Saturday, December 31, 2016

Well-being

Approaching the end of the year I've been reflecting on the things that matter. I'm in a good place with respect to most of these, and aware, I hope, of just how lucky I am in being so. To take one example, and a vitally important one, I seem, as does Noi, to be reasonably healthy. We did quite a bit of walking on our recent trip, often wondering if we were hitting the 10,000 steps a day that's said to be so good for us. At the end of our holiday we had firm evidence in the form of data from Noi's smart phone that we had generally exceeded that target in a big way. It seems that the phone tracks the number of your steps even if you don't tell it to. Fifi showed us the figures on the journey home otherwise we would have been oblivious to the good news. 

When I consider the fact that at various times over the last twenty-four years I wouldn't been able to stand for over fifteen minutes without experiencing debilitating pain in my back, or legs, it seems to me a bit of a miracle to now be keen on covering the longest possible distance in a day. This is something I remind myself of pretty much every time we're out somewhere.

Also I'm sort of celebrating the fact that despite consuming fair quantities of various foodstuffs over the last month I've somehow contrived to remain just below my fighting weight. Apart from other considerations I have a suspicion that being reasonably light helps relieve my back problems. What I now need to do is get back into the routine of visiting the gym.

I've also cause to celebrate the well-being of other folks. Just about everyone we visited in the UK looked hale and hearty. We managed to spend an hour at Bob & Cynthia's, for example, who are well on age-wise and they looked in very fine form. It seems that Cynthia is now 75, which is astonishing since she looks so youthful. And it was good to see brother-in-law John not letting the loss of his leg stop him from being as feisty as ever. Sadly there are exceptions to all this good news, but even with these not all is hopeless. Osman is out of hospital, I'm pleased to say, which is surely a good sign. We'll know better when we visit, hopefully soon.

I suppose Maureen is the only case where I can't help but feel a sense of hopelessness. She's dealing with so many problems, chief amongst them her addiction, that it's difficult to see a way forward. When we told Bob and Cynthia about her condition they were really surprised, still thinking of her as the vibrant, very together lady she was at the time of her marriage to John. We're hoping that some of the old Maureen is still in there somewhere, fighting to get out and take control again.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Old Habits Die Easily

Back at work today for meetings ahead of the new term beginning next week. Managed to sleep reasonably well and didn't feel too many signs of jet lag, though awoke a few times thinking I was lost in London. Odd.

As usual after I've been away for some time the waking and rising routine went slowly as I struggled to recall exactly what order to do things in. It seemed strange to shower before praying the Swubuh Prayer after a month or so of doing things the other way round. And I was flummoxed about how to start my own car before setting off for the masjid for prayers having been driving a very different vehicle for almost all the month.

I'm hoping to remember how to teach when work begins properly, although it could be argued that I've never really fathomed that one out.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Killing Time

Now at Dubai Airport, where it is the middle of the night. Our onward flight to Singapore leaves here in about four hours, which means we have time to kill, but we're good at doing that. It's nice not to be having to consider where to drive to next, something which has been of concern to me on almost every day of our holiday. Sometimes having other folks essentially doing the transiting for you is rather pleasant.

Listened to odd bits and pieces from The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Prince, Michael Nyman and Sibelius on the way here. Read a couple of chapters from Daniel Deronda. All highly satisfactory.

Might manage a bit more from DD on the onward flight, but am more likely to sleep.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

From The Bottom Up

Asked Fifi about her impressions of England and Scotland as formed on our little trip. She'd been struck by the general friendliness of people in the cities we'd visited, forming a sense of genuine community beneath the glitz and garishness of the season. It was particularly interesting to note the contrast she saw between this and what she felt was the sometimes false sense of community back on our little island. To her much of that seems driven by the wishes of a government imposing notions of community on those below (though for good reasons) whereas over here the spirit grows from the actions of individuals and small groups acting together.

One example that straightaway sprung to mind for us both was that of Jeanette and her angels. These little woollen representatives of the cherubim (or seraphim, who knows?) were made by Jeanette and other ladies from her church and given out free to folks in Romiley and environs, each coming with a little quotation from scripture. Our three girls were lucky to be given one each - and totally delighted at the lovely gifts. The initiative for this little project came from Jeanette and her chums, with nobody and nothing needing to prompt them except the goodness of their hearts.

In contrast to the above, we also talked about the plight of the homeless rough sleepers who were so conspicuous in every place we'd been, except the small Devon villages, Fifi wondering whether the situations they faced were tied to issues of unemployment. A good question, for which I had no simple answer. I don't know exactly what their ominously sad presence says about this society but I do know there were more of them around than at any other time I've visited the UK since 1988. As we were walking back from the joys of Aladdin the other night across the centre of Manchester to get the car from the Dale Street car park they seemed especially conspicuous to us since the streets were otherwise deserted of shoppers at that time. As we walked I was thinking of times I'd walked across the city as a teenager to get the bus at Piccadilly and not seeing any rough sleepers at all. I don't think this is false nostalgia for a better world in the past; it's just the way it was.

It was bitterly cold last night, by the way. Hope all those poor souls made it through to the morning.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Showtime

Jeanette and John treated us all to an evening at the Panto yesterday, with Sam, Kate & Rob in attendance also. The show in question was Aladdin at Manchester's Opera House and if you live in this region and have got kids I urge you to go and see it. Actually, go to see it even if you haven't got kids - or have some kids if you think you need an excuse to go. Absolute magic: colourful, funny, loud, cheerfully vulgar; unapologetic fun for its own sake, lovingly performed. It made me proud to be British - panto being a most peculiarly British institution. And Eric Potts as Widow Twanky is the best pantomime dame I have seen live on stage.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Some Help

Yesterday wasn't the best Christmas we've spent at my sister's. Such days are long in the past, irretrievably so, but I'm glad to have had them and enjoyed recalling various moments from those better days. However, due largely to Noi's good offices and magnificently patient efforts in the kitchen, I can't think of a day when we've been able to be of such real help to someone else, so that made the day very much worthwhile. Oh, and I also got to see my grand niece for the first time, and she was lovely and smiling and bubbly and interested in everything and, we hope and pray, has many genuinely joyful Christmases to come and memories to make.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Not Entirely Happy

We're off to sister Maureen's in a couple of hours for Christmas dinner. Noi will be cooking the turkey we bought yesterday in Longsight, plus some curried chicken. John had been sending out mixed signals as to what he really wanted us to get, so we went for both eastern and traditional. It wasn't too difficult this time round getting hold of a halal turkey. I think they're becoming more easily available over here.

It's not a lot of fun for the girls visiting Maureen & John with us, but they're very patient. I think Noi believes it's good for them to visit those facing a degree of adversity and I can see some value in this, but it's a bit of a sad place to be given John's struggles to get around and my sister's general sense of being outside of things - a situation not made any easier by the problems she's experiencing with her eyes: she can't see anything at all out of one of them and vision in the other seems severely restricted. We were all set to take her to the hospital in early December for some kind of operation on the eye that's gone blind - repairing a detached retina, I think - but the doctor had to deal with an emergency so the procedure has been postponed.

Noi is taking the opportunity to do as much cleaning up at the house as possible whilst we're there. A typically practical reminder that only too often making the best of things as they are is all we can do.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Hard Rain

I'd forgotten just how bleakly unrelenting cold rain can be until we encountered a particularly harsh example of a pelting storm on our last evening in Edinburgh, walking home from the city centre to our apartment. The walk only lasted some twenty-five minutes but it felt a lot, lot longer. Once the wet gets in your shoes you're really in Lear on the blasted heath territory, or at least I was. I'm obviously getting soft. I certainly won't regret leaving this climate a long way behind.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Common Politeness

It's a familiar clichĂ©: the big city breeds a general lack of consideration for others and promotes rudeness. It really should be true, but in my experience it simply isn't. In Edinburgh, London and Manchester we've met with unfailing politeness. Of course, the crowds continue to hurry by, but doors are held open, people stand to one side to let others pass, they apologise when there's an accidental collision, and it's 'please' and 'thank you' all the way. I can't think of a single time we've been served in a shop with any degree of abruptness.

Yes, the world is in many sad ways horrible, but it's intriguingly a nicer place than you think.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Weight Of History

We seem to have visited more castles than usual on this trip. Yesterday we drove out to Stirling Castle in the afternoon and enjoyed a ramble around its precincts despite the extremely blustery conditions. It doesn't bear thinking about what it might have been like to inhabit the place in its heyday, though whoever had designed the various exhibitions there did an excellent job of attempting to take us back in time.

As in Edinburgh Castle there was a whole segment of the building given over to a history of one of the regiments associated with the Highlands. This involved a curious and touching mixture of gung-ho enthusiasm for all things military with an awareness of the probable misery of most soldiers' lives, especially when one entered the rooms devoted to the First World War. Suddenly the colours drained away to leave us adrift on the bleak mud and khaki of Flanders and the like, fortunately in imagination only.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Incongruities

So far we've spent most of our time here wandering around the centre of Edinburgh. There's much to admire. Yesterday we enjoyed and endured in roughly equal measures a windswept afternoon exploring the Castle. It was considerably colder than on our first day when we'd been warmed by the glow of the Christmas market adjacent to Princes Street. That was just one of several memorable seasonal markets we've had the pleasure of roaming (usually in the gloaming) on our stay, and probably the best, offering  more for kids than the one in Manchester.

We came back to the apartment to the dreadful news of the attack on the Christmas market at Berlin, with coverage of the tightened security at similar markets throughout the UK. It was difficult to take in the unfolding horror. Just as the haunting images from Aleppo over the last few weeks don't seem to belong to any world we know. The trouble is, though, is that they're as real as the happiness of buying tartan scarves and silly fridge magnets.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Getting Fresh

As well as enjoying the pleasures of wandering around various bits of the UK with three teenagers in tow (Fifi is technically no longer a teenager, but still looks like one) I'm getting some reading done in the quieter stretches of our time here. After struggling through the opening chapters of Daniel Deronda, not quite grasping the social milieu in which Gwendolen Harleth finds herself, I'm now rather more at ease with the world created therein by GE and quite enjoying the novel. Part of the fun for me is in not having the slightest clue regarding the directions the writer is going off on. I started reading the introduction to the Penguin edition by Terence Cave which emphatically let me know I should read the novel before encountering his various spoilers and decided to take him seriously. This is working wonders for ensuring a freshness in my reading.

And I'm also enjoying a beguiling freshness in reading a collection of poems by one Paul Farley - whom I've never heard of before - entitled The Dark Film. This is the only book I've purchased over here. It cost less than 2 quid second hand from an antiquarian bookshop in York, near the cathedral actually. (It turned out that a post I wrote earlier moaning about the lack of second hand bookshops in the modern version of the city was inaccurate by a count of 3, according to Google, and we found one of them.) The collection came with a 'Poetry Book Society Choice' sticker on the front, so I thought it was worth taking a chance on, and it fit easily into one of my coat pockets so I reckoned it would come in handy for a brief perusal in off moments, like when imbibing a cuppa. And I was right, though I didn't think so at first. I found the first 4 or 5 poems very heavy going, but now I'm a bit of a fan. Persistence helps.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Up North

We now find ourselves installed in quite a roomy apartment in Edinburgh, having driven up from London over the last couple of days. On the way we stopped over at David's place in Lincoln, enjoying a jolly time with the man himself and his new lady-friend, Sue. He's got a boat there and a house by the marina. All very comfortable for him, and, by extension, us. Noi was very impressed by the centre of Lincoln, around the cathedral, but the time we had to look around was necessarily limited by the dictates of the journey, one of the sad truths of zooming around the country in just a few weeks. However, we're intending to stay put for a few days here in Scotland so that should give us time to assess the joys of Scotland's capital.

(Must say, I hope I'm right in assuming it's still the capital and Scotland still exists, as such. What with various referenda and Brexit and what have you, everywhere appears in a state of existentialist crisis these days.)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Just Looking

I spend an awful lot of time on these trips abroad just looking at things, these things falling into three broad categories: splendid views of various landscapes/cityscapes; items on sale (which I hardly ever buy), ranging from the egregiously expensive to cheap schlock; actual bits of art, usually in galleries. We managed aspects of all three yesterday, slowly taking in the Portobello Road up to Notting Hill, then heading for the river around Tower Bridge (again), and spending a couple of hours doing two floors of the Tate Modern.

Our trip to the Tate Modern was our second London gallery, having had a look in the National Gallery on our first full day here. I must say I much prefer the modern stuff. It's embarrassing to admit it but put me in front of a Titian and I've got no idea what I'm supposed to make of it all. Monumental yes, but in the dull sense for this viewer. On the other hand I could spend hours just sitting in a room of Rothkos just feeling happily overwhelmed - especially if that room happens to contain the murals from the Seagram Restaurant commission. Bliss - the dark variety.

The problem presented by the Tate Modern is the wonderful fact that there's too much of it. Two floors was one too many in my case.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Foyled

Who would have thought it? I spent an hour in England's premier bookshop, the branch along Charing Cross Road, and emerged bookless (and DVD-less and CD-less, a point worth mentioning since they sell quite a number of tasty items in those domains.) Why so?

One factor involved was a degree of caution as to overloading our luggage on the way back. In truth though I could easily have purchased quite a few books or disks without creating a problem. No, the key factor related to the fact that I will be able to get hold of the most enticing items perused on-line if I really feel the need to and I still have quite a bit I need to do justice to before expanding the range of stuff I really must read, watch or listen to.

A simple example of this: I'm less than a quarter of the way into Daniel Deronda and I'm wary of being distracted from my reading by anything that might seem more accessible (like Andrew Motion's biography of Keats a tome I've been seeking out for the longest time and found enticingly in Foyles.) It's proving a tough read, though I'm beginning to get a sense of its rewards.

The younger me was a happily promiscuous reader; the older self recognises a need for focus and discipline, a need that can so easily be compromised by abundance. Wasn't life so much easier when there was so much less available?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Developments

Enjoyed a good few hours rambling around central London yesterday, ending up walking along the south bank of the river, from the National Theatre to Tower Bridge. We found a nicely varied set of stalls setting street food near the bridge and the kids set about their various soups with gusto - chicken noodle, beef noodle and fishball. Strange to be so keenly reminded of home at such a distance. Noi and I found ourselves reminiscing about the first time we walked together on the south side of the river and how completely run-down it was in those days. Several cheers for urban renewal.

And I'm almost won over to the charms of the smart phone given just how useful Fifi's turned out to be in getting us safely back to our apartment in the evening. We're based a fair way out of the city in Leyton, where it's comfortable and cheap and excellent for halal food, but rather distant. The bus journey into the centre was direct enough, and didn't take too long, but getting the return bus would have involved retracing our journey across the city to Oxford Street and at one point we found ourselves on a tube line with a train going out to Leyton. We decided to take this, though we didn't really have much idea of any bus that might take us from the Leyton tube station to our abode.

This is where the phone proved of inestimable value. Fifi found an app with details of the local buses and little maps of the area. It wasn't exactly easy finding our way home but I strongly suspect it would have been impossible without the technical assistance provided. I'm now wondering how I ever found my way around the city in the old days, though, of course, somehow I did.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Not Listening

We're now installed in our London apartment, which we've rented for the next three nights. It's warm and offers plenty of room, so we're happy with it. And we can thank goodness for the GPS in the car that got us here since I have zero idea of directions in which to drive in the capital.

Having arrived in the early evening we bought supplies at a little shop round the corner and elected to stay in, watching, amongst other offerings, an odd little programme entitled Muslims Like Us. This was the second of two parts, featuring a disparate group of ten British Muslims, sharing a house in York for a couple of weeks, almost Big Brother style. I'm not quite sure what it was intended to achieve, but it certainly managed to show just how diverse Muslim belief and even practice can be. Unfortunately conflict was inherent in the selection of the various occupants of the house with one guy who represented a particularly extreme version of the faith, to the point of caricature, causing no end of disagreement. I was very struck by the fact that no one involved seemed any good at all at listening, but I suspect the film-makers were never intending to show boring footage of folks listening attentively to each other in an attempt to understand how other Muslims saw Islam. (Must say, though, how much more reasonable the ladies involved came across as in contrast to the gentlemen.)

It's funny, isn't it, how rarely playwrights depict two people talking at each other simultaneously, yet how often this is the reality of what passes for discussion.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Counting The Cost

This has been my first ever visit to the South West of England and, as expected, I've thoroughly enjoyed it, as have the rest of the team. Over the last few days we've spent time in Appledore, Clovelly, Barnstaple, Westward Ho! and Bideford and it's easy to find positive things about all of them. Today we move on to the nation's capital and, I suspect, a somewhat faster, more cosmopolitan way of life. I haven't seen anyone here begging on the streets, though that's not to say there are no problems of homelessness. It might be just that less visible, or I may have been looking in the wrong places.

Generally my sense is that England is an expensive place to live. Noi and Fifi reckon that supermarket prices compare reasonably favourably with those in Singapore, especially for items like salmon, but eating out is extremely expensive and you can pay a fortune for parking - though it's been a lot cheaper here than it was in York. For reasonably prosperous middle class folk like us this is all very well, but I wonder what it's like for those struggling financially. Not a lot of fun, is my guess, made worse, I would think, by living cheek by jowl, as it were, with those who can afford a decent lifestyle.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Not So Good

Got some bad news yesterday from Rohana about Osman's health. He's had to undergo an emergency operation for a problem with his colon. The diagnosis doesn't sound too good, but we're hoping and praying for the best. We've shared some lovely times with then over the years - in York and Chester and Morocco and Spain, to name a few - and we're hoping for more.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Cosiness

Came back to our snug and warm abode after a wet afternoon at Barnstaple market yesterday and revelled in its sheer, unadulterated cosiness. Fifi, Fafa and I agreed that despite the many merits of life in our Far Place, the word 'cosy' means little in its context. Here it means everything.

I'm cosily writing this in a warm kitchen on a cold morning, having just been handed my crumpets. Bye!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Strange Times

On the way down to Devon I bought a copy of the Times Literary Supplement when we stopped off at one of the services between Birmingham and Bristol. In previous visits to the UK I've generally purchased magazines and newspapers quite freely and, as a result, found myself with too much to read. This time round I brought with me on the trip the recent copy of The New York Review of Books I picked up in Holland Village and only half read, and an untouched issue of Philosophy Now, with the idea that I'd only start buying new stuff when I'd got one of these out of the way. (Buying The Big Issue I count as a necessary exception.) Since I completed the NYRB issue the other day I now feel free to get hold of some new stuff. Mind you I'm still a bit wary of buying one of the thick Sunday newspapers here with all the various enticing supplements. Much as I've enjoyed these in the past they take quite a bit of reading, leaving little time for actual books. (I'm moving on in Daniel Deronda at the moment, but progress is slow what with having so much to do over here.) Indeed, it took me a couple of days to do justice to a unexceptional mid-week copy of The Guardian such is the depth of coverage provided by the quality papers.

Finishing the issue of the NYRB proved to be quite a melancholy experience, by the way. It was the 'Election Issue', printed before the results of the presidential election became a surreal, bitter reality. It featured a number of commentaries by the great and good and sensible, only one or two of whom took at all seriously the possibility of the result which we actually got. That result is dominating the news here, along with the bewildering puzzle of how the equally irrational Brexit is to be achieved. Strange times.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Christmas Spirit

We're now down in Devon, in John & Jeanette's lovely little house in Northam, near Bideford. We drove down in the late afternoon and evening yesterday generally to the accompaniment of Radio 2, taking in an entire live concert by Robbie Williams. Not exactly my cup of tea, but it served to pass the time on a rather boring drive. I'm sure we passed through some scenic countryside, but that's meaningless in the dark.

However, we did start the journey to the strains of Dylan's Christmas album,  Christmas in the Heart, which I bought from the HMV in York along with the first eponymous album from The Imagined Village. The Dylan album was released when we were last in the UK in December (of 2009, I think) but I'd hesitated to buy it then since the critics seemed to deem it a bit of an incongruous novelty, and I'm not really that keen on Christmas songs these days, overplayed as they are at this time of year and, sadly, incongruously, even earlier. Funnily enough I remember a short interview featuring the Bobster being published in The Big Issue when the Christmas album was released in which the great man sounded very convincing as to the real value of the project. Anyway, it turns out that Dylan was right and the critics wrong, as is ever the case, of course - well, to these ears, that is.

All I can say is that I totally, entirely, wholly loved every moment of Christmas in the Heart, which is titled with unerring accuracy. It's a gloriously warm, funny, charming evocation of the sound of Christmas as would have been experienced by the young Robert Zimmerman, a mythological Christmas that I'm aware of from songs from my own childhood and films and tv programmes from the States. Dylan's gloriously raddled voice and the rock solid band he selected, with their perfect arrangements of the old songs, add the necessary edge that somehow adds to the sweetness of the songs. (Pedal steel from Donnie Heron to die for, as on the later albums of standards.)

For the first time in years I felt in my old heart the Christmas Past that I thought I'd lost.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Painful Issue

Bought a copy of The Big Issue yesterday in York. I was beginning to wonder whether the magazine was still being sold since I hadn't seen any vendors previously. In a way I'm glad it's still going, providing those who sell it some much-needed financial support; but at the same time it's sad there's any need at all for a publication supporting the cause of the homeless.
 
Actually I've got an uneasy feeling that I'm seeing a lot more people begging on the streets here - and not always begging, but just seeming to be finding places to sit and get themselves warm. It's frightening to imagine the difficulties faced by the down-and-out, especially in weather as cold as this, and it's good to know that folks like those behind The Big Issue are doing something of practical value with regard to all this.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Discarded

As we were walking around the Shambles in York yesterday I was telling Fifi about the bookshops dealing in second hand books you used to be able to find in the area in the early 1980s or thereabouts. They'd disappeared by the late 1980s, so they've been long gone. Indeed, that was generally true of such bookshops throughout the country, or the parts of the country I got around to, at least. I reckon that well over half the books I bought at university and in the years immediately following came second hand, from such establishments.

Which makes me wonder where old discarded books go to in our brave new world. There are lots of charity shops around nowadays, and they invariably have a shelf or two of old paperbacks, but this is nothing like the space the old bookshops offered for unwanted books. It's a pity to think they may just be thrown away.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Packed

We're now in York, staying for a couple of days at Ann's place. Drove over to the sounds of the latest Van Der Graaf album, Do Not Disturb. Not exactly instantly attractive with its sudden changes of style, tempo and mood, but clearly offering lots of engrossing possibilities and sounding amazingly young for a trio who are, well let's face it, old. At times that's inspirational in itself - a reminder to get out there and get things done in whatever time you're given.

So we'll be trying to pack plenty of York into the next few hours, despite the cold, which is still with us.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sounding Good

There are, unsurprisingly, fewer big record stores around Manchester than in days of yore. My old favourite, the big HMV opposite the Arndale Centre has gone, but there's a branch inside the centre with a fair range of stuff - though the classical selection is very poor.

I picked up some CDs by King Crimson, Steven Wilson and Van Der Graaf Generator, which has saved me the trouble of ordering them on-line. So far I've only been able to listen to the Crimson set, featuring the seven-headed version of the beast Live in Toronto, in the car - but what a set to listen to. All right-thinking musos need to acquire this. Trust me. Genius.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Something To Remember

Had a very good time just pottering about around Romiley and Ashton yesterday, followed by a curry nosh-up at a restaurant near John & Jeanette's. Paul & Joy and Sam were in attendance, with Sam back home for the moment from his mountaineering exploits in the alps. Much laughter, for no particular reason, which is always the best kind. The evening concluded with John serenading us with Jingle Bells played on his new accordion. Definitely unforgettable.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Out And About

Yesterday's quote of the day came courtesy of the Missus, following a discussion as to whether we were going to find somewhere to eat in the early evening: I'm hungry and it's my birthday! I think you might be able to guess who got her way. Her birthday burger at an eatery in Longsight, where it's very easy to find halal food, was most palatable.

We'd spent the afternoon down Manchester, checking out the German Market around the town hall. All very Christmassy in a good way, as opposed to the false cheer of the malls in Singapore. Generally the city seems to be in a positive place, looking a bit less run-down than the last time we were here, but these are early days to be trying to take the pulse of the nation.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Chilling

Fifi summed it up nicely when we were in Hyde town centre yesterday looking for somewhere to eat: I'd forgotten just how cold it was over here. I hadn't really forgotten, but that doesn't make dealing with the big chill any easier.

Fortunately we've got the warmth of John & Jeanette's welcome to help us adjust.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Various Passages

Our journey last night turned out to be a really easy one. Not a jam in sight, unless you count the one on the other side of the road we happily swept by, of cars and motor-bikes making their way over the bridge into Malaysia. Noi reckoned that most of the folk in it would have been making their way back from work, having completed a late shift. Pity the poor souls who have to face a huge jam after the rigours of the working day, especially those on less-than-comfortable bikes.

In this household we are now putting the finishing touches to our packing and, since there are plenty of touches still to be put, I'd better be getting on with applying them right away. Bye!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Road Ahead

Our time in Melaka has been all too brief - less than 24 hours. But this trip north was only meant as necessary preparation for our next round of globe-trotting. We needed to make sure Maison KL is in reasonable shape, and the Missus performed her usual wonders in our short time there. The guy who came to service the alarm remarked on the fact that the place looks as new now as when he installed the system over a decade ago. Mind you, he also told us we didn't look as if we'd aged, so I'm not sure he's an entirely reliable witness - in my case, at least.

We're picking up one niece, Ayu, here. She's just finished her examinations, today in fact, and she's going to be one of our travelling companions on the big trip ahead. Thus the team who completed the NZ trip last year are about to be reunited. With luck we hope to have as much fun, though I'm not convinced that an English winter has quite the same allure as December in the Antipodes.

The main thing I'm hoping for at the moment is the lack of a traffic jam at Tuas, but what we saw on Sunday evening with regard to the cars trying to get into Singapore does not augur well, I'm afraid. Wish us luck!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Frustrations

I'm writing this sitting in the Kickstart Café in Alor Gajah having just scoffed a most palatable chicken chop with rice and chips, feeling equitably at one with the world. My peace of mind is helped considerably by the fact I don't have much more driving to do this evening. Our trip to the Malaysian capital has been marked by long periods of time moving exceedingly slowly in unexpected, illogical traffic jams. Of course, it was ever thus in this part of the world, something I'd conveniently forgotten having not been in these parts since June. Now I remember.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Good Times

Have been enjoying atypically socialising in various manners over the last few days. Interesting to get a sense of the concerns of others. We enjoyed a jolly time yesternight with Boon & Mei and Nahar & Norharyati around Arab Street and environs. All very happening with live music and stalls in the street.

Boon had interesting things to say, as ever, about the iniquities of capitalism and what's going on in the world of Adult Education. I suspect there's an interesting relationship between the two, but we didn't get into that. Truth to tell we didn't really explore the problems associated with the commodification of everything and everybody in any depth, though touching upon them in ways that rendered fruitful momentary insights. The ocean's always too much for us, I suppose.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Ahead

We're off north tomorrow, on a lightning visit to Maison KL to check it's still standing, and then to pick up niece Ayu in Melaka. She'll be joining us and Fifi & Fafa on a trip to the UK. We should be arriving there on 1 December assuming our plans work. And Noi is busy concocting further plans as to where we'll going when we get there.

This is not exactly restful, but who needs rest when you're having a good time?

Friday, November 25, 2016

Out Of The Ordinary

Just read the latest in Gaiman's Sandman series - The Sandman Overture - which tells the story of what happened to Dream before the start of the saga, the prequel to end all prequels, as it were. It sees Gaiman at his most portentous, his most divorced from the stuff of the everyday. That means this is Gaiman at his weakest, in my estimation.

But any Sandman is good Sandman, and if anyone can get away with pretentious portentousness it's our Neil - I suppose because this is so much part of who he is as a writer that there is no actual pretence involved.

And J.H. Williams's artwork is stunning, even for someone whose vision is as limited as mine.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Very Ordinary

The most significant discovery I've made in my adult life is how very interesting the ordinary is. Individuals and societies that lose sight of this simple truth pay a hard price.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

More Uncomfortable Reading

I've never seen an actual production of Pinter's The Homecoming but if I ever do I suspect I'll spend most of the evening squirming, inside and out, physically and mentally. Reading the play isn't so bad because you can put it down, to one side, though chances are you'll find yourself picking it up again pretty quickly just to find out what on earth the dramatist intends to do next with his oddball creations. The problem then is that what takes place seems to have a certain logic, the recognition of which implies that you are as messed up as Max and family.

In contrast, much as I admire the craft and poetry of A Streetcar Named Desire I can't honestly say that it's a work that really bothers me. Williams's concerns seem very much personal to Williams, in my reckoning, the marvellous thing being the degree to which he's able to draw you into his world.

Odd really to deal with two such different plays in the same post, but I read them both today and had a fine old time doing so, even the bits spent squirming.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

More Than Enough

Gingerly - still feeling the effects of the futsal - embarked upon my biannual clean-up of the books and other curiosities upon the shelves in this household. Was struck by the number of copies of History Today I've got, despite not having bought a copy of the magazine since the early 1980s. Vaguely remember some of the articles in the mags, but I suspect that if I read them again the contents would seem generally fresh.

The melancholy fact is that I own quite enough in the way of books & magazines to keep me occupied for what's left of this lifetime without having to make any further purchases. Not that I'll let that stand in my way, of course.

Monday, November 21, 2016

More Than A Bit Stiff

If there's any part of my legs that's not aching I've yet to find it. I'm paying the price for the glorious excesses of yesterday. Fortunately that price does not seem to include any major problems with my back, so I deem it well worth paying. I just hope the pain will have eased off by tomorrow.

Highlight of the day: an afternoon trip to the rather jolly premises of Books Actually where I added to the pile of stuff that needs reading in the very near future.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

More Than A Bit Daft

Was invited to play futsal this afternoon and, foolishly, accepted. I blame young Safiy who wanted his Uncle Brian to turn out, but it was my fault really for entertaining the mistaken belief that I can still run around whilst kicking a ball at roughly the same time. Now feeling the results of my folly in most of my lower extremities.

Suspect I may feel it even more tomorrow.

The funny thing is that I can't help but be happy about the whole thing, come what may. Kicking a ball around with friends pretending to be Ryan Giggs (it was his name on my shirt) and then on to teh tarik and mutton soup at Jalan Kayu. Now that's what I call living.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Not So Straightforward

Listened to Mozart's Cosi fan tutte today. Sounded lovely, but what an odd story. Deeply cynical about the very notion of being in love - as if the state is in itself a kind of performance. Much to admire. Not a lot to like.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Uncomfortable Reading

Peeped at the opening paragraphs of Michael Hofman's translation of Kafka's Metamorphosis and was done for. Yet again George Eliot has been put aside for a day or so, and this time for what proved to be an extremely uncomfortable read. I've never felt with quite the same intensity on previous readings just how strangely yet completely FK makes us feel what it is to be Gregor after his transformation. When I first read the story years ago I felt real irritation at just how vague the details of his embodiment as the dung beetle/cockroach are. This time I came to realise that's precisely because our protagonist is himself largely unaware of what is most natural - yet entirely unnatural - to him; i.e., his body and its limits. The exceptional moments of vivid, highly specific detail leap out to us with a particular kind of horror in their very precision - for example, when Gregor presses his insect body to the mirror and it sticks to him.

The uneasy sense that he keeps damaging his fragile new body in ways that might, and do, prove irreparable haunts the tale and can't easily be set aside even when its pages are closed.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Lost And Found

Three major, major figures in the world of music dying in the same year: Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen. Two of them, astonishingly, finding songs to sing almost in the presence of the Reaper.

Strange how natural it seems to refer to the third of our triumvirate as Leonard, almost as if he'd somehow become a friend across all those albums. I started with Songs of Love and Hate a long time ago. Even learnt to play Famous Blue Raincoat on guitar, that being probably the most complex song I ever managed. Brilliant lyric. One of the several perfectly achieved songs in his considerable canon.

To which we can now add the darkly dazzling and profoundly moving You Want It Darker. What a way to bow out.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Carried Away Again

I meant to get settled into Daniel Deronda, I  really did. And I've managed the first couple of chapters of what is obviously going to be a very tasty read. Demanding, but not impossibly so - think George Eliot as early Henry James rather than the later knotty version of The Master.

But I got wonderfully side-tracked into One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and ended up going cover to cover. It came about in the most simple of ways. I was glancing at the opening of the Penguin edition that we recommend for our students, trying to get some sense of how it compared to the translation I read as a teenager. It certainly has a terrific, colloquial driving quality to it - and I just couldn't resist.

And what an astonishing novel it is in every way you can think of. A brilliant indictment of Stalin's Russia, and man's inhumanity to man anywhere, anyworld. But also hopeful in the most unsentimental of ways. Shukhov himself is a remarkable creation. Entirely believable as an emblem of the survivor who somehow doesn't compromise his essential humanity.

Surely one of the great books of its century.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Carried Away

Read the biography, Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet, by Elaine Feinstein I picked up last Friday without really intending to. Just got carried away, as I tend to do with Hughes related material. Actually I didn't really intend to buy the book, being more interested in Jonathan Bates's Unauthorised Life - or whatever it's called. They only had a single copy of the Bates, however, and it was a touch dog-eared so I went for the Feinstein instead. Also I'm still a bit wary of the newer work after reading the coruscating review by Janet Malcolm.
 
As it was, I was a little disappointed by Feinstein's book, readable and balanced though it was. The Ted and Sylvia story was its dominant aspect and I was hoping for more on Hughes in the later years. Also for something that might give equal weight to the dreadful Assia and Shura story. ('Story' seems a terribly inappropriate word to use here, but in all honesty that's what biographies do: they turn their subjects into narratives.) But there was enough to shed at least a little light on some of the later work to make me feel that I wasn't just reading out of some idle, intrusive curiosity.
 
I came away keen to embark on a major, all-encompassing reading of Hughes in all his aspects - and Plath also, though in her case focused on the wonderful poetry - so, I suppose, that's some justification for my continued interest in the details of Hughes's life.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Someone Missed

Came across a clip at Open Culture (what a great website, by the way!) I'd heard of before, but never seen, of the very young Frank Zappa making his first ever appearance on tv playing the bicycle, on The Steve Allen Show back in 1963. Was struck by FZ's extraordinary presence and total sense of certainty, even as a clean-cut kid. Nice to see him genuinely smile a few times; the elder version seemed weighed down by the stupidities of the world in a way that often made smiles seem irrelevant - even when he was being very funny, as he usually was.

Not sure what he'd make of the America of today. Not too much, I'd guess.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Anticipation

 
Last Friday afternoon I 'spent' the book tokens I got as a result of the talk I did at this year's Lit Seminar. Have now accumulated quite a few things to read ahead what with the books acquired, the magazines I purchased just prior to those acquisitions, and various bits and pieces I'll need to read ahead of next year's teaching and deciding on material for staging. This is all very satisfactory for this reader. As I so often do, I'm putting together a little checklist of what I'm committed to reading in the next three months or so - and the sense of anticipation is delightful.

As was completing The Museum of Innocence today. Thinking of moving on to Daniel Deronda as my next big fictional read.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Catching Up

I'm really enjoying the new-found time for Real Life that's arrived at the back end of a particularly busy year. Today I caught up on sleep in a big way. It's been quite a time since I've had a really sleepy-headed, lingering lie-in, but I put that right this morning.

It's not all been just relaxing, however. I got myself off to the gym again this evening and did a full forty minutes on my chosen instrument of torture trainer. Sadly I posted numbers (distance, calories, that sort of thing) far short of what the fitter version of myself managed earlier in the year, but this is not a competition - as I have to keep reminding myself.

We've got Fafa in residence over the weekend. She's just completed her 'O' level papers and is coming to terms with the fact that she doesn't need to study - a nice situation to be in, as is my own. We're all happy soldiers here, then, at least for the moment.

Friday, November 11, 2016

At The Museum

Utterly taken over by The Museum of Innocence. How strange it is that such extreme obsession should say so much about how we live from day to day, and the preciousness of ordinary experience.

Tony referred to the novel in glowing terms in his last ever e-mail to me. Now I know why.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Loosening Up

Finally got back to the gym yesterday evening to do 30 minutes on the elliptical thingumajig therein. That was a wee bit conservative as a target but I was conscious of not having been on the machine since before embarking on the Hajj and of suffering quite severe cramp in my legs, both of them, directly after finishing the production last weekend. Wary of exacerbating the cramp or hurting my back, I settled on the reduced number and was glad of doing so. My breathing felt a bit ragged for the first 15 minutes or so, suggesting I needed a bit of time to readjust and affirming my good sense.

So why did it take me so long to get back to real exercise after the Hajj? Well, when I came back I was down with a sore throat and flu-like symptoms for a good week or so, and after that the demands attendant upon getting something acceptable on stage pushed real life and its pleasures and pains, including exercise which is a peculiar mixture of both, to one side. Fortunately I suppose that the rigours of the Hajj helped keep me reasonably fit - or at least militated against a dramatic reduction in fitness levels - and the running around integral to my style of directing also helped - as well as precipitating the assault by cramp.

Noi was with me yesterday, by the way, and looked reasonably comfortable on the treadmill despite her lay-off. We're intending to hit the gym again this Saturday - by way of a declaration of intent. It's nice to know we see this as a beginning rather than the end.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Premonitions

Had the oddest feeling ahead of polling in a certain other Far Place that things wouldn't turn out well. Now post-polling have very, very bad feelings indeed regarding what lies ahead. Hope I'm wrong. Suspect I'm not.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A Gap

Funny how memory works, at least in my case. I find it very easy indeed to forget bad times. Even when I recall a tough period the actual texture of the experience nearly always escapes me. I find it hard to capture how it all felt - not that I try all that hard to do so.

Yesterday I was glancing at a journal I kept ten years ago, at which time I was commenting on the work I was doing in the school I was employed in previous to the one I'm in today. Now generally I have warm memories of the school and my colleagues and the students there. And also I was reading about November when teaching would have ended and I would have been engaged solely in admin work. Yet the journal is a litany of very real complaint, on a daily basis, with frequent references to the near impossibility of getting everything done.

It's so strange. Undoubtedly I was swamped, yet I've managed to shut out what exactly was in the swamp, I'm guessing partly because it would have all been almost completely irrelevant to my real job of trying to teach kids something.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Close Fit

A number of perceptive viewers of our recent show commented on the fact that a good deal of the set (and props) duplicated items from our production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in July. At least one of our tech guys, the team coming from Media Resource for this show and doing stellar work, had an eye for the fine detail of the duplication, which surprised me as I didn't realise they'd watched the earlier show.

I explained as best as I could that the reason for the duplication was that the two pieces were conceived of simultaneously and that Angela and I, from our earliest discussions, were keenly aware of the quite remarkable overlaps in the pairing. Frankly it was more than a little bit serendipitously spooky that we found ourselves doing them in the same year. Here's just one example of an overlap, in this case nothing to do with the actual staging of the dramas. Our Principal told us just prior to our first night of The Fantasticks that he was ticking the staging of it off his bucket list, and was delighted to do so. Now I haven't exactly got an official bucket list but I was able to tell the cast and crew of Midsummer just before the final performance that staging it fulfilled an ambition for me.

The thematic overlaps between the two pieces are obvious to the point of absurdity: the essential premise of the musical is the Pyramus &Thisbe situation of Shakespeare's drama, with The Wall prominent in both. It was a bit of a temptation to feature our crazy metal wall once more, but we resisted that one. But our concern with walls was apparent in the design of the musical in more ways than one. Above all, the opposition of the Sun and Moon is central to the twentieth century show in its very construction and we saw it as thematically at the heart of the earlier drama: the Apollonian sun versus the Dionysian moon, and all that. (Sounds pretentious, I know, but it works so who cares?) That meant, in practical terms, that Daniel and Joshua's beautifully realised sun and moon symbols were there to beautify the Midsummer set but were really meant to be integral to the set for the musical, being spun around at key moments in the show.

I'm really not sure if the idea of the ramshackle wooden stage for Pyramus & Thisbe came before or after seeing the 'standard' stage for any production of The Fantasticks (can't think of a production I've seen that hasn't used something like it) but I have an odd sense of something like simultaneity on that one. We certainly knew the wooden stage for the musical needed to be bigger than that for the Mechanicals' ridiculous comedy and I suspect that's where Angela got the idea for using the wooden pallets from. Indeed, once we'd conceived of the big picture sense of the two shows the speed with which she translated that into the detail of the actual platforms provided by the scaffolding and trellises and so on was amazing.

One or two folk noticing all the duplication seemed to suspect us of a sort of lazy cheapness in just using the same stuff. And, of course, they were entirely correct. The set for the musical was remarkably cheap, because we'd already bought it for the earlier show, which meant more cash for the fund-raising. Clever, eh?

I suppose all this is on my mind because we bumped out of the theatrical space today and there was a distinct sense of a very long term project coming to end. Nice that it all worked out in the final analysis.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Back To Normal

Have spent the morning and early afternoon in a state of total relaxation - though I'll need to get a bit of work done later. It's strange not having to think about production details any more and the welcome absence of mental clutter has left room for resuming The Museum of Innocence - which I thought I might struggle to re-engage with, but proved very easy indeed to re-enter - and finishing off the issue of the NYRB I got hold of a couple of weeks ago.

Noi isn't around today as she popped up to Melaka over the weekend for family stuff after watching the show on Friday, and I decided to take a walk to Holland Village for a bit of exercise and to buy a few publications for reading in the reasonably clutter-free days and weeks ahead.

I treated myself to a cuppa at the Coffeebean there whilst reading Pamuk's masterpiece (I'm not halfway through yet, but that's obviously what it is) and, let me tell you, life felt very good indeed.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Two To Go

The original team who created The Fantasticks wrote & crafted such a wonderful show that it's a bit of a relief to be able to say we think our version does it some justice. From what I can gather it's very well-known in America, at the level of the classic musicals, but I'd never heard of it until Mr Hodge, our Principal, mentioned it to me some three years ago. It deserves to be better known outside the States and really is the perfect show for small scale theatre groups and colleges and schools to perform.

Anyway, our opening night was quite a success and we're left with two performances today, which is going to be utterly frazzling for all concerned. But worth it, since it's all in a good cause. It's nice to be doing a show for something other than the sake of the show - though that in itself is enough.

We've got some tickets left for both performances so do come and watch if you happen to be in this Far Place and haven't yet bought one. (Ok, shameless advertising over and out.)

Friday, November 4, 2016

What Matters

Our enjoyment of a smooth-running Dress Rehearsal yesterday was tempered by the news of a nasty accident in another part of the school involving one of our custodians. He's in our prayers.

It puts one's own overwhelming concerns into perspective. What seems so very important in one's own little world is small potatoes in the great scheme of things.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Something In Store

It's Dress Rehearsal day, so you can probably guess where the main focus of my attention is, plus most of the minor foci.

But I have been thinking past the weekend performances of the musical to life beyond at least a little bit, and not just in terms of the clear-up operation we'll be mounting on Monday. Having picked up a couple of the 'new' texts we'll be using in next year's Lit programme I find myself massively impatient to read A Streetcar Named Desire and The Homecoming - not so much to prepare for teaching them, as to re-experience them through a close reading. Also I'm keen to find out more about Tennessee Williams having realised after glancing at the Introduction to the Methuen edition of the play that I  know next to nothing about him and his background, except for the obvious stuff. Pinter I think I'm a bit more acquainted with, but I'm sure there are some surprises on the way. Embarrassingly it wasn't until I looked at the cover of The Homecoming that I remembered he's won the Nobel Prize for Lit.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Helplessness

Was chatting to John yesterday on the phone about my sister's current state of health. He took the opportunity whilst Maureen wasn't around to be brutally frank about just how less than optimal that state is, and has been for several months. I'd guessed this already, but it was painful to have my conjectures confirmed.

This doesn't bear thinking about. Which means it's important to think about it and consider what might be done. Even if the answer is, most likely, nothing.

Monday, October 31, 2016

An Unlikely Pair

When I was talking about dipping into the works of William Carlos Williams the other day I forgot to mention that the other poet I've been managing to read in bits and pieces here and there has been Ezra Pound, in his case drawing upon the very fine Library of America edition. In fact, I've been reading him in chronological sequence, so it's not exactly been a 'dipping in' - though I've only got as far as the early Canzoni, which means my progress has been fitful enough to qualify as just taking in bits and pieces.

But here's the thing. Reading the pair almost side by side was a sort of accident, their works just sort of randomly catching my eye at a time when I've been having difficulty carving out any time for reading at all. Yet they were, of course, friends, quite close ones I've always assumed, especially in their respective youths. So reading them next to each other has a sort of point in itself. Yet they're just so different, partly in content, but most of all in temperament. I don't know quite why it is but there's something very likable about Williams, and that's not something you can say in any way about Pound.

It isn't the anti-Semitic, fascist Pound of the 30s I'm thinking of here, by the way. Even as a very young writer there's something about his work that suggests he was a bit of a pain, despite those features of the early poetry that are assured and often quite lyrically beguiling, regardless of the derivative nature of the verse.

I might be grossly unfair in my judgements on the respective characters of our poets - and I really must get hold of a good biography of Pound to see whether he had some saving graces that I've been missing - but at this moment they really do seem to me like the Odd Couple of twentieth century poetry.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Slipping Away

Just got back from a birthday dinner for Fifi. She has now reached the unlikely age of twenty. To her, of course, that would seem quite natural, since that's precisely what it  is. To us, seeing her slowly grow up so quickly, the world seems just that little bit more upside down than usual.

Where did the years go? Minute by precious minute they slipped away from us. As they always do.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Even More

This morning we tried out the music for the show with the percussionists for the first time in the full ensemble, with an extra electronic keyboard. It's difficult to believe it could sound better than the wonderful playing we're used to from Jonah and Arlene in rehearsals, but it went into a whole new dimension. I really don't know how the brilliant folks who write, arrange and play (and sing) music seem to do it so effortlessly, but I'm deeply, deeply glad they do.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Incidentally

Finding any time in which to read or listen to music - other than the music of the show we're doing - has been very difficult over the last three weeks or so. Fortunately the music from The Fantasticks is so good that I haven't felt any great deprivation in that direction. Indeed, I've been carrying all the songs and arrangements around in my head as genuinely welcome ear worms, such that I'm sort of luxuriating in music at the moment. But in the last few days I've managed to listen to a few things outside of my immediate concerns - Kate Bush, White Willow, The Enid, Martin Carthy - and am sort of getting back to my usual diet.

But reading has been a real problem. The only time I've had has been very, very late at night, in the twenty minutes or so before I fall asleep, and I'm not exactly a paragon of alertness at that time. So I've had to compromise with just dipping into a few poems here and there.

For the last three nights the poet of choice has been William Carlos Williams - from the very fine two volume Collected Poems published by New Directions. As a teenager I got hold of the Penguin Selected, and that became a precious text for me. I got to know every poem in it very closely and it was something of a way in for me into American poetry in the general sense. But despite having owned the Collected for a while now I've never managed to get to grips with the full range of Williams with quite the same intensity. The welcome result of this, however, has been to make me feel a wonderful sense of discovery as I dip in and find gems everywhere.

Deprivation has its uses.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Process

Something I came to learn, some years ago now, about putting together any kind of drama production: no single individual controls the process. But it is possible to grow in understanding of the process, and there's a fascination in that growth and the recognition that comes with it. Also no one at any level of involvement, however tangential, can stand neutrally outside the process, though generally this is not understood.

When I first started doing this stuff I felt very lucky to be put in a position to get to experience and understand all this. Funnily enough, that feeling has never changed, simply intensified.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Something Lacking

I'm busy at the moment, but not so busy that it would be impossible to manage a reasonable seven hours of sleep a night. But I don't get anything even close to that. Getting to sleep is easy. Waking earlier than I really need to is, problematically, even easier.

This is a state I know very well from previous experience, especially when putting a show together. I'm guessing that some odd mechanism in what passes for my brain has decided that bringing me to consciousness is a good idea, even when I don't really need to be conscious, as it gives me more time to think about all the stuff you need to think about a couple of weeks before show-time. (That's a lot of stuff, by the way, in case you were wondering.)

I'm afraid there's not much I can do about this. Fortunately the days are so packed there isn't time to be tired, so it's not exactly a problem in strictly practical terms. Also there's a sort of solution awaiting. As soon as the show's over I'll find myself falling asleep anywhere at any time - and I'm very much looking forward to that.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Bit Ironic

Listened to an excellent talk on the need for rest this morning - and proceeded to get precisely none whatsoever for the remainder of the day.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Apple Never Eaten

When we arrived in Jeddah for the Hajj back in early September, once we'd cleared Immigration we found ourselves waiting for the coach to take us to our accommodation at Shisha for quite a few hours. This wasn't terribly onerous as there were shops outside the airport and plenty of seating for the pilgrims waiting around - this being the airport specially designed to cater for the Hajj. Also a decent quantity of food was provided, as was the case for every leg of our journey.

However, I remember beginning to feel a little uncomfortable as the day wore on and perceptibly warmed up. I noticed a few people who'd got hold of various bits of fruit from the shops around and started to think of how good it would be to bite into a fresh, cool apple. Sadly the real thing wasn't available and, thus, I found myself haunted by the image of the perfect apple. It struck me that there was nothing I would have liked more and was reminded of just how wonderful apples had tasted when I was a kid.

In the days that followed an abundance of deliciously fresh fruit became available at almost every meal, including some glorious apples - especially some wonderfully crisp red ones. But somehow nothing quite replaced that perfect apple of the imagination I never ate at Jeddah Airport. Nothing ever tasted quite as good as that one, and I suspect never will.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sort Of Optimal

A good day, further improved by being rounded off with a plate of bangers & mash courtesy of the Missus. Actually it was a plate and a half as I helped myself gleefully to seconds. It just doesn't get better than this.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Weight Of Things

I've felt somewhat weighed down lately by all that needs to be done. But if there's something I've learned over the years it's that eventually every load gets shed and then it's possible to enjoy the very bearable lightness of being - until it's time to pick up the next one.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Going Back

I was chatting with Brian today about the Hajj, trying to convey something of the flavour of the experience to him. In the process I found myself revisiting a few of those moments that had demanded patience from me. Happily they were moments in which I somehow delivered, though I hope I didn't sound as that was the reason for talking about them. In fact, I was keenly aware of the fact that those times are/were firmly in the past. The Hajj is about one's ability to remake oneself in the now of conflict and struggle and I'm not so sure I've held so firmly to those qualities I thought I'd found in myself.

Time to search again.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Keeping It Simple

After spending part of the day thinking about how nice it would be to simplify my life I'm now listening to Martin Carthy's Sweet Wivelsfield. Acoustic guitar, voice and lovely old songs. (There's one of them here, if you're not familiar with the finest British folk singer of his generation.) Do I really need much more than this?

(Of course, the truth is that I'll soon go looking and listening for more, but in this rich moment this seems more than enough for a lifetime.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Illumination

Idly skimming channels this evening after getting back from an unseasonal Christmas Dinner (don't ask!) to my delight and astonishment I chanced upon Mike Leigh's film about the great painter, Mr Turner. Sadly I missed the first forty minutes or so; happily I was able to watch most of the rest.

It was a welcome reminder that films of real value are still being made. A visual feast, brilliantly acted, with a remarkable sense of historical imagination. The rhythms of the dialogue were particularly striking: orotund, yet convincing as to what would have sounded quite natural at that time.

To be honest I really should have been doing something else rather than watching the movie, but I'm very glad I wasn't.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Looking On

Got back from work today and, as usual, switched on the telly for a bit of news. Found myself flicking restlessly between various news channels, when it occurred to me that the switching of channels has become habitual. I realised that for the most part it isn't because I'm trying to look for something I find interesting; rather it's result of wanting to shut out whatever depressing story I find myself hearing too much about. I can only take so much about atrocities in Syria, Brexit, ISIS, the Presidential Election and other examples of our collective folly.

But then I cheered myself by considering that it's always been this way and I've been privileged to have generally avoided participation in the making of history in my lifetime. I've watched it all from the relative safety of the side-lines, and am deeply glad that that has been the case.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Cautionary Tale

I got hold of a copy of the October edition of the New York Review of Books the other day, because I wanted a printed version of the article by Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the Chilcot Report, concerning the British Government's involvement in the Iraq War. It makes for painful but necessary reading. I'd already seen the article on-line but getting hold of the print version seemed important somehow. In a world in which we're deluged with information it's wise to develop a sense of how we can get to know of the messes we create and exactly how we came to concoct them.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

An Encounter

When we were in Makkah last month Noi made a habit of distributing sweets to the children at prayers. We would buy a big container of something in the afternoon - usually kit-kats - and she'd spread them around at Maghrib and Ishaq Prayers in the mosque. Sometimes she'd have some left over and we'd stand around together, spotting kids, and forcing the chocolates upon them, though it rarely required much in the way of actual force to get them to accept.

One evening we'd come to the end of the chocolates, being down to the last three bars. We spotted a group of three children and their parents and off-loaded the bars, with the parents smiling broadly. A quick conversation followed with the mum & dad asking us where we were from. After explaining our unusual background we asked the same of them. It turned out they were from Syria. Oh lovely, we said, or words to that effect and, wishing them well, hurried on. Then we admitted to each other that we really had not known what to say next. We both wanted to ask whether they were safe in their country, but it just seemed so intrusive to do so - and so odd at such a happy little moment.

I think of this encounter every time I see items about the on-going tragedy in Aleppo on the news. It's so difficult somehow to take in the notion that those suffering are just ordinary folks like us, yet they are the only sort of people to be found anywhere in the world, when you get down to it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Lost And Found

Steered close to complete disaster this afternoon. Came home from work and went to put my wallet in its usual place, on the counter top adjacent to our little kitchen. No wallet. I knew that I'd only recently taken it from my bag at work to prepare for the journey home, so the obvious lack of any wallet now was a puzzle, and a rather worrying one.

Hastily retraced my steps, going back to my workplace hoping that I'd simply put the wallet down somewhere, forgotten to pocket it, and that it was still there. Remarkably this proved to be the case. The relief that flooded through me on catching sight of it as I got back was immense. 

Curiously this little incident - or, rather, lack of any real incident - sort of turned my day around. After gratefully grabbing the wallet the day seemed a whole lot brighter somehow for not having gone dramatically pear-shaped.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Worthy Of Consideration

Great celebrations in this household - well, my side of it, that is - over Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Already read quite a bit of outrage on various sites. All to the good, I reckon. Making people seriously confront questions of value in art can only be to the good, and the fact that there's going to be a lot of consideration of what might seriously be regarded as Literature is useful in itself.

I'm feeling rather pleased with myself for featuring the Bobster so prominently in my talk at the Lit Seminar back in August. Wonder if some of the folks who attended now think I might have had some insider knowledge on this one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

All In The Mind

On this date ten years ago I wrote this in my journal:

Recognising our neediness, and controlling it, is important if we are to break out of ourselves. My neediness is as strong as ever and will always be part of me. So I need to outwit it - it is, after all, a profoundly immature part of myself. It helps to understand the fractured nature of the self. The needy part is simply that - one part of a richer whole.

Funny to think what I thought I knew, yet couldn't quite deal with. I still know it; and am further than ever from the kind of control I then had in mind.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Not Paying Attention

What's the opposite of being focused? I'm not sure of how to describe such a state, but I feel as if that's where I am. A stale and empty place I need to leave.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Paying Attention

I've been thinking back to the Gallery Night we attended last Friday. As I mentioned before there were quite a number of portraits on display, several quite wonderfully achieved, and it struck me then what a compliment it was to be the subject of one. To think that someone has paid you, or an aspect of you, all that attention and tried to get something down on canvas (or whatever the medium is) that captures something of yourself.

But I suppose that this sense of attention being paid is something common to all art. Whether it's ordering sounds, colours, shapes, words the artist is paying attention to some facet of the Creation, and that attention is rewarded, in some sense, through the art-work that emerges.

I think this explains why a portrait, or any work of art, need not be beautiful in any conventional sense. The act of paying attention is in itself sufficient to supply a quality that is like beauty without necessarily being beautiful.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

What Men Say

Watching various apologists for the egregious Mr Trump tie themselves into knots over the plainly indefensible video of him bragging of his assaults on women has provided some dark relief over the weekend. According to the erstwhile leader of UKIP this is how men talk when alone together, and so we must accept that alpha male boasting of groping the private parts of attractive women is quite normal.

No, it isn't. Not in my reasonably wide experience. I've worked in factories, I've played for pub football teams. I've been one of the boys. I've never heard anything like this.

Makes you wonder who Mr Farage hangs out with, no?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Trekking On

I think there's some kind of Star Trek convention for fans going on in the UK at the moment. There were a couple of brief items related to this on Sky News in the afternoon, including a rambling interview with old James T. himself, an increasingly unlikely looking William Shatner. But the item that really grabbed my attention was an interview with three Trekkies in the full garb.

At first I thought the intention of the interview was to make the less than youthful, colourful threesome on display sound as nutty as they looked. But I was wrong. Their outpouring of enthusiasm for the optimism inherent in the whole Star Trek enterprise (pun gloriously intended) and its various franchises was infectiously sane and balanced - and suddenly it was the rest of the world that looked a little sad and more than a little crazy.

Couldn't help but think of King Elvis's biting question: What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?

Friday, October 7, 2016

In View

Staggered & sneezed & stumbled through the day, nose streaming, head pounding, and was very glad to get back to the solace of our apartment. Nothing could have made me leave this sanctuary, except for the school's annual Gallery Night. This is when the work of our graduating Visual Arts students gets put on display with the young artists around to explain what they've been getting up to, and it was as much of a treat this year as ever. The only disappointment was the reduced scale of the event, which I assume is due to a reduction in the number of students opting for the subject. Hope this is not a sign of things to come.

This year seemed to feature a good deal more portraiture than previous years and, my goodness, it was all so very assured with a number of really striking pieces. Must say I felt somewhat conflicted that one such was Daniel's full length rendition of myself. The Missus didn't think it bore much resemblance (trust me, flattering it wasn't) but I knew at first glance who it was and had an uncanny sense that the artist had captured something essential about me. I felt strangely honoured in roughly equal proportions to the degree to which I was disconcerted.

Delighted to see a significant amount of work from my drama guys featured. A reminder of how extraordinarily multi-talented so many of the kids are in this far place.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Highly Fluid

My itchy throat has now mysteriously transmuted into impressive streams of mucus leaking through my nose at every opportunity and a vibrantly raw headache. I'm not very good at being ill, so let's hope this doesn't last long for everyone's sake. I'm sure the body has good reasons for exerting itself in this way, I just don't know what they are.

(Noi is still trying to cast off her own painful cough, by the way. So there's little comfort there.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

In The Dark

Caught a few minutes of the film Spotlight, the one dealing with the scandals over sexual abuse as carried out by members of the Catholic clergy in Boston. It looked excellent - gripping in a serious manner. As always I'm left sort of conflicted over the whole issue. On the one hand I was the recipient of a wonderful Catholic education without a hint of abuse; on the other, the horror of what the victims had to go through - and are still going through to this day - and the almost unthinkable idea that men for whom I had great respect in general terms were capable in some, indeed many, cases of dreadful wickedness. As usual I'm left depressed to have been thinking about all this, but it cannot be ignored - especially by those in positions of some authority who have dealings with young people.