Saturday 28 December 2019 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 28/12/2019

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Losing streak

I was sitting on the plane next to Marie-Louise Theile, a branding genius based in Brisbane who we’d asked to speak at our event in Chengdu. We had bumped into each other at Hong Kong Airport – she arriving from Australia, me from London, and it turned out that we had neighbouring seats on the next connecting flight into panda town.

Some women and men manage to look fresh no matter the hour – Marie-Louise is one of them; sadly I am not. But ignoring the fact that I looked like a crumpled handkerchief, we had a nice catch up and did a little work. As the plane hit the runway, however, all the things that I’d tucked carefully beside me shot off the seat. And I watched as a silver pen – a very nice silver pen – travelled with the speed of a flustered meerkat down on to the floor and through a one-centimetre gap at the base of the seat in front of me. It was gone.

But Mary-Louise was confident that the pen could be found. So once the seatbelt signs were turned off, she encouraged me to jump up and ask the woman in front of me if she could see where my pen was. This woman was also a member of the Theile poise club: she wore a Chanel suit, a lot of expensive jewellery and enormous black sunglasses. Graciously she consented to help and scooched down to look for the pen. No sign. At this point Marie-Louise, however, was offering more accurate pen search-and-rescue suggestions. Would the lady mind getting on her knees and getting right under the seat? Could she perhaps use the torch on her phone to see right to the very back of the space under her seat? She hadn’t quite dressed for potholing but was game.

Suddenly the woman started edging back out of the chair cave – pen in hand! It was like one of those TV clips where a fireman extracts a puppy from a deep well – alive. At this point the whole plane broke out in applause and the captain and co-pilot did a jig. Well, they should have.

Two weeks later I left the pen in a Swiss restaurant – c’est la vie.

I was reminded of my ability to lose things while in a cab last week. When I got in, someone had left a woolly hat on the seat, which I gave to the driver. I thought that drivers took everything that they found to the police or to a lost-property office but he assured me that we are now all so forgetful that – other than in very rare circumstances – anything left behind would go in the bin. Even mobile phones, once their batteries had died. Although, he said, someone had once left £10,000 in a carrier bag. He had given the money to the police “I thought, what if it’s the money for a life-saving operation?” he said. “So I turned it in.” And, he reported, he was glad that he had because, after that, wonderful things kept happening to him; God had been on his side. I was intrigued. But, sorry God, the rewards from heaven seemed rather modest to me: first his car insurance in Spain had come in cheaper than he had anticipated and then, blow me, he had been surprised that the repayments for his new taxi had been a little lower than he had budgeted for. I couldn’t quite imagine God sparing the time to make minor adjustments to people’s insurance premiums but I kept quiet.

As in previous years, most items that were mislaid by me in 2019 have somehow come back my way again (followers of this column might recall me boasting about my good fortune in this respect before). But the lost-property spirits have done their best to teach me a few lessons this year. I lost a ring in Mykonos and I had to assure my partner that this was not an attempt to pass myself off as single for a week. There’s also a taxi driver in China who is probably wearing a nice new navy jumper as I type. And a lone leather glove is somewhere in Zürich, last seen heading off alone on the number 2 tram (losing one glove is oddly more vexing than losing two). But as long as everyone is happy with their finds, I have decided to just treat this as a tax for all the late nights, early starts, nice travel and being, occasionally, a mite distracted. Now where did I put that hat?


Snack-size city

The cities of the future will look different from today – but perhaps not to the extent imagined by the Museum of Architecture’s Gingerbread City exhibition at London’s Somerset House. The edible cityscape is populated with miniature structures from 100 leading architects and designers, including a modernist train station by Nicholas Grimshaw and a Norman Foster-designed Santa Claus depot. Oh, and it’s all made from gingerbread.

We’re not taking the biscuit – that wasn’t allowed – but some of the designers seemed to be. Instead, the project is a rather sweet annual event, which runs until 5 January and includes classes on making biscuit buildings. The freedom afforded to architects by working with icing, wafers and jellybeans (rather than glass, bricks or beams) has created a doughy utopia that could make architecture and planning more appetising for the next generation.

The exhibition’s also a reminder that design and planning mistakes can be easily baked into the framework of a metropolis. So if your city’s home to a crumby bit of infrastructure or a skyscraper that’s not a (sugar) hit, well, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.


Anything up your sleeve?

Whether at the gym, park or sports club, one simple thing divides men who are working up a sweat: sleeves. Do you do them? Are you a T-shirt guy or a tank-topper? This decision partly comes down to build: those who have bulging biceps are more likely to want to flaunt them – and why shouldn’t they? But it’s also an indication of personality. For an arm-barer – even one in a nice racer-style top from a brand such as Tracksmith or District Vision – is more likely to draw attention to themselves than a modest T-shirter.

Some folk despise being watched while they work out; the arm-barer is not one of those people. They are exercising with aplomb (often completing their look with a cap, possibly worn backwards). There are equivalents for women – crop tops, perhaps, or bike shorts – but these are not as divisive as the men’s sleeveless top. So as we head into 2020 and embrace fitness regimes with renewed vigour, which guy will you be?


Life through a lens

By now you’ll know I’m not big on social media. I could go on at length about its ills, its catastrophic effect on attention spans, its role in shutting down and stifling debate, its nasty narcissistic side and much more – but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to go with the giving spirit of the season and pretend that I’m in the business of revealing all on the small screen by opening up the archive of my favourite pictures captured during my travels in 2019. No, they’re not the most personal photos but they’re all significant. Each captures a moment in time, something we’ve lost or are about to lose – good graphics, elegant buildings and pockets of fine urbanism. Enjoy this little highly visual review of 2019 and all the best for 2020. Happy new year.


Let us entertain you

‘Jojo Rabbit’, Taika Waititi. Having broken into the mainstream with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, Kiwi director Taika Waititi was given big-studio backing by Fox Searchlight to produce one of his offbeat comedies in the vein of the excellent Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows. His latest effort, Jojo Rabbit, follows suit. Its premise? A boy in Nazi Germany finds solace in his imaginary friend, an effete Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi). It’s a tonal gamble that will inevitably generate a bifurcated response from audiences. Some have already decried it for its approach to the Nazi regime but many will no doubt view it as a triumph of irreverent satire.

‘Bombshell’, Jay Roach. Who would have guessed 22 years ago that the mind behind the Austin Powers trilogy would one day direct a timely, true-story feature about women bringing down their abusive boss? Jay Roach is the man helming this film about Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, the reporters who revealed the sexual misconduct of Fox News’s Roger Ailes. This is the second screen account of the scandal in a matter of months, following last summer's The Loudest Voice. But where the Showtime series focused primarily on Ailes, Bombshell ensures that the women – who risked their careers by blowing the whistle – remain at the centre of the story.

‘1917’, Sam Mendes. The opening minutes of this wartime epic rattle with a sense of chaotic urgency that never quite relents until the rolling credits. Much has been written about this experiment in one-take storytelling by director Sam Mendes, though he’s hardly the first film-maker to have had the idea. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, 1917 isn’t actually one take; it’s just edited to look that way. The master of suspense later described his dabbling in the concept as “an experiment that didn’t work out”. But Mendes, armed with vastly improved technology, has had a far more fruitful run in the editing suite. The success of a war film often rests upon how effectively it can make us feel the emotional weight of being on a battlefield – and the photographic wizardry employed here is almost enough to make you feel like an eyewitness.

‘Weather’, Jenny Offill. Fans of the US writer’s previous novel, Dept of Speculation, have been champing at the bit for Weather. Lizzie Benson is a librarian struggling to come to terms with the climate crisis. Hers is a story about wanting to save the world but not being able to do so – or even save herself. But Weather is also smart and very funny: read it and you won’t feel so alone.

‘Manic’, Halsey. In the constellation of wildly successful, high-profile female solo artists, Ashley Frangipane (aka Halsey) is a star burning ever brighter. Her empowering day-to-night tracks are always a delight. January sees the New Jersey singer release Manic: her third studio album, packed with collaborations with Suga of BTS, rapper Dominic Fike and Alanis Morissette. “Graveyard”, the album’s latest single, is a banger: it’s indulgent, sugary and laced with corny effects such as acoustic guitar loops that are, at times, reminiscent of early JoJo – in the best way possible.


News of the world

‘The Reminder’ (Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada)
Editor: Eric Westhaver “Our most important report was on a fire at a mine-camp in Snow Lake. The fire wiped out the kitchen and closed some residences. But the townspeople stepped up. [They] cooked meals for the workers and let people crash on couches and in spare rooms. It’s easy to get bogged down in the trivia of an event such as this and forget the humanity of everyone involved. I’m proud to say that we dug deeper there.”

‘The Marshall Islands Journal’ (Majuro, Marshall Islands)Editor: Giff Johnson “For 15 years, Dartmouth College professor emeritus Andrew Garrod has directed a major theatre production in Majuro involving local students. This year’s staging of The Music Man was nothing short of magical. Perhaps 15 per cent of the capital city attended during the six performances. Our reporter Hilary Hosia captured a glimpse of the show’s magic.”

‘Ocracoke Observer’ (Ocracoke, North Carolina, the US)Editor: Connie Leinbach “On 6 September, Hurricane Dorian passed over Ocracoke Island, bringing 2.25 metres of storm surge – the highest in the island’s history. Fortunately there was no loss of life but the village of Ocracoke was devastated. I put on my waders and walked [to a] firehouse where a command station was set up. Dorian, its devastation and the amazing response was all we wrote about online from 6 September until recently.”

‘Penguin News’ (Stanley, Falkland Islands)Editor: Roddy Cordeiro “Given the large farming community in the Falklands, we cover a lot of stories about sheep. Even so, when a six-legged lamb turned up in January it was quite the event. Even the farmer was surprised, admitting that he had seen lambs with two sets of teeth and even one ‘with a penis on its testicles’ – but never one like this. We tried to keep it serious and interviewed the local vet and, crucially, we resisted the urge to describe it as ‘ewe-nique’.”

‘The Quoddy Tides’ (Eastport, Maine, the US)Editor: Edward French “Campobello Island is part of Canada but for much of the year it’s only accessible through Maine. This year, when the Canadian mail truck entered the US, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began opening Canadian mail being sent to Canadians. The sale of cannabis is now legal in Canada, which might be the reason why CBP began opening the mail. However, many other types of packages and letters are also being opened and a number of islanders feel that this is an invasion of their privacy.”


Can I be a grammar pedant in this day and age?

Do you mean, “May I?”. Not as easy as it looks, eh? Lax lexicography is periodically bemoaned by pedants and purists but, in reality, language is always evolving. So, instead, we should be nice and patient with one another and leave a little room for creativity. Recently, John Richards, a retired journalist and founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society in the UK, threw in the towel and disbanded his organisation on the grounds that “ignorance and laziness had won”. He was 96 years old. And herein lies a lesson.

Our feeling about what is clear and correct is usually crystallised at a young age. But these rules aren’t like fundamental laws of the universe; they were mostly made up by printers 150 years ago. So by all means discard Oxford commas, split your infinitives and use the passive voice – chances are that you’ll be understood anyway. However, there are times when you need to make yourself impossible to be misunderstood – if, say, you’re the leader of the free world conducting policy launches on social media. In such instances, good grammar is really rather important. Do I make myself clear, Mr Tiddly?


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