Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sneezing & Snoozing

The hottest (UK) day of the year so far, big blue sky criss-crossed by jet vapour trails, BBQ in my sister's garden, hayfever, toothache and the last vestiges of jet lag. A heady combination. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pedal Power

I've been struck - thankfully not literally - by how many cyclists there are in in London. Swarms of them, much much more than in Beijing. I mean there've always been quite a lot: mountain-biker couriers, Boris Bikes, fold-up Bromptons... but following Olympic success last summer, everyone seems to be pedalling in to work these days. 
And on a more competitive note, the 2013 Tour De France starts today, the 100th since it began in 1903 (two world wars account for the poor maths). And somehow, even though last year's winner Bradley Wiggins is out through injury, another (adopted) Brit, Chris Froome, stands a good chance this year. Who'd have thought it etc. The winner will take home a great deal of money. The first Tour winner, Maurice Garin, bought a small petrol station with his takings, where he worked for the rest of his life.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Mightily Bemused Elliott

A surreal day - to Buckingham Palace to collect my gong. Bemused expressions from commuters as we travelled in style by tube, Liz and the girls looking fabulous in their best frocks (Liz wore a fascinator: a lovely thing and a great word), compromised a bit as we walked the last few hundred yards in cagools. 
Needless to say, this was the first time any of us had ever been to the Palace, which we entered via the main gates; just doing that was exciting enough. We then walked across the red gravel forecourt, past a guard in his sentry post, through an intimidating archway, across a huge courtyard and up some steps into an ornate lobby. The walls were literally covered with paintings: Canaletos, Renoirs, Winterhalters etc; it was funny the absence of captions. Here we were separated - Liz and the girls were led directy into the huge Throne Room, me to an ante-chamber with 100 other slightly nervous souls. There were quite a few uniformed characters, army, police, and a guy in a kilt who turned out to be Ewan MacGregor. Chatted with him and a few other far more worthy individuals than me while the Palace officials explained the procedings and informed us that Prince Charles would be doing the honours today.
We were then led through various corridors to the side of the Throne Room. Each person was announced and finally it was my turn: "Mr David Elliott - for services to United Kingdom cultural interests in China". Ah, so that's what it was for. Whereupon I walked into the cavernous hall, did a little bow, walked up to Prince Charles, he pinned the medal onto my suit and we had a quick chat. He looked well and tanned. I half thought of mentioning that we'd met 25 years ago at the start of my career at the British Council, when I took him round an exhibition of pop music, but thought better of it. At the time he'd been married to Diana for a few years and tried hard to show some interest in the music she liked. "Oh, I know this group", he said, "it's Status Quo isn't it?" All this flashed before me as we bantered for fully 30 seconds before he shook my hand and indicated that the conversation was over. 
I then walked down another corridor where someone put my medal into a presentation case. Outside, reunited with Liz and the girls, we had some photographs taken, and Mo Farrah kindly posed for one with the girls. That made their day. 
After all that, we walked through St James's Park and along the Strand to the Savoy for afternoon tea. My first time there as well. Beautiful place, exquisite teas (32 types - "normal please" said Naomi), finger sandwiches - wolfed down, we were starving - and a priceless moment when a waitress presented me with a small cake complete with single candle to the piano accompaniment of Happy Birthday.
And still it wasn't over. Back 'home' to dinner with Kate and Nick at a nice Italian restaurant on The Hill.
Well that was an interesting day!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fight home

The long flight home. Time to catch up on some films: Hanecke's Amour, Michael Winterbottom's The Look of Love and Danny Boyle's Trance. Good-but-overrated, indifferent and disappointing in turn. That said, a wonderful relief to simply sit back and do nothing for nine hours. Back in Blighty. How quickly the year has passed...

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mark Fisher RIP

Last day in the office before hols. Didn't get everything done, including an updated list of all the mega art centres currently being built or planned in China. Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster are a couple of the UK practices who've got projects on the go. Another is Stufish who are designing a Film Centre in Wuhan.

The Wall
I just learnt that Stufish's CEO, Mark Fisher, died earlier today aged 66, after a long illness. Fisher is of course better known as the go-to guy for designing rock spectacles: starting with Pink Floyd's 1977 Animals tour, Roger Waters' The Wall, U2's Pop Mart, the Millennium Dome show, the Stones' A Bigger Bang etc. 
The Chinese connection is quite strong. Not only was he heavily involved with the Beijing Olympics opening & closing ceremonies, but also the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. But actually it goes back even further. He designed the staging for Jean-Michel Jarre's China concerts way back in 1981.   

Monday, June 24, 2013

As if

Went to a reception for a RIBA delegation of British architects this evening. One of them was Asif Khan, who's doing very well these days. I met him six years in Thailand when he was still a student. We'd given him a modest grant to develop a cheap but effective shelter for refugee camps on the border with Burma. Afterwards, he took the overnight bus back to Bangkok where we'd lined up an interview with the excellent Art4d magazine. At dawn our security guard let him in and he crashed on a sofa for two hours before meeting the journalist. The result was a great 5-page article. I'd like to think, though of course am kidding myself, that it helped put him on the road to stardom. Let's see where he is in another six years time.    

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Small World

Liz bumped into my ex-colleague Hannah this morning who told her a funny story about a taxi ride her husband had had in Bangkok last week.
Taxi driver: "Where are you from?"
Callum: "I'm British but I live in Beijing"
Driver: "I know a British family who live in Beijing now".
Callum: "Oh really?"
Driver: "The father works for the British Council"
Callum: "My wife did too".
Driver: "I have a photo of them", whereupon Khun Kantapong showed Callum a picture of us.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Le Mans

Another French event. It's the 24 hour Le Mans, this weekend - celebrating its 90th birthday and still retaining a certain glamour. There's the cars of course: bigger and sexier than F1s; hitting 200mph down the 6km back straight at night; and the weird thing of driving constantly for 1,440 minutes.
I visited it once, on a camping holiday, in August 1970. We were expecting just to see an empty grandstand and track, but they were shooting the Le Mans film starring Steve McQueen. As my brother and I leaned against the barrier oggling the cars, who should be taking a breather just 10 yards away? But of course it's not all glamour. This year, the Danish driver Allan Simonsen was killed within ten minutes of the start, the first fatality since 1986.  

Friday, June 21, 2013

World Music Day

Today is World Music Day, wouldn't you know. It was conceived by a Frenchman, Maurice Fleuret, in 1982 but is better known as Fete de la Musique. Apparently it's now celebrated every 21st June in around 400 cities in 100 countries. I knew of it in Bangkok... and it now seems to have reached Beijing. French and Chinese musicians will play in around 30 miscellaneous venues tonight for free - they're always free.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Alyssa Malone

Up early to fly back to Beijing - my first time on a 380. How a thing like that manages to get up in the air, I'll never know. Then straight to a meeting at the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. 
But today's main event was the school production of Bugsy Malone, performed by Years 5 & 6. 
It was great - a lot more professional than I'd dared hope. Lots of songs to sing, routines to choreograph, costumes to make, sets to paint & construct, lighting to design, music to play (a 4-piece)... And at over one & a half hours long, a lot of lines to remember. 
Alyssa played Sergeant Smolsky, quite a juicy role as it turned out. Great to see her act with confidence, project her voice and enjoy herself. She had presence, she had style, she had a moustache. Proud dad! 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Shamian Island

Early morning meeting in Changsha with the very affable Director Chen Jianming and Huang Lei of Hunan Provincial Museum before catching a hi-speed train to Guangzhou. 567kms in 2hrs 45m was going some.
On arrival, time enough in the afternoon to meet the scarily young Wei Jun, the new Director of Guangdong Provincial Museum, a big box of a place next to Guangzhou Opera House. Then, from heritage to contemporary, a meeting at the equally newish Times Museum which is part of a big housing complex in the north of the city and feels nicely plugged into the local community. The ground floor entrance ushers you into a funky shop and cafe; the surprise is that the galleries are 19 floors up with apartments in between. 
All good. As was a couple of hours to myself on Shamian Island, the old colonial enclave in the centre of town (if Guangzhou has a centre). It's a delightful place, set on an island in the Pearl River and full of gorgeous 19th & early 20th century western-style townhouses, some of them ex-consulates, a couple of churches and lots & lots of trees.  It was all really well preserved, but not in aspic. The cobbled streets were full of people strolling or playing badminton in the semi dark; there was the sound of children (still at school for some reason) and it hasn't been taken over by tourist tat. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Early flight to Changsha, another 5m+ Tier 2 city with big aspirations. It's the birthplace of propaganda icon Lei Fang and composer Tan Dun, was home (for a while) of Mao Zedong and (as of today I just read) the world's fastest computer, and the world's largest Chinese restaurant which can seat 5,000 people. But the reason I'm here is to see the site of Meixi Lake Arts Centre which will open in 2015/16. It's another Zaha Hadid creation, this time resembling a huge opening flower. Well, if you were looking at it from above that is.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Hitch, Hooper & Helen

In Shanghai for various meetings but mainly for Shanghai International Film Festival at which there are seven UK films in competition, Tom Hooper's head of the jury and we're showing all nine Hitchcock silents recently restored by the British Film Institute. Tonight we threw a party in the lobby of the brand new Shanghai Film Museum which coincidentally officially opened yesterday. Nice atmosphere with speeches from the BFI's Amanda Nevill and others, then a surprise few words from Tom Hooper... and then in walked Helen Mirren. We thought she couldn't come, but great that she did, especially given her current Hitch connection: she plays his wife in the recent biopic, opposite Anthony Hopkins.
We then screened Blackmail (1929) in a cavernous hall. Strangely enough, I'd never seen it before. Two versions were shot: a silent and a talkie - his (and Britain's) first. We showed the silent, with live ambienty electronic music by FM3 which I think worked really well.  

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Wet Flagstones

On a grey, rainy day, I took Ray to the confines of Dashilar hutongs, the expanse of Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City's mixture of both. Did the usual straight line through imposing square after imposing square, before veering off into the more intimate corners on either side, jostling umbrellas through arches and porticoes. As usual, ran out of time, leaving vast sections still unexplored.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Arctic Star

Saw on the news today that Putin and Cameron met with veterans of the WW2 Arctic Convoys to award them with the Ushakov and Arctic Star medals. Why am I mentioning this? Because my dad, were he still alive, would have been there with the other few remaining veterans. He would have been 90.
Seaman Dad (left) with friend 
The convoys transported vital supplies from ports in Britain and North America to Murmansk and Archangelsk in the Soviet Union. It was an incredibly hazardous journey: rough seas, freezing temperatures, and attacks from both u-boats and luftwaffe. Over 100 allied ships were lost. Dad's was torpedoed but he survived. It must have been a terrifying experience. He was only 19 when he signed up.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Nihon no Tomodachi

It's the annual visit from Motoko & Remi, but this time with Ray too - his first time in Beijing and three years since we saw him in Tokyo but doesn't feel like it. So we met up for dinner in Sanlitun, eating rooftop, sunk a couple of bottles of wine, Alyssa instantly re-connecting with Remi, a good way to end the week. Great to see them. So nice that we've managed to keep in touch all these years.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

End of an Era

Today was Alyssa's Graduation Ceremony. After three years of primary school in Beijing (and four years in Bangkok), she moves on to the 'big school' next term. I have to say I found it quite emotional. They dressed in gowns and mortar boards, performed some music and gave speeches. The teachers too. And then threw their mortar boards into the air, like you do. I couldn't help but reflect on those formative, carefree times, of friends made and lost in that perpetual cycle that is an expat's lot. The end of innocence and the beginning of real life? It's been a nice school... but it's not over yet. Naomi's still there!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sherlock in China

Bedtime story this week is a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, including tonight's The Adventure of the Speckled Band which involves a cheetah, a baboon and a snake, though two of them are red herrings. In any case, it gave Alyssa nightmares.
Sherlock Holmes is pretty well known in China. The complete stories were first translated into Mandarin in 1916 and there was a home-produced film Sherlock Holmes in China in 1994, but awareness has recently rocketed thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch... 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Air Space

China launched its latest manned spacecraft today. The Shenzhou-10 mission blasted off from somewhere in the Gobi Desert with two men and one woman on board. They'll spend a fortnight at the Tiangong space lab. 
It's a great source of pride for the country... but frustrating for thousands of regular air travellers as China air space was closed down. Our friend Colin was stuck on the tarmac for 7 hours in Hong Kong - which is 2,000 kms away.

Saturday, June 8, 2013


Xi Jinping and Obama are pow-wowing in California. The sprawling venue, Sunnylands, was built by Walter and Leonore Annenberg in the 60s and it became a favourite retreat for politicians, actors, royalty and the like. It's stuffed full of digital reproductions of Picassos, Monets and Van Goghs (the originals were donated to the NY Met) and outside there's a 9-hole golf course and 11 lakes. The Queen, when she stayed in 1983, was told by Mrs Annenberg that she would "see how ordinary Americans live".

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Unbelievably dark, doomy weather this morning. But for once it wasn't just the pollution. At around 10am, when one might have expected the four horsemen of the apocalypse to come galloping over the black horizon, the heavens opened and the rain came down. After that, it was really quite a nice day.     

Thursday, June 6, 2013

25 Gramme Primate

The girls and I recently watched History of the World in Two Hours - from gases & molten lava... to tiny micro-organisms... to us. All in 88 mins - once you've cut the ads (it was originally made for US TV...). It's sort of National Geographic meets David Attenborough - all very melodramatic, but then how could it not be!? Amazing to think that 'us' represents something like 0.003% of the Earth's lifespan (150,000 out of 4,540,000,000 years). 
So now we know how & when things came out of the sea and started walking about on land. And there's a China connection. It was announced this week that the world's oldest (55 million years) fossil primate skeleton has just been dug up in Hubei province. It's an Archicebus Achilles (see pic) and was tiny, about 25 grammes. The discovery adds further support to the hypothesis that primates originated in Asia, and not in Africa. So there you go.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wish You Were Here

Today I received that rare thing - a picture postcard. From my friend Gary, visiting Krakow of all places. I used to regularly send 50 to friends & family on my hols, but stopped a long time ago. Now it's a quick email or blogpost... 
For semi-traditionalists, the digital route can still be in postcard style with handwritten font and fake stamp, but the photo will be one you took that day and will be dispatched simultaneously to those 50 friends and received in the blink of a eye. 
There are postcard clubs & societies the world over - around 100 in Britain alone, including the Canal Card Collectors Circle and the East European Postcard Collectors Network (which I'm sure has quite a few from Krakow). There are also dealers, fairs, auctioneers, a Postcard Traders Association... And you can still see racks of the things in newsagents and tourist shops, so I guess there's still demand. I think I have a shoebox (always a shoebox, they were made for them), somewhere in that Wembley warehouse, full of the things.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

1616: A Bad Year for Playwrights

There are two Shakespeare anniversaries looming: 450 years since his birth in 2014 and 400 since his death in 2016... but which to celebrate? We're just starting to plan a big programme of stuff in China. We favour the later date: it's a nice round number and gives us more time to plan. The Chinese prefer next year since they think it's a bit weird celebrating someone's death. A meeting with the National Centre for Performing Arts this morning was indicative of how things may go. We'll probably do both.
Interestingly, China's most celebrated playwright, Tang Xianzu, was an exact contemporary of Shakespeare and also died in 1616. And Cervantes (who died the day before Shakespeare). I feel a British-Chinese-Spanish conference might be in order... 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Face Changing

Andrew & Sally's last night with us so we took them to Hua Jia Yi Yuan for good Szechuan food and some Face Changing. Bian Lian, as it's known in Chinese, is a traditional dramatic art which originated in Sichuan Opera and is unique to China. A male performer, wearing colourful Chinese opera clothes and masks, struts his stuff and then, at key moments, as if by magic, changes his mask. It's done instantly, with slight of hand or swipe of fan, so you simply don't notice. It's extraordinary really. I think it's some kind of super-thin material which you can pull down but the technique is astonishing - and it's multiple masks. You can see a good video here. Andrew & Sally were impressed.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Something Anything Tests

It's SATs for Alyssa all this coming week. They're National Curriculum tests, but amazingly no-one can agree on what they stand for - Statutory Assessment Test, Standard Attainment Test, Standardised Achievement Test...? In my day it was the 11+, though for the life of me I can't remember taking them. Liz and I have been looking at a few past papers and the maths ones are really hard - for us! Anyway, Alyssa's approaching them calmly and we're sure she'll be OK.  

Saturday, June 1, 2013


Bobby Raja in Bangkok will not be pleased. I have a new tailor. While Sally collected her three new dresses, I had myself measured up for a new suit. Then lunch at the painfully named The Veggie Table behind the Confucius Temple. It wasn't just veggie, it was vegan. But both food - sundried tomato pasta, dahl bat, humous, etc - and decor were wonderful, as was the wander through hutongs afterwards (though not the taxi ride home which ended in an altercation with the driver who, for some reason, didn't want to go to Chaoyang).
In the evening Andrew and I went to a bar, shot some pool and chatted. Given the geographical distance between us, the opportunities for brotherly bonding don't come round too often... Good to do so.