There’s lots to talk about in 2017. We kick things off with tales of espionage, Michelin stars, the UN, the conflict in Syria and texture – and a revealing chat with a French bulldog.
Notes: Ever get the feeling that you’re being watched? A Russian tale of hushed conversations, subversive politics and the potential threat of student revolts.
When I was in my third year at Moscow State University in 2007, like most other male students in the faculty, I got a call from a state security officer; some colonel. In a mildly coaxing tone he inquired after my health and grades and then went straight to the point: would I rather continue serving foreign interests with my part-time job at a US-funded ngo or do my bit for the motherland like the fine upstanding fellow that I was? The kind of knowledge I was getting at the university would be put to good use and, given my abilities, I could be confident of a long and prosperous career.
In Russia the “organs” – the secret police, basically – are always lurking around the corner. When the colonel rang I was reading Dante’s Divine Comedy and its heady mix of factionalism, betrayal and heavenly retribution suddenly became worryingly relevant. Until then unwanted attention – let alone a job offer – from the security services seemed impossible but if it did happen it would be something both fearful and exhilarating.
Not only did the colonel know about my work, he was also in possession of my medical records. You’re not cut out to be a paratrooper, he laughed down the line (I have poor eyesight and the slight frame of an intellectual) but not to worry. What we have in store for you is more up your alley: translation, infiltration and reconnaissance. For the good of the country, eh? Let’s show these Americans together!
Maybe I had been naive and this had been coming for some time. A few weeks before, the security police had descended on a student in the year below, a radical left-wing activist. He was dependent on the university for board and lodging and the officers threatened to evict him and cut off his measly stipend unless he stopped his political work. He was smart enough to record the exchange and went to the press. A minor scandal ensued, with a couple of higher-ranking officers disciplined, and he was left alone for the time being. So was my call from the colonel part of some not-so-devious stratagem to pre-empt a student revolt? This was when Vladimir Putin was in his final year as president, so perhaps they needed to ensure a smooth transition to his chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev, unclouded by any horseplay. Universities are, after all, where all subversive politics begin.
It had maybe also been coming for another reason: my grandfather, with whom I share the same name, was a spy. Until the collapse of the ussr in 1991, the phones in our apartment in northern Moscow were almost certainly tapped. When I was in my teens I liked to think that unseen agents were still eavesdropping on us and every so often I would pick up the telephone when I imagined that they – if they were there at all – least expected it and say, in a steely voice, “Well, hello.”
In Soviet times people preferred to keep their own company and only opened up with their closest circle; increasingly this secretiveness is returning to modern Russia. Bad-mouthing the authorities in the open today can still get you into trouble. The ngo I worked at when I got that call has since been shut down, its director now seeking refuge in western Europe. A person’s life – their life’s work – is still worth very little in Russia.
To that colonel I said a resounding no. What, to sell out to a regime that took over from, and was increasingly taking after, one that killed millions of people just because they thought and acted differently, or were born into the wrong family? Strangely enough I have never felt any vicarious guilt for whatever my grandfather might have done in service to this system. He was a lifelong communist and I doubt he ever did anything spectacularly evil, even if he had wanted to: he was active at the height of Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw and not in Moscow but Vienna.
I imagine he and the colonel would be amused by the curious twist of fate that would fling me to the Austrian capital, bearing the same name as my grandfather and doing something similar but altogether less secret: journalism.
I have recently discovered a stash of photographs that my grandfather took during his time here. He spoke little and mostly about the war (he was a private on a torpedo boat) but never about his other persona. When he died we also found an unopened letter from the kgb among his effects. It remains unopened, not for fear of finding out some ghastly truth but just because it’s more fun that way.
Even so, I have often wondered about shedding some light on Alexei Korolyov Senior’s doings on Austrian soil. I never bothered asking for his file at the fsb, the successor to the kgb, as it’s probably not due for disclosure yet. When I made enquiries in Vienna, a fellow journalist said he knew the head special officer at the Russian embassy and could put me in touch. My answer was, again, no. Why give them the satisfaction of meeting me in person when they know all they need to know about me already? My grandfather would be proud of me: isn’t it one of the rules never to make any direct contact? Still, I would have been a terrible spy. Unlike my grandfather, I like to talk.
About: Alexei Korolyov, journalist. Sacked from Russia’s biggest news agency for his opposition views, Korolyov moved to Vienna in 2012 and has been a contributor to many Monocle 24 shows, and monocle magazine, ever since.
Notes: Silky smooth, strangely muscular and, let’s face it, a little snarfley, French bulldogs are now officially chart-toppers in major cities.
My name is Hugo. Or to tell you my full name: Hugo Cuddlepup iii. I am also known as Mr Big Ears, Monsieur Batty and a host of other names I shudder down my pert muscular body to reveal. I would be very happy to stick with Hugo – pronounced the French way, of course – but I seem to have little choice in the matter. You see I am a French bulldog; the most popular dog, it transpires, in numerous booming cities, including New York. In the UK our numbers have risen by 2,747 per cent since 2004. We are the dog of the moment – and we will be taking over more and more dog runs in 2017.
I live with two gentlemen in London – Roger and Oliver – who love me a great deal. And I love them too. But the names that they call me are a little excessive and I do wish that, in front of my waggier friends, they wouldn’t ask me to come and have “a likkle tickle wickle” on my tummy. It’s improper. That’s why on a Saturday night, when they start some tickle-wickle nonsense with each other, I always make a silent withdrawal to my bed and pretend to be fast asleep.
Let me tell you a little about my family. My ancestors trace their heritage back to England where, in the 1800s, a small or toy bulldog became rather popular. Some of us headed over to France at the time, with lace-makers who were losing their jobs and felt that Normandy might be a good bet for a new life of bobbins and boules. My great-great-great grandparents started having their way with some local types and soon an entirely new type of bulldog, the Frenchie (that’s me), was finally recognised.
Since then we have been going from strength to strength and keeping rather quiet about some of our bloodlines; no need to mention the Paris ratters that, thanks to some frisky action, had a paw in shaping our destiny. And don’t even suggest that I would be good for the task: those days are long gone.
Apart from giving us daft names – people also call us “frog dogs” because of the way in which we splay our legs when lying down – there is another trait that’s been bred into Frenchie owners that’s dismaying: they can’t stop themselves from dressing us up. I have raincoats, tartan jackets and a pvc number that makes me look like a dog-drag Mariah Hairy.
It’s when I spy Halloween or Christmas approaching on the calendar in the kitchen, however, that my little tail shrivels with fear and my sphincter tightens in anguish. I know that soon I will be sporting fancy dress.
Last Christmas I was dressed as a reindeer with fluffy antlers and made to pose for far too many photographs. A little piece of me died of shame that day when we were heading to the car to go to yet another soiree and our neighbour, Ronald the Retriever, just happened to be looking out of his apartment window; I saw the gummy smirk. But it’s Halloween when my self-respect vanishes faster than a gigolo’s knickers. In 2016 we went to Ronald’s house dressed as witches. Ronald’s slobby tongue, however, was stilled for once: he was dressed as The Grim Retriever.
While I know that they love me dearly – and I go almost everywhere with them, even occupying a small day divan under Robert’s desk at his agency during the week – there is one thing that I have never dared to ask them. As a breed we are diverse in our hues. I am fawn with a sooty face and I match the colour scheme in our home to perfection. Yet I have sometimes wondered, even as they kindly rub my tired shoulders, am I loved in part because I look fetching in this tauped-up setting? They are two men whose ability to co-ordinate slacks and a sweater knows no limits, so could it be that I am the chosen one not just because of my personality but because I look great against the Farrow & Ball paint chart?
I believe that our popularity goes beyond fitting in with the soft furnishings of metropolitans. We don’t demand too much exercise and are friendly; we tolerate children and doze a lot. I never protest when Roger and Oliver sleep in on a Sunday morning after too long a time with their best friend, Mistress Chardonnay. There is also our compactness: we are ideal for co-habiting a small city-centre abode. If you want to guess where we would be most at home you need to look for a few urban indicators: good wine shops, cafés where we can sit alfresco in the summer, women with good heels and men in T-shirts that are always on the tight side. This is our world.
So while I may complain about the names, my ever-growing wardrobe and the weekend bathing with Aesop dog shampoo, I have to admit that my two companions (I am not keen on that “owner” word) are rather ideal, as is our Primrose Hill home. At night – as I snore through my troublesome snout and allow my face, which resembles a badly rolled slab of pastry, to assume the rest position – I secretly count my lucky stars. If it means another Christmas jumper, so be it. The three of us, I feel, are in this for the long haul. And yes, go on then: a tickle wickle would be rather welcome.
About: Hugo Cuddlepup III, man’s best friend. Cuddlepup lives in Primrose Hill, London, and studied at Happy Hounds Finishing School and St Bernard’s College. He is an acknowledged authority on humans and their training. He is fond of a cockapoo but says he is not the marrying kind.
Notes: Michelin stars may shine bright in some eyes but beyond the dazzle is a spread of fame-hungry chefs, fiddly dishes and, in Singapore, French food.
Eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant is considered a mark of good taste. But should it be? It’s high time we rated and rethought the guide’s credentials for recommending a decent restaurant.
The Star has long been a symbol of success for chefs but does a mention from the doughy Michelin Man really help an establishment? In the aftermath of scooping one, dining rooms from Shanghai to Sheffield (and now Singapore) experience a surge in customers keen to try fêted food. So the short answer is yes – with a “but”.
Michelin doesn’t just offer a rundown of good places to eat: it makes a judgement call. To the compilers of that slim reference book, good dining is and must be haute cuisine. And Michelin-style good chefs? Well, they’re celebrated wherever they open a restaurant, regardless of how connected they are to the community they serve or, heaven forfend, its cuisine.
Founded by the French siblings behind the Michelin tyre firm, the little red guide has a colourful history (not least because it was blue until 1931). It started as a go-to for fuel and food stops for the 3,000 motorists on France’s roads in 1900. As sales accelerated it grew into an authority on fine dining, expanding beyond Europe into the US in 2005 and Asia in 2007; it now has guides to some 27 countries. The reach is unquestionable and its say-so coveted: it’s sold some 30 million copies to date. Not bad for a French transport firm fronted by a man with a few spare tyres round his waist. The Michelin Man, or “Bibendum” mascot, first appeared in the 1890s, smoking a cigar and wearing a pince-nez. He’s since kicked the habit and lost a little timber.
The publication of the 2016 guide to Singapore (in which 29 restaurants shared 37 stars) has posed questions about what constitutes a decent feed. Was it a mishmash of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian or Peranakan food that made the cut? Nope. The Joël Robuchon Restaurant was the only place to nab a trio of stars (the highest honour). His restaurant next door also got a brace, bringing the chef’s total to a staggering 30. Great restaurants? Perhaps. A wonderful chef? Of course. But really, what does eating the food of a French chef in a resort on Sentosa Island tell you about Singapore’s lip-smacking food scene?
It’s a troubling trend. Starry-eyed celebrants of the Michelin guide – many seemingly intent on ditching kitchens altogether to become celebrities, pen books and front television shows – have compounded the problem of restaurants that compete for global acclaim. What happened to a chef wanting to be in the kitchen? Some of these places even run at a loss to show off their chef: a 2005 study showed that almost half of the Michelin-starred restaurants surveyed were not profitable.
While the research is sound and the inspectors qualified, the criteria are worlds away from what any sane person would be interested in paying for. Think dishes conceived in faraway kitchens, often dispensed by pretentious servers. Waiters willing to interrupt conversations to explain “the concept” behind each of the 15 courses you’ll have to struggle through. When exactly did all this rubbish become a mark of quality?
That the Michelin Guide’s taste isn’t to everyone’s palate seems obvious: a review that we all agree with is a tall order. But wouldn’t it be tasteful to pay a little mind to those restaurateurs running businesses that are there to stay or that honour the culinary traditions of the place they call home? What about an award for the restaurant that’s been a boon to its community? Or that backs local farmers against the odds, pays a few wages and still turns a profit?
The best restaurants should serve a wider purpose and guides should not just venerate the same few lauded chefs wherever they open a new place. If you’ve only got one meal in Singapore and you want my advice, ditch your little red book and steer clear of the French food altogether.
About: Josh Fehnert, Monocle. Fehnert is monocle’s Edits editor. He handles the magazine’s food and drink coverage and is editor of The Monocle Guide to Drinking & Dining. He does occasionally dine at Michelin-starred restaurants but usually in spite of their billing.
Notes: A word of advice to António Guterres as he takes on the role of secretary-general of the UN.
António, congratulations on your appointment. You will bring extraordinary heart, soul and experience to the role. The UN is the best idea for global citizenship that mankind has yet had. If it did not exist, we would desperately need to invent it.
But you are going to have to reinvent it. We face a century of change unlike any other in history: states, ideas and industries will go out of business; inequality is growing; the world feels leaderless; and the scaffolding that your predecessors built around global security and peace is fragile. What the UN represents – a system based on states, hierarchies and the status quo – is becoming weaker. Digital technology is empowering other sources of power and the UN must urgently innovate and evolve with creativity, determination and patience or face a slow slide into under-resourced decline and irrelevance.
I know that Syria will be top of the pile in your in-tray because it is the grimmest example of what happens when the UN fails. We have to show Syrians that there is more to choose from than a barrel-bombing tyrant, the box-office barbarity of Isis and the perils of a Mediterranean raft. And we have to prove, through your personal engagement, that diplomacy can still work.
I believe that there are also three great 21st-century freedoms to fight for: the freedom of opportunity, the freedom to create and the freedom to coexist.
First, opportunity. For moral and pragmatic reasons our greatest challenge now is making more people less poor – and an individual’s freedom of opportunity should not be defined by where they are born. We need to get an education to 75 million children not in school and we should overhaul the global education system so that future global citizens have equal access to the best we can teach them.
Second, creativity. Our ability to keep pace with the dangerous political and social implications of technological change depends on our brightest global minds coming up with ingenious solutions to global challenges that range from climate change to economic instability. We should be unashamedly backing freedom of the internet so that the smartest people in the world can together create those extraordinary ideas that we may not yet know that we need.
The UN itself can also take advantage of the huge opportunities of the digital age in order to counter the growing threats of that age. How can we use solar drones for better peacekeeping and provision of education? How can we create digital citizenship to increase security and reduce identity fraud and international crime? How can the UN respond to the challenges and opportunities of artificial intelligence?
Third, coexistence. We were all migrants once and the 21st century will make many of us migrants again. Climate change, conflict and improved communications will create more people on the move than any previous era. So we need to learn how to absorb, assimilate and coexist. This pursuit of coexistence is at the heart of diplomacy. It was what motivated the first ever diplomat: the caveman who persuaded another caveman to stop clubbing him for long enough that they could hunt together.
The freedom to coexist also means making hard decisions to protect the most vulnerable. Whether children are bombed in Gaza, Aleppo or Mosul they look the same: small, broken and undefended. You can show that we have not reached the limits of our compassion. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is mankind’s greatest text of all time. The problem is not that we don’t understand our duty to our fellow citizens but that we don’t have the will to deliver it. You can rescue the noble idea of “responsibility to protect” from the rubble of Syria.
The great dividing line of the 21st century is not between east and west or north and south but between two human instincts: to live together or to build bigger walls. We need the UN more than ever because the implications of diplomatic failure are more catastrophic than ever. I hope and believe that under your leadership the UN can reconnect with the magnetic sense of purpose and optimism that characterises this flawed but vital organisation at its best.
This is going to be an exhilarating decade. I know that you will not fail for want of creativity, humanity or courage.
Best wishes, Tom.
About: Tom Fletcher, diplomat. Fletcher is a former UK ambassador to Lebanon and currently a visiting professor at New York University, strategy director at the Global Business Coalition for Education and adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy. He is the author of Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age.
Notes: From the outside, the situation in Syria looks dire. And while this Syrian doesn’t necessarily disagree, he cautions against the alternatives.
Let me begin by saying that Bashar al-Assad should step down when Syria has stability. As a figure, as a name, it’s no longer appropriate for him to serve as the face of the nation. But now is not the right time. We need Assad, at least until a suitable secular transition is possible, one that is representative of all Syrians.
I say this as a Syrian, a born-and-raised Damascene. I also say this as a minority in the country, though I never felt that way growing up. My family is Christian and we were free to practice our religion openly; we would set up a Christmas tree in December and go to church on Sunday and it was never an issue. The same went for my Muslim friends and a close friend who was Jewish. Religion was a part of our lives but never at the centre of our existence. My family and I certainly never felt discriminated against for being a religious minority; the Syria I know and love was a secular place.
Syria is largely made up of Sunnis. As an Alawite, Assad himself is a minority and has been open to other groups, including Christians and Jews. Though Syrians from all backgrounds have lived side by side for centuries, I believe the regime’s embrace of secularism has kept modern fundamentalist groups at bay. The truth is that the extremists that rose to power in other countries in the region weren’t able to get traction in Syria.
For most of the country that has now changed. Yet in Damascus, home of the regime, we still haven’t witnessed the rise of extremist groups despite the conflict across the country. For the past five years people have, relatively, lived the same day-to-day life, just with more-frequent water and electricity cuts and a crippled economy. Yet we worry about what the future holds. There is a fear of extremists, particularly following the takeover of Yarmouk Camp and Ghouta on the edges of the city.
The situation in Syria is one with no easy answers. With Assad at the helm there’s centralised power; the army is tied to the regime so they have a central command. Without that command we’d have chaos. We’re talking about a 40-year dictatorship but at the moment it is not clear what the anti-Assad camp wants: a better country with an inclusive agenda for all Syrians or just the head of the president, irrespective of the consequences?
Many Syrians fear that if Assad were to go and Islamic fundamentalist parties were allowed to stand in elections, we could go from a secular state to one ruled by extremists. We look to Iraq, as well as to the power vacuum in Libya, and we despair at the thought of a similar set of circumstances transpiring here.
What’s more, if you are Christian, Druze or Alawite, the assumption is that you are with the regime. This is not true: I have Sunni friends who are pro-regime, while some Christian and Alawi friends are against the regime and Assad. Those nuances have been lost in the conflict.
I fear that if an extremist group was to replace the regime things could take an ugly turn for my family and other minorities. At worst we’d be at risk of being retaliated against by revolutionaries; at best it would mean an upending of the way we’ve lived our lives up until now.
Syria will never go back to what it was. There is a general consensus – whether you are pro-regime or against it – that the country has forever changed. Even if the civil war ends without a religious extremist in power it will take a long time to eradicate the divisions that the uprising has introduced – if that’s even possible. Conversations about the country splitting into federal states, which were topics we could never imagine putting on the table, are now openly being discussed.
We don’t know what the future holds but at the moment, having Assad in power is the only possible way to retain the slightest bit of stability.
About: the writer. The author of this piece is a Syrian citizen. Due to the war in the country and the instability of the region, we’ve agreed to withhold his name for the safety of him and his family.
Notes: From a flock of woolly sheep to freshly chopped planks of a Douglas fir tree, our former Design editor tells us why touching is believing.
I’ve seen the future and it bleats. At the 2016 Salone del Mobile in Milan, where the design world meets each year to ask how we might live better tomorrow, 15,000 people queued up over five days to stroke sheep in a petting zoo. The furry flock was part of the Design Academy Eindhoven exhibition called Touch Base curated by Ilse Crawford, the school’s head of the Man and Wellbeing department. The premise was simple: we are losing our ability to touch and so to feel things too.
We are living in a world of smooth edges and shiny surfaces. Our yearning for everything to be friction-free feels like it’s gone too far, rendering us with a wipe-clean reality, devoid of dirt and difficulties perhaps but stripped of any texture too. Much has been made of the misnomer of the touchscreens we love to caress. A study recently claimed that on average we touch our phones 2,617 times a day; it’s likely that we touch them more frequently than anything else. There must be consequences from investing so much touching in a surface that gives us no tactile response in return.
We use the mind and the hand together to understand our surroundings. The lack of texture in our lives today doesn’t just deny us sensory pleasure, it deadens us. When we touch something and do not get a response, tactile communication diminishes and we quickly lose trust in our environments.
That tactility and texture are in decline is matched by an increase in the things that we see and use that reveal nothing of where or how they were made. We are surrounded by sheet-glass buildings and soulless furniture designed on computers and built by machines.
Tactile materials are creeping back into our lives as an antidote to the seeping sickness of our compulsive screen-swiping. Honed and bush-hammered stone surfaces feel more contemporary in place of polished marbles, not so long ago the hallmark of good taste. We are beginning to see untreated wood, rough-cast metal, sand-blasted glass and unglazed ceramics in surprising places; it feels good to be surrounded by natural materials in their natural states. We talk about patina, the texture of the past, as something beautiful.
We are undergoing a re-evaluation of the human hand and with this comes a renewed appreciation of craft. It is not something whimsical or nostalgic, nor is it an aesthetic. Craft and craftsmanship are human knowledge, technique and skill: a dialogue between mind and hand. They reveal and celebrate process. We are allowed to see how things are made and we understand and respect the finished product more as a consequence. We value craft precisely because we feel the human hand within it. It has texture, implicit and explicit; both narrative and physical.
These are not just the quaint yearnings of the lofty design community. In the r&d department at Ikea’s HQ in Älmhult you will find all manner of natural materials that are rough, textured and coming flat-packed to a store near you. Ikea understands that texture is more than just a look. There has been a shift of late in its stance on revealing its process in order to gain consumer confidence. It recognises the need to go beyond providing the masses with good, affordable design: communicating its process translates as trust. Opening up the workshop is not radical these days. What’s shifting is the scale at which it’s happening and the consequent lack of trust that we feel towards the brands keeping their doors shut. Trust and texture go hand in hand.
Texture causes friction and friction is good. Friction creates energy; it gives birth to fire, passion and even children. We must be careful what we wish for in our quest for a friction-free world because for all of the bumps that we iron out, we take with them many of the pleasures. We need tension and stress. It’s only when we overcome difficulties that we learn how to deal with them; to eliminate them entirely runs the risk of leaving us cruising on autopilot, passive and powerless.
At 2016’s Orgatec, the biennial office-solutions trade fair in Köln, there was a development in priority from computer back to human. There weren’t any sheep but there was an understanding that we need to be stimulated by our working environments. There were clever systems made from tactile materials, carefully measured to encourage human interaction. One stand contained a Douglas fir tree, laid on its side and chopped into planks, inviting visitors to see, touch and smell what a real wood floor might be like in an office.
The office of the future is rich in texture because the industry understands that texture makes us feel good – and if we feel good, we perform better. Until recently computers, cables and servers were the driving force behind design solutions. Now that we have been liberated by wi-fi and the Cloud, the focus is back on us.
This shift was backed up in a recent report into the future of work by the World Economic Forum, which listed the changing hierarchy of skills valued in the workforce in 2020 compared to today. New in the top 10 is emotional intelligence, with critical thinking and creativity also rising up the chart. These are human skills. The report indicates that in order to be effective we must sharpen our human faculties, not blunt them. We need to be able to think, problem-solve and respond but also, crucially, to feel. We need to be the best of our human selves and develop our own faculties more than our system or programme-management abilities. In short, we need to regain control over ourselves.
And therein lies the crux. In the race to make sense of our friction-free, technology-enabled futures, we have left ourselves out of the picture. When our lives are spent surrounded by buildings, furniture and materials hatched from software, is it any wonder that we are becoming anaesthetised and increasingly useless?
Restoring the balance between our digital and physical lives is one of the definitive issues that we face in the near future. We need to celebrate the grit and gristle of reality and not throw a plastic coating over it – or build a robot to do it for us. We need to embrace texture to help us trust our environments and the fabric of our lives, to allow us to feel good – better even – and to perform at our best. It’s not about fearing the advances of technology or denying the power of its development and potential use: it’s about respecting the fact that we need to keep ourselves in the frame as humans and play to our strengths. We have five senses for a reason and using all of them makes us feel alive. We are more than just operators – we are more than sheep.
About: Hugo Macdonald, design writer. Macdonald lives between London and Hastings. A former Design editor at monocle and brand director at Ilse Crawford’s studio, his first book, How To Live in the City, was published by Pan Macmillan in 2016.