Friday, November 27, 2009
But I enjoyed prayers here at the little mosque today – twice, in fact. Once for Haji, and then for the usual Friday Prayers. Last time I was here Fuad and I attended prayers at the rather grand state mosque, a fine building but perhaps a bit over-elevated for the likes of me.
Finished Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein this morning, before going to the mosque, leaving Victor expiring in the desolate cold of an ice-packed northern sea – one of the best bits of the novel – and the monster planning his (the monster’s) funeral pyre in the same location. Great stuff! Now embarking on Ackroyd’s new version of the myth, which will be my reading on the long flight to Europe. Ackroyd begins with Victor meeting Percy Shelley at Oxford. Again, great stuff, or it certainly looks that way. Some learned cove on the book jacket compares it to Hawksmoor and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Hope he’s right!
Thursday, November 26, 2009
More importantly, it’s generally abominably written. The dialogue, where you get some as a relief from the tedious explication of Victor’s account, is stagey at best, and it’s often not as good as that – the sort of thing a teenager might write for the stage. The inconsistencies of plot are startling – how exactly does the monster cross the waters to get to England? And when it’s not being inconsistent the plot manages to lurch into utterly superfluous digressions, like that of Felix and his tiresome family history. All of this though is better than those moments, of which there are more than a few, when the novel seems to turn into a kind of travelogue.
And the strangest thing of all? Despite all the above, Frankenstein is a wonderful novel simply as a result of the mythic power of Mary Shelley’s big idea. In fact, the idea is so powerful it shatters the timid frame of the fiction that attempts to contain it. The monster, the daemon, the fiend – all Victor’s terms for what his tiny mind cannot contain – is startling in the reality of its pathos and the truth of its needs, for a mate, for understanding, for revenge. No wonder it came to take even Victor’s name away.
I’ve got forty pages left and I’m relishing everyone of them.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Or is it? A couple of days ago I chanced upon this interesting interview with philosopher Roger Scruton here. I've always enjoyed reading Scruton, even though his generally conservative, right wing stance is not a position I can find much sympathy for. But he's the kind of opponent who thinks with a clarity that can only help you make your own ideas clearer (and make you aware that it's quite reasonable for others to hold views almost diametrically opposed to your own.). And in the realm of ideas related to aesthetics I find him enormously fruitful as a thinker. In the interview Scruton makes some interesting points about the value of serious/classical music in relation to the general lack of such value in popular music and I must say I think he's essentially on the right track.
Where he goes a bit wrong, I think, is in not recognising the range of nuance in the best of popular music. He gets close to this in an attempt to appreciate The Beatles and the great songwriters like Cole Porter, and it's interesting and laudable that he tries to stretch to some understanding of Metallica. But he clearly doesn't know the field. However, I think he's absolutely right in citing Oasis as an example of the narrow range of expression of most rock music and its concentration on the self and the performer. And I believe he's got something when he talks about the educational power of pure music in terms of implanting some kind of emotional rhythm or movement within that unfashionable facet of our being, the soul
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
But the film had the virtue of being relatively short, at forty-five minutes, and thus within my attention span - and that of the girls. It was achingly sentimental also, in a Disneyesque manner, but its heart was in the right place. Entitled The Call of the Wild it rather neatly embedded Jack London's classic within a modern narrative of a somewhat spoiled little girl being sent to a small town to stay with grandfather and discovering the joys of bonding with a sort of half-dog-half-wolf she calls Buck, after London's dog which she learns about through grandad's reading of the tale. Interestingly the genuine harshness and realism of London's idea of the wild comes across through the re-telling - at one point the girl doesn't want to know what happens next - and the reality of the modern Buck's wildness is not played down (though the ending is, sadly, a cop out.) I was reminded of watching Born Free, about the lioness Elsa, when I was a child and feeling very uncomfortable at the uncompromising ending. (Elsa does, inevitably, return to the wild.)
The other great virtue of the film lay simply in the shots of Buck. No need for gimmicks like 3D. The animal looked stunningly beautiful, and gloriously wild. Sometimes just knowing that something of the world outside our human scope is still going strong is enough to make one optimistic in a (very) small way.
Monday, November 23, 2009
One of the triumphs of the series is the way in which the writer avoids repeating herself. Instead Barker gets us involved in new and unexpected ways of looking at the conflict that forms the backdrop to the three novels. As I've mentioned before, the avoidance of any kind of cliché about WW1 is in itself a remarkable achievement.
The other thing that's so striking about the trilogy is the spareness and restraint of the writing. Nothing is over-written or goes on too long. In fact, I had the odd feeling that what the writer was not saying, was leaving out, was almost as important as what was in the texts. One example of this is the way in which Wilfred Owen is dealt with in the final segments. You cannot help but think of his poetry as you read, but none of this makes it into The Ghost Road so that the poetry becomes itself a kind of ghostly presence haunting the novel.
I found the final pages the most potent I've read for quite some time in terms of their emotional power. Reviewers tend to bandy words like 'shattering' around rather too freely for my tastes - but it's the only word I can think of that does justice to just how devastating the ending is - even though you know it's coming.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
I'm now considering rereading Ackroyd's novel English Music. I found it the most difficult of all his novels when I first read it but I remembering enjoying it, especially the brilliant pastiche of Blake's prophetic books. The problem is though that I frequently consider rereading Ackroyd's early novels and can't afford the time for such a digression. I think if I had to name my favourite novels then First Light and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem would be vying for places right at the top of the list. As it is, though, his latest book The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein lies enticingly on the shelves and I've promised myself a reread of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Or, The Modern Prometheus before I let myself loose on it.
And all this in the shadow of our imminent trip to England (and France) on which I've vowed to take only one or two books to read in recognition of the fact I'll be buying more when we get there.
Meantime I'm pressing on with the very English Pat Barker and her distinct music, but finding The Ghost Road heavier going than I expected.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Noi parting words to me involved, amongst other things, a quip about my being able to play 'my music' extra loud. She knows me well. Although I don't really consider the present volume (I'm playing Yes's Relayer in the other room) particularly loud. Others might, I suppose. Anyway I must say I've been enjoying a fairly disparate variety of disks today, generally accompanying me as I've been working. (Quite unusual for me, actually. I can't listen to music as I mark, for example. But today's work was, for the most part, utterly routine to the point at which real thought was hardly necessary.)
I kicked off with a bit of Bax, Symphony No. 5 and the tone poem The Tale the Pine Trees Knew. I'm thinking of playing this again later, after the Liverpool - City game as a way of signing off for the day. After that came Pink Floyd's Umma Gumma (the studio album) Joni Mitchell's Hejira, Gentle Giant's Octopus, Depeche Mode's Exciter and Yusof Islam's Roadsinger. All of which, including the stuff from Yes now shaking the living room, reminded me of how much I've got that I don't get round to playing anything like enough. Riches indeed, at whatever volume you choose.
Friday, November 20, 2009
Ironically, on my way to the mosque I had been congratulating myself on the fact that it was not going to be necessary to carry an umbrella with me as it was an unusually fine day for this wet November, with no sign whatsoever of any imminent precipitation. How wrong I was, though I was not aware of the fact until I was on the way out. Normally you can hear the rain coming down from inside the mosque but today there wasn't a sound or any kind of hint of a storm, so I'm assuming it began just as I was leaving.
But this is a story of celebration - for two reasons. First of all, although I was fairly wet by the time I made it to the car, it took less than fifteen minutes to get almost completely dry. It's the climate. Even the greyest November day here is essentially warm. In Manchester I'd have suffered for hours if I'd got that wet.
And secondly, I was actually running, and do not appear to have done myself any harm. I've been pain free now - I'm talking of sciatic pain - for two weeks. I'm starting to believe that the trapped nerve has mysteriously and wonderfully untrapped itself. If this is the case I can seriously begin to consider seriously exercising this tired old body of mine. And I didn't think that would have been possible even a month ago.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
And duly perused over a less-than-routine weekend, basically because with the usual pattern of things disrupted, a book that could be easily, painlessly dipped into at random was about the only thing I could really settle to read.
And for once the blurb was spot on. It's a great book, a real labour of love. MacDonald is illuminating in every respect but particularly on the musical content of the songs. He brings a genuine sense of expertise to what one might loosely term popular criticism.
But there's one aspect of the book that puzzles and fascinates me in roughly equal measures, with a dash of something like irritation thrown in. He is extremely clear in his judgments of almost every song and not afraid to rubbish what he regards as rubbish. But the problem is that quite a bit of what he rubbishes seems to me to be well worth equivocating over. Whilst his expertise, and obvious love of the group, might seem to earn him the right to judge decisively, it's a bit hard to take scathing dismissals of songs like Helter Skelter. In this particular case it had never occurred to me that anyone might dismiss a track I just assumed was universally accepted as brilliant. Oddly enough I can relate to his particular criticism here, cannily related as it to the development of heavy metal and the song's relationship to that dubious genre, but it seems to me that to belittle a track that has meant so much to so many - presumably to the likes of U2, for example, electing to steal it back from Charles Manson - somehow is missing something about the music somewhere.
As I have noted before, the deep-seated need we seem to have, in matters of artistic judgment, to divide the sheep from the goats is one that we might all usefully question, and possibly restrain.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Which leads to an interesting question: given the epic amounts of time available to cable news, why is it we don't get hours of quality discussion? All they'd have to do is get someone like Chomsky on board with a decent interviewer, let the cameras roll, and they could fill their schedules for almost next to nothing. I suppose they'd answer that nobody would watch, but somehow I doubt that that would really be the case. Chomsky sells well enough and could be wrapped in enough controversy to generate a reasonable audience. Perhaps the real problem is that too many people would watch?
Just as a matter of interest, I've never heard Chomsky when interviewed being other than dryly and painstakingly logical. I suppose that's why he doesn't sound at all like the usual talking heads.
Monday, November 16, 2009
But none of this mattered in the slightest. Because Noi was back home from hospital and the tea was hot and plentiful and the kerepok was suspiciously easy to munch. And there we were, catching up on the events of the day, as usual, trying to figure out what we needed to do for the rest of the week, as usual, and aimlessly gossiping about just about all and everything, as usual.
What stopped it being as usual as it usually is, is that we'd not been able to do this for several days, and been reminded that we rather take for granted that we'll always have business as usual. We won't. But we'll relish how sweet it is while it gloriously lasts.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Her being ill has been confirmation - not that I needed it - on how completely I rely on her for just about everything.
Now getting ready to go back to her bedside, and there's no place else I'd rather be.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
We were lucky to have Siew to help her out this morning in taking her to the doctor again and the hospital, and then Fuad, Rozita and family to make sure she had all that was needed. I'm not much help, I'm afraid, just something of a helpless spare part.
Friday, November 13, 2009
We're hoping for better things tomorrow.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Just because things are, doesn't mean they should be, or that they will be. And that seems to me grounds for optimism. Unfortunately, it's equally grounds for pessimism.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
I suppose this, the state of feeling English, has had something to do with my current reading and recent listening. I'm moving steadily through Ackroyd's Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination which has exciting, original and pretty daft things on every page. And on the fiction front I followed The Handmaid's Tale (wonderful!) with Pat Barker's The Eye in the Door, the second in the Regeneration trilogy (equally wonderful! - an extraordinary demonstration of how to take material that may seem like it's been done to death and revivify it by coming at it slant-wise. And how completely she nails differences of social class and the differences they made, and continue to make.)
Also the weekend encompassed a pile of Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi, the 5th Symphony, Hodie, A Fantasia on Christmas Carols; plus a heap of Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, the 1st Symphony, and various incidental bits and marches.
And here's a line from Ackroyd that sort of sums up the Englishness to which I aspire, but which I sadly fail to live up to: …much of the English genius resides in quixotic or quirky individuals who insist upon the truth of their independent vision in the face of almost universal derision.
Monday, November 9, 2009
Afterwards I mentioned the slow pace of the film to her (by the way, the version we watched is the full five hour version shown originally on Swedish television, not the three hour version released in cinemas) intending this as praise, but Noi didn't think it slow at all. And I realised how right she was. The story moves along at a considerable pace over the full arc of the movie. But Bergman allows time for the wonderful monologues and set pieces, like Carl's scenes with his poor wife - so painfully, hurtfully, funny. This is a movie that allows itself, and the viewer, to breathe.
I'm wondering if the reason I find most films today difficult to watch with sustained attention lies in the lack of such space. And I'm furthering wondering why so many features of our lives today seem to seek to deny us such space.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
And then on Friday we embarked on Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, which if I were forced to make one of those silly lists of my top ten favourite movies would be likely to feature at number one. We're now up to Act 4, with the children having just arrived at the bishop's house/palace and Noi was almost demanding to keep watching late last night as she desperately needed to know what happens to them. Great story-telling.
So what makes Fanny and Alexander so good? I can think of four obvious things. First off, it's gorgeous to look at. You could freeze almost any frame and have something you wouldn't mind hanging on a wall. Beautifully composed, yet it genuinely moves in filmic terms. Whilst this is more obviously the case for the first act of he Ekdahls' Christmas, it remains true of the later more austere scenes at the bishop's. Secondly, the acting is wonderful. So much is done with so little - extreme close-ups, sparingly yet dramatically employed, convey the puzzling depths of the characters. These people look authentically like they are living and thinking at the turn of the nineteenth century. Physically in terms of gesture, stance there isn't a note out of place. Thirdly, as mentioned earlier, the story in itself is so powerfully engaging. It has an archetypal force - the Hamlet subtext, the warmth of the Ekdahls set against the chill of the bishop - that it wears close to the surface but which never lacks in subtlety. Finally, the whole experience is encompassed within a sense of tolerance and humanity that is deeply touching.
Unlikely as it seems, I can see something in common between Wodehouse and Bergman, and it's this: an acceptance of human folly that rises to a kind of sublime charity.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
In the taman newsletter for October there was a reference to them as 'cute' - though the brief paragraph was advising the human residents to sensibly keep their distance. But 'cute' seems to me to be so entirely inappropriate as to suggest that whoever wrote it has not really been seeing our simian chums as they are. In their effortless domination of the telephone lines and the nonchalance with which they swing from these to the fragile branches of nearby trees, they are very much other, very much themselves - hard and crisp and graceful in a ferocious way.
I told Mum about seeing them when I phoned her on Monday, explaining that it had been their probable interference with the line which had meant I had been unable to phone her over the weekend. She was, as I guessed she would be, delighted to hear about them. In fact, the idea of them seemed to make her forget the pain from her shingles for a short while - she was actually laughing, as was I.
It's nice to be able to phone so easily from the Mansion here, but I miss the strangely real life of the other taman-dwellers.
Friday, November 6, 2009
The problem I found reading the Danticat novel the other day lay, I think, in a sense of a lack of necessary distance in the relationship between the text and the writer. What was the reader supposed to make of the two major male characters? On one level they seem decent, understanding sorts, but it's difficult to shake off a suspicion that we're meant to see them as somehow inadequate in the face of the challenges of female pain - which is infinite, unfortunately.
At one moment Danticat outlines the awful degradation of the bodies of the two other women in the central character's therapy group. It's just two sentences, and we hardly hear of these women again. It's an awful thing to say, but I almost laughed at how over-the-top this was. What prevented me from laughing was the realisation that this kind of horror is real - but the writer has a duty, surely, to make it real for the reader. And somehow this writer, for all her talent, fails to do this too often.
Atwood never fails. Her fantasy world becomes realer than real.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
By Saturday evening I had a sense my back was on the mend - in this case judging from how comfortable I was when doing the prayers, which involve a lot of bending forward. When I went to my back doc on Monday afternoon mobility was almost completely restored. He put me back on the medication which I'd been off for about a week and a half but simply as a variety of better safe than sorry, I think.
On Tuesday I spent epic amounts of time on my feet invigilating without feeling the slightest twinge. (I was deliberately avoiding any kind of sitting simply to see how long I could last.) And today has remained pain free. I don't think this has anything to do with the pills as they've never had such a dramatic effect before. Actually the only obvious thing they do is to make my hands shake a little.
So now I'm seriously wondering if the nerve has somehow become untrapped. I'm not foolish enough to assume it has and my problems are over. These kinds of problems don't go away with age. But even a brief respite is a wonderful thing and I'm thoroughly enjoying mine.
Monday, November 2, 2009
It's not that my experience of reading the novel was entirely negative. I found much to admire. Although I took time to adjust to the narrative initially, a process not helped by my being super-busy when I embarked on my reading, eventually I came to appreciate the pace of the story-telling, in terms of its economy, and the sheer verve of the narrative. There was a spareness about the style I liked, especially as it was allied to an obvious fertility of expression.
But I could not cast off the feeling I was reading a 'woman's novel' in an awkwardly pejorative sense - a novel written for women with women's concerns in mind. Now this is where I enter difficult territory. I'm aware of a distinct weakness in myself in not being able to relate to these real concerns and I know I might well be being simply unfair. Yet I can't shake off the feeling that Danticat deals with her subject matter, or some aspects of it, in a cliched manner; I have this odd sense that she is limited by writing a novel for a partial audience - not exactly women, but women with a definite agenda. I get the same feeling, by the way, reading and teaching Alice Walker's The Color Purple.
By the way, just in case I'm accused of being narrowly sexist (which I might be, I can't quite figure this one out) I should say I've just started a repeat reading of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and I have none of the reservations above about that novel.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
I was at university when this all took place, I think in my first year, still in a hall of residence certainly. I remember a late night discussion in the hall bar prior to the fight in which everyone but everyone thought Foreman was a racing certainty to win, though nobody wanted him to. It’s difficult to explain to youngsters now the adulation with which Ali was regarded, in England at least, but the depth of the desire that he should reclaim the championship and prove himself the greatest, after proving it time and again as champion, was profound.
Funnily enough I can’t recall whether we watched the fight live, but I doubt it. Although we thought we were living in a kind of golden age of communications we now know it was a dark time – as the past most often is. The reason I’m uncertain though is that somehow or other I must have watched the moment when Ali comes off the ropes to hammer poor George a thousand times. I suppose it just got endlessly replayed, rightly so, in the weeks that followed. The most astonishing minute of boxing there has ever been, except possibly for Ali’s first defeat of Liston.
Something else that is difficult to communicate to youngsters today, and I know this because I tried it and failed in a recent lesson, is just how much Ali’s greatness changed people’s perceptions of race. To be more specific, in England at least, the perception folk in Manchester had of black people. My Dad, for example, was a little bit of a racist, I suppose, but then everyone of his generation and class was. He was still using the word ‘darkie’ up to around 1965. But if anyone changed that it was Ali.
Dad had done a bit of boxing in the army and was, I’m told, more than a bit useful. He loved the sport, as I did up to the point the corruption took over, and his first big hero in that line was Joe Louis. But Louis was a gentleman, a sort of white man’s picture of what a fine black fighter should be. Ali wasn’t. Again, I’m not too sure of this, but I think the first time we became aware of Ali was through a Panorama programme around 1962, definitely before the first Liston fight. Panorama was the BBC’s flagship serious political hour so I suppose they were featuring Ali (then Clay) in a serious fashion (if I’m right about the programme and it wasn’t just some sports thing.) Dad was appalled. I was appalled. At Ali – boastful, talkative, ridiculous. Everything a boxer, and I suppose a man, shouldn’t be. I suppose the fact he was black didn’t help.
Then he defeated Liston and it all changed. Though not quite. When he became Ali he remained Clay in Manchester for Dad and me, and everyone else, until he was so obviously the greatest, and so obviously just to be admired, and listened to, and he became Ali: intelligent, funny, brave, incredibly skilful - and being handsome didn’t hurt.
Can’t wait to see When We Were Kings in its entirety. Dad would have loved it.