Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A bit of Berlin in Beijing

Over the coming week the Goethe Institute are showing three famous silent films from 1926/27on the roof of the excellent Broadway Cinema, each with live music. Coming up are Metropolis and Faust, but tonight's opener is Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, directed by Walther Ruttmann. I'd never seen it before. It's the story of a city - Berlin as it happens, but it could be any metropolis - from dawn till dusk. Great Soviet-style camera angles and editing, and excellent new music played live by Beijing-based duo FM3 (Christian Virant and Zhang Jian), best known for their Buddha Machines. It was probably the best example of the genre I've seen - and I've seen a few - helped by the fabulously appropriate rooftop setting, hemmed in by the modern architecture of MOMA Towers. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dark Side of the Moon

Two nights running I've woken up in the middle of the night and resorted to listening to Dark Side of the Moon - Monday night the real thing, tonight a covers version which came free with Mojo. What to say? I'm old enough to remember it coming out in '73. It didn't so much become a classic, as arrive fully-formed, instantly iconic: from its perfect sequencing of tracks, the way they run into each other, begging to be played all the way through; its state-of-the-art production; its combination of accessible and avant garde; its dark lyrical themes of madness; its ahead-of-its-time sleeve... Of course PF were a bit miserable, aloof, their earlier albums patchy affairs and anything post-Animals mostly dire, but the importance of DSOTM cannot be denied. Suffice it to say that the cover versions CD, by bands you've never heard of, is the kind of thing you play once only. Not exactly bad but ultimately fairly pointless. 

Monday, August 29, 2011


Two hours of sleep, dump bags at home and then into the office, fighting off the jet-lag, everything a bit blurred. Great to see Liz and the children, the girls engrossed in Harry Potter, waving chopstick-wands at me and shouting "Expelliarmus" and "Mobiliarbus".

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Today I felt a little like Mehran Karimi Nasserim, the guy who spent 18 years (1988-2006) in Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport (which inspired the Tom Hanks movie, Terminal). True, my T5 transit was only six hours but it felt like an eternity as I drifted from reading the Sunday papers in a cafe to doing some work on some funky benches. If I'd had the money I could have bought a bottle of Dolmore 59-year-old whisky for 15,000 or a Chanel watch for ₤30,800, instead of the ubiquitous chocs for colleagues. I could have popped in to the Interdenominational Prayer Room or had a shower or seen some art (Troika's light wall or Christopher Pearson's etched glass for example). I could have spent the afternoon riding the driverless train between sub-terminals A, B & C, or wandered illicitly through corridors, napping in utility rooms. Perhaps I could have let the 8kms of luggage conveyor belts take me out of the building and on to the tarmac. Of course I did none of these and, as always, ended up rushing unneccesarily to get the plane. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Last orders

The Dark Philosophers
Last day of the fest for me. Started off with National Theatre Wales's The Dark Philosophers at the Traverse: really good play based on the writings of Gwyn Thomas with an extremely creative stage design of multi-layered wardrobes, perched like favellas in the Rhondda Valley, and with a very amusing Michael Parkinson sketch halfway through. Was then interviewed for a Chinese newspaper before legging it across town to see Idle Motion's The Vanishing Horizon which was the third play about aviation I'd encountered this week. Lunch with some contacts, a quick zoom around the National Gallery's The Queen: Art & Image exhibition, then one final 'show' - 3rd Ring Out's The Emergency, set in two orange containers on Grassmarket. It was less of a show and more like a training workshop where the 10-strong audience is tasked with managing a national crisis brought on by climate change.

The Vanishing Horizon
By the time I got home, Catherine's birthday party was all over, but it had had gone well with bouncy castle, party games and 3 hour window of good weather. P & I had a pint in his great little local and then picked up some fish & chips (or 'fish supper' as they call it here) to take home. Nice to have some time with them before I head off tomorrow. 

So, what to make of the last week?  First of all, I ended up having more meetings than seeing plays. Secondly, a lot of what I saw seemed to take theatre into new places. There was very little that was about a stage, some actors and a passive audience (although the first two today were, I suppose). Instead there was a blurring of boundaries, combinations of acting, film & animation, and events like yesterday's Subtlemob and today's The Emergency which could barely be described as theatre at all. But of course it is Edinburgh that has become the stage and just wandering the streets was a kind of theatre in itself. I can't deny that it's been a very enjoyable week... 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Acting in Waverley Station

More stuff, all productive. I suppose the oddest thing was taking part in a 'subtlemob' in and around Waverley Station from 5:30 to 6:00pm. I've done one before, a year and a half ago in Tokyo, but this was a new one called Our Broken Voice. Basically you sign up on-line, receive an MP3 file and directions on where to go, then at exactly 5:30pm you press play on your iPod or iPhone, put your earphones in and a story unfolds. You're a character, following certain instructions. There are maybe 100-200 others doing roughly the same thing, and everyone else (commuters, general public) has no idea what's going on. At one point I was told to follow a woman who was writing in a notebook but to keep my distance. It was all very film noir.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I, Molvolio

Meetings, meetings, meetings, a Scottish Dance Theatre triple bill and I got to see I, Malvolio after all.

For me, dance has got to have great music. If the choreography is good but the music isn't, then I'm not really interested. Happily, all three pieces scored well: 5 mins of Handel, 15 mins of Sparklehorse, and for the main piece, 30 mins of Nouvelle Vague, Goldmund and Philip Glass. 

A colleague gave me a ticket for I, Molvolio, so I got to see it after all. It's the fourth one-man play Tim Crouch has done on 'Shakespeare from the perspective of a lesser-known character', Molvolio being the humiliated steward in Twelfth Night. I think I preferred I, Peaseblossom, the fairy in Midsummer Night's Dream, but it's a joy to watch Crouch perform in anything.    

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Cabs

Back-to-back meetings, a lunch, a seminar, a public talk, a reception and a couple of shows, neither of which were very good. The one show I really wanted to see - Tim Crouch's I Molvolio - I missed out on. I've seen him a couple of times before, including the similar I, Peaseblossom... but my Chinese promoter-friend Cui Yang coudn't get a ticket and it was important he saw it so I did the decent thing. Sigh.

One of the things I went to - a reception for Wales Arts International - was in a club called Cabaret Voltaire... Not sure if they named it after the the early 20th Century dada club in Zurich or the band from Sheffield. Which reminds me, I recently read that Stephen Mallinder is now (quote):  "Project Manager for the National Subject Profile for Media and Communications and Staff and Students in Media Education 2008 for the Art, Design and Media Subject Centre of The Higher Education Academy (ADM-HEA)". Even if I understood what that meant, it's a long way from Nag Nag Nag.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cragg & Scriabin

Not much theatre today, instead a 5hr meeting at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art about their Tony Cragg exhibition with Patrick, two Chinese museum directors and Lisa, my colleague. P gave us a great guided tour, making an already interesting exhibition even more so. Funny to be working with my brother on this, but it's going pretty well so far. Most of the works are huge & heavy, not least the ones in the Gallery's garden.

Equally good was the Philharmonia Orchestra's concert at Usher Hall. I'm not a great classical-concert-goer, but this was a riveting programme of Scriabin, Ravel and Stravinsky - all from just before WW1. Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy was the real surprise for me, conducted at a furious pace by Esa-Pekka Salonen. I was lucky enough to meet him afterwards and he was still covered in sweat. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Best of the Fringe

So, the British Council's Edinburgh Showcase kicks off, a biannual jamboree of hand-picked contemporary fringe theatre aimed at foreign promoters. There are around 100 from all around the world (16 from China) who pay to come over in return for guidance on what to see and some tickets. The idea is that they pick up on some of the shows, and obviously we're hoping for several productions to be invited to China next year. Best show today was 1927's (that's the name of the theatre company) The Animals and Children Took to the Streets - a fabulously inventive mix of live action & projected animation, cabaret & Fritz Lang.

Our office in Afghanistan was attacked by the Taliban yesterday with several security personnel killed. I don't suppose we'll be bringing much theatre to Kabul next year...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Stickman, live on stage

This morning we took the children to see Stickman, by Scamp Theatre in the big purple upside-down tent on Bristo Square that is Udderbelly. It's a theatrical version of Julia 'Gruffalo' Donaldson's book - and worked really well. Bit of catchy music, amusing props, a fair amount of audience interaction, some pathos...

Edinburgh is buzzing - not just with tourists but with actors, artists, musicians... and arts bureacrats like me. And so many cafes! Wherever you look there's a coffee house or falafel bar. We plumbed for a picnic in West Meadow Park, overlooked by the old Edinburgh Infirmary, now transformed into sumptuous looking flats. We then visited the newly renovated National Museum of Scotland which looks beautiful, especially the airy Grand Gallery. But although the Natural History wing is impressive, it's so jammed-full of stuff that my head hurt after half an hour and I was glad to make an exit.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Solar pavilions

Great to see Gary & Pat. We met by the trumpeted Solar Pavilion in St Andrew's Square which was underwhelming in the extreme: a glass room with some dull dappled effects through the curved windows. Much better was Mirazozo, a 'luminarium' (or giant tent) of coloured light on the other side of town. Nice chilled experience with ambient music and the kids loved it. 

Equally interesting was our lunch and a bit of celeb spotting: Patricia Hodge inside and Gordon Brown's wife & children outside.

Friday, August 19, 2011

From Rango to Reekie

Back to Blighty. The bad news was that the flight was choca with check-in taking an hour. The good news was that I was upgraded to business class. Doesn't happen very often but nice when it does. Watched Brighton Rock (disappointing), Gnomeo & Juliet (fairly amusing) and Rango (genuinely weird). Have come to the conclusion that 'children's films' are where it's at these days. 

As I touched down at Heathrow T5, Liz, Alyssa & Naomi were taking off for Edinburgh with me following 2 hrs later, finally arriving at Patrick, Tricia & Catherine's house at 8pm. Nice to be back in the Auld Reekie - that distinct smell of hops from North British Distillery - and lovely to be reunited with the family.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Life's a Riot

Mad day, 8-8, then hospital to have my stitches out, then home to pack and bed at 2. Gave a short speech at the press conference for China Image Film Festival which will take place in London next month. There's some unease about the recent riots so reassured the audience that it was all over, finished and that the bandage on my head was completely unconnected which drew a few laughs, but later wondered whether I should have been so informal.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shanghai, Newfoundland and Labrador

Busy busy day, then flew to Shanghai this evening in time for a nightcap with Markus at the Nikko. Both home alone, better halves and children still in Europe. Nice to catch up on summer hols, families, work and the next holiday together. Shanghai is very humid. Managed a few pages of John Gimlette's Theatre of Fish - a wry history of Newfoundland and Labrador - before succumbing to sleep.

Monday, August 15, 2011


There's a new-ish restaurant opened at the bottom of our road. You'd think someone would have checked wouldn't you?

Sunday, August 14, 2011


I watched Carlos tonight, the recent film about Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos the Jackal. Coincidentally it was on this day in 1994 that he was handed over to the French after finally being tracked down to Sudan and literally bundled out of the country. I'd almost forgotten about the OPEC hostage business where he and his bunch of terrorists raided the oil conference in Vienna, killed three there and then flew with the others to Algiers and Tripoli, though I think it was actually Baghdad where the hostages were released, but the film presents it otherwise. And that seems to be the thing about Carlos. You never know what's fact or fiction. But one thing's for sure: he killed a lot of people, and ultimately for what? The image of him, fat and bored, in Khartoum waiting for the police to catch up with him, painted a pathetic picture. He's still in a French prison.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cars: the sequel

Nearly bought a car today. My colleague Stuart is leaving and he needs to sell his Great Wall Hovver, which is a kind of Chinese SUV. The price is good considering it's almost new, we can get an interest-free loan, it would be nice to have, useful for getting out & about especially in the winter, good for Liz's independence... and yet... Do we really need one?  We've done without for 10 years in Tokyo and Bangkok and a year here. Wouldn't we rather have a couple of nice holidays instead? And then there's the tax, insurance, petrol, inevitable repairs - and the parking spot is ₤90 a month. Plus there's Beijing traffic and nowhere to park, and it's a left-hand drive and manual. Certainly I don't need it. And do we really need to add yet another gas-guzzling, fume-emitting vehicle to Beijing's streets? We went through this a year ago, it was worth reconsidering, it would be 'nice'... but nah.

Friday, August 12, 2011

More musicals

Mamma Mia opened in Beijing this evening. It marks the first time a Western musical has been signed over (rights & all), translated into Mandarin and performed by an all-Chinese cast, although I think it actually opened in Shanghai last month. Anyway, I didn't witness it, but I do confess to having seen the West End version (ie British cast and sung in English) in Bangkok of all places. Actually, I've always like Abba, even during the days of prog, krautrock, punk and industrial. But is there anything sillier than grown Western men & women wearing flared, sequined jumpsuits gyrating to 'Super Trouper'? Oh yes there is! For someone who 'doesn't like musicals' I seem to be writing about them an awful lot.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


This afternoon I had a lesion cut out of my left temple. It was Basal-cell Carcinoma (BCC), the commonest form of skin cancer. Apparently 3 out of 10 Caucasians get it, usually on the face or neck where the sun starts it off. It's not life-threatening or anything, but best get rid of it. I had one excised before, a bit higher. On stitching it up, the surgeon said I looked like Harry Potter, before covering it with plasters. Doesn't hurt. The only embarrassing thing will be all the "What happened to your head?" questions in the office tomorrow. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


I'm reading Robert Coltman's Beleaguered in Peking about the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. It was written by an ex-pat eyewitness, an American doctor, and published a year later. He was one of hundreds of Westerners and Chinese Christians, holed up in the foreign legation quarter in Beijing, while the Boxers ran amock outside. Lots of arson, looting and worse, and not just in the capital, but in cities across the country. Not too unlike what's going on in Britain right now. Except of course the motives.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Because it's there

Had lunch with my colleague James and heard all about his mountaineering adventure earlier this summer when he set out to climb Mt Muztagata (7,546m) near Kashgar in western China. James is more of a runner rather than a climber, but there's a story behind it. His grandfather's cousin was Eric Shipton, the famous mountaineer who, in the 30s & 40s, did much of the paving of the way for the eventual scaling of Mt Everest and would have led the successful 1953 climb had not John Hunt pipped him to the leadership role. Anyway, in the late 40s he was also HM Consul in Kashgar and during that time attempted to climb Mr Muztagata but failed just short of the summit.

So James was following in family footsteps. Lots of preparation went into it and it sounded like an amazing experience. Did he reach the top? No, like his distant relative, not quite!

This evening I watched The Wildest Dream, a documentary about George Mallory's three attempts on Mt Everest in the early 1920s, 30 years before Hilary and Tensing's. On the third, in 1924, he and Sandy Irvine were last seen alive just a few hundred metres from the summit. No-one knows if they made it. The film follows American mountaineer Conrad Akker's attempts to retrace their steps and amazingly they found Mallory's body 75 years later in a spot which would seem to indicate that he was on his way down, and that he didn't have a photo of his wife on him which he had promised to place on the summit. So, did he make it...?!    

Monday, August 8, 2011

Conrad Schnitzler RIP

Just heard that Conrad Schnitzler has died. Lung cancer, aged 74. Very sad. Conrad was a big influence on me. The first record I had with him on it was Tangerine Dream's Electronic Meditation which I must have bought in the mid '70s, but it was Con in 1978 that hooked me - and many others.

Conrad was the first musician I ever interviewed, in Berlin in January 1980. He was the concierge of an apartment block in Kreuzberg, and I remember sitting in his kitchen talking about Kluster, Schulze, Froese etc and demonstrating his rack of cassette players and other pretty basic equipment. He said that "Everything is art; standing in the kitchen is art". It was Conrad who introduced me to Wolfgang, one of my greatest friends. He was very kind, giving me copies of the incredibly rare Black Cassette and Red Cassette; and a year later even gifted me Conrad & Sequenza to release on YHR. 

Wolfgang and I visited him in January 1982, turning up at his home in white overalls with plastic bags over our heads, to which he simply said: "Ah, David and Wolfgang, do come in". I met him one more time, in the summer of '87, again with Wolfgang. I think he was just about to move out of Berlin. After that, we lost touch.

Probably Conrad's single most important contribution has been the DIY ethic that anyone can make music and anyone can release it. Almost all of his vast output of getting-on-for 100 albums has been self-published or via tiny independent labels. I haven't liked all of his music, and in fact pretty much stopped listening to new stuff 25 years ago but I still play his early works, and in fact have done so today - my Conrad top 5 in memoriam:

- Rot (1973)
- The Black Cassette (1974; re-released on vinyl as Gelb 1981)
- Blau (1974)
- Con (1978; produced by Peter Baumann)
- Con 3 (1981; the poppy one)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

From Pearl to Gladys

Following Hilary Spurling's biography of Pearl Buck, the American missionary (see 15 March post), it was only a matter of time before I (re)watched The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the story of British missionary, Gladys Aylward, set in 1930s China. A classic Sunday afternoon film, I probably saw it 40 years ago.

Aside from the fairly implausible casting - Ingrid Bergman (tall, blonde, Swedish) plays Aylward (short, dark, cockney), the Austrian Curt Jurgens plays a Chinese colonel, and Robert Donat plays a mandarin - and the fabricated love theme with Jurgens and the fact that it was all shot in Snowdonia, it's otherwise pretty true to life. Aylward really was revered by the inhabitants of Yuncheng, and really did lead 94 children (including several she'd adopted) over the mountains to safety when the Japanese invaded.

Like Buck - and probably quite a lot of missionaries - she was more do-gooder than Christian evangelist: she became inn-keeper, teacher, doctor, advisor to the town's mandarin (who appointed her local foot-inspector) and she really did quell a riot in the local prison. And like Buck, she was unable to return to China after the War. They died within three years of each other.

Interesting footnote: one of the children in the film was Jannette Cheung who I'm working with at the moment (see 23 Nov 2010 post). She was in the the village footbinding scene and a few others. She says she has clear memories of sitting on Ingrid Bergman's lap!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cheung, chastity and cheongsams

Wake up late and resign myself to going into the office to deal with the backlog. The only one there, it's a relief to be able to half-clear my inbox with no distractions. Back home, missing Liz, I finally get around to watching Won Kae-Wai's In the Mood for Love, ten years after its original release. It's a fabulously sultry, stylish film. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are brilliant as the couple living on the same floor, their respective spouses forever absent, always on the verge of entering into an affair but - this being socially conservative '60s Hong Kong - never quite allowing themselves to do so. Leung wears sharp monochrome suits, forever smoking a cigarette; Cheung ridiculously beautiful in an endless series of high-collared, multi-coloured cheongsams. Never was ennui and unconsumated passion so alluring. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Evening write-off

Pretty much all day spent interviewing people for a new position which will help relieve some of the UK Now workload, followed by a teleconference with London and then a mad rush-hour dash on the underground to the Forbidden City Concert Hall for a concert by the West Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by 'Maestro' Daniel Barenboim (how I hate that word). But I get the FC Concert Hall mixed up with Beijing Concert Hall. The police have cordonned off a pedestrian route back (can't be for Barenboim, must be the Premier) so I can't walk back. By this time I've missed the start so give up and go home the way I came, by sweaty overcrowded tube. Watch Red Sorghum (Zhang Yimou's first film) which is bleak, depressing and, overall, disappointing. Ah well, the weekend beckons.  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Words between the Music

Right, an evening free to catch up on all manner of DVDs, CDs and bloke-ish things, so set to with a couple of newly released Eno artefacts: a DVD, The Man who Fell to Earth 1971-77 and a new CD, Drums between the Bells, with Rick Holland.

The documentary is great and, at over two and half hours long, very thorough. There wasn't a whole lot that I didn't know before, but it's an enjoyable reminder of how much Eno did from Roxy Music to Before & After Science.

Wasn't sure what to expect from the new album. The previous, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, was merely OK. But actually Drums... is I think much better: 15 tracks of music by Eno and words by poet Rick Holland. The pair of them speak on a few tracks but there are seven other, mainly female, voices also contributing. Nice range of rhythmic to floating, electronic to strings. The words themselves, well... some of it's very obscure, not that interesting if you just read them in the liner notes, but when spoken (and  I think in one case, sung), mostly very slowly, often heavily treated but always clear, and in the context of varied, sensitively tailored musical settings, they have a surprisingly thrilling effect.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Home alone

The flight flew by, watched two or three films (including Duncan 'Zowie Bowie' Jones's second film, Source Code, which was disappointing) and didn't sleep a wink. Home, shower, then straight into the office by midday. I knew there'd be a ton of emails - it was getting increasigly hard to keep up with them in the last week or two - but 549 still made my heart sink.

Weird being home on my own - the first time in Beijing. The flat seems so quiet without Liz & the girls' voices. Still, this of course presents an opportunity for loud, weird music, not being terribly tidy and not competing for the PC, TV dinners and late late nights watching DVDs. On the one hand I'm looking forward to getting lots of stuff done, watched, written, listened to, but I wonder how long it will be before the novelty wears off...

Monday, August 1, 2011

To infinity, and beyond!

Last day in England, buying teabags, packing and repacking, and then off to Heathrow where Liz & the girls and I part company for a fortnight or so. Will I get charged excess on my enormously heavy suitcase? I heave it on to the conveyer belt, nonchalantly, like it was nothing, and then a voice from within says "This is an inter-galactic emergency!", courtesy the girls' newly-bought Buzz Lightyear, the buttons of which are occasionally activated by a shoe or sock or whatever. The check-in guy looks at me and I laugh nervously, but amazingly he lets it pass without so much as a question and lets me off the excess. Could have been worse, Buzz could have said it in Spanish.