Saturday, February 28, 2009

Not So Ept

The link in yesterday's post to Sid Smith's tribute to the late Ian Carr turns out to be just a general link to his blog. Once again my IT skills are shown to be not so skilful after all. Whilst not entirely inept on the computer I'm not exactly ept either (as Wodehouse might have said, but with greater elegance.) I'm not even sure of how to open the podcasts posted at the Yellow Room and this is the kind of music my ears are particularly tuned to.

And while I'm on the subject of tuning the old lugs, I'm happy to report my rediscovery of Simon Rattle & the London Sinfonietta's The Jazz Album, a genuine curiosity from 1987 that I listen to at something like three year intervals, wondering why I neglected it for so long. (Mind you, that's true of most of my CDs and goes some way to explaining why I'm so conservative about buying new ones. Well that and the War on Capitalism.)

It's a curiosity in the sense of being a most unlikely assemblage of pieces with either a vague or very obvious connection with the idiom of jazz. Stuff from Bernstein and Stravinsky rubs shoulders with arrangements originally performed by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra (we are really talking 'white jazz' here) of tin pan alley standards. And it's not always entirely clear what we are supposed to make of the juxtaposition. But Rattle is incredibly hot on the serious stuff, as you might expect, and there's a version of Milhaud's La Creation Du Monde which is to die for. In fact in any version this has to be one of the highlights of twentieth century music full-stop. Funny and gorgeous at the same time, it's a reminder of what a great composer Milhaud was, supremely 'ept', even if we're only talking of a few pieces.

Alex Ross has some scintillating pages on Milhaud and the influence of jazz on 'serious' music in the twenties, particularly in France, in The Rest Is Noise and I'm now trying to figure out why I don't have more stuff from the period, especially of a Gallic flavour, since I think they basically beat the Teutons into the dust. I mean, try and swing to Webern, if you dare.

Oh, and apropos of nothing, wasn't it good to see an entire page devoted to young bands in Singapore in The Straits Times yesterday? The guy who said that he didn't expect to make any money but thought it would be great to give his CDs to the grandkids and say he was in a band should have a medal for the most sensible comment in the press this week.

Friday, February 27, 2009

In Passing

Sid Smith, author of the excellent In The Court of King Crimson, a history of every right-thinking muso's favourite rock band, maintains an equally excellent blog entitled Postcards From The Yellow Room. I've linked it here to a typically informative yet particularly poignant entry on the death of a great musician and fine writer, Ian Carr.

I was jarred when I came across this not simply by the sad news but because I'd been listening only a couple of weeks ago to a Radio 3 programme accessible at featuring Mr Carr in a fascinating conversation on his career in music. Sid's piece is a fine tribute in itself, to which I'd just add that Ian Carr's book on maestro Keith Jarrett is a model of informed critical writing and one of the best books I've read on any musician.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Slow Reading

Sometimes having very little time to read can work to one's advantage. I'm stealing half an hour here, ten minutes there, on The Master and it feels, oddly, like the right pace at which to read the novel. Essentially I'm being made to savour every moment.

Last night I almost completed the segment on Constance Fenimore Woolson's suicide and it was painfully yet gently moving. Restraint can be so powerful.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I was back at West Coast Park this morning for the first time since my sort-of triumph in last year's cross country. Visitors to this Far Place may remember how I finished a remarkable fourth (or fifth?) in the teachers' race in a startlingly respectable time.

How are the mighty fallen! (Well, not exactly mighty but something mildly along those general lines.) This morning I could barely stand for ten minutes before being obliged to squat or sit in an effort to ease some of the pain radiating along the dreary nerve I am coming to be all too familiar with.

Fifteen years ago a sense of the unfairness of such incapacity would have served as a further irritation. Now I'm happy to remember better times and hope that one day I might see them again. In the meantime just temporary relief is something to be grateful, very, for.

Anyway, I'm off to see my back-doctor again this Saturday and hoping that some sort of resolution begins to emerge, even if only very slowly.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Making Millions

The idea of giving out awards for films (& records & tv programmes & plays & novels) is so obviously daft that it acquires a kind of charm, as long as no one takes it too seriously. It is also a great way of generating oodles of publicity. I must say I was pleased at Slumdog Millionaire winning everything in sight since 1) it is the only film that the missus and I are likely to go to the cinema to watch this year (a decision we came to well before Oscar-fever set in, but on which we have not actually acted yet); and 2) Danny Boyle's Millions is one of my favourite movies of all time (though hardly anyone I know seems to have heard of it) and my good taste seems curiously validated by Hollywood recognising what a great director he is.

Monday, February 23, 2009


On the flight to Medan I honestly thought that in the days to follow I was going to make major inroads into the reading I took with me. In fact, I briefly entertained the idea I might not have taken enough. I seemed to be racing through Toibin's The Master and since I had only got a single copy of The New York Review of Books, Literary Theory (of which I'd already devoured the first three chapters before setting off) and a very slim collection of poems entitled Kid by Simon Armitage (which I picked up cheap, just 50 pence in England in December) I thought I'd severely misjudged the situation. Alas, whatever misjudgment there was related solely to the misconception that once I stepped off the plane I was going to get any time to read.

It was simply not to be, except for a stolen few minutes at the end of each day before I nodded off. Such minutes were spent in the wonderful company of Mr Toibin and his Mr James and very satisfactory they were. The Master has turned out to be much wider-ranging in its perspectives on the great writer than David Lodge's equally wonderful Author, Author. I still have about a hundred pages to go and, goodness me, am I looking forward to them.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I got back from Medan just before midday and I'm now trying to put my life into some kind of order and get back to tried and tested routines. Fortunately Noi has been keeping things in order in addition to having ensured I was well-equipped for my little adventure. Where would I be without her? Answer: nowhere at all.

It's certainly been a busy and extremely interesting few days. I now know a great deal more about how the school in which I work goes about the business of getting its 'scholars' from overseas. In some ways it's a harsh process, involving far more rejection than acceptance, but that's the way of the world. The thought that you are involved in decisions that dramatically change lives could be burdensome but knowing that you've worked hard and behaved in good faith helps to ease the old conscience.

Apart from the intensity of the work there's also the fascination of being able to look out into a different culture. Whilst Indonesia might not be so completely foreign to me as some other countries in the region it is certainly disorientating in some fundamentals, being the same but different. We didn't get that much opportunity to explore Medan and environs but the little there was provided ample food for thought.

So, almost at random, three images: Two cheerful children in immaculately clean school uniform, a sort of peach top and brown skirt, walking along the side of an extremely busy road winding up a steep slope, presumably making their way home to one of the tired old shacks clinging to the edge. A whole row of trees supporting garish election posters for a posse of candidates, not one of whom would have inspired the confidence to have succeeded as a used car salesman. Or woman. The smile on the face of the door-girl at the hotel which remained, astonishingly, genuinely curious and friendly regardless of the hour of day, or the weariness of her legs.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Tough Decisions

Tomorrow I'm off to Medan in Sumatra on a recruiting trip for the school I work for. I'll be there until Sunday. I suspect I'll be busy marking a lot of material from students aspiring to get an education in Singapore but it's still an opportunity to explore the region a little more. I was surprised when I found out that Medan is the third largest city in Indonesia with a population of around two and a half million. For some strange reason I've always pictured it as a sleepy little town.

Now I'm busy packing, or rather Noi is putting my house in order for me. She is frighteningly efficient when it comes to ordering my life. Thank goodness. She will be going over to Melaka in my absence - a great opportunity to help out, especially with Mak whom she'll be taking to her eye doctor.

I've been planing the reading I'll take with me with great care, and I'm hoping to find some time to genuinely get some done. Over the weekend I made a start on Colm Toibin's The Master and revisited Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory. Both are going down well and shall constitute the centre of my reading. I'm also taking across a recent edition of the New York Review of Books in case I can only find the time to dip into stuff. The question now is whether to take some poetry along or to travel really light. I'm tempted to pack the rather tasty Frost: Collected Poems, Prose and Plays from the Library of America but this could be a case of over-egging the pudding. I'm going to get very irritated if I don't get any chance at all to do it justice, which might well be the case. Ah, the rigours of globe-trotting.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


We've just got back from a one night jaunt to Melaka. This was occasioned by Noi's massage lady being in high demand and thus needing to be ferried over and a number of birthdays coinciding such that a sort of party was deemed to be in order. In addition to this Noi wanted to take over a baby carriage which would be more useful in Malaysia than Singapore (though I'm not entirely sure which baby it is intended for) and she thought it would be a rather good wheeze if I were to avail myself of a bubble bath in the spa that Khalsom and Rachid have created in the compound of the house.

The birthday celebrations turned out to be exuberant to say the least. Enough games were devised to ensure that all the kids looked messy and they all won something. The little ones were still walking around with their medals on Sunday morning. I visited a sort of spa for the first time in my life and had the aforementioned bubble bath. This was pleasant, but you can't read a book in a bubble bath which seems to me a major disadvantage of the experience.

All in all, the real therapy was getting away from it all, if only for a few hours.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Taking Risks

I'm glad I re-read Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry. I can't say I understood it much better this time around but I was entirely comfortable in my lack of desire to try and fit things together. I think it's a novel of parts that doesn't genuinely cohere but works because of the strength of those parts and the genuine energy driving the project. The loathing for London and the world of the City is palpable, especially in the final section, and Winterson is so good at hating that it has a positively bracing effect.

The same, I think, is true of the almost uniformly grim view of the male sex on offer. At times this seems comically extreme, but extremes seem to be where the writer is most comfortable and she convinced me, at least occasionally, that there are discoveries to be made there. The rule book that teaches about men is a nice example, sort of reductive, but funny in an alarming way: 1 Men are easy to please but are not pleased for long before some new novelty must delight them. I recognised myself in that.

It seems Ms Winterson has been frequently accused of pretentiousness in her writing, amongst other sins, and I can see why. But I like the sense of ambition, the obvious taking of risks in her work. I think it pays off in this novel, as long as you don't dig too deep or ask too much.

Friday, February 13, 2009

High Standards

My late night listening for a couple of days this week has been Wynton Marsalis's tasty collection Standard Time Vol. 3 - The Resolution of Romance. The title is deadly accurate. Wynton solos on a series of classics with a hefty helping of romantic ballads to soothe the furrowed brow after a tough day, over a gorgeously tight ensemble comprising his dad tickling the ivories, Reginald Veal on bass and Herlin Riley on drums. It's the kind of stuff you might associate with muzak in a boring restaurant until you lend it your ears and realise this is on another level altogether. The highest.

At times, indeed most of the time, Wynton achieves a kind of fluid, easy perfection that thrills the ear even as it calms it. One example is on his version of Rodgers and Hart's Where Or When. The trumpet reminds us of what a gorgeous, unlikely melody Rodgers devised here. The accents of the main melodic line seem oddly off, yet absolutely right, as if it's not so much the notes as the words being played. The incredibly difficult is made to sound effortless.

The odd thing about Marsalis, though, is his insistence on the tradition and the need to play within the tradition, and his division of the sheep from the goats on these grounds. This seeps into the liner notes for the album, written by the equally fastidious Stanley Crouch. I suppose when you're as good as these guys and have made the highest demands on yourself in terms of technical ability you can afford to make high demands of others. But it can come across as a kind of prissiness. On the two occasions I've seen Marsalis play in Singapore, once with the septet and once with the big band, I've felt that kind of buttoned-upness about him. Great concerts but almost too planned, too much intended, calculated for a certain kind of audience.

A couple of years back Peter and Iris made me a present of the very fine hardback Jazz, A History of America's Music. This was based on Ken Burns's documentary series, which followed his rapturously received series on the Civil War and Baseball. I've never seen these, possibly they don't translate too well to an overseas audience in their utter American-ness, but I know how highly regarded they are - and if the wonderful pictures in the book are anything to go by the Jazz series must have looked stunning. I do know that the series also created a fair amount of controversy in terms of the history of jazz it sought to create. Marsalis was involved in it as an expert voice (or so I believe) and the stress was very much on the central figures within the tradition, particularly Armstrong, reflecting his take on how to read that history. In fact there's a very interesting interview with Marsalis in the book in which he lays down the law concerning the story of jazz in magisterial fashion. What he's got to say is interesting, but definite, and I can imagine lots of folk being not quite in agreement.

There's a kind of elitism about Marsalis that is forbidding. But at the same time I think it's necessary. This is not a social elitism but one defined by craft and when you're in the business of demanding for what you do the full weight of the respect it deserves you need to aspire to something beyond the merely excellent.

The great thing about all this for those of us with no talent whatsoever is we get to feast off the masters. It looks like I'll be carving out the time for more of these wonderful standards tonight.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reason Not The Need

I was listening to the World Service's early morning progamme on matters financial the other morning and there was a fascinating bit in which a banker chappie defended the right of those at the top who'd screwed up everything to earn salaries in excess of the half a million limit the Obama administration is trying to put on those working in banks which take government money to keep them afloat. Much of the fascination lay in the guy's obvious sincerity.

The argument went something like this: These super bankers have super lifestyles which demand gazillions to maintain. They cannot give up these lifestyles so it is only right to hand over said gazillions to them. If they can't get the dosh from their current banks they will simply go bankrupt (happily wrecking the various small worlds of their employees and those who've trusted them with their money) and move into careers in which the necessary funds will be forthcoming. I know this sounds like a caricature but I was listening carefully and the above is, I believe, an accurate summary of his case. As I said, it was delivered with distinct sincerity.

It's so easy to pick up on the obvious flaws in the banker chappie's case that I won't bother, but I would like to dwell for a moment on the extraordinary neediness that underlies the argument. No one can possibly need the amounts considered here yet somehow these guys do. Did something go deeply wrong in their childhoods? Are they entirely detached from any sense of the real world around them? Do they realise how deeply, deeply, spectacularly crazy they really are?

Don't they ever watch Oprah?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I've moved on from the calculated restraint of Ishiguro to the pyrotechnics of Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry. It's been a good while since I've picked up anything by the lady. I read the first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, some fifteen or sixteen years ago based, surprisingly, on the recommendation of a Principal I was working under and immediately followed up with this one for reasons I can no longer remember. What I do remember is being a bit irritated by the wilful obscurity of the texts and a tiny bit suspicious that the packaging was hiding a very fragile gift. Viewing subsequent appearances by Ms Winterson on various television programme didn't instill much confidence She struck me as more than a little tiresome and more than a little in love with her own ideas.

So when I found her singled out for a particularly unkind skewering in John Carey's What Good Are The Arts? I wasn't entirely surprised. He may have been unkind but he was deadly accurate regarding her ideas about art.

So I found myself rather pleased to be thoroughly enjoying Sexing The Cherry rather than standing in miserable critical judgement over it. It's got energy and as long as you don't bother too much about where it's going it turns out to be a pleasantly funny journey, well so far at least. Oh, and I like the paperback edition I've got it in. From the Grove Press, New York. Rather handsome

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

An Argument For The Existence Of God

Papa Haydn's 3 symphony sequence Le Matin, Le Midi, Le Soir - especially as performed by Trevor Pinnock and The English Consort. The product of a meaningless universe based on random chance? Yeah, right.

Monday, February 9, 2009


Thoroughly enjoyed Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans, which I finished early yesterday. As I suspected from the early chapters, my reading of which was continually subject to interruption by the great and grey necessities of life, it proved an easy read in terms of unputdownability. Ishiguro is very clever in terms of planting little puzzles that you have to read on to sort out, and the prose is thrillingly bland. Has there ever been such a highly rated writer who willingly limits himself in terms of verbal fireworks to none at all? The sense of restraint is very powerful, and pervades the text in that you are aware that everything on the surface is exactly that - and what lies beneath is precisely other.

The problem is, though, that he's done this before, all the time in fact, and you realise very quickly it's going to be more of the same. Of course, that's extremely good stuff, so it's hardly a matter for complaint, but predictability in this sense is surely for writers stuck in particular genres. They may do it well, but they do it over and over.

Having said that, I do think there's something new in Orphans, but I'm not sure it's entirely to the writer's credit, though in some ways I rather enjoyed it. I'm referring the distinct sense of melodrama hovering around the novel and, with reasonable frequency, making an occasional distinct landing. The dialogue alone is extraordinarily stagey. I mean, you can really hear whole conversations as being delivered in a movie - an expensive one with bigtime backers from the States somewhere in the background but a very British movie for all that. And some of the contrived encounters, especially in the later sequences in Shanghai, make you reach for a good helping of salt.

It does lead one to suspect that Ishiguro wanted a popular success and went a little out of his way to try and get it. And why not? In the final analysis it's a darned good read. It's not often I suggest to the missus that she might like to pick up something I've put down - but this time I did.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Tripping Out

We're just back from Geylang where I conducted a little experiment on myself. I timed a walk we took after an eminently satisfying round of epok epok, kueh lopez and teh tarik at Zain's Café to Tanjong Katong Complex to see how long it took before I'd need, and I mean need, to sit down. The answer was thirteen minutes and twenty-six seconds. The first six and a half minutes were entirely pain free. Then came the first slight shadows of something. For the next two minutes or so a faint numbness enshrouded my right foot and the pain, starting embarrassingly in my backside steadily made its course down my thigh. By ten minutes the muscle at the side of my right shin started throbbing. That's the sign that I must move and get seated, especially when the throbbing becomes distinctly rhythmic. At that point I went off to the car whilst Noi continued her shopping. One of the interesting, and sometimes demanding, aspects of my current condition is the need to plan anything that involves being upright with great care such that it's always possible to find somewhere to sit down.

I'd been hoping that the latest medicine might keep me on my feet a little longer than this but possibly it hasn't really kicked in yet. But the pill that is said to make you drowsy certainly appears to be having that effect on me. The feeling of being mildly detached from the world is rather pleasant, but I'm not sure it's going to help me on a working day. My plan is to try it tomorrow and hope no one notices how spaced out I am.

Noi tells me I'm now slanting, a phenomenon the doc pointed out to me yesterday in the course of his examination. I have no real sense of this though I do notice it to some degree when looking in a mirror in a state of undress. The missus has advised me to walk straight which is something I don't think I'm going to be able to achieve as I'm not in any way aware of walking bent. I think she's a bit embarrassed about me looking like a stooping old fellow, but I quite enjoy the drama of limping along.

In fact, it has occurred to me that this will be a good time to do a little activity called Where's The Pain? with the drama guys on Wednesday. The idea is to imagine a pain in some part of your body and then let it affect your movements without telling, as it were, the audience (the circle of pain you are in) where it is. Then the watchers try and guess what the problem was. It's a fascinating activity usually. Quite disconcertingly you can get a powerful sense of discomfort, almost suffering, just watching the participants. I suppose that, in the final analysis, it's all in the head.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Of Medicine and Men

Pictured above is the latest dosage assigned to me by my back doctor - twice daily, with two of the pills for ingestion in between also. A couple of them may induce drowsiness; the little white and red number is one, so I'm just about to try them out and see how close they take me to the land of nod.

I'd expected to be sent for an MRI today and was quite pleased this wasn't the case. I'd rather we continued the conservative approach than go under the knife too soon. Not that I terribly mind the being sliced open, but I'd rather this be at my convenience and I'm just too busy at the moment. And I can put up with the pain. In fact, this is likely to be significantly reduced since the last cache of medicine pretty much ran out a week ago, so the last week has been basically one without too much in the way of pain-killers to keep me going. I'm hoping that the next couple of weeks will be easier.

Actually this makes things sound a lot worse than they really are. The pain never reaches the proportions of an ordeal as it dissipates almost as soon as I sit down. It's only when I'm upright that there is a real problem - for some inner, mechanical reason, at that time gravity is not my friend.

It's strange to think that the pain manifests itself in a place distinct from where the problem lies. As far as I understand it, the nerve is getting trapped? irritated? near or at the vertebrae, but it's my right leg that's suffering. (Isn't it odd how we can sort of detach ourselves from our various bits and pieces, as in that last sentence. After all it's me that's suffering rather than my leg - but then that implies my leg is somehow not me. Whoops.)

It's also strangely intriguing to monitor the pain. It begins as something that is not-pain, something almost pleasant, like the mild soreness you experience when or after playing a vigorous game. At some point (usually around the ten minute stage) it becomes a definite discomfort, but, still, it would be a bit exaggerated to call it 'pain'. That arrives about five minutes later and, in a sense, it remains something you might willingly put up with, except that you begin to acknowledge you can't. The right foot now starts to, ever so slightly, go numb. At this point mild vocalising sets in, on the lines of ouch! or agh! Then the need to sit mysteriously transmutes itself into a complete, total, unarguable necessity. And then, as soon as you are seated the pain either disappears immediately or slowly eases in almost pleasant waves. Of course, there's a mild and useful fear in the back of my mind that one day it might not go and then what will I do? This is useful because it keeps the reality of the situation clear and serves as a reminder that I am nowhere close to real suffering (which begins when it doesn't go - and it's pass me the morphine, nurse, time.)

In that sense I'm undergoing an extremely useful, privileged, experience. In Islamic thought we have this idea that God might test us, but it will be only to the limits of what we can bear - though those limits might surprise us. I'm nowhere close to that line and, at the moment, being given a salutary glimpse of what that test might be like. A little like the useful hunger of fasting month.

Friday, February 6, 2009


When We Were Orphans is the novel I'd like to claim to be reading currently, but since the opportunities of actually getting to sit down and open it have been few and far between lately, especially over the last three days, I'm not sure it would be entirely honest to make that claim. Fortunately it's so mesmeric that it's easy to imagine getting back into it over the weekend once I can push the piles of marking to one side. Unfortunately it's so subtle in terms of the details of the plot that I'm wondering if I'll really pick up where I left off without missing some key features and feeling a bit thick in the process.

As I've pointed out in this Far Place on previous occasions, the joy of having a not particularly great memory is that you get to read stuff again and it can be quite fresh. But the down side is that you can feel like less than the Ideal Reader that the talents of Mr Ishiguro call for.

Of course, since the protagonist's problems in the novel themselves revolve around memory and its inherent deceitfulness there's something peculiarly appropriate in all of this.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ear Opener

The busyness is relentless, but the sweetness of the stolen moments remains, brief as it is. Tonight, late on the ECP (from a highly enjoyable session with the drama guys) when the jam was at its worst, a chance to get an extended listen to Dylan's Tell Tale Signs Vol 8 Bootleg Series - a transcendent 2 CD set of outtakes & live stuff from the period of the later albums (sort of, Oh Mercy onwards, if I'm not mistaken.)

All of it was great but the live version of High Water from the end of CD1 is astonishing. I've heard it twice now. The first time I thought just brilliant. Tonight I was simply pinned to the car seat by the stompiest, stonkiest, smokingest version of a great song (lovely banjo on the original 'Love And Theft' cut from Charlie Sexton or Larry Campbell, not too sure.) Coruscating guitars (the touring band from the 'Love And Theft' stuff, I think - so Charlie & Larry again) over a completely hot, loose but tight, in the pocket arrangement; and over that Dylan's astonishing (sorry, I just can't think of other superlatives at present) almost completely wretched but still hanging in there voice nailing the lyric. It's so incredibly dangerous. I really thought he wasn't going to make it to the end and he triumphs. Just.

I have no idea where they played it on that night's set but it's difficult to believe it was anywhere except the end. I mean you couldn't follow that. Mind you, maybe Dylan could

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ears Open

So much great music and so little time! But here's a thing: being overwhelmed with work helps me hear more intensely. Those sweet moments of surrender to sounds in concord (and sweet discord in some cases - I'm thinking Dylan, offhand) become even more, well, sweet, when they are short & more precious as a result.

Last night, for example, just fifteen minutes to grab some Chopin - four Nocturnes (from the complete set by Barenboim on DG, 2 CDs at a bargain price) and I had never quite grasped their utter crystalline gorgeousness (a vile phrase that gets nowhere near how it felt, but will do for now.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Barmy Benitez?

Though it goes against the grain to say so, I was quietly pleased regarding Liverpool's victory over Chelsea yesterday. True, a draw would have been better for United, but I'd prefer a closely fought finish to the league (as long as the right team win) so this result has put a bit of juice back into the fruit. But most of all I'm pleased for Rafa. In the Singapore press he's been picking up a lot of stick for losing the plot, which I'm pretty sure echoes the British papers. As if any of these writers could run a kids' team, never mind a top club in the Premiership.

Just lately every manager you can think of, except Sir Alex whose record puts him beyond this nonsense, has come in for massive uninformed criticism (oh, and O'Neill, I suppose, whose brilliant record should do the same, but won't if Villa stumble): Wenger, Scolari, Benitez, who just happen to be managing clubs who are not exactly doing badly. Doesn't it occur to the critics that no manager (Sir Alex included) gets it right all the time? The projection of some sort of omniscience on these ordinary mortals, and then relentless sniping when things don't quite work out, is deeply disturbing.

Of course, it sells papers, which, I suppose, is the point in a culture where everything's for sale. But it reduces the level of informed, sensible commentary on footie - and just about everything else.

Mind you, having said all that, if I were paid the wages of a top manager I'd more than happily accept just about anything that appeared about me in the press.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Burning Brightly

Very pleased to see an appreciative article in The Sunday Times this morning regarding Alfian Sa'at's fine first collection of poetry One Fierce Hour published back in 1998. (And quite a shock to realise that it's a whole ten years since I first came across his work.) It was quite rightly recognised as a landmark in local writing - prophetically enough being published by Landmark Books.

Quite a bit of the article was devoted to the somewhat outspoken nature of many of the poems, understandably, I think, since the vibrantly anti-establishment voice of the poet was something quite new (at least to me) and extremely striking in the writing of that period. It seems the writer now regards his early work as rather immature, not surprisingly. There is something a bit callow about the general tone, but thrillingly, rightfully so in a young writer. I know that sounds patronising, but it's really not meant to be. Sometimes a lack of balance can be a strength and in certain circumstances can seem a necessity.

But I think that the attention devoted to Alfian's criticisms of society tends to obscure his real gifts as a poet. Having said that there's some judicious quoting in this morning's article that shows a warm response to those remarkable gifts. I think the first poem of his I read was The Marooned Island, which I came across in a kind of anthology of Singapore poetry distributed by the Ministry of Education for use in schools before I bought the collection itself. I thought it was a stunning poem with an almost hallucinatory power, utterly unlike anything else I had read by either Singaporean or Malaysian writers. I read it again this morning, and still think so. Its images have a direct raw power, yet evade a simple reading as the outpourings of an angry young man. Maybe angry, yes, but seeing things in that anger that perhaps lie beyond ordinary vision.

It's the same with Singapore You Are Not My Country, probably the most obviously 'political' poem in the volume. It's the rich unexpectedness of the connections made in what is explicitly, gloriously an unreasonable rant that give the poem its power. The controversial content comes second, for this reader at least, to the manic rhythms of a voice at one imitating Ginsberg (I'm thinking Howl) yet still sounding genuine and individual - indeed, Singaporean.

I don't think there were all that many copies of One Fierce Hour printed - I came across mine by a very fortunate accident - but I'd advise anyone who's not come across it, and has an interest in writers from Singapore, or just good writing in general, to try and get hold of it. Stirring stuff