Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Perspicacity

Came across this the other day, from the redoubtable Stephen Maturin, on a profession I know well:

Because, sir, teaching young gentlemen has a dismal effect on the soul. It exemplifies the badness of established, artificial authority. The pedagogue has almost absolute authority over his pupils: he often beats them and insensibly he loses the sense of respect due to them as fellow human beings. He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater. He may easily become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous; in any event he perpetually associates with his inferiors, the king of his company; and in a surprisingly short time alas this brands him with the mark of Cain. Have you ever known a schoolmaster fit to associate with grown men? The Dear knows I never have. They are most horribly warped indeed.

Found myself laughing immoderately, as I so often do when reading the adventures of Aubrey and Maturin.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Killing Time

Quite pleased to have got a fair amount of reading done in KL, despite having to tend to the recreational needs of our house guests. Made a bit of a mistake though in not taking the necessary tomes with me to continue the great-sonnet-read-through. I'm not stalled exactly as I've moved on a little in the last couple of days, but just one sonnet a day would have been possible in KL and would have moved me beyond 100 which would have felt like real progress. As it is I'm not quite there yet - and the ones in the 90s make tough reading at times. So knotty, they seem to deliberately tie-up the reader.

As to why I didn't take them along - I didn't think I would get through that much of what I did have with me, so I thought it would be wastefully ambitious to take what I needed to continue my systematic reading of the sonnets, and I was wrong. Case in point: I sailed through P.D. James's The Murder Room in a couple of days, which was unexpected as I'd tried to read it earlier in the year (a copy from the library) and simply not made progress beyond the first sixty pages. The experience of just not being able to get along with a work at one point and then finding it extremely straightforward at another is a salutary reminder of what a genuinely individual experience real reading is. It can't be forced, though it can be persevered with. I remember having the same problem with an earlier Dalgliesh, The Black Tower, at one time thinking it unreadable. I suppose the challenge James poses is that of demanding a certain level of concentration to enter into the often closed, claustrophobic worlds in which her murders take place. You've got to want to solve the mystery (even if you never really do), to actively participate in the act of detection, for the novels to make sense.

Of course, when you do cross that boundary into the world offered you find one of the best ways you'll ever find of killing time.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

More Listening

I forgot to mention the other day when detailing some of the cheap CDs I picked up in KL that I also got hold of a couple of Bowie albums bundled together at a reasonable price. I’m not sure what led someone to link the studio album Aladdin Sane with the sort of bootleg recording (from a radio broadcast, I think) David Bowie Live Santa Monica ’72 but in some ways it’s an inspired pairing since much of the studio album was written on the American tour partly documented in the live recording. The live band for the tour were essentially the Spiders from Mars band, augmented by the brilliant pianist Mike Garson, who’s all over the studio album – though you can hardly hear him live when the whole band is playing. So basically it’s the same musicians on each recording.

 
Aladdin Sane was one of the few Bowie albums I owned on vinyl – though somehow knowing them all intimately – and, curiously, it wasn’t a great favourite of mine. I thought of it as a bit of a let-down after Ziggy Stardust, despite loving the singles Jean Genie and Drive-In Saturday. At that time I thought it over-produced, though now I’m inclined to see it as a bit of an eclectic mess genuinely trying to capture the mess of Bowie and the band and America in that period. I get a sense of Bowie working at speed, just trying to keep up with his out of control talent and doing almost anything he wanted to musically.

 
The live album, in contrast, has been a bit of a revelation for me, and I find myself listening to it with enormous pleasure. The sound is great for a bootleg, but it’s still a shambles and there are some startling goofs from the players. All this counter-balanced by moments, nay minutes, of absolute full steam ahead, take no prisoners rock magic. The sequence of Moonage Daydream – John, I’m Only Dancing – Waiting For The Man – The Jean Genie – Suffragette City is a reminder of just how exciting Bowie was on stage in this period. (And what a phenomenal player Mick Ronson was.)

I don't exactly feel like a teenager listening to this, but it makes me glad I was once sixteen and had the chance to have my little life enhanced by the whole Ziggy Stardust bit.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

How We Listened

Now back in Hall with the girls safely returned to their homes, I've had a little more time to explore some of the musical spoils recently acquired. Played all the Emmylou albums today, and very glad I did.

But following on yesterday's post I got to wondering how it was I acquired a reasonably wide acquaintance with the world of popular music in rock, folk and jazz terms when I was a youth since I owned so few albums of my own, prices being prohibitively expensive and my pockets lacking depth. I can remember, for example, agonising over whether to buy Steely Dan's Aja, and actually feeling a bit disappointed at first listen when I did buy it and didn't really get what Becker and Fagin were up to. The answer to the question isn't, or wasn't, the radio, by the way. There wasn't that much variety in programming. No, you got to hear things by either borrowing other people's albums (that's how I first heard The Beatles' Sergeant Peppers) or listening when people played them (which is how I first heard The White Album in its entirety.)

There are two things implied here. First of all, a reminder of how generous your mates were. After all, there was real risk in lending a piece of fragile, easily scratchable vinyl to a goonish teen. And it meant you had to do without the particular work when it was on loan. Secondly, people, at least the ones I knew, really listened hard when music was played purposefully to be shared. Case in point: I can count myself a real expert on all the early Dan albums: Can't Buy A Thrill; Countdown to Ecstasy; Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied; The Royal Scam, singing along to all with reasonable accuracy regarding the lyrics, arcane as they so often were - and not printed for the first three - and I think I know pretty much every note played. Yet, I never owned any until they were issued on CD in the late 80's and I don't recall borrowing them. They were simply there, in the air. A great band, and you just had to listen. Hard.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Going Cheap

Bought a few CDs whilst in KL. I only know of one shop there selling CDs these days, a small place in KLCC that only opened this year. Surprisingly it has survived so far, completely against the run of play, and sells an interesting, if limited, range of music. It seems to specialise, amongst other things, in cheapo re-issues from DG and other classical labels in its serious section and I picked up a cheap Mahler 4 (Abbado and the Vienna Phil) and collection of Satie shorts.

But the really, really bargain basement stuff came in the shape of collections of 5 albums of various singers or groups, on the Warner Brothers label, in no nonsense simple sleeves with none of the usual paraphernalia at just 50 ringgit a throw. Now in real money that's around 4 Sing dollars, or just a couple of quid per CD. I snaffled 5 early k.d. laing albums and a mid-career set of 5 by Emmylou Harris and, by gum, they sounded good. Country music at its finest, played with finesse, imagination and mountains of talent.

But here's the thing: How is it that I'm able to buy class material like this in 2013 at the same amount that lps cost when I first started buying them? (I'm not entirely sure, but I think albums were 2 pounds sterling each when I got my clammy hands on the first ELP offering - and, of course, that was when 2 pounds was 2 pounds: you could have a night out on a couple of quid and still have change.) I know the answer to the question has a lot to do with the demise of the CD and the easy availability of downloadable music, and the implications of this seem to me to be not entirely happy, indeed, far from such. I placed a very high value on that first ELP album, as I did on every record I owned because they cost so much. And I didn't have that much to choose from to listen to - because they cost so much. Now I have an astonishing abundance and even though I should know better I think I'm undervaluing it. I've only half listened once to the k.d. laing and Emmylou stuff since my purchase. In the old days I'd play a new album over and over for weeks at a time.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

In The Crowd

Based on our experience yesterday of walking around Bukit Bintang in the late afternoon, if you asked me what people in KL do for Christmas Day I'd tell you they go shopping down town. The crowds were atrocious. The only respite was to get into a mall which didn't seem particularly popular such that things temporarily quietened down. The fifth floor of Lot 10 proved a bit of a haven for Noi and myself, though the girls clearly had a great time shopping with the masses in Times Square.

Young people seem to find crowds energising. I remember enjoying just walking around Manchester as a kid, happy to be away from home. Mind you, there were record shops and book shops then. Didn't see any yesterday, other than the tiny Borders in Times Square (which began as a mega-store occupying two floors, way back when.) Also thinking of The Jam's In The Crowd, which I happened to play in the car the other day in a brilliant live version from a more recent Paul Weller. Nice celebratory quality - as has Springsteen's Out On The Street.

I looked at quite a few faces yesterday and no one seemed terribly happy. But perhaps that's just the result of the concentration you need just to keep walking.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Another Green Christmas

You'd think that recalling the Christmases of childhood might induce melancholy in an old geezer like myself. Not so. I recall those times with great satisfaction, thinking of how the adults I was blessed to be surrounded by made so much of so little. By the way, there was just as much talk in those times about the season losing its true meaning as there is today. But true meaning is always the meaning you make, isn't it? I suppose we make less meaning as a community, being in thrall for all festivals to the Gods of Commerce, but once you turn your back on false gods it's surprising how much real meaning naturally emerges.
 
So what are we up to, in our attempt to make something of the day? The plan for the afternoon is to install the troops in Times Square. We did this a couple of days ago, but that was to abandon them to the joys of the indoor theme park, which they duly relished, especially now they are allowed on all the rides. However, they spent so long in there that they had no time for shopping and since the place has an abundance of cheap-looking shops that sell what I'm told are cheap clothes that appeal to teens it seems only right to take them back, let them loose, and stroll out into the surrounding area with Noi to take in the sights and sounds of a KL Christmas around Bukit Bintang.
 
Spent the morning finishing a good murder, which always seems appropriate for the season, cleaning around the house, in preparation for taking our leave tomorrow, munching chocolate chip cookies - which Mak Ndak had baked in the very early hours of the morning to keep the troops fed, and drinking tea. All highly satisfactory. Oh, and I received a splendid poem through e-mail, making meaning of the greenery of our Far Place, which was worth several reads.

And before the day ends I'll be ringing Maureen and John, hoping all is well with them. John's recent operation seems to have been a success and Maureen seems to have recovered from some recent ups and downs, so I'm hoping it'll be an upbeat conversation. Sometimes wishing folks a Happy Christmas can feel a little provisional given the struggles they might face, but what the heck - a Happy Christmas anyway to all.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Shelfies (Not Selfies)

 
 
Preferences can be revealing.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Laughing Out Loud

On two occasions yesterday I found myself literally laughing out loud - actually crying with laughter - whilst reading short stories. Implausibly both stories were by Kazuo Ishiguro, from his little collection Nocturnes. Who knew, eh?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Stories And Pain

There's a brilliant segment somewhere around the middle of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, one of the detachable segments entitled Coming To America, in this case given the date 1778 and featuring the enslaved twins Wututu and Agasu, which is so powerful it fairly burns off the page. It deals with something that only fiction can deal with in any sort of decent, honourable way, the pain of other people's lives, especially those whose lives have been extremely painful ones, partly by admitting that it's really impossible to 'deal with' such pain in any realistic sense.

Gaiman seems to me a bit of an on-off writer. When he's good, as he is in the segment referred to above, he's astonishing, but you have to deal with some fairly routine stuff to get to those patches. Fortunately there's always a tremendous narrative drive, even when you get a sense of something routine going-on and what's routine for this writer - I'm thinking of a sort of gothic attitudinising here - is never less than imaginatively engaging.

But I think it's that sense of the pain of others, the sometimes impossible demands of existence, that drives the fiction and is never far too far below whatever is going on at surface level. I'd also guess that Gaiman often doesn't quite know where his stories are going - much of American Gods feels improvisatory in that sense - and that leaves his fiction open to making the kind of discoveries that really hurt, even if the pain is only fictional. I've just finished a fairly battered copy of the author's preferred text of the novel, from the library at work - it seemed an appropriate way to read a story that itself seems fairly battered at times - and I know I'm scorched enough not to want to re-read any time soon. A good sign.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Talk Not Given

A very busy day yesterday, for the most part spent over at Shah Alam with Hamzah and family. In the afternoon Hamzah and I popped across to a school at Nilai. A few weeks back he'd asked if I'd talk to some of the teachers there regarding matters educational. What exactly I was supposed to talk about was left all a bit vague, but that's the way I like it, so I'd happily agreed, and had a good time for a couple of hours talking about the IBDP to the Principal and a few teachers there. It seems they've been tasked by the government here to put the programme in place by 2015 and are just getting uncertainly started so they were picking my brains (what's left of them) for practical suggestions from someone who's involved in the functioning reality of such a programme. I'm not sure I said anything useful, or anything they didn't already know, but it was an interesting couple of hours from my perspective finding out about them and their concerns - which were real and numerous.

In fact, I'd sort of prepared quite another talk, a much more general affair about broader concerns which I was happy not to deliver. I say this simply because it wasn't what they wanted and the preparation had been of the usual variety for me: minimal in terms of anything on paper, just ideas useful at this point in time to me, circulating in my head in enough order to be ready to spill out when needed. I suppose some further insights might have been generated in the course of the spillage, so there was a slight sense of missing out on a chance there, but it's been enjoyable enough simply thinking through the notions myself, so I don't consider anything wasted. My imaginary talk would have been entitled The Value of Uncertainty and, in fact, riffing through ideas related to certainty and whatever its opposite might be seems to me to have shed some light on that elusive organ - the very heart of education.

In case you are interested, and in the interests of full disclosure, here are my notes, in their entirety, for what I might have talked about:

The value of certainty. Versus: The value of uncertainty. Balance. Voltaire: Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Making Memories

Just arrived in KL, with Mak Ndak mopping, me making the technology work and the troops laughing like hyenas for no particular reason and watching the finale of this season of The Voice. Fafa and Ayu were just asking me if I remembered their own finale concerts at Maison KL in years gone by, as December came to an end and we got ready to relocate yet again. (Who could ever forget the year the girls discovered Abba's greatest hits?) Kids never realise you remember everything, having discovered the great truth that it's only the trivialities that count.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Universal Truths

 
 
 
Took the troops to Universal Studios on Sentosa today in an effort to exhaust them and accomplished the mission. Also, of course, exhausted ourselves. The theme park is based on the unabashed ersatz of movies and succeeds in its fakery in an engagingly unashamed manner. The kids particularly appreciated the Transformers ride; their seniors took to the sedate Madagascar experience (which I think is designed for genuine kiddies.) And this time round we didn't require a wheelchair to assist Mak Ndak through her motion sickness as she wasn't allowed on any fast rides. 

Best part of the day for me, a truly joyful twenty minutes or so of sort of 'street' dancing by five talented guys who worked the crowd beautifully. They managed to involve three people from the crowd watching in a manner that was unembarrassing, clearly going for two girls and a guy who actually had some reasonable chops themselves.

And that also connected with something that became increasingly clear to me as the day went on: the staff of the park, old and (mainly) young, were unfailingly cheerful and committed to doing their best for what I'm guessing is not exactly a lot of money. Far more impressive than any of the technology involved.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Patterns

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Since we are by nature a pattern-making species it is tempting to assume we do nothing more than impose patterns on our experience. The likelihood that this is not the case makes even the simplest pattern a source of deep fascination and, dare I say, satisfaction - for those who wish to read the signs.

Just as a matter of interest my grandfather on my mother's side (whom I never knew) was a patternmaker by trade.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Shock Of The New

 
 
 
Just back from taking the troops (three nieces this time) to the Gardens on the Bay, the latest tourist attraction of this small nation. Well, I think it's the latest. Actually it's now been around a while, at least a year, a long time in this Far Place, and seemingly everyone else has been there except us. So we put that right today, in a rather jolly manner involving lots of giggling and snapping and general silliness.

But here's the thing. As good as the gardens were, especially the two beautifully designed air-conditioned pavilions, they were just so new, so just-arrived. And just returning as we have from somewhere so old, so long-remembered, the contrast was jarring. Much as I enjoyed almost everything I saw, and much as I enjoyed snapping away typically indiscriminately, I had a curious sense that this was all somehow a replacement for something more real; a sense that the whole location was an exercise in a kind of loving ersatz.

These are jaundiced words, I know. But the feeling is genuine. Which is odd: how can you have a genuine sense of the ersatz? In what sense can any human construction be authentic?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Doors

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Cleaning Up

Noi has popped up to Melaka to pick up two of our nieces for whom we'll be finding ways of entertaining here in this Far Place for a few days before taking them back up, with yet another niece, to the Malaysian capital for further entertainment in the run-up to Christmas. In the meantime I manfully have spent the day cleaning all the books in the Hall, and managing to read one, the last of the Berlie Doherty books I got hold of years ago and never got a chance to read. Not impressed, I'm afraid - it all seemed more than a bit contrived to me (a follow-up to How Green You Are, featuring the same 'gang'. I think the publishers were pushing a limited talent a bit too hard.)

Also walked to Holland Village in a bid to lose a few pounds and acquire the latest New York Review of Books. My policy of only buying a new one when I've finished whichever one I'm reading is working rather well. Glanced at an article on the artist/illustrator Norman Rockwell whilst quaffing the cup that cheers (and not eating the usual accompanying bagel) to discover that a guy I've always assumed was the archetypal American mom and apple pie sort of chap was really more than a little screwed up. Particularly happy about this as I've always liked his stuff and now have an excuse for my bad taste.

Friday, December 13, 2013

In The News

Managed to keep up with most of the news over the last couple of weeks, and was grateful for the excellent coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela. A bit hagiographic at times, but in this case understandably so. The best single piece I saw was an interview with Morgan Freeman, done at the time of the making of the fine movie Invictus. The actor gave penetrating insights into the private Mandela, noting, for example, the sense of quietness, almost reserve in company of the ex-President and, most fascinating of all, that Mandinga saw himself as a failure on account of the troubles of his family life. Freeman also gave a brilliant reading of Henley's poem, in an unexpectedly prosaic, casual style that will stay with me for a long time - and seemed in itself an oblique comment on Mandela and his style of leadership.

There was also an excellent BBC Question Time shown today, recorded in South Africa with a very mixed panel, including Pik Botha of all people, dealing with the very real problems of the nation. This seemed wonderfully appropriate given the fact that Mandela was above all a man who dealt with incredibly difficult realities with a kind of supreme grace and charity. The definition of grace under pressure.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

And Back Again

Nice to be back in Hall. Very nice indeed to be so in one piece. There was a point in time when I was crawling to get to the toilet on Monday morning when I didn't think such an outcome was likely. Now I feel fitter than ever, and have probably slept better in the last three days than I have done for years.

It's time to unpack, download all the pictures and count our many blessings.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Packing

Duly finished all my planned reading for the trip and now packing. Still rate Purple Hibiscus very highly, though I felt the last 80 pages or so saw a falling away from the intensity of the early chapters. Thought the plot got a bit contrived in trying to unite the public and private worlds explored. Also finished the NYRB I bought along, so I'm left with Washington Irving's Tales from the Alhambra to read on the plane, a tome I picked up at the fabled location itself. Rather annoyed with myself for not picking up a colourful book entitled Reading the Alhambra which had lots of details about the meaning of the calligraphy in the palace in guidebook fashion. I assumed I would come across it later in Madrid, but this was not to be. There are precious few bookshops or CD shops in the capital, as far as I can see.

My back appears to have healed completely, which considering the state I was in two mornings ago has something of the miraculous about it. I've also been enjoying the best nights' sleep I can remember in years, no doubt Valium induced - which means I think I'll start to lay off the drug soon, though it might prove efficacious for the flight ahead.

Anyway, it's time for prayers and a shower and a shave and whatnot - so cheerio from Spain.

Photo Opportunities

Most of the tour group have now gone back to Singapore, leaving Noi, myself and good chums Rohanna and Osman as we extended our stay for three days. With my back almost fully functional, and the valium I'm on having afforded me the best night's sleep I can remember in years - probably since being a child - we set out on a day trip to the rather lovely town of Segovia just 70 kilometres out of Madrid today.

Once there it proved impossible to look in any direction without wanting to point a camera there. I've noticed that the rather snobbish way of looking at people wanting to take pictures of everything was to claim that in doing so they were somehow missing the living reality of the experience. Like most clever ideas implying a kind of intellectual superiority on the part of those who somehow 'know better' this is profoundly wrong. What you see in people dying to take pictures of beautiful things is a simple profound recognition of that beauty and the need to savour the moment as a way of seeing. This is even more obvious now when the ease with which pictures can be taken means you get to see the least likely characters taking shots of the least likely scenes. 

This is all part of what I consider the democratisation of art - and a jolly good thing it is too.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

In Action

Monday has proved to be a day of recovery, so far at least. Replete with muscle relaxant and various pain killers (actually I'm on a Valium holiday, something I've never had the pleasure of before) I've been moving rather easily though the centre of the Spanish capital, which is remarkably easy to get around, by the way. The excellent Metro system helps.

We spent the early afternoon in the Prado, and I sort of expected this to be a big highlight of our visit, but it proved something of an anti-climax. Not a patch on the Louvre, and way, way behind either of the London Tates or the National Gallery. Not that it was terrible - just rather old-fashioned, I suppose. A few stunning things - a couple of Rembrandts and Velasquezs, but honestly I'm hard pressed to recall anything that knocked me sideways. Even the bookshop was a bit boring - but the coffee was nice. 

No, the real pleasure of the day was strolling through the streets in the centre of Madrid, popping into cheesy souvenir shops and just enjoying being there. The architecture is generally a bit over-the-top, like the sort of wedding cakes that the rich and famous think constitute a sense of class. But sometimes you need a bit of the monumental to remind yourself how daft folk can be.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Incapacitated

A day of almost complete inaction here in Madrid. (It's actually Sunday here, despite the date above, Spain being eight hours behind my usual Far Place of residence.) I struggled quite a bit on Saturday after suffering severe twinges in my back in the morning and awoke in the early hours today in extreme pain. In fact, I was extremely worried that yet another disk had slipped in my ragged backbone since I could only crawl to the toilet in extreme pain. But the doctor confirmed this morning that it wasn't so bad, just the muscles going into spasm, and he gave me a jab of muscle relaxant. A few hours later and I'm actually walking again - somewhat gingerly, but at least I'm moving.

By the way, Gentle Reader, I can assure you that if you want to explore just how undignified you can be, try crawling to a bathroom and struggling to get on the toilet. You won't have too many illusions about yourself after that.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sketches Of Spain

Well, not exactly sketches, but I couldn't help but do homage to Miles in the title. Five random impressions then:

It's an incredibly clean country in terms of appearing litter free. I mean, I'm looking at what you might call the tourist areas, but there are lots of them, and there's just no litter. In a shopping centre in Madrid today I caught sight of my first actual cleaner, working in the middle of the crowds. She was the only one I saw and she was clearly unhurried, somewhat underwhelmed. My guess is that this level of cleanliness is connected to a sense of community of the richest kind.

There are lots of children to be seen, everywhere. This is a good thing. Like all children they are incredibly cute, but they also appear remarkably well-behaved. Again, this seems at some level to be about community.

Lots of women of all ages smoke. I don't know why I am mildly shocked by this, but I am.

There's a quite a bit of graffiti on display - a lot more than in Morocco. Initially I was taken aback on seeing quite a lot on a wall in Seville since it was obviously a 'nice' wall. But I now realise that the graffiti seems limited to definitely selected walls, usually, though not exclusively, of unoccupied buildings. Spanish graffiti, by the way, looks the same as graffiti everywhere in the world - including Morocco. Why do graffiti artists have so little individuality if what they are up to is an expression of the self?  

The crisis in the economy is not at all obvious at street level, at least in the tourist areas - though the crowds are not quite as dense as one might have expected before Christmas. But once you really get talking to people the sense of worry is palpable. Unemployment stands at 25% generally, I'm told, and a good deal higher in Andalusia. Property prices are falling in Madrid. Trouble in paradise.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

All Sorts Of Progress

We're on this trip as part of a tour group, the first time we've ever done anything like this, and it's working out really well in all sorts of ways. One of these ways has been in relation to the fact that even though we've been kept busy moving from place to place every day, I've managed to get quite a bit of reading done. It's helped that I bought along three books that have proved easy reads, in the sense of each being a pleasure at every level.

Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors is packed with quirkily wonderful stuff. A great read, I reckon, for young aspiring writers simply because of the sheer delight in narratives of all sorts that Gaiman conveys. Good as he is he doesn't mind being a bit clumsy here and there, as if the really important thing is enjoying the tale without over-worrying about the telling. In contrast, there's little that's clumsy about Orhan Pamuk, as any fan would know. The White Castle was the perfect choice for this trip simply on account of its brevity. There's a lot of weight to the longer novels, such that I'm reluctant to read them at anything other than a measured pace - and I didn't exactly rush through this novella. But since The White Castle is a novella with a reasonably direct, seemingly transparent narrative, it slipped down nicely over just a couple of days. Highly recommended for anyone starting out on the Turkish master.

And now I'm moving into the final sequences of Adichie's Purple Hibiscus. Incredibly this was a debut novel. It is just so utterly assured, and in Kambili's Papa has one of the great monsters of fiction, the greatness lying in the fact that you are made to understand the man even if you don't want to. In fact, Kambili herself is a wonderfully subtle creation: both extremely sensitive to others yet curiously, believably dense.

I've also done pretty well in terms of reading most of the issue of the NYRB I bought with me. This means I've had to buy a couple of things on the road (we're now in Madrid) to keep me going until we conclude this little escapade, about which more anon, as they say.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Drop Dead Gorgeous

When it comes to visiting places of so-called historical interest I find myself a good deal more at ease in mosques, cathedrals, temples and the like than in palaces or the mighty residences of the great and good (and, I suppose, I'm most at ease in places where ordinary folk made their passage through this vale of tears. Oh, and homes of writers, especially ones who didn't make a lot of cash.) It's the rather obvious fact that palaces and great houses are about power and prestige, and the asserting thereof, that leads to a certain degree of discomfort on my part. Of course, mosques, cathedrals and temples are, sadly, not always untainted with a dreary sense of religious triumphalism, but at least they usually point in the direction of higher things.

But for all my reservations about palaces and their like I'll make an exception in the case of Al Hambra, which we had the pleasure of wandering around this afternoon. It's just so astonishingly, ravishingly beautiful that it genuinely seems to transcend the flawed creatures who possibly might have believed it reflected their greatness. In fact, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one and assume they knew a place like this could only reflect the greatness of the Creator. There are just too many spots within it that are about being beautiful for their own sake - glimpses of a paradise for all men and women who seek to manifest the same delight in symmetry and balance in their own lives.

Just as a matter of interest, Noi, practical as ever, asked our guide what they did for toilets back in the fourteenth century. It turned out that they had a first rate system of sanitation, based on the running water that is used so effectively throughout the palace, and which was used to carry away the human waste. Definitely heavenly!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Feeling Convivial

Briefly, all too briefly, in Cordoba. Found myself uncharacteristically moved at a sort of diorama featuring Alfonso X, Maimonides, Averroes and Ibn Arabi. Each was given a little speech conveyed over the rather nifty headsets you donned as part of the tour of the tower at one end of the Roman Bridge over the Guadalquivir which housed the not terribly convincing models of the four great men. The speeches were sort of mosaics of some of their sayings, delivered in an engagingly snooty version of my native tongue in the translation I was listening to. Words, as you might have guessed from the cast list, of extraordinary intelligence, well worth listening to in our own times, reflecting the glorious notion of convivencia.

For what it's worth, I'm dubious as to the reality of the convivencia. I believe something of the sort did take place, but in the hearts of men and women of insight rather than the realpolitik of the period. History remains a nightmare - but sometimes mixed in with dreams worth dreaming. This is one historical myth I'm happy to propagate, and happier still to try to make real in our own time.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Colours, Various

Had a good long look today at the Mediterranean, as it splendidly manifests itself in the harbour at Tangier. This was on account of the fact that, having missed the morning ferry to Spain, we weren't going anywhere for several hours. It turned out to be time well spent.

The Med is a definite blue for the most part - a real sea-blue - but on close inspection is blue-green in the harbour, a rich, stylish turquoise. Children, by the way, love turquoise, though no one ever chooses it as a favourite colour. (I base the previous sentence on my experience as a child, so shoot me if I'm over-generalising.)

On the highway to Seville from Tarifa the colours turned even richer in the protracted sunset. Staring out the window of our bus we were treated to a sort of Rothko in movement: below the horizon something like black, or navy blue; then a band of orange, turning yellow at its top; then a sudden light blue shading into a rich royal blue and then into navy. Beautiful and brooding all at once. A few stars above - though not as a many as we'd been treated to in Morocco setting out in the early morning.

By the way, morning prayers at a tiny surau next to a petrol station, after ablutions taken in conditions close to freezing, will stand out for me as one of the most memorable of prayers I've ever been a participant in. A nice cup of coffee after, provided free by the petrol station added to the richness of the moment. (In Islam prayers have something of the quality of an event on occasion.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Overhearings

Three from Fes:

On capitalism, by a helpful vendor: I make good price for Muslim. I sell you like I sell my sister.

On human nature, by our guide, Mr Kamal: There are good people in the medina. In the medina there are bad people. Like everywhere in the the world. Like in Singapore. Like in Malaysia. Like America. Like France. Watch your wallets. (Actually, this could also be a comment on capitalism.)

On life itself, by another guide, Mr Abdul Haqq: It is not long and there are many things to know. (Actually said prior to our visit to the centre of Fes. But of universal application, surely)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

In The Maghrib

Three random impressions of North Africa:

Flat roofs everywhere, most suffering a rash of satellite dishes. The exteriors of buildings generally faded in a gently glowing manner - white in Casablanca, red ochre in Marrakech. The white or cream dishes often rusting, an ugly brown.

The people predominantly well-dressed. Like extras from French movies of the fifties; like something out of Camus or Sartre. Leather jackets made to look chic. Even the poor look like they care about appearances.

Irritatingly slow Internet connections.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Road Ahead

Finally completed my IB marking for this year, just in time to board a plane to Casablanca. Then it's Marrakech, Fes, Rabat, Tangiers, Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Madrid - which sounds pretty busy to me. Still I'm hoping to find a bit of time to read, amidst all the sight-seeing, and it's with that in mind that I'm packing Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors, Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus. Oh, and the early November issue of the New York Review of Books for less protracted stuff.

The great-sonnet-read-through will go into abeyance for a little while (to save on carrying books.) I'm now up to number ninety and WS has beating himself up for the last three or four, which was a touch tiresome, so it's a good time for a break. And I'm not too sure how frequently I'll be able to get on-line to blog here at this Far Place from those far places. Well, we shall see.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Identity Crisis

It's distinctly undermining to your sense of identity when the biometric system designed to allow you access to your place of work doesn't let you in.

The wonders of modern technology, eh?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Real Point To Make

The last lines of Middlemarch: ... for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. Typically didactic, and to some degree unnecessary as Eliot has already made the point abundantly through the very (apparently) real behaviour of her characters; but still worth insisting on as a profound moral truth. The Victorians were not shy of such truths, and perhaps we have gained something by being a little less certain of any truths, but our world is built on their shoulders and I for one, am aware that I am fortunate to be free of many of the ills of which Eliot would have been acutely aware.

The simple truth that Dorothea's generosity of character in going to the dreadful Rosamond to try and be of help to her when it would have easier and more 'natural' to have done very much otherwise, and in the process does immeasurable good for three other lives (and her own) in a way that nobody else will ever really see or comprehend is worth all the contrivance of plot it takes to get there. And isn't the contrast between Dorothea's sense of a self that needs to find itself and Rosamond's sense of nothing but self in some way the structural underpinning of the whole novel? The remarkable thing is that Eliot somehow understands Rosie - the writing of the note to Dorothea explaining Ladislaw's attitude to her, and the motivation for this (which is decent enough, but not exactly noble) is eerily spot on. Every reader knows how dreadful Rosie is but the remarkable thing is that we're invited to see the world in a way that entirely explains, almost justifies, her.

Great, great novel.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Slowly Mending

Just had a chat with John, now in his post-operation phase. He's still in a fair amount of pain, which is hardly surprising when you consider the extent to which his back has been knocked around. As far as I understand matters his spine is full of nuts and bolts at the moment, which sounds a lot more traumatic than the comparatively minor ops we've both had in the past simply to remove pesky slipped disks - and, my goodness, they could leave you feeling extremely sore for quite some time.

The good news is that John's doc thinks the procedure was a success, so we're hopeful that when the after-effects of the op fade he'll finally get a good night's sleep and be able to get around a lot more freely than was previously the case. As I've had occasion to mention before, I can't help but wonder if my brother-in-law's troubles are a sneak preview of the sort of thing that lies in store for me - assuming I live as long. So there's an element of selfishness in hoping for the best for him. But there's also a dollop of straightforward goodwill towards a good guy.

On the home front, my doc gave me a clean bill of health in spine-related matters just last week. Trust me, I'm enjoying my good fortune as long as it lasts, which I'm well aware won't be forever.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Bit Of A Walk

Wandered out to Holland Village in the late afternoon, footing it all the way there and back, in an attempt to clear the cobwebs stuffed into my skull, occupying the space where my brain should be. The cobwebs settled there as a result of today's marking, and are still resident despite the walk and the rather jolly cup of tea I enjoyed at the Village. This is the problem attendant upon my system of marking which depends on achieving a fixed quota every day, come what may. On those days when my body and brain tell me in no uncertain terms they are just not interested in doing the necessary, the necessary still gets done - at a price.

Mind you, I was still able to summon the concentration to move into the final quarter of Middlemarch whilst quaffing the cup that cheers, so the journey wasn't entirely a waste. And I got to enjoy the trees along Commonwealth Avenue on the way back. These are not terribly special for the city, but special enough when you really focus on them to provide a splendid counterpoint to the MRT line running overhead and the various manifestations of the New Brutality in modern architecture that abound along the way.

The great thing about nature in this 'garden city' is that it manages to hold onto something of its disconcerting echoes of the wilderness, its essential aggressiveness, even when it's tamed along a roadside. It's not difficult to imagine the greenery taking it all back one day.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Crashing

Ate well at a wedding in the early afternoon - one of Arzami's daughters taking that long dark mystery ride. Since Noi wasn't around there really wasn't anything to distract me from the food. Then it was home to curry puffs and a monumental and much-needed late afternoon nap - though 'nap' seems too slight a word for the vertiginous plunge into the stream of unconsciousness I enjoyed.

And that's the place I'm happily going back to right after completing this. So there.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Together, Apart

We're off to Spain and Morocco this Thursday on a sort of Islamic-themed tour. This has involved getting a visa for Noi for the Moroccan leg of the journey, which has entailed her being without her passport for quite some time. Since she's been intending to go to Melaka to see Mak before we set off this has been a tad inconvenient, but she got it back this afternoon and is intending to drive up north on the morrow. I will sit lingering here, on account of getting papers marked for IB, so we'll be parted for the weekend - one of the irritants of our frequently (seemingly increasingly) mobile way of life.

I must say, though, the inconvenience has been massively ameliorated by an oxtail soup to die for cooked in honour of the occasion this evening, and a plenitude of freshly made curry puffs to get me through a lonely Saturday and Sunday. Miss Gloria Gaynor was right all along: yes, I will survive.

And while we're on the subject of togetherness, I enjoyed an excellent Friday sermon at Prayers today, concerning Muslim marriage. Full of good sense, I think some of its prescriptions would surprise those who appear determined to see Islam as innately oppressive to women. But there's no point in outlining these: those who don't want to know simply don't want to know.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Simply Chilling

Prior to coming to this Far Place I naively imagined I'd never be cold at work again. At that time I had no idea of just how much life in the tropics has been improved through air-conditioning. It's now possible to spend several hours shivering in the day as if working in some vengeful freezer for meat products. (I have no idea what 'meat products' are as I just invented the term, but I'm fairly sure they exist. And are kept chilled.)

For some reason air-conditioned staffrooms are regarded as some kind of luxury here. I'm sure they are expensive, but I'd gladly swop the one I'm in for somewhere with some slowly-revolving fans.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Self And Society

Just passed the halfway mark of Middlemarch and glorying in what an absolutely wonderful novel it is. It's so familiar to this reader that it's easy to forget the sheer ambition of Eliot here: a novel to diagnose the condition of England at a time of crucial historical change - yet, at the same time, to inhabit the most intimate corners of its major characters. I read the bit yesterday where Casaubon has found out just how ill he is and upsets Dorothea with his cold response to her concerns, then meets her late at night displaying a heart-breaking gentleness. Completely unexpected, yet true. As good as Tolstoy at his best. (And isn't it odd how this moment occupies the exact centre of the work?)

There is an advantage to having a degree of familiarity with the novel, I find. Instead of getting lost in the abundant detail of provincial life I'm more aware than in previous readings of what binds the enterprise together. In many ways what we are given is a series of studies in various forms of selfishness, and I'm including even the selfless Dorothea and Caleb Garth in that claim. But Eliot goes beyond merely laying bare the sad reality of what it is to be human. How that selfishness connects with our role as social animals is what's under often painful examination.

There's something disconcertingly bracing about this kind of moral seriousness.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Contradiction

Kids are full of a boundless curiosity, as we all know, because everybody says so. So how is it I remember being bored as a child? - quite often, actually. Yet I can't remember ever being bored as an adult; certainly not in the last twenty years.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Holiday Outing

I felt oddly disgruntled yesterday at being denied my cache of CDs. Although I kept a manly stiff upper lip for the Missus, inside I was inveighing at the iniquities of the modern world denying me my basic human right of a huge music store to lounge around in. Childish, very.

And then I got to thinking that the vast range of music now almost instantly accessible at the click of a mouse (yes, I'm still old-fashioned enough to rely on one) surely goes some way to make up for the fact that you can't lose yourself in the classical section for a good hour or so any more, considering what sweet harmonies you might select to enhance your existence. Which then led me to find some time between marking scripts and prowling an examination hall today to watch and listen to and wonder at Ben Britten's Albert Herring as sensationally performed at Glyndebourne some years back.

And though I wasn't exactly on holiday - though I am technically on holiday - I found myself in effect on a real holiday: in that place that the great comedies take you to: the enchanted woods where we discover ourselves - in this case, in that little, very English, Suffolk village in which we all grew up.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Down Town

Popped down to Orchard Road this evening intending to buy some CDs. Failed in an epic manner as there are no shops left selling them.

Returned disconsolate on the bus, having established my credentials as a man of the people by travelling down on one, along with the Missus, doing her woman of the people bit. All I can say is that if the people have to wait as long as we did for the 14 every day they'd have good reason to be banging on the doors of the elite.

Happiest sound on Orchard Road was the multitudinous din of the birds settling down for the evening in the trees by the roadside as we arrived. Mind you, their not-so-silent presence overhead made us both a bit uneasy about being adorned with an unwanted gift from the heavens as we waited to cross the road.

And after all that, it was home to the Missus's patented carrot cake - which made up for more than everything. And so to bed!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Turning Pages

I was hoping to get a fair bit of reading done in the last two months of the year, but I can't honestly say that November has been fruitful in this regard, so far at least. It doesn't help that I've got some marking to do for the IB November papers. However, the simple truth of the matter is that I seem incapable of reading anything at a reasonable pace at the moment.

I thought I'd storm through Middlemarch, but I managed just thirty pages today. Mind you, I got more out of Ladislaw's encounter with Dorothea and Casaubon in Rome than on any other previous reading, especially with regard to Eliot's views on the functions of art as hinted at in these pages. The sequence reminded me in some ways of the bit in Anna Karenina in which Vronsky goes in for painting. Eliot lacks the dazzling insights of Tolstoy a propos the theme, but she's intelligent in a sturdily thought-provoking manner.

I also moved on in the great-sonnet-read-through, getting up to number 78, which means I'm over the halfway mark and moving into the Rival Poet set. In this case I'm happy not to be rushing through the sequence, but I'm uneasily aware of a sense of losing sight of the overall architecture. Paterson, by the way, is extremely good on the numerological significance of the place of certain sonnets. I've never found this kind of thing convincing before, and it's heartening to finally tune in to the Elizabethan preoccupation with numbers.

I've also been turning the pages of the very latest Prog magazine. I surprised myself in buying this the other day at full price, but it's got an article by Sid Smith on the making of Close to the Edge which prompted me to part with the shekels. Happily it also came with a free CD with some tasty pieces on by more recent exponents of music's most derided genre than the mighty Yes, so that helped ease the pain of purchase. Most of the writing reflects silly fan-boy enthusiasm but that'll do for me nicely.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sad Stories

Embarked on a rereading of Middlemarch recently. I've been intending to include a couple, at least, of 19th century blockbusters on my list for the end of the year and this old favourite has been on my mind for quite some time. I've never felt that I've ever done the last third justice somehow. Other than the fall of Bulstrode there's really little I remember from this part. I suppose I've always been rushing just for the plot.

I was expecting to thoroughly enjoy a leisurely reading of Eliot's masterpiece, and this has been the case as I find myself about a quarter of the way through - but I found an unexpected obstacle to an effortless reading of the early chapters. To my surprise I was almost reluctant to read the early stuff on Dorothea and Lydgate too closely or analytically simply because I knew it was all going to end in tears. The fact they are in the process of making dreadful mistakes regarding their respective partners in marriage was painful this time round, rather than merely salutary. I kept thinking of the time Noi and I watched the BBC's most recent dramatization of the novel (the one featuring Robert Hardy as Dorothea's father) and how Noi reacted so forcefully to their mistakes. She knew just how badly wrong they were getting things based on her enormous good sense, but she also felt for them, and it's this capacity to feel for others that can make reading genuinely painful.

I remember my old mate Tony Steel telling me he couldn't see the point of reading a novel with a sad ending. At the time he said it, I thought him na├»ve. Now I'm not so sure. But I'm still looking forward to suffering along with the good, and bad, people of Middlemarch.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Doing Something

Thinking of Fuad's mum, now back in hospital following more problems related to her heart.

Thinking of the many bereaved in The Philippines and the many who've lost their homes. So often those who don't have that much to begin with are the ones who have it taken away.

And thinking that just thinking isn't enough. Time to act, however inadequately.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Seeing Things

It's folly to attempt to maintain the value of a currency as if there were some fixed standard of absolute value underpinning rates of exchange. The currency of language will inevitably be debased eventually. But it's wise to recognise that something of value is lost along the way, even if there's no point in resisting the change.
 
I speak as one who has had to survive more than one envisioning exercise of late. Once the word vision meant something and Blake, as ever, serves as a sane reminder of this. Here he is in The Marriage of Heaven of Hell, having just witnessed an appearance of the mighty Leviathan, with the angel that was guiding him having done a runner: ...I found myself alone sitting on a pleasant bank beside the river by moonlight, hearing a harper who sung to the harp; and his theme was: 'The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.'

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Moments In Time

It seemed to take me forever and a day to finish the summer NYRB that came with the facsimile issue of the first ever edition. But I'm very glad to have been taken back to the summer of 1963 in all its literary glory, on the Yankee side of the water, that is.

I'm guessing there were some special circumstances behind the choices of reviews and stuff for that first edition because there's just so many big names involved. We get poems from Lowell, Berryman and Robert Penn Warren and a piece by Lowell on Robert Frost; there are reviews of Ivan Denisovich, The Naked Lunch, Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenter and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plus Auden on David Jones's Anathemata and Berryman on Auden's The Dyer's Hand; and there are bits from Mailer, Vidal, Kazin, Styron and Sontag. No way was that just an ordinary month.

It's surprising just how much some things now seem dated, usually what I would guess to have been what the editors would have considered the most 'current' material. Three or four reviews have issues of race firmly in view, particularly the cover piece on Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and these seem to come from a different world - one, in some ways, best forgotten.

But it's equally striking how much written then would not sound at all out of place in the current NYRB. What was that definition of literature by Pound? - News that stays news, or something to that effect. Sometimes the old anti-Semite got things right.

Monday, November 11, 2013

On Not Knowing

In times when we are being sold so much that people purport to know it seems to me very useful that schools help students understand just how much we don't know.

The answer, by the way, is a lot.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Utterly Useless Beauty

Yesterday's comments on dissonance relate very much to one of my recent discoveries. I'd vaguely heard of the composer Toru Takemitsu, and knew him to be highly regarded among connoisseurs of the avant garde end of twentieth century music. What I didn't realise was that I was very familiar with his music for Kurosawa's great movie Ran having watched the epic at least four times. I just wasn't aware that it was Takemitsu who was responsible for all those lovely sounds and that there was a standalone version of the music that was transcendentally beautiful and powerful outside the beautiful and powerful visual context in which it was embedded.

I think if I had known that I would have sought out more by the composer earlier than I did. But it really doesn't matter because for the last two weeks I've been joyously allowing myself to be overwhelmed by his music in every form I can find it - chiefly through those nice people at youtube. It's now my intention to place a bulk order for a cache of CDs through amazon.com since this is not stuff you'd find in the stores, assuming the stores existed, which they don't any more.

To be honest, I'm not sure I'm being in any way accurate using the term dissonance with regard to Takemitsu's work. To me it sounds almost entirely tonal, but I am aware that my tastes don't exactly run in the same direction as those of the general populace in this area. I'm told programming this stuff drives people out of concert halls, but I haven't got a clue why. Every piece I've heard so far without exception has sounded to these ears, well, simply beautiful in a kind of self-evident manner.

Anyway, let me provide for you, Gentle Reader, a simple test. If From me flows what you call Time, as assayed by Andrew Davis and the BBC Orchestra, doesn't entirely ravish you then I'm not saying there's something wrong with you, but it might be worth seeking psychological assistance of some sort.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Dissonance

How is it possible to find beauty in dissonance? I'm thinking primarily of music that might fairly be described as dissonant here, but the idea has application to other areas of artistic experience. A fairly obvious answer is that we project the quality of what we imagine onto the dissonant material - and this fits neatly the clever idea that in doing so we are saying something about our status as superior consumers of art. I'm keenly aware that there was something more than a little pretentious about my early encounters with Messiaen, for example. But for the life of me I don't recognise any such pretence any more. So is it simply that my ability to deceive myself has reached awesome proportions, making me believe I'm encountering a non-existent beauty just because I'm so thoroughly desperate to do so?

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Night Out

We spent a profitable evening just now at the theatre - the black box affair at the Esplanade. The play in question was Gruesome Playground Injuries and very well done it was. Sweet, funny and sad - perhaps fifteen minutes or so too long, but that wasn't the fault of the two very talented young performers. Nor, I suspect, the script. Rather the need to put in place a full length play stretched a good idea beyond its natural limit.

But this is to unnecessarily nit-pick. It was a very satisfying evening in the theatre. And afterwards, tea, murtabak and prata at the west coast made for an equally satisfying time outside the theatre.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Helping Yourself

I don't set much store by what might be termed 'self help' books. But there are honourable exceptions to all my rules, and John Cleese & Robyn Skinner's Life And How To Survive It was until recently the chief of these, if not the only, in this regard. Having recently discovered Families And How To Survive Them in my friendly neighbourhood library (this being Cleese and Skinner's precursor to the Life book) I am now happy to report that the number of honourable exceptions has now doubled.

I already had an inkling of some of the key ideas I would encounter reading Families but I was refreshingly challenged on a first reading by the thought-world unfolded. That sense of ideas getting under the skin seems to me key to any possibility of change in the individual. Can we really change for the better? I think it's possible, but I suspect such change is slow and painful - entirely the opposite of any quick fix we might be offered. 

I'm intending to read Families again, having raced through the first time. But this will be after a suitable period of assimilation. Enough tender spots were bruised the first time through to suggest I need to relax into the truths I recognised. I think I'm mentally healthier than I used to be - but not by much, and I'm not exactly starting from a place high on the slopes. Still, at one time I couldn't have typed that sentence and meant it. Now it's just old news.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Kind Of Truth

I was surprised the other day reading Farrukh Dhondy's Come To Mecca by just how much I enjoyed all six of the stories. When I first read the collection some three decades ago I found it interesting in a worthy kind of way but a bit hard going. This time round I raced through most of it in a day, admiring the vigour of the writing and the sense of celebration of multi-cultural Britain involved, despite the moments of despair and uncertainty.

The second story, Two Kinda Truth, particularly struck me as a minor classic. I'm not entirely sure just how authentic the writer's version of 'black-English' is, or was, but it makes for a great read and says something powerful about poetry and its uses. Not bad going in a collection targeted essentially at a teenage audience.

This is another of my giveaway books, as I make some room on the shelves, and it's been the only one so far that I've had serious second thoughts about keeping - in this case as a possible source for passages to use in the classroom. But I've stayed firm. I just hope it picks up a few more readers. It deserves it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It's A Date

1 Muharram 1435

Once upon a time the fifth of November simply meant gunpowder, treason and plot. And a jolly good time lighting the bonty and all the fireworks lovingly acquired in the weeks previous, and gazed at every evening whilst imagining the joys ahead. Of course, the fireworks were never quite as spectacular as you had pictured they should be and they were soon gone, as was the bonfire - but none of that mattered somehow. You were going to have a great time and you did have a great time.

By the way, all this had ended for everyone by the time I got to university. The powers that be had discovered just how dangerous all the local, small bonfires were and banned them. Firework displays became genuinely spectacular but highly regulated. You didn't get up close and personal with your roman candle anymore. Life became safer and a lot less interesting.

Somewhere along the way we eventually found out that the guy we ceremonially burnt each year was symbolic of English hatred of papists, and since we, or some of us, were papists this was a bit awkward, but that didn't stop us burning ours with glee.

And now here I am in a foreign land which feels like home, enjoying the idea that today marks the turning of a lunar year and we can all welcome 1435, hoping it will be a good one. All dates have possibilities and are open to the making of memories. It's good to look back and it's good to look forward and it's good just to be present for both.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Fighting Words

Enjoyed reading Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club. Interesting to note that in the afterword to the edition I was reading the writer explains that the novel began as a short story. In many ways that's what the novel felt like, a very intense tale expanded as far as it might reasonably go. It's remarkable that Palahniuk maintains the intensity for the length he does - it didn't flag at all for me, though I suspect another twenty pages would have been twenty too many.

American writers since the war seem to me to do this energy thing better than anyone else. There's an element of performance, possibly posturing, about this kind of novel that's engaging yet exhausting. I suppose it's related to the extraordinary sense of the US as something larger than life in itself. And I can't think of any other national literature that's quite so obsessed with violence in itself. (Is this all down to Hemingway?)

A bit odd that anyone might take this stuff seriously as a comment on the world, though. Think of how Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Dickens might skewer the Tyler Durdens of the world.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Art Of Travel

With noon approaching we're just about finished packing up here at Maison KL, and we'll be off to Melaka to visit the troops there and undermine their confidence in the gooners' rather tasty beginning to the season. Past experience will ensure said confidence is as fragile as Wayne Rooney's ego, so the task is not likely to be difficult.

Also we need to visit Mak in the new hospital at Alor Gajah. She was admitted the other day due to her blood sugar being low and we're hoping to find her in good form with her sweetness restored.

And after that it'll be back to our usual Far Place since I've got examination duties despite the day being technically a holiday. All this travelling puts me in mind of Shakespeare's frequent shading of travel into travail in the sonnets, usually when he's  moaning about being on the road away from his Beloved. Fortunately since I've got mine with me (and a reasonable sound system in our vehicle) there's little sense of labour about the process.