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People with two nationalities should be feted, not mistrusted

Originally published at on Thursday, 17 August 2017, 2:47:36 pm UTC

AUSTRALIA’S constitution has plenty of unfortunate clauses: the one allowing states to bar particular races from voting is especially distasteful, even though none does. But until last month few would have pointed to Section 44 as the cause of a political furore. It states that members of the federal parliament must not be “under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power”. More specifically, they must not be a “subject or citizen” of a foreign country.

That seems clear enough, yet so far half a dozen members of parliament have been found to have broken the rule. Two senators resigned in July, having discovered that they were still citizens of countries from which they had emigrated as infants. The most recent MP to be rumbled, Barnaby Joyce, the tub-thumpingly patriotic deputy prime minister, is considered a citizen by New Zealand, since his father was born there. The fate of the government may hang on whether he is forced to resign (see...

How to improve NAFTA

Originally published at on Thursday, 17 August 2017, 2:47:36 pm UTC

IN 1994 America’s economy was barely three years into its longest post-war expansion. Oil production fell to its lowest level for 40 years. Shares in a Steve Jobs-less Apple could be picked up for little more than a dollar; Jeff Bezos left his job at a hedge fund to set up a new kind of retailer, after learning of the fast-growing use of the internet. At the start of that year the North America Free-Trade Agreement came into force. It committed America, Canada and Mexico to eliminate most of the tariffs on goods between them within a decade.

NAFTA was controversial from the start. Its critics have grown louder over time, despite its success in boosting trade and investment. Weeks before his election as president, Donald Trump called NAFTA “the worst trade deal maybe ever” and said he would junk it. In April he relented: a realisation that lots of Trump-voting states rely heavily on trade with Mexico and Canada may have swayed him. Instead, on August 16th, trade...

English folk song, a great tradition

Originally published at on Thursday, 17 August 2017, 2:47:32 pm UTC

Folk Song in England. By Steve Roud. Faber & Faber; 764 pages; £25. To be published in America in September; $29.95.

ENGLAND, the Germans used to jeer, was “the land without music”. They were wrong, as Steve Roud robustly demonstrates in “Folk Song in England”. Surveying English musical life from the time of Henry VIII—a keen musician and composer—to the mid-20th century, when folk song lost its roots, he shows what an intensely musical land England has been.

Mr Roud makes no inflated claims for folk song. It is not “better” than classical music because it is “of the people”, he argues, nor is it an antidote for modern ills caused by urbanisation and commercialisation. Nor did it emerge pure and undefiled. Most songs were written not by ploughboys or milkmaids but by professionals, and many were first heard from the stage, or in the pub or music-hall. But from there they made their way to the ploughboys and milkmaids, and through them...


Originally published at on Thursday, 17 August 2017, 2:47:32 pm UTC

Lane Greene, who writes the Johnson column, has been given the Journalism Award of the Linguistic Society of America

Humankind’s odd need to catch sharks

Originally published at on Thursday, 17 August 2017, 2:47:32 pm UTC

Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean. By Morten Stroksnes. Translated by Tiina Nunnally. Knopf; 320 pages; $26.95. Jonathan Cape; £12.99.

GREENLAND sharks cannot help but capture the imagination. These primeval inhabitants of the deep, icy waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans can live to 400, possibly even 500 years old, are cigar shaped, and often have worm-like parasites on their luminous eyes that are said to hypnotise their prey. Their bodies are covered with razor-like “skin teeth” and their meat contains a toxin; people who eat it start to hallucinate, become incoherent and stagger around, becoming “shark drunk”.

In his book of the same name Morten Stroksnes, a Norwegian writer, recalls how he and his friend Hugo Aasjord attempted to catch one of these, the largest species of flesh-eating shark, from a small rubber dinghy in the Lofoten archipelago. The book was a...

Peter Stamm, looking just beneath the surface

Originally published at on Thursday, 17 August 2017, 2:47:32 pm UTC

ONE warm day in July, Peter Stamm was hiking with your correspondent high in the Swiss Alps. Just below a peak called the Silberen, he came to a stretch of dirty snow clinging to the mountain despite the summer heat. Mr Stamm went first, stepping gingerly. Halfway across his left foot began to sink, then his right. Suddenly his whole body plunged through the surface until just his head and shoulders were visible. It was only when he had clambered out that he realised how lucky he had been: his feet had caught on the rocky shaft of a deep sinkhole hidden beneath. “That was so stupid,” he said, shaking the snow from his trousers.

He should have known better. This 2,300-metre mountain is the high point of his new novel, “To the Back of Beyond” (published by Granta in Britain in August, and by Other Press in America in October). It is here that his protagonist, Thomas, ends up one afternoon as bad weather blows in, navigating the bare limestone karst which is cracked all over with deep crevasses, grikes and runnels—a “labyrinth of rock”, Mr Stamm writes, where “even if he should find a path, he would still be lost.”

“To the Back of Beyond” is the Swiss novelist’s sixth and strangest novel. Mr Stamm, shortlisted for the Man Booker...

A remarkable account of the 2011 tsunami in Japan

Originally published at on Thursday, 17 August 2017, 2:47:32 pm UTC

Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone. By Richard Lloyd Parry. Jonathan Cape, 276 pages, £16.99. To be published in America by Farrah, Straus and Giroux in October; $27.

AT 2.46pm on March 11th 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 was recorded approximately 30km (18 miles) below the floor of the Pacific Ocean off Sendai, about 300km north-east of Tokyo. It was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded to have hit Japan, and scientists later determined that movement in the same subduction zone caused the “Jogan quake” of 869, as well as related activity in 1896 and 1933. Like the recent “Great East Japan Earthquake”, as it has become known, that ancient earthquake more than a millennium ago generated a monster tsunami in its wake. Not having the precise instruments that recorded 40-metre-high waves in 2011, villagers in centuries past have placed stone markers along the hillsides roundabout to show how far the wall of water swept...

When thoughts often turn to death

Originally published at on Thursday, 17 August 2017, 2:47:32 pm UTC

Every Third Thought: On Life, Death and the Endgame. By Robert McCrum. Picador; 256 pages; £14.99.

IN 1995, aged only 42, Robert McCrum had a severe stroke—an experience that he memorably chronicled in “My Year Off” with the help of Sarah Lyall, whom he had married just two months before his sudden misfortune. Despite an impressive recovery, Mr McCrum, a British publisher and the former literary editor of the Observer, has lived ever since “in the shadow of death”.

The shadow deepened when, in 2014, after he and Ms Lyall separated, a fall in a London street brought a psychological shift: a sense of having entered life’s endgame. His new book—which takes its title from Prospero’s words in “The Tempest”, “Every third thought shall be my grave”—is an unflinching exploration of his own mortality and that of other people. It draws on personal experience, the testimony of friends, the works of...

The construction industry’s productivity problem

Originally published at on Thursday, 17 August 2017, 2:47:32 pm UTC

EVER since the financial crisis, the world has been plagued by weak productivity growth. One explanation is that in uncertain times firms are keener to take more people on to the payroll than to invest heavily in new equipment. The construction industry has been afflicted by such problems for decades. Since 1995 the global average value-added per hour has grown at around a quarter of the rate in manufacturing. According to McKinsey, a consultancy, no industry has done worse.

Things are especially dismal in rich countries. In France and Italy productivity per hour has fallen by about a sixth. Germany and Japan have seen almost no growth. America is even worse: there, productivity in construction has plunged by half since the late 1960s. This is no trifling matter. The building trade is worth $10trn each year, or 13% of world output. If its productivity growth had matched that of manufacturing in the past 20 years, the world would be $1.6trn better off each year.

One source...

Britain is slowly moving towards accepting harsh truths about Brexit

Originally published at on Thursday, 17 August 2017, 2:47:32 pm UTC

FOR months, as the clock has ticked towards a two-year deadline for Britain to leave the European Union in March 2019, Theresa May’s government has been criticised for being ill-prepared, divided and unrealistic in its approach to Brexit. And rightly so. However, this week it took a belated step towards reality in the first two of a series of Brexit papers, on future customs arrangements and on Northern Ireland. It accepted explicitly, for the first time, that a temporary transition, or interim period, will be necessary to avert a damaging cliff-edge exit in March 2019, and that in this interim period Britain should be in a customs union with the EU.

That is a big step forward. It is all the more surprising, because it came just days after Philip Hammond, the chancellor, and Liam Fox, the trade secretary, promised in a newspaper article that, even in an interim period, Britain would be out of the EU’s single market and customs union. The official Brexit paper acknowledges that this...