It puts me in mind of one of my all time favourite moments in televised interviews. Many years ago the great Leonard Cohen being asked, somewhat asininely by a chap from Granada tv why he wrote such depressing songs: Well, I get a bit pissed off sometimes. I know just how you feel, Lennie.
Saturday, January 31, 2009
Friday, January 30, 2009
But progress has changed all that. It's quite impossible these days to loosen the nuts to remove the offending tyre unless you've got the necessary equipment (and I'm talking about a lot more than comes with the standard repair kit) and super-human strength. And what is termed a spare tyre seems designed to make sure that you drive with maximum embarrassment and a whole lot of care. The hub on mine was bright orange and the tyre appeared about half the width of all the others.
I discovered all this in the late afternoon when I tried to drive home from work. Fortunately I've kept up my AA membership and was able to call them out to change the tyre for me once I'd realised there was no way those nuts were going to move but it left me feeling vaguely inadequate.
Stuck on the slip road next to the field I felt myself subjected to quite a miserable end to what had been a tough enough day already. But oddly enough the gloom cleared once I was on my way (the AA guy arrived in double quick time) and I felt really quite charitably warm to the world once I'd got a new tyre from a shop close to home. A little adversity now and again is no bad thing. As long as it is just a little.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
I can't say he was ever one of my favourite writers (though the nightmare sequence of the baby's death in Rabbit, Run is one of the most powerful things in the twentieth century novel) and generally I preferred the essays to the imaginative fiction, but this was a man to be admired for extraordinary craft and facility.
It was nice to see a well-written tribute in The Straits Times which rather tellingly picked up on how bad Updike could be when writing about sex. But then again most writers are. (Why?) This put me in mind of a question one of my students asked last year when I was talking about Alice Walker's portrayal of female sexual experience in The Color Purple - something along the lines of which author I thought rendered male sexual experience effectively. I had no answer at the time, but I'll attempt one now, and, I suppose, a fairly obvious one. I think Joyce gets it right, specifically in Ulysses, and I think he does so as, in that craftiest of all novels, somehow he gets beyond craft.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Since much of the day up to setting off for Singapore had been spent ferrying Mak from one hospital to another in Melaka for various appointments and tests, and then waiting on grey corridors as the business was done, you can understand why I'm pleased to be finally sitting behind something other than a dashboard. Having put that little moan behind me, I'd count today as one of some achievement. It felt good to be actively helping in the care of Mak rather than leaving it to the rest of the family. Watching little Sulis, the wonderful maid the family are so lucky to have, almost single-handedly lift Mak into the car and generally look after her with extraordinary care and consideration is a fruitfully humbling experience.
Monday, January 26, 2009
We traveled fairly light here, so packing to move on won’t take too long. I bought Loeb and Sale’s Batman – The Long Halloween at the Kinokuniya’s at KLCC on Saturday night and I’ve just finished it, so it will be staying here. This was my comic treat for the holiday and it slipped down easily, but I can’t say I was terribly impressed. Much as I enjoyed the art work and the simple pleasure of a fast-moving storyline, the moody dark knight stuff doesn’t do much for me. Also there’s a lot of playing around with characters from the Gotham City mythos and I’m just not familiar enough with all that to pick up on the finer points. Mind you, I’ll be reading (or perhaps ‘experiencing’) it again when we come to stay in June. Sometimes it’s easier to get lost in these worlds the second time around.
My main reading has been Zadie Smith’s White Teeth which definitely qualifies as a good read. Ms Smith is one of those writers who obviously is dripping with talent and capable of creating with some ease a gloriously comic universe that almost connects with the real world. Is it a problem though that at some level the connection fails? I don’t think so. She seems to me a Wodehousian in this respect – nobody really talks like her characters, nobody attends a school quite like Glenard Oak or wastes their time in an Irish pool joint like O’Connell’s, run by Asians with no pool table in sight, but we’d like to think they do and it’s close enough to some kind of multicultural reality to make us feel that something significant is being said. Above all she’s got tremendous energy and the sheer verve of the book as performance keeps you reading.
Subsidiary reading has come in the shape of Peter Singer’s Writings on an Ethical Life. Almost everything in it makes me uncomfortable. Surely a sign of a book worth reading slowly? The trouble is that if read slowly enough it’s going to be very difficult to avoid a number of conclusions. The remorseless clarity of Singer’s arguments offer no escape. No wonder he’s so unpopular.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
We took some of the pictures from the road right next to where the landslide occurred. The houses there are now deserted, the owners, I suppose, in an odd limbo of not knowing quite where they can safely live anymore.
The normal, the routine, can only ever be a fragile tissue holding together the strangeness of what lies beneath.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Friday January 23: It was strange to be taking a new route up to the house, and quite a winding one it was. We arrived around 8.30 pm so it was dark and we didn’t really see any of the damage. The new road took us away from it anyway. Our taman is the same as ever though, a comfortable little enclave. Hope it remains so. Odd and sad to think there are at least four fewer people around on the hill since the last time we were here.
For some, of course, it will be heart-breaking. I wonder if any of those responsible for building the houses caught in the landslide feel they did anything wrong.
Since we’ve been relaxing at home today we still haven’t seen any of the damage and I feel sort of uncomfortably ghoulish in waiting to do so. We’ll be popping down the hill later and that route takes you into the heart of the mess.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
We're not even entirely sure of the state of the road going up to our taman. There's only one way up and the last pictures we saw of it were not pretty. One the finest houses on the hill, built by someone with serious money, had been pushed about twenty metres across the road. It won't be worth much now, I'm afraid. We're lucky in that our taman has been declared safe, though how much that's worth in a country that turns a blind eye to any sort of sane building regulations, I'm not entirely sure.
I suppose it'd be funny if it weren't for the fact that the count of the dead and injured makes grim reading, especially when you start from the earliest disaster when a condominium at the foot of the hill got flattened some years back.
We count ourselves lucky that where we live is still in one piece.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
I've always felt the truth of the scene as it stood originally, at least on a good day. Nearly all modern directors leave it out. That says much about the temper of our times and how easy it is to be cynical. (And I'm sure it's a tricky sequence to direct in simple terms of keeping the flow.) But there's still that haunting question of why Shakespeare chose to do without it and the fear he had come to see it as offering illusory comfort.
I suppose a kind of resolution might lie in attempting to bind the wounds of the world in our own small ways. There are certainly more than enough to go round.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Monday, January 19, 2009
Far from being irritated by all this, I can't help but admire her for taking on these machines at her age. Pictured above are the remotes for the television and the recorder (I took the pictures to help me remember the instructions) and it's pretty obvious these things are not for the faint-hearted.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Oh, and this morning we've been listening to a load of Dusty Springfield classics and a couple of Mozart piano concerti, and I've been laughing out loud at Zadie Smith's White Teeth. Not too far from heaven, all told.
Blimey, and there I was moaning about a poorly leg.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
One of the little blighters above can cause drowsiness, it seems. So now I have a reasonable excuse for nodding off in lectures. Let's hope it doesn't happen as I'm actually delivering one. In the meantime I'm hoping for a little relief from the nerve pain that has been my constant companion - standing or walking - for the last few weeks. Frankly, I'm not a happy soldier.
Friday, January 16, 2009
I suppose it might be best characterised as a novel of ideas, and ideas of compelling relevance to the times in which we live - though you do get to care about the three characters the novel revolves around - but that makes it sound a lot drier than it is. Coetzee convinces you (well, me anyway) that the ideas he explores, and they really are explored from just about every possible angle, are urgent, indeed, demanding of our attention, and, in some sense, action. There's a moral seriousness here that's extraordinarily powerful and disturbing. As with Disgrace I think I'm going to put the text aside in some sense a changed person - I hope, in a small way, for the better.
And all this from a text that on the surface (each page divided into three segments, each segment containing its own little bit of sort of, but not always, narrative; in fact, predominantly the main 'narrative' consisting of expository pieces by the main character, a writer who bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr Coetzee) looks like a bit of gimmicky post-modern tiresome fictive trickery. Good grief, the man's a magician.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Lazy record reviewers sometimes sign off with the otiose, not to mention mendacious, phrase: essential listening. In this case the phrase would be more than appropriate.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
In the first two weeks back here I reckon I've been cut into and had to take evasive action at least once each day. And I still don't understand why signaling that you intend to change lane is interpreted as aggressive behaviour to be countered by accelerating to ensure that any such change will be extremely difficult.
This is all less than relaxing.
Monday, January 12, 2009
I can imagine it being fairly intimidating to have your novel awarded the Booker, for example. So I feel a little bit guilty doing the dirty on Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss and saying I'm surprised it carried off the award. The fact that I'm aware there's a fair body of critical opinion that says much the same doesn't make me feel any better.
I finished it yesterday evening, and was glad to have done so as it gave me the chance to move on (in this case to some Coetzee, who's rapidly becoming a 'favourite' writer.) Actually it slipped down well enough in some respects. I found the subject matter, the Nepali unrest and the experience of poor immigrants to America, engaging, sometimes fascinating. It struck me as generally a well written novel with plenty to enjoy stylistically as I turned the pages. In fact, I sort of kept murmuring that's nicely done in a connoisseur-like manner every so often.
No, the problem was that the characters never came alive for me. I felt no emotional engagement at all. And that was puzzling since in some respects Desai was pushing all the right buttons. But perhaps that was the problem - I recognised the buttons being pushed, well, some of them at least. I felt I was dealing with a set of types worked out on paper before the writing began.
The odd thing is, of course, that in one sense that's what any novel is offering. So it's got me thinking: what is the secret of that alchemy that lets a writer create real people? It can't be technique. Ms Desai has that in bucket-fulls. I'm a few pages into Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year which doesn't seem to have defined characters yet and already what 'characters' there are intrigue me, take on a life beyond the page.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
The trouble is that the sense of powerlessness is overwhelming. It seems to me reasonable to suspect that it's rivalry within the various players involved in the internal politics of Israeli that's driving this particular circuit of human misery, and there's not a lot any of us can do about that.
Another trouble is that the long term consequences of all this are likely to be dire for all concerned, not least the Israelis themselves.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
The pain has been getting steadily worse since mid-November. Whenever I went walking in Manchester the less-than-dignified sensation of having a buttock in spasm convinced me I'd pulled a hamstring muscle and the cold was making it worse. Since starting work, in a hot climate, the spreading of the pain to my lower leg made me realise I had to get to see a doctor, yet failed to ring the alarm bells regarding what might be going on in my back. I suppose this was because I haven't got the slightest sense of discomfort actually in my lower back, but equally I guess I was in spectacular denial.
Anyway my target now is to survive a week of work and get to an expert next Saturday and see where we go from there. Fortunately I'm still on my feet and usually able to handle the discomfort of being upright long enough to negotiate the day. However, the steadily advancing increments of disability do make me wonder if some kind of catastrophic state is just around the corner. I've been there before, though a long, long time ago, so I'm all too aware of the possibility.
In the meantime, the fact that there are lots of folk a lot worse off than I am doesn't so much offer comfort as a healthy dose of perspective.
Friday, January 9, 2009
I'd suggest that this is well worth a look, particularly by anyone who happens to be engaged in the teaching or study of Theory of Knowledge. There's much to be enjoyed about finding out what has been passed off as knowledge by those who have a vested interest in convincing us they really know something and have the scientific evidence to back them up. Reading Mr Goldacre's fizzing book Bad Science, which I spotted in a bookshop a few days after reading his column, was one of the most satisfying, though sort of alarmingly so, experiences of my holiday and also to be recommended to those who suspect the truth is out there and might be accessed by rational means given enough clarity of thought.
The book does two things, amongst others, extraordinarily well. It explains the abuse of statistics in an accessible manner and alerts the reader to the extent of such abuse in the media. It shows the extent of what individuals stand to gain from deliberate misrepresentations of research bringing home the importance of knowing how we know what we know. In a world that sometimes seems to spin around the twin axes of greed and mendacity the study of Theory of Knowledge suddenly seems extraordinarily relevant.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
There's a coldness, a lack of affect (I think that's what psychologists call it) to his teenage protagonists Enid and Rebecca that paradoxically manages to be quite touching, I suppose because it is so obviously willed. They stare out at the reader challengingly, blankly on the back cover, an image that sums up Clowes's strength as an artist - his highly stylised faces evoke rich yet mysterious inner lives in counterpoint to the icily accurate dialogue he gives his characters.
You feel that Clowes knows his characters through and through but carefully selects what he allows his audience to learn about them. There's so much going on in the margins here. This economy gives his stories, insofar as there are actual stories, a kind of pace and leaves you wanting more, yet oddly satisfied that you're not going to get it.There's a quote from a review on the back cover referring, inevitably, to teenage angst but that doesn't come close to doing justice to the genuine melancholy of the lives on show here or, for that matter, to the reality of people's feelings regardless of their age. The page where Enid finds out she's failed her entrance test to Strathmore (which, of course, she's not supposed to care about) calls out to be read by anyone who's ever celebrated acing their exams.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
I preferred the first half of the novel, I suppose because of its exhilarating sense of youthful vigour, its evocation of the can-do spirit that marks the real America of the mind. That's not to say that the later part was disappointing - it remained unputdownable, which was a good job considering the multitude of distractions I had at hand once we'd arrived in Manchester with still a good half of the novel left to read. But I must admit I never quite got the point of the ins and outs of the protagonists' romantic and family lives. However, Joe (Kavalier) and Sammy (Clay) were instantly engaging, likeable characters so there was always that sense of wanting to know what would become of them simply for the sake of knowing.
The first half is also where the heady glory of comic books is evoked. Chabon makes more than a case for their importance as an art form: he utterly convinces the reader that they were probably the premier form of expression in the visual arts of the period. He is also convincing on our deep-rooted need for adventures we can escape into, and I was grateful for the ride.
Monday, January 5, 2009
It's not a terrible show. The girls and Noi and myself had a passably enjoyable afternoon. But it was all very ordinary. The performances were good (well with Lea Salonga in the title role you're not likely to be watching amateurs), the costumes fine, the orchestra first rate, the sets pretty (but for the price of the tickets I would have thought we might have got something that looked expensive. With the exception of a single interior, it didn't.) But the show itself didn't seem to know what it wanted to be. It felt like panto, but lacked the energy. There were (long) stretches of romance & yearning, but it wasn't in any real sense trying to be romantic. Actually it felt lazy.
Most disappointing of all, and I never thought I'd find myself saying this - as far as I could tell Richard Rogers's score had nothing outstanding about it. Most of the songs felt like generic syrupy late-fifties ballads. Whenever the music came in, the oumph went out. It was all so ordinary. I just kept wishing I was at Carousel again.
Sunday, January 4, 2009
Burslem's glories were fading then. The rather grand town hall stood empty, but next to it was a modern building named Ceramica, a kind of museum of the Potteries. There was a sense of something remaining and the faint possibility of renewal. Now those glories have gone completely. The factory outlet closed at least four years ago, but the closing down sign remains. Ceramica was empty when we went just before Christmas. (For refurbishment? No information.) The antique shops are boarded up and the boards themselves are decaying.
Three years ago we went into an arts centre there. On display were poignant photographs of workers making their way home form the final shift when the last working factory for Royal Doulton in Burslem closed. That had been just a year or so previously. This year the centre was closed (or looked it. We didn't try to get in. I didn't want to see the same pictures still there, just older.)
We stood on the hill that rises above the empty town hall. A cliched but all too real chill wind was blowing. Two days before Christmas and hardly a soul around. Still, I suppose this is what comes everywhere in the end, at that moment when history has passed you by.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
We didn't notice the full glory of the shop sign above until just before Christmas, when we were picking up some Christmas wrapping (cheap!) from a store across the road. I suggested to Noi that it might be a good thing to demand that all shops display similar lengthy statements of their underlying philosophies. Perhaps doing so might render the world of retailing just a little less bland? Anyone capable of seeing paradise in Longsight would get my custom.
Friday, January 2, 2009
It's easy to make my case. The first week we were there Radio 3's Composer of the Week was Olivier Messiaen. Can you believe it? Everyday, for an hour, in-depth coverage of the great man's life and music, expertly illuminating comment, illustrated by choice excerpts. And the week after Messiaen featured heavily in various concerts, along with music that influenced him. And this was just a small part of what was on offer. It's not just that the music gets played, but also that the listener is being educated concerning what the music is doing by the accompanying commentary. Suddenly I felt not quite so alone in my tastes.
And not just music. What about Adam Phillips's series of late night essays on Excess run a week or two before Christmas? There were more insights in each 15 minute programme than you might get from a year of back-to-back documentaries on the Discovery Channel.
Then there was the half hour feature on Radio 4 about Ezra Pound's caging at the end of the war and the resulting Pisan Cantos. We listened to that on the way to Paul and Joy's and I didn't want it to finish. And then there was Radio 2's broadcasting of the gems constituting the Bob Dylan Radio Hour. Possibly the most joyful material ever committed to the airwaves, anywhere, anytime.
And all this is, to all intents and purposes, free.
Thursday, January 1, 2009
The result of our little colloquium has been to knock the wind out of my sails at the time I was considering my Resolutions for the year ahead. I had been thinking of recycling, in modified form, the three from last January, but I'll settle for the following to be at one with the prevailing mood: Hunker down. Stay lean, possibly mean. Keep going.