Saturday. 11/12/2021

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday

OPENER / Andrew Tuck

Nine lives

1
Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution is a five-part documentary about two swaggering, confident, perhaps flawed giants of politics. I have devoured the series in just a couple of nights this week. Both men give extensive interviews, as do most of the key players from that time. Across the arc of their shared story, you go from Blair taking over the leadership of the Labour party through to Gordon Brown’s electoral defeat and departure from 10 Downing Street.

Whatever you think of the unravelling of their friendship, their politics or their involvement in the Iraq war, watching footage of Blair and Brown in the early days, and listening to their colleagues recollecting the intellectual tussles, you are left asking, “How the hell did we end up with Boris Johnson as the UK’s prime minister?” It’s unfathomable to think that you could make a similar programme about Johnson. Blair and Brown, just like many before them on both the right and left of politics, were statesmen. Johnson is someone who wings it.

Living through tumultuous political weeks can be darkly entertaining, draining and depressing; often all these emotions hit you in quick succession. That’s the rollercoaster ride we have had this week in the UK as a story about a Christmas party held at 10 Downing Street last year, two days after Londoners were told not to mix indoors with anyone outside their household, was allowed to spin out of control simply because nobody could be found to give an honest answer about what took place. (The prime minister is still unwilling to acknowledge that anything illegal was hosted, seemingly holding on to some hard-to-decipher notion of what constitutes a party.)

And then, at the peak of the ensuing furore, the UK government decided that it was the perfect moment to introduce Plan B, a new round of restrictions to cope with the spread of the Omicron variant. Now while these controls might well be required, they have landed devoid of credibility. There is a strong suspicion that they are an example of what Lynton Crosby, an Australian political strategist (and regular advisor to Mr Johnson) describes as a “dead cat strategy”, where you reveal something shocking to distract people from the real story. But I am not sure the deceased feline has helped much.

Previously, when new controls have been announced, they have had an immediate dampening effect on London. But last night as I cycled home, nothing much had changed: the bars seemed busy; people were out doing their Christmas shopping. Perhaps there were a few more masks around but, this morning, the crew in my neighbourhood coffee shop were all maskless and making jokes about the non-party party in Downing Street.

When trust and credibility drain away from a person, a company or a government, they can be hard to win back – especially when the boss doesn’t seem to give a damn. This week has seen many ignoring the edicts from central government and instead deciding for themselves what feels right, what needs to be done, to both stay safe and keep their businesses and lives moving forwards. Millions of individual Plan Bs are being put into action by millions of people who are now sceptical about coronavirus rules dished out by a government that clearly believes that they only apply to the hoi polloi.

2
I have just received a press release with the headline, “Experts warn of the dangers of Christmas to your cat.” The email goes on to explain the risk of giving kitty leftovers from your lunch table (“corn on the cob can choke your cat”) or letting them near baubles, lit candles or even gift bags (apparently, they might get their heads stuck in the handles). They also stress that you must not force your cat “into cute Christmas outfits if they are not open to wearing them”. Open to wearing them? What’s the point of a cat if it refuses to dress as Santa? Honestly, it sounds like Mariah Carey has fewer rider demands for attending Christmas lunch than your average moggy. I do feel, however, that the PRs could have pointed out what to do should the worst happen and your cat succumbs to corn-choking: simply bag it up and post it to 10 Downing Street. It seems they are in need of fresh supplies.

How We Live / Department stores

Levels of retail

When the Swiss do their Christmas shopping at their most venerable department stores, including Manor and Loeb, they owe a debt to people who didn’t actually celebrate the festival (writes Désirée Bandli). The country’s first department store (pictured) was founded in 1896 by a Jewish immigrant called Julius Brann. On arriving in Switzerland from Germany, the 20-year-old entrepreneur set up shop in Zürich’s Talacker district and it was an instant hit, revolutionising shopping in the country by bringing clothes, leather goods and homewares into one location.

His success meant that other Jewish immigrants followed suit: newcomers from Alsace and Prussia established similar shops, with the Nordmann and Maus families opening Manor in Geneva, and the Loebs founding their eponymous operation in Bern. By the early 20th century, half of the department stores in Switzerland were run by Jewish people.

Image: Angela Bhend: Triumph der Moderne. Jüdische Gründer von Warenhäusern in der Schweiz, 1890–1945. Beiträge zur Geschichte und Kultur der Juden in der Schweiz, Band 19, 2021.

But their popularity did meet some resistance. Smaller retailers saw them as a threat and banded together to push through a controversial federal decree, which saw a complete ban on the opening of new department stores and branches in 1933. It was, thankfully, lifted in 1945.

Nowadays, department stores face different challenges, with consumers tempted by online offers and the comfort of shopping at home. To compete, they might want to look back to Brann’s first efforts for inspiration. Just as he did at his store in Talacker, operators need to provide something that residents can’t get elsewhere: today, that’s a human face (not an online chatbot) and the chance to touch and feel products in beautifully designed spaces.

Read more about the history of department stores in Switzerland in ‘Triumph der Moderne’, a new book by historian Angela Bhends.

The Look / Wired headphones

Cable minded

With every leap in technology, it seems as though there is a crowd of contrarians waiting to champion the virtues of the gadgets consigned to the scrapheap (writes Lewis Huxley). Think the resurgence of vinyl, which is at least understandable if you’re an audiophile, or the revival of the cassette tape, which isn’t; that format really should have been left in the technological wasteland along with the fax machine, Casio Databank and Tamagotchi. Spearheading the latest too-cool-for-school throwback is US vice-president Kamala Harris, who steadfastly refuses to use wireless headphones, preferring the wired variety.

But those cables just don’t look good. Unlike trendy young celebrities such as Bella Hadid and Zoë Kravitz, who have recently been pictured ostentatiously flaunting headphones with wires, Harris at least has a legitimate reason for eschewing Airpods. The Bluetooth connection that wireless headphones use to receive audio is vulnerable to interception. So even though Harris’s phone is presumably as impenetrable as Fort Knox, any earbuds paired with it via Bluetooth are not. Of course, for most of us there is little risk of a cyber attacker wishing to expose the fact that even though we say we’re listening to edgy music or a highbrow podcast, we actually have Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” on repeat. Don’t judge us; we haven’t been able to play the cassette on the move since we introduced our Walkman to the bin where the Betamax once lived.

Still, the thought that the vice-president could miss an urgent call from the leader of the free world because she’s desperately trying to untangle the headphones she bought when she was attorney-general of California is too much to bear. Then again, the wireless alternative isn’t perfect either: no doubt a White House aide will be busy pulling long-lost Airpods from the back of an Oval Office sofa before putting up the Christmas decorations. Either way, it remains to be seen whether Harris has unwittingly started the latest fashion fad. If she has, you heard it here first.

The Interrogator / Scholastique Mukasonga

Reading lists

Rwandan-born, Normandy-based author Scholastique Mukasonga is best known for her 2012 novel Our Lady of the Nile, which won numerous awards, including France’s Prix Renaudot and Switzerland’s Prix Ahmadou-Kourouma (writes Grace Charlton). The book’s English translation was republished this year. Set in the mountains of Rwanda, it foreshadows the 1994 genocide by exposing tensions at a school for privileged girls. In the years since its publication, Mukasonga has swept up accolades for her nuanced writing on the country’s cultural and political history. Here, she tells us about Ethiopian coffee, channel-hopping and her favourite French radio station.

Image: Getty Images

Which news sources do you wake up to?
I channel-hop through different news channels and try to avoid the racist diatribes of far-right politician Éric Zemmour. I also like to watch Rwandan news channels in my mother tongue.

Coffee, tea or something pressed with the headlines?
An orange juice and a coffee, preferably with beans from Ethiopia.

What are you listening to?
I stick to Michael Jackson.

Any favourite podcasts?
There are often interviews on [public radio station] France Culture with writers whom I like or find inspiring, such as Mona Ozouf.

Any magazines on your coffee table?
The news magazine L’Obs and French cultural publication Télérama.

A favourite bookshop?
I live in Caen, a university town, where I am spoiled for options. I find it reassuring that there are still readers.

The best thing you’ve watched on TV recently?
I haven’t watched much lately because French TV has been invaded by ads for electoral campaigns.

A cultural obsession?
The French literary prize Prix Femina. I’m currently asking myself how I will read the 400 novels that I will receive as a judge for it next year.

What’s on the airwaves before you drift off?
Nothing. I switch my TV off.

Any festive traditions?
I send real paper greeting cards rather than virtual ones via email.

Culture / Listen / Watch / Read

Blaze a trail

‘Brûler le feu’, Juliette Armanet. The French singer is back with this hotly anticipated second album. In Brûler le feu, she’s taken a decisive turn towards the dancefloor (see ‘Le Dernier Jour du Disco’ as proof). The upbeat vibe carries through the whole record but it’s always softened by her melodic voice – such as on the excellent “Qu’importe”. Her collaboration with fellow French musician Sebastian on “Vertigo” is another highlight.

‘Lamb’, Valdimar Jóhannsson. This modern-day Norse fable by debut director Valdimar Jóhannsson follows a grieving couple living on an isolated farm who raise a hybrid creature born to one of their flock. More unsettling than the premise, which broaches the theme of nature versus nurture with an unexpected tenderness, is the general atmosphere of foreboding that hangs over the film; it’s not often that glacial film-making elicits such a quickening of the pulse.

‘O Caledonia’, Elspeth Barker. Originally published in 1991 and recently reissued, Barker’s dazzlingly dark and funny novel tells the story of Janet, a wild young woman with only a pet jackdaw for a friend. The setting is an austere gothic castle in a harsh landscape; the prose rich and poetic. A classic coming-of-age tale and a love letter to literature and nature, O Caledonia is as sharp today as it was 20 years ago.

Outpost News / ‘Østlandets Blad’, Norway

Ski lift

Sitting about 30km south of Oslo is the commuter town of Ski (writes Nyasha Oliver). With 20,000 residents, it’s the most populated town in Follo, a region known for its agriculture and fields dotted with farmhouses. Keeping residents informed is Østlandets Blad, a newspaper that goes to print six days a week and enjoys a healthy circulation of more than 15,000. Its editor Martin Gray tells us about townsfolk who lean into Christmas a little too enthusiastically and Norway’s surprisingly transparent taxes.

Image: Alamy

How was ‘Østlandets Blad’ founded?
It was started in 1908 just outside Ski, in the town of Kråkstad. Other newspapers were also starting up around here at the same time but the proximity resulted in other publications stealing stories from Østlandets Blad. As a result, in 1914, we moved to Ski. I joined as news editor in the autumn of 2012, before progressing to my current position as editor.

Any big stories from this week?
In early December in Norway, all the newspapers publish the names of those who earn the most and pay the most taxes. It’s legal and it’s one of the ways to see that all our combined wealth is distributed fairly. Many people outside of the country might not understand but Norway is a transparent country and we’re completely open to everyone about our incomes and taxes.

A favourite headline?
One of our most catchy recent headlines was about a guy who was woken up one morning by the sound of a fox attacking a cat. He took a video of it and it went viral. His name is Per Ulv – and with ulv meaning “wolf” in Norway, the temptation to make a funny headline couldn’t be passed over. An additional fun fact: Per Ulv is also the name we use for the cartoon character Wile E Coyote.

What are the town’s Christmas traditions?
There is a guy called Tore Karlsen who goes over the top, decorating his house for Christmas so excessively that it has become a tourist attraction. Having a yearly trip to see his house has become a bit of a thing in Ski.

Fashion update / Celine, London

Grand opening

French fashion house Celine has wrapped up 2021 with a series of new retail openings across the globe, headlined by a new flagship in London. Located at 40 New Bond Street, the shop was designed by Celine’s creative, artistic and image director Hedi Slimane, and brings the brand’s elegant French sensibilities to a storied building in the heart of Mayfair.

Image: CELINE LONDON NBS

The space is fitted out with vintage furniture and an extensive collection of artworks, with the brand commissioning one-off pieces by the likes of Ugandan sculptor Leilah Babirye and Russian-born London-based artist Nika Neelova. There’s also a fitting room that doubles as a library, a 17th-century oil painting by Flemish School artist Jacob Matham and a heritage-listed octagonal room dedicated to the brand’s perfumes. The result? A retailer that’s more than a place in which to shop – it’s a destination that embraces art, culture and design.
celine.com

What am I bid? / Italian design

Inner space

Milanese auction house Cambi Casa d’Aste has built its reputation on the sale of classic furniture designed by the likes of Gio Ponti (writes Stella Roos). And while works by the Italian architect will be up for grabs on Monday at Cambi’s Fine Design sale, savvy buyers will be focusing their attention on rarer lots from the country’s lesser-known 1960s avant garde studios.

Two such pieces are by Superstudio, the Florentine architecture collective founded in 1966. There’s an early prototype of its graph-paper-inspired Quaderna table (pictured, on right; Lot 103, €4,000 to €6,000), which comes from the collection of Benito Giovannetti, whose namesake company manufactured Superstudio pieces. Also going under the hammer is his Superstudio-designed king-size bed (pictured, on left; €10,000 to €15,000). Replete with a fluffy, hot-pink mattress, it looks like it belongs on the set of a science-fiction adult film.

Image: Cambi Casa d'Aste

Such playful, postmodern pieces are in vogue, says Piermaria Scagliola, head of Cambi’s design department. And it is perhaps why the original owners are choosing to sell. “They probably sensed that now you can make a very good return,” says Scagliola. “Prices can change quickly in our trade, depending on what is fashionable.” It’s time, it seems, for Giovannetti to cash in and for someone else to walk away with these space-age statement pieces.
cambiaste.com

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