Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Pint of Flowers, Please

Badminton in the garden in Sudbury Hill, a drink with my oldest friend Simon in Covent Garden and catching up with Sister Margaret from Rome. 
London still amazing. I walked past this pub on Kensington Church Street. It's The Churchill Arms, although you're hard-pressed to find the name nowadays. I've drunk in there once or twice years ago and ate a decent chicken curry in its Thai restaurant at the back, the first in London. The pub is now completely covered with flowers, so much so that watering them must be quite a task.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hanging Out in Clapham

Clapham friends... Staying with Annette & Renzo, Keiko for dinner last night, coffee with Tricia this morning. We lived in Clapham for less than a year (exactly ten years ago) but it feels a lot more like home than Brixton. Maybe because we're older, with children and need 'nice' (parks, playground, coffee shops) rather than 'edgy'?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Brixton Revisited

Back to London and time for a quick, nostalgic drive around Brixton. I lived on Coldharbour Lane, right in the thick of it, for most of the 90s (joined by Liz for the second half). It was a good time to be there. There was a riot somewhere in the middle but not as bad as '81 or '85. It was edgy but exciting. I liked the sense of community, varied ethnic makeup, the little restaurants (Ethiopian, Malaysian, Franco's pizzas, Helter Skelter...), the healthfood shop where you could measure out spices by the ounce, Ritzy Cinema, 5-a-side footie at the Rec and drinks in the Prince Albert afterwards, the second hand bookshop across the road, good music at the Dog Star, Kraftwerk and Morrissey at the Academy, some fun nights at The Fridge... 
We moved out in '99 (to Tokyo, as opposite as you could get), and for the last 15 years we'd heard that it's gentrified beyond recognition. But driving around, we couldn't really see much difference. Most of the above places are still there & running, it still looks a bit tatty (and in the case of Connaught Mansions where we lived, very tatty) and it's still a Starbucks-free zone. We failed to check out Trinity Square which I gather is now officially trendy but if that's it then it's still a fair way off from Shoreditch and Hoxton.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Horrible History at Warwick Castle

A day-trip to Warwick Castle with P, T & C. A first time for me: impressive in size, history and admission fee. From the early 1600s it was owned by the Greville family but in 1978 was sold to Madame Tussauds who turned it into a major visitor attraction. And for sure there's plenty to do: have-a-go-archery & sword flights, jousting, a techy 'Time Tower' and castle rooms brought to life by audio and Tussauds models. There was a great birds of prey show - eagles, vultures and even a condor swooping down from the castle turrets low over the audience. But best of all was a Horrible History stage show which engagingly told the story of the Castle. All very 'edutaining', and in a good way. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Wrong Brother

A long drive to Sulgrave on the border of Oxfordshire, Northants and Buckinghamshire, home of older brother Andrew (and Sally)... except that they're not there, but younger brother Patrick (and Tricia and Catherine) are. Long story. Haven't seen Patrick and family for two years, an appallingly long gap, so very good to catch up. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Amazing Maze

Looks like Bali, but actually it's Cornwall
You can't beat a good maze. The first I remember experiencing was in Hampton Court, then Longleat, and more recently some good temporary ones in maize fields. But one of the best is in Glendurgan Gardens near Falmouth which we visited today.
The gardens were created in the1820s & 30s by Mr & Mrs Alfred Fox. The fact that they had twelve children probably explains not only the maze but also an unusual giant swing. 
Now inevitably owned & run by the National Trust, the gardens cascade down to the Helford River where there's a nice little beach and rocks to climb on. Perfect.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Ashra Bio

Been reading Deep Distance: the Musical Life of Manuel Gottsching. It's written and (given its relatively limited appeal) self-published by a British fan, Christian Wheeldon. 
Gottsching, for those not in the know, is a guitarist & electronic musician from Berlin, who's released numerous albums as Ash Ra Tempel, Ashra or under his own name, was a driving force of the krautrock scene in the 70s, his E2-E4 album ended up being a big inspiration for producers of US and Italian house music, and he continues to release new or reworked music to this day. 
He was a big influence on me too: particularly his Inventions for Electric Guitar, New Age of Earth, Dream & Desire and Blackouts albums, recorded between 1975-77, and the aforementioned E2-E4 from 1981. I met him a few times in the 80s and once in the 90s and it was always a pleasure. I particularly remember times in January 1980 in a snowbound Berlin with girlfriend Rosi Muller and Ashra cohort Lutz Ulbrich; in November 1981 in Cologne with Klaus Schulze; and in January 1982 back in Berlin, three weeks after he'd recorded E2-E4 - though it wouldn't be released until 1984 (at which time I gave it a five star review in Sounds; perhaps the first review of it outside of Germany?). 
The book is good, basically a straightforward chronological approach with detailed reviews of each album (as well as a lot of archived recordings which have slowly been released in the last 20 or so years). It's pretty objective / not fawning, given it's written by a fan, but perhaps over-focusses on analysis of Gottsching's recordings rather than artist insight. Minor quibble aside, hats off to Christian Wheeldon for what is a worthy addition to music bios.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

It's a Funny Old Game

One of the more mundane pleasures of being back 'home' is browsing the charity shops which are taking over the High Streets of England. Liskeard, a small town, has its fair share, my favourite being Oxfam. I'm usually able to pick up an interesting book or an album. Today I couldn't resist Football's Strangest Matches - a hundred and fifty years of weird and entertaining stories. 
Here are five: a dog jumping onto the pitch and scoring with a header (the ref gave it); Leeds being drawn against Cardiff in three successive FA Cup third round ties with each game ending 2:1 to Cardiff; a pigeon killed from a goal kick; Chester's two full-backs, both called Jones, breaking their left legs in the same game; Aston Villa's Chris Nicholl scoring all four goals in a 2:2 draw with Leicester City in 1976.
Not much weirdness about these days. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cavern Club

Last month, as part of my 1984 project, I researched / listened to a bit of Echo & The Bunnymen. Not a big fan, but I own a couple of albums and the rest is YouTube. 
Inevitably, I have 84's Ocean Rain, their best by some margin. The cover sees them in a rowing boat in the middle of a mysterious looking cave somewhere. It was taken by Brian Griffin, who photographed scores of bands in the 80s (and who I had the pleasure of meeting in Beijing a few years ago; see this post). 
I wondered where the cave was. It's not named on the sleeve, but a quick google revealed that it's Carnglaze Caverns just four miles west of Liskeard. It's not a natural cavern. It was a slate mine, the rocky outcrop hollowed-out through explosives & extraction over several decades. 
The warehouse in front was turned into a house and by 1984 it was the holiday home of Jake Riviera (Stiff Records, managed Elvis Costello, still manages Nick Lowe etc). I'm not quite sure of The Bunnymen connection. The couple who own & run the place now, and who bought it off Riviera, say he managed them but I don't think so; surely it was still Bill Drummond at that point. Anyway, McCullough and co ended up in a rowing boat, the walls were floodlit in blue and the rest is history.
The Caverns are now a modest tourist attraction, not up there with nearby Eden Project, Lost Gardens of Heligan or Lanhydrock (in fact grandmum had never heard of them, and she's just down the road), but there was a steady trickle of visitors when I was there, some of them I'd wager for the same reason as me.
Inside, they also host weddings and concerts. The Bunnymen never played but British Sea Power, Embrace and a host of cover bands have. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Quest for a Stylus

To Plymouth to see Grace Rickard and Lorraine. And to buy a stylus. You know, one of those tiny needles that somehow, through the miracle of science, transmits sound from the grooves of a record. You'd think that with vinyl and turntables making a comeback that somewhere in a city the size of Plymouth would sell them, but even Richer Sounds, who stock turntables a-plenty, looked at me as if I was from Mars. Last resort: Maplin, that purveyor of electronic kits, extension cables and battery chargers. Yes!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mobi RIP

Dieter Moebius (aka Mobi) has died aged 71 after a battle with cancer. As half of Cluster and a third of Kluster and Harmonia, he played a major part in the development of krautrock and electronic music. Of his many group and solo efforts, I'd say Heisse Lippen (from Zuckerzeit), Sowiesoso's title track, Dino from Musik von Harmonia and Two Oldtimers from Rastakraut Pasta are up there in my Top 100 tracks of all time. 
I corresponded with him a little in the early 80s but only met him once, in Tokyo in the early noughties, when he was gigging with Michael Rother. After the show we went out for dinner and I got to know him a little better. It was a privilege.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


The beginning of a week in Liskeard with grandmum is prefaced by our regular visit to see Andy and his owls. In addition to the large Eagle Owl, he now has a Tawny and (pictured) a Barn owl. Learnt something new: not all owls hoot. Just the Tawny. Beautiful things.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Sort of Tandem

The annual double-family cycle ride along the north Devon Tarka Trail from Torrington to Instow. But how will N hold the handle bars with her arm in a caste?  The answer is this!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Figures of Fun?

One of these people is real
A day out in three of London's parks with the girls and cousin Thomas. Holland Park is actually not one of London's best, but we had errands in its vicinity and we like its Japanese garden and cafe, but the big grass area in the southern half was taken over by a school sports day. Better is Kensington Gardens where we strolled past the Palace, the Big Pond and through semi-wild woods in which it was hard to imagine we were still in the heart of London. I'm never too sure where KG ends and Hyde Park begins but in any case we ended up at the Serpentine Gallery where we met up with Melanie and her son Johannes (Austrian friends from our Tokyo days) and checked out this year's pavilion by Spanish architectural practice, SelgasCano (which was superficially colourful and intriguing but ultimately an inferior version of one of Architects of Air's luminaria). 
Far better was a long-overdue Duane Hanson exhibition at the Serpentine's new Sackler Gallery across the bridge. Hanson was a US artist who made incredibly lifelike sculptures of people on the edge of society - ordinary, overlooked, overweight American manual labourers, pensioners and so on. I've seen his work overseas but never in Britain, perhaps because curators and critics have trouble defining the difference between his work and that of, say, Madame Tussauds (and, by the way, Hanson's figures are much more lifelike, both in terms of their actual appearance and because they are not celebrities). Ron Mueck's work has been similarly dismissed, although his of course are much larger than life. It's interesting that our first instinct is to laugh at them which is kind of understandable, and yet there is actually an immense sadness about them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Funeral

This afternoon I attended the funeral of a colleague and friend (although we would go years without seeing each other), Martin Gomme. He had retired a couple of years ago only to succumb to cancer at the too-young age of 63. Years ago we used to pay football in Hyde Park, we shared a couple of overseas postings (Tokyo and Beijing), if not always simultaneously and he loved music even more than me.
Martin's vinyl collection was legendary, he had every single issue of Record Collector and his knowledge of all types of music was phenomenal - including the influence of China on Jamaican reggae (see this post). 
It was a sad but dignified paying of our respects. Music of course featured prominently in the eulogy and the end-music was Eva Cassidy's 'Fields of Gold' - a cover of Sting's original. Cassidy died of cancer in 1996 and the track was subsequently used in Cancer research ads. I have it on a Virgin new age compilation.
But much more than all this, he was a gent. Oh, and you could never be sure whether he was being serious until that arched eyebrow came into play, and once again you knew you'd been 'Gommed'. RIP Martin.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Savage Beauty and Wanderlust

The cultural phenomenon that has been Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty exhibition is extraordinary. Over 800,000 people saw it at the Met in New York and now it is breaking all records at the V&A. To cope with demand, the museum is even planning to keep it open 48 hours on its last weekend in early August. I saw it today and it lives up to the hype. In some ways it’s less an exhibition about fashion and more about McQueen’s wild imagination which somehow manifested itself as fabricated creations (‘clothes’ is too small a word) which he applied to the (largely) female form. He made women look strong, vulnerable, beautiful, ugly, romantic, scary, from another age (past and future), mysterious, and above all never boring. 
His collections were all about the runway; each year they were an Event, making statements as powerful as anything Damien Hirst or Matthew Barney could come up with. Somehow the ideas percolated down to the ready-to-wear clothes you could actually buy and wear to the office but arguably, when you got down to that level, there wasn’t that much difference between him and Galliano or Westwood. To my mind, he was/is the fashion equivalent of Bjork: uber-creative and challenging, utterly unique and occasionally pretentious. In fact Bjork sang at his funeral, wearing one of his creations. They’d have made an interesting couple.

In contrast to this, I then popped into the Royal Academy to see their Joseph Cornell exhibition, Wanderlust. I’ve loved Cornell’s magical, wistful ‘box art’ for years. Victorian doll’s house meets an exotic medical cabinet, partly romanticism, partly knowing surrealism. Because he looked backwards rather than forwards, didn’t make paintings or sculpture (20th century’s accepted forms of artistic practice) and didn’t fit into the abstract expressionist or modernist movements of the time, he remains a relatively unknown artist. The title of the exhibition is ironic in some ways in that he rarely ever left New York and never went abroad, but at the same time his work evokes the exoticism of fin-de-siecle European travel. It is this wistfulness that I love.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Live Aid, 30 Years On

Here we are, on a sunny Saturday at Kate & Nick's in north-west London, not far from Wembley stadium - our base for the next week.
Almost 30 years ago to the day* on an even sunnier Saturday, 72,000 people squeezed themselves into a pre-arch version of that stadium, and another 2 billion people worldwide switched on the TV to watch Live Aid, the biggest pop-rock-charity event ever staged. I was living in Cricklewood at the time, a few miles the other side of the stadium, and watched the whole thing (including some of the US event in Philadelphia, though to be frank it wasn’t a patch on Wembley) on the box pausing only for food, beer and loo breaks. 
A lot of things have been written about Live Aid since - that it was a turning point in 80s music (the end of the brilliant, alternative first half of the decade and the beginning of the largely uninspiring second half); the futility of pop stars trying to change the world, the egos, the ‘greatest 18 minute set ever performed by a rock group’ (Queen), the making of U2, and the lack of black/African artists… all of which is largely true. But whatever one thinks of the choice of artists and the music they played on the day - some of it good, much of it indifferent - I don’t think anyone can deny that it was A Good Thing. What most people forget is that it was first and foremost designed to be a money-making event for TV, with as strong a line-up as possible to get people to switch on and give money. The 172,000 who attended the concerts in both cities was one thing but the millions of people who wrote cheques or phoned in cash (a phenomenon then in its infancy) was quite another. It is estimated that well over 100m was raised as a direct result of the concerts.
I have just been reading Dylan Jones’s The Eighties: One Day, One Decade which has brought it all back, although strangely I can pretty much remember it all anyway. I don’t have any particular favourite moments - just the overall ‘feelgood’ thing of fortunate humans from all over the world, musicians and spectators, for one day, getting together and trying to help less fortunate humans.    

(* actually 13 July)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Most Famous Two-Year Diary in the World?

The main reason for this Dutch stop-over was A’s love of two books - The Fault In Our Stars by John Green and The Diary of Anne Frank. The former is largely set in the States, but there’s a key bit which takes place in Amsterdam. So we spent today soaking up the wonderful townhouse architecture and canals… and queueing for three hours to get into the Anne Frank House.
The impact of these half-a-dozen ‘hidden’ rooms at the top of an inauspicious townhouse, and the diary that the teenage Anne wrote in them from 1942 until 1944, has been nothing less than extraordinary. I learned a few new things: that Anne was in fact German (the family had moved to Holland to escape persecution), that she shared her room with a much older man and that the diary was actually supposed to be for autographs. Of course, the hiding place’s eventual discovery in the summer of 1944, the death of seven of the eight inhabitants in various concentration camps after that (her father, Otto, was the only survivor) and the publication of the diary in 1947 has turned her story into the international phenomenon that it is now. Was it worth the queue? Just about.  
A is the same age (13) as when Anne Frank started her diary. I also just found out that when Liz's mum was 13, she had a Dutch pen-friend during the war. Strange to think that the two of them were writing letters to each other while another girl was writing - to herself - under very different circumstances...

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


So here we are in Holland, spending a couple of days here before going on to the UK. For Liz and the girls it’s their first time. For me, I have memories of my last ever family camping holiday between school and univ and then a football weekend towards the end of the 90s. We’re staying with ex-Bangkok neighbours Egon, Sandra, Toshka, Mick & Jimmy in a village near ’s-Hertogenbosch (thankfully usually abbreviated to Den Bosch), an hour by train from Schipol. Holland is so neat and tidy: houses beautifully renovated, roads perfectly maintained. Windmills (check), canals (check). We eat herring and fabulous Dutch cheese. Lovely to see them. 
It’s Egon’s 49th birthday, and by chance KLM's in-flight magazine offered us some Dutch birthday party etiquette. Think we checked all three.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Off on our hols. On the night flight over I watched Cantinflas, a biopic of Mexico’s most famous actor, Mario Moreno (1911-93). Known professionally as Cantinflas (the downtrodden but philosophising character he played in most of his films - not dissimilar to Charlie Chaplin’s tramp), he was best known in the west for his role as Passepartout in Around the World in 80 Days.  
As an aide, the making of the 1956 Hollywood classic is a running theme throughout the biopic and we get an idea of how crazily ambitious Around the World was. Aside from David Niven and Cantinflas, the film starred or cameoed Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Buster Keaton, Trevor Howard, Shirley MacLaine and scores of other stars, hundreds of extras, produced by a man (John Todd) who’d never made a film before, and directed by another (Michael Anderson) who’d previously given us the austere 1984. It was a wonder the film got made at all. Anyway, enjoyed Cantinflas and Oscar Jaenada is fantastic as Moreno.

Monday, July 6, 2015

From Book to Film

Today was the last screening of Cine a la Letra, a 7-week programme of British films-adapted-from-novels at the Cineteca Nacional. The selection was interesting enough - and plenty to choose from - but what's made it particularly interesting has been the talkshows afterwards with a Mexican director and a Mexican novelist discussing the adaptations. 
This evening we finished with The Remains of the Day (book by Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989 / film by Merchant Ivory, 1993) which, fairly unusually for me, I read and saw on their initial release. Twenty-plus years on and it's still such a powerful film. Not in terms of big messages (though there are some: appeasement, the end of Empire, the decline of Britain's aristocracy) or action sequences (an elderly under-butler tripping over a flagstone is about as animated as it gets), but the quiet, suffocating reserve of most British people in the 1930s. Antony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are an understated tour de force, probably never bettered.

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Mexico City is full of markets. This morning we went the Mercado de Artesanias looking for gifts to take to the UK. Of course we haggle, and they'll come down 25% but that's the limit. 
It's not like in China where you'll be quoted a ridiculous starting price. You laugh, turn to go and they drop 25% immediately. You still say it's too much, offer half the price, they laugh - "You're trying to put me out of business?!" You laugh again and turn to go because you're not that bothered anyway, and they come back with almost what you asked. You haggle some more and both sides get a fair deal. Actually, Liz did experience incredible rudeness in one particular Beijing market. "Lady, stop wasting my time", was one response.
In Mexico, they'd rather have the thing sit on the shelves for a another five years than drop that much. Anyway, we got some good stuff. And if you're reading this folks, don't worry, you won't be getting a 2ft ceramic day of the dead figure.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

I'd Like To Be, Under The Sea (2)

This morning I took A&N to Mexico City's new aquarium (where the Beatles press conf had been), courtesy of Luis, its director. From street level you wouldn't think it's very big, occupying a modest triangle one-storey high. But, like an iceberg, most of it's below ground.  
You start at the bottom with the big tanks with sharks and stingrays; then slowly make your way up past various ecosystems, coral, mangroves, jellyfish, freshwater fish, starfish and turtles (which you can pick up), ending up with penguins. I asked Luis how old they lived until. "About 15 years old. I hope they do anyway. They cost a fortune." It was pretty good. The girls loved it.  

Friday, July 3, 2015

Outward Bound

A fortnight after our senior management Lego escapade, we had an all-office team-building day out in the hills west of the city. To the best of my knowledge, in all my time at the British Council, this was the first time I've taken part in an outward-bound type event. 
It was kind of fun, slightly competitive, slightly taking the piss. We had to split into ten groups of ten and tackle around ten tasks in the middle of a rather muddy football pitch. You know, stuff that requires listening, communication, decision-making. But for me it was less about that and more about getting to know colleagues, many of whom I didn't know by name. 
Was it any different, Mexican style?  Probably not, though I had to concentrate hard as it was all in Spanish. There were no winners or losers, but I was dog-tired by the end of the day.