Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dogged Thoughts

One of those weeks when I might say of myself: An I've workin' like a dog. But do dogs really work I wonder. Huskies maybe, but they seem to me to be the exception. All in all dogs strike me as being quite sensible creatures with a sense of proportion about these things. Unlike some species I could mention.

Friday, February 27, 2015

More Bliss

Dylan's Shadows in the Night is spinning. There is no end to the great man's originality, and love for what he does. An album of covers? The Bobster rightly sees himself as uncovering what's been buried. My favourite track at the moment is Berlin's What'll I Do? but I'll probably change my mind tomorrow, there's so much to love here. Donny Heron's pedal steel alone is gloriously mellifluous enough to deserve, indeed demand, repeated listening.

And Dylan's voice on this is a wonder, especially for those of us who assumed it was pretty much shot completely: sweet, hurt, fragile, vulnerable yet strangely strong.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Blissed Out

Now listening to King Crimson's Live at the Orpheum, the recording from last year's Elements Tour (just arrived from those good people at Just reached The Letters (which I remember being played live a lifetime ago in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester.) Mel Collins now soloing. All is bliss.

Postscript: ten minutes later, and my head's been blown off by The Sailor's Tale. Blimey!!!!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

World Enough And Time

Now listening to the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, with John Eliot Gardiner wielding a sprightly baton. In a moment or two of madness a couple of weeks back I ordered a very tasty box set of the seven major Mozart operas as given the once-over by Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists and various vocal luminaries in the 1990s. The box, I'm sort of happy to say, duly arrived yesterday. But since the music is gorgeous you're obviously wondering why I deem the ordering of the 18 CDs as not exactly a sane decision.

It's simple really. How am I ever going to live up to this music? How am I going to find time to lend it the total attention it deserves, indeed demands? At this point in time I have no idea at all, so I'll just surrender to the immediate pleasures on offer and leave the situation to work itself out.

More later - when the rest of the order arrives. (Oh dear, I neglected to mention there are other goodies on the way.)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Smooth Sailing

I suspect that many travel narratives are only of any real interest to the travellers who write them, so I'll keep this one mercifully short and to the point. And the point is this: we really, really, really expected big queues at the immigration checkpoints for both Malaysia and Singapore last night, it being the end of the weekend following Chinese New Year when a goodly portion of the fine citizens of this Far Place finds itself on the way back from visiting folks up north. And that just didn't happen. I've rarely seen the checkpoints so empty of traffic.

Yet oddly there was an abundance of traffic on the highway heading south. I'm not sure where it all went but I'm glad it went there and not where we were going. Moral of the tale: be thankful for small mercies and even more thankful for bigger ones (like getting to bed at 11.00 pm ahead of a working day rather than the 1.30 am I thought might be in store for me.)

Sunday, February 22, 2015


Robert Heinlein's Double Star, the first novel featured in the Library of America's American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956 - 1958, is a cracking little read. Based on the time-honoured plot of the double who becomes indistinguishable from the more accomplished character he seeks to imitate, it manages to be funny, thought-provoking and exciting whilst painting a lively if not terribly convincing picture of our future in the stars. Well, at least as far as Mars. I started it yesterday evening as we were preparing to leave KL and finished it this morning relaxing in Melaka and it added considerably to my general sense of well-being, not least because of the general optimism of its vision of things and things to come. It's certainly remarkably prescient concerning the notion that an actor might well function very effectively as a politician.

Despite my recent sense of the need to read something major, something of real weight in the field of fiction, I'm more than happy to continue enjoying trekking down the by-ways of what one might loosely term 'genre fiction' for some time to come if the rewards are this great.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Maintaining Order

Why should it be that I feel virtuous after getting any kind of cleaning done? At least part of the pleasure of being in the house here is being able to set things to right that would otherwise remain unattended to, and thus irritate - mildly so, but distinctly. I've not been able to give the books here a reasonable going over since last June, essentially the result of doing the umrah in December, and the omission was bugging me more than somewhat. Today I set manfully about the task and am now positively glowing. There are certain obsessive parts of a personality that it pays to cultivate.

Mind you, if you've ever watched Clean House, that great trashy - in more ways than one - programme in which various lazy slobs open up their messy houses for the likes of us to gloat over in order to get it all cleaned up gratis, you'll be usefully aware that cultivating the habit of keeping chaos at bay has its upside.

(It goes without saying, of course, that the real cleaning gets done by the Missus - so I won't say it, but will just be deeply grateful instead.)

Friday, February 20, 2015

On A Roll

Brought along a cheapo cheapo paperback I picked up the other day at the second hand bookshop at Holland Village of Part 1 of Stephen King's Under The Dome. Saw a little bit of the version for telly which didn't look much good but suspected that the novel would offer the usual roller coaster ride in terms of a gripping narrative, and was not wrong. I'll have soon finished its six hundred plus pages in less than three days, even with our guests around.

One reviewer quoted on the back cover compares it to The Stand, but this is completely wrong. It may look epic in scale but this is King in small town territory, uncovering all the dirty secrets that lurk therein. In an odd way it reminds me of Salem's Lot, without the supernatural element, or at least with that element minimised. I don't think King takes this stuff terribly seriously but just lets it all rip, and powerfully so.

One thing that seems more prominent than usual in the writing this time is the emphasis on what might broadly be termed the drug culture of small town America, ranging from alcohol, to prescription drugs, to dope, to crystal meth. Put simply, there's a lot of imbibing in the early pages of the novel to the point where you wonder how anyone ever gets anything done. If King is right about young Americans' fixation with leaving reality a long way behind then it seems to me the nation has a lot more to worry about than mysterious domes descending on its townships. 

Also finished Billy Collins's The Trouble With Poetry, which is full of highly accessible poems creating very little trouble at all, for this reader at least. It's easy to see why he's such a popular writer. Nice to just breeze through a collection for a change, especially after the rigours of Mr Harsent's recent work.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Baking Day

Whilst I've been relaxing on a grand scale, heavily committed to easy reading & easy listening, Noi has been baking up a storm on the kitchen front. She'd been planning a kitchen-based day for some time, having invited along her friends Marsha and Rohana to aid and abet her in the production of sup tulang with lots of bread. Actually Marsha is the baking expert so the other two have been learning the noble art from her. To say that I'm looking forward to sampling the fruits of their efforts would be an understatement but I'll take the risk and, thus, understate my expectations.

I have a pictorial record of our bakers' progress, but Blogger is proving distinctly uncooperative regarding the uploading of the pictures at present, so maybe later.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Sense Of Order

Arrived at Maison KL in one piece around 4.30 this morning, after negotiating a huge jam at Tuas involving a one and a half hour delay. Actually I thought we might be there for at least three hours when I first saw the tail-back from the Malaysian Immigration, so I'm not complaining about the time we got through eventually.

Noi set about putting the place in order on arrival and I set about falling asleep as soon as I could.

Had a slight scare when I ran a hot water tap up stairs and nothing came out but gusts of air accompanied by a general shaking of the pipes. For a horrible moment I had thoughts of needing to call a plumber in, but whatever was blocking the system was temporary and has gone now. When you come back as we do regularly to a house you have been neglecting you get reminders of how vulnerable houses are when they are not being cared for. Fortunately ours seems to be functioning as well as we might reasonably expect it to and, yes, we know how lucky we are.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Now in the thick of it, getting ready to wend our way north to our other home. We're taking advantage of the super long weekend for Chinese New Year to get away from it all, by returning to the rest of our all in these parts. I hope the Missus feels up to driving because, frankly, I don't.

Monday, February 16, 2015


In an impressive display of self-sacrificing heroism above and beyond the call of duty Fuad and family have decided to entertain two young visitors from the wilds of Melaka over Chinese New Year. Yesterday evening saw the scamps in question let loose in West Coast Park and a fine time was had by all.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Not So Deep

David Harsent's collection Night has got to be one of the most densely packed, focused books of poems I've ever read, assuming I'm reading it the right way. One mood dominates: Noir with a capital 'N'. The title does not mislead. I'm not entirely sure I enjoyed it, and sometimes felt I wasn't living up to the demands being made upon me as I read. But I found a lot to admire and kept thinking there was much I needed to re-visit.

In contrast, John Christopher's The Prince in Waiting, the last of the novels for teenagers I brought back from KL last year as a way of reminding myself of kids' lit and what I've been missing since I don't really deal with this stuff in the classroom anymore, proved a quick and enjoyable read for the weekend. I suppose it sounds like faint praise to say a novel is well-crafted, but it shouldn't because such craft isn't easily achieved. I must admit though I don't intend to go on with the trilogy of which this is the first part (which would mean finding copies of the other two novels which I don't recall ever buying.) This is simply because I know I'll find myself admiring the plotting from a distance, as it were, rather than genuinely responding at a deeper level and I've begun to feel of late that I've been doing a bit too much of such cool appraising and not getting sufficiently swept up into the fictions I've been reading.

At some point soon I really must get down to some serious reading of the kind of thing that reconfigures the mind.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Fine Romance

Exchanged slushy cards with the Missus this morning to mark this day of romance in our usual fashion. Then thought about what I would offer from the wide world of Literature if asked what's worth reading to learn about what it's like to be in love. (In truth the question's been on my mind since it featured in the book pages in last Sunday's newspaper, the reason being that I realised then I hadn't a clue how I would answer it.)

I've now got two reading experiences to offer, one obvious, the other less so. For love in its obsessive, distorting, essentially delusional manifestations, Proust is your man - pretty obviously so. Has ever so much intelligence been applied to so much that's trivial, only to show us, of course, that what may appear trivial isn't? For love in its most transcendent, redemptive shape I originally had Dante in mind, La Vita Nuova, but then remembered from somewhere Paul Bailey's wonderful novel Old Soldiers. The portrait of the grieving old fellow (the first of the two old soldiers around whom the story circles) who's just lost his wife and his reason for existing is so moving and so real that I honestly can't think of anyone else who's come close to that kind of simple truth in fiction. As far as I know nobody seems to rate the novel much at all, which continues to bewilder me.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Making It

Watched a bit of a variety show on Suria, the Malay language channel here, earlier this evening and found myself both thoroughly enjoying the segment with veteran rocker Ramli Sarip and realising just how much I admire him. This is in part because I like his music but it's also related to the fact that he's somehow managed to carve out a career as a genuine musician doing what I think he wants to do, which is by no means mainstream, in what must have been just about the least conducive environment for doing so that one might imagine. Earlier in the programme a talented young band called Bunkface featured and it struck me that they were likely to be facing a fair few constraints in terms of what they would have to play to make any kind of living. (I'm guessing that they didn't really see themselves as popular entertainers, though I may be wrong.) It made me wonder if they would last it out. Hope they do.

One guy who has lasted it out, in a very different environment, is Peter Hammill the uber-talented frontman of Van Der Graaf Generator. By chance I'd accessed an interview with him the other day in which he was talking about how he had never really wanted the stardom that came to two of his contemporaries - David Bowie and Peter Gabriel. He strikes me as a hugely sane guy and as someone whose career has been deeply successful and satisfying in a way that, oddly enough, perhaps may not be true of his two marvellously gifted contemporaries. And I wonder if the same might be said of Ramli: in a smaller way, but a deeper way, perhaps he can be seen as having achieved something more than some of the seemingly brightest stars.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Words Of Wisdom

Heard this evening on one of Noi's cooking programmes: There's nothing worse than a floppy soufflé. Words to live by, I reckon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


I suppose we take it for granted that kids feel things with great intensity, but why is this so? And what happens to the mechanisms that create those feelings? Do they atrophy? Go rusty? Get locked away?

I started school when I was five, at St Mary's in Denton. My Auntie Norah took me for the first day. When she walked away from the classroom - I saw her leaving through a panel in the classroom door - I felt utterly abandoned. It's almost an understatement to say I felt desolate. I didn't cry, being a brave boy, but I was on the edge of tears, hollow inside.

And then when I was six or seven there was a period in which Mum was working shifts alternate weeks, which I meant I didn't see her for a whole week when I came back from school as she was at work until ten each day. Maureen took me home from school, on the bus to Haughton Green, and Dad was there, but it wasn't the same. Desolation on a daily basis.

The funny thing is that I am entirely sure that my childhood was a happy one - secure and well-looked after. So what must it be like for kids who don't have the good luck to be born into a loving family? It doesn't bear think about; which means that we should think about it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

ROTFL As They Say

Just caught a few minutes of one of the Austin Powers movies - the one in which Dr Evil appears on the Jerry Springer Show and attacks the host, among others. Found myself laughing immoderately. Then realised I was completely wasting my time watching such low brow material in such distinctly questionable taste.

An excellent way to spend an evening, all in all.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Jolly Good Stuff

Forgot to mention the other day, when I was having a good moan at myself about being so lazy in my reading, that I've been steadily and enjoyably moving through the poems in the very tasty anthology A Luxury We Cannot Afford and am now at the mid-point thereof. Got it on the recommendation of the hierophant who is usually right about these things and was doubly so in this case. Great idea to base an entire collection around the Man who has cast such a long shadow over the politics of this Far Place for seemingly always. It shouldn't work, but it does. Every contributor (so far) seems to hit top form, as if dealing with a colossus demands something pretty colossal in response - or at least something that's really meant, fully considered, if you see what I mean. And the poems seem to grow in stature, even the slightest of them, simply as part of the collective whole.

I thought Gwee Li Sui's foreword alone was worth the price of admission: a wonderfully measured, intelligent attempt to do justice to its subject in just four pages.

And whilst I'm feeling full of praise, I have to say that Peter Dickinson's The Devil's Children will stick in my mind as a genuinely imaginative, beautifully achieved little novel, that does some big things within the confines of its genre (which, I suppose, might be loosely characterised as disaster lit for teens.) On paper the idea of having a feisty young heroine team up with a group of Sikhs looking to find a home in an England that has turned its back on any kind of machinery and degenerated into a kind of mediaeval primitivism again shouldn't work. And yet again it does. What a relief to escape the usual cliches.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


One of the basic rules of life: any Dylan interview is a good interview even if the questions are lousy. And the interview he did recently for AARP The Magazine is one of his best. (It helped that he was asked about the music for a change.) Worth reading and then re-reading.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Not Exactly Progress

To my chagrin I must report that for some reason I haven't been getting down to any genuinely sustained serious reading of late. It's true that I've cleared the various magazines around the house - an issue of Prog, a Philosophy Now from September/October 2014, and the late December issue of The New York Review of Books, which means I can now purchase the latest editions in good conscience - but I've been getting almost nowhere with my on-going poetry collection, David Harsent's Night, and I've even been struggling to get on with Peter Dickinson's The Devil's Children, which is basically a short novel for kids, despite the fact it's rather well written and a pretty good read. (Mind you, I read half of it today and do intend to complete it on the morrow.)

Most embarrassing of all, I realised to my delight a couple of weeks ago that I'd kept Peter Mansfield's The Arabs on my shelves here rather than moving it to Maison KL as I felt a sudden keenness to refresh my (pitiful) knowledge of the Middle East following the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and firmly expected to read big chunks immediately, since when I've managed about five pages. Oh hum. I could blame work I suppose, but I could and should blame my own laziness and lack of the necessary oomph, the vital vim.

Friday, February 6, 2015

One Last Glance Back

I was chatting today to someone about our December trip to Makkah for the umrah and reminded myself of the fascination of bumping into and brushing against so many folks from so many different parts of the world in one place - hence the often literal bumping and brushing. You could occupy yourself there people-watching right around the clock, finding something to surprise and intrigue with the passing of every hour.

One particular example captures the magic of it all for me. I was sitting in the masjid, waiting for the next prayer which was some way off, when a group a few yards in front of me caught my attention. I think they were from India, judging from their complexions, and were generally fairly young, the eldest looking in his early forties to me. There were about nine of them, and they looked like family - cousins, uncles, brothers, that sort of thing. They were relaxing between prayers, a couple reading The Holy Qur'an, the others chatting.

Then two youngish boys arrived - family, again, based on their looks. I'd have guessed the kids to have been around nine and ten years old. The boys proceeded to greet the grown-ups, obviously very respectfully, assiduously one by one. Initially I thought the older guys were lowering their faces to let the youngsters kiss them, but then I realised that what was actually happening was that each little lad moved in carefully on each grown-up to the point that their noses gently touched, and that was the physical manifestation of the greeting. It was really quite extraordinary. The care and focus required for the little ones to get the movement precisely correct was in itself a gentle and powerful demonstration of courtesy.

Remarkable: turning a casual, everyday matter of kids saying hello to family members into something quite beautiful. Something truly civilised.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

In High Places

More than once over the last few months the little confabs between myself, Peter, Chris and Philip over the cup that cheers have turned to examination of the dreadful case of Jimmy Savile. I like to think that this isn't simply because of an unhealthy interest in the vileness of what the man got up to, but a concern about the extent to which he was able to do what he did as a result of the collusion of others - and I'm talking about people in positions of power and responsibility.
We're not conspiracy theorists, I hasten to add, and our particular little jury remains out on any final verdict on the behaviour of what one might term The Establishment as it manifested itself during the period in question. But we believe in a reasonably detached way that there's a real possibility that some extremely grisly truths may remain to be unearthed.

How do networks of power become corrupted? The terrible answer I suspect is: easily.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

On The Box

Caught a little bit of brilliantly trashy telly this evening in between bouts of marking. At first I thought Husband Hunters might have been clever cutting edge satire until I realised that the young, or sort of young, ladies featured were for real - or what they took to be reality.

Favourite line, from an enthusiastic (and I mean ENTHUSIASTIC!!!) Wedding Planner advising on the music for the big day: I'm visioning violins! Well, I suppose she would be.

The lovely thing about watching this stuff is that you can almost convince yourself you're reasonably normal at the side of the grotesques on display. Cruel, but refreshingly so.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Start The Week

Is it only Monday? Counting down the days, I'm afraid. Not the best way to start the week, is it?

Not exactly optimal. (A phrase I like a lot - useful in almost every situation you can imagine. Especially on a Monday.)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Thawing Out

Started the month with a quick read of the appropriate segment of Clare's The Shepherd's Calendar, as is my customary practice. On this day a particularly poignant reminder of typically English landscapes. For the first time I consciously noticed how the consistent present tense of the great mad poet's descriptions evokes a kind of timeless present. For example the random dog, lovingly observed in the February thaw, is seemingly ever present to any reader at any time, captured in his daft, pointless pursuit of crows and larks and hares:

As crows from morning perches flye / He barks and follows them in vain / Een larks will catch his nimble eye / And off he starts and barks again / Wi breathless haste and blinded guess / Oft following where the hare hath gone / Forgetting in his joys excess / His frolic puppy days are gone

In the joy of the present moment lies a kind of immortality.