Thursday, October 31, 2013

Further Recovery

Driving back from a boys' night out at Serangoon Road I got reminiscing with Peter over some of the great names of British comedy of our misspent youths. The Pythons, the Two Ronnies - especially Ronnie Barker, and thus Porridge and Richard Beckinsale, Ken Dodd and Benny Hill. Much laughter evoked just by the names. Now that's what I call a legacy.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

In Recovery

Felt a bit washed out in the late evening, then accidentally caught a few minutes of the deeply wonderful Neil Gaiman on Christiane Amnapour's programme on CNN. Amongst other things he was eloquently extolling the virtues of the public library.

Isn't it strange how listening to one sane voice can make you feel a whole lot better?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Too Late For Answers

I came across these resonant words on the subject of information the other day:

These then are some of the characteristics of the deluge of information which has descended upon us... We ought to ask whether the increase of these variegated types of knowledge has made us happier or wiser, whether it has enriched or impoverished the quality of our lives, whether the increased production of intellectual knowledge necessarily had to be accompanied by an even greater increase of trivialised and trashy knowledge. Might it not be time to expect a reasonable community to control the indiscriminate flow of knowledge? Has knowledge, destined to increase man's mastery, assumed a fetishistic domination over him? Has modern industrial society created another Frankenstein monster?

Bitingly relevant for 2013? Actually written in 1963 by one Lewis Coser (whoever he was) reviewing a worthy volume on The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States in the first issue of the New York Review of Books. I came across it in the facsimile edition of numero uno that the NYRB gave out for free with their summer issue.

So what does this tell us? Nothing really changes? If you thought things were bad then you have no idea just how incredibly, infinitely, bad it's going to get? It's game over for civilisation? Possibly, paradoxically, all three? 

Monday, October 28, 2013


It's been more stop than start for me with the great-sonnet-read-through of late, but I have got to number 58 and have no intention of stopping completely at this stage. Apart from anything else the whole sequence is just so darned strange you feel obliged to read on to see if you can find something not entirely obsessive-compulsive. That strangeness is something I think everyone senses when reading the odd one or two in isolation but which becomes overwhelmingly, screamingly loud and clear when you're going at them in sequence and wrestling with each individually as you go. Does WS mean what he says? If he does, it's extraordinary; if he doesn't, what can be said about the power of an individual imagination to sustain this stuff through incendiary piece after piece and for it all to be just a performance for the theatre of the mind?

Though, here's a thought. I suspect we're all strange - I mean really very strange, in the WS vein, but without the talent - and it's not so much that we hide it as people translate that strangeness into some kind of normality to cope with it all. I spent a small part of the day enjoying the strangeness of some of those I encountered, and I noticed a distinct and genuinely friendly attempt on their behalf to make me less strange than I am.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Kids' Stuff

Recently I brought back a few of the children's books from KL, those novels I acquired back in the UK in the middle eighties. I'm intending to find some way of giving these away to anyone who might like to read them as a way of getting a little more shelf space, and making the books useful again.

So far I've read four of them and to do so has been a reminder of the pleasures of this genre, but I can't honestly say any of them set me fire in quite the same way as first reading Leon Garfield, Jean Marks and Philip Pullman did, once upon a time. Mind you, A Parcel of Patterns by Jill Paton Walsh struck me as being brilliantly written in terms of being a convincing representation of someone writing in 1665. (It's about the plague village, Eyam.) But I saw it as entirely adult in its way, with none of the energy of a genuine book for a teenage audience.

There were a couple of novels by Berlie Doherty, who was just becoming a bit of a 'name' when I first got hold of them. But other than being well-told tales I didn't see much to fuss about - though I did enjoy their sense of place in the chilly north.

And the last of the four was really the odd one out, this being Phillipa Pearce's A Dog So Small. Coming from the writer of the stone cold classic Tom's Midnight Garden I thought this was a guaranteed treat, but it just didn't cohere somehow. I kept wondering why a friendly editor hadn't told her that the premise - the power of an imaginary dog on the workings of a boy's mind - was too strange to work. I can't imagine any kid of ten enjoying it, but this seems to be the age group she had in mind. But the great thing is that there was a time when something as off-beat as this had the support of a major publisher.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


Woke with a distinctly unpleasant headache, and had to keep working through much of the day with it. I suspect that the ache was caused at least in part by the fact that I had no choice but to work. The other part by the rather extreme busyness of the last few days.

Now, though, I'm very happy indeed to report that my head is no longer banging away with all the tenderness of a John Bonham drum solo. The Missus applied one of her patented head rubs in the early afternoon and, somewhat to my surprise, this did the trick. Well, this and the fact that at that point I'd managed to clear a reasonable amount of the workload that a week's frenetic activity had not managed to shift. Also I'm pleased to report I didn't need to resort to the old Panadol or any other medicines. 

And the moral of the story? Other than the fairly obvious point that acquiring a wonderful missus is a good idea for any reader of the male persuasion lacking in this area, I suppose it's to suggest that in a sane world we wouldn't devise ways of working that were inherently debilitating.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Weight Of Things

I am heavy and happy with shepherd's pie and Victoria cake. Think of it as ballast for life's long voyage.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Thought From Somewhere

Have you ever had the feeling that in some sense your thoughts are visitors just passing through the human vehicle that falsely claims them as its own? It takes plagiarism to a whole new level.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Showing Grace

In recent years I've found myself under the influence of what might be termed Virtue Ethics in the Aristotelian tradition. The sense of the need to strive to manifest virtue I find deeply appealing, though I hasten to add I'm painfully aware of ways in which I fall short. (Perhaps that's part of what is so meaningful about this way of looking at the world. You actively are made aware of deficiencies in a way that does not allow for complacency.)

It struck me today that the notion of grace under pressure is directly related to this complex of ideas, and it's fascinating to reflect on how often thinkers who might broadly be regarded as existentialist are drawn to this powerful idea. In this respect I suppose we are to welcome the kind of pressures that allow us to manifest strengths that might otherwise never be apparent, or allowed to develop.

Gulp. The implications of this train of thought are deeply unsettling. For the moment I'll happily make do with the quiet life, inauthentic as that may be.

Monday, October 21, 2013

In Flux

The younger me was something of a believer in the need for precision in language. The older me still is, except for being rather more aware that such precision is illusory. Beware of anyone who demands we purify the dialect of the tribe. Muddying the waters is a lot more fun and keeps you in touch with the flow of it all.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Bit Of Colour

Where better to go than Serangoon Road in the run-up to Deepavali to add a bit of colour to life? We managed to survive the crowds, eat well and buy a Divali card for our favourite gardener, Devan.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Lovely Man

Today I found myself oddly moved by two of Hopkins's letters, one from 1884 to his sister Kate, one from 1885 to Bridges, placed adjacent to each other in The Major Works. Partly it's the knowledge that he's only got another four or so years to live, but it's also the courage of the priest in his obvious despair, that makes them so poignant.

The letter to Kate is basically a humorous piece, with some nice mickey-taking on the Irish accent (GMH is in Dublin, at Stephen's Green - a location all Joyceans will enjoy) and it's a relief to get a glimpse of our Jesuit's sense of fun. But knowing how hard he found his stay in Ireland adds another dimension to the jokes. This becomes clearer, in a sense, in the letter following to Bridges - despite the months between. There's a reference to the sonnets of despair in this one, and a direct echo in a reference to himself as time's eunuch. Yet it's the quiet courage of the man that stays with this reader rather than the depression. It's simple really: After all I do not despair, things might change, anything may be; only there is no great appearance of it.

It's an odd thing how some writers you love as the people they are. I can't read any of the poems without that consciousness, and it adds to their greatness.

I'm done with them for now though, and the prose, having got the end of Catherine Phillips's edition. I recommend it for those who might only have encountered The Windhover, God's Grandeur or Goldengrove in anthologies.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Dream On

As I've had occasion to mention here before, my dreams, the ones I remember, are embarrassing. Sadly this is not as a result of their guilt-inducing content. They are embarrassingly banal, murderously mundane. You'd think a chap like me who deals with a fair amount of what might be termed imaginative literature might be expected to spend his nights in thrillingly grotesque Salvador Dali-esque landscapes, but it just ain't so.

So it's been a bit disturbing to find myself for the last few nights remembering the blighters, when normally I seem to awake from dreamless sleep. What's going on? Am I in crisis?, I ask myself, but not with any deep curiosity. It's difficult to be curious about the utterly trivial. I suppose my subconscious might be urgently telling me, You really are a very petty bloke, you know. But this is hardly news.

I'm hoping for something a bit spectacular tonight: a touch spooky, mayhap; a smear of the surreal; a glimmer of the sublime. But, please, not me getting stupidly annoyed at work! I can do that during the day, anytime.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

In Sickness And In Health

I've felt a bit under the weather today - sneezing, streaming nose and headache - so this is by way of a therapeutic moan.

Actually it's been an odd week and half for me on the health front, going back to the Sunday before last. That was when I became uneasily aware of an ache in my back eerily reminiscent of a nerve getting trapped somewhere in the mess of my lower vertebrae. The early part of that week saw the pain get worse, peaking on the Wednesday and Thursday. I was thinking of announcing to the Missus that I was in trouble again, but decided to put it off until I wasn't able to disguise it any more - no point in worrying someone for no reason. Then, mysteriously, the problem very gradually subsided and now it's almost gone. There's just the echo of discomfort left.

This puts me in a vastly better place than my brother-in-law, John, who now can't sleep through the night since the trapped nerve in his back gets worse when he lying down, meaning he gets very little relief at all. He's waiting to go under the knife for a solution and I can well understand why. I say this with no sense of schadenfreude since chances are one day I'll find myself in the same place since our complaints are essentially alike.

So for now I'll be thankful for what I've got, except for this runny nose and sore head which I can well do without.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


I don't think I've ever attended Hari Raya prayers at the Clementi mosque before, either for Hari Raya Puasa or Hari Raya Haji. This morning I went for the prayers for Eid al Adha in what I assumed was good time, that being half an hour before they were due to start, and found that my timing was extremely bad. The car park behind the mosque was completely full, including the obvious spots to park illegally, and the same was true of what little space there was to park in front. I spent twenty-five minutes or so looking for somewhere and finally settled for just about the worst place possible on the main road, not just illegal but blatantly so. My only excuse is, I had no choice. It was really that or miss prayers completely.

As it was the entrance to the mesjid was absolutely packed as I finally arrived and I seriously doubted I would make it into a line for the prayer, but somehow it all worked out - though I was virtually in the toilet area when it came to the prayer itself. I suppose I should say at this point that I don't want to ever repeat the experience, but I won't say that. At some point in the future I'm sure to face an even more trying experience, and in some ways it's useful, if unpleasant, to be tried.

The rest of the day was more relaxing, the highlight being a delicious lunch at Rohana's (with Noi cooking some goodies as well to take along.) In fact, it looks like this will be a week for a packed stomach. We're out dining tomorrow evening and then we're due to attend Christmas Dinner (yes, really - don't ask) on Thursday. Some self control will be in order - though not for the next half hour as we're about to enjoy a supper made up of today's goodies. Bon Appetit!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Word Painting

I've now reached the selection of letters in Catherine Phillips's edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins - The Major Works and very interesting they are - especially those to Robert Bridges. The great Jesuit emerges here as a gentle, friendly sort of chap, as driven as ever, but humanly so. At least the intensity comes down a little from the selected Journal entries which are astonishingly rich. At moments, indeed, it was easy to see some paragraphs (from the Journal) as being as good as the poems - a bit like Keats's letters in that respect.  

Just one line as an example (though I'm tempted to quote endlessly) in which GMH is describing a pigeon: I saw one up on the eaves of the roof: as it moved its head a crush of satin green came and went, a wet or soft flaming of the light. I mean crush alone hits you where it hurts, but then wet puts you on the floor. And as for flaming...

(Attentive readers will note how quickly I run out of any real critical vocabulary. This is just Wow and if you don't recognise that there's no point in going much further.)

The Journal is essentially made up of pages of this sort of thing, and I couldn't help thinking of that bit towards the end of de Botton's The Art of Travel when he recommends following Ruskins's advice on word painting as a writing exercise, and as an exercise in seeing the world. It would appear that this notion went beyond Ruskin in the late nineteenth century and was common practice. I'm certainly tempted to make an attempt or two myself just for the fun of it. Simply an awareness of how many miles short of GMH I would fall would be salutary and add to my appreciation of just how astonishingly good he is.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Close Shave

Noi came close to pranging the car this afternoon whilst out with Fifi and Fafa. She phoned me around two o'clock, obviously still a bit shaken, to describe how the car in front of her had suddenly stopped for no obvious reason and she'd narrowly avoided going into its back end - and then having the car behind her do the same to our car. Fortunately she and the driver behind were alert and maintaining sensible distances so all was well when it very easily might not have been.

In a way this made our little dinner at Adam Road with the girls all the sweeter, as we reminisced about fine times in Paris and London and Manchester. The girls, of course, have forgotten most of what went on but I suspect that Noi, like myself, remembers almost everything.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Shedding Light

A big highlight of yesterday was my visit to what I think is called Gallery Night. This is the first night of the annual exhibition of selected pieces of their work by our students doing Visual Art, when the artists themselves are around to provide a commentary on what they've got on display for the various folk popping in to enjoy it. Actually I popped in twice, either side of a meeting I had to attend. This meant my viewing of the work was irritatingly touch and go, but at least I got a chance to hear what the various practitioners had to say, well, the seven of them I managed to chat to that is.

And it was after my rather rushed second visit that I realised just how much all the talk had illuminated the work for me. A few years ago I would have considered this a kind of breach of decorum of what art was all about, somewhat puritanically considering that any work of art, whether a painting, poem, song, symphony, whatever, should somehow stand on its own. I'm not saying I would have consciously articulated this notion upon demand, as it were, but I think it was there - as a sort of spin-off of the New Criticism I suppose. Now I'm more than happy for one work to leak into another, for the commentary on the work to become part of its meaning, for boundaries to blur so completely as to be little more than those crumbling walls between fields that remind you of the continuities that lie below.

The unguarded, unpretentious enthusiasm of the artists last night also served to remind me of important it is for individuals within our culture to be encouraged to shed light through their art, whatever form that might take, for our collective health. I've spent much of today happily thinking of some of the most striking images I took away with me. I can't imagine anyone who was around to look at the works on display not feeling a sense of their own world expanding and becoming a brighter place.

Friday, October 11, 2013


A ridiculously busy day today, but fortunately, at points at least, happily so. One of those points was a peaceful forty-five minutes or so at the mesjid for Friday Prayers, although for a moment or two events in the world outside threatened to intrude upon that peace. Well, not so much events as the weather which decided to show its rainy aspect midway through the sermon making me wonder if I was going to get wet-through making my way back to work. Fortunately the squall was over within ten minutes and the only part of me that got at all damp were my feet since the slippers I'd left outside were well and truly soaking by the time I put them on again. Mind you, I preferred that to last week when the sun had been blazing down upon them whilst I was inside resulting in me nearly blistering the soles of my feet when I had to very tentatively slip them back on.

But all this is by the by. Other than that brief panic my sojourn in the mesjid proved typically restful and I particularly enjoyed the slightly atypical sermon. The focus of today's khutbah was on health, and the need for maintaining it. Spinning off from a very interesting hadith with which I wasn't really familiar, the message was that you had a duty to eat sensibly and exercise to maintain health. Normally I can find all sorts of parallels in the sermons I listen to these days with those I was exposed to as a child in the Catholic church, but it struck me that this wasn't the sort of thing you were too likely to hear in a church.

It connects with something deeply characteristic of Islam - the sense of the religion as a 'deen', best translated I suppose as a way of life. In this respect there is nothing 'secular' within the deen as any and every activity relates back to ultimate purposes. Many years ago I suppose I would have thought of this, from the outside, as deeply constricting. Now I find it deeply liberating.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Good Cheer

In the ordinary run of events I would have been mildly interested in watching the short documentary broadcast on local tv this evening about Singapore's army's involvement in Afghanistan over the last six years. But since it featured Fuad's brother Fahmi, who did his tour of duty out there last year, it became a must-see, and very interesting it was. Lots of the troops who'd been out there were featured and their pride in the good they'd tried to do, and what they'd achieved, was palpable. And when Fahmi was featured receiving an award for his work we were cheering.

Happily no casualties from the SAF were featured, and I say happily because I don't think there were any. But I couldn't help reflect on the casualties there have been amongst the troops from my country, and other countries including, of course, Afghanistan itself. I hope, as do we all, that the courage and dedication of the troops out there turns out to have really been worthwhile in the long run. Sadly, I have my doubts.

Though these doubts don't extend to the value of the clean water, the dental care, the hospitals, the bridges that the SAF sought to provide. In some things there is an absolute good, things really worth cheering for.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

As Others See

Snippet of conversation today involving myself and an anonymous interlocutor. Me, commenting on something that needs to be done some time soon: So it looks like I'll need to practise being nasty. Interlocutor: You don't need to practise.

Ouch, eh? To see ourselves as others see, as they say.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Bit Of A Performance

Watching something on the goggle box tonight, a locally produced drama relating to the making of a drama series for tv, set me thinking about the noble art of pretending to be someone else. It's odd how often good acting here is equated to doing a lot of emoting, the kind of look at me I'm really acting approach. This has often been my experience in schools, sometimes in rather amusing ways.

I suppose the best example I can give is one that comes from a long time ago, more than two decades, but it has stayed with me. The school I was then in had just done a show which had gone down very well, featuring a number of genuinely talented performers. It's always invidious to talk about the 'best' actor or actress in anything, but one young lady struck me at the time as having an effortless ability to lose herself in a character. As so often with this kind of performer she was incredibly easy to direct, it simply being a matter of seeing what she would do next and letting her know if anything didn't quite work. It always did.

Some time after the whole thing was over a colleague, who by this time knew the piece extremely well, was commenting on some of those involved in glowing terms. The particular individual I had in mind seemed not to have taken her fancy, so I tentatively mentioned her expecting a bit more rapture. Instead I got a blank look, and then the puzzled comment, But she doesn't really act.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Bit Odd

Now up to Sonnet 46 in the great-sonnet-read-through and not feeling inclined to start rushing. It's all a bit too intense linguistically to try and go at any pace other than super slow - though, I must admit, you lose any sense of the overall design of the sequence. Maybe I should consider a brisk read-through of the first 50 once I get to the one-third mark (roughly) just to see how things cohere. The other kind of intensity involves the sheer oddness of what's going on in terms of the emotions being expressed. Is WS really serious, or is this some kind of literary exercise, or is it a bit of both? Paterson's position is that he really means it - most of the time. Kerrigan doesn't seem to care, which makes a kind of sense given the fact we'll never know.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


The contrast couldn't have been more stark. In the late afternoon yesterday I was watching a very disturbing item on Sky News about a poor little lad allowed to starve to death by his mother, his body lying in a cot unburied. And this following another dreadful story about a mother killing her two-year-old son through repeated violent abuse. It seems one of the jurors in her trial for murder had to be excused having broken down when the evidence of his injuries was given.

And then I spent part of the evening watching a show, a musical, about a little girl suffering from cancer and surviving. The little girl in question, who appeared in the final scenes, is the daughter of one of my colleagues and it was his wife (oddly I taught her as a teenager!) who had produced Brave Maeve as an exercise in fund-raising and raising awareness of children stricken with cancer - and, I suppose, celebrating a lovely story of love and survival. Some of the early scenes when Maeve is first taken ill were pretty harrowing, making no attempt to sugar-coat the traumas involved. I liked that. And really the show didn't sugar-coat anything. The love shown for the child by the community around her, and the sheer effort put in by all involved in the musical itself to make something even more positive out of all this, were straightforwardly real - and a reminder of ultimate realities.

I still can't quite put my day together. Glimpses of hell and heaven. I suppose this is something of what Blake felt composing his songs of innocence and experience.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Even More

The truth is that there always more than this, this being the immediate, local, limited version of reality you think is real. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes doesn't just give you a new perspective. It gives you a whole new universe.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Bit Much

Over the last couple of days I've become more aware than ever of the vast riches, in a scope almost impossible to comprehend, of what's available via the Internet. This was all quite by accident, and didn't reveal anything conceptually that was new to me, yet at one point each day I felt delightfully overwhelmed.

The first came when I was following a link from a sort of educational site I occasionally visit and arrived at a classic movie of the 1930s available for viewing in its entirety. Immediately following which I discovered an opera, again available for viewing in its entirety, which I last saw on telly in the 1980s (in a different production) and assumed I would never get the chance to watch again.

And then on the following day I almost negligently linked to a couple of obviously fascinating blogs, extensive in their nature, centred around the kind of poetry and art that I suspect nobody much cares for except me, the bloggers and their very limited (I'm guessing) audience. In this case I grabbed them under Favourites, but suspect I won't be visiting them too often, if at all. And, by the way, I won't be watching the film I mentioned, nor the opera, not in the near future anyway.

I don't have time. And I don't really mind that - I'm not writing this in any spirit of complaint. Even if I had did have time to do the business with the above I wouldn't have time, nobody would, for all their wonderful companions waiting in the wings. I also need to add that I'm not overwhelmed by choice, though I could imagine someone feeling that way. In fact, I'm finding it quite easy not to watch, not to listen, not to read, because I'm enjoying plenty of other things in my spare time.

I suppose I'm writing this in a spirit of celebration, happy at my ease of access to these treasures, and happier still that I can find from somewhere the wisdom not to abuse that access. I'm lucky this stuff wasn't around when I was a youngster. I don't think I could have summoned the wherewithal as a teenager to resist temptation. As I've said before, I'm fairly sure I would have been addicted to computer gaming if it had been around way back when.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Intensity, Plenty Of

I've been spending quite a bit of time lately in the company of Gerard Manley Hopkins, as mediated through his poetry, and I'm rather glad it's time to move on having just read every extant line of it. Every moment of the experience has been in some sense rewarding, but often overwhelmingly so. His verse is just so packed, so dense; at times each line is like its own small explosion. And my goodness is he obsessional, wonderfully so, but you can only take so much of it.

When I said 'quite a bit of time' I really should qualify that: three poems a day was just about the maximum, and when you come to something like Tom's Garland really you'd need a week to wrest any kind of coherent meaning out of it. Fortunately my edition gives Hopkins's own gloss on it (I think done to help Dixon or Bridges or one of those coves) and I settled for a couple of read-throughs of the poem followed by a couple of readings of the gloss and then a final reading aloud of the poem, at which point things were starting to make sense. (Although, curiously, I think I had a pretty good idea of what was on Hopkins's mind even on a first reading. But I didn't get the animus against levellers and their like as expressed in the prose.) 

Anyway now I'm moving on into the Prose selection and since I've not read much Hopkins at all in this vein I'm looking forward to it. The conventionally Catholic devotional bits I suspect will be eerily familiar. It's nice to visit home once in a while.