A Sotheby’s auction in New York has us going postal for some new items this week, while a trip to Baku reveals the city’s hidden depths – and decadent pastries. Plus: we ponder porcelain airline souvenirs and a UK author throws egg timers into question. But first, we lend Andrew Tuck an ear…
I have a failsafe business idea. The revival of the ear trumpet – those giant cones that, before hearing aids, old folk would insert into their ear to amplify the speech of their nearest and dearest. Though, truth is, I’ve only ever seen them in comedy films circa 1930 and, even then, they were an amusing and ancient affectation.
I went to a very nice dinner this week in a peerless restaurant but could only hear the people next to me and still found myself missing entire sentences. The laughter and general bonhomie of the dining room generated a roar that bounced off the walls and uncurtained windows. This problem has been amplified as restaurants squeeze in more tables to ensure that they can cover costs. I now find myself regularly cupping my ear in a bid to remain part of the conversation – and I am not alone. So let’s revive the ear trumpet. Could it come as an iPhone attachment? Be sported as a spirited bonnet when not in use? I realise that, as a company, we also missed a trick here. After calling the magazine Monocle, perhaps our radio service should have been called Ear Trumpet.
I suppose there’s always layman’s sign language to get you by – as when you do a writing motion to a waiter when you require the bill. Though why this mime hasn’t been updated to a tapping action, I am unsure. My partner’s “the-cheque-please” mime is sometimes so elaborate and florid that I think waiters think he’s suggesting that they should become pen pals. But I have a real sign-language story to depart, one that I have been waiting for the right moment to share.
Back in December, during The Monocle Christmas Market, I decided to sneak off for 10 minutes to take Macy the fox terrier on a lap of the block, just in case nature needed answering. I also took this as a moment to call home. We had only been walking a minute when I saw a woman running towards me, looking late-for-a-date flustered. Her denim jacket had slipped off her shoulders, perhaps dislodged by the strap of her shoulder bag. Under the jacket she was wearing what we may call a boob tube. Except she wasn’t. Like a poorly moored tugboat, the tube had broken free from its anchorage and had drifted up to a place that was, well, north of the Bay of Nipples.
So, in one of my proudest moments, when she was perhaps just a few metres away, I smiled a little crazily, capturing her attention. Then, while still holding the phone and dog lead, I managed to use my hands to mime a downward motion, while simultaneously looking at the fallen-from-their-nest bush babies. In a gist she had the issue computed and resolved with a rapid readjustment, and continued her dash, just in a more contained way. A woman on the other side of the road shouted, “Thank you!” in recognition of my community service. I might have beamed. Five minutes later I stopped off at The Monocle Café and there, in front of me in the queue, was Miss Boob Tube with her date. We both diligently avoided any eye contact. I stared at the cinnamon buns (I mean the pastries), our secret never to be mentioned again – well, until now.
On Monday there was a day trip to Paris. The city had just hosted its fashion week and so, among the usual variety of passengers, the train was sprinkled with an array of on-message buyers, designers and even the odd old-school supermodel. Then, into my carriage, alighted a young man in full Georgian dress – boots, fitted coat, top hat, the lot. On this fashion wagon he barely got a second look but I doffed an imaginary hat to his confidence.
Back in London I mentioned this moment to my desk neighbour, Lex, who had a worrying knowledge of the look. “They call it Georgian-core. It’s a big thing.” In seconds he had tracked down an Instagram account of one such dandy and alighted on a clip that had 480,000 likes (I believe this might have been my Eurostar friend) and featured him dressing, from stocking feet to bicorn hat. Who knew? Yet, while I might find Georgian-core a little mystifying, I have gained some encouragement from this beau’s swagger and am looking forward to our encounter next fashion week, when top hats will be passé once more and everyone will be desperate to know where I got my ear trumpet.
Winters in northern India can be reasonably fresh, particularly during the cold snaps that descend on Delhi and Rajasthan (writes Chiara Rimella). On a recent trip to Jaipur, I spotted quite a few people wearing bulky earmuffs. I didn’t question it too much. Those who live in generally warm countries tend to overreact when the temperature dips below 15C – see Italians and their obsession with puffer jackets.
Soon the sun was shining and all the sweaters came off but the muffs stayed firmly on. There was clearly another reason why people were wearing them. It probably wasn’t style, either. Though Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Mumbai-born actress Jannat Zubair and others have occasionally been spotted wearing them – and brands from Gucci to Loro Piana have released high-end versions – earmuffs aren’t exactly considered cool. Something about them is redolent of winter wonderlands, Ugg boots in the snow, adults who are into Disney: fluffy, cute, saccharine.
Immersed in the incessant din of the beeping tuk-tuks and scooters whizzing around, I soon realised the muffs’ other function: they might not be industrial-grade ear defenders but they help to reduce the racket. While I saw children sporting versions in the shape of unicorns, cuddly rabbits or the imperishable Hello Kitty, men – particularly shopkeepers in their stalls, exposed to the traffic all day – favoured a behind-the-head type, often in tartan and muted colours (or camo for the most adventurous). For the wearer, the muffs might be about turning down the noise – but they make quite a loud statement too.
Towards the end of any long-haul flight, especially if you don’t sleep well on aeroplanes, your senses can play tricks on you (writes Andrew Mueller). Approaching Seoul en route from London to Adelaide recently, I could have sworn that the KLM steward was proffering a trayful of blue-and-white Delft porcelain sculptures of venerable Dutch buildings. He was.
The one I chose in my exhausted fugue now sits on a nearby windowsill as I write, so I know that I wasn’t hallucinating. It turns out that KLM has been distributing these highly collectable trinkets to intercontinental Business Class passengers since the 1950s and that a new one is introduced to the range every year (they also contain jenever gin). The one that I plucked from the tray is number 59. Having looked it up, I learn that it represents the 17th-century Amsterdam townhouse at 163 Herengracht – and, now that I think of it, pretty much my dream home.
This is something that more airlines could do, going beyond the standard throwaways of sleeping masks, bathroom bags too small for anything but the miniature tubes of various unguents that airlines provide and (if you’re lucky) branded pyjamas. A trick is being missed, an opportunity to give passengers something of an airline’s homeland to take away with them. (Lufthansa offers rubber ducks in its First Class lounges. They’re terrifically cute and all – but not quite a traditional memento of Germany.)
I think of other flag carriers that I flew on during my recent Australian expedition. Air France, Qantas and Korean Air all represent countries of which people think fondly. The possibilities for embedding a positive impression of both an airline and a nation with a distinctive souvenir are considerable. I shall rise nobly above naming the European airline that, in my repeated experience, might want to start by giving their passengers something more prosaic: their baggage.
‘Spent Light’, Lara Pawson. The British writer’s latest book grapples with the kind of questions that some of us have asked but have never come close to answering: what if inanimate things knew where they came from? Why do pepper mills resemble hand grenades? Why do egg timers feel so violent? Here, Pawson deconstructs the world and puts it back together again.
‘The Holdovers’, Alexander Payne. During the Christmas holidays, a couple of students with nowhere to go are babysat by a grumpy instructor at a New England prep school. Alexander Payne’s new comedy is a funny, melancholy and, at times, heartwarming tale about unlikely alliances.
‘Big Sigh’, Maricka Hackmann. After experimenting with 1990s Britpop and punk, the British singer-songwriter has returned to the pared-back folk-pop of her debut album, We Slept at Last. Expect frank lyrics layered over quiet orchestral arrangements and hazy electric guitar.
The Monocle Concierge is our purveyor of top tips and delectable recommendations for your next trip. It’s also on hand in audio form on Monocle Radio, with reports and the travel news from around the world. If you’re planning to go somewhere nice and would like some advice, click here. We will answer one question a week.
Do you have any recommendations for a weekend in Baku filled with sightseeing, authentic food and city experiences? I want to discover some hidden gems.
Azerbaijan’s cuisine is often crowded out by Georgia’s more famous kitchen but its rich, diverse dishes are well worth discovering – and there is a wealth of excellent restaurants in Baku. Visit Qaynana, a bustling spot in the old city that serves all the classics, including kutab, a thin, filled pastry, and salads drenched in sticky pomegranate syrup.
Baku can be baffling; it’s a mishmash of historic quarters stranded between gleaming luxury towers. The best way to get the measure of it is to take a long stroll along the corniche on the Caspian Sea. Start in the Old City and walk past luxury yachts, futuristic skyscrapers and quaint waterfront gardens until you reach the spectator stands for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. You’ll see all of Baku promenading and posing for selfies, buying candyfloss and nuts from street sellers and taking regular breaks to gaze out to the water.
Azerbaijan is also known for its creative scene. There are several excellent galleries in Baku, including the Museum of Modern Art (pictured) and the National Museum of Art, as well as several private and commercial collections. For an easy day trip out of the city, visit Yanar Dag – a natural gas fire worshipped by Hindus, Sikhs and Zoroastrians – where you’ll bump into pilgrims who have travelled from India to see it.
French fashion brand Soeur has opened the doors to its flagship shop in London (writes Grace Charlton). The three-storey space on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch was designed by French interior architect Gilles Viard. The use of polished concrete, exposed brickwork and bespoke steel rails gives the shop a functional and brutalist feel, which is offset by warm-hued oak shelves and modular units.
The brand, which was founded in 2007 by real-life soeurs, Domitille and Angélique Brion, is known for its workwear-inspired clothes (think neutral gilets and blazers, pared-back coats and sculptural leather bags). From sales of less than €20m before the coronavirus pandemic, the label increased its revenues by 40 per cent in 2022 and 2023, and is now backed by leading investment fund Style Capital. With this new foray into London’s retail scene, expect to see more Parisienne-chic imitators on the Tube, perhaps clutching a copy of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
The second iteration of Sotheby’s “The One” auction in New York will take place on Friday (writes Alexis Self). The sale has been described as a showcase of “an unprecedented selection of the finest products of human achievement” – so no pressure. Similar to last year’s sale, the 2024 iteration features an array of glittering and sweat-soaked relics from history. A 14th-century gilt-bronze Tibetan Buddha could be yours for between €1.7m and €2.3m, while a sumptuous 17th-century Flemish cabinet painted with scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a relative steal at up to €74,000. There’s also a set of six trainers, estimated to fetch between €6.5m and €9.3m. Admittedly, these 12 shoes were all worn by one Michael Jordan during six NBA championship-clinching games for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.
After this epochal footwear and the Buddha, the next highest-estimated lot is also the smallest. It’s a letter known as “The Genesis of Philately”, which is affixed with a Penny Black (pictured), the world’s first postage stamp. The Penny Black was first issued in the UK in 1840 as a method of prepayment for postage, which, until then, was paid for by the recipient. The stamp allowed people to communicate with one another nearly instantly (in a few days) for a penny, which, when taking into account inflation, would be about £1.28 (€1.50) today. “The Genesis of Philately” is expected to fetch between €1.8m and €3m – only slightly more than the current price of a first-class Royal Mail stamp.