Wednesday, December 31, 2014


So, another year goes by, in which I:
- moved from China to Mexico
- commenced work on another Year of Culture
- started learning Spanish
- stopped and then re-started writing this blog
- released a CD of music by Andrew Cox
- became convinced that 1984 was the last great year of pop
- enjoyed a moderately entertaining World Cup
- Liz passed two Chinese exams
- the girls moved schools
- spent Christmas with a Japanese-Jewish family
Life continues to surprise...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Stolen Generation

En famille, we watched Rabbit Proof Fence this evening. A fine film, set in the 1930s, about three half caste Aboriginal children taken from their home in a remote part of Western Australia to a 'school' of sorts which, echoing national policy, would 're-educate and civilize' them. They escaped - two sisters aged 14 & 8 and their cousin, 10 - and walked 1200 miles home, through desert and scrub, eluding both the police and an experienced tracker. It's based on a true story and right at the end of the film we see the real two sisters in old age, wearing incongruous floral dresses. The elder sister's daughter wrote the book that the film was based on. What's more, the same thing happened to her!  Amazing performances from the three children, plus (fairly unnoticeable) music from Peter Gabriel.  

Monday, December 29, 2014

Lost in Papua

Goodbye to our American-Japanese friends, off to catch a plane to Miami. It's been great seeing them.
Stand by for a tenuous link… I've been reading Lost in Shangri-la by Michael Zuckoff, an account of a plane crash & rescue operation in what was, not eastern Tibet as one might think, but Dutch New Guinea in May 1945 at the tail end of the Pacific War. Of the 24 U.S. army personnel on board, only three survived, finding themselves in the middle of a remote, unexplored* valley inhabited by 'stone-age' tribes who constantly fought each other and often resorted to cannibalism, plus there was the added spice of a few hiding Japanese soldiers. Possibly.
Luckily, a rescue plane spotted them and two medics were parachuted in to tend to their injuries. But how to get them out? The jungle was too impenetrable to walk through, the air to thin for a helicopter and nowhere long enough to land a conventional plane. So what they did was to land a glider, which doesn't need much of a runway, which was then snatched back up by a regular plane with a hook, flying very low. They both then flew back to the airbase, one towing the other, before landing separately. Amazing.
Incidentally, much to the disappointment of the world's press, the 'natives' were friendly and there were no Japanese.

[* Actually, unbeknownst to all concerned, it had been explored, by Richard Archibold in 1938]

Sunday, December 28, 2014


Into the Centro Historico with our friends, running the gauntlet of the metro. All forms of life pass through its carriages: blind singers, little boys selling cigarettes; women selling CDs with speakers sewn into their backpacks, others purveying sweets…

Friday, December 26, 2014

Back in Time

Finally went to Mexico's most visited museum today, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. Although founded in the 19th century, it wasn't until 1964 that a new, fit-for-purpose building was constructed on the edge of the Bosque de Chapultepec, just a mile or so from our home. 
Its 23 galleries are laid out in a giant U with a massive courtyard in the middle (with a huge 'umbrella'-like structure supported by a single pillar) and gardens around the outside. Basically it's split into two: the ground floor deals with Archaeology, tracing the various pre-Colombian civilisations that existed in what is now called Mexico; and the second floor focuses on Ethnography, documenting the native American population since the Spanish conquest. 
It's very impressive and way too much to take in in one go. (Liz has been three times already, each time with a guide - a good way to do it). I like the way it occasionally weaves the gardens into the story. At the end of the Mayan hall, for example, you walk out into what looks like a lost city of stone structures and jungle. 
Aside from getting told off for jumping through the waterfall surrounding the central pillar, the girls did pretty well.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Bonfire of the Vanities, Mexican Style

Pancakes & presents, lunch & a stroll - all good Christmas stuff. And then off to the airport to pick up Ray, Motoko & Remi. Although I'd been driven there in taxis before, this was the first time I'd driven myself. The first part was fine, travelling along the Circuito Interior, but for some reason I missed the turning to Terminal 1. Retracing my steps I missed it again and ended up miles away and going round the houses. It was my own Bonfire of the Vanities moment: lost in a strange part of town with darkness drawing in and our friends' flight already arrived. Finally I made it, picked them up and set off for home… and I got part of that wrong too. A humbling experience.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Shockingly, it rained today - the first time in weeks. The perfect time to curl up on the sofa to watch that great Christmas tradition, It's a Wonderful Life. The fact that it was on a video cassette, made in 1946 and in B&W rather put off our girls, but they stuck around. Me? I've seen it several times and it never fails to choke me up. The combination of do-gooder George Bailey, doting wife and impossibly cute family up against the scheming capitalist Mr Potter in picket-fenced Anytown USA made for a wholesome, morally upright story. But it's the appearance of guardian angel Clarence which transforms the film from pure sentimentalism to quirky science fiction. Would the town's inhabitants been better off if George Bailey had never been born? Perish the thought.
Interestingly, the film was not a success when first released but has gained fans and plaudits much later. I gather there was even talk of a sequel being made this year but nothing's come of it. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Hobbit 3

Took the girls to see The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies this afternoon, the last in the hugely profitable series. 
Of course I had my Tolkien phase as a young teenager and read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while staring dreamily at Roger Dean sleeves - though not to the level of obsession. The po-facedness of Middle Earth was happily brought down a peg by reading Harvard Lampoon's irreverent Bored of The Rings and watching the not-very-good 1978 animated film. 
It took a surprisingly long time for someone to have a serious go at putting Lord of the Rings on the big screen and Peter Jackson's epic undertaking was, well, epic - and warranted being spread over three films. 
But the three-part Hobbit has been a shameless enterprise, spun out to extract as much money as possible from a book a quarter of the length of its sequel. Was it any good? Well, if you like CG and endless battles it just about passed muster, but I was bored throughout. Even the fact that we saw it in 3D didn't save it.
Stand by for The Silmarillion in four parts starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. I'm joking. I think.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Plethora of Poinsettias

That most Christmassy of plants, the Poinsettia is native to Mexico and Central America. In December some $60m are bought and plonked in churches, homes and shopping centres throughout the land. They're named after the US Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced them to the United States in the early 19th Century.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Soumaya Museum

This afternoon - somewhat belatedly, it's only a mile or so from our home - I visited the Soumaya Museum. 
It's an extraordinary building, conceived by Carlos Slim and named after his wife who died in 1999. Designed by Fernando Romero, it is covered with 16,000 aluminium tiles and reminds me of Future Systems' Selfridges in Birmingham. The entrance is surprisingly small but opens out into an expansive ground floor with another five floors above that, connected by a Guggenheim-like ramp. Everything is white white white and there's not a straight wall anywhere in the building. So everything's displayed in the middle which makes for an odd experience.  
As befits a collection owned by the richest man in the world, it is all-encompassing: (Literally) tons of Rodin, all the main artists from all the major European movements, decorative arts and a curious exhibition of Sophia Loren in Mexico. But for me it's the building that's the main talking point.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Los Flaming Warthogs

Not the greatest name, but tonight was office band Los Flaming Warthogs' debut performance in a tiny bar in Condesa. Couple of managers, three teachers and a ringer drummer. It was a short set, but they weren't bad at all. A mixture of covers - Psycho Killer, Teenage Kicks and an interesting version of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night set to the tune of The House of the Rising Sun - plus two or three self-penned songs. 
We brought A&N along - their first ever gig. I think I was 15 before I saw anyone live. They were slightly concerned about the prospect of drink, drugs, debauchery and a deafening din, but it was a very well-behaved crowd. 
The Warthogs plan to go into the studio next year but I don't think they'll be giving up their day jobs. And they should change their name. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

End of an Era

Today, after 31 years, eight of those as CEO, Sir Martin Davidson retired from the British Council. The farewell party was in London HQ but there was a nice global dimension to it, courtesy of a rather moving, occasiuonally funny & very well put-together video message from all corners of the globe, modelled on Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. There was also a pretty amazing map of the world made up of tiny photos of colleagues from a couple of hundred offices.
Martin's been in British Council only slightly longer than me. It was a very different organization then: most of our budget was aid-related, there were a lot more staff (including a typing pool) and no computers. I first worked with him in 1994 on a festival, Britain in Russia, which coincided with a State Visit by the Queen to Moscow and St Petersburg. He then went on to be only the second internally-appointed Chief Executive. 
Our new big boss, Ciaran Devane, starts on 1 January. A new chapter.    

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Brian Nissen

Met an interesting artist today, Brian Nissen. Born in London 1939, moved to Mexico 1963 and since the 80s has flitted around between Mexico City, New York and Barcelona. Virtually unknown in UK (though he had a solo show at Whitechapel Art Gallery in 70s), he is an important figure in Mexico. A lot of his work is influenced by pre-Colombian art..... I particularly like a recent work called Red Sea - a huge (120ft x 15ft) white on white mural in the Centre Maguen David Centre in Mexico City. But instead of paint, it's made of 250 individual shapes, splaying left and right from a central point. A skylight behind produces fantastic, dramatic shadows and you could almost be Moses, about to take the Israelites between the foaming seas to the promised land.   

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

You've Got Talent

A Christmas party at Lena's for some of our key arts contacts. Nice place, nice people, nice atmosphere. At the end, after the guests had gone, a slightly tipsy group of colleagues slumped on sofas and we were asked by Lena to reveal our hidden talents. So Jorge K is a foodie / restaurant critic, Jimena is a photographer, Ana and Jorge N are great cooks, Gary knows all about flora (he was a forest ranger), Hector knows all the countries & capitals of the world,Lena is a poet... and out came my "Oh, I used to be in a band" line. A half-talented bunch.      

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Cough of 100 Days

Despite being vaccinated, it looks like N has whooping cough. It's a strange thing. A dozen or so violent coughing bouts per day, sometimes ending in vomiting, with calm periods in between when you'd think nothing was wrong with her. Apparently it affects 48.5 million people a year and kills around 100,000!  The coughing is sometimes so violent that it breaks ribs or brings on a hernia. In China they call it The Cough of a Hundred Days. Roll on March... 

Friday, December 12, 2014


With the Americas meeting finally winding up at midday, I bunked off with Julian Baker, Director Caribbean, for lunch and then… decided to take the rest of the afternoon off. 
Julian - or Bats as he is better known - is one of my oldest British Council friends. We go back 25 years to when we started playing football for BCFC in the mirthfully named Human League. Over a mango & chicken sandwich, we thought long and hard about when we last saw each other and it turns out it was a shocking eight years ago.
Bats started his overseas postings in 1998 and has lived in Venezuela, Malawi, South Africa, Uganda (briefly) and now Cuba. Being Director Caribbean prompts cliched images of an old-style Representative sipping cocktails on a verandah with string quartet and tropical sunset. It does sound glamorous - but is far from it. Bats runs a whole series of English, education, development and cultural projects in quite tough countries. Cuba (where he and his family are based) is safe but basic and hard to get things done, while Jamaica and Trinidad are quite dangerous. He has a handful of staff and a tiny budget.
So we walked and caught up, missing about what's next for each of us, through Polanco and Chapaltepec Park and up to the Castillo. Great to catch up.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Reading Tilt: A Skewed History of the Tower of Pisa. I bought it several years ago in a second-hand book shop in Chiang Mai of all places but have only now got around to reading it. I'd probably never have bought it if it hadn't been for the whacky jacket design. Would have been nicer if the text inside had been similarly slanted but you can't have everything I suppose. Anyway, it got some strange looks from fellow passengers on the flight back from Guadalajara.
So, the facts: no-one knows who the architect was. Construction began 1173 but halted a few times until finally finished in 1370. Owing to dodgy soil, it leaned from day one. Galileo was purported to have conducted experiments on falling objects around 1590. By 1787 the tilt was 3.8m. Numerous commissions convened to investigate what could be done (around ten in the 20th Century alone), all failing until in 1990 it was closed for one last-ditch attempt. In 2001 it re-opened, still leaning of course (to have a perfectly upright campanile would have been almost as disastrous as it toppling over - think of the tourists), but now stabilised. I've never been.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Ever since the Michael Landy exhibition opened a month ago (see post), it's been slowly destroying itself. It was inevitable really. The sculptures are made of recycled mechanical innards: cogs, rods, pulleys and levers. The public presses a pedal and off they go, whirring and cranking, prodding and pulling. One of them, Doubting Thomas, is particularly violent. A finger pokes Christ's wound, prompting the spring-mounted torso to rock back and forth and all but topple over. Yesterday the arm fell off. Another work invites you to throw rocks at it, which people do. A lawsuit waiting to happen...
So of course it's beginning to fall apart and we had to fly the installation technician over from London to advise on a much-needed maintenance plan. The problem is: how far should you go in replacing bits? Will new parts deter from the overall aesthetics? Must we consult with the artist every time? Should the public stop throwing rocks? Happily we reached a series of solutions and the show will go on. The saints will carry on beating and patching themselves up. Art eh?

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Western Hemisphere

Day One of a three-and-a-half day annual meeting at which all the British Council offices in the Americas chew the cud. Each year it's held in a different city and, just my luck, this year it's Mexico City.
Coming from a region - East Asia - which was incredibly diverse, multilingual and spread out, I thought the Americas would be somehow more homogenous, but of course it's not. We have offices in Canada, USA, Mexico, Caribbean, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina. It's mainly Spanish-speaking, with two obvious exceptions, English in USA and Portuguese in Brazil, but also French in Canada. And it's very spread out. From our office in Montreal to Buenos Aires it's 9,000kms - a 15 hrs minimum flight. It's too simple to describe it as two Americas, North and South. Mexico considers itself in North America, although in many ways out has more in common with the Ibero culture of the South. The Caribbean is similarly 'in between'. And Brazil thinks of itself as very separate from its Spanish-speaking neighbours (and its sizeable black demographic also bears that out).
Anyway, all good stuff. Nice to meet everyone, some I knew, some I didn't. 

FIL Forward Planning

Back to Mexico City for a full day's workshop on all things FIL. Fifteen of us in a room going through all we've learned over the past few days: the Pavilion - what it's for, what we'll put in it, how it will be designed, who will construct it; the Literature programme - which writers? big names, new names? just writers with books available in Spanish?; the Children's programme; the Academic programme - everything from higher education to human rights; the Professional programme - publishers, e-books, rights; the Music & Dance programme in the Esplanade - bring crowd-pleasers or something more challenging; the two exhibitions we're required to present; the film festival - how to attract audiences in the cinema across town when most people will be at the Book Fair; how to represent all four home countries; the opening banquet for 700 people; marketing and so on… Very productive. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Moving Handover

Last day of the FIL, ending appropriately with a handover ceremony from Argentina to the UK. Speeches were given, gifts were exchanged, we showed a specially shot video of the kind of things people could look forward to next year and a short recital was performed. It was all strangely moving, partly because of the two countries involved, but also - for us - at least, knowing that we now have to start work in earnest preparing for next year. 
The recital was interesting. We chose a sonnet, If music and sweet poetry agree…, attributed to Shakespeare from the collection known as The Passionate Pilgrim, spoken in English first, then Spanish. It was an appropriate choice I think. The UK, as Guest of Honour, will be a passionate pilgrim to Guadalajara next year, and the theme of music and poetry chimed with FIL. Also, apparently - amazingly - the sonnet had never had a Spanish translation. So two weeks ago we asked Mexico's foremost Shakespearian translator (now living in Britain) if he might do the job, and he did, overnight! So, a premiere of sorts. The recital itself was performed by a husband-and-wife team of Sophie Alexander Katz and Morgan Szymanski, she an actress with a beautiful voice, he a classical guitarist - both Mexican (even with names like that!) and both trained in London. It was meant to be.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

80s Music, Argentinian Style

As part of a warm-up for tomorrow's handover at FIL, we had lunch with the Argentine delegation today. It was a lovely occasion: friendly, relaxed, the conversation centred solely on arts & culture. I sat next to Magdalena Faillace who's in charge of Argentina's cultural programme at FIL running all this week. Charming lady, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Culture. While across the table was Teresa Parodi, a famous singer who rose to fame in the 80s & 90s before being appointed Minister of Culture last May. Says something that a country's culture boss is actually an artist in her own right.
And more Argentinian music in the evening... 
When I was in Guadalajara a month ago I met the drummer of Soda Stereo, Argentina's biggest rock band (see post). Tonight I saw what was arguably the country's second biggest band, Los Enanitos Verdes (Little Green Men). Like Soda Stereo they were formed in the early 80s, influenced by British new wave, and they're still going. They've toured Mexico many times so are well known, a fact acknowledged by a capacity 3,000 crowd in FIL´s concert hall. 
This time next year it will be our turn to pack the venue out with nine nights of music and dance. Will we bring a crowd-pleasing rock band like Little Green Men? Ah, time will tell...     

Friday, December 5, 2014

In The Nursery in Guadalajara

Half way through the afternoon I got a message from Edgardo saying, "Do you know a British group called In The Nursery? They're playing tonight in Guadalajara". Yes I most certainly did. So off we went to a small theatre across town to see the Humberstone twins perform music to the 1928 silent film, The Fall of the House of Usher.
In we walked and immediately bumped into Nigel and Klive in the foyer. 
I've known their music since they were formed in the early 80s and have maybe 10 of their albums. In recent years they've carved an interesting niche in scoring music for silent films - and this was one of them: a surreal version of Edgar Allen Poe's short story, directed by Frenchman Jean Epstein with screenplay by a young Luis Bunuel. Not a lot happens and the acting's terrible, but technically and atmospherically it's very good, and ITN's doomy, elegiac music complemented it well. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014


To the Feria Internacional de Libro in Guadalajara... or FIL for short, the second largest book fair in the world. I'm here with a number of colleagues (from Mexico City and London) to experience first hand what it's like to be Country of Honour, which the UK will be this time next year.   
It is, indeed, huge. 750,000 visitors over 9 days, 2,000 publishing companies, 2,000 registered journalists etc. So we wandered around the expo building, soaking it all up, had meetings with the organizers, visited stands and attended talks. One of them was by David Byrne, in conversation with Fernando Romero (the architect who's working with Norman Foster on the new Mexico City airport) about Byrne's excellent book How Music Works which I read last summer. But it was disappointing. The dialogue didn't flow and the questions at the end were trite. Byrne was fun though. 
But possibly the most interesting event of the day was seeing an exhibition about the life & work of Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar (1914-84). Shamefully I know very little about him, other than he wrote a short story called Blow-Up which inspired Antonioni's 1966 film. I now know a fair bit more, but what really struck me was the creative thinking that went into the exhibition design. A really imaginative installation.
Here he is, fag in mouth (just like Serge Gainsbourg), looking every bit the Left Bank '60s intellectual. He lived most of his life in Paris. There were very few photographs in the exhibition which didn't show him smoking. Today it would be distinctly frowned upon.

Monday, December 1, 2014


Today, crisp white shelves arrived. A 4-metre expanse of them, installed in the hall, ready to receive the ridiculous amount of books we've carted around the world for the last 15 years. I am happy. I may not read 90% of them again, but they are there, comforting, ready to reference & browse. So that's the last of our boxes unpacked. I can now say, properly, that we have a home.