Hah! tricked you! Anyone who thought my blog would be about far-flung travels better think again. Just a year ago, even 6 months ago this was the case. For the moment though I’m in a serious gestation period and that, coupled with a string of inspiring happenings here in London, is keeping me firmly grounded. My ‘green’ friends approve of course, having repeatedly ticked me off for my heavy carbon bootprint. But, as usual, you can travel widely within the M25 so why take to the skies? This week for example, I’ve been to Turkey, Szechuan, Afghanistan and Rwanda.
Possibly the least cultural outing of the four, Turkey, came in the form of an embassy party to celebrate their National Day. Great fun, good food and drink and some excellent, erudite company. However when I told my local Turkish grocer about it and wished him all the best, he told me sottovoce that sorry, he doesen’t celebrate as he’s Kurd as are, it seems, many of North London’s “Turkish” shopkeepers. Ooops – a major faux pas. He took it well though and retains his broad smile despite scouring the paper daily for news of further Turkish incursions into Kurdish land.
My Szechuan sortie was all about an elegant, newish restaurant in Frith Street, Soho – Bar Shu – which I’ve been meaning to try out since it opened a year ago. One of the reasons is that the menu was devised by a certain Fuchsia Dunlop, absolutely unrelated to me but for whom I have endless respect and, I admit, some curiosity. Having lived and studied cooking in northern China, her knowledge of Szechuan food is encyclopaedic and she has written no fewer than THREE beautiful books on the subject. Anyway, she also found time to devise the menu for this restaurant. Reading it is akin to weird poetry; try this: Pock-Marked Old Woman’s Beancurd, or this – Numbing and Hot Dried Beef, or even Fire-exploded kidney flowers …a real shame then that the menu is a plasticised pictorial folder reminiscent of cheap 1970s takeaways. Our ground-floor window table had insightful views over Soho’s zigzagging punters outside, and the dinner had some fantastic moments (that double-cooked pork again). Sometimes it blew my mouth off (chillis are big in Szechuan) but there was also a serious salt overload and the service, though charming, was inefficient. It’s a useful Soho location though, so I’ll probably return – but for an Oriental gastro-high give me Dragon & Castle any time (see earlier jellyfish blog).
Far more resonant was my virtual trip to Afghanistan. This was courtesy of the art duo Langlands & Bell who I’ve known for about 15 years since their very early days. I once spotted a crate of their artworks being delivered to a chic hotel in Costa Rica and took a photo as a joke. When I told them on my return they had no idea of this sale; proof that the art world certainly moves in elusive ways. Anyway, in 2002 they were invited to Afghanistan as ‘war artists’, an odd commission for this pair of highly conceptual artists who until then had focussed on purely architectural themes. Aren’t war artists supposed to be there in the thick of the action, sketch-book and water-colours in hand? Somehow it sounds like an anachronism. On returning from their 2-week trip they exhibited the results in London and I was impressed – but also perhaps overloaded by the input. So last Wednesday I jumped at another chance to see a choice selection in a small exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
The one that blew me away completely, despite having seen it twice before as it was short-listed for the 2004 Turner Prize, was The House of Osama Bin Laden. Like a computer-game, I clutched the steering stick and sailed through an extraordinary three-dimensional world created from digitalised snapshots and a video of Bin Laden’s abandoned house. These had been taken by Nicky Bell and Ben Langlands while on a day-trip from Kabul up in the mountains. The sense of isolation, the arid grey slopes, a lake down below, a rope charpoy, a rusting iron bed-frame, abandoned rooms, shadows of a tree and an armoured lorry parked outside – all these elements came together to make a chillingly poignant experience. On one level it took me back to my own trip round Afghanistan 30 years ago, so there was a strong feeling of deja vu. But on another level this piece was multi-dimensional. I could feel the ghostly presence of Bin Laden in this house, his plots and the ongoing though impalpable threat of Al-Qaeda. It’s an amazing piece of living history. And that’s what war-artists are supposed to do isn’t it?
Then last night it was Rwanda. Here I entered a powerful hybrid world of the Nazi war crimes trial recounted by seven Rwandan actors. The 1960s play, The Investigation, by Peter Weiss, though later adapted by Baudrillard, was in French and staged at the Young Vic in the increasingly hip Waterloo area. As the Rwandan “Nazis” ranted at each other, they alternately accused and defended their fictional roles in the camps, dwelling on the terrible minutiae of the gas-chambers and daily life. It was sobering. The director, Dorcy Rugamba lives with the tragedy of having lost most of his immediate family in Rwanda’s genocidal civil war. Here, drawing moral parallels, he shows how similar atrocities happened before, and no doubt will happen again. Man doesn’t learn does he.
Lee Sai Fon
As far as I'm aware, Fuchsia Dunlop has written two, not three, books: 'Sichuan Cookery' and 'The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook' (on Hunan cuisine, not Sichuanese). 'Sichuan Cookery' was published as 'Land of Plenty' in the USA, which possibly explains the confusion. Having said all that, she does have a third book on the way: 'Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China' will be published in March 2008.