Monday, November 30, 2015

Psychogeography and Tango in Guadalajara

Today (and for the next two days), FIL gets down to business, closes the doors to the public from 9-5 and focusses on the publishing industry rather than the authors. So the day is full of business meetings and talks about licensing rights, distribution, e-books etc. 
Nonetheless, there are plenty of authors around and Salman Rushdie, here to coincide with the publication of the Spanish version of Two Years Eight Months Twenty Eight Days, took the opportunity to check out our pavilion and pose for photos with the volunteers. I must say, I find him charming.
At 5pm the doors open to the general public again and in they flood, waves of them, and the talks revert to the authors. Great chance to see & hear an author I've admired for 15 years or so, Iain Sinclair. His unearthing of London, especially its East End and Lee Valley (the latter now utterly transformed by the OIympics), echoed my own interest in these areas when I lived in London and would go walking in the former docklands, along canals and exploring housing estates... although I only discovered him through Lights Out for the Territory after I'd left London. His Orbital - a 125 mile walk and historical discourse around the M25 - is one of my favourite books of the noughties.  
And so to the third in our series of concerts at ForoFIL... Aurora Orchestra and their eclectic programme, ranging from Mahler and West Side Story to Lennon's 'Jealous Guy' and two racy pieces with tango dancers. A passionate, accessible combination which went down very well with an amazingly big audience for a Monday night. I see someone in the audience posted a video of WSS on YouTube.    

Sunday, November 29, 2015


Day two. And so begins in earnest our programme of talks, around 20 today, covering mostly literature and science. Team beavering away in our operations room behind the Pavilion, getting authors to the right halls, arranging media interviews, solving problems. We also have an army of 50 blue T-shirted volunteers.   
Salman Rushdie gave a long talk to around 3,000 people on the need for imagination in fiction, entwined with a history of Indian and Arabic storytelling, while Philippa Gregory, Joe Dunthorne and Guadalupe Nettel talked about love and conflict in literature. Some big names to kick things off - but not just big names, a lot of up-and-coming writers too.
Sunday night is folk night. We'd arranged to have one act from each of the four home countries, but four days ago Wales (Julie Murphy & Ceri Matthews) dropped out with kidney stones. Well, one of them. Too late to find anyone else so on the day we re-jigged the running order so that the duos of Sam Lee & Jon Whitten (English songs) and Jarlath Henderson & Hamish Napier (Irish songs) played a great acoustic set altogether. That's them at our press conference. Went really well. Sam Lee's voice and presence is quite magical. Personally I was rather less keen on the techno-folk of the Peatbog Faeries from Scotland, but a big crowd were wild for them.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

FIL Opening

A day, largely, of protocol - starting with a 2-hour opening ceremony with the longest praesidium I've ever seen, stretching off into the distance, and around 2,000 people packed into the Expo's main hall. Needless to say, a lot of speeches, including one from our Secretary of State for Culture, and nice words spoken about the UK Guest of Honour programme and pavilion from all sides. Then the formal opening of our Pavilion, followed by the opening luncheon for a mere 750 people amidst a sea of round tables, the food for which was created by the affable Alan Coxon. 
Aside from protocol, we had a children's model-making session with the equally affable Jim Parkyn of Aardman, a dramatised 'chance meeting' between Shakespeare and Cervantes (both facing 400 Year anniversaries in 2016) and this evening the first of the nine shows at ForoFIL, the great Millennium Dome-like concert venue attached to the Expo. So kicking off the music & dance programme was indie-band Spector. Not a big name here but they went down well and the place was packed. 
Exhausted. And it's just Day One...

Friday, November 27, 2015

Pre-FIL Stuff 2

With George Blacklock
More exhibition openings: David Hockney's Words and Pictures and George Blacklock & Gary Oldman's Slipping Glimpsers. The first is straightforward: 80 prints from 1961-77 inspired by literature (Rake's Progress, Grimm's fairy tales, poems etc). The second is a juxtaposition of colourful oil paintings by Blacklock and monochromatic photographs by the actor Oldman - the link being that the two have been friends for 25 years. The only link I think!  Anyway, they are both beautifully installed in adjacent galleries in MUSA and we had a fine double-opening this evening. 
 Meanwhile, our Pavilion is nearing completion - a huge red, two-tiered construction of wood, canvas and scaffolding designed by Carmody Groarke which has an auditorium, bookshop, lounge, publishers area and exhibition space. See this fun time-lapse of it being built.
Our biggest challenge now is flight delays. Fog in Mexico City is causing delays and cancellations and it's affecting the 250 writers, academics, scientists performing artists, staff etc now beginning to arrive (or not, as the case may be). Big opening day tomorrow and I'm already knackered.  

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Pre-FIL Stuff

Finally, after a year of planning, we are in Guadalajara preparing for FIL (Feria Internacional del Libro) at which the UK is Guest of Honour this year. 
First some facts. In terms of visitor numbers, FIL is the largest book fair in the world (765,706 compared with, for example, Frankfurt Buchmesse's 269,534, both in 2014) and probably the second largest in terms of business (1,945 publishers from 44 countries). But it is much more than a book fair: it is one of the most important cultural events in Latin America.
As Guest of Honour, we are responsible for organizing not only the writers programme, but also academic, scientific and children's, nine nights of music and dance, a film festival, art exhibitions, a play, and - as centrepiece - a large pavilion with bookstore, auditorium, exhibition and publishers section. In addition, our friends at the Embassy and PA are organizing gastronomic and publishing programmes.
It all kicks off on Saturday, but this afternoon there's a press conference for the opening of Cholombianos, an exhibition by photographer/fashion designer Amanda Watkins about a bizarre sub-culture which thrives in Monterrey on the border with US, characterized by amazing hair and clothes.
Someone who does not have amazing hair and clothes is David Shrigley, but his exhibition Lose Your Mind, which opened this evening at Hospicio Cabañas, is in many ways as bizarre as Cholombianos. A stuffed headless ostrich which stands forlornly in the entrance contrasts nicely with a bodyless, comical, robotic head which draws geometric patterns on the floor via marker pens stuffed up its nose. A giant, intestine-like clay sausage occupies another room. And his child-like pencil cartoons are everywhere, plastered on walls or projected as videos. Above all there is mordant, deadpan humour. Shrigley himself was charming, tall, plainly attired and coiffured.

Monday, November 16, 2015


Parking for slim customers only. It's for a fitness centre, though it could conceivably have been outside Carlos Slim's headquarters...

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Subtlemob on Madero Street

At precisely 8pm this evening, halfway along a busy pedestrian street which runs between the Zocalo and Palacio de Bellas Artes in the centre of town, Liz and I plugged in our earphones, selected an MP3 which we'd been invited to download earlier and pressed play. We were 'in' As If It Were The Last Time, a subtlemob by Duncan Speakman.
I've done it twice before, in Tokyo and Xiamen. They're strange events. Most people out walking & shopping are oblivious to the fact that there's an 'event' going on around them, but those that are participating spot others doing so and it becomes a special, semi-private, semi-public thing.
A voice gives various instructions, there's music, you walk, stop, look at everyone else, try to remain invisible. You are little islands in a river of humanity flowing past. And you finish with a slow dance. It's of course the best bit. The street becomes alive with dancing (well, shuffling) couples and it's only then that the 'event' becomes visible to everyone else. Puzzled looks are exchanged, people smile wondering what on earth's going on. An elderly couple stopped and danced with us, even though they weren't 'part of it'. And then it's over and everyone disperses, back to their lives. But for half an hour we shared something. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Aztec Stadium

Along with Maracana, Nou Camp and Wembley, Mexico City's Aztec Stadium is the holy grail for millions of football fans. My first international footie memories were not of England winning the World Cup in 1966 (too young), but as a nine-year-old watching Mexico 70 and particularly the extraordinary Italy - West Germany semi, and the final when Brazil thumped Italy 4:1, both of which were in the Aztec Stadium.
Tonight I finally got to go and I don't mind saying I had goosebumps as we approached the stadium and, once inside, caught my first glimpse of the hallowed turf and tiers of fans stretching up into the heavens. At 50 years old, it's showing its age a bit but It's still a wonderful stadium with a fabulous atmosphere. There are vendors milling around the seats selling beer and food (yup, you can drink yourself into a stupor here if you want). A bunch of guys in front of us tanked up but it was all very good-humoured and non-threatening. Even at the end of the match, when the upper tiers showed the stalls with beer and plastic beakers, it felt more like a fiesta than a riot. 
And what was the match?  An international: Mexico v El Salvador in a CONCACAF qualifier, Mexico winning comfortably 3:0. Hardly a surprise: fourteen of El Salvador's most experienced players were given life bans for match-fixing last September and another seven were suspended for going on strike over working conditions, so it was a team of novices on the field. Actually, it was a wonder Mexico only scored three. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Guardian Cities

Interesting afternoon with the Guardian Cities team on the rooftop of the Laboratorio para la Ciudad. They're running a week of events, live blogs, streaming and so on around the city unearthing all sorts of issues, from local community activists to what it takes to be a journalist, and from serious to light-hearted.
Guardian Cities is a separate entity from The Guardian newspaper. It's on-line only and is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which gives them a certain free reign and, above all, time. This time last year it was Mumbai, now it's Mexico City's turn. 
So, in town we have Mike Herd and Francesca Perry (Guardian Cities), Ben Hicks (The Guardian Foundation), Martin Hodgson (International Editor of The Guardian U.S.) and Jonathan Watts, their Latin American correspondent.
I knew Jonathan from my Tokyo days when he was freelancing for some Japanese newspapers and we played football together. He then moved to Beijing (where he focussed on environmental issues and wrote a book, When a Billion Chinese Jump) but somehow we failed to re-connect and now he's in Latin America, although based in Rio. It's like I've been following him around. Anyway, nice to bump into him again.
It's interesting how internationally influential The Guardian has become and, like the BBC, a media outlet most people feel they can trust pretty implicitly. It's actually quite a brand now. So much so that its lower case "g" is almost as recognisable as Google's upper case one.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Saw Scottish Dance Theatre this evening at the Teatro Julio Castillo, performing Miann, a rather primeval 50-minute piece with eight dancers and four live musicians. It was a kind of chamber Rite of Spring, performed on a big circular sundial with a glass bead 'waterfall' in the middle and a patch of grass at 3 o'clock. Miann is a Gaelic word meaning "the ardent desire to know God", or perhaps a god. Certainly the piece reeks of earthy, pagan mysticism and I liked most of it, especially the parts when it was in full choreographic flow.
At the back were four musicians, The One Ensemble, playing cello, woodwind, electric guitar and drums. Sort of Peatbog Fairies meets The Velvet Underground meets Univers Zero. I liked them a lot. (Actually the Peatbog Fairies will be playing in the venue next door in three weeks time, but that's another story). 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Trainspotting, Mexican Style (2)

Last night Liz and I attended another premiere (oh, the glamour), this time the Mexican version of Trainspotting. I'd caught a rehearsal last month - see post - but they've upscaled from the tiny Bajo Circuito to the much bigger Teatro Hipodromo, an art deco former cinema on the edge of Condesa. It's seen better days but the tattiness lent itself to the play… which was fantastic.  
The story shifts from Edinburgh to Mexico City, but otherwise it's roughly the same raucous tale of heroin-users swearing their way to oblivion. The largely unknown actors were brilliant, sometimes talking directly to the enthusiastic audience. Indeed there was a kind of party atmosphere about the whole thing, with sleazy go-go dancers welcoming people in and pumping techno in the interval, including Underworld of course. Trainspotting wouldn't be the same without Underworld.

Monday, November 9, 2015


It's the National Week of Science & Technology, and there are four massive marquees taking up the role of the Zocalo. The UK is the country of honour so we have a pretty big space in one of them with an exhibition, telescopes and a 28m toy racetrack.
The latter is a test-track for school-designed balsa wood F1 cars powered by tiny CO2 canisters. It has an educational point: to learn about physics, aerodynamic design, manufacture, leadership, teamwork and even sponsorship (they have to raise money themselves). But the best part is testing your reactions and racing them, although it's more like a dragsters than F1. You wait, fidgety finger on a button, for the red lights to turn green and... off they shoot - stopped by nothing more sophisticated than a pillow. Science was never that fun in my day. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Señor Fawkes

Hot on the heels of Dia de Muertos, we celebrated Guy Fawkes night (if 'celebrated' is quite the word: a terrorist plot followed by torture and hanging) on a football pitch near the girls' school. There was a modest bonfire, some good fireworks, punch, sausages, baked potatoes and beans - all very British, even if most of the crowd were Mexican and had never heard of Señor Fawkes. But they still toasted him (if you'll excuse the pun).

Friday, November 6, 2015

Mexican Shoeshine

Had my first Mexican shoeshine today, possibly my first ever actually. It was extraordinarily thorough. Not just polish but all sorts of liquids, possibly even paint, and lengthy buffering in-between. There's something both regal and disconcerting sitting on what could pass as a throne and having this guy attend to your feet. But the hierarchical stigma has largely disappeared - in Mexico City at least. They are a fixture of street life here, with men, women, even children stopping to give their shoes some love for 20 pesos and banter thrown in for free. Mine shone like never before.
Apparently Malcolm X and James Brown were shoeshiners in their youth.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Ulan Bator's First Vinyl Record Shop

Dund Gol Records
There's always been at least one decent vinyl record shop in each overseas city I've lived in. Tokyo of course was inundated with them, Mexico City has quite a few (see post), and Bangkok and Beijing have about two each. And on my travels it's always a pleasure to stumble upon one. To my eternal regret, I never made it to Ulan Bator. I have seen a couple of 'Mongolian' bands - Huun-Huur-Tu and Hanggai (although neither are actually from Mongolia proper). Anyway... today I stumbled upon, if not a record shop, then a nice story about one.
"Until recently, people in Mongolia had to travel more than 1,000km across the Gobi desert to Beijing to get to their nearest record shop. But this year, a new specialist store opened in the capital, Ulan Bator. Batbold Bavuu began collecting records by accident 10 years ago, rescuing them from rubbish bins at the music college where he was a student and from London where he studied sound engineering. Those discs formed the basis of his collection and the inspiration for his new shop, Dund Gol Records. Now he's put his 3,000 records on sale - an eclectic mix that includes Cuban tracks, Yemeni Jewish music, hip hop, Edith Piaf, pop groups from Belarus and rare state-sponsored Mongolian rock bands. His mission: to make vinyl cool again in Mongolia".
Good luck mate!

(Summarised from these BBC and Uncut magazine articles)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Making a Spectre of Ourselves

Craig's 17th selfie request
I've been to a few film premieres in my life, but nothing could compare with James Bond's Spectre here tonight. It was the Americas premiere and given the city's spectacular role in the opening sequence, no expense was spared: 7,000-seater Auditorio Nacional, massive red carpet, Day-Of-The-Dead dancers and giant skeletal puppets, searchlights, Aston Martins and pretty much the entire cast, plus director Sam Mendes, producers Wilson & Broccoli, even Sam Smith (who'd actually just performed in the same venue a few weeks ago).
A couple of chancers
Liz and I turned up in in Cesar's small Toyota, for some reason ignored by the paparazzi. Nevertheless, for the first and probably last time in our lives, we got to do the red carpet. There were screams as we negotiated the steps trying to look cool, but it was probably for the wardrobe assistant. We then hung around to bathe (at a distance) in the glow of some real stars. Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Naomi Harris, David Bautista, Monica Bellucci... 
And the film?  The film was OK. I'm a Bond fan so easily pleased. There are some great moments, particularly the Mexico City opening, but some fairly pointless bits too, not least Monica Bellucci's fleeting appearance which just about gave Craig enough time to bed her, but was otherwise negigible (negligeeble?). A waste of talent. Similarly, the first ever Mexican 'Bond girl', Stephanie Sigman, never made it beyond the opening titles. Seydoux was good, Waltz a bit hammy, Fiennes dour and Craig was fine. There were the usual car chases, helicopter acrobatics, explosions, fights on trains, exotic locations (and the usual grey, wet London), droll humour, and even Blofeld's white cat (uncredited). Maybe I was expecting more.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Day Of The Dead (1940)

Day Of The Dead festivities are in full flow this weekend, so we wandered the streets of Coyoacan, soaking up the atmosphere. From Xoco Cemetery which was crammed full of families tending to colourful graves and vaults, to the Museum of Popular Culture which was similarly chocabloc of crafts and traditional Day Of The Dead food. Talking of which, we had lunch in a cafe in the Jardin Centenario: enchilladas mostly but preceded by an 'interesting' hors d'oeuvres of tacos, guacamole and fried grasshoppers (see left). They tasted of very little really - just crispy & salty.
Ended up visiting Leon Trotsky's house, now a museum, where he and his wife lived as political refugees from 1939-40 and where he was famously assassinated with an ice-pick. The house has been kept as it was all these past 75 years.
I hadn't know that the muralist David Siqueiros had also attempted to assassinate Trotsky three months earlier by occupying the courtyard and raking the surrounding rooms with machine gun fire and explosives. Amazingly Trotsky survived, but not for long.