Thursday, October 30, 2008


Early yesterday Mak suffered a mild stroke. This wasn't entirely unexpected. Both Noi and I had been worried earlier this week at news that she was feeling dizzy and had spent a lot of time lying down. We were aware of a problem with a blood clot identified when we took her for a check-up a few weeks back, and for which she's been on medication, so you didn't need to be any great diagnostician to guess what might happen. And now it has.

We're going over to see her tomorrow, taking one or two of the family with us. Noi's brother Khir gets married next week so the complications of all this are steadily mounting. And at the centre of it all is Mak, frailly ill.

This is not good. This is what must be dealt with. And that's what my remarkable wife is doing.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Geylang - insistent late afternoon sun, with only the traffic moving. A shop selling Christmas trees and decorations. In October.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Noi's been watching something on tv about couples in debt - huge amounts of debt, they're American. The lady doling out the advice, which was sensible enough stuff in practical terms, told one of those involved she had 'greatness' within her. I think this was intended to shore up the poor woman's morale, but it struck me as extraordinarily misapplied. What she had lots of was stupidity. Actually viewers were told not to sit in judgement on the folks on the programme, but this seemed a bit silly. What else were they on for? They'd been stupid, as we all can be, and it was time to face facts.

In attributing potential greatness to people who're notable for great stupidity we are in danger of devaluing not just money but language itself. How can we ever recognise the real thing when just getting yourself on prime-time is enough to be assured you've got it?

Now reading Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise which has finally come out in paperback and made it to the shores of this far place. Now this is a book that might well deserve to be described as great, centering on music whose greatness is slowly coming to be recognised. It takes time and sometimes a century is not enough.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Another Place

Finished Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. The final quarter, detailing the beatings, is extremely powerful. It's an odd comparison but I was reminded of Stephen King's Rose Madder. Charlo, the abusive husband in Doyle's novel, is, in the final analysis, something out of a horror story. The problem is that these horrors are only too actual. I suppose that's why Rose Madder sticks in the mind - the supernatural elements are, finally, irrelevant.

I remember once listening to a conversation between two perfectly average young women in which being hit by a boyfriend was discussed as if it were somehow a normal part of existence. Years later I remain bewildered by that, and deeply disturbed. I'm hoping this doesn't sound self-righteous - it's surely the way things should be, the sense of horror at such enormities I mean; but having spent the best part of an afternoon in a world suspiciously like the one the women mentally inhabited, in which things are simply not this way, it feels hard to be sure anymore.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Hours


Surfaced for the dawn prayer at 6.35-ish and went back to sleep after completion thereof. Enjoying the glories of a long weekend (tomorrow is a public holiday for Deepavali) involves catching up on lost sleep. Now gearing up for some marking but thinking of a cup of milo before I start. I'd prefer a cup of tea but Noi is the expert on putting together the cup that cheers and she's still in the land of nod, having stayed up a good deal later than me last night to watch one of her Malay 'dramas'.


Marking ongoing. Thought of stopping to watch some football highlights, having missed the games last night - we were out with Boon & Mei down Bussorah Street enjoying Indonesian/Thai food - but not that keen on watching Everton equalise. At one time a draw away from home would have been seen as a good result. Not any more. Not even playing any music yet, just trying to get through today's quota of scripts as quickly as possible.


The missus is now up and I'm about to get some breakfast. It's a good time to break from the marking which has featured a run of rather frustrating scripts. Odd idea: there are students who, consciously or unconsciously, create barriers in their written work to make it difficult for teachers to make helpful corrections, or even to actually read what's there. One such barrier is simply at the level of handwriting. The script is designed not to communicate as it has little of value to say.


Now fed and watered, I've also been listening to the first music of the day, but with a significant degree of irritation. The irritation has not in any way been related to the music in itself, the rather jolly Il Sogno Suite by Elvis Costello performed by the London Symphony, but to the erratic mode of its delivery. Our ancient stereo system now has reached the point of total unreliability and seems to take a wicked joy in pretending to play a CD then suddenly skipping all over the place. Yesterday Noi and I went to Marina Square to a shop that dealt in Bose systems to see if there was something cheap enough that would suit our needs. The salesman pointed us fruitlessly towards some home theatre type stuff saying they didn't do stereo systems as such, but according to the catalogue they've got some CD players that look pretty good to me. Still thinking about this one.

In the meantime fans of Bernstein's West Side Story, especially the dance sequences, would find lots to admire in Elvis's groovy piece. Is there no end to the man's talents?

And now I've got two essays to clear before I can shut up shop for the day and get down to some real living. I may even fall asleep again.


Just completed the marking for today. Odd fact: I've been marking essays for some thirty years and I still wonder as I'm going through each one, whether my comments, emendations, etc, are doing any good at all. That's why I'm baffled by all these chaps who are so sure how to go about teaching others. It remains a mystery to me.

Now thinking about what to read for the next half an hour or so in order to wind down. It's either Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, which I started last night, or something from The New York Review of Books.


Noi has just gone off to some wedding, taking Rozita and the girls with her. They intend to go jalan jalan at Suntec City afterwards so my presence is not required. I'm home alone until the evening. Noi seems to think I'll use this opportunity to play loud music, which goes to show how well she knows me.

Fifi and Fafa are both up for going to see Cinderella, the Rogers & Hammerstein musical on at the Esplanade, in January. It's good to know that Fifi doesn't yet regard herself as too old for such treats. As far as I understand it, this was the musical they did originally for television and I'm interested to see how it translates to the stage. Having 'done' Carousel and Flower Drum Song (and seen South Pacific, The King and I and Oklahoma in good productions) it's difficult to be other than an admirer of the dynamic duo, especially of Richard Rogers's contribution. I suspect I'd even enjoy The Sound of Music on stage and, no matter how sugary they'd got by then, can you imagine better tunes? These guys really knew their craft.

Reading update - thanks to The New York Review of Books I'm now just that little bit better informed on: bipolar disorder, Emily Dickinson and hummingbirds, the exploitation of low-wage workers in the US, and how the English are viewed by American foreign correspondents (not well), or one of them at least.


Sleep update - no extra zzzz's yet, but could be on their way. Reading The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. Note perfect, but I've come to expect that of Doyle. I'm a bit puzzled over Paula's utterly negative experiences at the beginning of secondary school though. The disenchantment is convincing and moving, but I can't figure if there's an implication of a somewhat distorted view of the school. Is Paula reflecting something about herself, her disillusion? Could the teachers really have been that bad? I mean, I was aware of bad teaching back at Rawmarsh, and being in one of the bottom classes I suppose you were more likely to get that, but there were a fair number of excellent teachers and even the most hopeless of the kids seemed to recognise that. Were things worse back in the early seventies, in Ireland? I can't see it, somehow, and I've just realised that I was teaching by 1977. But Doyle was a teacher (pretty much exactly contemporary with myself), so he should know.


Dozed briefly whilst listening to the opening of Tippett's The Ice Break (not a good choice as the need to follow the libretto prevents uncluttered attention) but woke to welcome back the ladies who've decided to change out of their finery into civilian garb before going on their shopping expedition.


Without really intending to I just watched a bit of tv. I was setting up a recording of something for Noi, who's now out again, when I caught a little bit of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show skewering the loony right of America with a trenchant bit of schtick on the Real America vs the Fake America. It was hilarious and angry at the one and the same time. But I do wonder if ten years from now we'll see the rise of fascism in the US as quite so funny.


Have made significant progress with Doyle and wondering about picking up something else by way of secondary reading. The immediate intention is to play some music though. Loud.


Revisited the past just now with a bit of prog rock, namely Gentle Giant's Octopus from the halcyon days of 1972. Actually the only Gentle Giant album I owned in their heydays was their first, Acquiring The Taste, which I vaguely liked but wasn't exactly in love with. After that I didn't bother. Big mistake. They had greater range and more genuine imagination than people like ELP who I was listening to, though with increasing disaffection, up to the great punk breakthrough.

Now sort of reading Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction which I bought last week. My copy went missing when I left it in the UK. It's the only book related to literary theory that I ever felt was genuinely worth reading. He genuinely clarifies where others gleefully obfuscate (he manages to be funny in places!) and there's a real feeling for some kind of democratic value in the reading of literature that I can warm to. I've got the anniversary edition, it now being a quarter of a century since it was first published, which has a readable preface pointing out that fashions have moved on beyond theory. Oh joy.

I'm sort of reading it in the sense that I'm taking it very slowly indeed, not exactly to savour the contents, simply to ensure I understand at least half of what's going on.

Also dipping into my new Collected Poems of Robert Lowell which I bought at the same time as Literary Theory. I have a selected in KL from years ago which did survive its sojourn in the UK but this is the first time I've realised the full range of a poet who became a central figure in my reading in my early twenties. I was introduced to him via Mailer's portrait in the early chapters of Armies of the Night which is a great, if in some ways unreliable, place to start. The Collected is fabulously chunky and clunky and comes with an excellent notes at the back.


The missus is back and we're off out soon to eat yong tau fu at Geylang. Hoping to be back in time to catch some of The Simpsons Movie which is showing in an hour. Have decided not to watch the big game tonight. I'll watch the replay tomorrow.


Now couch potatoing to the best of America. You elected me to lead, not to read. How can a nation capable of producing The Simpsons be serious over Ms Palin as a candidate for high office?


Monitoring the hours finally broke down due to the surpassing excellence of The Simpsons Movie. Many laughs, loud and long. Now about to wind up the day with a good murder (Midsomer, recorded) still resisting the temptation to watch the footie, though I know that at this point in time Liverpool are up 0 - 1. Also about to phone Mum.

Great day.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


The quandary I faced regarding what to adopt as secondary reading to the main novel on the go has been elegantly solved of late by simply not having time to read at all. Of course. even when there's no time to read, I read - if it can only be ten pages late at night or a couple of pages in SAC over a cup of tea it helps keep one sane.

This week being in the company of the various damaged souls inhabiting Craiglockhart War Hospital in Pat Barker's Regeneration has done me a tremendous amount of good. At the simplest level it's been a reminder that the pressures I face are of utter insignificance compared with those extremes of human experience I was born, luckily, not to face (well, so far, at least.)

Oddly and appropriately it's the kind of novel that works well when read in a fragmented fashion. To some degree it's built out of intense cameos, underpinned with strong thematic links, particularly the metaphor of the pain of 'regeneration', so, though it hangs together with assurance, it invites a kind of dipping into. I finished it this morning, finding myself surprised (and horrified) by the scenes of Yealland's electrical treatment of the soldiers in the final segment simply on the level of not seeing anything like this coming. But I did have a problem with the use of real life people as characters. (I can't imagine the descendants of Dr Yealland have been too thrilled by his portrayal in the novel.) This is not so much on moral grounds as on the simple fact that no matter how powerful the insights of the writer are they cannot possibly do justice to the complexities of what really did take place, yet the frame is that of the traditional novel with an omniscient narrator. It's almost as if too much is being claimed. For example, the scenes between Owen and Sassoon have an odd charm and powerful readability, but there's the ghost of a bad Hallmark movie lurking around them.

What works brilliantly is the slantwise approach to the central concern of the war and war in general. Detachment and intensity. Sometimes distance is the only way to get close enough to say something worth saying.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Picture This

Blogger cooperated this evening on the picture front rendering words largely superfluous.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Good Times

Noi has estimated that we entertained over sixty guests last Sunday (and that despite the fact that quite a few folk couldn't make it). At one point I don't think we could have got anyone else in the apartment. Since her assessment of success is based on how crowded we get and how much food is consumed, and taken away, she's very pleased with how it all went. And me? I just had the usual great time, and have enjoyed chowing down on those edibles that did not get snaffled up on the day since.

I'd like to have uploaded a couple of pictures of the nosh in all its splendour, but Blogger isn't obliging. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


For some twenty days or so my back has been troubling me, and for the last three or four I've been dealing with real pain. Except it's not quite like that. It begins, when I'm standing, as a kind of absence in the lower back, an absence of ease, something like a numbness. This translates itself steadily over time into a distinct presence, accompanied by a mild heat, that seems to radiate in almost wave-like fashion. It's constant, but surprisingly easily forgotten, if something catches my attention. But there remains a kind of awareness, almost a memory of sensation - until I focus again on the idea of being in enough discomfort to call it pain and it becomes pain. Not terrible pain. In fact, quite easy to bear, but pain nonetheless.

I feel intensely vulnerable and keep thinking I don't think I could cope if I were in a fight. This is odd since it's quite some years since I fought anyone. I'm also aware of how easily irritated I feel once I've crossed the ten-minute standing barrier.

I am recognising an old companion - this is the chronic pain that dogged me relentlessly for some five or six years. I'm hoping this time it's here on a fleeting visit, but aware there's some possibility my optimism may be unfounded. But that's not too bad - this is a faint shadow of the real suffering that dogs so many unfortunates and I cannot count myself amongst their number. So this is by way of an acknowledgement and greeting, old friend.

Monday, October 20, 2008


When I was a kid, a young teenager, I used to wonder why Dad would get home from work and just zonk out in a chair. Now I know.

There's a kind of quiet heroism in just keeping going. And imagine how that translates for those who have so little to keep going for.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Open Doors

The apartment is in creative turmoil. I am hiding by the computer as Noi, aided by Rozita and abetted by Fi Fi & Fa Fa, puts the finishing touches to a mountain of grub and restructures the living space (as rooms are now called in lifestyle publications) to welcome a cartload of guests. As far as I know the missus hardly got any sleep last night as she was 'preparing'. She is quite remarkable. And I am lucky. Very.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

When You're Smiling

I've read somewhere, and I just can't remember where - an increasingly common condition, in my case - that a colleague who worked with J. M. Coetzee when he was still an academic said he only ever saw the great man laugh once in the whole time he worked with him. Readers of Disgrace would find little surprising in this. It must be up for some award as one of the least humorous novels ever written. (Next to it Siddhartha is a regular laugh fest, English A1 students please note.) But what I find particularly interesting about this little story is the question of what it actually was that made him laugh. A joke? An ironic situation? Somebody breaking wind? What could have, albeit briefly, opened the floodgates? And would it have made me laugh?

It's increasingly rare for me to suffer a bout of uncontrollable laughter but there was one recently brought on by a reference in Bennett's Untold Stories to the message on a Christmas card from one of his friends. It's far too vulgar to repeat in this very public far place but it's on page 301 on my edition, in a diary entry for December 2001. And every time I think of it I crack up.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Beyond Compare

Finished Disgrace yesterday and moved onto a bit of Pat Barker. Trying to get some distance from Coetzee who seems to have reached into my guts, wrenched them in a number of novel directions and then left me to make of myself whatever I can. A visceral read. I don't suppose it would necessarily have such an impact on every reader, but for me every word rang true and glowed like burning coal as a master of song once put it.

I suppose this is what it's like to live with a skin too few.

The Blind Assassin is a wonderful novel, beautifully structured, written with remarkable assurance, chock full of penetrating insight. As you read it you're conscious of the sheer craft of it all, how it works. In contrast, Coetzee seems beyond craft. I have no idea how Disgrace works, why Disgrace works. I don't even know what exactly it thinks it's doing, or how it manages to be so stunning. For this reader it just is.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Another Rat

This one put in an appearance at the wet market at Geylang Serai. Noi and I were there earlier as she needed to buy various spices for the dishes she has in mind for our Raya Open House this Sunday. She's always bought them from one particular stall, and there we were, almost finished, the bags loaded, when this grey-pink fellow shot between us and the stall, almost directly across her feet, and made his way through a hole at the bottom of what seems to be a temporary partition wall made of plywood, I think.

He (or she?) was so fast that Noi didn't see him at all and, in fact, still doesn't know what happened. I felt that this was information she could do without.

I'm pretty sure the stall holders see this rat, or some of his companions, regularly. He didn't seem in the slightest perturbed by the fact that we were standing around, wilfully cutting across our ground, and I got the sense he was covering a regular route. I suppose the market must be home to a few hundred, possibly more, of these guys, my guess being that rats breed like rabbits, or vice versa.

I suppose I should be a bit disturbed by all this but for some unaccountable reason the thought of the fellow makes me fairly cheerful. But then I've been haunted by Coetzee's dogs all day, not to mention quite a few of the other inhabitants of Disgrace (of which more soon), and a fat Singaporean rat (but he was really quite slim, I just like the phrase) seems cause for at least a thin smile (or a slim grin).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Carried Away

Finished The Blind Assassin yesterday and jumped straight into Coetzee's Disgrace. Finding it difficult to put down, even though I have to due to being swamped with work. Surely we live in a golden age for fiction.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Missed Opportunities

It seems that 9 October was National Poetry Day (in the UK) as designated by whoever has the say on these matters. There seem to be days for just about everything now and I suppose this does no harm, but I don't feel bad about not knowing anything about it as I see no particular reason for going to a lot of trouble to promote the reading and writing of the stuff. I'm puzzled when people don't like poetry but not terribly upset. It's a free world and if you'd rather play computer games or follow Formula 1 racing, good luck to you. I must say I think you're missing out on a lot but I'm pretty sure a reasonable effort has been made over years to alert you to the virtues of poetry and that's about as much as one can reasonably expect. I certainly don't think it's going to do poetry itself any great harm if it remains a minority interest. Maybe that's what it should be? Though I hasten to add, I think there's a lot more readers out there getting thoroughly immersed in the stuff and writing it than tends to be assumed.

Oddly enough I suspect it helps a lot in the classroom when classes realise a teacher is not terribly fussed as to whether they pick up on the teacher's enthusiasm for a subject. A kind of odd reverse psychology kicks in.

But the missed opportunity I'm really kicking myself over concerns last Friday's concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall featuring Vaughan Williams's 6th Symphony (and a tasty bit of Walton plus the Enigma Variations) by one of the big London orchestras (the Philharmonic, I think.) How did I manage not to know anything about this until I read the review? I've heard the Enigma a couple of times in concert so that didn't hurt, but I've never had the chance to listen to the Vaughan Williams in the concert hall and, scary as it is to say it, there's a fair chance I never will again. Rats!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dressing Up

Noi likes to draw attention to groups of people, especially teenagers, who are obviously out visiting in the post-Raya season. How does she know that's what they're doing? Because they are, almost to a man, or woman, wearing traditional Malay garb. Although she doesn't actually say so, I know she takes pride in the fact that Malays seem to embrace the visible aspects of their culture at this time, even though such aspects may seem, to some degree, in conflict with the broader culture. She'll also generally point out that this is not something you see the Chinese here doing (dressing traditionally, I think she means.) I don't think she means this as a slur - rather, she is genuinely puzzled regarding the lack of what she sees as a sense of identity.

We saw a nice example of this on Friday when we were out doing the rounds ourselves. On the way up to our third port of call we passed a group of youngsters, in their late-teens I'd have said, sitting around a table at a void deck. There was a roughly equal mix of boys and girls, and each was dressed to the nines. Ironically it turned out they were on their way to the same address as ourselves, being friends of the youngsters of the family we were visiting. I couldn't help but think of the almost-impossibility of seeing kids of the same age in England who would conform so readily to the customs of their parents and take such obvious pleasure in dressing in a way that was at such odds with what would normally be regarded as fashionable. At the same time I got the sense that they were appropriating the traditions for their own ends, enjoying being in the group, making a show of visiting their friends independently of their families, making their outfits look good due to their casual, youthful grace. It also struck me that passing a group of teenagers out on the streets at that time of night in Manchester would have made me a little uneasy, and certainly watchful. These kids, in contrast, ended up happily salaaming me, and all the other elders, in a show of respect.

There's a lot to be said for built-in structures of respect & deference, structures demanding these be shown to elders. Such structures can bind people in very healthy, productive ways and need not necessarily weigh us down.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

More Art

Noi's youngest sister, Tina, is staying with us over the weekend with her friend, Haslinda. The girls (really women, in their twenties, I think, but I'm not trying to be patronising - they look and behave like young teenagers, as so many Malay women of that age do) are here to enjoy a weekend of art. They are both practising artists, Tina is involved in all sorts of pottery-related activities, and as far as I can tell spent most of yesterday, before we met them in the evening, scouring the island for art and food. Now they're out again doing the same, having only gone to bed after two in the morning, following a trip to the beach with my missus. I was safely and insensibly tucked in bed at that stage of the proceedings.

Just now I was looking at their catalogue for ARTSingapore - the Contemporary Asian Art Fair 2008. It's all very glossy, very commercial, I suppose, yet brimming with energy and oooomph. I loved it, but indiscriminately so. I just have no taste but lots of appetite.

I'm not quite sure why, but I associate most of what I see with a sense of youth. The girls' own appetite for taking all this in is dauntingly intimidating but vaguely galvanizing. And that's had me thinking about how enjoyable, tackily but truly life-affirming it is to be around young people. Editing the testimonials for the students who'll soon be leaving my school has been another reminder of this. They get so much done! Of course, it helps that teenagers generally in Singapore don't conform to the sullen stereotypes of their counterparts in the UK. Like their country they remain, for the most part, stubbornly, occasionally remorselessly, sunny.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Alan Bennett's Untold Stories are now told in my case, and I'm very glad they have been, though in some ways sad to lose the companionship of the collection. For such an avowedly shy person - and he is particularly good in teasing out the implications of that all too common condition - he makes a remarkably good companion. The voice of his prose is that of an observant, honest friend, the kind who illuminates the most ordinary of our experiences in a way that seems curiously ordinary - not really adding to what was already there - but which you recognise as brilliantly perceptive. I suppose the role is more that of what these days is termed a mentor, but I can't imagine Bennett employing this term, so I won't.

Now I'm devoting my full attention to Atwood, having almost reached the halfway mark in The Blind Assassin, but I'm thinking of what I might balance against this. I seem constitutionally unable to have only one book on the go.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Got back early enough in the afternoon to bang on my DVD of Richard Thompson playing live in Austin, Texas (just guitar, double bass and drums). Why is this man not a national treasure? I ask fellow Brits. Then I buried my head in the wonderful and wondrous The Blind Assassin before thinking about getting ready to go jalan jalan raya with the missus & nieces, which is what I'm now doing. Kak Kiah's will be our chief port of call, which means overwhelming amounts of remorselessly wonderful grub. And I can't honestly say I'm really upset about that.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

2 Questions...

… brought about by listening to The Turangalila Symphony. What was Messiaen on when he wrote it? And where can I get hold of some of that stuff?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Caught a glimpse of what I took to be either quite a large rat or a fattish squirrel at work today. At the time I was gazing out of one of the windows in the canteen area (known as the SAC for some reason) in a zen-ish attempt to become one with my cup of tea. The area beyond the window is home to a bit of landscaping and vegetation, including a couple of trees with a fascinating set of mangrove-style secondary roots, so the creature was in a suitable sort of creaturely environment.

It's odd but I can't recall ever seeing a rat 'live', as it were, back in England. In Singapore I've seen quite a few. I saw one positively avuncular specimen strolling around an area in which I taught drama some years back, in the all-girls' school I worked in. Broad day-light as well, shameless fellow. And then there was the time I was walking to the same school, about twelve years ago, along East Coast Road (I lived quite close) when I saw a crowd (tribe? posse?) of about ten rats scavenging around a couple of bins below an overhead bridge. I took a few steps towards them, assuming they would scatter, and they just ignored me and carried on with their ratty business. Discretion proved the better part of valour on my behalf and I found myself walking down the middle of the road to leave them in peace.

I can't say I'm overly fond of them (pace the estimable Ratty in The Wind in the Willows) but I must say the sheer otherness of those with whom we share this world feels, in some strange way, like something to celebrate.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hard Lives

Depressing article in today's Straits Tines concerning Bangladeshi workers in Singapore who have valid work permits, having paid 'agents' big sums to come over here (like $8,000), only to find there's no actual work for them. It seems the agents make so much from the fees that they deliberately hire more of the guys than the companies they represent need. When the guys complain to the Ministry of Manpower their work permits get cancelled by their so-called employers. Since they're not getting work they cannot pay off the debts they've incurred to pay the agents (in the form of loans from money-lenders in Bangladesh) so when they eventually go back, which it looks like most will be forced to do, they face crippling debts. They left Bangladesh originally due to the unemployment rates there, so there is absolutely nothing they can do to get out of the mess.

Well, at least this made it to the newspaper and possibly someone in a position to take action and right a terrible wrong might be able to do so. I suppose somebody somewhere will tell us this is all part of the benefits of globalisation.

Also heard on the BBC this morning: a quarter of the world's species of mammals are under direct threat of extinction. Fortunately or otherwise, depending on how you look at it, our own species does not seem to be one of them.

Monday, October 6, 2008

For Art's Sake

Made reasonable progress in both Untold Stories and The Blind Assassin over the weekend. I've now passed the central section of Untold Stories with all the diary entries, these proving such easy, enjoyable, rewarding reading that I had to consciously slow down to extend the pleasure of the text. A little bit of that pleasure comes from the referencing of aspects of British culture (especially of the more popular variety) with which I am familiar, though now at some distance. I'm not sure his essay on Thora Hird would mean much to someone who'd never seen her perform, but I have and found myself pleased to be able to recall her work, though I've never been a particular fan. He writes so well about her (well, about pretty much everything that catches his attention) that I'm sorry I didn't pay all that much attention to her when I was in a position to watch her regularly on tv. His play, or rather monologue, for her, The Last of the Sun is one of the best things in the collection.

Incidentally, I had no idea that Bennett is such an art (as in the visual arts) -buff. He's got an ability to communicate his enthusiasm in this regard that marks him as a natural, real teacher. It was a little strange to get into this aspect of his work just after completing The Sea, in which the appreciation of visual art is a key idea. It's been a long time since I've thought seriously about developing my sense of the history of art, something I was consciously attempting some years ago. I suppose that living in a place where there's little sense of the routine of going to galleries and exhibitions has dulled my appetite in that direction, but I can imagine it reviving under the tutelage of a Bennett.

Actually the problem I have is recognising quality. It all looks good to me, unless I don't get it (the conceptual/performance art stuff, which I still sort of enjoy even when it's just silly, or pretentious, or both) and I'm completely unable to make valid discriminations. In contrast, I think I recognise good writing, and there's heaps of it in Untold Stories.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Travelling Man

Setting off at 4.00 pm from Melaka, I wondered whether we might have something of an epic journey ahead of us before the welcome familiarity of Still Road, and meeting a substantial jam after Machap, only two-thirds of the way back, it looked as if we might be in one of those situations characterised as memorable for all the wrong reasons. The fact that there'd been bit of a hold-up at Tuas on the way over on Friday, even though we were there in the very early evening, added to my sense of doom. I surmised that a lot of Malays were heading to Malaysia over the weekend to visit family for Hari Raya, like ourselves.

Our last few trips north have tended to involve jams, snarls and the like, with some particularly irritating situations in which we'd chosen the wrong lane and felt life's unfairness weighing us down, and I think all that was fueling my pessimism. But at least I was mentally prepared.

For nothing - as it turned out. After about half-an-hour of stop-start stuff the highway, all two lanes of it, mysteriously began to clear and we sailed through Tuas to sunny Singapore, arriving at the door at 8.00 pm. My guess is that we'd been caught in a lot of Malaysian traffic comprising those visiting relatives and those heading home to Johore after spending time in villages to the north, it being the last day of the week's public holiday in Malaysia.

So this is all much ado about nothing, I suppose, except to serve as a reminder to be grateful when the journey goes well - which, as long as you get there in one piece, is always.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Funds

We're engulfing ourselves in the usual mildly frenetic preparations for a journey north, this time just as far as Melaka where we'll be spending the weekend in a Malaysian continuation of the celebrations for Eid. I know our visit is being looked forward to by the smaller residents of Mak's house (of which there are many) not because we're terribly popular with them but we are carrying precious envelopes loaded with the necessary funds.

Noi was telling me the other day about reading about one child who cashed in over three thousand last Hari Raya. And speaking of being flush, Mum reported winning yet another forty quid at bingo the other night. Financial crisis? What financial crisis?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

All At Sea

It wasn't all munching beef rendang and lontong yesterday. I found the time, in between visitors, to complete The Sea and greatly enjoyed doing so, and I also found myself savouring some of the central sections, the extracts from his diaries, from Alan Bennett's Untold Stories. I was a bit surprised at the ease with which I read Banville's novella having got the impression from somewhere that it was slow-moving, highly poetic and a touch unapproachable on those counts. (I wasn't entirely honest in the comment I made a few days back about knowing absolutely nothing about it - next to nothing would have been more appropriate. I suppose I must have picked up something when it won the Booker without being overly aware of what I was soaking in.)

Now the idea of a novel being poetic and slow-moving would probably serve as something of a recommendation as far as I am concerned, but I felt that, contrary to expectation, The Sea moved along quite briskly, thank you. In what is only a novella-length text Banville cunningly weaves three in many ways separate narrative strands each with its own momentum. As far as I was concerned it was a case of hardly a dull moment. The material from the narrator's childhood, memories of holidays at the seaside, had in itself sufficient narrative interest to hold a whole novel together, but in addition we had the death of the narrator's wife (in painful, sad, dreadfully convincing, detail - enough to get me quite shuddery) and the framing situation of the narrator in the 'present' back at the seaside, trying to make sense of it all, which itself involved beautifully observed details of a sort of run-down, genteel boarding house, and a painful descent into a sort of alcoholic stupor. As far as I'm concerned that's plenty to be going on with.

Stylistically it's fair to say we do get a lot of poetry, any number of set-pieces ranging from the beautiful to the morbid, but this is always at the service of the characterisation of the narrator. I'm tempted to call him 'unreliable' in the technical sense, but the twist here is that Max has the self-awareness to draw attention to his own unreliability. Events are often clouded in uncertainty simply because he is uncertain of what he saw and heard (and smelt - he's a great one for odours) and at a loss to understand other people and their behaviour. It's as if he can only pin down what is static and the descriptions have a forceful sense of stasis, a sense of the painterly. That Max is some sort of art critic fits beautifully. In fact, that's what's so striking about this work - it is a 'work', coming together in a highly satisfying manner as a very fine piece of craftsmanship. I'm not sure I was terribly moved on a first reading but I was engaged, and I suspect a rereading would find me responding more to the latent emotional power of it all. Oh, and it's not all poetry - there's a fair spattering of the dramatic and demotic.

Since finishing it yesterday I've looked up some comments about The Sea on (I find myself doing this occasionally these days. I like the democracy involved, just reading how a range of readers react, folk who are not in any way academic or literary. Just like me, in fact.) I've been taken aback by the number who, it seems to me, overstress the 'poetic slow-moving' bit. Banville even gets compared to Proust, which does justice to neither writer. I mean, have those making the comparison ever read Proust? Banville fits what would amount to enough material for a short story into the space Proust needs to describe a fountain in action (or in inaction.) And then there are (occasional) accusations of wilful incomprehensibility, the result of a deliberately arcane vocabulary. Yes, you do get the odd unusual word, but this is obviously a feature of the narrator's self-consciously fastidious style. It's noticeable that a fair number of the ones you need to look up (I'd guess about ten for the whole book) are drawn from the registers of art criticism and medicine, both fields of obsessional interest for Max. And surely it's not that difficult to open a dictionary or pop to one of the numerous on-line dictionaries available!?

The other oddly illuminating criticism the novel appears prone to is that the characters are not at all likeable. Offhand, yes that's true, but a moment's thought is enough to lead one to the realisation that this is because Max (really quite a nasty chap) sees them that way. In fact, he doesn't really 'see' others as anything other than subjects for his artistic observations. The astute reader surely gets a sense of far more going on under the surface of appearances than Max is able to be aware of. And Max gains our sympathy, well mine at least, because something of his limitations are in all of us, well me, anyway.

Mind you, having said all that, I didn't really buy the twins on a first reading - a bit too gothic for my tastes. And I suppose it might fairly be said that something of the success of the novel derives from how good it is within its limitations. This is not a terribly ambitious work in terms of the scope of its concerns. But within what (I assume) it's trying to do, it's brilliantly successful.

And now onto The Blind Assassin, which I picked up on Tuesday night and with which I am extremely keen to reacquaint myself, not least because there are more than a few bits I didn't really get the first time round.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In Celebration

Eid-ul Fitr 1429

By the time I got to the mosque this morning, and I was reasonably early, it was packed and I found myself amongst those praying on the outside. The same thing happened to me a couple of years ago at the same mosque for Hari Raya Haji. It's quite a small building, lending it a pleasant intimacy, but it can't quite cope with the big occasions. No matter - it had rained a little earlier and the vegetation outside still had something of a drenched look about it, but the world felt new and refreshed, as I did.

A blue-green day.