Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Favourite Film

There was reasonable coverage of the death of Ingmar Bergman in the press here today, though I doubt we'll be treated to a Bergman festival on tv anytime soon. I'm no film buff, and I don't entirely get a lot of his work, but if I had to name an all time favourite movie it just might be Fanny and Alexander. I watched it on the BBC when it was shown in three or four parts (I can't quite remember how many) over a long-ago Christmas and was stunned. In those days movies were not quite so easy to access as they are now and being able to get to see Fanny and Alexander had something of the feel of a privileged event about it. Magical is an overused word (and I admit to being a major offender in that regard) but if any film ever deserved the adjective, this is the one.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Under the Weather

I spent much of the day in a forgetful post-production haze, fueled in no small part by a streaming cold which emerged around 8.00 am and increased in intensity (headache and streaminess) as the day went on. With my usual brave stupidity I did six laps of the running track in the afternoon, though these had the saving grace of being accomplished at a very slow pace. This followed six lengths of the big pool at Bedok Swimming Complex yesterday afternoon, where we took Fi Fi and Fa Fa, who'd stayed with us over the weekend to watch Saturday night's show. So at least I'm back to some kind of exercising.

Sunday, July 29, 2007


Ferdinand often uses the word 'moments' in directing the cast, in the sense of creating dramatic, meaningful, usually funny, moments on stage. It's a useful term and after the enjoyment of seeing Made in the Middle Kingdom finally reach its audience it's obvious we created many moments in the show. In every show I've ever done there's at least one moment that resonates powerfully in memory. The one that most stands out for me in this show, and I suspect for Ferdinand, is not a funny one at all, but, for me, a moment of the odd sort of magic that can happen in theatre when everything comes together. In this case a confluence of lighting, costume, the storyline, and fine acting. It was when Edward, as the tiger, finally shed his costume and delivered the 'moral' of the tale - the utterly trite, but profoundly truthful: He who knows who he is, and does the best he can / He is the happy man. I suppose it had something to do with an effect we never planned for: the unexpected frailness of the actor emerging from that bulky costume. And something that was always there: the truthfulness of the performance. But it invested the words with the power of the reality latent within them.

That curious ability of drama (all art, I suppose) to pull back the veil of the surfaces we inhabit to peek at the light, or darkness, of what's behind, seems to me beyond analysis, and it seems to work only in the moment. The memories left are potent, but not the same.

The curiously satisfying yet shocking smashing of our 'Ming' vase in Black Comedy was of the same order - in that case fueled by the improvisational quality of something deliriously destructive taking place that we'd never actually been able to rehearse. I suppose that was a glimpse of the dark side.

I think (and it's not in any way an original thought) the ability of drama to achieve such disturbing magic was at the heart of theatre in ancient Greece. This was brought home to me, oddly enough, in a reading of Aeschylus's The Oresteia, rather than an actual performance. When I say 'brought home' I'm not talking about any kind of knowing of the intellect - I'm talking of the actual experience, the cliched shivers down the spine, the glimpse of the real. I was reading Ted Hughes's translation of The Eumenides, in a crowded hawker centre one lunchtime in a break from a workshop, and had got to the bit about the Kindly Ones, the Furies, being invited to reside in Athens and I saw what those lucky Athenians saw all those years ago - the dreadful and wise powers that live amongst us, and just how fragile, just how close to the edge we are. Those Greeks certainly knew a thing or two.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Yet More Progress

I'm feeling more than a little tired at the moment due to the long hours of rehearsal for the production which have eaten up the last few days. But it's a pleasant kind of tiredness considering the good work we've been able to see. There are lots of things I'm enjoying on stage, moments when I lose myself in what the performers are creating. It's not a bad way to earn a living, all told.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Joy in Repetition

Looking again at the entry for yesterday I realise with a fair amount of horror that I used the adjective 'excellent' no fewer than four times in a single paragraph. I thought of doing a little cosmetic, face-saving editing but have decided to leave the offending paragraph as it is - as a testament to the disabling power of the RSC on a good day.

Highlights of the day: an entertaining take-no-prisoners, TOK lecture from Alistair on the (largely pernicious) influence of the scientific paradigm on just about every other subject discipline; plus a lively rehearsal of Ming Lee & the Magic Tree with Ferdinand firing on all cylinders to powerful effect. If we could only get all the cast there we could really nail the thing before the dress rehearsals begin (on Wednesday.)

Highlight of yesterday: Noi's return from Melaka. We ate rojak at Veenath's after I picked her up at the bus station and suddenly life was good.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Soaring Seagull

I spent the early afternoon at The Esplanade enjoying Chekov's The Seagull as performed by a touring company from The RSC. (Sadly I wasn't able to attend the same company's King Lear, with Ian McKellen in the title role, which is playing in tandem with the Chekov, due to pressure of work.) The excellent William Gaunt played Sorin for this matinee performance instead of McKellen, which is probably why I was able to get a ticket relatively late. The even better news was that I found myself upgraded from my seat in the far circle to an excellent, centrally located, seat in the stalls. And the best news of all was that it was, as I expected, a uniformly excellent performance: a showcase of excellent acting which remained true to the spirit of the play in every respect. The last act was suitably sombre, and beautifully prepared for with an impressively dramatic attempted suicide by Treplev on-stage at the end of Act 2. Somehow this made the low-key off-stage ending work even better. All the self-referential theatrical stuff came to life, as it usually does in RSC productions. My only complaint about the whole experience was that the air-conditioning in the theatre worked rather too well and I was glad to get out into the warmth of the late afternoon after the show.

I arrived at The Esplanade fairly early in order to make sure I could easily pick up the ticket I'd booked on-line, so I had a bit of time to visit the branch of the National Library there. Essentially this is a performing arts library, and very good it is too. They have a substantial collection of plays and this alone set me thinking I need to go there more often.

Last point: I was struck by how utterly modern Chekov's characters seem in their relentless, and often comical, brooding on life. I suppose people have been given to such navel-gazing in all ages, but Chekov developed the art to put this on stage so we can see ourselves doing it. I certainly spent no small part of the afternoon uneasily recognising myself.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


I spent most of the early part of the day in school making the Middle Kingdom. It was a good way to stop me missing Noi too much. I've spoken to her a couple of times on the phone since she went north and she seems to be enjoying herself, but I think she was a bit worried about the prospect of driving up to KL this morning. She's never driven in KL before and I think she finds the traffic there a touch intimidating (Malaysian drivers being even crazier, if such a thing is possible, than their somewhat more regulated Singaporean counterparts) but she knows the route well enough so I don't think it will be too much of a problem.

Rehearsals went well today. I've been particularly pleased at the ease with which we fitted the music into the show (most of which has been written by a couple of very talented students, who have a real feel for how drama works.) A number of performers are visibly raising their games. The older students don't 'hide' their performances, as younger kids are prone to do - only unveiling exactly what they've got in mind on the first night - but we've really not been working on the show that long and I think they're just finding the arcs of performances clicking into place. We've also now decided on almost all the links for the show, so there's nothing left to write. It's now just a matter of making sure it all works by Friday. (Just!)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Only the Lonely

Noi went north today, to attend another wedding ceremony for her younger sister in KL over the weekend. She's just rung from Melaka. I suppose that if she has to go away this is the best kind of time to do so as I'm ferociously busy with school stuff, so home is coming second for a while. But it's still disorientating without her, and it'll be a relief when she gets back on Sunday. Until then it's cheese sandwiches all the way.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Further Anxiety

Just to add a bit more to yesterday's comments: anxiety in its less useful form (a debilitating fear of failing or doing something wrong or unacceptable) is accepted in schools in the sense that everybody, teachers and pupils, know it well and attempt (often remarkably successfully) to live with it. So we forget about it while knowing it's there and suffering its effects. Most kids in most lessons worry that there'll be something they are not going to understand and that the subject in question is going to get away from them. Joy in learning is often simple relief at coping. Most teachers worry that today's the day they are going to mess up on something very public and important, and since almost anything can suddenly become important, even what may seem entirely trivial details, they pretty much worry about everything all the time.

If this is going on in a reasonably sensible, balanced environment, the damage caused will not be quite so telling. In my experience schools in Singapore are singularly inept at establishing that kind of balance. This ineptitude derives from the simple fact that the need for such a balance is simply not recognised. The endless striving for chimerical excellence precludes clear-sighted recognition of what's real - and who can argue with excellence? So schools here breed worried people.

The solution, I suppose, is to choose not to worry. Easier said than done - but it can be done, or at least cultivated. Central to that cultivation is keeping a sense of proportion. Useful saying: All this will pass.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

High Anxiety

I had an enjoyable time at the finals for the Plain English Speaking Awards yesterday, even though our girl, Rekha, didn't come away with anything. Standards were high and she acquitted herself admirably, especially in an excellent main speech. I was pleased that all the contestants performed on the day and could feel good about themselves after. (At least, I hope they did since they certainly should have done.)

Rekha's father, who came to watch, commented on just how nerve-wracking it felt in the audience and how much the speakers were to be admired for having the courage to be up there. Absolutely correct! It's a lot more pressurising than being on stage in a play where at least you've had lots of rehearsal and time to learn definite lines. This kind of anxiety seems to me essentially positive. It reflects the demands that life sometimes makes on one and genuinely feels like an experience from which it is possible to learn.

I've been thinking lately about another kind of anxiety though. This is more insidious, less useful. And schools breed it, I think. Oddly it's rare to find in any kind of writing on matters of education an acknowledgement of the part anxiety plays in the classroom (and elsewhere in schools.) But it's part of the air breathed there, and sometimes exudes a peculiarly heavy scent.

This is the anxiety that is wrapped up in failure, or, to be more precise, fear of failure. There is an extraordinary modern myth that classrooms either are, or should be, places of enjoyment. Enjoyment is occasional, and welcome when it arrives, but anxiety is perpetual and accepted.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


I picked up a few interesting books yesterday on a visit to the library, though whether I'll have time to do them justice in the next couple of weeks remains to be seen. I'm going to be very busy working on the play. I think I'll be able to read most of Alvin Pang's City of Rain. He's a Singaporean writer and this is his most recent book of poems (or at least I think it is, having come out in 2003.). He was a co-editor of No Other City an anthology of local poems with an urban theme that we use as one of the texts for the English A1 course for the International Baccalaureate, and I liked his poem Made Of Gold found there, and, as it turns out, in this collection. Familiarity with the anthology has bred respect in me, especially for the thoughtful editing. At first glance City of Rain has got quite a bit to recommend it. The poem adjacent to Made of Gold - No Sign Before - deals with the (real-life) suicide of a child and manages to find something sayable even on such dangerous ground.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Maid in Indonesia

I spent the first half of the day at work, helping Rekha prepare for the finals of the Plain English Speaking Awards, coming this Monday, and rehearsing with the cast of A Battle of Wits. Not too painful all told, given the talent and enthusiasm of those involved. There are aspects of teaching here that can be distinctly headache-generating but dealing directly with students on genuinely educational activities is not one of them.

On the home front Noi has been keeping herself up-dated on the fortunes of Sulis, the maid to the family in Melaka, who has now gone back for a break in Indonesia. As I understand it, she's there primarily to sort out family matters. I get the impression she wasn't keen to go, though she does have a daughter at home, looked after by her brother's family. There are problems, I think, with Sulis's husband who sounds like a bad lot. Noi mentioned the possibility of him being violent towards Sulis, which leaves one feeling frustrated over not being able to do anything to help. It seems also that most of the money Sulis has saved has already been handed over to pay for stuff connected with her daughter. Noi was concerned as to how she's going to get by for the few months she will be there.

The pressures and heartaches many maids face are painful to consider. That Sulis, like so many others, deals with it all cheerfully and uncomplainingly (she was worried about leaving Mak at a time when she felt she was needed in Melaka) is a lesson for the rest of us. And yet so often maids are talked about as if they were somehow not quite as deserving of ordinary respect and dignity as we consider ourselves.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Lovely Audience, You've Been A

Another striking aspect of the drama presentations yesterday was how good the audience was. For the most part there were students watching, and the majority were from secondary schools, I guess from the five performing schools. Despite it being a fairly long afternoon (it took a little while to effect the transitions between plays) with some demanding material on offer, the level of concentration was high and sustained, and each item drew appreciative, sincere applause generally (not just from its 'own' people.)

One of my core instincts, which has almost reached aphoristic status in my mind, is that good art requires good audiences. I'm not entirely confident of this regarding the more private arts (poetry?) but I'm convinced of its truth regarding the public art forms, with drama and music in the forefront. I can't picture Shakespeare's audience as anything other than highly receptive, despite the cliches people fall into regarding the groundlings. At the very least they had a capacity for enjoying long, complex speeches, with a keen ear for the fine building blocks thereof. I'm not sure you'd find the equivalent in many places today.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dramatically Speaking

I attended the SYF Drama Presentations this afternoon, well at least the final rehearsal for the real thing. Five schools were involved and it was highly enjoyable stuff, with lots to admire about the work that had been created. And this despite the general silliness of having schools competing for awards, which shows that art survives pretty much anything.

Our preparations for Made in the Middle Kingdom are picking up pace as we head towards the finishing line. I suppose getting shows mounted would be unbearably stressful were it not for the sheer enjoyment of being in the middle of making something happen and seeing others lending their talents to that.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Magic of Words

The other day I found myself reading several pages of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things aloud to a class. It was the bit describing the khatakali dancers performing for themselves as penance for having demeaned themselves in their truncated version of the dance performed for the tourist audience. It's rare that I read anything at length in the classroom these days - it's not really suitable to do so for the part of the IB course I teach which tends to focus on students' independent reading. In the course of the reading I realised 1) how much I enjoy this kind of reading and 2) how much it felt like this is what doing Literature should be about. Of course, I could simply be rationalising my self-indulgence, but, equally, I could be onto something.

I think the best lesson I have ever given in the course of what is now a pretty long career was one years ago teaching a first year class in Rotherham, reading the chapter from (the wonderful) Stig of the Dump when the bad boys (the Snargets, if I remember rightly) offer innocent caveman Stig a cigarette. I found the sequence so funny I couldn't get to the end of a sentence without bursting into laughter, which, in turn, resulted in the kids laughing at both the book and me, in turn making me laugh even more - a kind of virtuous, but destructive cycle. At one point I was actually crying with laughter, as were several kids. In fact, at least three ended up rolling on the floor. I met one of those kids about six years later in a pub near the school and the first thing he talked about was how funny the book was and what a brilliant time we had. The complete anarchy of that half hour became a kind of shared secret between me and the kids, as if we'd shared some kind of glorious holiday together. Laughter is one of the great, true responses to literature. Another is tears. And no one can assess those.

Monday, July 9, 2007


Last time I went to Wardah Books at Bussorah Street I got hold of the last two issues of Islamica Magazine. It's certainly a handsome publication and has maintained high standards (now up to issue 19) in terms of both design (it looks classy) and content. The two issues have been great to dip into, and I've just realised there's an on-line version here, though I've not had much of a look at this yet. The highlight of the latest issue - a wide-ranging interview with Noam Chomsky. As usual he provides refreshing (and frightening) perspectives on just about every major geo-political issue you can think of. For those who are fond of the phrase 'big picture' the professor provides a lesson in terms of realising the scope & depth of such a perspective.

A contentious question - for myself: Does Islam provide the only really major intellectual position from which to launch a thorough-going critique of capitalism? (I'm sure Chomsky would disagree, but it sometimes seems that way to me.)

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Paying Attention

Reading something from Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life (actually a tasty excerpt in Nick Alchin's excellent textbook for Theory of Knowledge) and listening to Copeland's third symphony (closely, over ear-phones) put this idea in my mind: the quality of attention we bring to a work of art, be it a poem, a novel, a song, a painting, a garden, a meal, is vital to the very nature of the work. What we regard as obviously artistic demands such attention so effortlessly we know we should lend it that level of attention, and trust it will repay us through the intensity of the experience rendered. But the world is so remarkable at its core that anything is worth a second look, a closer listen, a finer discrimination in taste, simply on account of its sheer unlikeliness, its simple beauty of being. When it isn't being remarkable it's because we have drained it of significance by taking it for granted, a kind of lack of gratitude. In that sense anything is capable of being seen as a work of art, if we are prepared to regard it as such. (This position being very close to the definition of what makes a work of art in John Carey's What Good Are The Arts?)

This begs many difficult questions, not the least of which is whether one work of art is better than another, and on what grounds, but it helps explain the splendid democratization of the arts we've seen over the last hundred years or so.

And on a more practical note, it's the time of year for the Singapore Food Festival and Noi and I will be heading to our favourite haunt of Bussorah Street, and its abundance of eating places, this afternoon. I'm sure they'll be opportunities to devote my full attention to the delights we are likely to encounter there.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Keeping Informed

There's a kind of awful fascination in watching what the stress of being overworked can do to the people you work with, and being grimly aware of what it can do to oneself. Schools in Singapore make good places for such observation. Why they have decided it's a good thing to make their inhabitants impossibly busy I'm not sure, but presumably somehow someone somewhere has decreed such. Or maybe it's just the inevitable product the whole machine of education throws up without anybody being really quite in control?

Simply keeping some sort of grasp of the information that is piled upon one each day (without necessarily doing anything with it) is a Herculean task, except that lucky Hercules usually got to grips with material that was not so staggeringly banal. Happiness is an empty Inbox, not that mine ever is. And even then there's the stuff that gets said at meetings and briefings, sometimes meetings and briefings you can't actually attend but are expected to find out about, or the stuff that comes at you in the classrooms, on the corridors, in morning announcements, in announcements over the PA system, in your letter slot, or the stuff that everybody is mysteriously supposed to know and soak in through a species of informational osmosis.

When I first started teaching it was pretty easy to remember what you needed to remember. Most of this had to do with the classes you were teaching and the stuff you were teaching them. I suppose then that constituted about 90% of the information you had to process. My guess is that the quantity of that core of information has remained pretty much the same over the years, but now constitutes about 5% of what you need to deal with. In those days I managed with a simple diary. Around 1993 I began to back this up with a notebook. Over the last few years the amount I need to write in said notebook on a daily basis has increased exponentially, and I now have to back this up with odd bits of post-it notes as part of an increasingly sophisticated, increasingly crazy methodology for surviving each day without a major cock-up. This is not to mention bulging files of various documents, handouts, printouts of e-mails, and bulging virtual files of same, which I will now mention.

The odd thing is that I find almost all the various modes my paymasters instruct me to use for handling information - the record book, work review, records of training - almost entirely useless as a day-to-day way of coping with stuff.

One strategy I've notice one or two colleagues employ as a way of coping: as far as possible ignore it all until someone demands something from you. I admire the simplicity of this approach but lack the guts to try it.

Friday, July 6, 2007


One other thing I might have mentioned about Night Birds in Nantucket: my copy smells great. I bought it back in 1986 so it's a little bit more than twenty years old now and it's aged well. It wouldn't have done quite so well if I'd shipped it over here back in 1988. The humid tropical climate has a way of rapidly aging books, especially Penguin paperbacks, oddly enough. But it's only been in these parts for three years or so, and most of its time in England was spent in a nice cold attic - perfect conditions for the preservation of bibliographical youthfulness. So it'll probably maintain its present mustily-sweet maturity for another couple of years.

At one time I found the whole business of textual decay rather depressing. I suppose if I've ever collected anything it's been books, and no collector enjoys seeing his prize pieces showing distinct signs of decrepitude, if not outright senile collapse. (There's a wonderful lament over Singapore's climate and what it does to the written word in Philip Jeyaretnam's Abraham's Promise - my copy of which is printed on really nice paper.) But I think I've come to terms with it. A book is only really a book if it's being read, and reading is a thing of the mind, which can always be kept fresh (I hope.)

And now it's time to contradict myself: is there any smell more satisfying than that of a well printed brand new book? And isn't the experience of reading a finely designed, handsome volume made the more pleasurable as a result of said design? When I did Jane Austen's Emma for 'A' level the school gave us a little hardback of the text, printed on very thin paper. Somehow it was just right for that apparently frail but most wise of all novels. I can still remember reading the opening pages, the look of the text on the page and, even though I've read it twice since then, no other edition has quite worked for me in the same way in terms of the sensual experience of the reading.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Holiday in Nantucket

The last three days have been exceptionally busy ones in terms of work. (Exceptionally busy = impossible, in teacher-speak.) Simply keeping going and hoping to get through to the end of the day and sleep has been the order of things. But I did manage to finish Joan Aiken's terrifically entertaining Night Birds on Nantucket, and I'm rather pleased with myself for having the good sense to do so. I claim good sense as I've tended in the past to shut myself off from sustained reading when work gets unbearably tough on the grounds that there's no time for it, but by easing up on filling time by mulling over matters of concern at the workplace it's possible to hack out an hour here and there, and that's all you need to find the time to make real progress in fairly short texts.

The magic of Aiken's children's fiction guarantees a break from the tedium of earning a living, and life on board the Sarah Casket followed by a sojourn in Nantucket in the delightful company of the feisty Dido Twite (surely a precursor of Pullman's Lyra) proved peculiarly relaxing. In terms of plot I can't claim the novel was particularly gripping (you just can't take any of the action particularly seriously, perhaps the reason why Aiken never achieved real fame for her work in the genre) but that's not really the point. The satisfaction lies in character, situation, atmosphere, the oddly poetic quality of the splendidly mangled dialogue. And another layer of enjoyment in Night Birds lies in the sly parody of Melville's Moby Dick.

Unfortunately I've run out of children's books (I brought Night Birds back from KL, where I've still got a few titles to get through) and it looks like I'll have to address myself to something a bit more worthy in terms of so-called literary merit. It seems the vacation is over.

Monday, July 2, 2007


Today's a welcome holiday, for Youth Day no less. Having said that, I've spent most of it marking, as was the case with Saturday and Sunday. In addition to the marking I also kept busy with other school-related matters. On Saturday morning (and early-afternoon, as the event over-ran) I accompanied our entry for the Junior College section of the Plain English Speaking competition. Rekha's a very talented girl who put in a solid, if slightly nervous (and who can blame her), performance and duly was moved on to the final. We've got a bit of time now to prepare for the final and, with a bit of work, I can see her being in contention for a top award, possibly the very top. I sort of enjoyed all the speakers, though one or two visibly struggled. It's good to see youngsters giving it their best shot, especially in an event that calls for so much courage in terms of having to deliver unscripted material at short notice (as they do for the 'impromptu' round) before an audience. I noticed one guy who looked a bit miserable at not having made it to the final and felt sad for him - actually I thought he'd deserved to get through. But that's the thing about competitions, you're going to get losers, like you're going to get in life, and sometimes, often, pretty much always, it's not going to feel quite fair. It's good to be philosophical about such things, and remarkably easy when you're not the one who didn't make it.

Yesterday we went to a wedding in the early afternoon (my quota for marking having been duly completed) followed by three or so hours at the Young Entrepreneurs' Fair held at the HDB Hub Hougang. It wasn't that ACS(I) were doing anything for the fair though. Rather we were there to support Admiralty Primary's stall at which Fi Fi was one of the six-girl team. Not that we restricted ourselves to buying from them - we circulated heroically and found ourselves persuaded to part with the readies for quite a number of items. The various stalls were competing against each other to see who could make the most, Singapore's way of inculcating the entrepreneurial spirit in its young. ('Enterprise' and 'entrepreneurial' are powerful buzz-words in the curious language of Singapore's education system.) I suspect that quite a few of the participants may have come to the conclusion that it's so hard to sell anything in the real world that it'd probably be best to get a job with a steady salary not tied to sales quotas. But I got the impression that the kids were finding ways to have a good time, which is what really counts.

Our best buy: the bunny in the rocking chair, as pictured above, now occupying a place of honour on the shelf above the computer.