Thursday, July 31, 2008


My last lesson of the day was a bit of a first for me. I've often used stuff I've written in school - song lyrics, material for the stage, short poems written along with the kids - but today for the first time I allowed a poem to be subjected to critical analysis by a class, in this case my very bright and occasionally downright frothy HL class from Year 5. Now this might sound intolerably self-indulgent and self-regarding (basically the reason I've never done or thought of doing such a thing before) but there was a reason behind it which I think might save me from those more than reasonable criticisms.

Back on Tuesday it was clear that we would be short of a presenter from the class for their on-going oral presentations, part of their assessment for the diploma. Daryl, whose turn it was, needed to attend a rehearsal for the Festival of Arts and I didn't want to force someone else to present earlier than I had time-tabled feeling this wouldn't have been fair. Also no one was keen to go earlier than expected and get theirs out of the way. So I suggested we look at a poem and see what kind of commentary we might come up with. As it happened we finished the lesson on Tuesday with a bit of a natter about authorial intent, for reasons I can't quite remember. I pointed out that the discussion was distinctly TOK-ish, I suppose due to its fairly philosophical nature. I distinctly remember gleefully casting aspersions upon literary theorists of all shades. Suddenly I found myself being asked whether I wrote poetry, the follow-up being that, since I did, wouldn't it be interesting to carve up one of my pieces with the author on hand to say what he had intended as a sort of TOK experiment. Well, it sounded like a jolly idea, the sort that might be unexpectedly illuminating (or a complete disaster which is sometimes just as good.)

Back home I went to dig up something for today and I must say that if no one else found it worthwhile I got a lot out of it. I'm the kind of writer (I'm using the term in the loosest possible manner) who generally invests little of himself in his work. Trying to do so has never done anything for me. I suppose I write to order (most of my stuff having been of a 'public' nature one way or another) even in the private domain. I found myself utterly detached from the poem today and enjoying the perspicacity of the comments about it, almost every one of which was resonant to some degree, chiming with something I felt about the piece. And that was something I tried to communicate to the class - I wasn't particularly clear about my intention when writing the poem, though I had set clear parameters for what I was doing in very practical terms. I suspect a lot of (real) writers feel the same way about what they do - a much greater degree of detachment than the layman might suspect.

Anyway, here's the poem in question, just to make it clear I am entirely shameless in these matters:

Slow Poem

Sometimes what you have to say and saying it seem very

Far apart, not so much like banks of a river but opposite ends

From source to lazy delta with lots of busily pointless meandering

In between. On the other hand, taking your time to say what

Needs to be said can be oddly satisfying. There are trees

Down the road that probably have taken decades, maybe centuries

To say something like: Look at this, all this blooming, this leaving!

If I knew the language of trees I'd have something to say about them.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Getting Critical

Interesting article in The Straits Times today from a certain Lee Wei Ling, director of the National Neuroscience Institute, who, I'm guessing from a couple of references in the piece, is former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's daughter. By a brilliant process of deduction I suppose this makes her sister to the current Prime Minister. The interest lies in her call for direct, fearless criticism of 'leaders' in organisations by their subordinates, even those right at the bottom of the heap, which might seem unexceptionable stuff if you happen to live in, say, the UK, but is quite striking here. (Actually, this is now the party line in a lot of organisations here, it's just that, in the majority of them, everyone knows that no one really wants it or does it.) She sounds convincingly sincere and I'd be inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt that she practises what she preaches.

I can vaguely recall a time that I would feel rattled and put on the back foot by criticism of anything I was sort of in charge of, but even then I was usually interested in why people should be so wrong-headed about the obvious rightness of my every action. Over time the realisation that I, like everyone else, was capable of doufusness on a major scale dawned, bloomed and flowered as a given in terms of my work and became an enormously useful tool for repair. When possible I tried to institutionalise the means by which criticism might be elicited. A neat trick was to devise a questionnaire about the work of a department of which I was in charge with a big, inviting blank page asking those filling it in to say what we were weak in and how far this stemmed from my 'leadership'. I tried to make it sound like I really, really, really needed to know what was going wrong - which was, in fact, the case. To be honest, I'm not sure how far this really worked - it's quite possible that colleagues avoided saying what they really wanted to for fear of hurting my feelings (I'm really quite a tender bloom), or me retaliating to any personal 'slight' (I'm one tough cookie), or out of worry we'd end up having to work a lot harder to put right what was seen as being wrong. But I do think it was rather a good and simple wheeze.

Now all this sounds more than a little self-serving (if not downright saintly) but I'll try and argue it isn't quite as much so as it sounds. The fact is I've never been in charge of anything really big in terms of numbers of people and I consider this an extremely good thing. I'm temperamentally completed unsuited to be anyone's boss as shown by the fact that I detest being such. So my ability to take criticism (if I'm not deceiving myself) is related to the fact that I've never really ever had to face too much in terms of simple weight of numbers. In addition, I've always enjoyed, no, more than that, relished a good argument and find a sort of deep fascination in people disagreeing with me, even when it's pretty annoying. It helps that they're usually wrong.

And that's another step in the process I need to make clear. I don't think I'd ever just accept a criticism at face value, though I hope I'd never forget a criticism even if I assessed it as inappropriate.

In this respect I've learnt a lot about listening to what people say in relation to stuff I've directed for the stage. I like hearing praise, of course, but it's not terribly useful except as a means of confirming one's original hunches about what is likely to work. In contrast, even what might seem to be the most off centre criticisms can be revealing and useful, if not directly for the 'current' work then as a factor to be considered for stuff that lies ahead.

So that's my contribution to all this stuff about leadership - nothing terribly new, just tired agreement with what Ms Lee gets over rather more convincingly. I'm naïve enough to think that there's really not much to it other than some fairly obvious common sense.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In Training

Just completed a 40 minute run going up and down the park connectors around Katong, part of a plan involving, if not cunning, then significant degrees of chutzpah. Yes, I am in training for the staff run, all 3.5 kilometres of it, this Friday morning at West Coast Park. Unfortunately, I can't honestly say my training has prepared me for the event in such a way as to guarantee even an average performance (like making sure I get round in one piece.)

The problem is that there's no predicting exactly how my body will perform even the most mundane tasks, like climbing stairs, on any given day. A couple of weeks ago my right knee decided to declare itself unavailable for use twice in one afternoon, without any particular provocation. I'm hoping I will wake up tomorrow still able to move with reasonable fluidity signaling a full recovery from this evening's really quite gentle workout.

And yet another problem lurks slightly further into the future. Supposing I reach the starting line on Friday, I'm hoping the teenage bits of my brain won't delude my body into thinking it might just be worth going a little quicker than it's normally used to. That would be an excellent way to scupper the weekend.

So why am I doing this at all? For the glory, what else?

Oh, and I'm a couple of kilograms over my fighting weight and I'd like to shift at least one of them ahead of fasting month (which is not far away now.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Words and Music

Now deeply into Dylan's Love and Theft - it sounds particularly good in the car. I found myself going back the other day to Christopher Ricks's somewhat eccentric but always entertaining and massively insightful Dylan's Visions of Sin to see what the good professor had to say about those songs off the album he chose to analyse. I remembered from my first reading of the book that Ricks had covered at least two songs in depth, but these segments didn't mean too much to me when I first read the book as I hadn't then heard anything off the album at all. Anyway, I was right about the two songs, which are Moonlight and Sugar Baby, and Ricks, as I expected from one of the great close readers of any 'text', illuminates both. He's especially good on Dylan's pauses in Sugar Baby. Indeed one of Ricks's great strengths when dealing with Dylan is his readiness to take the words in the context of actual performance.

It's odd to think that quite a lot of people think Dylan has a poor sense of rhythm. They can't see (should that be hear?) that he begins where they leave off.

Incidentally Ricks's book Keats and Embarrassment is the best critical text on Keats I know. I was lucky enough to hear Ricks lecture, as a guest lecturer at Sheffield University, on prejudice in literature, I think around 1976. He was particularly good on that old fraud, fascist and genius Ezra Pound.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


Earlier in the week, or possibly the week before, J Chris, one of our drama guys, asked me about something related to King Lear at flag-raising. This wasn't because he happened to be a key performer in our manic Kabuki-style Lear, part of the exuberant Competition Piece, but was more related to the very practical concerns of an oral examination he is about to take with King Lear as one of the texts. Specifically he wanted to know what the opening lines of Lear's O, reason not the need! speech meant.

This jarred me (in a nice sort of way) for two reasons. First of all, I can remember finding this a particularly odd speech when I did the play myself for 'A' level a small lifetime ago. The oddness came not from any especially difficult line, though getting one's head around Our Basest beggars / Are in the poorest things superfluous takes some effort, but from the dizzying perspectives on what humans can consider themselves (un)reasonably entitled to. After all, in the immediate context of Regan's cruel yet penetrating What need one? Lear has no actual need (whatever that is) of followers. I think it was only after several years had passed that I began to grasp the wisdom and unwisdom of Lear's denial of reason and the potentially explosive qualities of this realisation for how we live. (Isn't it odd how elemental this play is, how utterly primitive almost in the fundamental questions it poses about the most simple things of all?) Secondly, for some reason I've found myself thinking about this speech over the last couple of years, and how it relates to that strand of the drama that relates to issues of nature and need, rotating some of its implications for my own life. Chris's question, coming unexpectedly from nowhere, as it were, seemed to crystallise all this.

So I'm thinking about this now. How pervasive, yet undefined, our sense of need is. How it relates to our biological programming. How far such programming might be over-ridden. How far I would want to describe myself as needy. How our needs might affect our environment.

And going back to Shakespeare, what is true need? Lear cries out above all for patience and Edgar advises his blinded father to Bear free and patient thoughts. But just when you think you're been given some sort of answer, it's all taken from them.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

And Now, The End Is Near

Our final performance of School Daze approaches. It will be nice to finish. It will be a relief to finish. It will be sad to finish. We've lived for a long time with both The Chronicles of Jane and Competition Piece one way or another and we've more than successfully made them our own. Of course, it never really finishes.

One thing living long enough teaches you: when you create something it remains fresh, young, alive in the mind. For those looking for an anti-aging formula this is one that works to the extent that such a silly desire might bear healthy fruit.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Getting back very late from work most evenings this week and feeling rather too frazzled, though happily so, to do much reading, I've found myself picking an old favourite off the shelves to easily escape into. In fact, in many ways Colin Thompson's picture book The Paradise Garden (a note parfect birthday present from Karen some years back) is all about escaping and, possibly, dealing with what happens when you get back.

Thompson has a genius for packing pages with the sort of beguiling detail that means you're so busy just noticing it all that there's no time to leave - you just get yourself gloriously lost. I'm puzzled as to why I've only got one of his books and really must track down some of the others. In the meantime his excellent home page can supplement the delights of Peter's paradise.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Got back fairly late from work, settled down with a cup of tea and a curry puff, switched on the tv just for something to do, flipped to the History Channel which I usually find disappointing, got sucked into a brilliant documentary on the genocide in Rwanda. I suppose 'sucked into' isn't quite accurate: I found a good deal of it so painful to watch that I was basically stunned into a kind of grief and anger that made it almost a duty to watch. The programme featured contributions from Philip Gourevitch whose book We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families is the best one I know on the tragedy. (I almost wrote 'the most readable' then realised how extraordinarily inadequate such terms are in the face of what took place.)

When I was in secondary school, the second year I think, we were exposed to short documentaries related to the Holocaust. (I don't think the term was in use then - we thought of them as films about the concentration camps.) I remember thinking then how utterly dark the heart of man can be, and how important it was to understand that. I assumed that all kids were exposed to this material and it was only years later, when I became a teacher, that I realised this was not the case. It seems to me that no education is close to complete that goes without a long hard look at the enormities of which our species is capable.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Disappearance

The mystery of the failure of any new edition of Islamica to appear in absolutely yonks has been solved. They are going bust, or, as they more delicately put it: certain funding sources did not materalize as expected - this according to an announcement for subscribers and supporters on their webpage. Actually they sound fairly hopeful they will be able to publish again so perhaps all is not lost. It would be bitterly disappointing for such a sane voice to be silenced.

I was ruminating over whether they could get funding from some sympathetic government but then realised this made no sense at all - firstly, because governments are not keen on small magazines representing independent views of a sane nature - and, secondly, because to be funded by big brother is essentially to lose all independence, and usually sanity somewhere down the line.

In the meantime here's a link to a rather fine letter published on Islamica's webpage concerning the (latest) Anwar Ibrahim affair. There goes the possibility of any funding from UMNO!

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Over last weekend and this I've recorded the two programmes comprising the BBC's An Islamic History of Europe. They've got a lot going for them - wonderful photography of Spain, especially Cordova and Toledo, Sicily and Paris, and a most personable presenter in Rageh Omar. But they were not entirely to my tastes, incorporating an awful lot of repetition and a rather corny frame story of Rageh conducting a kind of personal search and all that stuff. I suppose in an era of short attention spans this is sadly necessary. Having said that, some of the personal elements worked rather well simply on the level of reminding the viewer that the notion of an Islamic presence in Europe is not the stuff of academia but is about what is taking place now. In the simplest terms of all, it's impossible to buy into all that clash of civilisations guff when a self-evidently amiable bloke like Rageh represents the alien Other.

Of course, the two programmes have made for deeply sad viewing. The autumnal, elegiac note has been prominent. The sense of opportunities being lost has been palpable. There was a moment towards the end of the second programme when the fate of Spain's Jews in the newly unified Christian Spain, following the fall of Granada, was lamented that cut very deep. It's remarkable how rarely we are reminded that the peoples of the Jewish faith have almost invariably faired better under Islamic rule (frequently thriving) than in Christian lands, though we seem to be told with increasing frequency that Muslims and Jews cannot live together.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

On The Edge

There's a curious state I sometimes enter into when I find myself especially busy at work. It's difficult to characterize precisely, but I tend to think of it as being 'hyper'. A sort of frantic sense of permanent rushing takes upon itself a curious aura of a kind of grace - things get done almost by accident, usually being remembered just in time, and a delusional feeling of confidence settles upon one, a sort of certainty that it'll all work out in the end, despite the more than reasonable possibility that it might not. The longest time such a state lasts is around a week, roughly the period of real intensity around a production. And this is the time that I'm most familiar with said state, though I have been known to enter into it on other occasions.

It is intoxicating, probably addictive and, obviously, damaging to the soul.

Yesterday I was reminded of another odd feature of being 'hyper' - which I had, at that point, been for a distinct three days. Punctuating the frantic rush come clearly defined periods of downtime, when, abruptly, everything switches off. On Friday I hit one of these at congregational prayers: no point in thinking any more of everything that needed to be done and wonderfully impossible to do anything, talk to anyone, check anything. No choice except just to be, and worship. The challenge in these periods is to stay awake since the impulse to doze is overwhelming. In fact impulse is quite the wrong word; the luxuriant passivity has nothing remotely active about it. I just about pulled through on Friday, but it was a delightfully close run thing.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Poster Boy

I suppose we live in an age that distrusts anger. But we are in danger of forgetting its wonderful potential for a kind of creativity. Blake is often at his best when he is angry. His blistering annotations to Reynolds's Works provide more than ample evidence of this, most entertainingly so. (Bear in mind that Sir Joshua was at the very pinnacle of the art establishment of the period, whilst Blake, poor and obscure, was just about at rock bottom. In his own words, I am hid.)

It's difficult to pick a favourite from the annotations, but one that occasionally haunts me in my line of work is this: To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit. General knowledges are those knowledges that idiots possess.

I sometimes wonder about the possibility of producing a series like those dreadful motivational posters that you see everywhere these days but one featuring some provocative stuff from Blake. It wouldn't sell, but the world would be a livelier, possibly more sane place, for it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wise Words

Energy is Eternal Delight - thus Blake, turning Heaven and Hell on end. Here he ventriloquises the Voice of the Devil. As so often I have no idea what the adage actually means but just recognise its truth. And this on an evening when I have no energy left at all - batteries flat, not a dram, not a sausage. But there has been some real delight today - particularly in a fine rehearsal. We began to catch glimpses of something special. Bring it on, say I.

Monday, July 14, 2008

On Screens

I'm perversely proud of the fact that the tv in our Singapore living room tends to attract pitying comments from guests. Last week Teck Siew happened to be around one evening and announced that the thing was an antique. I think it's around ten years old, possibly a bit more. I remember buying it when another old stager gave up the ghost completely. Both sets have been and are regarded as very small also, in terms of screen size. I think this one has a fourteen inch screen, which seems pretty big to me. (Yesterday we were visiting Hakim's new flat in Woodlands and he'd bought one of those enormous flat screen jobs. I sat there overwhelmed by the sheer dominating bigness of everything that popped up. Disconcertingly not for me, I'm afraid.)

Anyway, as I said, for some reason I quite enjoy the aspersions cast upon our supposedly tiny tv. I guess it makes me feel a glow of righteousness about doing with so little, literally. And I was thinking along these lines earlier this evening when I suddenly remembered that actually we own a grand total of four idiot boxes and could probably fund the education of several children in a developing nation if we sold some of them. There's another in the back bedroom of this apartment, quite a bit bigger than the one in the living room, which is intended for guests. Then we've got two in the house in KL: one little one in the kitchen, which is sort of meant for Noi to have something downstairs as we don't have one in the actual living room; and then one fairly biggish affair which resides upstairs in what is termed the family area. So much for frugality, and I don't dare begin to count the various little video recorders and DVD players and the like we have somehow accumuated.

And the point of all this? Well, certainly not to boast about our extensive possessions. Simply, I suppose, to admit to a truth to which I'm often curiously blind: I own way, way, way, too many things and it's dangerous not to acknowledge such. Suddenly I feel unhealthily bloated.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


One of the peculiarities of life here is that you find yourself exposed on a fairly regular basis to the great and good letting you know how important reading is and encouraging you to do some (as in the annual Read Singapore campaign) yet, as far as I can tell, it remains a pretty unpopular activity, at least as far as actual books are concerned. (Though I'm sure there are statistics somewhere letting you know how successful the campaigns are, despite all the signs to the contrary.)

One such sign is the lack of any genuine coverage of what might be termed the world of books in the press here. Over my twenty years of residence I've become vaguely aware of a steady decline in the number of column inches allotted to any kind of book reviews in the 'serious' newspapers The Straits Times and The Sunday Times. This morning saw a sort of apotheosis of such.

Usually there are two pages in The Sunday Times (in the appalling Lifestyle section) that seem to be given over to books. The fact that they have a little caption in the top corner saying read points to this, and you certainly needed that pointer today since there was little in the way of hard evidence that the pages had anything to do with reading at all. (In contrast, seven pages were given over to food, under the nifty heading taste.)

The first of the purported book pages was largely given over, I'd estimate between seventy to eighty percent, to an advertisement for the 4-Speed Automatic Chery A5 Saloon. Roughly half the remaining space featured a picture of the writer (local) of a couple of recently published picture books for children. The actual material on the books was essentially an account of how the books came to be written and how they were to be marketed. I must say I found the car advertisement quite interesting.

The second book page had half its space allotted to an advertisement for some promotion selling apartments at Marina Quays featuring the memorable adjuration life… is for living. Of the remaining half, a significant portion was lost to lists of the 'bestsellers' in Singapore for Fiction, Non-fiction and Children's books. (On my count six of the books on the non-fiction list were related to how to make money.) There was a short but intriguing piece on a writer called Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit priest who's just put out a collection of short stories, each set in a different African country. This was lifted from The New York Times. This little nugget was wrestling for elbow room with an article in a sort of series the paper runs called Bookends. This is based on the brilliant concept of asking sort of vaguely famous people here who obviously don’t read very much what they are reading. Today it was Magic Babe Ning, a professional female magician, the only one in Singapore it seems, who informed us that she is now reading No Such Thing As Over-Exposure - Inside The Life and Celebrity of Donald Trump, which she bought cheap at a book fair. Good for her. And the book she would save if her house were burning down? Undoubtedly, Uri Geller - My Story. Enough said, I think.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Glancing Ahead

For the next two weeks, I informed the missus, my life is not my own. I was outlining to her the days on which I will be involved either in rehearsal or performance for drama: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Though relaxing as I spoke, over a pot of tea and a particularly munchy scone, I felt the briefest, finest, most tender shimmer of something akin to panic. There are times when it is not so wise to think too far ahead.

Fortunately I had somehow managed to put aside all thoughts of the other stuff I have to do at the same time. Like actually teaching. And I am continuing to do so.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Hungry Like The Wolf

This evening I found myself eating mutton chops whilst watching White Wolf on National Geographic Wild. An oddly ironic juxtaposition, I thought, considering the carnivorous nature of both viewer and viewed. The documentary dated from 1989 but was ageless in its beauty. And there wasn't a single mention of global warming which was a sort of relief for those of us who prefer to be in denial.

There's a point, well several really, as you're watching these fine creatures that you feel distinctly second rate. It put me in mind of Lawrence's poem on the mountain lion when he has that wonderfully and rather chillingly fascist thought about getting rid of a million or two people to allow for the survival of the lion and you know exactly what he means. Not very nice but sort of exhilarating.

National Geographic Wild achieves a kind of perfection. The adverts (for its own programmes) are repetitive and rubbish, and the commentaries on the actual documentaries are occasionally inane (why don't they just give them all to Attenborough and guarantee some quality?) but it's the work of a moment to hit the mute button and just bask in the pictures.

What is it about the Arctic winter that is so utterly compelling? Catch it while it lasts folks.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


I spent a long, long afternoon today at the semi-final of the Plain English Speaking Awards (for secondary schools). It bought back memories of this time last year when I was at the same place with our then contender, Rekha. This year I've been accompanying Vieshalan, another highly talented speaker, who's sailed through to the final. Actually my job is so easy it's hardly work at all and I feel for those teachers who have to work with somewhat less talented performers. In fact, I feel for the performers themselves. It's no easy task to get up on that stage, especially for the impromptu round, when language has a way of twisting itself into unpleasantly complex knots or, worse still, suddenly running out on you.

There's a nerve-wracking element to all this - for me, I mean. This is not centered on our guys who I know will do a good job, but on the kids who I think might just struggle. I find myself saying the odd prayer that they don't go on and die up there. Part of the relief today was that everyone acquitted themselves well. I suspect that if I were a parent I might just find myself feeling very emotional if it were my offspring delivering up there.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


I visited yesterday for the first time in quite a while (to check a spelling, oddly enough) and was startled to see just how attractive I found the range of books and music it was recommending for me. Of course, I'm too much of a cheapskate and hero of the War on Capitalism to have actually bought anything - I think it's more than a year since a parcel from this source found its way to me - but it was somewhat disturbing to realise how accurately these chaps with their clever software track your purchasing patterns and link these to what you are highly likely to really, really want. They seem to know more about me than I do.

So should we regard this as an example of the Machiavellian manipulativeness of The System, or as a kind of friendly service to the consumer? I'm inclined to go for the latter - at least, as long as I am able to resist the temptation on offer.

I don't suppose it's all that difficult to know what's likely to appeal to me. Yesterday I found myself buying the following CDs: All That You Can't Leave Behind - U2; Love and Theft - Bob Dylan; The Delivery Man - Elvis Costello & The Imposters; Blood & Chocolate (the reissue with the extra CD of outtakes) - Elvis Costello & The Attractions. I think any budding Sherlock Holmes would be able to make a pretty good stab at my age, race, gender, educational background, political affiliations and shoe size based on that information. There are those who might claim that it's a tired sort of selection with absolutely nothing cutting edge about it, but I must say I'm rather proud of that. And I rather like being late to the party, buying stuff that's pretty old now - especially Blood & Chocolate, from the eighties. I have a healthy desire to be linked with all that is deeply unfashionable.

The only CD I've had a chance to play, by the way, has been Love and Theft which is so sensationally good I'm still smiling over it. Charm is not a word one might normally associate with Dylan, but this album has got it in barrow-loads. And just for any reader who has noticed the irony of an entry celebrating my success in the on-going War on Capitalism which admits to my buying no fewer than 4 albums at a shot (something which the ever-observant Noi found time to comment on when she found me in Parkway) I'd just like to point out that Love and Theft cost less than thirteen bucks. Now who could reasonably resist that?

Monday, July 7, 2008

In Pictures

I've made it a habit in recent years, since discovering the joys of graphic novels/comic books, to buy at least one handsome volume thereof to enjoy in holiday periods (hence the fact that most of my collection is in KL.) This June was no exception. I duly shelled out the ringgit for a hardback copy of Will Eisner's A Contract With God Trilogy which I'd noticed in Borders at Parkway but resisted on the grounds that such extravagance was only fit for a man with oodles of time on his hands. The oodles being available I found I had to resist the temptation to overdose and read all three books in a day and managed to spread them over a reasonable two-and-a-half - but I also reread a fair amount of the final book, Dropsie Avenue and two of the four stories making up the first book A Contract With God.

I knew that Eisner had a stellar reputation and hoped I would find myself impressed in the way that so many others have been. (I was a bit concerned I might find the material dated, having little sense of when it was actually written.) I needn't have worried. Though the title story of A Contract With God was not quite what I expected (not busy enough for my liking with generally just one illustration per page) after that things took off spectacularly. I got the sense that the first book was sort of feeling the way to a new way of telling stories - the tales subsequent to A Contract With God felt much freer in conception and style and the subsequent full books A Life Force and Dropsie Avenue move almost into a new way of rendering stories - linking themes through recurrent characters who wind in and out of a sort of meta-story centering on the development over time of a whole location. This sounds rather grand, though I'm trying to put it as simply as I can, but the books themselves make for an effortless read, seemingly perfectly natural as, simply, good stories.

Occasionally the dialogue and linking narration can be a bit clunky, but the artwork itself is never less than wonderful. I don't know anyone else who can do rain quite as well as Eisner. One thing though - the characters do have a distinctly 1940s - 50s feel to them, even though the action of Dropsie Avenue brings us to later decades. They also sometimes remind me of Disney characters, I mean the human figures in Disney cartoons - especially the middle-aged ladies and the sort of generic handsome male in his twenties. I wonder which way the influence went; as far as I know Eisner was never employed by Disney studios. Maybe it was just something in the air?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Family Matters

A busy afternoon, first involving a visit to Tao Payoh to support one niece's (and various schoolmates') entrepreneurial endeavours; then off to visit new niece Ms Jalifah Zahira, who arrived in this world early this morning. Evidence of both above.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Caught Napping

I arrived home from the morning's rehearsal to find that Noi's massage lady was already entrenched in the back bedroom and my wife was readying herself for a major pummeling. With no one to talk to I immediately spread myself on the carpet in front of the stereo, banged on a set of the Brandenburg Concertos and sent myself off to the soothing arms of Morpheus, where I remained for pretty much the whole afternoon despite interruptions from Norsiah, arriving for her massage, and then the three ladies taking tea & epok epok at the other end of the room.

Achieving absolutely nothing seems to me a fine way to spend the later part of a Saturday afternoon. It's also what Dad used to do when I was a child when he got back from the morning shift working Saturdays (which then seemed to me utterly unfathomable.) History repeats itself.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Highs And Lows

A busy day at the end of a busy week at work has left me officially drained - and I've got to go in tomorrow for rehearsals, and complete some marking and a few other bits and pieces over the weekend. Fortunately the weekend will be a long one as we are celebrating a Youth Day holiday on Monday.

We're up against it trying to put a show together for the end of July. One segment is already in place - we'll be doing the SYF item Competition Piece as part of a compendium we've entitled School Daze. It's a ridiculously tight deadline but we seem to thrive on challenges of this nature. To be honest, I thoroughly enjoyed this afternoon's rehearsal, but I suppose I'm getting too old for this - hence the state of semi-exhaustion.

Looking forward to a long visit to the Land of Nod. Soon.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


I've just decided to buy the DVD of The History Boys after catching about 20 minutes of it on HBO, or some such channel. (The bit where the Richard Griffiths's character discusses Hardy's Drummer Hodge in a tutorial.) Another unnecessary casualty in the War on Capitalism - I could easily watch it when they show it again - but I just know I've got to own this movie. It's that good!

It said more about education in the little bit I managed to watch than several hundred hours of 'training' would be likely to achieve (though a cynic might say that's not difficult.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Small Death

Thinking back to my reading in KL, as I was yesterday, the book which probably had the greatest impact on me there was the one I would have thought least likely to do so. I picked up Robert Cormier's After The First Death one afternoon when I fancied something reasonably light and pacey, basically to read in one or two sittings. Cormier was a particularly fashionable writer aiming specifically at a teenage audience in the 1980's. (I really have no idea of his standing these days - I don't seem to see his stuff around much in bookstores.)That's when I bought the novel, but I'd not got round to reading it before leaving it behind for my great journey east. I thought his best known novel The Chocolate War (occasionally compared to The Lord of the Flies in terms of its unflinching observation of the operation of evil in the lives of its young characters) was excellent, but I had been considerably less impressed by I Am The Cheese which seemed to me merely gimmicky and punching beyond its weight.

After The First Death is certainly ambitious, as its title suggests (from one of my favourite Dylan Thomas poems) but I think Cormier largely manages to pull it off. Basically it's an examination of the mechanics of terrorism, centring on the hijacking of a bus load of children, in which Cormier dizzyingly switches perspective between the viewpoints of the hijackers and their victims. It's a genuinely suspenseful novel which strives manfully to be fair to all its characters, treating them all with a real inwardness which puts adult 'thrillers' dealing with similar material to shame. But what makes it outstanding is the way Cormier renders the impact of the all-to-real mortality of its characters.

The death of one in particular is stunning in a manner that's the opposite of gratuitous. The awful logic behind the utterly cold-blooded murder is inescapable. You realise what must happen about a page before it does. The murder in question involves a character who has been created? evoked? with wonderful subtlety such that you (well me, anyway) feel something like real loss as their fate is played out. (Off-stage, finally, adding to the power of the sequence.) Actually it reminded me of something Stephen King achieves at his best: you like the character enough to care.

Nearly always when watching Hollywood movies these days I feel manipulated by them. I dislike that sense of having my strings pulled - but Cormier does exactly that (you can analyse afterwards how he achieves the effect he obviously wants) and it feels right, absolutely so. I suspect this is because the intense discomfort he creates is somehow morally right. Sometimes bleakness is all there is.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Crusading Perspectives

I've not been able to get on with much solid reading since getting back from KL. I was making pretty good progress, in KL and Melaka, on Carole Hillenbrand's The Crusades - Islamic Perspectives but have now stalled. It's a book I've had for quite a while. Noi bought it for me as a birthday present about three years back. She'd seen me glance at it with interest in Wardah Books, our favourite bookshop for material related to Islam, and assumed I really wanted to read it and so, generously, made a present of it. It's a handsome volume, beautifully illustrated, and nice to own - but it's not a great read, being actually quite a dry, technical sort of tome. Ms Hillenbrand may be a fine historian but she has no great gift for words. And that was essentially why I'd not bought it for myself, despite being interested in the period in question, and, I suppose, why it's taken me so long to get round to reading it.

But I'm grateful now I have got into it (and really must see it through to its conclusion.) The early chapters focusing largely on the politics of the Muslim kingdoms facing unwelcome, and generally unfathomable, invaders were ponderous, tending to deal with generalities with little in the way of individual human interest (basically, what I find valuable) but things perk up considerably later, especially in the material relating to the notion of the generation of jihad against the invaders. The development of a sense of jihad was a highly complex, non-linear business, and by no means sustained in the period under scrutiny. I'm now in a chapter dealing with How The Muslims Saw The Franks (the whole book draws on Muslim sources, many only recently translated into English; in fact, the majority not at all) and It's fascinating to witness the mechanics of Muslim prejudices being generated at first hand. Also very funny in places.

I suppose the single most striking thing that emerges from the Muslim sources is the speed with which some sort of messy détente was established between various Muslim factions and the peoples they saw as simply the Franks, despite the powerful sense of those Franks as the unwelcome Other. In the need to deal with the ordinary business of being alive there's always room for the most unlikely forms of accommodation.