Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Being Boring

Whenever the missus addresses me with the line: I hope you won't mind me saying this but… I brace myself knowing that I'm about to learn something new, something true and something unpleasantly embarrassing about myself. This is the value of being close to someone who knows you inside out and isn't afraid to tell you about stuff you'd rather not acknowledge but which is worth consciously being aware of - and trying to do something about.

So imagine my surprise when just last week she told me I was boring without the usual preamble to soften the blow. It was as if she thought I already knew this, so there would be no element of 'news' regarding the information. Funnily enough I was quite astonished at what, at first, seemed an absurd notion. It took her less than a minute to illustrate the obvious. As she pointed out someone whose greatest pleasures consist of lying on the floor and reading odd books or listening to odd music is, in broad terms, a model of a supremely boring individual. For some reason this had honestly never occurred to me before, but seeing the light, it struck me as very funny as well as very true.

It was at that point that I realised that I rarely, if ever, feel bored myself. The irony of this made me laugh out loud, at which point the missus gave me one of her see what I mean, beyond redemption glances, leaving me thoroughly cheerful for the rest of the day

Monday, June 29, 2009

On Suspense

I've been sort of preparing a lecture on Ibsen's Hedda Gabler for our Year 5's. I say 'sort of' as it's been all thinking so far with nothing that you might call concrete. But that's the way I work - a lot of mulling over a topic, kicking it around, getting the taste and then, if luck holds, the thing itself comes together of its own accord. I decided on the topic very quickly though. It's going to be about the nature of the dramatic suspense created by Ibsen, within the play. He's always struck me as a playwright who devises particularly taut structures. The plays fairly hum along at times given that essential tension in every line. In fact, for a so-called naturalistic writer he's always teetering on the edge of melodrama it seems to me. That means it's difficult to make his stuff work for a modern audience.

In contrast, and I think it's an interesting one, Homer's version of suspense in The Odyssey is much simpler, deeply primitive in fact, but terribly satisfying. Reading Fagles's translation has made me realise just how much the epic is dominated by those suitors in Ithaca and the awful, glorious revenge our hero will wreak on them. I'm up to Book Twenty-one, with Odysseus about to pick up his bow, and very much aware of how slowly the poet has built up to this point, strangely savouring every insult the suitors throw out, and how satisfying it's going to be when the blood starts to really flow, Iliad-style.

But the truth is, for a wimp like me who had nightmares reading Fagles's version of the fall of Troy a couple of years ago, the blood-letting isn't going to be all that much fun. I prefer The Odyssey to The Iliad simply because it is grounded, for the most part, in something other than blood lust. I suppose I enjoy the suspense, but not the actual pay-off. Mind you, I'm in good company - Joyce just ignored the gory bits when he updated the epic in the most inglorious of all novels.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pain, Again

It's back to work tomorrow. I'd be being economical with the truth if I claimed to be looking forward to the prospect, but I can't say I'm in any way dreading the idea of getting back to the routine. As long as it isn't overwhelming it isn't something to be worried about. (The problem is, of course, that it can be suddenly, perplexingly overwhelming.) The only real reservation I have concerns the state of my right leg, which in turn involves the state of my back.

Since I did the marking for the IB exams back in May I've been aware that all has not been well with the trapped nerve at the bottom of my spine. The period of time I can stand without obvious pain was brief and is now non-existent. I've also completed taking the medication I was last assigned and I'm not due to see the doctor for a couple of weeks. This means that those two weeks, and the weeks beyond frankly, are likely to be not just challenging but, gulp, highly challenging.

It looks as if I'll be living defensively for quite a while. In the meantime I comfort myself with the idea that things could be worse. I might have been born an Arsenal supporter.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Now temporarily ensconced in Mak and Abba's house in Melaka. Not much to do here except be gloriously lazy for the rest of the weekend.

The only thing I miss is being able to play music. Once the children were out of the way at the KL house I took the opportunity to get down to some serious listening. Prior to that it was possible to get some uninterrupted listening in, in the early morning before the house came to noisy life, but this was always doubtful and never entirely relaxing.

I didn't take that much along with me, in terms of CDs, being aware in advance of the constraints of the situation, but what I did take was thoroughly enjoyed. This was especially true of my 2 CD set of Vaughan Williams's wonderfully sunny, if slightly autumnal, opera Sir John in Love. It helps that The Merry Wives of Windsor has a special place in my affections but I think I'd enjoy the opera even if I did not have such a head start in terms of the play on which it is based. A lot of great tunes - the romantic stuff for Anne Page and Fenton is particularly good - and a beautifully expansive, tolerant, embracing, understanding, distinctly Shakespearian ending. Certainly restful after the travails of Salome, my most recent bit of operatic close listening, but I hope my heart is big enough for both.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Trading Places

I’ll be going to Friday Prayers today at the new mosque which has just opened adjacent to our taman – literally a three minute walk. The pictures above do a little justice to what is, at this point in time, a fine new building, but it’s a pity I haven’t managed to get any shots of the delightful interior yet. Very bright and cheerful in a solemn sort of way.

From our perspective having the mesjid so close is good news for a variety of reasons, not least being our proximity to the azans (calls to prayer) which are very audible indeed from where we are. In attempting to pursue an Islamic way of life it’s extraordinarily useful to have these constant reminders of the straight path – and there’s also something oddly comforting in this sound track to our lives. Sadly, and honestly, I don’t think our non-Muslim neighbours will welcome this change to our lives in quite the same way, though. There’re a lot of Chinese non-Muslims on our taman and I imagine they’d regard the noise as unwelcomely intrusive.

This is a reminder of the demands made upon people in this part of the world in terms of the need for toleration. In Malaysia it’s the non-Muslims who are forced to accept the noise of religion, well one religion anyway. In Singapore it’s Muslims who are forced to accept the limits on the volume of the prayers calls from the mosques there. It seems to me that neither way round is particularly right or wrong. Rather we need to deal realistically with what is expedient in a particular context and rely on people’s fundamental goodwill, backed up by fairly authoritarian social and political systems, to accept that, or, at least, put up with it.

Funnily enough the capacity of people of radically different beliefs to put up with each other and somehow rub along was brought home to me in Hillenbrand’s book about the Crusades. Christians and Muslims came to at least temporary understandings more often than you might think in this period. At least some of the understandings revolved around trade which goes to show that there is a good side to all that filthy lucre. I could almost make my peace with capitalism over this most positive of its features.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Once More With Feeling

I’m very pleased with myself at the moment having cleaned all the fans in the house (yes, the great put-the-house-in-order operation is on-going) and finished The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives and all this in one morning. (Oh, and I listened to a fair slab of Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love, but that’s for a later post.) As I’ve mentioned before Hillenbrand’s book is both heavy-going as reading and literally heavy – handsomely illustrated and printed on expensive-looking paper it weighs a ton, a factor which played some part in my determination to finish it whilst I was still in KL so I could leave it here, saving us a bit of baggage space, and freeing a bit of shelf back in Singapore. There was lots to learn from The Crusades in terms of detail but, of course, I’ll forget all that rapidly enough to feel the need to re-read it in a couple of years, though I’m not terribly likely to actually commit myself to do so on a page-by-page basis.

In the broadest of terms I suppose I learnt from reading the book what I already knew: the whole business of the Crusades left a scar on what might broadly be termed the Muslim psyche that is yet to heal, being deeply associated with the injustices of colonialism. Despite being a Muslim, I don’t feel this injustice as it was not perpetrated on me, but I know about it. This raises the interesting question of whether we can genuinely know something without feeling it, and whether the depth of our feeling about something is in some mysterious way associated with the depth of our knowledge. (And what does that curious metaphor, depth of knowledge, really point to in terms of actual knowingness?)

This idea of learning from what you read has been on my mind regarding Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, which I will certainly re-read, but in a dipping-in fashion. I certainly did learn stuff, in terms of detail, that I was not aware of before, and which will, I suspect, stick. Ackroyd has a way of making the ordinary extraordinarily curious so that the fairly obvious becomes the oddly intriguing. One example: it never occurred to me before that the lighting of the great cities was for quite a long period completely uneven, being dependent, as it was, on a variety of what we now term service providers who were, understandably, providing different services. (I assume this applies to most cities – Ackroyd looks in some detail into how it applied to London quite a way into the twentieth century.) It was only when the different qualities of light began to involve problems of vision for drivers of vehicles that things, in this case the light, became evened out.

I also encountered material I was familiar with but, in this case, the writer made me feel much of this powerfully and, in the process, sort of transformed the knowledge, at least for the time of reading. I suppose most people, certainly the English, are aware of the dreadful conditions under which the children employed by the chimney-sweepers of nineteenth century London laboured. Ackroyd touches on this in one of his later chapters and does so to devastating effect. I suppose it’s partly because he’s obviously not harping on the suffering involved that the suffering comes over with such intensity. In fact, this is true of how he deals with the sheer human misery of life in the city for many of its inhabitants throughout the book. The power and intensity of this material is also related, I think, to the way the writer links those sufferings to the joys and the sheer energy of the city. There’s a stunning moment when the dancing of deprived children in some parts of the city is described. The image lingers, though I’m not at all sure what it means, or what I now know. But whatever it is, I know it feelingly.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On Burning

All the little outings we took the kids on in the middle two weeks of the holiday involved me having to remember to don the sunblock. Ever since our trip to Genting in December 2007 when I managed to burn my neck on a day of mist and mellow drizzle, a day on which I can hardly recall the sun putting in a single sustained appearance, I’ve been very careful about getting a reasonable amount of the stuff on my neck, face and arms. I don’t think most people appreciate just how easy it is to use the modern varieties of what used to be known as suntan lotions. And I don’t think folk in these climes, who generally come in rather pleasant dark shades, quite appreciate the inconvenience of having a complexion that demands constant protection when exposed to the sun and the degree of distress involved when one fails to provide such protection. This is when one ceases to be proud of one’s Celtic descent/origins (if pride is the right word) and wish those old warriors had spent a bit more time adapting to the sun rather than pillaging and raping and whatever else it was occupied their time in those far-flung days. I don’t suppose they bothered with Sunway Lagoon, or its equivalent, too much back then.

Actually, I blame my mother. She, curiously the parent of good Saxon Lancashire stock, was the one with the red hair and ‘sensitive’ skin. All childhood holidays, usually to Blackpool during Denton Wakes, involved her hiding beneath a pier for hours on end to stay out of the sun. Ten minutes in it ‘ll kill me, we were, probably reliably, informed. My dad, representing the Irish-Celtic Catholic side of things, as far as I remember never burnt at all, the Connors all being dark and dour specimens, though I have cousins through my dad’s twin Uncle Jim who have my colouring. As I say, the suntan lotions of those days were not user-friendly in any degree. They dripped rather than spread, had a pungent, lingering odour, and tended to migrate as quickly as possible to any clothes you were wearing. There were no numbers then, either. It seems I require a strength of 30, though I must say one application on arrival is enough to protect me for the day. In the old days I remember having to slosh the lotion on at regularly unpleasant intervals. In the movies the sloshing was usually carried out, for a gentleman, by some nubile young thing in a diminutive swimming costume. My Mum did mine for me.

Anyway, this is all by way of an excuse for posting a few more shots, which I previously didn’t have time to upload, of what we’ve been up to on our holidays here. Spot the sunblock, anyone?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Journeying On

As I thought I might, I completed Ackroyd’s London on Sunday. There’s a marvelous quotation from Will Self which appears in the blurb, something on the lines of wanting to finish the book as quickly as possible so he can start to re-read it. I know just how he feels, but will resist the temptation to start dipping in, at least for the moment. I’ve got a lot of other books to get on with.

At the head of the list, and what I’m now reading, are Carole Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives and Robert Fagles’s translation of The Odyssey. Embarrassingly these are both books I’ve started on before (my bookmark was at the three quarter mark of Hillenbrand’s history) but miserably failed to complete. In fact, I suspect I’ve actually mentioned both works, and my problems reading them, in this Place before. I’m pretty sure I’m going to complete both this week since the house is now empty, I haven’t got much to do in the way of work for work (if you see what I mean) and Noi is heroically determined to clean the house without my help, or getting in the way, as she puts it. But even then, I find I’m really having to push myself on The Crusades. It’s a fine book, beautifully illustrated by the way, but Hillenbrand doesn’t pretend to be an exciting writer, just a faithful historian presenting important research in a reasonably accessible manner.

However, I am well on my way in the journey of that most cunning man of twists and turns. What held me up initially was my lack of sympathy with Telemachus in the opening books. I resumed just when he was finishing things off with Menelaus, another dull dog, at least for this reader, and soon found myself with Calypso on her little island and it’s been steady sailing for me since then. I assume that Fagles’s translation is a brilliant one for two reasons. First of all, everybody says it is. Secondly, it’s fabulous to read. The English just sounds right somehow.

I also found time to read Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author on and after the weekend, in the translation by Eric Bentley. Again, I like the sound of the English so I’m inclined to think Bentley has done a good job. At times the dialogue sounds sort of prissily old-fashioned, but this seems to fit the context rather well. I found it easy to act out the play in my head as I went on. The play was another present from Karen actually, from about two birthdays ago, but I wasn’t in a rush to read as I know the piece quite well from years ago.

On this reading I was more struck by the emotional force of the drama than on previous occasions. The core suffering of the ‘characters’ lived for me in a way it’s never really done before, even when I’ve watched the play (on television, never, sadly, in the theatre.) Bentley mentions this (the emotional force) in his introduction, and I’m rather pleased I didn’t read this until I’d finished my reading of the play. It’s nice to have something about your reading confirmed independently. That way you don’t feel quite so alone on your journey, a major function of criticism, I suppose.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Arrivals and Departures

We got back to KL from Melaka yesterday in the late evening having said goodbye to Fafa, Iffah and Ira in the morning. Ibu had come from Singapore on Saturday to take them back by bus. Fafa was noticeably melancholy when we set off from KL on Saturday at the prospect of leaving Arina, Matin, Abbas and Qistina behind – I suspect most of all Arina who fulfilled the role of the perfect big sister admirably. It’s the first time I’ve heard any expression of that end-of-holiday sadness, which I think most adults readily recognise as part of the necessary fabric of things, from the kids in KL. She seemed to be still in something of the same mood on Sunday evening when talking to Noi on the phone she said she was surprised at how much she missed her Mak Ndak. (When asked how much she missed Uncle B the reply was a mere so, so which certainly put him in his place.) Arriving in KL we found most of our house guests in bed. Syam and Liza, who’d arrived on Saturday morning, had taken the family to Genting for the day and most were exhausted by the end of it all. It was really quite easy to separate Danial and Abbas from the television so Noi and I could watch the late night screening of the week’s Midsomer Murders.

By the way, I should clarify that as it turns out I didn’t play the Springsteen DVD in the van going to Melaka. I decided it would be too distracting but we did finally watch it in the house itself on Saturday, using Rachid’s new projector to get an almost cinemascope version of the show. I know I’ve said this before, but in case you are not aware, every sentient listener needs to get hold of this. Yes, it’s that good. What we did play in the van, succumbing to DVD mania, were a couple of episodes from Attenborough’s magisterial Life On Earth. I thought I would safely be able to just listen to the commentary and not be tempted to occasionally watch the screen. I was wrong. And I’d like to repeat: putting DVD players in the front of vehicles is sublimely stupid.

Moving on, this morning it was time to make our goodbyes to Zainab and family. By the end of things we had almost the whole family with us – Syam, Liza, Danial, Arina, Matin, Abbas and Qistina, having started two weeks ago with just the youngest two and their mum. Now I can finally read in peace without continually having to exchange ugly faces and conversation with a very inquisitive and observant six-year-old. And, of course, I’ll miss her (and the rest) massively.

I’m feeling something of that melancholy I mentioned earlier myself, but there’s plenty of cleaning to do, so after this it’s a case of up and at ‘em. Always a good cure.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Startling Inconsistency

Of all the daft ideas recent developments in technology have resulted in, surely the notion of putting DVD players in the front of cars is high amongst the ranks of the sublimely stupid.

However, in the interests of full and frank disclosure I am prepared to admit that an exception must be made for the playing of the sublime Bruce Springsteen and the Sessions Band Live in Dublin which will be featuring in our drive to Melaka this afternoon, in my brother-in-law’s Naza which is equiped with one of the demon DVD players, as we return three of our young charges to the bosoms of their families. A simple case of don’t do as I do, do as I say, useful and nearly always pertinent advice from any teacher.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Expect the unexpected, especially in this city, in this area, in our taman. We were happily going about our evening business yesterday, having got back quite late from a long day at Sunway Lagoon (a failsafe way of keeping the troops amused) and dinner at the Bom Corner when suddenly the lights went out. All of them. We were not entirely plunged into darkness as the kids have all sorts of gaming devices which emit fairly bright lights, and the house just behind us, which sticks out a bit further into the road than us, has lights in its garden which shone into our downstairs rooms, but it was still quite startling. The kids were a touch panicky at the beginning but rapidly came to terms with the situation. And what exactly was that? Essentially two streets of the taman had lost power, ours and the one in front.

Noi and I went out to ask for some matches, having tracked down a few candles in the house, and soon came across the power people in a big lorry obviously trying to put things right. Our neighbour from across the road, Mr Lian, who is the Secretary of the Residents’ Association, and a very helpful guy, had called out the authorities even before the blackout took place (I think; the story gets a bit confusing here, but it seems he knew there was a problem in advance but the workmen didn’t want to deal with it right away for reasons connected with overtime.) He predicted it would take a couple of hours to get the power back on and kindly provided us with the matches we needed.

In the event his prediction proved correct. It took another hour and a bit for the lights to shine again. In the meantime we huddled with the kids downstairs with a couple of the french windows open for a bit of a breeze and, paradoxically, a thoroughly good time was enjoyed by all – except, perhaps, me, as I’d have liked to have got some shut-eye but the excitement of the gathered multitude was such that sleep was not possible in the swirl of conversation, excited reminiscence and the like.

Oddly I was reminded of the blackouts we regularly suffered when I was a youngster, usually the result of some public sector workers somewhere going on strike. These invariably took place in winter and the excitement was strictly limited. Indeed, I recall a distinct atmosphere of dreary familiarity about the events and a sense of battling enormous inconvenience. Paraffin heaters were the order of the day and such is the power of memory that I can smell ours even as I type.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


If you’ve just read a truly monumental book of some variety it’s a good scheme to follow it with something lighter, considerably lighter. I took my own advice by reading a distinctly flimsy tome after putting aside Anna Karenin. (Incidentally, I’ve found it very difficult to put Tolstoy’s masterpiece to one side mentally. The temptation to post something or other relating to the novel has been pressing upon me. I’ve mentally composed an entire piece on Dolly’s visit to Anna, an episode which, though far from outstanding in a work of great set pieces, has somehow lodged itself in my mind. Notice how even this bracketed bit is threatening to take over this entry, which is why I’m cutting it short. Now.)

The work in question, the one following Tolstoy, was Jennifer Lee Carrell’s Interred With Their Bones. I don’t think I would have picked this one up of my own accord but I got it as a birthday present, along with something by Howard Gardner, from Karen back in April. It’s a sort of Da Vinci Code for fans of the Bard and certainly entertaining, to the extent that I read it in a couple of days. In fact, ‘flimsy’ might be the wrong word to use. Although the adjective reasonably applies to the thin characterisation and the workings of the plot in the present day of the novel, the Shakespeare back-story is incredibly rich and detailed, sometimes too much so, I think. Although Ms Carrell (or her editors) are certainly imitating Dan Brown, particularly in terms of plot twists, I don’t see this one ever making the best-seller lists as what Brown did so brilliantly and/or crassly and/or both was to provide a back story with enough detail to sound complicated but which was, in fact, very simple (and silly) in terms of its broad outline.

But although I enjoyed Interred With Their Bones on the level of simple entertainment, there were two things about it I found irritating. The first was Ms Carrell’s perverse desire to use the nonsense of the non-existent controversy of the authorship question. She clearly knows her subject well enough to know this is nonsense so I suppose it’s done for the general reader who might genuinely believe that some kind of controversy does exist. The fact that the major villain is a so-called Stratfordian (as if there were real sides in this) doubles the level of irritation. The second concerns major moments in the text that are so less-than-credible as to be dangerously funny, yet which have been allowed to stand. I am sure the author, her agent and her editors were very much aware of these and it’s my guess they were ignored, in fact, possibly calculatedly included, based on what they took to be the ignorance of the average reader they hoped would be snapping up their best-seller. I’ll mention two. One is when the heroine comes across what is obviously the word ‘Cardenio’ for the first time and doesn’t immediately recognise it as the title of a lost play by Shakespeare. I mean, come on, she’s supposed to be not merely an expert but a brilliant expert on her subject, yet she doesn’t know something as obvious as this? Similarly the fact she has remained ignorant that Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam is the motto of the Jesuits despite possessing all sorts of weird arcane knowledge of the good brothers just doesn’t cut it in the real world.

I know it sounds as if I’m being unduly fussy here, but I suspect a potentially good novel was ruined by the desire of the publishers to find a blockbuster follow-up to the Code. Anyway, probably they’ve made a lot of money already by flogging the film rights, so well done them, even though I don’t think it’ll make it to the big screen in the end.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


I reckon it would be fair to regard amusement parks as one of the great social levelers. Dignity is gloriously impossible in such places, and, of course, there’s no room for taste of any variety, except the strictly vulgar. Whilst it’s possible not to join in the fun by refusing to go on any of the rides (even wearing an all-day pass) you can only do so when unaccompanied by kids, otherwise you are morally obliged to shell out for everything and doomed to inglorious defeat in the War on Capitalism.

I cannot begin to do justice to yesterday’s rich experience at Genting, from which we are recovering today by refusing to go out anywhere, but I’ll try to encapsulate the day through a vignette of sorts, from late in the afternoon, when the temperatures were beginning to imitate those of a November afternoon in England (the mist had descended on the mountaintop on which the amusement park, hotels, casino, and other bits and pieces that go under the name ‘Genting’ are perched) and I was seeking some respite from the chilly breezes and an aching left leg by leaning on a wall observing our team, or most of the older members thereof, queuing for a ride entitled with imaginative verve The Cyclone. Somebody coming off the ride, or the one next door, which involved spinning the participants at great speed one way whilst vigorously accelerating them the other, decided to be sick in the middle of the walkway leading to the rides.

There was a kind of unpleasant fascination involved in not exactly watching but being aware of just how close various passers-by got to the pool of vomit without actually stepping into it. Fortunately the god of over-excited holiday-makers saw fit to protect everyone and then the tension was relieved by one of the workers at the park who came to sort of clear the mess. His action was a reminder of all that goes into running an amusement park – clearing up the mess people leave was obviously a regular part of his work, and he set about the pool of vomit unhurriedly yet methodically. The technique was simple: he launched several scoops full of water from a near-by tap at the mess until it had spread sufficiently widely to be no longer recognisable as a pool. At that point most of those passing by were kind of avoiding the water, but it was obvious that soon everybody would he happily treading bits of regurgitated food into the pathway in happy ignorance of what was beneath their feet. I found this all educational but not exactly enlightening.

Whilst all this was going on Noi and I were still keeping watch on our proteges getting closer and closer to their (1 minute but exciting) ride on The Cyclone. We couldn’t help but notice a fair amount about the crowd around them, not the ones consciously or unconsciously avoiding the vomit but those diligently queuing with our kids. The sheer variation in terms of ethnicity, age and social background was remarkable so I don’t intend to generalise. But what was striking to us both – Noi immediately commented on it to me – was the degree of foul language acceptable in terms of what appears on people’s t-shirts. Well, it was only one t-shirt and it was ‘acceptable’ in that the young lady involved was wearing it and no one seemed to be complaining. Actually she was a fairly nondescript, unprepossessing sort of lass, which was somehow made it all the more surprising that she had chosen to wear a shirt emblazoned with two versions (really rather repetitive), bright yellow against purple, of one of the less acceptable specimens of what is sometimes referred to as an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. Did her mother know?

It’s not that I have any great objection to the word, or others like it, per se, but it seems to me that the place of such vocabulary is not on the chests of young ladies in amusement parks for the most part frequented by young children. Apart from anything else, it diminishes the potential power and usefulness of such language. The degree to which that language has penetrated the world of civil discourse (I’m thinking here of British television which I occasionally get exposed to back in the UK) is one of the sadder aspects of the generally welcoming leveling tendency of our times.

I didn’t try to get a picture of the offending, or, I suppose, non-offending t-shirt, but there are a few shots above to enjoy if kids having fun is your cup of tea.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

One Thing I've Learnt

There is little to compare to the excitement, expressed in simple terms of volume, of a little girl observing four monkeys on the roof of the neighbours’ house.

Squad strength: seven – two boys, five girls. Soon off to Genting for the day, hoping the amusement park there will have something for everyone.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Great Writing, Average Reading

As I had hoped to, I finished Tolstoy’s mighty Anna Karenin yesterday and made significant progress on Ackroyd’s mighty-in-a-different-kind-of-way London, The Biography. I’m over the halfway mark in the Ackroyd despite deliberately going quite slowly to savour the many joys of what I would regard as his most accessible work of non-fiction. In London he pulls off what I think is a calculated popularisation of his usual concerns. The darkness and mystery of the literary biographies seem somehow diffused in what is almost a cheerful, at times positively celebratory, book. You can sense Ackroyd’s relish as a new aspect of the city looms into view, with each chapter constituting a separate almost self-contained essay. If ever a text conveyed a feeling that the writer loved doing the (brilliant, detailed, illuminating) research, this is the one. If ever a text cried out to be dipped into over and over, with a relish on the part of the reader equal to that of its writer, ditto.

And to think I’ve had the pleasure of reading London whilst re-reading what I’m now convinced is one of the greatest novels ever written, if not the number one of all time. Yes, I know that using such terminology is silly and pointless, but there are moments when pointless superlatives seem to be the only way of dealing with the intensity of the experience of reading Anna Karenin and putting that experience into some sort of perspective.

It’s as if Tolstoy pulls off the impossible with such frequency that you are convinced he really is capable of magic. The ‘impossible’ I’m referring to is capturing what life is really like in the pages of a work of fiction. I don’t just mean giving you a vivid picture or impression of life, or a strong sense of the texture of lived experience, I mean actually getting down on paper the reality of life in a way that makes you say, yes, that’s exactly how it is, in a way that extends beyond the subjective. In other words, he shows you something that you’re normally not aware of, the reality of other people and their interests, foibles, concerns, obsessions and extends your experience into a reality you’re (or rather I’m) only, at best, vaguely aware of. In an earlier post I joked about him knowing what the horses were thinking, but there’s a moment in the later part of the novel when Levin is out shooting snipe with Oblonsky and another chap when you get to know what’s on the mind of Levin’s dog and there’s nothing in the surface of the text to indicate that this is all a bit odd. You just accept that, yes, that’s exactly what the dog would be thinking at that point in time.

This reading of the novel made me aware of just of poor a reader I am capable of being when I recall with embarrassment that on my first reading of the novel I thought that Karenin and Vronsky were pretty thin stuff. This time round I’m pleased to say my responses went a little deeper. The astonishing thing here is that from the outside the two men can seem to be poor stuff, but the moment Tolstoy gets you inside them you recognise their complete humanity despite, possibly because of, their manifold failings. Just two bits to mention: the moment when you are made to realise that Karenin’s career has peaked and everything from now on will be downhill, though Karenin himself will not be able to consciously see and accept this. So much of what has been despicable about the character in his supposed success becomes oddly moving in his failure. And the last time we see Vronsky, with a terrible toothache, on his (noble? foolish?) way to fight the Turks – we see him almost entirely from the outside, suffering, ruined by Anna’s suicide – and, again, we are deeply moved in a way that seems disproportionate to our knowledge of the character. It’s almost as if Tolstoy is reminding us that no matter how much we know someone we never really know them at all.

And how was Tolstoy ever able to write Anna’s suicide? Surely impossible? - until you read it.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Beyond Words

We’re off to Melaka this afternoon to return one of the children to her rightful owners and probably to pick up a few more. I’m hoping to get quite a bit of reading done as there’s not a great deal else to do there. Noi’s massage lady is on the way from Singapore, though, and I’m due for a pounding, it seems, so that may interrupt my flow. Having said that, Tolstoy and Ackroyd are so unputdownable I can well imagine trying to read them whilst being pummeled.

In the meantime I thought I’d post one or two pictures attempting to do justice to the activities of the last few days before we set off. The camera, they say, cannot lie, but it cannot reproduce the perspiration, the laughter, the bad jokes, the tears and that curious sensation of thinking that this is all just how it should be.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fully Occupied

Having four pleasant and personable children around is helping make this another memorable holiday, but it does present the never-ending problem of what to do with them to make it memorable in their terms. So far we’ve solved this by taking them to: Taman Tasik Perdana – where we let them loose on the lake – the Aquarium at KLCC, and, today, Sunway Lagoon.

Somehow in the middle of all this Uncle Brian has managed to read fair chunks of both Anna Karenin and Ackroyd’s London, the Biography which says a lot about how well the children are behaved and how hardworking and efficient their Mak Ndak is.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Last time we were in KL, for the long weekend for Vesak Day, I bought the first two books in the Preacher series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. I was looking for a nice meaty comics series in which I would be able to sink myself and feed my addiction to the genre. (In truth, it’s not a terribly strong addiction, but I associate holidays with the genre and rather miss not automatically being able to buy a new Sandman or the like.)

I’ve now read both of the books, Gone To Texas and Until The End Of The World, and doubt that I’ll be moving onto number three despite being left hanging at the end of number two. To some degree I did enjoy the books, that degree being that there was enough story to keep me interested. Unfortunately to get to the story you need to wade through lots of profanity, a tiresome obsession with violence, an equally tiresome fixation on sentimental bonding, and a sort of adolescent desire to keep shocking the reader. The problem is that this reader is beyond being shocked but not beyond getting tired of storytellers’ adolescent obsessions.

When gore and nastiness is done well, think Gaiman and Moore, I’m rather in favour of it. But the Preacher never comes close to those levels. Above all, it was the sentimentality of the series that bothered me, a sentimentality that manifested itself in the three central characters being allowed to get away with anything on the (implied) grounds that they possessed some sort of depth. Unfortunately they didn't.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

That's Entertainment

Squad strength has now increased to four with the arrival of two little ones from Singapore in the company of their mother, an old friend of Noi’s who’s come on an unexpected visit. We picked them up from Jalan Ampang, where their coach had dropped them, late last night. We’re now planning how to occupy and entertain the troops at least for today.

We recovered from yesterday’s disappointment over swimming, or rather not swimming, by taking the kids to Times Square. This is undoubtedly one of the bleakest shopping malls in this neck of the woods. Occupying a massive ten floors, it’s simply too big. By the sixth floor big empty, echoing spaces start to appear and by the tenth you can begin to feel distinctly, incongruously, lonely. But it does house an indoor amusement park which youngsters clearly love to death, and that’s where we were able to leave Fafa and Ayu to play for a couple of hours.

Question: why is it that a child who has thrown up twice in the car simply because we’ve been stuck in a traffic jam can happily be whirled and bounced around at high speed for ten minutes at a time, suffering no ill effects – in fact, positively relishing the experience?

And another, completely unrelated question: how did Tolstoy know exactly what was going on in the minds of Anna, Vronsky and Karenin at the horse-race? Every word rings with absolute truth. My guess is, he’s got a pretty good idea of what even the horses were thinking. Surely he’s the absolute master of this kind of set piece?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Found Wanting

There’s nothing quite so melancholy as the feeling you get when you intend to take two little girls swimming and the club that houses the pool turns out to be closed for renovations. Fortunately our two nieces are not quite so little anymore and they took the disappointment in good spirit. It helps also that we took them to see Monsters vs Aliens yesterday, in no fewer than three dimensions – our first time ever wearing the dorky (Fafa’s word) glasses – and everybody had a good time. Non-stop action and a lot of good jokes is a formula that rarely fails.

Tolstoy goes about entertaining the reader in somewhat different ways in Anna Karenin, my latest bit of reading. Actually there’s no shortage of humour, generally in a satirical vein, but a Hollywood audience wouldn’t find much in the way of action, though I think there’s plenty going on.

About three or four years ago I re-read War and Peace, which I first read when I was fourteen or fifteen, and which, along with The Lord of the Rings, was my first big novel. I was surprised on the re-reading to realise how fast-moving it was, not at all the monumental blockbuster I read when younger. Similarly Anna Karenin is turning out to be very a very different novel to the one I read when I was seventeen (I think. Around about then, anyway.) On my first reading I recall my real interest focusing on Levin, and to a lesser extent Oblonsky, figures I could relate to what I had already encountered in War and Peace. Levin seemed a continuation of Pierre, and was easily understood in terms of a surrogate Tolstoy. Oblonsky was a development of Tolstoy’s brilliant rendering of the emptiness of fashionable society, managing to be engaging, amusing and deplorable all at the same time.

What I found difficult to relate to all those years ago was the centre of the novel, the triangle of Anna, Karenin and Vronsky. The problem was that they seemed to me, in their different ways, to be trivial characters, not worth all the sound and fury devoted to them and their obvious flaws. Now I see them very differently. Trivial, yes, as we all are, and deeply flawed, but equally deeply, because of their flaws, human. And what is astonishing about the novel is Tolstoy’s ability to become the characters. As he slides effortlessly into their viewpoints – has a third person narrative ever been used with such flexibility? – he understands their feelings with such pinpoint accuracy that you are convinced this is the way they are and the way they feel. He just knows them, utterly.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Lazy Days

Now resident at Maison KL with Fafa and Ayu. Fifi, one of the usual suspects in these situations, is not with us as her CCA, fencing, involves extensive training throughout the vacation. I don’t think she’s terribly bothered about not being along for the ride since she’s now grown-up enough to prefer the company of her friends. Sad, in a way, but happy, for her, in so many others.

We stopped off at Mak’s house in Melaka yesterday to pick up Ayu and stayed for a few hours. Mak and Abba looked well and it was good to see Sulis, back from Indonesia again. According to Noi she’s happy to be in Malaysia again and her own children accept that she needs to work abroad. I can’t help but feel uneasy about what those children really feel about all this though. We had news there of a traffic jam along the highway and it was painfully accurate, caused, I think, by the sheer volume of traffic heading into the city in what is a holiday week here (for the schools.) There were quite a few Singapore-registered vehicles on the road also, doing much the same as us, I guess.

Poor Fafa threw up a couple of times in a journey that took three times as long as it normally would. Fortunately Mak Ndak had prepared for this likelihood, equipping the unfortunate kid with several plastic bags to fill up. Ayu, in the meantime, slept through the whole journey and was distinctly sulky when we arrived on the hill and went for something to eat, at first refusing to get out of the car. Oddly enough, when we finally reached the house she came to life and was happily dancing around with Fafa, also recovered from her ordeal, as Noi and I unloaded and got the place into some sort of shape. I’m told the kids were up until three this morning listening to music (having both slept in the car quite extensively at various times during the day.)

This morning we went for a late breakfast on the hill and then it was home to blazing heat, a nap here and there, and the girls scurrying about the place pursuing their odd, noisy delights, though it must be said that both have been doing a bit of schoolwork and Uncle B has to re-learn some science and maths in order to provide assistance. Later we’re off to KLCC to buy Ayu a swimming costume and generally lounge about enjoying the utter happiness of having nothing that we really have to do and doing it really well.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Not Too Many Answers

When I first read Island, thirty-something years ago, I think I was looking for some kind of answers, and was disappointed not to find them. After all, this was a Utopia, and the whole point of a Utopia is to tell you what the perfect society might be like. But Huxley's novel doesn't exactly do that. Pala, his island, is doomed from the beginning and the lessons you learn there are rather slippery. You certainly get glimpses of a better way of approaching life, but it's all terribly vulnerable and more than a little equivocal.

There's an awful lot about danger, and an equal amount about dying. And what it has to say about education is so odd it's difficult to equate with the reality of schools and what they have to offer. It certainly seemed that way to me back in the 1970's. But reading Island today - over the last three days actually - I've been struck by how extraordinarily prescient a novel it is, or rather was. The satire it offers of the values of the consumer society outside Pala, which finally, inevitably consumes the island, is depressingly accurate. The vision (much abused word, but in this case it stands) it offers of a genuinely holistic (similarly abused, similarly stands) way of living is startlingly relevant to our times.

Of course, not everything Huxley thinks is likely to benefit us will work. He is understandably naïve about what consuming mind-altering substances is likely to do to people, though it must be said that the central character's trip, a wonderful set piece, is hardly a good one in the simple sense of the term. And there's a similar naivete regarding sexual freedom amongst young people. It would have been interesting to see if the failure of the hippy dream of the 60's, surely fuelled in part by Huxley's dafter ideas, would have changed his mind on these aspects of his thinking.

But the great thing about the novel lies in the questions it generates regarding the ways in which we conduct our lives in the here-and-now of where we really are. These are often painful questions, but necessary ones.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


We've now got a new carpet in place of the one we bought on Thursday. The shop was very obliging and allowed Noi to swop the one she thought she liked but didn't for the one she thought she didn't like but did, or rather does. While she was making the swop I was downing teh tarik round the corner and enjoying being in the shade on a blazing hot day - a very good reason for shopping around Arab Street.

After that it was off to Parkway Parade to supply ourselves with the necessary readies for a three week sojourn in KL. I also needed to buy a couple of electrical adapter thingies, one being for a new digi-box from Starhub the obtaining of which was the basis of a ferociously boring saga which took place last week and to which no reader should be, or will be, subjected. On getting the thingy back to the Mansion we found the new digi-box refused to work, but I don't intend to settle this until we get back from Malaysia. Irritating, very.

Then we were off, yet again, to Causeway Point to sort out some very complex arrangements regarding broadband and telephone lines and fax machines and handphones way beyond my comprehension. Fortunately Fuad was around to guide us through. We took the bus there in honour of Mrs Thatcher and her pronouncement regarding failures who took buses.

In the middle, or round the edges of all this - the bus-ride proving particularly productive - I finished Huxley's wonderful Island, of which more anon.

Friday, June 5, 2009

On An Island

I've almost cleared all the work stuff that has to be done which means I have finally found some breathing space. Which in turn means I'll soon to be able to get in touch with real life on something more than a part time basis. The timing is particularly good as I now find myself racing through Aldous Huxley's Island and feeling very impatient with anything that gets in the way.

It's a long time since I read the novel. The edition I'm reading cost 40 pence back in 1973. That was when I was going through my first major Huxley period. In retrospect it was a good time to have read him, the right age. I can remember being especially impressed by The Devils of Loudun and Grey Eminence, more so than the fiction. A good judgment, I think. But I know I didn't enjoy Island, and now I can't think why that was. True, it's no great shakes as a novel but it's a superb exposition of ideas, and has a sense of urgency as if Huxley knew his time was short and he needed to pass on the wisdom he'd accrued.

Oddly, I think somewhere deep inside I've been aware of all that. I've known for quite some time I would go back to the novel, and I'm more than glad I did.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

On The Carpet

Noi is sitting and brooding over a carpet we bought this afternoon from one of the many dealers on Arab Street. The carpet in question now has pride of place under the coffee table in front of where we put the tv and stereo system. Well, I'm the one with the pride. I'm not sure the missus likes it at all, though she was the one who chose it. I don't mean that in an accusatory way at all. The poor girl is fastidious when it comes to stuff around the apartment whereas I have no taste whatsoever so anything will do for me.

This is becoming more of a problem lately as we've been in the place long enough for a lot of stuff to be starting to fall apart and need replacing. When you're a kid you look around at all the stuff that's old, which seems to be pretty much everything, and just see it in those terms. Now I remember when everything was new and still regard it a bit that way. It's a bit of a surprise that it's managed to wear out before I have.

Anyway, now we've got the new carpet home I think Noi's having second thoughts. She remarked to me earlier that it's too busy. The guy at the shop, who was very helpful, told us he'd be quite happy to swop it for another if we weren't happy when we got it home but I'm hoping it doesn't come to this since I'm happy with things as they are. However, if Noi really can't stand the thing I'd be equally happy doing a swop. The problem is I'm not too sure which other carpet we'd take in return. They all looked good to me.

Such are the headaches that come with (a little bit of) affluence.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In Pieces

Finished Tender Is The Night finding much to enjoy in the final third. It still seems to me a novel of brilliant fragments even though there was more direction in the last part of the novel, dealing as it does with Dick Diver's decline. Even here there are obvious set pieces - like Dick getting sozzled and being beaten by the police and his rescue of Mary and her friend in the third or fourth last chapter. Cowley's informative notes make it clear that the latter episode only made it into the text just before publication and you could obviously leave it out without any damage at all to the story-line. But such episodes are strong enough in their own right to have kept me interested even though I had severe doubts about the central thesis of the novel.

I'm referring here to the business of what's wrong with Diver himself. The problem is that there's absolutely no reason why he should fall into his decline. This is at one with my problem in finding him even remotely credible as a psychoanalyst. He's just too dumb.

I think I can be a bit more specific about what goes wrong here, and my comments are based on an excellent book by Tom Dardis entitled The Thirsty Muse. Dardis is interested in the effects of alcohol, or rather alcoholism, upon Fitzgerald's generation of American writers. His thesis that the work of a number of them suffered deeply because of their drinking is extremely convincing, and the segment on Fitzgerald is particularly powerful (and sad.) Basically Diver's problem is a reflection of Fitzgerald's own - he's a drunk - but the writer can't bring himself to admit it's as simple as that. So it's clear Diver drinks too much but the implication is that this is the result of other, deeper, more complex problems. But it isn't. The addiction is the problem.

According to Dardis the same addiction wrecked the work of Faulkner, Hemingway and, of course, Fitzgerald. It's a simple but devastating idea and I think he's right.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

An Odd Night

Tender Is The Night is a very strange novel. I didn't like it all when I first read it, several decades ago, and reading it again I've been taken aback at how little I remember. Of course, that's as much a comment on me as it is on the book, but it points to something unusual about the text.

This time round I have found plenty to admire and enjoy, especially in the second section (the text I'm using being Cowley's amended version that makes this the Rosemary segment.) There's a lot that has the seemingly effortless brilliance of Gatsby, especially when Fitzgerald is dealing with Gatsby-ish subject matter. The dinner with the Divers in Chapters 7 and 8 of this segment is a good example. The charm and glamour the Divers offer, and the sense of how illusory it is, is beautifully rendered and Rosemary's need to enter their world can be easily understood.

But when we come to the actual romance between Dick and Rosemary something begins to go wrong. Some of the dialogue seems little more than the trite cliches of the standard romantic novel of the period. This wouldn't be so bad if Dick were an actor (the stuff about the film studios is entirely convincing) or a writer - but he's a psychoanalyst for goodness sake. I don't know if any of the critics have pointed this out, but this not only doesn't work, it manages to be almost comical at times. It's as if Fitzgerald is trying on a mask that not only doesn't fit but is constantly falling off.

The other thing that's so striking about the novel is the sense that Fitzgerald doesn't seem to know where it's all going. It seems made up of brilliant fragments, at least for the first two-thirds, which is what I've read so far. I know the final third is centred around Dick Diver's fall from grace so I'm hoping for a bit more momentum, but I'm also aware that generally this bit is not too highly regarded so we'll just have to see. At least this time I'm not likely to forget it all.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Mat Rocking

Hugely enjoyed last night's concert, the perpetrators thereof being the forty-year-old Sweet Charity, a group famous among the Malay community here. I don't really know their stuff at all. I think I'm right in saying they were big (in local terms) in the seventies (and possibly that low, dishonest decade, the eighties.) It was Noi who was keen to see them and I was more than happy to oblige since the frontman is the redoubtable Ramli Sarip, a figure revered amongst mat rockers (sort of Malay guys with long hair, a taste for loud music, and a reverence for Deep Purple) whom I've seen live on a couple of occasions, when he delivered big-time. I also am the proud owner of a couple of his recent CDs, the one entitled Syair Timur (actually 1997, but that's recent for me) being a particular favourite.

The only doubt I had, and a very mild one, was that the stuff I had heard by the band, which was Ramli's launching pad I gather, was pretty generic stuff - sort of middle of the road AOR - think Whitesnake at their worst - with a helping of dullish power ballads and a smattering of commercial ditties obviously designed to be popular hits. This is fairly typical of music with Malay origins of the decades mentioned. I know this sounds patronising but the imitation of poor models is so obvious it's undeniable. What I was sure of was that the standard of musicianship would be high and Ramli would bring real power and passion both vocally and in terms of creative desire. I was right.

I'm not entirely sure of whom amongst the seven members of the group (drums, percussion, 2 keyboard players, bass, lead guitar and Ramli on occasional acoustic, tambourine and vocals) other than the frontman were original members of Sweet Charity, but every one of them could play. At first I thought the guitarist was just going to throw screeching solos and power chords over everything, but by the third number it was clear he was a splendidly versatile ensemble player and more than capable of providing tasteful lines and licks and blending rhythmically. I should add that these guys were augmented by a string section of around seven or eight players. For the first few numbers you could hardly hear them but in the later part of the evening they came into their own and it was clear just how well-rehearsed the show was.

The tightness of the band came through particularly on the lighter material. The poppiest of the ditties sounded really good, bouncing along unapologetically with verve so that it gradually began to occur to me that they had real affection for this stuff. I can't say I was a complete convert but it was certainly entertaining. Meanwhile the power ballads worked simply because of the gravelly precision of Ramli's voice. He meant it. And then the rocking material did just that, rocked, in a fashion that was not to be resisted. It's a simple truth: when people who are really good at what they do, do it with joy you are guaranteed a good time.

One curious thing. The first number in the encore was a steaming version of Deep Purple's Black Night, the only English song of the evening and, I think, the only cover version. Yesterday morning for the first time in yonks I'd been thinking of the song and how that and Free's Alright Now when originally released marked the first time in my young life that I got excited about music that was not exactly what your mother would want you to listen to. I can recall watching that most crass of all tv programmes dealing with music, Top of the Pops just waiting for Deep Purple to blow everybody else away. It seems that Ramli and co were doing something similar on the other side of the world.

One last thing. the audience were great. Boisterously loud at the beginning they lapped up everything with infectious enthusiasm. Recognising what I take to have been the big hits they seemed to lift the band with their reactions. By the end a lot of them were up and dancing and considering a fair proportion were ladies wearing the tudung this looked incongruously fitting. There was a genuine sense of closeness between the musicians and their fans which was powerfully touching.