Saturday 30 January 2021 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 30/1/2021

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Real life

  1. Well, there is some good news. I have a feeling that in the UK we are witnessing the demise of that particular variety of influencer whose social media account features endless photos of them balanced on the edge of an infinity pool, glass of champagne in hand, swimming-costume gusset hoicked between butt cheeks and a look on their face that’s supposed to be coquettish but actually makes them look like they’ve just been subjected with no warning to the latest Chinese version of the coronavirus test (yes, your nostrils are safe but your rear end is not). And that’s just the boys.

It all began to unravel when a whole gaggle of them departed British shores to “work” in Dubai. It turns out that the UK tabloid press isn’t very keen on people not sharing in the general misery of this pandemic British January and took these characters to task. This prompted a flurry of social media posts of the stressed influencers posing with a laptop or looking super busy-busy-busy on a phone call.

Then this week the UK introduced sweeping new travel restrictions and these numpties were clearly a key target. Home secretary Priti Patel attacked them for “showing off in sunny parts of the world” and declared that henceforth no British person would be allowed to go on holiday.

Now, British government ministers are not known for reading the room (or giving a damn about anyone in it) but Patel played a blinder here. She managed to put the whole nation into detention like some stern headmistress but, because the influencers took the real thrashing, many people will be more than happy to comply with her decree. It’s all become quite heated with Michael Gove, minister for the Cabinet Office, also taking to the airwaves this week to jab a finger at the Insta mob. It means that any influencer trying to sneak back into the UK has less chance of going unnoticed than a pheasant dressed in a fluorescent bonnet and singing a rather loud ditty on the first day of the shooting season. Go Priti.

  1. The UK government has also brought out a series of TV advertisements to hit home the message about coronavirus and the need for us all to do our bit. It seems to owe a large debt to the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign produced by TBWA in 1986 about Aids. Central to this was a 40-second-long film, directed by Nicolas Roeg and voiced by John Hurt, designed to scare people into changing their behaviour. It was dark, ominous and even included a tombstone for added grimness. While many claim that it worked, others suggest that the fear it spread just made it even harder for gay people to come forward and ask for help.

The coronavirus campaign, called Look into My Eyes, has a similarly ominous voiceover and features patients with oxygen masks, doctors in PPE. The idea is simple: stay home, protect the health service. It’s hard to imagine, however, that it will change behaviour when we see our health secretary larking about in a busy park with his kids; or our prime minister pootling about miles from home on his bicycle or shooting up to Scotland when he fears that those rascals are preparing for another independence push. And after a year of trauma, this stern talk misses the mark. Empathy, not just blaming the public, is what’s needed.

  1. The Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign gets a cameo in Russell T Davies’s new TV series It’s a Sin (see Culture below). The five-part drama starts with a group of students arriving at university in London in 1981 and charts their gay lives and loves. It’s rich with cultural references; it’s funny and warm. But you know what’s waiting to pounce: Aids. You relive the fear of that time and also the horrible reactions of the media, much of the public, even the medical profession.

I was at university at the same time that the show is set and, in the following decade, saw many of the people who became friends and colleagues die. So for me, as I know it will be for many people, watching this was both hard and somehow equally wonderful. In the days since racing through all five episodes, faces from the past have come back to me with renewed clarity. People who should be here now.

And, yes, you can make some links between then and now – the deniers, the misinformation, the failures of leadership, the advertisers’ language of fear – but I don’t think it helps to blur the two. Although when it is time to tell the story of the pandemic, I hope it’s done with the same humour, humility and passion that Russell T Davies musters with such incredible power. Because, in the end, it’s drama, it’s fiction, it’s perspective and it’s knowledge that really changes how we see the world, how we feel – and how we behave.


Brew normal

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Senior moment

Now for this one you really cannot just blame the pandemic, although it has certainly hastened the trend: the apartments of millennials increasingly have the look of pleasant retirement homes. First came the collections of odd tat, the wonky self-made pottery and the ironic holiday tokens to occupy all windowsills (it was only a generation ago that people were consigning all this knick-knackery to the rubbish bin as they packed their parents off to retirement villages). Then came the pot plants to festoon any remaining free surface (again, a whole generation thought they had won the battle against cacti and spider plants with leaky pots that pee brown water). Next there were the colouring books, knitting and jigsaws – they are even finding afternoon TV game shows amusing. But it continues.

Anyone perusing furniture websites will have noticed that those sleek sofa systems that offer a sharp-edged suggestion of fast living and glamour are being nudged aside by very erect armchairs that hint at afternoon naps and cats on laps. Even those wing-backed mainstays of the retirement-home TV lounge are stepping back out into the world to seek trendy homes to colonise. They get bigged up in numerous trend reports and homes magazines, which tout them while talking to their young readers as though they were nonagenarians: “Don’t forget to think about good back support.” Some are remakes of modernist classics but many others, while offered as the height of newness, are pure seniors chic. And next? Just wait for the mobility scooter as the ultimate electric vehicle. We suggest that you get your order in now.


Made to measure

It’s not exactly a fun time to be a Savile Row tailor or the purveyor of perfectly cut shirts on London’s Jermyn Street. Even some of the most buttoned-up industrialists and scions of shipping families have been leaving their usual armour in the wardrobe during the pandemic and resorting instead to a life of cashmere tracksuits and car shoes (a sartorial sin if ever there was one). Yet there is one advocate who never wavers in her commitment to these two bastions of perfection: the humourist, writer, public speaker, famed technology refusenik and, suddenly, Netflix star, Fran Lebowitz.

Now 70, Lebowitz is finding a whole new fanbase thanks to Pretend It’s a City. In the seven-part series, she appears alongside her friend, director Martin Scorsese, to opine on New York, a city that she loves and despairs about in equal measure.

Lebowitz is televisual nectar because whenever Scorsese gives her even the most gentle prod (metaphorically speaking, of course; she would likely snap you in half if you actually prodded her), she lets rip about how wealth, developers and people with poor judgment have desecrated the city. But it’s always with a sharpness that lets you know that she realises she can be a bit extreme. And whether talking on stage or pounding a sidewalk, she does it all while dressed in her trademark Anderson & Sheppard blazers and coats, Hilditch & Key men’s shirts (sported with cufflinks), Levi’s 501s, cowboy boots (which reportedly both help with a foot issue and give her added height) and tortoiseshell glasses (she even did a project with spectacles company, Warby Parker). It’s a look she has had for some 50 years and it’s one that is both solidly old-school New York (with a Texan twist) and very modern.

While this extreme commitment to a look might suggest a person who doesn’t want to be bothered by the world of fashion or fretting about how to dress, here that is not correct. Lebowitz, whose journalistic stints included writing for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, has been friends with many New York designers, attended numerous shows and has a lot of thoughts on what people wear: men in shorts are “repulsive” while “yoga pants are ruining women”. She also detests cheap clothes and says that the only things that really fit are those made for you.

To have such an advocate of all things bespoke owning the small screen at this moment should allow the denizens of Savile Row and Jermyn Street to sleep a little easier in their silk PJs tonight. Not since Marlene Dietrich has there been a woman who has done more to promote their crafts.


Ear to the ground

Italian-born author and journalist Florence de Changy left Europe for Asia in the early 1990s. For the better part of three decades, she’s covered news in the region as a correspondent for the likes of Le Monde and RFI – work that earned her an Ordre National du Mérite in France for her services to journalism.

De Changy took a breather from the promotion efforts for her new book (The Disappearing Act will hit shelves next month – and be aired as a series on Monocle 24) to tell us about a favourite read she keeps in her bag and her go-to independent cinema in Hong Kong.

What news source do you wake up to?
If I don’t have to file news stories in the morning, I always start my day with four news podcasts: Global News Podcast by the BBC World Service, the FT News Briefing, Le Journal de 19h from France Inter that is just a couple of hours old in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Today from RTHK. Then I usually read through news from Le Monde, the South China Morning Post and The New York Times once I’m at my desk – but I find that I learn better when I listen.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
I drink a few cups of filtered coffee, black or with oat milk. And fresh grapefruit, pressed or not.

Papers delivered or a trip down to the kiosk?
A trip down to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Central is my favourite way to catch up on hard-copy newspapers and magazines.

Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
I do have the weekly M from Le Monde and The Correspondent magazine from the FCC stacking up on the coffee table. And when I have free time, I like to catch up on long reads like the ones produced quarterly by Tortoise. It comes in a great pocket format, which I like to keep in my bag.

A favourite cinema?
I like going to the Broadway Cinematheque in Yau Ma Tei, an arthouse theatre that is a fantastic place for independent movies.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched of late and why?
13th, a documentary explaining how racism and violence are enshrined at the heart of the US constitution, and The Social Dilemma, that everyone should watch and act upon.

Do you still make an appointment to watch the news?
I don’t watch TV any more. When I did, I liked Al Jazeera.

A favourite newsreader?
Jeremy Scahill from The Intercept for his dry and sharp style.

What are you reading just before drifting off?
I always read a few pages from one of the two or three books I have on the go. At the moment, it’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, a biography of Bruce Lee, and a novel inspired by the story of Gloria [Gregory] Hemingway.


Personal battles

‘The Beginning’, Nina. The German synthwave heavy-hitter doesn’t hold back on the beats in this collection of early songs and B-sides. “We Are the Wild Ones” feels like it has come straight out of a sweaty 1980s disco, while a cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” tells you all you need to know about Nina’s influences and aesthetic ballpark. Every song also comes in an instrumental-only version, even more apt for late-night dancing.

‘It’s a Sin’, All 4. This new series by director Russell T Davies (who also penned Queer as Folk) is already making waves in the UK, where the story is set. It’s the early 1980s and a group of young gay men move to London where they indulge in sex, partying and general gallivanting. But the spectre of Aids soon starts creeping into the narrative – and into the friendship group.

‘Luster’, Raven Leilani. This much-anticipated debut novel is at once tender, tragic and funny. It follows Edie, a twenty-something black woman who hooks up online with an older white man who’s in an open marriage. After losing both her job and her apartment, she moves in with him, his white wife and their adopted black daughter. It’s a book about sex, work and art – and what it means to strive.


Micro managing

The Federated States of Micronesia is a country comprising a loose collection of about 600 islands and atolls spread out across the vast Pacific Ocean – a few extra hours’ flying time southeast of Guam. About 100,000 souls call these remote outcrops home and most live on the four main island states: Pohnpei, Chuuk, Yap and Kosrae. The democratic minnow attracts plenty of international attention for its fishing rights and seat at the UN; both the US and China have embassies on Pohnpei, the main island and seat of government.

Pohnpei also got its own newspaper in 2000. A naming competition came up with the title. Kaselehlie means “hello” in the local language. American expat Bill Jaynes has been in the editorial chair since 2006 and today the 16-page fortnightly covers the whole nation, as best it can with one full-time staff member. (Jaynes’s son works one day per issue on layout and helps to deliver the papers.) About half of the print run of 1,000 issues, each costing $1 (€0.82) and printed in Guam, stay on Pohnpei, while the rest are sent to Chuuk, Yap and Kosrae. Jaynes tells us the latest from The Kaselehlie Press.

What’s the big news this week?
We’ve just had our first coronavirus case. It’s not actually on the islands – it’s on a ship – so it hasn’t reached the population yet. But if it does I’m not sure what will happen. Rumours spread, as they do on islands. People immediately panicked and businesses were closing when they didn’t need to. The case is isolated on a vessel that is two miles out.

Do you have a favourite headline?
My all time favourite was, “Skywalker goes to the dark side”. It was a story about a Chuukese man whose name is Skywalker. He was arrested for shooting a man in a convenience store in the US. I will never forget that one.

A favourite image?
Images from Yap. They’re just gorgeous but I don’t get to run them that often. On the front page of a recent issue we had a photo of some Christmas lights there. I love Yap because it’s still one of the most traditional places in the Pacfic.

How edgy does the news get?
We ran a whole series on the murder [in 2019] of the attorney general on Yap, who was an American who lived there. That was very odd because we don’t have murders out here. She was shot and those people are still being tried. I’m an expat and initially that was very difficult. During my first year I had somebody carve a sexual impossibility on the hood of my car that they wanted me to do to myself, which rusted into those letters. I had a death threat, all those kinds of things. But that has died down. People respect that I’m not here to judge them and I’m not judging them from some US standard.


Less is more

When someone with more than 30 years of experience in the luxury fashion industry launches a label with an accomplished architect, you won’t hear any complaints from us – which makes the arrival of new London-based menswear brand Hand & Jones very good news indeed. The brainchild of Graham Hand, who worked in production for Margaret Howell, and his partner Michael Jones, deputy head of studio at Foster and Partners, the company launched in 2019 and is the duo’s paean to slow fashion.

“I wanted to take a step back,” says Hand, whose previous project, womenswear brand Hand London, followed the fickle trends of the high street. For Hand & Jones, he has learned to steer clear of the rat race. Made in small runs of around 100 per item, the garments’ designs are simple, the quality is high and the neutral tones make for attire that can be worn and reworn – think pima-cotton T-shirts, Mongolian cashmere jumpers and scarves in forest greens and cool stone-greys. Collaborations with illustrators add some fun to the range (leopards and lions, no less) and for those who stay classy down to their briefs, a line of underwear is due to roll out in the coming months.


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