Recommended Read: "On Paris" by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's correspondence marks a lost generation of foreign journalism.

"There is nothing deader than a dead tiger and Georges Clemenceau was a very great tiger. Therefore Georges Clemenceau is very dead." So begins an article of 18th February 1922 in the Toronto Star, written by a young Ernest Hemingway, its Paris correspondent.

Hemingway's missives from the post-war western front have been collected for a recent Hesperus Press edition and are among his earliest published writings. Aficionados will recognise the nascent pith and verve of his writing, but these articles represent so much more than the baby steps of a future literary giant; they are the remnants of a lost generation of foreign reporting.

Today's newspapers must chase a shrinking market, and often paint a picture of the world that (they assume) might fascinate a modern consumer. The grim reality of faraway lands is represented through statistics of suffering, or humanised to appeal to the pathos of a distant domestic audience.

Worse still, such emotive content is frequently balanced by trivial vignettes of celebrity gossip and reality TV found in supposedly more familiar western cultures. Sunday newspapers present a weekly digest of selected world events, dictated by our current curiosities; we are so rarely asked to understand a foreign culture, merely to know about it.

By digging below the statistical and the salacious, Hemingway came to understand. His articles paint a vivid panorama of life in 1920s Paris. Whereas today's media is cripplingly averse to characterisation, Hemingway tells us how "the extreme provinciality of the French people" and "the gullibility of the French press" made Paris "the mecca of bluffers and fakers in every line of endeavour." We learn that "the scum of Greenwich village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited" at the Café Rotonde; of how French wives buy their clothes for their husbands; of Parisian boorishness, wild nightlife and "homes on the Seine".

Yet Hemingway managed to be at once entertaining and informative. The gargoyles of Notre Dame, placed in position by Napoleon the Third before the Franco-Prussian war, "belong to modern history", says Hemingway, "and the commencement of French hatred towards the eastern neighbour." A trip to his wartime posting in Trentino reveals the detached desolation that was so prevalent in post-war Europe. The reconstructed town he finds, so typical of 1920s Europe, represents not "the great sacrifice" but rather "the new, ugly futility of it all": "Everything is just as it was - except a little worse."

Perhaps the perception of even a young Hemingway is too much to ask of our modern broadsheets. And perhaps it is futile to lament the passing of an age when consumers had the patience, and producers the funds, for such singular nuance. One fears, though, that Hemingway's is a lost art of journalism, at odds with contemporary coverage of international affairs that describes rather than explains; that panders to the fleeting attention of the fickle reader; that struggles to transcend the existing cultural, commercial or geopolitical interests of its domestic audience.

In his attempt to explain the atrophy of "the very great tiger" as a political figure, the intrepid reporter described his method:

If you catch a Frenchman when he has been in the café just long enough to come to a boil, and before he has begun to boil over and spill on the stove, you find out what he really thinks about Clemenceau or anything else. And if you catch enough Frenchmen in different parts of France, you will have the national opinion; the real national opinion, not the shadow of national opinion that is reflected in elections and newspapers.

In today's world, it is as important as ever that cultures understand each other. Our newspapers would do well to heed Hemingway's advice.

"On Paris" is published by Hesperus Press (£7.99)

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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