Friday, August 31, 2012

The Pleasures of the Dentist

Lunch with the affable Wang Zhengming, Vice President of NCPA, and colleagues. They have a posh restaurant high up in what might be described as the white of the Egg. He's looking for further collaboration on training programmes etc. Let's see. We talked a lot about the London Olympics. It's funny, whenever I get into a conversations here about this, they're hardly ever about the sport. Like many, Wang loved the opening ceremony and admitted he shed a tear or two. 
It being Friday, we had a couple of glasses of wine. I was tempted by a third as I had a dental appointment later and could perhaps have dispensed with the injection. Hate the idea of dentists and the sore mouth afterwards, but funnily enough I don't actually mind the lying back in the chair being operated on. You just lie there, staring into a light, opening your mouth and thinking. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012


This summer I've been dipping in and out of a coffee table book about the Proms, roughly in parallel with this year's season, its 118th. It's an amazing thing, the Proms. From humble beginnings at the Queen's Hall in Langham Place in 1895, it has grown into what is the biggest classical music festival on Earth. Can't say I've been to many, but it's just so good to know that it's there. I think I first became a fan when they did an all-nighter of Indian music in 1981. I remember staying up until 7am taping it all. I like the fact that you can buy a ticket for £5 - if you don't mind standing. I like its mix of serious and light. I don't even mind the slightly silly (but ultimately fairly harmless) patriotism of the Last Night - which incidentally is broadcast on Chinese TV.   

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Conferences are bad for my waist line. The buffet breakfast, the coffee breaks with pastries, the heaving buffet lunches…  It went one stage further this (mid-)morning. In addition to kaffee & kuchen, we were plied with market noodles, skewered chicken, beer, a shoe-shine and a weird dance by five of the hotel staff. One cannot fault the hospitality of Chongqing Intercontinental Hotel. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Hotpot in the Haze

So, having last week worked out a rough China arts strategy for the next three years, today I joined other colleagues to work out a national strategy for everything else. We are grandly called the China Operations Team - or COT for short. All interesting stuff and, as ever, good to touch base with non-Arts staff from Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing etc.
In the evening we ate hotpot in a restaurant overlooking a fake galleon jutting out from the cliff and the gigantic stanchion of a half-built bridge, somewhere between the greys of the Jialing River and (I think) sky. It was straight out of a Terry Gilliam film. As night descended lights appeared, revealing the profile of Chongqing Grand Theatre (aka The Tank) on the opposite bank. Its massive river-facing fa├žade comprises the biggest video screen I’ve ever seen, on which was a succession of car ads.
Afterwards we bussed it to the top of a hill overlooking the city where greenery, a welcome breeze awaited, and what would have been a fantastic view on the three days a year when there isn’t haze. But it was a nice, jovial evening ending in mass giggles.

Monday, August 27, 2012

To Chongqing (again)

A day of various minor crises (including news of AS Byatt suffering a fall on holiday in France which may mean she cancels her China visit at the end of this week*), all adding up to a fairly stressful day. Then off to Chongqing - my second visit in a fortnight. “So, how’s tricks?” asks Greg, as we take the airport train. My so-so answer confirms that I am fast becoming ‘not my usual smiley self’. Must be more positive and put things in perspective.      
(* actually she’s OK and is coming.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pan's Person RIP

Louise with Dee Dee
A million middle-aged British men mourn the death yesterday of Louise Clarke, aged 63, founder member of Pan's People.  For most teenagers, boys as well as girls I should think, Pan's People were essential viewing every Thursday evening on Top of the Pops. They'd be there, dancing in skimpy outfits to whatever chart-topping band couldn't make it in person that week. Remember, this was pre-music video. Louise was my favourite.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Fox in Socks

This afternoon Alyssa and I read a short biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr Seuss. I remember loving Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat and the Hat and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish amongst others. Even now, I'm struck by how genuinely strange they are, both the story-lines and his bizarre illustrations. They're sort of borderline scary, but always positive. In his last book he ends I think with the line: "Will you succeed? Yes, you will indeed. (98¾% guaranteed.)"

Friday, August 24, 2012

Anders & Kevin

On the day Anders Behring Breivik was sent down, Liz and I watched We Need to Talk About Kevin.  Breivik's arrogant smirk was matched by the character Kevin's cool, calculating nihilism, but the film was really about Tilda Swinton (brilliantly) playing his mother. How did he become such a monster from such an early age? Was it her fault?  Apparently Breivik was a weird child (including developing that smirk from an early age). We went to bed depressed but thanking god for our lovely normal children. Good film though, which we're planning to show in a British Film Week in three months if it passes the censors. I met the director Lynne Ramsay once. She came to our office in Tokyo in I think 2000, a year after the release of her debut film, Ratcatcher.   Can't remember why, but I recall she wore a leather jacket.
So that was a fun Friday night.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Two and a half days in a hotel room, planning arts activities for the next 3 years. OK, not quite down to the level of specific projects (although some were discussed), but broad themes, art-forms, where & with whom we'll do them, how we'll fund them, and why we should do them. Good, open, positive debate. Not too much corporate talk, mainly pretty practical. Next room to us was a Louis Vuitton awayday.
Finished the day in a nice Chinese restaurant and played the game of 'Write Something About Yourself That No-one Else Knows', fold it up and put it in a hat and then take it in turns to read them out and guess who said what. Interesting selection: "I was almost killed in a car crash"; "I am a belly dancer"; I bought Kate Moss a drink"; "I can't swim"; I dated a famous Cuban rock star"; etc. My own was "I slept at the bottom of the Grand Canyon - twice", which took approx 30 seconds to get. Is that so obvious?

Monday, August 20, 2012


Liz and the girls are finally back. It's been a month since I last saw them and two months since they last saw Beijing. Too long. Dashed home at lunchtime to see them and big hugs all round. To celebrate, we played three rounds of Black Jack.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Back to Beijing, but not before exploring Qingdao for a few hours with Janni and Peggy. The city was a sleepy finishing village until the Germans came in 1898 and turned it into a major port, built churches and schools and, with the British, established the Tsingtao Brewery. There's a surprising amount left standing from these times and we duly traipsed around the old town ticking some of them off. Pride of place is the very well-preserved Former Governor's Residence (1903) which looks positively Wagnerian. Mao stayed here with his family on holiday and I remember Michael Palin visiting on his Full Circle tour. He described Qingdao as 'Bavaria-on-Sea'.

The nearby, nameless protestant church (1908) looks like a Grimm's gingerbread house on the outside but is blandly austere and just 'wrong' inside: plain white walls, a massive video screen and disco-lights. However, we were cheered by an informative sign: "The clock tower was set up in the main building with three clocks mounted on three sides of there tower [which] thus earned the popular name "clock tower".
Not far away from that is the Catholic Church (1934), which does have a name (St Michael's) but was closed for a wedding. An extremely tacky, if convenient, Wedding Banquet Restaurant sits opposite. 
But perhaps our most interesting find was the former home of Lao She, now a small but informative museum. Coincidentally I'm reading his Rickshaw Boy at the moment, which he wrote there in 1937.
We finished off by zipping round the Museum of the Tsingtao Brewery which, 100 years on, is still on the same site - though there's a much bigger one out of town too. And of course we sampled some. They do the regular amber colour, a dark stronger one, and a green one which contains something called spirulina which looked like a cross between radioactive coolant and pond water, but we tried it, and lived.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Qingdao Rocks

Today I attended the opening day of the Qingdao InterCity Music Festival. It's in a sort-of beach resort, so quite a nice setting, two big stages, so-so line-up (the only act I'd heard of is Peaches), seems well organized... but, as is so often the case with Chinese rocks fests, not many people. Still, it's Day 1, a working day, and the organizers seem pretty confident it will pick up over the weekend.
We've loaned them our Rockarchive exhibition for the duration. They're put it in a big tent. I was worried that it would look crap, but they've done a good job: built proper walls and spotlights for each of the photographs and a whopping great big title panel. I had to give an opening speech timed to take place inbetween bands so I'd actually be heard, and then guided a Party official through the exhibition: "This one's the Rolling Stones when they were quite rebellious... This one's the Sex Pistols... Here's Wham!, the first Western band to perform in China... and this is Amy Winehouse who died last year of a drug overdose..." So, lots of positive messages about British rock culture then. But she seemed to like it and it was pretty packed with young 'uns, including a guy in a Joy Division shirt who couldn't stop saying thank you. I then did an interview with China's Q Magazine in a hotel which didn't have a cafe and didn't serve coffee, before enjoying the delights of a Chinese Heavy Metal act. What a strange job I have...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Qingdao Art Deco

This morning I spoke at a music conference, arranged alongside the Qingdao InterCity Music Festival. It was kind of about the Chinese music industry, with a couple of Chinese speakers; but they also wanted an international perspective so invited an American band manager, a guy from the Finnish Music Export Agency and, er, me. I was coming anyway and I think they were a bit desperate! So I talked about music and cultural relations and the music activities we've been running in China and my (amateur) perspective on the Chinese music scene. It was interesting actually, and we all hit it off.

In the afternoon my colleague Shengnan and I slipped out to pay a call on the affable Mr Hao Qi, Director of Qingdao Art Museum which had shown our Olympic Posters exhibition earlier this summer. Lovely somewhat sleepy place, situated in the leafy ex-colonial quarter, with an odd mixture of 1930s art-deco main building and temple-like outbuildings. 

Back to the music guys, a dinner... and then a bunch of us - Jani (the Finn), John (the American), Philipp (a Beijing-based German promoter), Helen (from the band Nova Heart), Peggy (from Live Nation) and Lawrence (from Pilot Music) - ended up in a Japanese hostess bar... but it was innocent enough, we just drank beer (Tsingtao, what else?) and talked, amongst other things about Krautrock. The German-Japanese theme was somehow fitting, given those two countries' links to (OK, occupations of) the city 100 years ago. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Elusive Tunnel

Desk-bound day, them took a short flight to the port city of Qingdao, famous for its old German architecture and Tsingtao beer. Met at the airport by two nice people from Pilot Music who are organizing a rock festival here this weekend. It's actually across the bay in a 'new development zone' called Huangdao, reached by a much-heralded 5-mile tunnel which opened last year. But do you think our driver could find it?  In the end he had to flag down a taxi and then follow him. So our car journey ended up taking longer than the flight. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cloud Atlas

This evening we did a talk with the novelist, David Mitchell. Very nice, interesting guy. He lived in Japan same time as me (though I never met him then), teaching English in Hiroshima, married a Japanese woman and then moved to Ireland ("because at the time Irish-based writers didn't pay tax" he cheerily admitted - though that's changed now). He's written five novels, the second & third of which were both nominated for the Booker Prize. I read his second, number9dream, but it's his third, Cloud Atlas, that really made his name, and has been turned into a German-produced blockbuster film by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski Brothers, with a stellar Anglo-American cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant etc. It premieres at the Toronto Film Festival next month but we gave a sneak preview of the trailer which looked suitably 'epic'. 
He's also a Patron of the British Stammering Association, having been a stammerer for much of his life, although he seems to have completely conquered it now. Very nice guy, unpretentious and self-effacing. We're sending him to Shanghai for more talks & stuff tomorrow. "Just put me on the train, I'll be fine". If only all visiting artists were as easy to manage...  

Monday, August 13, 2012


Manhattan on the Yangtze. Thousands (not hundreds, thousands) of identical skyscrapers thrusting into an overcast sky with 40C heat down on the streets. Good to see everyone in the busy office and fun to give them a presentation on how UK Now is going. 
After lunch in a Yunnanese restaurant whose motto was "Fine Living Hard Feelings" (opposite a cafe called Floweriness), we headed off to a new, high-end development in the west, the management of which are putting on a couple of UK Now exhibitions - Rankin and Olympic Posters. The scale of the place is huge (the scale of everything in China is huge) and after a while the real estate talk became a series of numbers: "Phase 4, million square metres, 2018..." Still, it was impressive. 
Less impressive was another delayed flight, but it gave me the chance to finish my book, Electric Eden by Rob Young which, at 600+ pages, has taken a while. Really interesting survey of 20th century British folk music, from Cecil Sharp & Ewan MacCall to Shirley Collins & Fairport Convention, with asides on peripheral artists like Kate Bush & John Martyn. Heavy on the folk rock of  the late 60s / early 70s, light on the 80s & 90s when folk was beyond the pail, the book's publication is timely. There seems to be a resurgent, unembarrassed interest in all things folk, from Jeremy Deller's folk archive project to Morris Dancing at the Olympics opening ceremony.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Wild East

From Chengdu to the hustle & bustle of Chongqing where the trial of Gu Kailai, accused of poisoning British businessman Neil Heywood in a hotel (not the one I'm in) last year, has just ended with a confession... the same day as an armed hold-up outside a local bank left one woman dead and two men injured. The killer is still at large. So I sat in the lounge, decorated with Chinese & Union Jack flags, sipping the local brew while watching the final day of the Olympics. So, in the end, USA pipped China in the medals table. No outpourings of grief in evidence.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Rock x 2

Today I took a day trip to see the Leshan Giant Buddha, 2hrs south of Chengdu. A staggering 233ft high, it was carved out of a cliff face overlooking the confluence of three rivers between 713 and 803AD, to appease their turbulent currents. Funnily enough, it worked: the amount of rock waste dumped into the river had the desired result. So I joined the queues and made my way down precipitous steps cut into the cliff face. The best views, however, are from boats on the river. It was quite entertaining watching them jostling for best position.

But it was a relief to ditch the crowds and walk through lovely forests to Wuyou Temple, atop an island in the Dadu River. Its highlight is a hall of 1,000 terracotta arhat (celestial beings); very colourful, almost cartoon-like, and with no two alike.
I had thought to have a little wander in Leshan across the river - the Lonely Planet map makes it look like a village - but turns out to have a population of 500,000...
Back to Chengdu to see the oddly named Northern Irish band, And So I Watch You From Afar. They're one of four we've invited to China this summer & autumn, one from each home country. Gallops (Wales) toured last month but I missed them; Fence Collective (Scotland) will come out in October. And Jamie Woon (born & grew up in England although his father is Chinese Malaysian and his mother Scottish) tours in November. Each artist visits different parts of China: ASIWYFA are playing in Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing, Kunming and Beijing. They play instrumental guitar-driven 'post rock': sort of halfway between effects-heavy shoe-gazing and out & out head-banging with tricky time signatures. Small venue, enthusiastic studenty crowd... and no aircon. "That was officially the hottest gig we've ever played".

Friday, August 10, 2012


A day of hopping around Chengdu with my colleague Jenny Zeng, meeting contacts. First up, Mr Zhao at East Chengdu Music Park. This is essentially the same kind of set-up as Beijing's 798: old factory area transformed into a new arts quarter, with music venues, galleries, cafes and studios set amongst the pre-requisite chimneys, pipes and industrial chic. Nice, creative vibe about the place. We showed the Rockarchive exhibition there in May.
Then lunch with the charming playwright Ms Li Ting from Sichuan People's Theatre (we're supporting collaborations with West Yorkshire Playhouse and The Curve in Leicester), before heading to Chengdu's Museum of Contemporary Art where the Tony Cragg exhibition has been on for a month or so. It looks good there, better than I expected actually. It's a new museum in a newly developing part of the city, so visitor numbers aren't that great but Director Lu Peng and Dep Director Lan Qingwei are really good people so we're keen to support them. 
We drove past a massive, under-construction shopping centre, the banally-named Global Center, and behind that will be China's biggest ever Arts centre designed by - wait for it - Zaha Hadid. It will look like a giant futuristic spoon. China has gone crazy for ZH. 
Just time enough to meet the affable Mr Dou Weiping, Deputy Director of Sichuan Cultural Bureau, whose first question to me was: "Ah yes, East Chengdu Music Park. Not making a profit. Any advice?"
Finished off the day talking shop with Jenny over Sichuan food. Aside from her day job as Arts Manager for SW China, Jenny is a very accomplished guqin (zither) player and featured on Gorillaz' Demon Days tour. What talented people I work with. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Flying Scotsman

Stressful flight to Chengdu: argy-bargy at check-in, flight delayed by over two hours and sat next-but-one to a strange guy who brought his own meal with him and ate it during take off. Still, managed to lose myself in my book and also an article about Eric Liddell, the 400m gold medalist at the 1924 Paris games, immortalised in Chariots of Fire. It's perhaps not so well known that he was born and died in China. Born to Scottish missionaries in Tianjin, he moved to Britain for schooling and not only became a brilliant athlete but also played rugby for Scotland. He gave it all up though, and returned to Tianjin to teach during the turbulent 1930s. He died of a brain tumour aged just 43 in a Japanese internment camp. He was held in great affection by his students, one of whom, a Mr Wang Kaihao, now 86 years old, has just written a book about him.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

24 City

Partly because I'm going there tomorrow, I watched a film set in  Chengdu called 24 City, directed by Jia Zhangke in 2008 (just before the earthquake struck). It tells the story - or rather stories - of several people, young & old, who worked in a state-owned factory which is just about to be demolished and turned into apartment blocks. It's a curious film, beautifully shot in the ghostlike spaces of the crumbling factory and nondescript apartments, and feels very much like a documentary, but the cast are actors (including Joan Chen and Zhao Tao). 
Actually, the film has nothing much to do with Chengdu: the factory was a self-contained bubble, with accommodation, schools, shops and canteens alongside the work units. And because it was an important supplier to the airforce, it largely escaped the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Everyone stayed put. 
Anyway, good, moving film. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Soft Power

Poor old Liu Xiang, China's superstar hurdler, once again, barely starting the race before pulling up through injury... or was it the heavy heavy burden of expectation... or the fact that he wore unlucky no.13, not only in London but also four years ago in Beijing? Whatever, you've got to feel for him. 
I've been keeping fairly up-to-date although the time difference is obviously pretty inconvenient. Still, Alyssa & Naomi are well into it. Alyssa's even got a sticker book. Great to hear her enthusing about it on the phone just now. I just about remember Mexico 1968: the Fosbury Flop, Bob Beaman, David Hemery.. Munich was clearer: Mark Spitz, Olga Korbut, Mary Peters, USSR pipping USA in the basketball, but I have a blank about Montreal, other than Nadia Comoneci and that film of ELP playing Fanfare for the Common Man in an empty stadium a year later...
It's become such a big thing now: political, obscenely expensive, patriotic-bordering-on-nationalistic... But it's always been more than just the sport. If we continue from '68 (Black Power salute) and '72 (Black September massacre), Montreal '76 saw a boycott by most African countries because of New Zealand's participation (whose All Blacks had recently played in Apartheid South Africa), Moscow '80 saw a boycott by USA and a host of other countries because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Los Angeles '84 saw a tit-for-tat boycott by Russia and other Eastern Bloc countries, and so on... Having said that, in recent years one could argue that the Olympics have actually become less Political (with a big P) and more about cultural showcasing.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

26 x 26 x 33

Today, a challenge. Stay indoors, finish off photo albums and stuff... and play only vinyl LPs that I haven’t played for 26 or more years ago, one for each letter of the alphabet. Just side one. Will this reveal some hidden gems, or will it be several hours of rubbish? Let’s see…
- Amon Duul II  Live in London (1973) – never liked them much, tried this one again… nah…
- Jacques Berrocal  Musiq Musik (1973) – his first album on the semi-legendary Futura label, and way before he formed Catalogue. Very free jazz, very improv, but refreshing after the Duul dirge.
- Chris & Cosey & John Lacey  Elemental 7 (1984) – underwhelming soundtrack to a video made by the three of them, which I think must have included a performance I saw in the summer of ’83 in which they made a garden inside a strange building somewhere near Great Portland Street in London. Dome were also playing…
- Dome  Dome 2 (1980) – austere, post-#1 Wire. I loved this at the time but it was just too angstsy now.
- Embryo  Embryo’s Reise (1979) – double album documenting a tour through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India on three battered buses, possibly the last of the hippy ‘magic bus’ jaunts before Khomeini ousted the Shah and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Some of it is live, some recorded on their return to Germany. Better than I remembered it.
- Fluence  Fluence (1978) – originally released in 1975 but my copy’s a ’78 re-release, although still pretty obscure I should think. Fluence was a one-off project by Pascal Comelade, with a few friends, notably Richard Pinhas. It sounds very Heldon-ish.
- Gentle Giant  Live: Playing the Fool (1977) – I liked a lot of prog – still do to some extent – but could never get into GG. This is dire.
- Richard Horowitz  Eros in Arabia (1981) – fine North African inspired debut album on Ethnotech Records, reverse-credited to Drahcir Ztiworoh (god knows why; he was hardly signed to another label at the time). Went on to work with Sussan Deihim and score part of Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky.
- Ilitch  10 Suicides (1980) – great lost album by French ‘band’ (Thierry Muller & co), although I believe it’s been re-released recently. It came out of the Industrial scene, but despite being abrasive, sounds fresh & fairly accessible. “Waiting for Mabelle” is wonderful.
- Scott Johnson  John Somebody (1986) – tricksy edited vocal loops and electric guitar aspiring to the work of Steve Reich (whose Different Trains was similarish). Got bored of it after a while though.
- Kitaro  Silk Road II (1980) – soundtrack to a Japanese TV documentary about the Silk Road which sold millions and effectively made his name. A welcome, if somewhat saccharine, relief after J-J-John Somebody…  
- Lady June  Linguistic Leprosy (1974) – eccentric poet & artist who moved in the circles of Kevin Ayers, Pip Pyle, Eno and David Vorhaus (they all play on this). This was apparently recorded for 400 quid in the front room of her Maida Vale flat where she held legendary parties (one of which ended tragically for Robert Wyatt when he fell out of a third floor window and broke his back).
- Meredith Monk  Turtle Dreams (1983) – heavily influenced by Philip Glass. Actually the vocals grated after a while. I prefer her next album, Do You Be.
- Negativland  Negativland (1980) – Their first album, released in unique sleeves on their own label, Seeland (you could tell they were Neu! fans) - mine's a square of wallpaper and a ripped out recipe. I think it’s pretty rare now. It’s OK, the sort of stuff I liked at the time. They would later become (in)famous for sampling and being ‘sued by U2’ (actually, Island Records, not U2). 
- Operating Theatre  Rapid Eye Movements (1981) - aka Irish composer Roger Doyle. Bric-a-brac electro-acoustics, thoroughly at home on United Dairies. He’s still active.
- Pyrolator  Inland (1979) – aka Kurt Dahlke, ex-DAF, Der Plan and Fehlfarben. Fairly cold electronic album, barely realised it was on.  
- Queen  Greatest Hits (1981) – oh, for more Qs..
- Eric Random  Earthbound Ghost Need (1982) – unsung Manchester-based post-punk musician involved with Cabaret Voltaire, Pete Shelley, Free Agents, Nico etc. Actually, I have played side 2 quite recently (great version of Ravel’s Bolero) but not side one.
- Yochk’o Seffer  Delire (1976) – French saxophonist, ex-Magma; this is the first of his Neffesh Music series with various musicians. Very improv, and somehow both dreamy & earthy after Random.
- Telex  Sex (1981) – a minor revelation. This was their third album, with lyrics by Ron & Russel Mael of Sparks. The year before they’d represented Belgium in the Eurovision Song Contest, hoping to finish last which they nearly achieved had Portugal not given them 10 points towards the end. Just wiki-d their founder, Marc Moulin: hadn’t realised he had died (of cancer) four years ago. Good guy: one-time member of Aksak Maboul, produced Anna Domino, Sparks etc
- Univers Zero  Univers Zero (1977) – French avant chamber rock, part of the Rock In Opposition ‘movement’. Still sounds fresh. They’re still going.
- Patrick Vian  Bruits et Temps Analogues (1976) – son of poet & jazz musician, Boris Vian. Used to be in legendary group Red Noise, then made this solo album, which sounds surprisingly good still… and then he disappeared.
- Wishbone Ash  Classic Ash (1977) – compilation. You know what? After all the difficult stuff, this was a breath of fresh air. I saw them once, in 1978.
- X-beliebig  X-beliebig (1982) – young Austrian band (I think they were all in their teens) who made this one album, heavily influenced by The Cure and Joy Division.
- Stomu Yamash’ta & Go Project  Go Live (1977) – a sort of Island Records super group with Yamash’ta, Steve Winwood, Al di Meola, Klaus Schulze and Michael Shrieve, but a real damp squib.
- Zed  Visions of Dune (1979) – alter ego and first album by Bernard Szajner, better known as the inventor of the Laser Harp (and less known as a member of The Hypothetical Prophets and collaborator with Howard Devoto). Still a good album.

Did this tell me anything?  For some reason a lot of it was French.  Don't I have something better to do with my time?  Should I get rid of half of them?  Well, like my CDs or the 12,000 songs on iTunes, there’s good, mediocre and bad stuff. Perhaps a minor cull might be in order, but do you think I can be bothered to get on e-Bay? Not really.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

On My Bike

Satisfying day cycling around Beijing's southern hutongs and a couple of parks I'd not been to before. But first, find a bicycle repairman - or in this case, woman - to mend that puncture. Then off to the Beijing Ancient Observatory, one of the world's earliest, founded in around 1442. It's now a modest museum, set into and around the remains of the old Walls. There are various bronze astronomical instruments, armillary spheres and sundials dotted around, and in one of the three galleries is a photo of a visiting Tony Blair. He's got that silly grin on. Why he ever went here I'll never know.
Continued along to a corner section of the Wall which has a huge watchtower, within which is the Red Gate Gallery. It's an odd but impressive location for what is China's very first privately-run gallery, set up by Australian Brian Wallace in 1991. Before that, he had organised exhibitions in other exotic locations, including the Observatory I'd just been to. A mildly interesting exhibition of Chinese contemporary art was on show.
I then cycled through the Chongwen hutongs, eventually emerging by Tiananmen Square. It felt strange pedalling around this massive, open, history-laden place; years ago it would have been pretty much all bicycles but now it's cars cars cars. I came here to explore two parks, in-between the Square and the Forbidden City. Most people walk straight between them on their way to the FC, missing them altogether. Zhongshan Park, on the left, is a large pleasantly laid out affair with a temple dedicated to Sun Yat Sen in the middle, as well as the Forbidden City Concert Hall and a curiously small and archaic looking bumper car rink. And to the right is the park of the Workers Cultural Palace, again with an impressive (even larger) temple in the middle and a lot of very old cypress trees.

Friday, August 3, 2012


Over the last two or three months I've been watching a BFI 2-DVD set called Tales from the Shipyard which documents around 75 years of shipbuilding in Britain. It starts and ends with a ship's launch: a 1-minute B&W silent reel of a battleship plunging into the Thames in 1898 (tragically drowning 39 people in the wave it created), finishing with a half hour colour documentary of a tanker sliding into the Tyne in 1974. It's fascinating stuff.
The early ones are pretty rough & ready. There's an 8-minute one of Titanic's sister-ship, SS Olympic, the largest in the world at the time, being built at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast in 1910, contrasted with the beautifully modernist Shipyard by Paul Rotha in 1936 and the Oscar-winning Seawards the Great Ships, shot on the Clyde in 1960. 
There's a cacophonous one specifically about the steel-making process, another about how they made the massive chains for the anchors, and a cartoon about the evolution of tankers (the director of which went on to make Animal Farm). There's one about wooden shipbuilding in Cornwall. A few of the war-time ones were either sponsored or distributed by the British Council. Most of them take the opportunity to glimpse into the lives of the proud workers and of course there's lots of shots of terraced houses dwarfed by the massive ships which look as if they are about to head, Terry-Gilliam-like, inland.
It gets progressively more depressing as it goes on. In the early 1950s Britain was still the biggest producer of ships in the world, but Japan took over with its more modern yards, slimmed down workforces and better management. South Korea is now the world-leader. 
There's a curious 1967 film, starring (and directed by) Sean Connery, then at the height of his fame, where he looks at a management experiment to try to save Fairfield Shipyard on the Clyde. It failed, and Fairfield became Upper Clyde Shipyards, which in turn failed in 1972 following a year-long occupation by its workforce, captured in another doc simply called UCS 1
All in all, it's a story of proud ingenuity, fathers passing on skills to their sons, some big & beautiful ships launched, and an industry that has gone into sad decline.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Singing at The Egg

Home venue
Went to see Christ Church Cathedral Choir, from Oxford, at the Egg this evening. Not something I would normally make a bee-line to, but it's part of UK Now and I was intrigued to see what Chinese audiences would make of 26 male choristers (14 of them boys from the Cathedral school, six undergraduates from Christ Church College, and six professionals) singing Parry, Vaughan Williams, Stanford, Elgar et al. 
With Peter Gabriel in 2009
There are plenty of choirs in China but not in the religious sense, and the evening's programme was entirely secular of course... Anyway, it was packed (and we're talking 1,000+), with a standing ovation following a finale of Double Trouble from Harry Potter and a hastily arranged Chinese folk song.  It genuinely took me by surprise. Was the audience comprised entirely of Oxford alumni? I saw their Music Director and conductor Stephen Darlington afterwards and he was as surprised as me. They're off to Guangzhou and Shenzhen next. Rock & Roll...

Bit of a choral theme this week, what with the convent girls choir in The Flowers of Nanjing last night, reading about Vaughan Williams & Parry in Rob Young's Electric Eden and listening to Bjork's 'Unison' on repeat. I was in my primary school choir. I quite enjoyed it. I once sang so hard  that I fainted and remember being revived by a teacher in the playground. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Flowers of War

Finally got around to watching Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War, the biggest-earning Chinese film of last year. It's based on the book 13 Flowers of Nanjing by the Chinese-American author, Geling Yan, and is set during the rape of Nanjing in 1937. It's pretty graphic and has provoked inevitable controversy - although I have to say that if you're going to make a film about what was undeniably an appalling atrocity then the Japanese are going to come out badly. 
The casting of Christian Bale in the lead role suggests international box office aspirations although it didn't make the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars (actually, half of it's in English) and I don't think it did that well outside China. It's beautifully shot - perhaps overly so - and the 13 prostitutes somehow look perfect throughout it all, and I don't really buy the ending... But what saves it is the acting, particularly the young convent girls. What next for Zhang?