Spectator letters: Richard Ingrams defends Joan Littlewood, and the truth about Napoleon’s poisonous wallpaper

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

The state of Italy…

Sir: Ambassador Terracciano’s letter (Letters, 1 November) about Nicholas Farrell’s article (‘The dying man of Europe’, 25 October) seems to me to be ill-researched and not thought through.

Nicholas Farrell is spot on. The Ambassador is not. In another forum the Ambassador, on being asked what Italian nationals contribute to Britain, claimed that: ‘There is no area in which they don’t excel. Not only finance and management but also culture and the scientific and medical world, from professorship at Oxford to the chorus director of the Royal Opera, from the Science Festival at Cambridge to the director of the Tate Gallery in Liverpool.’ Has he ever stopped to think why this talent is in England, and not in Italy? More careful perusal of Nicholas Farrell’s article might help him. Or perhaps he should himself try running any activity, even the least significant, in Italy today.

I could add hundreds of specific cases to bolster Farrell’s claims, of constant disorganisation, time wasting, obstruction, procrastination and worse, all of which make it impossible for anyone who wishes to achieve anything at all to work in Italy. Even if we agree that there are many in Italy today who are trying to tackle these problems it seems to me that they cannot be trying very hard, and are certainly not doing very well.
Odile Taliani
Vienna, Austria

…and how to fix it

Sir: Nicholas Farrell sums up well what many people, including Italians, think about the state of the country today; an unacceptable level of public debt, recession turning to deflation, high unemployment, inefficient public administration, and the alarming fact that over the past five years the economy has shrunk by 9 per cent. But before writing Italy off as ‘a basket case’, we need to look at some of the more positive aspects, such as good export performance of many Italian companies, a primary surplus, a high level of private savings, and an attempt to rationalise local administration where the provinces are to be dismantled. The expense of public administration is a major problem. In 1996 the British Chamber of Commerce for Italy, of which I was president at that time, organised a conference on ‘Public Administration and Business’. When representatives of the DTI described the savings they had made in outsourcing services and reducing staff by over 20 per cent, they were told this was ‘fantascienza’ for Italy. An offer to study the British experience of public administration efficiency was not taken up. Perhaps now is the time to reactivate it.
Michael Griffiths
Florence, Italy

The Nightingale touch

Sir: Jane Kelly asks whether the poor treatment of older people is due to underfunding in overworked hospitals, or to deliberate neglect (‘Old, vulnerable and hungry’, 8 November). It is neither. The problem lies with the change from a Nightingale nurse education to graduate training. Nurses no longer see it as their job to ensure that patients are properly fed. They consider the task to be beneath their dignity, and it has been delegated to no one. Forty years ago I would often see the ward sister (now morphed into a ward manager) feeding a patient herself. Food is nowadays handed out by non-nursing staff who have no idea of the patients’ needs. For example, one consultant who researched the subject found that a ward orderly had left a patient’s meal on the side, when he was blind and paralysed after a stroke. Modern nursing students are fed a diet of psychobabble (I speak as a psychiatrist) rather than what would be considered the basic elements of good patient care. Until 2005 I was fortunate to be the consultant on a unit for the elderly mentally ill where the nurses were wonderful and considered nothing beneath their dignity. But I recall the nurse in charge telling me that when a patient was incontinent the undergraduate students doing placements declined to help, saying that it was not part of their duties.
Robin Jacoby
Bicester, Oxon

Saint Joan

Sir: Roger Lewis’s picture of Joan Littlewood as a ‘thuggish’, unpleasant Stalinist (Books, 8 November) will be unrecognisable to anyone who knew her. Especially wide of the mark is the allegation that she was humourless. I remember the almost non-stop laughter involved in helping her turn our Private Eye feature ‘Mrs Wilson’s Diary’ into a play. As for ‘not lifting a finger’, Joan was a perfectionist in the theatre and spent hours doing things with the Stratford children who hung about on the streets round the Theatre Royal. Besides which, I doubt if anyone would have heard of Brendan Behan if it hadn’t been for Joan.
Richard Ingrams
Reading, Berks

Napoleon’s wallpaper

Sir: In his Diary (1 November), Andrew Roberts denounced the theory that Napoleon was poisoned by arsenical vapours emitted by his wallpaper. I aired this speculation in a radio broadcast (1980).  I was offered a sample of Napoleonic wallpaper from St Helena. Submitted to X-ray fluorescence analysis, it did not contain enough arsenic to be medically threatening. My papers on the matter (Nature and New Scientist, October 1982) merely suggested that it might have accounted for the arsenic in his hair. Several newspapers told the story, naturally getting it all wrong‚ clearly the source of Mr Roberts’ misunderstanding.
Dr David Jones
Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne

On course

Sir: Melissa Kite is not alone with her smartphone satnav problems (Real life, 25 October). My Google account message pops up daily with ‘time to work: 17 minutes’. The default work destination is my golf club.
Neil Carver
Wallasey, Wirral

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