Saturday, May 31, 2014

That Long Dark Mystery Ride

Spent a small part of the afternoon at the wedding of a colleague having a thoroughly good time: excellent food and live music, from a band who really could play, in the traditional Malay manner - Orkes Mutiara they called themselves, and if the Missus and I were ever to re-marry we would book them. The whole event, staged in a community centre, was pretty classy, and on the one day of the year when I most assuredly think back to the Saturday many years ago now that my life took a dramatic turn for the better, I hope it presages the kind of happiness these occasions sometimes foreshadow for the couple concerned.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Dream On

Over the last week or so I've had three or four pretty odd dreams. I suspect it's the fact that I've had to stay up later than I normally would have liked on a few occasions that's precipitated this little sequence since I've been woken up by the alarm whilst in the middle of the dreams. Normally I wake before the alarm, presumably leaving the state of dream-related sleep a long way behind.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I can't remember a single one of the dreams at all. They seem to fade immediately upon waking - but I do know they've been weird. And I have to tell you, I'm very pleased indeed about that. Generally my dreams are of the extremely mundane variety, sometimes stooping as low as featuring the wonderful world of work. So the fact that I do seem to have some imagination somewhere is a bit of a relief, even if I can't actually recall any of it.

As a kid I used to have bucketful's of the old imaginative juices. I even created my own super hero and took him on a number of adventures (most of which took place under the table in our old living-room.) Where did all the adventures disappear to? How did the juices dry?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Eminently Quotable

Public speakers over here seem to do a lot of quoting these days. I suppose they always have, but it seems so much more predictable, more banal, in this age of iron. And there's that curious phenomenon when they give the name of the chap they're quoting from, as if you really should know who he is, and he turns out to be a complete non-entity.

Yet chaps who are really worth quoting rarely get a look-in. I can't think of the last time I heard old Wystan Hugh quoted in public, except for me doing it the other day in a lecture on Yeats. And a very apposite moment it was. But one glance at The Dyer's Hand is enough to render a whole range of pithy apercus appropriate for just about any occasion when you need to stir folks up a bit. This one on poets pretty much nails the whole bunch, I reckon: All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman.

Oh, and Auden kicks off the whole collection of his essays with this killer from old Freddie Nietzsche: We have Art in order that we may not perish from Truth. A reminder that everyone's favourite philosophical loony got it awfully right a lot of the time.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dramatic Moments

Moments of solace in recent, full to the brim, overly-busy days:

Managing to read some two and a half plays by the redoubtable Alfian Sa'at - my favourite 'local' poet - and realising his stuff for the stage is more than just a bit good. Now about halfway through Homesick and wondering how this got passed me when it was first aired.

Delighting in my drama guys' variations on the Reading the Will exercise (an old favourite) which I did with them this afternoon, prior to scripting a fully realised version for public performance in July.

Playing with a purpose.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Wishing It Away

I'm always uneasy when I find myself counting off the days, but I must admit to looking forward to this time next week more than somewhat. Not that I'll be clear of the usual various concerns by then, but the to-do list should look at least sane by that point. In the mean time it's just about getting mean and down and dirty.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Resting Content

Pleased to report that I finally cleared the 'God Issue' of Philosophy Now and moved on to 'Issue 100', which has a number of articles related to language. This was my excuse for buying this issue before finishing no. 99 and, thus, breaking my self-imposed rule about not buying a new copy of any magazine until I've gone cover to cover through the one presently held. The rule has prevented me from building up foolish back-logs of unread material and I felt bad about this recent breach, but now that guilt is assuaged.

The first article I looked at in the latest edition (latest for me, that is) concerned the general subject of Happiness and quite thought-provoking it was, especially with regard to the idea of a Happiness Industry selling us unrealistic images of the contented life. However, I must say I felt the writer underestimated quite severely the virtues of contentment, something I believe is characteristic of those who regard themselves as in some sense intellectuals. So often the notion of contentment is dealt with as something almost negative, as in the notion of being 'merely contented'. For anyone who is suffering there is nothing 'mere' about the notion of the absence of suffering, and contentment is even more than that, being a something rather than a nothing, a presence rather than an absence.

I know this as I have had the good fortune to experience a great deal of contentment in recent years, for which I am profoundly yet simply grateful.

The world of Islamic thought makes much of two concepts that receive little real attention in what might be characterised as the modern world. Both seem inevitably to be associated with notions of passivity in that world, yet seen truly, felt truly, are deeply active, positive states of mind: I am thinking here of gratitude and patience. I am beginning to see these as the deep underpinnings of the kind of rich contentment that is itself a basis for action, not complacency, a transformative state.

In turning away from traditional forms of wisdom we've retreated in our understanding of human psychology. In doing so we've left ourselves at the mercy of the Happiness Industry.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Filling The Emptiness

Just back from a kenduri at the apartment that belonged to Fuad's mother. We knew it was going to be strange being there without her around - and it was. But filling the place with prayer and food and laughter felt right.

Friday, May 23, 2014

In Focus

My scepticism with regard to the value of the critical analysis of literature is no great secret. It has grown over time and these days pretty much every class I teach gets a glimpse of it at some point. But I must admit that underlying this very real scepticism is a quizzical sense of often actually enjoying the process of analysis - not so much, if at all, in writing, but certainly in the discussion of texts. How can this be? How might this glaring contradiction be reconciled?

I'm such a lazy thinker that I've never really tried to do so previously, preferring gleeful rants about the destructive nature of analysis. But I had a bit of a breakthrough moment today just after having had a good time doing the business on a bit of Yeats at his finest. Previously I suppose I vaguely thought the pleasure came simply from the fact that the material under consideration had a magic of its own which survived attempts at analysis. Now I realise it's the way the act of analysis makes you read hard and creatively (at least in its better moments) and the way this leads to an intensity of focus that results in a better reading. It's similar to the sense in which really listening changes music, and really looking changes visual art.

It's not simply the magic of the work under consideration but the magic of the collaboration of that work with the active imagination of the perceiver that works the trick. And it's difficult to be imagine being more alive that in those moments when the trick works.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Compulsory Reading

I've been marking scripts from the May IB examinations for something like a week now and come across one or two essays featuring work by Primo Levi. It's good to see schools prepared to take on material of this magnitude and depth, but it's oddly disturbing to try and apply the fairly mechanical process of marking to material that sees students encountering something close to the unsayable. Thank goodness  there were those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust and found a way of saying something about it.

It seems to me that every child who attends school at secondary level everywhere in the world should study at least one text that deals head-on with the appalling cruelty of which we are capable. There's a moral imperative not to protect our children from this knowledge.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Even as I write Noi is on-line on her trusty i-pad thingy, searching for recipes for the perfect scone. As you can imagine, this meets with huge amounts of approval on my side of things, as the worthy consumer. Truth to tell, I regard pretty much everything she cooks as perfect, but I don't intend to hold her back.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Easy Going

In yesterday's bit of a moan about my recent slow progress in reading I completely forgot to mention a book, a most handsome one indeed, I read cover to cover in just a couple of hours. I suppose it slipped my mind as The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis essentially comprises a series of stunning illustrations related to Farid Ud-Din Attar's monumental poem, with a minimum of written text. I picked it up at the ever-reliable Wardah Books the other day and I'm very glad I did. I've got a feeling I'll be re-visiting it with some frequency in the year, if not the years, ahead. Highly recommended if you like looking at beautiful images for their own sake; and even more highly recommended if you like looking at beautiful images for the sake of something even higher than themselves.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Hard Going

Just lately everything I've been reading seems to have a sort of knottiness about it, such that progress in anything has been little more than limpingly slow. It may be old age catching up and slowing the elderly neurons down, of course, but I'd rather blame the books themselves for not jollying me along. The culprits are: One Thousand Roads to Mecca, edited by Michael Wolfe, Auden's The Dyer's Hand, and one of those little books in the Oxford, Very Short Introductions series which are usually so readable in the slipping down sense, except this one isn't, it being Linguistics, A Very Short Introduction by one P. H. Matthews.

In fairness to the culprits, bits of the Auden slip down a treat, it's just that I've been stuck on the two early long pieces on the nature of poetry which are playfully fascinating but tend to boggle the mind if you try and reduce them to some kind of actual sense; and the opening chapters of Prof Matthews deal with some extremely knotty ideas about the nature and origins of language but manage to be quite entertaining along the way. As for Wolfe's compendium of various travellers' accounts of the Haj, you can hardly blame the editor if it takes a little while for the reader to get oriented regarding the particular concerns of each of the chaps involved - and, later on, some ladies - and I've only got as far as Ali Bey Al-Abassi back in 1807, so there's lots to learn about entirely different worlds in time. Mind you, like the Auden it's fascinating stuff and there's really not much point in rushing as there's no where to get to except the place you are.

Having said that, I must shame-facedly confess I've not yet finished the end-of-2013 edition of Philosophy Now (the 'God Issue') and for that I can only blame sheer laziness and lack of manful, mindful, application. I'm trying to read it now, but I'm watching The Voice at the same time which is really not a good idea. (My pick's Josh for the title, but I suspect he's everyone else's pick as well.)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Hardly Magickal

Spent some of the day, though not too much, thinking about magick and the occult and such like, since I was preparing for a lecture on Yeats and the subject couldn't really be avoided. Did the great man really take it seriously or was it all some hyper-sophisticated spoof? I suppose the stuff with his missus and the automatic writing must have helped pass the long nights in wintry Dublin.

But it occurs to me that I had quite an interest in all this nonsense for a few years in my teens - at least to the point when I went to university. Colin Wilson's tome The Occult was a big read for me, and I suppose it was quite an interesting book. My old paperback edition disappeared on the great migration overseas. I hope someone else got to enjoy it.

My guess is that my fascination over this stuff grew out of a sense of boredom with the mundane in my callow years in Manchester and once I discovered just about everything in life was interesting it just melted away.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Real Voices

Listened to The Strawbs's From The Witchwood earlier this evening, a great favourite of mine from way back when. Brought back some odd memories: Listening to my prized vinyl version of it at Auntie Norah's in one of those periods when I was basically living there away from home, leading to my 'O' levels and she saying how beautiful the title track was. She was so right. And seeing the band in concert at the Free Trade Hall just after the album was released, with Rick Wakeman still on board and playing an ice-cold mellotron for In Amongst The Roses, instead of the harpsichord which features on the recording. It added another layer of gorgeousness to an already gorgeous song. I actually got goose bumps.

Struck by just how out there Dave Cousins voice was. I don't think anyone could get away with that these days in a mainstream recording - though sadly I don't know enough about contemporary stuff to be sure I'm right. Of course, bands like The Strawbs were still seen at that point as part of the 'underground', though it's obvious now how much they would have liked commercial success, and the reasonable living that the success would bring with it. Two albums later they got it, with two hit singles, so the public were ready to accept an entirely unconventional voice, from someone who only sounded like himself. (On Lay Down, at least - Part of the Union featured vocals by Rick Ford who was excellent but mainstream. Sounded like an extra Beatle, in fact.)

It's not difficult at all to think of lots of other examples of similarly 'way out' voices of the period. Roger Chapman of Family springs to mind - and they had 'hits' as well. I suppose it all went back to early Dylan and his phenomenal success and record companies seeing the possibility of big bucks in connection with vocalists who were just genuinely unique.

Just when did everybody start to sound like everybody else?

Thursday, May 15, 2014


If you think there are just two sides to any question, you're asking the wrong questions.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Gosh, it's been hot for the last few weeks. I'm talking about sweat marks on my shirt before leaving for work - at 6.40 am. Just lounging around in the front room is enough to make me feel grubby and whatever I happen to be wearing thoroughly and sweatily lived-in, thank you. Add this to the fact that the Toad work has been generating more than its fair share of angst lately and you'll realise that I've been giving in to a degree of botheration lately.

But let's keep this in perspective. Would I trade the weather for a bitingly cold and rainy December in Manchester? Do I have to go out and earn a living directly under the sun? Isn't it kind of rewarding to something to moan about, apart from the events of a woeful football season?

There's a lot to be said for keeping going, and even if there weren't, it's not like we're given a choice.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Words Going Wrong

At what point do mistakes involving language use turn into common usage? Just lately I've noticed here a little bit of a tendency for strive to be used as a noun, rather than a verb. Example: he felt a strive to get good grades. This sounds so utterly wrong to me that it jars powerfully, but it obviously sounds right to quite a few folks in these parts. Curiously I'm reminded of Hopkins's, the achieve of, the mastery of... , which sounds absolutely great in its wrongness.

Is there some false, unconscious analogy with drive going on here - as in, he had the drive to succeed (and thus he had the strive to succeed)?

I wonder how quickly I'll get used to the usage, if it manages to take hold. (I have the oddest feeling I've heard, or read, more of it recently after starting to see it over the last year, but I could be wrong about this.) Thinking slantwise from the Hopkins bit, I'm now thoroughly inured to the use of achieve as an intransitive verb, as in we will achieve, we will achieve, which used to sound peculiar to me. But more than twenty years of it in a song I'm told is beloved of the nation sort of evens the bump out.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Words, Words, Words

The great thing about poetry, apart from the fact that so much of it is just plain great, is that you can get on with reading it even when ultra-busy and feel that you're genuinely engaging in the full experience of reading, because that's exactly what you're doing. Case in point, I just read the last five poems in Charles Simic's Walking the Black Cat, and finished the volume as a result, whilst eating a fish meal at McDonald's. In fact, I read two whilst queuing up there with the Missus.

And, of course, it's fantastic value for money - the poetry, not the fish meal - at least in the case of Mr Simic - since as soon as you finish one of his poems you want to read it again just to check if it's really as weirdly compelling as you thought the first, or second, or third time of reading. Mind you, there's a sequence of five or six poems towards the back end of the collection that managed to entirely creep me out and to which I won't be returning soon (though, inevitably, one day I'll be back for more goosebumps.)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

To Scale

Watched an episode of the Australian version of Grand Designs this afternoon, the programme in which various folks decide to build houses that are a bit out of the ordinary and have the cameras following the generally painful progress to a generally triumphant end. Today's 'build' (as they seem to say these days) was actually not that much out of the ordinary, except for the size of the place, a house that could have been home to a  small tribe intended for a family of four, somewhere out on the Gold Coast.

It all looked quite nice in the closing sequence, but I found it difficult to imagine anyone enjoying living in a place that had so much in the way of empty space about it. It looked suspiciously like a show house in the most negative sense. And it must have taken forever to keep any thing like clean. Give me compact cosiness any and every time - and since that's all we'll ever be able to afford it's a case of good taste matching the not-so-good budget.

Friday, May 9, 2014

It's A Woman's World

I moved on to Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife after completing Simon Armitage's highly entertaining Seeing Stars and discovered a poetry collection that was, remarkably, equally entertaining. Also extremely disconcerting from a male perspective. I'm afraid the perspicacious Ms Duffy has really got our measure, guys. And, boy, is she funny - as well as lots of other things, prominent amongst them being sad, angry, sexy and thought-provoking.

By the way, her sonnet assuming the voice of Frau Freud should not be read by any gentleman suffering from low self-esteem. Whatever esteem you possess regarding matters of, shall we say, potency, will have vanished by the end - once you've stopped laughing. You have been warned.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

On The Way

Spent the evening being necessarily jabbed, ahead of our trip to Saudi Arabia. First time the doc has ever been offering a prayer as the needle sank in.

A reminder of the possible perils of the way, as well as its delights.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Keeping Still

One characteristic of those who might be broadly termed 'good on a stage' is their ability to keep still when necessary. And those who are really good appear somehow to do a great deal whilst they are still.

Such purposeful stillness is an interesting skill to cultivate in the theatre of life, by the way. It's a way of steering clear of emotional contagion in that it detaches the practitioner from the group he or she may be in on any given occasion. Sometimes a curious power emerges as a result.

Try it in meetings. If nothing else, it's a way of passing the time.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Not Exactly Standing Still

Found enough free time over the weekend to watch the whole of the DVD of Springsteen & the E Street Band Live in Hyde Park on our new Samsung smart tv. Enjoying the concert softened the pain of having to part with our perfectly good old-fashioned telly on account of the demands of Starhub's new set-top box. Actually I find the 32 inch screen way too big but it seems it's regarded as relatively small by current standards. When was it that the decision was made to allow the goggle box to utterly dominate people's living rooms? We actually couldn't find a smaller model.

Anyway, the Springsteen concert was big by any standards so it deserved to dominate our little room. Loved the sense of celebration about it - a celebration of music rather than just the band itself. I'd never noticed just how much Nils Lofgrin adds to the textures of the songs through his playing. His solo on Youngstown was phenomenal, and the fact that he's literally spinning round by the end went beyond impressive. In fact, it was difficult to sit still watching the concert: The E Street Band in performance is a moving experience in more ways than one.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


The emphasis placed on the importance of keeping still in all the major religious traditions is not entirely intuitive, when you think about it. I'd guess it comes at least in part through straightforward experience. There are voices you just cannot hear when you're too busy even to listen to your own.

It's interesting to note what an enemy of everything that constitutes the modern world stillness is. Put it together with silence and you have something deeply revolutionary.

When I first began to pray in the Islamic style, the solat we perform five times a day, it was the difficulty of just being still for those few minutes that struck me so forcibly. Many years on I've learnt, for the most part, to embrace the stillness.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The End In Sight

It was in the old Skoob Books, the second-hand bookshop that used to occupy a corner of the Funan Centre in the days before it decided to style itself an IT Mall, that I came across a rather handsome copy of Desmond Graham's biography of Keith Douglas, the World War II poet, and decided that, since it was going for a song, it should be mine. Sadly it's taken me a few years to get round to genuinely owning the book (through actually reading it - the only way anyone can temporarily own any book); but happily I now do so, and have benefitted from an excellent read. 

I've come across the most famous of Douglas's poems with reasonable frequency over the years, I suppose because they are so eminently anthologisable: How To Kill, Simplify Me When I'm Dead, Vergissmeinnicht, Behaviour of Fish in an Egyptian Teagarden, being the obvious suspects - and what powerful poems they are, quite unlike anybody else. I was also aware that Ted Hughes was a big fan - he edited the selection from Douglas printed by Faber. So it was pretty obvious that KD was a poet of the first order, or very nearly so. And I suppose it was that awareness that fuelled my acquisition of the biography.

And curiously even in the last two or three years Douglas has kept coming into view for me one way or another. A colleague picked his poem Time Eating for an 'unseen' a little while ago. This was one I didn't know at all and it turns out to have been from quite early in the poet's career. Mind you, he only lived to be twenty-four, so nothing can be seen as exactly late. Then Behaviour of Fish... was featured in an IB workshop I attended recently. (To my surprise, no one, except the workshop leader, had come across it before, and there was me thinking it was regarded far and wide as a stone-cold classic.) So I was finally prompted to do more than just dip into Mr Graham's title in the Oxford Lives series.

It turned out to be several books in one: a fascinating portrait of the life of a reasonably well-provided for boy of the English middle class between the wars; an astute and sympathetic commentary on the development of an extraordinary poetic talent; a sometimes riveting account of a small but significant part of the experience of the Eighth Army in the Middle East, to name but three. But for this reader most of all it turned out to be a strange, protracted meditation on the certainty of an early death by both biographer and subject. Douglas's absolute, cold certainty that he would meet his end in the war is profoundly disconcerting, as is the fact that this strange assuredness seemed in no small part to fuel his peculiar genius.

The fact that the dates 1920 - 1944 are emblazoned on the cover of the paperback adjacent to Douglas's name couldn't help but act as a constant reminder of what little time he was given. A good reminder not to complain too much about growing old, eh?

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Reward

News this afternoon that my drama guys had got the result we all wanted, and they had thoroughly deserved, made it a particularly good day. It's not possible to be complacent about this sort of thing; I've experienced too many not entirely coherent decisions in relation to work I've been involved in, and the work of others, to ever assume a foregone conclusion is a foregone conclusion. The vagaries of taste can be quite astonishing even at the highest levels, and we don't pretend to be there. On the lower rungs it's sometimes a case of anything can happen.

This is the fundamental reason I don't have much time for the whole notion of grading works of art or entering them in anything resembling a competition. The reward of a work is simple and obvious - it's the experience of the work itself, either in the making or receiving. All else is secondary, even for those poor souls who need to make a living from their creations. This is not to say that somehow everything that is produced is somehow wonderful; but the proper place for criticism is proper criticism - the real thing that emerges from real audiences meeting real works.

I've had a good day, helped along even further by nasi lemak and the presentation of a silly birthday cake in the evening, but I have a nagging suspicion that quite a few young people on this island who didn't quite get what they wanted are feeling a bit let down today. And that's sad - not that I think we're simply entitled to whatever we want by virtue of wanting it badly. But I suspect their work was full of a sense of life and joy, and a little of that will have quite unnecessarily drained away. I hope enough of the real rewards they will have experienced survive to fill their cups.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Beyond The Ordinary

Karen kindly bought me Maurice Sendak's final completed picture book, My Brother's Book, as a birthday gift. I read it in less than fifteen minutes just after opening it, and I think I've read it another five times since. Of course, read is the wrong word here. It's a work to experience and wonder over and it's easily possible to gaze at a single panel for an hour at a time.

Somehow the great illustrator manages to be both himself and William Blake at one and the same time. The final panel invites us to a paradise of love beyond imagination - except that it isn't, because we have, or had, Mr Sendak's imagination to take us there.

Lovely, lovely, lovely. What else is there to say?