Monday, March 31, 2008

In The Flow

I've been so busy lately that getting any reading done, other than that directly related to work, has been difficult, but I'm pleased to say it's not been impossible and below follows some evidence thereof.

Yesterday I finished Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It came to me highly recommended but I wasn't extraordinarily impressed though it was certainly readable. What I found problematic was the feeling that there were really two separate books here combined uncomfortably into a single text. One book, the one I enjoyed, was a well-grounded well-referenced exposition/exploration of a reasonably convincing explanation/description of a psychological state with which, I suspect, we are all familiar and which is worth some consideration. The other book was a sort of grand theory-of-everything self-help manual, of the kind that's intended to sell well and change the lives of enough of the people who read such manuals to muster some sort of validity (and boost further sales.) This book featured lots of those irritating potted biographies of the lives of the great and good, and equally irritating similar pieces on folk you've never heard of but are led to believe are the bees' knees. The problem is that once you realise that any life, no matter how small, will be contradictorily slippery enough to defy any simplification it's impossible to take those things seriously.

In the meantime I've been plugging on slowly with Saul Bellow's Herzog, a novel I last read at university. Now this does involve a refreshingly slippery, utterly convincing life. I must confess, there's a bit of guilt involved in my reading. All those years ago I reached the conclusion that Bellow wasn't up to much compared to Mailer and Malamud, the two other writers on the course I was taking in the contemporary American novel (or something like that.) Even then I knew I was missing something and my verdict was way off the mark and it's chastening to be made aware of just how badly wrong I was with almost each paragraph. I'm going slowly because I want to because it's that good.

Other things to mention: my Complete Verse of Rudyard Kipling is my lucky dip at the moment - a bit of a cheat as you really can't lose so there's no real luck involved. And I bought Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled on a whim last week when I realised it was based around some exercises on writing verse. I've tried a couple and they're highly engaging. This is, of course, the kind of thing we should be doing in schools in English classrooms, but it's not and is never likely to be. As our American cousins would say: go figure.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


We spent most of yesterday evening at school, enjoying the four plays that made up Centrestage, a sort of competition for drama run by the younger end of Drama Club. There was a lot of talent on stage, huge amounts of energy - sometimes anarchic, heaps of humour of the more obvious variety, and an abundance of joy in the act of creating something for the moment. The lords of misrule came to visit us for a short while and I think we are all the better for it.

We ignore Dionysus at our peril - as Euripedes showed us in The Bacchae. Some wise words therein: The best and safest way to live / Is to keep a balance, acknowledge / The great powers around us and in us. / I think that is what is meant by wisdom. Which puts me in mind of more ancient wisdom in that famous Greek motto - Nothing in excess - including the gods of rationality, law-making, regimentation.

Friday, March 28, 2008


I've not been terribly impressed with what the History Channel, one of the more recent additions to what's available on cable here, has to offer, but I did enjoy a programme tonight about the sinking of Cunard's Lusitania. There was a sense of real objectivity involved and you got some understanding of why the Germans felt compelled to do something stupid enough to push the United States even closer to joining the war in Europe. Over a thousand souls went down with the great liner and, I suppose, one might almost attempt some analogy, but not one that really works, with the events of 11 September 2001.

The great ship has now been lost in history as well as the devouring ocean. I don't think anyone will ever consider doing a Titanic on it, though I think it's a better story in its way. Certainly a more troubling one. When I was a kid it already seemed several lifetimes away and now it's forever.

If anything survives of all it meant I suppose it might be Charles Ives's wonderful tone poem (I suppose that's what it is) From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose. It gets my vote as the most moving music written in the twentieth century.

The comfort in all this is that we too will be washed away one day and become as distant as Lusitania. If we're lucky we'll get our Ives.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dylan In Mind

Bernard was asking me today, apropos something he's thinking about for a Theory of Knowledge, lecture, if I was familiar with Dylan's songs - namely one that went Analyse you, categorise you… I recognised the line as coming from All I Really Want To Do, but actually wasn't too sure it was, in fact, Dylan. I wondered if it was something by The Byrds and I think it was their version of the song that was running through my head (that is, if they covered it.) Back home I dutifully looked it up in my copy of Lyrics 1962 - 1985 to establish it came from Another Side of Bob Dylan. That explained my lack of familiarity as I've never owned the album. What was more startling was my realisation of just how well-crafted the lyric is, being full of seemingly effortless internal rhyme and gorgeous assonance,.when I had never noticed this at all, though having some degree of familiarity with the song. Moments like this remind me of just how extraordinarily talented some people are and how much there's still to really discover about singers and writers and artists in general whom I like but even now don't fully know. For some reason that made me feel very cheerful.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

And I Quote

On a particularly bad day (don't ask!) I have a habit of reaching for my chunky William Blake: The Complete Poems for something healing. Today it's: If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise. A soothing poultice round a seething brain.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Phoned Mum yesterday who reported a thick blanket of snow in Hyde for Easter. It didn't look particularly snowy at Old Trafford on tv yesterday, where Liverpool got buried by something else - partly their own stupidity. I mean, hands up, is there anyone out there who didn't know Mascherano was going to get himself booked a good fifteen seconds at least before he did so?

For lovers of good music: there's a gorgeous track on Donald Fagen's solo album Kamakiriad entitled Snowbound, a piece he wrote with Walter Becker and featuring Becker playing all over it (some sensational bass) which really makes it a Steely Dan song in all but name. I think it's better than anything on the two (great) Dan albums which came after, which is a measure of just how good it is.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Two Things

First: the sight, usually preceded by the sound, of little kids wearing squeaky shoes always makes me smile and occasionally even laugh out loud. It must drive their poor parents crazy though, the sound I mean.

Second: I heard the phrase (or compound word) time-starved on the World Service yesterday and fell in love with it. It came from the lips of the CEO of the company that make Pepsi, and, I think, means very busy (but with managerial knobs on.)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

More Good Times

Enjoyed an all-too-brief confab in the early afternoon, at the Lagoon Hawker Centre, with two wise men - Brian (Ng) & Tony (Green.) We didn't have quite enough time to put the world to rights, but got some of the way there. The odd thing is that the solutions to the problems we were mulling over are quite obvious. That hoary cliché It's not rocket science inevitably suggests itself. Keeping up the clichés, said solution(s) simply require a paradigm shift but the problem is that the people who need to shift the paradigm are the ones who keep telling you that you need to be ready to shift paradigms. But the teh halia was excellent, as was the roti john (which needed to be at no less than nine dollars a shot!)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Times

A day spent at home with the missus, even one occupied by marking, is always good. This has been one of those days.

The (literal) highlight of the evening: a gorgeously full moon over the sea at East Coast Beach, casting a wide road of uneasy light upon the ocean. Wah, so beautiful, eh, the sea? said Noi. And she was not wrong.

A close second: a bowl of curry laksa, Still Mansion style. It just doesn't get any better.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Heard some bad news this evening, from a former colleague and great friend, concerning an ex-pupil of mine. The news involved the taking of a life and the price that will have to be paid for that. Teaching often involves the pleasure of knowing that what you have done for someone has, at least in a small way, had positive consequences. It also involves, inevitably, sadly, sometimes despairingly, your failures.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Left Unsung

Hot off the presses: there'll be no Womad festival this year, or next, on our little island, but we're likely to get a new improved version in 2010. Why are new improved versions of things usually not?

It looks like commercial considerations have played a big part in the decision to put the festival on ice, in a similar fashion to the way they have dictated the nature of the music over the last four to five years - a distinct dumbing down has taken place. But it's unfair to sound too cynical about this. I'm sure the organisers are only doing what organisers have to do in order to get things organised.

It's sad to think there'll be a little less music in the air though.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Left Unsaid

Two things relating to our trip to Malaysia, both of which I've noticed on earlier occasions following elections. The first is the mess created by the election posters being left behind. The second is the lack of context for any sense of what is actually happening in political terms given (or rather not given, if you see what I mean) by the press and tv.

It seems so easy to deal with the first problem, assuming that people there do regard the mess as problematic. A few stiff fines for the offending political parties who have failed to clear what they put up would surely work wonders. I suppose it's the fact that most of the mess comes from the main parties of government that makes this obvious solution unworkable. And that ties in with the second thing - there's nothing in the media, even when they call attention to the problem, that gives a clue as to why lip service only is provided towards any actual solution.

In general there's a lot of coverage of matters relating to the elections but it manages to tell you very little. For example, there's been some kerfuffle within the ruling party as to whom will get the job of chief minister (menteri besar) in Perlis. Two chaps, technically on the same side, seem to be vying for the position and there's been quite a mess over which of the two the federal government wants and which the sultan wishes to appoint. The press and tv, despite spending time and column inches on the matter, resolutely refuse to make clear why both guys are so keen on the job, what has led to them falling out (one was talking about the hypocrites opposing him going to hell) and how such a farcical situation has come to play itself out in the ruling party at a time when they would want to be pointing out how the opposition will find it difficult to get along with each other. One article on the matter in a major newspaper finished by detailing the educational qualifications of both of the politicos involved, giving no clue as to why the reporter thought this was necessary or even useful.

If I were a teenager in Malaysia, keen to get a sense of what it is makes my country tick, and how I might one day contribute to the ticking, I don't think even the most dedicated reading of the press would make me any wiser. I'd be likely to be listening as closely as possible to what people are saying in the coffee shops, where the real analysis takes place. Somehow this seems to me not particularly healthy.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

There And Back Again

We arrived home at 19.20 and had pretty much unpacked and settled down by 20.00 despite having to field an unexpected, but welcome, telephone call from brother-in-law John. We travel so much between our various 'homes' that we've got the routines of arrival and departure off to a fine art. But there's always a kind of sadness when leaving, balanced, to some degree, by the pleasure of being back. One day we'll leave for good, of course.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Now into the final third of The Color Purple I need to refine one of my comments from yesterday. It’s generally beautifully written, but Nettie’s letters are more than a little clunky at times.

I’m not terribly keen on purple as a colour. The late Martin Lings (highly respected Islamic scholar) set great store by the combination of blue and gold: If blue liberates by Infinitude, gold liberates because, like the sun, it is a symbol of the Spirit and therefore virtually transcends the whole world of forms. Looking at the jacket of my copy of Lings’s A Return To The Spirit, which incorporates a gorgeous blue and gold design (I assume a traditional one, but it’s not attributed) I find that pretty convincing.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Fresh Colours

The last time I read The Color Purple was back in the 1980’s, before the Spielberg movie came out (which was the middle of the decade). Reading it again, an older (and slightly wiser?) man, I can understand why Spielberg chose to give it the chocolate box treatment, something that, at the time, seemed inappropriate to what I thought was a work of gritty Southern realism. I now realise that was never really what the novel was.

It’s a fine novel, beautifully written. But it’s deeply sentimental in terms of the arc of the story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it precludes the writing of a great novel.

I think a Celie is a possibility though. I just don’t think there’s much to say about her beyond what we stereotypically know already. Of course, being neither female nor black I suppose I would say something like that.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Splendid American

Back in December I bought, and read, a compilation of American Splendor – The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, a graphic novel, or rather collection of comics, for which I had been searching for quite a while. It took a little getting used to but didn’t disappoint. Today I’ve been dipping into the collection in a random sort of manner (between getting on with ‘real’ work) and found that, if anything, it grows in power through repeated readings.

Now this is a bit odd. What was initially disconcerting about the work was the utterly mundane nature of the subject matter – the rather dull life of Pekar – and the largely unattractive nature of the character at its centre – Pekar is not a nice guy by any stretch of the imagination. The stories have, for the most part, that ‘So what?’ quality that ‘slice of life’ short stories of the early twentieth century (I’m thinking of the bad ones) abound in. So why does the material seem to gain in significance the more you read it?

Perhaps the answer lies in the notion that every life is deeply significant to the person living it. The sheer hubris of Pekar in terms of getting artists (he works with a whole string of collaborators) to illustrate his tales means we are confronted by a version of ourselves: we could do this; we could translate the mundan-ity of all we are, with our small insights and smaller problems, into a medium like this and others would be able to identify with us and, somehow, that would be enough.

Something else: the sheer honesty of Pekar’s warts and all portrait makes you feel all the more that this is real and because it is real it is significant. Yet you wonder to what degree the Pekar of American Splendor is a carefully crafted mask for another Harvey that doesn’t make it into the books, Harvey as creator, selecting so craftily it doesn’t like any conscious process of selection is going on.

I don’t think I’ve read anything else recently that has made me reflect on the fabric of my life with the intensity that this has.

Least mundane moment of today: a squirrel found its way into our living room this afternoon. We just had time to register its presence and the rascal was out through the door. We felt privileged. I hope the squirrel felt likewise.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Completed a most satisfactory few hours of rehearsals for the SYF piece over the last two days, with a night spent in school in between times. We put together a first rough performance for a small audience at 11.00 this morning and, in rough terms, it worked. Astonishingly the production team put together a viable lighting plot for the occasion. I’m looking forward to the next few weeks working on the show – in fact, I’m relishing the prospect.

Then it was off to KL this afternoon, arriving here at 20.12. Buckets of rain on the way, but they didn’t dampen my mood. House in good order. Election posters sadly falling down everywhere. Sleep imminent.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


If anyone had ever said to me I would one day listen to a vocal rendition of Coltrane's solo on Resolution from A Love Supreme, complete with spectacularly ornate lyric, accompanied by a piano, bass and drums trio with at least as much umph as the original Tyner, Jones, Garrison line-up I don't think I would have taken them too seriously. And how wrong I would have been, as evinced by last night's brilliant performance by Kurt Elling. Resolution was just one number out of a sequence of thrillingly imaginative, superbly crafted pieces that made for one of the best nights I've spent in a concert hall. Ever.

Great performers make you acutely aware of every nuance. Last night featured some special moments of intense quiet and powerful listening. The music and lyrics: romantic, humorous, clever, melancholy, dazzling. Supremely hip.

The hall itself was probably only half full. Why is it that so many of those at the top of their game fail to appeal to a wide public?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Getting It Together

We're making good progress on the play we're doing for this year's Singapore Youth Festival with the older end of the Drama Club. By getting the students to preview two possible pieces for us earlier in the year, directed by themselves, we've found a way of ensuring their input into the process in a major way. Most of what we put together today (still at the blocking stage) was based on their ideas, and it has a youthful energy as a result. It's good not to be too much of a dictator.

In the meantime I'm attempting to restore some of my lost youth by getting out tonight to one of the concerts being performed as part of the Mosaic Music Festival. I was sorely tempted (what right-thinking person wouldn't have been?) to groove along to the P Funk of George Clinton, but we settled for some moody jazz vocals from Kurt Elling as his concert finishes a lot earlier than that of the funkmeister and I need a good sleep to prepare for tomorrow's rehearsals plus overnight camp. Yes, I'm afraid when youth is lost it's gone big time.

Actually I know next to nothing of Mr Elling's work but if the publicity material is anything to go by he's the real deal

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Losers & Winners

We got back yesterday just in time to witness a sad second half for United against Portsmouth. I can't honestly say my heart was broken though - especially in the light of Chelsea's result - and in some ways it's good to see the big four giving way to lesser lights. Barnsley for the cup, say I!

In the meantime some perhaps even more important results were coming down from the north and causing a modicum of delight in our household. It looks like a case of shaking the tree (apologies to Messers Gabriel & N'Dour), and it's a tree that has needed a good shake for quite some time. One of the great things about democracy is its ability to inform so-called leaders that they have no fundamental right to power. They lead by sufferance and there's always someone who can replace them. Or so it, possibly naively, seems to me.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Losing The War On Capitalism

The conflict is not going well. I'm now in retreat after a damaging trip to Parkway Parade where Noi went walkabout for a good hour and a half. I'm afraid whilst left to twiddle my thumbs in Borders I succumbed to the lure of the March edition of The New York Review of Books and a copy of Alice Walker's The Color Purple (which, in my defence, I need to read for teaching purposes, and which I might be able to charge to the school.) I also purchased a four socket extension thingie which I need for KL where the extension thingie below my desk has decided to give up on one of the plug sockets. I plead necessity on this but in doing so realise how fundamentally I am wired, how entirely connected to the machine. Oh, and I bought a sleeping bag, again a necessity, but you'll have to trust me on this because it's too complicated to explain exactly why here.

I am aware there are those who would point out that all this is simply an excuse for my being a cheapskate. But such criticism would be misplaced. I'm proud of my cheapskatism. The plan (failing as of now) is to take this to a new level.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The War On Capitalism

Walking around a Cold Storage supermarket with the missus in the late afternoon, as she devoted herself to the cult of shopping, it came to me that now was the time to declare war on capitalism. I did so by refusing to buy anything other than what we really needed. Unfortunately there seemed to be plenty left to buy since it seems we need so much. But I must say, one of life's simpler pleasures is going round one of those huge hyper-markets and buying just a couple of items. This could be the start of something small.

Heard on the World Service earlier today: the production of bio-fuels is likely to play havoc with world food prices. It looks like we're screwing up yet again.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Blues

David Hare's The Blue Room is such a treat to read that I think I can rightly assume it must play brilliantly in the theatre. And it must be great to act in, assuming one is a great actor. The device of having one actor to play the five male roles and one actress to play the females may be obvious but it's obviously right as a metaphor for human behaviour, especially when that behaviour sails around the treacherous reefs of projection and desire. (I'm borrowing those two terms from Hare's brief but incisive preface.) Each of the ten scenes positively hums with insight, yet is funny at the same time. I suppose this reminds us of a terrible yet redemptive truth: there is nothing more sadly hilarious than the human species with sex on its collective mind.

Incidentally, I've never seen Max Ophuls's film of Schnitzler's play, the basis of Hare's script, though I've heard of how good it is many times. That's a little reminder of how little I know of what I guess might be termed world cinema. There's little if any opportunity to view such classics on tv here and I now feel some regret that I didn't make use of the frequent opportunities afforded by British television to educate myself in that direction when I lived in England. Maybe it's time to dig deep into the old pockets and buy some of this stuff on DVD, assuming it's available these days.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Broadening The Mind

I've just been enjoying twenty minutes of armchair travel to the Sahara courtesy of the National Geographic Channel - a good reason for subscribing to cable tv. Of the twenty minutes roughly nineteen and a half consisted of either stunningly beautiful or eerily beautiful footage of the desert and its inhabitants. This makes me wonder about the chaps taking the pictures. I mean they must spend all their time gloating as they look at what they've got and think: just how mind-blowing is this going to be when we edit it into a coherent whole. Of course, I'm ignoring the incredible patience and exertion and sheer skill that must go into getting the material to start with. But it's all worth it: even better than the real thing!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Election Fever

Noi has announced her intention of staying up next Saturday to watch as the results of the General Election in Malaysia come in. I'll be very interested to see what transpires there myself. We'll be going up to KL on the Wednesday after, if our plans work out, so we may catch a little of the post-election fever, especially if temperatures genuinely rise - as they just might. The result is not entirely a foregone conclusion (though fairly close to being one) so there's more than a small taste of uncertainty about this one.

With elections in Russia, Australia (recently), the U.S, (well the primaries, anyway), to name three big ones, and a few others, some messy, this is a reminder to me of the oddly privileged nature of living in a country that is not one's own and being close enough as an observer to understand a fair amount of what is going on on these occasions. I get a sense that, as a result of living 'abroad' I understand a little bit more in general terms about nations and how the ways in which they function differ yet share recognisable features - in this case versions of democracy. The same and not the same.

It's easy to be glib about elections, I know I often am, but perhaps it's better to be deeply thankful for them, flawed as they (all) are.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Enjoying a particularly nifty bit of footwork from the yellow-booted Nani in the replay of the United-Fulham game just now I found myself reflecting, with some envy, of the extraordinary degree of physical grace possessed by some individuals. I suppose this is one of the reasons why soccer is seen as the beautiful game. That kind of skill somehow connects to a supreme economy of effort and movement.

In contrast, on a bad day physically I can feel extremely clumsy, as if everything is slightly askew, just that little bit out of place. Last week I banged my head firmly enough against something to draw blood, as Noi pointed out after, without realising I had done so. On a really bad day this is allied to a slowness of mind which would be distressing if it weren't quite funny: I'm liable to forget something important, leave something lying around that I really need, make a mess of something routine. Fortunately such days are rare, but they do happen. The good thing is knowing that I can survive them and get back to a kind of minor version of grace.

It would be odd to be one of the blessed ones and know when you've really messed up. Playing in the Newcastle back four must make you feel a bit that way. Or being Kevin Keegan.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


I finished Hare's The Absence Of War last night and I'm moving onto The Blue Room, his adaptation of Schnitzler's La Ronde, which I remember causing a bit of a stir when Nicole Kidman played the lead in it in the West End. I suppose this was due simply to her celebrity and the fact that the play focuses on a series of sexual encounters - a dangerous combination in this, or any, day and age.

There's not a lot of obvious sex in the politics of the 1993 play, though tensions of that nature lurk in the background, at least in my reading. I guess just how heavily they do their lurking would depend on the nature of the performances of the female roles (there are several) and particularly how they relate to the central character of the Leader. The possibilities seem to be there in the script.

However, it seems to me that Hare is more concerned here with the nature of a public life and what it can do to a man. (Or woman?) In the immediate circumstances he seems to be saying that for someone leading a supposedly socialist party there is a necessity to compromise on principles in order to achieve power and such a compromise will render any such leader inauthentic, and thus incapable of providing the visionary leadership necessary to attain such power. So it all seems pretty hopeless. However, since the Labour Party did come to power in the decade in which the play was written, and has remained in power since, it might be argued that Hare got it wrong. I suppose he would point out that socialist principles have been utterly compromised by 'New Labour', so, in effect. he got it right.

But this level of argument doesn't do the play justice since I think its deeper truths concern the compromises that any public figure must necessarily make. What gives the text its power is the sense of the Leader being constantly on view, exposed to possible criticism from all quarters, and finding his personality eroded through this experience. I suppose it's that Jungian idea of the persona taking over from the authentic self.

Those who find themselves in positions of authority (but does anyone ever really 'find' themselves there without deeply wanting it, needing it?) and maintain a sense of being fully rounded personalities are extraordinary, exceptional individuals. I can't think of many, but then it would be very difficult to know such a thing which, by its nature, would tend to remain hidden. The only example I can think of off-hand in British politics is a Labour politician of some years back who named Samuel Beckett as a favourite writer. Any politician who can do that must have something authentically alive about them. I also remember a story about him toddling off to an art exhibition in the middle of a Labour Conference just before delivering a major speech on an on-going currency crisis (a fact that was not revealed at the time.) His explanation for doing so went along the lines that there was only going to be that one chance to see the work of someone he greatly admired and that was more important than a temporary political crisis largely built up by the press. Now that's a man I can admire.