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If we collected a number of smart phones from a random group of people from around the world and checked which apps were the most popular, I would guess that the BBC app might be a common choice, Facebook...obviously, and perhaps, most annoyingly, Angry Birds. However, if you were to take the smart phones from a random group of people living in Beijing, I would guess that almost all of them would have an app regaling the gory details of China's daily air quality index. It has become a morbid habit of us all. "Have you seen the index today? Off the chart.", "I know, I know. We're screwed."
January has always been one of my favourite months. It marks the beginning of the New Year, when I am excited and hopeful that fresh opportunities are coming my way, and I am still wonderfully deluded into thinking that my New Year's Resolution will last the rest of my days. The beginning of 2013, however, was not so joyful for those of us living in the Chinese capital. Beijing was shrouded for a number of consecutive days in thick smog. So thick in fact, that some days, I felt as though I could have taken a knife and sliced myself a chunk of air (a notion that may or may not have been a result of breathing such air).
We have no choice but to accept a number of compromises when we deciding on a place to live. One may love the tranquility and peacefulness of the countryside, but hate that they have to commute miles and miles to buy a pint of milk. Another may love the heat and humidity of living in a south-east Asian country, but despise the seedy underground world and rabid mosquitoes. For those of us who choose to live in a city like Beijing, we happily fill our inquisitive minds with the wonderful culture and lap up the plentiful opportunities, but 'tut' and eye-roll at the spitting in the streets, the smoking in the elevators, and the relentless pushing and shoving on the subway. But hey, no place is perfect. It's human nature to find annoyance even in the most heavenly of destinations, e.g. "The sand so hit it burns my feet on my tropical island!", "" Ahh, first world issues.
Those of us who have lived in Beijing long-term have come accustomed to taking the good with a dash of the bad. But over the past few weeks, the extreme weather conditions have gotten us all down; with each and every foreigner I know uttering the immortal line, "enough is enough", as we all nod in agreement.
As the world's media showed images of what was being called China's 'worst smog on record', we steered clear of going outdoors - unless essential. A large number of friends called in sick to work, complaining of headaches, nosebleeds, and shortness of breath. Some of us developed the so-called 'Beijing cough'; a nasty chesty cough that's since become a hot topic on China's most popular social networking site, Weibo - a talking point that arguably led the central government to 'take action'.
Air quality again hit dangerous levels at the end of January, with PM2.5 data, a gauge monitoring airborne particles of 2.5 microns or less in diameter which can embed deep in people's lungs, reaching a literally breathtaking 200 to 300 micrograms per cubic meter. The prospect of the coming Chinese New Year holiday, which was celebrated the second week of February, filled us with dread - not because we dislike the colour red, but because we all knew there would be the pre-holiday travel rush - the world's largest annual migration, and of course every family in China would be celebrating the holiday with fireworks. Fireworks + exhaust fumes = More smog. We braced ourselves for the worst.
However, once the travel rush was over, the city of Beijing, although still not a healthy shade of grey, regained some form of peace and quiet, and following limitations of firework sales (although minimal), the smog slowly lifted to reveal something resembling what we think may have been blue sky.
Today, Tuesday 19th February, the index rating for Beijing reads an impressive 89 - more than 400 points lower than the rating at the beginning of January. I can breathe!
I've been living in China for 6 years, and although I have gotten to grips with many of the aspects of Chinese living - navigating my way across busy roads without being flattened by a flock of cyclists, chow-ing down on the vast variety of foods that may not be to my liking - but smiling and making yummy noises anyway, and, although I can't boast to be able to handle the effects of downing shots of China's favourite tipple, 'Baijiu', I have at least learned how to 'keep it down', as it were. But regardless of these many talents/survival techniques, I still find that I am an outsider. Not merely because I look different to a majority of society, but as I get older, my personal life is shining the spotlight on me as the odd one out.
Let me bring you up to speed. During my time in China, I have made the effort to immerse myself into Chinese culture. I have spent hours on end studying the language, I have replaced my western-style diet with Chinese foods and Chinese medicine, and I have a vast collection of close informative Chinese friends. But now I find that many of these friends have settled down and married, some have also had babies and are now basking in new lives of domesticity.
Of course, I am aware that at my age (I'm 30), most people back home in the UK are also thinking of settling down, if they haven't already. In some cases, a 30 year old may even be preparing for his/her second marriage. But at least if I were back home I might be able to find a collection of kindred spirits; that is, career girls who aren't ready for the whole settling down / making babies / moaning about the mortgage kit and caboodle. Here in China, however, hitting 30 without having set a wedding date is considered quite tragic.
Of course attitudes are slooooowly changing. I have a couple of Chinese girl friends who are yet to settle down. Although many of them are content with their lives the way they are, their more traditionally-minded families are at the helm of a vice-like pressure, squeezing them into sealing a deal with any man who ticks the right boxes ('suitable' husband material must have his own apartment, car, come from a respectable family, and earn more than his prospective wife), and thus thwart the increasing possibility of them becoming 'old maids'.
Whereas western women-folk may be able to avoid the likelihood of being tagged an 'old maid' so long as we're snapped up by 40, Chinese women aged 30 are already considered to be pushing it. Much like the term 'old maid', the Chinese have coined the phenomenon, "Sheng nv" - which literally means 'left-behind women'. The term has only become commonly known and popular in the past few years, seeing as in the past, an un-wed woman in her 30's was about as common as a two-headed dog.
As part of Chinese society, it's unsurprising that because of these attitudes, I am also exceedingly conscious of my own single status. I have, after all, spent the best part of my twenties 'growing up' in China, and in some aspects may even be considered quite 'Chinese-minded'. However, having seen the kind of pressures from their families, friends, as well as the rest of society when it comes to finding 'love', I count my blessings that I belong to a country where choosing a fulfilling career over a balding middle-aged husband is quite acceptable, and to a certain degree, even applauded.
I have been noticing more reports of nuthatches in gardens recently, which is not too surprising as, unlike many other species, their numbers are increasing. This delightful little bird is about the size of a great tit but looks more 'triangular'. This is because it has a short tail, a relatively flat head and a pointed bill, made to look longer by the black stripe running from its base through the bird's eye to the nape of its neck. It has a blue-grey back and chestnut and white under parts.
Nuthatches are woodland birds, but they are often attracted to our leafy suburbs. They feed on nuts, seeds and, particularly when raising young, insects. When I worked in Edgbaston (a typical leafy suburb) very close to Five Ways, nuthatches used to visit the peanut feeder hanging by my office window. With my back to the window I could tell whether a nuthatch or a blue tit was feeding just from the sound: the blue tits with their tiny bills made gentle clicking noises as they pecked the nuts, the nuthatches with their more powerful bill made a much louder noise.
Nuthatches have very short but strong legs, they can hang upside down beneath branches, and are the only birds that can walk, indeed run, headfirst down tree trunks. Their behaviour of wedging large nuts and seeds in cracks in bark and hammering away at them with their bill led to them being called 'nut-hacks'; hence the name 'nuthatch'. A foreign species of nuthatch is one of the few birds known to use a tool: it will carry a piece of bark from tree to tree and use it to lever up loose bark to get at the insects beneath.
The nest is made from such things as grasses, mosses and feathers at the bottom of a hole, usually in a tree, but sometimes in cavities in walls and buildings. Although nuthatches are hole nesters they are not hole makers: they take possession of natural holes or those vacated by other birds such as woodpeckers. They make the entrance hole smaller with mud to prevent larger birds like starlings taking over. Nuthatches pair for life. They lay five to eight eggs which take between two and three weeks to hatch and between three and four weeks to fledge.
Nuthatches are mainly found in southern Britain, only occasionally being seen in Scotland and absent from Ireland. The increase in their numbers is unlikely to be a result of all the tree planting that has taken place because nuthatches prefer large, old trees (they are the ones most likely to have holes in them).
We recently had National Nestbox Week (details at www.bto.org/nnbw/index.htm) so if you want to attract nuthatches to your garden you could do worse than put up a nestbox or two - they are known to use them.
We have the chestnut leaf miner, ash die-back fungus, and now the unlikeliest invader of all, the demon shrimp! Its name may sound like a contradiction in terms, but this tiny crustacean, first found in Britain last October in the River Severn in Worcestershire, is a voracious predator of other small creatures. There are worries about the effects it will have on fish eggs and fry, and on aquatic plants upon which it also feeds. Once established (and it is spreading) it is likely to have profound and unwelcome impacts on other wildlife.
Demon shrimps (their real name is the more prosaic Dikerogammarus haemophaphes, but that's never going to grab any headlines) are related to crayfish but are much smaller. They are about 18mm long, various shades of brown, are curved and flattened from side to side. They breed prolifically, females laying up to 300 eggs per year.
So how did this tiny shrimp get to, amongst other places, the River Severn and the Grand Union Canal from its native waters around the Caspian Sea? Two factors are implicated. The first is a canal opened in 1992 connecting two of Europe's great rivers, the Main (a tributary of the Rhine) and the Danube. This enabled the shrimp to spread into Western Europe apparently faster and more successfully than its natural enemies. It is a prime example of unintended consequences arising from a major transport infrastructure project.
The second is the practice of discharging ballast water in ships' tanks from one part of the world in another, thus providing free and easy transport for potentially harmful plants and animals. The Angling Trust is calling for the Government to immediately ratify an existing international convention designed to prevent this happening. I have referred several times in this column to David Cameron's desire to head the 'greenest Government ever' - well this is an easy thing to do that will contribute to that. No doubt vested interests in the shipping industry will persuade him otherwise, businesses do not like environmental regulations affecting trade.
In the meantime it is up to boaters and anglers to fight a rear-guard action to limit the shrimp's spread by cleaning and drying their equipment and clothing after visiting rivers and canals. Environment Agency Central Region Fisheries and Biodiversity Head Dr Ian Hirst, quoted in Total Coarse Fishing News, said: "It (the shrimp) can cling to wet nets and waders and, in cool damp conditions, still be alive a week later. We are asking everyone to follow our Check-Clean-Dry code: checking their equipment for strange organisms, wherever they've fished, cleaning them off, and DRYING the kit thoroughly. (See www.nonnativespecies.org/checkcleandry for more information.)
Demon shrimps are tiny, and may or may not be demonic, but they demonstrate why proper environmental impact studies are needed for major civil engineering work like the canal mentioned above. They are not red tape, they are a necessary precaution.
My trip to Napa last year was the definite wine highlight of 2012. Whilst we spent plenty of time checking out some of the more boutique producers I really couldn't help wanting to pop in to some of the more touristy and "obvious" spots. Having read George Taber's book on the judgement of Paris years ago a visit to Chateau Montelena was always on the cards. Since it was already a bit of an obvious thing to so we also hired a Mustang for the journey. When in California.....
We're starting the year off with a bang as today is the day we set sail for our tour of America! In other exciting news we are also delighted to announce that our thrilling show Traction will be performed at La Folle Histoire des Arts de la Rue as part of the Marseille-Provence 2013 European Capital of Culture Celebrations in May.
This is very exciting as the production, which we initially developed for the opening of the Spiceal Street development at Bullring Shopping Centre in Birmingham, sees six of our dancers moving in unison with three JCB diggers in a high voltage celebration of the powerful harmony of humans and machines.
The combination of the raw power of machinery with the athleticism of our dancers is quite awe-inspiring, and we are certain that visitors to the festival will be thrilled by the sheer spectacle of the performance.
The show will take place on the beach at Marseille's Prado Nord, as part of the event which celebrates the Street Arts sector from across Europe and the Mediterranean.
With 400 performances, 60 exhibitions and 100 concerts as part of the celebrations, Traction will be performed on Friday 10th May and Saturday 11th May, with two showings each day at 3.00pm and 9.30pm.
Traction has been described as impossibly emotive and theatrically unforgettable, defying gravity and suspending disbelief, with the diggers and dancers combining in a stunning display of extreme acrobatic partnering, animaline strength and startling unison.
We are very much looking forward to being part of yet another incredible cultural festival - what a way to start 2013!
According to the National Trust, England's wettest-ever year is likely to have been 'an apocalypse for some wildlife'. Nest-building, breeding and feeding have often been difficult, with normal behaviour patterns interrupted. Birds, bats and insects have all been affected, and most at risk are species with small and isolated populations.
The often forgotten factor in these stories is that plants and animals have evolved over millions of years to cope with good times and bad. Their presence demonstrates their success. In the very long term many species will successfully evolve before declining and becoming extinct. During this natural process the weather from year to year, or even decade to decade, should not be an issue. The real problem is the ways and the speed at which the human species has changed the world and continues to do so. An example of this year's difficulties is that many puffin burrows have been washed out, preventing young being raised. This is less threatening to puffins than the shortage of the small fish they eat, like sand eels, which appear to have been almost fished to extinction themselves for use in fish meal products.
Closer to home the rise of intensive farming in the 20th Century, air and water pollution, and habitat loss and damage have affected wildlife populations far more profoundly than any extreme weather will ever do. Populations of, if not individual, animals and plants are programmed to survive heat, cold, drought and flood; they cannot survive the loss of their food sources or the places needed to complete their life-cycles. Where populations have become smaller and more isolated, recovery from bad years is much more difficult than it would otherwise be.
What the natural world is really in danger from therefore is the lack of political will to care for it and to take it into account when making major decisions. The Coalition Government wanted to be the greenest Government ever, an aspiration no one thinks it has come anywhere near to achieving. In any case the proponents of this were thinking more about energy, transport and resource consumption than about nature conservation. In this country and others almost every reform proposed to improve the environment or help nature is fiercely opposed by the business and growth lobbies.
No wonder then that we shelter behind a bit of bad weather instead of tackling the real issues. Rain is the problem now; back in May the Guardian was saying that the end of the drought was really good for wildlife, with a headline on 4 May 'Wet Weather helps ailing wildlife in England and Wales'. No doubt whatever weather 2013 brings we will continue to use it to mask the very real long-term damage inflicted on the natural world by our modern lifestyles.
Aah, the minefield that is French wines for under £8... A path that can yield incredible rewards or absolute abject disappointment (and a quick skip over to the Australian wine shelves...).
For many people the days immediately after Christmas Day are traditionally a time for brisk walks to blow away the festive cobwebs. In the West Midlands we are lucky to have a myriad of green spaces, parks and nature reserves in many neighbourhoods. In recent years, with help from local councils, voluntary organisations, the National Lottery and others, many footpaths, information boards and entrances have been improved or installed. This means that there is no need to travel miles away for your walk, in most places there is somewhere easily accessible on the doorstep.
In Birmingham and the Black Country the five local authorities, with the help of many partners, not least the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country and the Groundwork organisation, have been developing their networks of green spaces for many years. From the National Nature Reserve of Sutton Park to Barr Beacon, Moseley Bog to Fens Pools, and Saltwells Wood to Tipton Cemetery (why Tipton Cemetery? - see below) there are hidden landscapes, wintering wildlife and bracing walks through woodlands and heathlands, and alongside rivers and lakes, waiting to be enjoyed.
In this context a special mention and congratulations must go to Sandwell Council for its success in a nationwide poll for the most popular green spaces. The poll is organised every year by Keep Britain Tidy's Green Flag Awards Partnership. This year more than 1400 places were entered for the awards and three of the top ten sites are in Sandwell: Warley Woods which came second (for the second time), Tipton Cemetery which came seventh, and Sandwell Valley Country Park which came ninth.
Warley Woods is managed by the Warley Woods Community Trust, and they said 'Thank you to everyone who voted for Warley Woods in the national vote for Britain's favourite park'. Sandwell Valley Country Park is one of the biggest visitor attractions in the West Midlands region, only beaten by Alton Towers and Warwick Castle. Despite all the visitor pressure it retains important wildlife areas and provides a home for many species of birds and animals, from cormorants and herons to deer and water voles, as well as the remains of an 19th Century deer park and a mediaeval priory.
Green Flag Awards were introduced in 1996 and a number of other local sites have earned the accolade. Amongst the criteria are how welcoming a place is, how safe and clean, how well managed and how involved local people are with the site.
So, as this is a time for good news and goodwill, how about raising a glass especially to Sandwell Council and the Warley Woods Community Trust, but also to the small army of people, paid and voluntary whose work provides this wonderful resource for all of us?
As the year is coming to an end it has given me time to reflect on the incredible things we've been involved in this year and it really has been a trip to the creative theme park. We've been hopping from one thrilling, fun filled ride to another with the whole year feeling like a helter-skelter which has been an amazing experience. I've never experienced a year like this, it's been truly incredible.
The year started with a project to set all of the ground work and movement material for The Voyage project. The Voyage, which set sail from Victoria Square in Birmingham as part of the launch of the London 2012 Festival, was such an exciting thing to do. It had massive challenges which made it a thrilling thing to accomplish and we were all really blown away by the audience reception. Following on from The Voyage, we were then rushing on to the Paralympics and to be part of something that I've felt in all honestly was truly ground breaking was such a honour. The work that the artistic team did in creating the concept and delivering it was fantastic. I was incredibly proud of them all and it's lovely to hear how the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games has been held in such high esteem. A really very moving experience and it's one that I'll never forget!
From there we then had to get the company ready to tour Scattered in China which gave us the opportunity to play in some incredible venues. We toured three cities on the Shanghai coast and then performed at the Shanghai International Festival which was a really remarkable experience.
Some of the venues we played at were simply out of this world! The Wu Xi Grand, created by a Finnish architect, stands on the border of a lake and is a piece of high tech modern architecture of vast proportions. The International Oriental Arts centre in Shanghai is like a giant glass flower in the sky! One stage we performed on was literally the size of one, possibly two, football fields. It was the biggest stage I've ever stood on! Travelling and meeting people is always a wonderful experience and we saw so many wonderful sights. We were really pleased to sell out in most of the large venues that we performed in and are thrilled that the company has been invited back for an extensive tour of China in 2013 proving that Scattered was really successful in reaching new international audiences.
The feedback over the year on the productions we've delivered has been really exciting. It seems as though The Voyage made a big impression on the city of Birmingham (and visiting audiences), hopefully it will be instrumental in supporting the case for Birmingham becoming a centre for outdoor art. I'm very proud and excited about the potential for what could happen in the West Midlands and we will of course always be there, happy to take up any further challenges should they arise.
So what's next for Motionhouse? In early January we leave for a six week tour of the United States where we've got shows in Florida, Miami, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas. It's like a great rock 'n roll tour of old which we're very excited to be undertaking and will help in getting the company ready for the challenges next year.
We're also taking our show Traction, where believe it or not our cast dance with tractors, to France for the opening of the Marseille-Provence 2013 European Capital of Culture celebrations and then we come back and start on our next big theatre show, the follow up to Scattered, Broken. Broken has already been booked to play at a wide range of UK venues for tours in 2013 and 2014 and we're looking forward to seeing how our homeland audiences react to it. We will then be taking Scattered back to the United States again, so there are fantastic things in the offing and we're very excited with the way it's going.
So, as I said at the beginning, life at Motionhouse is like being on the helter-skelter, flying along seeing the world go by in a blur and we're having a marvellous time in our own hypothetical theme park - long may it continue. We can only hope for the same success in 2013! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone.