The chance to fail
Sir: Matt Ridley’s article ‘Risky business’ (1 February) offers a variety of reasons why innovation has been stifled in Britain for too long. As an educator, I would like to add two factors that I encounter on a regular basis: the tremendously suffocating grip of insurance companies, which turns the safest idea into a discouraging risk-assessment exercise, and the desire of parents to protect their child from any failure. There are understandable reasons why insurance companies and parents act like this. However, in schools and at home it prevents necessary opportunities to test and try, fail, learn and improve, and try again. More importantly, it corrodes one of the most essential human traits that makes taking a risk and possible failure bearable: forgiveness.
Barbara van Abel
Doing the Continental
Sir: Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s piece on ‘Continental drift’ (1 February) revived a guilty memory. In 1981 Club Continental was the down-market cousin of Club 18-30 holidays. I (just about) remember having a great time with the travel company on a Greek island, where we probably ruined the breaks of quite a few more sober travellers of the time. Although I don’t recall too many Spectator readers round the pool as we sung the third verse of ‘Club Continental on the piss again’ maybe, as Ysenda hints, it’s time for us almost sixtysomethings to revive the franchise by reintroducing ‘Continental’ as a suffix, rather than as the prefix she suggests.
Sir: The Hotel Continental cuisine in Ndola, Zambia, came to mind when I read Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s article. The 1980s in Zambia were a time of shortages of even basic foodstuffs, and this was reflected in what the kitchens could offer. But the name, which owed little to the English language, proclaimed a hope of lusher times.
Canon Michael Bullock
Why not plant Ginkgo?
Sir: Rory Stewart (Diary, 1 February) wants more plane trees to be planted in London. They are of course an iconic part of the London landscape, but I would put the case for also considering planting the Ginkgo biloba. It is an ancient tree that is well known for its beneficial properties in urban situations: it is very hardy, resistant to disease and the damage of pollution, and in fact absorbs many of those chemicals which are harmful to the population. And of course it is very beautiful, graceful in habit, and needs little if any pruning. In autumn the wonderful butter-yellow colour of the leaves is magical.
Sir: Reviewing a history of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Books, 1 February), Norman Lebrecht writes that in 1962 Hugo Rignold ‘led the world premiere of Britten’s War Requiem in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral’. In fact the chief conductor on this momentous occasion (which I attended) was Meredith Davies. Britten himself conducted the chamber group and the children’s choir was under John Strickson, then the organist of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Sir: Mike Daunt describes many of the causes of the decline of Atlantic salmon in Britain (‘An upstream struggle’, 25 January) but he fails to mention one of the principle villains: fish farming. Wherever marine salmon farming takes place, the decline of wild salmon nearby is far steeper than elsewhere. Young salmon and sea trout leaving rivers along Scotland’s ‘aquaculture coast’ — anywhere between Argyll and Shetland — routinely hit a wall of lice and chemicals from an industry that has always had its back covered by Holyrood.
The pollution is also genetic. Last week a mass escape from a single farm off Colonsay released 78,000 fish — about double the number of wild salmon caught in the whole of Scotland on rod and line in 2018.
Dundonnell, Ross and Cromarty
Robertson’s expert eye
Sir: Lynn Barber misses the point about Bryan Robertson (Arts, 18 January). It is probably impossible for anyone familiar with today’s art scene to imagine just how shallow, stagnant and backward-looking the art world remained after the second world war, until Robertson started showing contemporary painting and sculpture at the Whitechapel Gallery. That was a liberation I shall never forget. It wasn’t just that he was the first to exhibit a whole generation of artists headed by Bridget Riley and Anthony Caro. Robertson made them readily accessible to ordinary people. In Andrew Lambirth’s book about him, the artists themselves explain how extraordinary that was at the time.
As The Spectator’s very young arts editor, I was the first to give him a job as the paper’s art critic in 1965, when there was no one to match his knowledge of the contemporary art scene. Admittedly he hadn’t a bureaucratic bone in his body, and he wasn’t constrained by lack of funds. But why were these the key factors in the Tate’s failure to appoint him director in 1969? The gallery could have offered the secretarial assistance and business management Robertson never had at the Whitechapel. What the Tate hadn’t got — and badly needed at that point — was Robertson’s flair, judgment, knowledge, and above all his incomparable eye. The calibre and quantity of the artists who write about him in Lambert’s book show what an astonishing collection could have been built for the nation at relatively low cost in the 1970s under Robertson at the Tate.