Saturday 25 September 2021 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 25/9/2021

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday

Opener / Andrew Tuck

On the hour

I have to file this column on a Friday so that it can make it into your inboxes by Saturday morning. There’s a set routine. I get up incredibly early, hoping that neither the other half nor even the dog stirs before I have at least got a first draft down. To start the writing engine there is coffee -- lots of coffee. And my other trick is to not think about what I will write in advance. OK, a couple of times this has failed me. But on the whole it turns out that my brain is pretty good at having stored a couple of starting points during the week in the mental filing cabinet and those jolts of coffee are enough to open its lock.

But this week that has not been possible. It might be Friday but I am in Athens for the Monocle Quality of Life Conference and today is the big day: some 25 speakers on stage, over 100 delegates in the audience. And, to make sure all went to plan, we had to get to the venue, the Benaki Museum, very early -- just a few hours after I had put down my unwise second glass of mastika at the dinner we hosted for the speakers the previous night. But after the past 24 hours, I am also wondering whether my routine is good for me anyway. 

The first trip-up came last night when I got to sit next to Katerina Gregos, the charismatic artistic director of Athens’ National Museum of Contemporary Art -- a role that she has had for just a few months and which she took on after her return from Brussels. We got talking about what quality of life means for her and why she had felt the tug to return to her home nation. She said something that during the night my brain decided to slip into the "could be helpful for column" folder.

In Athens, Gregos said, “You don’t always have to be on an agenda. You can just phone a friend and say, ‘What are you doing tonight? Do you want to go the cinema’” She talked about the value of allowing things to happen and of not being controlled by your electronic diary. She stressed that this was nothing to do with people being lazy. "We work really hard but we just don’t follow an agenda all the time." (Although she did warn me that Greek restaurants were now trying to squeeze in two dinner sittings rather than allow the quality of conversation to determine how long people stay drinking and eating.)

Back in London there are people I really like, people I am close to, that I would still be cautious of phoning on a Saturday evening to check on their last-minute availability. There are friends who it can take weeks to see -- or perhaps they just can’t stand me. I can understand that. But I realise that I would like a bit more of this off-agenda living.

Especially because I have also learned today that it’s actually bad for your health to have too many unwavering routines. Dr Philippe Schucht is a leading neurosurgeon and we asked him to talk at the conference about the brain and how to keep it fit and healthy. It turns out that parts of your brain will slowly shut down if they are not used. One way to flex its abilities is to regularly change your routine -- even something as simple as how you walk to work. Giving your brain time to retrieve information rather than jumping on Google to find the answer is also highly recommended if you want to ward off mental decline.

But if there is one routine I’ve realised it would be good to acquire then it’s a comedy one. Today’s final pre-lunch spot went to Katerina Vrana and Monocle’s Rob Bound. Vrana is a comedian who in 2017 fell critically ill with sepsis. She survived but now uses a wheelchair and at one point was totally blind. Now, go and park any preconceptions. We had tasked her with teaching the audience some Greek, which soon turned into a performance about her people, her bushy locks, sex and what people may or may not do with Rob. I stood by the side of the auditorium and watched a crowd united in laughter. She had them. It was perhaps the first time -- and maybe will be the last -- that anyone has told our delegates, "Don’t pucker your arseholes." It was a routine that was anything but -- and it showed the power of laughing in unison, of being nicely in on the joke.

The Look / Newsreaders’ Outfit

Presenting well

For the wardrobe department at a media company, selecting a news anchor’s outfit might seem like a fairly straightforward affair (writes Tomos Lewis). It should be formal and unflashy, and quietly amplify the authority of the presenter wearing it -- without, of course, distracting viewers from the news itself. But when a big, live, rolling-news event comes along, the sartorial stakes also rise for the people reporting on it. A BBC newsreader famously found that out in 2002 when he broke the news of the death of the Queen Mother in a grey business suit and a burgundy tie, instead of the all-black attire said to befit a moment of national mourning. National tabloid condemnation quickly followed. 

For an example of how to do it right, look to Lisa LaFlamme, one of Canada’s most respected and beloved news anchors, who hosts CTV’s nightly national news. On election night this week, she wore a light-grey blazer with sleek, oversized lapels and a bright-white shawl-collar blouse with geometric cuffs that jutted out beneath the jacket sleeves. It all reflected an appreciation of the occasion’s importance -- and elevated it. Viewers, particularly younger ones, were quick to notice.

The palette also drew attention to LaFlamme’s immaculate silver hairdo, which itself became a national talking point last year as the newscaster allowed it to grey naturally while salons in Toronto were closed during lockdown. It was hailed as a watershed in the long-lopsided expectations of how women represent themselves in the media.

A journalist’s clothes should, of course, be secondary to the job that they do. But an anchor’s outfit can speak to the gravity of a particular story and quietly set its tone. The suggestion is that if the anchor has made the effort, you, the viewer, probably should too, in listening to what they have to say.

How we live / Taxi drivers’ screens

Screen peace

Drifting down Gloucester Road in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, I’m feeling lucky that there’s no traffic (writes Nat Cheung). But something prevents a sense of total relief -- namely, the six phones that the diver has spread across the dashboard, beeping and flashing like the control board of a cockpit as he takes calls on speakerphone. It’s an intimidating mess of handsets but, truthfully, I’ve seen worse: up to eight phones, even iPads. 

Hong Kong’s drivers are infamous for putting up multiple screens, allowing them to receive instant booking, traffic and parking updates, all at once. Even before the age of Uber, the taxi industry here had call centres that broadcasted orders via mass calls, demanding yet more mobile phones. And, oddly enough, for all the risks that drivers take to use technology behind the wheel, many still don’t accept cashless payments.

All this is due to change. Earlier this month, the Transport Department announced plans to regulate the number of phones that taxi drivers are allowed to have in front of them. The hope is that it will improve passenger safety but as I go to ask the driver what his own views are on this subject, I stop myself. I suddenly sense why people rarely talk to drivers about this spaceship-like setup: it’s not for fear of a long-winded conversation, rather an understanding that the multitude of phones has been integral to them making a living for decades. This new law is another instance of an older way of life in Hong Kong disappearing before our eyes. And on second thoughts, he seems to be driving just fine.

The interrogator / Justine Picardie

French connection

Justine Picardie is one of the biggest names in British fashion journalism. And as well as being former editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar UK, she’s also a published author. Her latest book Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture tells the tale of Christian Dior and his younger sister Catherine. But Picardie is reluctant to call it a biography. "It’s broader than that," she says. "It’s about how fashion was shaped by the Nazi occupation and the idea of what femininity could be after so much trauma." Here, Picardie tells us about French television, her favourite bookshops in London and The Rolling Stones.

What news source do you wake up to?
I’m absolutely devoted to BBC Radio 4. I started out as an investigative journalist for The Sunday Times so I have great respect for the craft of news journalism.

Coffee or tea?
The first thing I do is make a cup of English breakfast tea with semi-skimmed milk and no sugar. I don't drink coffee at all. I just never learnt to like the taste.

What kind of music do you listen to?
I grew up listening to The Rolling Stones. I also love David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac.

Do you ever sing or hum in the shower?
No, the shower is my place to think about what I’m writing.

Magazines for your weekend stack?
There's nothing like a print magazine. I like the obvious ones: VogueHarper’s BazaarCountry Life and, since I moved to the country, Gardens Illustrated.

A favourite bookshop?
So many. I love Heywood Hill in Mayfair, Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street and Hatchards in Piccadilly.

Are you a fan of podcasts?
Very much so; I got into them during the pandemic. I like Americast with Jon Sopel and Emily Maitlis,and The Battersea Poltergeist. I’m quite interested in the paranormal.

Any TV at all?
Le Bureau des LégendesCall My Agent and Spiral. Because I was writing about France but couldn’t be there, I watched a lot of French TV. I’ve also recently watched an Israeli series called Shtisel. Plus Mare of Easttown and The White Lotus, which I highly recommend.

What is your cultural obsession?
Chanel and Dior.

Anything on the airwaves before you go to sleep?
I often listen to Audible. My husband and I have been listening to Martin Jarvis reading PG Wodehouse.

Culture / Listen / Visit / Read

Come to life

‘Ch. 1 Vs. 1’, Cynthia Erivo. Those who do not know vocalist and actress Cynthia Erivo’s name might hear a hint of familiarity in her voice, the power of which was on show to the world last year when she performed "Stand Up" from the film Harriet at the Oscars. Her new album is full of breezy, effortless pop with a touch of melancholy, with songs such as "Alive" and "The Good" effortlessly combining both.

‘Close Up’, Fondation Beyeler. Running until January next year, Fondation Beyeler’s new exhibition focuses on the work of female portraitists over the years, from Berthe Morisot’s soft brushstrokes to the social realism of Alice Neel. Featuring nine artists, the show is a mix of portraits and self-portraits from the 1800s to the present day and is a must-see -- particularly for those already in town for Art Basel, which ends tomorrow. 

‘Exteriors’, Annie Ernaux. Annie Ernaux’s book of astute observations on modern life on the outskirts of Paris are at once lyrical and chaotic. Translated by Tanya Leslie and comprising a series of journal entries written over a seven-year period, the book’s focus on fleeting encounters and overheard conversations will make readers think twice about the seemingly ephemeral details of daily life.

Outpost news / Palau wave radio

Located in a remote corner of Micronesia, deep in the western Pacific, Palau is an archipelago of more than 300 coral and volcanic rock islands, and a nation teeming with culture and history. “It’s a pristine paradise,” says Salvador “Sadoi” Tellames, who owns and manages radio station Palau Wave Radio. "Though the country is very small, with fewer than 18,000 people living here, it’s a beautiful island." It’s why Palau’s economy has largely been based on tourism, a sector that has been heavily hit by the pandemic. Here, Tellames tells us about the country’s biggest news stories, the station’s roster and spreading the word about the island’s culture.

How did you first get involved in the station?
I worked for the government of Palau as a news reporter for about 20 years. Then I became the director of the Bureau of Domestic Affairs, where I ran the government radio station, which was the only radio station on the island for a long time. I retired from the government in 2008 and a Japanese friend, who was an engineer at Tokyo FM, donated this radio equipment to me. But I wasn’t able to broadcast for a year, until the new president issued my permit in 2010.

What sort of news stories do you cover? 
I do global news in the morning as well as island news. I just did a talk show with one of the candidates for the governorship of Koror State because the election is soon. We cover the presidential press conference every Wednesday. We also do talk shows about our culture and invite members of the community who know our traditions to explain them. The traditions aren’t taught in school, so we like to bring people in to fill the gap. 

What’s the big news story from this week?
Our government has started a weekly flight from Guam to Palau, so many people are worried that it will contribute to a rise in coronavirus cases here.

Anything else?
The other big story is that our parliament and congress recently passed a new national budget. It’s very important because we have to get about $20m [€17m] in loans from the Asian Development Bank in order to help run our government but that’s on the condition that we reform our tax system. Our president also recently went to the US to talk to officials there in the hopes that we can access a $35.24m [€30m] fund to prop us up over the next fiscal year.

Retail update / Niwaki

Budding success

Just around the corner from Monocle’s London bureau, Midori House, another establishment with a Japanese-inspired name has appeared (writes Stella Roos). Niwaki, which opened its doors on Chiltern Street last week, is London’s first specialist vendor of Japanese gardening gear, stocking everything from Kojima denim work-jackets to hand-forged secateurs.

With outposts in both Tokyo and Dorset, UK, Niwaki has garnered something of a cult following for its tools’ artisanal craftsmanship and superior materials. "England is a special place for gardening," says Jake Hobson, who founded the importing business more than 10 years ago. "I don’t think this could work anywhere else." For the Londoners lacking a garden (or a green thumb), the inviting Jones Neville-designed shop also stocks an excellent range of Japanese kitchen knives and other well-made products for the home. If you are ever in need of a Kaneshin bonsai tweezer, there is only one place to go. Yokoso, Niwaki.

What am I bid? / The White House Pastry Chef

Confectioner in chief

In the world of diplomatic dining there’s often an unsung hero: the pastry chef (writes Will Higginbotham). Few know this better than Roland Mesnier, who worked as executive pastry chef at the White House for 25 years. "Food has a way of bringing people together," says the French chef. "And, if you ask me, dessert has a power unto itself." Mesnier started under president Jimmy Carter and stayed to serve the Reagans, both Bushes and the Clintons. He developed a reputation for using elaborate dessert moulds as first families hosted queens, kings, heads of state and countless diplomats. 

Since retiring in 2004, Meisner has pondered what to do with his dessert-mould collection. And, fortunately for political enthusiasts and budding chefs alike, he has decided to auction off some 300 treasures at the Potomack Company in Virginia next week. On offer are a pewter mould that was used for the annual White House Governors’ Dinner, with estimates over $150 (€130; pictured); a set of peaches that was used to create a frozen spectacle for Princess Diana, estimated at $800 (€680); and a bald eagle, a favourite of George HW Bush that’s expected to sell for more than $3,000 (€2,500).

On parting with the collection, Mesnier says that he hopes items fall into the hands of people who will not just exhibit them but use them too. "Moulds are a dying art but wouldn’t it be magic if they came back?" he says Mesnier. "You didn’t just give George W Bush a scoop of ice cream; he wanted his desserts to have imagination." So if you buy some culinary history this week, why not attempt something special? Former presidents might approve of your efforts.


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