Wednesday, 27 July 2011

A Woman Killed by Kindness.

To the National to see Katie Mitchell's new production of A Woman Killed by Kindness. It's a fascinating production and the best kind of theatrical experiment.

Originally set in 1603 Mitchell sets the production in 1919 - a world of huge uncertainty, regret and shame brought about by the end of the war mixed in with a new sense of purpose and possibility - women's suffrage had been granted the year before. The update not only allows us to focus on the mirrored lives of Annie, whose husband punishes her adultery by turning her out of the home and refusing her access to her children, whilst Susan, trapped and lonely in her brother Charles' house is traded into marriage in order to pay a debt of honour, but makes clear the suggestion that the plays of the Jacobean age have a domestic rigour to them that can make terrifying sense when juxtaposed with the skull beneath the skin violence and cruelty that is only a weak mistake away from us all. The men play cards whilst the women manhandled like pieces of furniture in beautifully choreographed interludes, are punished for missing perfection.

Mitchell is fascinated by the early twentieth century and as ever links links her feminist reading to one of class. Servants scurry mute mice around the set, always hurried, always unrewarded, always aware. It is a patriarchal world and we are left to wonder at the structures that enable so much unchecked destruction to be placed in the hands of monied men.

The show runs at nearly two hours without an interval, but has enough texture to support the investment. This is a recognisable world which rescues the play from the dusty shelves and reclaims it as a serious and contemporary comment on gender politics.


Monday, 25 July 2011

A Day at the Test.

Early morning rise and off to the Test at Lords. Amazingly with the match in the balance and all three results still possible general admission tickets for the final day went on general sale at 8.30am this morning. It was too good an offer to miss.

By the time I'd got to St John's Wood the queue had already past the tube station and a real sense of excitement was in the air. England needed a further nine wickets, India needed to hold it together and if they managed to bat with a sense of purpose all day it was just possible that might overhaul England's 458 run lead. Also an opportunity, probably a final opportunity, to see the Indian middle order, who since the timely demise of the Australian superstars have grasped the mantle and propelled India into the number one test nation in the world. Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Dhoni. Names already assured a revered place in the pantheon of legend.

It took two hours to get into the ground and news quickly spread that thousands had been turned away. The police had even be called to quell the disappointment of those who'd missed the cut.

England looked...well very un-English! Confident, fit, encouraging, revelling in each others success, not dwelling on misfortune or searching for blame, just getting down to work. It's a long time since I've seen a team work like this. After a few tasty overs they got the huge reward of Dravid's wicket, nicked to the ever alert Matt Prior behind the stumps. A sense of possible, despite the formidable batting line up to come, swept across the stands.

Laxman came out and settled down to making some runs. Chances came and went and he stuck around to make 56 before a loose shot swallowed by Ian Bell at mid-wicket lifted us again.

Tails up and Tendulkar in but without the score moving on the overcautious Gambhir was trapped by Graham Swann and so the little master trooped off for lunch a lonely figure.

After lunch he just couldn't get going. England looked young and were everywhere. Runs dried up and the chance of an Indian victory disappeared. Now it was just a question of whether they could block out for a draw - but the bowlers were steaming in. Tremlett like a snarling bull. Broad dangerous every time he turned and Jimmy Anderson swinging the ball in all directions.

Unbelievably to gasps of disbelief captain Strauss put down an easy catch, but it only served to fire up the team and two balls later Anderson got the prize. Tendulkar trudged back to a standing ovation form a crowd many of whom would have secretly liked him to score his hundredth test hundred here. Unlikely he'll ever return to Lords.

No such sentimentality in the middle as India began to rebuild. The rest of the session was frustrating as the new partnership of Dhoni and Raina settled in. Tea was taken with England still needing five wickets.

It didn't take long for the show to get back on the road. Tremlett getting his reward for his tireless running and Dhoni departed to make way for the lower order. Harbhajan played a shot too many and went cheaply. Broad demolished Kumar's stumps and Raina edged to Prior ending his counter of 78 to give Anderson his fifth wicket in the innings. So here we were just an hour after the nervous worry of tea with Broad steaming in to trap Sharma leg before and record a wonderful, wonderful victory against the best team in the world.

Perhaps the times are changing. Perhaps England can become regular world beaters. It'll be giddy at the summit, but today was very impressive, not lucky, plucky, eccentric, bull dogged or qualified, just very, very impressive. Can it be happening?


Thursday, 21 July 2011

Craven Cottage

Without a World Cup or European Championship it can be a long summer for football fans waiting nervously to see if the optimistic words of their manager's pre-season patter have any meaning in the competitive reality of Autumn.

West London is having a footie boom time just at present and any student joining us in September who wants to go and watch a match or two will find themselves spoilt for choice. Our nearest league club for as long as anybody can remember is Brentford - a short bus ride away from the campus. They've made steady progress since winning League 2 a couple of seasons ago and are now firmly established in League 1. The ground is blessed with four pubs, one on each corner. This year however the Bees status as our local team has been challenged by the miraculous rise of AFC Wimbledon, who nine years after having all their players rudely abducted to Milton Keynes are now back in Division 2 and playing at the modest Kings Meadow ground in Kingston.

From Richmond a short tube ride takes you to Hammersmith from where a twenty minute walk north or east will take you to the Premiership glories of either newly promoted QPR or punching above their weight Fulham... and then of course there's Chelsea!!!

Tonight on a balmy evening we drove to Putney, parked up, took a lovely walk through Bishops Park to the old world charms of Craven Cottage, where Fulham were playing Northern Irish club Crusaders in the second leg of a qualifier for the Europa League. Crazy to be playing competitively in July! I'd not been to the ground before and, even with it's agonizingly kitsch Michael Jackson tribute statue, its a brilliant throwback to a puritan age of meat pies, wooden stands and narrow turnstiles. The perfect place to watch football. Remarkably given the sold out oligarchy down the road, tickets were on sale for the first few Premiership games and at fairly reasonable prices as well.

Fulham played well and didn't really have to break sweat to record a 4-0 victory over the Ulster part timers. Still they played some decent stuff, certainly enough for their fans to go home happy, touching the bootlaces on Johnny Haynes' statue for luck and licking their lips in anticipation of the big kick off less than a month away.


Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Emperor and Galilean

A very busy day. Up early and off to Camden for a quick catch up with Keith at The Comedy School and a chance to see what we can do for next year. I'm hopeful we'll be able to run another freshers gig in September and perhaps help out in a more formal way at his Comedy Store fundraiser next Spring. It's hard times in the world of rehabilitative arts and Keith is increasingly looking towards the private sector to deliver his training programmes. He's stayed in touch with three of last years graduates - Steph, Danny and Kadeem and has been offering them occasional work for the company. It's a start.

Down to Westminster Cathedral for graduation. Patsy and Trevor also there in Hogwart style gowns ready for the proud procession down the aisle past beaming parents, best behaved siblings and finally the well scrubbed graduands themselves nervously gathered in the stalls. The service itself is long as each of the three hundred or so BA students come to receive their degree from the Principal - but it's always wonderful to see another batch make their way forward in the world. It was especially exciting for us as lecturers because these were the first cohort of the new degree to pass through. A full circle that's taken five years from the initial planning to fruition today.

In the evening I headed with Eleanor to the National to see a really good production of Ibsen's little known play The Emperor and Galilean. Set in 4th Century Rome, it's a complicated and intellectually challenging piece of work. Julian the Apostate rejects the oppressive Christian doctrines of his Uncle Constantine's court, only to become a tyrant in favour of his own brand of paganism once he inherits the empire. Cut back from an original script of over eight hours to a still substantial three and a half, the play wrestles from start to finish with the rights of individual belief and the parameters of tolerance, especially in an age of evangelism. Jonathon Kent's production leans heavily on contemporary parallels as a recurring film track loops silhouetted images of bombs falling on the present Middle East.

The real star of the show is the wonderful Andrew Scott in the lead role. He is an actor of such quick turn and fleet thought. Nothing is spelt out and nothing is missed. Although this show is probably not starry enough to go down as anything but a solid and timely revival - his high octane intelligence must surely mark him as one of the leading players in London.


Saturday, 16 July 2011

Meeting Myself Going Backwards.

A day of reunion and a chance to say goodbye to the European School, which after over thirty years of operation is closing. About 400 former students and teachers gathered to chat, reminisce and show their own children and partners around.

When it opened in 1978, the school was a bit of an experiment - over twenty different nationalities were organised into five different language sections, working within a curriculum focused on European integration. We were taught to be European citizens first, nationals second. We worked together in a spirit of diplomacy, without many rules beyond the pragmatism of respect. It led to a very lenient, open and generous culture where the only thing not tolerated was intolerance itself. We had no uniforms, were worked very hard, encouraged to run things, listened to seriously, laughed a lot, travelled quite a bit and knew no better. It's a form of progressive education that in the days of league tables, and outcome focused syllabus seems as arcane as the Rubik cube or the Berlin Wall.

Visits to the past are by definition evocative, but in true Proustian style it was the smell of the old rooms that conjured up memories, feelings and reactions long submerged in the intervening years. I walked into the boys changing room and immediately the goose bumps appeared as the excitement and anticipation of the football match to come took over. The dusty hall took me back to final year exams and the secure knowledge that how I performed over a few hours, under conditions, would dictate a large part of the future that I'm currently enjoying and the Chapel; home of assemblies and the site of so many instructions and groundbreaking announcements, which seemed at the time epic in scale.

A handful of my year group were there; Lucy, bringing her three children, came over from Denmark. Jayne brought her husband Steve, stepson Liam and her Mum, who in her day was a formidable chair of the parent's association. John, with his partner Phillipa, expecting their first child in the Autumn an Boris who brought his wife Ruth and their clan of children down from Chester. Alongside these familiar faces, a clutch of siblings brought news of other old friends who for one reason or another couldn't attend - April, Maria, Mehdi, Laurence and Giovanni. It was lovely to have the chance to send them good wishes and remembrances.

More amazing still was the chance to catch up with old teachers. There was my English teacher Mr Campbell, who convinced me that I could write critically if only I stayed attentive to my feelings and honoured them honestly. Mr Hannaford, who somehow managed to keep smiling as I struggled to understand logarithms. PE teacher Mr Wickes, who turned my enthusiastic amateurism into a loyal commitment towards my classmates. Historian Mr Pearce, who gently encouraged us find links and parallels between the past, present and future and finally Miss Lloyd-Jones, whose Philosophy lessons unfolded hundreds of possibilities for looking at the world. She also had a wonderful way of overlooking bad behaviour.

It makes me aware of how subtle great teachers are. What gifts they give - sowing ideas and promoting attitudes that blossom ten, twenty, thirty years later. For all the merry making, there was a sense that our was a golden time of privilege and light. Our world is in retreat now and a more cautious age of accountability has appeared on the horizon. The School may close, but nobody can take away the knowledge that we really were very lucky to have been a part of it all.

Back in London I found a short passage from C.S Lewis' The Four Loves on friendship.

Those are the golden sessions... when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life - natural life - has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?


Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Power of the Play.

We went over to Heathside School in Weybridge this evening to see their school play. It's been directed by former Drama St Mary's student Danielle - who only two years after graduating is acting head of Drama there - and was created using the methods we explored when putting together the site specific quest play The Shrinking Land of Kalku for Chiswick Park in 2009.

Many schools see the annual play as a promotional opportunity. A big musical that entertains the parents, gets some photos in the local press and brings a large section of the school's community together. Danielle's work facilitating a fantasy written by the students and weaved into the landscape of the school goes one stage further in allowing them to re imagine the function of different spaces and produce an escapist metaphor that allows the cast to express safely some of their hopes, fears and concerns for the future. There were over 300 in the cast.

As in so many of these stories - Alice in Wonderland, His Dark Materials, The Wizard of Oz - a teenage girl took the role of the protagonist and we followed her as she tackled and resolved a series of tasks and problems that strange and fabulous characters presented her with. Each encounter a step on the way towards developing knowledge, insight and maturity.

The work is particularly poignant at Heathside because it's the school Milly Dowler attended and where her Mum taught maths for a number of years. The last few weeks, with the allegations of phone tapping coming hot on the heels of Levi Belfield's trial and conviction, have brought back some painful reminders of Milly's disappearance and murder, which have had to be sensitively contextualised by the staff here.

Whilst the play itself didn't deal directly with those events - it was almost impossible not to acknowledge the tribute it played. Particularly in the scene set in Milly's garden where the protagonist, looked into a mirror and asked the reflection what she hoped for from the future. At the end of the conversation the reflection was invited to accompany us. She sadly explained that she'd have to stay where she was, but asked that we carry her dreams with us. Once again the girl vowed not to leave the reflection and promised to stay looking in the mirror, frozen for ever in the moment. Once again the reflection shook her head and told the girl politely but firmly that the time had now come to let go. The cast released red balloons and we were led to the next scene.

The value of drama and ritual in creating a space where we can poetically confront the dark, acknowledge our terror and yet still galvanise the strength needed to carry on living can, with brave teaching, work as well in a secondary school as in any of the world's great playhouses.


Friday, 8 July 2011

Mad Cows and Englishmen.

Back in the UK the big local news concerns the cows on Petersham Meadow who are now under the management of our National Trust friends at Ham House. Earlier in the year the herd were attacked by a pit bull and although none were killed it put them under a great deal of unnecessary stress and prompted a fair amount of erratic behaviour. Based on the advice of the herdsman Gary and his team decided to remove the cows from the meadow until they calmed down a little and it's this act of apparent cultural sabotage has caused an uproar amongst the locals. In the end a compromise electric fence has been temporarily erected and the cows have stayed put.

This evening a public meeting in Petersham village hall, packed to the rafters with righteous indignation from the political correctness gone mad brigade. Fearing the worst for Gary, we went along to try and offer some support. The meeting was chaired by local councilors who've been quick to jump on the bandwagon and demand the fence be removed.

What we saw was an incredible display of arrogant localism as a string of villagers stood up to remind us of the history of the cows - painted by Turner no less - the nanny state, the insufficient signage, the value of common sense, the threat of health and safety legislation, the take over of the National Trust by woolly do gooding liberals and the collapse of civilisation itself.
Poor Gary battled in vain with a rather limp PowerPoint - including pictures of people who've been gored by stampeding cattle - and a refuted offer that we all brainstorm alternative ideas on large sheets of sugar paper around the room. A suggestion which was met with:-

'I don't want to make this personal but by God you're pushing me damn close!' by one enraged and ruddy resident.

In the end the mauling achieved little. Although the locals did go home with, what I presume for them is, the satisfying taste of blood in the mouths. The smug councillors were applauded for their public service and we took Gary and head gardener Sandra off to The New Inn to lick their wounds.

I wonder if this is the Big Society in action. The hall was filled mostly with elderly professionals, none of whom work in heritage or conservation, but all of whom seemed to want to tell the Trust how to do their job. I was struck that nobody with a young family - who might be grateful that the meadow remains a safe place for children - was in attendance nor was anybody really interested in Gary's strategy to reintroduce the cows and remove the fence. The politicians skillfully wound up the mob and let them loose. Of course any decision that affects a community deserves scrutiny but it's a big worry that as we de professionalise public service work more and more it'll be the easily outraged with time on their hands who set the agenda and force decisions.

It was very ugly.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011


My flight back to the UK wasn't until evening so having checked out I crossed the Salisbury Road and spent the morning looking round the wonderful Hong Kong Museum of Art. There was a brilliant exhibition of watercolour and oil paintings depicting the early days of the colony, which vividly told the story of how, after the first Opium War Hong Kong fell into British hands. It's quite in keeping with this place that it should have been a spoil of a viscous trade war. The British by all accounts behaved disreputably, firstly swamping the commodity market with an inexhaustible supply of Poppy seeds from their Indian colonies and then reacting aggressively when the Emperor, fearful of the damage to both the his economy and nation's health, intervened to try and stop the flood.

So much of Hong Kong's cultural life - the horse races at Happy Valley, the tram ride up the Peak, the ferries that link the train terminus at Kowloon clock tower to the main island, the rattling tram that takes you across the north shore - all have their origin in the early days of the settlement. All are pictured here customs and traditions established in a strange and foreign land.

After lunch I dipped back into the subterranean maze of interconnecting tunnels that surround Tsim Sha Tsui and walked half a mile or so to reappear on Chatham Road South at the Hong Kong Museum of History - where the Hong Kong story lays out in fascinating themed detail a clear chronological overview of the territory. It was brilliantly informative.

Time was cracking on and I only really managed to get from the Neolithic hunter gatherers to the end of the seventeenth century Ming dynasty before the alarms went off informing us of the museums imminent closure. The route round the exhibition is strictly one way and so we were hurriedly ushered through three hundred more years of Imperialism, Colonialism, occupation, transition and the return to Chinese rule where we were politely shown the exit.

And so off to the airport and home again. It's been an amazing and constantly surprising week. I hope it won't be long before I get an opportunity to return.


Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Island Hopping.

Today had been scheduled as an overflow day in cases more discussions at HKCAC were needed, but the substantial talks yesterday mean that I've taken negotiations as far as my remit will allow on this visit. Both institutions need to go away and consider very carefully the recommendations drawn up.

With time on my hands I decided to explore a different side of the territories and so after breakfast I walked to Tsim Sha Tsui MTR to catch a train north and west to Tung Chung on Lantau. Tung Chung is one of the newest zones and has really grown up to support the airport just a couple of miles further on. It's real claim to fame however is that it houses the Ngong Ping cable car which rises majestically, carrying its passengers four miles, up into the mountains where the Tian Tan seated Buddha overlooks the charming Po Lin monastery.

It was a breathtaking half hour ride high above the remote hiking trails that pick their way through the lush terrain. We rode peak over peak until in the distance Buddha appeared peacefully gazing across the island. Five minutes later the car reached its terminus and out we jumped.

Buddha is a fairly new addition to the Hong Kong tourist scene having only been here since 1993, but at his feet a hub of tacky gift shops and fast food restaurants have opportunistically appeared. They're quickly passed and after a brief climb you find yourself in close proximity to the statue. Circling the base you can see far out over the South China Sea to Macau and the mainland. I dawdled for an hour or so at the monastery watching other tourists light incense offering to the several Gods, some of whom looked, in contrast to the main man, very severe indeed.

Back in Tung Chong I picked up a bus and headed for the traditional fishing village of Tai O. It was a real step back in time. The village is famous for its shrimp paste and wooden stilted houses that stand proud in the natural harbour. This is the most Westerly point of the colony and very little of the commercial wealth generated in the centre of the city finds its way out here. At the far end of the village, past the tightly packed tin shacks and dried fish stalls, offerings were being made to Kwan Tai, a God of War, who has protected the village from malign influence for hundreds of years. Behind, a huge jumbo jet, roared as it took off from the distant airport.

Another bus took me along the Southern shore to catch the ferry from Silvermine Bay out to Cheug Chau, an island made infamous by the exploits of Cheung Po Tsai, a nineteenth century pirate, whose treasure, so it's said, remains undiscovered in one of the vertiginous caves that cling to the coast. Night was falling now and so I decided to forgo the search and instead had a wonderful seafood hot pot, alfresco in a ramshackle restaurant overlooking the harbour. Hard to imagine that this is less than an hour away from the sleek and gleaming buildings of Hong Kong central. I caught the midnight ferry home.


Monday, 4 July 2011

Hong Kong Communication Art Centre.

The Hong Kong Communication Art Centre is in the Causeway Bay area of the city, five minutes from Victoria Park and ten from the Happy Valley race course. Public transport in Hong Kong is so efficient, however, that you can be anywhere you want in less than half an hour. Mass transit is cheap, clean and reliable. It's a city that keeps its population moving.

Winston and I were welcomed by the principal Dr William Eng and side kick Herbert, who, should the franchise go through, will be responsible for liaison with St Mary's.

Talks were brisk and friendly. We were given a brief presentation and shown some videoed samples of student work. In many ways HKCAC seems a very good fit. They believe strongly in vocational training and in linking academic study with employability. Most of their work is assessed practically and it was clear from the short clips I saw that the students are committed, engaged and work hard at their craft. There are a couple of areas where we need to be careful that a match can be made. The degree is going to be delivered in English and although most of the students in the College are bi-lingual, HKCAC agreed to offer some additional support for those who might struggle, particularly on written assignments. I also felt that some of the physical work was slightly inhibited in comparison to what we'd expect form our students in their final year. This might be a cultural difference, but I suspect there may be a case for a week long induction workshop run by Kasia to help the students bridge the gap from Level 2 to Level 3. Our hosts listened carefully and seemed very keen to make these adjustments.

After lunch we headed further East to a new purpose built art centre from where Dr Eng is proposing the course might be run. It was incredibly impressive. A beautiful 670 seat theatre, 4 excellent rehearsal rooms, 2 dance studios, a cafeteria, Wi-fi ready green room, 3 small rooms equipped with pianos, plenty of storage space, a TV and a photographic studio. There was even a band room complete with guitars, keyboards and drums where either formal sessions or impromptu jams can take place. On the upper floor are seventy twin rooms so that visiting companies can lodge on site. It really was the stuff of dreams. I immediately began to wonder whether it would be possible to bring some of our work out on tour. It also provided a glimpse of the kind of purpose built arts centre that, if we're going to expand, we should be looking to build in West London. At the minute our stock in trade is in imaginative but essentially poorly resourced theatre making. Imagine combining the creativie skills of our students with the resources available to our colleagues in Hong Kong.

We ended the visit with a cup of tea and a shake of hands. CAC are keen to move forward fast, hoping to take a first cohort of St Mary's (HK) students on in February of next year. There's still some way to go in terms of due diligence and quality assurance procedures but I left sensing that this could be a very exciting and fruitful project not just widening Drama St Mary's international profile but also, in the longer term, providing some exciting opportunities for our students to define their own aesthetics and methodologies by working abroad.


Sunday, 3 July 2011

Summit Meetings.

I was up early and back across the bay to catch the jaw dropping Peak Tram which winches passengers from central Hong Kong up an almost vertical gradient to spectacular views at the highest point on the island. Despite the sloping floor it's impossible to stand on the journey, gravity forces you to lean back in your seat and wait for arrival. It's an incredible feat of engineering, made even more impressive by the fact that in its 125 year history it hasn't had a single accident.

From the summit you get a real sense of how the territories map out. Look back down to the familiar north shore and you recognise how condensed the commercial space is. Turn round and you understand how green the rest of the island is. In the distance are other destinations, wonderful weekend escapes, each with their own culture, history, way of life: Lamma, Peng Chau, Cheung Chan, Po Toi.

I only had an hour to catch the views before heading back down and onto the British Council for my meeting with Peter Upton, director for South China as well as consul for education and culture in the region. His office was an air conditioned nirvana from which to escape the midday heat. He offered welcome water and we chatted.

'This region is absolutely ripe for the creative industries,' he began 'In four years time a 200 million pound arts centre in Asia is going to open on reclaimed land in West Kowloon. It's going to turn Hong Kong into the hub for culture and the arts in South East Asia. China are taking the arts seriously and the investment here is impressive.'

We moved on to how a UK University might engage with institutions in the SAR.

'What's really interesting is that every year 8,000 students leave Hong Kong to go to English Universities, but last year only 22 made the journey in the other direction. That's strange and frankly a bit unhelpful for cultural relations. There's real opportunity for internships here as well as partnerships. If you are wanting to link in with the HE sector here you've got to decide what to focus on and offer real quality and expertise in that field. Hong Kong is highly competitive and performance driven. It'll take time to develop relationships, but once you have you'll find genuine loyalty from the institutions here.'

Back at the recruitment fair numbers had dropped off and it was a quieter afternoon which gave me a chance to have a look at the way the Australian Universities were marketing their courses. It's clear that the Creative Industries are increasingly seen as important players in the sector and I was fascinated to see the similarity in approach between a number of the institutions in trying to create a hybrid model of conservatoire/ university which Drama St Mary's has been pioneering in the UK for the last three years.

Packed up and headed back to Kowloon for an evening stroll amongst the herbalists, fortune tellers and open air opera singers of Temple Street. Hong Kong Communication Art Centre in the morning.


Saturday, 2 July 2011

Taking the Shilling.

I was met early by Winston, who is the agent St Mary's is working with to develop international partnerships in the Far East and together we travelled to the Expo hall in Wan Chai for a recruitment fair. The A-level results in Hong Kong came out last week and today was, in the main, an exercise in clearing for those students who hadn't managed to get the grades that would enable them to get into a home based institution.

The hall was packed with English and Australian Universities all keen to pick up students and it was fascinating to observe the process in action. Some institutions offered special deals to student who signed up today, others promised the earth without really asking anything about the student themselves. Nearly all had inserted the term 'International' into their nomenclature. I found some of the strategies extremely bullish.

The fair had organised for me to have two assistants, Kathy and Alice - both studying at undergraduate level in the UK, one at UAE in Norwich and one in Aberystwryth. Neither had known much about where they were headed when they left Hong Kong and both were finding life in the UK to be a bit dull. I asked them why they'd chosen to study in their respective Unis.

'I came to a fair like this last year,' said Kathy 'Aberystwyth looked beautiful. I didn't realise how long it would take me to get anywhere else in Europe. They made it sound like the centre of the universe.'

It's a tricky world. For UK institutions facing huge cuts the international market is a potential goldmine, but in the scrabble I worry that there isn't enough consideration given to the needs, personality or maturity of the students. I suspect some of my colleagues at the fair might judge such an attitude as paternalistic and that students and their families have every freedom to make an informed decision; but I disliked the ease with which potential obstacles such as poor communicative English, lack of geniune understanding about UK HE institutions or weak grades were swept away by the promise of an international student fee coming into the coffers.

I interviewed several candidates mostly for Business Studies or Media Arts courses. It's clear that St Mary's is attractive because of its proximity to London and it's pastoral approach. For parents, sending their children 9,000 miles away security is the main concern and I quickly realised that if we really do want to encourage students from Asia that we need to be certain that we offer a really user friendly induction programme and regular 'how are you doing' tutorials. It's this kind of support that gets reported back to schools, colleges and parents back here. I would even venture to say this is more important than the academic standing of the institution.

We wound up at 4pm, which gave me the early evening to explore the area. Wan Chai is one of the most rapidly developing areas on the Island, with great conference and concert facilities springing up - but it's also one of the oldest parts of the city and tucked away between the main thoroughfares are the traditional lanes and passageways where a more traditional way of living is fighting to survive.

I wandered past the blood stained fishmongers of Shone Nullah Lane onto Queen's Road which led me past the old colonial post office and the Hung Shing Temple into Star Street where my guide book suggested that I could eat at the only surviving Dai Pai Dong stall in the area. Dai Pai Dong literally means Big Plate Stall and has been part of Hong Kong life for many years. The old colonial government granted liberal licences, allowing huge freedom for the holders to create their own menus, but most specialise in one or two dishes. After the Japanese left at the end of World War II hundreds sprang up as the locals picked themselves up and looked for ways to resuscitate the economy. Now, as more permanent structures are developed, only 28 still exist in the whole of the SAR. The one advertised, specialising in coconut toast, had been run by the same family opening at 6am and closing at 10pm, six days a week, since the early 1950s. Sadly in between my book being published and my arrival it too had closed down.


Friday, 1 July 2011

Market Forces.

A day to acclimatise before work begins on Saturday so I took the opportunity to explore, starting by taking the ultra efficient metro to Prince Edward station at the top of the Kowloon peninsula and then making my way back slowly through the markets and busy shopping streets on either side of Nathan Road.

The walk started sedately with a visit to the Yeun Po Street garden where every day a group of elderly men bring their caged birds for a 'walk.' They hang the cages on specially constructed frames and sit, tears in their eyes, listening to the birds as they sing. Perhaps the music recalls a freedom that they themselves have lost? Perhaps it brings reminiscence of a faded beauty? It's a highly melancholic scene. Around them are market stalls selling more birds in bamboo cages; as well as juicy caterpillars and grasshoppers to feed to their pets as a treat.

I continued on through the flower market to Tung Choi Street where birds give way to every kind of exotic fish you can imagine - all hanging in little bags of water. I'm not sure Hong Kongers love their animals in the way we would understand in the West, but it's clear that they're highly prized. Birds I was told bring good fortune. Goldfish bring great wealth.

Onwards through the cheap clothes in the Ladies market and on to the incense suffocated Tin Hau Temple - dedicated to the God of seafarers - a tiny oasis in the bustle of the city. It was only noon by the time I got here and the Temple Street area only really springs into life after nightfall so, after a swift stop in the Jade market, I headed through Kowloon Park to the harbour and caught the ferry across to Hong Kong proper.

I hadn't realised until I got to the other side that today is the 14th anniversary of the handover of the colony from the United Kingdom to China. Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day (HKSAR for short.)

As part of that settlement it was decided that Hong Kong's capitalist system would be free from the Chinese government interference for a further period of fifty years. A 'One country, two systems' principle was agreed. There are 36 years to go.

Each year on July 1st around 200,000 people take to the street to demonstrate, amongst other things, in favour of civil liberties, freedom of speech and universal suffrage. I spoke to one protester who explained that whilst the Chinese had honoured the agreement, meaning these kinds of protests had never been clamped down in the way they might have been on the main land, there was no doubt that slowly the character of the place was changing as each year many thousands of Chinese citizens come and settle in the territory. English is losing its currency as the dominant working language.

'Change is creeping in,' he said 'and we have to ensure that our rights are not swept away.'

I watched for a while and then climbed a steep path in Hong Kong Park for a quick look around Flagstaff House, one of the oldest colonial administrative buildings, and now, fittingly, a tea museum. A short detour took me to another relic of former times - St John's Cathedral - incongruously modest when surrounded by the metal and glass of the modern Mammon worshiping skyscrapers.

The demonstration was in full flow now, filling the streets with people, colour and noise. Tired, I caught the ferry back to Kowloon and from the water watched the impressive pro-Beijing firework display light up the sky.