Friday, August 31, 2007

New Worlds

Today we celebrated Teachers' Day. I first encountered this strange phenomenon - involving teachers being given all sorts of gifts & cards & generally being saluted by the student population - on my first day in a school in Singapore. I'd arrived here to teach in August, which is rather an odd time in terms of the school year here as we're only midway through the second half of the year, the second semester, at that stage. However, it made sense coming from England where I'd just finished my year's teaching in the middle of July. As with many events in Singapore, National Day included, people here assume these things are part of the life of all nations, so they are quite puzzled when you tell them that Teachers' Day is something entirely foreign to you and you haven't got a clue what's going on. Anyway that day in that school struck me as a bit daft, extremely noisy but entirely charming and curiously touching, and I suppose I still think the same way today.

Amongst other items I gratefully received, most of which tasted very good, some of the Year 6 drama guys gave me a CD of Rachmaninov piano pieces (mainly Preludes) played by some ultra-talented Russian chap called Nikolai Lugansky. Rather too expensive a gift methinks, but very much appreciated (as were all the cards & stuff, I hasten to add.). I gave it a spin earlier, and am now experiencing seconds, even as I write, and I'm getting that delightful sense of discovering something rich & bountiful. I mean, I'm reasonably familiar with the Rachmaninov that everyone knows, but my knowledge is extremely superficial and I'd have probably never exposed myself to the pieces on this CD thinking that this kind of late-Romantic repertoire wasn't for me - too overtly expressive, too virtuosic, too much going on. And I'd have been wrong, as I usually am in such matters. Listening beyond the surface and dismissing my preconceptions I find myself getting a footing in this world and my world becoming larger as a result.

And that's the reason I listen to music, I think, and also why I read. (I've decided that my last entry about reading was pretty much wrong-headed.) Both are ways of escaping, but they are escapes from the claustrophobic confines of the self into something much closer to the real, at least the real as experienced in other people's worlds. I don't think I always make good that escape - too often I don't listen or read well enough and remain earthbound, though glimpsing something, but when I do climb out of prison then, my goodness, the air smells good.

And talking of good smells, Noi is cooking her famous sup tulang this afternoon, and later we'll be feasting along with good friends Mei & Boon & Yati & Nahar, and possibly Karen & Anthony, though they may be too busy to come. The dish, by the way, translates as bone soup and if there is a more delicious, noisier, messier, more generally splendid way to eat, I have yet to discover it. What larks! It just doesn't get any better than this.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Food for Thought

Tough day. Wall to wall teaching and other stuff. But moments of illumination, especially in the classroom. Just one - the pleasure of spending a bit of time on one of Alfian Sa'at's many fine poems. (Surely the best poet in Singapore, if there's any point in keeping league tables thereon.) Curiously this followed reading about questions relating to him being asked in Parliament here yesterday. Definitely food for thought, methinks. And talking, or rather thinking, of food, he's written my favourite poem about fasting month - not that there are too many on the subject (in English, at least.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Fast Approaching

In the Islamic calendar the date is 15 Syaaban 1428. This means we are midway through the month of Syaaban, which, in turn, means that a month of fasting is not too far away. The lights are already going up at Geylang Serai, along with the stalls for the pasar malam and Noi is talking about what she intends to cook. Expectation mixed with a little trepidation is in the air, and money is being spent on new clothes. More anon.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Super Stuff

Reading faster than a speeding bullet (well, almost - at least it felt that way) I finished Loeb & Sale's Superman For All Seasons, in between marking commentaries. Not being a major fan of Superman I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did, which was a lot. I wouldn't actually go on and buy it, but I'm glad I read it. I've always felt that the strongest part of the Superman mythos was the boyhood in Smallville (and I'm not talking about the tv series, which I've never seen) and Loeb's story focuses on this to great effect. There's not a chunk of kryptonite in sight. Superman's vulnerability here is wholly and convincingly human - the question of his motivation. In fact, the concentration on the question of why Superman chooses to devote his powers to doing good in a corrupt world struck me as both stunningly obvious and original. I'd certainly never thought of it before. The comic deals with the idea of nobility without slipping into cliché, and it's a relief to be in this world after the claustrophobia of Miller's distinctly 'un-noble' vision of things.

Another kind of nobility celebrated at work today: we had Custodians' Day, and for once the cleaners got some of the limelight. As far as I understand it the idea for this came from the Student Council and it is an excellent one. When I first arrived in Singapore school cleaners were referred to as 'servants'. We've, thankfully, come a long way. I just hope they get decently paid.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Highlight of the day, so far: brunch with Brian & Tony at the Upper Thomson Road prata place. This punctuated extended bouts of marking which, in itself, would have guaranteed a good time, but the good time was most definitely greatly enhanced by good company & good grub .It was all, in fact, good. In passing, I realised I knew nothing about the colonisation of New Zealand. There seems no end to my disturbing ignorance on matters (now) so close to home, relatively speaking. This is not so good.

Youssou N'Dour sparkled last night. His voice sounded as youthful as ever and is better live than on record (if such a thing is possible.) I was a little taken aback by the intensity of his performance. Somehow I've imagined him as someone who smiles as he sings - an impression partly created the one time I'd seen him on film, singing In Your Eyes with Peter Gabriel. At Womad he was, if anything, scowlingly straight-faced, despite the utter exuberance of the Super Etoile de Dakar (who were sensational - genuinely super.) Coming after the rather show-busy David D'Or, an Israeli singer with a fabulous voice and (another) great band, this was a bit of a relief. Generally performers at Womad seem to feel obliged to tell the audience how great they are and how much they love them. I suppose this is good PR and perhaps some who say this are being honest, but it gets extremely tiresome. A large proportion of the audience really suck, to be frank. If you're anywhere not too close to the front you get to hear the music through a not-so-thin-veil of ceaseless chatter which leads one to question why a number of these folk have chosen to shell out not a few readies only to have their conversations interrupted by inconsiderate musicians who insist on wanting to be heard - if not actually listened to.

Listening to music changes it. (Not my aphorism, I'm afraid. From Robert Fripp's Guitar Craft, if I'm not mistaken.)

Sometimes I am (and have been) guilty of using music as wallpaper, which is, I think, what the modern world encourages us to do. But this is not healthy.

Paradox: you listen better in a crowd, assuming the crowd is listening.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


It's been and will continue to be a busy weekend. Yesterday evening was wiped out due to a 'Staff Get-together' and today has, so far at least, revolved around a concerted assault on a pile of marking. But tonight will see us at the second night of the Singapore Womad at which the mighty Youssou N'Dour is set to appear (at almost midnight - but never mind. For once I intend to stay awake.) More on this tomorrow.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Music To My Ears

Having recently been asked why I listen to music and whether I'd give the same reasons as to why I read, a simple, rather glib answer sprang instantly to mind: Love. Madness. Hope. Infinnate joy. This answer also has the virtue of being someone else's words and so absolves me from any real responsibility for saying it, whilst still sounding pretty (and prettily) clever, if not orthographically of the first order. Then I realised that although, it is, in its own way, true, it's not entirely accurate.

Similarly the other answer that flashed into my mind: Yes, I listen to music for the same reasons I read, essentially as a form of escape to make life bearable, whilst initially feeling reasonably sincere, now seems merely evasive. But I'm not sure why I feel this way, except to say that thinking about music makes me feel far more naked somehow than talking about reading. It's almost as if it (music) means more to me (than reading), but it doesn't - or at least I'd be surprised if I were to find out it did.

I'm confused - which is always a good thing. (Except when teaching, when I bluff my way out of it.)

Let me add one tentative observation to the provisional truths above: there are many ways to listen and some are better than others, and the quality of listening is intimately tied to one's reasons for doing so. Oh, and another. Some listening is non-volitional - as a child I sang songs without trying to, as do we all. I think we really have to try to read.

Still confused. I hope fruitfully.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On Fire

I belong to that generation of gentlemen who deeply mistrust musicians who can't play live. It's an oddly naïve attitude as if we're looking for some kind of authenticity beyond the immediate experience of the music. And what's wrong with the idea of composition through the studio? It gave us, amongst others, Sgt Peppers, and that alone is justification. But the fact remains that if I were pressed to name favourite albums a considerable number of them would be live performances.

And now there's another. Last Sunday I bought Paul Weller's Catch-Flame (recorded live at the Alexandra Palace) and it's been receiving pretty much continuous play ever since (as in at this very moment, in fact: a rollicking version of That's Entertainment, since you ask.) I can't do justice here to the sheer rightness of what's on offer but let me just say that if listening to it doesn't have you bouncing off the walls there's something lacking in your appreciation of the good things in life. Sha la, la la la, indeed.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Why Read At All?

I'm still recovering from the shock of the City victory on Sunday, and had intended to write something to lighten the darkness for any Man U fans reading in this Far Place. But this lies beyond words, and the hierophant suggests in a recent comment that I muse upon why humans read, and why we should read. I like the sound of that, so here goes:

Reading, for me, is a form of useful escapism. I retreat into books, I lose myself in them, as a way of getting through life (like dealing with lousy weekends for Man U.) I think this is their primary value - they are wonderful entertainment: fairly cheap, easy to move around with and, generally user-friendly. I suppose teachers, especially of literature (whatever that is), are not supposed to draw attention to the escapism involved in reading, but I think anything that helps us deal with the difficulties of life is to be commended. In the process of getting lost sometimes odd things happen and we find ourselves being better informed about the world around us, occasionally even learning things. That seems to me to be a kind of unexpected gift of which we might as well take advantage. The fact that I can quite easily spend several hours of quality time in the company of say, Plato (and, by extension, Socrates) simply by picking a cheap paperback off my shelves strikes me as being astonishing and wonderful.

As to why we should read, I'm not at all sure. The usual argument for reading that I generally hear from teachers (in both Singapore and the UK) is that it will benefit us educationally. I guess it does, but I'm sure you don't need to read all that much (other than textbooks which I'm assuming we all agree don't count) to get a good job (and excellent salary!) as a doctor or lawyer. (I know a number of doctors well and wouldn't consider a single one of them a dedicated reader. At least two never read anything other than the newspaper and professional magazines.) This utilitarian view of reading seems to me much overrated. The only real case I can make for reading is that it makes your life better, in itself, as it were (for the reasons outlined in the previous paragraph.) That certainly has been the case for me so I assume it would work for others. But I don't assume it works for everyone. Some people, and I'm talking about the highly intelligent as well as those who struggle with the printed word, just don't seem made to read, and that seems to me to be perfectly okay. I feel a bit sorry for them as I feel they are missing out on something, but I recognise that they have compensatory talents, or interests, that give their lives meaning. For example, there are those who are so gregarious, whose lives are filled with dealing with others, that they have no time for books. I can see the value in that.

Books are not better than life. Not even close. And it's important for even the most avid reader to be able to close them and get on with the mess of things. Blake: Think in the morning, Act in the noon, Eat in the evening, Sleep in the night.

Thanks, by the way, for recent reading recommendations from autolycus and the hierophant. The Loeb/Sale Batman I'd heard of, but the Superman was new to me. I'll be searching at the library this Saturday. I've had both the Gaimans in view for quite some time and I'm ready to part with the moolah thereon. He never disappoints. (By the way, it was a bit uncanny that you guys mentioned a couple of his I've not read since I've got a fair amount of the other stuff.) Pamuk has been in my sights since the Nobel and I'm a bit (okay, a lot) embarrassed not to have read any yet.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Fine Finishes

Although I've not had that much chance to read much last week I did get through a few books when we were in KL and Melaka, and this time I completed everything from the library ahead of schedule. (Noi is still going on hers which is why I've not taken my stuff back this weekend.)

I'm pleased to say Marine Parade Library now stocks quite a few graphic novels/comic books so that's a good opportunity to broaden my awareness of what's available without having to shell out too many of the readies. I finished Frank Miller's Batman: Year One at speed, which is an indication of the good story-telling involved. But its not a book I'd buy to read again. Like most of his stuff it is limited by Miller's obsessively compulsive world view riddled with a barely controlled sado-masochistic streak. This is not someone I'd like to spend time with. But this is the real Batman - salvation from the self-parodying nonsense the movies degenerated into (though I'm told Batman Begins is a different beast altogether.)

I also zipped through Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, a re-read ahead of getting hold of his new novel. One of the IB students is doing this for her extended essay (though not with me) and I thought I'd remind myself of how good it is. And it is very good, though the early part of the novel set in Afghanistan seems to me superior to what comes later. On a re-reading the melodramatic features of the narrative become more apparent, such that you can imagine the ending being done as part of something you might see on the Hallmark Channel. Perhaps that's why the novel has been so popular - not a bad thing by any means, if you can make the melodrama believable. I'm not sure Hosseini really does that with Assef as representative of the Taliban, and the depiction of said Taliban as all-round bad guys and murderous thugs while undoubtedly grounded in some truth seems far from satisfactory in terms of a deeper understanding of what makes good or average people, or even bad people, do awful things. But here's so much in the novel that is so obviously right - the battle of the kites over Kabul being just one - that it's easy to go along to the places Hosseini wants to take you.

And finally, in KL I bought Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life and, as is always the case with his highly superior tomes of self-help (which is pretty much what he claims Proust himself was consciously providing in In Search of Lost Time), I read quickly and learnt plenty. Whether I actually apply the wisdom acquired and change my life in any way is another thing, and Proust, of course, is particularly good on why it's so hard for us to be wise, and so easy to be idiotic, and why it's so difficult for us to change anything. Proust is also the master of making us read slowly, listen attentively, watch carefully and smell creatively.

Just finished watching Titus. Magnificent. Compelling. Haunting. Disturbing. The central images of brutality and suffering are almost too much. I have taken too little care of this.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Life in the Day


Just finished a cup of Milo and reading The Straits Time, which is, as usual for a Saturday, a bit on the thick side. (Great lines from the Singapore Repertory Theatre's version of Blithe Spirit, done a few years back: 'Anything interesting in The Straits Times dear?' 'Don't be ridiculous Charles.') Actually emerged from the pit at 06.40 for the dawn prayer, but quickly collapsed after completion. Noi still in bed, and I don't blame her - even though it means I had to make my own Milo. Checked e-mail to find another comment from autolycus for this Far Place - sadly, my friend, I also taught in TKGS in the late eighties and Rawmarsh Comprehensive in the middle seventies so I'm not quite as young, or vigorous, as I might appear.


Marking Theory of Knowledge essays. This is my second time round with this batch. We haven't done the standardisation required and, since I've never marked such essays before, I stand sorely in need of guidance. So now I'm sort of just keeping familiar with the material through re-reading and adding some more comments, and giving provisional marks.


Still TOK-ing, but about to break off for breakfast: hot, sweet tea plus a bowl of cereal. Will read the sports section as I eat and build up confidence for tomorrow's derby game. Sven, you'll be going down!


And the TOK-ing goes on, though a music break is imminent. Just considering what to listen to. Zappa's Yellow Shark is leading the field as I intended to give it a spin late last night but got hijacked by the excellent documentary series Little People, Big World which is a hot favourite with Noi. It centres on the Roloff family in which mum, dad and one of the kids are midgets, or rather little people as they prefer to be known and can be inspiring, funny, sad or wise, and usually all & more at once.


Now swimming restfully with The Yellow Shark, and meeting The Girl in the Magnesium Dress. Zappa is the only musician I know to get a Parental Advisory sticker on a purely instrumental album (Jazz From Hell) and considering the wonderfully subversive nature of his music those who did the labeling may have been more right than they realised.


Just fired off an e-mail to Val & Peter regarding their September stop-over in Singapore and now putting something together for old buddy Len Webster who dropped a line a couple of days ago. Len included a link to some rather tasty poems he's composed and here it is: Spirits of Place.


Putting together material for an English A1 test next term, but will stop soon for a bit of a read. Intending to finish E.H. Carr's What Is History? today. I read most of it in Melaka last week but stalled early this week due to the heavy workload. I first read it back in 1976-77 or thereabouts and thought it was a pretty incisive little book. Now it feels a touch dated, though cutting in its own way. I don't think it does Popper or Berlin justice, but I don't know enough about the field to be too sure of this.


It's been raining for most of the day, but are we deterred? We answer with a resounding No We Are Not and will set off to Geylang, as planned, in a few minutes, even though Noi keeps saying expressively, if somewhat ungrammatically, 'I'm lazy to go out.' There we will buy potatoes, I am informed, for the curry puffs Noi will kindly cook tomorrow for me to take into school on Monday for our teachers' Charity Café. We will also partake of the cup that cheers and one or two or three little goodies. I've not quite finished Carr but history can wait.


Replete from Geylang I am back home TOK-ing. Carr is now history for me, though I still fail to grasp what history is.


Watching the weird and wonderful Titus on DVD, the movie adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, one of the all-time great truly dreadful plays, kindly lent to me by Ferdinand who reckons it to be one of the best films of Shakespeare. Twenty minutes in I can see why.


Have reached the rape of Lavinia with Titus now a part to tear a cat in. Hopkins is chewing up the pavement and I've just got to break off until tomorrow. Anyway we'll be off to dinner soon.


Back from a walk to Zeenath's I'm about to settle down to watch some footie. They're showing 3 games and I'm not sure which to go for. Most likely Spurs vs. Derby. Noi is reading her latest Malay novel, with her new reading glasses and looks well settled for the night. I'm wondering whether I'll stay awake to the second half of whatever game I watch.


Spurs were 3 up in no time at all against Derby and it's a wonder that more didn't go in. A bit of a thrashing so far. Not much to stay up for so soon it will be a case of: and so to bed.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Even More Drama

Back in the late nineties, when I was teaching at TKGS, I saw a play for an assembly done by a couple of performers from The Necessary Stage that made quite an impact on me. It focussed on the problem of anorexia, managing to do so in a refreshingly less than preachy manner. The simplicity of the staging, making something quite intimate work in a big hall from an unforgiving stage (as in all schools here) made me realise that it was possible to do good work in that kind of arena - though I can't honestly say I've achieved anything worthwhile myself in such circumstances since that time. At the time I took it for granted that the script was some sort of collaborative, work-shopped venture, though the strength of the piece did suggest a gifted, guiding intelligence.

Fast forward to last week in KL with me reading one of the books I picked up on our last visit to the library. I wasn't too sure of whether I really wanted to dip into Verena Tay's selected plays In The Company Of Women. I'd not really heard of her before and the scripts at first glance looked a touch amateurish - not because of the quality of the writing, simply due to the font used by the publisher. But I did take the book, thinking it might trigger some ideas for future work with ACSIS. And there it was, the next to last of the plays, Mirror Mirror, the play from the assembly. Ms Tay might not be a big name in theatre here but she's a fine writer and there's a lot more in the collection worth reading - and putting on stage. She has a sure touch with the rhythms of Singaporean English and a grasp of the importance of the small things that give weight to our lives. That sounds a touch patronising, but it's not meant to be. I'm just envious.

However, I think it's true to say that these feel like scripts rather than plays. Not that I consider plays better, simply that this is obviously the work of someone who works in theatre, rather than writes for theatre, and the step of staging the work needs to be carried out in reality or the reader's imagination to achieve something finished.

The same is true of the rather better known Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III which I referred to in this blog a little while ago, having borrowed it from the library at the same time as In The Company Of Women. Actually I got the title wrong in my earlier reference, using the title of the movie instead. Bennett explains the re-titling in an excellent introduction to his play in which he draws considerable attention to the genesis of the play, emphasising the sense in which this is a kind of working script, open to alteration to enable it to work in the theatre. And that really is the test of a good play, whatever its subject matter: does it work in front of an audience?

On quite a different topic, Sheela's comment on my National Day ramblings on Nations shows a wise head on young shoulders. 'Overdrive' is spot on, and, sadly, 'gnawing anxiety'. The thing I undilutedly, unironically admire the government here for is their unequivocal overdriven insistence on the importance of racial harmony. If Singapore being a nation helps secure that I'll wrap myself in the flag gladly. Better nations than tribes, say I.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Onwards & Upwards

A couple of days of wall-to-wall teaching combined with some drama-related stuff - a rehearsal at a primary school of a piece the students are doing as a school assembly item, and attending a show at another school - have left me little time for anything else, but it's been productive work and that never feels quite as bad as the futile variety.

At this point in time the majority of my lessons are made up of presentations by students on some of the texts they've been introduced to under the Part 4 section of English A1 for the IBDP and I've found myself enjoying almost all I've had to listen to. In fact, over half the presentations have been genuinely engrossing and illuminating to the point where they've made me want to go back and reread the text in question on the same day. I've always enjoyed two of the texts in question, Salman Rushdie's East, West and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, but I've steadily grown more aware of the considerable virtues of the other two texts, No Other City, an anthology of largely recent Singaporean poems, and the Selected Stories of Lu Xun, and there are moments when the poems, particularly, work magic on me.

I suppose that's how I've coped all these years teaching literature, despite the fact I don't really think it makes much sense to 'teach' it at all, and even less to assess it. (And no sense at all to subject it to 'criticism'.) It's the stuff itself that survives what we do to it. I hope that's as true for the students as it is for me.

One last thing today: I've been thinking about what I wrote about Amory in This Side of Paradise the other day and it occurred to me that I failed to acknowledge the bracing honesty with which Fitzgerald confronts us with his (Amory's?) snobbishness, selfishness and general lack of depth of feeling for anyone other than himself. The fact that Fitzgerald remains too obviously enamoured of the idiot doesn't alter the fact we are meant to be irritated by him and since we are all, to a greater or lesser degree, irritating idiots it makes perfect sense to invest him with significance. It may be a young man's book but Fitzgerald was an old young man in many ways.

Oh, and one more last thing. Thanks for the comments, guys.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Faded Glamour

A useful e-mail from Alistair may have gone some way to opening From A Far Place to comments. It seems I was using the wrong settings, thus inadvertently preventing anyone, except myself, from posting anything. Now things should have changed, if anyone has got anything they want to say, that is.

A little while ago I mentioned having a little stash of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels in KL which were crying out to be read. I listened to the moans of This Side of Paradise and polished it off over the weekend. Generally critics don't have great things to say about the two earliest novels. I can recall at least one who regards them as unreadable. And I suppose they are at the side of the supremely readable The Great Gatsby. In Gatsby Fitzgerald seems to get everything right. The glamour of what Gatsby represents is as genuine as glamour can be and is perfectly in balance with the steely-eyed moral vision of its emptiness. Even the joys and concomitant pains of alcohol are conveyed with an observant neutrality quite extraordinary in one of the great (and saddest) drunks of the century. Much better than anything in Hemingway.

Now next to this level of attainment This Side of Paradise is transparently poor stuff. The plot is a mess and, as far as I can tell, Fitzgerald just gives it up in the final pages. The characters are painfully irritating, especially Amory - and since the book is about him, and Fitzgerald seems to be determined to invest him with some sort of significance, that's about as major a fault as a novel can handle. The period charm is as dated as fashion can possibly become, which is very dated indeed. And yet I quite enjoyed the whole thing. Once you accept that this is an extremely young man's book, things fall into place. And there are intimations of the real writer everywhere, particularly in the honesty with which Fitzgerald fundamentally regards the whole Princeton edifice.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Highs & Lows

We're just back from Malaysia having enjoyed yet another smooth trip. Melaka was, as always, restful, at least from my point of view. Nenek didn't recognise either Noi or myself and according to Noi looked in worse shape than she was two weeks ago. Happily both Mak & Abba looked good, and Abba was obviously pleased with the new wheelchair we got for him.

Before leaving Maison KL I had a little run around the taman. Originally we intended to run together but Noi forgot her running shoes. This was the first time I'd done any running at all in the area and I loved it - five circuits of the taman in around twenty-seven minutes. A great way to get to know the area and get the endorphins flowing at the same time.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Moving On

We’ll be setting off for Melaka this afternoon. We’ll spend the night at Mak’s house and head back to Singapore tomorrow afternoon, probably with Hakim & Intan on board. They’ve come over for the weekend, with Hakim intended to do a barbecue this evening. Of course it would be nicer to have longer here. It’s always hard to leave. But even a short break is a good way to stay in touch with what’s of fundamental importance in our lives, and I’ve learned to be grateful to have only that.

Yesterday we spent the evening at KLCC and then we had dinner at a place called Ali Baba’s (very original!) along Ampang Road, opposite Great Eastern. The food was plain but satisfying. The traffic was noisy and close, but since the restaurant was all but empty it seemed oddly peaceful. At home I found myself watching a BBC programme called Sounds of the Sixties which finished with Jimi Hendrix playing Voodoo Chile (Slight Returns) on the Lulu show from 1968. Astonishingly alive. Music to frighten the whole family. Great bass from Noel Redding underpinning transcendent stuff from the master. Noi fell asleep.

Regarding things in Melaka: there are big concerns about Nenek’s health, and I don’t think these are going to go away any time soon. She’s looking frailer with each visit we make such that it’s getting hard to remember the sturdily independent tough old lady who once lived across the road in that primitive shack of a place. (It’s still there, having been used as a kind of eating place – I don’t know what’s being done with it now.) Mak cannot look after her on her own, but now Sulis has come back from Indonesia, after a not terribly successful trip home, she has some help. Noi, I know, is looking forward to lending a hand, but it can only be for a short while. The difficulties of the situation are causing some conflicts within the family. I suppose this is inevitable, but it’s sad nonetheless. However, the brothers and sisters seem extremely resilient in this regard. They argue over all sorts but are able to bounce back and sort of pull together at the end of it all. The only thing is, there is no real end to it all. In this kind of extended family new issues are always arising. It’s supportive, I suppose, but draining.

Thursday, August 9, 2007


This is just about the time for the National Day Parade in Singapore. Curiously it’s not at all like a parade, more like a kind of mass-participatory cabaret show. The usual venue, the National Stadium, is about to be demolished to make way for something bigger and better. This is the expected fate of almost everything on the island and lends to the place a curious sense of being constantly in transit – it’s as if one is permanently seated in a particularly well-provided for waiting lounge, ready for the gate to the future to open. So this year the parade will take place on a kind of temporary stage out on the water, as far as I understand it. It will be a big success, as it has to be, and Singapore will take one step closer to convincing itself it is a nation.

When I first came here, back in 1988, I found the stress on nationhood startling, especially as it manifests itself in schools. Given the unlikeliness of Singapore being a nation at all the fuss made about being Singaporean was understandable but generally tiresome. I mean it’s a fairly interesting experiment to carve a sense of nationhood out of almost nothing, but it seems curiously besides the point in a world in which national borders are becoming ever more doubtful. But it seems to keep the younger kids amused, though there’s a dangerous degree of cynicism amongst teenagers and young adults about the whole enterprise. For myself, I can live with it all but I think I have less sympathy now with nationalisms of any shade than I have ever felt before. I suppose I occasionally feel some pride in being English when I hear Jerusalem sung, but that’s because it feels good to be born in a country that has adopted such a weird and wonderfully eccentric piece as somehow representing the nation. And there’s always Blake himself to be proud of, the quintessentially English poet. Shakespeare doesn’t count as he has always been beyond nationality.

Here at Maison KL, safely far away from the strains of Stand Up For Singapore, I’ve been treating myself to a bit of Bach at home (the Brandenburg concertos) and a lot of the Temptations in the car (driving out to the post office at Ampang Point this afternoon to pay some bills). Noi has already got the place clean and Devan has been round to poison any termites that might dare to lunch on our (plentiful) wood. I’ve said it before, and I daresay I’ll say it again – with a full sense that I’m incredibly lucky to be able to say it at all: life is good, very.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Journey's End

Another fun-packed day: a hot celebration of the nation’s birthday in the morning, which was pretty much over by 10.30, followed by a couple of hours of packing, followed by a smooth trip north, incorporating tea and toast at the A.R.A.B. Café and a cheese sandwich at O’Brien’s in the Great Eastern Mall on Ampang Road . Now we are here in Maison KL, getting the place sorted out and in running order. More of this tomorrow. Time to attend to the (pleasant) demands of domesticity.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Full Disclosure

Quite an eventful day. This morning the school held its cross country at Turf City. For those, like me, with light duties it was a lot more relaxing than teaching, but hotter. After that I went back into school for a meeting with the Drama Exco. Fairly long, but productive. It's important we hit the ground running after the production. In many ways we're still feeling our way into how the club (I'm referring here to the senior Anglo-Chinese School Independent Stage) might function across the two years for which a student will be a member. Then it was off to Arab Street with Noi to see her tailor in preparation for her Hari Raya finery, and a quick cup of tea there. She's just gone off to Sengkang as someone in the extended family passed away yesterday and she needs to pay her respects. I'm here through simple tiredness and there're a few jobs left to be done. Tomorrow we'll be heading to KL after the National Day celebration at Queenstown Stadium in the morning.

It seems that (my ex-student) Sheela was trying to post something here but couldn't get through. A pity: it would have been From A Far Place's first comment. I've got a feeling you need to be signed up to to get something down in black and white. Anyway, she asked me to cut and paste her offering from an e-mail she sent, so in the interests of full disclosure and a diversity of voices (all very post-modern) I'll comply:

I think Annisa was the Tree in Ming Lee right? (Sort of - she was the Property Man and wound up holding a branch.)

We had quite an outing on Friday - dinner at a Bugis coffeeshop that left us (ok, me at least) largely unsatisfied; then Chinese dessert at this Hongkong-style place on Liang Seah street; then walked over to Arab Street for tea/tahu goreng. That was the worst stop of the night cos we (ok, I!) was terrorized by this GINORMOUS cockroach on the floor, much to the glee of all the Mat Moto-s around us. Plus also, the shop was tuned in to this Malay radio station that was having a singing competition for its listeners, and after 15 mins of torturous female warbling, the DJ would exclaim: "SE-DAAAAAP sei!" You should have been there! If not to reminisce, then to save us from the lipas/bad singing.

Update on everyone:Annisa is back from Theatre Studies at Warwick, she was looking v polished in her pants and heels, fresh from her first job interview here at EPSN.She and Priya were talking about their yoga class and some hot yoga instructor (yogi?) that Priya is quite taken with. Dali is leaving for a short trip to KL, she's just back from the UAE where she's been based for the past few years. And I am starting my second year of Masters in Sociology at NUS in a week's time and am now savouring the last week of hols.

But we would all love to meet up again, this time with you!So squeeze some time out of your busy schedule, or we will be FORCED to hunt you down at your school and embarass you in front of all your students.

That's a wicked threat, but I remain unembarrassable.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Words and Music

In an attempt to make up for my lack of focus in actively listening to music I've been piling it on this weekend. We enjoyed ourselves more than a little last night at the symphonic band's concert in school. The programme was full of toe-tapping crowd-pleasers and we agreed it was a bit of a pity we didn't take Fa Fa and FI Fi along - especially for the Abba medley which kicked off the proceedings. The percussion section played a couple of pieces on their own in the middle of the concert and this was the highlight for me. The senior band finished things off and managed to inject some real swing into a big band medley, a quality rare in school bands here. We closed the evening with mutton soup at the Adam Road hawker centre after munching something (sardine puffs for me) at Dadi's on the way down. A kind of perfection all told.

This morning I've been soaking myself in Ralph Vaughn Williams, my music of choice when the old ears need refreshing. I gave Dona Nobis Pacem and Sancta Civitas a spin. The latter has a mystical power that connects it to the fifth symphony and the shorter swooney stuff; the former a sense of unease perfect for a time of approaching war. (It was first performed in 1936.) Not exactly toe-tapping, but a kind of release. I also read Alan Bennett's The Madness of King George which I picked up at the library yesterday. I must get to see the movie. Its run at the cinema here was exceedingly brief, as is the case with most films of note, and I've foolishly been expecting it to appear some time on cable - which it hasn't. It was a pleasure to read the play but I'm painfully aware I'm missing a lot not seeing it performed.

This afternoon we went down to Bussorah Street for the cup that cheers and bumped into Adrian with his family who are over from Ireland. I got a sense they loved the place, and rightly. On a hot, lazy Sunday afternoon the area functions as a ante-room to paradise.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Voices From The Past

I recently received an e-mail from an old friend, Val, who was a colleague at Rawmarsh Comprehensive, and her husband Peter. They will be going to Australia in September, as part of a round the world trip, and we should be able to catch them on their stopover in Singapore. Over the years we've been lucky enough to entertain, if only briefly, quite a few people from my old school - Jean Armstrong, David & Sheila Hoddle, Phil & Margaret Chappel - and it's always a great experience, if slightly disorientating. The dark side of seeing old friends is being told about people passing on, or experiencing major problems in their lives. It was back at Dave Turner's on one of Noi's first trips to England that I heard of the deaths of Pat, George and Harry. Even now that doesn't seem quite real. So it goes.

Coincidentally Sheela from TKGS recently contacted me with news of a small reunion of some of the girls from the Drama Club there (one or two of whom performed in the original Ming Lee and the Magic Tree, quite a few years back.) That archetypally Singaporean problem, a busy schedule, meant I couldn't get to chat with them. Disappointing but there may be opportunities in future to find out what they've done with their lives so far.

I'm wary of tending to live in the past, possibly because I remember so much so vividly that there's a powerful temptation to do so. I'm lucky, though, to have a present that is rewarding enough to inhabit comfortably.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Less Than Satisfactory

Now the production is out of the way (closure being achieved with a little party for the cast after school on Wednesday) it's time to get some serious reading done (amongst other things) and some balance back into my life. We're going to the library tomorrow and I'll be returning two entirely unread books. Ouch.

Music teachers make music, Art teachers paint but do English teachers write? (I'm talking creativity here, not just minutes of meetings.) Should it be made compulsory?

Got to run!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Desire, And What It Leads To

Desire was the breakthrough Dylan album for me. Before it I'd admired Dylan, but from quite a distance, and part of me didn't quite get a lot of what he did. Sometimes the voice simply sounded comic, sometimes the music seemed though not exactly inept not quite 'ept' somehow. I hasten to add that at the time of the release of Desire there was an awful lot of Dylan I'd never listened to. In those days album costs were prohibitive for someone of my income (virtually nil really) so buying one was a big event and I never felt I could afford to experiment in terms of sampling new stuff. Even borrowing an album seemed a big deal. I remember getting hold of John Wesley Harding at school and just not appreciating it at all, thus pretty much deciding not to bother with other stuff from the catalogue. In fact, I realise now I was always a long way behind others in grasping the work of musicians who came to prominence in the late sixties. I don't think I actually listened to Sgt Pepper's until around 1970 - 71.

But Desire spoke to me, at the time of its release, in a big way Someone, I can't remember who, had bought it at university and for a few weeks it became the album played late at night on those nights when conversation got out of hand and supplanted the good sense of sleep. It insinuated itself musically into my brain until I became hooked on just about everything involved in its distinctive sound world: the hooky melodies, the echoey but oh-so-right drums and bass, the resinous violin sound, those oddly complimentary voices - Dylan's abrasive, Emmylou's sweet but sometimes just on the edge of struggling to find a tune. Then I delved into the lyrics, and found myself beguiled. The personal songs, full of emotion yet strange and indirect so you had to guess at contexts and meanings, and ended up supplying them. I constructed an entire narrative around One More Cup Of Coffee which I never really believed had much to do with what Dylan meant but which I found satisfying. The theatrical songs, narratives that drew you in to their implausible and never wholly serious worlds and seemed to say something worth saying, or, rather, involved you in something worth feeling.

Today I was listening to Desire once again, in the car and was struck by how much I liked the track Joey, almost universally panned by critics over the years as a glorification of a gangster who didn't deserve the tribute. Moralising over Dylan's songs misses the point (sometimes, though possibly not in the case of those songs which genuinely involve a 'message' of some kind). In this case you just need to surrender to the laconic machismo on offer and become a less than self-aware, sentimental mafioso of the old school for as long as the song lasts. It's not a nice thing to do but Dylan is prepared to put less than comfortable things on offer. That's what this album helped me understand back then and why it opened for me a new way of listening.