Saturday 23 January 2021 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 23/1/2021

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


City limits

Thank goodness that the new series of Call My Agent is finally being aired outside France – where it’s known as Dix pour cent. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of Parisian talent agency ASK and every episode includes stars of French cinema and television playing extreme versions of themselves; the first episode of the new series has Charlotte Gainsbourg mistakenly signed up to do a terrible sci-fi film. It’s touching, funny and satirical. Another star playing itself is Paris. You are in bars, on scooters, walking the streets, going to parties and dinners. The sun bounces off of blonde-stone Haussmann buildings. Commuters swirl out of the metro. Cocktails are drunk. Paris is a beating, complex city that knows how to hold itself for a close-up, even on the small screen.

Of course, at this moment, that Paris is almost a historical drama. This time last year Monocle was working on a guide to the city with our friends at Les Echos newspaper and we would take the Eurostar in the morning to see the team, sometimes heading back that evening, other times staying the night for drinks. Now? Eurostar is in trouble, with passenger numbers down 95 per cent.

I had the same heady jolt of city desire – tinged with a splash of melancholy – while watching Sofia Coppola’s film On the Rocks, starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones. This time it’s Manhattan that steals your heart. It’s a comedy of ambition, affluence and broken relationships that holds you tight from the start – but you are also lured in by a summer-tanned city of perfect homes and beautiful bars. It’s a movie-perfect version of Manhattan but then New York always is, even when the cameras aren’t rolling.

TV and cinema might offer some escape and distraction at this time but glimpsing thronged scenes in places that you know so well, in cities that have been parts of your life, aches a little too. After a year of this, they also begin to feel far away. And, yes, just as life magically reappears when rain hits parched ground, deep down you know that all our cities can burst back into life. But sometimes waiting for that kind of magic is hard.

Back in November, with gyms closed, I started running and now several times a week, at the end of the day, I head off into the dark. Usually I run towards the river, cross south at, say, Tower Bridge and then choose a route back across another bridge and home again. Sometimes I find it hard to stop. I begin thinking that I will be out for 30 minutes but by the time I get back a couple of hours have passed. I am definitely slow but has age let me learn something about pacing yourself? About holding back some energy for the last stretch? Ignoring the people who seem to glide along with greater ease?

I don’t even know why I like it. Yes, your mind clears. And, yes, the running app definitely lures you out to compete against yourself. But I wouldn’t do this without London as a running partner. I head down dark streets in the City of London where the only life you see is security guards in vast lobbies – and the homeless. I glimpse worshippers in a Catholic church in Mayfair. Two men smoking cigarettes as one caresses a string of prayer beads outside an embassy. The riverside paths are busier with many more runners, lovers perched on walls and dog walkers but, even here, with every bar, restaurant and theatre shuttered, the quietness jars.

So while it’s great to feel such ownership of the stalled city as you run – and although you are still able to make out its stern, solid beauty as drizzle mists the blackness – London (and Paris, and New York) should not look like a set waiting for the actors to take their places and the action to begin. We all have more stories to live out on these stages and we all need our cities back soon, please.


Body language

The 22-year-old poet at Wednesday’s presidential inauguration moved her hands through the air as she delivered her superb poem “The Hill We Climb” (writes Tomos Lewis). As Gorman gestured with her words, a glint appeared every now and then from her right hand: the shimmer of a gold ring.

Shaped like a bird in a cage, the ring was a gift from Oprah Winfrey and paid tribute to the late Maya Angelou – who served as Bill Clinton’s inaugural poet in 1993 – and her seminal 1969 autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

Gorman’s attire also sang and it did so joyously. Her buttercup-yellow Prada coat (reportedly a nod to the first lady, Jill Biden, who is known to wear similar overcoats and who personally recommended Gorman for the role) and her bright red headband conveyed delight – at being young, at being undaunted by an uncertain time and at being ready to meet it in full colour.


Join the club

Missing your fix of optimism and fresh ideas? The Monocle Digital Editions include access to all our worldly reporting and stories from the latest issue straight to your phone, tablet or computer. Our February issue is out this week, containing 50 ideas to hit play after 12 months of unscheduled pauses.

We speak to the Greek prime minister about kick-starting a nation, discuss how to revive the high street and find out some home truths about building back better. Subscribe today to receive the issue in print and online, plus access to our entire archive and a growing roster of travel guides to help you plan your next move. Head to for more.


Second time around

What is it about one-hit wonders that causes them to stay lodged in the collective consciousness forever (writes Lewis Huxley)? Dare I remind you of “Venus” by Shocking Blue, “Mickey” by Toni Basil or “I’m Too Sexy” by whoever thought that was a good idea? You hear these unexpected smashes everywhere, all of a sudden, and then – pfft! – the artists who foisted them upon us vanish into thin air, leaving only an impossibly catchy three minutes of music that we’d rather forget but are certain to remember.

Anyone with functional ears is likely to recall “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals, the 1998 bolt from the blue that popularised the word “frenemy” and prompted a mercifully brief flirtation with fisherman hats pulled down to cover the bridge of your nose. Now, thanks to Joe Biden, a new generation has been subjected to the song’s infuriatingly infectious hooks.

So what prompted the US president to ask the band – really just singer Gregg Alexander and a bunch of lackeys – to reform for the first time in 22 years for his virtual inauguration event? The ditty became the Biden family’s “theme song” when Joe’s son Beau was battling cancer. And though its unbridled positivity might seem jarring given the country’s recent travails, Biden will hope that Americans will latch on to its insistence that “this world is gonna pull through”. It might be the shot in the arm that the US needs – and a one-hit wonder that becomes a hit once more.


Book ahead

For the February issue of Monocle, we speak to writers from around the world about the value of putting pen to paper – be it a letter, your own diary or a fully fledged novel. You can read their insights on the pages of the magazine. Here, Irish writer Naoise Dolan talks about how, even if you have no grand plans for publication, writing a novel can be a deeply satisfying activity – and, as the success of her 2017 debut Exciting Times proves, it might end up pleasing others too.

“I wrote Exciting Times in early 2017, not for a deep reason – I just wanted to give it a go. It’s a fairly harmless pursuit, writing novels, so that’s all the reason you need. I bashed out the odd thing as a teenager but I never had any career goals around it. If I thought very much about my reasons for writing then I’d freeze up and stop. How do I approach it? When things intrigue me, I want to take them apart to find out how they work. I enjoy fiction and have found that the best way of understanding it is through producing my own. Most of all, I take a technical pleasure in writing. There’s something immensely satisfying to me about finding a sentence where something is a bit off, then thinking of a slightly better word that sets it right. That’s the best part; the worst is when I accidentally delete work. It’s like when you tell a long, gregarious story to someone on the phone, and they go, ‘Sorry, could you say that again? My line died.’

“My core piece of advice for writing a novel is really to work out what motivates you in general. What works best for me is to specify my aims, stick my head down and get on with it. A common mistake is seeing it as unlike any of the countless other projects that humans pull ourselves through. Anyone old enough to make mature decisions already knows how to write their first novel, because they’ve made themselves do other things before. The procedures we learn from those experiences are what’s useful.”


Moonrise kingdom

Though you might not have heard of Annie Atkins, there’s a good chance you’ve seen her work. The Welsh prop designer is responsible for the paraphernalia of Wes Anderson’s chocolate-box worlds (think colourful banknotes, prison-escape maps and coats of arms) as well as the high-Hollywood cinema of Steven Spielberg: the forged CIA documents in Bridge of Spies are Atkins’s handiwork. Here she tells us about the joys of juggling work and motherhood, the dulcet tones of Huw Edwards on BBC Radio and a foot-in-the-mouth moment in her favourite bookshop.

What have you been working on lately?
I’ve been drawing graphic props for a Netflix animated feature film. It won’t be released until Christmas 2022, so I can’t say a word about it. The next thing to be released that I worked on will be Wes Anderson’s French Dispatch but the release date hasn’t been announced yet.

What news source do you wake up to?
Twitter, unfortunately. It really brings out the grouch in me.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
I am a dedicated tea drinker. Just one cup a day.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
I listen to music and podcasts on Spotify while I draw. As long as it doesn’t interrupt my thought process, I really don’t mind what it is – my most-played artist last year was some guy I’d never heard of.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
Probably “Little Donkey”. It’s been stuck in my head since Christmas; one of the biggest joys of the season was teaching carols to my four-year-old.

Newspaper that you turn to?
I subscribe to The Guardian and I receive a daily digest from The New York Times in my inbox too, which I’ve found pretty handy in making some sense of the past year or two – or three…

Favourite bookshop?
I love Hodges Figgis in Dublin. They didn’t stock my own book though [Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps]. I asked at the till and they said they could order it for me. I didn’t want to order it because I have 20 copies right here in my house but what could I say? So I ordered it and then, of course, they wanted to know my full name for the docket. Very embarrassing.

Is that a podcast in your ear?
I love Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s new podcast Spinning Plates. She talks to busy working mothers about how they manage juggling kids and creative careers.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched on TV recently?
Succession. It’s based loosely on the Murdoch family but it definitely smacks of the Trumps too.

Who’s your cultural obsession?
I’m completely obsessed with Instagram mothers of four or more children who occupy minimally decorated, neutrally coloured homes. It’s genuinely impressive to be able to create such beauty and order among that much chaos. They should all get jobs as film-set decorators once their children have flown the nest.

And what’s your movie genre of choice?
The true golden age of film-making was the Spielberg family-adventure years: ET, Indiana Jones, Jaws, The Goonies. They’re the films I hold close to my heart.

A favourite newsreader?
I’m going to say a Welsh person on the BBC: Huw Edwards. It’s always nice to hear a Welsh accent. I don’t think I’ll ever live there again – we’re firmly rooted in Dublin now. But I do miss the Lledr Valley.

What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
That guy on Spotify that I’d never heard of. He’s great!


Lasting legacies

‘One Night in Miami’, Amazon Prime. In Regina King’s compelling chamber piece, the actress-turned-director places us among four leading African-American figures of the 1960s – Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) – as they spend the night of the latter’s first championship fight sparring about their respective roles in the Civil Rights Movement. This motel-room meeting of minds is fictionalised but the film’s debates about how to conduct a campaign for change, and whether celebrity status should be exploited for political ends, feel real and pertinent now.

‘A Swim in a Pond in The Rain’, George Saunders. Best known for his wild, experimental stories, the award-winning US writer provides a masterclass in writing fiction with brevity, wit and weight in his latest book. Taking us through the writing of four dead Russians – Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gogol – Saunders’s analysis, advice and absurd analogies about the art of writing short stories offer entertainment and enlightenment in equal measure, even to the casual reader.

‘Home’, Rhye. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Mike Milosh (aka Rhye) has a talent for titling his albums with single words that drip with meaning. Following Woman (co-written with Robin Hannibal), Blood and Spirit, here’s Home – a topic that feels suitably poignant at the moment. Though this is no quarantine production (it was recorded at Los Angeles’s United Recording Studios and Revival at the Complex Studios as well as in Rhye’s domestic set-up), there’s a particular intimacy to these mellow tracks. The singer’s signature whispery falsetto stands present and correct – as do his minimal background beats – but this time with more of an 1980s slant.


State lines

North Dakota is among the most sparsely populated states in the US, a fact it owes to its endless expanse of prairie and, come winter, its frigid temperatures. Yet its major city, Fargo (population: 125,000), has a lot to offer to the intrepid: entrepreneurial spirit, strong healthcare and education industries and all-American charm. Plus it starred a leading role in the Coen brothers’ cult classic named after the city.

Since 1891, The Forum has kept residents of Fargo and neighbouring Moorhead, Minnesota, informed. Today the paper is a twice-weekly publication with an average circulation of 30,000. Matthew von Pinon has worked there since 1994, editing the newssheet for the past 14 years – and he isn’t changing profession any time soon. “Newspapers have always rallied their communities to navigate the most pressing problems,” he says. “They’re just a crucial as they ever were.”

How has ‘The Forum’ been covering the inauguration?
Well in North Dakota we produce a lot of fossil fuels. The Biden administration’s immediate orders on Inauguration Day, aimed at reducing emissions and oil transportation, were big news in our region. That was a focus for us.

Any other big news?
Fallout from the US Capitol insurrection and President Trump’s second impeachment is still consuming most people’s attention. We are on the border of two states: one [North Dakota] that voted pretty solidly for Donald Trump and the other [Minnesota] that voted pretty solidly for Joe Biden. So sentiments are fairly divided.

Do you have a favourite photo?
Fargo’s Red River Zoo – which is open even when temperatures are below freezing – just welcomed a new red panda. Our little zoo is known for its red-panda breeding programme, so interest in the endangered species is pretty great. Plus, they are mischievous creatures and have at times escaped into the community. When that happens, search parties are formed until they are found.

What’s the next big event on your radar?
The FBI has warned that there may be armed political protests in all 50 states, so we are planning coverage of those in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. The greatest likelihood in our region seems to be in Minnesota, where the governor has called out the National Guard to help keep the peace.


Fitting tribute

Susan and John Gutfreund’s Fifth Avenue apartment was the epitome of old-school New York opulence. A riot of frescoed ceilings, crystal chandeliers and lavish upholstery, barely a corner went without an outlandish pattern or vibrant colour. In 2016, the same year as the death of her financier husband (otherwise known as the “King of Wall Street”), Susan put their home up for sale for a reported $120m (€99m); it was the highest asking price of any property in New York at the time. Now she’s auctioning off the art and furniture collection that filled the 20-room duplex.

Furnished through the 1980s with the help of interior designer Henri Samuel, the apartment’s treasures include a 4-metre-long Louis XVI canapé by Jean-Baptiste Lelarge, a work by Flemish Renaissance painter Jan Massys and a George III Moorfields carpet designed by Robert Adam. Susan’s Chanel jewellery, given to her by the late Karl Lagerfeld, is also going under the hammer. With 661 lots, the auction runs from 14 to 29 January.

While the sale is expected to raise more than $7m (€5.8m), estimates suggest that the duplex’s interiors originally cost the Gutfreunds more than twice that sum. “Many of the pieces are undervalued compared to their heyday in the 1980s and 1990s,” says William Stafford, European Furniture and Decorative Arts specialist at Christie's in New York. “But all taste is cyclical and there are signs of a return to a more layered and historic approach to interiors. The pandemic has potentially accelerated that: people want to make their homes warmer and more comfortable during these times.”


sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio

00:00 01:00