Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Retrospective - Press Ganged

Did I read as much as I expected to over the last month? Certainly I read a lot, but at the end of it all I didn't get through that many books. Only two novels, Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which I'd already started before setting out and of which I read a considerable number of pages on the flight over, and Doyle's Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha Ha, about half of which occupied the flight back. (The Doyle I know well anyway from having taught it, but I decided to read it from start to finish again to capture the full effect once more.) Apart from the poetry I mentioned yesterday, supplemented by an interesting anthology Answering Back edited by Carol Ann Duffy, the only other books I read cover to cover were Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, and Ghost World by Daniel Clowes. Since the last of these is a rather thin graphic novel which I got through in one evening I feel unsure as to whether I should mention it at all.

So what went wrong? Well The Stuff of Thought was certainly a slow read. It's fascinating - which I've come to take for granted of Pinker - but the earlier chapters are densely packed and I'm still not entirely sure I grasped them fully despite taking my time to try and ensure I genuinely followed the details of the arguments involved. It probably took me the better part of two weeks to work my way through the whole thing. But this alone cannot account for my general lack of achievement.

In fact I read a great deal more than is listed above, but it came in the form of newspapers and magazines. It wasn't that I bought a paper everyday though - I found it took me a number of days simply to read whichever Sunday paper I picked up given the number of supplements each seemed to bring with it. I'd like to say I enjoyed getting back to this aspect of English life - and that's certainly something I would have said on my journeys to the UK in the previous decade. I remember then feeling a keen sense of regret at leaving behind the ability to indulge in good newspapers and magazines. However, this is no longer the case, primarily since I don't think I'd regard those newspapers as obviously 'good' ones anymore. The quality of analysis of news seems to me to have dramatically declined. Yes, there are good articles but you can no longer take for granted that the 'quality' press will spend time and energy on real analysis.

One painful example stood out. There was a particularly sad case of a child dying as a result of parental abuse in a London borough which involved a good deal of criticism of the social services. I didn't come across a single attempt to deal with the systemic failures that took place in any kind of detail at all, just plenty of angry indignation about the fact that the woman in charge of the department was still receiving a juicy salary and still in work after the report on what went wrong had been published. (She got the shove soon after as a result of all the indignation.) Now angry indignation as a specialty of the tabloid press is all well and good but it just comes over as lazy non-journalism in papers that purport to deal with the world in a serious manner.

In contrast endless column inches appeared to be devoted to people who are regarded as celebrities. Again, there's a place for this, but that place didn't use to be in The Times. I began to feel bludgeoned by having information and views (more views than info, it must be said) hammered into me when I really wasn't all that interested. In truth, the reading sometimes felt like a chore, and an unnecessary one at that.

I suppose I should exempt the generally excellent and plentiful reviews of books, films, music and theatre from my grumpy criticism, but even here I was haunted by a sense that it was the very plenty of this stuff that was preventing me from having the time to actually read the books and listen to the music. Something I've said before, but which bears repeating: for some the reviews become a substitute for the real thing. I must say that in this respect the accessibility of good material online and the fact that my local Borders now stocks The New York Review of Books has made it a little less of a necessity to grab hold of whatever is available when in the UK.

So I suppose I'm complaining of both a general dumbing down and a surfeit, an excess, one that I'm vulnerable to simply because I don't normally deal with it and a month is not enough time to erect sensible defences.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Retrospective - Going Cheap

It would be possible to feed an addiction to the modern novel by simply going around the various charity shops in a small town in England and looking out for the classier stuff among the books going cheap. In Hyde alone there are at least four such shops and each has a reasonable range of paperbacks, and quite a few hardbacks, to rummage among. We were in one shop for Cancer Awareness, actually to give away a number of Mum's old 'murders', when a consignment of Bernard Cornwell arrived, to go on sale for two quid each. Now I don't regard Cornwell as classy in any sense, certainly not even close to the league of O'Brien, (a league of one) but he's certainly a top-rate popular writer and a fan would have been able to get pretty much the complete works from that shop on that day for less than thirty quid.

I didn't intend to buy any books whilst we were over in England but changed my mind when confronted by a handsome hardback of The New Oxford Book of English Verse, as edited by Helen Gardner, in another shop in Hyde (Oxfam, I think) at just one pound and eighty pence (about four Sing dollars in real money). I felt guilty to get it at that price. It now occupies pride of pace on my bedside table, where it is likely to stay on the grounds of inexhaustibility. I also picked up Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist (my original copy went missing when I left my books in the UK when I first came out to the East) along with Simon Armitage's Kid for just one pound. Now who said you needed to be rich to have fun?

All this suggests two ideas to me: 1) Charity shops are a good idea and it would be nice to see some in this city; 2) England has the kind of 'reading culture' that Singapore aspires to, which results in a surplus of worthwhile literature.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Retrospective - Small Things

Mum was in reasonably fine fettle for our December sojourn. Of course, at ninety years of age even the finest of fettles represents a falling-off from former glories. She's a little less mobile than she was two years back, though sprightly enough to negotiate a crowded Ashton Market, with little sit-downs when necessary. It's also far more obvious that her short term memory is failing her, sometimes leading to states of frustrated confusion with panic mixed in.

As a result her world has shrunk to one of distinct routines based around the simple business of managing a life. Just taking her various medicines has become quite a mammoth task. Noi cleverly suggested we buy her a sort of weekly organiser for this, a tray into which the various pills can be distributed according to the various points of ingestion, and this seems to have been a big success.

We also, on a slightly more expensive scale, bought her a digital television - which gives her more channels and a better picture - and a digital recorder. I spent the last week going through the steps for recording, playing and deleting programmes and realised just how complicated simple things are when you are learning something new at ninety.

In fact, the experience of looking at the world and all its tasks, barriers and perils through Mum's eyes was a salutary reminder of the importance of small things. We know this as children and learn it again through the indignity of aging. Except, that's not right at all. There's real dignity in managing the small things, perhaps a sort of triumph.

Oh, and another little thing, which is really quite big from other perspectives. For some the new year has already started. Let's welcome 1430

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Now back at the Mansion in Singapore having enjoyed (yes really) a couple of flights with a curiously subdued Heathrow intersecting. We worked the online checking-in to our advantage in securing exactly the seats we wanted on the 13 hour leg of the marathon. Fuad and family were at the airport to greet us and make the last leg a doddle - reminding us of how helpful so many family members and friends have been to us over the last four weeks.

Coming back to the warmth of Singapore helps offset the sadness at leaving so many behind. And the piles of stuff needing to be dealt with that greeted us on arrival help remind us of how lucky we've been to temporarily take a break from it all.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Out Of Season

Now at my niece Caroline's for Christmas celebrations and able to get online again. Drowning in the excesses of the season here. Christmas seems to have grown out of all proportion, and shape. A sense of brittle desperation is in the air as various businesses with their backs against the wall seek to distance themselves from said wall by convincing people to spend money which, rather too often, they don't really have.

Also a sad sense of the pressure on folk to achieve the impossible perfect Christmas of the cards and colour supplements. This, of course, is intimately tied into the commercialism of the season.

Balancing that: the genuine joys of togetherness, which I am about to further enjoy. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Have been resident in Manchester for just over a week now. Great hospitality here - just finished a wonderful Sunday lunch at John & Jeanette's - but it is generally cold. Very cold. Freezing. Brrrggghhhh.

Also singularly lacking in Internet cafes and the like. But somehow surviving.

Friday, November 28, 2008


It's amazing what you can get done on-line these days. We're already checked in on our flight and holding our boarding passes, and we've not even been close to the airport.

But I'm sort of thankful that we're about to be disconnected from the web of the world as this far place moves itself halfway around the globe for the next month. There's no computer at either Mum's or Maureen's and no local Internet cafes we've ever been able to find on previous missions. We have to travel to central Manchester to get webbed up, so posting is likely to be intermittent.

Noi insists I take my mobile phone with me, though. Actually it's really hers, one she passed to me when she moved on to something that I gather is thought to be better for reasons which escape me. I was proud to be able to able to boast of not carrying one up to two years ago, but the dreadful things are pretty much unavoidable in my present place of work simply given the sheer size of the premises.

It took me up to the twenty-third of those months to discover what the phone is most useful for. Pretending to be engrossed in checking what is on it is a very effective way of keeping people off bothering you in those moments when you'd rather be alone with your thoughts. There's a small joy in using the hooks that connect us to become blissfully disconnected from it all.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Noi got back from Melaka late yesterday evening, with niece Ayu in tow. She's delivering Ayu to the Woodlands branch of the family this evening where, it seems, Fafa can't wait for her partner in crime to arrive. In the meantime I'll be spending the evening circulating at the Year 6 Prom.

The news of Mak is generally positive. That's good.

We've got a hundred and one things to do before getting on the plane tomorrow. That's not so good. But we'll cope. I think.

We brought a new suitcase this afternoon, except it isn't really a suitcase as suitcases no longer look like suitcases. This is change and, therefore, a good thing. One of the two suitcases we used to use gave up its useful life the last time we came back from the UK by developing a large rip along one of its corners. I wouldn't mind but I've only had it for twenty years. Nothing is made to last anymore!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A False Start

For the first time in quite a while I seem to have made a false start on a novel and am thinking of putting it to one side. This used to be a regular occurrence in my reading, and I can name any number of texts that I've put back on the shelf to eventually return to wondering what all the fuss was about, but I thought I had cured myself of the syndrome.

The puzzling thing is that I was thoroughly looking forward to the novel in question, Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, having devoured Snow at double-quick pace not so long ago. Everything about it made me think This is my kind of book. And I rather think it is, but just not at this time. I suppose being overwhelmed with the stuff known as work hasn't helped the situation. Anyway, I don't think it'll be coming on the plane with me this Friday.

What I have been reading is Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World:- Science As A Candle In The Dark. I enjoyed this a lot when I borrowed it from the library a few years ago as a kind of light but informative read. Sagan says important, though somewhat over-simplified, things and his heart is in the right place. I'm a bit puzzled by Dawkins's encomium at the front which tells us he (Sagan) is incapable of composing a dull sentence. This is thankfully not the case. Carl indulges in more than a small amount of repetition, which makes for a pleasantly relaxing read late at night when your systems are winding down and you don't want to think too much. Sort of comfort-reading, I suppose.

But, again, the book won't make it to the plane as I'll probably finish it by Friday and I don't want it encumbering my luggage all the way to England and back. I generally travel light to leave as much room for as I can for purchases made in Manchester's big bookshops. (There's a terrific Waterstones on Deansgate.) So now I'm thinking of which novel to switch to, with Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as a front runner as the garish cover makes me unreasonably cheerful.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Time Is Tight

On the blower just now, brother-in-law John asked me whether we were packed for the UK, whence we will be bound this Friday night, all being well.

Not only are we not packed, we are nowhere close, being short of one suitcase and not having considered what to put in the other. The fact that Noi is in Melaka doesn't help, but, of course, in present circumstances that's the best place for her. Real life will be resumed when she gets back, which I think will be late tomorrow.

I suppose I should be panicking, but there's so much to do just getting work out of the way it seems beside the point to do so. This is going to be a sort of just-in-time experience, as is most of modern life, I suppose.

Monday, November 24, 2008

All The Right Notes

I did my best to draw it out as long as I could, but I finished Alex Ross's wonderful The Rest is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century over the weekend and I can only think of one bad thing to say about it: a reader who is less than expert on the repertoire covered is likely to finish the book with the wishlist to end all wishlists of CDs that they simply must buy.

One piece of advice I'd give to anyone likely to read the tome. There's a likelihood you'll be tempted to rifle through the text on a dip-in basis. I know I was. In fact, after reading the opening I immediately skipped to the segments on Britten's Peter Grimes and Messiaen's A Quartet for the End of Time. And what wonderful segments they are! But I then got back to reading in the right order, and was glad I did. Although individual segments are outstanding and do easily peel away from the main narrative, it's the inter-connecting sweep of that narrative that the power of the text lies in. Having said that, I'm readying myself to do some dipping quite soon, just as a refresher.

But in general terms Ross triumphantly links the dourest academic developments in twentieth century music to the tumultuous realities of on-going history, and to the various worlds of popular culture. It's this sense of context that makes for sometimes eye-opening reading. I still can't quite get over the fact that the CIA secretly funded concerts promoting 12 tone music as a way of supporting democracy!

Above all Ross is an enthusiast, rather than a critic. He wears his enthusiasms openly, and misses out a lot of stuff I'd have been happy to see him write about. (For example, you get lots of Britten but the merest mention of Tippett.) But it's that sense you are reading a personal account and hearing the world through two fine ears, not necessarily your own, that makes this far more than just a dry survey.

Oh, and I love the jacket design.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

All Creatures Great And Small

Well, monkeys, rats and wild boar, at least.

First the monkeys. We were driving from the taman down the hill, to get some breakfast on Saturday morning, when a big group, at least twelve, came down from the slope on the right and crossed the road in front of us. There have also been some unusual droppings around the house. We're wondering if these come from our simian chums. The little guys didn't look terribly cheerful, by the way. Survival on the edge of the city must be touch and go. One of the monkeys, presumably a female, appeared to be trailing a dead youngster with her.

The rats emerged as we were getting the car cleaned late on Saturday night. We were sitting on a couple of plastic chairs up against a sort of office-cum-hut in the compound of the cleaning place, adjacent to and sort of under the elevated ring road, near the Flamingo Hotel, when the two came out. Squeaking quite loudly, they didn't seem at all concerned that we were around, and made their way across the hut and underneath our chairs. We didn't stick around to chat.

And finally the boar. Actually these were in Melaka, and we didn't see them, but I heard about them first at Khir's wedding, when they came sniffing around the cooking area at the back of the house on the Friday night before I got there. It seems there were seven. I say 'were' as today's news was that one of them has been shot, to the delight of all it seems. Except me. Sentimental as I am, I can't help feel a sense of something being lost.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Onwards, Upwards

We'll be on our way northwards soon, to check the house in KL for the last time in 2008, and to see Mak - delivering a walking frame and a new gadget for checking blood pressure and other measurables. Noi will stay on in Melaka for a few days, so I'm home alone again next week. Then it's off to the other side of the world for a taste of real weather.

It's all go, to the point that I feel all gone.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Results

Today will be a very emotional one in a number of homes across this little island. The results of the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) are out - this being the one that sorts the mutton from the lamb and sends them onward to their varied shelves. Fifi got her big news today and is pretty pleased with herself, so that's good. Fortunately they'll be lots of kids in a similar sunny situation, which is also good, but unfortunately they'll be plenty over whom dark clouds are looming, which is not so good, but it's the way things are and it's difficult to see how the world could turn otherwise.

When I first came to Singapore I was impressed at the sense of direction that pervades society in terms of recognition of the importance of examinations and education in general. It was refreshing after dealing with teenagers in the UK who were often simply lazy, nowhere close to fulfilling their potential and who often showed no sense at all that school was important in their lives. They appeared to assume the world owed them a living. However, I quickly came to recognise that the unwavering spotlight on examination success came at a price. Paradoxically that price was sometimes a decent education in itself.

Two problems. First of all, the obvious point that letting assessment lead the curriculum is not exactly sensible. You will end up assessing only that which lends itself to being assessed, and, even more scary, a position is quickly reached in which students only take what they can be made to be successful in. Nothing else counts. Secondly, an obsession with results, especially achieving outstanding ones, leads to extraordinary levels of anxiety for all involved. It's to Fifi's credit that she seems to have sailed through the year and found plenty of time in which to enjoy herself (though it's going to be awfully easy to say of her, or any child for that matter, that her 'score' (that's the curious common usage here) could have been even better had she worked that little bit harder and sacrificed some of the time in which she was enjoying herself - like the times she was reading merely for pleasure.)

One thing I discovered very quickly in schools when I first arrived here was the curious reluctance of quite a number of teachers to actually teach what are termed graduating classes, because of the 'pressure' involved. Such pressure came, as far as I could see, not from any obvious extra workload, but simply from worrying about the results that might be achieved. Curiously since I felt no pressure at all, believing that, having done my best to teach as well as I could and worked hard to do so, the results were essentially those of the students who got them, I haven't felt any such reluctance. My guess is that not particularly caring makes me better at what I do.

I am still essentially impressed though with this far place - it's the balance that seems to me to be out (isn't it always?), but there's a base of achievement to build on, which is something. More young people here wake up hopeful and with a sense of what needs to be done rather than bored and lacking in any real direction, and that's no bad thing. I just hope that not too many youngsters have lost heart today.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Caught the last hour or so of that rare beast, an intelligent movie, the other night, and am now looking to see if they'll show it again. The animal in question was Longford with Jim Broadbent as our eponymous hero. Except he wasn't a hero in any simple sense, though deeply heroic in the ways that count. An English audience would immediately recognise the name, but not, as I have discovered through two conversations since, a Singaporean viewer, even the most cultivated.

In brief, he was a lord, of some fame/notoriety in the British media and world of politics generally for campaigning against pornography at a time when permissiveness was beginning to take off (more than in the simple sense of disrobing) and then supporting the cause of the jailed child killer Myra Hindley, in regard to attempting to get her parole as well as visiting her in prison. (Profoundly Christian in his beliefs he visited quite a number of other prisoners, but it was the deeply unpopular Hindley that brought the world down on his head.)

Was he right to believe she had reformed, that she deserved parole? The movie intelligently did not take sides on these impossible questions but rather made it its business to bring these issues powerfully to life in terms of their importance to all those caught up in the nightmare. I suppose I was drawn to the film partly because I grew up in the shadow of the murders, being almost exactly contemporary with the younger children involved. One was taken by Hindley, and her accomplice Brady, from Ashton market, a delightful place my wife and I love to visit when we go back to the UK. I remember the missing poster for another of the children sitting forlornly for what seemed an age in one of the windows of Denton Police Station. Now I know it couldn't have been up for all that long. Mum remembers a woman who worked opposite her saying that something was going on at her neighbour, Myra Hindley's house, on the morning of the big arrest.

The last meeting of Hindley and Longford in the film, at a point when Longford had long since been aware that Hindley had manipulated him for her own ends, quietly seemed to suggest something of a confrontation between good and evil, in the gentlest possible way. The lack of sensationalism about the whole thing was deeply impressive. Normally I'd be distrustful of a film dealing with such raw events. I'm not at all sure it's wise to put appalling murderers at the centre of our attention. But then this film didn't. It put a good, if deeply flawed, man there.

Finally there are never real answers. Just better questions.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fortunate Encounters

I'm supposed to be working on a chapter on Language for a booklet we're producing for our Year 3 and Year 4 guys for Philosophy of Disciplines, a sort of younger brother to Theory of Knowledge which they get to do from Year 5 onwards. The problem is that I seem to have stalled. It's a question of determining the right pitch for the material. Dumb it down too far and you sort of lose the point of the whole thing, but on the other hand I don't see why the kids should be subjected to ideas that may be beyond them developmentally. I remember doing The Ancient Mariner when I was in the second year of grammar school and being bewildered by the notion of pantheism. I understood the idea, it just didn't have any meaning in the real world for me, if you see what I mean.

Anyway, I deftly goofed off from what I should be doing by reading Hedda Gabler which I'm teaching next year. I don't think I've actually read it before though I've seen it on tv a couple of times. There can't be too many jobs that give you the opportunity to read like this and make you feel you're doing something constructive. It set me thinking about those times I've read stuff I don't think I would have done otherwise thus making great personal discoveries.

Two, of quite a satisfactory number, at this moment come to mind. The first was reading Leon Garfield's wonderful Smith back in the UK. I recall the strangeness of realising that such mesmeric writing could exist without me having the slightest awareness of it. I also recall knowing instantly that I could do Smith's voice perfectly - my mockney accent being something of a party piece - and that the class would love it. Which they did, partly, I think, because they sensed how much I loved it.

The second was reading O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night for an 'A' level class. Four pages in I knew I was reading one of the great dramatic masterpieces. Utterly true. Flawless. I gleefully plunged into an O'Neill phase of major proportions, centred around the later plays (A Moon for the Misbegotten, which never opened on Broadway, equally haunting) and a very fine, detailed, biography I luckily picked up at the library - though I'd have to look up who wrote it. Two things about O'Neill that are deeply resonant for me: the way he rose above the alcoholism he so deeply understood; the fact that he had a tin ear for dialogue and still wrote great plays. The man made himself great by virtue of an absorption in craft and through his demons. A great and terrible role model for any aspiring writer. A road that should not be taken.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Great Expectations

Noi is now on her way back from Melaka. We'd intended for her to come back today, taking the bus, but she was taking Mak to the hospital this morning, for a planned appointment, and there was an element of doubt as to whether it was wise for her to leave at this point. The decision was dependent on the doctor's advice and it looks like no big problem surfaced - as yet I don't know exactly what transpired; I've only received a couple of phone messages to let me know what's happening. But that's plenty good enough for me when the news is this good.

Apart from anything else, I'm running out of clean socks.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Other than getting out for a run yesterday, which appears to have done me no obvious damage, and getting the car serviced, and spending an hour or so at Parkway Parade (which is just not the same when you're on your own, as I quickly discovered), and doing a fair bit of work, I finished The Sound of Waves. And then I fell asleep, thus missing the first half of the United game.

It's always curious reading a text that I am going to, in some sense, teach. Apart from anything else, I'm aware that I'll be reading it again quite soon so the whole experience takes on a provisional air. Also I find myself on the lookout for what is 'teachable' about what I'm reading, which is not altogether healthy. I find myself trying to see the text to some degree through a teenager's eyes - in this case that certainly altered how I viewed the whole idea of 'first love' as experienced by the youngsters in the novel. What I think I would have read at some almost nostalgic distance became rather more immediate somehow. I'm certainly very interested to hear how authentic the teenagers I teach take the experience of the novel's protagonists as being. I felt it was all a touch artificial, but I'm not sure I was really able to make the jump into a different culture. At the simplest level, the happy ending came as quite a surprise.

Having said that, if I hadn't have known I was reading a modern Japanese classic I would have thought it was Hemingway in front of me, albeit a rather sentimentalised version thereof. The waves seem drenched in some fairly strident machismo.

I liked the way Mishima dealt with sexual experience, though. Refreshingly head on, but without prurience, I think, except for one odd segment dealing with the breasts of the female divers, and the linking of these with visible signs of virginity. Or perhaps that was my prurience infecting the text.

But I must say the general sense of the way of life of the inhabitants of the island in their fishing village is superbly done and the novel is worth a read for that alone.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Back On The Streets

Got out for a run this evening for the first time since fasting month. The back pain I was being self-pitying about in late October has subsided, but I remain troubled by discomfort at the top of my right leg. It was still bothering me today and it would have been easy, and possibly sensible, to have decided not to go running, but I had that now or never feeling. And it turned out to be now.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Bit of a Mess

The alteration in my domestic circumstances has not resulted in a flowering of reading and listening. Far from it: I've probably listened to less music and read less over the last couple of weeks than over any other similar period this year. It's true that I've been busy with work stuff, but there's still been a fair amount of time on my hands, yet I've felt directionless.

The novel I've got going is Mishima's The Sound of Waves, which we're adopting as one of our IB texts next year, and it's taking me seemingly forever to read. Yet I'm sure I could manage it at a couple of sittings in the right mood. The odd thing is that I'm enjoying the text, but don't feel any great inclination to pick it up once I've put it down. I suppose the narrative has a static quality which is beguiling, in its way, but it doesn't exactly demand attention.

I find myself picking up The Rest Is Noise with far greater frequency, but I'm being careful not to read too fast, I suppose trying to savour the experience. I'm still not past the Second World War and already the magnitude of achievement in music in the last century, I'm now aware, is stunning. It's always been there yet I've never quite grasped it was all happening at once.

Ross is exceptionally good at making the inherently obvious less so and so more real somehow. For example, his observation that 'classical' music acquired sinister overtones as a result of the rise of Nazism, and that composers in the second half of the century in a sense had to contend with such associations, struck me as something I kind of knew but never consciously realised. Similarly I was generally aware of what Prokofiev and Shostakovich suffered under Stalin but I failed to feel the importance of this in their music (and to them as human beings.)

As a younger man I think I was looking for something transcendent in art generally. Now I find I'm stirred by the local, the domestic, the contingent; the experience rooted in the mess of history.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Matters Medicinal

Odd synchronicity of sorts this evening - two conversations on the phone in which the management of medicine at home played a significant role.

Noi, still in Melaka helping to look after Mak, was describing her attempts to tidy up the supplies of medicine they've got there, mainly for Abba and Mak, I presume. I get the impression the family has a fairly cavalier attitude towards what they are prepared to ingest in the supposed interests of their health, so it was reassuring she's keeping a watching brief. The situation reminded me of Dad's equally cavalier approach to whatever the doctor had prescribed, frequently doubling or trebling doses to effect a speedy recovery.

Then it was on to Mum's full, if not positively overflowing, account of how she monitors her monthly delivery from the surgery down the road. She's somewhat aggrieved that they are pulling her in for a check before prescribing more of one of the painkillers in her little box of goodies. I pointed out to her that we can all be thankful she wasn't on the books of Dr Harold Shipman, Hyde's notorious serial killer, whose surgery is (or rather was) just opposite to that of the practice Mum attends. Brother-in-law John always reckons he'd have bumped her off in double quick time, but Mum and I both reckon she'd have given him a run for his money.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Out In The Street

I put Springsteen's The River into the car's CD changer a couple of weeks back (along with other goodies) and found myself listening to Out In The Street just before arriving at work a couple of mornings ago. I've always liked the song, tuneful & cheerful as it is, but didn't relate to any great degree with the lyric when I first played the album back in the last century. It's very much blue collar territory - unloading crates down on the dock - and there seemed to me then traces of the early Springsteen's attitudinizing as urban hero - fun, but not something I could take all that seriously, except as a kind of inspired performance. Like playing at being Brando.

It was only when I saw a live performance on DVD (the one in New York), by a distinctly elderly E Street Band, that I twigged what the song was really about and how wrong I'd been. Or perhaps the song has necessarily changed as we've all aged. It's essentially a celebration of the joy of being outside the grinding systems we inhabit; a metaphor for the desire to escape, rather than the escape, impossible, in itself. But this is an escape into the life of the city - the creativity of those who take the trouble to put their hair up right. So it is a performance, finally, but a willed performance becomes the reality of the escape.

Am I reading too much into a simple song (and it is, lyrically, gloriously simple.) Yes, of course, because the song doesn't need explaining. It just is. And it made me curiously cheerful going to work that morning.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Out On The Street

With the weekend (and after) being so busy I haven't had the chance to say much about Avenue Q so here's a little bit to make up for that. First of all it was an entertaining evening and I got a sense of what a good show this is. It was also well produced and well performed. But it wasn't done by an American cast and I think it needed to be to capture some kind of authenticity since it is very much an American show. Case in point: one of the running gags is that the janitor of the buildings constituting the avenue is supposed to be child star and sad human being Gary Coleman. The guy playing the part attempted a valiant impersonation, but looked white. This just didn't work. It was almost like watching a school production which is pretending to do an adult musical but can't quite pull it off. (But don't get me wrong, the show was thoroughly, impressively, professional.)

Secondly, the concept of the cast themselves performing all out whilst manipulating the puppets performing alongside them is a fascinating one that achieves an oddly alienating effect. But it doesn't work so well in ensemble scenes when there's so much going on that the eye becomes distracted. It works best in solo bits where you find yourself sort of superimposing one 'performer' on another in a kind of unity. I first saw this done in a play for children directed by Brian Seward, with whom I had the pleasure of working sometimes in schools, and in that case there was just one puppet involved. That achieved a greater sense of magic, for me at least, I think due to the intensity involved and the fact that you could give it your full focus.

Finally, the songs were ace. I urgently want to hear them again.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Secret Geographies

When we go to the Esplanade by bus, to save on the exorbitant parking, and because we enjoy a bus journey once in a while, Noi and I take the underpass to the bus stop over the road on the way home. I did the same last Friday and, as usual, the space below the road was crowded with kids, teenagers, making the area their own. There are always at least three dance groups rehearsing, practising, performing down there with conflicting music in attendance. Most of these look pretty funky, sometimes to the point of being a wee bit intimidating, but there're also geeky ones to even the score. And there's generally a few skate-boarders around. I don't know whether the authorities are aware of what goes on - surely they can't miss it? do they actually encourage it? - but if they are then they are turning an unusually wise blind eye.

It all looks splendid to me, though the lingering smell of perspiration, and the need to catch the bus, means I never stay to watch too long. The guys down there seem to be making the city, one small part of it, their own, almost as if it were their secret.

I remember doing something similar, with my friends, in a little bit of grassland, a park of sorts, near where I lived in Audenshaw when I was around ten years old, except that was a place kids were expected to make their own, I suppose. After England won the World Cup we were down there for a kick around, late on a Saturday afternoon, with coats for goalposts. There was real pitch there, with real posts, but someone must have been using it then because I distinctly remember using our coats. We played soldiers a lot, Japs vs Americans, near the railway lines. We got to be good at dying. There was always plenty of grass to hide in, and a sewage works in the distance for glamour.

The last time I was there was with Noi, some four years ago, and it was all very small, very tawdry, very ordinary. But I remember its days of glory on the endless Saturdays of 1966.

You never really know a city. You can only guess at its secret places and you're lucky if you've had access to just one.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


Just back from Khir's wedding. Noi has stayed there to help with the on-going recovery of Mak.

Two useful lessons: it's wise not to leave your bags and clothes under an air-conditioning unit in a strange room, in case it leaks. And it's a good idea to travel with more than just a single pair of jeans. Those who enjoy filling the gaps in narratives might make much of what a difficult (and wet) day I've had.

And that's not saying anything about the large and vocal contingent of Arsenal supporters at the house.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Rush Hour

It's all go - change money, change car, change country (for a couple of days.) The plan is for to set off for Melaka tomorrow in the early hours immediately after swubuh prayers, picking up various members of the family on the way. Why not tonight? Because a few weeks back we made arrangements for a trip with some of our drama guys to see Avenue Q at the Esplanade. It's a sort of adult version of Sesame Street, as I understand it - very adult (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, if you know what I mean.) Sounds fun, and I'm looking forward to it, but the timing could have been better.

But then almost every time I go to anything worth attending I find myself thinking much the same thing. Still, there are worse ways to live frantically.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Caught Napping

I dozed off yesterday late in the evening, lying in front of our less than trusty stereo system, to be awoken by the ringing of the phone. In truth, I was not so much dozing as deeply asleep, which accounts for the fact that on waking I had no idea what time it was, what day it was or where I was. It took about a minute of conversation with my brother-in-law ringing from Manchester to piece together a picture of what was actually happening. Oddly enough I quite enjoyed the sensation as I was reasonably sure I wasn't supposed to be in work or some such serious location. Also it helped that I've had these experiences before (sometimes panicking that I was somewhere where I needed to be awake) and recognised the condition. Again rather oddly, I don't think I've ever done this when the missus has been around.

Bernard at work was asking for stories of students falling asleep in class, I'm not sure for what purpose, but he was after funny ones. I'm afraid I could only think of the times I've nodded off when I'm not supposed to, which I suppose says something about derogation of duty. When I first started teaching I used to regularly fall asleep going home from work on the bus from Rotherham to Sheffield and have to be awoken at the terminus by a generally gleeful conductor. Fortunately that was my stop so no great harm was done, other than being made to look like a complete idiot. But that in itself was useful as those experiences made me immune to the embarrassment of being seen to fall asleep publicly. Isn't the deeply ingrained sense of embarrassment at being seen to sleep interesting? Keats is very good on this, just as he's very good on sleep in general. A napper himself, I suspect.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Loose Ended

Someone, somewhere, somehow is making history, I guess, pretty much as usual. But for me the world is grievously shrunk to an absence: that of my wife who has gone off to Melaka to help out with stuff at home now Mak is out of hospital, and more specifically to do the industrial scale cooking necessary for Khir's wedding this weekend. Actually we'd planned for some time, well before Mak's illness, that she should go on the Tuesday, but we're now thinking of her staying there quite a bit longer than was originally intended.

Fortunately I'm the kind of person who has no problems with solitude. I don't see myself as a loner exactly, but I can easily cope with being alone to the point at which solitude has often been a real friend. So I'm not worried by being alone here, but without Noi I'm at the loosest of loose ends. Fortunately she left behind a seriously wonderful banana and walnut cake. And I will be seeing her at the wedding this weekend, so there are reasons to be cheerful.

And I must say, the news out of the States has cheered me, though I think it's all getting a bit needlessly messianic. Well soon enough reality will bite. I've never known it not to.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


I suppose it's a virtuous circle. I read a chunk of Ross's The Rest Is Noise - last night it was the excellent chapter on Sibelius - and I rediscover my CDs of whatever he's covered that I've got, as I am doing with the Sibelius series, listening to them with new ears. The problem is that I'm building up a significant wish-list of stuff I'll need to buy, including a good many twentieth century operas, but in the meantime I can refresh my ears on the cheap just listening to what I've got and, not exactly failed to appreciate, but certainly failed to do justice to.

Another bit of reading involving a circle of sorts: I finished A Clockwork Orange over the weekend, in between visiting Mak, it being rather more than thirty years since the first time I finished it. This time the book had changed completely, or possibly I have, which is, in effect, the same thing. After all, essentially we're reading ourselves. This time I found myself engaged in what was obviously a theological tract - a very lively one, but a kind of extended sermon on the nature of aggression and its relation to creativity and the nature of choice. The shocking aspect of this sermon is the way it convincingly connects aspects of ourselves we'd rather keep mentally sundered from each other.

For some reason as I read I kept thinking of Kubrick's film, which I saw just before Kubrick pulled it off general release in the UK. I wasn't so much thinking of how well Kubrick brought the tract to life - frankly I don't think he did to any great degree having plentiful concerns of his own - but I was aware that it was an amazing piece of work and realised I wouldn't mind seeing it again in the hope that I would react differently. Older and wiser, I pray I would not now be quite so stirred by the violence as I was then, and I recall being genuinely excited, which is even odder considering I detest violent movies. Unsettling.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Speaking Out

We finally did our bit in supporting the local theatre scene and got ourselves to one of the Necessary Stage's productions yesterday afternoon, conveniently staged at the Marine Parade Library's Black Box just five minutes walk from our apartment. And a jolly afternoon's entertainment it was, as provided by Haresh Sharma's Gemuk Girls. Well 'jolly' is the wrong word, I suppose - thought-provoking, stirring, challenging: those are the more appropriate terms, but in a genuinely engaging context - the ninety minutes felt short and the piece, though worthily serious, worked as entertainment in the best sense.

It helped that the subject matter was pretty controversial, certainly in terms of what is generally deemed the standard political discourse on this little island. There was an opportunity to genuinely think about thorny, possibly unresolvable issues related to difficult events transpiring over the years of independence. The play revolved around the experience of a man detained without trial in the early sixties, who spends the rest of his life in prison, and the effects of this upon his immediate family, into the present day. Although the play wore its liberal credentials a little too openly there was a real attempt to deal with the human cost yet not to resort to easy cliches.

As is so often the case with small scale productions here, the production values were high, especially in terms of the incorporation of multi-media material. The three cast members gave solid performances, with the one guy, Najib Soiman, being quite outstanding. The best scenes were those dealing head-on with Mazurki's (the detainee's name) arrest and imprisonment and he played these with admirable restraint.

In some ways the most striking, almost refreshing, aspect of the whole thing for me was the audience itself. First of all, it was incredibly youthful. I'd guess the majority were under twenty-four. Secondly, it was extremely focused; although responsive in terms of knowing where to laugh there was a powerful sense of concentration and thought in the little space. Thirdly, it was full, for a little, rather demanding, piece. I can't imagine this twenty years back.

I think the importance of what is going on in these small spaces on the island is underestimated.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


We went to see Mak in the High Dependency Unit a couple of times before heading back to Singapore, where we arrived early this morning, listening to the BBC's live commentary on the United vs Hull game as we drove in, which provided more excitement than was really welcome at that hour. The doctor is talking about letting Mak go home on Tuesday but there's quite a bit of discussion (of the lively variety) amongst her sons and daughters as to what exactly is the best thing to do, and what long term arrangements need to be made. Noi's family pull together eventually but, understandably, can spend time pulling in different directions before things get sorted and stablise.

Mak's speech is slurred, but clearer than I expected. She has some feeling in her left leg, but very little, if any, in her left arm. I'm not sure if she can be expected to walk again. She's worrying about the wedding next weekend, and her worrying is worrying us. Noi will be going back on Tuesday as she has been appointed head chef for the occasion and I'm hoping her remarkable capacity for taking control in these situations helps Mak relax through it all.

I was worried on Friday about driving up as I felt so tired. I've experienced sleepiness on the highway before and it's frightening. Perversely, worrying about the journey made me sleep badly on Thursday night (as usual I nodded off quickly but then came crashing awake far too early), that and the fact I knew Friday was going to be busy following tough days on Wednesday and Thursday. Worst of all was that our plan was to go up in two cars, with Noi driving the other. This meant there would be no back-up driver for me if my systems decided to close down. In the event the two car idea fell through, I did have back-up, and it turned out I didn't need it as I was wide awake from start to finish.

When we finally got to the house, after dropping in to see Mak in the hospital in Melaka, I lay on the mattress fully clothed and fell asleep in less than two minutes, which is about as long as I could stay awake after getting back this morning. That moment when you can surrender yourself to sleep somehow makes up for all the trials of getting there.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Early yesterday Mak suffered a mild stroke. This wasn't entirely unexpected. Both Noi and I had been worried earlier this week at news that she was feeling dizzy and had spent a lot of time lying down. We were aware of a problem with a blood clot identified when we took her for a check-up a few weeks back, and for which she's been on medication, so you didn't need to be any great diagnostician to guess what might happen. And now it has.

We're going over to see her tomorrow, taking one or two of the family with us. Noi's brother Khir gets married next week so the complications of all this are steadily mounting. And at the centre of it all is Mak, frailly ill.

This is not good. This is what must be dealt with. And that's what my remarkable wife is doing.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Geylang - insistent late afternoon sun, with only the traffic moving. A shop selling Christmas trees and decorations. In October.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Noi's been watching something on tv about couples in debt - huge amounts of debt, they're American. The lady doling out the advice, which was sensible enough stuff in practical terms, told one of those involved she had 'greatness' within her. I think this was intended to shore up the poor woman's morale, but it struck me as extraordinarily misapplied. What she had lots of was stupidity. Actually viewers were told not to sit in judgement on the folks on the programme, but this seemed a bit silly. What else were they on for? They'd been stupid, as we all can be, and it was time to face facts.

In attributing potential greatness to people who're notable for great stupidity we are in danger of devaluing not just money but language itself. How can we ever recognise the real thing when just getting yourself on prime-time is enough to be assured you've got it?

Now reading Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise which has finally come out in paperback and made it to the shores of this far place. Now this is a book that might well deserve to be described as great, centering on music whose greatness is slowly coming to be recognised. It takes time and sometimes a century is not enough.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Another Place

Finished Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. The final quarter, detailing the beatings, is extremely powerful. It's an odd comparison but I was reminded of Stephen King's Rose Madder. Charlo, the abusive husband in Doyle's novel, is, in the final analysis, something out of a horror story. The problem is that these horrors are only too actual. I suppose that's why Rose Madder sticks in the mind - the supernatural elements are, finally, irrelevant.

I remember once listening to a conversation between two perfectly average young women in which being hit by a boyfriend was discussed as if it were somehow a normal part of existence. Years later I remain bewildered by that, and deeply disturbed. I'm hoping this doesn't sound self-righteous - it's surely the way things should be, the sense of horror at such enormities I mean; but having spent the best part of an afternoon in a world suspiciously like the one the women mentally inhabited, in which things are simply not this way, it feels hard to be sure anymore.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Hours


Surfaced for the dawn prayer at 6.35-ish and went back to sleep after completion thereof. Enjoying the glories of a long weekend (tomorrow is a public holiday for Deepavali) involves catching up on lost sleep. Now gearing up for some marking but thinking of a cup of milo before I start. I'd prefer a cup of tea but Noi is the expert on putting together the cup that cheers and she's still in the land of nod, having stayed up a good deal later than me last night to watch one of her Malay 'dramas'.


Marking ongoing. Thought of stopping to watch some football highlights, having missed the games last night - we were out with Boon & Mei down Bussorah Street enjoying Indonesian/Thai food - but not that keen on watching Everton equalise. At one time a draw away from home would have been seen as a good result. Not any more. Not even playing any music yet, just trying to get through today's quota of scripts as quickly as possible.


The missus is now up and I'm about to get some breakfast. It's a good time to break from the marking which has featured a run of rather frustrating scripts. Odd idea: there are students who, consciously or unconsciously, create barriers in their written work to make it difficult for teachers to make helpful corrections, or even to actually read what's there. One such barrier is simply at the level of handwriting. The script is designed not to communicate as it has little of value to say.


Now fed and watered, I've also been listening to the first music of the day, but with a significant degree of irritation. The irritation has not in any way been related to the music in itself, the rather jolly Il Sogno Suite by Elvis Costello performed by the London Symphony, but to the erratic mode of its delivery. Our ancient stereo system now has reached the point of total unreliability and seems to take a wicked joy in pretending to play a CD then suddenly skipping all over the place. Yesterday Noi and I went to Marina Square to a shop that dealt in Bose systems to see if there was something cheap enough that would suit our needs. The salesman pointed us fruitlessly towards some home theatre type stuff saying they didn't do stereo systems as such, but according to the catalogue they've got some CD players that look pretty good to me. Still thinking about this one.

In the meantime fans of Bernstein's West Side Story, especially the dance sequences, would find lots to admire in Elvis's groovy piece. Is there no end to the man's talents?

And now I've got two essays to clear before I can shut up shop for the day and get down to some real living. I may even fall asleep again.


Just completed the marking for today. Odd fact: I've been marking essays for some thirty years and I still wonder as I'm going through each one, whether my comments, emendations, etc, are doing any good at all. That's why I'm baffled by all these chaps who are so sure how to go about teaching others. It remains a mystery to me.

Now thinking about what to read for the next half an hour or so in order to wind down. It's either Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, which I started last night, or something from The New York Review of Books.


Noi has just gone off to some wedding, taking Rozita and the girls with her. They intend to go jalan jalan at Suntec City afterwards so my presence is not required. I'm home alone until the evening. Noi seems to think I'll use this opportunity to play loud music, which goes to show how well she knows me.

Fifi and Fafa are both up for going to see Cinderella, the Rogers & Hammerstein musical on at the Esplanade, in January. It's good to know that Fifi doesn't yet regard herself as too old for such treats. As far as I understand it, this was the musical they did originally for television and I'm interested to see how it translates to the stage. Having 'done' Carousel and Flower Drum Song (and seen South Pacific, The King and I and Oklahoma in good productions) it's difficult to be other than an admirer of the dynamic duo, especially of Richard Rogers's contribution. I suspect I'd even enjoy The Sound of Music on stage and, no matter how sugary they'd got by then, can you imagine better tunes? These guys really knew their craft.

Reading update - thanks to The New York Review of Books I'm now just that little bit better informed on: bipolar disorder, Emily Dickinson and hummingbirds, the exploitation of low-wage workers in the US, and how the English are viewed by American foreign correspondents (not well), or one of them at least.


Sleep update - no extra zzzz's yet, but could be on their way. Reading The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. Note perfect, but I've come to expect that of Doyle. I'm a bit puzzled over Paula's utterly negative experiences at the beginning of secondary school though. The disenchantment is convincing and moving, but I can't figure if there's an implication of a somewhat distorted view of the school. Is Paula reflecting something about herself, her disillusion? Could the teachers really have been that bad? I mean, I was aware of bad teaching back at Rawmarsh, and being in one of the bottom classes I suppose you were more likely to get that, but there were a fair number of excellent teachers and even the most hopeless of the kids seemed to recognise that. Were things worse back in the early seventies, in Ireland? I can't see it, somehow, and I've just realised that I was teaching by 1977. But Doyle was a teacher (pretty much exactly contemporary with myself), so he should know.


Dozed briefly whilst listening to the opening of Tippett's The Ice Break (not a good choice as the need to follow the libretto prevents uncluttered attention) but woke to welcome back the ladies who've decided to change out of their finery into civilian garb before going on their shopping expedition.


Without really intending to I just watched a bit of tv. I was setting up a recording of something for Noi, who's now out again, when I caught a little bit of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show skewering the loony right of America with a trenchant bit of schtick on the Real America vs the Fake America. It was hilarious and angry at the one and the same time. But I do wonder if ten years from now we'll see the rise of fascism in the US as quite so funny.


Have made significant progress with Doyle and wondering about picking up something else by way of secondary reading. The immediate intention is to play some music though. Loud.


Revisited the past just now with a bit of prog rock, namely Gentle Giant's Octopus from the halcyon days of 1972. Actually the only Gentle Giant album I owned in their heydays was their first, Acquiring The Taste, which I vaguely liked but wasn't exactly in love with. After that I didn't bother. Big mistake. They had greater range and more genuine imagination than people like ELP who I was listening to, though with increasing disaffection, up to the great punk breakthrough.

Now sort of reading Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction which I bought last week. My copy went missing when I left it in the UK. It's the only book related to literary theory that I ever felt was genuinely worth reading. He genuinely clarifies where others gleefully obfuscate (he manages to be funny in places!) and there's a real feeling for some kind of democratic value in the reading of literature that I can warm to. I've got the anniversary edition, it now being a quarter of a century since it was first published, which has a readable preface pointing out that fashions have moved on beyond theory. Oh joy.

I'm sort of reading it in the sense that I'm taking it very slowly indeed, not exactly to savour the contents, simply to ensure I understand at least half of what's going on.

Also dipping into my new Collected Poems of Robert Lowell which I bought at the same time as Literary Theory. I have a selected in KL from years ago which did survive its sojourn in the UK but this is the first time I've realised the full range of a poet who became a central figure in my reading in my early twenties. I was introduced to him via Mailer's portrait in the early chapters of Armies of the Night which is a great, if in some ways unreliable, place to start. The Collected is fabulously chunky and clunky and comes with an excellent notes at the back.


The missus is back and we're off out soon to eat yong tau fu at Geylang. Hoping to be back in time to catch some of The Simpsons Movie which is showing in an hour. Have decided not to watch the big game tonight. I'll watch the replay tomorrow.


Now couch potatoing to the best of America. You elected me to lead, not to read. How can a nation capable of producing The Simpsons be serious over Ms Palin as a candidate for high office?


Monitoring the hours finally broke down due to the surpassing excellence of The Simpsons Movie. Many laughs, loud and long. Now about to wind up the day with a good murder (Midsomer, recorded) still resisting the temptation to watch the footie, though I know that at this point in time Liverpool are up 0 - 1. Also about to phone Mum.

Great day.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


The quandary I faced regarding what to adopt as secondary reading to the main novel on the go has been elegantly solved of late by simply not having time to read at all. Of course. even when there's no time to read, I read - if it can only be ten pages late at night or a couple of pages in SAC over a cup of tea it helps keep one sane.

This week being in the company of the various damaged souls inhabiting Craiglockhart War Hospital in Pat Barker's Regeneration has done me a tremendous amount of good. At the simplest level it's been a reminder that the pressures I face are of utter insignificance compared with those extremes of human experience I was born, luckily, not to face (well, so far, at least.)

Oddly and appropriately it's the kind of novel that works well when read in a fragmented fashion. To some degree it's built out of intense cameos, underpinned with strong thematic links, particularly the metaphor of the pain of 'regeneration', so, though it hangs together with assurance, it invites a kind of dipping into. I finished it this morning, finding myself surprised (and horrified) by the scenes of Yealland's electrical treatment of the soldiers in the final segment simply on the level of not seeing anything like this coming. But I did have a problem with the use of real life people as characters. (I can't imagine the descendants of Dr Yealland have been too thrilled by his portrayal in the novel.) This is not so much on moral grounds as on the simple fact that no matter how powerful the insights of the writer are they cannot possibly do justice to the complexities of what really did take place, yet the frame is that of the traditional novel with an omniscient narrator. It's almost as if too much is being claimed. For example, the scenes between Owen and Sassoon have an odd charm and powerful readability, but there's the ghost of a bad Hallmark movie lurking around them.

What works brilliantly is the slantwise approach to the central concern of the war and war in general. Detachment and intensity. Sometimes distance is the only way to get close enough to say something worth saying.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Picture This

Blogger cooperated this evening on the picture front rendering words largely superfluous.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Good Times

Noi has estimated that we entertained over sixty guests last Sunday (and that despite the fact that quite a few folk couldn't make it). At one point I don't think we could have got anyone else in the apartment. Since her assessment of success is based on how crowded we get and how much food is consumed, and taken away, she's very pleased with how it all went. And me? I just had the usual great time, and have enjoyed chowing down on those edibles that did not get snaffled up on the day since.

I'd like to have uploaded a couple of pictures of the nosh in all its splendour, but Blogger isn't obliging. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


For some twenty days or so my back has been troubling me, and for the last three or four I've been dealing with real pain. Except it's not quite like that. It begins, when I'm standing, as a kind of absence in the lower back, an absence of ease, something like a numbness. This translates itself steadily over time into a distinct presence, accompanied by a mild heat, that seems to radiate in almost wave-like fashion. It's constant, but surprisingly easily forgotten, if something catches my attention. But there remains a kind of awareness, almost a memory of sensation - until I focus again on the idea of being in enough discomfort to call it pain and it becomes pain. Not terrible pain. In fact, quite easy to bear, but pain nonetheless.

I feel intensely vulnerable and keep thinking I don't think I could cope if I were in a fight. This is odd since it's quite some years since I fought anyone. I'm also aware of how easily irritated I feel once I've crossed the ten-minute standing barrier.

I am recognising an old companion - this is the chronic pain that dogged me relentlessly for some five or six years. I'm hoping this time it's here on a fleeting visit, but aware there's some possibility my optimism may be unfounded. But that's not too bad - this is a faint shadow of the real suffering that dogs so many unfortunates and I cannot count myself amongst their number. So this is by way of an acknowledgement and greeting, old friend.

Monday, October 20, 2008


When I was a kid, a young teenager, I used to wonder why Dad would get home from work and just zonk out in a chair. Now I know.

There's a kind of quiet heroism in just keeping going. And imagine how that translates for those who have so little to keep going for.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Open Doors

The apartment is in creative turmoil. I am hiding by the computer as Noi, aided by Rozita and abetted by Fi Fi & Fa Fa, puts the finishing touches to a mountain of grub and restructures the living space (as rooms are now called in lifestyle publications) to welcome a cartload of guests. As far as I know the missus hardly got any sleep last night as she was 'preparing'. She is quite remarkable. And I am lucky. Very.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

When You're Smiling

I've read somewhere, and I just can't remember where - an increasingly common condition, in my case - that a colleague who worked with J. M. Coetzee when he was still an academic said he only ever saw the great man laugh once in the whole time he worked with him. Readers of Disgrace would find little surprising in this. It must be up for some award as one of the least humorous novels ever written. (Next to it Siddhartha is a regular laugh fest, English A1 students please note.) But what I find particularly interesting about this little story is the question of what it actually was that made him laugh. A joke? An ironic situation? Somebody breaking wind? What could have, albeit briefly, opened the floodgates? And would it have made me laugh?

It's increasingly rare for me to suffer a bout of uncontrollable laughter but there was one recently brought on by a reference in Bennett's Untold Stories to the message on a Christmas card from one of his friends. It's far too vulgar to repeat in this very public far place but it's on page 301 on my edition, in a diary entry for December 2001. And every time I think of it I crack up.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Beyond Compare

Finished Disgrace yesterday and moved onto a bit of Pat Barker. Trying to get some distance from Coetzee who seems to have reached into my guts, wrenched them in a number of novel directions and then left me to make of myself whatever I can. A visceral read. I don't suppose it would necessarily have such an impact on every reader, but for me every word rang true and glowed like burning coal as a master of song once put it.

I suppose this is what it's like to live with a skin too few.

The Blind Assassin is a wonderful novel, beautifully structured, written with remarkable assurance, chock full of penetrating insight. As you read it you're conscious of the sheer craft of it all, how it works. In contrast, Coetzee seems beyond craft. I have no idea how Disgrace works, why Disgrace works. I don't even know what exactly it thinks it's doing, or how it manages to be so stunning. For this reader it just is.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Another Rat

This one put in an appearance at the wet market at Geylang Serai. Noi and I were there earlier as she needed to buy various spices for the dishes she has in mind for our Raya Open House this Sunday. She's always bought them from one particular stall, and there we were, almost finished, the bags loaded, when this grey-pink fellow shot between us and the stall, almost directly across her feet, and made his way through a hole at the bottom of what seems to be a temporary partition wall made of plywood, I think.

He (or she?) was so fast that Noi didn't see him at all and, in fact, still doesn't know what happened. I felt that this was information she could do without.

I'm pretty sure the stall holders see this rat, or some of his companions, regularly. He didn't seem in the slightest perturbed by the fact that we were standing around, wilfully cutting across our ground, and I got the sense he was covering a regular route. I suppose the market must be home to a few hundred, possibly more, of these guys, my guess being that rats breed like rabbits, or vice versa.

I suppose I should be a bit disturbed by all this but for some unaccountable reason the thought of the fellow makes me fairly cheerful. But then I've been haunted by Coetzee's dogs all day, not to mention quite a few of the other inhabitants of Disgrace (of which more soon), and a fat Singaporean rat (but he was really quite slim, I just like the phrase) seems cause for at least a thin smile (or a slim grin).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Carried Away

Finished The Blind Assassin yesterday and jumped straight into Coetzee's Disgrace. Finding it difficult to put down, even though I have to due to being swamped with work. Surely we live in a golden age for fiction.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Missed Opportunities

It seems that 9 October was National Poetry Day (in the UK) as designated by whoever has the say on these matters. There seem to be days for just about everything now and I suppose this does no harm, but I don't feel bad about not knowing anything about it as I see no particular reason for going to a lot of trouble to promote the reading and writing of the stuff. I'm puzzled when people don't like poetry but not terribly upset. It's a free world and if you'd rather play computer games or follow Formula 1 racing, good luck to you. I must say I think you're missing out on a lot but I'm pretty sure a reasonable effort has been made over years to alert you to the virtues of poetry and that's about as much as one can reasonably expect. I certainly don't think it's going to do poetry itself any great harm if it remains a minority interest. Maybe that's what it should be? Though I hasten to add, I think there's a lot more readers out there getting thoroughly immersed in the stuff and writing it than tends to be assumed.

Oddly enough I suspect it helps a lot in the classroom when classes realise a teacher is not terribly fussed as to whether they pick up on the teacher's enthusiasm for a subject. A kind of odd reverse psychology kicks in.

But the missed opportunity I'm really kicking myself over concerns last Friday's concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall featuring Vaughan Williams's 6th Symphony (and a tasty bit of Walton plus the Enigma Variations) by one of the big London orchestras (the Philharmonic, I think.) How did I manage not to know anything about this until I read the review? I've heard the Enigma a couple of times in concert so that didn't hurt, but I've never had the chance to listen to the Vaughan Williams in the concert hall and, scary as it is to say it, there's a fair chance I never will again. Rats!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dressing Up

Noi likes to draw attention to groups of people, especially teenagers, who are obviously out visiting in the post-Raya season. How does she know that's what they're doing? Because they are, almost to a man, or woman, wearing traditional Malay garb. Although she doesn't actually say so, I know she takes pride in the fact that Malays seem to embrace the visible aspects of their culture at this time, even though such aspects may seem, to some degree, in conflict with the broader culture. She'll also generally point out that this is not something you see the Chinese here doing (dressing traditionally, I think she means.) I don't think she means this as a slur - rather, she is genuinely puzzled regarding the lack of what she sees as a sense of identity.

We saw a nice example of this on Friday when we were out doing the rounds ourselves. On the way up to our third port of call we passed a group of youngsters, in their late-teens I'd have said, sitting around a table at a void deck. There was a roughly equal mix of boys and girls, and each was dressed to the nines. Ironically it turned out they were on their way to the same address as ourselves, being friends of the youngsters of the family we were visiting. I couldn't help but think of the almost-impossibility of seeing kids of the same age in England who would conform so readily to the customs of their parents and take such obvious pleasure in dressing in a way that was at such odds with what would normally be regarded as fashionable. At the same time I got the sense that they were appropriating the traditions for their own ends, enjoying being in the group, making a show of visiting their friends independently of their families, making their outfits look good due to their casual, youthful grace. It also struck me that passing a group of teenagers out on the streets at that time of night in Manchester would have made me a little uneasy, and certainly watchful. These kids, in contrast, ended up happily salaaming me, and all the other elders, in a show of respect.

There's a lot to be said for built-in structures of respect & deference, structures demanding these be shown to elders. Such structures can bind people in very healthy, productive ways and need not necessarily weigh us down.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

More Art

Noi's youngest sister, Tina, is staying with us over the weekend with her friend, Haslinda. The girls (really women, in their twenties, I think, but I'm not trying to be patronising - they look and behave like young teenagers, as so many Malay women of that age do) are here to enjoy a weekend of art. They are both practising artists, Tina is involved in all sorts of pottery-related activities, and as far as I can tell spent most of yesterday, before we met them in the evening, scouring the island for art and food. Now they're out again doing the same, having only gone to bed after two in the morning, following a trip to the beach with my missus. I was safely and insensibly tucked in bed at that stage of the proceedings.

Just now I was looking at their catalogue for ARTSingapore - the Contemporary Asian Art Fair 2008. It's all very glossy, very commercial, I suppose, yet brimming with energy and oooomph. I loved it, but indiscriminately so. I just have no taste but lots of appetite.

I'm not quite sure why, but I associate most of what I see with a sense of youth. The girls' own appetite for taking all this in is dauntingly intimidating but vaguely galvanizing. And that's had me thinking about how enjoyable, tackily but truly life-affirming it is to be around young people. Editing the testimonials for the students who'll soon be leaving my school has been another reminder of this. They get so much done! Of course, it helps that teenagers generally in Singapore don't conform to the sullen stereotypes of their counterparts in the UK. Like their country they remain, for the most part, stubbornly, occasionally remorselessly, sunny.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Alan Bennett's Untold Stories are now told in my case, and I'm very glad they have been, though in some ways sad to lose the companionship of the collection. For such an avowedly shy person - and he is particularly good in teasing out the implications of that all too common condition - he makes a remarkably good companion. The voice of his prose is that of an observant, honest friend, the kind who illuminates the most ordinary of our experiences in a way that seems curiously ordinary - not really adding to what was already there - but which you recognise as brilliantly perceptive. I suppose the role is more that of what these days is termed a mentor, but I can't imagine Bennett employing this term, so I won't.

Now I'm devoting my full attention to Atwood, having almost reached the halfway mark in The Blind Assassin, but I'm thinking of what I might balance against this. I seem constitutionally unable to have only one book on the go.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Got back early enough in the afternoon to bang on my DVD of Richard Thompson playing live in Austin, Texas (just guitar, double bass and drums). Why is this man not a national treasure? I ask fellow Brits. Then I buried my head in the wonderful and wondrous The Blind Assassin before thinking about getting ready to go jalan jalan raya with the missus & nieces, which is what I'm now doing. Kak Kiah's will be our chief port of call, which means overwhelming amounts of remorselessly wonderful grub. And I can't honestly say I'm really upset about that.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

2 Questions...

… brought about by listening to The Turangalila Symphony. What was Messiaen on when he wrote it? And where can I get hold of some of that stuff?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Caught a glimpse of what I took to be either quite a large rat or a fattish squirrel at work today. At the time I was gazing out of one of the windows in the canteen area (known as the SAC for some reason) in a zen-ish attempt to become one with my cup of tea. The area beyond the window is home to a bit of landscaping and vegetation, including a couple of trees with a fascinating set of mangrove-style secondary roots, so the creature was in a suitable sort of creaturely environment.

It's odd but I can't recall ever seeing a rat 'live', as it were, back in England. In Singapore I've seen quite a few. I saw one positively avuncular specimen strolling around an area in which I taught drama some years back, in the all-girls' school I worked in. Broad day-light as well, shameless fellow. And then there was the time I was walking to the same school, about twelve years ago, along East Coast Road (I lived quite close) when I saw a crowd (tribe? posse?) of about ten rats scavenging around a couple of bins below an overhead bridge. I took a few steps towards them, assuming they would scatter, and they just ignored me and carried on with their ratty business. Discretion proved the better part of valour on my behalf and I found myself walking down the middle of the road to leave them in peace.

I can't say I'm overly fond of them (pace the estimable Ratty in The Wind in the Willows) but I must say the sheer otherness of those with whom we share this world feels, in some strange way, like something to celebrate.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hard Lives

Depressing article in today's Straits Tines concerning Bangladeshi workers in Singapore who have valid work permits, having paid 'agents' big sums to come over here (like $8,000), only to find there's no actual work for them. It seems the agents make so much from the fees that they deliberately hire more of the guys than the companies they represent need. When the guys complain to the Ministry of Manpower their work permits get cancelled by their so-called employers. Since they're not getting work they cannot pay off the debts they've incurred to pay the agents (in the form of loans from money-lenders in Bangladesh) so when they eventually go back, which it looks like most will be forced to do, they face crippling debts. They left Bangladesh originally due to the unemployment rates there, so there is absolutely nothing they can do to get out of the mess.

Well, at least this made it to the newspaper and possibly someone in a position to take action and right a terrible wrong might be able to do so. I suppose somebody somewhere will tell us this is all part of the benefits of globalisation.

Also heard on the BBC this morning: a quarter of the world's species of mammals are under direct threat of extinction. Fortunately or otherwise, depending on how you look at it, our own species does not seem to be one of them.

Monday, October 6, 2008

For Art's Sake

Made reasonable progress in both Untold Stories and The Blind Assassin over the weekend. I've now passed the central section of Untold Stories with all the diary entries, these proving such easy, enjoyable, rewarding reading that I had to consciously slow down to extend the pleasure of the text. A little bit of that pleasure comes from the referencing of aspects of British culture (especially of the more popular variety) with which I am familiar, though now at some distance. I'm not sure his essay on Thora Hird would mean much to someone who'd never seen her perform, but I have and found myself pleased to be able to recall her work, though I've never been a particular fan. He writes so well about her (well, about pretty much everything that catches his attention) that I'm sorry I didn't pay all that much attention to her when I was in a position to watch her regularly on tv. His play, or rather monologue, for her, The Last of the Sun is one of the best things in the collection.

Incidentally, I had no idea that Bennett is such an art (as in the visual arts) -buff. He's got an ability to communicate his enthusiasm in this regard that marks him as a natural, real teacher. It was a little strange to get into this aspect of his work just after completing The Sea, in which the appreciation of visual art is a key idea. It's been a long time since I've thought seriously about developing my sense of the history of art, something I was consciously attempting some years ago. I suppose that living in a place where there's little sense of the routine of going to galleries and exhibitions has dulled my appetite in that direction, but I can imagine it reviving under the tutelage of a Bennett.

Actually the problem I have is recognising quality. It all looks good to me, unless I don't get it (the conceptual/performance art stuff, which I still sort of enjoy even when it's just silly, or pretentious, or both) and I'm completely unable to make valid discriminations. In contrast, I think I recognise good writing, and there's heaps of it in Untold Stories.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Travelling Man

Setting off at 4.00 pm from Melaka, I wondered whether we might have something of an epic journey ahead of us before the welcome familiarity of Still Road, and meeting a substantial jam after Machap, only two-thirds of the way back, it looked as if we might be in one of those situations characterised as memorable for all the wrong reasons. The fact that there'd been bit of a hold-up at Tuas on the way over on Friday, even though we were there in the very early evening, added to my sense of doom. I surmised that a lot of Malays were heading to Malaysia over the weekend to visit family for Hari Raya, like ourselves.

Our last few trips north have tended to involve jams, snarls and the like, with some particularly irritating situations in which we'd chosen the wrong lane and felt life's unfairness weighing us down, and I think all that was fueling my pessimism. But at least I was mentally prepared.

For nothing - as it turned out. After about half-an-hour of stop-start stuff the highway, all two lanes of it, mysteriously began to clear and we sailed through Tuas to sunny Singapore, arriving at the door at 8.00 pm. My guess is that we'd been caught in a lot of Malaysian traffic comprising those visiting relatives and those heading home to Johore after spending time in villages to the north, it being the last day of the week's public holiday in Malaysia.

So this is all much ado about nothing, I suppose, except to serve as a reminder to be grateful when the journey goes well - which, as long as you get there in one piece, is always.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Funds

We're engulfing ourselves in the usual mildly frenetic preparations for a journey north, this time just as far as Melaka where we'll be spending the weekend in a Malaysian continuation of the celebrations for Eid. I know our visit is being looked forward to by the smaller residents of Mak's house (of which there are many) not because we're terribly popular with them but we are carrying precious envelopes loaded with the necessary funds.

Noi was telling me the other day about reading about one child who cashed in over three thousand last Hari Raya. And speaking of being flush, Mum reported winning yet another forty quid at bingo the other night. Financial crisis? What financial crisis?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

All At Sea

It wasn't all munching beef rendang and lontong yesterday. I found the time, in between visitors, to complete The Sea and greatly enjoyed doing so, and I also found myself savouring some of the central sections, the extracts from his diaries, from Alan Bennett's Untold Stories. I was a bit surprised at the ease with which I read Banville's novella having got the impression from somewhere that it was slow-moving, highly poetic and a touch unapproachable on those counts. (I wasn't entirely honest in the comment I made a few days back about knowing absolutely nothing about it - next to nothing would have been more appropriate. I suppose I must have picked up something when it won the Booker without being overly aware of what I was soaking in.)

Now the idea of a novel being poetic and slow-moving would probably serve as something of a recommendation as far as I am concerned, but I felt that, contrary to expectation, The Sea moved along quite briskly, thank you. In what is only a novella-length text Banville cunningly weaves three in many ways separate narrative strands each with its own momentum. As far as I was concerned it was a case of hardly a dull moment. The material from the narrator's childhood, memories of holidays at the seaside, had in itself sufficient narrative interest to hold a whole novel together, but in addition we had the death of the narrator's wife (in painful, sad, dreadfully convincing, detail - enough to get me quite shuddery) and the framing situation of the narrator in the 'present' back at the seaside, trying to make sense of it all, which itself involved beautifully observed details of a sort of run-down, genteel boarding house, and a painful descent into a sort of alcoholic stupor. As far as I'm concerned that's plenty to be going on with.

Stylistically it's fair to say we do get a lot of poetry, any number of set-pieces ranging from the beautiful to the morbid, but this is always at the service of the characterisation of the narrator. I'm tempted to call him 'unreliable' in the technical sense, but the twist here is that Max has the self-awareness to draw attention to his own unreliability. Events are often clouded in uncertainty simply because he is uncertain of what he saw and heard (and smelt - he's a great one for odours) and at a loss to understand other people and their behaviour. It's as if he can only pin down what is static and the descriptions have a forceful sense of stasis, a sense of the painterly. That Max is some sort of art critic fits beautifully. In fact, that's what's so striking about this work - it is a 'work', coming together in a highly satisfying manner as a very fine piece of craftsmanship. I'm not sure I was terribly moved on a first reading but I was engaged, and I suspect a rereading would find me responding more to the latent emotional power of it all. Oh, and it's not all poetry - there's a fair spattering of the dramatic and demotic.

Since finishing it yesterday I've looked up some comments about The Sea on (I find myself doing this occasionally these days. I like the democracy involved, just reading how a range of readers react, folk who are not in any way academic or literary. Just like me, in fact.) I've been taken aback by the number who, it seems to me, overstress the 'poetic slow-moving' bit. Banville even gets compared to Proust, which does justice to neither writer. I mean, have those making the comparison ever read Proust? Banville fits what would amount to enough material for a short story into the space Proust needs to describe a fountain in action (or in inaction.) And then there are (occasional) accusations of wilful incomprehensibility, the result of a deliberately arcane vocabulary. Yes, you do get the odd unusual word, but this is obviously a feature of the narrator's self-consciously fastidious style. It's noticeable that a fair number of the ones you need to look up (I'd guess about ten for the whole book) are drawn from the registers of art criticism and medicine, both fields of obsessional interest for Max. And surely it's not that difficult to open a dictionary or pop to one of the numerous on-line dictionaries available!?

The other oddly illuminating criticism the novel appears prone to is that the characters are not at all likeable. Offhand, yes that's true, but a moment's thought is enough to lead one to the realisation that this is because Max (really quite a nasty chap) sees them that way. In fact, he doesn't really 'see' others as anything other than subjects for his artistic observations. The astute reader surely gets a sense of far more going on under the surface of appearances than Max is able to be aware of. And Max gains our sympathy, well mine at least, because something of his limitations are in all of us, well me, anyway.

Mind you, having said all that, I didn't really buy the twins on a first reading - a bit too gothic for my tastes. And I suppose it might fairly be said that something of the success of the novel derives from how good it is within its limitations. This is not a terribly ambitious work in terms of the scope of its concerns. But within what (I assume) it's trying to do, it's brilliantly successful.

And now onto The Blind Assassin, which I picked up on Tuesday night and with which I am extremely keen to reacquaint myself, not least because there are more than a few bits I didn't really get the first time round.