Thursday, February 28, 2013


Interesting to see that the commentary surrounding the new Bowie album has been overwhelmingly positive, as with the first single from it. Can rock music be viable as a form for old men? There's no problem for jazz and folk, of course, but it's hard to think of a single rock musician off-hand whose work post-sixty years can reasonably be claimed to match the earlier stuff - unless you count Dylan. Mind you I have no doubt that if Zappa had made it to old age we would have seen no dimming of the light. But, then, the term 'rock' is too narrow a label for either Bowie or Frank.

And there's also the simple fascination surrounding why it is that some artists seem to thrive in their golden years in a seemingly inevitable way, whilst others burn out. The paradigm, I suppose, is Yeats. Who would have thought reading the Celtic twilight stuff, good as it is, that we would one day be sent Sailing To Byzantium?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Guilty Pleasure

Given my views on the importance of active listening and doing justice to the artist it's dreadfully hypocritical that I frequently use music as a tool for making myself doze off. But I do. And I like it.

The other night I managed half of the first track on Fripp and Eno's Equatorial Stars. Gorgeous stuff. Better than any narcotic you can possibly think of.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Back to Basics

Noi and I were watching a programme this evening about various rather fancy houses that people with a fair amount of cash were intending to buy, or already owned. It says much for our shared perspectives on these matters that when she asked, with regard to one particularly opulent Georgian pile being shown off by its owner, Do you mean people actually live there? and How do they keep it clean? she was, with uncanny accuracy, echoing my very thoughts.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Spinning Plates

I went to the circus quite a few times as a kid. Can't say I enjoyed all the acts though, and one which always left me cold was the plate spinner. Usually male and looking a bit past it compared to the other limber circus folk, the spinner would set in motion lots of said plates at the ends of an unlikely number of unusually flexible poles and try and keep them all going. The rather unpleasant tension underlying the performance came from your awareness that some of the plates would eventually end up teetering in ungainly fashion on the very edge of crashing down, only to be set in motion again at the excruciating last moment. But the tension always struck me as fundamentally pointless. There was something trivial in the invocation of some sort of danger, compared to the genuine sense of accomplishment in, say, walking the high wire. There was nothing terribly impressive about each individual spinning plate. It seemed fairly easy to set them going round, so the skill, if any, lay in a sort of manic monitoring.

It never occurred to me then that one day that's what I would find myself doing.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Not Exactly Appropriate

It should be a routine for me to watch Mio tv's Goals on Sunday, basically their highlights show featuring a run-down of the Saturday games in the Premier League. In fact, whilst I do watch it fairly regularly, I find doing so close to torture. Not because of the anguish the Mighty Reds are capable of inflicting on their ardent supporters, even in a season when they've gone 15 points clear. Such suffering is very much part of the live experience, of course. No, the torture comes about as a result of being subjected to two of the most painfully inept introducers of a television programme I've seen for years. Stick them on MTV and there might be just be some kind of logic behind putting them on screen. But this is about football, for goodness sake! You don't need eye-candy to talk about Harry Redknapp. You don't need bad jokes and continual smirking and too much of the girl's legs when all you want to see is just how good Rafael's strike actually was.

Besides, there's way too much stultifyingly cliched gabbing and not enough of the game.

I assume the producers have some kind of odd justification of all this in mind, like trying to attract a wider audience. But surely the crucial thing about about putting footie on the box is to have people talking about it who have some basic knowledge of and insight into the game?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hard Study

One of my favourite chapters in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy is the one with his wonderful rant against Overmuch Study. This should be required reading for all teachers everywhere: ...hard students are commonly troubled with gouts, catarrhs, rheums, cachexia, bradypepsia, bad eyes, stone and colic, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions, and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting; they are most part lean, dry, ill-coloured, spend their fortunes, lose their wits, and many times their lives, and all through immoderate pains and extraordinary studies.

How much poorer we are these days in terms of physical complaints. Now it's just flu, headaches, and irritable bowel syndrome. And how much poorer our world is in having no Burton to anatomise our own deeply, deeply melancholy times.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Living In The Past

I've just been listening to a couple of things available on youtube - a bit of Roy Harper and CSNY - and it was quite extraordinary how they invoked memories of two particular years, 1970 and 1978. I can well understand the temptation to take off and re-locate to an earlier, safer time - safer because the outcomes are, well, out. But the present is breathing down my neck, a bit uncomfortably so at this time. And I, like many another, have promises to keep. And the present is always, thankfully, redolent with promise, even the sort sadly not kept.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Have recently realised that whatever the last album I've listened to, I'll be left with an ear worm of a specific section of a specific track that will last until I listen to something else. Earlier this week I managed to play Genesis's Selling England By The Pound at a pretty reasonable volume whilst the Missus was out and ever since I've been replaying Dancing Out With The Moonlit Knight - the bit where Peter Gabriel sings, knight of the Green Shield stamp and shout! and the band go into the instrumental section - at least twenty times a day at work.

I rate this a very satisfactory state of affairs.

I wonder whether anyone remembers Green Shield stamps? As a kid I felt vaguely envious of folks who collected them. For some reason we never did.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Healthy Attitudes

Spoke to John and Maureen over the weekend. It was great, and I don't use that word lightly, to hear my sister sounding so well, especially considering what a mess she was just one year ago. Unfortunately John isn't faring quite so well. He's just had an operation on his neck which has gone well, relieving the sense of weakness he was feelings in his arms. But the operation he really yearns for is the one that will solve the problem of the trapped nerve in his lower back, and the doc is reluctant to go in there, from what I can gather.

Now I know a bit about this kind of pain, and I'm glad it's only a bit. At the time I had a problem with chronic pain, whenever I sat or lay down flat the result was almost instant relief. John's condition isn't quite the same and the difference means everything. When he lies down to sleep he wakes two hours later in intense discomfort and has to get up to seek some relief. This is not good at all. Of course, there's still hope. I still have no real explanation as to why my own problem simply and suddenly disappeared. I assume the nerve became untrapped, as it were, by sheer good fortune. And John is clearly hoping for a similar result.

In the meantime I'm trying to bear two things in mind. The first is that my reprieve is most likely only temporary and it makes good sense to be grateful while it lasts. The second is the tired old, true old cliche that basically it's your health that matters, with all else a very distant second.

Also in the meantime, John and Maureen are popping over to Blackpool next week to get away from it all for a few days of just good old-fashioned fun. A wise move.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Great British Trash

As they say, you live and learn. Case in point: earlier this evening I realised something about my attitude to a certain kind of programme on the telly that I don't think I've ever quite consciously understood before.

The revelation came to me after watching a couple of wonderfully trashy British programmes back to back on the Granada channel we get on cable. In order of viewing these were the embarrassingly hilarious Come Dine With Me, and the even more hilarious and painfully embarrassing Coach Trip. It's difficult to think of much if anything to say in their defence. This is reality tv at its most frivolous. There aren't even worthwhile prizes involved. The participants just get to air their flaws for all the world to gape at for no real reason I can see other than to have their ten minutes of fame.

And it all works wonderfully well. A great way to pass an hour. But the puzzle is this: I just can't stand the equivalent trash from other nations - and I'm thinking primarily of the US here. Five minutes of something like Jerseylicious just makes me gag. So therein lies my great insight. We Brits do rubbish better than anyone else in the world. Fact.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Wider Reading

Popped up to Holland Village this afternoon and picked up a couple of publications for dipping into over the super-busy weeks that are lined up to follow this one. Sadly they didn't have a copy of Philosophy Now, so it looks like the one I picked up there earlier in the year was a one-off. But they reliably stock The New York Review of Books, at a reasonable price, so I acquired the recent one featuring the ever-compelling Doc Oliver Sacks on memory, and I couldn't resist quite an expensive review of the career of The Kinks from Uncut magazine.

It occurs to me that a substantial portion of the reading I've done over a lifetime has involved this kind of stuff. I don't see it as primary reading, in a sense I think of it as quite lazy, but I've got a feeling that through an odd kind of osmosis I've become sort of well-informed in a very limited kind of way as a result of this splashing around.

It also occurs to me that I've been extremely lucky to have been exposed to such materials with reasonable regularity since my mid-teens. I have a horrible feeling that for a lot of youngsters in this Far Place this privilege has somehow been denied them, or, rather, they have denied it for themselves. To each his own, I suppose, but I must say I like what comes to me.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

1812 And All That

In the course of our recent sojourn in KL I picked up three cheapo cheapo mags at the little shop we go to to pick up cheapo cheapo mags. (The Missus got three as well.) It's very unpredictable as to what they have to suit my tastes. At one time it was copies of The Word. Then Progressive Rock, if I've got the right name for that one. On my last visit I got a copy of Mojo, a copy of The Wire and a copy of Classic FM Magazine, all from last year, at knock down prices.

The copies of Mojo and the classical mag both came with free CDs and, true to my cheapskate instincts, the freebies did factor into my buying. In the case of Mojo they gave away a collection of various bands re-doing a New Order album of the early eighties - not my usual cup of tea, but worth a spin or two to keep in touch with the electronic side of things. The Classic FM offering was a 2 CD set of  'pops' by Tchaikovsky, and that struck me as a rather jolly thing to have. I love The Nutcracker in any version but what really tickled my fancy was a version of The 1812 Overture.

You see, it's a strange thing but I can't recall listening to the piece in its entirety since I was ten, and I felt I just had to listen again. When I was ten the 1812 represented the very height of expression in music. I know because my classmates and myself had to 'move' to it on more than one occasion in lessons which, if I'm not wrong, were known as Music and Movement and rather fashionable in educational circles at the time. Unusually for a fashionable idea in education this one was also a good idea, as the utter absorption of my class in the wonderful noise made perfectly clear to us. Mind you, I'm not convinced that those looking on as we expressed the feelings of Russian patriots in driving the French from the motherland would have all agreed.

Anyway I listened again and the overture fell well short of its original magic - though it is great fun and should be compulsory listening for all ten-year-olds in all classrooms throughout the world.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Still Hanging Around

Picking Boey Kim Cheng's Days Of No Name off the shelf, dusting it down (metaphorically speaking) and getting to grips with poems that just passed me by the first time around (a decade or so ago) was one of the most sensible things I've done for quite some time. And having started it I'm now in the happy position of not being able to stop. I went cover to cover on the first assay - now my favoured technique for any reasonably short collection of poems, and one or two quite chunky ones also - but I just haven't been able to drag myself away since then.

I love what he does with the long form in Painting into Life (for Gabriele Munter), for example. The eleven sections of the poem keep shifting perspective on the writer's paralleling of his own artistic experience with that of what I take to be the eponymous painter who was in some kind of relationship with the more famous Kandinsky. I'd never heard of the lady or her work before, and don't really know that much about it now other than what the poem brings to flaring life, but that's plenty to be going on with. In fact, I've resisted checking the background, and art-work on-line for the moment just to enjoy, and puzzle over, the poem in itself. But I'll eventually look all of it up because Boey has got me so intrigued. Isn't that, in itself, a wonderful thing for a writer to achieve? There's a kind of generosity about the process.

There're some killer lines in the long poem as well - in all the poems actually, but the poet just seems in great form when extending himself. He's generally got a wonderful way of making the abstract concrete as in the lovely: For the first time I knew what it meant / to see without words, to be seized / by the deep chord of the moment. I sort of wish I'd written that, but I'm more than happy to be just able to read it - and do so more than once.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Secret Worlds

For some odd reason over the last couple of days I've had occasion to think about the linked images of secret gardens and secret worlds more than once. Partly this was a result of reading again Anthony Stevens's nifty little book on Jung in the very fine Oxford Very Short Introduction series. It's not quite as good as Anthony Storr's introduction to Freud in the same series, but it's not far off, and I can't give much higher praise than that. Stevens's opening chapter is especially good, and that's where we start looking at a very special secret world.

My thoughts culminated this evening in a very simple idea. If you're aware of your own secret world, prize it and protect it. The frost will come. We are creatures of the seasons.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Moving On

Found the very readable second novel by Tash Aw easy to finish, but slightly disappointing towards the end. The irresolute resolution of the brothers' story was okay, and the final revelation as to what happened when they were separated at the orphanage was touching, but it wasn't like pulling any real rabbits out of the hat. And the 'happy ending' for Margaret, Karl and Adam didn't do much for me, especially since in some ways it went against the grain of the novel - though since I came to actively like the characters I can't really complain too much.

No, I think the thing I was really hoping for, insights into the fall of Sukarno, didn't arrive and that's what bothered me. But that's not exactly fair - it's as if I'm asking Mr Aw to write quite a different novel. Having said that, the scene between Margaret and the President towards the end was electric and I'd love for this writer to go further in this direction in future.

In the meantime, I've gone in the direction of Raymond Chandler. I picked a couple of old favourites off the shelves at Maison KL for pure pleasure and reading the first two chapters of The Big Sleep was a reminder that no one, not even Dash Hammett, can beat Chandler when he's completely on top of his game. I also brought Trollope's The Prime Minister back to the Hall. More comfort reading for the tough times ahead.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Other Places, Other People

Steaming ahead with Map of the Invisible World. The evocation of Jakarta in the year of living dangerously (you know, I never knew that was something Sukarno had said in a speech) is very powerful, and Aw has an even wider range than that - Paris, Bali, Kuala Lumpur - all impressive. But it's the menace of the Indonesian capital in a generally menacing time that lies at the centre of the novel.

I'm reminded of the first and only time I went there, in 1989, if I'm not mistaken. It was difficult to like the place and compounding the difficulty was the odd narrative that had been cooked up with regard to the fall of Sukarno and the attendant rise of Suharto. It simply didn't cohere. The sense that something terrible had taken place in the far-off 1960s was palpable, and it was obvious by omission, as it were, that no one wanted to deal with that anymore. The grotesque grandeur of the various national monuments at the heart of the city didn't help.

In the meantime, it's that old writers' trick: Aw makes you care for his characters so it's not possible to run away from history as I did a couple of decades ago. (I distinctly remember thinking I needed to look in to the period, and I never have, not in any considered manner.) Oddly I've found myself feeling real sympathy for Din, the character who so far has come closest to being the villain of the piece. His well-disguised semi-fanatical hatred of those he regards as the oppressors of his fractured nation is entirely convincing to me. Sympathising with a virtual nutcase on the wrong side of history suggests a number of deficiencies in this reader, of course. Something else to worry about.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Leaving Here

We've already said our farewells to Fuad and family. They need to get back home today as Fifi is working tomorrow. And how strange it is that the first generation of children who enjoyed Maison KL are no longer children in any sense of the word.

But a new generation are ready to take their place. Afnan certainly made himself at home, exploring just about every nook and corner he could get access to, the stairs being, as previously noted, a particular favourite. The fact he's not exactly steady on his feet as yet did little to deter him. He was kicking the yellow ball we bought for him with all the aplomb of RVP in typical scoring mood. (Just as a side-bar, as it were, Fuad and I celebrated the weekend's results with some gusto, I think you should know.)

Noi and I will be setting off later in the afternoon, for a reunion with the little chap at Melaka. As usual she's putting everything in its right place as I struggle to get through today's quota of marking and generally make myself not so terribly useful. We've pretty much decided that this June will see us finally getting down to changing the fencing in our garden, re-painting the house, re-laying the car porch and possibly making a bit of an alteration to one of the roofs, so the next time we're here for any length of time might not be quite so peaceful. As always we seek to enjoy the privilege of having somewhere like this to come to as much as we can, whenever we can.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Staying Here

We were joined today by Fuad and his mother and Fifi, making a happily full house. This evening we dined in style at the Bom Corner, a favourite haunt of ours, and very jolly it was.

Surprisingly in the midst of all the fun I've actually managed to get quite a bit of work done. Yes, sad I know, but necessary. Fortunately I've also been able to listen to quite a bit of Steven Wilson's Grace For Drowning and Ben Britten's The Prince of the Pagodas, and I'm well on in Tash Aw's Map of the Invisible World which I prefer to his first novel, so far at least.

Tomorrow it's the big clean-up and then we're off to Melaka. Is there no stopping these people? I ask myself.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Getting Here

Now temporarily established in Maison KL, listening to RVW's Sea Symphony as the evening approaches of an extremely hot, very relaxing day. Relaxing, that is, except for the necessary marking and the activities of little Afnan who has been enjoying the exploration of a house he's never seen before. It's amazing how much a nipper with just a few months of walking behind him can find to do on a flight of stairs.

We picked up the little chap at the Ayer Keroh services, his parents having decided that he'd better stay with us for a day or two for some reason that escapes me. Fortunately we have a team of four to deal with the situation, Rozita and Fafa having accompanied us to the Malaysian capital.

It was not a fantastically difficult journey, but we only got here after midnight, mainly as a result of the big jam getting into Malaysia on the Malaysian side - to be expected, of course, approaching Chinese New Year. Unfortunately due to a fairly catastrophic personal misjudgement I discovered an urgent need to get to a lavatory just as we joined the jam resulting in a couple of hours of physical and mental suffering of a high order. It was easy to guess from the various other people hurrying to the tandas just after immigration into this noble land that I hadn't been the only one with the problem. There are some experiences you don't want to repeat, and this was one.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Road More Travelled

Now preparing to head to KL over Chinese New Year. Have just survived a complete soaking from a storm that hit during Friday prayers. With no umbrella with me on leaving the mosque, I ended up a very wet chap. Now dry, but there may be adventures ahead before we make it to our other home. It's all go. I'm almost all gone.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Damage We Do

Attended an interesting talk yesterday about dyslexia, given by a very personable young lady. I didn't learn much new in the way of facts about the condition, but she forcefully communicated the sense of real handicap that sufferers must face, and the extraordinary strength of character shown by many to rise above it. This is not to say, by the way, that those who fail to cope with the problem somehow lack character. Just to keep going in educational systems, indeed a world, geared to the ability to deal with the written work is enough.

I couldn't help but think of my Dad and his problems reading and writing both during and after the talk. I don't know that he was dyslexic, but I was aware by a very early age that his speed of reading was extremely slow and that writing anything was quite an effort for him. He would almost dig into the paper when using a pen, such was the obvious effort he had to put into forming words. It's painful to think of this even now, mainly because it obviously, in some deep sense, pained him.

From odd things said now and again, mainly by Auntie Norah, I came to form the impression he'd had a torrid time at school in Gorton in ways that the family didn't really want to talk about, and never really did. Just hints, odd glimpses of a time best forgotten. My guess was that some idiot of a teacher, maybe more than one, had taken it upon themselves to make the little Jack Connor's life a misery for being behind everyone else. (Alarmingly I have developed a bit of a revenge fantasy over what I'd like to do to them, or have done to them, but that way madness lies.)

All in all, it's difficult to think of any good that came out of his education - if you can use that word - except that somehow he emerged as the perfect gentleman that pretty much everyone who met him respected and loved. Oh, and I learnt that cleverness and quickness of mind are worthless qualities, though handy in our fallen world, compared to the things that really count.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Conundrum

I continue to be puzzled by the fact that I'm entirely normal yet everyone else I know is really quite strange.

But, then, I suppose you think the same way too?

Monday, February 4, 2013

More Useless Beauty

I've found it almost impossible to get any real reading done over the last few days, except for poems and articles here and there, due to the weight of the Toad work. But I have managed to do a bit of listening to sweet sounds, usually late at night - in fact, generally falling asleep in the process. I'm a bit guilty about the sleeping bit, as if I'm abusing a wonderful privilege in some sense, but there's a kind of inevitability about the process that assuages that guilt.

For the most part I've been spinning RVW, always a good man in a crisis. I've been indulging in a fairly steady diet of Flos Campi, the Pastoral Symphony and the fifth. Just listing these gems is a reminder of the sheer unashamed gorgeousness of this part of the output of the greatest of all English composers. (There, I've said it. Apologies to Sir Edward and Lennon & McCartney, but he just is.)

And then earlier this evening I treated myself to the first CD from my 3 CD set of The Otis Redding Story, the one with a lot of the very early singles on it. Music from a happier, simpler time - well, maybe not simple, no time ever is, but a time that knew how to simply enjoy itself. Everything just works: the Stax house band (Duck Dunn's bass is to die for on my Bose system), the Mar-Key Horns and that utterly wonderful, transcendent voice. What must it have been like for those guys to walk out of a recording session and know you'd made something as entirely beautiful as that?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Not Exactly Lucid

If you are dreaming of being asleep does this actually count as a dream?

(Sorry, the thought came after a day of marking.)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Timely Intervention

The heaviest day of marking for me so far this year saw me distinctly feeling the strain, both physical and mental, prior to the arrival of Noi's massage lady, Kak Sabariah. A couple of hours of her expert ministrations - a bit like going three rounds with Henry Cooper would be an apt comparison - and the muscles in my neck actually seem to have gone from rigid to something like reasonably flexible.

According to the good kakak most of me is unhealthily keras, and I reckon that's a fair description which probably accounts for why I've been waking up with cramped legs on a regular basis lately. But what to do? as Noi so elegantly puts it. A living must be earned, even if it's ruining my body to do so.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Too Old

The other day for some reason I mentioned Hardy's poem Old Furniture to Noi, telling her about the central idea of him thinking of pieces of furniture handed down the generations bearing the marks of all the users. Even as I was telling her about the poem I felt a brooding sense of something lost for ever.

Then it occurred to me today that it's a long time since since I read the poem, or anything else by Hardy for that matter (though I have a few poems in memory.) So I picked it off the shelf, and was very happy to have done so - and a little sad, as always.

Two things. First, it's the willed clumsiness of the poems that makes them unmistakably by the Wessex master. Second, I'd forgotten just how quietly powerful the ending of Old Furniture is (I mean, that Well, well is just perfect) but understood for the first time something about myself. I've become the one for whom The world has no use...