Saturday, February 28, 2015

International Day, Mexico Style

We've experienced plenty of International Days at our girls' schools in Bangkok and Beijing, but today's in Mexico City was on a different scale. 
It's a big school with children from around 40 countries.  Top is Mexico, followed by (bizarrely) South Korea, several Central/South American countries, Japan, India, Spain, Italy... with Britain somewhere in the bottom half.
There were food stalls from around the world. Even if you were the only kid from Nepal, his or her parents had a stall selling dal baht. 
In the centre of it all was a big stage on which each country was invited to parade in national costume (or if you didn't have / couldn't be bothered to wear it, then just parade). National costume these days is often a football shirt and the Argentinians and Dutch didn't disappoint in that respect. Korea and Japan made the biggest effort. But my favourites were the two parents representing Finland, whose children were too embarrassed to join them, and the mum & daughter from Latvia.
The rest of the day was full of music, dancing, throwing wet sponges at teachers in stocks, a couple of fairground attractions and the inevitable raffle. It was like a cross between the opening ceremony of the Olympics, WOMAD and a giant village fete. All great fun.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy RIP

Farewell Spock, he who lived long and prospered. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Rummaging in Record Shops

Damian in DiscosMono
You can't beat a good rummage in a record shop - a rare pleasure these last ten years given the paucity of them in Bangkok and Beijing. But today Damian Romero, who runs MUTEK Mexico, took me on a tour of four great little shops in Roma. 
The resurgence of vinyl is as apparent in Mexico City as it is in other western cities, to the extent that the four shops I visited dealt almost exclusively in the black lacquer. First off were three shops on Calle Jalapa. The brand new DiscosMono stocks new or reissued left-field releases ranging from Chris & Cosey's reissued Trance to the most recent Tycho album. A hundred metres down the road is Musica En Vinyl which has a more limited but eclectic selection, complete with Tascam quarter-inch tape between a tower of reel-to-reel recorders and a beautiful valve amp. One for the geeks.
Roma Records
On Avenida Alvaro Obregon is Roma Records, a tiny store with a wonderful selection of new & old. Without any persuading from me, Damian bought Eno & Harmonia's Tracks and Traces Reissue and Eno's Lux. Lovely solid, substantial, heavy things the pair - and not cheap either. This shop did have some CDs and I treated myself to Dead Can Dance's 'comeback' album, Anastasis.   
But perhaps the best was last: a fairly bog-standard second-hand vinyl shop back on Calle Jalapa. The type where you have to leaf through a lot of dusty, plastic-sleeved dross before coming across a curiosity which you don't mind shelling out 50 pesos for. I bought The Dream Academy's debut album (mainly because of Kate St John) and a Missing Persons album which I probably won't like but I have a thing about 1984... 
But what really made my afternoon was hearing Peggy Lee followed by what sounded like beautiful distant thunder. On asking the proprietor what it was, he blithely showed me the original 1987 sleeve of The Hafler Trio's A Thirsty Fish as if it was the most natural thing in the world to put on next. Wonderful! 
Now I just have to get into some interesting Mexican music - a tempting prospect which Damian is helping me with.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Question: when did animated films start using big-name actors to do the voices?  When I was young, no-one really had any idea who did the voices in Disney films. Cinderella? Ilene Woods. The Aristocats' Thomas O'Malley and Jungle Book's Baloo? Phil Harris. Ariel in the Little Mermaid? Jodi Benson. Who they?  Did it matter? You never saw them.
Maybe it was the 90s that ushered in Robin Williams as Aladdin, Tom Hanks in Toy Story, Kevin Spacey in A Bug's Life, Woody Allen in Antz... A-League voiceovers are now standard.
This got me thinking of something else. Halfway through The Theory of Everything, when Stephen Hawking loses his voice, thus also terminating Eddie Redmayne's speaking role, the part goes to Hawking's Equalizer computer. Would Hawking get a voiceover credit, or should it go to the guy who originally recorded the 3,000 words that make up the programme?   

Monday, February 23, 2015

Los Britanicos

A Britanico, somewhere
Tonight at 9pm on Canal 22, my colleague Edgardo introduced the first episode of Los Britanicos, a 7-part dramatised series originally broadcast on BSkyB. An interesting experiment. Instead of putting events on in museums or theatres, or online, we thought we'd try TV. The deal included some UKMX branding and Edgardo setting the scene for each episode. It's heavy on melodrama, some flashy CG and celebs-as-talking-heads (Jessie J, Russell Brand, Frank Lampard and, er, Terry Wogan amongst others), but episode one tells the story well enough. The answer to 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' is Quite a lot actually. 
We've gone for another series too. Shakespeare y Nosotros follows straight afterwards in April.   

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Weather Talk

Accompanied A to a four-school sports day today. She did well and her school came second. Seems funny to have a sports day in February, but it's a balmy 27C here. If there's one thing that's surprised me about Mexico, it's the weather. Amazing. So far, the best climate of all the countries we've lived in, including - yes, really! - Britain. Never really cold, not too hot, dry... pretty much perfect. 

Friday, February 20, 2015


Had a meeting out in the south-west suburbs of Santa Fe this afternoon, in a fairly commonplace office building for most Mexicans, but for me it was gorgeous and I stood outside taking photos until moved on by a security guard. Obviously indebted to Luis Barragan, it's typical of the Modernist style that was prevalent in Mexico in the 60s (although this building is a lot later). I love its blocks and planes, bold colours on rough concrete. They love their purples, oranges and pinks, and the palm tree offsets these beautifully. Worth the journey.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cineteca Nacional

Went to the National Film Centre in the south of Mexico City today. Extraordinary building. The old part is fairly conventional but an extension, linked by an impressive new roof, brings it into the 21st century - and to life. People don't just go there to see films. There are cafes, shops and a soon-to-be opened exhibition centre. And together with outdoor screenings it seems to be a cool place to hang out. A bit like a university campus. We'll be doing some events here during the year. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Watched The Theory of Everything this evening. Stunningly good film. It perfectly captures the phenomenon that is Hawking. Could have been inaccessible (physics) or mawkish (his disability), but it turns out to be a love story. Even with this premise, it could have portrayed Hawking as the grumpy baddy, but it refuses to take sides. But of course, what really makes the film is Eddie Redmayne's amazing performance. He is Hawking. And if he doesn't get the Oscar next weekend for it, then there's no justice in this particular galaxy. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


The cries of street vendors are constant in our neighbourhood. There's the stall which assembles itself on a corner from which one I buy a fresh orange juice every weekday morning on my way to the office. There's the motley assortment of vendors who gather outside the supermarket selling the same stuff you can get inside but cheaper. And there are the legion of snack-sellers everywhere, who seem do a good business. 
But the ones I find fascinating are those who peddle their wares by cart or bicycle. The guy with a knife-sharpening machine strapped behind his saddle; the one who sells tamales (a spicy dish of chopped meat wrapped in cornmeal dough) balanced on his handlebars; and the camote (sweet potato) seller who pushes a cart, within which is a pressure cooker lit by a small, in-built fire. Every now and again he lets off an ear-piercing whistle which you can hear several blocks away.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Dinner at the Hacienda

Enjoyable dinner with Baroness Bonham-Carter and a  dozen or so contacts at Hacienda de los Morales on the western edge of Polanco. It really was a hacienda, going back to the 16th Century, and still sits in a large plot of land despite the urban sprawl which swallow it up last century - and as unlike the Hacienda in Manchester as you could imagine.
Jane Bonham-Carter comes from a long line of high-achievers including her great-grandfather, HH Asquith, Prime Minister 100 years ago and her cousin Helena Bonham-Carter. Jane herself seemed remarkably down-to-earth.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bunuel in Mexico

When one thinks of Luis Bunuel's films, which is obviously very frequently, it's usually his first two: Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or, made with Dali in 1929 & 1930, or his late, commercially successful films, like Belle de Jour or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise of the 60s & 70s. But in between, he lived and worked in Mexico for some 20 years. It was the tail-end of the so-called 'Golden Age' when, just after the Second World War, movies represented Mexico's third largest industry.
This evening I watched one of his early ones from this period, Los Olvidados (aka The Forgotten), about a gang of street urchins in Mexico City. It won Best Director at Cannes in 1951 and is now considered a classic, but on its Mexican release it was taken by many as an insult to Mexican sensibilities. Good guys get killed, mothers don't love their sons, the ending is a downer and there's a great scene when one of the urchins throws a rotten egg straight at the camera, leaving a gelatinous mess on the glass.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Performance Poetry

This evening I introduced the poet, Aoife Mannix, as the closing act of a two-day Eng Lang Teaching fair. I don't read much poetry but I very much like Aoife's work. 
I'd worked with her once before, in Bangkok eight years ago. She'd just published Growing Up An Alien, about her itinerant childhood in Dublin, Ottawa, New York and London. Tonight she read from that and a later compilation, Turn the Clocks Upside Down. I say 'read' but actually she doesn't. She stands centre stage and performs, like an actor from memory. Her poems are beautiful, funny and touching, about normal everyday things: family, loss, longing, life. Here are five of them from five years ago. Oddly she's holding a book but she never once looks at it. Lovely stuff.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Back to mine

This evening I invited the UKMX team over to my place, British Council and British Embassy colleagues alike. Good to bond outside of work. Ate, drank, played games and spun some vinyl. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Artist as Social Scientist

Any exhibition which has to follow Kusama Yayoi's at the Museo Tamayo is going to be up against it. So from public friendly dots and kookiness to Stephen Willat's social-science-cum-cybernetic oeuvre is going to test the loyalty of their audience, not to say the imagination of their marketing department. 
Willats has been quietly working way in an area where art meets learning theory, systems research and social mapping for over 50 years. It is as much to do with process as the finished product - his ongoing work with residents of public housing estates being a good example - although many of the works that line the walls of the gallery here are beautiful, in a graphic design and repetition-as-a form-of-change kind of way. And you can find them (if you look hard enough) in the collections of the Tate, National Portrait Gallery and others. An intriguing, if somewhat challenging, exhibition.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Aphex at the Grammy's

Leaving aside Sam Smith's four Awards, the other surprise at this year's Grammy's was Aphex Twin getting Best Dance/Electronic Album for Syro, his first 'proper' album in 13 years. To say 'I liked their/his/her early stuff' has become a music cliche, but if ever there was an artist to which this genuinely applied it would surely be Richard James. 
His early 90s releases - bits of the Analogue Bubblebath series, Surfing on Sine Waves, the On single and particularly the two Selected Ambient Works volumes - were great (and, in SAW Vol.II's case, brilliant). But by the mid-90s he - in my view - had run out of ideas, and by the turn of the century the releases dried up completely. There were bits & pieces under different names since then but nothing really of any note. 
Then, a few months ago, Syro appears. I bought it, probably against my better judgement, hoping for I know not what. It's OK, even good in parts, and better than Drukqs, but hardly earth-shattering - and really doesn't live up to the critical hyperbole that continues to be heaped on him. But what do I know? It's a Grammy-winner.
Oh, and glad to see there's a category, Best Regional Mexican Music Album, won for the first time this year by an actual Mexican.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Humans v Animals

Four films in 24 hours, three in the air, one on the ground, two about art, two about animals, the animals won out.
Mike Leigh's Mr Turner pulls no surprises. It's a decent film, made all the more so by Timothy Spall's title role performance, but somehow I couldn't quite connect the man with his paintings. It was like he was a character in a Dickens novel, a painter, but not really JMW Turner. Where was the verve & passion that must have gone into those extraordinary paintings? He seemed somehow removed. 
The Monuments Men was even less convincing, despite also being based on a true story. A motley bunch of art experts try to stop the theft and destruction of masterpieces at the tail-end of WW2, led by  George Clooney, Mat Damon and Hugh Bonneville (who should perhaps have been better off staying in Downton Abbey looking after the Gainsboroughs). It was like an elderly version of The Dirty Dozen
Bonneville also cropped up in Paddington, a film I was not really expecting to like, but it turned out OK. Like Wallace & Gromit with real people, except of course the Bear, the digital rendering of whom was beguilingly lifelike. Nicole Kidman's baddie (basically Cruella de Ville in a platinum blonde wig) gave the film a bit of edge. 

And finally Shaun the Sheep opened in London last night and I caught it in Leicester Square. The usual high quality Aardman fayre: eccentrically English which, on the face if it, you'd think would hinder its international appeal, but because there's no dialogue it may 'translate' globally - as Mr Bean did. 
So, Humans 0 Animals 2. And that's quite enough films for one day. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Back to Siberia

Haven't read a book on Siberia for months. But put that right with AJ Haywood's Siberia: A Cultural History - part travelogue, history and guidebook. Interesting and detailed, but frustrating that, like most books about the region, it sticks largely to the cities strung out along the Trans Siberian Railway in the south. I long for a book that limits itself to north of the Arctic Circle and Chukotka in the Far East. There are some (my favourites being Tent Life in Siberia, Reindeer People and Siberian Dreams) but they're few and far between. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Industrial Revolution

Arnold Toynbee
I'm in London for our annual Global Leadership Arts Meeting - or GLAM for short. We're in Toynbee Hall in the East End again (we were here in 2011) which is a whole lot nicer than a big boring hotel. Good to catch up with friends & colleagues, both in the formal proceedings and in the margins - and to meet our new CEO, Ciaran Devain, for the first time. 
But who was Toynbee?  He was a Victorian-era economist and historian who coined, or at least popularised, the term "Industrial Revolution". He also fought to improve the conditions of the working classes, sadly dying of overwork aged just 30. His great great niece Polly Toynbee is a journalist at The Guardian.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


I am staying in an Ibis Hotel. It's a French chain (half the guests and most of the staff in this one seem to be from France) with over 1,000 hotels in 60 countries.They've just celebrated their 40th anniversary. When we lived in Bangkok we had the displeasure of one being built next door. But I like them. They're cool, inexpensive, functional, not too big (though one couldn't describe them as boutique) with very young but well-trained staff.  Jeez, I sound like an ad.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


Straight to Victoria Station off the plane with hardly any sleep. A nostalgic train journey through frosty Surrey/Sussex countryside and before I know it, I'm in Chichester. Here to check on the house and see Mary & Nick. And niece Laura who last week finished her Fine Art Masters in Photography at Falmouth University and has temporarily come back to the nest while figuring out what to do next. A job? Or put it off and do a PhD?  When I decided to 'read' geography I naively thought I might end up making maps or planning towns. Ha!

Monday, February 2, 2015

A Short Visit to the USA

Nightmare journey. Departure of my overnight flight to London was delayed by two hours. Then, not long into the flight, the captain announced that we would be diverting to Washington DC because of fumes coming out of the kitchen. So we landed at 3am, de-planed, spent an hour or so in Immigration where some non-plussed men from Border Protection issued us with 24-hour visas, and off we went to a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Still, at least BA gave us each a room and three meal vouchers and the hotel staff were pretty efficient given that the entire contents of a 747 had just landed on them (figuratively speaking). It seemed I knew half of them. There were some Embassy staff, a teacher and the Klaxons whom I'd seen perform last week. Finally we were shuttled back to the airport and resumed our journey on a 380. The shortest visit I'll ever make to the States... 

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Finally got my - and Liz's - act together to register for Mexico City's equivalent of Boris Bikes: "Ecobici". They're lighter but still very solid, kept in good nick, three gears, easier than BBs to take out of the docking stations (of which there are 275 dotted around the city centre) - and at 400 pesos (£20) for a year's use, dirt cheap. 
Introduced in 2010 by Mexico City's then Mayor, Marcelo Ebrard (Las Bicicletas de Marcelo?), the scheme has been a huge success. Everyone uses them and I'm surprised the city government can keep up with demand. My first ride was all of 800 metres from one docking station to another, but it felt good to be on a bike again.