Insert coins here

On the unglamorous (but surprisingly huge) vending machine economy

First published in Courier magazine, January 2020. Image by Sofya Bobyk

It was watching a YouTube video in September that first hooked Donald Luxama, 20, on the idea of a vending machine business. ‘There was a guy talking about this way to make money while you sleep, and it just got me,’ says Donald, who started selling home-made hand sanitisers at the start of lockdown and has since expanded his DSK Products range to include fragrances, printed hoodies, durags and more. 

Soon, he was scouring Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for vending machines and hunting for the right location around his home borough of Totowa in New Jersey, half an hour west of The Bronx. But everywhere he saw potential customers, he also saw machines, quickly realising that they are more ubiquitous than he’d thought. One day he found a listing on Craigslist offering two machines in a local office block for $3,000. They’d been neglected by the owner, especially during Covid lockdowns, but Donald saw the potential of their location by the entrance, leading to a dance studio and more than 10 offices upstairs. 

Having done more research on YouTube, Donald went to Costco and BJ’s Wholesale Club to stock up on Sun Chips, Lays, Starburst, Diet Cokes and Monster energy drinks. Aiming to have a markup of at least 50% on each product, at BJ’s he paid $11.79 for 36 bottles of soda, to sell for $1 each. He thinks he’ll be able to make around $200 a week from his two cash-only machines, judging from the footfall currently flowing into the office building. And whenever the world returns to some kind of normality, potentially a lot more. 

On November 21st, he posted a selfie on the Vending Nation Facebook group beside his two new fully-stocked machines. The group – which has grown from 6,000 members in January 2020 to more than 18,000 today, many of them with BAME backgrounds – weighed in with messages of congratulations and handy tips (‘Get a card reader’; ‘Just stay hustlin man’).  

By the numbers 

There are tens of thousands of similar stories to Donald’s across the US. It is often wrongly assumed that the nation’s roughly five million vending machines, bringing in $7.4bn in annual revenue, according to the industry market research firm IbisWorld, are mostly corporate affairs. In fact, more than 67% of the market is made up of small independent operators, who mostly sell snacks and sweets on slim margins. For many operators, like Donald, it is a side hustle rather than a primary way to make a living. And, while Covid has limited customers’ access to machines, it has also meant a booming interest in ways to make an extra passive income. 

These small operators aren’t the only slice of a global industry that was worth $134bn in 2019 – and is predicted to grow to $146bn by 2027, according to a July 2020 report published by Research and Markets. Many of the biggest businesses in the space are machine manufacturers, from divisions of Mars and Coca-Cola to industrial companies like Crane, Diebold and Wurth, which also manufacture everything from ATMs to airplane components and automotive hardware. But only a few companies – like Canteen in the US, or The Vending People in the UK – both supply and operate machines, and even then many use local partners.   

For the most part, vending machines are operated by small regional businesses – which isn’t to say that they can’t grow. In 1989, San Diego high school teacher Barry Strickland bought five machines as a way to make some extra money and avoid teaching summer school. By the time he and his wife Lory sold their ‘routes’, the term for a cluster of machine locations, they had more than 250 vending machines in the San Diego area and gross sales of more than $500,000 per year. 

By the time Barry and Lory Strickland sold their ‘routes’, they had more than 250 vending machines in the San Diego area and gross sales of more than $500,000 per year. 

Now they renovate old vending machines and teach would-be entrepreneurs through their Vending Mentors business, which has seen double the number of students in 2020. ‘It’s not an obvious time to start a sales business,’ says Lory. ‘But so many people are looking for little ways to make extra income, and vending machines are recession-proof.’ 

Their lessons are hard-won and practical – starting with how to buy the right machines at the right price. Barry paid over the odds for his first five wall-hung units, and advises new owners to buy refurbished machines from trusted suppliers like him, who can fix them if things go wrong. These are often half the price of new machines, which can cost up to $7,000 for a decent one. Anything costing less than $1,000 and you’re likely to be ‘inheriting someone else’s headache,’ he says. Towards the higher end of the scale, vending machines with 50-inch touch screens and conveyor belts cost between $10,000 to $15,000 (or $200 to $300 a month to lease).

When it comes to the actual business, Barry says that a typical ‘bread and butter’ vending machine might make gross sales of $4,000 and $6,000 a year, with roughly 40% of that profit. ‘But some can do much better,’ he says. ‘And if you build up routes that you can service efficiently, you can grow a successful business.’

Barry and Lory say a lot of people get their first locations wrong, often opting for white-collar offices (too likely to eat elsewhere) or auto repair spots (not enough footfall). Instead, they recommend blue-collar businesses of around 100 people, where workers do physical labour and need quick pick-me-ups. They have also had success in places where people have time to kill – like nursing homes and schools, including the Horizon Christian Academy, a now-closed private boy’s school where just three machines had revenues of $60,000 a year. With hotels and motels, they found that the more down-at-heel locations do better, because people are more likely to skip meals to save.  

The classic approach to stock is to buy in bulk at wholesale stores (Sam’s Club is a favourite), and sell for double in machines. But the trick is getting stock right based on the exact needs of the clientele. For example, Barry says that under-30s tend to buy more energy drinks, whereas older customers like classic sodas. At the Viejas outlet mall in San Diego, Barry and Lory noticed that the mostly Latino customers tended to prefer spicy chips and snacks to plain flavours. That learning helped their 14 machines in restroom hallways reach revenues of $60,000 a year.

This universal rule of matching product to customer is especially acute with vending machines. At San Francisco-Oakland airport, for example, the Uniqlo vending machine makes around $10,000 a month from just its down vests, which sell for $50 and instantly allow buyers to fit in with Silicon Valley’s startup culture. 

AI vending machines 

Traditionally, vending machines have been simple analog devices: insert coins here, get a product. But that image is about to change as unattended retail is evolving and is now at a technology and sales tipping point, as machines become smart, networked devices for the ongoing quest for more convenience and a better consumer experience.

Indeed, although the key sales principles of vending machine success haven’t changed since 1989, the technology has. With 70% of machines now using some sort of digital technology, it’s become possible to follow inventory and track buying data in real time, whereas in the early days Barry had to fill a van with a huge range of stock, because he didn’t know what would need refilling. New apps like VendSoft are designed to track inventory and optimise routes, while more machines have in-built AI. 

The vending machine economy is growing in other ways, too, with more people realising that the machines can sell much more than fizzy drinks and snacks – from hairy crabs in Hangzhou, China, to books in Singapore. This isn’t news in Japan, where it’s possible to use a machine to buy everything from sake to rice, watches, cosplay costumes and salarymen-ready ties. The fact that there’s a vending machine for every 23 people in Japan is partly cultural – many people like to buy without the awkwardness of a human interaction. But, more crucially, their ubiquity is spurred by the fact that high real estate prices in dense Japanese cities mean stores often struggle to break even, whereas a vending machine has minimal overheads. They also work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

These simple truths are major drivers for companies like Gold To Go, founded by German Thomas Geissler, which started in Abu Dhabi and now has ATMS selling gold bars and coins across Europe, the US and Peru; or British company Rockflower, which makes AI-driven machines that sell bouquets of flowers at train stations, including Zurich and London’s Clapham Junction. 

It also explains why bricks and mortar brands are using vending machines to maximise efficiencies and save on costs. Luckin Coffee, which has overtaken Starbucks as China’s biggest coffee chain just three years after opening its first store, launched new barista-quality Luckin Coffee Express vending machines in January 2020. Sprinkles sells its hugely popular baked goods in ‘cupcake ATMs’ in 26 locations across the US. 

A new kind of influencer

Vending machines can also help to build brands in the same way that stores do. In Philadelphia, 24-year-old crochet influencer Emani Outterbridge, aka Emani Milan, wanted a faster way to sell her patterned skeins of yarn, but also realised that a vending machine could be a good way to interact with her customers, which have included Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. In June, she crowdfunded $10,000 to order three bright pink vending machines, the first of which she placed in her friend’s barbershop, Elements of Grooming in North Central – selling more than 100 skeins in the first week. 

But it’s more than just a pure sales product. Advertising herself as ‘The girl with the bright pink box’, she runs free crochet consultations every Friday with anyone who buys yarn. The buzz around her and her machines hasn’t just meant an uptick in business for her, but for the barbershop too. ‘All of my business has grown,’ says Emani, who is looking for new locations for her machines. One day, she says, she hopes to have machines on all sides of the city. ‘It’s given me a cool story, as well as a new way to sell my product.’ 

It’s given me a cool story, as well as a new way to sell my product.

Emani Milan

In Fort Worth, Texas, 19-year-old Jamie Ibanez has gone the other way. He has used a fledgling vending machine business to parlay into a new career as a YouTube influencer. While he already has 25 machines around Fort Worth, Texas, operated under his Vending Bites company, he is making more money (around $10,000 a month) from his YouTube channel, where 377,000 subscribers watch him fill his garage with Sam’s Club stock, or inspect the crisp cash piles in his machines. One video of him counting $453.50 from three machines over a two-week period has more than 2 million views.

‘Retail-first’ machines

Other companies are using vending machines in more sophisticated ways. London-based Social Vend builds and installs beautifully designed smart vending machines, which can be used to gather customer data as well as sell products. CEO Andrew Theodore founded the business in 2011 after working in experiential marketing, and wondering why he could only find machines that used the latest digital technology (Windows 97 was still standard). He was soon making bespoke machines for brands like Adidas, Barclaycard and Mulberry, which would be used at everything from brand launches to music festivals, offering prizes or samples in return for data and social media shares. 

But, over time, he says Social Vend has pivoted towards retail-first machines, with the data as an added bonus. ‘We’ve found that people are increasingly comfortable spending money in a fully automated system,’ says Andrew, whose five-strong team can build and install new machines in as little as two weeks. Recent projects include a machine for the skincare brand Haeckels, which became the centrepiece of a mirrored, people-free store in the English seaside town of Margate during lockdown; and a machine in the & Other Stories concession at Paris’s Galerie Lafayette department store, selling hand creams, perfumes and soaps – the first of what will be a major rollout in 2021. 

Vending machines can also solve real-world retail problems. Social Vend has built an AI-powered vending machine called Buddy, designed for US cannabis stores, where shoppers have complained about queues (shopkeepers often spend a long time explaining products to customers). Customers get an ID card for the machines, which tracks their purchases and can better recommend new products and promotions.

For Andrew, this is the future. ‘You’re helping customers avoid queues, but you’re also turning an offline experience into an online one, which means valuable customer data for brands,’ he says. ‘I can see a future where most of the big brands have a vending machine attached to the shop. You’ll be able to walk past a branch of H&M at midnight, and there will be a range of products to buy, which will change according to the machine’s own data.’ 

I can see a future where most of the big brands have a vending machine attached to the shop. You’ll be able to walk past a branch of H&M at midnight, and there will be a range of products to buy, which will change according to the machine’s own data.

Andrew Theodore, Social Vend CEO

This race to digitised efficiency applies on the micro-level, too. Donald Luxama wants to add card readers to his cash-only machines in Totowa. Once he has recouped his $3,000 investment, he will expand to different locations and look at new things he can sell, from his hand sanitisers to ice cream. ‘The potential is limitless,’ he says.

The Taghazout Call to Surf

The Berber fishing village of Taghazhout has been transformed by surfing. But, despite a splashy new development on the edge of town, it has held onto its soul

First published in Conde Nast Traveller, October 2019. Photography by Oliver Pilcher, with his beautiful video of Taghazout here

In little Taghazout, on Morocco’s clay-baked west coast, there’s an immutable rhythm to life. Every sunrise, the Call to Prayer rings out across the ragged cluster of fishermen’s houses, which rise from the beach like bad teeth. The low, long, quivering syllables of the mu’addhin wake the stray dogs, who bark in stereo through tight alleyways, where frayed pastel walls are daubed with psychedelic surf murals. The beach camels wake and rise in their oddly robotic way. The fishermen push off in identical blue wooden boats, followed on flat days by young men with rubber rings and flippers, floating into the limpid ocean in sodden tracksuits, spearguns in hand.

Most afternoons, after selling redfish and humpbacked dorado under Coca-Cola parasols, the fishermen play cards beneath the beachfront walkway. In the gloaming, the town’s kids often appear for a game of football on the sand, racing towards tiny goalposts, all shouts and stretched shadows. Goats clamber into the little argan trees in the scrub around town, eating the bitter fruit but unable to digest the nuts. Berber smallholders collect their precious piles of excrement to grind them into oil. Shiny hair, the backbreaking way.

The Call to Prayer also wakes the surfers and yogis, who have become the town’s unexpected lifeblood. Mats are unrolled, the prostrations at the mosque echoed by lissom yoga teachers on roof terraces, lingering on the Cobra Pose, essentially the surf take-off position. ‘Allahu Akbar’. ‘Let it be’. After dawn prayers, the smiling, long-bearded Fahd El Mania will look at the swell forecast and decide if he’s going to shape and fix surfboards that day – always working alone, entranced by the wave-like incantations of The Koran. Or, if he’s going to put a handwritten sign in front of his scrappy workshop and head for Killers, to surf under striated ochre cliffs, above seabed rocks that creak audibly under the ocean-heave. Locals will simply leave broken boards on the rocks for Fahd to pick up when he’s done.

After dawn prayers, the smiling, long-bearded Fahd El Mania will look at the swell forecast and decide if he’s going to shape and fix surfboards that day – always working alone, entranced by the wave-like incantations of The Koran.

The 32 bus, renamed the Surf Bus, arrives from Agadir and disgorges young Moroccan dudes with boards, Sideshow Bob hair and dreams their parents never had. Vans and battered Renaults load up for the drive towards Killers, Donkeys, Draculas or Boilers; Banana Point, Camel Point or Anchor Point. If the swells are pumping along the turmeric coast, business will be good in Taghazout: in the hole-in-wall surf shops selling second hand boards, dusty sex wax and fake Ray-Bans; in oceanfront restaurants that serve speargunned calamari to harem-panted girls on floor cushions, who yawn and nod chill-ly to boombox beats, happy to drink mint tea in a region where alcohol licenses require bureaucratic gymnastics. The fishermen fear the barreling swells the surfers dream of. It is a town dictated by the Moon.

I first came six years ago, and fell for Taghazout’s gentle rhythms; the raw otherness of the dusty landscape, a four-hour flight from London, but feeling so much further away. One orange morning, I surfed at Anchor Point, the most iconic wave in Morocco, by the rocky spit just north of town, graced by two sagging palm trees. A group of Australian surfers strayed here from the Marrakech Express hippie trail some time in the 60s, and found that they could ride the peeling right-hander for more than a kilometre, almost into town. For me, there was one wave, which started innocuously enough that I managed to scramble to my feet on my foam longboard. Then, somehow, it became a little shifting wall of glassy, orange-inflected blue, rising up in front of me, gently ushering me forward, easing and then building again with magic energy. It was barely 15 seconds, but I can still see and almost feel it.

During long, soft-focus afternoons on the blue-tiled terrace at the Panorama restaurant, manager Charif would greet me with a vertical handshake, wearing a ‘Work sucks, go surfing t-shirt’. The mint tea always took a while; one day, as a big swell rolled in, the calamari simply didn’t arrive. Walking the same alleyway on the way back to my spartan room in an old fishermen’s apartment, I’d be led by the same stray dog, and offered kif hashish by the same man in a mosaic doorway.

Coming back this year, the Panorama restaurant is now just dust and tiles. From its abandoned terrace, I look out over Taghazout Bay, a long sandy beach to the south of town which has been given over to foreign-brand hotels and whitewashed apartments. Poking through the palm trees and construction dust, they appear like a faintly absurd mirage from sea-worn Taghazout, where there’s still no ATM. The development has meant a slick new tarmac road through town, though that hasn’t prevented the gormless wanderings of the goats. There are a few more whitewashed, Maroc-styled cafes serving flat whites, and an elegantly curving Cali-retro skate park overlooking town. The best tagine still comes from the hole-in-wall restaurant beside the mosque.

On a spring Friday morning of underwhelming swell, I’m picked up by Yassine Bellqber, widely considered the best surfer in the area, for a cruise up the dry reddish coast – passing the lonely Cap Rhir lighthouse, and perhaps the greatest concentration of right-handed point breaks in the world. At 26, Yassine has a shoulder-length frizz, a model’s pout and a gently laconic air. Faintly rueful at the lack of swell, he starts to tell me his story, which in some ways is the recent story of Taghazout.

Yassine grew up in a self-built house facing Mysteries, a barreling reef break just north of Anchor Point, where surfers – ‘hippies’, as the locals still knew them – would come and park their camper vans. With his Arabic father fishing and working in a now-defunct fish factory, Yassine’s job was to sell his Berber mother’s donuts to the surfers, who knew him as Donut Boy. He learned to swear in at least six languages, and would tell the hippies that his mother’s wares – some banana-filled, others sprinkled with cinnamon – would bring them not just energy, but waves from the lunar gods. ‘If you got a laugh, you might get a sale,’ he recalls.

Yassine’s job was to sell his Berber mother’s donuts to the surfers, who knew him as Donut Boy.

With the lack of shops in Taghazout creating a seller’s market, Yassine also learned the art of the deal. When he was twelve, one Australian broke his surfboard fins during one of those days when Mysteries sucks and slams. Yassine offered him six donuts for the broken board. As the goods were traded, he asked in his kindest voice if he could have the plate back when the man was finished eating.

Yassine learned to surf instinctively, just like he learned donut salesmanship – his first lesson being that you really do need fins. But he was a natural. And, one day, he sold some cinnamon donuts to Ben O’Hara and Ollie Boswell, two friends from Swansea university, who’d first come here to surf in the late 90s, and had become regulars at Mysteries. In 2003, they opened Surf Maroc, Taghazout’s first surf camp, cleaning up a series of decrepit fishermen’s apartments and adding hammocks, Fez pouffes and shisha pipes. As Surf Maroc grew, it spawned imitators, and today there are almost 30 surf camps in town, trading in Omega-rich communal dinners, rooftop yoga and surf lessons from locals. 

Surf Maroc’s fourth property, Amouage, is one of a few recent openings that have smartened the place up. Once a tired guesthouse on the edge of town, it’s now an airy, whitewashed place with a Soho Beach Club vibe. Along with the elegantly eccentric Munga Guesthouse down the road – a fantastical feat of wild carpentry, with a fairylit terrace restaurant and driftwood rooftop bar – it has helped draw a crowd of surfers who grew up. 

As the business grew in the noughties, Ben and Ollie noticed that the chippy kid who had sold them donuts was tearing up the local breaks. They began buying Yassine boards, paying for him to go to surf competitions and giving him a fair wage to teach Surf Maroc’s increasingly upmarket guests. One of them was the granddaughter of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, over from London to surf. She’s now his girlfriend, and they’ve just come back from a ski trip to the Alps. ‘People round here think it’s pretty funny,’ admits Yassine. ‘This kid from Mysteries, learning to ski.’ 

He’s telling me this as we enter the water off the long pebble beach at Tamri, an hour up the road from Taghazout, bookended by cliffs like collapsed sandcastles; a Rothko duotone of blue and orange. It’s exhaustingly choppy, my shoulders aching as I lie splattered on my board. There is no repeat of that magic wave at Anchor Point. Yassine, meanwhile, paddles mostly with one hand, and surfs the chop with the faintly disinterested grace of a Venetian gondolier. When I ask how, he shrugs that he can feel the water. 

Yassine paddles mostly with one hand, and surfs the chop with the faintly disinterested grace of a Venetian gondolier.

Afterwards, salty-haired and ravenous, we eat nutty, argan-fed goat tagine with our hands out the back of a restaurant in the devout little town of Tamri, known for its small, sweet bananas. Sitting at a pink table, as chansons d’amour bleed from a battered radio, my arms are splattered with sticky turmeric-yellow. As we leave the dusty, slow-motion place, Yassine buys a bunch of bananas, which we eat in silence as we pass more little settlements of blocky buildings, like shards of lost citadels, deserted in the name of Allah. With a warm wind rushing through the van, we toss the little peels out the windows, careful not to hit donkeys and dreadlocked hitchhikers.

The little fishing village of Imsouane, an hour north of Taghazout, is said to be the next big thing, with Surf Maroc planning to open a camp here to access the consistent breaks just off the little town, including Cathedral Point and The Bay, where Yassine swears that even hacks like me can plop in at the harbour and surf 800-metre waves. There’s a pastel-pink lighthouse by the harbour, and a plastic-table restaurant where the fishermen plonk their catch by the grill. The rest is rawer, more stoner-slow than Taghazout – fishing nets, graffiti-scrawled abobe, strains of Moroccan reggae.

On the way back, we stop by the roadside to meet one of the groups of women who pick mussels on the rocks with medieval-looking picks, lugging them to the roadside on donkeys and cooking them under burning clumps of shrub, ready to sell to passing drivers. There are around ten women in this group, all from a village near Tamri; wearing headscarves, sea-beaten abaya cloaks and plastic sandals, faces lined with life. One hands me a wizened mussel in charcoaled hands. It’s chewy, smoky, tasting more of land than sea. Yassine translates their Berber: one is called Fatma and another called Fatna, which is amusing even to them. ‘We’ll be rich soon!’ Fatma cackles with cheery irony. We laugh, and chew.

That evening, I’m by the Yves Klein-blue infinity pool at the Amouage, the XX bleeding through the speakers, a bassline to low conversations over mojitos, in French, German, New Jersey. Looking out towards Anchor Point, I see a lonely rubber ring floating back to shore in the half-light. I wonder if he has a squid or an octopus in there, or if nature has eluded him for another day. That night, I’ll will myself to sleep with thoughts of that wave, but will dream of stranger things. At sunrise, the Call to Prayer will ring out. And it will all begin again.

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Finding new worlds in video games

People have long been finding escapism and outlets for creativity in video games – but lockdown has accelerated the trend

First published on Globetrender. Photography by Gareth Damian Martin

My street photography workshop with Prague-based photographer Ondřej Vachek isn’t perhaps typical. We meet in 1899, on a foggy, golden-lit morning in the Deep South city of Saint Denis, with its Creole townhouses, clanking trams, circus sideshows and gilded saloons. At one point, I attempt to crouch to get the right angle on a Southern belle with a fan and a velvetine bonnet, but accidentally strangle her. Vachek – who usually shoots in black and white, like his heroes Don McCullin and Sebastião Salgado – advises me to get closer to photograph the poor lady’s slumped corpse. As he does so, he coolly takes out his Cattleman revolver and shoots the witness to my crime. 

We are in the online mode of Red Dead Redemption 2, the Wild West video game released in 2018 by Rockstar Games, the acclaimed and sometimes controversial team behind the Grand Theft Auto series. Like the Los Santos of Grand Theft Auto V, the game’s enduring star is its living, breathing open world – a visually lush distillation of 19th-century America, from the Rockies-inspired Grizzlies West down to the Bayou Nwa region, with its swamplands and plantation homes straight out of Louisiana (Saint Denis, the capital, is pure New Orleans). This world has had a lifespan far beyond the single-player story itself, a 60-hour epic focused on Arthur Morgan, the ageing antiheroic enforcer of an existentially-threatened gang of outlaws. 

The game’s online mode is like a playable version of the TV show Westworld, where AI-driven NPCs (or non-player characters) mingle with players’ avatars, often including so-called ‘griefers’, who wreak destruction (During my photography workshop, one player insists on repeatedly lassoing and stabbing me). 

Griefers aside, RDR2 harbours supportive communities of botanists, naturalists and conspiracy theorists, who camp together in tribes and share tips on how to find UFOs or bait enormous grizzly bears. Facebook group The Official Kickass Ladies of Red Dead Redemption 2 organise peaceful trail rides in the game. One user, MC_Ulfric, has taken to analysing its storms, gathering data on where and how the strike.     

And, after Covid-19 lockdowns hit, it has become a sanctuary for real-world street photographers like Vachek, who gather to ‘shoot street’ using the game’s photography mode, which allows them exposure and depth of field. He often meets up with Sean Tucker, a London-based photographer with 370,000 followers for his YouTube photography tutorials, and the widely-respected Craig Whitehead, aka Six Street Under, who sometimes inserts sly RDR2 street shots for his 229,000 Instagram followers. They hunt, fish, talk and shoot, often in Saint Denis, and occasionally using gas lamps to light moody street shots. With another photographer, Jeffery Saddoris, they have formed the Red Dead Poets Society, broadcasting some of these excursions live on streaming service Twitch.  

‘It’s obviously not the same as shooting in real life,’ Vachek tells me. We’re speaking via mic and earphones attached to our controllers, as our outlaw avatars stand by the neon sign on the rooftop of Saint Denis’s Hotel Grand. ‘But it is still a nice practice, where you can play with angles, lighting and framing in a safe space. The light in the game is gorgeous, the people are more true to real life than in almost any other game, and if I’m beaten up for getting too close, it doesn’t matter so much.’

The light in the game is gorgeous, the people are more true to real life than in almost any other game, and if I’m beaten up for getting too close, it doesn’t matter so much.

All of this is new to me, which is obvious from my clumsy avatar, The Skinner, who is prone to accidentally strangling strangers and stealing horses. I haven’t properly played video games since I was a student, playing GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 when we really should have been protesting against the Iraq war. But, as a locked-down travel journalist, I recently bought a PlayStation 4, not expecting to get quite so hooked on games like the blockbuster-like Uncharted 4 and Shadow of the Colossus, finding myself dreaming of slaying the latter’s strangely beautiful leviathans. Impressed by the storytelling as much as the graphics and the immersion in different worlds, I’ve started to wonder if – as with Vachek’s street photography – video games have become a displacement activity for my abandoned travel plans.

Certainly, the concept of virtual tourism has gained traction in recent years, accelerated by Covid-19 and encompassing everything from virtual reality hikes up Everest to a plan to ‘visit’ the Faroe Islands by remote-controlling a resident with a helmet-mounted GoPro. In February, Rough Guides released a print and online Rough Guide to the XBox, detailing the most beautiful locations in XBox games, from the genteel British countryside in supercar racing game Forza Horizon 4 to the post-apocalyptic Russia of first-person shooter Metro Exodus

Meanwhile, almost every new game features a photo mode for envy-inducing holiday snaps (and free marketing for game developers). In infinite galaxy game No Man’s Sky, for example, gamers can move the sun to get better images. In upcoming samurai epic Ghosts of Tsushima, released in July, in-game photographers will be able to pick the direction and speed of the wind, and change the particles that float around the leaves.   

The two most recent versions of the swashbuckling Assassins Creed open-world games – 2017’s Origins, set in Cleopatra-era Egypt, and 2018’s Odyssey, set in Greece in the years 431-422 BC – have echoed travel more directly than most, adding violence-free Discovery Tour modes. They’re modelled after real tours, with audio guides and tidbits from historical characters like the Greek historian Herodotus, except that you have to swim to a boat to tour the Nile in Origins, and can choose treat the ancient city of Mycenae in Odyssey like your own parkour playground. ‘We used the same world as the game, but cleared away the blood, the bodies and anything that might kill you,’ says Maxime Durand, who has worked as an in-house historian at Ubisoft since 2010. 

Durand says the Discovery Tours aren’t meant as a replacement for travel, but more as a fun educational tool that complements the game, and maybe a real trip. While the game’s worlds are painstakingly accurate – 20 historians were used on Assassins Creed: Odyssey – the designers did tweak them for playability. For example, requiring another playable area in the Great Pyramid of Khufu, Durand’s team of Egyptologists helped designers add a hidden chamber, based on a controversial theory by the French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin. Months after the game was released, cosmic ray imaging found that the chamber was really there.  

While Assassins Creed is perhaps the most obviously touristy game, other developers are increasingly recognising that players want to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Many games feel like hikes, or internal journeys, like Firewatch, about a lonely fire lookout in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Park, escaping his marriage and former life; or Eastshade, in which a painter travels around a beautiful island, meeting owl obsessives and narky ship captains. The big lockdown gaming hit has been Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a cutesy Nintendo Switch game in which players develop a deserted island, trading turnips on the stalk market and inviting friends to their islands. Players have hosted talk shows, recreated music festivals and placed protests against the Chinese government in the game (Hong demonstration leader Joshua Wong is a fan).

‘Games have always been about exploration and escapism,’ says Dr Pete Etchells, a psychologist and Bath Spa University academic who wrote Lost In a Good Game, a mixture of psychology, memoir and travelogue relating to games. ‘But the worlds of games have become richer, and it’s more expected than ever that people will use video game worlds in their own ways, which can be very creative or personal.’

The worlds of games have become richer, and it’s more expected than ever that people will use video game worlds in their own ways, which can be very creative or personal.

The most powerful passages of Etchells’ book – which also disputes the supposed psychological links between video games and real-life violence – are where games intersect with his personal life. He writes movingly about the frigid, desolate Storm Peaks in the World of Warcraft game, where – every year, on the anniversary of his father’s death when he was 14 – he sits and waits patiently for The Time-Lost Proto Drake, an infamously elusive dragon, which Etchells has only seen once, panicking and losing sight of it. There’s also a certain sea view in Valhalla, a map in Halo 3, where he often sits and reflects on the premature death of a friend he once played the game with. ‘Games can be intensely personal, and vehicles for working out our own lives,’ he says.  

And there is an almost infinite number of ways to explore these virtual worlds. ‘I rarely play games like you’re supposed to,’ says Gareth Damian Martin, a video game flâneur and the creator of Heterotopias, a beautiful and unapologetically high-minded online zine that links games to architecture and other cultural forms (one story covered Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s influence on the brutalist architecture of a paranormal government agency in the game Control). ‘I’m often just wandering, taking photos and passively observing.’ 

Martin has also designed his own game, In Other Waters, about a stranded biologist in a mysterious alien ocean; and shot a curiously haunting series of photographs, The Continuous City, for which he projected images from games onto a white wall and photographed them using 35mm black-and-white film. The series was exhibited at last year’s Lisbon Triennale. He has also played World War I game Battlefield I as a passive war photographer, and hosted workshops in Grand Theft Auto V covering both photography and the game’s urban architecture.   

But is all of this like travel? ‘There is immersion, but I think the comparison with travel can be misleading,’ he says. ‘Going to a tropical island in a game isn’t like doing it in real life. To me, gaming is more like an escape to a different imaginative space. It’s maybe more like reading a novel than going on an actual trip.’

This makes sense to me. Perhaps the real story of my PS4 is that I haven’t replaced my travel plans with reading War and Peace or improving my Mandarin. I’m increasingly less conflicted about this. Games throw up worlds that are worth exploring, photographing, thinking about and even dreaming about. But the first chance I can, I’ll be travelling for real.   

Final call for the inflight magazine?

It has survived the challenge of onboard movies, iPads and WiFi, but Covid-19 presents a bigger threat

First published in the Financial Times, July 2020. 

This weekend, some of us will once again find ourselves in a tube in the sky, flying along a “travel corridor” and perhaps reassessing this thing that we took for granted just six months ago. Much will have changed — there might be crew in PPE, empty middle seats, pre-packed meals and new procedures for boarding and disembarking — but what there almost certainly won’t be is anything to read.

Whatever you think of in-flight magazines — and there are still those who adhere to the columnist Miles Kington’s opinion that the sick bag made for more entertaining reading — this is an unusual state of affairs. In-flight magazines have been dogged and dog-eared survivors ever since a bright spark at Pan Am decided to launch the first one in 1952.

Of the 150 or so in-flight magazines before lockdown, most claimed pick-up rates of more than 80 per cent, thanks to a captive audience. Such engagement explains why, against a broad decline in print advertising, in-flights have survived the arrival of onboard movies, iPads and in-flight WiFi — just three of the things that many predicted would kill them off. And while the quality of these magazines has fluctuated over the years, some are among the best travel and lifestyle magazines around, from the slick Air Canada enRoute to British Airways’ consistently well-written High Life and the sharp, millennial-friendly easyJet Traveller.

Against a broad decline in print advertising, in-flights have survived the arrival of onboard movies, iPads and in-flight WiFi — just three of the things that many predicted would kill them off.

But Covid-19 feels like an altogether different level of threat, as contamination fears have led to all but a tiny minority of airlines removing magazines from planes, with many of the agencies that publish them — including the British-born industry leaders Ink, Cedar and Spafax — forced to cut editorial staff.

Cedar, the publishers of High Life and Business Life for British Airways, as well as magazines for Iberia, Aer Lingus and Cathay Pacific, is unable to confirm whether any of its titles will appear on planes this year. High Life will print some copies in September for use in lounges, and content will be emailed to frequent flyers, but a restructure has meant respected staff losing jobs, including editor Andy Morris.

Other airlines have made rapid changes to their distribution models. Air Canada enRoute, published by the Spafax-owned Bookmark content agency, will print four post-lockdown issues this year but none will be distributed on planes. After printing about 105,000 copies pre-Covid, there were 90,000 copies of the July issue, with 65,000 going to subscribers of The Globe and Mail newspaper, and 25,000 being delivered to the homes of Air Canada’s Super Elite frequent flyers. Similarly, Qantas magazine, produced by Sydney content agency Medium Rare, has been sending monthly copies to 40,000 of the airline’s frequent flyers.

There are also big changes at Ink, the world’s biggest in-flight magazine publisher, where I worked between 2012 and 2017, first as the editor of Norwegian Air Shuttle’s N by Norwegian and then as an editorial director. Of Ink’s 18 airline partners in early March, only American Airlines’ American Way has remained onboard through lockdown, while Etihad and Brussels Airlines have stopped producing magazines altogether, and most of the rest remain suspended. Ink is already looking at different approaches, talking to Virgin Atlantic about the possibility of a single-use newspaper to replace its excellent Vera magazine.

But, despite restructures that have meant roughly halving the number of editorial staff in Ink’s London, New York and Singapore offices, joint chief executive Michael Keating remains bullish on the future of print on planes. “It’s absolutely not the end of in-flight magazines,” insists Keating, who says that staff will be rehired as demand returns. “We’re looking at interim ways to serve clients across all formats, and developing existing channels like our new websites for easyJet and American Airlines, but all our existing clients still want a print product, and so do we.”

One of Keating’s big arguments is that the cardboard and paper of magazines are less contagious than other surfaces. According to Ink’s own “Clean and Green” report, passengers are almost twice as likely to catch Covid-19 from other surfaces on an aeroplane, from armrests and toilet doors, in-flight entertainment screens and card machines. More widely, there has been no evidence of anyone catching Covid-19 through a printed product, and the World Health Organization has said that newspapers are safe to handle.

But a spokesperson for Etihad, which has suspended its magazine indefinitely, says there are other factors at play behind removing in-flight magazines from seat pockets — including allowing for more efficient deep cleans of aircraft and reducing fuel burn. When United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine shed just an ounce by reducing the weight of its paper in 2017, it was reported that the airline saved 170,000 gallons of fuel a year, or roughly $290,000 in costs.

And, for most airlines, the decision on whether to keep magazines will ultimately be a commercial one. Given that most in-flight magazines pitch to advertisers on the number of passenger eyeballs (pre-Covid, American Airlines’ American Way claimed an annual readership of more than 200m), it seems clear that revenues will be hit when some airlines are struggling for survival, and most have accepted it will take years for passenger numbers to return to “normal” levels. Those advertising figures are particularly important to agencies such as Ink, whose financial model relies far more on advertising than traditional branded content, where a client pays a flat fee to an agency.

In-flight magazines are a singular format, with a singular history. In the 1920s and ’30s, Imperial Airways used to hand out the latest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald novels. In 1952 came the first edition of Pan Am’s ritzy Clipper Travel, showing a mildly awkward stewardess with a bag of fluffy toys. The oldest in-flights still in the air are KLM’s Holland Herald and AA’s American Way, both launched in 1966.

While the early in-flight magazines were initially produced by airline marketing departments, the financial model started to change in the 1970s, when airlines began to partner with outside publishers. These included Bill Davis, the colourful editor of the satirical weekly Punch, who offered to launch a clubby, aspirational magazine for British Airways, sharing advertising revenue with the airline. Despite fears that it was a crass concept during a recession, High Life launched in April 1973 with a washy cover illustration of a champagne party on a hot-air balloon and cosy features on Jilly Cooper, Michael Parkinson and the Tory peer Lord Mancroft.

Despite fears that it was a crass concept during a recession, High Life launched in April 1973 with a washy cover illustration of a champagne party on a hot-air balloon and cosy features on Jilly Cooper, Michael Parkinson and the Tory peer Lord Mancroft.

The same year, Gareth Powell launched Discovery magazine for Cathay Pacific. Powell — a flamboyant Welsh-born publisher who made his name in 1960s Sydney with a series of Playboy-esque magazines — had initially pitched Cathay a magazine in a cardboard box, including printed games and a fold-up model aircraft, only for crew to object to the idea of planes whizzing around the cabins. The box was discarded, but Discovery magazine still launched with a curious horizontal alignment (the spine on the shorter side) that had been designed to fit inside it. At the time Powell blagged that research had shown this to be the optimal shape, only to later admit this was “nonsense”.

It was Ink that arguably revolutionised the financial relationship between airlines and agencies. The company started in 1993, when Keating — then a 23-year-old researcher at London Tonight news show — found himself in a Beirut bar, chatting to one of the investors in British Mediterranean Airways, a new airline that was about to launch a single route between London and Beirut and needed an in-flight entertainment system.

Keating went out and bought 300 headsets from a cash-and-carry and delivered BMA a bespoke system, including a talk show featuring his mother Gloria Hunniford and almost-fresh Sky News broadcasts delivered via satellite dishes on top of Heathrow. On the back of this, he sold the airline on the idea of a magazine, and partnered with Simon Leslie, then a publisher of free glossy magazines in west London.

But it was a few years later that they hit on the formula for success, joining forces with another plucky challenger brand called easyJet. Whereas the likes of Davis and Powell shared costs and revenue with the airlines in a partnership, Leslie and Keating offered to take on all the costs and liabilities of the magazine, and still share profits with the airline, sometimes with a revenue guarantee.

For the airline, the offer was essentially a free marketing tool and some extra profit; for Ink, it meant a ready-made distribution model on which to capitalise with lean editorial teams and an all-action sales floor, which sometimes looks more like a stock exchange than the genteel sales wing of many publishing houses.

Despite the absence of ABC figures linking editorial quality to financial success, many of these in-flight magazines have become brilliant products. John Updike, Isaac Asimov, Gloria Steinem and the pop artist Peter Max are just some of the names to have graced American Way, for example, while High Life has published the likes of AA Gill, Will Self, Antony Beevor and Zoe Williams. And many in-flights have been more creative than anything on newsstands — think of Virgin Atlantic’s almost postmodern Carlos magazine in 2003, wholly illustrated on brown paper, or the arthouse redesign of Vueling’s Ling magazine, which resulted in one inexplicable 2009 cover of Chairman Mao with glasses and a cigarette scrawled on.

For me, at least, this creative possibility remains what in-flight magazines are about. And, whereas digital products tend to get lost in an ocean of content, print still makes perfect sense in the unique bubble of the aircraft cabin. I hope that onboard magazines are not a quiet casualty of Covid-19, and that they come back stronger than ever. Otherwise, I might just end up turning to the sick bag.

 

 

The new Land Rover lovers

As a new version of the Land Rover Defender is released, a new generation are also rediscovering the boxy older version – an iconic workhorse that changed the face of adventure travel

First published in Conde Nast Traveller, April 2020. Photography by Ricardo Pessoa.

Owners of Land Rover Defenders aren’t like normal car owners. No, the attachment to this boxy, rattling, virtually indestructible machine runs much deeper. Adventurer Bear Grylls describes his Land Rover as a ‘silent, reliable, comforting friend, which seems to smile as the mud hits’. Geordie Mackay-Lewis, the founder of the Pelorus adventure company, says that the Army taught him to look after the vehicles ‘like beloved pets’. Ricardo Pessoa, who does high-end revamps of old Defenders in a Lisbon garage, talks of ‘an emotional attachment to this thing you want to fix, to love.’ People don’t tend to talk this way about their Nissan Micra.  

The Land Rover Defender – known as the Series I, II or III until 1990 – had the same basic outline from the moment it launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948, until it went out of production in 2016, the longest continuous run of any mass-market vehicle. The hundredth machine off the Solihull production line was given to King George VI, and the Queen took delivery of her first Land Rover Series I shortly before her coronation in 1952, becoming an early adopter in a long list of often fanatical owners, including most of the royal family. By the late 50s, Churchill and Fidel Castro were both discovering the Land Rover rattle; Marilyn Monroe posed in her white version, and Steve McQueen was photographed by Life magazine loading his up for a camping trip into California’s Sierra Madre mountains.  

Despite the Series I being designed primarily as an agricultural workhorse, its rugged elegance gained a certain cachet. Ralph Lauren, obsessed by the rugged glamour of safaris and Steve McQueen, made his black Defender a prop in a series of ad campaigns, a trick followed by Hackett, Michael Kors and Louis Vuitton. Ben Fogle has written a book about a vehicle that he is ‘hopelessly, obsessively in love with’, while car obsessive Jodie Kidd has described the Defender as her favourite car. Grylls, whose family car is a 1974 Series III, calls the vehicle ‘the unsung hero of many of my expeditions, this machine that somehow reminds me that everything is going to be okay.’ 

The Land Rover is the unsung hero of many of my expeditions, this machine that somehow reminds me that everything is going to be okay.

The early Land Rovers also changed the face of travel, opening up serious exploration to normal travellers. For an estimated half of the planet’s population, a Land Rover is said to be the first vehicle they ever saw. In the post-War years, it could go where maps and roads didn’t, reaching tribes and species that had never been recorded, becoming the de facto mode of transport for UN Medics, safari guides and Malaysian tea plantation owners. It facilitated the concept of overlanding, widely popularised when six Oxbridge students drove to Singapore in a Land Rover called Oxford in 1955 – a trip that’s now being done in reverse, in the same vehicle and with an eight-strong team including 87-year-old original adventurer Tim Slessor. The battered blue Oxford, restored to its original glory, is typical of the machine’s resilience: of the two million or so vehicles ever made, more than 70 per cent are still on the road, and many owners swear they get better with age. 

A new version has been released this spring, with health and safety having finally caught up with the old Defender, especially in Airbag-mandatory America. But, as excitement has built over the new design, with its onboard computers and brand new silhouette, prices for the iconic old analogue machine have soared. And a new generation have been rediscovering and repurposing the ultimate adventure vehicle, drawn to its heritage and visual appeal as much as its performance.  

Take Ricardo Pessoa, who learned to drive a Defender at seven on family winters in South Africa and Mozambique, and whose Cool N Vintage company now does 12 bespoke restorations a year from a Lisbon garage, often in non-standard colours like mint green or Porsche orange. ‘To me, the Defender is the shape of freedom,’ says Pessoa, who charges between €75-150,000 for the thousand man hours behind his beautiful custom creations. ‘Like a lot of people these days, I first and foremost see a beautiful piece of industrial design; a thing that has everything it needs but nothing more.’

I first and foremost see a beautiful piece of industrial design; a thing that has everything it needs but nothing more.

His customers, though, don’t tend to be the conventional Defender hardcore. ‘When I started doing cars in different colours, and with tweaked designs in 2012, the community wanted me to go to Hell,’ he says. ‘But even the old-school owners love what we do now. Our clients tend to be architects, designers, fashion people, who love the Defender’s simplicity, and want something to take surfing up the coast, or to the family summer house in Comporta. It is a car that can go anywhere, but I love driving it in the summer, without a roof, alive and free.’

In Iceland, photographer Gunnar Freyr doesn’t just drive his white Defender to access wild corners of the volcanic landscape. ‘I’ve taken it up active volcanoes and through deep rivers,’ he says. ‘But it’s also become my muse: it adds scale to the landscape, and the white either pops from the black lava or fades into the snow. No other car that screams adventure like this.’

As Amy Shore, an award-winning 28-year-old automotive photographer and recent Defender owner, says: ‘If you asked a child to draw the outline of a car, it might look like a Defender. But it’s also a very graphic, pleasing outline, which is partly why it’s one of those universally beloved cars, like a classic Mini. To me, the best way of describing it would be as honest. It doesn’t mind a few dents and scratches, and just does what it does. My fiance and I put a canvas roof and bench seats in the back of ours, and we’re planning to drive guests up and down muddy farm tracks on our wedding day.’      

The real love comes less from what the Defender looks like than what it can do. Geordie Mackay-Lewis first drove one on the family farm in Herefordshire, aged eight, but says he truly fell in love when he joined the army. ‘We’d go to Lohatla in South Africa, and drive it over huge rocks and termite mounds all while being shot at by live rounds,’ he says. ‘Pretty much everything else you throw at the Defender, you can repair it and keep going. It took IEDs in the Middle East to destroy it.’

Pretty much everything else you throw at the Defender, you can repair it and keep going. It took IEDs in the Middle East to destroy it.

When Mackay-Lewis organises epic adventures through his Pelorus outfit, he tends to seek out Land Rovers. ‘It just feels more proper somehow,’ he says. ‘There was one trip in Patagonia where the client wanted to tour in Defenders. Because of the difficulty of finding them in South America, they were prepared to pay almost double for the privilege.’

In Africa, the Toyota Land Cruiser may have replaced the Defender as the standard-issue safari vehicle, but Scottish fine art photographer David Yarrow says that the Defender is still the way he accesses the continent’s wilderness for his intense black-and-white wildlife shots: like his epic image of a hulking Kenyan elephant, which sold at auction for $106,250, or his shot of a fierce Cara Delevingne with a snarling lion looking over her shoulder. ‘It just makes sense in places like Kenya and Tanzania,’ he says. ‘Not just the performance, but what it evokes: British colonialism, certainly, but also adventure and romance.’    

Even younger safari guides miss the ubiquity of the Defender – like Mike Kirby, 27, a cheery, broad-shouldered safari guide at Singita’s Lebombo concession on the edge of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. ‘When it comes to rocky terrain, riverbeds and steep climbs, the Defender is still the best,’ he says. ‘The Land Cruiser is so reliable, but it feels like you’re getting into a normal car. The Defender really feels like driving – changing gears is like the bolt of a rifle, this mechanical feel, and the engine is pleasingly easy to work on.’

But what Kirby comes back to, above all, is that soul. ‘Driving a Defender just takes you into a different space,’ he says. ‘It feels like it could be 50 years ago, in a real machine in the real heart of Africa. It’s a vehicle that transports you, in every way possible.’

Shetland: a love letter

Why I adore the peaty bogs, brutal seas and egalitarianism of the Shetland islands

First published in Conde Nast Traveller, April 2020. Photography with this piece by River Thompson 

The lonely Muckle Flugga stack – buffeted by sea-crash, topped by a little lighthouse – is simply there. This is the northernmost point in the British Isles, visible up close only on a little boat or via a two-hour hike across the Hermaness headland – where bleak peat bogs and circling bonxies give way to hulking Middle Earth cliffs; glaikit sheep teetering on precipices, terns springing like boomerangs over waters churning with a steady basso profundo. 

There’s an epic beauty to it all – but try the words ‘Muckle Flugga’ on most Brits, and watch the blank expression. There are no postcards of the lighthouse, no cheery guides in branded fleeces. Just a little laminated sign on a wooden post at the edge of the headland, informing you that beyond the stack there’s nothing but grey sea until the North Pole.

This understatement is typical of Shetland, the North Sea archipelago that includes 16 inhabited islands, which largely sits unadorned, unfertilised, unsold, untouristed. It is a lonely walk across a few muddy fields to the Bergmanesque stacks at Silwick, where vertical cliffs are pocked with nests like an avian Hong Kong. Yell’s white-sand Breckon, probably my favourite beach on the planet, usually sits as empty as a Hollywood dream sequence. Shetland’s appeal is less about seeing anything in particular than simply being and feeling: waiting for ferries and otters, watching the shifting light and bobbing seals; surrounded by a capricious and unknowable sea, curiously at peace.

Shetland’s appeal is less about seeing anything in particular than simply being and feeling: waiting for ferries and otters, watching the shifting light and bobbing seals; surrounded by a capricious and unknowable sea, curiously at peace.

I’ve been coming since I was young. My stepmother has family connections with Cullivoe, a fishing and crofting village on the North Isle of Yell, known for its four-day weddings and terrifyingly liquid Hogmanay, which culminates in a New Year’s Day tug o’ war between the Uppies and the Doonies from either end of the village. Her father, a charismatic man who played flanker for Scotland and painted wild seas, grew up in Hawick but would visit as often as he could with his Cullivoe-born mother, amusing the locals and free-roaming sheep by running up and down the peaty hills. His Shetland blood could be discerned in both his gentle egalitarianism and his bone-crushing handshake. 

We used to come and stay at New House, the but and ben croft house which had been in the family since the 1850s, and which Papa Adam renovated in the 1990s. We’d drive around in Dad’s Saab convertible, listening to Sade, Meat Loaf and Annie Lennox, shouting ‘Basta!’ at the top of our lungs every time we passed the sign for the little voe where famously plump mussels cling to ropes in the face of roaring tides – still a strictly enforced tradition, and a test of nerve for first-time visitors. 

Before Papa Adam died, Dad and Shona’s retirement plan was to move from St Katharine’s Dock to the Languedoc for a life of Grange des Pères, foie gras and watching Narbonne play rugby. But every time my artist stepmother came to clear out New House for sale, something would stop her. On the 90-minute drive back to the airport, she’d find herself weeping. To cut a long story short, they moved in 2010 – leaving Dad staring blankly at his Anderson & Sheppard suits, and Shona wondering if she’d wear her Chanel pumps again. 

Before making the final move, they built an extension to New House, with glassy views across the Bluemull Sound to the cliffs of Unst – a hundred feet high but dwarfed by the fiercest winter swells. A few years later, they opened The Shetland Gallery, Britain’s northernmost art space, showing Shona’s free-machine embroidered seascapes alongside other artists and makers drawn to Shetland’s seas and skies. They bought two beautiful Shetland ponies, Fortnum and Mason, who soon had their own little hut, were cuddled daily but couldn’t be induced to cross their field without treats. Up at the pebbledash village hall, where even the most generous round rarely exceeds a tenner, Peerie Brian the ship captain rechristened them Aldi and Lidl. Dad and Shona did their best to be amused. 

But – aside from Dad’s ill-fated run for a council seat, and a few minor spats conducted via the pages of The Shetland Times – they have been welcomed like family, as have we all. Shona is actually related to half the village, but on one Famously Groused Hogmanay, my sister had a de facto marriage to Lee the bus driver, about which his actual fiancee seemed only faintly unamused. Netta, the late twinkling, mischievously formidable Queen of Cullivoe, became a surrogate granny. The charming, funny Lawson children could very soon remember not just our names, but how we took our gin and tonics, and who was best at the cereal-box game.      

Over time, I’ve become soaked in a place which is really British only in name. Closer to Bergen than Inverness, the islands were Viking-conquered and Norwegian until the 15th-century. Shetlanders have voted Liberal Democrat at every election since 1950, and oil-driven public funds have helped deliver folk and wool festivals, shiny roads and remote leisure centres. It feels more Scandi-socialist than two-party British.  

Place names reflect the Norse mash-up: Cunnister, Wadbister, Huxter, Cuppa Water, Twatt. The local dialect, virtually impossible to imitate, can sound almost Icelandic – long-vowelled, with ‘o’ drifting towards ‘au’ and ‘i’ turning to ‘u’ (‘Dunna chuck bruck’, reads the anti-littering signs). But Shetlanders are no insular separatists. A history of seafaring has fostered an outward-looking perspective, a resourcefulness, a gentle humility and a broad-church tolerance. It’s just that the islands haven’t much needed the rest of the world. Unlike the Western Isles or the more manicured Orkney islands, Shetland’s healthy economy relies much more on fishing and oil than tourism. 

Hence, there are smart stays, but also grotty hotels that were built in the 1970s for oilmen who wanted little beyond a bunk and a Tennent’s tap; a slowly growing number of places to sample Shetland’s wonderful seafood, if not as many as there might be given that more fish is landed here than England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Flights remain expensive, though passengers are rewarded with Tunnock’s wafers and tea, and thrilling views as the tiny propeller plane swoops over the lighthouse and Jarlshof Viking settlement at Sumburgh, on the Mainland’s southern tip. 

Adding to the sometime assertion that this is a Marmite destination, Shetland’s rolling, largely treeless interior doesn’t fit some Romantic ideals of beauty. Yet I adore its peaty bleakness – a landscape of sinking bogs, ancient bones and ferocious winds; a great moss-green canvas for the sky. The sense of space leaves room for imagination, which helps explain all the artists and poets; makers of fiddles, fine tweeds, and impossibly delicate lace shawls. Why so many gatherings tend to end with impromptu jams, a tradition that dates beyond Peerie Willie Johnson, the ‘dum chuck’ guitarist who combined wild Django Rheinhardt licks with traditional Shetland folk. 

I adore its peaty bleakness – a landscape of sinking bogs, ancient bones and ferocious winds; a great moss-green canvas for the sky.   

The ultimate creative space is the sea, which is like a god, albeit one you’re never more than four miles from. It crashes and caresses, and shapes everything: the stacks at Eshaness, one of which looks like a giant horse supping the North Sea; or the hourglass-shaped white-sand tombolo leading to St Ninian’s Isle, which disappears with a beautiful whimper at high tide. Up at Hermaness, great Arctic swells rip into the cliffs, before dementedly swirling down the Bluemull Sound. 

The sea also provides Muckle Flugga’s mythology. The story goes that the giants Herma and Saxa fell in love with the same mermaid, hurling rocks at one another, one of which became the stack. Eventually, the mermaid called a truce by offering to marry whichever lovestruck giant could follow her to the North Pole. Neither could swim, so both drowned in pursuit. I often think, too, of the poor young couple who died at Hermaness on New Year’s Day in 1992, caught by a 200mph storm that shattered the lonely bird hide they were sheltering in. Nature at its most ruthless. 

Nothing and no one will tell you these stories as you stand at the northern edge of the British Isles. Hermaness, like much of Shetland, isn’t a place for explanations, let alone soupy endings. It is a place to watch the blues and whites of waves that growl like thunder, or the brief, flickering glide of a gannet before it swoops and kills. It is what it is. A place to wonder.

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How we made: The Shetlanders

The Shetlanders project was released from late 2018 to early 2019. The profiles can be seen here, with the Facebook entries on the project here. Photography by River Thompson

The Shetlanders project — 19 interesting Shetlanders, on why they love life on the islands — was my first major client project as an independent agent, ie as me. Done for Promote Shetland, it is also the first client project I’ve done that’s been led by video rather than print.

My father and stepmother live in Shetland, and I’ve always wanted to do work about a place I’ve come to be genuinely fond of, and which I’ve never felt has quite been represented as I see it. A few years back, local digital marketing company NB Communications won the Promote Shetland contract, with a brief to encourage people to come to Shetland to live, work and study.

Over a series of meetings in 2017 and early 2018, I pitched the idea of The Shetlanders – series of videos, with stills and written profiles, of interesting people and families who call Shetland home, both original locals and incomers. The main part of the brief from NB’s David Nicol, who is now in charge of the Promote Shetland contract, was to present the islands and Shetlanders in a fresh way. Less about Shetland ponies, crofters and Fair Isle knitwear; more about the quality of the schools and infrastructure, the sports clubs, the culture, the thriving economy, the fact that life in Shetland can be so rich and varied. The primary target was young professionals, particularly with families, who lived in the UK but might have never thought of Shetland as a viable place to move.   

But we didn’t want The Shetlanders to feel like a hard sell — in fact, David was keen that people explain the cons as well as the pros of life in Shetland. I was also keen that the stories should be human stories, first and foremost, rather than feeling like marketing. Part of the deal was also that Promote Shetland would get a nice bank of usable videos and stills.

Visually, we wanted it to have a nice honest feeling: simple, natural light, low-key but intimate. For the stills, I decided to use River Thompson, a photographer I’ve worked with a lot, whose work has that naturalistic style; for the video, he recommended his friend Connor Macleod, another outdoorsy type who has done a lot of fashion film and adverts, and whose aesthetic seemed right for the project. It was also about having a team that would (hopefully) get on over an intense two-week project, staying with my dad and stepmum and working every day. Crucially, I thought they’d like Shetland. I was essentially the producer/writer; the one asking the questions, and with Promote Shetland’s objectives in my head. I wanted River and Connor to feel free to be creative, and to simply shoot the best work they could. 

Visually, we wanted it to have a nice honest feeling: simple, natural light, low-key but intimate.

We filmed and photographed 16 sets of Shetlanders over two weeks in May 2018, which in hindsight was absurdly ambitious. But we were lucky in a few ways. First of all, the weather was fantastic, and Shetland looked gorgeous. But more important was the people, who were uniformly welcoming and gracious – and who did our jobs for us by selling Shetland life in a way that felt real, honest and genuinely compelling.

Choosing people for that first batch was a tricky process, and of course there were people that couldn’t do it. But a remarkable number were happy to stand in front of a camera, even if it was outside their comfort zone. We wanted to hit certain themes, from education to family life and industry, but we also wanted people whose stories might resonate on a simpler level. In the end, I think we got a nice mix: people like Mull-born music producer Tim and his Shetland-born wife Floortje, a very cool couple who are a long way from any insular stereotypes; Sophie Whitehead, a marathon-running jeweller with a piercing laugh and eagerness to help; and the Perring-Thomson family, who live an almost entirely self-sustainable existence on a beautiful bay in southern Shetland, where Ewen Thomson hand-makes violins. We had a mussel farmer, a family of naturalists, an Indian locavore chef, a rugby-playing female welder, an oilman/bassist/football coach… a really rich and interesting variety of people, but giving a remarkably consistent message about life in Shetland.

Those two weeks of shooting were great fun: driving across the islands in a van we christened The Beast, meeting interesting people, getting great footage and often putting on wetsuits and jumping in the sea. Everywhere we went, people welcomed us with tea and ‘fancies’, whether biscuits or cake. We refined the process as we went, but shot most people over two slots of just a few hours, broadly divided into ‘work’ and ‘play’. It was logistically quite intense, with lots of mad dashes for ferries, and we had to quickly put people at ease (I was very aware that I despise being in front of a camera). We’d usually have a can of Innis & Gunn on the ferry each evening back to the North Isle of Yell, usually late but still lit by low sun.   

The trickier bit was getting back to London and realising just how much footage we had, and how painstaking the process of editing the videos would be. Initially, we’d said it would take six weeks, which we soon realised was a fantasy, especially as we all had other projects going on. I learned a lot about how tricksy even a short video can be, from colour-grading to sound. Luckily, the Promote Shetland team were understanding and supportive, as it took us well into the autumn to get enough videos ready to launch.        

I went up again that November to do a second batch, with a focus on medical workers pegged to the new Island Medics series – this time with local photographer Liam Henderson and videographer Stephen Mercer, who does a lot of the filming for Promote Shetland. While we struggled far more with peoples’ availability (doctors in Shetland tend to be busy, it turns out), Stephen and Liam were brilliant – patient, good fun, and quickly getting the tone of the project that Connor and River had established. We did three fantastic profiles: of Vicky, a nurse who moved her whole family from Chester; of Emma and Kaylee, sharp, funny sisters-in-law who work for the ambulance service and coastguard respectively; and Bjorn and Tore, a gay couple from Norway who came over to breed award-winning Shetland ponies and work as a hairdresser and care worker.

It’s tricky to gauge the success of a project like this, and there’s always an element of intangibility to any content made for clients. But at the time of writing, the videos on Facebook had drawn 369,000 views, and real engagement. The video of Bjorn and Tore the pony breeders, for example, has 104 comments, and many of the comments across the videos have been the right sort: roughly along the lines of, ‘Shall we move?’/’I’d like to live there’/heart-eye emoji. The project has had more than 36,000 YouTube views, and the Instagram videos have been viewed more than 40,000 times. 

At the time of writing, the videos on Facebook had drawn 369,000 views.

The ultimate aim, of course, is that people are inspired to move to the islands for good, and more than a thousand people are now members of Promote Shetland’s Living and Working in Shetland group on Facebook – people who are actively considering moving to the isles. It won’t just be a video that inspires someone to uproot their life, but hopefully it can plant a seed. I hope, too, that Promote Shetland can prove that investing in quality content pays off. Compared to the way that other parts of the UK are marketing themselves, what they are doing is really impressive.  

From a personal view, I’m proud of the project. It was a huge amount of work, but it felt honest and true to what I’d imagined it might be. It helped that there was a strong and compelling message behind it. I hope we presented people as human beings rather than just talking heads; and that we captured some of the beauty and magic of Shetland, while not reducing the place or the people to cutesy stereotypes. For the chance, I’d like to thank David, Lauren Doughton and the Promote Shetland team for being brilliant and understanding managers; and River, Connor, Stephen and Liam for their patience and brilliant work, as well as Tim Matthew for supplying bespoke music. I just hope it does the place some justice. 

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The end of the world as we know it*

The end of the world may involve feature spikes, shouting and War Boys – but the Wasteland Weekend post-apocalyptic festival turns out to be just as much about creativity, community and kindness 

An edited version was published in N by Norwegian magazine, September 2019. Photography by Myles Pritchard

In the Best Motel in Mojave, a railroad town in the Californian desert, two grown men are panicking. They’ve made a mad rush to Bob’s Army and Navy Surplus Store, close to little town’s famed airstrip and spaceport – but it hasn’t solved the problem that is haunting them. Namely, What does one wear to the end of the world? 

The two men are photographer Myles and me – and we’re acting like two teenage girls before a prom, except that this is more of an anti-prom. We’re preparing for Wasteland Weekend, a five-day post-apocalyptic festival where anything goes, except for jeans, t-shirts, branding – or anything that wouldn’t look right in a world where the oil and the water have run out, and humanity is scrabbling for survival in the desert dust. 

The Theme and Costume Guidelines section of the festival website runs to 2,800 words and emphasises, in horrifying capitals, “FULL IMMERSION”. So I’m hacking at a Primark t-shirt with scissors, and trampling cut-off jeans into the car park at the somewhat misnamed Best Motel, with its empty swimming pool and abandoned Lincoln car. Aviators or desert goggles? Headscarf or neckscarf? Are these novelty bullets too cheap looking? How do I look? Will these people accept us? Why are we here?    

The drive to the festival site is no less intimidating, following a dusty dirt track to nowhere, with the world’s largest borax mine shimmering on the horizon, guided only by map coordinates, because there’s no civilisation for miles around. When a wooden sign finally appears through the dust, a succession of men and women in beaten-up shoulder pads, spikes and desert goggles bark orders at us: chiefly to “slow the f*** down!”

When a wooden sign finally appears through the dust, a succession of men and women in beaten-up shoulder pads, spikes and desert goggles bark orders at us: chiefly to “slow the f*** down!”

We park our four-wheel-drive car in the Nuclear Winter, a parking area for attendees without tribes, not far from an older gentleman called Gramps, who’s wearing a tin hat and will later tell us he’s more into anarchy than Mad Max. Then we start walking around, which is a bit like being the wide-eyed kid in the 80s movie, arriving in the big city for the first time… 

Firstly, there are madcap vehicles everywhere, trundling through the dust: a little car with tractor wheels at the back and normal wheels at the front; a yellow school bus that’s now the Cruel Bus, festooned with weapons; a desert buggy driven by bald, white-painted War Boys from the most recent Mad Max movie, with a tortured-looking, tattooed girl in a cage swinging at the back. 

A lot of people seem to be shouting. Every so often, someone will shout “War Boys!”, to which all the white-painted hoodlums will shout “War Boys!” back in unison. A girl walks past in a robo-rabbit mask with a built-in vocoder, and says something that sounds like hello in a muffled robot voice. One girl is wearing a ram-horn helmet and a bra made of shells. 

At the entrance to the main festival area, I’m looked up and down by an imposing guard, who looks like she’s ready for an S&M roller derby and is holding a staff that’s also a retro microphone. She’s called Neon, and she’s part of the Nuclear Bombshells, a Vegas tribe that runs a raucous burlesque stage by night. Her rules of entry are simple. “If you’re wearing blue jeans, you’re not getting in,” she tells me. “And if you don’t seem into it, I’ll make you roll in the dirt.” When she lets me pass, I feel a rush of gratitude: I’m a Wastelander now. 

The whole festival is made up of hundreds of tribes, most of them with fictional backstories, who have set up more than 500 temporary structures across the 80-acre site, from stages to geodesic domes and tented hideouts that resemble military camps. Many of the tribes exist outside of Wasteland Weekend, but for most this is the nub of their existence. 

The Ghoulcrest Hunting Club have created a faux-grand corrugated iron hunting lodge, which is open only to people who complete bounties given out by the Bounty Office. The Caution Tape Carnival have created a mini post-apocalyptic fairground with human equivalents of the claw game and Whack-A-Mole. The mostly leather-clad, tattooed Wasted Saints have built a kind of Wild West saloon for nightly shows that involve burlesque, nails and a gentleman called Dr Copperchops. Each tribe would be worthy of a feature. 

On the third day, I get the story of it all from Jared Butler, a screenwriter and voice actor, who leads the organisation of the event along with Adam Chilson, a photographer and movie FX artist. We’re in the Wasteland Beauty Salon, which specialises in war-like face paint and mohawks – and Butler is getting made up for one of the nightly car cruises. His walkie talkie barely stops buzzing, but in between dealing with issues like a delivery van man who doesn’t have a costume (answer: “Get him something to wear”), he tells me the story of Wasteland Weekend. 

It all began in 2010, when Butler decided to host a Mad Max-themed mini-festival in the desert, along with nightclub promoter James Howard and Karol Bartoszynski, a Hollywood costume designer who had run a series of car cruises for replica Mad Max vehicles.  

“For that first one, there was just one themed tent, a few cars, a couple of DJs and a fire performer,” he recalls. “And we had no idea if anyone was going to turn up. But it was unique in that specific costumes were mandatory, which helped it look amazing in photographs. People just saw it and were like: Wow!”

The post-apocalypse has changed beyond recognition over the years. In 2011, with Chilson joining the team, the event doubled in size, and the concept of tribes was introduced, led by the likes of the Last Chancers, who started the Last Chance Casino, with its roulette wheel made out of an old car wheel. This year, there are 3,800 attendees, including a thousand-strong army of volunteers and performers. 

Having previously leased the land for the festivals, for this year the team bought this 80-acre stretch of desert, giving a permanent home to the festival, even if this year’s structures will be taken down after the event. There are plans not just to grow Wasteland Weekend in size every year, but to launch offshoot events in Europe and possibly China, starting with the UK. “We had no idea that it would get this big, which is just so humbling,” says Butler. “Somehow, the idea resonates with people, now more than ever. All we did was light the fuse – everyone else brought the creative magic.” 

Somehow, the idea resonates with people, now more than ever. All we did was light the fuse – everyone else brought the creative magic.

That creative magic is almost overwhelming. Over the four days, we see a thousand-strong car rally, a post-apocalyptic swimsuit competition, and various games of jugger, a kind of post-apocalyptic rugby with skulls and weapons, inspired by the 1989 movie, The Salute of the Jugger. We see wild bouts in the theatrical Mad Max-inspired Thunderdome, a huge dome where Wastelanders are launched at each other on bungee cords; and almost-as-epic thumb wars at the Thumberdome, a tiny miniature version.

“This is my third year here, and every year it gets bigger and better,” says Miss Monster, aka mask-maker Melita Curphy, who we learn is the woman beneath the Robo Rabbit mask. “It becomes more of a challenge each year to do something special, because everyone gets more inspired. It’s this amazing cross-pollination of ideas.”    

But it’s not just a fancy dress parade. It’s a fully self-supporting community, which adheres wholly to the post-apocalyptic conceit. There are not only elaborately costumed medics, mechanics and engineers with names like Two Beards and Kit, but there’s an official tour guide, a post office manned by a dreadlocked girl called Trouble, and a 24-hour radio station created using scavenged poles, which was the brainchild of The Swede (yes, he’s Swedish).   

In the back of the Wasteland Communications Corp tent (home of the radio station and post office), I meet Deadline the editor, who is putting together the next day’s edition of The Wastelander newspaper, a yellowing daily sheet printed in typewriter style. A former Air Force photographer, it’s just his second year at Wasteland Weekend, having offered to produce a daily rag on his first visit. 

While yesterday’s edition leads with a story of a nuclear launch key ending up for auction at the Last Chance Casino, and an influx of refugees to the Wasteland, today’s stories include the undefeated performances of a gentleman called Smash in the Battle Cage, and the curious metal detector findings of The Stray Engineer. As with all things Wasteland, it’s a fabulous intertwining of reality and fantasy.

The philosophy of the paper, Deadline informs me, “is to provide information quickly, reliably, and with as many swear words as possible.” But his own philosophy on the event is cuddlier. “You see guys with mohawks, tattoos and spikes, but then they turn out to be these really interesting, kind people who will do anything to help you out. Weirdly, this vision of a post-apocalyptic Wasteland is as close to paradise as I can imagine.”

I hear, and experience, similar things throughout my time at Wasteland. “Coming here was really like finding my tribe,” says Throttle, a female War Boy, who spends a large part of her year as a vet assistant, “dreaming of Wasteland. We build a whole city, and this totally cohesive vision, where we let go of reality and create something new. I’ve never met a group of people like this – it’s the end of the world, and it’s just so nice.”  

And, weirdly, it is nice, even for me. Despite all the effort, my outfit is low-grade (Myles is more of a post-apocalyptic natural), and I can’t quite commit to a Wastelander name with the requisite sincerity, dilly-dallying between Snakeoil Skinner and The Scribe. But people are incredibly welcoming, and tend to give Myles and me things without expecting anything in return. One night, we are treated to a hearty hog roast at Legio X, a Roman-themed tribe; on another, we’re fed fluorescent blue Anti-freeze cocktails made by The Shaman at Unkle Lele’s Pitstop. One morning, a woman called Rabbit hands me a $10,000 dollar bill from the Bank of Hell, with her name written on it. I’m not sure why.

One afternoon, before things kick off at the Last Chance Casino – where Wastelanders gamble for the bottle tops that are the main Wasteland currency – I meet Big Disco, the casino’s talismanic croupier. He is wearing his regular uniform, a grubby, 1970s suit covered in broken CDs. He tells us about the ethos of the casino, which has grown from two tables and 12 people back in 2011 to become a madcap carnival of post-apocalyptic roulette, wheels of fortune, and a DIY bar that offers drinks and bottle tops in return for stories or jokes. 

“The casino is first and foremost about having a place to bring the party,” says Big Disco, who is famous across the Wasteland for his comic patter and inability to shuffle. “But it’s also about acceptance and tolerance, and we’re big on consent culture. We want it to be a safe space, where absolutely everyone feels welcome.” 

Big Disco, who until recently ran a video engineering department in his real life, admits that he defines himself by being “a minor celebrity at this event in the desert. I’m an extrovert, so I eat it up – I just get to be an even more ridiculous version of myself. But what I find fascinating is that I see other people finding different parts of themselves being these characters. Out here, you really can be anyone.”

I just get to be an even more ridiculous version of myself.

And it’s true. Amid this massive outpouring of creativity and community spirit, you can be Wasteland Elvis, or Immorton Joe, the terrifying baddie-in-chief from the latest Mad Max movie. You can even be a journalist in a ripped Primark t-shirt, who finds the whole thing altogether less weird, and infinitely more inspiring than expected. If this is what the end of the world looks like, then bring it on. 

Meet the Wastelanders
Ellinthris the wandering merchant

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Ellinthris’s pack, which she carries a little like a snail shell, is a thing of wonder. It’s a hundred pounds of pure creativity that contains a gun, ammo, a baseball bat, a sheep skull and a set of old billiard balls, most of which she’s traded. She’s got a sketch book, for when she turns the pack into an ingenious shelter and draws peoples’ portraits, and a set of haunting wooden masks. This being the post-apocalypse, she’s also offering “free air” through a plastic tube. 

“I made all of this in a weekend,” says Ellinthris, through her mask. She comes from Ventura, California, and learned her skills while making a haunted house with her father – as you do.

When a woman in a hat made of bottle tops comes with a bounty for Ellinthris (this kind of thing happens in the Wasteland), she reaches into her pack for a game – a primitive kind of tug ’o’ war involving little wooden crates and a strip of red wire. As a crowd gathers, Ellinthris makes wisecracks to the audience. When the wire becomes taut, she gives a cursory flick of her wrist and the bottle-top woman is yanked forward from her crate. “Better hunting next time,” Ellinthris calls after her defeated foe. 

 

Lord Humungus

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Outside of Wasteland Weekend, he’s Jim Dorsey, aka Tank, or Dog Tank, or Jim the Pool Guy, after the pool servicing company he runs in New Jersey. In a former life, he was a professional wrestler and the tour manager for punk group the Misfits (“there were riots every time we played Chile,” he says).

But out here, Jim Dorsey switches off his phone and becomes the great Lord Humungus, the chief baddie in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

He first came in 2011 as a relatively humble post-apocalyptic police guard. “But people saw my body shape and everyone was like: Dude, you have to come back as Lord Humungus,” he says. “So, at 40, I hired a bodybuilding coach and got in the shape of my life – all for this. The next year, I came back and people went nuts for it.”

With his deep, gravelly voice and almost robotic movements, Dorsey makes a convincing and slightly terrifying Lord Humungus – so much so that Kjell Nilsson, the Swedish weightlifter-turned-actor who originally played the character, gave him his blessing online in 2013.

“Out here, I just become Lord Humungus,” he says. “I own it.”

 

Wasteland Elvis

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“When I first came to Wasteland Weekend six years ago, I was like: Oh no, I’ve got this horribly wrong,” says Wasteland Elvis, a Los Angeles web developer in so-called real life. “I’d thought it was like a Hallowe’en party, and hadn’t quite got the post-apocalyptic memo. But people loved it.”

Today, Wasteland Elvis is a festival icon. “I’m the last Elvis impersonator on Earth,” he says. “And though I’ve pretty much worn the same costume every year, I’ve made it more Wasteland-y over the years. I took a blowtorch to my glasses because they were too shiny, and I’ve gradually added bits to the belt and kneepads, as well as making them look more weathered.” 

We meet Wasteland Elvis with Cigil, a former colleague in real life. They are, they say, a “tribe of two”, and they also exist outside Wasteland Weekend. “We do a weekly karaoke session together in Los Angeles,” says Cigil. “He’ll sing Elvis songs, I’ll do No Diggity. And we’ll go on little camping trips with our favourite tribes. There’s one in Florida where no cars are allowed – only lawnmowers.” 

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What the Class of ’92 did next

Five local lads were in the so-called Class of 92, who played in one of the greatest eras of Manchester United’s history. So what did they do next? Quite a lot, it turns out…

First published in Vera magazine (Virgin Atlantic), December 2018.

On a Tuesday late afternoon outside Salford City’s stadium, awaiting the visit of Hartlepool United, the backdrop has changed more than the people. Tony Sheldon, an impish 79-year-old, is getting ready to sell his football shirts, scarves, pins and matchday programmes, even if the shirts are now red instead of the old tangerine. The no-nonsense Barbara Gaskill, in a black apron with ‘Babs’ inscribed on it, is still getting her burgers and hot dogs ready, just like she has for the past 28 years.

Standing outside her stall for a cigarette break, Babs waves to white-haired long-term president Dave Russell and chairman Karen Baird as they wander past. A few minutes later, the tracksuited Adam Rooney, Salford City’s new star striker, saunters in the other direction towards the changing rooms, making a gesture towards Babs’ cheeseburgers, like a French chef sniffing a Coq Au Vin. “You wish, love,” she says.

For all the cosiness, though, you only have to look around to see that things have changed at Salford City, the local football club in a quiet suburb west of Manchester’s city centre. The shiny new, 5,000-capacity stadium has been renamed as the Peninsula Stadium (it used to be just Moor Lane), and the back of the west stand is daubed with slogans, like “The Welfare of The People is the Highest Law.” Babs and Tony now work in trendy converted shipping containers in a ‘Fanzone’ where you can also buy Grandad’s gourmet hot dogs or Salford Seven Brothers craft beer.

This is a new era at Salford City, as re-imagined by five members of the Class of 92, that now-legendary group of young guns who appeared from the Manchester United academy at the dawn of professional football to form the backbone of the most successful period in the club’s history. The five Manchester-born former stars — Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt — took over ownership of Salford City in 2014 (the other main player, London-born David Beckham, is currently launching his own team, Inter Miami CF). Each has a ten per cent stake in the club, with the other half owned by Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, a silent partner.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride since 2014, documented with fly-on-the-wall honesty in the Class of 92 miniseries, which has covered three football seasons from 2014 to 2017. The most recent, Class of 92: Full Time, shows the club transitioning from non-league amateurs to full-time professionals in the 2016/2017 season, all while building the new stadium and installing a youth academy, Academy 92.

As with previous seasons, there are plenty of dressing-room bust-ups, led by volatile joint managers Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley. The five chairmen somehow manage to come across as both fiercely driven, and like five old mates trying to learn from their mistakes as they go. It’s a good watch.

Yet what I see this Tuesday night seems altogether more professional than the rollercoaster early seasons shown on the Class of 92 documentaries. After three promotions in four years, the club are now the bookies’ favourites in the Vanarama National League, the highest division outside the English Football League. In the summer, Johnson and Morley were replaced by Graham Alexander, who played Premier League football for Burnley and previously managed Scunthorpe United. I watch his team of full-time pros dismantle rivals Hartlepool United 3-0, with goals from Rooney and Danny Lloyd, who were signed from Aberdeen and Peterborough United respectively.

At half-time I meet Rick Kedzior, a fan who has only missed two games, home or away, since 2007, and has seen attendances here grow from a hundred or so to 3,595 for a recent game against Chesterfield.

“I remember when we heard about the takeover, there were a lot of raised eyebrows,” he says. “But Gary Neville came down and explained it all to us in real detail, and listened to what we had to say. Some people didn’t like the colour change, and have drifted away, but I think most people saw they were in it for the right reasons. They have kept the committee that was there before, and have looked after all the people who were here before. For example, my season ticket still only costs 30 quid.”

I think most people saw they were at the club for the right reasons… they have looked after all the people who were here before the takeover.

If these chairmen aren’t running Salford City like the Glazers, the Manchester United owners that Scholes and Gary Neville have criticised recently, they have installed things that aren’t normally seen outside the Football League: recovery pools, strict nutrition programmes, a sports scientist, a state-of-the-art team bus. “I’ve been at clubs at higher levels that are way less professional,” says striker Rooney after the game, while his young son kicks balls into an empty net . On another side of the pitch, Alexander is giving the kind of quotidian matchday quotes to the club’s in-house TV station that I remember from my days reporting on Championship football.

The Class of 92 mean business, literally — and it’s not just at Salford City. Over my few days in Manchester I stay at Hotel Football, next to Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium, which is just one of their many business ventures. Opened in 2015, it’s a little like its owners: slick, ambitious but with touches of personality and warmth.

In the Man United Supporters Club bar downstairs, there’s a little stage in the corner reserved for Mr Miyagi, the famously dapper United fan, known for his pre-match singing. On the top floor, there’s a five-a-side football pitch, with a hastily-installed net after their first kick-about, when Ryan Giggs hit three balls into the streets below. At the ground-floor Cafe Football, which also has branches in central Manchester and east London, you can get a ‘Nicky Butty’ club sandwich. In my room, 692, the walls are covered with quotes about Scholes and Giggs, while the minibar is filled with Seven Brothers beer, Space Raider crisps, Fizz Wizzes, Drumsticks and cans of Vimto.

Salford City and Hotel Football, which the team want to roll out near stadiums in other cities, are just the start of the Class of 92 empire, which is set to include a university course and a charitable foundation (see sidebar), all under the umbrella of a group called Project 92.  

On top of all that, GG Hospitality, run by Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, is busily redeveloping parts of Manchester, including an opinion-dividing GBP200 million plan to build a honeycomb glass skyscraper in the centre of town, and a redevelopment of the old Manchester Stock Exchange, which will open as a 41-room boutique hotel with a high-end restaurant in the spring of 2019.  

The one who seems to be involved with it all is Gary Neville. During his playing days, his nickname was ‘Busy’, and he was quietly starting businesses and sitting on company boards by his mid-20s, trying to hide his business calls from Sir Alex Ferguson. He currently sits on more than 30 company boards, and his investments run from digital design agency E3 Creative (who run the slick Salford City website) to The Rabbit in the Moon, a flashy restaurant in the same building as Manchester’s National Football Museum. All the while, he’s become arguably Britain’s favourite football pundit for his work on Sky Sports. Still busy, then.   

The morning after the Salford game, he’s been in Ireland playing in a testimonial match, and I call him up in a rare break between meetings. “I’ve been hooked on business since I developed my first house at 22, and have just gone for it ever since,” he says. “I always thought it was madness that a footballer would go home after training and just do nothing.”   

I’ve been hooked on business since I developed my first house at 22. I always thought it was madness that a footballer would go home after training and just do nothing.

Neville admits that the range of his business interests can be exhausting. “About 18 months ago, I realised that something had to change,” he says. “I had taken on too much, and it was chaos. The key since then has been getting the best people to run the various businesses. With the university or the Stock Exchange project, we’ve got real industry leaders running things, and I’ve tried to step back.”

His biggest passion, though, is Salford City. “It’s the one business that’s not a business, in a way,” he says. “We are trying to put everything in place to make the club a success, but the beauty of football is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. Like all the lads, I’m always thinking about ways we can do things better. And whilst we can’t get involved with decisions about the team, we kick every ball and feel the joy and frustration that any fan does.”

The docuseries was Neville’s idea. “It’s always been the plan that the club would be transparent,” he says. “It was important that the programme felt real, that it wasn’t just some piece of propaganda. I think that’s why people responded to it.”

Certainly, Neville and his Class of 92 cohorts aren’t shying away from the limelight. All of their projects will continue to play out under the full glare of public scrutiny, with a dose of scepticism guaranteed. But Neville is used to that. “The big thing we learned at Man United is accountability,” he says. “If you made a mistake, you put your hand up, and I think all the lads share that honesty. Ultimately, we’re doing all these things in the city we all love, and which gave us everything. Of course we’re responsible, and we should be.”

The town that sold Christmas

How did an unremarkable logging city in Finnish Lapland establish itself as the home of Santa Claus?

First published in the Financial Times, December 2018. Main photograph by Tim White

You can tell a lot about a person by how they approach their meeting with Santa Claus. According to Antti Nikander, the drily humorous co-ordinator of the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland, Chinese president Xi Jinping didn’t once stop smiling, while the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was “very serious, very official”. American talk show host Conan O’Brien “was almost leaping around, he was so excited”.

I am standing in the queue at Santa’s “office” in the Santa Claus Village, a series of log cabin buildings five miles east of Rovaniemi. Beneath a series of flash-lit portraits of the big man with everyone from F1 driver Mika Hakkinen to horror-metal Eurovision winners Lordi, it dawns on me that I’m nervous. I’ve heard tales of children clamming up in fear when the big moment arrives, often after waiting hours in the queue stretching back to the gift shop, manned by jolly young female elves with names such as Tuiske (blizzard) or Karkki (candy), each with an elaborate elfish back-story. I get it now — queueing to meet Santa, hidden from view in his ersatz cabin emanates hygge, feels like waiting to meet a god.

I’ve heard tales of children clamming up in fear when the big moment arrives, often after waiting hours in the queue stretching back to the gift shop

I’m here in November to find out how this utilitarian town, which was all but obliterated during the second world war, rebranded itself as Santa’s home and created a tourism boom.Last year, close to 580,000 visitors flew into Rovaniemi (pop. 62,667), almost double the number in 2010. Much of that growth has been driven by Asian visitors, especially from China. More than a million annual visitors are expected in Rovaniemi by 2022, and this December is expected to break all records, helped by increasing numbers of flights, including a new easyJet route direct from London to Rovaniemi. Most of the hotels and resorts in the forests around the town have been booked up for a year, and many are scrambling to build extra glass igloos, Arctic pods and snow hotel rooms to meet the demand.

I stay at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel, a series of modern pods that are less tree houses and more glass-fronted, rectangular boxes that look out over the pine forests. It opened in 2016 (35 more rectangular pods were added this summer in expectation of this month’s influx) and is one of a spate of hotels and resorts built in the past few years, including the Chinese-owned Nova Skyland hotel.

On arrival, the day before my meeting with Santa, I make the 15-minute walk through the forest from the hotel to the Santa Claus Village. The series of log-cabin buildings around a central concourse has the feel of an outdoor shopping arcade, which it kind of is, given that the majority of the spaces in the mini malls are selling souvenirs, from festive tchotchkes to Moomin mugs.

Despite the unseasonably warm weather (locals live in growing fear of climate change), the Santa Claus Village is just about keeping the festive spirit alive. A muzak version of “The First Noel” tinkles from the speakers, while behind Santa’s office, reindeers with sleds trundle tourists round a little track of sludgy, machine-made snow for €17 a go. A group of young Asian visitors are doing an Instagram-ready impression of a many-armed Hindu deity along the border of the Arctic Circle, which cuts through the “village”.

I pop into Santa’s post office, where many of the tables seem to be taken up with young Asian visitors writing postcards home. While post from here is stamped with a special Arctic Circle postmark, it also receives a flood of letters from around the world (apparently any addressed to “Santa Claus, Lapland” will arrive here, but most people find the full address via Google). A board shows where most of this year’s 500,000-plus letters have come from: China is in first place, then Poland, followed by Italy, the UK and Japan. “The UK was top until last Christmas,” explains post elf Elina, a middle-aged woman in regulation elfish get-up. “Now, China is way ahead: we’ve had a hundred thousand letters just from China this year. And Poland is always up there — there’s a real tradition in Poland of writing letters to Santa Claus.”

China is way ahead when it comes to letters to Santa: we’ve had a hundred thousand this year.

Over lunch at Santa’s Salmon Place — which serves flaky salmon cooked over an open fire in a space inspired by a Sami lavvu tent — I get chatting to Pei Ling and Tin Ting, two young female friends visiting from Ningbo, China. While the main purpose of their trip was to watch “handsome” Japanese champion figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu compete in Helsinki, Rovaniemi was the obvious add-on. “Everyone in China knows about the home of Santa Claus,” says Tin. “We don’t really celebrate Christmas, but Santa’s a big deal.”

While Rovaniemi has long sent Santa Claus on ambassadorial visits east, Pei and Tin first knew of Rovaniemi via Fliggy, a millennial-focused travel site launched by Chinese e-commerce giants Alibaba, which chose the town as its first featured trip back in 2016. There was a massive launch party here featuring three winners of The Voice of China, the singing contest whose final drew a billion viewers this year. Now, just about everywhere in Rovaniemi accepts Alipay, Alibaba Group’s mobile payment system, which is also available on Finnair flights from seven Chinese cities to Helsinki. At the Arctic Treehouse Hotel, where Pei and Tin are also staying, you can pay in Alipay and communicate with reception using WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media/messaging service. “It’s like being at a hotel back home,” says Tin.

The next morning, I go to the town of Rovaniemi to get the story of why Santa landed here in the first place. Sanna Kärkkäinen is the managing director of Visit Rovaniemi, and with her short black hair and cheery alertness, you might describe her as “elfin” even before you knew her job. She laughs indulgently when I point out that her name is one letter away from “Santa”.

The starting point for Santa tourism in Rovaniemi, she says, came in 1950, when Eleanor Roosevelt decided to visit this logging and mining town that was being rebuilt with the help of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Wanting to create a winter wonderland for the former first lady, the town hastily built a cosy log cabin on the line of the Arctic Circle, east of town, in what would become the Santa Claus Village. “There was nothing there before that,” says Kärkkäinen. “Rovaniemi wasn’t a tourist destination, and no one travelled to meet Santa.”

Even though St Nicholas, the third-century saint that inspired Santa Claus, lived in Turkey, an illustration in Harper’s magazine in 1866 is credited with establishing Santa’s home as the North Pole. In 1927, Finnish radio personality Markus Rautio (aka “Uncle Marcus”) declared on air that Santa’s workshop had been discovered in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, or “Ear Mountain”, a remote peak on the Russian border. In Finland, at least, the story quickly caught on, and Finnish mothers still warn children that Santa and his elves can listen in on their words and dreams at Ear Mountain.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Finland’s tourist officials started to seriously market Lapland as Santa’s official home, with his office in Rovaniemi. In 1981, a Santa letter-writing competition in the UK led to six children winning trips to Rovaniemi, and on Christmas Day 1984, 20,000 locals turned up at the airport to watch the first Concorde flight arrive in Rovaniemi from London, which would become regular winter charters.

The Brits led a Santa tourism spike that continued through the 1990s, followed by the Christmas-loving Spanish and, curiously, Israelis, after an Israeli called Shimon Biton moved here with his local wife and set up a charter travel company in 1995. Santa has been welcoming visitors to the Santa Claus Office in three-minute slots every day since 1992, as operators have added evermore reindeer sleigh rides, husky tours, snowmobile trips and the like. But, after years of steady visitor numbers Asia has driven 20-30 per cent growth every year since 2015. “With tourism from China, it’s snowballed so fast,” says Kärkkäinen. “With Japan, it was a long, slow burn; with China, it was an explosion.”

With Japan, the rise of tourism was a long, slow burn; with China, it was an explosion.

No matter the nationality of the visitors, though, one of Kärkkäinen’s main jobs is protecting the Santa story. Before I visit, I receive an email from one of her colleagues, reminding me that, “We love to collaborate with all media which respect the Santa Claus’ philosophy”. Kärkkäinen says her first question to potential employees at Visit Rovaniemi is: “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”

Hence, it’s hard to find out who it is I’m going to meet in Santa’s office. Kärkkäinen coyly stone-walls the question of who plays Santa round here, giving me a mock-admonishing look. What’s more notable is that I get the same response — “There’s only one Santa Claus” — from the barman at the Hemingway’s pub, and from Janne Honkanen, a local businessman who this month is set to open Octola, the area’s first luxury lodge.

All of this adds to my nerves when I finally find myself in the Santa queue. Antti Nikander, the village co-ordinator, admits: “As a child, I was terrified of Santa. When it came to shaking hands with him, it was me that was shaking.”

When my moment comes, Tuiske the friendly elf guides me into Santa’s warm lair, with its old maps, chests and olde world gifts, and I proffer a curiously over-enthusiastic “Hi, Santa!” Both his beard and stature are impressively large, and he has a deep, Finnish-accented “ho ho” that gives him just enough time to answer my questions, which are less penetrative than I’d hoped. He is surprisingly chipper, too, in that he seems to be in his seventies, and can welcome as many as 1,000 visitors a day in strict three-minute time slots.

I manage to gather that he’s just been in a meeting with his reindeers teaching them to use “RNS”, which he says is “like GPS for reindeers”. There’s a lot he can’t remember, or leaves to his elves: how old he is, how many reindeers he has, how to make an iPad, etc. Anyway, most kids ask for toy cars or dolls, he insists; “or, they ask for health and happiness for people they love  . . . all children really are nice”.

Santa apologises for not remembering Xi Jinping (“everyone is equal here”), though he does remember recently meeting a 97-year-old “child” from Italy, who had long dreamt of meeting Santa. “That was really magical,” he says. “Meeting you is magical, too.” While I don’t claim to be in the Jeremy Paxman league when it comes to interrogations, I feel entirely outgunned.

After a quick shot by Tuiske the photo elf, I head downstairs to get the flash-lit Santa shot that sells for €30. It has been a consummate performance by Santa, his elves and the people who make tourism tick here. The Santa story is alive and well — which is just as well, because this place depends on it.

The king of beer

In the space of five years, former science teacher Mikkel Borg Bjergso has opened bars from San Francisco to the Faroes and spawned a growing lifestyle brand

First published in the Financial Times, October 2018.

If you go to the opening party of the Mikkeller bar in Shoreditch tonight, the chances are you might notice one of its partners: Rick Astley, who still just about has the quiff, voice and northern charm he had in 1987, when “Never Gonna Give You Up” made him a pop sensation. But you might just miss the other, possibly more important, guy: Mikkel Borg Bjergso, a soft-spoken, slim and tattooed Dane. He is the world’s most prolific craft brewer, and has become a celebrity in his own right, a leading figure in a sector that has gone from a niche trend to something so mainstream that “IPA fatigue” is now a thing.

While craft brewers tend to emphasise their locality, Mikkeller has gone global, and in a hurry. In just five years, Bjergso has expanded from his base in Copenhagen to create a brewing and hospitality empire in 41 locations as diverse as his beery concoctions — from San Diego to Taipei, Tokyo, Bucharest, Warsaw and even Torshavn, capital of the Faroe Islands. For some, this rollout is a sign of the regrettable homogenisation of global taste — even if the Instagrammable bars each have local beers and design touches, they all come with an over-riding sense of airy, carefully arranged Danish cool — but Bjergso is not slowing down.

There are plans to push into mainland China and to further expand an already thriving lifestyle arm: fans can buy Mikkeller hoodies, T-shirts and hats, go to its beer festivals, where tattoo artists are hired specifically to ink Mikkeller tattoos (Bjergso estimates there are “over a thousand” such tattoos today, even if he doesn’t have one), or go running with the Mikkeller Running Club, which has more than 200 chapters across the world, from Almaty to Volgograd and Westchester, New York. Branded hotels and tours are under consideration. “We want to make it so that people can live in this Mikkeller universe,” Bjergso tells me.

We want to make it so that people can live in this Mikkeller universe.

If it sounds like a brazen quest for new revenue sources, Bjergso says he’s still driven by the same instincts he always has been. “If I’m interested in an idea, whether it’s brewing a beer with Rick Astley, opening a ramen restaurant in Copenhagen or opening a little bar in the Faroe Islands, we make it happen, even if it’s not a cash cow. I’m easily bored, so I’m always challenging myself to keep it interesting.”

A big part of Mikkeller’s appeal is bound up with its creation story. In the mid-2000s, Bjergso was a science teacher in Copenhagen who, fed up of lagers that all tasted the same, started dabbling with brewing in his kitchen at home. Before long, his brews, created with a journalist friend, Kristian Keller, started winning national home-brewing competitions, and the pair decided to put their names together and start a business.

Success came fast, in late 2006, with a beer called Beer Geek Breakfast, an oatmeal stout made with coffee and chocolate that gave notes of burnt toast. “At a time when most brewers were playing things safe, it sent the beer world crazy,” says Bjergso. It was named stout of the year by the influential Ratebeer.com website, and still has a 100 per cent rating on the site. “Early on, we were very driven by breaking all the rules,” says Bjergso.

The biggest rule they broke is the one that says brewers should have a brewery. Because they couldn’t afford their own, they hired existing breweries to make their recipes, which were coming thick and fast. “It meant we could concentrate on designing recipes and labels, which we love doing, and leave the rest to the experts,” says Bjergso. The concept of “gypsy” brewing — also known as “cuckoo” or “phantom” brewing — was born, something that is now standard practice for thousands of brewers across the world.

Keller quit the company in 2007 to concentrate on journalism but Bjergso was just getting started. While a typical craft brewer might come up with 20 new recipes a year, Mikkeller will produce closer to 200, from Belgian Lambics to sour beers and ales brewed in bourbon barrels. Today, there are more than 1,680 Mikkeller creations listed on Ratebeer.com, many with esoteric ingredients like Vietnamese Kopi Luwak coffee or chipotle chilli. The 8m litres sold globally each year are produced at breweries in Belgium, Norway, Denmark, the US and UK, then exported to its outlets worldwide.

In terms of volume, Mikkeller’s output is modest compared to a brewery like Sierra Nevada, which produces 147m litres a year. But while Sierra Nevada pretty much just does beer, Mikkeller has become a very different beast. Its first bar in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro district was an instant success in 2010 (the first year that Noma was voted the world’s best restaurant, when Brand Denmark was the height of cool). Three years later, the company opened its first foreign bar, in San Francisco, in partnership with Bay Area bar owner Chuck Stilphen. In early 2014, Mikkeller opened its first Bangkok bar (there are now four) with Jakob Morkenborg Rasmussen, a Dane who had started a craft beer import business. As a model, it was almost as neat as gypsy brewing — Mikkeller supplies the beer while local partners run the bars.

With revenues of €26.8m in 2017, it can no longer really claim to be a plucky outsider brand, and in 2016 it sold an undisclosed stake to US private equity company Orkila Capital. Like any indie band that has gone on to play stadium tours, Mikkeller’s growth has drawn detractors, most prominently Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, Mikkel’s twin. While the brothers had a symbiotic relationship in the early days — Jeppe ran a craft beer shop and would stock and export Mikkel’s beers — the relationship soured over an apartment deal, and the fact that the first Mikkeller bar was uncomfortably close to Jeppe’s shop. Jeppe went on to set up a rival brewing company called Evil Twin, decamping to New York.

“I’m not against a business growing and being successful,” says Jeppe, who runs a Brooklyn bar called Torst, and is soon to open a brewery in Queens, barely six miles from a Mikkeller microbrewery at the Citi Field baseball stadium. “But, to me, Mikkeller has become about business rather than beer. That’s not got anything to do with Mikkel and me personally, and I’d say the same thing about [Scottish brewer] BrewDog. You can’t run bars all over the world and expect the same level of quality. I’ll be at my brewery all the time; Mikkel is lucky if he visits New York once a year.”

Mikkel Bjergso refuses to discuss his brother in public, but is used to the argument. “As soon as you become bigger, people will say you’ve sold out and the quality’s not as good,” he says. “The beer we make is just as good as it was in the beginning. And we work so hard on the experience at every bar, where the designs and the beers are tailored to the place.”

As soon as you become bigger, people will say you’ve sold out and the quality’s not as good.

Bjergso insists that he and his Copenhagen team are “deeply involved with each bar, on a daily basis”. While they use local partners, he says that Mikkeller takes a majority stake wherever possible. “But, even if we have an equal or almost-equal partner, we have the decision-making power,” he says. “Of course I’m not as involved as I was with the first bar in Copenhagen, but I still care passionately about the smallest details. I’ll stop if that’s ever not the case, or if we lose control.”

The new London bar, Mikkeller’s 41st, is in what was the George and Dragon pub on Hackney Road, which dates back to 1898 but was most recently a raucous gay club (the owners left in 2015, after the rent tripled). Like all of the Mikkeller bars abroad, the layout was designed in Copenhagen, with bespoke posters of beefeaters and Sherlock Holmes designed by US-based art director Keith Shore, who also designed the neon sign outside. Bjergso always creates at least one site-specific beer, in this case Astley’s London Lager. Astley’s songs will play on loop in the toilets, though not in the main bar.

Of course, Mikkeller’s London outpost is atypical in that most of the brand’s partners haven’t sold 40m records. Bjergso and Rick Astley became friends in 2015, when a rumour circulated that Astley was living in Copenhagen (he wasn’t, but his daughter Emilie lives there, and his film producer wife Lene Bausager is Danish).

Bjergso, who had Rick Astley posters on his walls as a child, picked up the phone, and offered to create a brew with his childhood idol. Despite the pop star not knowing much about beer, the pair co-created Astley’s Northern Hop, with a touch of ginger nodding to Astley’s hair.

Now, they’ve gone further than that. Astley, who was due to sing at the opening party but says he won’t be pulling any pints, believes that Mikkeller bars remain special. “They have a vibe, and a soul,” he says. “I’ve been to lots of their bars around the world, and they all have a different feel.” Or, as Bjergso insists: “We’re not Starbucks, just repeating the same thing everywhere we go.”

Either way, there will be those who simply see an independent local gay bar replaced by what is essentially a foreign chain. The question, really, is how big Mikkeller can get while holding on to the edge that made it famous in the first place. It’s one to ponder, perhaps while sipping a Mikkeller Jackie Brown ale in the new London bar, or listening to “Never Gonna Give You Up” in the loo.

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A postcard from the Extraterrestrial Highway

On a lonely stretch of desert road near Area 51, alien conspiracies have spawned a cutesy form of tourism

First published in the Financial Times, October 2018. Photography (for this piece) by Myles Pritchard (with some modelling by yours truly)

On plastic chairs outside the Little A’Le’Inn guesthouse in tiny Rachel, Nevada, chef Kenneth Langley is talking about more than his “world famous” alien burger.

Instead, as we gaze past a model of a flying saucer, with its multicoloured lights blinking beneath the night sky, he is telling me about the strange things he’s witnessed up there over the years: planes doing 90-degree turns at high speed; tiny craft that “look like something from Close Encounters of the Third Kind”; and a “large mother ship, hovering in the mountains”.

Another night, he claims he saw three or four planes circling: “They were dissected by a single beam of white light, and suddenly they all disappeared, leaving little flickers of electrical discharge.”

Similar stories aren’t in short supply along the Extraterrestrial Highway, a lonely 98-mile stretch of desert road that was once simply the Nevada State Route 375, starting at Crystal Springs, a ghost town a few hours’ drive north of Las Vegas. Earlier that day, I had visited the Alien Research Center in Crystal Springs, an alien-themed gift shop in a curved corrugated iron shed, marked by a three-storey-tall metal alien out front.

Malcolm Harris, whose ufologist brother George built the place in 2001, had shown me a pin-sharp photograph on the office computer of a long, almost perfectly rectangular cloud, which he’d shot in February 2014. “I was looking at geese when that just appeared out of nowhere,” he’d said. “It must have been a thousand feet long, and completely silent.”

For many observers, these curious sightings are linked to the nearby Area 51, the US Air Force base whose prime purpose is thought to be the development of “black projects”, from weapons systems to experimental aircraft (stealth aircraft such as the F-117 Nighthawk were developed here). As for the belief that the base harbours aliens and studies UFOs, the US government revealed last December it had a $22m programme — thought to be based at Area 51 — to collect and analyse “anomalous aerospace threats”.

Certainly, there is a foreboding aspect to this swath of Nevadan nothingness, a vast area where America carried out almost a thousand nuclear tests between 1951 and 1992. Signs around Area 51’s perimeter warn that deadly force may be used against trespassers.

Signs around Area 51’s perimeter warn that deadly force may be used against trespassers.

Ironically perhaps, all of this has spawned a cutesy form of tourism, largely based around flying saucers and bug-eyed aliens. In 1996, in the wake of Independence Day, the movie that was partly set in Rachel and at Area 51, Nevada’s tourism commission renamed the SR375 as the Extraterrestrial Highway, installing alien-themed signs along the road, and redrawing Rachel’s town sign in Comic Sans.

This is the kind of tourism you’ll find at the Little A’Le’Inn. The temple to extraterrestrial ephemera isn’t just the main attraction along the highway, but the only real business in Rachel, a collection of trailer park homes with a 54-strong population made up largely of cattle ranchers.

Cheery owner Pat Travis Laudenklos has run the inn since 1988, when she and her late husband Joe moved up from Las Vegas to take over the roadside Rachel Bar and Grill. Mainly because they often had to put up drivers who had hit cows on the highway, they soon added a couple of mobile homes for guests.

In 1991, on the advice of a regular patron, they decided to rebrand it all as the Little A’Le’Inn, adding the “Earthlings welcome” sign and the child-sized model alien outside the restaurant, while devoting a corner of the restaurant to extraterrestrial tchotchkes, from alien mugs to mouse mats and gumball machines.

“We’ve seen our share of things in the sky,” says Pat, who now runs the place with her daughter Connie. “But the aliens here are really just a bit of fun. Rachel is a peaceful place, where everyone knows everyone, and where we treat guests like family.”

Chef Ken, whom I meet after devouring one of his alien burgers, is something of an anomaly. He comes from a wealthy industrialist family, and claims he was once “the hottest chef in Atlanta”, before a Native American Zuni shaman advised him to move to Rachel in 2007.

After half an hour or so outside the inn, I follow his car a few miles up the road to his immaculate bungalow, with its baby grand piano, where he feeds me Woodford Reserve and tall tales: about the CIA, the cloaking technology behind disappearing aircraft, and the supposed collection of aliens at Area 51. As we look out into the black night, he says: “They can see us, and they hear everything.” It’s hard to know to whom he’s referring.

They can see us, and they hear everything.

After midnight, I stumble back to my trailer-park room at the Little A’Le’Inn, past the still-blinking UFO and the sludge-green alien, who now seems faintly mocking. I feel small and ignorant, and unsure of the boundaries between truth and fiction. Maybe this is a suitable reaction to the Extraterrestrial Highway.

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The heli-gods of Swedish Lapland

Niehku, a high-end heli-skiing lodge on the edge of Riksgränsen in Swedish Lapland, is the first of its kind in Scandinavia. But more than adventure or luxury, it’s really about the two ski bums behind it all

An edited version of this piece appeared in Conde Nast Traveller’s November 2018 issue. Photographs by Jenny Zarins

In the mountains of Swedish Lapland, more than 130 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a group of four skiers are experiencing perhaps the ultimate first-world problem. We are in a tiny helicopter above a track of sun-specked powder, heading for the summit of the Påssustjåkka mountain, pondering the tracks we might joyously carve into it.

But then the pilot points to something, and I see his helmet shake. Following his arm, I spot a herd of white-and-brown-furred reindeer moving in tight formation up the mountainside. Soon, the helicopter makes a sharp turn, and we watch the reindeer, and those potential turns, recede into the distance.

Jörgen Karström, our craggy-faced, ponytailed mountain guide, turns from the seat next to the pilot and gives us a “What can you do?” shrug. Five minutes later, we’ve been deposited at the top of a mountain across the valley, to ponder yet another wide field of icing-sugar powder, glinting in the April sunlight. “Sorry about that,” says Jörgen, as the roar of the chopper gives way to a low hum. “We can’t land too close to the reindeer herds. It disturbs them, and we might get a phone call from one of the Sami herders.”

If there were only one or two runs to be had here, a beautiful herd of reindeer might—almost—be a problem worthy of an apology. But here, on the western fringes of Europe’s largest wilderness area, the supply of white powder is not an issue. On this Friday, I gorge on it, muttering gleeful swearwords under my breath as each unsighted dip reveals yet another long, wide powder field, ready to be carved with luxuriant abandon. There are 12 runs in the day, and around 8,000 vertical metres. At the end of most, we cruise right up to the helicopter. I can barely stop grinning.   

In this portion of Lapland, there are 60 or so skiable peaks that run south and east of Riksgränsen towards Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain, via the Abisko National Park. The mostly curved, glacial mountains contain more than 5,000 square kilometres of wide open powder fields, couloirs and steeper faces, with runs of up to 1,400 metres, all yours with a tap on the shoulder of a helicopter pilot.

On Thursday morning, I’d been picked up from my Hackney flat at 4am. Not long after lunchtime, having been driven along a bleak, snowy stretch of the E10 road from the mining town of Kiruna, Riksgränsen came into view—a cluster of red-barn buildings, sandwiched between the mountains and the frozen Vassiljaure Lake, with two snowmobiles whizzing across its surface. Before 1903, this wasn’t a place—just somewhere that the indigenous nomadic reindeer herders passed through—but that year they built a train station to service the new line transporting iron ore from the mine at Kiruna to Narvik, 30 miles west on the Norwegian coast.

My final destination was Niehku, a brand new, 14-room lodge on the edge of town, beside the Norwegian border. Clad in Lappish fir, it was built onto the semi-circular wall of the Iron Ore Line’s old roundhouse, which serviced the steam trains until 1928. Heli-skiing lodges have been in vogue over the past few years—think Deplar Farm, which opened on Iceland’s windswept Troll Peninsula in 2016, or Alaska’s implausibly remote new Sheldon Chalet—as has the Arctic region, driven in part by a global re-branding of the Northern Lights.

But Mainland Scandinavia’s first heli-lodge isn’t about trends, or business opportunities. At its core, it’s about the two best friends who run it: Johan “Jossi” Lindblom, one of Sweden’s top mountain guides, and Patrik “Strumpan” Strömsten, a skier and restaurateur who is the only person to have twice been named Sweden’s best sommelier. Niehku means “dream” in the Northern Sami language, and this is their vision: an unfussy, egalitarian place where the food, wine and music are as good as the skiing.

Niehku is also defined by the legacy of the roundhouse. The stone wall cuts straight through the building, and a sense of oily industrialism permeates the design, from Swedish firm Krook & Tjäder, not least in Patrik’s beloved wine cellar, set in the old engine pit, which you can look at through a perspex floor in the communal dining room.    

I get to know Patrik and Jossi in snippets over a long weekend at Niehku, joining three groups of guests, all of them Swedish, most of them male and working in finance, property and construction. Jossi is the more taciturn, with his straggly ginger hair, darting blue eyes and bone-dry humour. Patrik is an elfin, evergreen 50, with straight, shoulder-length blonde hair, and the charisma and ready quips (though none of the creepiness) of a 1970s entertainer.

They’ve been best friends, and regular fixtures in Riksgränsen, since the early 1990s, when both had come from around Kiruna to work at the town’s massive hotel. Patrik was a waiter and Jossi a guide, but it was as a bassist and drummer that they came together, in a band called the National Borderliners, whose brand of rock n roll didn’t quite have the longevity of Patrik and Jossi’s friendship. “We got up to a lot of things that are entirely unprintable,” Patrik tells me one night, over a 2015 Weingut Bründlmayer Grüner Veltliner. “The guitarist used to say that his girlfriend was terrified of us.”

The guitarist in our band used to say that his girlfriend was terrified of us.

Patrik had arrived in 1985, a year after the road to Riksgränsen had been built, to ski and wash dishes. There’d been a chairlift since 1952, but until 1984 visitors had to come on the same train line that brought the iron ore. In the 1960s and 70s, it had been a relatively exclusive retreat, when dinner at the hotel meant smoking jackets and frocks.

Patrik was a promising skier, part of the Swedish junior moguls team, but he’d become fixated on the workings of the hotel’s kitchen and restaurant. In 1988, as a cocky, newly-promoted waiter, he was sent over to the table of a wealthy Swedish industrialist. “He asked me for a sherry,” recalls Patrik. “When I brought out a plate of cherries, the guy just looked straight through me. I remember thinking: This can never happen again. I became the only ski bum in town drinking vintage Bordeaux reds.”

By the time Jossi arrived, the smoking jacket crowd were being outnumbered by a new crowd in baggy pants, as Riksgränsen embraced the snowboarders still frowned-on in the Alps. Soon, punkish videos and magazine spreads showed Scandi snowboard pioneers like Terje Håkonsen and Ingemar Backman carving vast powder fields or flying off monstrous kickers into limpid Arctic skies. As the world latched onto this new, grungy-cool sport, it also asked: Where’s that?  

Word spread that there was a near-mythical place in the Arctic wilderness, where you could ski at midnight in June; where the runs rivalled those in Alaska or Kamchatka, and where the heli-skiing was limited only by fuel, unlike in the strictly-regulated Alps or neighbouring Norway, where it is banned.

“The 90s was when it became the late-season hangout of Europe’s best skiers and snowboarders, which it still is really,” says Patrik. “There were people camping everywhere, and we were swapping gear with [legendary American snowboarder] Craig Kelly, Terje and all those guys.”  

The 90s was when it became the late-season hangout of Europe’s best skiers and snowboarders, which it still is really. 

Things changed, of course. Jossi became a fully qualified mountain guide, taking wealthy, adventurous types on bucket-list adventures to Kamchatka, the Himalayas or the Caucuses—but he kept coming back to Riksgränsen. It was the same with Patrik, who worked in restaurants in southern Sweden and the Alps, where he’d chase powder and grapes with equal vigour.  

Patrik’s most notable project, though, was managing Meteorologen, a more premium, 14-room offshoot of the Riksgränsen Hotel, just next door, which opened in 2006 in what had been the staff quarters (before that it was a customs house, and meteorological office). With good local food and world-class wines, it was a welcome upgrade to the increasingly tired hotel and became the place to stay for discerning heli-skiers.

One of those visitors, in 2012, was Clas Darvik, a Gothenburg-based real estate mogul, who was visiting for the first time. On Sunday, 20th May, heavy snow meant no heli-sking, so he took a walk to the Norwegian border on the edge of town, where he spotted the crumbling wall of the old roundhouse, on an appealing plot of land overlooking the town.      

That night he asked Jossi and Patrik to join him for dinner. As Jossi tells it: “He was all excited. Over a bottle of wine, we told him the history of the roundhouse, and the story of the town. At the end, he just said: I want to build a heli-skiing lodge for you two. We laughed.”

For three years, Clas gathered investors and wrestled with the necessary permits to build around the listed site. But, in 2015, he wrote to Jossi and Patrik, and told them it was a go. “We knew it would mean us both changing our lives,” says Jossi. “But we both agreed, if we were going to do it, we’d have to go all out. We didn’t go to a marketing agency and ask what people wanted—we built our dream lodge, the place we’d want to stay.”

We didn’t go to a marketing agency and ask what people wanted—we built our dream lodge, the place we’d want to stay.

I get to live in Patrik and Jossi’s dream on my four days at Niehku, including a full Friday and Saturday. It’s a place of unfussy simplicity, where the important stuff is done with painstaking quality, and the rest simply isn’t available.

My days begin by rising from my cloud-like Swedish Hästens beds, and dawdling downstairs to breakfast: think quality granola, boiled eggs, fresh-baked sourdough bread, local cheese and salmon. Patrik’s wife, Ulrika—also a sommelier and wine writer, who runs a highly-rated restaurant on the island of Gotland in the summers—promptly serves up excellent coffees.

The helicopters start roaring at 9am, with one helicopter to two groups, each with a guide. Like Jörgen, Jossi’s long-term guide partner, all the Niehku guides are maximally certified and hand-picked by the boss. In summer, they’ll lead hiking, biking, fishing and hunting trips. The scariest part of the trip is on the first night, when we’re trained on how to use our avalanche packs, with giant air bags and transceivers. Getting in and out of the helicopter is done with near-military precision, involving lots of reverential crouching. Lunchtimes feature thermos flasks filled with slow-cooked reindeer stew, or chicken and vegetable broth, served with half a ham and cheese baguette, a wafer and a slice of lemon drizzle.

The rest is pure joy, and I ride more powder in two days than I have in the rest of my life. I’ve heli-skied in the Alps, but never had more than three runs in a day, and only from designated landing sites. This, by contrast, feels like a glorious free-for-all. My fellow heli-skiers are more experienced: these are guys whose dinner-time conversation involves tales of heli-skiing in Kamchatka and Alaska, ski-touring across Svalbard, or racing the Sydney-Hobart yacht race. And they’re as childishly wowed as I am.   

Back at the lodge, usually by 3pm, my afternoons involve asking Fredrik Mosesson, the manager, to recommend one of the 26 bottled beers, all organic and from small Swedish breweries (my favourite is a lager called God from the little Nils Oscar brewery). Then I’ll amble into the blonde wood sauna, where at some point I’ll vacantly watch the iron train snake through town, as it does every two hours, every day, carrying 64 carriage-loads of ore. Some good quality easy listening will be bleeding from the speakers at an unobtrusive volume: think the XX or Nancy Sinatra. If you want a massage, there are just three to choose from, all designed for skiers.   

On the comfy leather sofas of the mezzanine floor, I’ll browse the bookshelf, finding a punk anthology (Patrik’s taste), or Barbarian Days, William Finegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning surf anthology. Downstairs, ski bums from town will be wandering in for a beer, along with other curious locals. They’ll be greeted as warmly as the guest who has a private jet waiting for him at Kiruna Airport.

There’s not much art in this place of grey-scale minimalism, with the interior designed by Swedish firm Stylt—the rooms feature black-and-white shots and architectural drawings of the old roundhouse. But, on the mezzanine, just by a ‘Dream’ Fender guitar designed by Stylt for Patrik and Jossi, there’s a work you might miss, framed in a glass case: a ski pass from May 20th, 2012, the day that Clas Darvik couldn’t go up in a helicopter.    

Like the rest of Niehku, dinner is an exercise in purity. You get a six-course meal of what Patrik calls “skiers food”, prepared by 29-year-old Meteorologen alum Ragnar Martinsson. Ingredients are almost all Swedish, and most of them local: think Narvik skrei or langoustine, Kebnekaise Arctic char or reindeer from the Sami shop near Kiruna. Ragnar describes his food, when pressed, as: “Interesting, Swedish, quality, but nothing… weird.”

On my final Saturday night, I’ve just finished a course of wild duck smoked with hay, with a duck-leg rillette, sprouts and blackcurrant. My adopted group of 30-something Swedish property developers have been joined by two girls staying in a cabin in town, and we’ve had in-depth discussions about Swedish pop production and the recent impact of the Metoo movement. Patrik is dancing round the tables, reeling off anecdotes of irascible winemakers as he pours wine from his oenophilic greatest hits, periodically disappearing down into his cellar.

In one corner, Jossi is having dinner with his girlfriend, visiting from Stockholm. I notice him look around, then back to his girlfriend. For a good few moments, he’s stock-still, seemingly lost for words, and a little glassy-eyed. This no-frills mountain man looks a whole lot like someone who’s just realised he’s living in his own dream—and that it’s a pretty nice place to be.   

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New Jersey: the diner capital of the world

This story first appeared on the BBC Travel website, in September 2018, with photography and video by Myles Pritchard. You can see the package here.

In June, photographer Myles and I headed up and down the New Jersey coast, checking out the state’s famous diners. There are still more than 500 of them dotted across New Jersey, which was also the centre of the diner manufacturing industry from 1917 until the mid-1950s, when the market for prefab diners tailed off (partly due to Mcdonald’s, and a change in fast food culture).

It was fascinating to hear why the state took off as a diner hub, led by Jerry O’Mahony, of Bayonne, New Jersey, who built America’s first stationary lunch wagon around 1913. As many as 20 New Jersey diner manufacturers sprung up in the wake of the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company, from the Paterson Vehicle Company to Swingle, Paramount and the Kullman Diner Car Company. The diner boom was helped by New Jersey’s extensive road network, its dense working-class population and a growing number of Greek immigrants who opened diners in the state.

As is usually the case with these jaunts, the highlight was meeting great characters: like Jim Greberis, the gentlemanly longtime owner of the train carriage-inspired Summit Diner, which opened in 1938; and the more taciturn ‘Mustache’ Bill Smith, whose Mustache Bill’s Diner in Barnegat Light was the first in America to win a James Beard Classics award. Bill has owned the diner in this sleepy oceanfront borough since 1972, and says its success is down to one word: Standards. “We have a clause in the menu that says if anyone isn’t happy with any aspect of the food or the service, they don’t pay,” he says.

But perhaps the most memorable character we met was Mario Costa, the owner of the White Mana Diner, on a busy intersection in Jersey City, in what feels like pure Sopranos territory. The diner is fascinating in itself—the UFO-like circular building was first unveiled at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where it was billed as “the future of fast food”, because the server could cook and serve customers without taking more than a few steps.

But then we met Costa himself, with his pomaded hair and unlit cigar, looking like Silvio in the Sopranos (one of his regulars was a dead ringer for Uncle Junior, too). Costa, who moved from Portugal as a kid, is also a boxing obsessive, who owns a rough-and-ready boxing gym across the road, and a bar next door called the Ringside. Over the years, he’s mentored and given free gym time to famous boxers like the Canadian Hilton brothers and their cousin, the lightweight champion Arturo Gatti.

But his best-known allegiance has been with Mike Tyson, whom he has known since Tyson was a lonely, bullied kid growing up in Brooklyn. Tyson used to have a secret apartment above the Ringside bar, and Mario’s gym was his favourite place to train, especially because—according to Mario—the paparazzi didn’t know about it. While Tyson now lives mostly in Las Vegas, Mario still looks after his collection of homing pigeons, held in a couple of rooftop coops above the Ringside bar.

Tyson used to have a secret apartment above the Ringside bar, and Mario’s gym was his favourite place to train, especially because—according to Mario—the paparazzi didn’t know about it.

Certainly, Mario has seen some stuff. Since buying the diner in 1979, regulars have included Tony DiGilio, brother of the feared New Jersey mob boss John DiGilio, who would eat either a cheese slider or a cheesesteak with Wonder bread every day. He spent years giving free burgers and emotional support to the then-struggling rapper Akon. In 2004 he heard Akon’s manager, Robert “Screw” Montanez, being gunned down right outside the Ringside bar.  

But his prevailing passion, other than the diner, is boxing. Every day, he gets coaches in to teach boxing to disadvantaged kids. He doesn’t charge them a dime, just as he never charged Tyson, Gatti or any of the other boxers who have been in his orbit. “Money would have messed it all up,” he says. “I have always done this for the love of it.”

Despite the cigar, the slick hair and the odd shady affiliation, Costa struck me as a fundamentally decent human being. Just like Jim Greberis, who treats his regulars like family, and Bill Smith, who insists on paying his staff well above the required wages, he came across as a gentleman. 

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Turbo-charged tourism in Tromsø

Two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, the Norwegian port city has seen soaring visitor numbers — with a little help from a British actress

First published in the Financial Times, September 2018. Photography by Tim White.

It was 10 years ago this month that English actor Joanna Lumley gave one of her hammier performances — and, in the process, sparked a winter tourism boom deep in the Arctic Circle. “Thank you . . . thank you!” she cried, literally, upon seeing the Northern Lights near Tromso in the BBC’s Joanna Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights, soundtracked by soaring orchestral music. “I can die happy now.”

There were 36,000 visitors to Tromso in the winter of 2008/09; by 2016/17, the number had soared to 194,000, as the Northern Lights became a bucket-list staple across the world. While just about every tour operator here will tell you that Joanna Lumley lit the fuse, there were other factors at play: Norwegian’s new direct flights from London in 2008, for example, or the launch of Instagram in 2010.

“The one-upmanship of social media has definitely helped us,” says Chris Hudson, the Manchester-born chief executive of Visit Tromso. “You get serious points for a selfie under the Northern Lights. It’s more exotic than lying on a beach.”

You get serious points for a selfie under the Northern Lights. It’s more exotic than lying on a beach.

So could Tromso — a compact, modern waterfront city of 76,000 or so people, surrounded by fjords and close to the soaring Lyngen Alps — become the next Reykjavik? There, tourism has transformed the economy, with 2.2m foreign visitors to Iceland in 2017 (up from 464,000 in 2009), almost all of them spending time in the capital.

Unlike in Iceland, the Tromso locals aren’t restive about sharply rising visitor numbers — to date, the self-styled capital of the Arctic has remained first and foremost a working city, rather than a tourist town. It is home to Norway’s biggest fishing port and a university that’s a global leader in Arctic research. It’s a place soaked in the history of the area’s Sami reindeer herders and polar explorers, notably the great Roald Amundsen, who lived here and launched his fateful final voyage from the city in 1928.

Visitor guides tend to play up Tromso’s 19th-century moniker, “the Paris of the north”, and the Nobel Prize-winning writer Bjornstjerne Bjornson once wrote that it “is all champagne and spectacle”. If that might be pushing things today, the city is home to a thriving cultural scene, with its own philharmonic orchestra and an unusually broad range of cultural festivals, including an international film festival in January, centred on Norway’s oldest cinema, which opened in 1915. It’s spawned good pop music over the years, too, from electro acts such as Bel Canto and Royksopp in the 1980s and 1990s to Dagny, a recent sensation who follows in the Scandi-pop mould of singers like Robyn and Annie.

All of this means that the town rarely feels like it’s trying too hard, notwithstanding a few souvenir shops selling trolls and ugly Northern Lights merchandise. Like in Reykjavik, there’s a shabby-chic, hygge vibe to a lot of the cafés and bars in town, a nod, perhaps, to its 16,000 students. On a visit last month, I was happily eating an Astroburger and nodding along to the Dead Kennedys at Bla Rock, a likeably grungy rock bar where Dagny once worked in the kitchen, when the place inexplicably became overrun by little groups of well-lubricated students tied together with string.

But there are plenty of more grown-up places to eat and drink. At Restaurant Smak, an elegant, dark-lit place that serves Michelin-worthy set menus focused squarely on local ingredients such as Arctic reindeer or skrei cod, the clientele consisted mostly of well-heeled locals. Eva-Linda Ramnestedt, who opened the restaurant with her chef husband Espen last year, told me: “We’re not trying to be touristy. We just want to showcase Arctic cuisine, and make food we’d want to eat.”

On the other side of town, the Olhallen (Beer Hall) is owned by the town’s celebrated Mack brewery, and has been open since 1928. It’s not the tourist trap that it could be. On another visit a few years back, I met 89-year-old Ivar Rornes, who told me he’d been drinking in the same corner of the Olhallen since 1941, through the days when women were banned and the locals included Henry Rudi, the infamous Norwegian hunter who killed more than 700 polar bears.

While Rornes always orders the signature house blend of Mack Bayer and Pils, the bar also has 67 taps serving craft beers from across Norway, including experimental concoctions from Mack’s own microbrewery, just above the bar. It’s just one of three microbreweries in town, including Bryggeri 13, a cycling-themed bistro bar where you can watch the brewers poke around in the homemade vats as you eat and drink.

But if this vibrant town is a treat, Tromso is more than a city break. At Visit Tromso, they use “urban Arctic” as shorthand for combining bucket-list adventures with a nice dinner and comfy bed. Luckily, as visitor numbers have boomed, so have the number of things to do in an area where the natural advantages include mountain-to-fjord skiing in the Lyngen Alps, and watching the humpback whales who come to gorge on herring in the winter.

While one tour guide tells me that, pre-Lumley, winter tourism here was “basically three guys with minibuses”, today operators are competing to create ever more elaborate ways to see the Northern Lights. With Pukka Travels, a slickly branded new company, you can choose to watch from a catamaran or a Tesla Model X, with its aurora-friendly glass roof. If you want extra Instagram points, you can also now stay overnight at the Tromso Ice Domes, which opened last year in the Arctic wilderness, and is adding seven ice-sculpted rooms for overnight stays this winter.

One of the earliest pioneers of creative Tromso tourism is Erlend Mogaard-Larsen, an electronic producer and rock musician from Oslo who had fallen in love with the Arctic, launching a 2003 music festival on the remote archipelago of Traena. In 2006, he was on an absinthe-driven night out in Tromso when he got talking to a former whaler at the next table. As he recalls: “When I woke up, I told my wife I’d had a dream that I’d bought a boat in a pub. Except it wasn’t a dream.”

When I woke up, I told my wife I’d had a dream that I’d bought a boat in a pub. Except it wasn’t a dream.

After picking up his 1957 whaling boat, Mogaard-Larsen renamed it the Vulkana, and hired modish Finnish architect Sami Rintala to turn it into a hedonistic spa, complete with on-deck saltwater hot tub, sauna, steam room and modern kitchen, as well as cosy cabins for up to 12 passengers. After opening in 2009, this winter the rustic Vulkana will offer spa and lunch cruises, and Northern Lights evening trips that include a locavore three-course meal. In the spring, it will take guests on overnight ski tours around the Lyngen Alps. Jumping off the boat is optional, but encouraged.

Mogaard-Larsen’s wild ideas haven’t stopped. In 2015, he launched the RakettNatt (Rocket Night) music festival around the little rocket-shaped Tromso kiosk he’d bought and turned into a hot dog stall serving gourmet reindeer hot dogs. The acts this August included local girl Dagny and grungy Swedish pop star Tove Lo. He’s also produced two volumes of his own tongue-in-cheek city guide, A Poor Man’s Connoisseur Guide to Stargazing, Trailblazing and Hellraising in the Coolest City in the North, except perhaps Reykjavik, with grateful thanks to the Gulf Stream.

But perhaps the most prolific mover-shaker in Tromso tourism is Hans-Olav Eriksen, a tall, bald-headed local doctor who has the air of a friendly Bond villain. As well as GP duties, he also co-owns the fjord-side Malangen Resort, an hour south of the city, and runs Lyngsfjord Adventure, whose offerings include reindeer sledding with a Sami reindeer herder, and wilderness stays in Sami-style tents.

His newest venture is the Aurora Spirit Distillery, which opened in 2016 by a stunning fjord deep in the Lyngen Alps, around 90 minutes east of Tromso. Initially inspired by a whisky tour in Scotland, Eriksen partnered up with local businessman Tor-Petter Christensen and Tor’s wife Anne-Lise to build the state-of-the-art distillery for NKr20m (£1.85m). They’re already churning out vodka, aquavit and award-winning gin under their Bivrost brand, with whisky maturing in casks. Each drink is created with fresh Arctic water and native ingredients.

But Aurora Spirit goes further than anything you’ll find on Speyside or Islay when it comes to attracting visitors. The place lays on snowshoeing hikes, axe-throwing lessons, boat trips and tours of the spooky cold war bunker a hundred yards from the distillery (the Nazis and Nato used the area to guard against potential Russian invaders). This winter, the team are adding a barrel-shaped sauna to the existing hot tub, as well as 10 modern cabins right on the water.

“Years ago, before I started Lyngsfjord Adventure, I got thrown out of a restaurant because I was arguing with friends from the south who said that Tromso was a backwater,” Eriksen told me on my most recent visit, looking out over the fjord through the distillery’s glass wall, with a Bivrost gin in hand. “It was ignorant then, but it’s even more ignorant now. Our tourism has evolved so quickly, but it’s still an authentic destination which hasn’t become Disneyfied.”

The Northern Lights may have inspired his drinks brand (Bivrost means the “shaky road” linking heaven and earth in Norse mythology), but Eriksen insists they’re not all the area is about. “If the Northern Lights are the reason people come, that’s great. But, really, they’re the icing, not the cake.”

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The Race of Gentlemen

The Race of Gentlemen, held on the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey, is helping to bring back the post-War golden age of hot rods

First published in American Way magazine, September 2018. Opening image and first shot of Mel by David Carlo, other photography by Myles Pritchard.

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Engines are roaring, old bikes are churning up sand and the briny sea air is thick with the smell of gas and oil. But Gene ‘Windy’ Winfield, a week shy of his 91st birthday, is a picture of cool in his shiny black 1932 Ford Roadster hot rod, with its growling, gleaming engine exposed.

He’s on the starting line at the Race of Gentlemen, a series of period-perfect drag races, held every June since 2013 on the wide beach at Wildwood, New Jersey, a blue-collar boardwalk town at the southern end of the Jersey Shore. With only pre-1935 cars and pre-1947 bikes allowed to race, it’s the most adrenaline-soaked history lesson you’ll ever see.   

Gene is ready for the rush he’s been chasing since the late 1940s, when as a 21-year-old he started taking his souped-up Ford 27-T Roadster to race the dry lake at El Mirage, California. He has never smoked, drunk alcohol or even coffee—this obsession with speed has been enough. It has helped keep him wiry and youthful, with a thick mop of black hair under his battered teal helmet.

Gene first worked on this particular Roadster in 1948—he’s customized and repaired it for five different owners through the years, and by rights it should probably be in a car museum somewhere. Instead, with the tide fast encroaching on the sandy track, it is set to race Holeshot, a beautiful yellow Sedan dragster, driven by New Jersey car customizer Joe Conforth, who has built a number of winning cars in previous years.

The veteran flag girl, in her bandana and vintage Harley jumpsuit, points her flag at each driver, one by one, building the tension. Gene looks on like a rugby player facing down a Maori haka. Then, as at the start of every race here, she leaps into the air, her tattooed legs curled behind her in a moment frozen in a thousand retro-filtered photos.

As she whips her flag down, there’s a spin of tires and a thick spray of sand, as gears engage and revs turn to raw power. Gene’s Roadster can’t quite grip on the grainy sand; but Joe’s Holeshot lives up to its name (holeshot is a term for the driver who is quickest to reach racing speed), and is soon flying down the beach, overlooked by Wildwood’s Ferris Wheel and wooden rollercoaster. Gene’s powerful Roadster picks up pace, but it’s too late.  

Still, when I catch up with Gene in the pit area, after his first race on the sand, he’s beaming. “That was wild,” he says. “We had the engine power, but we just couldn’t get enough traction. But what fun! It’s so great to see this whole culture coming back.”

Gene was there when it was new, as he tells me in between countless interruptions for selfies. In the mid-1940s, aged just 15, he started playing around with a 1928 Ford Model A, installing a fake antenna just so that he could hang a foxtail from it like the cool kids did. He was soon “hopping up” cars, in hot-rod vernacular, and racing on the streets.  

Gene was called up to the Navy for the last six months of WWII, and served six months after the War ended. When he returned home, he found there was a whole new set of Californians who wanted to modify pre-War cars and race them on disused air strips or salt flats. “Guys came back from Hawaii or Okinawa with a bit of money in their pocket, having learned new skills,” he says. “This scene built up around speed, but also this fabulous engineering.”     

By 1948, Gene was running Windy’s Custom Shop in a converted chicken coop behind his mother’s house in Modesto, California, when he read about dry lake racing in a new magazine called Hot Rod. He was soon figuring out how to tweak his 27-T Roadster to smash records at the El Mirage and Reno dry lakes, reaching 144.4mph at Reno in 1949. When he was called up again, this time to serve in the Army in Japan, he organised the country’s first ever stock car race in 1951, leaving the other GIs in his dust.   

Like many of the early hot-rodders, who were miscast as hoodlums, Gene was a technical pioneer. In the late 50s, he created the Winfield Fade, blending paint to create cars that looked like pieces of candy. He would go on to wow car nuts across America with wacky creations like the Winfield Reactor in 1965, a Space-Aged machine that would appear in Star Trek and Bewitched. His cars for movies like Blade Runner and Back to the Future 2 helped cement his heady reputation among folk who know the difference between a Flathead and a Nail Head.

Over the years, the popularity of hot-rodding has ebbed and flowed, fading in the 1960s because Detroit had learned (largely from the hot-rod scene) how to build powerful muscle cars. But, while the ’80s saw a resurgence in hot-rod culture, Gene says today’s scene is livelier than ever. “I go to car shows and I see people doing fabulously innovative things with the same technology we used in the 1940s.” Demand for old knowledge is such that Gene’s out-of-print first book, The Legendary Custom Cars and Hot Rods of Gene Winfield, will set you back close to $200.

Gene points to the growing popularity of not just the Race of Gentlemen, but also the annual drag races at El Mirage and the evocative Bonneville salt flats in Utah. “People are tired of cookie-cutter cars,” he says. “You need imagination, and ingenuity, to build a hot rod, and that challenge appeals to people.”

People are tired of cookie-cutter cars. You need imagination, and ingenuity, to build a hot rod, and that challenge appeals to people.

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One of the big players behind the revival is Mel Stultz, aka Meldon Van Riper Stultz III, who founded the Race of Gentlemen back in 2012. When I first encounter him, he’s rushing around outside his black Harley-Davidson truck by the racing strip as his pet pig sleeps in the back. He’s barefoot, bearded, heavily tattooed, wearing an old U.S. Marines shirt and a battered Harley cap. He’s so busy that he can only tell me the story of the race in frantic snippets, later supplemented with a telephone call.   

Mel grew up a self-confessed wild man around Asbury Park, Bruce Springsteen’s old stomping grounds up the Jersey Shore. He’d been a surfer and skater, then a drummer in a band called Pigs in Space (or PIS). After a stint in the Marines after high school—and the realization that his band weren’t going to conquer the world—in the late ’90s found himself learning to “chop” a Ford Model A Sedan. He started building hot rods, obsessed with the DIY creativity of it all, and a few years later traded one for a 1939 Harley-Davidson motorbike. He was hooked, and one of his trademark moves since has been to surf old bikes, standing on the saddle, hands-free, bare-foot and wild.

Mel was never interested in simply looking at old cars and bikes in shows. So, in 2010—while he made a living re-fitting bars around Asbury Park, and running the revamped Asbury Lanes bowling alley—he began running drag races on a disused race track in Englishtown, New Jersey. Increasingly fascinated by those early hot-rodders, in 2008 he reformed a near-mythical car and motorcycle club called the Oilers, first founded in the 1940s by a Californian Navy vet called Jim Nelson, who—with echoes of Gene’s chicken coop—built hot rods on his parent’s turkey farm.      

Mel was sitting alone on the local beach at Allenhurst, New Jersey, one day in 2012, when he had an “If you build it” moment. “It was just, like: Man, we could drag race down that beach.”

At the time, he was reading about the great 1920s racing driver and mechanic, ‘Gentle’ Jimmy Murphy, and the days when car-builders like him had to do demos for businessmen in return for funding. “You’d get these guys in suits and ties, who would strap into these contraptions they’d built and just haul ass.”  

He came up with the name the Race of Gentlemen, partly as a nod to ‘Gentle Jimmy’ but also to persuade the mayor of Allenhurst to allow the race to happen. “I had neck tats and a crazy beard. The idea was, Let’s not scare this town.” Mel also liked that the acronym, TROG, nodded to troglodytes and the garage punk of the Troggs. “Besides,” he says. “You can be a gentleman and a punk.”

So, in the Fall of 2012, Mel ushered 15 cars and 15 bikes onto the beach at Allenhurst, as around 3,500 spectators turned up, many having seen Mel’s punkish home-made flyers. Mel had got his Oilers crew involved, and had plucked up the courage to ask Sara Francello, the “tough ass” barmaid at the bar he was re-fitting, if she would be the flag girl. Sara had no idea what a flag girl was, but agreed, even though she hates having her picture taken. Mel and Sara would eventually become a couple, and she would become perhaps the most photographed flag girl of all time.

That first year was a success, even as cars and bikes regularly got stuck in the sand, and a 14-page feature in Hot Rod magazine was a clarion call to a whole community: “It shook the industry,” recalls Mel. “People just looked at the pictures and were like: What the Hell is this?”

People just looked at the pictures and were like: What the Hell is this?

But, just days after the race, Hurricane Sandy hit Allenhurst hard, meaning Mel had to go searching for a new place to hold his race. Wildwood, an hour and a half south, hadn’t just survived Sandy relatively unscathed, but was a match made in hot-rod heaven, with its boardwalk amusement park and mid-century motels providing a perfectly nostalgic background. In 2013, the town welcomed Mel and his cohorts with open arms.   

The race has grown every year since—this year, there are close to 200 cars and bikes racing, and nearly 20,000 spectators, listening to the wry commentary of the dapperly attired, cigar-smoking Nick Foster, a cigar shop owner and Mel’s former next door neighbor.

Part of the race’s success has been down to how it looks, right down to the battered period helmets, many inscribed with speed-based aphorisms like ‘Death rides a fast camel’. But the photographs don’t give a sense of the community the race has created. “It really is like a family, and people will do anything for each other,” says Sara, the flag girl and race manager. “A lot of these guys are real softies underneath it all—there’s so much emotion between them.”

This weekend, emotions are heightened by bike accidents involving two beloved members of the TROG community: Jeremiah Armenta and Atsushi Yasui, aka ‘Sushi’, a race legend who brings a ten-strong crew from Japan every year. Both are set to make full recoveries, but Mel later admits to being shaken. “It hurts to see your friends like that,” he says. “But it shows just how real this is. These guys are hitting close to 80 miles an hour on a beach. You can’t fake that.”

These guys are hitting close to 80 miles an hour on a beach. You can’t fake that.

Still—while Mel considers new ways to minimise the risks involved, while not sacrificing the soul of his race—he’s also planning to grow the Race of Gentlemen. On Labor Day weekend this year, he is putting on a series of oval track races for the 115th anniversary of Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee. He has unconfirmed plans to take TROG to Galvesten, Texas, next year, and possibly take the race back to California, where it has previously been held at Pismo Beach. He’s even eyeing up potential overseas locations for the race, possibly including Australia and Japan.

“It feels like we’ve hit on something,” says Mel. “People want this so bad. They’re tired of things being plastic and disposable. These cars and bikes hark back to a time when people built things to last, with their bare hands. It’s such a thrill to see guys like Gene coming to the race—there are fewer and fewer of these guys left, and we want to make sure that their spirit never dies.”

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Ojai’s new hippie paradise

A new crop of businesses have given the hippie-ish Californian town of Ojai a new lease of life—and made it better to visit than ever

First published in Courier magazine, May 2018. Photography by Nancy Neil and Myles Pritchard.

Looking out across the smoky firepit in the palm-filled courtyard of Caravan Outpost, an Airstream trailer park on the edge of Ojai, co-founder Brad Steward can’t quite believe his luck. “It feels like the universe delivered us to this magical place,” he says.

The magical place in question is this collection of 11 uniquely designed Airstream trailers with hammocks and sit-up bikes, dotted around a tin-shed lobby that doubles as an impeccably curated general store, with own-brand ponchos, throws and corduroy trucker caps.

But it’s also Ojai itself, a pretty little valley town of barely 8,000 residents, 90 minutes north of Los Angeles and a hop inland from the chi-chi coastal town of Santa Barbara—which has seen an influx of creativity over the past five years.

“We came here for the same things that drew the Chumash Indians,” says Steward, a one-time pro snowboarder and industry pioneer who launched the Bonfire snowboard brand in 1989. “The valley is like the American Mediterranean—there’s nowhere else in America where you can get so much amazing produce, from wine to olives and citrus fruit, all grown within five minutes.”

We came here for the same things that drew the Chumash Indians.

While the Chumash were the first inhabitants of Ojai, naming it after the moon that could be seen all night along the valley, they’ve been followed here by a succession of seekers—from Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian mystic credited with bringing yoga to America, who moved here in 1922, to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who spent a blissed-out summer in Ojai in 1972.

Famous for the pink glow that appears on the Topatopa Mountains in the evening, Ojai stood in for Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon in 1937. Those of a more mystical persuasion believe the valley is a spiritual vortex, blessed with benevolent spirits—a notion not dispelled when the town largely survived the wildfires that raged around it last December.

Steward opened Caravan Outpost in the summer of 2016, with his partner Shawn, and Chet and Mellanie Hilgers. The Stewards had been living in Portland, Oregon, but wanted to move to Ojai when, by chance, they overhead the Hilgers—a local couple—talking about how they’d secured the rights to an old RV park on the edge of town. “It was our blessed Ojai moment,” says Steward. “Somehow, we all had this shared vision of a luxurious outpost for nomads.”

Steward and his co-founders aren’t alone in opening new businesses here. Walking along the main street, with its quaint shopping arcades and Mediterranean-style villas, you’ll pass Revel, an airy kombucha bar, and farm-to-table restaurant Harvest, both of which opened last summer. Drive out of town towards the Topa Mountain Winery and you’ll see the Rancho Inn, a 1950s motel given a hipster-chic makeover in 2012: think cacti, cruiser bikes and a cosy bar playing vinyl records by the pool.

“It wasn’t like a memo went round,” says Bianca Roe, the former model and actor who opened boho-chic boutique In The Field with her husband, the actor-turned-designer Channon Roe, in 2014. “But, by chance, a whole new set of intelligent, mindful people came around the same time we did. It was like the vortex was calling.”

By chance, a whole new set of intelligent, mindful people came around the same time we did. It was like the vortex was calling.

In many ways, the Roes—who left Los Angeles in 2011 to live in their “dreamscape”—are an archetypal couple in a town whose new residents include the actor Channing Tatum and the organic food campaigner and heiress Anna Getty. As an actor, Californian Channon appeared in everything from The X-Files to Boogie Nights, before re-inventing himself as a furniture restorer and interior designer. Melbourne-born Bianca once strutted catwalks for the likes of Armani and Burberry, and is best known for roles in sci-fi series Farscape and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

They created In The Field in 2014, selling an eclectic but lush range of goods: think designer capes, vintage jumpsuits, African jewellery, old wooden surfboards and kids’ teepees. “We’re both storytellers,” says Bianca. “And the shop is the story of our life and travels.”

Of course, Ojai’s residents aren’t all life envy-inducing arrivistes. Old favourite haunts include Farmer and the Cook, an organic vegetable market and restaurant attached to a local farm, which opened in 2001; and the wonderfully evocative Bart’s Books, America’s largest outdoor book store, which opened in 1964 as a series of sidewalk book cases, and has since grown to include more than 150,000 books, from 35-cent novels to a US$6,000 first edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

And some of the biggest attractions in town are of the more eternal variety: like Meditation Mount, a meditation centre and Zen garden on a hill overlooking the town, or the natural hot springs in a lush valley towards the coast, which are still being made fit for purpose again after the wildfires.

But strict local laws have helped the new businesses fit into a town that feels elegantly lived-in. In late 2013, Santa Monice emigres Michael and Rachel Graves created Summer Camp, a homeware/outdoor goods store and framers in an old gas station on the Ventura side of town. “You can’t build new buildings in Ojai, and there are super-strict regulations designed to keep the character of every existing building,” says Michael. “It means you have to be lucky, like we were in finding an abandoned pump station. But it also helps maintain the beauty of the place. There’s nowhere else like this.”

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The new Ojai institutions
Summer Camp

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Summer Camp, a homeware/outdoor goods store and framer in an old gas station on the edge of town, has an aesthetic that somehow evokes Wes Anderson and dreamy road trips. Owners Michael and Rachel Graves opened the shop in 2013, having escaped Santa Monica “for a quieter, more connected life”. Aside from the framing, the goods run the gamut from cacti, rustic local ceramics and Ojai Vibes candles to floral vintage dresses and retro wooden waterskis. “The focus is on local, handmade stuff,” says Michael. “We love the outdoors, and that idea of the summer camp informs it all.”
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Harvest

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A collaboration between craft beer entrepreneur Spoon Singh and interior designer Channon Roe (also the man behind the nearby In The Field boutique), Harvest opened last summer in an elegantly spartan space, with blonde wood ceilings and an outdoor patio. The kitchen is helmed by is 22-year-old prodigy Alvaro Uribe, whose experience includes a stint at the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley. He serves up Ventura oysters, local shiitake mushroom toast and steak from the local Watkins Cattle Company. “It’s all about showcasing the best of Ojai,” says Uribe. “It’s really fun to be using produce made by friends of mine.”
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Ojai Rancho Inn

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Until 2012, the Ojai Rancho Inn was just another tired roadside inn—but then Chris Sewell and Kenny Osehan got hold of it. Sewell and Osehan are the couple behind the Shelter Social Club, which specialises in giving hip makeovers to Californian motels like the Alamo Motel in Los Alamos and the Hamlet Inn in the Danish-themed town of Solvang. Today’s Ojai Rancho Inn is an Instagram-tastic amalgam of wood-walled kitsch and modern hipsterdom, with cool ceramic light fixtures and Indian-accented rugs, throws and pouffes. There are cruiser bikes to hire, and regular events round the pool by the cosy Chief’s Peak bar, which has become a favourite haunt for locals.
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Wildwood: the blue-collar riviera

The beachfront borough’s mid-century ‘Doo-Wop’ motels are a treat for design fans — but the developers are circling

First published in the Financial Times, August 2018. Photography by Mark Havens, from his book Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods.

Wildwood’s boardwalk fun train has been running the two miles up and down the beach since 1949 — and a few of the people riding it on a Saturday morning earlier this summer looked like they could just about have been on that first run.

In the carriage in front of me were a group of older men and women in grey suits and military caps on their way to an American Legion convention; in the carriage behind were two guys with beards and tattoos in vintage Harley-Davidson racing jerseys, heading towards The Race of Gentlemen, a gas-soaked amalgam of drag race and history lesson in which pre-1935 roadsters and pre-1947 tank shifter bikes race on the squirrelly sand of Wildwood’s wide beach.

A good selection of the other passengers were twenty-somethings in luminous vests, presumably on their way to play the arcades, enjoy the amusement park rides, and gorge on boardwalk hot dogs and Kohr’s soft-serve ice cream. The Wildwoods—five beachfront boroughs near the southern tip of the Jersey Shore, with Wildwood in the centre—could well be America’s capital of retro boardwalk kitsch. This is a place of mini-golf courses, plastic palm trees and neon, where the best restaurant in town is widely considered to be the Surfside West, a friendly chrome diner that has been serving beige food since 1963.

But, as I discovered over a few days here, the quirks of the Wildwoods have been the result of a two-decade battle between preservation and the forces of modernisation and profit. There are still more mid-century motels and hotels here than anywhere else in America, close to 140 at the last count — even if there were once more than 600. Tired but evocative places like the Pink Champagne, the Waikiki and the Astronaut are still hanging on along Ocean and Atlantic Avenues, each with their own faded pastel colour scheme and kitsch ornamentation, from the fibreglass pirate atop the Jolly Roger to the elephant by the pool at the Singapore.

Since the condominium boom of the 1990s, these so-called Doo-Wop motels have been under near-constant threat from developers, who have wondered why Wildwood property prices don’t match the affluent nearby towns of Stone Harbor, Avalon and Cape May, the latter home to America’s best-preserved collection of Victorian buildings.

“There was a time, back in the 1990s, when people were saying we should bulldoze the whole town and rebuild it as a Victorian town like Cape May,” says Jack Morey, who runs Wildwood’s most prominent family business with his brother Will. The Morey empire includes Morey’s Piers, the series of amusement parks and water parks jutting out from the boardwalk, as well as four Doo-Wop-themed hotels and a condo building.

There was a time, back in the 1990s, when people were saying we should bulldoze the whole town and rebuild it as a Victorian town.

The Morey family business started in 1953, when Morey’s father, Wilbert, built the Fantasy, a utilitarian L-shaped motel with a space-aged neon sign. An uneducated builder/carpenter, he had seen the influx of visitors from Philadelphia, who could now drive here in under 90 minutes on Eisenhower’s new Garden State Parkway. They would spend days on the beach and boardwalk, and evenings watching clean-cut rockers like Bobby Rydell and Bill Haley, who first played “Rock Around the Clock” at Wildwood’s HofBrau Hotel in 1954.

“Wildwood quickly became the ‘Blue-Collar Riviera’,” says Jack. “Dad saw it happening, and figured out what these new visitors wanted.” Inspired by trips to Miami Beach and Acapulco, Wilbert and his brother William would go on to build close to 30 ever-grander motels in the Wildwoods, and in 1968 installed a fibreglass waterslide called The Wipe Out on one of the piers. Jack and Will Jr grew up in the penthouse of the Pan-American — a beachfront behemoth built by their father, which they still own — and learned the amusement business running fairground games as teenagers.

So it was personal when developers began ripping down Wildwood’s 1950s and 1960s buildings, often smashing up their neon signs. “Every time one of these buildings was demolished, it was like a knife in my back,” says Jack. “I lost friends over it.”

Every time one of these buildings was demolished, it was like a knife in my back. I lost friends over it.

Luckily for Jack, he had support. Steven Izenour was an architect and urban theorist who had published Learning from Las Vegas in 1972, a then-radical tome in which, for the first time, an academic celebrated the crass symbolism of the Vegas Strip. And in the 1990s, he started bringing students to the Wildwoods, where they would gaze at the motels and neon signs, earnestly pondering which architectural subdivision they might fit into, be it Vroom, Pu-Pu Platter or Phony Colonee.

“At first, the locals were a bit bemused by Steve and his students,” recalls Jack. “For Will and me, it was a validation of sorts.” In 1997, Morey and Izenour formed the core of a group whose goal was to save and promote these old motels. In a nod to Bill Haley and his ilk, they named the local style Doo-Wop, even if it’s barely distinguishable from Googie, a genre that takes its cues from car culture, space and the atomic age. Calling themselves the Doo-Wop Preservation League, and writing cheery guides for motel owners on “How to Doo-Wop”, the group also created the Wildwoods Shore Historic District, modelled after South Beach’s Art Deco District.

Both the league and the district have survived Izenour’s death in 2001. But the destruction of the motels hasn’t stopped. Mark Havens, 47, has been coming on family holidays to Wildwood every August since he was a child in Philadelphia. “It was always the highlight of our year,” he says. “We’d spend the days on the beach, and in the evenings we’d all pile into the car and tour the neon signs.”

In the 2000s, Havens noticed what he calls the “wholesale destruction” of the Doo-Wop buildings, and decided to pick up a camera to document their passing. The result, which was published in 2016, is Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods, an elegiac series of portraits of empty, car-free motels.

“To me, there’s a humility and a humanity to these places,” he says. “Families like ours couldn’t afford to go to the real Caribbean or Hawaii, but they could come and stay at the Caribbean or Waikiki motels. It was like the Wildwood architects took sterile modernism and gave it this injection of life, energy and personality.”

It was like the Wildwood architects took sterile modernism and gave it this injection of life, energy and personality.

There have been notable preservation successes such as the lime-green Caribbean Motel, with its cantilevered walkway, which was built by the Moreys in 1957 and is now listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. Havens rightly points out that it’s as period-perfect as anything you’ll see in Palm Springs.

But George Miller and Carolyn Emigh, two lawyers from Washington who bought and extensively renovated the Caribbean in 2004, admit that it’s hard to make money from a 30-room motel with such a short season. “We’ve put preservation before profit,” says Carolyn, “but not everyone has that luxury.”

Morey’s hotels, like his slick, family-friendly amusement parks, aren’t as period-accurate as the Caribbean, and he admits that business and preservation make tricky bedfellows — not least in the decision to be “real” kitsch or fake kitsch. “We don’t want the place to become Disneyland, but we don’t want it to be Dismaland either,” he says. “Usually, it doesn’t make business sense to try to keep things exactly as they were.”

Yet somehow the Wildwoods have held on to a certain spirit that you can feel on the boardwalk and at Morey’s Piers, where the staff at least seem happy to be manning the games, Ferris wheel and faux-retro wooden rollercoaster. It’s far jollier than the high-rise, post-Trump Atlantic City up the coast, or Seaside Heights, where the rollercoaster that fell into the sea following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 created an unfortunate metaphor for the town’s fortunes.

The fun is notably pre-gentrification, unlike, say, Asbury Park, the old Springsteen haunt up the Jersey Shore, where the Asbury Hotel and Asbury Lanes bowling alley are among several institutions to have had recent makeovers seemingly designed for Williamsburg escapees. In calorific, diner-heavy Wildwood, by contrast, you’ll still struggle to find a flat white or an ahi poke.

As my trip on the toy train illustrated, summer events play a big part in keeping the town from fossilising. This season has already seen the Harlem Globetrotters and World Wrestling Entertainment hit town, while punters have also been treated to boogie-board races, foam parties, the Duke of Fluke fishing tournament, a Doo-Wop music festival and Roar to the Shore, a Harley-heavy bike rally.

But few can surely match The Race of Gentlemen, which turns the beach into an evocative blur of sand, oil and leather. The race, abbreviated to “Trog”, was founded by a tattooed former punk rocker called Mel Stultz, who builds hot rods and rides old Harleys and Indians barefoot. Inspired by the postwar golden age of drag racing, he held the first race in 2012 up the coast at Allenhurst, before the beach was wiped out by Hurricane Sandy. The next year, he approached Wildwood.

“Not all towns would welcome something like Trog,” Morey says of the race, where the devotion to period accuracy means as many Instagram shots as it does headaches for city officials (two high-speed crashes at this year’s event have not helped). “Frankly, it’s a logistical nightmare, but Mel and his team are great guys, and it fits what we’re about as a town. We never want this place to be stuck-up. We’ve always been desperate for it to stay real, and to stay fun.”

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The curious history of the Coney Dog

From 19th-Century German immigrant Charles Feltman to Japanese hot dog champion Takeru Kobayashi, the iconic Coney Island hot dog has had a rollercoaster journey

First published in Vera magazine, August 2018. Photography by Myles Pritchard

At the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade, New York City plumber Chris Geiger has gone a little off-brief. He’s dressed not as Neptune, or a merman, but as a giant squeezy mustard bottle, while his ten-year-old son, Jordan, is dressed as a hot dog. For added authenticity, Chris has painstakingly painted the logo of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs on Jordan’s costume, a reference to Coney Island’s most famous hot dog vendor. “Having a hot dog is the number one thing to do in Coney Island,” Chris says. “It’s part of the history here, and it’s a symbol of the place. Besides, I can’t do rollercoasters.”

The Geigers aren’t alone in having a hot dog when they come to Coney Island, on the southern edge of Brooklyn, which is known around the world for its theme parks, sideshows and general sense of bygone seaside revelry. The queues at the two branches of Nathan’s – including the huge original branch, which opened as a nickel stand on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in 1916 – are usually the biggest in town, with 20-deep lines of people waiting to wolf down simple beef dogs slathered in ketchup and mustard.

The hot dog was invented in Coney Island, and as I learn over two days here, the Coney dog has a rich, messy history that mirrors the rollercoaster history of Coney Island itself. I get the story from Michael Quinn, a local boy who three years ago resurrected Feltman’s, the original brand of Coney dogs, along with his brother Joe. I meet Quinn, resplendent in a mustard-splodged Feltman’s shirt, over a bright red table outside one of his two hot dog concessions inside Luna Park, the theme park that first opened across the road in 1903, burned down in 1944, and was reopened in 2013.

It was some time around 1867 that Charles Feltman, an immigrant German baker who ran a pushcart pie wagon near the beach, had a brainwave. He decided to bake a special, elongated milk roll that could house a Frankfurter from his native Germany. Designed especially for beach-goers, who wanted to walk and eat, he called it the Coney Island Red Hot. It was an instant smash, even if speculation about the contents of the sausages meant punters began calling these new creations “hot dogs”.

Feltman probably didn’t like that name. And, according to Quinn, he probably would have hated the fact that the hot dog became his most famous legacy. “I think he would have much rather have been known as the guy behind America’s biggest and grandest restaurant, but that’s the part of the story everyone forgets,” he says.

I think Feltman would have much rather have been known as the guy behind America’s biggest and grandest restaurant, but that’s the part of the story everyone forgets.

In 1871, on the back of his stellar hot dog sales, Feltman leased land and began building a grand restaurant complex, originally called Feltman’s German Gardens, on the site where Feltman’s sits today. By the 1920s, when Coney Island had become a buzzing high-end amusement resort, Feltman’s stretched from Surf Avenue to the beach, serving more than five million diners a year. The complex boasted lavish beer gardens, ballrooms, a bathhouse, a rollercoaster, a movie theatre and America’s most famous carousel. At its peak, it employed 1,200 waitstaff, including America’s first singing waiters, and people would travel the country to pay $2.50 for a Shore Dinner, when Quinn says “the entire table would be covered in lobster, clams, turtle, Bluefish, you name it”.

Despite still having seven grills for its ever-popular hot dogs, by 1916 Feltman’s was more focused on seafood and entertainment for everyone from Al Capone to President William Taft. So it was barely noteworthy when a lowly Jewish bun slicer called Nathan Handwerker handed in his notice, and set up a rival stall just down the road, serving similar hot dogs to those at Feltman’s, but for five cents instead of ten. Because there were still concerns about the ingredients of hot dogs, he gave surgeon’s smocks to early customers to fake a health industry seal of approval, and claimed his dogs were both healthy and kosher. Like Feltman’s original idea, it was an instant hit.     

Things changed dramatically, of course, for Coney Island and its hot dogs. After the glory days of the early 20th Century, there was a precipitous decline following the Great Depression and then the War, when the rise of cars and air-conditioned suburban living made salty seaside fun seem passe. After Luna Park closed in 1944, Feltman’s restaurant became a ghost of its former glories, and closed in 1954 (that both are now back is a sure sign of Coney Island’s recent resurgence).   

The more blue-collar Nathan’s was better-placed to survive the years of depression. Nathan’s son Murray opened two more branches in the 1950s and 60s, and in the early 1970s started the now-legendary hot dog eating competition, which takes place every July. In 1987, a group of investors swooped, and Nathan’s has gone from being a family-run affair to a Chinese-owned, NASDAQ-listed behemoth, with hundreds of franchises across America and the world.

Michael Quinn, 42, has seen Coney Island fall and rise again first-hand. Growing up in the area, he remembers a place of “gangs, drugs and amusement parks burning down.” Still, he and his brother Jimmy would swim in the sea and ride the old Cyclone wooden rollercoaster. They vowed one day to start a Coney Island business of their own, a dream that was tragically denied them. Michael had become a schoolteacher in September, 2001, when his brother Jimmy died in the 9/11 attacks. Devastated, he took solace in doing historic walking tours around the Coney Island beachfront. “It was a kind of catharsis for me,” he says. “Being here, and talking about this place, made me feel closer to Jimmy.”

Fifteen years later, Michael and his other brother Joe, who had served in the military, were watching a New York Mets baseball game with a hot dog when they had a Feltman-esque brainwave: they should bring back the Feltman’s brand, honouring Michael and Jimmy’s childhood plan. “It wasn’t just creating a hot dog brand,” says Michael. “It was bringing back an important historic place where my grandfather was a regular, and doing it as a family.”

Quinn admits seeing a certain irony in the fact that Feltman’s is now the plucky underdog, with its $4.25 hot dog ten cents cheaper than the one down the road. But, while the queues at Feltman’s are nothing like those at Nathan’s, the Feltman’s beef hot dogs – made with no artificial ingredients, and typically topped with sauerkraut, as Feltman served them – generally get better reviews. New York City website Gothamist declaring the Feltman’s dog “most likely the best hot dog you’ll ever eat in your life”, while hot dog connoisseur Jon Fox, the man behind the Hot Dog Nation Facebook group, declared it “as good a beef dog as I’ve had”.

Quinn mentions another person who prefers Feltman’s to Nathan’s: Takeru Kobayashi, the legendary Japanese eating champion who created his own slice of Coney Island hot dog history back in 2001. So, the next day, I find myself outside Kobayashi’s front door in the hip neighbourhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn (Mermaid Parade crowds make a trip to Coney Island tricky). When he meets me, he’s wearing a pair of Warhol-esque hot dog print socks and a hot dog tee that shows off thin, toned arms. He has a blue quiff, and seems far younger than his 40 years.

Kobayashi’s story – which he tells me over iced coffee in halted English, and in translation via his publicist Maggie James – is remarkable. Back in 2001, he was a skinny 22-year-old from Japan who turned up jet-lagged at the Coney Island hot dog contest, only to be teased by his burly, macho competitors. “One guy joked that his arm was bigger than both my legs,” Kobayashi recalls. “Another told me that teenagers weren’t allowed to compete.”

One guy joked that his arm was bigger than both my legs. Another told me that teenagers weren’t allowed to compete.

Kobayashi had discovered his ability to eat ridiculous amounts of food in a curry rice fast food chain in Nagano, when friends had challenged him. He’d gone on to win a series of eating competitions in Japan, while studying the science of competitive eating, including expanding his stomach with water. Despite not having ever eaten American-style hot dogs, and having practised with fish sticks, he had figured out the most effective way to eat a hot dog very quickly: by splitting it in two and dunking each half in water to break down the starches in the bread.  

None of the burly guys knew this, until a few minutes into the 2001 contest at Nathan’s. Gradually, the other competitors stopped eating to watch, as the cameras all trained themselves on the kid from Japan. As Kobayashi remembers: “I felt this weird change. Suddenly, it was like the world had stopped and everyone was looking at me.”

I felt this weird change. Suddenly, it was like the world had stopped and everyone was looking at me.

The previous record was 25, and as Kobayashi passed 30, the organisers had run out of signs, and had to frantically write new numbers. When he finally stopped, he’d eaten 50 hot dogs, doubling the previous record. The new record was so outlandish that some people claimed aliens had abducted Kobayashi and replaced his stomach.

Either way, it changed competitive eating for good: as the sport exploded in popularity, everyone started dipping their dogs in water, including Joey Chestnut, the American current Nathan’s champion, and the only real rival to Kobayashi’s crown as the greatest eater ever. Kobayashi’s approach – of “training to eat like you would for baseball or soccer” – has become the new normal, even if his many world records are hard to touch: from hamburgers (93 in eight minutes) to tacos (159 in ten) and pork buns (100 in 12 minutes). After his 2001 win, Kobayashi would win six consecutive Nathan’s hot dog competitions.

But the story of Kobayashi and Nathan’s would go very sour. In 2010, he didn’t compete at the annual hot dog eating competition, having refused to sign an exclusive contract with Major League Eating (MLE), competitive eating’s governing body. Nonetheless, he turned up at the event and took to the stage to congratulate other eaters, only to be arrested and spend a night in a tough Brooklyn prison (when he came out, he famously said: “I’m hungry”). He hasn’t competed at Nathan’s since, and tells me that he still feels “disgusted” by what happened.

So, it’s perhaps little surprise that Kobayashi – a “health freak” away from training – favours Feltman’s hot dogs over the Nathan’s dogs. “Nathan’s hot dogs are so salty, and pumped full of chemicals,” he says. “But Feltman’s hot dogs are almost like steaks, with real ingredients. I couldn’t eat as many, though, as they have a real snap, and aren’t as greasy.”  

Still, whatever people say, and whatever is really in this sausages, it’s unlikely the queues for Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs will die down any time soon. At both Nathan’s and now Feltman’s, they’re queueing for more than a sausage in a bun. They’re in line for a messy bite of pop culture history, which began right here in Coney Island.  

 

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A postcard from Pioneertown

An old Wild West film set in the desert is attracting creative downshifters from LA and New York

First published in the Financial Times, January 2018. Photography by Myles Pritchard

At one end of Pioneertown’s dusty Mane St – past the sheriff’s office, the bank, the bathhouse and the old Pioneer Bowl bowling alley – you’ll find the Likker Barn, which is home to the Pioneertown General Store. But good luck if you want to buy a pack of smokes, a lottery ticket or indeed a beer. If you’re in the market for a vintage denim jacket or a “chill vibes” herbal tincture, though, you might just be in luck.

Pioneertown is both an old Wild West film set and a real desert town, just over two hour’s drive east of Los Angeles and up a winding, four-mile road from the workaday town of Yucca Valley. But while the cowboys were once A-list Hollywood actors, today’s cowboys tend to be Los Angeles creative types in Wrangler cut-offs and ponchos – many of whom are setting up lives and businesses among the hay bales, wooden carts and other Old West ephemera.    

“I never realised that there would be so much creativity in the desert,” says Sarah Tabbush, the Pioneertown General Store’s owner, dressed in her uniform of vintage cowboy boots, hat and denim shirt. After three years in town, she opened the store this year, finally giving up her LA career doing marketing for Tom’s shoes, with a mission “to showcase all the makers and creators out here”.

I never realised that there would be so much creativity in the desert.

Across the road is the Pioneertown Motel, whose lobby shed – surrounded by artfully curated cacti – has become the most Instagrammed spot in town. The motel’s owners, brothers Mike and Matt French, bought the kitsch old motel in 2014, ditching jobs in events and hospitality respectively, and moving from New York to give the 19 rooms a desert-chic makeover (“We had to get rid of a lot of doilies,” notes Mike).

The brothers host  DJ sets and cook-outs in the desert, and recently bought up three houses and an Airstream on Mane St for everything from yoga classes to sound healing sessions and salon dinners.

Pioneertown started with a very different kind of creativity, founded in 1946 by a group of A-list Hollywood cowboys including Roy Rogers, Russell Hayden and Gene Autry – who bought up a 32,000-acre tract of land, judging that the area could stand in for Texas or Arizona as well as California.

Naming the town after The Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers’ singing troupe, Pioneertown was different to other film sets in that there was life, and real homes, behind the facades. While filming shows like The Cisco Kid and and Judge Roy Bean, Autry and pals would host poker nights at the town’s motel, while Rogers bought property on Mane St.

But this curious little place wasn’t always destined to become a hipster mecca. As the appeal of Westerns faded in the 1960s, there were plans to turn Pioneertown into a “real” holiday destination, with ritzy hotels and golf courses. As the plans failed to materialise, decay set in.

“It was pretty awful here for a while,” recalls Gay Smith, an indomitable former schoolteacher who moved to Pioneertown in 1966 with her late husband, and who now hosts staged Wild West shootouts on a set she built on her land. “You’d have bikers fighting and running around with no clothes on. By the mid-70s, the town was falling into disrepair.”

You’d have bikers fighting and running around with no clothes on. By the mid-70s, the town was falling into disrepair.

But a turning point came in 1982, when the local biker bar was taken over by Harriet Aleba, who opened Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace with her husband Claude “Pappy” Allen, who would sing while she cooked homely Tex-Mex.

As Pappy started bringing live bands, the saloon went from biker burrito bar to family-friendly live music institution. It was already a famous spot by the time Aleba sold her beloved bar to Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz, a gay couple from New York, in 2003 – but Celia and Krantz upped the volume even further, hosting festivals in the back yard and drawing acts like the Arctic Monkeys, the Dandy Warhols and Paul McCartney, who played an impromptu gig here last year.

“When Paul McCartney played, we thought that might have been when Pioneertown peaked,” says “Big Dave” Johnson, the legendary security guard at Pappy and Harriet’s, who we meet on a Monday night, with the bar packed for open mic night. “But, you know, it keeps getting better.”

Dave, suitably, is also a glass-blower and fronts his own tribute band, Hammer of Ozz. His imposing stature (matched by his voluminous beard) seems largely wasted on the “security lap” we observe, as an alt-folk band from Yucca Valley plays on the stage. Instead of throwing people out, Dave spends the lap giving out high-fives and bear hugs as locals call out his name. All appears well in Pioneertown.    

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Keeping up with the Jonsdottirs

Five years ago, Iceland didn’t really do luxury accommodation. Now, it’s home to some of the most exclusive and adventurous retreats on the planet

First published in Celebrated Living, July 2018. Photography by River Thompson

Sitting at the elegantly minimalist bar at the ION City Hotel in Reykjavík, Sigurlaug Sverrisdóttir is telling the story of how she kick-started not just her own hotel brand, but the whole concept of Iceland as a luxury destination.

“Ironically, I was looking for a place where I could unwind and go fly-fishing with my husband,” says Sverrisdóttir, whose unfussy glamour betrays the fact that she used to manage more than 5,000 cabin crew members for a major charter airline. “But, instead of a summer home, we ended up creating a new tourist destination.”  

We’re sitting in Sverrisdóttir’s second hotel, which opened on Reykjavík’s main street last summer, but she’s telling the story of her first one—the brutalist ION Adventure Hotel, an hour’s drive east of the capital in the starkly beautiful Þingvellir National Park, which opened in 2013.

Back in 2011, the Icelander was living in Switzerland and managing a massive operation for the Air Atlanta Icelandic airline, which ranged from writing manuals for cabin-crew members to organising onboard services for Saudi princes or the Rolling Stones. “It was all hiring, firing, stress and lots of travel, often to stay in five-star hotels which all had the same menus of club sandwiches, Caesar Salads and artificial salmon,” she says. “Iceland represented an escape to something more natural.”    

On a scouting trip for her summer home that year, she came across a rectangular slab of concrete that was the staff building of the nearby geothermal power station, with views across to Lake Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake. After the financial crash had decimated Iceland’s economy, there were only two workers left in the formerly bustling building, and Sverrisdóttir couldn’t help herself imagining its potential.

“Initially, I thought we could do the place up and rent it out when we weren’t here. But I couldn’t help thinking it could be more than that,” she recalls. “But there was nothing here, and Iceland was barely a tourist destination, let alone a place you came to stay in a design hotel. There was one boutique hotel in Reykjavík, but that was it. When I said we could turn this into a high-end destination, people thought I was joking.”

When I said we could turn this into a high-end destination, people thought I was joking.

She wasn’t, and she had a vision—specifically, “a place that looked outside of Iceland in terms of levels of design and service, but which was totally Icelandic: trout from the lake, local design, Icelandic bands on the stereo. I wanted to created the antithesis of those could-be-anywhere hotels, where you feel this immersion in the landscape.” As a woman whose idea of a holiday is to cross the infamous Haute Route in the French Alps on cross-country skis, she also wanted the hotel to be a base for adventures, from fly-fishing to lava trail-running and snorkelling at the nearby Silfra Fissure, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet in some of the clearest water on Earth.

Wanting the design to complement the nature, she enlisted the help of Minarc, a Santa Monica-based architecture and design studio founded by two Icelanders, known for their use of natural materials. Using repurposed lava, driftwood and recycled rubber, the team kept the brutalism of the old staff building, but added a spectacular glass-walled bar at one end, for maximal Northern Lights viewing, and a spa below, with a hot pool among the concrete pillars that hold the building up.

But, when the ION Adventure Hotel finally opened in 2013, it was still a tough sell, even if global design blogs fawned over the way the rectangular telescope of a building seemed to merge with the mossy landscape. “We really had to go out and tell the world,” says Sverrisdóttir. “A lot of the time, we were explaining to people where Iceland was.”

It’s fair to say that people know where Iceland is now. As tourism has exploded in the country—from less than half a million visitors in 2010, to 2.3 million last year—so visitors have increasingly demanded quality places to stay. While occupancy rates at the ION Adventure Hotel were less than 50 per cent in the first year, by 2016 they were more than 85 per cent, and growing. “Our timing was good,” says Sverrisdóttir. “We were here just before the real explosion, around 2015, when tourism here went up a level. It’s changed so much, in such a short space of time.”   

The ION Adventure Hotel was merely the first in a batch of high-profile escapes offering luxury, high design and total immersion in the Icelandic landscape. But while the ION Adventure Hotel is a relatively affordable escape—you’ll get a room for not much more than $300—many of the stays that have followed in its footsteps are increasingly extravagant and exclusive affairs.

On the Troll Peninsula in the windswept North, Deplar Farm is a sheep farm that’s been converted into a low-key billionaire’s retreat, a series of moss-covered lodges from which to go heli-skiing, salmon fishing or even surfing. Opened in 2016, Deplar Farm is the creation of American company Eleven Experience, which was founded by Wall St executive Chad Pike, and whose eight properties around the world—from Colorado to the Bahamas and the French Alps—are aimed squarely at the adventurous elite, or Adventure Capitalists in company-speak. “Our guests are the one per cent of the one percent,” says managing director Jake Jones. “We give them the means to switch off totally, and to hit the joy button.”

If Deplar Farm encourages visitors to buy out the whole property, you can at least stay as a regular guest if you’re prepared to pay upwards of $3,000 a night. There’s no such option at Trophy Lodge, a restored hunting lodge under the shadow of the hulking Langjökull Glacier a few hours north of Reykjavík, which is available only by referral to those who’ll rent out the whole place, Michelin-standard chef and all. Guests at the former private hunting lodge of owner Jóhannes Stefánsson have included Bill Gates, Jay-Z and Beyonce, the latter of whom chose the Trophy Lodge for Jay-Z’s 45th birthday.

Even the Blue Lagoon, a place with such mass global appeal that it has appeared on an episode of The Simpsons, has begun to target the elite traveler. This April saw the opening of The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon, an understatedly luxurious hotel and day spa carved into the 800-year-old lava flows of Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, and surrounded by the bright aquamarine water of the famous geothermal spa.

But don’t expect to see or hear the hordes who get silica face masks in the main lagoon—at The Retreat, rooms start at around $1,450, and the whole thing is designed for maximal escapism, from the clean Nordic interiors to the  floor-to-ceiling windows displaying unbroken views across the jagged black lava fields.

“It’s not a building as much as a deep-nature experience,” says Sigrídur Sigthórsdóttir, who has been the lead architect on the Blue Lagoon project for almost two decades, when we meet in her Reykjavík office. “We wanted the highest level of luxury, but nothing that would distract from this sense of lava and water flowing through.”

The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon is not a building as much as a deep-nature experience.

Everything in the hotel is designed to accentuate nature, from the lighting that mimics the phases of the sun to the use of lava as the key design feature—most notably in the locavore Moss Restaurant, where the chef’s table is hewn from quarried lava rock, and the key feature is a lava-based wall installation by artist Ragna Róbertsdóttir. The building is even clad in lava, which was delicately cut by skilled craftspeople. “In a place like this, the nature has to be the star,” says Sigthórsdóttir. “We’re just designing a way to access it and be part of it, while respecting it completely.”       

While the deep-nature retreat has arguably become the focal point of a visit to Iceland, visitors are also well set when it comes to spending a night or two in Reykjavík, which has quietly become a haven for smart boutique hotels. The Nordic-minimalist 101 Hotel was Iceland’s first design-driven boutique hotel when it opened in 2003, and is still Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s favored Icelandic hostelry (they visited most recently in 2016, for Kourtney Kardashian’s birthday).

Since then, so many design hotels have popped up that it’s tough to make a top-ten list. Sverrisdóttir’s second venture, the 18-room ION City Hotel, is in a space that used to be the Reykjavík Backpackers youth hostel, giving a sense of how things have changed. After deciding that she wanted “a slicker, more urban sister to the more organic adventure hotel”, it took Sverrisdóttir and her friends at Minarc a year-and-a-half to turn the run-down old hostel into a place of clean lines and timber, with a palette of white and grey.

Within weeks of its opening last summer, another design-driven boutique, the Sandhotel, opened up next door, inspired by the adjoining Sandholt bakery. Later this year, a branch of Marriott’s EDITION hotels is due to open, too. Bill Gates is said to be one of the investors, a sign that—as with Kim and Kanye—people that visit Iceland tend to want to come again.   

“Reykjavík city is changing so fast,” says Sverrisdóttir. “The tourist boom has meant prices going up fast in Reykjavík, and more and more people doing Airbnb. It means it can be tough for young people to get on the property ladder, and it’s meant more competition when it comes to accommodation.” Iceland may be coming terms with what this tourism boom means for the country—but, for the luxury traveller, it means that Iceland is suddenly one of the most exciting destinations on the planet.

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In hot water in Iceland

From public pools to natural hot springs, Iceland has a longstanding love affair with the water. Toby Skinner jumps in for a lesson

First published in American Way, June 2018. Photography by River Thompson.

It says something about Icelandic culture that, when a sketch comedian and actor called Jón Gnarr ran for mayor of Reykjavík in 2010, the official manifesto of his newly-formed Best Party promised “Free access to swimming pools and free towels for everyone. This is something that everyone should fall for, and it’s the election promise we’re most proud of.”

Gnarr—helped by a catchy song to the tune of Tina Turner’s ‘The Best’—won the election handsomely, serving as mayor from 2000-2014, even if he couldn’t quite push through his swimming pool pledge. “I really argued for it,” he tells me. “There was the small matter of fixing Iceland’s shattered economy, but swimming pools aren’t far behind in terms of what’s important to people here. I would get hell if one of the pools was closed for renovations.”

I’ve come to Iceland to get a sense of why swimming pools, and in particular hot baths, are such an important part of life in this land of lava, steam, elves and bleak beauty. For a population of barely 350,000, there are now more than 120 public pools, or sundlaugs, meaning just about every village or neighborhood has one, each with its own hot tub, heated by the geothermal energy that’s pumped straight from Iceland’s volcanic core. Some are rudimentary, almost backyard affairs; others are designed by modish architects—but they’re all relatively cheap to visit, and open even in the darkest depths of winter.

“The public pool is to Icelanders what the sauna is to the Finns, or the pub is to the English,” says Gnarr. “Alcohol was banned here from 1915 until 1989, so the hot tub became the center of the community: the place where people come together to talk, or just be. No topic is off-limits, whether it’s politics, personal stuff, or: does anyone know where I can get a part for my Honda Civic? Ask that at a bus stop and people will think you’re a lunatic. But in the hot tub, there will be a guy who’ll know a guy. I’ve had some very surreal, Twilight Zone conversations in the hot tub.”

No topic is off-limits, whether it’s politics, personal stuff, or: does anyone know where I can get a part for my Honda Civic?

Gnarr is a regular at the Vesturbær pool, a neighborhood pool in the capital, where the curved hot tubs have become meeting point for the the city’s movers and shakers, including Björk. “I go three times a week to clear my head and just have a nice chat in the hot tub,” says Hildur, a pop singer who won best song at the Icelandic Music Awards last year. “I see Björk there quite a bit, and I’ve seen foreigners freak out when they see her. But, for Icelanders, it’s all about treating everyone equally, especially in the tub. So if you see Björk, be cool.”

But swimming can offer more than the chance to clear one’s head, or spot a famous elfin singer. In the long rectangular hot tub, dug into the concrete just off the man-made Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach on the edge of Reykjavík, I meet 81-year-old Haukur Bergsteinsson, relaxing with a cup of tea in hand.

Bergsteinsson enjoys swimming in the frigid sea off the white-sand beach, which was created in 2000 with imported Moroccan sand, but it’s more than that—he swears it helped him recover from cancer.

“When I started swimming here in 2008, I’d never really swum before,” he says, in halting English. “It was cold, and I didn’t go far at first. But I started getting used to it, and after a while I realised that the symptoms of the cancer I’d suffered were disappearing. It was almost like I was being reborn.”

He hasn’t stopped, swimming around 300 metres across the bay every summer day since, entering the sea over the rocks in his lime green swim cap and goggles. He’s now approaching swim number 1,600. “Whatever the doctors say, I know how it makes me feel,” he says. “It clears my head, and when I sit in the hot bath afterwards, I feel fresh, alive and happy.”

Since the first geothermally-heated public pool, Reykjavík’s Sundhöll baths, opened in 1937, Icelandic pools have become increasingly ambitious in design, with some of the newer pools looking more like five-star spas. I drive four hours north of Reykjavík to the remote, windswept Troll Peninsula, an area of bleak, Bergman-esque beauty where horses outnumber people. In the tiny village of Hofsós—population 200—I find a rectangle of bright aquamarine, built into the grassy landscape overlooking the ominously grey Skagafjörður fjord. With its elegantly curved changing rooms carved into the side of the fjord, it might just be the most beautiful public swimming pool on the planet.  

The pool, which opened in 2011, was funded by local businesswomen Steinunn Jónsdóttir and Lilja Pálmadóttir, the latter the wife of Everest director Baltasar Kormákur, who wanted to give something back to the area in which they had made a life. “It was about doing something for the local community, so a pool became the obvious choice,” says Jónsdóttir, when I meet her after a blissful swim and hot bath, involving lots of floating and Wordsworthian reveries. “Hot water is part of our survival as a nation; it unites us.”

Hot water is part of our survival as a nation; it unites us.

Jónsdóttir and Pálmadóttir’s key decision, when they had the idea back in 2007, was their choice of architect. They brought in Sigríður Sigþórsdóttir, the founder of the Basalt architecture firm in Reykjavík, who has become the undisputed doyenne of modern Icelandic pool design, with a host of big projects, including Geosea, a new bath complex that opens this June near the northern town of Húsavík, known for its whale-watching tours. As Jónsdóttir puts it: “She just has a gift for blending architecture and nature. We were very opinionated clients, but she was the visionary.”     

Since opening, the pool has been such a success that Jónsdóttir worries about the crowds, which increase every year. “We almost made it too nice,” she says, only half-joking. “We get so many visitors, but it’s important that the locals still see it as a place they can come and relax.”

If Hofsós is a public pool that increasingly attracts visitors (who pay a higher entrance fee), many of Iceland’s biggest pools were built primarily for tourists—including Sigþórsdóttir’s most famous project, the Blue Lagoon. The silica-rich geothermal spa, on the otherworldly Reyjkanes Peninsula in southwest Iceland, has become a ubiquitous symbol of Iceland to outsiders: so much that it was named one of National Geographic magazine’s 25 Wonders of the World in 2012, and even appeared in an episode of The Simpsons.

The lagoon appeared inauspiciously in 1976, in the form of a wastewater pool from the nearby geothermal energy plant; but, by 1981, hardy locals had started bathing in the water, boasting of its supposed healing powers. Still, when Sigþórsdóttir was hired as the lead architect in 1998, tasked with reimagining the site as a tourist attraction, scepticism was rife. “At the time, there was virtually no tourism in Iceland, and people thought it was a bit of a joke,” she tells me, when we meet in her office on Reykjavík’s main street. “I was a female lead architect, and I had all these men telling me that this project wasn’t going to work.”

Those men were fantastically wrong. Today—with visitor numbers to Iceland having boomed to more than two million a year—you have to book well in advance to join the flocks getting in-water massages and flotation treatments in the steaming aquamarine water, with their white silica face masks and Skyr smoothies.

And the already-vast Blue Lagoon keeps growing. This April saw the opening of The Retreat, a luxury hotel and day spa built into the dramatic 800-year-old lava flows, all of it surrounded by lagoon water. As with all projects designed by Sigþórsdóttir and her team, the design followed nature. “We had the lava cut by skilled craftspeople, and it informs the whole building,” she says. “We want it to feel like you’re deep in the water and the lava. Nature is always the star.”

But to bathe in hot water in Iceland, you don’t need fancy architects, and in some cases you don’t even need to build a pool, because the steaming, bubbling landscape does it all for you. In Hveragerði, a little town half an hour east of Reykjavík, I hike along a steaming geothermal rivulet, stopping only to strip off and jump in. At Hellulaug in the Westfjords, Iceland’s remote northwestern peninsula, I bathe in a naturally-heated rock pool, gazing out at the wild Atlantic Ocean, utterly and thrillingly alone.

But perhaps my most euphoric hot-water moment comes at Grettislaug, on the other side of the Skagafjörður from the slick Hofsós pool. Here, at the end of a bumpy gravel road, I find two rudimentary pools dug into the rocky land by a local farmer and tour guide, Jón Eiríksson, who has also built a small campsite around his baths, with a few little grass-covered wooden huts. With views of glacial mountains to one side, and the folkloric Drangey island to the other, it feels like the end of Middle Earth.

I quickly strip down to my swim trunks and make for the pools, my skin quickly turning to goosebumps in the chilly Icelandic air. Sliding into the warm pool is pure relief—but the bearded guy on the other side barely notices me, lost in his own Zen moment, which I feel professionally bound to interrupt.

It turns out that he’s Michel Chevalier, a 33-year-old Frenchman who has hitch-hiked here after after an epic journey cross Europe, and hasn’t left, earning his stay at the campsite by serving guests in the little reception cabin. “Arriving here somehow felt like arriving home,” he says. “You go hiking, you immerse yourself in this deep nature, and then you come back and sit in this warm water, just reflecting, being. I feel totally at peace here.”

You come back and sit in this warm water, just reflecting, being. I feel totally at peace here.

Sitting there, as we fall silent, I get what he means, and why Icelanders make this such a central part of their culture. It’s not just the chance to actually speak to people, without phones, clothes or any other distractions. It’s the pure, cleansing feeling of it all: that fresh, glorious combination of warm water and clean, cold air, often in the midst of some of the most bleakly beautiful landscapes this planet has to offer. It feels a whole lot like happiness.    

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John Boyega be good

There are two John Boyegas. One is a goofy kid from Peckham who’s still learning the basics of housework; the other is an obsessive actor, who is carefully crafting a Hollywood career that’s almost too good to be true

First published in Vera magazine, April 2018. With photography by Kurt Iswarienko 

John Boyega sometimes forgets he’s famous. “I’ll look around the house and realise there’s no food, and the Internet’s not working,” he says. “And then I’m like: Come on, there’s an action figure of you. You can afford to sort this out. But, you know, I went 23 years when no one knew who I was. Two years doesn’t change all that muscle memory.”

Boyega is most definitely famous now. While he collected Star Wars toys as a kid, now there are brooding action figures of him as Finn, the rebel Stormtrooper in the The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, the first two parts in the latest trilogy. His face has appeared on bottles of Volvic mineral water and the web is awash with John Boyega merchandise, from iPhone cases to throw pillows decorated with his grinning face.  

And the career is going well. After a hard-hitting lead role in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, he’s now starring in the robot action sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising, on which he was a co-producer. Online forums have taken to comparing him to a young Denzel Washington (the intensity, but also the megawatt smile). The film means there will be yet another action figure in the works.

But, to Boyega, that’s his career, not his life. “It happens in these waves,” he tells me over the phone, during a quiet period in February, before publicity for Pacific Rim: Uprising kicks into gear. “But the main event in my life is coming home to London, and being with my friends and family. That’s the real me, and it’s what I hold on to.”

In real life, he’s John, a 25-year-old from Peckham, Southeast London, who is still learning to cook: “It’s mainly rice and stew, I’m no Gordon Ramsay,” he says. His mum worries about his safety during action sequences, while his dad – a Pentecostal minister – wishes he could be just a bit more like Bruce Willis. He still makes the questionable interior decor choices that first surfaced on The Graham Norton Show: the saxophone lamp, the spartan warrior loo-roll holder… and more recently a giant chess set. “Cos everyone needs one of them, right?”

But when it comes to acting, or even talking about acting, the self-effacing banter tends to switch off, and Boyega gets serious. It’s been that way ever since he played a leopard in a primary school production, and – as he once told Interview magazine – “gave the leopard a character breakdown, and researched its motivations.”

He was born John Adedayo B Adegboyega (he later created the simpler version as a stage name), and grew up on Peckham’s Sceaux Gardens estate. From an early age, his mother, Abigail and father, Samson, took John and his sisters on regular visits to their native Nigeria. “We were Nigerian first, English second,” says Boyega.

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out in 2015, the Daily Telegraph newspaper ran a piece about Boyega’s childhood, playing up Peckham’s youth gang culture and claiming that a lot of boys from Boyega’s time at school were “now in prison or dead”. In response, the actor wrote on Twitter: “Innacurate. Stereotypical. NOT my story.” (He’s not been afraid of speaking his mind, for example calling out Game Of Thrones for not having enough black actors).

There were also stories about Boyega rebelling against his religious upbringing, which don’t quite ring true when he tells me his dad has become his biggest fan, coming to every show he did growing up, and more recently poring over every storyline and character arc. “I don’t know how, but my parents have always been cool with the acting,” he says.

It’s not a stretch to surmise that his parents might have been cool with their son’s acting because it made him happy. “For me, drama has always been this space where you get to be free,” he says. “From the start, I just felt good doing it, and it made me popular for an hour.”

When Boyega was eight, the Theatre Peckham youth theatre group did an after-school workshop at the Oliver Goldsmith Primary School. The company’s founder and artistic director, Teresa Early, immediately noticed something about one of the boys in the class. “There was just something there,” Early says of noticing Boyega. “I remember just looking at him and thinking: Who are you then?”

Boyega ended up joining the Theatre Peckham acting programme until the age of 14, with his first role as one of four children in the story of an unpleasant fairy living in the broom cupboard. He was, in Early’s words, “like a duck to water… he was so instinctive and committed to every role, and you could just see that it made him happy, even if he wasn’t in the lead role. He was in the building just about every day. I remember telling him: John, you shouldn’t be here. Go home.”

John was in the theatre building just about every day. I remember telling him: John, you shouldn’t be here. Go home.

Boyega continued to study acting after secondary school, at the South Thames College and then the Identity School of Acting in Hackney. “I would pore over tapes of actors like [English theatre actor] Adrian Lester, and try to work out how they did it,” he says. “I was always trying to learn about the process. I knew this was what I needed to do.”

His first notable role was as Moses, the leader of a gang of teenage hoodlums in 2011’s Attack The Block, a sci-fi comedy by writer-director Joe Cornish. Despite a modest box office showing, the critics liked it, and – fatefully – so did the American director and producer JJ Abrams, who took a particular interest in the kid playing Moses.  

Boyega’s career trajectory back then would have been enough for most aspiring young British actors. He had roles in shows like Law and Order and Becoming Human, a BBC vampire drama. “But a lot of the time, the roles I’d get offered would be, like, ‘Hoodie number one,’” he says. “I knew I had to go to America to get the kind of roles I wanted.”

So he started taking trips to the US, couch surfing and getting stopped at customs with irritating regularity. “I’d basically spend all my money from whatever TV show I’d been in, and just stay in Los Angeles for as long as I could afford,” he says. “It felt like a gamble every time, but there was always a goal in mind.”

The goal was to make a big-time career as an actor, though not specifically ‘Join the biggest movie franchise of all time’. But one day he was at the Bad Robot production company for a meeting, and saw a guy he didn’t recognise walking out of a production room with Tom Cruise. It was Abrams, who’d been working on one of the Mission: Impossible movies, and he made a beeline for Boyega. “We had a quick meeting, and at the end of it, he just said: ‘I want to put you in something,’” recalls Boyega. “I didn’t think much of it at the time.”

I had a quick meeting [with JJ Abrams] and at the end of it, he just said: ‘I want to put you in something.’ I didn’t think much of it at the time.

‘Something’, it turned out, was Star Wars, and the process of getting the role wasn’t at all what Boyega had expected. “I’d imagined getting a call while cruising down the Sunset Boulevard, then flying home in glory,” he says. “But it was eight, maybe ten auditions, mostly in little rooms in London, over seven months. I went from nervous and excited to ‘great, I hope I get this’ to ‘they’d better give me this damn role now.’”   

He did get the role as Finn, who provided much of the humanity and levity in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even when he was in full Stormtrooper gear. When I asked if he was overawed at walking onto the Star Wars set for the first time, he seems nonplussed. “You feel that responsibility, but as an actor the process is not that different to Attack The Block in terms of figuring out a character, and then bringing him alive.”

The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were, of course, massive hits, taking $2.06 billion and $1.32 billion at the box office, respectively, while mostly satisfying the Star Wars faithful. But what was notable about Boyega, doing the publicity rounds for the movies, was how comfortable he seemed. He mucked around with light sabres on talk shows, snuck into screenings of the movie, and did the beat-boxing for an impromptu Star Wars rap by Daisy Ridley, his co-star, another London actor who seemed to have come from nowhere. When the premiere for The Force Awakens came to London, he invited all his London mates onto the red carpet, and he decided to impress Harrison Ford by taking him to 805, a Nigerian restaurant in Peckham.    

“You don’t have a choice when you’re in a Star Wars film,” he says. “So, I just decided to really embrace that side of things, and let the silliness and fun shine through.”

It probably helped that Boyega is a self-confessed nerd, who tells me the most A-list he’s ever done was getting his agent to force the Los Angeles branch of the Forbidden Planet bookstore to stay open so that he could buy the latest Spider-Man comic. One of his first actions on the Star Wars set was to get Harrison Ford to sign his Han Solo toy figure, though he admits that his early addiction to the movies left him confused. “I watched the prequels first as a kid,” he says, of the films released between 1999 and 2005. “Then I watched the main films and I was like: ‘Man, did they lose their budget or something?’”

Still, Boyega has always been careful that he’s not defined by Finn the Stormtrooper. “I knew that it didn’t guarantee I’d suddenly get good roles,” he says. “So I tried to use it as an opportunity to craft the kind of career I wanted.”

After Star Wars, he again did the rounds at the big studios, landing the juicy role as security guard Melvin Dismukes in Detroit, a pivotal role in the story of police brutality during the Detroit riots on 1967, for which he earned good reviews, even if the major awards nominations some had predicted never quite materialised.

Now, he’s most excited about his starring role Pacific Rim: Uprising , which is also the first gig for his newly-formed production company, Upperroom Productions, which he formed because he didn’t want to “always sit and wait for the phone to ring. That element of setting up projects has always excited me, and on this I’ve been involved with things like pre-visuals, stunts and casting. It’s really different from just acting, and it’s been a real eye-opener.”

Boyega has already ticked off a lot of the milestones in a good acting career – from the massive franchise to the starring role in the challenging drama and the move into production – and he’s done it by the time he’s 25. He’s appeared in the odd flop, like The Circle, a critically-panned tech company drama, but mostly the career plan seems to be going swimmingly.

I ask Teresa Early, Boyega’s first acting mentor, for her take on what’s happened to that eight-year-old. “He really is a genuine and nice young man,” she says, “who hasn’t lost touch with who he is and where he’s from. But I think what people sometimes miss is that he’s very mature, and very astute. I think he’s always known who he is and what he’s here to do. He really is here to be an actor, and that was obvious from the beginning.”

He really is here to be an actor, and that was obvious from the beginning.

Speaking to Boyega, that all rings very true. You sense that the person least impressed by the action figures and the fame is Boyega himself. He’ll be thinking about his next career move, and what he’ll bring to his next role, while probably still forgetting to set up his home broadband. Part of him will always be that kid in a primary school classroom in Peckham, wondering what the leopard’s motivation really was.  

Medieval and human statues in Prague

Prague 1, the city’s historic center, is still one of the world’s great gothic spectacles—and there are ways to escape the crowds and the medieval-themed restaurants

First published in American Way magazine, April 2018. With photography by Tim White

On Prague’s Old Town Square, the sheer level of competition is weighing heavily on the silver human statue, who I meet on a chilly February morning. “There are so many performers here, it can be hard to get their attention,” says the silver man, who is Czech-born Robert Horvak when he takes off the silver facepaint, top hat and jacket. “There are a lot of tourists, but there’s so much for them to see here.”

Horvak’s schtick is to flutter his eyelids and greet passers-by, especially children, with a squeaky bird voice. He’s been here five years, but it’s hard to draw an audience when there’s also a traditional Czech five-piece band on the square, as well as a costumed Olaf from Frozen and a Ukrainian Santa who boasts a very huggable 12-foot tall polar bear.

But Horvak’s primary bête noire is the Slovakian gold human statue, who stands just a few yards away, with his more conventional “stand very still” routine. “We are not friends,” says Horvak, almost wistfully, before snapping into character as a young girl appears with some small change. When I try to talk again, the silver man won’t break character. “Bye bye!” he squeaks, proffering a thumbs-up. “Fantastic!”

It’s true that it’s not easy to stand out in Prague’s historic district, or Prague 1, which includes the Old Town, the New Town, the Jewish Quarter and the Little Quarter. The area is barely more than two square miles, running either side of the Vltava River across the famous Charles Bridge—but it contains perhaps the greatest collection of medieval buildings on Earth.

Ever since Charles IV, the all-powerful 14th-century King of Bohemia, made Prague his pet project, the city has attracted the best Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau architects—who have built marvels like the gothic spires of the St Vitus Cathedral or the extravagantly grand Neo-Renaissance National Theater by the river.

This is a place to wander cobbled alleyways, and gawp, ideally not on a motorised vehicle (Segways were banned in 2016, and locals still grumble about scooters). It’s a district so evocative that you can forgive the fact that there’s one too many Irish bars and a few too many tour groups following guides and lurid umbrellas towards the famous Astronomical Clock.

I stay at the Grand Hotel Praha on the Old Town Square, where the service is on the glum side, the decor is on the kitsch side and it takes about five minutes through dark corridors to find my cavernous and faintly spooky room. It’s perfect.   

On my first morning in Prague, I decide to visit a museum, but am paralysed by choice. The museums here run the gamut from the sensible and place-specific (Kafka, Beer, Torture) to the odd (Miniature, Sex Machines, Historical Chamber Pots and Toilets) and the downright out-of-place. I am dismayed that the Apple Museum is not a homage to Prague’s orchards, but to Steve Jobs.

I settle for the Museum of Communism, which is a humane and surprisingly humorous primer on the old Czechoslovakia’s tricky relationship with Soviet rule, ironically placed in an 18th-century aristocratic palace, next to a branch of McDonald’s. Originally opened in 2001 by an American political science major, the replica classrooms and video testimonies are fascinating—as are the written accounts of the Prague Spring, a brief period of relative freedom and optimism in the 1960s, which was eventually crushed by Soviet troops in the process of so-called Normalization.

I get a more tangible version of the story on the way back to the square, at the tiny Bric A Brac Antiques curio store, packed to the rafters with vintage Czech Pilsner Urquell signs, art deco chandeliers, Communist-era phones and just about every other curio imaginable.

Martin Mičan, the erudite shopkeeper, was a punk in the Communist 1980s, with his mohawk and black-market Dead Kennedys records, who came back from his military service in 1989 to find the world changed. He says that you can piece together a lot of Prague’s history through the more than a million items at the shop, and the larger sister shop a street away. “The 60s here was really like Swedish Socialism,” he says. “But most of the things we sell are from the period between the wars, when Prague was stable and affluent, and the stuff was not only beautiful but built to last. All my cooking pots at home are from the 1920s.”

The 60s here was really like Swedish Socialism

After telling me a story about how charming Matt Damon was when he came to the shop (Prague is one of Europe’s top filming locations), Mičan points me to Pivnice Štupartská, a traditional Czech restaurant just down the road, which he says is cheaper and better than the church-like U Fleků, the famous microbrewery and restaurant which has been trading since 1499.

With its dark wood panels, Art Deco mirrors and copper beer tanks, Pivnice Štupartská looks the part, and has the classic Czech menu: beef goulash soup in a bread bowl, chicken schnitzel and lots of pork. I order the pork knuckle, not quite imagining the massive hunk of meat, which looks more head-sized than knuckle-sized, wedged onto a thick skewer. I manage about half of the rich, tender pork, with crispy crackling, washed down with half a litre of Gambrinus tank beer.  

It is possible to escape the tourists in Prague 1. If you walk in any direction from the Old Town Square, the souvenir shops selling absinthe and college football Matryoshka dolls thin out. Across the Charles Bridge, and west towards the castle, or south past the grafitti’d John Lennon Wall, the evocative streets become quieter, giving way to a more neighbourhood-y feel.  

That evening I head to Mlýnská kavárna, a cafe/bar in a former mill on Kampa Island, on the river’s west side, which is reached via a tiny wooden bridge, past a gently-rotating mill wheel. It’s said to be the social center of literary and artistic Prague—and its most famous regular is David  Černý, the enfant terrible of Czech art, who managed to offend even the art world when he put a wax model of Saddam Hussein in formaldehyde in 2005.

Černý has an apartment nearby, and a few of his iconic faceless baby statues can be seen crawling creepily by the river in the nearby Kampa Park. He created the Pop Art bartop here, with old toy planes and severed baby’s heads built into the Plexiglass, and the barman seems surprised that he’s not in for a beer tonight. Instead, the people-watching consists mainly of well-heeled locals in knitwear, seemingly deep in conspiratorial chat.

If you can escape the tourists, you can also escape the medieval theme restaurants, and the food scene in Prague 1 has become increasingly sophisticated over the years. The next day, I take the ten-minute walk north and east from the Old Town Square to find Naše maso, a buzzing, slickly branded butcher’s shop and eatery. The young staff—who are all smiles and collegiate banter—bring out simple but exquisite, all-Czech plates of steak tartare, meat loaf or tender steak from 70-day aged beef, washed down with beer or vodka from a tap on the wall.

“We get more than 700 guests a day,” says Jakub Picka, a 22-year-old former medical student who decided he preferred the fun of working here. “In the summer, it’s like a big party that spills onto the street.”

The vibe is similar next door at Bistro Sisters, a clean space where a mostly female staff serve delicious Danish-style open sandwiches. The server, Barbora Stejskalova, has a big smile and even bigger life goals. She’s about to run food tours in Prague, while she studies to be a teacher. Then the plan is to open a Czech restaurant in Spain, after which she wants to run her own school in Prague, offering the International Baccalaureate program. She makes me feel old and tired, but also hopeful.

The Scandi thing is is taken to the next level, though, at Field, the Michelin-starred restaurant just up the road. Czech chef/owner Radek Kašpárek takes its ingredients from the Czech Republic but his cues from Noma, Copenhagen’s temple of New Nordic gastronomy. The PR tells me he’s planning to put ants on the menu, though the dishes I try are mysterious and wondrous enough as it is: like a starter that contains the worm-like root of a woundwort, a little-known cousin of the nettle, and a wonderfully tender lamb dish with six types of fennel. Both are undecipherable and utterly delicious.  

Even the beer is getting a gentle update in Old Prague. This, remember, is the centre of a country that drinks more beer per capita than anywhere else; where they serve Pilsner Urquell in McDonald’s (I checked); and where doctors are said to sometimes prescribe beer to patients with stomach and kidney problems.

I get the lowdown that afternoon on a private tour with Jan Macuch, a born-and-bred local who wrote old Czech recipes for the now-defunct Prague Post newspaper, and now runs popular beer and food tours for the Eating Prague tour company.

With his flat cap, big smile and faintly subversive air, Macuch is not your average tour guide—not only can he hold his own on the works of both John Irving and Irvine Welsh, but he is a fount of gossip and cute lines. “What’s the greatest lie told in the Czech Republic?” he tells me over a house pilsner at T-Anker, a modern craft beer pub with a terrace overlooking the Old Town. “Let’s go for one.”

In between gags, he gives me a brief history of Czech beer: from the earliest brewery at Prague’s Břevnov Monastery in 993AD, through the invention of Pils in the Czech city of Pilsen in 1842 to the fact that Communism inadvertently helped local brewers by forcing them to stick to traditional methods. “We’re about light, balanced beers,” he says. “Czech brewers tend to use the so-called Noble Hops, and they’re very clean and drinkable. Maybe too drinkable.”

While Pilsner Urquell from the tank is the king of beers here, more and more great craft beers are joining the fray. Macuch takes me to Lod’ Pivovar (The Ship Brewery), on the northern edge of the Old Town, which opened in early 2017 and claims to be the world’s first microbrewery on a boat. Set over two floors, there’s a restaurant as you enter past vats of brewing beer, and a bar/library on the deck below, with rows of board games and books below the ship’s portholes, just above the water level.

The magnificently-bearded owner Vojtěch Ryvola is sitting by the bar on his beloved creation—all blonde wood and steel vats—which he says literally came to him in a dream. The former property developer spent a year and a half and EUR2 million turning an old Hamburg disco boat into a quality restaurant and brewery; and to prove that he was serious about the craft beers, he had his new head brewer create a beer called Titanic, which is officially the strongest in the Czech Republic.

“This place should be gimmicky,” says Macuch, in summary. “But it’s one of my favorite places in Prague. The food’s brilliant, too.”

That evening I end up staying with my new guide, hearing tales of Czech actors, artists and politicians that aren’t suitable for print. We end up in Bonvivant’s CTC, a neighborhood cocktail bar with a tin Art Deco roof, Jazz-era fittings and no menu. Cocktail guru Tomáš Palička opened the bar four years ago, inspired by legendary New York bartender Jerry Thomas and a love of Czech spirits like Becherovka herbal liquor and Slivovitz. I have a Becherovka Old Fashioned with a giant orb of hand-cut ice, which is seriously good, even if I’m no longer remotely capable of taking notes.

As we stumble along a narrow, cobbled alleyway on the way back towards the Old Town Square, I hear the familiar refrain of an English soccer chant, possibly from one of Prague’s many bachelor parties. “I’m sorry for my people,” I say to Macuch.

“Hey don’t worry about it,” he shoots back. “Socks and sandals as a fashion choice was invented in Czechoslovakia—so we know national shame. But, then again, we also gave this to the world.” He gestures to the Baroque townhouses looming above us. “So, there’s that.”

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James Hyman, and why print is here to stay

In an old cannon foundry in South London, the world’s biggest magazine collection is growing every day – and is now set to become “the Spotify of magazines”. We meet the man behind it all

First published in N by Norwegian magazine, March 2018. Photography by Dave Imms

James Hyman talks fast, like the former DJ he is, and his default mode is enthused: about fake cigarette adverts in satirical magazine Mad in the late 1960s; about 70s issues of Man, Myth and Magic, a surprisingly cerebral magazine of the supernatural; even a hyper-saturated advert for Tesco supermarket food in a 1971 edition of Family Circle magazine. “Just look what people in Britain were eating in the 70s!” he says. “Horrific. But weirdly fascinating.”

I meet Hyman and his team on the second floor of an old red brick cannon foundry in Woolwich, Southeast London, surrounded by his life’s work: 150,000 magazines, crammed tightly into narrow rows of shelves more than two metres high. It’s like the Hogwarts Library of 20th Century pop culture, especially from the late 20th Century.

And the world’s largest magazine collection is growing every day. Yesterday, Hyman received a personal donation of Time and Newsweek issues covering the entire period of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. This morning, he opened a box from another benefactor to find an entire run of Cigar Aficionado magazine.

“These magazines are important historical documents,” says Hyman, sitting in a battered chair at the end of one row, with electric heaters protecting him from the icy February air (it’s even colder in here than outside). “Every magazine tells you something about the time and the culture in which it was published. Look at an old issue of Athletics Weekly, and you might learn something about the history of trainer design, or the time when Bruce Jenner was simply an athlete.”

Look at an old issue of Athletics Weekly, and you might learn something about the history of trainer design, or the time when Bruce Jenner was simply an athlete.

Many of the magazines on the shelves are pop-cultural touchstones in their own right. There’s the May 1990 issue of cult magazine The Face, which featured a 15-year-old Kate Moss on her first magazine cover; the 1980 special issue of Newsweek after John Lennon’s death; or the 1985 issue of National Geographic, with its Steve McCurry cover portrait of Sharbat Gula, the 12-year-old Afghan refugee with the famously hypnotic gaze.

Now, Hyman and his team – creative lead Tory Turk, and editor Alexia Marmara – are waiting for a license to create a digital magazine archive, available to subscribers, which Hyman hopes will become “the Spotify of magazines”, with royalties going to the people who did the work.

He shows me a prototype of the software on his laptop. Typing in ‘Kate Moss’, hundreds of covers, spreads and adverts pop up, each with reams of searchable metadata. “You can search every shoot she did in London, say, or every blue-coloured shoot, or everything she did with hair stylist Sam McKnight,” says Hyman. “It will be a whole new way to find information.”

The digitisation of the Hyman Archive will take it full circle from the analogue days in which it was born. In the late 1980s, while a media student in London, Hyman took a summer job at MTV, where he graduated to writing scripts and becoming a producer/director. He’d later become a DJ at British radio station XFM, specialising in dance music culture, as well as a voiceover artist and music video producer.

“Back then, magazines were the Internet,” he says. “If you wanted to unearth a gem about Bob Dylan or Duran Duran, you had to read their interviews in Rolling Stone. If you were interviewing Moby, you wanted to ask about the dodgy experience he’d had at a rave, which you’d read in the NME.

He also discovered the now-shuttered Vintage Magazine Company in Soho, which had a basement full of back issues of The Face and i-D, two game-changing magazines of the 1980s. “It fuelled the collector’s bug,” he says. “I was hooked.”

By 2010, he had more than 100,000 magazines, more than 40,000 CDs and a child on the way. “There were towers of magazines, CDs and books in the house,” he recalls. “It was all getting a bit overwhelming, and I was constantly moving stuff into storage.”

In 2011, a friend introduced him to Turk, whose Master’s degree in fashion curation had taught her the basics of archiving. Turk was intrigued, and – in a pivotal moment – offered to help. The pair spent a year sorting through the collection, which they initially stored in an old meat factory in Islington, North London. “Going through it all with Tory was like therapy,” says Hyman.

In 2012, the collection was recognised by Guinness as the biggest in the world, and in 2015 the team moved the whole lot to its current site. Today, it’s a very niche library (borrowing a magazine for three days costs a whopping GBP50), used mostly by serious producers or curators. Magazines from the archive have starred in everything from Beatles documentaries to the California: Designing Freedom exhibition at London’s Design Museum.

Hyman is keen to stress that the collection is ongoing. “I’m just as excited by new mags like [indie film magazine] Little White Lies or [slow news title] Delayed Gratification,” he says. “It’s a really exciting time for independent magazines, and it’s just as important to document right now as it is to document the past.”

Still, there are historic gems aplenty here: like a complete set of The British Journal of Photography, which launched in 1854 but didn’t feature any actual photographs until around 1890; or the first ever issue of British high society magazine Tatler, from 1901, which features the Duchess of Sutherland on the cover and an advert on page two for the Claridge’s hotel restaurant (“The last word in modern restaurants”).

Even as the archive grows and morphs, it’s still deeply personal to its founder. Hyman gazes lovingly at an issue of Jocks, a DJ magazine from the late 80s, and in particular the dense, almost staccato track reviews of James Hamilton, an expert on any given song’s beats-per-minute. “He was this swaggering, pompous guy in a top hat,” recalls Hyman. “But he was revered by DJs like me at the time – he was like the Laurence Olivier of the dance world.”

Another of Hyman’s favourites is 2600 magazine, a still-running quarterly magazine for hackers that dates back to the early 80s. It is named after the 2600 hertz tone that allowed users to access the operator mode of telephones, which could be produced using the plastic whistles given out with Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal. Hyman proudly shows me the infamous 1984 issue that gave readers the direct telephone numbers of Ronald Reagan and his White House team.

While the authorities haven’t always looked quite so fondly on 2600’s founder Emmanuel Goldstein (whose name references Orwell’s 1984), for Hyman he symbolises the creativity, ingenuity and humanity of magazines.

Magazines are things that someone crafted in order to express something, and there’s a magic to that which you don’t often get with all the noise on the Internet.

“Ultimately, magazines are as diverse and weird as people are,” he says. “They are things that someone crafted in order to express something, and there’s a magic to that which you don’t often get with all the noise on the Internet. You couldn’t get robots to produce The New Yorker, which is just one of many reasons that magazines will always be loved. They’ll never, ever die.”

hymanarchive.com

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