Wednesday, December 31, 2014

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

Metro

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

Sappy

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

Bats

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

Tilt

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

Martyrs

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

FIL

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

Shelf-life

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.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Xochimilco

Today we borrowed the office car and drive to Xochimilco in the south of the city. I didn't once drive in Beijing. People say driving in Mexico City is not for the faint-hearted but it was fine. Most of it was crawling along in traffic anyway; no worse than London or Bangkok, or Beijing for that matter.
So an hour and a half later we arrived in Xochimilco which is famous for its waterways and nurseries (for plants not toddlers). Actually it used to be one big lake but now it's canals which meander in-between artificial islands called chinampas.  Colourful wooden boats, trajineras, propelled by punters (like Oxbridge but without the straw boaters), are everywhere. Some with tourists, but mostly with families out for the weekend. Most have a long table down the middle laden with food and often there's a mariachi band perched aft. Some people even dance. And they're not big boats. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Cookbooks

Just outside the kitchen is a little bookshelf crammed with cookbooks. I've counted them. There are 58. Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Bill Granger, Nigella Lawson, the usual… plus a lot of Japanese, Thai and Chinese. Liz is a great cook, but I think even she would confess to trying out just a fraction of the recipes they contain. 
Cookbooks are a bit like exhibition catalogues. They're so tempting: the photography, the sleek design, the celebrity coolness of the artist, and of course the works therein. But I don't really read exhibition catalogues. They just sit on our shelves looking nice, and perhaps give the impression that we are more cultured than we really are. But once in a while we get the cookbooks out, and did so today. It surprised me how many recipes Liz had put to practice, even though we now cater rather more for slightly fussy children and rather less for dinner parties. 
When did Brits become foodies? In my teenage years food was basic and unglamorous. I didn't complain, it was all we knew, but British food had a well-earned reputation for being boring. And then, somehow it all changed. Delia Smith arrived (I mean, she & her food weren't glamorous but everybody watched her on TV and bought her books). M&S started to sell decent sandwiches. Mother's Pride was out, brown wholewheat with added grain was in. Indian and health-food took off. Tescos, Sainsburys and Waitrose stocked ten types of humous. The twentysomething Jamie Oliver beckoned in the era of 'celebrity chefs'. Michelin star restaurants sprang up like weeds. Food was the new… well, what was it? Food was the new lifestyle. 
So, armed with a choice of 58 books, which should I choose? Funnily enough, I went for Fiona Watt's Beginners Cookbook which is actually for children, starting them early, grooming them for chiefdom - or at least toy eat more healthily. It's got a failsafe pizza base recipe, but this evening I chose chicken & bacon taglietelle. They didn't like it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Ribbon-cutters

Although slightly premature, we had a formal ribbon-cutting for the renovated office. My old boss, Christopher (whom I've known for 20 years and trailed from London to East Asia and now to Mexico) did the honours, complete with moving speech. Everyone was stuffed onto the 2nd floor: staff, building contractors, security guards, cleaning ladies and all. Together we've put up with the noise, dust, smell, IT breakdowns and general disruption for three months. And now we're nearly there. Hooray.
The only disappointment was that there wasn't a long line of ribbon-cutters, the scissors weren't gold and no-one wore white gloves. In Japan that would have been de rigeur

Thursday, November 27, 2014

RIP P D James

I went round her house once. I was producing an exhibition about British Novelists and we wanted a title image which somehow summed up the lonely process of writing. So with photographer in tow, we chose the study in her home on Holland Park Avenue, roughly opposite Tony Benn. It was a small room, with a manual typewriter, looking out onto a back garden. It did the trick.
I don't think I've ever read one book of hers but she was a nice lady and shared a uncanny resemblance to my mum. Farewell Phyllis.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fast Cars

So, Lewis Hamilton won the F1 Championship today. Second time. Good for him. I can sort of understand the appeal, but I've never been that bothered about going to see a race. I went once, to Brands Hatch, sometime in the mid-80s. It was quite boring. We sat on a grassy knoll overlooking a bend. The first lap was fine. You could clearly see who was in front, but after a while it just became a steady stream of cars so we concentrated on our picnic and tried to talk above the din. At least it didn't rain. I think Alain Prost won, but I couldn't be sure. More interesting for me is Le Mans (see this post) the cars are sexier and it's 24 hours, but as for who's in the lead, well, forget it!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Music from Huddersfield

Although I'm in a good, even privileged, position to explore the alternative music scene in Mexico, I do miss the wealth of choice back home. Yesterday, for example, the 37th Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival kicked off and today the line-up is mouth-watering: a rare Henry Cow reunion playing the music of ex-member Lindsay Cooper who died last year (they also played at the Barbican in London yesterday); Aurora Orchestra playing Timber by Michael Gordon (founder of the Bang On A Can ensemble); Evan Parker & David Toop talking about rare & unusual records from their own vinyl collections; and Philip Thomas playing piano pieces by Howard Skempton (a personal favourite), Michael Finnissy and Christian Wolff, all on the same day.
I'm actually hoping to (help) bring two of the above to Mexico next year, but will keep stumm until confirmed.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Gabo

This evening Liz and I watched the Mike Newell-directed film of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. It received bad reviews when it was released (2007) but we thought it was pretty good.
Gabo - as he was known in Latin America - lived for over 30 years in Mexico City and died here in April this year. The Presidents of both Colombia and Mexico attended a public commemoration for him in the Palacio des Bellas Artes a week later. To say that he was revered in this part of the world (and elsewhere of course) would be an understatement. "He was probably the greatest Colombian we ever had in our history", Colombia's President Juan Manual Santos told the BBC.
I'm ashamed to say that I've only read One Hundred Years of Solitude so need to put this right while resident in his adopted town.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Coffee Break

Day one of a two-day workshop, working out how we're going to manage around 100 events in the coming year. Good to get everybody together. And the venue for this auspicious away day? Starbucks, a few blocks from the office. But it's a big one: three floors, a roof terrace and a large meeting room with screen and everything. And coffee...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Spritzers in Space

Went to Kosmica tonight, a small festival which started off in London, programmed by The Arts Catalyst, but has since been presented in a few international cities. I think it's their third time in Mexico City. Basically, it's about art & space. In the past they've taken artists on zero gravity flights courtesy of the Russian space agency or organised exhibitions, like Republic of the Moon earlier this year. 
This evening's event was A Brief History of Alcohol in Outer Space which was part talk, part performance as the two comperes took us through an amusing run-through the Sputnik, Apollo, MIR, Skylab etc. Did astronauts take booze on board? How do you drink sherry in zero gravity? Shots were distributed to the audience and we toasted Soyuz with vodka and NASA with bourbon. It reminded me of Oxford Playhouse's One Small Step which similarly had fun with the space race (which I saw exactly four years ago in Beijing). Funny to think that space is as much nostalgic as futuristic these days. 
My favourite space & alcohol story is Tintin's Explorers On The Moon in which Captain Haddock goes on an unscheduled, drunken space walk tethered to the best-looking rocket ever designed. It was written in the early 50s but the illustrative detail over the two books is simply stunning.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

On the Road, Mexican Style

Just read Hugh Thomson's Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico. At 18, naive yet self-confident, Thomson decided to fly to Mexico in the summer of '79 between school and university. He ended up buying a gas-guzzling Oldsmobile 98 for $500 in El Paso, and driving it south where he would sell it for "a handsome profit" in Belize. Well that was the plan. Along the way he crashed it several times, surfed, got into scrapes with the police, managed a golf course and got mugged. 
It's a kind of modern day On the Road, with some interesting observations on Cortes, the Mayans, Aztecs, Pancho Villa and writers like Greene, Huxley and Waugh who visited Mexico in the late 1930s. For an 18 year old punk, he seems unreasonably world-weary... but then he did write it 30 years later.
Thomson went on to write several other books and make a number of excellent documentaries, including Indian Journeys with William Dalyrimple and Joanna Lumley in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon (Bhutan), plus the epic Dancing in there Street: a Rock and Roll History.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Another Esquivel...

… but nothing cheesey about the writer, Laura Esquivel. She wrote her first novel Como Agua para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) in 1989, which was promptly turned into a very successful film a few years later. The title is a phrase referring to the state of being very angry, or aroused. We watched it this evening, and there is indeed a lot of anger and arousal, though most of the latter unconsummated. It's set during the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th Century though that's just background: mostly it's about kicking against traditional, conservative mores and depicting the onset of Mexican feminism. And food. Food figures a lot.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Space Age Bachelor Pad Maestro

Listening this evening to a compilation of Mexican composer Juan Esquivel's music from the 50s & 60s, bought at the height of the UK's 'lounge' boom in the mid 90s and not played since really.
Equivel (1918-2002) was a product of his era: a bit of big band, film music, mambo, Latin pop, cheesy TV jingles, muzak... but with enough experimentation (theremins, Chinese bells, harpsichord and weird recording techniques) to make it interesting. 
For good measure I also played Perez 'Pred' Prado's Guaglione which was recorded in 1955 and became an unlikely hit 40 years later when it was used in a brilliant Guinness ad. I have that single and it really packs a punch.
It's funny how that music, considered so naff in the 70s & 80s, suddenly became cool & hip in a deeply ironic, retro kind of way in mid-90s Britain, just as Britpop kicked in - both I suppose harking back to the 60s. There were endless compilations, it was constantly on TV and lounge clubs popped up from nowhere. I remember going to one in Brockley, south-east London, about as untrendy a place as you can imagine (and therefore perfect). I seem to recall an excess of velvet, trumpets and bad cocktails. 
I am listening now to Esquivel's Mini Skirt which consists of wolf whistles and someone (Esquivel?) saying "groovy" over a Latin beat. Is this really any good or have we all been hoodwinked?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Animal Jam

N is obsessed with Animal Jam, an online game set in a world called Jamaa. You pick an animal avatar, explore different eco-zones, and play games, swap virtual stuff & chat to fellow players. It's pretty safe and harmless, and is somehow linked to National Geographic. 
Millions of people play it all over the world. N plays it with her Argentinian friend Martina in Beijing. Every now & again she gets a Skype message and after a brief chat one of them says "Do you wanna play AJ?" And off they go, chatting & playing at the same time.
It's a far cry from playing marbles or cowboys & indians in the back garden.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

String Theory

Tonight Liz and I were invited to a concert by Camerata Bern, the Swiss string ensemble. An accessible beginning & end of Mozart & Beethoven sandwiched a more challenging filling of Britten & Zimmerlin (the latter a composer who's actually still alive), and the venue was lovely - the roof-garden of the Castillo de Chapultepec (see here). 
I'd had a hard day so it was nice just to vegetate and let the music wash over me. They play standing up so are a bit more energetic than most, but still I find it hard to focus on the sound of strings. I'm not sure what the collective noun is (a vile?), but there's something about the violin's thin tone which I just don't find engaging, even when bolstered by cello & double bass, even the sound of 50 of them in a symphony orchestra. It still sounds thin. Philistine.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mexicans in Beijing

Today I received a gift: a book of photographs taken in Beijing called Ciudad Prohibida. The pictures are by Mexican photographer Ulises Castellanos, the text by my colleague Edgardo Bermejo, who heads up our small Arts team here. Edgardo was Cultural Attaché for the Mexican Embassy in China a few years before we were there so we have lots to talk about. 
The photographs, all B&W, are of normal Beijing life - people & places: stuff we experienced everyday for four years. It's funny looking at them now, a few months since we left. I feel so removed from China already and so settled in Mexico, that the images seem somehow very foreign when they should feel utterly familiar. I guess it's all part of moving on.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Neighbours

This afternoon we had coffee & cakes with our Argentinian-Danish neighbours. For the past 15 years we've had a wide range of international next-door friendships. In Beijing they were Malaysian or Czech; in Bangkok, French, Japanese and Austrian; only in Tokyo were they actually Japanese. Carlos doesn't speak much English so we did our best in Spanish but mostly Marie-Louise interpreted. I've been to Denmark just the once, years ago, but remember being struck by not only how many people speak English, but speak it really well. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

From Orphanage to Museum

Orozco murals
Maximo Gonzalez installation
More Guadalajara meetings, finishing at the Hospicio Cabanas, a former orphanage, now a museum. It was established in 1810 by Bishop Juan Ruiz de Cabanas and is truly enormous, featuring 23 courtyards and, in the middle, a large chapel which is plastered with the frescoes of Jose Orozco (one of Mexico's great muralists). They are overwhelmingly grim, painted in 1937-38 after the chapel had been deconsecrated. 
The Hospicio continued as an orphanage until as late as 1982. An interesting anecdote is that many of the children who entered its doors didn't have or couldn't remember their surnames, so the carers gave each of them the name of Cabanas, which explains why there are now so many Cabanas in Mexico.
But really I was here to recce the place for a possible exhibition next year. Aside from the Orozcos, the Museum is actually better known for its contemporary exhibitions. The current show is by Argentinian artist Maximo Gonzalez who lives & works in Mexico City. Really interesting stuff.