I used to dream about China when I was young. I found a map in a charity shop and used to read the unfamiliar names and vision up paddy jagged mountains, half lost in mist, and wide yellow rivers worming their way from Himalaya to the ocean (I think in my imagination I might have been ‘Tintin in Tibet’. At the time I was also writing songs and practicing – it wasn’t at any conscious level but I guess the connection between music and the wide world was there for me even then. I still have the map.
I dashed for the airport and Shanghai straight after my Guangzhou gig. Grabbed a dinner of sorts at the airport’s ‘Kung Fu’ diner – McD aesthetics with green tea, noodles and pak choi, a giant Bruce Lee high kicking plastic and neon over us. I arrived to a very late night city – my taxi dropped me hot and tired at an amazing hotel – the Yangtze Boutique. A lovely white stone 1930s art deco building (see old photo below), everything about it considered, calm and elegant – I felt refreshed the minute I walked in. A place designed to be cool before air con – and yin-yang to the crowd rammed streets and intense, drenching fug. Took me by surprise and straight back to another Shanghai, a city kin to New York, New Orleans and Paris, at the cultural edge of the modern and new in the 1930s. I slept in the arms of dancers, phonograms, photographs and jazz.
In the morning I was straight out for set up at the Roosevelt Rooms (first image below) on the Shanghai Bund (second image below). It’s a levee holding the brown Mother river, a strand strangely named in Urdu as a testament to the colonial powers who held sway here. Old Eurostyle ashlars, broadcasting colonial pomp to the river bank. I soundchecked between the enormous and improbable eye of the Oriental Pearl Tower (third image below) and the monument to the people’s heroes, stretching high into the low cloud, dripping in the rain. The solid arrogance of the Rooms was cooled and climate controlled to a Shanghai shiver to protect the racks of wine inside. As much as the Lady Seven in Guangzhou was light, bubbly and fun, the Roosevelt was calm, considered and concentrated. Maybe it was the genius loci, or maybe it me responding, but in any case I relished the difference.
I didn’t have time to take in Shanghai – as so often with touring. The deeply drenched Bund was a rare wonder – the Huangpo sliding worm brown and ambivalent round its slow bend as rust grey steel freighters chugged by on lawnmower engines. My Deco hotel’s walls were scratched with the traces of the dancers and jazz payers and lovers who had filled its now tranquil halls. A near century of new paint did nothing at all to quieten their mumbling. But the crowded Nanjing Road was a shopping street, no more nor less and I longed for the secret Shanghai of my imagination, maybe something gone now, of the past – something looking like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or the club in The Last Jade Emperor. One of the organisers of the Roosevelt gig had exactly the look of those old Shanghai photographs, as if she’d stepped miraculously out of a poster and into my life. I wanted to dance to jazz music with her in a speakeasy somewhere. But even now as I write I sense that dream fading, its echoes declining in my ears.
Arriving into Beijing I was road weary. I’d been warned it would be the hottest place on the trip, so was a little grit teethed leaving the airport, ready for the onslaught. Hot it was, but desert heat – Beijing is just east of the Gobi – and in comparison with the south it was blissful. I walked the leafy streets relishing the dryness – the bright sun caught the leaves and left them lanterns swinging in the breeze. A good while since I was here, and then only passing through on the way to a performance in Hong Kong. It’s great to be back to play and I’m really interested to see what ‘China Speed’ has done here. The first time I was nervous and tentative – a country without my language, and a culture with rules I couldn’t guess at. I did though love it. It was mid winter, my accommodation overlooked the Forbidden City and every walk was a catalogue of wonders. I remember the intricacy and nuance of the Palace City itself, for all its rumours of dissipation (a torturing dowager Empress, and an Emperor who forgot to feed his hundreds of ‘gift wives’ who tragically starved). I was studying Chinese music then and every tone and tune fed my appetite, it was all so exciting and unresolved. I had the feeling that around any corner could be Steppenwolf or Evelyn Waugh’s low door in the wall, almost hidden, leading to wonder. I sat in a tiny bar listening to punk bands – really vital and angry, every gesture of defiance declaring a passionate ‘I am here, deal with me’. Wonderful.
I am delighted now with the Beijing Punk Rock Noodle cafe and the rusty steel clad Mao Live House (images below) – my venue of the year so far. Out across a continent, flying in a tiny plane over the Baltic, the Caucusus, endless seeming Siberian forests and the Gobi desert – they’re a good way from my Shropshire HIlls… Somehow at the same time they feel so much like home. I’ve never been a Punk –not really. But I share much of their attitude – suspicion of authority and an emphasis on grass roots community and self reliance. Other writers I know share that head space – you can see it in Pete Moreton or Chris Wood’s work. So sitting in the Beijing Punx cafe and later with the audience in the Mao House I felt very comfortable, amongst people with something I recognize deep in their eyes. We may have little or no common language but theirs is a palpable kinship. I guess those same ideas and attitudes are swilling around deep in me – and again I see with a kind of affirming wonder the way music breaches ‘culture’ and language and lets us be one for a time, amongst the tones and timbres. (Thanks to Carol Song and Aaron Ji who took some photographs of me : )
Atlantic Drifter is out now via Niimiika
Click here to order direct via Jonathan’s website
10/10 – Carlybury Festival, Hereford
17-22/10 – China
24/10 – Lickey Poetry Festival, Rednal
25/10 – Live session, BBC Sunday Folk
16/11 – Live session, The Quiet Revolution
4/2/16 Shrewsbury Poetry, Milk Street
8-9/3/16 – More Than Folk festival, Hong Kong Folk Club
1/4/16 – Helsinki, Finland
22-24/4/16 – Wenlock Poetry Festival, The Edge, Much Wenlock
In part 3 we join Jonathan closer to home in the Hebrides.