Friday, August 31, 2012


My class gave me a badge today, customised to my needs I gathered, on which appear the words: I am surrounded by mindless fools. I asked if it was something I'd said at some point. No, but it was something they could imagine me saying. Interesting.

This was just one of several generous gifts on this annual day of almost boundless generosity from students to their teachers in this Far Place. As always, more than a little humbling.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


One of the things that struck me working in a factory in the early seventies was how keen the management was to own you completely in the hours for which they were paying you. Seriously, the one thing everyone on the factory floor knew was that under no circumstances could you be seen not to be doing anything if a manager walked by - even if there was nothing worth doing. This need to turn the individual into a kind of commodity is very deep rooted, and I see nothing in the notions of the 'free market' that affords any real protection from it. Indeed, it seems to me integral to that world.

Dickens knew this. He'd been there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Telling Stories

Finished Full Dark, No Stars. Relished the sheer verve of King's story-telling. Couldn't wait to finish each of the four and loved the sense of variation among the first three. The final story, A Good Marriage, is in broad terms along the same lines as Big Driver though, but since I loved the second tale that was no bad thing.

Spent some time considering just how King manages to grip each and every time, but came up with no answers - except, possibly, his own obvious complete immersion in all four stories. As someone who has major problems putting together even a simple storyline I can only admire from a distance.

Now embarking on Val McDermid's A Place Of Execution. I need to become a real reader again.

Monday, August 27, 2012

True Royalty

Kick-started my campaign to get some proper reading done by buying a few popular titles cheaply at the little second hand bookshop at Holland Village to provide the necessary roughage. Wanted to be reminded of the power of stories just as stories, so started with Stephen King's Full Dark, No Stars, (great title!) the most recent of his quartets of long short stories. Am now most of the way through story number two, a humdinger entitled Big Driver, and can hardly wait to find out what happens next. (Story number one, entitled 1922, was fairly predictable stuff in Kingian terms, and fairly predictable was perfectly fine by me.)

Lit critic Harold Bloom loathes our Stevie. I've never been able to figure out why.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


Spent much of the day visiting for Raya. As usual, this was curiously tiring considering we were simply eating and drinking at a series of highly hospitable venues. As usual felt pleased to have fulfilled our obligations, obligations for once worth fulfilling.

After one of the recent terrible multiple shootings in the U.S. one commentator suggested the best protection against such dreadful occurrences is a sense of community. There's a deep truth in that.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Not So Entrepreneurial

Found myself lecturing today in a spot known as The Entrepreneurial Room. Thought this was very funny as I am possibly the least entrepreneurial person I know and I was lecturing, in very broad terms, about poetry one of the few things I know that pretty much defies commodification. To put that a little more simply, as I did to my young audience, you're not going to make a lot of money out of it.

(It would be quite illuminating, I think, to draw up a league table of poets based on their earnings.)

Quite enjoyed giving my lecture, but for me the highlight of the day was listening to the three student presentations I sat in for as a 'literary critic'. There's something about what happens when you see youngsters getting really engaged in what they've read that is quite magical. (I wonder if a school will one day name a room The Magical Room? Mind you, it's a hard billing to live up to.)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Reading, Again

I've not been terribly pleased with myself lately regarding what I've been reading. I'd planned to read Pickthall's translation of The Holy Qur'an in Ramadhan but only managed about a third of the text. And similarly I read only the first half of Seyyed Hossein Nasr's essays on Islamic Life and Thought. This was not, I hasten to explain, due to any lack of enthusiasm. I simply enjoyed the slow pace of repetitive ruminative reading - almost a kind of meditation at times.

This reading had cut across my on-going ordinary reading, but, to be honest, I wasn't really seriously getting on with much of anything when fasting month began. As the month ended I found myself having a poetical good time, as I explained the other day, and have only read one substantial thing else, which was a re-read which left me feeling almost as if it didn't count.

That book, by the way, was Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, or The Murder at Road Hill House, and I have to tell you that good as it was the first time around it actually gets better on a second reading. When you know the ending, Ms Summerscale's utterly convincing solution, everything is seen, or rather read, in a new and illuminating light. The final chapters, dealing with the fates of various of the people involved one way and another in the murder, become powerfully moving in terms of the kind of redemption they seem to illustrate. So a good one to read on days when forgiveness was paramount.

But now it's time to make a list.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Getting Poetic

I've been sort of preparing a lecture for a Literature Seminar that's coming up this Saturday. I say 'sort of' as to the unpractised eye I reckon I could be mistaken as doing not too much of anything, except to open the odd book now and again and generally look dreamily distracted. But appearances deceive. I think pretty much the whole thing is now in my head as I've been running through a few ideas, and thoughts of poems to use to illustrate them, quite intensely - and, importantly, enjoyably - over the last two weeks.

Unfortunately I now have to prepare a few slides; it isn't that I really want them or need them, but everyone seems to expect this sort of thing nowadays. And they'll sort of help me to keep on track, I guess.

Anyway, to get to the real point of all this, I found myself dipping into Alfian Sa'at's A History Of Amnesia and my Oxford Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works, in recent days just to check whether the poems I had in mind to pass comment on were appropriate for my purposes - which they were - and then just getting lost in the delights in both books. The little sequence of Mr Chia poems in Amnesia struck me as possessing a quite remarkable power, something I'd unaccountably failed to register when I first encountered the collection, and I found myself discovering delights afresh in Hopkins tucked away in poems I've somehow come to disregard over the years. The Bugler's First Communion springs to mind.

I honestly can't quite grasp the fact that generally people are not turned on to poetry in the way I am. Not that I mind that. If it isn't your cup of tea find something you can enjoy, say I. But something in me suspects you're missing out big time.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Beyond Words

I read an article a few weeks ago bemoaning the use of the Internet for the uploading of badly taken photographs. Talk about Canute ordering the tide to go back. I'm happy to be just another of the mob beating at the gates of civilisation on this one. (Apologies for the mixed metaphors and the iffy pictures - but Fifi also bears responsibility for a number of these.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Just Visiting

We spent yesterday evening paying visits to an epic number of houses. And when I say 'we' I'm talking of a small crowd, almost a tribe in itself. I took along a copy of Alfian Sa'at's A History of Amnesia since this fitted neatly into one of my pockets, and perusing the odd poem here and there can be valuably illuminating in the gaps that tend to open up on these expeditions. Indeed, I re-discovered what a very fine collection it is, as well as re-discovering the pleasures of visiting our (hugely) extended family in Melaka.

I'll post some pictorial evidence of the day once we're back in our Far Place, which shouldn't be too long from now. We're intending to get on our way in the late afternoon. No standing still for us!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Another Great Day

Hari Raya Puasa, Eid ul-Fitr; 1 Syawal 1433

After going to the little mosque down the road last night for the Ishaq prayer, Hamza and I spoke at some length of the notion of Islam as a 'din' (or 'deen'), that is, a 'way of life'. There was much upon which we enthusiastically agreed, indeed, much that seemed straightforward common sense. I've found that a common experience with my brothers and sisters in Islam - indeed, with my brothers and sisters of all faiths. For this alone much thanks is due.

So to all who journey and occasionally arrive: Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


29 Ramadhan 1433

An end to fasting, for this year at least, is in sight. On this final afternoon of Ramadhan I'm feeling tired and vulnerable. And that's how I've felt for almost all the month. A feeling I welcome as a fundamental truth about the self.

This month has been, disconcertingly, about such fundamentals - the foundations of the self.

We are built on sand. If we're lucky we can prevent it shifting too far. If we are lucky it doesn't cave in.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Fast Lane

28 Ramadhan 1433

It's all go! We found ourselves back in Geylang this afternoon - to pay our zakat for the holy month. And now we're in the throes of preparations for scooting up to Melaka for Hari Raya. In addition to which Noi is magically restoring our little place to order having cleaned and polished just about everything that doesn't move. (I think she may well have her eye on me, as well.) I'm planning a quick nap before breaking the fast and setting off, but the chances of genuinely catching a few zzzzzzz's are looking slim, given everything we need to do. Life in the fast lane, indeed.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

All Mouth And No Trousers

27 Ramadhan 1433

No matter how far I adjust to fasting, and I do, there are still those moments when I'm reduced to little more than a dry, raw mouth - one with very little to really say for itself.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rolling Out The Day

26 Ramadhan 1433

The extended weekend we enjoyed recently gave me a chance to visit a local CD store and reward myself, for no very good reason, with a number of musical offerings, prominent amongst which was a full set of Haydn's London Symphonies. I'm now wondering why on earth I'd never bought the full set before. Heretical as it may sound, I reckon there's more sheer pleasure in these corkers than in Ludwig's phenomenal nine, though since we're privileged to have both sets this is a non-issue.

Anyway, I've just been listening to the Drum Roll at the end of a packed day and the experience sort of unpacked said day in a most satisfactory manner. If the idea of civilisation means anything, it means this.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

In Preparation

25 Ramadhan 1433

Whilst I struggle through the days, Noi continues to perform her feats of magic, transforming our ordinary world into something more than a little special.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Lightening The Load

24 Ramadhan 1433

A day of struggle when some things just didn't quite add up. In the middle of the day a long bout of talking in class saw me starting to lose my voice and gasping for a drink to ease my throat. Years ago I would have thought going on without lubrication was impossible. Now I know I would have been wrong. You live. If you're lucky you learn.

And then this evening we put up the lights for Raya, and my little world was bright again. (And with chicken curry & roti kirai to follow, what's not to like? as they say.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Coming To Light

23 Ramadhan 1433

Spent the late hours of last night and the early hours of this morning on an obligatory fasting month stroll around the glitter and goodwill of Geylang Serai. That I'm generally unfamiliar with such hours accounts for the bleary eyes in the personal shot above. The Missus, in contrast, is, you'll notice, full of beans and raring to keep going.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Doing The Math

22 Ramadhan 1433

We're at that point in the fasting month when Noi is happily oblivious as to how many days there are left whilst I am obsessively counting down. Curiously this is not because I'm desperate for the month to end; rather it's just something I always do, so here I am doing it. The fact that tomorrow will be the final Sunday of fasting, and then Monday the final Monday holds a kind of fascination for me, akin to counting down the days of Advent as a child.

Noi commented the other day that she could easily go on fasting at the month's end having adjusted to the routines, and I must say I know what she means. I know I'm going to miss breaking the fast by the second day of Syawal. But I also know I'm going to enjoy drinking a cup of tea at my desk again and popping down to SAC to sample there the cup that cheers. The wonderful thing is that those experiences are no longer quite so routine but can be more deeply savoured when viewed in the light of various Ramadhans.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Imagined Places

21 Ramadhan 1433

Spent a fruitful part of the afternoon discovering material by The Imagined Village and thinking of the England I love.

There's not much left of it though, by all accounts. (But third in the Olympics medal table is not to be sniffed at, methinks!)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Remains Of The Day

20 Ramadhan 1433

Spent the early part of the afternoon having various body parts worked over by Kak Sabariah, Noi's expert massage lady, and spent the remainder of the day enjoying the peace of the aftermath, with only the National Day Parade as a reminder of the world out there. All highly satisfactory, if occasionally painfully so.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Marching On

19 Ramadhan 1433

Noi got handy with the camera this morning, capturing our school's parade for the National Day Celebration from our bedroom window. I'm in there somewhere - fortunately for all, not one of those marching. Somehow or other no one's ever managed to get me into uniform.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Something Beautiful

18 Ramadhan 1433

Unusually for us, at least for this fasting month, we popped out after Ishaq and enjoyed a cuppa at a pleasant little cafe along West Coast Road. It's opposite the petrol station there, and that was our first destination, to fill up so Noi can use the car tomorrow. On the way there, and coming back, I was playing my tape of Seamus Heaney reading his collection Electric Light and I was reminded of how monstrously good his reading is - utterly beguiling. His rendition of Perch, one of the early poems in the volume, did the shivers down the spine thing for me. There's a line in one of the 'classically' based poems that speaks of the cure of poetry that cannot be coerced and I felt that cure simply driving along and listening. (Hope I quoted that reasonably correctly. My copy of the poems is in KL so I can't check.)

So what with that and the pleasure of sitting with my teh tarik and my lovely wife on a warmly gentle evening when even the roar of traffic along the west coast seemed quite subdued, I got to thinking of how much beauty we are capable of creating as a kind of pale but highly satisfactory reflection of the beauty that has been created for us. In all our attempts to give shape to things and make something special I sense a version of ibadah, the Islamic term for worship or service, however distant or faint.

Monday, August 6, 2012


17 Ramadhan 1433

It's a measure of the strength of yesterday's afternoon of drama that I found myself thinking of all three of the plays we enjoyed in the odd reflective moment in the course of today. In truth, given the ability of those involved with whom I am familiar I expected something good, but even then found myself a little surprised at how well-integrated the show was. The basic concept of Living Rooms (the overall title) carried through all three pieces, but they were really quite refreshingly different in the kinds of theatrical experience they offered.

Two were written by students I know - Jing Yan and Luke - and they couldn't have been more different. Jing Yan's short play Inheritance was dark, nervous, edgy, but had enough story to grip. And, in retrospect, what a haunting story it was. If you'd have told me it was concerned with sexual abuse prior to watching it I think I'd have been worried that young performers (and their directors) wouldn't be able to handle such explosive content, but I'd have been wrong. It was the restraint, I think, that gave it a kind of odd power. Luke's The Untitled Funeral Play was gloriously unsubtle and frantically comic in an unapologetically in-your-face manner. Very difficult to make this kind of thing work and keep up the pace from beginning to end and the cast delivered superbly.

Which left Postgrads by one Joel Tan for after the interval. I knew it was going to be really good because Luke told me so in a quick chat in the interval, and he was not wrong. And it struck me that apart from the obvious individual talents on show (I mean three finely constructed dramas by three different young writers in an essentially 'amateur' production is quite something) the outstanding feature of the afternoon was the sense of deep cooperation from all concerned. The performers genuinely seemed to want each other to shine, and the four players in Postgrads certainly did so. It was particularly nice to see them playing roles (presumably) close to their own experience. I learnt a lot about what bright twenty-somethings get up to in this Far Place.

I suppose what I most appreciated about the whole offering was the fact that those involved saw fit to entertain us, so it felt like something genuinely offered, a gift if you would.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


16 Ramadhan 1433

Just back from a very jolly evening over at Woodlands where we broke the fast with the same gang as at Fuad's mother's place last week. This followed a highly enjoyable afternoon at the theatre, of which more tomorrow as I haven't the time to do it justice just now.

And all this compensating more than a little for a morning spent doing the needful on the marking front.

And now, to bed. Good night. Sleep tight.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


15 Ramadhan 1433

Now just past the halfway mark of fasting, but still plenty of days to go. It now feels as if this is something I've always been doing, just as it does every Ramadhan.

Most of the day was spent marking and that's always hard work in this season, being an activity the fasting body doesn't naturally adjust to. A familiar challenge made new again.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Out Of The Dark

14 Ramadhan 1433

One of the students from my school died this week after a courageous battle with cancer. Morning assembly featured a moving tribute. Somehow something positive seemed to emerge out of the darkness, partly because he was such a great kid. All we're left with at times like this is prayer, it seems.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


13 Ramadhan 1433

I'm extrapolating from my own experience here, but I reckon all Muslims feel a powerful sense of release and accomplishment when breaking the fast. I mean, trust me, it feels really good!

Which means for each day of fasting there's a guaranteed high, assuming you get through the day successfully. Of course, there's the horrible possibility of a downer if things don't work out, but generally they do for me, and I'm someone who actually struggles. All the born-Muslims I know seem to sail effortlessly through the struggle, making me feel like a bit of a wimp.

So what I'm coming to is the idea that pursuing the fast might well be efficacious in treating anxiety or depression. This came into my mind as there was an article in today's paper about stress in the workplace and how to deal with it and it suddenly struck me that I couldn't remember a time that I've felt any such stress when fasting, as I'm too busy dealing with the challenge. It's as if everything takes second place to getting on with Ramadhan.

I wonder if anyone has ever carried out serious research into this? Worth pursuing, methinks.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Quite Simple

12 Ramadhan 1433

Even though making arrangements can get a bit complicated at this time of year there's an underlying, deep, refreshing simplicity to the month that stems from doing what you have to do. And not doing what you mustn't do. A glimpse of something suspiciously like freedom.