Thursday, April 30, 2009


I happened to be observing a lesson today which had at its centre Sylvia Plath's poem Balloons. This brought to a head a number of the conflicted feelings I've experienced since learning of the death in March, by suicide, of Nicholas Hughes, Plath's son, the child with the red / Shred in his fist at the end of the poem.

For me, he's somehow frozen with his sister in that terrible winter of 1963, and I feel like some kind of voyeur, rubber-necking the wreck on the highway - safely distanced from real pain, real despair. A trespasser.

To what degree are we entitled to delve into the lives of those strangely memorialised in what we term literature? We know the answer is zero, not at all, but that won't stop us intruding. I suppose we think it can all be held in somehow, within the classroom walls. But it leaks and it can poison. It can reduce as much as ennoble.

I suppose it can be used for good. But at this moment I don't know how.

We are left darkling.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Another Argument For The Existence Of God

The DVD of Springsteen & the Sessions Band Live In Dublin, not to mention what it must have been like to have actually been there. Passion, compassion, beauty, harmony, joy, joy, joy illimited - and the saints actually walking in.

Oh, and He obviously loves a good tune.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

All Out Of Words

Sometimes it's better to show than say. Shakespeare knew that.

Monday, April 27, 2009


I'm getting more birthday today as flying from New Zealand to Singapore has given me an extra four hours. Noi provided a magnificent birthday cake along with a fabulous pot of hot, milky tea on arrival at the Mansion, so, this being in addition to breakfast at the hotel and two meals on the plane, it can be safely said that I am replete if not surfeited.

And even more so when it comes to reading, listening and watching. I watched the Dylan sort-of bio-pic I'm Not There on the flight back, which added to Frost/Nixon on the way over means I've actually watched 2 reasonably current movies, some sort of record for me. I'm Not There struck me as a bit pretentious, in a good way. It was trying hard to be original and say interesting things, and Cate Blanchett was outstanding as Dylan in England, stretched, vulnerable, edgy, hurt and angry. Oddly it's been a Dylanesque sort of day. There were a few adverts up in Auckland for a new Dylan album to be released today and these prompted me to get hold of Chronicles, Volume One which I'd spotted a nice edition of in a bookshop there. (In two bookshops in Singapore the single copies were both a bit ragged.) In fact, Ferd and Miruna cunningly insisted on buying me the book having discovered it was my birthday coming up, for which great thanks. I read most of it on the plane, completing it up to the section on the recording of Oh Mercy. Superlatives fail me with regard to just what a great book it is. Essential reading for all sentient beings. Then I got home to find that Noi bought for me the DVD of Dylan's early sixties appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, The Other Side of the Mirror. (She also cunningly bought the DVDs of Springsteen with the Sessions Band Live In Dublin and Arctic Monkeys At The Apollo. Yowza!) Karen also has given me a couple of books expanding my list of immediate reading in a most tasty fashion.

There were so many excellent suggestions for imperative reading on the course that my head was sent (wonderfully) spinning. And I'm pleased to say I got quite a bit of reading done in New Zealand. The Conrad went down very well and I'm left only the last bit of Typhoon (an old favourite) to finish from the selection. I particularly enjoyed Falk, A Reminiscence and Tomorrow. I also made enjoyable progress on the early part of the Mailer. It was intriguing to get a sense of Mailer moving beyond the limited perfection of the short stories he was crafting on the war with the wonderfully crazy angry ambition characteristic of his middle period fuelling material like The Man Who Studied Yoga.

Also got some good listening done on the flight back, and on Queen Street in Auckland where there were quite a few buskers, including one who did a wonderful version of Paul Simon's arrangement of Scarborough Fair. I listened again to the new Springsteen album today with a lot more appreciation than the first time, but I do need to hear it over something better than the headphones provided by Singapore Airlines. Sounding even better were three late Haydn symphonies (88 - 90) courtesy of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic and a very tasty selection of Messiaen piano pieces done by a guy called Armand (?) I think. Lucidly beautiful. Oh, and I sampled a little bit of a Naxos selection of Blake's poetry on which one of the readers had a brilliantly appropriate cockney accent.

And who said life was dull? Not in this house.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Something Worthwhile

One of life's pleasures, not a great one, but it does get on the list, is attending some kind of 'training' and realising it's worth being there. I am pleased to say that such has been my situation for the last two days with one more to go. Also nice to be in the good company of Ferd & Miruna.

Looking forward to real life again with teh tarik and the missus, though.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Cool Auckland

It's Autumn here and very pleasant. Comfortable to walk out in just a jacket and cosy coming back to a warm hotel room. Ferd knows the city well, having done his Masters here, so we've been able to discover a bit about the city. Very laid-back. Excellent kebabs.

Only one problem - lost phone contact with Noi as my phone card has run-down. If you're reading this dear, please top-up for me!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

From An Even Further Place

Having a fine time here out on the edge of the globe. Brocoli and blue cheese soup as a starter for dinner. Shiok. Read quite a bit of Conrad and Mailer on the flight over, plus got to watch Frost/Nixon. Also listened to some highly tasty Holst, and will now be looking for the album - on Chandos, Richard Hickok conducting. Less impressed with the new Springsteen album which sounded over-produced, but will probably change my mind when I've given it a fair chance.

Now four hours ahead of real time and feeling tired after a packed day driving round Auckland. Start proper work tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What A Rush!

Preparing to go overseas in the middle of term results in an extremely busy life, on top of the merely very busy life one is used to. I discovered this before the Surabaya trip last term, and the last few days have confirmed those findings. The worrying thing is that I'm quite enjoying being as busy as this. I seem to have entered that odd sort of state of grace that I've written about before where somehow everything comes together, though there's really no reason why it should.

Case in point: on Friday I mislaid my black notebook - I'm referring here to my ultra-low tech real notebook made of paper costing less than $4. This is where I jot everything down I've got to do, and cross it out when it's done. I'm basically dead without it. This is the second time this year I've dropped it somewhere. Earlier on it fell off a chair when I was in the big auditorium and we parted company for a couple of hours, but I popped back in to find it almost immediately. I wasn't quite so lucky last Friday. I discovered it missing in the afternoon and went in search of it to the three locations I'd staked out since I remembered using it. It was nowhere to be found in the old auditorium, Lecture Theatre 1 or the last classroom I'd been in.

For some reason I didn't panic, even yesterday when I visited the Estate Office to ask about lost and found items and it hadn't shown up. Then I found it this morning, without actually looking. I was back in Lecture Theatre 1 for a Year 5 Literature lecture and prowling around intimidating the audience on behalf of Runima, who was actually giving the lecture. Passing one of our Drama girls I happened to look down at a black notebook lying on her files and thought it familiar. I asked if it were hers and she told me she just discovered it jammed down the side of her chair, which was where I'd been sitting on the Friday, as I suddenly recalled. Joy of joy, the information I desperately needed was in my hands again and life could go on. Yet curiously I didn't feel the flood of relief I might have expected. I just sort of took it as my due, the universe coming around to my way of thinking.

As I said, it's nice to be in this state, but a bit worrying. At some point I'll come down to earth, but until then it's nice to enjoy the ride.

Monday, April 20, 2009

On The Way Out

By the time I get back from New Zealand the system above should have disappeared. I've already dismantled all the wires at the back. There's another big speaker, by the way, just out of the picture, on the floor. We've made an arrangement with the karang guni man (hope I spelled that right) (the rag and bone man when Englished) to come and take it away at the weekend. We can't really give it to anyone as the turn-table, the cassette player and the tuner don't work at all, whilst the CD player is highly temperamental and beyond repair - according to Aiwa who sold this to me about twenty years ago.

Just twenty years. Nothing lasts these days does it?

Actually I'm feeling pretty guilty about cluttering up the world with dead stereo systems. I mean, where do these things actually go to?

We have a replacement on the way, something a good deal smaller, but I don't think we'll get it before late May. In the meantime I'm relying on a little portable CD player, again from Aiwa, this time about eighteen years old, for sweet music. I'll post further on the new system when it arrives.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Busy Making Plans

Now busy planning for a short trip to New Zealand coming this Wednesday for some IB training. I'll be back on the following Monday. The missus is thinking of what I'm going to wear, the money I'll need and all the practical stuff. I'm thinking of what to take to read. This is why we make a good team.

I've just started on a collection of Conrad's shorter stories, well, novellas really, including the unfortunately titled The Nigger of the Narcissus and Typhoon. This is in tandem with Mailer's Advertisements for Myself, both being old paperbacks I brought back from the shelves of Maison KL. Actually today I've been reading largely from Ackroyd's London: The Biography which I'm not taking with me as it's too heavy. I've not picked it up for the best part of a week and I felt it important to maintain some sort of continuity. Having said that, the chapters have a distinctly self-contained quality, reading at times like separate essays, that makes it easy to pick up and start again, and put down. For example, Chapter 9, Packed to Blackness, which I've just finished, is a lovely short essay on just how dark the city, or certain parts of it, have been perceived as being over the centuries.

Conrad and Mailer were key writers for me in my university days. I've kept reading them over the years, last reading Nostromo around three years ago (a brilliant novel, surely one of the greatest of the twentieth century) and Oswald's Tale around four years back. Conrad's sense of the need to do one's duty in an absurd world as there's simply nothing else to hold back the chaos had a powerful, and lasting impact upon me. Anyone who can start a preface: A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line, and really mean it, gets my vote. What's so appealing about Conrad is that he churned out a fair amount of second rate stuff also even when genuinely aspiring to the condition of art. The early and late novels don't always cut it, but the great stuff from the middle period is just, well, great: Under Western Eyes, The Secret Agent, Nostromo, Heart of Darkness to name but four. And such variety! Another endearing thing about Conrad is how he reflects the limitations of his time especially when it comes to views of race (Achebe gets it right) but his attempt to transcend those limitations is wholly admirable, it seems to me.

I must say though, I've long cultivated a hankering to rewrite the action of Lord Jim from the perspective of one of the pilgrims aboard the Patna - the unconscious pilgrims of an exacting belief indeed. It would be nice to make at least one of these folk a bit more conscious.

I fell under the spell of Mailer and his daft ideas for a good six months or so at the tender age of twenty. Now I'm distanced from that spell it's good to be aware of the mechanics of it. Whatever his shortcomings were, the guy could write and he's rarely dull, except when he's caught up in an idea that won't let him go. But then, there's something endearing about that also.

I just hope I actually get the chance to settle to some reading when I'm over in New Zealand. It won't be from any lack of enthusiasm if I don't.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Caught In The Rye

The casual perfection of Salinger's masterpiece is a delight. Every throwaway phrase, and there are plenty of them, works.

Finishing the novel I was first of all surprised at how much I'd forgotten about it, especially the ending which I couldn't remember at all, beyond knowing it had a lot to do with Holden's sister Phoebe. What was particularly striking was how right the ending seemed this time round. That image of Phoebe on the roundabout and her brother in the rain has a brooding yet oddly warm valedictory quality that uncannily synchronises with the mood of the novel.

In fact, the increasing power of the episodes towards the end of the novel, and the sense underlying them that Holden really is falling apart in an entirely believable way, has an iron grip on the reader. Well, this one now. Reading the book many years ago I'm embarrassed to say they pretty much left me cold and seemed like hard work. The sequence with the Antolinis, and Holden's first conversation with Phoebe are just spot on - seemingly offhand but deeply resonant. Phoebe is utterly right as a child and Holden's almost obsessive adoration of her is totally convincing, as is his distrust of Mr Antolini's ultimate motives for helping him.

Has any other writer ever done the disturbed sexuality of adolescence as well and honestly as this? And the whole thing Is so deeply, appallingly funny!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Crimes Against Humanity

The other day we found ourselves in the company of a young lady who referred to her husband (the poor sap was within earshot) as her hubby. The horror, the horror!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

On Stage

A particularly pleasing performance by our drama guys at the Lee Suan Yew Speaker of the Year Award was the highlight of the day. That and the speakers themselves who acquitted themselves admirably. I've reached the age when I spend more time worrying about how kids are going to perform on stage than they do themselves. The concern that someone is going to freeze and stand there doing an impersonation of a particularly breathless goldfish is strong enough to take all the fun out of the proceedings. I'm only relaxed when it's over.

With the drama it's a bit different. I know they're going to be good. The question is, rather, how will the material work with the audience. Today we did The Birthday of the Infanta, the piece we did twice in the ACSIS Assortments evening. This time the two casts worked together, one group providing the voices whilst the other 'acted it out', as it were, on stage. This was Ferd's idea for getting around the miking constraints, but it worked in its own right as a clever and oddly resonant technique. The cast made it work brilliantly, which was a good and necessary thing since from the beginning we'd been concerned about audience reaction. The play is not typical fare for our school, and coming on in front of an audience who'd been sitting quietly already for over an hour and a half the worry was we'd get a lot of noise and other botheration. But we knew for sure the cast's discipline would get them through anything.

In the event the audience were extremely attentive, or at least that's how I interpreted the silence from the Year 1s behind me. We had a few flutters of inappropriate laughter, particularly in the early part of the big death scene, but nothing that got out of control. It was a great test for our guys, going for broke with something that might not have popular appeal, and they aced it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Change Of Perspective

I vaguely remember finding it a bit of a chore to read The Catcher in the Rye the last time I did so, sometime in the last century. Now it seems an effortless read, every nuance of the style working together with a compelling need to understand what drives the narrator resulting in a kind of sly perfection. Even the most casual of phrases works. Odd how you can change your mind about something.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Madness On The Roads

Twice in the last two months I've driven past motorcycles that have thrown their riders, or from which the riders have been thrown somehow, in the early morning. I'm talking about around 6.20 am when the traffic is light, visibility is good, despite the darkness, and the roads are wide and inviting. One guy was sitting, his bike just behind him, in the second lane of the AYE just before the exit for the NUS Hospital. The other guy was in lane four of the ECP adjacent to where the casino is being built. In each case it looked like the motorcyclist in question was going to be okay even though they were stuck in the middle of the road, as whatever cars were around were able to take evasive action. Also it's rare that you see out and out speed maniacs at that time of day. But this all begs the question as to how they had managed to part company with their machines at that time of the morning.

I suspect the answer to that question relates to sheer incompetence, either their own as bikers, or some driver of a car that had managed to give a nudge somehow. This is a country in which tailgating is second nature to a startling number of those using the road and in which the notion of some kind of lane discipline on the highway simply does not exist. I reckon that a majority of drivers make it a point of honour not to signal when changing lanes. This is very helpful when you are trying to figure out what someone intends to do.

Since the beginning of the year I've been stuck in at least ten major jams on the AYE, in the early evening, caused by traffic accidents on days when the conditions for driving were pretty much perfect. In recent days I've seen five different 'fatal accident' signs on roads I regularly use (usually involving bikers) in spots that are really safe assuming people drive sensibly. (Interestingly at least three have been near exits from the highway.)

How would these idiots cope in the testing conditions of very different roads in a varying climate? I was thinking back to when I used to drive to work in England, from Sheffield to Rotherham, and I am honestly hard pressed to remember a single time when an accident caused real problems even in the ice and snow.

This would be funny if it were not genuinely a matter of life and death.

Monday, April 13, 2009


The one dark spot on an otherwise bright weekend was getting the sad news on Sunday that Rita's mum had passed away. Ironically this was Mum's birthday; she's now a cheerful ninety-one having just successfully recorded, watched and deleted an entire programme on the machine we bought for her at Christmas.

We're just back from the wake for Mrs Peeris at Rita's brother's house. She was battling pneumonia, diabetes and Parkinson's at the end having been in hospital since January. Thankfully she looked peaceful and had left for her long home with a loving family to send her on her way.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Mentally prepared for another three hour jam on the way back into Singapore, sailing through both sets of customs and arriving at the Mansion at a civilised hour set the icing on the cake of a great weekend. Seeing Mak back home, she having been released from hospital on Saturday, was the big bright burning candle thereon.

Also I must say I'm pleased to have left behind the hallucinatory but exhausting brilliance of One Hundred Years of Solitude. This time round I'd intended to keep track of all the Arcadios and Aurelianos, but it's just impossible. The trouble with these magic realist johnnies is that they've got so much energy, and it tends to be turned in on itself. I'm now parking myself in the soothing world of The Catcher in the Rye. I've got a recently acquired supervisee for an extended essay on this one and it suddenly occurred to me that having last read it around 1974 I might need to do some brushing up.

And it's good to have a super-sub just when you need one.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Arrivals And Departures

As we sailed through Singapore customs at Tuas yesterday afternoon we were worried that me might not have time to complete the white cards for Kak Kiah’s two grandchildren before we arrived at the Malaysian side. Our fears proved unfounded as what is normally a three minute crossing of the bridge turned into a three hour epic, the jam stretching back quite far onto the bridge itself. In fact, when I first spotted the sea of red brake lights in the distance I thought it might be as many as four hours until we got through. But I must say, we made the best of it. The two kids slept most of the time and I got through quite a bit of listening. By sheer good fortune I happened to have a couple of tapes of Trevor Eaton reading some Chaucer (I’ve been exploring my catalogue of cassettes lately) and these made unexpectedly great listening, particularly since there was no competition from engine noise. I say ‘unexpectedly’ in the sense that Noi seemed to enjoy them as well, once I’d explained that this was how English probably sounded several centuries ago. She delighted in picking out and identifying the odd word or phrase here and there – onion was a special favourite with a wonderfully flat first vowel, and the line With buttocks brod, and brestes round and hye had us both in stitches.

This was from The Reeve’s Tale which I don’t know all that well. It features a couple of characters from the north which Eaton does in a brilliant northern accent of the period. I was keen to look it up when we arrived and thankful that I have a cheap but wonderfully useful selection of the tales in a cheap Penguin paperback in Maison KL, to supplement the more wonderful but chunky Riverside edition back in Singapore. So that was my reading for the morning.

I’m raiding the books here to take a few back which will form the basis of my reading of novels for the next couple of months. This means a return for a while to some classics which I feel I’ve been neglecting and a temporary halt to the buying of contemporary novels. (Probably very temporary as I’m already feeling the itch for a shot of Atwood, Coetzee, Ishiguro…)

We’re not stopping here long. The plan is to go back to Melaka this evening and visit Mak in hospital tomorrow. She’s been having a torrid time of it lately, and we’ve been pretty worried. A tear in her intestines led to a problem with bleeding early last week and it was a relief to find out it was just a tear and nothing more sinister, but her cholesterol levels and blood pressure remain high so she needs to be closely monitored. We’re hoping this will be the last of the setbacks for her and she can get back to real life soon.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 4

Two days' moaning and groaning is quite enough, thank you. And how ungrateful it has been. It's time to count those uncountable reasons to feel good about the world, and almost embarrassing to do so:

my wife - Haydn's string quartets - a plentiful supply of water - peaceful elections in Indonesia - Mum's birthday, coming soon - living in a warm climate - the New York Review of Books - having a job - sup tulang - my big, thick Collected Poems of Robert Lowell - the wonder and occasional terror of supporting Man U - being able to travel up to KL later today - curry puffs - the mysteries of language - an American president who doesn't make you squirm in embarrassment - trees - having access to the technology that allows me to post this - the cartoons in the Straits Times, especially Get Fuzzy - elephants - the standard of care at East Shore Hospital -

Could go on forever but that's just a quick twenty.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Heat Is On

More moaning today from me, I'm afraid. It's been hot and humid since early morning, and I mean very. The missus was commenting on the perspiration on my shirt before I'd stepped out of the apartment, around 6.05, so imagine how things were once the sun was actually up.

I rarely complain about the heat. As a cold-blooded, reptilian type it generally suits me - in contrast to the suffering I endure in Manchester winters. But today was an exception. Since I was lecturing for much of the day in what I assumed were going to be icily air-conditioned lecture theatres, I wore a long-sleeved shirt. Big mistake. By the end of the first hour of a less than animated performance (I spent a fair amount of the time sitting, quite a few of the kids sleeping) I became uncomfortably aware that I was what a Victorian lady might have referred to as glowing. The prospect of stepping outside into the real heat was most unwelcome and, in the event, just the effort of swapping lecture theatres for another round (of the same lecture, not exactly the most interesting way to spend the day) was enough to convince me that the day in general was one to forget.

Fortunately our plans to travel north this evening, ahead of the long weekend with a holiday on Good Friday, were abandoned a couple of days back. We're postponing until tomorrow. I have no idea how I would have coped with the drive to KL after the trials of the day, and suspect I would not have coped at all. A grim thought, but avoiding the ordeal is something to be thankful for.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Keep Taking The Tablets

I'm not keen on being highly medicated. Apart from anything else just remembering to take the stuff three times a day is a hassle, and I'm always on the verge of forgetting. I'm also suffering from a rash on the upper part of my torso which, I'm guessing, is an allergic reaction to one of the latest pills. (The doc keeps switching the little blighters around.) But if all this helps repair this old body it'll all be more than worth it. And if it doesn't, it's a timely reminder that these things our spirits ride in will wear out eventually no matter what we do.

For the last two nights I've been suffering ferocious cramp in both legs, the lower bits. This is not conducive to a good night's sleep. It sounds as if I'm moaning about it, I know, and, of course, I am. But there's a kind of fascination involved in the body rebelling in this way. It's unpleasant but distinctly interesting.

But not interesting enough to wish for another night of it. At this moment in time I can think of nothing that would be more rewarding than six or seven hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

And Another Bit

Forgot to mention yesterday that the New York Review of Books early April edition has been supplementing my visits to he worlds of Marquez and Ackrroyd. It's a particularly juicy issue, worth buying just for the review of Margaret Atwood's Payback. Her ferocious intelligence has been letting rip on the whole business of debt and the great novelist has some intriguing things to say. Must get this when it becomes available in paperback.

However, much as I've enjoyed dipping into this particular edition at least two of the essays left me feeling rather down in the dumps regarding the insanity of our species. Richard Bernstein's At Last, Justice for Monsters focusing on the Closing Order Indicting Kaing Guek Eav alias Duch lifted the lid a little on the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. A little in this case felt more than enough. Whilst Mark Danner's US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites pretty much takes the lid off the whole rotten system of 'renditions'. The details of exactly what was done to particular individuals to extract information seen as somehow necessary to winning the 'War on Terror' is monotonously compelling. Danner argues cogently that the information gained wasn't worth much, if anything at all, and that the 'gloves coming off' was a disaster in legal, moral and political terms for the U.S. I've just discovered that there's a follow-up essay from the later April edition posted online which can be read here. I'm preparing to feel even more depressed. Oh, and the original Danner article itself is here.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Bit By Bit

Progress in reading has been slow of late. It's been almost a fortnight since I embarked on One Hundred Years of Solitude and I'm only halfway through. Having said that, I'm enjoying reading it so much that the slow pace is in some ways welcome - there's something to relish in every paragraph, and how nice it is to have such long paragraphs.

And the same is true of Peter Ackroyd's London - The Biography, which I actually started when in hospital. Sometimes I've only managed one page in a day, but each has been worth lingering over. Which helps account for the fact that I'm only around 60 pages in.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

All Hyped Up

Spent part of this morning listening to my recently acquired 2 CD set of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Hammersmith Odeon, London 1975. Following yesterday's Procol Harum party it was fascinating to listen to another band employing a two keyboard sound with piano and organ. The difference in texture is astonishing. The chunky Procol sound doesn't give a lot of room for much else, hence the need for a guitarist of Geoff Whitehorn's ability to find a space to wail in occasionally, but more often to embroider the essential texture on which everything rests. I suppose it all comes down to Gary Brooker's chordal, full, bluesy approach to the piano. In contrast, Roy Bittan of the E Street Band is all pianistic filigree, with the late, sorely-missed Danny Federici sliding in and out. These guys, if anything, create space. I remember someone commenting to this effect on the Blood Brothers video of a few years back - one of the many strengths of the E Street Band was that everyone involved knew what, when and when not to play. The sound is always lean and sharp, never cluttered, even at its most frenetic.

I've been listening a fair amount to early Springsteen lately, having picked up The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle last month and reminding myself of what an impossibly romantic record it was. The E Street sound is not fully worked out on it, of course, and it was a surprise to be reminded of just how different the band were with David Sancious on board. It's my understanding that he didn't get on too well with Danny Federici and certainly there's not enough Federici to satisfy. In contrast, The Hammersmith Odeon is recognisably the whole machine fitting effortfully, effortlessly into place.

So why did the original London shows (I think there were two nights in total) get such tepid reviews? The recording confirms that the band were so hot they were on fire (though I don't care much for the electric piano sound - presumably Bittan was not playing his usual instrument?) But I vividly remember reading that Springsteen had been a bit of a let-down in the British music press of the period. By that time I was a major fan, though it wasn't until 1988 that I actually got to see him, and the band, live, and I found it difficult to believe what I was reading.

The reason, undoubtedly, lay in the huge hype that surrounded the event, rather well described by Springsteen in the liner notes for the CD. The press went to pour cold water on the future of rock and roll, not to listen. It's clear from the recording that the audience were listening and rightly going ga ga over the treat they were being served. Which leads me to what I think would be an excellent TOK presentation topic for anyone who's heavily into music: How can we know when something is being hyped that it's worthy of the attention that the PR people are telling you to give it?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Voice From The Past

I got lucky yesterday, picking up a bargain price DVD at Sembawang Records at Parkway. For a mere 17 bucks I got my hand on Procol Harum - Live At The Union Chapel, which also boasts a rather nifty CD of edited material from the DVD itself. I'd actually spotted it on their shelves a couple of weeks back, but hadn't bought it then as it cost over 40 dollars at that point in time (the mysteries of capitalism!) and I've got several unwatched DVDs on the shelves from our time in the UK and still three cheapo cheapo ones from the Medan trip. It's nice to own things, but only if you do them some sort of justice. But in the couple of weeks following my sighting of the Union Chapel DVD I found myself thinking that perhaps I'd made a mistake. Procol are one of my favourite bands and I'd seen very positive reviews of the live DVD which had even made me consider ordering from amazon or somewhere, and here it was (against the odds!) in a shop within walking distance. So given how much I finally paid for it, having decided I was going to buy it if it was still there, I think I can say things worked out for the best.

That was confirmed this morning when the sweet sounds of Mr Brooker and colleagues accompanied my marking; well, in between scripts anyway. I've actually seen the band live three times, but that was in the early seventies, and it's safe to say they have improved with age. In fact, now I think of it, they were one of the first bands I ever saw, quite soon after Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother concert (my first!!) at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. They'd just released Broken Barricades, one of the first albums I owned, and I remember being quite surprised at just how much of Robin Trower's guitar work featured in concert. He soon left to form a rather dull Hendrix-type power trio. I was sort of impressed with Procol but didn't know enough of the back catalogue to get into all the material. The second time I saw them Trower had gone, and I didn’t miss him. I remember being entranced by B.J. Wilson's drumming (one of the greats, may he rest in peace) and generally realising how badly I'd listened to them the first time. The third time was really odd. They were on a double bill with Steeleye Span as support. This was just as Steeleye were beginning to break big, coming out of the folk rock ghetto, as it were, and Steeleye blew them off the stage. Or at least it seemed like that at the time. I was heavily into Steeleye and the musical press were saying that Procol were tired, and I've got a terrible feeling that I listened to them (the press, not Procol.) But, perhaps it was genuinely a bad night.

I think it must have been after that that I acquired (as a bargain-price lp on the Chrysalis label, confirming, for perceptive readers, that my cheapskatedness runs deep) Procol Harum Live In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. This album became something of a touchstone for me, proof that bands who played concerts with big orchestras were not necessarily being pretentious gits. Basically it's simply a perfect album. Brilliant songs, played brilliantly with note-perfect arrangements. And these were from Gary Brooker himself. Every time I listen to A Salty Dog from this album I find myself thinking the somewhat ridiculous thought that this is greatest song ever written by anybody, anywhere. Silly, but it always pops up. Much as I was sympathetic to the punk ethos of getting back to basics, there was always the idea of what Procol had captured on that magical night to remind me that there might be other ways of doing things.

And that voice. Of all the great white blues/soul voices (and I'm bearing in mind Van the Man here) no one can touch Brooker's for that curious fragility at the centre of all the power. I always get the sense that he's not that far from losing the pitch but he never does, even on the toughest melodies, and he's written more than a few major challenges for himself. The fact that he makes even the most abstruse of Keith Reid's lyrics expressive, speaks volumes for the intelligence of that voice.

So Live At The Union Chapel threatens to be on heavy rotation for quite some time, thus justifying an almost perfect purchase. By the way, this version of the band is stellar, to say the least. Ace organist Matthew Fisher is back on board (I never saw in any of the versions of the band when I caught them live) so I suppose his battle with Brooker over the composition rights for A Whiter Shade of Pale has been settled. They play out with an extended version on the DVD and it's interesting they're playing the song again. In the days I watched them it was never on the set list. I suppose they've come to terms with the fact that they've been unfairly identified with a miniscule part of a fantastic catalogue of songs. Personally I always preferred Homburg, A Salty Dog and Conquistador amongst the singles. A guy called Geoff Whitehorn plays guitar and makes the likes of Robin Trower sound stiff, whilst Mark Brzezicki and Mattt Pegg make a top-notch, and relatively young, rhythm section. I'm guessing that Matt is the son of the legendary Fairport and lately Tull bassist Dave Pegg, and he sounds as good as his dad, which is really saying something.

The problem now is that I'm developing a yearning to get hold of all the Procol albums from Broken Barricades onwards, none of which I own on CD. So this bargain buy might turn out to be rather expensive in the long run.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hardly Standing Still


Still medicated. In fact, actually jabbed at one tender point. About to zoom off to watch some of our Theatre Arts students in performance. Hope the sleepy pills don't have too much effect: I've been told to ask at least one question post-performance and I'm hoping it will be a reasonably coherent one.


We fed on some deep moonfish at the theatre this evening, and a jolly good meal it was. Intense. But I sort of expected that. In addition to intensity two old favourites: clarity and control. Plus, a splendid discussion afterwards. And these guys are just at the beginning!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bearing Fruit

The last couple of weeks have been fruitfully busy. It's not often I've been able to use such a positive phrase about work over the last twenty years or so, so I'll have a little celebration that I can at least use it now, temporary as the state may be.

Tomorrow I'll be seeing my back doctor again. I'm hoping we'll drop the medication for a time and see if life without painkillers is a possibility. It will be nice not to feel that I'm tripping out around mid-morning for once. Mind you, I suspect the haze has improved my teaching.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

This Great Stage Of Fools

On a day when we tend to notice folly shining even more brightly than usual, I managed to do something even more than averagely foolish. I'll spare the reader the details and myself the blushes, but it will be valuable, if painful, to remember. I take solace in feeling wiser for knowing what an idiot I am.