Sunday, November 30, 2014


Today we borrowed the office car and drive to Xochimilco in the south of the city. I didn't once drive in Beijing. People say driving in Mexico City is not for the faint-hearted but it was fine. Most of it was crawling along in traffic anyway; no worse than London or Bangkok, or Beijing for that matter.
So an hour and a half later we arrived in Xochimilco which is famous for its waterways and nurseries (for plants not toddlers). Actually it used to be one big lake but now it's canals which meander in-between artificial islands called chinampas.  Colourful wooden boats, trajineras, propelled by punters (like Oxbridge but without the straw boaters), are everywhere. Some with tourists, but mostly with families out for the weekend. Most have a long table down the middle laden with food and often there's a mariachi band perched aft. Some people even dance. And they're not big boats. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Just outside the kitchen is a little bookshelf crammed with cookbooks. I've counted them. There are 58. Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Bill Granger, Nigella Lawson, the usual… plus a lot of Japanese, Thai and Chinese. Liz is a great cook, but I think even she would confess to trying out just a fraction of the recipes they contain. 
Cookbooks are a bit like exhibition catalogues. They're so tempting: the photography, the sleek design, the celebrity coolness of the artist, and of course the works therein. But I don't really read exhibition catalogues. They just sit on our shelves looking nice, and perhaps give the impression that we are more cultured than we really are. But once in a while we get the cookbooks out, and did so today. It surprised me how many recipes Liz had put to practice, even though we now cater rather more for slightly fussy children and rather less for dinner parties. 
When did Brits become foodies? In my teenage years food was basic and unglamorous. I didn't complain, it was all we knew, but British food had a well-earned reputation for being boring. And then, somehow it all changed. Delia Smith arrived (I mean, she & her food weren't glamorous but everybody watched her on TV and bought her books). M&S started to sell decent sandwiches. Mother's Pride was out, brown wholewheat with added grain was in. Indian and health-food took off. Tescos, Sainsburys and Waitrose stocked ten types of humous. The twentysomething Jamie Oliver beckoned in the era of 'celebrity chefs'. Michelin star restaurants sprang up like weeds. Food was the new… well, what was it? Food was the new lifestyle. 
So, armed with a choice of 58 books, which should I choose? Funnily enough, I went for Fiona Watt's Beginners Cookbook which is actually for children, starting them early, grooming them for chiefdom - or at least toy eat more healthily. It's got a failsafe pizza base recipe, but this evening I chose chicken & bacon taglietelle. They didn't like it.

Friday, November 28, 2014


Although slightly premature, we had a formal ribbon-cutting for the renovated office. My old boss, Christopher (whom I've known for 20 years and trailed from London to East Asia and now to Mexico) did the honours, complete with moving speech. Everyone was stuffed onto the 2nd floor: staff, building contractors, security guards, cleaning ladies and all. Together we've put up with the noise, dust, smell, IT breakdowns and general disruption for three months. And now we're nearly there. Hooray.
The only disappointment was that there wasn't a long line of ribbon-cutters, the scissors weren't gold and no-one wore white gloves. In Japan that would have been de rigeur

Thursday, November 27, 2014

RIP P D James

I went round her house once. I was producing an exhibition about British Novelists and we wanted a title image which somehow summed up the lonely process of writing. So with photographer in tow, we chose the study in her home on Holland Park Avenue, roughly opposite Tony Benn. It was a small room, with a manual typewriter, looking out onto a back garden. It did the trick.
I don't think I've ever read one book of hers but she was a nice lady and shared a uncanny resemblance to my mum. Farewell Phyllis.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fast Cars

So, Lewis Hamilton won the F1 Championship today. Second time. Good for him. I can sort of understand the appeal, but I've never been that bothered about going to see a race. I went once, to Brands Hatch, sometime in the mid-80s. It was quite boring. We sat on a grassy knoll overlooking a bend. The first lap was fine. You could clearly see who was in front, but after a while it just became a steady stream of cars so we concentrated on our picnic and tried to talk above the din. At least it didn't rain. I think Alain Prost won, but I couldn't be sure. More interesting for me is Le Mans (see this post) the cars are sexier and it's 24 hours, but as for who's in the lead, well, forget it!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Music from Huddersfield

Although I'm in a good, even privileged, position to explore the alternative music scene in Mexico, I do miss the wealth of choice back home. Yesterday, for example, the 37th Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival kicked off and today the line-up is mouth-watering: a rare Henry Cow reunion playing the music of ex-member Lindsay Cooper who died last year (they also played at the Barbican in London yesterday); Aurora Orchestra playing Timber by Michael Gordon (founder of the Bang On A Can ensemble); Evan Parker & David Toop talking about rare & unusual records from their own vinyl collections; and Philip Thomas playing piano pieces by Howard Skempton (a personal favourite), Michael Finnissy and Christian Wolff, all on the same day.
I'm actually hoping to (help) bring two of the above to Mexico next year, but will keep stumm until confirmed.

Friday, November 21, 2014


This evening Liz and I watched the Mike Newell-directed film of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. It received bad reviews when it was released (2007) but we thought it was pretty good.
Gabo - as he was known in Latin America - lived for over 30 years in Mexico City and died here in April this year. The Presidents of both Colombia and Mexico attended a public commemoration for him in the Palacio des Bellas Artes a week later. To say that he was revered in this part of the world (and elsewhere of course) would be an understatement. "He was probably the greatest Colombian we ever had in our history", Colombia's President Juan Manual Santos told the BBC.
I'm ashamed to say that I've only read One Hundred Years of Solitude so need to put this right while resident in his adopted town.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Coffee Break

Day one of a two-day workshop, working out how we're going to manage around 100 events in the coming year. Good to get everybody together. And the venue for this auspicious away day? Starbucks, a few blocks from the office. But it's a big one: three floors, a roof terrace and a large meeting room with screen and everything. And coffee...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Spritzers in Space

Went to Kosmica tonight, a small festival which started off in London, programmed by The Arts Catalyst, but has since been presented in a few international cities. I think it's their third time in Mexico City. Basically, it's about art & space. In the past they've taken artists on zero gravity flights courtesy of the Russian space agency or organised exhibitions, like Republic of the Moon earlier this year. 
This evening's event was A Brief History of Alcohol in Outer Space which was part talk, part performance as the two comperes took us through an amusing run-through the Sputnik, Apollo, MIR, Skylab etc. Did astronauts take booze on board? How do you drink sherry in zero gravity? Shots were distributed to the audience and we toasted Soyuz with vodka and NASA with bourbon. It reminded me of Oxford Playhouse's One Small Step which similarly had fun with the space race (which I saw exactly four years ago in Beijing). Funny to think that space is as much nostalgic as futuristic these days. 
My favourite space & alcohol story is Tintin's Explorers On The Moon in which Captain Haddock goes on an unscheduled, drunken space walk tethered to the best-looking rocket ever designed. It was written in the early 50s but the illustrative detail over the two books is simply stunning.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

On the Road, Mexican Style

Just read Hugh Thomson's Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico. At 18, naive yet self-confident, Thomson decided to fly to Mexico in the summer of '79 between school and university. He ended up buying a gas-guzzling Oldsmobile 98 for $500 in El Paso, and driving it south where he would sell it for "a handsome profit" in Belize. Well that was the plan. Along the way he crashed it several times, surfed, got into scrapes with the police, managed a golf course and got mugged. 
It's a kind of modern day On the Road, with some interesting observations on Cortes, the Mayans, Aztecs, Pancho Villa and writers like Greene, Huxley and Waugh who visited Mexico in the late 1930s. For an 18 year old punk, he seems unreasonably world-weary... but then he did write it 30 years later.
Thomson went on to write several other books and make a number of excellent documentaries, including Indian Journeys with William Dalyrimple and Joanna Lumley in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon (Bhutan), plus the epic Dancing in there Street: a Rock and Roll History.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Another Esquivel...

… but nothing cheesey about the writer, Laura Esquivel. She wrote her first novel Como Agua para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) in 1989, which was promptly turned into a very successful film a few years later. The title is a phrase referring to the state of being very angry, or aroused. We watched it this evening, and there is indeed a lot of anger and arousal, though most of the latter unconsummated. It's set during the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th Century though that's just background: mostly it's about kicking against traditional, conservative mores and depicting the onset of Mexican feminism. And food. Food figures a lot.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Space Age Bachelor Pad Maestro

Listening this evening to a compilation of Mexican composer Juan Esquivel's music from the 50s & 60s, bought at the height of the UK's 'lounge' boom in the mid 90s and not played since really.
Equivel (1918-2002) was a product of his era: a bit of big band, film music, mambo, Latin pop, cheesy TV jingles, muzak... but with enough experimentation (theremins, Chinese bells, harpsichord and weird recording techniques) to make it interesting. 
For good measure I also played Perez 'Pred' Prado's Guaglione which was recorded in 1955 and became an unlikely hit 40 years later when it was used in a brilliant Guinness ad. I have that single and it really packs a punch.
It's funny how that music, considered so naff in the 70s & 80s, suddenly became cool & hip in a deeply ironic, retro kind of way in mid-90s Britain, just as Britpop kicked in - both I suppose harking back to the 60s. There were endless compilations, it was constantly on TV and lounge clubs popped up from nowhere. I remember going to one in Brockley, south-east London, about as untrendy a place as you can imagine (and therefore perfect). I seem to recall an excess of velvet, trumpets and bad cocktails. 
I am listening now to Esquivel's Mini Skirt which consists of wolf whistles and someone (Esquivel?) saying "groovy" over a Latin beat. Is this really any good or have we all been hoodwinked?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Animal Jam

N is obsessed with Animal Jam, an online game set in a world called Jamaa. You pick an animal avatar, explore different eco-zones, and play games, swap virtual stuff & chat to fellow players. It's pretty safe and harmless, and is somehow linked to National Geographic. 
Millions of people play it all over the world. N plays it with her Argentinian friend Martina in Beijing. Every now & again she gets a Skype message and after a brief chat one of them says "Do you wanna play AJ?" And off they go, chatting & playing at the same time.
It's a far cry from playing marbles or cowboys & indians in the back garden.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

String Theory

Tonight Liz and I were invited to a concert by Camerata Bern, the Swiss string ensemble. An accessible beginning & end of Mozart & Beethoven sandwiched a more challenging filling of Britten & Zimmerlin (the latter a composer who's actually still alive), and the venue was lovely - the roof-garden of the Castillo de Chapultepec (see here). 
I'd had a hard day so it was nice just to vegetate and let the music wash over me. They play standing up so are a bit more energetic than most, but still I find it hard to focus on the sound of strings. I'm not sure what the collective noun is (a vile?), but there's something about the violin's thin tone which I just don't find engaging, even when bolstered by cello & double bass, even the sound of 50 of them in a symphony orchestra. It still sounds thin. Philistine.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mexicans in Beijing

Today I received a gift: a book of photographs taken in Beijing called Ciudad Prohibida. The pictures are by Mexican photographer Ulises Castellanos, the text by my colleague Edgardo Bermejo, who heads up our small Arts team here. Edgardo was Cultural Attaché for the Mexican Embassy in China a few years before we were there so we have lots to talk about. 
The photographs, all B&W, are of normal Beijing life - people & places: stuff we experienced everyday for four years. It's funny looking at them now, a few months since we left. I feel so removed from China already and so settled in Mexico, that the images seem somehow very foreign when they should feel utterly familiar. I guess it's all part of moving on.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


This afternoon we had coffee & cakes with our Argentinian-Danish neighbours. For the past 15 years we've had a wide range of international next-door friendships. In Beijing they were Malaysian or Czech; in Bangkok, French, Japanese and Austrian; only in Tokyo were they actually Japanese. Carlos doesn't speak much English so we did our best in Spanish but mostly Marie-Louise interpreted. I've been to Denmark just the once, years ago, but remember being struck by not only how many people speak English, but speak it really well. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

From Orphanage to Museum

Orozco murals
Maximo Gonzalez installation
More Guadalajara meetings, finishing at the Hospicio Cabanas, a former orphanage, now a museum. It was established in 1810 by Bishop Juan Ruiz de Cabanas and is truly enormous, featuring 23 courtyards and, in the middle, a large chapel which is plastered with the frescoes of Jose Orozco (one of Mexico's great muralists). They are overwhelmingly grim, painted in 1937-38 after the chapel had been deconsecrated. 
The Hospicio continued as an orphanage until as late as 1982. An interesting anecdote is that many of the children who entered its doors didn't have or couldn't remember their surnames, so the carers gave each of them the name of Cabanas, which explains why there are now so many Cabanas in Mexico.
But really I was here to recce the place for a possible exhibition next year. Aside from the Orozcos, the Museum is actually better known for its contemporary exhibitions. The current show is by Argentinian artist Maximo Gonzalez who lives & works in Mexico City. Really interesting stuff.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Soda Stereo

Debut album (1984)
Out & about in Guadalajara with venue visits, meetings and a music conference called FIM. The keynote talk was by Charly Alberti the drummer of Soda Stereo, an Argentinian rock group. We chatted beforehand and I embarrassingly confessed to only really knowing the name and not their music, but he wasn't put out at all. Cool guy, leather jacket, shades, looked a bit like Andy Summers of The Police... And that's what his band sounded like when they formed in 1982, before going on to become pretty much the biggest band in Latin America selling (and playing to) millions. 
And yet, because they sang in Spanish, no-one's ever heard of them in Britain, even though they were heavily influenced by British rock, especially new wave - an interesting choice in their early years given the Falklands/Malvinas 'issue'. They split up in 1997, then reformed, but tragedy struck in 2010 when lead singer & guitarist Gustavo Cerati suffered a stroke after a concert in Caracas. He lay in a coma for four years until dying just two months ago. The streets of Mexico City, let alone Buenos Aries, were (literally) full of grieving fans.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Today I took the one-hour flight to Guadalajara - a name which has been etched on my brain since I was a 9-year-old. On 7 June 1970, the Estadio Jalisco played host to the classic World Cup match between England and Brazil. 'Bobby Moore's greatest game', that save by Gordon Banks, a stunning goal by Jairzinho... May & June of that year was when I really got into football: the Leeds v Chelsea FA Cup Final, Ajax v Panathanaikos European Cup Final at Wembley (with two goals scored by not-the-Mary-Poppins-star Dick van Dyk)... but what clinched it was the international exoticism that was Mexico 1970 - and the coins my brother & I collected at Esso stations. 
So all this was on my mind as we were taken to a dinner hosted by Raol Padilla, Head of Guadalajara International Book Fair (aka FIL) in a boutique hotel designed by Luis Barragan. The dining room, which was in fact a 2-storey, floor-to-ceiling library, had just the one table and looked out onto a gorgeous courtyard. I sat opposite Ofelia Medina, an actress active since the 70s who played Frida Kahlo in, not the 2002 Salma Hayek movie, but a 1983 Mexican one, Frida: Naturaleza Viva (which Mexicans generally rate the better of the two). A charming lady and wonderful food. I didn't mention the match. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Saints Alive

Doubting Thomas
Back in 2010-11, Michael Landy was invited to be the National Gallery in London's artist-in-resident. It was a surprising choice. Landy is best known for his 2001 work Break Down in which he systematically destroyed all his possessions in a former department store on London's Oxford Street. What on earth was he going to come up with in an institution he hadn't been to since his college days?  It took him a while, but in the end he struck on the idea of reinterpreting the many saints depicted in the Gallery's Renaissance paintings and making kinetic sculptures out of them, (almost) literally bringing them to life. 
Most of the sculptures depict a saint in the act of martyrdom. They're both shocking and funny. And their interactiveness - Thomas poking his finger in Christ's wound, Saint Jerome bashing himself with a stone - really succeeds in connecting us with them.
Bringing an expanded version of the exhibition to Mexico City was a great idea (not mine I should add). What would a deeply Catholic country make of what could be seen as 'poking fun at religion'. We shall see. Anyway, it opened to the public today and the initial reaction has been very positive.

Monday, November 3, 2014

An Announcement

Announcing UKMX at the Palacio Nacional
Yesterday the Prince of Wales & the Duchess of Cornwall arrived in Mexico City and today, amongst other engagements, they (or rather Charles & President Nieto) announced the Dual Year of UK in Mexico and Mexico in UK. Running the former is what I'll be doing for the next year and a bit so it was a pretty big moment for me. 
The announcement took place in an impressive courtyard within the Palacio Nacional. Speeches were given, things were signed and Michael Nyman (bless him) was named as one of the highlights of the Year ahead. 
Duchess of Cornwall & Landy
From there we walked a block to San Ildefonso Museum to prepare for the evening's big reception. All pretty frenetic with last minute changes and all the stress that is par for the course for these things, but there's no denying it was  exciting and glamorous... and heaving with people. We took Camilla around Landy's Saints Alive exhibition while Charles did an Education event in another room, before they reunited to circulate amongst the throng of people in the courtyard, giving Security plenty to be worried about.   
Then they were gone, waved off by a crowd on the pavement shouting "Bye bye Charlie!"
As an announcement of the celebratory year ahead, it doesn't get much bigger. Now all we have to do is live up to it. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Icons, Actors and Altars

Today I went on a cultural tour of some special altars set up in & around three museums in the south of the city. 
We started off at the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Xochimilco. Olmedo was a larger-than-life, businesswoman and patron of the arts, who dominated mid-20th Century Mexican society around the time of Rivera & Kahlo. She married a British journalist, Howard Phillips, in 1935, had relationships left, right & centre, made her millions in bricks & construction and bought up much of Rivera's paintings. Her hacienda is now home to the largest private collection of his 'easel' work in the world but is otherwise dominated by portraits off herself - and in that respect Kahlo & Olmedo were two peas in a pod. But aside from the (very interesting) museum, there was a temporary exhibition of Day of the Dead figures chronicling the whys, wheres and wherefores. "A bit Disney", as our guide pointed out, but fun.
From there we went to the National Museum of Contemporary Culture in Coyoacan which is less a museum and more a series of halls and courtyards which present temporary exhibits, concerts, plays, crafts, food etc related to modern Mexican culture. Everyone was dressed up, children and adults alike. Check this family out.
And finally we crawled through traffic to the Casa de Emilio Fernandez, a director and actor from Mexico's 'golden age' of cinema in the 40s & 50s. It's still lived in by his descendants and normally inaccessible, but at this time of year they fill it with his memorabilia, altars and other DofD paraphernalia and open it up to the public. It is a labyrinth of dark rooms, passageways and tight staircases and then the surprise of a 2-storeyed living room, all designed by Manuel Parra (who apparently built 800 houses in his long career). Much of it was made from lava. 
Fernandez himself was quite a character. In his early life he was a revolutionary, went to prison, escaped to the US, was a double for Douglas Fairbanks, boxer, diver in Acapulco… before taking up acting proper and then directing, winning the Palme d'Or for Maria Candelabra in 1943. Needless to say he was friends with Rivera and Kahlo, and part of the 2002 film Frida was shot in this house. An amazing place.