Wednesday, November 30, 2011


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


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


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


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


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.