Our weekly dispatch begins with Andrew Tuck recalling some awkward moments. But it’s clear vision from there on, thanks to a superior display of eyewear from Eastern Europe and a sporting introduction to our new Photo of the Week feature. Plus: the demise of home exercise and Malcolm Rifkind gives us a giggle.
It was the end of the day, I was tired, I was at the physio and the man looking at my knee had me lying on his bench as he tried to ascertain why my niggling pain from running won’t go away. That’s why, at 19.00, after no doubt seeing endless clients, he found himself making small talk with someone whom he had only met for the first time 30 minutes before. “What are you doing after this? Going home to the family?” he asked.
It was a nice general question. The trouble was that I didn’t have a simple answer – and perhaps because I was lying down with his hand on my knee, I found myself stumbling out a ridiculous response, “Er, no, um, well, er, I am going home to my partner, er, husband.” And then just to make sure I made both of us feel awkward, I added, “Sorry”. What the hell was I doing?
Luckily, he simply replied “cool” and continued to sweetly enthuse about how amazing knees are and how we would soon sort my meniscus strain. (I must say that while irksome, having a fully fledged sport injury is sort of a bit grown-up too). It’s funny, though, how your power of speech can just vanish.
And I have put people in the same predicament too – except worse. I may have told you this before but here goes. I was near my house and saw a man I know through work – he’s in his thirties – walking towards me with a much older gentleman. They were talking and striding along at pace and, when they reached me, marched past before I had a chance to say anything. By coincidence, two days later I saw him again while I was grabbing lunch with two Monocle colleagues. This time he was alone. “Hello,” I said, not sensing the trouble ahead. “I saw you the other night with your dad, I would have said ‘hello’ but you seemed to be in a hurry,” I chirped. “Yes, we were late for the theatre. But that’s not my dad, that’s my boyfriend.” There was no linguistic escape ladder, no reverse manoeuvre I could perform, so I said, voice now strained and high-pitched, “Where were you going?” To which he rightly replied, “I just told you, to the theatre with my boyfriend.”
I have replayed that scene in my head many times – especially as, once we were out of sight, my colleagues insisted that it was one of the worst faux pas that they had ever heard and have regularly taunted me about it ever since. Why do these small moments become so uncomfortable?
A little while back someone asked if I would like to attend a dinner being held in London in their honour. “Of course,” I said. Then the invitation arrived by email and the actual host – who doesn’t know me – generously added that she would be delighted if I would bring my wife. No doubt her mind was on something else when she typed those words but when you don’t have a wife on hand for such moments, replying is suddenly tricky. In the end I went for, “I am sorry I don’t have a wife – would a husband do?” And then, as soon as I had sent it, I felt mean. It would have been simpler to ask him indoors to wear crinolines for a night.
Now I am not trying to make anything out of these incidents (other than a column). No malice was at play on anyone’s part in any of them. They are all just moments where for a few seconds someone – me included – made a presumption that turned out to be slightly off-kilter. And they are moments when you find that you don’t want to explain yourself.
But there are parts of society where letting this stuff go just won’t wash anymore. You read stories of standoffs in academia over the use of a single word that one professor has deemed offensive. Of something said in a workplace that, yes, could have been more inclusive but which has now been labelled as an indicator of a company where “microaggressions” are tolerated. Who knows – could what’s actually at play just be an example of an attempt at niceness gone awry? The fact is that we are all capable of saying things that land with the elegance of a shot duck. A plump one. On a pavement. Once we accept that, we can all sleep better at night.
The middle of the 20th century was the golden age of photojournalism and in the Netherlands one name outshone all others. Vincent Mentzel was the staff photographer at NRC Handelsblad for nearly 40 years, during which time he became the pre-eminent chronicler of Dutch life, from the football stadium to the parliament house. He also made famous tours of Iran, Tibet and China, the latter of which he visited many times throughout the 1970s and 1980s, creating iconic images of a country in extreme flux.
But it’s from his home patch that today’s Photo of the Week comes. This snap, taken in 1969 at a match between Feyenoord and Ajax at the former’s De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam, bears many hallmarks of Mentzel’s work, such as an eagle eye for the pregnant moment and a fascination with crowds. It is currently being shown among many others in a peerless retrospective exhibition, which opened yesterday and runs until 6 June at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
The Ukrainian crisis has pushed into the global spotlight the nation’s foreign minister, who has been doing some shuttle diplomacy in recent days to drum up support for his threatened country. Dmytro Kuleba (pictured, top) is a youthful 40 years old and, while he may have the weight of his nation’s future on his shoulders, he also always has a dapper jacket on his back, a colourful pocket square often tucked into his breast pocket, good ties and great glasses – the arms and bridge are dark and the rest of the frame is transparent. There’s something a bit retro about them. Kuleba cool is what it is.
His focus on good spectacles also places him among an interesting history of eastern European politicos with covetable eyewear – although while Kuleba is a good guy, many of the other men in this line-up are rather more dubious. How about Polish meanster General Jaruzelski, who led his nation from 1981 to 1989? While he can be condemned for many things, the specs were flawless – think big, think sun-reactive, think Jaruzelski’s Angels. East Germany’s final leader Erich Honecker, meanwhile, seemed to have more chunky framed numbers at his disposal than your local opticians.
But if you are seeking true Men Of The East glasses inspiration, have a look at the gallery of face furniture belonging to former Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev (pictured, bottom) – from wire-framed to sunnies for the seaside and glasses bigger than patio doors, he had this aspect of life sorted. On balance, though, we’ll stick with Kuleba’s vision of the future.
As the warping effect of the pandemic fades, so too are many of the fads that it spawned. And one trend that seems to be heading for the passé pile? Home-exercising. Last week, leaked company documents suggested that Peloton would be temporarily stopping production of much of its equipment, including its famous bikes. It had already slashed prices last autumn to encourage demand but this, say analysts, has not proved enough – nor has the creation of classes and content that devotees genuinely love (many of its instructors have become saddle-bouncing stars with swathes of perspiring social media fans).
There was always going to be a problem expanding in markets where even the well-to-do live in compact apartments (many people in London, New York or Milan have kitchens not much bigger than a Peloton bike). And, to be fair, even less expensive and bulky home-exercising trends are also faltering – where, for a start, have all those skipping ropes gone? One imagines a lot of macramé baskets are being crafted from the castoffs.
The idea that even the average home should somehow expand to be the place where we eat and sleep, have our office and a gym to ride off our wobbly bits was just not practical. Plus, people are now heading back to work full-time, returning to gyms, reconnecting with the world face to face. If you really want your home to look like a fitness club, why not try throwing some wet towels on the floor, leaving a bar of soap on the stairs and charging yourself €150 a month to use the bedroom – then never actually go there.
What happened to the joke? It’s a question that we unpack across the just-out February issue of Monocle. It seems that while professional comedians are flourishing, the office joker has been banished. So in the latest issue we asked some serious folk – scientists, academics, professors – to give us a quip; something that tickles their sense of humour. And we will share these and some of our own jokes over the coming weeks all in the name of terrible puns and general daftery. And if you have one you wish to share? Just send it to Alexis Self at firstname.lastname@example.org. First up on stage, please welcome Malcolm Rifkind, former UK defence secretary.
“A Catholic priest and a rabbi are on the train together. The priest asks the rabbi if he can ask him a very personal question. The rabbi agrees. The priest asks the rabbi if he has ever had bacon. The rabbi admits that he once did. The rabbi then asks the priest if he has ever had sex. The Catholic priest admits that he once did, to which the rabbi says, “It’s better than bacon, isn’t it?”
The February issue of Monocle is on newsstands now.
Swiss novelist Peter Stamm is famous for his deeply psychological plotlines and sharp prose, and his books have been translated into more than 30 languages. His latest, It’s Getting Dark, is a collection of short stories that follow a group of characters as they explore the relationship between art, life, memory and identity. Here he tells us about coffee, his newspaper of choice and the earworms currently tickling his drums.
Tell us about what you’ve been working on recently.
Some film-makers wanted to make a film about me writing a book, so I decided to write a book about film-makers making a film about a writer.
What news source do you wake up to?
Cigarettes – wait, that’s not a news source. In all seriousness, the first thing I do is look at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. I find it a bit right wing but it’s still the best paper we have in Switzerland, so I have no choice.
As well as cigarettes, do you also have coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
Yeah, actually I’m not smoking anymore. But usually it’s cappuccinos in the morning and black coffee in the afternoon.
Do you ever sing in the shower?
Maybe not in the shower but I do hum to myself quite a lot.
Anything stuck in your head?
There are earworms that follow me around. Right now it’s Windmills of My Mind. Do you know that one? It’s kind of an elevator song but it’s a great tune.
Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
I was a longtime subscriber of The New Yorker but now I have a big stack of magazines I need to get through.
Are you more of a book person?
I do like a Swiss magazine called Reportagen. Book-wise, I’ve just started reading Damned to Fame, a Samuel Beckett biography by James Knowlson.
I used to live above a bookshop called Obergass Bücher in Winterthur and I still go there a lot.
And what’s your movie genre of choice?
I’m a big fan of the classics from the 1960s – like Antonioni and Fellini.
Do you still make an appointment to watch the nightly news?
I usually listen to the evening news on SRF while I make dinner.
What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
A flamenco singer I really love called Mayte Martín.
‘Parallel Mothers’, Pedro Almodóvar. If you had to think of the quintessential Pedro Almodóvar film, you would most likely imagine a movie about motherhood or an unusual friendship, starring Penelope Cruz. All three of the auteur’s signatures can be found in his latest work, Parallel Mothers. The film follows two women from disparate backgrounds whose lives become intertwined when they give birth on the same night. Cruz, the director’s long-standing muse, delivers a stunning turn that deservedly won her the best actress award at Venice Film Festival.
‘How High We Go in the Dark’, Sequoia Nagamatsu. Nagamatsu’s debut can be read as either a series of short stories or a single epic tale. It follows a cast of loosely connected characters spanning generations and centuries as they adjust to life on Earth in the midst of a long-lasting plague released by melting ice in the Arctic. With unbridled imagination, the Japanese-American writer conjures a world that’s at once entirely unrecognisable and frighteningly close to our own. An ambitious and timely piece of speculative fiction that’s both harrowing and dashed with hope.
‘Aboogi’, Imarhan. A rich ensemble of desert blues bands has been bolstering the Saharan music scene over the past few years. Three releases in, Imarhan now stand out thanks to their melancholy, soft touch. Recorded (and named after) the studio that the quintet have built themselves in the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset, this album has a soothing, contemplative quality. Its undulating melodies evoke the stillness of the landscape it was born in – and occasionally give way to bursts of hypnotic energy, constructed with guitar riffs and incessant drums. The result is both moving and irresistible.
Forty minutes south of Galway, on Ireland’s rugged west coast, lies the colourful seaside village of Kinvara. Historically a fishing port, it was used as a terminal for travel to the remote Aran Islands, from where turf was harvested for fuel. It has a small population of about 1,500 but boasts a thriving cultural scene and several successful sports teams, all of which feature heavily on the community radio station Kinvara FM. Here, its chairperson, resident alt-rock DJ and sports presenter, Mick Kelly, tells us about two forthcoming festivals in the town.
How did you get involved with Kinvara FM? I saw a radio production course advert in the local post office and, having been a DJ in college and interested in radio for years, I signed up and began broadcasting in May 2017. Soon afterwards, the station obtained an FM license from the Broadcasting Authority in Ireland.
What does your roster look like? We cover everything from current affairs, to music, magazines and the arts. There are 20 people at the station, including the technicians. But we also have people external to the station who give us podcasts from their shows, including a maritime show that is relevant to our position on the coastline. In addition, we have the award-winning John Conneely, who hosts a programme called The Beating Heart of Kinvara, and Around the Townlands recorded by two retired postmen. It’s like a fireside chat with poetry and music.
What events coming up will you be covering? We are looking forward to the resurgence of the Fleadh na gCuach, or The Cuckoo Festival, in May. It’s an ancient festival celebrating the day the druids would mark the coming of summer by the sound of the cuckoo. Now, it’s a chance for people to get together to celebrate the fact that the season is around the corner. We go from pub to pub and interview people, broadcasting the music playing inside. We are also hoping the St Patrick’s Day parade will go ahead and in August we have the Cruinniú na mBád, which honours our maritime history with a regatta of Galway hooker boats and a weekend festival.
Folkform is a design studio founded in Stockholm in 2005 by Anna Holmquist and Chandra Ahlsell (writes Alexis Self). The duo (pictured, Ahlsell on left) plays with the Scandinavian modernist vernacular, while taking specific inspiration from Sweden’s industrial heritage, to create well-crafted, wonderful-looking furniture and fitments. They first gained attention for their innovative use of material, much of which exists at the intersection of manufacturing, joinery and leatherwork.
Folkform: Factory Works is an exhibition and auction of their wares. The former will take place at Bukowskis, a gallery in Stockholm, from 8 February and the latter will be conducted online from Friday. This is an opportunity to pick up some excellent pieces made by two of Scandinavia’s most exciting designers.