Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Retrospective - Press Ganged

Did I read as much as I expected to over the last month? Certainly I read a lot, but at the end of it all I didn't get through that many books. Only two novels, Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which I'd already started before setting out and of which I read a considerable number of pages on the flight over, and Doyle's Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha Ha, about half of which occupied the flight back. (The Doyle I know well anyway from having taught it, but I decided to read it from start to finish again to capture the full effect once more.) Apart from the poetry I mentioned yesterday, supplemented by an interesting anthology Answering Back edited by Carol Ann Duffy, the only other books I read cover to cover were Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, and Ghost World by Daniel Clowes. Since the last of these is a rather thin graphic novel which I got through in one evening I feel unsure as to whether I should mention it at all.

So what went wrong? Well The Stuff of Thought was certainly a slow read. It's fascinating - which I've come to take for granted of Pinker - but the earlier chapters are densely packed and I'm still not entirely sure I grasped them fully despite taking my time to try and ensure I genuinely followed the details of the arguments involved. It probably took me the better part of two weeks to work my way through the whole thing. But this alone cannot account for my general lack of achievement.

In fact I read a great deal more than is listed above, but it came in the form of newspapers and magazines. It wasn't that I bought a paper everyday though - I found it took me a number of days simply to read whichever Sunday paper I picked up given the number of supplements each seemed to bring with it. I'd like to say I enjoyed getting back to this aspect of English life - and that's certainly something I would have said on my journeys to the UK in the previous decade. I remember then feeling a keen sense of regret at leaving behind the ability to indulge in good newspapers and magazines. However, this is no longer the case, primarily since I don't think I'd regard those newspapers as obviously 'good' ones anymore. The quality of analysis of news seems to me to have dramatically declined. Yes, there are good articles but you can no longer take for granted that the 'quality' press will spend time and energy on real analysis.

One painful example stood out. There was a particularly sad case of a child dying as a result of parental abuse in a London borough which involved a good deal of criticism of the social services. I didn't come across a single attempt to deal with the systemic failures that took place in any kind of detail at all, just plenty of angry indignation about the fact that the woman in charge of the department was still receiving a juicy salary and still in work after the report on what went wrong had been published. (She got the shove soon after as a result of all the indignation.) Now angry indignation as a specialty of the tabloid press is all well and good but it just comes over as lazy non-journalism in papers that purport to deal with the world in a serious manner.

In contrast endless column inches appeared to be devoted to people who are regarded as celebrities. Again, there's a place for this, but that place didn't use to be in The Times. I began to feel bludgeoned by having information and views (more views than info, it must be said) hammered into me when I really wasn't all that interested. In truth, the reading sometimes felt like a chore, and an unnecessary one at that.

I suppose I should exempt the generally excellent and plentiful reviews of books, films, music and theatre from my grumpy criticism, but even here I was haunted by a sense that it was the very plenty of this stuff that was preventing me from having the time to actually read the books and listen to the music. Something I've said before, but which bears repeating: for some the reviews become a substitute for the real thing. I must say that in this respect the accessibility of good material online and the fact that my local Borders now stocks The New York Review of Books has made it a little less of a necessity to grab hold of whatever is available when in the UK.

So I suppose I'm complaining of both a general dumbing down and a surfeit, an excess, one that I'm vulnerable to simply because I don't normally deal with it and a month is not enough time to erect sensible defences.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Retrospective - Going Cheap

It would be possible to feed an addiction to the modern novel by simply going around the various charity shops in a small town in England and looking out for the classier stuff among the books going cheap. In Hyde alone there are at least four such shops and each has a reasonable range of paperbacks, and quite a few hardbacks, to rummage among. We were in one shop for Cancer Awareness, actually to give away a number of Mum's old 'murders', when a consignment of Bernard Cornwell arrived, to go on sale for two quid each. Now I don't regard Cornwell as classy in any sense, certainly not even close to the league of O'Brien, (a league of one) but he's certainly a top-rate popular writer and a fan would have been able to get pretty much the complete works from that shop on that day for less than thirty quid.

I didn't intend to buy any books whilst we were over in England but changed my mind when confronted by a handsome hardback of The New Oxford Book of English Verse, as edited by Helen Gardner, in another shop in Hyde (Oxfam, I think) at just one pound and eighty pence (about four Sing dollars in real money). I felt guilty to get it at that price. It now occupies pride of pace on my bedside table, where it is likely to stay on the grounds of inexhaustibility. I also picked up Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist (my original copy went missing when I left my books in the UK when I first came out to the East) along with Simon Armitage's Kid for just one pound. Now who said you needed to be rich to have fun?

All this suggests two ideas to me: 1) Charity shops are a good idea and it would be nice to see some in this city; 2) England has the kind of 'reading culture' that Singapore aspires to, which results in a surplus of worthwhile literature.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Retrospective - Small Things

Mum was in reasonably fine fettle for our December sojourn. Of course, at ninety years of age even the finest of fettles represents a falling-off from former glories. She's a little less mobile than she was two years back, though sprightly enough to negotiate a crowded Ashton Market, with little sit-downs when necessary. It's also far more obvious that her short term memory is failing her, sometimes leading to states of frustrated confusion with panic mixed in.

As a result her world has shrunk to one of distinct routines based around the simple business of managing a life. Just taking her various medicines has become quite a mammoth task. Noi cleverly suggested we buy her a sort of weekly organiser for this, a tray into which the various pills can be distributed according to the various points of ingestion, and this seems to have been a big success.

We also, on a slightly more expensive scale, bought her a digital television - which gives her more channels and a better picture - and a digital recorder. I spent the last week going through the steps for recording, playing and deleting programmes and realised just how complicated simple things are when you are learning something new at ninety.

In fact, the experience of looking at the world and all its tasks, barriers and perils through Mum's eyes was a salutary reminder of the importance of small things. We know this as children and learn it again through the indignity of aging. Except, that's not right at all. There's real dignity in managing the small things, perhaps a sort of triumph.

Oh, and another little thing, which is really quite big from other perspectives. For some the new year has already started. Let's welcome 1430

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Now back at the Mansion in Singapore having enjoyed (yes really) a couple of flights with a curiously subdued Heathrow intersecting. We worked the online checking-in to our advantage in securing exactly the seats we wanted on the 13 hour leg of the marathon. Fuad and family were at the airport to greet us and make the last leg a doddle - reminding us of how helpful so many family members and friends have been to us over the last four weeks.

Coming back to the warmth of Singapore helps offset the sadness at leaving so many behind. And the piles of stuff needing to be dealt with that greeted us on arrival help remind us of how lucky we've been to temporarily take a break from it all.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Out Of Season

Now at my niece Caroline's for Christmas celebrations and able to get online again. Drowning in the excesses of the season here. Christmas seems to have grown out of all proportion, and shape. A sense of brittle desperation is in the air as various businesses with their backs against the wall seek to distance themselves from said wall by convincing people to spend money which, rather too often, they don't really have.

Also a sad sense of the pressure on folk to achieve the impossible perfect Christmas of the cards and colour supplements. This, of course, is intimately tied into the commercialism of the season.

Balancing that: the genuine joys of togetherness, which I am about to further enjoy. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Have been resident in Manchester for just over a week now. Great hospitality here - just finished a wonderful Sunday lunch at John & Jeanette's - but it is generally cold. Very cold. Freezing. Brrrggghhhh.

Also singularly lacking in Internet cafes and the like. But somehow surviving.