Saturday 9 November 2019 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 9/11/2019

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday

Opener / Andrew Tuck

Black eyes, please

A friend from Italy was staying at our house while he did an English course. In the evenings he would make dinner and, as the pasta jived around the bubbling pan, quiz me about the idiosyncrasies of my mother tongue. It soon dawned on me, however, that the English I use every day is sometimes a mystery to me too. Often I would have to confess that I couldn’t offer a reasonable solution to his enquiry – but, in the meantime, could he pass the olive oil?

But then one night he asked me what a “panda” was. Finally I was in safer territory. I explained that it was the animal from China that had a big white face and black eyes. I even mimed eating bamboo and made what I thought were a few good panda moves (in hindsight the generous bottom wiggle was perhaps a bit more Baloo). When I looked at his face it was apparent that this explanation hadn’t cleared the clouds in the way I had hoped. He swirled the pasta. “OK,” he finally said. “But I was in McDonald’s the other day and they had a ‘quarter panda’. What’s that, then?”

That story is just one of the many reasons that the panda has had a special place in my heart. Last weekend Monocle held its first-ever event in mainland China, in Chengdu, the home of the nation’s panda-breeding programme. I made sure I was on the trip: it was great to meet readers, see the city, make new contacts. But I was adamant that real pandas would be on the menu (not literally, don’t worry).

Now, Chengdu has done lots of clever things to sell its story around the world. This city of 9 million will tell you about its 3,500 bookshops, including the epic Fang Suo Commune. They will point out that they have numerous students and a slew of universities – and that they are pushing for a greener city. But it’s the panda that’s a global soft-power ambassador for the city.

And they are everywhere. There are panda statues doing headstands outside hotels; there’s a Godzilla-sized one climbing up the side of a shop; they are on warning signs and company logos. We were given a fluffy panda gift by the event’s co-organisers; we walked past an electronics shop and a menacing one came rushing out; we went to karaoke and a fat raving one barged into the room and shook its tush in time to the music (it had the Baloo moves too). Residents of Chengdu had panda T-shirts and headbands with panda heads on. The panda is not only an international marketing tool but a local hit too.

On the final day we were offered a trip to the research centre, which is home to 200 pandas, with our translator and a park guide. It would have to be speedy but I was on the bus – express panda, here we come. What should have been a day’s outing was completed in 90 minutes. We saw mothers, we saw cubs and we saw babies in incubators. We were hit with facts from every angle – hang on, did she just say that they let the males watch panda porn to get them in the love-making mood?

The funny thing is that while I still love pandas – indeed, even more so now – they are perhaps not the best brand ambassadors in every sense. They are lazy, prone to bouts of grumpiness, a little on the podgy side and not always the most loving of parents – like some chardonnay-focused mother, they will apparently drop their baby if offered honey or an apple. Oh, and the mothers eat their babies’ poo too. But hey, like a groupie to a renegade Hollywood actor, the panda’s fans will never desert it.

On the flight home I opened my bag to find my wash kit – and my fluffy gift poked its head out. When I came back to my seat, my neighbour – a rather austere gent who kept his well-pressed shirt on all night – gave me a smile and said, “Nice panda.” “Thanks,” I said with a certain paternal glow. But just then the stewardess came round with the offer of a glass of white burgundy and I chucked it back in the overhead locker.

I’ll give it a try 01 / Extreme workouts

Switching it up

It’s starting to hurt (writes Ed Stocker). Muscles I didn’t even know existed are stiffening and causing me to wince. The reason for my pain? A recently completed workout at Switch Playground in Soho, New York. It’s the city’s answer to its young people’s seeming desire for ever more gruelling, ever more exciting exercise. I’m no gym bunny but I consider myself a moderately fit individual; no problem handling an intensive hour of sweat and toil then, right? Wrong.

Confession: my membership of one of the city’s less glamorous gym chains has lapsed for at least two years. But Switch sounded intriguing thanks to its promise of being more party than chore. Founded by an insanely muscular South African, it’s SoulCycle, Barry’s Bootcamp and CrossFit thrown into one. Participants exercise in pairs (I roped in my girlfriend, whereas people on their own get allocated another singleton), rotating around a room of machines, weights and exercise mats; two minutes at each. Meanwhile a cheery class leader (Brian, in our case) gives smiley instructions via a microphone. The atmosphere is club-like thanks to disco balls, coloured lights and a live DJ playing dance music. This is all designed to motivate you as you run on the spot while hitting a punchbag before doing lunges while lifting a metal bar.

It all started to go wrong with the cat-cow yoga move and got progressively worse as I moved around the numbered zones, regularly being reminded just how much co-ordination I lack. Maybe I need to make peace with the fact that I’m past retirement age for a professional footballer and my body is never going to look like Brian’s.

Switch was painful, yes. But I’m prepared to admit that it was an unforgettable experience. That hour flew by as I sweated buckets. Would I do it again? Ask me in a couple of days.


Height of fashion

When you are learning a language you soon realise that certain words have at least two meanings; you don’t, for instance, want to mistake a baseball bat for a vampire bat. And so it is with fashion. There are items of clothing that, depending on who’s wearing them, carry totally different connotations. Take the Barbour jacket: in off-the-map rural UK it might mean that you are the Queen, a sheep farmer or an arriviste hoping to fit in with the country set. In Milan it probably means that you are a cool kid who would shriek if mud ever sullied your Tod’s shoes.

And so it is with a T-shirt that has been adopted by two very different tribes of men. The Patagonia P-6 logo Responsibili-Tee is made from recycled plastic bottles and recycled cotton and is Fairtrade-certified. The one we are talking about is white and carries the brand’s name across the chest, an outline of the Patagonian mountains and an illustrated sunset. You’ll recognise it if you spend any time staring at men’s chests.

As you might have guessed, one tribe that loves this T-shirt comprises the sort of person who owns crampons and likes a steep rock face. Yet you are now just as likely to see it on the back of a 16-year-old skater or a 20-year-old hipster. It is, you see, a double-meaner. How this crossover happened is unclear – but neither tribe seems willing to give up its eco-wardrobe. Lucky Patagonia.


Pace of change

Here’s one to ponder while you sip your double espresso, tie the laces of your trainers and prepare yourself for your Saturday-morning trot through the park: is the business world speeding up or slowing down? While everything seems to be accelerated at this time of year as we re-forecast business plans, plan Christmas parties and venture out to meet clients for year-end strategy sessions, are we really as fast-moving and efficient as we think?

A lot of businesses like to talk up agility and “breakneck speed to market”. But I’m not so sure. For all the chat about the power of digital transformation, why is it that so many companies are still banging on about this makeover a decade after it started? The short answer is that it’s much easier to transform something that comes with real-world deadlines and fixed budgets (and penalties) as opposed to shaping something where timelines, ideas and discipline seem to evaporate in the cloud.

Allow me to illustrate. It’s exactly a year since we embarked upon a project to relaunch the very website on which you subscribed to this newsletter. Twelve months on and we’re not that much further along than when we awarded the work to the agency. For some reason digital projects are allowed to shift and live in developmental purgatory and, while we all find it hugely frustrating, we accept it as nearly normal. Where else does this happen in daily business life? Would it be OK for the office toilet-paper delivery to be two months late? Would we accept the annual report to be delayed by a few weeks because the printer was “working through some kinks?”

In the 12 months since we pressed play on our site relaunch we’ve managed to not only move our printing from the UK to Germany (not without a few problems) but also managed to print 14 magazines and a host of newspapers in Italy – and never once have we missed a deadline. On top of that we developed this newsletter in a matter of days and it too makes its way around the world without a hitch every Saturday morning. The Monocle Weekend Edition – and The Monocle Minute, which is published every weekday – might be digital in name but it has the discipline of being an editorial product that needs to be with you, dear reader, first thing in the morning, European time. We’re also thinking about how we can get this to you in print.

Given the importance placed on digital culture and the workplace practices it encourages, I believe it’s making us slower and flabbier rather than fitter and more nimble. Chat groups don’t speed up decision-making: they create more discussion and waste time. Too many hours spent in front of a screen means that more people need time away from said screens and, because we’re so tethered to them in the first place, productivity sags. And then there’s the rather odd practice that’s seeing too many businesses trying to transform themselves to make it look as though they’re headquartered in Mountain View when, in reality, they’re in a soggy, low-rise, no-view industrial estate in Cleveland or Dublin. Sure, there are jars of M&M’s on top of every flat surface and a few, massage chairs, and everyone is using Slack, but has productivity ramped up or is it heading south? Has the customer seen improvements in range and service?

Meanwhile, back on the shop floor, everyone is excited about all this talk surrounding the four-day work week and how it’s going to make them even sharper at their tasks. And imagine: for the exact same wage as doing five days’ work! It’s curious that all this huff and puff has come from Microsoft. Or is it? Where real-world deadlines need to be met, where boxes need to be packed, chairs need to be assembled and tyres changed, I doubt that this rule will apply.

Stay tuned for next week’s take on the topic of speedy vs sluggish, from Chengdu. Buckle up.


Michael Stutchbury

The Australian Financial Review has been its nation’s leading business daily since its foundation in 1951. Michael Stutchbury took over as editor in chief in 2011 having previously been editor of broadsheet The Australian. For the past three decades he’s been reporting on finance in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Washington. Here he talks about his neverending news intake and why newspapers should still be delivered to your doorstep.

What news source do you wake up to? I’m immediately on my phone to see what’s happened in the northern hemisphere. I get most of my notifications on News Wire. Other than that I usually go to The Australian Financial Review to see how we put it together.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines? I tend to skim the news in the morning and then head to the gym. I have a coffee at work.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes? In the mornings I listen to the radio. The ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] is great for current affairs and entertainment.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower? “It Came Out of The Sky” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I must have first listened to it 20 to 30 years ago and the lyrics still do something to me.

Papers delivered or a trip down to the kiosk? I get four papers delivered to my doorstep in the morning: The Australian Financial Review, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and The Daily Telegraph. It gives me the best overview of what’s happening around the world and what we should cover.

Are you a subscriber or more of a newsstand browser? I’m a subscriber to the main newspapers and major global news brands. Online I subscribe to the Financial Times, The New York Times, Washington Post and the UK Telegraph. Those are the big foreign sources I can’t get as a hard copy.

Sofa or cinema for the evening? Sofa. And normally it will be current affairs: local Sky News; Fox News and CNN in the US; and Sky News in the UK.

Sunday brunch routine? I usually exercise and do a bit of gardening before going to the office at lunchtime.

Do you still make an appointment to watch the nightly news? A favourite newsreader perhaps? I get home after the nightly news is on so I don’t get to watch the main news bulletins. But I think watching the news is a great way of bringing people together to spark discussion.

What's on the airwaves before drifting off? My wife tends to listen to the BBC World Service so I listen in on that too.


Out in the open

Paris Photo. This weekend the dome of the French capital’s Grand Palais will skylight the culture, commerce and air-kissing of the world’s premier photography fair’s public days. Paris Photo’s 23rd edition is huge: it features 213 exhibitors from 31 countries. We’d recommend heading straight to the solo and duo shows. Our picks: Axel Hütte at Salzburg’s Nikolaus Ruziska and Sam Haskins meets Frauke Eigen from London’s Atlas.

‘Athena’, Sudan Archives. The debut album by Cincinnati-born Brittney Parks (AKA Sudan Archives) is a powerful, fierce thing. A violinist first and a singer second, she knows how to play her instrument in an experimental but accessible way. There are hints of trip-hop, dream pop and R&B aplenty and everything merges harmoniously in unpredictable and fascinating ways.

‘Echoes of the City’, Lars Saabye Christensen. The Norwegian author’s latest novel is a loving tale of Oslo and the many stories that inevitably end up interweaving in a city. Punctuated by the minutes of the country’s Red Cross, the story takes us back to 1947 to witness how both a city and its people can be reborn after tough times.


Strait talking

When The Port Hawkesbury Reporter printed its first issue in 1982, the counties surrounding the Strait of Canso – connecting mainland Nova Scotia to the craggy island of Cape Breton – were thriving (writes Will Kitchens). In fact the region’s fish plants and pulp mills were so prosperous that many newspapers served the region’s four counties. But, in the early 1990s, the collapse of cod populations led to the demise of the commercial fishery. As the economy crumbled, most of the newspapers did too. But not The Port Hawkesbury Reporter, which soldiered on and emerged as the region’s sole weekly newspaper. Today it enjoys a weekly circulation of 20,000. Editor Jake Boudrot, who’s held the post since 2001, tells us what’s making news in northeastern Nova Scotia.

What’s the big story this week? There isn’t a lot of crime here but when there is it tends to be noteworthy. The biggest story right now is the death of a First Nations woman last year. Police still haven’t arrested anyone. The investigation is taking a long time but I don’t believe the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] are dragging their feet. Instead they’re probably making sure they do a comprehensive investigation, considering the attention that is on missing Indigenous women. [In 2016, prime minister Justin Trudeau launched a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.]

Favourite photo? We’ve got a nice one of some students inside a recording studio. They recorded their own version of a Mi’kmaq honour song, a spiritual song for the Mi’kmaq First Nation.

Down-page treat? The honour-song story is fun, while paying attention to a marginalised culture. It reflects our ability to be light and breezy while still telling important, in-depth stories.

Next big event? We’re looking at Remembrance Day on Monday so that’s pretty big. But there’s also a book launch that I’m hoping to cover: The Forgotten Acadians tells the story of a lesser-known Acadian community [the descendants of French settlers that occupied the colony of Acadia] in the area.


How can I tell someone I hate football?

This is a delicate one. The trenchant tribalism that accompanies a fascination with sport, love of the theatre or, indeed, devotion to any particular pastime is one of those driving passions that gives us meaning and helps to forge our friendships and sense of identity. I, for one, am a cat man – aren't I, Mr Tiddly? But how to tactfully signal that someone else’s die-hard hobby is dull as dishwater to you? The trick, if there is one, is to come clean early – and with modesty. “Oh, I'm afraid I don't follow it” is better than “It bores me to tears.” Whatever you do, don't feign interest. There’s nothing sadder than watching a bystander engulfed in a strategic huddle about a team’s chances when they would clearly rather be at the ballet. Oh, and careful about declaring your allegiances: Mr Etiquette narrowly avoided a tricky situation after mishearing and wrongly interpreting the chant “Up the Arsenal!” in a north London pub. You've been warned.


Keeping it natural

We meet celebrated architect Tom Kundig, co-owner and design principal of Seattle-based partnership Olson Kundig, to discuss how his enthusiasm for natural materials flows into his work. Plus: Maria Cheung of London-based architects and designers Squire and Partners joins us to discuss how to design workspaces that are creative, productive and fun.


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