Saturday, December 31, 2011

A (Very) Minor Achievement

My resolution for 2011 was NOT TO PANIC. Broadly achieved, with some doubtful moments.

Now thinking of something suitable for the year in view, over the horizon - though there's always mileage in the above, of course.

Friday, December 30, 2011

My Back Pages

I'm about to complete my appointments diary for the year, with the new one for the year ahead also operational, as this week overlaps, being covered by both editions. Creature of habit that I am, I use the same type of diary (week to a view) each year, and have done so for thirty-something years.

Glancing through the contents for 2011 I am, as usual, faintly surprised by just how much got done. Looking at the generally blank pages for 2012 I am, as usual, mildly unnerved by the thought of just how full they're likely to become.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rising Damp

In the car, on the way to the supermarket this afternoon, Noi suddenly brought to my attention the fact that my shoes were unsightly - to say the least. I wasn't able to look down at that moment, driving as I was, but at the supermarket I realised what she meant. Faint patches of whitish mould embellished the surface of each of the pair so that they looked for all the world like something a tramp might have picked up from a bin, thinking they might last a couple more months. A quick rub with one of the Missus's wonderful all-purpose damp cloth thingees solved the problem, showing that, appearances notwithstanding, the sort-of-mould didn't go very deep. But it was a reminder of the penetrating nature of the climate here.

You see the shoes were my back-up pair, left outside our place in Singapore, and left there clean I assure you, one month ago. That's all it took for the damp humidity to get to them - this being the rainy season - and how! In fact, on entering the apartment yesterday you didn't need a particularly strong nose to gain an immediate awareness of the fact it had not been lived in for almost a month and there had been a lot of rain. It smelt wet, a sort of woody wet. This is a smell I first encountered in the August of 1988, on arriving in Singapore. It permeated my room at the Garden Hotel, where I stayed for a couple of weeks, and that wasn't a particularly run-down room - but it had some old wooden furniture that was suffused with the odour. The sweet decay of the tropics.

Funnily enough Noi has been talking quite a bit in the last month about how much she misses the English winter, specifically, I think the cold clear frostiness you get at sub-zero temperatures. A couple of nights of that would certainly do something to our warm tropical damp, though I'm not quite sure what that something is. But I don't miss the winter at all. I sort of enjoy our warm damp.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Further Consideration

Was thinking of the nature of art the other day, partly prompted by my sudden realisation that I might have to lecture on this very topic for our Year 6 students quite early in the new year, but also due to two strands of my reading.

I completed Joyce's Portrait and was reminded of just how good that stretch of dialogue is in Chapter 5 between Stephen and Lynch - though dominated, of course, by Stephen - on art and beauty. I think Stephen's definition of beauty, through Aquinas, is the single most insightful set of ideas I've ever come across regarding aesthetic experience, and this is given even greater resonance by being given a semi-ironic placing and presentation in the novel.

And then later in the day, idly browsing some blogs related to philosophical concerns, I came across this post by Mike LaBossiere with its attendant comments. In truth this all seemed a bit second rate after the electricity of Joyce at his brilliant best, but it served as a reminder of some basic, not terribly well thought through, positions people tend to take in this area.

Whenever I give myself over to consideration of these matters I get a sense that I'm dealing with something of huge importance - possibly crucial to our lives - and something that everyone knows is important. And yet somehow this area of human experience and endeavour forever lies beyond our ability to adequately conceptualise it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Something Lasting

The proggy music I bought the other day - Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull - still sounds fresh to me, but then a significant part of that self is still aged seventeen and loves this kind of thing. I imagine material like this is still getting issued due to the fact there are enough old geezers like myself around who've never quite grown up, prepared to shell out the readies in order to live again their misspent youths.

That seems to me true, but in a limited way. I also think the material genuinely lives because it is of worth. And I would guess that it's picking up listeners a good deal younger than myself, some a long way from being born when it was originally recorded. Just as I more than happily listen to, say, recordings by Duke Ellington and hear them as something new. In fact, a quick look at reviews of albums at amazon.com and the comments sections under various proggy items uploaded to youtube.com reveals the degree to which younger listeners are a distinct part of the audience with an ear out for these oldies.

So the question I'm asking myself is how long albums produced in the sixties and seventies, to pick out the two decades in which the recording process had become sophisticated enough to routinely ensure first rate recording of a diverse range of talent, are going to be made fairly easily available and have an audience ready to listen to them, and, of course, this goes beyond the rather narrow confines of what was once termed progressive rock. If the answer is forever, or as long as there is a forever, then this will constitute an important cultural shift. The past will always be close behind, nudging up to the present in consoling and depressing ways, telling us that nothing ever ever ever really changes. I suppose that's always been the case, but one never made with quite the kind of immediacy that can get imprinted on a CD.

(And it's just occurred to me - pardon my obtuseness in failing to see the obvious - that we now no longer even need the physical CDs for the music to be readily available. Can it ever go away? Will its lastingness confirm some kind of value being inherent within it?)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Playing Catch-up

I bought two issues of the New York Review of Books this year - from the magazine stall at Holland Village, the one on the corner near the MRT, where they sell a good deal cheaper than at Borders - and it's taken me until now to read them cover to cover. The younger me would have bought more and built up an impossible backlog, and ended up feeling guilty, so I've obviously learnt something over the years, though not very much all told. I thoroughly enjoyed reading both and hope to increase the number of issues I get to buy and read next year, but I'm not banking on doing so.

The problem is there's so much I'm keen to read in terms of actual books that reading articles feels like a bit of a cop out, a sort of undeserved holiday. And reading one book inevitably leads to just having to read something linked to it. Case in point: I'd no sooner put Dubliners down the other day than I just had to dive into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, reading the first chapter in a couple of hours, even though I originally had no intention of doing so. At the same time I was also caught up in a fast read of Hamlet, the latest Arden edition which is based solely on the second quarto. At least reading the new Arden was not exactly a reread as it is a new edition. (I've also been dipping into my older edition, the one edited by Harold Jenkins, which I've always thought of as the single best Arden edition. In light of the newer edition it now seems a bit dated, inevitably.)

Oh, and I've been reacquainting myself with Whitman's Song of Myself as one of my students is doing her Extended Essay on old Walt and it occurred to me that it's been a heck of a time since I opened my Collected Whitman - I'd forgotten that I'd relocated it to the shelves at Maison KL and was pleased to see it again when we got there in early December.

The wonderful and intimidating thing about having an interest in books is that there's never any shortage of things to be read and no chance at all that you'll ever actually catch up on your reading.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Green Christmas

Whatever the colour of your Christmas, may it be merry and bright.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dancing Out

I have resisted buying any books at all in our time here, despite having spent some time in a fair few bookshops - except, that is, for the books bought for the kids. So in this respect I feel virtuous, which helps balance a slight degree of guilt over having somewhat impulsively purchased no fewer than four CDs. The impulse was provoked by my surprise at seeing quite a decent range of 1970's proggy type material in what was otherwise an entirely run of the mill DVD/CD store in the Mid Valley Megamall. I assume someone involved in running the store has some kind of special interest in the period, resulting in a tasty selection from the likes of Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Yes, Barclay James Harvest et al. (But with some odd lacunae - no Crimson, for instance.)

Anyway, duly tempted I walked out with Tull's Heavy Horses, Yes's Drama and Tormato, and Selling England By the Pound from the classic Genesis line-up. Of the four I'm familiar only with the Genesis, which I had on vinyl in the early seventies, so it was interesting exposing myself to material that I should know, have heard plenty about second hand, but have never in fact listened to.

The one with which I am familiar inevitably brought back memories of a time when I considered Messers Gabriel, Rutherford, Banks, Collins & Hackett as quite the coolest dudes on the planet - except nobody said dudes then. And then trawling the wilds of youtube I discovered this video of them doing what I think is the best track off the album live - which I think proves the point that they were (extremely cool) for any reader not around at the time. Click on Dancing With The Moonlit Night and enjoy a bit of a dance, do.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Relocation

We're now in Alor Gajah, Melaka having delivered our various erstwhile houseguests back to the loving arms of their parents. I always feel a mild sense of relief in returning them safely, considering all the things that can go wrong in the big, bad world. It's an oddly timorous attitude but I know that such timidity lurks in my character - which is why I strive to hide it and get on with life reasonably fearlessly.

Mind you, I would suggest that when driving in this land a reasonably fearful attitude is, well, reasonable.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Making A Connection

The stint of rereading some of the texts I'm teaching next year is having an odd effect on me. I got through The Great Gatsby feeling entirely detached from the characters, though relishing the precision of the writing. This was quite a different experience from my previous reading of the novel, I think around about a year ago, when I found myself deeply involved in the enigmatic Jimmy Gatz in a way I'd never managed before.

Then it was on to Dubliners, and a similar sense of detachment. I read story after story with an unpitying eye, though feeling deeply involved at the level of style. This may have had something to do with the fact I will have to teach the stories - whatever that means.

Then I arrived at The Dead and something happened. Joyce's polished looking glass somehow evoked that simple sense of compassionate fellowship with his deeply flawed, deeply human citizens of dear dirty Dublin that I think many academic critics miss. I suppose it's because something in me identifies with Gabriel Conroy in a way that is the opposite of reassuring, and yet affords access to some troubling truths. Gabriel is trying to be a good man and in some important ways succeeding. If you are dead to the fact his speech at dinner is genuinely touching it seems to me you don't stand a chance of grasping what Joyce is up to. Yet that speech is, at the same time, deeply self-serving. Not either/or: both. So we are invited to judge him, yet the complexity of what we must deal with resists easy judgement. Like life. And all along we are judging ourselves.

When I got to the reference to Aunt Julia probably dying in the year ahead that comes just before the end of the story I suddenly realised just how much of a tribute to the two rather foolish sisters at its centre the story is, once you shift your attention from Gabriel and his concerns. My own eyes momentarily filled with the kind of generous tears that Gabriel becomes prey to in the final sequence. But, of course, Joyce alerts us to our capacity for ultimately selfish sentimentalising so we can feel that we have somehow learnt something, moved forward through his art.

I think Joyce takes us as far as fiction can go in an awareness of its powers and its real limitations. If not here, then certainly in what follows.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shining Brightly

Our haven at night, last night specifically.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Past

Yesterday we took our little team to The Curve, the new(ish) shopping centre adjacent to the big IKEA store out at Demansara. Whilst imbibing a particularly fine mug of teh tarik at the appropriately named Teh Tarik Place there I found myself in a reverie centring on our old Christmas tree - that is, the Christmas tree I grew up with at various Manchester addresses, in the 1960's and early 1970's. The catalyst for the reverie was a little tree endeavouring to be appropriately festive standing a little forlornly against the wall just behind the table at which we'd chosen to sit. It was a fake tree, curiously reminiscent of the one I grew up with and memories of our tree sort of ganged up on me as a result.

Our tree wasn't real, except it was for me, in that it was the only Christmas tree we ever had and so was the only real tree at Christmas. I remember that I felt a little sad for those poor souls who didn't have the benefit of our perfect tree. It was perfect because it never changed, so it really was Christmas. Unpacking it (we stored in in a little sort of suitcase) was predictably joyful and exciting in equal measures. The ornaments never changed - now it occurs to me that these must have been bought when I was baby, or even earlier, because we never bought any new ones that I can remember, ever. I could see those ornaments with stunning clarity yesterday, not quite what you expect to be looking at in a shopping mall in the capital of Malaysia. I could almost feel myself holding again the two tiny toy trees we used to stand at the base of the tree, unfurling their wire branches, and placing between them the plastic pointed crib, dusted with plastic snow, with the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph inside.

The year Dad died we didn't unpack the tree, and never did again. It remained in its case in the shed in the backyard at Gresham Street disregarded for years and I don't know what became of it. It was Mum who didn't want it out, and we never put up a Christmas tree again, though we enjoyed the real big ones that Maureen had every year. That was enough. I never questioned Mum as to why she didn't want it out, assuming we were on rather dangerous emotional ground, and I was too old to be unduly bothered. In fact, it was the right thing to do, in retrospect. A wonderful part of life was over, couldn't be brought back, and it would have been foolish to do so. And there were to be some fine old times to be lived out ahead of us.

Touchingly the next time I saw a tree at Christmas in Mum's place was in the flat in Hyde when we took Fifi there in December a few years ago. A tiny one appeared in the living room, just in front of the electric fire. I think Mum thought that with a kid in the house some sort of tree was a necessity, though with this child the tree was, of course, quite pointless.

I don't get sentimental about Christmases long gone. They were wonderful, and I am deeply grateful for them, but they are over and there is too much to celebrate about living today to feel any sense of yearning. I was incredibly lucky to have had that tree though.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Moments

Fuad & Rozita & family took off this morning for the south, leaving us slightly depleted, slightly quieter. Memories of the past few days above. What larks, eh?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Togetherness

With Fuad, Rozita & Fifi joining us over the weekend and Hamzah coming across yesterday with Sabrina & Aiman it's been a full house - the way we like it. Major celebration of such at the Bom Corner yesterday simply served to confirm this.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Up To Speed

Racing through Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind the narrator's (or is it the writer's) obsession with food seems at times the most obvious surface feature of the text. I suppose it represents a deep reality of Vietnamese culture, but I do wonder if there isn't something very personal going on here. Assuming Mdm Duong can get cable tv under house arrest (I think that's her situation at this time) I reckon she's an obvious candidate for an addiction to Masterchef.

By the way, the strong women in the novels of Duong Thu Huong and Arundhati Roy shred to little pieces simplistic stereotypes of submissive Asian females - as do the writers themselves, of course. There's something more than a little intimidating reading the work of ladies whose moral courage in standing against oppression sort of puts one's own rather skulking little life to shame.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Slowing Down

It's not all been speed reading at this address in recent days, though I may have given impressions to the contrary of late.

For example, I've been lingering over Seamus Heaney's The Haw Lantern in a most rewarding fashion, though I did read the poems in the 'correct' order. In this case I would read a single poem several times before moving on, but once I'd moved forward there was no looking back. Thus I got the benefit of being able to muse over the placing of the pieces in a larger whole (possibly illusory, of course - a bit like the sequencing of an album) whilst never feeing that I was unduly rushing through.

Also I took my time over a reading of As You Like It, using two editions at the same time, these being the last two Ardens - the second and third series. There's some good material around the business attending upon gender in the most recent edition and I found that refreshing. I doubt that I would have taken it terribly seriously thirty years ago, but times, and readers, change. I'd love to see an all male cast version of the play: a boy playing a girl pretending to be a man pretending to be a girl. And what viewer does not fall in love with fair Rosaline?

As a way of getting going on the Shakespeare I reread James Shapiro's 1599 - he has much to say about As You Like It and Hamlet, among others, since he reckons this was the year of composition for both. What he says is stimulating, though I wouldn't necessarily take it as gospel. These are texts I'm teaching next year, by the way, so I feel I'm being quite the good boy for working so hard, when I'm not really working at all, of course.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Not Knowing

Completed my dash through Doyle's Booker Prize winner this morning. What stood out for me on this reading is the degree to which the novel is concerned with how much we don't know about what's going on around us, especially, though not exclusively, as far as children are concerned. Paddy's world is a poorly constructed patchwork of silly stories, legends - those that children so fruitfully generate, misunderstandings and downright untruths, often comically so. But since we generally only know what we know through him, we're not in much of a better position.

An odd comparison struck me just now. The narrative voice in Ray's The God of Small Things trades in a kind of knowingness, yet equally strongly conjures the essential anxiety that is the centre of childhood. The novels really couldn't be much more different in this regard, and yet are so alike.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fringe Benefits

Almost everything I'm reading at the moment is related to stuff I'll be teaching next year. And that's more than fine by me. In fact, since all the reading involves re-reading, strictly speaking none of it is necessary. Essentially this is all for pleasure.

I'm now racing through Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha having completed Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things in double-quick time yesterday. Keeping up the pace is my way of grasping the totality of novels that I know too well from close analysis - which is, in turn, a way of staying fresh. It works for me, though given the imaginative verve of each of these novels it'd be difficult to conceive of any kind of reading not working.

Just as a matter of interest, Ms Roy's novel seems to me the most extraordinary one-off. Assuming she never writes another we'll be left to wonder how everything came together so perfectly this one time. I'm puzzled over the way she seems to be regarded as some kind of derivative Rushdie-clone in certain quarters. Her single novel is so obviously superior to anything he's done, partly, though not simply, because it has heart as well as intelligence.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kids' Stuff

A little reminder of the realities of life yesterday when one of our house-guests (no names, no pack-drill) decorated the floor of the car with the contents of her stomach. In our over-confidence we'd forgotten to provide the usual quota of plastic bags in front of the back seat, so we were partly to blame.

I must admit to experiencing a flash of irritation following the event, but then memories set in of my own indiscretions in this area as a child, and these, being reinforced by the obvious feelings of guilt of the unfortunate culprit, brought home the common sense realisation that sympathy was the necessary response. It helped that, as always, Noi dealt with the mess and the messer with extraordinary aplomb and oodles of tact. An honorary degree in Child Psychology for that lady would not go amiss, believe me.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cry Freedom

Took the team to the Central Market yesterday, where there are all sorts of art shops, it being a very arty location. We got some rather colourful batik painting done. But the real highlight of the day for me was an exhibition/fund-raiser by Amnesty International (Malaysia) occupying the top floor of the annex to the market building.

The girls bought quite a few little badges there, reminding me of the great punk years of the late-seventies, at which time I was myself a member of Amnesty. There was a table provided for those who wanted to write letters to various governments asking for consideration for particular prisoners of conscience. I got one done, reminding me of efforts in those earlier years.

I walked out full of admiration for the drive of the organisers. I don't think it can be all that easy getting political in this way, in this part of the world. Oh, and feeling pretty guilty that somehow I've managed to let this side of myself lapse.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Deep Sea

When I first read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, quite some years ago, I remember thinking that I didn't really grasp the novel in the way I felt I should. But I also felt its power.

Fast forward a few years, and my response is eerily similar. Somehow I don't quite get the central story. Antoinette remains a mystery to me. Possibly necessarily so? I feel this is another one of those novels I'm failing to live up to.

Though I could not help but wonder if Ms Rhys was completely in control of her material. The initial shifting of perspective in the Rochester section (back to Antoinette) seems ungainly somehow. And Rochester's voice is never that of a nineteenth century gentleman, depite the general strength and insight of the characterisation here. But this is to split hairs over a novel that transcends any limitations (real or imaginary) it might have through the truth at its core.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hilarity

Quite what it is that makes almost anything anybody says hilariously funny when you are twelve years old, or thereabouts, I have forgotten. But I am reminded that such is the case by the laughter of the four young ladies in our care at present.

Actually Mak Ndak and I are quite supernumerary as things stand - we function simply as providers of the necessities upon which the general hilarity of the household is built. I'm all in favour of this arrangement as it requires little from me other than to drive the transport and open the wallet. Mak Ndak takes care of the sustenance, of course.

The only problem is figuring out where to take the troops so they can entertain themselves. We're working on solving that one for today before our charges surface from their sleep. Yes, it's early afternoon and they still haven't emerged., which is proving par for the course. The hilarious nature of life makes it particularly exhausting, I suppose.

13.00

Update on the delayed surfacing of four young ladies in this household. It turns out that they stayed up talking about stuff until 0530. I didn't know there was so much stuff in the world to talk about.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

On The Outside

Read Camus's The Outsider today. I'd forgotten how strange a novel it is. The lack of affect on behalf of the narrator, as psychiatrists would say, is the whole point of the tale, and how curiously appropriate for our times that is.

And then there's Camus's curious afterword - he sees Meursault as characterised by an inability to lie - and that, of course, would make him an outsider in any age.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Panicking

Squad strength standing at four - Aleen, Ayu, Nurul and Fafa - we're now resident in Maison KL, experiencing the usual problems with phone-lines and getting connected. Fafa particularly bemoans the situation, telling us that three days without Facebook means she'll die. We're now taking steps to access a broadband service, with Hamzah's inestimable assistance, this being the reason I'm able to post this at this ungodly hour.

I'm still recovering from an unpleasant moment undergone at the Starbucks at Times Square the other day. We'd let the kids loose on the indoor theme park and gone to the afore-mentioned coffee house to avail ourselves of their free wifi. I got out the old laptop and fired it up, only to find it didn't fire at all (or, rather, boot up, as I think the jargon goes) despite four attempts to achieve this fairly mundane state of affairs. This strongly suggested to me that there was a major problem with the hard disk thingee, and I spent the next few hours considering life without all the vital data on said disk, which I haven't, I'm afraid to say, regularly backed up.

When we got back in the evening I tried the laptop again and it did the business effortlessly, to my enormous relief. What had gone wrong, I have no idea, and the relief compensated for the anguish of those few hours of uncertainty. And I promise to be a good boy in future and do all the necessary backing-up, having been let off the hook this time.

How on earth and when in history did I ever get to be so utterly dependent on this machine?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Staying Alive

Read Death of a Salesman yesterday. Not sure exactly how many times I've read the play cover to cover - or watched it in performance - but Miller's tragedy just grows in its power for me, to the point where it's become close to unbearable in its truth.

This time round I was struck by just how despicable Willy is in his treatment of Linda, and how far Linda goes to deserve that treatment. (How exactly does she come to admire her husband? That's the word that Miller gives us.) As to how I'd managed previously to somehow ignore this pretty obvious aspect of the drama, I really don't have much of an explanation. This is very, very uncomfortable territory.

Something similar happens with The Crucible. In each case what might have been a thesis-play is transformed by the subterranean concerns of the dramatist and explodes into uncomfortable, uncontrollable life.

Oh, and something else that hit me hard this time. In a world obsessed with telling people, especially young people, to live their dreams, where does Miller's dreaming Salesman sit?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

This Is The Life

We're now in Melaka, having made our way north yesterday. Noi provided a typically succinct summary of our progress here so far earlier in the evening: Eat, eat, eat and sleep, sleep, sleep. Nothing since has served to alter this pleasing pattern. Long may it continue.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rather Too Cool

For the last three years we've found ourselves in not-so-sunny Manchester at this time of year. I suppose this is why Noi has spent much of the day saying, Normally we'd be going into Ashton this afternoon, and the like. I must say that far from finding myself missing the dark satanic mills of Lancashire, my verdict is that it's nice not to be dealing with the cold weather.

Except that I found myself freezing just now on a bus we took over to the east coast. We were on the top deck and whoever determines the settings for these things had obviously decided that all on board were secretly yearning for a frost with regard to how strong the air-conditioning needed to be. So that's what we got. The condensation created on the windows made it impossible to see out. In fact, it looked for all the world like a drab day in Hyde out there.

Brrrhhhh. As they usually don't say in this place.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Darkness Visible

Got hold of a copy of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier the other day. Since I had no idea the volume had been published the acquisition came as a pleasant surprise. It's obviously handsomely produced promising hours of not so innocent fun.

But I must say I'm taken aback at just how many layers of narrative Alan Moore plays around with. Fortunately I like this kind of thing, so it's more than okay with me. But a glance at some reviews on amazon suggests I'm in a minority. Which fills me with a kind of delight - that Messers Moore & O'Neill get away with this.

I can't imagine the Hollywood execs will consider a movie of this one, so we are guaranteed safety in that direction.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Having

Cleaned my books, the ones in the Hall, the other day. A reminder of just how much I have at hand (which isn't really mine, of course), and how rich I am as a result.

The problem presented by possessions is living up to them.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some Life

I had been hoping to watch some of the DVDs from Attenborough's Life series during fasting month, but things just didn't work out. So now I'm putting that right. Two episodes in two days constitutes a good start, and has left me wondering how I left off watching for so long.

As usual watching this kind of documentary (Life on Earth - The Blue Planet - Planet Earth) raises the fascinating question - for me, at least - of how to classify the experience. If this isn't art I don't know what is. Visually exquisite, sonically powerful.

Today I was struck by the perfection of Sir David's commentary. Direct, unfussy, insightful. And moving. The pictures speak for themselves in terms of the wonder and grandeur (even in minute particulars) of the natural world but he invests it with, paradoxically, a sense of humanity. The sequence of the octopus mother inevitably dying (from lack of food) after tending her brood in the first episode, The Challenges of Life, achieved an archetypal power through its very reticence.

And eight more episodes to go!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Imperious

Trying to get up to speed with my reading of fiction. In broad terms I'm all for slow reading, but I think I've tended to take this to extremes of late. So I treated myself to Robert Harris's Imperium, of which I'd heard great things from reviewers relating to pace and readability. They were not wrong. Hardly put it down in the day and a half it took me to read it. Who'd have thought the rise to power of one Marcus Tullius Cicero could have been rendered quite so gripping? Well, I would, for one. Let's face it, the Romans were such nasty types that pretty much everything they got up to makes for a lurid read. But the fact that Mr Harris actually gets the job done with such vigour and insight is to be applauded loudly.

Popular fiction at its best.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Actually Books

Popped down to Books Actually in Tiong Bahru this afternoon. It's a sort of indie bookshop I've read about a few times but never got round to visiting. Rather glad I did today. It was worth it for the more than decent range of local lit on display - especially the poetry. Of course, since I've vowed not to buy any more real books but go virtual I found myself in a bit of a quandary. I resolved this by deciding to make an exception for local material and find a way of getting it shelved at work. But abstinence has become such a habit that I came away with only one publication (other than something else as a present for someone) this being the fourth edition of Ceriph, a sort of magazine of current writing - and very handsomely produced it is too. One of my ex-students, Daryl, has a couple of pieces in it and I am keen to see how they look in print.

By a sort of coincidence being able to see Daryl's stuff (a poem and short prose piece) in print has followed hard on the heels of spotting some poems by other talented young writers of my acquaintance in a volume entitled Roots and Wings - a collection of material generated through the Creative Arts Programme, a project for young writers undertaken annually by the Ministry of Education here. I was given the volume as a freebie following my contribution to a conference last week and have been thoroughly enjoying dipping into it. Oh, and I should say the same of the rather thinner (but equally rich) Though Roach Eyes, a collection of stories from kids in primary schools here based on the splendid notion of a cockroach in a hawker centre as narrator.

I'm always concerned about sounding patronising about students' creative work. I don't fake enthusiasm for what I read, ever, and in the case of students' work I've never had to. The stuff these guys are producing more than repays attention.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Wanting

My instincts for acquisition, which broadly speaking rarely feature with undue prominence in life's comedy, well not in recent years anyway, came fiercely to life this week on my being exposed to two instances of seeing a kindle - the e-reader thingee from amazon - in action. I got really close up to one belonging to my Yankee colleague Greg, and seriously considered purloining the little beauty until I figured I couldn't download anything on it.

Which leads to the big question: why won't those good people at my favourite on-line retailer (actually the only one I've ever bought anything from, I think, other than airline and concert tickets) allow us to use the darn things here on this fine little island? It's not as if this is cowboy territory when it comes to issues of copyright, well not in recent years at least. Maybe they think we're part of China?

Well-meaning folks, by the way, have informed me of all sorts of ways of getting around the ban (if that's what it is) involving arranging addresses for credit cards in the US & UK and buying gift vouchers from amazon itself, but I haven't got the energy. I just want one of those pretty devices, and I want it now.

(Actually I don't want it now really as I've got loads of real books still to read, but I'm feeling infantile, I'm feeling like a real consumer, for once.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Star Quality

One of my favourite productions of Richard III is the one done by the BBC, sometime in the 1980's, in their series encompassing all the plays. This placed RIII in context as the companion to Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3. We first see Richard, played by Ron Cook, as just another of the many nobles relentlessly pursuing the complex course of British history, in HVI, Part 3, and there's nothing terribly outstanding about him until we get towards the end of the play. And then Shakespeare seems to discover the great villain who is set to dominate the final play in the series through his explosive, demonic energy. In this context Richard is outstanding, yes, but he's also part of the fabric of the sequence as a whole and can't be entirely understood outside the patterns within that sequence.

Ron Cook's performance isn't that of a star, but of a fine ensemble player who is still part of the world around him. The comedy is there, but restrained, never really breaking the frame. He looms large, but not larger than life.

But there's another way of looking at the play and the character, not more valid, but equally valid, I think. This is to see the role as a vehicle for a star, a Burbage who will eat up the stage; this calls for a Richard who wrenches the conceptual frame containing him so out of shape that we know it cannot hold him. Even in his defeat he is thrillingly alive in a way those around him are not. I'm not talking here of psychological depth, though. I'm talking of dramatic possibilities - Richard has no depth, he is all actor, all surface, personifying something of the demonic power of the stage itself.

This is the Richard that Kevin Spacey brilliantly rendered last night. He blew everyone else off the stage, such that sturdy performances were made to seem wooden. I say this not in any spirit of criticism of those performances. The (im)balance felt right. Our Hollywood star wasn't upstaging anyone. The sense of ensemble playing was still there, and Sam Mendes in his direction played scrupulous attention to the full world of the play - rightly showing that that world is never truly alive other than when Richard is bustling within it.

Great show.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

It's Not All Discontent

Busy day seeing some students about on-going work, preparing to give a presentation at some conference or other tomorrow, and listening to The Who's Quadrophenia - and not necessarily in that order.

Now prettyfying myself enough to be seen in public as we're off to watch Kevin Spacey in Richard III. Double Yowza!!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Into The Light

When we were in Paris with the girls the Musee D'Orsay was shut due to the 'culture workers' strike which was disappointing to say the least. But it was some compensation that we were able to take Fafa this afternoon to a travelling exhibition of key art-works from the museum from the late nineteenth century entitled Dreams & Reality. This was handsomely mounted at the National Museum of Singapore. Featuring such luminaries as Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec, with Van Gogh's Starry Night as a sort of centrepiece, it's a case of What's not to like? - the answer being, nothing; it's all utterly splendid.

But I must say, I came out with a particularly enhanced appreciation of Degas. There was only one ballerinas piece, which was lovely, but what knocked me sideways were three drawings by the Master, each of which represented a sort of perfection through their transparent simplicity. The one of his younger brother achieved a kind of radiance. (And just using a pencil!)

And by the way, if you've ever thought the ubiquity of Van Gogh and the whole Vincent thing undercuts him as a great, great artist, you're completely wrong. He continues to blaze forth.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

History Lessons

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

I found myself thinking of young Dedalus's conversation with Mr Deasy in the National Museum in Beijing recently. Worried I'm turning into Mr Deasy though.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Coming Into View

Something very unusual for me: I watched three films, or rather one film and two film-length telly programmes in a twenty-four hour period recently. Considering I'm often pressed to manage watching a single film from one end to the other in a year, this was quite a departure. My viewing binge began on the flight back from Beijing. Having watched nothing on the way over I felt obliged to indulge in some form of in-flight entertainment. The music wasn't great so I opted for Rise of the Planet of the Apes based on the fact I found the expression on the lead ape from the publicity stills intriguing. Quite enjoyed the piece, partcularly the characterisation of Caesar, the ape in question. It seems that somehow or other this was Andy Serkis in camouflage. The only problem was that I found myself completely on the side of the simians and I'm not sure this was what the film-makers required of me.

Next day, having woken unusually early and dragged myself to the living room, I watched in succession an episode each of Wire In The Blood and Wallender on the BBC Entertainment channel. Both dealt with that obsessive plague of recent British culture, serial killers. I found the first routine, a bit thin, but watchable, and the second utterly compelling. In fact the Missus got to see the end of the Wallender episode and it was clear she was getting hooked despite having missed most of it. But do I intend to watch other episodes? No, not necessarily. The morning's experience felt like a one-off; a holiday from my usual concerns, and precious as a holiday rather than any kind of routine. Mind you, I might just treat myself to a Wallender novel and see how I get on.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Laughing, Forgetting

Didn't get a vast amount of reading done in China, but enjoyed the to-ing and fro-ing of ideas between agile minds as a compensation. Like to think I threw a few thought-bombs in there myself. Hope the casualties benefit from their wounds.

But this is not to say I didn't accomplish anything in terms of grappling with the printed page. I reread the Lu Xun stories I'd put up for discussion just so I wouldn't get completely lost and, to my deep gratification, Medicine came stunningly alive for me as it had never done before. Actually got goose bumps on the last page.

I also made a start on Walden, which I've been meaning to do for ages, but this was only on the last couple of days. Still on the Economy chapter, but enjoying a slow, appreciative read - the only kind that really works with Thoreau, I suspect.

Fortunately I found the perfect read for this trip in Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, a short book comprising seven pieces - interviews, addresses, that sort of thing - centring on the nature of fiction. This was given to me by Natalie as a present for Teachers' Day and I'm glad she did because I would never have thought to read it otherwise. (Worried Disclaimer: Any of my students reading this, please don't take it that it's a good idea to give me books, if you happen to be feeling generous - and there's no reason to think you should be. I'm more than happy with your simple good wishes.)

Kundera's little book has more dazzling, disturbing ideas per page than it's wise for any man (or woman) to expose himself (or herself) to. Perfect reading for the dissident in any repressive republic. Thought bombs to shake all varieties of walls.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

From Behind The Great Wall

Got back from Beijing late last night. A fulfilling trip in a variety of ways, but it's good to be back. Apart from anything else, it's nice to be able to write from this Far Place, access to which was denied in the people's republic, as I discovered on my first evening there. Fortunately, or otherwise, I was able to access e-mail so I didn't feel entirely out of touch with concerns related to the Toad, work. And sites like Soccernet were available - but Blogger, Wordpress, Facebook and their like were obviously deemed a threat to public order (as they wonderfully are) so I was unable to engineer the downfall of the state by telling the world how foggy it is in Tianjin.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Puzzling

Finally put the not-so-great Dictator's life behind me a couple of days back and would heartily recommend Ian Kershaw's biography to anyone wanting to learn about the extraordinary mechanisms of self-deception. I say this not simply with the egregious Adolf in mind but the whole cast of the cess-pit Reich that came to surround him. The puzzle is not so much the man himself, a randomly unhappily fortunate crazy man, as the society that made him, let him, happen.

How on earth could so many of these people be so stupidly, mindlessly, barmily, unfathomably, unthinkingly anti-Semitic? (In passing, it's worth noting that a lot of support for the maniac came from teachers.)

Hitler's complete divorce from reality in the later years, though, springs from a simple and all-too-familiar source. This is Kershaw describing the origin of the illusions about pretty much every aspect of life in the Reich that dominated policy by 1942: It was a problem that afflicted the entire dictatorship - up to and including Hitler himself. Only positive messages were acceptable. Pessimism (which usually meant realism) was a sign of failure. Distortions of the truth were built into the communications system of the Third Reich at every level - most of all in the top echelons of the regime.

Every organisation should find something worth considering there, especially those who come to believe their own publicity.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pastures New

Not had time to get terribly excited about going to Beijing on Saturday, but beginning to register just how personally momentous this visit is for someone who thought Nixon going there was something quite amazing. (Note to self: must listen to Adams's Nixon In China again, soon.) I'm accompanying a class comprising students on the Humanities scholarship, so I'm there representing Literature, with another two colleagues going as History & Economics respectively. Should be enlightening to piggy-back on their expertise. We'll be taking in the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City, amongst other fabled - and not-so-fabled - places. (A visit to the Lenovo Group doesn't stir quite as much anticipation in me.)

I should have been looking at the Lonely Planet guide or something, but reading Lu Xun has been the full extent of my preparation. We'll be going to the Luxun Museum, it seems, and I'm intrigued to find out what the authorities there make of him. Not easy to tame, I would have thought. Rather too angular for that. Should be fun.

Noi, rather more pragmatic than myself, thank goodness, tells me it was just two degrees centigrade in Beijing yesterday. So perhaps not so much fun.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Other IB

For most of the young people of my acquaintance IB stands for one thing only (International Baccalaureate, for any readers innocent of educational affairs.) However, I recently discovered another usage of those friendly initials in a musical context. I've known for a little while of a Swedish band known as Isilidurs Bane and resolutely avoided anything to do with them on the grounds that any group taking their name from Tolkien should necessarily be avoided. I was mistaken in doing so, as exposure to a recent podcast from the inimitable Sid Smith revealed.

Just follow the link above to discover musical riches related to the recent IB Expo, at least one piece sounding like the great Frank Zappa at his greatest. Oh, and Jakko Jakszyk's Catley's Ashes which also features, I rate as my favourite not-Crimson Crimson instrumental.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Just Dreaming

Had an odd dream the other night. In it I was talking to Mum, having quite a normal, mundane conversation. Suddenly I realised how normal she was and wondered when the great improvement had taken place. Then I must have awoken.

I didn't feel any sense of disappointment on awaking, or any euphoria in the dream at her being restored to normal. In fact, I think I felt something almost the opposite: a feeling of things not being quite right. Sometimes an acceptance of the way things are is best, well, accepted.

I'll be ringing Maureen & John tonight though.

Monday, November 7, 2011

With A Vengeance

Got the end in sight with regard to Ian Kershaw's Hitler. Hoped to finish it here in Melaka, but got a bit held up by some stuff I needed to prepare for work, and making a start on reading a few of Lu Xun's stories with an upcoming trip to Beijing in mind (of which more anon.)

One unlooked for source of pleasure in reading these final pages is being able to enjoy reading of the various horrors Herr Hitler and his cronies brought on themselves in terms of the personal suffering they underwent. It's not very noble of me to get a kick out of the suffering of others, but I'm afraid I did. So there you are.

Unfortunately they didn't suffer enough - not even close - for their sins. In this world, anyway.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Contrasts

Something else regarding the Springsteen Promise set, specifically relating to the experience of the song The Promise itself. The track following, City of Night, works in wonderful contrast to the melancholy invoked by The Promise, this despite the sombre overtones of its title. Springsteen adopts a persona familiar from many other songs - the fecklessly engaging guy out for a good time with his girl - and convinces you that the stolen moments of simple delight in just having a good old time more than compensate for whatever else life may bring. And it's so well done that as long as you're in the song you believe it.

So the juxtaposition of the songs is in itself part of the (greater?) meaning of the whole.

The decline of the physical album, first in its vinyl lp form (with two sides) and then as compact disk, means that the possibility of such meaningful juxtapositions will inevitably be reduced. We'll be the poorer for it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Broken Promises

Listened yesterday to both CDs in Springsteen's The Promise (aka The Lost Sessions: Darkness on the Edge of Town.) Struck as ever by the incendiary talent of the guy. I mean, this is largely stuff that didn't make it to official release and it's obviously classic. Having said that, it's taken me several months to grow accustomed enough to the songs to assimilate the big choruses, big melodies, rich arrangements that the Boss accurately characterises this work as possessing in his liner notes.

As so often with the work of a writer who's been in any one's terms a stunning success, it's Springsteen's ability to deal with failure and the broken lives of those who've faced it that seems to come from a place beyond mere talent. He gets inside ordinary lives to explore territory we usually avoid. The brilliant song from which the set takes its title is an example: When the promise is broken you go on living / But it steals something from down in your soul. It's saying something obvious, that we all know, but of which we need reminding when so much of what we encounter in popular culture talks of having it all - and going into a hissy fit when we don't get it.

Come to think of it, that's what seems to go on in schools so much of the time. It's amazing the number of kids who are told they'll be the leaders of tomorrow when they won't. Preparing people for inevitable disappointment still serves some use, I think.

Friday, November 4, 2011

On The Way

Thinking of the pilgrims at Mina now, soon to be moving to 'Arafah, and praying for their safety. Sort of wishing to be there, at the still centre of things, but I suppose that's a place in the heart at the end of all things.

We're off to Melaka ourselves tomorrow. We journey to keep from standing still.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Systems Down

After getting home I put on Chopin's Nocturnes (the Baremboin set) and crashed out halfway through the first. Revived enough to get through the early part of the evening and then it was back to the land of nod as we were watching tv - the rather grimly overly-glamourised X-Factor USA. Now struggling to stay awake long enough to get to bed and crash again.

Good night, sleep tight.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Something To Love

It's a day late, but still worth thinking about the opening of John Clare's November in his inimitable The Shepherd's Calendar: The village sleeps in mist from morn till noon /And if the sun wades thro tis wi a face / Beamless and pale and round as if the moon / When done the journey of its nightly race / Had found him sleeping and supplyed his place...

And why worth thinking about? Because Clare, poor mad Clare, is a writer not to like, but to love. This is England. The real England, of the mind. Of Blake. Of Vaughan Williams. Of Dickens. My England. Gone.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Something Lyrical

Been preparing recently for a lesson involving looking at the lyrics of a few songs. Difficult to narrow down the choice of what to use, but Shakespeare, Coward, Sondheim, Lennon, McCartney, Dylan, Reid, Belew, and Meloy feature. Odd that I've got nothing by a lady - or possibly uncomfortably revealing. Did consider Ms Mitchell v. seriously though. Couldn't use any rap because I was uncomfortable printing the swearing involved in the booklet for the course, but I didn't want to stoop to censorship either, or misrepresent the genre by looking for something 'clean'.

Struck by the fact that for the later songs I cover it's proved almost essential to feature the accompanying video. I was intending to try and show the class how the lyrics don't stand alone from the accompanying music, but I realise how far behind the times I am. It's the total experience that counts, sort of moving beyond literature - and I must say I consider that no bad thing.

Monday, October 31, 2011

True Horror

Watched a programme tonight dealing in part with the kind of low level teasing-cum-bullying that can leave youngsters isolated, vulnerable, alone, depressed. It was hard to take simply because it's so common, so unexceptional. You see it as a teacher sometimes and, awfully, there's precious little you can do about it.

I kept thinking of a girl in the school in which I taught before my current one, who was around eleven, twelve, thirteen when I was there. I didn't actually teach her, but I know that in the time I was there I didn't once see her smile. Never. It was easy to guess there was no reason to.

This kind of thing can make you debilitatingly sad, so it's important not to let that happen. And who knows, she might have risen above it all and been better for it. The resilience you see in the most unlikely places is cause for hope.

The world's too big to throw your arms around it. But that's no excuse for making excuses.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

False Alarm

Came around suddenly circa 0630 to the sound of Noi's alarm. A muddy glance at the trusty watch on the table at the side of my bed and I announce that I've forgotten to set my alarm (for 0605) and I am late. I stagger to the bathroom trying to figure out if I should do the dawn prayer prior to brushing my teeth and showering, in order to make up for lost time. It's not a terrible crisis as I'm not due at work until 0725, but things will still take a bit of figuring. Since I can't think straight I just start brushing my teeth, thinking I'd better get on with something.

Then, four minutes into the brushing, it occurs to me that this is Sunday and all the fuss has been completely unnecessary.

Chastened I go back to Noi and confess my error. She is amused and not amused, and advises me to just do the prayer and shut up. I do so, feeling relieved and stupid in roughly equal measures.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Little Bit Down

For some reason I can't quite get hold of, my reading has been distinctly skittish of late. From maintaining a disciplined approach to having just a couple of books on the go I've been jumping haphazardly from tome to tome with just one big read to hold the whole thing together - and it's Kershaw's biography of der Fuhrer that's been playing that role of late.

Adding to my mild sense of dissatisfaction is the fact that I'm not exactly enjoying Kershaw's magnum opus. Oh, it's a fine work and extremely gripping with some powerful insights. The problem is, I'm finding it casts a bit of a pall on life in general. This is extreme stuff and tends to colour one's views of just about everything. The sense of low-lying anger at the culture that let it all happen is vaguely debilitating - and there's a worrying feeling attendant upon that of being somehow unfair to the participants and over-judgemental. In the same situation would I have done any better?

God, I hope so.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Question Of Style

A tv presenter chappie who goes by the unlikely name of Gok Wan has become quite a favourite of Noi's. Even as I write she's watching one of the many programmes in which he features on one of the 'lifestyle' channels - How To Look Good Naked. The very title suggests the tele at its most vulgar and pointless, and Gok himself is a sort of high powered fashionista, full of gushing advice about personal style and gushing enthusiasm for the most unlikely garments and accessories (as it seems that the pointless odd bits and pieces that ladies wear or carry are known.)

On paper I should detest the guy, but I find him oddly engaging and really quite likeable. I can actually watch an entire programme without undue irritation. As to why this is the case, I suppose two factors help explain the mystery. First of all he comes across as essentially generous, genuinely liking the very, very ordinary folks he helps dress up and appreciating the most ordinary, unpromising of bodies. (There's nothing in the slightest bit salacious about the Naked programme. It could be family viewing.) Secondly he's very good at what he does, and he does a lot of it with cheap affordable clothing which in itself sends a very important message.

So here am I, going back in the living room to watch the action on the catwalk - something I could never have imagined myself saying a year ago, and which remains deeply uncharacteristic, I hasten to add.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Shelter From The Storm

A wonderful storm engulfed us around 2.40 this afternoon. Enjoyed it hugely. Then thought of the floods in Bangkok and reconsidered. It's my good fortune to be in a place where being engulfed does not involve being engulfed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Breakthrough

I'm extremely dubious regarding my ability to point anyone in the right direction for listening to classical music. I mention this as Rei asked me something along these lines the other day and I've been thinking about what I might usefully say since then. The problem is that not only am I no expert, I am so lacking in anything close to expertise in this area as to be painfully inadequate.

However, I suppose it is of some relevance and potential helpfulness that I've managed to go from being almost completely unable to apply myself to listening to such music to actually being able to apply myself to reasonably sustained appreciative listening. And it's of interest (to me, anyway) to note that this came about largely after a very intense experience in my middle-twenties.

I borrowed some recordings, old fashioned lps, mostly of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams from a friend and suddenly, gloriously understood exactly the appeal of what I was listening to. The excitement of realising there was all this wonderful stuff waiting to be experienced was extraordinarily powerful, such that even at a remove of almost thirty years I can more than remember it, I can taste it, touch it. And once I'd 'got' VW so much else followed naturally, as it were, though perhaps not with quite the same intensity: Holst, Bax, Elgar, Britten (the more obvious Brits); Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, Sibelius, Ives, Copeland, Gershwin, Bartok. And all these Moderns gave me a kind of access to the past.

So I guess I'd recommend listening pretty much to anything by VW as a starting point for someone looking for the same kind of breakthrough. But I have some reservations about this. Just because it worked for me, I'm not sure that would generally translate into instant understanding for others. In fact, VW seems to me so fundamentally wrapped up with a sense of Englishness that I'm very unsure he would work for anyone beyond those shores. But for anyone who's interested I'd suggest starting with The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. After that, you'd know.

Another composer who I seemed to 'get' effortlessly was Copeland. Appalachian Spring is a useful test piece. Again, if it works you're in.

In both cases, by the way, I made no real effort at the time to listen. I didn't need to. I think that was important to the experience, though I'm now keen to make sure I actively listen to any kind of music. That's oddly contradictory, but there it is.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nothingman

I've been reading Ian Kershaw's biography of Adolf Hitler, the single volume version, and have reached the later part of the 1920's. Struck by the strange nullity of the man - partly a product of his deliberate remoteness, a strategy for fostering the cult of the Fuhrer, but also somehow integral to who he was, or wasn't. As if he lost whatever self he had, possessed by the demons that drove him to his final nowhere world.

Anyone who believes in leaders and leadership, and the following thereof, needs to read this, Kershaw's biography I mean, and think.

Whatever else he knew he'd certainly figured out the mechanisms of projection. The men around him were not all fools, yet somehow they fell for the cheap theatrical tricks.

Never trust a man with an intense gaze and a firm handshake.

Monday, October 24, 2011

In The Crowd

Yesterday's Little India experience was a rich one in many ways, one of those ways being its reminder of just many people it's possible to cram into quite a small area of a city and keep in what seems to be continuous movement. Everyone was going somewhere, very determinedly, but no one appeared to be arriving.

At one point I mentioned to Noi that a good eighty percent of those around us were male, and this alone made the experience rather different than that of the Geylang crowds in Ramadhan. We guessed that the majority of the guys were 'foreign workers', as they are designated, out for bargains and companionship. What I didn't say was that a similarly constituted crowd in the UK would feel threatening. This one felt busy, a little giddy, but fundamentally welcoming.

It was fascinating to look at the little groups hunkered down on empty patches of ground wherever they could find them. Plastic bags of the bits and pieces they'd picked up to mark their territory, plastic cups to drink out of, a bottle or two shared between them Sometimes alcohol, but not necessarily so. Making the best of (not many) things. No one is going to go looking for role models in these places - which is a pity as I reckon you'd probably find more than a few.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Bit Of Luck

Two pieces of good fortune this evening.

One: I am not in Manchester.

Two: I honoured my promise to take the Missus to Serangoon Road for our annual Deepavali experience and so wasn't watching the events of the evening from the Theatre of Dreams. I'll probably be able to watch the replay in a month or so (when we're back on top and all this is behind us.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Coming Alive

Took our Humanities scholars to see, or rather listen to, the SSO playing Mahler 7 last night. I'd talked to the students in advance of the need to put effort into listening, bearing in mind that for some of them eighty minutes of Mahler at one go might be some seventy-five minutes too many. But it looked as if they felt it was time well spent. It'll be interesting to harvest some frank views next week.

I'd prepared for the event by listening to the Seventh three or four times over the last couple of weeks. I first heard it live as performed by the Halle some twenty-five years ago and hadn't been terribly impressed then. But that was a case of thwarted expectations. Learning that it had two 'nocturnes' I assumed it was going to be ethereally swoony, and it wasn't because it isn't. But I remember thinking it would be well worth listening to it again (and again) just to get hold of what Mahler was up to. And since I've now made the effort (a little late, but never mind) I rather think I have managed to grasp the essence of what's going on here.

I reckon Mahler was very conscious of a sense of defeating expectations, and that each movement is an approach to a kind of convention of music that he then deconstructs. So there's lots of parody, but this blurs into genuine expressions of feelings in ways that are destabilising, but fascinatingly so.

Anyway, whatever old Gustav was up to, the SSO did him proud. They really sparkled last night.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Not Overly Comfortable

About half an hour before I was due to set off for prayers the heavens opened and, unfortunately, forgot to close, at least until prayers were over. Thus I found myself making my way across the open car park to get in through the back entrance of the mosque in a considerable downpour. Of course, I had my brolly with me, but with the winds gusting around, this did not afford much protection for my lower legs.

Thus I had to sit in thoroughly sodden trousers, at least for the lower part of the old limbs, throughout the proceedings. Ugh. Fortunately the brolly was still where I left it on the way out, and the rain had abated somewhat by the end of prayers, so the way back to work wasn't quite so bad. And I'd almost dried off for my afternoon meeting. But generally the experience was not to be recommended.

Oddly though, living in a place that has its fair share of sudden storms I can't remember an experience quite as wet and since I survived this one with little more than some unpleasant irritation that's not a bad record all told.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Genuine Experience

You sometimes hear complaints about how the education system here stifles creativity, and very understandable they are, as anyone who's been part of that system will testify, assuming they are ready to be honest about what goes on in many, if not most, if not all, schools here. But the assumption that somehow teenagers' creatvity is stifled is entirely false.

How do I know this? Through direct experience. And today I enjoyed a further twenty-five minutes such experience as I goofed off for that amount of time to make the acquaintance of the work(s) on display of our graduating class from the Visual Arts class. I wished I could have stayed a lot longer than that.

It was striking how the work of each individual in the display had a sort of unitary quality, a sense of growing from concerns genuinely central to that individual. Even now I can remember at least one piece from each student that struck me as genuinely powerful. Above all, it was all so genuine, and you don't get more artful than that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Not Found Wanting

It occurred to me just now, sharing a massive bowl of the Missus's chicken porridge with my favourite dining partner, the aforementioned chef, that I have reason to envy no man. But they have reason to envy me. And if that sounds hideously complacent, it was meant to.

Thank you, and good night.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Pure Envy

It's fascinating to watch the latest round of protests against the monstrous (but possibly benign) forces of Capitalism played out on the streets of various capitals and the sheets of various media. (Yes, I know 'sheets' doesn't really work here, but I like the rhyme. And notice my attempts at balance with the bit in brackets.) I've been particularly struck by the accusation that the protests are fuelled by envy, especially when this is levelled by commentators such as those on the Fox News Channel who know this for an absolute, undeniable certainty. For how does anyone actually know for sure what the motives of the protesters are? And is it reasonable to assume that all of them are spurred on by exactly the same motivation?

My guess is that those who level the accusation are aware that they themselves are envy-driven individuals and assume that this is a common feature of our fallen human nature. And who's to say they are wrong? Certainly it's not difficult to think of lots of supporting evidence regarding the roots of our motivations. Personally I honestly can't figure out if my envy of their 'success' lies at that the heart of my fairly obvious animus against the kind of bankers who precipitated the latest crisis in our markets.

But even if it is pure envy on my part, and that of all the protesters, I also can't see how this makes any difference regarding what is happening. If envy is a reasonable motive for trying to out-do your fellow man in the marketplace, and as far as I can tell the world of Capital thrives on that notion, why would it somehow undercut people's protests against other people having cornered far too many of the world's resources just because they are envious of them? I suppose the argument then would be for 'good envy' - the type that drives you to work hard and succeed in the marketplace - as opposed to 'bad envy' - the type that leads you to stick a metaphorical bomb under said marketplace. But the problem is that if the marketplace is seen to have failed the vast majority of those in it - and we seem to be looking at a storyline with this worrying ending tacked onto it - then it doesn't seem to matter which species of envy is operational.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Not So Equal

On the way to watch the game yesterday evening we got behind a lorry/van carrying some workers. Not sure if it would have been to or from work at that time. Hope they were on their way home for a rest since conditions on, or rather in, the vehicle couldn't have been conducive to preparing for a stretch of hard labour. (I'm assuming that's what the inmates would have been in for, or returning from, and I don't think I'm wrong.)

Inmates is the right word. We were able to see three or four of the guys gazing out of two smallish windows/openings covered with bars at the bottom end of the closed-in covering of the van. Caged. I asked Noi whether she thought they had a fan in there but she thought this unlikely. We looked for signs of decent ventilation as we came alongside the vehicle. There weren't any.

My guess is that none of the guys on-board would have thought there was anything to really complain about. They'll consider themselves fortunate to have found work here. So that makes it okay to treat people like animals, I suppose. Nothing exceptionable here.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Drawn

Just back from watching the Big Game over at Moghan's with a highly excited crowd of highly excitable supporters of both sets of reds. I'd forgotten how much fun the beautiful game can be. And how much you can age over ninety minutes.

And just what did Giggsy think he was doing in that wall? If I had a kid in a school team who got himself out of the way of the ball in that manner I'd roast him.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Simply Educational

Today I was listening to a radio station here which goes by the name of Symphony FM. It's a sort of Singaporean Radio 3, I suppose, playing what might broadly be termed classical music. Its existence clearly represents a golden opportunity to educate the youth of the nation, well those few likely to be interested, and folks like myself who know a little and would like to find out more, in such music.

The fact that it fails to do so almost wilfully astonishes me. Simple point: wouldn't you think it would be useful to let listeners know what it is that they've just been listening to? The name of the composer? The opus number, movement, that sort of thing? With a spectacular indifference to such niceties whoever's in charge as a matter of course just plays a few jumbled pieces back-to-back, unannounced, and follows them with a couple of adverts for the station itself.

I was particularly narked today when I recognised a movement as being one I knew from my listening at home but couldn't pin down the actual composer. I thought at first it was from a Mozart piano concerto, but then there was no piano. So it then seemed more likely to me to be something from a Beethoven symphony, a slow movement, yet it sounded more Mozartian, but I was inclined to rule this out as I don't own that much Mozart outside of the piano concerti, and I knew I owned it and had played it recently (in the last year or so, I mean.)

Now I know I sound incredibly dim in that last paragraph, not knowing something that should be obvious to me. But that's my point. I am incredibly dim in these matters and would like to have my dimness illuminated, and learn something. But with this radio station that just doesn't happen. Incidentally, I found it fascinating that what I was listening to seemed to me to be extraordinarily beautiful, yet despite knowing it well I was aware I had never recognised its beauty before. One of the benefits of being as obtuse as I am regarding music is that you get moments like that.