Monday, May 26, 2014

Six reasons why Belgium is cooler than where you live

This piece originally appeared in Esquire Weekly



For three years, Scandinavia has reigned at the top of the cultural charts. From TV drama to trendy, uncomfortable furniture, if it’s got a ‘Made in Sweden’ tag on it, there’s a good chance you’ll find a fawning article on it in the design mag of your choice. But, fickle souls that we are, Esquire Weekly’s head is now being turned by a nation less than an hour away from the UK by train, ferry or plane: Belgium.

The catalyst is Salamander, a crime series that’s replaced Borgen in the hearts of the BBC Four foreign-drama crowd. Following maverick cop Paul Gerardi’s quest to uncover the truth behind the robbery of a private bank, it’s got intrigue and murder in spades.

The show, which climaxes this weekend, isn’t the only thing this country of 11 million should be proud of, because Belgium – despite the difficulties between the Flemish-speaking north and the francophone south – has a cultural output that puts its bigger neighbours to shame. Don’t believe us? Here’s six reasons why Belgium is making the rest of Europe look, well, a bit like Belgium.

1 | Fabulous cities
You know that east London thing with bikes, craft beers and moustaches? Belgium cities were doing that decades before the first Home Counties hipster pitched up in Shoreditch and began to price the locals out of the area. The capital, Brussels, a French-speaking island in the Flemish north, has a reputation for bureaucratic drudgery, but according to Nicholas Lewis, editor of The Wordmagazine and the This is Belgium guide, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Brussels is a city that boasts a ton of hidden gems,” he says, “a town that lives below the radar with more substance than style.” It’s not all about the capital, either. Ghent is home to the brilliant SMAK museum, the legendary Music Mania record shop and La Fille d’O, a super-chic lingerie boutique. Antwerp, meanwhile is Belgium’s style city, but also, says Nick, famous for its “record stores, museums and good-looking, open and entrepreneurial people”.

You’ll find them around the eight-spoked hub of Marnixplaats on Friday and Saturday nights. Oh, and if you’re hungry, beautiful Bruges “serves the best lobster in Belgium”. Take that, Norway!


2 | Serious menswear
Belgian designers have been making aserious splash ever since the Antwerp Six – including Dries van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs – graduated from the city’s Royal Academy of Arts in 1981. Alongside more recent stars like Raf Simons, Cedric Jacquemyn and Kris van Assche (now at Dior), they’ve made Belgium synonymous with menswear. Brussels-based fashion writer Philippe Pourhashemi says the quality of the shops matches that of the clothes.

“I love Louis in Antwerp, while Stijl in Brussels is great for established names as well as newcomers.
For trendier shoppers, try Hunting and Collecting, also in Brussels.”

And why is Belgium so prolific? “The schools provide students with excellent teaching,” he says.

“Belgians also appreciate luxury and elegant clothes. Comfort and practicality are important, as well as rebelliousness and a sense of irony.”


3 | World-class beers
Belgium’s reputation for producing fantastic – and dangerously strong – ales is unrivalled. Whether it’s the dark, strong “tripel” beers brewed by monks in one the country’s six trappist breweries or light, drinkable ales like De Koninck and Orval, Belgians take their brews every bit as seriously as the French do their wine.

Durham Atkinson, owner of specialist pub Hops and Glory in London’s Islington, is a regular visitor to Belgium’s breweries. “Strong beer isn’t considered something to be scared of there,” he says, which explains the conviviality of pubs like Brussels’ Le Corbeau and Kulminator in Antwerp.

“There isn’t really a ‘craft beer scene’ to follow, it’s more just a part of their culture to enjoy, appreciate and drink great ales regularly. Before you die, try the Westvleteren 12, which I’d consider to be the best beer in the world.”


4 | Super-talented footballers
The country may not have the reputation for “total football” artistry enjoyed by its neighbours The Netherlands, but a quick scan of the most exciting players in Europe will turn up plenty of Belgian (though not Belgian-sounding) names, many of them now playing in the Premier League.
As a result, the much-hyped national side is expected to make an impact at the World Cup this summer.

Gabriele Marcotti, World Football Correspondent ofThe Times, says: “The great thing about Belgium is that all the top footballers, apart from Vincent Kompany, are between 20 and 25 years old. Players like Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Jan Vertonghen have played together since they were kids so they’re very settled. People put this generation’s emergence down to the quality of Belgian coaching, but they’ve always trained on little pitches and played small-sided games. I think it just comes down to luck. There are more to come, though — Yanick Ferreira-Carrasco is a regular in the Monaco midfield, while Eden Hazard’s younger brother Thorgan is also excellent.”

Get those bets on now.


5 | Its vibrant music scene
As the enlightening The Sound of Belgium documentary showed last year, Belgium – along with Chicago – pretty much invented electronic dance music as we know it with the “new beat” sound of the Eighties. John Power, who worked on the film, and now manages Belgian bands, says its legacy can’t be underestimated.

“This tiny country made a big sound that influenced the world before imploding as the government and police cracked down on it.” Over the last ten years the disco-Balearic sound championed by Eskimo records has soundtracked many of the country’s cool clubs, but today you’ll also find a thriving underground electronic scene.

“In Brussels you have FUSE, one of the oldest and longest-running techno clubs in Europe,’ says Power. “If you want it a bit sexier or trendier, there’s Libertine Supersport, which hosts DJs like Erol Alkan and Simian Mobile Disco every month.”

And when the weather warms up, things get really interesting. “Brussels comes alive in summer: the streets are full of people drinking and relaxing after work, there are loads of markets on and there’s always a party happening on the roof of a car park or in the woods.” We’re sold.


6 | Quirky art and great photography
It should come as no surprise that the country that gave us the surrealist Magritte has an art scene that’s almost impossible to pin down.

Owner of the Alice Gallery in Brussels, Alice van den Abeele, says that at the moment photography is really strong. “My favourite artists are Belgian photographers Nicolas Karakatsanis and Lara Gasparotto. In terms of actually seeing art, Brussels is probably the strongest place for galleries, but I like the Tim Van Laere gallery in Antwerp best.”

Like the country’s fashion designers, Belgium’s artist are defined by their free-thinking spirit. “There’s no such thing as Belgian art,” says Alice. “There are Belgian people making art and they’re all unique in a very different way.”

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The simple pleasures of dim sum

This article will appear in Issue Ten of Umbrella


Good things often come in parcels. And that’s as true with food as it is with consumer durables found under the tree at Christmas. Perhaps that’s why dim sum always feel like such a treat.

Dim sum is linked with the older tradition of tea drinking (yum cha) in Cantonese culture and consists mainly of a variety of dumplings, served fresh from bamboo steaming  baskets. Like many Chinese dishes, the onus is on sharing, though that often goes out of the window when the spare ribs arrive.

To see a dim sum chef at work is to see someone completely at one with their craft. A huge amount of skill is needed to create that translucent dough that embodies the perfect dumpling. Though, like ravioli for Italians, it’s the filing that gives each dumpling its individual character. As Vinata Frans, head chef of dim sum chain Ping Pong says: “Chefs must have a delicate but speedy touch. To make each dumpling exactly the same size and consistency takes practice and our chefs each have over eight years’ experience making dumplings. A good tip – cool hands make better dumplings.”

The staple dumpling is the har gau, a parcel of chopped or whole shrimp wrapped in a wheat starch skin. When split open its juices merge with the dipping sauce to create a cocktail of deeply savoury flavours. Heat is a factor, too. You’re not really getting the full dim sum experience unless you spend a good portion of the meal desperately trying to cool a freshly opened dumpling by blowing on it.


Of course, it’s not just about prawn. A dim sum feast can encompass guotie (north Chinese dumpling that are boiled then fried), char siu baau (a pork bun) and the slightly less appealing, but very authentic “phoenix claws”, better known as chickens’ feet.

Like tapas, dim sum works on the principle that food is best when it’s shared and the diner experiences a wide range of flavours. In the perfect dim sum environment, one will taste sweet, hot, sour and savoury all in the space of a few mouthfuls. And, if we’re doing it properly, the lot should be washed down with tea – a relic of dim sum’s beginning as byproduct of the tea ceremony.

Best of all though, is when you reach that point when it becomes clear that the original order wasn’t quite enough to satisfy the appetites of those present. And so the waiter’s eye is caught, more har gau is ordered and the experience continues long into the night, just as it always should.

www.pingpongdimsum.co.uk

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Terry O' Neil: the photographer who helped define the ’60s

This interview appears in the new issue of the Christopher Ward magazine


The 1960s may have been defined by its soundtrack of Beatles, Stones, and Kinks, but it was those that produced images of these – and other – stars of the who held the key to their success. 

Terry O’Neill, along with David Bailey and Terence Donovan, was that very ’60s animal, the celebrity photographer. As pop music exploded, so printed media needed young, savvy snappers to capture the equally youthful stars who were elbowing the long established celebrities out of the way. O’Neill fitted the bill perfectly.

Like Bailey and Donovan, O’Neill was from an ordinary background (working class people simply didn’t do jobs like his before the ’60s), a Londoner with a love of jazz absolutely in tune with what was starting to ferment in the capital’s clubs. A lucky break and plenty of hard work led him on a path that would lead to him photographing, not just domestic celebrities, but Hollywood stars like Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Brigitte Bardot, and perhaps most famously, Frank Sinatra, who O’Neill developed a strong friendship with over 30 years. To be photographed by Terry O’Neill was to become an icon.

Described by Michael Caine as “one of the best photographers in the world”, it’s fitting then that O’Neill’s work has finally been documented in one volume, which showcases his reportage-influenced portraits of everyone from Muhammad Ali to Amy Winehouse to his stunning photo the Queen. It reads less like a photography book and more like a retrospective of the pop culture age.

Here, in an exclusive interview, he tells Christopher Ward about leading a very charmed life in pictures.

Hi Terry. Growing up, were you one of those kids who liked taking photos? 
No, I never took pictures, I got forced into it. I was a jazz drummer and wanted to play in America, so I went to BOAC [the forerunner of British Airways] in 1960 as they’d starting flying to America, and applied for a job as an air steward. They weren’t taking anybody on for three months, but if I took a post there I’d stand a better chance of getting a steward’s job. So I got a job in the photographic unit and learnt how to the trade. We used to photograph the inside of aircrafts or went up to take photos of planes in flight. As I was just an assistant, for homework they got me to take pictures around Heathrow at weekends – and that’s where I accidently took a shot of a bloke in pin-stripe suit surrounded by African chieftains.

That photo changed your life…
A reporter came up to me and said, “Do you know who that is?”. I said no, and he told me it was [the politician] Rab Butler, and asked if he could have my roll of film to show the picture editor at his newspaper. I gave him it, and rang up this guy who was the picture editor of the Sunday Dispatch. He told me he loved all the shots and was going to use the Butler picture, for which he paid me 25 quid. He said he wanted me to cover the airport for him every Saturday. I told him that I didn’t really know what I was doing and he said, “Just do what you’ve been doing on that roll of film.” That was the start of my career.


What happened then?
I met up with another guy who I worked with for a while, then he died in a plane crash, so I got his job on the Daily Sketch. I still didn’t really know what I was doing! When I was there, the paper said they wanted to attract younger people by doing pop groups – in those days it was all individual singers, a pop group was unheard of. They said, go down to Abbey Road and cover this group, The Beatles. I took this amateurish shot of them. The paper published it and sold out. Suddenly, everyone was tuned into the ’60s.

And it wasn’t just the Beatles, who you covered, was it?

They said, who else is any good? I loved the blues, so I told them the best group was The Rolling Stones. They were horrified with them, and said, “Can’t you get a good- looking group?” So I told them about the Dave Clarke Five, though only one of them could play anything. They said it didn’t matter, go and photograph them. And they ran the photos under the headline of “Beauty and the Beast”. That was first picture spread of a pop group in a newspaper.


What did it feel like to be in the eye of that pop culture storm?
We all used to go to a place called the Ad Lib club – me, The Beatles, the Stones and all the models. We used to talk about what proper job we’d get when it was all over in a couple of years. It was only when I went to Hollywood a couple of years later and met Fred Astaire, and all he wanted to do was talk about the Beatles, Stones and Jean Shrimpton, did I realise that it must be for real if someone like him wanted to talk about it.

What was Hollywood like then?
That was around 1964-’65 – I loved it. It was like the south of France. I got on great with all the movie stars as they were used to posing with 5x4 cameras and I0x8 cameras, they’d never met someone with a 35mm one. I got paid by the film companies to work on films for two weeks – photographing people like Paul Newman working, not working, hanging around. I often feel God was looking down, pointed his finger and the light shone on me.

You famously took a snap of Raquel Welch in the Chelsea strip…
Yeah, I got her in Peter Osgood’s outfit. She was great and loved Chelsea. They were all great. Obviously, if you’re with people too long you’ll see a bad side, nobody’s perfect, but I was around Sinatra 30 years and he was fantastic. I never overstepped the line. There was a time when I could be the one out drinking with him, but I didn’t want all that.

What pictures are you most proud of?
Brigitte Bardot with the wind blowing in her hair, Sinatra on the boardwalk, Paul Newman. Audrey Hepburn, she was fantastic, too. My only regret is that I didn’t work harder. When I tell people that, they laugh. But I could have worked harder.

What did you have that made you so in-demand?
I have no idea. I still don’t know. I was young and hard-working, quietly spoken. Never pushy.


Out of everyone, who was the most amazing to be with?
Frank Sinatra. When he was in town, the whole town revolved around him. He had an incredible personality, very strong natured. He lived up to it. He wasn’t loud though… a very cool guy.

Who are you snapping now?
I don’t take many pictures now, I did photograph Pelé as he’s the face of the World Cup. There’s not many people I want to photograph any more – I’ve done everybody who’s anybody.

It’s been good to you, this job. Are you happy?
I am happy. Really happy with my life, I don’t worry about anything. I’ve had cancer, I’ve had heart problems, but I just keep pressing on.

Terry O’Neill is published by ACC Editions. Go to www.antiquecollectorsclub.com/uk for more information. Find out about Terry’s exhibitions at www.terryo.co.uk


Thursday, December 26, 2013

A proper wind-up merchant: the Omega De Ville watch

This piece was originally in Esquire Weekly


A few years ago, the death knell was being sounded for the men’s wristwatch. What do we need a watch for, people reasoned, when we’re never more than seconds from finding out the exact time on our phones?

There’s some logic to this. By rights, wristwatches should have gone the way of video recorders and David Moyes’ managerial reputation. The reason they didn’t is because timepieces like this, the Omega De Ville Co-Axial Chronometer 41, are about so much more than telling the time — they’re a wearable extension of our values.

The Swiss watchmaker’s De Ville range, which began in 1967, marries elegant, classic styling with cutting edge timekeeping technology. Slimmer and a little less showy than the (admittedly great) Speed- and Seamaster, a watch like this belongs on the wrist of a man who’s secure with his place in the world. And being an Omega, it’s no slouch when it comes to telling the time with pinpoint accuracy either.


The soul of a watch is its movement — the mechanism that enables it to tell the time, and the De Ville’s is one of the best, an Omega Co-Axial Calibre 8500. Forget batteries, this work of engineering genius uses the wearer’s wrist movements to power the watch with a mind-blowing array of gears, cogs and springs. And, unlike a lot of mechanical watches, the De Ville Chronometer has enough in reserve to keep going for a decent amount of time when you’re not wearing it — a full 60 hours. Not that you’ll want to take it off for that long.

Then there’s the case. Made of stainless steel and measuring 41mm across, it’s far smaller from the giant “footballers’ watches” that have gained popularity over the last few years. The face is protected by scratch-resistant sapphire cover, with a date window at three-o’clock and raised Roman numerals on the hour. And being water-resistant to 100m, should you fancy a quick exploration of your local Tudor shipwreck at lunchtime you won’t be late for that 2.30 sales call.

So, in a world where everything else is digital, the man who tells the time with a beautiful, mechanically powered watch is the one who really makes his mark. The Omega De Ville Co-Axial Chronometer 41, yours for £3,950.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Naamyaa: perfect food, tasty design



Thai restaurants don't tend to lead the field in the style stakes – they’re usually a mish-mash of ‘spiritual’ gap-year chic with no coherent visual language to tie everything all together. Naamyaa Bangkok Cafe, in London’s Islington, is different. 



The brainchild of Alan Yau, the founder of Wagamama and owner of Busaba, Naamyaa’s outstanding food is enhanced by a comprehensive design ethic that perfectly encapsulates the restaurant’s values. Unlike the pan-national minimalism of say, Wagamama, Naamyaa adds splashes of traditional design to a soft modernist interior – here designed by David Archer Architects. It also has some Bladerunner-style animated lighting in the window, replicating the neon-lit madness of nighttime Bangkok.



With an interior that's both stylish and welcoming, it’s unsurprising to see Naamyaa hasn’t skimped on the menu design either. Not only does the menu illustrate what your dish will actually look like, but it uses subtle Thai patterning to make it feel an integral part of the experience. The fact that the main font is Mac OS9 favourite, Chicago, illustrates perfectly Naamyaa’s attention to detail. 



While Michelin-starred restaurants and monster-ego chefs are still fawned over by the culinary press, places like Naamyaa show that creating wonderful, but simple, food in a beautifully thought-out environment is the key to a great dining experience. You should go.


Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Adidas World Cup football boot – a football/fashion classic

This article originally appeared in the brilliant Esquire Weekly


September and October is the time when Sunday league football really gets into its stride. And a new season means new boots – after all, there’s no excuse for not maintaining sartorial standards just because weekend mornings are spent kicking a ball of sodden pigskin around a windswept public park.

But which to choose? Many a Hackney Marshes Messi will rock up with the latest lightweight, fluorescent striker’s boot – all space-age materials and multi-coloured uppers. Nothing wrong with that, but if you’re after a football boot that marries functionality with classic sports style you can’t beat the Adidas World Cup.

Originally designed for the 1978 World Cup tournament in Argentina, the boot was the last shoe that Adidas’ founder Adi Dassler worked on. Thirty-five years later it’s still worn by players all around the world at every level.


The first thing you notice when holding the World Cup – and its moulded stud brother, the Copa Mundial – is the softness of its kangaroo leather upper. Qulited around the toe to enable the player to get more control of the ball, there’s a luxurious feel that you just don’t get with any other boot. And that’s before we look underneath.

Make no mistake, the sole of the World Cup is one of the most beautifully designed pieces of equipment in footwear history. Six screw-in studs – all slightly splayed for extra stability – sit on a perfectly proportioned sole in red, white and black with the Adidas trefoil at the centre. It’s breathtakingly beautiful.

Good design marries form and function, and the World Cup boot epitomises that. No wonder that Adidas have released a limited edition ‘78’ version complete with leather holdall and cleaning kit. For those who can’t get hold of that rare gem, the original remains on sale – a relic of a time when shorts were short and the World Cup was the greatest thing you’d ever seen on television.

Features
The sole is made of dual density plastic – the harder white section sits on the softer black platform, giving the shoe increased flexibility

The World Cup comes with an extended, foam-filled tongue which can be folded over the laces for extra padding when striking the ball – something that was popular with late-’70s strikers like Liverpool’s be-permed genius Terry McDermott

The heel is reinforced with extra pieces of leather for more stability – and to protect the wearer’s Achilles tendon

The six screw-in studs work best on soft grass pitches. Adi Dassler is credited with the  invention of the screw-in, an innovation that gave the West Germany team an advantage in the rain-sodden World Cup final of 1954 against Hungary






Friday, September 13, 2013

Behind the scenes with the Lotus F1 racing team

This piece was originally in Nuts magazine



Think a Formula 1 team consists of a few mechanics, a couple of drivers and someone to neck the free champagne? Wrong. Nuts heads to Silverstone for practice day at the British Grand Prix to find out exactly how the Lotus F1 Team goes about its business… 8.05am We’re at Silverstone! It may be raining, but Nuts is just one of the tens of thousands of people who’ve turned up to see the first day of practice at the British Grand Prix. A flash of a posh pass gets us into the ultra-exclusive paddock – and a date with the Lotus F1 team. This is more like it. 9.15 Every team has a portable HQ the size of a small hotel in the paddock complete with restaurants, offices and private rooms for drivers to chill in. With 80-100 staff working for Lotus on every race, it’s a big operation – thank the Lord for all that TV and sponsorship money! 9.52 Nuts is invited into the pits where crews of technicians make constant adjustments on Lotus F1’s two cars, one each for drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean. Each driver has his own personal team, with the whole lot overseen by the Trackside Operations Director. 10.04 Roman gets into his car for an “installation lap”, to get the car running. When he returns, the tyres are immediately taken off and put in their own heated  “sleeping bags”, to keep the temperature up and enhance their grip. The garage stinks of burning rubber.


10.15
With cars from every team screeching past us, Roman comes back and has a word with Nuts. “I love doing this job,” he says. “You know, I’m just a normal guy, but I love winning, whether it’s on the track or playing tennis.” We’re sure Kimi feels the same way! 11.00 As the teams waits for the rain to stop we’re told that while Lotus sponsors the team, they don’t actually make the cars. Instead, the the engine’s manufactured by Renault, while the rest of the car is put together by a team in Oxfordshire, who’ve been in the F1 game since 1981. 12:00 Nuts corners Lotus F1’s fuel technician Dave. So, do you fill the cars up with four-star? “No, this is specialist racing fuel made by our sponsors Total. We calculate how much we’ll need for each race, because too much fuel means extra weight and that slows the car down.” 13.05 It’s lunch, and we’re given a look at the amazing steering wheel by Lotus F1 lady Fleur: “All the gears – except first – are controlled by paddles on the back. The DRS (Drag Reduction System) system, which alters the angle of the rear flap, is also controlled from here. 2.30 With the rain petering out, drivers Kimi and Romain come into the Lotus garage for the afternoon session. Kimi has a word with his personal physiotherapist, while Romain get into his seat and starts the ignition. The noise is deafening as he drives off – no wonder the crew wear ear plugs. 2.40 On the track, Roman’s in constant touch with his own dedicated engineer, who gives him orders and informs him how the car’s running. Meanwhile, the Lotus F1/Renault telemetrics team study the data transmitted by the engine so it can be tuned for the next run-out. 3.30 After several spins around the circuit, Kimi and Romain arrive back in the Lotus garage, quickly departing the scene. The cars are disassembled with the wheels and engines taken away within a matter of minutes. If only all garages operated at this speed.


4.00 As the fans leave, the technicians begin work on the cars, including two of the eight engines that the team posses. While the lure of top-notch nosh in the Lotus HQ is tempting, Nuts decides to do its bit and polish the car for tomorrow’s qualifying session. Well, someone’s got to!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How to pitch an article idea – and get it commissioned

One of the most daunting things for young journalists starting out is how to pitch article ideas to commissioning editors. Here’s my – in-no-way-guaranteed – recipe for pitching success. 
  1. Tailor your pitch to the magazine or website you’re getting in touch with. Got a great idea that you think could work in GQ and Elle? They’ll want very different things from it, so don’t send the same treatment* over.
  2. Find out the name of the commissioning editor you want to pitch to. Start off with an introductory email, outlying briefly what you do and what you’re interested in writing about. If you’ve not written for a “proper” title yet, point them to your blog. If you’re an unpublished journalist and haven’t got a blog, then you’re obviously not serious about making it in this game. Go and work for the council instead.
  3. Get your “treatment” right. This is where you outline what what your piece will be about, who you’re going to talk to in it and where it will fit in the publication. Make it any more than 200 words and the editor’s will glaze over and it’ll end up getting binned. Use bullet points, too – people get lost in long paragraphs.
  4. Email your pitch over, and follow it up with a) a phone call and b) a second email. After that, give up – you’re just becoming a nuisance. Try somewhere else.
  5. Remember, people with commissioning jobs in the media are lazy – they’ve been on staff for too long (no-one leaves of their own free will any more), so all they’re looking for are writers who’ll deliver winning copy that keeps them in their cushy jobs. Getting invited to posh parties and receiving free gifts through the post is very hard to give up.
  6. Do the commissioning editor’s job for them. If they’ve asked for 1,500 words, write 1,500 words – you don’t get extra money for going over your wordcount, but you will increase the editor’s workload. Also, check out your chosen title’s style guide – how they write numbers, headlines etc – and follow it. The sub-editors will appreciate the fact they’re not having to completely rewrite all your stuff, and they’ll let your commissioning ed know.
  7. Develop a thick skin. Your work will be mocked, dismissed as worthless and even ripped off by the person you sent it to. Deal with it.
  8. Finally, your fee. If your idea is commissioned, the editor will more than likely give you the rate for the job. If not, ask them. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tailor your mind: quick fixes to make you smarter

This article originally appeared in MR PORTER's Journal As a regular visitor to MR PORTER, you’ll no doubt have your appearance thoroughly down pat, but what about your brain? In this informative guide, Mr Anthony Teasdale provides the pointers your mind needs to stay as sharp as the cut of your trousers… The book that tells you why we are the way we are Guns, Germs and Steel by Prof. Jared Diamond


Professor Diamond is an unusual fellow, spending a fair proportion of his existence in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, studying both its wildlife and traditional societies. One day, a local politician asked him a question that went along the lines of: “If we agree you and I are as smart as each other, how come people from the West have so much wealth and power?” The answer Professor Diamond eventually came up with is the title of this tome. In the book, Professor Diamond charts the history of Western mankind’s rise, and why our privileged place in the world came about by a combination of geographical good fortune, communication links and proximity to animals that could be both tamed and eaten. The website that will make you the ultimate know-it-all Quora.com There are few more disheartening feelings than finding out that the “fact” you’ve been wowing your friends and colleagues with for years is actually an urban myth. Happily, those with a thirst for real knowledge would do well to check out the excellent Quora.com website. From the politics of Silicon Valley to the greatest steakhouse in London, ask a question about any topic on Quora and soon enough it’ll be answered by one or more experts in the field, beating Mr Stephen Fry’s illuminating QI programme at its own game. And unlike other user-generated sites, Quora is noted for the civility and manners of its contributors. The business magazine with a digital pulse Fast Company Forbes may be the in-house magazine of the super-rich, but for cutting-edge businesses keen to make use of our increasingly connected planet, then Fast Company is a must. Making sense of social media, new business thinking and mobile technology, the magazine mixes brilliant journalism with enlightening interviews from the leaders of the world's most innovative companies. The business world has changed – Fast Company helps you navigate it. The book that will help you cope with a chaotic world Mindfulness by Prof. Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman



When you’re in a position of responsibility either at home or work, having too many tasks to complete or even choices to make can overwhelm you and make you feel anxious and unable to make decisions. Messrs Williams and Penman’s book lays out a plan to combat this stress with the technique of mindfulness, which involves taking time out for just a few minutes a day to observe your own thoughts and feelings. Afterwards, you’ll feel happier, sharper and able to see things in their true perspective. And you’ll stop snapping at people, too. The DVD box set that redefines documentary film-making The American Civil War – Directed by Mr Ken Burns There are few documentary series that deserve the epithet “great” – Mr Laurence Olivier’s World at War is one – but Mr Ken Burn’s dissection of the American Civil War is perhaps the greatest of them all. Over ten hours of television, Mr Burns tells the story of the war that set North against South, brother against brother and completely changed America – turning it from a loose conglomeration of states to a unified country in its own right – but at the cost of 750,000 lives. The American Civil War took Mr Burns six years to make and garnered over 40 awards – it’s what DVD players were made for. The management book for the new breed of managers Quiet Leadership by Mr David Rock As much a manifesto as a management book, <Quiet Leadership> seeks to transform the way we think about management, basing its findings on scientific studies of the brain. With that knowledge, managers are able to work out how to make their teams happier and more productive. Which, if we have it right, should leave time for more post-work cocktails – a most civilizing way to reward collaboration. The podcast that brings history to life Hardcore History, written and presented by Mr Dan Carlin Can’t face the Kindle on the commute? Mr Dan Carlin’s regularly updated Hardcore History podcast is an excellent alternative, telling the story of the the great events of the past in exhaustive detail. Styling himself as a “history fan” rather than an “historian”, Mr Carlin brings passion and empathy to such subjects as Genghis Khan’s Mongol expansion, the collapse of the Roman Republic and most memorably, the horrific conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II. The TED lectures that will make you look at the world anew Underwater Astonishments by Mr David Gallo Human beings have only explored three per cent of the ocean, and in this short presentation David Gall, demonstrates just what we’re missing. Truly illuminating – in both senses of the world – the lecture finishes with an astounding example of disguise by a most extraordinary octopus. Lessons From Death Row by Mr David R Dow In this speech, Mr Dow illustrates why murderers seemingly all have the same biography – and how that can be used to prevent killings happening in the future. Where Good Ideas Come From by Mr Steven Johnson For MR PORTER readers in search of inspiration, Mr Johnson’s talk about what sparks creativity takes us from the coffee houses of 1700s London to the physics labs of 1950s America and the invention of GPS. The indispensable style manual The MR PORTER Paperback by Mr Jeremy Langmead

From style icons to essential modern manners, Mr Langmead provides a guide on how to dress, and more importantly, how to conduct oneself in modern society. Ideal for when you’re facing those “Do I wear brown in town?” conundrums.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The angry brigade: why are Liverpool fans perpetually annoyed?





The vilification started within minutes of Luis Suarez sinking his teeth in Branislav Ivanovic's arm. Forums and social media networks buzzed with anger, and by 7pm the villain of the peace was being hung out to dry by fans, incandescent with rage. The villain being Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, who had the temerity to point out at a press conference that, no matter how good they are, “all players are replaceable”. 

Later, Ian Ayre, the club’s Managing Director, would also feel the wrath of Scouse social media mob for his handling of the incident – though his competent performance, and action of getting Suarez to apologise within a couple of hours of the event, was in sharp contrast to the bungling that characterised the Evra affair. 
Yet Suarez, whose moment of toddler-like madness started the storm, escaped the worst of the criticism. On Twitter and the forums – and it's the forums that dictate what being a Liverpool fan is these days – some Reds criticised our mercurial Uruguayan, but others, many others, laughed it off, and directed their vitriol at the manager, Sky TV (and its “agenda”), Sky’s pundits, the press, the FA, Chelsea fans, Liverpool fans, Ivanovic. Everyone except the man who’d started the whole thing off with his bizarre impression of Rod Hull’s Emu.
To an extent, this is understandable: Suarez’s presence has far more of a bearing on Liverpool’s fortunes at the moment than Rodgers’ (or if he were to come back, Rafa Benitez’s) tactics. But this wasn’t really about matters on the field, this was about turning to what has become the default position in the red half of the Scouse nation over the last few years: anger. 
Quite simply, Liverpool fans are seemingly in a perpetual state of annoyance. There was, in the not-too-distant past, a “Liverpool way” that was defined by a devotion to the men in red, a sportsmanship that involved applauding those who’d performed well against us and an ability laugh at both ourselves and those unlucky enough not to be Liverpool supporters. 
And it wasn’t purely a myth, this Liverpool way – it was, bar the odd “welcoming committee” for away fans in the late-’70s to mid-’80s – real. Real enough that even today, one of the main accusations against Suarez is that he betrays it. Far from hating us, the individuals who make up the modern media grew up admiring Liverpool, supporting us in Europe as a surrogate for the poorly performing England team. We revelled in our status as carriers of the Scouse flame, an exotic strain of Britishness, part Beatles charm, part well-travelled merchant seaman. For the most part, others fans didn’t want to fight us when we came to town – they wanted to look at us, meet us, be us. So what happened? When did we become so sensitive? When did jibes about the lack of employment opportunities really get to us? When Man United’s fans sing about us, why does it prompt pages of outrage on our club forums? Seriously, who cares? If you went to Anfield in the mid-’80s when we were at our peak, United got it in the neck every week. And not just about their lack of success on the pitch.
A Liverpool fan recently said to me that the club’s supporters had become “addicted to negativity”, and there’s something in that. When Liverpool’s Spirit of Shankly fans organisation formed to combat the cancer that was the leveraged ownership of George Gillett and Tom Hicks, its brilliant campaign helped end the Americans’ reign at Anfield, bringing Liverpool supporters together into a cohesive unit, making them realise just how powerful they could be. And that felt good. 
On the field, the Yanks’ disastrous tenure led to the downgrading of the team and eventually the sacking of Rafa Benitez, who spotted they were shysters from the off, and called them out on it. When he was sacked the fans protested once more, as was their right, and again made them feel part of something, a rarity in modern football. 
Since then, we Liverpudlians have revelled in our anger, felt it out, got used to its power. When the Suarez/Evra affair took off we defended our man to the hilt, researching the street slang of Uruguay to – in our minds at least – prove his innocence, forgetting our reaction was based purely on the fact he played for Liverpool (the same, of course, could have been said about United).
Yet when Suarez then went on to embarrass the club’s greatest ever player, Kenny Dalglish, by refusing to shake Evra’s hand in the return match, we blamed Sky, Man United, anyone – except the player himself. “He’s like a Scouser,” we told ourselves. “He’s one of us,” – forgetting the long-lasting effect he had on a man who really did sacrifice everything for Liverpool FC.
We fumed and fumed, and even abused Liverpudlian journalists for expressing honestly-held opinions that didn’t follow the standard Kopite response. But when people who love the club are “cunts”, what does that leave us to say about vermin like Kelvin McKenzie? 
Since then we’ve fumed about the press conferences of Brendan Rodgers, the refereeing of Howard Webb, the supposed Manchester bias of the Football Association, the songs of Sunderland and Man United, and Evra’s joke with the plastic arm at Old Trafford when United won the league. When we got knocked out of the FA Cup there was a weird sense of satisfaction because it meant we weren’t following the now-hated “traditional” priorities. Scouse not English at the expense of everything else. Supporting a football club is supposed to be fun. It gives a predominantly young audience the chance to travel, bond and witness moments of the highest drama in the flesh. But at the moment, following Liverpool feels like entering a perilous den of mistrust where the slightest word out of place can result in castigation. 
Today, with a team that’s languishing just above mid-table, the voices demanding the removal of Brendan Rodgers are getting stronger, as Liverpudlians realise once again that they hold the career of another man in their hands. The fact that with our matchday revenue dwarfed by that of the Top Four, there isn’t a manager alive who could make Liverpool a title-challenging force again is irrelevant. The knives are out. And to those who wield them, it feels good. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Brompton bicycle: a bone-fide British classic

This article appears in Issue Eight of Umbrella magazine. See it here



It seems fitting that one of the TV programmes of the last year featured prominently one of the defining objects of our time, too. The show was the brilliant Twenty Twelve, the so-true-it-hurts comedy that satirised the actions of the team working on the delivery of the Olympic Games, a group led by the long suffering Ian Fletcher, who turned up for work on a bike that sums up perfectly the modern urban experience: the Brompton.


The Brompton folding bicycle, built in a factory in Brentford, west London, is a beautifully designed riding machine – a bike that goes from nippy road runner to hand luggage in less time than it says, “Actually, it's not as heavy as you think.”


With cycle crime at epidemic levels (533,000 offences in 2010) this piece of fiendishly clever British engineering can be carried from meeting to coffee shop to office desk without having to give London's bike snarers the chance to prove their skills. Sure, if you drop it in the canal it's not going to float, but the Brompton offers a freedom that no other bike can match.

It also, once you get over the shock of its small 16-in wheels and curved crossbar, looks fantastic – taking it from utilitarian mode of transport to object of desire in just a few moments. See a Brompton, want a Brompton.


Folding bikes have been with us since the late 1880s, but the Brompton takes the idea and reduces it down to its most beautifully basic level. On a Brompton, nothing, from the tiny wheel on top of the mud guard (for ease of portability) to the folding pedal on the left side, is superfluous. There are other folding bikes around, but they look clunky and ungainly – especially in their folded state – compared to the Brompton.  

Brompton began life in 1975, when engineer Andrew Ritchie began designing folding bikes in his flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory in west London. In 1980, after several prototypes had been produced and tested, Ritchie manufactured his first 30 machines for sale. When large scale investment arrived in 1986, the new bike company was ready to enter the mainstream  market. By 1987 the Brompton was in full production.


Our possessions say a great deal about us, and this is particularly true of the Brompton. Riding to work on one is like shopping at Waitrose – it shows that you're willing pay more money than is necessary for an experience that chimes with your values. It also says that you either live in a tiny flat where's there's no room to store a bike or so far out of town that riding all the way in is an impossibility – but you're happy to have a quick pedal to the station. 


In short, there are few more succinct definitions of how modern urbanites lives. And with the Brompton Dock cycle hire scheme starting next year at 17 UK train and tube stations, its visibility can only grow.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Beanie or bobbles: why mainstream fashion editors don't understand men's style


It started with beanie hats. Or rather, it started with a column in the fashion section of The Times about beanie hats late last year. A column that typified everything that’s wrong about style journalism in the UK.

The gist of the story was that the writer had noticed with the onslaught of the cold weather, men had started to wear beanie hats. This was backed up by pictures of young chaps in said hats mugging for the camera in a satisfyingly urban location in London. A nothing piece.

But the story infuriated me – not because I particularly dislike beanies – but because it completely ignored that the real winter hat of the moment was not the beanie, but the bobble, worn by ‘himalayan scallies’ and ‘heritage’ types the country over for the last two years. Anyone with an interest in men’s fashion would have noticed this.

It may only have been a small piece but it symbolised how uninformed mainstream fashion scribes are  – and always have been – about street style outside London. If this writer, the paper’s fashion editor no less, had even bothered to leave the chummy, mwah-mwah capsule of the capital then she’d have witnessed disparate men’s fashion scenes flourishing all over the country. And, probably, the odd bobble hat.

From End Clothing in Newcastle to Eleven in Sunderland, Oi Polloi in Manchester and Weavers Door in Liverpool – British menswear has undergone a revolution in the last few years with a look coalescing around workwear, preppy, mod, casual and extreme weatherwear. And it’s been ignored in favour of fawning pieces on designers whose clothes we’ll never wear and whose reference points mean nothing to us.

Great Britain is not a big country – a trip to Manchester or Liverpool takes two hours from London, while another hour will get you to Leeds or Newcastle. But if you’re writing about men’s fashion it might as well be the size of Brazil, such is the coverage these cities receive. It’s no coincidence that the London press completely missed the advent of what would become ‘casual’ in the late 1970s and Madchester ten years later. If it wasn’t in Soho, it wasn’t happening.

A couple of year’s back, The Sunday Times Style magazine devoted a whole issue to “the new style tribes”, a mish-mash of imagined whoppers and whopperettes living some privileged  Performance-like existence in Westbourne Grove where beautiful rastas share their weed with Jemima and her oh-so-bohemian pals.

And they got away with it. They got away with it when British menswear blogs like Oneupmanship were charting the rise of workwear and the frenetic trading in brands like Façonnable on ebay. They got away with it as young men in their late teens and early-20s tried to relive the casual era of their fathers by buying T-shirts that referenced the period in their tens of thousands. They got away with it, because those who knew what was really happening had no way of contradicting those who didn’t.

This isn’t a rant about or against London by the way. The magazine is based in the city, and we consider it to be one of the greatest places on earth. The anger comes the laziness of the capital’s lifestyle journalists and the fact that actually finding stories comes a poor second to getting free clothes and going to parties you’re not invited to.

As journalism becomes increasingly badly paid and jobs only open up to those who can afford to work for free for years on end, the gap between the style press and regular men who have a real interest in fashion will just get wider and wider.

They’re not pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Gangs of Brazil

This piece originally appeared in Nuts magazine


Brazil is on the up. As the sixth largest economy in the world, it’s going to spend the next few years under the global spotlight while it hosts both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

There’s just one problem: its one of the most deadly places on earth, with criminal gangs and police stuck in a cycle of indiscriminate killing that leaves thousands dead every year. Only the drug producing states of Colombia and Venezuela have a higher murder rate in South America.

Two weeks ago, Brazil’s biggest city, Sao Paulo was plunged into chaos as gangsters and cops indulged in an orgy of killing which saw 140 people murdered in just two weeks.

Sao Paulo is not alone: the northern city of Maceio, has become the murder capital of the country while Rio de Janeiro, traditionally the most violent city in Brazil, is trying to change the impoverished conditions that allows crime to flourish. Murders are down, but they remain at levels unthinkable in Europe.

So, what’s the reason for this bloodshed? The answer is drugs – and one in particular.

Brazil is the world's largest consumer of crack cocaine. The right to control that market is simply too lucrative for criminals to ignore. And they’re willing to kill to get their share.

Here, Nuts lifts the lid on Brazil’s cities of murder.

Sao Paulo
The biggest city in South America (pop. 11m), Sao Paulo hit the headlines a fortnight ago when police and gang members brought bloody war to the streets. The city’s main gang is the ruthless “Primeiro Comando da Capital” which has controlled the drugs trade here since its formation in 1993.

For years the PCC were seen as peacemakers in Sao Paulo, keeping crime down by their total domination of the streets. But crackdowns by the police led to resentment and the targetting of cops by the PCC. This year alone 92 policemen have been gunned down by the PCC – murders often ordered by gangsters in jails. Overall, 982 people were killed in the first nine months of 2012.

The PCC is run like a legitimate organisation with members (called “brothers”) paying a monthly fee of around $270 – used by the gang to buy weapons and drugs, and to finance bail for members under prosecution. Each PCC soldier also has to swear an oath of loyalty, and once a member has joined, leaving is not an option.


Rio de Janeiro
One of the most beautiful cities in the world, but also one with terrible levels of inequality, Rio has been plagued by gang violence since the early 1970s. Unsurprisingly, the gangs dominate the <favelas>, the slums that cling to the city’s hillsides.

The main criminal gang is the “Commando Vemelho”, formed in the 1970s when left-wing revolutionaries were put in jail by the right-wing government of the time. Once imprisoned, they got together with traditional criminals, and on release used guerilla tactics to take over areas of the city, just as cocaine use exploded and with it the chance to make previously unimaginable amounts of money.

Its enemies are the “Terceiro Comando Puro” and the “Amigos dos Amigos”, which vie for control of the drugs trade with the CV, though all three gangs have been hit by the city’s “pacification” programme which has helped to reduce the city’s murder rate.

Instead of fighting it out with the criminals on the streets, the Special Police Operations Battalion (or “Bope”) now swamp an area, drive out the gangsters and set up community projects. But with only 19 out of 130 favelas pacified, it’s a long journey – especially when a teenage boy can earn around $1,000 a week working for a gang.

The murder rate may be down since its 1990s peak but the ruthlessness of the gangs shows no sign of abating – only last month, traffickers threatened to kill one of Bope’s most successful cops – a sniffer dog called Boss.

Macieo
With an enviable position in Brazil’s tropics and miles of sandy beaches, the capital of the Alagoa province should be a paradise on earth. But as the holder of Brazil’s highest murder rate, many of the locals claim a place in heaven by the most horrific means.

With 104 out of every 100,000 people dying violently here, the city has been transformed by the huge numbers of crack addicts in the population. Whereas Rio and Sao Paulo are controlled by mafia-like organisations, Macieo is murderously chaotic with addicts and dealers shooting each other over debts of just a few dollars. One man recently told the AFP agency he’d lost five of his sons this way. Their highest unpaid debt? Twenty-five dollars.

Local police, for years underfunded and disorganised, have been powerless to stop the 185 per cent increase in killings over the last ten years, while rumours of corruption at local government level refuse to go away. Funding is on its way, but it’s too little, too late.







Friday, December 14, 2012

Writing short stories for Robbie Williams' Farrell brand



It can be hard coming up with creative, original content for fashion companies
So, when I was approached by Robbie Williams’ Farrell menswear brand to create five festive “updates” for their pre-Xmas campaign, I decided to write a short story in five parts based around the lead-up to Christmas and the brand’s impeccably laid-out fashion shoots. This would be something customers could actually engage with.
Rather than just listing what I saw in the shoots, I came up with the idea of Farrell as a character – a sarcastic, smart northerner trying to make his way in London. The story reflect his slightly detached view of the world and the (forgivable) flaws that lie at the heart of his personality.
The inspiration for the brand came from Williams’ granddad, who mentored him as a child, so “my” Farrell had to have his values of self-respect and individuality  too. As the company says:
“The brand is named for Jack Farrell, aka Jack the Giant Killer. Jack was a notable dresser, a Stoke-on-Trent native, who lived a hard life but lived it well. A strong man, Jack believed in honesty, integrity, good manners and a sense of honour.”
Writing stories for brands – in whatever medium – really helps them engage with their customers. It’s simply not good enough to throw adverts up and expect people not to get irritated by them. Today, if people are going to give you their time, brands have to give them something back. You can read all five parts of the story here – or start with part one,
The Office Party, below…

It may be the naffest event of the year, but the office Christmas bash is not an excuse to let standards drop. Farrell keeps men looking sharp with tailored jackets, traditional shirting and just a hint of stylish rebellion

That time of year again.

Graham, the boss, is in his office slowly turning the colour of beetroot as it dawns on him that the deadline that “simply has to be met” has wilted in the face of that all-consuming enemy, the staff Christmas party. Should he ring the MD now to break the bad news or do it after the Secret Santa? Only one answer to that.


Out in the “breakout space”, Farrell sips the Lambrini that Faye’s brought in. He knows too much about wine and the provenance of the grapes to drink this stuff, but it doesn’t half bring out the taste in his Tangy Toms.

The rest of the team – they’re actually called that – are preparing to leave for the party. Graham’s booked the Greek restaurant near the station, plenty of plates to smash and ouzo to drink, clarion calls of a good time for people for who don’t know how to have one. He checks his box of northern soul 7”s – why is he DJing for this lot? ’Cos if he doesn’t someone else will.

He buttons up his cropped frock coat, wraps the fringed scarf round his and sticks on his felt trilby, a nod to the effortless style of his granddad, who even did the gardening in a shirt and tie.  Faye catches his eye and smiles, topping up the Lambrini.

“I know it’s not Jacob’s Creek,” she says, giggling. “But it’ll do.”
He nods.
“And so will you,” he says. “Cheers!”