Vol. 42 No. 18 · 24 September 2020

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Travellin’ Home

In his account of a copyright infringement action involving the Vera Lynn song ‘Travellin’ Home’, Stephen Sedley quotes from the judgment of Mr Justice Cross, which refers to ‘the third defendant, Alex Masters, who is commonly known as Jack Fishman, and is a songwriter’ (LRB, 16 July). This will have been an embarrassment to Fishman, who was at that time a political journalist with a particular interest in intelligence work. He feared that if people found out that he was a successful Tin Pan Alley songwriter he wouldn’t be taken seriously as a journalist. Alex Masters was one of the pen names he used. Another was Larry Kahn, but that cover was blown when he won the inaugural Ivor Novello Award in 1955 for the song ‘Everywhere’. He had to send a stand-in to collect the award.

A few years later Fishman was responsible for exposing Kim Philby as a Russian agent. English libel law prevented him from identifying him in the UK so he persuaded two American journalist friends to break the story in the US. The matter was then raised under parliamentary privilege in the House of Commons, which made reporting in the UK possible.

After the ‘Travellin’ Home’ trial Fishman stopped writing songs for a while. He wrote a number of successful books including The Seven Men of Spandau, a Life of Joseph Stalin and a bestselling biography of Clementine Churchill. In 1964 he acquired the literary tie-in rights to the US television series The Man from UNCLE and was responsible for editing and co-publishing its many related books. At the end of the 1960s he returned to songwriting and was responsible for several hits, including ‘If Paradise Is Half as Nice’. He collaborated with a number of composers, including Ron Goodwin, Ennio Morricone and Maurice Jarre, and worked with Roy Budd on the theme songs for Soldier Blue and Get Carter.

When I met Jack in the 1980s, he was working as music supervisor for the Cannon Group, a big player in the British film industry. He was a canny operator. In the opening scenes of Superman IV, a Russian cosmonaut is floating in space, struggling to repair the outside of his spacecraft. As he works, he sings a Russian version of the Sinatra classic ‘My Way’. The cost of acquiring the rights to one of the most famous lyrics of all time far exceeded the sum available in the music budget. But Jack knew that the American lyrics were a cover version of the French song ‘Comme d’habitude’. He suggested that instead of buying the rights to use the American lyrics, it would be cheaper to make a new Russian-language cover version to accompany the original French music. He figured that so long as the words weren’t a translation of ‘I did it my way’ it didn’t matter what they actually were, since any English-speaking viewer would automatically infer the words to ‘My Way’ from the tune alone.

Michael Henry
London SE15

Stephen Sedley’s piece reminded me of another contest over copyright just a few years later. On Led Zeppelin’s first album, released in 1969, ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ fades straight into ‘Black Mountain Side’, an acoustic guitar number by Jimmy Page with an Eastern feel. The melody, however, is clearly that of ‘Black Waterside’, a traditional folk tune recorded by Bert Jansch less than three years earlier. His record label, Transatlantic, wrote to Atlantic Records to complain, but was rebuffed.

Transatlantic didn’t sue, however. Its barrister, John Mummery QC, advised that while they might well be able to prove that Page 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 the 1950s another folklorist, Peter Kennedy, had made two field recordings of rural Irish women singing it, which were stored at the BBC and at Cecil Sharp House.

The story is told in Colin Harper’s excellent biography of Jansch, Dazzling Stranger (2006). Harper quotes Nat Joseph, who founded Transatlantic: ‘Almost any “traditional” song that somebody does an arrangement of, somebody will have done something vaguely similar before. The difficulty appears to be one of really establishing, among hundreds of arrangers, who it was that made the arrangement “original”.’

Charles Siegel
Dallas, Texas

The Prime Minister’s Mother

As an undergraduate at Oxford, Wynford Hicks was indeed the noble figure, with golden locks and a flowing beard, remembered by Charlotte Johnson in her interview with Tatler (LRB, 10 September). I vividly remember the moment when he got up to interrupt the Liberal politician Jeremy Thorpe, who was speaking in a debate at the Oxford Union. Quick as a flash, Thorpe acknowledged him with the words: ‘I am so glad you could get here from Oberammergau to be with us this evening.’

Robert Skidelsky
London SW1

The Suitcase

Frances Stonor Saunders mentions her cousin Katya’s tart dismissal of ‘a princess, Someone-Metternich, who had escaped (from what, I did not know) with a wheelbarrow filled with her jewels’ (LRB, 30 July). Tatiana Metternich deserves better. In 2004 I spent some days with her in Johannisberg revising her memoir, which had just been published in Russia to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. Her epic trek in May 1945 from Königswart, her husband’s estate near the northern Czech frontier with Germany, to Johannisberg, his Schloss high above the Rhine, twenty miles or so from Frankfurt, was made as the Germans retreated and the Russians advanced through the Bohemian Corridor.

Tatiana, along with her husband, his parents and nine French soldiers, left in great secrecy, assisted by a large farm cart, two dray horses and a vast amount of hay, travelling the byways to the German border in constant fear of discovery. Her jewels were in a small leather shoe bag, tied under her khaki blouse.

David Elliott
London NW6

Frances Stonor Saunders writes that in September 1940 King Carol of Romania ‘crossed the border into Hungary at Temesvár, which had been Timișoara only a week before’ (LRB, 13 August). In fact, then as now, my mother’s home town remained Timișoara. Hitler awarded only the northern Banat to Hungary, where towns indeed switched from Romanian to Hungarian names. My own Arad also remained Romanian, to my great good fortune, since genocide was systematic among the Hungarians.

Edward Luttwak
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Biden Tries Again

Christian Lorentzen writes that the Democratic National Convention trumpeted Joe Biden’s ‘authorship of the 1994 Violence against Women Act’ while ‘his role as architect of the 1994 Crime Bill was ‘not part of the programme’ (LRB, 10 September). The Violence against Women Act was not distinct from the Crime Bill but an integral part of it. Lorentzen notes Bernie Sanders’s opposition, in 1991, to many of the proposals that the Crime Bill codified, but omits to mention that in 1994 he voted in favour of it. Sanders has subsequently cited the inclusion of the VAWA as his reason for voting for the overall bill, on the rather Bidenian principle that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

Keshava Guha
New Delhi

Natural Gas v. Nuclear Power

Tom Stevenson writes that natural gas is safer than nuclear power (LRB, 10 September). This is not so. Taking into account the effects of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on climate and air pollution on health, Nasa’s climate agency has found that nuclear power is safer than fossil fuels by an order of magnitude, even taking into account such disasters as Fukushima. According to a report at climate.nasa.gov, ‘although natural gas burning emits fewer fatal pollutants and GHGs than coal burning, it is far deadlier than nuclear power, causing about forty times more deaths per unit electric energy produced.’ Neither should the risks of extracting fossil fuels be underplayed. The American Geosciences Institute reports that, in the US alone, more than a thousand workers were killed in oil and gas extraction operations between 2007 and 2016, a fatality rate six times higher than the average for all US workers.

Matt Stratford
London SE9

Tom Stevenson highlights Thane Gustafson’s observation that Germany’s post-Fukushima retreat from nuclear power has increased its reliance on Russian gas. There has been a parallel increase in German coal consumption, estimated by the National Bureau for Economic Research to be causing 1100 extra deaths annually from air pollution.

Stephen McLellan

He, She, One, They

Yih Lerh Huang writes that a single Chinese character, ta, serves for she/he/they/her/him/them (Letters, 30 July). It is helpful to be reminded that things which appear of fundamental importance in making one’s own language function have little significance in others. When my Mexican friend speaks English, she thinks of the possessive pronoun as an adjective, so is inclined to make its gender agree with the noun it modifies. ‘Her daughter’ and ‘his son’ could both belong to the same person, who could be either father or mother. Of course I make the opposite mistake when trying to speak Spanish.

Ian West
Banbury, Oxfordshire

Serge and Trotsky

Raymond Aronson’s comment on the correct medical terms to use in describing Victor Serge’s death brought to mind W.G. Sebald, accounts of whose death invariably state that he was ‘killed in a car accident’ (Letters, 10 September). As the coroner’s report revealed, Sebald had in fact suffered an aneurysm. He died at the wheel of his car, which then swerved into oncoming traffic, colliding with a lorry.

Christopher Goulding
Newcastle upon Tyne


George Townsend mentions John Henry Newman’s taking a cold bath at Holywell in Oxford in 1818 (Letters, 13 August). It’s worth noting that this will have had nothing to do with washing, but had a medicinal purpose. It was a relic of the 18th-century belief that a plunge into a cold bath every morning would ‘chill the nerves, compress the juices, invigorate the spirits and stimulate the digestion’, as John Floyer put it at the turn of the 18th century in his history of cold bathing. Floyer pointed out that the success of the Roman Empire owed much to the Romans’ use of cold baths.

My father-in-law, Russell Meiggs, was praefectus of Holywell Manor, the Balliol annexe, between 1945 and 1969. I remember him telling visitors that the pit below the grille just inside the garden gate was the site of the holy well, later converted to a cold bath. He used to swim in the freezing Cherwell in winter.

Barry Williamson

A Girl Called Retina

Tom Crewe’s mention of an unexpected girl’s name – Retina – reminded me of an awkward episode in my father’s ecclesiastical career (LRB, 13 August). In 1940, as the new young vicar of a country parish in the Midlands, he was approached by a wide-eyed couple who wanted him to conduct the christening of their new baby daughter. After much thought, they had finally lighted on a name they loved the sound of: Vagina. How my father, while keeping a straight face, summoned the skill to steer them towards the alternative Regina I find difficult to imagine.

Inigo Kilborn
Collobrières, France

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