Friday, October 31, 2014

Day of the Dead

Today is the start of the Day of the Dead festival when Mexican families pay their respects to the deceased. It goes back to Aztec times, when it was celebrated in the summer, but following the Spanish conquest was moved to All Hallow's Eve and All Saints' Day. 
Many families go to the cemetery and also set up simple - or sometimes very elaborate - altars in their homes on which are placed photos, food (particularly sugar-coated buns - pan de muerto) candles, crosses, marigolds and skulls. There are all sorts of variations around the world: Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Day) in China and if course in the US it's manifested as Hallowe'en, though more trick-or-treat than respecting your ancestors. 
It's the skulls & skeletons that make Day of the Dead such a macabre event and so recognisable around the world. In truth they're more comic than scary. And they're everywhere, including at the Hallowe'en party we went to this evening, which was more American than Mexican. 
Brits are curiously uncomfortable in dealing with, let alone celebrating, death, and we simply don't 'do' ancestor workshop. But we've decided to buck that trend. Here's our attempt at an altar. Not sure if the black cat really fits, but we like it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Diego's Daughter

Guadelupe & dad
Following a press conference for Michael Landy's Saints Alive exhibition at the San Ildefonso Museum, we were invited to a small reception hosted by one of the trustees in a house in San Angel in the south of the city. As we drew up to the gates it became apparent that this was no ordinary house. It was the residence of Adolfo Lopez Mateos, former President of Mexico between 1958-64. The trustee, Juliana, is his granddaughter. Aside from running the country, Mateos was a great art lover and was responsible for setting up several of Mexico City's great museums, including the world-renowned National Museum of Anthropology. The house is stuffed with his art collection, French furniture and ceramics. 
But my abiding memory of the evening will be a long talk with Diego Rivera's daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marin, just the two of us on a sofa. She's now 90, but bright as a button and speaks excellent English. She told me how her mother, Lupe Marin, admired Diego Rivera's work and although she didn't know him, decided that she wanted to marry him. So she travelled from her home in Jalisco province to Mexico City, met him and got married. Simple. That was in 1922. We talked about her career as a senator and congresswoman, food (she's an excellent cook apparently), Diego and Frida of course, and how I must learn all about Mexico's pre-Hispanic past in order to understand Mexico.
What an incredible evening.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Magnetic Fields

You can tell we now have a home. Our growing collection of fridge magnets is in place. I think we have 100 or so, mostly from holidays. Not a patch on world record holder Louise J. Greenfarb though. She has over 35,000. Presumably not all on fridges.   

Saturday, October 25, 2014

More Like Home

Our worldly possessions arrived today. They'd been sitting in a container on a Chinese dockside for the best part of three months while I got my visa sorted out this end. 
And then, all of a sudden it was here: a 12,500km Pacific crossing from Tianjin to the Mexican port of Lazaro Cardenas, surprisingly quickly through customs and then a 600km road journey to the capital. We've done this often enough now, but each time we're flabbergasted about how much stuff we have. 198 boxes, most of which seem to be records, CDs, books, toys and kitchenware. For some reason, there seem to be hardly any clothes, even with three females in the family. You'd think that records and shoes would be neck & neck. It'll take a fortnight to unpack but by this evening it was already beginning to feel more like home: toys strewn over the floor, fridge magnets in the kitchen, ornaments & nicknacks scattered here, there & everywhere. Frivolous in the grand scheme of things, yet at the same time tremendously important.

Friday, October 24, 2014


Jon Hopkins
I'm getting a bit old for clubbing. The thought of spending the wee small hours in a cavernous venue, pummelled by techno isn't that appealing these days. But tonight I am coaxed out. I'm glad I went. 
MUTEK bills itself as an International Festival of Digital Creativity. It started in Montreal in 2000 and there have been satellite versions in several Latin American countries. Mexico City's has been going since 2003 and is big. Events have taken place in different venues throughout this week. Tonight's is in what was once a plastics factory, now the Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos. There must be 5-10,000 people crammed into its many gallery spaces on three floors, with three stages, a couple of art installations, cafe and bars run by the sponsors. We helped bring over a few UK electronic acts: Daniel Avery, Andy Stott, Heatsick, Max Cooper, Mille & Andre and - the principle reason I'm here - Jon Hopkins.
I've been playing his Contact Note, Insides and Immunity incessantly over the last year or two. These - and his work with Eno, Coldplay, King Creosote and Random Dance, plus film soundtracks - make him, for me at least, man of the moment. Live, Hopkins treads a fine line between recreating the delicious atmospheres of the above albums and giving the audience the crushing beats that one might expect. I enjoyed it, but missed the detail. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Alvin Stardust RIP

Alvin Stardust, aka Shane Fenton, aka Bernard Jewry, died today aged 72. For a year, sometime in the mid-70s, cashing in on glam and before punk, he cut a peculiarly eye-catching figure. Dressed all in black, including those all-important gloves with rings on the outside, he looked like a gothic Elvis Presley or a teddy-boy Hells Angel. I remember seeing him sing 'My Coo Ca Choo' and 'Jealous Mind' on Top of the Pops. He had a way of holding the mic which was just weird while pointing 'menacingly' at the camera with his other hand. As an impressionable 13-year-old it was quite sinister.
He did stuff before and after (including coming third in the Eurovision Song Content in the mid-80s) but it was that 1974 persona that I'll remember him for.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Bringing back the Trains

For a country as large as Mexico (2 million square km - bigger than France, Germany, Spain,  UK, Portugal, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland combined), it's surprising there isn't much of a rail system. Like many countries, a network was begun in the late 1800s but petered out during the Revolution and then fell into disrepair. 
Nowadays two companies run freight trains in the top half of the country, but there are no passenger services, unless one counts a few small tourist lines (e.g. through Copper Canyon, another in Yucatan…). People generally get around by bus, car or plane.
Looks like this is set to change, however. Construction has just begun on high-speed passenger lines from the capital to Toluca and Queretaro, with further services to Puebla and Guadalajara to follow.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Below Guanajuato

Guanajuato isn't just known for its festival. Back in the 16th Century, the conquering Spaniards found silver here, and at one time it produced two-thirds of the world's total output, a phenomenal percentage (OK, fraction). There are still working mines today. This morning we went up into the hills to visit a long-since closed one, but it gave you an idea of the wealth that was produced and the hardships endured by the mainly slave labour... and the expertise they acquired digging tunnels which Guanajuato is riddled with. 
We also visited the Museum of Mummies, a macabre collection of curiously preserved dead people. In the late 19th Century the town's main cemetery became overcrowded so the authorities imposed a tax on the deceased's relatives. If they couldn't pay, their loved ones were exhumed to make way for newcomers. It was then that the natural mummification was noticed - a result of the minerals within the stone burial chambers. The museum has around 60 of them dating from 1850-1950, and in various degrees of decomposition.
Infinitely more pleasant was the stupendous view from the top of the funicular in the south of the city: a sea of coloured houses (ochres, terracotta reds, azure blues...) stretching to east and west and creeping up the hills, with the Teatro Juarez, cathedral and old university building taking centre stage.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Guanajuato and the Cervantino Festival

To Guanajuato, 350kms north-west of Mexico City, for the Cervantino Festival (FIC). Every October it takes over the town much like another festival takes over Edinburgh. There are other similarities. Both fests are very well established (67 & 42 years respectively), and both cities share a hilly topography with winding, cobbled streets & alleys. The extraordinary thing about Guanajuato, though, are the tunnels: the town is a rabbit warren of them, roughly hewn over many years and clogged with cars and fumes. The weekend is partly work but Liz & the girls are with me too - their first real escape from Mexico City - as is Edgardo & his son, so a nice family atmosphere. FIC is largely a performing arts festival. Each year there's a Guest Country (this year Japan) and over its three weeks it packs in 400+ events. There are a few British companies in town, partly supported by us and mainly in connection with FIC's Shakespeare 450 celebrations: the aforementioned New London Consort's The Fairy Queen, Tiger Lillies' weird version of Hamlet, and some NT Live screenings. Not British, but we supported it, is a project called Proyecto Ruelas in which amateur actors from disadvantaged communities perform mini Shakespeares in public squares. The Arditti Quartet and Michael Nyman were also in town.So we dipped in and out of some of these (and in and out of some exquisite buildings - particularly the grand old Teatro Juarez), finishing with a French sound & light installation in a giant cube; an empty, dull experience sadly. But what a town. It Is alive with people, color, music (including the inevitable Mariochas) and culture. Whether it's like this the whole year round, I'm not sure, but we're certainly impressed. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Mexico's best known department store is called, strangely, Liverpool. There are 73 of them (and another 17 shopping malls). They were actually founded by a Frenchman in 1847, initially selling just clothes, with most of the merchandise being shipped to Mexico from Merseyside, hence the name. 
This one's fancy, designed by Rojkind Arquitectos and opened in 2011, but mostly they're regular looking, including the one we go to in Polanco. We like them because they seem to have perpetual 15-30% discounts and are as over-staffed as their Japanese equivalents.   

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mexico Design Week

To the opening of Design Week Mexico, a packed event at the Museo de Tamayo. It's been running for five years now, and this year the UK is Guest Country. Lots of fantastic-sounding exhibitions, installations and talks but apart from hooking up with John Sorrell tomorrow, I won't have time to see any of them. 
Mexico seems a great place for design. Architecture for sure, and there are some great graphics around. And interested to find out more about its fashion and product design. But unfortunately not this week which is hyper.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Half an Opera

This evening I went to the Palacio de Bellas Artes for the first time. It's a beautiful building in the centre of town, started in 1904, interrupted by revolution and soft soil problems and finally completed 30 years later. The outside may be neoclassical but the inside is art deco with murals by Riviera, Siqueiros and others.
The performance tonight was a semi-staged opera, or rather a dramatised Early Music concert: Purcell's The Fairy Queen, played by the New London Consort. Alongside the musicians was a troupe of singers, jugglers & acrobats dressed in modern garb and ultra minimal staging (suitcases basically). The piece was originally based on Shakespeare's Midsummer Nights' Dream but this version dispenses with all but the section in Arcadia. I failed to follow the plot but the combination of music, singing and fine interior, made for a rather enchanting evening.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Penthouse and Pavement

Went to a big garden party this evening at the ambassador's residence. It was for a business delegation covering art, design, music and... airports, together with a whole bunch of Mexican contacts. The music was great: Heaven 17, Blondie, Heaven 17, Deee-lite, Heaven 17... Hang on, who was that stately DJ with the thinning hair? Yes, it was Martyn Ware! Had a tongue-tied chat during the speeches before he recommenced... with Let Me Go by, er, Heaven 17. Since when did DJs play their own music?
'Headline' act, though, was a Mexican band called Stroker who were like a cross between Red Snapper and Magma, the lead instruments being trumpet and sax. Odd, but good.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Desert Island Discs

Going through a phase of listening to podcasts of Desert Island Discs while making the weekend breakfasts. Yesterday Zadie Smith and Hugh Laurie, today Biddy Baxter and Jack Dee. Such a simple, winning formula... 
It was first broadcast on BBC Home Service in the middle of the Second World War, took a break from 1946-51, but since then has run continuously, with only four consecutive presenters, to the present day. Surely the longest running radio programme ever?
I've often thought what my choice would be but to the best of my recollection have only once made an actual list, and that was at school in a class called Music Appreciation. It would have included some Krautrock, prog and I distinctly remember the then recently released Music for 18 Musicians featuring.
Funnily enough, probably half of them would still feature. Like most teenagers, the music I listened to then was incredibly defining of subsequent tastes. But how do you decide? Something that defines different parts of your life? A song or an album?  A Best Of? Could one even choose a box set? Different genres of music for variety's sake? Or just, simply, your faves - music you couldn't live without. OK, here goes...
  • The Beatles Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) - obvious, but it was my first real introduction to popular culture - the music, lyrics, production, sleeve...
  • David Bowie Ziggy Stardust (1972) - as an 11-year-old, made a big impression, though I'd probably rather a Best Of if that was permitted 
  • Ashra Blackouts (1978) - important in shaping my love of instrumental, electronic music and one that I still play to death (partly, it has to be said, because the rest of the family likes it) 
  • Brian Eno Music for Airports (1978) - difficult to choose one, but I could happily have this on a never-ending loop
  • Steve Reich Music for 18 Musicians (1978) - an epiphany, something that came out of classical music but was utterly new, accessible - it had a groove  
  • Popol Vuh Bruder des Schattens, Sohne des Lichts (1978) - utterly unlike any other group, a very different take on spiritual music compared with soul, gospel etc 
  • Wire A Bell is a Cup Until it is Struck (1988) - intelligent, tense, edgy pop which never, like most pop, becomes too commonplace
  • Global Communication 74-16 (1994) - from a period when the instrumental electronic music of above met 90s dance culture and continues today with Underworld, Jon Hopkins & others
Of course, it's almost impossible to arrive at just eight choices - it's too male, too 70s (four from '78 alone!), nothing from the last 20 years, too instrumental, no new wave?, too arty - but it's my choice and, for now at least, I'm sticking to it.
Book? I think the Encyclopedia Britannica. Luxury item? If the island was big enough, a bicycle. If not, then photo albums. Or come to think of it, maybe podcasts of all the Desert Island Discs.   

Thursday, October 9, 2014


Spent the evening assembling desks and swivel chairs for the girls. On the one hand I resent the fact that not only do you have to pay for the furniture but you also have to spend three hours putting it together. If I bought a car, would I have to assemble it? Life is becoming increasingly flat-packed. 
On the other hand, I quite like the physicality of it. There was something quite satisfying about making something. I felt, if not like a craftsman, then at least a sense of pride, even vindication, at getting through the 17-step instruction manual and producing desks with workable drawers and swivel chairs which didn't propel the girls across the living room. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Kissing & Dancing

The record for the most people kissing simultaneously (39,879) was set in Mexico City on 14 February 2009. And while we're about it, so was the most people dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (13,597). The most people kissing while dancing to "Thriller" has not yet, as far as I know, been attempted.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

That'll do Nicely, Sir

Brunch with the Governor of the State of Vera Cruz, the avuncular Javier Duarte, in his rather nice home, joined by Salman, several local dignatories, Hay Fest people, the French & Spanish cultural attaches etc, all of us seated around an immense table - so big that we used a mic to speak. 
Then off to the Teatro del Estado, the largest of the festival venues, for Salman's talk, moderated by Gabi Weiss. It was packed - around 1,500 people - and within ten minutes he transfixed everyone. Funny, serious, lots of stuff I didn't know (like his surname doesn't go back beyond his father, who adopted it in honour of a medieval Andalusian muslim intellectual), his struggle to find out how to write during the 70s (though of course he was an advertising copywriter then and coined not only cream cakes' "Naughty but nice" but also American Express's "That'll do nicely, sir"), his meetings with Latin American writers, and of course the event that changed his life 25 years ago. His views on ISIS were predictably scary and honest. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Hay in Xalapa

Off to Xalapa for the Hay Festival. It's a 4 hour bus ride east from the capital, over hills and plains, almost to the Gulf of Mexico, but not quite. The bus is amazing, a drink as you board, business-class seats with personalised video screens, very comfortable. The curtains are drawn and most people just sleep or watch movies, hermetically sealed for the duration. But I peak out and see cacti, a big sky and the extinct volcano of Cofre de Perote (4,280 - almost as high as the Mattherhorn). 
Xalapa itself is theoretically a big city (pop. 380,000) but feels small. It has a well-known university, an important Museum of Anthropology (second only to the capital's) and Mexico's oldest symphony orchestra. 
One of the latest of the Hay franchises (there are around ten in off-the-beaten-path places around the world), this is its fourth year here. We've supported a few British writers: dramatist & novelist Nell Leyshon (a new find for me, currently writing a play about, of all things, the history of English folk music), poet SJ Fowler (charming chap), journalist Bee Rowlatt (whom somehow I didn't actually get to meet!) and guest of honour Salman Rushdie (who arrived from New York in time for a dinner we co-hosted). Never met him before. Was expecting to be overpowered by his presence, but he was charming and self-effacing, though of course with some great stories.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

RIP Lynsey de Paul

Brain haemorrhage, age 64 (same age as John Peel), a staple of early 70s Top of the Pops. 'Sugar Me' and 'Won't Somebody Dance With Me' were fluff, but her coy cameo in Mott the Hoople's 'Roll Away the Stone' was genius. And of course as a boy on the cusp of teenagerdom, I can't say I didn't fancy her. I think it was the beauty spot that really did it.