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May you live in interesting times

May you live in interesting times

Emma Duncan | August/September 2016

Presumably because it helped protect us when we were lunch for lions and leopards on the African veldt, Homo sapiens has developed sensory equipment that is particularly attuned to perceiving movement and contrast. A hundred thousand years or so on, those differences still command our attention. That’s why editors, when quizzing journalists about their pitches, tend to ask questions along the lines of “What’s changed?” and “How is that different from the usual?” And that’s why most of the stories in this magazine are, beneath the characters, the narrative and the colour, either about contrast or movement.

Suket Dhir, who adorns our cover, makes menswear that differs brilliantly from the usual stuff. His clothes have an Indian flavour that Luke Leitch, our style editor, loves because it gives them a cool exoticism, but also an air of sharpness and humour that prevents them from being dauntingly ethnic. Our lead travel story is about a place that contrasts as sharply with a standard holiday destination as it is possible to. Simon Willis, our digital editor, took a sabbatical in Latin America to research a book. While he was in Chile, he hopped on a small plane to the island of Robinson Crusoe, so called because Alexander Selkirk, the model for the marooned mariner in Daniel Defoe’s novel, was stranded there. He found not just an astonishing wild landscape, but also a unique ecosystem richer in endemic species than almost anywhere else in the world.

There is nothing wild about John Zimmer: what sets him apart from the competition is rather the opposite. This famously nice man co-founded Lyft, a ride-sharing company, and has been overtaken by Uber, founded by the famously aggressive Travis Kalanick. In Silicon Valley, a viciously competitive environment underneath the fist-bumping and the all-you-can-eat snack bars, some regard Zimmer as too nice to be successful; Alexandra Suich, The Economist’s US technology editor, suspects that they’re wrong.

Eton, the world’s best-known school, has changed more than Christopher de Bellaigue, an old boy, could have imagined when he attended it three decades ago. Once regarded as a rite of passage for the sons of the British aristocracy, it now educates clever bursary boys alongside the sons of the wealthy to forge the new elite of brains, rather than class, that runs Britain (and the world) – though it is open to question whether, with annual fees of £34,000, it is quite the engine of social mobility it aspires to be.

As one group rises, another declines. The shift that forms the backdrop to our feature on the return of the wolves to Europe is the worsening of the fortunes of marginal farmers. As Europe becomes more urban, its cultivated area is shrinking, its wilderness is growing and its large carnivores are thriving. Researching the piece left Adam Nicolson torn: as a committed environmentalist he is delighted by the predators’ progress; but as a human being, he found himself in sympathy with the people trying to protect their livelihoods and their families against the encroaches of wolves. Daniel Knowles, who travelled the Lunatic Express in Kenya, is similarly ambivalent about the change coming to the railways. The new, Chinese-built train will probably take four, not 24, hours to get from Nairobi to Mombasa, and its passengers will be more comfortable and less cross than Daniel’s companions. But they will not be able to immerse themselves, as Daniel did, in a Kenya that is fast disappearing.

Change and difference are what capture our attention and hold our interest. As we go to press in the middle of the biggest British political crisis of my lifetime, with both Britain and America more divided than I’ve ever seen them, we won’t be short of material in the future. You know the old Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. Unfortunately, we do.   

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