Thursday, March 31, 2011


Following my friend Wolfgang's root canal torture a fortnight ago, it's my turn to visit the dentist - ostensibly for a check-up but as it happens I've got some pain in a rear molar. I hate dentists. The smell, the equipment, the injections, the drills, the ache of having your mouth stretched open for ages, the taste of the mouth-wash, the waiting, the cost... Like Bowie for most of his life, I've never been one for whiteness and uniformity at all costs - the Hollywood smile. In fact I don't (somehow can't) show my teeth when I smile. My lips cover them. So my teeth are OK, not great, not bad. Average perhaps. I ate a lot of sweets in my youth so I've got a lot of fillings. My new dentist asks if I grind my them in my sleep as they're quite low in my gums. I've no idea. I mean, I'm asleep.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

T is for...

Plenty of good Ts...
  • Tangerine Dream
  • Throbbing Gristle
  • Simon Fisher Turner
  • Talk Talk
  • Talking Heads
  • Traffic
  • To Rococo Rot
  • This Heat
  • Masami Tsuchiya
  • Tristeza.
The 70s were my formative years and Tangerine Dream were a favoured soundtrack to a sizeable chunk of it, especially Zeit, Phaedra, Rubycon and Ricochet. I still kick myself for not attending their first UK concert which bizarrely turned out to be in my home town of Chichester in 1974, although to be fair I was only 13. They're rubbish now of course.

Throbbing Gristle were another great (late) 70s influence. If TD used electronics for dreams, TG used them for nightmares. I was lucky enough to see them three times in 1979-81... which was the same time I got heavily into This Heat. Simon Fisher Turner is a bit of an unsung hero. From teen idol & protege of Jonathan King, he went on to work with The The, provide soundtracks for several Jarman films and has released around 20 other largely instrumental albums on myriad labels. I had the pleasure of inviting him to Tokyo for a project several years ago, as part of which he played a small concert in our office which still ranks as one of the best gigs I've ever witnessed.

Traffic were occasionally brilliant. My elder brother played me Mr Fantasy when I was about 10 and I live it now as much as I did then. In my humble opinion Talking Heads are a tad over-rated, but Remain in Light isn't. Talk Talk were hugely underrated and split too soon.

Former Ippu Do frontman Masami Tsuchiya has released several solo albums but Rice Music (1982), is the one, featuring Sakamoto, Bill Nelson, Percy Jones, Mick Karn and others. To Rococo Rot are one of the best of the 90s crop of post-Krautrock bands. I remember hearing them for the first time in the tiny Rough Trade shop in Neal's Yard. Pretty much all their albums are great. And then there's Tisteza, a great Californian post-rock band.

And the rest: The Teardrop Explodes, Tackhead, Tears For Fears, 10cc, Telex, Test Dept, The The (especially Soul Mining), This Mortal Coil, Tracy Thorn, Throwing Muses, Asmus Tietchens, Tom Tom Club, Laurent Thibault, T.Rex, 23 Skidoo, Two Daughters, Tindersticks, Amon Tobin, Tomorrowland, David Toop, Rafael Toral, Tortoise, Towering Inferno, John Tavener, David Tudor, Tarwater, Techno Animal, Transglobal Underground, Travis, Tricky, Television (if only for Marquee Moon), Third Eye Foundation, Richard Thompson, T-Power, Two Lone Swordsmen, Tonto's Expanding Head Band, They Might Be Giants, and (guilty pleasures) Thin Lizzy and Thompson Twins. And a few more Japanese: Yukihiro Takahashi, Towa Tei, Nobukazu Takemura, and Satoshi Tomiee; though try as I might I could never get into Tomita.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Jetlag & teabags

Three films (Monsters, Cars and Made in Dagenham), half a book and 2 hours sleep later, I'm back in Beijing. Drop suitcase off at home and into work after lunch. Lots to catch up on but jetlag kicks in and I'm back home by 6pm, struggling to read bedtime stories. Liz pleased with the ton of stuff from Boots, Sunday papers, magazines, and 320 Yorkshire tea bags. The latter fail, however, to keep me awake beyond 10pm.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Terminal shopping

Long journey back 'home'. Heathrow is the strangest of places. Its five terminals are like separate towns within a sprawling conurbation, highlighted by shopping malls, car parks and slipways. J G Ballard, who lived in its hinterland, was fascinated by it. Normally I fly in & out of T3 which creaks & groans under the weight of passengers, but today I'm in T5, which opened three years ago to the day. I thought T3 had a big shopping mall but it's got nothing on T5. It's a license to print money: thousands and thousands of captive customers with time & money on their hands. I pass on the Prada and Rolex but usually end up buying a (plastic) bottle of Gordon's and some chocs, even if I've no idea whether they're actually any cheaper than 'outside'.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Chichester get-together

Arrived in Chichester last night with mum of course already here but also Patrick, Tricia & Catherine. Mary & Nick and Andrew, Florence & Sophie arrived lunchtime. The weather continues to be fabulous so we lunch in the garden - in March! Great to catch up with everyone, although shame Sally couldn't make it (minding the shop). Pleasant walk into town late afternoon. I could quite happily live here again, 'though a 2hr commute to London is off-putting to say the least. Mum will be 84 in a fortnight, Andrew just turned 60, Mary will be, ahem, fiftysomething next week and Patrick is 48. Of all these, I find Andrew's 60 the hardest to believe. How did that happen? In any case, he looks ten years younger.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Christian Marclay's Clock

Final day of meetings. I totted them up and it came to 28 over the course of this week. If that required acute time management then spare a thought for Christian Marclay whose Clock film at the Hayward Gallery British Art Show 7 beggars belief. I think it's already been shown in Nottingham and at White Cube so this is probably old hat but bear with me... Basically, it’s a 24-hour film made up of thousands of clips showing scenes from films which have clocks or watches as part of the story or are simply shown in the background. So the entire composite movie is like a giant clock, visibly progressesing if not second-by-second (it's not that anal!), then certainly minute-by minute. The editing must have taken forever. You can see a bit of it here. The last time I saw a Marclay piece was in Tokyo when he was Swiss. Though he was actually born in California. Maybe in a few years he'll be Chinese? Anyway, fabulous work.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lights out for Whitehall and Elizabeth Taylor

More meetings, but mostly external - which was just as well as there was a big powercut this morning which knocked out the whole of British Council HQ and Whitehall. Can't believe this fabulous weather: everyone's out on the streets soaking up the sunshine. Some in shorts. Nice evening down the pub in suburban Sudbury Hill with Kate, Nick & Emily, where I learned that Elizabeth Taylor has just died, aged 79. Actually, she didn't die in Sudbury HillI, let alone the pub (though she liked her drink did Liz)... probably more likely Beverly Hills. I thought she was older. It seems she was around forever without actually starring in anything.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Couldn't really make head nor tail of George Osbourne's budget today, which was unveiled just down the road from where I was meeting'd out all day, but I was amused by the betting that goes on around his speech at the HofC. You could get odds on all manner of things:
- length of speech: 56 mins (longest was Gladstone's 4hrs 45mins in 1853)
- mention of the word "tax": 95 times
- colour of tie: purple (a non-lucrative 2:1)
- sips of water: 8
- and whether Kenneth Clarke would fall asleep. Ladbrokes were offerings odds of 16/1 that he would. He did.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pick Me Up

Checked out an event called Pick Me Up today, the graphic design equivalent of Frieze art fair, at the Embankment galleries of Somerset House. What a great show, full of exuberant graphic design & illustration. It works both as exhibition of what's currently hot and as a series of studio workshops. Antony Burrill has moved his studio here and you can join him with scalpel & pritt. Or you can have a go at print-making. Or just buy stuff. Really good community atmosphere.

Great to catch up with a splendidly bearded Simon at Browns later on. The Browns tradition started in Brighton. It was the first of the chain (established in 1973; I think there are about 15 now?) and was always a treat when we started going in the 80s. Still like the guinness & mushroom pie, though I can't manage the chocolate cake these days.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Across the rooftops

The first of five days in British Council HQ, tucked away between Trafalgar Square and Admiralty Arch. Past the smiling guards and through the electronic door-pods which look for all the world like Star Trek transporters. Then into the two tiny lifts wondering who I'll bump into this time from days of yore, and install myself at a hotdesk the PC of which takes 20 mins to load up. From the south-facing windows I can see across Whitehall and St James's Park. It really is a wonderful location.

Rendezvous with Julie in the evening in yesterday's pub: a couple of years since we last caught up so lots to talk about over fish & chips. She leaves the batter. Am just about to show her some photos on my camera when I realise I must have left it in the office. The smiling guards let me in and it's still there, sitting on the desk.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

London Calling

Long-haul flights, tolerable with family, are a tonic tout seul. Eleven hours of reading, watching films and thinking. I'll even put up with the claustrophobia and tinfoil food for that. Reading my first non-China book for ages: Barry Miles' London Calling - a Counterculture History of London since 1945. I'm in the 50s, so it's full of interesting, difficult bohemian 'characters' who spend their days running up tabs in Soho's pubs & clubs: Bacon, Freud, Melly, Deakin, Osbourne, Amis... and the occasional woman-with-attitude like Nina Hamnett.

And before I know it, I'm there, walking along Old Compton Street, Frith, Greek & Dean Streets... Ronnie Scott's is still there, the Coach & Horses, Maison Bertaux, Berwick Street Market, even the Colony Club. It still has that Continental cafe society feel, except those drinking lattes outside are in thick coats. Back in the 80s I was a Pollos regular, the cheapo Italian on Old Compton Street, which was next door to the even cheaper Stockpot. The former closed ages ago but the latter's still there. I was half-tempted to have dinner at Jimmy's, the cellared Greek restaurant where you could get moussaka & chips for next to nothing and where we regularly had our football team Christmas dinners, but chose The Two Brewers a few blocks away instead. You can't really beat sitting in a traditional pub with a pint, a newspaper and some pub grub. Good to be back.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Finally got to show Wolfgang a bit of Beijing. We went to Houhai, wandered around the hutongs, ate at our favourite hidden little cafe and visited the Prince Gong Residence. The latter was a big disappointment. I'd hoped for a 'lived-in' house, steeped in history, perhaps with a quiet courtyard or two, but it's a huge sprawling complex of soullessly renovated buildings and one of those big gardens with fake rock formations and everything grey grey grey. OK, it's March and nothing in bloom and choc-a-bloc with tourists (almost exclusively Chinese), but even if we'd had the place to ourselves I doubt whether we'd have experienced much in the way of atmosphere. Still, great to stroll the backstreets afterwards and chat. Catching up with Wolfgang is an exhausting business.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Had planned to be a tourist with Wolfgang for the day but, frustratingly, too much on at work, so wasn’t able to meet up until lunchtime….but without the lunch. Poor Wolfgang’s tooth was killing him so off we went to find a dentist. Two hours of root canal later, cheeks fatter and wallet thinner, that was pretty much it for the day.

Interesting evening though. From out of Wolfgang’s suitcase came some birthday presents… 50 of them! Mostly CDs, all individually wrapped in home-made wrapping paper: Robert Rich, an obscure Gauthier, a box set of Lou Harrision gamelan works, the latest Shriekback etc, plus a couple of DVDs and books. Very Wolfgang and very welcome.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


My very good friend, Wolfgang, has come to visit. Wolfgang and I go back over 30 years. We met through Conrad Schnitzler, whom I interviewed in Berlin when I was 18. While we were drinking tea, Conrad showed me a letter from this German fan, who must have been 16 then, and asked me to reply on his behalf. And there started a great friendship. Wolfgang contributed to Neumusik, we interviewed musicians in Germany and France together in the early 80s, he even performed on stage with Andrew & I at our last gig as MFH in London and then, in the late 90s, he moved to LA to work for Chris Franke's label, Sonic Images, as designer. He's lived there ever since (though no longer works for Franke).

To our amazement, it is 11 years since we last saw each other although we're pretty good at keeping in touch. He hasn't changed a bit. The most widely read and avid music listener I know, and a fine designer to boot. (Which actually sounds very like another dear friend). Great to catch up!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Peter Hessler & Leslie Chang

Another China literary talk, this time Peter Hessler and Leslie Chang. Hessler has written three books on China - River Town, Oracles Bones and the new Country Driving - all of which are acclaimed and none of which I've read yet. Chang wrote Factory Girls (see 18 Dec post) . Both used to write for the Wall Street Journal amongst other newspapers. And they're married.

Interesting talk in an interesting venue (Studio X in a hutong near the Lama Temple), covering the writing process, gaining the confidence of their characters and how they get under the skin of ordinary Chinese workers.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hilary Spurling & Pearl Buck

Took Hilary Spurling out for dinner tonight, biographer of the American writer, activist & Sinophile, Pearl Buck (1893-1973). Buck was the daughter of missionaries, spending the first half of her life in China - a turbulent time (what time wasn't in the 20th Century?!). Her novel, The Good Earth, based on her experiences of living amongst Chinese peasants, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, by which time she'd been forced to leave and settle in the US. Her subsequent fairly trashy novels have overshadowed the other work she did in parallel: women's rights, anti-racism, mixed-race adoption, education... An overlooked figure.

Anyway, nice evening with the sprightly Spurling who'll give a couple of talks on Buck tomorrow & the day after before going off to Shanghai for more of the same. She's now writing a biography of Antony Powell. The photo is of Buck not Spurling!

Monday, March 14, 2011


Well, made it to the half-century. No big celebrations. We've not been in Beijing long enough to have accumulated masses of friends so I didn't have a big party. And I had a normal (too) busy day in the office.

But what made it special was the time & effort Liz & the girls put into procedings at home. Beautifully wrapped presents at breakfast including a gorgeous Chinese box filled with well-wishes from friends. Very touching. And a lovely dinner with birthday cake on a beautifully set table.

So, what does it feel like? Bit like 40 really but with a few more wrinkles and hair receding at the front. But feeling fairly fit - and no paunch. One of the well-wishes read "You know when you're getting old when you turn the volume knob to the left." I need to keep turning it to the right.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Peking Duck

Liz took me out for pre-birthday dinner: our first Peking Duck in Beijing. Interestingly, it's still Peking - rather than Beijing - Duck. You get a whole duck which is sliced up in front of your table. Then put the meat and skin (the skin is the most prized) in steamed, very thin pancakes along with slivvers of cucumber & spring onions, and hoisin sauce. Lovely tucked-away restaurant.

It's my brother Andrew's (60th!) birthday today. Wonder what he's eating?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Jishin + tsunami

Jishin is earthquake and tsunami is tsunami and Japan had both today. Terrifying video of the unstoppable surge of black water making its way inland near Sendai, setting off fires and carrying off everything in its path. The amazing thing about earthquakes and tsunamis these days is not just the scale & the terror & the destruction, but that I can see it on my computer, thousands of miles away, as it happens. I remember driving down that coast ten years ago on the way back from Hokkaido. Lots of little fishing villages, which wouldn't have stood a chance... Emailed friends in Tokyo and they're all OK, though deeply shocked and finding it difficult to get home.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


The results of the 2010 census are in. It's official: China has 1.341 billion people, up 6.3 million from last year. On the right are some of them.

A bit of research reveals that China has the world's oldest surviving census data: apparently there was one over 4,000 years ago, and another is recorded to have taken place in the autumn of 2 AD. The latter is widely believed by scholars to be quite accurate; it showed that there were 57.67 million people registered in 12.36 million households. By 1953 the population of China was 594 million. Mind-boggling then that in just over 50 years the population more than doubled even with the one-child policy of recent years. That's enough stats for one day.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Roundtable Etiquette 2: Drinking for Queen and Country

Back in Beijing and another dinner, after a crunch meeting. I touched upon the drinking etiquette a few posts ago but that was just red wine. This evening it was the strong stuff, Maotai, a 50% alcohol-by-volume liquor. My two female colleagues and I had done a deal beforehand that I would do the drinking on their behalf. What a man. Not that I can pack it away. In fact, I didn't like beer or wine until I was 20, and I still don't like spirits. The glasses may have been tiddly but they were constantly refilled, and towards the end my colleagues had been coerced too. So, new friends made, deals done and allegiances sworn, we staggered out into the street, duty done.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Ceramic soldiers

A day off, and luckily for me a beautiful sunny one, so decided to cycle round the city walls in the morning. False start with the first bike – after 500m the pedal fell off – but the second one just about lasted the distance. It was an exhilarating if boneshaking ride: 15km of elevated, cobbled dual-carriageway, and absolutely deserted.

But today was really about the Terracotta Warriors. The Xian Art Museum kindly offered to take me there and lay on a guide, a return favour for the dinner on Saturday. The site is just east of Xi’an, between a steep range of hills and a river. In 1974 some farmers were drilling for water when they came across pottery fragments. Archaeologists were called in and it turned out that the whole area was a treasure trove of life-size terracotta figures made around 230BC (each unique and originally multi-coloured) to accompany Emperor Qin into the afterlife. Qin is generally acknowledged as the first person to unite what is now China. It's estimated there are around 8,000 soldiers, 670 horses and 130 chariots in the three pits so far excavated. 'Estimated' because they haven't unearthed everything, even in these pits - and there may be many thousands more nearby, as evidenced by some exquisite half-size bronze horses and chariots found in a completely different spot.

All-in-all, it was kind of what I was expecting. There's the big 'wow' when you first enter Pit no.1, but actually there aren't that many complete figures. Pit no.2 is pretty much unexcavated. And Pit no.3 is very small and deep with just a few figures. On the other hand, the detail is amazing and if you can imagine what else is lying underground, then it really is an incredible place.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Our Made in Britain exhibition opened this afternoon at Xi’an Art Museum. All went smoothly. Delphine & team did a great job on the installation, Linda organized the opening ceremony, Yan Ying the press, Lucy & Li Ning everything else, and we got a very big turn-out. So much so that Delphine was worried about the artworks. Our special guest was artist Matt Franks, whose Fooooom!! (2000) attracted a lot of attention, and his talk a full house with people sitting down the aisles. I did a TV interview in the gallery, which started with: “Tell us about contemporary art in the UK”. Anyway, all good stuff and a relief after two months of difficult negotiations.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Roundtable Etiquette

Back in Xi’an. In advance of tomorrow’s exhibition opening, we hosted a dinner for around 15 local VIPs. Formal dining is a big round table in a large private room in a posh restaurant (often in a hotel). The room will have a receiving area with sofa and a few armchairs. There will be a large painting of a Chinese landscape, usually misty hills with waterfalls, portrait format. It will have a private toilet, cloakroom and a TV for karaoke, two waitresses and a kitchenette. Dishes will be placed on a lazy susan in the middle of the table which you take with one pair of chopsticks but eat with another. Wine is served, usually red and never more than quarter full. The host gives a fairly short speech at some point and glasses are clinked, drained and re-filled immediately. The most important guest may reply. The host will then make their way round the table clinking glasses and exchanging small talk, tailed by the glass-replenishing waitress. More dishes are served, ending with fruit. Then there’s a final toast, coats on and the host escorts everyone to the front door. It rarely varies and I’m always hungry at the end of it, usually for chocolate.

Friday, March 4, 2011


The annual Bookworm Literary Festival kicked off tonight. Bookworm is a great bookshop-cum-library-cum-café-cum-events space in central Beijing, run by Alex Pearson (who hails from Emsworth, five miles from my hometown of Chichester). There are sister branches in Chengdu and Suzhou. And every March they run the fantastic Bookworm Festival. This year has 100 events involving 70 writers, both Chinese & international. We always help bring over some Brits.

Tonight’s opening party featured some taster readings by Hong Ying, the poet Xi Chuan, and an incredibly moving piece by Fergal Keane addressed to his son which he wrote one-handed while cradling him as a baby while reflecting on less fortunate children he’d come across over many years as a war correspondent.

I had to sneak out after that to pick up my own little one who was having pillow fights at a playdate round the corner. But expect regular posts over the next fortnight.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Watching the news in German

Interesting evening at the German School watching a public screening of China news reports by the Beijing bureau of ZDF, where our friend Diana is one of their reporters. (Actually there are only two, so it's a tight ship). Two hours of investigative, hard-hitting news items about the environment, migrant workers, Liu Xiabo etc, interspersed with a few lighter pieces, including a great one on Japanese capsule hotels. Hats off to them and the school for putting this on. Although I struggled with the German, it was pretty obvious that it was no-holds-barred stuff.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


...has sprung. All of a sudden it's noticeably warmer. Still snow on the ground in places and the lakes remain frozen, but looks like the worst of the winter is over. And the wind has come back to blow the smog away. Happy days.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

St David's Day

As a child I used to get five shillings on St David's Day. My father's side were from the coal-mining Valleys of Wales. Newbridge to be precise, home of boxer Joe Calzaghe, Steve Strange once of Visage, and a half-decent rugby team. I have vivid memories of visiting the grandparents in a typical terraced house with an outside loo and tobacco hanging in an upstairs bedroom. We also spent a lot of time around Llantony where my uncle and his wife converted an old, burnt out smithy: a lovely area.

Anyway, St David lived in Wales some 1,500 years ago where he founded a monastic community at Glyn Rosin in Pembrokeshire which is where St David's Cathedral now stands. It's recorded that he died on 1 March in (probably) 588. Although less famous than St Patrick's Day, there are parades, balls and parties around the world. There was a Welsh Ball in Beijing last night (we didn't go) and this week is Wales Week in Chongqing of all places. The city is twinned with, not Cardiff, but Wales the country, possibly in a brave but futile attempt to achieve parity in population.