Saturday 20 February 2021 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 20/2/2021

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Higher ground

In a bid to lure shoppers back, they’re going to build a 25 metre-high wooded hill at the end of London’s Oxford Street. It’s going to be created with scaffolding covered in soil and shrubs. And it’s temporary. Price tag? A cool £150m. Well, that’s what the headlines implied. But it’s more interesting than that – even if there are a few wrinkles in the plan.

But before we do anything, let’s have a quick look at Oxford Street – you can have a “backie” on my bicycle if you promise not to make me wobble. We’ll start at its eastern end, by Tottenham Court Road, and stop at Marble Arch, where the expensive hillock is set to be erected in the coming weeks. Now what do we see?

Well, despite this somehow being one of the most famous shopping strips in Britain, if not the world, you may be surprised to see that its retail residents include a large number of outlets selling tourist tat, and larger versions of the mediocre stores you’ll find on any high street. You’ll also notice a lot of boarded-up façades – up to 20 per cent of the shops will not reopen after the lockdowns, including department-store tenants such as Debenhams.

There are some positives. In good times, Selfridges is a magnet and has become a second home for Emirati, Chinese and Russian kids with cash to drop. John Lewis still understands its middle-class customers’ desires – James and Jill will definitely have their wedding list here. And the likes of Uniqlo know how to sell. But this only helps to make short sections of this 1.9km-long road worth visiting and many locals steer clear.

So that’s a lot of problems for a hill to fix. And, yet. Well, first that headline-grabbing price tag (being picked up by the local authority) includes numerous other upgrades to seating, lighting and pavements, as well as the creation of pop-up entertainment venues such as street theatres. And second, the hill is the work of Dutch firm MVRDV and its passionate, wiry-haired genius Winy Maas (who has spoken at Monocle events). Maas has a track record of using these interventions to generate excitement and trigger debate about the future of a city.

In South Korea, MVRDV designed a linear park on a section of disused flyover in the capital. The Seoullo 7017 Skygarden was expected to have visitor numbers in the thousands but two million people turned up in the first couple of months. So MVRDV sees something more than a hill rising in London – it’s also about reconnecting Oxford Street and Marble Arch to Hyde Park and undoing the urban excesses of the 1960s that put the car before the pedestrian. So let’s wait and see.

The wrinkles? Well, while it’s perhaps simple to reignite a neighbourhood high street by engaging with the locals, Oxford Street has been engineered for tourism and, while these plans are designed to help the street kick-start this summer, there is no suggestion that the UK will be rolling out a welcome mat any time soon.

And then there’s just the prevalence of so much bland retail. Unlike in other parts of the city where there’s a clear vision in place, or one landlord to set some benchmarks, that’s not the case here (it’s why no luxury brands want an Oxford Street address).

But let’s hope that the hill can be climbed and a sunnier view can be reached this summer. Let’s also hope that some of the other interventions have the potential to really encourage a return to urban centres; it’s time for cities to show that actually going to the shops can be more fun than waiting in for an e-commerce package to arrive.

A final note. Monocle turned 14 years old this week and while there was no shindig to be had, a glass of champagne will be raised by various editors around the world as they join me and Tyler for a special edition of Monocle on Sunday (I’ll even get to co-anchor from London with Mr Brûlé in Zürich). Turns out that the teenage years are quite challenging but I think we are turning out just fine – no dodgy dates and we haven’t been getting into too much trouble after school. But come and judge for yourself.


Tread carefully

The reactions of others when you tell them that you’re expecting a child aren’t always predictable (writes Lewis Huxley). When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced last week that their son Archie would be gaining a sibling, they were probably preparing themselves for an onslaught of congratulation. No such luck. Their news was kicked to the curb as many focused instead on the sight of the prince’s bare feet in the photo that accompanied the announcement. Was this a subtle nod to his newfound freedom, coming just days before Buckingham Palace confirmed that the couple will not return as working members of the UK’s royal family? A suggestion that he’s more Haight-Ashbury hippie than passé prince?

Perhaps, but in many Arab and Asian cultures, showing the soles of your feet is the height of rudeness and in the West the practice is often met with mistrust. Take, for example, Paul McCartney’s skin-filled stride on the cover of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. It was a hot day, he insisted. But for some the bare feet added fuel to the fire of a bizarre theory that McCartney had died in 1966 and been replaced with a lookalike. Was this an imposter brought in to toe the line? A Beatles mole since Rubber Soul?

Will anyone follow in Harry’s footsteps? I’d advise against it. As a child I remember running into the garden on a hot summer’s day, sans shoes. The lavender bushes and daisies on the lawn made it a haven for bees and no sooner had I felt a breeze around my ankles than I had stomped upon an unfortunate insect collecting pollen from a flower; its final act was to lodge its sting in my instep. Ouch. So a tip for the prince: get your kicks elsewhere.


Notes on a scandal

Is there beauty in brutality? Toby Mott seems to think so (writes Christopher Cermak). And, perhaps more to the point, the British artist believes that there’s a tendency for morbid fascination in all of us. It’s why he has released Dictator Banknotes, a coffee-table book published by Cultural Traffic compiling – you guessed it – banknotes featuring dictators from 16 countries. Every page contains a picture of a real banknote opposite a quote (“Let me tell you quite bluntly that this king business has given me personally nothing but headaches,” said the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) and a description of the dictator’s reign, along with a few of their quirks.

Haiti’s former president Papa Doc, for example, ordered all black dogs in the country to be put to death because it was rumoured that one of his fugitive enemies had transformed himself into one. The core of Mott’s message seems to be that any of us would be capable of such actions if we were drunk on power. As he puts it in the introduction: “Maybe, like me, you want to, or do, see something of yourself in them.” Readers can decide for themselves whether the author is on the money.


Opportunity knocks

The intercom by my front door emits the recorded sound of a traditional doorbell (writes Henry Rees-Sheridan). Its video feed, linked to a camera at the front of my apartment building, displays a grainy image of a courier wearing the uniform of a private delivery company. Nowadays the screen rarely displays anything else. US e-commerce grew by 44 per cent in 2020, a trend that my neighbours and I have abetted. Over the same period, personal visits by friends and family to my apartment have decreased by approximately 99.5 per cent.

Package-related developments have led to a subtle but undeniable cultural shift in my block. Over Christmas an intruder imitating a delivery person stole an expensive package addressed to my neighbour. Ever since, I’ve made a point of going downstairs to take delivery of packages personally, rather than buzzing in couriers from my apartment.

If the packages are for people on my floor, I carry the parcels to their doormats. This favour is reciprocated. As a result, there’s a greater sense of camaraderie between neighbours now than when we were able to interact freely but didn’t.

I also know them better. You can tell a lot about a person from the sheer quantity of packages they receive, not to mention the size and shape of those packages, as well as any visible labels. The system means that, in more ways than one, I’ve never felt closer to the people nextdoor.


Daily record

Journalist and author Christian Rocca is the editorial director of Linkiesta, an independent Italian news company focusing on investigative journalism, in-depth analysis and commentary. Rocca is an expert on Italian and US politics and, when not writing books on international diplomacy and economics, he regularly pops up on Italian talk shows and radio programmes. Here he tells us about his 35-year-strong morning habit and growing up in a cinema.

What have you been working on lately?
Print, print, print. We still have our digital magazine but, as of last summer, we have three physical products too: a newspaper, the Linkiesta Paper; a biannual collection of short stories K – Linkiesta Fiction; and a brand new magazine of ideas called Linkiesta Forecast, in collaboration with The New York Times.

What news source do you wake up to?
While still horizontal I read the news of the night through The New York Times and Apple News push notifications on my iPhone, while listening to Radio Radicale [the official radio station of the Italian Radical Party]. Their host reads – for more than an hour – the Italian print newspapers of the day. I’ve been doing this Radio Radicale routine every morning since 1986.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
Fresh orange juice from my father’s orange trees in Sicily, squeezed with an amazing Dolce & Gabbana Smeg citrus juicer. And an intense espresso.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
I use Apple Music a lot. It’s always on shuffle at my place, day and night. The first thing I do every Friday morning at dawn is check the new albums of the week.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
It depends on the day and the mood. In the last few days I’ve been obsessed with an old tune by Belinda Carlisle, “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”. It was featured in an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale that I watched last week.

Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
I love the weeklies more than anything. I can’t live without The Economist, The New Yorker, New York Magazine and The New York Times Magazine. They’re always there, ready to be read on my Eames lounge chair along with Grazia Italia, which is edited by my wife. I’m fond also of Leon Wieseltier’s new quarterly magazine of ideas, Liberties.

Newspaper that you turn to?
I like the new La Repubblica. It’s the only internationally minded Italian newspaper. I love FT Weekend and The New York Times. Every time I see the weekend edit of Die Zeit on newsstands I buy it, even though I don’t speak a word of German; I look at it in awe.

Favourite bookshop?
Amazon. Sorry guys.

What’s the best thing you've watched on TV recently?
I’ve been binge-watching The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen; terrifying and moving at the same time. Also France’s Le Bureau des Légendes [The Bureau] and Israel’s Fauda.

Who’s your cultural obsession?
It’s not an obsession but my intellectual hero is Christopher Hitchens. I miss him every day.

And what’s your movie genre of choice?
I grew up in a cinema. My father used to run a movie house in Alcamo, a town in Sicily. I basically spent my preteen years inside the projection booth. Yes, it’s like Cinema Paradiso, the Sicilian movie that won an Oscar for best foreign movie in 1989. Nonetheless, I don’t have a favourite genre – and to tell you the truth, I prefer TV shows.

Do you still make an appointment to watch the nightly news? A favourite newsreader perhaps?
I don’t. I’m constantly on Twitter, I follow the news there. When something big happens, I turn the TV on to Italy’s Sky TG24 or CNN. CNN’s Jake Tapper is an American treasure.

What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
At bedtime it’s either the last album I liked the most, while reading a book or a magazine, or a TV show on my iPad Pro.


High impact

‘Times’, SG Lewis. The UK-born songwriter’s debut album is a modern-day disco fantasy realised in collaboration with plenty of big-name helpers, from Nile Rodgers to Robyn. The title track is a funky number featuring Canadian singer Rhye and if the melody evokes a relaxed, summery vibe, it’s probably because the pair wrote the song after watching the sun set over California’s rosy Topanga Canyon. The groovy “Feed the Fire”, with Lucky Daye, is another highlight.

‘Capitani’, Netflix. The titular character in this Luxembourg-based crime thriller is our grumpy detective, who travels out of the city to look into the gruesome murder of a teenager. Her body has been found in the woods outside a rural village – and her twin sister is missing. This being a small town, people are murmuring and gossip is rife. Capitani needs the help of the police but everyone here knows everyone, including the investigators. Clocking in at 25 minutes per episode, this is a fast-paced drama that will satisfy a hunger for plot-twists.

‘Push the Limits’ at Fondazione Merz, Turin. Fortunately, this exhibition marking the 15th anniversary of Turin’s Fondazione Merz has been extended until the end of the month – and it’s worth catching before it’s too late. Seventeen female artists offer perspectives on what it means to push boundaries in matters of politics, sexuality or geography. The result is all the more striking because of the scale of installations shown in this high-ceilinged, warehouse-like room. Chisaru Shiota’s nebulous “Where are We Going?” masterfully dominates the space but there are striking works by Katharina Grosse and Maria Papadimitriou too.


True north

Gunnar Saetra is one of nearly 4,000 people to call home the Norwegian town of Kirkenes, nestled 400km north of the Arctic circle and a short 15km from the Russian border. As editor of local paper Sør-Varanger Avis, he’s responsible for overseeing which news lands on the page and on the doorsteps of its 2,500 readers three times a week. Here he tells us what’s making the headlines in this icy and remote corner of the country.

What’s the big news this week?
This week our town celebrates the annual Barents Spektakel festival which mixes contemporary art with discussions on local and international issues. It’s a celebration of our traditions and there’s a really cool atmosphere. Unfortunately, the festival will be digital this year, so we won’t expect many guests in Kirkenes.

Do you have a favourite headline from a recent issue?
I like the small headline on our front page from last Tuesday, which reads, “Du verden for et sted, for et område!” It means something like, “Oh, what a place, what a region!” It is about a lady coming from the south of Norway. She loves photography and finding subjects for her images everywhere she goes. She is currently staying in the small fishing village of Bugøynes, not far from here.

What’s your down-page treat?
One of our local celebrities just released a book about his childhood and younger years in Kirkenes. He is well known for his political and business career, so the article we’re planning is likely to be read by many.

What’s the next big event on your radar?
Big events are rare but we are more or less constantly working with the potential reopening of the local iron ore mine.


Objets d’art

Few brands are as synonymous with French chic as Cartier (writes Hester Underhill). The Parisian jeweller’s dedication to elegance extends beyond its wares and into its shops, which since the brand’s inception in 1847 have been elegantly appointed with the finest furnishings. However, as its boutiques around the world undergo a more contemporary refit, the 18th-century chairs, art deco lamps and ornate, gilded mirrors that once adorned its boutiques are being replaced. And much to the relief of collectors, or those seeking to recreate the Cartier experience at home, these prized pieces are up for sale.

They will be going under the hammer to raise funds for the Cartier Philanthropy Foundation, which works to alleviate poverty. The 266-lot sale will be taking place between 1 and 8 March at Parisian auction house Artcurial and is brimming with Louis XVI-style chairs, which are estimated to be snapped up for as little as €50. “The prices are very reasonable,” says Artcurial’s associate director Isabelle Bresset. “The market for this style of 18th-century furniture has become a lot more dynamic. People want their homes to be more chaleureux. They want the warmth and charm of these period pieces.”


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