Saturday 24 April 2021 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 24/4/2021

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Back and forth

She asked me to sit still and tilt my head backwards. I then watched as the coronavirus-testing swab entered my right nostril. I continued to watch as it went in further. And further. I wondered if she thought she was prospecting for oil or, this being Switzerland, perhaps she was a moonlighting engineer whose regular job was drilling tunnels through forbidding mountains. Suddenly she hit something unwilling to budge – the back of my skull maybe – and then, at last, the swab began its slow reversal out again. “All done,” she said with a satisfied smile and then, with a throw of her hand, suggested that I take something for my nose. Unfortunately, with sherbert-brain syndrome in full force, I thought she had pointed at the bottle of sanitiser. Keen not to go against local customs, I poured some into my hand and dabbed it coyly on the end of snout. It was then that I spotted the pile of paper handkerchiefs that she had actually been gesturing towards.

This was the most eventful of the five tests that I have taken over the past 12 days to assure both Swiss and UK authorities that I do not have the virus. Total cost: £560. On top of that I have done a stint in quarantine. Luckily, if you are not coming to the UK from a so-called “red country” – a long list that runs from Angola to Zimbabwe, Pakistan to Oman – you get to do this at home and, on day five, can take a test that lets you run free early if you get the desired negative result (I did). But you still have to take the standard final test on day eight.

If you are a couple in the UK hoping for a holiday in the Med this year, it’s hard to know what would be more painful: all that nasal cavity probing or the emptying of your bank account to pay for a handful of plastic swabs. It explains why many Brits have given up on their dreams of Greece or Sardinia this summer and have instead accepted that their destiny lies in erecting a tent in a muddy English field. “No, really, we’re so looking forward to it. It will be so much nicer than that villa we had on hold on the Amalfi coast and it will be character-building for the kids.” Advice: always make a swift move towards the door when you hear mention of something being character-building.

But here’s the odd bit. According to a survey this week, the majority of British people genuinely don’t want the rules to change: some 55 per cent of people say that the current ban on British people going abroad for holidays should remain in place until 2022. While some of these people are concerned about new variants setting us back, others are what social scientists might call miserable sods. Their ranks also include another constituency of people who have just adapted to the lockdowns and love all the curtailments that they involve. And, thank you, but they don’t want their new routines broken. Another report this week stated that 25 per cent of people never want to step back in their offices again and for industries such as technology, figures of 86 per cent have been reported. Home has gained a very powerful hold over us.

And if you have an OK domestic set-up, who doesn’t like being at home? My quarantine involved a dog sleeping on my lap while I typed, working on the roof terrace in the spring sun, and easy access to the crackers (abandoning your closeness to a biscuit barrel is a hard thing to put aside, even if it means getting your career back on track).

Yet home is made even more delicious and powerful by being the thing that you return to; a safe base from which you venture out. In all the muddle and mayhem of the pandemic, some people seem to have lost the instinct to leave the village and see what’s over the brow of the hill – or, perhaps, was it always this way? “Darling, you go hunt woolly mammoth if you want but I am staying home to curate my collection of stone axes.” It’s why I still yearn for life to ease back to some older patterns – because I want to see new horizons and be with old friends who live far away. And if that is going to involve a coronavirus-tester-turned-magician trying to make a swab disappear up my nostril this summer, then so be it.


Making strides

Since 1960, Canadian finance ministers have marked budget day with an unwritten sartorial custom (writes Tomos Lewis). Tradition has it that the minister must buy a new pair of shoes in which to deliver their annual economic plan to the nation. And on Monday, for the first time, it was a pair of scalloped, black-leather stilettos that marked the occasion, rather than the brogues, Oxfords and even trainers that have graced the feet of budgeteers of days past. Chrystia Freeland became the nation’s first woman to deliver a federal budget.

The convention is said to have begun of necessity: budget speeches can require the presenter to spend long hours on their feet. But in the years since, the ritual has become laden with symbolism: a pair of shiny new shoes to represent bright economic steps forward. Some of Freeland’s predecessors have added further symbolism to their budget-day shoe choices. In 2015, Joe Oliver wore a new pair of New Balance trainers to trumpet the fact that he had “balanced” the nation’s books. In 2011, shortly after a recession, Jim Flaherty had an existing pair of shoes resoled, to reflect government prudence.

The stilettos, made by designer Elle AyoubZadeh, whose studio sits in Freeland’s downtown Toronto constituency, spoke for themselves. As did Freeland’s ambitious budget, which is an attempt to ensure that Canada’s economy, in the wake of the pandemic, also puts its best foot forward.


Right at home

Turning a house into a home takes care, consideration and a feel for good design. And, at a time when where we live is more important than ever, The Monocle Book of Homes – now available for pre-order here – will be a welcome addition to your bookshelf or coffee table. As well as celebrating smart residences and neighbourhoods in cities from Merano to Melbourne (and many more places besides), our global network of writers and editors have compiled tips on all things practical: from the best materials to use when erecting your own residence to the best ways to landscape your surroundings. So, get ready to settle into your favourite armchair to receive a little inspiration. Enjoy.


Lotion slickness

Escapism is valuable currency these days (writes Alex Briand). A year of bracing staycations and staring out of the window has made dreaming of warmer climes serious business. That’s why, when I came across “the sunniest place on the internet” (UK-based online radio station Poolside FM), I was powerless to resist. Its 1980s-tinged synth-pop and disco soundtrack, complemented with grainy camcorder visuals of swaying palms á la Venice Beach, offers the whole retro-holiday package. To cap it off, the people behind the station have now launched their own “leisure-enhancing” Vacation Sunscreen.

It’s being promoted via gleeful, immersive branding at its best. Vacation Sunscreen’s website is set out like a 1980s tourism brochure and asks you to “Select your role at the company” – whether you become the “prosecco toast historian”, “VP of seagull intimidation” or “president of the competitive kneeboarding council” is up to you. Of course, this is all to make you sign up to the company’s mailing list but it’s the first time in a while that I haven’t begrudged the inevitable inbox onslaught.

It demonstrates the power of a bit of humour by offering an experience that’s charming and fun, rather than coercing subscriptions out of people. Marketing is a conversation, not a lecture. And the long-overdue promise of a getaway can’t hurt either. Now, can anyone do my back?


Production values

Kelly Lee Owens was a nurse before moving into electronic music production. Safe to say, the UK-based artist has made a success of it. After being signed by Norwegian independent label Smalltown Supersound, Owens’ self-titled 2017 debut gained plaudits from critics and listeners for its propulsive beats. In 2020 her second album, Inner Song, was one of a handful of dance music releases that cut through to audiences while clubs remained closed. Here she fills us in on her latest projects, the best bookshops in Paris and Wales, and the Irish folk music she’s been listening to.

What news source do you wake up to?
I try to avoid doom-scrolling through news sites as soon as I wake up. I tend to get my news fill later in the day, usually via Twitter. I don’t know whether Twitter is the best way of consuming news but it’s the most immediate and has become my go-to for updates.

Tell us about the projects you’re working on.
One silver lining of the pandemic is that I’ve been able to try out new things that I wouldn’t have had time to focus on in the past. I’ve been working on making a couple of soundtracks for film, which I’ve been really enjoying.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
My label is based in Oslo so whenever I go there I stop by Tim Wendelboe’s coffee shop. Last time I was there I actually picked up a load of coffee to bring back to the UK. I’m still working my way through it.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
I’ve recently become obsessed with Andy Irvine’s performance of “Arthur McBride”. It’s this amazing Irish folk song that’s been stuck in my head for a while.

A favourite bookshop?
Shakespeare and Company in Paris is incredible. I love that it has just been this kind of cultural sanctuary for literary figures throughout its history and that it allows writers to stay there. Richard Booth’s Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, is also excellent.

Is that a podcast in your ear?
I love Song Exploder. I was so excited when I was asked to appear on it to talk about my song “On”.

A favourite film?
2001: A Space Odyssey is just the most spectacular piece of cinema. I always find myself returning to it.

What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
I’ll listen to Nils Frahm before I go to bed.


Key notes

‘Bring Backs’, Alfa Mist. A new crop of jazz musicians have been generating a buzz in London for a few years, and Alfa Mist is one to watch. A self-taught pianist, he started out as a hip hop producer and has since slid into performing full-time. His sound is tender and delicate, leaning towards the ethereal. It makes for incredibly pleasant listening, without ever straying into background-music territory. It’s jazz even for those who think they don’t like jazz.

‘Thin Ice’, TV4. This environmental-crime series is a Nordic action thriller with a conscience. Revolving around the tense meetings of the Arctic Council and the geopolitical scheming behind oil resources, it’s set in Greenland onboard a Swedish research vessel as violence starts to erupt and suspicions arise that Russia is behind it. This disconcerting premise evolves into the looming threat of war.

‘The Coming Bad Days’, Sarah Bernstein. Having left married life behind, the unnamed narrator of this book loses herself in the lonely pursuit of academia by studying the somewhat obscure postwar poet Paul Celan. The story that ensues finds her being introduced to another charming woman and they grow increasingly close. Ultimately the power of this book lies in its razor-sharp observations of everyday life, realised in lucid and often amusing prose.


French connection

Made up of more than a dozen islands in the Caribbean, Guadeloupe became one of France’s five overseas departments in 1946. Along with neighbouring Martinique, it forms what’s commonly known as the French Antilles. Guadeloupe’s population of 400,000 is mostly concentrated on its two largest islands, hilly Basse-Terre to the west and the flatter Grande-Terre to the east.

France-Antilles Guadeloupe, which has sister publications in Martinique and French Guiana, is the last-remaining daily newspaper on the archipelago, having informed its French-speaking readership for more than 50 years. So when the news of its imminent closure was announced in January this year, French billionaire Xavier Niel (co-owner of Le Monde) stepped in to prevent it folding. The publication officially relaunched this month, albeit with reduced staff. “We are focusing on covering the daily lives of the Guadeloupeans more now,” says Nathalie Dinane, who took over as the paper’s editor in chief last year. Here she tells us about forthcoming elections, retired Olympians and finding inspiration in the young.

What’s the big news this week?
There’s a strike that has been dominating the news for the past seven weeks. The Guadeloupe Workers Union is fighting for an increase in the salaries of civil servants and to improve their rights. But nowadays the French state gives less and less money to local government and the mayors have few resources. Increasing salaries would mean reducing investment in communities, schools, roads – everything they have promised to do. It’s going to be difficult to come to an agreement.

Do you have a favourite photo from a recent issue?
On Thursday’s front page we had a great photo of Bernard Lamitié and Roger Bambuck, two former Olympians who are now in their seventies. Lamitié was a French triple-jumping champion and an unparalleled trainer.

What’s your down-page treat?
We have a recurring feature on Wednesdays called “Jénès An Nou” (“Our Youth” in Creole), which focuses on people between the ages of 18 and 35 doing good work. That can include anything from hosting a demonstration in their neighbourhood, training to become a professional dancer or just getting involved in projects for communities and schools.

What’s the next big event?
Both the president of Guadeloupe’s regional council, Ary Chalus, and the president of the département, Josette Borel-Lincertin, are running for re-election. The vote is scheduled for the end of June but if we have more than 1,000 cases [of coronavirus] per week, it will have to be postponed.


Fit for purpose

Savile Row tailor Henry Poole & Co has collaborated with US fabric firm Gore on a smartly cut travel coat. The navy-coloured item has a Gore-Tex Infinium finish, which prevents a single drop of water from getting through to the wearer. “When we decided to make a trench coat we didn’t just want waxed cotton,” says Simon Cundey, managing director and seventh-generation family owner of the 215-year-old tailors.

The technical fabric provides an interesting challenge to traditional tailors, who typically work with cotton, wool or linen. “We went back to our driving-coat designs from the 1920s and thought about how we could update them with this fabric,” says Cundey, pointing out that by using vertical seams, the designers can sharpen the image and distinguish the coat from other pieces. Every piece receives a custom lining and can have its various pockets and zips adjusted or removed to individual tastes. Next up, a Henry Poole Gore-Tex travel bag and cap, to be released in the coming weeks.


Surreal deal

Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian’s mid-century surrealist works are viewed as the most developed expressions of Ethiopian postwar painting. Although he was schooled in the West – receiving degrees from St Martins in London and Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris – and later moved to the US, where he continued to paint, he returned regularly to his home nation in the 1960s and his creations communicate volumes with their African iconography. Witness the hot colours and antelopes of “The Big Orange”.

“His style was caught up in the optimism of the period, when much of Africa was experiencing the end of colonialisation,” says Giles Peppiatt, director of modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams, which is putting 21 of Boghossian’s paintings under the hammer. “The works are unique,” adds Peppiatt, emphasising that there were no comparable figures in Ethiopian art during this period – Boghossian’s closest contemporaries on his native continent were the Nigerian modern artists Demas Nwoko, Yusuf Grillo and Ben Enwonwu. “The appetite for these painters has never been stronger,” says Peppiatt.

Mostly contributed by the artist’s family, the lots will be going on sale at Bonhams New York on 4 May at 17.00 London time, and are estimated to fetch between $2,000 (€1,700) and $200,000 (€170,000). “If you have a collection of Western surrealist art, Boghossian is the first African surrealist,” says Peppiatt. “His works should be part of your collection if it is to be representational.” Best of luck.


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