Monday, December 31, 2012


So the year ends with my somehow being awarded an MBE in the Queen's New Year's Honours List for "services to cultural interests in China". Who'd have thought? Feels strange, a bit embarrassing (especially telling people and posting this), but nice - especially the well-wishes and a lovely phone call from Mary & Andrew.
Actually, I was informed three weeks ago when my Director called me into her office. I thought I'd done something wrong but turned out to be quite the opposite. Asked whether I wanted to accept it, it didn't occur to me to say no (although plenty have, including John Lydon and David Bowie).  
So a summer trip to Buckingham Palace beckons. And the really nice thing is that Liz and the girls get to go too. And there's the chance we might get to meet a couple of my heroes, Kate Bush and Richard Long (both CBEs). 
One last thing. In the very long list of names, we came across Liz's cousin, Michael Cyril Truran, who got an OBE "for voluntary services to Bioscience". So it's a double family celebration. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Christmas Mk3

Turkey dinner postponed from yesterday - and a fabulous feast it was too. Aside from Liz's great efforts in the kitchen, it was otherwise a relaxing day at home, all of us pottering contentedly - me reading a book pretty much cover-to-cover while listening to music - see below.


As 2012 draws to a close, I have been made aware - through reading Pat Long's book, The History of the NME, this weekend - that it is the 60th anniversary of my one-time favourite music paper... which is still going. Just. 
Didn't know anything about its Tin Pan Alley early years (it arose from the Accordion Times of all things), but from the mid-70s to mid-80s I was an avid reader. It seems amazing now, but there were four weekly music papers then: NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror - and I would usually read, if not buy, all of them. 
Pre-punk, I didn't really clock the journalists' names (which would have included Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent and Ian MacDonald), but by the late 70s under Neil Spencer's editorship,  the paper was awash with hip, young journos like Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, the often-pretentious-but-always-interesting Paul Morley and Ian Penman, and other more readable writers like Danny Baker, Don Watson, Chris Bohn, Barney Hoskyns et al. 
There was an allure about being a rock writer then: free albums, gigs, flying to New York to interview some band maybe, but really just to see your name in print. I remember taking a rickety lift to their 3rd floor office on Carnaby Street (opposite Smash Hits) in February 1984 to ask ask their reviews editor, Mat Snow, if I could send in some stuff - and duly scribbled a short live review of a Legendary Pink Dots / Konstruktivists gig. But in the end I wrote freelance - sporadically - for Sounds for two or three years. Interestingly, both Mat Snow and Don Watson have ended up working for the British Council - Mat for a short while a couple of years back, Don still with us.
The late 70s era is powerfully nostalgic, partly because I was an impressionable teenager and there was so much great music then, but also because papers like the NME were the only source of information. I still have box files of cuttings from that time.
Sounds, Melody Maker and Record Mirror have long since folded (if you'll forgive the pun), and the NME is a shadow of its former self, with a circulation of 25,000 (compared with 300,000 during Beatlemania and 150,000 in the late 70s), their journos anonymous, and its style chatty, frivolous and not-like-Derrida. But the website apparently does well.  

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Christmas Mk2

Presents... delayed from the day in question in Bangkok. We went easy this year. No bicycles, scooters, MP3 players and the likes. Desperately holding out against iProducts for 8 & 10-year-olds, but the day will come when they expect or need them. But not yet. So, if not exactly wooden toys and a spinning top, they got books, games and chocolate. And seemed quite content with them.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Ghost Office

Back to work, briefly. That strange period between Christmas and New Year when the office is like the Mary Celeste. No meetings. Lots of work done. 
Incidentally, this month is the 140th anniversary of the discovery of that famous ghost ship, adrift in the Atlantic, in good working order, cargo intact, but its 10 crew & passengers nowhere to be found. What happened to them?  Lots of theories - mutiny, piracy, abandonment after being overcome by vapours from its barrels of alcohol, even abduction by aliens while in the Bermuda Triangle - but none very convincing. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Closing (Slightly Delayed)

As 2012 draws to a close, it's tempting to look back. Needless to say, the Olympics were a very definite highlight - even if I missed most of it (Opening Ceremony excepted). Happily, Santa got me the 5xDVD Best Of, and this evening I watched - and Liz & the girls re-watched, fairly willingly - the Closing Ceremony for the first time. 
It was OK, not a patch on Danny Boyle's opener, but it had its moments. This is embarrassing, but before the games I'd never heard of One Direction, Ed Sheeran, Emeli Sandé, Jessie J, Tinie Tempah or Taio Cruz, nor did I know that Liam Gallagher had a band called Beady Eye. Must be getting old... And I still don't get Russell Brand. Nor why Annie Lennox is always wheeled out on this type of occasion. On the other hand, I surprised myself by enjoying the Spice Girls on their taxis, and Muse, but the rest rushed by like so much YouTube. Shame that Bowie and Bush couldn't be persuaded; the latter's Running Up That Hill was a highlight, even without her. Tomorrow I might even get around to watching the sport. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

+33C to -15C

Nice to see Goon, our one-time maid. (Still sounds funny to say that, like we were aristocrats or something). She seems fine, working for an American family. Then off to Lucy & Iain's for a Boxing Day lunch, complete with Lucy's visiting parents - as guests not dishes. So nice to wear shorts & T-shirts the whole time; girls running around in the garden; sun on our backs. I miss this. But sadly it's off to the airport and the 4-hour flight back to Beijing... where it is -15C - and into/under several layers of pyjamas & blankets by 2.30am.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas without the Myna Birds

An unusual Christmas Day. Away from home; no presents (aside from girls' stockings), no traditional  meal, no TV, not even a film, and definitely no snow. However, there was Christmas mass at the cathedral by the river followed by and a light lunch at the Oriental Hotel, which is pretty much our favourite hotel in the world - though we've never stayed there. I've posted about its history before so won't go on about it, other than to say that, aside from the regular rooms, its 35 suites are individually decorated (no two alike) and at Christmas each has its own real tree, decorated to complement the decor. But there have been three departures since we last visited: Kurt Wachtveitl, the 45-year long General Manager, and the hotel's two myna birds.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Old Haunts

The old haunts: Lumphini Park (where I almost trod on a monitor lizard - and this was a baby one), riding pillion to Siam Square, cheapo lunch in the university canteen under the BC office, coffee with Mark in Paragon, browsing in Kinokuniya bookstore, i-spy in traffic jams, and finishing off with dinner at our old neighbourhood fave, Lido. It's still run by the same people: the Italian guy, his tiny daughter and the ladyboy waiter/ress. And what did we have? Roast turkey. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Truth about Santa

Back in Bangkok. Same as ever. Visited our Kashmiri/Japanese friends Jaqoob & Asako, leaving Alyssa there for a sleepover with her one-time best friend Marika. Which left Liz, Naomi and I to experience the delights of last-minute Christmas shopping at Central Chitlom. Not my favourite pursuit, but one has to appreciate the abundance, attraction & quality of western product - books, clothes, food, toys - after the still-limited fayre of Beijing.
Over dinner, Naomi asked me for the truth about Santa. I managed to skirt around it ("I'm not sure", "I'd like to think he's real", What do you think?" etc) which seemed to satisfy her and we promptly bought a mince pie & miniature brandy for him plus a carrot for his reindeer. "Where do you think he'll park the sleigh?", I asked. "On the balcony of course!"

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Quit Dreaming and Get on the Beam

We decided to head back to our original resort for another fun-packed day with the Swedes, so walked a mile or so along the beach. Along the way, Liz and Alyssa spotted something rather unpleasant. "Watch out, it's a dead dog and porcupine" - which is a great name for a pub. On closer inspection, it was indeed a dead dog, but the spikey thing was some sort of sea anenome. A little further on, a gang of people were clearing a week's worth of beach detritus. It's amazing what gets washed up, even on this relatively unspoiled stretch. 
Anyway, we had a wonderfully relaxing time with Fredrik, Wivica, Felicia and Tilde, playing yet more cards, a bit of football, walking along two parallel bamboo beams, and of course swimming in the blissful sea - while keeping a lookout for dogs and porcupines. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Apocalypse Not

Today the Mayan calendar came to 'an end'. But aliens haven't invaded, Earth hasn't collided with Planet Nibiru and it looks like today will be pretty much like any other... except in Mexico as new age geeks and doomsday freaks flock to a number of temples to celebrate global destruction at its source.
Earlier this year, an Ipsos poll of 16,000 adults in 21 countries found that 8% had experienced anxiety over the possibility of the world ending today. Interestingly, it was as high as 20% in China, possibly because of the mega-successful 2012 film (which was partly set in China). But the biggest worry has been gatherings of a wacko doomsday sect who call themselves Almighty God. Honestly, China's becoming more like the States every day.
The only adverse affect we felt was having to move to another, not-so-nice resort a mile or two down the road and I've got an ear pressure problem from diving into the pool. But I'll live.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tintin on the Couch

The trouble with literary criticism - he said, starting a piece of literary criticism - is that one can easily analyse a thing to death, eeking out symbolism, metaphor and allegory where the author probably created nothing of the sort. Today I read Tom McCarthy's Tintin and the Secret of Literature which psychoanalyses Herge's oeuvre to within an inch of its life. Some of it's fun and revealing: the stuff on characterization, subplots and Herge's right-to-left politics is spot on. 
But when McCarthy starts quoting Barthes, Baudelaire, Bataille, Balzac (and others not necessarily beginning with B), and goes on about the symbolism of tombs, Captain Haddock's relationship to Louis XIV and Tintin as "the avatar of the secret whose possibility guarantees the possibility of literature" (eh?), then he's lost me.
Mind you, McCarthy knows his stuff and it's clear he's a fan. And although ridiculous, the Freudian interpretation of The Castafiore Emerald in a chapter called Castafiore's Clit has to make you smile. Interestingly, McCarthy declines to suggest that Tintin is gay (as many others have done), preferring to concentrate on more lofty matters like his politics. (As an aside, I have two interesting bootleg books on both issues: the seedy Tintin in Thailand, which doesn't need describing, and the deeply political Breaking Free in which Tintin is an anarchist in south-east London).
But being the huge Tintin fan that I am - I have all the books, DVDs, T-shirts, mugs, key-rings, fridge magnets, you name it - I prefer him adventurous and neutral. And it is this persona, free from the forensics of Freud, that I am foisting on my children. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Searching for Eldorado

A few metres from our log-cabin porch is jungle. OK, perhaps jungle is stretching it a bit, but there's a lot of foliage and at night time it is loud with insects. I've just finished a book by David Grann called The Lost City of Z about Percy Harrison Fawcett, among the last of the great Victorian explorers. For years he explored the Amazon and came to believe that its jungle concealed a large, complex civilization, like Eldorado, which he called Z. Like many before him - not least the Spanish conquistadors - his quest became an obsession and he became quite possibly unhinged. He disappeared, with his son Jack and his friend Raleigh, in the Upper Xingu area of Brazil in 1925.
Fawcett's escapades inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912), and countless other fables, from Herge's Tintin and the Broken Ear to Herzog's Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, and from Pixar's Up to the fourth Indiana Jones film.
Years after his disappearance, people thought he was still alive, either held prisoner or gone native. There were various expeditions to rescue him. But it's almost certain he and the two young men were killed by native Indians.
And what of Z? Interestingly, it appears that he was right. There was a 'city' in the area where he disappeared, but it had existed roughly between 500-1600AD. The German archaeologist Michael Heckenberger has spent years uncovering moats, palisades, roads, pottery etc. It was called Kuhikugu. Its possible demise may be attributed to Europeans arriving with smallpox and other diseases. Poor old Fawcett - so near yet so far.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Star

One of the great things about our little beach resort is that there are limited things to do. We can walk along the beach, swim, eat, play cards, and chat with other guests (tonight it's the turn of a nice Swedish family)... But there are no adventures into the wilds or forays into temples, we pass on snorkeling and squid fishing, there's not even a town. Which leaves plenty of time for reading and thinking.
A year ago, we were on this same beach, mourning my mum's death 6,000 miles away. This evening we looked up at the stars, thousands of them, and Naomi said, "Look, there's Granny Jean's star". We'd assigned it to her then, and she'd remembered. It was the brightest and remains so. But it's the twinkle that really singles it out.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cosmic Vibes

Our arrival last night coincided with a weird feng shui gathering. The hotel was packed, with the conference spilling out into the lobby, corridors and an exhibition space full of strange-looking stones displayed in glass cabinets. People would go up to them and hold out their hands in the hope of attracting cosmic energy. 
Anyway, this morning our trusty taxi driver, Kun Kantapong, picked us up and took us... back to the airport. According to tradition, we post all our Christmas cards & parcels (three sackfulls of them) from this tiny little post-office in the Departures lounge. I don't think they knew what had hit them.
After that, a five hour drive down the Thai isthmus to our regular beach resort. Beginning to unwind already.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Long Walk or a Big Fib?

Off on our hols. As we fly from freezing Beijing to hot Bangkok, so I'm reading a book by an ex-Polish soldier, Slavomir Rawicz, about an incredible journey by a group of escaped prisoners from a Siberian gulag in 1941. They walked through the feeezing tigra, across Mongolia, into the Gobi desert where two of them died, across north-western China and into Tibet, where two more died, and finally over the Himalayas to India.
It's a harrowing tale and ends very abruptly. I wanted to find out what happened to him and the four other survivors in the intervening years but apart from a brief blurb that Rawicz moved to England, there's no real postscript. A quick google revealed that his story is extremely suspect. One source says that he was actually released by the Soviets in 1942; another says that the story is true but that it was about someone else. You'd think that, in this day and age, proof could be found to determine the truth, but it seems not. In any event, I also found out that Peter Weir made a film about it called The Way Back, in 2010. All in all, a rather disappointing conclusion to what otherwise was a cracking tale.   

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Frosty the Snowman

This afternoon, the girls and I - with a little help from Zed & Za next door - made a fantastic snowman. It was a classic. Bit taller than them, with a hat & scarf, tangerine nose, some buttons, a couple of emaciated branches-as-arms, and a twig fashioned into a smile. We then threw snowballs at each other. Perfect.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

It's Over

And so UK Now comes to an end. After 200+ events in 160 venues in 29 cities over 257 days involving 776 artists & performers and attracting (physical) audiences of over 4m, to say nothing of the digital stats… it’s over.
We ended with a one-day forum about – wait for it – the value of arts festivals, chaired by Jonathan Mills, Director of Edinburgh International Festival, with speakers from UK and China and a keynote address from British Council CEO, Martin Davidson. It looked at how festivals can promote a country or a city to physical audiences via real events, as well as to much wider audiences through digital channels. 
Nigel Hinds talked about London 2012 and Peter Florence about Hay; we learned about Chengdu Biennial, Hong Kong Arts Festival and the legacy of Shanghai Expo; and then a raft of digital platforms which called into question the whole meaning of “festival”. Given that the British Council is now re-embracing them – in China, Brazil, Australia, Qatar, Russia and South Africa – then it was all very appropriate. 
The Forum gave way to a pretty packed reception and then a modest party and then that was it. Except that it isn't. There's the book to finish and evaluation and deciding what to do with the website and mopping up the finances... But at least there are no more events to organize. I wish I could say something profound and conclusive, but there are no more words, just sleep.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Lots of prep for tomorrow's UK Now closing event, and to add a little more chaos to the proceedings, it's snowing. As we crawled to the airport to pick up the British speakers, we had a 5mph prang as our car gracefully glided into the back of an SUV... which delayed us a little but nothing compared to the flights. Still, at least everyone's got here and Beijing is functioning. Perhaps it's the right type of snow. 
Managed to squeeze in Naomi's Christmas show at school, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas - a medley of carols, poems and Shakin' Stevens. She sang her heart out while simultaneously trying to act cool. So arrived a little late for a dinner with the speakers and then preparing event stuff until midnight. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Maid in Berlin

Interesting. Liz got home, surprised to hear music being played in the flat. And not just any music. Our ayi's been cleaning to Ashra's Blackouts.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Today is when all the Nobel Laureates annually turn up in Oslo to receive their Prizes. But who was Alfred Nobel?  Turns out he was a Swedish inventor & chemist who died on this day in 1896, leaving a huge sum of money to set up the Prizes for contributions to Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. This was back in the days when Sweden & Norway were one country. Swedish institutes still administer the first four prizes,while a Norwegian one takes care of the Peace one. Ironically, Mr Nobel invented dynamite and owned a huge armaments factory, before realising the error of his ways? This year the Peace Prize went to the European Union. The ballroom must have been packed.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Patrick Moore RIP

Patrick Moore died today, aged 89, at his home in Selsey, a sleepy little seaside village a few miles from my home town of Chichester. Apart from being Britain's best known amateur astronomer and presenter of the world's longest-running-with-the-same-original-presenter (55 years) TV series, The Sky at Nighthe was also a keen cricketer, writer, chess player and composer. I remember him performing a xylophone version of Anarchy in the UK at a Royal Variety Performance. I also remember him giving a talk at our school and occasionally you'd see him shopping in Chichester. But the nearest I got to him was sharing a hospital waiting room, me clutching a fractured finger, he nursing some undefined ailment. He was huge.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Alice on Pointe

So, after 12 weeks of hard work at On Pointe Dance Studios on Sunday afternoons, Alyssa & Naomi performed in a two-hour version of Alice in Wonderland at the huge American school theatre out in Shunyi. Naomi did a jazz-dance opener to the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, while Alyssa did a ballet piece after the Queen of Hearts' croquet game. They were great. And full marks to the their teacher, Chloe Brydges, who not only choreographed 30 separate sections, but also produced the whole show. I don't know how she did it. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Strange Course of The Blue Nile

I'm reading a book (by Allan Brown) about The Blue Nile - the band not the river. It's funny how they've become this cult group par excellence. To become a cult I suppose you have to have huge gaps between albums (unless you're Nurse With Wound or your lead singer commits suicide), and The Blue Nile qualify on that score. Formed in 1981, they took three years to record their debut, A Walk Across the Rooftops (1984), followed by a gap of five years till Hats (1989), seven years till Peace at Last (1996) and eight years till High (2004). Which means that the next should be around next year. But don't hold your breath. 
Their following isn't huge, but it is devoted. I've never seen them live, but people speak of their concerts in semi-religious tones. For me, their first two albums are exquisite - dreamy, romantic, grand, spacious, passionate, measured (yet somehow still 'alternative') examples of pop music. 
But then they lost it. They could/should have been huge, but there's something wilfully, beguilingly perverse about them. The fact that their two early classics were released by Linn, a local hi-fi company who'd never released a record before, perhaps says it all. I can't imagine the three of them living in LA, which they did for a while in the early 90s. Nor can I imagine Paul Buchannon going out with Rosanna Arquette, also in LA (where else?). 
Anyway, while we wait for another album (which probably won't come), there's a solo album, Mid-Air, by Buchannon. It's nice, reserved, but not essential. The book's great though.    

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Morbid Movies

Terence Davies's The Deep Blue Sea opened our British Film Week tonight. We'd invited the director and his manager/partner but there was a visa cock-up and in the end neither made it, which was annoying, but c'est la vie. So we had some drinks, vol-au-vents and speeches before settling down to watch the film, which was fabulous on period detail and great performance by Rachel Weisz... but all-in-all I found it rather slight and certainly depressing. Couldn't really feel for any of the characters, and we had a bad 35mm print, full of scratches, the occasional flare and a few drop-outs... unless they were part of the period detail (!?). 
Still, we've got lots of other films to cheer us up. Tomorrow is Dreams of a Life, about a young Londoner, Joyce Carol Vincent, who died alone in her bedsit and wasn't discovered until two years later; Senna, about the F1 racing driver who of course was killed in the line of duty; the newly restored version of Hitchcock's The Lodger about a woman-killer in London; Andrea Arnold's reassuringly bleak version of Wuthering Heights... 
Hang on, don't we have any happy films?!  Yes, we do, both about submarines - one literally (the digitally restored version of Yellow Submarine), the other metaphorically (Richard Ayoade's Submarine, starring Craig Roberts). Well that's all right then.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Back in the late 80s / early 90s I used to vaguely know the people at Pentagram. I don't think I ever worked with them on a project, but probably invited them to pitch for one, or went to their office or something, I think when Theo Crosby and Alan Fletcher were still around. Crosby died in 1994, Fletcher just a few years ago. They were, still are, a great design company.
Anyway, I'm still on their mailing list and today received #42 of their occasional Pentagram Papers series. They're nice little booklets about quirky subjects, produced to remind people they're still around, still doing inventive things. This one's a series of poems by, and portraits of, Texan cowboys. So let's hear it for Blue Nall: "I used to have a full head of hair that would make you swoon. I would walk into bars and turn women's heads; still do, but for a totally different reason".

Monday, December 3, 2012

Wolfe+585, Senior

This afternoon I met a certain Dr Maria Joao Rodrigues de Araujo, a Research Fellow from Oxford University. With a name like that she has to be Portuguese (though could have been Brazilian). Why are Portuguese names so long?  It is not uncommon that a married woman has two given names and six surnames, two from her mother's family, two from her father's family and the last two coming from her husband. Plus there's the occasional 'de' thrown in. 
But all this is nothing compared with the world record holding Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvin John Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor William Xerxes Yancy Zeus Wolfe­schlegelstein­hausenberger­dorffvoraltern­waren­gewissenhaft­schaferswessen­schafewaren­wohlgepflege­und­sorgfaltigkeit­beschutzen­von­angreifen­durch­ihrraubgierigfeinde­welche­voraltern­zwolftausend­jahres­vorandieerscheinen­wander­ersteer­dem­enschderraumschiff­gebrauchlicht­als­sein­ursprung­von­kraftgestart­sein­lange­fahrt­hinzwischen­sternartigraum­auf­der­suchenach­diestern­welche­gehabt­bewohnbar­planeten­kreise­drehen­sich­und­wohin­der­neurasse­von­verstandigmen­schlichkeit­konnte­fortplanzen­und­sicher­freuen­anlebens­langlich­freude­und­ruhe­mit­nicht­ein­furcht­vor­angreifen­von­anderer­intelligent­geschopfs­von­hinzwischen­sternartigraum, Senior (746 letters), also known as Wolfe+585, Senior. When asked, er, "why?", the German-born American replied: "I don't like being part of the common herd." He was, appropriately, a typesetter! He died in 1985, but there is a son, still living, called...  That's enough!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Man who Loved China

Reading Simon Winchester's biography of Joseph Needham, The Man Who Loved China. He was a Cambridge academic, specialising in biochemistry and would probably have stayed that way had he not met another biochemist, Lu Gwei-djen, who'd arrived in England from China in 1937. From then on he became obsessed with China: its language, its culture and above all its long long history of inventions. 
Towards the end of WW2 he was invited to go there (funnily enough by the fledgling British Council, which had set up an office in the then capital, Chongqing; he was kind of - unofficially - its first representative). His job was to visit hundreds of deprived, war-damaged universities and supply them with scientific equipment. And while there he began researching his magnum opus, the many volumed Science and Civilisation of ChinaAfter the war he helped set up UNESCO (he was responsible for the S in the middle), got into a scrape during the anti-Commie McCarthy years and continued with his never-ending book. Indeed, it hasn't ended. Needham died in 1995 but others have picked up the baton. Interesting story, well-told by another man who loves China.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Coffee Culture

Another day in Xiamen, starting with a coffee festival of all things. Apart from pianos, the city likes to think it has a coffee heritage, and certainly there are many tiny independent coffee shops here which also ply records and books, those two essentials ingredients for coffee culture. There's obviously a massive irony at play here that has brought me to the home of tea (the first exports to Britain were from here) in order to understand what a barista is and does, but it was fascinating and really great to see an event aimed at empowering local enterprises. Starbucks weren't invited.
Aside from that, Duncan gave a talk in a busy pedestrian shopping centre, and then a gig in a lovely cafe perched on a hill at the end of a winding lane near where we did yesterday's Subtlemob. Very cool neighbourhood - reminded me of Tokyo's Omotesando or Seoul's Samcheong-dong.  I like Duncan's music, which is as subtle as his mobs - gently processed washes of electronic sound from a laptop with a couple of effects pads. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Xiamen Subtlemob

Rain, rain, rain. Spent much of the day praying it would stop before tonight's event - of which more anon - but it was incessant. Nevertheless, an interesting morning on the small island of Gulangyu, a 5-minute ferry ride across from my hotel. Xiamen, and Gulangyu in particular, have a strong colonial past. The Portuguese arrived here in the 16th century (when it was known as Amor), followed by the British in the 17th Century, and later by the French and the Dutch. The island is distinguished by the fact that there are no cars but lots of pianos. We visited a museum which has 100 of them and it is said that the streets are alive with piano music, though we didn't hear any, possibly because of the rain. Anyway, a pleasant, verdant, relaxing place.
Back on the bigger island, we went from meeting to meeting until finally we made our way to Zengcuo'an, the location for Duncan Speakman's Subtlemob event. I've taken part in two of these before (see posts in Tokyo 2010 and Edinburgh 2011) but this was the first time it's come to mainland China. Essentially it's a sort of secret - but ironically very public - outdoor piece of theatre. You register on-line, select a character, download a 35-minute MP3 file (with Chinese or English voiceover), are told to go to a street somewhere in the city and, at 7.00pm, you and your partner press play. Hundreds of other couples do too. You can spot them of course. It's funny being part of a throng of people, some of whom are in-the-know, others who have no idea what's going on. You carry out certain actions, separate, re-unite and, to cut a long story short, it ends with a slow dance. So I ended up waltzing down the street with my colleague Angus, which was all over Weibo (Twitter) within minutes. It was a kind of risky project to do on the mainland, and we held our collective breaths when a police-car drove by, but it didn't stop.
We celebrated in a great little bar run by 'Dave', a Chinese guy, who also DJs. As does Duncan. So together they did a great double act of an electronic set while we downed several Tsingtaos. Oh, and I forgot to say, it stopped raining just before the Subtlemob started. The gods must have been smiling. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dire Straits

Off to Xiamen on the south east coast. It's an island in a delta, connected to the mainland by a few very long bridges and an even longer tunnel. It reminds me a bit of Hong Kong - hilly, built up, but not that built up. And Taiwan is just 180km away... Or rather, it is just 10km away. I didn't know this before, but there are two Taiwanese-governed islands, Jinmen and Xiaojinmen, which are within full view of the mainland. So close, yet so far.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


I have this (fairly) funny butter issue with the young lady who runs the German Cafe in my office block. I have lunch there two or three times a week. It's not very adventurous of me, but it's convenient and I like a hearty bowl of soup - and you also get a really good mixed grain or muesli roll thrown in... although they're a bit dry, hence the need for butter. So sometimes she has butter, for which I'm charged an extra 1 yuan (10p), sometimes she doesn't. Of late it's been a Lurpak, Anchor & Kerrygold free zone. So today I brought my own butter in - filched yesterday from another cafe (where obviously butter wasn't a problem). The look she gave me: it encompassed so many signals within the space of a second: Why do westerners eat so much butter? How could you possibly bring in your own? Why do you force me to lose face? Whereupon, she produced a slab of the stuff and, with an exaggerated flourish of the knife, deposited two portions on my plate. I handed over my 30 yuan for the soup... A pause... Ah yes, and that all-important extra 1 yuan. The soup - courgette & noodles - was delicious. The butter? Worth all the cross-cultural angst.

Monday, November 26, 2012


My ex-colleague Manami Yuasa is in town and joined us for our regular Monday night Japanese dinner. Manami and I worked together in Tokyo from 1999-2005, and we still bump into each other every year or so. She is one of the hardest-working arts managers in the British Council; could organize Edinburgh Festival like that (clicks fingers). The last time she saw us all together was in Bangkok some four years ago, so she was taken aback by how the girls have grown. Nice to see her. We ate udon tempura.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Foreign Babes in Beijing

Foreign Babes in Beijing was a Chinese TV soap opera in the mid 90s, a sort of pre-Sex & the City, watched by an audience of some 600m. One of its stars was played by a young American PR consultant called Rachel DeWoskin who had never acted in her life and was paid $80 per episode.  She plays a seductress who lures away a married Chinese man, which was culturally quite controversial but people also liked the fact that she seemingly preferred Chinese men. She became one of China's most famous resident 'laowai' (foreigners) and later wrote a book about the experience. 
I just read it. It's interesting in that it's both an account of the cultural differences played out in the soap, as well as in real life. Real life reflecting art reflecting real life etc. DeWoskin has since returned to the States. There was talk of a  Hollywood movie version but the production appears to have been shelved.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Temple Food

Food food food. Pancakes for breakfast followed by a much-postponed and enjoyable lunch with our landlords in a nearby Mongolian restaurant - a first I think. Lots of mutton with cumin, cold glutinous rice with what looked like yellow lentils on top (but was apparently millet), beef pasties and potato noodles in broth. Wondered whether the girls would like it but they tucked in.
And then a work dinner at Temple Restaurant, out in hutong-land. It used to be a - you guessed it - temple, then a small factory producing China's first B&W TV sets, and now a very nice restaurant. My Education colleagues have been running a big, nationwide design competition and the dinner was the culmination. The guests included the comp's five judges, all of whom, coincidentally, I knew from some time ago. So very nice to catch up again with graphic designer Michael Johnson, Donna Loveday of the Design Museum, Tony Dunne of the Royal College of Art, Catherine McDermott, Head of Design at Kingston University, and the Science Museum's Creative Director, Tim Molloy with his stripey shirt and big plastic-but-probably-very-expensive specs. Also there was the young fashion designer Henry Holland with his gravity-defying quiff. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Big School

Next year, Alyssa will move up to secondary school. In advance of this momentous event, Liz and I visited the most likely one, which is out in suburbia, to talk to the teachers and check out the facilities. Alyssa was there too, with a bunch of her class who are also considering going there, but she stayed well clear of us. "Hey Alyssa, it's your parents!). It's a nice place. Big, new, well equipped, swimming pool, theatre. How different from Chi High 1972-79...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hello! Turn on the TV, Turn off the Music!

Today is:
- World Television Day - a United Nations resolution in 1996 and as stupid a concept as I can think of, either for those with access to TV (no need) or those without (say no more). Britain sensibly abstained.
- World Hello Day - dreamt up by brothers Brian and Michael MacCormack, apparently in response to the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and running since then. The objective is to say hello to at least ten people on the day and encourage communication rather than force. Ask Israelis to try it in Gaza right now (or the other way round), and they might get to three?
- No Music Day - another of Bill Drummond's 'wacky' projects, protesting against the ubiquity & mundanity of music in contemporary society... To his credit (and probable surprise), it resulted in Resonance FM and BBC Radio Scotland not broadcasting any music on that day in 2006 and 2007 respectively. But even more impressive was the Austrian city of Linz's wholesale observation: shops, restaurants, schools and radio stations played no music, the cinemas showed only films without music soundtracks and theatres and concert halls held only non-musical performances. Quentin Crisp would have approved. Did I observe it?  Yes I did.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Confucius is back?

This evening Liz and I went to a lecture on Confucius (in, bizarrely, the Turkish Embassy, but that's another story). Actually, it was less about the bloke (although we learned that he was born in 551BC, on 28 September, a Tuesday apparently), and more about the resurgence of Confucian thought in modern China. 
He wasn't in official favour for much of the last century (too feudal), but in the search for meaning amidst rampant change, Confucian ethics are once again proving attractive to many. Even the Government has cautiously accepted him back: the Chinese equivalent of the British Council is called the Confucius Institute (though it's government run, not at arm's length).
Confucianism is difficult to describe. It's not a religion in the Christian, Juddaic or Islamic sense, which all worship a god, or even Buddhism (Buddha isn't a god, but people do 'worship' him). But it is a way to lead one's life. Many people say that China is not a religious country, but it depends what one means by religious. Aside from Confucianism and Buddhism, there's also Taoism, and around 50m each of Muslims and Christians, plus various other 'minority' beliefs. 
Anyway, you can't go wrong with a bit of respect for elders, the importance of study and being virtuous. "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself" was attributed to him. He wasn't particularly interested in the afterlife though he acknowledged a kind of omnipresent heaven. 
But what particularly interests me is his genealogy. Confucius's family, the Kongs, has the longest recorded pedigree in the world today. There are around 2m known and registered descendants. I know one of them. He's working with us on our British Film Week.

Monday, November 19, 2012


So Alyssa left her coat at Amy's last night which meant Amy's mum brought it into school to give to Naomi who left it on a table in the lobby where they have their art class. So Flute, the artist (I know, interesting name) finds it and phones to say I can pick it up at 9pm. So I race over, pick it up but lose my jumper. Where did I put it? Who are more forgetful: children or their ageing parents? I can remember the most detailed, useless facts from 40 years ago, like the names of Leeds United's 1972-73 squad, or Focus's bass players, or the names of all 50 US states... but can I remember where I put my jumper 5 minutes ago? 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fate, 25 Years ago

25 years ago today, I saw Harold Budd, Michael Brook, Laaraji and Roger Eno perform at the Shaw Theatre in London. It was a fine concert, with visuals by Russell Mills and various alt-celebs inc Brian Eno, Andrew Logan etc in attendance. But the evening would be remembered for a tragic event not 400 yards away. At 7:30pm a fire broke out in King's Cross tube station. (I had come out of the station half an hour earlier). It killed 31 people. Fate.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


The Dunhuang theme continues. We laid on a lunch at the Ambassador's Residence (HMA in absentia) for around 20 people from London, Beijing, Urumqi and of course Dunhuang itself. It  went OK although we weren't sure whether the muslim contingent were halal or not, so played safe with veggie. I sat next to an archaeologist from Urumqi who looked longingly at my roast lamb, so perhaps we got that wrong. He spoke no English but we had Japanese between us which made for an interesting if stilted conversation. 
This turned out to be another theme as our Japanese friends Michiko, Kazuko, Takeru and children came round for afternoon tea. They'd been to Dunhuang. Most Japanese people over the age of 40 have seen the classic NHK TV documentary about the Silk Road. It took seven years to plan & film (mostly simply trying to get permission) before finally being transmitted in 1980 in 12 monthly instalments, followed by various sequels throughout the 80s. The soundtrack, by Kitaro, is almost as famous as the programme, and I have the original two LPs. There were ooohs and aaahs as I showed them the sleeves and of course, being original Japanese releases, they had tons of inserts which we poured over while eating Liz's delicious English sandwiches & scones. Never mind the British Council - this is cultural relations.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Raiders of the Lost Caves

Paul Pelliott, rumaging in 1908
This morning I attended the 10th anniversary celebrations of the International Dunhuang Project website. Sounds a bit dull, but there's a cracking story behind it. 
Back in 1900, a Daoist monk rediscovered a massive stash of manuscripts (mostly about Buddhism, but also history, mathematics, folk songs and dance) dating from the 5th - 11th centuries, in some caves that had been hitherto sealed up in Dunhuang in western China. In the following years, when Indiana-Jones-type characters roamed the world and China was in chaos, much was sold off to explorers like Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliott who took them back to the great libraries of the west, where they still reside. 
Although sensitive to some, the case has never reached Elgin Marbles proportions, and most Chinese and international scholars seem happy for the manuscripts simply to be accessible to as many people as possible - thus the website. To date, 378,465 manuscripts have been digitised, most of them by the IDP's UK office within the British Library.   

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Men in Black

Today,as I drove past Tiananmen Square in our office car, a once-in-a-decade event was happening within the Great Hall of the People: the changing of the old guard and the ushering in of the new. As expected Xi Jinping is the new General Secretary of the Communist Party, and will also become President next year, taking over from Hu Jintao. Under him are six new senior figures. Together they make up a slightly reduced (from nine) Politburo Standing Committee. The red flags fluttered, the red walls of the Forbidden City blushed in the morning sun, and we got caught on a red light. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Double dinner

This afternoon I attended the opening of Towards Modernity: Three Centuries of British Painting at the Beijing World Art Museum. It's an unusual exhibition in that all the works are from a loose consortium of small-to-medium sized museums in the north-west of England, spearheaded by Bury Art Museum. One might think that this would be rather limiting for a big survey show of British art in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It's true, it doesn't include many of the major, iconic works which reside in the big national institutions, but it does include most of the major names: Reynolds, Constable, Turner, Whistler, Burne-Jones, Epstein, Piper, Hepworth, Moore, Freud etc. 
White Mountain (1888)
The big surprise was the number of artists I'd never heard of. Loads of them. And mostly surprisingly good. For example: a very abstract landscape painting by someone called William Stott-of-Oldham. (He wasn't a Lord or anything; he just called himself that to differentiate himself from another Lancastrian painter, Edward Stott). It's called White Mountain, from 1888, but looks like it could have been painted now. Anyway, if you'll pardon the pun, it all hangs together very well. But the really great thing is that it's going on to five other cities.
This was followed by two dinners: an early one at the museum (which I tried to pick at rather than devour), and a later one across town with Liz, my cousin David & his wife Oddveig. They both work for Shell, met in Norway, have been based there for the last ten years, but have just moved to Beijing. So we're 'family'... but, apart from a few family reunions, weddings and funerals, we barely know each other. Nice to be reacquainted actually. 
I returned home stuffed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


My little brother is 50 today. Happy birthday Patrick. Where does the time go...?

Monday, November 12, 2012


From musical nostalgia to industrial-strength hand-cleaner nostalgia. I'd got my hands covered in oil at lunchtime through trying to fix Leigh's bicycle. Would it ever come off with soap & water? Memories of  Swarfega came flooding back - a green, jelly-like substance with a smell that would make your hair stand on end. It was invented in 1947 by someone called Audley Bowdler Williamson from Derbyshire, and is still made today. It came in a tin with a big lid so you could get your hands in. The last time used it was probably in 1974. God, the stuff I write about...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Words and Music

With the year drawing to a close but not quite over, one could be premature in stating a pop album of the year, but it's a safe bet that mine is Saint Etienne's Words and Music (or to give it its full title, Words and Music by Saint Etienne). Over the summer and autumn it's been played incessantly in this household, not least by Naomi (8), which may say something about its accessibility. For most, it's probably the perfect Saturday late afternoon music, alongside the chart rundown (does this still happen?) and in preparation for a night out. But for us - who are a bit past it, or too young - it's Sunday morning music.
Cracknell, Stanley & Wiggs are also a bit past it, but their love and knowledge of pop, in all its myriad forms, lends a passionate, irresistible nostalgia to this their eighth album. 'Over the Border' discusses travelling to Peter Gabriel's house, ("Peter Gabriel of Genesis", Cracknell helpfully reminds us, for this is the early 70s). There are references to "green and yellow Harvests, pink Pyes, silver Bells" (record labels & Mike Oldfield's debut), "the strange and important sound of the synthesiser," and whether Marc Bolan would still be relevant to a grown woman married with kids. 'Popular' is about an internet message-board populated by people who want to discuss Pussycat's 1976 no.1 hit 'Mississippi' in depth. If you were brought up on prog & glam, or were obsessed with music whatever the decade, then these and many other more recent references will immediately resonate. But young people will 'get it' too. The melodies and production are very strong and the whole album is wonderfully uplifting. 
Paul Morley, the music journalist, who knows a thing or two about pop, also wrote a book called Words and Music, but though it shares this album's passion, it's a bit too clever for its own good. Saint Etienne's eulogy is from the heart rather than the head.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Missed Woon (again)

Not bad. Three hours sleep on a five hour flight. Home, shower, then straight to a small hutong hotel near the Drum Tower. Last night Jamie Woon, the last of our Brit band tours, performed at the Mao Club just around the corner - which of course I missed. Thought I might catch him at breakfast, but he and the crew had already departed for Harbin. We brought him over last year too, for a music residency, and I failed to meet him then as well. Anyway, we're making a documentary film of all four bands' tours, so the cameraman stayed behind and interviewed me on the roof of the hotel. Cold, grey and damp. Bags under the eyes. Desperate for a coffee. Not ideal conditions.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Suvannabuhmi Mall

Finances, HR and wrap-up in the morning, then scores of emails... and all this with lovely Chiang Mai outside. The only glimpse we had was last night - and that was a trip to our office! Late afternoon flight to Bangkok then six hour transit in the airport which went surprisingly quickly (more emails) before the overnight flight home. Suvannabuhmi is one big - or in this case long - shopping mall. It's like Chelsea's Kings Road: literally a mile of fashion, cafes, perfumeries and designer this-that-and-the-other. And a bookshop. Which was full of Lonely Planets, coffee table crafts, business bibles, biographies of Aung San Suu Kyi and - non existent in China - English language magazines. I devoured Mojo and Q.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Early Loy Kratang

Conference time. Always good to see people, one or two I've known for 20 years, most for 5-10 years, and others who are new to me and the region. So we talked about various programmes and I gave a presentation on UK Now and how it's gone, what's next etc, before we all boarded a bus for a modest buffet dinner in the grounds of the small but lovely British Council Chiang Mai office. Only there wasn't much to eat. Still, plenty to drink, and we ended the evening lighting paper lanterns, three weeks before Loy Kratang festival, which drifted up into the sky as high as the eye could see. Beautiful.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Chiang Mai

Up at the unseemly hour of 4am to catch a plane to Bangkok and then onward to Chiang Mai for the once-a-year East Asia Regional Leadership Team Meeting. I can think of worse places to have it... Muggy & overcast, but it's nice to be back here; first time in three or four years I think. Whenever I go to Thailand, it feels a bit like coming home.
So, Obama's got a second term. Meanwhile, Hu Jintao has opened the Communist Party Congress in Beijing which will usher in a new leadership team, including a new President and Premier. Interesting times.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Being Boring

Met the photographer Martin Parr tonight. He has a small exhibition on at Pekin Fine Arts and this evening gave a talk at Bookworm, neither of which we were involved with, but we’re talking about a bigger one in a year or so.
I love his work. I remember Boring Postcards when it came out in 2000. The publisher was reluctant to take it on and only printed 2,000. It’s now on its 20th or something reprint. He turns the mundane into something interesting, revels in kitsch and saturated colour, and both celebrates & pokes fun at middle class suburbia (a club in which he himself is a fully paid-up member).
He has published over 60 books, most of which he has co-designed. He is an obsessive collector, including 12,000 photography books which have spilled out of his Bristol house and into a warehouse. He also has, he thinks (and who are we to argue?), the world's largest collection of Saddam Hussein watches – that’s with the dead dictator's image on them, not those which once adorned his wrist. He’s now gone on to Gaddafi.
And he showed us an incredibly high-end production, limited edition book… of parking spaces around the world. So obsessed is he with documenting the trivia of everyday life, that one forgets he’s also a member of Magnum and actually gets commissioned to do more glamorous assignments – like fashion. If I was commissioning a fashion shoot, he’d be the last person I’d hire.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Early Christmas

Guy Fawkes Day is cancelled. At least in Beijing. No fireworks allowed except during Chinese New Year. Not that anyone beyond the 3,473 Brits living in Beijing would know what it is. Nevermind, Starbucks have just put up the Christmas decorations.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Early Snow

It snowed last night. At 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning, the girls insisted that I come down with them before it turned to slush. It was not one of those nice, winter-wonderland-set-off-by-blue-sky type experiences. It was grey and windy. A tree had keeled over. It was also raining. Yuk.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Vronsky Beat

In the taxi, on the way to see The Monster in the Hall, a co-production by National Theatre of Scotland & Citizens Theatre, we got a call saying that the lead actress had been struck down by food poisoning and it was cancelled. Shame - we'd been looking forward to it. 
So we went to the cinema instead - to see Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright's new version of Anna Karenina. Interesting take on the Tolstoy classic: very theatrical - in fact set mostly in a theatre, even the scenes that were supposed to be outside. Very stylised and choreographed - a sort of musical without the songs, with wonderful sets, tons of jewellery and acres of fur. Keira Knightley very good as Anna, Jude Law ditto as her stiff husband, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson doesn't quite cut it as Vronsky. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

MFH review

Nice review of the MFH compilation in Volcanic Tongues mail order site:

Excellent compilation of a bunch of underground cassettes released during the post-Industrial cassette ‘boom’ in the early 80s by the duo of Andrew Cox and David Elliott: MFH turned up on Dave Henderson’s infamous The Elephant Table compilation while Elliott is possibly best known for his fanzine Neumusik and his championing of new music in Sounds. 
They were also the brains behind one of the most enigmatic of cassette labels, York House Recordings, YHR, which released tapes by Cluster, Conrad Schnitzler, MB, Asmus Tietchens and more. YHR also released the bulk of the MFH recordings and the best are compiled here from the time period of 1980-1985. 
The sounds are glorious, there are lonely synth and shortwave works that capture perfectly the circumstances of their creation – in bedrooms and campus laboratories in the middle of the night – odd minimal drone works, repeat keyboard fantasias that are as spooky and otherworldly as anything on John Fothergill’s wing of United Dairies (think Two Daughters et al), hazy shortwave constructs that relocate Europe Endless to the view from a Cornish cottage, TG-influenced distant tape work and cracked beats... something about the atmosphere of these recordings sits just right, with a teenage apocalyptic vibe that is pure science class. 
This is a major unearthing of Hidden Reverse proportions and a must for fans of the way that austere Krautrock and avant garde music was mis-translated by obsessive bedroom geeks in the early 80s. Can’t stop spinning this one – highly recommended.

Was that us?!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


After the highs of yesterday, it was back to earth with a bump: stressful work, a hacking cough, computer gremlins and homework tantrums from Naomi. We got an Apple expert to come round to try to sort out a few things on our iMac. He managed some but not all. It still doesn't recognize my iPod and we couldn't get iPlayer to install. But at least we now have what seems to be a more reliable VPN and I now 'get' iPhoto, iCloud and RSS feeds. Enough of MacSpeak. iGotobednow. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Getting near the end of the festival now... one month to go. Tonight was the last of our events at The Egg, and the last dance event in Beijing : Random Dance Company. They did Entity - an hour long piece without a break. Great use of projection from three sides and from above, and excellent, powerful music by Joby Talbot and Jon Hopkins. 
As ever, the music is vital. If I don't like the music, I probably won't like the show. Talbot and Hopkins are both classically trained composers but have both branched out to embrace contemporary & electronic production. (And both were born in Wimbledon, funnily enough). Talbot has worked with the Divine Comedy, wrote the music for TV's The League of Gentlemen (which, incidentally - and this is difficult to believe - I've never seen), scored a couple of films (including Son of Rambow - see post), and lots of other stuff. Hopkins has worked with Imogen Heap and King Creosote (both of whom we recently brought to China), Eno and Coldplay, and has also scored films, including Monsters.  
But back to Entity... which was abstract, hard, techy, almost scientific - and quite demanding of the audience (which was a sell-out by the way), but involving & emotional enough to work on many levels. Good on-stage after-show talk with the dancers, continually stretching their limbs and adjusting posture so as not to seize up, and confirming they were indeed regular human beings.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Table Revisited

A day off - doing normal things. Making pancakes, homework & rollerblading with the girls, taking them to dance class, stuff around the flat... Although couldn't resist seeing The Table again, this time with Liz and Joanna & her daughter. As funny as three days ago.  

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Britten in Beijing

Morning off, but then took Graham to 798... again - this time to sit in on the Dressing the Screen panel discussion at UCCA with curators & film-makers from both sides, and then, over coffee, to meet two of the 20 Chinese arts managers who've just returned from their 6-week UK placements. One had been to National Portrait Gallery in London & National Galleries in Edinburgh, the other to Sainsbury Institute in Norwich & Courtauld Institute in London. They seemed to have had a productive time. 
After that, I went to a bizarre event at Galaxy Soho - a huge new mixed-use building in the centre of town designed by Zaha Hadid. It wasn't exactly an official opening (it's finished but not yet occupied). Instead Hadid and Zhang Xin, the CEO of real estate company Soho, had 'a dialogue'. There were thousands of people, in the central atrium and lining the galleries of the floors above, all waiting for the starchitect and her client to arrive... in a golf cart. Once seated in armchairs, the cordon was dropped and everyone rushed forward to grab the available seats. It was like a cross between a rock show and Harrods New Year Sales. They talked about creativity and stuff. Hadid confessed that she was "critical about everything" and it was all hard work.  "I haven't had fun in architecture for 20 years", she concluded. 
A funny thing happened. I went off to have a look around the building (from the street it's a bit boring, but within it's pretty amazing) and by chance wandered into a darkened room full of architects. I turned round and in swanned the Hadid contingent, heading straight for me. So I thrust out my hand and congratulated her. We exchanged a few pleasantries before she realised I was a minion, got bored and turned to someone more important. 
This evening, by complete contrast and coincidence, there were two UK Now-related Benjamin Britten productions: Noye's Fludde (Noah's Flood) and Spring Symphony.
The former is an operetta written in 1958 and designed to be performed in either a church or large hall - not a theatre or concert hall. This particular production was the brainchild of the colourful & energetic Lady Linda Wong Davies, who's been in out of our office over the years, and got its premiere at Belfast Zoo this summer as part of the Cultural Olympiad, performed by Northern Ireland Opera and local children, including those from the local Chinese community. It's now come to Beijing, with the NIO core supplemented by musicians from the China Philharmonic Orchestra and local schoolchildren, and presented in the multi-purpose hall of an upmarket shopping centre. It was wonderful, not least the design. The stage was dominated by a huge & ingeniously designed ark, the animals were based on Chinese lanterns (designed in Britain, made in China), and there was some amazingly creative projections of flooded landscapes based on Chinese ink paintings. They managed to squeeze in three shows in one day, and the whole thing was just about perfect.
I saw it in the evening and then went out with everyone (including God) to celebrate. Liz & the girls saw it in the afternoon, which they loved, and then went on to see Spring Symphony performed by the International Festival Chorus & Peking Sinfonietta... partly because the girls' music teachers were also performing. This is an earlier piece, written in 1949, and not as immediately appealing. Still, they're one up on me: they got to see a UK Now event that I didn't.