Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A drink, long delayed

I met Tim, a British IP lawyer, on the first day of school (A & N's, I should add) back in August. Back in the UK, he worked in the music industry, but now works on all sort of intellectual property cases right across China. Ever since then we've been trying to schedule a drink. It's been almost comical. We'd nearly make it, and then something would intervene. I'd be travelling, he'd be travelling. I'd have an event on, he'd be working late. Finally, after three months, we met... but only after I received a phone call at home saying where was I? I got the day wrong. A quick taxi ride got me there in 15 minutes. The drinks, understandably, were on me.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The phantom jogger

Someone's jogging upstairs. Sounds like one of those running machines, right above our sitting room. Bom bom bom bom late at night. We complained to the management last week but they said the flat was empty. Same thing the following night. This had all the makings of a horror film. We complained again and this time they said that maybe someone had just moved in. Anyway, tonight it happened again so I went upstairs, knocked on the door and confronted not a ghost but a woman who spoke good English while her husband pounded the treadmill behind. They're going to try it in a different room and at a civilised time. The downside of living in a block of flats.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Christmas in November

Christmas came four weeks early this weekend. Yesterday we went with friends to a typical Weihnachtsmarkt in an open courtyard just inside the gates of the German Embassy. All the usual fayre, sponsored by German companies... So there was VW bratwurst, Siemens curryworst, Hasbro lebkuchen, Mercedes Christstollen and BMW magenbrot... but it was the gluhwein that was most welcome on the coldest day of winter so far. Got to say, the Germans know how to do a good Christmas, even in Beijing. And today we were super industrious, making Christmas cards round the dining room table, listening to 80s music and laughing a lot. A lovely stay-a-home, get-things-done kind of day.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Strategic confabulation

Two days, 30 colleagues and one large hotel room (which varied from icy cold to suffocatingly warm). Yes, time for the annual get-together for the China region in which we...

- chewed the cud
- questioned our purpose
- talked 'digital', 'cross-pollination' and 'seedcorn'
- compared directives from London with what we thought we should be doing locally
- made jokes about pandas
- narrowed it down to Arts, English and Education
- stood in circles, semi-circles and took our shoes off
- juggled EO&D, SBUs, T2s and Tier 2s
- drank too much coffee
- and actually came out with the basics of a new astrategy by the end of it, an hour ahead of schedule.

One can snigger at these things, but actually I found almost all of it positive, constructive and fairly energising. Great to get away from the emails, phone calls and frantic office schedules and just spend time getting to know your colleagues (some of whom were completely new to me) and how everything fits and works together.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

RIP Sleazy

Peter Christopherson died suddenly today, in his sleep. Sleazy, as he was better known, was quite an influence on my early visual and musical tastes - from his photograpy & design work for Hipgnosis in the mid 70s, to his part in Throbbing Gristle in the late 70s and (to a lesser extent) Coil in the 80s & 90s. I remember seeing TG play at Buckler's Wharf in December '79 and standing quite close to him (there was no stage as such) as he played his rack of cassettes & effects. The fact that someone could 'play' a set-up like that was a liberating concept. Years later, both living in Bangkok, we would occasionally meet up, though I can hardly say I knew him well. His lifestyle was very different from mine. But he was an inspiring guy, friendly and clearly led a full life. RIP.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The lives of others

I meet a lot of interesting people in my job, but sometimes they are extraordinary. A lady called Jannette Cheung emailed me last week saying she wanted to talk about a noh play and thought that she'd met me in Japan years ago. I didn't recall her but I pencilled in a chat this morning, hoping it wouldn't take too long. Turned out she's a Chinese Brit based in London, one of 12 children who grew up in poverty in East London and has been working in higher education most of her life, dabbling in poetry and, more recently, facilitating international cultural productions.

She proceeded to tell me about a noh play, Pagoda, she'd written in English and an amazing series of events which saw it grow from just an idea to securing major funding from the Japanese government, somehow persuading Oshima Noh Theatre and Theatre Nohgaku to produce it, and then convincing the South Bank in London, the Maison de la Culture du Japon in Paris, and the Samuel Beckett theatre in Dublin to stage it (a year ago). She's now planning to bring it to Beijing, and I firmly believe she'll succeed.

But what was most amazing was the story of her father. He'd grown up in China in extreme poverty in the 1920s but managed to get a job as a cabin boy on a ship and ended up in England where he married a British woman and they had their dozen children. He died in the early 70s and it was then that Jannette decided, aged twentysomething, to go to China to teach English and possibly find out something about him. All she had, by way of a clue, was a scrap of paper with some Chinese characters on it. She was posted to Harbin during the height of the Cultural Revolution, this must have been an experience in itself. Anyway, eventually the authorities helped her decipher the scrap of paper and it turned out to be his Chinese surname and a village in the middle of nowhere. Eventually she was allowed to travel there and met an old dying woman of that name, who turned out to be his sister. She had never known what had happened to her brother, but now - through this unlikely series of events - she could die in peace.

The lives of others...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Three museums

Yesterday went to Today Art Museum, Beijing's first non-Governmental art museum, but not for an exhibition. A was invited to a birthday party masquerading as a pottery class in an adjacent studio. While she did that, we wandered around the vicinity which is full of small commercial galleries, cafes and art-related shops... although it could do with some people too. A made a large cup, with a handle which we hope will stay on when it comes out of the kiln.

In the afternoon I finally got to visit CAFA Art Museum, which is part of the Central Academy of Fine Arts campus, out in the north-east of the city. It's an impressive new (2008) building with an armadillo-like roof and large white galleries, designed by Arati Isozaki. Two good photography shows plus the V&A's Decode exhibition of digital art and a nice cafe if you don't mind paying £3.50 for a latte.

Today it was N's turn to be dropped off at a party, so the rest of us went to the National Art Museum near the Forbidden City. This is a more 'establishment' affair and currently features a sprawling Exhibition for the 60th Anniversary of the Establishment of Beijing Federation of Literary and Art Circle - which is as exciting as it sounds, basically hundreds of large oil paintings. Couldn't have been more unlike the above museums if it tried. But there was some interesting stuff and they do show more contemporary and international work as well.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

One Small Step

This evening Liz and I met up with our German friends Andreas & Diane to see Oxford Playhouse's One Small Step. Two actors, playing 41 characters, told the story of the 1960s American-Soviet space race, using a bewildering variety of lo-tech props, from a Saturn V tower of cardboard boxes to a lunar-module coffee flask which docked with its cup.

Interesting to see what a (young) China's audience would make of it all. China's space programme didn't really begin until 1967 with the top secret Project 714 (intriguingly, Tintin's Flight 714 was published the following year so maybe it wasn't that much of a secret?), but not a lot happened over the next few decades. However, Shenzhou 5 finally put a man into orbit in 2003, the third country in the world to do so. A couple of months ago it was announced that China would send a man to the moon by 2025.
I remember the excitement of my parents waking me up to watch the first moon landing in '69. As we left the theatre and wandered out into the cold streets of Beijing and looked up to a full moon, it seemed incredible that some humans, not too dissimilar to us, flew there, wandered around on it a bit, then came back... and rather sad that manned space exploration has all but fizzled out.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Shenzhen is quite nice actually

Walked to Guangzhou railway station (which looks like it could be in Japan) to catch a fast, sleek train to Shenzhen. This is effectively where old-style China became new-style China when in 1979 Den Xiaoping named the city - actually, little more than a village then - a Special Economic Zone, the first of its kind. Since then Shenzhen has boomed, attracting 30bn dollars of foreign investment and millions of migrant workers. The population is now around 10m. It's home to numerous hi-tech brands, including the infamous Foxconn mega-factory which produces Apple products.

I was expecting Grim & Grey, but actually the bits I saw were green, prosperous and quite nice actually. It's the ultimate planned city with broad, tree-lined boulevards stretching this way and that and creative industry parks around every corner. I had a meeting in Shenzhen University and rarely have I seen a more pleasant campus. It has 30,000 students. They're building a second bigger one up the road. I popped into OCT art district, a bit like Beijing's 798, complete with the most uncorporate Starbucks I've ever seen (see photo). And I finished off at Shenzhen Museum to discuss a V&A exhibition that will be shown there in 2012. Gecko performing here tonight but I'm already at the airport waiting for the last flight back to Beijing.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Architecture and Morality

An interesting, busy day meeting arts contacts at Guangzhou Opera House, Guangdong Art Museum, Guangdong Modern Dance Company etc. The Zaha Hadid-designed Opera House is pretty amazing - typically sleek and angular and could only be Hadid. There's hardly a right angle to be seen (even the supporting columns lean) and it's desperately minimal, as if Hadid has outlawed anything which might interfere with the austere purity of it all. Signage, posters, plants be damned! Still, they've got their iconic building and I'm sure the human touch will creep in sooner or later (it only opened a few months ago).

If I learned anything today it is this: be aggressive like the Dutch. Everywhere we went, we kept hearing about the human dynamo that is Ton van Zeeland, the Dutch Consul-General. "He's everywhere". "Supports lots of Dutch artists". "Helps us a lot". "Very tall". But like all diplomats, he'll be moving on soon, with no guarantee that his successor will be an arts affecionado. In the end, national cultural policies and funding aside, so much is simply down to personalities.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guangzhou Asian Games

A 3hr flight and I'm in Guangzhou, just up the Pearl Delta from Hong Kong. It's the third biggest city in China (11m) and is modern, prosperous and... warm. After chilly Beijing, it's a surprise to be greeted by palm trees and a balmy 24C. Guangzhou is halfway through hosting the 16th Asian Games which has all the facts and figures to rival the Beijing Olympics: 45 countries participating in 476 events in 42 sports in 12 new venues and costing 17bn dollars (more than Athens Olympics 2004). My hotel is full of athletes wandering around in lurid tracksuits.

I've just watched some highlights on TV while downing a pint in the bar: China's edging of Thailand in women's cricket (!), Malaysia's thrashing of Japan in the men's sepak takraw (which I used to love watching in Lumpini Park in Bangkok), a multiple pile-up in the velodrome and rivetting highlights of xiangqi which is a Chinese version of chess. Inevitably, China are in the lead with 109 golds, with South Korea a distant second with 37. Spare a thought for Yemen, who don't have any medals at all. Today they were knocked out of the Beach Volleyball by Sri Lanka but blamed it on the cheerleaders. "These girls are very beautiful. I think they had something to do with our losing the match", said Adeeb Mahfoudh. But far from being disgruntled by the distraction, he went on: "If I can, I hope to watch them at the next match".

Monday, November 15, 2010

Edinburgh comes to Beijing

It's been a theatrical month. Aside from Gecko, we've had a 'Best of Fringe' triple bill with Inspector Sands last week, Oxford Playhouse this week, and Stan's Cafe next week, all at the same Beijing theatre. And tonight we organized a reception for Edinburgh International Festival, at which Jonathan Mills, its Director, announced the beginnings of some important links with China, starting with the National Ballet of China and Shanghai Peking Opera coming to the festival next summer. A good evening, nice people and lots of possibilities for the future. Have been involved in more theatre here in a month than was possible in four years in Thailand.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

M is for...

Mon dieu, a mountain, a marathon, a multitude of myriad Mmmmms. Hard to cut it down to 10 but here's an attempt:

- Magma
- Madonna
- Massive Attack
- Bob Marley
- Wim Mertens
- Man Jumping
- Stephan Micus
- Muziq
- Mott the Hoople
- Russell Mills

Magma: a law unto themselves and still going. Madonna: pointless now, but important 'then'. Massive Attack goes without saying. Ditto Marley. Wim Mertens and his ensemble Soft Verdict were essential listening for me in the 80s, though not so much now. Ditto the short-lived but equally jazzy/minimalist Man Jumping. Stephan Micus has released lots and lots and lots of great albums on ECM on which he plays lots and lots and lots of obscure instruments. Muziq: unsung mid-80s purveyor of electronica. Mott the Hoople meant a lot to me in the 70s and still do now. And Russell Mills, a visual artist & illustrator by trade, just happens to make amazing music too.

But it's just as interesting listing those who just missed the mark, so here they are, oldies first: Joni Mitchell (Blue, Hissing, Hejira...), Van Morrison (Astral Weeks), John Martyn (One World), Matching Mole (modest prog), Moody Blues (no, really), Ex-King Crimson's McDonald & Giles (just the one album, but pretty seminal) and John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra...

Pray silence for Giorgio Moroder, who almost qualifies for the Top 10 on the strength of I Feel Love alone, and who prepared the way for a raft of electronica: Derrick May, Jeff Mills, Model 500, David Morley, Mantronix, Moby, Mixmaster Morris, Meat Beat Manifesto, Mouse on Mars, Microstoria, Barbara Morgenstern, Mum, Manna, Miasma, MARRS and Tom Middleton. Not forgetting some late 70s / early 80s synth stuff like Michel Magne, Michel Madore, Clara Mondshine (aka Walter Bachauer), Yuko Matsuzake (a gorgeous one-off), Moebius (still going). And one-offs like Sheila Chandra's Monsoon and A C Marias (whom I never know how to catalogue: C for Angela Conway?).

And some more leftfield stuff like Monoton, Material, Metabolist, Christian Marclay, Main, Maju, Mas, Matmos, Yoshio Machida... and off into classical territory: Ingram Marshall, Meredith Monk, John Metcalfe, Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co, Jasun Martz's extraordinary The Pillary... to say nothing of Mompou, Messiaen and Milhaud (which is stretching it a bit). John Metcalfe and Manyfingers are worth a mention too.

On the more accessible side, there's 80s' Madness, Magazine, Kirsty MacColl and The Monochrome Set, and 90s' Moonshake, Momus, Mazzy Star, My Bloody Overrated Valentine, Moloko, Morcheeba, Mogwai and Mandalay. There's the 'world music' of Baaba Maal, Madredeus and Muszikas; Welsh folkist Julie Murphy; and finally a couple of dead mavericks, Malcolm Maclaren and Joe Meek...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wonderful Wuhan

I'm in Wuhan in the 'middle' of China, for the day (!). It's a huge, sprawling megalopolis on the River Yangtze - mass construction going on everywhere, usual Tier 2 city story. Gecko's The Overcoat is playing tonight, the first major UK theatrical production to be staged here since... ever? So we invited Wuhan's arts cognoscenti to a dinner, to start forging serious links.

But before that there was time to visit Hubei Museum and Hubei Art Museum. The former's main attractions are the contents of the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng who ruled the area 2,400 years ago - roughly the time of Confucius. Aside from the usual array of artefacts, wine, concubines etc buried with him (so far, so ancient Egypt), there was a Bianzhong. This was a massive musical instrument consisting of 65 bronze bells hung on a wooden frame in the shape of an L and struck with a mallet. There have been several unearthed around China but this is the biggest. A replica has been made and every morning at 11:30 a concert is performed on it, plus a Bianqing (stone chimes) and string instruments - see above. Fascinating.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hardy perennials

Can't buy western magazines in mainland China, so it was a bit of a luxury getting hold of a copy of Uncut in HK the other day. Interesting to turn to the back pages and see the following bands scheduled to play this side of Christmas: OMD, Human League, Madness, Suede, Pogues, Squeeze, Echo & the Bunnymen, Marc Almond, James, Hawkwind, The Fall, The Damned, Half Man Half Biscuit and, into the new year, The Cult, The Levellers, The Stranglers... all bands from 25, 30, 35 years ago ('my generation') and still going... Quite reassuring really.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Teaching in North Korea

This afternoon, amidst the tail-end of all this VIP stuff, I chatted with a British Council teacher-trainer who's just started a two-year contract in Pyongyang. Actually, I first met him in our office a couple of months ago when he was receiving his briefings, and now he's in town for a week before going back for the long hard winter. Fascinating experience. Lives in a compound with other foreigners. Not allowed to fraternise with local people. No freedom of movement. Have to hand your mobile phone in at the airport. Not much to do. No real shops to speak of. Extraordinary place... Am just about to start reading Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea. And a colleague of mine is very good friends with someone who organizes visits there. I'm very tempted.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The day I told the PM where to go

"This way Prime Minister. On the blue spot, please. Bunch up a bit. Thank you." And that was it, the result of two weeks' work. Motorcade arrives in front of the National Museum with VIPs waiting, get the introductions done, marshal everyone into line. Photo taken. Goodbyes. And off he went - to meet the President. 9 minutes. He overran by 4. Still, we have a photograph in which David Cameron 'announces' a festival of British arts in China to take place in 2012. I shall remember those 9 minutes as the festival takes shape, grows like a many-headed monster, has its ups and downs, and takes up most of my waking hours.

L-R: Joanna Burke (Director, British Council China), Vernon Ellis (Chairman, British Council), Neil MacGregor (Director, British Museum), Xiang Xiaowei (Assistant Director General, Central Bureau for External Affairs, Ministry of Culture), David Cameron (PM), Lu Zaosheng (Director National Museum), Sir Mark Jones (Director V&A) and Helen Wang (CEO, HSBC China).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

VVIP

Day 1 of running around in parallel to the Prime Minister's programme. Cameron arrived in Beijing this morning with a plane load of business leaders and press. Two of the former included Sir Mark Jones, Director of the V&A, and Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, and it's these two - together with a group of senior Chinese arts contacts - who are occupying my time today. Who would have thought that a lunch would be so complicated and take so long to organize? Anyway, it went smoothly and Lu Zhangshen, Director of the National Museum of China, was on good form, waxing lyrically and expertly about Maotai, China's No.1 drink for state banquets. There's a big affair at the Great Hall of the People tonight so doubtless Cameron, like Nixon in '72, will be imbibing.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

MFH

Finally got around to trying out my new Cassette-to-MP3 converter. It's very basic: looks like a Sony Walkman, with satisfyingly clunky buttons. I bought it mainly to digitise some MFH stuff as, amazingly, there's quite a lot of interest 'out there' in the five cassette albums Andrew and I released in the early 80s. It's at least 25 years since I listened to them (apart from Head, which Andrew remastered a few years back). A strange experience. Very basic, abrasive in parts, almost pleasant in others, naievely produced, but not without charm or interest... and with lots of tape-hiss, which I'm told is quite cool now.

They were all recorded in bedrooms or the tiny radio station at university or in a hallway in one case, on cassette machines. We had a couple of rudimentary analogue synths, the odd guitar and a lot of pedals and circuitry, but it was a time of experimentation and freedom. Good to go back there. So I'm going to live with them again for a month or so, like some estranged son or daughter, and see how we get on. I think there's a reasonably strong CD or vinyl compilation in there somewhere...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Gecko's Overcoat

Seven weeks after the press conference (see 19 Sept), Gecko's The Overcoat has come to town. Liz and I had a rare evening out together, joined by our new friend, Lijia. The show is as great as I remembered it (Edinburgh Festival 2009), and happily it was a full house, as it was (apparently) last night and hopefully tomorrow night. Aside from the very involving Kafkaesque story, the excellent set, lighting and sound design, what really makes the show stand out is the acting... or rather the 'movement'. It's a very complex, tightly choreographed 75 minutes.

Amit Lahav (Artistic Director and lead role) and his cast gave a post-show talk sitting casually on the edge of the stage, legs dangling into the pit. There was a real warmth between them and the audience and the questions could have gone on for ages.

The show moves on to Xi'an, Wuhan and Szenzhen.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Beijing Underground

I don't use the subway that much - prefer the bike - but it's the quickest way to Tiananmen Square on a Friday afternoon. The first line opened in 1971. There are now 9 lines with 147 stations (which I don't think I'll be photographing...). There'll be 19 lines by 2015. It's modern, fast, efficient and very cheap (2 yuan / 20p for unlimited transfers), but a hell of a squash at rush hour - which was my misfortune this evening. Here's what it looks like in quieter moments.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Census

This week China embarked on the world's largest census. Six million people have been recruited to count about 1.4 billion people. As someone said, if you counted 1, 2, 3, 4... all the way to 1.4 billion it would take roughly 100 years. They're doing it in ten days. The questioning of each household takes about 30 minutes. One of the big findings will be the number of migrant workers, roughly estimated to be about 200 million. We're waiting for the knock on our door too.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tooth Fairy

The bad news was getting up at 5am in order to get to the airport at 6. The good was that the Disney Shop there opened early so I could buy Woody for the girls and sitting next to an interesting, Cambridge-educated Chinese Australian called Sek on the 3hr flight. I normally prefer sitting next to no-one or at least someone who doesn't talk at all so I can read my book or work or watch a film or sleep, but for once I actually enjoyed conversing.

Back in Beijing it was full-on dealing with next week. Scores of emails copied to too many people in London and Beijing, and briefing the team on press conferences, transport, photo calls, lunches. But back to lovely familial reality with the news that N had got a Star Citizen Award at school 'for being kind to three people", and her first tooth had fallen out. The Tooth Fairy beckons.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Recalled

Hong Kong looking particularly attractive today. Lovely weather so lunch (after five back-to-back meetings) was outside - a stone's throw from our office and in the shadow of Bank of China Tower. I wonder what the total number of floors and lifts is in HK?

On the way back from recce-ing a museum which will show our Made in Britain exhibition, I felt extraordinarily lucky to be doing what I'm doing. The moment was brief as I received a text message summoning me back early to Beijing. All hands to the pump for a full-on week ahead. More on that after it's over...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hong Kong

From one Norman Foster-designed airport to another... I'm in Hong Kong to brief our new Head of Arts here, meet the rest of the team (OK, three people) and discuss stuff with other colleagues. A real buzz driving into town on the harbour-hugging freeway, past vertiginous apartment blocks and the site for the West Kowloon Cultural Centre (which Foster also had a go at - see right) but is one of those grands projets that is perpetually bogged down by politics. Hopefully, Graham Sheffield and Lars Nittve will succeed in their new jobs - Chief Exec of WKCC and M+ Museum respectively - and not get worn down by it all.