Saturday, June 30, 2007


One of the CDs currently residing in the car's CD changer is a rather tasty compilation of singles previously released by Suede cunningly entitled Singles. It came as a present from Deepak a couple of years back and, despite its aforementioned general tastiness, I don't play it often enough. Anyway, I've been remedying the situation over the last week or so and, as a result, I find myself haunted, most appropriately, by the blistering excellent cut Obsessions. The bass-line alone is worth the price of admission and the song built upon it is a classic. (Actually, it's misleading to talk of building the song on the bass-line as the bass is extremely melodic for certain lines, playing in very much the upper register, such that, whilst it drives along it seems sort of independent of the general groove somehow.)

What is it about certain songs that makes them seem so utterly right, to work so perfectly? It's almost as if such songs are discovered rather than created, as if they had lain in wait to be found. All their pieces fit: in this case the driving rhythms, the hook, the verses feeding into it, the guitar figures embellishing the chord sequences, the yearning yet hard vocals, the lyrics that say exactly what they need to - and a bit more in the superbly compressed "simple yet complex". Suede were an extraordinarily mannered band - to the extent that, much as I enjoy their stuff I can never get genuinely inside it, though I can understand the appeal to what was obviously a passionate base of followers - but here the mannerisms gel into something that could really get under anybody's skin, and into anyone's ears.

I think this is what the best 'pop' music can do. Oddly enough I've got no idea if this particular track was a successful one in commercial terms, which is some indication of how out of it I've become in my adult years, but I kind of hope it was. It deserves it somehow.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

More Forbidden Fruit

Now I can upload pictures once again, the evidence of my wife's recent durian feast in Melaka can be revealed to the world. Fortunately for those of a tender disposition the on-line multimedia experience does not include the sense of smell. Various writers have attempted to do justice to the fruit's extraordinary fragrance and usually have failed. I'll simply say the odour lingers, and lingers, and lingers. Oh, and it penetrates.

Notice the niece, Ayu, in attendance. The corruption of innocence. The scrawny chicken I include as a casual bystander.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pains & Aches

I seem to be recovering well from the exercise I've been doing. Other than a very minor nagging pain in my right side, barely noticeable most of the time, I feel in good shape. I tend to take it for granted when I feel okay, and I suppose when I was younger I assumed it as a kind of natural right, the way things were meant to be. A few years of persistent back pain have cured me of that illusion but, even now, I don't feel as thankful as I should for the mercy of good health. So I'll say thanks for it now.

Living in comfortable circumstances is also one of those slices of enormous good fortune one does not in any sense deserve. This morning I awoke to startling pictures on tv of floods in Sheffield. A whole stretch of the M1, a stretch up and down which I used to travel regularly, was immersed. These will be hard times for some of the home-owners there, even though they're probably generally better-off than the people in Malaysia whose homes were flooded earlier this year. A crisis of that nature I suspect would be likely to bring out the worst in me after a life of easy-living.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Shape of Things To Come

Accessing From A Far Place by a different computer I realised that the formatting buttons are available at Blogger. It must be something to do with my computer that means I'm restricted in what I can do from home. At least I managed to get the font I wanted on the last few entries by editing from the other computer.

Noi and I survived our little jaunt to East Coast on Saturday night and I got out today to complete eight laps of the track at school, in the afternoon as part of the Staff Wellness Programme, no less. Tomorrow we're hoping to make it to the gym when I get back from work. We're fueling our determination to actually do some exercise by watching a jolly little programme on the Discovery Health & Home channel the title of which asks So You Want To Live Longer? Well, yes we do. In each episode a redoubtable soul alters their lifestyle enough to knock years off their 'biological age' in just six weeks. And I look on enviously, thinking: 'I could do that!' and so too, I think, does the missus. I think this is what is meant by 'motivational'.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


I'm now gearing up for the rigours of what will be a busy term, 'busy' here functioning as euphemism for impossible. The break in Malaysia was a restful one, despite the various nieces & nephews in attendance. I forgot to mention the reading I completed at Mak's place the other day. I reread an old favourite, Narayan's The English Teacher. One of my students wants to write his extended essay on the novel and I was more than happy to be his supervisor. This time round I was struck by the glorious casualness of the narrative. (I think the first time it was a case of simply being beguiled by the story and sort of surrendering to it.) Has any writer ever got closer to the accidental nature of our lives - and the preciousness of their pettiness? is there a saner writer to be found?

I also read a children's book that I bought many years ago, before coming to Singapore, yet never got started on. My discovery of the excellence of so-called children's literature was possibly the single most liberating aspect of my career as a teacher and I was a consistent reader of such in the eighties. Sadly, I've not devoted as much time in recent years to the genre (if that's what it is) as I was doing then, and my life is the poorer for it. This novel, Helen Cresswell's The Winter of the Birds, remained stored away in England for ages, with a pile of other books, but I finally shipped them over when we settled in the house in KL. There remain one or two unread ones amongst these and I must amend this situation over time. Anyway I sort of enjoyed The Winter of the Birds, but I don't think it's in the league of Cresswell's classic The Piemakers. This one seems to be aimed at slightly older readers and has a kind of working class 'real world' setting, as opposed to the fantasy world of The Piemakers, but it doesn't really convince in terms of making that real world believable. It deals with the need for freedom of the imagination but seems more interested in enjoying that freedom rather than convincing you of a real world in which it might be earned. The action takes place as Christmas is approaching and something of the potential magic of the season lifts the second part of the narrative but we're quite a while getting there.

Blogger still isn't providing its usual full range of services, so no pictures at the moment. I can't even get my usual font.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Catching Up

Since getting back from Malaysia I've found myself being kept fairly busy. We've been getting on with rehearsals for Made in the Middle Kingdom and things are progressing nicely, and the ACSIS students organised a kind of farewell for the Year 6 people on Thursday which was fun to attend - oddly I found myself answering lots of questions about bands I'd seen in my teenage years, so it was curiously nostalgic somehow.

Noi and I are about to renew our acquaintance with the world of physical exercise via a bit of a walk-cum-run to the East Coast Park. Other than having a swim when we were in Melaka I've not exercised in earnest since the end of May. I'm hoping it's not going to be too much of a shock to the system.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Forbidden Fruit

We’re now back in Singapore after a couple of days at Mak's in Melaka. Hanging loose there is always a good way to conclude a trip to Malaysia. Usually we confine ourselves to our small lives at the house and don't wander around too much. A trip to Cheng Heights to use the swimming pool there is about as far as we normally explore, and we duly took to the waters on Monday with four nieces in noisy attendance. But today we found ourselves in Alor Gajah for the first time in quite a while, having rather a jolly time. Noi and the girls drank chendol from a stall on the square, near the little museum, and time stood still. The town has developed somewhat from when we more regularly used to go there - before we really moved into Maison KL. Having said it still aspires to be little more than a sleepy small town in Malaysia, a pretty good thing to be.

Back at the ranch Noi decided to sample some durian, from one of the trees around the house. This is the only chance she gets to eat the stuff domestically as it remains fruit non grata at Still Road. There was nothing about its odour today that was going to soften my stance on the matter. I was going to post some photos as evidence of the afternoon's gourmandising, but Blogger seems to be a bit limited in its functions today.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Tidying Up

We’re in the process of putting the house in order before driving down to Melaka where we’ll stay until Tuesday. Over the last few days we’ve had some workmen around repairing some of our fencing and painting the woodwork, along with a few other jobs. The house is looking good – we’ve finally got the welcome sign up next to the door - and it’s a pity we can’t stay longer to enjoy it even more. Also pictured above are the flowers Fa Fa & Ayu picked for Mak Ndak on a jaunt we made around the taman earlier this week. Sweet memories.

Yesterday we got back late having spent the evening at Hamza’s place in Shah Alam, celebrating his birthday and that of Sabrina. Good food and good conversation. It’s quite a drive over there, especially when you’re not entirely sure where you are going, though. We seemed to chosen a particularly long way to come back, following the signs for Kuantan. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Earlier in the day we managed to get to the Islamic Arts Museum with no trouble at all, one of our rare triumphs in navigating KL. The museum was well worth a visit; in fact, we didn’t have time to do it justice. Even the girls were keen to return in December, when we assume we will next be in KL with them. One exhibition, of monochrome photographs of various dignitaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had possibly the most informative and interesting signage I’ve ever seen in a gallery or museum. The seemingly stiff and forbidding subjects of the portraiture came startlingly to life and you became aware how important it might be for them to have been wearing a suitably stiff collar or striking necklace at that moment of their lives. The pictures were originally meant to impress, to assert status, if not grandeur. Now their struggle is tinged with an odd sadness as their world has somehow dissolved in time. As ours will.

I finished V For Vendetta and feel bad about saying it was by Alan Moore when he makes it abundantly clear that the artist David Lloyd was equally responsible for the storyline, and everything that makes up the text. I consistently underestimate the importance of illustrators in this genre and I don’t know why this should be, considering how much pleasure I get from the visual aspects of comic books. I also finished John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts? and found myself in agreement with almost everything he had to say. Most of all it was the emphasis on art as something that one should be doing rather than evaluating that seemed to me common sense. It was good to see him acknowledge the value of gardening as an art. I would add cookery, which I don’t recall him mentioning. I’m not entirely sure I share Carey’s confidence that literature represents a superior form of art, but I enjoyed his enthusiasm in attempting to make the case. What I found interesting here was some avoidance of consideration of the study of Literature as an academic subject, which I take to be what the writer is professionally involved in on a day to day basis. Does such study mean we are involved in literature as art?

On Friday night Noi and I watched Later with Jools Holland on the BBC Entertainment channel now available on cable here. It was a salutary reminder of how much excellent music is routinely being created by all sorts of musicians. I can’t go along with the idea that popular music isn’t what it used to be. There’s so much out there that’s so good, the problem, if problem it is, is simply one of choice - there's so much that's worth listening to, you can't do it all justice. I just hope all these guys manage to earn a decent living doing what they do so well

Friday, June 15, 2007

Reading Around

Perhaps it was not quite accurate to claim we’d hardly bought anything, the other day. The girls got some books at Kinokuniya, in Suria KLCC, Noi bought a Malay novel and I shelled out for Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta – treating myself to a graphic novel has become a feature of our KL jaunts – and John Carey’s What Good Are The Arts? I noticed Carey’s book when we were in England in December and was attracted then on the strength of the fact that Carey has written two of my favourite books of literary criticism (the ones on Donne and Thackery – the one on Dickens being a bit of a disappointment, I’ve always felt) and writes with great clarity, wit and insight, and the subject is something close to my heart. I didn’t buy it then because I had quite enough on my plate, which I still have, I suppose, but the temptation (I suppose pure curiosity to find out what exactly Carey had to say) proved too great. As it is I’ve been racing ahead with What Good Are The Arts?, moving steadily through V For Vendetta, and the rest of my planned reading has been side-lined, as a result.

In addition to the books I also bought a couple of CDs whilst I was at Tower Records (and Noi & the kids were in the supermarket.) A bit of Copeland ( a CD with the Billy the Kid suite and Third Symphony) and some John Williams playing Bach (the lute suites on guitar.) In my teenage years I would have regarded buying so much at one go as extravagance indeed. It says something of the nature of my (relative) affluence that I now take such spending as almost a basic right. I’m not sure this is entirely a good thing: as a teenager I pretty much wrung as much as I could in terms of close listening and reading of the liner notes, if there were any, to any lp I bought, in order to get my money’s worth. Now it’s unusual for a CD to get from me anything like that level of attention, respect, I suppose. The loss is mine.

In terms of the side-lined reading, Robert Louis Stevenson has been the main victim. I brought along a paperback comprising The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Weir of Hermiston. I got through the first but have laid poor Weir to one side. I suppose Jekyll & Hyde is one of those stories that everyone knows but people rarely read. It’s not exactly an accessible text, despite the gripping, resonant core of the story. The apparatus of multiple narrators might sound terribly modern but I think it comes across more than a little ponderously. It doesn’t help that there’s precious little real differentiation of narrative voice. But I found a kind of fascination in terms of how Stevenson did treat the story and how this lined up with the tale as told in movies and as part of a kind of popular mythology. Two things jumped out at me. First, that it’s clear in the original that Jekyll is so much drawn to the pleasures of life he can remember leading as Hyde that he is tempted to go back to that life when it’s clear he has escaped it. Usually the story is rendered such that Jekyll cannot prevent the metamorphosis to Hyde in a purely chemical manner. Stevenson is painfully honest in this regard. Second that, in contrast to the point I’ve just made, the text is incredibly evasive when it comes to describing any of the actual evil done by Hyde. The bit about him running the girl down is extraordinarily unconvincing. Only the beating and murder of Sir Danvers Carew has any real power, and even that’s a pretty mild affair. Is it simply the case that Stevenson could rest assured the majority of his readers were well enough acquainted with the vicious reality of the underbelly of respectable society to simply not require any further elucidation? Or was that respectability so powerful as to drive to self-censorship even a writer with a direct, live connection to the dark side of consciousness?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Keeping the Troops Amused

The last couple of days have been devoted to marking in the mornings and entertaining the girls in the afternoons. To that end we spent yesterday afternoon, and a good bit of the evening, at Suria KLCC, the shopping centre at the twin towers. We watched Shrek 3 at the cinema there which was judged to be a big hit. Favourite characters were as follows: Fi Fi - Puss in Boots; Fa Fa - Snow White; Ayu – Cinderella; Mak Ndak – Shrek’s babies; Uncle B – Donkey. Today was spent at Petaling Street (the Chinatown area of KL) and the Central Market, from whence we’ve just made our weary way. As usual we got lost in the maze of KL, and, as is the custom, Noi somehow found us a path home.

Considering the amount of time we’ve spent in places devoted to the cult of shopping it is to our credit that we’ve bought hardly anything.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Road Music

I took some care selecting CDs and books to bring to KL. The kids’ luggage precludes me loading anything I fancy and I was also keenly aware we haven’t got that long to stay here, and there are lots of books to read on the premises anyway, so I didn’t want to carry stuff just for the sake of having it around.

Coming up from Singapore we listened to Rachid Taha’s Diwan, Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief, Ry Cooder’s Chavez Ravine and Kate Bush’s Lionheart – a reasonably eclectic bunch.

It’s been quite a while since I listened to either of the two studio albums I’ve got by Rachid Taha since we (he’s a great favourite of Noi also) tend to play the live stuff these days, and I was struck by the relatively delicacy of the sound on Diwan compared to the rip-roaring side we’ve come to know and love. I just wish we knew what he was singing about, but it sounds great anyway. Perhaps the mystery enhances the material? There are quite a number of bands who’d benefit from greater lyrical incomprehensibility.

Occasionally I’ve been given to thinking that this might be the case with some of Kate Bush’s fruitier material, but playing Lionheart again was a reminder of her talent for a yearning melody. For some reason I tend to prefer the general textures of sound and arrangements on her earliest material. I think the production ages well, especially compared to Hounds of Love, which to these ears sounds very much of its era. One reason for selecting this album was that Fi Fi listened to it a few times when we were in England and her instant recognition of the first track (she remembered the title, which is more than I can ever do) was gratifying.

I included Liege & Lief for entirely nostalgic reasons, and I must admit that I think it’s aged rather badly. There’s a peculiarly claustrophobic, overly-dense feel to the CD sound. Is this a case of something sounding better as an analogue recording? My old lp sounded rich and full, sort of ‘right’ somehow. Maybe it’s just my ears that have changed with time. The other thing that jarred a little was my realisation that beautifully though Sandy Denny sings the songs she doesn’t really mean any of this: it’s all a bit twee. The ending of The Deserter is a major cop-out. You can’t imagine The Pogues standing up for queen and country in the same fashion.

In contrast, the political message of Chavez Ravine genuinely bites, helped by the thoroughly informative liner notes and excellent translations of the Spanish lyrics. As well as being a great musician Ry turns out to be one of the good guys. I love the different voices on this one. I love the loose Latin rhythms, so much more friendly than the mechanically danceable stuff you get from the likes of Ricky Martin. I love the variety of song types (it’s almost a compendium of what you can do within this genre), from the 50’s style Chinito Chinito and Three Cool Cats to material which sounds highly sophisticated and very much of the moment, like the opening and closing tracks.

And that was just what we got coming up in the car. It’s a full life!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Road Trip

Yesterday’s journey north was more eventful than we had bargained for; something of an adventure, in fact. Having picked up our three nieces at Woodlands, we put in an appearance in the early afternoon at a wedding that Noi helped cook for on Saturday, leaving there around 4.00 pm. Up to that time it had been a fairly hot day but there were signs of rain as we made our way to Tuas. Going through immigration was a breeze but it began to rain in earnest as we went up the north-south highway.

Standards of driving in Singapore are bad; standards of driving in Malaysia are atrocious. We saw our first accident about an hour into our journey, a six or seven car pile up on the opposite carriageway, with a couple of vehicles looking like write-offs. At this point the rain wasn’t terribly severe and the visibility was good, so it might have been difficult to understand how such an accident might have happened were it not for our intimate and hard won knowledge of cars getting far too close and tail-gating each other, and of drivers who seem to think they can handle excessive speeds despite having only two lanes to operate within (and being useless drivers). The second accident we saw came just before we stopped at the Ayer Keroh services to sample free tea and toast at the A.R.A.B. Café, which happens to belong to Noi’s sister’s husband (Abdul Rachid Abu Bakar, hence the rather neat acronym. ) This time it was on our side of the carriage way, creating a jam of some fifteen minutes: a medium sized lorry had managed to turn over onto its side, slap-bang in the middle of the road. Of course, quite a number of cars made the situation worse by driving up on the hard shoulder to turn two lanes into three, at times four, to make getting round the site of the accident as difficult as possible. This kind of foresight is the mark of the Malaysian driver.

After we’d finished our tea, by which time it was dark, the heavens decided to truly open and the last couple of hours into Kuala Lumpur involved an unpleasantly high level of concentration whilst driving. The stretch of highway between Ayer Keroh and Seremban is undergoing some kind of widening operation to convert two lanes to three. Unfortunately this operation is not yet complete and involves stretches of highway with a definite three lanes turning suddenly and unpredictably into stretches with the usual two. Negotiating the ins and outs of this in a howling storm is not a restful way to spend your Sunday evening. Surprisingly we didn’t see any further accidents until we reached KL.

Traffic into the city seemed heavy up to the toll but after that it wasn’t so bad until we came to Jalan Ampang. At that point it suddenly became quite slow moving, the reason for this becoming clear to us as we approached the bend to the Flamingo Hotel. The road there had flooded and one or two cars seemed to have run into the wall of the raised highway at Ampang which we went to the left of. At that point we were the only car going in that direction as the flood on that side was at its worst. Noi asked me, after I got through the stretch if I had accelerated into it, obviously thinking I knew what I was doing. I explained it was the power of prayer that took us through. Today we’ve been reading in the papers how, at that point in time, there were flash floods all over the city so it seems we were lucky our route remained passable.

We ate a snack at the Dunkin’ Donuts place on Bukit Antarabansa, thinking our journey was done, but this was not to be. When we finally got to Maison KL and parked the car in the drive, I was puzzled as to why Noi, the first in the house, didn’t switch on the lights. The reason was simple enough: no power. Nothing wrong with the fusebox, just no power: no lights, no alarm, no tv, no air-con, no fans, no fridge, etc. So off we set, in search of a hotel room – heading for a place we knew called the Sucasa on Jalan Ampang. Back on the highway we passed an interesting five car pile-up, quite a fresh one, ready to cause a massive jam.

Fortunately the Sucasa had one room available, and they’re pretty big rooms, with a small kitchen area & living room, enough for the five of us. The girls seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves there. I think they thought it was all part of the treat.

Today power has been restored and things here are finally in some sort of order. I’m tempted to say never again, but it was all a bit of a lark really (though I can’t say I recall thinking so at the time.)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

It's Life, Jim

It's difficult to imagine that even the most besotted of cockroaches might genuinely find the object of his affections attractive, but such are the numbers of these benighted creatures, in this area of the world at least, that we must take this to be the case.

One of them popped up on the EcoBoat in Ha Long Bay. My fellow teacher, Carol, having an even greater aversion than my own to the insect, refused to sleep on the floor where it had been travelling and took to the slightly higher level of the top of the boxes where we stowed our gear. I manfully remained on the deck and was aware of the roach crawling by me, in fact over me, on at least one occasion in the night. It helped that I was too tired to care. I suppose that some eighteen years exposure to their large, ugly, ungainliness has bred in me at least a touch of indifference - though I still recall the absolute horrifying paralysis of my first encounter with one, and my realisation that things might really be different at some fundamental level here in the tropics.

Yesterday another roach decided to join me in the shower cubicle in the early morning. As usual I called in Noi to deal with the situation. My wife, who cannot stand touching cats, has no problem picking up a squirming cockroach, and holding firmly onto it until some kind of disposal can be effected. As a result of her good offices, and of replenishing the anti-cockroach devices we have around the apartment - which, with fitting brutality, go under the trade-name Wipeout - I was able to shower in peace and, almost, security this morning.

Later today we travel to Kuala Lumpur with our three nieces and who knows what unfamiliar life-forms we may encounter there. This time last year we found ourselves dealing with an injured bird who'd decided to attempt to fly through one of the panes of glass in one of our windows. The poor thing was revived by a bit of tender loving care and I hope is still flying around today. That was the occasion of the photographs posted above, three of my all-time favourites. I'm hoping to be on-line in KL having recently repaired a faulty modem in my computer there and, if I am, then I should be posting soon from an even further place, God willing.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Full Cream Ahead

A couple of weeks ago I treated myself to the 2 DVD set of Cream's 2005 reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and I'm now finding a bit of time in which to enjoy them. Normally I'm wary of reunion concerts & nostalgia fests but I'd gathered from contributors to one or two discussion boards (back in 2005) that what Cream were doing was more than a bit special, and those who said so were absolutely correct. This is a master class in the basic rock trio - drums, bass & guitar - except that these guys come out of a grounding in blues & jazz that makes the idea of musicians playing to adoring crowds in late middle-age entirely congruous.

It's an odd notion I suppose considering the virtuosity of Clapton, Baker & Bruce, but it's the clarity and seeming simplicity of the playing that jumps out at the listener. Perhaps the lack of clutter in the musical textures is responsible for this illusion; perhaps it's just the sheer good taste and 'rightness' of what they play in the space they create in which to play it. I don't think Clapton has been heard to better advantage in recent years. His soloing is so inventive, so varied, just so good that it's impossible to get tired of it, whilst his ensemble playing is just that: a musician with a complete sense of what the context demands, entirely in sympathy with whatever's going on around him, knowing what's fundamental to create an ensemble. There are a number of moments when he achieves lift-off towards guitar heaven, but the solo at the end of White Room is utterly transcendent.

And what a rhythm section he's got, though thinking of Baker & Bruce in this way seems to do them a kind of disservice. They do more than lay down a groove: they create almost operatic textures in terms of the drama and movement they bring to much of the material. I suppose this is what takes Cream beyond being a great blues band, with jazz influences: from somewhere came the ambition to develop material that could reach beyond category, opening up new dimensions for what rock music might say. Forty years on they are saying it as loudly and clearly and brightly as when they first developed that vocabulary and I, for one, am more than happy to listen.

One last point: the three look genuinely happy to be playing together again, and I don't think they're types who would bother to put on an act. On a sentimental level that's touching, but I suspect it's also the reason musically why this stuff sounds so right. In one of the three interviews on the second disc of the set Ginger Baker talks about knowing what Clapton will play before he plays it. I'm certain there's no exaggeration involved.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Further Reading

Under the occasionally splendid Melaka sky (see above) I managed to get more reading done than I accounted for in last Wednesday's entry. I also completed my first read-through of Archie Ammons's long poem Glare. I deliberately spread out my reading as it's that kind of book. The short sections (poems?) have a stand alone quality, though obviously sharing the same themes. The bitty-ness seems deliberate, in a casual and utterly engaging kind of way, which sums up the whole book really: eccentrically, quirkily, precise. Glare came across as looser than the long poem preceding it, Garbage, which I'd thought of as being wonderfully improvisational in nature. I'm looking forward to reading both again.

The book I occupied myself most with once home from Vietnam was Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou. Recently it struck me that I've not been reading that much in connection with history and I suppose I thought Ladurie's portrait of a fourteenth century French village was a good place to start. I first read it some twenty years ago and it popped into my mind in a drama session a few weeks back when I mentioned to Ferdinand the detail about the villagers spending their leisure hours picking nits out of each others' hair (which was exactly what one of the groups in the session were doing in an improvisation based on the idea of life in the stone age.) At the time I mentioned the nit-picking I realised that was just about the only thing I did remember from a book which I had enjoyed, so I was keen to pick it off the shelf again. I wasn't disappointed. It gives you the enormously privileged position of being an eavesdropper on the concerns of almost an entire village. I think when I first read it I had enjoyed the villagers for what I thought of as their colourfully vigorous lives - a sort of Chaucerian zest. I didn't feel that way at all on this reading. This time the villagers seemed to me pretty much like people are always in all times: scheming, selfish, duplicitous, warm, hard, clever, forgiving, gossipy, naïve, silly, likable, shrewd. A bit like you and me, I suppose.

When I first read Montaillou I was more interested in the ordinary daily lives of the villagers than the stuff about the Cathar heresy that underlies the whole text. (The book is based on the details of the confessions made to a particularly assiduous inquisitorial bishop the village had to endure in the 1320's.) This time round I found myself warming to the sheer bloody-mindedness of the heretics (most of the village) and their determination to stick to their ideas of salvation and their stories rather than those of Mother Church. These were people to whom ideas and stories, and the right to have them, meant a lot - almost everything. Oh, and they didn't see any need to work more than was strictly necessary, so let's add 'sensible' to the inadequate list of adjectives above.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Zoo Time

Zoos make me uneasy, something I suspect they also achieve with some of their inhabitants. That said, the zoo in Singapore strikes me as, on the whole, providing about as good as an environment as animals are likely to get in such a place. They've achieved some successful breeding programmes there, at least, though the animal rides and shows are tacky. But the trainers (the ones who do the shows) do appear to show genuine warmth & care towards the animals Today we took our three nieces (who are staying with us for the next couple of weeks) to spend the day there and a good time was had by all, including the guy with the tender conscience.

The zoo is beautifully landscaped and the signs providing information on the various animals are a model of their kind - accessible to kids and genuinely informative at the same time. There was no shortage of fridge magnets (we bought one with a squirrel on it) and I ate some of Ben & Jerry's delicious & expensive ice cream for the first time in my life.

Star creature of the day: the white rhinoceros, well five of them, in fact. You could smell them from a distance, which was reassuringly wild, and they didn't look at all happy with their keeper, or each other for that matter. A bunch of malcontents of the first order, it was good not to know what they were thinking and whom they were thinking it about.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Recent Reading

I failed to make real headway in the last novel I borrowed from the library, P.D. James's The Murder Room. This was entirely down to the sheer busyness of my life in the 2 weeks before going to Vietnam. Normally, like my Mum, I relish a good murder, and unlike her I don't mind the measured pace of a typical Dalgliesh.

Having failed to do that particular tome justice I suppose I felt somewhat obliged to attempt something like real reading whilst in Vietnam and was gratified to discover there was enough time to make real headway in both Paul Davies's The Mind of God and C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. I've since completed both whilst in Melaka. I'd read the Davies before in attempt to give myself some sort of rough education regarding the latest developments in scientific thought and only vaguely grasped the ideas involved. The same thing happened the second time round - a humbling but useful experience. Socrates would be proud of me, I hope. The stimulus to reread came directly from our TOK Focus Day which took place on the Monday just before we set off for Vietnam. In the evening the students (and their teachers) attended a lecture by a guy called David Wilkinson who's both a highly accomplished physicist and a Methodist minister. The lecture was worth listening to and he name-checked Paul Davies a couple of times. I was slightly surprised in that Davies can hardly be said to argue for a conventionally religious viewpoint. If anything he undercuts the usual broadly theistic cliches in a way I think most 'believers' would find pretty threatening. So I felt all the warmer towards Dr Wilkinson - a warmth which peaked when he referred to Richard Dawkins's "characteristic humility" simply because the phrase nailed its victim so perfectly.

I'm not too sure what possessed me to pick up the Lewis. I've had the paperback a few years and never quite got around to reading it, so I suppose some kind of guilt was involved. Oddly the religious themes of the book were not in my mind when I put it in my bag - I think I just wanted a good story. I didn't really get that, though I suppose I enjoyed it well enough - especially for its period charm and the personality of its author. If ever a writer found it difficult to keep himself and his opinions out of his work then that writer has to be Lewis. This is what is meant by didacticism, and it's a strangely knowing didacticism at that. When Lewis is being wise he is powerfully convincing. The analysis of the faults of Mark Studdock, pretty much the main character of the first half of the novel, is so good I found myself ready to overlook the fact that Lewis was in my face with it on every page in which the character featured. But when Lewis is silly you need a massive grain of salt, and the Ransom as Fisher King stuff is close to unbearable.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Backtracking Further

Just back from Melaka where I managed to catch up on some sleep. This might be a good time to wind up my comments on my Vietnam experience. I wanted to say something about the people we met there (specifically the Vietnamese themselves), and the people we didn't. Generally those we met were nice folk to come across. The locals on the boat were particularly pleasant, handling our party with courtesy & good humour throughout our stay. Similarly, Mai (I think that's how you spell it) our tour guide was a really good guy with an unaffected friendliness & warmth of disposition. The hotel staff were a model of courteous efficiency also, as were the various staffs in all the restaurants we ate at. Of course, I suppose with all the above being in the tourist industry, as it were, you might expect smiling faces. But people on the streets were also pretty easy to get along with. We didn't run into any unpleasant incidents in the 6 or so days we were there, and that's good going considering we had 16 lively adolescents with us.

Of those we never really got to meet (millions of course!) two groups stick in my mind. The first are the inhabitants of the floating village, or one of those villages at least, on Ha Long Bay. Mike took us to their museum. There we caught a glimpse of some of the younger villagers who were staffing the place. Funded by Unesco, the museum gives employment to a few villagers, who look extremely bored but stick to their posts manfully, and seeks to develop a sense of dignity & self-worth in the villagers in terms of its memorialising of life in a floating village. The problem is that it already feels as if the real message is that this way of life is coming to an end. It's much harder to catch fish now in the bay as pollution and the degradation of the mangrove forests is reducing numbers drastically. The solution, says the museum, is the development of aquaculture - the cultivation of fish farms. The problem is that over the long term this will create an even heavier burden environmentally in terms of the need for little fish to feed the big fish, at least that's how Mike, an extremely clear-sighted bloke, saw the situation. It was difficult to imagine the younger guys staying in the village(s), especially with the lure of jobs in tourism on various parts of the mainland of the bay. So something that's been there for hundreds of years is coming to an end and I was lucky to intrude upon it while it was still there, I suppose.

The other group I didn't really get to meet (never saw even one, actually) were the miners who'd created the slag heaps visible on the mainland of the bay. There was generally a kind of dustiness on the air and you saw quite a few individuals wearing some kind of face mask almost everywhere you went. The dust came from the heaps. Mike filled us in on the nature of the mining in the area on our last morning on the bay. We'd scaled some kind of hill and had a great view of the bay and its attendant slag heaps. Anyway, the mining is about as safe as it is in China and we (the developed nations) are the ultimate beneficiaries as the mines provide the energy we feed off. Which means the miners lead lives both miserable and dangerous and we benefit, even as we add to the problem of global warming. I suppose it might be useful to feel guilty if only one knew what might usefully be done about any of this.

Friday, June 1, 2007

More Backtracking

I didn't know what to expect from Hanoi (see pictures above) but what I got came as a surprise. The gods of capital certainly appear to be alive and well there despite the communist packaging. At times it seemed a bit like Bangkok, at times like Jakarta, at times like the low-rise areas of Kuala Lumpur, though I felt a greater underlying sense of order than in any of those cities. Not many apartment blocks but lots of tall (five or six storeys), thin, sometimes pointed, sometimes pagoda-ed buildings. Generally these were colorfully painted or decorated, but if the money had run out this might be simply the front with the sides &rear in bare concrete. I saw no beggars, though some of the street peddlers were a touch aggressive, and some slightly desperate. The businesses in the Old Quarter looked like they were making money for their owners though the staff occasionally gave the sense of being a bit tired of it all. One shopping centre to which our tour guide took us, Trang Tien Plaza, was as up-market and expensive as any of the malls in Singapore - a sign of things to come? The humorless security guard (plenty of those around) objected to anyone sitting on the steps on the way in.

Oddly enough, fridge magnets were hard to come by. A shortage of fridges in Vietnam?

We visited a pottery village called Bat Trang. It looks as if the Vietnamese are keen on grouping similar types of business in particular locations. The shops there seemed pretty similar though and you tended to see the same kind of pottery designs all over the place. It was all a bit bland, though the little art galleries around Hanoi did offer something like variety.

We also spent a surrealist morning filing past the waxy corpse of Ho Chi Minh, poor chap. (By all accounts he wanted to be cremated so I don't know what he would have made of his last resting place.) He is housed in a suitably gloomy mausoleum, surrounded by appropriately annoyed military types. They don't like you to put your hands in your pockets, talk, smile or generally act normally as you pay your respects to 'Uncle Ho'. I suppose some kind of personality cult is inevitable in this kind of society and this one was reasonably harmless. Once you leave the confines of the mausoleum there are some fairly cheerful gardens to visit with a rather fine presidential palace (French style, in yellow like so many of the bigger buildings in the city) and a couple of smaller houses in which the late president spent time during the wars against France & America. The souvenir stalls are a replica of those anywhere else in the world - except for the lack of fridge magnets, and the plethora of images of Uncle Ho.

In contrast to the silliness above, the War Museum achieved a real sense of dignity. I think I expected to see some marks of destruction on the city that Nixon threatened to bomb back to the stone age in my teenage years, but the museum was the only place I saw in which there was any kind of acknowledgement of that insanity. All things American appeared to be in high regard, though it was rather jolly to be in an Asian city with not a single MacDonald's in sight. The Vietnamese, I was told several times, have decided to put the past behind them. Sometimes you see signs of hope for our benighted species, and it generally comes from the least likely places.

The city, by the way, has the nickname City of Motorcycles. I suppose this sounds better in Vietnamese. Helmets are mandatory so nobody wears them. The casualty rate on the roads is frighteningly high. Mike, one of the guys on the EcoBoat, told me that it's not actually an offence to knock someone down when you're drunk as the fact you are drunk means you couldn't help it. The noise from car & motorcycle horns is intense, constant, unremitting, unavoidable: nightmusic of a kind.