Friday, May 31, 2013


I've been watching the latest 3hr instalment of the mother of all TV series, Up. Begun in 1964, it follows the lives of 14 British children, who were then seven years old, and revisits them every seven years to see how their lives are progressing. The most recent instalment was last year when they turned 56. It's exactly the sort of thing I love so I still can't understand why I'd never seen a previous episode. 
Anyway, it is of course fascinating - for all sorts of reasons. How people's lives are to some extent pre-determined by social background; how the programme itself has, in some cases, affected the course of their lives; how loyal the participants are to it - only one has dropped out completely (ironically he's a documentary film-maker now); how they're all still going; and the fact that director Michael Apted has been involved in all eight episodes (as researcher in the first and director of all the others). 
It's an extraordinary piece of television and social history, in parts terribly sad (you feel for their individual disappointments, lost opportunities, divorces etc) but ultimately I found it uplifting. The story of what it is to be a human being.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ostrich on the Loose

An ostrich ran amok in rush-hour traffic in the city of Zhangzhou yesterday. No-one knows where it came from. Not from a zoo apparently - although that's where it's recuperating now. Possibly a restaurant?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tombed Out

Today, with Andrew & Sally, I visited the East Qing Tombs for the first time, way out east of Beijing. It took two and a half hours to get there and is in the middle of nowhere really, scattered in a broad, flat valley surrounded by low mountains.   
Altogether, 5 emperors, 15 empresses, 136 imperial concubines, 3 princes, and 2 princesses of the Qing Dynasty were buried here. 
It's a somewhat eerie place with very few amenities and much of it in unrestored. Each tomb follows a very similar pattern: gate, square with large hall, and behind that the tomb itself. So once you've seen one, you've seen them all. 
The most important tombs (including Dowager Empress Cixi) were looted in 1928 when a warlord, Sun Dianying, blew open the heavy marble doors and made off with a stash of treasure, including the huge pearl that reportedly lay in Cixi's mouth. The only difference between this and robbing the Great Pyramids was the use of gunpowder and getaway trucks.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

Fragrant Hills Revisited

A new week, and starting it in fine style by taking two days off with Andrew and Sally - and it's half-term hols for the girls . Today we all went to Fragrant Hills Park, our first visit in two and a half years. Lovely place: pine trees, ornamental lakes and winding paths, plus a series of temples in the north. Last time we came here it was heaving with visitors but today we had it pretty much to ourselves.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Family Affair

Grey, drizzly day wandering the hutongs of Houhai and Gulou with Andrew & Sally, and ending with dinner chez cousin David & wife Oddveig. A nice extended-family evening amongst the grey hi-rises of downtown Beijing. Who'd have thought? 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bargaining for Bricabrac

Took Andrew & Sally to Panjiayuan Market this morning - a sort of cross between Bermondsey and Camden Markets with over 4,000 separate stalls. If you want 'antiques', jade, ceramics, lacquerware, furniture, paintings, books, Mao mugs, a stuffed wolf, and other assorted bricabrac, this is the place to come. I nearly bought a fantastic woodblock print of some cyclists in front of a factory... but where to put it? 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Thankless Job?

Today I had the pleasure of visiting the Embassy's Consular and Visa Section. I was showing a film to a handful of their 200+ staff, but afterwards took the opportunity to learn a bit more about what they actually do, which is basically two things.  
Firstly, they look after the interests of Brits in China: registering births, marriages and deaths; dealing with custody cases, arrests and emergency medi-vacs; lost passports; problems problems problems... One of the first things I saw was a bullet-proof counter for difficult cases and a Tea & Sympathy Room for grieving relatives. One has to be pretty hardened to work here.
Secondly they process visa applications for Chinese wanting to go to the UK. Over 1,500 a day! There are trolleys and boxes full of passports & paperwork and scores of people beavering away at verifying them. They're turned round pretty quickly and the rejection rate (less than 5%) is lower that one might think. 
Do they ever get thanked for what they do? Very rarely I should think.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Begins with a six and ends with a zero

Today is Sally's birthday. It's a big one. On such occasions, especially if one is talking about the fairer sex, one always says the person doesn't look it. But really, she doesn't. Perhaps fortysomething? We celebrated, if one can celebrate such occasions, at a peking duck restaurant.  Coincidentally, our first peking duck experience in Beijing happened to be on Andrew's 60th.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Day off to accompany Andrew & Sally to the Summer Palace. Been here several times but it's always a pleasure and by now I can sound vaguely convincing as a guide. Slightly uncomfortable reading the many signs referring to the Anglo-French ransacking of the place in 1860 (following the second Opium War) and, with other allied powers, in 1900 (following the Boxer Rebellion). Not something we can be proud of...

Monday, May 20, 2013


Big brother Andrew, and Sally, arrived today. First time they've been out to visit us in Asia. In fact, first time they've been on a long-haul flight. Here for a fortnight. Should be fun. But work meant that I didn't actually see them today.
My evening was spent with a delegation from the V&A: curators, press officers and half a dozen journalists from Harper's Bazaar, Observer, Metro, Country Life, Apollo and Die Welt. They're here on a fact-finding visit in advance of a major exhibition, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, which will be at the V&A this autumn. 
We had dinner near the Forbidden City and were joined by a young, jet-setting guy called Taro Gold who'd made the acquaintance of the V&A's Head of Publicity. The sort of person who just isn't like the rest of us. From a wealthy family, brought up in myriad countries, starred in musicals, wrote best-selling books on love & enlightenment, founded a couple of IT start-ups in California and sold them for a fortune, became a pop star in Japan etc. Where do you live now? "Oh, San Diego, Paris, Tokyo... but actually I'm thinking of living in London." It's another world.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


N's birthday party was pretty much a carbon-copy of A's - a few friends, ice-skating, home for pizza, another great Liz-created cake, a bit of playtime outside - so all fairly easy on the organizing front. Then stuck them in front of a DVD while us adults - two Brits, two Malaysians and an Argentinian - sat round the table drinking, snacking & talking about the recently demised Margaret Thatcher. Our South American friend wasn't exactly grieving. 
What a strange social life we lead. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Lucky Kunst

I've been reading Gregor Muir's Lucky Kunst, an account of the YBAs in the 90s. The 'witty', irreverent title says it all really. It's not so much about the art as the fun they all had once the media had turned some young british artists into Young British Artists. Booze, Britpop and very bad behaviour. And of course dead animals in formaldehyde. 
It all seems a long time ago now. 15 years really, if one thinks of 1997's Sensation as the apogee of it all. I remember going to the exhibition at the venerable Royal Academy. It was akin to Throbbing Gristle playing at the Lyceum (which, funnily enough, they did, in 1981; I was there). One moment  it was the staid Summer Exhibition of portraits and landscapes, the next it was whacky, shocking conceptual stuff including heads made with frozen blood, a portrait of Myra Hindley made with children's handprints, and dissected sheep. "Baa-rmy!", as The Sun screamed (or "Blimey!" as the critic Matthew Collings titled his similar-ish book of the era).  

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

9 Today

Naomi's birthday, bless her. Presents & smoked salmon bagels for breakfast, Liz frantically baking cupcakes for her to take into school and then onto the bus with a big smile on her face.
In the evening she asked to eat Japanese so we took her to our new favourite on Lucky Street. Liz was all teary eyed, but that was conjunctivitis. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Yinchuan (Where?)

This morning I met Clare Shea, Director of Goodwood Sculpture Park which is part of a Foundation, set up by Wilfred & Jeannette Cass. It's a wonderful place: scores of sculptures set amongst the trees, a mile from Goodwood Racecourse and three from Chichester, so quite special to me. I remember taking the girls there a few years ago and they loved it.
Like many British arts institutions, they're curious about China and Claire's here to check out the opportunities, not least to see if they might commission some works by Chinese artists. She's already advising on a sculpture park which will be part of the Yellow River Arts Centre in Yinchuan, 700 miles west of Beijing on the border with Inner Mongolia. Last year, 389 new museums were built in China (for the mathematicians amongst you, that's over one a day). But even I was taken aback by this one. It won't open till next year but it looks amazing from the plans - and it is in a place not even most Chinese have heard of.

Monday, May 13, 2013

From Tents to Yurts

Having just enjoyed a camping weekend in the hills north of the Wall, Alyssa and her year embarked on their annual, four-day long school trip today. And not just any school trip. They're going to Inner Mongolia. Dead envious.  

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Cassettes and Vinyl

Liz and the children went on a girl guides camping trip, out by the Wall today. So home alone for me, catching up on tons of 'stuff', all to the soundtrack of weird music which doesn't normally get much of a look-in... 
Including working on a much-delayed Andrew Cox compilation. The old cassettes were sounding horribly wobbly so a friend re-spooled the tape into new shells, and now they sound fine. Spent most of the afternoon digitising them into wav files. But there's plenty more to do, not least the cover artwork, and for that I'll need my 'Andrew file' which is buried in a container in Wembley. Still, it's progressing.
Another task (albeit a pleasurable one) was to listen to a beautifully packaged 4-LP box set by the Australian group Laughing Hands, having been given a copy by one-time member Paul Schutze the other day. It's good: Jon Hassell meets Dome, dark ambient kind of thing. And there's a nice DVD Paul produced recently of abstract studies of churning of water and revolving light.
There's still a place for cassettes and vinyl, as I discovered in London last month. The day before I arrived was National Record Store Day which was heavy on the analogue.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Stravinsky & Ravel at the Egg

Fantastic National Ballet of China triple-bill tonight: Stravinsky's Firebird and Rite of Springand Ravel's Bolero - and with full orchestra. It's 100 years ago this month that the 'scandalous' Rite of Spring was premiered in Paris. Nowadays it draws polite applause rather than boos and fisticuffs, but it still sounds fresh and modern. Great choreography. Firebird was based on Maurice Bejart's 1970 version, Bolero by Fei Bo (with the dancers playing out old age) and Rite by the German-trained Nin Peng Wang. 
What does a Chinese audience think of these iconic early 20th century western works? Difficult to know really. On the one hand, the opera hall at the NCPA looks just like any western stage - perhaps better, and everyone is doubtless highly educated and internationally-minded. But a large contingent still clap between movements (or even during them), drop iPads, and cough & fidget excessively. That aside, it was a privilege to be there.  

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Farewell to Fergie

Alex Ferguson's announcement that he will retire at the end of the season has been big news in China which, according to one survey (by Kantar two years ago), has 108 million Man Utd fans (8% of its total population). I mean, how do they know that? Even with their megabrand status and Premier League matches beamed across the country, I doubt that 108 million people really know who Man United are, let alone qualify as fans. 
Anyway, the boy done good. 26 years, 13 League titles (including this season's), leaving on a high. Respect. I guess David Moyes is the odds-on favourite to succeed him? So no pressure then...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Coro goes HM

In advance of this summer's Edinburgh International Festival, I was invited to attend the Beijing People's Art Theatre production of Coriolanus, directed by Lin Zhaohua, at Capital Theatre. It's not my favourite Shakespeare play to be honest and the only other production I've seen of it was in Tokyo ten years ago, with Ralph Fiennes. The Chinese version at least had some novelty with not one but two heavy metal bands playing on stage.
It was a show of two halves: the first overwrought with a huge cast of males (actors and musicians) shouting a lot. The second had more of a dynamic going on and benefitted from it. I wonder what Edinburgh audiences and the fickle British media will make of it?

Monday, May 6, 2013


I'm fast becoming a BFI doc geek. Bought their recent From the Sea to the Land Beyond while in London. It's a lyrical portrait of Britain's coastline, directed by Penny Woolcock, using the BFI's huge collection of archive footage and with music by British Sea Power. 
It starts and ends in Blackpool. Where else!? Interesting to see how far we've come. In black & white 1900 everyone is slim, dressed in suits, fancy dresses and parasols as they promenade along the front, or in 'decent' swimsuits as they paddle in the breakers. In colourful 2000 everyone is drunk, overweight, dressed in casualwear and a woman lifts up her top to reveal a size 44 bra. The wind and rain is so strong that people are being knocked over. (The latter is from Martin Parr's Think of England, the only film not from BFI).
In between we have more seaside jaunts, harbours full of trawlers, shipbuilding, two wars, rugged coastlines, seabirds and sealions, oil rigs and plenty more, all taken largely from government-produced films which were directed by the best film-makers of the day.  
But what really makes it is the music. British Sea Power were a good choice - and not just because of their name. They did the music for Robert O'Flaherty's 1934 film Man of Aran, and the music they've come up with here fits perfectly - very emotive, restrained when it needs to be, powerful at other times.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

11: it's confirmed

Alyssa had an ice-skating birthday party at Solana this afternoon, followed by pizza & cake at home. Can she really be 11? It appears so.
Meanwhile, Liz and I are getting into a soap. Basically, we've missed out on 14 years of western TV, but Sam & Annette bought us Mad Men, a soap about 1960s New York ad men. We've watched several episodes now and the main thing that strikes us is (a) how knowingly sexist it is, (b) how everyone smoked then, and (c) how similar it is to the mother of all US soaps, Thirtysomething.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Birthday Girl

Liz's birthday - with me in Shanghai's French Concession which is about as romantic as it gets for a westerner in China? She flew down this morning, spent the afternoon with friend Maddy, then we met up for dinner. 
But before that, a leisurely stroll along streets lined with cafes, boutiques and those all-important plane trees which put the French into Concession. Nice drink at Dr Wine on Fumin Lu and a browse in Madame Mao's Dowry which sells great retro posters, clothes & other bric-a-brac.
Dinner was in Le Selaya, a typically French restaurant on Changle Lu, where it was warm enough to eat outside. Happy birthday, 21 again!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Making Sense of 20th Century Music

In Shanghai again, this time to attend the opening concert of Listen to the 20th Century, a mini (4-day) version of the South Bank Centre's year-long The Rest is Noise festival back in London. It's the first part of a three year partnership between SBC and Shanghai Concert Hall. 
Tonight's concert was interesting enough: Debussy's Prelude a l'Apres-midi d'un Faune (actually late 19th Century but usually cited as the beginning of 'modern music'), Bartok, Copland, Vaughan Williams and Prokofiev, performed by the SBC's own Aurora Orchestra. 
But the really interesting thing about the whole programme is the big emphasis on education. Each piece was introduced by Sarah Mohr-Pietsch of BBC Radio 3, giving background to its place in musical history and the politics of the day; and they've brought over their Head of Classical Music, Gillian Moore, and professor of music, Julian Moore, to give more extensive talks, masterclasses etc. The idea, too, is that Shanghai Concert Hall will present Chinese works in London. All good stuff.  See more here
But back to tonight: I particularly enjoyed Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. I remember being introduced to this as a child - we had an LP narrated by Peter Ustinov; and of course David Bowie recorded a version; but tonight it was played alongside the Oscar-winning animated film, directed by Suzie Templeton.