Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Art in the 'burbs

I went to Caochangdi today, out in the north-east suburbs on the way to the airport. It was farmland not that long ago but is now pretty developed and is the place for contemporary art galleries and studios, having usurped 798 when the rents went up. Our detained friend was the first to move out there in the mid-00s. It's a weird place with the air of an industrial estate and the scattered galleries are likewise utilitarian and anonymous, but with lots of space and high ceilings. Shanghart, Chambers Fine Art, Platform China, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, F2, Galerie Urs Meile, P├ękin Fine Arts... they're all there.
Three Shadows

I visited quite a few, one of the most interesting being Three Shadows, owned by husband-and-wife photographer-artists, RongRong and inri. Currently the gallery is showing four excellent shows: their annual Photography Competition, a re-presentation of a Chinese photography exhibition originally shown in France in 1988, Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe's Photographic Scrolls (featuring Yukio Mishima) and Taryn Simon's The Innocents. The last is amazing: big photographs of individuals wrongly accused of violent crimes, set in the places where the crimes 'took place'. Really powerful.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Joan of Arc

Weird coincidence. While sticking pix in my photo album tonight, I was listening to an 80s compilation which had OMD's Joan of Arc and The Smiths' JoA-referencing Bigmouth Strikes Again back to back... which prompted me to put on In the Nursery's soundtrack to the 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc... which got me thinking about the bit in Godard's Vivre sa Vie when Anna Karina watches it in a cinema and starts crying... which got me thinking about the fact that Dreyer's original version went missing for decades and was only found in 1981 in, get this, the janitor's closet of an Oslo mental asylum... which made me look into wikipedia to discover that Joan of Arc died on this very day in 1431... which made me listen to OMD's other version of the song. Circular.  

Sunday, May 29, 2011

W is for...

Should be a lot of Ws, and there are, but once again it's difficult to choose whether to go for Obviously Important but not essentially my cup of tea, complete unknowns but who made a big (if only sometimes a fleeting) impression, bands I liked a lot in my formative years but are gone or irrelevant now, or the latest like who might not stay the course. So it's a strange list but hopefully makes some kind of sense.
  • Wire
  • Robert Wyatt
  • Jah Wobble
  • Woob
  • White
  • Whitetree
  • Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings
  • Tom Waits
  • The Who
  • Wings
Wire are up at the top, still going after 34 years, still pretty essential. As is Wyatt, a national treasure. Jah Wobble always surprises: from new wave and dub to world and poetry. Woob put out two fabulously dubby ambient electronic albums on em:t in the 90s (as well as another two under the name of Journeyman). White are a great Chinese band referenced elsewhwere in this blog. Whitetree is a one-off project featuring the Lipook brothers with Ludovico Einaudi - their eponymous piano and ambience album was just about my favouritie of 2009. And Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings' singing bowls of Tibet was an early revelation.

The rest qualify for old time's sake: The Who essentially for Tommy and Quadrophenia which I loved at the time, though I'm not a big fan generally; Tom Waits for the early stuff, particularly Swordfishtrombones; likewise Wings - an unfashionable choice I'm sure - for Red Rose Speedway and Band on the Run which as a 12 year old were firm favourites (actually I played the latter recently and it's still good).

And the rest of the rest...
Scott Walker, who should in theory be Top 10 but I've never given him the proper attention he no doubt deserves. Barry White, the 'walrus of love', for those lush sexy, late night orchestral odes to lurrrv. Weather Report, for one or two albums (probably more, if I could really get into jazz-rock). Steve Winwood for bits and pieces, and Stevie Wonder, if only for Superstition. And what the hell, Rick Wakeman for Six Wives and the preposterous but affecting Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Ada Wilson, just for his beautifully melancholic 1979 single In the Quiet of My Room, along with Ben Watt for his equally mournful pre-EBTG output on Cherry Red. Wreckless Eric for Whole Wide World. Paul Weller I suppose, although I've never really got into his post-Jam/Style Council career. Working Week (a mid-80s one-off), The Wedding Present, Westworld, The Woodentops (briefly exhilerating), The Wolfgang Press... 

Magma spin-offs Weidorje, Klaus Schulze spin-off Richard Wahnfried, Blancmange spin-offs, West India Company... Norwegian synth guy Erik Wollo plus quite a few more recent electronica artists like Windy & Carl, Wagon Christ, The Wood for the Trees, Warm Digits, Klaus Wiese, Bill Wells... Some darker, more difficult stuff like Whitehouse (in very small doses), Chris Watson (preferably on a very good hi-fi), Wicked Messenger, and the pioneering if now-somewhat-dated White Noise.

Who else?  Ummm, Loudon Wainright III, Muddy Waters, Wishbone Ash (sometimes, just sometimes, those guitars hit the spot), Colin Walcott, and Whale. Done?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Muckheaps and Madrigals

Two very different theatrical events today...

In the morning we went to The Egg to see a Chinese version of an Australian children's play called Muckheap. It was loosely based on Jack and the Beanstalk so we got the gist. Just two actors, lots of ingenious, recycled props and a good crowd of kids. The music was instrumental versions of The Rolling Stones, The Stranglers and Penguin Cafe Orchestra done flamenco style. Strange, but it worked. 

The evening was odder still. When asked a month ago if I wouldn't mind introducing a concert of madrigals, I naievely said yes, thinking it would be a brief minute job. Turned out that I was required to compere the whole evening, providing historical background and witty repartie to each of the 18 of the songs ranging from 16th Century Italian numbers to the more recent English school. It was actually quite interesting, delving through wikipedia, unearthing facts and figures, familiarising myself with a musical genre I knew very little about.

Anyway, all went well. It was outdoors in the Ambassador's garden with 300 or so people lolling about on the lawn, all very Glyndebourne. The ex-pat choir were all dressed up in DJs and dresses. They were founded 10 years ago and I have to say were top-notch. So I am now able to tell you, as I did the slighlty drunk audience, that Now is the Month of Maying is about 'rolling in the hay', not spring dancing; Matona, mia Mara is positively filthy; and Contrapunto Bestial alla Mente kicks off with "Fa la la, woof woof, hoo, cuckoo; a hunchback is untrustworthy, so is a cripple". In fact half of them seemed to be about sex, the other half animals (though not, thankfully, both). 

Here's some trivia... One of the madrigals was written as late as the 1960s by composers Albert Hammond & Mike Hazlewood, who also wrote The Air that I Breathe (a hit for The Hollies) and get a writing credit for Radiohead's Creep; and Hammond's son is in The Strokes.   

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Metered drama

An 80s 'yellow bug'
We use taxis a lot. They're cheap (around £1-£2 a trip), metered, pretty plentiful and the drivers generally know where they're going - if they can understand our poor Chinese.

It wasn't until the 1980s that you could hail a cab in Beijing and even then they were actually small yellow vans called Mian Di (yellow bugs) which could fit up to eight passengers. By the end of the 90s there were conventional joint-venture Citroen ZXs, and by 2000 it was mostly red Jettas. The last decade has seen Hyundai Elentras, Sonatas, Jie Xuns and even some London cabs.

Anyway, the thing that really intrigues me about a taxi ride, as one sits immobile in traffic, is the soundtrack. Most drivers listen to plays on the radio. They're quite an experience, even if you don't understand a word. Deep voices, careful annunciation, often wildly exagerrated as in a Kabuki drama. Serious, sonorous soaps on wheels.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It's Me!

...being the name of the musical which Years 1 & 2 have been working on for the last 4 weeks and performed at school this evening. It was quite a production: acting, dancing, singing, a bit of video, all on the theme of health. N was a dancer and singer in the Second Act which was all about tummy aches. They all (just about) remembered their lines...

As did Barack Obama in his historic address to both Houses of Parliament which I watched live, slumped on the sofa. How does he do it? How can anyone give a speech for the best part of an hour with no notes, no autocue, no prompter buried in his ear, without so much as an "er" or an "um"? Beats me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Scramble for China

Interesting talk at Bookworm this evening, by Robert Bickers, a Professor of History at Bristol University, on foreign intervention (negative) and interaction (positive) in China from 1842-1914. The start date was the First Opium War / Treaty of Nanking, the end date being the collapse of the Qing Dynasty / start of the First World War. Another book to buy... Curious fact: there were over 11,000 westerners working for the Chinese Customs authorities in the late 19th century.

Monday, May 23, 2011


A giant sinkhole appeared in a Beijing suburb the other day, swallowing a truck. Sinkholes seem to be a fairly common phenomenon in China and there's lots of debate about why they appear: seismic activity, drought, subway construction? Here's a 1 min video of a whopper in Hunnan province.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Industrial Music

An Electronic Music Festival staged amongst 798's preserved factories sounds too good to be true... and it was. Whilst the setting was fantastic, the music was primarily techno with a succession of blokes twiddling knobs or pumping their fists in the air behind a glorified tressle table. Headliners were Josh Wink and Paul Ritch. Who? Still, I got to take plenty of pictures of chimneys, pipes and boilers.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hares and hairs

Today our landlord, Jia, took us out to his house in the country. It's part of a cluster of austere, pre-stressed concrete villas each with their own central courtyards, designed by the artist Shao Fan who lives next door to Jia and who joined us for lunch. Fan comes from a family of artists who way back were also Manchu royalty. He paints and makes sculptures and furniture, all meticulously crafted. He's also incredibly modest about his work and has a delightful wife, Anna, and two children who played with ours. 

I particularly liked his paintings of hares, huge things with penetrating stares; and enlarged wooden sculptures of hairs, each made up of several intricately fashioned pieces, seamlessly joined together. Split hairs?    

Friday, May 20, 2011

Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting

A returned from her Pingyao school trip today. Sounds like she had a great time. They learned about banking (Pingyao had the first 'bank' in China), sketched the city walls, visited an elaborate system of tunnels, practised their Chinese, saw a play and were taught the basic moves of kung fu. And all 700km away from us. Quite an adventure and great to hear her enthuse about it on her return. Lucky girl, lucky us.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


A meeting at Shanghai Botanical Gardens to discuss a pretty big arts installation, then off to catch the express train to Hangzhou.

Shanghai's Hongqiao Railway Station and Hongqiao Airport in the west of the city sit right next to each other and look virtually identical. Huge & modern, sleek & clean, travellers walk seamlesly from one to the other. Platforms are devoid of passengers until its time to board through 'gates', luggage gets checked through security, the retail outlets are the same. Even the speeds are comparable. Ten minutes into our journey we're hitting 346kmh.

Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province and is renowned for its beauty: West Lake, Liuhe Pagoda, the surrounding hills... all very picture-postcard but, frustratingly for me, just glimpsed from a car window. Here's the pagoda. Wil have to come back...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tea ceremonies

More meetings... which included a trip out to Shanghai's new equivalent of 798 - a place called Wuwei which used to be a complex of textiles factories, now partly taken over by Zendai Himalaya Art Foundation. The gallery is interesting enough but what really impressed was having lunch with the Director Shen Qibin in the adjacent home-cum-gallery-cum-studio he has made for himself. The huge 'living room' has a badminton court for a carpet on which sits the longest table I've ever seen, made from a single fabulous piece of wood and which took 30 men to carry it in. Outside he keeps chickens, geese and a goat. His studio doubles up as a garage. The daily dining room is actually quite modest but the lunch his wife cooks up is exquisite... after which we are treated to tea ceremony in his study and the highest fidelity music I've heard in a long time (the amp a mini-forest of valves). It's fair to say that not only is Mr Shen talented and wealthy but he is the contemporary embodiment of the kind of intellectual who, in the Tang Dynasty, spent his days writing poetry, perfecting the art of calligraphy and simply 'being'. 

Back to the real world and more meetings, but ending with a very relaxed dinner in a simple Hunanese restaurant in the company of Nick Yu, Director of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre. Here is someone who not only runs Shanghai's best theatre, but also heads up the city's Contemporary International Theatre Festival, writes three plays a year, is finishing up a PhD... and is a really nice, unassuming guy to boot. Oh yes, halfway through our meal, the table next to us caught fire. The waitress casually came over and poured tea over it. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Shanghai revisited

View from my hotel window

A blitz of UK Now festival meetings with arts contacts in good old Shanghai: Cultural Plaza - a new concert hall specially for musicals; hold your breath for Cats, Les Mis and Phantom?; Rockbund Art Museum - beautiful art-deco gallery just off the Bund with whom we're discussing an exhibition; Xintiandi - an upmarket shopping mall with the potential for an outdoor installation; Shanghai Art Museum - the grand old museum and possible host for a V&A exhibition; Shanghai International Film Festival - a courtesy call really but collaboration possible; Expo Arena - an 18,000-seater renamed Mercedes Benz Arena for a vast amount of money for the next ten years, programmed by the avuncular Li Bing who toured Morcheeba and Ladytron for us some years ago; and finally an Aussie freelance performing arts promoter who could help bring some theatre and ballet over.

Dinner al-fresco with Markus in a lovely restaurant called the Mardi Gras in the French Concession. Great to reminisce on our holiday together (seems an age ago now) and talk family. Which reminds me: A will have just finished her first day in Pingyao. I wonder how it went?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

N's birthday / A's trip

After pancakes for breakfast and N's delirious opening of prezzies, we packed for A's impending school trip. Tomorrow at crack of dawn she's off to Pingyao - 700km south-west of Beijing and a UNESCO World Heritage Site - for five whole days. She's never been away from us for more than a night so she's a bit nervous. But it should be great: a short flight, a mix of study and fun, staying in an old guesthouse, 30 children, and I'm sure plenty of pillow fights. Pity the teachers. What an opportunity. I don't remember going on a school trip until I was about 14... I think it was to an archaeological site near Birmingham.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

N's birthday party

And the birthday celebrations continue!  It's actually N's birthday tomorrow, but we had a big party for her this afternoon down in the communal garden. Lots of traditional games: Pin the Tail on the Donkey, Pass the Parcel, guess how many objects there are in the jar, throwing beanbags in a bucket, etc. Pizza, another great Liz-made cake and soft drinks for the children; salmon, avocado and hard drinks for the adults. 

Two friends stayed over for a sleepover which was fine, except for one thing. Our two generally go to bed at 8 or 8:30pm, but N's friends are night-owls, which made for a rather fragmented late evening. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Academy of Ancient Music

Pleasant evening after madly busy day winding down in the company of the patrons of the Academy of Ancient Music. The orchestra is touring East Asia and a dozen of their supporters have come to China on a special package which combines tourism and AAM's (not AMM's) concert at the Egg tomorrow. Tonight the Deputy Ambo and I host a dinner for them and some Chinese contacts. The patrons, usually retired, are invariably interesting and from all walks of life; on my left a successful child-psychologist, on my right an American lady who had been at the vanguard of the computer industry in the 70s and 80s. 

Sadly I will miss their performance tomorrow. I will also miss a couple of very enticing concerts in London: a Mute weekend at the Roundhouse, and Nurse With Wound at Koko. While last night I could have picked from ether Tony Conrad at Corsica Studios or a special evening of Robert Wyatt music at the QEH. So much choice.    

Thursday, May 12, 2011


So, we have a logo for the UK Now festival. Did it in a month, which was pretty quick all things considered: brief, tender to five China-based companies, pitches, focus groups, approvals, tweaks... all done in time for a reception this evening for the great and the good. I think it works well: a skew-whiff Union Jack with Olympic colours, bit of blue-patterned Chinese porcelain, and title in both languages, although the Chinese actually translates as something like 'Britain seen through the arts' which is perfect. Sounds straigtforward but these things are always much harder than you think and there's always someone who'll take issue with it. Since you ask, it was domne by the Beijing office of Ogilvy - who masterminded the Burberry event a few posts ago.

China Club

Busy busy day of meetings, including a very positive one at the National Centre for Performing Arts (aka The Egg) with its President, Chen Ping, and ending with a reception at the China Club. The Club is owned by David Tang, owner of the original one in Hong Kong, patron of the arts, cigar affecionado, CEO of Shanghai Tang stores and married to Lucy, my sister's husband's niece. So that makes us related, though we've never met. Anyway, gorgeous place in the hutong backstreets. Used to be a wealthy home, then a Sichuan restaurant, now select, impressively renovated club.    

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Saint Cyr

After 9 months, I finally registered with a doctor. Count myself lucky that I haven't needed one. It's a 5 min cycle ride from the office in a sparkling new shopping-cum-office centre which could be anywhere in the world: Starbucks, Fatburger, O'Briens Sandwich Bar, Wellness Club... Registering, form-filling, waiting and paying takes 30 mins, consultation for a minor ailment 5 mins. My (American) doctor has the strange name of Richard Saint Cyr. Turns out that Cyr was a 3-year-old child who achieved martyrdom around 300AD. It's also a French film with Isabelle Huppert. You can see I'm desperately scraping around for something to write today.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Squash 2

Played my second game of squash in China this evening with Stuart. Won the first game a month ago which ended with bashing my head against the wall, but honours even this time and no injuries. Good workout. The court is in the basement of our management block. How convenient is that?

I'm not a great player. Took it up for a while in the late 70s and have a hazy memory of Leonard Rossiter playing at the club one evening. Also that Heather McKay was the top womens player in the world at the time. And by top, I mean top: she never lost a match between 1962 and 1981!  Then there was a huge gap before taking it up again in Bangkok (see post a year ago) which had the added post-game attraction of a nearby pub, pool table and fish & chips. Haven't got that here... Couple of interesting facts: squash isn't an Olympic sport (why not?) and England has the most courts - 8,500+ - in the world (why?).

Sunday, May 8, 2011

V is for...

Hard-pressed to name 10 great Vs, so here are five:
  • The Velvet Underground
  • Vangelis
  • Nana Vasconcelos
  • Richard Vimal
  • Luke Vibert
The inclusion of Velvet Underground goes (sort of) without saying so let's move swiftly on to Vangelis... whose long career has had its ups and downs but the one constant has been the quality of his film music. Chariots of Fire, Bladerunner and 1492 are pretty peerless, but I also like his 70s documentary soundtracks L'Apocalypse des Animaux and Opera Sauvage.

Of the rest: Richard Vimal is an unsung French keyboardist from the late 70s/early 80s whom I have fond memories of interviewing with my friend Wolfgang in a tiny village near Dijon. I could have added another French keyboardist, Patrick Vian (son of musician, novelist and surrealist Boris). Or Verto, a French experimental band from the 80s. Or Video Liszt, who made one album in 1981 and kept their identitities behind fencing masks; one of them was Richard Pinhas for sure, and I think the other was Herve Picquart, the two having previously played together as Ose. I even saw them once, supporting Pinhas in Paris in '81.

Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos is easily included. Some great solo albums (particularly Saudades), fine band (Codona), and wonderful contributions to other people's work, not least Jon Hassell's.

Luke Vibert gets in, partly for music under his own name but also as Wagon Christ. Other electronica acts almost worthy of inclusion would be Sven Vath, Vapourspace, Vladislav Delay, Christian Vogel and (ha!) Visage.

And then there's Christian Vander who would definitely be included if he wasn't already under M; a couple of Vegas - Alan and Suzanne; Tom Verlaine; Andreas Vollenweider (on a good day); and a few bands like The Verve, Violent Femmes, Virgin Prunes, Voice of the Beehive, and The Vibrators. But I'm afraid I've never 'got' Van Der Graaf Generator.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


A's 9th birthday party, delayed from a week ago, was held at our local ice rink. Ten girls, half an hour on the ice, four pizzas, one fabulous cake and half a dozen parents made for a pleasant morning. I didn't skate myself, though Liz did. The last (and only) time I went skating was at Streatham Ice Rink some 20 years ago. Never roller-skated either. Not sure why; never really appealed.  

Friday, May 6, 2011

White again

Another welcome music offering, at a good little club called 2 Kolegas, next to a drive-in cinema, just a short hop on the bike from home. Mainly went for White who opened at the unearthly hour (for me) of 11pm. Zhang Shouwang on electronics and Wang Xu (from The Gar) on drums: just as immediate and impressive as when I saw them in February. 

There were three French, or semi-French, acts afterwards, part of their month-long festival, Les Croissements. Caught a bit of Chapelier Fou who played electronics, violin and guitar, but the attractions of the outdoor bar, conversation (which you could actually hear) and a warm evening proved too much. And I missed the 'headliners' - We Are Not Invited and Pet Conspiracy - completely as 1am came and went. Just can't take late nights nowadays.  

Thursday, May 5, 2011

RIP in Perth

Claude Stanley Choules, the last living First World War veteran in the world, died today, aged 110. He was in the British Navy. He also served in the Second World War, for the Australian Navy having emigrated there in the 20s. What a life he must have experienced. He and his wife  were married for 80 years (until her death aged 98) which must also be some sort of a record; they had 3 children, 11 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. 

Choules ended his days in Perth, which is also where Liz's Uncle Lambert died several weeks ago, aged 85 (positively premature compared with Choules). He was a teacher by profesion but a Cornishman through and through, and helped set up Mebyon Kernow, the Party for Cornwall, in 1951, becoming its first Secretary. Later he moved to (what was then) Rhodesia and South Africa before retiring to Australia where his daughter (Liz's cousin) Gwyneth lived. We visited him twice there. He was a mischievous gent with a constant twinkle in his eye. I'm glad I knew him. Needless to say, we missed the funeral, and that of my own Uncle David who died a few weeks ago too, though not in Perth. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Back to the fray

Back to work and 450 unopened emails (which I managed to get down to 50 by the end of today - a victory of sorts). Girding my loins for a very busy month ahead. Serves me right for going on holiday. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Liz's birthday

One of the quirky benefits of being in the employee of Her Majesty's Government (sort of) is that I got today off in lieu of the Royal Wedding last Friday. Which couldn't be better timed as it's Liz's birthday, and the children are back at school - so we have time to ourselves.

Presents in the morning, lunch amongst the galleries and preserved factories at 798, and foot massage in the afternoon near our home. This is a first for me, which is strange considering we lived in Thailand for four years. The masseurs are supposed to be blind but the two who pummelled, kneaded, jabbed, scraped, slapped and yanked at our feet looked visually unimpaired to me.

We finished off the day at a Cheese & Wine place, 100 yards from the foot place. (There's a joke in there somewhere). It's been open for a few months now, run by a French guy. Great to have time alone, even if it was to plan the girls' birthday parties.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Obama 1 Osama 0

So, ten years on, justice is done and Osama bin Laden is no more. I was thinking of Kath, my flatmate from the 80s, as we watched the news. She'd moved to New York to marry an American, Charlie, and was one of the victims that awful morning... and there he was Charlie Wolf, talking to the BBC at Ground Zero. And here's a piece from the Llanelli Star, Kath's hometown. Some sense of satisfaction for Charlie. RIP to Kath. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Back to Beijing

Our holiday is over so off to the little airport we go, but not before I finally try yak butter tea at breakfast - which is surprisingly tasteless.

It's been a great holiday and very easy-going with our friends from Shanghai. No bust-ups, no children tantrums and no indiscrepancies over who pays the bills.

Back in bustling Beijing by early evening, a million miles from the relaxed atmosphere of Shangri-la...