From the public figures using masks to apologise, to a hatful of reasons that you can (and should) sport a Stetson this spring, our Saturday dispatch has you covered. A two billion-year-old black diamond and a land dispute involving the Maltese Catholic Church also give us pause for thought and, at the top, our editor in chief ponders the relevance of the Instagram obituary.
Over the years when my other half or good friends have been in plays in the West End, there is often a nice addition after the curtain call. While most people fall into the darkness to find a spot for supper or push through the giddy melée to catch the last train home, you head behind the theatre, often down some piss-fragranced alley, to the stage door. Here you’ll find the stage doorkeeper, routinely a wise old hand who is a nice mix of bouncer and maître’d depending on whether he or she likes the cut of your jib. You give them your name, explain who is expecting you, and then they call down to the dressing room or announce over the Tannoy your presence.
Then down the stairs you go, impressed at how people who were on stage just minutes before were already streaming past you, job done. The stairwell walls are covered with old theatre bills and photographs of performers stretching back decades. As an outsider, it’s funny to see how the star’s dressing room is no bigger than a cupboard, with a mirror festooned with good-luck cards and perhaps a forlorn little bed. When you got to meet people in this after-show moment, there is often a bonhomie and a quick glass of wine that even included interlopers.
Twenty and more years ago, when I had more friends who were actors, there was always another group of people installed at the stage door: the autograph-hunters. Now these were not people who had seen the show or cared whether it was a smash or a flop; they were men and women who spent their time just tracking down the stars seeking a signature on a piece of paper to prove that they had met them to capture some of their glow. You would see the same people again and again; they had been at it for years. It made you realise how being around fame warps us, whether me trying to play it cool or that now-gone generation of autograph collectors, who are seen by many as too obsessive for comfort. But those men and women have nothing on us today. Except it’s not autographs that people want now; it’s the picture. And the results of this endless celebrity cataloguing play out in one odd way: when people die.
Within seconds of anyone famous popping their clogs, social media is filled with photos of the dearly departed with the account’s owner. Were they once at the same fundraiser? Appeared on a panel together in 1988? Had a friend who got them backstage at a theatre (gulp)? Whatever the connection, the words always follow the same template: “So saddened to hear about the death of Meat Loaf. I will never forget this moment in Des Moines in 1992. Legend.” Or, “So broken-hearted at the passing of Betty White, who it was my great pleasure to spend some time with – my thoughts are with her family.” Those “moments”, the “time spent”, probably amounted to seconds. But this is the world of the social-media obituary. (Meanwhile what the post should say is, “I forced them to have a picture taken with me; they were uncomfortable about the whole thing. But hey, it’s 2022.”)
What the Insta-obituary writers seek, just like those autograph collectors, is a moment of connection and of fleeting equivalence: “Look, here we are in the same place, in the same moment.” So I guess it’s all innocent and fine except, well, it’s not. These posters are a kind of fantasist, out to warp the narrative, to – like Woody Allen’s character in the film Zelig – insert themselves into the story.
We live in a time when memories are rarely enough (and I know this affects me too). But even if we now have those pictures of extraordinary people on our phones, of seconds spent in the company of our heroes, perhaps that’s where they should stay, because once thrown out there, their potency ebbs and you risk looking a little seedy. And the Insta-obit is more about the person posting it than the dead. Although, would you like to see the picture of me and Meat Loaf? Because, really, wow, what a day that was!
Even before they became ubiquitous, masks were being used to make a personal statement (writes Alexis Self). This week, in further proof of the scintillating times in which we live, we were treated to the mask of contrition – as modelled by freedom-loving UK prime minister Boris Johnson (pictured) and vaccine-hating tennis player Novak “No-vax” Djokovic.
On Wednesday, many national newspapers in the UK ran with an image of a bemasked Johnson on their front pages, while on Monday it was Djokovic’s medically swaddled lantern jaw doing the rounds on TV and in print.
Now, whatever your views on masks, nobody can deny the efficacy of schadenfreude. As he boarded his deportation flight in Melbourne and walked off it in Belgrade, Djokovic remained steadfastly mask-on, while his eyes showed a hint of wounded impassivity. This hitherto elusive humility was also on show as Johnson, in an interview with Sky News, fiddled with his covering to ensure it was face-tight. Both looked like men with something to hide.
The signal that both wanted to send was one of remorse; of compliance with the rules and a desire not to enrage or offend more than they had already. Either that, or neither had bothered to brush his teeth.
Author and playwright Miri Yu is best known for her 2014 novel Tokyo Ueno Station, a ghost story about a migrant worker in northeastern Japan. But she’s also a successful entrepreneur. After relocating to Fukushima in 2015, she opened a bookshop, Full House, and a theatre, Lamama Odaka. She tells us about bedtime rituals, her favourite film and what she’s working on next.
Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with the headlines?
First, I’ll have ginseng tea with honey, then a cup of coffee while I nibble on some chocolate.
A favourite bookshop?
Kyobunkwan in Tokyo.
And what’s your movie genre of choice?
Anything with a war theme.
What’s the best thing you’ve watched on TV recently?
A documentary on NHK called Far From Futaba: 10 Years of Nuclear Exile. It’s about a town in Fukushima to which former residents are still not allowed to return.
Newspaper that you turn to?
The Fukushima Minpo, the Fukushima Minyu Shimbun and the Kahoku Shimpo.
Magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
Genron, which was founded by cultural critic and philosopher Hiroki Azuma.
What have you been working on lately?
Two novels, one called Fukushima, Yonomori Station and the other Diamond Pigeon.
A favourite film?
The Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
Sofa or cinema for the evening?
I love them both. I watch movies every day.
What music do you listen to?
Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday and Queen.
Do you hum in the shower?
Not in the shower. But I do hum in the bath.
Who’s your cultural obsession?
Ken Loach, the Coen brothers, Samuel Alexander Mendes, Darren Aronofsky, Lars von Trier, Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky and Theo Angelopoulos.
What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
An audiobook version of the Bible.
‘The Gods We Can Touch’, Aurora. Every song on Aurora’s new album features references to a different god in the Ancient Greek pantheon, from Persephone to Aphrodite. At that time, gods were considered fallible, quasi-human beings and their invocation here is a suggestion that we should be content with our imperfections today. It might sound high-concept but this third effort by the Norwegian popstar is eminently listenable. As usual, the range of her voice shines through, taking centre-stage on soft ballads as well as danceable numbers.
‘Strangers I Know’, Claudia Durastanti. Italian writer and translator Durastanti’s inventive English-language debut is a compelling bildungsroman. Every family has communication issues but the narrator of this book struggles more than most. Both of her parents are deaf and they refuse to teach their children sign language. They each tell a different story about how they met and divorce when the narrator is still a child, forcing her to split her life between Brooklyn and rural southern Italy. Out of these many layers of confusion, the narrator has to fashion her own sense of self.
‘After the Rainbow’, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Eugene Kangawa, whose free-thinking work has included pitch-black theatrical performances, short films and room-sized installations, heads up Eugene Studio in Tokyo. His current show at the Museum of Contemporary Art explores the ideas that underpin the studio’s thinking. The diversity of the work is thrilling, from golden paintings inspired by traditional Japanese screens to the startling Beyond Good and Evil, Make Way Toward the Wasteland, a real-scale, post-apocalyptic replica of the room that appeared in the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kangawa isn’t afraid to pose big questions about art history and civilisation itself.
The town of San Gwann (pictured) in northeast Malta has a population of just under 15,000, many of whom read newspaper Maltatoday. “It was founded as a liberal, left-of-centre alternative to the mainstream press in 1999,” says Matthew Vella, its executive editor. It has since become known for its investigative journalism, making a mark with its campaigns against poaching and hunting. “More than 22 years on, we’re an important part of the island’s media,” says Vella. Here he tells us about his beat.
What is San Gwann like?
It’s a young town. Until 50 years ago, the area was mainly the rural limits of Mensija. Now the part by the valley has more villa developments. It’s an ordinary Maltese town.
Any big stories from this week that you can share?
We’re really big on environmental stories. We recently published something about a family claiming ownership over huge swaths of land because it once belonged to a noble 17th-century ancestor. That land was held by a foundation controlled by the Maltese Catholic Church. But the Church gave up the land and put it in the hands of this family. And guess what? It is turning into a big pot of gold.
Any events coming up that you’ll cover?
The elections in 2022. That’s when Malta will really go crazy!
Do you have a favourite headline?
I like: “Maltese aristos at first Romanov wedding on Russian soil since 1917”. But they weren’t all aristocrats – just ordinary people who were “knighted” for pottering about in capes with eight-pointed crosses during social events and swearing allegiance to Russian nobility. It’s the kind of non-political oddity that readers enjoy.
And do you have a down-page treat?
Yes, “The Skinny”, which we feature on the cover of our comment section (we also call it “MT2”). It is a satirical take on the news with a question-and-answer between what I’d call a naive interlocutor and an exasperated observer.
Wannabe frontiersmen should be feeling bonnie from neckerchief to spurs (writes Robert Bound). Thank The Duke himself: the 10-gallon hat is back. Unless you’re a New Mexican or big-truckin’ Texan, you’d think the Western look was a cyclical thing. A denim shirt or pointy boot might creep out of the wardrobe after the algorithm throws up some Townes van Zandt but, you’re guessing, it’s not a keeper. Well, woah there!
You might have seen the “Big Hat Look” (BHL) kicking up dust when you laid down your silver dollar to stream Jane Campion’s mouth-parchingly fine The Power of the Dog. Of the four masterful main performances, two are from Big Hats: the battered Montana ranch fedora worn by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil and the pristine white 10-gallon beauty atop Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter (pictured, on left, with Cumberbatch). These hats become symbolic of the dangers of frontier life, the trials of survival and the inevitable challenging of the old order. Big Hats for a big story.
Fortunately, the BHL will be a rootin’-tootin’ summer vibe: Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton have incorporated them into their forthcoming looks. But the BHL is happily pan-seasonal. This winter I’ve been favouring a broad-brimmed, flat-topped fedora by Bailey, finished with a Lady Amherst’s pheasant feather – a look reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s get-up on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in the mid-1970s. So be bold: go Big Hatted, safe in the knowledge that no-one could wear it worse than Jeff Bezos, fresh from the space phallus, feeling “frontier”, looking flaccid.
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Buoyed by the widespread easing of pandemic rules and the prospect of hosting a wedding without restrictions, everyone I know seems to be getting engaged (writes Nic Monisse). And after congratulations, talk inevitably turns towards “the rock”. As with other arms (or should I say finger?) races, when it comes to this piece of hardware, it would appear that many feel that bigger is better.
If you are of this opinion, then get on down to Sotheby’s Los Angeles next week, between Tuesday and Thursday, and feast your eyes upon The Enigma (pictured). The two-billion-year-old, 555.55-carat black carbonado diamond – the largest of its kind in the world – will be flown to London on 2 February before it’s put up for auction a week later.
It’s not just the gem’s size but its mysterious origin (and undisclosed price) that makes it especially alluring – and its name particularly apt. “It’s thought to have been created by a meteoric impact or to have actually emerged from a diamond-bearing asteroid that collided with Earth,” says Nikita Binani, a jewellery specialist at Sotheby’s and head of sales in London. “We don’t know the exact location where it was discovered but we do know that diamonds of this kind are found exclusively in Brazil and the Central African Republic.” While this shrouded pedigree might put some potential buyers off, purchasing second-hand is certainly more sensible than acquiring newly discovered diamonds.
In recent years, concerns around provenance have given rise to more ethically sound synthetic stones. This is a heartening development but no one would deny that there is a look to real diamonds that is unmatched by their artificial counterparts. “Collectors continue to appreciate the beauty of naturally occurring diamonds,” adds Binani. “They’re drawn in by their various hues and imperfections, which make them unique wonders of nature.”