Culture - Issue 32 - Magazine | Monocle

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How to say sorry (and look like you mean it)

Performed impeccably, the public apology is an opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and, for the media, the devil’s in the detail.

By Robert Bound

Back in 1976, Elton John – perhaps without realising it – was surfing the zeitgeist, boring down into the magma of human experience, telling it like it was. “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”, a hit single in November that year, contritely crooned of a more reserved age when, despite Watergate fallout, public apologies were rare, when “sorry” was tricky. While journalism was investigative and the media was mobilised for the big story, Bishops’n’Tarts was (post Profumo) beginning to assert itself as hack catnip. But the news, mostly, was a service – an entity that felt it should serve its readers, viewers and listeners with matters of fact rather than stewing scandal and fanning outrage. Popular appetite for public apology had not yet been taught. Mediated, internationalised, choreographed remorse was not yet a thing.

Now, though, look at Tiger, Clinton, Letterman and Arnie and remember loveable English Hugh on Tonight with Jay Leno after the ticking-off for the sucking-off. Now “sorry” seems to be the smartest move after the dumbest mistake. Not as good as trophies or being the leader of the free world or transforming yourself from an Austrian bodybuilder to an American actor to the governor of the world’s fifth largest economy, but sorry’s much better than a retreat into silence. Silence being the enemy of fame.

The famous, of course, can’t just say sorry; the famous have to wait for the apparatus – the stage and the script and the costume – to be sorted before they can swallow hard, shuffle their prepared statement, look the camera in the eye and really be sorry in front of everyone. Private contrition might be spontaneous, heartfelt and cliché-free but the public apology is the province of physical and facial micromanagement – the territory of the actor.

Words-wise, some people, like Woods, actually say “I’m sorry”, others go down the “I would like to apologise” route. The former is better, the latter is still just a prefix to an apology rather than an apology itself; it’s foreplay.

Stage-wise, a dull room is best. Don’t have your Oscars in the background, don’t flaunt pictures of your happy family in the foreground, don’t give viewers an eyeful of pool, palm tree or vineyard through your French windows. Synthesize smallness (use the downstairs loo perhaps) and look deflated but not defeated – allow for phoenix possibility. Woods looked big but not tough like he does on the course. His weirdly cap-less head of hair was thinning. His clothes bore no logo. For Clinton there were no stars and stripes, for Letterman a quiet tie and no drum-rolled punchline. “Sorry,” they seemed to say, before they’d said it.

But all the time, they’re playing to the gallery by not playing to the gallery and we’re watching them do it. It’s a sad situation and it’s getting more and more absurd. Especially the bit about Buddhism.



Dreams in a Time of War
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

This childhood memoir takes us back to late 1930s Kenya, torn by political and social changes. As the fifth child of his father’s third wife in a family of 24 children, Ngugi tells the eventful and entertaining story of a childhood lived under colonialism and war. With its unexpected twists and numerous references to western culture and literature, the narrative delivers an original take on this important period in Kenya’s development.


Apathy for the Devil

Nick Kent

Nick Kent wasn’t the British Lester Bangs but he is a great quill-wielding troubadour in his own right (the British Nick Kent, if anything). Sixteen years after his The Dark Stuff detailed rock’s luridity and his unsqueamish Stones lore earned his “Cooler than Keef” piss-take of a nickname, Kent returns with a rangier index of musical scandal starring the 1970s luminaries at the height of their lows. Lived “in an advanced state of chemical refreshment” but recounted cleanly and unruefully, Kent’s memoirs sing.


Point Omega

Don DeLillo

Set in the desert retreat of former war consultant Richard Elster, DeLillo’s latest novel-cum-philosophical tract pulls no punches in its exposé of America’s post-Iraq moral bankruptcy. With a tiny cast consisting of Elster, his daughter Jessie and a young documentary maker who wants to capture Elster’s story, Point Omega gives a claustrophobic glimpse into DeLillo’s vision of America as a media-saturated thought-vacuum.


A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma

Emilie Bickerton

The film industry may be dominated by the excesses of Hollywood and Bollywood, but Bickerton’s masterful account of the rise and fall (and rise?) of the cult magazine Cahiers du Cinéma takes the reader back to an era when film was struggling to establish itself as the “seventh art”. Championing the likes of Hitchcock, Hawks and Preminger, Cahiers was an influential voice in 20th-century artistic production and this book looks behind the scenes at the people and politics that drove it.

Social history


Greg Grandin

Reading like fiction, Fordlandia recounts Henry Ford’s contribution to a long history of botched Amazonian adventure in industrialism. Wanting to grow his own rubber for auto production, Ford opted to buy up a 12,949 sq km tract of land in the Brazilian Amazon, ship out some manpower from Michigan and force feed Puritan philosophy, while attempting to create an American suburban utopia in the jungle. Well, it was a monumental and fascinating failure.



Director: Christian Carion

The Farewell affair put paid to the KGB’s extensive network of spies in the West and was vital to ending the Cold War. But, as shown in Carion’s subtly gripping retelling, it also deeply affected the Muscovite colonel and French engineer who exchanged the key intelligence. Among the many highlights is Willem Dafoe’s performance as a (restrained) CIA director.


The Ghost

Director: Roman Polanski

A public figure with an allegedly murky past under self-imposed house arrest? This isn’t really Polanski’s art imitating life. The film of Robert Harris’s thriller follows ghost writer Ewan McGregor, who delves into the dangerous past of Pierce Brosnan’s Blair-ish ex-PM and finds more than spliffs and girls. Often implausible but always entertaining, this Hitchcock pastiche moves so fast you can’t feel the bumps.




Despite the English boarding- school-sounding nickname, Jón Thor Birgisson encounters no further handicaps on his maiden solo voyage sans Sigur Rós. The band’s mysterious loops, gunning percussion, sawing string section and fragile vocals are joined by something major chord and positive – pop. Jónsi also makes friends with choruses, sending our hearts a-flutter.


Diane Birch

Bible Belt

The daughter of an itinerant pastor, Birch skipped from Zimbabwe to South Africa to Australia before settling in LA. This debut of addictive, tuneful gospel-tinged pop and piano ballads in classic arrangements shares ground with Carole King, Karen Carpenter and Norah Jones. Her decidedly old-fashioned album of AM-radio choruses is so uncool, it’s clearly the sound of the future.


We Have Band


Yeah? We have review, we have list of influences, we have, frankly, heard other records that sound like this. But this debut of electro-disco rock stuff from three rhythm-hungry Brits with vintage synthesizers is irresistible enough to forgive the smart-arse name and just get on with robot-dancing along to their Human League-y, Visage-ish pop-goes-Joy Division groove.

Three more Monocle short-cuts:

Gorillaz, Plastic Beach: Loony tunes from the loony ’toons; other than getting a mite hip-hoppier on their third outing, Damon Albarn’s outfit gets Lou Reed to jam with the LSO while mixing Mali with the kitchen sink.

Clare and the Reasons, Arrow: Indicative of the wit and invention of Clare Muldaur and her rationales is this album’s cover of Genesis’ That’s All, played mostly on the tuba. When songwriting’s this good, you could play it on dustbin lids.

Katell Keineg, At the Mermaid Parade: This itinerant Breton-Welsh singer-songwriter is so good that we bet she even has melodic toes in her walking shoes – a bit PJ Harvey, a bit Feist – this record should be her hit.

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