeal only to yokels. I decided to put him right...
Eerily, I once find myself driving down the A12 to London behind the vehicle which has MUD 2 as its registration number: it's a light green Rolls Royce Silver Spirit.
Straw Boater Net paintings
The Independent on Sunday
20th October, 1996
This was my attempt to correct a misapprehension on the part of the author of a piece about an encyclopoedia of art that "electronic rights" meant inaccessibility for all. My letter was pared down somewhat, so it seems like I'm saying all will be well when I don't necessarily believe it will be, but hey, I got my name in print!
Straw Boater No one deserves to be stalked
The Independent
23rd December, 1996
I was rather annoyed by the government's ridiculous use of isolated cases of stalking to bring in laws which could be used to stifle far more than this kind of incident, so I wrote to complain. I had a feeling The Independent would publish it, because it showed up the reasonable-sounding language which the government was using for the flimsy excuse it was...
Straw Boater 'Insensitive' boys could be right
The Independent
17th June, 1997
One thing that irritates me intensely is the way that all research which shows a difference between men and women is reported in The Independent from a "poor men" point of view. This letter was sparked by a particularly crass incident, where research had shown that women were supposedly hardwired to be "sensitive to others" whereas men had to learn it, the poor dears. Nowhere was it considered that it may sometimes actually be an advantage not to be hardwired that way, nor that being unable to override it may be a disadvantage. I was quite surprised when they printed this, given the venom I injected into it.
Straw Boater Mobile menace
The Independent
20th November, 1997
This letter describes an incident where I was hit by a woman in a motorised wheelchair while reading a church noticeboard in Hammersmith (hey, I was 30 minutes early for an appointment, I had to do something). I knew it was just perfect for a letter to a newspaper, so I waited until the opportunity arose. Six months or so later, when the government had one of its periodic fits of safety-consciousness, it did.
Straw Boater A bone to pick
The Independent
8th December, 1997
For some bizarre reason, the government decided to ban consumption of meat on the bone because there was a chance that up to 1 person a year could die from CJD having eaten it. This is despite the fact that there is compelling evidence that many tens of thousands of people will die every year from smoking cigarettes, yet they're not banned at all. This letter, although on the surface rather light, nevertheless makes what I consider a valid point: why shouldn't we be able to make up our own minds instead of being subject to official nannying?
A month later, I received a letter addressed to "Richrd Bartle, West Bergholt, Essex", which the Post Office managed to figure out meant me. Its stamp was stuck down somewhat crookedly with polystyrene cement, and inside was a badly-scissored clipping of my letter. The word "like" was circled, and an arrow led to it from a handwritten "as". There are some very pedantic people in the world...
Straw Boater Eurobank row
The Independent
6th May, 1998
I knew they'd publish this letter, because it was high-impact and amusing. However, they toned it down to appear in print (in the original version, the last line had line had "to piss" instead of "where they get"). Of course, it does make a serious point: in a supposed super-state of 15 countries, why is one country, France, indulged when it comes to petty nationistic posturing, but other countries are routinely slapped down?
Straw Boater International craze?
The Independent
14th May, 1998
I was fairly sure they'd like this, but coming only 8 days after my last letter I was not expecting them necessarily to publish it. It's just a short, "this correspondence is now closed" piece that they could use to end further comment on the Eurovision Song Contest (held 5 days earlier and won by a transsexual Israeli - Britain came second). It does, nevertheless, make a wry point concerning the attitudes of some of the countries which enter the competition...
Straw Boater Jenkins report
The Independent
31st October, 1998
The previous day, a report into electoral reform in the UK was published to great fanfare. It proposed a form of proportional representation for parliamentary elections - something I believe to be A Good Thing, and to which I am looking forward. A mere cursory glance at the favoured system, however, filled me with despair: it took all the best bits from PR and first-past-the post, threw them away, and put the residue together in what can only be described as "a dog's breakfast". I was particularly incensed by the use of party lists, which have to be one of the most undemocratic means of selecting candidates ever (even if there is the mollification of getting to choose one name from three in a second-tier ballot). I dashed off a letter proposing a hack to fix it, and it was published. There was some minor editing which made the second paragraph read a little strangely, but my point was not obscured by it. I was even mentioned in the next letter column by someone saying "Richard Bartle rightly suggests that the top-up MP should be the best runner-up from the appropriate party"..!
Aside: delivery of The Independent was late that Hallowe'en, so my newsagent substituted The Daily Telegraph instead. Both of these published a letter from some guy in Wales also on the subject of the Jenkins Report, word for word the same in both newspapers except The Independent dropped the bit accusing Jenkins of leading a self-indulgent life. I thought I was keen to get into print..!
Straw Boater In brief
The Independent
10th November, 1998
"In brief" is where The Independent put(s) letters which are short and off-topic. I was almost certain they would place this one there - I knew it was ideal for publication.
The back story is that the previous day a member of the cabinet owned up to being gay; he was very embarrassed about it. The government spin was that this was an unwarranted intrusion into his "private life", which of course it would have been if only there weren't government bills in the pipeline where homosexuality was an issue. My letter was in support of the man, though, at the expense of the government...
Straw Boater In brief
The Independent
1st May, 1999
This was another short letter I was confident they would publish, although they skipped a day before they did and then they edited it down as much as humanly possible to fit it in (ideally, there would be a line break before the final two words). Still, there was a lot of news happening at the time (wars, bomb blasts, celebrity murders, local elections) so they were a little pushed for room in their letter column.
Straw Boater Spoiling for a vote
The Independent
26th May, 1999
I hate party lists. They make it next to impossible for the electorate to get rid of Awful People, and they're one of the few forms of proportional representation that are worse than first-past-the-post. PR is supposed to mean that people get to elect who they want to elect, whereas party lists mean that people get to elect who the politicians want to elect. A few weeks before writing this letter, I voted in my local council elections and had 11 votes to cast among 13 candidates. When I received a leaflet telling me that in the European elections I would have 1 vote for 8 seats, I was not pleased. When I think of all the people who endured terrible hardships to win us universal suffrage, this cynical manipulation of the electoral system is all that much harder to let pass. I didn't want to fail to vote, because that would be to disregard the efforts of those who won us the right to vote in the first place. I decided, therefore, to cast my vote, but spoil my ballot paper. How, though, do you go about spoiling a ballot paper effectively? The moment I had that thought, I realised I had another sure-fire idea for a successful letter to the paper...
Straw Boater Britishness reviled
The Independent
20th September, 1999
For the Millennium Dome, a list was composed consisting of people and things which were believed to typify Britishness. A certain Michael Jackson wrote to The Independent (letter headed "Britishness defined") suggesting that the following were concepts that the exhibition should try illustrate: obsessive love of and deference to pet animals; religious intolerance; educational elitism; alcoholic socialising; gardening; competitive team sports; support for organised charity; mechanical ingenuity; professed sexual reticence; affection for tradition; indulgent gambling; coveting yet condemning inherited wealth; make-do-and-mend; countryside rambling; recreational fishing; suppressed emotions; geographic exploration. Although I wouldn't necessarily disagree with much of that, the general negative tone of this letter seemed to me to be somewhat ironic...
Straw Boater We're all doomed
The Independent on Sunday
26th September, 1999
This came only 6 days after my previous letter, albeit in the Sunday edition of the newspaper. I had a shrewd idea they'd publish it, its being one of those "raise a wry smile" letters they seem to like putting as the last one on the page.
Straw Boater Men in skirts
The Independent
11th January, 2000
This was the third letter I sent in 2000, but the first to be published. Letter #1 was to the Independent on Sunday telling them that the year "two thousand" was actually the year "twenty hundred", but they didn't publish it. The Independent did 6 days later, but by someone else saying the same thing. So letter #2 was a sarcastic email telling them that next time I wanted to make a finicky, pedantic point, I'd know to which newspaper I should send it...
No sooner had I sent that, than I sent letter #3, which they did actually publish. This concerned an article written by one Natasha Walter, who has a weekly column. Most of her articles are OK, but some seem to be rather selective in their apportioning of blame: anything bad is either the fault of men or of male-dominated society, and women have no influence on the world at all. The particular article I wrote to complain about was suggesting that the only reason men never wore clothes or styles of clothing that are currently the preserve of women is because it would hurt their psyches, the poor dears. Yeah, right...
Straw Boater Pagan Persistence
The Independent on Sunday
14th May, 2000
The previous week, The Independent on Sunday had an article that debunked Wicca as a religion, describing how it was made up by some bloke 50 years ago. Noting that this is little different to religions made up by some bloke 1,200, 2,000, 2,500 years ago or whatever, I dashed off a letter. Unusually, the letters editor wrote back, asking me to clarify the last line (which ended "except, perhaps, one" originally). I explained to her what I meant and offered an alternative wording. I'd have been OK with her dropping the "except" clause entirely, but warned her that if she did take it out then I would send The Independent on Sunday any bill should religious maniacs subsequently burn down my house...
Straw Boater Elusive lighthouse
The Independent
17th May, 2000
A letter to The Independent on 16th May described a "recently released transcript" of a radio conversation between a United States warship and Canadian authorities. It was basically a cut-down version of what can be found in many places on the net. I'd read it before, and was pretty sure it was false. A quick search revealed that it was indeed , so I dashed off a letter. Two days later, it was printed (although not including the URL I gave them, perhaps because it's critical of newspapers that reprint the story without checking it first...). Oh, they also changed "Burns'" to "Burns's", I expect to comply with some editorial policy they have on making words ending in s possessives.
As a footnote, someone else wrote in asking how could I know the incident never took place because the Americans would never admit it. I wrote back explaining how I knew, but it was a letter that was never going to be published (sigh).
Straw Boater Relative danger
The Independent
27th May, 2000
I've never liked the idea that the people who have suffered from a crime should get to have any say in the punishment given to the offenders. Just because one person can bear their misfortune with stoicism, why should the perpetrators of a crime serve any less a sentence than if they choose someone as a victim who can burst into tears in court? Worse, in the case of murder it's the relatives who get a say in the punishment. I'm sure everyone with a spouse who hates them won't mind having them speak up in defence of the murderer... I was therefore aghast to see that the government was proposing to implement this odious practice. Even though I'd already had two letters published earlier in the month, I was pretty sure they'd put this one in, too. They did, the only editorial change being that they didn't italicise the word be near the end.
Straw Boater Panic reading
The Independent
14th September, 2000
This was a swipe at the mentality that causes panic buying. Due to the sudden copycat picketing of fuel depots in Britain after the French government caved in over something similar days earlier, we had a minor fuel crisis. People then went to stock up on fuel and created a major fuel crisis. Needless to say, the dispute came to nothing, this being Britain, not France...
Tip: mentioning the name of the newspaper in a letter seems a good way to increase the chances of its being published.
Straw Boater Whingeing Aussie
The Independent
1st January, 2001
An Australian who had been living in Britain for the past 2 years wrote a post-Christmas letter to The Independent which consisted of a long, long list of everything that he felt was wrong with this country. In true, let's-run-Britain-down style, it was published as the lead letter of the day. I found his constant complaining a little ironic, given that he was also implying that Australia was so much better. Unfortunately, the heading that the editor chose to give my response rather gave away the punchline...
Note: this letter was published 5 days after I sent it, which is much later than usual; I'd almost given up on it. Still, I quite like the fact that it made it into print on the first day of the third millennium - 01/01/01.
Straw Boater Baby not on board
The Independent
26th May, 2001
Sometimes, I think The Independent must make letters up just to try draw a response. They had one purporting to be from some old buffer who had been annoyed by the prevalence of meaningless "baby on board" signs in the back of cars, until he heard some urban legend about a car crash where the presence of a baby in the wreckage was only discovered because its mother was able to warn the ambulance man, despite her being in a semi-conscious state. Yeah, right. Ambulance crew think baby seats are there for ornament... Anyway, despite my suspicion that the letters editor was setting bait by publishing an assertion that people who put "baby on board" signs in their cars do it for safety reasons, I bit anyway. As soon as I finished the final sentence, I knew it would prove irresistable...
Straw Boater Decommissioned
The Independent
23rd August, 2001
The most sensitive issue in the Northern Ireland peace process concerns the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. The IRA, while accepting the basic principle, showed themselves reluctant to hand their weapons over to the armed forces of any government. Instead, they offered to put their guns, bombs, rocket launchers, ammunition etc. "beyond use" - a mysterious phrase upon the meaning of which they have yet to elaborate. An article in The Independent relating the charges against three IRA members arrested in Colombia suggested to me a rather worrying possibility which I sincerely hope will not prove to be true. I dashed off a letter, and two days later The Independent published it (editing it down to about half its original length).
Straw Boater Reformed honours
The Independent
3rd January, 2002
This letter has a long story behind it...
On 8th March, 2001, I attended the launch of TIGA, the first computer games industry body in the UK that actually looked like it could be a success. Speaking there was the then minister for e-commerce, Patricia Hewitt. After saying we made more money for the UK than the film industry, chiding us for not employing more women, and tut-tutting over software piracy she'd seen in Singapore, she asked for questions. I got the last one, which caused the entire room to burst into laughter: "If this industry of ours really is as important as the film industry, how long will it be before someone in this room gets an OBE?". Of course, it did make a serious point, which the minister recognised. She invited me to e-mail her about it which I did. Whether this had any causal effect whatsoever on the OBE awarded 9 months later to Jez San for services to the computer games industry, I don't know; he certainly deserved it, whatever. Anyway, I included in my email a query regarding Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Ms Hewitt said she'd see if she could find an answer, but none was forthcoming so I guess she didn't. Consequently, when the January 2002 honours were announced and Tim Berners-Lee didn't get a knighthood (or anything else), I dashed off this email. They removed a line pointing out that it's Sir Geoff Hurst but only Bobby Moore, OBE (as he died too young), but that was deliberate padding on my part anyway in case they wanted something longer.
I told you there was a long story behind it.
PS: Tim Berners-Lee finally became Sir Tim Berners-Lee in the New Year's honours list for 2004.
Straw Boater Making monkeys of the voters
The Independent
4th May, 2002
Politicians like people to vote. If people vote, it means that those they elect can claim a democratic mandate. It's hard to argue that you have the people behind you when 70% of the electorate fail to vote at all. Rather than view the root cause of this (ie. the feeling people have that their vote is worth nothing), politicians in the UK have instituted a number of initiatives to make voting easier - polling stations at supermarkets, all-postal voting, longer polling station hours etc.. None of these are likely to make much of an impact, however, so, New Labour decided to "open a debate" on the subject of compulsory voting.
I am not in favour of forcing people to vote: the electoral system needs to be reformed, and papering over the cracks to give candidates some semblance of democratic legitimacy they don't deserve is only going to make it worse. Oh, and guess what? It's Labour voters who tend to stay at home on polling day, many of whom could ill afford to be fined £50 for not voting. I decided to write a nice, sarcastic letter to complain.
The title, by the way, came because Hartlepool United's football mascot (a man in a monkey suit) had the day before been elected mayor of the city. The Independent printed 5 letters under this single heading, of which mine was the final, "humorous" anchor.
Footnote: 2 days later I received a photocopied sheet addressed to "Richard A. Bartle, West Bergholt, Essex" from a group calling themselves "The Kentish Whingers Society". I've no idea why.
Straw Boater Model voters
The Independent
10th September, 2002
For charity, ITV shipped eight celebrities out to the Australian rainforest for a fortnight. After a week, members of the public got to vote daily for which celebrity they wanted to remain. The celebrity garnering the lowest number of votes was eliminated, until eventually only one remained. Despite a suspicion that people didn't understand this and were voting for whom they wanted to leave rather than for whom they wanted to stay, it was nevertheless a huge success. The eventual winner was aging DJ Tony Blackburn, who beat flaky rich girl Tara Palmer-Tomkinson in a thrilling finish. I wondered who had been ahead after the first round.
Straw Boater Christmas stories
The Independent
24th December, 2002
A seasonal letter. I saw my opportunity to get something published on Christmas Eve, and took it. A week earlier, a vicar had had the audacity to tell a bunch of three-year-old children that Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus, didn't exist. He cited scientific proof that anyone moving as fast as Father Christmas would burn up in the atmosphere (while presumably rejecting scientific evidence that virgins can't give birth). A letter on Christmas Eve Eve referred to this story, and I pounced. Santa's speed and another story are perennial favourites at this news-starved time of year; this is what I wrote to point out.
Straw Boater 'Un point'
The Independent
27th May, 2003
Some 5 years after my first letter about Israel and the Eurovision Song Contest, I managed it again. This time, it was in response to the feeble excuses wheeled out to explain why the UK entry came last with 0 points, in particular that it was a reaction by the people of Europe to the UK's participation in the recent war against Iraq. It wasn't: the reason we received no votes was because our entry was sung completely and painfully out of tune.
Straw Boater Tabloid choice
The Independent
2nd October, 2003
The Independent is a broadsheet newspaper: each page is twice the size of that of a tabloid. This is UK newspaper code for "quality" - there's no manufacturing reason why any newspaper couldn't be printed in tabloid format as easily as broadsheet. Because not everyone can physically hold a broadsheet, however, The Independent's management made the decision to bring out a tabloid version as well. Other newspapers have switched from broadsheet to tabloid in the past, but this is the first time in the UK that we've had a single newspaper printed in both formats. The only concern I had that my letter on the subject might not be published was that someone else would beat me to it.
Straw Boater Virtual worlds of entertainment win real popularity
The Independent
20th January, 2004
This is the first time I've written two letters to the Independent in one. The first part was for publication; the second part was telling them what I really thought...
Three days earlier, The Independent had carried an article about the goings-on at The Sims Online concerning issues of censorship (the editor of The Alphaville Herald had been banned from playing). This was fair enough, but the leader column of the newspaper advised players of such games to "get a (real) life". I was incensed by this, and wrote to tell them so. I threw my job title at them in the hope it would help, although since they seem to think that Essex University is in West Bergholt I don't suppose it did.
I was beginning to think they'd ignored my complaint, when suddenly they printed it as the main letter of the day. I just hope they take what it says on board...
This letter led directly to my appearance on Radio 4's Today Programme the following Friday.
Straw Boater Football prejudices
The Independent
26th April, 2004
After a what he regarded a poor display by Chelsea player Marcel Desailly, respected TV commentator Ron Atkinson criticised him roundly. He continued his criticism after the microphone was switched off. Unfortunately, this criticism included a term of racial abuse. Even more unfortunately (for Atkinson), his microphone was not actually switched off and a fans in the Middle East were privy to his somewhat unconventional views.
Marcel Desailly is <insert current acceptable word to mean someone who has very, very dark skin>; he is also <insert current acceptable term to mean someone who is a native of France>. I wonder if, had Big Ron been more discerning in his choice of racist invective, would he have been censured?
[Warning: contains profane and racist terms]
Straw Boater Honour is so well deserved
Essex County Standard
18th June, 2004
My mother's second husband, Walt Wilson, was a keen member of the Normandy Veterans Association. When he died, she received great support from the Chairman of the Colchester Branch, Eddie Slater, who is also editor of the NVA Newsletter and is on the national committee. Come the 60th anniversary of D-Day in June 2004, Eddie was among the main organisers of the event (despite having lost almost all his sight in the previous 6 months). To this end, he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by the French Government, and featured on the front page of the Essex County Standard. A letter the following week commented that his honour was well deserved. I, too, felt that it was well deserved, but...
Straw Boater Culture of secrecy will not change overnight
The Independent
3rd February, 2005
The day before, The Independent had put on its front page the results of 10 requests it had made under the new Freedom of Information Act which had, for various (mainly spurious) reasons, been turned down. Mine was one of five letters published on the subject; I wrote it because I noticed that three of the explanations given claimed that to retrieve the information would be too expensive.
Straw Boater Labour legacy
The Independent
29th June, 2005
In the light of the government's attempt to make me carry a card that says what my DNA is (why can't I just give them the DNA?), I wrote a general comment to The Independent that I had a sneaking suspicion might make someone smile enough for it to be published...
Straw Boater Briefly...
The Independent
6th June, 2006
Having read at least 4 interminable articles on what to do to get away from the World Cup, I decided to take action.
Straw Boater Proud to be veiled, Muslim and British
The Independent
15th July, 2006
An article in The Independent a few days earlier was critical of the way that Moslem women dress. There then followed a debate in the letters column that trotted out all the usual theological/libertarian arguments about whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, none of which took account of the social pressures involved. I thought I'd point this out, without actually saying anything in favour of the practice or against it (although, for the record, I'm against it). The original letter was edited down, but not enough that it's likely to enrage fundamentalists on either side of the argument. Oh, and the title is appropriate for the first letter of the day on the subject; mine was the third (of five).
Straw Boater Adept or addicted? War of words on the World of Warcraft
The Times
7th April, 2007
The previous week, The Times gave away a free DVD with a trial version of World of Warcraft on it. I wrote a letter of support; some other people wrote letters of condemnation. The result was this "Feedback" column.
Straw Boater Want more science? Pay better salaries
The Independent
15th August, 2007
Earlier in the week, the Confederation of British Industry, alarmed at the trickle of science graduates appearing each year, asked for the government to pay a thousand pounds to new science undergraduates, to encourage people to take the subject. Naturally, the CBI wasn't so desperate enough that it would do what would really make a difference, though...
Straw Boater England's Glory
The Guardian
23rd November, 2007
The previous evening, England had been knocked out of the European Championship qualifiers by losing 2-3 at Wembley. As a result, Steve McClaren lost his job of 18 months, pocketing £2.5m in the process. It seemed to me that the FA was being a little naïve in their approach.
This was my first letter in The Guardian following my switch to it from The Independent.
Straw Boater Your number's up
The Observer
29th March, 2009
After a year of restricting my caustic comments about world events to my blog, I snapped and wrote to The Observer about an article they had published the previous week. It was all about the state Britain will be in in a few decades' time, and included some statistics. Some of these were apparently felt by the editors to be so mathematically complex that they needed a simple explanation in words...
Straw Boater Pros and cons of the digital future
The Guardian
26th March, 2010
In the budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that there would be tax breaks given to the UK computer game development industry, so as to allow it to remain competitive against other countries (notably Canada) which have been aggressively subsidising their games industries and caused a brain drain. The Guardian summarised this on their front page as: "The geek dividend. New tax breaks are coming to halt the exodus of game-inventing nerds". Needless to say, I wasn't pleased by this ignorant, flippant description...

The following letter sent to Science Fiction magazine InterZone, rather than a newspaper.
Straw Boater Interaction
October, 1996
This was a reply to a letter bemoaning the fact that publishers only want to publish people who have already been published, ignoring available statistics from libraries indicating what people enjoy reading.
The Write Angles scheme mentioned was closed down a few years later due to the expense of running it (or some other such flimsy excuse). The novel I submitted to them was INsightflames.

This one appeared in Knights of the Dinner Table.
Straw Boater Building Dice
Knights of the Dinner Table
September, 2002
After a few letters from other people in previous issues discussing weird objects like 7-sided dice, I resolved to reveal a solution I'd come up with in the 1970s for making dice with any reasonable number of faces.

This is a photo submission to Viz.
Straw Boater Arse Gallery
October, 2002
Viz is a kids' comic for grown-ups. It's packed with foul language, its cartoon strips are in very poor taste, and I've been reading it since issue 9 (I started with issue 2 but didn't see another copy for over a year). One of the regular features they have is their "Arse Gallery", which is basically a collection of photos (sent in by readers) of people with vast backsides. As a regular visitor to GenCon in the 1990s, I have many photographs of people who fit this description; this one doesn't show faces, so I figured it was OK to use (although Viz still blacked out a set of eyes, for effect).
The Viz image is a little small, so here's a larger scan (135K) of the rumps in question.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk)
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