Monday, April 30, 2007

Poetry at Large

Spoken word tape of choice in the car's stereo system is Ted Hughes reading Tales From Ovid. I switched it on today on the way home and the first line out was: The hanging bulge of the land is plumped with myrtles, from Peleus and Thetis. Hughes makes hanging sound like you're on the end of a rope, only to balloon out on bulge before hitting the abundance of plumped. I'm not sure what myrtles look like but they sound great. And that was just one line. I suppose the extraordinary gravelly depth of the voice on this recording was due to Hughes's final illness. Sad but utterly splendid.

Back home I found myself listening to a bit of Ian McMillan on Poetry Archive. Another great voice and, coincidentally, they've got his poem about Ted Hughes becoming Elvis Presley, or vice versa. I was trying to find something for a spot in an upcoming English Department meeting entitled Something Inspirational for which I have to find, well, something inspirational. I'm not a Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of guy so I don't think I'll be coming up with quite what might be expected. At the moment, something from Mr McMillan is on the cards - as to how I'll pass that off as inspirational, time will tell.

Sunday, April 29, 2007


I think we all had a good time at The Phantom of the Opera this afternoon. Fi Fi seemed to be singing along at some points, but thankfully not loud enough to attract attention. It's by no means my favourite show, but it's got some great tunes, really big ones, great singers are guaranteed, and there's enough spectacle to keep you wondering exactly how the set works. What I think it lacks is a real heart, though I caught a bit of a celebratory documentary on the making of the original a few weeks ago which claimed that this (possession of said heart) is precisely what brings audiences flocking in. I can't see it myself, though the phantom himself has got a certain something. In fact, it's a puzzle why he doesn't get the girl as he's the only interesting guy around. The show's also a bit short on anything approaching a theme. It plays with melodramatic conventions without saying anything about them. Imagine what someone like Sondheim might do with the same sort of ideas! But then he did do something with them, in the brilliant Sweeney Todd, a show that's never likely to make it to these shores, sadly.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Finishing Saturday

This morning, appropriately, I finished Ian McEwan's Saturday. According to someone from the Independent (quoted on the cover) it's "dazzling… profound and urgent." Well, I'm extremely doubtful of "dazzling", slightly more convinced by "profound" and not sure what would make a novel "urgent". I enjoyed it and found it easy to read - which gets "dazzling" out of the way, since "dazzling" generally implies a bit of a struggle. I thought Saturday was all very traditional, in fact, a little bit clunky at times. The big set pieces fitted neatly together in terms of plot & theme - the sort of mugging, the game of squash, the visit to mother, the life-saving operation - and each one more than held my interest, but they did seem very obviously set pieces. The characters were engaging and well developed, but a little bit literary, and, surprisingly, a bit too good to be true sometimes. or possibly, too neat to be true. It's a novel intended to make you think, almost a state of England kind of thing, but it didn't really startle. In fact, the ideas seemed curiously well-worn. But I liked that as it was always accessible. Almost not-clever-enough for its own good.

And the ending. For reasons I can't quite understand I found the last twenty or so pages powerfully moving when I'd not really been deeply stirred before. I'll take "moving" over "dazzling" anytime.

Now we've just got back from a kenduri at Kak Kiah's, where we said prayers for Abang Mat who passed away a year ago. Fi Fi is with us as we're taking her to Phantom of the Opera tomorrow. We heard the news about United's victory (and Chelsea's lack of one) on the way back which engendered general cheerfulness, if not actual rejoicing.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Birthday Boy

The day got off to a fine start with 2 cards from Noi and ended on an even finer note with a bit of a jog to East Coast Park and dinner there at Komala's. As I move even more decisively into my second half-century it's time to review my current mission statement: To Manage Decline Gracefully. Yes, sounds good - something to live up to.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Blues

In Saturday Perowne, the main character, is listening to the blues as played by his son's band and experiencing a moment of something like exultation, completeness, coherence. I recognise something of that feeling - I suspect, I hope, we all do.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Keeping Busy

I embarked on the other book from the library over the weekend, Ian McEwan's Saturday. So far (about a third of the way through, with Saturday morning almost done and dusted), so good. Considering the fact that I had a ferociously busy day at work today I'm pleased to have found a bit of time in which to read.

Yesterday evening saw Noi & I happily making our way to our friendly gym at Katong, and coming back equally happy but rather more tired than when we set off. I still managed to get some reading done afterwards so I felt even more virtuous than in the previous week. I was a bit worried I might have overdone things but I'm mobile today so the damage couldn't have been too extensive. A motto for the moment: just keep going, you fool.

Actually I've felt for a long time that stubborn keepgoingness is a crucial quality in teachers but it never seems to really get acknowledged in the various systems of assessment one gets exposed to.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Bits & Pieces


Woke to find out that United could only manage a draw with Middlesborough last night. Are they now stuttering in the race for the title? Chelsea have a tricky trip to Newcastle today so let's hope for the best.

I didn't try to stay up for the football last night as we came back fairly late and very tired from an evening at Vivo City, just one more amongst Singapore's multiplicity of shopping malls. We took the bus there as it's on a direct route from where we live. The great thing about going by bus is that you can use the journey to read as well as doing your (very little) bit for the environment. I wasn't exactly keen on going but it was a reasonably painless experience and we found quite a good place to eat - the Fig & Olive. I think Noi has had it in mind to try them out for quite some time. We also bought (or rather Noi bought for me) some new weighing scales which also do other extremely invasive things like measuring your body fat and body water, at least I think that's what the salesguy said. Body water, I'm not too sure of & need to look at the instruction book to find out if that's what they calculate and why one might need to know about this.

This morning I finished D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, which was what I was reading on the bus yesterday when in multi-tasking mode. I picked my copy off the shelves when we in KL after I completed Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks. Lawrence has never been a writer with whom I've felt in any kind of sympathy, except in short bursts (though some of the poetry works its magic), but I suppose I felt an obligation to revisit something substantial of his and see if time had changed my attitude. It hadn't. The novel has its moments for me - the section dealing with Ursula's experience of teaching is extraordinarily resonant - but for most of its length I felt outside Lawrence's peculiarly intense world, though generally able to have some appreciation of what he is attempting.


Just back from Geylang market where we had a more than nice cup of tea and Noi bought chicken & stuff for tonight's dinner. We're heading over to Woodlands where Rozita will provide the other half of the dinner and the girls will crown me the 'King of Cadoo' (at my request.)

Once in a while I find myself wondering what it might be or might have been like to meet a particular writer. I don't think I would have enjoyed meeting Lawrence. The character to whom I seem closest in The Rainbow is Mr Harby, the dreadful schoolmaster and bully of Ursula. Sometimes literature can be less than reassuring.

On the other hand, I suspect meeting Joyce would have been a hoot. Though he would probably have tapped me for a few quid - well worth it in his case.


I've been pushing on with Alexander McCall Smith's The Sunday Philosophy Club this afternoon. It's one of two novels I picked up at the library last week and I suppose I picked it up expecting light entertainment with a bit of an edge. I enjoyed Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency more than somewhat. In fact, I left my copy with Mum in Manchester thinking that she'd enjoy it too. I don't think The Sunday Philosophy Club is in the same league though it's been an easy, enjoyable read. But I do think the writer is a little too fond of his main character, who is, in turn, a little too fond of herself. Normally I like novels with decent, likeable characters at their centre, but this one doesn't work hard enough to convince the reader of how difficult it is to be convincingly decent and, well, good.


Just back from playing Upwords with Fi Fi & Fa Fa & Mak Ndak at Woodlands. Great fun for all.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Going Back

We spent the morning at my old school where we'd invited for the Speech Day. I'm tempted to write that the experience brought back memories but since we're dealing with such recent experience that hardly seems appropriate. I felt immediately at home there, almost as if I'd not left at all. The actual ceremony, if that's what you call it, went well and I think any neutral on-looker would have been impressed. The kids at the school are tremendously warm and I felt more than a smidgen of regret at leaving them behind, as it were. I think that of all the schools I've taught in this is the one I'll remember with the most affection.

Friday, April 20, 2007


The teachers involved in Drama Club at my school had an inconclusively conclusive meeting this afternoon in which we sort of decided to adopt the Chinese-themed notion for our July show. The inconclusive element stemmed from the fact that a couple of key people couldn't be around so not everyone actually agreed on the concept for the show, whilst the need to make some kind of decision made the outcome pretty conclusive. We don't have a title yet which is odd as titles are generally a starting point for me when generating ideas. All that comes to my mind is something on the lines of Comedies From Cathay, or Chinoiserie, or something to do with trees. (Don't ask!) This is one to allow to simmer until the show chooses its own name. Until then: Working Title: China.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Songs of Love and Hate

I popped Springsteen's The Rising in the car's CD player the other week. It seems to me a quite extraordinary piece of work, dealing with powerful themes with poise & assurance, despite the intense emotions involved. It's the balance he achieves in songs and between songs that seems to me responsible for the sense of depth of understanding conveyed. I've been particularly struck by how general he's made those songs which, I assume, are in response to one very obviously specific event. Mary's Place could be about any loss of any loved partner and the hopelessness and inevitability of revisiting the past, a past evoked, for someone of my age, with almost surgical precision in both music and lyrics. Daring to celebrate that past in a kind of rock 'n' roll exorcism is something only Springsteen could get away with because only he could make it so authentic. (That's a bit over the top but Bruce regularly pushes me in that direction. Sometimes I'm glad that the guitar solos are so shaky because at least that shows he's only human.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Working Out

Noi and I finally did it: we hit the gym and walked home to tell the tale. In fact, we walked home to eat Noi's famous oxtail soup and it was extra-famous somehow after all the exercise. We both feel virtuous - and replete. What larks!

A bit more on Peter Grimes: the original libretto included material on Grimes as sexual predator, preying on the workhouse boys who are forced to assist him. This angle was never part of Crabbe's original poem The Borough, the basis of the opera. Britten & Pears decided to get Slater, the librettist, to excise these references, though I presume it was they who had originally encouraged their inclusion. At least I think this is what took place based on material I've seen recently on the Internet. (In his fine book Britten in the Master Musicians series, Michael Kennedy mentions none of this stuff regarding the development of the libretto though he does discuss the extent to which Britten's homosexuality informs the character of Grimes as outsider.) I can't help but feel that some of the power and complexity of Grimes himself derives from this 'missing' material, and also some of the discomfort we experience in responding to his character. I'm made to feel even more uncomfortable here at the absurd equating of homosexuality with paedophilia that seems to be implied in all this. I don't think the opera's creators have really got any of this under their control, and that's wonderful because the opera passionately lives as a result.

By the way, I'd completely forgotten that Kennedy's book was on my shelf until this evening so now I'm spurred to listen to the opera again in the light of the pretty detailed commentary provided by Kennedy. Good exercise for the ears. Let's hope I hear things better the next time round.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Two Days at the Opera

I'm not a great lover of opera but yesterday and today I've been listening to Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. I suppose there's an autodidactic edge to this. I feel guilty to some degree over my inability to discover what it is about this art form that some people, whose opinions I respect, love so much. In broad terms I enjoy listening to Britten's music but there's something about the fruity voices, the over-ripeness of opera in general, that shuts me out. I've owned the 2 CD set I have been listening to for some years (conducted by Sir Colin Davis, with Jon Vickers as Grimes) but I've rarely played it from beginning to end. And now I'm wondering why not. Because this is obviously good stuff: great tunes, great sounds, just a great noise.

Also, I suppose, a great story. This I'm tentative about though. I'm not sure I really get the point. Yes, the portrait of the fishing community is convincing enough for me to suspend my disbelief, and individuals within that community are superbly delineated. Yet the problem of Grimes himself remains, and Ellen in relation to him. What is the listener supposed to make of him? Sympathy is easy, and cheap somehow. But are we to understand him? I don't think I can, possibly because I can't grasp what his music has to tell me. Perhaps simply, Man invented morals, but tides have none?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sunday in Katong

We went for a little walk this afternoon, basically for a tea and some curry puffs in Katong. At first we tried Dadi's, a favourite haunt, but they'd sold out of stuff to eat by the time we got there, as had the little café we sometimes frequent at Katong Mall. (I think that's the name of the shopping centre. Generally their names blend one into another for me. Noi, of course, would know, which is why I rely on her to get around.) But it wasn't an entirely wasted trip. We popped up to a little gym in the area to check out the prices and to see what it was like inside. I think Noi was impressed and since the charges are fairly cheap for single entries we may just try the place out next week.

Another, better, reason for feeling our little jaunt wasn't a waste of time was for the simple pleasure of taking the walk. The main road in Katong is quite a lively spot at weekends and it was fun just browsing the shops, mingling with the crowd. Quite a few new businesses have opened over the last couple of years in the area - and a number have vanished. An ice cream outlet that had been there for some years seems to be one of the casualties but such is the nature of the flux that we weren't really sure if we were looking in the right place for it. The new businesses seem generally of a yuppified nature - cake shops, spas, art shops - but there are also plenty of down-to-earth places - for example, at least three outlets selling fruit spill out onto the pavement.

Lately it's been raining quite a bit in the afternoons and it felt like we might be in for some more rain whilst we were walking, but we finished in bright sunshine and debilitating heat. People here often complain about the weather when it's hot but it suits me just fine. Lazy hot Friday afternoons in Geylang with Noi - where we used to go after I'd been to Mesjid Khadijah for prayers - don't feature in our lives like they used to due to changes in routines, but they persist in memory as amongst the best of times. Today's walk will join them.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Fit For Anything

I don't watch a lot of tv and generally what I do watch is something that Noi & I can enjoy together. Ever since we've been able to get the Discovery: Health & Home channel (I think that's what it's called) she's tended to pick up on quite a bit of the stuff they air and that's worked to our advantage. Firstly, it tends to show programmes that I don't mind watching so it gives us further opportunities to share our viewing and, secondly, it's helped to make us both rather more conscious of issues related to diet and exercise at a time in our lives when we may have been more likely to let things go. For example, it would have been pretty much unthinkable a few years back for Noi to don the running shoes and get herself moving. But last night that's exactly what she did, as she has done for a number of Fridays now, and there's been a distinct improvement in her fitness even though we've only managed to take ourselves down to East Park Coast for our workout about once a week this year.

I suggested to her that we should aim to try and get out a couple of times each week from now on and I think she's interested in doing so. However, I don't want a situation in which exercising begins to feel like a burden to either of us. At the moment it feels like fun and it would good to keep it that way. On a trip to the library today we popped in at the community centre to check the price of using the gym there. Noi is interested in the treadmills but actually I wouldn't mind doing something with weights. That's a kind of exercise I've never really got involved in but I think it could prove a useful addition to the cardiovascular stuff I'm more familiar with.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Birthday Girl

I rang Mum a little while ago to wish her a happy birthday. She sounded in good form - feisty as ever. It's difficult to accept she's approaching her nineties, though not quite there yet. She got her card from us today, so our timing was good. Tomorrow Maureen & John will be taking her for lunch, or dinner, she's not sure which. I wish we could be with them but this is one of the penalties of a life somewhere else.

On a darker note, Kurt Vonnegut died today. So it goes. At one time I thought Slaughterhouse 5 was one of the greatest novels ever written - and I still do. But I have a greater soft spot for Cat's Cradle. That was the beginning, and they say you never quite get over the first time. Suddenly I want to read them all again.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I'm hopeless at choosing favourites, as in favourite colour, favourite writer, etc. Except when it comes to composers of orchestral music. Then I have an easy, certain answer: Ralph Vaughn Williams. I only 'discovered' his music when I was in my twenties, but the sense of getting in touch with something that had and would continue to have a huge significance in my life was instant. It was as if I'd always known this music was there and it was simply a matter of finding it. It also felt as if I'd discovered England somehow, at least the England that is actually worth something - the England of Blake, the England of the Authorised Version, the England of Dickens.

Today I treated myself to what is probably my favourite CD of Vaughn Williams's music. (On this favourite I do need to hedge slightly, there are a few contenders.) The version of The Lark Ascending by the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, conducted by Neville Marriner, with Iona Brown as soloist, it contains is probably the closest I can think of to 16 minutes of earthly paradise. When I first heard it, in the early eighties, I spent several weeks with it almost continuously running through my head. Listening to it again, I can understand why. If music is capable of knowledge or wisdom then this music has it. As well as beauty. Perhaps they are the same thing?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

In Bloom

On the way home today it was Molly Bloom's turn, via a magical reading by Sinead Cusack, to remind me that there are three utterly convincing characterisations in Ulysses. We have much to thank Nora Barnacle for. She turned Joyce into a major writer. It's not fair to equate her with Molly, and I hope I'm not doing so, but it's hard to imagine the splendid ordinariness of the novel without her.

How incredibly brave the two of them were to set up together, to leave Ireland behind. Especially Nora. The "remarkable in the commonplace" - I got that from Ellmann's biography. Not a bad definition of art, I suppose.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Easy Listening

Since getting a new stereo player in the car I've been able to enjoy cassette tapes while driving as well as CDs in rotation - the thing comes with a CD changer. (I passed on an MP3 player the dealer offered as I've got no idea how to work one.) This is good news for the long drives to & from KL, and the journey from work. (For the journey to work I tend to stick to the BBC World Service.)

My trusty tape of Joyce's Ulysses enlivened and enlightened our journey home on Sunday and was continuing to do good service today. I'm now on to the later sections - Oxen of the Sun, the Nighttown phantasmagoria, the Cyclops episode and Nausicaa (is that the correct spelling?) - featured on Sunday, whilst today it was time for Eumaeus and a bit of Ithaca. I've been particularly struck by the utterly convincing characterisation that Joyce achieved, especially with regard to Bloom & Stephen. Is there a more decent (& paradoxically indecent) character in literature than old Poldy? In this reading he emerges, rightly, as the greatest of all anti-heroes and his fleeting connection with young Dedalus is extraordinarily moving. I remember one lecturer wallah at university telling us that language was the real hero of the novel. Nonsense - though what one might expect from the lit-crit brigade. This is a great novel because it's about great characters, and characters who are supremely ordinary.

CDs currently on rotation: Rufus Wainwright's Want 2; Tull's Songs From the Wood; Springsteen's The Rising; Elvis Costello's Painted from Memory (the one with Burt Bacharach); Stevie Wonder's Innervisions; and a compilation of Arab songs entitled Cairo Road. I also took a 3 CD Otis Redding set to KL along with Sufjan Stevens's Seven Swans and John McLaughlin's Thieves and Poets. Not a bad little list, but a touch nostalgic I suppose.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Back Home

We got back to Singapore about an hour ago after yet another easy drive. We've had an extraordinary run of good luck in terms of straightforward journeys north (and south) for well over a year now, and long may it continue. Today's journey was broken for a stop-over at Melaka. Wedding business is afoot (for late May) and Noi seems to be playing something of a leading role in the arrangement. Some flowery bits & pieces she picked up in KL on Friday, while I was dozing at home, changed hands. This time the wedding will be a double-header for a younger brother & sister. It was hot and lazy in Melaka, much like KL really. Why does it always seem a lot hotter in Malaysia?

As usual, there was an abundance of children in Melaka. Mak's house seems designed to let them rove as freely as possible. They certainly keep popping up everywhere.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Greetings From KL

Noi & I decided to take advantage of the long weekend afforded by the holiday for Good Friday and come up to Maison KL to put the place in order. This has included managing to finally get back on-line here after a hiatus stretching back to November. Cursed by a faulty modem and a sometimes temperamental supply of electricity to the plug sockets below the computer table, compounded by the inability to stay here long enough to get these problems fixed, it has sometimes felt as if we’d never be webbed-up again. However, my brother-in-law, Hamza’s, expert intervention has put an end to our woes. And so here I am, finally on the blog from KL. All told the last few days have been busy ones. I needed to prepare for a lesson observation on Tuesday and have some files checked on Wednesday, as well as having some involvement in quite a big event for the department, a speech competition culminating in a sort of assembly-style final on Thursday. I can’t say any of this was unduly onerous being accustomed to these aspects of the job, and it all went off without too many headaches – but it did tend to eat up time, leaving me beat by Thursday evening. Oh, and I went to see West Side Story as performed by one of our junior colleges in Singapore on Wednesday night. That was tiring, but enormously rewarding. Watching young people perform on stage with energy, exuberance and not a little talent is a fine way to spend an evening. The splendid dance routines alone made attendance worthwhile.

I found a bit of time on Friday to get some reading done, in between protracted naps. I finished The Van over which I still have mixed - though mainly positive - feelings. There were several sequences which were as good as anything in the earlier novels, particularly the scenes involving Ireland’s progress in the World Cup, but I felt the whole thing was just a bit too long and a bit predictable. A bit too spelt out, I suppose. Having put down The Van I found myself picking up Samuel Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks. From one fine Irish writer to another – though I don’t think one can accuse Beckett of spelling out anything, or of being particularly Irish. But he is very funny (like Doyle) – at least when you manage to get the hang of what’s going on.I also embarked on Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book.

I’ve been intending to read this for months since acquiring a rather tasty edition with useful notes (at the foot of the page, by the way, where all good notes should be.) What is it I find so attractive about book-length narrative poems? I suppose partly it’s the sense that anyone who has bothered to craft something of this size probably has got something worth saying. Also the feeling that something’s come along that you can really let yourself sink into, ignoring human voices long enough to drown. Never underestimate the value of literature as escapism.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Back to Barrytown

I'm over the halfway mark now with Roddy Doyle's The Van. It reads so easily I can imagine someone reading it in a couple of sittings but I'm content to spin it out, a bit here, a lot there. Jimmy Sr. is an entirely convincing character. I've known at least five guys who were similar in most respects. I can understand why Doyle felt he deserved a full novel, and one that's a good deal longer than The Commitments. But much as I've enjoyed the book I think it lacks something somehow. It seems a good deal more predictable than either of its predecessors, as if what we'd learnt about Jimmy Sr. in The Snapper was enough. I find myself wondering if another character had been put at the centre of things the story wouldn't have had more punch. As it is, it feels a bit like an excellent sit-com that's now in its second season; the novelty has worn off and the novelty is what gave it its edge. Mind you, I'm nowhere near finished and there could be surprises in store.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Family Matters

The pictures above give some impression of where the real action was at the wedding yesterday. I went down in the late afternoon when things were settling down and it was still very busy with Noi & friends packing food for all and sundry. Malay weddings are essentially open occasions and in Singapore they're usually celebrated at the void deck of the flats where the family involved lives. Kak Kiah had issued over two hundred invitations by card and probably a lot more by word of mouth. People come, eat and leave, so it's quite different from the formal dinner at a wedding in England. I spent much of my time there reading The God of Small Things in the cooking area and just getting in everyone's way, but nobody seemed to mind.

Mak and a fair proportion of Noi's family had come over from Melaka for the occasion. We took Mak back to our place last night, arriving just in time for the last goal in Liverpool's 4 - 1 thumping of Arsenal. I watched the first half of United against Blackburn but had flaked out by the interval and went to bed. That may seem an odd thing to do with so much at stake (the lads being 1 - 0 down) but I find it almost impossible to watch a game beyond 11.00 pm. In all my years here I've never adjusted to the idea of watching footie late on Saturday or Sunday night, or in the early hours of the morning - it just seems wrong somehow. I wasn't terribly surprised United finally won the game, though the winning margin was remarkable. They had created enough chances in the first half to make a win seem more than possible. But I must admit that when I did lay my head down I was a touch pessimistic. Being wrong again is most enjoyable.

We've just come back from seeing Mak & family off and it's time to take in the highlights of the game. Not a bad way to finish the weekend!