Friday, December 31, 2010

Moving On Again

We're still dealing with a touch of jet lag, neither of us really sleeping at all on Wednesday night, but heroically we're making our way to KL today for the weekend to put things in order up there. We'll also be dropping in on Noi's folks in Melaka to say hello for the new year.

Since our on-line connection from KL is temperamental, to say the least, I'll post my resolution for the year ahead today, getting my retaliation in early, as it were. I've given considerable thought to this one, inspired by the late Douglas Adams, mindful of the big, friendly letters on the side of that most useful of all guides at the centre of his finest work.

I will be doing my best in 2011 NOT TO PANIC.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Touch Of Nostalgia

Perhaps it was because we were there for the Christmas season but a remarkable amount of time and space on British television and radio seems to be devoted to looking back nostalgically to life in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, especially as it was reflected in the television and radio programmes of those decades. At times this could be illuminating, but more often a distinct sense was created of the two media masticating over themselves.

Surely there was more to Christmas past than Morecambe and Wise?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In Transit

Listened to Arcade Fire's The Suburbs (and odd bits of Mozart) and watched the special edition of Avatar (I've not seen the unspecial version so I'm not sure what extras I experienced) on the flight over. Unreservedly enjoyed the former - all of it - and distinctly reservedly the latter. How so?

I don't think I need to strain to justify enjoying the music. It's obviously very, very, very good and that's an end to it. (Except for the need to expand my CD collection far enough to include all 3 Arcade Fire albums.)

But I do think I need to justify my reservations about James Cameron's popular epic, especially since people whose judgments I respect regard it very highly. (No, not film critics - just John, Jeanette and Sam.) I did enjoy the film visually. Even on the tiny screen on the seat in front of me it had quite an impact and it was possible to get a sense of how great it must look on the big, big screen. My problems lay with the storyline. In short, although the story is delivered neatly, it's extremely predictable and the final battle began to put me to sleep as I was confident in my assessment of what was going to happen. It felt as if a committee had written it, and this was a committee blind to their own enjoyment of destructive violence. I was uneasily aware they were having the time of their lives blowing the heroic world and People of Pandora to bits whilst pretending it was all deeply sad.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Departures And Arrivals

We've just done both and they don't get easier. Sad to leave; happy to arrive - but with so much to get done it would be easier to run away.

But we're back safely here in our far place, and that's plenty to be thankful for. But for now: incredibly tired.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Being Particular

I've been running some ideas through what passes for my mind for a TOK lecture on Art as an Area of Knowledge (or something like that, forgotten the exact wording). Suddenly realised the question How do I know this is art? (asked of a particular something) is a lot more interesting than the generalised What is Art? And this despite the fact that you're going to at some point have to address the latter to make any progress on the former.

Or do you have to? There's an odd pleasure in simply leaving the bigger question hanging and just arguing the toss over the merits or demerits of the something in question.

Art is necessary even though we don't know what it is.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Being There

Generally Mum spends most of the time asleep when we visit her. Today was no exception. Curiously this somehow doesn't seem to matter. It's enough to be there. Strange.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Many Voices

I'd forgotten just how good the radio is in England. Apart from the wonderful Radio Three there's a lot to enjoy on Radios Two and Four and on local stations like Radio Manchester. (Excellent football coverage on the latter. Well, of United and City at least.)

One reminder of this came in the form of a bit of casual listening the other day when a presenter on Radio 2 was interviewing a young lady suffering from schizophrenia. The immediate occasion of the interview was a quite dreadful story from the previous day of a young man whose mother had been attacked by a schizophrenic man and who had killed the man in the course of defending her. Sadly his mother also died. The presenter far from playing up or on the tragic details of the case was interviewing the girl in order to attempt to give a balanced picture of schizophrenics and their suffering. Remarkably, partly as a result of the remarkable courage and character of the girl in question, he largely succeeded.

This girl, having been traumatised by some kind of abuse as a child, had managed to lead a fairly normal life despite being haunted by three voices taunting her almost continually, as I understood the situation. She sounded amazingly balanced and rational, I suppose because that's exactly what she was, even as the voices were talking to her as she was having the interview. The presenter throughout talked with knowledge, understanding and compassion. Any listener would have learnt one heck of a lot.

And this was a bit of routine, unheralded, daily radio that no one would have made any fuss over. Listening I was reminded of the virtues of allowing many voices, many viewpoints, on air. In a sense they provide their own balance.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mid Winter Madness

I've just been enjoying the edifying spectacle of the Missus ruthlessly bating, through the medium of Facebook, various members of the family in Melaka who have the misfortune to support the gonners. There are few things more satisfying than a victory over Arsene's boys, especially when they'd been playing so well recently. Though I must say the enjoyment to be gained from watching two Premiership teams sack perfectly good managers for no reason that anyone can understand comes a close second. The sheer absurdity of it makes it such fun, that and the wonderfully clear evidence (if it were needed) of the craziness of the modern world's notion of 'management' of anything.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Christmas Gift

The visiting hours at the Lakes, Mum's current residence, are a good deal longer than those allowed at Tameside General. We're varying between seeing her for a couple of hours or so in the afternoon or in the evening. That means we can't travel too far but we've been able to get around a bit more than I think we expected on arrival. Conversation with Mum isn't exactly sparkling - she doesn't remember enough of what she's been doing to put together a coherent narrative and she shows little or no interest in anyone or anything beyond the bounds of her room - but on most visits she drops off to sleep after an hour or so and we just sit in companionable silence.

She complains of discomfort sometimes, and occasionally obvious pain, but by no means all the time. And sometimes she tells us how much she wishes everything was over, being so tired of it all. At the end of one visit last week you'd have thought she might not make it to Christmas. But when she's got a biscuit in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, and is sitting looking suspiciously contented, it's easy to believe she'll live to a hundred, even if she doesn't want to.

And for those who tell us the NHS is falling to pieces, I can only say the huge compassion and care of the nursing staff we've encountered emphatically gives that idea the lie. They have a display on one wall at the centre stressing the idea of giving dignity to the patients there. They succeed. That's quite some gift.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Company

Enjoyed the wonderful company of old friends Simon and Judy last night and am now doing the same with that of John and Jeanette. One of the great pleasures of these trips. Mind you it can prove expensive. Not that anyone costs us anything. Far from it, given their generosity. But when you've got John Martyn played as beguiling music for dinner how can you not make up your mind to purchase his entire back catalogue as soon as possible?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Winterlude

Warm is what it isn't here. But somehow we are managing. According to the news the country is grinding to a halt as it faces its annual bout of astonishment that winter brings with it low temperatures and makes driving, or any form of moving from place to place, difficult. However, we are getting around without undue difficulty, though admittedly not travelling far. Any journeying necessarily centres around getting to see Mum in the afternoon or evening. She's now been moved from Tameside General to a rehabilitation cente a little closer to where we are staying. We're off there a bit later once we have sampled the delights of Longsight, one of our old stomping grounds.

As usual I'm finding myself somewhat whelmed over by the sheer amount of stuff there is to read in the newspapers, magazines and various publications here. I've still not finished last Sunday's Observer. No wonder I generally find myself glad to get away from it all, nice as it is to experience once in a while.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Back Again

Now sitting in the Costa Coffee opposite the Arcades in Ashton. Snow falling not so gently outside, as it was the last time I sat here, in December 2009. We're off to visit Mum in what used to be Ashton General Hospital, when I was a lad, and is now Tameside General. The hospital has a terrible reputation locally but looked fine to us when we went yesterday to see her.

Unfortunately Mum didn't look so great, a lot more frail than this time last year. But still here and at this point in time indomitably so. Everything changes but some some things don't.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hurrying On

We're now engaged in our usual dynamic, last-minute flurry of various sorts of activity intended to get us safely on-board our flight to Manchester with all we need to survive a month in that most unsunny city.

Somehow I managed to finish the two books I've been reading this week so I can take a couple of fresh ones with me. It was a particular relief to complete Blood Meridian. Obviously a great, great novel - McCarthy seems to invent a completely new style, a rhetoric all of his own that evokes in astonishing detail an entirely fallen world - but one so grimly shocking that I'd honestly hesitate to recommend it to anyone of faint heart. As far as I can tell the violence is everything and the writer is saying that this is our true condition. And the problem is that as long as you are reading the novel you know it's true.

The novel was heavy-going in another, different way, just to make life that bit more difficult. It's so well written, with a kind of brilliant density, that I found myself on almost every page slowing down to savour just how good the writing was. Quite often I'd read the same paragraph two or three times as if checking if what I'd read was really so powerful, so right - and it was. But when you're keen to finish a book simply to meet artificial deadlines of your own, this quality was not quite what I was looking for.

Fortunately Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness proved to be well-written in quite a different way - in a style that seemed designed to enable easy, effortless, reading. Lots of good ideas, as usual, but not quite the same verve as his best stuff. A touch formulaic - but he invented the formula, and it's a good one, so forgivable.

And now it simply remains for me to choose one or two tomes to ease me through the cramped hours ahead. No more McCarthy for now though.

Friday, November 26, 2010

From Experience

I'm fairly sure that somebody somewhere would assume it a reasonable proposition that taking a bunch of kids round the Singapore Zoo from the late morning onwards, and then moving on to the Night Safari, would be a good way to render them exhausted so they go to sleep as soon as they reach home. Take it from me, it doesn't work - as the noise surrounding me testifies. But it is highly, exhaustingly, enjoyable.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Service

It's been remarkable to witness the ways in which this small country has changed in the last twenty years or so. I was reminded of this yesterday when Noi and I went down to the Ministry of Manpower to get our renewed passes - the cards that enable us to actually live here at all. It took all of five minutes to pick up the passes and we were treated like guests at some rather swank hotel. All our queries were answered patiently and in detail. Twenty years ago the process involved a long, long wait and trying to talk to people who would never make eye-contact and mumbled unintelligible instructions about proceeding to other desks in unfamiliar locations. Mind you, I'm not sure that those applying for the somewhat less highly-regarded Work Permit get the same stellar treatment. It would be nice to think they do though.

Then it was off to Sentosa, with the troops. Years ago the only way across was on a ferry (oh, and the cable car, which still runs, I think.) Now there's all sorts of ways on to the island, and we picked the speedy monorail, having decided to travel down by bus due to the lack of kid-room in the car. The island was unrecognisable, at least the bit we were on. We spent a fun-packed afternoon in the new Univeral Studios theme park (if that's what they call it.) Expensive but scoring high on the keeping-the-troops-occupied front.

Unfortunately Noi got ill on one of the rides with a nasty bout of motion sickness. (The Revenge of the Mummy, ironically.) Fortunately we were attended to by extremely helpful staff who gave every appearance of being genuinely concerned and ready to spend a lot of time making sure all was well.

This place sometimes gets a bit of flak for poor customer service. Not from me - well not yesterday, at least.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In Flight

Squad strength standing temporarily at six, but Fifi is only temporary as her school has demands upon her this holiday. (So much for family bonding.)

We kept the troops if not happy at least occupied on bicycles and in-line skates at East Coast Park this afternoon. I'd hoped to find some time to read, but there were too many distractions. At least it didn't rain.

Yesterday we took the younger ones among our company to Jurong Bird Park, this being before Sabrina and Aiman made it over from KL. The Bird Park remains a reliable sure fire winner. We managed a couple of the bird shows in the afternoon and got to feed some cheerfully belligerent lorys. (Is that the plural?) I'm more than a bit doubtful of the business of keeping animals in captivity and wheeling them out for our entertainment, but this is a place that looks like it's really trying to educate and the keepers give every appearance of deeply caring for their various charges. And I must admit that any reservations one might have about the park tend to evaporate when one of their superb birds of prey sees fit to swoop within centimetres of one's head: ferociously beautiful!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Difference

Sabrina says to Mak Ndak that the Korean barbecue in Singapore is different from the one in Kuala Lumpur.

The missus replies, Lain padang, lain berlallang. (Which I translate as, Different field, different grasshopper.)

Now there's Inscrutable Malay wisdom for you.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

At Rest

Just back from a quick trip to Melaka to pick up some houseguests. We're privileged to have three nieces with us this evening, with the promise of augmentation of squad strength by a further two youngsters tomorrow. Enjoyed a birthday party for the youngest (at least for now) of our many nephews last night with two big cakes, amongst other goodies.

Then it was off to the bedroom for me to shut myself off from the joyous noise of all and sundry. I intended to make progress in Blood Meridian (or Alain de Botton's book on architecture) but it didn't happen. It was only nine o'clock yet, as is so often the case when I'm in Mak's house, I just couldn't stay awake.

I settled on Blood Meridian since I'm finding myself completely gripped by the novel, even if under a degree of protest against its unsettling content. I lay down, ready to knock back a chapter or three, and read the brilliant paragraph I'd reached concerning the Comanchees attacking a crazy Yankee raiding party. Then I realised I was drowsing. So I read the paragraph again, with increased appreciation, and found myself yet again zonked out. Then another read, with the realisation that McCarthy is so good you really can read bits over and over without worrying about making progress. And that was it. Next thing I know it's gone midnight and I need to officially go to bed.

Wonderfully restful. Wish I could bottle it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Red In Tooth And Claw

When I wrote those few words about violence and its place in art yesterday I'd somehow, mysteriously, forgotten that just a couple of hours earlier I'd been watching one of the most extraordinarily violent series ever made for television. The Jungle episode of Planet Earth had stunningly visceral images of fungi erupting from ant inards to extremely unpleasant effect upon the poor ants who'd ingested them, and chimp warfare culminating in chimp cannibalism, to name but two examples of Mother Nature at her less than nurturing work.

Yet none of this was disturbing in the way Raging Bull and Blood Meridian manage to be. (Though, now I really think of it, the bit with the chimps munching on bits of the dead youngster they'd manage to kill had a curious air of the morally transgressive about it. All too human.) The violence of animals can have about it a strange, terrible, beauty.

And I suppose there are echoes of this in human violence. We ignore our evolutionary heritage at our peril. Something the Greeks knew - in fact, all the great civilisations.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Violent Ends

Odd coincidence - I started reading Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian the other day and it got me thinking, in a somewhat troubled fashion, about violence and its depiction in art. And then today I caught the back end of the wonderful Raging Bull, a reminder that it is possible to make utterly compelling films within the Hollywood system (if you happen to be Martin Scorsese, that is.)

I'm not keen on violence, in real life or in art. But I'm no James Joyce in this regard. (The great man's detestation and fear of any manifestation of physical violence leaves its traces everywhere in his work, most notably the Cyclops episode in Ulysses.) I'm capable of a fair degree of aggression myself and can do a mean Robert De Niro impersonation. And an action-packed movie used to be able to set the old pulse racing. But basically I regard flight as superior to fight, and I close my eyes during the gory bits.

So why is it I can't stop myself from watching De Niro's Jake La Motta destroy everything around him and within him? And why does it seem so important to acknowledge his capacity to do so? And why is it somehow entertaining?

As I said, I find myself somewhat troubled, and that's about as far as I can get with this at the moment.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To Be A Pilgrim

Hari Raya Haji; Eid Al Adha; 10 Zulhijjah, 1431

I find the ubiquitous journey metaphor rather tiresome. I am not, unfortunately, on a journey towards excellence, despite often being told I am.

But I am on another journey, and the great pilgrimage is the perfect metaphor for it. And one day I hope to give the metaphor substance. God willing.

At this point in the journey I am, like so many pilgrims, lost. And to be lost is hard. But sometimes necessary.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Longings

Chaucer tells us that it's in Aprill when longen folk to goon on pilgrimages. For those of another faith the month is actually Zulhijjah, but the longings are constant across humanity. Of course, Chaucer's pilgrims have very mixed reasons for their journeys to Canterbury but it was one of his greatest insights to recognise that even for the most villainous of them the need to find the still centre of the great turning world was central to their motives.

I'm not yet ready to make the great pilgrimage, but I couldn't be longing for that still centre any more at any time than I am at this moment.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Sense of Release

Heartening to see the crowds greeting Aung San Suu Kyi the other day on her long-delayed release, and her looking so amazingly well. The worry is that it might result in those who released her from house arrest changing their (small) minds.

Also heartening that the news was 'trending', whatever that means, on Singapore's version of the Yahoo main webpage. In contrast the lady didn't warrant any mention at all on the main page of the American version.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Perfection

I created a little island of serenity for myself this afternoon, lying back and listening to a compilation CD featuring solos from the soprano Emma Kirkby. I generally have a bit of a problem with the trained operatic voice. I can appreciate the skill and technique involved but sometimes can't get beyond that to the real music. No such barriers exist for me with Miss Kirkby. It helps, I suppose, that she is not an operatic singer really, her repertoire being drawn from the field of 'early' music.

The first time I heard her was in the early eighties when I bought on spec an album entitled A Feather on the Breath of God, featuring the music of the visionary abbess Hildegard of Bingen. The group involved were the Gothic Voices of whom Miss Kirkby was one. One of her solo pieces features on the compilation I've been enjoying this afternoon and listening to that piece in particular was a reminder of the power of great music to take you to other places - notably heaven itself.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Nervousness

It took me a while to genuinely get started on Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel Nervous Conditions, the one Sakhar passed to me for consideration as a text for next year, but once into it I found it a very rewarding read. I think I expected something on the lines of the Edwidge Danticat novel I read this time last year, but this one confounded any such expectations. The language is not as self-consciously poetic as that of Danticat, it simply does what it needs to and does it well, but Nervous Conditions is a more richly textured experience in terms of rendering the complexity of the lives of those it depicts.

The sympathies of the writer are clearly, and rightly, with her splendid female protagonists Tambu and Nyasha, yet both have sometimes irritating limitations that can alienate the reader, at least at moments. We are not allowed anything in the way of a simplistic analysis of the feminine psyche in Africa - assuming there is such a thing. The brittleness of the wonderfully brave, rebellious Nyasha is particularly well done.

And the book has two or three fine monsters of masculinity, monsters because they are trapped in a way of thinking that demands monstrosity from them. Yet the most striking of these, Babamukuru, is also believably a decent sort who is trying very hard to be not just a good man but an outstanding individual. The scene when he first strikes Nyasha is red hot. Tambu's father Jeremiah though a minor character is also a brilliant picture of a thoroughly lazy good-for-nothing. But then all the minor characters are beautifully drawn, something that I'm just realising as I think back to my reading. This is a writer with real compassion for her creations.

The title, from a line in Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, is in itself perfect. The sense of the unfairness of the demands made upon these people by the circumstances in which they must live pervades the novel, resulting in a nervousness that the reader is made to share, at second hand, at any rate.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hearing Things

Sometimes changing the circumstances in which one listens to something can have startling affects upon the quality of that listening. Yesterday I played Beethoven 5 in its entirety on the way back from work and it seemed completely new though I've heard it a million times. I'd never quite grasped before how everything in it seems to grow from single cells of themes but in the car the organic inter-connections seemed obvious.

And then today listening to Lennon in the exam hall between papers - Jealous Guy felt newly minted - fresh and painful, achingly sincere. That voice!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Forgetfulness

You know you're busy at work when you completely forget to eat. I righted the omission around 4.30 this afternoon with a particularly crunchy apple. And, let me tell you, it tasted good.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Not-so Royal Scam

Interesting how language changes. Noi and I have been merrily chatting about would be scammers and their not-so-clever scams, yet I know for sure I'd never heard the word until the mighty Steely Dan released one of their greatest albums, The Royal Scam, in 1976. I know this because I hadn't a clue what the title meant when the album was released, and neither did any of my friends.

The reason the missus and I have been so merry over this, by the way, is that we've had a bit of fun thwarting the attempts of a would-be con artist to rip us off over the rental of an apartment in the UK in December. The whole attempt was so transparent as to be ludicrous. But just in case you come across something similar, avoid using Western Union money transfer (to the UK) if a third party strongly advises you to do so. Some sharks have obviously figured a way to ID themselves as the would-be recipients for the cash and I'm guessing some poor souls somewhere may have fallen for this. Fortunately we're too old and too wise (for once) to be taken in.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

No Escape

I stuck a load of Beethoven in the car CD changer the other day - to be precise, all the symphonies (and three overtures); and to be even more precise, it's the series that Roger Norrington conducted with the London Classical Players using period instruments. The series was regarded as pretty revolutionary for its time, the late eighties, as was Beethoven, of course, for his rather earlier period.

Beethoven always sounds to me a rich burgundy brown.

Whether it's a good thing to have Beethoven blaring away as you drive, with no real choice in the matter (and trust me those authentic period horns blare) I'm not entirely sure. But it's certainly a bracing experience.

The kind of composer you wouldn't want as a house guest, methinks.

Monday, November 8, 2010

No Way Back

I've been a little unsettled in my reading just lately. I've found myself hopping from book to book in what has at times seemed to be an almost random manner, and I've made one distinct false start - though that was only of a page or two. I put this down to having a lot of very appetising books in waiting. I want to start them all and simply can't.

Some progress has been made on the following of late: Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness, American Fantastic Tales - Poe to the Pulps, and Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions. The last of these I borrowed from Sakhar quite a few weeks back and it's been lying on my desk. I suppose I'm reading it out of something of a sense of duty, but I'm genuinely getting into it.

But the one I'm really zooming along on now is Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings Goes To School, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. This marks a real return to the past for me, deliberately so - that's why I bought it - or, rather, it should do so. But it doesn't. You can never go back, not to what you were. As a young lad I thought there was nothing funnier than a Jennings book, or more deeply involving. I suspect that at some level I was genuinely at that prep school, the wonderfully cosy Linbury Court, alongside Jennings and his chums. Now I'm a long way distant.

This is not to say I haven't enjoyed reading about Jennings and Darbishire and Mr Carter and Old Wilkie et al. And I've also found them funny, but in a gently predictable way, not with the kind of helpless hilarity I experienced at ten years of age. At that age I thought Buckeridge a genius; I now see him as a very fine, formulaic kind of writer, who sometimes struggles a bit in technical terms. To be specific, the story wobbles more than a little as soon as he leaves the boys behind and focuses on the adult world. And there's a fair amount of this in the first of the Jennings series. In fact, almost an entire chapter is devoted to some trite comedy based on the exploits of the Dunhambury fire brigade, who get called out when Jennings shows a little too much initiative. It doesn't work at all - except, I suppose, for ten-year-olds who don't think too deeply about such matters.

But what does work wonderfully is the glorious wordplay as the boys muddle themselves and everyone around them - who wouldn't love incongruous triangles? - and the archetypal quality of so many of the characters - like the four I mentioned above.

I did think of ordering more of the series on my last amazonian foray, and now I'm glad I didn't. You can never really go back, but you can gain an added appreciation of what it felt like to be there

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Desert Places

After the debacle of Friday's viewing of the Surviving Species documentary on my Planet Earth DVD set I've wisely been avoiding Into The Wilderness, the next one along focusing on 'environmental issues', i.e., making you feel bad by showing the degree to which our species has screwed this glorious world. Instead yesterday I watched the earlier episode Deserts just to cheer myself up in the company of various camels, Namibian lions and the like. Why is it that just knowing of the existence of places I'll never get to and wouldn't survive for more than a few days if I could, makes me feel a whole lot better?

And before dinner today I'm off to a few gorgeously beautifully extreme Ice Worlds.

Which reminds me, for reasons I can't quite fathom, that over a cup of tea at the Paya Lebar Post Office Coffee Bean outlet we were entertained by the tune Frosty The Snowman sitting out in the sun on a warm and sultry Singapore late afternoon. Go figure, as they say.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Arrangements

Noi is busy fixing for various nieces and nephews to descend upon us later this month. Feeding and entertaining them will be a drain on finances and imagination. But essentially fun and to be welcomed. We're also trying to put into place various aspects of our trip to Manchester in December and figuring out how we're going to move out of the Mansion by January. Last weekend we shipped quite a few books up to Maison KL but there's still a lot to do.

It would be easy for all this to become overwhelming, but it won't be. I don't know why that is, but it's something I know for sure. I suppose it's linked to the fact that we're lucky to be able to do any of these things and have the wherewithal to do them with.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Mistaken

Big mistake early this evening, just when things were going extremely well. I'd got back from work early in the afternoon and decided to allow myself some soothing sounds, and possibly a nap, on the grounds that as it's a public holiday here for Deepavali I deserved a treat as compensation for having to get up and go into the workplace at all.

The sounds were suitably soothing - Songs of Love and Hate by Leonard Cohen; Think Tank by Blur - and I reckon I nodded off once or twice. After that Noi put the kettle on and we got the Polar puffs ready for consumption on the little table in front of the tele.

At this point I thought it would be rather a good wheeze to view one of the programmes from my Planet Earth DVDs and have a nice wallow in the beauties of nature. It's been a long time since the rhythms of my life have allowed me such an opportunity and I've been missing the experience. The problem came in choosing an episode. I've now run through all the main ones, but had not yet looked at anything on the final disk, Planet Earth - The Future, touted as a companion to the series, comprising three documentaries related to conservation issues. I was somewhat hesitant to do so since the depressing experience of watching a similar sort of programme from The Blue Planet DVDs whilst on a conservation boat in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam as part of a trip made with a class some three years ago. (It was so powerful I've not yet been able to watch it again despite now owning the series myself.)

Bravely, foolishly, I plunged in, and, as expected, was knocked sideways, left, right, every-which-way by the excellent first hour, Saving Species. The magnitude of just how badly we've screwed this planet is so monumentally, humungously, overly overwhelming I find myself drowned by it. Basically I've spent the rest of the day brooding over the mess, and it's been guilty brooding - this is something I'm aware I've taken too little care of.

But perhaps if I can get beyond brooding to doing something even slightly useful, which is all the use one is ever going to be able to achieve, my viewing experience might not have been all that mistaken after all.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Unseasonal

Odd sight of today: in a Coffee Bean at Kallang - a plenitude of Christmas decorations, and we're only just into November. It's not even bonfire night yet!

Is nothing sacred? Well, no, of course not.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Living Dangerously

Odd sight of the last few days: some daredevil young motorcyclists riding their machines in a distinctly unconventional style along the North-South highway in Malaysia.

But let me start at the beginning. It was last Sunday evening and Noi and I were on the highway on our way back from KL, about ten minutes from Seremban. The light was beginning to go and a few cars had their headlights on. Then in the mirror I spied the lights from a number of motorbikes some way behind. Around about fifteen of them I would have guessed.

I didn't think too much of it. It's quite normal to find bikers packing together on the highway, especially at the weekend. I assumed they'd been out as a group somewhere and were on their way back. I almost commented on their appearance on the road to Noi, but didn't bother when I realised they weren't catching up with me. I further assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that they were unlikely to actually overtake. In fact, I'd decided that they were obviously quite careful riders maintaining a sensible speed.

Then the lights began getting perceptibly closer, and I told Noi that the group were catching up. I took it they had slowed down to group together and were now reunited, as it were. No, wrong again. They had slowed down to prepare the rather grand, crazy stunt that followed. It became clear that they were now going at quite a rate of knots. I was in the centre lane and the bikes had spread right across the three lanes of the highway in a kind of V formation. The first four overtook me going at quite a lick, two on either side, and we were more than a little surprised to see that the riders weren't sitting on their bikes. Each was lying on his belly, with the belly on the seat of the motorbike, in a position horizontal to the ground. Each had crossed his legs in a distinctly insouciant manner and was swerving his machine in between the cars around and ahead.

The remainder of the gang passed also at high speed, but conventionally seated - much to our relief. A few of these bikes had girls riding pillion on them. Part of me hoped that their mums and dads had some idea of what they were up to, and intended to put a stop to it, and another part that their parents knew nothing and so wouldn't be overly worried.

Looking back on all this I can say with some authority I never did anything close to as daft as this when I was a youngster. But, with somewhat less assurance, it did put me in mind of one or two less than estimable scrapes I got myself into. Fortunately I survived. I pray that these kids will.

Monday, November 1, 2010

True Greatness

A word or two more about Fitzgerald's masterpiece while the experience of being quite overwhelmed by it is still fresh in my mind. It's been a few years since I read it cover to cover and this reading was the first time I felt I genuinely plugged into the emotional power of the novel, particularly the bleak melancholy of the ending. Gatsby himself came alive for me as more than just the superb idea of the character. I've always, I think, grasped what the character represents intellectually from the first time I read the book (at university.) But this time he moved me profoundly - as he moves Nick, the narrator.

The bit where Gatsby's (Gatz's) father shows up after he's killed and passes Nick the schedules for self-improvement his son drew up as a child was devastatingly powerful for me. I saw the charming, charmed, doomed boy as Fitzgerald saw him. I suppose living so long in a culture underpinned by precisely the same notions of self-help and self-improvement helped me grasp what before had escaped me at the level of feeling.

Fitzgerald is brilliant in this novel - but not so much in the others, curiously - at providing glimpses of his characters, such that they are illuminated, given to us, as it were, in fragments of hallucinatory clarity. He just doesn't put a foot wrong. Yet all the other novels are patently flawed, despite their moments, sometimes stretches, of genius. How did he get it so right this one time? I suppose it helped that he stayed sober whilst writing it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Sort of Perfection

We kept ourselves busy in KL over the weekend, which left me little time to read anything. But enough time for Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. A weekend spent reading the great American novella can never be counted as wasted.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Keeping In Touch

If someone had told me at nine o'clock yesterday evening that I'd be able to post to this Far Place today I wouldn't have placed any great faith in their judgement. Arriving at Maison KL after an uneventful drive we found the phone lines working, rather gratifyingly since they weren't the last time we were here, but a lady's voice thereon informed us that the service had been cut off as we hadn't paid our last bill. In addition there was another letter suggesting we had terminated out internet service - which surprised us as we'd done no such thing. (We also found that a monkey had decided to use our bedroom balconey as a lavatory, but that's quite another story.)

We set out to try and sort out this mess and restore communications late this morning, none too hopeful of achieving very much. And then we found ourselves in several queues, being shunted from one attendant to another, as is often the way here. But astonishingly, it worked. By the time we reached home our phone lines were working and our internet connection restored. Mind you, the monkey droppings are still there. Still, two out of three's not bad at all.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Real Thing

For the first time in yonks I bought a copy of The New York Review of Books. I'd be more than happy to buy every copy that came out - and I can just about afford it - but I've been manfully restricting myself to only making a purchase when I've read all the material in the one I'm reading currently, and it's a measure of my painfully slow speed of reading that I've only managed one edition since the beginning of the year. Mind you, it's been a busy old year regarding the Toad work one way or another, so there's another weak excuse. And I read a fair bit of what the editors rather sweetly post on their website.

This time I just had to buy a copy though since, as well as finishing the previous edition, I noticed from the online edition that there was an excellent article on Duke Ellington, and since he's one of my super-heroes I just had to have the hard copy to savour it. Somehow reading it the old-fashioned way makes it feel more real.

I suppose that's somewhat similar to the sense you have of listening to real music made by real men (and a lady or two) when savouring the Duke's actual recordings.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Punked

Caught a ten minute item on BBC World earlier today featuring everyone's favourite politically committed, radical leftist, singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. Very interesting to hear about Billy's moment of epiphany as a youngster caught up in the heady days of 1970's punk undergone, as I'm sure many such moments were, watching the almost equally young The Clash in concert.

Our songster was, as were we all, a big fan of the Stones and he suddenly realised The Clash were doing what The Rolling Stones had done; in fact they were being the Stones, and there was nothing stopping anybody and everybody having a go too, if they were so inclined. Billy was (so inclined) and the rest is history, so to speak.

This was the essential lesson of punk, not the safety pins, the mohicans, the spitting and general cursing - as much fun as they were. Write the song yourself and play it yourself, preferably for an audience of more than one. And don't let anyone tell you you can't.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Not Enough Said

Even as I typed yesterday's post I knew it wasn't the whole truth (but then it never is.) It was a lousy day, certainly, but this related simply to a rather frustrating mess that I needed to help to clear up. Not that you ever really clear such things up or genuinely deal with them. Rather you apply a couple of sticking plasters and hope for the unlikely best. But the point I'm getting to is that the spillage from the mess sort of infected every corner of my day quite unnecessarily simply because I foolishly allowed it to.

So to redress the balance I'm just going to mention four bright spots of my Tuesday, in no particular order of merit, as they say:

1. Enjoyed all the teaching that went on. Really pleasant students and I think one or two learnt a bit.

2. Saw a squirrel crossing the driveway at work. Fabulously bushy tail.

3. One colleague talked about recovering from a very bad illness. Another of his young daughter's recovery from something awfully similar. More than enough to keep any small troubles of my own in proportion.

4. Came home to play Elvis Costello's North. My fourth listen. Genius. Now at the point that I'm carrying around fragments of several of the songs all day long.

Now if you can come close to matching that list I reckon you're very, very lucky indeed.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Enough Said

Dreadful day in terms of the Toad work. I don't really want to talk about it. So I won't.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Getting Away From It All

A little correction to yesterday's post. I said that Ghosts and A Doll's House weren't in any sense 'message' plays, but on one level they clearly are. I should have said that this is not fundamental to how they function or affect the viewer.

But it's not all been Ibsenite gloom (or light, possibly) lately. The joys of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? have done much to remind me of just how flexible a medium for ideas the novel can be. At least one trick he pulls off, amongst many, is quite remarkable. I'm referring to the way he takes tissue thin characters - at times little more than ciphers for the real thing - and endows them, or evokes through them, powerful layers of emotion. The bit where Phil Resch, the android hunter that our 'hero' and chief android-hunter, Rick Deckard, encounters at the 'other' police department, is wondering whether he himself is also an android, and coolly assessing how he intends to do away with himself, had me both genuinely on the edge of my seat with suspense (I'd completely forgotten what happens next) and feeling a sense of potential real loss. It's as if you are made to endow the characters with the psychological depth Dick doesn't bother to give them - or cunningly implies. I suppose.

I've also been holidaying in the sunlit world of Anthony Buckeridge's characters Jennings and Darbishire having picked up one of the series in a recent amazonian foray. More of which anon, as I am now going to get ready to take our nieces for a bit of a nosh-up in honour of Fifi's birthday. There's more to life than just books, you know.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

More Ghosts

First of all I reckon Joyce recognised an implacable honesty in Ibsen. It's easy to forget that that same kind of honesty was something that Joyce saw as central to his own art, and it was, of course, that honesty that got him into so much trouble with the censors. It's also easy to forget how deeply shocking Ibsen must have been to his first audiences. I thought I'd find that aspect of the plays fairly routine as I reread a couple - i.e., Ghosts and A Doll's House - but I found myself aware of the intensity of their challenge to our conventions of respectability both then and now.

Worryingly I saw enough of myself in Torvald Helmer to instill at least a temporary sense of humility regarding the scandals of others.

Secondly I think Joyce saw, even just on the printed page since he wouldn't have witnessed any productions, the poetry that seems to lie behind the plays. The action of each seems to take place against a web of symbolic associations, signaled clearly in the titles of the two I'm talking about here. This poetry takes us beyond the immediate social applications of the dramas. It gives them that peculiarly Joycean sense of stasis, the integritas, consonantia, claritas of Aquinas that Joyce made his own, and ours.

It seems to me remarkable that the young Joyce knew immediately what hardly anyone else of his time recognised - that these are not in any sense 'message' plays.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ghosts Again

The only real ghosts I've encountered lately are those in Ibsen's drama of the same name. His are much more frightening than the real thing because they can't be escaped and they don't go away.

The last time I met them was quite a number of years ago when I originally read a fair bit of Ibsen. They weren't quite as frightening then - but nothing is at that age.

I realised that the main reason I'm reading Ibsen again, other than teaching Hedda Gabler which we use as one of our World Lit texts in school, is as a result of my recent immersion in Joyce's Stephen Hero. I'd half-forgotten what a great fan of Ibsen Joyce (and hence Stephen) was. The young Jim Joyce after all wrote a fan letter to the elderly Ibsen, a rather touching one, in fact. Being reminded of this made me interested in what exactly it was that Joyce found so deeply impressive in the dramas. It's not as if they obviously correspond to the aesthetic theories expounded in A Portrait and Stephen Hero.

I think I found the answer - two answers indeed. And I might just say what they are if I can find the time tomorrow.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In Our Finery

The shots above are not exactly current, dating back as they do to an Eid outing last month in Melaka. But they capture me and the missus in our current state of repair, which is not all that darned bad I'd say. I reckon the grey look worked. Well, on the lady, at least.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ghosts

I don't seem to get spooked easily these days. I mean in the sense of genuinely frightening myself over the possibility of ghosts and demons and bogeymen and the like. This realisation came to me strongly at our camp back in September for drama when I told a bit of a ghostly tale late on the Friday night to the drama guys and realised that probably a majority were genuinely scared by it. (I pretended it was a true one, of course.) I further realised that at their age I would have been satisfyingly scared as well, and felt something had been lost.

I think I'm right in saying that the last thing I read in terms of ghost stories that got under my skin was Stephen King's The Shining, and that was back when I was in my mid-twenties. I remember not being too happy at the book being in the house yet not being able to stop myself from picking it up. But much as I've enjoyed most of King's other work since then nothing else has been close to being as powerful as that was on a purely visceral level.

Sometimes, once or twice, when Noi has been away over the weekend I've found myself thinking I'm standing here in the dark and there's nobody else around - this should be spooky (this on going to bed) and it has been mildly disconcerting for all of a few seconds, then I just forget about it. Similarly alone in a deserted place - the Victoria Theatre comes to mind when I did a few shows there with a previous school and I was the first and only one in - I've felt a distinct discomfort at what might just decide to manifest itself but I soon get busy and just forget to bother.

Yes, something has been lost. Now I just get frightened by stuff that's all too real and doesn't go away so easily.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Just Walking

The missus and I enjoyed a bit of a wander up and down Serangoon Road last Saturday night. The lights were up ahead of Deepavali and, in addition to enjoying the cup that cheers at a couple of eateries, we popped into a bazaar or two to buy some Deepavali cards - one being for Devan who tends our garden in KL and always buys us a big, big card for Eid. Smashing bloke.

In fact we walked to Serangoon from the bottom of Orchard Road, on my recommendation as I just fancied getting a bit footsore. I thought Noi was enjoying it as I could have sworn she kept muttering Inspiring, but it turned out she was moaning about Perspiring. For some reason the walk put me in mind of the days of my youth when wandering to and from Manchester was my way of giving myself time to think and saving bus-fare. Mind you there was no sweating involved in the cool, damp Lancashire climate.

I also got thinking of writers who were notorious walkers. Three sprung to mind for whom I think you could make a fair case for their walking being integral to their work - Dickens, Wordsworth and Joyce. Not a bad triumvirate, eh? My recent reading of the Stephen Hero fragment reminded me of just how much wandering the young Joyce did around the streets of Dublin - unfortunately, from his mum and dad's point of view, when he should have been applying himself to his books. Makes you wonder about the value of education, doesn't it? Or what an education comprises.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Not Terribly Wise

Mindlessly browsing through the far-too-many tv channels we can now receive I happened to find myself watching what I think was the opening of a programme featuring the 'commentator' (I think they call themselves) on Fox News who got into a bit of a kerfuffle on some chat show recently, provoking Whoopi Goldberg (loved her in Star Trek!) to get bleeped for uttering some sort of profanity or other. Anyway the fellow - one of those guys who's a bit of a man of the people and right about everything, especially everything connected with some folk he terms liberals who are not up to very much, but quite a threat despite that - was justifying what he had said regarding Muslims and the 'mosque at ground zero', you know, the place that is neither a mosque nor at ground zero.

Now to be honest I don't know much about all this and am not terribly concerned about the issue. But I was reminded of the first time I was made aware of the plan to build the centre that's causing all the fuss. It was when one of the main guys involved in the planning of the building came to Singapore (and, I think, he went on to Malaysia), basically to sing the praises of America to Muslims here for the tolerance and understanding being shown by what he clearly regarded as a nation embodying the best of what loosely be termed democratic values. I was a bit surprised myself on reading this in the paper - that the building of the proposed centre had been deemed acceptable - and heartened by what was going on - this being before the unpleasant stuff hit the fan. The surprise came from the fact that I'd become so used to distortions regarding almost anything relating to Islam in American culture and politics that such reasonable, civilised behaviour seemed to buck an unstoppable descent into ignorance and foolishness.

Sadly this has not proved to be the case. I wonder if the citizens of that once great nation realise the degree to which they've shot themselves in the foot over this one? There're a lot of Muslims out there watching all this who are not terribly impressed with what's being said about them and whose attitudes are inevitably going to be coloured by such nonsense. In addition there are lots of civilised, intelligent people of all faiths, and some of none, who are also going to read this as yet another example of a lurch towards the kind of petty, insidious fascism that would be funny if it weren't so frightening.

But, back to the beginning. The Fox News fellow, in the middle of a lot of other stuff, told the world that he was disturbed by 'moderate Muslims' not being opposed to, or not condemning those who pursue jihad, or words to that effect. Now this was a bit odd. I mean you'd really have to have locked yourself away in a very small cell in a very isolated spot not to be aware of the deadeningly consistent condemnations of violent terrorism from every corner of the Islamic world and every mainstream Islamic organisation, and particularly of the specific horror of what occurred in New York as the century began. The guy is a journalist, of sorts, and seemed to be well-up in this sort of thing, or so he claimed, so how could he not know this? I know it and, like I said, I can't honestly say I consciously pay that much attention to such matters.

The sort of scary thing is the idea that he does know this and is deliberately, consciously misleading his audience. I hope I'm wrong and he's just plain foolish. But, either way, it doesn't make one too hopeful for the future of the beacon of the free world.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Artistic Values

Saw an article today about that artist chappie Damien Hirst not getting quite as much of the green stuff for a picture or art-piece thingie as the artistic cognoscenti had expected him to. I was a bit surprised because judging from the illustration provided the piece in question looked fairly pretty and had a nice title: I Am Become Death, Shatterer Of Worlds.

I'd have paid easily a hundred dollars for it. Even two hundred. And that despite the fact that, as it's all of five metres across, I'd have nowhere to put it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Worse For Wear

Odd coincidence today: I'd been idly browsing around amazon.com and reading some glowing reviews of the work of Daniel Lanois, and slightly less glowing opinions on Neil Young's recent output and then I opened the Life section of The Straits Times to find them pictured side-by-side. I suppose, to be honest, it wasn't all that much of a coincidence though as Mr Lanois in producer-mode has been performing his usual alchemy on Mr Young's most recent collection of songs and said CD was being reviewed under the photo in question. And it was a review of Le Noise that had been the starting point of my little journey through the amazonian commentary on the work of the two gents.

But the point I'm actually getting to is this - the dynamic duo looked distinctly elderly and even more distinctly the worse for wear. They could have done with a stint on one of those How To Look Ten Years Younger programmes there are so many of these days. Furthermore, they obviously didn't care. Probably too focused on creating wonderful music to bother. The nerve of it!

And now I'm stuck with an even longer wishlist of albums to buy, not so much because of their collaborative piece but as a result of realising I haven't got any of Danny's solo work and am now perplexed as to how this deficiency has come to be

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New Worlds

According to the useful chronology of Philip K.'s life provided in the Library of America edition of four of his novels of the sixties, John Lennon and Yoko were interested in making a film based on his novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. It's easy to understand why the druggie couple would have entertained this notion of a fabulously druggie novel, but it's a good job they didn't succeed as any such movie made then would have been catastrophically awful. Made now it would probably be just as bad as it would have been then. The novel is wonderful but unfilmable.

Or rather, what works so well in the text, the sudden, abrupt, spooky shifts of planes of reality would just appear as cliched on the big screen.

As to why they work so well in words, I suppose that's related to Dick's own very real experiences of the awful hallucinatory power of certain illicit substances. That and the tremendous, unflagging pace of the narrative.

Pity about the title though. I almost skipped the novel - which I've not read previously - and jumped to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - which I've read before - simply on the grounds it sounds so thunderously pretentious. Now I come to think of it, though, the book itself is more than a little pretentious - but in a good way, like a fine Star Trek episode, written by a usefully mad man.

For some reason I'm now reading a bit of Ibsen. Yet another plane of reality.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pastures New

A fundamental change in my lifestyle was precipitated today through the generosity of what in England would be known as my form and here goes by the oddly redundant moniker my form class. It was the last day of the guys - a lovely bunch, by the way - being officially registered and they decided, with typical generosity, to buy myself, their Pastoral Care Tutor, and Elaine, their real form teacher, a couple of presents each - viz, a pen and 2011 diary.

In my case both were of far better quality than the ones I normally equip myself with. So after years of wielding my cheapo cheapo signature black biro I rather think I'm going to use the fine and rather funky pen they have provided for me. (Nick tells me refills are easily available so this model will be able to run and run, as it were.) Apart from anything else it made my scrawl look reasonably intelligible so I may be able to actually read my messages to myself.

Not so stuck in the mud after all, eh?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Some Comfort

Latest news from John regarding Mum is she hasn't had a cigarette since being admitted to Tameside General and, astonishingly, isn't complaining about the situation. I can only assume she decided before going in to accept the fact she wasn't going to be able to smoke, knowing full well from past experience that the whole hospital is a non-smoking zone. This experience related to a previous visit for an appointment when she transgressed the code and was roundly admonished for doing so over the PA system, much to her shock and my brother-in-law's amusement. It seems this time she had a quick smoke before they put her in the ambulance to take her in, muttering something about a last chance, which supports my theory.

Oddly enough I'm told that there are a few old biddies in the hospital who manage to wheel themselves outside for a few drags now and then without getting into trouble, so we assume that Mum hasn't seen them at it as she certainly would be more than a little inclined to join them.

I don't think suddenly quitting like this is going to make much difference to her health, though. She's been at it for some seventy-eight years on my count and that's a lot to make up for in two weeks. But the improved diet she's on and carefully measured medication is very helpful from what we can gather. John reckons she's a lot better than she was with a distinct improvement in short-term memory, though she still looks frail. That's good to hear, but I'd rather hear it from her directly and that's not going to happen since the nurses, understandably, are not going to put me through to her to talk directly.

It's very strange after months of talking to her virtually every night not to have spoken directly for so long. There's a peculiar comfort in the sound of her voice, even when she's just complaining about everything and everybody.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Conundrum

The music of eternity must sound very odd. How do you keep time where there isn't any?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An End To Re-Joycing

The copious volumes of exuberant noise appropriately resulting from the birthday bash in Melaka had little or no effect upon my speedy progress through Stephen Hero. I couldn't put it down and finished it last night. The problem is that I enjoyed it so much that I didn't want to finish it at all.

So now I'm looking for something to fill the gap, as it were. A couple of the short stories from Ackroyd's The Collection went down predictably well before we set off for Singapore - and in between getting some actual work done. Now I'm thinking it's time for a big dose of Philip K Dick - I suppose a bit like those heroin substitutes they give hard-core addicts going cold turkey.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Re-Joyce

As far as I understand it, which is not particularly far, it's niece Ayu's birthday today, or a day for celebrating it, so we are heading for a kunduri to do exactly that in Melaka soon. Accompanying us will be Rozita and our other nieces (well, two of them) as they intend to make jolly along with the rest of the family. Rozita asked me last week to pass on to her my Life of Pi and I was wondering if Fifi might be of an age to enjoy it. But then I thought of the pretty unpleasant bits involving the consumption of various living creatures and thought maybe not. The book I have got in mind for her is Watership Down which every right-thinking teenager should read before they, sadly, consider themselves too old to do so. Unfortunately I haven't got a decent copy to pass her as things stand.

I also think that every right-thinking teenager should read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when they are too young to really grasp it, but old enough to be mesmerised. This is on the grounds that it will mess them up forever. This is not a long held belief of mine, being formulated only today, but it's one that might well last. It came to mind as I'm now well into a recently acquired edition of Joyce's Stephen Hero, which is not really a novel at all, being the fragment that survived of the original very long manuscript of the work that he threw into the fire that eventually 'became' A Portrait. Oddly I read Stephen Hero as a youngster before A Portrait simply because Denton Library had a copy of it (which is quite peculiar considering how out of the mainstream it is) and I mistook one for the other. I think I was around thirteen at the time so the mistake is forgivable. I'm not at all sure then that I knew what it was all about but it certainly did something to me from which I've been benefiting or, perhaps, recovering ever since.

I'm not carrying too many books up to Melaka today since we're coming back tomorrow and one of the books being carried is the aforementioned Stephen Hero. I'm enjoying it so much that everything else I'm reading pales into insignificance.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Very Easy Listening

I'm beginning to think I might seriously need to get myself up to speed, well, walking pace at least, with all this stuff on computers about mp3s and podcasts and real players and the like. So far I've steered clear on the reasonably sensible grounds that I have easy access to so much good listening, of so many varieties, that acquiring more would be simply over-egging the pudding. And typing those words I realise that part of me (the busy man bit that doesn't want to get much busier) still thinks that way.

But another bit of me, the seventeen-year-old devil-may-care enthusiast-for-anything-and-everything, has recently exploded into life (he's always lurking just below the surface) as a result of a visit to the Yellow Room. Said room is the blog of one Sidney Smith, a place I drop into pretty regularly. (I exhibit a caution similar to that regarding expanding my capacity for being able to access more stuff to listen to regarding blogs & webpages I drop in on. I have a limited, and, I'm happy to say, eclectic range of a few favourites - less than ten - and that's it.) Now Sid has been posting some very tasty looking podcasts, featuring the kind of sounds I enjoy more than somewhat, for quite a while. But I've never been able to open them (is that how you say it?) to get to listen.

And then last week I was idly browsing one of Sid's posts about his latest podcast when, blow me, the thing started to play of its own accord - and it was as good, if not better, as I'd imagined it to be. I suppose somewhere along the line my computer has mysteriously downloaded whatever it needs to get these things to work. After that I found I could get to play most of the previous ones I accessed as well. I'm luxuriating in Episode 16 at this very moment, the funkily mellifluous sounds of Nik Bartsch. Thus, it now occurs to me that if it's this easy to get to listen to such wonderful stuff I really should be doing it more often.

So that's my dilemma for the evening, delightfully unresolved.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Spinning Yarns

My reading lately has been based on the purely for pleasure principle: moving at a delightful snail's pace through my Collected Causley, dipping into all sorts of bits and pieces and pieces and bits of the mighty Peter Ackroyd in The Collection and spinning out Yann Martel's The Life of Pi for as long as I decently could without losing the story-line. As long as I could, proved to be for about a week until tonight. I've just finished, in fact.

There's a quote from some reviewer in the blurb saying that as soon as you finish you immediately want to re-read Martel's Booker winner, but it isn't so for me. I found it fun but can't honestly say it struck me as having huge depth. I've noticed that a lot of students seem to like it, and I think that's appropriate somehow. A really well-crafted introduction to the world of fictive games, but that's about it for me. (Mind you, that in itself is quite a lot. And I don't mean the comment about students to sound patronising. I just think that certain books, many very fine ones, seem particularly well-tuned to that readership.)

Oh, and I should add I had a rare old time with an old, huge favourite, prior to embarking on Pi's voyage. I finally found the Library of America edition comprising four of Philip K. Dick's novels of the sixties and fell in love again with the alternative history of The Man in the High Castle. Nobody has ever done it better. And Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is in there too! Yowza!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wiped Out

Driving home from work last Friday I was listening to one of my poetry tapes, the excellent Penguin selection of seventeenth century verse, and I'd got to a chunk of Milton when I experienced something quite odd, but not entirely unexpected or unfamiliar. It started during At A Solemn Music. The lines came vibrantly alive for me in a way they've never done before. Everything seemed to fit just so - more than fit, really. They seemed inevitable and loaded with significance at one and the same time.

Now I'm reasonably familiar with the poem. I remember years ago, probably in my teenage years, reading it and trying to 'get' Milton. I sort of enjoyed it, but definitely didn't get it. Too artificial, overblown, rhetorical. But in the car I fell in love with those very qualities. The sheer musicality of the piece washed into and through me, sort of (if music can wash, that is.)

And then came Lycidas. Of course it's always been obvious to me that this is a great poem - or, at least, I've understood why others have regarded it as great. (And quite a few, as not so. Again, overdone, overwrought, not connecting.) But this time I connected with it big time.

Just one example. The wonderfully monosyllabic (almost), And wipe the tears forever from his eyes, pinned me to the seat. The power lay not only in the limpid clarity of the line, that impossible, sad yearning for a consolation that can never be, no matter how lovely the music, the singing (it's singing that does the wiping, strangely, but the line itself, of course, sings. But hang on, it could be the angels moving as they sing that wipe.) But the power also related to the context, the general simplicity of the section, approaching the end of the poem, after the fireworks of so much of what we've had so far.

Milton wiped away almost all my tears in that moment. Almost.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Utterly Childish

Had a more than usually satisfactory morning baiting mercilessly any Liverpool supporter in the staffroom who had the misfortune to cross my path.

Then I realised just how embarrassingly childish and petty I was being. Fortunately this realisation counted for nothing and I continued having a fine old time of it.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Going Out With A Bang

It's likely to have been the last Open House at the Mansion. Chances are we'll need to find a new far place in the near future. So it was good to go out in style.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Something's Cooking

The yummy eatables pictured above are good news but old news. A 'power bar' Noi put together for the mighty tri-athlete Fuad, and a fruit cake cooked (to perfection) the other day when we were Raya-ing at Rohana's.

In the meantime, as I write, and keep well out of the way since I'm more than usually useless at this point in time, something's (in fact lots of things) stirring (and baking and the like) in our tiny Mansion kitchen. Yes, we're throwing the doors open today from 2.00 onwards for family, friends and neighbours of all ilks. Let's hope they've got good appetites.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Simply Resting

Curious sight of the day: on my way to prayers at the Darussalam Mosque in Clementi, around 12.50, scattered around the void deck of the HDB block nearest the mesjid at the back, four guys well asleep, stretched on the concrete floor. No great mystery though - in fact a few weeks back there were more than four, probably as many as ten. The guys are labourers, busy, when they are busy, at work on improvements to the HDB blocks and surrounding car parks. At the moment a lot of the parking lots are being dug up and re-done.

At the time I walked by them it was very warm, well hot really, in the way that Friday afternoons in the tropics have of being gloriously debilitating when you get the chance to walk out in them. I wasn't going to be too long in the mid-day sun myself, and the workers clearly knew the best place to be, and what to be doing, at that time.

There was a touching vulnerability and trust about them as they slept. And an odd strength. You need to be tough to grab some zzzzz's on the old concrete. I suppose they considered themselves to be invisible, as blokes who do this kind of work here seem to be, in social terms.

By the time I made my way back from prayers they'd managed to disappear.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

For The Best

Mum was taken to Tameside General Hospital yesterday, which was a bit of relief to all, I think. She's deteriorated alarmingly in recent weeks, according to John & Maureen, and from what I can hear for myself in my now daily phone calls. Her short term memory has really gone and that's created havoc with her taking her medicine. So a hospital bed is obviously the best place for her, for now, at least.

It also takes a bit of pressure off my sister and brother-in-law who've been holding things together heroically. John had managed to get Social Services in with various helpers over the last few days, but it's not really been systematic enough for the intervention to be all that effective. Remarkably, the number of times I've phoned and Mum's managed to sound if not exactly cheerful at least almost normal has been in the majority.

I'm just hoping she realises this is the best thing to do - though I can't imagine she'll be best pleased not being allowed to have her cigarettes.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Man Of Distinction

Sometimes getting home you've just got to bang on Steeleye's Below The Salt and morris dance around the place to Maddy Prior giving it a bit of the Spotted Cow.

I suspect I'm the only resident of this island capable of writing the sentence above and meaning it - and, possibly, understanding it. As to whether that's necessarily a good thing…

Monday, September 27, 2010

Oh, The Intensity

19.39

I will be suffering through the MasterChef final tonight. It's just kicked off next door. Don't get me wrong, Noi's favourite programme is illuminating and enjoyable - but very intense. Who knew cooking could be so stressful? (Probably most cooks, I suppose, but I didn't prior to watching this.)

20.26

And the Mansion favourite, Mat, was the winner, which was great, except that Andy and Chris didn't win, which was sad because their stuff was obviously first rate. But there can only be one winner, which, of course, isn't really true but helps to provide entertainment.

All three guys looked like crying at the end, and I don't blame them one bit.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

On Time

I've just set my wrist-watches to the 'right' time (GMT according to the World Service), followed by the timer on the DVD player, and finally the timer on the VCR in the back bedroom. By wrist-watches I'm referring to my prized (but cheap) Casio digital watches, one I that regularly wear on my wrist, the other - exactly the same brand (the one without a strap because the attachment broke beyond repair) - that resides on my bedside table. The one on the bedside table gains a little. Having not reset it for some three weeks it had gained three seconds. The one I wear loses at a faster rate. Today it was out by eleven seconds. The DVD player loses even faster and needed to be adjusted by half a minute or so. The VCR gains at a phenomenal rate and was around three minutes ahead today, but then I don't always include it in the ritual re-set, out of sight being reasonably out of mind.

Clearly there's more than a tiny measure of the obsessive about all this. But I find it useful, and not excessive. The usefulness lies in the fact that I find it comforting to foster the illusion of having some control over the temporal flow, and being on time for the odd bits of things you're expected to be on time for keeps life running reasonably smoothly. (Notice I associate being on time with the setting of the clocks. Possibly these activities run on different processes, but they feel the same to me.) And I'd argue it's not terribly obsessive as I don't feel the need to set the clocks every day, or even every week. Indeed I'm prepared to let the VCR clock run rampant - for a little while, anyway.

However, I'm keenly aware that not all the world shares my mild obsession and there are times I envy the bit that doesn't. It could well be that a healthy portion of sanity lies in that direction. But I suppose I'm too far gone to change - until I finally, irrevocably, inevitably, become unstuck in time.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Conclusions

Finished Julian Barnes's Arthur & George the other day and wished I hadn't, it was so good. A sweet, autumnal ending, with George attending a sort of mega-séance for Arthur, at the Albert Hall. I thought we'd get something about those obviously faked fairy photographs that Conan Doyle got himself mixed up with but Barnes didn't bother with this embarrassment in his novel at all. I suppose the whole spiritualist movement thing was bad enough as it was.

So finally it was a novel about what we think we know and how we think we know it - good for TOK, but a touch too indirect to be all that useful.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Bit Of A Mess

Inky fingers were the order of the day, particularly those on my left hand. They were the product of a rather intense bit of work that I had no choice but to complete in a rushed manner. The work itself was fairly mindless, but the old fingers looked almost scholarly. Of course, it wasn't really ink in the true sense: the blue stuff came from something called a permanent marker, and the red splotches from a non-permanent marker.

The only marker we had when I was in primary school was the teacher who left red ink on your work. In fact, I remember filling little ink-pots and dipping short stubby pen-things in them around the time I was nine. It felt terribly grown-up, but it also resulted in some quite glorious messes. If I remember rightly, biros were frowned upon at the time.

And when I started teaching there were these wonderful things called blackboards. Somehow they were a lot more fun than the whiteboards of today. More organic, I suppose. I had a terrible habit of leaning back against them and covering my backside with chalk. And now I come to think of it, the chalk-dust got everywhere. It was difficult to deny you were a teacher in those days.

I like a good mess once in a while.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Elementary

The Arthur of Arthur & George is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Barnes paints a wonderfully penetrating yet sympathetic portrait. As I read I keep thinking back to how much I enjoyed the Holmes stories as a kid, and also, perhaps surprisingly, how much they spooked me. I found quite a few of them more frightening than the kind of horror stories I was exposed to as a youngster, but I'd be hard-pressed to explain why this was.

Their unnerving quality was captured in one or two of the Basil Rathbone movies though. Gosh, it's been years since I've seen one. The later ones in the series descend into caricature - but it's a comfortably comforting rather jolly sort of caricature.

I also loved Doyle's Brigadier Gerard tales. You don't hear about them these days but they were so often beautifully wrought pieces. In some ways the good brigadier is as archetypal as Holmes, and much more likable. For some reason I always felt very grown-up reading them.

The libraries I visited around ten years old had plenty of Sir Arthur on their shelves. I don't expect you'd see that nowadays - more's the pity.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Bit Of A Fan

Reading Julian Barnes's Arthur & George at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it, to the extent that I realise I've become a bit of a fan of his work. It looks like he joins the ranks of Robertson Davies, Peter Ackroyd, J.M. Coetzee, Margaret Atwood and David Lodge - novelists who, as far as I'm concerned, can do no wrong, the sure sign of this being that reading their stuff is effortless for me - the only effort, I suppose, being having to slow down to relish the pleasure of reading. I don't mean that I consider all their books to be masterpieces, simply that I have a kind of automatic sympathy with their work that makes it unputdownable.

I should have realised this, with regards to Barnes, before, but oddly enough I didn't. And this despite relishing A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and Flaubert's Parrot. The problem is that I read Metroland years ago, my first exposure to his work, and just didn't get it. I suppose that coloured my view and afterwards I regarded the material I liked as 'one-offs'. Except they clearly weren't. It's nice to know there are plenty of treats in store.