Rather more constructively, I must say I've always had a soft spot for Anwar's The Asian Renaissance. A nice attempt to marry together key ideas from a range of cultures without the tiresome drum-beating you used to get when folk got on about Eastern Values. It's always a relief to brush up against a literate politician - though I suspect Anwar had a little team working on the book with him. But then the best politicos are marked by an ability to use others fruitfully in ways they want to be used.
Monday, June 30, 2008
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Today I was trying to play my box set of the four symphonies of Michael Tippet and found that the ravages of time had had a real go at the third and fourth. When II first started buying CDs, around 1987, I think, we were told they would last a lifetime. Most of those I bought then still play okay, but I can't see them lasting a great deal longer, marked as most of them seem to be simply by time.
I used to get mildly depressed by the damage caused by the climate, especially to books. But there's a positive side to all this. It's a reminder that collecting stuff just to lie on the shelves is not a particularly useful thing to do. Use it - and then it's really not so bad if you lose it. Though I must say I'd like a good listen to Tippet's last two symphonies again - just wish I'd played them more when they were in good health.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
The CDs featured heavily in our recent sojourn in KL, the first time I've played them on the system there. Considering the material was originally recorded between 1940 - 42 (the notes give the recording dates for every track) it sounds extraordinarily fresh and clear on these digital re-masters. Blanton's bass comes through clearly on almost all the tracks on which he plays and it's really only the drum sound that seems to get lost in the mix, though you get enough to understand what Sonny Greer brought to this fabulous band. What must it have been like to hear them play live!?!
One of the many astonishing things about Ellington was his ability to hold together a gathering of such talented yet disparate individuals for so long, using them almost as an instrument of composition in themselves, and making all this sound perfectly right, perfectly as it should be. Just one of the many fascinating features of the period is that it saw the incorporation of Billy Strayhorn into the ranks of the band as arranger/composer/occasional performer - in fact, as part of the fabric of Ellington himself: my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head and his in mine. The first recording of Take The 'A' Train (actually a Strayhorn composition, though it became, and remains, Ellington's signature piece) features on CD 2. You can hear the qualities that Strayhorn brought with him to the band and to Ellington's compositional process gradually assimilating themselves, and Strayhorn himself being assimilated into the material.
Priceless stuff - which has considerably lightened my load on what has essentially been a day of marking. But I really should have been dancing.
Friday, June 27, 2008
Secondly, he was jailed by the Smith regime for ten years and completed several degrees in prison. Thirdly, said regime denied him permission to leave prison to attend the funeral of one of his children who passed away during his imprisonment.
I don’t think this necessarily turned him into a monster. One only has to look at the example of Mandela to see the emptiness of such simple equations. But I don't suppose he left prison particularly endeared to his captors, or possibly the world in general. Anyway, awareness of these things helped make him a little more human for me. A little. Paradoxically that served to make him even more frightening.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
That chimed in with an on-going feature of our relationship: she frequently tells me, That's very loud, in relation to the volume of the stereo. I generally assume she intends this as high praise so I nod and smile in happy assent. Could I have been wrong about this all these years? As a chap known for his sensitive understanding of the nuances of relationships it might be time to reconsider.
On the other hand, it could be time to listen to Somebody Got Murdered at appropriately high volume. (With the headphones on though, to ensure I'm not on the receiving end of said murder.)
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Of course it's possible that he's entirely sane and simply being revealed as a thug of major standing, but the fact that he obviously, deeply, sincerely loves the adoring crowds and, presumably, believes that they really love him, points to a complete lack of connection with anything close to the real world. As do those astonishing shirts.
There's a fine article on the whole mess here, but this was written before Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the so-called election. A little out-of-date but a useful reminder of the bravery of those sane souls who are seeking truly democratic change in Zimbabwe.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
The answer, it seems to me, is twofold. First, and most obvious, the opening stuff about Telemachus is mind-bogglingly dull. Let's get to the man himself, you keep thinking, but you know he's not going to arrive for quite a while. (By the way, in contrast the opening 'Stephen' chapters of Joyce's mock-heroic version grip like steel might grip if it could write.) Second, and more personal, I have a long-established habit of not being able to get going on a book for years, despite odd attempts here and there, and then finding it impossible to stop reading and getting through the thing at double-quick speed. There was a twenty-year hiatus between me buying Kilmartin's translation of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu and getting to the final page. It was well worth waiting.
But I'm hoping not to have to wait so long to find out what happens to that dratted Telemachus. (Of course, part of the problem here is that I already know the outcome so the suspense isn't killing me.)
Monday, June 23, 2008
In contrast I've been quite disgustingly healthy. I went for a swim on Saturday, and a run on Sunday morning, before driving back to Singapore. I am resigned, however, to the likelihood that whatever has infected Noi's throat is likely to make its presence felt on, or in, my person soon. One of the joys of marriage is getting to share so much - but it can also be one of its miseries.
Friday, June 20, 2008
Then watched the highlights of the Germany vs Portugal game. Not much really changes, does it? (I’m referring to the dreary result.)
We’re off south later today for a quick visit to Mak & Abba & family in Melaka, ahead of making our way home on Sunday. But wait, I thought we were home here? Things get awfully complicated in this post-colonial world sometimes, even if the Germans do manage to always win.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
The odd thing about reading philosophy is that you never feel you’ve finished a book, even if you’ve made it to the end.
On another matter entirely, it’s been raining like billyho this afternoon and Noi has just discovered two leaks in the house. That’s the thing about a house: it’s never really finished even when you think you’ve had it built as soundly as possible.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
I was also pleased to read of Tiger Woods’s success in the US Open. I can’t say I’ve got any great interest in golf, but he’s always struck me as an all-round good guy and someone with the kind of talent that can only be described using unlikely superlatives. Also for some reason I don’t quite understand my Mum adores him and in her eyes he can do no wrong, so she’s going to be very pleased when we discuss his victory over the phone tonight. (Her other major crush – quite honestly that’s the only word that really fits the situation – is Al Pacino. This is something I only realised when she began to express an unusual and repetitive interest in The Godfather, not a movie that would normally have held any appeal for her at all.) So, there it is: Tiger & Al. Go figure, as they say.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
I played a bit of the CD to Mei & Boon a few days ago wondering whether they would be appreciative. They weren’t, not really, though they courteously attempted to listen. (Boon borrowed Levitin’s book on music, by the way, and I think he’ll enjoy it. It’s got a friendly clarity about issues relevant to the general working of the brain that makes it very accessible, almost easy to read.) I don’t know anyone else in Singapore who likes this stuff – even Karen dismissed it as little more than synthesiser noodlings - which makes it even stranger that it’s so precious to me.
Actually it does sound like pointless noodling until you listen. Then everything changes.
But I suppose that’s true of all music. Or should be.
Monday, June 16, 2008
It centres on the group of writers surrounding Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as he translated Dante’s Commedia. Before reading the novel I knew next to nothing about these guys and now feel at least on nodding acquaintance – certainly more than ready to sample more of their work than heretofore. So that in itself is a sign of Pearl’s success at bringing them to life. And I did feel some degree of authenticity in the portraiture, unlike the Rubenfeld novel. Of course, I’m working on trust here, but there was enough that rang clear and true to be ready to lend that trust. I remember a lot of the publicity for the novel praising its ‘cleverness’, as if there were something extraordinarily demanding about dealing with this historical background, but I felt Pearl succeeded in rendering his characters believable for not-so-clever readers by not overdoing the cleverness himself.
He’s particularly good on the Civil War itself and plugs into a sense of what this meant emotionally to at least two generations of Americans. I feel this is where the heart of the novel lies. Oddly, I don’t think there’s much real power in the material dealing directly with Dante. I found all that a bit trite (maybe the result of knowing a bit too much myself, spoiling the didactic flavour of that part of the proceedings.)
Anyway I read it fast, basically in a day, putting all on-going reading aside, and that’s always a good sign.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Friday, June 13, 2008
Thus a slightly drunk Stephen Maturin to an even more befuddled James Dillon in their first chance of real conversation on board the Citoyen Durand after they have met again several years after the failed rising of the United Irishmen. It’s part of an extraordinary scene, one I listened to the other day on CD 7 of the Master and Commander set (which I am dragging out as long as possible by repeated playing of individual CDs), the kind of scene that occurs again and again in the Aubrey/Maturin series: just when you think the writing can’t get much better in terms of vivid recreation, at every level, of life in the early nineteenth century, O’Brian hits you with something so rich and illuminating about his characters that you simply want to stand up and cheer. Here it’s the utterly convincing nature of the awkwardness between these two intelligent, decent, humane men as they feel their way towards some kind of accommodation with political and individual failure – and one another - and seek to function in the world.
In these great historical novels O’Brian lets us understand that everything has changed and nothing has changed. This is recognisably our world, though convincingly different even in its most minor details.
Yesterday whilst browsing in a bookshop in which I’d taken refuge during yet another foray to yet another shopping mall in KL (can there ever really be enough of them?) I noticed that there’s a new design for the paperback jackets of the series. The earliest jackets (the Fontana edition) were wonderfully appropriate, possibly the best I’ve ever seen for any series. These were replaced in the mid-nineties by a weaker, but still acceptable design for the HarperCollins. The new design is abominable. No doubt it’s been tested on some panel of ‘consumers’ by some ‘marketing’ department somewhere. I wonder if any of those involved can read? Progress.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
The story in question is entitled The Choice is Yours and, as I realised when I first read it, it’s a gem. It’s strength lies partly in the utter believability of the absurd situation in which the protagonist finds herself – needing to attend at one and the same time her regular choir practice and an unscheduled but vital training session for the school’s hockey team – but mainly in the devastatingly acid portraits of the teachers involved. Each of them is good at what she does, and knows it. Each is using the situation to put on a kind of performance for the rest of the students dutifully assembled to do the right thing. Each is completely callous, ensuring that the full responsibility for attempting to reconcile an impossible situation falls on the shoulders of the weakest person in the power struggle being played out.
Jan Mark makes you detest both and yet see just how common such types are in a school. Unnervingly she makes you realise (if you’re a teacher) that you just might be one of them. I suppose that’s what makes a genuine horror story.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
To my surprise both our guests talked about how much they don’t appreciate the experience of being read to. Now I take it for granted that the general populace would regard being read to as one of life’s finer experiences and still find myself at quite a loss as to how there are those who might and do think otherwise. So I need to consider the possibility that one of the few absolute certainties I hold to regarding what works in a classroom and should take place there is not quite so certain or absolute or both.
This (previously) absolute certainty is or, rather, was, that students, of all ages, should be read aloud to, regularly. And what should be read aloud is, well, broadly speaking creative stuff – poetry, drama, fiction – material that in some sense benefits from performance. In what sense do I consider doing so educational? To be honest I’m too lazy to bother to figure out what good it does. I just know it works in terms of keeping the troops fruitfully occupied and kids seem to like it. I liked it when I was at school, though there was precious little of it in the early years of secondary school. But up to that point it regularly featured in lessons. Curiously we did a great deal of it at ‘A’ level and no one seemed to think it odd. Quite the opposite. We got through whole swathes of the first half of Emma.
One thing it does is to create a sense of a shared experience. Somehow a text seems to mean more when listened to by a whole lot of people together. The experience often generates an excitement that goes beyond anything an individual would be likely to experience. Even when it doesn’t, when a novel is simply going down well enough to be accepted by a class, there’s still a sense of happy acceptance that accompanies the reading aloud lesson.
As far as I can tell in Singapore there is no tradition of such reading at all in schools. I asked Fi Fi the other day whether she was read to in primary school at all and the answer was a simple no, never. Sad really. A sort of built in deprivation. Maybe that’s why Mei & Boon find it impossible to relate to the idea of the experience.
And now for something completely different: we’ve just had to chase a monkey off our roof. Just one more of the trials of home ownership.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Monday, June 9, 2008
Now I come to think of it, Ackroyd and Lodge are probably my two favourite novelists, and writers on literature generally, among currently publishing writers. It’s unusual for me to be able to say I’ve read everything by a particular writer but this is almost the case with these two and I would regard First Light and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (Ackroyd) and Therapy and Small World (Lodge) as the novels I’ve read with the greatest pleasure in the last few years.
Ackroyd’s last few novels (from Milton in America onwards) have lacked the intensity of the two I cite above but, like those of Lodge, they guarantee entertainment and The Fall of Troy was no exception. Generally I’d say Lodge was much more the consistent of the two and I was surprised to find out from The Year of Henry James that sales for Author, Author were disappointing, though the clash with Colm Toibin’s The Master (which I still haven’t read and really must get round to) would seem to account for this to some degree. Whilst buying the Henry James book I noticed there was a new novel by Lodge for sale but I didn’t like the size or design of the paperback at all. So I put it on hold, for the moment at least. I think it relates to the deafness Lodge suffers from, mentioned in The Year of Henry James.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
Today (in prospect, menu subject to availability): the taman run; swimming; tea at Hamzah’s; then a drive to Melaka and rest. We’re intending to drop off several squad members in Melaka who are back at school next week. The it will be back here on Sunday to a slimmer quieter household.
It’s all go!
Friday, June 6, 2008
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
After that it was off to Times Square, an extraordinarily large mall with little to recommend it other than a fairly decent Borders Bookshop and an indoor roller coaster. Oh, and there’s a sort of amusement park with lots of improbably noisy machines, which proved to be a good spot to occupy the troops for a while. One curious feature of this mall is the fact that it’s obviously too big to fill up. It has ten floors, but beyond the sixth floor there are lots of vacant spaces and the massive eating area situated at the top is distinguished by its lack of customers.
Like so many malls it has a distinctive hollow raw echoey quality. I suppose this must be a good thing since so many people flock to these places. Like the vacant lots. Somebody, somewhere knows what they doing. Or possibly not.
And the late, breaking news today: we’re just back from watching Prince Caspian and the price of petrol in Malaysia will be shooting up from 2.00 tomorrow morning.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Yesterday’s journey north was not exactly a smooth one, though we’ve known considerably worse. The first hitch occurred going through immigration on the Singapore side at Tuas. For some reason the authorities decided to stop every vehicle and check the thumbprints of all adults. Of course this created something of a jam, not a particularly bad one but irritating in its completely artificial nature. We’d not seen anything about such ‘enhanced security’ (I quote the young man taking my thumbprint) in the papers so it didn’t help that we weren’t expecting it. We assumed this had something to do with the Mas Selamat fiasco but it was difficult to be sure. I pointed out to Noi that it was unlikely even that master of disguise would have been able to transform himself into either of us so it seemed pretty useless to bother checking our prints.
Anyway we pressed on with two of our nieces in the back, picked up at Woodlands, to Melaka, where we added another three assorted nieces/nephews and one maid, having switched to a bigger vehicle. Sulis came on board to visit a friend in KL and do some cleaning for us (for which, I hasten to explain, we’ll amply reward her – no exploitation from us.) We also took the opportunity to replenish ourselves with a pot of Mak’s fine teh tarik plus a number of just cooked, succulent epok epok (curry puffs), which was a good thing as it turned out since we didn’t get to eat until late in the evening having got stuck in a major jam at Seremban. This appeared to have been caused simply by the sheer volume of traffic making its way to Kuala Lumpur, serving as a reminder to try and avoid coming up here on a Sunday evening in future.
Arriving on the hill we stopped off to eat at the Indian restaurant, roti prata being the popular dish of the evening, allowing Noi and I to reflect on the fact that the cost of living increases considerably with five young hungry mouths to feed. Again it was good to be fortified against the slings and arrows of what was waiting around the corner. The following problems manifested themselves upon arrival: smelly decayed food needing to be removed from the fridge as the electricity had been cut off at some point; no television (to keep the troops occupied) as Astro had decided to change smart cards to enhance their service and we couldn’t get the new one to function; a temperamental DVD/VCD player that wouldn’t (play); five kids who’d been cramped up in a van from Melaka with lots of energy to spare and only our house to exhibit it in.
I manfully went to bed as soon as I had the opportunity.
Most of the problems are now fixed and it seems our squad strength is due to further increase as Sharifah is now visiting with several more nephews & nieces and looks set to leave at least two of them behind. What larks!
I should point out that the squad strength has now increased by two (the number of Sharifah’s offspring left behind yesterday) and breakfast this morning was a major undertaking. Thank goodness for baked beans!