Saturday 20 March 2021 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 20/3/2021

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Dear life

Before we start, this is the final part of a story about the big things: life, death and skateboarding. And about saying goodbye to Meg, a 92-year-old woman who died three weeks ago. After this you are free. If you missed the previous columns, it might help to click here and here and here. Thank you.

The final preparations have been made and, to keep things simple, recognisable and calm for those attending, the conventions of a funeral have been mostly adhered to.

There are some personal downsides to this strategy. For one, my music suggestions have been roundly disregarded. You see, it looks like the final CD that Meg played was The Very Best of Bob Dylan and so I thought that “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” would be ideal. But then I unwisely chance my luck by also floating the idea of “Blowin’ in the Wind”. “How would that ever be appropriate for a woman who is going to be cremated?” asks my partner. I see some merit in his response but recognising that my role on the music committee is doomed, I go all out: “So I suppose there’s no chance of ‘Lay Lady Lay’?”

I am to be in charge of flowers and my advice might be needed on matters of typesetting and photo selection for the order of service. Oh, and Mozart and Elgar will set the musical tone instead of me.

Choosing the pictures for the order of service is anyway a less contentious matter. On the front we will have Meg at Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire just a year ago. Black rollneck sweater. Single string of pearls. We crop the photo to take the focus away from the line-up of champagne coupes in front of us. On the reverse is the picture that we found of Meg in her twenties on the ski slopes.

The service is not in Stratford-upon-Avon, where she moved to just over a decade ago but in the Cotswolds village where she previously lived, in a house inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright with a large garden running down to a stream. It’s the house she also lived in with Charles. She married him when she was 47 but he died from an aneurysm after 11 years, tipping her back into the life of a single – and very social – woman. But now Meg and Charles will be reunited in the church’s graveyard when her ashes are interred with his body in the coming days. I know I fret about the details but it feels a little odd; shouldn’t you both choose the same burial option? If you X-rayed the soil, would it just look like Charles had packed a flask of soup for the trip to the afterlife?

But first, something less than pleasant. We are standing at the church gates – the 30 mourners allowed inside under current coronavirus rules and a large number of villagers who knew Meg and want to say goodbye. Just as the hearse arrives, a man in his thirties comes down the road in the opposite direction on an electric skateboard. When he realises he cannot easily get past, he jumps off the skateboard, runs up to the vehicle and starts banging on the glass next to the coffin. “You’re in my way!” he hollers. I freeze. I am not sure what he thinks Meg can do at this juncture. The large team of undertakers gently intervenes. Finally he goes, still screaming, “You nearly ran me over!”

Now, you have to admit, it would be a good business idea: use a hearse to mow down unpleasant people in front of churches, have a coffin on hand to pop them in, then call the family and suggest that if they have their credit card on hand, you could find a burial slot for them in the next 30 minutes. Anyway, Meg ignores all the kerfuffle, the vicar apologises for the drama and we follow her through the doors.

The church is Norman, stone. The tops of the pews are indented and polished by generations of people rubbing hands along them. It’s sunny and butter-yellow light beams the air. Even the vicar is straight out of central casting.

David, my partner, reads Henry Scott Holland’s “Death is Nothing at All”. While clearly you could be had under the trades descriptions act for that statement, it’s pretty good: “Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference in your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.”

Then my turn to do the eulogy. I read the column that kicked off this series. In the end I took out the bit about incontinence pads. When I come to the final lines about the miracles of life, the passing on of the baton of existence, I feel the tears.

Then we all follow Meg back to the hearse, the coffin held aloft on the shoulders of four of the black-suited undertakers, because now she needs to see the cremator before joining Charles. There are buttons of primroses dotted in the spring grass. On the breeze you can still hear Elgar’s “Nimrod” playing in our wake. The lead undertaker puts on his gleaming black top hat, gently swivels it to fit perfectly and then walks in front of the hearse as it eases away. We watch until it is out of sight.


Shawl victories

Some have wondered whether the years after the coronavirus pandemic will usher in the 21st-century’s answer to the Roaring Twenties, those flourishing years of joie de vivre that unfolded after the First World War (writes Tomos Lewis). Well, British pop star Harry Styles seems to have started the party early with a tribute to one particular item of flapper fashion, which he debuted at the Grammys last Sunday: a feather boa, in this instance designed by Gucci.

The feather boa – that flamboyant staple of many a dressing-up box – has boasted a remarkable number of cameos over the years, each time seeming to speak to a different collective mood. In the 1840s, when they were popularised, they evoked one’s class and even the grandeur of getting older; see, for instance, the boa-sporting women depicted by the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In the 1920s they represented fun and youth, a fashionable frivolity and something to be toyed with. In the 1970s, glam rock and disco adopted neon-coloured iterations of their own.

So what does the feather boa say in 2021? That frivolity and fun, expressed through clothing, is still possible, even in an isolated time? That costume garments can be elevated above pastiche? Whichever way you see it, sales have reportedly spiked in the UK since Styles’ foray into feathery fun last week, with exclamatory claims that it might become the year’s must-have accessory. Regardless, we won’t be plucking the feather boa – or eye patches, or tiaras – out of our costume closets. Not just yet, anyway.


Circle of bites

Growing up in Australia, you learn pretty quickly that the song, “There Was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly” isn’t so much a children’s ditty as a warning of the dangers of introducing one species to control another (writes Nic Monisse). For the uninitiated, the aforementioned fly is followed by a spider (to catch the fly), only to be followed by a bird (to catch the spider). It’s a pattern that has been repeated in my home country, where non-native animals and insects have been imported to solve small problems and gone on to create bigger ones.

In the 1930s, cane toads were introduced from the Americas to control native cane beetles that were ravaging sugarcane crops. The amphibians have since become one of Australia’s most maligned pests. It’s why I bristled when I overheard that a colleague had recently procured a team of parasitic wasps to tackle the clothes moths blighting her cashmere. (Again, I’m from Australia, where everything can sting and bite, and still these insects sound terrifying.) She’s not alone in employing biological warfare to control an infestation: the teeny Trichogramma wasps are also being employed by the UK’s National Trust to protect tapestries, upholstery and clothing within the charity’s historic properties.

I understand the annoyance of finding a hole in a favourite sweater and the need to protect priceless tapestries. But I also worry about an unforeseen sting in the tale. My colleague passed me on to her supplier (a biological pest-control specialist, not a tropical-insect trader on the black market), who assured me that the wasps only last as long as the moth eggs are present, which means that there’s less chance of them wreaking havoc further down the line. Here’s hoping that he’s right – and we won’t need to add another verse to that menacing nursery rhyme.


Talking funny

Actor and stand-up comedian Ronny Chieng was born in Malaysia and raised between the US and Singapore, before moving to Australia to study finance and law at the prestigious University of Melbourne. This has all given him the comedic chops to play roles that speak to people across countries and cultures. In recent years he’s starred on both small and silver screens, as a senior correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and in Jon M Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians. And we can expect to see more of him this year in Bliss, alongside Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek, and in Australian romantic comedy Long Story Short. Here he reveals the source that he relies on to unpack US politics and where to find the best bookshop in Singapore.

What have you been working on recently?
I’ve been in Hawaii filming Doogie Kamealoha MD, the Doogie Howser MD reboot. It’s paradise here and probably the best place in America right now, so I’m very fortunate.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
A cappuccino flavoured with macadamia nut – pure Hawaii.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
I’m actually an Apple Music guy and I’ll use Shazam if I hear a song playing that I think is catchy. I am always on the lookout for pre-show music to play at my live stand-up shows to get people in the mood.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
A lot of Drake.

Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
GQ, Wired, Vanity Fair and Banana Mag, this independent Asian-American culture magazine based out of NYC’s Chinatown. Oh, and Monocle.

Newspaper you turn to?
The New York Times usually covers all the bases, especially with its innovative online infographics. And The Atlantic, although that might not be considered a newspaper.

Favourite bookshop?
Great independent bookshops are actually something I make a point of looking for in every city I’m performing in. I’ve got a list of favourites in my Google Maps. In Singapore there’s Books Actually, full of uniquely Singaporean hipster nostalgia chic. In New York I love Three Lives & Company in the West Village, which was recommended to me by Kevin Kwan, the author of Crazy Rich Asians.

Is that a podcast in your ear?
Right now I’m listening to Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast and Pod Save America, which is great for trying to understand US politics today from the view of former Obama-administration staffers.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched on TV recently?
I’m loving American Gods on Starz, and Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance on Netflix.

Who’s your cultural obsession?
Dave Chappelle.

And what’s your movie genre of choice?

Do you make an appointment to watch the nightly news?
No but it’s probably because I watch the news all day for work at The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.


Rich tapestries

‘Feelings’, Brijean. This funky record is the result of a collaboration between Brijean Murphy (a percussionist who’s played with the likes of US Girls and Toro Y Moi) and multi-talented musician Doug Stewart. It’s tropical dance music that sometimes leans heavy on the synths and at other points floats over bossa nova soundscapes. Lead single “Ocean” is just peachy, but if you want to get moving, try “Wifi Beach”.

‘A Febre’ (‘The Fever’), Maya Da-Rin. The illness of this film’s title is no cultural reimagining of the pandemic. Instead, it’s a physical symptom experienced by Justino, a member of an indigenous Amazonian tribe who works at the port of Manaus, once his daughter decides to become a medicine student at university. When he realises that a mysterious creature also appears to be following him at night, he yearns for the solace of the forest. This thriller quickly becomes a story of belonging.

‘Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life’, Moma PS1. A major retrospective of the French-American artist, this show features more than 200 works in the myriad mediums that she experimented with in her lifetime. Moma isn’t shying away from displaying Saint Phalle’s signature, wildly colourful large-format sculptures and dreamy architectural structures – many of which were an expression of her feminist social activism.


Cliff notes

San Marino, an independent micronation the size of a small town, clings to a clifftop in the middle of Italy. It has a high concentration of wealth among its population of 34,000, partly due to its low tax rates. Europe’s oldest republic – a remnant of Italy’s era of city-states that dates its sovereignty back to 301 AD – has struggled to keep independent journalism afloat, with only three papers to cover an entire country’s news.

La Serenissima, one of San Marino’s big three, ceased printing last year but relaunched in January under new leadership. Many San Marinese tend to buy their newspapers in bars, so with these still shuttered, circulation is low – just 150 copies a day on average. But director Walter Nicoletti Dovesi sees the journal becoming a reference for the nation. “It’s not that everyone knows each other, but almost,” he says. “And people talk about us. People tell us how much they missed the paper.”

Who’s on the team?
We decided that we needed to relaunch the paper with young people, so our four writers range from 22 to 31 years of age. They bring a lot of enthusiasm to the project and they’re able to really shape the paper. We’re a publication that’s neutral on politics by choice but we’re known for investigations and in-depth analysis, so we need extremely competent reporters, and they fit the bill.

What’s the reality of operating a newspaper in such a small place?
We get a lot of help from citizens and local entities who are always giving us tips and press releases about what’s going on. The society gives us support, which doesn’t necessarily happen when a paper serves a larger community. The big challenge for us is making it work economically by getting local agencies to advertise.

What’s your most popular section?
We’ll get big upticks in readership when someone important from the community passes away, or when big news breaks, such as the recent arrival of the Sputnik V vaccine in San Marino. As for recurring pieces, our Monday sports pages are a favourite but our most-loved section comes out on Friday, when Luca Montersino pens a food feature for us. He’s one of the best pastry chefs in Italy and has published several cookbooks. Every week he honours us with another recipe and explains it to our readers. It’s a big hit with the San Marinese.


Out of Africa

Despite its name, L’école du Hangar had nothing to do with planes. This art school was founded in the 1940s in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by Pierre Romain-Desfossés. The French seafarer and artist gathered creatives so that they could experiment with painting. “The school was a little bit known in the 1950s but later, nobody was looking at it,” says Christophe Person, director of contemporary African art at auction house Artcurial, which is selling 30 works from the school at its Modern African Art Auction on 24 March in Paris.

The art of its most famous members – Bela Sara, Pilipili Mulongoy and Mwenze Kibwanga – shared some traits (a riotous dash of colour, a tendency for impactful two-dimensionality) but while the first two focused mainly on the natural world, Kibwanga moved the focus to social scenes. “There is a tension in what he does, in the way he paints,” says Person. “You can tell the war has been there. I don’t think we can consider these works Orientalist or Africanist – he was a witness of his times.”

The colonial years between the mid-1950s and the 1960s is a period in African art history that is largely underexplored, and while contemporary art from the continent continues to rise in popularity, the prices for pieces such as the huge hunting scene Animaux (pictured, bottom) by Mulongoy are still reasonable (Lot 01, €12,000 to €18,000). “With African art, the dynamic of the market seems to be a little different to Western art: all the energy is on contemporary, from museums, collectors, galleries, agents, art advisors, auction houses,” says Person.

But such sales by the likes of Artcurial are starting to change this. For art enthusiasts, picking up Bela’s colourful depiction of fish, titled Poissons (pictured, top; Lot 18, €5,000 to €8,000), or the tender human embrace depicted in one of Kibwanga’s unnamed paintings (Lot 34, €3,000 to €5,000), provides a chance to get ahead of the curve.


Ready to wear

Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake is known for his dramatically shaped trousers and geometric jackets, which are worn by adoring fans from Tokyo to London. But, according to the designer, “looking cool” in his new line, IM Men, is about more than creating bold silhouettes and shapes.

The new garments are designed to respond to the characteristics of the recycled fabrics used and the shape of the body, rather than what might simply look good. It means, now that the doors have opened for the first time at the label’s new shop in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, fashion-forward men can pick up trousers and jackets that are striking, yes, but assuredly comfortable too.


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