MANDARIN DUCKS

21 April 2013

One of the funnier scenes for me in the film About a Boy is when the Boy kills a duck after he throws a loaf of bread, which his mother had baked, into the pond. Lord knows what ingredients she had used, but it had the density of a rock and thus the predictable effect when it hit the duck.

about a boy dead duck-1

I laughed loud and long, partly because it reminded me of when I was a boy. During my visits to my grandmother in London, one of her staple ideas for keeping me busy was to take me down to one of the ponds in Central London’s many parks to feed the ducks. She did this with most of her grandchildren who passed through London and kept a stash of stale bread for the purpose. And boy was it stale sometimes! If I’d been a duck I wouldn’t have touched it with the end of my webbed foot.

As I said, she took me to several parks in Central London. Hyde Park was a favourite with its Serpentine lake. Another was the lake in St. James’s Park. The nice thing about that lake was that it played host to many different types of ducks, some of them really beautiful. One of the most lovely was the mandarin duck:

mandarin duck-1

(I knew its name because the park authorities had thoughtfully placed plaques by the lake’s edge, right where little boys and girls threw stale bread to the ducks, which carried a picture of each type of duck along with its name).

I swore to myself that when I owned a duck pond, I would stock it with mandarin ducks. Well, I don’t own a duck pond – yet (hope springs eternal). But I do live by a pond-like body of water here in Beijing. So you can imagine my excitement when on Saturday I noticed a pair of mandarin ducks paddling peacefully along its surface.

Will they be there tomorrow, when I walk to work? Or will they have flown off to greener pastures? I really hope they’ll be there. Feeding them will be a great way to get rid of our stale bread.

PS:

They stayed! Here’s a photo of the male I took the other day, a month or so after writing this post. It’s not a great photo – actually, it’s a lousy photo – but the duck was careful in not coming too close (no doubt it sensed that it could quickly end up in a pot in a Chinese kitchen), but it is evidence of their continued presence.

duck on canal 001

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“About a Boy” dead duck: http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lpks23apyX1qiurmy.png

Mandarin duck: http://blogimg.goo.ne.jp/user_image/2f/0e/202ca598a665e53251ea85d5818715ee.jpg

COAL

Beijing, 23 February 2013

Whenever I visited my French grandmother at Easter, we used to stay in her house in the countryside. It was still cold enough for us to need heating, which meant that we spent much of our time in the living room, huddled around a venerable stove. It looked like this:

coal stove

although it had a chimney that came out of the back, which after a metre or so took a right-angle turn and exited through the living room wall.

During the day, my grandmother burned wood scrap – fallen branches, pinecones, bark, whatever lay around the garden after the winter storms – which she sent me out to collect on a regular basis. At night, though, she would load the stove up with coal, and it was my job to fill the coal scuttle. This meant taking the scuttle down to the cellar, where the coal was stored, to fill it up. This is what the scuttle looked like:

coal scuttle-3

I loved that cellar. It was really the ground floor of the house – there was a door at the back which gave onto the road outside. From the garden side, though, you had to open a door with a large key, of the kind gaolers had in medieval times, go down a few stairs past dark corners where all the garden utensils were stored, and through a second door into the cellar proper. And there, stretched out in the semi-darkness, was a world of enchantment. For starters, the cellar had a dirt floor, which gave it a very particular smell. Then all around, strange and wonderful things loomed out of the dark. The coal was stored in an untidy pile to the left of the door, and beyond it was an old wooden table on which were stored my grandmother’s cache of goat cheeses bought from a nearby farm, the bottled fruit which she prepared during the summer, and a small wooden barrel in which she made her vinegar. Wonderful, wonderful, that vinegar was! It seemed to me total magic that my grandmother would pour the local red wine in, let it stand for a while, and hey-presto! out came delicious vinegar. I tried making vinegar of my own decades later in Vienna. The results were … mixed, let us say. Next to the vinegar barrel was the wine rack, good rough Beaujolais wines from the local vineyards. Over on the cellar’s right were piles of wood, various pieces of old furniture, ancient utensils whose use I could not figure out, an old bike or two, some hay, and I don’t know what else.

I always spent a few moments poking around in the corners seeing what new things I might stumble across, before filling up the scuttle and hauling it back up to the living room. The coal was, of course, dusty and left all your fingers black, but it came in nice, neat egg-shaped pieces. I never thought about it at the time, but I suppose this was pulverized coal pressed and molded; I remember the mold lines running around the pieces. Here’s what it looked like, in a coal scuttle; really heavy to carry! (appropriately enough, this is a photo from a museum; we are talking history here):

As for my English grandmother’s house, it had no coal. The use of coal had been banned in London after the last big smog of 1952. I remember my mother telling us about that smog when we were children, how she had had to walk down the road and almost panicked at not being able to see a thing. Soon thereafter, my parents escaped to the sunnier climes of Africa where I was born.

london smog 1952

The house had no coal but still had a coal cellar, which was located under the pavement. A manhole in its ceiling had once allowed the coal-man to handily pour in the coal without coming into the house. My grandmother didn’t really use the coal cellar for much. The only thing I ever saw her put in there were the French cheeses which my father bought when we visited. He had a fondness for the smellier French cheeses like Roquefort:

roquefort

My grandmother, in true English style, detested smells, so she banished his cheeses to the coal cellar between meals. Lucky for her that my father didn’t eat the aptly-named Crotte du diable, or devil’s droppings!

crotte du diable

Truly, evilly smelly – in fact, it seems not to exist anymore, which is a tragedy because it tasted absolutely wonderful (you had to wash your hands very well after eating it, though …).

In any event, things changed and moved on. My French grandmother had a heart attack while picking strawberries in her vegetable garden and was eventually moved into a home, and the stove stopped being used. I came across coal one more time, at school, where we had an open fire in the school monitors’ room and a ration of coal to feed it with. The coal looked more like the stuff that’s dug out of the ground, rough chunks:

coal at school

I liked to pick up a chunk and turn it in the light. Coal can be very beautiful, with black, glistening surfaces, reminiscent of obsidian:

bituminous coal

I also liked to sit next to the fire and gaze deep into the glowing coals rather than study for my A-levels:

glowing coal-2

which may partially explain why I didn’t do too well in my A-levels.

After that, coal disappeared from my life, as it did from the lives of all us in Europe.

Then we came to China.

Some statistics, courtesy of Wikipedia [1]: China is third in the world in terms of total coal reserves. It is the largest coal producer in the world, with the world’s largest (and deadliest) coal mining industry. It is also the largest consumer of coal in the world. Over half of the coal is used to make electricity, another third is used by industry, some is used in district heating plants, leaving a mere 3% to be used in residences. But you sure see that 3%.

You see them shoveling up huge chunks of coal – I was astonished at how big the chunks are; they have come straight from the coal face – you see them trucking it around, and piled up in street corners.

china-shoveling coal

And more than anything you see China’s version of molded coal, which looks like this:

molded coal china-1

You see them transporting it around on the tricycles which I wrote about in an earlier post:

tricycle with coal

You see it piled up outside houses:

molded coal china-3

Then it’s burned in these special stoves:

stoves china-1

which leaves behind the consumed molds which you see in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. Cities’ rubbish is littered with these discards.

molded coal china-consumed

All this coal burning leaves a taste in the air, a taste which instantly takes me back to my early years in the UK, when you would walk through a town or village and smell the sharp, acidic taste of coal being burned.

And it gives rise to smog:

beijing smog-2

Not much different from London’s smogs.

I’m optimistic. Like the UK did, China will eventually get rid of the smogs – probably by stopping to burn coal.

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1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_in_China

coal stove: http://img.fr.clasf.com/2012/11/22/poele-a-charbon-ancien-maill-20121122191235.jpg
coal scuttle: http://gillesrenaud9.free.fr/Seau%20%C3%A0%20charbon/P1050541.jpg
coal scuttle-fullhttp://a406.idata.over-blog.com/600×879/1/05/04/45/photos-blog-N-21/le-seau-a-charbon-boulets-musee-de-la-mine.jpg
London smog 1952: http://www.thefloridastandard.com/files/2013/02/smogdm1403_468x673.jpg
Roquefort: http://img.dooyoo.co.uk/GB_EN/orig/0/1/0/2/8/102828.jpg
Crotte due diable: http://i.ebayimg.com/00/s/MTYwMFgxMTgy/$%28KGrHqF,!iUE8cj4nvorBPVlcwEB,!~~60_35.JPG
Coal at school: http://i01.i.aliimg.com/photo/v0/112891981/Tissue_Paper_Coal_Palm_oils_Pail.jpg
Bituminous coal: http://www.ua.all.biz/img/ua/catalog/1865574.jpeg
Glowing coal: http://bargainsbegin.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Heater-3-edit.jpg
Chinese shoveling coal: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2011/12/21/business/coal/coal-blog480.jpg
Molded coal China: http://lexpansion.lexpress.fr/pictures/1455/745377_des-briques-de-charbon-dans-un-commerce-de-huaibei-en-chine.jpg
Tricycle with molded coal: http://www.travel-pictures-gallery.com/images/china/beijing/beijing-0042.jpg
Molded coal China against the wall: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-ASl1mhpkw5k/TkRxVCEtoII/AAAAAAAAA14/pgggOooaKE0/s400/Hutong%2Bcoal.jpg
Stove for burning molded coal: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5164/5261127408_36ccd1d718_z.jpg
Molded in coal China-consumed: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/68/424608074_e7f49e2f9a_z.jpg?zz=1
Beijing smog: http://feww.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/china-smog-17feb2013.jpg

A HORSE! A HORSE! MY KINDGOM FOR A HORSE!

Beijing, 5 February 2013

I was all atwitter this morning when I saw the news. The skeleton found under the car park in Leicester, England, is indeed that of Richard III, last of England’s Plantagenet kings! OK, there are some sour-puss academics raising doubts, but that’s probably because the skeleton wasn’t found under their car park.

I spent the early morning skittering around the house with one shoulder up and shouting “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” instead of getting ready for work. My wife looked on and rolled her eyes. But what Englishman has not at least heard of Shakespeare’s play Richard III? What person, who – like me – has thespian pretensions, has not dreamed of prancing about a stage as a mediaeval version of Quasimodo, murdering all and sundry with devilish glee and getting the beautiful women into the bargain? If it wasn’t for Shakespeare, who would remember King Richard III?

I did most of my acting at school. To my great regret, we never put on Richard III. But I’ve seen it a number of times, both in film as well as on the stage. I first saw it years ago with my wife, in some poky cinema on Paris’s rive gauche. That was the 1955 film version,with Laurence Olivier doing a marvelously over-the-top evil characterization of Richard.

laurence olivier

This film stayed in some sort of medieval setting. The next version I saw, with Ian McKellen playing Richard III, was made 40 years after Olivier’s movie. It tried to be clever and set the story in some sort of 1930s fascist version of Britain where the king’s deformity was moral rather than physical.

ian mckellen

We saw this film in Milan. As you can imagine, given Italy’s history

mussolini

the fascist overtones of the film had a certain resonance there.

And then, about a year ago, through sheer serendipity – we just happened to be visiting Hong Kong when the play was running – we saw Kevin Spacey play Richard III with a manic savageness.

kevin spacey

One of the amazing things about Shakespeare is the sheer number of quotes he has generated. Half the quotes people use, or so it seems, come from one Shakespeare play or another. Richard III has its fair share. There’s the quote which I’ve used as my title, which must be one of the most famous quotes in the English language. Then there is this quote:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York”

which seems to be one of those quotes that everyone knows. Then there is this quote:

“Off with his head!”

which my father was very fond of using  whenever I was naughty.

Apart from these, the play has some deliciously cynical lines:

“Conscience is but a word that cowards use
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe”

“And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

“Why, I can smile and murder while I smile,
And cry ‘content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face for all occasions”

Yes, we never did put on Richard III at school. But we put on Shakespeare’s Richard II; the events it recounts were the original cause of the War of the Roses, whose final act was the unhorsing of Richard III on Bosworth Field outside of Leicester and his killing with several savage blows to the head as shown by that skull beneath the car park.  I played the Duke of York (I should have played King Richard II, of course, but we’ll pass over that). As usual, the play has many memorable lines, but one set in particular remains with me, uttered by my elder brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, as he lies dying in Act I:

This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress, built by nature for herself,
Against infection, and the hand of war;
This happy breed of men, this little world;
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

I don’t go back to the UK very often, but those lines echo with me when I stand in the countryside and see how so very lovely it can be.

english-countryside

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Laurence Olivier: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Z1o-IQnC1nE/UK8xybvIJ7I/AAAAAAAABCU/OJcjGS2QOzE/s1600/tumblr_m3xc1hNXLZ1rrfb56o1_1280.jpg

Ian McKellen: http://www.mckellen.com/images/r3/ban-15.jpg

Mussolini: http://757f8ed9aaa522dde29d-4c07cfa4f788be17c79661948c0f2477.r99.cf1.rackcdn.com/5728_1323465695_july-25th-benito-mussolini-deposed.jpg

Kevin Spacey: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01934/Richard_a_1934160b.jpg

English countryside: http://www.style-passport.com/style/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/english-countryside.jpg

MY PSYCHEDELIC TIES

New York, 1 January 2013

My last post has brought back a memory from when I was a teenager. I went to a boarding school that was located some twenty miles from the nearest major train station, so at the beginning and end of each term buses would bring us to and from the station. The bus ride back to school at the beginning of the term was a staid affair, everyone quietly talking or just meditating. The bus ride back home at the end of term was an altogether more riotous event. Bawdy rugby songs were sung at high volume, starting from the back of the bus where the bad boys sat, and what in a different era were called “off-colour” jokes were retold loudly and with relish. This album cover conveys the general idea, although we did keep our clothes on.

rugby songs

One element of the journey home was that we would all wear the loudest possible ties. I should explain that while we did not wear uniforms as such at our school, sports jackets were de rigeur along with a tie. Not just any old tie; a black tie. All of us, all term, wore a black tie.

black-tie-2

The only exceptions were school and house monitors as well as the sporty types who won their cricket, rugby or other colours for exceptional gamesmanship.  We had many theories about why we all had to wear ties of such a lugubrious colour; the one I remember has to do with commemorating the deaths of several boys in a fire decades ago in one of the school houses (no girls; this was a boys’ school).

Whatever the reason, on the last day of term we threw off that horrible black tie and marched onto the bus each with a tie louder and – given the times – more psychedelic than the last. These photos give an idea of the sudden blast of colour we offered each other:

sixties-ties-3

sixties-ties-2

Getting onto the bus was to take part in a fashion cat walk, with comments about each tie and loud cheers for the brightest. We all came back to school with a secret hoard of bright ties, from which we selected one to parade that last morning in front of our peers. And then off we went, singing our bawdy rugby songs.

What happened to my psychedelic ties? Gone, I think, with other mementos of my youth when my sister, tired of seeing me not collect that suitcase which I had asked her to store in her attic, threw it and its contents out.

suitcase in trash

So goes life.

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Rugby songs album: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3126/3086393712_13bffb7baa.jpg
Black-tie: http://100days100ties.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/black-tie.jpg
Sixties-ties-1: http://img.ehowcdn.com/article-new/ehow/images/a06/q3/of/men_s-fashion-60s-1.1-800×800.jpg
Sixties-ties-2: http://t1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSLL3ymfg76pRMQkN79f7YMTuTYx8Ftz4I_Srr46O7eIhIHs48IAxr5HDgs
Suitcase in a trash can: http://hilariousnyc.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Suitcase-Trash-Can.jpg

THE SCENT OF WATER

Beijing, 12 October 2012

How would you describe the scent of water? This evening, as I reached the bridge which crosses my piece of canal a gentle breeze lifted the scent off the water’s surface and wafted it over to me. And I asked myself that question.

Let me take a leaf out of wine reviews and try a little of their purple prose: “I sense a hint of moss, with an undercurrent of peat, perhaps a whiff of algal respiration”. But actually what I was smelling was my childhood. Don’t you find that scents are a powerful trigger of memories? I do: a drift of scent will suddenly have me awash in memories. And so it was that as I crossed the bridge I was suddenly ten years old again, on my grandmother’s sail boat on the Norfolk Broads, moored at her buoy on Barton Broad. The sun has set, a light breeze is blowing off the water bringing me the scent of the Broad’s peaty water, and small waves are slapping quietly at the boat’s hull. A grebe calls out in the night.

I loved the Broads. My grandmother spent most of her summer on the boat, taking her numerous grandchildren in shifts of two weeks. I must have gone five years in a row. The sailing didn’t really excite me; it was kayaking among the rushes and in the little creeks on the edges of the Broads that I loved, watching the wildlife and discovering small marsh flowers at every turn.

But I grew up, and my grandmother grew old, and life moved on.  I stopped going and haven’t been back since. Yet I am sure that the Broads made me what I am today: an environmental engineer who for more than thirty years has tried to push back the tide of waste threatening to wash away the natural beauties that are around us.
__________________
pix from:
http://maalie.blogspot.com/2010/08/kayaking-on-norfolk-broads.html
http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/norfolk/hi/people_and_places/nature/newsid_8090000/8090224.stm

PASSION FOR PORCELAIN

Beijing, 6 September 2012

Last weekend, my wife and I visited the exhibition “Passion for Porcelain” at the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square. Through pieces from the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum, the exhibition celebrates the discovery by Europe of Chinese porcelain, that wonderful moment in the seventeenth century when chinaware began pouring into Europe as ballast in the holds of the East India companies’ ships. Europeans were dazzled by what they saw, for compared to Chinese porcelain the European ceramics of the time were rough, crude articles.

Chinese potters first exported ware with purely Chinese designs

Passion-for-Porcelain 008-dragon plate

Then they started exporting wares with European designs. Some of them are hilariously bad, like this example.

Passion-for-Porcelain 006-jesus baptism plate

It takes a moment to understand that the two blobs in the plate’s centre are John baptizing Jesus. Obviously, the Chinese designer had no feel for what he was copying. Or take these two figurines, which the label insists are figurines in French court costumes.

Passion-for-Porcelain 012-french figurines

Some are simply odd when seen in a Chinese context. Plates with the armorial bearings of some English aristocrat, for instance, sound a strange note on Tiananmen Square.

Passion-for-Porcelain 013-armorial plate

But I suppose it is no stranger than Christmas decorations pouring out of a modern Chinese factory ready for shipment to the US or Europe. In all fairness, some designs have merged Chinese sensibilities exceedingly well with European-driven designs, like this plate picturing the trading hongs in Canton.

Passion-for-Porcelain 009-hongs plate

Then the Europeans started to make copies. And some of these are hilariously awful in their depiction of Chinese scenes.

Passion-for-Porcelain 015-english chinese mug

Others are technically poor copies of Chinese techniques, like these two articles which are both using the flambée technique; the European version suffers distinctly from the comparison.

 

Once the Europeans had mastered the technique of porcelain-making, they could cut the cord with China and make wares of purely European design.

An interesting journey indeed through Europe’s love affair with porcelain. But the exhibition’s postscript made all the previous showings “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”.  But I will deal with this in my next post.

THREE TAKES ON BROKEN CHINAWARE

Beijing, 31 August 2012

Take 1:

When I was a boy, I spent a fair amount of time with my English grandmother, on my way to and from boarding school. One of my memories of her is a set of china plates which she used for meals. The plates carried polychromatic designs of butterflies, flowers and trees on a white background, and I liked studying the designs as I ate my meat and two veg (making sure to keep my elbows well in; my grandmother was quite particular about table manners). The strange thing about these plates was that they had all been broken, often quite badly. But rather than throwing them away, my grandmother had had them carefully stapled together! By that, I mean that small pieces of metal had been fixed across the breaks. Here is the picture of such a plate.

stapled plate

I suppose my grandmother was very attached to the plates and preferred to keep them in this strange, cobbled-together form rather than not have them at all. But I won’t ever know because I never asked her the reason.

Take 2:

On our living room table, in a wide wooden bowl, my wife and I have carefully laid out some broken pieces of porcelain. I think they are from a bottle. They all have a blue pattern on a white background.

broken bits 001

They are part of our larger collection of odds and ends we’ve picked up in the streets during our three years in Beijing: broken bricks from construction sites, chunks of coal, a set of Chinese chequers. But our collection of broken porcelain has a special significance; we collected the pieces on the verge of the road outside Ai Weiwei’s house. We feel that somehow they have been bathed in his aura.

Take 3:

At the window near the entrance to the Opposite House, a chic hotel on Sanlitun, stand two wonderful sculptures. They represent an old Chinese dress and an old Chinese jacket. They have been created out of bits of broken Ming pottery, and all have blue patterns on a white background.

 

China’s old Ming pottery works are littered with broken crockery from all the runs that failed. The artist collected some and has turned these failures into pieces of real beauty. A wonderful example of arte povera.

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the stapled plate: http://jwcsybaritic.blogspot.com/2011/11/stapled-porcelain.html
other pictures: mine

THE OLYMPIC FLAME

Beijing, 29 July 2012

My wife and I managed to crawl out of bed at around 4 am to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. It had already started, and by the time we joined the billion or so people watching, the show was celebrating the NHS. We missed the Green and Pleasant Land, the Dark Satanic Mills, the Forging of the Olympic Rings, and – worst of all! – the Queen and James Bond parachuting. No matter, we watched the rest, letting ourselves ride along with the slightly manic fun of it all (I don’t know what non-Brits made of it; I’m British but I’ve been out of the country for nigh on 40 years and found a good number of the references quite baffling). We patiently watched as all the country teams filed into the stadium, commenting on costumes and trying to guess which would be the next country, listened politely to the various speeches and Olympic oaths, until we finally got to the lighting of the Olympic flame, or should I say Olympic cauldron.

We had vaguely followed the discussions on who might be the person honoured to light the flame, but I must say I was deeply touched by the – very Olympic – decision  to go for inclusion, to have the honour shared between seven athletes. And not just shared, but shared by young, promising athletes each chosen by a respected past Olympian.  It gave real meaning to the Games’s slightly cheesy motto Inspire a Generation. And that cauldron! That is truly a beautiful piece of design. It was breathtaking to watch those seven initial flames spread and spread in ever smaller circles until all 204 flames were lit. But I’m always stirred by design with a deeper meaning, and I loved this idea of 204 separate flames, each representing a nation competing in the Games, once lit slowly coming together as one flame: we compete individually, but we are one world.

Olympic-Cauldron-1

Olympic-Cauldron-2

Olympic-Cauldron-3

Olympic-Cauldron-4

Olympic-Cauldron-5

P.S. For those of you interested in design, Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of the Olympic cauldron, also designed the UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, the so-called Seed Cathedral. I had to visit the Expo as part of my work. Much of it I found dreary and superficial. The UK pavilion was one of the few that made the experience worthwhile.

uk-pavillon-expo-shanghai

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pix come from:
Olympic cauldron:
http://www.doubleglazingblogger.com/2012/07/the-olympic-opening-ceremony-proud-to-be-british/
http://www.interaksyon.com/interaktv/seven-teenagers-light-olympic-cauldron
http://www.designboom.com/weblog/cat/8/view/22698/heatherwick-studio-2012-london-olympics-cauldron.html
UK pavilion:
http://architecture.mapolismagazin.com/heatherwick-studio-uk-pavillon-expo-shanghai-2010-shanghai