Saturday, November 28, 2009

In Time

Hurrying, flurrying and generally scurrying to get everything necessary done before take off. Above some rare static moments from the last few days.

Hoping to get on-line when in England (and France!) a bit more than this time last year, but you never know.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Jet Setting

Caught up in a flurry of preparation and movement, we have deposited one niece in Melaka, where we are at the moment for Hari Raya Haji, more commonly known as Eid Al Adha. The other two nieces are back with their parents in Singapore, but they’ll be dropped off with us, back at the Mansion, or the airport (I’m not sure), tomorrow and then it’s off to the rainy city and Paris and London for a month. I get tired just thinking about it.

But I enjoyed prayers here at the little mosque today – twice, in fact. Once for Haji, and then for the usual Friday Prayers. Last time I was here Fuad and I attended prayers at the rather grand state mosque, a fine building but perhaps a bit over-elevated for the likes of me.

Finished Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein this morning, before going to the mosque, leaving Victor expiring in the desolate cold of an ice-packed northern sea – one of the best bits of the novel – and the monster planning his (the monster’s) funeral pyre in the same location. Great stuff! Now embarking on Ackroyd’s new version of the myth, which will be my reading on the long flight to Europe. Ackroyd begins with Victor meeting Percy Shelley at Oxford. Again, great stuff, or it certainly looks that way. Some learned cove on the book jacket compares it to Hawksmoor and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Hope he’s right!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Here Be Monsters

Frankenstein Or, The Modern Prometheus is a very strange novel in more than one respect. Respect one really has nothing to do with the novel in itself in terms of Mary Shelley’s writing, but it’s very real to the modern reader. The book bears no relation at all to the movies, not even the Kenneth Branagh version which I seem to remember made some sort of claim to authenticity. The ‘creation’ scene beloved of all directors is non-existent, almost, in the novel. There’s just a passing reference to the eyes of the monster opening, an image which returns to haunt Victor later in the story, and that’s about it.

More importantly, it’s generally abominably written. The dialogue, where you get some as a relief from the tedious explication of Victor’s account, is stagey at best, and it’s often not as good as that – the sort of thing a teenager might write for the stage. The inconsistencies of plot are startling – how exactly does the monster cross the waters to get to England? And when it’s not being inconsistent the plot manages to lurch into utterly superfluous digressions, like that of Felix and his tiresome family history. All of this though is better than those moments, of which there are more than a few, when the novel seems to turn into a kind of travelogue.

And the strangest thing of all? Despite all the above, Frankenstein is a wonderful novel simply as a result of the mythic power of Mary Shelley’s big idea. In fact, the idea is so powerful it shatters the timid frame of the fiction that attempts to contain it. The monster, the daemon, the fiend – all Victor’s terms for what his tiny mind cannot contain – is startling in the reality of its pathos and the truth of its needs, for a mate, for understanding, for revenge. No wonder it came to take even Victor’s name away.

I’ve got forty pages left and I’m relishing everyone of them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Musical Education

To my pleased surprise I finally got hold of a copy of The Vintage Guide to Classical Music by Jan Swafford yesterday. I've been on the lookout for months, Swafford being the author of my all-time favourite book related to music - a superb biography of Charles Ives. I'd recommend the Ives biography to anyone, even someone who can make no sense at all of Ives's oeuvre. You'll go back to listening with massively renewed understanding. And that's what I was hoping for from the new Guide, a kind of broad musical education. I've already greedily read a few of the sections, the ones on Ellington, Gershwin, Britten, Vaughn Williams and Mozart and they do not disappoint. Swafford writes with genuine wit and clarity, a claim made on the back cover, and a sort of earthy, common sense directness which is enormously appealing and convincing. He makes the music he loves sound like it must be listened to for the sheer pleasure of the experience, which is, of course, the whole point.

Or is it? A couple of days ago I chanced upon this interesting interview with philosopher Roger Scruton here. I've always enjoyed reading Scruton, even though his generally conservative, right wing stance is not a position I can find much sympathy for. But he's the kind of opponent who thinks with a clarity that can only help you make your own ideas clearer (and make you aware that it's quite reasonable for others to hold views almost diametrically opposed to your own.). And in the realm of ideas related to aesthetics I find him enormously fruitful as a thinker. In the interview Scruton makes some interesting points about the value of serious/classical music in relation to the general lack of such value in popular music and I must say I think he's essentially on the right track.

Where he goes a bit wrong, I think, is in not recognising the range of nuance in the best of popular music. He gets close to this in an attempt to appreciate The Beatles and the great songwriters like Cole Porter, and it's interesting and laudable that he tries to stretch to some understanding of Metallica. But he clearly doesn't know the field. However, I think he's absolutely right in citing Oasis as an example of the narrow range of expression of most rock music and its concentration on the self and the performer. And I believe he's got something when he talks about the educational power of pure music in terms of implanting some kind of emotional rhythm or movement within that unfashionable facet of our being, the soul

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Just Wild

We now have no fewer than three nieces in residence and the need to provide some form of entertainment for them in the course of each day is pressing. We solved the problem yesterday with a visit to the Discovery Centre, in the course of which we got to see a 3D movie on the big screen there. This was our second 3D movie of the year, following a rather clever Pixar style offering we saw in June (I think), but this one didn't work as well, probably because it had real actors and they come off as distinctly less than natural in 3D.

But the film had the virtue of being relatively short, at forty-five minutes, and thus within my attention span - and that of the girls. It was achingly sentimental also, in a Disneyesque manner, but its heart was in the right place. Entitled The Call of the Wild it rather neatly embedded Jack London's classic within a modern narrative of a somewhat spoiled little girl being sent to a small town to stay with grandfather and discovering the joys of bonding with a sort of half-dog-half-wolf she calls Buck, after London's dog which she learns about through grandad's reading of the tale. Interestingly the genuine harshness and realism of London's idea of the wild comes across through the re-telling - at one point the girl doesn't want to know what happens next - and the reality of the modern Buck's wildness is not played down (though the ending is, sadly, a cop out.) I was reminded of watching Born Free, about the lioness Elsa, when I was a child and feeling very uncomfortable at the uncompromising ending. (Elsa does, inevitably, return to the wild.)

The other great virtue of the film lay simply in the shots of Buck. No need for gimmicks like 3D. The animal looked stunningly beautiful, and gloriously wild. Sometimes just knowing that something of the world outside our human scope is still going strong is enough to make one optimistic in a (very) small way.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Leaving Gaps

A bit of advice for anyone intending to read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy: leave something of a gap between each book rather than moving on immediately. I finished The Ghost Road today and it occurred to me that the reason I got bogged down in the first half of the novel was because I started reading it on the day I finished The Eye In The Door and sort of expected more of the same - which I didn't get. In contrast, it was quite a while after reading Regeneration that I picked up the second book so I was rather more open to an entirely different kind of novel. In the early part of The Ghost Road I just couldn't get the hang of the Melanesian chapters featuring Rivers as a much younger anthropologist. It was only when Prior went back to the front towards the end that I began to understand the part that the headhunting material plays thematically.

One of the triumphs of the series is the way in which the writer avoids repeating herself. Instead Barker gets us involved in new and unexpected ways of looking at the conflict that forms the backdrop to the three novels. As I've mentioned before, the avoidance of any kind of cliché about WW1 is in itself a remarkable achievement.

The other thing that's so striking about the trilogy is the spareness and restraint of the writing. Nothing is over-written or goes on too long. In fact, I had the odd feeling that what the writer was not saying, was leaving out, was almost as important as what was in the texts. One example of this is the way in which Wilfred Owen is dealt with in the final segments. You cannot help but think of his poetry as you read, but none of this makes it into The Ghost Road so that the poetry becomes itself a kind of ghostly presence haunting the novel.

I found the final pages the most potent I've read for quite some time in terms of their emotional power. Reviewers tend to bandy words like 'shattering' around rather too freely for my tastes - but it's the only word I can think of that does justice to just how devastating the ending is - even though you know it's coming.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

English Music

I'm finally getting my reading on track after a hesitant couple of weeks. This morning I finished Peter Ackroyd's wonderful Albion: The Origins Of The English Imagination. I had already dipped into the penultimate chapter English Music having noticed that its main concern was the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and I enjoyed it even more the second time around having got a better idea of what Ackroyd regards as the essentials of the English imagination. It seems to me utterly right that he chooses to focus on VW rather than Elgar, though the latter gets an honourable mention. One line in particular, concerning VW, jumped out at me for its personal applications: His music is instinct with that sense of belonging, so that the act of listening to it becomes a form of homecoming.

I'm now considering rereading Ackroyd's novel English Music. I found it the most difficult of all his novels when I first read it but I remembering enjoying it, especially the brilliant pastiche of Blake's prophetic books. The problem is though that I frequently consider rereading Ackroyd's early novels and can't afford the time for such a digression. I think if I had to name my favourite novels then First Light and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem would be vying for places right at the top of the list. As it is, though, his latest book The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein lies enticingly on the shelves and I've promised myself a reread of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Or, The Modern Prometheus before I let myself loose on it.

And all this in the shadow of our imminent trip to England (and France) on which I've vowed to take only one or two books to read in recognition of the fact I'll be buying more when we get there.

Meantime I'm pressing on with the very English Pat Barker and her distinct music, but finding The Ghost Road heavier going than I expected.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Loud And Clear

Noi is off jet-setting again. She's gone to Penang, to cook for and attend a wedding, taking one of the local budget airlines to get there. Happily for me, she'll be back early tomorrow - the morning flight being cheaper than the one in the afternoon - bringing with her niece Ayu (who'll be experiencing her first time ever on a plane.) Also happily for me, Noi got cooking to in the later part of the week in order to provide for yours truly. I'm just heating up a sensational oxtail soup having munched a fabulous salmon fishcake earlier in the day.

Noi parting words to me involved, amongst other things, a quip about my being able to play 'my music' extra loud. She knows me well. Although I don't really consider the present volume (I'm playing Yes's Relayer in the other room) particularly loud. Others might, I suppose. Anyway I must say I've been enjoying a fairly disparate variety of disks today, generally accompanying me as I've been working. (Quite unusual for me, actually. I can't listen to music as I mark, for example. But today's work was, for the most part, utterly routine to the point at which real thought was hardly necessary.)

I kicked off with a bit of Bax, Symphony No. 5 and the tone poem The Tale the Pine Trees Knew. I'm thinking of playing this again later, after the Liverpool - City game as a way of signing off for the day. After that came Pink Floyd's Umma Gumma (the studio album) Joni Mitchell's Hejira, Gentle Giant's Octopus, Depeche Mode's Exciter and Yusof Islam's Roadsinger. All of which, including the stuff from Yes now shaking the living room, reminded me of how much I've got that I don't get round to playing anything like enough. Riches indeed, at whatever volume you choose.

Friday, November 20, 2009

On The Run

If you happened to be in the HDB car-park behind the Darussalam Mosque in Clementi just after Friday Prayers you would have been exposed to an extremely rare sight: i.e., my good self running, or rather trotting, I suppose, at a reasonably fair lick. It is over a year since I ran anywhere, due to the problems caused by the trapped nerve in my lower back. So why the sudden burst of energy? It was part of a desperate attempt to avoid being soaked by the rain which had suddenly decided to fall.

Ironically, on my way to the mosque I had been congratulating myself on the fact that it was not going to be necessary to carry an umbrella with me as it was an unusually fine day for this wet November, with no sign whatsoever of any imminent precipitation. How wrong I was, though I was not aware of the fact until I was on the way out. Normally you can hear the rain coming down from inside the mosque but today there wasn't a sound or any kind of hint of a storm, so I'm assuming it began just as I was leaving.

But this is a story of celebration - for two reasons. First of all, although I was fairly wet by the time I made it to the car, it took less than fifteen minutes to get almost completely dry. It's the climate. Even the greyest November day here is essentially warm. In Manchester I'd have suffered for hours if I'd got that wet.

And secondly, I was actually running, and do not appear to have done myself any harm. I've been pain free now - I'm talking of sciatic pain - for two weeks. I'm starting to believe that the trapped nerve has mysteriously and wonderfully untrapped itself. If this is the case I can seriously begin to consider seriously exercising this tired old body of mine. And I didn't think that would have been possible even a month ago.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rushing To Judgment

When I was last in the excellent Kinokuniya bookshop in KLCC in Kuala Lumpur a couple of weeks ago, I found myself sorely tempted to buy what looked like a tasty little tome by Ian MacDonald entitled Revolution In The Head. This was on the music shelf, being a sort of run-down of all the tracks recorded by The Beatles (241 of them, it seems) with other bits of essay-like pieces thrown in. It looked enticing for its chubbiness alone, but the various words of praise from sensible sort of chaps like Noel Gallagher dotted over the cover and on the first of the inside pages made it even more attractive. However, somehow I held back (having already purchased two other books when I had promised myself to abstain until I was in England) and this proved to be an unexpectedly wise decision. Last Friday I came across the same edition in the NTUC just across the road at the Esso petrol station on their cheapo cheapo book rack, just one copy, going for a mere 9 bucks! It was duly snaffled.

And duly perused over a less-than-routine weekend, basically because with the usual pattern of things disrupted, a book that could be easily, painlessly dipped into at random was about the only thing I could really settle to read.

And for once the blurb was spot on. It's a great book, a real labour of love. MacDonald is illuminating in every respect but particularly on the musical content of the songs. He brings a genuine sense of expertise to what one might loosely term popular criticism.

But there's one aspect of the book that puzzles and fascinates me in roughly equal measures, with a dash of something like irritation thrown in. He is extremely clear in his judgments of almost every song and not afraid to rubbish what he regards as rubbish. But the problem is that quite a bit of what he rubbishes seems to me to be well worth equivocating over. Whilst his expertise, and obvious love of the group, might seem to earn him the right to judge decisively, it's a bit hard to take scathing dismissals of songs like Helter Skelter. In this particular case it had never occurred to me that anyone might dismiss a track I just assumed was universally accepted as brilliant. Oddly enough I can relate to his particular criticism here, cannily related as it to the development of heavy metal and the song's relationship to that dubious genre, but it seems to me that to belittle a track that has meant so much to so many - presumably to the likes of U2, for example, electing to steal it back from Charles Manson - somehow is missing something about the music somewhere.

As I have noted before, the deep-seated need we seem to have, in matters of artistic judgment, to divide the sheep from the goats is one that we might all usefully question, and possibly restrain.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Dangerous Man

Caught an interview with Noam Chomsky on the World Service on my way into work today. I think it was one of the Hardtalk series. The interviewer did a good job of challenging Chomsky whilst giving him reasonable room to develop his ideas (the political, not linguistic ones), but it was one of those times when the thirty minute format just wasn't enough. I could have listened to several hours of discussion of this depth and quality.

Which leads to an interesting question: given the epic amounts of time available to cable news, why is it we don't get hours of quality discussion? All they'd have to do is get someone like Chomsky on board with a decent interviewer, let the cameras roll, and they could fill their schedules for almost next to nothing. I suppose they'd answer that nobody would watch, but somehow I doubt that that would really be the case. Chomsky sells well enough and could be wrapped in enough controversy to generate a reasonable audience. Perhaps the real problem is that too many people would watch?

Just as a matter of interest, I've never heard Chomsky when interviewed being other than dryly and painstakingly logical. I suppose that's why he doesn't sound at all like the usual talking heads.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Extremely Ordinary

By 5.30 this afternoon the rain had set in. It wasn't coming down terribly hard, but it was drearily persistent in that spoiling manner to which we are so accustomed in November. The day suddenly felt dingy and dirty and sort of over somehow.

But none of this mattered in the slightest. Because Noi was back home from hospital and the tea was hot and plentiful and the kerepok was suspiciously easy to munch. And there we were, catching up on the events of the day, as usual, trying to figure out what we needed to do for the rest of the week, as usual, and aimlessly gossiping about just about all and everything, as usual.

What stopped it being as usual as it usually is, is that we'd not been able to do this for several days, and been reminded that we rather take for granted that we'll always have business as usual. We won't. But we'll relish how sweet it is while it gloriously lasts.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I've just popped home from the hospital where I've been for most of the day. Noi is looking a lot better and seems to be responding to the antibiotics the doctors have been pumping into her. She's walking reasonably comfortably, though still in some discomfort, and it looks like she won't be going under the knife. Indeed, she thinks she might be out of there by tomorrow.

Her being ill has been confirmation - not that I needed it - on how completely I rely on her for just about everything.

Now getting ready to go back to her bedside, and there's no place else I'd rather be.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not So Forgettable

Very odd day. Spent the morning and early afternoon at a workshop related to the use of the voice. Spent the evening at East Shore Hospital whence Noi was admitted in the early afternoon. The cause of her stomach pain remains a mystery, despite a CT scan and the attentions of an excellent doctor. So she's now under observation in a safe place, particularly since it's not impossible they may need to whisk her into an operating theatre pronto.

We were lucky to have Siew to help her out this morning in taking her to the doctor again and the hospital, and then Fuad, Rozita and family to make sure she had all that was needed. I'm not much help, I'm afraid, just something of a helpless spare part.

Friday, November 13, 2009


The day started badly and just got steadily worse. As I woke up the rain came down, in the kind of grey storm typical of this rainy season, setting the tone for the whole day. And at the same time Noi started to complain of a really bad stomach ache. Since then she has been nastily, queasily ill all day, poor thing, and has now taken to bed, the only place she can get some relief.

We're hoping for better things tomorrow.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Found Wanting

Why is there so much emphasis these days on how much people must want something in order to validate their getting it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Walls Come Tumbling Down

If someone had told me thirty years ago that the Berlin Wall would crumble in my lifetime, I would have thought them absurdly optimistic. The events of twenty years ago still seem possessed of an almost dream-like quality.

Just because things are, doesn't mean they should be, or that they will be. And that seems to me grounds for optimism. Unfortunately, it's equally grounds for pessimism.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I've been feeling disconcertingly English since the weekend, a state that was intensified, if anything, today by having to attend a workshop on National Education, Singapore style.

I suppose this, the state of feeling English, has had something to do with my current reading and recent listening. I'm moving steadily through Ackroyd's Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination which has exciting, original and pretty daft things on every page. And on the fiction front I followed The Handmaid's Tale (wonderful!) with Pat Barker's The Eye in the Door, the second in the Regeneration trilogy (equally wonderful! - an extraordinary demonstration of how to take material that may seem like it's been done to death and revivify it by coming at it slant-wise. And how completely she nails differences of social class and the differences they made, and continue to make.)

Also the weekend encompassed a pile of Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi, the 5th Symphony, Hodie, A Fantasia on Christmas Carols; plus a heap of Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, the 1st Symphony, and various incidental bits and marches.

And here's a line from Ackroyd that sort of sums up the Englishness to which I aspire, but which I sadly fail to live up to: …much of the English genius resides in quixotic or quirky individuals who insist upon the truth of their independent vision in the face of almost universal derision.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Breathing Space

We completed our viewing of Fanny and Alexander yesterday afternoon. Noi wants us to be on the look-out for more foreign movies when we go to England, having enjoyed this one so much. At the point when Uncle Isak was stealing the children from the bishop - a control man, she astutely pointed out - she was jumping up and down on the sofa shouting Quick, quick. I would have been doing the same had I not watched the film before.

Afterwards I mentioned the slow pace of the film to her (by the way, the version we watched is the full five hour version shown originally on Swedish television, not the three hour version released in cinemas) intending this as praise, but Noi didn't think it slow at all. And I realised how right she was. The story moves along at a considerable pace over the full arc of the movie. But Bergman allows time for the wonderful monologues and set pieces, like Carl's scenes with his poor wife - so painfully, hurtfully, funny. This is a movie that allows itself, and the viewer, to breathe.

I'm wondering if the reason I find most films today difficult to watch with sustained attention lies in the lack of such space. And I'm furthering wondering why so many features of our lives today seem to seek to deny us such space.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


With our visit to the UK and environs looming I've finally been catching up on the DVDs we brought back with us last December. This has been a most enjoyable process, particularly since the Jeeves and Wooster series (Fry & Laurie) has featured prominently. I'm now on series three, the first three episodes of which are set in New York, and this is the stuff I've never seen before - very much worth waiting for, I must say.

And then on Friday we embarked on Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, which if I were forced to make one of those silly lists of my top ten favourite movies would be likely to feature at number one. We're now up to Act 4, with the children having just arrived at the bishop's house/palace and Noi was almost demanding to keep watching late last night as she desperately needed to know what happens to them. Great story-telling.

So what makes Fanny and Alexander so good? I can think of four obvious things. First off, it's gorgeous to look at. You could freeze almost any frame and have something you wouldn't mind hanging on a wall. Beautifully composed, yet it genuinely moves in filmic terms. Whilst this is more obviously the case for the first act of he Ekdahls' Christmas, it remains true of the later more austere scenes at the bishop's. Secondly, the acting is wonderful. So much is done with so little - extreme close-ups, sparingly yet dramatically employed, convey the puzzling depths of the characters. These people look authentically like they are living and thinking at the turn of the nineteenth century. Physically in terms of gesture, stance there isn't a note out of place. Thirdly, as mentioned earlier, the story in itself is so powerfully engaging. It has an archetypal force - the Hamlet subtext, the warmth of the Ekdahls set against the chill of the bishop - that it wears close to the surface but which never lacks in subtlety. Finally, the whole experience is encompassed within a sense of tolerance and humanity that is deeply touching.

Unlikely as it seems, I can see something in common between Wodehouse and Bergman, and it's this: an acceptance of human folly that rises to a kind of sublime charity.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Monkey Business

We've still not received any kind of notification from the Telecom in Malaysia that our KL phone line has been repaired. It was the lack of a proper connection that prevented me from getting on-line this time last week. Noi developed a plausible theory as to why we'd become disconnected involving monkeys, having spotted three of them tightrope walking, or rather scurrying, along the line outside Maison KL. She reckoned they'd played about with the connection box fixing our line to the main one and, I must say, when I caught sight of the blighters they looked distinctly guilty. They also looked distinctly self-contained, as if the human world could not impinge upon their monkeydom and, thus, was not worthy of examination. Up there on the line they gave me, at ground level, barely a second glance.

In the taman newsletter for October there was a reference to them as 'cute' - though the brief paragraph was advising the human residents to sensibly keep their distance. But 'cute' seems to me to be so entirely inappropriate as to suggest that whoever wrote it has not really been seeing our simian chums as they are. In their effortless domination of the telephone lines and the nonchalance with which they swing from these to the fragile branches of nearby trees, they are very much other, very much themselves - hard and crisp and graceful in a ferocious way.

I told Mum about seeing them when I phoned her on Monday, explaining that it had been their probable interference with the line which had meant I had been unable to phone her over the weekend. She was, as I guessed she would be, delighted to hear about them. In fact, the idea of them seemed to make her forget the pain from her shingles for a short while - she was actually laughing, as was I.

It's nice to be able to phone so easily from the Mansion here, but I miss the strangely real life of the other taman-dwellers.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Raw And The Cooked

Making deliberately slow progress with Atwoood's The Handmaid's Tale - partly because I've been so busy at work, and at home doing work for work, and partly because I'm savouring every moment. Is this a feminist novel? The label is inadequate and reductive. This is simply a great novel: intense, emotional, yet sublimely controlled.

The problem I found reading the Danticat novel the other day lay, I think, in a sense of a lack of necessary distance in the relationship between the text and the writer. What was the reader supposed to make of the two major male characters? On one level they seem decent, understanding sorts, but it's difficult to shake off a suspicion that we're meant to see them as somehow inadequate in the face of the challenges of female pain - which is infinite, unfortunately.

At one moment Danticat outlines the awful degradation of the bodies of the two other women in the central character's therapy group. It's just two sentences, and we hardly hear of these women again. It's an awful thing to say, but I almost laughed at how over-the-top this was. What prevented me from laughing was the realisation that this kind of horror is real - but the writer has a duty, surely, to make it real for the reader. And somehow this writer, for all her talent, fails to do this too often.

Atwood never fails. Her fantasy world becomes realer than real.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Malaccan Magic

Some shots above from last Sunday, at Mak's house. A very creative place.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Back, Again

From last Tuesday I began to experience some quite intense discomfort rising to pain in my back, probably as a result of several continuous hours of consultations with students regarding their approaching exams. The pain peaked on Friday when I simply could not make it to Friday Prayers having been very much looking forward to going again to the new mosque near our house at the taman. But the odd thing was my awareness that these were not sciatic pains - in other words I didn't think they were directly connected to the trapped nerve in my back. In fact, when Noi and I went on Friday evening to KLCC I wandered around Kinokuniya there for a good forty minutes with no pain in my leg at all. If I'd have been asked to bend forward even slightly, though, I would not have been able to.

By Saturday evening I had a sense my back was on the mend - in this case judging from how comfortable I was when doing the prayers, which involve a lot of bending forward. When I went to my back doc on Monday afternoon mobility was almost completely restored. He put me back on the medication which I'd been off for about a week and a half but simply as a variety of better safe than sorry, I think.

On Tuesday I spent epic amounts of time on my feet invigilating without feeling the slightest twinge. (I was deliberately avoiding any kind of sitting simply to see how long I could last.) And today has remained pain free. I don't think this has anything to do with the pills as they've never had such a dramatic effect before. Actually the only obvious thing they do is to make my hands shake a little.

So now I'm seriously wondering if the nerve has somehow become untrapped. I'm not foolish enough to assume it has and my problems are over. These kinds of problems don't go away with age. But even a brief respite is a wonderful thing and I'm thoroughly enjoying mine.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Left Wondering

Just before we set off from Melaka yesterday I finished reading Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, her first novel and the first by her I've read. I'm now puzzling over what kind of experience it was reading the book. I try to avoid snap judgments on my reading - in fact, to some degree I try to avoid making absolute judgments, especially negative ones - avoiding the unavoidable, as it were. (I'm referring to the fact that our default setting in responding to any creative work seems to be to sit in judgment.) But I've found myself inclined to be dismissive about this novel.

It's not that my experience of reading the novel was entirely negative. I found much to admire. Although I took time to adjust to the narrative initially, a process not helped by my being super-busy when I embarked on my reading, eventually I came to appreciate the pace of the story-telling, in terms of its economy, and the sheer verve of the narrative. There was a spareness about the style I liked, especially as it was allied to an obvious fertility of expression.

But I could not cast off the feeling I was reading a 'woman's novel' in an awkwardly pejorative sense - a novel written for women with women's concerns in mind. Now this is where I enter difficult territory. I'm aware of a distinct weakness in myself in not being able to relate to these real concerns and I know I might well be being simply unfair. Yet I can't shake off the feeling that Danticat deals with her subject matter, or some aspects of it, in a cliched manner; I have this odd sense that she is limited by writing a novel for a partial audience - not exactly women, but women with a definite agenda. I get the same feeling, by the way, reading and teaching Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

By the way, just in case I'm accused of being narrowly sexist (which I might be, I can't quite figure this one out) I should say I've just started a repeat reading of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and I have none of the reservations above about that novel.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Greatest

Watched a little bit of Once We Were Kings, the sort of documentary movie about the Ali-Foreman fight, on Cinemax, before we set off for Melaka yesterday evening. (It’s a lot easier to get on-line here than in KL, hence my late night posting of yesterday’s offering.) Rather ironic that the one time I really, really, really want to watch something on one of the movie channels we have to be in the middle of packing up and leaving so I end up missing most of it. I probably saw about twenty minutes only, but that was brilliant – starting with a bit of Mailer (whose book on the fight I have, but was somewhat underwhelmed with) talking about Ali being frightened of Foreman, and I think he was right. A clip of Ali before the fight claiming not to be intimidated by the young George looks suspiciously corroborative of Norman’s thesis. Clips of Foreman pulverizing Frazier and Norton explain why Ali might have been scared, comparable in their ferocity to the young Tyson destroying everybody in sight.

I was at university when this all took place, I think in my first year, still in a hall of residence certainly. I remember a late night discussion in the hall bar prior to the fight in which everyone but everyone thought Foreman was a racing certainty to win, though nobody wanted him to. It’s difficult to explain to youngsters now the adulation with which Ali was regarded, in England at least, but the depth of the desire that he should reclaim the championship and prove himself the greatest, after proving it time and again as champion, was profound.

Funnily enough I can’t recall whether we watched the fight live, but I doubt it. Although we thought we were living in a kind of golden age of communications we now know it was a dark time – as the past most often is. The reason I’m uncertain though is that somehow or other I must have watched the moment when Ali comes off the ropes to hammer poor George a thousand times. I suppose it just got endlessly replayed, rightly so, in the weeks that followed. The most astonishing minute of boxing there has ever been, except possibly for Ali’s first defeat of Liston.

Something else that is difficult to communicate to youngsters today, and I know this because I tried it and failed in a recent lesson, is just how much Ali’s greatness changed people’s perceptions of race. To be more specific, in England at least, the perception folk in Manchester had of black people. My Dad, for example, was a little bit of a racist, I suppose, but then everyone of his generation and class was. He was still using the word ‘darkie’ up to around 1965. But if anyone changed that it was Ali.

Dad had done a bit of boxing in the army and was, I’m told, more than a bit useful. He loved the sport, as I did up to the point the corruption took over, and his first big hero in that line was Joe Louis. But Louis was a gentleman, a sort of white man’s picture of what a fine black fighter should be. Ali wasn’t. Again, I’m not too sure of this, but I think the first time we became aware of Ali was through a Panorama programme around 1962, definitely before the first Liston fight. Panorama was the BBC’s flagship serious political hour so I suppose they were featuring Ali (then Clay) in a serious fashion (if I’m right about the programme and it wasn’t just some sports thing.) Dad was appalled. I was appalled. At Ali – boastful, talkative, ridiculous. Everything a boxer, and I suppose a man, shouldn’t be. I suppose the fact he was black didn’t help.

Then he defeated Liston and it all changed. Though not quite. When he became Ali he remained Clay in Manchester for Dad and me, and everyone else, until he was so obviously the greatest, and so obviously just to be admired, and listened to, and he became Ali: intelligent, funny, brave, incredibly skilful - and being handsome didn’t hurt.

Can’t wait to see When We Were Kings in its entirety. Dad would have loved it.