Saturday. 18/12/2021

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday

Opener / Andrew Tuck

Balancing act

Like tightrope walkers traversing a cable across Niagara Falls, we have somehow made it from January all the way to December. Sure, there were some moments along the way when squalls and spray threatened our passage but, here we are, just a couple of steps from completing the year. Still – and I apologise for this – there’s one small thing that I need to mention: it looks as though we are going to have to catch our breath and make the same journey back along the rope again.

This past year has been, well, interesting. When it began, many of us were confident that the pandemic would soon be in the rear-view mirror as vaccinations stopped infections running amok and protected hospital capacity. And, indeed, here in the UK we had “Freedom Day” this summer, when the coronavirus controls were packed away – and, said the government, they would not be needed again. But now we are being stalked by Omicron and, while nobody seems to be able to give a very convincing assessment to what its wildfire spread will really mean, it’s rattling people and who knows what will be done to control it.

Uncertainty makes it difficult to plan anything and, if you are not careful, it can become paralysing – deterring you from scheduling a dinner or trip to the cinema. I used to plan holidays months in advance and have them in my diary as things to look forward to. No more. Unchecked, uncertainty turns you into diary day-traders, snapping up (and dropping) opportunities just hours out. It’s a habit that leaves the hospitality industry on tenterhooks.

Illustration: Mathieu De Muizon

But back to the tightrope because, in the end, we have little option but to put one foot in front of the other and see what happens. Standing still is not a plan.

That’s been the vibe at Monocle over the past year and more: take all the chances that come your way to keep moving; see people when you can; stay hopeful; and know when to ignore vague data that’s presented as though it’s irrefutable fact. It’s why we were able to host a very memorable Quality of Life Conference in Athens in September, run a pop-up radio station in Milan during the furniture fair and host a Christmas party in Paris just a couple of weeks ago (today the French would bar my way). It’s why the magazine still lands with a satisfying thud on subscribers’ doormats; how we have been able to report from so many important events and places: Afghanistan, Libya, Greenland...

Care matched with ambition have seen us through – as have you, our readers. Your support, your emails across the year, and your purchasing of magazines and subscriptions, have allowed us to flourish in 2021 and actually remain confident about what lies ahead. So, a huge thank you from all at Monocle.

And a personal thank you is in order too. There’s something about this Saturday column – its design, perhaps when it finds people more relaxed at the weekend – that has helped it create a connection with all sorts of nice people. Across this year I have told you pretty much everything that’s come my way: all the ups and downs of navigating a pandemic, being an editor, running a team, of family loss and joy. And every week, back have come the emails with your stories, reflections and, occasionally, refutations. It has been an amazing experience.

But one word of advice as we step out on the tightrope again: try to ignore the breeze that’s making you feel a little wobbly at times. Ready? Here we go.

PS If you would like to purchase a subscription as a gift or for yourself, please head here. Happy Christmas.

The Look / Santa hats

Claus for concern

The Santa hat – the fur-trimmed scarlet nightcap with, perhaps, a little bell on it – performs a valuable service at this time of year (writes Andrew Mueller). It enables one to detect, even across a crowded room, the people best avoided. It denotes that weird, joyless, laboured zaniness wretchedly popular as Christmas approaches, as well as subliminally alerting all that here is someone who has, of their own free will, watched – and enjoyed – Love Actually not fewer than three times.

Image: Alamy

There is, indeed, only one person at the party worse than the person who wears the Santa hat: that is the person at the party who insists on loudly and smugly pointing out that the idea of Santa Claus derives not from some ancient and glorious folkloric tradition but from a Coca-Cola ad campaign circa the 1930s (pictured).

As for the person you want to be at the Christmas party? Well, that’s someone who not only abjures the Santa hat but also knows that the Coca-Cola ad bore is wrong; it was, of course, Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast who first drew Santa as we know him in the 1860s. But even armed with this knowledge, it wouldn’t do to go on about it.

How We Live / Italian passive aggression

That’ll show ’em

Don’t ever let an Italian tell you that the British are masters of passive-aggressive behaviour (writes Ed Stocker). While it’s true that many a Brit has been known to smile sweetly and say the exact opposite of what they’re actually thinking, Italians are generally regarded as being far too upfront to get involved in any brooding toxicity. But I’d suggest thinking again.

A case in point is how certain Italians might choose to let you know you’ve contravened a written – or possibly unwritten – parking rule. Say you’ve decided to park on that curved corner of the street where you really shouldn’t. Or you’ve squeezed into that tiny space and ended up blocking a chunk of the zebra crossing. Well, you might find on returning to your vehicle that your windscreen wipers have been lifted into the position of startled eyebrows.

This act of rancour remains anonymous – less aggressive and more passive than a note – leaving the vehicle’s owner feeling embarrassed and a little violated, almost as though the car itself was silently hanging its head in shame. I had that feeling after unknowingly parking a hire car too close to the entrance door of an apartment building in Verona. I had a pretty good idea of who had repositioned the wipers. A certain neighbourhood signore is known to enthusiastically embrace this approach. Begrudgingly, I won’t be parking near the door any time soon.

The Interrogator / Paul Kelly

Recipe for success

With 27 studio albums, 16 Australian Recording Industry Association awards and an Order of Australia medal, Paul Kelly is one of Australia’s most accomplished songwriters (writes Nic Monisse). He also holds an outsized place in Australian Christmas lore, thanks to his song “How To Make Gravy”, which regularly does the rounds on airwaves across the country in December. It’s a status he’s further cemented this year with the release of his debut Christmas album, Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train. Here, he tells us about the album, his morning coffee routine and favourite Christmas traditions.

Image: Getty Images

How do you select songs to feature on a Christmas album?
Instinct and gut feeling. I knew I wanted the material to be quite diverse. We were always going to have carols, country, folk, rock’n’roll and pop. Some songs were on the list right from the start, such as “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”, which I’ve been playing live for the past few years with Linda Bull singing it. But in the course of making the record I made some more discoveries and decided I wanted to broaden it out. We have a Hebrew song and, given that the Qur’an has a whole chapter based on Mary and Jesus, I found a way to represent that as well.

Does your family ever request a rendition of ‘How To Make Gravy’?
It does usually get a run at some stage but my family aren’t going to ask me to sing my own songs; we’re happy singing other carols. The song has been in my set ever since it was written 25 years ago but it wasn’t immediately popular and wasn’t initially played on commercial radio. It has slowly become popular, which is probably the best way for songs to work. Word of mouth – or word of ear.

What does Christmas in Australia mean to you?
Christmas is a mix of so many traditions: there are talking animals, Santa Claus, pop songs about family and presents, and beautiful carols that can be dark or exultant. In Australia we have this other layer: we’re celebrating a winter solstice festival in the summertime; there’s an additional diversity and richness.

What news source do you wake up to?
I jump around a bit. I probably start with The Age but also read The Guardian and The Australian, much to the horror of some of my friends. The Australian has the best cricket writer on its staff, Gideon Haigh – he’s why I subscribe.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with the headlines?
Coffee with milk. I can’t start the day unless I have it. I grind the beans and then make it on the stove with a Bialetti.

Magazines for your weekend sofa stack?
I subscribe to The Monthly, which is an Australian politics, culture and art magazine. And Quarterly Essay, which is published by Black Inc.

Is that a podcast in your ear?
The History of English Podcast by Kevin Stroud. A friend told me about it two years ago. Kevin initially planned to do the whole history in 100 episodes, from the Indo-European language up until now, but he’s at episode 154 and he’s still in the 15th century.

And finally, do you have a favourite Christmas tradition?
The big event for our family is the carols on Christmas Eve. The whole Kelly clan in Melbourne is about 30 or 40 people and we’ll be in the backyard singing – not very reverently.

Culture / Watch / Listen / Read

Another side

‘C’mon C’mon’, Mike Mills. There is something ironic about the fact that Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who can break your heart with just a forlorn look, is now best known for his overblown cartoonish villain in Joker. But C’mon C’mon, the latest film by indie favourite Mike Mills, gladly sees him cast in a rather low-key role that allows him to exchange histrionics for real emotive resonance. Here he plays a schlubby radio journalist charged with looking after his eight-year-old nephew while travelling around the US on an assignment to interview a cross-section of the nation’s teenagers. Although the premise might sound treacly, Mills’s sharp writing and direction, as well as Phoenix and newcomer Woody Norman’s performances, have been praised for ensuring that any poignancy is earned, not cynically crafted.

‘Nonante-Cinq’, Angèle. Belgian singer-songwriter Angèle’s second album sees her music evolve into a more captivating, refined sound. The 12-track album features everything from upbeat dance tracks to sophisticated slower pieces. Lead song “Bruxelles je t’aime” is a feelgood hymn to her city that we can see taking over dancefloors across the Belgian capital; singles “Démons” and “Solo” are highlights.

’The Imposter and Other Stories’, Silvina Ocampo. Argentine writer and artist Silvina Ocampo is a master at capturing mundane events in a whimsical and slightly sinister style. These stories revolve around unlucky characters: a thief breaks into a house with disastrous consequences, two men switch destinies for a change of pace and a seer writes the story of her own death. This is a long overdue and comprehensive collection of short stories from a woman who has often been overlooked in modern South American literature.

Outpost News / ‘Lapin Kansa’, Finland

Snow news day

Despite the bone-chilling temperatures in the Arctic Circle at this time of the year, business is booming in Rovaniemi (writes Grace Charlton). “People come here because it’s an experience,” says Antti Kokkonen, editor of the town’s morning paper Lapin Kansa. With a population of 60,000 people, Rovaniemi is one of the biggest conurbations near the North Pole, serving as both the capital of Lapland and Santa’s official home. Kokkonen tells us about Mr Claus’s official reindeer and investing in Saturday print.

Image: Getty Images

Tell us about the big story ‘Lapin Kansa’ is covering this week?
Tourists are back. We have big groups of people coming from the UK and Europe. This is a big tourist city because of the Northern Lights, Santa Claus and the snow – we have about 20cm right now. Lapin Kansa is located in the pedestrianised city centre so I can see all the tourists walking by in their heavy clothing. It’s very nice to see them back because last Christmas it was totally empty; the hotels were closed but now they’re all booked. It’s good for businesses because tourism is their livelihood.

How do you give your readers a break from hard news?
Although we have digitised over the years, we have invested heavily in our Saturday print edition. We have this reading section with very good writing and interesting stories from all over Lapland. Our readers love long local stories with good photos and interesting people contributing.

What’s on the horizon?
We always cover the moment when the official Santa Claus will set forth from Rovaniemi to deliver presents. Every year on the 23 December he leaves Napapiiri, the Arctic Circle area, and starts his journey with his official reindeer. Reindeer herding is also people’s livelihood here in Lapland, so it’s very symbolic.

Do you have any New Year traditions in Lapland?
In earlier times the tradition was for tourists from Russia to come here because the big thing there is New Year not Christmas. They used to fill the city around that time. Personally, I will be in my summer cottage, which lies 500km north from here, by the Barents Sea.

Fashion update / John Lobb

Skin in the game

Bootmaker John Lobb’s British-made shoes have been a favourite footwear choice for film stars, royals and the discerning alike since 1866. The brand could soon be a favourite when it comes to accessories too: it’s rounding out 2021 by expanding its line of small leather goods.

Image: Adrian Samson / Mitchell Belk

Drawing on more than a century of leatherwork expertise, the new accessory line-up includes wallets, keyrings, glasses cases and document holders, with pieces made from both smooth and grained calf leather. Available exclusively at John Lobb’s shops and on its website, these small leather goods – much like the brand’s bespoke shoes – are designed to last a lifetime. And should you receive one as a Christmas present, here’s hoping it does.
johnlobb.com

What Am I Bid? / Seiko Wristmac

Data for the diary

You can buy an Apple Watch for €210, with the priciest topping out at €940 (writes David Phelan). But if you really want to go traditional, consider the Seiko Wristmac (pictured). Sometimes considered the first Apple Watch, this digital timepiece with a dot-matrix LCD screen that could connect to desktop computers, including an Apple Mac, allowed users to set calendar appointments and transfer phone numbers from a computer to the watch. The data transfer, by the way, was by cable connection.

And while it might not seem like the biggest trick to pull off any more, in 1988 it was cutting-edge. So much so that in 1991, a version of the Wristmac was used on an Atlantis space shuttle and helped to send the first email from space to Earth. It was a short message that ended, “Hasta la vista baby… we’ll be back.” Hardly “One small step for mankind…” but there we are.

Armed with this knowledge, it’s understandable that one Seiko Wristmac, up for auction now, is seeing its price rise fast: after less than 40 bids, it had reached $4,444 (€3,932). For the auction’s winner, the watch comes complete with the original software – on floppy disk – and registration card. Technology changes but people don’t: the original owner never bothered to fill in the registration card.
comicconnect.com

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