There were interesting issues, James Elkins told me, to do with Chinese art criticism. I’d just fished his e-mail out of my inbox. There was to be a four-day conference in Beijing, would I like to come? Nice.

What did I know about Chinese art criticism? Zero. I could learn, I figured, with a little help from the texts Elkins provided. How hard could it be?

Harder than I thought, as it turned out – starting with an almost-expired passport. With one day to spare, I got my visa. I was off. Then I wasn’t. Then last Monday I was on an early, full, volcano-mocking ferry out of Dublin, hoping a way would be found to switch my plane ticket around as I sailed and trained to Heathrow. Eleven hours on a plane, a taxi into town, and I was good. Which itself was good timing, as a fancy meal had been laid on for the hosts and guests.

The new ‘Westerners’ were Astrid Wege (Cologne), Diedrich Diederichsen (Vienna), Peter Plagens (New York), Richard Meyer (Los Angeles), Paul Gladson (Ningbo – where Nottingham University have a China outpost) and myself. Elkins is by now an old China hand. We sat at one table, most of the Chinese at the other. A sign of things to come? A large TV on the wall of the elegant, separate dining room completed the picture.

The food was of course excellent, and conversation flowed easily. Water is not normally served with food in China. Ready to brave a bit of Mandarin, I signalled to the waitresses who stood at the door. One caught my eye and left the room. The other finally figured out what I was up to and came over. “Nĭ yŏu lĕng shuĭ ma?" I asked – do you have any cold water? (I’d heard that you get hot water if you don’t specify.) She looked puzzled. I repeated. She returned after a minute with the TV remote.

…to be continued