Thursday, December 31, 2009

On Looking Back

The English press were full of reviews of the year and decade (I thought it ended with 2010?) when we were over there. A good way to fill column inches but I suppose someone, somewhere likes this kind of thing. And looking back at events over time seems to be something our species is doomed/programmed to do. I wonder if we ever learn anything from this, or is it rather that we get the chance to falsify whatever it was we think took place? Or do we luxuriate in a kind of nostalgia for the unreclaimable?

I find myself thinking back over a particularly enjoyable December, and remembering odd bits and pieces of the year that was. I know there'll be a few retrospective pieces in this Far Place over the coming days.

And whilst in England there were odd moments in which aspects of the past suddenly came alive for me quite disconcertingly, the result, I suppose, of occupying the same spaces, though dislocated in the dimension of time. At one point the girls were treated to a monologue from me on what it was like to have bathed, or been bathed, in an old tin tub in front of the fire. I think I was telling them how lucky they are to enjoy the luxury of showers and the like, but I must say, I couldn't recall any kind of discomfort in my memories - quite the opposite. Curiously my sister got onto exactly the same topic, linked to the joys of an outside toilet in winter, a week or so later, quite unprompted - yet I don't think either of us have mentioned those aspects of our childhood for years. Let's hope we don't begin to become tiresome on this, though we probably will, probably have already. One of the rewards of survival: winning the right to bore the young with one's improbable tales.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Down To Earth

The demands of real life hit me hard today with a day of meetings.

Fortunately I'll be able to make something of an escape tomorrow as we'll be on our way north to see in the new year at Maison KL, followed by a stop-over at Melaka, before reality hits me in drearily splendid earnest.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Now safely back at the Mansion with the girls delivered into the arms of their Ayah and Ibu. Noi slept through most of the flight, the long leg from Heathrow that is, but Fifi and Fafa did not enjoy the turbulence so the sick bag made an appearance at the end. I finished Neil Roberts's book on Hughes, made a reasonable start on The Black Book and managed to watch yet another movie, making 2009 something of a miracle year for me in terms of watching films right through to the end without falling asleep.

In this case the movie in question was Star Trek, the most recent edition to the canon with Kirk, Spock et al as youngsters. Lots of sound and fury in a story I didn't always manage to follow. But the tale had a heart to it, sensibly focusing on the relationship between James T. and his Vulcan buddy - the heart beating particularly strongly when Leonard Nimoy was on screen. Not a bad backdrop to a journey home (or, rather, to one of my many homes.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

All Too Human

It's not been easy getting any reading done over here, but I have now finished Human by Michael Gazzaniga though I can't honestly say I did it justice. It's one of those popular science tomes, in this case aimed at explaining how the brain functions on a biological level (if that isn't tautological) and what it is about that functioning that distinguishes us from the other forms of life with whom we share the planet. Gazzaniga obviously knows his stuff and tries hard to get the reader to grasp the fundamentals, but there are lots of these and I found following the thread of each chapter challenging to say the least. On the positive side, at least the author wasn't oversimplifying and it's nice to know that mirror neurons are still there in the text waiting for me to read about them all over again and get a little closer to expanding my understanding of these great grey matters.

The only thing I didn't like about the book were the attempts at humour. Gazzinaga, sensible man that he is, obviously admires Steven Pinker and seems to be attempting to emulate both his wisdom and wit. The wisdom is okay but the wit is forced, rarely stretching beyond that sort of irritating breezy facetious brightness beloved of the Dummies series rather than emerging from a genuine way of looking at the world as it does with Pinker.

Having taken the best part of the month to complete Human I've found myself halfway through Neil Roberts's study of the work of probably my favourite modern poet (if you can use 'modern' in that sense any more) Ted Hughes: A Literary Life in less than five days. It's not so much that it's well-written as that I find the subject latter so fascinating. I'll probably be using it as in-flight reading, presuming we get away from Manchester according to plan, along with Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book. It's enough to make me actually look forward to the epic sixteen hour journey to come.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Reasons To Be Thankful

Managed to locate a halal turkey yesterday weighing a mighty 8 kilos, this being the size of bird which Maureen and John are expecting for the dinner they're cooking up for us today. Our original supplier could only manage a slim-line 4 kilo affair, not enough, I'm afraid, for the big occasion. This was one of several 'issues' that needed to be settled yesterday, but settled they were, making me realise how lucky we've been throughout this little trip. Well, lucky so far - but that's more than enough for us.

A few examples of the universe being on our side:

We took the Eurostar when it was actually running, just before the big freeze. We travelled up from London before the roads became impassable, and the car we've hired for Part 2 in Manchester, a Kia Soul using diesel, handles really well on the snow and ice.

The French immigration people turned a blind eye to the fact that Noi and the girls didn't have documentation of how they were intending to leave France (long story) when they could very easily have refused them entrance.

While the rest of the country complained of chaos on the roads, Fifi and Fafa were enjoying sledging down a variety of slopes on John and Jeanette's wonderful bright orange plastic with a bit of string at the front sort-of-sledge - the cheapest fun you can possibly imagine.

Mum has been considerably more lucid since our return from London, and we actually got her out to drink some tea with us and go shopping in the course of a visit to the doctor.

The strike action threatened by BA cabin crew, which would have screwed up our return journey big-time, is, for the moment, on ice (as it were) due to a court injunction.

The trapped nerve I was suffering from earlier in the year, which made it impossible to walk for more than ten minutes a time, seems to have untrapped itself - I have had no problems with it at all throughout December, at one point walking along the Seine from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower, from the Tower to the Arc de Triomphe, and then all the way down the Champs Elysses, right back to our apartment in the Marais. (Pardon the spellings which I can't check here.)

I finally got hold of Procol Harum's Broken Barricades on CD - with bonus tracks - and it sounds as good as it did when I first bought it on vinyl when I was a callow fifteen-year-old.

Blimey, not a bad run of good fortune. Now all we need is decent enough weather to fly back to Singapore on Monday unhindered and it'll be a royal flush indeed.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


So many things to do still on Christmas Eve - frustratingly busy. But being with loved ones, lots of them, does much to alleviate the irritation.

Not so easy to get on-line now. One of the frustrations.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Matters of Weight

Now back in Manchester, in Longsight, actually, to order a halal turkey, having made it over the Woodhead Pass on an evening of heavy snow. A new experience for the girls and missus, all too familiar, from years back, for me.

We can't help noticing, in a cruel but honest manner, the number of chunky folk in this country compared to the generally lean appearance of the Parisians we encountered. It's probably a sexist thing to say, but Noi says it as well, that this is even more obviously apparent in many of the young women we see. Considering the portion sizes in restaurants here I suppose this shouldn't come as a surprise. I think the talk one comes across of an epidemic of obesity is a bit over the top - most young people look as thin as ever they did - but there's certainly been some change over the last twenty years. And, I suppose, a phenomenal one from the days of my childhood when fat people (being blunt there) were very much the exception.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Snow Fun

Just look at that! Thus Mak Ndak in a tone that might fairly be described as one of childish excitement. The occasion: Fafa seeing snow for the first time in her little life - and Noi and Fifi seeing it for the second. Having seen snow on numerous occasions I'd have made the comment with a distinct falling tone. I can't stand the stuff - never could.

Snow is essentially deceptive. It can look beautiful, as in movies or when you are looking out of a window onto it from a warm place, though in the second instance one's enjoyment is likely to be muted if you actually have to go out in it for some reason. The fact is when you find yourself walking in it or on it, it rapidly loses its tenuous charm and reveals itself for what it is: rain, very cold, bleak, fluffy rain.

The girls were noticeably keen, as it fell, on returning to our warm apartment in Bayswater. Noi felt they should experience Buck house in the bleak mid-winter. She had a point. They are not likely to forget our little trip to the royal palace. I know I won't. I'm just hoping we don't get a further fall, of the snow variety, when driving north, as I'm doing tomorrow. (Actually today according to the date of this post which is following Singapore time.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Roughing It

There are an awful lot of people begging on the streets of Manchester, London and Paris. It's difficult sometimes to know what's best to do when asked for money. A few days back, on our coldest day in Paris, we passed a couple of guys, one looking middle-aged, one quite young, lying on the pavement opposite the Louvre in the late evening. They both looked completely out of it - we guessed due to alcohol. I commented that I couldn't see how they'd make it through the night.

But they did. In a couple of sleeping bags that we saw them in next morning, around 10.00 when we went back to do some shopping. They still looked smashed. We didn't give them anything on the grounds it wasn't likely to help them. They still haunt me. I wonder if they'll get through the winter.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Now in London having ridden the Eurostar for the first time. Beats the cross channel ferry, though not as much fun. In Paris our apartment was in Marais and we found plenty of halal eateries around us - as well as being in a wonderfully central position, almost in sight of Notre Dame. Here something similar: we're in Bayswater, just off Queensway, and from the shops that cater to us it's obvious there are plenty of Muslims around.

Last night Noi and the kids watched the final of the X-Factor with great delight. At last some television that isn't in French, says Fafa the cosmopolitan.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Got lost on the way to Versailles. The French RER system (light railway) is unforgiving, unlike the user-friendly Metro. Found it eventually though, on our coldest day here.

The cold was appropriate though for the magnificent chilly vulgarity of this monument to totalitarianism. Vive la revolution, say I.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

For Free

Greatest moment(s) of a great day: music for free on the steps of Sacré Coeur. Specifically a talented busker playing acoustic guitar and singing a fine selection of songs to an appreciative crowd. The light beginning to dim over Paris. The last patches of sunlight illuminating the east of the city. We did give something, of course, but I can't think of what could have really been enough for just a priceless time.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Finished Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel this morning. I reread it in view of the fact we'll be using it as a text next year. Not a bad way of earning a living, say I. For some reason, probably because he's really good, I find de Botton very easy to read, and reading this particular text when actually travelling just added to the pleasure - and profit. De Botton, as always, has insightful things to say about his topic. Generally what he says has a quality of being quite obvious, except for the fact that I've never actually managed to think of it with his level of clarity. Our students are in for a treat - at least those with the wit to appreciate it are.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Gay Paree

First time in Paris for over twenty-five years and the museums go on strike.

But we got into the Louvre free! In the course of our visit we got to see four guys arrested (in the gallery with the Mona Lisa) presumably for picking pockets. And there was a demonstration by striking 'culture workers'. Eventful. Oh, and we got to see some art.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Listening In

Overheard at the shop at Old Trafford yesterday: You've got shinpads.

But dad, these are Manchester United shinpads!

Off to Paris later today. Wonder what kind of talk we'll be hearing there.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Mum has always been a great one for mithering - even when I was quite a small child I was aware she considered herself as having more than enough to mither over, one of those many things being myself. As she grew older it became apparent that her worrying over little things had translated into a general debilitating sense of anxiety over life itself, but this was balanced against an essential feistiness of character that enabled her to fight back.

Now that's gone, Her short term memory is very poor, a problem magnified since the shingles struck a couple of months ago. As a result she worries all the time about what she might have forgot, which is useful since it ensures she gets all the basic things done. But it also means she always has something to worry about - even when we are there to assure her there is nothing to be troubled over. She knows she is mithering for no reason but, of course, that makes no difference as she forgets what she knows.

She's prone to say that we can't understand how she feels which is both true and not true. Certainly the absolute horror of never being able to not worry is, thankfully, beyond us. At least for now. (Though it is also true to say she has periods when she clearly feels at ease and relaxed, especially when lost in the tv.) But I think I'm enough like her to recognise the tendency to find things to worry about and I've had those moments, in the small, dark hours, of feeling that there is some massive problem unaccountably forgotten looming on the edge of consciousness.

All the more reason to be thankful for the gift of lucidity - while it lasts.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Yesterday, worshipping at that great shrine to the gods of capitalism The Trafford Centre, we took the girls to see the latest version of A Christmas Carol. This was our third 3D movie this year - amazing when you consider we usually get to only one film in a year.

The problem any film version of the Carol presents is the great Alaister Sim - more particularly the wonderful version of the tale in which he played Scrooge. It would be truer to say, he was Scrooge. He captured the monstrous energy and fun of the wicked Scrooge and somehow made the transformation believable. Jim Carrey's cartoonish avatar is good to look at (though bearing a remarkable resemblance to old man Steptoe from Steptoe & Son) but achieved neither of those things. The usual anarchic Carrey-ish energy seems lost, everything feeling overly calculated.

I think Noi and the kids enjoyed it though. The mythic power of the original can't ever be completely lost whatever the quality of the version you're watching. And it looks beautiful, a bit like a high class pop-up book for children. Zemeckis stays reasonably true to the origiinal, except for a couple of gratuitous sort-of-chase sequences following the arrival of a nicely spooky Ghost of Christmas Future.

All in all, better than window-shopping in the endless corridors of the mall.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


It's a measure of how readable Ackroyd's take on Frankenstein is that, in a period when it has been difficult for me to find the space for continuity of reading, the novel held my attention and, simply, gripped me, despite the fact I had to reluctantly keep putting it down. The monster is both entirely original and satisfyingly compelling.

Is it one of Ackroyd's best? In terms of sheer entertainment, certainly. And this is a quality it shares with the more recent novels, a kind of easy playfulness, as if Ackroyd is enjoying mucking around with literary history. (The whole Shelley set put in an appearance, Byron and Mary Shelley most memorably.) But it also had a depth and intensity the more recent stuff has lacked. The ending is particularly strong and satisfactory, for example. The only mild reservation I have lies in that 'mucking around' with historical facts that Ackroyd has indulged in recently. Shelley's first wife, Harriet, was not murdered, for example, as she is, memorably, in the novel. I'm not entirely sure why this bothers me, I am, after all, reading an avowed fiction not an historical account - but for some reason it does.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Much to celebrate here - Noi's birthday last Wednesday and cousin John's today. We bought him Ackroyd's London on the grounds that anything I enjoy so much has to appeal to others. Am now close to finishing The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, but need to get to the end to decide if it's just very good or one of his best.

Still battling with the multiplicity of choice here with regard to things I like. Successfully resisted a set of DVDs of the BBC's magnificent I, Claudius, not so much because of damage to the pocket - the set was pretty cheap - but because I couldn't imagine finding time to watch a series of which I have extremely vivid recall anyway.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

More Profusion

We took John and Maureen out to dinner last night, to the Wagon and Horses at Mottram, and enjoyed a big meal in every sense. Huge portions for all. The girls only had three side dishes between them - being picky eaters they didn't fancy any of the main courses - and they still had food to spare. The fish and chips was an epic in itself.

And then there's the car we hired - a pretty large Vauxhall Insignia. We needed something big for all our luggage. The dashboard has so many odd little buttons to push my mind is overly boggled. I just point and drive. I suppose too much of everything is better than too little, but we seem to be well beyond sensible limits in some respects.


Wrote this yesterday, but couldn't manage to get on-line, so here it is now:

Wednesday 2 December

Went down to central Manchester yesterday for the first time on this visit and was struck, as I always am here, by the sheer volume of stuff that is easily available and the attendant havoc played on my attempts at pursuing the War on Capitalism. The big HMV store opposite the Arndale Centre is a shadow of what it used to be (in the days before downloading) but it still offers some highly tempting goodies (in terms of music CDs), enough to play havoc with hand luggage requirements and my bank account. Manfully resisted most temptations though. I must say, I don’t really have a problem not buying from the astonishing range of DVDs available – we haven’t viewed all the ones we brought back last year yet. The number of television series available here, both U.S. and U.K. is staggering and makes me wonder who can find the time to watch them all. It’s being so overwhelmed that curiously takes away whatever appetite I might have for this stuff.

Another problem area is the Waterstones Bookshop on Deansgate. This hasn’t suffered any decline I can see in terms of the competition from the on-line purchase of books and e-books (I’m getting more and more intrigued by what I read about the Kindle); if anything the poetry section – the measure of any bookshop – is better than ever. I had serious difficulty in ensuring I didn’t decide that some twenty books there alone simply had to be bought.

And then at Mum’s, in the evening, we caught an episode, a repeat I assume, of one of those brilliant BBC plus David Attenborough documentaries from a series called simply Life. It was about what goes on in the oceans and there was nothing simple about life down there. Several moments were so stunning you couldn’t help but wonder if it had been faked using that clever CGI technology (is that the right acronym?) at the behest of some incredibly and dubiously imaginative designer. But no, it’s the real thing and generously available to us before we wreck the world. The bit with the massive fried egg jellyfish making a meal of a shoal of smaller jellyfish managed to be both utterly gruesome and compellingly beautiful at one and the same time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In A New Place

My hopes of getting on-line here in Manchester have materialized. We are temporarily cosily resident at John and Jeanette’s house – sleeping in Sam’s bedroom – and I’m able to link to John’s broadband by one of those miracles of modern technology we manage to take utterly for granted once we’ve experienced it for a month or so. Well, not so much take for granted as regard as some kind of birthright.

The flight over was memorable, for myself, for two features: I forgot my denim jacket, referred to by Fifi & Fafa as my Westlife jacket, for reasons known only to themselves, which meant I appeared somewhat under-dressed at Manchester Airport, for the last days of November. And I thoroughly enjoyed The Simpsons Movie, which I saw in its entirety for the first time. The only problem lay in having to stifle my laughter in order to avoid irritating my fellow-travellers.

Since then the days have been, as they say, packed. And cold. Very cold.