Monday, January 31, 2011

John Barry RIP

Hats off for JB, soundtrack composer extraordinaire, who died yesterday aged 77. Midnight Cowboy, Born Free, Zulu, Ipcress File, Out of Africa, The Persuadors, Chaplin, Dances With Wolves and of course ten or so James Bond films. Reading the obituaries, I'd forgotten that he didn't actually write the Bond theme - 'just' orchestrated it. I have a Best Of which regularly gets played. It is the epitome of retro-cool. David Arnold put it nicely: "You could be stuck in a traffic jam on the M25 in a Ford Fiesta, but if you're playing a John Barry score, you're in an Aston Martin".

PS. Little known fact? His music for Beat Girl (1960) was the first British soundtrack released on LP.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


One doesn't associate China with skiing but in the last ten years it's become quite popular, in the north at any rate. There are around 15 resorts within 100 miles of Beijing and today we went to the nearest, Nanshan. The hills are real but the snow comes from machines rather than the sky. It was slightly odd looking down from the top: white slopes framed by a parched, brown landscape. The last time Liz and I went skiing was in Japan nearly ten years ago - in fact that's where I learnt - but this was the first time for the girls. We hired instructors and they did really well. And you can do the whole thing in a day.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

White & wallet

Finally... finally... some decent Chinese music. Andreas and I went to see White at the tiny D22 club near Beijing University. They're a duo: a guy called Shou Wang (who's also a member of Carsick Cars, who've just split up) and a gal called Shenggy (who lives in London), best known for their 2009 abum produced in Berlin by Blixa Bargeld and released on his Open Note label. The album's OK, but live they were fantastic, except tonight Shenngy was nowhere to be seen and it was Shou Wang + unknown drummer. Think Neu! meets Richard H Kirk. Relentless 4/4 rhythm with Wang's seering electronics & occasional treated vocals over the top. Fabulous.

What made the evening particularly memorable, though, was an astonishing act of kindness from a gaggle of young staff at the nearby underground station. They'd aready connected Andreas and me when we arrived at the station at different exits. Then, on arrival at the club, Andreas realised he'd lost his wallet. So we turned back with the feint hope that he'd dropped it in the station. Halfway along the road we met one of the subway staff who'd taken the initiative to try and track us down. They'd found the wallet and between them hatched a plan to find us. Amazing. It's the kind of thing that might have happened in Japan, but we were touched that it could happen here. Restores one's faith in humanity.

Friday, January 28, 2011


It hasn't rained in Beijing for three months, the longest period without precipitation in 40 years. I'd expected dry (which is nice, especially with the blue skies we've also been having), but not this dry. Bad news for farmers and everyone really.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Office Party

China doesn't do Christmas parties, but it does do Chinese New Year ones... big time. A hotel conference room was hired, a big stage & two large video screens erected, besuited & frocked MCs press-ganged, smoke-machine switched on, lights dimmed, and let the entertainment begin! We had:

- a pop song in Chinese sung by western interns
- a short play about office-working, which turned out to be a thinly-veiled dig at hot-desking with staff dressed as sheep
- a picking-up-eggs-with-chopsticks contest
- a kung fu show: part home-made video, part live action (the girls swooned as Xuebin did his serious, non-smiling moves - hilarious)
- Simon & Garfunkel's Sound of Silence sung by my colleague Haining wearing a pork-pie hat
- a very funny re-enactment of Catherine Zeta-Jones doing Entrapment (you had to be there)
- a mother & child who-can-drink-the-milk-from-the-baby-bottle fastest competition (see above: Licy and I won!)
- Scottish dancing, with the weirdest kilts I've ever seen
- a live version of Super Mario
- and finally I did a silly art quiz

To be honest, I was dreading it beforehand. Ritual humiliation and all that. But actually it was great fun, professional, but not too professional.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

RIP (again)

Second anniversary of Andrew Cox's demise, commemorated by listening to some of his solo stuff: the ear-piercing Arioch (1980) and the more considered Methods ('80) and Hydra ('81) and Songs from the Earth ('83), all on YHR; then a couple of very long, unreleased pieces from the 00s involving heavy processing of single sound sources - very dark ambient, very minimal... to the point of hardly anything happening. The temptation to see in Andrew's music the reflection of inner turmoil is obvious, as it is with any troubled artist. Suffice to say it's difficult listening, whether you knew the guy or not.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Madame Mao

Unlike last Thursday, today was very much a Chinese day. Sounds obvious - I mean we live in China - but actually there are days when I go to work, speak English and deal with British arts all day, come home, eat Western food, and I might as well be in Britain. But today...

Liz went on a Chinese cooking course in a Hutong somewhere in Dongsi; A went on a school trip to an ice palace north of Beijing; and I went to a small bar-cum-cafe in another hutong to see a fairly obscure comedy made in 1935 called Scenes of City Life. Shanghai was portrayed as glitzy, on-the-make and amazingly western, which it was to a degree. All the women looked like Gloria Swanson and the men like Al Capone's younger brother. But it was fairly unsophisticated and with the weirdest sound effects. Interesting cameo appearance though from Jiang Qing aka Madame Mao.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Blog's First Year

Sounds like a Beckett play, but actually just means that I've been writing this blog thing for exactly a year now. Still not entirely sure (a) why I'm doing it, (b) who's it for and (c) whether it's a good thing or not. But I'm still enjoying it. And when I'm old and grey, I can sit the grandchildren on my knee and tell them, this is what grandad did in the early part of the 21st century, and they will laugh at the iPad and the bands beginning with P...

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Watched two DVDs about the life of Buddha this weekend: a 1hr BBC documentary and a 3hr Thai cartoon. The Beeb one was a mixture of academic talking heads interspersed with a strange dramatisation of a thick-lipped Siddartha wandering around palace and country with a perpetually dazed expression. The Thai cartoon went on forever, but it told the story clearly, if not obviously concisely. Interesting, but I could never really follow a religion that denies passion and states that apart from suffering, nothing exists. Having said that, I like the idea of rebirth (as opposed to death full stop; who wouldn't?), the middle way and karma. And meditation, although I've never practised it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Helped A with her literacy homework this afternoon. She had to form sentences using words ending in -ness, kicking off with kindness and ending with absentmindedness. I think that's pretty hard for an 8-year-old. We started with an explanation of why Loch Ness doesn't count and ended with the positively brilliant Mr Forgetful is famous for his absentmindedness.

"What does absentmindedness mean?"
"Erm, the state of being forgetful... or simply forgetfulness".
"What does the state of mean?"
"Erm, being forgetful. So you have an adjective... and you add a suffix"
"What does a suffix mean?"
"I'm not sure. Anyway, it's the same as forgetfulness"
"So it could be Mr Absentminded is famous for his forgetful (10 second gap)... ness?"
"Exactly. Next!"

It reconfirmed the fact that, although I can string together a decent enough sentence, I'd really struggle to explain the grammatical structure of it. I could, even now, just about describe a Latin sentence in terms of conjugation and declensions, but English? No chance.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A European kind of day

Attended the quarterly EU Cultural Counsellors meeting. I've been to many over the years, in Japan and Thailand, and they're always interesting affairs. Presidency of the EU rotates every six months and is now with Hungary so we had some proposals from them and their Cultural Counsellor promised to send me a documentary on Puskas. The Poles assume Presidency in July and are already making a bid to bring a film festival, provisionally entitled Made in Europe, Powered by Poland which raised a few eyebrows.

In the evening Liz and I attended the opening of an exhibition by Wang Shugang. He makes sculptures of people, always in groups and usually in bronze. He has a strong German connection having studied & lived there for 10 years and is married to a German. Lots of Germans in attendance including our friends who invited us. Interesting chat with a Dutch guy who's setting up a business in Handan, a non-descript city in the middle of nowhere with a million plus population (there are over 120 such cities in China). He said he was very lonely. "It hasn't even got a Starbucks".

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

P is for...

- Popol Vuh
- Penguin Cafe Orchestra
- Pink Floyd
- Pet Shop Boys
- Psapp
- Andrew Poppy
- Plaid
- Jocelyn Pook
- Richard Pinhas
- Portishead

Popol Vuh get top billing. At their peak (for me 1973-83) they were unique, mystical, peerless, playing spiritual music without the religion and world music before World Music. They could rock (Einsjager & Siebenjager, Herz aus Glas), but they were probably at their most sublime with Fricke's gorgeously intense yet-at-the-same-time minimal piano compositions or any of their soundtracks to Herzog's films. Bruder des Schattens is one of my favourite albums ever.

And the rest... Penguin Cafe Orchestra - for almost everything they did; Pink Floyd for the obvious pre-Wall stuff and great concerts; Pet Shop Boys for being such a consistently intelligent pop group; Psapp for their eccentric charm; Andrew Poppy for his grand mid-80s albums on ZTT; Plaid for their great electronica on Warp; Pook for her excellent sountracks; Pinhas for helming Heldon and for the odd, excellent solo album (Iceland for sure); and Portishead for Dummy which they could never again equal.

And the rest of the rest, in no particular order... Propaganda (mid-80s version), Passport (mid-70s version), Pole (both the 70s French group and German glitch guy), Arvo Part, Pentatonik (which on another day might have made the top 10), Pere Ubu, Carlos Peron, Phantomband, Sam Phillips, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Iggy Pop (on a good day), The Pop Group, Public Image Ltd (eponymous single and Metal Box only), Pigbag, Pigyn Clust, The Police (in small doses), Psychic TV (ditto), PFM (in even smaller doses, and I mean the Italian 70s group not the current dance act), Colin Potter, L Pierre, Pjusk, Pansonic, Plone (great one-off album on Warp), Andrea Parker, Piano Magic, Porcupine Tree, The Pretenders, Prince (80s only), Public Enemy, PM Dawn, Parliament & Lee Scratch Perry (if in the right mood), Poodles, Psychedlic Furs, Pyrolator, David Parsons, Pelican, Photek, Propellorheads but not The Prodigy, Piano Circus, Primal Scream (maybe for Screamadelica), Prefab Sprout... and of course, the King himself, Mr Elvis Presley.
Oh, and maybe Pump.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Another long day of meetings but this time mainly in Xi'an's city centre. Interesting time at Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts, one of China's top art colleges. Turned out that today was entrance exams day. Thousands of students from all over Shaanxi Province have poured into Xi'an to take exams that will determine whether they get into art colleges throughout the country - not just Xi'an. The sheer volume of them was amazing.

I really felt for them as they disembarked from coaches bedecked with good luck banners ("Yulin Students Go!!") and trudged nervously into the Academy, each one carrying a little box of paints & brushes, a plastic pot and A2 sketchpads. This was the oil painting exam and everyone has to paint the same subject which is revealed when the exam kicks off - very much about technique rather than creativity. I think there are separate exams for sketching, sculpture etc.

We had lunch with the faculty in a smoke-filled restaurant and on emerging into clearer air were confronted with the sight of thousands of parents waiting at the gates for their loved ones and making the traffic even worse than it normally is (which is saying something).

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tang Paradise

It snowed during the night - my first experience of the white stuff for 5 years - but turned to slush pretty quickly. Back-to-back meetings with various arts contacts around the city, including a tough but ultimately productive one with Xi'an Art Museum where we'll shortly show our Made in Britain exhibition of contemporary Brit art.

Much of our time was spent in the new Qujiang district in the south - a huge development of creative industries, cultural institutions, shopping malls dressed up in fake city-wall architecture and a Tang Dynasty theme park. Looks like Milton Keynes* meets Disneyland. Currently it covers 30 sq kms - and they're going to double it. In the evening we were invited to dinner at a new restaurant but after half an hour of driving round in circles our driver gave up and our hosts had to come and fetch us.

(* a lazy comparison - MK is hardly new anymore, in fact ancient history compared with Qujiang).

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Flew to Xi'an this morning and had the afternoon free to explore the city. Fascinating place: 3,000 years of history, the capital of 'China' for around 1,000 of them), and at its height during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907AD) it was the largest city in the world with a population of over 1m. The city walls are, to quote from yesterday's post, 'awesome'; the current ones date back 700 years and form a 14km square around the centre of the city. The thing that struck me was its width, like a dual-carriageway.

Also saw the Drum Tower, Bell Tower and, perhaps most interesting of all, the Muslim Quarter. Xi'an is the eastern end of what was the Silk Road and has a large population of muslims. Fascinating to stroll around its lanes and soak in some non-Han culture for once: muslim food, headscarfed women, arabic scripts, posters of Mecca... I ended up in the Great Mosque which dates back to 742, which was when Islam was first introduced to China via the Silk Road. Architecturally, it was hard to tell it apart from a regular Chinese temple (eg. there was a pagoda instead of a minaret) but the main building had prayer mats and I heard the Call to Prayer just as I was leaving.

And I haven't even mentioned the Terracotta Army.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A totally, like, awesome dinner

Beijing is full of surprises. This everning Liz and I celebrated our wedding anniversary with dinner in the Gulou (Drum Tower) district, just east of Houhai Lake. It's sort of on the tourist trail but we'd never been there before: a nice mixture of old Beijing hutongs and newer cafes, bars and boutiques. We ate Yunnan food in a courtyard style restaurant. No menu - they just bring you various dishes to share over the course of an hour or so. Good idea. The only downside was the rather loud conversation from a group of Americans across the room, where every sentence included the tiring triumvirate of "like" , "totally" and "awesome".

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Training waning

Day one of a two-day training course in a nearby hotel. Active Learning Teams, listening skills, peer-to-peer coaching and positive influencing of people. Been there, done that. Dreadful waste of a day, although thankfully I managed to catch up on a lot of stuff this evening. And I suppose we can be thankful that it wasn't one of those outward-bound team-building things - stuck on a tropical island, fashioning rafts with oil drums and string, and traversing shark-infested waters. Tomorrow's sessions are supposed to be very different (from both today's tedium and the latter scenario). They'd better be.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Strange evening in the lobby of a swanky downtown hotel. I was due to meet a big-shot manager of a certain very famous Chinese pop singer with whom I have a mad idea of a collaboration with a Brit band for 2012. The lobby was full of people milling around who'd had just had a meeting with her, only she was nowhere to be seen. Apparently they'd had a 'disagreement' and she'd retired to her room leaving me twiddling my thumbs. Perhaps not the best time to introduce a hair-brained proposal heavy on cultural relations but no budget. But by chance I was introduced to some business guys from Chongqing and we had an impromptu discussion about bringing orchestras and ballet to that fair city. So not a totally wasted evening.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Meeting with Fan Dian, Director of the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) this morning to discuss two potential exhibitions for 2012, one for NAMOC, one for the National Museum of China which is a couple of miles away on Tiananmen Square, but I want Fan's advice. There's no shortage of interest for all these big proposals and NAMOC's schedule can accommodate... But it all boils down to budget: each would cost around 1m. It will be a herculean task but if you don't try then it definitely won't happen.

Good crafts exhibition on at the time; another example of the curation, and particularly the installation design, bringing an exhibition to life.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Re-decorating the Duma

Spent the evening sorting out the covers for the re-release of The Decoration of the Duma Continues. (The title, btw, came out of an automatic-writing session Andrew and I did in a pub one liquid afternoon; pretentious? Nous?). I say 'covers' because there'll be a CD and an LP which means working to 5" jewel-case with inserts and 12" straight-forward front & back. That's actually quite a difference - but a nice opportunity. The B&W artwork for the original release back in '87 is in storage in UK so I'm going for a completely new colour design whilst trying to be sympathetic to the title and times. I never thought I'd say this, but actually I like the CD format more than the 12" at the moment. Although smaller, I've got six squares to play with, compared with just two on the LP. But both should work out fine. And no sneak previews here...

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Went to see a Liu Xiaodong's "Hometown Boy" exhibition at Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in 798 today. Very good and particularly well curated by Jerome Sans. He suggested Liu spend the summer in his hometown of Jincheng in Liaoning province and paint family, neighbours and old friends. The outcome was an illustrated diary, a documentary film and around 25 large oil paintings. On their own the paintings were fine, the characters of each sitter revealed sympathetically in natural surroundings, indoors and outdoors. But it was the context, the process, and the stories behind each of the sitters that made the show great.

We went with friends, and our combined children were very good, sitting through 30 minutes of the documentary, reading some of the diary entries and asking good questions about the paintings. I was pleasantly surprised.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Lost in transation

Met with book publishers Penguin today. They've had a China office for some time, publishing Western titles (eg. Penguin Classics) in translation and commissioning books about China in English. As we sat in their office, I scanned the shelves and just about everything on them I wanted to steal. Oh for a year off just to read...

Anyway, we're working with Penguin - and a lot of other people - on a big project which is trying to bring China and UK's literary fields closer together. There's a massive imbalance between British titles translated and published in China, and vice versa - probably as extreme as 99:1. There are hardly any Chinese novelists translated into English. One of the problems is that there aren't enough top-notch translators, and those that exist are always busy. So we've got a training project to develop more, involving writers, editors & publishers from both sides. This will culminate in China being 'Market Focus' at the London Book Fair in 2012, for which we'll be bringing over around 50 Chinese writers for networking, seminars and stuff. This is topsy-turvy for us: normally we're doing stuff the other way round, promoting Brit culture in China, but actually cultural relations is more effective if it's mutual (he said, somewhat po-faced...).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Mick Karn RIP

Mick Karn, ex-Japan multi-instrumentalist, sculptor, photographer and all-round good guy, died yesterday aged 52, after a battle with cancer. Very sad. He was a fantastic bass player, especially fretless. His languid lines on Japan's Quiet Life, Gentlemen Take Polaroids and especially Tin Drum were a revelation in pop terms, and when he took to the stage his bass became a real focus of attention, that and his glad-rags, shaved eyebrows and those funny movements he did. I saw Japan's last ever UK gig in late '82 and he was constantly doing these weird shuffles across stage, body erect, always facing forward, then settling into position with lower leg flicking out in time with the rhythm, before careering off again.

Of course, he was a lot more than Japan's bassist. He had a rich and varied solo career, co-fronted Dali's Car (with Pete Murphy), got into jazz, collaborated with David Torn and myriad others, co-ran a record label (Medium Productions) with Jansen & Barbieri and played on scores of other albums. He will be sadly missed.

PS. Gerry Rafferty also died yesterday. I just read that Baker Street was still netting him 80K a year.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Egg

Finally went to the Egg, or to give it it's proper name The National Centre for Performing Arts. Designed by Paul Andreu and opened three years ago to much fanfare, it's made of titanium and glass and sits in the middle of a lake, a block west of Tiananmen Square. It's quite hard to figure out how to get in, but finally Liz and I found the entrance which takes you under the water.

We saw Northern Ballet's production of Madame Butterfly. Slightly odd seeing British dancers dressing up as Japanese on a Chinese stage, but it was great. Good set, costumes, lighting, some interesting additions to the Puccini score and a pretty spectacular harakiri at the end.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Were The Goodies funny?

I gather The Goodies have been enjoying something of a revival in the UK with late night repeats showing between Christmas and New Year. By coincidence I got a Best Of DVD for Christmas. I remember tuning in whenever they were on - 1970 to (amazingly) 1982 - and probably thought they were hilarious at the time. Others thought so too. Apparently a Mr Alex Mitchell died laughing while watching one particular episode (1975) and a Mrs Seema Bakewell went into labour (1977).

The temptation is always to compare them with Monty Python. They knew each other well, having met at Cambridge and wrote on & off together throughout the 60s. Goodies humour was certainly less sophisiticated but lest it be forgotten they were more popular than Python at the time. Anyway, 40 years on and the experience is... very dated, cheapo sets and the less said about The Funky Gibbon the better. But they were also quite inventive at times, especially the low-budget visual effects.

What are they doing now? Bill Oddie does his nature programmes; Graeme Garden continues to do a fair amount of radio and acting (and here's a little-known fact - his son John is keyboardist in the Scissor Sisters); and I don't know about Tim Brooke-Taylor...
Can I really have wasted two hrs watching and then half an hour writing about a stupid television programme from 40 years ago? Yup.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


We'll have to wait a few week for the real (Chinese)deal, but here we go with the western New Year. In an attempt to start it positively, I hauled myself down to the gym and made a mental list of stuff to do while pounding the treadmill and listening to some Chinese electronica (the terribly named but pretty decent Supermarket). Boring stuff like tax returns, child benefit and getting a shoe cupboard made. We don't really go in for New Year Resolutions, but I'll make one: master mandarin. Or at least be able to speak and understand a lot more than I do now.