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Letters (published)
Many of my letters on consumer issues have been compiled into an e-book under the title Don't Take It Lying Down (see Bookshop for a synopsis). I will be including much of that book on this site eventually. Consumer issues have always been of great interest to me (see Consumer help). However, many of my letters have simply been on topical issues, including those below that have been published.

SOME PUBLISHED LETTERS (click here for some unpublished letters)

It is with great sadness that I have to say (look at the dates of publication of the letters) that, since I wrote these letters, practically nothing has changed; in some respects, things are worse, much worse. So was it all a waste of time and effort? Contact me and let me know.

To the Editor, New Scientist (1986)

Share a car

I read your article "Running rings round the traffic planners" (30 October, p22) with growing irritation. I have read innumerable articles on the problems associated with traffic, all missing the point entirely by looking for ways to accommodate the problem rather than ways to solve it. It is ludicrous to even consider improving any of this nation's roads when a far simpler and much more logical answer to traffic congestion is in the hands of all who make regular, private, road journeys.

I refer, of course, to the concept of organised car sharing which, although it seems to have been taken up with enthusiasm in the United States (to the extent that some highways have lanes reserved for car sharers), has been treated with disdain by British drivers.

Car sharing (for those happy few who have seen the light) saves individuals hundreds of pounds a year in fuel costs alone, and probably hundreds more in reduced costs of running a vehicle - reduced mileage means longer servicing intervals, less depreciation and less wear and tear, this last not just on the vehicle but on the driver as well.

But perhaps most important is the benefit that car sharing on a large scale must afford to the environment. If everyone who could share, did share, traffic levels on many roads could be reduced to what they were 10 or even 20 years ago. And reduced traffic means reduced road maintenance costs (reduced taxes?), less pollution, fewer accidents and less stress for all of us.

We love our cars. Cars mean personal freedom. It takes us a long time to afford them and, by golly, we intend to enjoy them. But when 90% of cars on the road contain only one person, isn't this taking freedom a bit too far? It's tantamount to a dog-in-the-manger attitude when we're prepared to sit in a traffic jam for hours each week in order to exercise our right to the 'freedom' of private travel.

Car sharing may be forced on us by law one day, when we run out of either the money or the space to accommodate the ever-increasing volume of traffic on our roads. It would be sensible to adopt the logical solution now, while it is flexible, simple and practically free.

Tony Holkham, The Car Sharing Club (Published in New Scientist, 13 November 1986)

To the Chichester Observer (1992)

Business hit by sickness

There is a sickness gripping British business. No, it is not called 'the recession', although that may be contributing to the rising rate at which the sickness is spreading.

You may be able to guess the nature of the sickness if I offer some examples:

1. A car bought from a trader for £1,500 cost more to repair in the following 3 months than the original price. The seller's attitude: "buyer beware".
2. A year-long argument over a service ended by compensation being offered provided it was accepted as a goodwill gesture and without admission of liability.
3. A main dealer accepted (Friday) a booking to fit (Tuesday) rear seat belts in a car. On the Tuesday, two and a half hours after receiving the car, the dealer phoned the owner to say they could not do the job because the parts had not been ordered.
4. A local shop put price stickers on leather goods. When peeled off they leave a permanent mark.
5. Several well-known organisations take five months to register an address change.
6. £14.50 was paid to have mail redirected to a new address. Several items were not redirected, but returned to the senders, including some money from a debtor who was subsequently taken to court for (believed) non-payment.
7. Two of the four screws provided with a door hinge broke off at the head.
8. After relying on an itemised telephone bill to set costs to different people, an organisation was not told that in its new area the facility was no longer available. Hours of extra work resulted.
9. The address for a booklet called "How to complain" was flashed on the TV screen for just 5 seconds.

Some of these examples may seem trivial, but not when they happen to one person - me - in a short period of time. I can cope with it, because I'm in the business of helping other people with such problems - often far worse ones - which puts mine in perspective. But not everyone is so lucky.

Most of the problems I try to help with (along with experts associated with us) come down to one - a lack of care for the customer. It is getting worse, as can be seen from TV programmes like Watchdog, Them & Us, from the rapid rise in the crime rate and from the Press. Even the standard of driving on the roads is deteriorating rapidly.

And we can't blame 'business', which has to work much harder in the present climate. 'Business' is run by people, and it is those people's attitudes which decide the level of service a customer is going to get.

This is not a general condemnation. There are many businesses whose staff maintain high customer care standards, and we always refer our clients to these when we can. But there are just as many businesses who say they care, but forget to tell their staff.

What businesses should realise is that if I am put on hold for long periods, or fobbed off because I'm shopping around, or get incredulous reactions when I complain about faulty goods or ask for an explanation of what precisely I am paying for, I will go elsewhere. And if enough customers go elsewhere, that business folds and more people are made redundant.

So customer service and care are directly related to employment. Unfortunately, it's one of the first things to go when things get tough, when in fact it should be the last.

Nobody's perfect. We can all have an off-day. We're all human and have our own stresses and pressures. But in my opinion British business standards have reached an all-time low and even foreign visitors are commenting. We need to raise them again if we want to establish respect in Europe, quite apart from locally.

I am sure the examples listed above are recognisable to all of us, and equally recognisable is what is needed to avoid the aggravation that they cause, not to mention lost money.

But although I'm cynical enough to realise that I shall always be in demand to help people who are suffering from bad business, misleading advertising and lack of customer care, I am optimistic that it can change. All that is needed is an awareness that the customer pays the wages, and that the customer has a choice.

As independent advisers on a wide range of topics, we would welcome any reaction from your readers. We already have our own recommended traders, and are willing to take note of others by personal recommendation, so the business goes to those who deserve it.

If I can count on the Observer's support by publishing this letter I am sure we could help to launch a new wave of improved business standards that would set an example to the whole country - even beyond.

Tony Holkham, Safe T net (published in the Chichester Observer, 1992)

To the Chichester Observer, 1992

Game of life... or death

I know drivers are blamed for many of the injuries resulting from, as you call them, 'collisions' with pedestrians. And driving over 1,000 miles a week myself, I see many near misses, and it is often the motorist who is at fault, either through inattention or excessive speed.

But not always.

Along with the increasingly aggressive behaviour of many young drivers, I have witnessed a gradual increase in the aggressive behaviour of pedestrians. Often, elderly people are forced off the pavement by groups of teenagers whose attention is only on each other.

And children are being left to their own devices too often, without any idea how to behave in traffic - I saw two girls about 12 years old this afternoon trying to cross three streams of traffic not ten yards from a pedestrian crossing.

By all means introduce traffic calming measures into danger areas such as Kingsham Road, but it will not improve the road sense of young people unless that sense is delivered to them both in school and at home.

We are in a recession, and working people are always in a hurry, but if the increasing pace of life is being passed on to our children, then hand-in-hand with that must go an increased awareness of what could happen in a moment of carelessness.

Video games are all the rage, and probably contribute to the present young generation's feeling of invincibility, but when a car meets a human being, you don't just get a 'game over' message. It's often 'life over'.

Tony Holkham (published in Chichester Observer 15 October 1992)

To the Chichester Observer (1992)

How about sharing a car?

I am not surprised ('New route bus fare doubled') bus fares and train fares keep going up.

In their letter Mr & Mrs Frampton are right, too, to blame organisation. The fares they have to pay have to cover the cost of running all those empty buses at the quiet times of day. And I wish I had £1 for every time I have seen more cars waiting at a level crossing than there were passengers on the train that went by.

Might I suggest to all those fed up with the cost of buses and trains that they consider another form of transport?

Three to four people clubbing together and taking a taxi will find this method more flexible, warmer, quicker and often cheaper. And it would provide more honest trade to the taxi drivers of Chichester.

In my quiet period running up to Christmas I decided to take up my private hire licence again after a break of several years. I was astonished at how little taxis are used compared with a few years ago and yet in the interim other public transport does not seem to have improved.

I can only put this down to greater car ownership, and yet this can only be among the young. With more people over 60 than ever before, many of whom cannot afford to run a car, I would have thought sharing a taxi was the most sensible alternative.

I even ran a car sharing scheme in the Hindhead area a few years ago. If anyone has any interest in my doing so again in Chichester, they can contact me on 781606, or write to me at the address below.

Tony Holkham, Safe T net (published in Chichester Observer 1992

To the Chichester Observer (1994)

Still going strong

Since the beginning of the year, we have heard from a number of sources that Safe T net has ceased trading.

Whether this is just rumour, or related to the fact that we no longer run a private hire car service, I cannot tell, but I would be grateful of the opportunity to inform your readers that we still off the same National Courier Service that we have done since the beginning of 1992.

Tony Holkham, Proprietor (published in Chichester Observer 24 February 1994)

To New Scientist (1994)


I wonder what Messrs Hewlett, Packard, Moore and Allen have to gain by throwing (presumably) large sums of money into the research for extraterrestrial intelligence (This Week, 29 January). Do they know something we don't?Is a breakthrough just around the corner? Has some alien artefact been found and its origin needs to be discovered?

Maybe it's a coincidence that the major donors are connected with the computer business, and any comprehensive search for ET could not be done without sophisticated computer technology. And maybe any positive results would have a monetary value beyond our wildest dreams, since without public funding they would not be public property.

Or maybe I'm just a cynic.

Tony Holkham (published in New Scientist, 12 March 1994)

To the Chichester Observer (1994)

Don't just grumble - act!

You often run stories about people who suffer from sub-standard goods or poor service, most of whom get no compensation from offending suppliers. Why aren't people more insistent on value for money? Maybe they think it would be a waste of time. It wouldn't.

I am always surprised by the number of people who complain, in your letters page and columns, and even overheard in shops, yet apparently take no further action. Businesses who don't pay attention to quality of goods and services are allowed to get away with it most of the time. They shouldn't.

We are only going to force a significant improvement in the attitude of many businesses, large and small, in this country by insisting on value for money, and paying less if we don't get it.

If I can get an electric bill reduced by £50, a free cross-channel ferry ticket and free telephone rental simply by persisting with genuine grievances, why don't more people demand satisfaction?

I urge your readers to complain less and act more.

There are no better tools than pen and paper and a few well-chosen words to reduce a bill or get compensation. And with so many people unemployed and with cash and debt difficulties, this has to be a sensible way to reduce the amount of money they pay out for essentials.

It would also vastly improve the economy of the country if we all campaigned for quality in this way, because British service would eventually get back the reputation - and the customers - it once had for being the best in the world.

Can I be alone in this view?

Tony Holkham (published in Chichester Observer, 17 March 1994)

To the Chichester Observer (1995)

I can understand Ms Hunt being disgusted by MP Anthony Nelson's rejection of her request for support of the Bill to abolish hunting.

While Mr Nelson is entitled to his personal opinion, he will no dount be aware that he is not in Parliament to further his own wishes, but rather to represent the views of the constituents who voted to put him there (and also those who didn't). If he failed to do that he could not expect to be re-elected.

I assume therefore that more people have asked him to oppose, rather than support the Bill. If not, then what happened to democracy?

But at least we know where our MP stands on this issue and, if we feel strongly enough about blood sports one way or the other, we know how to use our vote at the next election.

Tony Holkham (published in Chichester Observer 9 March 1995)

To New Scientist (1996)

Laboured reading

Having campaigned for years for clearer instructions, mostly in the consumer product labelling area, I wholeheartedly support Alun Rees's gripes about manuals (Forum, 13 January). I could add some of my own, such as print which is too small to read (indicating a lack of respect for customers), design taking precedence over comprehensibility (lack of common sense), and the ever-increasing use of what I can only call environmental blackmail (lack of intelligence). The others would fill a book.

If only the people who write the manuals, guides and labels would take notice of articles like Rees's, companies would see the costs of customer services dwindling and the loyalty of customers rising, meaning an (at least this might make ears prick up) increase in their profits. Unfortunately, companies tend to delegate the most important job - communicating with the customer - to their least experienced employee, or to someone who happens to have the time, but not necessarily the education. But perhaps Pat Haye's quip that "The ability to produce paragraphs of well-written English is plainly now considered an inhuman ability" was not meant to be a quip at all ("If only they could think", same issue).

Tony Holkham (published in New Scientist, 17 February, 1996

To Chichester Observer (1996)

Ask awkward questions about food

A correspondent (letters, April 4) gives some welcome publicity to the fact that labelling in respect of the treatment of food leaves much to be desired.

The process of irradiation is generally accepted by 'health advisers' to governments as being safe to consumers. In fact, it is intended to increase food safety by increasing shelf life.

But even as a specialist in the labelling field myself I have yet to find someone who can provide me with (or has even seen) scientific evidence of this. I am therefore not surprised that consumers are suspicious.

Food which has been irradiated should be labelled as such by law, and I see in this month's Which? magazine that "trading standards officers in the Suffolk area found that five percent of foods tested had been irradiated but failed to declare on the label that this process had taken place."

I hope prosecutions will follow, but this will take time to have an effect on other culprits. In the meantime I advise your correspondent to contact manufacturers, retailers, the Ministry of Agriculture or their MP and ask awkward questions. I hope others will do the same. If enough people show their concern in this way, the proper labelling of irradiated foods will happen more quickly.

The same applies to any other aspects of labelling which is unclear, ambiguous or misleading. It is largely as a result of "questions being asked" that beef products, for example, are now being labelled by many stores in such a way that consumers are able to make more informed choices about what they eat.

Tony Holkham, Product Information & Labelling Specialist (published in Chichester Observer,18 April 1996)

To New Scientist (1996)

Case for a code

An "Interlingua" is surely a code (Forum, 8 June, p48). As soon as we hear a word or see an object, we all recognise it for what it is, and the spoken word we use to communicate it to another person is largely irrelevant. So it can be encoded - not in yet another language which our long-suffering children would have to learn, but as a code that every computer would carry as part of its operating system.

We already have software that is sophisticated enough - word processors and publishing software have simple "find and replace" functions for example - in which a "universal code" could be built. And the code could be simple. All the keyboard characters could be used, so the full ASCII set of 256 characters could each stand for the most common and shortest words, and combinations of two and three characters would stand for longer and less-used words.

These combinations, plus any other symbols we care to use (my Macintosh for example gives me a vast range of characters from © to ®) would represent a vocabulary of more than 30,000 nouns and prepositions, far more than most of us need in a lifetime.

I say nouns and prepositions because it is these that make up the world. Verbs, adjectives, adverbs and the rest are all related to nouns or to each other, so they would simply carry a relationship code. For example, (V=verb): where "c" was cloth, "Vc" could indicate "clothe".

The concept would have advantages other than universal understanding. It would, for example, save telephone charges - maybe a cut of 90% in your fax and data transmission bill; it would save resources such as paper and ink; it would enable more written words to be fitted into small spaces, such as on medicine bottles and pesticide labels.

Such a code would work with any language. There may be initial difficulties managing the code from Arabic or Chinese, but these could be overcome.

We don't need another language, we need an automated language intermediary. So come on you software wizards, let's have one soon. Someone will make a fortune if they come up with a workable version - but please, please, just one version.

It makes sense to use computers to solve one of the biggest obstructions to human understanding. The only problem will be getting everyone to agree.

Tony Holkham (published in New Scientist, 6 July 1996) [shades of text messaging?]

To New Scientist (1997)

Surgery song

I couldn't believe my ears while waiting to be put through to my doctor the other day. The song playing was that one which starts: "If it takes forever, I will wait for you...". Humour in the NHS, or just a coincidence?

Tony Holkham (published in New Scientist, 5 April 1997)

To The News, Portsmouth (1997)

Roundabouts don't need to be cluttered with adverts

The Environment Agency (The News, July 24) is to allow private sponsors to adopt roundabouts. Does that mean one of the responsibilities of the sponsors will be to go out every day and sweep up those little piles of coloured plastic left there by drivers whose attention has been distracted by advertisements?

Roundabouts are already one of the most common locations for minor accidents. Many people have the tendency to drive on to them and sort out the mess afterwards, rather than being patient. The little piles of broken glass are already a feature.

Adverts will not make roundabouts less 'scruffy', and in any case I like roundbouts as they are.

What the nameless civic leaders call scruffy is, in fact, this country's dwindling stock of wild flowers and grasses.

And with the vandal mowers and sprayers decimating our verges every spring, before the plants have been allowed to seed, roundabouts could be the last refuge of many species of plant and insect. Has the Environment Agency fully considered this decision?

Tony Holkham (published in The News, 30 July 1997)

To the Chichester Observer (1999)

Modify these mad views of food

The hysterical undertone in letters about GM foods (and many other moral issues) is what we have come to expect from people who set themselves up as the guardians of humanity without really knowing (or caring to find out) the facts.

Robin Yield's letter (March 4) is so full of rhetoric and contradiction it is hardly worth responding to, but anyone who has taken the trouble to read the facts about GM crops will know that to generalise about "weak hybrid plants" and use words like "bizarre" and "haphazard" dulls the intellect by stirring up the emotions.

And what has farming in the developing world to do with school dinners in Britain? How can councillors be acting with "clear vision" when they are simply following the herd?

The unwarranted panic over GM foods is completely illogical. Farmers, anywhere in the world, are not ignorant or stupid; nor are large companies necessarily power-crazed profit-seekers. They are staffed by ordinary people who go shopping and have children like the rest of us.

The real monster in this issue is the vested interest masquerading as a moral principle, which I find abhorrent. For example, I cannot see that asking the Soil Association for "balanced advice" on the issue is a logical option. It's like asking the barber whether you need a haircut.

Perhaps if the GM knockers expended more effort on getting the price of "organic food" (whatever that means) down, consumers would genuinely have a choice whether to support the bio-technological revolution or not.

I am fed up with British people knocking British ingenuity so hard that the expertise - yes, and the profits - go elswehere, which will eventually leave us as impoverished as the so-called developing world we like to be so patronising about.

Tony Holkham (published in Chichester Observer, 18 March 1999)

To the Chichester Observer (1999)

Mary Stanley (letters, March 18) can rest assured that, if ever I do find myself "in charge", I will not be ramming anything down anyone's throat. I will be advocating free consumer choice, a point she must have missed in my previous letter.

I don't mind being called a know-all, a term often used to ridicule the informed, because there is plenty of information on GM foods, most of which I find reassuring.

Chemical corporations are reluctant to explain what they are doing in detail because they mistakenly believe we won't understand, and they don't want their competitors to know. So, left in ignorance, most people are justifiably suspicious.

Margaret Noakes (and anyone else who wants facts rather than rhetoric) should find an answer to her question in New Scientist, which has covered the GM foods issue thoroughly.

As a layman I have, over more than 20 years, found New Scientist very informative. In fact, I think that must be how I became a know-all.

Tony Holkham (published in Chichester Observer, 1 April 1999)

To the Chichester Observer (2000)

I have some sympathy with fuel price protestors because I have had to curtail my courier business partly as a result of fuel prices. This week's events have put the final nail in its coffin and I will be looking for income elsewhere.

However, many of them have a nerve to be protesting at all, because so many waste fuel like water, especially those who make short local journeys and deliveries. The number of times a day that I see drivers leaving their engines running when making deliveries, quick social calls, visits to shops and while waiting in traffic jams and at railway crossings is totally inexplicable.

I everyone switched off their engines as often as possible, if only for a minute or two, they would save the equivalent of up to 5% on their fuel bills, a reduction of 4p a litre.

Nationally, this would mean using a billion pounds worth of fuel less over a year. Think what that would mean to the NHS as a result of the reduced effects of pollution alone.

I have asked the government to emulate the Swiss in making it illegal to idle your engine when stationary. They have fobbed off the suggestion. If this crisis brings down the government, they only have themselves to blame.

Tony Holkham (published in Chichester Observer, 21 September 2000)

To the Chichester Observer

Do as you would be done by

Mr Stainsby's letter about horse riders needing poop-scoops raises an important point. As Cyril Wiggle, in his book The DOs and DON'Ts of DOs (Heineken, 1952) points out " do, of course, is the result of a carnivorous diet and therefore attracts the sort of microbes and disease-carrying flies which are most likely to affect humans; on the contrary, horse do does not do so."

This important book, though long out of print, was a factor in drawing up the recent legislation, which is why the law does not include horse do with dog do.

However, as Mr Stanley points out, given the quantity of do that a horse produces, it does present a physical hazard, and so a rider should not let a horse do do on a footway.

After all, there would be times when riders will have to go on foot themselves.

A case of do as you would be done by.

Tony Holkham, Cyril Wiggle's official biographer (published in Chichester Observer, 1 March 2001)
(Contact Cyril Wiggle direct or see Cyril's page on this website)

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