Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Came across this the other day, from the redoubtable Stephen Maturin, on a profession I know well:

Because, sir, teaching young gentlemen has a dismal effect on the soul. It exemplifies the badness of established, artificial authority. The pedagogue has almost absolute authority over his pupils: he often beats them and insensibly he loses the sense of respect due to them as fellow human beings. He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater. He may easily become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous; in any event he perpetually associates with his inferiors, the king of his company; and in a surprisingly short time alas this brands him with the mark of Cain. Have you ever known a schoolmaster fit to associate with grown men? The Dear knows I never have. They are most horribly warped indeed.

Found myself laughing immoderately, as I so often do when reading the adventures of Aubrey and Maturin.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Killing Time

Quite pleased to have got a fair amount of reading done in KL, despite having to tend to the recreational needs of our house guests. Made a bit of a mistake though in not taking the necessary tomes with me to continue the great-sonnet-read-through. I'm not stalled exactly as I've moved on a little in the last couple of days, but just one sonnet a day would have been possible in KL and would have moved me beyond 100 which would have felt like real progress. As it is I'm not quite there yet - and the ones in the 90s make tough reading at times. So knotty, they seem to deliberately tie-up the reader.

As to why I didn't take them along - I didn't think I would get through that much of what I did have with me, so I thought it would be wastefully ambitious to take what I needed to continue my systematic reading of the sonnets, and I was wrong. Case in point: I sailed through P.D. James's The Murder Room in a couple of days, which was unexpected as I'd tried to read it earlier in the year (a copy from the library) and simply not made progress beyond the first sixty pages. The experience of just not being able to get along with a work at one point and then finding it extremely straightforward at another is a salutary reminder of what a genuinely individual experience real reading is. It can't be forced, though it can be persevered with. I remember having the same problem with an earlier Dalgliesh, The Black Tower, at one time thinking it unreadable. I suppose the challenge James poses is that of demanding a certain level of concentration to enter into the often closed, claustrophobic worlds in which her murders take place. You've got to want to solve the mystery (even if you never really do), to actively participate in the act of detection, for the novels to make sense.

Of course, when you do cross that boundary into the world offered you find one of the best ways you'll ever find of killing time.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

More Listening

I forgot to mention the other day when detailing some of the cheap CDs I picked up in KL that I also got hold of a couple of Bowie albums bundled together at a reasonable price. I’m not sure what led someone to link the studio album Aladdin Sane with the sort of bootleg recording (from a radio broadcast, I think) David Bowie Live Santa Monica ’72 but in some ways it’s an inspired pairing since much of the studio album was written on the American tour partly documented in the live recording. The live band for the tour were essentially the Spiders from Mars band, augmented by the brilliant pianist Mike Garson, who’s all over the studio album – though you can hardly hear him live when the whole band is playing. So basically it’s the same musicians on each recording.

Aladdin Sane was one of the few Bowie albums I owned on vinyl – though somehow knowing them all intimately – and, curiously, it wasn’t a great favourite of mine. I thought of it as a bit of a let-down after Ziggy Stardust, despite loving the singles Jean Genie and Drive-In Saturday. At that time I thought it over-produced, though now I’m inclined to see it as a bit of an eclectic mess genuinely trying to capture the mess of Bowie and the band and America in that period. I get a sense of Bowie working at speed, just trying to keep up with his out of control talent and doing almost anything he wanted to musically.

The live album, in contrast, has been a bit of a revelation for me, and I find myself listening to it with enormous pleasure. The sound is great for a bootleg, but it’s still a shambles and there are some startling goofs from the players. All this counter-balanced by moments, nay minutes, of absolute full steam ahead, take no prisoners rock magic. The sequence of Moonage Daydream – John, I’m Only Dancing – Waiting For The Man – The Jean Genie – Suffragette City is a reminder of just how exciting Bowie was on stage in this period. (And what a phenomenal player Mick Ronson was.)

I don't exactly feel like a teenager listening to this, but it makes me glad I was once sixteen and had the chance to have my little life enhanced by the whole Ziggy Stardust bit.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

How We Listened

Now back in Hall with the girls safely returned to their homes, I've had a little more time to explore some of the musical spoils recently acquired. Played all the Emmylou albums today, and very glad I did.

But following on yesterday's post I got to wondering how it was I acquired a reasonably wide acquaintance with the world of popular music in rock, folk and jazz terms when I was a youth since I owned so few albums of my own, prices being prohibitively expensive and my pockets lacking depth. I can remember, for example, agonising over whether to buy Steely Dan's Aja, and actually feeling a bit disappointed at first listen when I did buy it and didn't really get what Becker and Fagin were up to. The answer to the question isn't, or wasn't, the radio, by the way. There wasn't that much variety in programming. No, you got to hear things by either borrowing other people's albums (that's how I first heard The Beatles' Sergeant Peppers) or listening when people played them (which is how I first heard The White Album in its entirety.)

There are two things implied here. First of all, a reminder of how generous your mates were. After all, there was real risk in lending a piece of fragile, easily scratchable vinyl to a goonish teen. And it meant you had to do without the particular work when it was on loan. Secondly, people, at least the ones I knew, really listened hard when music was played purposefully to be shared. Case in point: I can count myself a real expert on all the early Dan albums: Can't Buy A Thrill; Countdown to Ecstasy; Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied; The Royal Scam, singing along to all with reasonable accuracy regarding the lyrics, arcane as they so often were - and not printed for the first three - and I think I know pretty much every note played. Yet, I never owned any until they were issued on CD in the late 80's and I don't recall borrowing them. They were simply there, in the air. A great band, and you just had to listen. Hard.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Going Cheap

Bought a few CDs whilst in KL. I only know of one shop there selling CDs these days, a small place in KLCC that only opened this year. Surprisingly it has survived so far, completely against the run of play, and sells an interesting, if limited, range of music. It seems to specialise, amongst other things, in cheapo re-issues from DG and other classical labels in its serious section and I picked up a cheap Mahler 4 (Abbado and the Vienna Phil) and collection of Satie shorts.

But the really, really bargain basement stuff came in the shape of collections of 5 albums of various singers or groups, on the Warner Brothers label, in no nonsense simple sleeves with none of the usual paraphernalia at just 50 ringgit a throw. Now in real money that's around 4 Sing dollars, or just a couple of quid per CD. I snaffled 5 early k.d. laing albums and a mid-career set of 5 by Emmylou Harris and, by gum, they sounded good. Country music at its finest, played with finesse, imagination and mountains of talent.

But here's the thing: How is it that I'm able to buy class material like this in 2013 at the same amount that lps cost when I first started buying them? (I'm not entirely sure, but I think albums were 2 pounds sterling each when I got my clammy hands on the first ELP offering - and, of course, that was when 2 pounds was 2 pounds: you could have a night out on a couple of quid and still have change.) I know the answer to the question has a lot to do with the demise of the CD and the easy availability of downloadable music, and the implications of this seem to me to be not entirely happy, indeed, far from such. I placed a very high value on that first ELP album, as I did on every record I owned because they cost so much. And I didn't have that much to choose from to listen to - because they cost so much. Now I have an astonishing abundance and even though I should know better I think I'm undervaluing it. I've only half listened once to the k.d. laing and Emmylou stuff since my purchase. In the old days I'd play a new album over and over for weeks at a time.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

In The Crowd

Based on our experience yesterday of walking around Bukit Bintang in the late afternoon, if you asked me what people in KL do for Christmas Day I'd tell you they go shopping down town. The crowds were atrocious. The only respite was to get into a mall which didn't seem particularly popular such that things temporarily quietened down. The fifth floor of Lot 10 proved a bit of a haven for Noi and myself, though the girls clearly had a great time shopping with the masses in Times Square.

Young people seem to find crowds energising. I remember enjoying just walking around Manchester as a kid, happy to be away from home. Mind you, there were record shops and book shops then. Didn't see any yesterday, other than the tiny Borders in Times Square (which began as a mega-store occupying two floors, way back when.) Also thinking of The Jam's In The Crowd, which I happened to play in the car the other day in a brilliant live version from a more recent Paul Weller. Nice celebratory quality - as has Springsteen's Out On The Street.

I looked at quite a few faces yesterday and no one seemed terribly happy. But perhaps that's just the result of the concentration you need just to keep walking.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Another Green Christmas

You'd think that recalling the Christmases of childhood might induce melancholy in an old geezer like myself. Not so. I recall those times with great satisfaction, thinking of how the adults I was blessed to be surrounded by made so much of so little. By the way, there was just as much talk in those times about the season losing its true meaning as there is today. But true meaning is always the meaning you make, isn't it? I suppose we make less meaning as a community, being in thrall for all festivals to the Gods of Commerce, but once you turn your back on false gods it's surprising how much real meaning naturally emerges.
So what are we up to, in our attempt to make something of the day? The plan for the afternoon is to install the troops in Times Square. We did this a couple of days ago, but that was to abandon them to the joys of the indoor theme park, which they duly relished, especially now they are allowed on all the rides. However, they spent so long in there that they had no time for shopping and since the place has an abundance of cheap-looking shops that sell what I'm told are cheap clothes that appeal to teens it seems only right to take them back, let them loose, and stroll out into the surrounding area with Noi to take in the sights and sounds of a KL Christmas around Bukit Bintang.
Spent the morning finishing a good murder, which always seems appropriate for the season, cleaning around the house, in preparation for taking our leave tomorrow, munching chocolate chip cookies - which Mak Ndak had baked in the very early hours of the morning to keep the troops fed, and drinking tea. All highly satisfactory. Oh, and I received a splendid poem through e-mail, making meaning of the greenery of our Far Place, which was worth several reads.

And before the day ends I'll be ringing Maureen and John, hoping all is well with them. John's recent operation seems to have been a success and Maureen seems to have recovered from some recent ups and downs, so I'm hoping it'll be an upbeat conversation. Sometimes wishing folks a Happy Christmas can feel a little provisional given the struggles they might face, but what the heck - a Happy Christmas anyway to all.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Shelfies (Not Selfies)

Preferences can be revealing.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Laughing Out Loud

On two occasions yesterday I found myself literally laughing out loud - actually crying with laughter - whilst reading short stories. Implausibly both stories were by Kazuo Ishiguro, from his little collection Nocturnes. Who knew, eh?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Stories And Pain

There's a brilliant segment somewhere around the middle of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, one of the detachable segments entitled Coming To America, in this case given the date 1778 and featuring the enslaved twins Wututu and Agasu, which is so powerful it fairly burns off the page. It deals with something that only fiction can deal with in any sort of decent, honourable way, the pain of other people's lives, especially those whose lives have been extremely painful ones, partly by admitting that it's really impossible to 'deal with' such pain in any realistic sense.

Gaiman seems to me a bit of an on-off writer. When he's good, as he is in the segment referred to above, he's astonishing, but you have to deal with some fairly routine stuff to get to those patches. Fortunately there's always a tremendous narrative drive, even when you get a sense of something routine going-on and what's routine for this writer - I'm thinking of a sort of gothic attitudinising here - is never less than imaginatively engaging.

But I think it's that sense of the pain of others, the sometimes impossible demands of existence, that drives the fiction and is never far too far below whatever is going on at surface level. I'd also guess that Gaiman often doesn't quite know where his stories are going - much of American Gods feels improvisatory in that sense - and that leaves his fiction open to making the kind of discoveries that really hurt, even if the pain is only fictional. I've just finished a fairly battered copy of the author's preferred text of the novel, from the library at work - it seemed an appropriate way to read a story that itself seems fairly battered at times - and I know I'm scorched enough not to want to re-read any time soon. A good sign.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Talk Not Given

A very busy day yesterday, for the most part spent over at Shah Alam with Hamzah and family. In the afternoon Hamzah and I popped across to a school at Nilai. A few weeks back he'd asked if I'd talk to some of the teachers there regarding matters educational. What exactly I was supposed to talk about was left all a bit vague, but that's the way I like it, so I'd happily agreed, and had a good time for a couple of hours talking about the IBDP to the Principal and a few teachers there. It seems they've been tasked by the government here to put the programme in place by 2015 and are just getting uncertainly started so they were picking my brains (what's left of them) for practical suggestions from someone who's involved in the functioning reality of such a programme. I'm not sure I said anything useful, or anything they didn't already know, but it was an interesting couple of hours from my perspective finding out about them and their concerns - which were real and numerous.

In fact, I'd sort of prepared quite another talk, a much more general affair about broader concerns which I was happy not to deliver. I say this simply because it wasn't what they wanted and the preparation had been of the usual variety for me: minimal in terms of anything on paper, just ideas useful at this point in time to me, circulating in my head in enough order to be ready to spill out when needed. I suppose some further insights might have been generated in the course of the spillage, so there was a slight sense of missing out on a chance there, but it's been enjoyable enough simply thinking through the notions myself, so I don't consider anything wasted. My imaginary talk would have been entitled The Value of Uncertainty and, in fact, riffing through ideas related to certainty and whatever its opposite might be seems to me to have shed some light on that elusive organ - the very heart of education.

In case you are interested, and in the interests of full disclosure, here are my notes, in their entirety, for what I might have talked about:

The value of certainty. Versus: The value of uncertainty. Balance. Voltaire: Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Making Memories

Just arrived in KL, with Mak Ndak mopping, me making the technology work and the troops laughing like hyenas for no particular reason and watching the finale of this season of The Voice. Fafa and Ayu were just asking me if I remembered their own finale concerts at Maison KL in years gone by, as December came to an end and we got ready to relocate yet again. (Who could ever forget the year the girls discovered Abba's greatest hits?) Kids never realise you remember everything, having discovered the great truth that it's only the trivialities that count.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Universal Truths

Took the troops to Universal Studios on Sentosa today in an effort to exhaust them and accomplished the mission. Also, of course, exhausted ourselves. The theme park is based on the unabashed ersatz of movies and succeeds in its fakery in an engagingly unashamed manner. The kids particularly appreciated the Transformers ride; their seniors took to the sedate Madagascar experience (which I think is designed for genuine kiddies.) And this time round we didn't require a wheelchair to assist Mak Ndak through her motion sickness as she wasn't allowed on any fast rides. 

Best part of the day for me, a truly joyful twenty minutes or so of sort of 'street' dancing by five talented guys who worked the crowd beautifully. They managed to involve three people from the crowd watching in a manner that was unembarrassing, clearly going for two girls and a guy who actually had some reasonable chops themselves.

And that also connected with something that became increasingly clear to me as the day went on: the staff of the park, old and (mainly) young, were unfailingly cheerful and committed to doing their best for what I'm guessing is not exactly a lot of money. Far more impressive than any of the technology involved.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Since we are by nature a pattern-making species it is tempting to assume we do nothing more than impose patterns on our experience. The likelihood that this is not the case makes even the simplest pattern a source of deep fascination and, dare I say, satisfaction - for those who wish to read the signs.

Just as a matter of interest my grandfather on my mother's side (whom I never knew) was a patternmaker by trade.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Shock Of The New

Just back from taking the troops (three nieces this time) to the Gardens on the Bay, the latest tourist attraction of this small nation. Well, I think it's the latest. Actually it's now been around a while, at least a year, a long time in this Far Place, and seemingly everyone else has been there except us. So we put that right today, in a rather jolly manner involving lots of giggling and snapping and general silliness.

But here's the thing. As good as the gardens were, especially the two beautifully designed air-conditioned pavilions, they were just so new, so just-arrived. And just returning as we have from somewhere so old, so long-remembered, the contrast was jarring. Much as I enjoyed almost everything I saw, and much as I enjoyed snapping away typically indiscriminately, I had a curious sense that this was all somehow a replacement for something more real; a sense that the whole location was an exercise in a kind of loving ersatz.

These are jaundiced words, I know. But the feeling is genuine. Which is odd: how can you have a genuine sense of the ersatz? In what sense can any human construction be authentic?

Sunday, December 15, 2013


If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Cleaning Up

Noi has popped up to Melaka to pick up two of our nieces for whom we'll be finding ways of entertaining here in this Far Place for a few days before taking them back up, with yet another niece, to the Malaysian capital for further entertainment in the run-up to Christmas. In the meantime I manfully have spent the day cleaning all the books in the Hall, and managing to read one, the last of the Berlie Doherty books I got hold of years ago and never got a chance to read. Not impressed, I'm afraid - it all seemed more than a bit contrived to me (a follow-up to How Green You Are, featuring the same 'gang'. I think the publishers were pushing a limited talent a bit too hard.)

Also walked to Holland Village in a bid to lose a few pounds and acquire the latest New York Review of Books. My policy of only buying a new one when I've finished whichever one I'm reading is working rather well. Glanced at an article on the artist/illustrator Norman Rockwell whilst quaffing the cup that cheers (and not eating the usual accompanying bagel) to discover that a guy I've always assumed was the archetypal American mom and apple pie sort of chap was really more than a little screwed up. Particularly happy about this as I've always liked his stuff and now have an excuse for my bad taste.

Friday, December 13, 2013

In The News

Managed to keep up with most of the news over the last couple of weeks, and was grateful for the excellent coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela. A bit hagiographic at times, but in this case understandably so. The best single piece I saw was an interview with Morgan Freeman, done at the time of the making of the fine movie Invictus. The actor gave penetrating insights into the private Mandela, noting, for example, the sense of quietness, almost reserve in company of the ex-President and, most fascinating of all, that Mandinga saw himself as a failure on account of the troubles of his family life. Freeman also gave a brilliant reading of Henley's poem, in an unexpectedly prosaic, casual style that will stay with me for a long time - and seemed in itself an oblique comment on Mandela and his style of leadership.

There was also an excellent BBC Question Time shown today, recorded in South Africa with a very mixed panel, including Pik Botha of all people, dealing with the very real problems of the nation. This seemed wonderfully appropriate given the fact that Mandela was above all a man who dealt with incredibly difficult realities with a kind of supreme grace and charity. The definition of grace under pressure.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

And Back Again

Nice to be back in Hall. Very nice indeed to be so in one piece. There was a point in time when I was crawling to get to the toilet on Monday morning when I didn't think such an outcome was likely. Now I feel fitter than ever, and have probably slept better in the last three days than I have done for years.

It's time to unpack, download all the pictures and count our many blessings.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Duly finished all my planned reading for the trip and now packing. Still rate Purple Hibiscus very highly, though I felt the last 80 pages or so saw a falling away from the intensity of the early chapters. Thought the plot got a bit contrived in trying to unite the public and private worlds explored. Also finished the NYRB I bought along, so I'm left with Washington Irving's Tales from the Alhambra to read on the plane, a tome I picked up at the fabled location itself. Rather annoyed with myself for not picking up a colourful book entitled Reading the Alhambra which had lots of details about the meaning of the calligraphy in the palace in guidebook fashion. I assumed I would come across it later in Madrid, but this was not to be. There are precious few bookshops or CD shops in the capital, as far as I can see.

My back appears to have healed completely, which considering the state I was in two mornings ago has something of the miraculous about it. I've also been enjoying the best nights' sleep I can remember in years, no doubt Valium induced - which means I think I'll start to lay off the drug soon, though it might prove efficacious for the flight ahead.

Anyway, it's time for prayers and a shower and a shave and whatnot - so cheerio from Spain.

Photo Opportunities

Most of the tour group have now gone back to Singapore, leaving Noi, myself and good chums Rohanna and Osman as we extended our stay for three days. With my back almost fully functional, and the valium I'm on having afforded me the best night's sleep I can remember in years - probably since being a child - we set out on a day trip to the rather lovely town of Segovia just 70 kilometres out of Madrid today.

Once there it proved impossible to look in any direction without wanting to point a camera there. I've noticed that the rather snobbish way of looking at people wanting to take pictures of everything was to claim that in doing so they were somehow missing the living reality of the experience. Like most clever ideas implying a kind of intellectual superiority on the part of those who somehow 'know better' this is profoundly wrong. What you see in people dying to take pictures of beautiful things is a simple profound recognition of that beauty and the need to savour the moment as a way of seeing. This is even more obvious now when the ease with which pictures can be taken means you get to see the least likely characters taking shots of the least likely scenes. 

This is all part of what I consider the democratisation of art - and a jolly good thing it is too.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

In Action

Monday has proved to be a day of recovery, so far at least. Replete with muscle relaxant and various pain killers (actually I'm on a Valium holiday, something I've never had the pleasure of before) I've been moving rather easily though the centre of the Spanish capital, which is remarkably easy to get around, by the way. The excellent Metro system helps.

We spent the early afternoon in the Prado, and I sort of expected this to be a big highlight of our visit, but it proved something of an anti-climax. Not a patch on the Louvre, and way, way behind either of the London Tates or the National Gallery. Not that it was terrible - just rather old-fashioned, I suppose. A few stunning things - a couple of Rembrandts and Velasquezs, but honestly I'm hard pressed to recall anything that knocked me sideways. Even the bookshop was a bit boring - but the coffee was nice. 

No, the real pleasure of the day was strolling through the streets in the centre of Madrid, popping into cheesy souvenir shops and just enjoying being there. The architecture is generally a bit over-the-top, like the sort of wedding cakes that the rich and famous think constitute a sense of class. But sometimes you need a bit of the monumental to remind yourself how daft folk can be.

Monday, December 9, 2013


A day of almost complete inaction here in Madrid. (It's actually Sunday here, despite the date above, Spain being eight hours behind my usual Far Place of residence.) I struggled quite a bit on Saturday after suffering severe twinges in my back in the morning and awoke in the early hours today in extreme pain. In fact, I was extremely worried that yet another disk had slipped in my ragged backbone since I could only crawl to the toilet in extreme pain. But the doctor confirmed this morning that it wasn't so bad, just the muscles going into spasm, and he gave me a jab of muscle relaxant. A few hours later and I'm actually walking again - somewhat gingerly, but at least I'm moving.

By the way, Gentle Reader, I can assure you that if you want to explore just how undignified you can be, try crawling to a bathroom and struggling to get on the toilet. You won't have too many illusions about yourself after that.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sketches Of Spain

Well, not exactly sketches, but I couldn't help but do homage to Miles in the title. Five random impressions then:

It's an incredibly clean country in terms of appearing litter free. I mean, I'm looking at what you might call the tourist areas, but there are lots of them, and there's just no litter. In a shopping centre in Madrid today I caught sight of my first actual cleaner, working in the middle of the crowds. She was the only one I saw and she was clearly unhurried, somewhat underwhelmed. My guess is that this level of cleanliness is connected to a sense of community of the richest kind.

There are lots of children to be seen, everywhere. This is a good thing. Like all children they are incredibly cute, but they also appear remarkably well-behaved. Again, this seems at some level to be about community.

Lots of women of all ages smoke. I don't know why I am mildly shocked by this, but I am.

There's a quite a bit of graffiti on display - a lot more than in Morocco. Initially I was taken aback on seeing quite a lot on a wall in Seville since it was obviously a 'nice' wall. But I now realise that the graffiti seems limited to definitely selected walls, usually, though not exclusively, of unoccupied buildings. Spanish graffiti, by the way, looks the same as graffiti everywhere in the world - including Morocco. Why do graffiti artists have so little individuality if what they are up to is an expression of the self?  

The crisis in the economy is not at all obvious at street level, at least in the tourist areas - though the crowds are not quite as dense as one might have expected before Christmas. But once you really get talking to people the sense of worry is palpable. Unemployment stands at 25% generally, I'm told, and a good deal higher in Andalusia. Property prices are falling in Madrid. Trouble in paradise.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

All Sorts Of Progress

We're on this trip as part of a tour group, the first time we've ever done anything like this, and it's working out really well in all sorts of ways. One of these ways has been in relation to the fact that even though we've been kept busy moving from place to place every day, I've managed to get quite a bit of reading done. It's helped that I bought along three books that have proved easy reads, in the sense of each being a pleasure at every level.

Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors is packed with quirkily wonderful stuff. A great read, I reckon, for young aspiring writers simply because of the sheer delight in narratives of all sorts that Gaiman conveys. Good as he is he doesn't mind being a bit clumsy here and there, as if the really important thing is enjoying the tale without over-worrying about the telling. In contrast, there's little that's clumsy about Orhan Pamuk, as any fan would know. The White Castle was the perfect choice for this trip simply on account of its brevity. There's a lot of weight to the longer novels, such that I'm reluctant to read them at anything other than a measured pace - and I didn't exactly rush through this novella. But since The White Castle is a novella with a reasonably direct, seemingly transparent narrative, it slipped down nicely over just a couple of days. Highly recommended for anyone starting out on the Turkish master.

And now I'm moving into the final sequences of Adichie's Purple Hibiscus. Incredibly this was a debut novel. It is just so utterly assured, and in Kambili's Papa has one of the great monsters of fiction, the greatness lying in the fact that you are made to understand the man even if you don't want to. In fact, Kambili herself is a wonderfully subtle creation: both extremely sensitive to others yet curiously, believably dense.

I've also done pretty well in terms of reading most of the issue of the NYRB I bought with me. This means I've had to buy a couple of things on the road (we're now in Madrid) to keep me going until we conclude this little escapade, about which more anon, as they say.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Drop Dead Gorgeous

When it comes to visiting places of so-called historical interest I find myself a good deal more at ease in mosques, cathedrals, temples and the like than in palaces or the mighty residences of the great and good (and, I suppose, I'm most at ease in places where ordinary folk made their passage through this vale of tears. Oh, and homes of writers, especially ones who didn't make a lot of cash.) It's the rather obvious fact that palaces and great houses are about power and prestige, and the asserting thereof, that leads to a certain degree of discomfort on my part. Of course, mosques, cathedrals and temples are, sadly, not always untainted with a dreary sense of religious triumphalism, but at least they usually point in the direction of higher things.

But for all my reservations about palaces and their like I'll make an exception in the case of Al Hambra, which we had the pleasure of wandering around this afternoon. It's just so astonishingly, ravishingly beautiful that it genuinely seems to transcend the flawed creatures who possibly might have believed it reflected their greatness. In fact, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one and assume they knew a place like this could only reflect the greatness of the Creator. There are just too many spots within it that are about being beautiful for their own sake - glimpses of a paradise for all men and women who seek to manifest the same delight in symmetry and balance in their own lives.

Just as a matter of interest, Noi, practical as ever, asked our guide what they did for toilets back in the fourteenth century. It turned out that they had a first rate system of sanitation, based on the running water that is used so effectively throughout the palace, and which was used to carry away the human waste. Definitely heavenly!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Feeling Convivial

Briefly, all too briefly, in Cordoba. Found myself uncharacteristically moved at a sort of diorama featuring Alfonso X, Maimonides, Averroes and Ibn Arabi. Each was given a little speech conveyed over the rather nifty headsets you donned as part of the tour of the tower at one end of the Roman Bridge over the Guadalquivir which housed the not terribly convincing models of the four great men. The speeches were sort of mosaics of some of their sayings, delivered in an engagingly snooty version of my native tongue in the translation I was listening to. Words, as you might have guessed from the cast list, of extraordinary intelligence, well worth listening to in our own times, reflecting the glorious notion of convivencia.

For what it's worth, I'm dubious as to the reality of the convivencia. I believe something of the sort did take place, but in the hearts of men and women of insight rather than the realpolitik of the period. History remains a nightmare - but sometimes mixed in with dreams worth dreaming. This is one historical myth I'm happy to propagate, and happier still to try to make real in our own time.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Colours, Various

Had a good long look today at the Mediterranean, as it splendidly manifests itself in the harbour at Tangier. This was on account of the fact that, having missed the morning ferry to Spain, we weren't going anywhere for several hours. It turned out to be time well spent.

The Med is a definite blue for the most part - a real sea-blue - but on close inspection is blue-green in the harbour, a rich, stylish turquoise. Children, by the way, love turquoise, though no one ever chooses it as a favourite colour. (I base the previous sentence on my experience as a child, so shoot me if I'm over-generalising.)

On the highway to Seville from Tarifa the colours turned even richer in the protracted sunset. Staring out the window of our bus we were treated to a sort of Rothko in movement: below the horizon something like black, or navy blue; then a band of orange, turning yellow at its top; then a sudden light blue shading into a rich royal blue and then into navy. Beautiful and brooding all at once. A few stars above - though not as a many as we'd been treated to in Morocco setting out in the early morning.

By the way, morning prayers at a tiny surau next to a petrol station, after ablutions taken in conditions close to freezing, will stand out for me as one of the most memorable of prayers I've ever been a participant in. A nice cup of coffee after, provided free by the petrol station added to the richness of the moment. (In Islam prayers have something of the quality of an event on occasion.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Three from Fes:

On capitalism, by a helpful vendor: I make good price for Muslim. I sell you like I sell my sister.

On human nature, by our guide, Mr Kamal: There are good people in the medina. In the medina there are bad people. Like everywhere in the the world. Like in Singapore. Like in Malaysia. Like America. Like France. Watch your wallets. (Actually, this could also be a comment on capitalism.)

On life itself, by another guide, Mr Abdul Haqq: It is not long and there are many things to know. (Actually said prior to our visit to the centre of Fes. But of universal application, surely)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

In The Maghrib

Three random impressions of North Africa:

Flat roofs everywhere, most suffering a rash of satellite dishes. The exteriors of buildings generally faded in a gently glowing manner - white in Casablanca, red ochre in Marrakech. The white or cream dishes often rusting, an ugly brown.

The people predominantly well-dressed. Like extras from French movies of the fifties; like something out of Camus or Sartre. Leather jackets made to look chic. Even the poor look like they care about appearances.

Irritatingly slow Internet connections.