Sunday, June 30, 2013

Child's Play

Fun and games today with a cross section of some of the younger members of our extended family at Mak's house in Melaka. The key suspects were Maya, Afnan and Aqmar, with Afnan outstanding in a comedic role. It's hard to believe it's just a year since we brought him to Singapore with us at the end of the then June vacation. Where did we find the energy to cope with him for a whole three weeks? I was exhausted after just an hour today.

For some reason he seems inclined to seek out his Uncle Brian for playtime, unlike the other kids who are generally, rightfully, wary of me. I must be doing something wrong somewhere. I suspect my What's up Doc?, which he finds oddly hilarious no matter how many times I say it, is way too efficacious.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


I've managed to get a fair bit of reading done here in KL. Seamus Heaney's Human Chain slipped down nicely using my recently discovered cover to cover technique for reading poetry collections, though it didn't seem to me one of his best. But who am I to say? I find myself making so many revisions of opinions on all sorts of works that any first judgement on a novel, play, poem or poetry collection now seems very temporary indeed. And thus it is that I hesitate to say I wasn't terribly impressed with Rabindranath Tagore's The Home and the World either, though I did get some sense of how urgent its debates might have appeared in the Bengal of 1914. I also had the distinct feeling that Tagore's purple prose probably worked in the original language (Bengali? - pardon my ignorance) but didn't translate well into a language which can make the most lyrical flights come crashing lumpily down to earth oftentimes.

I set aside the last couple of days for a reread of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, on the grounds that my timetable is getting shuffled round when we get back to work and I might well end up teaching the novel. To be honest, I wasn't terribly enthusiastic about reading it again as, for some reason, I didn't exactly fancy teaching the text - possibly because I have never quite felt that I've really 'got' the novel somehow, and that's something of a prerequisite for teaching, as you can probably guess.

But the oddest thing happened to me on this reading. I seemed to connect to at least part of the deep power of the novel even though I still feel a degree of uncertainty with regard to some of its surface features. In fact, not 'getting' the novel I think is central to what we're meant to experience in a fully committed reading. Just as Rhys's Rochester doesn't 'get' the West Indies and its people(s), especially his unfortunate wife. Rhys recognises our deepest needs to know and, therefore, appropriate others, and just ferociously we can react when we are denied possession.

This is a novel that it's wise to keep a certain distance from. I didn't, I couldn't, not this time, and the result has been a mild but distinct sense of depression. That's unusual for me, by the way. I'm someone who can feel cheerful after the bleakest of Beckett. But Ms Rhys has got under my skin. She must have been a nightmare as a drinking partner.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

In The Zone

As Mum would have said: We're amongst it. Indeed, I think she may been even more definite: We're right amongst it. It being the minor renovation of Maison KL which now feels pretty major. As Noi succinctly put it: From the outside, it looks like a war zone.

To add to the sense of occasion, it's obvious the various workmen plying their trades on our property - replacing fencing, re-laying the drive, re-painting almost everything in sight - are not going to finish by the weekend, as was originally planned. And that's not due to any lack of hard work, of which we've seen plenty. So we are not complaining, just soldiering on. And, anyway, they are the ones doing all the hard work - oh, and Noi, of course, keeping it all running.

She's also arranged for various repairs to be carried out on a sofa and chair, so we're watching tv seated on the floor this evening. But there are worse places to be, and no one I'd rather be there with.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ways In KL

The way everyone parks wherever they want! The way the GPS tells you to turn second right when there is no second right! The way nobody signals to change lane but just cut in! The way the motorcyclists have no fear, so you have to have it for them! The way three lanes turn to two without warning and the way the traffic makes two lanes when there should only be one! The way you need to do a U-turn when there isn't any way!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Less Than Heroic

Managed to move away from the heavy-handed heroics of Ivanhoe over the weekend to a bit of Semitic writing - Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Seance and Other Stories, the only thing I've got by the Yiddish master, oddly, considering the enormously high regard in which I hold him. Scott had me completely baffled by his attitude to his Jewish characters. Clearly the completely unbelievable Rebecca is intended as a tribute to the nobility of her people and Scott deserves credit for the positive nature of her characterisation, but the problem is that she is unbelievable whilst her highly fallible father is precisely that: fallible, in what Scott seems to imply is a particularly Jewish manner. I reckon that Scott's pair are a sort of poor man's Shylock and Jessica, a sort of literary version of the chosen people. They don't really live for a moment.

Singer's version of the chosen people is, in contrast, all humanity despite the sense of complete verisimilitude about their Jewishness. It's the endearing weakness of his characters that gives Singer his strength. The segment of the final story in the collection, The Letter Writer, in which the protagonist recovering from a bout of pneumonia worries about the fate of a mouse that he'd previously been taking care and sees the human treatment of all animals as another kind of Treblinka should have been silly yet, for this reader, was incredibly powerful. (And I'm talking about that deeply unfashionable notion of moral power here.)

Monday, June 24, 2013

In A Haze

The smell of something burning lingers in the air, and you can no longer see the Menara twin towers from our bukit. Yes, the haze that enveloped Singapore and South Malaysia prior to the weekend has now made it to our part of the world. Mind you, we'd already encountered it in Melaka on Saturday so we were sort of expecting our escape from it to be short-lived.

Lots of folk at The Curve shopping centre wearing surgical masks in the late afternoon. The first time I ever saw this sort of thing - during the SARS scare a few years back - I thought the masks looked both comic and disturbing. Now they seem quite normal. (A lot of the inhabitants of Beijing don them as a matter of course as I discovered a year or so ago.) A sign of the comically disturbed times, I suppose - not that there's much comical about a PSI of over 700 as was recorded in Muar yesterday.

Noi was complaining a bit about her eyes being irritated earlier. I seem to be itching a lot, the kind of itching that usually goes along with an attack of hives. There's nothing like a health scare to breed some less-than-healthy hypochondria!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Matter Of Principle

This seen in an advert for some kind of property:

Every detail, every square foot of space has been considered to personify the principles of the living.

Impressive claim. Talk about giving a habitation to airy nothing.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Family Time

We've had Fuad & Rozita and the girls with us since Thursday night, and we're all now at Mak's house in Melaka, the occasion being a kenduri involving prayers for Noi's late father. The house is crowded, noisy and brimming, sometimes overly so, with life, mainly on account of the excessive number of children of all ages, though adults are plentiful as well. A number of the adults I realise I remember as children who in their time were equally noisy and brimming with vim and all that other stuff that comes with being splendidly irresponsible juveniles.

Just as a matter of interest, in between completing the last paragraph and starting this one I needed to entertain a wideawake nipper with a forceful rendition of Twinkle, twinkle, little star, wondering how he was managing to stay awake until this hour. The joys of family, eh?!

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Bit Of A Chore

Now reading Scott's (Walter, Sir) Ivanhoe, and I'm not entirely sure why. Could be because it's on the shelf and has been since 1987 when I got it as one of the Marshall Cavendish Great Novels sequence, a series that came cheap and with a colourful magazine for each title.

Loved the 1950s movie, of course, falling heavily for the young Liz Taylor as Rebecca. But the novel itself is plodding stuff, of a boys' own nature. I'd got the impression from somewhere that Scott was basically sympathetic towards his Jewish characters, but the anti-Semitic vein in the characterisation of Isaac seems close to the surface to me - as if Scott thinks he's doing a bit of a Shylock but lacks the kind of ferocious power that lends Shakespeare's inspired moneylender all the real energy in his Merchant.

I intend to keep going though: I've started so I'll finish, as a quizmaster of my youth used to have it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Looking Back

I forgot to mention that I came up here by coach, Noi having driven up with the car the week previously. And on the coach, with the help of the wonders of technology, I got to watch The Life Of Pi. Quite an impressive movie and definitely true to the spirit of the novel, convincing me more than ever that the natural audience for the work, in which ever form it presents itself, are teenagers.

And on the same journey I also finished a second read of my old chum Len Webster's memoir of his youth in the Midlands, Lone Wolf. He very kindly posted this to me a year or so ago and his brief but engaging account of growing up as a West Brom supporter has found its natural audience in another old fellah trying to remember what it was like in the days before you could watch a film on a bus - indeed, a time when doing such a thing would sound like science fiction. I reckon it was better then, but, of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Play's The Thing

It's that time of year when I put my shoulder to the wheel, my hand to the vacuum cleaner, and clean, as much as I am able, the various books and CDs I possess. This having been acomplished in the Hall in the first week of June it's now the turn of the books in Maison KL, and I did about a third of what's necessary today. Part of the fun of this, in fact the only part that's fun at all, is being reminded of all that I've got usually followed by figuring out what might be read and when. But today as I was dusting off my hardy Ardens I found myself counting how many I'd taught in the classroom over the years, having hazarded a rough guess of ten.

It turned out that the total was thirteen, and here they are, in no particular order of merit: King Lear, Measure for Measure, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo & Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Henry IV Part 1 and Antony & Cleopatra.

One near miss: Henry V. It was on a list of set texts due to be taught in the year ahead and abruptly removed for reasons that were never explained. A pity as I'd noted its inclusion with alarm initially but then thoroughly enjoyed preparing to teach it. And I can't say that there's anything on the list I didn't enjoy, though Twelfth Night is harder work than you might expect.

Any favourite? Not really, though Henry IV Part 1 works wonderfully well in the classroom despite its length, and Antony & Cleopatra should be set by exam boards more often than it is. I'm a bit surprised never to have the chance to do one of the late plays. I'd go for The Tempest like a shot just to get the chance to have a go at Caliban.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Too Much Already

It's wonderful to have enough of whatever you need. And abundance is terrific. But superabundance is worrisome. Do you realise just how big places like Tesco's are now?

Which is why the thought of the next fasting month, due in July, evokes a quiet contentment, in this over-privileged, over-indulged individual at least.

Monday, June 17, 2013

At Least One Reason To Be Cheerful

On the way back from doing a bit of shopping  this afternoon we passed a chap taking his dog and parrot for a walk. Just typing that sentence made me smile.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Read Shaw's Pygmalion today and wondered to myself about where the playwright's reputation stood these days. This thought was prompted by my realisation that in my several years as an examiner I haven't seen a single student answer on any play ever. And I don't recall anything by Shaw ever being set for 'A' level. By some strange quirk one of the plays I did for 'O' level (a long time ago) was Caesar and Cleopatra and even as a kid I sensed a lack of something, a kind of gravity I suppose, in the text. It suffered hugely from being teamed with the Bard's Julius Caesar. What an odd choice for that year the plays were! Also you don't much see Shaw in the theatre, as far as I know. The last time I watched any on stage was in Singapore some years ago, a first rate version of Heartbreak House - which had me wondering why Shaw isn't featured more often on the boards.

It's difficult to imagine Pygmalion being used as a text despite its enormous entertainment value. I suppose it's now fatally compromised as a play by Alan Jay Lerner's brilliant adaptation for musical theatre - which actually uses a fair proportion of the original dialogue. If anything Lerner's version makes more sense on stage, giving the audience the happy ending everyone really wants. And if the scenes between Eliza and Higgins are going to work, especially Shaw's Act 4 (equivalent to the stuff at the opening of Act 2 of My Fair Lady, after the ball) then there's got to be some chemistry on stage, and I'm talking sexual chemistry here, even of the most respectable kind - which is possibly the most powerful of all, in its way.

Old chum David Turner (father of the rather more famous Alex) always felt that Lerner's ending could be a tad improved. He reckoned Eliza might usefully tell Higgins to get his own slippers after the famous final line and I always thought he had a point. Higgins would have undoubtedly enjoyed the response and the audience would have been left with an image of an exceptionally interesting married life to savour on the closing of the curtain instead of just Higgins being insufferable as Eliza melts.

Saturday, June 15, 2013


We were about to set off for a wedding at Gombak in the early afternoon, involving a relative of one of Noi's sisters-in-law, when the car decided most emphatically not to start. The diagnosis was straightforward - a flat battery - and we managed to get ourselves on the road just an hour and a half later than expected. Quite a minor drama really since we were lucky enough to go flat at home as opposed to the middle of kampung nowhere, so contacting the AA here was reasonably simple. But it certainly raised a doubt or two concerning our vulnerability in this further place considering just how completely necessary a car is to life on Bukit Antarabangsa - indeed, in this metropolis. In contrast, going without in our usual place of residence is not terribly difficult considering the excellence of public transport down south.

I suspect my own batteries are also somewhat flat. For a moment or two earlier I had that odd sense of hardly being able to bother getting things fixed that sometimes descends upon me, especially at the end of a long first semester. As ever, the important thing is to keep going, especially in those moments when you're really not going anywhere at all.

The wedding was most enjoyable, by the way, as was the rest of the day, now in the company of niece Azirah and one of her friends, staying over for the weekend.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Not Exactly Losers

Spent one or two hours today in the company of various Seekers, Ranters, Levellers and True Levellers courtesy of Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down. I suppose if I had to name a favourite period of history (English, that is, to be narrowly parochial) it would have to be the two decades after 1640, simply because that was when circumstances allowed these types to flourish. It's fascinating to be a witness to the sheer speed with which radical ideas blossomed, and instructive to note just how threatening these ideas were and the distrust of the multitude they provoked in those who regarded themselves as above that multitude. And illuminating to realise how reasonable the notions of those who were then seen as being very much on the fringes now sound.

The most obvious lesson that history has to offer is that, counter-intuitive as it may seem, the most inclusive, genuine forms of democracy work and there's much to said for the wisdom of the common people.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Enjoyed a visit this afternoon from Hamza and Sharifah. Spent an hour or so swopping hernia tales with Hamza - he's just had his operated on; I had mine done towards the end of the 90s. His scars are massive; mine could barely be seen. I think I had an easier time of it, all in all. Also he's just been diagnosed as diabetic whilst my cholesterol levels - the one thing I've had a mild concern about for the past decade - were more than reasonable on my last screening.

But before you assume I'm being insufferably triumphalist, let me assure you I just feel unreasonably lucky and darkly sure the luck will run out one day. In fact, Hamza has taken the diagnosis of diabetes in his stride and sounded very positive about the adjustments he'll need to make to his habits to ensure things stay under control. And that's just about the best we can manage given our ripe and ripening years.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Dark Day

Read most of Martin Middlebrook's The First Day on the Somme today. It remains as horrifying and deeply sad as when I first read it. But it's also quietly inspiring in its own way, simply due to the amazing courage of so many of the participants in the awful carnage of 1 July 1916, of all nations.

Most of all, Middlebrook lets the voices of the old soldiers - of course, many unbearably young soldiers in 1916 - speak with moving simplicity and directness. You can even hear them in the absurd names of their battalions. The Grimsby Chums! The Accrington Pals! There can never be such innocence again.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Small World

For those of you who doubt the reach and scope of globalisation I offer you this: seen on sale in the supermarket at KLCC (at the foot of KL's twin towers) nothing less than packets of Uncle Joe's Mintballs (manufactured in Wigan.) At one time you couldn't buy them for love nor money even in Denton. I rest my case.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Something In Mind

Lots of glorious inactivity today. I've come to realise that there are times when I really need to do nothing, and this is one such.

But it won't last, unfortunately. Or possibly not entirely unfortunately - for I feel a distinct sense of enthusiasm for cracking on with Ed Feser's nifty introduction to Philosophy of Mind. A couple of months ago I conceived the idea of seriously applying myself to some philosophical reading for more than simple entertainment. And I quite fancy waking my mind with some serious study, going beyond my usual strategy of paying attention to that which catches my fancy and switching off as soon as I get bored.

I may even make notes! (Thus changing the habits of a life-time.)

Sunday, June 9, 2013


A splendidly spectacularly lazy day spent doing nothing, unless falling asleep three times on a sofa counts as some kind of activity. Oh, and I read a couple of magazines - Philosophy Now and the New York Review of Books - and finished Paul Muldoon's collection Maggot (which I've been reading since December of last year, at one point thinking I would finish it in Melbourne.)

I could get used to this kind of life.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Where The Heart Is

Reunited with the Missus outside the Corus Hotel opposite the twin towers in KL - it's where the bus from Harbourfront gets into town. Can't think of a way to be happier.

She's been womanfully holding the fort in these parts as the workers get down to business on our garden fencing and has become something of an expert in driving in the KL traffic. Is there no end to the lady's talent? She tells me that Ah Seng commented to her that she was brave to drive up from Singapore on her own - and isn't she just!

Fortunately she's been accompanied in the house during the week by good friend Rohana and I suspect they've managed to get up to a few japes.

Friday, June 7, 2013

There And Back Again

Visited my back doc this morning, happily receiving a clean bill of health on the back front, if you see what I mean.

Since the car is with Noi in the Malaysian capital I had to get the bus from coast to coast - the hospital in question being a fair distance away. As is generally the case, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride which generated quite a few thoughts, of which I offer a random sample below:

There are lots of building sites in this city. With Joyce's conundrum in mind of crossing turn-of-the-last-century Dublin without passing a pub, I offer a similar puzzle for this far place with building sites as a substitute for the hostelries. Most of the sites look remarkably tidy, by the way.

There are lots of trees in this city. They are its glory and almost compensate for the ghastlier buildings. Almost, but not quite - though they do manage to hide a few of those few constructed on a human scale.

It seems that there is now something known as a concept hotel. At least, that's what one sign shrieked at me. This is a silly name. As is the accompanying claim of being a Global Address. Surely all addresses are global, the ones on this planet, I mean?

You don't see many old people in the city centre. Or children. This is sad.

Nobody reads books on buses anymore - not that I'm all that sure they ever did.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Just Watching

Part of my day was spent observing lessons by two colleagues. (Yes, I know it's nominally a vacation week, but there you are. My evening's been spent writing the feedback.)

It's useful on these occasions to remember a simple rule: when you're observing a lesson it's a test of your ability as an observer, not a test of whoever's under observation. Which leads to another simple idea: if you can't say anything genuinely useful afterwards you've failed as an observer.

The problem is though that here the basic culture of schools dictates that the one observed will tell you what you've said is useful even if it isn't (because it's supposed to be and it's in everyone's interest to maintain the illusion.) So I honestly don't know if anything I've ever said has been worthwhile.

Watching in the dark, as it were.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Exciting Times

I'm more than happy to live a mundanely happy life and have never pined to be transported to other, more lively times.

But if I were to find myself somewhere, sometime else, I'd plump for England around 1645 - 1649. Not for the depressing violence of the period - there's nothing civil about any civil war. But for the ideas (of a social and political nature) - and the amazing speed of the development of those ideas. Imagine, an army that worked as a genuine radical force for democracy!

Some years back I heard a dramatization for radio of the Putney Debates and all I can say is I wish I'd been there. And I hope I would have had the courage to have been on the losing side.

As it is, Rainsborough's words ring down the centuries - words that would have been almost unsayable just ten years before this - and I suppose if I had a political creed, they would be at its centre: For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Holiday Listening

Thought I'd put on something utterly gorgeous this evening, and reached for my cheap 2 CD set of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Got this yonks ago on a budget label - 1957, Rome Opera House, Erich Leinsdorf conducting. The sound is rather dry, but serviceable, and the music's just so darned succulent it's worth hearing with a less-than-lush acoustic as it gives access to more detail somehow. Anna Moffo's Butterfly sounds too old, of course - every Butterfly does. But that's part of the odd power of the piece. The complete lack of realism, the total artifice, points towards a meaning well outside itself and I think that works in rendering the pain of the exploited central figure. (You forget that according to the libretto she's only fifteen. And the age is repeated with varying degrees of lubriciousness by the gentlemen involved in determining her fate.)

It's as if the opera is a commentary on the misery of all exploited peoples rather than seeking to directly present that misery - which would be incongruous anyway in the splendour of the opera house. And, of course, the girl is much more than merely someone exploited. Her pain is transformed into the highest of art; her romantic desire transcends her misery.

I'd challenge anyone, regardless of musical taste, not to get swept away by the Pinkerton/Cio-Cio-San duet at the end of Act 1. Which, I suppose, is Puccini's point. You can hardly blame either of the two for messing up so spectacularly when they do it to such great music.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Holiday Viewing

Felt the need to acknowledge the fact I'm supposed to be on holiday. Continuing cleaning bookshelves in between the marking helped, but didn't deliver the full experience somehow.

Then I had the bright idea of watching an episode or two from the Jeeves and Wooster series featuring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. I chose the second series which heavily features the would-be dictator Roderick Spode (he of the black shorts) in the early episodes, and instantly all was well. The perfect getaway.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Excitement Of It All

Marked scripts. Cleaned bookshelves. Ate scones. Drank tea. Read magazines. Felt satisfied.

I'm so happy, so blessed, not to live in exciting times.