Saturday, March 31, 2012

Wi-fi Afterlife

Our friends Annette & Renzo and their son Max arrived this morning for a 10 day stay. Nice having people to stay: different conversations, gets us out & about, keeps us in touch with life back in Blighty... Took it easy first day - just an afternoon stroll through Chaoyang Park - which was eerily empty for a Saturday. Took us a while to realise that it's because most people are working or at school this weekend in advance of next week's Qing Ming (Tomb Sweeping) festival.  

Tomb Sweeping Day, sees families remember their ancestors by laying out food at their graves and burning paper replicas of daily necessities such as clothes, money, cars,houses... and increasingly iPhones & iPads, complete with accessories like headphones. Good to stay in touch with the dearly departed, but alas it won't work for my mum - she never could master the mobile phone.

Today is a strange connection to my dad too. I am 51 years and 16 days old, precisely the age he died. So, if I make it to tomorrow, I'll have outlived him. A sobering, wistful thought...

But back to the land of the living: it's also my sister's birthday.Happy birthday Mary.

Friday, March 30, 2012


More Dickens, this time from the British theatre company TNT (The New Theatre, not Trinitrotoluene). Founded in 1980, they are largely unknown in Britain but very popular overseas. A bit like the British Council then. In fact, according to China Central TV, they are  “the most popular theatre company in the world.” There is a grain of truth in that. Despite their tiny casts of unknowns and even tinier pack-them-in-a-suitcase sets, they are probably the hardest working, most travelled theatre company around. I first came across them when we living in Japan where, since 1992, they have given more foreign language performances in more venues than any other non-Japanese company; at the 2004 Fajr Festival in Tehran (the Muslim World's largest Arts Festival) they won first prize for their Hamlet; and in China their tours regular take in 20 cities, some of which I've never heard of. So tonight was Dickens's David Copperfield, done part straight, part musical. It wasn't the greatest production I've ever seen but it was good, honest theatre to an appreciative audience, performed with invention on a shoestring budget. Hats off to them.  

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Seitsemän laulua tundralta

Fit for nothing tonight, so watched another Siberian tundra film, as you do. I mean, how obscure is this: a 1999 B&W film by a female Finnish director about the Nenet people who live between the Kora and Kamyr peninsulas in Arctic Russia... and yet, there was a DVD of it in our local supermarket, in French. Aside from herding reindeer, the Nenets are big on singing and storytelling (they didn't have a writing system until the 1930s) and the film focuses on this part of their culture in an awkward acting-cum-documentary style. They lead a tough life and I must say didn't look as chirpy as the Happy People in Herzog's Taiga film (see last Thursday's post). It must have been a fairly easy choice to shoot in B&W - there's no colour at all in the bleak-but-beautiful lansdscape. Apparently the film was Finland's submission to the 2000 Oscars, in the Best Foreign Film category, but didn't even get nominated.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Finally visited Tianjin. It's only 100kms away - half an hour on the bullet train - but it's taken until now to find the right opportunity. The occasion was a press conference for the soon-to-be-opened Tianjin Grand Theatre. We're contributing Re-rite, the Philharmonia Orchestra's immersive, interactive, educational music installation (difficult to describe...) which will be open to the public for a month, but more on that when it happens. Meanwhile, Tianjin first impressions... another enormous city (14m), little pockets of old Western architecture (the Brits & French set up shop here in 1860) amidst the rampant spread of skyscrapers and highways. Need to come back for a proper look around.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Quote of the week

"Can I go on the computer and listen to The Nolans?" (Naomi Elliott, age 7)

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Depths to which we have Sunk

So, James 'Titanic' Cameron made it to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in any of the world's oceans: 11,000m - deeper than Mt Everest is high. I've always been fascinated by this place, partly simply its utter remoteness, but also for the weird & wonderful creatures that exist down there. Over 4,000 people have climbed Mt Everest but there have only been two manned descents to the Mariana Trench. Would I want to go down myself? Yup.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Unfinished Symphony

Spring has sprung. Domesticated day of gym, pancakes, cycling & dance classes with the girls (not simultaneously - a new craze!) and then took Naomi to a concert. My colleague Sam belongs to the Beijing International Chamber Orchestra, an amateur but quality group of western and Chinese musicians, founded by a formidable Russian woman with peroxide hair, 6-inch heels and a baton that could do some damage. They perform four pairs of concerts a year, usually at the German School's theatre, which was packed.

The concert began with Mozart's Concerto for Harp and Flute (an unusual but pleasing combination), with Sam playing the latter, superby I should add. Apparently it's the only piece of music Mozart ever wrote with a harp in it. An hour and a half of classical music is a test for any child and Naomi fidgeted and squirmed but silently so. She was relieved that Schubert never finshed his "Symphony No.8", so only had two movements.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Don Was

Had some colleagues round for dinner this evening: Don & Carole, Leigh, and Olivia. Nice relaxing evening. Funny to be working with Don Watson. I knew him in the 80s when he wrote for NME. He also came to a few Wigmore Alternatves (so legendary yet so clandestine that googling will draw a blank). I also vaguely remember attending the book launch of The Quick End which combined short stories by him, Michael Bracewell (also ex-BC) and Mark Edward. He was 10 years at the NME, then I lost track of him, although would see his name at the end of some music articles before... he turned up at the BC. Full circle... 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Happy in Siberia

Continuing my fascination will Siberia, I watched (thank you Gary) an interesting DVD documentary by Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog about a year in the life of a village called Bakhtia in the middle of the Siberian nothingness. The only way in and out is by helicopter or, at certain times of the year, boat. It followed the lives of the few inhabitants who still making a living from trapping. Typical Herzog: humans and nature in extremis. The title - Happy People - is telling. Despite the harshness, the freezing winters, the mosquito-infested summers, the dangers of bears, the lack of any creature comforts really... those portrayed in the film (if not the alcoholic ethnic minorities) genuinely seemed happy.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


So, today is the vernal equinox, the traditional first day of the astrological year and the first full day of the sign of Aries - whatever all that means. I'm the outgoing star sign, Pisces. This apparently makes me a dreamer, not that great with money, mysterious (I like that), dependent on intuition rather than rationality, and - as a 'spiritual and emotional person' - I find relief and peace in the arts. So far so not-a-million-miles-from-reality.

We then stray into gaga-land. The Piscean lucky number is 2, but 3, 7, 12, 16, 21, 25, 30, 34, 43 & 52 are also important. My 'Power Colours' are Iilac, purple, violet, mauve and sea-green, which is good to know. I also just read that Pisceans often have enlarged and convoluted veins (honestly!) and that most Pisceans are of short height, have short limbs and pale skin complexion. Say no more.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Writing for Cinema

This evening I interviewed the Scottish novelist Alan Bissett on stage at the Bookworm Festival. He's written four books, about men & booze & stuff, mostly in the Scottish vernacular. Think Irvine Welsh. Pack Men, his latest, is about a group of friends caught up in the Rangers 2008 UEFA Cup Final invasion of Manchester. He's currently working on TV and film adaptations of some of his work. Nice, talkative, driven guy.
Before that, I sat in on a talk about Chinese cinema, featuring Zhu Wen (poet, novelist, screenwriter and director; his Seafood won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Venice Film Festival) and Murong Xuecun (novelist and screenwriter; he won the People's Literature Prize in 2010). They talked, predictably, about the equal pressures of censorship and commercialism, but there were lots of light-hearted moments too, like the analogy of work and love-life: Zhu's flitting between artforms was like dumping one girlfriend for another, while Murong was married to the novel.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Tales from Preposterous Oceans

Listened to Yes on my way to & from work today. 10, 20, 30 years ago, it would have been sacrilege to say such a thing, but with age (and I suppose the gradual re-evaluation of prog), I am happy to say it loud & proud. Of course I'm only talking about a few years in the early 70s, when my introduction to them (from my older, cooler brother) went hand-in-hand with my discovery of Tolkien, when Roger Dean posters adorned my walls and when I could doodle the logo with my eyes shut. I even saw them a couple of times before the decade was out. But the album I've just listened to is a much more recent live effort. I've got to say, 'The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)' with its incomprehensible, preposterous lyrics & tricky time signatures went down an absolute treat as I cycled through the Beijing backstreets.   

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Woke up this morning to discover it had snowed heavily in the night. And Liz woke up to breakfast in bed, courtesy Mother's Day. Cue relaxing morning, nice lunch at our local café and me taking the girls to dance classes for once. But tested a bit later on as Liz wrestled to help Alyssa finish her science project (the aforementioned paper-maché helmet with integrated ear-mufflers). Fiddly or what.

Anyway, lovely to see thick snow everywhere. Here's a tree from our balcony.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Red Rock

Busy domesticated day from 9-3, involving pancakes, haircuts and Alyssa & I trying to make a paper maché helmet with integrated earmufflers for a school project. Then off to Bookworm for a talk on Chinese rock music by Jonathan Campbell, an American who until recently played drums in Chinese bands but has since returned to North America, and Hao Fang, the former editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone in China. Interesting stuff, but it was largely limited to talking about the 80s when rock musicians and young Chinese generally, were full of hopes and dreams. 

Afterwards, Liz and I went to MOMA Cinema. We got there early so had a drink, browsed the library and watched a free foyer screening of - funnily enough - a documentary called Beats of Freedom about the history of rock music in Poland. The film we had actually gone to see was Tokyo Newcomer, by a young Chinese director but shot in Japan with a mostly Japanese cast & crew. It was merely OK. We walked out into freezing rain, but uplifted by a good dose of kultcha... 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sound Art

Susan Philipsz, Turner Prize winner in 2010, has a sound installation at a gallery in town and this afternoon gave a talk at UCCA in 798. Originally a sculptor, she's best known for her works using sound, specifically her own voice, played over speakers in public spaces. She uses texts which have historical connections to the locations; they're often sad, ghostly, heavy with symbolism. Anyway, interesting talk. She brought her dad along (he collaborated with her on this new Beijing sound installation). He's 80 and has started to learn Chinese. What a guy!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fleet Street

Another fun-packed day at work, followed by meeting my old schoolfriend Alex who's in town on business (always nice to see him) and then on to a journalists dinner.The journos in question were from The Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph, London Review of Books, Bookseller etc, over here on a fact-finding visit in advance of the London Book Fair which this year focuses on China. So we took them to Shanghai, Nanjing and now they're in Beijing - meeting writers, publishers, editors, critics and taking part in the Bookworm Festival. As maybe I mentioned before, the British Council runs the cultural programme at each LBF (last year it was Russia, before that South Africa, next year it's Turkey) so we're working with the Chinese Government on bringing over 25 writers. I was expecting tough questions about the how this was done and who's coming, but they didn't materialise, probably because the final list is actually a really good, balanced selection and we've showed the journos a good time without resorting to getting them drunk.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Birthday Boy

So, I awake aged 51, with a stack of presents waiting for me at breakfast. A beautiful book on Chinese classical painting which weighs a ton, Lao She's Rickshaw Boy, a Coco Chanel DVD, some chocolate and two great cards from the girls (Alyssa's was 51 tiny little drawings of things I like, and Naomi sewed hers) ... But the cherry on the top was Liz getting grandad's three paintings framed, so I can see about getting them up on the wall this weekend. And we managed to have lunch together. And Liz cooked my favourite dinner, massaman curry, together with a fabulous plum & bakewell tart. Am I spoiled or what? 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bob's Your Uncle

Got home early(ish) and in a good mood for once, so time & temperament for a card trick. I don't know many. In fact I only know one. But it's quite a good one. If only I could remember exactly how it goes. On the third attempt I nailed it, and the girls loved it. "How did you do that!?" Bit of maths, bit of luck. The luck bit - if it goes right - is the winning element. I had an Uncle Bob who could do card and magic tricks. Don't remember who he was married to, where he lived, what his job was... other than the fact that he could produce a sixpence out of your ear.   

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Giselle and Cinematix

Brazilian super model meets Asterix cohort?  Nope, a 1hr version of the famous ballet plus another 1hr medley of dance styles normally seen in the movies, featuring over 200 children, two of them ours. So after several months' training and rehearsals with the painfully named DanZ Centre, it all came together in one big show at a 500-seater theatre out in Shunyi. 

Alyssa danced Giselle, while Naomi did Pirates of the Caribbean in a sort of jazz style. They both did really well.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them

Tonight Liz and I watched The Artist. It's enjoyable of course, brilliantly done, shot, acted... but a also bit disappointing. For all the hype and awards it's essentially a B&W, non-talking cross between Singin' in the Rain and A Star is Born. What is interesting, however, is that it's French. France has a wonderful film heritage and continues to produce great films, but they're almost always in French (not unreasonably) and usually set in France. So what better way to buck the trend than to make a film which has nothing to do with France and French: a love letter to Hollywood with no words?!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Bierkellar and Bookworm

A much-needed drink at the Paulaner Brauhaus near the office with colleagues, combined with a liquid de-brief with Robin & Simon from the Royal Opera House re their training programme which seems to have gone well. Amazed at how constantly busy (and expensive) this German pub is. And it's not just Friday nights. Then off to the opening party of the Bookworm Festival which amazingly is upon us again; it seems months rather than a year ago. So lots of authors coming to Beijing (and Chengdu and Suzhou where there are two other Bookworm branches). Looking forward to catching some of the talks. Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day

A day to think about women... (So what's new?!, ho ho) Anyway, International Women's Day has been observed in some countries - particularly those with socialist governments - for around 100 years. In China it's supposed to be an official holiday with women in given a half-day off, but it's less common now. And anyway, they'd still be working at home. And that's the issue: women working at home is still not seen in the same way as men (or women) working in the office. Apparently there's an International Men's Day on 19 November, inaugurated in 1999 in Trinidad & Tobago of all places, and now observed by some 60 countries.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Had a meeting at the National Library of China this afternoon. Guess what, it's big. Biggest in Asia, and one of the biggest in the world. 26 million volumes of which 1,640,000 are traditional thread-bound Chinese books, 270,000 ancient documents, over 35,000 inscriptions on oracle bones and tortoise shells etc etc. This photo just shows the new wing but there are two other massive buildings. It's in the west of the city, near the zoo. Anyway, we were there to discuss a Shakespeare exhibition which will hopefully tie in with the Library's 100th anniversary.

I love libraries, but actually I prefer small public ones. This is the one in Chichester which, in my youth, I spent a fair bit of time in. I still visit it with the children when we go back. It's an odd building: 1960s design, circular which has a feintly disorienting effect when you're browsing the shelves. When we visit Liz's mum, we visit Liskeard Library every other day. It's small but great. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


I've been attempting a new routine of getting home at 7pm in time for dinner and bedtime stories, and then carrying on with work. But tonight I was just too tired so slumped on the sofa to watch a film, My Week with Marilyn. I had a mild obsession (if obsessions can be mild) with MM in the 80s. Watched all the films, bought lots of books, even several records. So I thought I knew all there was to know about her life, but I never clocked this little episode (and let's face it, it was pretty insignficant) during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl in England in 1956. 

So, a young aristocrat, Colin Clark, joins Laurence Olivier's crew and is asigned the task of looking after MM, lucky chap; but of course has to deal with her infamous lateness and general neuroses. But they get close for a few days and that's it. Great cast: Michelle Williams (a wonderful Marilyn), Kenneth Brannagh, Judy Dench, Emma Watson... but I found Eddie Redmayne (as Clark) a bit wooden. So a slight film, but just what I wanted this evening. 

Monday, March 5, 2012


You can't buy imported western magazines in China. We could in Japan, we could in Thailand (well Bangkok), but not here. So I'm reliant on subscriptions and the diplomatic bag which bring me, once a month if I'm lucky, Sight & Sound, The Wire and Record Collector.
There are a few art magazines like LEAP in Chinese & English, and there are (separate) Chinese and English editions of Time Out. And of course you can buy completely Chinese versions of most of the fashion glossies like Vogue, Elle, Harper's Bazaar etc - if you can read Mandarin... There's talk of Q Magazine starting up here, but so far it's just talk. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Prince who Fell to Earth

Alyssa and I read The Little Prince. It's one of those books that are famous for being famous (it's the most read and translated novel - actually novella - in the French language) but I'd never actually read. It was written by a French aristocratic aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, in 1942 in New York while temporarily exiled from Vichy France, and is about a little prince who hails from an asteroid the size of a house. He comes down to Earth, landing in a desert and meets a fox and a few people, including the narrator who'd just crashed his plane (as the author had done in reality ten years earlier). It's highly allegorical and I'm not sure I got it all. Alyssa thought it "strange", which is a pretty fair description. I expect someone's picked this up before, but it reminded me of Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Can't keep away

Took Liz and the girls to see the exhibition. Not sure what A&N made of it really, but they liked running around, making the guards nervous. Said goodbyes to Tony and Marianne, did an impromptu interview with a Chinese journalist who insisted on asking me questions in French, and cleared off before the team started filming the works for a virtual exhibition which will go on line later this month.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Tony Cragg: Sculptures and Drawings

After a frenetic few days of installation and hours of tweaking positions (a 'ballet', as Tony likes to put it), the exhibition Tony Cragg: Sculptures and Drawings opened at CAFA Museum. It looks fabulous - the cavernous white space & curved lines of the galleries providing the perfect context for Tony's large, colourful and bewildering forms. Good, well-attended press conference, long but warm-hearted opening ceremony and similarly long artist's talk which ended up being a kind of history of 20th century art. Really nice friendly, informal atmosphere thoughout the day...

...which carried through to the dinner at a charming Chinese restaurant near 798. There were 30 of us: curators, technicians and a few artists, including Liu Xiaodong (see 8 Jan 2011 post) who was very funny, very charming and very nice - and still reminds me of Dustin Hoffman. Phoned Patrick on the mobile and passed him around to Tony and co in between courses - nice to have him join us virtually. It was P who came up with the idea in the first place. Afterwards a few of us, including Xiaodong, went on to the Mesh bar in Sanlitun where we met up with the French curator Jerome Sans (who is the spitting image of David Lynch), Greg Hilty of Lisson Gallery and others. Great ending to a great day.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A month to go

Today, amongst other things, we had a teaser press conference for 50 press & TV people to announce the UK Now festival which will be upon us in exactly one month. The Ambassador and Joanna gave some introductory speeches and then I talked about just the first two months of events, partly so as not to reveal everything all at once, and partly because there's still so much to confirm. Anyway, it went well and there were no awkward questions about China's upcoming big splash at London Book Fair, or Ai Wei Wei designing this year's Serpentine Pavilion or how can we afford all this given public sector cuts etc, for which we had perfectly good answers. The press are quite tame here.

So, here's what's happening in the first couple of months in several cities across China: Philharmonia Orchestra, Olympic Posters exhibition, Menuhin Violin Competition, English National Ballet, Akram Khan Dance Company and Candoco Dance Company; four separate  photographic exhibitions (Rankin, Rockarchive, Clive Barda & Andy Gotts), The Scottish Ensemble and Academy of St Martin's-in-the-Fields; 1927's The Animals Took to the Streets (from Edinburgh Festival) and Propeller's Henry V and A Winter's Tale; films, concerts & talks at Beijing International Film Festival; Re-rite: Be the Orchestra! interactive installation; the British Museum and V&A's big ceramics exhibition at the National Museum of China; three or four things at Macau Arts Festival etc. Check out which is a bit rough & ready still so bear with us...

This Monkees gone to Heaven

So, farewell Davy Jones, on St David's Day of all days: singer, actor, jockey, would-be heartthrob and teenage 'grandson' to Coro's Ena Sharples. I grew up on The Monkees TV series and still have an LP. In fact, I'm going to play it now. The first four singles - Last Train to Clarksville, (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone, I'm a Believer and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You - are still pretty thrilling.