Saturday, August 31, 2013

Crossing the Line

Lunch with a London colleague who's just back from a week in North Korea with a photo-journalist and a travel-writer, attempting to document the lives of some 'ordinary' citizens. Took ages to set up and of course didn't all go according to plan, with postponements, cancellations and a lot of waiting around. But they got enough for an exhibition. Watch this space.
Later I watched Crossing the Line, a 2006 documentary about James (Joe) Dresnok, a US soldier who defected to North Korea in 1962. Amazing story. He was young, from a broken home, disfunctional, didn't get on with his superiors, and one day just walked across the DMZ and into another world. Actually, there were half a dozen defectors over the years, and three others - Larry Abshier, Jerry Parrish and Charles Jenkins also feature in the film. They lived in Pyongyang, participated in propaganda programmes, acted in movies,  became minor celebrities, had families, taught English... Two of them died quite young (Abshier of a heart attack aged 40, Parrish of kidney failure, 55). Jenkins was married to a Japanese woman who had been kidnapped by North Korea agents in 1978; they had two daughters and their story ended relatively happily with repatriation in Japan in 2004. 
Dresnok, meanwhile, still lives in Pyongyang with his family - two sons by his first Romanian-born wife, one by his second wife who is half Korean, half Togolese (!). The film crew had pretty much complete access to him. It was strange seeing his two older sons. On the face of it they looked like regular Americans, but spoke English with a Korean accent and of course had grown up in a culture so 'opposite' as to defy comprehension. Felt strangely depressed afterwards.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Random Penguin

Morning spent at Beijing International Book Fair, in the cavernous China International Exhibition Centre out near the airport. We've brought over Dan Franklin of Random House (who've just merged with Penguin prompting a tantalising new name) to join a seminar about digital publishing. E-books are big in China, and there are lots of platforms, unlike in the UK where Amazon have 75% of the market. Me? I still prefer to read paperbacks.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Today in our office about ten of us prepared for disaster. What would happen if an earthquake struck Beijing, we had a big event on somewhere with guest speakers, there were injuries, the power went down, worried relatives started ringing from Britain, how would we trace all our staff...? We have a big fat Emergency Manual but when you go through the detail, there's always something it doesn't cover, the phone numbers need updating, the first aid kit needs replenishing, there's a new city authority directive. 
I remember doing them in Bangkok, and they were timely. A few months after I arrived there was a military coup (I can still remember my adrenalised Director calling me at home: "The tanks are on the streets, I'm activating the Incident Control Team, hit the phones"), then the yellow shirts' occupation of the airport, and finally the red shirts occupation of the city centre which ended up being a warzone.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Steve Coe RIP

Talking of doom, just learned that songwriter, musician & producer Steve Coe died yesterday aged 62. He wasn't a big name but behind the scenes he helped usher in the whole world music genre, at least in Britain. In the 70s he learned his craft before co-forming the short-lived but wonderful Indipop group, Monsoon, whose 'Ever So Lonely' single was a surprise hit in 1982. Coe married the group's singer, Sheila Chandra, and produced all her subsequent solo albums, some of which were on Peter Gabriel's Real World. I met him a couple of times with Sheila in the mid-80s: a protective, guiding (and clearly smitten) force.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Big School

End of one chapter, beginning of another: A's first day at secondary school. Longish bus journey, big building, a thousand children... But she took it all in her stride. 
I remember my first day: cycling to Chi High on my Chopper, green blazer, green tie, charcoal trousers, Leeds Unit bag filled with PE kit, dictionary and geometry set. It was the beginning of the Cod Wars with Iceland, the end of the Munich Olympics and Slade's Mama Were All Crazee Now had just replaced Rod Stewart's You Wear it Well at No.1. Another era...

Sunday, August 25, 2013

For All the Tea in China

Long flight home, during which I finished Sarah Rose's For All the Tea in China, which is not so much a book about the origins of tea, but how Britain switched from buying it from China to growing it in India.
For years the importing of tea was financed by the exporting of opium. But tea was expensive and the bartering with opium was 'problematic', though it didn't stop Britain waging two wars to try and perpetuate it. Around the mid 1800s someone in the East India Company thought it would be a good thing to grow its own tea in India, in Assam and Darjeeling where the conditions were just right. It would improve the Company's balance of trade. The problem was, India had no tea plants worth growing and no-one really knew what to do with them if it had. 
So, the Company sent a botanist called Robert Fortune to China to learn the secrets of tea growing, take seeds & cuttings and transport them to India. Tea espionage. He dressed as a mandarin with fake queue and went into the mountains of East China where no other European had penetrated. And that's how tea came to be grown in India.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Chance Encounters

An action-packed last day. And having pined yesterday for a stage and some thesps, I take it all back. Today I took part in Look Left Look Right’s fabulous You Once Said Yes. The piece, which stretches the idea of theatre to its very limits, is an hour-and-three-quarters of ‘chance’ encounters through the streets of Edinburgh. It sounds forced, potentiallly embarrassing, but you have to forget any inhibitions and just go for it (which is kind of reflected in the title). You never quite know where & when the next encounter’s coming from and somehow they feel quite natural: in a shop, a guy asking for money, another who’s lost... There are two or three more extrovert scenes which spice it up and keep you on your toes, and there’s a wonderful finale in a pub which I’ll keep secret, but suffice it to say it was my favourite experience of the Festival. Would this work in China? Ha, we’ll see.
Leaving Planet Eaeth
On top of that, met Gary & Pat for lunch; took in a concert, Tubular Bells For Two (two Aussie multi-instrumentalists performing, note for note, Mike Oldfield's album which I confess to having a soft spot for – and it was excellent, a real guilty pleasure); and finally Cui Yang and I took part in Grid Iron’s Leaving Planet Earth – a humungously ambitious ‘play’ which involved being bussed out 30kms to a state-of-the-art climbing centre, transformed into a kind of immigration station for us 300 or so travellers who were about to start life on a new planet, a kind of twin Earth. I won’t go into all the details here, but it was good, not entirely convincing, but impressive in its scale and detail.   

Friday, August 23, 2013

Black & White

Meetings all morning followed by two shows: Claire Cunningham / National Theatre of Scotland’s Menage a Trois – a dance piece about disability and love, rather slow and with superfluous graphics; and Gandini Juggling’s Smashed – a homage to Pina Bausch, featuring nine jugglers, a great many apples and some crockery. Tongue-in-cheek it may have been, but after a fun first 20 minutes it became rather purile, bordering on sexist. I don’t think Bausch would have appreciated it. 
In between the two I experienced Gregor Schneider's Susser Duft (Sweet Scent), an art installation in the basement of Summerhall (which, in my opinion, was the venue this festival). A guard with a walky-talky opens a big white door and in you go. You are in a totally white corridor. There's a door on the left. You open it and there's another totally white room, even the floor. You come out and walk to the end of the corridor, open the door and enter a small, dark, metallic room full of ten naked black men. They look away from you and you cautiously walk through them. And that's it. Two minutes max. Very weird, uncomfortable experience and yet there is an urge to laugh as you exit into the sunny cafe, despite the unfunny subject matter - a comment on slavery and racism
It’s nearing the end of the week and I’m kind of longing for a straight-forward play on a stage, no projections, graphics, other effects, just a few decent actors and a really good story. Stoppard, Ayckbourn, Hare, even Ibsen godforbid. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Gardening at Night

Packed day, starting with a beautiful dance piece by James Cousins Company, There We Have Been – a 17-minute duet which sees two performers embracing, folding, wrapping and balancing, with the female character never once touching the floor. Has this ever been done before? I don’t know. In lesser hands, it could have been a gimmick, but I found it intensely moving. Was Imitating the Dog’s The Zero Hour a play or a film? It was both. Presenting three potential outcomes of the last few hours of the fall of Berlin, it was innovative, technically brilliant and mostly gripping, though I found its framing as a film being made by a Chinese director and crew unnecessary / irritating. 
Also strangely gripping was Sven Werner’s Tales of Magical Realism which comprised a number of old projector-cum-peepshow contraptions, some of which you pedal-powered yourself (I had to climb onto a fixed-to-the-floor penny farthing to run mine) in a series of dark rooms which had some unknown previous function. The narrative was a cross-between an early David Lynch or Brothers Quay film. 

Next up was a light & sound installation, Ecstatic Arc, by Robbie Thomson featuring amongst other effects a Tesla coil, its high voltage current creating mini forks of lightning and triggering Autechre-like soundscapes. And finally, a play – Vision Mechanics' Dark Matters. In a garden. At night. With wireless headphones. Great concept, but I found the narrative, and the lone actress’s performance, somewhat unfathomable and melodramatic. 

The performing arts were never so stretched.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dance in Stereo

Highlight of the day was Billy Cowie’s Stereoscopic Trilogy 2 – a series of dance pieces for real and 3D filmed performers, presented as diptychs or triptychs. Once the red & green specs were on it was actually quite difficult to tell the dancers apart. The pieces were at once beautiful, clever, slightly eerie and occasionally funny. 
Equally strange was Chinese director Lin Zhaohua’s talk at the Festival Theatre. His ‘heavy metal’ version of Coriolanus is currently on at the Playhouse (see my post of it in Beijing). Lin is a bit of a rascal: aimiably controversial, not that interested in talking about his art and even less in answering (the mildly silly) questions from the audience… but I like him.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Wicked Witches

More shows. Good (Scottish Dance Theatre’s Second Coming) and bad (Traverse Theatre’s I’m with the Band), plus numerous meetings and a dinner with Wong Shi Kit of Himalayas Art Museum. Also found time to see Tricia’s Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art. Interesting show. Lots of engravings from antiquarian books, paintings by Goya, William Blake, depictions from Macbeth, even a Cindy Sherman in which she gets in character, pointy nose, warts & all. The European witchhunts of the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries resulted in thousands of deaths (possibly as many as 100,000). Not featured is one of my favourite Monty Python sketches in which a wise Terry Jones intervenes in a witch lynch declaring that her guilt or innocence should be determined by weighing her and a goose. If they weighed the same then she was guilty. They weighed the same. "It's a fair cop", she said.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Gecko & Co

The first of what will likely be a pattern: three shows, a reception, various meetings and a lot of jumping on & off the bicycle which I’ve borrowed from Tricia. The shows ranged from big & sophisticated (Gecko’s Missing) to small and lo-tech (Tom Frankland & Keir Cooper’s Don Quixote where we all sat on red cushions in a ladies locker room) and an inbetweeny production - Action Hero’s Hoke’s Bluff about an American college basketball/baseball/football team complete with cheerleaders performed by three people. All very whacky and fun but we’ll have to see what the Chinese promoters made of it. There were a dozen of them at Hoke’s Bluff.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


So I’m in Edinburgh for the biannual British Council Showcase which picks 30 of the best shows from a choice of 2,000 for around 250 international promoters to check out and hopefully invite back to their countries. It seems to work: in the eight previous Showcases, 87% of the shows ended up touring overseas. Today was a kind of training session for all us arts managers on how to get the best out of the week ahead. A few years ago the British Council lost its way in the arts. It was a strange period of two or three years punctuated by lack of leadership, confidence and dedicated staff. How times have changed. Today I joined around 60 arts managers from all over the world, many new, others revitalized, but all with a fresh sense of purpose. See also this post, same time two years ago.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


Day spent humping furniture, books and paintings up and down stairs in advance of P&T’s interior renovations, in between which I run a few errands in Morningside with Catherine. The street is a curious mixture of upmarket supermarkets & coffee shops, austerity-Britain charity shops, and churches – lots of churches. On one particular crossroads there are four on each corner, each a different denomination (and in one of them is the Eric Liddell Centre – the ‘Chariots of Fire runner’ who began & ended his days in China but lived in this neighbourhood as a young man - see this post). I’d forgotten how god-fearing Scotland is. Morningside is/was also the home of several writers: Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin and, until recently, J K Rowling. Illustrious company for my good brother...

Friday, August 16, 2013


Long flight to Edinburgh with tight half hour transit at Heathrow. I still find air travel incredible. Breakfast in Beijing, dinner same day with Patrick, Tricia & Catherine in Edinburgh. Lovely to see them.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Hermit of Peking

Just finished reading an extraordinary biography of the little-known but distinguished British scholar, Sir Edmund Backhouse, who as a young man had come to China in 1895, made his name co-authoring two books on the last years of the Qing dynasty, before going on to live a somewhat reclusive life in Beijing until his death in 1944.
And there it could have ended, had it not been for his memoirs which ended up in the hands of Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1973. The memoirs had depicted a very different person: centred around his salacious dalliances as a young man with Beerbohm, Wilde and Verlaine, court officials in Peking and, even more incredibly, the Empress Dowager herself. It was sensational stuff, but could it be believed? There had already been accusations that the sources for his first book were dreamt up and when Trevor-Roper dug deeper it became evident that Backhouse was one of the most outrageous confidence tricksters and eccentrics of the century.
Backhouse lived a life in which fact and fiction became blurred. He’d come to China as a brilliant linguist it’s true but also to escape creditors. He’d been a secret agent during WW1, hired to buy arms for the western front, and as a not-so-secret agent for a British shipbuilder, and led them both a merry dance. He did the same for an American company. When things got complicated he would simply disappear and then appear again. And when cornered he would talk himself out of it. The memoirs turned out to be pure fantasy, but cleverly based on real events.
As an aside, it’s interesting that it was Hugh Trevor-Roper who played detective. Just a few years after this book was published, the famous scholar & sleuth authenticated the infamous Hitler Diaries… which turned out to be fake.
In any case, Hermit of Peking would make a great film.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Liz and the girls back. Hooray!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Fave Films of the 80s

It's been a year since my last Fave Films post. So in a week of film-watching and -thinking, let's pick up the thread. The 80s, and my 20s. The decade in which a former film star became President of the United States, money talked, and movies went mega-mainstream. I was at college in Brighton and then living in London, so there would have been plenty of trips to the Duke of York and Scala, and recording stuff on chunky VHS tapes off TV. But enough preamble - here's a Top 15:

The Elephant Man 
Hannah and her Sisters 
Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources 
Paris, Texas 
The Meaning of Life 
Spinal Tap
The Killing Fields 
The Last Emperor
The Decalogue
Santa Sangre 

Well, what can I say? They're all brilliant. Ridley Scott's Bladerunner is a no-brainer: the perfect mix of detective story in a sci-fi genre which looked and sounded fantastic. As did Reggio, Frick & Glass's Koyanisqaatsi (easily the best of the three). The more obvious Lynch choice would have been Blue Velvet but I prefer the monochrome Elephant ManWoody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters is an easy Top 15, but it was tempting to add another, say Radio Days or Crimes and Misdemeanours or The Purple Rose of Cairo. Incredible to think that he made 10 films that decade. 
Python's The Meaning of Life wasn't as good as The Life of Brian, but it was still exceptionally funny / bitingly satirical. As was Gilliam's Brazil, though the laughs were buried beneath pipes, plastic surgery and nightmarish officialdom. More overtly comic were Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker's two Airplane! films (or could have been Naked Gun) but I'll go for the first one. Just deliriously stupid. As was This is Spinal Tap, which has now become rock vocabulary: 'How very Spinal Tap'.
Completely the opposite...  Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields set in Pol Pot's 70s Cambodia; Jodorowsky's surreal Santa Sangre set in Mexico; and Krzysztof Kieslowski The Decalogue, which is a bit of a cheat since it was a 10-part TV series, but two of them - probably the best two (A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love) - were also turned into features. And finally, Bertolucci's classic biopic of The Last Emperor set in tumultuous imperial, republican and communist era China; Wenders' melancholic Paris, Texas has to be in there, and Claude Berri's two-part Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources

Of the rest of Hollywood, respect to Cronenberg's Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers and John Carpenter's Escape from New York and TheThing and Kubrick's The Shining. Plus the Coen Brothers' first film, Blood Simple... Repo Man, Wise Blood, Raging Bull, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body Heat, Missing, One From the Heart, Sophie's Choice, Tootsie, King of Comedy, Trading Places, The Right Stuff, Rumble Fish, Scarface, Silkwood, Aliens, After Hours...  Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law and Mystery Train... Sex Lies and Videotape, The Right Thing,  Hairspray, Wall Street, The Accused, Rain Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dangerous Liaisons, Heathers, and Robocop. Yes Robocop - if only for the fact that it cast two relatively unglamorous unknowns as leads. 
It was a poor decade for animated films. Disney really lost their way. I can only think of The Little Mermaid which was 'alright', but mention must be made of Tron and the half-real-half-animation Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And a so-so decade for Bond films as the ageing Roger Moore (For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy and A View to a Kill) made way for Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights and A License to Kill.
The decade started well for UK films with Chariots of Fire and Gandhi sweeping the Oscars in '81 & '82, though Colin Welland's infamous rallying call, "The Brits are coming" turned out to be wishful thinking. Still, there was plenty that was good: The Long Good Friday, Terry Gilliam's all-over-the place Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen; Michael Pailin in The Missionary and A Private Function; Cleese and Palin in A Fish Called Wanda; Peter Greenaway's equal measures absorbing/infuriating The Draughtsman's Contract, A Zed and Two Noughts, Drowning by Numbers, The Belly of an Architect and The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover;  Derek Jarman's equally hard-going The Angelic Conversation, Caravaggio, The Last of England and War Requiem... Nic Roeg's Eureka and Insignificance; Local Hero, The Company of Wolves, The Emerald Forest, My Beautiful Laundrette, A Room with a View, The Hit, Mona Lisa,  A Letter to Brezhnev, Withnail and I, Wish You Were Here, The Mission, A World Apart, My Left Foot, Distant Voices Still Lives, Scandal. 
France had its stylish hits: particularly Diva, Subway and Betty Blue, but I also liked One Deadly Summer, Camille Claudel (basically anything with Isabelle Adjani in it), Chocolat,  and Truffaut's swansong, The Last Metro. Oh, and Sans Soleil and Shoah.
As for Germany, aside from Fitzcarraldo, it wasn't a great decade for Werner Herzog. But there was still Fassbender's Lili Marleen, Lola and Verokina Voss (before he topped himself) and Wim Wenders' other big hit, Wings of Desire; plus Wolfgang Peterson's Das Boot; the German-Hungarian Mephisto; and Baghdad Cafe. Were there others?
And without wishing to be disparaging to the scores of other countries making perfectly good films, I enjoyed (from Sweden) Fanny and Alexander; (Italy) Cinema Paradiso; (Denmark) Babette's Feast; (Spain) Almodovar's Dark Habits, Law of Desire and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; (Turkey) Yol; (Holland) the very disturbing The Vanishing; (USSR, as it was then): Tarkovsky's Nostalgia and The Sacrifice...
Further afield... (Japan) Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Tampopo, Akira, Black Rain (Imamura's, not the totally unconnected Hollywood crime one which came out the same year) and the re-make of The Ballad of Narayama (India) Salaam Bombay; (China) The Legend of Taiyuan Mountain, Rickshaw Boy, Yellow Earth and Red Sorghum; and (Australia) Gallipoli, Mad Max 2 and The Year of Living Dangerously... but not Crocodile Dundee. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Woman Basketball Player No.5

Watched a good, early Communist era film this evening: the fabulously titled Woman Basketball Player No.5. Tian Zhenhua had been a star basketball player in Shanghai and had fallen in love with the best player in the women's team, Lin Jie. But when his boss took a bribe to throw a match and he had refused to play badly, he was beaten up afterwards. His beloved was forced to marry someone else and both he and Lin Jie went their separate ways.
Eighteen years later he finds himself appointed coach of a new-look Shanghai female basketball team, including (unbeknownst to him) Lin Jie's daughter Lin Xiaojie. Soon enough all is revealed, matches are won and Tian & Lin (whose dastardly husband is conveniently out of the picture) get back together.
It's a bit cheesy, but a fun, feel-good, fast-paced hour-and-a-half, with great action scenes and any political undertones taking a back seat. Really enjoyable.

Thursday, August 8, 2013


Lucky day today: 8th day of the 8th month, the luckiest in the Chinese calendar. Famously, the Beijing Olympics started on 8.8.2008. And not only that - at precisely 8 minutes past 8pm, which of course is 2008hrs. Can't get more auspicious than that. Why is 8 lucky?  Eight in Chinese is Ba which sounds a bit like Fa which means to generate wealth.
The only conscious decision I made today involving said number was to have eight jaozi for dinner tonight.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Berberian Sound Studio

In the run-up to a British Film Festival we're organizing this November, I'm checking on the selection before they go to the censors. What will they make of Berberian Sound Studio? It's written & directed by Peter Strickland who debuted with Katalin Varga four years ago, and set in an Italian recording studio in the 70s where they're doing post-production and foley for a horror film. The producers have hired a sound engineer, a quiet soft-spoken Brit from Surrey, and basically the film is about him coming to terms with the ghastly film for which he's required to add equally ghastly sound effects. That's it really.
Beneath the surface there is much to admire: notably Strickland's deep knowledge of Italian avant garde composers and experimental music generally, but also the authenticity of the Italian horror genre. Many film buffs know Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) with soundtrack by Italian prog-rockers Goblin. Strickland knows the film backwards but opts not to show blood & guts, instead focussing on the psychological and authentic details like the period recording equipment. But ultimately it's an oppressive experience, set entirely in a darkened studio - except for a brief, incongruous & welcome nature film halfway through, set near Box Hill in Surrey.  
But back to the question. What will Chinese audiences make of it? It's so European, so referential to a particular (and obscure) genre, so 'un-Chinese'... We shall have to see.


So, England retain the Ashes, thanks to the rain. It's an anticlimax (or possibly an anti climate). What kind of sport is so at the whim of weather?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Map Ref

Continuing the Wire thing, one of my fave songs is Map Ref 41N 93W but I'd never bothered to find out where that is exactly. The lyrics don't tell us, nor does the book, but of course google does. Turns out to be here, an utterly unremarkable bit of countryside a few miles south east of Des Moines, Iowa. Why? I went back to the book, and turns out that Graham Lewis wrote the first half of the lyrics on a flight from LA to NY. So perhaps he nailed the opening couplet "An unseen ruler defines with geometry an unruleable expanse of geography" as the plane passed over said banal spot. 
I'd like to imagine a lone figure, Bill Bryson, whose first published lines were "I come from Des Moines (Iowa). Somebody had to...", standing by the side of the road wondering what to do with his life, looking up at the plane at that precise moment and thinking, "Travel, that's it!"  But it's wishful thinking - he was living in Bournemouth at the time.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


This weekend I immersed myself in Wire. Not the ferrous material or the TV programme or even the alternative music magazine (although the last one's close). Nope, a book called Read & Burn: a Book about Wire by Wilson Neate, about a band who've been a part of my life since a teenager.
In some ways this is a story that countless bands go through. Four guys trying to be true to their individual instincts while also trying to function as a unit. They had art school backgrounds and were keen to experiment, but they could also write a decent tune and might have dented the charts if only they could agree on a common direction. But there was always something difficult about Wire. They had attitude, they didn't play by the rules, do encores or play old material. They fought. They split up three times. The drummer (ousted by technology) left in the 90s and came back again. The guitarist left in 2004 and remains estranged They were useless at business. But somehow Wire remain. And amazingly they're stronger than ever.
circa 1979
I have pretty much everything they recorded and have spent the weekend listening to all of it (one of the advantages of temporarily being without family). It made me reappraise a lot of their stuff. Funnily enough I was rather less taken with what most people think is their seminal album, 154 (although it's still great), and warmed a bit to their early 90s albums, Manscape and The First Letter (though they're still the least interesting of their oeuvre). And my favourite is still A Bell is a Cup... despite the band themselves not liking it. 
Live they could be amazing. I first saw them in '85, at Oxford Museum of Modern Art - their first comeback gig - and again many times in the late 80s (usually great),  early 90s (usually bad), once in 2000 (almost unlistenable) and the last time in 2004 in Tokyo, which turned out to be one of Bruce Gilbert's last shows. By then, ironically, they'd returned to their punchy best and even started playing older songs - but not to the detriment of the new. The three remaining members, Newman, Lewis and Grey, are all bordering 60 and yet they create with the abandon of twentysomethings. The new album is titled Change Becomes Us. Say no more. 
circa 2012
The book itself is excellent, and at 427 pages incredibly thorough. There had been an earlier book, in the late 80s, by Kevin Eden, but Wire were just mid-period then. The thing that struck me most about Neate's opus is its sustained critical stance drawn from long, exclusive interviews with each member (as well as producers and other associates). The result is an incredibly balanced account, and for the band a sort of therapy. It makes for uncomfortable reading at times: their wilful self-destructiveness, the missed opportunities, the very English male way of 'not talking'. And yet, it has a happy ending. For now.  

Saturday, August 3, 2013


A morning of 'stuff' at home, cycling around town in the afternoon and a concert at the NCPA in the evening - the first of doubtless many Britten programmes in this his centenary year. Two pieces: the short Russian Funeral (1936) for brass band, and the much longer Suite from Death in Venice (1973), his last opera. In between was a strange not-in-the-programme piece by a young Chinese composer featuring everything but the kitchen sink - and not without interest. (What a damning expression). 
Second half was Shostakovitch's Symphony no.15 (1971). OK. I won't beat about the bush. I really don't like Shostakovitch and this was typical: dull, joyless and incredibly long. I did that rare thing. I left before the end. I would have been tempted by this T-shirt, mind, had it been on sale.

Friday, August 2, 2013


On 1 January 1992 a ship, sailing between Hong Kong and the west coast of the USA, hit rough weather. Its load of containers were buffeted and jostled, with several ending up in the ocean. One of these contained 28,800 bath toys - red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks - made in China and on their way to American bath tubs. 
A US teacher, Donovan Hohn, became fascinated by this - on the face of it - rather mundane occurrence, taking him, against his better judgement, on a quest to find what happened to them. He visited southern China, the seas around Hawaii, the beaches of Alaska and the Arctic; he studied ocean currents, plastics production, ship insurance and global pollution. The whole thing was ridiculous in a way, but sometimes you just have to go with it. He got a good (though somewhat overlong) book out of it - Moby-Duck - which I've just finished. He found some ducks and learned more about this strange world we live in world, and then went back to his family and young son. Done. Over with.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Yú hé shǔ tiáo

Funny item on BBC news this evening about a chippy in Brighton. Over the last two years The Regency Restaurant on the seafront has seen ever increasing numbers of Chinese diners. The confused yet grateful Cypriot owners, Robert & Emilio Savvides, set about trying to find out the reason for this upsurge of interest.  Apparently, someone posted a favourable review on Renren (Chinese facebook), with the result that the Regency is on everyone's travel itinerary. Not sure if they do sea cucumber or hairy crab though.