Letters August-September

From buildings to booze


This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Glad to be trad

Charles Saumarez Smith (MODERN HOUSES THAT BUYERS WANT, JULY) says that people like modern architecture, provided it is well built. He is partly right. Some people like most modern architecture. Most people like some. 

However, a large body of empirical evidence indicates that most people tend to prefer more vernacular and traditional approaches. These are not the only way to create popular, healthy and happy places, but they are the simplest and easiest.

Mr Saumarez Smith notes that “thousands” visit the website The Modern House, which has subsections devoted to postwar design. This is not robust evidence for a “huge shift in public taste”, or for the claim that “people” are not hostile to modern architecture: it just shows that there are some thousands of modernism aficionados in a country of 67 million people, which is obviously true. 

Serious empirical research involves scientifically sampled visual preference surveying, surveying public health or behaviour or the study of revealed preference in what people actually choose when they purchase homes. 

Unlike Mr Saumarez Smith, Create Streets has done this research. It is on this basis that we have arrived at our views on modernist places: not blanket hostility, but certainly qualified scepticism.

Architecture is a public art, which shapes our common home. What people feel about it matters. Create Streets would welcome rigorous public preference research whose findings complicate or contradict our own. Meanwhile, we make no apology for trying to understand what most people feel about the places they inhabit, or for caring about the answer.

Nicholas Boys Smith


Red and blue pencils

I enjoyed Sebastian Milbank’s defence of censorship (WE NEED TO REFRAME THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT FREE SPEECH, JULY) — an especially honest case to make given that almost all of us support censorship of one kind or another and defend free speech inasmuch as it is ours. 

But given both that we do live in a time where language is “a tool of power and domination” as Mr Milbank writes and that the Left’s rivals have less capacity to use it, is the search for an “agreed standard of speech” not playing into the hands of people who oppose the Right? That might sound cynical. But cynics often get ahead.

Matthew Powers


Before the fall

Eloquent though he is, I fear that Theodore Dalrymple (EVERYDAY LIES, JULY) is too harsh in his mockery of the phrase “falling into addiction”. Using drugs, as he says, is not “something that just happens to people” like Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis. But the foolish decision to start using drugs does not entail that the drug-taker intends to become an addict. 

Consider this: it might be foolish for a child to play near the edge of a cliff but that does not mean that he intends to fall onto the rocks below.

Yvonne Smith


Cross purposes

The obvious counter to Thorfinn Johnston’s insinuation that Scottish Unionists are Orangemen (LETTERS, JULY) would be the equally inflammatory and slightly more justified claim that all Scottish Nationalists are IRA sympathisers. 

Certainly, it’s not hard to see how the bitterly anti-British Irish republicanism which I knew well as a Catholic schoolboy, morphed into bitterly anti-British Scottish nationalism. Worse, the original Scottish Nationalists were fascist sympathisers like Arthur Donaldson and Hugh McDiarmid.

As for the business of flying the Saltire, he begs the question. The point is that the Saltire has been aggressively deployed as part of a sustained campaign to engender bitterness and division in my country. Most unionists still see the Saltire as their flag as well; it’s just that they’d like the same respect for the Union flag. 

From my point of view though, the Saltire has become the banner of toxic grievance-mongers. There are people I grew up with who I’ll never speak to again, thanks to these Saltire-wavers.

John-Paul Marney


Blithe spirits

Work and wine don’t mix, claims Ned (SERIOUS BUSINESS, JULY). Nonsense. Booze is the mixer that makes the bitter spirits of work tolerable.

Andrew Taylor


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