Monday, February 1, 2016

The Generation Game

Today we drove to Valle de Bravo, a small, lakeside pueblo magico 100 miles west of Mexico City. After a pleasant lunch with our new friends Aiko & Axel and their two daughters, we walked up cobbled streets to the picturesque town square, but not for long. 
The real reason we were in this neck of the woods was literally the woods. Half an hour east of the town is the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Which sounds a bit quaint, perhaps even dull… but hold onto your hats. Here is home to millions of them (some estimates say around a billion). 
In the so-called winter they migrate here from eastern USA and Canada. That's around 2,000 miles - tough for a bird, but for a butterfly!?  
But here's the weird thing. They don't all migrate. Only the 4th generation does. These Monarchs live 6-8 months, arriving in Mexico in late October and returning to Texas in early March. The next three generations live for only about 6 weeks each time and migrate relatively short distances. Each year (different generation), they return to the same wintering sites and even to the same tree as their ancestors. No-one knows how they do it. 
On the way to the sanctuary we drove through a swarm (ok, correct proper noun is a kaleidoscope) of them, slowing down traffic. But the main habitat is up in the pine forests (a particular type of fir tree, the Oyamel). And to get there we rode horseback, dismounting half an hour later and walking the last few hundred yards. And there they were: millions of them, filling the air and covering the trees  It was difficult to really capture them on camera, especially against the foliage, so check out this 2-minute video.

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.