Vol. 44 No. 19 · 6 October 2022

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Ian Jack writes about shipbuilding on the Clyde (LRB, 22 September). When I started as an apprentice in the engine works of John Brown’s shipyard in 1956, I lodged with Johnie, a former riveter in his mid-fifties. The pneumatic hammer had damaged Johnie’s hearing and so impaired the circulation to his hands that he could no longer ride his motorbike. After being made redundant, Johnie was reduced to employment as a tea-boy and bookie’s runner in a small shipyard. Riveters had once been ‘aristocrats of labour’, working in self-employed squads led by the riveter, who paid the rivet-boy to tend the forge and the holder-on (‘hauder-on’) out of his piecework earnings. The boy picked the red-hot rivet from the forge in his tongs and tossed it up to the holder-on, positioned above on scaffolding. The holder-on caught the rivet in a tin can, picked it out with tongs and inserted it into the rivet hole. He then promptly pressed a heavy hammer (called a dollie), indented with the shape of the rivet-head, against the rivet to hold it in place while the riveter, inside the hull, triggered the rivet-gun.

It was obvious by the late 1950s that competition from shipyards abroad using more modern methods would lead to the end of British yards. As they drifted towards unproductivity, there was a rare burst of resistance when in 1960 we apprentices undertook a successful six-week strike to gain day-release so that we could attend technical college. The government of the time had been content to leave industrial training to employers, but in 1963 a bill was passed to create industrial training boards funded by a levy on employers in all sectors. Costs could be recouped by employers when training was provided. In 1971, the British Oxygen Company funded my studies, including an annual week’s study leave, from the levy. Formed in 1886, BOC is one of Britain’s oldest industrial companies; it is now owned by the German Linde Group.

Alasdair MacVarish
Thame, Oxfordshire

Sex in the Brain

An anonymous letter-writer claims that a ‘thousand families … will be taking the Tavistock Clinic to court for its (mis)treatment of their children at its Gender Identity Development Service’ (Letters, 22 September). I am far from complacent about any young person who might come to regret the medical interventions they sought and received from GIDS. However, here are a few facts and figures. Gary Butler has recently published a paper in Archives of Disease in Childhood that considers all the GIDS patients seen since 2008 by the two endocrinology services that worked under the GIDS contract, University College Hospital London and Leeds Children’s Hospital. In total, excluding those who self-discharged, this amounted to 1089 patients. At discharge, aged eighteen, 91.7 per cent of these young people continued to identify as transgender or gender diverse. Most, though not all, had chosen to start puberty blockers and a small number had started and stopped. (This group of a thousand comprises about 20 per cent of the young people referred to and seen at GIDS in that period; the rest received various sorts of assessment and psychosocial support, but were not seen by the endocrinology services.)

There is indeed a US law firm advertising online for potential claimants, and the Times ran a story in August saying that ‘lawyers expect about 1000 families to join a medical negligence lawsuit alleging vulnerable children have been misdiagnosed and placed on a damaging medical pathway.’ The figure of a thousand would suggest that practically every GIDS patient who had ever been seen by endocrinology services in the last thirteen years would join this class action. Yet the story gave no indication of how many families had actually joined the suit. The Care Quality Commission, in its report of January 2021, noted that the feedback given by young people and families seen at GIDS was ‘overwhelmingly positive in terms of the care and support staff had provided’.

Bernadette Wren
London N19

Arianne Shahvisi asks ‘gender critical’ feminists to show how the ‘real-world effects’ of their views ‘differ from the effects of right-wing hatred’ (Letters, 22 September). A simple online search reveals principled opposition to discrimination, sexual violence and inequality on the part of the UK’s leading gender critical group, Woman’s Place UK. The vision of FiLiA, another prominent feminist group associated with gender critical positions, is ‘a world free from patriarchy where all women and girls are liberated’. Hardly ‘right-wing hatred’.

Shahvisi also misrepresents the position of an organisation she cites approvingly. She writes that last year, the Institute of Race Relations ‘warned that “gender critical feminists” are “peddling the far-right agenda”’. She neglects to mention the qualification at the end of the piece she is quoting: ‘The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.’

Richard Garside
London SE19

Keys to the World

‘Since at least the 15th century,’ Tom Stevenson writes, ‘naval strength has been a central component of national power’ (LRB, 8 September). A key factor in England’s naval superiority in the 15th century was the cost and efficacy of its cannon. Austrian bronze cannon were expensive compared to Sussex cast-iron cannon. The hardwood chestnut coppice woodlands of Sussex and Kent produced dense charcoal, which facilitated the high smelting temperatures needed to produce cannons that didn’t crack or shatter when fired. They also cooled quickly after being fired and could fire another cannonball within a quarter of an hour, while bronze cannons needed 45 minutes to cool down. So, in a side-by-side naval engagement a ship armed with English cast-iron cannon could fire off three shots in the time it took a ship with bronze cannon to fire one. The demand for English cannon boomed and Sussex ironmasters rose from social obscurity to positions of great wealth and status. Questions were asked in Parliament as to why we were selling cannon to the Dutch, the Spanish and other naval enemies. In reply, Sussex MPs highlighted the balance of payments and employment benefits of the cannon trade.

Craig Sams
Hastings, East Sussex

Better than It Sounds

Tom Stammers mentions that in the recent ENO Valkyrie ‘a fresh translation by John Deathridge replaced the hoary Victorian phrasing of William Ashton Ellis’ (LRB, 4 August). In fact the Victorian singing translations of The Ring were by Alfred Forman (1877, approved by Wagner but never performed), H. and F. Corder (in the 1880s) and Frederick Jameson (1899-1904), not Ashton Ellis, who translated the prose. There have of course been other translations since then. Andrew Porter’s, made for the ENO cycle of 1970-73, is usually regarded as the modern standard.

Paul Lawley
Exmouth, Devon

Bill Nye may have needed to be told that ‘Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,’ as Norbert Hirschhorn writes, but Mark Twain presumably reached this conclusion on the evidence of his own ears when he attended the Bayreuth Festival in the early 1890s (Letters, 8 September).

Roger Smith
London SE22

A Nation like Lava

Neal Ascherson remarks of Joshua Zimmerman’s biography of Marshal Piłsudski that ‘like his subject, Zimmerman takes little account of the economy’ (LRB, 8 September). In his memoirs, Jean Monnet recalled the final stage of the negotiation in 1927 on the stabilisation of the zloty and Piłsudski’s role at the dénouement.

After long negotiations in Paris and Washington, we reached an agreement putting the Polish economy on a sound footing … The central banks jointly guaranteed the parity of the zloty, which was stabilised by means of international loans … In my mind’s eye I can still see the final negotiations, which took place in the Polish president’s office. Marshal Piłsudski, in his tight grey military tunic ribbed with red, expostulated against our demands. He refused an interest rate of 7.5 per cent. We got up, ready to break off negotiations. ‘Wait a moment,’ he said. We sat down again. ‘Look,’ said Piłsudski, smiling, ‘surely you’ll let me have half a point for Wanda?’ Wanda was his daughter. The loan was agreed at 7 per cent.

Tom Hackett
London SW6

On the Slip Road

I have good news for Mike Jay (LRB, 23 June). I, a 24-year-old woman, hitchhiked to Wales and back from the Chiswick Roundabout on my own this past weekend. It took me two rides outbound and just one on the way back. I reckon I spent less than 45 minutes waiting for a ride on the whole trip. I’m not saying talk of the death of hitchhiking is premature – everyone who picked me up said they never saw hitchhikers these days – but I have given the dog a prod (with my thumb, of course) and there’s life in the old girl yet.

Nat Odgers
London NW5

Green Growth v. Degrowth

Geoff Mann, in his essay on ‘degrowth’, does not mention perhaps the most expedient means of bringing about a ‘slow down’ or ‘reversal’: co-operatives (LRB, 18 August). We have known for a long time that we have enough – more than enough. The question is how do we share? The Mondragon Corporation is a ‘co-operative of co-operatives’ in the Basque region of Spain, comprising 95 co-operatives and fourteen research and development centres. It was formed in 1956 when a group of engineers from the local metalworks broke off to create their own worker-owned factory, producing paraffin heaters and gas cookers. Mondragon’s industrial co-operatives still produce household appliances, and its partners now include insurance co-operatives, human resources co-operatives and other enterprises needed to constitute an economic ecosystem.

Mondragon’s principles are based on those of the Rochdale Pioneers. Each worker is a partial owner in the means of production, and cannot sell their shares; there are no outside shareholders. Each worker gets one vote in company decision-making, and is eligible for election to the board of directors. The highest-paid worker is paid no more than six times the wage of the lowest-paid worker. The result is a model of stable, equitable industrial development that hasn’t replaced the goal of communal wellbeing with the illusion of unlimited growth in GDP.

Renée Roden


Julian Barnes recalls that Mark Boxer, who struggled to draw hands satisfactorily, ‘would frequently solve the problem by having his subjects stuff them into their pockets’ (LRB, 18 August). There are other solutions: Charles M. Schulz produced a cartoon in which Linus, having drawn a man with his hands behind his back, is informed by Charlie Brown that he did so ‘because you yourself have feelings of insecurity’. Not so, Linus yells: ‘I did that because I myself can’t draw hands.’

Justin Horton
Huesca, Spain

Only Poets

Helen Thaventhiran mentions an occasion when Stephen Spender surprised T.S. Eliot with his ‘gastronomic panache’ (LRB, 8 September). In the 1960s Vigo Demant, then Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, told me he had once been at a party with Eliot, who sent out for ice cream and hot chocolate. Someone said to him, ‘I can’t imagine how you’d like that.’ Eliot replied: ‘Of course you can’t imagine it; you’re not a poet.’

Bernard Richards
Brasenose College, Oxford

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