Sunday, July 31, 2011

A little bit of England

After the seaside, the countryside. An afternoon with Lucy and family, summering from Bangkok at her parents' gorgeous house in the idyllic village of Walderton near Chichester. A gloriously sunny day, a classic English garden with a classic village church and pub round the corner, tea and Victoria sponge, Sunday papers, a labrador lolling about on the lawn, and probably a cricket match being played somewhere. Am I ready for a return to Beijing?!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Battle of Hastings

In September 1939, my mum and all her fellow schoolmates were evacuated to Hastings. It seemed an odd place to evacuate people to - pretty much the first place a Nazi invasion force would land - but there you go. She was billeted wth the Drake family in a house at the end of a road which looked out on a field and beyond that the sea. She spent nine months there going to a school, rotating with the local schoolchildren (morning) and incoming Londoners (afternoon) before someone realised that Hastings was maybe not such a good move and they got shunted to Brecon. Anyway, mum had never been back. It was 72 years ago so chances were the house wasn't there... but it was (an looking surprisingly modern). We spent a nostalgic half hour re-living the times and talking to a neighbour, who wasn't old enough to remember the Drakes but it made mum's day.

Amazingly, our good friends Ian, Sam & family live just a few hundred yards round the corner - the other reason we were here. Great to catch up with them in their lovely forever half-finished home plus a classic fish & chips lunch on the seafront. 

The Battle of Hastings quip refers not to the Nazi non-invasion, but the attempts by the Jerwood Foundation to build a contemporary art gallery on the semi-blighted seafront where the usual crappy funfairs, carparks and peeling B&Bs prevail. But the fact that fishing boats still unload catches in a small section of beach next to weird & wonderful black fishing huts has aided & abetted those who simply hate art. Personally I think it's a good thing and could help regenerate Hastings, much in the way Tate, Contemporary Turner and De La Warr have done so for St Ives, Margate and Bexhill-on-Sea. Funnily enough, we stopped off at the De La Warr Pavilion on the drive back home and... I was unimpressed!  Lovely architecture and a fine Catherine Yass installation within, but that was about it. Phew, art eh? 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Records R Us

A fine afternoon with Simon and Christine at our favourite posh-pizza-place in Chichester. Both look well, Si in fetching Barca colours, where they holidayed last month. I have known Si for 35 years. Amazing. We didn't visit the school like last time, but we did pop into Helter Skelter, Chichester's one and only surviving record shop (if you discount HMV, which I do), dragging the girls along with us. One minute in: "When are we going Daddy?" "Soon. Oh look, an early 808 State 7-inch." Two minutes in: "Are we going now?" "Yes, soon. Is that a Greenslade LP?" Three minutes in: "Daddy, are we going now?" Simon and I give in and off we traipse to Early Learning Centre in search of small model animals. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011


An afternoon in Brighton with the Campbells and a trip down memory lane for me. Whilst the children played in Queens Park I quickly strolled 100 yards up the road to 51 Freshfield Road where I lived 30 years ago, my second year at college. Then it was a large, somewhat tatty corner house with a live-in landlady, the somewhat batty Lady Hill whom I'm sure must have passed away by now. Electricity was metered, Kim and I had the top room, we probably lived on beans. I spent most of that year doing music (Neumusik, MFH and YHR) and very little in the way of studies. It looks a lot nicer now. Anyway, great to see Iain, Shona and family - all well. We envy them their close-knit community. It's a nice neighbourhood. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Singin' in the Rain

That rarity of rarities, we all went to see a musical this evening - Singin' in the Rain at Chichester Festival Theatre. And it was great!  Kept close to the film: crisp choreography, Adam Cooper played Gene Kelly, good sets, live music... the girls loved it. The production feature was of course the rain, provided by sophisticated plumbing overhead and a recessed thrust stage which allowed Cooper, and later the whole cast, to kick water over the front three rows. Interesting looking at the audience, which was a full house incidentally: white, upper-middle class, quite elderly. Omit the upper and that'll be me in ten years. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mexicans at the Pallant

Great Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera's exhibition at Pallant House. A modest show hung in three small rooms and curated from just one collection (Jacques & Natsha Gelman) but really well put-together and featuring  a few iconic works. But the pictures that made the biggest impression on me were three or four photographs by her one-time lover, Nickolas Murray: saturated with colour but at the same time very natural (one right). The Riveras were good too. I was intrigued to read Richard Dorment's review which described Rivera as "hideous". Big for sure, but hideous?! 

There's also an accompanying exhibition of photographs by Manuel & Alvarez Baro. And last year they showed a Leonora Carrington exhibition, the surrealist who lived most of her life in Mexico; in fact I just heard she died just two months ago aged 94. Chichester's lucky to have the Pallant.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Nice to be 'home', which in a way Chichester still is. Mum doing well, even if her hearing aid whistles with feedback everytime she moves her head (which is understandably often). Spend the day doing oddjobs, and start to seriously research flights, visa and health insurance for mum's visit to Beijing in the autumn. Great that she's so positive and up for it.    

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Terracotta Warriors in Dorchester

Drive from Devon to Dorset, stopping for a coffee in Dorchester opposite that great British tradition, a car bootsale. Tempting, but we simply cannot lug yet more 'stuff' to Beijing. Then, the weirdest thing, we pass the Terracotta Warriors Museum... in Dorchester!  We give it a miss and meet up with Ian & Katie and family in a nice pub near Poole. They're Shanghai-based... but not for much longer, as they're about to move to Detroit. An hour later we're in Chichester.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Glorious weather, finally. Picnic on Exmoor where we tried and failed to fly a kite, and from where, amazingly, we could see Wales. Then a visit to Lynmouth & Lynton on the coast, linked by a steep hairpin road and a water-powered cable car dating from 1890. Ingenious bit of engineering. Looked around the small museum which documents the 1952 flood which killed 34 people and destroyed 100 houses - similar to what happened to Bocastle a few years ago, a bit further down the coast in Cornwall.

In the opposite direction is Minehead where Paddy and I were interned in Butlins holiday camp 40 years ago while mum & dad took a short but needed break in Buttercup, our wonderful, yellow dormobile. We must have been supervised or something (I vaguely remember being in a chalet with a few other boys of our age) but, anyway, we didn't like it so I don't think we stayed the course. No offence to Butlins.   

Friday, July 22, 2011


Arrived at John & Mary's in north Devon to terrible, terrible news from Oslo. Impossible to comprehend the actions of this warped individual. Nearly 100 innocent teenagers with their whole lives ahead of them, snuffed out by this senseless, insane, evil act. It brought back memories of the school massacre in Belsan, Ukraine in 2004, the difference being that there were many more victims and they were even younger. Our pint in a lovely country pub was sobering to say the least.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dixon, Guinness and Teak

There are two fields round the corner from grandmum's: one has sheep, the other horses. No prizes fior guessing which one the girls prefer. The girls are now brave enough to feed them handfuls of grass and stroke their heads but, better than that, the owner ambled over with information and their dinner. They're called Dixon (20 yrs old) and Guinness (8). The girls fed them carrots and danced up & down at the excitement of it all.

That wasn't the end of it though. Another local chap came along and asked if we wanted to see his Eagle Owl. So we walked up the hill a bit more and there, in a shed, was his magnificent bird, 10 weeks old but already huge, called Teak. Amazingly large, orange eyes and incredibly sharp claws. The girls were happy to stroke it though. Don't think they'll be seeing many horses or owls in Beijing.   

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

As I was going to St Ives

Still raining but drove down to St Ives with grandmum for the day to see the Tate and Hepworth galleries. Liz and I'd visited both 15 years ago, the former then fairly new. I must admit that, for all the clean white lines and fabulous views over the beach and town, the Tate is a cramped affair with not actually that much gallery space. For years there have been plans to extend it and judging from the excavations next door it looks like it's finally going to happen. I think the job's going to Jamie Fobert (at least that's what he told me when when he came to Bangkok four years ago). Anyway, the girls had a great time in Martin Creed's balloon installation and Roman Ondak's Measuring the Universe room.

Barbara Hepworth's studio/garden is smaller still and I find her work 'of its time', but it's well arranged given the space. She worked - and indeed died in a fire - there from 1949-75. Not sure grandmum was too impressed with the art - modernist or contemporary. Amazed that this was her first visit to St Ives in 60 years!  

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Liskeard locals

Mid-July and it's cold, wet and windy. Still, Liskeard has a surprising amount of interesting, local shops (unlike Bodmin which we went to this morning and which was dire). My favourites are:The Bookshop: small, but right smack in the middle of town, run by a French woman who's lived here 30 years but still has a heavy French accent. Don't know how it survives, but glad it does. Oxfam: great selection of books (Simon Reynolds' Energy Flash for £1.99 thank you very much), CDs and bric-a-brac. There are around 750 Oxfam Shops in the UK, of which over 100 specialise in books & music. Some people say that it's these as much as the internet that are putting independent record retailers out of business. The Newsagents: which has the largest stock of magazines I've seen in any shop. I counted 75 music magazines alone. Warren at Ough's: great butcher, deli and purveyor of fine cheeses. Blakes the Bakers: particularly for gingerbread men and bakewell tarts. And last but not least the Town Library which we've been to almost every day. Good children's books and an internet lifesaver. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Austerity Tibet

Rain rain rain, so a lot of reading done. Just finished Heinirich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet which by a strange coincidence were the same post-war years covered in Austerity Britain. Harrer was an Austrian climber and skier and was in the party that was the first to climb the Eiger in 1938. He was about to climb Nanga Parbat in what is now Pakistan when WW2 broke out and he was interned in northern India. Just before the end of the war he escaped with German climber Peter Aufschnaiter and together they made their way on foot to Lhasa. It took a year and a half, after which they stayed on: Harrer becoming a tutor to the 11-year-old Dalai Lama and Aufschnaiter working on various engineering projects. "There seemed no inducement to go home", he wrote, despite being married (although dissolved in 1943) and with a son. I remember seeing the Brad Pitt film in Philippines of all places; it was shot in Argentina, Nepal, Austria, Canada and (secretly) Tibet itself. Simply but effectively written.  

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A is for Apple

This afternoon, wet and windy, we amused ourselves by going to Waitrose, and while Liz and grandmum shopped, the girls and I played a game of finding products from A-Z, in that order and we had to touch each thing. All pretty easy for the most part until the last few letters. U was a problem until we found Uncle Ben's Rice, but X was a stern challenge. They didn't stock Castlemaine 4X and all the 'extra strong' or 'extra special' things began with an E. We were seriously on the verge of asking an assistant if they sold anything beginning with X when we spotted a magazine called X-Box 360. Bit of a cop-out but it would do. Can't remember what Z was but it was equally disappointing 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Austerity Britain

Hot on the heels of those BFI documentaries (see 5 June), am now greatly enjoying David Kynaston's tome, Austerity Britain 1945-51. 'Enjoying' might not be quite the right word given the post-war gloom of rationing and making do, but it's a fascinating read. One forgets that, actually, a hell of a lot happened in those few years: nationalization (of coal, steel and railways), the introduction of social security, secondary moderns and of course the NHS (and, interestingly, BUPA), New Towns, council housing, green zones, Radio 3, the Arts Council, Beano, Noddy, Listen With Mother, Morris Minors, O-levels and all those great Ealing Comedies (three corkers in 1948 alone); there was even the London Olympics; and it was the beginning of the end of Empire with Indian independence in 1947. That's quite a lot in six years.

At the time Britain was still responsible for a quarter of the world's trade in manufacturing goods and was still the world's leading producer of ships, as well as Europe's biggest producer of coal, steel and textiles. And also cars: Britain accounted for over 50% of the world's car exports! On the other hand, Britain was virtually bankrupt, rationing and strikes went on and on, and everyone was miserable. Interesting talking to Liz's mum who got married and set up home during this time. She still uses the 'seconds' crockery bought 60 years ago, still shops at the butcher and baker, and never succumbed to buying a television set.   

Friday, July 15, 2011


Into Plymouth to see Mrs Rickard in her new nursing home and Lorraine, Ray & Philip - the latter fresh back from 10 weeks in southeast Asia and Australia and with 700 photos to prove it.

What a strange place Plymouth is. Like many heavily bombed city centres in WW2, it was rebuilt along modernist lines with well-intentioned pedestrian avenues, 'gleaming' new office blocks and myriad roundabouts. It might have looked new and refreshing in the 50s but for most it quickly became an austere, soulless, windswept place. Drake's Circus (right, above) was typical of shopping centres up and down the country with its monochromed shopfronts and stained concrete.

Liz's mum spoke of similar plans to her home town of Bristol , echoed in David Kynaston's book: "A poll organized in early 1947 by the local Retail Traders Federation found that only 400 people wanted the proposed new Broadmead shopping centre, as against 13,000 wishing to see the old shopping centre reinstated. The planners simply ignored the unfortunate result". 

Meanwhile in Plymouth, it's slowly becoming more human: Drake's has been demolished and in its place there's the ubiquitous indoor mall (right, below). We could moan about all the usual 21st century brands, but I know which I'd prefer. There's even a Waterstones.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

St Michael's Mount

Fine day out at St Michael's Mount, down the other end of Cornwall. Never been before. Like its bigger cousin on the opposite side of the channel (which I have been to, 40 years ago), it's a few hundred metres off the mainland, reachable via a causeway at low tide. We climbed to the top to look around the castle (in which the St Aubyn family still live), the girls doing a quiz as we did so. Really interesting and well-preserved full of the usual oil paintings, suits of armour and family heraldry, but on a human scale and clinging attractively to the steep rock. Got to say, the National Trust is an amazing institution - one of the really great things about Britain. You can tell I'm well into middle-age... By the time we'd finished our pasties and ice-creams, the tide had come in so we took the boat back. A grand day out.  

Monday, July 11, 2011

M4 M5 A38

The familar route to Cornwall. The M4 seems to have been around forever but I was surprised to find out that the main London to Bristol bit was only completed in 1971. I remember as a child thinking motorways were so amazing and futuristic and you could drive your car really really fast, except ours was really slow, and I loved the service stations, especially the one by the Severn Bridge. They're still quite appealing in a strange, mass pit-stop sort of way, now with half-decent food as well as the ubiquitous fruit-machines and men selling AA membership. 

Motorway travel is of course boring as hell, but at least it gives us the chance, squashed together in our Nissan Micra, to talk, undisatracted, and listen to stuff: Raoul Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox and the Pet Shop Boys as it turned out. As the M5 morphs into the A38 we hurtle towards Plymouth and then over the Tamar Bridge, built (it says proudly on the towers) in 1961, the year I was born, into Cornwall and 13 miles later we're in Liskeard, 'home' for the next fortnight.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Good riddance

Dropped Margaret off at Heathrow and then on to Beaconsfield to see Mary, Nick, Florence, Andrew & Sally. Girls head straight into the garden to climb the apple tree. Flowers in full bloom, sending my sinuses haywire. Lots of news to catch up with but, all-in-all, good.

Today is the last edition of the News of the World, apparently "The World's Greatest Newspaper". So, farewell 168 years of 'news', lies, titilation, boobs, celebrity sleeze, fake sheikhs, chequebook journalism and of course good old phone hacking...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Grandmum's 80th

Given that everyone's in London, it was decided that we'd throw a surprise 80th birthday party for grandmum - two months early. She's up from Cornwall to see Margaret, who in turn is on a rare visit from Rome. And we're here of course. What she didn't know was that John & family had arrived late last night from Devon. So, a crowded house. The menfolk took her out for breakfast in Pinner (never been there before, nice old high street, home of Elton John and all that), while the womenfolk prepared the party. She took it all in her stride and even gave a speech. Hilarious hour or so taking photos of everyone with some wacky software on Emily's mac. Here's Kate looking particularly lovely. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Doré's London

Pottering around the house. Thomas is home from school so A & N latch on to him. He's incredibly kind and tolerant of them - two girls and three years his junior - playing with him all day. Margaret has also arrived from her convent (properly termed 'community') in Rome, so there's lots to catch up there. And I find time to read what was part guidebook and part coffee-table book, Gustav Doré's and Blanchard Jerrold's "London", originally published in 1872. Most of us are familar with Doré's fabulously grim etchings of London sqalour but I'd never read the (florid) text by Jerrold; nor had I realised that much of the book captures the other side of London: the annual boat race, horse-racing, ladies parading in parks etc.         

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Holiday proper. Into London with Liz, girls happy to be at 'home' playing with Emily. On the tube in, it occurs to us that today is the 6th anniversary of the terrorist bombings on the underground. We were living in London at that time and I'd commuted in to work at that time... but in a slightly different place. The luck of the draw. I remember a sunny day. Today it is cold & wet.

After going our separate ways at lunchtime, I spent a nostalgic hour browsing the racks of Notting Hill's exchange and second-hand shops. Heartening to see them still there and seemingly doing good business. Same old musty smell and moody staff...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Under the Shed

My first meeting of the day was in the unlikely surroundings of Chelsea FC. Actually underneath it, in a new music venue called Under the Bridge. It's plastered with around 150 fabulous photographs of British rock and pop by Jill Furmanovsky, Mick Rock, and a host of others. Jill invited me to check it out with the possibility of bringing a version to China next year. While looking at a shot of Oasis (at Chelsea - they'd be horrified!), she then invited me to a press-conference for Noel Gallagher's new album at Notting Hill's Electric Screen Cinema which I had to decline. How very rock of me. Nice drinks with Laurence, Andrew and Stan this evening. Andrew is studying music theory; he's turning into Laurence. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Trafalgar Square

Jetlag, so up at 5am and in the office two hours later. Good to catch up with everyone but exhausted after 11 hours of back-to-back meetings. Walked across Trafalgar Square on my way to a drink with Peter. Shonibare's ship-in-a-bottle is still there, and they're setting things up for the premiere of the last Harry Potter film. So lucky to have our office here: National Gallery on one side, National Portrait Gallery just behind, St Martin-in-the-Fields, Waterstones opposite, Covent Garden, Piccadilly, South Bank Centre, all a stones throw away.  Did I take advantage of this when based here?  I think so. But it just reinforces what I don't have on the doorstep in Beijing...

Monday, July 4, 2011

From Beijing to Blighty

11 hours watching films & footie, reading a book and snacking sounds a pretty good alternative to the office, and that's what the Beijing-London flight is essentially. Pretty poor selection of new-release films but did watch Killing Bono which wasn't bad, supplemented by two oldies I'd surprisingly never seen before: Raging Bull (disappointing - don't like boxing and tired of the whole Italian-brothers-growing-up-in-mafiosa-America thing; and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf  (Burton and Taylor in fine form but irredeemably dark and depressing). 11 hours is enough though.

Picked up the car and drove through the west London lo-rise suburbia of unconvincing light industry, pebble-dashed semis, dispiriting parades of shops, innumerable roundabouts, blocked bus lanes, Astras with pumping soundsystems, etcetera. But great to arrive at Kate & Nick's, as welcoming as ever. The girls go straight out into the dusky garden, Nick's been decorating, Kate's just back from giving three piano lessons, Sophie and Emily are in and out, Margaret arrives at midnight from Rome, grandmum arrives tomorrow. The usual energy-infused household.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Bicycle Repair Man!

Just when I was getting tired of Beijing life, it got worse (I had a puncture) and then better (I found a friendly bicycle repair man). You're never far from a little repair shop, or a guy who sits on the pavement with an ancient toolbox, bowl of water and half a dozen inner tubes slung over his back. 5rmb (50p) later, I'm on my way again. How can I ever thank you, Bicycle Repair Man!?  

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A break beckons

Spent the day with KC, Veronica and family wandering the hutongs, and then saying goodbye to Andreas, Diane, and family at their farewell party late into the night. They're returning to Germany, and to be honest, we're looking forward to going 'home' too, if only temporarily. Family, friends, newspapers, Tescos, gardens, perhaps a bit of telly, some different weather, familiar things... So, posts will be intermittent from now on as we stay with internet-free parents and generally enjoy being off-line for a while.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Anas platyrhynchos domestica

Frantic last day in the office before going on holiday ended with Peking Duck at Dadong with our visiting friends KC & Veronica from Hong Kong and their two children Katherine and Keith. The ducks in question spend their first 45 days free range, are then force-fed for 20 days, killed, plucked, rinsed, glazed & seasoned. You can then see them being cooked in clay ovens through a large window before they're carried through the throng of diners by waitresses wearing headsets, to be sliced in front of you.