Saturday, March 30, 2013


Of all the unlikely bands to come to China, Public Image Limited must be prretty high on the list. Nonetheless, Sam and I saw them in the thrillingly cramped Yugoing Yishan, normal capacity around 300, tonight twice that. Lydon was on good form: reassuringly sneering, but in a positive way - an odd paradox. We 'ligged' backstage afterwards where he held court. Yes, he pulled faces and played the cynical court jester but actually he was quite gracious with his fans and seemed positive about being here.   

Friday, March 29, 2013

Plane versus Train

Shanghai to Beijing is two hours by plane or five hours by high-speed train. But with long check-in and air traffic control, the gap becomes closer. So we had a race home. Greg took the train, the rest of us flew. He cheated a bit by leaving early, but we got through security quickly, boarded on time and then... sat on the tarmac for an hour. His gloating text messages proved a point as he beat us by 30 minutes. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Future is Slippers

To kick off our meeting, we invited Paul French, retail analyst, and author of Midnight in Peking (the true story of a murdered young British woman in 1937 Beijing). Good way to start our meeting: Sharp, insightful and amusing commentary about China's burgeoning middle class. China's not that interested in creating their own luxury brands. It's easier just to buy Western companies....  M&S are opening stores in Shanghai's satellites towns, full of people saying 'What is shortbread?... and on Shanghai's ageing population: training shoe manufacturers are now saying the future is slippers. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


To Shanghai for our quarterly China Operations Team meeting. We're staying in a fabulous place, a little oasis in the heart of the French Quarter, which one might be forgiven for thinking was a bit extravagant, but Matt knows the GM and we got an amazing deal. Interesting history behind it. It was designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, best known for creating the Italianate village of Portmeirion in Wales, itself best known as the setting for the 60s TV series The Prisoner. Apparently he designed several buildings in China in the 20s.  

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Another arts centre

Off to Chongqing, third time in eight months, and the first time it's not been covered in haze, to say goodbye to Jenny, our Arts Manager. She's decided to move back to her hometown of Chengdu and do something different. But also took the opportunity to meet some Welsh artists on a residency and check out the new Guotai Arts Centre, an extraordinary looking thing, right in the heart of the city. The question is, what will they fill it with?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rock Doc

Last year's UK Now Brit Bands tour was re-lived this evening in a bar... on screen. Alongside the gigs we'd commissioned a small Shanghai-based film company to document the whole thing. They've just finished it, so time to test it out on the public in a packed little hutong club called XP. 
I'm pleased with it. They've captured the adventure of it, the music, characters met along the way and basically a lot of China you wouldn't normally get to see. I was also surprised by how much the audience laughed. Hadn't expected it to be a comedy.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Becks... in town, doing his bit for championing Chinese football. Which could do with some help. He was everwhere, going to schools, having kickarounds, giving speeches.
I could have had dinner with him this evening. Seriously. 'His people' layed it on at the Ambassador's residence but Joanna outranked me as Director, so she went - and she doesn't even like football. Apparently he was a real gent. I believe it. Against all the odds, he really is.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Bedtime story this week has been Pinocchio, an edited re-telling of Carolo Collodi's 1883 original. I'd forgotten how utterly bonkers it is. I mean the Disney film is surreal, but the book is off the scale. Most of the story takes place in a kind of breathless, fantastical 'he did this and then he did that' over a number of days (except when he goes to the police to report he'd been robbed by Fox and Cat and when they put him in jail for being stupid, four months pass in a sentence! - excuse the pun). Of the infamous nose, in the film the good fairy simply clicks her fingers and it returns to normal, but here she summons "several thousand woodpeckers". 
Actually, in the original serialised version in an Italian newspaper, Pinocchio dies - hanged for his lies at the end of chapter 15!  (The editor convinced Collodi to resurrect him and ultimately there's a happier ending). They don't write them like that anymore.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Winter Wonderland (Slightly Delayed)

Unseasonably heavy snowfall last night has left Beijing looking utterly magical this morning. The trees that line my cycling route to work were laden with the stuff, inches thick on the spindliest of twigs, and offset by an impossibly blue sky. Everyone was out with their cameras, just in awe of it all, and I had to dodge both them and the occasional shower of the stuff as a breeze dislodged its precarious load.

Monday, March 18, 2013


Just finished Melanie McGrath's Silvertown (2003). It tells the story of a woman, Jenny Page (nee Fulcher) who lived in the East End of London. She was born two years after Queen Victoria died, grew up amongst grinding poverty, had all her teeth taken out on her 17th birthday to save on future dental costs, worked in a sweatshop as a seamstress, married unhappily, survived  the wartime bombing, ran a cafe in Silvertown and lived on, bitter and arthritic, to the ripe old age of 91. The type of person who would normally only make it into history books as a statistic. It so happens that Jenny was the author's grandmother and this is her quiet, affectionate homage to her.
I was drawn to the book partly because I loved her later The Long Exile (see post), but mainly because I spent a fair bit of the 80s exploring Silvertown and its docklands. I would catch a train to Woolwich, take the pedestrian tunnel under the Thames and emerge into a blighted but fascinating area, dominated by the massive Victoria & Albert Docks (for much of the 20th century, the largest in the world), Beckton Gas Works and Tate & Lyle sugar refinery. By the 70s, the first two had closed down and I would sneak in to wander around their vast, ghostly buildings taking pictures. It made fabulous sets for films: Jarman's The Last of England, Gilliam's Brazil, Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, even 007's For Your Eyes Only were shot here; and on a rather more modest scale, the photos for the first Pump album were taken here. 
Amazingly, Tate & Lyle  is still there, making Golden Syrup and treacle etc. (There's a book, The Sugar Girls, about the women who worked there in the 1940s-60s). But otherwise the place has changed beyond recognition, courtesy of the Thames Barrier, London City Airport and Docklands Light Railway. I still remember walking into a pub on the Albert Road and if someone had been playing a piano it would have stopped as everyone checked out the stranger, but then settled back into local banter. But that's enough nostalgia for today.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Today, we officially became bourgeois. Liz got me a coffee machine for my birthday - a Nespresso Pixie. So I can now have a latte with my pancakes on a Sunday morning and at dinner parties we can say: "Espresso, latte, capuccino...?"

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Bondi Beach

After finishing off some work and checking out of the hotel by noon, I took a bus out to Bronte Beach and walked from there round the headlands to the more famous Bondi Beach. Fabulous day: hot, blue sky but with a light breeze. The sea was pretty choppy though: great waves for the surfers but the breakers and undertow made it dangerous for casual swimming so didn't try. Could get used to this, but before long had to return to the city, pick up my suitcase and catch a flight home. Was all this real? 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Maroubra Bay

Final day of our meeting to discuss the detail of some of the major programmes that we'll be running over the next year or two. Good, constructive atmosphere.
But all this food and sitting around propelled me to get some exercise. So went for a run around Sydney Opera House and into the Botanical Gardens. Then a taxi to the south-east suburb of Coogee for dinner with my step-nephew Justin and his wife Alex two young children in bed). Very nice evening: he works for the Tourism & Transport authority, she for the Sydney Morning Herald (although currently on maternity leave) so lots to talk about.
On the way back I noticed a sign for Maroubra Bay which is not remarkable in itself - there are lots of local bays and beaches more famous. But it just happens to be the name of one of my favourite pieces of music, by Edgar Froese (from 1975), and I'd never thought where it came from. Funny how those little moments are kind of special... 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Two Birthdays

Today I am 52. Kept it quiet, but funnily enough another colleague Elsa (from Indonesia) also had a birthday today and she was quite vocal about it. So we lined up for a photo and I sheepishly put up my hand and confessed all. That's Elsa on my right in the front.
So more strategising and then a quick look round the MCA's Anish Kapoor exhibition (impressive, but...) before takling a ferry across the harbour for a team dinner with some assorted Aussie arts contacts thrown in. Got to say, the food here is amazing. I'm no expert, but there's something about it - its freshness, imaginative ingredients, fabulous taste. Same goes for our packed lunches and the hotel breakfasts. And Lisa from the Sydney office got a fantastic deal. 
Bloated, a bunch of us decided to walk back over the Harbour Bridge. What an amazing thing it is, constructed in 1932 by the same Middlesbrough company that built the Tyne Bridge between Newcastle and Gateshead. As we looked west over the harbour, it was difficult to imagine a more beautiful setting for a city.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Their Ship's Come In

Day 1 of our East Asia Arts Meeting, with colleagues from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand plus a couple from UK. Always good to catch up, review, strategise, plan ahead and generally chew the cud. Thankfully we are not in a windowless conference room buried in the hotel; we are in a bright, funky space in the Museum of Contemporary Art two minutes walk away, with a view of the Opera House... except there's a  massive ocean liner in the way. It's kind of surprising that such a humungous ship can dock right in the heart of the city - the equivalent of the QE2 parked outside London's Houses of Parliament.
Today the Australian Government published its first cultural policy in 20 years today, so we took the opportunity to meet their equivalent of the Arts Council in the evening for a few drinks to offer our congratulations or commiserations. Turns out it's the former. The Aussie economy is doing well and to some extent that's reflected in funding for the arts.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Perfect City?

Arrive in Sydney, blurry eyed, and meet Manami from Japan and Khun Air from Thailand (coincidentally my previous two postings) in an airport which could be Heathrow T3. We were driven through Anglo-American-looking suburbs to our hotel which is right by Circular Quay. Great location.
Two hours sleep, two hours work, then an afternoon's walk through the Botanical Gardens, Domain and New South Wales Art Gallery. I've been to Sydney just once before - 15 years ago with Liz. Unlike Chinese cities it doesn't appear to have changed much. I even did something I never do in China. I shopped. Including a visit to Red Eye Records which didn't disappoint. Didn't buy much (the cost of everything in Sydney is shocking), but spent a thoroughly enjoyable hour browsing.
The fresh air, blue skies, greenery and of course the magnificent harbour are proof enough that Beijing has a long way to go until it can compete with this city's quality of life.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Off to Oz

Time for our annual East Asia arts meeting. Normally it's somewhere practical and equidistant like Bangkok or Singapore, but this year we've struck lucky. Our tiny office in Sydney has never held a regional meeting, let alone an arts one. But why not? They've just embarked on their own year long arts festival - not on the scale of UK Now to be sure, but with some good stuff like Francis Bacon & Anish Kapoor exhibitions, Hofesh Schecter etc. So as good a reason as any to head down under. And even a sleepless overnight economy flight will not distinguish my excitement. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Festival Fisticuffs at 50

In the summer of 1962, when the Edinburgh Festival was just 15 years old, John Calder and a couple of other publisher friends organized a five-day literary conference, inviting the likes of Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, Stephen Spender, Alexander Trocchi and Lawrence Durrell... to discuss five big themes. It proved to be a landmark event with 2,300 people attending each day (imagine!) with heated debates about love, sex, drugs and censorship. There were almost fisticuffs.
Fifty years on last summer and Round 2 took place, formally titled the Edinburgh World Writers Conference. Same themes, different writers - but the big difference is that it's also being presented as part of other international book fests: Berlin, Cape Town, Toronoto, Krasnoyarsk... and now Beijing, co-organized by us and Bookworm, over two sessions.
The themes we've been assigned were The Future of the Novel (tonight) and Style Versus Content (next saturday) and to wax lyrical on the former we had AD Miller from UK and Li Er & Zhu Wen from China. We couldn't match 2,300 in the audience, but it was a sell-out, and it did raise interesting themes about the novel in the age of byte-size tweets and the fotrmat in which they are likely to be consumed. But it was positive. Everyone still likes a story.    


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man

Watched a gripping documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, about an obscure Detroit Dylan-esque protest singer, Sixto Rodriguez, who made two albums in 1970 and 71, and then 'disappeared without trace'. Unbeknownst to him and pretty much the rest of the world, he'd somehow become a megastar in apartheid Africa. It seemed that everyone with a social conscience had a copy of one of those two albums even though nobody knew who on earth Rodriguez was. In fact most people thought he'd killed himself.

The film traces the efforts of two Cape Town fans who finally tracked him down and then subsequently invited him to play some concerts in South Africa at the end of the 90s. The suspense (and myth-making) is beautifully built up. It's only about two-thirds the way though that we actually get to meet him; up until then we're not totally sure if he's for real. It's emotional too: when he walks on to the stage at the end, there's no music for ten minutes - just 5,000 people applauding and welcoming him 'home'.
The only grumble is its toying around with facts, or rather its omissions. Actually, he was pretty successful in Australia for a while - though to be fair, the two South African fans didn't know that. It's that whole movie thing about what makes a better story: fact or fiction, true story or based on a true story (see also Argo post a few days ago).

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Boy, Tiger, Water

Post Oscars, it is of course tempting to rush out and watch the biggies, if not already seen. So tonight I ticked off Life of Pi... which I found really disappointing. Not read the book so can't compare, but it was slow, not as 'deep' as I'd been led to believe and I found the CGI garish and unsympathetic. Pity - I have great admiration for Ang Lee. He seems to be able to tackle anything, from Jane Austen and gay cowboys to 18th Century martial arts and war-time Shanghai. But this was just dull. And the old Hollywood adage, 'Stay clear of animals, children and water', wasn't said for nothing. Anyhow, the film won three Oscars and made $600m at the box office, so what do I know?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Killer Websites

The digital theme continues... Most of the day spent thrashing out the transformation of our UK Now festival website into a non-festival Arts UK site: the content, architecture, editorial processes and admin support that poor Baoer needs to get the thing up & running. Exhausting. Up till midnight trying to then catch up with emails. I repeat: websites are killers.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Bits & Bytes

Long day at the China Museum of Digital Arts for a big forum we've organized on the Creative Economy. A dozen Brits and four Chinese, each from very different arts organizations (Tate, Sage Gateshead, RSC, Culture 24, Artfinder, Philharmonia, The Literary Platform, Nesta from Britain; two museums, a concert hall and a website from China) have been talking about how they use digital media in their work. Interesting stuff. Sometimes digital is simply a way to reach greater audiences; sometimes it's a way to do things differently, sometimes it simply is what they do (Culture24 - an online listings). 
On the Chinese side, the social networking sites Douban, Weibo, Renren etc play as big a role as Facebook & Twitter do for arts organizations in the West. And most museums have exhibitions that are digitally interactive. Some theatres and concert halls are filming their performances and streaming them on-line (but not yet in cinemas, like ROH or NT Live). It's all moving at a fast pace. I'm just trying to keep up with it all.   

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Affleck and the Argonauts

Naomi's Iranian friend came over for a play-date this afternoon. She didn't stay for Argo, which Liz and I watched this evening. Good film, and worthy of its Oscars, though it takes some liberties: it downplays the roles of the Canadian Government and up-plays (?) that of the CIA; the 'fact' that the Brits and Kiwis had turned the US hostages away (actually, the British Embassy was the first to shelter them but it was considered unsafe and so they were moved to the Swiss and Swedish embassies), there was no recce visit to the bazaar and the car chase on the runway as the plane took off was pure Hollywood fantasy.