Thursday, May 31, 2007


Ha Long Bay (see pictures above) is a remarkably beautiful place. Enormous outcrops of limestone, known as karsks, I believe, everywhere emerge from the sea. There seem to be hundreds of them. In the three days we were on the bay, in the EcoBoat, they became our familiar companions so you almost forgot how stupendous they were. Almost.

The area is touristy, very. There are always a lot of boats on the bay, but the guys running our boat knew the waters well and were able to escape the well-worn routes. When we went kayaking we were quite alone, and similarly in the second cave we visited, though the first was a tourist hot spot. Of course, our mangrove planting took place in an annex to nowhere, with our team having trekked over a kind of mud trail to get to a coastal area at low tide. One problem with planting in the mud is that it's not wise to stand still for too long, otherwise at least one leg will sink into the mud and once it's sucked in getting free is quite a struggle.

We slept (sixteen students & two teachers) on a covered deck of the boat, on simple mattresses. It was too hot to consider any form of blankets. In the mornings we'd usually find one of the local ladies in a small boat alongside selling all sorts of snacks & drinks. We did our part to fuel the local economy. We had two primitive toilets-cum-showers to share with the crew, with a couple more taps on deck where you could also wash, so getting clean was a struggle. Having said that, everyone cooperated so we were able to make the situation work.

On two evenings we watched videos related to environmental issues - an episode of the BBC's Blue Planet about polluting the sea, and the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth. Consideration of what our species is doing to this world was more than a little depressing. I think one or two of the students also felt a bit that way. The simple hopelessness of a beach clean-up we attempted (styrofoam being the number one culprit) was a particularly poignant reminder of how we're drowning in our packaging. Still, somehow what was beautiful had survived. For now.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Out Of Nam

The first time you visit a country is generally an overwhelming experience with so much that's new to take in. My first visit to Vietnam held to the pattern, leaving me with too much to make sense of to do justice to the experience this late at night. I'll try and record something of value in the next few days, though with a wedding at Melaka to attend this weekend my efforts will be fitful at best.

One thing I am pleased about is the sheer amount of physical activity I managed to get through in our six days. Even in Hanoi, the easy part of the trip, I got to the fitness centre in the hotel a couple of times. At Ha Long Bay I survived the rigours of mangrove planting (not for the faint hearted), a game of beach football, two pretty steep climbs, a couple of hours of kayaking and at least one fairly long swim from beach to boat. I couldn't have done all that three years ago, that's for sure.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Surviving, Just

When the going gets tough my instinct is to disappear, but at the moment simply getting through the day is as tough as it gets so there's no avoiding having to deal with it. Why do we create jobs that require more than 24 hours of work in a day?

It doesn't simplify matters that I also need to get things sorted out for Vietnam, basically by tomorrow night. Fortunately Noi is taking control of that so I'm just following her lead. I'm now pretty much kitted out.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Day in the Life - So Far

Woke for the swubuh prayer but went back to bed after completing it and slept until 9.15. Got up again, only to remember Chelsea's victory last night in the cup final. At least it didn't go to penalties which is the worst way of all to lose. Felt a bit depressed but then considered what a great season United had all told. Such are the benefits of a sense of proportion.

After showering, read the Sunday Times (the Singapore version thereof.) Possibly the world's worst newspaper. The Life section (now, I think, called lifestyle - ugh) increasingly reads like some particularly crass magazine for women. Only the cartoon section is worth anything, with Get Fuzzy, as always, the highlight of the whole thing.

Listened to Dylan's Planet Waves whilst reading, followed by The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, but didn't listen closely enough to do the material justice. I'm growing increasingly convinced that music actively listened to is a beast of a completely different nature than music as wallpaper (or, worse still, lifestyle.) Once I finished reading the paper I reread a couple of the short plays we're doing as part of our next show, which has now found its name: Made in the Middle Kingdom. Ta da!

Marked some Theory of Knowledge stuff & prepared my record book for the week ahead, breaking off for a while to drink the hot sweet tea (prepared by my hot, sweet wife) and eat hash browns for breakfast. Normally I'd eat cereal but we got the hash things in thinking that the girls might be staying over, a plan that fell through.

Listened to The Pogues's Rum, Sodomy & the Lash whilst continuing to mark. Broke off when our neighbour, Noraini, visited. She and her family are moving out today. Noi was watching proceedings from the back balcony & giving me a running commentary on what Noraini's kids were doing, who was loading the van, and the like. By the time Noraini took her leave there were floods of tears from both Noi and herself. I was reminded of a line from Death of a Salesman, spoken by Willie's wife, Linda, that my sixth form English teacher, Jack Connolly - great guy, wonderful teacher - told me years ago was a great truth: Life is a taking leave. (I hope I've got that right.) Anyway, true, and painful, it is.

Temporarily finished doing school stuff around 2.30 pm and took Noi to Geylang Market to shop for the spices & mutton she needs to take to Melaka the weekend after next to cook for the weddings of a younger brother & sister. She will be cooking for 1000 people! There was a lot to carry and we needed the help of a young Bangladeshi helper to get it all to the car. (Typically generous, Noi paid him double the going rate suggested by the stall holder. He deserved it. The afternoon was unreasonably, unremittingly hot and tiring.) Before loading up we had tea & vadai, the latter being red hot and soft and delicious from having just been fried.

Now we're back home, with me writing this and still marking in between paragraphs. We're off to Woodlands this evening to play Happy Families with the girls, Noi having found a set of the playing cards at a shopping centre yesterday. No doubt Fuad and I will miserably recall the misfortune of last night's game, but I don't mind Chelsea winning too much. I have a bit of a soft spot for Mourinho. After all, a man who calls his dog Gullit can't be all bad.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


I read Hesse's Siddhartha again on Friday and this morning as today I needed to teach it to the small group of scholars I've been helping out for their competition, for which they fly off on Wednesday. It always feels a bit odd to say you are teaching any text in Literature - after all, in what sense is a text teachable? But in the case of Siddhartha I got that odd and happy sense that the text was teaching me. The best lit lessons always feel that way. It helps to be inspired by searching questions also. I was almost convinced by one or two of my answers.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Construction of Light

Generally I get to work around 6.40 and work in the staffroom until we go out for flag-raising at 7.25. This morning I broke the routine as I needed to pop across to the office at 6.55 to write an announcement that had slipped my mind when I arrived. As I walked across the open space where we do flag-raising the light had a quality I've sometimes (though not that frequently) noticed before, usually around that time of the morning. For five minutes or so there was a heavy kind of yellowness which seemed to glow on everything, making the world more vivid, more actual somehow. The floor particularly seemed to be lit from the inside. Nothing in the sky seemed to account for this phenomenon, though I suppose it must have been connected with the rising sun. My body told me to expect a storm. The heaviness of the light suggested something was on its way. But nothing arrived. By the time I came out of the office, mission accomplished, the world was disappointingly ordinary again.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Good Morning Vietnam

This time next week I should be in Vietnam with most of my class, if things go as planned. It's quite an opportunity. We'll be planting mangroves around Ha Long Bay as part of a project conducted on an EcoBoat, trying to establish a healthy mangrove habitat around the bay. Also we'll have some time to spend in Hanoi.

In my teenage years Hanoi meant blanket bombing by B52s. Some things have changed hugely for the better. But was all that suffering worth it? History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. I might be misquoting Mr Dedalus, but Joyce, as usual, is uncannily correct when it comes to the big stuff.

Better plant than rant.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Vocally Speaking

It was touch & go as to whether my voice would last the day. That was worrying, to say the least; a voiceless teacher is not exactly effective. I'm pleased to say it did last out and, I think, is in a slightly better state now than it was at this time yesterday.

Listened to Bob Dylan's Shot of Love this evening, for the first time in quite a while. Vocally I think he was on pretty good form on a generally underrated album. This version has The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar on it, which makes for a much stronger set all round somehow. Oddly I always enjoy Property of Jesus which nearly all the critics hate, but Bob in a name-calling mood is always a bracing experience, even when you're not exactly on his side. I suspect that if his targets had been acceptable to his liberal fans (instead of actually being said fans) the track would have been hailed as a classic in musical terms.

Why is it that guys singing in the same band end up sounding like each other? It's taken me years to realise that the Edge sings on Seconds (off War) rather than Bono, and I rarely have a clue who is actually taking the main vocal on any Pink Floyd track (except for the Syd Barrett stuff, of course.) I rest my case with Daltrey & Townshend. Oh, and Jagger & Richards - who were most definitely not the property of Jesus.

Monday, May 14, 2007

No Deal

I'm ill at the moment - sore throat, aching head - and behaving, as usual, like the world's worst patient: self-pitying, sullen, generally a bad lot to be around. Fortunately my wife is possibly the world's finest nurse, so it sort of balances out.

At the moment she's watching the new programme on Channel 5 here: Deal or No Deal. It's a sort of game show, with which we are very familiar having watched it a lot in December when we were in England, Mum being a huge fan. The English version is so much more palatable than the one here that it's embarrassing. I never thought I'd think of Noel Edmonds as something of a sophisticate, but that's what local tv does to you.

Why do gameshow contestants here feel obliged to shout all the time?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Music in Mind

One of the several advantages of having a CD changer in the car is that, if your memory is as porous as mine, you forget what you've loaded and can be pleasantly surprised when something new and unexpected kicks in. Thus it was that yesterday morning, while driving into work to coach some of the scholars for a competition coming up for them, I was joyfully pinned back into the driver's seat by the body blow of King Crinson's Vrooom played live from the B'Boom album (the official bootleg, live in Argentina set.) On a weekend that has consisted largely, almost solely, of getting work done it was a reminder of a bigger, better world out there.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Dance Fever

I found myself suggesting to a couple of classes this week that learning to dance might be of more educational value than doing mathematics. Both groups looked mildly bemused and have no doubt decided I'm pretty much certifiable. The odd thing is that what started as a flippant off-hand suggestion grew steadily more attractive the more I turned it over in my mind. The joys of Theory of Knowledge!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Fully Occupied

At the moment work is relentlessly, ferociously busy and it looks as if it will stay that way for at least a couple of weeks. Teaching used to be a demanding job; it's now impossible. The foolishness of this is that stretching teachers (or any workers for that matter) to their limits does not make for good teaching. Another aspect of the foolishness is that it's not the teaching that makes the job such a busy one. The teaching is actually the enjoyable bit. But it's only a bit.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Feeling Champion

A particularly demanding day at work, balanced by the peculiarly rewarding knowledge that Chelsea blew it at the Emirates Stadium and United once again have their collective hands on the prize that really counts.

And to think that Sir Alex was once rumoured to be as close as one game to the sack. Why don't clubs persist with their managers and actually let them build something? Haven't Newcastle learnt anything from the failure of their constantly revolving door?

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Not Exactly Fashionable

In between my marking of scripts & preparing stuff for next week, my multi-talented wife gave me a rather spiffing haircut, and I listened to John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls, the piece he wrote for the New York Philharmonic after 9/11. I think Transmigration will live beyond its immediate historical circumstances as a powerful threnody for all times. The local detail, like the intoning, if that's the right word, of the names of the dead, as is so often the case, plugs into a kind of universality. There are no tunes to hum but, somehow, the music has got soul.

I've also found myself dipping into The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan by Nigel Williamson, which I picked up at the library yesterday. For a little book it's surprisingly informative & seems pretty sensible in its judgements. The great man's blunders are admitted but Williamson's always on the look out for what actually makes him great, and there's more than plenty of that.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Golden Days

I spent part of this morning in school coaching a team of our scholars for a competition and realising how wonderful Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 and Wordsworth's I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud are. One of the guys started the session by commenting how simple the latter is, in the sense of it not having that much to it, but by the time we finished I think we'd all discovered the real gold of those daffodils.

We were at the library this afternoon, followed by dinner at Dadi's (they actually gave us some free curry puffs as we left as we were the final customers) and back home, through a happeningly crowded Katong, to a gritty United victory over City. (What was the ref thinking giving that penalty to City?) It really doesn't get much better than this.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Auntie Bet

I came home to some sad news yesterday - Mum phoned to tell me that Auntie Bet had died, I think yesterday morning. She passed away in hospital, I believe, I assume having been taken there because of difficulties breathing and getting around. Noi & I last saw her in December at Uncle Peter's funeral. I was glad we were there to say a kind of good-bye to Uncle and feel bad about not being home at the moment. It was the same when Auntie Norah died and we were stuck here. But this is one of the penalties of a life lived overseas.

Oddly I found Uncle Peter's funeral a bit difficult to deal with emotionally. This was odd in the sense that he'd been very ill for so long, and we'd not seen him during that time, and there was a sense in which his death was a kind of release. Yet I felt extraordinarily sad that day. I think part of that was seeing Auntie so frail, and Mum struggling to keep up with things. In a curious way I felt part of my life was closing down.

I suppose this is because I associate Auntie Bet & Uncle Peter with so much that was so good in my life. I'm extraordinarily lucky in being able to remember my childhood with almost unalloyed happiness, and our time living near them, on Guide Lane, seems now a kind of golden period. Thinking of them, something I've been doing much of the day, I can't recall anything except the warmth & happiness I felt being at their house (where, as far as I can remember, I seemed to spend a good deal of time.) They were just lovely people. Auntie Bet seemed to encapsulate a kind of joy in living, a vibrant yes to life. Even though Noi met her only when Auntie was already well on in years I think she sensed that about her also. Noi loved going to visit them.

We'll never visit again, but it was great while it lasted. We're so lucky to have had that.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Reduced to Beggary

Had an interesting conversation with Noi today about beggars in Singapore. There are frequently beggars outside mosques - lots, for example, can be found round & about Mesjid Sultan. Noi is, rightly, dubious about who these people are and where they come from and was saying that a column in Berita Harian recently raised similar questions. She pointed out that you just don't see beggars outside mosques in Malaysia, or at least we don't. She's right (observant as ever) and that seems extraordinary given the degree of genuine need in Malaysia.

An important idea in Islam is the need to give charity open-handedly and not question the circumstances of the recipient too much. In a sense our concern is a selfish one, for the good of our souls, and since the giving of charity automatically does us good we shouldn't be overly concerned with where it's going. I like that paradoxical sense of the selfishness of charity - it's somehow more attuned to the reality of human nature and it's hard to feel superior to others when you know that, in some way, you're doing what you're doing for yourself. So we'll certainly continue to (selfishly) give, but I still find myself fascinated by the question of who the money is going to and for what real purpose. There's so much I feel I don't know about simple things in this society, just on the level of how it all works, and what people's lives are really like, the kind of people I don't know and don't get to talk to. For all its affluence Singapore is full of people on the margins - the maids, the building workers - and I sometimes think that margins are the places of deepest interest, and possibly a kind of truth, in a society.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Hard Labour

An excellent night's sleep was the result of knowing I could lie-in this morning. But it's not been all beer and skittles - I got quite a lot of marking done. Then it was off to the gym at Katong where Noi overdid it a little, feeling dizzy after getting off the exercise bike, and I tried to take it easy after a run yesterday. I'm not sure I took it easy enough though. Time, that great narrator, will tell.

The marking concerned a rather tasty passage from The Great Gatsby. This, of course, has triggered a desire to read it again. In fact, I've got a whole bunch of Fitzgerald in KL (though not Tender is the Night which seems to have disappeared) and I really must give the early novels another go. I remember thinking they were not up to much, but that was years ago and age begets charity (or possibly clarity) and tempers arrogance (at least I hope it does.) I suppose this might account for why over the years I've come to pretty much loathe critics - paradoxically a most uncharitable, rather arrogant, viewpoint, I suppose.

Most of the students came down rather hard on poor Gatsby and his parties. I suppose that's a good sign really: the admirable puritanism of youth. But anyone with "blue gardens" surely couldn't have been all bad?