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.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Virtues of Anger

Good friend Len Webster has been in touch again. He provided a link to a splendidly angry poem he wrote about Burma, and here it is, and this in its turn linked to some equally splendid and irascible meditations which can be found here.

People sometimes seem to be afraid of anger - rightly, I suppose - but it can be a wonderfully exhilarating joyous sort of emotion when turned effectively on a target that deserves it. A list of great angry writers would be interesting (or should that be angry great writers?). I think Dickens might be near the top. The barely contained fury at the Skimpoles of this world in Bleak House (amongst other targets) still feels dangerous a century and a half on. And the great outburst at the death of Jo simply cannot be contained by the novel - it breaks the frame. The recent BBC version did a pretty good job of this but it's impossible to do justice to in any medium other than the novel that can't quite contain it.

And Blake would definitely make the top five. Who, now I think of it, says it best (as usual): Damn braces: bless relaxes.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Out Of Tune

Lorenzo to Jessica in the final act of The Merchant of Venice, sounding suspiciously like Shakespeare's spokesman in these matters: The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, / The motions of his spirit are dull as night, / And his affections dark as Erebus: / Let no such man be trusted… I suppose we're meant to take this to some degree as ironically referring to Jessica's father, though in an odd way Shylock has by far the greatest music of the play in simple terms of utterance. But at the moment I feel my own motions are dull as night and it sounds as if I'm being addressed directly. I don't seem to have been listening at my best for weeks. That's partly explained by the fact that Noi likes to listen to the local Malay radio station during fasting month and in the general Hari Raya period, and I'm more than happy to go along with that as it adds considerably to the atmosphere of the season. But I don't seem to have had the energy lately to apply myself to sweet sounds as they deserve and I certainly feel treasonable as a result.

I must, and will, remedy this in the coming weeks and to this purpose, along with just being a greed-driven cog in the machinery of capitalism as manifested by the music industry (dreadful term - surely oxymoronic) I've bought a few CDs in the last few weeks which are waiting for more than a mere airing - they await the justice of the ready open ear. These are: Springsteen's Magic (latest CD, played once, sounded great), Live in Dublin with the Sessions Band (not played at all yet), The River (old favourite I once had on vinyl but which I've never owned a CD of); Dylan's Infidels (remastered CD, played three times now); Roger Waters's The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking (had no interest when it came out, but wanted to see how it compares to Gilmour's solo work - played twice, not terribly impressed); Amy Winehouse's Frank (heard her live on Later with Jools and liked her voice - played CD once but distractedly); Richard Hawley's Lady's Bridge (also heard him live on Later - played twice, wonderful); Arctic Monkey's first CD (played once, wonderful); and The Style Council's Our Favourite Shop - Deluxe Edition, remastered 2 CD yadayadayada (played three times - Mr Weller can do and never could do any wrong.) Just listing this stuff makes me feel better. There are riches in store.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Both yesterday and today we've been a bit late getting home after I've picked Noi up from the office as she's been doing bits of shopping for stuff she needs in order to do the cooking etc. for this Saturday's open house. Today we were at the market at Geylang Serai doing the necessary. I was struck by how much more I enjoyed being there than, say, shopping at Giant at Parkway Parade. There's profusion at the market but a kind of natural abundance. In big supermarkets, and Giant is nothing if not big, I increasingly have a sense that we're bleeding the world dry and packaging it for unnecessary consumption. Very puritanical of me, I know, and more than a little judgmental in tone, but I don't mean it that way. Rather I'm trying to describe a genuine feeling of dis-ease.

This ties in, in my mind, with material I'm noticing more and more regarding a kind of epidemic of obesity. I don't think we're built for this kind of abundance. It's overwhelming for many to the extent that self-harm becomes predictable. Commercial pressures to partake of the abundance are relentless: it's the logic of the market. I remember this time last year in a meeting in the school I used to teach in feeling a sense of hopelessness listening to ideas for a healthy eating campaign. The Head of Department responsible was lamenting our inability to really do very much about the obesity rates among the kids and wondering why it was so. I pointed out that we hadn't a fraction of the advertising budget of one or two of the more famous fast food chains. Game over, I'm afraid.

We were watching Downsize Me last night, a rather nifty, cheerful sort of diet and exercise progamme that airs on the Health & Home channel. It featured two rather jolly overweight ladies from Australia making a valiant effort to shed the kilos. I was struck by the fact that the ladies, though grossly obese (I'm using the medical classification here) did not look particularly unusual. There are lots of folk of the same build to be seen. Sad. A feeling of ruined lives.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Journey, Not The Destination

If anyone had asked me whether I'd read Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance up to a couple of weeks ago I would have confidently answered in the affirmative. After all this was the cult book of my years at university, having been published when I was about eighteen, and everybody read it. Except they didn't, as it turns out. Most student book shelves held a copy - except, for reasons of which I am unsure, mine. I now realise that I've never actually read the book, in the true cover-to-cover, getting involved in the actual story, sense. Certainly I've dipped into it, in a big way, and I know, speaking broadly, what takes place in its pages. (Oddly I don't actually know how I know this, I just do, sort of.) I realised I'd not read the book in anything approaching a satisfactory manner when I started to read it a few days ago. Which raises the question: at what point can we say we've read something (in a complete sense)? Is finishing a book enough to make the claim? Can we say we've read something when we haven't but somehow know enough about it to convince ourselves we have?

What I'm enjoying so far about the book is the journey, the motorcycles, the road. The philosophy is okay, I guess, but I'll need to get back to it more systematically to get hold of it in any reasonable kind of way and I'm not sure I'm bothered enough to be genuinely intending to make the effort.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Still Rayaing

The pictures above go back to last week in Melaka, when we were visiting various houses on the first day of Hari Raya. Yesterday evening we went to four houses and I was exhausted at the end of it. Why is sitting down in someone's living room and eating lots of biscuits so tiring?

I've made a bit more progress today in terms of viewing Bleak House and am now up to episode six. Dickens's so-called sentimentality translates extraordinarily well to the screen, especially as conveyed by brilliant actors. The scene between Lady Dedlock and Esther, after Esther's illness when her ladyship reveals all, reads like corny melodrama but plays with devastating power.

We did some buying-in for next week's open house at Parkway just now. These things take some preparation.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

On The Go

Visiting friends & family for Hari Raya is an obligation that can be tough to live up to, especially if things are busy at work, but it's always satisfying - and tonight we begin the Singapore leg of the visits in earnest. We'll be going to the west coast, basically to see Kak Kiah, but spreading out from there. Since we've only just got back from taking the car to be serviced this means that it's not exactly been a day of rest. We're also planning for our own open house for next Saturday. Or rather Noi plans and I do what I'm told under her more than expert leadership.

I finished getting reacquainted with Ishiguro's Remains of the Day this morning. I have the pleasant duty of supervising a student who's doing something on it for his extended essay and thought I'd better brush up on the finer details. Now that's what I call having work that can really be enjoyed. I suppose the novel is one of the best recent examples of the use of an unreliable narrator, with the nice irony that Stevens is so wonderfully reliable. Also a profound exploration of the outmoded, possibly discredited, notion of dignity. Does Stevens keep his? Curiously, I think he does, despite everything.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Getting It Right

We went to the fitness centre this evening for the first time since about halfway through the fasting month. This is part of an attempt to revive the reasonably healthy routine we'd established over earlier months. My back has been slightly troubling me for the best part of a couple of weeks and it seemed sensible to avoid aggravating whatever had been injured by overdoing things. But the problem is, of course, whether these fears led me to underdo things. One of the challenges presented by aging is the way it interferes with what were previously reasonably accurate instincts as to what the body can and can't be asked to do. I think I got it right tonight.

Noi reminded me earlier of a magical moment this time last week. On our way up to Melaka,on the last day of fasting,we broke our fast at the toll station at Lima Kedai. We'd prepared a thermos flask of tea and bought a couple of Polar tuna puffs, and these we supplemented with some fruit. There we were, the light fading in an almost deserted car park, with just three other cars around whose occupants were all doing the same as us. Four impromptu picnics - one of which involved three children eating actually sitting on their car bonnet. It was the best cup of tea I've ever tasted. A kind of quiet joy descended and a sense that this was the right way to end the fast.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Damned Beautiful

It's strange to think that Fitzgerald was only twenty-five when he wrote his second novel. Both Anthony and Gloria are passed thirty when they finally crack-up with the weight of a decade of abusing alcohol behind them and in their early twenties they are still relatively secure in their complacent sense that life owes them all the good things it can offer. But Fitzgerald seems to foresee his doom (in terms of the fate of Anthony, his surrogate) in precise, sometimes excruciating detail even as a comparatively young man. In fact, he sees it so clearly and with such moral certainty that it's very difficult to sympathise with the central characters. Yes, you feel sorry for them but you don't really inhabit them. You're outside them always, aware of just how unpleasant they are, and how stupid. I was wrong yesterday to mention a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God effect. This is more like watching some particular asinine folk on a dreadful reality tv show and feeling superior in the knowledge you couldn't be quite that idiotic. I think Fitzgerald convinces the reader that the world around the doomed pair might see them as representing some sort of glamour, but it's not credible that the reader might fall for this delusion. I spent quite a bit of the first third of the novel hoping (ungallantly) that someone might kick Gloria, and at least some of the last third rather happy (uncharitably) that the pair were getting what they deserved. I think Fitzgerald wants the reader to feel this way, but I think he also wants you to feel other ways and I'm not so sure I was able to.

As an honest study of what alcohol is capable of doing to those prone to addiction thereto the novel is a brilliant success. But I don't think it makes any larger statement about life in general and its world in particular. We have to wait for Gatsby for that. How did Fitzgerald do it? - turning from the writing of good, at times very good, books to greatness? Three things may have helped: he was sober when writing Gatsby; he finally got away from autobiographical central characters, approaching his experiences slantwise, as it were; and he learned to leave things out.

Oh, and he stopped writing sentences like: Anthony lay upon the lounge looking up One Hundred and Twenty-seventh Street toward the river, near which he could see a single patch of vivid green trees that guaranteed the brummagem umbrageousness of Riverside Drive. And on my count that's the third time he uses brummagem in the novel. Surely he must have had more than a few at that point.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Beautifully Damned

My main post-Ambassadors reading has been Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned, though I've been dipping around in other desultory odds & ends. I must admit that reading something entirely comprehensible at first glance was quite a relief after the rigours of the late-Jamesian sentence. I was a bit surprised generally at the momentum of Fitzgerald's second novel. For some reason I remembered it as being a bit of mess when I first read it a few decades back but either it has changed since then or I have. Unlike This Side of Paradise it was clear where the narrative was going from the earliest chapters, and I mean clear in the best sense. Yes, the mess of Anthony's marriage is predictable, but only in the same sense that Lear's failure as a father is inherent in all his actions when we first meet him. I'm not suggesting that The Beautiful and the Damned rises to tragedy (though its awful title seems to aspire to that kind of significance) but it works well in a kind of there-but-for-the grace-of-God-go-I manner.

I was intending to say a bit more about the novel but my evening has been delightfully disrupted by Noi's massage lady paying a visit, along with Kak Kiah & Udin's children. The lady kindly threw in a back-rub for me in addition to her services to the ladies and, as a result, I've spent the last fifty minutes in massage-heaven instead of getting on with the numerous jobs I need to attend to. Curiously the lady spent part of that time audibly eructating as she vigorously pressed on - it seems my veins are full of wind and I was passing that on to her. The slight downside of any kind of massage I get from Malay experts is that they seem to enjoy telling me of my numerous physical short-comings. In Nenek's days of health she used to deliver a mean back-rub and she made it quite clear she regarded me as a weakling of at least the second, if not the first, order.

Noi has just told me that I gave the lady a headache, in that I passed my strained thoughts onto her. I feel good, but mildly guilty.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Celebration & Sadness

Nenek left us for her long home at 3.30 pm 2 Syawal, Sunday. She died peacefully at home, with most of the family in attendance. We conducted the funeral in the late afternoon and she was buried soon after maghrib. That sounds very fast (which is the Muslim way) but it was also tender, gentle, practical and caring, even down to the younger family members shoveling the wet earth back into the grave. It was sad, but it was also a relief in some ways. It hadn't been easy dealing with her deterioration for those in Melaka and there had been some disagreements on how best to care for her, understandably so. It was particularly difficult towards the end when she no longer recognised anyone and being alive seemed to be something in the way of a kind of grief for her. When we arrived last Friday she was little more than a shallowly breathing skeleton.

Dealing with her passing on so soon after Hari Raya seemed appropriate somehow. It didn't feel at all like a shadow on the enjoyment of Eid, simply another aspect of what Eid celebrates - the wonder and gift of what it is to be alive.

Nenek always dealt with me with great good humour and some quirky affection and I suppose that was strange in its way, considering what an oddity I must have seemed to her. I'm not quite sure why she found me so funny but I'm grateful she did. She often made me laugh.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fasting, Feasting

30 Ramadhan

We'll be heading north later in the afternoon, probably to break our fast, for the final time this year, on the road. Doing so has always had a very special quality. I think this Far Place will be a step beyond for a few days until we return on Monday as I can't see myself fighting for computer rights in Melaka somehow, so a quick Selamat Hari Raya Aidil Fitri to all.

And just a few words on that most epic of all journeymen, the illustrious Odysseus, or rather the more down to earth version as manifested in Joyce's Ulysses. The Hierophant rightly notes in a recent comment that there are various ways of reading the novel (he mentions two good'uns) and that it presents problems of comprehension. The incomprehensibility of the text at certain (indeed, frequent) points I regard as one of its great joys. A mania for understanding everything pervades modern ways of reading and I blame the study of English for it. There's a place in reading for not getting the point and just going with the flow. I suspect there are more than a few bits of Ulysses that even Joyce would not be too sure of. But it sounds great!

But the real key to enjoying the novel is making sure you get to know the characters. Behind all that verbal magic are perfectly 'real' characters, in the sense that realism as a literary genre would see them as such. In fact, Joyce pushes that realism to an remarkable degree. We get to know Stephen and Bloom and Molly in the kind of detail we'd be seriously worried about if anyone were to find out that stuff about ourselves. And more than the detail, the depths we plumb with them, it's the fact they move us that makes the novel worth reading. In fact, that's why it lives so vividly for so many readers today - and I'm not talking about readers in academies. There's a kind of critical cliché that goes something like the real hero of the novel is language. Nonsense. Idiocy. Joyce knew that people counted far more than the words they make or that make them.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Easy Viewing

29 Ramadhan

I watched the first episode of the BBC's most recent version of Bleak House this afternoon, having got back from work quite early for a change. This adaptation was being screened when Noi and I went back to England in December 2005 to rave reviews, not the least raving of which came from my cousin John and his wife Jeanette. Their recommendation made it a must see, and since it hasn't been screened on any of the cable channels here (caviar for the general?) I bought it at HMV the other day on DVD. The reviews were appropriate in their raving - definitely out of the top drawer. The girl who plays Esther is sensationally good. The problem I've got now is stopping myself from watching all the episodes at once.

This is particularly odd as I don't have a long attention span when it comes to watching stuff on the box, other than football, that is. I know that viewing is essentially a passive activity, compared, say, to reading a book, but I find it's quite demanding. You can put a book down, let your mind wander between sentences, so that reading can become something of a reverie, but watching tv sort of demands that you actually watch which I find quite exhausting. There doesn't seem to be anything now that I make myself view on a regular basis, for this reason, I suppose. The only thing I've deliberately switched on lately is Later… With Jools Holland, which has been enjoying a short run on BBC Entertainment on cable, and as a music programme that doesn't really count. It represents a rare opportunity for me to get to hear music that might be deemed reasonably current and serves to convince me that the idea that rock music (or whatever you might want to call it) is moribund is absolute nonsense. Every week I see great young performers oozing talent & creativity - as well as a few old crocks who are still more than capable of getting it on. A couple of weeks ago they had Damon Albarn performing in a band with Paul Simonon (bassist with The Clash) and the glorious looseness of their set captured something essential about making a great noise. But I could single out quite a number of outstanding items over the last four weeks to match them.

Noi and I are off to Geylang Serai in a few minutes to buy my baju for Hari Raya, amongst other things. Yes, we're nearly there.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Finishing, Sort Of

28 Ramadhan

It was with some small relief that, late last night, lying in bed, I completed The Ambassadors. Now I can move on to something a little more amenable to reading at a reasonable pace, something which I don't have to stop every third paragraph or so to find I haven't actually understood anything I've been reading on the page only to go back over it one more time (sometimes two more) in search of some kind of way in to at least the bare story line. And yet, it's not been an entirely negative experience. I think I did follow quite a lot of what was on offer and found myself wanting to know what was going to happen to characters who did develop some kind of genuine life for me. I think I grew accustomed to the rhythms of James's prose and found the last quarter or so of the novel something I wanted to read as opposed to something I was making myself get through.

Even then there were quite major things I simply didn't get. Strether's accidental meeting with Chad & Madam de Vionnet in the French countryside is obviously intended as a vital turning point of sorts in the novel in terms of Strether's assessment of the nature of their relationship, but I thought it was obvious to Strether that they were 'lovers' in the modern sense of the word. How could he have not realised this? (At least, I think he didn't realise it.) And why exactly does Strether turn down Maria Gostrey at the end? (At least, that's what he seems to be doing, if I've got it right that she's making some sort of proposal of marriage.)

So, satisfying at it was to finish the book, I'm aware that it was not really complete for me. But I don't think I'll put it on my to-read-again list. Having said that I'm drawn to the idea of having a go at one or two more of the big titles that James has (so abundantly) to offer. But not this year.

Fasting month is also drawing to an end and, like a good novel, will never really be completed. There's always some further layer of illumination to be attained to do the experience any real kind of justice. That's why, in something slightly less than a year, a version of the experience will be (God permitting) reenacted, refined, and, in its turn, remain unfinished. I hope it will be better than this year - a report card reading could do better is integral to the experience, but I'm aware of too much left undone.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Still Comical

27 Ramadhan

Today I discovered that Scott McCloud has published two other books related to comic art: Making Comics and Reinventing Comics - thanks to autolycus for pointing this out and wikipedia for filling in the details. I also spent a little while on Mr McCloud's rather tasty website which can be found here. (One of the joys of marking is finishing, and having time to do what one really wants to do. In fact, that is the sole joy of marking.)

Just a quick dip into McCloud's work is enough to get a sense of his burning enthusiasm for what he does. The rather cliched term for this in Singapore is 'passion' as we are continually being told to 'follow our passion' and all sorts of other positive-sounding but ultimately empty nonsense - nonsense because somewhere along the line the burning, dangerously radical nature of worthwhile enthusiasms gets extinguished and it all becomes rather safe, rather tepid, rather qualified, rather rathery.

And just the same quick dip into McCloud's work is more than enough to get an envious sense of how talented he is. It would be nice to be outstandingly good at something but I don't think it's necessary to be so to get a taste of the rewards of an enthusiasm for something that enhances life. That's been one of the (few) discoveries of my adult life. It's worthwhile making things, making art, if you like, even if you're not particularly good at it.

Blake: Energy is Eternal Delight. (Now there was a guy who knew something about making things, as opposed to marking them.)

I also read Gaiman & McKean's 'graphic novella' Violent Cases which I got from the library. I'm afraid I didn't particularly like it. A bit too clever for me.

Monday, October 8, 2007


26 Ramadhan

I picked up a few more comics-related books at the library on Saturday (the single exception to the theme being The Rough Guide to the Rolling Stones) and I've been idly browsing them in occasional breaks from Henry James. Well, I say idly browsing, but one of them, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, has proved a major attention grabber - almost unputdownable, except to make sure I don't rush to the extent of failing to sufficiently drag out the pleasure of reading, or to ensure I get a bit of time to digest the interestingly digestible ideas it explores with exemplary clarity.

With luminaries such as Matt Groening, Art Spiegelman and Will Eisner saying extremely nice things about it on the jacket, I was fairly sure Understanding Comics was going to be a more than decent read, but both conceptually and in terms of execution it's top drawer stuff. Basically McCloud has created a comic book about the art of comics, and if that sounds a tad post-modern meta-something-or-other it's not because it works like a charm (which most post-modern texts, being far too pleased with themselves, don't.) In many ways the territory of Understanding Comics extends well beyond the confines of the genre - it has many worthwhile things to say about the nature of perception, about how stories and the language of stories work, about the bigger world of art - but it has all the strengths of the genre working for it: not least an engaging enthusiasm and desire to genuinely communicate with a wide audience. The stuff about the frames used in cartoons & comics and the representation of movement, indeed the play of the now of each frame against a wider sense of the passing of time almost convinced me of the possibility this might be the most important art-form of our time. (I know that's way over the top, but that's what these anoraky obsessions can do to you, especially to the callow sixteen-year-old part of one's personality.)

Anyway, I'm allowing myself another chapter tonight - I'm now on some fascinating bits on the combination of words and images - and then it will be back to Strether dealing with the redoubtable Sarah, in the final stretch of The Ambassadors.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Various Victories

25 Ramadhan

Marking resumed today since my back, though still smarting at times, has recovered sufficiently to let me sit up long enough to get through a script here and a script there. However, I did find time to watch a replay of United's second half against Wigan with a cracking four goals. I watched the first half at home last night before we set out for Arab Street and I had a feeling that the game could turn into a goal fest. I also watched France's victory over New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup, and I'd like to get to see England's win against Australia at some point.

We ate at the Victory Restaurant opposite Mesjid Sultan last night - something of an omen. After that it was just a matter of a gentle stroll around the area with Fi Fi sharing the camera duty, with some of the results thereof posted above.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Other Worlds

24 Ramadhan

Over a table filled with Ramadhan goodies, Noi is busy describing to Fi Fi and Fa Fa how she used to sell kueh along the corridors of the flats where she lived when she was a little girl, in primary school. There was a tune she used to sing about epok epok and goreng pisang and the like to attract custom and she has been regaling the girls with it. In turn they are making memories of this for themselves, reaching back to a world largely swept away. In turn I'm remembering stories Mum used to tell of working on the buses when I was a kid eating dinner. this is the way we connect with other worlds, sometimes strangely richer than our own.

I'm pleased to report that my back seems to be on the mend, though still painful enough to make me aware of the need to move extremely gingerly. I haven't been able to manage the bowing position when standing for prayers all day, but I was able to walk to the library this morning and drive up to Woodlands to pick up the girls this afternoon. We took them to Darul Arqam where I paid my zakat for this year.

At the library I returned The Sandman Companion (a fan book, I suppose, but, since I am a fan, very rewarding), The Far Side Gallery (cartoons - funny, very), The Road To Perdition (a sort of noirish gangster graphic novel - bleak, but easy to read) and a compilation of Krazy Kat comics from the 1930's (very fashionable among the intelligensia of the period, but did little for me, though I quite liked the style of drawing.) The common theme here being that everything was related to comics one way or another, and was easy to read. This was a good thing as the serious bit of my brain, or what's left of it, has been focused on The Ambassadors, and will remain so for at least another week at the pace at which I'm moving. The Pococks have arrived in Paris, Strether's mission having been, presumably, seen as a failure, and I'm enjoying the gentle comedy at their expense.

We're off to Arab Street in a little while to soak up the atmosphere and eat yet more goodies, so I'm going to miss the United game which has an early kick off.

Friday, October 5, 2007

All Laid Out

23 Ramadhan

I've just spent the last twenty minutes or so laid flat out on the carpet trying to iron out a painful kink in the left side of my back, just above the hip, that suddenly sprung to ugly prominence just after I broke the fast. It's been lurking all day, I think brought on by bending forward when marking. I've cleared a lot of scripts in the last five days, going at it remorselessly and concentratedly, and that's when these problems tend to manifest themselves. Looking on the bright side of things, I think this is the first big problem I've had with my back in the whole year and that's something I wouldn't have dared to hope for in January. Ironically, I had been planning to go for a bit of a run tonight, alone, as Noi is on biscuit-making duty, trying to catch up on the days she missed going to Melaka. We got down to the fitness centre last Tuesday and I was hoping to keep the momentum going - but at this point in time, when even typing this is quite painful, the idea of any kind of physical exercise seems entirely out of the question. Oh hum.

Just to add something to yesterday's brief comments on religion (which seemed to come out of nowhere.) A thought experiment: consider it absolutely proved, no God, no meaning in any form of religion whatsoever, and everyone accepting that as the way things are - a kind of atheistic nirvana. Would it be worth while continuing doing the things one does as part of religious practice? If the answer is yes, and I suspect that would be so for a surprising number of practitioners, that would suggest a certain degree of soundness in one's practice.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


22 Ramadhan

I'm still Noi-less, but she's on her way back. Breaking the fast without her is very strange. Nenek remains the same.

I took a taxi to work (very expensive) and took a bus back home (a long but interesting journey. I'd expected to read but found myself enjoying just staring out of the window.)

People tend to associate religion with belief. I don't think this is very useful. Religion is more sensibly associated with practice. It's something you do. In this light carrying out the fast is making a journey into the self. Making sense of the journey is the tricky part, not arriving at a destination (which is nowhere and never, anyway.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


21 Ramadhan

Noi left for Melaka with Hakim & Rozita in tow earlier this afternoon. Nenek is extremely ill and most of the family are gathering. I put one or two people at work on alert for a possible absence from myself, but this would seem unlikely - it's difficult to figure out how, and for how long, I could get myself to Melaka, logistically speaking. Noi took the car which means I'll be finding other means of getting in to work tomorrow. So here at home it's just me and Henry James.

There's a wonderfully angry bit in Stephen King's Salem's Lot where he has a bit of a go at old Henry, or rather the kind of readers he attracts. The parents of the boy involved, the one who confronts the main vampire eventually, are avid Jamesians and King takes immoderate delight, or so it appeared to me, in having the vampire arrange their demise with more than usual Kingian ferocity (and believe me, that's a lot!) This is particularly striking in that King is nearly always unusually generous in his assessments of other writers. Henry James must have really bugged him somewhere along the line. In fact, now I come to think of it, I don't think I've ever read anything by King related to The Turn of the Screw and that's very odd since he's written profusely on ghost stories and horror writers of pretty much every ilk.

Anyway, I have to say that halfway through The Ambassadors (yes, it's taking me that long) I don't feel particularly vengeful, though, I must add, I've not been converted to fan-boy status either. As with previous attempts to read James I find some passages almost impenetrable, even on a re-reading, but these have been fairly occasional and haven't really interfered with the onward momentum of my reading. I feel comfortable with Strether as the central consciousness of the novel, so that helps, though a few of his finer discriminations escape me completely. Most of all it helps that I don't have much idea of what's to come plot-wise and I'm looking forward to finding out what all these dastardly Europeans are really up to.

In the meantime I'm praying for Nenek and all in extremis.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Not Such Good News

20 Ramadhan

Two-thirds of the way through the fast and a certain routine has been established. It will feel strange and slightly wonderful, when Hari Raya comes, to be eating and drinking during the day. That sense of wonder is an echo of the privilege of the well-being we're granted (if we are lucky, and so far I have been) on a daily basis. Sad news of illness of two people we know makes the privilege all the more stark. It can only be a matter of time for Nenek and perhaps it's better that the time is short given the discomfort she is in.

Meantime some dark places just get darker. The news out of Burma - in a sense there is hardly any news - is entirely bleak. It will soon fade from the news pages, I fear. There are some 1500 unaccounted for (I'm using a number postulated in a report in The Straits Times), disappeared into the regime's darkest places. Let's hope they get out alive, in one piece.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Children's Day

19 Ramadhan

The main events of the day: At work - the exams have started for Year 5, the year I teach, with their English papers. This means I have a pile of marking to go at for the next few days. Tomorrow the teachers marking with me will be doing a standardisation exercise so I've just been looking through and marking the scripts selected. At home - the girls broke their fast with us and I'll be taking them back to their Ibu and Ayah in a few minutes; it's school as usual for them tomorrow, today being their Children's Day holiday. They have been 'assisting' their Mak Ndak in the manufacture of Hari Raya goodies and watching lots of television - not a bad way to spend a holiday. (I'm a heretic when it comes to the idea of kids at primary school 'studying'. Let them have a childhood, please.) We now have a substantial number of biscuits (chocolate chip cookies and the little ones with the cashew nut on top) all over the house and this is only the beginning.