Friday, December 31, 2010

So, 2010. The year I...

- started a blog
- released a CD
- briefly experienced a minor war zone
- left Thailand
- moved to China
- read more books
- listened to less music
- met David Cameron
- experienced a lot more art (than in Bangkok)
- wore a coat, scarf & gloves for the first time in five years
- got on my bike
- struggled with another language
- hardly went to the cinema
- spent too much on lattes
- enjoyed watching the girls grow up (too fast)
- and still thank the day I ended up with Liz

I am a lucky man. So here's to 2011. It doesn't have any ring to it at all. Except for the fact that it is the year I wll turn 50. Unbelievable.

A quiet seeing-in of the New Year with friends, drinks and a strange mix of Chinese, Indian & Italian food, 16 floors up overlooking Beijing.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

O is for...

A surprising number of very good Os...

- Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
- Mary Margaret O'Hara
- Mike Oldfield
- The Orb
- Orbital
- Oval
- Ose
- 1000 Mexicans
- Hans Otte
- O Yuki Conjugate

The first three or four OMD albums were great, the next three OK and then everything went downhill. For Architecture & Morality alone they'd be up there. Mary Margaret O'Hara's one-hit-wonder, Miss America, is similarly worth a top ten slot. Her concert at the Dominion in London in 1989 (I think) was one of the best gigs I ever saw. And I loved 1000 Mexicans: several sublime singles, one album and some great gigs, all mid-80s. I championed them a bit in Sounds but despite/because of this they split soon after.

Always had a bit of a soft spot for Mike Oldfield, especially Ommadawn and Incantations and remember seeing him at Wembley Arena while I was still at school. Rubbish last three decades though. Anything released on Egg and featuring Richard Pinhas was bound to be good and Ose's Adonia ('78) scored on both counts.

The Orb and Orbital both qualify. To be honest I got a bit bored of them after a while but the early stuff was genuinely innovative. Oval took electronica into glitch territory - their Diskont album was excellent. And finally, respect to German composer/pianist Hans Otte (who died in 2007) - his Book of Sounds is pretty essential - and O Yuki Conjugate who recently celebrated their 25th anniversary. Happy birthday Andrew.

Also-rans: Patrick O'Hearn, Seigen Ono, Operating Theatre, The Orchestra, Orchestra Arcana (Bill Nelson), Jim O'Rourke, Opik, Opus III (if only for their cover of Jane & Barton's It's a Fine Day), Erlend Oye, Vidna Obmana, The Oracle (Wire spin-off), Pauline Oliveros, One Dove, On-U Sound, The Only Ones (if only for the fabulous Another Girl Another Planet), William Orbit, Orange Juice, Orang (ex-Talk Talk), Ozric Tentacles, Opitope... but no room for Oasis or Sinead O'Connor.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Decided to walk to work today to give me more time for music listening, though at 20 minutes we're talking a third of a CD... But just enough to listen to the strangest thing: two telephone conversations recorded in 1980. The first was between my friend Wolfgang and my mother (I was out!), the second was the follow-up between Wolfgang and me. Why?! Long story, but Wolfgang's father had been involved in a court case and had gotten into the habit of recording all phonecalls. Wolfgang and his brother discovered all the tapes in a big clearout earlier this year.

The two conversations were a bit of a letdown: basically Wolfgang explaining that he was planning on visiting me and me suggesting we meet at Brighton station. There was something else about Chariots of Fire and Asmus Tietchens before it cut off. Maybe his dad couldn't bear any more and hit the stop button... Weird hearing my mother from 30 years ago: she sounded so young. The CD has now usurped Nurse With Wound and Alvin Lucier as the strangest in my collection.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Back to work... to a different desk and floor. Everyone's been moved around and we all have new desks. Or rather, no-one has their own desk anymore - we can sit anywhere and our stuff goes in a locker. So all very clean and sterile. No photos of loved ones; no drawers full of pens that don't work, staplers with no staples, bulldog clips, reports you ought to read but never get around to, the odd mug, packets of sugar, business cards and of course out-of-date diaries; in fact no character at all. But, like most things, we'll get used to it.

Bad start to the day though. I choose a PC by the window but the internet doesn't work. Switch to another one, which works until a colleague inadvertently pulls the plug out of the wall. Restart and the internet's down on that one too. Go for a coffee in the lobby. Come back up and realise they haven't put milk in. Go downstairs again and am told there's no milk. Nick someone else's from the office fridge and it turns out to be yoghurt.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Photo albums

In this age of Flickr & Facebook, digi-cameras & hard-drives stuffed with millions of images, I'm probably one of a dying breed who still prints out photos and puts them in albums. I have about 50 of them. It's time-consuming but I enjoy the discipline of it, the editing down, cropping, theming a spread, peppering them with the occasional tiny print or enlargement, and yes - saddo that I am - captions.

It started in 1975 when I got my first camera which was a rubbish Kodak 110 instamatic. I later graduated to an Olympus Trip, then a second-hand Canon SLR, until going digital at the end of the 90s. And by that time I was fed up with carrying an SLR with lenses and stuff so have been compact ever since. I've never been into the technical side of photography but I like taking pix.

Looking at that first Kodak album, it's incredible how awful pocket cameras were in those days. An expensive film, blurred landscapes, terrible colours, a poxy flashcube, and you had to wait a week to develop prints barely worth having. Now we can delete as we go and store them on-line.

Anyway, I had a most relaxing evening with photos & scalpel, with glass of wine and listening to a sublime compilation a friend sent to me (Glow - your best yet Gary!).

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day

Boxing Day: the quintessential Sunday - and always a lazy one in the Elliott household. Cold turkey, looking at presents (10 books, 25 CDs - 20 of which were from one person, thank you Wolfgang -1 scarf and no socks), skyping family and, bizarrely, A wanted to do some Tudor homework. The girls pine for snow but the best we could do was a carpet of cotton wool at the entrance. Meanwhile, it's a normal day for everyone else in Beijing as I discovered when cycling out for milk, fruit & veg.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Chinese Christmas

To get us in the festive mood we went to Nantang Cathedral (aka the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception), not far from Tiananmen Square. It was founded by the Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci 400 years ago; the present building dates from 1904. Interesting guy, Ricci: he mastered Chinese language and customs, co-wrote the first ever European-Chinese dictionary, and became an adviser to the Imperial Court on account of his scientific abilities. Nowadays, Christian worship is restricted to Government-sanctioned organizations. Depending on who you believe, there are about 50 million Christians in China now, 15m of which are Catholic. Anyway, the church was packed - mostly Chinese, but a fair smattering of westerners too. The interior was fairly standard, with the rather ugly addition of giant TV screens on either side of the nave.

Duty done, we got down to the business of opening presents and cooking dinner. Continuing the connection wth Rome, the girls got a Playmobil coliseum and galleon which yours truly took two hours to put together. Meanwhle Liz juggled turkey, veg, gravy etc so that all was ready at precisely the right time. I'm not sure which was more stressful.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A musical Christmas Eve

Into the office for an hour or so to collect a mountain of post and out again to buy a tree (our first real one for years) and a turkey, both surprisngly easy to get. The soundtrack to the rest of the day has been:

- Motown's Dancing in th Streets Christmas Album
- Cocteau Twins' Winter Wonderland / Frosty the Snowman EP
- Christmas Around the World (actually mainly Latin American)
- Jane Siberry's Child (a Christmas concert from 1997)
- Mary Margaret O'Hara Christmas EP
- Mojo's Festive Fifteen
- and a BBC CD of carols

Fun evening game of charades, the highlight of which was N miming 'Solving Snow' which actually turned out to be Shovelling Snow but she read it wrong.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bangkok mall culture

Christmas shopping is not my favourite passtime, but it has to be done. At least I'm not stymied by snow, malfunctioning public transport and Oxford Street hordes. But after a while, Bangkok's shopping malls begin to get to you too. There's something distinctly naff about fake trees, santas, snow and - yes, even here - Wham's Last Christmas in a tropical, Buddhist country. Like everywhere else, Christmas in Bangkok - if not the rest of Thailand - is an opportunity for shops to make a few more bucks, or baht, than they usually do. Anyway, got the camera, toys and other trinkets, mission accomplished.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Catching up

Day 2 of catching up with friends: office (big staff changes even in just five months), Greg (bearing gift), MBK xmas errands, and lunch with Fre to discuss the 'business' of Pump over rice & veg in the canteen. Strange to be dealing with a European label whom I only get to meet in Bangkok, but that's globalization for you. We discuss everything in our usual amicable, chilled style. Everything seems in place and it's good to catch up in person at the start of his Great Year Away.

Late afternoon at Serenity Park with our ex-neighbours. Strange being there but not living there. The girls' two goldfish, Scribbles & Nibbles, are in good health on the 5th floor. Dinner at Lido's round the corner with Kim & Jim and Irena & Xavier, themselves about to be moving on. Lovely to see everyone.

Monday, December 20, 2010

As if we'd never been away

Great to be in Bangkok again. Breakfast with Goon, a quick trip to Bobby Raja's for shirts and the girls' old school for a nostalgic lookaround, Central Chidlom for lunch (the lady at the Japanese food counter remembered us) and Lucy & Iain's new home in Thai Village (very nice: white, white white everywhere), before jumping on the back of a motorbike thru the BK rush-hour to David's for a game of squash followed* by beer, fish & chips and two rounds of pool in the Robin Hood, joined later by Liz, Iain, Henrietta, and Lucy. Phew.

*Surreal conversation in the taxi: "Soi 33 please" "You want boom boom?!" "No, just a few beers". "Boom boom!!" "No, we're going to a pub". "Boom boom ha ha ha!!". "No, you've got the wrong idea about us, mate, just a quiet night out". "Boom boom!!" ....... OK, you're right. Boom boom" And then the three of us in unison for the rest of the journey: "Boom boom, ha ha ha, boom boom!!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

In the Neighbourhood

Hard to leave paradise but leave we must, and after a six hour train journey we're 'home' in Bangkok. We're staying in a hotel 200m from where we used to live. In fact we can see our old place from the balcony, 11 floors up. Nice to be back in our old neighbourhood, albeit in very different circumstances. Oh, and the Red Shirts are back in town. 10,000 of them reconvened peacefully in the centre of town today, to commemorate those who died in the turmolt exactly six months ago. Like we'd never been away...

PS. Just heard that Captain Beefheart died. I wasn't a big fan, but he was certainly a true original...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Factory Girls

Reading Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China by Leslie Chang about migrant workers in Guangdong province, near the border with Hong Kong. She tells the story of two girls who work at the Taiwanese-owned Yue Yuen factory which makes training shoes for Nike, Adidas, Reebok etc. It employs 70,000 people, mainly young women, has dormitories, a school, hospital, cinema, performance troupe, fire department and its own power plant. There are many more factories like it. One-third of the world's shoes are made in Guangdong. Average pay is around 70 quid a month.

See also Edward Burtynsky film Manufactured Landscapes which 'documents' another mega-factory (making electrical components) which puts Yue Yuen in the shade. I seem to remember the opening shot being one incredibly long take of a camera gliding along a track from one end of the factory to the other, a distance of seemingly 2kms, but I could be wrong. It was 'beautiful' in the way that Charles Sheeler's paintings and photographs of factories in 30s USA were 'poetic'. All of which seems a million miles from this beach in the middle of nowhere.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Another day in paradise

What to write about in paradise? Yesterday it was cloudy & windy so we spent even more time reading and lolling about, but not in the hammocks for fear of falling coconuts. We played Cluedo and Battleships. We drank smoothies. I cycled three miles to the nearest convenience shack. The girls played with a puppy. Andreas & I had a quick swim but it was rough and the undertow was incredible. We had a great bottle of wine while talking siblings and family holidays. We played catch. That's it. And yes, I am aware of the big freeze - another one - back home. Sorry...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Back to our favourite Thai beach: a 5 hour drive from Bangkok on the narrowest part of the isthmus - between beach & Burma is 10 miles. We're here with our German friends, also from Beijing. There's not a lot to do other than muck around on the pristine, deserted beach, swim in the perfect sea, loll about in hammocks strung up between palm trees, eat good Thai food and keep the children happy. Sounds too good to be true? I'm reading Bliss by Eric Weiner, in which he attempts to find the world's happiest country. Of course, he goes to Thailand and it's right uip there with the best of them.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A trip back 'home'

Today we left freezing cold Beijing for sunny humid Bangkok, packed like sardines on a 5-hour, no-frills China Air flight. I read pretty much all the way but did notice the ads on the overhead TVs were all for cars: Toyota, Hyundai, VW, Mercedes, Subaru, Ford, Mazda... Nothing else, just cars. Like snakes, we shed our outer layers on arrival and savoured the humidity of Bangkok's night air. 'Home'.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ruth is stranger than Richard

This evening I attended the opening of iDOCS at Beijing Film Academy. It's a documentary film festival - that genre of film-makers who live in the shadow of what most of us consider to be real films. The UK is represented by Geoffrey Smith, who directed The English Surgeon about a British doctor working in a Kiev hospital with desperate patients and makeshift equipment, Kim Longintto who makes extraordinary films about women, and Gigi Wong, a HK-born editor living in London. It was interesting being in the department where Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Jia Zhangke etc learned their trade. As I stepped onto the stage to say a few words, I was showered with sparks from a big overhead lamp, but I made light of the matter. Ho ho.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Slade Alive! (in Beijing)

What is it about 70s glam rock Christmas songs? I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day, It'll be Lonely this Christmas and of course the seminal Merry Xmas Everybody. Every year they - and Merry Xmas (Waar is Over), I Believe in Father Christmas etc etc - are played religiously - literally, elbowing aside carols, and even Bing - the length and breadth of Blighty, in shopping malls, sitting rooms and office parties. But not just in Britain. I woz (thank you Slade) there at the time, watching brickies from Birmingham dress up in high-heeled boots, glittered capes and mascara on TOTP, and could never have guessed that these fantastically ridiculous songs (in this case, Slade and Wizzard) would be sung by my daughters - and a hundred other mostly Chinese kids - in Beijing some 35 years later at the school Christmas show... I'll spare you the video.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


At the British Chamber of Commerce's Christmas dinner this evening there was a raffle. Liz & I aren't bad at raffles. In Bangkok we won a pair of flights to Hiroshima we couldn't take, a spa treatment which Liz gave to someone else and I won a gold bracelet which I had to collect from an office the other side of town and then promptly recycled it for another raffle. But we have two friends who are absolute experts. There were around 100 of us, each having bought around five tickets, all vying for ten prizes, starting at the cheap end and getting progressively plusher. By the time it got to the top two, we thought our table was out of luck, but lo and behold, our friends' number came up and onto the stage went the missus to the be very publicly presented with an iPad. No sooner had she sat down then another of their numbers came up, this time for a couple of Virgin Atlantic flights. To save embarrassment, she stayed put while hubby went up to collect them. I will not reveal their identities for fear of people begging them for charity, or at least the secret of how they keep winning.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Today and yesterday

Having lived abroad for over then years, I could not call myself an avid listener of the Today programme on BBC R4... But it used to be my morning soundtrack: Brian Rehead, John Timpson, Thought for the Day, Rabbi Lionel Blue, John Humphreys, Sue MacGregor - all of which contributed to making it Britain's most listenable and influential news programme. Politicians would fight for their turn to be interviewed, even if it was often a grilling. Occasionally there'd be controversy or even gaffs, but yesterday's 'slip of the tongue' by James Naughtie was just wonderful, excrutiatingly fabulous. Here it is!

And it was on this programme, 30 years ago today, that I learned of John Lennon's death. I was a student, living in Brighton, and remember being quite stunned. On my way into college I stopped at a cafe and read all the papers over a coffee & double egg on toast, and was late for a lecture.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Turnering in his grave

So, for the first time ever, this year's Turner Prize goes to a sound artist, Susan Philipsz, for her renditions of Scottish folk songs. Cue debate re whether that's music not art and whether The Proclaimers should get it next year. Interestingly, the sound most people heard at the ceremony was that made by art students just outside on Tate Britain's steps, in protest against the recent hike in tuition fees. What would Joseph Mallard William Turner make of it all eh?

Monday, December 6, 2010

China's Route 66?

Just finished reading China Road by journalist Rob Gifford. The road refers to Route 312 which runs from Shanghai on the east coast to the border with Kazakhstan in the far north-west. It was his last China journey after living in the country for many years before returning to the UK. It was also, of course, a narrative on the huge changes that have swept across China, from booming east coast to the much poorer provinces the further inland he goes. It's also about politics, migration and the interesting people he meets along the way. There are scores of books like this but Gifford's is the best I've read so far. It helps that he speaks fluent mandarin, enabling him to get under the skin of China. Next!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Rock docs

Tonight I watched Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, the biopic of Ian Dury. Ian Serkis is fabulous as Dury. It got me thinking about music documentaries. I quite fancy the idea of curating a festival of Brit rock docs. Trying to avoid straight-forward concert films, here's a quick dozen off the top of my head, starting at the beginning:

- Summer Holiday
- A Hard Day's Night
- Telstar
- Gimme Shelter
- Let It Be
- Tommy
- Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii
- Ziggy Stardust
- The Song Remains the Same
- The Filth and the Fury
- This is Spinal Tap
- Glastonbury
- Scott Walker: 30th Century Man
- Control

Of course there's many more. Do feel free to add...

Friday, December 3, 2010

N is for...

Some damned fine Ns...

- Neu!
- Bill Nelson
- The Necks
- Colin Newman
- Nurse With Wound
- The Normal
- Michael Nyman
- New Order
- Pete Namlook
- Nouvelle Vague

The first three are easy. Rother/Dinger's three albums were trendsetting and fearless; Bill Nelson was consistently excellent in the late 70s and 80s; and The Necks are the prime exponents of playing out simple ideas to lengthy hypnotic almost ambient extremes.
Nurse With Wound were a big influence on me in the 80s, partly their uncompromisingly weird music but also Steve's record and book collection, his artwork and good conversation in pubs. But I have to confess I haven't kept up with his prodigious output since and it's not what I play at home these days. The Normal are included for their one, solitary, seminal 7" single, Warm Leatherette, which kicked off a hundred DIY electronic combos and, in Mute, one of the world's best record labels. New Order were patchily great (again, early stuff) if usually underwhelming live. And Colin Newman's solo albums are always good (but especially his two for Crammed in the mid-80s).
Michael Nyman creeps in on account of some stridently original early stuff even if it does all sound the same now. One could say the same thing about Pete Namlook, whose relentlessly spewed out Fax CDs were a hallmark of 90s electronica. Stina Nordenstam's fragile, quirky songs are always a pleasure. As are Nouvelle Vague's lounge & acapella takes on late 70s / early 80s post new-wave.
Mention also to: The Nice, jazz-proggers National Heath, gloomy Nico, Youssou N'Dour, Neotropic, Niobe, Node, No-man, Novisad, Julien Neto, Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses, Nonplace Urban Field, Neuropolitique, Negativland, good ol' much-maligned Gary Numan... and does anyone remember the white-suited, top-hatted, bandaged Nash the Slash!? Oddly, I've never been a fan of Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails or Nitzer Ebb.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

World Cup ballyhoo

Turned on the TV at midnight to watch the news and by chance dropped in on the live announcement of who would host the World Cup in 2018 and 2022. To be honest, I wasn't that bothered, but the idea of Qatar getting it was hilarious and silly in equal measure. So, out went England at the first hurdle. Never mind guys, we've got the Olympics. And I can understand Russia getting 2018: big country, opening up, a keen footballing nation, never had it... And then the unthinkable happened: Qatar will host the World Cup in 2022!? Qatar!?! Was it just the money? Interesting that the two bids with the largest budgets and the lowest marks in FIFA’s technical assessment got the decision. Anyway, that's my contribution to the blogosphere which is doubtless full of furore, FIFA-flac and not much in the way of football.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Advent calendars

Continuing the Germanic festive theme, today we got the advent calendars out. Liz's mum always sends us a card one with 'windows' and we have another felt one that gets used every year. A & N will open one each morning at breakfast. As a child I remember always being excited by the process, particularly if the windows revealed chocolates. Once I think we tried making a complicated Blue Peter concoction made out of coat hangers, tinsel and candles which hung like an Alexander Calder mobile dripping hot wax on floor and heads. For Liz and I, it symbolizes how little time we have to get everything done. A symbol of stress.