Wednesday, October 31, 2012


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

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


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

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Table Revisited

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

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Britten in Beijing

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

Friday, October 26, 2012

Dressing the Screen

Another action-packed day, now with the added presence of our Chairman, Sir Vernon Ellis, who's just flown in, and whose first task was to attend a thank you lunch for Lady Linda Wong Davies who's been organizing a number of UK-China cultural events over the last few years (a Handel opera, a Chinese pavilion by the artist Shao Fan at the Chelsea Flower Show, and Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde - of which more tomorrow). A nice relaxed affair.
Then off to a rather more formal meeting with the Ministry of Culture, followed by a Vernon-and-Graham double-act talk to all our staff back at the office.
But the major event of the day was the opening of our exhibition, Dressing the Screen: the Rise of Fashion Films, at UCCA. It's been a stressful affair putting it together (curatorially, financially and time-wise)  but, with our media partners Modern Media, we made it happen. What are 'fashion films'? Glorified ads?  Well, kind of. It's a new creative medium (film, video, internet...) for fashion designers to promote their collections beyond the traditional catwalk show - although there are also examples of particularly innovative catwalks by the likes of Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen etc. Of the early films, there was an intriguing one by Simon Napier Bell's dad from 1960 and a little-known 1981 promo by Peter Grenaway. A key catalyst was Nick Knight's SHOWstudio website which was a pioneer in showcasing fashion on the internet. And then there's Burberry's virtual catwalks (which wowed Beijing a year and a half ago - see post). And then there are borderline art projects with little in the way of clothes to be seen. Anyway, it's a great show, expertly curated by fashion film-maker Kathryn Ferguson, with additional Chinese curation by Shaway Yeh, and made for a very cool opening party... until we turned up in our suits & ties thanks to our preceding meeting at the Ministry of Culture.  

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Porcelain & Puppets

Still manacled to Graham, we went off to the National Museum of China to meet Vice Director Chen Luscheng and see the British Museum/V&A's Passion for Porcelain exhibition, which he loved. Then hooked up with Ruth Mackenzie (Director of the Cultural Olympiad) at the ugly Millennium Monument arts complex. It's run by a big semi-governmental agency called Gehua, who also organize Beijing International Film Festival, Beijing Design Week etc. They wanted to hear from Ruth how the UK's Olympic-related cultural programme was organized. She told them.
Off then to 798 for a chat about East Asia arts strategy with Graham and new recruit Katelijn Verstraete who's flown up from Singapore for a couple of days. I met her once before, in Bangkok, in connection with her previous job at the Asia Europe Foundation. She's only been with us for a fortnight but is bright as a button - and speaks fluent Chinese, English, German, French... Sigh...
Popped in to see an unfortunately dull i-D Magazine exhibition at the oddly named Enjoy Museum before the long crawl in heavy traffic to see Bind Summit's The Table - a fantastic piece of puppet theatre. Sounds naff?  For kids?  Not so: it's a sophisticated and very funny play about Moses's last hours in the desert (or in this case, on top of a table) with three guys in black operating, Bunraku-style, a 2ft high cantankerous prophet with a cardboard head. The 15-minute encore of 'a French film' using a couple of hundred A4 sheets of paper from a briefcase was even better.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

London Sinfonietta in a Shopping Mall

Good productive meeting with Wuhan Cultural Bureau in the morning, in which Graham and I proffered lots of arts exchange over the next couple of years - some of which may be with twin city Manchester. "You made my day", Deputy Director Mr Zhu said!
Then off to the airport where we wrote everything up over over-priced lattes before the flight home. A car accident had left Beijing Airport gridlocked so the usual 30 minute drive back took a frustrating hour & a half. 
Still, the evening was relaxing. We've supported a concert by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by George Benjamin, performing as part of Beijing Music Festival and UK Now. With a 'challenging' programme of Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen, Chinese composer Qigang Chen and Benjamin's own Into the Little Hill (a operetta version of the Pied Piper of Hamlet), you'd think it would have been performed in the Conservatoire or at least a bespoke classical concert hall, but it was in a multi-purpose hall in the middle of Sanlitun Village, an upmarket shopping centre. It was even beamed via a gigantic video screen to bemused pedestrians. Anyway, it was v good. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wuhan... Again

Off to Wuhan - for the second time in four weeks, this time with Graham and Haining in tow. Uneventful flight followed by a whistle-stop tour of Hubei Provincial Museum, guided around by the feisty Ms Yu Miao. "Hurry up!" she urged, repeatedly. We watched a 15 minute performance on a replica Bian Zhong (as I had two years ago) and even had a quick 'go' on it. Not the most transportable of musical instruments (it weighs 2.5 tonnes), but there's talk of bringing it to Britain.
On the way back we stopped off at one of Wuhan's above-ground Metro stations to see some of the Poems in Public Spaces posters before hosting a dinner for some key arts contacts. A nice, relaxed affair with a fair amount of wine drunk - mostly by Graham & me - and thankfully no 50% baijiu.

Monday, October 22, 2012


The start of what promises to be a long, intriguing week manicled to Graham Sheffield, the British Council's Global Director of Arts who's visiting for a week. He's fairly new to the BC - 18 months - but has an interesting career behind him: BBC Radio, Head of Music at the South Bank Centre (he initiated Meltdown), Artistic Director at the Barbican (he still has a flat there)... Picked him up at the airport with the rest of the day spent in the office, meeting my team, discussing strategy etc, before a dinner with some curators. Nice easy guy to spend time with, which is just as well...

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Miserable day: drizzly, dark, dismal day out - so stayed in. Treated myself to watching The Great White Silence - Herbert Ponting's documentary of Scott & Co's ill-fated 1912/13 journey to the South Pole. The film is not so much about the terrible trek to the Pole as much as all the preparation that went into it, the voyage on the Terra Nova, footage of penguins & seals etc, all done in sub-zero temperatures with neanderthal equipment at the dawn of film. The results were amazing at the time, and fabulous post-restoration. Another attraction is the new score by Simon Fisher Turner - electronic and utterly modern yet very sympathetic. 

Earlier this summer I read Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita - an account of a several-month-long Antarctic writer-in-residency in more recent times. Two things, for me, came out of that. First, the sheer size (bigger than Europe), harshness (coldest, windiest, driest place on the planet) and nothingness of the place. The edges are vaguely interesting and there's the Trans Antarctic mountain range and the Pole itself has a certain resonance (and a research settlement), but the rest is a lot of nothing. Or as an OS mapper said: "Look at that. Nothing between us and the Pole except 1,250 miles of nothing. So much to map, so little time". The other thing that struck was the overriding (95%) maleness of its few thousand temporary inhabitants, mostly bearded geeky scientists, which made for a rather rough ride for Wheeler.
She's written a good book on the Arctic too - The Magnetic North - but that's another story.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


After my first foray to the gym in ages (during which time I watched a fabulous documentary about The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's recent tour of Australia), we took advantage of the sunshine and roller-bladed for a bit before cycling up to Solana for sushi. It's funny, whenever we go there, we always get the order wrong!  Whether it's us or them or a bit of both, we're not sure. Otherwise a very domestic day - clearing stuff and remembering that I have to do my tax return which I dutifully did - almost as much fun as Zhang Yimou's To Live. And I've got a sore throat coming on. Moan moan moan...

Friday, October 19, 2012

Misery Movie

This evening, while the girls watched the apalling Ice Age 4 with our new next door neighbours, Liz and I had our own movie night. Taking the moral high ground, we watched Zhang Yimou's To Live, in German for some reason. It's one of his early ones (1994) and tells the story of husband and wife and their two children, trying 'to live' through China's turbulent mid-20th Century, civil war, Communist victory, the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. So, a story of stuggle and misfortune, politically negative enough to earn Zhang a 2-year ban. It's about time we watched a happy Chinese film.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


And congrats to Hilary Mantel on winning this year's Man Booker Prize with Bring up the Bodies - the sequel to Wolf Hall, which also won the MBP in 2009. "You wait 20 years for a Booker Prize and then two come along at once" she quipped. And then there's the Whitbread, the Orange... As Kingsley Amis said,  “Literary prizes are all right - if you win them.” 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Congrats to Mo Yan on being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature a few days ago, the first Chinese Mainland writer to receive it. His novels are epic social commentaries on 20th century China, set in poor, usually rural communities (in which he himself grew up), their bleakness offset by satire, black humour and occasional magic realism - thankfully. 
His most famous book is probably Red Sorghum, made even more famous through the film (see this post). We've worked with him a fair bit: he helped us with our Dickens Bicentenary project, was part of the writers delegation to the London Book Fair last April, and met with David Mitchell when he visited China in August.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Happy Lands

The Fife thread continues. Following The Fence Collective tour, we now welcome a delegation which includes Theatre Workshop Scotland, the National Mining Museum and a few locals from the village of Carhill, all with Fife connections. 
And why is this motley assortment in Beijing? Interesting story. A year ago we organized a study tour of Scottish museums for some Chinese museums officials. It included a visit to the National Mining Museum in Newtongrange and while there the Director of the China National Film Museum, Mr Yang Yongan, took an interest in a film that was being made about the mining communities in Fife, specifically about the 1926 strike. The film is called The Happy Lands, and was directed by Robert Rae of Theatre Workshop Scotland. All the actors are non-professionals from the community itself. It took four years to make and was finally finished this summer.
Given that it hasn't yet had a UK premiere, it's somewhat odd that it's first full public screening is in China, but after watching the film and attending the accompanying forum, I begin to see the attraction to Mr Yang. The fledgling British Communist Party plays a small but sympathetic role throughout the film's story, supporting the striking miners and their families. In any case, it's a fine film, beautifully shot and very moving. The acting is excellent - amazing given that the cast are the villagers themselves. But given that most of them are direct relatives of the mining community from 1926, perhaps this closeness lent an authenticity that professional actors might have struggled with. Three of the cast came to Beijing: they were delightful.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Alive - 40 Years On

In 1972, 40 years ago almost to the day (actually the 13th), a medium-sized plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team plus friends & family crashed in the Andes. Of the 45 passengers, twelve died in the crash, several more from injuries, and yet more from an avalanche which buried the plane a few days later. The rest survived in sub-zero temperatures and dwindling food. And when the food ran out, they were forced to eat their dead friends. The place was so remote that rescuers couldn't find them.
Finally, two of them, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, decided to cross an incredibly high mountain range, ending up in Chile and reached a remote village. After 72 days rescue finally came.
I can clearly remember reading The Observer magazines serialization of the story a year or so later, in advance of Piers Paul Reed's book. I was an impressionable 12-year-old and would be first up on a Sunday morning to collect the Sunday papers from the front door mat. I would put on Focus or something and read the next part of the saga over toast & marmalade. I can still remember every detail of the saga and several of the survivors' names. Aside from the book, there's been a (good) 1993 film, and just recently a TV documentary. And there's a comprehensive website (mainly in Spanish). It continues to enthrall me.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

At the Second Attempt

Up early to catch Kashgar's famous livestock market before getting the flight home. Except I was too early. Apart from a few camels and a truck laden with cows, there wasn't much going on. So reluctantly I directed the taxi to the airport and the long flight, via Urumqi, home.
What, I wonder, was the point of the tour?  The other artists have all been, or are going, to bigger cities with half-decent, reliable venues and audiences to match. What was the point of Urumqi and Kashgar? All the planning manuals and strategy papers said no. And yet, somehow, it was there to be done. You climb a mountain or go to the moon because it's there. We made some friends. Urumqi was great. 
And there was even a happy ending in Kashgar. For tonight, as I write this, The Fence Collective are playing a hastily re-arranged free concert in the courtyard of the Old City Youth Hostel to a mixture of Uyghurs, Han Chinese and western backpackers. A Xinjiang singer is jamming with them and it is, to quote Archie, "a beautiful event". Even my not being there doesn't spoil the knowledge that, in the end, we just about pulled it off.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saturday Night in Downtown Kashgar

Despite its width, China (unlike Russia) only has one time zone. So when the sun rises in Beijing at 6am, it takes a good two hours or so till it’s light in Xinjiang. Dawn therefore comes late as we approach Kashgar, the end of China and the beginning of Central Asia.
I am almost beside myself as the train pulls into the (very weird) station. I’ve always wanted to come here. Halfway gate of the Silk Road; Kashmir & the Karakoram Highway, Pamirs & Hindu Kush to the south; the Taklimakan Desert, Southern Silk Road and, further, Tibet to the south-east; Tajikistan to the west; and Kyrgyzstan to the north.
We are met by a minibus which takes us to the Old City and the best Youth Hostel in town, although Kenny and I are honoured with single rooms, and the film guys get a twin because of all their expensive equipment.
I head off sight-seeing on my own while Archie & Dostav check out tonight’s venue and the band search for comfort food. Kashgar has changed hugely in the last 10-20 years. A new city had grown around the old. It is much like any other big Chinese city and the PRC flag can be seen everywhere, including the rear window of every taxi. And yet, if you wander through the Old City, which I did for a couple of hours, there is not a trace of Han China. It is Uyghur to the core: its people, language, clothes, mosques, stalls selling carcasses of meat,bread, grapes, all manner of spices. Women wear the full veil or at least headscarf, men caps. Some of the older men wear faintly comical peaked hats, thick dark overcoats and heavy boots looking like ancient cossacks or Hassidic Jews. One can only guess at their age. 
Children play on building sites. The whole of the Old City is a building site. Already much of it has gone, flattened, renovated, turned into a heritage site. Yet it is still large enough to lose yourself in. There is an eastern enclave astride a small hill which is positively medieval - all alleyways and crumbling mud & wood dwellings. It is considered so quaint that an admission fee is charged.
I then took a taxi top the Abakh Khoja Mausoleum on the outskirts of the city. Built for a powerful ruler in the 17th Century, it contains the tombs of five generations of Abakh Khoja's family, each draped in colourful silk.
On the way back I try to find the old British Consulate building and, bizarrely, bump into an embassy colleague, Caroline, while doing so. Talk about small world - I'd no idea she was here.  Between us we find it, tucked away behind a hotel, preserved as it had been all those years ago. It was here that Britain and Russia played out the Great Game in the early part of the 20th Century, their respective Consuls, George Macartney and Nicolai Petrovsky, keeping an eye on each other and their empires' ambitions, while their wives took it in turns serving cream teas. When India became independent in 1947, it was all over, and the then Consuls upped and left.
Meanwhile, Archie & Dostav had had shenanigans with the club owner who was proving himself both elusive and flakey. The original venue had somehow changed into a large Uyghur dancehall which, although encouraging in some respects (decent sound system and we'd be guaranteed an audience), had a seriously bad vibe about it when we turned up at 9pm. It appeared to be, and probably was, run by gangsters who said they knew nothing about the gig and we could play two songs only, after the karaoke contest. It was slightly tempting, just for the surreal heck of it, but the band's instincts were to get the hell out and they were probably right. One song could probably have got us all killed.
So we returned, tail between our legs, to the hostel to drown our sorrows in Xinjiang beer. Embarrassingly, several backpackers who we'd invited had gone anyway as we'd no way to alert them of the cancellation. They were none-too-pleased on seeing us at midnight having sat through some stupendously bad karaoke and overpriced food, waiting in vain for The Fence Collective to appear. And yet, there was a funny side to it all as we heard about the contingent of bedraggled multinational backpackers dancing with the hoods and their molls.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Along the Northern Silk Route

Today is spent entirely on a train. A 26-hour journey from Urumqi to Kashgar, skirting the Taklamakan Desert along the Northern Silk Route. Trade has flowed east-west and west-east for well over 2,000 years along this and its sister route to the south.
We travel first class, which is far from sumptuous but is perfectly comfortable, in 4-berth cabins with a narrow corridor down one side. We are the only westerners on board. At first the train travels south-east to Turpan, an oasis in a depression - the lowest (and hottest) point in China - 154m below sea level - and the third lowest in the world. Surrounded by mountains, this seems absurd. The train then backtracks and heads south-west through the tail of the Tian Shan range.
The landscape is utterly austere. Not the classic desert of sanddunes, but a cross-between Marlborough-Man Utah and Mars on a sunny day. The railway line was only completed in, I think 1999. It is a thing of marvel: there are viaducts, tunnels, culverts to allow once-in-a-blue-moon flashfloods to pass safely under the tracks, and elaborate schemes to tame the desert with grass and bush. Early on we pass what we are told is Asia’s biggest wind farm. There is barely any habitation but at the same time the landscape is littered with the remnants of it. They look liker archeological digs but it’s impossible to tell whether they’re 1,000, 100 or 10 years old.
Occasionally we pass a marooned industrial complex – a mine or chemical works, who knows. And it is easy to fantasize a nuclear test centre or space programme complex lurking behind a ridge, hidden to all except a passing satellite, and from which Sean Connery makes a hasty exit in his Diamonds Are Forever moon buggy.
We chat about music, read, snooze, snack on raisins, take photos of the monotonous but fascinating topography. We eat in the restaurant car served by a foxy Uyghur waitress whom we’ve all taken a shine to – but she’s tough as nails. And in the end, halfway through the journey, we sleep, surprisingly well.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Urumqi and The Fence Collective

The start of a great adventure. The third of our four Brit bands, one from each of the home countries, arrived last weekend, played in Beijing, then Xi’an, and I’m joining up with therm in Urumqi of all places. They’re The Fence Collective, a small independent label from Fife, revolving around Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote, and now embracing a wide variety of Scottish artists each doing their own niche thing. Kenny has come, plus a 3-piece caslled Found (Ziggy, Tommy & Kevin) and a solo electronic artist, On The Fly (Gavin) who also doubles on drums. There’s four other guys too: Archie & Dostav from Shanghai-based tour promoters Split-Works, and Luis & Yasuke, a film crew.
I am the only westerner on the 4-hour flight to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, the huge and largely empty province (seven times the size of the UK) in the far west of China. The plane flies over Inner Mongolia – a wasteland of mountains and Gobi Desert, beautiful and terrifying in equal measure. Urumqi itself is a big (2.5m people), fairly anonymous city, part local Uyghur, part Han Chinese. The latter have arrived relatively recently: first a trickle as the railway reached it from the east, and then a flood as China’s economy opened up. It’s now an important centre for mining and heavy industry. But it’s by no means ‘westernised’. The gleaming tower blocks of the CBD distract from street-level disorder. No Starbucks here…
I meet up with everyone and we head for the venue. It’s called The Lennon Bar and is run by a Han musician and Beatles lover. It’s a great gig, with the guys swapping instruments throughout. The first half is vocal and folky, the second more instrumental, left-field clubby. It’s pretty packed, mostly Han, but we find three British teachers who were hiding at the back. They say it was the most exciting thing that had happened for a year. We’re not sure, but tonight’s concert may have been the first ever by a western band in Urumqi, certainly the first from the UK. A little bit of history?
We end up in a Uyghur restaurant called Fuba which has a vaguely Russian feel (it’s only 500kms away to the north), but serves up pizza & chips, much to the band’s delight. They are a bit fussy on the food-front. Last night they slept in a freezing yurt by a lake to the east of the city. To be honest, I think they’re reeling a bit from the culture shock and travel. So tomorrow should be interesting…
(NB: Trivia fans: Urumqi is the most remote city from any sea in the world: it’s 2,500kms from the nearest coastline).

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

From Halle to Hallé

The Hallé Orchestra are in town, performing two concerts in two days in two different venues with two different repertoire. We've helped a fair bit, so great that they've been chosen to open this year's Beijing Music Festival. 
A concert of two halves: Strauss and Tchaikovsky in part one, with the amazing Maxim Vengerov on violin; Dvorak and Elgar in the part two, plus soprano Sumi Jo performing excerpts from Verdi's Rigoletto and Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman. She was a hoot. Came on in Cinderella dresses, played the marionette (conductor Sir Mark Elder had to 'wind her up') and played to the crowd. To be honest, she all but sidelined the orchestra, but it was fun.
The Hallé are, I think, the oldest orchestra in the UK. For some reason, I've never really wondered why they are so called. Just looked it up: he was a German called Karl Halle, who settled in Britain in 1848, changed him name to Charles Hallé, and started an orchestra in Manchester.

Monday, October 8, 2012

MFH Revisited

A much-anticipated box of CDs arrived by post today, containing a compilation of music Andrew and I made 30 years ago. Grandly titled MFH 1979-85, it's a (cough) 'Best Of', released on the never-more-appropriately-named Forced Nostalgia label. Nice to see it finally out. 
The music dates back to Sussex University days, where we doodled on neanderthal electronic gadgets and the occasional proper instrument, literally in our bedrooms, and which we then released ourselves on a cassette label (YHR). As such, it's probably for experimental music and cassette-culture enthusiasts only, minor pieces of sound from an altogether innocent era. 
In any case, it's come out well. Nice sleeve (thanks Gary), clear, no-hiss sound (thanks Roberto) and the whole process smoothly managed (thanks Fre). See reviews & ordering info at Boomkat and Norman Records
I'm wondering what Andrew would have made of it. I think he'd be proud. I hope it sells like hotcakes.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Lamb Laid Low on Broadway

Laid low all day with food poisoning from yesterday. I'd reluctantly eaten Starbucks's last sandwich which, along with two dry muffins and a sad scone, had probably been sitting in its counter all holiday week. Bad move. 
However, I did manage to install all my records & CDs in our new home. How much longer can I keep this up?  
Coincidentally, the new issue of Record Collector arrived today, but no solace there. "I used to be an avid collector", said alt-musician/producer Jim O'Rourke, "but put a halt on it about five or six years ago. It reached a point of saturation and the idea of transporting that much weight when I moved around the world seemed ridiculous." These days he lives in Shinjuku, Tokyo, one of the best places in the world to buy collectable vinyl and CDs, so I think it's safe to say he's not kicked the habit. 
A surprising thing that came out of the article was his obsession with Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. "My love for this record cannot be contained. I know every word, every note of every instrument. I listened to this record every night all through grade school and still listen to it every chance I get". Briefly - roughly when it came out (in 1975) - it was my favourite record too, and I still love it. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Gan de Hao

Liz received her Chinese exam result today. She not only passed, but got 48 out of 54 which, aside from being a strange marking system, is a fantastic result! All that hard work has paid off. Very proud of her.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Getting into China

Got through a couple of books while on hols, both China-related, both very different. 
Kate Teltscher's The High Road to China is about the British (or rather the East India Company's) obsessive urge to trade with China in the 1770s, which at that time was pretty much shut off to the world, trade in & out limited to Canton. So they tried another way, via Tibet, with the influence of the Panchen Lama. It didn't work, but it's a fascinating read. George Bogle, the young leader of the delegation, strikes a sympathetic character.
Simon Napier-Bell's I'm Going to Take You to Lunch is an altogether lighter affair, recounting the pop manager's successful attempt to bring Wham! to China in 1985, the first western pop group ever to play there (if one discounts Jean Michel Jarre in 1981). In all he made 17 trips to Beijing to convince the authorities that Wham! were what the people needed. Of course it was just a big publicity stunt to make them huge elsewhere, and ironically they split up shortly after.
There's a kind of conclusion you could draw from the two: the West's desperation to get into China, and China not being that bothered.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Off the Beaten Track

"Normally 2-3 hours, today double that", was the answer to our question of how long it would take to go to the Dragon Back Rice Terraces - the problem of going anywhere in China during National Day holidays... But no matter, we were quite happy with more cycling off the beaten track. The girls did really well on their little hired bikes, bouncing off the stones, steering around chickens and dogs, and avoiding collisions with the occasional moped or plunging into rivers. 
We had lunch in Luna (fantastic warm pear, walnut & stilton salad) and then visited Big Banyan Tree, which is - funnily enough - a big Banyan tree, 1,400 years old, as wide as it is tall.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Lolling on the Li

Another rafting experience, but this time on slightly bigger, motor-powered rafts, and on the much bigger Li River which eventually empties out into the South China Sea near Hong Kong. The karst hills here are amazing, rising almost vertically, covered in trees and bushes. The whole landscape looks quite unreal. 
After an hour and a half upriver and half an hour back down again, we wandered the streets of Xingping, a small, dusty one-street (OK, two) town from which the boats depart - and it's from here that one can see the panorama depicted on the back of the 20RMB note. Today it's the 1st of October, National Day, so there were firecrackers, the occasional wedding party and a fair few people around but somehow it still projected an aura of sleepiness with old men playing cards behind crumbling doorways and dogs flaked out in the midday sun.