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.