22 June, 2009

Singapore Arts Festival Blog #8 - "It's a Wrap"

Well, still alive. Back again, after the most wonderful time in Singapore, the most horrendous travelling both to and from, and I can tell you that one of the first things I did when I got back was to find some gum and chew the living daylights out of it. Pause to picture, if you will, hordes of tourists returning from Singapore, and suddenly freed from restrictions going wild, chewing gum, dropping litter, hochling in public and not flushing public lavvies, (all things you can be fined for over there). You can also, remember , be fined for carrying a durian fruit in the pannier of your bicycle, but I think even the most hardened criminal in this country would baulk at the thought of that one. Carry one of those anywhere and become an instant pariah. Pigs would move pointedly to the far side of the sty as you passed.

Singapore is a fantastic place, and the Festival is really great. It makes a strong case to be right up there with the best festivals in the world. The support from the government is terrific, the people enthusiastic, the setting wonderful, and I am blessed to have been given the opportunity to visit both the Festival and the country. Son & Heir loved it too. He no longer appears to despise me quite as much as he did before we went away together, so I have Singapore to thank for that as well.

I had the best time imaginable, but there is one ache inside me despite everything – Beloved Spouse wasn’t able to go after that ….woman at the airport refused to allow me onto the plane with my damaged passport. I call to mind the guy in the passport office saying to the person in front of me “Your passport scans perfectly well. What’s the problem?”. Make no mistake, refusing to take my passport was the personal decision of that woman, and because of that my wife lost her opportunity to share with me the best fortune I have ever had in my life. Yes, there is an ache. She should have been there. There is another pity – that increased age and increased girth prevented me from making that death-defying dive over the counter to wreak the havoc which has enlivened my fantasies ever since.
I hope that some of you will have the opportunity to go to Singapore and enjoy the Arts Festival. It really is worth it. I hope if you do go you have better luck travelling than I did.

Edinburgh is still the best festival in the world, but then it’s the Daddy of them all. The Festival…that’s all you need to say, and people know what you mean. Edinburgh invented the definition of what a modern arts festival is. I’ve been going to the Edinburgh International Festival for forty three years, and some of the very best things I have ever seen have been there. I think of one of Ravi Shankar’s first concerts in Europe, when I was sixteen and travelled from St Andrews on my own to see him. I think of the old Prospect Theatre Company doing King Lear in the Church of Scotland’s Assembly Hall on the Mound, when Timothy West was only twenty seven or something, with Michael Jayston as Edmund and Timothy Dalton as Edgar, and a phenomenal cast of other actors. (I’m trying to remember. Eileen Atkins, I think…oh, it was nearly forty years ago. Hey, I’m doing well to remember that many of them) Funny to think of Timothy Dalton as Edgar. In his subsequent Bond days we’d have expected him to pull a detonator out of his loincloth and blow Edmund to kingdom come. Nowadays he could probably do it after a good Vindaloo.

The artists I saw in Singapore were all terrific. Singapore's position at the crossroads of Asia makes it the ideal place, not just geographically but spiritually too, to really explore the ways in which cultures react to and inform each other. I WISH I had seen Tadeshi Suzuki. He’s really hard to get, and so seldom seen. Even without him, it was a once in a lifetime chance to get to go to the Singapore Arts Festival, and a prize beyond my wildest dreams. Thank you, Edinburgh International Festival. Thank you to everyone who made it happen. Thank you to all the delightful people who hosted us so well in Singapore, particularly to Fan Wong, who got us to eat things we would never have dreamt of. Thank you to those of you who have persisted in following our story over the last couple of weeks.

I was trying to think how to sign off from this blog. Not to look back, but instead to look forward to the events coming up this year at the Edinburgh International Festival. That Romanian Faust looks incredible, I have to say, as does the piece about St Kilda, and I am really interested in Jimmy Yuill’s take on Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid. I’ll absolutely have to go and see a couple of former colleagues from Ireland in the Brian Friel trilogy, and Mabou Mines are something to look forward to. OK, it’s nearly all Theatre, but I never pretended to be objective. If I go to see the Henryson I’ll make Wullie Doanuldsen jealous, our bard from the banks of the Scunnerburn, somewhere between Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath. I ran into him again on the way back. He is in the midst, no doubt, of composing some great work, but in the meantime he offered me this. I’ll leave him the last word:

Ah’ve shairly had a bonnie week oot in Singapore,
An’ seen some things ah’d nivver see at hame in Scunnerlaw
If ye care for pianney wurks, be chooser or be beggar,
Ye’ll nivver hear them better pliyed than by Joanna MacGregor
The next nicht ah wis sae jet-lagged ah thocht that ah micht faint
Insteed ah saw a Latvian play, t’wis jist like dryin’ paint.
“The Cherry Orchard” nixt ah seen, an’ it wis awfy braw,
It had been directit by famous Lin Zhaohua
The final sicht that thrilled ma een wis Warld Famous’s “Crackers”,
But then ah hud tae go an kip, fir by then ah wis knackered
The venues fer the festival, doon by the waterfront
Ah’d huv tae say, wi’ haun on hairt, that they were brillyunt.
Sae noo ah’m hame, wi’ sichts and sounds amangst the best seen yet
An’ a’ ma freens can say tae me is “Wha’s a jammy get?”
Ah dinnae care, it’s been a time ah’ll mind fer evermore,
Ah’ll ayewis treasure memories o’ bonnie Singapore

19 June, 2009

Singapore Arts Festival Blog #7 - "Durian and the Flying Cattle Truck"

The last day. We decided to really be adventurous, and set off on the local bus to visit Malaysia. This is on one level very simple, on another very complicated. In the EU we are used to light touch border controls, if any at all. In Singapore the border crossing to the nearest part of Malaysia, Johor Baru, looks like Gormenghast. The bus is full of ordinary people going to shop, Malaysia being cheaper than Singapore, and the exchange rate being favourable. I commented before on the friendliness of the immigration people at Changi Airport, and indeed friendly they were, but they obviously save the rotweillers for the crossing at Woodlands. You have to fill out an exit card, fill in an entry card, sign customs declarations, and then get a new entry visa on the way back from the shops a few hours later. If you drive, you have to fill your car up before leaving Singapore, Malaysia having cheaper petrol. If you don’t have a full tank leaving Singapore you can be fined $500.

We cross a crowded causeway, and enter a city in another country. The Malaysians have built an impressive shopping complex, and this is still Asia with air-con and escalators, but it does actually palpably feel different. Son & Heir and I wander off to try to find something a little more…well, Asian I suppose. We wander down some back streets and see places that are more like they are on the telly, but the heat is oppressive, and the smell of Durian powerful.

I haven’t talked about Durian, but you may already know about them. These are a fruit that smell absolutely hellish. The stink would drop a dragon at a hundred paces, and yet people here absolutely love them. They do in Singapore as well, but there you can…guess what? …yes, be fined for carrying them on the Metro or, I am told, even in a pannier on your bicycle. There are two ways of looking at this. One is to say “How oppressive”, but if you’ve ever been down-wind of one you may well incline to the other party. The smell actually makes me heave.

We stock up on presents to take home, and then have a right faff getting back into Singapore. That would have looked rather stupid, missing the plane because we got stuck in Malaysia. We eventually get back in. Just as well because we have one more thing we want to do before leaving the country. We go on the Singapore flyer. This is a bigger wheel than the London Eye, and the views are fabulous. It really shows the scale of Singapore’s achievements in just 44 years. It’s an astonishing sight, looking out over a staggering number of ships in the harbour, an unbelievable skyline, and the signs of new building everywhere. This is a country, and a city, with incredible energy. S&H compares the Singapore skyline to London. Well, in fact there is no comparison. Canary Wharf? The Gherkin? They’d be lost here. This place is buzzing in a way that few places in Europe do, or indeed ever have done.

The trip home is initially hellish. Changi airport is bewailing the fact that it has slipped to 3rd in the world’s rankings. All I can say is, the others must be horrendous. Certainly check in is very slick, but then we sit at the gate for ages, there is no information, security staff turn up then go away again, the screening is slow, they only have one scanner working, you can’t take water through the checks, but then there’s nowhere to get a drink on the other side, (or indeed anything else), the whole thing is rather poor. The flight then from Singapore to Dubai is awful. One of the most unpleasant I have ever had. We are in a Boeing 777, known to some as the Flying Cattle Truck. Well, no, only known to me really, but it SHOULD be called that . We’re shoehorned into the plane, worse than Ryanair, and it’ s a seven hour flight. Some people have been on since Australia. The plane sits ten across, and there’s no room. Fortunately I am sitting next to a very nice woman, and the two of us are quite tolerant, but S&H is not so lucky, and he has a hell of a time. There is nowhere to put your legs, or to stretch them. The seating arrangements on the plane are an invitation to Deep Vein Thrombosis. The flight from Dubai to Newcastle is fine. We’re on an Airbus. It seats eight across. There’s room for everyone.

The same airline runs the awful flight from Singapore to Dubai and the good one from Dubai home. What’s the difference? The plane I suppose. I should also say that the food is chronic and the coffee undrinkable even in emergency, but this airline is by no means unique in that respect.Having flown out over Iraq we flew back over Iran. All in all we flew over fourteen countries going to and from.

Arrived back safely in Britain, but…minus my luggage. His trip has been DOOMED. Having said that, it’s also been bloody marvellous. Britain greets us in its inimitable way. Beloved Spouse is not able to meet us at the Airport, and has been unsuccessful in finding a substitute, so S&H and I trudge to the Metro, to find 1) the ticket machine only takes coins 2) the change machine is broken 3) there is no other way of buying a ticket 4) none of this information is available before you walk all the way to the Metro station 5) there is nothing for it but to walk all the way back to the Airport to get change. Imagine a foreign visitor arriving into Newcastle International and trying to find a simple Metro ride into town. Contrast that with Singapore, where everything works. It’s actually disgraceful.

Anyway, back in the bosom of the family, except that their presents are in my missing suitcase, which perhaps mitigates the welcome slightly. Tomorrow I’ll try to come to some sorts of conclusions, but let me just say, it’s the best thing that’s happened to me in years.

Ronan Paterson, the e-bulletin subscriber who won our Singapore Arts Festival competition, is currently sending through regular updates from Singapore on his Festival adventures.

18 June, 2009

Singapore Arts Festival Blog #6 - "Singapore Sling"

Today was a day of contrasts. First of all it was the hottest day so far, and I dread to think of what I looked like sweltering my way around town. Son & Heir charmingly told me that not only was I the fattest man he’d seen in Singapore, but now undoubtedly the sweatiest. Sadly I expect he was right. I don’t know how the colonial forbearers coped, in their woollen uniforms and acetate collars. They didn’t even have oases of air-con to dive into from time to time to recuperate. The rivulets pouring off me before the weather broke must have bunged up the drains for half the country. Fortunately a bit of a thunder and a drop of rain cleared the air, and the evening, of which more later, was really pleasant.

We went over to Sentosa this morning, the recreational island about a hundred yards off the coast. Sentosa is the island where Singaporeans go with their kids because there are a million and one theme park type attractions to keep them happy. We went over on the cable car, a dizzying, vertigo-inducing flight hundreds of feet over the harbour. It would have been fabulous, except that I get dizzy on a thick pile carpet. I wouldn’t fancy being some poor innocent passer-by sitting in the particular cable car we occupied for several days to come. The island is home to Undersea World, a sea life centre, featuring some incredible sea turtles and a gorgeous dugong, and a 3-D cinema, whose “Extreme Log Ride” experience was rather less good than a number of games on my younger son's Wii. In these places one always has the rather unpleasant sensation of a cow being milked, but we had a good time doing the Luge ride, and the first part of the chairlift back up the hill was nice, until suddenly we found ourselves swinging precariously over a bowel-clenching drop. Matters weren’t helped by the sight of someone’s Luge helmet dropped into the top of a huge tree a rather long way below.

We did the Sentosa thing for a while, then squelched our way back to the hotel to change before going to the final event of the Festival, a big pyro show called Crackers, by a British group. This show, we were told, would be taking place in a part of Singapore where people actually live, rather than in the city centre. Our taxi driver got us to a large field in the centre of a large …well, we would call it an estate… just in time for the start. We would never have found it ourselves. We were happily chatting to our friends from the Festival organisation, when suddenly Son & Heir and I found ourselves being introduced by Goh Ching Lee, the Festival Director, to the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, Mr Lui Tuck Yew. We also met his Permanent Secretary, Mr Chan Yeng Kit and the Chief Executive of the National Arts Council, Mr Lee Suan Hiang. We chatted, and when the Minister found out that S&H had recently qualified as teacher of English as a foreign language he asked him about the differences in pedagogy between teaching first and second language speakers. We were discussing the fact that second-language students are often far more grammatical than native speakers when I thought I had overdone it. “Of course one of our very finest novelists and stylists was a speaker of English as a second or third language” I said, then mentally kicked myself for showing off. “Ah yes, Conrad” says the Minister, just like that. Can you imagine anyone in our cabinet, from Broonie on down who could do that for an Asian novelist? S&H is, it must be said, hugely impressed to be talking to such distinguished persons.

Pyro shows have come on long way since your Dad used to stick rockets in milk bottles in the back garden, but we are nowadays so jaded by big municipal displays/ millennium fireworks/ fireworks at the end of Stones concerts/openings of Olympics etc that it is hard to impress a modern audience. The show started, and it was actually a show, not just a firework display. The fireworks were good, but there was some clever interaction with video, some fun live action as well, and all in all it was a great ending to the Festival. In the UK our fireworks are in fact a celebration of sectarian butchery, but this was a celebration of…fireworks. Great stuff.
After the event the delightful Fan Wong from the Festival team, took us to eat real local food, and we stuffed our faces with all sorts of things without knowing what they were. Just as well. She got us to eat frog porridge and chicken feet. Both were nice, and both stayed down. It’s the idea that’s the problem.

Oh, and I got my Singapore Sling. Well, you have to do it once, don’t you?

Ronan Paterson, the lucky e-bulletin subscriber who won our Singapore Arts Festival competition, is currently sending through regular updates from Singapore on his Festival adventures.

17 June, 2009

Singapore Arts Festival Blog #5 - "The Cherry Orchard and the Art of Shopping"

Ronan and 'S&H' at Hotel Rendezvous, Singapore. A loyal fan of the Edinburgh International Festival since the age of 12, Ronan is seen here carrying the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival bag.

Today to Chinatown, having done Little India yesterday. Singapore is a genuinely multi-cultural society. I’d love to get some of those BNP types over here and show them what a multi-ethnic society with a transient international population is achieving, that leaves the UK in the cold. In Chinatown there is a major Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple and a Mosque virtually next to each other, with the Christians just down the road, and although I don’t know it, I’d be surprised if there isn’t a synagogue somewhere nearby as well.

In Chinatown the selling is a little more aggressive, but still nowhere near as extreme in the hassle department as some places I could mention. Son and Heir asked me how all these people support themselves in Singapore, a place with few if any natural resources. “They sell” I said. Certainly this is a place founded on and steeped in commerce. Sell or die, I’d say.

Inevitably we buy shirts, as I am now utterly drookit. We also visit the beautiful Buddhist temple, where they have one of the Buddha’s teeth, but we don’t see that. I am still smarting from some very expensive bridge work I had just before we left, and I don’t want reminding. This evening we met with the Festival’s Director, Goh Ching Lee, who came to see us before going to meet the country’s president. She was a very knowledgeable lady with a wide perspective on the world’s arts scene, and had a strong vision of what the festival is, and can become such a great time we nearly missed the play. She left us with three of her absolutely charming staff, who have all made us feel incredibly welcome every time we have encountered them. We were having such a great time we had to run to catch the play.

Before going into the theatre I saw Joanna MacGregor, whose concert I had enjoyed a couple of nights ago. I went up and told her so, (well, as you do if you’ve got a neck like a jockey’s…backside) and she turned out to be really nice. We chatted for a moment, and I have to say she was really down to earth and lovely. Note to self – find her CDs when we get home. One regret – I didn’t ask her about the shoes. (cf previous blog).

Tonight it has been a Chinese production of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Lin Zhaohua. I nearly dropped my teeth when I heard it was him. He is one of the few names I know in contemporary Chinese theatre. He worked a lot with the Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, (world famous but of course unheard of in Britain), and believe it or believe it not I have just edited a book where one of the chapters, written by an American contributor, describes their joint fight to put on Gao’s play Bus Stop, which was banned. There’s even a photograph of Lin with Gao in the book! There he was, in person.

The play was done in a comparatively stylised manner. We Europeans are used to our Chekhov being naturalistic, but this wasn’t. There was lot of direct address to the audience , and some very moving physical theatre sequences. The final dying fall when they leave at the end was heartbreaking. Ranevskya was played by Jiang Wenli, known to Western audiences from the film Farewell My Concubine. She is a luminously beautiful actress, and her performance was lovely. If I have criticism at all, and it seems carping, she looks so young and beautiful that the faded quality in Ranevskya was missing. This Ranevskya could have picked up a movie deal and saved the estate, or else pulled a millionaire to bail her out.

The production was directed somewhat as a star vehicle for her and Zhang Yi, who played Trofimov. His performance didn’t work so well for me, although I have to say that the audience loved him. He made a number of appearances hanging from a ladder through the ceiling, played his big speeches as rants straight out to the audience, and played all the scenes with Anya for laughs in a fairly broad way. The surtitles are always a problem with these productions, especially when, as they were tonight, the screens are at the sides. I have a problem often with surtitles, in that the screens hurt my eyes and I have to close them. S&H dug me indignantly in the ribs a couple of times, thinking I was dropping off. The pictures on stage were lovely, and S&H surprised me by a) knowing the play, proving he HAD read something in those four years at university, and b) enjoying the production. A relief after last night, I can tell you.

He took me to a food place he had discovered afterwards. I wanted to stay for the post-show discussion, but of course it turned out to be in Chinese (well du-uh!) so we body swerved it and went for some food instead. I said yesterday that shopping is Singapore’s national sport – correction. It is eating. (So answer me this then, how come they’re all so slim? Doesn’t seem fair.) We were celebrating. The big news we’ve had today, mind, is that S&H has got his first job interview, for a job in Korea, no less. His first visit to Asia may well be the first of…lots. Me? I’m so chuffed for him I may just have to find somewhere he can’t see me and do a little dance. Needless to say, we ate Korean food. I hope it’s an omen.

Ronan Paterson, the lucky e-bulletin subscriber who won our Singapore Arts Festival competition, is currently sending through regular updates on his Festival adventures.

16 June, 2009

Singapore Arts Festival Blog #4 - "Heat"

When they talked about heat I thought I knew what they meant, but I want you to know that I didn’t.

I remember something when I was young called boil-in-the-bag rice. I’m sure that if such a product exists nowadays it’s much better, but in those days it was a plastic bag that turned rice into a sticky mass of steamed sludge. I now know just how it felt. Son & Heir and I both brought shirts to last us the week, or so we thought. We’re currently buying at least one new shirt a day. We get through several changes of clothes between breakfast and tea time. Fortunately shirts are cheap. Even so, I advise anyone approaching Singapore between now and when I leave on Sunday night to do so up wind.

This city is amazing. It is a beautiful, elegant, friendly city, full of beautiful, elegant, friendly people. (S & H has charitably informed me that I am probably the fattest person he has seen so far in Singapore. Cheers, son.) It is also a very tolerant city. While we have been here a Christian couple have been jailed for sending religious tracts, including inflammatory anti-Muslim tracts, to people through the post. In sentencing them the Judge said that their behaviour attacked the very foundations of Singapore’s society, which was based upon tolerance and respect for all religions. What a message to send out to the world!

Actually my rather eccentric granny used to send religious tracts to strangers through the post. She would get her pension and a copy of the electoral register and bombard the inhabitants of her town with anonymous leaflets. When she died I am sure the police scratched their heads and wondered what had happened to suddenly reduce racial tensions in her sleepy little seaside resort. To think! If she’d been here she’d have been in gaol!

We went sightseeing, and took part in Singapore’s favourite national pastime - Shopping! They have a special supplement in the newspaper today, talking about the phenomenal zeal that the locals have for hovering their way through the city, buying stuff at prices generally far higher than in Asia. Mind you, it obviously works for them. Small sign of a recession here. The skyline is dotted with cranes, and the building goes on apace. Bars and restaurants are full, even if S&H was charged $20 for a beer in one place. I was rather smug only having paid $10, but mine was a half-litre. The first thing I intended to do when I got here was to have a Singapore Sling in Raffles, but when I heard the price of them I nearly passed out (something which sounded to me around the cost of a medium-sized family car. For a drink!)

Anyway, there are all sorts of bargains to be had in Singapore. They have a Great Singapore Sale, which runs for two months, and is currently approaching its climax. Food is cheap, and amongst the best in the world, public transport is cheap, clean and reliable, taxis are not usually expensive, and you can pick up a tailor made cashmere suit in a few hours for about £175. Programmes at the Festival events are free!

Long Life by New Riga Theatre (Latvia) was seen in Edinburgh in the past. It’s the sort of production which is always going to be popular on the international festival circuit, because it is basically dialogue free. It is also the sort of production that no subsidised company in Western Europe would ever mount. It consists of five elderly people living in a house, and it is a study of the minutiae of their existence throughout a day and night. Latvia is part of that Russian tradition of theatre which is so different from our three-weeks-rehearsal-and-bung-it-on-for-a-few-weeks approach. The production has been painstakingly put together over a long period, and allowed to mature into an incredibly detailed piece of physical theatre, which is funny, agonising and intensely poignant in its depiction of the awful, squalid, lonely, meaningless lives that many old people are forced to endure.

The point is, the actors are all young, or young-ish. They aren’t made up to look old. They act old, in a very very detailed way, without patronising or ridiculing or resorting to cliché. The setting is incredibly detailed too, with a real feeling of truthfulness rather than literal reality. In the programme the director talks about the non-hierarchical privileging of the audience’s focus, and the spectator editing for him or herself. “Hello” thinks I “this sounds like two spherical objects”, but actually it was great. We observed these people’s lives almost voyeuristically, and we watched what we wanted to watch. OK, the school kids in the audience were a little more interested in the bodily functions bits than I was, but they enjoyed that in their own way.

The piece of work it most reminded me of was Tadeus Kantor’s Dead Class, (how long ago was THAT!) although that was the other way round, with old actors playing their younger selves, but the pace and the feel was similar. At the end the actors received a standing ovation. I have to say S&H hated it with a passion, and made me leave before the director came out to talk about it. Not everybody’s cup of tea, then, but if you like that sort of intense, visceral and ultimately very Eastern European sort of production, it was a very good example. Certainly I have always admired actors from the Russian tradition (if Latvians will excuse me calling them that) for the incredible physical detail of their performances, and these five were pretty much as good as any I have seen. OK, the Maly Theatre’s Uncle Vanya or Gaudeamus might be better, but these actors compare favourably with all the rest. (Gaudeamus is the only thing I’ve ever seen that can compare to NTOS’s Black Watch, the best thing I’ve seen in years).

The Festival here has a strong presence. Taxi drivers and restauranteurs are proud of it. They realise what it means to tourism, but also to the city’s sense of itself. The settings of the Esplanade Theatre and Concert Hall are staggering. The city is a wonderful backdrop. The whole festival experience is extremely good. This Festival combines some of the elements that in Edinburgh are covered by the Fringe, and at present this works, but when, as I am sure will happen, the festival grows, they will have to choose a path. My belief is that they should encourage, as Edinburgh has done, a separate Fringe to grow on its own, and concentrate on the wonderful high-end international events that they have managed to attract. Of course top artists will to come here and take part. What’s not to like? Great venues, enthusiastic audiences, friendly people and a great festival city.

Ronan Paterson, the lucky e-bulletin subscriber who won our Singapore Arts Festival competition, is currently sending through regular updates on his Festival adventures.

15 June, 2009

Singapore Arts Festival Blog #3 - "Arrival"

Image: Ronan with Singapore Festival Director Ching Lee at the Esplanade. Photo: courtesy Singapore Arts Festival.

After an adventurous start to his trip, prize winner Ronan Paterson has arrived at the Singapore Arts Festival and is enjoying his first performances. Read on for his latest blog entry.

Well, we got here. The flight to Dubai had been great, but the flight on to Singapore was hell. I was sitting behind this Completely Ignorant Person. First of all, a woman who was travelling with two really young kids had a seat apart from them. She asked if he would change places with her. He was travelling on his own, but refused to change. The woman was demented all the way, and the little kids weren’t happy either. He then leant his seat right back and refused to put it upright for any reason whatsoever. I sat for seven hours with CIP’s seat crushing me. I had no room to eat, the stewardess couldn’t serve the person next to me, no-one could get in and out of their seats in our row. Was he bothered? Was he wheech. I hope he’s sitting somewhere in Singapore right now, trying to void a hedgehog.

Nothing, however, is going to be allowed to detract from the sheer excitement of getting to Singapore after all our trials and tribulations. Son and Heir Who Despises Me is a high maintenance travelling companion, but then, so would the Beloved Spouse have been. At least S&H watches the films in silence. We are seated right in the middle of the plane, so can’t see anything of Indonesia or the various bits of Malaysia we fly over, but it FEELS different. I just want to get off the plane by now. I don’t know if the hospitals of Singapore do buttock transplants, but if I don’t get out of this seat soon I’m going to need one. On arrival we have our first surprise. The guy who checks our passports is nice. The ones in Britain usually have a pile of lemons hidden under the counter to sook occasionally to get the right pinchey-faced Calvinist look to make sure visitors feel as unwelcome as possible, but here the guy is nice. We have momentary frisson when S&H’s case is the last one off the plane (Well, after the saga we’ve already had...), but soon we’re in a (thankfully air-conditioned) taxi speeding along a flower-lined motorway into town. They have a lane closed – so they can water said flowers. Sweet.

The first thing that strikes you about Singapore is how GREEN it is. Having lived in Ireland much of my life I thought I knew green, but this is a lush, tropical, sort of Fujicolour green. The city is spacious and one of the cleanest places I have ever seen. Makes the Swiss look positively moochey by comparison. We get to our (lovely!) hotel, and are met by the delightful Fan Wong and her colleague Wei Zhen from the Arts Festival who make us feel incredibly welcome, and give us tickets for the various events. The first is in a couple of hours’ time. S&H groans audibly. Bless him, we’re both knackered, and he’s not a hard-core Arty-Farty like me. We change, and I go to the concert. He doesn’t. I leave him flat-tailed like a fish on a slab, crashed out on his bed. Our hotel, the Redezvouz, is well-situated for access to the main city centre, and very comfortable. The staff are all polite, friendly and accommodating, and the air conditioning a blessed relief. They give us bouquets when we arrive, and make a huge fuss of us. Compared to the actual aggression we take for granted in hotels in London, for example, this is paradise. S&H likes the pool and the gym. I check out the bar.

The Esplanade Concert Hall is amazing. I’m used to the Sage, in Gateshead, which I really like. (Not everyone does. It is known locally by some as either the Armadillo, or the Glass Arse). The auditorium is similar to the Sage, but bigger and more expensive. Big enough for a Take That concert, I’d say. The stalls and the first tier are pretty full. They have a knowledgeable audience for piano music in Singapore, being in their sixteenth year of hosting a major international piano festival. Joanna MacGregor comes on, a small woman with blond dreadlocks, dressed like Wyatt Earp, in black frock coat, trousers and very nice stilettos. Nicer than Wyatt Earp’s anyway. (I know shoes. Beloved Spouse is the Imelda Marcos of Alnwick, and she would have LOVED Joanna’s shoes). She is alone on a vast stage with her piano.

The first half consists of alternating Bach and Shostakovich pieces. She plays superbly well, and the contrasts are revealing. I remember Jack Bruce at the height of his fame with Cream talking about Bach having written the ultimate bass lines, and certainly Joanna’s left hand is fabulous. Shostakovich is no slouch in the bass department either. There is one wild piece of his which makes me want to shout with joy. The Bach is lovely and sensitive. You are slightly conscious in places that the modern piano is really a slightly harder sound than the pieces were written for, but she plays so well you forget that.

The second half is Brazilian and Argentinian music. The link is that these musicians all loved Bach, which she pronounces in her English accent in the same way that she would describe the outside of a tree. As a revelation this is on a par with discovering that a few individual raindrops have turned out to be wet, in that every single musician of any type I have ever met loves Bach, but it’s as good an excuse to include the South American pieces as the occasion needs.

There are two Villa Lobos pieces that I remember being played by Segovia on a record my mother had when I was a kid. I loved those. There are some wonderful tangos. In the midst of this she stands up and beats notes on the piano strings while playing something different on the keys. It’s marvellous, and very exciting. I’m sure music enthusiasts may have seen things like that before, but I haven’t, apart, perhaps, from Jerry Lee Lewis when particularly away with the mixer.

A thoroughly enjoyable, exciting evening in a fantastic concert hall, and a great advert for the Festival. Can’t wait for tomorrow.

12 June, 2009

Singapore Arts Festival Blog #2 - "Departure"

Ronan Paterson is currently sitting in Dubai airport. His trip to Singapore hasn't got off to a flying start but alas, he's finally on his way (minus wife, plus son). Read on for our Singapore Arts Festival Blog Entry #2:

This is the day that very nearly didn’t happen. I’m sitting in Dubai airport at 1am, actually in Macdonalds, believe it or not. Now there’s a reason for this...

I should have been in Singapore four days ago. I went off to the airport happy as Larry, accompanied by several large pieces of luggage (so nice not to worry about miserly luggage allowances on budget airlines), and of course accompanied by Beloved Spouse and Mother of My Children. We arrived at Newcastle Airport in plenty of time, went up to the remarkably uncrowded check-in desk, had a pleasant conversation, saw our bags go through, handed over the passports, and as we stood there bantering lightly, the woman on check-in suddenly said “I’d better just check this passport”.

Here, as Shakespeare says, begins my sadness. Now I should tell you, in preamble, that a couple of years ago I inadvertently put my passport through the washing machine. It didn’t damage it too much, it seemed to me, and in the intervening two years I have used it frequently. I have travelled more than fifteen times on four airlines, to seven different countries, and never had a problem. The lady had scanned my passport in perfectly all right, the plastic bit is undamaged in any way, and it scans first time every time. HOWEVER...she was nervous. She called over a supervisor from the airline. Beloved Spouse and Mother of My Children is suddenly very nervous. Over comes Woman in Uniform. “I’m sorry Sir, I can’t accept this passport for travel.” To describe the silence as stunned insults stunning. Stunned, maybe, as in ox in an abattoir, but nothing in my life has ever been quite so... stunned.

B.S.&M.O.M.C is instantly placatory. This woman in the uniform is utterly impervious to anything we try to say. We are taken over to a counter, our luggage is retrieved. W in U explains that we would fly 23 hours to Singapore, only to be refused entry and put back on the plane. The airline would be fined for good measure. Maybe she’s right. BS&MOMC is being very reasonable. (Unreasonably reasonable if you ask me.) She rings the passport office for me. I am put on to a young woman in some central passport appointment booking agency somewhere, probably in London. “We can get you an appointment on Monday, and you’ll have your passport within a week” she says brightly. This is, I carefully explain, about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. “Well, there’s absolutely no other way of doing it” she tells me, “if I were you I wouldn’t even bother. I’m sorry, but if you have to get there this week, the simple answer is, you won’t”. I relay this to W in U. She smiles. “Of course you can” she says “people do it all the time. It happened to a man last week." BS&MOMC takes me away, telling me that W in U has already booked us onto Tuesday’s flight at no charge, and if we can get a passport on Monday morning before 12.30 she’ll bump us onto Monday’s flight. She can’t understand why I am a gibbering wreck. I am led away backwards, at a loss for words for the first time since the Year One School Dance, where a prefect found me hiding in the toilets and made me dance with a GIRL, and that was neither today nor yesterday.

This catastrophe means several things. First of all, I am going to lose four days until I can get onto a flight even IF the passport office can give me a new one, even though they have categorically told me they can’t. Secondly, this means I am going to miss Tadeshi Suzuki, the event in all of the Singapore Arts Festival I was most looking forward to. Thirdly, and this is the worst of all, if the trip is put back, even if they can extend our stay to compensate, BS&MOMC can't come now.

All along, I have wanted her to come with me more than anything else. We’ve never been outside Europe together, as you may recall if you read my last post. I have never ever been in a position to take her anywhere really exotic, I could never afford to take her to somewhere like Singapore, it was going to be the trip of a lifetime. Now she can’t come. She has to get back to work. She moved heaven and earth to clear a week, and has no room to change it now. (She’s frightfully important in her work, you see, far more so than I am in my job). That, I think, is the unkindest cut of all. It nearly breaks my heart to see how well she takes it. When I watch her unpack her suitcase I want to die. She is the innocent party in all of this, and she’s the one who suffers. She was even nice to W in U.

Instead I am going to take my son. No romantic week in Singapore with BS&MOMC, instead I will be there with Son and Heir Who Despises Me. We discuss it frankly. “Dad, I’m sure you’re just going to boil me the whole time we’re there” Long pause. “I’ll probably do the same to you”. Silence gives assent.

I fret through the weekend. Of course we were turned away from the gate too late on a Saturday to get a passport form from a post office before they all closed, and there aren’t any open on Sunday. I have to get a form, get it filled in, get it countersigned and get to Durham, fifty miles away, by 9.30 on Monday morning. I want to give up, but BS won’t let me. On Monday we drive to Gateshead, on the way to Durham, where I know people who can countersign the form, and go into the Post office, which is in a shop. “No, sorry, it doesn’t open until 9am” I intend to give up there and then “but if the woman comes in early I’ll ask her for one for you”. The woman DOES come in early. I run up the street to my in-laws. BS throws one. “She can’t sign it. She’s a relative” “No she isn’t, not of mine...” “She’s a relative by marriage” “How will they know?””It says on the form it’s a criminal offence” Sister-in-law has already filled half the section in. Fortunately Nice Woman in Post Office gave me two, just in case. We have to find someone else to countersign. Frantic phone calls. A neighbour does it. We then drive to Durham, breaking several other laws on the way. We get there two minutes late for my appointment. I race up the stairs, only to be stopped. “Have you got an appointment?” “Yes I have” “It’s just that all the computers have crashed. We can’t guarantee that we can get you a passport today”. I start to laugh. Ronan Paterson, MA. The MA standing, if you hadn’t realised, for Man Accursed.

A nice lady called Kim takes my number and promises to call me if anything changes. I trudge back to the car, disconsolate. BS laughs too. “This is ridiculous”. Just then Kim rings. “ Bring your form in. The computers still don’t work, but we’ll take your form in anyway”. I run back up the stairs again, slightly less sprightly than the last time. Instead of the nice Kim, I am met by a highly suspicious woman. She takes away my tiny little Swiss army knife I brought with me to use the scissors to cut out my photos.”Fair enough” says I “that knife could cut open a nasty envelope”. It may not have helped.

I get the passport in the end, thanks to a lovely lady called Nicola, for whom I wish only good things. As I wait in a queue the man behind the counter is saying to someone ahead of me “your passport scans fine. What’s wrong with it?” I try to blank the comment out of my mind. That way lies despair. Poor Liz in the Festival Office in Edinburgh, who is going through this blow by blow with me, has managed to change the flights, hotel and everything. S &H who DM and I are on the flight in the morning. We go home, and BS packs his case for him. That breaks my heart as well.

Next morning we are at the airport. I won’t believe it until we are on the plane. If reincarnation is true I don’t want to come back as my underpants as I approach the check in. It goes without a hitch. We take off, arrive in Dubai seven hours, two films and about eight meals later, and now we’re waiting to change planes. It’s one o’clock in the morning. S&H was still hungry, despite lavish catering, so now here we are in Macdonalds, (his choice) waiting for our connecting flight to be called. I didn’t tell you, did I, that we go via Dubai. 23 hours. Well, every silver lining has to have its cloud.

In Macdonalds we run into famous Scots poet Wullie Doanuldsen , also on his way to Singapore for the Arts Festival. Some of you may know of him. He sees himself as the natural heir of Dunbar, Henryson and the Makars. Others see him more as the Natural Child of William McGonagall and Irving Welsh. He hears my story and contributes the following:

Ye micht think that a lang-hau’ flight’s a bonny way tae travel
But if ye dinnae watch yersel’ yer plans can soon unravel.
On Sunday ye were stuck at hame wi’ affspring young and pleukey
Ye thocht ye’d be in Singapore wi’ Tadeshi Suzuki.
The next time that ye go awa’ ye micht no’ be sae lucky
Sae dinnae wash yer passport ,son, even if it’s mucky.

05 June, 2009

Singapore Arts Festival Blog #1 - "Pre-departure"

Ronan Paterson, the lucky e-bulletin subscriber who won our Singapore Arts Festival competition a couple of months ago, is currently packing his bags before he leaves for Singapore this weekend.

While he’s away he’ll be sending through updates about his Festival adventures. Here's his first Blog entry:

Had a small panic this morning when I opened the envelope with the tickets in it. Of course nowadays we all travel on budget airlines without physical tickets, but somehow for long haul I expected some of those old fashioned paper things where they tear off bits as you go. Instead we got itineraries with reference numbers on. I flapped a bit, but She Who Must Be obeyed restored calm by actually READING said pieces of paper. (Why didn’t I think of that?)

It’s all part of the general paranoia that goes with unexpected good fortune. You keep waiting to have someone come up and say “sorry, we’ve changed our minds”. Or worse still, to turn up at the airport to find it was all a hoax, and there is a group of people laughing at you from behind the queue of passengers for Benidorm.

I was minding my own business one day when something popped into my inbox. “Congratulations”. I nearly deleted it. Usually “Congratulations” precedes an e-mail concerning either potential weight loss or anticipated testimonials to the efficacy of herbal Viagra. For some reason I didn’t bin it. I actually read it. I called Herself over.

“Look at this! It says I’ve won a trip to Singapore”
“Oh, yes, right. Honestly, they must think you came down in the last shower of rain. I suppose they just want you to put money into a Nigerian bank account to claim your prize, do they?”
“No, actually, it says I’ve won this competition…”
“That proves it. You didn’t enter a competition!”
“We-ee—ell, actually…”
“What, you DID enter a competition? What competition?”
“You know when I was buying tickets for the Festival online last year? Well, they had this thing, you know, click here and enter this competition…”
“How many times have I told you? You shouldn’t enter competitions. They’re all just a scam to get your details so they can send you marketing materials you don’t want. Besides, you never win anything anyway. You’re just not the sort of person who ever gets that lucky”
“Now hang on, I did win that prize once in the church hall raffle…”
“That was a tea cup with a bag of PG Tips in it.”
“I had a choice of prizes”
“That or the peach bath salts. Not a trip to Singapore”

Determined to show Her Indoors, I spend the next few days establishing the bona fides of poor, patient Derek, who, rather than the euphoria he might confidently have expected, gets a series of highly suspicious e-mails. It’s too good to be true, surely. Ordinary people don’t actually win prizes like this, do they? Slowly, eventually, it dawns on us. I have actually won. Immediately all my friends and colleagues make a huge fuss of me. Even my children become vaguely civil for a few days. I announce that I am planning to take the Good Lady, not knowing any Bad ones these days. Instantly the goodwill of others disappears, to be replaced by sullen resentment. I half overhear muttered imprecations as I pass along corridors. “Jammy git” is the only one repeatable. Offspring revert to normal behaviour. I don’t care.

The chance to visit Singapore is fantastic on its own. The opportunity to do so during the Arts Festival is unbelievable. Going through the programme is exhilarating. Our main interest is in theatre. “Tadeshi Suzuki’s there! I’ve always wanted to see his stuff” “Wonder what a Chinese production of The Cherry Orchard is like…” “Singapore Slings in the Long Bar at Raffles!” “I don’t see that. Are they a band?” “We’ve never been outside Europe together before. “ “Oh come on. We’ve both been outside Europe several times.” “But not together. Makes it like a second honeymoon…” (Speaker receives one of those looks with which Paddington Bear used to convey intimidating disdain.) “Ah, well, better go and check the passports then…”

I buy some Conrad in a second-hand bookshop and take my linen suit to the cleaners.

02 June, 2009

The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross

Image: Jordi Savall

Full of magic and fantastic journeys, Le Concert des Nations are experts in performing both the familiar music of Handel and the less-known compositions of Marais. Jordi Savall and his orchestra perform at Usher Hall this August as part of Festival 09.

To mark the bicentennial of Haydn's death, Aled Jones from BBC4 introduced a concert featuring his masterpiece The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, from the city of Cadiz where the work was commissioned in 1787. The concert was performed by Le Concert des Nations under the baton of Jordi Savall in the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva.

You can watch The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross on the BBC iPlayer before 8:40pm this Friday 5 June. Stream or download the programme by clicking here.

For more information and to purchase tickets for Le Concert des Nations and Jordi Savall at Festival 09, click here.