Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Secret World

I've kept a sort of personal journal cum diary since 2001. In some respects this Far Place is an extension of that. Today I was looking at some of the entries for Januarys past and I was struck by just how private they are, or rather were. I don't mean that the entries are extremely introspective or soul-searching. Actually this is by no means the case. Rather that they reference aspects of my life in a kind of short-hand with little sense that they might one day have a kind of public function, for this reader. That I would one day be distant enough from the chap who was writing them as to not quite be able to take in the implications of every reference. In contrast, what makes it to this Far Place seems to me extremely public, guarded, composed, which is, in a sense, as it should be.

Such shifts in the way we compose ourselves seem to me to relate to what we do when we make art. When those first cave dwellers grabbed the painting sticks and decorated the walls my guess is that the urge to do came not so much from a desire to express themselves as from a desire to get the attention of others. And to dissolve the boundaries between individuals - assuming they recognised such boundaries at all. Perhaps it was not so much getting others' attention as the group looking at itself through its daubings.

These days we seem to scream for such attention, or at least some aspects of modern art suggest the raised voice, the neediness of the group. I suppose we are all needy in varying degrees - but the less we need, perhaps the better.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In Celebration

Today is Fa Fa's birthday, but we actually celebrated it on Sunday - evidence above. We gave her some Geronimo Stilton books which were obviously welcome. She'd told us the numbers she wanted (there are over thirty all told) which made life easy for us. Someone's obviously making a lot of money out of the series, and well they deserve it. Witty, colourful and typographically charming the books are worth every penny. So is my niece.

Monday, January 28, 2008


At a meeting today there was some talk of the necessity for rest. It put me in mind of a line from Henry Vaughan (one of the great mystical poets - a Welsh wizard, if ever there was one): God ordered motion but ordained no rest. The contrast between ordered and ordained is achingly real and beautiful. The whole poem, Man, is well worth more than a look.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


Of all the stuff I read in KL back in December it's probably been David Hare's play Fanshen that has had the most lasting impact upon me. Certainly reading it served to make me conscious of the virtues of a certain kind of politically-committed theatre in a way that has surprised me. I read it along with four other plays from the mid-seventies (which I think I picked up as review copies for a student newspaper I wrote for. I certainly don't recall buying them.) These included another play by Hare, Teeth & Smiles, concerning the fortunes of a rock band playing at a university ball, which I found considerably less interesting.

Fanshen concerns the process of revolution as it plays out in a small Chinese village over a period of several years and is based on meticulous research. It's political in a Brechtian manner, and I thought I would find it overly schematic if not dogmatic in its approach to its subject. I suppose I'm firmly in the camp that believes that somewhere along the line revolutions inevitably get betrayed, the sort of Animal Farm, Won’t Get Fooled Again school of thought. I still believe that to be the case, but Fanshen made me see some of the complexities embedded in the lives of those really experiencing revolutionary change and just how interesting, illuminating and moving those experiences are in their own right. It's a case of particularities transcending generalities that's the mark of the best writing. I think Teeth & Smiles was also intending to make some kind of comment on a changing society but I found it got bogged down in the personal (especially as applied to sexual relationships), rather than the particular - if that makes any sense.

Two other plays I read were also concerned with the battle of the sexes, as it were. (I know that sounds reductionist and more than a little corny but, honestly, that's what it seemed to boil down to.) Of the two Christopher Hampton's Treats was genuinely funny all the way through but overall felt a bit thin, like the pilot for a comedy series, whilst E.A. Whitehead's Old Flames featured an extraordinarily dull and preachy second half after a reasonably promising first act. This, the second bit, revolved around a group of women talking about how dreadful men are, having just murdered a particularly unpleasant representative of the gender. The playwright claimed this is how women really talk when they are together, which convinced me that he's the kind of chap that doesn't get around very much. What struck me about both of these plays, and Teeth & Smiles for that matter, was the sense that the writers seemed to be doing little more than moaning about personal misery, which is all very well if you do it with genius, but rather petty if you don't.

I also read Edward Bond's The Fool, a meditation of sorts on the life of the poet John Clare. The deeply political approach taken to its subject struck me as refreshing and, as with Fanshen, illuminating, even if there were issues that one might have liked to have debated. And I suppose that's what struck me about these plays (Fanshen and The Fool): they construct a way of viewing experience that gives one something to react against and which draws one into a kind of tussle with their writers' imaginations. I like that.

I think I'm losing patience with notions of the transcendent power of art, something I might have vaguely believed in when Fanshen was first written

Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Fond Farewell

I am no longer At Swim-Two-Birds having departed in the late afternoon. I'd intended to draw out my stay for a few more days but couldn't resist the final segment, featuring the trial of poor Trellis by his own creations and the narrator's equivocal triumph over the Uncle. In fact I found myself snatching a bit of a read here and there in the course of a long, but not unpleasant, day at work.

I'm now considering which fictional location to escape into next.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Crafty Guitars

The CD changer in the car can be oddly temperamental regarding which CDs it deigns to play. It seems to hold a grudge against the mighty Bob having refused to play The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan a few weeks back and now Infidels. But today it mysteriously relented after a week of solid non-cooperation and allowed me to listen to The Robert Fripp String Quintet's The Bridge Between. I'm glad it did.

It's been quite a while, far too long, since I listened to anything in which Mr Fripp had been a guiding light and I sense I am about to enter a period in which his various projects, from the solo soundscapes to the full Crimson King, get plenty of air time. Today's CD featured various players who are associated with Guitar Craft and was a reminder of the many virtues of the work associated with that extraordinary, quite possibly visionary, approach to making music. The sheer brightness and cogency of sound they coax from their instruments, the percussive drive of the more extrovert pieces, the density yet clarity of texture - all seem to me to validate whatever it is they get up to in those Crafty sessions. Soundscapes here I come.

An observation: just abut anyone who came out of the whole progressive rock thing with any credibility was associated with either Fripp or Zappa in one way or another. And both these gentlemen at various times brought unusual amounts of vituperation upon themselves from some of the musicians around them. Was some kind of correlation involved?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Walls Come Tumbling Down

Good walls may make good neighbours, but sometimes it's good to see them breached. Especially when the wall is good for one side only.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


On the tee-shirt of one of the guys who was at the fitness centre in Katong yesterday, where Noi and I were keeping up with New Year resolutions: Training Makes Me Feel Good. How refreshing it was to read a reasonably modest claim for once. (Training does make you feel good, by the way.)

The barrage of false or inflated claims we seem to live amongst is surely evidence, if evidence were needed, of the self-deceiving nature of our species. This type of nonsense is particularly prevalent, I find, in the world of education. Schools these days seem to take it as part of the nature of things that they must claim to effect extraordinary transformations in the lives of their 'clients'. (This word, which I have actually seen used of schools minus any sense of irony, seems more appropriate somehow in this context.) I've even read the nonsense in lesson plans (which in terms of their so-called objectives are often documents of heady ambition) - students will acquire a love of reading; students will become life-long learners. Yeah, right. How about: most of the students will find getting through the text reasonably painless and be able to cope, I hope admirably, with whatever the examiners dream up and a few will survive the day with their genuine interest in books and the life of the mind intact. With luck, nobody will actually fall asleep.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Powerful Stuff

David Mamet is a name that's long been familiar to me as a very highly rated writer for the theatre but I'd never read anything by him until yesterday. I knew he was highly regarded for his dialogue, which I gathered was extraordinarily naturalistic - the language of the everyday, complete with hesitations, repetitions, non sequiturs and the like, and that was about it. Oh, and I knew his play Oleanna had something to do with the notion of political correctness being turned against a male character by a female because it was staged in Singapore last year, or thereabouts, and I'd read a review (but, sadly, didn't get to see the production as I was too busy at the time.) It sounded intriguing.

So when we went to the library the other day, the one at The Esplanade, to pick up some plays (a deliberate strategy to have things to read that can be gobbled down in reasonable time even if work is excessively demanding) and I saw a copy of Oleanna it was an easy pick. And what a great play (or, rather, script which I think would make a great play) it turned out to be. The dialogue is wonderfully crafty, in the sense that it derives from an art that conceals art. Apparently, superficially casual, yet every pause counts. But what took me by surprise was the depth of ideas that the encounter(s) between John and Carol explored. There's a bit of blurb on the back of the edition I read that says Mamet intends 'to skewer the dogmatic, puritanical streak which has become commonplace on and off the campus', but I think the piece goes much deeper than that (an interpretation, by the way, that seems to assume the female, Carol, is the villain(ess) of the story.) Give the role to a good actress and I think you've got a highly disturbing, disconcerting exploration of power and its role in education, in life I suppose, which should make any liberal educator think twice, or more.

I usually feel that writers don't do terribly well when dealing with education. Something of the texture of the whole teacher/learner thing escapes them. This play nails one aspect of the experience and the mirror it holds up to nature doesn't reflect well on any of us.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Racing Ahead

I noticed a slogan on a teacher's tee-shirt today: Life Is A Race. This struck me as a very Singaporean idea and both sad and a touch silly. The image of the nation being 'on the next lap' and in a 'race' against others (usually a marathon) has been used frequently in the newspapers in the almost twenty years I've been here which is why it strikes me as a peculiarly Singaporean trope. It may point to some economic truth, I'm not qualified to comment in this regard, but as a personal idea it doesn't make a lot of sense, unless you choose to harry yourself in pursuit of an illusory victory.

I'm sure there are places where it's just a fact of life that you are racing for the victory of simple survival, far too many such places. But to create such demons to drive you when you really don't need to is a strange thing to do.

I was wearing my red tee-shirt with the yellow star that I got in Vietnam last year simply because it's a cheerful one to wear and useful when running as the sweat dries quickly. I'm pleased to report I completed my ten laps in a nice slow time.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Just Another Day


Got up at 6.30 for the dawn prayer and then tried, largely unsuccessfully, to doze a bit more. Now up and trying to get a few essays marked before doing anything else - my way of hitting the ground running. I'm looking at some commentaries on a passage from Coetzee's Age of Iron. Most of the students are coping with the material but don't seem aware that a struggle or battle in this context might not refer to all out war. Sheltered lives?


Just broke off the marking to check the football results and make myself a Milo, the missus still being in the land of nod. I didn't even try to stay up last night to watch the game, but was fairly confident United would pick up three points, despite that irritating draw against Reading early in the season. And so it was to be, though Arsenal and Chelsea also got predictable victories. It looks like going to the wire this season. Bring it on, say I.


The football highlights will be on in a minute so I'm casting the marking to one side for a while. But it (the marking) will still be waiting for me when the fun is over.


Now back to the grindstone, having eaten some cereal and drank some tea. The highlights didn't show enough of the United game to get a real sense of it, but they're showing the full match later.

Fa Fa phoned to let me know that Kakak and Ayah are making fun of me, imitating my jogging style. Grrrr!


One set of essays marked. Now moving on to a new set. I need to make a big dent in this pile today to keep to schedule for getting this stuff back to the kids for next week. I can't claim to be enjoying this, but it's fundamental to the job. So just do it.


I broke off the marking just now to see if I could find any news in today's paper. As usual, a futile quest. Then I went looking for something about books on the book pages. Largely futile. At least the cartoons are funny.


Noi has gone off to Geylang Serai, in order to buy some chicken. I'd like to have gone along but, alas, I am chained upon a desk of fire - or something like that.

One of my new students just phoned to say she did the wrong passage for homework - a whole four pages! I didn't have the heart to make her do the right one. Too soft, I know. But I'll frown more next week to make up for it.


Noi is now back, it's raining heavily, and I have two more essays to mark. Then I need to finish planning lessons for next week. Ho hum.


Ploughing on with a killer script that's very long, and very much in need of detailed correction. But the lessons are basically planned so there's an end in sight and real life may be resumed shortly.


Now watching Chelsea against Birmingham. On the evidence of the first half, which they've just finished showing, Chelsea were incredibly lucky to come away with all three points. Considering reading something, or listening to some music, but it can be a bit difficult to settle immediately after a prolonged bout of marking. I finished Edward Bond's play Lear last night but haven't read the preface yet and Bond usually has interesting, if contentious, things to say in his Shavian prefaces. It's a tough play to read in terms of envisaging a staging - more difficult than The Fool which I read in KL in December and greatly enjoyed.


Now I have read the preface to Lear and thought it had some insights but felt at odds with a central premise. Bond is certain we are not, by nature, a violent species. I'm doubtful. There's some useful material in Pinker's The Blank Slate that points forcefully in that direction. Actually Bond is certain about just about everything he has to say about humanity and society which worries me. How does he know so much? These politically committed chappies tend to be that way inclined, being certain of just about everything. Having said that, it lends their work a bracing quality: they really do have something to say about the world. Most of what gets said in Lear is nasty, almost to the point that you really don't want to know. But, then, the world can be, for most people is, a grim sort of place.


Finally managed to get out of the apartment, though I sacrificed some of the United game to do so. Fuad, Rozita and the girls have arrived and we've just been playing an impromptu game of badminton in the car park outside. I am now revenged upon Fi Fi having assayed a less-than-subtly comic version of her jogging style. I was a hoot, even if I say so myself.


Replete after a surpassingly excellent dinner, and a fine second half against Reading. I wonder who it was upset Sir Alex though.


The final prayer of the day has been prayed and Mum has been phoned. She occupied much of the call with an epic tale of not getting the right station on a video for several months, but it was good to let her let off some steam. Tonight is her bingo night and we're hoping for a big win. I'm about to settle to my ration of At Swim-Two-Birds. Like a fine wine, you don't want to drink it all at once - not that I drink wine, but if I did I'm not sure it could match the intoxicating qualities of O'Brien's prose.


For reasons I don't understand we ended up watching the last few minutes of a programme about the most memorable moments on reality shows. People are strange. And so to bed.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Culture Clash

It was with some incredulity and a modicum of delight that I found myself reading that Rudi Giuliani's theme song (it seems American politicos have such things) for his campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency had been (he's now changed it) Rudi Can't Fail by The Clash. The incongruity made life seem suddenly brighter. The number in question, for those who don't know, is great mid-period Clash, a product of their prolonged (flirtation I was going to say but really it was a genuine full-throttle) love affair with reggae/ska. Joyfully funky, streetwise and funny. Pretty much everything the noble Republican Party isn't.

And an odd synchronicity for you: prior to reading the article containing the information above, on the way back from a morning spent at work, I switched on the car's CD player to bounce around to the strains of I Fought The Law from the live compilation From Here To Eternity - The Clash in their full radiant, ragged, majesty. That certainly cleared the cobwebs and reconfigured more than a few brain cells. Spooky, eh?

Friday, January 18, 2008

In The News

There was quite a pile-up the other day on the main road to Tuas. It involved five lorries carrying workers (in fact there were two separate accidents on either side of the carriage way) and there were some fifty or so casualties. Anyone here who drives to work early in the morning would be able to picture the kinds of lorry involved, the way they are driven, the way the workers are stacked on them, and why there were so many casualties. Fortunately no one was actually killed. The firms employing the workers said the lorries were legally loaded and so they probably were. It's amazing what the law is prepared to accept when it comes to the treatment of foreign workers.

My own experience of factory work - I worked for the best part of a year before going to university and got jobs in factories for almost every school vacation from the age of fifteen, as well as working weekends as an industrial cleaner - was a powerfully educational one. It taught me to do what was necessary not to end up having to do such work to earn a living. And I've got a feeling the guys injured in the pile-up probably faced much worse conditions than I ever did.

The curious thing about being at the bottom of the heap is the clear view it affords of how societies operate at their very roots, as it were. It's not particularly pretty. The odd thing is that the people I worked alongside (not the students being employed, but the 'real' workers) were uniformly decent, admirable types - even the ones who were a bit crazy.

I suppose this all sounds a touch romanticised, hard labour recollected in tranquility, but it's as true as I can make it, or remember it.

The papers here are always telling us how prosperous this little island is. It seems odd to me that it can't afford proper buses for the people building it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

As Good As It Gets

There was a Jack Nicholson movie that went by this title a few years back. I sort of watched it (on tv) but not with any great degree of attention and I don't think I've ever seen the whole thing. But I think I remember rightly that Jackie boy's character was worried that this was as good as it was ever going to get when he regarded what he'd got as being not particularly good. If you see what I mean.

I mention this since I frequently find myself thinking, with a sort of small but gratified sense of surprise, that this is as good as it gets and I find it difficult to imagine it getting any better as it's just so good. This evening, for instance, around 6.15: the missus and me, at the hawker centre near Eunos MRT, drinking teh O (hers) and teh tarik (mine) and eating three hot-from-the-frying curry puffs (one for her and two for me), the sunlight glaring, but the heat of the day beginning to ease. I rest my case.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Still At Swim-Two-Birds

Back at the beginning of January I noted that I was reading Flann O'Brien's disreputable classic. (Just the book to give your sister, if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl said Dylan Thomas and, as always in such matters, he was right.) And now, I'm pleased to report, I'm still reading it being barely passed the halfway mark - though it's really a fairly short novel. Whence the delay? I could plead pressure of work but, frankly, I just don't want to finish the book: it's really that good. Even if you don't know quite what is going on (about a third of the time, I'd say) every passage has something to savour, and reread and reread.

I occasionally see advertisements for something called Speed Reading courses. I'm thinking of devising a Slow Reading course to sell the masses. Wouldn't that be a lot more useful?

Monday, January 14, 2008


Just a bit more about John Adams's opera Nixon In China: the scoring in terms of instrumental voices is wonderful, but I cannot stand the use of the synthesiser at the end of the first Pat Nixon scene in the second act. It sounds so cheesy, so eighties (musically a low, dishonest decade if ever there was one.) I don't know if this is deliberate, a kind of ironic comment on the president's wife's abundance of sentimentality, but I somehow doubt this. (It's the humanity and nobility of the sentiment that are genuinely touching.) In contrast the use of the saxophone section is superbly inventive. In the second half of the opera they are frequently used to evoke a sense of the big band sound (Miller rather than Ellington) and its attendant nostalgia (rightly for both Chinese and American characters.) The music is never far away from a bit of a chuckle.

Best sound heard today: a tiny bird perched on one of the trees that thrust upward in the central space of the new block in school with a voice a hundred times bigger than itself rendering a tune or two from its songbook. Nice!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Music and Politics

The recently screened images of George Bush Junior coming down the walkway thingy from his plane to broker peace in the Middle East (that's meant to read ironically) for some unaccountable reason put me in mind of John Adams's wonderful opera Nixon In China, and since I had been intending to use the weekend to listen to at least one full opera from my collection, amongst other things, it was Adams's epic that made it to the turntable. And how glad I am that it did. I don't play this enough, I suppose because I feel I need to listen to the whole thing at a stretch to do it justice and that doesn't fall so naturally into my routines.

The brilliance of the piece lies in something fundamental to its conception. Of course, the music is superb - complex yet accessible, dramatic yet tuneful - and the libretto is of the highest quality, being, amongst other things, a compendium of wonderful half rhymes, and less than half - sort of echoes, whispers of rhymes. But it's the extraordinary idea of treating the protagonists in at least one respect as genuinely heroic characters that takes the opera to another level. It's easy to see why this would work with Chou Enlai & Mao, but to apply it to Nixon himself and Pat Nixon took genius.

Just one example: Nixon's early rhapsodic News is a kind of mystery comes off as funny, yes, a kind of satirical comment on a politician's infatuation with capturing the networks at primetime, but it also connects to a haunting sense of the magic of having the world focused upon you in the middle of events larger than you can ever be, as if part of Nixon is just another viewer watching the president walk into history. Adams's use of repetition here, a legacy of minimalism, as in so many parts of the opera, casts a new light upon the libretto, a device which, I imagine, would work wonderfully in the opera house, allowing the audience time to linger over the power of the words as they are hammered home in our consciousness. (Interestingly, a certain tension between the written libretto and Adams's setting is apparent if you read Alice Goodman's actual words as you listen. At times the repetitions seem to go against the supple rhythms of the lines on paper, but this tension seems to add yet another layer of meaning to what is taking place on stage, at least as far as I'm concerned.)

The mingling of the public and private worlds of the protagonists reaches a climax in the brilliant final act - one of the most satisfyingly 'right' endings to any kind of drama I have experienced. Making Nixon's memories of his wartime experiences deeply moving is art of the highest order. Good grief, I almost find myself liking the man. Almost.

Back in KL in December I read David Hare's Fanshen (a play about the revolution in China) along with a few other plays from the mid-seventies, and I was struck then by how powerfully political themes can be dealt with in the theatre, and, perhaps, how important it is to a culture that such themes are embraced. That's a bit odd for me as I've always tended to favour the private over the public, the apolitical over the committed. More of this, and Fanshen, anon - I hope.

I just wish I could get hold of some kind of video of Peter Sellars's original staging of Nixon in China. That's one dimension of the work, and its full meaning, I'm painfully aware of lacking.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Business For Real

It's been a busy week, largely on account of the demands of drama - auditions for new members stretching on into the late evening on two occasions, an even later meeting with the ACSIS exco, and orientation activities for the chosen few this morning. There's an enormous difference between being busy when you can't see the point of it (like attending endless meetings as a member of the ranking panel for teachers in my previous school) and being busy when you know what you are doing is fundamental to education. The busyness I've just experienced falls firmly, thankfully, into the latter category, though it's not pleasant to have to turn some enthusiasts away. But, all in all, not such a bad way to earn a living.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Funny Foreigners

Proust was an inveterate giggler, by all accounts, at least as a young man. I'm not talking about the delicate, mincing variety of giggler. I refer to those suffering/enjoying the impossible to control, embarrassingly public fits of laughter that render you breathless, teary-eyed and physically doubled over - quite painfully so. The absurdity of human folly, especially of the seriously pompous type would set him off, so there were plenty of opportunities to lose control. I was thinking about this as I was running along the streets of Katong this evening, and (the mind works in an odd way) recalling my own youthful indiscretions in this line, for, alas, I suffered from the same affliction (or gift, as it might be understood.)

I was once sent out of an RE lesson (Religious Education) for repeatedly breaking up as a classmate was speaking. The hesitant rhythms and deafening pauses of his contributions to the discussion were too much for me to resist and the Brother in charge (it was a school run by a teaching order of priests) did the right thing. Unfortunately I was still chuckling uncontrollably as I stood outside so I didn't really learn my lesson. It's even more embarrassing to admit I was some fifteen years old at the time. My career as altar boy proved extremely short-lived when I ended up almost crying with laughter assisting the priest at Holy Communion. In this case the seriously spiritual faces of my classmates and partners in crime proved too much for me as I viewed them in close-up receiving the host. Mind you, that was in primary school so maybe there was some excuse.

When I first started teaching, back in England, assemblies were a torment for me as I was frequently on the verge of maniacal laughter in front of the kids. I suppose it was the possibility of a serious professional indiscretion that helped calm me. I am still proud of not bursting out laughing in one assembly in which the teacher-in-charge had decided to use the music from the film Bridge Over the River Kwai to prove some point. I realised that after the rather grand orchestral flourishes that opened the piece we were going to get the Colonel Bogey theme. Readers (probably British ones) familiar with ribald army songs will no doubt appreciate what might have set me going. Sadly a colleague and good friend was not armed with the foreknowledge that I possessed. The tune began, she looked up in delighted astonishment, her shoulders began to shake, and a major indiscretion ensued.

Years of cultivating a frown that might out-frown even false fortune's have resulted in an almost complete cure for me. But I live in hope of some unexpected memorable disaster. In the meantime, it's an illuminating exercise to try and guess what kind of laughers favourite writers might have been. Today I've been dealing with Twain and Hesse in lessons (odd combination methinks) and I think there was probably a bit of a contrast. Twain, I suspect, practised the manly guffaw, loud and explosive. Hesse, I surmise, laughed sparingly, if at all. But then, he was a German. (Yes, that's dreadfully xenophobic in a Fawlty-ish fashion, but jokes about the poor Germans are acceptable on the grounds that they are funny. This reminds me of Frank Richards's (author of the Billy Bunter stories, amongst others) reply to George Orwell's criticism of his transparently racist descriptions of any non-English schoolboy in his books - the magisterial 'But foreigners are funny.' And, of course, he was right. We are all exiles in this fallen world. We are all foreigners and we are funny.)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Beginning Again, Again

1 Muharram 1429

We welcome a new year today. At least, according to the Islamic calendar. It's strangely dislocating for people, I find, when faced with the idea that the date might be regarded as something arbitrary or changeable. There's also a tendency to interpret the earlier century as indicating some kind of regression to medievalism. The fact that Islam is something 'new' in a sense is overlooked.

So it's been 1429 years since the hijrah, the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his followers to Al Madinah. Most western biographers of the Prophet treat this period as some kind of fall from grace - again based, I believe, on an inability to accept a different paradigm of how the divine might manifest itself in our world. For Muslims this period of what appears to be worldly success (a sort of miracle in its way, I suppose) is a validation of the Messenger and the Message. It works in the world in a way that transforms that world. And invites us continually to remake ourselves in that image, given the mercy of time.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sad Songs

I recently bought Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate, one of the first albums I ever owned in the long lost days of vinyl. In those days, around 1971, Mr Cohen was deeply fashionable, only to become deeply unfashionable, as did almost all singer-songwriters, in the later part of the decade. I recall being asked something about him in my interview for university entrance - something on the lines of who was the superior lyricist, Cohen or Joni Mitchell. The interviewer thought it was Ms Mitchell, I plumped for Leonard, citing Dress Rehearsal Rag from Songs of Love and Hate as evidence of a fully crafted lyric. I think the interviewer thought it was all rather pretentious, the lyric, not my answer (I hope.) Anyway, I got the university place I wanted, and duly came in time to think of most of Cohen's songs as pretentious. Now I know I was wrong. It's easy to mistake ambition and depth in popular music as pretence, especially when sometimes the ambition isn't quite realised. But it's important, and difficult given the cynicism of much of our culture, to err on the side of generosity. Listening to Songs of Love and Hate again was a reminder of the power of the singer's melancholy vision of things.

It also put me in mind of how much I'd enjoyed listening to the equally melancholy Devils & Dust during the December break. This was one of three Springsteen albums I took with me to KL, including the most recent Magic. I still haven't quite made up my mind about the new CD, but Devils & Dust really got inside me. It's in the Nebraska, Tom Joad acoustic mode of story songs featuring life's losers - even the small triumphs are equivocal and the failures are usually big ones. In fact, the superb Reno (a lyric so well-crafted its beyond craft) features what I think is the single saddest line of any song I know: Somehow all you ever need's, never quite enough you know. The fulcrum of the song, its throwaway nature is essential to our understanding of what has been thrown away, and why. It's also devastatingly true.

There's little in the way of salvation in Cohen's work; in Devils & Dust it usually comes in the form of a woman to love. Another truth.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Good Murders

Unusually for us over the weekend we watched no fewer than two of the programmes for tv we've recorded in recent months - in this case two episodes of Midsomer Murder. This added up to a lot of murders as the count of corpses in any given episode is generally of a high order - four or five being the norm. Regardless of how gruesomely death is dealt out in Midsomer, and it tends to be gratifyingly nasty to say the least, there's an air of cosiness about the whole business hearkening back to the golden age of detective fiction that is most satisfactory. Inspector Barnaby and sidekick (we prefer Troy, actually, to the new one) somehow find the wherewithal to be engagingly amusing amidst the mayhem and can be relied upon to get their man (though, oddly enough, it more often turns out to be a woman) before the final credits roll. Frankly though, you don't really need great powers of deduction to figure it out - just go for the least likely character and you're on the right lines seven times out of ten. Noi tends to fall into the trap of deciding the killer is the character you're being set up to suspect and then is surprised when they turn out to be the next for the funeral parlour. I think she'll begin to cotton on soon, but there's nothing beats the pleasure of the two of us engaging in a duet of head-scratching wonderment when the truth is revealed.

Back in KL I had it in mind to read a few good murders just for relaxation, I suppose, but this fell by the wayside somehow. However, I did tackle Jeb Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder, but I'm afraid I found it a bit disappointing, though enough of a page-turner to be acceptably readable. There seems to have been quite a vogue in recent years, particularly in America, for detective stories based on early twentieth or nineteenth century history featuring 'real' historical characters. In this case Rubenfeld draws on Freud, Jung and other luminaries of the psychoanalytical movement in their trip to the USA in the early twenties. Freud himself assumes the role of a sort of detective, though the main characters are strictly fictional. The writer is obviously a more than clever chap, he's done cartloads of research, especially on the New York of the period, and the premise is engaging enough - but it doesn't really come off, at least not for me. The problem, I think, lies in the characters (though the research tends to stick out a mile also.) Essentially we are dealing with the two-dimensional stereotypes of popular fiction and that isn't normally such a bad thing, but when you are immersing yourself in an ambience which was all about what was startlingly uncomfortable about human personalities then the thin characterisation starts to seem absurd. The best example is in the utterly unconvincing portrayal of Jung (to whom Rubenfeld is strikingly unsympathetic. He's better on Freud, but that seems to be because we need to see Freud playing the part of the great detective.) And why conflate the later split between the two great men with their trip to America? Even those with merely nodding acquaintance of the relationship between Freud and Jung would surely be aware of the actual time frame of events. I ended up feeling that the writer was merely using the history for his own purposes (to write a best-seller and get a big advance) and wasn't in any way genuinely gripped by it. And this is especially odd considering that one of Freud's own case studies is the basis of the central plot.

This is a bit of a cliché these days, but its truth struck me anew when reading The Interpretation of Murder: possibly one of the greatest of all detective story writers is Freud himself, and when his case studies are read in this light they make gripping narratives. We are all detectives, We just don't see the clues. Or recognise the crime.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


Duly completed The Go-Between this morning. A strong ending with the now aged narrator going back to Brandham Hall to find out what happened to the protagonists and getting, for the first time, Marian's view of events. I didn't entirely buy the idea of Leo's life being blighted by his career as go-between though. It supposes a kind of heightened sensitivity that might apply to Proust's Marcel but just doesn't work here. In fact the whole novel seems sort of sub-Proustian somehow, I suppose obviously so in its themes of reminiscence, obsessive love and class-consciousness. I can see why it was thought of as a good basis for a movie and was not entirely surprised that Pinter did the screenplay. His screenplay for In Search of Lost Time never made it to the screen sadly.

Of its type, a consciously literary novel, The Go-Between is solid enough material, but it hardly sets the world on fire.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

In The Background

I have big problems with so-called background music - I mean the sort of stuff that get played in public spaces because some idiot psychologists have said it helps to relax people and make them better consumers of whatever it is you want to sell them. (It now seems to get played in workshops where someone's trying to sell you ideas.) I suppose it boils down to two problems with me. The first is that most of the music that gets played is dreadful, well it is for me. This is odd because I have extremely wide tastes in music, with enthusiasms from punk to Puccini, yet the purveyors of muzak (let's call it what it is) almost unerringly opt for the bits that grate on me. The second problem is that when I very occasionally hear something I actually like I want to focus on it, yet it's the nature of public spaces to make this extremely difficult. Usually the volume level in these cases is just low enough to make me miss the details my ears are primed for.

So it was with some gratified surprise that I found myself beguiled by the music being played at one of the stalls at the hawker centre adjacent to Parkway Parade in the early afternoon. As we were enjoying our cups of tea the unmistakable strains of a P. Ramlee duet with his wife, Saloma, brightened the, in truth, somewhat overcast day, setting my heart dancing and toes tapping. I think I even smiled. The humour and charm of the song would be apparent I think even to listeners who didn't understand a word of the Malay in which they were singing. The song I suppose would have been something of a hit in this part of the world in the late 1950's and I was struck by the fact that the qualities of the music (the humour, the charm, the simple joy in living) are so rarely found in what passes for today's popular music. Now life is easier our music is harder.

I was also set thinking of the one reference to P. Ramlee in Anthony Burgess's The Long Day Wanes, his trilogy about life in 1950's Malaya, at least it's the one reference I remember. It's an unpleasantly negative one regarding a song, quite a delightful number actually, relating to the key precepts of Islam (a song that remains popular in the Malay community to this day.) The insightful western liberal gets it wrong yet again! It would be interesting to do a study on just how wide of the mark Burgess manages to be throughout what we are told is a keynote work on this part of the world.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Slowing Down

We dug deep this evening, looking for our get-up-and-go, found it and got up and went to the gym at Katong. There, on the treadmill, I had time to reflect on how much my back problems over the last fourteen years or so have slowed me down and what a blessing that has been (bringing me as close to a kind of wisdom as I'm likely to get.)

Why is it so difficult for me to remember what it's like to be ill or in pain? Somehow the texture of the experience escapes me though the fact of the illness remains. It's almost as if the experience belonged to someone else. Time's mercy, I suppose.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Current Reading

December's sojourn in Kuala Lumpur featured a reasonable amount of reading, I'm pleased to report, and I came back with a couple of novels that normally reside on the shelves there in order to make sure I have something to be going on with that isn't work-related, except in the very loosest sense, as term begins. The one I'm furthest into, L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between, I've never actually read before, though I'm aware of the story line from Losey's movie adaptation. I don't recall how the novel ever came into my possession. It looks like quite an old edition but I don't think I could have had it that long before I came out to Singapore as I would then have read it. It's certainly highly readable in a traditional sort of manner. The big set pieces, like the cricket match in the middle of the novel, work particularly well. It has interesting things to say about social class - but it feels dated in this respect. The past may be 'a foreign country' but you need to be able to relate it to current concerns if it's not to become a sort of period piece, and that's how the novel feels at the moment. However, I'm only around two-thirds of the way into the text so there may be surprises in store.

In contrast Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, which I have read before, (in an edition which cost me the grand sum of 35 pence all those years ago) is full of surprises and seems to me just about as modern as a novel can be in terms of postmodern fictive games. I'd be inclined to say it was derivative except that O'Brien got there first, except for Joyce, of course. But O'Brien does the Joyce thing on a level that's relatively easy to get into, producing something that's funny rather than forbidding. I'm reading this one very slowly, just to savour it. Delicious.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008


In recent years I've found the making of resolutions for a new year quite a useful exercise. That's not to say I've always adhered to what I have resolved, though in some cases I have, but I can honestly say I don't let any resolutions fall out of sight, and some have been achieved over a time span longer than a single year.

So, in no particular order, here we go for 2008:

To improve my Malay to the point where I am reasonably functional and not just an embarrassing Englishman.

To eat more fruit and vegetables, and less of the stuff that raises one's cholesterol.

To exercise for three distinct sessions a week.

And that's all, really. Quite enough to be going on with, and all featured, in slightly different forms, in my list for 2007. I suppose I might be accused of a lack of ambition, and I'm rather pleased about that.