Sunday, May 31, 2009

So Far

We're off to the Esplanade later for some real live music. Should be fun - more tomorrow.

In the meantime, this is the day, in all its glory, so far: Got down to serious marking just after the dawn prayer, with half of the final set of IB scripts left. (Cleared these about an hour ago.) Exchanged anniversary cards with the missus over cereal and lovely hot tea. Definitely the highlight of the day. Accompanying music: Bach's Brandenburg 4. In between scripts kept dipping into Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night which I'm starting to make serious progress with after getting nowhere for the last week or so; this was supplemented by The Sunday Times, the highlight of which was, as usual, the cartoons. Also listened to Los Lobos's Kiko and was reminded of what great songs are on it, but not so convinced of Mitchell Froom's production as I used to be. Went to wedding of Rohana's eldest brother's youngest daughter. Nice reminder of how I happily sealed my fate all those years ago, but very hot there.. Then got back and completed the marking (as above.)

All fairly mundane stuff, but I'll settle for it.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Back To Bass-ics

Although I'm still clearing the marking for the IB exam I've managed to listen to a decent amount of music today. Since this is now being played on our new system there's a certain fascination simply in how CDs with which I'm very familiar sound in these different circumstances.

A case in point today was a great favourite of mine, Richard Thompson's The Old Kit Bag. It features essentially the same line-up as on my solitary, and hugely valued DVD Richard Thompson Live From Austin TX, with Michael Jerome on drums and Danny Thompson on bass accompanying our guitar god. However, The Old Kit Bag gets beyond the pared down sound of the trio with Thompson multi-tracking on a variety of strings and, I think, occasional keyboards, to create quite a rich, full-bodied sound.

What stood out today was the superb double bass of Danny Thompson. I mean I've always been aware, how could anyone not be?, of how spot-on his playing is, but the excellent resonance of the system on the lower notes gave the sound a clarity and distinction that was revelatory. His playing allies a sense of melody and sheer bounce that is a delight, particularly on the faster material. It's such a relief to hear the wood in the bass for a change.

Fans of Sir Cliff will be delighted to hear that it's Danny's playing that underpins that most immortal of all Eurovision entries, Congratulations. Though it may not have been his finest hour musically, it's good to know the world has had a fair opportunity to be exposed to the finest bassist of his generation.

Friday, May 29, 2009

In The Balance

Heard a scary little story from Noi earlier this evening. About some lady she knows who's not short of a bob or two. Pays ten thousand a month for a service apartment somewhere. Her daughter is looking forward to the June holiday. Her stated intention: to go to Takashimaya everyday. Noi assumes she intends to buy 'branded goods'. It turns out the daughter is eight.

The only good thing I can think of about this recession - and I'm aware that as someone holding down a reasonably steady job I can count myself extremely lucky - is that it's reminded people of the virtue of frugality. I heard some lady on Oprah the other day talking about how we need to be aware of how much we're taking from a planet that just can't afford to give us what we want. The single most sensible idea I've heard for quite some time.

This sounds a bit preachy, I know. Don't worry. It's aimed at myself.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Losing It

Of course losing, especially a European final, an unfamiliar experience, hurts, but losing to demonstrably the best team in Europe, and the team that have played the best football of any club, anywhere, this season eases the pain. A little. The important thing is to be hurt enough to learn from the experience. That's what happened the last time Barca thrashed us, and it's my guess that Sir Alex will be imparting the same message this time around.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Picture This

It seems they've dreamt up something called Blu-ray which is a super-duper kind of DVD. DVD players are now termed 'venerable', according to the supplement to today's newspaper, which, I think, indicates they are well out of date, if not yet quite history. Now it's possible to admire the strands of blond hair on the head of an actress whom I've never heard of but is mentioned so casually, in a review of one of the players of these Blu-ray thingies, she must be famous.

This is all very jolly, but why would anybody want to fixate on a character's hair? Obviously people do, I suppose, as there's clearly a market for this technology, but not in this house. I suspect I'm sadly lacking in the visual department. This might explain why I find it difficult to watch almost any movie and rarely maintain full attention for any tv programme lasting more than around fifty minutes.

I still haven't watched all the cheap stuff I brought back from Medan in February. In fact, there's quite a bit from our trip to England in December that's not yet made it to our trusty DVD player. An embarrassment of riches.

Roll on June and the opportunity for couch potato-dom, just to ease my conscience.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Despair

In what is an utterly barren period for me in terms of reading - I'll be so busy until Sunday that it's impossible to read anything in sustained fashion - I'm thinking back to last year when, for the first time, I bought an edition of Hopkins's poetry, well prose as well, as it was the Oxford World's Classics edition of The Major Works which has generous helpings of all sorts of material from the great Jesuit, including pretty much all the pre-Deutschland juvenilia, which is remarkably good.

Don't ask me why I'd never got hold of any kind of edition of Hopkins before this. I suppose he's so anthologised that he's never too far away, but I'd quite forgotten the power of the late sonnets, those dreadful dark night of the soul pieces. (These are the ones that rarely, if ever, make the anthologies.) Reading them again I was reminded of just how heart-breaking they are, and simply how sad Hopkins life was. For the likes of Dawkins and his crew and their claim that religion is some kind of comforting crutch they should be compulsory reading. Try the one beginning I wake and feel the fell. Some comfort. Some crutch.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Something Shared

Early in the afternoon I was talking to a couple of colleagues about Hopkins's poem Brothers. They'd asked me a while back to take them through it as there were a few details they weren't quite sure of. I'd more than happily agreed, Hopkins being a great favourite of mine. In fact I recalled doing the poem at 'A' level. Not that Hopkins was a set text, but Jack, our teacher, had a way of getting us to read and discuss a ship-full of poetry and drama that wasn't on the syllabus, great man that he was. To be honest I remember thinking that it wasn't exactly one of Hopkins greatest pieces; a bit slushy if truth be told.

So I had a look at it a few weeks back, to prepare for the pow wow. It was then that I realised a couple of lines, one and a half to be precise, quite escaped me on the level of literal interpretation. I had another look a week or so later to see if sleeping on it might have proved illuminating, but the lines remained stubbornly opaque. Not that this bothered me, I'm quite used to not getting a poem one hundred percent and rather enjoy a bit of mystery. I mentioned to one of the teachers involved that I wasn't likely to be able to explain everything and was quite prepared to find myself stalled on the lines when going through the poem as I had found myself previously.

And then something odd happened today - well not really odd as I've experienced the same thing quite frequently over the years. As I was explaining the poem I came to the lines and immediately saw what they meant with a kind of absolute certainty. It was as if the act of talking about the poem generated the meaning for me. And the slush disappeared as well. Suddenly the poem came vibrantly alive for me in a way it had never quite done before.

Frankly this is the only real use I can see for literary criticism, analysis, commentary, whatever you care to call it. Those moments when just discussing a text does something to you and the text that's transformative. There's a social power involved that takes the text beyond the private experience that's enormously useful. This is really what 'sharing', that much abused word, is, or can be.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Higher Powers

I've been treating myself to movements from Mozart piano concertos (numbers 20 & 27) in between major bouts of marking. This has done more than just soften the blow(s). It's reminded me of higher, better things.

That sounds more than a little elitist, a tiny bit silly, and generally insufferably smug. But it happens to be true. I can understand why, once upon a time, there were those who looked down on any kind of music other than what was broadly termed 'classical'. The label was inaccurate but, as I say, I can understand the sentiments of those who thought what they had was of such superiority as to leave everything else looking, sounding rather, second rate. I don't there's anyone left who thinks like that - except me, just now, for a little while, thinking that after Mozart there's not a lot worth bothering with.

According to the sleeve notes, no. 27 was written at a time of enormous physical and emotional stress. Blimey. That means the utterly gorgeous, serene slow movement blossomed out of the kind of major headaches that make my minor troubles look even more minor. Really great art has a way of making you feel small, and quite happy to be so.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Eyes On The Prize

It's been a funny old weekend. I've set it aside for getting work done, a lot of work, and Noi has gone off to Melaka with our massage lady, who'll be ministering to the family there and making a nice amount in the process. Not that she's in any way mercenary. She seems to let people pay what they want for her excellent service, but we try and make sure that she gets generously rewarded, from ourselves at least.

So the timing is good. I'm not exactly the life and soul of the party when I'm in this mode and the missus will have a far better time of it up north among folk with real lives.

Essentially I'm trying to break the back of my examination marking for the International Baccalaureate whilst clearing all the fiddly stuff that crops up at the end of a semester. If it works, if I work, I'll be home free this time next week, so I'm keeping that prize in mind. The trouble is both mind and body are announcing a state of cream-crackerdom and I need to put in at least another hour and a half starting now to stay on target. Wish me luck!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Good Things

Tonight's menu: oxtail soup and a good murder. At the end of a difficult week it's good to know the simple things prevail.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Just Routine

On a typical working day six o' clock in the morning finds me watching the news, on BBC World, for about five minutes or so. It's my way of keeping in touch with the bigger world, I suppose.

But it's an odd time. I'm somewhat more detached from things than usual, not quite entirely there. And it's particularly strange when there's real pain in the lead story, as so often there is. This has been a particularly bad week in that regard. This morning the BBC led with the official report on sexual abuse in various Church-related homes in Ireland around that period when I was a (loved, protected) kid. Some of the victims of the abuse were not allowed in to participate in the report's release. There will be no prosecutions.

Nothing squared with the priests and brothers I remember from childhood and my teenage years: decent, kind, compassionate men all. Sometimes things just don't compute.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hard Times

Another of our more interesting relationships is the one we enjoy with our shortcomings, our messes, our failures. To be tried and found wanting, especially when we're our own judge, is painful, yet valuable. It is to begin to understand the necessity of mercy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Matters Financial

There's always a lot in the news on any given day related to money, but today's Straits Times seemed to have more than its usual share. Tycoons losing it, rascals stealing it, rather gullible individuals being fooled out of it, and British politicos continuing to look like idiots over it.

It seems to me that the relationship we develop with the stuff says something very important about who and what we are. The question is whether we are really equipped to hear the message.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Leaving The Castle

Kafka writes like nobody else except Kafka. What we tend to think of as Kafkaesque isn't: the craziness of bureaucracy, the anxiety of being born guilty, the mad logic of officialdom, the brooding menace, the midnight knock upon the door - it's still not close to what Kafka actually does. And what does he do? All sorts of things that are not what other writers do. He doesn't describe, well not in any very obvious way beyond the bare necessities. He doesn't create characters, not stable ones anyway. He doesn't tell a story, not one that goes anywhere, and since you know this from the beginning, certainly in The Castle, it doesn't much matter. So he doesn't finish and the novel being unfinished actually seems just right. The perfect non-ending.

Some things he does do then. He assaults the reader's sense of whatever the reader thinks is taking place. In The Castle we remorselessly revisit situations and characters we may have thought we had a handle on only to find that everything might be, probably is, different from what we thought, but it doesn't much matter since next time round our perspectives will be shifted yet again. He drenches us in power, status and sexuality until these seem to be the only realities accounting for human behaviour, but since none of the behaviour makes any real sense these fixed points seem illusory. He makes us laugh, remorselessly, until the laughter begins to grate when the joke has gone on too long, and then he lets it go on even longer.

He doesn't let go, even when we put the book down and leave the castle walls. He shows us ourselves and it's not pretty.

Surely K. must be amongst the least likeable characters in literature?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Further Cause For Celebration

I missed United laying claim to yet another championship last night. Noi's massage lady had been called to the house and it would have seemed churlish to have asked to have the tv on whilst she was in the middle of ministering to my old body and doubtful leg. The massage itself was brilliantly relaxing and I didn't fancy mixing it with the tension of what I assumed, rightly, would be an edgy game. The only thing is that the Kakak keeps up a fairly critical monologue, generally in Malay, concerning the inadequacies of my muscles, veins, and other bits which can be a bit disconcerting, though she does advise me to kosong - empty my brain. Which is remarkably easy to do. It seems that much of me is keras - hard - and this does not reflect well on my character.

I wondered if at least a little of the tension within me related to what might have been going on at Old Trafford, but with another game in which to wind things up, plus the prospect of Liverpool dropping a couple points in their last two games, I can't say I was all that doubtful. In fact, I went to bed without knowing the result (the massage left me dead tired) and woke early to celebrate when the paper came.

The feeling of inevitability about the victory, not just mine but reflected by numerous pundits, is particularly odd considering the strength of the opposition. Looking at the top four you realise there are no pushovers there. It's been particularly interesting to see Liverpool develop to the point where they constitute a definite threat. Their consistency for much of the season suggests that next season will be real fun. It seems to me that what United have got, apart from one of the greatest managers ever, and a brilliant squad, is simply the habit of winning and the self-belief that comes with that happy place.

But one obvious thing that I've said before and bears repeating - in a time when managers sometimes last less than half a season, doesn't it occur to the guys in charge that lasting success is built on deep foundations and, as in the case of the mighty Ferguson, that might take years of doing the right thing, bit by little bit?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Quite A Spectacle

Trebuchet has a perceptive comment to make on Salome, and, indeed, opera in general in last Thursday's post, which chimes with a memorable phrase related to Salome itself, from the second sentence of Ross's The Rest Is Noise in which he notes that back in 1906 the word was out regarding an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle created by Strauss. Listening to the whole piece this afternoon I must say that the ultra-dissonant bit strikes me as odd. To these now twenty-first century ears it all sounds pretty tuneful, though it is possible to force an awareness of the bits that probably did grate upon the ears over a hundred years back.

What is obvious throughout, and what I think those early appreciative audiences got right away (though not, it seems, the critics - ha!) is that the composer is utterly in control of his craft. The drama of the music, in the music, is unrelenting, from huge gestures to the tiniest nuance. It's odd trying to cite moments, as there are so many of them, but just one: the music preceding the emergence of Jokanaan from the cistern has an extraordinary power. The horns sound Wagnerian, but they blend in to the texture in a way that avoids Wagnerian triumphalism and vulgarity and create a sense of something akin to the numinous, exactly right for the genuine prophetic power of Jokanaan's first and only appearance on stage. When we hear him sing without the odd halo effect that has accompanied his disembodied voice earlier it's a genuine shock to the ears. I loved that, just one moment out of many.

But the question is whether Strauss gets beyond the dramatic spectacle, the wonderful moments, to say anything of real worth. I'm still not too sure. It's easy to understand why early audiences, in Freudian times, would have thrilled to the underlying - well, in truth, more than that - I suppose the overlying, overt sexuality of the opera, but it's in danger of slipping into bathos in a post-Freudian age. There are moments you can imagine having a bit of a giggle at the over-heatedness of it all.

I must say though, the version I've been listening to pulls it off, I think, with the brilliance of the voices which are just so right, so perfectly characterised that they draw the listener, this one anyway, into the steaminess and convince you these are real people suffering out there. Funnily enough I thought I'd blundered when I got the CDs home as I'd bought the set on spec, trusting to the fact that this version is conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras and I know he's highly regarded. I overlooked the information, clearly marked on the sleeve, that the recording is in English translation. This suggested to me some lack of authenticity - and I like reading a translation as I listen to stuff in the original language. However, as far as I can tell, the English seems to work well and the experience of listening directly to opera I could immediately grasp has proved rather refreshing. The main point is though that the singing is so good on the disk that I'm deeply in love with it and wouldn't trade it for another. Herod, sung by John Graham-Hall, is sensational, sort of funny and chilling at the same time, beautifully contrasted to the power, almost glory, of John Wegner's Jokanaan. And Susan Bullock's Salome won me over as soon as I listened closely - though I'll admit my first reaction was too fruity - before I got my ears tuned in. (I'm always like that with the female voice in opera though - I mean the too fruity bit. I suppose it's my upbringing.)

It would be interesting to catch a performance on stage, but pace Trebuchet, I don't think a production would need to strive to be overly spectacular. In some ways this is a bit of a chamber opera - despite a huge orchestra. A lot of scenes reduce to two key voices and there's no chorus as such, no attempt to create a sense of the community of Herod's court, as far as I can tell. Strauss is more interested in the (twisted) psychology of the individual and you can get at that with minimal props. I suppose this is why it works well simply on disk - the spectacle is in the music.

Isn't it great, by the way, that there are performers of this level of talent (the word seems inadequate somehow) making material like this so readily available? I mean the playing, the singing, the whole thing is just so darned good.

Friday, May 15, 2009

An Observation

On the way to pick up Noi in Geylang this evening I drove through dense rain on the AYE / ECP only for this to suddenly cease a little way up Tanjong Katong Road, moving away from the coast. The lower part of Tanjong Katong Road was so damp you could easily imagine it flooding - something I experienced more than once when I taught in the area, but all was clear further up and Noi and I enjoyed a little walk to Zain's Café (great teh tarik) without being accosted by a drop of rain.

This isn't the first time I've driven out of the rain leaving the coast behind. Indeed, I almost took it for granted that the rain would dramatically ease off this evening as I moved north. I assume there's some sort of meteorological explanation for the phenomenon, I just don't know what it is.

Mind you, every time I read or hear about glaciers melting, a fairly frequent occurrence these days, I imagine the East Coast of the island under water. Folks here always seem remarkably sanguine about rising sea-levels, and I suppose that's not a bad way to be considering the possibilities ahead. I don't think it will be pretty. Thank goodness we live on the second floor.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

On The Surface

I've been trying to find time to sit down and seriously listen to Srauss's Salome this week, but it just hasn't happened. My back-up plan has been to bang it on the new stereo (yes, we finally replaced the old fellow) and catch twenty minutes or so here and there, usually whilst doing something else. Using twentieth century opera as background music is not a good idea.

However, it has brought home one thing about the piece. It's easy to understand why it was a success with its earliest audiences. Once you get used to the sheer busyness of the music it's obviously attractive in a very instant sort of way. And it seems to get better as it goes along - or, rather, it guides you in how to listen, even if you're not listening hard.

I'm hoping that the weekend will afford me a little time to do it real justice, but in the giddy whirl of my little life that's by no means guaranteed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kafkaesque Laughter

Now reading Franz Kafka's The Castle for relaxation. Some people may think that's a bit of an odd thing to say. The blurb on my ancient Penguin edition, acquired in 1977, speaks of the brooding menace of the novel and an atmosphere of fearful uncertainty. Certainly, but it's also very funny and has an odd sort of relaxing charm. I think readers are prone to take Kafka too seriously and often miss the joke, but I seem to be in a minority of roughly one in this matter.

What has got me worried is the list I made last night of stuff I need to read. Big mistake. There are 16 texts on it, a fair number of which I've started on over the last year and not completed - a habit I thought I'd weaned myself away from. I now feel guilty and am wondering if I can clear the list by the end of June. I think F. K. would have found this very funny.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Perception Problem

We have a perception problem, according to a spokesperson for one of the major political parties in Britain, apropos the recent and on-going scandals regarding what various politicos have been claiming on expenses. (It doesn't matter which party as they're demonstrably as bad as each other.) Well, not really. The problem is a very real one of snouts being shoved into troughs and people getting to know that and, hardly surprisingly, not liking it too much.

Greed is not very pretty and if you're suffering from it it's best to face up to the fact.

A haunting personal question might be, would one stick one's own snout in the trough given the opportunity? I'm afraid I can easily imagine circumstances under which I could. It's my great good fortune that generally those circumstances don't exist for me on the kind of scale when people begin to notice such things and I can claim some sort of tattered integrity on this front. But when I consider how much more I have than the majority of folks in this world I realise just how weak my position is.

I suppose it all begins when you develop a sense of entitlement. I just hope I never come to really think I deserve all this. Lead me not into further temptation.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Good Health

Great fun in Melaka being nasty to the Arsenal fans. And even better to see Mak and Abba in such good spirits. The last time I saw Mak was just after a scare with a tear in her colon and some unpleasant bleeding. She'd just come out of hospital and looked pretty frail. She still is too thin but much more animated. Her voice is much clearer now and she can walk a fair bit. Since it's only six months since the stroke we're counting on even more of a recovery. Abba was cheerful as ever and it was great to see them both out on the patio this morning, taking in the sun.

I phoned Mum on Saturday night and she also sounded generally cheerful. The saga of the tv recorder continues. She almost managed to record something late in the week, after driving brother-in-law John crazy by messing up the machine resulting in him having to get one of his chums in to effect repairs. I'm going to phone her later tonight and am hoping not to get overly bogged down in instructions over how to record programmes. Mind you, the fact that she's game to learn at ninety-plus is in itself quite something.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

On Being Hip or Not

I’ve been fairly racing through the last third or so of Mailer’s Advertisements For Myself. It’s highly entertaining, thought-provoking stuff, if a little silly on occasion, but the silliness derives from ambition and a determination to stake out new territory. It’s fascinating to see Mailer moving beyond the highly successful realistic style of The Naked and the Dead in the early material included in Advertisements and struggling towards a new style, in fact, a whole new way of seeing the world. The difference can be seen comparing the article The Homosexual Villain with The White Negro. The former is a nicely crafted apologia for his treatment of homosexuality in his early work, with its distinct overtones of what we would now term homophobia, in a thoroughly balanced, sensible and civilised form. Mailer makes it clear that he detests his essay for those very reasons. He’s after something wild and unbalanced enough to upset and provoke his readers and make them think the unthinkable and see its possible truth.

He clearly feels he has achieved this in The White Negro which, amongst other things, celebrates psychopathy and murder and develops a philosophy of the Hip which underpins the rest of the collection. And this is a breakthrough. The essential ideas carry Mailer through his work in the sixties, though I think leavened there by a great deal more humour and self-awareness, an awareness which manifests itself in a number of the advertisement sections of Advertisements but somehow not as attractively as in the later works – I’m thinking particularly of my great favourite The Armies of the Night here. Certainly the final third of Advertisements seems easier to read than the occasionally stodgy opening bits in the earlier material. There’s a kind of excitement and daring that drags the reader along with it.

But I must say the basic contrast between what Mailer terms the Hip and the Square just doesn’t seem to work for me. The trouble with Mailer’s generalisations is that, after their initial excitement, when you cool-headedly analyse them, you realise they don’t work – except for Mailer himself, which I suppose is enough.

Oddly enough this was brought home to me when listening to what is rapidly becoming one of my favourite CDs. I’m referring to Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s playing of works for piano by Olivier Messiaen entitled Hommage A Messiaen. And what a homage it is! I listened to this on the flights to and from NZ (and got the pianist’s name wrong in my earlier post when I first mentioned the CD.) It’s a brilliant, gorgeous collection of really accessible pieces – there are nine early preludes, written when Messiaen was just twenty, and his beloved mother had just died, which are squarely in the great tradition of highly attractive French piano music, which won’t frighten the neighbours in any way - and it comes with an excellent essay on Messiaen by Aimard himself.

So what has this got to do with Mailer’s conception of the Hip? Well, it occurs to me that in most respects it would be difficult to think of anyone less hip than Messiaen. I don’t think such a good, simple Catholic would have felt at home with Mailer’s hipster buddies and their search for the ultimate orgasm somehow. Yet in the 1950’s, the period covered by Advertisements, Messiaen decided to develop an entirely new conception of his music, represented on the CD by two pieces from Catalogue d’oiseaux, based around (of all things) birdsong. You don’t get much more radical than that. So how should Messiaen be classified? As Square? I recall seeing a film clip of the great composer with his second wife, Yvonne Loriod, both looking like perfectly ordinary, rather nondescript, petit bourgeoisie, walking through a copse, or small forest, tape-recorder in hand, capturing the songs of the birds therein. They looked charmingly ordinary whilst doing something so extraordinary it made it necessary to rethink the very nature of musical experience, and much more satisfyingly so than the other members of the avant garde of the period. (I’m thinking particularly of Pierre Boulez, a pupil of Messiaen and something of a thorn in his side, as I understand it, who achieved nothing as lasting, at least that I’m aware of.) No, I can’t see Messiaen as one of Mailer’s Squares, or as a Hipster. I can only think of him as a Round, and that’s a classification I think we might all safely aspire to.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere

After a visit to my friendly neighbourhood back doctor yesterday afternoon (I’m still on plenty of medication but my condition has distinctly improved) we made our way north to Maison KL, stopping only for a quick cuppa and a bit of nosh at the Ayer Keroh services where I met Rachid’s brother and we made fun of Rachid crying over the United / Arsenal result In the semi-final. I should perhaps point out that the family in Melaka is a hotbed of support for the gonners, and I intend to enjoy going there on Sunday and taking a deeply childish revenge for the Emirates game early in the season, which I unfortunately watched there with all sorts of rapscallions getting in my face.

On arrival here things were generally in good order, but we faced a bit of a headache with the water supply, carried over from the last time we were in residence. We thought the pump was damaged, the one that supplies water to the tank that feeds the showers, the toilets and the hot water supply. This resulted in a cold shower for me this morning, though in this climate that’s hardly something to moan about. Anyway Noi arranged for Ah Seng, our friendly neighbourhood contractor to come around and his plumbing guys solved the problem in a matter of minutes. It wasn’t the pump, which we’d had replaced about five years ago, leaving us a bit miffed over the idea it had failed again, but an outside supply tap that someone had foolishly switched off. I hasten to add that for once I was not that fool.

So now everything is in order and we’re reminded of just how privileged we are to have all the fundamentals, and much beside, that we need.

This morning, and early afternoon I got a fair amount of marking done interspersed with reading from Mailer – I’ve now reached The White Negro, probably the finest essay in the book and one that had quite an influence on me in my callower years – and Alan Moore & David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta. A bit of a surprise this one as it wasn’t even close to my must-read list (which is pretty long, I can tell you) but I tend to associate this house with the pleasures of graphic novels – I keep most of mine here – and I’ve greatly enjoyed picking it up again. This time I’ve been ‘reading’ the art work with a good deal more care and generally following the story more closely after a somewhat breathless original reading, for the gripping story.

I also indulged my ears with a bit of Richard Strauss’s Salome. I got hold of this as a result of what Alex Ross has to say about it in The Rest Is Noise (most of which is good.) Fortunately that won’t influence me over much as I’ve forgotten the details and I’m trying to listen hard with open ears. Frankly this is part of an attempt to educate my ears particularly regarding opera, and the world of serious music in general. I intend to be fairly systematic about this, but don’t worry, my systems never work. This morning’s listening was intriguing. Something along the lines of: I don’t immediately get this, it’s all too busy for me, but I think I will be able to tune in if I really try. And I intend to really, really try. More anon, I think.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

2 Good Things

1. The new Dylan album, Together Through Life. I've now played it twice, thought it was great the first time, and just confirmed that on the second spin. Less range in terms of song types than 'Love and Theft' and Modern Times, but totally right within the bluesy, tex-mex feel of the material. (Accordion to die for from Los Lobos's David Hildago.) Dylan has combined with the Dead's Robert Hunter on most of the lyrics and paradoxically generated his most deliberately simple, almost generic wordage in a long time. Only a genius can be this (seemingly) straightforward. And that voice!

2. The fairly new Springsteen album Working on a Dream. I ventured the opinion that it sounded over-produced after listening to it on the flight to NZ. Of course, I was wrong. It's certainly heavily produced, but it’s a sonic feast for all except unremitting puritans. There's the same Brian Wilson-ish feel that emerged on Magic on several tracks; in fact, more than on the previous album. There's the same sense that the Boss is genuinely singing in a lyrical way and singing exceptionally well. But I think lyrically Working on a Dream is an improvement on Magic and sees our hero back on top form. Tears were pricking my eyes by the time I got to Kingdom of Days and if anyone has ever received a finer tribute in song than The Last Carnival (written for the late, great Danny Federici) well I don't know who it is.

Footnote: I'm old enough to remember the days when the music press ran articles wondering who was the new Bob Dylan, featuring Bruce as such. Amazingly this was a s late as Born To Run when you'd have thought even the most obtuse of the hacks would have realised that if Springsteen was the new anything he was the new Bruce Springsteen.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

3 Good Things

1. The destruction (there's no better word for it) of Arsenal at the Emirates. I almost felt sorry for Mr Wenger. Almost.

2. The final stages of American Idol. I still say it's Adam and Danny for the final, but now it's Adam to win. The last two shows have been particularly good proving the franchise has still got legs.

3. The missus cooked lamb shank tonight (evidence above.) A first time dish which will more than bear repetition. Shiok sekali!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Flowing And Ebbing

After getting quite a bit of reading done on the New Zealand jaunt, progress since can only be termed fitful. I came back with just a couple of chapters left in the Conrad short stories, one section of Dylan's Chronicles and the feeling that I was going to race through the central sections of Mailer's Advertisements for Myself. In the event I've hardly moved forward on the Mailer and it took the best part of a week to complete the other two.

On a more positive note, I raced through Bernard Malamud's Pictures of Fidelman over the weekend. This is an old favourite, a delightfully clever short novel about art and a would-be artist. I first read Malamud at the same time I was introduced to Mailer and was impressed by his ability to do something quite new in every novel, and do it extremely well. Deeply underrated, he seems to me one of the great craftsmen of the novel, almost at the opposite extreme to the driven, inspiration-fuelled Mailer. The problem is that I'm now tempted to re-read him in his entirety and it's just not practical to do so. I had a similar urge with Conrad. I suppose this is all part of growing old and counting down one's time generally.

Monday, May 4, 2009

My Problem With Reality

The thing about other people's mystical, semi-mystical or quasi-mystical experiences is that they just don't translate anecdotally. No matter how fascinating they may be to the agent or reagent who enjoyed them, it's rather like listening to someone recounting their dreams - rarely gripping and generally not a lot of fun, unless you happen to be Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung.

My own sort-of-mystical experience is no exception to the general rule. Utterly beguiling and deeply significant as it is to me, the few poor souls who've had to sit through the complete version generally have developed glazed-over eyes and a distinct far-away look just a few sentences in. So I'll keep this version reasonably short.

As to why I'm recounting it at all, well it sort of links to yesterday's entry and I felt the need to complete the story - and, I suppose, as something that is deeply significant to me I just can't resist. The trouble is that my one and only genuine experience of the 'other' was essentially drug induced so it's not going to convince any of my secular materialist friends of its validity. I hasten to add that the drugs in question were entirely legal and of the anaesthetic variety - this is another surgical story.

It took place in June 1997, in the course of the second operation on my back. In a way it was something like a lucid dream, a dream in which you know you're dreaming and can influence the course of the dream. I was aware I was having an operation, though I didn't feel any of the physical effects of what was being done to my body. The lucidity of the experience was integral to the whole narrative of what was taking place - up to the point I became reflexively aware I had been replaying, as it were, my experience of four years earlier, recapitulating the same barren sort-of-nightmare. Suddenly I was able to transcend that and was aware of a kind of dialogue taking place between me and some kind of other not-me. Anyway the story gets quite convoluted at this point, so I'll jump to the ending, in which something like the point of it all is embedded.

I find myself back in the real world. The experience is so entirely convincing I find myself consciously testing my perceptions and I know this is the world as it is - until abruptly it freezes and the still image simply shatters, liked a cracked pane of glass. I am baffled and astonished. Whoever not-me is, is simply amused. I'm not sure how I know this, but I do. Then I'm plunged back into the real world. This time it's even more convincing (don't ask how, but it is) to the point at which there is absolutely no doubt of what I'm experiencing. I have an experience of the real so total as to be impossible to deny. Then the not-me says quite distinctly You don't think this is real do you? with a distinct chuckle. The voice is not unkind, far from it, and the humour is genuine and oddly generous, almost as if I'm expected to share the joke. Again the world freezes, this time to my absolute astonishment, and reality shatters once more.

(This bit is embarrassing, so I'm keeping it in brackets. It was a few months after this that watching an episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation, one of my favourite tv programmes of the period, I saw exactly the same 'shattering effect' in a story about Ryker having his mind interfered with. Somehow you don't expect your deepest experiences to be played out on kitschy, popular tv series. I've often wondered if someone, the writer, the designer of the effect had had an experience similar to mine and decided to memorialise it.)

After that I'm granted a kind of vision of what is real, except it's not a vision but a kind of complex of feeling. It's simple and convincing. I don't feel terribly privileged as it's so obvious I know I've known it all along. And then it all stops.

Except that it has never really stopped. In the immediate aftermath of the operation I found the whole experience extraordinarily comforting. A bit like the kind of comfort those who've been involved in near-death experiences tend to report. Years later I feel much the same. And this despite the fact (possibly because of?) that I don't have much trust in reality. The moment I let myself become aware of how I am perceiving the world (something I occasionally do in TOK lessons when I'm trying to convey to students the idea that whatever is out there is more obviously in here, in our heads) the world becomes extremely fragile, tissue-thin. If I persist I find myself becoming quite faint and am aware of a kind of trembling of everything around me. I don't stay too long in this state, I don't think it makes for good teaching, but it's kind of fun, and kind of frightening, to go there.

I suppose it might be expected that I'm implying some kind of contempt for reality in all this. Far from it - I think I've enjoyed the world available to our senses far more in the last eleven or so years than ever before, well since being a child, at least. It's very fragility renders it all the more precious and astonishing somehow.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

High Anxiety

There was an article in yesterday's paper about selective mutism in children. It's a fascinating but distressing phenomenon, tied to desperately high levels of anxiety in children you'd think would have no reason to be exposed to or have developed such feelings. Last year I watched a documentary about two kids in England suffering from the condition - they refused to talk in public at all - and there was a distinct sense of oddness that they were acting as they did, particularly since they came from very supportive, loving families, yet this was tied to an equally odd sense of inevitability - this was how they were, or how they were choosing to be, and the situation wasn't going to change in a hurry.

For many people the reality of the anxiety they feel being utterly debilitating is one of those facts about the world that is difficult for those who don't have such problems to accept. In fact, I would suggest that it's useful to have been exposed to such feelings in order to have some little appreciation of the struggle some people face in dealing with the ordinary business of living, and the heroism with which they do so.

I had the great good fortune of being made to understand something of this some fifteen years ago when I was recovering from the first operation I had on my spine following a slipped disk (of major proportions, the doctor said.) The insight was granted me the day after the operation at a point when I seemed to be recovering nicely. I was talking to some visitors in the evening when I suddenly began to feel very strange, completely detached from the conversation, as if my friends were not quite there anymore. The strangeness continued and intensified when I was alone. I'd intended to watch a performance of The Prince of the Pagodas, a ballet based on Britten's music, which I had been looking forward to, which was showing on the then Channel 12. I found it impossible to do so. Everything about the music (which I love) and the dancing was somehow disturbing. It occurred to me that I was going mad.

Whatever it was that was worrying me was distinctly outside me but threatening to come inside. My brain was racing. Patches of skin began to get hot. The door of the room (I was in a single-bedded room) was shut and I wanted, needed it to be open. Time slowed down.

I'd had a bit of an odd time under the anaesthetic the day before, and felt that I had been more aware of the operation than one might normally expect. I thought I remembered being cut open. One or two of the odd images I'd encountered now came back to me, but didn't. They remained disconcertingly on the edge of my consciousness but never quite made themselves manifest. Yet they wouldn't go away either. It became obvious to me that I wasn't going to make it through the night. At one point I pressed the call button for the nurse and embarrassingly had to apologise for bringing her in for no good reason. I certainly wasn't going to tell her how I was feeling.

Then I remembered something I'd been told long ago, relating to my Aunite Norah. It seemed that once she'd had a particularly nasty reaction to some sleeping pills she'd been on when she was trying to give them up. I called something about burning skin and overwhelming fear of nothing in particular - and a vow that she'd never go near the things again. I'd been put on sleeping tablets, something I never took before, after being admitted, and had taken them in the nights prior to the operation. This seemed reasonable at the time as I was in considerable pain and it looked like the only way I was going to get any rest. After the operation I had immediately stopped taking them.

The explanation for what was going on suddenly seemed clear: I was suffering some kind of withdrawal symptoms from whatever I'd been given. This seemed logical, almost too much so, and I did wonder whether I'd made up the whole thing about Auntie Norah. But it got me through the night, though I don't think I slept at all. Certainly, by morning it was business as usual and floods of relief at escaping whatever it was had enveloped me. I was left with an incredibly valuable lesson: there are moods, states, conditions that lie beyond the individual and any control they may think they can exert and we are extraordinarily vulnerable in this regard. My problem had probably lasted twelve hours at the most. Imagine years of the same.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Life Goes On

Watched the third episode of Attenborough's Life On Earth (I'm lucky enough to have it on DVD) early this afternoon. As always there were any number of jaw-dropping moments, but the bit with the dragonfly's wings slowly crinkling into existence as they filled with its blood really put the lower bone on the floor.

I remember back in the seventies when the series came out, the novelist Angela Carter pointing out that it was odd that anybody should get excited by the idea of the occult and mysterious when the simple visible reality of life was so utterly staggering in itself. This seemed to me both a wise and useful thing to say, so that's why I'm repeating it.

I love the bit at the end of the programme when Attenborough tells us that the next episode is going to feature the extraordinary arrival of colour in the world (flowers are on their way) and he makes it sound just about as exciting as anything can possibly be - which, of course, it is.

It'd be a useful wheeze to make it compulsory for everyone to watch one hour's worth of nature documentary a day. The world would be a better, saner place for it, I suspect.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Familiar Territory

First rehearsal today of The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew, this being the third time I'll have directed the play. I've never worked with such a mature cast before and I've never had such limited time in which to work. This is what is euphemistically known as a challenge.

Doing something the second or third time round results in ghosts. Benign ones, usually. I have almost complete recall of the first performance in a small school hall in South Yorkshire - the only time I ever seriously wondered if we'd actually get to the end of the two hours without the show falling apart. We did and it didn't. And I learnt that really putting yourself on the line is terrifying and exhilarating in just about equal degrees. I even felt brave.

In truth, I have almost complete recall of every performance of the play I've ever done. Sadly my mind works that way. Happily I've always had the incredible good fortune of working on it with people I've really liked, and that hasn't changed.

Nice being back with you, old friend.