Monday, February 29, 2016

Too Much

Yesterday's comment on Infinite Jest was unfair, as I suspected even as I wrote it. I suppose it's a tribute to the novel that it's so obviously outstanding in almost every respect you can think of that it seems to demand being judged by the highest possible standards. I did so, prematurely and inappropriately, partly as a result of the sheer power of the text.

The place to look for the stillness I was talking about is in the self, not in a work of literature, no matter how fine that work.

I find it in prayer. The discipline of the five daily prayers in Islam is not an easy one to live up to. But it teaches you things you need to know about necessary stillness. And isn't it fascinating that all the major religions in their own ways reflect this concern with locating the still centre of the turning world? I can't think of any other genuinely practical way of dealing with the fact that this world is too much with us.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Energy Levels

There's a lot of talk about energy in what might loosely be termed the theatrical world (well, in the little bit I inhabit, anyway.) It's difficult to define exactly what it is, but it's obvious when something being put on stage hasn't got it. This has little or nothing to do with the amount of actual movement on stage; certain kinds of stillness can be possessed of an extraordinary energy. It's hard to do nothing really well on stage, but very important to know how to do it, and when to do it.

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is an amazing, stunning, overwhelming exercise in reflecting the manic energies of a certain kind of society, a certain mode of life. But this reader is longing for some sense of stillness. 

It's strange when faced with such abundance to be concerned with something a novel lacks. And I'm not at all sure it's a fair comment to make on the book. But it's something I feel I have to say some 240 pages in.

Saturday, February 27, 2016


Noi's gone over to Melaka for the day, taking Kak Sabariah along to massage Mak and various other lucky folks at the kampong. Being left to my own devices I thought it might be a good wheeze this afternoon to have a walk out to Holland Village and back - and a good wheeze it was. I enjoyed the cup that cheers at the Coffee Bean place there, with David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest as stirring company, and also found time to peruse a couple of articles in a freshly purchased NYRB. It was a bit hot, but I remained sensibly unbothered - though slightly depressed over the fact that it looks like they're knocking down one of the big buildings in the area along with its cheesily iconic windmill. As usual, anywhere I really enjoy being in this Far Place stands little chance of lasting much longer.

On the walk back I noticed there's now a park of some kind at a spot called One-North. It may have been there for a while for all I know but escaped my rather limited notice. Thought about checking it out and having a bit of a read there some time, but today wasn't going to be that day. When I was a little lad being 'out' was infinitely preferable over staying in, I seem to recall. The older version of myself, whilst enjoying a bit of an escape now and then, no longer minds so much being 'in'. The day's been quite exciting enough, thank you.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Half Baked

Some great lines from an episode of The Great British Bake-Off we watched the other night: Presenter (to sobbing contestant): It's just a cake. Contestant: It's not just a cake. Presenter: It is just a cake!

Of course, as everyone knows, no cake is ever just a cake.

(Thinking back to my comments a couple of days ago apropos the notion of a literary community, I must say I'd much rather hang out with a bunch of bakers than representatives of the literati. They are so obviously much nicer people.)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Climate Of Fear

I've just been watching the breaking news about the report into the Savile scandal, the bits involving the BBC, that is, compiled by Dame Janet Smith. There's a horrible fascination about all this, and I don't think it's of a prurient nature. The material on the abuse of the victims is depressing and revolting, very far from fascinating. But what all this has to tell us about how easily organisations go wrong is where the fascination, and perhaps the lessons, lie.

We're told, I'm sure correctly, that a climate of fear prevailed at the BBC (and still does, it would seem) that means grown-up, intelligent men and women of much ability found themselves unable to do the right thing and take action against the abuse, by exposing it. On one level that's extraordinary, but everyone who's worked in an organisation will be aware of how it could come about, and just how easily.

It seems to me there's a moral imperative involved here, and a difficult one to live up to: the cultivation of fearlessness.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Not Entirely Communal

Listened to some engaging speakers this morning, addressing the notion of the creation of a literary community with much enthusiasm, good sense and good ideas. Then later in the day found myself beset by some cynical but rather bracing thoughts. It suddenly occurred to me that one doesn't exactly think of groups of writers, critics and lit academics as embodying warmth, goodwill to all men and bonhomie. The kind of spats you get in literary journals are pretty good evidence of what I mean.

I reckon a chap in search of the quiet life would have done well to avoid the Lake poets and their ilk. Would you have wanted to hang out with Byron?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Senses Working Overtime

Sight of the day: the bowl of scones that greeted me as I stumbled into the kitchen to put on the kettle this morning. (Cunningly baked by Noi after I'd gone to bed.)

Smell of the day: the odour rising from said bowl as I bent over to appreciate its contents close up.

Taste of the day: pretty obvious really - but quite beyond my powers of description. How do you do justice to the perfect scone? Well, several of them, actually.

Touch of the day: there's a certain texture to a perfectly baked scone. Not too soft; not too hard.

Sound of the day: munch, munch, munch, munch, munch.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Making Time

Here's a strange thing: I was just glancing back over my diary of ten years ago, reading a tiresome litany of complaints to myself about how hard work was at that point, when I realised that I had the  most vivid recall of all the sort of 'artistic' things I had managed somehow to cram in to those over-full days - books read, music listened to, that sort of thing. And it was only minutes before opening the diary to glance back that I had decided to write this post on how precious a few similar encounters with the 'artistic' over the last day or so have been to me in a vaguely similar busy period. Nothing really changes.

But that's not exactly the point, for today, at least. Here I just want to briefly celebrate the curious truth that when you haven't really got time for reading or listening or viewing, the little time you can carve out takes on a peculiar and rewarding intensity. The  other day I had the good fortune to listen to White Willow's Ignis Fatuus followed by Bill Frisell's Disframer, albums I know very well, and it was like hearing them for the first time. Both utterly beautiful.

Later this evening I'll be falling asleep to the glorious discordances of VDGG's Present, an album that continues to grow in my estimation and I almost can't wait. Except it means the end of a day and its possibilities.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Just back from the gym, whence I was accompanied for the first time in a little while by the Missus. She's been busy of late with all sorts of bits and pieces, like cooking for her chums, as she was doing when I went on Friday, which have precluded her doing her thing on the treadmill. There were no excuses tonight, though, and she looked in good form. It's a lot more fun when the two of us are involved I can tell you.

Saturday, February 20, 2016


David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is not a relaxing read. It's distinctly put-downable, in the sense that its sheer manic energy renders this reader so frazzled after twenty minutes or so that it has to be put to one side - only to inevitably be picked up as soon as recovery is effected.

Epic in its obsessiveness, mania, expansiveness, and dedication to exploring all forms of addiction and excess it represents everything we love and hate about modernity and America.

And since I've only just got started on it, it looks like I'm in for quite a trip. A big book in every way.

Friday, February 19, 2016


A quick word about a slow novel, and I mean slow in the best possible sense: I finished Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries last weekend and it was a blast. Actually, getting to the end by Sunday was a bit of a surprise as I still had a couple of hundred pages to go on Saturday and I thought it might take a week or so to read them, given how long the previous six hundred pages had taken. But things speed up considerably in the final quarter of the novel. A gripping courtroom sequence is followed by the increasing fragmentation of the text. Chapters get shorter and shorter, and seem to simply fill in some of the gaps in the very complex narrative. I'm not sure I successfully assembled the complete jigsaw on offer, but I put together a workable picture of what it had all been about.

As a kind of high-level, thought-provoking entertainment the work is an obvious success. I suppose a trickier question is whether Ms Catton gets beyond the fictional boundaries of her brilliantly realised world to say something about the way we live. Imitating Wilkie Collins in a sophisticated post-modern manner is great fun; but is it more than that? I think it is, but I'm not entirely sure how I can explain this. I suppose it lies in factors like the convincing evocation of small town life in a place at the edge of what we might see as the civilised world and the sure-footed sense of what it was to have been an alien in that world, as masterfully realised in the depiction of the Chinese characters particularly.

No wonder it won the Booker.

Thursday, February 18, 2016


Watched an excellent documentary just now about various opiates, with actor & good guy Brian Cox presenting. Fascinating stuff about just how widely used opium was in the nineteenth century. The rather spooky coincidence about this was that I'd been generally musing on the mechanics of addiction, particularly addiction to opiates, after reading the surpassingly excellent The Luminaries. Several characters in the novel are opium addicts and their addiction plays a central role in the plot, as you might imagine. This led me in the course of the week into a conversation with Chris about the chemical effects of opiates. He happens to be in the middle of writing the segment on heroin for an IB Chemistry textbook. And the subject of drug abuse was touched upon in the course of Jordan's visit last weekend as he was telling us about frightening numbers of young people he knows in the UK who ease their boredom by dabbling in the hard stuff.

It's frighteningly easy to understand the desire to escape the pains of living through this route. And it's even more frightening to witness the damage done. Fascinating as all this is, it's not something I encourage myself to think about too much. Too depressing, for one thing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


I have a problem sometimes dealing with what I perceive to be weakness in others. It takes genuine strength to do so.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Coming To A Full Stop

Don't you just hate it when someone sends you a brief text message and doesn't conclude with a full stop? No, of course you don't. You'd have to be a bit crazy to get even mildly irritated. Writing a text message is not the same thing as composing an essay, and if a text comprises a single sentence, or sentence fragment, there's really no point to the punctuation mark.

But here's the thing: I do get annoyed when the full stop isn't there. My very real reaction is the irrational product of a somewhat obsessive nature. However, I'm proud to say I've never expressed that ridiculous annoyance to anyone or sought to pontificate loftily on the issue, because I'm sane enough (I think) to know it just doesn't matter. What I've tried to do, over the years, is to turn that obsessiveness in useful directions for myself and others. When I'm writing I attempt to be meticulous. That doesn't mean mistakes don't get through - I'm well aware of their frequency, so please don't write to let me know about them - but I'm annoyed when they do and I do my darnedest to correct them and learn. When I'm looking at the writing of others in contexts in which being 'correct' is of some importance I attempt to help them towards a sense of what it takes to achieve that.

Sometimes your inner fascist can be your best friend. But only sometimes.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Pushing It

Posted a personal best on the elliptical trainer this evening, but felt little in the way of a sense of achievement. Why so? Well, first of all it was only very marginally my best performance, not that much better than what I was doing roughly this time last year when I first started using the machine. And, secondly, I felt I was foolishly pushing too hard and not enjoying the experience at all. After the first fifteen minutes I knew I was going to be able to keep up the pace, but it was hard work doing so, and I did vaguely wonder if I might be putting myself into slightly dangerous territory through over-reaching.

I'm now thinking that it might be more fruitful to aim for longer bouts of exercise, stretching my current 35 minutes to 40 or 50, with no real attempt to push the pace whilst doing so. But, the problem is that at some level that feels a bit lazy. I'm finding it hard to strike the kind of happy medium of a sensible pace that came to me entirely naturally in my running days.

But I'm still grateful to be able to get going and keep going at all. At my age you count your blessings if you want to keep it real.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Service With A Smile

Getting young Jordan onto his flight back to Manchester this evening was not exactly an easy task, and at one point looked impossible to achieve. He left booking the flight to the last minute, exhibiting the calm insouciance of youth, convincing us old folks he knew what he was doing. Unfortunately, he didn't, as we realised when we got the Etihad desk and were told there was no ticket for him. Amazingly a number of counter staff for the airline took a genuine interest in helping us out when it would have been a lot easier for them to give us all the brush-off. The result is that he is now aloft, amid the clouds or above them, and on his way home.

We're now considering using the airline ourselves when we next visit the UK, despite their unfortunate sponsorship of you-know-who.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Glory Days

We're hosting young Jordan, Tony's lad, over the weekend - to our delight. It's been just over a year since Tony died and I still think of him a lot. Chatting to Jordan about his dad has given me the sense of shifting a kind of burden, and thoroughly enjoying doing so. I've spent the evening dealing with and re-telling a sequence of delightfully vivid memories. Talk about good times, eh?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Something Of Weight

I'm so thoroughly enjoying reading Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries that I'll be sorry to finish. Mind you, I've still got 200 or so pages to go, so it's going to be some little while before all the delicious mysteries of the plot are clarified - assuming that they will be, that is. But I'm almost embarrassed to admit that there're other reasons for my enjoyment of the novel not directly related to the wonders of its composition.

The physical pleasure of holding the book is such a distinct part of the experience of reading it that it would be dishonest not to own up to it. I suppose this is akin to the enjoyment people get from their smart phones on the level of the phones being appealingly designed objects with an aesthetically pleasing dimension to their usage. (That's something I've never felt myself but I'm guessing based on the way people seem to give themselves up in acts of abject surrender to the enchantment of their phones.) The paperback edition of The Luminaries I'm reading has a beautifully apt cover and it's satisfyingly solid as an object, though at the same time being easy to open and read, without breaking its spine, despite its 800+ pages. I've always enjoyed the physical act of reading, but I don't remember the paperbacks of my youth - which often fell apart in the process of being read - being quite so attractive as the ones the publishers come up with these days.

Oh, and it smells good too.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Getting Bigger

Had an interesting chat with Fuad over our extended weekend in KL about his umrah, which he undertook back in December. Our focus was the Islamic virtue of sabr, which translates inadequately as 'patience', and the pressing need for it in performing the holy rites: indeed, the pressing need for it in our daily lives, which performing the small pilgrimage to Makkah seeks to teach us. Goodness me, it's a hard lesson to learn; or, perhaps I might better say, to put into practice. Just when you think you've made some progress in the necessary self-control attendant upon the virtue, some pettiness emerges from one of the many small parts of the self to remind you that there's an awful long way to go.

The great thing is that life has a way of throwing up many ways to allow, indeed encourage, childish pettiness. I encountered several today and was reminded of how small I can be. But at least I can glimpse a bigger self somewhere in the far distance.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Curiouser And Curiouser

Thinking back to yesterday's post it's clear that, for a moment at least, I quite forgot the overwhelming nature of our sense of curiosity. No way are we going to stick within the bounds of civilized behaviour when we feel we need to know something about somebody else, and we always feel we need to know more about those we admire inordinately, or despise, ditto.

Case in point, in the same issue of the NYRB in which Janet Malcolm savages Jonathan Bate for telling us too much about the life of Ted Hughes, there are reviews of books on the lives of Frank Sinatra, T.S. Eliot and Steve Jobs, all of which I read with fascination. It's true that I have no immediate plans to buy the actual books (though I might change my mind regarding Robert Crawford's biography of the young Possum) but if they came my way I suspect I'd devour them.

Similarly if someone were to publish a tell-all biography of RVW I'm sure I'd be one of the first in line for it, despite feeling more than satisfied by UVW's chatty biography and Michael Kennedy's The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, which I'm thoroughly enjoying at the moment. (Although Kennedy's work focuses on the music it follows a broadly biographical thrust and is clearly a companion volume to the work of Mrs Vaughan Williams.) As soon as there's something new to learn, the need to learn it becomes irresistible.

Where I still fall in line with Ms Malcolm's strictures is in my sincere hope that academic biographers resist impertinent exploration of their subjects' all-too-human lives and my certainty that there's no academic imperative dictating full disclosure of those lives. I'm rather glad that Ted did away with some of Sylvia's private materials and think it rather a good thing when private papers remain exactly that.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


I first heard that Jonathan Bate was writing a biography of Ted Hughes some three or four months ago, at which point there was no question of said work being classified as an auto-buy in my world, at least when it would emerge in paperback. I thought Bate's book on the Bard, The Genius of Shakespeare, was an exceptional read and know that the prof is held in very high regard in academia. (In fact, I've got a feeling he's written another well-received Shakespeare-oriented tome since, though I could be wrong. I'm not entirely sure of the title above, in truth, but can't be bothered to look it up.) And I've been waiting for something of real substance to be published on Hughes, in contrast to all the Plath-oriented volumes that bedevilled the Hughes family.  

And now I'm not so sure, the reason being Janet Malcolm's devastating review of Bate's Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life in the February NYRB. I read this in the copy of the magazine I picked up the other day at Holland Village rather than on-line as I offer it to you here. It was the first thing I turned to and took me very much by surprise. Janet Malcolm's book on Plath has for quite some time seemed to me to be the sanest, most judiciously balanced word on the subject, and I suppose I thought I'd be reading a similarly balanced account of a biography that would be seeking to somehow do right with regard to all concerned in the tragedies suffered in the poet's life. It seems that's not the case.

I'm sure there's going to be some kind of reply by Prof Bate to Ms Malcolm's trenchant criticisms, and it's going to sound reasonable. But I'm not sure I want to read it or anything more about Hughes's life, or Plath's life. I felt guilty reading the line in the review concerning how, Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them [biographers, like Bate] in their impertinence, since I am exactly that kind of reader.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Monkeying Around

It's been a pretty busy extended weekend so far for Chinese New Year. We've just waved goodbye to Fuad & family who've been staying with us since Saturday evening. We had a jolly good time at the Bom Corner with their team, and Hamzah and family, when they arrived and spent a fair chunk of Sunday over at Shah Alam eating plenty amid further jollity. Today we explored KLCC. The capital itself is pretty quiet, apart from the occasional fire-cracker disturbing the peace, but KLCC seems to have been the location of choice for those who need to propitiate the gods of commerce on this first day of the year. I was happy to finally get hold of a copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest which I can't wait to read but will have to on account of needing to finish The Luminaries. I've made reasonable progress on the epic from NZ, but have been enjoying socializing too much to get close to finishing.

Motto for the day: Don't you monkey with the monkey!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Flying Foxes

In an otherwise generally bleak EPL season the astonishing run that Leicester have maintained has been the only source of comfort. So far I've espoused the conventional wisdom that they're never going to keep it up due to lack of squad depth. But last night's result against City has left me gloriously unsure. They looked superior from the get-go. It's that simple - and with no real commitments other than going all the way to the title I'm beginning to think it can be done.

I've had a soft spot for Ranieri ever since Chelsea did the dirty on him, and the idea that a club might win the top honours based on playing the game the right way as opposed to spending big is deeply attractive. Reminds me of the days of Cloughie at Derby County, something I never thought I'd ever type again.

Saturday, February 6, 2016


I'm now realizing I'm a lot more tired than I've consciously been aware of lately. By the time we reached Machap yesterday I knew I couldn't handle any more driving since my eyes were almost closing. Noi took over duties until we reached Melaka, then it was the teh and toast at the ARAB café that served to restore me to working order for the remainder of the journey.

Then today, despite getting in a good nine hours or so of the zzzzzzzs last night, I've nodded off both prior to the Zuhor and Asr prayers. In each case the rather loud azan from the masjid down the road woke me up to do the necessary. (One of the plus points of staying here is that prayer-times are signalled so clearly, and loudly - though I'm not so sure our non-Muslim neighbours are so appreciative. When we asked Susan from next door about this she tactfully said the noise doesn't bother them, but I reckon it could easily be turned down to the satisfaction of all.) I'm now wondering if I'll nod again before the Maghrib prayer, but Sharifah & Hamza are set to arrive before that so I don't think I'll get the chance, even if I were to want it.

Now playing Haydn, my set of the London Symphonies, at reasonable volume to keep myself awake and be reminded of what civilization sounds like.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Onwards, Upwards

Seeking to take advantage of the long weekend break for Chinese New Year, we're off to KL after Friday Prayers. Not at all sure, though, of what the traffic is going to be like at Tuas and moving up the North-South Highway as we move into the holiday season. Expect the unexpected is the motto for the day. And for life, really.

Postscript: In the event it was more a case of expect the expected. There was a bit of a jam at the Malaysian immigration side at Tuas, which got fairly chaotic because it was typically left un-policed, but after that sailing was fairly smooth. We encountered the usual number of loonies on the road, especially in Kuala Lumpur itself, and several downpours made driving that little bit more exciting, but it was all essentially, thankfully, uneventful. Oddly enough there was a big electronic sign just ahead of the toll at Sungai Besi promising slow moving traffic once we got into the capital, but this didn't materialize. Maybe they intend to leave the sign on throughout the Chinese New Year season just in case the prediction turns out to be accurate?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Sense Of Humour

Spent reasonably extended periods of the last two days laughing immoderately - for very juvenile, extremely silly reasons. This was, of course, an entirely good thing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Sense Of Proportion

Nick Mason, of Pink Floyd fame, has always struck me as a decent sort of bloke. Not that I know him, of course, but I'm speaking from a distance mediated by interviews and that sort of thing. Also thinking in terms of his being able to survive somehow between the Scylla and Charybdis of Gilmour and Waters, and keep banging those drums.
But reading an interview with him in the January 2016 issue of Prog, which I got hold of yesterday, has seen him rise to stellar heights in my estimation, for the most part due to his answer to a question about whether he thought his role in Floyd was undervalued. It began like this (and got better): I think it's been overrated! Because I was in such a successful band I am regarded as being better than I am...

It's just astonishing for a guy to survive in the 'rock world' with his sanity intact to that degree. (Actually, I've got to say though, that on the several occasions I saw Floyd live in the early 70's he was very impressive.) Must read his book about life in the band.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Sense Of Engagment

A little lad walked by me on the corridor today completely oblivious to my existence, or that of anyone else around. He was, to use Mum's phrase, stuck in a book. And I mean stuck - so entirely immersed in the world of whatever story he was reading that this mundane one had disappeared for him.

Let me tell you, I deeply envied him. I enjoy reading fiction but my capacity for losing myself in a story has considerably diminished from the days when I was regularly admonished for losing track of everyone and everything around me. Mum, and Dad for that matter, particularly objected to me reading at the dining table, I suppose because I wasn't doing full justice to the food they had gone to considerable trouble to provide. But what does food matter when you're in the middle of a great adventure, eh?

Monday, February 1, 2016


It was in the middle of a conversation I had with someone last year that an obvious truth was pointed out to me that I had completely failed to take cognisance of in any shape whatsoever. The speaking of this truth took a certain amount of courage also. It was this: one of the benefits of social media that is often left unrecognised (by myself, for example) is that very lonely people are provided with a way, often their only real way, of connecting with others through the channels those media provide. The speaker was talking partly, and, as I said courageously, given the sense of vulnerability revealed, from experience.

I was reminded of this today in a conversation in which I realised something about someone that I'd never been conscious before, again concerning what might have been thought of as an area of vulnerability. I don't think of myself as a particularly obtuse person, but maybe I should start doing just that. So often I just don't see what's there in front of me.