Vol. 42 No. 20 · 22 October 2020

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In America’s Blood

Deborah Friedell writes about the National Rifle Association (LRB, 24 September). In the winter of 1950, when Franny Colt, then 12 years old, and I, 13, learned to shoot, the NRA was the kindly teacher of gun safety and a cheap source of bullets (a hundred for 25 cents). We were the only girl members of the Dalton Rifle Club in the western Massachusetts town that was home to Crane & Company, manufacturers of fine stationery and, more important for this story, rag paper for US currency.

Instruction began with the ‘prone position’. We lay on our stomachs, targets many yards away from us, in the basement of the Federal Mill, which made the paper for dollars. Franny’s father, Zenas Crane Colt, was the heir of a Crane president; our instructor, Mr Teale (no first names in those days), was the nightwatchman for what went on up above. Franny and I loved the NRA. We bought felt NRA pennants, and hung our best paper targets in our rooms at home. At Zene’s funeral many years later, I was reminiscing about those days with Chris Crane, at the time the company’s president. There had been political pressure, he said, to arm the nightwatchman against bad people, probably communists, who might want to damage the currency paper, and so Mr Teale sported a pistol. He was getting on in age, set in his ways when it came to safety, and something of a joke to the young paper makers. They decided to spook him on his nightly rounds, and spook him they did. He ended up firing wildly, right through hundreds of sheets of currency paper hung up to dry, at a cost to Crane of big bucks. If memory serves, the sheets would have been worth $75,000 had they survived to be printed as bills in Washington.

Margo Miller
Boston, Massachusetts

Red Rag

Jenny Turner draws attention to the problems that can arise when one woman’s private life is another woman’s research material (LRB, 24 September). One of the ways in which an older generation of women’s liberationists can pass on their legacy is by making sure that the resources they produced are made available in digital form. One newly digitised open-access resource is the Marxist-feminist journal Red Rag, now available in the internet archive of the Amiel and Melburn Trust, at banmarchive.org.uk. Several of the women’s liberationists Turner mentions – Sheila Rowbotham, Sally Alexander, Bea Campbell – participated in the collectives that produced it between 1972 and 1980. The journals 7 Days and Black Dwarf can also be found in the archive.

The origins of Red Rag offer a perhaps surprising example of intergenerational generosity. It was the brainchild of women journalists working on Communist Party publications who, frustrated and angered by the party’s attitude to women, drew inspiration from women’s liberation. One of them, Florence Keyworth, wrote of her ‘gratitude to the young women’ who had sparked this ‘renaissance’ and made sex equality a ‘burning force’ again. They planned a magazine that would combine the forces of young communist women with women’s liberationists working together according to women’s liberation principles – no editor, no hierarchy and so on. Once the first issue was published they refused party orders to close it down and handed it over to a younger group who all supported the women’s movement, wanted to work with non-party women and did so. A good example of an older generation letting go.

Rosalind Delmar
London N19

Should I stay or should I go?

Frederick Wilmot-Smith makes a compelling case for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early retirement (LRB, 8 October). It’s a case with which she was well acquainted. In an interview for the New York Times in 2013 she was adamant that her departure would not be hastened by the approaching end of Barack Obama’s time in office (or his dwindling political capital). ‘There will be a president after this one, and I’m hopeful that that president will be a fine president,’ she maintained.

If Ginsburg was expecting a victory for Hillary Clinton in 2016, along with a Democratic majority in the Senate, she was by no means alone. But that misses the point: perhaps Ginsburg intended to serve for as long as possible because she believed, with some justification, that liberal politics in the United States was best advanced by campaigning for true progressives and electing them to Congress and the White House, not by the pre-emptive retirement of the second woman – a crusading liberal justice – ever to sit on the Supreme Court.

In 2006 the number of women on the Court dropped by 50 per cent with the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor and her replacement by Samuel Alito. Ginsburg was left as the only serving woman, with no guarantee that the situation would change any time soon. In the event, it wasn’t too long before Obama replaced David Souter and John Paul Stevens with Sonia Sotomayor (in 2009) and Elena Kagan (in 2010) respectively. But neither Souter nor Stevens (liberal justices appointed, incidentally, by Republican presidents) heard public demands for their retirement. Indeed, when Stevens did retire, aged ninety, he didn’t cite political expediency as his reason, but rather the difficulties he’d had delivering the dissenting opinion on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. (It turned out he’d had a minor stroke.)

When in 2011 Randall Kennedy wrote an article in the New Republic urging Ginsburg to retire, it wasn’t the first time that a professor from Harvard Law School had publicly questioned her decisions. As a student at Harvard Law School in 1956, Ginsburg was one of only nine women enrolled in her year. One evening the dean, Erwin Griswold, invited them all to dinner, where he proceeded to ask them, one by one, why they’d chosen to study there, ‘taking the place of a man’. After a lifetime spent listening to men telling her she was making a big mistake, is it so surprising that RBG kept on going, full steam, until the very end?

Tom King
Shrewsbury, Shropshire

Bye Bye Britain

One thought on Neal Ascherson’s splendid piece (LRB, 24 September). Countries can only be heaved off their permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council if their frontiers change. When the Russian Federation relinquished its hold on the colonised republics of the Soviet Union in 1991, its seat was briefly forfeit but swiftly restored in recognition of its global status. No one can imagine that if Britain’s borders change, whether by Scotland regaining its sovereignty from England or by a referendum ending the partition of Ireland, there would be support for restoring the United Kingdom to the permanent seat on the Security Council which it has held with dwindling justification for 75 years. English nationalists will shout about global exceptionalism and peerless world leadership, but William Waldegrave, in Three Circles into One (2019), shows Britain’s strange status at the UN for the travesty it is. ‘Give it up! Get real!’ he urges. ‘Do not let us drive ourselves mad by trying to play at continental games when we are a nation with the same population as one province of India, China, or Indonesia, and an economic heft comparable to one big state of the US or EU.’ Ejection from permanent membership of the Security Council would help to rid England of its delusions about itself. Better still if Germany is elected to the vacancy.

Richard Davenport-Hines
Ailhon, France

Travellin’ Home

Charles Siegel writes about Jimmy Page’s appropriation of Bert Jansch’s arrangement of ‘Black Waterside’ (Letters, 24 September). He reports that in 1969, Transatlantic Records’ barrister, John Mummery, advised that while Page had probably copied the tune from Jansch, ‘it could hardly be said that Jansch had any cognisable copyright in the song – he had learned the tune from Anne Briggs, who in turn had learned it from the folklorist Bert Lloyd.’

In fact, original and distinctive musical arrangements have long been protected by copyright, as Mummery himself explained many years later in a leading case on originality, Sawkins v. Hyperion Records Limited (2005), concerning arrangements of French Baroque string music:

The essence of music is combining sounds for listening to and intended to produce effects of some kind on the listener’s emotions or intellect. There is no reason to regard the actual notes of music as the only matter covered by musical copyright. Elements other than notes, such as performing directions or ornamentation, can [be] protected by copyright, provided they are sufficiently original.

Jansch’s arrangement of ‘Black Waterside’, the product of his own experimentation with Indian raga modes and complex time signatures, was indeed highly original in 1966. Anne Briggs had sung the song to him, about a young man’s cynical abandonment of his lover, freely and unaccompanied. Jansch arranged his guitar accompaniment in a brisk 4/4 and underpinned the main theme with a heavily syncopated, falling ostinato with a flattened seventh, adding much quasi-raga ornamentation. He also introduced into the second line of each verse an extra half-bar of skipping semiquavers, adding to the sense of the lovers’ agitation.

In his instrumental version, Page copied virtually every detail of Jansch’s arrangement, added some tablas à la Sgt Pepper’s, called it ‘Black Mountainside’, and claimed the whole thing as his own composition. It was plagiarism at its most shameless, up there (or down there) with George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’.

Paul Mountain

Bias at the BBC

Writing about recent right-wing attacks on the BBC, William Davies mentions the latest manufactured furore surrounding the Last Night of the Proms and the singing of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ (LRB, 24 September). But the title of the song was given without its comma. Was the omission a Freudian slip? In any case, given the aspirations of Rupert Murdoch and Brexit’s cheerleaders, it seemed apposite.

Henry Day
London SW2

Flour Fixated

In Bee Wilson’s piece about wheat, CIAT is expanded as the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists (LRB, 24 September). In this context, CIAT refers to the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, known as CIAT from its Spanish-language name, Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical. [The mistake was ours, not Bee Wilson’s. Sorry. – Editors.]

A serious drawback with Norman Borlaug’s invention, high-yielding short-straw wheat, which Wilson doesn’t mention is that it is useless for rethatching roofs against monsoon rains. Villagers complained bitterly about this when I used to visit rural India in the 1980s; traditional long-straw varieties had disappeared after the Green Revolution.

Rosalind Eyben


Is there evidence, as Caroline Campbell writes, that Sofonisba Anguissola’s father ‘exposed his daughters to great risk’ by sending them to study in the household of Bernadino Campi (LRB, 10 September)? She cites the well-known rape of Artemisia Gentileschi, but this crime occurred in another Italian city 65 years later. For years feminist scholars have cautioned against focusing on Gentileschi’s assault and the ensuing courtroom drama, yet it’s become commonplace for the crime to fill the foreground of any discussion. We should ask what purpose this fascination serves, if not to remind women that they are constantly at risk and – no matter their achievements – always defined by their sexual biographies.

Victoria Horne
Newcastle upon Tyne

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