Saturday 2 May 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 2/5/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Barks and recreation

Many revolutions started in a bar I was talking to Mirik Milan for The Urbanist. We first met several years ago when he came to speak on a panel at our inaugural Quality of Life Conference in Lisbon. He’s a clever, passionate man who at the time was the night mayor of Amsterdam, responsible for promoting and protecting the city’s night-time economy. He’s also the owner of some great loud shirts, which always make a panel session more memorable.

Today he runs VibeLab with Lutz Leichsenring; it’s a consultancy that gets cities to think of clubs as cultural assets, bars as useful employers, music festivals as potent branding – and the whole after-dark world as key for drawing creative people to your city. Except now he’s trying to get those cities, business leaders and operators to think about a recovery plan. As you can guess, it’s tough (OK, I can’t resist the obvious quip: he’s literally gone from night mayor to nightmare).

But – and this is the bit that we have to keep reminding ourselves – while lots of people cannot stop talking about their baking, or new pickling habit, or sating their rediscovered jigsaw craving, there are lots of others who would rather be focusing on wild oats, wild nights and some vigorous dancefloor manoeuvres. Not everyone is settled down; not everyone is delighted to find themselves re-enacting scenes from the life of a 1950s housewife.

But there’s something else that’s lost here. Sometimes it’s across the arc of a funny, tipsy night on the town that friendships are made unbreakable, that passions are revealed, that crazy ideas take shape and big plans are gleefully concocted. Or, as Milan puts it, remember that, “Many revolutions started in a bar.” We can wait, but we need this world back. Until then, well, an online flower-arranging course looks appealing.

Bare-faced cheek Do you mind if we return to the park? Last week there was the tale of dogs having to do social distancing. Now this. In a bid to keep people from touching things, all public conveniences have been closed. The taps where you could wash your hands or quench your dog’s thirst: turned off. And so, this week, the leashed terrier and I have caught sight of more than one poor person squatting low in the grass, eyes swivelling this way and that with lizard-like alacrity. And I assure you, they are not on military training. The first time I thought that some poor old dear had stumbled, or lost an earring, and I was just heading in her direction to offer my assistance when a plaintive “No, no, no” boomed out in my direction. And all this in a Royal Park. In the immediate future, we need cities to provide more, not fewer, places to clean our hands, fill our water bottles and find relief.

Things you miss
It would be nice to have a restaurant reservation. To cheer me up, I asked my partner if he would pretend to be a maître d’ and show me to our kitchen table. Clearly he was unhappy with the role and told me firmly that there was no booking in my name but that they might have a spot on Monday at 22.00. Or I was welcome to queue outside in case a place at the kitchen counter became available.

Hand-delivered history
I saw that there’s a book about a house near where I live – An Address in Bloomsbury by Alec Forshaw. Built in the 1680s, it’s the oldest dwelling in the neighbourhood. The author lives in it. I went online to a well-known site, put it in my basket, paid. A few hours later I was outside my house when along came Mr Forshaw to hand-deliver my copy. And, what’s more, every page has a fact that I am determined to remember – from when sash windows took off in London to how the man who gave his name to Yale University also lived just round the corner. Trouble is that he mentions so many intriguing details about his house that I keep finding myself standing outside it staring up at his windows. Luckily the police have not been called, so hopefully I will be here next week. If not, take care.


Front of house

The open-air porch of my parents’ house in Toronto looks out, across a small and often overgrown garden, onto the street (writes Will Kitchens). And from a wooden bench placed here, I have often watched the world pass by; although I have rarely waved at it.

Unlike a balcony – which offers a bird’s-eye view of city life – a porch sits at street level. Unlike a backyard, it’s within reach of the sights and sounds of the street.

During isolation, Toronto’s porches have taken on new significance. Friendships are increasingly maintained through conversations had from pavement to porch. Families linger on them late into the evening as the city warms. They have even become stages for neighbourhood performances.

I have read about children in other cities who have stuck drawings of rainbows in their windows as a figurative wave to passers-by. About a month ago, I was walking past the home of a family I often see but never have any interaction with. There were no rainbow drawings, but draped over the porch railing were three smiling children, with six hands all furiously waving hello. I used both of mine to furiously wave back.


Tying one on

The mask is one of the major motifs of the pandemic. But it has a run-of-the-mill cloth cousin that’s also making a resurgence: the bandana. Although not as effective as masks in preventing wearers from spreading droplets, scarves or bandanas are better than nothing (as President Trump so eloquently pointed out in an April press briefing). They’re being fished out from the backs of closets and wrapped around faces. This adds a strange new quality to the kerchief.

A fashion accessory loaded with historical connotations, it has adorned the necks of gun-slinging cowboys and the heads of gangsters. It’s hung from the back pockets of gay men and tamed the dreadlocked mane of Captain Jack Sparrow. Now, it’s a disease-preventer (or at least a hindrance to it). One paisley print – usually white on navy – seems particularly popular among young folk at the moment. When worn with a beanie or backwards cap, dare I say, it can look quite good.

Glamorising items worn in the name of protection and solidarity puts us in uncomfortable territory. But it’s also human nature to express ourselves through what we wear – especially if we’re donning the same thing every day. We’re seeing people, especially in Asia, embracing masks in different shades and prints; bandanas are an extension of this. It’s about getting by, and looking out for others, while retaining a soupçon of individuality.


Olivia Laing

After her widely acclaimed novel Crudo, writer Olivia Laing has returned to non-fiction with her latest book – the incredibly well-timed collection of essays Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency. The former deputy books editor of The Observer, she is also an arts writer and columnist. This week, she spoke to Monocle On Culture about how art can indeed help heal the world – and here, she reveals what her go-to cultural cures are.

What news source do you wake up to?
The Guardian, but I wish I could stop.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
Tea in bed.

How are you handling working from home?
I’ve worked from home most of my life, so no change there. It’s escaping in the evenings I miss. What I wouldn’t give for a six o’clock glass of wine at St John [a restaurant in London’s Farringdon].

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
BBC Radio 3 forever.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”, God knows why.

Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
Hortus, Luncheon, Tate Etc, Bomb, The Plant.

Are you a subscriber or more of a newsstand browser?

Bookshop you can’t wait to return to?
London Review Bookshop in London; Three Lives in New York.

Is there any media you have rediscovered now you have more time?
I watched the whole of Seinfeld at the end of last year and I wish I’d saved it for lockdown – there’s a Groundhog Day quality to their lives at the best of times, and it would have been nice to think of Jerry stuck in his apartment while I can’t leave mine.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched of late and why?
I loved Quiz. Stephen Frears is knocking it out the park lately; it’s almost as good as A Very English Scandal.

Sunday brunch routine?
In the greenhouse, mooching.

What papers and periodicals will be spread out on the breakfast table?
FT Weekend, the greatest, plus an assortment of copies of the Times Literary Supplement and London Review of Books that my husband seems to find it physically painful to throw away.

What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
More Radio 3; don’t touch that dial.


Is now the time to build a business?

As businesses around the world work through the fallout from the pandemic, hoping they can find the cash to stay viable in the weeks and months ahead, many veteran entrepreneurs who have gone through boom and bust before – and come out on top – already have one eye on their next opportunity.

On this week’s episode of Monocle 24’s The Entrepreneurs, we turned to Iceland to ask where opportunity might lie. The country was badly hit by the global financial crisis a decade ago but quickly began to thrive again thanks in part to a tech boom that grew out of the Nordic countries. “Generally recessions are a good time to start something, especially if [what you build] is more relevant to the new environment,” says serial tech entrepreneur Georg Ludviksson, CEO and co-founder of financial services company Meniga.

Ludviksson launched Meniga in 2009 and today, the company develops digital tools for a number of global banks, improving the customer experience of more than 90 million end users. Ludviksson says now is another great time to build something new, be it a new product, service or even a new company. “You can build things now and generally people are more open to joining your cause – and talent is much more available.

“Going through the last recession when I witnessed many people being frustrated with the banking system or the greater crisis; just having a focussed mission is way better than agonising over the news,” he says. “So build something. Do something. That’s a much healthier ideal on how to act, even when there is uncertainty.”

Send your questions for next’s week expert guest to:


Ask me anything

In my house, Thursday night is now quiz night. So are Saturday night and Sunday night – and, if we’re after a mid-week thrill, perhaps Wednesday too (writes Jamie Waters). Quiz sessions between friends – from London to Sydney and New York – are booming because they’re an ideal activity to do over a group call. Zoom chats are really quite awkward things, in which the danger of clunkily talking over one another is both terrifying and ever-present; a quiz, whether on sport, pop culture or deciphering emoji riddles, gives much-needed structure to conversations.

For us Aussies, many of whom were already trivia junkies, they’ve become an obsession. (One of the biggest talking point in recent years was the earth-shattering news that Stephen Samuelson, the ultimate quiz-maker, had moved from the left-wing Sydney Morning Herald to the right-wing The Australian. Possibly no other person in the nation’s media industry could convince so many readers to switch from buying one newspaper to the other.)

In lockdown etiquette, it’s become impolite to turn down a quiz invitation. Among our group, it’s got to the point where the only acceptable excuse is saying you’ve already done that exact quiz (unlikely as it sounds, this has happened more than once – or maybe my friends just don’t want to hang out with me?). Our exercise routines may be waning and our nights out dancing long forgotten but our general knowledge has never been this strong: by the time we’re allowed back out into the world, I will be a genius.


Making it your way

‘Hollywood’, Netflix. Ryan Murphy’s fascinating new drama about the post-war heyday of Hollywood is debuting on Netflix. Starring American Crime Story’s Darren Criss, Hollywood follows the ambitions of young actors who would do anything to make it in the industry. The series delves into the themes that Murphy excels at in his work: tracing the struggles that women, LGBT and black people have had to overcome in their careers – and in their lives.

‘Three. Two. One.’, Lennon Stella. Lennon Stella’s career may have blossomed on the small screen as an actress on TV series Nashville, but now the Ontario-born singer is a fully fledged popstar in her own right. The singles on her debut album Three. Two. One. come straight from the textbook of empowering and uplifting mainstream pop (talking, as they do, of getting over your ex by “Kissing Other People”) but considering how catchy they are that can only be taken as a wholehearted compliment.

‘How to Pronounce Knife’, Souvankham Thammavongsa. This razor-sharp collection of short stories tells the tales of displaced immigrants and their desperate attempts to find ways to fit in their new homes. There’s a woman indulging in an affair with a man much younger than her, a former boxer discovering happiness when he takes up painting nails at a salon and a single mother unfairly overlooked for a promotion. Thammavongsa’s debut pierces right through what it means to love – and to belong.


Life and breath

The Caribbean island of St Kitts – formally known as St Christopher – was the first British colony in the West Indies and the most recent to gain independence, in 1983 (writes Louis Harnett O’Meara). It was granted the status of a sovereign nation in partnership with the small, rotund island of Nevis, which lies just 4km south of St Kitts. The two hilly isles are now home to a collective population of 50,000, though Nevis operates with relative autonomy.

A decade after sovereignty was granted, Kenneth Williams – recently moved to St Kitts from the British Virgin Islands – decided to start a newspaper, the St Kitts & Nevis Observer. “I was struggling to know which news I could trust when I first arrived,” Williams explains. The only two newspapers were funded by the two major political parties on the islands and provided radically opposing points of view. Within a year, he had secured a printing press and a team of staff – now numbering 20 – to begin producing the nation’s only independent weekly news sheet. “I wanted to create the first paper of record,” says Williams.

What’s the big news this week?
St Kitts and Nevis have done very well in their handling of coronavirus. From the time it became obvious it would reach here, our government started to prepare. When they saw the first two or three cases, they shut down the island. It worked. We peaked at 15 cases and now six have recovered. We’ve also received help from friendly nations like Taiwan and Cuba – there’s a contingent of Cuban doctors and nurses in St Kitts right now, who’ve come to fight the virus.

Favourite image in the paper?
We have a situation where the premier of Nevis’s administration is also an MP in St Kitts. So, he’s collecting two salaries – one from the Nevis island government and one from the federal government of St Kitts and Nevis. Since the virus hit, he has dropped his Nevis salary. We have a photograph of him looking down and our headline says, “Could Bradley’s Covid-19 pay cut become contagious?”

What’s your favourite headline?
Last week our front page ran: “Business corona balancing act: a matter of life and breath”. The government had to shut down the country, but like anywhere else had to take into consideration the economic impact. I think they have done a good job of that – they had money at hand to inject 120m Eastern Caribbean dollars (€40m) into the economy. It’s impressive they had put that money aside – five years ago we had one of the highest ratio of debt-to-GDP per capita in the world.

What’s the next big story?
We have to look out for the elections. I think the government has started a campaign already in a subtle way. They have to call it by 15 August at the latest but my view is they will call it early, in July. This will catch the opposition out because it will be so soon after the government has effectively handled the virus. But our incumbent prime minister Timothy Harris is well liked here anyway. The economy is in good shape now.


Can you break up by phone now?

Mr Etiquette is well aware that it’s bad form to break up with someone via technology, but we are knee-deep in a global pandemic, so we’re going to have to adjust our expectations a bit, aren’t we? So yes, breaking up with somebody via phone does not make you a coward these days. But what if your soon-to-be former paramour has been furloughed? And isn’t it better to wait until they can surround themselves with friends and family?

Both valid questions. But Mr Tiddly knows when I’m half-heartedly scratching his back, more focused on reading my new book than paying him any real attention. You’re not doing anyone any favours by feigning interest, pandemic or not. Best to get it over with. Just don’t expect them to play Words With Friends with you anymore.


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