Friday, January 29, 2016

Land Rover Defender RIP

The last Land Rover Defender rolled off the production line in Solihull today, the 2,016,933rd, and 68 years after the first one went on sale in 1948. It was the very first off-roader, decades before Range Rovers, Landcruisers and SUVs roamed our cities. I remember my first ride in one on Dartmoor as a 9-year-old. It was incredibly basic. 
Great article here on a 1951 trip from Calcutta to Calais which took 26 days with barely any planning. Pakistan was barely four years old and Iran was called Persia.
Anyway, it's not the end as in The End. Apparently, they're working on a follow-up.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Reich Slowed Down

I listen to Steve Reich a lot, mainly his second-half-of-the-70s output. It's great to either really listen to, or have on as background music while writing. But my current favourite of his wasn't actually released by Reich, is barely recognisable as his and he may not even know it exists. It's Section I of Music for 18 Musicians, slowed down 800% and therefore stretched to 44 minutes. At that speed it sounds like a lot of ambient drone stuff, including Eno's Discreet Music, but there's something about this piece (here on You Tube) which makes me play it over and over. It helps, of course, that the original, unslowed-down composition is possibly my favourite piece of music ever. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

UKMX Closure

This evening we officially closed the Year of UK in Mexico Year with a press conference and reception at the Museum of Modern Art. Feel a mixture of relief and sadness. It's been a great project - 390 events in all 32 Mexican states, attended by 1.55m people (and reaching many millions more through the media (5,954 articles & reviews, if we're counting, which we are). And judging from those articles and the warm words spoken by guests tonight, it's been thought of well here too. 
We already know what's next: a year-long celebration of Shakespeare. Not quite on the same scale thank goodness, but should keep us busy. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Black RIP

Another one bites the dust. What a month…
'Black' was the artist name of Colin Vearncombe, briefly famous in the second half of the 80s for his beautifully melancholic singles 'Wonderful Life' (with a fabulous B&W video that was, incidentally, a masterclass in how to frame a picture) and 'Sweetest Smile'. 
The irony was that he wrote the former after being involved in two car crashes, his mother had been seriously ill, his first marriage had disintegrated, he was homeless and had just been dropped by WEA.
An album of the same name followed, swiftly followed by Comedy, both successful, and then things petered out. He seemed to spend the next 25 years never having properly come to terms with his brief(ish) flirtation with fame and moved to rural Ireland - where he died today, a fortnight after a car crash. Very sad. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Berlin: So Much to Answer For

Just read a book (B-Book) and watched a film (B-Movie) about '80s alternative music in West Berlin, depicted/experienced by Manchester-born, Berlin-resident, Mark Reeder. Its ten years depict a (stereo)typically decadent city, from just after Bowie & Iggy left, to the advent of the Love Parade and the Wall coming down. 
Reeder somehow ended up as Factory Records' West Berlin rep, invited Joy Division over, formed a couple of bands of his own, managed the all-girl group Malaria for a while and generally got under the skin of the city - as well as making forays into East Berlin. Along the way he sketches Berlin's take on the Neue Deutsche Welle scene, including bands like Die Todliche Doris and Nina Hagen, and then the arrival of Blixa Bargeld, Nick Cave, Die Arzte and so on.  
Mark Reeder and Muriel Gray
I could share Reeder's excitement at arriving in West Berlin - that strange, isolated, exotic chunk of urban bohemia surrounded by communist East Germany. My first visit was in the first week of the new decade, probably a couple of years after Reeder arrived (the concert he organized for Joy Division was a fortnight after I left). I was 18, travelled there by train with a friend and stayed in a youth hostel. It was freezing, perpetually dark but it had an intangible energy, like it was living on borrowed time. I visited my heroes Edgar Froese, Conrad Schnitzler, Manuel Gottsching, Gunter Schickert and Michael Hoening. You could just do that then. Ring them up and go round to their apartment. Reeder talks about his early love of Krautrock from when he was working in a Manchester record shop, but once in Berlin he seemed to lose interest in it and gravitated to the newer scene. (There were connections: Gottsching produced Geile Tiere, Schulze put out Ideal's first albums, Kruger worked with Malaria etc).
Anyway, both book and film are interesting. You can finish each in a couple of hours. The book's OK, a bit coffee table-ish. The film is better: it brings the place alive, you get to hear the music, marvel at Reeder's uniform fetish and meet some of the crazies, top of the list being Blixa Bargeld. It also includes Muriel Gray's visit when she did a West Berlin report for The Tube in early '84. But it's a little one-dimensional, a bit too 'isn't-Berlin-ever-so-decadent'. I went three times in the 80s and saw a different though equally alternative and interesting side.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Bullfight

Today I went to a bullfight. It was never high on my list of things to do, and there's plenty to object about them, but I'd been invited by a colleague and was curious. 
Bullfighting pre-dates Graeco-Roman times, but around 300 years ago the Spaniards turned it into what it is today, and subsequently exported it to Mexico and a few other Latin American countries. 
We went to the Plaza de Mexico which, with a capacity of 41,000 is the biggest bullfighting arena in the world (bigger than any in Spain). Today's almost full house seemed to be mostly middle-aged and male, though there were quite a lot of women too. There are even female matadors.
There are six bullfights (corridas) with each of the three star matadors fighting twice. But before they come on, there's a whole other process involving regular matadors, banderillas and picadors (a guy on a padded horse) whose job it is to weaken the bull. 
Today there were two star matadors from Mexico and one from Spain. The latter, Julian Lopez Escobar, was a real show-off: stylish, arrogant and hardily moving at all, which is what all matadors aspire to. Just to stand there and let the bull move around you. At one point he did it on his knees. People threw their hats into the ring and waved white handkerchiefs (an odd gesture: in another culture it indicates cowardice). If he puts on a bad show, though, people jeer and throw their seat cushions instead. 
And of course, the bulls get killed. And no, it's not nice to watch. But I'm not going to pass judgement. I've been the once, it was culturally interesting, and that's it.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Bit of Cornwall in Mexico

In 1825, sixty Cornish miners sailed from Falmouth to the port of Vera Cruz in Mexico, and from there travelled by horse and cart along rough roads to a small town called Mineral Del Monte in Hidalgo state, 10,000ft up in the arid mountains. Cornwall had been enjoying a tin-mining boom and so the men had been hired, along with 1,500 tons of state-of-the-art equipment, to help re-invigorate Hidalgo's silver mining industry. In effect they were bringing the industrial revolution to Mexico.
After a while their families joined them, and then more, so that by 1910 there were some 350 Cornish families living in Mineral Del Monte. At the same time they married locals, and introduced football, cornish pasties and Methodism into the area. There are still people around with surnames like Pascoe, Pengelly and Ludlow. 
Liz being Cornish, we've been meaning to visit for ages, and finally made the trip today. But what really hurried its up was finding out, only recently, that Liz's Great Great Grandmother's nephew was one of those miners who came out in the 19th century. He was called John Gundry (the son of a famous Cornish wrestler as it happened). 
The town has four mines, two of which are well preserved and have been converted into museums. We visited one and in the main square sampled a cornish paste, as they're called here: savoury ones with meat & potato (spiced up a bit with cilli) and sweet ones with fruit puree. 
We then found the Pantheon Ingles (English cemetery) in which there are some 300 English graves, mostly Cornish. And there we found John Gundry. And his son, Tom (who died down a mine aged only 21). It was a touching moment. So here's Liz with her very distant relative.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Hugs

I read today that National Hugging Day is celebrating its 30th anniversary. It was dreamt up in the US (where else?) and of course there's a website. It's easy to be cynical, especially for Brits and Japanese who shy away from public (or even private) displays of affection. And you have to laugh when it advises us that "reasonable care should be taken with those [whose] reaction to a hug is unknown". Yes, we may laugh, but hugging is good. I had a perfectly content, happy childhood, but we weren't a huggy family. I've compensated by being so with my own. And of course you can't escape it in Mexico. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

17

Today is our 17th wedding anniversary. So what's the material this year?  Turns out there isn't one. Just a gift-giving theme, which is... furniture. But rather than exchange wardrobes, we went out for a curry. Yes, there's a decent local Indian, with a twist. The beer isn't Kingfisher, it's Corona with chilli at the bottom. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

RIP Alan Rickman

And another. Sixty-nine, just like Bowie. And Lemmy. Weird. Great actor. Great voice. My Potter-loving daughters are particularly distraught. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Cold and Wet - Shock, Horror

Dark, cold and wet. A typical winter's day in Britain perhaps, but not here. Apparently, at a low of 6C, it was the coldest day in Mexico City for years. There was even some light snow in the western suburbs, unheard of. But it was the rain that got me. Between November and May, Mexico City precipitation is supposed to be off the agenda. Did it make me feel like home? Yes, but in a bad way.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Walk Across the Rooftops

Up on the office roof, testing out a satellite phone in the event of Mexico City going pear-shaped. It's a heavy piece of kit, quite bulky and I'd guess rather old. But after connecting the bits and pointing the 'dish' in the region of Venus (or somewhere), it worked. 
Funny things roofs. An untidy sprawl of noisy air-con units, water tank, elevator machine room and pipes leading to and from who knows where. Seems a real waste of space. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

RIP David Bowie

Late last night, just before I went to bed, something made me click on YouTube to watch David Bowie's 'Lazarus' video. It was an uncomfortable experience, like he was prophesizing his own death. The last scene of him, looking old and frail, retreating into the black confines of a wardrobe was almost too painful to watch...
Here in Mexico City, the news arrived first thing this morning. It was a complete shock - I had no idea he'd been battling cancer for 18 months - and yet, it wasn't. Something had prepared me for it. Even his death was a piece of performance, a piece of art.
I spent today in a bit of a daze, stopping in a cafe on my way to work to read all the reaction and twitter tributes and then, in-between (actually during) meetings thinking about what Bowie meant to me. 
I grew up with him. One of the first albums I ever bought was Pin-Ups in 1973, closely followed by Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. Everything about him was so alluring: music, looks, lyrics, the whole thing. I saw him live four times, including the Stage tour in 1978 at Earls Court. I can still remember first listening to side two of Low the year before (for some reason I played it before side one). Would a pop star ever do such a thing now? Inconceivable. In the 70s he was untouchable. And with Scary Monsters he began the 80s in equally impressive fashion. Thereafter he rather lost his muse, but every now and again he'd pop up and surprise. 'This Is Not America' with Pat Metheney, was beautiful. Reunited with Eno, Outside (1994) was complex and daring. Some of his drum and bass stuff on Earthling was actually pretty good. And I was lucky enough to see one of his last ever concerts at the Budokan in Tokyo in 2003, which was fantastic.
This evening I got all my Bowie LPs and CDs out - 31 in total - and played a random selection. At the same time Sam sent me messages from Brixton where, impromptu, huge crowds gathered by a Ziggy mural on the High Street and outside the Ritzy Cinema. Being a one-time Brixtonian, I feel I should be there (although in truth he's usually more associated with Beckenham where he moved to aged six).
So, the end of an era and very very sad. The one thing that cheered me up was this tweet: If you're sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed too exist at the same time as Bowie."

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Spring-clean

One of the downsides of moving from country to country is the accumulation of stuff. I happen to love stuff, and it pains me when, every now & again, we have to check stuff out. Particularly books. Today we had a bit of a spring-clean and I went through our library. It was so hard. The main target this time was Chinese titles. Over our four years there I'd been given lots of big, heavy catalogues from obscure museums in Wuhan, Shanghai, Chongqing, Nanjing, Guangzhou etc. Somehow they made it over to Mexico, but really, do I need them?  So of course I start flicking through them - and they're all great. I could quite happily spend the rest of the month reading them all from cover to cover. But I can't, so out some of them go, together with dictionaries, anthologies and other heavy tomes of reference. It's a drop in the ocean, but at least a step in the right direction. The next concern is the record collection...

Friday, January 8, 2016

Deutsche Mexicanische Freundschaft

We watched an interesting film tonight, Guten Tag, Ramon, a Mexican-German co-production from a year or two ago. It's about a young Mexican from a poor background who somehow manages to make his way to Wiesbaden in Germany where an 'aunt' has promised him work. The aunt never materialises and without a word of German he's forced to beg on the wintry streets. To cut a long story short, he's taken in by an elderly woman and starts helping her and other elderly residents with odd jobs before the police get wind of him and put him on a plane back to Mexico. The happy ending is somewhat unlikely, and overall it's a bit whimsical, even cheesy... but a nice feel-good movie for a Friday night. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Biggest Tortilla in the World

Our last day in Oaxaca City. Another great breakfast (we've been somewhere different each time), followed by the Governor's Palace with its impressive mural flanking the main staircase. Every governors palace seems to have one, though this is not by one of the usual big three (Rivera, Orozco or Siqueiros) - it's by Arturo Garcia Bustos, who was a student of Rivera and Kahlo, and is still alive today. To its right is the rather incongruous (and reportedly) Biggest Tortilla in the World, 4.4m in diameter and decorated, like the mural, with notable Oaxacans. It's now 15 years old and well past its sell-by date.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Monte Alban and the Tree of Tule

This morning we visited Monte Alban, an archaeological site on top of a hill a few miles west of Oaxaca City. It's not as big as Teotihuacan or as famous as Chichen Itza but it's just as impressive. Perhaps more so, given it's much earlier than either - founded by the Zapotecs in around 500BC making it one of the earliest 'cities' in MesoAmerica. There are the customary temples, tombs, ball courts and dwellings, and a lot of really interesting stone carvings, some of people, some of pictographic writing. Our guide pointed out non-Zapotec figures which he said were evidence that Chinese, African and Assyrian people had come to Meso-America before the Spanish. I don't know about that, but there were clear examples of their knowledge of biology & medicine with graphic carvings of internal organs & breech births. According to research, the city reached a peak in around 500AD, thereafter it fell into decline before late 19th / early 20th century archaeologists 'rediscovered' it. Fascinating place. 
From there to the Arbol del Thule (Tree of Thule) on the other side of Oaxaca City. It's quite some tree, not in terms of its height, but its girth. At about 42m in circumference and 14m in diameter, it has the thickest trunk in the world. At first it was thought that it was multiple trees but not so, it's just one. It's also incredibly old: at least 1,500 years. And it's dying… Traffic, pollution, and the town around it is guzzling up all the water that would normally go to the tree's roots. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Once Houses, Now Museums

In the Casa de Juarez
Museo Rufino Tamayo
More museums, all former colonial style houses… First off, the Rufino Tamayo Museum, a sister museum to the main one in Mexico City. This one is dedicated to pre-Hispanic art, mainly sculpture. It's beautifully presented with each of the half a dozen or so galleries adopting a strong vibrant colour. Lots of fabulous pieces worthy of the National Museum of Anthropology. This figure is from sometime between 200-750AD. Great, thoughtful pose.
The Textile Museum of Oaxaca focuses on the contemporary, with two exhibitions: one on rebozos, the other on patchworks. The latter was interesting: large, hanging quilts on the theme of cities.
Smallest museum of them all was the former home of Benito Juarez, former President of Mexico. Juarez was born in Oaxaca state but moved to Oaxaca City at the age of 12, living in the house in question from 1818-28. He was supported by the owner, a bookbinder, and a lay Franciscan monk who made sure he had a good education. In 1834 he became a lawyer and in 1847 Governor of the State of Oaxaca, before moving on to even greater things. It's a simple house and a simple museum.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Santo Domingo

Museum of Oaxacan Cultures
Church of Santo Domingo
Sightseeing in Oaxaca City. From the massive, maze-like Mercado del Abastos (Abastos Market) where we all but lost ourselves, to the equally large & labyrinthian Museum of Oaxacan Cultures… 
The latter was once a monastery and is said to be one of the best restoration projects (carried out in the 1990s) in Latin America. Ranging from artefacts from Monte Alban to gold & silver from the mining boom and right up to the late 19th century era of Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz (both native Oaxacans), it was too much to see in one go. More manageable was the adjoining Church of Santo Domingo which in terms of ornateness is pretty hard to surpass. Every inch of the walls and ceiling were covered with paintings, carvings and gold leaf. There was a wedding going on at the time which afterwards, in that golden late afternoon light, moved out into the square in front with much dancing & singing. Magical.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Oaxaca

New Year's Day and the beginning of a long weekend in Oaxaca City in southern Mexico. Been meaning to come here for ages, and now with Nick, Kate & Thomas, we have the perfect excuse. A culturally rich, laid-back and very walkable city surrounded by rugged hills and mountains. The tallest buildings are the churches, of which there are many; the rest are colourful, low-level colonial-style houses, galleries, museums, shops, small hotels (ours was once a convent) and hundreds of cafes and restaurants. Its gorgeous. 
We're going to attempt to have breakfast and dinner - skipping lunch-  in a different place each time. There's plenty too choose from.