Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Better In than Out

Stiflingly hot in Beijing today, ending with not so much lightning as lightshow: like someone had a switch and was flicking the whole sky on and off. And then around 9pm a huge BANG!!! which frightened the living daylights out of me. 
But spare a thought for Shanghai. They've just had, at over 40C, their hottest day in 140 years. So hot that an enterprising local TV station attempted to fry a lamp chop on the pavement. Given the choice, would you have chanced eating that or joined this lot for a swim?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Long Goodbye

My boss, Joanna, is on the home stretch of a month of goodbyes. After 34 years in & out of China, starting as a student in 1979 and then three British Council posts, she's moving back to Europe. I have an inkling of how she must be feeling, but only an inkling. Liz & I have gone through departures in Japan and Thailand but they were are a mere six and four years respectively.  Anyway, convivial reception at the Ambassador's residence this evening with many of her old friends in attendance - one of whom was Mao's interpreter in the early 70s. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Little Bit of Lhasa 2

Following my blitz of reading stuff about Xinjiang, Tibet and the Himalayas, I just finished Vikram Seth's, From Heaven Lake. This was his first book, written aged 29 when he was studying in China. In the summer break of 1981 he decided to go back to India to see his parents and chose to do it the hard way. Overland. Hitching. 
It was just as China was beginning to open up. A couple of years earlier it probably wouldn't have been possible, and even in the 80s it was fraught with restrictions and frustrations. And yet he did it: in the cab of a truck, with Han & Tibetan travellers for company, through the deserts of Xinjiang, across the Tibetan plateau, to Lhasa, and then walking across the border into Nepal before catching a bus to Kathmandu and a flight to Delhi.
It's good. Poetic, insightful and uncomplaining (even when officialdom very nearly had him kicked out). Seth went on to become much better known as a novelist and poet, but this is an interesting first book.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Aqua Art

A swim this morning, resulting in a positive frame of mind and a few half-decent photos.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Lost Jockey

Otaku alert! I have been re-visiting the music of a long-lost band.
Named after a Magritte painting, The Lost Jockey were a large, short-lived British ensemble of classically-trained musicians who played minimal music: both the compositions of (principally) Steve Reich & Philip Glass, but also their own - much of which really swung. They had three releases to their name: The Lost Jockey (LP, 1982), Professor Slack (10" EP, 1982) and The Lost Jockey (cassette, 1983), all of them difficult to get hold of even at the time, and amazingly none have been re-issued on CD. Or (legal) download.  
I never got to see them live and it's ages since I listened to them. In fact, until this week I only had the EP here with me, but managed to dig out the others (sadly, just cassette copies) from storage in London, as well as a dodgily recorded 'bootlegged' tape from June '83. Really great to hear all this stuff again, particularly the cassette (see pic). 
So what happened to them...? It's difficult to trace them all since there were so many of them, but Orlando Gough, John Lunn, Charlie Seaward and the unfeasibly tall Shaun Tozer (who was at Sussex Univ same time as me) went on to form Man Jumping, after which they each went on to have very interesting solo careers (just found out that John Lunn composed the music for Downton Abbey). Andrew Poppy - the only one I knew personally - did orchestrations for Psychik TV, Coil, The The etc, released a couple of albums on ZTT at the time of Franke Goes To Hollywood and has continued to compose for all sorts of media. John Barker played with Heaven 17, ABC and John Foxx...  There were others: Simon Limbrick, John Owen, Jeremy Birchall, Rory Allam... but not sure what became of them. 
But the question remains: why have there been no Lost Jockey reissues? 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


From the solemn An Heir is Born to the amusingly prosaic Woman has Baby, the world's media plastered its front pages with the news of Will & Kate's safely delivered but yet-to-be-named baby boy. First royal baby in the digital age said another, but still convention decreed that his weight was announced in pounds & ounces. 

Monday, July 22, 2013


Back to work. Just shy of 1,000 emails are sitting in my inbox. A sea of bold.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Up / Down

Just time to visit Sam, Annette & Zoe in their new Tooting home (thumbs up!) before I say goodbye to Liz and the girls and fly back to Beijing. 
It's been a really good holiday, helped by the amazing weather. Oh yes, we have to mention the weather. Apart from the first few days of slight drizzle, bit nippy & grey, July has been surprisingly wonderful, even, dare I say it, hot, with blue skies every day. In fact there's been a sort of national upbeatness throughout the past three weeks. Maybe it's also something to do with sporting successes: Lions in Oz, Murray at Wimbledon, Froome in the Tour de France, good start to the Ashes... or the anticipation of that Royal birth... or even the Stones putting on a surprisingly good show at Glastonbury? Who knows? 
Anyway, it contrasted with my mood at Heathrow T5 where all of a sudden I felt very sad at leaving Liz & the girls and going back 'home' to China. As I write that, it feels strange: 'home to China'. How did that happen? 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Of Publishers & Furriers

To John and Kim's wedding, held in the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great next to Smithfield meat market in Faringdon. It's one of London's oldest churches (f. 1123) and has slightly strange seating in the knave where the pews face sideways instead of towards the altar. But perhaps the principle USP is its popularity with the film industry: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, The End of the Affair, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and The Other Boleyn Girl all have scenes shot here.
Liz has known John for 25 years from their time working in Dillons Bookshop on Gower Street. He's remained in publishing ever since. And we've known Kim for about 15 years. Goodness knows why they waited so long. 
Anyway, it was a very bookish crowd of guests, including some we haven't seen since our wedding day.
The reception was at Skinners' Hall, a wonderful old, rabbit warren of a building next to Cannon Street Station. Skinners' refers to the old Guild of Furriers which was established in medieval times. The company still exists but is basically a philanthropic foundation these days. Fabulous food and a great day. The only downside was Kim's dodgy ankle, broken a few months ago. And how did she break it? Trying on her wedding dress... They say it's good luck.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Middling Monsters

To Renzo & Annette's for our, now, annual stopover. Always nice to see them. On the way, I took the girls to see Pixar's latest, Monsters University. I'm a big fan of Pixar - Toy Story, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Brave... - all brilliant. But this was a bit disappointing, although 'respect' (if not a high five) for the conclusion: that the lead character (Mike, a small unscary green cyclops) spends his entire university career trying to prove that he's something special, only to realise at the end that he's not. How very un-Hollywood.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nico Icon

The long drive back to London. If I'd had a CD, I might have suggested we all listen to some Nico who died 25 years ago today. 
What a strange, tragic life she led. Fashion model; actress (Anita Ekberg wasn't the only blonde in La Dolce Vita - but there were other roles, mainly in the 70s); one-time singer with The Velvet Underground; several solo albums - some good (Marble Index), some bad (Chelsea Girlwhich she hated: "The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute"); opening act for Tangerine Dream's 'sacrilegious' 1974 concert at Reims Cathedral in France; lover of Alain Delon, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Brian Jones, Iggy Pop... the list is endless; heroin addict - though she didn't died of it, she fell off a bike in Ibiza; and resident  of Berlin, Paris, Rome, New York, London and... Salford.
I have a haunting memory of Lutz Ulbrich, guitarist with Ashra and another one of her old flames, asking me in the mid-80s if I knew where she was living. This was her Salford period but I didn't know at the time. 
But Marble Index wouldn't have last 30 seconds. "What's this daddy?? Turn it off!"

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Alice & Antony

This afternoon we went to Antony House, between Liskeard and Plymouth. Nice old pile, extensive gardens, National Trust - but the Carew Pole family still live in it. I kept expecting to bump into them. It's one of those houses that gets a respectable number of visitors which keeps it ticking over.
That all changed recently though, when Tim Burton and the Disney entourage arrived to shoot Alice in Wonderland. After its release in 2010, visitor numbers went up from 30,000 to 90,000 that year. There's a croquet lawn at the back, but no flamingos or hedgehogs...

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Little Bit of Lhasa in Liskeard

Like my mum, Liz's loves books and there are always plenty of interesting ones to read when we're visiting. She's particularly into travel writing and there's a small pile of books on the Himalayas and Tibet which I've taken a fancy to. Starting with the most recent and going back...
Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard (1978) is an account of a two-month trek in north-west Nepal, accompanying the field biologist George Schaller. Schaller's purpose was to study the Blue Sheep (well, it is cold in those parts); Matthiessen's was less clear, but was partly to visit an extremely remote monastery (which was closed), meditate and 'find himself' - an elusiveness of being that chimes with the wild cat of the title - rarely seen, almost mythical. There's lots of musings on Buddhism, but the beauty of it for me were the descriptions of the hike itself, which reminded me of Liz and my much shorter trek a bit further east, 20 years ago. 
Maurice Herzog's Annapurna (1951) is set a few valleys away and tells how a French expedition was the first to climb an 8,000m peak, three years before Hilary & Tensing conquered Everest. It came at a price however, with Herzog and his partner losing fingers and toes to frostbite on the way down. Herzog died only a few months ago, aged 93.
Alexandra David Neel's Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929) is an astonishing book, if it wasn't so badly written. Born in Paris in 1868, by 18 she had visited England, Switzerland and Spain on her own; she then travelled to India, sang opera in Vietnam, got married in Tunisia, lived in a cave in Sikkim for two years, took up with a young monk (whom she later adopted) and famously was the first western woman to set foot in Lhasa in 1924. She lived to the ripe old age of 100. I'd tried to read this a few years ago when, bizarrely, I spotted a first edition in our local library in Bangkok, but hadn't got on with it. Tried it again, in a new edition, but against all the odds it was still boring.
And finally, most obscure of all, is Philip Caraman's Tibet: the Jesuit Century (1997) which chronicles the independent explorations of seven Jesuit monks between 1614-1721. Actually, they didn't all go to Tibet, some went to what are now Nepal, Bhutan and the remotest parts of China, but certainly they were the first Europeans in this neck of the woods. (Marco Polo, if he went to China at all, took the Silk Route, north of Tibet). If the escapades of the three above authors was tough, spare a thought for the Jesuits whose hardships must have been unimaginable.  

Monday, July 15, 2013

RIP Snowy

To Plymouth to see Grace, Liz's old German teacher. And she is old, but still 'all there', slightly batty with a mischievous patter. It's nice how Liz has kept in touch with her. Inspiring teachers are never forgotten. (I can't say I've kept in touch with any of mine...). 
There's a huge ferris wheel on the Hoe. What is it with big wheels? You used to only find them in fair grounds, now every status-conscious city wants a whopper. There's a huge one planned near our home in Beijing - the biggest in the world of course. For sheer design aesthetics though, the London Eye is still the one to beat.
Speaking of wheels, we got news from Beijing that our hamster has died.  "Sad news is Snowy past away last week. It's a morning when Flut just open our gallery and he took yoghurt to feed her, but she slept in her room. Flut called her and she already died. So Flut wrapt her with rice paper and put her into a little box. She slept in the garden of Landmark now. But she looks placid and clean... Tell the girls: don't be sad, Snowy got so much love from them. So she must be a most lucky hamster in this world.:)".
The girls cried a bit but they'd been prepared for it. She was old in hamster terms. And she did get a lot of love from them. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tour de Tarka

A cycle ride along the Tarka Trail. Did it last year, dodging showers, this time in blazing sunshine. (And should I mention the amazing weather we've been having this last week or so? Later, later...). 
But it wasn't incident-free. At one point Alyssa stopped suddenly to avert her cap from falling off, not realising that there was a veritable peloton immediately behind her. We all jammed on our brakes, and mine were so good that I went head over heels - and Dominic - landing on my back on the verge. It was a most disorientating effect but thankfully no damage done apart from a few grazes. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Milk Sea and Beach Huts

To Torrington to see John & Mary, Dominic & Joanna (who's just this month graduated from Warwick), and in the early evening to Woolacombe Beach for a swim. You can see Lundy Island a few miles away, and on a clear day - which it most certainly was today - you can see Wales. Amazing sea. Slightly nippy, but utterly calm, mirror-like, not even a ripple. Had a Perfect Moment swimming out towards a blurred horizon which looked like a cross between two album covers: U2's No Line on the Horizon and Eno's Small Craft on a Milk Sea. Walking back to the beach, one is confronted by a quite different line: a perfectly coloured sequence of beach huts. Serene.

Friday, July 12, 2013


Bought a trampoline for the girls. I was quite nervous of them in my youth (trampolines, not girls). It seemed a sure-fire way of breaking your neck. But they're a lot safer now with an enclosed net that stops you from bouncing straight out. I was surprised to learn that the trampoline wasn't invented until the 1930s, and it only became an Olympic sport in 2000.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Lost Gardens of Heligan

Tim Smit - the only palindromically named individual I've come across - was on to a good thing when he, together with John Willis, discovered (or should I say re-discovered) the overgrown, neglected gardens that were part of the Tremaine Estate near St Austell. During the early 90s, Smit became obsessed with restoring the gardens to their former glory and with a record producer's feel for what might sell (he'd worked with, ahem, the Nolan Sisters and Barry Manilow), he came up with the Lost Gardens moniker and convinced Channel 4 to make a TV programme about the project. It worked. There are plenty of other lovely gardens in Cornwall, but Smit managed to put it on the map, without the National Trust's involvement and you can't even visit the stately home in the middle. 
We spent a nice afternoon there. It's an interesting mixture of formal and informal, sometimes bordering on wild, with some funny art interventions like the sleeping mud-maid and a beautiful vegetable garden complete with tweedy scarecrow (see pix). There's an extensive nursery, giftshop and very decent cafe - all the stuff that transforms a mere 'place' into a visitor attraction.
Smit of curse went on to even greater things, just a few miles up the road: the audacious Eden Project. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Took grandmum for a pub lunch at The Cardinals Hatt. It was OK, good food, bit sterile, music too loud, usual middle-age issues... But what really bothered Liz and me was the lack of apostrophe. We'll forget the ye olde spelling of hat, but it should be Cardinal's or possibly, if the hat was shared, Cardinals'
Of course there are more important things in life than grammar - like love, a job, being nice to people, Tintin and caramel - and I really don't want to sound like someone's parents (actually, we are), and generally I'm OK with email speak, txt abbreviations & ampersands, and sometimes I like to flout convention, like beginning sentences with And, and this really is too long a sentence... but for some reason missing or wrongly-placed apostrophes really bug me. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Motorway Music

To Liskeard, 350kms down the M6 and M5 - Saint Etienne, Pet Shop Boys, Mocca and an obscure 80s compilation all the way. Finding it increasingly hard to choose the right music for family car journeys. First it's got to be something we all like and second, whatever sounds good elsewhere, generally sounds rubbish at mid-volume against the ambient rush of the motorway. So Autobahn, cranked up to 10, somewhere between Birmingham and Bristol, will have to wait another day...

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Manchester Years

To Manchester, checking in at a Premier Inn opposite where the plush British Council office and Hacienda used to be. It was here - the office not the club - where LIz spent three years in the early days of our courtship before coming back to London. And it really was plush - a flagship building for hundreds of staff who'd been moved out of London to help cut costs. The atrium was particularly impressive with a huge and rather-difficult-to-decipher clock, Patrick Caulfield carpet and lots of other art. The Queen opened it in 1992 (see photo). It was all going so well... until we cut back so many staff that they were rattling around in a building which was just too big. So we moved out, and into a much smaller one a few hundred yards up the road. We're still there.
But we hadn't come all this way to gaze wistfully into the past. We'd come to see Sarah (who worked with Liz in the aforementioned building) & Leigh (who Liz shared a flat with at the time) and their respective children, though sadly not their husbands who were indisposed. Very nice to see them, and great that we can maintain contact after all these years. 
While picking up Sarah's children, I witnessed a lollipop man in action. Being overseas, you tend to forget about these kind of living institutions. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Village People

A distinctly lazy day, hanging out with the remnants of yesterday's get-together: reading the papers, eating, watching Murray win Wimbledon (that and the Lions beating Australia yesterday - what's going on? It'll be the Ashes next...) and, at risk of calling it exercise, a stroll round the village, population 400. Its chief claim to fame is Sulgrave Manor, ancestral home of George Washington. There's a nice 300-year old pub too, and a Post Office run by the villagers themselves, which seems to be a new (and good) thing these days. A charming, English village in other words.

Saturday, July 6, 2013


The Elliott Family Reunions go back I think to the 70s. Given our overseasness, we haven't been to one in 15 years (save the odd wedding or funeral which don't count), but finally we've made one, organized by Andrew & Sally in the tiny village hall of Sulgrave. 
It's mainly to celebrate the 80th birthdays of surviving uncles John and Jim, twins. And it's a big turnout: over 50 cousins, nephews & nieces, husbands & wives, boyfriends & girlfriends... some of whom I've never met before. 
Luckily there were plenty of children with whom our two could play and it was all a great success. No arguments, fights or identical dresses, just the one bored teenager, and there may have been a tear or two during John's speech; there were certainly scratched heads during Jim's.

Friday, July 5, 2013


I hate being late. Shouldn't have taken the South Circular - that pitiful excuse for a ring road which, after leaving the A23 from Brighton, we crawl painfully along, in single-file, bumper-to-bumper through Norwood, Dulwich, Forest Hill, Catford, Lewisham... until we finally reach Greenwich Park. 
We are meeting Ann & Ken who happen to be over here from New York, and Claire with whom they are staying. In a previous life, Anne was my girlfriend or I was her boyfriend and Claire my flat-mate, and for a year or so we lived together in Lewisham. In fact Claire still lives there. They've met Liz before, but it's the first time either of them have met A&N. Great to see them. 
From there, more crawling through traffic to meet up with niece Juliet and her boyfriend Daniel in a Clapham coffee bar. Late for that too. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Hell's Teeth

Poor old NHS. After its leading role in last summer's Olympic opening ceremony, it's back to being harangued and vilified. Possibly with reason - I can't really comment having lived overseas for most of the last 15 years. 
That said, my own experience at an NHS dentist in deepest suburbia this morning was absolutely positive. Could bare the toothache no longer so at 9am rang the NHS hotline who found me a nearby practise and was in the chair at noon having a fairly major piece of work done. Very good dentist - Central Asian I think, though not the establishment shown here, which I saw in Kashgar.
So we never made it to Chichester this morning, but we did drive to Brighton to stay with Iain, Shona & family... who I have to say make fantastic home-made pizzas - which I could just about eat using the other side of my mouth. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Wonderful day in London, starting with breakfast with the Stegers in Holland Park (which strangely I think I've only visited once before today) and ending with dinner with the Frenchs in Hampstead. Great to see them all - out of the China context. 
In between we drove through Notting Hill, Maida Vale, Kilburn and - on a whim, re-living our past - to Cricklewood. In the mid-80s Liz and I lived a few hundred yards apart from each other in Ebbsfleet Road and Fordwych Road respectively, overlappingly & unknowingly.
On to the rather posher surroundings of Kenwood on Hampstead Heath which unfortunately  was closed for renovations, but we enjoyed a fine lunch in its still open cafe. What an incredible place the Heath is: nearly 800 acres of un-manicured heath and woodlands, a stone's throw from central London - which we viewed from Parliament Hill. The vista has changed a bit from the stainless-steel panoramic plaque which was placed there in 1984. Since then a whole clutch of iconic buildings have made their way into the skyline: Tate Modern, the Gerkin, Canary Wharf and of course the Shard. Yet it still looks like a glorified village.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Residency Reunion

Day 2 of meetings, meetings, meetings, but ending with a reunion dinner for some musicians with whom we worked on some in-China residencies a couple of years ago (see original post): Imogen Heap in Hangzhou, Jamie Woon in Xi'an, Gareth Bonello in Chengdu and Matthew Bourne in Xiamen, plus managers/friends. Oddly, apart from Imogen, I'd not met the other three so good finally to do so and hear what they've been up to since. And where did we eat? A Chinese in Soho.... although the table here looks suspiciously absent of dishes.