Monday, August 31, 2009


10 Ramadhan 1430

Hakim, Intan and their rapidly sprouting daughter, Zahira, came round to break the fast with us yesterday. They'd bought with them some particularly tasty satay from a stall at Marine Parade and this supplemented a sumptuous repast prepared by the missus (yes, the language is cliched, but it sort of does justice to the occasion) made up of stuff we got at the new Geylang Market earlier in the afternoon. A quick list: sea bass (too much, so we gave a whole cooked one to our guests); crabs; epok epok; some layered kueh and the ricey green one; brinjal in a sort of red chillie sauce; a mix of green beans, carrot bits with the odd little prawn, done in garlic, I think; plain rice; and lashings of hot, sweet tea. As far as I remember. We did justice to it all, I assure you.

There was so much, I neglected to put on the table the nice little chocolates one of my students had given me ahead of Teachers' Day, which was actually today.

And that was another opportunity for a kind of togetherness. A quirkily Singaporean occasion it's difficult to imagine it taking off in an English school. I'm now loaded with little (and some not- so-little) gifts and cards and goodies. Enough calories for the remainder of fasting month certainly. The trouble so many students go to is very touching - their generosity deep and real. As an aspect of the on-going War on Capitalism I might add that I'd rather get the contents of the table top in the living room (where I temporarily put today's booty) than a banker's bonus for wrecking the economy.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Extended Reading

9 Ramadhan 1430

Spent a small part of the day reading one of the back issues of The Word, the magazine, well two actually, I bought cheap when we were last in KL. This, my reading thereof, was prompted in part by the fact that on a visit to Parkway Parade yesterday evening, the first time we've eaten out this Ramadhan, I bought the latest copy of The New York Review of Books, laving me a little backed up as I've not yet completed the previous July edition. The material accumulating is not exactly threatening, it's all very readable stuff, but I don't want to fall too behind and feel like I'm throwing money away for the sake of it.

I realised when I read what I'd written in This Place last year about the edition of The Word I picked up then that I hadn't been terribly impressed, and I feel something similar today. To some degree the magazine is informative, particularly with regard to certain kinds of music I enjoy, but I'm not sure I need to know all this stuff. I get enough hot recommendations from the limited sources I browse to have more than enough ideas for what to listen to and who needs much more than that? The rest is just talk. Mind you, having said that, the free CD that comes with each magazine is a pleasure to listen to, and I now find myself set on getting hold of The Decembrists's last album as a result of enjoying The Rake's Song, and the article on the band in the magazine.

I also greatly enjoyed the series of short articles on bands associated with the Island record label, which was undoubtedly my favourite label as a kid. That turned into a bit of a nostalgia fest for me, but I rarely indulge in that regard so I don't think any great harm was done.

But it's the numerous articles that try to be funny about stuff that's current that tend to wear me down. I'm not terribly interested in what folk deem to be the latest thing to watch or listen to, and find it difficult to see the point of a piece that reviews dull documentaries in order to show how incisive the writer can be about other people's dull documentaries.

Mind you, this may also simply reflect my middle-aged lack of any sense of humour whatsoever.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


8 Ramadhan 1430


I'm off to do a workshop for gifted kids who are interested in Literature, I think aged 15 - 16, at a different school from my usual. Did something similar this time last year and got a heap of book tokens for my trouble and, it seems, will receive the same today. Intending to share them with Fifi (who says she doesn't have time to read) and Fafa.

The preparation has involved dipping into Lawrence's Collected Poems and Hughes's Collected Poems For Children, a highly satisfactory way to spend one's time.


Now back from my workshop having had a thoroughly good time. When work isn't work it can be very pleasant indeed. One of the kids pointed out something about the end of one of Hughes's poems on weasels I'd not noticed before. A little bit more light entered the world.

Is there another body of work in English to equal the sheer verve, variety and charm of Hughes's animal poems, especially those written overtly for children?


Reading the poetry mentioned above has been a delightful diversion from my main, Islamic-themed reading of the month. I'm now just over half-way through The Holy Qur'an in Abdullah Yusuf Ali's version. In this quick reading I'm getting a sense of the overwhelming, relentless, pounding power of the scripture. I suppose I'd say a sense of its momentum, except that it has none, being essentially meditative, unmoving. It leads nowhere save to itself, yet again. Repetition is not so much a device as an essential, yet in subtle ways it doesn't quite repeat. New contexts give lines new shades of meaning. Abdullah Yusuf Ali's notes are extraordinarily useful in this respect. He picks up beautifully on new contexts.

The other book I've got going, now about two-thirds of the way through, is Annemarie Schimmel's Mystical Dimensions of Islam and I must say I can't praise it too highly. This one delivers in every way. It's comprehensive and scholarly without getting bogged down in its topic. The clarity and straightforwardness of the writing is exemplary. When she's enthusiastic over a certain character or idea she says so; when she has her doubts, which you sense are well-founded, then you get them. She celebrates, she criticises - with enough of the original sources usually to put the reader in a reasonable position to decide for themselves.

I've just finished the chapter on the Sufi brotherhoods and this is a good example of her sense of balance. It's touchingly sympathetic at the beginning, especially when she's looking at how fundamental the idea of simply helping others, being in community, putting their interests before your own has been in Sufi thought - not necessarily the most obvious development of a mystical view of things. Yet there's plenty of assured criticism of the degree of corruption, sometimes simply financial, that has bedeviled some of the Sufi orders over the centuries.

Friday, August 28, 2009


7 Ramadhan 1430

In keeping with tradition, when we break our fast there are always dates on the table. This is a recorded practice of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and a remarkably astute one. The dates provide the perfect natural sugar rush the body craves as well as being wonderfully tasty. Oddly, uncannily, so much associated with the Prophet regarding diet is in line with modern thought - his advice to eat to the point you were satisfied but not actually full being a case in point.

But back to the dates - a wonderful subject to consider in these last few minutes before actually breaking the fast. The ones we've started with this year are the Medjool variety, which seem to be quite well known. They are quite large, succulent and very meaty. The term meaty might seem a touch inappropriate but it really is the only way I can do justice to the full, heavy texture of the dates. A single date is quite a snack in itself. Three, my usual number, feels a bit over the top but they're essentially healthy so I feel I'm getting away with something.

I can hardly believe this of myself but there was a time I didn't eat dates at all. I can't recall ever having one before coming to Singapore, and I think I found them slightly off-putting when I first began to munch. Now I'd take them ahead of chocolate any day.

And it's nearly time. Yowzaa!

Thursday, August 27, 2009


6 Ramadhan 1430

Recently we've been receiving another three channels on cable - all associated with the BBC. One of them, called BBC Lifestyle, has rapidly become something of a favourite with Noi. She's watching a programme called Masterchef at this very moment. The channel generally seems to run a number of entertaining series revolving around food and its preparation. And there's also a fair number of programmes featuring people who've messed up their health and homes and are seeking to put things right - the sort of thing when they get themselves another ten years of life by following a sensible health and fitness routine for eight weeks or so.

Although I can't say I avidly watch this stuff, I don't find it objectionable and can happily watch along with the missus. I suppose this is because such programmes are basically talking sense and their optimism that people can change for the better helps restore balance to the customary cynical blight that so often characterises modern life. The trouble is, I can't help but nurture the vague suspicion that the folk we see turning their lives around are the exception rather than the rule and many of those who would benefit from watching and imitating don't make this kind of thing their regular viewing, or, if they do, manage to watch without doing anything about it.

But what has struck me very forcibly of late has been the intimate connection between these lives gone wrong and the sheer excess in which our world invites us (almost too mild a word) to participate. Too much food, too much drink, too much stuff to buy and hoard. And how this, in turn, is connected to an obvious lack of discipline, usually a straightforward, painfully obvious laziness. Houses are left in a mess because it's just too much trouble to clean up and get things straight.

I'm sounding very strict and uncaring here, not to mention downright uncharitable, and I mean to sound that way. It's fascinating how much time is spent in such programmes affirming the good qualities of those involved as if the only way they can behave sensibly is by being told how wonderful they are for doing so. This is all very silly and I think it points to just how dangerous all the excess which undermines us is. It makes us lose sight of the fundamental and obvious.

I recommend fasting, but then I would say that, wouldn't I?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Thinking Food

5 Ramadhan 1430

I spent an embarrassingly large portion of the day thinking about food. This is not a healthy activity when you are fasting. And it's not one I have over-indulged in in the past. So I'm a bit puzzled as to why I'm doing so much of it now. Case in point: just before going off to teach at 11.00 I found myself replaying in all its glory my breaking of the fast the night before - or, rather, I suppose I might have been looking expectantly ahead to what I've just been, joyfully, eating.

Although this is all rather juvenile, there is, I think, a good side to it. Simply it serves as a reminder of how wonderful food is and how grateful I should be that I get more than enough of it. The Friday sermon just before fasting began was centered on gratitude and it struck me as I listened how appropriate a subject that was at that time. And how sane and balanced the insistence is that we must be grateful for the fruits of this world.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Sort Of Reading

4 Ramadhan 1430

My reading of The Holy Qur'an for fasting month is going well. Except that it's not really a reading. Any translation is doomed to failure, a central feature of Muslim thought, and much as there's a lot to admire in Abdullah Yusuf Ali's version (wonderful notes, by the way), I know it's no more than a faint echo of the original.

I've been managing two juz a day (a juz being a thirtieth of the whole) so I should complete the whole by the middle of the month. I'm thinking of then following up with a read through of the Arberry translation - but I'm more likely to get stuck into the original Arabic and focus on a few of the later sura. My present reading has started from the front, as it were, which lends the enterprise a certain flavour. There's a strong argument, partly related to chronology, of starting from the final sura and working backwards - which is how you read the book when learning the Arabic.

In fact, there's an argument for starting anywhere in that, whilst there is a sense of development, a sort of architecture, it's fundamentally a static experience, as if catching the facets of a brilliant jewel that gloriously repeats itself.

But it's also a singularly uncomfortable jewel. A book that reads the reader.

Monday, August 24, 2009


3 Ramadhan 1430

Life somehow seems a lot simpler when you're not worrying about eating and drinking for the length of the day. I've just been reading about the centrality of poverty - faqr - in the lives of the Sufis, in Mystical Dimensions of Islam. It's possible to get a sense of how this worked for them even from the luxurious perspective whence I peek out. I suppose, above all the sense that they were following in the footsteps of the Prophet, peace be upon him, gave deep assurance of the validity of this path: faqri fakhri - poverty is my pride. Revolutionary stuff!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Still Struggling

2 Ramadhan 1430


I'm battling through some marking and wondering whether this is a good way to be spending the first days of fasting. In truth I have little or no choice in the matter so it's something of a moot point. But there have been fasting months in the past in which I didn't face the demands of work (when Ramadhan fell in December, around 2000 and 2001) and I suppose it was easier to focus on the demands of the fast itself rather than extraneous matters. However, part of the point of all this is making it part of one's ordinary life and rising to other demands at the same time. This is not an experience meant to be undertaken in some distant, special place. This is in the mundane here and now of necessity.


Heavy rain. Always good for the fast. Prevents shriveling.


Fuad, Rozita, Fifi and Fafa came around to break their fast with us. A sense of solidarity is a fundamental part of the experience of the fast. You are palpably not alone. Unshriveled.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


1 Ramadhan 1430


From the outside struggle can look quite attractive in an ennobling sort of way. This is very handy because when you're actually doing the struggling it doesn't feel in the slightest bit noble. It feels petty, well for me anyway. But that's because I am petty I'm afraid. Yes, the low-level irritation I experience brought on by the mildest of deprivation is so revealing of my essential self that it's embarrassing. Which is part of the point of the experience.


I've been doing a bit of marking today. A good way of keeping up with the reality of the demands of life even as other, higher, demands are made upon one. A good way it may be, but it's also tough, and wearing, and has added to that awful grouchy sense of irritation I'm trying to lift myself out of. Now thinking about popping into school for a reunion tea being held for the class of 2008. Actually the school has been generous enough to let me miss this, it being the first day of fasting, and I did wonder whether I would be fit enough to go. But I think I am, so I'll be off soon.


The end is in sight, for today anyway, and I'm back clearing some marking and trying not to be irritated over trifles. I think I'm winning, but it's a close call. The great mercy is that there is no sign of any kind of headache and I just hope it stays that way for the rest of the month.


Two cups of tea, a glass of water, three dates, two small slices of watermelon and a bowl of sweet longan and the world is a wonderful place. Deprivation, even at its mildest, teaches us how precious the simple gifts of the world are.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Just finished and shelved The Ring and the Book, and taken down my Amana edition of The Holy Qur'an edited by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Thus the worlds turn.

To begin again is the great and unexpected mercy of time.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Big People

I've been trying to follow the ins and outs of the elections in Afghanistan. The BBC coverage today noted something like eight explosions across Kabul in the early morning as voting began. According to the correspondent reporting the polling stations were soon filled with crowds keen to cast their votes despite the risks involved. I felt very small.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Helping Hands

To my surprise I am positioned to finish The Ring and the Book ahead of the fasting month as I was hoping to do. In fact, I've already picked up Annemarie Schimmel's Mystical Dimensions of Islam as alternative reading, a tome I've long had in my sights with two false starts under my belt, so my plan for a largely, possibly exclusively, Islamic-themed month seems to be falling into place.

The second half of Browning's masterpiece proved to be a much easier read than the first. I suppose it was a matter of getting acclimatised. But there also seems more variation between the books, allowing in more light. (I'm now on Book 11, the vicious Guido, again). The similarities between Books 2, 3 and 4 in terms of their following the story-line of the murders and what led up to them in similar chronological fashion created, for me at least, a sort of barrier of sheer repetition of detail. Mind you, I must admit that much as I enjoyed Book 10 in the company of the Pope I didn't quite follow the ebb and flow of the argument as well as I would have liked. I can see going back to it one day as a one-off exercise.

Two guys who deserve my gratitude in all this are Messers Collins and Altick the editors of my very handsome Broadview paperback. There are incredibly useful notes on almost every page - the Biblical cross-references alone add a rich dimension to one's reading - but they also give you room to develop your own reading by not in any way attempting to 'translate' the text. It's easy to overlook the importance of what goes on in academia in terms of ensuring texts are made available in accessible forms for ordinary readers. We never really read alone.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Monkeying Around

Sort of repeated yesterday's experience - got home fairly early, settled with a pot of tea (unsugared these days) and relaxed to another episode of Life On Earth. This time it was Life In The Trees, featuring all manner of our primate cousins. Even though I knew that iconic sequence with Attenborough and the gorillas in Rawanda was on its way, it still worked a strange magic on me - surely the finest sequence in any nature documentary ever.

Partly it was the astonishing beauty and nobility and complex simplicity of the gorillas, and partly the hushed reverence of the commentator himself (of course, it would be dangerous to raise his voice in the presence of such power), and potently the wonderfully simple yet telling script, but I actually found myself tearing. In those moments I understood.

Everything that lives is holy.

Monday, August 17, 2009

In Blood

Got home early enough to run an episode of Life On Earth from my DVD set. It was number 11, The Hunters and the Hunted. Astonishing stuff. At one point the camera perfectly tracks a speeding cheetah through the chaos of a herd of zebra whirling to get out of its way, to the point where it downs one of the poor creatures. I felt horribly privileged to watch. In quick succession we also had lions and hyenas hunting wildebeest. I'd forgotten, if I ever knew, just what effective hunters hyenas are.

All this a reminder that the extraordinarily beautiful books of nature are written in blood.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Counting Out Time


Annoyed with myself for missing the dawn prayer. Poor excuse: Noi is not around, having driven up to Melaka with our massage lady to cater to the needs of the family there, and my routines are out of wack. I thought I'd set the small wristwatch alarm on the bedside table to wake me for the prayer, but it turned out I'd reset this to wake Noi at 08.00 yesterday as she was accompanying me to the doctor's but needed to get up later. To be honest I thought I'd just wake up automatically this morning but I seem to be catching up on lost sleep lately so there are no guarantees as to when I will stir. I did wake up ahead of the alarm, but not by enough, I'm afraid.

Anyway, once up and running I popped out to get a newspaper, grabbed a bowl of healthy cereal, at least that's what the packet proclaims, drank a cup of sugarless tea and luxuriated in Copland's Appalachian Spring, before hitting the table for the first bout of marking today.


Watched a couple of the games last night getting the season off to a start. Thought Chelsea looked reasonably strong in a fairly boring manner - business as usual. Intrigued by Man City, but it's going to take a little time before a clear picture emerges of whether they've simply dug themselves a big hole or are destined for great things. Looking forward to United's kick-off, which is the early evening game here.

In between the games I played a bit of early Genesis, the magical Foxtrot. So much of what so-called progressive rock bands threw up makes somewhat embarrassing listening today, but not this one. Whatever is vaguely pretentious here is in the service of a genuine striving for a wider range of expressive possibilities and an overwhelming sense of excitement over the sheer range of what five ultra-talented musicians can do splicing various idioms together. It helps, of course, that they're obviously having fun. Even at its most grandiose the extended Suppers Ready is grounded in a delightful sense of its sheer oddness - I mean 9/8 time for the climax! Who would have thunk it?


And the marking goes on. Trying to finish by noon so I can goof off into the real world.


Found I had to goof off a bit early, playing some of Zappa's Uncle Meat just now, quite an arbitrary choice. I suppose I was looking for some refreshing weirdness - and certainly got it. Alongside it I'm reading the corresponding segments from the oddest, daftest, most entertaining book related to rock music ever written - Ben Watson's Frank Zappa's Negative Dialectic of Poodle Play. Illuminating and irritating in equal degrees, but always fun.

And now it's back to the grindstone, but the noon target is achievable, assuming I lower the volume.


Marking completed I'm now contemplating a bit of early afternoon reading. Hesitating between Gardner's 5 Minds, which still seems to me very superficial but has the virtue of being easy to read, possibly too easy, and The Ring and the Book. I'm about three quarters of the way through Book 7, the Pompilia section. I intended to complete it last night but the footie got in the way. Both Book 7 and Book 6, focusing on Caponsacchi, the heroic St George figure who attempts to rescue her, initially seemed attractively easy to read, allowing new light into the claustrophobic repetitiveness of the story, but each opened out new demands in terms of following the particular concerns of their protagonists, especially in the broader terms of the ideas, or rather consciousness, they represent. They let in fresh air, but then you need to learn to breathe the air. Can't honestly see finishing the poem ahead of bulan puasa.


Settled to The Ring and the Book and thoroughly enjoyed the end of Book 7 in which Pompilia sort of forgives Guido and then contemplates her relationship with Caponsacchi. Browning achieves a genuineness otherness here, a sense of purity and innocence that convinces. I suppose one might consider here the Victorian obsession with images of women as angelic, holy figures, almost too good for this world. Pompilia is of that ilk, yet with a genuine radiance. But there's lots more to come of the poem and I'm looking forward to seeing how Browning moves away from the still centre of the thing to other concerns.

Feeling tempted to do some reading on the side. When we were last in KL I got hold of a few out-dated magazines cheap at a bookstore which seems to regularly provide this service. I picked up the May issue of Rolling Stone, a magazine I haven't looked at for years, and a couple of back-issues of The Word, with free CD compilations, this being the publication I picked up at the same shop last year at a knock-down price.


It looks like it's a hot day outside, the kind of lazy heat that's just right for the weekend. So why am I stuck indoors? Just that five minute trip to pick up the newspaper this morning was enough to set off the pain in my right leg, so a nice walk to the beach is, sadly, out of the question. But I seem to have recovered from the strains caused during the run-up to the recent show so that's something, a lot, to be grateful for. Basically the doc's advice is to reduce my walking and standing to the bare minimum for the time being, so I suppose, reluctantly, I'd better do that.


The football review showing the highlights of last night's games is about to start so I'm just off to survey the possibilities for the season.


Startled over the Arsenal result, but pleased in a way. I have a soft spot for old Arsene and his way of doing things. Wondering what happened to Everton though.

Decided to finish 5 Minds, which is suspiciously easy to do. Must then listen to something and get the old ears tuned.


Just played Dylan's Infidels in the bedroom. For some reason this CD is extremely picky regarding whether it will allow itself to be played. It doesn't do anything in the car, or on the main Bose system. I wasn't too sure it would play on the cheap Pioneer system in the bedroom, but it did, and sounded pretty good in the confines of the room at high volume. Unusually for me I listened with a set of the lyrics at hand, from my Lyrics 1962 - 1985. Nice to know what the Bobster is actually singing about. Lots of great melodies on the album, by the way.

Have done with the Gardner having found it platitudinous in the extreme from beginning to end. Nothing to disagree with, so nothing exciting.


Have made good progress on The Ring and the Book, finishing the highly entertaining Book 8. Lots of comedy, easing the intensity of the central books, and less emphasis on the specific details of the case. I'm beginning to get a sense of the overall architecture of the poem.

Now thinking about food, as was the good Dominus Hyacinthus throughout his defence of Guido.


I'm expecting Noi to ring sometime soon to tell me she's on the way back. She intends to set off after the maghrib prayer, which is nearly due. I rather suspect I'll be in bed by the time she arrives.


Now gearing up for the big game - kick-off eight-thirty. Just listened to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring under the baton of Bernard Haitink as played by the London Philharmonic. Stirring stuff, though I can't quite see it causing a riot today, except in the interior of one's mind.

Noi has just rang and is about to set off, through the storm and rain up north by all accounts. Looking forward to life getting back to normal here.

Think I might just have time to continue on the Haitink CD with Petruschka, but I must ring Mum soon.


Mum's complaining that there's nothing on tv today partly because she can't get the United game live. No such problems exist for me, so I'm rushing back to the screen after this quick report.


Well that's it at the end of a distinctly satisfactory day. A solid 3 points for United rounds things off nicely, especially considering the makeshift back four. I'll be turning a few more pages of Browning as I lie between the sheets, but as it is I'm ready to drop.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hearing Secret Harmonies

Having finished marking for the day I'm now listening to a rather tasty CD I bought years back, featuring choral pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Howells as performed by the Corydon Singers, one of those absolutely brilliant choral groups that seem to emerge naturally from the English soil. It's on the Hyperion label. a guarantee of quality that's very useful to an innocent like myself, finding my way around the repertory. And it's a reminder that I simply must get hold of a recording of Howells's Hymnus Paradisi, an astonishingly beautiful, heartfelt requiem for Howell's son who died tragically young. I've heard the piece on radio a few times (actually back in the eighties) but somehow never got round to buying it.

I'm not quite sure why this is, but the slight resistance I have towards operatic voices melts away when I'm listening to a chorus. Then all seems natural and true. But curiously I don't really play or listen that much to choral stuff here. Somehow it doesn't fit the climate. In fact, I don't think I would have bunged on my current listening - though I'm very glad I did - if not for attending the choir concert yesterday evening. We had a thoroughly good time. You can't really fail to do so listening to and being warmed by the exuberance of youth. And it's so relaxing to watch a show that you're not obsessing over such that every detail can both cheer and pain. It was also a reminder of the curious innocence of the voices of young boys and how effective that can be in its own right (something Britten would no doubt have concurred with.)

For some reason I'm also thinking of brass bands, another quintessentially English sound. Why don't I have anything on CD? When can I put this right?

Friday, August 14, 2009

More Comfort

Home earlier than usual this afternoon, we consumed lashings of tea, a bit of Noi's ultra-ace banana cake (freshly cooked this morning) and a fair helping of sweet potato. This was intended to set us up for tonight's choir concert, after which we have a cunning plan for a late dinner at Geylang. I suppose someone somewhere has a better life than mine, but I honestly can't think how.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Comfort Reading

In tandem with Browning's The Ring and the Book I've been reading Howard Gardner's 5 Minds for the Future. It certainly is a far less strenuous read than the Browning; in fact, as far as I can tell it makes no real demands on the reader at all, unless you find vague pontificating and generalising taxing on the old grey matter. Now I know that Gardner's work on multiple intelligences is reasonably well regarded, though controversial. I have to confess I only know it at second hand. It strikes me as interesting, but I have my doubts regarding the idea of separately operating intelligences and I'm suspicious of the manner in which so many people, especially in education, have bought into the concept. But I know I don't know enough about it and must learn more.

But reading the 5 Minds book (a present from Karen earlier this year - thanks) has not convinced me that the good professor consistently produces material of value. This one looks like something intended to cash in on his reputation as something of a guru. Just look at this from the introduction as an example: A friend, Patricia Graham, has made a shrewd observation. She says that those who behave ethically command our respect. As a statement of the staggeringly obvious this would take some beating.

What puzzles me is why people read this sort of stuff - and read it they do, especially in Singapore and Malaysia, where it is given pride of place in bookshops on the Self Help shelves. After all, these books essentially repeat all the obvious platitudes in the other books, with just slightly different dressings (usually to do with the magic number that the writer has chosen - 6 ways of losing weight, 4 ways of getting into heaven, and the 22 people you'll meet there before they throw you out.) The only answer I can think of as to why folk like to read it is that it has an oddly soothing, almost hypnotic effect under the influence of which you think you are actually achieving something, I suppose an understanding of important insights, when you're simply lulling yourself into mental sleep.

Mind you, having said all that, the ease with which I'm getting through the Gardner helps compensate for the rugged brow the good Browning keeps forcing on me. Sometimes you've just got to take it easy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Making Demands

Browning's The Ring and the Book is a fascinating but extremely difficult poem to read. Its multiple perspectives upon a single story, one of a fair degree of complexity in itself, hammer at one's powers of concentration and assimilation in an often dizzying fashion. So I'm quite proud of making it almost to the end of Book 5, the bit on which I stalled in my last attempt. This time the villainous Franceschini jumped out of the lines at me, making me wonder just why it was I couldn't conjure him in my previous attempt. That's part of the pleasure of reading something as demanding as this - somehow you can eventually make it work, as if the very act of reading the text is a way of teaching you how to read it.

I'm aiming, probably foolishly, to try and finish the poem before the fasting month begins, simply because I've had it in mind to read some Islamic-themed texts in Ramadhan. This isn't an outright demand of the season but it somehow feels right for me this year. I've got a feeling that if I put The Ring and the Book aside even for a short period I'm going to fatally lose touch with it. It's the continuity that counts with this kind of work. So I'm just off now to do a bit more reading.

Sometimes it's the demands one makes on oneself that make the most sense.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


When you're bowling along the North-South Highway at a sensational ten kilometres-an-hour in a sea of traffic the signs announcing the speed limit of a hundred and ten gaze down in distinct mockery. Mind you, that's a lot better than being stuck completely unmoving for periods of five to twenty-five minutes trying to clear Malaysian customs.

Our usual two-and-a-half hour journey from Melaka to Singapore yesterday turned into a six-and-a-half hour epic. Oddly enough, in the end I was pleased to have made it back to the doorstep before midnight as at one point I honestly thought it might turn out to be a three o'clock in the morning job.

What odd version of chaos theory determines the nature of movement in these jams? Part of the misery is the sense of not having a clue as to what is going on and having to calm the rising panic that you'll be stuck in no man's land for ever. The one bright spot in all this? At least I'm stuck with the missus, my favourite company in any emergency.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Got the day off to a rousing start by listening to Mahler’s 1st Symphony, as performed live back in 1987 by Leonard Bernstein with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I played it back in June here and found that, after several years of on and off exposure, I was beginning to get the architecture of the piece. Similarly this morning I felt I knew where the first three movements were going, but I must say I struggled with the final movement. I love it, in bits, and I recognise a good many of the themes repeated from earlier, but it overwhelms me in terms of sheer busyness, a problem I find with a good deal of Mahler.

What I did find myself responding to this morning was the manner in which the composer infuses the symphony with various kinds of musics from the world that surrounded him – the oompah-oompah bands so loved in Germany then and now, the languorous melodies of the piano playing in the parlour, the sentimental yearning of Jewish folksong. I found myself trying, sometimes succeeding, to put myself in that sound-world feeding the symphony. Melodies were more long-breathed then, more sinuous in nature. I suppose people listened better, or at least with greater patience.

I’m thinking of working through a kind of Mahler cycle. Over the years I’ve listened fairly regularly to Mahler’s 1, 2, 5 and 9, the ones I own. But it’s time to dig into my pockets for the rest. Actually I’ve heard them all, except 8, in the concert hall and always intended to listen further knowing there were riches to drown in, but I suppose it has been that sense of the work that the listener needs to do that has somewhat put me off. After all, I’ve owned Mahler 1 since 1989 and am only now genuinely beginning to appreciate it.

This also put me in mind of the first time I really listened to it, or at least a bit of it. This was back in England, sometime in the mid-eighties, and I’d gone round to David Kerr’s house (the HOD of the department I was then working in.) He had an amazingly good stereo system and a quiet room for listening in and proceeded to play the opening of the symphony as a kind of demo. Those faint wisps of melody coming together over the magical sustained strings struck me as some of the most gorgeously refreshing sounds I’d ever heard. And some twenty-five years later I’m hearing them again.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Lack Of Kindness

It looks like I’ll be finishing Lawrence’s The Woman Who Rode Out today. I’ve got just a couple of stories left. It was my original intention to complete it and leave it with the books here as it came from that part of my collection, being one of the texts I bought back in the seventies but never got beyond merely dipping into. I’ve now put that right.

As is usually the case with any of the man’s prose, I found quite a bit that grated on me, but overall I enjoyed the stories more than those in England, My England, which I read earlier this year. A few were essentially ghost stories and although lightweight it was interesting to see what Lawrence did in the genre. Also the title story was a very fine piece.

What was more obvious in this collection than is usually the case with Lawrence was the degree of unkindness, sometimes shading into sheer nastiness, he was capable of exhibiting towards people he knew. It’s obvious a number of the stories, especially those concerning marriage, are based on people in his social circles. These stories must have read as a kind of betrayal. But then, who said writers have to be nice? The animus against his friends is rather bracing.

Having said that, he’s not a man I would have enjoyed meeting. I don’t think many did.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Winding Down

Now ensconced in Maison KL and under orders from my back doctor to take it easy. I saw him in the middle of a mad rush this afternoon, which was itself the continuation of a mad rush from the morning. The sequence around Friday prayers was especially daft with me legging it from the mosque to a meeting at work and then speeding down the AYE to make it to the hospital on time. The doc offered me two days MC next week but I passed on the grounds of having too much to do.

The drive up here, accompanied by Dylan, The Clash, The Band and Art Fazil, was pretty easy and generally uneventful, the only hold-up being caused by a ten car shunt on the ring road next to Bukit Antarabangsa. So that being about it, I’m off to the land of nod.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Traveling Man

Now packing ahead of a journey tomorrow to check on Maison KL. Unfortunately it seems the dreaded haze, reportedly from fires in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Sarawak, is back in its full toxic, smoky heaviness where we are going. I remember taking John, Jeanette and Kate into the centre of KL back in 2005 with visibility down to about thirty yards all around. and hope it's not going to be as bad. At least being on a hill we generally escape the worst of it.

It's ironic that at flag-raising this morning we were subjected to a particularly self-congratulatory 'message' from some chap in Asean. I muttered something about democracy in Myanmar at the end of it, but actually I'd settle for the generals behaving in a vaguely civilised manner. In the meantime they continue to rub shoulders with the great and good of the region with, seemingly, no sign of rebuke. Perhaps I'm missing something here. It now occurs to me that I might well have muttered something about the inability of that lauded association to do anything about a major problem caused by one (possibly more) of its members on a now annual basis which quite clearly threatens the health and well-being of a fair number of the citizens of those nations who make it up.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Across The Miles

I'll be giving Mum a ring a bit later tonight. She doesn't welcome any kind of activity in the morning (it's only around noon in the UK at the moment) as she's not really warmed up and needs time to recover from getting up, so I try to make sure it's around one or two o'clock before I ring.

I'm expecting a fairly downbeat conversation. She's not been feeling even close to tickety-boo of late and things are not likely to improve given her age. The main problem is her back which now seems to radiate pain or, at least, considerable discomfort during most of the day, even when she's seated. But there are a number of other subsidiary problems, any one of which would be difficult to deal with for a much younger person. It's a measure of how difficult she's finding things that what had been her favourite source of complaint earlier this year - her inability to work the tv recorder - has vanished as a topic of discussion.

Remarkably she is dealing with all this with extraordinary stoicism. If anything she's more aware of my feelings as a listener than ever before and sounds apologetic when relating her problems. When I rang her at the weekend she was more concerned with how the play at school had gone than the fact that she was obviously in considerable discomfort.

Frankly December can't come quickly enough for me just to get the chance to be around her and at least feel I'm doing something useful, even if I'm not.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Wake-up Call

There are some albums that demand to be played in their entirety whenever they hit the turntable, or rather the CD tray, and Live At Shea Stadium by The Clash is one of them. I was reminded of this early this morning when, bored with the World Service, I put it on in the car, whence it had recently made its way to the CD changer, and only got as far as the second track and then felt terribly guilty when I arrived at work for curtailing events at that point. I made it for it on the way home though, at a ridiculously high volume.

There are several quite odd things about the album. First off, it's a record of the entire show as The Clash were playing support to The Who (in 1982 I know which band I'd rather have gone to see) and only had fifty minutes playing time. They use every second judiciously and generally ferociously. In a way this perfectly represents a key notion in the punk ethos - get it over with in three minutes and don't over-indulge. Secondly, they broke up just weeks after the show yet there's not a sign of anything other than a perfectly tight, entirely together unit. Thirdly, it sort of feels like a greatest hits set, I suppose as a result of the limited time for the set and possibly because of the American audience, but there's nothing tired about the band. From London Calling onwards the tempi go full steam ahead but it all works somehow. Listening to Rock the Casbah in a stripped down version without the piano is particularly interesting. It's as if things get cut back to the real guitar-based roots of the song. It's a pity, I suppose, that there aren't more reggae-based tunes (only Armagideon Time - even (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais doesn't make it) but I suppose much as they'd have added to the variety they would have detracted from the full-steam-ahead energy of the proceedings.

Any which way, it all made for a glorious journey home. A reminder of how a great band can more far more than the sum of its parts. And those voices! Finally English singers who sounded like where they came from. It's a pleasure in itself just to hear the switch from Mr Strummer to Mr Jones in song after song. And has any other band ever combined a real sense of fun with a genuine sense of rebellion and political grievance quite like The Clash? I doubt it.

Monday, August 3, 2009


The texture of reality is always richer than our generalisations about events, even when those generalisations are genuinely useful in helping us towards some understanding of those events. A simple but useful generalisation about revolutions is that they begin in a kind of simple-minded, exciting optimism and then go wrong as human nature reveals its essential ugliness. Optimistic fervour turns into destructive fanaticism and revolutionary ideals are inevitably betrayed.

From a western perspective the course of the French Revolution serves as a template. All those poetic, philosophical types - your Blake, your Wordsworth, your Godwin - came to see, in varying degrees, the error of their ways, after their initial wild enthusiasm for events across the channel. Except it wasn't quite like that, as my reading of Caleb Williams impressed upon me. In truth, before I read it I was expecting something naïve in terms of dealing with the complexities of the use of power and the nature of tyranny, something with its heart in the right place but not necessarily its head. What I got was an extraordinarily insightful light into the psychology of power and resistance to power. These guys, I'm thinking also of Blake, knew the dark places of the soul intimately and had no illusions as to how those places manifested themselves in the fabric of history.

What is remarkable is that those with such insights (I'll exempt Wordsworth who, though a great poet was hardly a great thinker, hence his rather embarrassing later conservatism) never lost their sense of what might genuinely improve their society, despite the reality of some degree of disillusion.

I can't help thinking of this as the news comes out of Iran. It's difficult to believe that the complexities of that society are not obvious to all and sundry following the lead-up to the election and what has transpired since, but, despite that, I'm sure we'll continue to get the usual simple-minded platitudes and stereotypes from most sections of the media.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Fifi and Fafa stayed over last night after watching the evening version of the show. They deemed it a hit, with Fafa declaring that our Storyteller, Kristen, is now her idol. We popped out to Arab Street for lunch and got drawn into Wardah Books, basically because Fafa wanted to look at what they have for kids - which is always quite interesting, though a bit limited in range.

Being in one of my favourite bookshops broke my resistance to buying new items before finishing my current to read and to listen lists, but I felt this might be justified on the grounds of stocking up for some specifically Islamic reading in Ramadhan. Fortunately despite huge temptations I limited the book-buying to a volume on Islamic philosophy and a tasty little Collected Poems by Martin Lings. I was a bit more of a casualty on the CD front, despite the fact that they stock a very limited range, as I came out with no fewer than three. Two of these are by a local singer, Art Fazil, since both Noi and me are fans and you don't get to see a lot of his stuff around. The other is from Yusof Islam, but not the most recent album which I'm keen to get but just haven't seen in a shop here anywhere. This one is a collection of Islamic-themed songs, Footsteps in the Light, on his Mountain of Light label, and looks very tasty indeed.

We're keenly preparing for fasting month, the usual sense of excited, and slightly anxious anticipation distinctly beginning its descent. The psychology of fasting, or rather that behind the notion of a month set aside for that purpose, and pilgrimage fascinates me. These two pillars of the faith are astutely grounded in something that seems to me fundamental to the needs of our species. The fact that modernity would eschew both as being somehow hopelessly backward and burdensome results in an enormous lack, an emptiness, a vacancy in human experience that is both sad and troubling. Yet there's little or no sense of what has been carelessly lost.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Normal Servce Will Be Resumed Shortly

Two performances of the show lie ahead today, a matinee and evening duet, and then life can resume its normal course. Fortunately we appear to have something of a success on our hands. Last night was very smooth technically and chock full of fine performances, and we were lucky to get an excellent audience. As ever it was a reminder of the collaborative nature of the art of theatre - at least one major sequence, and possibly more, owed precious little to the ideas of the director. Wonderful! But I'm missing Ferdinand, who's been down with what looks like that dreaded flu thingy.

Of course, the great thing about live performance is that there are no guarantees. So today we've got it all to do again - and again.

I might just get a chance to do a bit of reading, and listening, before going in, and since there are no major headaches these might get something like my full attention. Although I finished Caleb Williams the other day I've still not read Godwin's alternative ending, actually the original one he wrote in manuscript and then abandoned, which is usefully provided in the World's Classics edition. I'm also keen to resume The Ring and the Book which I last glanced at on Tuesday. I'm still in Book Two, but had been relishing it.

I came home last night to catch the final sequences of Yasmin Ahmad's Gubra, and was reminded of how much I enjoyed it when we saw it in the cinema on its original release. We decided that we really must get it on DVD. After that I just had time for a quick spin of Dylan's Together Through Life (possibly the best late night listening ever put on record) before I folded up completely.

And now it's unfolding time. A blossoming.