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The Observer Magazine - 10 September 2017 (1)

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10.09.17
What it’s like to be
fat in France
by Gabrielle Deydier
Chrissie Wellington Alex Honnold Michael Foot JW Anderson Monrovia
This week’s issue
GABRIELLE DEYDIER has
struggled all her life with being
overweight, enduring daily
prejudice. Now she’s written a
book exposing her native France’s
appalling “grossophobia”.
Stefanie Marsh meets her.
Why would anyone scale
a 3,000ft granite cliff without
a rope? ALEX HONNOLD tells
Tom McCarthy about his epic
free solo ascent of Yosemite’s El
Capitan earlier this summer.
COVER: JOANNA VAN MULDER
CHRISSIE WELLINGTON
also reached the top of her
sport when she became world
Ironman champion. She ponders
what drove her in This Much
I Know; and Steve Dubé recalls
the day he drove MICHAEL FOOT
when he gave the Labour leader
a lift in Brush with Greatness.
In FOOD Nigel Slater is in the
mood for autumnal veg; while
Jay Rayner is the mood for jazz at
a new Limehouse restaurant.
In FASHION, JW Anderson
explores the inspiration of his
Uniqlo collaboration; and we
preview bright jumpers for men
and ankle boots for women. In
DESIGN we head to Granby Street
in Liverpool to see Assemble’s
Splatwear initiative; but Afua
Hirsch goes much further afield
in TRAVEL – to Monrovia.
In INNER LIFE we learn
why parents need to discover
their “strength switch”; and
MARIELLA FROSTRUP hears
from a young man embarrassed
by his parents’ awful email habit.
12 GABRIELLE DEYDIER
COVER
STORY
55 WHEELS
7 WE LOVE…
28 NIGEL SLATER
18 ALEX HONNOLD
10 CHRISSIE WELLINGTON
40 FASHION
51 GARDENS
46 DESIGN
56 TRAVEL
35 RESTAURANTS
GEMMA CORRELL
Editor Ruaridh Nicoll Deputy editor Alice Fisher Art director Jo Cochrane Commissioning editors Eva Wiseman, Shahesta Shaitly,
Emma Cook Assistant Juliana Piskorz Fashion editor Jo Jones Menswear editor Helen Seamons Chief sub-editor Martin Love
Deputy chief sub-editor Debbie Lawson Sub-editor Kate Edgley Deputy art director Caroline McGivern Picture editor Kit Burnet
Advertising managers Rich Cunningham, Guy Edmunds Colour reproduction GNM Imaging
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The Observer Magazine, King’s Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU 020 3353 2000 magazine@observer.co.uk
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MANAGED FOREST AND CONTROLLED SOURCES
Eva Wiseman
@EvaWiseman
Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or
visit theguardian.com/profile/evawiseman
for all her articles in one place
BOOTS, THE MORNING-AFTER PILL
AND A BITTER-TASTING APOLOGY
I
am reeling, reeling, at this
week’s extreme version of
the soulless apology, where
the other person, their chin
held up awfully proudly,
says: “I’m so sorry,” but
then, “…if you were upset.”
A crapology, if you will.
That poisonous “if”. It stays
bitter, fizzes on your tongue
like last week’s hummus.
The story began in July,
when BPAS (the British
Pregnancy Advisory
Service) pointed out that after its successful
campaign to reduce the vastly inflated price
of the morning-after pill, of all the major high
street chemists, Boots was the only one that
refused to budge. While Tesco, Morrisons, Asda
and Superdrug dropped the price of Levonelle
to £13.50, Boots kept it at £28.25, saying: “We
would not want to be accused of incentivising
inappropriate use, and provoking complaints,
by significantly reducing the price of this
product.” It had to be expensive it appeared
to say, or, like a fly in soup, everyone would
want one. So a collective “Woah there, Boots”
echoed through the sex-havers, sex-wanters,
sex-curious, through the people who until then
had happily purchased a meal deal from their
local paracetamol and crisps shop blind to the
knowledge that it thought women didn’t have
the capacity to control their own fertility.
“Inappropriate use”? It slightly makes you
wonder if every single person who works
upstairs at Boots is a virgin. And not just in
that old romantic “waiting for love” way. In
the greasy defensive way. Like a person who
was insulted by a crush at the age of 13 and
who nurtured that insult, feeding it protein
shakes, so it grew like armour over their body
and meant they never trusted another person
enough to open their top button let alone their
heart, instead recasting everybody who was
not them as an enemy to be defeated through
YouTube comments and bitterness on buses.
The issue, though, was that Boots was scared
of “provoking complaints”, presumably from
people who thought that if you can’t afford
£28.25 then, girl, you deserve to get pregnant.
So BPAS set up a widget thing on its website,
where you could register your request for
Boots to reconsider. For four days it included
an email template with the names of five senior
executives at Boots, and thousands of people
used it. This seemed to work and Boots issued
a formal apology for offending people with its
moralising, and agreed to look into sourcing
cheaper emergency contraception. In October
it is expected to roll out an emergency
hormonal contraception for £15.99. But, twist.
At the beginning of August, it has emerged,
BPAS received a legal letter from the law firm
Schillings. Its client Boots claims the campaign
has led to a “torrent of personal abuse” on
social media, and wants its employees’ names
removed. BPAS, it says, was responsible for
the “facilitation and tacit encouragement of
personal abuse” that “caused immense personal
distress” to senior Boots staff.
A GP explained, in one of the emails that
BPAS published, that the increasing pressure
on doctors meant it was “more important than
ever that women and girls should have timely
access to postcoital contraception… and your
pricing strategy is a barrier to this.” Another
woman described borrowing money for the
morning-after pill at 17, saying the high cost is
“extremely damaging, especially to victims of
rape”, and another mused on how different her
life would look today had she been unable to
afford emergency contraception.
That bitter taste. Over the table, a conciliatory
handshake, down by the carpet a sharp kick to
the shins. Should we ever expect a corporation,
even one that markets tampons, to be anything
but bullyish? It responded to its customers with
what looked like dignity, seeing, perhaps, the
threat of sales dropping as everyone went two
doors down to Superdrug for their mascara.
And yet, this final snarl seems to reveal
a gracelessness that highlights the reality of
these continuing battles. Instructing lawyers to
complain about an independent charity that has
been caring for women considering abortions
for more than 50 years, a charity working
at a time when women’s healthcare is being
slashed and dismissed, is sort of (to use the legal
terminology) a dick move. Here come the girls?
Aaaannd… there they go. It slightly
makes you
wonder if
every single
person
who works
upstairs
at Boots
is a virgin
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
5
We love...
NEVER MIND
THE BUTTONS
Think: punks off to
work at the office.
River Island’s new
capsule collection
concentrates on
deconstructed
tailoring, to give
your autumn
wardrobe an edge.
Expect hardware,
embroidery and
subtle corsetry
details. Plus a
really nice coat.
COVETABLE COMPACTS
Every year since 1963, Estée Lauder
has produced a new collection
of collectible pressed-powder
compacts and solid perfumes.
These limited- edition compacts
were inspired by Hearst Castle in
California, a place of lush exoticism.
Herringbone coat
£160, river-island.com
JOHN DAY PHOTOGRAPHY; ALBERT RIVERA
Holiday compacts
From £160, esteelauder.co.uk
STUCK ON YOU
Not only does this wallpaper fill a room
with misty mountains and delicate drawings
of Chinese houses, but it’s magnetic.
You can act out your own stories.
Mountains Magnetic Wallpaper £253, sianzeng.com
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
7
We love...
HAT TRICKS
AND SEX TIPS
S
Katharine
Whitehorn
HOLIDAYS
THE FULL ENGLISH
Plinth is a gallery/shop/magazine which tries to create affordable things in
collaboration with artists they love. For instance, to celebrate the 70th anniversary
of Magnum, they’ve taken iconic photos by the agency photographers and turned
them into usable objects. Our favourite is this Martin Parr breakfast tray.
Plinth x Magnum breakfast tray £42.50, plinthuk.com
Holidays sound sunny and delightful,
but they can be just about anything.
My father, who would climb
mountains in Scotland, often found
at the top that the only dry place to
sit was the inside of his hat. My son,
as a child, thought one day he would
have a holiday going round the
mountains collecting grandad’s hats.
Sometimes we would go to a good
hotel in France and look forward
to eating French food – but find the
hotel would pride itself on giving
guests British fare to please them.
Holidays are the stuff of illusion:
the sun’s going to shine, but not
too fiercely; everyone’s going to be
kind and helpful and you won’t get
cornered by the most boring woman
on the tour who thinks you will be her
closest buddy. Oh well: don’t worry –
soon you’ll be back at home.
THE YOUNG
WALK THIS WAY
The collaboration of Whistles with By FAR
is a typically cool but wearable collection
of boots, slingbacks and loafers. Each
et, these are
named after a London street,
shoes made for walking down them
them.
Whistles x By Far
F shoes From
m £235, whistles.com
SHOW STOPPERS
Belgian fashion designer Dries Van
Noten showed his 100th collection
this year. He has marked the occasion
with two gorgeous art books of his
fashion shows, including previouslyy
unseen backstage photos.
Dries Van Noten 1-50 and Dries Van
Noten 51-100 £65 each, amazon.co.uk
uk
8
MAGAZINE | 10.09.17 | THE OBSERVER
My eldest granddaughter is about
to begin a course studying in
London, and she may come to stay
with me. I didn’t know much when
I was her age, but it didn’t matter
then, as I was boarding with a family
who had two handsome sons
with whom I could fall harmlessly
in love with, without ever a touch
being exchanged. When I went to
col
college, we girls were just young
maid
maidens straight from school, but
all th
the men had done national
se
service, many in the war, and they
k
knew a thing or two which they
were anxious to teach us. So, what
might my experience from all
those decades ago offer the younger
generation? What can I tell girls
of today, deluged by sex at every
turn? It would be the same simple
advice I was given: don’t have sex for
the sake of it, hold out for something
really exciting and important. Visit theguardian.
com/profile/katharinewhitehorn for all her
articles in one place
This much
I know
Chrissie Wellington
All my world championships were special for different reasons
[Wellington won the World Ironman title four times]. But it was in the
first one that I surpassed all my expectations. It was such a surprise
to everyone – including me. It changed my life for ever.
At school I was extremely focused. I always wanted to achieve the highest
grades and to beat as many people in my class as possible. My parents are
non-pushy. I don’t know where my competitive spirit comes from.
I was a very active child, but I never pursued anything too seriously.
If someone had told me then that I’d end up becoming a professional
athlete I would have laughed in their face.
The human body and mind are incredibly powerful. I’ve never entered
a race where something hasn’t been hurting, but on the day it’s always fine.
So if injury or accident spoils my preparation, I don’t let my head drop.
I was troubled by disordered eating as a teenager. When I went to
university I got a handle on it and the obsession left me. But then, while
doing an MA, it reared its ugly head again. I wanted to lose weight, but
started really limiting what I ate. It came from my huge desire for control.
I am a terrible snorer. It was even worse when I was pregnant. It drove my
husband mad. I don’t think it’s a bad habit… I’m not disturbed by it at all.
I once borrowed a wetsuit from a friend. It was so big it filled with water
and I began to sink. I had to be rescued by a kayaker. That was the first race
my parents ever came to. They didn’t come to another until after I’d already
won the world championships.
I never put lids back on jars properly. Whether it’s the Marmite or the
toothpaste, I never seem to be able to get them on.
At 29, I was juggling 22 hours a week of training with my full-time job as
a policy advisor. I was smashing myself. I knew no bounds with regard to
how hard I should go. Giving up my career to become a professional athlete
was a huge decision. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into.
Some people like to cook, some people like to be cooked for. I am definitely
in the latter camp.
I relax by painting. I used to do landscapes and watercolours. Then when
my friends started having babies I used to enjoy copying out silly things,
like Winnie the Pooh, as presents for them.
I get depressed by all sorts of things. On the serious side it’s bigotry,
apathy and inequality. On the other side, it’s a lack of sunshine and
irresponsible dog owners who don’t clean up after their pets.
When we talk of our bodies, we always talk about the external form. I’m
not worried about getting older. I don’t care about looking 30 when I’m 50.
But I want to stay holistically healthy.
To the Finish Line by Chrissie Wellington is published by Constable at £18.99.
To order a copy for £16.14, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
Interview MARTIN LOVE Photograph SHAMIL TANNA
Triathlete, 40
The human
body and
mind are
incredibly
powerful. I’ve
never entered
a race where
something
hasn’t been
hurting, but
on the day it’s
always fine
To read all the
interviews in
this series, go to
observer.co.uk/
this-much-i-know
Gabrielle Deydier’s book about being fat has ignited her
native France. She tells Stefanie Marsh how her
life has been a battle against ‘grossophobia’, discrimination
and verbal abuse – until now
Photograph JOANNA VAN MULDER
n August 2015, 37-year-old
Gabrielle Deydier went for
a job interview which she
passed with flying colours.
The job was for a position
as a teaching assistant at
a Parisian special needs
school and the interview
panel, including the school’s
headmaster, had been so
impressed with Gabrielle
that they even told her they
were worried in case she left
for a better-paid job. There
had been only one uncomfortable moment: it came
at the end, as Gabrielle was walking out the door.
The headmaster said: “The teacher you’ll be working under can be rather difficult.” Gabrielle barely
heard him, she was so delighted about her new job.
It wasn’t long before she realised that “difficult”
was a colossal understatement. “You’re Gabrielle
Deydier,” was the first thing the teacher in question
said when they met. “I don’t work with fat people.”
I
12
MAGAZINE | 10.09.17 | THE OBSERVER
Gabrielle tried to laugh it off, but the difficult
teacher wasn’t smiling. “It wasn’t a joke,” she said.
Gabrielle has two degrees, a pleasant and open
manner and weighs 150kg, or 23½ stone. She
also has the misfortune of both being French and
living in France, which means that her physical
appearance counts for everything, including her
employability. In France, she says (and all the facts
of her experience seem to bear this out), being
fat is considered to be a grotesque self-inflicted
disability. At any given time, 80% of Frenchwomen are thought to be on a diet. In the south of
the country, there’s a lively gastric-band industry
(50,000 operations a year).
There’s currently a vegan craze sweeping the
land – a way for some people to cover up eating
disorders. “Frenchwomen,” says Gabrielle, “pride
themselves as being the most feminine in Europe.
There is this feeling that women have to be perfect
in every way.” Is it surprising then that the publication of Gabrielle’s book, You’re Not Born Fat, last
month has attracted keen interest – a combination
of both admiration and moral panic?
‘French women
have to be perfect
in every way’:
Gabrielle Deydier
JUMPSUIT, £28, ASOS CURVE (ASOS.COM); EARRINGS, £35, WOLF & MOON (WOLFANDMOON.COM); STYLIST HOPE LAWRIE; HAIR MASSANORI YAHIRO; MAKE-UP ASAMI KAWAI; SHOT AT STUDIO ASTRE
‘I no longer
want to
apologise for
existing’
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
13
Gabrielle Deydier
I was
seriously
depressed
and put
on 30kg.
I thought
about
shooting
myself
For Gabrielle the past 12 months have been
like waking up from a nightmare, if nightmares
were real and lasted two decades. At one point in
our meeting she’s tearful – but they are tears of
happy disbelief. Suddenly, at 38, Gabrielle, who’s
been told her entire adult life that she wasn’t fit
for work, is being called an intellectual break-out
hero. She’s been profiled in Le Monde, Figaro, the
political news magazine Le Point, and appeared
on France’s most serious TV shows.
The day before I meet her, Anne Hidalgo, the
mayor of Paris, called Gabrielle to ask whether
she would consider organising the capital’s first
anti-grossophobia (sizeism) day. Deals to write
a film script and a novel have been made. Italian
Vanity Fair wrote about her, and an Italian
publisher snapped up the book. In late July, the
English-language rights were sold.
What it means to be fat in France is for the
first time up for discussion in France. “I decided
to write the book,” she says, “because I no longer
want to apologise for existing. Yes obesity has doubled in the past 10 years, that’s much too much. But
it does not mean we discriminate against the obese
in telling them they can’t work and insulting them.”
Gabrielle, who couldn’t even look at a picture
of herself until six months ago, has prepared
herself for this moment. “My publisher said: ‘You
will be on TV and it will be hard.’ So, with a friend,
we started doing pictures of me in a swimming
pool so I could accept how I looked in a swimsuit.”
(On France’s beaches, disgusted passers-by have
told her to “Please cover up.”) “Because I was
doing it for a purpose, it had meaning.”
We’ve arranged to meet downstairs in the restaurant of a youth hostel in Paris, where she’s lived
since she lost the teaching job (and her income)
on the grounds that she lacked commitment
because she failed to lose weight. It’s startling to
find a woman of her age, likability, intelligence
– and now moderate fame – living in temporary
accommodation because she can’t afford to rent
a room in a Paris apartment. It’s a contradiction
but she’s a small figure, despite her size, winkled
into a banquette.
The previous week she had received an email:
“Dear Gabrielle, after university I went to work
at Dior where I am now very high up. I despised
women like you all my life; my mother has always
been fat. But now she’s in hospital, dying. She gave
me your book and it’s the first time I have understood how it must have felt for her. Thank you.”
Gabrielle sits there looking very sad and a little
bit helpless. “I find that crazy, that people need to
read a book to accept the overweight. I’m really,
really sorry to get messages like that.”
There are many equally bizarre episodes in her
life story. Returning to the teaching job, this is how
it ended: discrimination on grounds of physical
appearance is illegal in France, a law that seems not
to have filtered through to employers. Following
the awkward introduction, the “difficult” teacher
introduced Gabrielle to the class of six autistic
children as: “The seventh handicapped person in
the room.” She accused Gabrielle of sweating too
much. The headmaster told Gabrielle: “If she has
a problem with you, then so do I.”
“He said it was unfair on the children because
they were now being doubly stigmatised – for
their disabilities and because they’d be bullied for
having a fat teacher.” Gabrielle was asked to “have
a think” about her future. “We’re going to give you
30 days to prove you are motivated.”
Motivated? “Motivated to lose weight. To show
you’re committed to this job.” “It was never the
children,” says Gabrielle. “They were wonderful.
But I was finding it difficult and complicated to
deal with.” It was noted that: “You were seen out of
breath after climbing the stairs to the third floor.”
Why didn’t she take the school to court? “I was
afraid I wouldn’t be believed,” she says. It’s not
an unlikely scenario. She’d experienced many
similar events. The gynaecologist who grumbled:
“There’s so much blubber here, I can’t see”; the
male colleague who denied he’d sexually harassed
her on the grounds that his wife was much better
looking: “Why would I try to rape a fat woman?”
“The police were very good, but said: ‘You have
a right to make a complaint, but we advise against
it because a tribunal won’t be on your side.’”
Strangely, nothing similar had happened
to her at Montpellier University, where she’d
blossomed. “I was very happy,” she remembers.
“I had lots of friends and went out a lot. There
were people who made fun of me, but it wasn’t
Teenage
torment:
Gabrielle as
a girl. She was
only a little
overweight,
but her doctor
put her on
hormone
treatment and
her weight
began to soar
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
15
CACODESIGN.COM
Gabrielle Deydier
‘We started
doing pictures
of me in a pool
so I could accept
how I looked
in a swimsuit’:
Gabrielle, who
couldn’t even look
at an image of
herself until six
months ago
16
too bad, it wasn’t really discrimination. They
were idiots, but it wasn’t the system. It was when
I started looking for a job.”
Becoming obese can happen to anyone and it
began happening to Gabrielle at 17. As a teenager
she was sporty and muscular, a bit overweight (at
65kg, by a stone) – “plump”. Her mother decided
her daughter needed to take emergency steps
after Gabrielle came home from a shopping trip
with a new pair of trousers in size 14, instead of her
usual 12. “She was very depressed about it: ‘You
can’t have put on weight – you spent money for no
reason.’ But even then my weight wasn’t such a big
deal.” That changed when she went to a doctor.
The doctor considered Gabrielle’s weight
gain to be a very big deal indeed and started her
on hormone treatment. “I began having problems like very bad skin all over my body and hair
growing everywhere. And I put on a lot of weight:
30kg in three months.” More hormone treatments were prescribed, combined with a strict
diet of boiled vegetables and meat. The weight
piled on. “It changed the way I thought about
food. And I found myself eating things I’d never
eaten before, hiding food, stealing money from my
parents to buy food. All sorts of nonsense.”
She now weighed 120kg. “I wanted to die. Every
day. I thought of myself as deformed.” Her parents
weren’t happy either. “It was a very, very difficult
time.” She failed her baccalaureate twice, then
passed. University meant freedom.
MAGAZINE | 10.09.17 | THE OBSERVER
What happened after she graduated? Gabrielle
grows smaller in her banquette. “I saw all my
friends getting work experience and I wasn’t, and
I didn’t understand it. There was no logical reason
for it. People were giving me admin or underpaid
jobs. I was doing factory work.” Halfway through
a job interview, a recruitment consultant spelled
it out: ‘You’re not compatible with the image we
want to portray of the company.’ I said: “Well, I’m
not an idiot.” And he said: “It’s well known that
IQ is inversely proportional to body weight.”
Gabrielle knew there was something specifically French about her experience. She’d spent
a year in Spain as part of her degree. “In Spain it
just wasn’t an issue. If someone commented on
how I looked it was only to give a compliment. In
France I’d be a couple of minutes into a conversation and it would be: ‘But why are you fat? Was
that a choice? Is it an illness?’”
The visit to the doctor when Gabrielle was
17 is mirrored by its opposite, exactly 20 years
later, the second time in her life when her world
was turned upside down: but this time from terrible to a waking dream. Last June, she remembers: “My depression was serious. I hadn’t talked
to my family for a year. I was even worried I was
going to be homeless. I put on 30kg. I was going
into decline and frightened. I thought of shooting myself or leaving for somewhere far away,
but didn’t know where to go. And on one of those
horrible days my friends forced me to come to
a book launch. I didn’t want to go, got completely
drunk and ended up talking to some writers about
an investigative project where one was working
undercover in an abattoir.
“I said: ‘Do you know what grossophobia is?’
and nobody knew what I was talking about. So
I described all the things I’d experienced. They
told me to get it down on paper and email it to
them as soon as possible.” If Gabrielle hadn’t still
had alcohol in her bloodstream the next morning
she doesn’t think she’d have had the courage to
put it into words, six pages. Wincing, she pressed
“Send”. There was a publisher on the phone the
same day. A fortnight later, a book deal. She’s welling up: “It saved my life.”
The book is most revelatory about France in the
reactions it has triggered – especially in the readers’ letters Gabrielle now gets every day (hardly
any of them from people who are overweight).
“One woman told me she had been bulimic for 20
years because she was scared if she put on weight
she would lose her husband and job.” A more
layered response came from a man: “He said, ‘Your
book has made me realise I’m a total shit. For five
years I worked with young people. If they were
overweight, I humiliated them.’ He asked me to
forgive him, as if I was a priest in a confessional.”
That’s not her job, she says.
Still, the letters confirm one thing: it’s France’s
turn now to feel as Gabrielle did: ashamed and
questioning herself. All because of a single book.
Her story is fascinating, heroic, ongoing. Gabrielle
Deydier: this is your year. In Spain
it just
wasn’t an
issue. But
in France
people
ask me:
‘Why are
you fat?
Was that
a choice?’
Advertorial feature
it is hard to match the
quality of the seafood
found around the
Guernsey coastline...
Rock star: Alex Honnold
solos on The Nose
on El Capitan in Yosemite
National Park, California
18
MAGAZINE | 10.09.17 | THE OBSERVER
THE EDGE
OF REASON
When Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan
in Yosemite, solo and without ropes, many hailed it as
the ultimate feat of his sport. Tom McCarthy
talks to the world’s greatest ‘big wall climber’ – and asks
whether we should glory in such extreme risk
Photograph COREY RICH
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
19
Alex Honnold
Hard stuff: ‘Rehearsing for a big climb is just like a gymnast thinking about the routine and visualising every movement of their body,’ says Alex Honnold
limbers love history.
Dates, difficulty ratings, the names of
the brave souls who
did a route first. Each
generation of climbers
measures itself against
yesterday’s best, with
dreams of going one better. Advances in the
sport tend to be linear and incremental, like
climbing up a rock.
Occasionally, rarely, a big climbing achievement erupts into the general consciousness.
A 2015 ascent of the Dawn Wall on California’s
El Capitan was celebrated by no less than
Barack Obama. But the public, which is busy,
quickly moves on. When the Dawn Wall was
climbed again last year, few noticed.
Then there are the climbs of Alex Honnold.
Yosemite Valley, where El Capitan is situated, is an epic setting for epic exploits. The
valley is a magnet for the strong and bold, who
spider up granite walls and leap in wingsuits
from the rim. But even in this world headquarters for daredevils, certain feats have for decades remained sealed off as mere ideas, locked
away in a realm of challenges too big and too
scary to grapple with, almost to speak of.
In the early morning hours of 3 June 2017,
Honnold, 32, walked to the base of El Capitan,
touched the wall, and made the biggest idea of
all a reality. He climbed from the bottom to the
top of the cliff at one of its tallest points – 900m
– without a harness or rope, along a route
called the Freerider, just to the left of the Dawn
Wall. A mistake at any point, or a failure of
JIMMY CHIN. PREVIOUS PAGE: AURORA PHOTOS/ALAMY
C
strength or focus or courage, or a stroke of bad
luck in the form of a wet spot or a loose rock,
would have sent him to the ground. Instead,
after about three and a half hours, Honnold,
with some of the hardest sections behind him,
found himself 150m from the top, still climbing
with perfect confidence and very quickly, and
without fatigue or fear – as if he had somehow
transcended gravity. “The final 500ft of the
route was pretty much: ‘I’m done, this is easy,
I’m just cruising,’” says Honnold. “It’s enjoyable to be able to climb that way.”
It was the first time that the full height of
El Capitan had been climbed without a rope.
“As one of his closest friends and an El Capitan addict myself, you would think I’d have
a handle on what it would mean to free-solo
the Freerider,” Tommy Caldwell, who in 2015
made the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall,
wrote after Honnold’s climb. “But I don’t. No
one does. Except Alex.”
At the top, Honnold melted dumbly into
hugs from a film crew that had documented
his ascent – friends all – and succumbed to
a feeling of “overwhelming stoke”, he said.
There’s always a point
where you just have to
say, ‘If my foot slips I’m
going to fall and die, and
that’s all there is to it’
“I felt almost vulnerable in a way. I just felt
emotionally wrought.”
What he did not feel was tired. “It was emotional just because it was emotional,” Honnold said. “It was not as if I was worn down.
Because physically I felt great, I felt super
strong. If you had teleported me back to the
bottom, I would have just gone again, because
I felt so good.”
Honnold had good reason for feeling
relieved. Just seven months earlier, he had
started the climb, got into trouble, and had to
invent an escape.
F O R 1 0 Y E A R S , Honnold has been picking
a lonesome line where athletic exploit blends
with lethal risk. The hazards of Honnold’s
climbs on monolithic faces such as Yosemite’s
Half Dome and Zion’s Moonlight Buttress have
been both obvious to everyone, and known
only to him. While El Capitan was an order-ofmagnitude leap for Honnold, the climb could
also be called the next logical step for him.
He has often been asked what he thinks
about death. Of his hardest free-solos, Honnold said: “There’s always a point, where you
can’t overpower it any more, you just have to
commit to: ‘If my foot slips, I’m going to fall and
die, and that’s all there is to it.’ To me that’s the
level where you’re really climbing. It’s a different level, where you’ve just committed to just
climbing like normal, but without a rope.”
“Climbing like normal, but without a rope”:
the phrase seems to hold the essence of Honnold’s genius, or his psychological uniqueness
– the thing that allows him to do what no
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
21
Alex Honnold
other climber can. Like a piano star or a test
pilot, his performance seems indifferent to, or
heightened by, the pressures of performing.
He rehearses extensively before his biggest
climbs, unlocking the subtleties of each move
and committing long phrases of choreography
to memory. “It’s just like a gymnast thinking
about the routine and visualising every movement of their body,” he says. But the analogy
falls apart unless the gymnast is performing with the knowledge that a single mistake
would be fatal.
Rehearsed, not reckless; planned, not
spontaneous; life, not death. It’s all a fit with
Honnold’s low-key persona. In the many
films that feature him, Honnold establishes
a funny, ironic distance between his staggering feats and a laid-back vibe. While he can be
something of a motormouth, he does not have
the reactor-hot ego of some of the old-school
climbing stars.
Honnold’s mother, Dierdre Wolownick,
a college French professor, told Outside magazine about taking him at the age of five on
his first climbing gym outing in Sacramento,
California, where he grew up. “I was talking
to the supervisor, and I turned around,” she
said. “There was Alex, 30ft up. I was scared to
death he’d kill himself.” His father, who died
of a heart attack when Honnold was 19, would
drive his son for hours to explore new gyms as
the boy’s obsession took hold.
“Overall, if you ask people about Alex Honnold, most people just really like him,” says
Katie Ives, editor of Alpinist magazine. “He
comes across as humble and genuine. He
22
MAGAZINE | 10.09.17 | THE OBSERVER
A scientist studying
Honnold’s brain under stress
concluded that ‘his frontal
cortex is just so powerful
that it can calm him down’
seems down-to-earth. He seems to have a
lot of self-awareness and a lot of self-control,
and he appears not to have let all the publicity
go to his head.”
A F E W D AY S after Honnold’s historic ascent,
a friend of his claimed that unhappy film executives had threatened to sue him for posting
19 images of the climb on his popular El Capitan photography blog. The climb is to be the
subject of a feature-length film to be released
in 2018. The executives wanted the images
deleted from the internet.
“Unfortunately, higher-ups at the production team keep sending me harassing emails,
threatening me with legal action,” the friend,
Tom Evans, told his readers in a sharp note after
deleting the images. “They tell me I’ve no right
to my own photos and I must get permission
from them to use any of my Honnold shots.”
Evans did not reply to an email asking who
had threatened him. In a statement, National
Geographic Channels, which will release the
film, denied that Evans had been threatened
with a lawsuit and accused him of violating a
non-disclosure agreement. Evans says the film
producers “tricked me into signing a release.”
The company says the terms were clear.
Unusually for a climbing film, the project
also has a big-time movie production company
attached, Parkes+MacDonald (Men in Black,
Gladiator, Barbie).
The media frenzy surrounding Honnold
is the subject of some griping in the climbing
world. “This is the kind of thing that makes
me glad I’m a climber from the Golden Age
before all this commercialisation shit hit,”
one commenter on Evans’s site wrote. Peter
Croft, a childhood hero of Honnold’s whose
own free-solos provided an early road map for
the young climber, has compared being filmed
while soloing to performing in a “sex video”.
“I can appreciate what Peter’s talking
about,” Honnold says. “I mean, soloing is a
very personal, intimate experience, and it
can feel weird to have somebody there sort
of exploiting that experience. But at the same
time, you know, if the filmers are good friends,
and you feel you’re sharing something that you
care about, and that you want to share… I mean
sometimes filming can be kind of cool.”
Every move Honnold makes in the commercial realm, however, raises questions about the
commodification of risk. Should corporations
be making money from someone risking his
neck? Is there a moral hazard for consumers
who buy Honnold videos – or for filmmakers
who shoot them – or newspapers who cover his
feats? At least one corporation has broken up
with Honnold. In 2014, Clif Bar dropped him
and four other climbers, explaining: “We
JIMMY CHIN
High society: climbing in British Columbia, Canada. Honnold has ‘gold-plated’ sponsors and is the cover boy of the fast-growing outdoor recreation industry
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Alex Honnold
no longer feel good about benefiting from
the amount of risk certain athletes are taking.”
But reports of a supposed controversy surrounding Honnold seem overblown: it’s hard
to identify the opposition. Apart from his films,
Honnold has gold-plated sponsors, including
The North Face, Black Diamond and La Sportiva. He is the cover boy of the global outdoor
recreation industry, which clocks an estimated
$887bn (£684bn) in sales each year and is
growing fast.
“These kind of controversies are not anything new,” says Ives. “Climbers have been
debating issues relating to publicity, media and
profit ever since the 19th century.”
On his free-solo ascent of El Capitan,
Honnold occasionally interacted with the film
crew. At the site of the single hardest move of
the climb, however – which requires an allbody weight transfer via splits between two
non-footholds at 520m – the filmmakers used
remote cameras.
“It’s not the presence of cameras that exerts
the pressure, it’s the presence of people operating the cameras,” Honnold explains. “I didn’t
want to go into the crux wondering what
they’re thinking about what you’re thinking –
it’s just too much weird reflection.”
24
MAGAZINE | 10.09.17 | THE OBSERVER
Getting the hang of it: Honnold climbs an overhang on the Musandam peninsula, Oman
The people closest to him support what
he does, while fearing for his life. His mother
is a backer. “Climbing is Alex’s job,” she
wrote in a Climbing magazine. “And I trust
his judgment.”
Honnold says he is taking fewer casual risks
than he used to. “I’ve actually really reined in
my moderate soloing,” he says. “If anything,
I’m probably moving in the direction of being
slightly more conservative in my risk-taking.”
In his personal habits, Honnold seems
geared for the long term. He is a vegetarian. He
only drinks water. He has never had alcohol or
been stoned, which among full-time climbers
may be Honnold’s other unique feat. He jokes
These controversies are
nothing new. Climbers have
been debating issues of
publicity, media and profit
since the 19th century
he is a Mormon without the religion. “I’m in
a period of up-and-up,” he said. “I’ve had the
same girlfriend for coming on two years, and
it’s totally solid, everything’s good.”
L O O K I N G T O T H E future, Honnold sa ys,
a major focus will be to spend more time on
philanthropic work. The Honnold Foundation, which he founded in 2012, supports environmental development programmes, from
equipping low-income housing in the US with
solar panels to eradicating kerosene lanterns
from Africa by 2020.
Honnold has an El Capitan tie-in to
describe his foundation work. His point is that
a seemingly impossible task, like rejigging the
African energy grid, can start to seem doable if
you work at it steadily enough. “You can take
something that seems totally impossible, and
say: ‘Oh well, I can at least chip away at it, I can
at least work towards it. You think about soloing El Cap and, you know, 10 years ago that
seemed completely outrageous, and much too
big of a project. But then, over the years, you
just work away at it, and then one day you’re
like: ‘Oh yeah, that’s not a problem.’” JIMMY CHIN
I N M A R C H 2 0 1 6 , a neuroscientist at the
Medical University of South Carolina stuck
Honnold in an MRI and found his amygdala,
the brain’s centre for threat response, did not
glow when he looked at disturbing images the
way a control subject’s did.
Afterwards, according to the science magazine Nautilus, Honnold had a question: “Looking at all those images – does that count as
being under stress?” The scientist in the study
concluded that either Honnold’s amygdala
was misfiring, or “his frontal cortex is just so
powerful that it can calm him down.”
“I think it was all legit,” Honnold says. “But
I think what it showed was that I was probably
slightly less sensitive than average to begin
with, and then after spending 10 years soloing
at a high level, I’ve further desensitised myself
to stimulus.” But he doesn’t see this as a safety
liability. “If anything, I think that would make
things safer for me, as it would allow me to better discern real risk,” he says.
In addition to his prodigious talent, Honnold clearly has extraordinary judgment in
the mountains, a big part of which is knowing
when to fold. One morning last November, he
set the same process in motion that he began
on 3 June. He woke up in his van, put on his
shoes and started climbing the wall. But an
ankle injury had not fully healed, he found,
and things didn’t feel right. He began grabbing steel rings bolted to the mountainside for
climbers to clip ropes to. Then he borrowed
a sling from the film crew, rappelled off the
cliff and went off to climb something else.
2016
A brush with
greatness
DON MCPHEE
MICHAEL FOOT
BY STEVE DUBÉ
In a TV discussion
about Michael
Foot the other day,
someone asked:
“What drove
him?” In a flash
I remembered the
day I drove him.
It was a sunny morning in
April, 1997. Fourteen years earlier
Margaret Thatcher was re-elected
by a landslide after Labour, led
by Michael Foot, campaigned on
a manifesto later described as “the
longest suicide note in history.”. Now
it looked as though New Labour, led
by that nice Tony Blair, would win.
Foot was in west Wales to support
the local candidate. But what he
really wanted to do was visit the
Boathouse, the last home of Dylan
Thomas. I was there on behalf of
the Western Mail. He was easy to
spot among the bric-a-brac stalls
of Laugharne market. His shock of
unkempt white hair, bottle-bottom
glasses, scruffy jacket and walking
stick made him unmistakable.
A near-fatal car accident in 1963
had left him with a loopy gait. My
car was the only one small enough
to get close to the Boathouse, so Foot
and his 17-year-old Tibetan terrier,
Dizzy, hopped in.
He told me that he knew Dylan
Thomas well. “He used to come to my
house in London in 1947 or 48 with
Arthur Koestler and sometimes we
were sober and sometimes we weren’t.”
Over lunch in Dylan Thomas’s old
kitchen Foot reminisced about a night
playing chess with Koestler while
the poet searched his bookshelves
and found a copy of Koestler’s antiCommunist classic Darkness at Noon.
“We were all a bit high and Dylan
To read all the articles in this
series, go to observer.co.uk/
a-brush-with-greatness
Thomas started writing insults to
Koestler in this book and Arthur was
writing insults back to Dylan in it.
Tragically some terrible fellow stole it.”
Asked what he thought a New
Labour government would do
first, the unreconstructed voice of
Old Labour said it would call an
international conference to ban
nuclear weapons. Really? “Well if
they don’t, the Bomb will spread all
over the place,” he said.
Foot became animated about
corruption in parliament, saying
a Labour government could be relied
upon to “clean up” democracy. On
the way out he signed the Boathouse
visitors’ book and wrote underneath:
“On the way to victory.”
A well-read man of letters, he was
egalitarian, honest, without malice,
and great company. You don’t meet
many of them in politics these days.
As the song says, sometimes you don’t
know what you’ve got till it’s gone. My car was
the only
one small
enough to
get close,
so Foot and
his 17-yearold Tibetan
terrier Dizzy
hopped in
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
27
Food
&
drink
Nigel Slater
@NigelSlater
Email Nigel at nigel.slater@observer.co.uk
or visit theguardian.com/profile/nigelslater
for all his recipes in one place
can seem like a very long time.
This has been a rather good
summer. I gorged myself on
cherries yet nearly missed out on
the gooseberries; the tomatoes got
started early, but I think I blinked and
missed the best (ie stringless) runner
beans. Right now I am eating as much
marrow as I can, simply because in
a few weeks time it will be gone until
next harvest festival. The blandness
of the traditional cottage-garden
stalwart of marrow in cheese sauce is
something of which I am inexplicably
fond, but I suggest there are better
things to do with them.
This week I cut a flawless, cream
and green striped marrow into thin
slices, tossed it in seasoned flour
then fried the pieces until lightly
crisp on both sides. To go with it,
a ketchup-textured sauce of late
tomatoes, spiced with mustard,
fennel and coriander seeds. Frying
marrow works because, like courgette
fritters, you have a very fine and crisp
exterior then refreshingly juicy green
flesh inside. Fresh from the crackling
oil, sprinkled with (too much) salt
and a squeeze of lemon, slices of fried
marrow are as good as anything you
will get from the vegetable patch,
whatever time of year.
CARROTS WITH MISO
HARVEST GOLD
The timid
and frankly
watery
carrots of
spring are
becoming
much more
interesting
Marrows, damsons and late season
carrots and tomatoes… now’s the time
to cook up the last of the summer crops
Some vegetables mark the passing
seasons more emphatically than
others. None more so than the
marrow, which has always had
something of a back to school ring
about it. The sight of a wooden
crate of them at the vegetable shop
this week heralded summer’s slow,
28 MAGAZINE
MAGAZINE
| 10.09.17
| 10.09.17
| THE| OBSERVER
THE OBSERVER
delicious slide into autumn.
We need our wits about us if we
are not to miss the short-season
fruit and vegetables. From the first
asparagus in spring to the last of the
marrows and damsons in autumn,
locally grown produce comes at us
in an unstoppable flow. If we fail to
make the most of the peaches or the
blackcurrants, the peas or the runner
beans when they are in season we
will go without. November to May
The timid and frankly watery
carrots of spring are becoming more
interesting. Less sweet, deeper
flavour, a good earthy crunch. Their
flavour intensifies with roasting,
something I do more often than
steaming them. (I doubt I am alone
in finding a steamed carrot worth
eating only once it is rolled in
copious amounts of melted butter
and parsley). Roasted, they take on
a delicious caramelised note that
makes them worth eating.
Serves 4 as a side dish
carrots 500g, assorted
garlic 4 cloves
groundnut oil 3 tbsp
ginger 25g, fresh
Photographs JONATHAN LOVEKIN
Slice of the action:
carrots with miso.
Facing page:
marrow with spiced
tomato sauce
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
29
Food & drink
Nigel Slater
sake 200ml
light soy sauce 1 tbsp
white (shiro) miso 3 tbsp
caster sugar 2 tbsp
cabbage 150g
black sesame seeds 2 tsp
I like marrow
with a
squeeze
of lemon
Directions
and lots of
salt. Eat it
Heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6.
immediately Trim the carrots, leaving a short tuft
of stems at the top. Halve the carrots
it leaves
lengthways then put them in a roasting
the hot oil
tin. Peel the garlic, tuck it among the
carrots then pour over the oil. Season
with black pepper then toss the
carrots in the oil. Roast for 35 minutes,
until they are appetisingly golden.
Grate the ginger into a small
saucepan, then add the sake, soy
sauce, white miso and caster sugar
and place over a moderate heat. Bring
almost to the boil, stirring until the
sugar has dissolved. Lower the heat
and simmer for about 10 minutes,
until it has reduced by half.
Finely shred the cabbage. When
the carrots are ready, remove them
to a serving dish. Place the roasting
tin over a moderate heat and add the
shredded cabbage. Toss the cabbage
in the oil in the pan then tip the miso
WINES
OF THE
WEEK
Unexpected
wine and
food matches
across the
continents
David
Williams
@Daveydaibach
To read all
David’s columns
in one place, visit
theguardian.com/
profile/davidwilliams
Marsc Wine Co Barossa
Frontignac, Australia 2016
(£10.99, Virgin Wines)
In Europe, wine and food
grew up together. That’s
why oysters and muscadet
or tomato-based pasta
and montepulciano go
together so well: the wine
is made with the local food
in mind. For years, wine
industries in the New World
were effectively copies of
the European blueprint,
making European-style
wines for Europeanstyle food. But one of the
interesting things about
Australia is the influence of its more recent
immigrant communities. Modern Australian
cuisine is a flaming wok of influences filled
with the spices and herbs of Vietnam, India
and China, and this seems to be influencing
its winemaking. Certainly Marsc’s graceful,
floral, off-dry white makes a perfect match
for delicately scented Vietnamese rice rolls.
dressing in. Spoon the cabbage and
dressing over the roasted carrots then
scatter the sesame seeds over.
Directions
Serves 4
onions 2, medium
olive oil 5 tbsp
celery 2 sticks
garlic cloves 3
plum tomatoes 500g
fennel seeds 2 tsp
brown mustard seeds 2 tsp
coriander seeds 2 tsp
parsley a handful
marrow 600g
plain flour 6 tbsp
Peel and roughly chop the onions.
Warm 2 tbsp of the oil in a deep pan,
then add the onions and cook until
soft and pale gold, stirring regularly.
Slice the celery and add to the onions,
then flatten the garlic cloves with
a heavy knife and add them.
Chop the tomatoes and stir them in
to the onions. Add the fennel, mustard
and coriander seeds and a generous
seasoning of salt and black pepper.
Let the tomatoes cook down to a soft,
stew-like consistency. This should
take a good 20 minutes. Remove
half of the mixture and process it in
a blender to a rough, soupy texture,
then return to the pan. Chop the
parsley and stir into the sauce.
Slice the marrow in half and
remove the seeds and fibres. Cut into
1cm thick pieces. Tip the flour on to
a plate and season with salt and
black pepper. Warm the remaining
oil in a shallow pan. Dip the slices
of marrow into the flour then fry for
5-6 minutes on each side, until the
outside is lightly golden. Drain for
a couple of seconds on kitchen paper
and serve with the sauce. Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt
Goldtröpfchen Riesling
Kabinett, Mosel, Germany
2014 (£10.99, Co-op)
Of course European wines
are perfectly capable
of matching foods from
distant cultures, and
European cuisines are
as much in creative flux
as Antipodean ones,
absorbing influences from
all over the world. The
filigree, subtly sweet, racy
Kabinett style of Riesling,
for example, with its low
alcohol (between 7 and 9%
abv) and dancing acidity,
is one of the great traditional wine styles
of Germany’s Mosel Valley. But they go so
well with sushi, it’s as if they were born to
do the job. The style isn’t as easy to come
by in the UK as it used to be, but the Co-op
has a delightful example that tastes of lime
and peach and flowers, and fairly dances
across the tongue.
Domaine Les Yeuses
Epices Syrah, PGI Pays
d’Oc, France 2015
(from £8.99, Majestic)
Another surprisingly
good trans-national
match of food and wine
that I’ve stumbled across
lately involves certain
types of Mediterranean
red with the red meat
dishes of Thailand and
Vietnam. I say surprising
because I’ve always
thought I needed wines
with a cushion of sugar
to deal with the kick of
chilli in both those styles
of dishes, and so almost always look for
an off-dry white (or citrussy beers such
as London’s Kernel Brewery light-as-afeather Table Beer). But provided you go
relatively easy on the chilli, the liquorice,
pepper and herby flavours found in a
fragrant, spicy syrah such as Domaine les
Yeuses, fits Thai beef salads like a glove.
MARROW WITH
SPICED TOMATO SAUCE
The key to a crisp exterior and a juicy
inside is to cut the marrow no thicker
than 2cm, otherwise the heat will
take too long to penetrate and the
outside will overcook. The sauce adds
substance, making this a light supper
dish, but I also like the marrow with
nothing but a squeeze of lemon juice
and lots of salt, something that should
be done immediately it leaves the
hot oil, draining the slices briefly on
kitchen paper.
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
31
Food & drink
Nigel Slater
NIGEL’S
MIDWEEK
DINNER
SAUSAGES WITH FENNEL
The recipe
Set the oven to 200C/gas mark 6.
n put 3 tbsp of olive
In a roasting tin
ver a medium heat.
oil then place over
mp, coarse-textured
Put 500g of plump,
sausages in the hot oil and let
them cook for 5-7 minutes, turning
til they are evenly
occasionally until
coloured. Cut 2 bulbs of fennel in half
hick segments and add
and then into thick
to the sausages, spooning the oil over
ook. When they are
them as they cook.
fer the dish to the hot
pale gold transfer
oven and leave for 45-50 minutes, or
ges are cooked right
until the sausages
through and the fennel is tender.
Transfer the sausages and fennel
to a warm serving dish, then place
the roasting tin over a medium heat
and pour in 50ml of white vermouth,
such as Noilly Prat. Let the contents
Photograph JONATHAN LOVEKIN
of the tin
while
bubble, whil
le
stirring at the de
debr
bris
br
i
is
debris
with a wooden spoon.
n.
As the liquid comes to the
he
boil, stir in 1 tbsp of grain mustard
musta
tard
ta
rd
d
and 2 of honey. Leave to bubble for
a minute or two, taste and correct
the seasoning, then serve. A few basil
leaves are delightful with the fennel
and sausages if you have some.
The trick
Keep the heat fairly low, so that the
sausages have time to leave a sticky
goo of caramelised meat juices on the
pan. This is the base of the cooking
juices and will dissolve deliciously
once you pour in the vermouth.
The twist
If fennel isn’t your thing, substitute
potato, cut into thick segments.
I rather like to use celery, too, a good
thick rib per person, cut into short
lengths and basted regularly. Email Nigel at nigel.
slater@observer.
co.uk or visit
theguardian.com/
profile/nigelslater
for all his recipes in
one place
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
33
Restaurants
Jay Rayner
@jayrayner1
The Straight and
Narrow, 45 Narrow
Street, London E14
(020 3745 8345).
Meal for two, including
drinks and service:
£70- £100
A PERFECT ENSEMBLE
THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW
KAREN ROBINSON
Music can create a great atmosphere,
but the food at the Straight and Narrow
is more than capable of holding its own
A Scotch
egg, with a
golden shell,
comes with
a yolk just
on the edge
of running
Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk
or visit theguardian.com/profile/jayrayner
for all his reviews in one place
It is anthem night at the Straight and
Narrow in Limehouse, and the piano
player is working his way through
Dancing Queen, Wuthering Heights
and Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of
The Heart. He has a boisterous left
hand does Vaughn George Eunson.
It pushes the melody on, imploring
you to join in. Before I know it,
I’m howling the chorus over the
meatballs. “Young and sweet… Only
severnteeeeen…” And so on.
I can’t pretend. I am pre-disposed
to like anywhere furnished with
a piano. Partly it’s fellow feeling. As
a piano player, I am lucky enough
never to have had to earn a crust
playing to a disinterested restaurant;
to the muffled chatter of the mating
game, while rolling from one tune
to the next. That’s proper work.
It demands my support.
But it’s also the fact that any
space occupied by piano has greater
potential. Things can happen there.
It’s relatively quiet tonight at the
Straight and Narrow, but later in
the week, they tell me, it will turn
into a total singalong. If you hate the
thought of that you are dead inside;
go somewhere else. Try a grave yard,
where the company will be more
agreeable. Food and music are meant
to go together. Jazz, which is what
I have spent most of my adult life at
the keyboard wrestling with, was
born in restaurants like this – first in
the drinking dens of New Orleans,
then in the speakeasies and dance
clubs of New York and Chicago.
I like to joke during my own gigs
that the musicians in my quartet
have watched people eat in some
of the best restaurants in London.
You can hear me making that joke
in the live album we’re about to
release. Partly it’s a collection of
songs around food and drink, like
Black Coffee, One for my Baby and
Cantaloupe Island, tunes which
celebrate the relationship between
jazz and dinner. Others draw on
my experience of growing up with
a mother who was an agony aunt,
because all blues songs sound like a
problem page letter. Listen carefully
to the recording and you can hear
the occasional clink of a glass in the
background. Music like this demands
liquor and the sound of it. (If I said
it was available for purchase from
Amazon and also for download
would that be overkill? Probably.)
In his memoirs Stephen Fry
wrote about meeting the head of
the Nederlander theatre dynasty in
New York, who was thinking about
bringing the musical Me and My
Girl to Broadway, for which Fry had
rewritten the book. For a musical
to succeed, Nederlander said, it
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
35
Restaurants
KAREN ROBINSON
Jay Rayner
had to “have heart”. The same
should be said about restaurants.
The Straight and Narrow has heart.
It does not occupy a pretty space.
One side of Narrow Street is made of
classic ancient warehouses, doubtless
with interiors that glossy magazine
editors would die for. The restaurant
is on the other side, on the raised
ground floor of a much more modern
development. It’s not quite Peter
Kay’s flat-roof pub, but it’s on nodding
terms. What matters is that, inside
they are both playing and cooking
up a storm. Not in an ostentatious
way, but with care and attention to
detail. The Straight and Narrow is the
neighbourhood restaurant you want
around the corner; the one which
will leave you feeling someone gave
a damn about you having a good time
without trying to extract a down
payment on the Greek debt.
After my rant about Yorkshire tapas
a few weeks ago I suppose I can’t
really let them off the hook for having
a section of the menu called British
tapas. Except that those Yorkshire
tapas were crimes against good taste
and these are very lovely. We order
three as a starter. A Scotch egg, with
a golden shell made of properly
seasoned sausage meat mixed with
cubes of apple, comes with a yolk
just on the edge of running. There is
a finely whipped mackerel pâté, full
of oils and acidity, with gossamer
ribbons of pickled cucumber and
melba toast. Veal meatballs, in a sauce
of fresh tomatoes cooked down to the
essence of themselves, are peppery
and satisfying. All of these are priced
at between £4.50 and £6.50.
Main courses, priced in the teens,
offer the kind of European-inspired,
bistro cooking utilising British
ingredients that is the food we
really want to eat most of the time.
It is roast chicken with risotto and
fillet steak with chips. The nearest
thing to ostentation is soy-glazed
pork belly with Asian slaw and
salted peanuts. I only don’t order it
because people have been gossiping
about me and pork belly. They’re
saying we’re a thing. I don’t like to
encourage gossip.
Instead I have slices of a
substantial piece of lamb rump,
roasted to crisp fat outside, cherry
pink inside, piled on roasted
courgettes. At the base, soaking up
the jus, is a disc of puff pastry laid
with roasted tomatoes. A dribble of
basil oil finishes it off. A slab of hakee
with crisped skin and pearly flesh
lies on a meadow of summer peas
and baby leeks dressed with a garlicc
o
butter sauce, with enough acidity to
push it towards a beurre blanc. Dill
gnocchi give ballast.
Desserts are exceptionally good,
the sort that make you wonder
if there has been some grand
hotel training involved (although
apparently there hasn’t). A salted
n
caramel tart has dark pastry with an
echoing crunch and a deep golden
filling that stays the right side of
es
cloying. A marmalade ice cream lives
up to its billing without dominatingg
the proceedings. A peach melba
bavarois, alternate layers of mousse
and sponge, with a raspberry sorbet
on the side, demands a round of
applause before you demolish the lot.
Oh, but it’s pretty.
Service is engaged without being
stalkerish. The wine list is short and
sensible. In this room, you don’t want
to think too hard about ordering the
second bottle and these bog-standard
sauvignons and pinot grigios are
designed for that.
As the evening closes, somebody
h
requests Billy Joel’s Piano Man which
is a cliché but only so for being true.
The musician in a restaurant creates
the soundtrack for the inner lives of
others. I am not quite a part of the
regular crowd that shuffles in, but
having eaten the food and drunk the
wine and listened to the tunes, I could
quite easily imagine becoming so. High notes: (from top) smoked
mackerel pâté; Scotch egg;
kale; veal meat balls; lamb
rump; salted caramel tart; and
peach melba bavarois
NEWS
BITES
■ In New York,
Marcus
chef Marc
Samuelsson’s
Samuelss
Rooster is
Red Roos
restaurant,
part rest
gig. The
part gig
music in the
live mu
Harlem dining
room
roo
om is part of
draw. The
the
ed
same
sam
m applies
the outpost
to tth
in tthe
h Curtain
Hotel,
Ho
ot east
London.
There’s
Lo
on
changing
a ch
roster of acts –
ros
including a gospel
inc
choir over
cho
Sunday
Sun
nd brunch.
the perfect
It’s th
accompaniment
acc
co
to their
tth Bird
Royale
Roy
ya Feast,
whole southern
a wh
w
fried
frie
ed chicken
with waffles,
mac and greens
pickles
and p
(thecurtain.com).
(thec
It’s official.
■ It’
really do
We
e re
want
wa
ant plates.
A ssur
survey of
more
mo
ore than
2,000
2,0
00 people by
YouG
You
uGov Omnibus
found
fou
un that
99%
99% of people
considered
con
round
rou plates
acceptable.
The
acc
least
lea approved
serving
items
se
er
were
we
e a shovel
(17%),
(177 a dog bowl
(10%)
(10
0 and a shoe
(9%).
(9
9% You didn’t
know
kn
n some
restaurants
re
serve
food
se
in shoes?
I envy
you.
e
■ A respectful
nod
no
od tto the
expanding
ex
xpa
craft
crraft beer chain
BrewDog,
which
Brrew
has
announced
ha
as a
it w
will give away
wil
20% of its profits
– 10
10% to charity
and 110% to staff.
The ccompany
says this could
be as much as
£45m
£45 over the
next five years.
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | M
MAGAZINE
37
Style
Portrait JAKE WALTERS
PERSONAL
TOUCH
Creating a collection for Uniqlo was a labour of love for
designer Jonathan Anderson, says Eva Wiseman
T
here is an unnerving
busy-ness to
Jonathan Anderson:
his daily schedule
planned six months
in advance, the small
mountain of iPhones beside his coffee
and the way his conversation slips
from business ethics to the history
of Japanese ceramics in the same
sentence. But this is how the 32-yearold fashion designer, who oversees
his own label as well as the Spanish
luxury brand Loewe, thrives: leaping
from one idea to the next – from Paris
to London to Madrid, to his country
retreat near Norfolk. He spends a lot
of time mid-air. You get the sense he
would really, really like a cigarette.
He is at Tate Modern today,
caffeinated and well-lit in this small
ier,
room up near the roof. Earlier,
as a Uniqlo exec presented
or
Anderson’s first collection for
d
the brand, the designer stood
slightly hidden in a crowd,
and blushed to be described
as “an artist”.
Anderson, who last year
n,
put on an exhibition of fashion,
orth
art and sculpture at the Hepworth
mself
Wakefield, doesn’t even call himself
a designer. What is he then? A rare
ely do,”
pause. “What I think I ultimately
he says, taking a huge sip from his tiny
coffee, “is curate. I’m curating people,
ores,
curating campaigns, curating stores,
38
MAGAZINE | 10.09.17 | THE OBSERVER
BSERVER
cura
curating
collaborations. It is about
tak
taking all these components
aand arranging them in a way
that makes sense. It’s like
doing brain zen: you have to
arrange objects into a certain
con guration that feels… right.”
confi
He’s as notorious for his nearobsessio
obsessional collecting of art and
craft as h
he is for the “challenging”
(he calle
called them “ugly”) genderunspeci
unspecific clothes he first showed
in 2008, including the 2013
bustiers for men, worn with rufflepp riding boots on hairy legs.
topped
But listening to him talk, even in this
PR-ed environment, even about things
as mundane as sock design, it becomes
clear that both are part of some larger
vision, some grand project of living,
created through careful juxtaposition
of teapot, or sleeve, or antique
nutcracker. “I do have a compulsion
about owning certain things,” he says,
“because I have to look at it to actually
work out why, or how.”
Like what? What things?
“I’m obsessed by damask napkins
at the moment from the 14th, 15th,
and 16th century in Great Britain and
Ireland.” His grandfather worked for
a textile company in Northern Ireland
that specialised in camouflage and at
home his grandmother would turn
the camouflage scraps into ornate
bedspreads. “So I think there’s always
been this obsession with fabric. There
is something that is so magical about it
because it lasts for ever.”
His 33-piece collection for Uniqlo is
made up of cable knits and Highland
tartans, with a few rugby stripes, too
(a nod, perhaps, to his brother and dad,
both former professional players).
There are no feathers, there’s no
chainmail, in fact none of the kinky
details he made his name with. Instead
there are clothes that will remain
wearable long after the autumn ends.
“If you design something, it is the
person who wears it who will make the
clothing,” says Anderson, who claims
‘What we put out is
an artform’: Jonathan
Anderson in his studio,
and garments from
his new 33-piece
collection for Uniqlo
to own 100 Uniqlo T-shirts. “That’s
what I get from Uniqlo: when you wear
their clothing, you make it.” One of the
simpler pieces he’s designed for them
is the white T-shirt he wears today,
printed with a sketch of a man’s profile,
in a jaunty hat. “It’s a drawing by Henri
Gaudier-Brzeska, a French immigrant
who came to Britain.” A Brexit-heavy
moment of eye contact. “I remember
seeing it and thinking that what was
incredible was the singularity of the
line, and the humour. When we started
the collaboration I thought we needed
something from the past to bring it to
the future.” He thinks for a second.
“Whether or not a customer knows it’s
a 100-year-old drawing by GaudierBrzeska, it’s emotional, it’s personal to
me. It adds a layer of mystery.”
It was his Hepworth show, he says,
that changed the way he worked for
ever. “It was a real discovery to look
at, say, a William Turnbull [sculpture]
beside some knitwear.” Both, he says,
teach you about how bodies move. “And
as much as it was an emotional rollercoaster doing that show, it has really
helped me on everything I have done
going forward.” It made him realise
It’s like brain
zen. I have
to arrange
objects into
a certain
configuration
that feels
right
that, in designing clothes, whether a
’ b
i or this
hi white
hi T-shirt,
hi the
h
man’s
bustier
exercise is the same. “What we put out
is an artform no matter what it is – there
are fundamentals. You are changing the
body, and you have a responsibility.”
Which is a fairly big idea for a £14.99
T-shirt. But, he says: “I believe luxury
does not exist.” He utters these grand
statements as throwaway comments.
“I believe that we have a cultural
responsibility in terms of our stores,
in terms of how we communicate,
because ultimately we’ve got to help
each other to try to ‘democratise’
fashion in such a way that it can be
accessible on any level.” Hence his
hop from the £1,000 JW Anderson
handbag to the £35 Uniqlo jumper.
He carefully unwraps a Tatebranded chocolate on his saucer, and
savours it with nostalgia. “Growing up
in Ireland, I remember going to Dublin
to visit a Vuitton store and I came out
with a brochure. Then I went to Prada
and I came out with a magazine, and
I felt like I was part of the brand. All
those things matter. And, of course,
I can’t afford a Rembrandt, but I can
still come to the Tate or Hepworth,
and I can still enjoy it.” Uniqlo x JW Anderson is online and in store
from 19 September (uniqlo.com)
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
39
Fashion
@guardianfashion
To see all the shoots in this series and for more
sartorial advice, visit theguardian.com/fashion
DINNER DATE
Dress up your
sweater with
a crisp white
shirt and tailored
trousers
Shirt £49.99,
arket.co.uk
Trousers £239,
sandro-paris.com
Shoes £79.99,
zara.com Yellow
jumper as before
RELAXED
WEEKEND
Choose soft textures
for chill-out days
Yellow jumper £260,
sandro-paris.com
Washed indigo work
pants £395, Burberry
(harrods.com) Trainers
£70, Nike (schuh.co.uk)
5 WAYS
TO WEAR...
A BRIGHT KNIT
Bring some end-of-summer
mmer cheer to your
wardrobe with a burst of yellow. Sandro’s
rend update to
wool jumper is an on-trend
udio Nicholson
your look. Valentino, Studio
and Officine Generale all made a case for
ey is to balance the
a jolt of egg yolk. The key
n
vy suit, wear it
brightness: slip it underr a na
navy
he hero piece of
with jeans or make it the
ry these styles with
a smart evening look. Try
other vivid colours too. Fashion editor HELEN SEAMONS Photographer
h
h DANIEL BENSON
MODERN
PREPPY
Faded jeans and
a baseball cap
make a neat
sweater cool
Cap £10, asos.
com T-shirt with
ties £98, Craig
Green (farfetch.
com) Jeans £145,
soulland.com
Trainers £160,
filippa-k.com
Yellow jumper
as before
STREET STYLE
Add a pop of colour to an all-black outfit
SUIT UP
Swap your plain shirt for a bold knit
Blazer £99, and cotton
otton
drill cropped trousers
sers
£79, both cosstores.com
es.com
Shoes £115, drmartens.com
tens.com
Yellow jumper as before
efore
T-shirt £45, Kappa Kontroll (consortium.
co.uk) Jogging pants £35, arket.com Bag
£238, heronpreston.com Trainers £280,
fillingpieces.com Yellow jumper as before
Grooming Juliana Sergot using Dermalogica
and Kiehl’s since 1851 Model Kesse at
Premier Fashion assistant Bemi Shaw
Fashion
To see all the shoots in this series and for more
sartorial advice visit theguardian.com/fashion
GUIDE TO
ANKLE
BOOTS
Take inspiration from the
autumn runways to
update your ankle boots.
At Balenciaga, designer
Demna Gvasalia’s revival
of the sock boot – renamed
the knife boot – appeared in
white and acid brights. The
style has taken the high street
by storm, and we particularly
love Zara’s stripe-trim version.
If you’re not quite ready for
spandex ankle boots, there
are chunkier new styles in
velvet and leather. The key
colours are fire-engine red
and minimalist white, the
latter seen on the runway at
Céline. Head to Topshop
for the perfect take on the
red trend. Now is the time to
shop for your new boots. They
are the perfect accessory to
give a floral dress a rock’n’roll
edge. And when it does get
cold they’re great for tucking
your jeans into. JO JONES
DESIGNER
Gold Chelsea
£780, fendi.com
Louella £650, Velvet
(jimmychoo.com)
White £630, Stella McCartney
(net-a-porter.com)
Buttoned £575,
mulberry.com
Elasticated £175,
bimbaylola.com
Burnished £150,
camper.com
Gold heel £380, MM6
(harveynichols.com)
Olive sock £59,
charleskeith.com
Patent snow £79,
urbanoutfitters.com
Ring red £82,
topshop.com
MID-RANGE
Elephant £420,
Dorateymur (farfetch.com)
HIGH STREET
Bow £145,
uterque.com
WWD/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK; GETTY IMAGES
@guardianfashion
Céline
Chanel
Vetements
Gucci
Dolly £650, Malone Souliers x
Roksanda (malonesouliers.com)
Lace and spandex £765,
Balenciaga (harrods.com)
Critic £75, Rupert Sanderson
(net-a-porter.com)
Peach £1,210, Marni
(020 7491 9966)
Raven £199,
KG (kurtgeiger.com)
Imogen tan
£189, hobbs.co.uk
Red suede
£169, whistles.com
Viviane
£375, apc.fr
Pewter £115,
dunelondon.com
Pink £39.50,
marksandspencer.com
Pearls £120, Paris Atelier
& Other Stories (stories.com)
Striped
£59.99, zara.com
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
43
LIFE & STYLE
Beauty
NOW’S THE TIME TO…
Refresh your colour. Maria Nila is a
vegan, sulphate and paraben-free
haircare brand from Sweden. Its
new 100ml paint tubs are ideal for
mixing up your own bespoke colour
in a flash (sallyexpress.com)
For more advice and tips,
visit theguardian.com/
fashion/beauty
SIXTIES
REVIVAL
EYELINER
Chloé, Autumn/
Winter 2017
Like champagne
and bitching in
the ladies’ loos,
60s eyeliner never
goes out of fashion.
Always expect
a twist though. At
Chloé, bold kohl
was smudged just
above the cat’s
eye, and a subtle
blur of shine was
added to the lids –
a slash of MAC’s
clear Lipglass.
EEVA WISEMAN
Dolce & Gabbana High
Hig
Definition Eyeliner
Stylo £27, harrods.com
The Body
Bod
dy
Shop Matte
ttte
Kajal £10,
0,
thebody
thebod
dy
shop.com
m
JASON LLOYD-EVANS
MAC
Lipglass
£15, mac
cosmetics.
co.uk
YSL
Beauty
Vinyl
Couture
Eyeliner
£25,
debenhams.
com
Mary Kay Liquid
Eyeliner £11, marykay.co.uk
£28, johnlewis
johnlewis.com
Guerlain L’Art Du Trait Eyeliner £28
com
DHC Liquid Eyeliner EX Black £16, thisisbeautymart.com
Bobbi Brown Gel Eyeliner Duo
£19.50, bobbibrown.co.uk
Lola Duo Kajal Eyeliner £21, lolamakeup.com
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
45
Design
For more inside tips, advice and ideas, go to
theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/design
We found
a cool
machine,
and then
tried to
figure out
what we
could do
with it
46
FEAT OF CLAY
Granby Street in Liverpool is a great
collaboration between Assemble and
the locals. By John-Michael O’Sullivan
In old pictures, Liverpool’s Granby
Street is a bustling thoroughfare
packed with shops – takeaways
and launderettes, hairdressers and
tailors, florists and supermarkets –
all serving the lively, diverse, tightly
packed community in the neat grid of
Victorian streets that surrounded it.
But decades of alternating
clearances and government neglect
have left those streets full of holes.
Sections of sturdy brick terracing
remain, separated by modern lowrises and patches of fenced-off
ground. At its southern end, though,
after decades of stubborn local
activism, Granby Street is beginning
to blossom again.
In 2012 the residents were
introduced to Assemble, a young
architecture collective then mainly
known for inventive installations
such as Clerkenwell’s Cineroleum,
a project that transformed a petrol
station into a cinema. Three years
later, Assemble unexpectedly won
the Turner Prize.
It seems, in retrospect, an unlikely
coupling, but five years on, Granby
Street has become a rare beacon for
thoughtful, human-scaled urban
g
regeneration.
Some of the
original h
houses have been
cleverly rrefurbished, while
the shell
shells of two others have
been com
combined to form
a commu
a community meeting space,
café and iindoor garden.
On the
th streets, planters
imp
improvised from
sa
salvaged materials
are painted in
vivid colours,
and gardens are
bursting with
flowers.
If Assemble
w
were your average
MAGAZINE | 10.09.17 | THE OBSERVER
architects (and the Granby Four
Streets Community Land Trust
were your average clients), that’s
probably where the story would
end. But instead, they ploughed the
Turner Prize money into the Granby
Workshop, a small manufacturing
enterprise which has taken over
one of the street’s old corner shops.
The aim: to produce experimental
handmade products for the home.
“There are a number of core
principles behind the workshop
products,” Assemble’s Lewis
Jones explains. “And one of those
is that there should be an element
of chance, or accident in the way
things are made. So it doesn’t just
end up becoming incredibly boring
– and that’s where these products
developed from.”
As we talk, he pulls out some
samples, many of which first saw
the light of day during restoration
work on the first few houses.
There are beautiful handles and
door knobs in pale clay, barbecued
with pine needles and banana
skins to create smoky, scorched
effects. There are mottled aggregate
mantelpieces, formed from reclaimed
building rubble mixed with coloured
cement. There is a swathe of
patterned tiles, with patterns ranging
from marbled streaks to rainbowcoloured transfers.
And now, thanks to their latest
toy –an old hydraulic ram press,
used to mould clay, lodged in
a newly built outhouse – the team
is launching Splatware: a series of
tableware products made using
traditional pottery processes in
a characteristically un-traditional way.
“We found a cool machine, and
then tried to figure out what we could
do with it,” says Jones.
What they do, currently, is produce
a range of bowls, plates and cups
in plaster moulds, made by placing
clay in the kiln with different oxides
pressed on top – or “squooshed”, to
Photographs GARY CALTON
Work in progress:
(clockwise from
above) Sumuyya
Khader and
Anna Johnston of
Granby Workshop
with Lewis Jones
of Assemble;
a Splatware plate
after pressing
and colouring;
adding dye to
a plate; product
moulds; and
a Splatware cup
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
47
Design
GARY CALTON; COURTESY OF GRANBY WORKSHOP AND ASSEMBLE
For more inside tips, advice and ideas, go to
theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/design
use Jones’s satisfyingly descriptive
term – to produce random, rainbowcoloured results. The range will
launch online with crowdfunding
website Kickstarter, and make its
debut at Designjunction, part of the
London Design Festival, from 21–24
September (thedesignjunction.co.uk).
Simultaneously, back at Granby,
they’ll also host some tours and
demonstrations. “We think it’s kind
of a nice thing to have,” says Granby
Workshop’s Sumuyya Khader.
“People get to see the machine in
action, and have the opportunity
to be a part of it.”
“We really want the workshop to
grow and be a big neighbourhood
business,” Jones agrees, “but to have
a broader relationship beyond just
selling products. There is a lot of
general creative activity in the city.
And that also fed into the way that the
houses were saved – and refurbished.
People didn’t just protest to save
the houses; they painted the empty
houses, and planted the streets. It was
always a very creative approach.”
The feeling is clearly mutual.
“Everything they do is fantastic,” says
long-time local resident and Trust
vice-chair Hazel Tilley, poking her
head in while taking some students
on a workshop tour. “You’ve only got
to look at what they do: the love, the
care, the attention. And they gave a lot
of it for nothing for a long time. What
we love about Assemble is, they’re
young, they’re enthusiastic and they
didn’t know what they couldn’t do
– so they did it. We have had a bit of
iffiness on Twitter and stuff, from
people that say this isn’t grassroots,
that everyone’s been brought in from
London. It’s a pile of shit. It couldn’t
be more grassroots if you tried.”
While Jones may well be
a Londoner, he moved to Merseyside
18 months ago – and now lives 10
minutes from the workshop, with his
girlfriend and three-month-old child.
“The baby’s Scouse,” Tilleyy p
points
out, laughing delightedly.
“It’s nationalised!”
Afterwards, we go
for a walk down Cairns
Street, where some of
Hot off the press:
Anna pressing clay;
dyes and colour
swatches; new
cups and plates
the 11 houses which formed the
original project have already been
inhabited. The Winter Garden
– incorporating the shell of two
ho
houses too far gone to save – has just
ha
had its glass roof inserted, and will
op
open this autumn as a community
meetingg space, café and
gree
greenhouse.
After touring the
wo
workshop, we visit the
ne
next battle line, Ducie
Stre
Street, a half-demolished
road with a grand terrace of doublefronted houses on one side, and a
wildflower meadow on the other.
The houses here have been empty
the longest, and are in the worst
condition – but their metal shutters
and teetering gateposts are a riot
of defiant murals. On the way back,
Jones struggles to wrangle the
workshop door open. “We need to
get that fixed,” he says, ruefully. In
all honesty, I don’t know when he’d
find the time. THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
49
LIFE & STYLE
Gardens
James Wong
@Botanygeek
To read all James’s columns in
one place, visit theguardian.com/
profile/james-wong
If you are
looking for
easy but
exciting
houseplants,
here are a
few superquirky
alternatives
Off the wall:
(from top)
Hydnophytum
‘Treasure’;
Mimosa pudica;
and Kalanchoe
daigremontiana
ALAMY; GETTY IMAGES/DORLING KIN
KINDERSLEY; BAKKER.COM
HOUSEPLANTS WITH A DIFFERENCE
There is no reason why the onset of
autumn needs to stop you getting
your horticultural fix thanks to
the wonders of houseplants. But if
you’re looking for resilient, easycare
species just a bit more exciting
than the boring old aspidistra or
sansevieria, here are a few superquirky alternatives.
Ant plants are a group of bizarre
species from southeast Asia that have
adapted to grow on the branches
of trees, baked by sun and lashed
by monsoon winds. Beneath a neat
crown of emerald leaves lies
a massively swollen, bulb-like stem,
covered in spikes in many species,
like something straight out of The
Flintstones. They get their name as
in the wild their curious swollen
stem, full of a honeycomb of winding
passages and air pockets, provides
a home for tropical fire ants.
It’s a miraculous evolutionary
strategy to help enlist an army of
insect defenders to ward off pests
– but don’t worry, UK ants won’t be
tempted to set up home in them. All
the plants need is a bright windowsill
protected from freezing draughts and
to dry out a little between waterings.
Treat them like a cactus or succulent.
Hydnophytum ‘Treasure’ and
Myrmecodia ‘Adventure’ are varieties
which perform well in indoor
conditions in temperate climes.
On the subject of succulents,
Mother of Thousands, aka Kalanchoe
daigremontiana, is real show-stopper.
This prehistoric-looking plant from
the deserts of Madagascar produces
fleshy, grey-green, triangle-shaped
leaves, splashed with tiger-like
striations. A real beaut. But what
makes it so fascinating to me are
the rows of tiny baby plants that
are produced by the hundreds,
quite literally, along the edges of its
leaves. These have evolved to fall off
eventually, acting like self-sowing
cuttings – meaning you will always
have plenty to give away to your
mates. The variety ‘Pink Butterflies’
produces little bright pink babies like
lace around its silvery leaves and even
rosy flowers in winter, just when you
need them most.
If your home isn’t all that sunny,
the miracle of nature that is
Biophytum sensitivum is a must have.
Like a bonsai coconut palm just
10-15cm high, its canopy of ferny
leaves held up on little pencil-thick
trunks will close each night and
even when touched, much like the
sensitive, spectacular Mimosa pudica.
They prefer filtered light and moist,
yet well-drained conditions, similar
to ferns. In tropical greenhouses
these cute mini “palms” are so easy to
grow they often become weeds, selfseeding everywhere. I grow mine in
a dish filled with moss and gravel to
make a tabletop “palm island”.
I sourced all of these through the
cool, houseplant-focused N1 Garden
Centre in London, but you can also
buy them online. THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
51
Ethical
living
Lucy Siegle
@lucysiegle
Email Lucy at lucy.siegle@observer.co.uk
or visit theguardian.com/profile/lucysiegle
to read all her articles in one place
THE ECO GUIDE TO...
HEALTHY BEACHES
To the untrained eye, all
beaches can look healthy
– the sea gives them
a restorative glow. The
Beach Ecology Coalition
is based in California,
but its indicators for
a healthy beach broadly
hold for Skegness as much
as California’s Laguna.
Don’t be fooled by pristine
beaches. A healthy one
should be strewn with
wrack: organic litter
including seaweed that
sustains beach hoppers
and birds.
In tropical waters the
indicators of health are
under the sea, or acting as
a buffer for storms. Coral
reefs and mangroves are
key to the survival not
just of beaches but entire
populations. Healthy coral
reef can reduce a wave’s
energy by 97% before it
reaches the shore and 100
metres of mangrove will
reduce a wave’s height
by 66%. Destroying them
means losing protection
from storms and rising
sea levels.
As we don’t come
across much coral off our
own beaches (there’s one
coldwater species off the
Scottish coast), we don’t
tend to think about it. But
corals are our problem,
too. Despite occupying less
than 0.2% of the world’s
oceans, coral reefs contain
35% of all known marine
species. Their survival
is crucial, possibly only
second to that of bees.
Governments act as if it’s
not their business, either,
continuing to cast the
protection of nature as an
expense rather than a saving.
Even the insurance industry
is ahead of them. Beachfront
hotels along Mexico’s part
of the Mesoamerican reef
now pay into an insurance
scheme. This policy pays out
within 10 days if the reef is
hit by a storm in order to
pay for its rapid repair.
Regarding nature as an
insurable asset may strike
you as a great innovation or
an idea as sick as the reef
itself. But it’s important
to have the conversation.
Beaches are not just for
summer any more. THE BIG PICTURE
DR SEUSS BROUGHT TO LIFE
When it came to educating kids in saving the planet and social issues,
Dr Seuss was well ahead of his time. Now a theatrical version of the children’s
fable The Lorax, published in 1971, is coming to the Old Vic, London, this
autumn – complete with puppetry by the team behind the hit War Horse, and
an infectious Charlie Fink score. ‘The Lorax is not a lecture or a lesson, but
rather a joyful rallying cry to care for and conserve this fragile world we all
share,’ promises Lorax director Max Webster (oldvictheatre.com).
DARIA RATINER
WELL DRESSED
READY-TO-WEAR 3D PRINTED CLOTHING
3D printed bomber
from £1,500,
danitpeleg.com
Forget shopping for
fashion, says designer
Danit Peleg. There’s
too much waste and
its environmental
footprint is vast.
Focus instead on the
day when anyone will
be able to print their
clothes at home or at
a designated store. In
2016 Peleg designed
a 3D-printed dress,
worn by Olympian
Amy Purdy at the
Paralympic Opening
Ceremony to great
fanfare. Her newly
available collection is
inspired by that dress
and includes five looks
printed using FilaFlex
filaments, including
the ready-to-wear
bomber jacket (shown
here). According to the
designer, this is the
first fully customisable
and personalisable
3D printed garment
available online.
The Birth of Venus
collection takes 100
hours per item to print:
that’s three times
faster than Peleg’s
first attempts in
2015/2016, thanks
to advances in
printing technology.
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LIFE & STYLE
Wheels
Martin Love
@MartinLove166
ONE SCOOP OR TWO?
TOYOTA C-HR
With its invisible rear doors and
dramatic swooshes, Toyota’s compact
coupé is all set to divide public opinion
Price: £21,065
Top speed: 118mph
0-62mph: 10.9 seconds
MPG: up to 74.3
CO2: from 87g/km
Gerry from Slough wrote to me last
week and asked why we bang on about
top speeds and 0-62 times when few
of us can ever legally or safely reach
these figures. On top of that, he added
that “dieselgate” proves emissions and
economy figures can be fudged. So
what’s the point of them? He’s right.
It’s time we invented some far more
relevant methods of comparison. For
instance, I have a perpetually bad back
so I’d find “number of hours until
your back is agony” useful and I’ve
also got endlessly car-sick children so
“ease of removing vomit from seats”
would be a very helpful measure.
If ever a vehicle was crying out for a
new set of indices, it is Toyota’s C-HR.
It’s an all-new crossover hybrid that
dares to think right outside the box.
Every aspect has been rethought.
It’s a brave decision – car makers get
caned for being dull and hammered
for being different. But now and
again one breaks from the flock and
becomes an indie hit. Just look at the
affection Fiat’s Multipla, Nissan’s
Juke and Citroën’s Dyane are held
in – ugly ducklings which all took
ed.
a battering when they first arrived.
Email Martin at martin.love@observer.co.uk
or visit theguardian.com/profile/martinlove
for all his reviews in one place
The styling of the C-HR is
eye-popping. It’s a riot of swooshes
and curves, with more scoops than
a family bucket of ice cream. Inside
you’ll find a refreshing blend of
unexpected textures, shapes and
colours. A kite motif has been
stamped into the roof and the
door panels are made of a weird
pimply plastic. The central console
counterbalances that with swirls of
a super-tactile veneer. The climate
controls have diamond-shaped
buttons and the touchscreen rears
out of the dashboard, like the
monster in the Alien. Did I mention,
it’s very different?
The drive, however, is not very
different. As proven with the Prius,
Toyota is the world’s hybrid master
and this car comes with a selection
of delightfully peaceful powertrains.
The entry level is the 1.2-litre petrol
hybrid with manual gearbox, but
Toyota expects everyone to stump
up the extra £2,500 for the allconquering 1.8 petrol auto which
will cover an incredible 74.3 miles to
a gallon of fuel with barely a whiff
of carbon. As you’d expect the C-HR
is loaded with safety features, but
sitting in pride of place is the new
“Safety Sense” which will slam on the
brakes for you in a collision scenario.
The C-HR is fun and funky and
will no doubt earn a warm welcome.
My one disappointment is the
bafflingly boring name. It stands for
Coupé High Rider. I’d have suggested
the Scoopy Coupé… BICYCLE OF THE WEEK
TEMPLE CLASSIC LIGHTWEIGHT
Price: £695
Frame: steel
Weight: 10kg
Gears: 9-speed
templecycles.co.uk
Most bikes are made in
Taiwan. But not Temple
cycles, they’re built in Bristol
by a man called Matt and his
small team – you can pop
in and have a cuppa with
them. This new frame is
typical of what the friendly
independent firm is all
about. It’s made to order,
you choose the exact size
you want before adding
various bits and bobs as you
wish, from mudguards to
panniers and a kick stand to
a shiny old-school bell. It’s
created not to last a season
but a lifetime, and you’ll
find it light and practical to
ride. It comes with a wide-
ranging nine-speed gear,
ear,
a classic Reynolds steel
el
frame, a pearly powderr
coat finish and high quality
ality
alloy parts throughout.
t.
It’s then finished off with
ith
a nice handmade pewter
ter
head badge and fluted retro
crankset. It’s not a bike
e you’ll
ever tire of owning.
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
55
Travel
For more inside tips, advice and holiday
ideas, go to theguardian.com/travel
BRAVE NEW WORLD
LD
MONROVIA
Fly via Amsterdam,
Brussels or
Casablanca,
from around £700
(no direct flights
from the UK).
Libassa Eco-Lodge
(libassa.com) costs
from £98 per night.
Hire a driver to get
around Monrovia for
around $50 for half
a day. A yellow fever
certificate is required
for entry
In Liberia’s national museum, there
is a beguiling mahogany sculpture
called “Twin Mother”, a gracefully
carved bust of an African woman
breastfeeding twins. “You have to
feed both your children at the same
time,” Lamie, the energetic guide,
explains, introducing this as a
symbol of Liberia’s troubled past.
“You can’t let one develop and
neglect the other.”
This, in a nutshell, is the story of
Liberia, the oldest African republic.
Founded by free US blacks leaving
the slavery and racism of plantation
society America, they arrived in
Monrovia by steamship in 1822.
Lighter-skinned, Americanised and
well-armed, the settlers created
a new nation at the expense of the
Africans who were already there.
An interest in this history is key
for anyone thinking of holidaying in
Monrovia. But if, like me, you find it
fascinating, the Liberian capital is
a veritable gold mine. Where else
can you see an African newspaper
published in the 1830s, as you can at
the museum, or walk a gallery of
black presidents dating back to 1847,
as you can in the Centennial Pavilion
next door? The statue in front shows
a settler woman and a native woman,
naked from the waist up, in
supplication to two Americo-Liberian
men wearing top hats and tails.
Liberia’s years of war had their
roots in these divisions, and the scars
are still visible. There is the odd
burnt-out or pockmarked building,
now being reclaimed by assertive
flora. The Masonic Grand Lodge,
founded in 1867, is one of the most
breathtaking ruins I’ve ever seen on
the African continent: a huge,
Palladian-style construction that
betrays the scale of ambition once
wielded by the Americo-Liberian
elite – and the backlash against it.
The old has not disappeared from
Monrovia, but the new is thriving.
Less than a kilometre away I walked
sceptically into Tides – a bar which
looks closed down from the main
road – only to ascend on to a glorious
wooden terrace hovering above the
swelling Atlantic, a half-moon of
yellow sand on one side, and the
container ships of the open ocean
on the other. There is nothing,
I found, quite like the specific delight
of an evening Club beer on this
balcony, the sun melting gloriously
into the moody horizon. Drinks
come quickly, but don’t order food
if you’re in a hurry.
Liberian food – which I found to
be served much more quickly
everywhere else – is delicious. The
country is a great place in which to
sample West African staples such as
jollof rice, fufu – a heavy dumpling
made of pounded cassava – okra stew
56
MAGAZINE | 10.09.17 | THE OBSERVER
GETTY IMAGES; ALAMY
The Liberian capital may not be the
obvious choice for a holiday, but
Afua Hirsch is bowled over by its charm
Blissful solitude:
(clockwise from left)
Liberia’s dramatic
coast; inviting pools at
Libassa Lodge;
a coffee seller;
and fish for supper
and pepper soup. But it also has its
own unique cuisine, a combination
of southern American influences
and the innovation of its indigenous
ethnic groups.
In its embassy and hotel district
Sinkor, I sat among a well-heeled but
casual Liberian crowd, eating salty
bitter-leaf stew, cooked with melon
seed and soaked in palm oil, served
with ebba – a lightly fermented corn
dough. But the main event in Liberia
is white rice, an obsession for which
I’ve heard Liberians mocked by other
Africans, eaten with “crawfish gravy”:
crawfish in a fragrant and seasoned
sauce, or palm butter – a gloriously
rich stew. Now I’m eating it as they
do, this love of white rice is beginning
to make more sense.
I was last in Monrovia for any
decent length of time in 2008, five
years after the war ended, and since
then the city has, from a visitor’s
perspective, been transformed. It’s
far safer and easier to get around.
There are services like Solo Cab –
a kind of offline Uber. And
Cookshop.biz is an online platform
that allows you to order for delivery
from the city’s numerous Lebanese,
pizza, Italian, sushi, Thai and
Liberian restaurants. For every
10 meals ordered, one is donated to
a school-age child for free.
It’s impossible to enjoy yourself
in a country which, although coming
up from the desperation of war, is
still one of the world’s poorest,
without asking how your presence
is contributing to the local economy.
Few of the hotels and restaurants
I visited were actually locally owned.
But all made local employment
something they are proud of, even
the unexpectedly high-end Royal
Grand, a hotel which opened last
year offering a level of luxury that
was inconceivable last time I visited.
The general manager, CanadianLebanese engineer Wael Hariz,
tells me with pride about the
apprenticeship scheme he launched
to upskill young Liberians.
The Grand’s Donut Bar is great for
people watching, attracting young
African consultants, lawyers from
other more developed hubs like
Nairobi or Accra, trustafarian
students and old African-American
men lamenting their president’s
latest Twitter meltdown over coffee
and deep-fried apple fritters.
There is
nothing like
the specific
delight of
an evening
Club beer
on the
balcony
at Tides
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE 57
ALAMY
Travel
Libassa Lodge, an eco-hotel 45
minutes outside Monrovia, has made
ethical tourism a core principle.
Funded in partnership with the
forestry authority and a wildlife
sanctuary, it feels like a genuine
retreat away from the hustle and
bustle of the capital. I could
comfortably spend a week here,
I thought, swimming in the four
pools that run down to the shore,
snorkelling in the lagoon, and
doing wildlife tours.
Liberia is a genuinely viable
tourist destination now,
especially if you combine
a couple of days’ sightseeing
in Monrovia with stints at
the beach resorts a few miles
outside the capital. I spent
a lazy Sunday at RLJ
Kendeja, founded by the
creator of America’s Black
Entertainment Television
(BET) network Robert
Johnson. Staying here will sett
you back a cool $250 (£195)
per night for a double room,
but for $15 (£11.50) a day (offset
against purchases) I could pay to
use the facilities – in my case sitting
at the beachside bar drinking
fresh coconut, admiring the lone
adrenalin junkie who was attempting
to surf the ever-violent Atlantic
waves and currents.
Monrovia is not all rosy. It’s neither
a cheap destination nor hassle-free.
I was grateful for my trusty driver,
even though he was so unused to
touris
tourists he had no idea how to
find most
m of the things I wanted
to see.
see But we found them
event
eventually, with a little help from
othe
other, equally bemused, local
p
people; tourism is quite
o
obviously still an anomaly
in Liberia.
At the same time it’s
hard to reconcile, when
you’re here, that it is
a nation synonymous in
the western imagination
with the plague of war. On
a continent of misunderstood
ccountries, I’d say this one is
a contender for the most
u
unjust treatment. On the up: (from
top) an aerial
view of Monrovia;
the author on
the beach at RLJ
Kendeja; fish being
smoked; and the
‘Twin Mother’
sculpture at the
national museum
It’s not
all rosy:
Monrovia
is neither
cheap nor
hassle-free
and tourism
is still an
anomaly
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
59
Inner life
To read all the articles in this series,
go to observer.co.uk/inner-life
Focusing on what children do well
helps them to behave better – and you
to parent well, says Lea Waters
We evolved
to have a
‘negativity
bias’,
zeroing in
on what’s
wrong as
a way to
protect
ourselves
When will he ever learn? That was
my thought as I arrived home and
saw that my eight-year-old son
Nick had failed to put away his new
bicycle… again. The day before, I’d
snapped: “I’m tired of reminding
you about this!” Then, seeing his
welcoming smile fade, I’d felt like
a terrible parent.
Why is it so hard to control the
urge to criticise our children – and
is there a better way? I’m constantly
asked these questions at my parent
talks. The culprit is ancient brain
wiring – and yes, there is a better way.
We evolved to have a “negativity
bias”, zeroing in on what’s wrong as
a way to protect ourselves and our
tribe. Add to this the constant social
pressure to raise perfectly behaved,
accomplished kids, and many parents
feel as if they have to be in “fix-it”
mode all the time.
My research has shown we can
override this impulse and implement
a far more powerful, positive strategy
called “strength-based parenting”
that helps children improve by
focusing on their strengths.
A strength isn’t just something
your child is good at. Psychologists
have defined three characteristics
of a strength: your child does it
well (high performance), happily
(high energy) and often (high use).
Strengths can be talent-based, such
as sports or art, or character-based,
such as humour or kindness.
More and more schools are
teaching strengths. A study of more
than 300 secondary school students
in the UK, published in the Journal
of Positive Psychology in 2011, found
teens who were taught about their
strengths had significantly higher life
satisfaction than their peers who did
not. Similar results have been found
in the USA, Australia, New Zealand,
Israel, Japan and China.
Parents benefit, too. In one
of my studies, published in the
International Journal of Applied
Positive Psychology, parents who
undertook a strength-based
parenting course were happier and
more confident about their parenting
skills. Learning to consistently see
their child’s strengths allowed them
to find the sweet spots where their
kids could thrive.
What I call the “strength switch” is
a mental tool that helps you see your
child’s strengths more clearly. Picture
a light switch inside your head.
When the light is on you look for the
strengths in your child. When it is off,
your negativity bias is operating. The
brain is a pattern detecting organ,
so the more you flick the switch, the
more you train your brain to look for
positive patterns and so over-ride the
negativity bias.
In discipline situations, the switch
will help you suggest how your
child could handle things using
a strength they already have. In my
case, I commented on how Nick had
used his good organisational skills to
put his other belongings away after
school. He felt good about himself –
and I got the bike put away. Simply
notice one strength in your child
per week and have a conversation
together about it. When challenges
arise, you’ll find you can more easily
shift out of fix-it mode.
Another way is to incorporate
strengths into the questions you ask
your children. When your child has
a big project or event coming up, you
could ask them: “What strengths do
you have to help you with this?”
Or if they’ve had a fight with
a friend: “What strengths do you
think were missing that may have led
to the fight? What strengths will help
you make-up?”
Strength-based parenting can help
your children tune into what is best
about them and others, and thus
show us all how to shine. The Strength Switch by Dr Lea Waters is
published by Scribe at £14.99. To order a copy
for £12.74, go to guardianbookshop.com
A NEUROSCIENTIST EXPLAINS
DANIEL GLASER ON WHAT AND WHERE WE REMEMBER THINGS
As we return to school and
work from blissful relaxation,
one of our anxieties is how
we’ll get the information we
once knew back into our heads.
An elegant experiment from
the 1970s might give us some
reassurance, particularly if
we’ve just been on the beach.
Alan Baddeley worked with
60
MAGAZINE | 10.09.17 | THE OBSERVER
divers to see what the effect of
context was on recall. The divers
were given two lists of words to
remember, one set on dry land
and one set underwater. They
were then tested on both sets in
each environment. The results
clearly showed they were better
at recalling things when in the
context where they learned
them. The words had no relation
to water or land so the effect had
nothing to do with the content.
The way we encode and
retrieve is all about linking
details together, so what is
learned in, say, the classroom or
the office, is easier to retrieve in
those places than on a beach.
Part of the joy and benefit of
holiday is the creativity
that arises when the weight
of our daily routine is lifted. But
don’t worry, when you bump
into John from accounts, the
full detail of all your budget
spreadsheets will come
flooding back.
Dr Daniel Glaser is director of Science
Gallery at King’s College London
ALLSTAR COLLECTION/UN; ALAMY
WHY PARENTS NEED A STRENGTH SWITCH
Dancing in the
dark: Jamie Bell in
2000’s Billy Elliot
PERSONALITY QUIZ
BY BEN AMBRIDGE
Know thyself, urged Socrates. But do
you? Or are there others who know
you better than you know yourself?
Answer the following and find out
Q1. On a scale of 1 (not at all) to
7 (completely), to what extent would
you say you’re fair when dealing with
others? Now, without revealing your
answer, ask a friend, family member
or partner to answer on your behalf.
Q2. Using the same scale, to what
extent would you say you are honest
when dealing with others? Again,
without revealing your answer, ask
a friend, family member or partner to
answer on your behalf.
NOW’S THE TIME TO…
Defrost history. The British Museum’s new exhibition
explores the Scythians, an almost forgotten nomadic
people from Siberia. What we know has been cobbled
together from Greek and Persian recordings, but they
were known for heavy drinking, drug taking and
their penchant for tattoos. Known as the ‘warriors of
ancient Siberia’, they’re said to be the inspiration for
the Dothraki army in Game of Thrones. Due to the icy
climate many artefacts and bodies have been well
preserved and will be on display for the first time this
week (14 September to 14 January, britishmuseum.org).
For Q2 (honesty) you should trust
your own answer. Honesty is difficult
for others to evaluate. Every time you
lie and get away with it, the other
person thinks you’re honest. But for
Q1 (fairness) you should trust the
other person’s answer. We all like to
think of ourselves as fair, our own
opinions are rather self-serving.
Consequently, traits such as fairness,
which can be defined reasonably
objectively, are best judged by others.
These were the conclusions of
a study which gave participants the
opportunity to demonstrate their
(un)fairness (by distributing money)
or (dis)honesty (by telling the truth
or lying about their performance).
Objective honesty was predicted
perfectly well by the participants’
own ratings. Objective fairness
was best predicted by combining
participants’ ratings and those given
by their nearest and dearest. Are You Smarter Than a Chimpanzee? by
Ben Ambridge is published by Profile Books,
£12.99. To order a copy for £11.04, go to
bookshop.theguardian.com
THE OBSERVER | 10.09.17 | MAGAZINE
61
Dear Mariella
@mariellaf1
If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to
mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk. To have your say on this
week’s column, go to observer.co.uk/dear-mariella
HOW CAN I STOP MY PARENTS
SENDING EMBARRASSING EMAILS?
They’d probably think
so. They don’t realise
that’s there’s only one
thing more embarrassing
than parents in real life,
particularly on the dance
floor, and that’s when they
take to cyberspace. Then
again your parents are not
exactly pioneers. We’ve all
welcomed the newfound
pleasure of opining not
just among our inner circle
but also out there for the
world at large to gorge on.
Your parents are merely
exercising their right to be
heard in the cacophony.
Once upon a time
mantelpieces and kitchen
corkboards would have
been decorated with
postcards by the end of the
summer from friends and family. Displayed like
totems by my parents’ generation, their social
status would be derived from the personal
missives received on birthdays, public holidays
and from those who remembered them while
overseas. Nowadays those relics of a postagedependent world sit mainly on their display
stands, decorating the exterior of still hopeful
tourist shops, gathering dust. Your parents are
on a glamorous European tour and they want
the world to know it. It would certainly be
spoiling their sport to try to restrain them.
I’ve found that the best way to deal with
what I don’t find palatable is to delete before
reading. Communications can be sent, but they
don’t have to opened. There are those who
decry the echo chamber we nowadays have the
opportunity to inhabit, where we hear only our
own thoughts returned by those like-minded
souls who have embraced our online presence,
but sometimes there is comfort to be had in
believing the world shares your sensibilities.
Once upon a time we had a public persona,
displayed to the outside world at work or at
play but always in tangible proximity to each
other. Now we have the privilege of our online
avatars, leading the lives we want the world
My parents have
gone on a long summer holiday
and have started writing a weekly
round-robin email. It contains the
usual update on where they happen
to be staying, but also absolutely
cringe-worthy “reflections” on
what life is like on the continent.
Each week they email this out to
20-30 people, including some of my
friends. I can’t help but feel they’re
making themselves look a bit daft.
I don’t really need to hear their
take on events like the Barcelona
killings from their European
vantage point. My brother is equally
bemused, but says it’s meant for my
parents’ friends and that I should
drop it. Is there a way I can tacitly
suggest what they’re doing is a bit
naff or am I being a spoilsport?
THE DILEMMA
62
MAGAZINE | 10.09.17 | THE OBSERVER
to see. It’s not always our best reflection. I’ve
deleted the Instagram app twice already this
summer, so despondent did I feel about my
friends’ priorities as illustrated in posts and my
own grey life in comparison.
As for that multigenerational connection,
my children’s friends follow me, I follow as
many of them as will allow me without issuing
a restraining order and so it goes on. I’m always
flattered when their pals request to “friend” me
although I’m realising its not about me at all,
but simply another vantage point from which
to view their mates’ activities. My attempts at
#humour may raise groans of derision from my
offspring, but we all want to be in on the act.
The internet has allowed us the privilege
of expanding our social circle to ever greater
numbers and it’s not just the younger
generation who have developed a taste for
measuring their popularity by the number of
likes they can accrue. These aren’t your real
parents but upwardly mobile avatars. You can
assert autonomy from their worldview. Like
the rest of us crowding the interactive space of
personal communication they have their own
idea of who they want to play in their Second
Life online. It may not reflect the elements of
their personalities that you best relate to but in
an analogue world it would be the “self” they
displayed to their friends and colleagues.
Your brother is right when he says it’s
not meant for you. The parents you connect
with are the ones you grew up with, your
relationship defined by the dynamics of your
family. Cyber-parents are an altogether different
breed, exposing full frontal the personalities
they adopt among their contemporaries and the
wider world beyond their front door. From an
anthropological point of view it could be seen
as a gift, a glimpse of the adults who raised you
in all their multifaceted glory, or if you insist on
shouldering responsibility, an embarrassment!
My choice would be to accept that they’re
not simply the people who raised you but
adults with their own unique (and at times
unpalatable) thoughts, tastes, desires and
opinions, many of which, in a different
generation, you would never have been privy to.
Celebrate their diversity or block their round
robins. The choice is yours. I’ve found
that the
best way
to deal
with what
I don’t find
palatable
is to delete
before
reading
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