Smoking Kurt Cobain

Hermetic America? Nobel Prize controversy

Nobel Prize judge Horace Engdahl’s criticism of American literature this week has incensed the literary world. His claims that American novels were ‘too isolated, too insular’ merited no more than a one-word response from author Giles Foden, and Harvard Professor Werner Sollors, specialist in American literature, complained of Engdahl’s ‘historical and literary myopia’.

But perhaps Engdahl has a point – or more of a point, at least, than Foden’s angry ‘Bullshit!’ allows.

Professor Sollors points out that 'European bookstores are filled with works by American authors’. And yet, the same cannot be said for the fate of European novels in America. Of the 185,000 books printed in English in the United States in 2004, only 874 were adult literature in translation – a discrepancy that Salman Rushdie has called ‘shocking’. The lack of foreign literature in the States has been described by Brooklyn-based writer Paul Auster as ‘the great tragedy of American publishing’, and one French publishing magnate speaking in the Telegraph this week agrees: ‘It is true that American publishers rarely buy books in translation from foreign languages. That is to America's shame and also its loss.’

However, Philip Roth, the Nobel’s eternal bridesmaid, need not give up on his chances this year yet. ‘It is of no importance, when we judge American candidates, how any of us views American literature as a whole in comparison with other literatures,’ Engdahl has since added.

The Devil's party

John Milton will turn 400 on December 9th, and the Williamsburg Art and Historical Centre in Brooklyn celebrated last Saturday with the Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball. Revellers were promised an evening ‘as sinfully delicious as “Man’s first disobedience” and the most fabulous extravaganza since Adam & Eve had to cover their nakedness!’

Music was provided by the JC Hopkins Biggish Swing Band, but surely a better choice would have been Philadelphia rockers Milton and the Devil’s Party. Formed by two English professors with a penchant for the Eagles, the Blake-inspired band are currently touring to promote their new album, How Wicked We’ve Become. They excitedly announce the poet’s birthday on their Myspace page: ‘Milton turns 400 this December! So, the rock band he incorporeally fronts is dedicating all its 2008 shows to everybody's favorite Puritan pariah!’

Kurt Cobain smoked in spliff, released into ether. (Apparently.)

If your funds don’t stretch to the $500-a-ticket Obama benefit concert and the thought of Maroon5’s contribution to the Campaign CD is already giving you nightmares, you might want to head down to Baron’s Court Theatre in London for The Obama Musical instead. Written by campaign member Teddy Hayes, it promises a comic behind-the-scenes look at the presidential race to the sounds of jazz, gospel, pop and soft rock. Listen out for the song ‘Obama and Me’, in which a particularly devoted team member comes out with the couplet: ‘We are a pair / Like chocolate and éclair.’

Elsewhere, artist Natascha Stellmach has announced that she will smoke a spliff allegedly containing the ashes of Kurt Cobain at the close of her current exhibition. ‘This final act,’ Stellmach said, ‘aims to release Cobain from the media circus and into the ether.’ Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, reported the theft of her husband’s ashes earlier this year, but was quick to retract her statement on hearing about Stellmach’s plans.

Less morbidly, but no less confusingly, performance artist Mark McGowan ‘rowed’ through the streets of London on Thursday in a raft made from recycled plastic bottles and rollerskate wheels, in a bid to convince people to drink tap water rather than bottled water. This is a more conservative effort than usual from McGowan, who has always worked in mysterious ways: he has been known in the past to eat corgis to promote vegetarianism, and catapult the elderly in ‘space capsules’ to promote pensioners’ rights.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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