Saturday 14 March 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 14/3/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Snapshots from a week

  1. London feels odd. Waiting for a storm? The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus infections in the UK still remains in the hundreds at the time of writing but the health experts’ predictions are ugly. And behaviour is shifting in hundreds of small ways. Public transport, for one, is being shunned. On the morning cycle to work I feel as though I am in a two-wheeled demonstration. At one point I am in a snaking trail of 100 cyclists. Clearly some people are not regular bikers as saddles are set at low easy-rider levels that make their gentleman passengers look like big five-year-olds. And there’s a lot of wobbling. But at least it’s one of the better shifts in habit that we are seeing. By afternoon, however, the city is quiet. Shops and galleries near Monocle have signs in their windows saying that they are closed until further notice. But it also feels important to support the cafés and restaurants near us that are open as usual as these people need to earn a living. And Monocle is busy this week – you realise that it would be hard running a news organisation from your bedroom.

  2. For a little perspective on disease in the city we invite Vanessa Harding, professor of London history at Birkbeck College, onto The Urbanist podcast on Monocle 24. She knows a lot about the plague, including the last one to hit London, in 1665. She tells us that London had a population of 460,000 then and 75,000 people died that year – most of them from the plague. It turns out that they had a version of rolling news: weekly “bills of mortality” were published that listed who had succumbed to the disease. The diarist Samuel Pepys would eagerly await each issue. I ask Harding about the theory that London never had another plague because, the following year, The Great Fire killed all the flea-ridden rats that were spreading the disease. That’s not true it seems – it’s more likely that human lice were that period’s super-spreaders. Her visit generates some non-coronavirus chat in the office – the plague as light relief.

3. The morning yoga class is still busy. But there are now disinfectant sprays and paper towels for everyone. The class begins not with breathing exercises but with a spot of cleaning. Mats are doused and scrubbed. Post-spray, mine becomes as slippery as an ice rink and the downward dog is now more duck on frozen pond as hands and feet drift out of control.

  1. I hope you take notice of the recommended books in this newsletter – they are selected by our culture editor, Chiara Rimella. I just read one of them: Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting (see Monocle’s Weekend Edition from 18 January). It’s the story of five women, including Virginia Woolf, who lived in London’s Mecklenburgh Square between the wars. All were pioneers; all were unhappy to fit in with what was expected of women. There’s a lot of adversity to be confronted by them all as Spanish flu and German bombs visit the square. It’s somehow another piece of history that’s comforting at this time – and it’s interesting how the fear of air raids soon gave way to boredom and the need to get on with life for the likes of Woolf (well, until she killed herself).

5. And over the horizon? The pace of news this week has been exhausting and the draining of confidence concerning. But this will pass. And then? In our reporting at Monocle we want to be both the chroniclers of today – with a nod to Mr Pepys – but also to look at how the world will have to recover. It is clearly not business as usual at this point but we will continue to offer solutions, plans and a bigger perspective. We will also continue to deliver reports from our Asia editor in Hong Kong, where life is getting sunnier and the clouds are clearing. And we won’t be publishing any bills of mortality.


National character

When the Tsutaya Roppongi bookshop reopened in Tokyo last weekend, the most prominent display by the front door was given over not to a bestselling novel or the usual stack of fashion magazines but to a new paperback version of the Japanese constitution. Hardly a bestseller, you might think, but this bilingual, Japanese-English volume is ingenious: the font is large, unfamiliar terms are explained and the whole text is interspersed with eye-catching images of Japanese contemporary art, architecture and manga.

Presented in short chunks with thoughtful visual juxtapositions, the constitution suddenly springs to life. Article Nine – the most sensitive, war-renouncing section – is accompanied by an image from photographer Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s series Vegetable Weapons, which shows a woman in Uganda holding a “gun” made from vegetables. Japan’s pacifist constitution, which was drafted by the US after the Second World War, is a hot topic these days. Prime minister Shinzo Abe and his supporters would like to see it amended to give Japan a more active military role.

Tokyo publishers TAC wanted to produce a version of the constitution that would appeal to Japanese readers – particularly young people – but also to foreign visitors who want to know more about the country. They approached esteemed editor Shuji Shimamoto and he called on Gento Matsumoto, one of Japan’s best known graphic designers, who took charge of the project, directing everything from the design to the picture selection.

TAC isn’t offering a political perspective on the broader issues but, at a time when the constitution is in the frame for a rewrite, it is worth pointing out that Japanese citizens ought to read this much-discussed document for themselves to see what is at stake.

NB: You can now pre-order The Monocle Book of Japan – it’s pretty good. Go to


Delivering the goods

Last week we pointed out how newsstands being closed and people being stuck at home is very bad news for media brands. And we encouraged you to subscribe. Many of you did but we would love to have more of you with us – head here if you would like to come on board. And a very big thank you.

We would also like to direct you to the new April issue of Monocle, which is out this coming Thursday. It features reports from Beirut, Dakar and Tokyo – but the big focus is on Paris. In partnership with our friends at Les Echos newspaper, we have produced a survey of the city’s best outposts, featuring everything from sunny tennis courts to secret museums. Our Paris 75 is the address book you need.


Pulling her white

On Tuesday evening, Tulsi Gabbard, congresswoman for Hawaii and long-shot Democratic candidate for president, was seated at the end of a television camera lens, waiting for her live interview on Fox News to begin. A small enamel US flag, pinned to the lapel of her jacket, glinted in the studio lights as she raised her right hand to wave at the viewers at home. “Right here,” she said, smiling broadly. “Hi. Hi. I’m here,” she added, still waving, still smiling, vying for the attention of voters who either don’t know that she’s still in the race, or have absolutely no idea who she is.

Gabbard, an army veteran who is the first Hindu to serve in the US House of Representatives, is the only woman left in the Democratic primary process, following Elizabeth Warren’s exit last week. It is, however, a mathematical impossibility for Gabbard to get anywhere near the nomination: she has won two delegates in the primaries so far. (Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders currently have 1,606 delegates between them.) For Tuesday’s interview, Gabbard wore her campaign-trail ensemble of choice: a white, single-breasted blazer and matching trousers, the colour echoing the distinctive streak that runs through her long, dark hair.

Over the past few years, white has emerged as a potent colour for Democratic women in politics. In 2016, Hillary Clinton wore white the night she became the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination. And, two years later, Democratic members of the largest cohort of women ever to be elected to congress began a co-ordinated tradition of wearing white outfits to the president’s State of the Union addresses – a reference to the colour worn by suffragists a century ago (and a collective visual rebuttal of the current president’s unseemly view of women).

But for Gabbard, white has become a divisive colour. Some contend that it is most potent when worn in a group as a collective symbol of something greater than oneself. But, Gabbard’s critics say, she has worn white to draw attention to herself. It’s a lone-soldier persona that has crystallised during the campaign. And it’s an image that’s at its clearest now that her campaign has become an inconsequential hanger-on in the two-way battle for the Democratic nomination, where only the viewers of Fox News (who probably won’t vote for a Democrat anyway) are there to see her wave.


Irene Gentle

The Toronto Star has been in print for 128 years and is one of Canada’s most popular daily broadsheets. It’s the nation’s largest news website, covering a breadth of stories from federal politics to ice hockey results. Irene Gentle was appointed the Star’s editor in 2018 – the first female chief in the paper’s history – after previously working as business and managing editor. Here she tells us about her favourite independent bookshops and why she insists on buying music.

What news source do you wake up to?
It’s about waking up and trying to catch up. I start digitally with a compilation of Canadian media outlets and then the BBC and Guardian, to see what happened overnight Canada-time. I’ll also look at Twitter.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
Most definitely coffee: an Americano. But I use my willpower and wait until I’m physically at work – it’s a bit of a treat.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
For my entire life I have bought music. I’ve gone from records to cassettes to CDs and so on. I have probably spent a small fortune on music. For some reason, I insist on trying to pay the most possible in some vain hope that the artists might get more.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
Humming? No, I’m definitely singing.

Papers delivered or a trip down to the kiosk?
Delivered. Apparently, I feel the obligation to support the entire world, including the news industry. We subscribe physically to three daily Canadian newspapers – including our own – and The New York Times on weekends.

Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
Every fraction of my day has a new input – whether it’s a new article or alert or push [notification]. So in the moments when I’m not doing that, I prefer a book. I’ll read wherever possible: a page here, a page there. I’ll even read when I’m brushing my teeth.

Are you a subscriber or more of a newsstand browser?
Subscriber, definitely. In Canada newsstands are becoming less of a thing; it’s more about subscriptions.

Bookshop for a drizzly Saturday afternoon?
That has to keep changing because the bookshops keep changing. There’s Type Books on Queen Street West and Queen Books on Queen Street East in Toronto. I love going to bookshops and being able to go through title by title; you don’t know what’s coming and you pick things up that you wouldn’t know how to search for.

Sofa or cinema for the evening?

What’s the best thing you’ve watched of late and why?
I keep thinking of the Spanish show Money Heist. My husband and I really like dark, brooding, Scandinavian murder mysteries too. There’s a little bit of tourism that you can do through Netflix. My husband and I like to watch Spanish, Italian and Korean shows and pretend that we have a sense of the cultures by watching them.

Sunday brunch routine?
We read the papers. We have a huge stack with coffee, so breakfast is usually very late as a result. We do that all morning and then, in the appropriate season, we watch baseball.

What papers and periodicals will be spread out on the dining room table?
We’re subscribed to [architecture magazine] Azure. My husband also recently got a subscription service that sends you magazines from 10 obscure European destinations. They change every time. So we have this odd collection of those that could be about anything; they’re usually quite niche. On the paper front, there’s the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, and The New York Times.

Do you still make an appointment to watch the nightly news?
No. The news is pretty unavoidable in my life, so there’s no need to sit down and watch it because it’s coming at me all the time.

What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
[Irish musician] Hozier, right now. But it changes from time to time.


Powerful attractions

‘And Then We Danced’, Levan Akin. This feature film takes us to the world of Georgian traditional dance: a strict, formalised and supposedly “virile” art, which is why wafer-thin Merab’s graceful movements don’t sit well with his troupe’s coach. When a new dancer, Irakli, joins the group, a tense atmosphere of competition and attraction pulls him irresistibly close to Merab. In conservative, homophobic Tbilisi an affair is a very risky thing – but little can be done to stop the brashness of young love.

‘Truth or Consequences’, Yumi Zouma. Yumi Zouma consists of four friends from New Zealand who met in Christchurch before taking off to different locations around the world – but they still make music together online. The breathless songs on Truth or Consequences, the quartet’s third album, slide into one another in a soft haze, all impeccable dream pop with a touch of funk and 1980s beats. Single “Cool for a Second” is irresistible but “Mirror to the Fire” is the record’s true shoegaze delight.

‘Radio-Activity’, Lenbachhaus, Munich. The Lenbachhaus’s current exhibition pays homage to two periods – the 1920s to 1930s and the 1960s to 1970s – when artists and collectives took to thinking about radio and mass communication in experimental ways. Rather than using only mass media as an instrument of distribution, and to protest against its potential as a propaganda tool, German artists created ways of engaging the audience in their transmissions. It’s not just audio that’s featured here; the exhibition also comprises paintings, manifestos and even a few invented languages.


Come to the crabaret

Kodiak, the island town off Alaska’s southern coast, was founded as a Russian trading outpost before becoming US territory following the Alaska Purchase of 1867. The Kodiak Daily Mirror was launched more than 70 years later, in June 1940, when the town’s strategic location made it a hub for US army and navy activity. Today, Kodiak remains home to one of the largest US coastguard bases in the country as well as a robust commercial fishery. Reached only by ferry or airplane, Kodiak has a population of 6,000, although this balloons to 13,000 if you include the six villages dotting its edges. The Kodiak Daily Mirror is the area’s source for local news, printing 1,300 newspapers on most weekdays. Reporter Sarah Lapidus tells us what’s making headlines.

What’s a big story making news this week?

A lot of fish caught in Kodiak are transported to Asia but transportation has slowed because the markets are stalled there. There’s also a lot of fishing gear that’s made in China and fishermen, who are preparing for fishing in the fall, are having trouble getting their gear, such as lines for repairing crab pots. One fisherman also told me that right now they can’t even get the bait they usually use, so they’re using bait that isn’t as good and their catches have decreased by 50 per cent in the past couple of weeks. Hopefully everything will get fixed sooner rather than later.

Your favourite headline?
Nothing too funny but there’s one that’s big and short: “Hospital strike”. We only have one hospital in Kodiak and with people talking about coronavirus, it doesn’t need to say much more than that.

What’s your down-page treat?

“Samaritans retrieve lost ring from trash”. This was a fun story to cover. A resident had lost his wedding ring in the trash and he was asking that people contact him if they find it. The employees at the landfill went through 2,000 lbs (900kg) of trash to find it. People go above and beyond sometimes. It’s nice to have stories where people can see who’s part of their community.

Next big event?
I’ll be reporting on a vote to allow edible marijuana products to be sold in the city limits, which has been a very contentious issue over the past year. Finally decisions will be made. [In late March], there’s ComFish which is a big fishing event where vendors and businesses will come from all over the country to show their products. Then in May there’s Crab Fest. That’s huge: crab everything.


How many loo rolls am I allowed?

Oh dear. I imagine that you are also the sort of person who’s stealing them from your office loo and pinching the hand sanitiser from the restaurant bathroom. The greed and meanness that’s involved in panic buying is beyond the pale. While you turn your house into a tissue cave, other people go without – although, come to think of it, that’s another reason to desist from all handshaking.

But we have the feeling that nothing we say will deter you (admittedly, Mr Tiddly’s passion for the litter tray is not a solution that we would recommend to non-felines). And no, before you ask, a cellar rammed with boxes of nice wine is not the same as hoarding. That’s just wise planning.


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