Richard Branson features in Billionaire's Paradise. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
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Fully loaded: Meet the Super-Rich shows a world beyond satire

"It's not the vulgarity that makes you want to puke so much as the asininity" in BBC season of wealth.

Meet the Super-Rich
BBC2

To cheer us all up as we plod pluckily on into the new year, the BBC has served up a “super-rich” season (and no, before you pile in with the jokes, it will not feature any of its own senior executives). Roughly speaking, the programmes fall into two camps: investigative/polemical and freak show. Either way the result is the same, the viewer’s appalled fascination shading first into queasiness and then into a kind of futile rage.

It’s not the vulgarity that makes you want to puke so much as the asininity. The super- rich, it seems, really are different from the rest of us, their stupidity extending to the purchase of such fatuous me-treats as £30,000 sessions at the spa and brassieres encrusted with diamonds. Here’s an image for you. On a private Caribbean island, a pink, bald, loaded Brummie slashes the sand again and again with a golf club, every ball flying straight out into the ocean where, being made of fish food, it soon dissolves to nothing. As several novelists have discovered to their detriment just lately, this is a world far beyond satire, the symbolism so powerful and obvious that it requires not the slightest literary gussying-up.

The £30,000 spa treatments came to us courtesy of Jacques Peretti, whose two-part series The Super-Rich and Us (8 and 15 Jan­uary, 9pm) explains why “trickle-down” economics as practised by every British government since Margaret Thatcher’s has not, as promised, made us all richer, and explores the consequences of Britain’s status as “the new Switzerland”. Grim territory. Peretti’s editing – in which he shoved a touching clip from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (Bob and Thelma were gazing amazedly at the house they’d just bought) up against a promotional video for the development One Hyde Park (in essence, a collection not of central London apartments, but of safety deposit boxes for foreign billionaires), reminded me why I now find it impossible to watch Clement and La Frenais’s 1970s sitcom without tearing up. Like a golf ball made of fish food, the old hopes and aspirations have all dissolved. By 2030, the majority of people in Britain will be renters once more.

“We used to call it divine right,” said Nick Hanauer, a Seattle-based entrepreneur who earns £12,000 an hour. “Now we call it trickle-down economics.” Wealth like his own, he pointed out, just doesn’t convert into jobs, or even into high-street sales (though he earns a thousand times more than other people he doesn’t buy a thousand times more stuff). A lone voice among the super-rich, Hanauer would love to pay more tax. You could say that he regards doing so as a matter of life or death, because he fears the pitchforks will be coming for his kind pretty soon. But his government, like our own, won’t allow it. For the time being, the thinking goes, the gates – electronic, 24-hour CCTV, panic buttons – are plenty sturdy enough to keep out the barbarians.

In any case, why not enjoy the party while it lasts? The dissolving golf balls were brought to us by Billionaire’s Paradise: Inside Necker Island (6 January, 9pm), a film about Richard Branson’s home in the British Virgin Islands where, for a few months a year, it’s possible to rent a room – yours from £19,000 a week. This wasn’t a documentary: this was Holiday, with Branson as Cliff Michelmore. Not only does he love to extol the many virtues of his island home; he also, weirdly, makes a point of hanging out with the 30 guests.

“It’s been a long time since my wife wanted to jump on top of me,” he said, thanking two women for sending Mrs Branson back to his bed somewhat tipsy after a night of revels. In this version of “paradise”, fancy-dress parties abound, as do 1970s discos and sushi nights, during one of which the maki rolls were placed on the body of a moonlighting Necker accountant (having soy sauce sucked from her belly button, she told us, made a nice change of pace from the arithmetical rigours of her day job). I’d always thought that Necker would be classy: quiet and discreet. But no. Back on the beach, Patch, the aforementioned loaded Brummie, hacked away with his nine-iron, a giant adult baby sweating factor 15 and 21st-century ennui. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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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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