Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Road Ahead

Finally completed my IB marking for this year, just in time to board a plane to Casablanca. Then it's Marrakech, Fes, Rabat, Tangiers, Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Madrid - which sounds pretty busy to me. Still I'm hoping to find a bit of time to read, amidst all the sight-seeing, and it's with that in mind that I'm packing Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors, Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus. Oh, and the early November issue of the New York Review of Books for less protracted stuff.

The great-sonnet-read-through will go into abeyance for a little while (to save on carrying books.) I'm now up to number ninety and WS has beating himself up for the last three or four, which was a touch tiresome, so it's a good time for a break. And I'm not too sure how frequently I'll be able to get on-line to blog here at this Far Place from those far places. Well, we shall see.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Identity Crisis

It's distinctly undermining to your sense of identity when the biometric system designed to allow you access to your place of work doesn't let you in.

The wonders of modern technology, eh?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Real Point To Make

The last lines of Middlemarch: ... for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. Typically didactic, and to some degree unnecessary as Eliot has already made the point abundantly through the very (apparently) real behaviour of her characters; but still worth insisting on as a profound moral truth. The Victorians were not shy of such truths, and perhaps we have gained something by being a little less certain of any truths, but our world is built on their shoulders and I for one, am aware that I am fortunate to be free of many of the ills of which Eliot would have been acutely aware.

The simple truth that Dorothea's generosity of character in going to the dreadful Rosamond to try and be of help to her when it would have easier and more 'natural' to have done very much otherwise, and in the process does immeasurable good for three other lives (and her own) in a way that nobody else will ever really see or comprehend is worth all the contrivance of plot it takes to get there. And isn't the contrast between Dorothea's sense of a self that needs to find itself and Rosamond's sense of nothing but self in some way the structural underpinning of the whole novel? The remarkable thing is that Eliot somehow understands Rosie - the writing of the note to Dorothea explaining Ladislaw's attitude to her, and the motivation for this (which is decent enough, but not exactly noble) is eerily spot on. Every reader knows how dreadful Rosie is but the remarkable thing is that we're invited to see the world in a way that entirely explains, almost justifies, her.

Great, great novel.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Slowly Mending

Just had a chat with John, now in his post-operation phase. He's still in a fair amount of pain, which is hardly surprising when you consider the extent to which his back has been knocked around. As far as I understand matters his spine is full of nuts and bolts at the moment, which sounds a lot more traumatic than the comparatively minor ops we've both had in the past simply to remove pesky slipped disks - and, my goodness, they could leave you feeling extremely sore for quite some time.

The good news is that John's doc thinks the procedure was a success, so we're hopeful that when the after-effects of the op fade he'll finally get a good night's sleep and be able to get around a lot more freely than was previously the case. As I've had occasion to mention before, I can't help but wonder if my brother-in-law's troubles are a sneak preview of the sort of thing that lies in store for me - assuming I live as long. So there's an element of selfishness in hoping for the best for him. But there's also a dollop of straightforward goodwill towards a good guy.

On the home front, my doc gave me a clean bill of health in spine-related matters just last week. Trust me, I'm enjoying my good fortune as long as it lasts, which I'm well aware won't be forever.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Bit Of A Walk

Wandered out to Holland Village in the late afternoon, footing it all the way there and back, in an attempt to clear the cobwebs stuffed into my skull, occupying the space where my brain should be. The cobwebs settled there as a result of today's marking, and are still resident despite the walk and the rather jolly cup of tea I enjoyed at the Village. This is the problem attendant upon my system of marking which depends on achieving a fixed quota every day, come what may. On those days when my body and brain tell me in no uncertain terms they are just not interested in doing the necessary, the necessary still gets done - at a price.

Mind you, I was still able to summon the concentration to move into the final quarter of Middlemarch whilst quaffing the cup that cheers, so the journey wasn't entirely a waste. And I got to enjoy the trees along Commonwealth Avenue on the way back. These are not terribly special for the city, but special enough when you really focus on them to provide a splendid counterpoint to the MRT line running overhead and the various manifestations of the New Brutality in modern architecture that abound along the way.

The great thing about nature in this 'garden city' is that it manages to hold onto something of its disconcerting echoes of the wilderness, its essential aggressiveness, even when it's tamed along a roadside. It's not difficult to imagine the greenery taking it all back one day.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Crashing

Ate well at a wedding in the early afternoon - one of Arzami's daughters taking that long dark mystery ride. Since Noi wasn't around there really wasn't anything to distract me from the food. Then it was home to curry puffs and a monumental and much-needed late afternoon nap - though 'nap' seems too slight a word for the vertiginous plunge into the stream of unconsciousness I enjoyed.

And that's the place I'm happily going back to right after completing this. So there.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Together, Apart

We're off to Spain and Morocco this Thursday on a sort of Islamic-themed tour. This has involved getting a visa for Noi for the Moroccan leg of the journey, which has entailed her being without her passport for quite some time. Since she's been intending to go to Melaka to see Mak before we set off this has been a tad inconvenient, but she got it back this afternoon and is intending to drive up north on the morrow. I will sit lingering here, on account of getting papers marked for IB, so we'll be parted for the weekend - one of the irritants of our frequently (seemingly increasingly) mobile way of life.

I must say, though, the inconvenience has been massively ameliorated by an oxtail soup to die for cooked in honour of the occasion this evening, and a plenitude of freshly made curry puffs to get me through a lonely Saturday and Sunday. Miss Gloria Gaynor was right all along: yes, I will survive.

And while we're on the subject of togetherness, I enjoyed an excellent Friday sermon at Prayers today, concerning Muslim marriage. Full of good sense, I think some of its prescriptions would surprise those who appear determined to see Islam as innately oppressive to women. But there's no point in outlining these: those who don't want to know simply don't want to know.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Simply Chilling

Prior to coming to this Far Place I naively imagined I'd never be cold at work again. At that time I had no idea of just how much life in the tropics has been improved through air-conditioning. It's now possible to spend several hours shivering in the day as if working in some vengeful freezer for meat products. (I have no idea what 'meat products' are as I just invented the term, but I'm fairly sure they exist. And are kept chilled.)

For some reason air-conditioned staffrooms are regarded as some kind of luxury here. I'm sure they are expensive, but I'd gladly swop the one I'm in for somewhere with some slowly-revolving fans.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Self And Society

Just passed the halfway mark of Middlemarch and glorying in what an absolutely wonderful novel it is. It's so familiar to this reader that it's easy to forget the sheer ambition of Eliot here: a novel to diagnose the condition of England at a time of crucial historical change - yet, at the same time, to inhabit the most intimate corners of its major characters. I read the bit yesterday where Casaubon has found out just how ill he is and upsets Dorothea with his cold response to her concerns, then meets her late at night displaying a heart-breaking gentleness. Completely unexpected, yet true. As good as Tolstoy at his best. (And isn't it odd how this moment occupies the exact centre of the work?)

There is an advantage to having a degree of familiarity with the novel, I find. Instead of getting lost in the abundant detail of provincial life I'm more aware than in previous readings of what binds the enterprise together. In many ways what we are given is a series of studies in various forms of selfishness, and I'm including even the selfless Dorothea and Caleb Garth in that claim. But Eliot goes beyond merely laying bare the sad reality of what it is to be human. How that selfishness connects with our role as social animals is what's under often painful examination.

There's something disconcertingly bracing about this kind of moral seriousness.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Contradiction

Kids are full of a boundless curiosity, as we all know, because everybody says so. So how is it I remember being bored as a child? - quite often, actually. Yet I can't remember ever being bored as an adult; certainly not in the last twenty years.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Holiday Outing

I felt oddly disgruntled yesterday at being denied my cache of CDs. Although I kept a manly stiff upper lip for the Missus, inside I was inveighing at the iniquities of the modern world denying me my basic human right of a huge music store to lounge around in. Childish, very.

And then I got to thinking that the vast range of music now almost instantly accessible at the click of a mouse (yes, I'm still old-fashioned enough to rely on one) surely goes some way to make up for the fact that you can't lose yourself in the classical section for a good hour or so any more, considering what sweet harmonies you might select to enhance your existence. Which then led me to find some time between marking scripts and prowling an examination hall today to watch and listen to and wonder at Ben Britten's Albert Herring as sensationally performed at Glyndebourne some years back.

And though I wasn't exactly on holiday - though I am technically on holiday - I found myself in effect on a real holiday: in that place that the great comedies take you to: the enchanted woods where we discover ourselves - in this case, in that little, very English, Suffolk village in which we all grew up.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Down Town

Popped down to Orchard Road this evening intending to buy some CDs. Failed in an epic manner as there are no shops left selling them.

Returned disconsolate on the bus, having established my credentials as a man of the people by travelling down on one, along with the Missus, doing her woman of the people bit. All I can say is that if the people have to wait as long as we did for the 14 every day they'd have good reason to be banging on the doors of the elite.

Happiest sound on Orchard Road was the multitudinous din of the birds settling down for the evening in the trees by the roadside as we arrived. Mind you, their not-so-silent presence overhead made us both a bit uneasy about being adorned with an unwanted gift from the heavens as we waited to cross the road.

And after all that, it was home to the Missus's patented carrot cake - which made up for more than everything. And so to bed!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Turning Pages

I was hoping to get a fair bit of reading done in the last two months of the year, but I can't honestly say that November has been fruitful in this regard, so far at least. It doesn't help that I've got some marking to do for the IB November papers. However, the simple truth of the matter is that I seem incapable of reading anything at a reasonable pace at the moment.

I thought I'd storm through Middlemarch, but I managed just thirty pages today. Mind you, I got more out of Ladislaw's encounter with Dorothea and Casaubon in Rome than on any other previous reading, especially with regard to Eliot's views on the functions of art as hinted at in these pages. The sequence reminded me in some ways of the bit in Anna Karenina in which Vronsky goes in for painting. Eliot lacks the dazzling insights of Tolstoy a propos the theme, but she's intelligent in a sturdily thought-provoking manner.

I also moved on in the great-sonnet-read-through, getting up to number 78, which means I'm over the halfway mark and moving into the Rival Poet set. In this case I'm happy not to be rushing through the sequence, but I'm uneasily aware of a sense of losing sight of the overall architecture. Paterson, by the way, is extremely good on the numerological significance of the place of certain sonnets. I've never found this kind of thing convincing before, and it's heartening to finally tune in to the Elizabethan preoccupation with numbers.

I've also been turning the pages of the very latest Prog magazine. I surprised myself in buying this the other day at full price, but it's got an article by Sid Smith on the making of Close to the Edge which prompted me to part with the shekels. Happily it also came with a free CD with some tasty pieces on by more recent exponents of music's most derided genre than the mighty Yes, so that helped ease the pain of purchase. Most of the writing reflects silly fan-boy enthusiasm but that'll do for me nicely.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sad Stories

Embarked on a rereading of Middlemarch recently. I've been intending to include a couple, at least, of 19th century blockbusters on my list for the end of the year and this old favourite has been on my mind for quite some time. I've never felt that I've ever done the last third justice somehow. Other than the fall of Bulstrode there's really little I remember from this part. I suppose I've always been rushing just for the plot.

I was expecting to thoroughly enjoy a leisurely reading of Eliot's masterpiece, and this has been the case as I find myself about a quarter of the way through - but I found an unexpected obstacle to an effortless reading of the early chapters. To my surprise I was almost reluctant to read the early stuff on Dorothea and Lydgate too closely or analytically simply because I knew it was all going to end in tears. The fact they are in the process of making dreadful mistakes regarding their respective partners in marriage was painful this time round, rather than merely salutary. I kept thinking of the time Noi and I watched the BBC's most recent dramatization of the novel (the one featuring Robert Hardy as Dorothea's father) and how Noi reacted so forcefully to their mistakes. She knew just how badly wrong they were getting things based on her enormous good sense, but she also felt for them, and it's this capacity to feel for others that can make reading genuinely painful.

I remember my old mate Tony Steel telling me he couldn't see the point of reading a novel with a sad ending. At the time he said it, I thought him na├»ve. Now I'm not so sure. But I'm still looking forward to suffering along with the good, and bad, people of Middlemarch.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Doing Something

Thinking of Fuad's mum, now back in hospital following more problems related to her heart.

Thinking of the many bereaved in The Philippines and the many who've lost their homes. So often those who don't have that much to begin with are the ones who have it taken away.

And thinking that just thinking isn't enough. Time to act, however inadequately.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Seeing Things

It's folly to attempt to maintain the value of a currency as if there were some fixed standard of absolute value underpinning rates of exchange. The currency of language will inevitably be debased eventually. But it's wise to recognise that something of value is lost along the way, even if there's no point in resisting the change.
 
I speak as one who has had to survive more than one envisioning exercise of late. Once the word vision meant something and Blake, as ever, serves as a sane reminder of this. Here he is in The Marriage of Heaven of Hell, having just witnessed an appearance of the mighty Leviathan, with the angel that was guiding him having done a runner: ...I found myself alone sitting on a pleasant bank beside the river by moonlight, hearing a harper who sung to the harp; and his theme was: 'The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.'

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Moments In Time

It seemed to take me forever and a day to finish the summer NYRB that came with the facsimile issue of the first ever edition. But I'm very glad to have been taken back to the summer of 1963 in all its literary glory, on the Yankee side of the water, that is.

I'm guessing there were some special circumstances behind the choices of reviews and stuff for that first edition because there's just so many big names involved. We get poems from Lowell, Berryman and Robert Penn Warren and a piece by Lowell on Robert Frost; there are reviews of Ivan Denisovich, The Naked Lunch, Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenter and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plus Auden on David Jones's Anathemata and Berryman on Auden's The Dyer's Hand; and there are bits from Mailer, Vidal, Kazin, Styron and Sontag. No way was that just an ordinary month.

It's surprising just how much some things now seem dated, usually what I would guess to have been what the editors would have considered the most 'current' material. Three or four reviews have issues of race firmly in view, particularly the cover piece on Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and these seem to come from a different world - one, in some ways, best forgotten.

But it's equally striking how much written then would not sound at all out of place in the current NYRB. What was that definition of literature by Pound? - News that stays news, or something to that effect. Sometimes the old anti-Semite got things right.

Monday, November 11, 2013

On Not Knowing

In times when we are being sold so much that people purport to know it seems to me very useful that schools help students understand just how much we don't know.

The answer, by the way, is a lot.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Utterly Useless Beauty

Yesterday's comments on dissonance relate very much to one of my recent discoveries. I'd vaguely heard of the composer Toru Takemitsu, and knew him to be highly regarded among connoisseurs of the avant garde end of twentieth century music. What I didn't realise was that I was very familiar with his music for Kurosawa's great movie Ran having watched the epic at least four times. I just wasn't aware that it was Takemitsu who was responsible for all those lovely sounds and that there was a standalone version of the music that was transcendentally beautiful and powerful outside the beautiful and powerful visual context in which it was embedded.

I think if I had known that I would have sought out more by the composer earlier than I did. But it really doesn't matter because for the last two weeks I've been joyously allowing myself to be overwhelmed by his music in every form I can find it - chiefly through those nice people at youtube. It's now my intention to place a bulk order for a cache of CDs through amazon.com since this is not stuff you'd find in the stores, assuming the stores existed, which they don't any more.

To be honest, I'm not sure I'm being in any way accurate using the term dissonance with regard to Takemitsu's work. To me it sounds almost entirely tonal, but I am aware that my tastes don't exactly run in the same direction as those of the general populace in this area. I'm told programming this stuff drives people out of concert halls, but I haven't got a clue why. Every piece I've heard so far without exception has sounded to these ears, well, simply beautiful in a kind of self-evident manner.

Anyway, let me provide for you, Gentle Reader, a simple test. If From me flows what you call Time, as assayed by Andrew Davis and the BBC Orchestra, doesn't entirely ravish you then I'm not saying there's something wrong with you, but it might be worth seeking psychological assistance of some sort.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Dissonance

How is it possible to find beauty in dissonance? I'm thinking primarily of music that might fairly be described as dissonant here, but the idea has application to other areas of artistic experience. A fairly obvious answer is that we project the quality of what we imagine onto the dissonant material - and this fits neatly the clever idea that in doing so we are saying something about our status as superior consumers of art. I'm keenly aware that there was something more than a little pretentious about my early encounters with Messiaen, for example. But for the life of me I don't recognise any such pretence any more. So is it simply that my ability to deceive myself has reached awesome proportions, making me believe I'm encountering a non-existent beauty just because I'm so thoroughly desperate to do so?

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Night Out

We spent a profitable evening just now at the theatre - the black box affair at the Esplanade. The play in question was Gruesome Playground Injuries and very well done it was. Sweet, funny and sad - perhaps fifteen minutes or so too long, but that wasn't the fault of the two very talented young performers. Nor, I suspect, the script. Rather the need to put in place a full length play stretched a good idea beyond its natural limit.

But this is to unnecessarily nit-pick. It was a very satisfying evening in the theatre. And afterwards, tea, murtabak and prata at the west coast made for an equally satisfying time outside the theatre.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Helping Yourself

I don't set much store by what might be termed 'self help' books. But there are honourable exceptions to all my rules, and John Cleese & Robyn Skinner's Life And How To Survive It was until recently the chief of these, if not the only, in this regard. Having recently discovered Families And How To Survive Them in my friendly neighbourhood library (this being Cleese and Skinner's precursor to the Life book) I am now happy to report that the number of honourable exceptions has now doubled.

I already had an inkling of some of the key ideas I would encounter reading Families but I was refreshingly challenged on a first reading by the thought-world unfolded. That sense of ideas getting under the skin seems to me key to any possibility of change in the individual. Can we really change for the better? I think it's possible, but I suspect such change is slow and painful - entirely the opposite of any quick fix we might be offered. 

I'm intending to read Families again, having raced through the first time. But this will be after a suitable period of assimilation. Enough tender spots were bruised the first time through to suggest I need to relax into the truths I recognised. I think I'm mentally healthier than I used to be - but not by much, and I'm not exactly starting from a place high on the slopes. Still, at one time I couldn't have typed that sentence and meant it. Now it's just old news.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Kind Of Truth

I was surprised the other day reading Farrukh Dhondy's Come To Mecca by just how much I enjoyed all six of the stories. When I first read the collection some three decades ago I found it interesting in a worthy kind of way but a bit hard going. This time round I raced through most of it in a day, admiring the vigour of the writing and the sense of celebration of multi-cultural Britain involved, despite the moments of despair and uncertainty.

The second story, Two Kinda Truth, particularly struck me as a minor classic. I'm not entirely sure just how authentic the writer's version of 'black-English' is, or was, but it makes for a great read and says something powerful about poetry and its uses. Not bad going in a collection targeted essentially at a teenage audience.

This is another of my giveaway books, as I make some room on the shelves, and it's been the only one so far that I've had serious second thoughts about keeping - in this case as a possible source for passages to use in the classroom. But I've stayed firm. I just hope it picks up a few more readers. It deserves it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It's A Date

1 Muharram 1435

Once upon a time the fifth of November simply meant gunpowder, treason and plot. And a jolly good time lighting the bonty and all the fireworks lovingly acquired in the weeks previous, and gazed at every evening whilst imagining the joys ahead. Of course, the fireworks were never quite as spectacular as you had pictured they should be and they were soon gone, as was the bonfire - but none of that mattered somehow. You were going to have a great time and you did have a great time.

By the way, all this had ended for everyone by the time I got to university. The powers that be had discovered just how dangerous all the local, small bonfires were and banned them. Firework displays became genuinely spectacular but highly regulated. You didn't get up close and personal with your roman candle anymore. Life became safer and a lot less interesting.

Somewhere along the way we eventually found out that the guy we ceremonially burnt each year was symbolic of English hatred of papists, and since we, or some of us, were papists this was a bit awkward, but that didn't stop us burning ours with glee.

And now here I am in a foreign land which feels like home, enjoying the idea that today marks the turning of a lunar year and we can all welcome 1435, hoping it will be a good one. All dates have possibilities and are open to the making of memories. It's good to look back and it's good to look forward and it's good just to be present for both.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Fighting Words

Enjoyed reading Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club. Interesting to note that in the afterword to the edition I was reading the writer explains that the novel began as a short story. In many ways that's what the novel felt like, a very intense tale expanded as far as it might reasonably go. It's remarkable that Palahniuk maintains the intensity for the length he does - it didn't flag at all for me, though I suspect another twenty pages would have been twenty too many.

American writers since the war seem to me to do this energy thing better than anyone else. There's an element of performance, possibly posturing, about this kind of novel that's engaging yet exhausting. I suppose it's related to the extraordinary sense of the US as something larger than life in itself. And I can't think of any other national literature that's quite so obsessed with violence in itself. (Is this all down to Hemingway?)

A bit odd that anyone might take this stuff seriously as a comment on the world, though. Think of how Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Dickens might skewer the Tyler Durdens of the world.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Art Of Travel

With noon approaching we're just about finished packing up here at Maison KL, and we'll be off to Melaka to visit the troops there and undermine their confidence in the gooners' rather tasty beginning to the season. Past experience will ensure said confidence is as fragile as Wayne Rooney's ego, so the task is not likely to be difficult.

Also we need to visit Mak in the new hospital at Alor Gajah. She was admitted the other day due to her blood sugar being low and we're hoping to find her in good form with her sweetness restored.

And after that it'll be back to our usual Far Place since I've got examination duties despite the day being technically a holiday. All this travelling puts me in mind of Shakespeare's frequent shading of travel into travail in the sonnets, usually when he's  moaning about being on the road away from his Beloved. Fortunately since I've got mine with me (and a reasonable sound system in our vehicle) there's little sense of labour about the process.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Redefining Holidays

Snippet of conversation from this morning:

Makndak: So what are you going to do during the school holidays?

Fafa: Go to school. Got extra classes two days a week and CCA two days a week.

The best years of our lives, eh?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Departures And Arrivals

Sometimes life seems to consist of little else than the above.

Now in KL, but not for long.

The house in good order, with the renovation pretty much entirely finished to our satisfaction. Much to enjoy in the time we've got.