Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Year

So, every four years we get an extra day added to the most miserable month of the year. Can't remember what I was doing in 2008 other than sweating it out in Bangkok and fending off proposals from Thai women. But I do distinctly remember 2004, and it was kind of related. We went to a Japanese wedding.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


The clichéd ex-pat diplomatic event: a classical music recital at the Ambassador's residence. And it was a delight - partly because I didn't have to organize it, but principally because it was just so good. The musicians - Roman Simovic (violin), Gareth Davies (flute) and John Alley (Piano) - were from the London Symphony Orchestra, tonight's sponsors' soirée preceding two nights at the NCPA. So we got a bit of Fauré and Richard Rodney Bennett, but the highlight was Simovic playing Paganini: possibly the fastest and (if you'll excuse the pun) fiddliest piece of violin music I've ever heard performed. So a nice evening, not a Ferrero Rocher in sight, and Liz and I got a rare dinner out afterwards.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Cragg & Bausch

Phew! Both Tony Cragg and his exhibition now in Beijing. Popped into the museum this morning to see the start of the installation, heavy-lifting gear everywhere, and so far so good. John McCormack, the chief technician, and his team have barred Tony from being there until they get it sorted, which he accepts with good grace. Funnily enough, his daughter lives in Beijing: she's working for the German architectural practice GMP, they who designed the new-look National Museum and myriad other projects. And of course Tony himself has been based in Wuppertal for over 30 years. We talked about Pina Bausch, who put Wuppertal on the map so-to-speak. They were friends, although strangely it wasn't until immediately after her death that 'they worked together': Wim Wenders' 3D film was partly shot in Tony's sculpture park.  I sometimes wonder if we're presenting a British or a German artist...  

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Perfect Moment

I had a Perfect Moment at about 6:30pm today, which I'll relate in a minute.

It was reading Spalding Grey's Swimming to Cambodia some 25 years ago that alerted me to PMs and I've been in receiving mode ever since. If I remember rightly, Grey's was when he was in Thailand swimming in the tropical, turquoise sea, watching the sun go down over the horizon. Now you could argue that it would be difficult not to have a PM in such circumstances, but PMs are funny things. As someone else put it, "they exist on some ill-defined emotional plane, outside of logic or some conventional notion of happiness". In other words, all the right ingredients have to come together to form the blissful moment.

So, what was my PM?  Well, I was getting dinner ready (a rare occurrence it must be said), the children were running around being really nice to each other, Liz and I were talking about our respective mums, and Ashra's Blackouts was playing at just the right volume... and somehow all these things came together and I felt content and at peace. Aaaaaah...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Mahjong or ma jiang

We had a mahjong evening tonight. Liz got a set for Christmas and has been to a couple of classes recently. So we invited over our Aussie friends, Colin & Vanessa, and a teacher, and off we went. There's a lot of mysterious ritual around it and the 70-odd tiles are a bit bewildering at first, but actually it's quite like rummy. Oh, and it's called ma jiang here. Whatever, it was fun, despite not winning. We'll be setting up Bridge clubs next.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Maggie Streep

Another fun-packed 12-hour day in the office, so nice to slump on the sofa with Liz at the end of the day to watch Meryl Streep slip into Margaret Thatcher's psyche in Iron Lady. It is a brilliant, eerie performance: the voice, the mannerisms, the put-downs, the hair, and the descent into senility, she's got it all off-pat. Is it revisionist? I don't think so. It certainly didn't make me think more warmly of her, more the opposite really. The cabinet room scene which sealed her fate was astonishing. Did she really say all that stuff?!  Oddly enough, the film had its world premiere (albeit a semi-private one) here in Beijing last November, with Streep in attendance. Not sure what the Chinese make of Maggie. I guess it's all a very long time ago now.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Q&A (not)

This morning I gave a speech at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, aka NCPA, aka The Egg. It was for the launch of a big training programme between the venue and the Royal Opera House in London, aimed at stage managers, sound engineers and lighting technicians, and from across China, not just NCPA staff. Half of it will be in Beijing, half in London. We've given some money, and it will also be part of a wider programme we're running on tech skills training in other venues across China. Speeches over, the MC asked if there were any questions, and after a micro-second's pause with no immediate response, wrapped it up. Which was OK, I was in a hurry too.    

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Customs and catalogues

Typically crazy day, good stuff, stressful stuff. Finally managed to get the permission papers signed by the Ministry of Culture to allow us to start the process of extricating the Tony Cragg exhibition from customs in Tianjin, but it leaves us just over a week to do that and install it at the museum. Now which container is it in...?  Similarly, the catalogue's looking great but will it be printed in time!?

Monday, February 20, 2012


I read today that the President of Germany, Christian Wulff, has resigned. I didn't know they had a President. Perhaps Britain has one lurking somewhere?  No, that would be the Queen.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fave Films: 1960s

So, the first decade of films that I might conceivably have seen when they were released: kids stuff like The Incredible Journey, The Love Bug, Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, 101 Dalmatians, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, The Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, most of these probably at Chichester's one and only cinema, the Granada (which sadly closed in 1980 to become a, wait for it, McDonalds). I remember going to crappy double bills on Saturday mornings; for some reason I distinctly remember seeing The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. And then there were those Ray Harryhausen stop-motion minor epics like The Lost World, One Million Years BC, Jason and the Argonauts, and a few war movies like the classic The Great Escape - all of which would have been on TV.

But let's get on to the decent stuff, experienced of course much later on...

Of course there was Hollywood. Jack Lemmon in The Apartment and The Odd Couple, Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Hustler,  Lawrence of Arabia, Cape Fear, Lolita, The Manchurian Candidate, Mutiny on the Bounty, Cleopatra, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Dr Strangelove, In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie & Clyde, Bullitt, Midnight Cowboy, Point Blank, The Producers... a couple of great Musicals (West Side Story and My Fair Lady); some decent Westerns (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars [OK, Italian], The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid); a few good War films (Where Eagles Dare, The Longest Day, The Dirty Dozen);... some classic sci-fis (The Man with X-Ray Eyes, Planet of the Apes and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey); a handful of horrors (Psycho, The Birds, Night of the Living Dead, and if I had to choose one Roger Corman I suppose it would have to be The Pit and the Pendulum); a couple of early Woody Allens (What's New Pussycat and Take the Money and Run).... Oh, and not forgetting Russ Mayer's pneumatic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!... though that was hardly Hollywood.

And then there was the advent of James Bond: Dr No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Always been partial to Bond, even now.

Which brings us on to Brit films. I've read elsewhere that the British film industry was in a parlous state in the 60s. Possibly, but you can't argue with the quality of these 20 or so titles: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top, Powell's Peeping Tom, Dirk Bogarde in Victim and The Servant, A Kind of Loving, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, This Sporting Life, Tom Jones, Darling, Billy Liar, A Hard Day's Night (but not Help! or Magical Mystery Tour), The Knack... And How To Get It, Blow UpOliver!, Oh! What a Lovely War, If, Women in Love, Alfie, The Ipcress File, The Collector, Kes, The Italian Job... Although of course you could argue about whether some of them were actually, totally British. And actually The Italian Job is a silly jingoistic affair but it was my favourite film as a child. 

Across the Channel, Goddard continued to blaze away with My Life to Live, Woman is a Woman,  Alphaville etc; Truffaut with Shoot the Piano Player, Jules et Jim and Fahrenheit 451. And there was Resnais's very weird Last Year at Marienbad which I remember seeing at the Everyman in Hampstead, much later of course, and thinking 'What on earth...?'  Easier to understand and pleasing to the eye was Catherine Deneuve in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort... but she was refreshingly stranger in Polanski's Repulsion and Bunuel's Belle de Jour. And finally, if we're talking sexy/weird, then pride of place must go to Jane Fonda's arousingly naieve heroine in the fabulously naff Barbarella, directed by Frenchman Roger Vadim - husband to not only Fonda (at the time) but also Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot,  Marie-Christine Barrault and (to counter accusations of favouring only beautiful French actresses), Danish actress Annette Stroyberg. Some guys etc... Oh, and Tati did Playtime.

A handful of great films from Japan: The End of Summer (Ozu), Woman of the Dunes, Tokyo Olympiad, Elegant Beast and Tokyo Drifter. Strangely I can think of only two decent German films from the 60s: Werner Herzog's Signs of Life and Fassbender's Love is Colder than Death, debut films for each. But there are plenty more 'others': Bunuel's Viridiana, Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour, Fellini's Eight and a Half and Satyricon, Mia Farrow in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers, Bergman's Persona; I Am Curious Yellow and I Am Curious Blue. And if we're veering off into Art films then we have to mention Chris Marker's La Jetee, Warhol's Factory films (inc Chelsea Girls, Flesh and Vinyl), Stan Brakhage Dog Star Man, Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising...

But slimming it down to a Top 15:

- The Great Escape (Sturges)
- 2001 A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
- The Graduate (Nichols)
- Billy Liar (Schlesinger)
- The End of Summer (Ozu)
- Belle de Jour (Bunuel)
- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz)
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Leone)
- Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo)
- Lawrence of Arabia (Lean)
- From Russia with Love (Young)
- The Producers (Brookes)
- The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Richardson)
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Hill)
- The Italian Job (Collinson) - but only for Caine and the cars, you understand

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Tuna Mousse

Continuing yesterday's Japanese theme, we visited our friends Takeru, Mikiko and their daughter Yukiko (Alyssa's school-friend), and also there were Kazuko and her daughter Riho (Naomi's school-friend). It's funny how we gravitate to Japanese families. There's something about Japanese sensibilities and politeness, the island nation connection, and of course our six years in Tokyo that has formed a strong bond. And Mikiko makes a seriously good tuna mousse.    

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Therapeutic World of Japanese Anime

A less productive half-day with a fair amount of loose ends, mostly revolving aound the media campaign for some reason, like: who does what, how we work wth Ogilvy, which is more important - national or local etc etc. But some good 'surgeries' in the afternoon dealing with indviduals' or small groups' specific issues. 

Come 5pm I jumped into a taxi and on the spur of the moment decided not to go back to the office, but home for movie night. We watched The Secret World of Arrietty, the latest in the long line of animated films from Japan's Studio Ghibli. It's based on Mary Norton's The Borrowers which I read - or had read to me - as a child. Typically brilliant Studio Ghibli creation, with its strong girl as lead character (like Spirited Away's Chihiro), wonderful animation and just about the right level of sentiment. This one's not directed by Miyazaki, although he co-wrote the screenplay.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bracing ourselves...

First of two days thrashing out UK Now festival roles & responsibilities, content & comms, and a thousand and one practicalities that are now real and imminent. We have chosen a hotel in the south-east of the city, built around a small temple. In fact, we're in what was once the main hall. A stone Buddha smiles benevolently at us as we chew the cud, an icey wind blowing outside. There are 30 of us, Arts and PR colleagues (mainly female, just a handful of blokes), from our five offices in China, all touchingly, reassuringly passionate about the project.

Given that only a smidgen of China's 1.3 billion people will physically experience the 100+ events we've got lined up, the digital aspect is key. It never ceases to amaze me how much time websites take to get right. We've been working on it for six months and there are still so many issues to sort out - to say nothing of the mobile phone app, social network sites, virtual exhibition etc. Anyway, a good, productive, practical day's work.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Advice for an Aussie

A day of the usual highs and lows: an exhibition confirmed, a sponsor drops out, a launch venue identified, a legal issue pops up. It ends in a German bar across the road with Nick Marchand, our man in Sydney, who's planning an arts festival in Oz for later this year so is tapping us for advice. Nice guy is Nick, and turns out he went to school in Chichester. Small world.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bitter Sweet Victory

So, Zambia won the Africa Cup of Nations, beating Ivory Coast 8-7 on penalties after two hours of goalless action. The match was played in Libreville in Gabon, ironically a few hundred metres from the spot where most of the Zambian team died in a plane crash in 1993. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Grammys

So, a good night for the Brits - or rather one Brit - at the Grammys, with Adele scooping six (tying Beyonce's record for most wins by a female artist in one night). But a bad night for Whitney Houston obviously. Drugs & alcohol: the all too common flipside of fame.

They certainly pack the categories in: 30 of them, each with more than one Award. So let's hear it for Traditional Pop (Tony Bennett), Best Historical Album (Wings' Band on the Run), Best Regional Mexican or Tajano Album, Best Comedy Album, Best Contemporary Christian Music Song, Best Album Notes, Best Surround Sound Album, and Best Small Ensemble Performance.  

Gorgeous poster by Frank Gehry - though not sure what his twisted buildings have to do with music? 

Friday, February 10, 2012

A worry

Bonkers week at work. Prep for the festival now in overdrive. Am thinking of mad Jack in The Shining: All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy All work and no play makes David a dull boy. Heeeeeere's... 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

200 Today

Google Dickens
Had he lived as long as some of his books, Charles Dickens would have been 200 today. We've been running lots of events in China over the last few months, including a writing & photography competition called Our Times, a series of salons in ten cities, some film screenings and earlier today took part in a global 'read-a-thon' with 24 countries reading an extract from a different Dickens text, one every hour from Albania to Russia. More on that here.
And tonight I MC'd a birthday party at the Ambassador's Residence, attended by Beijing's literati. When the buffet was served, I resisted the temptation of saying 'And you can ask for more'.

It's also my brother-in-law Nick's birthday, and he writes books too - crime novels, nine to date. It's not really my genre, but they're pretty good. See

Monday, February 6, 2012


Frantic today, so just time to post this snap of a restaurant I passed this morning. Wonderful.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Art of Science

Forgot to say, went to the Science Museum yesterday with friends. It's near the Olympic Stadium and is suitably olympic in size. Science museums the world over seem to be geared specifically for children (as opposed to art museums which are for adults). It was choc-a-bloc full of them, rushing from one button-pushing experience to another. About half of these worked which is about average I think. Still, there was some good 'interactive' stuff, including a moon walk simulator which our kids loved. But I'm not sure how much I really learnt. Maybe it's not about learning these days, maybe it's just / all about the 'experience'. Actually, the best gallery for me was the (somewhat pompously titled) Glory of China permanent exhibition: where one could learn all about - or experience - China's great inventions over its 5,000 year history: silk farming, porcelain, paper, gunpowder, kites, movable type, compass, seismographs, water clocks, the great ships of the 13th century, tea, etc. Impressive.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


This evening I was invited by the Jamaican Ambassador, the very cool Courteney Rattray, to a night of reggae music as part of both Bob Marley birthday celebrations (he would have been 67 this coming Monday) and the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence. It was at the small but perfectly formed (if overly smokey... the normal kind) Yugong Yishan club, near the Forbidden City.

I brought my mate Martin along, who knows a thing or two about Jamaican music. Turns out that China played a key role in the history of ska and reggae through Leslie Kong (aka 'The Chinaman') who became the island's leading producer in the 60s. He recorded Bob Marley's first single, One Cup of Coffee, in 1962, Jimmy Cliff's first hit, Miss Jamaica, and loads of others incuding Desmond Dekker. He was also one of the original shareholders in Chris Blackwell's Island Records.

Anyway, it was a top night and we had the pleasure of meeting not only the Director of Kingston's Bob Marley Museum and various Toasters, but also the Ambassadors of Surinam and Cape Verde Islands. That's not something you do everyday.

Friday, February 3, 2012

World Wrap Up Warm

Coldest day of the winter so far: -14C it said on my iPhone this morning, and I believe it. We have a little ritual over breakfast, looking up the temperatures in half a dozen places: Beijing, London, Bangkok, Tokyo, Yakutsk and the North Pole. Yakutsk is unbelievable: it's only 1,500 miles north of Beijing but it's regularly -40C or -50C. But Beijing is cold enough. Numbed face cycling into work; it's the wind that does it. Spare a thought, though, for these poor fish swimming around in the only bit of the pond which hasn't frozen over. And Europe, which is experiencing the coldest temperatures and heaviest snow in decades.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Groundhog Day

This week has been very very samey. Twelve hours at the desk each day, no external meetings (though lots if internal ones), trying to progress everything for the upcoming festival, returning home knackered & goggle-eyed... and then each morning starting again seemingly from scratch. 

Funnily enough, today is Groundhog Day - if not in China then certainly in North America. I never heard of it until seeing the film, with Bill Murray playing his usual hapless lead. But what exactly is Groundhog Day and what's it got to do with a large rodent?

According to folklore, if it's cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early. If it's sunny, the groundhog will supposedly be scared by its shadow and go back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks. I love stupid stuff like this. It's a big event in Punxsutawney apparently, where (good old Wikipedia tells us) "The Pennsylvania German dialect is the only language spoken at the event, and those who speak English pay a penalty, usually in the form of a nickel, dime or quarter, per word spoken, put into a bowl in the center of the table". On the news tonight, they showed the top-hatted town elders holding up a non-plussed looking groundhog and proclaiming in semi-serious tones to an audience of several thousand that "There will be six more weeks of winter". The bowl must have been chinking though, because I understood every word of that. Wonderful.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sussex 50

Sussex University, my alma mater, is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. The Chairman of the British Council, Vernon Ellis, took part in a celebratory talk the other day, which prompts a post.

Sussex was one of those early '60s 'plate-glass' (as opposed to red brick) universities along with UEA, Essex, Kent, Warwick etc, although in truth Sussex was a lot more brick than glass. It had a fair bit of student radicalism in the late 60s, a few famous arts alumni (writers Andrew Morton & Ian McEwan, tennis star Virginia Wade, musicians Tony Banks of Genesis, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, and - gawd-save-us - Billy Idol), won University Challenge a couple of times, and is ranked 11th in UK. An average university then.

I was there from 1979-83. It was an intensely formative experience for me. Not academically (I studied Geography simply because it was my favourite subject at school, a mistake really, I should have studied History)... but in all sorts of other ways. I met a like-minded friend, Andrew Cox, on the first day and together we formed a 'group', started a fanzine and a cassette label and I also hosted a campus radio show, all in the first ten weeks. It was a great time for music; Brighton was (and still is) a good place to be; I enjoyed my year abroad (again, not academically, but in myriad other ways); I made life-long friends in Andrew, Julie and Peter; and somehow got a degree.

Neither of these two hairy dudes is me, though I did have 'big' hair then. You can see the library in the background, on the left would have been the Student Union building (where I saw a few bands) and the Gardener Arts Centre, and to the right would have been the pond, into which a few of us jumped fully-clothed after a Hawkwind concert. Ah, student japes...