Saturday 18 January 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 18/1/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Don’t try this at home

Here’s an irony. One of the things that messes up my domestic life is all the design, interiors and architecture magazines that I keep buying to help me make my home nicer and tidier. They are a weakness. So at Christmas I came to a brutal decision: a cull was in order. Not a simple box-up and chuck-out routine, mind. No, I determined to go through every one and remove the pages showing homes that inspired me, furniture that I’d like to have and columns that deliver sage advice. So far, a couple of hundred magazines have had vital pages tugged from their gluey spines. I know, it’s a tough world.

This is all taking a lot of time. For one, I don’t want to miss anything. I also regularly find myself reading an article from, say, 2009 about some Madrid apartment that’s probably had several makeovers since it was shot for the story in front of me. Also, all of this wrinkle-free perfection is a little exhausting and unsettling – and fake. You can only take so much sugar in one go.

You see, you can read hundreds of these design stories and they all concoct the same fantasy. The owner appointed a daring architect who saw the project through to perfect fruition. Myriad craftspeople and tradesfolk then appeared on the doorstep to deliver sumptuous curtains, rare items of mid-century modern furniture and pot after pot of Farrow & Ball paint.

It’s likely that what actually happened is that everyone’s egos got dented, costs overshot, the builder resigned (or went bust), the curtains were made in the wrong fabrics, compromises had to be made and then made again and, finally, something emerged from the dustsheets that was great but definitely in need of a few tweaks. In all of the features I have scanned, however, nothing ever goes wrong. And, judging from all the crisp white walls, once finally completed, the owners have never once banged a suitcase on the skirting boards or had a resident child with a desire to be regarded as a great muralist.

The relationship between client, architect and builder is often fraught. For the client this is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and thus packed with all the emotions that come with making a home (and burning through your life savings). The builder needs to make money but also have a sense of satisfaction in what they get to do (and often feels that neither client nor architect understands them). And the architect really wants to be doing something more interesting than your extension.

Plus, and I mean this in a kind way, architects are a funny bunch: nice to have dinner with but I’m not sure you’d want one in your house. They are obsessive, always right (although often not) and care more about shadow gaps than they do their children (although clients actually love them for this).

I have my eye on a little project in the distant future. Hence the page-tearing. But, oddly, these perfectly poised residences and happy-clappy stories put you off. You know that it has to be more demanding than a quick phone call to that nice architect you met at a party once.

Even the world of TV makeover shows and building programmes are to be taken with a pinch of concrete. They all follow the same arc. Step one: meet the clever owners with a daring plan. Two: watch as a terrible problem arises. Three: oops, they’ve spent too much money. Four (the big reveal): what a surprise – it’s all just amazing (even though it’s actually only half-finished and the owners look ashen).

I have a feeling that these tensions have always existed (the pharaohs probably couldn’t believe the time it took to whack up the pyramids and no doubt forgot that the bill didn’t include the sales tax). And they probably always will. But perhaps it’s the job of the journalist and TV presenter to tell a better story: in short, this is all going to be worth it in the end – but we guarantee that it will hurt at times and you might cry a little.

Image: Shutterstock


Growing trend

You’d imagine that the business of potted house plants was genteel, a little ramshackle in places and free of the vagaries of fashion. It is not. Hothouses from the Netherlands to Taiwan are run with a battery-farm efficiency and everyone is out to make a killing. And trends play a part too. Just look at the potted orchid. It’s hard to imagine that they were once scarce and valuable – when now they are ubiquitous and cheap. Horticulturalists found ways of getting them to grow fast and furious, and they are now one of the most common house plants in the US.

Meanwhile the hipsters’ favourite, the fiddle-leaf fig, seems to be heading down the same route, as hothouses convert to manage their speedy production. They are everywhere and prices have plummeted: at London’s Sunday flower market, Columbia Road, you can have a fiddle for £20 (€23). But don’t be sad if you own an expensive one already: we still like them. A nice bush is something to cherish for life.


Cold turkey on technology

One year ago, I ditched my smartphone (writes Matthew Woolsey), trading it in for a 1990s Nokia that cost £5 (€6). Given my technology and e-commerce background, it was a shock to those who knew me. Having started my career as a developer and animator, I ended up as the managing director of online luxury retailer Net-a-Porter. There I managed a company with nearly 2,000 employees on several continents. But whenever I took a step back, I realised that, although we were extraordinarily busy, it never felt like we were accomplishing much. I wouldn’t say this sense of underachievement stemmed from my smartphone but it was certainly exacerbated by it.

With smartphones, you spend almost all of your time feeling very busy because you’re either sending an email or listening to something and scrolling through Instagram. When you take them out of the equation, you remove the need to respond to things instantly. You can’t fire off a reactive email; more importantly it might be several hours before you have the chance to read one. Things become clearer. When I made the decision to leave Net-a-Porter in 2019, I started thinking about the things that give me energy during a day versus the things that used it up. Ultimately, I decided to get rid of my iPhone.

I felt that I had been losing clarity and creativity because I was always trying to optimise my time with the help of my smartphone. We think that these devices make us more efficient because they create the sense that we are always accessible, engaged and working. But in many ways, my phone was making me less thoughtful as I was living life through a screen.

The first few months were a bit chaotic but having no smartphone has completely changed the composition of my day. Apple estimates that we unlock our phones about 80 times a day, probably spending at least a few minutes on it every time. That’s about five hours a day on the thing. With that extra time I’m able to let my mind go.

I’ve rediscovered my ability to let my thoughts wander and have a quiet mind not plagued by anxiety. I’ve learned to navigate the city without a map (if I do get lost I just ask for directions). I’ve found that my creativity and thought processes have improved. I have time to read books that wouldn’t previously have made it into my rotation. I can accomplish much more going for a 30-minute walk, thinking, than doing two hours of emails.

It’s like we think that these things are opposed: working and efficiency versus having free time and thought. But they’re related. Getting rid of my smartphone has shown me that.

Editor’s note: Yes, we know that it’s a bit ironic running this essay on an email bulletin, often read on a smartphone, but we like life’s contradictions. Get over it. Oh, and there are more gems like this in our final ‘Winter Weekly’ newspaper, out now and available here.


Blizzard chic

Style-spotters will be studiously looking the other way next week as the World Economic Forum crowds into Davos (writes Robert Bound). Sure, wags will ask, “Who wore it better?” – this or that grey suit – but most Davos regulars are way beyond caring whether they’re cool. They do, however, care about looking stupid. Each “master of the universe” has a sober personal brand to protect, whether they be from a bank, sovereign wealth fund or NGO. And that brand will not be helped by becoming the Wall Street Yeti (jacket and tie in a blizzard), the Billionaire Ski Bum (snowboarding to a conference on developing-world debt restructuring) or veering toward Action Man Banker (dressing like the driver of a husky-train while clutching a sheaf of financial reports).

The Oscars for money is sprung with as many sartorial bear traps as the Academy Awards themselves (remember the year that John Travolta wore jeans?). This column’s advice would be to invest in a solid Crombie overcoat, stout boots and a PA with a good centre of balance to cling to when the going gets icy. Head over heels in the snow is so not a good Davos look.


Marie-Pierre Lannelongue

After starting out as a journalist at France’s Elle in 1995, Marie-Pierre Lannelongue became the editor in chief of daily paper Le Monde’s periodical M le Magazine du Monde in 2011. She was tasked with redesigning and rethinking the publication. That’s when the magazine hit its stride, becoming a handsome title that’s now available in a large-format, covetable international edition too. Here she discloses what’s on her Deezer playlist and what she cooks for her teenage children come the weekend.

What news source do you wake up to? I am really faithful to France Inter, the French public radio station. But as soon as I open my eyes – and I am not proud of this – I open Instagram and Twitter.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines? Earl Grey tea at home. An allongé coffee at the office when I arrive.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes? I only use Deezer. All my music is on it: a mix of my all-time favourites and new songs that I’ve heard about. The idea for me is to listen to the music of the moment. I can have very eclectic choices but also classics from The xx, Phoenix and Blondie to French singers like Benjamin Biolay and Alex Beaupain. At the moment I’m listening to the most popular French pop star: Aya Nakamura, the kids’ favourite.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower? I don’t.

Papers delivered or a trip down to the kiosk? I am also ashamed to say that I only buy magazines at the kiosk from time to time. The dailies I read digitally. The airport is always a place where I buy a lot of paper; [on the plane] I usually read a lot while in my seat and leave all the papers behind, except the pages with interesting stuff.

Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack? Usually I go on Twitter and spot all the good stories recommended by people and then I go and read the piece. Le Monde provides subscriptions for a lot of papers on an electronic kiosk; lucky me!

Bookshop for a drizzly Saturday afternoon? I usually read novels on my Kindle or buy some books from time to time when I go on holiday. But I buy photo or art books in museums, especially when I love the exhibition I have just visited. Last one: 1989 at the National Museum in Stockholm.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched of late and why? I can’t wait to see Marriage Story on Netflix.

Sunday brunch routine? I go to the market and meet some friends at a café nearby, then I rush home to cook some eggs for my teenage children… if they are there.

What papers and periodicals will be spread out at breakfast? My iPhone with La Matinale du Monde and the Le Monde app.

Do you still make an appointment to watch the nightly news? My appointment is between 07.00 and 09.00 on France Inter radio.


Creative sparks

‘Waves’, Trey Edward Shults. It’s not often that a film-production company becomes a star but, after a string of successes, A24 has built a reputation for its choice of incisive dramas. These include Moonlight, which won the Oscar for best picture in 2017, the superb Ex Machina in 2015 and Room (2015). The company’s latest release, Waves, is a lush feature weighted by an intense tragedy. It’s a remarkably simple premise: one character makes a horrific mistake that radiates in the lives of others. But it’s a testament to director Trey Edward Shults that he’s crafted such an emotionally subtle story.

‘Square Haunting’, Francesca Wade. No other location in London holds as much allure to the book lover as the streets – and squares – of Bloomsbury, where Virginia Woolf and her modernist cohort rewrote the canon of English literature. Woolf is one of the five women who Francesca Wade (also the co-editor of the wonderful White Review magazine) focuses on in this group biography – Wade’s long-form debut. Poet HD, novelist Dorothy L Sayers, scholar Jane Harrison and historian Eileen Power are the other characters whose lives are traced by Wade, as their paths converge on Mecklenburgh Square.

‘Dream On’, Alice Boman. Despite her English-sounding name, Alice Boman is in fact a native of Malmö, Sweden. It was there – in her childhood bedroom – that she started making music, originally not intended to be released. Since then her intimate songs have found a dedicated following, making this debut album of hers a highly anticipated release. The gentle “Wish We Had More Time” sounds like a melancholy but sleek lullaby, while “Don’t Forget About Me” has a certain 1980s swagger about it. Every song is rendered enchanting by Boman’s soft vocals.


Nome truths

Nils Hahn and Diana Haecker, the German-born husband-and-wife owners of The Nome Nugget, are a long way from home in Nome, Alaska, near the Bering Strait (writes Will Kitchens). The 1897-founded newspaper – which claims the title of Alaska’s oldest continuously published newspaper – is a vital piece of life for the remote community of 3,800. No roads lead to Nome. Instead, it’s accessible only by snowmobile, dogsled (Haecker and Hahn, also the owners of Mushing magazine, live 11km away with their team of 30 dogs) or airplane. While the weekly newspaper is written, photographed and laid out in Nome, it’s printed in Anchorage before being flown back up to Nome. Winter storms can delay deliveries but thankfully The Nome Nugget has a loyal readership: an estimated 24,000 readers leaf through every edition. “It’s vital to this area,” says Haecker, the newspaper’s editor. “I’m not after a Pulitzer prize. I’m after informing our people and we provide the inside perspective by knowing this community inside and out.”


What’s the big story making the news? ** The Army Corps of Engineers wants the public’s view on port upgrades. With the loss of sea ice [due to increasing global temperatures], there’s more shipping traffic going through the Arctic. The port of Nome has been eyed for a massive expansion so that we can accommodate larger ships. It’s an important topic for Nome and the area; to be able to offer a port of refuge for ships to refuel or to hustle to when there’s bad weather.

Favourite photo?
 It’s a photo of New Year’s Eve fireworks over the Nome harbour. They were postponed due to very windy weather, so the fireworks display was held a week after New Year’s Eve. The photo is of the fishing vessels that have been hauled onto the shore with fireworks in the background. It’s totally Nome.

What’s your down-page treat?
 The first baby of every year makes it onto the front page. But our page-three story is about a community member and her daughter who have a column called “Let’s speak Iñupiaq”. The lady is about 80 years old and was born in Wales, which is at the tip of the Seward Peninsula, into a traditional community of subsistence hunters and gatherers before she came to Nome as a young girl. The column is memories of her life packaged into lessons. While it’s translated into English by her daughter, it includes some Iñupiaq phrases so we can all learn to use Iñupiaq. There’s a very strong movement to revitalise the language here.

What’s the next big event that you’ll be covering? 
That’s the annual Iditarod Trail dogsled race in March. In 1925, Nome was famously stricken with diphtheria and serum was brought by train from Anchorage to Nenana. Then from Nenana, a relay of dogsled drivers was organised to get the serum to Nome. But later, as the first snowmobiles arrived, many people gravitated away from using dog teams. Basically a whole culture came to an end. A few people thought we couldn’t let it die so they created the Iditarod in 1973. Every March, mushers travel 1,600km through the Alaskan wilderness from Anchorage to Nome. It usually takes the winner about nine days – and it’s so dramatic that no Disney movie could capture it. [But] we’re climate change-central here and the race is getting a bit dangerous. The trail traditionally travels over some sea ice but if it’s too warm then the race needs to be rerouted.


Was my invitation an afterthought?

How to put this delicately… Yes, we’ve all been there. I mean you, the “plus-ones” avoiding the photographer and skulking at the back in the big family wedding. And you, the late call-ups marooned at the end of table at an otherwise tight-knit dinner party hosted by someone you’ve never heard your partner talk about. Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, we’re all afterthoughts, the people who snuck onto the guestlist when someone more suitable ducked out.

Every social gathering has a pecking order, if you think about it, and someone needs to be the least important guest. So rather than bemoaning it, you should enjoy it. Why not take the opportunity to go undercover, have fun with the anonymity? How do I know the bride? We met in the French Foreign Legion of course. And the groom? He used to pop over and stroke Mr Tiddly (my cat before you ask) but that was before he met this one. You were an afterthought but embrace it; have fun and you’re sure to be first on the guestlist next time.


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