Saturday, December 31, 2011

Party poopers

The last day of 2011 is spent in suburban west London, chatting with nieces, shopping in Harrow, stocking up on food for the week at Waitrose... I can't believe the choice: aisles and asles of shelves, groaning with every variety of food you could possibly think of and presented in such a design-conscious, consumer-focussed way, that it all seems irresistible. There is Fair Trade, organic, diabetic, vegetarian, vegan, weightwatcher, buy one get one free, 3 for 2, 3 for £10; ten varieties of dal, a dozen combinations of lettuce, herbs you've never heard of... The big difference between British and Chinese supermarkets is the predominance here of ready-made meals. Of course, everyone leads busy lives but do we really need a plastic tray of ready-to-eat mashed potato? 

The evening saw us comically try to keep the girls up for long as possible, to 'conquer' the jet-lag. So we had the unreal experience of them wanting to go to bed and us forcing them to watch Spy Kids. But sadder than that was Liz and my inability to bring in the New Year. As our nieces' friends arrived for a young'uns party, we retired to bed and were asleep by 10pm, only to be awakened by a countdown, party-poppers and karaoke.  

Friday, December 30, 2011

In-flight entertainment

Off to London and odd to say this but we all really enjoyed the flight. For nine hours straight, the girls stared at a small screen a foot away, ticking off The Smurfs (argh!), Harry Potter and The Whatever etc while I caught up on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the brownest movie I've ever seen), Another Earth (expecting sci-fi but nothing of the sort) and Son of Rambow. The last is an interesting one. It was written & directed by Garth Jennings (one half of Hammer & Tongs, best known for making music videos). I met him in Tokyo about eight years ago and remember him talking about wanting to make this film then. I mised it when it came out in 2008 so it was good to catch it now: very inventive in an understated, low-budget kind of way but a good story and surreal little effects peppered throughout. And the two child actors were excellent.  

I also decided to investigate Lady Gaga in the shape of a Madison Square Gardens concert. For all its Madonna-esque showmanship, props & bluster, it was incredibly underwhelming and empty. And for all her 'risque' costume changes and 'erotic' moves she was curiously unsexy. Weird. And the music? This sounds implausible but I've not knowingly heard her music before and was distinctly unimpressed. Very very empty. 

Liz put us all to shame with nine hours of writing letters to friends. And I don't mean emails - I mean real letters: pen, paper & envelopes. Impressive.   

Sunday, December 25, 2011


A day of mixed emotions: present-opening in the morning, including timely delivery of Alyssa's new bike and Naomi thrilled with her MP3 player. Sad, however, opening the box of presents mum had sent: my top came with a note saying "If it doesn't fit, I've kept the receipt". Still, Liz did a great turkey lunch and then we jumped into a taxi to attend Christmas mass at St Joseph's Catholic Church. We were expecting it to be full of westerners, but it was 95% Chinese. Nice service in English, and comforting despite our seriously lapsed 'faith'. The church looked rather magical, almost surreal, lit up with spotlights in the middle of atheist Beijing. A strange, slightly removed Christmas then, but we made the most of a sad situation.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Old friends

Time to leave paradise and go home. But before we did so, our old friends from Japan, Jane & Steve, came over for lunch. They arrived last night and are staying in another resort, even more basic than ours, just up the road. Nice to re-connect. Then the long drive back to Bangkok which went fine until we hit the mother of all traffic jams just west of the city. It took us two and a half hours to get through, the only highlight being a 'race' (at crawling speed) with a truck carrying pigs. The girls were in hysterics every time we passed it or it passed us. Finally we got to Suvannabuhmi Airport and boarded the overnight flight to Beijing.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Paradise Lost

Well, here we are on a pristine, palm-fringed, semi-deserted beach for three and a half days, alternately trying to relax, play with the children, read or do some work, and failing miserably. Who'd have thought it... Oh well at least it's quality time to reflect after three days running around in Bangkok. The more I think about 'it', the sadder I feel.     

Monday, December 19, 2011

MFH in Prachuap Khiri Khan

The long, 400km drive down to Ban Krut, with our trusted driver Khun Kantapong. Full of sad thoughts for most of all the way, until we stopped for lunch at Prachuap Khiri Khan. This is where my friend Fre has been living for most of this year. It's a quiet seaside town, not very touristy. We discussed life, books, music and so on, and I briefed him on the MFH compilation which he's hoping to release next year. Still can't get over the fact that I'm talking with a Belgian guy in a Thai town about re-releasing some music Andrew and I did in a bedroom 30 years ago... Life's rich tapestry etc. Anyway, very good to see him and his long-suffering girlfriend, Jo.

Arrived in Ban Krut, just in time to walk along the beach before it got dark. It's exactly the same aws it was last year. Same smiling staff, same good food (although they now have a professional looking menu), same nice chalets, same too-salty swimming pool, same hammocks on the beach, same slightly rough sea... and just a few families staying there. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011


It's been a very strange weekend here in Bangkok. On the one hand, we're seeing friends, with an emphasis on playdates & sleepovers; on the other I'm numb with grief. Difficult to believe that mum has gone and that this isn't some kind of dream or parallel universe. Strange too to be posting this on an open-to-all blog. Perhaps some things are best left private. 

In the early evening, with Liz shopping and Alyssa at a playdate, Naomi and I were walking through Lumphini Park. As usual, it was full of life: mass aerobics sessions, rollerbladers weaving in & out of cones, the playground full of children (and where we bumped into friends), the oldies doing their tai chi or just chatting by the lakes, and the first of the Music in the Park concerts which run every Sunday evening during the 'winter'. I remember taking mum to the park exactly five years ago, as the girls tried out their new scooters which they'd got for Christmas. There was something about remembering those moments and being surrounded by life that made it hard to suppress the emotions.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Today it happened. The news one dreads. Mum has died. It seems it was a heart attack during her sleep, probably painless, the best way to go. But it's a huge shock nonetheless. She was 84, but I really thought she'd make 90. She was still strong, positive, independent, adventurous, up for life. Can't believe it.

Andrew, Mary and Patrick are in Chichester, dealing with it all. And here I am in Bangkok, 8,000 miles away, in a bit of a daze, keeping to the schedule we'd set for ourselves - seeing friends, shopping, dropping the children off at playdates... I even had a game of squash, as planned with David L. Feel useless, tearful but trying to be strong for the girls.

Of course, I'm happy that she made it to China - just two months ago. She was so positive about coming and so up for it while here. Really, she had the energy and independence of someone half her age. And I'm so glad that something made me put that photo book together and send it to her in November rather than save it for Christmas. And she loved it.

I can't bring myself to reflect on her life right now, just too painful. It's going to be a tough week or so ahead...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

TV Stars

This morning I found myself in a TV studio being interviewed, with the curator Aric Chen, for a 40-minute documentary about Beijing Design Week in which London was Guest City. It was an odd experience: sitting in a blue-screen studio (with plastic bags over our shoes to keep the floor clean) in an otherwise non-descript building in west Beijing with the anchor-woman asking us questions in Chinese and us replying in English. A bit stilted to be honest. 

Then off to the airport with family for a week's holiday in Thailand. Feel stressed and not a little guilty at the amount of work I'm leaving behind, but looking forward to a break, some quality time with Liz and the girls, and some warmth.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A life of philanthropy

I met Dame Jillian Sackler today, Brit wife of the American Arthur M Sackler who, along with his brothers Raymond and Mortimer, were all multi-millionaire physicians and philanthropists. There is of course the Sackler gallery at the Royal Academy in London. Arthur was very interested in China and donated a large sum of money to build a Museum of Art & Archaeology at Beijing University. He died in 1987, a few years before it was finished, but Dame Jillian has carried on the project and added an extension and a garden. The Ambassador and I sat listening to her life story, US politics and philanthropy and before we knew it, an hour had passed.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Too busy to write anything of note today, except that while talking with a colleague about endangered species, as you do, the subject of the Baiji - or Chinese River Dolphin - cropped up. They lived 1,000kms up the Yangtze River, to all intent & purpose in the middle of China. Here's one - presumably not the last one, captured at the precise moment of the species' extinction 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mistletoe, no Wine

Another year, another school Christmas show. Last year, there was an emphasis on glam. This year the children did quirky takes on various pop classics: Naomi's class did Madonna's (Christmas) Holiday, Alyssa's Ice T's Ice Ice Baby (with lots of 'attitude'). And there was Springsteen's Santa Claus is Coming to Town (with cardboard saxophone solo), Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas is You (with 'interesting' high notes) and a rap version of Cliff's Mistletoe & Wine, amongst others. Funny to think that in Bangkok they used to do it outdoors in the blazing sun.


30 years ago today Manuel Gottsching recorded a long (59m20s) track called E2-E4. It was only meant to be something to listen to on a flight to Hamburg but turned out to be a slow-burning, iconic work, both in its own right and through others' interpretations of it. 

I was living sur le continent at the time and, with my friend Wolfgang, met him exactly a month before (in Cologne, playing a concert with Klaus Schulze) and exactly a month after (in Berlin, interviewing various musicians). We got wind of the track, but it didn't get released until two and a half years later in 1984 on Schulze's In Team label, split over two sides of vinyl. I gave it 5 stars in Sounds. It's a wonderful piece of music - racey sequencers, just two chords and some fine guitar - but it wasn't until 1989 that it became 'known', courtesy of the Italian Sueno Latino club remix. Since then, it's been been compared to Eno, Reich etc and in this month's The Wire as "in its own unassuming way, one of the most revolutionary and important albums ever made". I'm not sure about that, but the 'unassuming' bit is apt. I'm sure Manuel is as bewildered as anyone.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Flying Pigeon

Today I bought Alyssa a new bicycle for Christmas. It wasn't a Flying Pigeon, the ubiquitous Chinese bike beloved by millions. The company's still going, still based in Tianjin (ironically in a factory founded by a Japanese in 1936), though sales have gone down since the heyday of the 60s and 70s when no-one had a car and everyone had a bike. There were three models, none had gears and they were all black. Now they do all sorts of course. Alyssa's is a Chasers 540 made by the Taiwanese bike giant, Giant. It has 21 gears (!) and it's light blue. Hope she likes it. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Hungover at home for most of the day.

Friday, December 9, 2011


Dinner with the Whitfield brothers at Dali Courtyard. It's been such a knackering week that I felt like getting a bit drunk and for the first time in - I don't know... a year? - got fairly plastered on baijiu - Chinese wine (which tastes more like vodka). I hope I didn't embarrass myself, but I do remember giving Nick a hug when we said goodbye.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

British Film Week

We're presenting a British Film Week - the first for many years in China apparently - at the wonderful Broadway MOMA arthouse cinema which I've posted about more than once. We chose ten films but three were turned down by the censor so we've got seven, ranging from comedy (Tamara Drewe), and Sci-Fi (Moon and Monsters) to a thriller (The Escapists) and true-life dramas (Touching the Void and 127 Hours). But tonight, opening night, we screened the enjoyable, semi-unclassifiable Skeletons, directed by Nick Whitfield, who was in attendance - along with his brother Simon who 'did' the music.  

We did a Q&A afterwards. There seemed to be quite a few film students in the audience so the questions were intelligent, if a little long & technical. Simon surprised everyone with his Chinese (he's lived in Shanghai and Taipei for some time).  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Scream

One of those days when both the volume and complexity of work just gets to you and you feel like Munch's Screamer on the inside but trying to keep calm on the outside, with a sort of bewildered, rather scary smile put in place. A bit like my iPhone Face Melt app. So without further ado...    

Monday, December 5, 2011

For Hot Heftily No Parking

Cold, foggy, grim day today - the sort that has February written all over it and has one pining for Spring, but it's only December. Nevermind, here's a wonderful sign near the girls' school which fair lifts the spirits.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Christmas Bazaar

Went to the school's Christmas Bazaar today. It was actually really good. The assembly hall was full of stalls selling everything from organic milk and jewelry to second hand books and sweaters; the gym was packed with tombola activity; and the playground was given over to really good food stalls. Liz helped behind a stall selling hot chocolate & mince pies and came away with xmas nick-nacks, the girls 'won' fluffy toys and chocolate, and I managed a few greetings to other dads dragged from one area to another. I don't remember having any of this kind of thing at my school, primary or secondary.    

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Giant Pandas and Tartan Trews

As giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guan arrived at Edinburgh zoo today on the FedEx Panda Express, Alex Salmond, First Minister for Scotland, touched down in Beijing (on a regular airline) - the start of a 10-day visit which will also take in Shandong province and Shanghai.

I attended a briefing for him at the Ambassador's residence, partly to confirm that yes there will be plenty of Scottish events as part of UK Now fest. Funny anecdote... He'd forgotten to bring tartan trousers with him, and tonight he's guest of honour at the St Andrew's Day Ball. So early this morning, straight off the plane, he was measured up for some new ones which we're hoping will be made & delivered in time. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Advent calendars out ("It's my turn to open the window and your turn to eat the chocolate"), Starbucks have had decorations up for a month, Liz getting stressed about presents, social calendar getting fuller, and it snowed overnight... so it must be getting near Christmas.