Thursday, December 31, 2009

On Looking Back

The English press were full of reviews of the year and decade (I thought it ended with 2010?) when we were over there. A good way to fill column inches but I suppose someone, somewhere likes this kind of thing. And looking back at events over time seems to be something our species is doomed/programmed to do. I wonder if we ever learn anything from this, or is it rather that we get the chance to falsify whatever it was we think took place? Or do we luxuriate in a kind of nostalgia for the unreclaimable?

I find myself thinking back over a particularly enjoyable December, and remembering odd bits and pieces of the year that was. I know there'll be a few retrospective pieces in this Far Place over the coming days.

And whilst in England there were odd moments in which aspects of the past suddenly came alive for me quite disconcertingly, the result, I suppose, of occupying the same spaces, though dislocated in the dimension of time. At one point the girls were treated to a monologue from me on what it was like to have bathed, or been bathed, in an old tin tub in front of the fire. I think I was telling them how lucky they are to enjoy the luxury of showers and the like, but I must say, I couldn't recall any kind of discomfort in my memories - quite the opposite. Curiously my sister got onto exactly the same topic, linked to the joys of an outside toilet in winter, a week or so later, quite unprompted - yet I don't think either of us have mentioned those aspects of our childhood for years. Let's hope we don't begin to become tiresome on this, though we probably will, probably have already. One of the rewards of survival: winning the right to bore the young with one's improbable tales.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Down To Earth

The demands of real life hit me hard today with a day of meetings.

Fortunately I'll be able to make something of an escape tomorrow as we'll be on our way north to see in the new year at Maison KL, followed by a stop-over at Melaka, before reality hits me in drearily splendid earnest.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Returning

Now safely back at the Mansion with the girls delivered into the arms of their Ayah and Ibu. Noi slept through most of the flight, the long leg from Heathrow that is, but Fifi and Fafa did not enjoy the turbulence so the sick bag made an appearance at the end. I finished Neil Roberts's book on Hughes, made a reasonable start on The Black Book and managed to watch yet another movie, making 2009 something of a miracle year for me in terms of watching films right through to the end without falling asleep.

In this case the movie in question was Star Trek, the most recent edition to the canon with Kirk, Spock et al as youngsters. Lots of sound and fury in a story I didn't always manage to follow. But the tale had a heart to it, sensibly focusing on the relationship between James T. and his Vulcan buddy - the heart beating particularly strongly when Leonard Nimoy was on screen. Not a bad backdrop to a journey home (or, rather, to one of my many homes.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

All Too Human

It's not been easy getting any reading done over here, but I have now finished Human by Michael Gazzaniga though I can't honestly say I did it justice. It's one of those popular science tomes, in this case aimed at explaining how the brain functions on a biological level (if that isn't tautological) and what it is about that functioning that distinguishes us from the other forms of life with whom we share the planet. Gazzaniga obviously knows his stuff and tries hard to get the reader to grasp the fundamentals, but there are lots of these and I found following the thread of each chapter challenging to say the least. On the positive side, at least the author wasn't oversimplifying and it's nice to know that mirror neurons are still there in the text waiting for me to read about them all over again and get a little closer to expanding my understanding of these great grey matters.

The only thing I didn't like about the book were the attempts at humour. Gazzinaga, sensible man that he is, obviously admires Steven Pinker and seems to be attempting to emulate both his wisdom and wit. The wisdom is okay but the wit is forced, rarely stretching beyond that sort of irritating breezy facetious brightness beloved of the Dummies series rather than emerging from a genuine way of looking at the world as it does with Pinker.

Having taken the best part of the month to complete Human I've found myself halfway through Neil Roberts's study of the work of probably my favourite modern poet (if you can use 'modern' in that sense any more) Ted Hughes: A Literary Life in less than five days. It's not so much that it's well-written as that I find the subject latter so fascinating. I'll probably be using it as in-flight reading, presuming we get away from Manchester according to plan, along with Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book. It's enough to make me actually look forward to the epic sixteen hour journey to come.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Reasons To Be Thankful

Managed to locate a halal turkey yesterday weighing a mighty 8 kilos, this being the size of bird which Maureen and John are expecting for the dinner they're cooking up for us today. Our original supplier could only manage a slim-line 4 kilo affair, not enough, I'm afraid, for the big occasion. This was one of several 'issues' that needed to be settled yesterday, but settled they were, making me realise how lucky we've been throughout this little trip. Well, lucky so far - but that's more than enough for us.

A few examples of the universe being on our side:

We took the Eurostar when it was actually running, just before the big freeze. We travelled up from London before the roads became impassable, and the car we've hired for Part 2 in Manchester, a Kia Soul using diesel, handles really well on the snow and ice.

The French immigration people turned a blind eye to the fact that Noi and the girls didn't have documentation of how they were intending to leave France (long story) when they could very easily have refused them entrance.

While the rest of the country complained of chaos on the roads, Fifi and Fafa were enjoying sledging down a variety of slopes on John and Jeanette's wonderful bright orange plastic with a bit of string at the front sort-of-sledge - the cheapest fun you can possibly imagine.

Mum has been considerably more lucid since our return from London, and we actually got her out to drink some tea with us and go shopping in the course of a visit to the doctor.

The strike action threatened by BA cabin crew, which would have screwed up our return journey big-time, is, for the moment, on ice (as it were) due to a court injunction.

The trapped nerve I was suffering from earlier in the year, which made it impossible to walk for more than ten minutes a time, seems to have untrapped itself - I have had no problems with it at all throughout December, at one point walking along the Seine from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower, from the Tower to the Arc de Triomphe, and then all the way down the Champs Elysses, right back to our apartment in the Marais. (Pardon the spellings which I can't check here.)

I finally got hold of Procol Harum's Broken Barricades on CD - with bonus tracks - and it sounds as good as it did when I first bought it on vinyl when I was a callow fifteen-year-old.

Blimey, not a bad run of good fortune. Now all we need is decent enough weather to fly back to Singapore on Monday unhindered and it'll be a royal flush indeed.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Expectancy

So many things to do still on Christmas Eve - frustratingly busy. But being with loved ones, lots of them, does much to alleviate the irritation.

Not so easy to get on-line now. One of the frustrations.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Matters of Weight

Now back in Manchester, in Longsight, actually, to order a halal turkey, having made it over the Woodhead Pass on an evening of heavy snow. A new experience for the girls and missus, all too familiar, from years back, for me.

We can't help noticing, in a cruel but honest manner, the number of chunky folk in this country compared to the generally lean appearance of the Parisians we encountered. It's probably a sexist thing to say, but Noi says it as well, that this is even more obviously apparent in many of the young women we see. Considering the portion sizes in restaurants here I suppose this shouldn't come as a surprise. I think the talk one comes across of an epidemic of obesity is a bit over the top - most young people look as thin as ever they did - but there's certainly been some change over the last twenty years. And, I suppose, a phenomenal one from the days of my childhood when fat people (being blunt there) were very much the exception.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Snow Fun

Just look at that! Thus Mak Ndak in a tone that might fairly be described as one of childish excitement. The occasion: Fafa seeing snow for the first time in her little life - and Noi and Fifi seeing it for the second. Having seen snow on numerous occasions I'd have made the comment with a distinct falling tone. I can't stand the stuff - never could.

Snow is essentially deceptive. It can look beautiful, as in movies or when you are looking out of a window onto it from a warm place, though in the second instance one's enjoyment is likely to be muted if you actually have to go out in it for some reason. The fact is when you find yourself walking in it or on it, it rapidly loses its tenuous charm and reveals itself for what it is: rain, very cold, bleak, fluffy rain.

The girls were noticeably keen, as it fell, on returning to our warm apartment in Bayswater. Noi felt they should experience Buck house in the bleak mid-winter. She had a point. They are not likely to forget our little trip to the royal palace. I know I won't. I'm just hoping we don't get a further fall, of the snow variety, when driving north, as I'm doing tomorrow. (Actually today according to the date of this post which is following Singapore time.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Roughing It

There are an awful lot of people begging on the streets of Manchester, London and Paris. It's difficult sometimes to know what's best to do when asked for money. A few days back, on our coldest day in Paris, we passed a couple of guys, one looking middle-aged, one quite young, lying on the pavement opposite the Louvre in the late evening. They both looked completely out of it - we guessed due to alcohol. I commented that I couldn't see how they'd make it through the night.

But they did. In a couple of sleeping bags that we saw them in next morning, around 10.00 when we went back to do some shopping. They still looked smashed. We didn't give them anything on the grounds it wasn't likely to help them. They still haunt me. I wonder if they'll get through the winter.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Relocation

Now in London having ridden the Eurostar for the first time. Beats the cross channel ferry, though not as much fun. In Paris our apartment was in Marais and we found plenty of halal eateries around us - as well as being in a wonderfully central position, almost in sight of Notre Dame. Here something similar: we're in Bayswater, just off Queensway, and from the shops that cater to us it's obvious there are plenty of Muslims around.

Last night Noi and the kids watched the final of the X-Factor with great delight. At last some television that isn't in French, says Fafa the cosmopolitan.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Adventuring

Got lost on the way to Versailles. The French RER system (light railway) is unforgiving, unlike the user-friendly Metro. Found it eventually though, on our coldest day here.

The cold was appropriate though for the magnificent chilly vulgarity of this monument to totalitarianism. Vive la revolution, say I.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

For Free

Greatest moment(s) of a great day: music for free on the steps of Sacré Coeur. Specifically a talented busker playing acoustic guitar and singing a fine selection of songs to an appreciative crowd. The light beginning to dim over Paris. The last patches of sunlight illuminating the east of the city. We did give something, of course, but I can't think of what could have really been enough for just a priceless time.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Journeying

Finished Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel this morning. I reread it in view of the fact we'll be using it as a text next year. Not a bad way of earning a living, say I. For some reason, probably because he's really good, I find de Botton very easy to read, and reading this particular text when actually travelling just added to the pleasure - and profit. De Botton, as always, has insightful things to say about his topic. Generally what he says has a quality of being quite obvious, except for the fact that I've never actually managed to think of it with his level of clarity. Our students are in for a treat - at least those with the wit to appreciate it are.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Gay Paree

First time in Paris for over twenty-five years and the museums go on strike.

But we got into the Louvre free! In the course of our visit we got to see four guys arrested (in the gallery with the Mona Lisa) presumably for picking pockets. And there was a demonstration by striking 'culture workers'. Eventful. Oh, and we got to see some art.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Listening In

Overheard at the shop at Old Trafford yesterday: You've got shinpads.

But dad, these are Manchester United shinpads!

Off to Paris later today. Wonder what kind of talk we'll be hearing there.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Worrying

Mum has always been a great one for mithering - even when I was quite a small child I was aware she considered herself as having more than enough to mither over, one of those many things being myself. As she grew older it became apparent that her worrying over little things had translated into a general debilitating sense of anxiety over life itself, but this was balanced against an essential feistiness of character that enabled her to fight back.

Now that's gone, Her short term memory is very poor, a problem magnified since the shingles struck a couple of months ago. As a result she worries all the time about what she might have forgot, which is useful since it ensures she gets all the basic things done. But it also means she always has something to worry about - even when we are there to assure her there is nothing to be troubled over. She knows she is mithering for no reason but, of course, that makes no difference as she forgets what she knows.

She's prone to say that we can't understand how she feels which is both true and not true. Certainly the absolute horror of never being able to not worry is, thankfully, beyond us. At least for now. (Though it is also true to say she has periods when she clearly feels at ease and relaxed, especially when lost in the tv.) But I think I'm enough like her to recognise the tendency to find things to worry about and I've had those moments, in the small, dark hours, of feeling that there is some massive problem unaccountably forgotten looming on the edge of consciousness.

All the more reason to be thankful for the gift of lucidity - while it lasts.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Caroling

Yesterday, worshipping at that great shrine to the gods of capitalism The Trafford Centre, we took the girls to see the latest version of A Christmas Carol. This was our third 3D movie this year - amazing when you consider we usually get to only one film in a year.

The problem any film version of the Carol presents is the great Alaister Sim - more particularly the wonderful version of the tale in which he played Scrooge. It would be truer to say, he was Scrooge. He captured the monstrous energy and fun of the wicked Scrooge and somehow made the transformation believable. Jim Carrey's cartoonish avatar is good to look at (though bearing a remarkable resemblance to old man Steptoe from Steptoe & Son) but achieved neither of those things. The usual anarchic Carrey-ish energy seems lost, everything feeling overly calculated.

I think Noi and the kids enjoyed it though. The mythic power of the original can't ever be completely lost whatever the quality of the version you're watching. And it looks beautiful, a bit like a high class pop-up book for children. Zemeckis stays reasonably true to the origiinal, except for a couple of gratuitous sort-of-chase sequences following the arrival of a nicely spooky Ghost of Christmas Future.

All in all, better than window-shopping in the endless corridors of the mall.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Monstrous

It's a measure of how readable Ackroyd's take on Frankenstein is that, in a period when it has been difficult for me to find the space for continuity of reading, the novel held my attention and, simply, gripped me, despite the fact I had to reluctantly keep putting it down. The monster is both entirely original and satisfyingly compelling.

Is it one of Ackroyd's best? In terms of sheer entertainment, certainly. And this is a quality it shares with the more recent novels, a kind of easy playfulness, as if Ackroyd is enjoying mucking around with literary history. (The whole Shelley set put in an appearance, Byron and Mary Shelley most memorably.) But it also had a depth and intensity the more recent stuff has lacked. The ending is particularly strong and satisfactory, for example. The only mild reservation I have lies in that 'mucking around' with historical facts that Ackroyd has indulged in recently. Shelley's first wife, Harriet, was not murdered, for example, as she is, memorably, in the novel. I'm not entirely sure why this bothers me, I am, after all, reading an avowed fiction not an historical account - but for some reason it does.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Limits

Much to celebrate here - Noi's birthday last Wednesday and cousin John's today. We bought him Ackroyd's London on the grounds that anything I enjoy so much has to appeal to others. Am now close to finishing The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, but need to get to the end to decide if it's just very good or one of his best.

Still battling with the multiplicity of choice here with regard to things I like. Successfully resisted a set of DVDs of the BBC's magnificent I, Claudius, not so much because of damage to the pocket - the set was pretty cheap - but because I couldn't imagine finding time to watch a series of which I have extremely vivid recall anyway.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

More Profusion

We took John and Maureen out to dinner last night, to the Wagon and Horses at Mottram, and enjoyed a big meal in every sense. Huge portions for all. The girls only had three side dishes between them - being picky eaters they didn't fancy any of the main courses - and they still had food to spare. The fish and chips was an epic in itself.

And then there's the car we hired - a pretty large Vauxhall Insignia. We needed something big for all our luggage. The dashboard has so many odd little buttons to push my mind is overly boggled. I just point and drive. I suppose too much of everything is better than too little, but we seem to be well beyond sensible limits in some respects.

Profusion

Wrote this yesterday, but couldn't manage to get on-line, so here it is now:

Wednesday 2 December

Went down to central Manchester yesterday for the first time on this visit and was struck, as I always am here, by the sheer volume of stuff that is easily available and the attendant havoc played on my attempts at pursuing the War on Capitalism. The big HMV store opposite the Arndale Centre is a shadow of what it used to be (in the days before downloading) but it still offers some highly tempting goodies (in terms of music CDs), enough to play havoc with hand luggage requirements and my bank account. Manfully resisted most temptations though. I must say, I don’t really have a problem not buying from the astonishing range of DVDs available – we haven’t viewed all the ones we brought back last year yet. The number of television series available here, both U.S. and U.K. is staggering and makes me wonder who can find the time to watch them all. It’s being so overwhelmed that curiously takes away whatever appetite I might have for this stuff.

Another problem area is the Waterstones Bookshop on Deansgate. This hasn’t suffered any decline I can see in terms of the competition from the on-line purchase of books and e-books (I’m getting more and more intrigued by what I read about the Kindle); if anything the poetry section – the measure of any bookshop – is better than ever. I had serious difficulty in ensuring I didn’t decide that some twenty books there alone simply had to be bought.

And then at Mum’s, in the evening, we caught an episode, a repeat I assume, of one of those brilliant BBC plus David Attenborough documentaries from a series called simply Life. It was about what goes on in the oceans and there was nothing simple about life down there. Several moments were so stunning you couldn’t help but wonder if it had been faked using that clever CGI technology (is that the right acronym?) at the behest of some incredibly and dubiously imaginative designer. But no, it’s the real thing and generously available to us before we wreck the world. The bit with the massive fried egg jellyfish making a meal of a shoal of smaller jellyfish managed to be both utterly gruesome and compellingly beautiful at one and the same time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In A New Place

My hopes of getting on-line here in Manchester have materialized. We are temporarily cosily resident at John and Jeanette’s house – sleeping in Sam’s bedroom – and I’m able to link to John’s broadband by one of those miracles of modern technology we manage to take utterly for granted once we’ve experienced it for a month or so. Well, not so much take for granted as regard as some kind of birthright.

The flight over was memorable, for myself, for two features: I forgot my denim jacket, referred to by Fifi & Fafa as my Westlife jacket, for reasons known only to themselves, which meant I appeared somewhat under-dressed at Manchester Airport, for the last days of November. And I thoroughly enjoyed The Simpsons Movie, which I saw in its entirety for the first time. The only problem lay in having to stifle my laughter in order to avoid irritating my fellow-travellers.

Since then the days have been, as they say, packed. And cold. Very cold.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

In Time

Hurrying, flurrying and generally scurrying to get everything necessary done before take off. Above some rare static moments from the last few days.

Hoping to get on-line when in England (and France!) a bit more than this time last year, but you never know.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Jet Setting

Caught up in a flurry of preparation and movement, we have deposited one niece in Melaka, where we are at the moment for Hari Raya Haji, more commonly known as Eid Al Adha. The other two nieces are back with their parents in Singapore, but they’ll be dropped off with us, back at the Mansion, or the airport (I’m not sure), tomorrow and then it’s off to the rainy city and Paris and London for a month. I get tired just thinking about it.

But I enjoyed prayers here at the little mosque today – twice, in fact. Once for Haji, and then for the usual Friday Prayers. Last time I was here Fuad and I attended prayers at the rather grand state mosque, a fine building but perhaps a bit over-elevated for the likes of me.

Finished Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein this morning, before going to the mosque, leaving Victor expiring in the desolate cold of an ice-packed northern sea – one of the best bits of the novel – and the monster planning his (the monster’s) funeral pyre in the same location. Great stuff! Now embarking on Ackroyd’s new version of the myth, which will be my reading on the long flight to Europe. Ackroyd begins with Victor meeting Percy Shelley at Oxford. Again, great stuff, or it certainly looks that way. Some learned cove on the book jacket compares it to Hawksmoor and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Hope he’s right!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Here Be Monsters

Frankenstein Or, The Modern Prometheus is a very strange novel in more than one respect. Respect one really has nothing to do with the novel in itself in terms of Mary Shelley’s writing, but it’s very real to the modern reader. The book bears no relation at all to the movies, not even the Kenneth Branagh version which I seem to remember made some sort of claim to authenticity. The ‘creation’ scene beloved of all directors is non-existent, almost, in the novel. There’s just a passing reference to the eyes of the monster opening, an image which returns to haunt Victor later in the story, and that’s about it.

More importantly, it’s generally abominably written. The dialogue, where you get some as a relief from the tedious explication of Victor’s account, is stagey at best, and it’s often not as good as that – the sort of thing a teenager might write for the stage. The inconsistencies of plot are startling – how exactly does the monster cross the waters to get to England? And when it’s not being inconsistent the plot manages to lurch into utterly superfluous digressions, like that of Felix and his tiresome family history. All of this though is better than those moments, of which there are more than a few, when the novel seems to turn into a kind of travelogue.

And the strangest thing of all? Despite all the above, Frankenstein is a wonderful novel simply as a result of the mythic power of Mary Shelley’s big idea. In fact, the idea is so powerful it shatters the timid frame of the fiction that attempts to contain it. The monster, the daemon, the fiend – all Victor’s terms for what his tiny mind cannot contain – is startling in the reality of its pathos and the truth of its needs, for a mate, for understanding, for revenge. No wonder it came to take even Victor’s name away.

I’ve got forty pages left and I’m relishing everyone of them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Musical Education

To my pleased surprise I finally got hold of a copy of The Vintage Guide to Classical Music by Jan Swafford yesterday. I've been on the lookout for months, Swafford being the author of my all-time favourite book related to music - a superb biography of Charles Ives. I'd recommend the Ives biography to anyone, even someone who can make no sense at all of Ives's oeuvre. You'll go back to listening with massively renewed understanding. And that's what I was hoping for from the new Guide, a kind of broad musical education. I've already greedily read a few of the sections, the ones on Ellington, Gershwin, Britten, Vaughn Williams and Mozart and they do not disappoint. Swafford writes with genuine wit and clarity, a claim made on the back cover, and a sort of earthy, common sense directness which is enormously appealing and convincing. He makes the music he loves sound like it must be listened to for the sheer pleasure of the experience, which is, of course, the whole point.

Or is it? A couple of days ago I chanced upon this interesting interview with philosopher Roger Scruton here. I've always enjoyed reading Scruton, even though his generally conservative, right wing stance is not a position I can find much sympathy for. But he's the kind of opponent who thinks with a clarity that can only help you make your own ideas clearer (and make you aware that it's quite reasonable for others to hold views almost diametrically opposed to your own.). And in the realm of ideas related to aesthetics I find him enormously fruitful as a thinker. In the interview Scruton makes some interesting points about the value of serious/classical music in relation to the general lack of such value in popular music and I must say I think he's essentially on the right track.

Where he goes a bit wrong, I think, is in not recognising the range of nuance in the best of popular music. He gets close to this in an attempt to appreciate The Beatles and the great songwriters like Cole Porter, and it's interesting and laudable that he tries to stretch to some understanding of Metallica. But he clearly doesn't know the field. However, I think he's absolutely right in citing Oasis as an example of the narrow range of expression of most rock music and its concentration on the self and the performer. And I believe he's got something when he talks about the educational power of pure music in terms of implanting some kind of emotional rhythm or movement within that unfashionable facet of our being, the soul

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Just Wild

We now have no fewer than three nieces in residence and the need to provide some form of entertainment for them in the course of each day is pressing. We solved the problem yesterday with a visit to the Discovery Centre, in the course of which we got to see a 3D movie on the big screen there. This was our second 3D movie of the year, following a rather clever Pixar style offering we saw in June (I think), but this one didn't work as well, probably because it had real actors and they come off as distinctly less than natural in 3D.

But the film had the virtue of being relatively short, at forty-five minutes, and thus within my attention span - and that of the girls. It was achingly sentimental also, in a Disneyesque manner, but its heart was in the right place. Entitled The Call of the Wild it rather neatly embedded Jack London's classic within a modern narrative of a somewhat spoiled little girl being sent to a small town to stay with grandfather and discovering the joys of bonding with a sort of half-dog-half-wolf she calls Buck, after London's dog which she learns about through grandad's reading of the tale. Interestingly the genuine harshness and realism of London's idea of the wild comes across through the re-telling - at one point the girl doesn't want to know what happens next - and the reality of the modern Buck's wildness is not played down (though the ending is, sadly, a cop out.) I was reminded of watching Born Free, about the lioness Elsa, when I was a child and feeling very uncomfortable at the uncompromising ending. (Elsa does, inevitably, return to the wild.)

The other great virtue of the film lay simply in the shots of Buck. No need for gimmicks like 3D. The animal looked stunningly beautiful, and gloriously wild. Sometimes just knowing that something of the world outside our human scope is still going strong is enough to make one optimistic in a (very) small way.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Leaving Gaps

A bit of advice for anyone intending to read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy: leave something of a gap between each book rather than moving on immediately. I finished The Ghost Road today and it occurred to me that the reason I got bogged down in the first half of the novel was because I started reading it on the day I finished The Eye In The Door and sort of expected more of the same - which I didn't get. In contrast, it was quite a while after reading Regeneration that I picked up the second book so I was rather more open to an entirely different kind of novel. In the early part of The Ghost Road I just couldn't get the hang of the Melanesian chapters featuring Rivers as a much younger anthropologist. It was only when Prior went back to the front towards the end that I began to understand the part that the headhunting material plays thematically.

One of the triumphs of the series is the way in which the writer avoids repeating herself. Instead Barker gets us involved in new and unexpected ways of looking at the conflict that forms the backdrop to the three novels. As I've mentioned before, the avoidance of any kind of cliché about WW1 is in itself a remarkable achievement.

The other thing that's so striking about the trilogy is the spareness and restraint of the writing. Nothing is over-written or goes on too long. In fact, I had the odd feeling that what the writer was not saying, was leaving out, was almost as important as what was in the texts. One example of this is the way in which Wilfred Owen is dealt with in the final segments. You cannot help but think of his poetry as you read, but none of this makes it into The Ghost Road so that the poetry becomes itself a kind of ghostly presence haunting the novel.

I found the final pages the most potent I've read for quite some time in terms of their emotional power. Reviewers tend to bandy words like 'shattering' around rather too freely for my tastes - but it's the only word I can think of that does justice to just how devastating the ending is - even though you know it's coming.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

English Music

I'm finally getting my reading on track after a hesitant couple of weeks. This morning I finished Peter Ackroyd's wonderful Albion: The Origins Of The English Imagination. I had already dipped into the penultimate chapter English Music having noticed that its main concern was the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and I enjoyed it even more the second time around having got a better idea of what Ackroyd regards as the essentials of the English imagination. It seems to me utterly right that he chooses to focus on VW rather than Elgar, though the latter gets an honourable mention. One line in particular, concerning VW, jumped out at me for its personal applications: His music is instinct with that sense of belonging, so that the act of listening to it becomes a form of homecoming.

I'm now considering rereading Ackroyd's novel English Music. I found it the most difficult of all his novels when I first read it but I remembering enjoying it, especially the brilliant pastiche of Blake's prophetic books. The problem is though that I frequently consider rereading Ackroyd's early novels and can't afford the time for such a digression. I think if I had to name my favourite novels then First Light and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem would be vying for places right at the top of the list. As it is, though, his latest book The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein lies enticingly on the shelves and I've promised myself a reread of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Or, The Modern Prometheus before I let myself loose on it.

And all this in the shadow of our imminent trip to England (and France) on which I've vowed to take only one or two books to read in recognition of the fact I'll be buying more when we get there.

Meantime I'm pressing on with the very English Pat Barker and her distinct music, but finding The Ghost Road heavier going than I expected.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Loud And Clear

Noi is off jet-setting again. She's gone to Penang, to cook for and attend a wedding, taking one of the local budget airlines to get there. Happily for me, she'll be back early tomorrow - the morning flight being cheaper than the one in the afternoon - bringing with her niece Ayu (who'll be experiencing her first time ever on a plane.) Also happily for me, Noi got cooking to in the later part of the week in order to provide for yours truly. I'm just heating up a sensational oxtail soup having munched a fabulous salmon fishcake earlier in the day.

Noi parting words to me involved, amongst other things, a quip about my being able to play 'my music' extra loud. She knows me well. Although I don't really consider the present volume (I'm playing Yes's Relayer in the other room) particularly loud. Others might, I suppose. Anyway I must say I've been enjoying a fairly disparate variety of disks today, generally accompanying me as I've been working. (Quite unusual for me, actually. I can't listen to music as I mark, for example. But today's work was, for the most part, utterly routine to the point at which real thought was hardly necessary.)

I kicked off with a bit of Bax, Symphony No. 5 and the tone poem The Tale the Pine Trees Knew. I'm thinking of playing this again later, after the Liverpool - City game as a way of signing off for the day. After that came Pink Floyd's Umma Gumma (the studio album) Joni Mitchell's Hejira, Gentle Giant's Octopus, Depeche Mode's Exciter and Yusof Islam's Roadsinger. All of which, including the stuff from Yes now shaking the living room, reminded me of how much I've got that I don't get round to playing anything like enough. Riches indeed, at whatever volume you choose.

Friday, November 20, 2009

On The Run

If you happened to be in the HDB car-park behind the Darussalam Mosque in Clementi just after Friday Prayers you would have been exposed to an extremely rare sight: i.e., my good self running, or rather trotting, I suppose, at a reasonably fair lick. It is over a year since I ran anywhere, due to the problems caused by the trapped nerve in my lower back. So why the sudden burst of energy? It was part of a desperate attempt to avoid being soaked by the rain which had suddenly decided to fall.

Ironically, on my way to the mosque I had been congratulating myself on the fact that it was not going to be necessary to carry an umbrella with me as it was an unusually fine day for this wet November, with no sign whatsoever of any imminent precipitation. How wrong I was, though I was not aware of the fact until I was on the way out. Normally you can hear the rain coming down from inside the mosque but today there wasn't a sound or any kind of hint of a storm, so I'm assuming it began just as I was leaving.

But this is a story of celebration - for two reasons. First of all, although I was fairly wet by the time I made it to the car, it took less than fifteen minutes to get almost completely dry. It's the climate. Even the greyest November day here is essentially warm. In Manchester I'd have suffered for hours if I'd got that wet.

And secondly, I was actually running, and do not appear to have done myself any harm. I've been pain free now - I'm talking of sciatic pain - for two weeks. I'm starting to believe that the trapped nerve has mysteriously and wonderfully untrapped itself. If this is the case I can seriously begin to consider seriously exercising this tired old body of mine. And I didn't think that would have been possible even a month ago.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rushing To Judgment

When I was last in the excellent Kinokuniya bookshop in KLCC in Kuala Lumpur a couple of weeks ago, I found myself sorely tempted to buy what looked like a tasty little tome by Ian MacDonald entitled Revolution In The Head. This was on the music shelf, being a sort of run-down of all the tracks recorded by The Beatles (241 of them, it seems) with other bits of essay-like pieces thrown in. It looked enticing for its chubbiness alone, but the various words of praise from sensible sort of chaps like Noel Gallagher dotted over the cover and on the first of the inside pages made it even more attractive. However, somehow I held back (having already purchased two other books when I had promised myself to abstain until I was in England) and this proved to be an unexpectedly wise decision. Last Friday I came across the same edition in the NTUC just across the road at the Esso petrol station on their cheapo cheapo book rack, just one copy, going for a mere 9 bucks! It was duly snaffled.

And duly perused over a less-than-routine weekend, basically because with the usual pattern of things disrupted, a book that could be easily, painlessly dipped into at random was about the only thing I could really settle to read.

And for once the blurb was spot on. It's a great book, a real labour of love. MacDonald is illuminating in every respect but particularly on the musical content of the songs. He brings a genuine sense of expertise to what one might loosely term popular criticism.

But there's one aspect of the book that puzzles and fascinates me in roughly equal measures, with a dash of something like irritation thrown in. He is extremely clear in his judgments of almost every song and not afraid to rubbish what he regards as rubbish. But the problem is that quite a bit of what he rubbishes seems to me to be well worth equivocating over. Whilst his expertise, and obvious love of the group, might seem to earn him the right to judge decisively, it's a bit hard to take scathing dismissals of songs like Helter Skelter. In this particular case it had never occurred to me that anyone might dismiss a track I just assumed was universally accepted as brilliant. Oddly enough I can relate to his particular criticism here, cannily related as it to the development of heavy metal and the song's relationship to that dubious genre, but it seems to me that to belittle a track that has meant so much to so many - presumably to the likes of U2, for example, electing to steal it back from Charles Manson - somehow is missing something about the music somewhere.

As I have noted before, the deep-seated need we seem to have, in matters of artistic judgment, to divide the sheep from the goats is one that we might all usefully question, and possibly restrain.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Dangerous Man

Caught an interview with Noam Chomsky on the World Service on my way into work today. I think it was one of the Hardtalk series. The interviewer did a good job of challenging Chomsky whilst giving him reasonable room to develop his ideas (the political, not linguistic ones), but it was one of those times when the thirty minute format just wasn't enough. I could have listened to several hours of discussion of this depth and quality.

Which leads to an interesting question: given the epic amounts of time available to cable news, why is it we don't get hours of quality discussion? All they'd have to do is get someone like Chomsky on board with a decent interviewer, let the cameras roll, and they could fill their schedules for almost next to nothing. I suppose they'd answer that nobody would watch, but somehow I doubt that that would really be the case. Chomsky sells well enough and could be wrapped in enough controversy to generate a reasonable audience. Perhaps the real problem is that too many people would watch?

Just as a matter of interest, I've never heard Chomsky when interviewed being other than dryly and painstakingly logical. I suppose that's why he doesn't sound at all like the usual talking heads.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Extremely Ordinary

By 5.30 this afternoon the rain had set in. It wasn't coming down terribly hard, but it was drearily persistent in that spoiling manner to which we are so accustomed in November. The day suddenly felt dingy and dirty and sort of over somehow.

But none of this mattered in the slightest. Because Noi was back home from hospital and the tea was hot and plentiful and the kerepok was suspiciously easy to munch. And there we were, catching up on the events of the day, as usual, trying to figure out what we needed to do for the rest of the week, as usual, and aimlessly gossiping about just about all and everything, as usual.

What stopped it being as usual as it usually is, is that we'd not been able to do this for several days, and been reminded that we rather take for granted that we'll always have business as usual. We won't. But we'll relish how sweet it is while it gloriously lasts.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Confirmation

I've just popped home from the hospital where I've been for most of the day. Noi is looking a lot better and seems to be responding to the antibiotics the doctors have been pumping into her. She's walking reasonably comfortably, though still in some discomfort, and it looks like she won't be going under the knife. Indeed, she thinks she might be out of there by tomorrow.

Her being ill has been confirmation - not that I needed it - on how completely I rely on her for just about everything.

Now getting ready to go back to her bedside, and there's no place else I'd rather be.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not So Forgettable

Very odd day. Spent the morning and early afternoon at a workshop related to the use of the voice. Spent the evening at East Shore Hospital whence Noi was admitted in the early afternoon. The cause of her stomach pain remains a mystery, despite a CT scan and the attentions of an excellent doctor. So she's now under observation in a safe place, particularly since it's not impossible they may need to whisk her into an operating theatre pronto.

We were lucky to have Siew to help her out this morning in taking her to the doctor again and the hospital, and then Fuad, Rozita and family to make sure she had all that was needed. I'm not much help, I'm afraid, just something of a helpless spare part.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Forgettable

The day started badly and just got steadily worse. As I woke up the rain came down, in the kind of grey storm typical of this rainy season, setting the tone for the whole day. And at the same time Noi started to complain of a really bad stomach ache. Since then she has been nastily, queasily ill all day, poor thing, and has now taken to bed, the only place she can get some relief.

We're hoping for better things tomorrow.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Found Wanting

Why is there so much emphasis these days on how much people must want something in order to validate their getting it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Walls Come Tumbling Down

If someone had told me thirty years ago that the Berlin Wall would crumble in my lifetime, I would have thought them absurdly optimistic. The events of twenty years ago still seem possessed of an almost dream-like quality.

Just because things are, doesn't mean they should be, or that they will be. And that seems to me grounds for optimism. Unfortunately, it's equally grounds for pessimism.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Englished

I've been feeling disconcertingly English since the weekend, a state that was intensified, if anything, today by having to attend a workshop on National Education, Singapore style.

I suppose this, the state of feeling English, has had something to do with my current reading and recent listening. I'm moving steadily through Ackroyd's Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination which has exciting, original and pretty daft things on every page. And on the fiction front I followed The Handmaid's Tale (wonderful!) with Pat Barker's The Eye in the Door, the second in the Regeneration trilogy (equally wonderful! - an extraordinary demonstration of how to take material that may seem like it's been done to death and revivify it by coming at it slant-wise. And how completely she nails differences of social class and the differences they made, and continue to make.)

Also the weekend encompassed a pile of Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi, the 5th Symphony, Hodie, A Fantasia on Christmas Carols; plus a heap of Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, the 1st Symphony, and various incidental bits and marches.

And here's a line from Ackroyd that sort of sums up the Englishness to which I aspire, but which I sadly fail to live up to: …much of the English genius resides in quixotic or quirky individuals who insist upon the truth of their independent vision in the face of almost universal derision.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Breathing Space

We completed our viewing of Fanny and Alexander yesterday afternoon. Noi wants us to be on the look-out for more foreign movies when we go to England, having enjoyed this one so much. At the point when Uncle Isak was stealing the children from the bishop - a control man, she astutely pointed out - she was jumping up and down on the sofa shouting Quick, quick. I would have been doing the same had I not watched the film before.

Afterwards I mentioned the slow pace of the film to her (by the way, the version we watched is the full five hour version shown originally on Swedish television, not the three hour version released in cinemas) intending this as praise, but Noi didn't think it slow at all. And I realised how right she was. The story moves along at a considerable pace over the full arc of the movie. But Bergman allows time for the wonderful monologues and set pieces, like Carl's scenes with his poor wife - so painfully, hurtfully, funny. This is a movie that allows itself, and the viewer, to breathe.

I'm wondering if the reason I find most films today difficult to watch with sustained attention lies in the lack of such space. And I'm furthering wondering why so many features of our lives today seem to seek to deny us such space.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Acceptance

With our visit to the UK and environs looming I've finally been catching up on the DVDs we brought back with us last December. This has been a most enjoyable process, particularly since the Jeeves and Wooster series (Fry & Laurie) has featured prominently. I'm now on series three, the first three episodes of which are set in New York, and this is the stuff I've never seen before - very much worth waiting for, I must say.

And then on Friday we embarked on Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, which if I were forced to make one of those silly lists of my top ten favourite movies would be likely to feature at number one. We're now up to Act 4, with the children having just arrived at the bishop's house/palace and Noi was almost demanding to keep watching late last night as she desperately needed to know what happens to them. Great story-telling.

So what makes Fanny and Alexander so good? I can think of four obvious things. First off, it's gorgeous to look at. You could freeze almost any frame and have something you wouldn't mind hanging on a wall. Beautifully composed, yet it genuinely moves in filmic terms. Whilst this is more obviously the case for the first act of he Ekdahls' Christmas, it remains true of the later more austere scenes at the bishop's. Secondly, the acting is wonderful. So much is done with so little - extreme close-ups, sparingly yet dramatically employed, convey the puzzling depths of the characters. These people look authentically like they are living and thinking at the turn of the nineteenth century. Physically in terms of gesture, stance there isn't a note out of place. Thirdly, as mentioned earlier, the story in itself is so powerfully engaging. It has an archetypal force - the Hamlet subtext, the warmth of the Ekdahls set against the chill of the bishop - that it wears close to the surface but which never lacks in subtlety. Finally, the whole experience is encompassed within a sense of tolerance and humanity that is deeply touching.

Unlikely as it seems, I can see something in common between Wodehouse and Bergman, and it's this: an acceptance of human folly that rises to a kind of sublime charity.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Monkey Business

We've still not received any kind of notification from the Telecom in Malaysia that our KL phone line has been repaired. It was the lack of a proper connection that prevented me from getting on-line this time last week. Noi developed a plausible theory as to why we'd become disconnected involving monkeys, having spotted three of them tightrope walking, or rather scurrying, along the line outside Maison KL. She reckoned they'd played about with the connection box fixing our line to the main one and, I must say, when I caught sight of the blighters they looked distinctly guilty. They also looked distinctly self-contained, as if the human world could not impinge upon their monkeydom and, thus, was not worthy of examination. Up there on the line they gave me, at ground level, barely a second glance.

In the taman newsletter for October there was a reference to them as 'cute' - though the brief paragraph was advising the human residents to sensibly keep their distance. But 'cute' seems to me to be so entirely inappropriate as to suggest that whoever wrote it has not really been seeing our simian chums as they are. In their effortless domination of the telephone lines and the nonchalance with which they swing from these to the fragile branches of nearby trees, they are very much other, very much themselves - hard and crisp and graceful in a ferocious way.

I told Mum about seeing them when I phoned her on Monday, explaining that it had been their probable interference with the line which had meant I had been unable to phone her over the weekend. She was, as I guessed she would be, delighted to hear about them. In fact, the idea of them seemed to make her forget the pain from her shingles for a short while - she was actually laughing, as was I.

It's nice to be able to phone so easily from the Mansion here, but I miss the strangely real life of the other taman-dwellers.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Raw And The Cooked

Making deliberately slow progress with Atwoood's The Handmaid's Tale - partly because I've been so busy at work, and at home doing work for work, and partly because I'm savouring every moment. Is this a feminist novel? The label is inadequate and reductive. This is simply a great novel: intense, emotional, yet sublimely controlled.

The problem I found reading the Danticat novel the other day lay, I think, in a sense of a lack of necessary distance in the relationship between the text and the writer. What was the reader supposed to make of the two major male characters? On one level they seem decent, understanding sorts, but it's difficult to shake off a suspicion that we're meant to see them as somehow inadequate in the face of the challenges of female pain - which is infinite, unfortunately.

At one moment Danticat outlines the awful degradation of the bodies of the two other women in the central character's therapy group. It's just two sentences, and we hardly hear of these women again. It's an awful thing to say, but I almost laughed at how over-the-top this was. What prevented me from laughing was the realisation that this kind of horror is real - but the writer has a duty, surely, to make it real for the reader. And somehow this writer, for all her talent, fails to do this too often.

Atwood never fails. Her fantasy world becomes realer than real.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Malaccan Magic

Some shots above from last Sunday, at Mak's house. A very creative place.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Back, Again

From last Tuesday I began to experience some quite intense discomfort rising to pain in my back, probably as a result of several continuous hours of consultations with students regarding their approaching exams. The pain peaked on Friday when I simply could not make it to Friday Prayers having been very much looking forward to going again to the new mosque near our house at the taman. But the odd thing was my awareness that these were not sciatic pains - in other words I didn't think they were directly connected to the trapped nerve in my back. In fact, when Noi and I went on Friday evening to KLCC I wandered around Kinokuniya there for a good forty minutes with no pain in my leg at all. If I'd have been asked to bend forward even slightly, though, I would not have been able to.

By Saturday evening I had a sense my back was on the mend - in this case judging from how comfortable I was when doing the prayers, which involve a lot of bending forward. When I went to my back doc on Monday afternoon mobility was almost completely restored. He put me back on the medication which I'd been off for about a week and a half but simply as a variety of better safe than sorry, I think.

On Tuesday I spent epic amounts of time on my feet invigilating without feeling the slightest twinge. (I was deliberately avoiding any kind of sitting simply to see how long I could last.) And today has remained pain free. I don't think this has anything to do with the pills as they've never had such a dramatic effect before. Actually the only obvious thing they do is to make my hands shake a little.

So now I'm seriously wondering if the nerve has somehow become untrapped. I'm not foolish enough to assume it has and my problems are over. These kinds of problems don't go away with age. But even a brief respite is a wonderful thing and I'm thoroughly enjoying mine.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Left Wondering

Just before we set off from Melaka yesterday I finished reading Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, her first novel and the first by her I've read. I'm now puzzling over what kind of experience it was reading the book. I try to avoid snap judgments on my reading - in fact, to some degree I try to avoid making absolute judgments, especially negative ones - avoiding the unavoidable, as it were. (I'm referring to the fact that our default setting in responding to any creative work seems to be to sit in judgment.) But I've found myself inclined to be dismissive about this novel.

It's not that my experience of reading the novel was entirely negative. I found much to admire. Although I took time to adjust to the narrative initially, a process not helped by my being super-busy when I embarked on my reading, eventually I came to appreciate the pace of the story-telling, in terms of its economy, and the sheer verve of the narrative. There was a spareness about the style I liked, especially as it was allied to an obvious fertility of expression.

But I could not cast off the feeling I was reading a 'woman's novel' in an awkwardly pejorative sense - a novel written for women with women's concerns in mind. Now this is where I enter difficult territory. I'm aware of a distinct weakness in myself in not being able to relate to these real concerns and I know I might well be being simply unfair. Yet I can't shake off the feeling that Danticat deals with her subject matter, or some aspects of it, in a cliched manner; I have this odd sense that she is limited by writing a novel for a partial audience - not exactly women, but women with a definite agenda. I get the same feeling, by the way, reading and teaching Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

By the way, just in case I'm accused of being narrowly sexist (which I might be, I can't quite figure this one out) I should say I've just started a repeat reading of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and I have none of the reservations above about that novel.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Greatest

Watched a little bit of Once We Were Kings, the sort of documentary movie about the Ali-Foreman fight, on Cinemax, before we set off for Melaka yesterday evening. (It’s a lot easier to get on-line here than in KL, hence my late night posting of yesterday’s offering.) Rather ironic that the one time I really, really, really want to watch something on one of the movie channels we have to be in the middle of packing up and leaving so I end up missing most of it. I probably saw about twenty minutes only, but that was brilliant – starting with a bit of Mailer (whose book on the fight I have, but was somewhat underwhelmed with) talking about Ali being frightened of Foreman, and I think he was right. A clip of Ali before the fight claiming not to be intimidated by the young George looks suspiciously corroborative of Norman’s thesis. Clips of Foreman pulverizing Frazier and Norton explain why Ali might have been scared, comparable in their ferocity to the young Tyson destroying everybody in sight.

I was at university when this all took place, I think in my first year, still in a hall of residence certainly. I remember a late night discussion in the hall bar prior to the fight in which everyone but everyone thought Foreman was a racing certainty to win, though nobody wanted him to. It’s difficult to explain to youngsters now the adulation with which Ali was regarded, in England at least, but the depth of the desire that he should reclaim the championship and prove himself the greatest, after proving it time and again as champion, was profound.

Funnily enough I can’t recall whether we watched the fight live, but I doubt it. Although we thought we were living in a kind of golden age of communications we now know it was a dark time – as the past most often is. The reason I’m uncertain though is that somehow or other I must have watched the moment when Ali comes off the ropes to hammer poor George a thousand times. I suppose it just got endlessly replayed, rightly so, in the weeks that followed. The most astonishing minute of boxing there has ever been, except possibly for Ali’s first defeat of Liston.

Something else that is difficult to communicate to youngsters today, and I know this because I tried it and failed in a recent lesson, is just how much Ali’s greatness changed people’s perceptions of race. To be more specific, in England at least, the perception folk in Manchester had of black people. My Dad, for example, was a little bit of a racist, I suppose, but then everyone of his generation and class was. He was still using the word ‘darkie’ up to around 1965. But if anyone changed that it was Ali.

Dad had done a bit of boxing in the army and was, I’m told, more than a bit useful. He loved the sport, as I did up to the point the corruption took over, and his first big hero in that line was Joe Louis. But Louis was a gentleman, a sort of white man’s picture of what a fine black fighter should be. Ali wasn’t. Again, I’m not too sure of this, but I think the first time we became aware of Ali was through a Panorama programme around 1962, definitely before the first Liston fight. Panorama was the BBC’s flagship serious political hour so I suppose they were featuring Ali (then Clay) in a serious fashion (if I’m right about the programme and it wasn’t just some sports thing.) Dad was appalled. I was appalled. At Ali – boastful, talkative, ridiculous. Everything a boxer, and I suppose a man, shouldn’t be. I suppose the fact he was black didn’t help.

Then he defeated Liston and it all changed. Though not quite. When he became Ali he remained Clay in Manchester for Dad and me, and everyone else, until he was so obviously the greatest, and so obviously just to be admired, and listened to, and he became Ali: intelligent, funny, brave, incredibly skilful - and being handsome didn’t hurt.

Can’t wait to see When We Were Kings in its entirety. Dad would have loved it.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Greatness

Listened this afternoon to the Enigma Variations. Was struck, as always, by the beauty and nobility (what other word is there?) of Elgar’s tribute to Jaegar. Okay, I’ll admit it, I can’t listen to Nimrod without a few tears half appearing, and I’d be suspicious of anyone, especially someone English, who could. Or does this most Albionic of tunes appeal to all regardless of nation, race or religion?

This afternoon I suddenly found myself wondering what Jaegar thought when he first heard it. I don’t know enough about the circumstances to know whether he was first exposed to it in the concert hall, or just in the score, but what an incredible shock it must have been. If it had been me I know I’d have been wondering how on earth I could ever match up to something so wonderful as a kind of description of me.

It’s a little bit like the way you feel (or I do) when you get one of those nice tributes students are wont to render around Teachers’ Day, the ones in which it turns out you are the bee’s knees of the profession, and you wonder how on earth you can keep that up for the rest of the year. I always feel highly intimidated. Talk about having greatness thrust upon one.

Then again I suppose old Jaegar might have just put it down to the wonderful generosity of Elgar himself (as one recognizes the charity of one’s students.) Certainly once someone has made something as wonderful as Nimrod because of you I’d think it pretty much would stand as a justification of your existence.

Friday, October 30, 2009

From A New Place

I have 'issues' getting on-line from Maison KL - basically because our phone line is not working for reasons the phone people don't seem to be able to explain (except to say it's a 'technical problem') - so I'm typing this in the Indian restaurant on the hill. The restaurant seems to have had a make over and is hardly recognisable from the last time we were here, proving that everything changes. And change is always good. Except when it's not. Good.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thinking Ahead

Now planning for a trip tomorrow evening and then over the weekend to our house in KL. We've not been able to get up there for quite a while and this will be our only chance to sort things out before we head off to England In December.

Noi is in charge of the sensible planning whilst I figure out what CDs to take and put in the car. The White Album is already in, as is Sticky Fingers, as I've fallen in love with both again. Oh, and Badly Drawn Boy's The Hour of Bewilderbeast, which I bought on the recommendation of old mate Simon (thanks!), makes the playlist as it is excellent.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Deception

Blimey! They told me that when the going gets tough the tough get going. But they didn't tell me just how tough the going was going to get or where the tough get going to. As far away from the going as they can, I would imagine.

Once or twice over the years (and there are plenty of them) I've been told I make it all look reasonably easy. Who is this imposter? Pure bluff, I'm afraid. Not drowning exactly, but hardly waving. Sort of treading water whilst holding on for grim life, I suppose.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Fragility, Again

Leaving work today I happened to ask a colleague, and friend, why I'd not seen him around last week. It turns out his mother had a fall, a bad one, and has sustained some degree of lasting damage - she remains bedridden. His father is not in the best of health and was depending on the mother for care.

Just when you think you've got problems you get a sense of perspective in a way that can only be painful for someone else.

Lest we forget how fragile we are.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Still Marking Time

I've spoken to Noi twice today: a refreshing call in the morning establishing we'd both got through the night and an early evening call to relay the not entirely unexpected news that she'd be late setting off - she usually is on these jaunts, given the reasonable demands of family - and I'd be best not waiting up. In between these highlights I've been marking, and have now cleared all outstanding scripts thank you, listening to Elgar, reading Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, thinking about what it is to be English, and nursing a mild headache, not necessarily in that order.

It's been a day singularly short of any conclusions, except for the fact I'm not likely to exchange affectionate greetings with the missus in its course. However, the likely connection of the English imagination with a certain melancholy madness has brightened things up and explained a lot. It certainly accounts n large measure for Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 which always makes me feel unaccountably cheerful in a he cannot be serious sort of manner.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Marking Time

Noi took off for Melaka in the late morning leaving me with a pile of scripts to mark, a flask of tea and some sweet potato for an afternoon snack, and a pile of rice cake and chicken rendang to be heated up for dinner. I've finished the marking, eaten the grub and am now watching Wolves vs Villa and missing her.

I also found time to finish Empire, finding the last forty or so pages the richest in terms of real thought. This is the part in which Ferguson defends empire, having been fairly (in both senses) critical of it in the rest of the book. I think it's reasonable to point out that the British version was a lot better than the other nasty ones that flourished in the first part of the twentieth century, but I don't think that's saying an awful lot considering just how irredeemably nasty the others were and how accidentally beneficial the Brits managed to be. But what I like about Ferguson is that he doesn't try to make his case any more strongly than that - you get a genuine sense of proportion, and dollops of irony, from his work.

Anyway I've now moved on to Ackroyd's Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination in a vain attempt to try and feel English. And because Ackroyd is authentically crazy in a way I can relate to, in between marking yet more scripts. There's plenty lying in wait for me tomorrow.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nightmares

This via Niall Ferguson's Empire: from Boys of the Empire (a magazine for kids) October 1900: The native problem has never been acute in… Australia… The Aborigines have been driven back and are quickly dying out. And this is only just over a hundred years ago - within a couple of lifetimes.

How does Stephen put it, in Ulysses? History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

Ferguson's bit on the concentration camps devised by the British for the troublesome Boers should be compulsory reading in all English schools. After such knowledge what forgiveness? as an anti-Semitic yankee once put it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Persistence

I've been phoning Mum everyday for the last couple of weeks and each call has ended in disappointment. The pain she's suffering from the shingles shows no sign of abating and it's obviously wearing her down. Phoning is all I can do and it isn't really doing anything. As far as I can tell the doctors treating her (there seem to be at least three who've paid visits) are baffled as to why this attack has been so prolonged. The original prediction was that it would be over and done with in three weeks at the most.

I've sometimes made the point that keepgoingness is something to be deeply admired in people. I'm seeing that, as I often have in the past, with Mum and my admiration knows no bounds. The problem is, that's not going to help in the current situation.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Disconnected

I started Niall Ferguson's Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World when I was stalled on Doyle's Paula Spencer and found myself getting through the opening chapters at a fair lick. I think I was expecting something in the nature of a tightly-packed, worthy well-researched tome of the sort that demands close, strenuous reading, so I was surprised to find myself enjoying what struck me as fairly light and fluffy popular history of an almost anecdotal nature. Later I realised the book had its origins in a tv series which explained a lot.

Now I've arrived at the last two chapters I think I've learnt something about the nature of the British Empire, but I'm still left with a sense of puzzlement that the whole enterprise ever was. I just don't connect with it on the simple level of it being a brute fact of history - there's a kind of underlying absurdity somehow. Oddly I think Ferguson captures something of that in his loopier tales. There a particularly telling moment when he describes various bits of statuary of the great and good of empire being left to rot in some dump in India that seems to sum up the whole enterprise.

If it were simply a matter of absurdity, though, I think I would be able to get my head around that. But there's also the horror. Using the Maxim gun to slaughter Matabele tribesmen, aka 'savages', who didn't have that kind of technology opens a window on the real heart of darkness that is painfully disconcerting, to put it deliberately mildly.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Dimming Of The Day

Our sunsets are too abrupt to allow for any protracted roaming in the gloaming. Usually they're over so quickly we barely notice them. But tonight, with a little change in our routine caused by the day being a holiday, we were out for a cup of tea and kaya toast as the light faded, thickening in distinctly Shakespearean fashion.

What is it about having the sun smeared on the horizon that is so restful?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Coming Unstuck

Finished Roddy Doyle's Paula Spencer with gratifying ease this evening, reading the final pages on the bus to Orchard Road. Now wondering why I got stuck in the middle. Probably it was connected with the rather dense nature of what on the surface appears quite a casual narrative. Doyle is doing that extraordinary thing - paying close attention to another's life, one that most of us would dismiss as mundane and limited in the extreme. Even Paula's alcoholism is nothing special, simply the most degrading aspect of a life that appears hopeless all round. Yet Doyle reaches beyond all this to the complex, suffering human being at the centre and convinces you she's more than worthy of consideration, partly because of the richness of consciousness that leads to that unexpected density in the novel.

To take a single example: the way Paula's experience and gradual acceptance of the mobile phone given to her by her daughter Nicola are woven into the narrative, creating almost a kind of poetry of texting in the later stages is both funny and extraordinarily insightful. Doyle really gets that sense of how a simple thing like the phone can mean so much to people in terms of the way it infiltrates their lives. And he does this without in any way patronising the character - it's an experience we all might recognise.

There's a kind of charity in Doyle's work that is deeply moving, partly because it's so unsentimental.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pounded

In recovery from a massage administered by Noi's massage lady, Kak Sabariah. It's a privilege to have the experience. Every muscle aches in a way that is guaranteed to deliver a good night's sleep.

And since last night saw me enjoying the longest uninterrupted deepest sleep I can remember for quite some time, it looks like this long Deepavali weekend is set to break all records for relaxation.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Blocked

When I started Roddy Doyle's Paula Spencer last Saturday, his follow-up to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, one of my favourite reads of last year, I thought I'd race through it in a couple of days. Almost a week later and I'm only just over halfway through. In the middle of the week I got to the section about Paula visiting the home of her son John Paul, a recovering heroin addict, followed by her succumbing to some kind of brief illness, and I just lost my way. I read the same page something like five times without it cohering for me. I briefly considered putting the book to one side but to give up on a text I'd looked forward to reading, and initially enjoyed, seemed ridiculous.

I should say that this was tied in with a sense of being a bit out of sorts, not quite tickety-boo, that descended on me in the middle of the week. It was like being on the edge of an actual illness, but never really getting there and it seemed to colour my reading of the novel.

I suppose this is a reminder of sorts of what a physical experience the reading of a novel can be.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Unfallen

I really must get down to viewing all the unviewed stuff I've got on DVD. Earlier this evening I sat down to a Jeeves & Wooster episode and found myself wondering why on earth I've not watched all twenty-three (it’s the complete collection of all four Granada series) repeatedly in the course of the year. It's as if I've been holding back on a major treat for a perfect time when any time at all is perfect.

And speaking of perfection, is there any way in which the series falls short of that happy state, being so utterly spot-on in almost every respect? Was Stephen Fry too young to essay the mighty Jeeves? I don't think so, though the criticism has been leveled in some quarters. The idea of Jeeves as being of the same generation as Bertie makes perfect sense - and implies the kind of elegant energy necessary to resolve the constant crises in their lives. Above all Laurie and Fry (and the whole production team) understood the style fundamental to Wodehouse's comic vision, and it's wonderful to wallow in that visually and verbally.

I'm enjoying myself just thinking of all the wallowing to come.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Guidance

Finished, for now, David Cairns's Mozart And His Operas, in the certain knowledge that this is one to go back to, as soon as I get my hands on a recording of one of the masterpieces it deals with. Isn't it odd how you somehow know that a guide can be trusted when you have no expertise in an area and you'll need to be reliant on them? I know this guy knows exactly what he's talking about even though I don't really know what he's talking about.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A New Life

We've just been watching Masterchef on our recently acquired BBC Lifestyle channel. It's become one of Noi's great favourites, tonight's programme being the start of the third series they've screened. I can easily understand her interest. The actual cooking involved is only part of the attraction, and that's quite fascinating in itself, even for someone like me who's never in the kitchen. But in addition to that there's the intensity of the competition itself with the various chefs being put under what looks from the outside like enormous pressure, especially when they're sent to do shifts in top notch kitchens and have to deliver for real. In fact it all gets a bit too much for me at times - I don't regard it as a programme I can relax to.

And I've noticed something else that adds to the pressure. You get a strong sense of the personalities of the contestants, even within the tight timeframe of a single episode. It's cleverly edited in that respect, often utilising telling reaction shots intercut with bits of interviews to illustrate just how seriously they take the competition, and take it seriously they do, almost without exception, if we are to believe them. The usual line is that they regard their participation as an opportunity to change their lives, and they are going to be none too happy if they don't succeed in doing so. So the viewer, well me really, ends up wanting them all to win in order to avoid what is obviously going to be a profound disappointment.

Which rather begs the question: what is it about their lives that's so bad they need to escape them? And why should cooking, of all things, be the solution?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Other People's Lives

Recently I've found myself intimately involved in the lives of a retired professor of linguistics who is going deaf, a prize-winning Australian vegetarian novelist, a probably psychopathic killer with a tendency to view other as objects of art, and a forty-eight-year-old recovering alcoholic and survivor of an abusive, violent marriage.

And all of this without having to leave my chair. The magic of fiction, eh?

Paradox: why is it that leaving the prison of self to occupy another's confinement feels like a form of escape?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Recovering

After an all-action day of good food, good company and good conversation (sort of pictured above, but not in a way to do it any justice), today has been what Noi terms a lazy day. A much needed one, I must say - though I forced myself into doing some work in the afternoon. Never felt into it though, as if it weren't appropriate somehow.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Something Afoot

Yesternight as I was luxuriantly yawning my way around the mall, the missus was all hustle, tustle, bustle and high purpose - as, indeed, she is as of now. Today marks our annual post-Raya Open House at the Mansion and I, as ever, am agog at Noi's ability to get everything sorted out in the extremely confined space of our little kitchen. My contribution? A wide passivity - I lug a few tables around and sometimes pop to the shop, but otherwise keep out of the way.