Monday, December 31, 2007

On Fire

In the second half of the 70's I fell out of love with much of the music I'd been listening to as a young teenager. The virtuosity of bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra came to seem to me for the most part pointless, a kind of celebration of display for its own sake, so although retaining a soft spot for the incendiary first album The Inner Mounting Flame, 1971, (you never quite get over the first time) I didn't purchase the second album, Birds of Fire, though I did know the material from listening to others play it, and I never actually got to hear the second version of the band, the one including Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. I did listen to McLaughlin's Shakti, 1975, but they were a completely different kettle of fish, a signpost (if a kettle can play the role of signifier) to a new musical road leading eventually to Womad and all that. The fact that all these big name bands, like the Mahavishnus seemed to fall out with each over 'artistic differences' was confirmation for me that this was music all about ego.

I was wrong, of course. Yes, ego and display were involved, but then they always are, and the music was more than capable of transcending those dreary concerns. Listening to Birds of Fire today made me wonder what was wrong with my ears all those years ago, and made me question how I could possibly have been so dismissive of something I had previously recognised the value of. The beauty of Thousand Island Park was too fragile for my younger self, I'm afraid, and that's just one from several outstanding cuts. I suppose my penance should be to get hold of the albums I missed and do them justice, but that's hardly likely to involve any degree of suffering.

By the by, we saw Billy Cobham, the drummer on the first two Mahavishnu albums at the Singapore Womad a couple of years ago. He played a solo set on the upper stage, just a piece for drums lasting about 45 minutes and it was of the highest quality, leaving you wanting more - possibly the first drum solo I've ever heard that achieved that.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Old Acquaintance

Much of the weekend, the bit when I've not been in work, has been spent catching up with old friends - and eating well in the process. A sound use of time, as was listening to the Elvis Costello collaboration with Allen Toussaint The River in Reverse. Why can't music this good be played in supermarkets? I ask this simply because when we were shopping at the appropriately named Giant Supermarket at Parkway Parade yesterday somebody had deemed it appropriate to play something for the shoppers' delight that involved this chap doing irreversible damage to Leaving On A Jet Plane (with a Latin beat!) and, even worse, Blowin' In The Wind. Now I can accept that the former is something of an open target due to its excessive sentimentality, but surely Mr Dylan deserves better. And why anyone would think of treating his gently fragile masterpiece as a kind of jauntily upbeat cabaret show-stopper is beyond my understanding.

In passing, Dylan does an extraordinary live version of Blowin' In The Wind with the Band on Before The Flood. He reinvents the song as a kind of celebratory, rabble-rousing call-to-arms. It shouldn't work, but does. It's a safe bet they'll never play that in Giant.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

And Two More Things

Why are the road signs in Kuala Lumpur designed to make sense only to drivers who live there and actually know where they are going? We attempted twice to find a certain Hutan Lipur Ampang which is indicated on a series of those brown signs for places of interest right up to the centre of Ampang itself only to fail on both occasions. It simply isn't. There. Does this place, whatever it is, exist?

And why are there so many fully constructed houses which just remain empty in the city, as well as those which seem to have been abandoned halfway through construction? Halfway is enough to create something of remarkable ugliness, especially when it is allowed to rot for ten years or so. There's a whole row of what seem to have been intended to be terraced houses of this sort on one of the roads on Bukit Antarabangsa a short drive from where we live. Opposite are two or three rather expensive-looking large occupied houses. Nice view they have.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Grasp of Things

In our time in Malaysia I was struck, as I always am there, by how little I felt I understood what was going on in that society. This is not a language thing. English is very widely spoken and my Malay, though pathetic, allows me to grasp a fair amount of what people are talking about. No, I'm referring here to that instinctive grasp we tend to build up of the fabric of what is taking place around us, such that we can comfortably inhabit the illusion we know what's going on. After almost two decades in Singapore I no longer feel the sense of being adrift that haunted me in my first months here, and when I go back to England although some aspects of life are now disturbingly different I generally grasp why things are as they are. But Malaysia, though in many ways very familiar to me, remains foreign.

A simple point to illustrate this. One afternoon we went to Taman Melawati, a district near to Ampang where we live, just to look around and see what the area had to offer. We parked on a sort of square, one of several, where lots of shops were. The buildings around weren't terribly old and, I suppose, made up the commercial centre of the township. We were there on a Sunday and things were fairly quiet - that I understood. But what I couldn't get hold of was how incredibly filthy the streets were. Not the kind of squalor of real poverty that is obviously unavoidable, but a sort of just letting things go to dreary ruin. In case this all sounds like western judgementalism let me tell you that my wife, a Malaysian, was far more vocal about the state of the area and refused to finish her drink in a café we went into on the grounds that everything smelled. What fascinated me was why the people there were ready to let this happen. Frankly it wouldn't have needed a massive effort to make the place look fairly respectable.

Now I know areas of Manchester and Sheffield and Liverpool that look a lot more run down than Taman Melawati. But I know why this is, whereas the state of the taman centre made no economic or social sense to me. How innocent I am.

Having said all that, the missus and I were just walking back home from Parkway Parade and a chap came by holding a parrot. A fine green and red one. That was something way outside my experience - not so much the parrot per se but the nonchalance with which the bird was being taking for a stroll. I pointed this out to Noi and asked if she didn't find it mildly disturbing, as she had just walked past the guy without comment. She told me she might have said something had he been carrying a tiger, but she hadn't found anything particularly worthy of comment in the scene. And I thought I understood life here!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

First Things

Now back in Singapore with a day at work to look forward to tomorrow. Well, not exactly work since we don't start teaching until the new year really begins, next Wednesday. But there'll be exciting meetings to attend and, no doubt, lots of exciting things to accomplish that I have successfully neglected over the last month. So it's all systems go, or, rather, should be.

To cheer myself up, as I gear myself up, I'm thinking about United's position in the premiership. We got to view a few games in KL, the Liverpool game being probably the most satisfying, though nerve-wracking. Most of the kids had the wisdom to support the finest team in the land, with Ayiem as the sole renegade - he's with the gonners - but they tended to get overly nervous while watching games which, in turn, set me on edge. The last ten minutes of the Liverpool game felt particularly strenuous. In contrast I felt quite relaxed watching the Everton game, by which time the kids had gone, and almost expected that late goal. Last night's romp against Sunderland had the feel of a championship winning season about it, but there's a long way to go yet. (There's nothing quite so satisfying as an inane managerial cliché, is there?)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Last Things

VW’s last five symphonies, more than half his symphonic output, were written after the age of sixty-five. Listening to the 7th and 8th I think you might assume they were the work of quite a young man, especially the latter. But there’s something about the final symphony, to which I bent my ears and something like full attention this morning – despite being interrupted by a call from an air-con servicing company during the third movement - that sounds like the work of someone reaching the end of something. Of course, I could be projecting what I know about the work onto it, and there are stretches of music which sound youthful enough – in fact, the scherzo has the energy of the satanic passages in Job – but so much of this sounds like music dealing with inevitable conclusions: elegiac, sombre yet sober, in its examination of how things fade. This is particularly the case with the opening bars and the ending – both have a monolithic, static quality, framing whatever development takes place within a vision of something already accomplished. Struggle within acceptance. The shimmering gauze of sound (those gorgeous strings!) that characterised the earlier symphonies has been torn away and we view the thing itself.

Well, that’s all more than a bit over-the-top, but it does try to point to some of the qualities I find in this piece. On a more mundane level, the writing for saxophones is quite extraordinary – VW gets a mournful lubricity out them that no orchestra or jazz band I know has ever aspired to, except maybe in some of Duke Ellington’s more quirky, tone-poem type of stuff (but in VW there’s nothing approaching swing.) There’s a lovely fluid flugelhorn in there as well, but none of the exotic percussion that is so striking in the previous two symphonies. In that sense this one feels more restrained somehow.

The elegiac mood created by the music has filtered itself not so mysteriously into what will be our last full day in Maison KL for quite some time, but it’s difficult to be overly melancholy when you’ve got a house to clean and a succession of items therein to get fixed. So far we’ve dealt with a broken window, a broken tap, servicing the air-conditioning and a toilet with a slow flush: the joys of home ownership!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Across The Miles


I’m long accustomed to Christmas in the tropics so its incongruities seem reasonably congruent. Today, though still part of our holidays, is emerging as quite a day of toil as we are setting about the big clean-up before we leave and I’m focusing on work for school a touch more seriously than I’ve managed for the last four weeks. It’s at times like this, when I’m cleaning them, that I realise just how many windows this house has.

We have been thinking about family & friends in England though. I’ve rung Mum a few times over the last week and I’ll be talking to both her and Maureen later. Mum’s keeping well, apart from complaining about the weather and a stiff shoulder, but judging from something she said yesterday I think there’s going to be a bit of a dust-up about whether she goes anywhere for Christmas dinner today. As Noi frequently points out, old people are difficult – you must be patient. The problem is that it’s others who’ll need the patience today as we are at a safely guilty distance.


Just back from my wife’s birthday dinner at the Bukhara in KLCC. Almost a month late but we got there in the end. I’ve phoned the family and I’m pleased to say that Mum seems fairly happy about her day. I’m not too sure about everyone else though. Still ‘tis the season to be merry or jolly or whatever, so I hope they manage it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Shaping Up

Without the kids around we found time yesterday to watch an episode of Downsize Me, one of our favourites on the Discovery Health & Home channel. I suppose one of the reasons I enjoy it is that you get the chance to feel superior to some poor soul who’s got a major problem with their weight yet you can claim that you are rooting for them to do well and embrace a healthy way of eating and exercising. It’s not exactly noble, but useful for stimulating one’s own efforts at achieving a reasonable level of fitness. Anyway the advice given in the programme is obviously sound and there’s a real sense of dealing with issues related to health rather than simply trying to look better, which is all to the good. And, to be fair to myself, I do end up genuinely wanting the subjects to succeed.

So partly motivated by all this, I’ll be running around the taman a bit later today, trying to consolidate some of the gains I made running with the kids. Sadly Noi has not had the same opportunities (she had to lend her running shoes to Aiman and, therefore, was unable to join in) and I’m trying to convince her to step out with me. We completed a run in Melaka (the first time we’ve done anything there) essentially to show Ayiem that there are places you can find to run in the area around Mak’s house, but Noi didn’t enjoy getting started again after a lay-off. But with regard to Ayiem, if he keeps up what we’ve started here he stands a good chance of shedding the few kgs he needs to lose.

There’s little chance of my becoming swollen headed over my achievements, however. My discovery this morning that I’ve been regularly misspelling the name of my favourite composer of serious music, and in this very public Far Place, was a chastening one. Vaughan with two ‘a’s still looks odd to me though.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Just Playing Around

Now things are a good deal less lively here I intend to complete playing through the symphonies of Ralph Vaughn Williams, as rendered by the London Philharmonic under Sir Adrian Boult in the recordings made in the 1950’s. In fact, I played both the 8th and 9th quite early in December, but was disturbed both times by residents of the house awaking early and making their presence known. The early morning was the only time of day when the house was not in some way busy then and presented the only opportunity of really being able to listen to something of reasonable duration. Now I have the luxury of listening pretty much whenever I please, but I still found myself choosing to listen to the 8th again this morning, before Noi had actually come downstairs.

It’s an odd piece all told, sandwiched as it is between two symphonies that incline to high seriousness, it comes across as particularly playful, as if VW is determined not to be seen, or heard, as making anything like a grand statement. The reduction of the orchestra to wind and brass for the second movement, and strings for the third, suggests that we are listening to sketches rather than something genuinely symphonic, and these movements, though beautifully characterised – the second as a rather jolly bucolic march, the third as ethereal romance – feel limited in conception, especially following the rich, and long, first movement. (The opening and close of the movement create a texture extremely close to the sound world of the 7th, by the way. The vibraphone is gorgeous – silky and spooky.) Then the finale seems somehow too brief to match the weight of that first movement.

Here, in the finale, I think the age of the recording creates a real problem. In the concert hall the intensity of the percussion involved creates a powerful physicality. The sheer loudness and brightness of the music has an impact in itself and it really doesn’t require any development beyond what’s given. It feels like an ending. But a recording, especially of this age, cannot capture this and the listener feels as if the symphony has fallen away somehow. I suppose this is true for the whole symphony: it sounds better in the concert hall than on record, or at least in the versions I know.

But I’m missing something about the 8th. It has a kind of ease and good-natured likeability that make it very attractive, even if it feels lightweight. Over the years of all VW’s symphonic output I’ve probably found myself playing this one more than any other.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Peace & Quiet

In contrast to our journey south undertaken in the middle of the week our drive back to KL was smooth to the point of monotony. No children on board – all safely restored to their rightful owners – no luggage & various belongings of said passengers, and the fellow above, who was somehow made to fit on board an already crowded MPV (it seems that that’s what the vehicle I’d borrowed from Rachid is actually known as) safely consumed to the satisfaction of those members of the family daring enough to sample such an unusual dish. By the way, the blue thing sticking out of the turkey that looks like a device for filling it with illicit substances is quite innocent. It’s some kind of temperature gauge that shoots up (pun intended) to let you know the bird is cooked. The marvels of modern technology, eh?

It’s nice to have the luxury of not having to fight for a turn to use the computer and to be in a house that can now stay reasonably tidy, but it’s also sad to lose the non-stop laughter and quarreling and eating and playing to which we’d grown accustomed.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Real Thing

Springsteen's Live in Dublin seems to these ears an extraordinary triumph of a kind of musical authenticity. This is paradoxical in that he's drawing upon a variety of musical traditions - ragtime jazz, celtic folk, protest song, spiritual, to name just the obvious - which previously were largely foreign to his work. So how does what is essentially a raid upon musics deeply rooted in their various traditions come to seem real on stage, going beyond homage and not for a moment evoking notions of a mode of theft? A mysterious alchemy is at work here, with two crucial ingredients in its process. The first is sheer talent. These guys can play, and don't need to prove it - so they also listen, and you can hear them listening in the space they create. At times there (I think) some fourteen musicians going at it, but the sound never seems cluttered.

The second ingredient is the all-pervading sense that they have something to say, something to communicate - partly this is their love of the music they play, but it also involves an attitude to being. I think the track that best illustrates this is their version of When The Saints Go Marching In. Taken at an extraordinarily slow tempo, with a mixture of soulfully raw lead vocalists, the yearning melancholy of the lyric is allowed to breathe. Somewhere in the background lurks the spectre of Katrina, yet the foregrounded hope the performance expresses seems almost adequate to the tragedy. I don't think I've ever really listened to the words before and a central part of how this music works is by making you listen. Really listen. And also have a monstrously good time whilst doing so.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Driving in Kuala Lumpur is rarely easy. Driving out of KL, on the eve of a public holiday (when the entire population of the city appears to have decided to balik kampung along with you), in the evening just as the work traffic reaches its peak, in a van full of excited kids (one of whom is suffering from an ailment mysteriously referred to as 'stomach flu' and needs to be taken to the doctor along the way), is, I can assure you, trying on the nerves and not for the faint hearted. A journey which usually takes us about one and a half hours turned into a five hour epic with bumper to bumper traffic up to and including Seremban.

Entertainment was provided by various maniacs driving at speed on the hard shoulder, Bruce Springsteen and the Sessions Band singing Live in Dublin, and a van full of kids singing dementedly along with Bruce and the band. (This is music that speaks across generations.)

We're now recovering from the ordeal in peaceful Melaka and about to eat a turkey dinner.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More Of What We Did On Our Holidays

Noi will soon be cooking a turkey for Hari Raya Haji (talk about cross-cultural linkages - we’re nothing if not innovative) and then we’ll be taking the squad (and the turkey, cooked) to Melaka where there’ll be various family reunions as we restore the troops to their real parents. We’re intending to spend a couple of days at Mak’s house before returning to Maison KL for a quieter last lap.

Music selected by popular acclaim for the journey south: Springsteen and the Sessions Band Live in Dublin. The kids are joining in with gusto on almost every track.

In the meantime, a few more pictures above as evidence of some of our recent activities.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What We Did On Our Holidays

A picture, they say, tells a thousand stories. A bit of an exaggeration, I’ve always thought, but some of the story of the last few days is hinted at above.

Mak visited yesterday, with Khir & his girlfriend, and left behind one further squad member. We’re now contending with eight hungry bellies, whose owners we’ll be taking swimming soon.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Place Too Far

Finally I’m able to post again from KL, though I don’t know how long my weak connection to the Internet will allow me to keep this up. Entertaining seven kids on a daily basis is stretching my powers of invention, but Noi has shown outstanding ability in this area. We’re taking the troops bowling this afternoon after trying to exhaust them with a run this morning.

A routine of taman runs appears to have been established. Ayiem, Azrul, Sabrina and Aiman seem particularly enthusiastic and I think I’ve seen an improvement in Ayiem’s level of fitness even in the short time we’ve had. This morning I saw a couple of monkeys, fairly big ones, who were in one of the trees at the top end of the taman. They scuttled guiltily away when I went around the corner but then went back to whatever they’d been up to as we saw them again, and they rescuttled, when the kids joined in on lap three.

I’m now up to a comfortable seven rounds of the taman and may even increase this by the end of our stay. I think I’m enjoying running these days even more than when I was younger, though it’s a close thing. But in those days there was something of a driven quality, especially in my early days in Singapore. Now I’m slower but more relaxed. To be running at all has a miraculous quality about it, a sense of being glad to be alive, and that’s quite enough for me.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Problems of Access

I'm posting this from Melaka, where we're staying for the weekend, having returned to Maison KL from Genting on Thursday. For reasons I don't understand I've not been able to post anything here from the KL computer since that time. I suspect this is because the dial-up we operate on in KL is incredibly slow. If we lived there full time we'd definitely switch to broadband. This is all a little irritating - but I'm thankful that, in the great scheme of things, the operative word is 'little'.

We'll be going back tomorrow (possibly with as many as seven kids on board) so I'll be giving it another try.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Rhythms of Life

Life here is taking on rhythms curiously distinct from what we’d normally regard as commonplace. These revolve around the necessity of feeding the kids sufficiently to keep them going through whatever activities they are about to engage in, and sorting out the various conflicts that emerge between them. It looks as if we’ll be taking them up to Genting for a couple of days, but we haven’t booked the hotel yet. We’ll be looking into this later today. We’re also packing a present for Mum which we need to send soon.

It’s not easy to find a time to listen undisturbed to music, but I’m getting a fair amount of reading done. I’ve made good progress in The Ring and the Book, finding things falling into place whist reading Book 3. The trick is to get the essentials of the somewhat convoluted storyline sorted out. Since each book of the poem worries away at the same events from particular angles and perspectives you find yourself lost if those events, which have an overlapping quality, are not sufficiently differentiated. I’m now halfway through Book 4 and finding whole stretches of verse transparently powerful – something that had seemed beyond me in previous attempts. It’s remarkable how worrying away at a text can help you begin to make it give up its secrets. It’s a matter, I suppose, of understanding that it’s rare a writer actually invokes obscurity for its own sake.

That’s something I find myself having to keep in mind whilst reading Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, which came to me highly recommended. I’m due to finish this later today and, although I can say I’ve enjoyed it overall, I have found it harder work than I anticipated. There are moments when I’ve felt I could have done with a little less of the purple about the prose, and a little more clarity as to what exactly is supposed to be going on.

In the meantime, a few more pictures from yesterday above, to prove just how exhausting a school holiday can be.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Birthday Girl

We celebrated Mak Ndak’s birthday in style this morning with the presentation of a special card from the troops, and in the afternoon with a visit to Taman Tasik Perdana, including a spot of rowing on the lake. Now exhausted, happily so.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A Modest Proposal

Teachers should always be engaged in a course that they find very tough – something for which they have little talent, in which they are natural strugglers. I learnt more about teaching from learning to drive (the first ten lessons or so) and trying to read the holy Qur’an in Arabic than anything else I’ve ever done – and most certainly the study of anything connected with literature or the English language.

And talking of taking on tough tasks, our squad strength was increased by one today, in the form of Azrul, a late transfer from Melaka. He joined us on a shopping expedition to Ampang Point, resulting in the purchase of a number of books at the kid-friendly Popular Bookstore there. Since we had been to Kinokuniya at Suria KLCC yesterday and emerged, miraculously, without a single tome being purchased, today’s outlay was inevitable. Pictorial evidence of yesterday’s outing is available above.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Other Worlds

The great VW Symphonic play-through continued early this morning, very early, in fact. I stayed up after the swubuh prayer and took the rare opportunity of silence downstairs, or anywhere in the house for that matter, to give the Sinfonia Antartica a spin. (On the packaging this is given as Sinfonia antartica, and I think I’ve seen this form before, but I don’t know why the capital letter gets dropped.) It turned out that the silence, though golden in its way, was not exactly silence. I had the windows open downstairs and a fair proportion of the local bird population seemed to take it upon themselves to sing a good deal louder than usual (fans of VW?) so the symphony took its course against that natural backdrop. It also turned out to be quite a hot morning, or a morning clearly promising midday heat, and that in itself posed a challenge of sorts to the icy serenity of the music. And, finally, two little girls made their way downstairs during the third movement, desirous of engaging me in yet another round of Happy Families. I successfully put them off until I completed the symphony (and then lost, yet again.)

Despite all the above, the seventh worked its considerable magic on me and I found myself transported to a very different landscape for most of its length. Where was I exactly? In a place of endeavour, chilled endurance, doomed aspiration. (Why did Scott’s story dominate the British imagination for most of the last century in a way that Shackleton’s failed to? I can only think that it was that sense of in-built, inevitable failure that haunts the whole enterprise that gave it a resonance beyond the merely heroic. The fact that Scott was a fool, and a supremely British one, is extremely helpful in this regard.) A place not made for our species, in which we are not welcome, but where we inevitably find ourselves, despite ourselves, because of what we are.

This is strange music. Recognisably Vaughn Williams, but something else. The lushness has gone. Textures are spare and hard. It’s obviously programmatic – see the penguins, feel the wind, the rolling sea, touch the ice – but there’s something going on much deeper than scene-painting. (But isn’t it wonderful that a ‘serious’ composer in the second half of the twentieth century could be writing stuff that’s so accessible. I mean, you really could put this in a movie!) I think the secret lies in the third movement, Landscape. This takes us to the heart of something that isn’t the ‘icy serenity’ of the glib phrase I tossed off earlier. There is a kind of calm, but it’s a calm founded on an extreme otherness, against which we can only haplessly struggle. We go marching into nowhere.

And this is the music of an old man! With another two symphonies to write!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Amusing the Troops

Keeping four kids occupied is stretching my meagre resources (of imagination rather than cash.) So far we’ve been jogging around the taman, played football on the little field, been swimming at Kelab Ukay and played Happy Families (I lost.) Keeping them fed falls exclusively to my wife whose work on that front approaches the heroic. Since she also essentially takes the lead in entertaining them, it’s easy to figure out who deserves all the awards in this household.

Keeping myself occupied is a whole lot easier, although it was difficult deciding what books to cart here from Singapore as choosing necessarily involved leaving behind stuff for which I might just develop a sudden craving. This is especially the case with some poetry that I really must get to grips with. I finally decided to devote a small part of the holiday to Browning, particularly as manifested in The Ring and the Book. I’ve made two abortive attempts at it this year and am still no further than the second book of twelve. I’ve cunningly supplemented this with his collection Men and Women which is an old friend, guaranteed to repay repeated readings. I also happen to have an old Penguin paperback selection of Browning’s Verse from the days when they still published such collections as wonderful introductions to poets.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dish of the Day

We’re now resident in Maison KL after a smooth journey north yesterday. The 'we' in question comprise Noi, myself, Fi Fi, Fa Fa, Ayu, Ayiem and Rozaidah. The two girls came over to Still Road on Sunday and helped us post a pile of Christmas cards at the big post office building in Geylang on Tuesday morning before we set off on the bigger journey. We stopped at Abba & Mak’s in Melaka for a couple of hours, transferring the luggage to a larger vehicle and picking up the other kids. Auntie Idah was already here in KL as she’s been staying at our place whilst on some kind of English course with the British Council.

The highlight of our brief sojourn in Melaka had to be Mak’s famous Roti Telur Ikan Bilis, which loosely translates as egg bread with little fish. Mere words, however, fail to do justice to this most sublime of unhealthy snacks. Basically it’s white bread fried in a sort of egg-based confection, spiced to perfection, topped off by those fishy bits. Consumed with hot sweet tea, several pieces can arm you against any journey up the highway with a van full of noisy kids and some singer called Ashley Tinsdale(?) – out of High School Musical, I’m told – on the sound system.

Since our arrival it’s been largely a case of letting Mak Ndak keep some kind of discipline while I relax by completing my reading of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, which I must say I found to be a relaxing read. I suppose I found some fascination in seeing how Gaarder deals with each period of philosophy or particular philosopher he takes upon himself to explain to what I presume is meant to be a teenage audience. I’m not sure that he’s equally successful with each area; generally I felt he’s better on the early Greek stuff, but it’s certainly quite something to see an attempt to bottle the whole Romantic movement in terms that might be intelligible to a bright teenager. The problem is that I don’t think it can be genuinely made to work even for very bright young readers. There are quite a few examples of risibly clunky exchanges of ideas between Sophie and Alberto, which I suppose might be put down to an unsympathetic translation, though I doubt it’s as simple as that. It just looks like there are times when stuff intended for a reference book is making it into the novel because the form (an introduction to pretty much all major western philosophical ideas) dictates that it must be there.

I suspect the real audience for the book has been an adult one of people hungry for some kind of easy way into ideas that, by definition, are not easy.

About halfway through the book Gaarder starts with some mildly entertaining postmodern fictive games relating to the reality of Sophie and her world, extending, in their turn, to the characters of the frame story. I was interested to see how all this eventually panned out, but generally I don’t find this kind of thing terribly fulfilling. Once you’ve seen it (or read it) done (the first time for me being in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and I don’t think anyone has ever done it better) it becomes, paradoxically, a touch predictable.

Monday, November 26, 2007


I needed to go into work for a few hours today and found myself in the middle of the re-carpeting of the yellow level staffroom, an exercise for which I'd packed most of the stuff on my desk away to allow the workmen an uncluttered run at things. I think the workmen had only started today but by the time I walked in, around 10.00 am, they'd already pretty much finished around my desk, although they still had lots to do generally. I felt quite bad getting in the way, but they took the presence of teachers in their stride. By the time I left, in the middle of the afternoon, the job was well on its way to completion.

The unhurried but purposeful way the guys took the whole thing on, and how they worked around all obstacles, human and otherwise, was a reminder of work with a different set of rhythms than those to which I have become accustomed. I found myself thinking back to work in the factory, before I went to university, and the industrial cleaning jobs I did in my teens at weekends & holidays. The industrial cleaning particularly required that talent of getting things done without getting in the way of the 'real' workers you were serving, and always being ready to accept the mess that work required you to live with, yet uncreate. Not that I developed anything like the deft skills of the team laying the carpet today. That was also a reminder of how much I hated having to lay carpet in the house in those days when we couldn't afford to get proper workmen in.

In the way I understood work when I was eighteen, and the way Dad would have understood it, I haven't worked hard for years.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


We popped out to the market at Geylang Serai in the late afternoon for a tea & curry puffs and to buy some rice to take to Melaka next week (apparently there's more variety available in Singapore). There we ran into Ashraf, who used to run a prata shop in Katong and whom we came to know quite well a few years back. We hadn't seen him for quite a time since that shop ceased operation. It seems he now runs a weekend stall at the market (selling drinks) as well as another on one of the ITE campuses during the week. He introduced us to his wife of three years, who came over from India. Slight embarrassment ensued from the fact that we regularly buy tea from another stall nearby and, again, have got to know the stall holder there well, so we ended up, happily, drinking two cups, one from each - having to convince Ashraf not to serve us for free. When we first got to know Ashraf he struggled to communicate in Malay - I don't think he'd been very long in Singapore then - and now he happily converses in both Malay and English.

This is the Singapore I love, of the slightly run-down markets, which create a common space for a commerce of something that goes a bit further than mere commodities. It's this version of trade through which, I suspect, civilisation grew. I'm reminded of the fact that outside the first mosque in Medina a market grew up, and was seen as something of a natural extension of the communal space. Islam has never attempted too rigid a distinction between the different worlds we necessarily occupy. Rightly. A commerce, of sorts, of the invisible with the visible.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Vaughn Williams's 6th Symphony is very odd. The first movement contains one of the great melodies, and after that it all falls away, deliberately so. The final movement is all wispy epilogue, reminiscent of the final passage of the 2nd Symphony in terms of mood, but now constituting an entire movement. It's almost as if the whole thing is a comment on the impossibility of that great, noble tune at the beginning - well. not quite at the beginning, actually towards the end of the movement - but the whole movement seems to consist of an attempt, sometimes stuttering, to get to the tune.

And what is going on in the final movement? There's too much real tension, regardless of the fact that it's all pianissimo, to hear this as serene acceptance. In fact, in the recording I was listening to this morning (as part of my VW symphonic play through) you get an extra recording of Vaughn Williams commending the orchestra for just how well they pull off the pianissimo, and he refers to the tension with which they imbue the music. (I must say, I did have a bit of problem with the recording on this one. It dates from the 1950's and there's just too much hum on the final movement to listen in complete comfort over headphones, as I was doing. I'd love to hear this in a concert hall - which I've never had the chance to do.) (The great man's accent, by the way, is quite extraordinary. He has one of those voices from early radio, with a sort of oddly pinched, contained quality, as if enunciating with great care. People really did have voices then.)

I hear the piece as the old man's understanding of a fallen post-war world. The dream of nobility, personal or national was over. As it is for ourselves. Isn't 'noble' a strangely old-fashioned word? And when was the last time we saw nobility in defeat?

I finished Vess and Gaiman's Stardust today. I deliberately strung out the reading over a few days, interspersing protracted bouts of putting together stuff for work next year with relaxed forays into the world of faerie. And it was that quality of relaxation that took me by surprise about the work. It lacks, at least to this reader, that disconcerting oddness, otherness, that Gaiman excels in. I suppose I was expecting something a bit more along the lines of Coraline. Stardust struck me as far more of a crowd pleaser - not that there's much wrong with that, and it certainly pleased me to read it. I felt that way about Vess's work as well: lovely to look at, as always, but perhaps open to the accusation of a touch of tweeness at times - almost too lovely. Still, if you must have a fault, that's one worth aiming for.

Friday, November 23, 2007


The girls are back in Woodlands until we pick them up again on Sunday, possibly, or Monday, to take them with us to KL on Tuesday. The following emerged from their short stay: Lice / Are Nice / With spice / But not / With rice. And: Fruit / Makes you cute. Pertinent stuff, I'd say. And we've got quite a few new art works on the refrigerator door.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Euro 2008: Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground. Ouch. Well at least I didn't stay up to watch it live.

We went out with Fi Fi & Fa Fa this morning to a performance of Scrooge by the Little Company, the sort of children's branch of the Singapore Repertory Theatre. Aimed at six-year-olds the musical was resolutely un-Dickensian - the set looked like something from Sesame Street, as did a number of the puppets (cleverly) employed as spirits & the like - yet the basic story survived. The great stories are like containers into which we pour ourselves.

Dickens is so familiar you tend to forget how strange he is. Is Scrooge in any sense believable? The question is irrelevant. In him we recognise ourselves, and that's enough.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


One of the curious features of modern times is the notion of a life lived around, or rather directed by, goals. It seems these are necessary in order to be effective. This rather begs the question of the point of this effectiveness. I suppose that effective individuals might be seen as somehow improving the quality of life for those around them, but in my experience this is rarely the case.

There is much to be said for ineffectiveness. I always feel sad when I'm told I'm efficient, sort of damned with faint praise. Fortunately this (the accusation of efficiency) is an increasingly rare occurrence. As far as I can, I write down as much as possible at work so I don't forget things. This is sometimes mistaken for efficiency. Actually it's survival, which is, I suppose, the full extent of what I might be said to plan for.

And now I plan to get some sleep.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


This time last year Noi and I were engaged in preparations for a visit to England, and a rather jolly time we had there. This year we'll be travelling only as far as Malaysia. However, I have to admit to feeling some small relief at escaping being deluged for a month by the so-called 'celebrity culture' which in recent years has swamped the land of my birth. I was reminded of this the other day by a couple of items in the paper about famous young ladies (famous to others, I'd hardly heard of them) who it seems are messing up their lives by ingesting a number of substances that wiser heads might recommend flushing down the toilet, and being involved with gentlemen who would be better positioned at the end of an extremely long barge-pole. I'm afraid media coverage of this kind of thing is pretty much wall to wall in the UK to the point of inescapability. It's difficult to understand why anyone might find it interesting, except for the sad realisation that rubbernecking wrecks on the highway is obviously something of a primal instinct.

I suppose the most disturbing feature of all this is the almost complete absence of compassion towards the foolish but unfortunate young people who find their miserable lives gleefully dissected and rubbished here, there and pretty much everywhere. Yet despite all this I'm told that a lot of people actually aspire to lives of celebrity. Why? It surely can't be for the readies. You can make your fortune without it becoming a matter of public interest.

My guess is that for many people the idea of living in public is tied in with a notion that such a life is somehow more valid, more vital, more real, than the inadequacy of ordinary being. At one time I suppose we got by on the idea that God was watching us. Now we need an audience of millions.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Enjoyed lunch today with Reuben, Jordan & Luke from Year 6 who've completed their IB exams and are looking slightly shell-shocked, generally relieved. We dined in style at the stalls near Eunos MRT station and talked about a number of subjects, including the reading of plays. This was oddly coincidental since the last time I went to the library (the one at the Esplanade), on the evening of the Zainal Abidin concert, I borrowed four plays and have read them over the last week or so. My play-reading technique is brutally simple: go at speed and try and get as close to real time as possible. If I like a play, note it for a slower appreciation in a utopian future in which there is time to read whatever I want or, better still, go and watch it performed (assuming I haven't seen it already.)

I'd already seen John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (here in Singapore, done by the Stage Club) and that helped in reading because I don't think I would have followed it in terms of how it might look on stage otherwise. Enjoyed it, but found it a tad narrow in social terms despite its attempt to bridge those degrees.

Preferred reading the other three: Stoppard's Arcadia, Frayn's Copenhagen (both wonderfully TOK-ish in the best sense of that coinage) and Brian Friel's Translations which I've had in mind to read since my niece, Kate, did it for 'A' level in the UK.

I'm struck by the fact that all four are, in a sense, plays that explore ideas. Isn't it strange we should use the stage as a space to do so? Perhaps the important thing is not so much the exploration of ideas in itself as the fact that when we do it on stage it's something we are doing together in a world that is otherwise dangerously fractured.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Hamzah & Sharifah popped around last night on their way to a rather high-powered wedding involving one of those Umno guys whose names get in the news, sometimes for the wrong reasons. A banker is someone who gives you an umbrella when there’s sunshine and takes it back when it rains., says Hamzah, sagely, the voice of, sad, experience. Noi wants to encourage him to watch Downsize Me, one of those health programmes on Discovery Heath & Home which is available here on Astro.

They arrived just after I’d completed the second play through of the day of VW’s fifth. He was about seventy when he wrote this and I suppose it was generally thought then this might be the final symphony. Superficially you get a taste of the kind of serenity you hope that age and accomplishment might bring. But there’s something else in the music that shakes the stillness with an urge to voyage on and discover new territories. I hear a kind of yearning all the way through disturbing the glimpses of peace. The static, meditative quality you sometimes get in Messiaen is wholly absent. I think that’s because there’s always a tune carrying you through, and the tunes have to end, or turn themselves into new material. The triumphal moments are for ever in danger of dying away, to be replaced by further striving. It’s no wonder there were four symphonies to follow.

Earlier still, I completed five laps of the taman – looking to restore something of the fitness of my youth. Striving, longing; foolish but fun.

And it looks as if England may actually qualify for Euro 2008! Never give up!

Saturday, November 17, 2007


I had intended to devote part of the morning to a close encounter with Vaughn Williams’s fifth symphony – surely one of the most accessible pieces of music in the classical tradition of the twentieth century – but it was not to be. Oh, I played the music right the way through, and it sounded good on the sound system here at Maison KL, but Noi decided to engage me in conversation in the second movement when it would have been churlish not to listen, and once the conversation was over (it concerned what we needed to do around the house and what we needed to prepare this weekend ahead of coming back with a number of small children next weekend for a protracted stay, so it was of pressing importance) I found the music pushing me into an odd kind of reverie concerning someone who passed on a number of years ago, and the reverie, though supported by the music, left the music behind.

I didn’t mind any of this. It was necessary. There will be time to listen tomorrow. This afternoon and evening will be taken up with work. Again not unwelcome, and necessary.

Friday, November 16, 2007


I wrote this last night, but then found I couldn't get on-line at home. Browser issues have been suggested. So here it is, posted from another far place:

Pullman makes a comment in an interview somewhere about not writing for people who are stupid. He goes on to qualify this by pointing out that he regards everyone as prone to stupidity but possessing the ability to choose to think in an intelligent manner. He says something to the effect that we are split down the middle and can go either way. I find this a useful idea, corresponding to my experiences in the classroom teaching a wide range of abilities over the years. It also corresponds to my experience of my own stupidity and from it I adduce the following: we are a remarkably stupid species; theists & polytheists of all colours - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists (are they atheists?), Zoroastrians, - agnostics, atheists, the lot. Really incredibly and, considering what we have managed to do to the planet, possibly terminally stupid.

The bright spot in all this is the ability to intelligently recognise our stupidity and, possibly, make amends.

For some reason, probably my own stupidity, I find myself unable to reply to recent comments made to From A Far Place. Autolycus has weighed in recently with two beauties, one under yesterday's entry that made me laugh immoderately but, sadly, cynically. The chief corrective to stupidity is, of course, humour, which is why the fools are so dangerous in Shakespeare and Erasmus praised them so effectively.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dangerous Ideas

His view is that children should not be exposed to things that contradict what their parents have taught them. - This line appeared in today's paper in the course of an article about e-mails (well, one, I think) calling on Christians to boycott The Golden Compass because of Pullman's 'atheism'. It related to a chap who actually sounded pretty level-headed and open-minded about the movie itself, and His Dark Materials generally. His wife had read the book (probably just the first of the trilogy, I would guess) and found it unobjectionable so he was prepared to give the movie the benefit of the doubt - as I guess the vast majority of theists in Singapore will, if they're interested in that kind of film. But it was the line quoted above that still jumped out at me, despite its proponent's general air of rationality.

I suppose if we applied the sentiment involved to very young children, up to around seven or eight, it makes a kind of sense, but surely beyond that it loses all touch with reality. Does anyone honestly think we can protect children from ideas, no matter how pernicious they are? Doesn't life itself have a way of contradicting our best attempts to make sense of it? Would anyone want their children growing up unable to deal with the multiplicity of 'things' that are likely to contradict what they have been 'taught', and wouldn't preventing such exposure incapacitate them in this regard?

I suppose I was struck by the fearfulness inherent in the line. It must be terrible to made anxious by ideas contrary to your own. I do my best to welcome such ideas - they provide a useful corrective to my / our remarkable talent for complacent self-deception.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


We're valiantly keeping going on the exercise front: having paid our weekly visit to the gym last night we're targeting Thursday evening for a bit of a run. The fees have gone up at Bodycraft but we can just about afford it since we pay on entrance rather than shelling out for membership. It's a small place but generally it's easy to get on the equipment. Noi always heads for the treadmills (there are two) when we arrive and it's unusual for both of them to be in use.

Unfortunately the guy who runs the place has had the bright idea of installing small screens to show DVDs immediately in front of the running machines, and last night he decided to treat us to Ricky Martin in concert. Even the missus, who, like most of the ladies, possesses a soft spot for Mr Martin, balked at this, but neither of us felt like disappointing the owner regarding his new toy. It's incredibly difficult to explain to people who enjoy mainstream music why you don't want the stuff pounding in your ears (and your eyes, in a manner of speaking.) One of the great perils of attending workshops these days is being subjected to 'background' music which is supposed to establish some kind of mood. It certainly establishes a mood for me. A bad one.

Having said all that, I must confess that a few weeks back the music of choice at the gym was some kind of Elvis tribute CD (Presley, not Costello) and I loved that, which is odd as I'm not a great Elvis fan (Presley - I'm a major Costello fan, of course.) It featured a brilliant version of Suspicious Minds and the last track had Bono doing Can't Help Falling In Love in a very tuneful falsetto, and that's the big clue for me to track it down for purchase, which I keep forgetting to do.

If ever anyone is ever crazy enough to ask me to conduct a sort of management style workshop I'd have quite a bit of fun choosing supremely unsuitable background muzak. Offhand I'm thinking of The Clash, Sandinista, probably. It would blow my cover but: What larks!

Sunday, November 11, 2007


I first saw Zainal Abidin in concert around three or four years ago at one of the Expo halls in Singapore. There was a surprisingly small audience for a big name in Malaysian popular music, but I have fond memories of an excellent concert and of an incredibly assured voice - this guy can really sing.

So it was with a touch of trepidation amidst a great deal of anticipation that we set off for concert hall at the Esplanade yesterday. To our relief this time there was a substantial audience in attendance and, if anything, Zainal was even better the second time round. However, I did get the impression that he was struggling a touch vocally. Though he was never in any way 'out' - for someone who performs in essentially the rock tradition he is so melodically precise it's uncanny - I've never seen anyone drink as much water on stage, swigs from a number of strategically placed bottles of mineral water sometimes being taken between phrases in melodic lines. And whereas at the Expo concert his voice seemed to blow everything else off stage (and I'm talking about a pretty loud band) last night there were points when he seemed happy to let himself fade into the mix, sometimes deliberately holding the mike at a distance to do so. Somehow the sense of struggle (though I don't think this would have been apparent to many in the audience) leant the music an edge, a glorious uncertainty that I prefer to the relative dullness of complete assurance.

Another difference between the concerts lay in the bands themselves. The whole feel of the band used at the Expo was a distinctly rocking out one: in fact they indulged themselves in a somewhat incongruous medley of Police numbers, including Synchronicity 2. Last night was all Zainal originals with the 'world music', percussion-oriented vibe of albums like Gamal. The presence of master percussionist Hassan Steve Thornton (Miles Davis alumnus, no less) may have contributed in no small way to the richness of texture achieved, as did Zainal's own banging around on what was almost a full drum set placed centre stage. I've seen him play percussion before (on tv as well as at the Expo concert) but never so consistently throughout a concert.

Recommendation: Zainal is the obvious choice to headline a Singapore Womad. If last night's band played at Fort Canning the place would erupt. As it was a generally middle-aged staid Malay audience found themselves actually on their feet by the end - but the Esplanade is, sadly, no place to boogie.

Woke today to find out Norman Mailer has passed away. At university I had something of a 'thing' about him, and still regard Armies of the Night as one of the great books (can't say novels, because it's not) of the twentieth century. Mailer wrote at least one short, clever, appreciative piece on Hick Finn (still reading) and here it is.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Sandwiched awkwardly(?) potently(?) stridently(?) between two soothing, tuneful masterpieces, Vaughn Williams's 4th Symphony sticks out like a sore thumb that's been particularly badly bandaged. Dissonant (but see below.) Angular. Not specially memorable. Nobody's favourite, least of all mine.

But I found myself thoroughly engrossed in it this morning as part of the great VW symphonic play-through. In truth this is not dissonant music in the sort of Schoenberg/Berg, and all those johnnies, tradition. No Germanic neuroticism here. Just the usual English gumption mixed with lashings of angry energy dropping off into sometimes a kind of disappointed plangency.

I get the feeling that VW was holding himself in on this one - that energy being somehow contained, which in itself adds a kind of tension. It's a very edgy piece. There's no sense of a programme here, unlike the first three symphonies. So the music develops simply as music, according to its own logic, without the sudden almost wilful accumulation of melodic ideas in the earlier pieces.

The scherzo is more than a bit Job-ish, with hints of Satan dancing around and about, but nothing else sounds obviously like something you've heard elsewhere.

Michael Kennedy in some notes on the symphony refers to VW's towering rages, as reflected in the music. I found that an interesting phrase. What makes anger towering as opposed to petty if not infantile? Can anger be big? generous? sort of impersonal? liberating? For too many of us anger is something small and skulking and sullen and scowling.

Whatever happened to wrath?

Friday, November 9, 2007


I surprised myself today by managing the Friday Prayer at the mosque. This had seemed most unlikely at 6.40 am when I found it almost impossible to bend forward during the prayer due to a ferocious ache in my lower back. Said ache had been gathering painful momentum all yesterday so it was not exactly unexpected. Of course it's perfectly okay to pray at the mosque even if you can't physically manage the prayer. There are always a lot of guys, usually the elderly, seated throughout, but I somehow don't fancy being put into that position.

Anyway, having thoroughly dosed myself with extra strength panadol in the course of the morning I felt a bit more up to things when the time arrived and duly attended without, I think, causing any major damage to the affected region. Now all I need to do is negotiate the perils of a staff dinner and I'm home free for the weekend.

It's surprising how even mild pain can colour one's view of the world. It seemed a bleak unforgiving kind of place this morning, but now appears almost cheerful.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Deepavali holiday here in Singapore - a festival of light. Enjoyed good food today on a couple of visits.

Before you do something it is important to do nothing.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Decided not to go to Good People as I need a bit of downtime - the easy way out. I suspect genuinely good people don't slip out of their moral dilemmas (even the trivial ones) with such ease, but then I'm not one of them.

It's surprising how often the head-in-the-sand-pretend-this-isn't-happening approach pays off professionally. I've fruitfully ignored demands for IT plans in my areas of work for several years and have yet to be pinned down. A mixture of bluff and charm goes a long way. At least it seems to have done and I hope still does.

It's a useful strategy also if you're ever directing something, a play or musical or the like. When big headaches rear their ugly heads (a fine mixed metaphor) don't rush to deal with them. A period of splendid inaction often works wonders.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


I'm trying to figure out if there's a way we can go and watch Haresh Sharma's new play, Good People, which is showing just down the road from our apartment, just a five minute walk away. The problem is one of finding a slot in our, what Singaporeans generally term, busy schedules - a curiously revealing expression - since it's only on for a little over a week. I feel something of an obligation to at least try and support people making art (and hope to be to some degree rewarded by the pleasures thereof for my pains) but generally fall woefully short in this department. If we do go it'll be on Thursday, but we've got to time other obligations (social ones) accordingly and I've got to figure out how to get tickets, if they are still available. Fortunately my wife is extraordinarily supportive in this regard (as so many others) and she'll go along even if it's not exactly her cup of tea. What a girl!

So as dilemmas go, compared to the real thing, mine isn't.

Monday, November 5, 2007


I'm not actually there yet, but I'm not looking forward to the last segment of Huck Finn. It's possibly the worst ending of any great novel in any language, not that I can claim to have read all the novels generally regarded as great, even just in English, but it's difficult to think of anyone screwing up quite as badly as Twain does in his last twelve chapters. There are, of course, interesting reasons why he screws up, but they cannot excuse the tedium of Tom Sawyer's endlessly daft plans. In the his Penguin audiobook reading Garrison Keillor simply drops the whole lot and changes the ending. Well done that man! (Oh, and a brilliant reading as well.)

And that sets me to thinking of great endings in literature. Here's a suggestion: the greatest writer of endings of novels & short stories in English is that wiliest of Irishmen James Joyce. Think of it: Finnegans Wake doesn't actually end but (rightly) goes round in a circle, thus avoiding the problem completely, though what's on the final page is a particular joy to read aloud; Ulysses has two great endings, one for Bloom, one for Molly; and Portrait of the Artist is one of the few novels of artistic growth to end in perfect, convincing poise between past and future, flying and falling - Icarus / Dedalus aloft, just.

Meanwhile Dubliners is a compendium of how to finish a story in a way that both puzzles and illuminates, to feel right even when you're not quite sure why or how. I remember once teaching The Dead to an 'A' level class (or, rather, learning about it with them) and not being able to resist going through the last paragraphs on a line-by-line basis. The snow that had been general over Ireland invaded my classroom in Singapore and I understood, for the first time in human terms, felt along the vein, how one can be jealous of the dead.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


Why is it that whilst those who style themselves 'leaders' tell me change is good, it makes me feel bad?

How do I always know when United are not going to be able to defend a one goal lead?

Can I honestly claim that rereading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, surely the most subversive children's book (if that's what it is, or ever was) ever written, in order to prepare for next year's teaching, is really work?

Saturday, November 3, 2007


Is there anything better than a good lie-in? Yes, a good lie-in followed by Vaughn Williams's third symphony (followed in its turn by a bowl of cereal and three cups of hot, sweet tea.) Bliss.

Though I think the great man erred with the title A Pastoral Symphony. The casual listener, lulled by the gorgeous shimmering surface of the music (it makes great background for tea with the neighbours) easily falls into the trap of thinking bucolic idyll, cottage in Dorset, summer in the Cotswolds, punting on the Cam (hope they do, I've really no idea!), and the like.

Funeral for a Friend works better. It's difficult to think of much sadder music, and that stiff upper lip, though it trembles in the final movement, if anything adds to the prevailing sorrow. If music can tell us how to feel, this music speaks sense.

Back in the real(?) world we're having problems with the washing machine and can't go out shopping because we've got to wait for the plumber to come and plumb. Oh hum.

Anyway, tonight the Gunners will be spiked. You read it here first.

Friday, November 2, 2007


I've finished off a couple of things in the last few days: all six episodes of Bleak House have been duly viewed, and the journey through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance concluded. Endings (to stories) are always difficult, I think. I've never written anything long enough to be faced with this problem in creative terms, but it's pretty obvious that despite all his greatness as a writer, as a storyteller, Dickens is rarely at his best in the final chapters (but nearly always on top form in the first episode of a serial.) The single exception I can think of (for endings) is that of Little Dorrit, which is wonderful - and maybe the ending he didn't use for Great Expectations. I'm afraid Andrew Davies, writer of the BBC adaptation of BH, in rounding up doesn't pull off anything to match the quality of almost everything else he achieves in the earlier episodes. The last fifteen minutes or so is pretty perfunctory, rightly going for pace and economy of effect. For those who want the story alone it's fine, but I'd have liked to see Timothy West's brilliant Sir Leicester Dedlock being given room to expand on his unexpected (or was it?) generosity of spirit. In fact, the Dedlocks were a triumph all round. I presume Gillian Anderson has been offered British citizenship and a minor gong (MBE?) in recognition of her note perfect portrayal of the perfect imperfect English lady.

In contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed the ending of Pirsig's most American travelogue. The pace of the last few chapters, dealing with Phaedrus's experience in Chicago and the rather thrilling demolition job on Aristotle, is powerfully maintained. The resolution of father and son also felt like an organic part of the narrative rather than a hastily assembled Hollywood ending of the kind Pirsig discusses in the preface. But as to whether the philosophy convinces…? I'm afraid the problem lies in the fact that anyone who can make such a dreadful howler over the meaning of the name Phaedrus and write with such animus about former teachers forfeits a certain amount of regard as a systems builder. There are plenty of insights in the novel and more than mere fast food for thought, but as to whether Pirsig is genuinely sailing out into uncharted waters, I am sceptical. Of course, I'm too ignorant of the broad field to be sure, but this is where my instincts point. But I remain open to persuasion, and certainly intend to dip into some of the juicier philosophical bits of the novel again.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


A productive day at work mainly spent planning for next year. Brian Ng and I are working on a somewhat revised plan for the year for Year 5, based on some perceptive ideas from Ferdinand, and it's taking an interesting shape. One of the challenges is to remember the ups and downs of this year's programme and factor the concerns raised into the new scheme of things. There's a curiously strong tendency to forget what actually took place (almost an impulse) and just recalling the fine detail is a demanding but extremely useful exercise. I've always felt that this dealing with the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day experience of what is really going on in classrooms is where the real action in education is: the pedagogic equivalent of getting one's hands dirty.

After picking up Noi it was off to the hawker centre near Eunos MRT for a plate of hot, tasty curry puffs and a big cup of tea. We are now getting back to our pre-Ramadhan routines, a sort of minor fall from grace, I suppose, but not too sinful.

Then home to another treat: the great VW symphonic play-through continued with the second symphony - A London Symphony. This is my favourite of the symphonies, and up there amongst the VW raves to which every right thinking listener must surely subscribe: Tallis, Lark Ascending, Job. For a start, it's chock full of tunes, real tunes, great tunes, the sort you're humming along to almost on a first hearing and which rapidly become part of your aural consciousness, assuming there is such a thing. And the fact the tunes don't come in anything close to a neat sequence but sort of tumble abundantly in and out of each other, sometimes sort of scurrying through magical harmonic textures only to hide again, keeps the whole thing fresh and somehow unpredictable, no matter how well you know the piece.

And then there are so many examples of great scene painting going on. You are made to visualise the city, and this is a London of great charm and beauty I'm talking of, not the modern metropolis. That description of the slow second movement as Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon (VW's own) is so right, you can taste the fog (in the viola, I think.) But there's also the less attractive underbelly of the city in the music, particularly in the unpredictable sudden floods of those oddly impassioned outbursts, usually led by the strings - like the two louder passages in the slow movement and that bit at the beginning of the final movement that comes out of nowhere, it seems, nailing you to the wall. I think VW saw something under (through? below?) the great capital and centre of empire he walked at the turn of the century. I think he saw Blake's Eternal City and he captured it in music. If this isn't great music, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All At Sea

I spent the early part of the afternoon at an Italian restaurant off Upper Bukit Timah Road enjoying some rather pleasant grub with colleagues from the English Department. Generally I'm not keen on staff makans, lunches, dinners, and the like but this one went down well enough. I found it easy to resist the desire to eat too much following last weekend when we definitely overdid it for two days. Last night we paid a visit to the gym at Katong in an attempt to restore some kind of equilibrium and it seems to have done the trick. We're aiming to get back to our routine of two bouts of exercise a week, possibly increasing this in the last months of the year when I'm a bit freer in terms of the demands of work.

After picking up Noi and getting home I found time to sit and really listen to Vaughn Williams's A Sea Symphony. The last time I went to HMV I shelled out for a box set of the symphonies, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The set is part of Decca's British Music Collection (I love the packaging - very British design) which has a number of gems in it. When I bought it I thought it was the set recorded from 1968 - 70 which I used to own on vinyl. (In fact, I still own the records, but there's nothing to play them on, even if they were playable, which I doubt.) These were the versions I first heard when I fell in love with the music of VW so I was a bit disappointed when I realised the Decca set is a lot earlier, being recorded around 1957 - 58, in mono. However, my disappointment evaporated when I started dipping into them. Boult's readings of the symphonies have something special, sort of definitive about them. There a kind of rawness to the sound I like, especially the brass, almost as if you can hear the elements of the music being assembled.

But I've not really been able to sit and listen to a full symphony for the last few weeks. Our CD player is now extremely old and cranky and tends to skip tracks on CDs it doesn't like, and it doesn't like these. So I've sort of been dipping in to a movement here and there or just had the CDs on as background (sinful, I know.) I've decided this isn't even close to being good enough and full attention must now be devoted to what must surely be one of the great symphonic series of the last century.

A Sea Symphony is probably my least favourite of the bunch, though there are moments I love, like the gorgeous swirling melody for the strings early in the first movement after the brassy Behold the sea! Generally the piece seems to be looking backward to a Germanic tradition of oratorio which sounds heavy if not downright clunky. And though I can understand how and why Whitman's poetry appealed to VW it doesn't have the same appeal for me, being a bit too earnest and questing and soul stirring. But eventually the sheer generous expansiveness of the music wins out.

He was in his late thirties when the symphony was written, by the way. Nothing of the infant prodigy about this. I think you can sense that in the music of all the symphonies. These are the products of a hard fought maturity.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Annie's daughter Li Jing (I think that's how you spell it), a confirmed Pullman fan (for which I take some credit), was telling me that publicity material for the movie of The Golden Compass is now in the public domain. It sounds exciting. We had a good chin-wag regarding how we felt the film might fare with neither of us regarding its success as a foregone conclusion. In truth, I think we recognised the possibility the book may prove unfilmable - and even if it is a success it is difficult to see how the remainder of the trilogy could be made to work.

I must say it would be interesting if they did get as far as The Amber Spyglass (Li Jing tells me the producers are not entirely committed to filming all three) just to see how much controversy the war in heaven would stir up. When you consider there are those who find Harry Potter objectionable, it's frightening and funny in equal degrees to imagine the degree of apoplexy Pullman at full throttle is likely to engender.

With regard to those who are prone to worry about the perils of indoctrination I have some reassuring news. The most rewarding thing about being a teacher is seeing at first hand the impossibility of indoctrinating the young. Whatever you tell them, eventually they'll think (and often do) otherwise. Annoying. Marvellous.

Oh and apropos yesterday's comment about the 'old fashioned' music of Duke Ellington et al: it took me several years to realise the stunningly obvious - that this music will always be cutting edge, as long as people have ears.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll

I recall watching bands like those of Duke Ellington and Count Basie on tv in the sixties and not thinking it at all unusual that a number of the gentlemen performing looked as if they had been born with the century. Jazz was old men's music, no anomaly there. Similarly watching Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello, on Later With Jools, perform classic New Orleans numbers was entirely unexceptionable. But David Gilmour's performance sat more awkwardly somehow, and the Paul Simon numbers felt the same. Is this simply because they were more squarely in the rock idiom? So you're watching guys playing instruments that more appropriately fit the hands of twenty-year-olds in a style that would do the same (though the younger bands on the show rarely emulate the classic rock sound) and it doesn't quite gel.

But listening to people like Springsteen, Dylan, Neil Young, Richard Thompson and Van Morrison presents no problems, and nor does watching them. If anything they sound (and look) more relevantly themselves now than they ever did when younger, and the idiom in which they work seems wide enough to accommodate what they are doing. Musicians that grow with time expand the field they work within. A band like the Stones don't seem to have made that leap and all that's left is a kind of embarrassing posturing, but lots of money for their bank accounts. I don't think Gilmour is quite so guilty, and On An Island has an autumnal glow about it that makes it work, but the genre in which he's working remains a kind of MOR version of the early Floyd sound so you can't help but awkwardly impose the image of the older grandfatherly David upon that ultra-cool spaced-out long-haired chap who blew you away all those years ago. Paul Simon has tried to move with the times musically (possibly a touch too hard), but the voice was always that of a young man, and the hesitant, slightly shaky quality it has acquired doesn't sit well with that persona. In contrast the growl of Springsteen on the Live in Dublin set attains a kind of perfection.

Then again, I suppose any kids watching will assume, as I did about those aging jazzers in the sixties, that it's quite natural for these old timers to be making the kind of noise they do, and there's nothing awkward about it as it's all terribly old fashioned anyway.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Doors Closed

Heroic work by Noi and Rozita resulted in a great day yesterday, with some evidence of such above. Fortunately our visitors were spread out enough for us to enjoy reasonable conversations with most, if not all. There are few things better in this world than seeing old friends, particularly those whom you haven't met for far too long. And to cap it all, a resounding United victory with Tevez and Rooney looking suspiciously like long lost twins reunited. Let the premiership tremble.

Now we're in the middle of the great clean-up, except for me goofing off on the computer. We're off visiting this afternoon, with Fi Fi & Fa Fa & their Ibu, so I'll deal with the question of greying rockers another day.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Open All Hours

Noi stayed up last night, or rather this morning, to 4.00 am cooking and cleaning ahead of today's big event. I was safely tucked in by 11.15 pm, not to avoid work but because she doesn't want me around. For last year's open house she had one or two people around to help at various times; this year she is mounting an astounding solo operation. We went to the market this morning directly after the swubuh prayer to get the last of what she needs, and now it's full steam ahead in our little kitchen, and elsewhere.

I enjoyed a terrific Later with Jools Holland last night featuring appearances from major luminaries Paul Simon, Dave Gilmour - backed by David Crosby and Graham Nash with stellar vocal harmonies on the title song from the recent solo album, and with Rick Wright on keyboards and vocals for, gasp, Arnold Layne - and Elvis Costello with Allen Toussaint. In addition to these grizzled oldies (Paul Simon looked well past his sell-by date, and that flawlessly youthful voice is, not surprisingly, showing distinct signs of wear and tear) there were a couple of engaging young bands, The Streets from Brixton being the stand out. Question - is it just embarrassing to see old geezers playing young people's music? I think it might be so for young people, but not being one of them I wouldn't know. As for myself it's sort of yes and no, and I have no time to expand on this as I'm now rightfully required to make myself useful. More anon.