Our love of a good story remains undimmed after 15 years of Monocle, says editor in chief Andrew Tuck, and for the lighter side of the news this weekend, read on for a report on defiantly fun parties in Kyiv and a look at the style cues of military coups. Plus: Pachinko author Min Jin Lee on her favourite New York bookshops and we ask you to tell us a joke.
It’s the smallest things that stick; a seemingly passing comment in a story that lodges. For the past couple of weeks, I have been working with a French journalist on a report about the trial of the men accused of aiding the terrorist attacks that rocked Paris on 13 November 2015. There’s a section about the testimonies given by survivors, including those who were caught up in the massacre at the Bataclan theatre. How did those people get out alive? Often, the writer explains, it was all down to a decision as simple as stepping away to have a cigarette, to order a drink – then a bullet that would have ended one life instead of killing the person who, just a second before, was standing behind them. In that detail you glimpse how terrorism works – its unfathomable, unrelenting randomness.
It’s the same in the long read in our current issue about Ukraine, written by Kyiv resident Artem Chekh. He explains the geopolitics of the region perfectly well but it’s when he mentions that “most people have a bag of clothes, money, toiletries, packed and ready to go”, that you suddenly see how Russia has destabilised Kyiv – that you have a city of people primed to leave in a second. The unimaginable becomes imaginable; how could you wake up every day living with this numbing pressure, I found myself thinking.
The process of writing and editing is not linear. There are so many routes you can take through a story but somehow you have to make people care, to find time in their busy lives to focus on what you are saying – without sentimentalising or overplaying your hand to get their attention. And that goes equally for a story about the downfall of Kabul or a review of a new hotel.
I’ve been thinking about how we tell stories, what we choose to report on, a lot this week. The March issue, which we are currently working on, will not only carry our Paris trial report but also celebrate 15 years of Monocle. As part of this, we have been returning to people and places that featured in Issue 01 to ask, “What happened next?” It’s brought back to life the myriad decisions that went into making that launch magazine and, as you will get to see, that the topics and themes we were concerned with back then are just as pertinent today: how do we keep craft industries alive, how can journalists be protected, what’s the ambition of China in Africa and how can cities stay true to their characters? It surprises even me how fresh it all still looks. Issue 01 stands as a bit of a manifesto for what Monocle is all about.
But there’s a second reason that I have been forced to reflect on what makes a Monocle story and what we can leave other people to report on. This is because we have taken on a team of new editors in recent months and I need to articulate our outlook on the world, something that has by now just become a reflex for me. And because it’s not about following, say, a party-political line, it’s sometimes hard to explain the nuances, the point that we are aiming for. I don’t bump up against other writers and editors very often but while I want to host a variety of views on page and on air I also want to make sure we try, in the end, to come good on our key beliefs – without compromise. That we should introduce you to people with simple fixes for making better buildings and businesses; that we should seek to highlight opportunity even in difficult times; that our silence can say more than us joining the hecklers; that we must always look beyond the anglosphere and its more destructive cultural debates; that we should make people smile every now and then. It’s why, in story meetings, the debate is not just about which topics are important but how stories can best be told and why they matter. But here’s the good thing. In these conversations, in the stories that are coming across my desk, and as we reflect on Monocle’s journey to here, the role that we can play has never seemed more important, so full of potential.
“What’s next for Monocle?” people often ask. Well, after this past week revisiting our founding issue, it’s clear: sticking to our guns, telling great stories and not falling in with the hand-wringing competitors. It’s not linear, it’s fallible – but it’s not bad you know. And our real winning card? People like you who keep us on our feet every day.
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The coup d’état is a regrettable perennial in Africa (writes Andrew Mueller). Last month’s coup in Burkina Faso isn’t even the most recent, there having been an attempted one in Guinea-Bissau on Tuesday. Just as this fashion for military coups has remained constant, so has the fashion of military coups. In Burkina Faso, Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba (pictured), who has installed himself as head of state, is a traditionalist in substance and style.
Damiba’s televised address to his country conformed punctiliously to coup cliché. He wore khaki camouflage and a scarlet beret, and flanked himself with neatly pressed flags. The semiotics of military kit in such circumstances are not subtle: it signifies order and authority, and conveys the idea that the elected government has not been unloaded by power-crazed opportunists defying the people but by dutiful patriots protecting the nation, with big guns.
There are also reasons why the triumphant putschist favours fatigues over dress uniform. It might just be that they just haven’t had time to change after a busy day’s overthrowing but looking like a fighting soldier also serves as a caution to any potential opponents of the new arrangement.
Damiba has also made the traditional noises about taking charge for “a transitional period”. And his junta has adopted one of the grandiose yet faintly sinister names much beloved of militaries who have wearied of civilian command: in this instance, the Patriotic Movement for Preservation and Restoration.
On the right breast of Damiba’s tunic is a winged badge identifying him as a paratrooper, man of action, etc. On the left is a medal which, at this early stage of his dictatorship, may or may not be self-awarded. The stripes on the chest-mounted epaulette denote him as a humble lieutenant-colonel. It will be interesting and instructive to see whether Damiba nudges himself upwards a few rungs as he settles into his new role, or chooses to modestly retain this middling rank.
Some Germans like to call Kyiv the new Berlin (writes Christopher Cermak). After a few evenings of going out for dinner here, and having lived in Berlin, I can see why. It has a bohemian feel to it: young people have been slowly but surely making things happen, particularly over the past eight years, opening up an artsy hotel here and an independent shop there, and cafés, restaurants and nightclubs abound.
There’s an energy and passion to the place and you get the sense that, whatever their day jobs, people are invested in their community too. There’s the film-maker who’s opened up an art gallery while trying to galvanise the cool businesses on Reytarska Street to work together; the restaurant owner who happens to be a leading voice on tackling disinformation and hybrid warfare; and the human-rights lawyer who leads a double life as a singer and musician.
Though geopolitics are never far from people’s minds, references to any actual fears are casual. Someone mentions a fellow expat who has left the city and then there’s a pause in the conversation, before it’s noted that the person was able to work remotely so, really, they might have left anyway. One person admits that there’s a lot of “repressed stress” here but also that it often translates into a sense that you might as well drink and celebrate as though the Russians are going to invade in the morning.
At the home of a Ukrainian aid worker the other night, I felt a kinship with these people. It was a regular evening until everyone around the table started telling me their stories of the Euromaidan protests in 2014: of building a makeshift kitchen for demonstrators, or the time they were stopped by FSB-like officials during a trip to St Petersburg. Then the guitar came out for songs of protest.
I realised that almost everyone here had already fought in some way for that European bohemian lifestyle that they’re currently leading, which perhaps is why they all tend to shrug when asked about the current tensions. They’ve been living with them for more than eight years. So why not have a bit of fun?
Last week, to coincide with the publication of the humour-themed February issue of Monocle, we asked you to send us your best gags. And, we must say, you are a funny bunch. There were jokes about owls, episcopal ministers and, fittingly for this parish, Danish lightbulbs. But our pick of the bunch was this pan-continental blague sent in by Mark Hartsuyker of Ithaca, New York. It can be adapted as the joke-teller likes. So, here goes…
“In the European heaven, the English greet you, the French do the cooking, the Italians are in charge of the fun and games, and the Germans organise everything. In the European hell, the English do the cooking, the French greet you, the Italians organise everything and the Germans are in charge of the fun and games.”
Ahem. If you think you can do better, please send your favourite funny to Alexis Self at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be publishing the one that wins the most laughs around the Midori House water-cooler in next week’s newsletter.
Korean-American author and journalist Min Jin Lee shot to worldwide fame after the publication of her best-selling 2017 novel Pachinko, which follows four different generations of a South Korean family in Japan. Set against the backdrop of colonisation and warfare, the book deftly explores the tense historical relationship between the two countries and has been adapted into an eight-part series by Apple TV, which is due to premiere on 25 March. Here, Min tells us about her affinity for period dramas, some cultural obsessions and how she gets her caffeine fix.
Coffee, tea or something pressed in the morning?
I always have two mugs of black coffee.
A favourite bookshop?
It usually depends on where I am in New York but The Corner Bookstore, Books Are Magic, Greenlight, McNally Jackson, Book Culture and Shakespeare & Co are a few of my favourites.
And what’s your movie genre of choice?
Period dramas (yes, seriously).
What’s the best thing you’ve watched on TV recently?
Recently, it has been Succession and Squid Game.
Magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
The New Yorker, The Economist and Monocle. My husband and I have been Monocle subscribers for more than a decade. We own several totes.
What have you been working on lately?
My third novel, American Hagwon.
Boyhood, Parasite and Il Postino.
Sofa or cinema for the evening?
Honestly, I prefer the cinema.
Do you still watch the nightly news? Do you have a favourite newsreader?
PBS News Hour and CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. I love Jeffrey Brown and Anderson Cooper.
What music do you listen to?
Hip-hop, R&B, pop and jazz. Also, a fair bit of opera and classical music. My mother was a piano teacher so I grew up listening to Chopin, Debussy, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.
Do you hum in the shower?
Who’s your cultural obsession?
Cynthia Erivo, Yoshitomo Nara, Kim Tschang-yeul, Mickalene Thomas and George Eliot.
What are your favourite podcasts?
Pivot and Sway because of Kara Swisher, The Ezra Klein Show, Unlocking Us with Brené Brown, Freakonomics, Scriptnotes and TV’s Top 5.
What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
Total silence, please. I need to wear earplugs and a sleeping mask to get a proper night’s rest.
‘Gratitude’, Delphine de Vigan. The French author’s sixth novel tells the story of Michka, a former photojournalist living in a care home in Paris. She has two visitors: Marie, who she looked after as a child, and Jérôme, a speech therapist to help with her aphasia – a condition that’s steadily gnawing away at her ability to communicate. Before she loses her grip on her words forever, she wants to find and thank the two strangers who took her in when she was a young girl during the Holocaust. The result is an empathetic exploration of what it means to care for one another.
‘Suposo Que L’Amor És Això’, Ginestà. Barcelona band Ginestà started as a quartet but is now a duo made up of siblings Júlia and Pau Serrasolsas. Though the outfit shares its name with a socialist revolutionary and its lyrics are penned proudly in Catalan, this third record doesn’t have a political axe to grind: its 10 songs are dedicated to love in all its forms. Sweet single “Somni” is a good, disco-inspired place to start.
‘Light & Space’, Copenhagen Contemporary. As all of Copenhagen’s venues have now opened up completely, many Danes may be too busy hitting dancefloors this weekend to head inside a gallery. But this exhibition should entice them out of the dark basement and into the white cube – there’ll be neon lights there too. It’s an extensive display of the mesmerising (and at times mind-bending) works by 1960s American movement Light & Space. These are enormous installations that combine to make this Copenhagen Contemporary’s biggest show to date. Expect pieces by the likes of Bruce Nauman and James Turrell, as well as those by European artists who were inspired by those Los Angeles pioneers of shifting perception.
In the famous upstate New York town of Woodstock, 160km north of the Big Apple among the brilliant green forests of the Catskill mountains, the Hudson Valley One newspaper has been run by the same family for more than 50 years. “We write a lot about people in the area, so we always have positive stories,” says Genia Wickwire, the founder’s daughter and the paper’s associate publisher. The Hudson Valley One is published every Wednesday and keeps its 2,500 subscribers up to date with all the latest regional news, culture and gossip. Here, Wickwire tells us about the history of the paper and a story that kept residents optimistic during a tough year.
Tell us about the history of the newspaper
My dad, Geddy Sveikauskas, who was a professor in New York, started the Woodstock Times in 1972. By the time the pandemic began we had five weekly newspapers but, due to the collapse of advertising revenue, we had to combine them into one that served the whole area – hence the name. We did what we could to keep regional journalism going. My dad is now 82 and still very much involved in the paper. We work together on every aspect of it and when we became the Hudson Valley One, he was relieved to be able to still write his own stories and choose which articles ran or not.
Can you share a big recent news story?
As well as a lot of coverage on rising property prices and gentrification, it was big news when Michael Lang, who started the first Woodstock festival in 1969, died. He had always lived here and his family is still here. They’re a big part of the community.
How do you give readers a break from the hard news?
We had one very popular story last year about a seal that set up on the banks of Saugerties, a town about 10 miles from here on the Hudson River. It’s so rare to see a seal so far from the sea! He had been tagged so we were able to follow him everywhere he went in the river. People loved it.
What are you looking forward to?
It has been quite slow over the winter because so much has shut down but we are looking forward to more businesses reopening in the spring. And hopefully we’ll be covering some exciting new restaurants and shop openings in the paper as well.
Alec Soth is to the 21st century what William Eggleston was to the 20th. His vivid depictions of small-town American life imbue both object (some roadside detritus) and subject (a woman scouring the rubbish for something unknown) with a beguiling agency. As with the work of all great photographers, these images can be viewed over and over, and still throw up new details or evoke new feelings.
Today’s photo of the week, Justin and Mattias, Fire Island, New York, is taken from his latest book, A Pound of Pictures, which is published by Mack Books and skirts around the themes explored in his seminal Sleeping By the Mississippi. That book’s original purpose had been to follow the route taken by Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege from Washington to Springfield, Illinois. But it became something more: a sumptuous portrait of modern America.