Saturday, June 30, 2012


From Provence to North Devon in 8 hours via easyJet and Rentacar. It's all quite normal in the 21st Century, but it still amazes me. A hundred years ago that would have taken... a week? 
As we landed in Gatwick, so the temperature plummeted. Much has been said about the truly awful British weather this summer and true to form it rained most of the way down the M4 & M5. I gather it's due to the jet stream being in the wrong place.
Arrived in Torrington (home of Dartington Crystal - the only working glass factory left in the UK) in time to watch Andy Murray edge David Ferrer in the rain-interrupted Wimbledon quarter-finals, while we caught up on each others' lives. Nice to see everyone.

Friday, June 29, 2012


Today we visited the Camargue, the large flat delta where the Rhone meets the Med. It's famous for its flamingos and wild horses, of which we saw plenty. It has that rather desolate air similar to the Suffolk coast: flat, windswept and unpopulated. We walked round a nature reserve and then on to the small town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which reminded me of Selsey or Littlehampton, complete with ice-cream parlours and amusement arcades, though no pier or saucy postcards. I found  the place, and the Camargue in general, rather melancholic...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sur le Pont

First Aix, then Arles, so next must be Avignon. And this time without the girls who stayed home with Patrick & Tricia & Catherine. For just over 100 years (14th Century) Avignon, not Rome, was home to the Popes. The Palais des Popes still dominates the city, the biggest Gothic palace in Europe apparently, though it looks more like a classic castle. Wandered around countless rooms and halls before heading for the Pont d'Avignon. Yup, it only goes halfway across. And no, there wasn't anybody dancing on it.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Arles Drink to That

A trip to Arles, famous for its Roman amphitheatre (which was later filled with houses and became a sort of mini-town before reverting to bullfights in the 19th century), Van Gogh and his sunflowers (we passed the Yellow House where he lived briefly with Gauguin in 1889) and the annual Rencontres International Photography Festival (due to start next week and with which I had a dalliance in April).
While the girls went to a playground, Patrick and I wondered the streets and popped our noses into the beautiful church and cloisters of St Trophime. We then drove to Les Baux-de-Provence, a picture skew village huddled around the remains of a ruined castle, both clinging to a rocky outcrop. Bit touristy, bit Mont St-Michel, but I'm fine with tacky souvenir shops as long as there's steep cobbled lanes, cafes and chapels. 
My French is coming back to me. Nice to be able to string sentences together without having to think too hard.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Gorgeously hot, sunny day lounging in and around our Jean de Florette gite. It was once a farmhouse and has been 'in the family' for several generations. The couple who own it live in Marseille and this is the first time they've rented it out so we're guinea pigs. It's quite big, comfortably basic, just right for three or four families, which is us. The main investment is a very welcome, if small, swimming pool, but there's also a table tennis table, a dilapidated tennis court, cherry and fig trees, a large wheat field out the back, boules, baby-foot, swing-ball... Perfect. OK, spoiled a bit by England losing to Italy on penalties in the Euros but actually who cares? Certainly not Andrew who's a rugby man - and supports Wales not England.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Marriage Provencal

It is exactly 30 years ago - to the week I think - that I was last in Aix. Then it was the tail-end of my 'academic' (cough) year abroad when, tired of Strasbourg, I hitched south to stay with Julie and meet new friends Peter, Paul, Jane and Sandra. Sandra still lives nearby but sod's law she was on holiday elsewhere this week...
This time we're here for the wedding of my nephew Ben to French lass Margot. They met several years ago when he was on his year abroad and have ping-ponged between England, France and more recently Ethiopia (Ben's first posting with the Foreign Office) ever since. Amazingly, this is the first time I'd met her. She was of course fairly easy to spot.
The wedding was beautiful. As you do in France, registration took place in the Hotel de Ville before walking through town in all our finery to the Church of St Paul de Malte for a genuinely lovely, fairly short service. We all then adjourned to cafes before reconvening at Margot's parents' Bauhaus-like home just north of the city. I guess there were about 100 guests, maybe more, and including Hong Kong tycoon David Tang whom I'd also not met before but is, bizarrely, a distant relative (see post). The rest of us were mere mortals.
So, good on you Ben & Margot: you make a fine couple!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Not easyJet

Off to Aix-en-Provence - amazingly our first visit to France in some 15 years.
Weird: a complete lack of jet lag, but an exhausting time with EasyJet to make up for it. Confusion over our boarding passes and our suitcase disappeared down the conveyer belt with no tag so we had to formally identify it on the tarmac by the plane where it had been sitting in the rain. On collecting it at the other end, one wheel & a handle had been wrenched off. Then long queues for our hire car - made slightly surreal by the fact that the bloke in front of me was someone I knew from the British Embassy in Bangkok. We then got hopelessly lost trying to find a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.

Anyway, here we are in Provence. The sun is shining, the farmhouse is perfect and Patrick, Tricia & Catherine and Andrew & Sally have prepared lunch for us. I think we're going to like it here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Best Exotic Bill Nighy

Off on our hols!  Hard to leave the festival in others' hands but I'm not so expendable and it will be fine. So a long flight to London catching up on films: J Edgar, MI4 and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - a biopic, a Hollywood thriller and a typical Brit character-romcom, each with their merits. Funny how Bill Nighy has become so popular and assured so - well, relatively - late in life. Where had he been hiding?  

Arrived Heathrow and transferred to Gatwick where we've booked into a cheap hotel for the night.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Alice in Sanlitun

Frantic last day at work, interviewing for a new arts manager, finishing up tons of stuff, handing over to Leigh... and all without the luxury of an extended evening. For tonight was also Alyssa & Naomi's end-of-term school show, Alice in Wonderland. Alyssa was a card (an ace of diamonds to be precise) and Naomi a flower - both Oscar nominees. Of course as a proud parent I'd say it was fabulous but, really, it was a genuinely good production with great songs, costumes, dance routines, the works. 
It's funny seeing a cast of multinational 6-10 year-olds performing a 19th Century English children's story in Beijing. It was first translated into Chinese in 1922, but would have been read by very few people then. Interestingly, it was Disney's first film: not the famous 1951 version, but a short one-reeler made in 1923. 
Anyway, I pity the teachers who had to put it all together. And I pitied Liz and me as we stayed up to 2am, packing. Boy am I looking forward to this holiday

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

White Elephants?

A day of running around from one thing to another, including a meeting with Beijing Olympic Development Agency out by the Birds Nest. We've been working with them on making a 30-minute film for The Big Dance which will be screened in Trafalgar Square on 14 July alongside a film from Rio and 2,000 real dancers. Needless to say, the Chinese film will be super-polished but we hope will remain true to the spirit of The Big Dance choreography devised by Wayne Macgregor. 
Took a while getting a taxi back. They're weird areas, Olympic Stadiums. Sort of like airports: with massive car parks, slip-roads & other roads which don't seem to go anywhere, the inevitable conference centre, tracts of land still awaiting development... and not much in the way of life, except for sporting occasions, which isn't often. I wonder how London's Olympic Park will fare?

Monday, June 18, 2012

44 Late Night Stone Lions Loom

Three days to go before our hols so a succession of very late nights looms. That's difficult to say. "Late nights looms, late nights looms, late nights looms, nate lights..."  
For non-native speakers, Chinese is one long tongue-twister because of the tones. For example, the handy phrase "四十四隻死石獅子" (meaning 44 dead stone lions) comes out as "Sì shí sì zhī sĭ shí shī zì". 

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Great barbeque at school this afternoon. The children played while the adults ate meat and drank beer. Perfect. I gave my new mate, Jon, a copy of the Ivor Cutler-compiled CD "Cute (H)ey?"  We're both fans but actually this belongs to Liz, as she never forgets to tell me. In return Jon gave me an interesting-looking book about Marilyn Monroe's dog. So that's two things I've learned this year about MM: her inconsequential week with a bloke called Colin Clark in London, and the fact that she had a dog.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Sort of Revenge

Hottest day of the year so far. 37 degrees and lovely blue sky. A day of domesticity, although ending with a work dinner, which was barely work, talking about a fashion-film exhibition we're planning. 
Later, much later, too late to actually watch it... England beat Sweden 3:2 in the Euros, thus gaining revenge on the Eurovision Song Contest defeat last month when they lost 372-12. 

Friday, June 15, 2012


Nice, relaxing evening with neighbours Yuri and June, who are about to leave China for Singapore, and new friends Per and Dongdong. The latter are Norwegian and Chinese but talk to each other in Japanese (they met as language students in Tokyo). And of course they speak perfect English. If only Liz or I were non-British... "Does Cornish count?", asks Liz.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


This evening I helped Alyssa make a solar system. So we've got a big, soft, yellow ball in the middle with nine smaller balls in orbit around it, fixed spoke-like by lengths of coat-hangers. It looks like a cross between an Alexander Calder mobile and a Philip Treacy hat gone wrong, perched precariously on top of a shadeless table lamp. It would have been great to have the bulb inside the sun but too much of a fire hazard.
Alyssa tells me that Pluto isn't a proper planet. It's a dwarf planet. It must be really disappointed. Imagine, floating around in space for billions of years and then someone invites you to join their club, which is really exclusive - just 8 members. You get a badge and subscription to the Solar System News and discounts on stuff and then, a micro-second later, you receive a letter saying it was all a mistake and having checked references you're not a planet after all so you can't join. 

Of course the best thing about Pluto is its name, proposed by an 11-year-old schoolgirl, Venetia Burney, from Oxford in 1930 (the year it was 'discovered'). Sadly it was not inspired by Disney's dog, created the same year, but the Roman God of the Underworld who was able to make himself invisible (which the planet - sorry, dwarf planet - managed to do very successfully up until then). So anyway, Venetia heard about this bogus new planet, suggested the name to her librarian grandfather, who passed it on to an astronomer friend, who telegraphed it to the Lowell Observatory in America, who said yes. 
Venetia lived to the rope old age of 90. Three years before she died, her beloved Pluto got de-planetized. Her view? "At my age, I've been largely indifferent to [the debate]; though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet". Me too. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Record Collection

Jon (aka Tony) Baines came round this evening for the long-planned but endlessly rescheduled Viewing Of The Record Collection. I'm guessing I have around 2,000 LPs and 2,000 CDs which has a certain 'presence' - certainly compared with the same number sitting invisibly on someone's hard-drive. To be honest, I've not added much in the last five or six years, and even sold some in Japan. But it follows us wherever we go, housed in an old but perfectly functional shelving system, and always centre-stage in the sitting room (thank you Liz), not hidden away in a back room, loft or garage - if we had such things. In a way, it's become a sort of artwork, a 'feature', much like the very large framed woodblock print  we have in the dining room. The difference is, this gets played. Even the vinyl. 
"So how is it ordered?" This question always surprises me. I mean it's a perfectly reasonable question, but there's only one answer. Alphabetically. I suppose it could be by decade or genre or label or country.... I have a friend who ordered his by colour. He had a long line of CDs, the spines of which went from blue to red with all hues in between... until he got rid of them all and 'went Spotify'.
Anyway, we played Can, The The, Jah Wobble and, at his insistence, some Pump, and talked of first records, best eras, and everyone from Aphex Twin to Ivor Cutler...  He's a good deal younger than me but knows his stuff. Nice to have someone pull out records that don't often get a listen. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Nice evening in the hutongs of Gulou, saying 'goodbye' to a colleague, Olivia, who's returning to Scotland to get married to a Frenchman... except we are here under false pretences: she's coming back! Anyway, a fine meal under a balmy evening sky in Dali Courtyard followed by drinks  in a tiny bar called Amalil, halfway down a 1.5m wide alleyway, and run by a guy from Inner Mongolia and his cats.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

Agincourt (not)

Masochist that I am, stayed in the office until 11:30pm before going down the pub to watch England draw 1:1 with France in their first Euro Champs match. Mostly painful, but at least they didn't lose. Good-natured crowd in the (Irish) pub: I'd guess 50% Brits, 25% French, 25% Chinese. The Chinese guys in front of us had cigars the size of truncheons. And towards the end this girl came up and said "Remember me?" I struggled. It was Tony Cragg's daughter who's doing work experience at a German architectural practice here in Beijing. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Fairground Attraction

Mass pancakes for breakfast before Maddy had to fly home. Liz & Motoko went shopping so I took the girls to Chaoyang Park and we inevitably ended up at its pretty extensive Amusement Park for "two rides... OK, three rides each". 
In my youth there were two fairs that used to come to Chichester: Gala Day in Priory Park (July) and Sloe Fair in Oaklands Car Park (October). They're both still going. Back then the Big Wheel and Octopus were about as wild as it got. I loved all the sounds & smells and being given some money for the evening, which probably amounted to the three rides I just granted my children. I remember the dead hard guys who worked the dodgems or spun the rollercoasters to the squeals of the girls therein; and their tattooed molls (or more likely sisters) who were not retiring when it came to fixing the coconut shy; or the enormously long lorries which carried & powered all the rides, and also pulled a caravan or two.
I particularly remember a friend, Rick Murray, pulling a girl free from the wheels of a rollercoaster at Gala Day. It was incredibly impressive, done in an instant, he just yanked her out. Everyone was in awe. And yet he seemed almost embarrassed. "It was nothing, honest". What a guy.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Three Lasses

So, Maddy arrived in the morning and off we all went to 798 for lunch, art browsing and nick-nack shopping. There are so many gallery openings at the weekend that you can take your pick and as often as not find yourself being served a glass of bubbly. It chucked it down late afternoon so we sheltered in a nice coffee shop opposite yet another opening. 
Liz, Maddy and Motoko went out for dinner so I babysat and then completed watching the 3½ hour Scorsese-directed documentary about George Harrison, Living in the Material World. A well-made, exhaustive affair but I'm not sure I really learned anything new about him.  In the end, I liked Terry Gilliam's description of him as a mix of "grace, humour and a weird kind of angry bitterness". Has there ever been - will there ever be - a band more done to death than The Beatles? 

Friday, June 8, 2012

London Buses

Motoko and Remi arrived today for their annual visit from Tokyo. Lovely to see them. And we hear Maddy's coming up from Shanghai tomorrow morning so it will be a repeat of last month's girly weekend in Shanghai. Having not seen Motoko in a year and Maddy in eight years, it's now - at least for Liz - twice in four weeks!
The UEFA Euro Championship kicks off today, but it will all take place in the middle of the night as far as I'm concerned... which at least will spare me the agony of watching England play.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


It's been a patriotic week what with the Diamond Jubilee & all. And it goes on. Even in Beijing.
This afternoon Liz and I went to the Queen's Birthday Party - her official one - at the Ambassador's Residence. Having lived overseas for the last dozen years we're pretty used to these. They're funny things, very Glyndebourne-meets-Ascot but without the opera and horses. There's fish & chips & Pimms, ladies in hats, speeches and a toast to the Queen. And the Beijing Beatles performed later on but we missed them as we had to get to the NCPA to see...
...Propeller's Henry V - as patriotic a play as was ever written. Very good production performed with matey, laddish gusto. Many other versions (including the Olivier & Brannagh films) see Henry dominate everything, but here it's much more of an ensemble piece. I felt a little uncomfortable at times: one of them wears an England football shirt, and there's obviously lots of puffing up of chests and jingoism towards the French... but thankfully there's enough humour and invention to distract from the nationalism. And the ending of course sees Henry question whether it was all worth it. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Three in One

My definition of a good night out: three arts events in one evening, all organized by someone else! 
Kicked off with the opening of Mario Testino's Private View exhibition at Today Art Museum, which we 'facilitated'. A predictably glamorous affair: beautifully installed & impeccably lit giant-sized photographs of models, actors and royals... attended by models, actors and, er, us. Models seem to be a different species: already unfeasibly tall, they tottered around on 6-inch heels, thin and alien-like. Testino himself was charming and happy to chat. 
We then tootled off to a fashion show by the young Chinese designer and Central Saint Martin's graduate, Simon Gao. Big warehouse affair, 100+ outfits, dry ice, pumping music. I was almost certainly the oldest one there. 
And finished off at a gig in a tiny hutong bar called School. The band was Nova Heart (mentioned in a post last month): great, wistful, electronic pop, a sort of cross between Anna Domino and Blondie, fronted by Helen Feng (Chinese, but grew up in America). Top night out.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Madness at the Palace

Last day of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. We watched a bit of the boating regalia on Sunday but missed today's inevitable concert, though I saw brief highlights on YouTube.  "Do I have to have a pop concert?" "Sorry, Ma'am, yes you do". So, cue Robbie Williams and Annie Lennox and Sir Cliff and Sir Elton and Sir Tom and Sir Paul and all the usual people. Still, well-themed and an impressive production - and Madness doing Our House on Buckingham Palace roof was a nice touch. 
There was a fair bit of coverage in the Chinese media. Not sure what they made of it all. Lang Lang performed, so that probably helped. And of course all the Jubilee merchandise was made in China. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Propeller PR

Tough start to the week with a straight 14-hour day and no lunchbreak. but an interesting respite half-way, MC-ing a press conference for Propeller who landed this morning (and were surprisingly chipper considering). Propeller are an all-male, exclusively Shakespearian theatre company, founded by Edward Hall - son of Sir Peter. They're doing a double act - Henry V and The Winter's Tale - both in Beijing and Shanghai. A lot of the questions were of the "Why only men?" persuasion (that was how it was done in Shakespeare's day was one answer but there were others). Robert Hands, who plays the lead role in The Winter's Tale, had a funny anecdote from when he played Helena in Midsummer Night's Dream. His (her) "I am as ugly as a bear..." speech met with an "I agree" from a little girl in the front row. 
Looking forward to seeing them do their stuff.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Watched a nice family film this afternoon: Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese. Fascinating subject - the rediscovery of pioneer French film-maker Georges Méliès who, after his dalliance with fame, fell upon hard times after the First World War and ended up working in a toyshop in the Gare Montparnasse unbeknownst to virtually everyone. It's based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by American author Brian Selznick, which invents the character of Hugo but otherwise sticks reasonably close to the truth. The two child actors are great, so too Ben Kingsley as the grumpy Méliès. But the real surprise is Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector who brings a bit of Borat to a character which might otherwise have been too straight-forward nasty. And of course it looked great, even if we watched it in 2 not 3D. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Today we officially went Apple. We've had iPhones for a couple of years but after a lot of humm-ing & ha-ing we braved the heaving Apple Store and bought an iMac and an iPad. The cult of Steve Jobs and the sleek designs by Jonathan Ives (Sir Jonathan Ives now) have snared us. There is something beautifully, terribly alluring about Apple culture. So begone wheezing Fujitsu PC and welcome 21/5" screen with its wireless keyboard and mouse. As for the iPad - I don't think we'll see much of that, if the girls have their way...

Friday, June 1, 2012

Diamond Duck

Yesterday the girls went to school in Diamond Jubilee regalia. Liz fashioned 'ermine' cloaks and  I made crowns, but the best items were a delightfully kitsch tea towel and rubber duck, brought over by Nick yesterday. They were the envy of their classes. I mean, how could their Chinese or Korea or Japanese classmates compete with that? 
Naomi was going to go as a corgi but we convinced her that no-one would get the corgi cultural context - she would just look like a dog. At best. Incidentally, we found out that the Queen has dorgis as well (apparently a cross-between a corgi and a dachsund). 
Anyway, we're missing out on all the fun & festivities back home. Doubtless there will be street parties across the land. Let's hope the weather holds out.