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A brilliant format for radio… on TV

In Monocle this month, Michael Booth profiles Det Sidste Ord (The Last Word), a Danish television programme where famous people give an interview that is. filmed in great secrecy, edited and broadcast only after their death. Slightly weirdly, the questions are asked in the past tense and the third person (‘Who was Simon Howard?’ or ‘What was the most important thing Simon learned during his lifetime?’)

The interview is typically shown within a few weeks of the participant’s death, and there is an intention to re-edit and re-broadcast them around twenty years after death.

It sounded fascinating, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a radio format. The description didn’t sound televisual to me.

I’ve been trying to work out why that was my reaction. I think it is because it sounds like the format involves deep and intimate conversation, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done well on television. Radio somehow conveys authenticity; TV struggles to break through a sheen of artificiality.

I read Rob Burley’s book about TV political interviews earlier this year and disagreed with his view that long-form television interviews are the most revealing. They often become performative and false in a way that rarely happens on radio. They are simply different beasts.

It’s an unfair comparison, but you can learn more about a person’s character from one appearance on Desert Island Discs than from ten guest slots on Graham Norton or Laura Kuenssberg’s TV shows.

With those preconceptions, I can see why my initial reaction was that Det Sidste Ord would make great radio rather than television. But perhaps the real lesson is that those who make British TV have much to learn from the Danes, or that I am watching the wrong programmes.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Media, Post-a-day 2023, , .

Stairs didn’t stop the Segway

Like most people, sometimes I happen to read two unrelated things in succession and thereby draw unexpected conclusions.

Dan Cullum recently posted the widely accepted reason for the relative lack of success of the Segway:

The Segway is a great piece of technology. When it was announced, it was meant to change the way humanity moved.

The problem was the Segway wasn’t designed to handle stairs.

And stairs, well, they’re everywhere.

And then Andrew Mueller’s breathless excitement at Paris banning e-scooters:

E-scooters were always an answer to a question that presumably nobody had asked: “What would be an efficient way of making life for pedestrians miserable at best, dangerous at worst?” They have been a blight upon every city on which they have descended. In use, they are a nuisance and a menace. When stationary, they’re ugly and obstructive litter.

By declaring a stop to this nonsense, Paris has set what will hopefully be a resonant example.

Segways and e-scooters are driving at the same goal: moving pedestrians more quickly with less effort. The latter was leagues more successful than the former, yet didn’t solve the alleged ’killer problem’. You can’t ride an e-scooter upstairs, either.

It reminded me not to take the commonly accepted explanation for an enterprise’s failure at face value. It’s probably a lot more complicated than it seems.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

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More from the latest Monocle Companion

Yesterday, I promised to share some more from the latest Monocle Companion, so here are some thoughts on a grab-bag of essays.

An article on sleep by Claudia Jacob has some admirably straightforward advice:

So how can we simplify our sleep? The science tells us that the signs are abundant and free to see. Do you depend on an alarm to wake you? Do you need naps during the day and crave caffeine? Have you fallen asleep while hearing about a colleague’s weekend plans? If so, it’s probably time to get an early night to replenish your reserves. While the science of sleep is galloping ahead, you don’t need an app to understand it.

If only all journalistic health advice was so clear-minded.

In her essay on blame, Sally O’Sullivan says

Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, sets up the mistaken idea that there is one right story, one truth. I’m sorry to say that this is never the case.

Every family member will see a situation differently and this multiplicity of truths is invariably complex. But no family is immune from these tussles. Indeed, the closer the relationship, the more likely it is that we will revert to blame.

This made me feel sorry for the Prince. I’ve seen so much vitriol directed at him for the phrase “my truth” often—wrongly, in my view—being taken to suggest that multiple truths are possible, rather than one singular truth. Here, he’s being criticised for exactly the opposite, based on exactly the same text.

The capacity of commentators to find fault may be infinite… this blogger included.

In an essay on reforming the modern approach to business, Josh Fehnert writes:

To conduct your business in good faith, in a way that’s transparent, rigorous and fairly managed, is a job in itself and everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Remember that it is OK to forgive people. That said, distant targets, such as decarbonising by 2050 or improving the gender balance of your board within a decade, ring hollow. Isn’t it better to get going right away, even if that means making a few missteps, and reach your goal rather than kicking the can down the road?

Bravo. I’ve been involved in too many tedious arguments about long-term plans for organisations, which everyone knows no-one will stick to. This sometimes boils down to confusing strategy with implementation. It’s good to have a long-term strategy which guides an organisation’s approach. It’s also essential to have a separate plan for implementation with a much shorter time horizon and tangible staging posts. The vicissitudes of life will necessitate changes in implementations, which the strategy ought to float above.

I recently read a ten-year strategy for an organisation which—for sound reasons—no-one reasonably expects to exist ten years hence. So, apart from hubris, what was the point in giving the strategy a decade?

In an essay on the recycling symbol, Richard Spencer Powell suggests adding

a visible green circle on the front of all recyclable packaging. That means no ifs, buts, or claims of being “partially recyclable”; it either is or isn’t.

Alternatively, if your plastic packaging isn’t recyclable (or doing so involves very specific efforts from the consumer) then brands should be obliged to put a red dot on it.

I appreciate the problem Powell is trying to solve: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to fish crisp packets out of recycling bins, a problem excavated by claims on the packaging that it is recyclable… but only via a specific scheme.

But it’s evidence that Powell underestimates the challenge: even within the UK alone, the items which are recyclable in local council bins vary enormously, as do the conditions in which the recycling must be presented. It’s clearly not feasible to have regional packaging dots.

But quite apart from that, the byline makes clear that Powell oversaw the design of this very edition of Monocle Companion. The book not only omits any recycling guidance, but also is perhaps the only one I’ve read this year containing no information on the sustainability of its paper source.

Perhaps he ought to start closer to home?

Albert Read writes:

I believe that imagination is something you can work at. If we’re attentive to ours, we can find all sorts of potential within ourselves. We should pay attention to our imaginative health in the same way that we look after our physical health and emotional wellbeing. All the studies show that being imaginative and creative makes us happier and more fulfilled. It’s the root of being alive.

I’m not keen on the ‘medicalisation’ of the topic, and I’m turned-off by the phrase ‘all the studies show’. But I completely concur with the wider point. Imagination and creativity are undervalued assets in life.

I’m not sure what made me relate this essay to work—I’m starting to see a bit of a theme in this post. Yet, I think that a little less adherence to change theory or management models in some health organisations, and a little more deep creative thought and engagement, would go a long way.

In a fantastic essay on friendship, David Sax says, in the context of the workplace:

Humans remain a social species and trust is the only currency that matters.

I reflected a lot on this. It’s obviously true: if I have a tricky professional decision to make, I run it past people I trust, not necessarily people with particular titles. Similarly, my close colleagues will often ask, ‘Who’s a sensible person to ask about X?’—which is really a question about whom I would trust.

I think I’m often critical of others for trying to use hierarchy in place of trust. But this made me reflect that perhaps I have become a bit slack in fostering trust too. It’s easy to get frustrated with being asked to explain principles repeatedly to different people, but perhaps I don’t spend enough time considering that it’s only the first time I’m explaining it to the latest person. Using it as an opportunity to patiently foster trust is probably a better approach than getting frustrated.

In an essay on commuting, Lilian Fawcett writes:

It’s a liminal time between commitments that gives our minds space to wander.

I know I’m not alone in finding solace in liminal spaces: sitting on a train, in an airport departure lounge, in a hotel lobby. I find it uniquely relaxing to be anywhere where I have a right and necessity to be, but where there is no expectation on me.

I also thoroughly enjoy my walks into work, but I hadn’t really connected these two preferences until I read Fawcett’s essay. Now I see that they are essentially the same thing… albeit walking is a little more active.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , .

I’ve been reading the latest Monocle Companion

I’ve recently read the latest Monocle Companion while on holiday, its slightly battered appearance being testament to the not-quite-library conditions in which I read it. These paperbacks, of which this is the third, are collections of short essays by Monocle contributors, many of them previously published elsewhere. This is the first collection that I’ve read.

I’m milking two posts out of this, so you’ll be getting more tomorrow. Firstly, I want to tell you about an essay by Andrew Mueller which gave me pause for thought. Mueller is sharing his lessons from 35 years as a journalist.

Online, everything is forever. Every so often, some outraged archivist will dig up something stupid or obnoxious that I wrote for the music press when I was much younger, and much less clever than I thought, and brandish it angrily at me via email or Twitter, demanding to know whether I penned the offending snippet. Yes, I’ll tell them, I did. I wouldn’t write it now, and I won’t defend it now, but that is indeed my byline and, while there are probably more productive uses of everyone’s energy, I am accountable for it.

I occasionally doubt my own decision to keep over 20 years’ worth of blog posts on this site. Like Mueller, I wrote some stuff when I was younger that feels embarrassing today. But even if I were to delete the back catalogue, “online, everything is forever”: it’s not like it would be hard to find cached copies. And, in the end, to delete it is just to disown it, and I’m not confident that changes anything.

There is a lot on here that I wouldn’t write today. But I did write it, it is out there, and there’s nothing to be gained by trying to delete it now rather than trying to maintain it in some sort of context.

Even with the best will, and the most meticulous diligence, you are going to get things wrong. In journalism, if all works as it should, a sub-editor will catch it between your keyboard and the page (and if they do, thank them). But if they don’t spot it, a reader will and they will write in to make it known. So always respond gratefully and humbly. This life offers few more exultant joys that being proved right and you should not wish to deprive anybody else of that.

I’m a doctor, not a journalist, by my goodness this felt familiar. Some of the most frustrating professional experiences of my life have come about through people being unwilling to admit errors, even when they are plainly visible.

We all get things wrong. It is when we get things wrong that we’re most able to learn, both from the error itself, and from understanding how the error arose. Was it a misjudgement? A misunderstanding? A lack of knowledge? A simple slip? A systemic issue?

It’s rare in any part of medicine that we can implement a change that will have a lasting impact on numerous people: mistakes are a golden opportunity to do exactly that, by preventing others from experiencing the effects of the same error repeated. To ignore mistakes, or to pretend they don’t exist, is to pass up a golden opportunity.

The best result of all is where the error is solely mine, perhaps because I misunderstood something or misread something or failed to take something into account. Those situations provide the opportunity for personal growth, to share learning, and to be open, allowing me to cultivate precisely the culture in which I’d prefer to work.

You should do the best you can at what you do, of course. But you don’t get to decide its, or your, value to anybody else.

Hurrah for that statement. My professional life would be much less enervating if I wasn’t regularly told that ‘service changes’ or ‘modernisations’ or ‘system improvements’ were extremely valuable in terms of making my life easier when the opposite is true.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, , .

31 things I learned in July 2020

1: I knew a little about Milton Glaser, but I didn’t know how prolific he was.

2: Priority postboxes, for return of completed home swabs for COVID-19, have appeared as if overnight. Or at least, stickers which designate existing post boxes which are already emptied later in the day as “priority post boxes”.


3: Finland’s air force stopped using a swastika in its logo three and a half years ago, and no-one really noticed until now.

4: “These trying months have shown us a government and a prime minister of unique incompetence, deceitful and panicky, often inattentive to essential business (remember those five Cobra meetings that Johnson bunked), and incapable of pursuing a steady policy for more than five minutes. Yet when we emerge from the epidemic, we will be faced with the same government and the same prime minister and the same government demanding more powers, more central control.”

5: I’ve read quite a lot about Concorde over the years and the one parked up in Manchester is still on my “to visit” list. I’ve never read anything that got quite as closely into the financial side of the project as this 2002 article by Francis Spufford which I dredged up today.

6: In one of life’s stranger coincidences, after a few years of using Android phones, I bought my first iPhone since the 4S today—then realised that it is ten years to the day after I wrote about switching to the iPhone the first time round.

7: A mobile phone game can be a surprisingly powerful emotional experience.

8: Goats have rectangular pupils.

9: Someone wasn’t allowed on my bus today because they weren’t wearing a face covering: so I’ve learned that the rules are now being enforced.

10: “Nowhere in Christian scripture is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god. Hart regards it as a historical tragedy that the early church evolved into an institution of secular power and social domination, too often reinforced by an elaborate mythology of perdition based on the scantest scriptural hints and metaphors. The fear of damnation can serve as a potent means of social control.”

11: Torontonians are without their water fountains during the current heatwave.

12: I learned only recently that it is expected behaviour—and, in some cases, a school rule—for children to make their own way to school from around the age of five in Switzerland. The Swiss government’s response to a five year old being fined last year for travelling on a bus without a ticket is heartwarming sensible: to make public transport free for young children, with the side-effect of further cementing this approach to school transport.

13: Commercial analogue radio is to continue for a further decade (at least).

14: There’s a feeling of change in the air. Yesterday, I felt hopeful that covid-19 may be bringing to an end this brief era of populism: it seemed plausible that the crisis might sweep away the bombast of Trump, Johnson and Bolsanaro in favour of quieter competence. In the UK, witness the poll rating of Sunak and Starmer as examples of senior politicians who can both think and communicate clearly. Today, The New Yorker’s historical review had reminded me that things are rarely so straightforward: things can get worse as well as better.

15: “Andrew Lloyd Webber has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Donald Trump” sounds like the setup for a particularly corny joke, but it turns out that it’s the news these days.

16: We’re at a curious point in the Government’s response to covid-19. The official advice on gov.uk remains “stay at home as much as possible” yet the Government is running a major advertising campaign to convince everyone to do exactly the opposite, presumably for economic reasons.

17: One of the scariest charts I’ve seen in relation to covid-19 in the UK so far:

18: “When the inquiry does begin, the primary target for the Johnson government’s ire is already clear: PHE. One health service official predicted it would be ‘toast’ after the inquiry. One minister says: ‘We haven’t blamed Public Health England — yet.’”

19: “When Carnegie Mellon researchers interrupted college students with text messages while they were taking a test, the students had average test scores that were 20 per cent lower than the scores of those who took the exam with their phones turned off.”

20: “Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, delivered its message to the assembly. He spoke perkily, as if everything in his country was under control. In fact Britain is the country which, given its relative wealth and long warning time, has failed most grievously to protect its people against the first onslaught of the virus. Its failure lay primarily in its neglect of the low-tech, low-cost, labour-intensive public health methods and community mobilisation that successfully prevented disease in low-income countries: universal lockdowns, self-isolation, masking, quarantine and tracing – by people, not apps – of all those whom sick people have been in contact with. Yet in his short video message Hancock was speaking the old language of Americans and Europeans, coming up with a tech solution – in this case, a vaccine that doesn’t yet exist – to the world’s problems. ‘I’m proud that the UK is leading this work,’ he said, ‘that we’re the biggest donor to the global effort to find a vaccine, and that UK research efforts are leading the way.’ Hancock’s wasn’t the only speech at the assembly to prompt the thought that before there can be solidarity, a little humility would help.”

21: This Psyche documentary following actors at The National Theatre in the hour before they go on stage is fascinating.

22: I learned more about the history of Nespresso. I am a heavy Nespresso drinker. I do at least make sure all of my pods are recycled.

23: “Answering emails is hard, and no matter how fancy your email app, that email isn’t going to write itself. There’s no tool smart enough to cure human stupidity, so maybe we should stop looking for it.”

24: Victorian Britain’s relationship with the seaside was complicated.

25: I think I use singular “they” without really thinking about it: it’s not a point of grammar I can get worked up about. I hadn’t previously clocked this common usage: “How do you complete the following sentence: ‘Everyone misplaces ____ keys’? There is no way to do so that is both uncontroversially grammatical and generally liked. Most people, even those who as a rule don’t like it, will be pulled towards the singular ‘they’: ‘Everyone misplaces their keys.’ The problem with ‘their’ is that pronouns should agree with their subjects in both gender and number. ‘Their’ is fine on the first count, because ‘everyone’ is genderless, but fails on the second, since ‘everyone’ is grammatically speaking singular, and ‘they’ is plural.”

26: Meditation is probably associated with a lower prevalence of cardiovascular risks (at least according to this one limited study). All of my psychiatrist friends meditate themselves and tell me it’s the best thing since sliced bread, in much the same was as endocrinologists tend to talk about Vitamin D supplementation. I wonder what public health people are reputed to bang on about?

27: Satire may have finally been killed off. “Boris Johnson has today unveiled plans to curb junk food promotional deals as part of a new government obesity strategy triggered by the pandemic” just seven days before the start of “a government subsidy to offer people 50% off meals in fast food restaurants.”

28: From Walter Isaacson’s outstanding biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I have learned that Leonardo described the mechanism of closure of the aortic valve in 1510, but it didn’t start to gain mainstream currency among cardiologists until Bellhouse’s work confirmed the description in the 1960s.

29: The decline of the landline is changing literary fiction.

30: The teasmade has been reinvented. It doesn’t look like the one my grandparents used to have beside their bed: the new version is much uglier.

31: Unorthodox was a great miniseries.

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30 things I learned in April 2020

1: In terms of the response of many governments to covid-19, David Runciman suggests that “For now the war is all there is, and the peace will have to take care of itself.” I hope that’s not true. If there’s one lesson we always say we need to learn after every crisis, it’s that we need to do more planning for the “recovery phase”, the return to normality (even if that is a new normal). I hope the UK’s government is thinking on that.

2: Contrary to everything I thought I knew about myself, it turns out that I am the kind of person who stands in a queue outside Asda. Covid-19 has done strange things to us all.

3: Doctors often spend a lot of time moaning about the involvement of politicians in political decisions about healthcare. I appreciated this article from Political Violence at a Glance for giving a brief but thoughtful answer to the question: “In pandemics, should the experts or the politicians be in charge?”

4: Dies Irae is quoted in a lot of films. Who knew that Gregorian chant is so relevant to modern cinema?

5: Teacher training in England is a mess.

6: Mario’s moustache is there for a reason.

7: There’s a great article in the April/May 2020 edition of Courier—not online as far as I can tell—about what a company learned from deciding to pay all their staff the same salary. It didn’t work out for them. Courier does these articles on failed business experiments really well: it’s great to see failure embraced and learning shared rather than just pretending everything works all the time.

8: “There is no sweeter moment than passing a middle-aged man in lycra on a carbon-fibre road bike when you’re riding a Dutch bike in a dress.”

9: According to a lecture by Dr Mary Rogers who manages the Abbott Global Viral Surveillance Programme, from all the SARS-CoV-2 viruses genetically sequenced to date from over twenty countries, there is only variation in 149 positions in a 29,000nt virus (i.e. very little mutation and variation).

10: “Whether one agrees with Trump’s policies or not, his administration has accomplished much of what it set out to.” I sometimes think that the collective outrage at Trump’s policies obscures the fact that he delivers on them. I would never have believed on 9 November 2016 that Trump would still be in office today, let alone that he would have actually delivered on his outlandish promises.

11: Bats have weird immune systems.

12: Stoking anger and resentment in difficult times still sadly brings gainful employment for some, according to Andrew Tuck: “At the park there’s a man lurking by the bushes. He’s got a camera with a telephoto lens as long as his arm. He’s here not to spot a rare bird in the trees but to try to catch out people sunbathing, sitting on a bench, talking to someone who does not live in their household (I know this because a few hours later I check the tabloid sites to confirm my suspicions and there are his pictures). He’s also got a series of people allegedly cycling too close to one another. But they are not what they seem to be. He’s simply used the lens to make it look like people are super close by shortening the field of vision. With a country on edge, it’s incredible why anyone would try to sow unease.”

13: In the context of the Prime Minister’s covid-19 diagnosis, “Donald Trump described Johnson as a man who ‘doesn’t give up’. Which is about as disrespectful a thing one could say in the face of the tens of thousands of people who have died of the virus, and presumably just couldn’t be arsed to hang around.”

14: Canine life coach is a career option.

15: I read a lot of library books and have never really worried about catching infections from them. But Gill Partington seems to think I should worry (and according to this article, Public Health England has guidance on cleaning library books, which was also news to me).

16: It’s easy to forget the unprecedented pace of social change over the last hundred years, which means it’s easy for a news report from a century ago to knock my socks off with its attitude to gender politics.

17: The Government’s latest covid-19 graphic feels strangely reminiscent of certain 1990s weekend shopping trips.

for Britain 
All in, au together.Stay@

18: It’s “unlikely in the extreme” that covid-19 will delay November’s US presidential election.

19: The Economist reckons that “apps built using Apple’s and Google’s new [covid-19] protocol ought to focus on providing information to technologically empowered human contact-tracing teams, not on automating the whole process.” I agree; I’m not sure whether or not that’s PHE’s view.

20: Streaming funerals online raises interesting theological questions.

21: By dint of being in the second half of the decade, I don’t think I can describe myself as being in my “early thirties” anymore. In Misbehaving, Richard Thaler suggested that people can no longer be considered “promising” once they turn forty. To wit: I’m now a “promising thirty-something.”

22: According to this headline, the ideal moment to invite more people to attend NHS services is the moment of greatest pressure on those services.

23: Some pigeons have their rectums checked for incendiary devices.

24: Some days, I just despair.

25: Van Gogh’s isolation in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum influenced his art in interesting ways.

26: A Time-ly reminder that hospitals are only as strong as their domestic workforce.

27: In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker argues that “style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily.” Events over the last few days have made me think a lot about how consistent and accurate advice is crucial for outbreak control, but I had been thinking in terms of ethics and efficacy. Trust is, of course, especially important too: people don’t follow advice they don’t trust. It’s normally the sort of thing I bang on about a lot, so it’s interesting to reflect on why it was so far from my mind this weekend.

28: “The rich world has no modern precedent but a 2017 paper by Keith Meyers, of the University of Southern Denmark, and Melissa Thomasson, of Miami University, on a polio epidemic in 1916 in America, made the lesson clear: closing schools hurts kids’ prospects. The younger ones leave school with lower achievements than previous cohorts and the older ones are more likely to drop out altogether.” (But but but…)

29: Today, I’ve had Adam Buxton’s take on the Quantum of Solace theme stuck in my head. It must be twelve years since I heard it on 6music, so I’ve no idea why my brain dragged that up!

30: I didn’t realise I was tired tonight until I woke up having falling asleep while reading in an armchair. I’m not sure this is correct behaviour for a promising thirty-something.

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What I’ve been reading this month

September has been a very busy month in the world of health protection, so I’ve been reading mostly light stuff to take my mind off things!

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Another collection of Sedaris’s amusing autobiographical essays, this volume having been first published in 2000. These were easy to read, clever, and very funny: exactly what my brain and soul needed during troubled times!

The first half focused mainly on his youth, the second half more on a period he spent living in France. I found the latter half funnier and more satisfying, but all of it was delightful. Sedaris is someone I enjoy most in small doses, so I tried to limit myself to one essay a day—but with some in this collection being particularly short, that wasn’t always possible.

The essay about his French class desperately trying to explain Easter despite limited vocabulary was a particular highlight.

You by Caroline Kepnes

I picked this up because I fancied a light summer thriller sort of read, and it ticked that box perfectly. It was a first-person narrated story about a bookseller who was also a stalker. It had a wonderfully silly plot and Kepnes perfectly trod the line between thriller and comedy.

I’m not sure I’ll remember anything about this in a fortnight’s time, but it was great fun.

The Monocle Book of Gentle Living

Monocle is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine. I’ve been a fan since the first issue of the magazine, which I came to via Tyler Brûlé, whose Financial Times Fast Lane column (latterly relaunched in a Monocle email newsletter format as Faster Lane) fascinated me for years. For a long time, I believed Tyler to be satirical caricature, and then only grew more interested when I realised he was real.

I’m a Monocle subscriber, but I don’t think I’m the target demographic: I’m never going to spend £435 on a pair of high-end curling boots, nor £750 on a shell jacket, nor £665 on a tweed cardigan, no matter how much they try and push them on readers of their journalism. But I do love reading and listening to their intelligent discussions of UK and world affairs, and I get a little thrill out of knowing that there are people out there who can write hundreds of words of copy on the colour temperature of the lighting on the latest European rolling stock.

So I bought the Monocle Guide to Gentler Living as a bit of COVID escapism, and it was perfect for that. It was essentially a long, themed edition of the magazine, with lavish photography and illustrations, stripped of display-ads and hard-bound. There was very little detail and substance to any of it, but it did sort of come together to make a coherent set of ideas about slowing down in life. (Think: three paragraphs on why train travel is better than flying, followed by one sentence on each of five “best rail journeys”, accompanied by lovely photographs; some blurb on giving up high powered jobs for “the better life”, with accompanying three-paragraph case studies; a section on fashion with a page dedicated to why one should own a t-shirt—any t-shirt—which consists of a stylish photo of a t-shirt and about fifty words of text).

It was light, fluffy, and totally escapist. I took virtually nothing from it, but really enjoyed it nonetheless. So much, in fact, that I’ve picked up another of the Monocle books in a recent sale.

Breath by James Nestor

This was a recently published popular science book about breathing. It was structured around a series of self-experiments conducted by the author. I found this to be a very engaging style, but it did mean that the book was heavy on anecdote and light on proper science. There was also a strong dose of self-help content.

There was a lot of stuff in here that felt like pseudoscientific nonsense. Nevertheless, I found it so engaging that I enjoyed reading it. I even tried some of the described techniques out of curiosity (and got no real benefit).

However, my wife Wendy is a respiratory physician. My top tip to anyone in the same position is to be judicious about sharing passages—there was a fair amount of eye-rolling every time I did, though we did also occasionally descend into fits of giggles, so it was probably worth it.

The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

This was von Arnim’s 1909 book featuring the ridiculously self-important German Baron Otto Von Ottringel going on a caravanning holiday with his wife Edelgard in England. I was sent it in one of the London Review Book Boxes.

The Baron, who narrated, was quite a character: the holiday was to celebrate what he saw as his silver wedding anniversary. He had been widowered some years before and re-married, but felt that his twenty-five years of marriage ought to be marked nonetheless.

He was astoundingly sexist: “Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak on every table; and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays, and combines being useful with being dumb.”

There was humour in the book derived from the contrast between the Baron’s perception of himself and the evident level of regard in which others held him. There was also historical interest in the portrayal of British/German relations, given the world events just around the corner.

However, I found this a slog. The constant casual sexism and outmoded attitudes, while really the point of the piece, were quite wearing to modern eyes. It felt to me like the same points could have been made in a short story, rather than hammered home in a novel, but of course that’s partly because the satirical points being made are well accepted in modern society, which was not so at the time of publication.

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Weekend read: A man cannot live on turnips alone

Turnip greens

Monocle‘s Monocolumn is always worth a read – it’s a daily delve into a world of ludicrous wealth that really does vary from the sublime to the utterly ludicrous. My recommended read this week is a particularly fine example of the former: Andrew Tuck’s argument against the trend for locally-sourced food.

The rage underpinning Tuck’s argument is evident in his opening line, and never really lessens:

What’s wrong with a banana? Well judging by the menus of nearly every new fancy-pants restaurant these days, quite a lot.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The photo at the top was posted on Flickr by Glory Foods, and is used here under it’s Creative Commons sharealike licence. The irony that the ‘turnip greens’ in the picture are ‘produce of USA’ isn’t lost on me.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

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