Friday, March 30, 2012

Cramping My Style

The final position for the prayer can be a little awkward if you're praying in a congregation. Basically it's a sitting position, but one that finds you slightly askew, at a slight angle to your own legs. (It's oddly tricky to describe, but you'd get it if you saw it.) If the congregation is packed you sometimes find yourself sort of toppling into the person next to you.

Normally I don't have much of a problem with all this, despite the trickiness involved. But today the alarm bells rang for me. As I sat into the position I realised my right leg was going into a spasm of cramp and there wasn't anything I could do to avoid it. If this happens, as it has done once or twice when I've been praying at home, I just stretch the leg out a bit and this eases the problem. But that was not an option today.

The odd thing was that I got through the minor crisis more easily than I dared imagine at the onset of the pain. I suppose it was a case of just accepting the pain since there was no other option. But once accepted it became instantly controllable, though the relief I experienced when the prayer concluded was significant, to say the least.

In future I'll just have to remember that this old body of mine isn't what it used to be - not that it has ever been all that much, sad to say.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Declining Values

Saw something on Sky News the other day about the possibility of a dramatic fall in the value of artworks by Damien Hirst and all that crew. It seems some influential types are suggesting the emperor has no clothes and if the market notices this there could be trouble. Now I've got nothing against the enfant terrible in question; in fact, I rather like what I've seen of his stuff and would willingly part with a couple of hundred dollars to acquire some. But, as you will no doubt be aware gentle reader, in this area I'm no great judge of artistic merit so my approval counts for nothing.

Now what I'm leading up to with all this is how much fun it would be to see a collapse of the market. Not that I wish ill fortune on those with shares in the stuff, but I reckon these folks can afford the loss and it would be such a salutary lesson for all of us. And, even better, it's not at all clear what the actual lesson would be - always the best way of learning from experience.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Casting Spells

For some four or so years now I've been doing this poetry workshop for kids at the annual Literature Seminar (I think it's called) and great fun it's been. Give me a roomful of young people anytime genuinely enthusiastic about books and raring to go with pretty much anything you put in front of them. This year the organisers have changed the format, though, and sort of knocked me out of my comfort zone a wee bit. Or, rather, they've prevented me from being lazy by repeating previous material since they've asked me to do a full scale lecture for a big number. This is exciting, but requires a bit of work to prepare.

In fact, I was feeling a bit stuck for an idea. And then it came to me, at 9.35 pm actually. The title's above and I'm committed to working a bit of magic. Should be fun. All I need now are the ingredients for the spells.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Wisdom is hard-won. And easily lost.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Bit Of Bluster

Monitoring the news this morning I happened to catch the bit of video in which that dope from the Tories tried to sell 'Cameron-time' to the team who set the trap for him. Interesting to note that if he hadn't been caught in his full crass glory how likely it is he would have denied it all - or claimed that it was all sort of legal anyway. The value of these exposes lies in the ugly precision with which they expose the grimly tawdry reality of the behaviour of these characters.

The dope, a classic wide-boy if ever there were one, himself acknowledged the 'bluster' underlying all this - the emptiness of someone who's never quite grown up showing-off to make himself feel better. And, of course, that leads to the disturbing thought that his bluster probably helped him to a position of some considerable importance on the greasy pole of British politics. It certainly doesn't appear to have hindered his ascent.

Sometimes the bottom is a good place to be. (Correction: it's always a good place to be.)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Balm Of Hurt Minds (Plenty Of)

With Noi going up to Melaka on family business over the weekend I've been experimenting with playing various CDs at reasonable volumes (or unreasonable, depending on how you look at this) and catching up on great nature's second course. Both have proved highly enjoyable, assuaging the pain of temporarily losing the Missus to some small degree.

Some findings in the light of this research: The Who's Quadrophenia is enhanced with each additional decibel, but I think I prefer Berg (Alban) at a distance. It's not wise to doze off on the sofa when this involves waking at 3.00 a.m. and having to negotiate your way to bed and deal with the glum realisation that the laptop's battery has exhausted itself and you've failed to listen to the rather tasty download featuring a discussion on Al-Birundi you were so much looking forward to. Even the enjoyment of watching the less than mighty scousers shoot themselves in the foot against Wigan is no guarantee of staying awake for the length of such a catastrophically dull ninety minutes.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Moment In Time

Was watching and listening to the Adele Live At The Royal Albert Hall DVD the other day. Lovely stuff. I hope success and the machine attendant upon it don't ruin this girl too quickly. At the time of recording she was vibrantly alive and herself.

The tribute to Amy Winehouse, Dylan's Make You Feel My Love, complete with kitschy mirrorball and an invitation for the audience to switch on handphone lights to illuminate the hall, was absurdly, touchingly, moving.

There's a point in some singer's careers at which just everything comes together perfectly - songs, audience, the whole zeitgeist, and I reckon this was this young lady's. The funny thing is, her comments towards the end of the concert about how she'll remember all this one day in the future, suggest that Ms Adkins has the uncanny good sense to know all this.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Just Too Much

Came across the phrase culture of overwork today. It resonated with me. Silly and sad in equal proportions - the culture, that is. Oh, and painful.

Lord what fools these mortals be.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wonderfully Messi

Does anyone seriously doubt anymore that Lionel Messi is the finest player in the world? Watching his two recent one-man goal fests I actually found myself grinning at the finesse of it all, especially the two times he lobbed the poor keeper(s).

Isn't it odd that the scoring of a goal can become a performance of aesthetic beauty?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


We've been celebrating our Irish ancestry this evening, me and the Missus, dining off the simple, splendid spud. In this case baked and garnished with tuna and sweetcorn. Topped off with a smattering of salad - including some cunning cranberries. Yes, you may envy me; and I envy no man.

More than plenty.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Genuine Inspiration

Saw most of Invictus, the film about the Springboks winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995, this evening, but still haven't watched the whole thing. On two earlier occasions I'd watched and enjoyed the last hour or so, almost despite myself. I'm not a great one for manipulatively inspirational movies and that's what Clint Eastwood as director went all out to provide. But I could live with this one since Mandela clearly, unashamedly went out to manipulate his nation and the world through the tournament and succeeded magnificently for the best of reasons. (By the way, Morgan Freeman is just astonishing as Mandela. He becomes the great man such that when a final photograph of the real president comes up in the credits you almost assume it's another shot of Freeman.)

Seeing more of the earlier part of the film added enormously to its power and quality since this is much darker than the later segments and makes no bones at all about the faultlines in South African society and how close to impossible it was going to be to ever create bridges across them. But Mandela did it.

I'm thinking now of three moments in my life when what Mandela stood for (and stands for) loomed large. One was the final itself and seeing him in that green and gold shirt with some small understanding, now enhanced by the movie, of what that meant. Secondly listening to Elvis Costello sing Free Nelson Mandel with The Specials back in the dark ages, and realising that his freedom was a real possibility and people's voices together might just be able to change the unalterable. And thirdly, watching him walk out of his prison on a live tv broadcast and knowing, just knowing, that something huge was possible.

The weight on those shoulders. The size of the man!

Sunday, March 18, 2012


We've now completed the third episode (from fourteen) from the BBC's Little Dorrit adaptation. Noi is well and truly hooked, and I'm just a fanboy anyway so my allegiance was secure from the opening frames. Great pace to the series. The opener was an hour long but after that we're dealing with thirty minute episodes and they just shoot along. Unlike the film the adaptation stays true to the secondary characters - so far, at least - so we get all the melodramatic rigmarole of Rigaud and Miss Wade and Tattycoram, and very fine it is, especially in this medium.

Was a bit disconcerted by the relative youth of Arthur at the beginning, probably influenced by the definitive Derek Jacobi performance in the film, but I reckon I'll come to terms with it. It certainly makes the idea of some kind of attraction on the part of Amy more believably normative, but perhaps I sort of prefer the odd unnaturalness that the film achieved. I think there should be something a little uncomfortable about it all.

London is splendid, teeming with life, resplendent with jarring contrasts. The huge canvas a reminder not just of Dickens's extraordinary ambition, but also of a compelling moral vision that sought to bring these things together in some sort of coherence.

There's always a churning, powerful sense of outrage simmering beneath the swiftly-shifting surfaces. But this is a kind of generous, controlled outrage - the kind that somehow gets things done.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sobering News

An easy way to get depressed this week has been to pay attention to the news. Mind you, I suppose that's true of any week you care to mention.

I was startled this afternoon to hear some figures about the incidence of rape and assaults of a sexual nature on women, these being discussed in a decently sober, sensible manner on Sky News. (Why the Murdoch-owned British Sky News is vastly superior to his dreadful Fox News is one of life's more refreshing mysteries.) I assume the figures related to women in the UK and they made for some very discomforting reflections. One in ten women said they'd been raped and almost a third of all women sexually assaulted.

Now the figures came with plenty of controversy attached, and it struck me that I'd certainly like to hear or read more debate as to their veracity, but even so. If they come reasonably close to reflecting reality then that reality is even more depressing than I had begun to imagine.

It strikes me that this would make a good topic for a TOK presentation, assuming the presenter were genuinely interested in establishing some degree of precision regarding the generating and handling of the data and not merely in attitudinising.

Friday, March 16, 2012

All Smiles

We went down town this afternoon, to Orchard Road no less, where I felt utterly out of place, quite enjoying my rampant sense of alienation if truth be told. I think it's encountering buildings that light up like demented Christmas trees that does it - it being to make me feel like someone who's just walked in from a simpler rather backward world to a place that's a bit too forward for its own good. Fortunately most of the inhabitants looked as ill-at-ease as I felt; distinctly, uncomfortably, human amidst all the glitter.

The brightest smiles I saw were plastered on the faces of three young people featured on the side of a bus in an advertisement for one of the local universities. They were gathered around an avuncular old chap, also looking rather cheerful, as a result, so the ad seemed to claim, of carrying out some sort of successful research. This struck me as odd. The encounter with new-found knowledge is far more likely to lead to a sense of despair, I reckon. Maybe they were faking it, after all?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Making It Up

Spent some time today - it wasn't that much time actually, but it felt like a lot - viewing some of the talking heads on Fox News manufacturing remarkable amounts of outrage about almost everything they could think of to be outraged over, which was plenty. Oddly it included little, if anything at all, of the sort of stuff you'd think would make a sentient being get hot under the collar.

I've known for quite some time, being particularly prone to it, what a dangerous emotion righteous indignation is. But watching it in action on this scale struck me as providing the perfect cure. The problem is though that some folk obviously find this stuff deeply inspirational. In fact, I reckon some of the talking heads themselves are so in love with their own rhetoric that they end up almost fooling themselves.

It is, by the way, of some interest to consider the fact that if they aren't fooling themselves they qualify as genuinely wicked.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Enjoyed the plotting of the first Wallander novel. Surprised by Mankell's deliberately protracted ending, but pleasantly so. The loose end also was unexpected, but a reminder that life is full of them. There are no neat plots in reality, but a good story needs a sense of forward momentum which is often achieved by deliberate simplifications, or, rather, powerfully synthesising insights that make sense of complexity and render it tractable, graspable, readable.

Heard some other fascinating stories today, tied to broad sweeps of narrative - one of which concerned the history of this island. A reminder that wherever you are is always more interesting than your limited understanding can ever grasp. Lots of necessary loose ends, and what looks like a reasonably happy ending for one of the narratives, insofar as any story ever really ends, insofar as any story can ever engender anything close to happiness.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Useful Comparison

Here's one thing that might usefully cheer anybody up: no matter how bad your day has been, Kurt Wallander's has been one heck of a lot worse.

(Actually my day has been a rather jolly one, things all told. Just saying.)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Pastures New

I'm finding myself really bothered by the painful lack of progress, or substance, or whatever, in my reading over the last couple of months. I had intended to mention that I was still moving steadily through the wonderful Collected Causley the other day, when it occurred to me that I embarked on my read-through over a year ago, so that wasn't much of a defence.

Having put down the Diamond I picked up my American Library Thoreau, the one with Walden in it, and that was going to be my reading for the month ahead. Again, rather embarrassingly I made a false start on Walden not so long ago, further evidence of my lack of application in the one area I'm supposed to maintain as evidence of a life of the mind.

So I took advantage of a visit to Holland Village in the late afternoon with Noi to pop into the second hand bookshop there in search of something trashy but good, if you see what I mean. I reckon this is the roughage that's been missing from my reading diet for quite a while, ever since I got quite puritanical about buying books and ensuring I finished everything actually already on my shelves. I came away with the first of Henning Mankell's Wallander novels and a dirt cheap biography of Tolstoy - the one by Aylmer Maude - which I'd been thinking of getting and reading ahead of teaching Anna Karenina this year, just for the fun of it really since it's well out of date.

The odd thing was that with a couple of cheap paperbacks in my bag I suddenly felt a whole lot better, and even more so when I read the opening of Faceless Killers, the Wallander novel, and found myself at the mercy of the narrative.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Grateful for a space of time in which I can breathe over the weekend I've been finishing things off, and most enjoyably so. I surprised myself by completing the most sustained act of viewing of the small screen in my recent history by watching the last three episodes (out of seven) of Tinker, Tailor... yesterday. I immediately informed the Missus, who'd passed on the experience this time, that I'd be happy to watch it again along with her if she so desired. She's thinking about it.

And then it was on to completion of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, a tome, I'm embarrassed to tell you, I actually got started on as long ago as January. Completely bought into the main argument, but got a wee bit lost in some of the detail. There's a note in the back from the good prof in which he comments on his own dispassionate account of how peoples conquered and slaughtered other peoples and he recommends something with the passion he distances himself from as a corrective. But I thought his distanced perspective itself conveyed an extraordinary moral power and sense of outrage: there is no excuse for what we do to harm others, even if we seek one in the mess of history. It was, it is, all about domination.

In between all this we watched the first half of my newly acquired As You Like It DVD, the one filmed at the new Globe. Noi got hooked by Act 1, Scene 2. Who said the story doesn't count?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Great Guitar Solos 3

I suppose if I ever have to name my top ten albums of all time Stevie Wonder's Talking Book is going to be in there, though it's going to be difficult to leave out Innervisions and I'm not sure I can make room for two albums, even from the mighty Little Stevie, as he once used to be. I think Talking Book edges it though on the strength of the last two tracks on side 2, and it's on one of these that Jeff Beck provides a solo that defines good taste, charm and a whole raft of other qualities usually disregarded when one considers the guitar solo as a sort of genre in itself.

Actually there are two lead guitars credited on the track in question, from Jeff Beck and Buzzy Feton, but it's the solo following the initial chorus of I'm lookin' for another pure love in my life, from which the song takes its title, that wins my heart, and I assume it features Jeff as you can hear Stevie saying, Take it away Jeff after the initial few notes. You also hear him chuckling, as if delighted at the perfection of the playing in terms of the mood of the track, quite early in the solo and towards the end. In fact, all the guitar work on the song featuring both players is quite lovely, embroidering thin almost ethereal lines in and around the gorgeous melody, and equally gorgeous sound world of synthesisers, vocals and percussion that bodies forth the piece. (I know that sounds odd, but it's the only way I can describe what Stevie and his producers seem to be doing here, and on the other albums of this period. It's as if they are inventing a new vocabulary for popular song following the excitement of realising what might be done with the technology of the period. On many tracks you really have to work hard to figure out what exactly is being played even though it sounds absolutely right - especially in the lower depths. The Moog bass, if that's what it is, is just from another place.)

But back to the solo. I'm guessing that with the exception of the falling line that comes towards the end it isn't terribly difficult to play. There are no pyrotechnics here, and this from a player who is capable of unleashing the ultimate in fretboard fireworks. But that sense of restraint is at the heart of what makes it work musically, as if the top notes are striving to go somewhere that no one can reach. Ultimately the player is saying, Don't look at me, but listen to this beautiful thing that I'm just a part of. Very good advice in this case.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Not Left Wanting

Listening to a bit of Purcell as essayed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on the BBC Radio Player. After years of deeply missing Radio 3 being re-united in this way makes me almost sympathetic to the wonderful world of information technology.

Some Britten coming up next - the Cello Symphony.

It's difficult to imagine wanting anything more than this.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I blame Bernard. After chatting with him and Peter over a cuppa and telling them about watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on the flight back from Hong Kong, he generously goes and unearths his DVD set of the 1979 (was it really that long ago?) BBC production and lends it to me - ironically the day after my little amazon DVD trove passes into my clammy hands.

Initially I reckon I can resist temptation at least until next week, and am proved spectacularly wrong. I've now watched the first three episodes, despite not having any time to do so.

So now I'm in full blown George Smiley mode, seriously desirous of wearing spectacles again just to be able to wipe them on my tie whilst peering mistily but penetratingly into the far distance. This is all incredibly juvenile and wonderfully satisfying. Apologies to anyone who catches me spying on them over the next few days. Eventually the fit will pass.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Very Curious

In the newspaper over the weekend there was a mildly intriguing article about Singaporeans and their values. I think it was the Saturday edition of The Straits Times. It seems that someone had been around surveying the local populace with regard to how they'd rank 20 so-called 'values'. The lowest ranked of all had been curiosity. Now, as to whether curiosity (which, as we all know, is fatal to cats) can be regarded as a value as such was not under discussion. But of its dismal ranking there was no doubt. (Interestingly, honesty - a dubious virtue if ever there was one, as any Jesuit would tell you - topped the list.)

Today I was giving some advice to a young lady getting rather hot under the collar about her presentation for Theory of Knowledge, when it struck me that it was so often the vexed question of curiosity, or rather the lack of it, that might be at the root of her difficulties, and those of so many students I come into contact with. Essentially my advice boils down to this: it's useful to be genuinely interested in how you know what you know, or think you know, and how others know, or think they know, what they know in framing an issue for a presentation. Once you get interested in that, what to do follows naturally. (Although it also involves a lot of real work as opposed to vaguely tossing around opinions.)

Quite often, when discussing presentations, I find myself simply asking students how they know what they claim to know as they make their various statements, hoping that this will make them think in TOK-fashion. Quite a few look at me as if I'm mad, for which I don't really blame them. My guess is that they'd rather I tell them what to say and they think I'm kidding when I tell them I don't know what to tell them to say.

The odd thing is that whilst I am extremely lazy in intellectual terms in any number of embarrassing ways, an unhealthy sense of curiosity about pretty much anything that can be questioned has never been one of my failings. So I just don't get it when people (some really very bright ones in many ways) appear to revel in a profound incuriosity to get them through life.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Just Getting Through

I'm in that place where just getting to the end of the day in one piece is enough. It's not a terribly pleasant place to be. But there are worse, much worse.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Special Delivery

Anything I've had delivered from has arrived double quick, so I'd been getting a little irritated that my most recent order, and the first to our new address at the Hall, was overdue by quite a few days. It wasn't that I was impatient to get my sweaty paws on the four DVD's I'd ordered; rather I was concerned as to what I was supposed to do if they didn't arrive. Then the doorbell rang earlier this evening and the problem, if such it was, was very nicely solved.

Now it remains for one of the worst DVD viewers in the world to find time to watch the following: Sondheim's Passion (I've been on a real Sondheim kick since Karen bought me the fabulous lyrics book for my last birthday); As You Like It and Love's Labour's Lost (as performed at the new Globe on the South Bank); and the BBC's Little Dorrit (which I'm going to get the Missus to sit down and watch with me since I love the way she gets involved in Dickens's storylines.)

I have vowed to resist any further on-line purchases until this little lot has been at least perused on a first viewing. (Though those clever coves at amazon have been tempting me with all sorts of updates on the Decemberists. Gosh, they know my weaknesses.)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

In The Public Domain

Spent a small part of the day - not nearly enough of it, actually - dipping into Neil Roberts's book on Ted Hughes and considering some of the issues raised by the sorry business of Sylvia Plath's suicide and Hughes's actions with regard to her work following that. Roberts does a very even-handed job in identifying the tensions between Hughes and some of his critics, and is particularly good on the faultlines in his relationship with Al Alvarez. He quotes some of the most haunting lines and details from The Savage God explaining just what Hughes must have found so hurtful about them, and why Alvarez thought it was reasonable to publish.

My attitude regarding this sort of thing is simple. We have made the mistake in the last century or so of over-privileging art and the artist to the extent that we ascribe a spurious importance to any and all details of the lives of those artists. The personal should always take precedence. What an artist or any individual wishes to remain private concerning their lives should remain so whatever the public interest involved. Biography, even at its best, is simply gossip of a higher order. When I first read The Savage God I thought it was a wonderful book, and still do, but I wish it had never been published.

Friday, March 2, 2012


Every time I switch on the telly - not that often, if truth be told - somebody seems to be rambling on about yet another awards ceremony, for film or music or whatever. Now I can see the value of drumming up a bit of publicity and general interest for whatever activity is being deemed worthy of recognition, but what I find puzzling is that some, possibly many, of those around when the gongs are given out seem to take it all quite seriously.

This might sound a bit daft, but I do wonder if the curious rituals attendant upon all this are functioning at some level as a replacement for what good old-fashioned religion used to provide. It's as if there's a search for genuine meaning in a life going on behind all the self-congratulation. Hope they find something there, but I rather suspect there'll be just more emptiness behind the emptiness.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Unstuck In Time

I was looking out today over one of the very fine views available for those with eyes to see at my place of work and thinking of an uncle of mine (by marriage) who died many years ago. He was extraordinarily tough and brave in a way that leaves one feeling dwarfed. He died a disappointed man following the loss of his son, my cousin, a boy in his teens, but led an accomplished life. He was regarded with something like awe in his extended family, many of whom owed their lives to him. Those were hard times for some people in some places, especially eastern Europe.

And I was thinking how strange it was that I should be looking out on a landscape utterly foreign to my uncle yet thinking of him, as if he were some kind of intruder upon the scene. And, of course, I was aware of myself as an intruder.

I couldn't put any of these thoughts coherently together, and it didn't seem of any importance at all to do so. We carry the past with us, and one day we will be part of it ourselves.