Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Ramadhan 30 1429

Sometimes, probably always, the best things are the simplest. The cooking of biscuits in fasting month counts amongst the best. Astute viewers may notice who's doing all the work.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Hard Lessons

Ramadhan 29 1429

O you who believe, fasting is prescribed to you… That you may learn self-restraint… Simple, isn't it? Not really, I'm afraid. Controlling hunger & thirst is tough, but superficial. An outward sign of something more radical, more transformatory. And far more difficult to achieve. A challenge to remake the self. Another year of failure. But the chance to begin again, again is always there, regardless of season.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Best Price

Ramadhan 28 1429

The girls, and their ibu, have been with us over the weekend as ayah has been attending various bits of the F1 (an event in which I have zero interest.) We took them with us today as I went to pay my zakat. It's become something of a family tradition to have them come along, and Noi also gets them to assist her when she makes her donation to the big charity drive from MUIS at this time of year. After paying the zakat we picked up the girls' Hari Raya outfits from the tailor in Geylang and bought a heap of goodies for breaking the fast. (Coming soon - in about five minutes.)

Other than that I've occupied myself fruitfully by cleaning most of my CDs ahead of the big day. Almost there!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

In Readiness

Ramadhan 27 1429

A few hours today were spent cleaning the books here, as part of the general cleaning operation prior to Hari Raya. It's rare, and tiring, for me to do them all in a day, but that's what I did. The operation has left me, as it usually does, a touch melancholy: the climate continues to wreak slow havoc on a fair number of the collection; and I wonder if I'm likely to catch up on all the reading I need to do just to do some kind of justice to what I possess even in the next five years.

I also found time to finish Post Captain, which left me quite the opposite of melancholy, if there is such a state. It occurred to me that Jack and Stephen share an openness to experience, a sheer delight in the world, that helps explain their friendship. This is not to say that they are immune to other states - both suffer convincing bouts of depression in the course of the novel - but it's as if they know that their friendship orients them towards an essential sanity manifest in their music and shared humour. And isn't it extraordinary that O'Brian creates a convincing sense of heroism without avoiding the grim, sometimes despairingly harsh details of naval life in the early nineteenth century?

I'm now deciding what novel to read next, bearing in mind I've still got the Alan Bennett book going, most pleasingly so. I was thinking of rereading one of the books my EE students are doing - A Clockwork Orange, Sexing The Cherry, The Blind Assassin (though I haven't yet picked up a copy of the last of these) - but I just fancy something totally new. It's probably going to be John Banville's The Sea since I know absolutely nothing about this one and it's pretty short so I'm not likely to get bogged down and regret it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Reading Music

Ramadhan 26 1429

Whilst writing yesterday's post, the Tippett & Messiaen bit, I had at the back of my mind Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, a tome I've had it in mind to purchase since coming across the very handsome hardback in Borders a few months ago. Just a quick browse was sufficient to confirm the quality of the writing, and since Mr Ross covers the kind of stuff I like to listen to but few others seem to, it seemed to me a must buy. Actually I assumed then it was a relatively minor sort of book and have been very gratified to see it winning prizes and getting an excellent review in a recent New York Review Of Books, which anyone interested in can access here. I think it comes out in paperback soon and that's when I'll be grabbing it.

I've also got in mind a couple of books by Jan Swafford, one on Brahms and another general survey of 'serious' music. It's not that either topic gets my pulse racing, but Swafford's biography Charles Ives: A Life With Music is the best book I've read on any musician of any type - proof that it is possible to write about music and communicate something of the experience of listening to it. I'd recommend it to anyone, even if they didn't particularly care for arguably the greatest of all American composers. It's just a tremendously insightful about a fascinating sort of chap. I'm hoping Ross gives Ives some coverage.

Oh and I saw a book about The Clash when we were last in KL that I wish I'd have bought - one with a green cover - so I'm the lookout for that. The wishlist just gets longer.

By the by, antestorm posted a spot-on comment regarding Funeral one of my picks for the CD changer. One of the truly great CDs for driving or otherwise. Strongly recommended for anyone with open ears.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

New Music

Ramadhan 25 1429

I'm in the middle of changing the CDs in the car's CD changer. Just about to go in are: Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges Play The Blues Back To Back, Van Morrison's Down The Road; Camembert Electrique by Gong; The Kinks's Face to Face; Arcade Fire's Funeral; and the first CD of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony as played by Simon Rattle and the boys from Birmingham.

Coming out after being in there for a couple of weeks are: the compilation CD I got with the issue of The Word; Blur's Parklife; Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens; Dylan's Infidels (which resolutely refused to play); Fairport Convention's Full House; and the final CD in my set of Tippett's Symphonies featuring Symphony No 4 plus the Suite in D for good measure. For the sake of completion I should add that I've also been listening to Billy Bragg's Don't Try This At Home on the cassette player in between bouts of Joyce's Ulysses in the Book At Bedtime recording by the BBC.

The big surprise for me in all that, as mentioned in an earlier post, has been just how effective the Tippett symphonies have proved in the car. I'd say that the final one, the 4th, has been the best of all to listen to. At 30 minutes it's not all that long and there's no breaks between movements, though you can pick out a sort of slow movement and scherzo. Tippett packs in an extraordinary number of textures in that timespan and so, though it's not exactly melodic, there's always something going on that arrests the ears. This is the only one of the set not conducted by Sir Colin Davis, in this case it being Sir Georg Solti waving the baton and the Chicago Symphony giving it their all. It was also recorded a good ten years after the other symphonies and I get a sense that the quality of sound is just that bit better - a tad more immediate. It seems that the Chicago Symphony commissioned the piece, so it's no wonder they do it so well. Sir Georg is also responsible for the Suite in D (for the Birthday of Prince Charles) which accompanies the symphony in an inspired bit of programming. This is Tippett excelling in an occasional, very public, work, showing how pleasing to the ear he can be when he wants to be. It features at least two stand-out melodies, derived from folk songs, the kind of stuff you can (nearly) hum along to, but recognisably in Tippett's voice. The accessibility of the suite sheds light on what's going on in the symphonies, I feel.

It's been the success of my experiment with the Tippett set that has led me to put the Messiaen in this time round. Let's see what this one does to the old ears.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Plodding Along

Ramadhan 24 1429

Got out for my sixth run of Ramadhan just after breaking the fast. Last year was the first time I tried any sort of exercise in the fasting month and I seem to have got the knack now of knowing when to fit it in. In fact, over some twelve years of doing the fast my behaviour on breaking the fast has significantly evolved.

Time was when I would set about greedily wolfing down whatever was available in a sort of flurry of relief at finally being able to do so. I actually used to feel hungry. Nowadays I drink a glass of water, a cup of tea, eat a couple of dates and then do the prayer immediately. (By the way, it's compulsory to break the fast immediately you hear the call to prayer so all this is quite in order, just in case you were wondering.) By the time the prayer is done I feel pretty much replete so it's just a matter of a bit more tea and a very light snack. We only eat seriously a good deal later in the evening. So that's a great opportunity to get out and do some exercise once in a while.

Tonight's run was fairly enjoyable, though I did feel a touch heavy with a cup of tea or two on board. At the moment I'm sticking to the same route, running along what are known as the park connectors up to Telok Kurau Park and I can get a good sense of how comfortable I feel when I go up an overhead bridge on the way. On a good day I can bound up like a young gazelle who isn't too flustered by the sudden appearance of an overhead bridge on the plains of the Serengeti. (Yes, I know, there are probably no gazelles to be found there, but allow a little poetic license.) On a not so good day it's more like a gazelle who's just received a pension and might be spending it on a walking stick, which was the case this evening. I was just grateful to get to the top, and wouldn't have minded staying there a while. But that would have been to have delayed the utterly wonderful oxtail soup the missus had spent the day preparing. Sedapnya! (Which might be Englished as something along the lines of Get that down your neck!)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In Passing

Ramadhan 23 1429

We've got a bat on the balcony said Noi this morning, just before I set off to work. I popped out to have a look, but it's difficult to see anything too clearly out there at 5.50. There seemed to be something nesting at the top of the grille which fences off our balcony but neither of us was too sure what it was.

Incidentally we're used to bats around our house in KL. A couple or more used the gap under the small roof over our back door to 'hang around' (and as a sort of toilet) before we got rid of them. But this was the first time we'd encountered any on our territory in Singapore.

When I got back in the afternoon it was to be told that our guest wasn't a bat after all, but a bird, and, sadly, a dead one. It made more sense that it should be a bird out there. The tree directly opposite the balcony is home to several and we've had a few trying to nest with us. This poor blighter seemed to have got stuck in the grille, by its leg. In fact, Noi had shooed off another bird this morning and we're now wondering if that one was some sort of companion to our late friend.

I've just been up the ladder to remove the little fellow and put it in a plastic bag. Not used to dealing with dead birds, we've been discussing what to do with it and we've decided to bury it by the roadside tomorrow. Absurd, I suppose, but the idea of just shoving it in the rubbish bin doesn't work for me somehow.

Blake: How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Home Thoughts From Abroad

Ramadhan 22 1429

Somehow I contrived to forget to ring Mum last night, probably because I got so caught up in the Chelsea game - I thought a draw was a fair result but was baffled as to how the mercurial Mike Riley saw fit to dole out 7 yellow cards to our heroes whilst apparently blind to a series of infractions (to use a polite word) from the boys in blue.

I made up for it just now to find that she won another twenty-five big ones at bingo yesterday. However, nowadays she appears to regard anything less than a three figure haul as strictly average so there was no real celebration involved. Mind you, she was just off to the chiropodist, a visit to whom she does not look forward, and that may have put a dampener on her mood. It seems there's a particularly unpleasant corn crying out for attention - I don't know exactly what they do to corns, but I'm guessing it's not relaxing.

I was telling her about our little outing to the bazaar at Geylang over the weekend and reminding her of times in the past when she went round it herself. The strange thing about that was how easily she fitted into it all when I'd expected the experience to be utterly foreign. Then I realised that essentially markets are pretty much the same the world over - which, I suppose, is why Noi loves roaming around Ashton, Hyde and Denton markets when we are in England. The only thing I think she found problematic about Geylang was finding somewhere for a quick smoke: the sight of an eighty-odd-year-old ang moh lady puffing away at a tab end did tend to attract a fair amount of attention from startled locals.

I think probably her all-time most startling moment over here though was at a little party poolside at some rather nifty condo when an innocent young lady (local, Chinese girl) confided in Mum how wonderful she (the young lady) thought Mrs Thatcher was. Big mistake - as the innocent realised after a colourful twenty-minute tirade from the old lady explaining precisely why Mrs T was not wonderful. She certainly broadened one or two minds, and vocabularies, that evening.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

High Lights

Ramadhan 21 1429

And we'll be putting up our own twinkling lights soon, purchased yesternight at sweaty Geylang.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Ramadhan 20 1429

One of the mighty frustrations of buying a barrowload of books, as I did the other day (though buying is the wrong word, I suppose, since really they came buckshee), is not having the time available to get stuck into the pile. Time was when I would have dealt with such a situation by getting started on four or five at once thus sating my appetite, getting easily confused in the process. Now wiser, and far less capable of multi-tasking of any variety, two books at a time is all I can reasonably cope with (with room for a bit of poetry here and there on top) and only one of the two can be a novel, otherwise I'll get the plots confused.

The two books I have in play at the moment are simply wonderful, to the point that one rather hopes never to come to the end of either. One is O'Brian's Post Captain which I've been reading for a little over a week and still haven't got halfway with. But this is because - other than the fact I'm very busy with marking - I'm savouring every detail. It's the second, and thickest, in the Aubrey/Maturin series and the one in which the writer, it seems me, makes a declaration of intent. For a good half of the novel we are not actually at sea, or at least, that is, in a ship under Jack's command, and O'Brian is telling us something to the effect that he can do anything with these characters, take them anywhere, an office in the Admiralty, tea in the English countryside, and it will remain utterly, utterly convincing. Was he really there with them? Oddly enough I remember the first time I read it, some years ago, getting quite impatient for Jack to put to sea and for the story to get moving. I suppose I've wisely slowed down since then.

Alan Bennett's Untold Stories is competing with the mighty O'Brian for my attention, and, extraordinarily, sometimes winning. I've seen a number of Bennett's plays and odd pieces on tv (A Private Function would be on my list of top ten favourite movies), though never in the theatre for some reason, and I've read a few, but I've never read anything else by him, and I'm now realising what a mistake that is. The first bit of this collection, Untold Stories itself which begins with an account of Bennett's mother's debilitating depression is a model of what clarity of style and (apparent) simplicity and directness of voice can achieve. Gripping, tender, melancholy, funny, honest, mercilessly observant: good grief this man can write. pardon my italics but such is my enthusiasm.

I'm feeling blessed to have these companions.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Social Whirl

Ramadhan 19 1429

Mei & Boon are coming round to join for a quick breaking of fast at home and then we're off to Arab Street and environs for the lights & some more grub - Turkish if possible, as there's a great Turkish place there. Then tomorrow we're taking the girls (and ibu & ayah, I think) to Geylang to experience the bazaar for our first time this year - and, specifically, to buy our twinkling lights. Then Sunday Intan & Hakim will be round with our new niece and we'll look after her while they trip the light fantastic. And there's United vs Chelsea on the way. Blmey! Who said life was dull?

Before Dawn

Ramadhan 18 1429

Part of the bone-weariness experienced in fasting month derives from getting up for sahur, the pre-dawn meal. I'm not and never have been terribly keen on eating at 04.55 or thereabouts, but it's not possible to skip and just wait for the usual prayer time (thus gaining an extra valuable 40 minutes or so of sleep) as, at the very least, you've got to take to take some liquid on board or you'll not even make it to noon. Also there's the tradition to follow, so I usually manage a small handful of rice. Some folks go for quite a big plateful of tucker and it's a mystery to me how they get going. But then I've never been that bothered about feeding myself before the evening.

There's a plus side to all this though (apart from being good for the soul) - I arrive in work a good bit earlier than is my usual routine and it's amazing how much you can done when there's no one around. The problem is that around about 11.30 a wave of weariness hits and it's impossible to mark with any vigour. (We've got exams for the Year 6 students at the moment so marking constitutes a fair amount of the working day.)

I'm looking forward to the weekend when at least I can go back to bed for a couple of hours after the prayer. Small mercies count for a lot.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Out Of Business

Ramadhan 17 1429

It's surprising even to me that my recent sorties in the War on Capitalism have had such a dramatic impact on great giants like AIG. I suppose, though, other factors may have been involved - the usual suspects: greed, stupidity and the like.

The mighty Dan hit the nail on the head, as Messers Becker & Fagen have done so often, in Everything Must Go, of which the perspicacious first verse runs: It's high time for a walk on the real side / Let's admit the bastards beat us / I move to dissolve the corporation / In a pool of margaritas / So let's switch off all the lights / And light up all the Luckies / Crankin' up the afterglow / 'Cause we're going out of business / Everything must go.

I believe the song was originally written in the wake of the Enron fiasco, but it's clearly one for all seasons. See you all at the last mall!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Over Halfway

Ramadhan 16 1429

I'm not sure it's appropriate to be counting down on the fast, but I can't help it. In truth I don't do this all the time, but there are days when I can't but help check exactly where we are up to. Early today, when I conceived this entry walking around an examination hall invigilating, I thought I'd be recording how the fast was now relatively routine in contrast to the early days of struggle. Usefully I found myself not enjoying the later part of the afternoon at all.

I say 'usefully' because the difficulty of the experience is the whole point: in a world which teaches us to avoid struggle the fast slaps you in the face with it. That's why the protracted nature of the fast is so perfect. A few days are manageable, but a month is going to throw days at you like today. On the other hand, it's only a month - you're not expected to become a saint.

Anyway, the curtains are soon coming down, the twinkling lights will go up, the bottles will come out for the biscuits, and cooking smells will pervade the apartment all round the clock. Goody!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Fun and Games

Ramadhan 15 1429

As intended we got down to Kinokuniya to off-load our vouchers yesterday afternoon, then it was off to Woodlands for all sorts of games. See evidence above.

The girls have reached the age when they're starting to win though. Insufferable.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

On A Spree

Ramadhan 14 1429

Fi Fi and Fa Fa joined us for the breaking of the fast yesterday, with their ibu and ayah, as they stayed over for today's big shopping expedition. We're off to Kinokuniya in a little while to 'spend' the book tokens I got for that Saturday morning workshop a few weeks ago. I must say, I've been looking forward to this little jaunt myself. I'm intending to acquire enough recent fiction (my idea of what's recent spans about three or four decades) to tide me over to the year's end, and possibly beyond.

In fact, I was explaining to Fuad how I came by the tokens I'm sharing with his daughters when Liverpool got their winning goal last night. I don't know if I blame my own momentary distraction from the game for Giggs's appalling lapse, but frankly Liverpool were well worth their victory. I assume the players were on the receiving end of the fabled hairdryer treatment at the end of the game - they more than deserved it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ready and Able

Ramadhan 13 1429

It was a bit of a struggle getting myself out for a run yesterday evening but once I got going I was pleased to find myself out there - a common experience. In the course of the run I found myself thinking about the participants in the Paralympics and the remarkable motivation (and skills) they possess. On cable we had about six channels dedicated to the Olympics last month. Why can't they find room for one now? I suspect they'd get a lot more viewers than they think - me, for one.

Why do they call these guys and gals disabled? - they look more than 'abled' to me.

And on another note (almost) entirely, I picked up Patrick O'Brian's Post Captain today and embarked thereon. I bought it for a couple dollars along with some of the other novels I've read lately at a charity sale, but I've been resisting the temptation of going to sea again since this is old ground, or old waters, as it were, for me. Messers Aubrey and Maturin are such fine company, however, that my resistance has finally broken and I'm now in danger of plunging into another reading of the whole series.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Good Times

Ramadhan 12 1429

Nothing in the world tastes better than a glass of plain water, two dates and logans in syrup after a day of parched fasting. Following that with a bit of a run, my third of Ramadhan, after the two I completed in KL and Melaka, then a plate of Noi's finest nasi goreng and then a good murder (Misomer variety) and it's just about as good as it gets.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Funnily Enough

Ramadhan 11 1429

Something else I read last week in KL was one of those glossy music magazines you see around these days - this one called The Word. In my teenage days, up to my years at university, I regularly read The Melody Maker, at that time the heavyweight of papers dealing with music. Glossy it was not, but necessary it was, if you were going to know who had an album out, who was touring, and the like. But I stopped buying such publications in the punk boom when the NME became fashionable as by that time I had decided to be as unfashionable as possible. Something I achieved with alarming ease.

Reading The Word made me realise what turned me off this kind of publication, though I can't recall ever having purchased a single one of the glossy mags for musos on account of their extortionate prices. But fear not, I only paid ten ringgit for this one (an out-dated April issue I found at a stall for out-of-date mags going cheap) which in real money is around four and a bit Sing dollars and in somewhat less real money not even two quid. And I also got a free CD with tracks by luminaries such as The B52's (I thought they'd retired), the brilliant Blind Boys of Alabama (saw them live at Womad - sensational), the deeply wonderful kd lang, the deeply rocking Nick Lowe, and the deeply, wonderfully subversive Billy Bragg, and quite a few other people who I'd never heard of but who were generally good to listen to. There were also some readable articles, particularly an interview with Elvis Costello who, as you might expect, had interesting, insightful things to say about all sorts of matters.

But I wouldn't buy another edition, even for just ten ringgit. The problem lies in the writing. There's an uncanny uniformity of style in these publications, and the essence of that style has not changed since the early 70's. It's based on the writers trying to show (1) how clever they are, (2) how funny they are and (3) how hip they are. That's not to say these are not talented writers. They are, but the talent is channeled relentlessly it seems into showing just how talented they are. And how funny their view of the world is.

Why does everyone (I mean the folk who write for these publications) want to be, need to be, funny?

Funnily enough I know something about trying to be funny, related to the stage. It's a simple point I find myself making to many young performers playing comedy and it goes like this: don't play it for comedy. If the audience feels you are trying to make them laugh it won't work. The strain will tell. And it does in The Word, sadly enough, despite its many virtues.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Final Disappointment

Ramadhan 10 1429

There's stuff in God Is Not Great that is worth reading, despite my comments over the past few days. The demolition of certain forms of intolerance and fanaticism is bracing and Hitchens raises suitable levels of indignation at the follies described (sometimes honestly so.)

It could have been a good book if it had aimed its criticism fairly and evenly at human folly. But it didn't. Instead the argument revolved around the following thesis: Religion poisons everything. I know this because the statement is made more than once and it always appears in italics in case a reader is too obtuse to realise that this is the crucial point and it really cannot be argued with.

Connoisseurs of ridiculous sweeping statements might find much to admire in this one. There's the wonderful vagueness of 'Religion', which will later allow the author to argue for various forms of fascism as religious in nature. Then there's the extraordinarily almost willfully fuzzy 'everything'. And the verb itself - 'poisons' - who can argue with something that manages to sound extremely nasty whilst not actually meaning anything at all? The amateur psychologists amonst us might usefully notice the oddly totalitarian language employed by the writer. This kind of sounds like a throwaway line from the worst kind of fanatic. Just replace 'Religion' with a few other loaded nouns to see what I mean. It gets quite scary.

But enough of this. My fasting is going well and I've been dipping into a Collected Poems of Geoffrey Hill to restore some sanity (even though it seems most of them are by their very nature poisoned. Hah!) For those who enjoy a difficult read Hill is my recommendation. I reckon I understand about twenty percent of what's going on - but I have faith that the other eighty percent is equally wonderful. A bit like life, I suppose.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Even More Disappointment

Ramadhan 9 1429

By now I should have given up on the Hitchens rant, but I keep forgetting to mention his dismal treatment of Islam. (Actually the dismal treatment of faiths is fairly non-discriminatory, to do him a kind of justice, but I suppose I regard this one as sort of my area of expertise.) I kind of expected that he might be reasonably well informed on this one, given his outspoken support for the invasion of Iraq and statements on various parts of the world that have Islam as their central belief system. What I genuinely didn't expect was comment at the level of the average sort of chap who knows nothing except what he has picked up from glancing at the Daily Mail. He appears to be aware of Karen Armstrong's useful and very basic introduction to the faith, Islam, because he cites it in one of the few footnotes to the text. (Scholarly his book is not.) However, as far as I can tell he hasn't read it. Or if he did, he didn't understand it. His errors on simple matters of fact are plentiful and egregious.

I'll mention two, both of which happen to resemble closely the kind of misrepresentations of Islam that have been characteristic of western thought through the centuries and which I thought Edward Said's Orientalism had skewered for good. The first is the lazy assertion that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was essentially a plagiarist. Hitchens seems completely unaware that Islam has never seen itself in any way as an innovative faith and that the Prophet was intensely aware of the repetitions of Judaic and Christian ideas in the Holy Qur'an. That was the whole point. It is simply impossible for a Muslim to consider the Prophet as in any way superior to other Messengers. We are expressly instructed to regard Jesus, Moses and Abraham as equals and all messages of the many thousands of prophets there have been as essentially the same.

The second is the extraordinary idea that the Prophet was a conscious fraud. By the way, this is not argued for by Hitchens but simply asserted (as a kind of joke, I think), initially in the course of a discussion of Joseph Smith of Mormon fame. Now of course this idea has been current since medieval times, finding its fullest expression in the caricature figure of Mahomet but no serious biographer of Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the world of western scholarship in modern times has suggested such a thing. So for Hitchens to revive such monstrous allegations so flippantly beggars belief. - Well, no, supposing as he does that anything approaching a religious experience is by its nature fraudulent and corrupt it does make a kind of sense.

I'm guessing there's a connection here with Salman Rushdie's portrayal of the Prophet as Mahomet in The Satanic Verses. It looks as if Hitchens has picked up what little he thinks he knows about Islam from his buddy Sir Salman. In fact, the 'issue' of the so-called 'satanic verses' themselves is the centrepoint of the contemptuous dismissal of Islam in the single short chapter devoted to the faith in God Is Not Great. But a key point of Rushdie's defence of his novel was that he was consciously using what he knew to be a wholly prejudiced view of Islam in a brilliantly ironic manner. (So brilliant that I couldn't work out how it was actually meant to be seen as ironic.) It looks as if he forgot to tell Christopher about this in their in-depth discussions of the novel.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Further Disappointment

Ramadhan 8 1429

Normally I try to avoid what Mum would term harping on about things but I'm still not done with commenting on Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great, or at least aspects thereof.

My reference yesterday to the somewhat juvenile tone of much of the text, particularly regarding its modes of argumentation, finds a curious parallel with material from the earliest chapter in which Hitchens talks about doubting the religious instruction being given by his teachers and what that doubt felt like. Here's one such bit:

The headmaster, who led the daily services and prayers and held the Book, and was a bit of a sadist and a closeted homosexual… was giving a no-nonsense talk to some of us one evening. 'You may not see the point of all this faith now,' he said. 'But you will one day, when you start to lose loved ones.'

Again I experienced a stab of sheer indignation as well as disbelief. Why, that would be as much as saying that religion might not be true, but never mind that, since it can be relied upon for comfort. How contemptible. I was then nearing thirteen, and becoming quite the insufferable little intellectual.

The problem seems to me that Hitchens remains a fairly insufferable, and often little, intellectual. In the anecdote above, recounted from an adult perspective, I get no sense of recognition of the rather sad headmaster as a frail, silly man, trying to do his best to communicate something of the frailties of faith to the kind of over-bright students that he knows he's not connecting with. Of course it's contemptible, a great deal of what goes on in school is, but we learn to live with it, and grow to understand why the fatuous statements teachers are so prone to are necessary in negotiating the world around us.

At a guess I'd say the headmaster probably had deep doubts about his faith, as so many 'believers' do, and had been deeply hurt, as most of us have been, at the deaths of some he dearly loved, and knew that his clinging to faith had helped make some sense of the pain. And I guess he was making some kind of effort to let the boys get a glimpse of the pain of the real world awaiting them in a way that related to the dull conventions of their worship. But Hitchens doesn't allow his caricature, whom I take in a kind of bond of faith with the writer to have been a real human being and not just a convenience for another neat story to explain away all forms of religious education, to have any sense of depth at all. (By the way, it's easy to put together a number of explanations of the little scene that take us into Terence Rattigan country. The curious thing is that Hutchins doesn't do any of this - seems temperamentally incapable of doing so.)

I'm also curious about the head being a 'closeted homosexual.' How did the writer know this? Does Hitchens have no sympathies at all with homosexuals of that period who had to remain closeted or lose their jobs - especially headmasters? The implications of the line seem to me quite gratuitously nasty. If the guy is still alive I think he'd have fair grounds for legal action.

Incidentally I can remember at junior school, in my last year, aged eleven, being embarrassed for the headmistress, a lovely lady, when she was telling our class that when we left we'd find out that some of the stories we'd been told in religious class might not be literally true but we weren't to think that our teachers had been deliberately lying to us. Of course, most of us, probably all, had figured this out a long time before and being told all this so apologetically was contemptible, but also sweet and sad and sort of brave and honest and part of the nature of things. I can't remember being idiotic enough to feel superior, and I must say that makes me feel quite good about my younger self for once.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


Ramadhan 7 1429

Now back in Singapore after the first day of the fast that's really gone smoothly. I seem to have adjusted to the demands of the month, but tomorrow will mark my first day of fasting at work this year and that's a whole new ballgame and kettle of fish to boot.

Read Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great yesterday and was generally disappointed. The back cover blurb gushes about 'erudition and wit', 'eloquent argument' and a 'close and learned reading of the major theological texts' but I seemed to miss most of that, other than one or two quite good jokes. Of course this might be put down to my inherent bias as a theist but I suspect I'd have felt much the same in my agnostic phase.

I'll give one example of what I mean. The fairly obvious rejoinder to the argument that the fanatical excesses committed in the names of various faiths over the centuries prove the inherent danger of (any) religious faith is that whilst it might have been possible to lend credence to that position circa 1900 (assuming you ignored the excesses of revolutionary France and other odd bits and pieces of strictly secular inhumanity along the way) the ghastly spectacle of the twentieth century and the track record of the various secular/humanist faiths therein clearly make the argument untenable. We have usefully discovered that our species is pretty horrible regardless of possession of religious faith.

But not so for Mr Hitchens. He deals with the 'objection anticipated' in Chapter 17. And his argument, as far as I can work it out (it really is that slippery) goes like this: religions are totalitarian in nature; the dreadful things done in the twentieth century were done by totalitarian regimes; therefore they were religious in nature - which is why the major faiths (represented almost entirely by Roman Catholicism for some reason I can't quite figure) didn't do much about them or were happily complicit in them.

I mean, really!

Throughout my reading of the book I was wondering for whom he was writing. I felt as if I being dragged into one of those discussions that's so fascinating when you are in your early teens and it feels really, really important to question everything. Is this stuff meant for grown-ups?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

In Transit

Ramadhan 6 1429

We are temporarily resident in Mak's house, just outside Alor Gajah. Actually we stopped off at the hospital in Melaka on the way up last Sunday to visit one of Noi's aunties who's suffered a stroke and dropped off Noi's cousin Rokiah with her two grandchildren who've stayed here the whole week. They'll be coming back with us to Singapore tomorrow, I assume, though I'm not particularly well-inforned regarding family matters.

My cold seemed to turn into quite an unpleasant fever yesterday evening and I can't say I enjoyed the drive from KL, though listening to the final CD from my Master and Commander set was some compensation for feeling like a complete mess. Today I've felt a whole lot better. In fact, this is the first day of fasting that I've felt reasonably normal. I also managed to get out for a bit of a run after breaking the fast, my second of the month. So, all in all, things might be said to be looking up - not that they were ever all that far down.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Looking Out

5 Ramadhan 1429

Fasting is a curious mixture of the public and private. Even mild deprivation makes you intensely inward-looking, registering each stage of the struggle to get through the day, and this is allied, or should be, to an intensity of reflection upon your behaviour in the light of the expectations set by the faith by which you subscribe to live. But there’s an awareness that this is not something you are attempting alone. Yours is a tiny, frankly insignificant part of a shared experience that sustains each of its fragments. It’s pretty silly moaning about how tough it is when the children next door are getting on with it uncomplainingly.

My wife is plugged into this aspect of fasting in a way I know well but which always manages to surprise me. She’ll be busily figuring out what food she’s going to pass to the neighbours, and then preparing it, whilst I’m busy wishing the hours away.

But today has been tough. I think I’m running a bit of a temperature and most of me from the head down aches. Fortunately, I’m good at feeling sorry for myself.

This was really not the right condition in which to be reading The Shock Doctrine but I finished the last couple of chapters earlier today, finding the book difficult to put down yet not exactly easy to pick up again. Difficult to put down because I found it full of revelations – stuff I thought I knew about but had never really grasped. A simple instance – a section on the growth of Israel’s economy since the breakdown of the talks in Oslo shed a new and yet obvious light on the motives of her various governments. Not easy to pick up because so much of Klein’s analysis, beyond the straightforward recounting of human misery, is deeply depressing. In the end I felt a sort of moral compulsion (allied to a desire to know what is going on around me, I suppose) to keep reading and I’m glad I did. (At least there’s some real hope in the final chapter.)

Of course, this is not to say that I think she’s got it right in every respect, though the sheer abundance of obviously well-researched material drawn from a wide range of sources makes its own point. She finds a narrative in an extraordinarily wide panorama of events that comes off as being a little too pat at times, especially to a reader who subscribes to the cock-up theory of history. But the narrative is useful as a starting point, I think. It took me beyond the ‘oh dear, don’t bad things happen to those who least deserve them?’ mode to an uncomfortable, but much more real place.

The problem is though: what to do?

Thursday, September 4, 2008


4 Ramadhan 1429

The sore throat of yesterday has duly transformed itself into the streaming cold of today. This, coupled with an exacerbated sense of human greed, destructiveness and selfish idiocy derived from The Shock Doctrine has left me a touch down in the dumps.

In a time of mild deprivation it is interesting if somewhat distressing to reflect on the mechanics of greed. The obvious churning need to get even more experienced by those who’ve already got far too much to be able to actually do anything with it of any practical value to themselves is exceedingly odd. What is stranger is that many of these poor folk are said to be highly intelligent, so you’d think they’d be aware of the absurdity of their behaviour, assuming that a degree of self-awareness goes along with that intelligence.

I can relate to greed in terms of a longing for a bigger home, a nice garden, a plasma tv or a state of the art hi fi system, though I can’t honestly say I really want any of those things. But in terms of knowing you’ll stand to gain millions (on top of the millions you already possess) through reducing another country to rubble and believing that this does not somehow compromise your good judgement?

In the meantime, it’s back to Paul Bremer and the looting of Iraq. I wonder where they’ve got lined up for the next feeding frenzy?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Turning Inward

3 Ramadhan 1429

A day so far characterised by a sore throat. Somewhat solipsistic, but the vulnerability engendered through weakness is always likely to take you to that kind of place. The important thing is to get away from there.

This morning I finished Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, quite a good way of keeping in touch with the bigger world. It’s his best novel, I think. My hesitation comes from a realisation that some of the shorter ones – A Clockwork Orange, Abba Abba – hold together very successfully, gaining a certain intensity as a result of their brevity. But of the longer novels this is the only one I can think of that sustains itself and feels close to fully achieved. It helps that the central character evokes a degree of sympathetic understanding that Burgess usually withholds from his protagonists who are all too often mere cyphers. Perhaps it was the challenge of having to give a genuinely felt rendering of homosexual experience that led Burgess to the creation of a real character for once, despite the fictive games that are played around him.

My other means of keeping in touch with something bigger than my sore throat (apart from getting a couple of hours of work done) has been to embark on a reading of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. The difficulty here is to stop myself from descending into pointless rage as she unfolds some of the dreadful wickedness perpetrated in the name of free markets and the like over the last forty years or so. It helps that none of this is really terribly new, but I’m not sure I want to read another account of the misdeeds of the Pinochet regime in Chile now this one has left me so depressed. (And that’s just the first chapter or so.)

Come to think of it, Earthly Powers is also pretty bracing on the subject of human wickedness, and idiocy. Perhaps the cultivation of one’s own garden, and sore throat, is the way to go?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Holding Fast

2 Ramadhan 1429

Another day of feeling tired as the body adjusts to the lack of liquids. Now suffering from a distinct, intrusive headache, though nothing really debilitating. I’m not sure whether it’s easier getting through this at work or on holiday. But then, ease is not the point. A sense of dis-ease can be extraordinarily valuable.

Bright spot of the day: Noi called me into the garden in the early afternoon to bear witness to a group of monkeys scuttering around on the roofs of the houses behind ours. One was carrying a baby. Noi thought they were up to no good and rushed up to shut the bedroom window. I’m not too sure what would count as wickedness for a monkey.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Another Beginning

1 Ramadhan 1429

I’ll be breaking the fast in another ten minutes or so. As always, the first day presents its particular problems of adjustment, moving into slow time. The last three or four days have seen some conspicuous consumption on the gastronomic front so the discipline involved is a welcome one.

This is the first time we’ve found ourselves fasting at Maison KL, at least as far as I can remember. It’s odd how the experience of fasting writes itself on the environments in which it takes place. Here the struggle is unfamiliar and, therefore, strangely intense, at least for the moment.

I am fiercely tired but without headache, for which I am thankful.