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Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Adolfo Kaminsky by Sarah Kaminsky


On the internet there are numerous photographs which testify to the love Sarah Kaminsky felt for her father, Adolfo Kaminsky, who died in January 2023 aged 97. Her biography was published in France in 2018 and several translations have already been made. Sarah Kaminsky is the youngest of his children, born when Adolfo was in his fifties. Before then there were other children by other partners and then three by his last and longest-term parrtner, Leïla Kaminsky. As I read this book I lost track of how many partners and children there were in total but it’s clear enough that many were neglected. As a young man of nineteen, Adolfo is a handsome fellow in the photograph reproduced in the book; he remains handsome and well-groomed in the internet photographs of old age.

Sarah Kaminsky’s book is a monument to her father. It’s written as if by Adolfo, in the first person, and in the Prologue there is a sketch of what was involved in researching it: note-taking of conversations with her father; interviews with others. I read the book as if listening to a reliable narrator but then had doubts because the narrator built out of the research seems to have such perfect recall; more or less every narrative has a beginning, middle and end. Memory is just not that good. So it may be that the biography is more romanesque than it presents itself as being. It’s certainly a fascinating read and quite, quite different to another book by a forger previously reviewed on this site, Shaun Greenhalgh’s A Forger’s Tale (reviewed 19 July 2018). The aims, motives, satisfactions could not be more different except for the evident pride in technical accomplishment.

Another relevant book for comparison would be with Marie Jalowicz Simon Untergetaucht [Underground in Berlin] based on tape recordings made by her son towards the end of Marie’s life and narrating the life of a young Jewish woman living underground in Berlin during the War.

Adolfo Kaminsky was the child of Russian-Jewish emigrés of the leftist kind who sought refuge from the Bolsheviks in France, were expelled and made their way to Argentina (where Kaminsky was born) and then made their way back.  His parents reckoned they would be safe in rural France even after the Germans arrived in 1940; they weren’t. His mother was probably murdered by the Germans and the rest of the family ended up in Drancy bound for Auschwitz and only got out thanks to an intervention by the Argentinian consul - they still had Argentinian nationality.

Kaminsky began in his teens a thirty year career as a forger of false documents and worked first in the service of the French resistance, particularly those parts finding safe houses or escape routes for Jews. Later, he worked briefly for the immediate post-Liberation French security services and then for a long succession of liberation movements, notably the Algerian FLN, and for those fleeing repressive regimes. He retired from his always-unpaid work as forger in 1971 when he felt that he was about to be caught and go to prison. He produced false documents in prodigious quantities, dozens or more at a time, and not only French ones - forging Swiss passports was very satisfying because they were supposed to be the most highly protected against forgery. But he would only forge for those he believed to be morally and politically worthy of support. He tried to draw a firm line against organisations which used terrorist violence. That complicated his immediate post-war work for Zionist movements working to drive the British out of Palestine. One remarkable story in the book (pages 125-28) sees him agree to make the timer for a Stern gang (Lehi) bomb which will kill the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin. He makes the timer but with one special feature; it won't work. 

One must remember that the post-war France in which Kaminsky did most of his work was not a country of liberty, equality or fraternity but a repressive state more like those headed by Franco and Salazar and many of whose citizens were nostalgic for Vichy (and remain so to this day). A great deal of repressive violence was deployed, especially in Paris, where Maurice Papon became Chief of Police in 1958. He was eventually tried and convicted of wartime crimes against humanity - but not until 1998 when he was at the end of a highly successful police and political career spanning fifty years during which time he was directly responsible for the deaths of many innocent people, notably in the massacres of demonstrators in 1961 and 1962. To this day, it is unclear how many dead there were. See Papon’s Wkipedia entry.

Writing that about Paris, I remembered an occasion when I was invited to a private party (a small one) where the front door was opened not by the host but by his Security. The host, living in some Parisian banlieue, was from North Africa who even as late as 1971 might well receive unwelcome visitors. I forget the details and it’s pointless to speculate who invited me or why. Paris in 1971 is also the only place where I have ever been stopped and asked to show my papers to a police officer. I was walking back to my room from the cinema, late one evening. I was carrying my Carte de Séjour (it was obligatory to do so) and as he handed it back to me the officer saluted. I guess it helped to be English not North African.

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Do Good Books Get Published More by Luck than Judgment?

I read two or three books each week, cover to cover, of which maybe half are recently published and mostly from mainstream, major publishers. That’s partly because I pick up leads to new books from mainstream periodicals - principally The Literary ReviewThe London Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. The first two are conservative in their review choices; the TLS has become more adventurous under its current editor and notices a fair number of books from small and foreign language publishers.

For the past ten years I have posted reviews of some of my recently read books on this blog. They do not offer reader recommendations or puffs which a publisher might pick up for a paperback edition; I only review when I have something to say. That does mean that some books which I think are simply terrific don’t get a review. Most recently, that’s true of Edward Wilson-Lee’s A History of Water (William Collins 2022). I don’t have any of his expertise and I can’t see any way in which I could better the craft which turned his research findings into a fascinating tale.

I have read lots of good books and quite a few duds, often from the same publisher, and begin to wonder about explanations, especially for the bad ones. How do they get published? I can only speculate.

There are a very small number of books where at the end (I rarely give up) I just want to ask who the author is sleeping with.

Then there are books which will have gone through the VIP lane to get their contracts because the author is established in one way or another and sells well every time, regardless. The VIP lane is the route where you are simply waved through. I have a candidate for a bad book by a good author which surely got published regardless. And even if I am wrong about that, there are plenty of readers who will have experienced disappointment with the latest from a favourite author. Few enthusiasts for Ian McEwan will be enthusiastic about Amsterdam (Jonathan Cape 1998).

Most publishing is big business publishing. Sometimes readers are clear beneficiaries: rows of black-backed Penguin Classics on my shelves, cheap, carefully edited and reliable are evidence for that. I am very grateful. But sometimes, and perhaps especially for academic or semi-academic books where the print run will be small, a publisher can only afford a limited budget - that means, limited time - to assess a potential title. As a result, publishers are now in the habit of asking authors to fill out questionnaires as long as those required by the United Kingdom’s Home Office and if the authors game the questionnaire successfully then they are well on the way to get their visa. They have done a lot of work which used to be a publisher’s job. And if you are rubbish at filling up forms - and some of the questions are pretty inane - you won't get published however good your book. But if the paperwork is in order, you are well on your way.

Some years ago [5 March 2016] I responded here to Gerald Steinacher’s generally well-received Nazis on the Run (Oxford University Press 2011). The title alone would sell it, but the book is a mess. And, given its subject matter, I wish it hadn’t been. After trying to set out the historical context it is concerned with I ordered my criticisms:

First, it is less like a book and more like a notebook: lots of miscellaneous facts, disjointed, endlessly repetitive, the chronology erratic. I find it hard to believe that anyone at the English-language publisher, Oxford University Press, read the book before agreeing to publish it. Read it cover to cover, as I have done, and it is like reading the first draft of a Ph.D.

I then set out to show that it failed to present its evidence in a way which was decisive enough to justify the conclusions Steinacher drew or wanted to draw.  To put the book right would have taken a great deal of editorial labour. As it stands, the book should not have been published.

But then there is the opposite problem where a book has been spoilt by intrusive low-grade (and probably low-paid) editing which makes the author look a fool. I was first alerted to this problem when I read Tim Parks Where I'm Reading From reviewed here 22 February 2015 who described the appalling treatment accorded one of his books by an American publisher - I outline the problems he encountered. More recently, I found an example which indicates that Parks' case was not a one-off.

In 2020 Oxford University Press (USA) published a perfectly acceptable academic monograph with an eighteenth century focus, Richard Scholar’s Émigrés. French Words That Turned English though clearly Émigrés didn’t because it is being given two accents not one on the cover. Leave that aside (but it has potential….). I published a long review [28 October 2020].

One of the things which troubled me was some dumbing down which could only have been the responsibility of some dumbed-down copy-editor. Thus at page 114 I encountered this:

 The French-speaking Genevan thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) …..

Hang on a moment. This is a specialised monograph which will be read mainly by specialists in eighteenth century French and English literature. Which ones did the copy editor think would not know that M. Rousseau was French-speaking or Genevan or a thinker and writer?

It’s not always easy to make the right judgment call. But the copy editor who put their mark on this book disappears when perhaps more needed. So at page 162, the title of a sequence of poems is given in untranslated French with no gloss that the words are those which the French-speaking painter and all-round bad boy Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) inscribed on perhaps his most famous painting. Now that might have been rather more worthy of the editor’s skills. But how come it was missed? The answer is this: there is no proper name in the immediate vicinity of the poem to trigger the copy-editor’s little App which is limited to providing patter around proper names. Am I exaggerating? I rest my case with the first use of the App in the book, at page 80:

 playwrights such  as William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), for example, wrote history plays…

It could have been worse. He could have been English-speaking. But, still, Professor Scholar was ill-served by his publisher. Had Professor Scholar added those glosses himself  in a misguided attempt to make his book more accessible, an alert editor would have taken them out as out of keeping with the academic level of the book..







Tuesday, 17 January 2023

Running Scared: Dashes, Asterisks, Scare Quotes, Bunny Ears Quotes, Sensitivity Readers


Editors and publishers may not have lists but they know a word that they don’t want to see in print when they see it. One dodge employed by writers is to place a sanctionable word within what are usually called scare quotes. If challenged, they will say that they are mentioning the word, or quoting it, or using it ironically. This will sometimes save them from exclusion from polite society though at a price (I will come to that). But some words have always been judged too offensive to be safely contained within scare quotes and they just have to go or - at least - seem to go.

Before the First World War, an important role in novels was played by the dash giving us characters who declared Well, I’ll be d------- which satisfied the guardians of morals and left nothing to the imagination. In his Kim, published in 1901, Rudyard Kipling tried to be a bit more inventive and after decades of dashes inventiveness was sorely needed. Addressing the no-nonsense dowager Maharanee of Saharunpore, Kim declares “Mother, I owe my life to thee…..Ten thousands blessings upon thy house …” only to find his words indignantly rejected by the Maharanee because she wishes to be thanked as by a son not a priest. Kipling gives the rejection thus: “The house be unblessed! (It is impossible to give exactly the old lady’s word)”. The beauty of this is that it is far from certain that damned would have been the exact word. The Maharanee is a feisty character and, one suspects, could swear like a trooper and troopers - well, it is impossible to give exactly their words.

Someone who may or may not have been inventive gave us another dodge in the form of asterisks, carefully counted out. Unfortunately, there is such a paucity of very naughty words that asterisks are rarely more difficult to solve than kindergarten crossword puzzles. I am not sure that any literary journal would allow me examples, even one at the outer limits of complexity like m***********. The failure of asterisks to protect children, let alone adults, generated a new dodge, exemplified by The C-word and The N-word cleverly designed as occult symbols about the meaning of which the uninitiated dare not ask.

Fortunately, some words can safely be accommodated by scare quotes but that comes at a price, especially in relation to irony. A writer can, of course, use a word ironically without resorting to scarce quotes but some readers will not get the irony - a hazard known about for centuries. In the past, it was thought that scare quotes would rescue the writer from the risk of not being understood but, of course, they do so only at the risk of irritating IQ positive readers who will feel patronised. Worse, an unexpected invention has permanently damaged the value of scare quotes.

I refer to the visual realisation of scare quotes as air quotes or bunny-ears quotes. These are so obviously heavy-handed that they can only be handled safely by celebrities and Republican Party politicians: Google offers me images of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Ryan, and Donald Trump. That alone is enough to cast a shadow over regular scare quotes sometimes still used by writers. But I think scare quotes will soon become extinct in serious writing if they are not so already.

Writers are better off taking their chances that an irony will be missed and simply have to give a bit more thought as to how to carry things off. The best approach is to stop thinking about using individual words or short phrases ironically - which is all that Bunny Ears people do. Instead, the writer needs to set up a whole context in which irony can surface and break through into the reader’s understanding. Maybe someone has had that idea before.

Many pressures weigh on what can be expressed and what can’t declare its name. The pressures change through time but always seem to leave us with a morality police of some kind operating over all or part of literary space. In the very recent past, unemployed ex-Sunday school teachers have found new roles as sensitivity readers who are not fooled by scare quotes or contextualisation. Some of them work for literary consultancies - you have been warned. They can point straight at the Word just as once upon a time they pointed at the boy in the front row who had just farted..

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

David Graeber and David Wengrow The Dawn of Everything A New History of Humanity



 Ten years ago I reviewed David Graeber’s Debt on this site and declared it my Book of the Year, though that is a fact I had forgotten until I accessed what I had written:

The book now under review, jointly authored with the archaeologist David Wengrow, was completed a few weeks before David Graeber’s sudden-onset illness and unexpected death in 2020. Like the earlier book it is enormously wide-ranging, disruptive of settled notions, and engagingly written. I was impressed and greatly enjoyed it.

 A thumbnail will not do it justice so I will not struggle to find the most apt one. It seeks to re-fashion how we think about both the very distant past with which the archaeologist is concerned and the scattered “left-over” presents which are the concern of cultural anthropologists. Specifically, it tries to escape from the clutch of all those (teleological) approaches which assume that their job must be to explain how we got from there to here. At the same time, it suggests that despite lack of written evidence we should not assume that pre-historic or tribal cultures were incapable of thinking about the arrangements under which they lived and making use of that in configuring and changing them. At a level of  more detail, instead of going in search of “state formation” starting from our current situation in which the world is carved up into nation states we could usefully look at how at different times and places three principles of domination are exercised, either alone or in combination: “call them control of violence, control of information, and individual charisma” (page 365). This opens up a field normally dominated by thinking about monopoly of force or private property rights and allows us to see past societies and marginal societies in all their difference. The professors will soon tell us if they think this is or isn’t an insightful way of developing a new approach within social and political theory.

I offer only two small comments. The authors make much of the fact that pre-historic and tribal societies quite often live under different forms of government at different times of year. In the hunting season, everyone may submit to a single leader whose word is law; but in the off-season when people settle (back) into village-like life, everyone may prove very reluctant to submit to anyone else and indeed decision-making may be quite differently organised in terms of communal discussion aimed at consensus. The mere fact of this seasonal difference opens space for local reflection on which system is “best”. The authors seem to think that this will come as a surprise to readers. But most of them will have had recent experience of COVID lock-downs, some will have had experience of Martial Law, and in my country many will know about the Emergency Powers which in World War Two underpinned such things as the compulsory night-time blackout. In all these cases, people don’t move around geographically but the rules under which they live have been temporarily, but quite dramatically, changed. Except in the case of Martial Law, compliance may depend a lot on the sense that “We’re all in it together” as Britain’s former Prime Minister Mr Boris Johnson discovered to his cost. He let it be discovered that in his view COVID rules were only for the little people.

As a second comment, the authors frequently use concepts of culture, civilisation, state and society but I miss civil society. Civil society is something which is outside the private sphere of the family unit but also outside the state and its bureaucracy. It is larger than what Habermas and others would call the public sphere construed as a place for public debate and would include things like food banks which are created by the voluntary efforts of (private) citizens. The scale of civil society is variable - totalitarian regimes are deeply suspicious of it as a site of potential opposition and will seek to incorporate most of its elements into bureaucratically controlled state or quasi-state activities. In countries like my own there is also perhaps an interesting question about its boundaries. For example, food supermarkets might be located simply in the domain of capitalist enterprises, driven by the aim of profit maximisation and so on. But for whatever motives they do have aspects which link them to civil society: they give away food which might go to waste; they stock shelves with “Value” and “Essential” products which are cheaper and which increase in importance in periods of inflation and recession; they articulate discontent with government - in my country the Chairman of Tesco, a major supermarket chain, recently let it be known that he despaired of the Conservative (and supposedly business-oriented)  government and was looking forward to a new (Labour) one. I don’t want to be starry-eyed but I do think there is something to look at there a bit more closely. There is of course an enormous amount of guff pushed out about “socially responsible business” but maybe it does a bit more than blur the line between ”the Economy” and “Society”. I'm tempted to say that often enough it is civil society which mitigates the mistakes and oppression of nation state governments.




Tuesday, 1 November 2022

A Private Spy The Letters of John le Carré edited by Tim Cornwell


Browsing a provincial auction catalogue, some years ago, I noticed for sale an autograph letter signed David Cornwell on notepaper headed John le Carré. I was reading lots of le Carré at the time and, out of curiosity, bought the letter unseen. Forty quid. He writes to Stacey [there was no envelope so I have no surname] who appears to be laid up in hospital after an accident and asks for reading suggestions. The writer obliges: start with P G Wodehouse (“the funniest man ever”) and for fine writing head to Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, and Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. As if that’s not enough to be going on with, the writer then throws in The Three Musketeers and The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s all prefaced by advance notice for his The Mission Song, the galleys of which he is currently correcting. His full address in Cornwall is written in by hand and the letter dated 19:v:06. I was impressed. Stacey appeared to be a complete stranger who had written to a famous and almost certainly very busy author and received back a thoughtful, handwritten two-page reply.

In his Introduction to this very well-crafted collection of his father’s letters, the late Tim Cornwell indicates that his father was an (unusually) good correspondent, often replying to unsolicited mail and promptly (pages xxii-xxiii). He generally wrote by hand and often kept no copy. As a result, the le Carré archive in the Bodleian Library, on which this collection of over 600 pages is fairly dependent, will contain no trace of letters like that to Stacey and the deficit could really only be reduced by buying up such originals as appear on the internet, as they do. Sometimes the content will be of interest - as in the letter I have summarised - but, perhaps as importantly, those letters suggest what one could regard either as noblesse oblige or - and I incline to this - a rather democratic spirit. The latter interpretation is supported by what to me is the heartening fact that David Cornwell never accepted one of those tarnished medals handed out by our Monarch and which Woke novelists now declare after their names to show that they are Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It is not as if he was opposed to all recognition:  he accepted, for example, a Goethe Medal in 2011 and a D Litt from Oxford.

In the book under review, le Carré does give reasons for refusing a CBE on the recommendation of Margaret Thatcher but the letter (at pages 238-39) is written to the then Head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Dick Franks, and could be read as at least partly an effort to deflect any accusation of disloyalty to the Establishment. Much later, after le Carré has entertained the Russian Ambassador for a weekend at his home in Cornwall, he follows up with a report on the weekend addressed to Alan Judd, who has already been introduced in the editorial notes as a link-man into MI6/SIS (pages 387-396). Le Carré  expresses himself rather differently when writing to a friend, Sir John Margetson, in 2010: “PS. Did I tell you I passed on a K[knighthood]. All right for public servants, not good for artists, writers & the like”. (He’s right; I was disappointed when Kazuo Ishiguro accepted a K. Some way or other, it’s going to cramp your style).

In my own reading of le Carré’s novels I eventually got round to A Perfect Spy, wonderful on first read, not least because the narrative drive never lost out to a complex structure kept in place from start to finish. I was impressed enough to re-read and began to pick out literary devices which were being used but not pointed to. I found myself drawn to a one-liner attributed to a main character, “Never mind, E Weber love you always” which is repeated three times to great effect. I wrote a few hundred words about this and was quite pleased with the result. It occurred to me that I had John le Carré’s home address sitting in a file: I could send him what I’d written. It would be a bit cheeky: I would be evading the person in charge of the paper shredder in some literary agent’s office, employed to protect authors from crank letter-writers. But I sent it anyway.

To my astonishment, within a few days I had a handwritten reply (10th Feb 2017) in which I am told, rather teasingly, that I have caught something of the real person behind the character of E.Weber, “at her charming best”.

Writers do depend on encouragement, and I was encouraged to expand what I had written into a more sustained reflection on A Perfect Spy for inclusion in a book I was working on. And then I thought I’d go for broke: I wrote again to ask permission to include his letter in the body of my essay and, if he was in principle agreeable, to give me the necessary contact details for his agent etc.  Came the handwritten reply (25th July 2017), “…no need to trouble my agent: please regard this letter as consent enough”. And so the letter appears at pages 98-99 of my completely unsuccessful book, Prose Improvements (2017). I returned again to A Perfect Spy in a 2018 review on this site and, in contrast to my failed book, it’s one of the most popular pages here with over a thousand visitors.

The letters offered in the volume under review are to family, friends, lovers (though sparsely), secret and diplomatic service colleagues, fellow writers, agents, and so on. There are a handful addressed to what one might call members of the public: to Mrs Betty Quail who thinks that George Smiley’s problems would be solved by conversion to Catholicism (p 230); to a ten year old boy who wants to be a spy (p 281) and another to an eleven year old (p 359); to attentive readers in the Netherlands and Germany who have spotted plot impossibilities and inconsistencies (p 336, p 354) - the first one a beauty in which the Emperor is clearly caught with no clothes; le Carré is greatly amused and sends a signed hardback as a prize.

But these letters feel like curiosities alongside the more weighty correspondence, some of it providing useful grist for those who want to study plot and character and device in the novels. This is very obviously so in letters to Alec Guinness where le Carré is  clear and detailed about how he thinks George Smiley should be played (notably pages 211-15).

To my surprise, it was easy to read this book rather than pick up, put down, and basically browse.. A lot must be owing to the skills of the editor, le Carré’s son the late Tim Cornwell, who structures the book around the major novels and provides helpful, unassertive, notes of guidance. If there is a weakness it must (inevitably and invisibly) rest in the fact that the compilation is a family affair, approved by the family Estate, and appearing really very soon after le Carré’s death at the end of 2020.

Like father like son. I was struck by the similarities between father and son. Both display extraordinary energy, are on the move constantly (though le Carré likes to describe himself as a recluse in Cornwall - with a guest wing built to accommodate six …), and are good at making friends and influencing people. The difference, of course, is that Reggie was a career con-man criminal notching up jail sentences in several countries (not many criminals achieve that distinction) and losing his winnings every time, whereas le Carré amasses - and doesn’t lose, though sometimes gives away chunks -  a large fortune built entirely on his genius as a writer and the skill of his agents in selling film and TV rights.

There is hardly a page in the 630 pages of this collection of letters where the author is not busy, whether writing, travelling to dangerous places to do background research for a novel,promoting a new novel, or co-operating with scriptwriters, directors, producers. Both energy and achievement are extraordinary.


I will do my duty and make copies of the letters I mentioned at the beginning and post them to the archivist at the Bodleian.





Friday, 28 October 2022

Copyright in the Estate of William Shakespeare


The Works of William Shakespeare remain part of living cultures at least partly because there is no Estate of William Shakespeare. You can do what you like with Shakespeare and no one will appear to tell you that it’s going to cost or that under no circumstances may you cast a black actor as Hamlet. We are fortunate that Shakespeare was not born more recently, in which case he would surely join the ranks of those whose Estates are synonyms for rent extraction and cultural policing.

The Literary Estate Problem can be traced back to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the American Constitution “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. Well, that’s clear enough: a limited time is not an unlimited time. But is a limited time seven years, seventy years, or (watch out for Mr William Shakespeare’s lawful heirs & assigns) seven hundred years?

Theorists of intellectual property rights would probably like to go for perpetuity: a house can pass from heir to heir indefinitely and quite a number have done so ever since they were first built; the standing and success of English aristocratic families can be reckoned by how long they’ve not had to sell the house. If houses can pass on indefinitely, why not likewise copyright in the works of any writers who may have lived there?

The US Constitution implicitly blocks that argument and we may be grateful, though the block has occasionally been breached. The authors of the Constitution (who by the way claimed no copyright on their work) were working in the opposite direction, trying to create new rights where none or only very weak ones previously existed. So the intellectual property theorist, unable to sustain “perpetuity”, can simply focus on the interpretation of “limited times” and aim to make them long as possible.

How should one interpret "limited times"? One could start by asking if all cases are alike; intuitively they are not. Many technological developments (including pharmaceutical innovations) require enormous investments which will now only be made if there is a guaranteed period in which the exploitation of any successful innovation is protected by copyright and patent law. In contrast, I doubt that anyone has ever written a novel after careful assessment of local copyright law, and probably concluding, “Nah, the period is too short to make the labour of War and Peace worthwhile. But a little novella …”.

Some, maybe many, writers aspire to live by their pen (as John le Carré always liked to put it; he never typed so he was being accurate) and the aspiration seems legitimate but usually only realisable if there is some kind of copyright protection. An alternative model was pioneered in the Soviet Union where writers might aspire to collect a salary for their work rather than royalty payments, That’s what the Writers’ Union was all about and I doubt it is a model which now appeals to anyone. It’s true, we do pay writers salaries if they call themselves Academics but at the same time allowing them to collect royalties on what they write. Like NHS consultants, they end up working in both public and private sectors. This is most obviously true for those who work in university Creative Writing departments, the closest we get to the Soviet model.

The aspiration to make a living from writing might seem to suggest a clear interpretation to “limited times”: copyright protection would expire at death, when the writer can no longer aspire to anything.

But what about the widow? Or to modernise the question, What about the surviving partner? Well, normally, if there is a bread-winner then he or she is expected to make provision in their lifetime for anyone who may survive them and which will supplement or replace whatever state provision is on offer. Yes, but let’s be frank: writers rarely make a lot of money. They barely manage to make ends meet. But if you allow copyright to be inherited, a surviving partner at least gets something, though how much is unpredictable. And then when they die, the copyright expires.

Ah, but what about the writer who prefers to assign copyright to the dogs’ home? How long should it last then? In the case of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan here in the UK we have a special law, passed in Parliament, which grants Great Ormond Street Hospital copyright in perpetuity. But would you want to do that for your local dogs’ home? The trouble with the Barrie law (introduced by a former Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan when he had become Lord Callaghan) is that it sets a really bad precedent. Copyright gives you the right not only to ask for money but to dictate how a play may or may not be performed or a novel edited.

Except for that one case, then in current English law copyright expires seventy years after the death of the author. I don’t think that’s anything  more than  a triumph for rent extracting agencies, for corporations and lawyers. Is there any justification at all for it? I’m trying to think of some without much success. But let’s try.

If copyright expires at death then a publisher has less incentive to keep a work in print since anyone could now bring out a rival edition at a lower price. That seems a feeble argument, undermined by the fact that bookshops are full of cheap (and very well-edited) editions of the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, Jane Austen … In many case, there are indeed rival editions and an informed reader will know that some (Penguin Classics) are usually better than others. Publishers manage to claw back a bit of copyright protection by commissioning Introductions and Bibliographical apparatuses. That doesn’t really undermine the general principle that other editions of the core work are possible, no permission needed. The argument is even more feeble if it is supposed to keep works in print for another seventy years; it won’t. Most books simply go out of print for reasons entirely unconnected to copyright law. They die from lack of interest, that’s all.

Keeping interest alive is a real problem for publishers. It is partly solved by the happy accident that all serious writers realise that they have an obligation to leave behind a room full of juvenilia, unfinished works, and - best of all - hundreds and hundreds of Letters which have been carefully crafted (both ways: sender and receiver) to arouse interest, ideally scandalised and prurient. He was anti-semitic. She was lesbian. He beat his wife. She fucked everyone. A serious Literary Estate will command enough resources to appoint researchers and editors who can convert this base metal into the gold of must-read hardbacks which, as an additional benefit to the Estate, lead some readers to the original poems, novels, and plays. How widely read would Bloomsbury’s authors be now without the Letters?

It’s a problem that the State is not neutral about the desirability of all this. It has a stake in extended copyright: governments collect tax on the income of Estates whose activities contribute to overall GDP. It’s as if the writer is still busy writing after death, generating income, jobs, and taxes. I hesitate to mention this benefit to the State because someone at my local UK Treasury is now going to make the case for creating an Estate of William Shakespeare: nationalising it and collecting bucketloads of money on copyright permissions - as well as forbidding any interpretations of Shakespeare which might imply criticism of the Ruling Party (“To be Prime Minister, or not to be Prime Minister. That is this week’s question”).

I’ll stop there (1282 words showing) and conclude that it would be a progressive move  to campaign for a reduction in the standard period of literary copyright. In place of seventy years I propose seven years - enough time to fund heirs and executors as they set about tidying up the affairs of a deceased writer.