Daily archives: November 10, 2009

That Gordon Brown Letter

Sometimes you feel compelled to write articles that you realise are going to make you wildly unpopular. I fear this is one of those times.

I don’t wish to fall back into the blogging trap of commenting on the news headlines, but as someone who has no time for New Labour or for the war in Afghanistan, I think the media furore over Gordon Brown and his misspelt letter is entirely unjustified and really very nasty indeed, even by UK media standards.

It is not news that Gordon Brown cannot spell. Given his intelligence, background and rigorous education, he can only have this basic spelling difficulty because of a fundamental problem. Labels don’t especially help, but whether you call him dyslexic or say he just does not have the ability to spell however hard he tries, it comes to the same thing.

That too is not news. This from the Daily Telegraph doctor on 20 April 2009:

It was a bit of a shock to learn the Prime Minister mis-spelt the word “knowledge” (omitting the “d”) in his handwritten apology for those “prank” emails, with their lurid allegations, sent from his office. But close reading of the letter (taking into account his poor handwriting) reveals he also omits the “r” from “understand” and has obvious difficulty with “embarrassment”. These errors could scarcely be attributed to poor teaching as Scottish schools are notorious sticklers for correct spelling, so he must, I presume, have some form of dyslexia.

It has only recently become clear that while spelling (or any other routinely acquired mental attribute ?” reading, talking, elementary maths and so on) might seem quite simple and straightforward, they all involve processes in the brain that defy all imagining. Thus in the twinkling of a second that it takes to hear a word, the brain fragments it into a myriad of its constituent parts with 22 separate areas being involved in the interpretation of sound ?” for example distinguishing between the consonants “p” and “b”.

It is, in short, astonishing we can talk, read, or spell as well as we can. Thus the likelihood that the process might be slightly less than perfect in some ?” with the effect as seen in the PM’s letter ?” is quite high.


Brown has emotions like everyone else. His self-referencing is somewhat worrying. His genuine commitment to the casualties of Afghanistan is fuelled in part by an obsession with courage and overcoming adversity – on which he has terrible ghost-written books in his name and patronises awards – and it is obvious that this is because those are the qualities he believes he possesses personally. Equally his own awful loss of a child plainly has a role in his decision to write to the bereaved military families.

But it remains undeniably attractive in Brown, and a great kindness from an incredibly busy man, to write longhand letters to all the military bereaved families – something Blair nor Thatcher would have ever thought of, and which no other Prime Minister has done. Brown’s obvious difficulty in writing and spelling makes this more endearing, not less. If he had a secretary do it, or dashed them off on a word processor, the spelling would be perfect but surely it would mean much less than a note of real condolence from the Prime Minister direct to the bereaved, not intended for any other eyes?

Which brings me on to more delicate territory. Nothing can be worse than losing a child, and especially in a pointless war. The grief of Jacqui Janes must be dreadful, and convention restrains us from saying anything bad about anybody under the strain of bereavement. If my making unpleasant observations on Jacqui Janes would offend you, I am afraid you should stop reading.

But there was a calculation about her taping of her phone call with Gordon Brown, in cahoots with the Sun newspaper, which goes beyond the perfectly understandable emotional venting of feelings, or an intellectual desire to challege policy.

The fact that she chose to make this calculated move in collaboration with the newspaper which is the most important media propagandist for the war which claimed her son, raises further questions. I do not share the desire to elevate the woman as a hero (unlike for example Old Holborn).


Not everybody who has been bereaved was, is, or will be a saint or even a nice person.

I really am sorry I was forced to say that. But somebody had to.

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Timothy Hampton Death Update

I received this rather exasperated response from Annika Thunborg, spokesperson at CTBTO:

there was no professional connection or areas of interaction whatsoever between the two persons who died eleven months apart in two completely different buildings at the UN in Vienna at which about 7000 people in total work and visit every day. For questions about the other death, please contact the IAEA.

So while I still don’t have the name of the other dead UN scientist, that seems at least to dispel the wide internet reports that they both jumped down the same stiarwell. Indeed I am left not sure whether the first IAEA scientist fell down a stairwell or died in another way. But plainly there remain a great many unanswered questions here.

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