Saturday 25 July 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 25/7/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Helping hand

Tony Elliott, founder of Time Out, died last week, aged 73. He was my boss for a decade, starting in the mid-1980s, and he is the reason that I somehow managed to become a journalist – a link that brings me to today, this column, this moment. When you have no connections in an industry, when you barely know how it functions or how you could fit in, then finding the much-vaunted lucky break can be hard. In 1986, I had left university and was the holder of two fine jobs – bartender and waiter – and perhaps my closest brush with the media industry had been having a newspaper delivery round in my teens. But I wanted in. I was obsessed with magazines and with the world of reporting, I read any paper that came my way. But how to get my foot in the door?

And then I met a real journalist who advised me to write to every magazine I could think of to offer to volunteer for a few weeks and just hope that my bar shifts would see me through. I wrote those letters – the things with stamps on – to everything from diet magazines to women’s fashion titles to society newspapers (how I thought that would ever work, I don’t know). And, one day, a letter came back. Time Out had started a new guide-books division and needed some junior help.

The guides were not produced in the main office, then in London’s Covent Garden, but in a nearby old school. And also here was Tony Elliott’s office. So the new volunteer ended up sitting a few metres away from the owner. One night when he was leaving, he stopped and asked who I was and why I seemed to have taken up residence in the offices. Then a few days later he stopped again. “There’s a job going on the magazine,” he said. “I am going to get you the details. I think you should apply.” The helping hand.

I have been lucky in my career to work with editors and publishers who were willing to guide me along – even when my skills clearly needed some attention. But the journey would not have started without Tony Elliott. I worked at the company during an incredible moment for the magazine. This was pre-internet, so if you wanted to know what to see at the theatre, where the best gay club was or which were the good places to eat, you needed Time Out. The magazine was packed with advertising and issues would regularly sell more than 100,000 copies on the newsstand.

But the magazine was also a success at that time because of Tony’s refusal to deviate from the values of the brand and what it promised to deliver. His focus on detail meant that those working on the magazine knew that although they might have secured a great interview, Tony would not be happy if they (actually, me) forgot to list some jumble sales too. They are values that stick with you: that journalism can be a service; that accuracy is valuable and detail matters; that cities are incredible places that are best unlocked with some insider knowledge.

And another piece of my career would be oddly put into place very soon. In my new role as the deputy editor of the consumer pages, I received a call from reception. A young writer was here to see my boss but she wasn’t around, so could I see them? He seemed interesting; he said his name was Tyler Brûlé. We ended up going for a drink and started a conversation about magazines, the media and what journalism can do – that still continues.

And now? Well, you hope that you will be able to look back and think that you offered a helping hand every now and then. It’s not easy spotting buried talent, finding time and pausing in your day but Tony Elliott managed it while running a hugely successful company – and there a lot of people who are very grateful that he did too.


Opening bid

Being grounded in Hong Kong since March has allowed me to tick-off a few things on the “always-meant-to-do” list, from boring admin to finally attending an art auction (writes James Chambers). Sotheby’s’ delayed spring sales were held at the conference centre in Wan Chai and the preview proved to be a far more enriching afternoon than expected – much more enjoyable than the annual Art Basel, which is usually held in the same whopping venue.

Sotheby’s splashed out on its preview and the colourful walls created a more museum-grade viewer experience than the white booths at trade fairs. The exhibition’s human scale was also a better fit for both my schedule and my concentration span. There’s simply too much to see at Art Basel and too many people there to be seen. I’d also argue that an auction preview is a more fascinating spectacle. There I was watching a trickle of often shabbily dressed visitors – entering for free – request to sit down for a closer look at a rare Qing dynasty vase. A billionaire buyer? Or an art-loving refuse worker? Could be both; could be neither. No one asks; no one cares.

Auctions are surprisingly egalitarian and more people should make use of them. This season, 90 per cent of auction sales happened on the phone or online, not in the room. But I was more than happy with my lot: an opportunity to get up close to a fine collection of artworks by Chinese artists such as Zao Wou-Ki, Liu Ye and Yue Minjun that would rarely be shown together in a Hong Kong gallery.


Hitting the bottle

A few weeks ago I was sitting around a campfire on a small island that can only be reached by canoe (writes Will Kitchens in Toronto). I was prepared to embrace a few days without phones or mirrors, or giving any consideration to my appearance. The last thing on my mind was fashion – yet fashion followed us to the island. At our campsite, one friend proudly showed off their new Teva sandals; a second chopped vegetables with a knife from Japanese camping brand Snow Peak; and a third, following a long day of paddling, drank from a Nalgene water-bottle. But this was no ordinary Nalgene bottle; it was branded by Online Ceramics.

The Los Angeles-based clothing label, which has developed a rabid following for its off-kilter graphic T-shirts, isn’t unique for having collaborated with Nalgene. Plenty of other fashion brands have done the same, from streetwear icon Supreme to activewear brand Outdoor Voices. But Nalgene hasn’t always been fashionable. Founded in 1949, the firm has spent most of its life being sold at outdoor shops alongside freeze-dried camping food. Over the past decade, though, as companies have increasingly turned to sustainability to drive sales (think organic fabrics and transparent manufacturing processes), the reusable water-bottle has emerged as a must-have accessory.

While S’well, founded in 2010, might be the most obvious success story of this development, Nalgene has emerged as the choice of a more fashionable set. That’s in part thanks to “gorpcore”, a term coined in 2017 to describe fashion’s embrace of outdoor gear, which has seen brands such as Salomon cross from hiking trails to catwalks. Even my father has become attuned to the trend, excitedly claiming that he, an avid outdoorsman, is now in vogue. “Perhaps even a trendsetter,” he says. While we do own the same pair of hiking shoes, I have yet to see anyone I’d consider to be a good dresser wearing his trousers – thanks to a zip at the knee, they can quickly morph into shorts.


Gerard Corcoran

Founded by a small group of Australian architects in 1938, Hassell has grown to become a leading international design practice with studios in Australia, Asia, the UK and the US. Since joining as CEO in 2013, Gerard Corcoran has overseen a team that has designed everything from planned communities in Hong Kong to conceptual housing for Mars. Here he tells Monocle which British-Japanese TV production has him hooked and where you’ll find the best scrambled eggs in Sydney.

What news source do you wake up to?
I read various news channels online – BBC, ABC, CNN, Sky – when I get to the kitchen for a first cup of tea. Then I have a couple of TVs on as I wander around the apartment in Sydney or our house in the UK, getting ready for the day.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
Definitely tea.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
I’m a dedicated Spotify user. “20th Century Boy” by T. Rex and “Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker are getting a lot of airplay at the moment.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses.

Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
I’ll have The Economist, New Scientist, Empire, The New Yorker, The Times Magazine, and Monocle, of course.

Are you a subscriber or more of a newsstand browser?
Both. But on balance perhaps just more of a subscriber, especially in the current situation.

A favourite bookshop you’d like to recommend?
Blackwell’s in Oxford. I first visited when I attended an academic conference there in 1980. I used to visit a few times a year when I was more regularly based in the UK.

Is there any cultural gem you have rediscovered recently?
I recently watched Cool Hand Luke again, and I’m watching M*A*S*H and The West Wing quite a lot. In terms of books, I’ve just re-read Catch 22 and The Wasp Factory.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched of late and why?
Giri/Haji, which is a really interesting British-Japanese production. It’s a crime thriller that experiments with timelines, locations and language, and even has animation and some dance and choreography in the mix. The art direction is great and the soundtrack is also a treat – not to mention the superb acting. Billions and Fauda are also big favourites.

Sunday brunch routine?
Sunday morning tennis, then a walk with my wife Amanda to Five Ways in Paddington, Sydney, for scrambled eggs and tomatoes – and tea, of course.

What papers and periodicals will be spread out on the dining room table?
A mix of news and entertainment: The Sunday Times, Australian Financial Review, National Geographic and movie periodical Little White Lies.

Do you still make an appointment to watch the nightly news? A favourite newsreader perhaps?
At some stage during the evening when I’m at home, I’ll tune into Sky TV from the UK, ABC in Australia and CNN from the US. Adam Boulton and Anderson Cooper are favourites – and I really like Jimmy Kimmel but he doesn’t count as a news person. Over the past few years I’ve also enjoyed watching Barrie Cassidy and Virginia Trioli on the ABC in Australia.

What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
Usually sport of some sort.


Fuel for the soul

‘Lianne La Havas’, Lianne La Havas. From the start of soulful opener “Bittersweet”, British singer Lianne La Havas’s self-titled third album is a display of her vocal prowess – and her voice’s warm and captivating tones. Melody takes a step back, becoming a simple backdrop to charming songs about heartbreak that maintain a soft R&B lilt.

‘Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful’, Gero von Boehm. This documentary by German director Gero von Boehm about Helmut Newton centres – as it must – on the question at the core of the photographer’s work: are his pictures of women empowering or objectifying? Interviewees including Isabella Rossellini, Grace Jones and Anna Wintour weigh in. We also find out about Newton’s biography and his tragic death in Los Angeles.

‘The Party Upstairs’, Lee Conell. Though American writer Lee Conell’s debut novel is no ordinary upstairs-downstairs story, it is still very much a novel about class. Moving across the floors of a building in Manhattan (as well as back and forth through layers of memory) we come to know two families of different fortunes – all in one day. In the evening, the much-awaited party of the title plays host to a spectacular and illuminating release of tension – as parties all too often do.


Southern charm

Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) is a tiny landlocked nation that’s sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. It takes less than three hours to drive from one side of the country to the other. Its green, mountainous terrain is home to just over a million people, who have been governed by an absolute monarchy since 1973, shortly after gaining independence from the British in 1968. This means that King Mswati III, the hereditary leader of the Swazis, oversees every decision made by the country’s chiefs, councils and parliament.

“We are one culture, one tribe,” says Martin Dlamini, managing editor of the nation’s oldest newspaper, the Times of Eswatini (previously the Times of Swaziland), which was established in 1897. It’s a culture that he covers daily, overseeing an editorial team of 35 and a daily print run of about 25,000. From the return of a woman who was pronounced dead to the smart innovations of a young Swazi boy, Dlamini tells us what’s been making the news in his little patch of southern Africa.

What’s the big story this week?
We have a proceeds of crime act, which was promulgated a year or so ago. It gives law enforcers the authority to investigate people when they have reason to believe they are collecting wealth from criminal activity. The act allows authorities to confiscate everything – the suspect’s house, their car. There is concern because it seems to be targeting the poorer groups in society, rather than the “fat cats”. Parliament has moved to amend the act so that it can be applied equally.

Do you have a favourite headline from a recent issue?
“I’m not dead, pay my grant.” An official at the social-welfare department had conducted an investigation to try to prevent people from unrightfully claiming grants. They found that a woman had continued to collect her mother’s welfare money, even though the mother was supposedly dead. But they had cross-referenced something incorrectly; the mother was still alive. She must have given them a fright when she came in to ask for her money.

What’s your down-page treat?
We ran a story on a local boy from a more rural part of the country. He has created a robot that carries a serving tray. He controls it remotely so that it takes tea and coffee between the tables in a restaurant. It’s a smart way of helping waiters and waitresses to avoid too much contact as coronavirus begins to pick up here.

What’s the next big event?
The coronavirus is making an entry into Eswatini; we’ve had 25 deaths so far. There’s a big debate on whether to keep schools and businesses open; those in government would like to keep the economy running. So far they have banned drinking and producing alcohol: they believe that by stopping people from boozing, they will help to prevent people from spreading the virus. The heavy drinkers aren’t very happy.


Keep it local

The hospitality sector has been among the hardest hit during the pandemic. But it’s also where some of the most innovative ways of finding new revenue streams can be found, from farms and wineries selling direct-to-consumer for the first time to chefs joining forces with new delivery services. And as hotels reopen to guests this summer, Robin Chadha, chief marketing officer for the CitizenM group, says that it is vital to think local.

Speaking on this week’s episode of Monocle 24’s The Entrepreneurs, Chadha says that CitizenM is considering how to partner with the neighbours of its 22 properties to find new ways to delight guests. “It's our role to help that community and there’s lots of businesses that are struggling not only in hotels,” says Chadha. “So maybe find a dynamic way that you can work together. It could be the local ice-cream parlour on the corner; do a deal with them where you have a little ice-cream stand in the lobby and it’s free ice cream. It could be the smallest idea.”

For small properties, cutting costs while encouraging people to spend nearby will go a long way. “I think we can only get through this together,” says Chadha. “As communities in different cities, that’s very important.”


Video conferencing – should I turn on the camera when colleagues refuse to?

The grimness of video conferencing is hitting home. A teacher friend tells me that on most days he now faces an online classroom of faceless tiles. What’s more, his headmaster has warned him that it would be an infringement of his students’ privacy to ask them to reveal their cherubic visages. But this is not just a teen rebellion. Many companies also permit staff to simply log on with audio – even when others are there smiling in full view.

While the presumption is that the blank-tilers are hiding because they look hungover, have dodgy home décor or have secretly legged it to Italy for the summer, it does show one thing clearly: office politics has gone digital. But if you are present and crisp, in full glowing view, Mr Etiquette suggests that, come bonus time, you will be top of mind. But I would try to keep companions out of shot – even those as charming as Mr Tiddly.


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