Saturday, August 31, 2013

In-coming

Had a couple of conversations today related to social media and the Internet and various developments therein. The tone of both was downbeat, in that it's terribly easy to recognise various problems attendant upon the development of the new technology. It seems to me that at the heart of many of the problems now being recognised lies the difficulty of dealing with the surfeit of pretty much everything that the new technology provides us with.

We've got all we ever wished for - and it's overwhelming us.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Days Like This

We celebrated Teachers' Day at my place of work today. The concept relies on the seemingly na├»ve assumption of a genuine warmth in the relationships of students and teachers. Astonishingly it works. It's difficult to be cynical when faced with an overflowing generosity of spirit.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Mixed Bag

Nodded off earlier in the evening listening to Seconds Out, the live Genesis album from 1977. This was not the fault of Messers Collins, Banks, Rutherford, Hackett and Thompson (with a bit of Bill Bruford in there somewhere) I hasten to add. Their playing was impeccable and I didn't miss Peter Gabriel too much - except perhaps on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway where Phil doesn't seem entirely at home with the torrent of lyrical reference. No, I was just plain tired and would have probably kipped to Crimson at their most ferocious.

But having said that it's interesting to ask whether Genesis aren't simply too good at producing something live that sounds as smooth as a studio performance. I remember old chum Hew inveighing against the later live albums of the early 90s for precisely this reason, comparing them unfavourably with the glorious incandescent mess of Dylan on Live Rain. So what should we go for: wonderfully precise musicianship on a par with classically trained players, or rocking out inspirationally on a wing and a prayer, and, just possibly, a surfeit of illegal substances?

I think the world is big enough for both. Well, mine is.

By the way, Seconds Out was one of my Tuesday purchases, and, I hasten to add, the only one that went back to 70's prog. The other stuff was (almost) current, though it could be argued that Bowie's The Next Day is redolent of past glories. Blur, Fleet Foxes and The Civil Wars comprised the other contemporary performers, whilst I also got hold of a version of Faure's Requiem, which I've not owned since the days of vinyl, and the two early Beethoven piano concertos - ditto.

A bit of a rattle bag, all told, and I'm rather pleased about that.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On A Spree

Spent yesterday afternoon downtown. My resistance has finally crumbled; I just had to buy some books and CDs. Though it's fair to say I didn't exactly buy the books - the tokens I got from doing my bit at the Lit Seminar provided the purchasing power and, despite off-loading the majority of these to three of my nieces, this was enough to create a bit of a headache for me in that there is no shelf space left either in the Hall or at Maison KL to house the new arrivals.

Actually, to try and reduce the damage in terms of the room to be occupied my policy this year, as last, was to go for slim volumes of poetry. This also seemed appropriate since I acquired the loot for the most part by extolling the virtues of particularly short poems. So I picked up collections by Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, Charles Simic (a couple in his case), and Wislawa Symborska. Unfortunately there wasn't that much of this kind of thing available and I ended up maxing out the tokens with a couple of volumes closer to criticism than the real thing: Auden's The Dyer's Hand (which for some reason I've never possessed and suddenly decided I desperately needed to, on the grounds that this is great, mad, inspired, creative criticism) and Erica Wagner's book about Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters - Ariel's Gift - which I just had to own as a Ted & Sylvia junkie. I also need to confess that I had to cough up cash for one purchase that sent me over the limit, this being the first volume of Alan Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing, which former student Rohan warmly recommended to me the other day when we were discussing the merits of various works designated graphic novels. 

I can confidently predict it'll take me until this time next year to work my way through this little lot.

Funnily enough I don't feel quite as guilty about the CDs, for which I paid hard cash, probably because we've still got room to store these.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On The Beach

I expected to enjoy McEwan's novella, and I did. A sad and disturbing little book - disturbing, that is, if you pick up on the hints of the sexual abuse of Florence by her father. Sad in the way McEwan reminds us of the vulnerability of human beings, that brittleness that everyone hides, even from themselves. And also their toughness, I suppose. There's more than a suggestion that Florence translates her trauma into art, through her music.

McEwan is good, as always, on the comedy, and tragedy, of how clumsily we inhabit these bodies. In fact, it's difficult to think of anyone else who's written about sexual inadequacy so directly yet without the slightest hint of prurience. Despite getting carried along by the narrative I found myself putting the book down several times and not really wanting to go on, it was all so obviously going to end in tears. Mind you, I finished it in a day - a sign of its readability.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Real Work

Painting's been on my mind of late. Not your Jackson Pollock, Henri Matisse, Damien Hirst variety but good old house-painting as was once falsely associated with old, or, rather, young, Adolf Hitler. (Funnily enough I was never able to convince Mum that der Fuhrer had genuinely been an art student, such was the power of British wartime propaganda.)

Both our house in KL and our Hall in this Far Place have been painted inside and out in recent months and the painters have done a very good job of both, I reckon, at minimum inconvenience to the residents of either. Watching them at work reminded me of a time when I seemed to do a lot of similar work. It was just before going to university that I found myself having to paint many of the interior walls of our house in Denton and it wasn't a lot of fun. At the same time I happened to be working weekends in a cleaning job mainly centred on Ciba-Geigy at Trafford Park and I remember watching a couple of guys painting a canteen ceiling there, a massive one. I knew that if I were to find myself doing the same job I'd have been exhausted in under an hour, but these chaps just kept going relentlessly. The secret was, they explained, to never, ever rush. The calm, unhurried smoothness with which they applied the paint had something of the quality of a exercise in meditation. 

Something of the same quality applied to the painters who've done such a good job for us more recently. These guys have been 'foreign workers' as I understand things. The ones in the Hall were from Myanmar, and I don't think they earn fantastic wages. Yet it seems to me they do necessary and difficult work extraordinarily well - as do so many so-called manual workers.

How it is we've come to somehow look down on such workers and their work I have no idea. What I do know is that we're wrong to do so.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Busy Bees

It's been a busy two days, but by no means in an entirely negative manner. I'm reminded of the ubiquitous nineteenth century image of the busy bee, intended to sound so positive in its overtones. Who didn't love the fruitful industry of the old bumble-bee? You hardly hear of them now.

Anyway, we're just back from a series of Raya visits - full of goodies, rather too tired for our own good, but essentially smiling. And yesterday we ourselves hosted around forty folks all told from the late afternoon onwards, and very jolly it all was. That followed hard upon the heels of my involvement in the annual Lit seminar, which I always look forward to.

The only fly in the ointment, the dreary housefly amongst the bees, has been the need to find time to mark scripts, check files and the like. Some (unfortunate) things never change.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Simple Truth

Some years ago I reached the conclusion that people are strange. Subsequent investigations suggest this truth may be in need of a degree of amendment. People are very, very strange indeed.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reading On And On

Just finished The Duke's Children. Highly satisfactory ending - a little rain in all the sunshine. Poor Lady Mabel. And that's me done with Trollope for a while. I'm in danger of turning into a bit of an uncritical fan when there are other fish to fry.

Two such fish being McEwan's On Chesil Beach which I picked up at the library yesterday. And Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War 1914 - 1918, ditto. I need something fresh to lead me on.

When you're too busy to read, make sure you read, says this reader.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Shedding Light

There's a programme on BBC World entitled Impact, featuring Mishal Husain interviewing various luminaries on pressing issues of the moment. Tonight it opened with ten minutes or so of Ms Husain asking some nicely pointed questions of Prof Tariq Ramadan regarding current events in Egypt, with a particular emphasis on the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood there - Prof Ramadan's granddad having been amongst its founding members, of course. The good prof gave some nicely pointed answers and I felt I was genuinely beginning to grasp something about what might be taking place on the streets of Cairo and other fabled places. I was grateful to BBC World for the ten minutes - which I wasn't likely to get anywhere else - but part of me wondered why we couldn't have a couple of hours, or more. The other part knew the answer - one which doesn't reflect too well on our species and its powers of concentration.

One small point I really, really wanted to hear more about, and would have welcomed other informed voices commenting on. Ms Husain rightly raised accusations of members of the Brotherhood setting fire to Coptic churches in recent days. Prof Ramadan was very dubious as to whether any of this had been the work of the Islamists. It seems that the Muslim Brotherhood historically has had very good, even close, relations with the Coptic Church. It didn't add up, he noted, and conjectured that the army may have been setting the fires.

I'd like to know who's responsible, but I suspect I'm not going to find out with any degree of certainty until the flames have long died down, and possibly not even then. The problem is that there are a lot of people who are sure they know when they don't.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Shamelessness

Got in front of a camera this afternoon and mugged relentlessly for over an hour. Something must have gone terribly wrong in my upbringing somewhere. I mean an old geezer like myself who still experiences no sense of shame whatsoever in front of an audience.

Fortunately, I am almost completely unable to watch myself perform - so I'll have both eyes tightly shut when they finally run the film.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

New Beginnings

Huge sighs of relief in this household at the footy season getting properly started. This is not so much because I miss the weekend games, though I do, but more because we are coming to an end of all the highly speculative speculation over transfers that never happen.

My failing memory makes it impossible for me to follow who now plays for whom, so I'm more than happy to look at a fairly standard team sheet for United, leading to what has become a fairly standard result in recent years. (I'm old enough to remember the days when a four-one away victory against a useful outfit was regarded as a bit special.)

Truth to tell, the silly amounts of money involved have made the beautiful game a lot less attractive than of old. But at least you can now watch its practitioners actually doing what we pay them for rather than having to read about who they might be about to do it for.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Reading On

I've made very little progress this week with The Duke's Children. Partly this was due to the excessive demands of the Toad, work, and partly because I hit a couple of chapters dealing with Silverbridge going hunting and couldn't get into the lingo at all. I think I'm right in saying that Trollope was a bit of a fan of the 'sport', and, unfortunately, it shows. Happily I managed to kick-start my reading today - partly helped along by Tregear having an accident whilst hunting which nicely got the plot moving again - and now I'm fairly racing along.

A few years ago a hiatus of this sort could threaten to derail my reading of a novel entirely, especially if encountered before the halfway mark, but I seem to have more staying power these days. But here's a related question: at what point in a period of inactivity related to reading a novel does it become a bit of a cheat to read on? My rule of thumb is two months, just about the time it takes me to forget salient details of plot completely.

Of course, said rule does not apply when working through a collection of poetry. That's why I could spend months on Muldoon's Maggot and still feel I'd genuinely read the volume from cover to cover in a real sequence. Just as a matter of interest, recent readings of a couple of previously unread Heaney's have been a lot quicker. Seeing Things, the most recent, took three days. Enjoyed most of the earlier poems, but didn't really get the long sequence that completes the collection. Must get back to it sometime soon.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Not Just Fiddling Around

I've had Fairport's Sloth in my head all day, having listened late last night to an astonishing live version delivered by the ultimate dynamic duo of Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick - which can be found here. To some degree it's difficult to connect the maniacally grinning younger Swarb of memory with the sadly ailing figure on the stage in 2009. But the beauty of the performance somehow transcends all the sadness it evokes, and, almost, time itself. Almost.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hard Lessons

Talked a little bit about the situation in Egypt in a lesson today. Realised just how little is the little I know about what's going on there. One obviously savvy reporter on Sky News - who continue to impress me in their coverage of a wide range of issues - reckons that it's reasonable to talk about the possibility of a civil war on the scale of the nightmare that unfolded in Algeria after the Islamists were denied government. He was thoughtfully careful to differentiate the possibility from the probability, but it was chilling to listen to him nonetheless. 

He also wondered aloud whether Egypt is quite ready for democracy, and he wasn't being narrowly racist, simply realistic in terms of recognising that a stable polity functioning on democratic lines demands a sense of the need for compromise on all sides - and we aren't seeing much of that in Egypt from anybody. Let's pray we won't see thousands dying so that the lesson has to be learnt the hardest way of all.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Life

Odd moment of the day: late in the afternoon one of the teachers in the staffroom started screaming. It wasn't loud enough to be alarming, but the screaming certainly attracted the attention of all around her. It turned out she'd seen a large insect near her desk - a praying mantis. In the interests of full disclosure I should tell you the teacher in question teaches Biology.

A colleague, another biologist, came to the rescue, picked up the rather large insect, and carried it mercifully to its freedom outside. As he passed supporting the creature gently on his hand it struck me as something quite extraordinary - beautiful in its way, yet forbidding. I've never quite recovered from seeing a film years ago capturing an act of sexual cannibalism involving two of the family Mantidae and I suppose that continues to colour my view of them.

So, all in all, isn't life peculiar when you weigh it up, whatever the specie involved?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Looking Backward

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Even as we fare forward, it's good to reflect on moments that give meaning to it all.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Looking Forward

Let's face it, there's not a whole lot of joy lining up in the immediate future.

First off, we've got to get ourselves back to the Hall this evening, and I for one am expecting plenty of bumper to bumper traffic before we make our arrival. I've already put the Missus on alert for some judicious sharing of duties behind the wheel if we get bogged down.

Then I have a busy day dealing with the Toad, work, on Monday. Followed by a busy day on Tuesday. And another on Wednesday... I think you may get my drift.

These days I've given up trying to concoct any kind of meta-list intended to capture the full picture of the demands upon me. It's just too depressing and the only point in the exercise was to give some illusion of control, and I no longer feel the need for illusions.

Yet curiously I can't say I find anything terribly depressing or even wearisome in all this. There's always a time for unexpected joys even when there's no time at all. Looking back I recall the good times almost exclusively - so looking forward they are what I'll really be expecting. Just a little patience is required. But it's nice to have a little moan now and again, eh?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Other People's Lives

Brought along Trollope's The Duke's Children with no great assurance that I'd be able to make much progress. Delighted to find myself moving swiftly through the volume, despite other demands on my time. As usual there's much momentum in the storyline(s) such that I'm genuinely keen to find out how it all works out. Unusually for Trollope it's not so easy to figure out where the various plots are going.

In fact, I'd rate this one as Trollope on top form. It's heavy on engagingly intelligent and vivacious female characters - even though he kills Cora off in Chapter 1, wonderfully ruthlessly, with the certitude of a great writer (for once.) I'd rate Lady Mabel a particular triumph, so far, though I'm wondering, at the two-thirds mark of the novel, if Trollope intends to turn her into a bit of a villainess after missing her opportunity with Silverbridge and developing understandable envy towards Isabel Boncassen. The chapters in which she sort of turns Silverbridge down and then realises she's blown her chances are masterly. And Trollope is also on top form dealing with the various messes that Silverbridge gets himself into, with the loss of seventy thousand at the Leger being grippingly excruciating. And who else but Trollope would give you the exact amount lost and precisely how the money gets paid?

There are moments when Trollope comes close to the perfection of Jane Austen in his handling of personal entanglements, and I can't think of higher praise than that.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Somewhere New

Visited Muar for the first time today. Usually Hamza and Sharifah go there during Raya to visit a relative of Nenek who, as far as I understand things, looked after the young Sharifah at a difficult time. This time we, and quite a large team, accompanied them.

The house was very old and simple and it was clear that the people there didn't have a lot in the way of material possessions. But as is so often the case here, there was none of that sense of depression attendant upon poverty that you get in England. Far from it, in fact. 

Places that should feel run-down somehow are not so. A richness of spirit lies at the heart of this.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Something Savoured

Hari Raya Puasa, Eid ul-Fitr; 1 Syawal 1434

We set out north a little late yesterday, having stopped off at Darul Arqam in Geylang to pay our zakat. We managed to do so just before the maghrib prayer, breaking our fast before setting off. Fortunately the way to Melaka was reasonably clear and we arrived before midnight, allowing a reasonable amount of sleep before the big day.

And after the rush to get everything ready in time, now is the time to feel like we've somehow arrived. So, for all travellers who seek a place of peace: Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Eid Mubarak! 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Something Achieved

29 Ramadhan 1434


Some of the products of Noi's industry pictured above. (There are fruit cakes hidden in the plastic bags, by the way.) At least one of us has been really getting things done of late.

We're off to do some happy raya-ing in Melaka in a couple of hours, so we're breaking the fast for the final time this year in the car. We done it before. It adds a certain piquancy to the occasion, not that it needs much of that.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Under-achieving

28 Ramadhan 1434

As this month of struggle approaches its end I've been reflecting on the many ways in which I've fallen short of what I've been striving for. The physical aspect of the fast has been, as always, difficult but not overly so. The deeper aspects have been, as always, difficult and, in some ways, far too many ways, beyond my limited capacity. But I have a hopeful sense of that capacity having expanded ever so slightly.

The cultivation of virtue, or I might say the virtues, is hardly fashionable and often seen as deeply suspicious - usefully so, I might add. Those who parade their virtues are not to be trusted, self-deception and hypocrisy seeming integral to the human condition. But I think we've lost a kind of wisdom in failing to recognise how important it is to ourselves as individuals and as members of various communities to make the attempt, however compromised that might be, to manifest those virtues. Indeed, I think it's a useful exercise to draw up a list of what you might regard as necessary virtues.

There's a lovely one towards the end of Pullman's His Dark Materials. When I first read it I was deeply moved and glancing at it again this evening I still find it a potent recipe for the republic of heaven that we're all striving for, regardless of the particularities of our individual faiths: We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we've got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds... says Lyra to her daemon. And she's right.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Coming To Conclusions

27 Ramadhan 1434

Finished a couple of my reads for the holy month the other day. I can't say I enjoyed Seyyed Hossein Nasr's Islamic Life and Thought, but I certainly respected the writer and his essays. In some ways it's an uncompromising read, at times reading like a dry survey of the field, the field being the world of Islamic thought through several centuries. The occasionally strident tone also took some getting used to. But once you grasp Nasr's sense of urgency and the cogency of his massive alternative to much contemporary thought, things fall into place.

In contrast, things fell into place with regard to Donald Hall's Old and New Poems very early in my reading and from the mid-point of the volume I realised I'd found possibly my favourite American poet of recent times. (The chief contender being Archie Ammons. Oh, and Stephen Dobyns.) Every poem in the collection post-1970 shines with a relaxed brilliance, and there plenty of gems prior to that. So, as so often, in a time of dearth I am granted plenty.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sights - Public

26 Ramadhan 1434

 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 

The Missus and I have been happily out and about of late. Evidence above.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sights - Domestic

25 Ramadhan 1434


 
 
 
 
 
 

Expectations high. Evidence above.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Inside And Out

24 Ramadhan 1434

 
 

In this month of illumination life seems so much brighter.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Progress

23 Ramadhan 1434

Those wonderful people from Starhub replaced our set-top box (or whatever it's called) with an 'up-graded' box which we didn't want - and which cost more to rent - since they no longer provide the simpler box we wanted (and which had gone defective on us for no obvious reason.) The 'improved' box doesn't allow us to connect our DVD player/recorder in the way we conveniently used to, and is intended for something called an HD telly which we haven't got and don't intend to get. This is called customer service.