Friday, April 30, 2010

A's birthday

A is 8 years old today. How did that happen? Time flies. Before we know it, she'll be a teenager. She opened presents at breakfast: Raold Dahl and Narnia box set sets, Mickey Mouse watch, mini Cluedo, stickers, stuff... before I had to go to work. But I took the afternoon off and we had lunch together, bought her a tent, watched her swimming lesson (she's now pretty good at butterfly) and had pizzas at Lido's. A nice, low-key day before her party tomorrow.

At bedtime we all looked at an old photo album of when she was a baby back in Tokyo days. Doesn't seem so long ago... and yet... does. She's grown into a lovely, happy, calm, caring girl and I'm very proud of her. Her goodnight hug was extra special tonight.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Hooray. I don't owe £12,245 tax for 2008/9. After three letters and four phone calls over five weeks, the Inland Revenue has finally conceded that it was all a mistake and I have been 'zeroed off'. I shall miss the brown envelopes with just our street address (no town or postcode), the phone calls which get cut off after you've waited for half an hour, the queueing music and messages ("Just so you know, there's lots of information on our website, www...."), the staff whose names you never quite catch, the relentless printed demands. Until the next year.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


It’s the hottest time of the year in Thailand, but I’ve just finished reading a book about the Arctic - Gavin Francis’s True North, in which he explores the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard and Lapland. This joins a small list of similar books read of late: Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, Joanna Kavenna’s Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule, and the Lonely Planet Guide to Greenland and the Arctic. Once completely off the tourist trail, they’re now well and truly on it. Why? A combination of things I suspect: the tourism world has opened up like never before, many people want something more than Majorca, prices have come down and facilities have developed. Also, the Arctic has benefitted – or suffered, depending on your viewpoint – from its status as a climate change, er, hotpoint. See the glaciers melt! Incidentally, unlike the Siberian Arctic (see 3 Feb), I really would like to visit Greenland.

10 interesting facts:
- 330BC: Pytheas the Greek sailed as far as Shetland and probably Iceland
- Hyperborea and Thule were mythical places in the the far north (it’s also the last half-decent album by Tangerine Dream and, oddly, Ultima Thule was their first single)
- 550AD: St Brendan and other Irish monks sailed to the Faroes and Iceland
- 986: Erik the Red discovered ‘Greenland’ and a few years later North America
- 1578: Martin Frobisher ‘discovered’ Greenland and claimed it for England
- 1664: first ‘tourist’, Francesco Negri, reached Lapland from Italy
- 1736: Anders Celsius travelled to Lapland to prove Newtonian science correct
- 1909: Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole; others flew & landed or surfaced in submarines but amazingly the first undisputed conquest by land wasn’t until 1968 by the American Ralph Plaisted and three colleagues
- The North Pole has been the home of Santa Claus since the 1870s; he also has a home in Lapland
- Greenland is the world’s largest island that isn’t a continent but has a population of only 50,000 – the least densely populated country in the world

Monday, April 26, 2010

Train through Bangkok market

Short but sweet and definitely bizarre, here's a video of a train going through a Bangkok market.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Yo-yo Day

An up and down sort of day at home. Started well: on the bike with N to buy croissants at the French bakery a mile away. Then a bit of a directionless morning. Liz too. Red shirt tension remains high. Liz nipped out on two shopping excursions but neither yielded what she wanted: Carrefour didn't have the tent she's been eyeing for A's birthday, and the shop which sells cufflinks (birthday present for John) was closed. On the other hand, I recorded what I think is a pretty good compilation for John, sorted out some photos and Liz baked some cakes. Then an energy slump, girls bickering a bit and N beat me at Black Jack. But harmony restored with a fun swim, A did some good maths homework and we played scrabble before bedtime. Then Liz and I still couldn't decide which Beijing school to go for. All normal stuff I suppose

Friday, April 23, 2010

D is for...

TGIF. Now I could think of 20 reasonably worthy groups and artists beginning with D but it's stretching it a bit. So here's my top 10 in no particular order:

- Dead Can Dance
- Depeche Mode
- Dif Juz
- Anna Domino
- Miles Davis
- Dome
- Deuter
- Dreamfish
- Thomas Dolby

The glaring omission is of course Bob Dylan. Am I serious?! How could, say, Dif Juz (pictured right, in all their prosaic oscurity) be 'better' than the Bard? Well, they're not, but for some reason they had an effect on me in the early 80s, especially live, and I regret that me and Bob just don't get on. What about Nick Drake or The Doors?! Some great songs but no. Deep Purple? Dire Straits? Duran Duran? Er, no.
Bubbling under are Danielle Dax (a wilder version of Anna Domino perhaps), Dubstar (one or two great 90s albums), Dubsquad (Japanese trio), Devo of course, the inconsistent Durutti Column, Howard Devoto, Deee-Lite and De La Soul, The Damned, Ian Dury, two Dennys (Martin and Sandy), Death In Vegas.
Of course Miles Davis has to be in there and Depeche Mode, but I must confess the rest are a bit obscure. Dome were Bruce Gilbert & Graham Lewis of Wire, who made four albums under that name in the early 80s (and many more under myriad other names); DAF invented EBM (Electronic Body Music); Anna Domino (pictured) is an underrated Tokyo-born American indie singer who released several albums on Belgium's very cool Crepuscule label; Deuter recorded a number of atmospheric 'new age' albums in the late 70s / early 80s before the term was invented (but then succumbed to blandness); and Dreamfish (Pete Namlook and Mixmaster Morris) was a one-off masterpiece of early 90s electronica.
And I forgot Lonnie Donnegan (whom I'm just reading about now) who's actually pretty naff but with whom, for Britain at least, it all began.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Red Shirts (situation deteriorating)

It's getting nastier. We were out with friends in another part of town this evening during which time four grenades have gone off in the Silom intersection I described below, injuring 45 including one foreigner. What will the night bring?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Red Shirts (continued)

Having taken over and brought to a standstill Bangkok's retail centre, they're now amassing around Silom, the financial centre - just down the road from our home. There's a big throng of them on one side of Rama IV Road, behind a makeshift but fairly formidable barrier of tyres and sharpened bamboo poles, with the police and army on the other side. I had to pick my way through the latter + coiled barbed-wire on my way to and from work today, but amazingly Silom underground station, right in the thick of it, remains open. I'm not sure what they want to 'do' in Silom other than occupy it and bring it to a standstill (I suppose that's enough). It's difficult to know what's going to happen next: a long stand-off, or will the army go in and clear them out?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Shanghai again

Back to Shanghai to stay with Dave and Sarah and their two children, Alex (N's one-time best school-friend - see 15 Feb post) and Yasmin. They live in a big apartment in the suburbs, but with more amenities than some of the other places we've seen, though it still doesn't really feel like China. By now we're a bit knackered so we spend the weekend relaxing and chatting about schools (again), where to buy food, work, language, what to ship and what to chuck etc. The weather picks up a bit although by the time I venture out to the old quarter of Yu Yuan (see photo) it's raining again.
It's also the weekend of the Shanghai Grand Prix. Button and Hamilton finish 1st and 2nd so Dave, who follows F1, is in better spirits than the previous day when Chelsea, his team, lost to Spurs and Man U won in the last 15 seconds.
Back to Bangkok by Monday night. Seems less like a holiday and more like a research visit which of course it was. Bizarrely, Ian (whom we stayed with during our first session in Shanghai) was on the same flight as us, making a factory visit to Ford's Thailand factory. In fact in the same row!

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Here we are in Beijing, our future home. Basically it's two days of looking at schools and two evenings with friends asking more questions about schools. Plus a bit of work-briefing from Neil in the convivial surroundings of 798 Art District.

Beijing has a different vibe to Shanghai. It seems more spread out; the avenues are wider, the buildings more monolithic (though not tall or particularly modern). It seems less sophisticated. Not a very fair analysis given that our two days are limited to the city's north-east corridor, from the British Council office to the residential suburb of Shunyi and the airport just beyond that. And there is plenty that is ultra-modern (all the Olympic stuff, China TV building...) or conversely wonderfully old (Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven etc) which Shanghai doesn't have. We just didn't get to see any of it this time round.
Instead we saw five international schools on seven campuses. They're all fine, with great facilities (particularly the ones out in Shunyi). So good that we can't make up our minds which to go for. The British School is an obvious choice, but we also liked Yew Chung which adopts a 70% English / 30% Mandarin approach with two teachers in each class but still based on the British curriculum. And the girls liked its playground, the pitch-and-putt on the roof and the pandas they were given at the end. Obviously we're keen for them to get a good grasp of Chinese while we're there and this seems a good approach.
We had dinner with two lots of friends-with-families out in Shunyi which gave us the opportunity to ask more questions and get the low-down on living out in the sticks. Some real pros for sure. But we didn't have time to see apartments in town. Nevermind, we've plenty of time to sort that out in August.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Natural disasters

Big earthquake today in Qinghai province, eastern Tibet (could be thousands dead) and huge ash cloud from the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland closes airspace across Europe. That's how many mega earthquakes of late? Haiti, Chile, now China - again. And that's not counting one in Turkey last month which happen so regularly they're barely mentioned. But the ash cloud seems to be getting all the attention despite the fact that nobody's been killed, just inconvenienced (albeit a lot). Just goes to show that (a) we rely utterly on plane travel and (b) we don't really know whether it's safe to fly through ash or not.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Expo 2010

Everywhere's being 'done up' in advance of Expo 2010 which opens in just over a fortnight. The last (and only other) time I've been to Shanghai was in 2002 and I distinctly remember massive hoardings advertising the Expo eight years in advance. In the interim there's been miles and miles of new roads, new underground rail lines, and of course the site itself...

...which today I was lucky enough to visit, pre-opening, with the Teletubbies (well, their producers). It is immense: a gi-normous economic, cultural, technological theme park on the theme of Better City Better Life and where each country gets its own pavilion - the Chinese one being the biggest of them all of course. Even Liechtenstein and San Marino get their own space.

My main purpose was to see the UK Pavilion which is basically a large, spikey, grey cube set in a small grey park, all designed by Thomas Heatherwick. What's inside the cube? Well, encased in the other ends of the spikes (actually acrylic rods) are thousands of seeds which symbolise change, growth and ideas. And that's basically it - apart from some minor content on the ramps leading up to it and out of it. It's a risky, minimal approach, but it's certainly different! Most pavilions will be jam-full of stuff: displays, videos, this-that-and-the-other, and it's quite likely that the estimated 100 million visitors will be overwhelmed by content. The UK Pavilion could be the breather they need. Have a look at the websites: UK pavilion and Expo 2010.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


From a damp & grey Hong Kong to a damp & grey Shanghai. We are staying initially with Markus and Caroline and their two children, Iona and India, in a fine 1930s townhouse on the western edge of the French concession. It's an interesting area: still plenty of art-deco buildings along leafy avenues and narrower lanes. Markus showed me his office in Red Town, a 'creative zone' which comprises the remains of a steel factory converted into galleries, studios, cafes and offices. In fact, it's where a British Council art exhibition was on show until three weeks ago. We also found J G Ballard's old home which was until recently a converted restaurant but seems to be undergoing another transformation (see photo). The rate of change here is amazing.

The following day we explore more of the French concession: Xintiandi which was probably cool a few years ago but has been gentrified & pedestrianised to within an inch of its life - all designer shops and overpriced restaurants (though our cheaper noodle lunch was excellent); 50 Moganshan art district with its serious, factory-style galleries; and best of all Taikang Lu - a charming, higgledy-piggledy warren of lanes with great little shops and galleries (see other photo).

Next we spend a couple of days with our ex-Bangkok friends Ian & Katy, three girls & new puppy who live to the south of the city in a nice house on a compound. It's Alice's 6th birthday so the children are occupied. Good to relax and experience the other residential option - and it's not too far out as I discover when I make a sortie to visit the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, and Shanghai Urban Planning Museum. The only downer is the weather: grey, cold and wet.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hong Kong

Off on our travels again, partly holiday, partly research trip. Hong Kong is holiday. An early start means that we land by midday. The girls don't know we're going to Disneyland so when we pass under the arch on the way to the resort hotel they are beside themselves with excitement. But they have to wait until tomorrow as we have friends in HK to see first. I had wanted to go in by boat (the harbour's such a great entrance) but there's no service from the resort so we take the MRT which takes us straight into Central to see Lydia whom we know from our Tokyo days (now with husband and toddler) and then on to see Veronica and KC who've just moved into a new apartment in Wanchai. One forgets how incredibly dense, vertical and multi-levelled HK is. We drive to a restaurant. The car park entrance on Kennedy Road is actually on the 17th floor. We take the lift down 16 floors to the Queens Road level where the restaurant is. Afterwards our friends insist on taking us up to the Peak. The road climbs and winds and climbs and winds until finally we're there to see... a complete blanket of mist. Can't see a thing!

Disneyland the next day is wonderful. Bit drizzly but it doesn't dampen our spirits and also means that it's not so crowded. Very impressed with the way it's laid out: Fantasyland with its emphasis on the classics with Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo and Winnie the Pooh rides; Adventureland with its Tarzan treetops-island and Lion King show; Tomorrowland with its fun Buzz Lightyear and scary Space Mountain rides; and Main Street USA with its shops and cafes. There are several offshoots too, like the It's A Small World pavilion where boats take us along a 'river' past multicultural, mechanical sets with singing, dancing puppets - amazingly colourful and intricate; and Mickey's Philharmagic show which combines 3D cinema with other effects like wind, water and Donald Duck shooting out of the screen at you and ending up embedded in the rear wall of the theatre. Then there's the parade ("Look, it's Ariel!!") and the fireworks show at the end. Disney. Magic. Dreams. Princesses. What a brand.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Malcolm McLaren RIP

Malcolm McLaren died today, aged 64. I had no idea he was ill (a rare form of cancer). Another big chunk of music history bites the dust, up there with John Peel, Tony Wilson, Michael Jackson etc. Kings Road, Vivienne Westwood, Sex Pistols, punk, Bow Wow Wow, Buffalo Gals (an incredibly overlooked record), Madam Butterfly... He was the definition of the word svengali. Creative, cruel, brilliant. The music world will not see the likes of him again.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Red Shirts (still here)

The Red Shirts are still in town. Since arriving en masse a few weeks ago (see 16 March post), they've been milling around Bangkok, holding rallies, issuing demands and generally being disruptive.Yesterday they stormed the gates of parliament, although once in they contented themselves with a fairly harmless pushing match against the riot police, the latter showing remarkable restraint (too much, in some people's views). The rest have been camped out in Central World plaza, closing the shopping mall (SE Asia's largest) and bringing four major streets to a standstill. I had a quick look yesterday on my way home. They're a cheery, well-organized bunch. There are stalls selling water, food, clackers, and of course red T-shirts. They've erected a stage on which their leaders whoop the crowds up with deafening rhetoric. They're quite polite. This could all change as the Prime Minister has declared a State of Emergency ahead of a big rally tomorrow. Could this be the moment when the army go in and clear the reds off the streets? Whatever happens, I hope both sides continue to err on the side of restraint.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pump "Sombrero Fallout"

17 years later, Pump’s second CD, Sombrero Fallout, has just been released by the Belgian label, Plague Recordings. Pump was a group of sorts, comprising me and Andrew Cox. We met at univ 30 years ago, formed a group called MFH, released 5 cassette albums in the early 80s' heyday of cassette labels, changed our name to Pump, released an LP in 1987, recorded a follow-up which was supposed to come out in 1993 but for various boring reasons never quite happened, then we kind of fizzled out and tragically Andrew died last year. There’s more on Pump on Wikipedia and some memories of Andrew in my first blogpost here:

It’s great to see it out there, released by a guy with his heart in the right place. I think it stands up pretty well after all this time, and prefer it to the first Pump LP which was a bit all over the place (though it had its moments). People have said positive things about it; one track has just been described as “epic” which sounds alright to me! And my friend Wolfgang did a fine job on the sleeve.

Anyway, here comes the sales pitch... It can be ordered from Norman Records (UK) or direct from Plague Recordings (mainland Europe). Tell your friends!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Off-line Beach

Four days away from a computer: no emails, no blog, no TV and only one call on my mobile - which wasn't work. Wonderful. We were with our friends Sam, Annette and Zoe, five hours south of Bangkok at a beach resort called Rachavadee, near Ban Krut, a village on the narrowest bit of the Thai isthmus: only 8 miles between the Gulf of Thailand on one side and Burma on the other. It was fairly basic, but quiet and OK rooms. Decent Thai food, gorgeous sandy beach, picture-postcard palm trees with hammocks slung between them and lovely warm sea. The girls collected shells, the adults read & snoozed, we swam, we played scrabble, uno and dominoes. We drank smoothies in the afternoon and beer in the evening. Bliss.

Today, Sam and I got up at dawn and cycled up the coast to a temple on a hilly headland. The bikes were as basic as the resort, with rock-hard saddles, but did the job. We stopped for lattes at a posher resort and talked work which was nicer than it sounds given the circumstances. Liz and Annette had massages. So a great break, but over all too quickly...

Friday, April 2, 2010

C is for...

Friday again - already? - so more list trivia. Here they are, my Top 20 Groups and Solo Artists beginning with C...

- Cabaret Voltaire
- Camel
- John Cale
- Can
- Captain Beefheart
- The Carpenters
- China Crisis
- Cinematic Orchestra
- Cluster
- Cocteau Twins
- Codona
- Colourbox
- Julian Cope
- Cornelius
- Laurence Crane
- The Creatures
- The Cure
- David Cunningham
- Ivor Cutler
- Holger Czukay

I’m going to get a grilling from a few friends so in anticipation…
Q: But how could you possibly omit Ry Cooder, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave!?
A: I know, absolute respect, but it just isn’t the kind of music I listen to much. Shame, shame on me.
Q: Or Eric Clapton and Cream – or Alice Cooper, Chicago, Joe Cocker?
A: Give us a break!
Q: The Clash?
A: Overrated.
Q: OK, so what about oddballs Coil, Current 93, Chris & Cosey, Chrome, Crass?
A: Sorry, don’t quite make the 20 I’m afraid.
Q: Electronica: Chemical Brothers, Cosmic Baby, Christ., Coldcut?
A: Nope.
Q: So Camel are in there but not Caravan?
A: I know, close one that. For their 70s output only of course.
Q: China Crisis?!
A: I love China Crisis.
Q: One-album-wonders Colourbox?
A: But what an album, along with five fabulous 12 inchers.
Q: Laurence Who?
A: Ah, Mr Crane. Fine British ‘minimalist’ composer with great sense of humour.
Q: What about John Cage and, come to think of it, Tony Conrad or Wendy Carlos?
A: Respect for JC but to be honest I only really like about two pieces of his.
Q: Surely there’s room for Elvis Costello?
A: I like his early stuff and full of respect etc, but nope.
Q: Coldplay, Culture Club, Sheryl Crow, Cranberries, Chic?
A: Not even close.
Q: The Carpenters?!
A: Some of the most sublime, melancholic pop ever, complete with tragic ending.
Q: Any iffy ones who made it in there?
A: I wasn’t sure about including Captain Beefheart. And I suppose David Cunningham is a strange choice but I’d defend it on the basis of Money, his production work and recent guitar-systems work. And The Creatures? Nothing special now, but Wild Things EP, Miss The Girl, Right Now and Feast were fantastic.
Q: Any last regrets?
A: Hmm, Sheila Chandra and Andrew Cox deserve to be in there.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Bangkok Night Market

Sam, Annette and Zoe have come to stay. They were surprisingly chirpy given they'd just stepped off a 12-hour flight and no sooner had we eaten than off we went to the Night Market, a short walk from our home. It's a great place: hundreds of tiny shops arranged along tight passageways selling everything from hip clothes and souvenirs to antiques and jewelry, plus a lot of modern interior decor, and good quality not tat. It also has some decent restaurants, a bar or two and the fairly famous Joe Louis Puppet Theatre which gives nightly performances of the Ramakien, Thailand's version of the Ramayama.

Half an hour of shopping is enough for any man so Sam and I slipped away for a drink with the women-folk joining us a little later. Ever since we arrived in Bangkok there's been talk of the market closing. Tenants have been given numerous notices to move out but nothing much has happened, thankfully. A small part of it has just been demolished but otherwise it's as busy as ever. What do the leaseholders want to do with it? Turn it into another shopping mall of course.