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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”