Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Critical Eye


Imam Zaid Shakir, writer of the foreword to the rather handy little Guide to Visiting Makka and Madina that we took with us on our travels, doesn't think much of the new hotels surrounding al Masjid al Haram. He describes them as, kitsch towers, designed by architectural firms in Paris, New York and London... That's actually kinder than the blistering comments on them by Ziauddin Sardar in his new book on Mecca: The Sacred City as quoted by Malise Ruthven in his review of the same in the October number of the Literary Review: The skyline above the Sacred Mosque is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling mountains. It is surrounded by the brutalism of hideously ugly rectangular steel and concrete buildings, built with the proceeds of enormous oil wealth that showcase the Saudi vision for Mecca. They look like downtown office blocks in any mid-American city. Ruthven goes on to outline some of the less-than-righteous motivations that, according to Sardar, lie behind this development - most associated with the generating of filthy lucre, and lots of it.

Now I'd read Ruthven's review before setting out and was, therefore, aware that aspects of development of the holy city were open to criticism. But what I hadn't quite expected was that we'd be staying, very comfortably indeed, in one of the hotels being criticised and thus greatly benefitting, not least from their proximity to the sacred precincts. I realised, to my surprise, that I'm one of the rich - well, not quite in the super-rich league that's making all the money, but certainly well enough off to enjoy the fruits of these developments.

It also struck me, as Noi insightfully pointed out, that the new developments were necessary to cope with the sheer numbers of visitors now allowed in throughout the year and not only at the time of the Haj. And whilst the super-rich would enjoy the super-luxurious apartments in the giddy heights well above our rooms with the superlative views of the Kaaba, our travelling companions were quite ordinary folk, who happened to enjoy the luck of coming from a developed nation. So there're genuinely wide benefits involved for a much wider range of people than Sardar's book would seem to suggest.

So now I'm conflicted. Chatting just now to Fuad and Rozita about our experiences I found them sympathetic to a critical view of the new architecture - especially the clock tower - which wasn't around when they visited when Fifi was still a babe in arms, but I felt a nagging suspicion that I was being a bit holier than thou about all this. One thing though is clear, the Haj has to be made affordable and accessible to pilgrims from all over the world, which means to those who aren't necessarily from the comfortably-off middle classes of whatever nation you care to name, and I'm really not sure this is the case at present. Otherwise I wouldn't worry too much about the egregious architecture and the kleptocracy making oodles of cash. Bad taste and greed are always with us. But so is the quiet majesty of the Kaaba, which survives, and will survive, it all.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Transitional Phase

Now in the Quiet Room at Hamad International Airport in Doha. We've got a five hour stop-over here before our flight to Singapore, and if you have to have a five hour break at an airport, Doha is the place to be. Trust me!

Listened to Radiohead, Neil Young and Bowie on the flight from Jeddah, thus breaking my musical fast: The Bends, After the Goldrush and Ziggy Stardust respectively - bits of, that is. Goldrush was incredibly evocative - sweet and melancholy. And I remembered just how good Radiohead are: the first half of The Bends (all I listened to actually) is pretty near flawless. Unfortunately we landed in the middle of Bowie's You'd Better Hang On To Yourself, which shows that life is never quite perfect, even when it comes close.

Afterword: Back in Hall safely in two pieces - one piece each - by the early afternoon. Tired but deeply content. Prata and teh tarik to end the day.

Monday, December 29, 2014


At breakfast, after we'd completed our own circling of the Kaaba and then done the Dawn Prayer, Noi tentatively observed: I felt so... small, in relation to her experience directly in front of the Kaaba. It was well put. The structure is by no means grand, yet looking into the mystery of things dwarfs you.

In a way this trip has reduced our individuality, yet made us part of a greater whole. In simple, everyday terms I would not have been able to deal with certain occasions without the help of our fellows in the tour group, and for that I'm deeply thankful. Particularly memorable is the manner in which two different guys looked after me on two different occasions in the scrum to pray near the Prophet's (peace be upon him) tomb in the mosque in Medinah, when they had plenty to take care of for themselves.

The Missus, of course, has entered into all the communing with gusto. As far as I can tell she's friends with all the ladies in the group and has been merrily chatting away to everyone she meets in the mosque - where she's been handing out dates to all around her and sweets to the children, lucky them.

Now packing for the return trip, so the ties we've made can only be temporary. But then, that's true of life in general, I suppose.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Still Seeing Things


Since they say a picture paints a thousand words, hope you enjoy reading ten thousand words above on al Masjid al Haram in Makkah.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Being Challenged

My feet are extremely sore, so that walking is difficult, the crowds in Makkah are irrationally large and behave in seemingly irrational ways, and completing the umrah rites is not simple by any means, especially wearing the ihram, which I haven't got used to at all. Yet I'm having a wonderful time, and all the above constitutes room for celebration. As al Ghazzali (my current reading, and a wise old bird if ever there was one) might have put it if he'd been rather less articulate than he actually is: in the challenge lies the whole point, as this is what makes us grow - in this case, growing in patience.

First the feet, appropriately since as Beckett so shrewdly shows us through poor Estragon in Godot, they are the much neglected, often ignored, basis of everything. Mine do not adjust well to dry, colder climates. Now it's not exactly cold here - in fact the temperature is wonderfully temperate at the moment - but it's colder than Singapore, and drier, and that's all that's needed to make my heels and toes crack. Add to that the bare-foot walking, sometimes jogging, on marble floors that's often required here, and the damage caused by the chafing of the straps on some new flip-flops I've been using, and you have a recipe for a painful, blistered mess, which is what my feet have become.

The crowds are extraordinary, much worse than those in Medinah. Frequently, around prayer-times, there are lots of folk trying to get into the masjid as lots of folk are trying to get out, and lots of other folk are sitting down and praying, eating, chatting, reading the Qur'an in the middle of them all. Initially I could see no logic whatsoever to all the movement but I'm gradually getting some sense of what's going on.

When performing the umrah rites the crowds involved also present their fair share of problems. I was initially puzzled when circling the Kaaba as to why there were so many people going in odd directions, sometimes seemingly against the flow. Now I've come to realise that they need to move away from the circumambulating themselves and have their problems staying together. But, as I mentioned above, it's the wearing of the ihram, the two pieces of unsewn cloth required to be worn by all male pilgrims that has really stretched me. The bottom piece isn't too bad as you are allowed to use a belt to secure it. But the top piece has a nasty habit, with me anyway, of deciding to come loose and fall away at the most inopportune moments. Some guys manage to wear ihram with real style and dignity: I am not one of them.

The great thing about ihram, well one of them, is the way it makes clear that all pilgrims are equal in their status, so it's more than worth the inconvenience involved. And you get a tremendous sense of belonging to a tradition of pilgrimage that stretches back centuries. And that's the thing about all the problems: they point the individual to a greater understanding of self - and humanity in general. Bad feet teach you how vulnerable you are; the crowds help you understand the plight of the weak and vulnerable - the elderly, the infirm, the children; the ihram reduces you to your less-than-wonderful essence.

And think of this: we are enjoying the comfort of a five star hotel and easy travel to and from these far places. In the past pilgrims risked their lives to do what we can do so easily. It makes me feel very small, for which I'm very grateful.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Bringing In The Dead

There seem to be a lot of people dying in Medinah and Makkah. I say this because Solat Jenazah, the prayer for the dead said when the body is bought into the mosque before being taken for burial, has been said at every prayer bar one that I've attended since arriving in both cities. (The picture above is of the door that the bodies are taken through at al Masjid al Nawabi.)

So this means at least five deaths a day, given the five sets of prayers we pray daily. I'm not sure how this figures in terms of general population size, but I do know that I can count on less than half a hand the number of times I've attended Solat Jenazah while attending Friday Prayers in Singapore and Malaysia. I assume the seemingly high number is due to just the sheer size of the mosques involved and the fact that many Muslims come to these holy cities hoping to die.

Whatever the explanation is it's clear that there's a close acquaintance involved, as it were, with the brutal fact of death and an awareness of such. And I note a kind of paradox here. According to our gnu atheist friends religion functions as a kind of delusional means of avoiding reality, offering false consolation. But in my experience religions are much readier to accept the reality of death and suffering and human vulnerability than what we might term secular ways of thinking, which seem to wish to tidy these realities away. Here you can't escape the fact that people are dying thus around us every day.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Something To See


A new hotel with faster connections means it's possible to get a bit visual. All shots above taken in and around al Masjid al Nawabi. I told you it was gorgeous!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Still Centre

Now in Makkah where al Masjid al Haram in places resembles nothing so much as a building site, especially round the Kaaba. Early this morning - really the middle of the night, around 2.00 - 3.00 am we completed the rites of the umrah for the first time, and the odd thing is that far from in any way detracting from the experience, the surrounding reconstruction seemed to enhance the enigmatic stillness and centrality of the Kaaba itself: the still centre of the turning world.

Perfectly simple.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Yes, I know there is no real word 'departuring', but it's a term our beloved ustad often uses as he translates from Malay to English, and one which seems to me to have a sense of gravitas. We're leaving the illuminated city, al Medinatul al Munawwara soon, to perform the actual umrah in Makkah. Fittingly there was a radiant sunset at Maghrib prayers, which I witnessed at the same spot I prayed the same prayer last Friday. That seems a long time ago now. Time seems to move with a special slowness in this special place.

If we get faster connections to the Internet at our next hotel I'll try posting some pictures. But really the only pictures that count are those in the mind's eye. I have one in mind now which I didn't have the camera for. As I approached the masjid for the Asr prayer last Friday, when I happened to be on my own, a large flock of birds came shooting low just over the heads of the crowd moving towards the main front gate of the masjid, the King Fahd gate. (There are lots of birds that gather in the big open space before the outer perimeter of the mosque, because worshippers feed them there - a bit like Trafalgar Square in London.) The flight of the birds was exhilarating in their speed and positioning, and quite frightening as they came so close to the heads of the crowd. It seemed like a sign of something; most obviously, of course, of the glory of the creation.

Monday, December 22, 2014


Al Masjid al Nawabi really seems to belong to its users. It looks like some folk are there all the time - chatting, learning, reciting, eating, drinking, praying, sleeping. It's a dramatically monumental building, but manages to be a great deal more than a monument. Which is part of its magnificence.

I assume, by the way, that the modern day architects modelled the columns of the interior on the great cathedral in Cordoba. They chose the best of role models, and there's a lesson in that.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Impressively slow Internet speeds and a wobbly hotel connection mean it's been difficult to post from here in Medinah, where we've been stationed since yesterday.

However, it's difficult to feel like complaining since we happen to be within a five minute walk of al Masjid al Nawabi and we've been on a steady high as we've been doing all our prayers there since the congregational prayer yesterday. Impressive is too frail a word to describe the effect of worshipping in the Prophet's (peace be upon him) own mosque. Awesome is a bit better, though devalued by current usage. Transformative is the best I can do for the moment.

Yesterday as I arrived for the Maghrib prayer - and then stayed on for Ishaq, which was only about an hour and a half later - I underwent one of the most intense aesthetic experiences of my life, stunned as I was by the sight of the evening sky framed in a sort of open courtyard that lies deeply inside the masjid. The sky turned imperceptibly from a deep blue, to indigo, to navy blue, to close to black as the lights in the interior glowed more and more brightly over the two hours for which I stared at it - at the times when I was not actually praying. All this accompanied by birdsong and the sight of the green dome and a gorgeous minaret, framed against that sky. Oh, and if I turned away from that I had the repetitively, unremittingly beautiful mosque interior to admire.

Actually I felt a bit guilty that I was enjoying just looking so much, almost to the point of extravagance, when prayer was in order, but then I recalled: God is beauty, and loves that which is beautiful.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


A programme entitled Between Time and Timbuktu was my introduction to the work of Kurt Vonnegut (Junior, as he was then.) I suppose that was when I was sixteen since the useful Chronology of the writer's life provided in the LoA editions dates the first broadcast of the programme as being in March 1972, in America that is. As far as I can remember I'd read the first six novels by the time I went to university, though I could be wrong about this. I do know I started with Cat's Cradle and finished with Slaughterhouse Five. Oddly I stopped there, though Breakfast of Champions had obviously been published by then, but I can't for the life of me remember why. I've got a feeling I looked down on novel number seven, but it's a mystery to me why I should have done so. Had I read some scathing reviews? Had I simply had enough of Vonnegut? Certainly Slaughterhouse Five takes his work to a kind of perfection. I felt that then, and having just read it a few days back after God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, I feel the same way.

Funnily enough, I read a few pages into Champions and stopped a couple of days ago. It felt a bit tired and possibly I've glutted on my favourite humourist overmuch. But I didn't face any difficulty with Rosewater, which, frankly, is an incredibly ill-constructed mess. I just enjoyed the messiness. I suppose my stalling on Champions is related to our forthcoming trip to Medinah and Makkah. I decided some time ago, before our aborted attempt in June, that my reading for the duration of the trip would be largely devotional and I see no reason to change my mind. I think I need a rest from fiction, even in its most enjoyable form.

When I watched the Timbuktu broadcast I recall being excited at the sheer fecundity of KV's ideas and general inventiveness. Reading the first six novels again much later in life I still get that sense, but I now recognise a paradoxical weariness about his work, a sense of disillusion with the absurdity of it all that translates into an almost quietist desire for withdrawal. The tension between these two elements of his work seems to me to be deeply characteristic. One example: the way the story of poor Edgar Derby, shot simply for stealing a teapot in the aftermath of the Dresden bombing, is never actually told as such is extraordinary. On one hand you have the inventiveness of a narrative structure that tells you precisely what is going to happen to a character as soon as you meet him; on the other you have a narrative that refuses to give you the details you assume will be forthcoming as if it's simply too painful to do so.

I see Vonnegut as an intensely and honestly contradictory writer, and I think that's what makes him, if not great, then very, very good indeed. And, frankly, who cares about such distinctions, anyway? Mr Vonnegut taught me not to a long time ago.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

All Systems Go

A sense of celebration in the homestead this evening. Just received news that we've been granted visas by the Saudis, which means we can leave for our umrah, as scheduled, late tomorrow. Talk about going to the wire! Mind you, Noi was telling me about one couple who went a few weeks back who got their visas at 6.00 pm when they were due to take-off around 11.00 pm. So all we feel is a deep sense of gratitude.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Just Listening

Continued to find myself watching quite a bit on the old goggle-box today, mainly related to the various news channels. Struck by the inability of certain hosts, if that's what they call them, to actually listen to what their guests are saying. One lady, who hosts a sort of crime-themed programme, with a disturbingly relentless intensity, actually ordered one of her functionaries behind the scenes to cut the microphone of another lady who refused to allow herself to be interrupted. It was strange as the interrupted lady had obviously not come to the end of what she was saying - which happened to diverge quite considerably from the host's view of things - and it was very difficult to figure out why she'd invited on as, in effect, she was not being allowed to speak. She was attempting to mount some kind of defence of a well-known American comedian/performer who's facing a series of allegations relating to abusing women sexually, though none of this has gone to court yet. For what it's worth, I can see why a majority might assume the man to be guilty at this point, given the information that is out there, but I was very interested in hearing what a defender might have to say at this point, and I certainly know that I'm nowhere close to a position to come to some sort of final verdict on the matter. It seemed to me that the lady hosting the programme simply could not stand to hear any opinion that differed from her own.

That seems to me to be both strange and disturbing given she's a reasonably intelligent human being, and is involved in what might loosely be regarded as an industry related to communication, and deals with subject matter related directly to issues of justice. And it leads me to what I think is a useful test for any of us: can you allow someone to speak uninterruptedly in order to state their case coherently when you deeply disagree with their point of view?

By the way, there's a particular news channel, which shall remain nameless, that seems to hire its hosts based on their ability to rudely interrupt others. And to turn almost every statement they make into a stridently angry declaration. It seems to me a useful rule of thumb to treat whatever you hear on the goggle-box with reasonable caution, and to treble the degree of caution if people are shouting at you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Just Watching

Being at a fairly loose end today meant I had the time to follow the unfolding of the hostage-taking going on in a café in Sydney. As I am writing now the authorities over there and most of the commentators on various news channels seem hopeful of a peaceful resolution to the situation and it was heartening when five of the poor souls involved got out in the middle of the day without injury. So I'm hoping I can reasonably claim that what gripped my attention was a desire for a good outcome, rather than simply the excitement (horrible word to have to use) of it all. The worry is that this kind of breaking news, as they now call it, is turning into a form of entertainment - one that can be exploited by the crazies of the world.

Postscript: with two of the hostages dead and others injured we can't talk about a good outcome. I suppose things could have been worse - except that for the dead and their loved ones it's as bad as can be.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Not Exactly Original

Why are people often so determined to tell you how original, indeed, unique, they are? Wouldn't it make more sense to assert our commonalities - just how much we are made up of other people? There's something very soothing about the idea that you are simply recycling other people's thoughts.

Real originality, I suspect, lies in deciding who best to imitate.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sort Of Progress

Managing to get a reasonable amount of reading done of late. Finished a set of magazines: issues of Prog, The New York Review of Books, Philosophy Now and The Literary Review - thus freeing myself to buy yet another set. I'm holding firm to my resolution not to purchase any new issue of a publication until the previous has been read. It's useful to no longer be a completest; no pesky feelings of guilt over leaving pages unread.

On the fiction front, read a compilation of short stories on the unlikely subject of falling in love, one of my books for teenagers under the Pelican imprint published in the early 80s, title: The Real Thing. Some big name writers of the time: William Trevor, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Rumer Godden, Lyne Reade Banks among others. Don't think something as literary as this would get published in today's market. Can't imagine many teenagers would have enjoyed it all that much back then, though horizons may have been widened.

Just read The Maltese Falcon and Cat's Cradle in their various volumes of the Hammett/Vonnegut Library of America series. Can't imagine any novels being more entertaining, or easier to read. Finished the Vonnegut in less than a day and was surprised how many chunks I vividly remembered from more than four decades ago. Bit worried about the element of nostalgia involved in my reading at the moment, but not enough to change direction. Having too much fun.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Real Tribute

Listened to Songs For Drella by Lou Reed and John Cale late last night and in the late morning. It's a kind of tribute to Andy Warhol, whom they had come to regard as a kind of mentor I suppose, which they put together just after his death, this being the first time the two ex-Velvet Undergrounders had performed together in years. It both gets inside the perplexing artist and keeps a critical distance, miraculously avoiding anything in the nature of a final judgment - though with plenty of pungent observations along the way. Chockful of idiosyncratic wit, apposite for a supremely idiosyncratic individual. You'd think it would be cold, wouldn't you, yet it's deeply, genuinely emotional. The best sequence of songs about art and what art does I can think of, Sunday In The Park With George not withstanding. I intend to listen again later.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Other Worlds

I'd never heard of Leigh Brackett prior to reading her novel The Long Tomorrow, and I only read the novel because it features in American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956, and having bought this tasty anthology from the Library of America I felt I needed to get my money's worth. And I did. It's a genuine classic, the title of the collection does not lie.

The strength of the work lies in its brilliantly imagined setting. Ms Brackett presents us with an America that has regressed to a  primitive rural economy, populated by a sort of post-Amish brethren as a result of a devastating nuclear war which occurred at some unspecified time in the past (though within two generations of the family of the protagonist.) Written in 1955 the novel eschews the usual post-Apocalyptic clichés, I suppose because they hadn't been invented then. In some ways we are given an optimistic picture of the aftermath of Armageddon. There's been no nuclear winter and the land remains habitable and fertile, if generally empty. In the final part of the novel there are references to the horrors of Hiroshima, but the writer seems to assume that the general catastrophe has remained at that level: the horror has remained localised, centred on the cities, and society is recovering, though for the most part profoundly technophobic. Within these premises wonders are worked in terms of the depth and thoroughness of the imagination involved. As the young protagonist, Len Colter, moves through this world on a quest to find a place that has managed to keep the secrets of the great cities, the America evoked is utterly coherent and entirely believable in terms of its landscapes and population. Indeed, I reckon there's a basis here for a whole series of fictions rather than just the single, deeply-achieved one we have.

I wonder why no one ever thought of making a movie based on the book. Could it be the gender of the writer that somehow stood in the way? Or is it related to the relative lack of fireworks in the plot? There's a kind of quietness about the novel, a lack of demonstrativeness in its very sureness about the world created, that is impressive but perhaps not loud enough for its genre.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In The Balance

Nice to see the addition to the very fine Oxford series of Very Short Introductions of a text that manages to be straightforwardly sympathetic to what might be regarded as an Islamic perspective. The two previous numbers relating to the faith, whilst being very readable were hardly written in a manner that suggests Islam has much to offer the world, Michael Cook's The Koran being pretty much overtly antagonistic, and Malise Ruthven's Islam judiciously, critically distanced from the world it purports to explain. Not that I see anything wrong with that at a personal level. It's bracing to have one's faith examined and found wanting: it ensures you reach an understanding of what such critical observers have missed, or misunderstood. However, I do find it somewhat troubling that a reader presumably seeking to understand Islam and what it involves is being guided by what I think one might fairly term typical Orientalists, to adopt Edward Said's useful term, in a series that seeks to give basic introductions to thinkers and concepts, as if no other point of view exists other than that of the unthinking true believers which is, almost by definition, not worth giving space to.

At least Jonathan A. C. Brown in his Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction makes a determined effort to explore the perspective of the true believers in a sincerely sympathetic manner, and is genuinely illuminating on what the life of the Prophet - peace be upon him - means in terms of Muslim piety and devotion. And the chapter dealing with the historiography involved is clear and balanced, leaving you to make up your own mind, and pointing you in directions that will allow you to do so when you read on, as clearly you must in order to do the subject justice.

Mind you, it'd be nice to see Oxford inviting someone like Tariq Ramadan to pen one of these intros for them. Maybe they could offer him Orientalism?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Well Versed

I've been making headway into some of the poetry books I purchased back in September, having now read the ones from Daljit Nagra, Alice Oswald and Kathleen Jamie. There's lots to like about all three, reinforcing my sense that we live in a golden age for lyric verse, but it was Ms Oswald's Dart that had the greatest impact. Funnily enough this was the book I had the highest expectations of, though I'd never heard of the writer before - but the idea of a sequence that followed the river (the River Dart in Devon) from source to sea, and captured the voices of those associated with it, making them part of the river's own monologue, struck me as so obvious yet original that I just knew it was going to work. And it did, but at an extraordinarily high level. Think Hughes, think Heaney. Seriously, she's that good. I want to read the whole thing again and soon.

Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! delivered pretty much what the title, with its three exclamation marks promises. Lots of energy, inventive playfulness, edgy perspectives. In comparison, Ms Jamie's The Overhaul felt restrained, almost muted, even though language was being stretched again with the Scots element involved. There's room for both approaches, of course, assuming the course taken is true to what the writer needs to say; but I must say I like a bit of showmanship in my poets. I suppose this is an age when there's sometimes a need to be loud to be heard.

Monday, December 8, 2014


Not at all sure what to make of the latest issue of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009. I read it, as usual, ultra-fast, but kept wondering if I might be missing the point. Individual panels and brief episodes proved gripping, but what they were meant to add up to was a bit of a puzzle. But having said that, I know I'm going to find myself reading all the Century issues soon in order to try and make them fit together.

After all, halfway through From Hell I didn't think Moore was going to make it work, and look how that one turned out. Which reminds me: I must re-read the best version ever of the Ripper saga with Eddie Campbell's Companion at hand.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Late To The Party

I finally acquired the iPod Classic I've been searching for, through Noi's good offices. She trawled ebay for me to come up with the goods. This means I'm ready to make the long-awaited transition from actual CDs to stuff downloaded from iTunes. Which in turns means I'm in grave danger of spending lots of money as the floodgates open.

Fortunately I've been extraordinarily restrained so far, and restricted myself to a single album: Bill Frisell's magical Disfarmer. Actually this is so rich in itself that I feel I've already got sufficient riches to keep me going for weeks, days at least a little while.

To be honest, if buying CDs in a straightforward way were still possible that's what I'd be doing, but change is good, they tell me, and I'll go along with that even though they, as usual, are wrong.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Rough And The Smooth

Listening to Count Basie: The Complete Decca Recordings, a very fine 3 CD set by the way, I was struck by the powerful contrast between the voices of Jimmy Rushing and Earl Warren, juxtaposed as they were in the cuts Good Morning Blues (featuring Rushing) and Our Love Was Meant To Be (featuring the multi-talented alto sax player.) JR sounds natural, a real blues singer, modern; EW sounds soupily lugubrious, like something out of an Ivor Novello musical, dated.) Yet presumably at the time of recording the difference wouldn't have seemed quite so sharp. And for all the contrasts there are features the styles of singing share: clarity of phrasing; clarity of the melodic line, especially in terms of holding single notes; an effortless musicality.

It's astonishing how styles in voices change. It's impossible to imagine anyone today essaying the Warren approach, except in parody. For all its virtues there's something faintly comic about the performance. And maybe we're in danger of losing what made Rushing so great. For all his brilliance as a blues shouter there's a smoothness in that voice to relish that makes it perfectly balanced. That's extremely rare these days.

I wonder if anyone's tried writing a history of vocal style in western music? I've got a feeling that such an account would shed much light on the kind of societies various voices have emerged from and given voice to.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Sheer Fun

We took the girls last night to watch the performance of Mamma Mia at Marina Bay Sands expecting to have a really good time and were not disappointed. The sense of expectation was based on the fact that we'd watched the film some time back and very much enjoyed it, and an evening listening to Abba songs played live can never be considered wasted. It's been a few years since we exposed Fifi and Fafa to Abba's Greatest Hits in one of our holiday breaks in KL, but once listened to that level of pop genius cannot be forgotten.

The show fulfilled all expectations: unpretentious, cheesy, energetic, cheerfully daft fun. The only cloud on the horizon initially was the relatively small audience - only about a quarter or so of the seats were filled. And I did wonder if this might take some of the oomph out of the performers. But they turned out to be super troopers, emitting enough energy to light up a city and its hinterland. And it was clear that a fair number of those in the audience had, rightly, come prepared to have a noisy good time come what may. And so they did. (Oddly enough my experience of school shows is that this size of audience often delivers a stronger sense of all-out engagement than a full house.)

One slightly more serious point. The music had been lovingly arranged, keeping all of the structural and harmonic detail of the original such that the sophistication behind the superficial simplicity of the music was rendered dazzlingly clear. Just to mention one piece: the gorgeous density of the harmonies in Super Trooper stunned this listener, even though he's heard them hundreds of times. Whatever you think of Abba - and I was no great fan when they were dominating the charts, being way too cool for anything so straightforwardly popular - this is craftsmanship of the highest order.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Nothing Much

After a visit to my back doc to verify all is in good working order, for the moment at least, we took ourselves off to Parkway Parade for a bit of a wander. Our favourite emporium in the East has changed a bit since the last time we were there, and none of it is for the good. But then it never is. I enjoyed finding absolutely nothing I wanted to spend money on. (Except for a bite to eat, mine being a salad. Yes, I'm in the process of shedding a couple of kilos.) As a consumer I am a major failure, I'm more than happy to say.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Actually the celebratory nosh-up for Noi's birthday was conducted a couple of days ago. Today featured simply a gentle blooming.

Monday, December 1, 2014


Now here's a bit of an odd thing. My most recent novel for 'grown-ups', Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, was so easy to read I had to hold back from rushing at points; in contrast, my reading for 'kids', Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore - the third novel in her Earthsea sequence - took a heck of a lot of concentration to get through, and even when I'd finished I still wasn't entirely sure what it was all about.

Does this imply a greater seriousness, a gravitas behind Le Guin's fiction that my favourite literary comedian lacks? I think some of his critics think so. It seems that giving Mr Vonnegut the LoA stamp of approval raised a few hackles here and there, and I'm glad that it did as that will allow him a chuckle or two up in heaven. But I see his sharpness and clarity - his ease as a story-teller - as a strength; in contrast, I think the fine writing involved in the Earthsea sequence (and there's some wonderfully atmospheric stuff in The Farthest Shore, especially when any of the dragons are on the scene) gets in the way of real momentum.

I suppose that Ms Le Guin's ultimate concern is our coming to terms with death, yet there was something terribly theoretical about the notion of dying in her novel. Vonnegut's deaths somehow manage to be real, even when at their most casual. So it goes, I suppose.

Mind you, isn't it wonderful that a writer of fantasy intended primarily for children was able to get away with something like Earthsea at all? Can't see that happening today somehow. Now you'd have to throw a few vampires in just to get published.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Tisn't The Season

According to one nearby mall, Christmas extends from 14 November to 28 December. So much for the twelve days I grew up with.

And now it seems they've discovered something called Black Friday back in my homeland, a day on which unmitigated savagery is unleashed in pursuit of things/stuff/goods/consumables. As if we didn't have enough already.

I'd count myself as disillusioned were it not for the fact that I wasn't exactly illusioned in the first place.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Still Old Friends

The disconcerting thing about meeting someone you've not seen for a while is the sudden feeling of trepidation you experience just before you do so that there's some possibility of hearing bad news about family or mutual acquaintances. Fortunately our meeting today with Steve threw up nothing but good news regarding family. To my gratified surprise his mum is still with us having reached the big nine-zero. I sort of assumed the worse based on the fact of my own Mum's death and my erroneous belief that his mum was older than mine. Also gratifyingly, all his offspring have turned out to be remarkably accomplished and are making their various marks in distinctly creative ways.

So, given all this and the sheer enjoyment of nattering away with a big buddy it was nearly all good (as the shots above testify). Alas, there's always an exception when you reach our age. Steve gave me news of the death some five years ago of a mutual friend from our time at university. I'd have to say it was tentative news in that he was pretty sure, but not quite one hundred per cent. I hope he's wrong, but I've got a horrible feeling it wasn't a case of mistaken identity. 

Thinking of the friend in question I find it impossible to picture him as anything but the warm, gently cheerful, happily eccentric young man of several decades ago. Sad to think he may be gone, but happy to think he was here, and hopeful he had his share of the wonderful ordinary happiness that Steve and myself have been granted.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Old Friends

Noi and I spent a couple of enjoyable hours this afternoon catching up with Karen and her news over kaya toast and tea. All is well on the Karen-family front, though her mum is getting more forgetful - though still, it's good to know, playing mah jong. This news prompted some reflection on the increasing ability as the years pass of all participants in the conversation to forget the obvious. At one point, I'm happy to say, I remembered something or other that indicated my brain was in reasonable working order. Unfortunately I've now completely forgotten what it was I remembered.

I've not forgotten that tomorrow we'll be meeting up with old chum Steve Cannon. I've got a horrible feeling, however, that he's going to be talking about stuff we did during our university years that I've long forgotten and I'm going to struggle to recall. Noi, by the way, managed to remember where we took Steve's daughter, Kate, to eat when she visited some years back so she surely wins first prize on the memory front, for today at least.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Bouncing Back

A few years back I was listening to something on the radio about Tony Blair, the former British PM, and his ability to wake up refreshed no matter what headaches he'd been facing the previous day, and breezily get on with setting the world to rights. This aspect of his character was outlined by someone who'd written a book about him but who wasn't exactly a complete admirer. In fact, the guy sounded like a bit of a turncoat - someone formerly of the inner circle who'd kept a diary of sorts of the circle's circling, now doing the dirty and spilling the beans. At the time the observation in question struck me as a useful insight into what made Blair effective, well, at least to the extent of getting himself a string or two of power to pull. Whether he pulled them in any useful directions is open to numerous questions: I know a few folk who might well see him as setting the world to wrongs rather than rights. Which, of course, leaves open the question of whether the man's resilience is something we should seek to emulate. If you're just bouncing back without bouncing in any good direction you might be better off deflating.

This thought came to me as I awoke this morning with a bouncing sort of energy for the second day of an on-going Drama Camp. Galvanising the troops prior to breakfast felt satisfying to me, but I'm not sure I would have appreciated it as one of the actual troops. If you really enjoy irritating people seek to be revoltingly fresh first thing. You can happily wilt later and no one will really notice.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Out Of The Storm

It's raining, a hard, hard rain, in that gloriously anarchic greyed-out, flood-happy manner characteristic of the tropics. I'm not entirely sure why this makes me feel cheerful, but the fact that I'm sitting where it's safe and dry enjoying nature's more-than-plenty from a distance may be a contributory factor. Part of me yearns to be out there in the storm, but fortunately it's a very small part well under the control of the rational, self-preserving bigger bit.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Siren Voice

Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan has got to be the most extraordinary second novel written by anyone in terms of development from the first. Player Piano was a remarkably assured first novel, as I discovered on my recent re-reading, but all the ingredients that make Vonnegut Vonnegut come together by a kind of magic in his second. Indeed, I believe he has stated somewhere that the writing of Sirens seemed effortless. Yet there were false starts and roads never taken in between the writing of the two.

Certainly it was an effortless read, certainly for this reader, both when I first read it in the last century and over the last two days. This time round I kept thinking of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It had never occurred to me before just how much Adams owes Vonnegut. But there are two distinctive features of Vonnegut that put him in a different league, or, perhaps more properly put, give his fiction a depth that I don't think Adams would have ever aspired to. One is the American writer's sense of real menace in portrayals of violence. The comic nature of the utter failure of the Martian invasion of earth in the second novel doesn't stop it being genuinely disturbing. The second is the powerful sense of melancholy with which Vonnegut endows his characters. I can't think of a more straightforwardly sad writer, even though his characters are tissue thin. He seems to be able to capture the essential sense of loneliness and failure of us all, and then make us laugh at it.

I found myself moving on automatically in my Library of America edition of the early novels to Mother Night. I'm as happily addicted as I was when I was in my early teens.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Bit Of Sense

Enjoyed reading a piece by Jonathan Zimmerman in the latest on-line edition of The New York Review of Books, entitled Why Is American Teaching So Bad? He's the Professor of Education and 
History at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at NYU, and, given how out of touch those who teach teachers so often appear to be, I was agreeably surprised at the simple good sense of much that he finds to say. The last three paragraphs string together a sequence of observations that make mincemeat of the educational orthodoxy that surrounds me, and help me understand the woefully weak foundations on which said orthodoxy rests. It's something of a relief, though hardly a surprise, to have someone beside me articulating so clearly the emperor's lack of suitable garments.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

New Worlds

Reading Dashiel Hammett's The Dain Curse has served as a reminder that he was no slouch when it came to intricate plotting. I don't think it's actually possible to follow who's killing whom as you go along, things get so complicated. Rather, it's a matter of enjoying the unlikely action and then seeing if you can follow the explanatory chapters that sum it all up. An amazingly different kind of novel from Red Harvest also. The range of the four great novels (and, I suppose, five if you count The Thin Man) is remarkable. Unlike Chandler he never repeats himself, except for that undercurrent of the rottenness of it all. Even in that respect Hammett is inventing the whole noir genre.

Saturday, November 22, 2014


Spent a small but profitable part of the day listening to the 'A' side CD from Dusty Springfield Complete A and B Sides 1963-1970. Confirmed my sense that the idea of the 60s as a golden age of popular music has a lot going for it, though I'm not in love with the production values on some of the material, especially the early singles, in the same way that I am with stuff from Motown or Stax of the same period. It's only with the Memphis sound of Son of a Preacher Man that I start to get really comfortable.

Amazingly some outstanding material performed only so-so in the charts of the period. How Can I Be Sure?, which would now be seen/heard as a stone cold classic, didn't even go top 30. What were people listening to? The funny thing is that I'm sure Ms Springfield was well aware of just how good that single was, and one or two others like it. I think she just gave up on the idea of taking the charts seriously. I heard a similar story in relation to The Who's I Can See For Miles, with Pete Townsend, knowing he'd created something of rare beauty and power, becoming entirely disillusioned with the record-buying public on its relative failure in the popular arena.

So whilst we had our golden age I'm not entirely sure we deserved it - which is usually the way of these things.

Friday, November 21, 2014


Did today's Friday Prayers at Masjid Sultan, my first time there for the congregational prayer. Impressed by the simplicity of the place. The carpet has a cheerful clash of colours that's somehow welcomingly comfortable. It's nice to think that the closest thing on the island to a national mosque is so homely.

I was a bit taken aback by the azan, though. I was sort of expecting something really mellifluous, and I suspect it was beautifully read. But the amplified voice was treated with so much reverb and echo that it was actually difficult to make out the precise words of the call to prayer. I'm not sure if this is seen as some kind of halo effect, or whether it's an attempt to re-create the reverberant quality of a prayer-call in one of the really grand mosques of the world. I've heard the same thing on studio recordings of readings from The Holy Qur'an and it just doesn't work for me. What does work is the powerful music of an azan, or prayer, read with the urgency of a full commitment to the words you hear so often in quite ordinary places of worship.

After prayers it was time for lunch with Fazli, Sharrif, Ismail and Arzami - actually the reason for going to the mosque as we'd decided to eat opposite. They were kindly wishing me well ahead of my intended umrah to Makkah & Madinah, now on the cards for late December after the disappointment of the June cancellation. Can't wait - though, of course, I'll have to.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Not An Entirely Loose End

Noi is currently heading north, to climes KL, leaving me a touch lonesome back at the ranch. I'm filling the gap at this moment by playing Joe Jackson's The Duke at an unreasonably reasonable volume. Funnily enough I was disappointed when I first got hold of this gem, thinking it over-produced. I think I assumed that any tribute to Edward Kennedy Ellington would necessarily feature horns - and definitely not synthesisers - and was perturbed to find Mr Jackson had gone in a very different direction from that he followed on the wonderful Jumpin' Jive of some years back. Now I love the wittily eclectic mix of the album and the sheer fun of it all. If you can't have fun playing the music of Duke Ellington, then when can you?

Next up, I think I'm inclined to bang on a bit of Elvis Costello with The Roots, for no particular reason other than the fact it's a really good combination. So there. (Eagle-eyed musos may spot the fact that Ahmir '?uestlove' Thompson features on both the CDs, another good reason for playing them.) 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Woody's World

Came across an interesting interview today involving ace film-maker & comedian Woody Allen (to mention just two of his talents.) Was struck by the sheer bleakness of his view of existence (as was his interlocutor, Father Robert Lauder): Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament?

I don't doubt Mr Allen is being entirely sincere here and that he is a man of considerable depth. But I simply, intuitively almost, can't share his perspective. Part of me wonders if this is because I can't bear much reality, and Woody can, and thus I find ways of shutting it out to live at a superficial level. But another part, the bigger bit, suspects I am aware of realities, both temporal and ultimate, and that happiness is as real, and more common, than misery. If the bigger bit is right I don't see this as manifesting any great virtue on my part. I'm just temperamentally lucky.

My view, by the way, echoes the Islamic notion of gratitude. Most of the time I feel lucky to be alive and able to experience the life I've been granted and I wish this were the case for Woody. Indeed, for everyone.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


There were three or four times when I was starting out on Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human when I was tempted to give the novel a miss. It took me at least four days to get through the first twenty pages and I didn't enjoy the experience one bit. Yet once I got going I found myself enjoying the tale more and more such that by the final third I was entirely won over - and hugely entertained.

Sturgeon does something extremely challenging in those opening pages, giving you a point of view that hardly makes coherent sense, and keeps shifting, such that it's impossible to be sure even what kind of novel you're reading. It doesn't seem remotely like sci-fi. A lot more puzzling, I reckon, than the opening to Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published some forty years earlier, that many of my students seem to think is the last word in difficulty. The fact that a writer seen as working within a popular genre was prepared to go for something this challenging is surely a sign of the victory of Modernism (if such a movement really existed.)

So if those first pages were so tough to read why did I bother to keep going? I'm no masochist and, believe me, I read first, second and third, for enjoyment. The answer lies, I realise, in the sense of trust I have in what might loosely be termed the critical community. By this I don't just mean lit critics, although they are involved in some degree. I'm talking about that world of readers that have created the Library of America and decided Mr Sturgeon's novel is worth preserving for the generations, the fandom of the world of Sci-Fi, the readers who originally bought the novel on first publication, despite its difficult opening, and gave it positive reviews or told their friends how good it was because they recognised its qualities.

We don't read, listen or look alone, but it all comes through the eyes and ears of others before we make it our own. I think I've developed a reasonable degree of staying power as a reader, but I owe it all to others.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Yesterday's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream by the company resident in London's Globe Theatre didn't disappoint. An heroic effort was made to construct the Globe in the Esplanade, the houselights were kept on and much fun was had by all, especially, of course, in the Mechanicals' way over the top Pyramus and Thisbe. (Two children sitting fairly close to us were overcome with loud, giggling delight throughout the clowning in a way that was good to hear.) The roots of the Dream in English folk-tale were made particularly prominent in the costuming of the Fairies and the erotic tensions underlying the whole piece were lovingly exploited. Nice to see the doubling of Theseus & Hippolyta with Oberon & Titania: obvious in a good way.

Also pleased that there was a conscious effort to let the verse have room to speak in the various lovers' scenes, rather than being rushed through, as is so often the case these days. There was lots of comic business in their scenes, but a real sense of the lovers' emotional turmoil was allowed to grow due to some judicious slowing of pace. This didn't make them any more distinct as characters, because, of course, they're not, but it did add to the sense of the real pains and puzzles of adolescence and young adulthood.

I came away from the play, as I invariably do, with a feeling of having witnessed something miraculous. Somehow in the time he enchants us in his dream, Shakespeare manages to make something perfect out of his disparate worlds. It's like being allowed to look for a moment into the harmony of things.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

In Tune

Very enjoyable concert at the Esplanade yesterday evening. A combination of Mozart and Debussy was not likely to fail, and it didn't, being awash with tunefulness and gorgeous sonorities. I was impressed with the adventurous programming also for the Debussy: two less-than-famous ballet pieces, neither of which was entirely orchestrated by the composer, but both making for hypnotic listening. Of the two I preferred the slightly more famous La boite a joujoux, but the dramatic Khamma made for an engrossing opening to the night's proceedings. The star of the evening, fiddler Renaud Capucon, duly sparkled in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3, and so it all added up to a case of What's not to like?

And later today we're off to see A Midsummer Night's Dream - the play, that is - at the main theatre in the Esplanade. So a satisfactorily artistic weekend, all in all, I'd say.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Squeaky Clean

It was some two months ago that I first noticed an odd phenomenon attendant upon the locomotion of this tired old body of mine. As I walked I could hear a faint yet distinct squeaking in my left ear. On the day it began I assumed it emanated from my faithful old Clarkes' shoes, or one of them at least - presumably the one on the left foot. However, to my considerable surprise and mild consternation when I took my shoes off the noise continued.

And the noise continued to haunt me for the next couple of months, though in an on-and-off manner. Often I had no awareness of it at all, and sometimes the squeaking was so faint as to suggest it was gradually fading. At times I wondered if what I was experiencing might be something related to an imbalance in my actual hearing. I also wondered if anyone else noticed I was squeaking, especially when the sound was at its most distinct. But no one ever said anything.

Which body part was causing the problem was a subject for further conjecture. Since the noise emerged at its most distinct when I plonked my left foot down I settled on the knee as the most likely guilty bit.

Things finally came to a head, so to speak, on Thursday of this week when, after a day of particularly loud squeaking, I thought I'd better get the expert opinion of the Missus on the matter. I asked her to join me on three walks across the apartment floor and it turned out I wasn't going crazy. Yes, there was a noise. Yes, it was a squeaking noise. And, since I was wearing no shoes, it was pretty obviously me that was doing the squeaking. We'd both decided that we'd better tell my back doc the odd news when Noi had a brainwave. Take off your belt, she ordered, and the mystery was solved, as beltless I proceeded to promenade soundlessly. And, yes indeed, it was some two months ago I first started to wear the spiffy new belt she had bought for me.

Gentle Reader, I can tell you that the relief was not exactly considerable, but certainly distinct. But here's the funny thing. The Missus, who I should tell had been dealing with the whole situation with a degree of levity that any serious-minded person would have seen as inappropriate, now began to howl with laughter - and has done so on at least two occasions since when reminded of the matter. What is so funny about a squeaking spouse, I would like to know. At one point she sputtered: You, cartoon you know. I have no idea what this means, but I suspect my dignity rating in the household has plummeted to a new low. And this after two months of a furrowed brow, manfully kept to myself.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Getting Of Wisdom

A bit more on The Voice, and specifically Pharrell. Wearing a Rush t-shirt for the latest episode increased the coach's already considerable credibility in this household, but his failing to save Elyjuh was puzzling, to put it mildly. I needed to calm the Missus over this one.

Mind you, Mr Williams's preface to his decision put the whole show in a knowingly realistic context. It takes someone who's paid his dues, on top of possessing real ability to keep it real.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Totally Cool

We've been enjoying the latest episodes of The Voice (American version) this week. Some genuine talent and a real sense of celebrating live music amid the showbiz paraphernalia. Plus tonight Pharrell Williams was wearing a Yes t-shirt thus rendering the whole enterprise uber-cool.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


It's difficult to imagine another public work of art matching the perfection of execution and purpose of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red any time soon. If anyone needs to cite an example of why Art is necessary this is it.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Disregarded

Reading about Mary Norton's wonderfully imagined Borrowers again I'm struck by how much of the power of borrower-mythology - and it obviously is possessed of an extraordinary imaginative energy that transcends the details of the novels - has its roots in an awareness of how strangely powerful the disregarded becomes once it moves to the centre of our attention. And you can multiply this by ten for pre-adolescents. Do children still explore? As a kid I spent a fair amount of time looking for stuff on the edges. We went hunting for discarded bottles, I remember, on the grounds that if you found enough of them someone would pay you for them.

Derelict buildings were like magnets to us. And the idea of finding an old air-raid shelter and going inside was a version of going to the promised land. And tunnels! The idea of coming out somewhere else at the end! And secret passages! In those days when I still had an imagination I used to dream of these, and the chamber at the centre of the network where all the wonderful stuff lay dustily waiting to be discovered.

Here's a useful exercise in keeping the mind alive: each day try and notice something that nobody else pays the slightest attention to, and invest it with life.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Saw Fafa off at the airport this morning for her trip to China and then came back to enjoy a day of rest. Unfortunately this wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind for the day. Actually I'd planned to take myself and the Missus off to the Esplanade to watch Bryony Lavery's play Frozen being done by Arian Pang's company. This wasn't to be due to the lack of availability of tickets. I'd not tried to book until too late since I'd not been sure of whether we were going to be free to watch the play. Must say, I'm pleased at the sell-out for Pangdemonium since I'm pretty sure running a group doing serious theatre on a regular basis on the island is hard work deserving of reward. But, as so often is the case, I'm irritating at missing something tasty when the diet of good theatre here is so thin.

The problem is that nothing out of the mainstream ever gets a decent run - Frozen was on for little more than a week, for example. Even the mainstream musicals come and go pretty quickly so you need to be on your toes to catch them. And the demands of my line of work are such that quite lengthy periods of time are often wiped out in terms of a life beyond. And when it comes to one-off concerts, it's a cause for celebration when we do manage to get to something.

But I also have to admit that if I put a bit more effort in I could get myself to a few more events than I now manage annually. I suppose that the youthful energy that got me to Halle concerts on a weekly basis back in the 80s has thinned out along the way. I suspect I was equally busy then, but less prone to excuses. And just how was it that I managed to turn out to play for Whiston FC pretty much every Saturday in the football season?

Yep, at least some of the limitations I'm moaning about are my own and no one else's.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


Before re-reading it I assumed that reacquainting myself with Vonnegut's Player Piano was going to be a bit of a chore. For some reason in my teens I'd somehow formed the opinion that the writing was a bit flat and the novel too long by a third. I now realise what a fine, sustained work PP actually is. True it lacks the stylistic and thematic fireworks of what would follow appearing to be in most respects a fairly conventional piece of sci-fi, but it's a beautifully controlled satire of corporate politics and behaviour, written before most folk had become really aware of just what the corporate world was/is like. Come to think of it, it's hardly sci-fi at all in the usual sense.

I'm guessing I just didn't have any real connection with the essential subject matter of the novel all those years ago and, understandably, just didn't get it. Would that I might be that innocent again.

Friday, November 7, 2014


There's been much tension in our little household pretty much every night this week, around 10.45 pm. The current series of Masterchef airing on BBC Lifestyle is, as so often, responsible. And I thought cooking was a relaxing sort of activity.

Amazing levels of skill and creativity on display, by the way, despite the pressure. Perhaps because of it, mayhap? At least one of last night's contestants was demonstrably high on adrenaline, and was more than happy to say so.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


I decided a little while ago to purchase an iPod thingy on account of the fact I'd discovered how to download stuff from iTunes onto more than one computer and realised that if I could get said stuff on said Pod thingy I could play it through the stereo in the living room. Thus making life complete. Well, not really, but it would be a nice add-on to the plenty I already enjoy. I've got a reservation or two about iTunes, most of which are based on the fact that from what I can gather the remuneration for the musicians involved is not exactly equitable, but it's all too murky for me to figure so what the heck is my carefully thought through conclusion, at least for the moment. But I'm still managing to drag my feet over actually getting the device and getting down to business. And I think I've figured out why.

The case of Bill Frisell sort of sums it up for me. Browsing the albums available at iTunes I realised that at a conservative estimate I would download at least fifteen immediately. Now I can afford these, but I'm not at all sure I could do justice to all of them in terms of giving them the listening ear or two they deserve. And then I'm pretty sure I would discover in double-quick time some other equally worthy name whose material was urgently in need of making mine.

So as long as I stave off acquiring the technology I can hold back from drowning in the glories of Gone, Just Like A Train and the like. But surely no one can resist something so urgently, wonderfully marvellous for too long? On the Frisell-front I'm a gone case, as they used to say.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Conversation

It was in my late teens that I first became aware that I wasn't necessarily uncomfortable being excluded from groups, indeed, quite enjoyed being out on the fringe. Edges allow a kind of freedom, assuming one can keep one's balance. So it's with some relief I discover that once again I have somehow avoided the mainstream as, according to a recently consulted source:

The conversation seems to have moved on from blogs to Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and the rest.

Isn't silence restful?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

In Place

Chuckled over an article in today's paper about product placement in new novels for e-readers. Way to go! Literature moving forward, eh? If only Milton had had the opportunity: Of Man's First disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree, truly Golden / And Delicious entire, whose mortal taste / Brought death into the World, and all our woe, / With loss of Eden... Paradise regained, I reckon.

Anyway, as I sit here, my tasty Coke Light in hand, I can only hope that some major soft drinks company of internationally high repute will recognise the selling power of this Far Place and smile upon me.

Monday, November 3, 2014

From The Top

Have moved on from Red Harvest to Player Piano, Vonnegut's first novel. It's not my favourite of America's finest successor to Twain, I don't think he really gets into his stride until The Sirens of Titan, but since I've now got all the early stuff in the LoA editions I might as well get a sense of his development and read sequentially. I'm fairly sure that when I first read him as a callow teenager (me, not Kurt) I kicked off with Cat's Cradle and assumed pure genius came naturally thinking badly of PP because it seemed so ordinary. Now I'm looking for continuities.

Actually I'm glad to get away from Hammett for a short breather. Don't get me wrong, I love all the novels, but they are intense in a manner that's quite forbidding. Once you get passed the manner, the sheer style of Red Harvest you realise an awful lot of blood has been spilled and at some level this is meant entirely seriously.

Another short novel I'm quite glad to have come to an end of is P.J. Kavanagh's period piece for children, or teenagers rather, Scarf Jack. It's a worthy enough effort at writing in the Kidnapped, Moonfleet, vein of boys' adventure, but it feels curiously laboured for a relatively modern effort - being published at the end of the 70s. The action bits are readable enough, but it gets more than a little bogged down in thematic concerns related to Irish history Anyway, I'm moving onto one of Mary Norton's Borrowers series in my reading of kids' stuff. I need a bit of charm.