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Off The Fence

Dear Readers,

Good afternoon, and welcome to Off The Fence, the weekly companion newsletter to our quarterly print outing. After two-and-a-half months of undulating slog, Issue 11 is finished, and is being printed at Kopa in Lithuania. It’s scheduled to arrive in the first week of April, post-Brexit custom checks permitting (unfortunately for us all, this is not a joke). It’s an absolute pearl of a magazine, and we can’t wait for you to read it when it arrives. This time out, we’ve printed 3,200 copies, and the magazine will be distributed to an array of stockists across the country. In late April, it will be available to buy from WHS Smith, which is handy for those of you who spend time in train stations and airports. 

In the meantime, we remain very excited about our collaboration with Vittles, the food newsletter for people who don’t like food writing. Edited by Jonathan Nunn, we’ve just published one of his pieces he wrote for us online here. It’s a brutally funny compilation of the sassiest clapbacks London’s restaurateurs have given to their mewling customers. If you’d like to have a look at the type of work Jonathan commissions, have a read of this sociolinguistic history of the British peasantry. And you should put this list of 99 great value places to eat lunch near Oxford Circus that aren’t Pret in your bookmarks – you never know when it will come in handy. It goes without saying that you should subscribe to Vittles right about now.

The newsletter has been a bit oligarch-heavy recently, so we’re going to kick off with something oligarch-free: a dispatch from a Dublin sauna, courtesy of Sophie Dibben. There’s also a featurette on New York and London – capital form – and a flash sale for all you cheapskates out there. And we finish off with a tribute to the One True God, Nicholas Cage himself.

Tales of the Banya

I’m squeezed up against some old pensioners in the Dublin City Council steam room. Their bellies bulge over their trunks, their legs spreadeagle into the mist and we talk about the women in their lives. As our pores open up, so do they. I’m a solo female in a frilly bikini and I’m talking to them.

Two months ago, Trinity College shut down its hot rooms. The heat-hungry students from Dublin’s famous university were pointed towards the public facilities at the City Council gym. If this demotion to the lower benches wasn’t enough to put most off, rumours of ‘intimidating’ older men who occupy the rooms, and have done for years, saw to the rest of the quibblers. But I have a need to steam. 

Former rugby coach Callum is telling us about his girlfriend and sister’s excessive plastic surgery – face-lifts and breast augmentation which both cost around €6,500. They’re beautiful women and he can’t wrap his head around it. His girlfriend wants a facelift to get rid of her migraines. Callum thinks there must be better ways. We nod and murmur in agreement.

It’s time for my first contribution. I tell him it’s so difficult to be happy with your appearance when media platforms and adverts always show someone better looking. If he thinks they are beautiful, he should make sure they really know that.

The marriage of heat and free-flowing conversation has been around since the Roman baths of the second century BC. Men with enough pennies could enter the tepidarium then into the caladarium and finish off in the frigidarium. Through all these ariums the business of the empire was discussed among various raunchy activities.

An ancient tombstone reads: ‘Baths, drink and sex corrupt our bodies, but baths, drink and sex make life worth living.’ Is it something in the fumes that inspires such grandiosity in men? Fortunately, the gender separation enforced by Emperor Hadrian has been revoked and I am able to pay witness to the sacred all-male symposium. 

‘I’d get more steam from a fucking kettle than being in here!’

Oliver, a stumpy, weather-beaten veteran, lumbers off bitterly to fetch a modern-day slave boy. We turn our attention back to Mike, ‘single-by-choice’, who sympathises with Callum. His daughter Anna watches too many of those ‘Tink Tonk’ clips. They tell her to be vegan. He sees this as the root of her eating problems. She only eats a tiny plate of vegetables and looks too thin. The only advice he has for her is to eat some proper food. 

I suggest that if she is suffering from an eating disorder then it isn’t the veganism that’s the issue, it could be insecurities, or a need for control. I suggest that she needs to feel loved and unjudged.
It appears that as you shed your clothes, you shed your inhibitions.

Through the thin anonymity of a layer of steam, I am the perfect candidate for unpaid counsellor. I am close to their daughter’s age, and their best hope of bridging an age and gender divide that has never looked bigger to them. They can say what they want to say to their daughters and receive an honest reaction, minus the lingering personal resentment when they get it wrong. 

Do I enjoy my new role? Yes. Yes, I do.

A 55-year-old Garda called Ferdia’s been quiet for a while, but after some encouraging warm-up from the other men, he lets off steam. He’s done a background check on his daughter’s boyfriend and discovered he has a conviction for intent to supply drugs when he was 18. He wants to trust his daughter’s judgement and give her free rein to make her own decisions: but he doesn’t trust this fella. So, he checks on her every morning after a night out. It drives her crazy. 

I tell him that no external source, no matter how close, can tell you to break up with someone. It has to be her decision. Callum reminds Ferdia that he’s 22 now and deserves a second chance. The steam room lightly assents.

It’s 2:15 and the steam room closes for an hour. The perspiring gang head off for a cooling pint and I head home. I wonder what they talk about in the pub.  

It’s a week later. Ferdia reveals that he and his daughter have set up a new system. When she gets home at night, she leaves a note saying she’s alright. Ferdia can wake up and know she is safe without bothering her first thing in the morning. This is a breakthrough moment for Ferdia. 

Mike shares some positive news – he asked his daughter to find some vegan recipes they could cook together. He tells us he had to eat vegan mac and cheese which he thought was disgusting. We agree it sounds unpleasant but point out it’s a substantial meal. 

Even though neither have spoken directly to the girls about their concerns, they’re moving in a positive direction. 

I feel a tinge of pride. I have become an intergenerational sounding board. I am an accidental steam room therapist. 

You should follow Sophie on her newly formed Twitter account here.

Nego, Negas, Negat

Last week, Brampton Manor Academy, a state school in Newham, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, secured a record 89 Oxbridge offers, which is considerably more than Eton College, perhaps the most famous private school in the world. 

It’s an achievement that’s been heralded throughout the press as an augury of much-needed social change in Britain. As Adrian Woolidge persuasively argues in the Washington Post, it hints at a revolution in the class system, as the country moves from its current aristocratic mode back to the post-war promise of meritocracy.

But how is Brampton achieving these glittering prizes? Last December, we published an extended piece of reportage into the school. Francis Martin interviewed ten former members of staff there, who told him about a workplace rife with bullying, mistreatment and an overarching culture of fear. 

Since then, both Francis and The Fence have been contacted by current and former students, and also by another legion of former staff, who have made further allegations regarding the management of the school. Do read Francis’ piece – it’s the most ambitious thing we’ve ever published. And we would also like to congratulate the students at Brampton Manor, who deserve every single bit of their success.

Second Time Round

Joel Culpepper is at the vanguard of the British soul renaissance. At the age of 37, he’s finally getting his dues after working as a teacher, where an encounter at the school gates with parent Joe Muggs helped kickstart his career. It’s an absolute pleasure to see him profiled in the Observer yesterday, but if you’d like to read Joe Muggs’ version of events, then do read this wonderful piece he wrote for Issue 9 (and he also made a cracking playlist, which you can listen to here).

If you’re a commissioning editor or columnist resident at York Way, and you’re looking for further inspiration for your readers, why not take out a subscription to The Fence? There’s a lot more stuff in the print, and it’s cracking value at only £25 for the year. 

Bleecker and Broadwick

Some rather anodyne posts from a Londoner on holiday in New York inflamed the Twittersphere last week. You can read the whole thread here, but the bland truisms strike us as entirely true: the energy in New York is palpable. The subway is filthy. JFK Airport is falling apart. Paying for museum entry at the Met and the Guggenheim is a faff. Wall Street lacks the grandeur of the City of London.

In that spirit, we thought we would add some more acute observations about the two world capitals.

London is much bigger than New York. The food is much better in New York, at every single price point (except for Indian food). The parks in London are more numerous and are also beautifully maintained. It’s cheaper and more fun going out drinking in New York, but the theatre is superior in London. People are better looking in New York.  Clubbing is better in New York (but this is a recent development). The immediate suburbs of both cities are depressing, but New York has better weekend trips than London: it’s Montauk over Margate, and the Adirondacks over the Cotswolds. But London’s proximity to Europe is no doubt an advantage. 

The weather in New York is unbearable for four, possibly five months of the year. London is a better place to raise a family. You can live a better quality of life on less income in London. Yellow cabs are speedier than black cabs. Sitting on the stoop is cooler than sitting in the pub. People talk about careers more in New York, people talk about property more in London. Moving away from New York is an admission of having failed, while moving away from London is an admission of being boring. People who live in New York are more ‘about’ living in New York than people in London are ‘about’ living in London but that’s one of the reasons why New York is so fun.

Both cities are cripplingly expensive. New York and London used to be very different about a decade ago, now they’ve become more similar.  Finally, both cities are full of people who claim to think that these sorts of lists are annoying but who also, for some reason, can’t stop posting about them.

In Case You Missed It

Darran Anderson ponders the countercultural rehabilitation of Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski

Who’d defend Chelsea fans? James Montague, as it turns out, in this irrepressibly astute survey of football’s selective morality.

Blackmail. Extortion. Hacking. Jackie Singh describes the fairly eye-popping things Grimes admitted to in her recent videotorial.

A team of tech experts take on Kevin Roose’s, shall we say, ebullient defence of Crypto, in their own immensely readable and intermittently eye-widening The Edited Latecomer’s Guide To Crypto.

John Waters did an interview with David Marchese and you should read it because, we repeat, John Waters has done an interview

And Finally

Despite the best efforts of Will Smith and his open palm, the title of the craziest man in Hollywood still rests on Nicholas Cage’s demented brow. There’s a glorious profile just out now in GQ which we recommend to you all. However the 9000-worder doesn’t tackle a relatively undocumented part of Cage’s life: his Somerset sojourn.

Before he went bankrupt, the Californian maintained a home – a beautiful 18th century folly called Midford Castle – just outside Bath. And he took to local life with aplomb.

Now, you probably have all seen the infamous clip ‘Nicholas Cage losing his shit’. It’s funny enough, but it’s a bit entry-level for our readers. Allow us to treat you to some more refined material. Here we have the actor turning on the Christmas lights in Bath in typical Cagean form, as he bellows ‘I CAN FEEL THE ELECTRICITY COURSING THROUGH MY VEINS!’. Then we have a visit to the local maternity hospital, where Cage holds two newborn babies while stating that ‘he loves all children’.

If you have any clips – or any stories – from Nicholas Cage’s tenure in the English countryside, then we would love to hear from you.

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That’s it for this week. We’re now plotting up the next issue, and we’ll be opening pitches again soon. We’ll join you next week, and in the meantime if you’d like to score a deal on some cut-price magazines or gift a subscription to someone who would appreciate it, then there’s a link just below. We hope you have a lovely week, and enjoy this glorious spring weather.

All the best,

TF

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