Monday, December 31, 2007

On Fire

In the second half of the 70's I fell out of love with much of the music I'd been listening to as a young teenager. The virtuosity of bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra came to seem to me for the most part pointless, a kind of celebration of display for its own sake, so although retaining a soft spot for the incendiary first album The Inner Mounting Flame, 1971, (you never quite get over the first time) I didn't purchase the second album, Birds of Fire, though I did know the material from listening to others play it, and I never actually got to hear the second version of the band, the one including Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. I did listen to McLaughlin's Shakti, 1975, but they were a completely different kettle of fish, a signpost (if a kettle can play the role of signifier) to a new musical road leading eventually to Womad and all that. The fact that all these big name bands, like the Mahavishnus seemed to fall out with each over 'artistic differences' was confirmation for me that this was music all about ego.

I was wrong, of course. Yes, ego and display were involved, but then they always are, and the music was more than capable of transcending those dreary concerns. Listening to Birds of Fire today made me wonder what was wrong with my ears all those years ago, and made me question how I could possibly have been so dismissive of something I had previously recognised the value of. The beauty of Thousand Island Park was too fragile for my younger self, I'm afraid, and that's just one from several outstanding cuts. I suppose my penance should be to get hold of the albums I missed and do them justice, but that's hardly likely to involve any degree of suffering.

By the by, we saw Billy Cobham, the drummer on the first two Mahavishnu albums at the Singapore Womad a couple of years ago. He played a solo set on the upper stage, just a piece for drums lasting about 45 minutes and it was of the highest quality, leaving you wanting more - possibly the first drum solo I've ever heard that achieved that.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Old Acquaintance

Much of the weekend, the bit when I've not been in work, has been spent catching up with old friends - and eating well in the process. A sound use of time, as was listening to the Elvis Costello collaboration with Allen Toussaint The River in Reverse. Why can't music this good be played in supermarkets? I ask this simply because when we were shopping at the appropriately named Giant Supermarket at Parkway Parade yesterday somebody had deemed it appropriate to play something for the shoppers' delight that involved this chap doing irreversible damage to Leaving On A Jet Plane (with a Latin beat!) and, even worse, Blowin' In The Wind. Now I can accept that the former is something of an open target due to its excessive sentimentality, but surely Mr Dylan deserves better. And why anyone would think of treating his gently fragile masterpiece as a kind of jauntily upbeat cabaret show-stopper is beyond my understanding.

In passing, Dylan does an extraordinary live version of Blowin' In The Wind with the Band on Before The Flood. He reinvents the song as a kind of celebratory, rabble-rousing call-to-arms. It shouldn't work, but does. It's a safe bet they'll never play that in Giant.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

And Two More Things

Why are the road signs in Kuala Lumpur designed to make sense only to drivers who live there and actually know where they are going? We attempted twice to find a certain Hutan Lipur Ampang which is indicated on a series of those brown signs for places of interest right up to the centre of Ampang itself only to fail on both occasions. It simply isn't. There. Does this place, whatever it is, exist?

And why are there so many fully constructed houses which just remain empty in the city, as well as those which seem to have been abandoned halfway through construction? Halfway is enough to create something of remarkable ugliness, especially when it is allowed to rot for ten years or so. There's a whole row of what seem to have been intended to be terraced houses of this sort on one of the roads on Bukit Antarabangsa a short drive from where we live. Opposite are two or three rather expensive-looking large occupied houses. Nice view they have.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Grasp of Things

In our time in Malaysia I was struck, as I always am there, by how little I felt I understood what was going on in that society. This is not a language thing. English is very widely spoken and my Malay, though pathetic, allows me to grasp a fair amount of what people are talking about. No, I'm referring here to that instinctive grasp we tend to build up of the fabric of what is taking place around us, such that we can comfortably inhabit the illusion we know what's going on. After almost two decades in Singapore I no longer feel the sense of being adrift that haunted me in my first months here, and when I go back to England although some aspects of life are now disturbingly different I generally grasp why things are as they are. But Malaysia, though in many ways very familiar to me, remains foreign.

A simple point to illustrate this. One afternoon we went to Taman Melawati, a district near to Ampang where we live, just to look around and see what the area had to offer. We parked on a sort of square, one of several, where lots of shops were. The buildings around weren't terribly old and, I suppose, made up the commercial centre of the township. We were there on a Sunday and things were fairly quiet - that I understood. But what I couldn't get hold of was how incredibly filthy the streets were. Not the kind of squalor of real poverty that is obviously unavoidable, but a sort of just letting things go to dreary ruin. In case this all sounds like western judgementalism let me tell you that my wife, a Malaysian, was far more vocal about the state of the area and refused to finish her drink in a café we went into on the grounds that everything smelled. What fascinated me was why the people there were ready to let this happen. Frankly it wouldn't have needed a massive effort to make the place look fairly respectable.

Now I know areas of Manchester and Sheffield and Liverpool that look a lot more run down than Taman Melawati. But I know why this is, whereas the state of the taman centre made no economic or social sense to me. How innocent I am.

Having said all that, the missus and I were just walking back home from Parkway Parade and a chap came by holding a parrot. A fine green and red one. That was something way outside my experience - not so much the parrot per se but the nonchalance with which the bird was being taking for a stroll. I pointed this out to Noi and asked if she didn't find it mildly disturbing, as she had just walked past the guy without comment. She told me she might have said something had he been carrying a tiger, but she hadn't found anything particularly worthy of comment in the scene. And I thought I understood life here!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

First Things

Now back in Singapore with a day at work to look forward to tomorrow. Well, not exactly work since we don't start teaching until the new year really begins, next Wednesday. But there'll be exciting meetings to attend and, no doubt, lots of exciting things to accomplish that I have successfully neglected over the last month. So it's all systems go, or, rather, should be.

To cheer myself up, as I gear myself up, I'm thinking about United's position in the premiership. We got to view a few games in KL, the Liverpool game being probably the most satisfying, though nerve-wracking. Most of the kids had the wisdom to support the finest team in the land, with Ayiem as the sole renegade - he's with the gonners - but they tended to get overly nervous while watching games which, in turn, set me on edge. The last ten minutes of the Liverpool game felt particularly strenuous. In contrast I felt quite relaxed watching the Everton game, by which time the kids had gone, and almost expected that late goal. Last night's romp against Sunderland had the feel of a championship winning season about it, but there's a long way to go yet. (There's nothing quite so satisfying as an inane managerial cliché, is there?)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Last Things

VW’s last five symphonies, more than half his symphonic output, were written after the age of sixty-five. Listening to the 7th and 8th I think you might assume they were the work of quite a young man, especially the latter. But there’s something about the final symphony, to which I bent my ears and something like full attention this morning – despite being interrupted by a call from an air-con servicing company during the third movement - that sounds like the work of someone reaching the end of something. Of course, I could be projecting what I know about the work onto it, and there are stretches of music which sound youthful enough – in fact, the scherzo has the energy of the satanic passages in Job – but so much of this sounds like music dealing with inevitable conclusions: elegiac, sombre yet sober, in its examination of how things fade. This is particularly the case with the opening bars and the ending – both have a monolithic, static quality, framing whatever development takes place within a vision of something already accomplished. Struggle within acceptance. The shimmering gauze of sound (those gorgeous strings!) that characterised the earlier symphonies has been torn away and we view the thing itself.

Well, that’s all more than a bit over-the-top, but it does try to point to some of the qualities I find in this piece. On a more mundane level, the writing for saxophones is quite extraordinary – VW gets a mournful lubricity out them that no orchestra or jazz band I know has ever aspired to, except maybe in some of Duke Ellington’s more quirky, tone-poem type of stuff (but in VW there’s nothing approaching swing.) There’s a lovely fluid flugelhorn in there as well, but none of the exotic percussion that is so striking in the previous two symphonies. In that sense this one feels more restrained somehow.

The elegiac mood created by the music has filtered itself not so mysteriously into what will be our last full day in Maison KL for quite some time, but it’s difficult to be overly melancholy when you’ve got a house to clean and a succession of items therein to get fixed. So far we’ve dealt with a broken window, a broken tap, servicing the air-conditioning and a toilet with a slow flush: the joys of home ownership!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Across The Miles


I’m long accustomed to Christmas in the tropics so its incongruities seem reasonably congruent. Today, though still part of our holidays, is emerging as quite a day of toil as we are setting about the big clean-up before we leave and I’m focusing on work for school a touch more seriously than I’ve managed for the last four weeks. It’s at times like this, when I’m cleaning them, that I realise just how many windows this house has.

We have been thinking about family & friends in England though. I’ve rung Mum a few times over the last week and I’ll be talking to both her and Maureen later. Mum’s keeping well, apart from complaining about the weather and a stiff shoulder, but judging from something she said yesterday I think there’s going to be a bit of a dust-up about whether she goes anywhere for Christmas dinner today. As Noi frequently points out, old people are difficult – you must be patient. The problem is that it’s others who’ll need the patience today as we are at a safely guilty distance.


Just back from my wife’s birthday dinner at the Bukhara in KLCC. Almost a month late but we got there in the end. I’ve phoned the family and I’m pleased to say that Mum seems fairly happy about her day. I’m not too sure about everyone else though. Still ‘tis the season to be merry or jolly or whatever, so I hope they manage it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Shaping Up

Without the kids around we found time yesterday to watch an episode of Downsize Me, one of our favourites on the Discovery Health & Home channel. I suppose one of the reasons I enjoy it is that you get the chance to feel superior to some poor soul who’s got a major problem with their weight yet you can claim that you are rooting for them to do well and embrace a healthy way of eating and exercising. It’s not exactly noble, but useful for stimulating one’s own efforts at achieving a reasonable level of fitness. Anyway the advice given in the programme is obviously sound and there’s a real sense of dealing with issues related to health rather than simply trying to look better, which is all to the good. And, to be fair to myself, I do end up genuinely wanting the subjects to succeed.

So partly motivated by all this, I’ll be running around the taman a bit later today, trying to consolidate some of the gains I made running with the kids. Sadly Noi has not had the same opportunities (she had to lend her running shoes to Aiman and, therefore, was unable to join in) and I’m trying to convince her to step out with me. We completed a run in Melaka (the first time we’ve done anything there) essentially to show Ayiem that there are places you can find to run in the area around Mak’s house, but Noi didn’t enjoy getting started again after a lay-off. But with regard to Ayiem, if he keeps up what we’ve started here he stands a good chance of shedding the few kgs he needs to lose.

There’s little chance of my becoming swollen headed over my achievements, however. My discovery this morning that I’ve been regularly misspelling the name of my favourite composer of serious music, and in this very public Far Place, was a chastening one. Vaughan with two ‘a’s still looks odd to me though.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Just Playing Around

Now things are a good deal less lively here I intend to complete playing through the symphonies of Ralph Vaughn Williams, as rendered by the London Philharmonic under Sir Adrian Boult in the recordings made in the 1950’s. In fact, I played both the 8th and 9th quite early in December, but was disturbed both times by residents of the house awaking early and making their presence known. The early morning was the only time of day when the house was not in some way busy then and presented the only opportunity of really being able to listen to something of reasonable duration. Now I have the luxury of listening pretty much whenever I please, but I still found myself choosing to listen to the 8th again this morning, before Noi had actually come downstairs.

It’s an odd piece all told, sandwiched as it is between two symphonies that incline to high seriousness, it comes across as particularly playful, as if VW is determined not to be seen, or heard, as making anything like a grand statement. The reduction of the orchestra to wind and brass for the second movement, and strings for the third, suggests that we are listening to sketches rather than something genuinely symphonic, and these movements, though beautifully characterised – the second as a rather jolly bucolic march, the third as ethereal romance – feel limited in conception, especially following the rich, and long, first movement. (The opening and close of the movement create a texture extremely close to the sound world of the 7th, by the way. The vibraphone is gorgeous – silky and spooky.) Then the finale seems somehow too brief to match the weight of that first movement.

Here, in the finale, I think the age of the recording creates a real problem. In the concert hall the intensity of the percussion involved creates a powerful physicality. The sheer loudness and brightness of the music has an impact in itself and it really doesn’t require any development beyond what’s given. It feels like an ending. But a recording, especially of this age, cannot capture this and the listener feels as if the symphony has fallen away somehow. I suppose this is true for the whole symphony: it sounds better in the concert hall than on record, or at least in the versions I know.

But I’m missing something about the 8th. It has a kind of ease and good-natured likeability that make it very attractive, even if it feels lightweight. Over the years of all VW’s symphonic output I’ve probably found myself playing this one more than any other.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Peace & Quiet

In contrast to our journey south undertaken in the middle of the week our drive back to KL was smooth to the point of monotony. No children on board – all safely restored to their rightful owners – no luggage & various belongings of said passengers, and the fellow above, who was somehow made to fit on board an already crowded MPV (it seems that that’s what the vehicle I’d borrowed from Rachid is actually known as) safely consumed to the satisfaction of those members of the family daring enough to sample such an unusual dish. By the way, the blue thing sticking out of the turkey that looks like a device for filling it with illicit substances is quite innocent. It’s some kind of temperature gauge that shoots up (pun intended) to let you know the bird is cooked. The marvels of modern technology, eh?

It’s nice to have the luxury of not having to fight for a turn to use the computer and to be in a house that can now stay reasonably tidy, but it’s also sad to lose the non-stop laughter and quarreling and eating and playing to which we’d grown accustomed.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Real Thing

Springsteen's Live in Dublin seems to these ears an extraordinary triumph of a kind of musical authenticity. This is paradoxical in that he's drawing upon a variety of musical traditions - ragtime jazz, celtic folk, protest song, spiritual, to name just the obvious - which previously were largely foreign to his work. So how does what is essentially a raid upon musics deeply rooted in their various traditions come to seem real on stage, going beyond homage and not for a moment evoking notions of a mode of theft? A mysterious alchemy is at work here, with two crucial ingredients in its process. The first is sheer talent. These guys can play, and don't need to prove it - so they also listen, and you can hear them listening in the space they create. At times there (I think) some fourteen musicians going at it, but the sound never seems cluttered.

The second ingredient is the all-pervading sense that they have something to say, something to communicate - partly this is their love of the music they play, but it also involves an attitude to being. I think the track that best illustrates this is their version of When The Saints Go Marching In. Taken at an extraordinarily slow tempo, with a mixture of soulfully raw lead vocalists, the yearning melancholy of the lyric is allowed to breathe. Somewhere in the background lurks the spectre of Katrina, yet the foregrounded hope the performance expresses seems almost adequate to the tragedy. I don't think I've ever really listened to the words before and a central part of how this music works is by making you listen. Really listen. And also have a monstrously good time whilst doing so.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Driving in Kuala Lumpur is rarely easy. Driving out of KL, on the eve of a public holiday (when the entire population of the city appears to have decided to balik kampung along with you), in the evening just as the work traffic reaches its peak, in a van full of excited kids (one of whom is suffering from an ailment mysteriously referred to as 'stomach flu' and needs to be taken to the doctor along the way), is, I can assure you, trying on the nerves and not for the faint hearted. A journey which usually takes us about one and a half hours turned into a five hour epic with bumper to bumper traffic up to and including Seremban.

Entertainment was provided by various maniacs driving at speed on the hard shoulder, Bruce Springsteen and the Sessions Band singing Live in Dublin, and a van full of kids singing dementedly along with Bruce and the band. (This is music that speaks across generations.)

We're now recovering from the ordeal in peaceful Melaka and about to eat a turkey dinner.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More Of What We Did On Our Holidays

Noi will soon be cooking a turkey for Hari Raya Haji (talk about cross-cultural linkages - we’re nothing if not innovative) and then we’ll be taking the squad (and the turkey, cooked) to Melaka where there’ll be various family reunions as we restore the troops to their real parents. We’re intending to spend a couple of days at Mak’s house before returning to Maison KL for a quieter last lap.

Music selected by popular acclaim for the journey south: Springsteen and the Sessions Band Live in Dublin. The kids are joining in with gusto on almost every track.

In the meantime, a few more pictures above as evidence of some of our recent activities.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What We Did On Our Holidays

A picture, they say, tells a thousand stories. A bit of an exaggeration, I’ve always thought, but some of the story of the last few days is hinted at above.

Mak visited yesterday, with Khir & his girlfriend, and left behind one further squad member. We’re now contending with eight hungry bellies, whose owners we’ll be taking swimming soon.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Place Too Far

Finally I’m able to post again from KL, though I don’t know how long my weak connection to the Internet will allow me to keep this up. Entertaining seven kids on a daily basis is stretching my powers of invention, but Noi has shown outstanding ability in this area. We’re taking the troops bowling this afternoon after trying to exhaust them with a run this morning.

A routine of taman runs appears to have been established. Ayiem, Azrul, Sabrina and Aiman seem particularly enthusiastic and I think I’ve seen an improvement in Ayiem’s level of fitness even in the short time we’ve had. This morning I saw a couple of monkeys, fairly big ones, who were in one of the trees at the top end of the taman. They scuttled guiltily away when I went around the corner but then went back to whatever they’d been up to as we saw them again, and they rescuttled, when the kids joined in on lap three.

I’m now up to a comfortable seven rounds of the taman and may even increase this by the end of our stay. I think I’m enjoying running these days even more than when I was younger, though it’s a close thing. But in those days there was something of a driven quality, especially in my early days in Singapore. Now I’m slower but more relaxed. To be running at all has a miraculous quality about it, a sense of being glad to be alive, and that’s quite enough for me.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Problems of Access

I'm posting this from Melaka, where we're staying for the weekend, having returned to Maison KL from Genting on Thursday. For reasons I don't understand I've not been able to post anything here from the KL computer since that time. I suspect this is because the dial-up we operate on in KL is incredibly slow. If we lived there full time we'd definitely switch to broadband. This is all a little irritating - but I'm thankful that, in the great scheme of things, the operative word is 'little'.

We'll be going back tomorrow (possibly with as many as seven kids on board) so I'll be giving it another try.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Rhythms of Life

Life here is taking on rhythms curiously distinct from what we’d normally regard as commonplace. These revolve around the necessity of feeding the kids sufficiently to keep them going through whatever activities they are about to engage in, and sorting out the various conflicts that emerge between them. It looks as if we’ll be taking them up to Genting for a couple of days, but we haven’t booked the hotel yet. We’ll be looking into this later today. We’re also packing a present for Mum which we need to send soon.

It’s not easy to find a time to listen undisturbed to music, but I’m getting a fair amount of reading done. I’ve made good progress in The Ring and the Book, finding things falling into place whist reading Book 3. The trick is to get the essentials of the somewhat convoluted storyline sorted out. Since each book of the poem worries away at the same events from particular angles and perspectives you find yourself lost if those events, which have an overlapping quality, are not sufficiently differentiated. I’m now halfway through Book 4 and finding whole stretches of verse transparently powerful – something that had seemed beyond me in previous attempts. It’s remarkable how worrying away at a text can help you begin to make it give up its secrets. It’s a matter, I suppose, of understanding that it’s rare a writer actually invokes obscurity for its own sake.

That’s something I find myself having to keep in mind whilst reading Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, which came to me highly recommended. I’m due to finish this later today and, although I can say I’ve enjoyed it overall, I have found it harder work than I anticipated. There are moments when I’ve felt I could have done with a little less of the purple about the prose, and a little more clarity as to what exactly is supposed to be going on.

In the meantime, a few more pictures from yesterday above, to prove just how exhausting a school holiday can be.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Birthday Girl

We celebrated Mak Ndak’s birthday in style this morning with the presentation of a special card from the troops, and in the afternoon with a visit to Taman Tasik Perdana, including a spot of rowing on the lake. Now exhausted, happily so.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A Modest Proposal

Teachers should always be engaged in a course that they find very tough – something for which they have little talent, in which they are natural strugglers. I learnt more about teaching from learning to drive (the first ten lessons or so) and trying to read the holy Qur’an in Arabic than anything else I’ve ever done – and most certainly the study of anything connected with literature or the English language.

And talking of taking on tough tasks, our squad strength was increased by one today, in the form of Azrul, a late transfer from Melaka. He joined us on a shopping expedition to Ampang Point, resulting in the purchase of a number of books at the kid-friendly Popular Bookstore there. Since we had been to Kinokuniya at Suria KLCC yesterday and emerged, miraculously, without a single tome being purchased, today’s outlay was inevitable. Pictorial evidence of yesterday’s outing is available above.