Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Health And Otherwise

In 1860, his annus mirabilis, it seems that Garibaldi, as he often did at various times, was suffering badly from chronic arthritis. It could affect him so badly that there were occasions he needed to be carried by others. The guy was amazing, as Christopher Hibbert's excellent biography makes abundantly clear. He was also, it would seem, amazingly lucky. You lose count of the number of times you think This time he's going to lose some battle or other when the odds are, as usual, stacked against him. Oddly, he generally, though not always, behaved as if he were assured of victory. This is a guy, you feel, who made his own luck.

Not so lucky, at the moment, is Mum with these damned shingles. The doctor predicted the pain would go in two to three weeks. It's now the fifth week, and she thinks it's getting worse. We're just hoping for a sudden change in the condition. I'm ringing on a daily basis so she can have a good moan about it. It's all I can do, and it seems to do her some good. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on the part of someone who's powerless to be of any real help.

On the other hand, brother-in-law John seems to be making a good recovery from his knee op. He went outside for the first time since he was under the knife the other day, he informed me with the kind of enthusiasm that shows he's on the mend. It would be a relief to hear some of the same from Mum.

And me? I've been off the medication (for my sciatica) for a week or so and it's not been too difficult to deal with the pain. I'll be seeing the doc on Friday afternoon and I'm hoping he lays off prescribing the pills for a while. Apart from the fact I'm not keen on becoming dependent on medicines generally, it's been suggested that my puffy cheeks (people think I've put on weight when I'm the lightest I've been since my late teens) may be a side effect of something I've been ingesting. Mind you, I think it could simply be that my face is collapsing due to old age.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Quite A Party

It was years ago, reading Stephen King's The Shining, that I first came across the story of the Donner Party. King was pretty sparing on the details, assuming his (American) readers would be familiar with the reference I suppose, but I gathered the story related to some fairly nauseating cannibalism in the snow out West, as it were. At the time I thought of finding out a bit more but never quite got round to it. Nowadays I'd probably nip to Wikipedia to satisfy my curiosity.

Anyway I finally got round to familiarising myself with the tale, but not through the Internet. No, I've been reading a very interesting narrative poem, a book-length piece, bit of an epic really, by one George Keithley, of whom I've never heard before. I think it was written around 1972, as that's when the copyright was recorded, and it came out in paperback in 1989 - title: The Donner Party. I got it through, basically at a time a couple of years back when I was interested in modern narrative poems - there are more out there than you might think - and I've been very much enjoying it (reading it in tandem with the Garibaldi book of which I'm now onto the last 100 pages.)

The only thing is that I've been puzzling over the form Keithley uses and the principles underlying his verse. Okay, I'll come clean - I'm not quite sure exactly why this is poetry; it sometimes reads like prose for long stretches - and while this doesn't alter my enjoyment (it's a good story, well told) I'm intrigued as to what the writer thought he was up to, and whether I'm missing something. The poem is divided into three sections which are subdivided into books, or chapters, I guess, of unequal length, each one of these beginning and ending with a four-line stanza (I suppose you'd call it) with the rest of the chapter being made up of three-line stanzas. There doesn't seem to be any obvious common metre, though most lines seem to break down into three or two stresses with uneven numbers of unstressed syllables in between. Until yesterday I would also have said there wasn't any rhyme, but then poised at the beginning of the third and final section, with the grimness of the narrative gathering apace, I suddenly realised there were an awful lot of occasional rhymes dotted around the ends of lines, though in no obvious pattern, and even more (an awfuller lot, mayhap) of half rhymes. I was a bit embarrassed not to have been aware of this before and started to check earlier bits to see if this had been done consistently earlier. I'm still not sure it had. Unfortunately the checking sort of messed up the forward momentum of my reading and I'm beginning to wish I'd not noticed the rhymes at all and just got the story.

So now I'm trying to get back into the flow of the poem and thinking I might just re-read it straightaway with closer attention to issues of prosody, which actually will be no chore as it's such a fine piece and worth doing justice to.

Monday, September 28, 2009


What is it about getting dressed up, enjoying the good company of various fine people and eating immoderate amounts of their excellent nosh, that is so thoroughly exhausting? We only went to four houses yesterday and got home by nine o'clock but I took to my bed almost immediately and felt pretty much pooped all day today.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Time Starved

It's one of those days when I'm feeling extremely pushed for time. This morning's marking has not gone well. I hit a series of weak scripts, all requiring undue attention to try and help students who seem to have neglected all sensible advice so far. If you've never had the experience, let me tell you that marking eight pages largely consisting of an attempt to bluff the examiner, through vague generalities couched in an even vaguer approximation of the English language, that the candidate has some knowledge of the texts in question, when they don't, is extremely time-consuming.

And at one o'clock or thereabouts we're off, in the splendid company of Rozita and Fuad and the girls, visiting various households in the course of what the missus terms jalan raya. We will undoubtedly eat and drink too much because there's little else to do - but we'll have a good time doing so. I'm told that we'll be back by ten o'clock, but I'll be happy if we manage this. No wonder all the Muslims here look exhausted post-Ramadhan!

In the meantime, I'm off to suffer through one more script. (It's a thick one, in more ways than one.)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Getting Your Fingers Dirty

I've washed my hands something like ten times today, and I'm talking about a proper thorough soaping, not just a quick run under the tap. This is not a sign of obsessive-compulsive behaviour, at least I hope it's not. It's entirely due to the appalling quality of newsprint, or whatever it is, that causes one's fingers to get thoroughly grimy when perusing any edition of The Straits Times or other SPH newspapers.

It's been particularly noticeable today as I've dragged out the reading of the paper, which I normally attempt to get through in one sitting, basically because of this problem, for much of the day as I've been marking exam scripts and regularly take breaks between scripts by picking up the paper to find out what's going on in the world. Whenever I go back to England I'm reminded of just how much a feature of the local press this is as I can merrily read all the papers over there without smudging a single digit and it invariably takes me by surprise since I'm so used to the messiness created by The Straits Times et al.

The other way in which the local paper differs considerably physically from English varieties is in terms of sheer size. English papers are fairly thin affairs (except for the bulky Sunday versions with all their supplements and magazines) compared to the incredibly thick four-part version of The Straits Times that comes out on Saturday, and I'm not counting the Life supplement that accompanies it. However, this is not on account of the Singapore paper containing a lot more news or features. No, essentially it's down to the massive amount of advertising therein which sometimes results in it being difficult to spot any actual news for several pages.

Anyway, having finished my marking for the day I'm off to read the fourth section of today's paper, which features some fairly interesting looking articles about progress in China, it being the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic thereof next Thursday. One good thing about the local press is that, on a good day at least, reasonable interest is taken in what's going on in the rest of the world and that can make dirtying the old fingers reasonably worthwhile.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Two Voices

It's been a bit frustrating that I've hardly been able to find time to really get to listen to the stash of CDs I bought a couple of weeks back - marking the Year 6 Prelim papers has not been of assistance in this respect. But I managed last night to get a good listen to the White Album, of which I am now the proud possessor for the first time in my life. I can't really explain why I've never bought it. It was one of those albums that someone else always had and played (at university, I mean) and I never felt that desperate to listen to it full time, as it were, despite enjoying most of it. I realised last night that I really didn't 'know' it as well as I thought I did. Yes, the famous stuff I knew, but I was genuinely surprised at how slow the album version of Revolution is, for example, compared to the single version which I know well, almost as if it had quite disappeared from my consciousness. Similarly listening to Helter Skelter I kept noticing the differences from U2's live version (on Rattle & Hum) the original has become so displaced over time by Bono & Co's (excellent) take on the piece. And the more obscure material kept taking me by surprise, almost as if I'd never been exposed to it before (a rather pleasant experience, in its way, like re-reading a novel when you've completely forgotten everything about it.)

I was also leafing through Mark Lewishon's interesting, if anoraky, account of all the Beatles's recording sessions, The Beatles Recording Sessions (nifty title, eh?) with particular reference to the White Album and was reminded of how obsessive John Lennon was about altering/distorting his voice on the later albums. Nearly every album from Revolver onwards (maybe before, not too sure) has him having his vocals processed through some form of technology or other. There's a nice story, and picture, of him singing Revolution flat on his back on the studio floor just to see, or hear, what it does to his voice. What is so extraordinary about this is that the guy had such a wonderful voice - in my not-so-humble opinion the greatest male voice of the last century. Why he chose to sort of hide it is beyond me.

In fact, I think it's Bono somewhere who refers to Lennon having the voice of an angel, and he got that absolutely right. (Being no slouch on the vocal front himself, I'd suggest this is a judgment worth trusting.) I thought the reference came somewhere on Rattle & Hum in association with the great Lennon sort-of-tribute God Part II, but I just tried to look it up and couldn't find anything. Anyway, if I'm making it up I don't mind claiming the observation for myself.

It also occurs to me, while I'm attempting some originality, that so far the greatest voice of this century has to be Dylan's - I mean the extraordinary raddled version we hear on the last three supreme albums - and that too has a fair claim to an angelic lineage - but this time one of the more disreputable angels, the type the Almighty sends to do his dirty work, possibly one of the fallen. But utterly wonderful in its otherness.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Of Men And Moustaches

The fellow above is not some long-lost member of my family but King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy. (I 'borrowed' the picture from those nice people at Wikipedia, so apologies for any infringement of copyright.) And he's there for a reason.

One of the many fine features of Christopher Hibbert's biography Garibaldi And His Enemies is its excellent portraits of various bit-players in Garibaldi's fascinating life, amongst whom the monarch above features prominently enough to emerge as a bit of a star in himself. Apart from anything else (and there's a lot of that, including, unexpectedly, an appetite for sexual experience voracious enough to rival that of old Giuseppe himself) he was possessed of a fabulous moustache, to which, quite frankly, the portrait above fails to do justice. Hibbert memorably describes it in the following terms: …an immense moustache which swept up towards his little, grey eyes in a ferociously intimidating crescent. However, transcending the poetry of that is an extraordinary picture of said 'tache, well it's of the man himself but it's hard to get past the fabulous facial hair, on page 64 of the book (if you can get hold of it), which stunned me into silent admiration when I first saw it. What Mum would describe as a moustache and a half. The thing is simply an epic in itself.

Which made me wonder, what was it like to live behind that kind of growth? I mean so many of these nineteenth century chaps did so, after all. There's a friend of Garibaldi called Stefan Turr sporting an almost equally impressive moustache with an even better beard on page 180, for example. And why did they go out of style? It's like the disappearance of hats - inexplicable and sad. The world is a drabber place without its Victor Emmanuels. Probably safer though.

Which reminds me of Roald Dahl's odd obsession with beards. Remember The Twits, anyone?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Action Man

Somewhat surprised at the extent to which I am enjoying Christopher Hibbert's biography Garibaldi And His Enemies. In truth I thought of reading it as a bit of a duty. It was one of those books I picked up (with a couple of Burgess's novels) cheaply at work last year. It concerned such an off-beat subject, about whom I know next to nothing, that I felt it was worth it at the price (just a couple of bucks.) I seem to remember something about Garibaldi in Conrad's Nostromo, I think, that made me think I really should find out a bit about him and Hibbert's book is perfect for doing so. Apart from anything else it's clear and engaging on the complexities of Italian politics of the period - a major achievement in itself.

It turns out that Garibaldi was one of those incredibly brave chaps without much of a brain. It's kind of relaxing to read about someone so fundamentally different from myself. Not that I'm claiming much in the way of brainpower - rather I'm thinking of my distinct lack of physical courage. Garibaldi had it in bucketfuls as Hibbert makes clear in what turn out to be rather gripping pages.

The other striking thing about the guy is that he was so modern in a number of ways, but most of all in his conscious manipulation of the cult of celebrity that emerged around him. He really cultivated and used a definite image of himself in an almost instinctive manner to become, as is pointed out in the preface, the most famous man of his time. How many of us, after all, have had our very own biscuit named after us? The curious thing is, I suppose, the extent to which his reputation has fallen since. Maybe that's simply the fate of all celebrities eventually.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In Retrospect

Some shots above of a very jolly Hari Raya taken in Melaka.

Back safely at the Mansion we're now beginning to re-establish our pre-Ramadhan routines. And, of course, after counting down the days to the end of the fast we're now missing the experience - well, I am, and I suspect Noi is as well. I suppose it's the intensity of it all that makes it so special. Somehow, despite the tiredness, you feel more alive.

Today I enjoyed a cup of tea in the SAC at work for the first time in quite a while, and it felt a little odd. The good thing was my heightened awareness of what a privilege it is to be able to enjoy such a thing at all. That's one of the powerful things about fasting - it serves to heighten ordinary experience to make you realise how extraordinary it really is; a kind of reality check.

It also reminds you of the fact that your identity is not a fixed thing - you can re-make yourself if you have enough desire. A lesson in re-programming, I suppose.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sort Of Victorious

Last night's Manchester derby led to yet more grey hairs, despite United's eventual victory. Oddly enough I'd been discussing with Fuad in the morning, on the way back from the mosque, the possibility of Bellamy causing a few problems, so his efforts in the second half didn't exactly come as a surprise, though Ferdinand's presentation of a gift-wrapped opportunity did. And what exactly was Foster up to for the first City goal? I hate to say I could see it coming, but I could see it coming.

The fact that we had to view the game surrounded by the usual contingent of highly vocal Arsenal supporters here in Melaka (and to think we even applauded the Arsenal performance of the night before!) added to the jangling nerves. Rachid alone creates enough noise in his outbursts to make concentration on the details of the game impossible.

But justice was served eventually - face it, we tore them apart in the second half. At least I can relax a little when I watch the replay.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Triumph And Defeat

Hari Raya Puasa; Eid Al Fitr 1430

Well 'triumph' is a bit strong. Let's say success instead. The success of fulfillling the physical terms of the fast. But though difficult to some degree - twenty-nine days can seem an awfully long time - that was always going to be the easy bit.

No, the tough part was the rest, the psychological stuff. Not to get irritated or lose one's temper, for example. I'm not at all sure I succeeded there. 'Defeat' is an appropriate word, I'm afraid. But there has been something learned, in terms of the restraint that this is all about. Something almost physical, a kind of bodily knowing. And this is a day on which to seek the forgiveness most of us so urgently need. I know I do.

This restraint, by the way, is something close to the patience recommended in King Lear, and there was a man who needed to learn that virtue. More sinned against than sinning. Yes, I think most of us have been there some time or other.

In the meantime Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri to all.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Art Of Cookery

29 Ramadhan 1430

Noi has been fairly faithfully watching a programme called Master Chef on one of the new cable BBC channels, BBC Lifestyle, that we've been able to get recently. It's a jolly if somewhat tense affair in which various aspiring cooks are put through their paces and generally found wanting until one emerges as the master chef in question. We've just finished one series, I'm not sure if it was the first, and a rather likable and talented young lady called Tommy or Thomasina, won the award (if that's what it is.) Actually pretty much all the contenders emerged as likable sorts and in the end you were left with that familiar feeling that it was a pity there could be only one winner. It's now started another series and it looks as if Noi will continue as an avid viewer. I don't blame her. Although I don't watch quite as avidly, I find it interesting enough to watch occasionally and suspect I could get hooked if I allowed myself to.

Apart from the fact the contestants are likable, a feature I find to be true of many 'reality' shows, with the exception of those that deliberately seek confrontation, and an interesting comment on humanity in general, the contestants on Master Chef are nearly all very talented. They need to be as what they are put through is so demanding. My usual comment to the missus is that you'd have to be a bit crazy to want to be a chef - they work so incredibly hard.

They are also very creative. A lot of the tasks demand they create dishes from fairly random ingredients and it's remarkable what they come up with, usually against the clock. They're also very hot on the presentation of the food. The dishes usually look gorgeous - and this from a man who generally doesn't notice how it looks, as long as it tastes okay.

Which brings me to my main point. If this isn't Art in a serious sense (enough to make me use a capital letter) I don't know what it is. I've made this case before, and it also applies to gardening. The creativity of our species is something to treasure ( especially when so much else about us is just plain embarrassing) and celebrate, and we should be ready to acknowledge it in all its forms. Mind you, as a man about to conclude his fast for Ramadhan (just one hour left!) I would say something positive about food I suppose.

Friday, September 18, 2009


28 Ramadhan 1430

One of the many joys of this month - watching the missus concocting her endless supply of sweet biscuits (see above.) Over now - we're off to Melaka in an hour or so.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


27 Ramadhan 1430

As the holy month draws to its conclusion I'm looking to complete my bout of Islamic-themed reading. I finished Fazlur Rahman's Revival and Reform in Islam quite quickly, a few days back. A rather technical text and I'm not sure the argument is entirely coherent in the later chapters (it's actually an unfinished work) but the early chapters were worth reading, presenting an interesting alternative to other accounts of the early years of Islam, a deeply critical one at that. I was struck by just how fundamental questions of Muslim identity were in these formative years, simply in terms of who could be classified as Muslim. This is one to re-read when I've built up more background on the period.

I followed this one with an easier text, Islamic Philosophy, A Beginner's Guide by Majiid Fahkry. This is informative but doesn't really engage with the material in terms of taking a position, unlike Fazlur Rahman, who clearly has a distinct agenda. Curiously though this is taking longer for me to read, though this may have something to do with being back at work.

The other book I've got going is The Essential Rumi. I'd previously dipped into Barks's versions of Rumi but this time I'm going for a sequential read, cover to cover. This has meant that I've been reading the poems at some speed and not stopping to re-read in order to savour individual pieces. The effect of this has been to give me a sense of the overwhelming ecstatic power of Rumi (or Barks, it's hard to tell - these poems not being translations in any traditional sense - more like Pound's versions of Chinese or Provencal verse.) Certainly Rumi comes across as far more positive than Attar does, even though they share the same thought-world. It's easy to see why Rumi/Barks has become so popular in the States, no bad thing in terms of furthering understanding between cultures.

Anyway, I'm targeting Hari Raya for the big finish on both books.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Not So Good

26 Ramadhan 1430

Mum is still having a rough time with the shingles. When I rang last night she was complaining of the incessant pain in her right shoulder and sounded thoroughly browned off. The doctor had given her some new painkillers so I'm hoping they helped to get her through the night. It seems the blisters around her shoulder are looking a lot better, as if they're clearing, but the pain remains the same.

I also rang brother-in-law John who was released from hospital on Monday, following a knee replacement operation last week. He sounded in reasonably good form, but his vivid account of the op and its aftermath reminded me to try and avoid needing a new knee - it's not a pleasant procedure. He's going to be on crutches for a few weeks. This is one of the ops that Mum has had, and from which she made an amazingly speedy recovery. I'm hoping her resilience can carry through these damnable shingles.

Meanwhile there's not a lot I can do to help stuck out here. It's amazing how pain, someone else's, can make you feel thoroughly useless.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In Judgment

25 Ramadhan 1430

Sometimes after listening to a CD I'll go to to have a look at what the reviews say. I prefer reading these to reviews in mainstream magazines as they are: (a) more plentiful and varied; (b) written not to impress (with occasional exceptions) but just to say something the writers felt worth saying; (c) usually enthusiastic and wanting to communicate that enthusiasm, which is always refreshing. Oh, and sometimes they're genuinely informative regarding the background to material. I think there's a basic human need to share feelings and ideas, especially related to what might broadly be termed art, and these critical communities (a bit accidental in amazon's case, but that's the effect) work because they fulfil something of that.

But something else I've noticed about these reviews alerts me to the downside of such communities. It's interesting just how often a reviewer will feel the need to stand in judgment over the material under consideration, and I mean 'over' - as in above, superior, from on high. One example from the last time I checked some reviews illustrates this nicely. The album in question was Neil Young's Silver and Gold, a gorgeously mellow, tuneful collection in an acoustic, 'gentle Neil' vein. As I expected, the reviews were predominantly enthusiastic - how could they not be?

Yet the frequency with which songs were singled out as not being worth putting on the disk, or not first-rate Young material, was striking. One reviewer picked out Daddy Went Walkin' and Buffalo Springfield Again as candidates for dismissal, for example. Astonishing. Two delightful, beautifully crafted tracks, with obvious personal resonance for the singer, and the reviewer, basically a fan, would have preferred they didn't exist. What's going on here?

I think there's another very basic, and dangerous, need at work here. The need to place things, to magisterially stand in judgment. To control, as it were by proxy, the manifold creativity of all that is around us. This is the reason why so much academic criticism sucks. (Yes, I know I'm making a judgment, but it's fun to contradict oneself occasionally.)

Oh, and if you need to mellow out Silver and Gold is one great place to start.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Testing Times

24 Ramadhan 1430

Arriving home this evening I was telling Noi just how tough the day had felt, like yesterday being characterised by my complete lack of energy. Every staircase climbed a challenge, and there seemed to be an awful lot of them. It seems that she felt the same way - possibly because of the heat, or perhaps just because it was that point in fasting month at which you hit the wall. We're being tested, she said. A good way to look at it - as a kind of opportunity, something to rise above. But it's still hard to do so when you're as soft as I am.

So I'm just counting down the days instead of relishing them. We've done the last Sunday, the last Monday for this year. Bring on the weekend!

Sunday, September 13, 2009


23 Ramadhan 1430

To say I've felt low on energy today would be an understatement, and this despite a relaxing day yesterday and a good night's sleep. It's the sort of thing that happens in Ramadhan. Just when you feel you've adjusted completely to the demands made upon the body, the body decides to let you know something else about itself. I've already had two unintentional naps and feel as if I could happily zonk out for the whole afternoon - though I sense this wouldn't do me any good at all.

And that leads me to consider those whose fasting is not voluntary, those poor souls who just don't and can't get enough to eat on a daily basis. To be permanently physically worn down, to lack the precious energy needed to get through the day - frankly, it's not imaginable. A small aspect of the value of doing the fast is to get a sense of what that condition might be like and, hence, develop at least a tiny degree of understanding, but with the maghrib prayer our burden is eased, replaced by something suspiciously close to a version of joy, and can we really understand what it is to carry that burden always? I don't believe we can.

But we can sympathise, and we can act.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


22 Ramadhan 1430

Geylang was fairly crowded last night, but not extravagantly so. We took the bus, avoiding the hazards of parking, and easily got seats both ways, and there was no traffic jam to speak of. Unfortunately this suggests the traders there might not be doing such great business and I hope it picks up for them this weekend and next.

My zakat was duly paid, at Darul Arqam, the usual choice, and we picked up the girls' outfits for the big day. Our little outing felt distinctly celebratory and this is the odd paradox of Ramadhan - a time of deprivation suddenly becomes one of plenty, almost of carnival. Noi and I have been discussing the degree to which the whole experience can be commercialised. She feels it has been, possibly overly so, but I can't quite share that view. The month has a core of deep resistance to the kind of thing that has sadly cheapened Christmas. The deprivation is too real to be exploited.

And what business is done is a necessary, welcome part of the world. In this respect Islam has always seen trade and the like to be a positive aspect of our time on this earth, assuming its benefits are general for all. The Prophet's (peace be upon him) time as a merchant is worth recalling and in many ways integral to his identity.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Loot

21 Ramadhan 1430

Pictured above, the swag from yesterday's expedition to Orchard Road. Our accomplices - Fifi and Fafa, who are temporarily in residence. This is the first time this Ramadhan that we have broken the fast outside, always a doubtful proposition, but in this case we got a nice cup of tea at the café inside Kunokinya so it all worked out well.

We've also now officially switched on our twinkling lights and tonight we're off to Geylang to pay the zakat for the year. Since I feel more than a little guilty regarding the outlay on the CDs (and I didn't actually get quite a number on my list) it's an excellent time to do so and remind myself of wider responsibilities.

Fafa got the Wimpy Kid book, by the way, and I really must read it myself. Very cheerful stuff.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Conference Call

20 Ramadhan 1430

I completed Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi's fine translation of Farid Ud-Din Attar's The Conference Of The Birds last night. I suppose it's somewhat presumptuous to assume the translation is a good one when I haven't the foggiest what the original Persian sounds like, but the rhyming couplets read so well in English that they are a pleasure in themselves. I felt myself grasping something of the thought-world of the Sufis, certainly feeling a measure of their intensity. The Way outlined by Attar is distinctly intimidating.

As I was reading I couldn't help but think of a production I saw many years ago here in Singapore, based on Peter Brook's version of The Conference Of The Birds. It was directed by William Teo, who sadly has passed away since then. He also did Part 1 of The Mahabharata, again based on the Brook's version and a very powerful piece Year Zero: The Historical Tragedy of Cambodia in the mid-nineties. All three were lovingly mounted and startlingly memorable. I can recall whole scenes and their impact just sitting here. Of the three it was The Conference Of The Birds that seemed the most magical. Partly this was to do with the location of the staging. It was mounted in what was then a deserted warehouse by the river, I think on the spot where the Singapore Repertory Theatre's home now stands. The magic was also a result of the intensity the cast, all amateurs, brought to the experience. They really meant it. Though what exactly it was, was enigmatic, to some degree. In fact, more enigmatic, I think, than Attar's original poem which does have its puzzles, but strives as far as it can to say exactly what it means.

One simple thing that's impossible to miss in Attar is his contempt for the fruits of this world and the sense that what's real bears no relation to how we see the world. This echo of Qur'anic truth (though I'm not sure that contempt for the world is what we get in the scripture) has been on my mind for the last few days as the holy month has made me take stock of my own vision/version of how things are. I'm adjusting the goggles.

I'm also moving on from Approaching The Qur'an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells, though I've yet to give my full attention to the readings from The Holy Qur'an on the CD accompanying the text. Sells's readings of the Suras he covers are sympathetic and illuminating, and helped clean my goggles.

So now it's a question of what to turn to over the last lap of Ramadhan. The idea of sticking to Islamic-themed material (though not quite exclusively) has worked well for me so I'm sticking to that idea. A collection of Rumi's poems, The Essential Rumi, in translation by Coleman Barks, came to hand this morning and looks to be a worthy successor to the Attar. (Though I must say, I was sorely tempted to have a look at The Parlement of Foules, my favourite early Chaucer, which kept springing to mind throughout my reading.) And I'm also considering Fazlur Rahman's Revival and Reform in Islam, which is pretty heavy and demanding as a specialist text, but will fill, I hope, quite a few spaces behind the goggles.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Body Of Work

19 Ramadhan 1430

Very early in fasting month Fuad was asking me about the mighty Steely Dan and whether I had any of their albums. It seems he'd discovered them through someone he knew, who'd played him some of Two Against Nature, and was keen to have a further listen. I was able to supply him with all the studio albums released under their name which left quite a hole on one of my CD stacks. In order: Can't Buy A Thrill, Pretzel Logic, Countdown To Ecstasy, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja, Gaucho, Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go. I must say I envied him the experience he had in store - just writing the albums down is a reminder of just how many great songs there are in there. And this omits the solo stuff from Fagen and Becker which is all but Steely Dan in name.

Of all the albums named above it's Katy Lied which generally I find to be underrated, but not by myself. It was released just as I went to university and was the first Steely album I really listened to. The textures seem to me sparer than on other albums, especially in pieces like Everyone's Gone To The Movies (brilliantly insidious lyric, by the way) but melodically it's an extraordinarily fine collection as songs like Bad Sneakers testify. This was also the album that made the decisive move to a sort of funky jazz idiom, leaving the pop elements of the first three behind, but it somehow lacks the slickness of the later work, allowing for more intimacy in the listening.

But what strikes me very forcibly about lending the pile to Fuad is that we're now in a position with regard to a lot of rock and jazz music to plug ourselves into large bodies of great work, sometimes a whole lifetime's output, which may previously have slipped beneath our radar. And sometimes it's hearing a band or a solo artist develop over a period that adds a fascination and new level of understanding to individual tracks that make them seem bigger than single songs. One example that springs to my mind is Fire In The Hole off the first album, Can't Buy A Thrill. Jazzy in a Thelonious Monk sort of manner, it seems a bit out of place considering the pieces it rubs shoulders against. Yet more than anything else on the album it's predictive of later jazz-funk directions. And it has a curiously emotional wallop to it, partly as a result of the obvious straining in Fagen's vocal.

I've got an odd feeling that when Fuad returns the CDs I might just mount a self-indulgent play-through of the whole lot.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

To Buy Or Not To Buy?

18 Ramadhan 1430

I think I first started buying albums around 1970 and I certainly got my money's worth then. Whatever I bought I listened to obsessively, playing the same album day after day (not owning enough, not having a lot of money, to do otherwise.) So I'm an expert in The Incredible String Band's U, Fairport's Angel Delight, the first Emerson, Lake and Palmer album and Floyd's Ummagumma, especially the live part, these being the first albums I ever owned.

This stands in stark contrast to the position I now find myself in. Yesterday at various times I listened to Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish, Dylan and The Band's Before The Flood and People's Colony No 1 by the Temple of Sound and Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali. In each case I had a strong sense of rediscovering something forgotten and, at times, listening to something wholly new, even in the case of Before The Flood, an album I've had for years, once owning it on vinyl. In that particular case I was far more aware than I'd been previously of The Band's contribution to the proceedings, especially Levon Helm's drumming. With regard to the Blur album, which I got hold of a few months ago, I found myself enjoying the simple attractiveness of the songs when originally I'd thought of it as a rather thin, insipid collection. And I'm embarrassed to say that People's Colony No 1 might have been entirely new to me, I was so unfamiliar with the material.

So all this is making me wonder whether I can justify a bit of spending on new CDs when I'm acutely conscious of not doing justice to what I already have. This week I've got the opportunity to do a bit of shopping and I have funds set aside that I need to spend on books (the vouchers I got for the workshop and a sort of grant for such from the school) but is it just extravagance for its own sake to extend my shopping to include a lot of stuff for the ears? Probably, but I doubt that that's going to stop me.

Amongst others I've got designs on Hank Williams, Badly Drawn Boy, The Decemberists and a bit of Chopin. A cheerful little list, methinks.

Monday, September 7, 2009


17 Ramadhan 1430


It's embarrassing to admit this but I'm spending a lot of time simply counting down the time to when I can break the fast, or counting the days to the end of Ramadhan. I felt a real delight at getting to Day 15 as that meant I'd gone beyond the halfway point, but then it occurred to me that such an attitude implied I was going downhill in ways other than the one I was counting. At times I remind myself of how impatient I was as a child during the weeks of Advent.

The embarrassment stems in part from my recognition of the childish side of my behaviour, but I must say it's mixed in with quite a bit of humour at the silliness of it all. It certainly prevents any sense of pride at my resoluteness since I don't think I can honestly claim any such quality under the circumstances. I'm pretty sure mature fasters don't do this - Noi, for one, completely loses track of the number of days we've covered.

But there's still plenty of time to go, so new things might be lying out there to learn. Just over halfway through means there's almost half a month left and I already feel like I've been doing this forever. And yet, of course, the time seems at the same time to be rushing by.

Mind you, there are few things I can think of that match the simple enjoyment of breaking the fast, especially when in company. Last night Mei and Boon came to help us polish off a few goodies, with Boon looking amazingly fit after his recent heart attack. He's back at work, for goodness' sake!!


One way to pass the time is to watch a movie, and I've still got stuff I need to view from the Surabaya trip - indeed, from last December in England. Unfortunately, I'm just not that good at sitting and watching over an hour and a half to two hours. Even with an obviously worthy piece like Doubt, I spread it out over a couple of days, but I've just finished it. Final verdict: good film, tight script, beautiful evocation of the period - the early sixties in the US, specifically in a Catholic school run by nuns. Meryl Streep is sensationally good as the repressive principal. It's difficult to believe this is the same actress that appeared in the Abba movie I bought at the same time. She transforms herself, starting with the curious way she holds her body. There's an odd but entirely convincing, unexaggerated stiffness to everything she does which matches the slightly harsh raspiness of her voice. This is not so much acting as a complete case of possession by another.


Have just eaten the dates, longans and watermelon that have become our little tradition for breaking the fast. The more substantial fare is to follow, and then we're off to buy some baking trays at Geylang for Noi's cunning biscuitry. She's been occupying the main table today and produced several trays already. I suppose it's yet another jolly part of the blessed countdown.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

In Camera

16 Ramadhan 1430

Above, a few shots captured in the course of the Drama Camp. Difficult to capture the good humour and simple fun of the occasion, but it was in abundance.