Thursday, January 31, 2013


Never ask a Dylan fanatic anything relating to the work of the Bobster in any sense. Poor Paul was getting a lift from me today to a department function we needed to attend and innocently inquired what style of music was emanating from the speakers as I was treating him to a bit of Nashville Skyline. Twenty-five fun-filled minutes later I had to put an end to my answer to the question since we had arrived at our destination - and, of course, I still had plenty I needed to say. I'm not sure the poor guy felt he really needed to hear it though.

And if that weren't bad enough, I also treated my unfortunate passenger to my accompaniment to Lay Lady Lay as part of my thesis.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Coming To Life

Did a read-through of a piece by Kuo Pao Kun this afternoon with my drama guys. We're intending to stage it this year. And it's pretty demanding in various ways. So there's something a bit scary about this. Which I like.

One page in and I was loving every moment. The possibilities!

Scary. Something fragile being born, with no guarantee of really living. And wonderful.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Joy, Jumping For

At the end of a day that I'd prefer to forget (don't ask), I choose to remember happier times from last month. And this is even easier to do now Blogger is allowing me to post photos again.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Not Exactly Heroic

Caught some of a documentary entitled Waiting For 'Superman' today, having watched quite a bit of the same film back in November with a degree of puzzlement. Basically it's about the state of the public schools in the USA and seems to be suggesting that the charter schools over there are the answer to that nation's educational woes. At least, I think that's what is being suggested. There's a rather dramatic intensity to the piece that's quite gripping but leads to a bit of a problem when you try to follow exactly what it's saying. A number of talking heads are wheeled out, seemingly to suggest they have the answers would we but listen to them, but there are moments also that seem to acknowledge the sheer complexity of what is being dealt with, inevitably pointing to the fact that there are probably few, if any, easy answers.

The problem I find with almost any treatment I've seen of education on film is the perplexing tendency of film-makers to valorise the 'good' teacher in ways that must ultimately prove counter-productive. Teaching is, like most work, ultimately fairly routine and mundane. Expecting people doing the job to go into work on a daily basis fired up to change the world is silly, especially when you really can't afford to pay them the kind of money that is necessary to attract heroes.

And kids, in my experience, are very much aware of this. They'll happily settle for clear directions for what they need to do and competence in getting there. In fact, they are often remarkably tolerant of less-than-competence, as long as it isn't likely to de-rail them from their ultimate goals.

The most interesting part of the documentary for me was the segment on the downright 'bad' teachers who get shunted from school to school and who are ultimately unsackable as the system there stands. My experience of teaching in two fairly different systems has not left me averse to the idea of sacking under-performing teachers, but it has left me profoundly sceptical with regard to ways of assessing teacher performance. This was glossed over in the documentary which gave the impression that such assessment was really quite straightforward, with a shot of the young lady responsible for the New York public schools, and who was extremely keen to sack non-performers, leaning over to a boy in a classroom to ask what he thought of his teacher. (He grunted, He's okay.)

Ultimately the inconvenient truth is that understanding of what goes on in schools is not furthered by any kind of treatment on camera. A proper consideration of the factors that need to be involved in a system to assess the performance of teachers with at least a basic degree of accuracy would in itself take several necessarily tedious and undramatic hours, possibly days, maybe weeks - not the stuff for the big or small screen.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Time To Party

Even when some kids are getting a bit too old for birthday celebrations, there are always happy replacements on the way.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Richness Of It All

Just finished an excellent three pages in The New York Review Of Books - from an actual copy of the mag purchased at Holland Village; I don't think you can get the article in question, Birds: The Inner Life, on-line. All sorts of fascinating nuggets. For example, it seems our avian chums actually have feelings in their beaks which contain an elaborate sensory system encompassing touch and taste. Oh, and amateur ornithologists have had quite a spikey relationship over time with the professionals in their field yet made contributions of real substance in their studies. And that excellent hunter of birds, and even better illustrator, James Audubon, just didn't see any conflict between these two modes of his capturing them.

Who said life was boring, eh?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Empty Sophistry

It was when I was talking to Siew Mei last Saturday that she mentioned to me she'd been reading attacks on Barack Obama as a hypocritical elitist for having armed guards to protect his children whilst wishing to deny this privilege to others. It took me possibly less than a second to process the utter feebleness of this argument in logical terms and it's my guess the same would be true for you, Gentle Reader. Just in case you struggle a bit on this one, Mike LaBossiere, who generally posts first rate stuff at Talking Philosophy, has a painstaking piece on this topic which scrupulously covers all the bases.

But what I find fascinating about all this, and sort of frightening, is this thought: I just don't believe that there aren't people at the NRA intelligent enough to be aware that this little argument is fundamentally barmy - so why do they let it out into the public domain? My guess is that they figure a fair percentage of those hearing it will be too lazy or too foolish to think it through, and will, therefore, buy into the argument, even though those propounding it know it to be without substance. Or, on an even more sinister level, they figure that, like themselves, those who are basically against gun control will grab hold of any superficially attractive sounding denigration of any of their opponents and use it to rubbish them with a kind of malicious delight in simply having the seeming power to do so.

I'm reminded of the first time I read 1984, when I was a young teenager, and felt the horror of a world in which those in power simply decide what the truth is with a kind of perverse glee at being able to make one and one make three. (A lot worse than those rather silly rats, I always thought.) And I'm further darkly reminded of the National Socialist Party's understanding of the power of the Big Lie.

The problem is, though, that we are so eager to reward those with the ability to influence public opinion, whether that influence is for good or evil.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Conversational fragment of the day:

Speaker 1: I wouldn't mind, but it means we're on the same number of points as Liverpool.
Speaker 2: Now that's really worrying, when you've actually got Liverpool overtaking you.

How are the mighty fallen, eh?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


There are two types of people: people who claim there are two types of people, and people who don't.

Monday, January 21, 2013


Pleased to see an article on poet Boey Kim Cheng, an interview in fact, placed reasonably prominently in The Straits Times, almost as if poetry actually matters. He's now based in Australia but is at the moment in this Far Place promoting his most recent collection Clear Brightness, which I read with a sense of both profit and enjoyment recently - ironically for the most part when I was in Australia.

But now it's time for a bit of a confession. Clear Brightness wasn't my first exposure to this fine writer. Back in the 90s I bought what I think was his third collection, Days of No Name, being very much aware at the time that he was regarded pretty highly here. That book won the Singapore Literature Prize 1995 Merit award, a fact that I am given to understand may have precipitated his departure from these shores. I guess that anyone winning such a clumsily, and patronisingly, named award might be likely to clear off in embarrassment, but there were voices raised at the time suggesting he really should have won the big award (not sure what they called it, but it went beyond 'merit') and duly miffed he cleared off. Doesn't sound terribly likely, but I suppose it could have been a contributory factor in his migration. But I haven't got to the confession bit yet; mine I mean.

When I read the Days book, which I did sort of fitfully, for some reason I wasn't terribly impressed, to the extent that there were a couple of other 'local' poetry books I bought simultaneously that I much preferred. So Days of No Name languished on my bookshelves until it suddenly occurred to me that after enjoying Clear Brightness so much I really should give it another go. (This was two days ago.) And now I'm wondering what on earth I was thinking a decade and more ago. Am I really that bad a reader? (Well, yes, sometimes. Which is why I do my best to heed the advice I dole out regularly to my students: Don't be in too much of a hurry to make your mind up regarding your response to a work - sometimes the deficiency lies in you.)

The first poem in the collection, almost the title poem, Day of No Name, just blazed off the page for me. What years ago had seemed to me clumsy, meandering and a touch self-regardingly precious, has now become a beautifully modulated exploration of feelings and intimations that lie too deep for words. (That sounds pretentious in a way the poem isn't, by the way.) Just the naming of the poet's companions, which originally struck me as gratingly awkward, now reads as entirely natural with a genuine friendliness that, casual as it is, is essential to the central themes.

I'm also now somewhat painfully aware, as a result of the interview in the paper, that Boey published a collection between the two I own which I completely disregarded, and this despite the fact it's on the 'A' level syllabus for Lit as undertaken in some of the colleges here.

So that's it, all told. My thoughtful judgments, finely honed after years of reading, can turn out to be more than a bit short-sighted. A cautionary tale indeed.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Useless Beauty

Quite a good day for listening to soothing sounds: Paul Weller, The Kinks, kd laing, Polly Harvey all got a spin in the early afternoon. It was whilst playing kd's version of Neil Young's Helpless that it occurred to me that her voice is so beautiful in and of itself that I should perhaps have re-thought my fairly dismissive comments about beauty as a factor in our appreciation of Art in my lecture on TOK and Art of the previous week. I get a bit fed up with students blandly assuming that Art = beauty, or the creation of beauty, hence my dismissiveness. But letting Ms laing transport you to another, better, place is a reminder of just how important our appreciation of beauty in itself is in these matters.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

So Contrived

Just finished Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, which slipped down nicely in double-quick time. Beautifully constructed to the point that the contrivance seems so obvious it can easily be mistaken for clumsiness - but it's an inspired sort of clumsiness. The bit where composer Clive Linley is on the verge of creating the great ending to his symphony and witnesses, or rather, chooses not to witness, the rape of a young woman out walking in the Lakes by a serial killer is plain daft, but wonderfully done.

What I like about McEwan is the fact he entertains, in an almost unpretentious manner. And even though you can see the joins it somehow doesn't matter.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Something Weighty

Saw a t-shirt when in Tasmania bearing the excellent slogan: Live simply so that others can simply live. Felt tempted to buy. Then realised it would be difficult to bear a slogan I couldn't live up to.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Unbridled Ferocity

I've been thinking a bit lately about Nietzsche, not because I've been dipping into my trusty Penguin Portable (edited and translated by the great Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann, and really all you need) but due to the fact he's featured in the last Philosophy Now of 2012 in some very readable articles, and, by an odd serendipity, I've recently chanced on a couple of other essays on line which were rather good.

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for old Friedrich as one of the most endearing of the outright barmy philosophers. It's difficult not to take to a guy who rubbished Wagner with such precision. But I think the crucial factor is that moustache. It's phenomenal, and one illustration in Philosophy Now makes that so clear that I found it quite difficult to pay reasonable attention to the accompanying article, excellent as it was. (Eric Walther on Nietzsche, Our Contemporary.)

I've been trying to think of a word that does that 'tache justice, and I reckon ferocious is about as close as I can get. Imagine carrying that thing around with you on your upper lip. How did he ever drink a cup of tea?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Something Lost

Heard some news today, oh boy, about HMV, the major High Street retailers for music in the UK shutting up shop. Felt a bit sad, not for the various suits they employ losing their bonuses - chances are some if not most will do very well out of all this - but for the store workers losing their jobs, and shoppers, like myself, losing the opportunity to browse CDs racks. Here in this Far Place it's almost impossible to find music stores with a reasonable range of stock anywhere; the newer malls don't seem to have such outlets, or bookshops, for that matter, and I presume the HMV brand over here is now under threat.

I understand the dreary economics of all this - how downloading has cut massively into actual CD sales - and I am aware that it's worth celebrating the fact you can download almost anything (legally, happily) or buy almost actual CD you want on-line and get it delivered. But something has been lost, and I don't mean a place of refuge for myself when out shopping with the Missus, important as that may be.

I'm thinking here of the simple joy of browsing those racks of CDs, or the LPs of long ago, and feeling so close to something you knew might turn into a treasured possession. (One at a time only, of course; it was all I could afford.) I remember going out in the lunch hour from school to a little record shop on the main road and flipping through shelf after shelf of albums, dreaming of being able to get them home, as friends would excitedly attempt to give some idea of what they sounded like. And, of course, those were the days when album covers were album covers. Seriously, how could you not buy the first Crimson album after seeing that Schizoid face screaming out at you?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Music For Free

Have just downloaded a very tasty live track from Porcupine Tree from those good people at Burning Shed. Gradually I appear to be getting sucked in by the new technology, and, yes, I know there's absolutely nothing new about downloading music, but I'm speaking in strictly relative terms here. I still don't really like the idea of owning music without some kind of disk to own it on, and I don't think I ever will, but when you get it for free as in the case of this download who really cares?

By the way, I need to emphasise that the download was perfectly legal as Burning Shed have a free download page. It's not that I aspire to be terribly moral about illegal downloading of music; in some ways I rather enjoy the big record companies getting their comeuppance. But the idea of ripping off the actual guys who produce the sounds does bother me to the extent that I can't step over that line. It feels too much like robbing a friend, romantic as that may be.

I'm also already beginning to feel a bit of a moral obligation to make some real purchases from the Shed having sampled one of their delights for free. It helps that they promote the kind of music I suppose I most deeply believe in as worthy of my support. A similar consideration lay behind my thinking in buying a CD on the streets of Melbourne recently after watching a very talented busker demonstrate just how well a classical guitar can be played outside the concert hall. It was quite by accident I got to watch him. The girls had all gone off shopping, leaving me sitting on a convenient bench on the street reading Sketches By Boz. The guitarist, whom I later found out was called Tom Ward, set up just across from me and entertained the world and no one in particular for forty captivating minutes before I had to set off in search of the shoppers, and I couldn't leave without a CD from the maestro (which is what I reckon he was.) Noi agreed, having been around for the second twenty minutes of the free concert.

There are some astoundingly talented people around - more than we sometimes realise -and we are lucky to have them.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

British Islam

Watched a short programme on BBC World entitled Great British Islam this morning with much interest, but a touch of disappointment. The latter feeling derived from the fact that I'd falsely got the impression there was going to be a series of three such programmes, each dealing with the life of an early British convert to Islam, and it turned out to be a single programme dealing with all the three together. I'd also falsely assumed that Martin Lings might be featured, having rightly ascertained that Marmaduke Pickthall would be profiled after catching only the back end of the trailer the channel ran for the documentary.

The other two chaps turned out to be William Abdullah Quilliam, who was quite fascinating, and Rowland Allanson-Winn, 5th Baron Headley, who didn't seem so interesting, though the coverage of him was so sparse that I might well be being unfair. I was particularly struck by the fact that both Quilliam and Pickthall had travelled to Islamic countries in their respective youths and been struck by the power of Islam in binding the general populace in a sense of community, something they weren't able to find, at least to the same degree, in the Britain to which they returned.

There were some nice sequences of Sarah Pickthall, an artist and grand-niece, or something like that, of the esteemed translator of The Holy Qur'an, journeying to Woking Mosque to talk to some of the congregation there about her remarkable ancestor. And remarkable is just the right word for these gentlemen for whom to have embraced Islam must have been an extraordinarily courageous intellectual decision given the times in which they lived.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Places For Reading

Still bashing on with my little Collins's edition of Sketches With Boz. In fact, I'm not sure that what I'm now reading technically is the Sketches as I'm into the final section comprising a series of lightweight but entertaining short stories and I've been wondering for a while if these appeared in the original edition or are in mine as padding by Collins. I know from checking in Ackroyd's biography that the stories appeared in various newspapers as apprentice-work from the young Dickens whilst he was still an over-worked reporter in Parliament, amongst other places, but whether they were collected so early in his career I don't know.

One thing's for sure though, I'll always think of this little book in connection with our holiday Down Under. It was the perfect size for fitting into my jacket pocket, which meant it accompanied me almost everywhere, and the fact that it's so easy to read (and put down) meant it was great for reading in places like markets when I zoned out of the shopping experience.

Not that we did too much shopping back then, at least of the anonymous mall variety. It was all little shops and markets, which I find a tad more variable. I have fond memories of the Salamanca Market on our last morning in Hobart, and Victoria Market in Melbourne, where I nearly bought a Clash t-shirt. (Went back to purchase the next day and it was gone.) Oh, and there was a sort of Arts Market in Melbourne at which the girls put odd funky extension-things in their hair.

By a nice coincidence another book I read on the trip, Boey Kim Cheng's latest collection of poems Clear Brightness, has a very accomplished sonnet sequence in it entitled To Markets. Each sonnet focuses on a different market from around the world: nice idea, finely executed. The whole collection is worth a look, several, in fact. I particularly enjoyed reading La Mian in Melbourne on the Little Bourke Street mentioned in its opening line, though ironically the piece has actually more to do with the Singapore Boey came from, and I have come back to.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Just Listen

Spent some time today reflecting on the importance of listening, in all its forms. I don't do enough of it and I don't do it well enough. Few of us do.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Lot Of Food For Thought

So there I was happily munching away at my keema and chapati watching the news when there's a story about research showing how half the food the world produces simply goes to waste. That's right, half. Not a daunting twenty or thirty per cent, but a staggeringly almost unimaginable fifty percent doesn't go into our stomachs - when an awful almost unimaginable number of those stomachs don't get enough food. And it sounded suspiciously like the guys who'd done the research knew what they were talking about.

Noi quite rightly pointed out that we ourselves don't waste food. She's a genius at re-cycling, and making sure left-overs, when rarely generated, go to others. And you've got to begin by looking at yourself.

But then, I reflected, I feel a strong sense that I need to think of the bigger picture and resist the very strong temptation to point the finger and come on all holier than thou (which I know I have a pretty good talent for on occasion.) I'm locked into a system that seems designed to generate waste, as the excellent analysis that followed on Sky News made clear, and, to a considerable degree, I benefit from that system. So the question for me is: Do we know of ways to adjust that system to reduce the waste and get some of that wasted half into the mouths that really need it?

I reckon if we save just ten, fifteen percent, and get it to the right place, we'll all be able to eat our keema with a clear conscience.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Words Failing

The awful news about the bush fires in Australia has set me thinking, with gratitude, of the ruggedly fragile beauty of that country. Especially Tasmania. Unfortunately Blogger appears to have chosen not to allow me to upload pictures at this time so I can't illustrate what I'm talking about from the camera. And my poor words would not be enough.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Being Really Vocal

Just a quick follow-up to yesterday's all too brief comments on Les Miserables. I've read little in the way of reviews, preferring to make up my mind for myself, but I am vaguely aware that there have been some negative comments about the less gifted singers in the film, Russell Crowe particularly. In fact, my good friend Ferdinand, who is one heck of a talented singer, was pretty critical of our Oscar-winner on the vocal front when he mentioned the movie to me, and his opinion is one to be respected. But I disagree, nonetheless.

One important thing to bear in mind here is that the original show was a vehicle for the RSC, not a bevy of Broadway song-and-dance merchants. In that regard it seems to me that showing off splendid voices is not the point of what's going on, despite the fact that some numbers obviously work as brilliant show-stoppers: obvious example, On My Own. A parallel here would be Bart's Oliver. The songs function as vehicles for the development of character. A complete non-vocalist can carry off Fagin - I know, because I've done it. Only at school show level, of course, but you can still make it really work for people.

I'd say the rule is that as long as your pitch is okay and you have an assured sense of rhythm you can make almost anything work. And I reckon that's what Crowe does. Indeed, in some ways that seems just right for his character to me. The limitations of the voice work.

Now that we've grown accustomed to voices being amplified in musicals we need to recognise that the kind of powerful singing that used to be a necessity to carry over the band or orchestra doesn't mean so much anymore. That kind of trained voice tended to bring with it a sort of falseness, an odd fruitiness, that was an obstacle to verisimilitude. In some ways I prefer the sound of ordinary voices with little, if any, real technique. They sound to me unspoilt.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Everyone's Gone To The Movies

The fine weekend continues apace. We're off to Les Miserables on celluloid in just a few minutes. More later, mayhap.


Lots of good things to say about our first movie of the year. Not quite as good as the real thing, but as close as you're likely to get on film. Great performances abounded, with Jackman surely up for an Oscar. Interesting to see so much use of extreme close up - some gains in subtlety of charactersation, compared to the stage, as a result. Also a wonderfully panoramic sense of French life, especially that of Paris, in the nineteenth century.

Enjoyed the sprawling quality of it all.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Bit Of A Feast

Now recovering after a turkey dinner prepared by Noi to which we invited Fuad, Rozita, Fuad's mum and the girls. Not sure what the occasion was, but no excuse was needed. It's difficult to feel sorry the holidays are over when the weekends are this good.

Friday, January 4, 2013


Today's Friday sermon was delivered in English at the mosque I attended. It started with a wonderful line to the effect of how the new year was a welcome reminder of our approaching ever closer to our return to Allah (basically saying we're closer to dying, in case you don't quite get the point.) The charming bluntness of the reminder of this ultimate reality was a wonderful contrast with some of the standard rhetoric I'd been listening to during the day, at some training I'd been sent to attend, about how we're always making progress and getting better at what we do, and how we never really can peak.

I'm puzzled by how easily people accept the 'getting better all the time' model. I mean it's nice to think that you do develop and progress in certain ways, but I don't see this at all as some kind of 'given' about experience. I can think of some fairly obvious examples of folks I've known personally deteriorating both in personal and professional terms - and I say this with no sense of somehow blaming them for their misfortunes. And, of course, I can easily think of quite a number of ways in which the current version of myself pales in comparison to the younger Brian. (Where did all that energy go to? What happened to the hair?)

In fact, I get a degree of satisfaction adjusting to the sense of myself coming down the mountain and looking back at its sunny peak.

I should add, though, that the very fine sermon continued with a touching meditation on how we should strive to emulate our beloved Prophet - peace be upon him - in the days we mercifully have left to us. And I suppose I'm contradicting myself in divorcing such emulation from the notion of getting better. But somehow I do: the ultimate 'stretch goal' (notice how skillfully I employ the appalling jargon) is wonderfully unattainable which makes the striving even more worthwhile.

Not terribly coherent, I know, but it's been a long, long day.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Summed Up

Was undergoing my start of the year haircut with the Missus wielding the shears the other day when she asked one of the littluns that scamper round Mak's place if Uncle Brian was Handsome. There was a pause and then he spoke up: Handsome, he confirmed, though with a touch of uncertainty, tapi botak. For those readers whose Malay doesn't stretch terribly far I should tell you that to be deemed botak is not exactly complimentary - though in my case I can no longer dispute the accuracy of the description.

Anyway, I was just teasing Noi with the fact that at least I'd been deemed handsome, giving her some reason to be jealous when she replied, Tapi botak dan tua. Just when you think it can't get worse...

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sort Of Resolved

The big surprise of last year was that I managed to put weight on after Ramadhan having assumed I would lose a fair amount in the fasting month, which I didn't. The amounts involved were not alarming, just a couple of kilograms, but after a couple of years of seeing my weight very gradually reduce and move slightly under my fighting weight without making any real effort to achieve such an outcome, the unexpected increase got me thinking.

And the thought was this: I need to skew my diet towards a more conscious sense of healthy eating and, more importantly, I need to get some definite exercise done - exercise that goes beyond avoiding the lifts and using the stairs.

Interestingly the Missus has also expressed a desire to shift a kilo or two, so we're on the same team on this one.