Stunned as a drug mule

My eyelid spasm seems to have cleared up, my noddy head tick is abating and I now have only the dear

Okay, if a B&B shower has a switch and two dials, would you also expect a toggle? – a secret, unfindable toggle? - to be involved in producing hot water and therefore preventing hypothermia and/or trench foot? I’m just asking – nothing to with my life, or the fact that I can have no sensation below the knee.

Dear reader, what can I say ? It’s been a busy fortnight. Two telly things, three radio things, two tent-based readings and an amount of travel that would stun a drug mule. Although, for those of you who are interested, my eyelid spasm seems to have cleared up, my noddy head tick is abating and I now have only the dearlordspareme head shaking manoeuvre – which sadly often intervenes just when someone is asking, “Would you enjoy more pudding?” or “Can you take these spare crates of Pringles?” or “Should I put my hand here and insert tab 3b into slot 6?”

As intelligent and comely folk you’ll realise that being a writer doesn’t just involve sitting alone in a tower crafted out of endangered species and scribbling. We now have to be physically manifest. This reminds our publishers we exist and assists our little books in going out and prospering. It is, of course, very pleasant for a turnip like myself to end up having media conversations with grand people like Chris Smith and Naomi Klein and Shashi Tharoor and Mariella Frostrup – all of whom were entirely pleasant - unless I suddenly recall that I’m a turnip and have to stab myself with a fork to prevent laughter and/or fainting from compromising my performance. If I think of myself as representative of sensible people I know, then I can feel I’m on steady ground and not either suffer from an absurdity-induced migraine or disappear up my own importance. Although that last sentence may indicate I already have. And occasionally I get to bang on about allowing people to enjoy the arts, get near the arts, or just be able to read a book if they want.

The festival scene feels much more familiar – if no less unreal. Charlestone was lovely: insightful and charming audience – some with fetching hats - sunshine in the garden, the welcoming big house to peer at while wondering how the Bloomsbury Set ever got any writing or painting done, given their apparently insatiable need to jump whatever they fancied. My admiration for J. Maynard Keynes is only increased by the knowledge that he undoubtedly developed some of his ideas while any number of people were humping his leg like ill-disciplined beagles.

And then on to Hay-on-Wye, the mystery shower toggle and the usual joy of sipping tea while adrift in a quagmire. I can see my breath – it’s May and I can see my breath. I’m still breathing? Oh look, there’s Jimmy Carter – shorter than I’d imagined. I imagined Jimmy Carter ? When ?

Well done to all three of the Hay audiences I encountered from 8.30 am to 8.30 pm – and all of the others who made it through - huddled there, listening and giggling and sneezing. The ability of British people to support literature, in spite of a virtual media blackout on matters bookish and in the face of long-distance travel, floods, tempests and shuddering tents never fails to inspire me. Hay and its many subsections is, of course, famous for paying most participants with things, rather than money. The effect is much the same as finding a number of quite affluent strangers have guessed what you’d like for your birthday – vaguely charming and yet…

You can see AL Kennedy in action at the Edinburgh Festival

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.