Wednesday, April 30, 2008


A tough day at work (but, then, which day isn't?) made bearable by the good news out of Old Trafford. Moscow here we come!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Heat Is On

The last week or so has seen temperatures rising here. Not by a substantial amount - it's always what the English would regard as hot (and sticky). But a couple of degrees makes a lot of difference in the hot and sticky stakes.

My test for how hot it's going to be is simple. As I leave the apartment at 6.05 in the morning if Noi says There's perspiration on your shirt a clammy day is guaranteed.

The advantage I have over most people in Singapore is that I actually like the heat. Certainly it can be uncomfortable, and quite headachy, but, trust me, anything is better than winter in the north of England.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Over the last couple of weeks I've lost the tops of two of the cheap black biros I use at work and over the weekend I mislaid an entire pen. In the great scheme of things this may not count for much, but it's this kind of thing that makes me wonder if I'm fraying at the edges. I'm not terribly worried if I am. I quite like the kind of carpet that's showing its age - we've got one under our favourite coffee table that's losing all definition and I'd be loathe to fix it. So if I don't get fixed I suppose, by analogy, I can put up with that.

But I wouldn't mind finding the pen tops. I keep marking my fingers with black ink, summoning memories of how incredibly, unhygienically, scruffy I was at school.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bouncing Back

Nothing if not resilient, I put the pains of Stamford Bridge behind me long enough to celebrate yet another birthday in jovial style this morning. The jollity came aided and abetted by no less than two cards from Noi (something of a tradition in our household) and a present from her of my first ever full length audio book.

The book in question is Patrick O'Brian's Master & Commander. Since I cannot think of much better to do in life than lose myself in an Aubrey/Maturin novel, it seemed to make sense to see if a full 15 CD reading can fit somewhere into my routines. (I'm thinking of listening in the car.)

This morning things got off to the best possible start with the magical meeting for the first time of our protagonists at the fateful (and hilarious) concert on Gibraltar. What's so remarkable about this is that O'Brian seems utterly certain about where the relationship is going from the beginning. The writing manages to be broad yet extraordinarily subtle at one and the same time.

And in the evening I found myself serenaded at the piano by my niece to make it a musical Happy Birthday to remember.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


I've not been listening much to music over the last three weeks despite having reasonable opportunities to do so. I don’t why, but there it is. A fallow period.

The only place I've really been focusing on groovy sounds has been in the car and the CDs installed in the changer have been there for that period, only now being replaced. So this is what has engaged me recently: first off - Arctic Monkeys' first album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. I suppose this is my way of attempting to stay young and a very jolly way it is. Following that Robert Fripp's Exposure (the 2006 version), with CD2 being the one of the set that stayed longest in the changer. Then it's been The Complete A and B Sides 1963 - 1970 of Dusty Springfield. And after that Paul McCartney's Chaos And Creation In The Backyard. And finally Nightmoves from Kurt Elling.

There's something about the arbitrariness of the list I like, a kind of pleasing messiness. I'll let that speak for itself. A good way to stay old.

Friday, April 25, 2008


I've been dipping into Stephen Fry's The Ode Last Travelled over the last week or so with much pleasure and some profit. I thought I'd had a generally traditional sort of education in literary matters but he sometimes uses terms I've never come across (or particularly noticed) before. It turns out that 'rich rhyme' is what you call it when a writer uses full rhymes on homophones as rhymes. A clever poem by Thomas Hood is used to illustrate the idea beginning with the snappy: If I were used to writing verse / And had a muse not so perverse…, which manages to sound almost like a proper rhyme, but isn't. This was a reminder of how technically excellent Hood is. He's the kind of writer who you meet solely through anthologies and invariably find yourself thinking very highly of. I remember doing Bridge of Sighs (I think that's the right title, it appears in Palgrave) when in the sixth form and loving the rhythms and feminine rhymes - tenderly/slenderly. I really must look for a collected edition one of these days.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

All's Fair

It's odd how disturbing we can find even the most minor case of injustice, especially, frankly, pretty much exclusively, when we are on the receiving end thereof. Against all evidence to the contrary we somehow expect the universe to align itself to our cause. Life is unfair - a simple and obvious enough truth. Possibly it's especially hard to accept for those of us who're accustomed to life being more than fair in its rewards and blessings.

Of course, none of this is an excuse for not trying to make life fair - but I suspect this is only of any real worth when you are trying to make it fair for others. Something worth failing in.

(By the way, this is not a highfalutin way of suggesting that United should have two penalties last night against Barca. But they should have, anyway.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Over the last two days I've been paying for my six laps on Monday. My previously injured thigh seems to have come through the experience in reasonably healthy condition but whatever muscles lurk at the tops of my legs, sort of between the legs in that unpleasantly intimate way certain bits of one's body have about them, have been declaring their presence since Tuesday morning.

If childhood might be partly characterised as a process of exploration and discovery regarding the potential of the body and mind, late middle age sees the whole thing in reverse - a time for realising that things really do fall apart. And things are not going to get any better soon.

This all sounds terribly glum, I know, but there's something rather comforting in the inevitable decrepitude implied. It speaks of rest, containment, an odd sort of peace.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Under Review

My main, in fact, solitary purchase from Parkway Parade last Sunday was the April edition of The New York Review of Books. It was with some delight that I discovered that the newly opened branch of Borders there stocked the magazine late last year and I've been buying it ever since. The last time I bought a literary periodical regularly was when I lived in England some twenty years ago and such publications were fairly easy to come by. (Back then it was The Times Literary Supplement. Oh, and I also used to buy the music review Gramophone in an attempt to extend the capacity of my ears.)

The odd thing is though that now my delight on being able to get hold of this excellent review is tempered by a mounting sense of guilt (it's pretty expensive) that I don't always read it all - lack of time - and an equally mounting sense of worry that I'll start to rely on it as a primary source of reading rather than actual books. I suspect this is what a number of the literati are prone to. I'm also concerned that this can easily become allied to an easy, lazy acceptance of ready-made opinions about books and writers in place of a genuine struggle to form one's own.

I noticed this when reading an interesting piece on John Steinbeck. It's easy to be grandly dismissive of a writer like Steinbeck whose faults are obvious and the article though informative tended to go in this direction. I had to struggle to remember the hair-raising power of The Grapes of Wrath - that extraordinary ending! - to keep myself in touch with the reality of the first-hand reading experience.

It's worth remembering when reading this kind of periodical that the worst insult the two tramps in Waiting for Godot can think of to throw at each other is 'Critic!'

Monday, April 21, 2008


Big mistake in my post for 12 April. It turns out that Mum is actually ninety this year. I think it's a reasonably forgivable error as she normally resolutely refuses to talk about her age and I was trying to figure it out from documents viewed quite some years ago. But yesterday, for the first time in living memory, she spoke directly of her age when I phoned her. I'm not exactly sure what precipitated this and she left me under strict orders not to tell everyone and of course I won't, well not outside this Far Place. Noi, in the meantime, is telling everyone.

In the meantime, spurred on by the possibility of making it to at least one more decade, I went for a run in the early evening, completing six (slow) laps of the track at school. I've hardly done any real exercise since Chinese New Year due to a highly disabling muscle strain in whatever muscle lurks in my right thigh, but the problem finally seems to have cleared and it's back to trying to take years off my biological age for me. (That's a line from So You Want To Live Longer, a programme the missus and I will be enjoying tonight, in my case even more self-righteously than usual.)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Enchanted Evenings

Our cunning plan for the evening: take a walk to that great emporium Parkway Parade, post a cheque to DBS on the way, probably eat something Turkish there, buy some apples, lose a skirmish or two in the War on Capitalism and wander back here in time to nod off whilst watching something on tv before bedtime. It doesn't sound like much - just the end of another day in our small version of paradise.

We'll probably see few stars to count, except our own lucky ones.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

In Song

Get in solid walls with the know-it-alls / Get in trouble with Saul Bellow runs the chorus - in fact almost the entire lyric - of Sufjan Stevens's melancholy banjo-driven (and there's a mean recorder in there as well) take on the great man. There can't be that many songs name-checking Jewish-American Nobel Prize-winners for Literature but, then, there aren't too many singer-songwriters attempting the in equal parts mighty and mad project of producing albums of songs dedicated to all the states of the union - one album per state! Saul Bellow was recorded for the brilliant Come On Feel The Illinoise but didn't even make it onto the album, only being released afterwards on The Avalanche, the album of 'outtakes and extras' that followed. I've just listened to the track in celebratory mood, having also just finished Herzog (liked the ending, by the way) and I'm tempted to say something flippant like Sufjan gets more humanity into his three minute sketch than Bellow does in his whole novel. This sounds clever but happens not to be true or even close to the truth. (In fact, I have no idea what Sufjan's song is actually 'about', though it sounds great.)

So I'll simply say that at this point in time I can't find it within me to make any enthusiastic kind of recommendation for Mr Bellow's work and I'm not in a desperate hurry to read Mr Sammler's Planet again, the other of his novels I have sitting on my bookshelves in KL. However, every right-thinking fan of singer-songwriters and lover of fine music generally should ensure he (or, for that matter, she) listens to Mr Stevens's recent albums, starting with his Illinoise masterpiece. Essential listening for banjo-lovers everywhere.

Friday, April 18, 2008


A long and busy day at work ended with a rehearsal for our SYF play, focusing on one of the groups of characters involved. (There's a cast of thousands, well over twenty anyway, but we were working with just six of them.) The team had already been rehearsing with Ferdinand but I could only get down there after finishing at a meeting. I walked into a room brimming with energy - the room, not me - enough to light a small town with some to spare. It's amazing how galvanising this is. An hour later I felt young again - well, younger anyway. A touch vampiric perhaps but a reminder of just how rewarding my job can be.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Too Much Of A Good Thing

Moses Herzog thinks too much and it wears the reader down. I'm all for sensitivity in measured doses but the possession of one skin too few doesn't make for gripping reading. (Proust is the exception, but I haven't got the energy to go there just now.)

I'm hoping to have done with Bellow's great neurotic by the weekend, having now reached the final fifty pages, but for some reason I seem to be slowing down again despite the fact that Herzog's run in with the police is the only part of the novel to achieve anything close to narrative momentum.

The problem is that I've let myself read the thing too slowly, dwelling upon the 'fine' writing, instead of just diving in, immersing myself in the character's worldview just enough to enjoy the flavour of his world, and not sticking around too long.

I've just not read the novel well enough, somehow. A failure of my imagination.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


As far as possible I attempt to assume an attitude of detached amusement over human folly when listening to the news. This helps to keep my blood pressure within the normal range. Once in a while cracks appear in the façade, however, and this morning, as I was listening to the World Service, a particularly alarming chasm opened up as I found myself shouting at the radio. Well, not the radio exactly, but at some especially egregious specimen from Mugabe's Zanu PF on the radio, who was drawing an utterly specious comparison between Zimbabwe's Election Commission's refusal to release any of the results of the presidential election and the protracted row over the Bush/Gore election, especially regarding the results in Florida. What was really upsetting was the certainty in my mind that he knew the comparison was ridiculous but that no one could really do anything about it.

It put me in mind of some twerp from an American right-wing think-tank I heard being questioned last year regarding his completely misplaced advice on the need to invade Iraq on the grounds that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. His oily reply was that everybody (meaning all the 'informed experts', like himself) had believed the same thing so he could hardly be blamed for advising the president as he did. Again, there was something about the voice, a quality of being excessively pleased with itself, that betrayed the fact he knew how ridiculous what he saying was, but delighted in the fact that he had covered himself sufficiently to get away with it.

What was peculiarly irritating in both instances was the sense that these guys were dedicating whatever intelligence they possessed not to an earnest attempt to understand the world but to a determined policy of furthering their own small places in it. A world shrunk to the petty ambitions of placeholders. Now that is funny.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Going Bananas

For reasons best known to themselves at some point in their history Malay people decided it would be rather a good wheeze to fry bananas, hence the dish goreng pisang which translates, hardly surprisingly, as fried banana. Of course, this simply shouldn't work, but it does, and I've just eaten two massive specimens of such washed down with a big cup of hot, sweet tea (ordered as teh gajah, which translates, this time a trifle unexpectedly, as elephant tea.) Needless to say I am eminently satisfied with life at the moment, close enough to brush shoulders with that peace which passeth understanding. Last night's 2 - 1 victory over the gunners helps, of course.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Of Mothers & Massage

Yesterday's phone call found Mum in the finest of fettle. She related at considerable and repetitive length a tale of brother-in-law John's culpability in messing up some mysterious 'box' that gives her television a lot more channels. It was actually fixed on the same day as he accidentally turned it off by pressing some mysterious red button, but not quickly enough to assuage her wrath. It seems she smoked two cigarettes as he struggled to repair it, giving new meaning to the notion of fuming with rage. The fact that John bought the thing in the first place seems to have temporarily escaped her. I sometimes think it's her sheer cussedness that keeps her going - may that long continue (but at John's expense, not mine, thank you.)

At this end of the phone we had a relaxing day at home, so relaxing we both fell asleep in the middle of a Midsomer Murder we'd taped before managing to drag ourselves to bed. Our tiredness was due in no small measure to the ministrations of Noi's 'massage lady', a lady who turns up once in a while to give a spectacularly powerful Malay-style massage to anyone who happens to be around. Noi usually invites a couple of friends to partake of the good lady's services and yesterday Norsiah dropped in.

I should specify, at this point, that Malay massage is of the strenuous variety. It involves finding which muscles are reluctant to be pummeled and subjecting them to an unforgettable, unforgiving raking with industrial strength fingers. It's not wise to scream as that just leads to an even greater focus on the area that hurts. This is all supposed to do you a lot of good. Just surviving the experience made me happy. And very tired.

Today I've been moving on with Herzog and finding much to enjoy simply at the level of style. But I still cannot connect with the characters.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Soldiering On

I'm only something like a third of the way into Bellow's Herzog despite the fact it's been, or I have supposed it to have been, my main reading for the last couple of weeks. I know I've been busy but this is ridiculous.

Now it's true that I have been savouring some of the densely-packed prose, but I'm afraid the slow pace of my reading also relates to a problem I encountered with Bellow all those years ago when I first read Herzog: I don't relate to his characters at all. I suppose I believe in them but I can't summon the interest in them to bother myself with what all the fuss is about - and there is a lot of fuss in this novel.

This brings to mind a brief exchange I had with the guy who was teaching the course on the Contemporary American Novel on which I first read Bellow. We had been reading Mr Sammler's Planet and he was praising Bellow for the brilliant caricatures that stalk that text. (Oddly I cannot picture this scene at all,. or relate it to any kind of wider context. I just remember the exchange.) I think I snapped out something along the lines of: If he can't write about people with any sort of charity I can't see why he bothers writing at all. (I wasn't in a good mood.) The lecturer looked stunned and that was it. No reply. I suppose my supposition that writing required some sense of charity towards others to work was so naïve as beyond further discussion. Or possibly I was failing to recognise the positive qualities in Bellow's characters and my comment just reflected extremely shallow reading.

Anyway, I'm feeling pretty much the same way towards Bellow today as I was all those years ago. But I'll be soldiering on having acquired a little more patience than I possessed at that time.

In the meantime, still on the topic of soldiering on, I'm just working out what would be a good time to call Mum. It's her birthday today but as of now morning in England and she's not at her best before noon. On my count she hits eighty-nine this time around. And they say that smoking is bad for your health!

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Small Moment

Today the school played host to a competition that draws in teams from schools of all levels from all over the island. By the afternoon the place was swarming with lots of kids, almost all of whom seemed to be having a thoroughly good, extremely noisy, time.

At one point I was walking along a walkway outside on my way to a meeting and two little lads were approaching in the opposite direction. There happened to be a patch of grass to their right and my left. Suddenly one of the lads launched himself sideways, for no reason I could fathom, onto the patch of grass, and proceeded to roll over, laughing exuberantly. His companion joined in the mirth but resisted the desire to achieve take-off. It occurred to me that it would be rather a good scheme to launch myself onto the grass also but I also resisted the temptation as good sense made me aware that it would be 1. difficult to do so whilst carrying two bags and a laptop computer and also 2. highly disturbing to our two small visitors to discover that at least one of the teachers in the rather grand school they found themselves in was quite mad.

Actually it's misleading to say the boy jumped for no reason - you don't need a reason for a swan-dive when you're that age. I think I spent a fair proportion of my childhood rolling around on grass, at least in the summer months. And a jolly good place to be it was.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Family Values

It seems that the first President Bush preferred the Waltons to the Simpsons. This explains a lot.

I was informed of his preference in an entertaining little piece on the World Service on the way in to work. A channel on Venezuelan tv has just cut Homer & family to replace them with episodes of Baywatch as they have decided the cartoon lacks educational content.

Incidentally when I was last in KL I noticed an edition of Lat's brilliant cartoon book (nowadays graphic novel, I suppose) Kampung Boy with a nice commendation from Matt Groening on the cover. Genius recognises genius. The great and good tend only to recognise the obvious. But having said that, someone, somewhere (in Venezuela) recognised the educational value of Baywatch. Now that takes some imagination.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Yet More Aches & Pains

My body decided to let me know it wasn't entirely pleased with the way I was trying to run about fighting various fires this morning by allowing me to experience a biting pain in the vicinity of my right knee. It wasn't so bad when I was standing still, became very uncomfortable when on the move, and got into gritted teeth territory when climbing or coming down stairs. There are lots of stairs where I work.

The nice thing about this kind of pain, apart from when it stops (which it still hasn't), is how it helps to remind one of the joys of not actually feeling any kind of discomfort whatsoever. My own experience of chronic pain over several years, from a bad back, had the beneficial side effect of making me no longer take health for granted, and I have managed, on the whole, to hold to that thought over the last few years of blessed release.

Tonight I'll be devoting a prayer to those for whom such release is denied. It's impossible to imagine the reality of such extremity but only too possible to understand how awfully common this must be.

Monday, April 7, 2008


How does the real get into the made-up? asks Seamus Heaney in Known World, possibly my favourite poem from Electric Light. The line jumped out at me on the way home from work (listening to it read on tape), bashing me over the head with its calculated simplicity. The poem itself is based largely around the drunken escapades of Heaney and fellow writers at a poetry festival somewhere near Greece. I assume it to be about a 'real' experience, but the possibility of some deft fictionalising on the part of Heaney cannot be discounted, if only because his own question makes you aware of that possibility.

My answer to the question is: by a kind of magic - which successfully, deliberately avoids any real answer. Frankly, I like the question and prefer it unanswered. I suspect Heaney feels something similar, for the next line in the poem ruefully runs, Ask me an easier one.

A wise unknowing is at work here.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Paying The Price

I'm not a fan of local newspapers, but there are times when they do get it right. On Saturdays The Straits Times usually attempts some kind of feature running across a few pages and will make an effort to cover a number of perspectives on whatever the issue in question is. Yesterday it was looking at escalating food prices, which are hitting the region hard, and focused on typical families in countries from this part of the world. The result was a group of touching and informative snapshots of the kinds of problem faced by people on a daily basis concerning the most basic of needs. It wasn't exactly deeply researched stuff, but it didn't need to be. The simple facts were enough to make one realise that fluctuations in various aspects of the world economy make huge waves for those at the bottom.

One article focusing on foreign workers in Singapore trying to make ends meet with prices shooting up was particularly thought-provoking. And I'm painfully aware I need to do something that goes beyond just thinking.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Seeing The Light

I've been listening, on and off, to Seamus Heaney reading his collection Electric Light on the car stereo. The verse is so densely packed I find I only want to sample two or three poems a time, though it would be easy to just let the tape run and enjoy that wonderful Irish lilt without really trying to take in a word.

This morning, on the way to a rehearsal at work, I listened to Out of the Bag, an unusually long piece for Heaney, blending extraordinary, almost hallucinogenic, memories of the doctor who came for the delivery of various of the Heaney siblings (at least, that's what I assume) with other times and places, Lourdes, a holiday in Greece and (possibly) his mother ill, later in life. The fact that I couldn't quite pin down an exact 'meaning' for the poem, and still can't despite a more leisurely reading later in the day, seems to add to its impact. Being able to be content with something less than full understanding seems to me a necessary part of the experience of reading - the possibility for even greater illumination somewhere down the road is, surely, liberating. As it is, regarding Heaney, I think I can grasp sufficient to 'get it' enough to be satisfied.

A question: could it be that our rage to understand, our will to know, is in itself a limitation on our knowingness?

Friday, April 4, 2008


There's a kind of tiredness that goes to the very bone, into the marrow, and that's the kind I'm feeling now. Experience tells me, this too will pass. In the meantime, carry it with you, an offering to the dark.

The best evocation of tiredness I know of in literature is Willy Loman's in Death of a Salesman. I read the play at sixteen, seventeen and thought I understood it, but was unable to feel it to the bone, or anywhere close. I saw it performed in Manchester when I had gone thirty and began to grasp it. One of the party I saw it with, younger than me, has long passed the point of weariness.

Tonight I'm closer to an understanding of Miller's fundamental truth. That's the great thing about feeling shattered - it lets the light in. It makes you a little more human.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Lack Of Exposure

Guitar Craft aphorism: Turn a seeming disadvantage to your advantage.

I put these wise words into practice this evening by listening to the founder of Guitar Craft's one and only solo album (not counting soundscapes & stuff) whilst making exceptionally slow progress on the way home from work on a jammed AYE/ECP. Generally I'm distrustful of completism as a principle in buying the work of musicians I admire in that it seems to play directly into the hands of the record companies, but owning the full set of Exposure seems to me to be simply common sense in that the various versions so thoroughly complement each other. Tonight I was playing what Fripp considers Edition 3, and found myself bowled over by the Volume 2 tracks featuring Daryl Hall. This is the material that Mr Hall's record company, in cahoots with his then-manager Tommy Mottola, tried to make sure never saw (should that be heard?) public release, on the grounds that it would reduce his (then massive) commercial viability.

Hall's vocals on Mary and Disengage are some of the best I've heard from him (he's great on all the tracks on which he sings, but on these he gets into really extreme territory) and, yes, probably would have upset the more fragile end of the record buying public had they ever been exposed to Exposure. But, then, I don't think it's likely they would have been tempted to distress themselves by listening to such dangerously creative material.

According to Fripp's liner notes, Hall's management delayed release of Hall's own solo album Sacred Songs, recorded with Fripp as producer, for three years, again wary of the damage it might do to the singer as commodity. Very protective of them.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Money Matters

For the last year and a bit I've found myself a reasonably regular listener to Business News, or something like that, on the BBC World Service. It's not that I've developed a sudden interest in such matters. It just happens to be what's on as I'm completing the journey to school at a time when I don't usually feel alert enough to listen to music or poetry (via spoken word tapes.)

As a result of this exposure to the wonderful world of finance, I've come to know that we (the world, I mean, in its world economy mode) are either heading for or are in the middle of a major mess. It seems this mess is the result of rampant greed on the part of quite a few people who've made a lot of money recently (for themselves) and lost a lot also (for the businesses they run.)

This may sound cynical, but I don't find any of this terribly surprising.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


The great ones are those from Shakespeare - Touchstone, Feste, and, greatest of all, the uncanny nameless Fool of King Lear. (All originally played by Robert Armin. What an actor, performer rather, he must have been.) When I first read the play in my mid-teens I was aware of making a new discovery about the deepest nature of things, yet with a sense it was something that I'd always known. I recognised the Fool from the first line and I'm proud to say I think I've got something of that quality in me. A few years back I was consciously cultivating that aspect of myself. Say something honest in the right tone of voice and invariably people, sometimes the most unexpected, will laugh.

Now I'm, sadly, too old to play the fool. (Except unintentionally.)

It's interesting to try and figure out, by the way, how the Fool in Lear should be played. Young? Old? Tired? Manic? Crazy? It's the only part I can think of in pre-twentieth century drama that you can play as if he's just walked in from another time and place and make perfect sense in doing so.

And in connection with all this, Noi and I have found ourselves discussing a sequence of old men in the news who can't bear to let go of power, the latest being Mugabe. I hope someone somewhere is licensed to play the fool for that gentleman. He certainly needs one, urgently.