Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pure Escapism

Left my troubles behind for an hour so just now, taking refuge with Bertie Wooster in New York. I've nearly finished viewing the DVDs of the various Jeeves and Wooster series made for Granada tv, being now on the fourth and, sadly, final series. I've never quite understood what critics, some of them, have got against purely escapist literature and the like. Thank goodness that Wodehouse created a world it's so easy to slip away from it all into.

Bertie buying the Collected Works of the great philosopher for Jeeves's birthday: There's nothing I like better than to curl up with Spinoza's latest. Made me want to start on the Ethics all over again. Almost.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Two Els

It's a very simple idea. Get two highly articulate musicians and let them talk about the music they love. Have a red hot band on stage (James Burton on guitar, Allen Toussaint on organ, gasp) so they can play a bit as well. Allow in a quietly appreciative audience to listen and then show it on television. What a change from the usual filler muddying the air waves.

I could have listened to ten hours of Elvis & Elton doing their thing, but the one hour we got on Spectacle last night will have to do. Most of it was a tribute to the people who influenced them and what a treat to hear names like Laura Nyro, Leon Russell and David Ackles being accorded the respect they deserve. (Quite honestly, though I've heard of Ackles and knew he was highly regarded I never really got exposed to his stuff, but Elvis & Elton's storming version of his song Down River at the end of the show made me seriously consider righting that omission.)

Great sane line from Elvis: David Ackles finished his career in community theatre but why should that be regarded as some kind of failure? Helping develop the talents of young people and sharing a creative gift sound very like success. (Or words to that effect. It was well said, however he put it.)

I wonder if the reason we don't get much intelligent conversation on the box is because it undermines what the box really stands for?

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Spent the late afternoon in the Black Box theatre at the National Library Building on Victoria Street, and was very glad to be there. Quite a few of our drama guys were in attendance also for Family, an engaging play that I'd never heard of before. I think it's a homegrown piece, based on the matriarch of a big Chinese family which establishes itself in Singapore , involving numerous trials and tribulations.

I can't remember having a bad afternoon or evening in any black box style production in this country. And this was no exception with the usual virtues on display: great ensemble work: beautifully economical sets, making much of little in highly imaginative ways; a delightful physicality in performance; nicely measured and cleanly executed lighting and sound; a desire to engage with experience in a serious yet entertaining manner. It was especially pleasing to see one of our old guys, the very talented Hadi, in action - and to recognise his growth as an actor.

The only downside I'm aware of in this 'local' style of theatre is a tendency to milk scenes for all they're worth in a somewhat self-indulgent manner. These groups are not afraid of a bit of melodrama. But perhaps that is an essentially Asian trait. And I suppose self-indulgence is a virtuous fault - it speaks of a confidence in communicating depths of emotion and experience

Saturday, March 27, 2010

In Celebration

I was a bit surprised this afternoon when Noi reminded me that only a week ago we were celebrating the latest wedding in her family. After a busy week the images of the joyous occasion were beginning to slip form my mind. Hence the reminders above.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Acting Naturally

Isn't it splendid that two of the last ten contestants in American Idol, two of the ladies, in fact, have less than perfect teeth? Oddly they happen to be the best two singers from their gender, and I'd tip them both to make the top three. I suspect that by that time someone will have 'fixed' (filling a gap here, realigning there) what never needed fixing in the first place. But since they both appear to be refreshingly secure in themselves and their quirkiness I am hopeful they will remain unblemished by perfection.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Great Expectations

Now awaiting the call from the missus to pick her up from the bus station. Real life is about to resume and I am truly thankful.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Proper Response

Finding it a bit difficult to engage in genuinely sustained reading lately, I've been dipping into the wonderful and eminently dippable Selected Letters of Ted Hughes. There are gems on every page. The letters to son Nick are particularly striking - peculiarly tender and wise.

And then I remember how poor Nick ended his life. I've occasionally said to classes that sometimes the only sane response to what you're reading is tears. They think I'm joking. I'm not.

Monday, March 22, 2010


The ever-ready battery in the Manchester United machine - that was the almost felicitous description of Park Ji-Sung last night by a decently over-excited commentator after his fine goal. Notice it could apply to a number of United regulars, Darren Fletcher being undoubtedly, yet again, the man of the match. The pundits who describe United as a one-man team (at one time that one man being Ronaldo, now the mighty Rooon) clearly know next to nothing about the game. Success over the last twenty years has been delivered above all else by the depth of strength of the squad and the manager's ability to turn good players into very good, almost great, footballers.

So Torres's 'demand' that Liverpool buy five quality players to show they're serious, seriously misses the point. You need to win with what you've got to be winners.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Staying Lucky

We were one car away from a major shunt on the highway coming back to Singapore this afternoon. Noi wasn't with us - she's staying at the Melaka house to help ease things back to normality for a couple of days. I was giving a lift to Hakim & Intan and Kak Kiah's brother and they were all a bit startled, as was I, when three or four cars ahead of us in the outside lane decided to push into each other in what seemed like slow motion in the grey rain a few kilometres beyond Machap. They ended up strewn across the two lanes of the highway whilst we managed to draw to a reasonably elegantly unhurried halt behind a chap who also kept a good distance between himself and the mess in front. The guy behind us had also had the sense to keep a sensible distance so that was the end of the carnage.

I don't think anyone was badly hurt, it was all too slow for that, but obviously there was going to be plenty of business for the car repair services in the area. Just how much we only realised as we rounded the blockage, which was quite easy for us being so close so there no queue to speak of, and suddenly realised that what we had witnessed was just the back end of a much longer shunt. I'd guess it involved a further twelve cars at least. The thing none of us could quite grasp was what had happened to the car right at the front, a red one, that meant everyone ploughing into him.

So it's appropriate to be thankful I'm back here in one piece and life can get on without enormous disruptions of one sort or another. I mention this in the awkward knowledge that it sounds a bit like crowing over the misfortunes of all those involved in the mess on the highway. Any celebration of good fortune can sound that way, and some can be meant that way. But I'm trying to mean mine as a genuine recognition that just being able to keep things going in a routine manner is an enormous blessing that we, well me at least, are apt to overlook.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


An air of a deed well done, of accomplishment, hangs over the living-room at the Melaka house. Rozaidah and Rizal (hope I'm right over the spellings) have taken that long dark limousine for their mystery ride. (The metaphor, Springsteen's, doesn't quite work due to the distinct lack of limousines - thank goodness - on kampongs in Malaysia, but it will serve as a way of crossing cultures.) There's a strong sense they know what they are doing, despite the fact they look barely old enough to marry. They had the great good sense, for example, to keep things simple when more might have been demanded. This suggested they had grasped the essential fact: it's the days following the wedding, all of them arriving as relentlessly as the years pass, that are the important ones - the day of the wedding is really neither here nor there in the great scheme of things as long as you avoid an out-and-out disaster.

After that each day is a new challenge to make what you've got work as you take the mystery ride. If you're lucky, it really turns out to be a journey down the tunnel of love. A sort of undeserved grace, in my case.

Friday, March 19, 2010


I never realised until today that the James brothers (William & Henry, not Jessie & the gang) had no sense of music at all. William only makes a single reference to the enjoyment of music in all his voluminous writings on psychology and it simply doesn't enter into Henry's novels. I'm taking this on trust from an aside in Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia, but he's a writer whom I'm only too happy to put my trust in, as I would, no doubt, have the greatest of faith in him as an outstanding physician if I were ever in a position to need his ministrations.

Which I hope I'm not - because this is a doctor who deals in extremes, cases at the edge, as it were, of what the brain is capable of, and, sadly often, rendered incapable of. As with the other books of his I've read (Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Seeing Voices - oddly I have the impression of reading more because of reviews I've come across of his other stuff and seeing him in several documentaries, and I really must make in-roads into his entire oeuvre) I find myself moved, intrigued and simply frightened by the case studies in Musicophilia in roughly equal degrees. You come away from Dr. Sacks with an enhanced sense of our vulnerability to all sorts of insults to the matter of the brain and much admiration for those who deal with often appalling situations with extraordinary courage.

And you also learn a lot. This is not the first edition of Musicophilia and, as with his other works, Sacks gradually accumulates all sorts of fascinating 'extras', often in the form of footnotes. His footnotes make thought-provoking reading in themselves, opening out new conjectures, pointing in directions not necessarily considered in the main body of the text. I get the impression they reflect the workings of the doctor's own mind - never quite still, always alert to new possibilities, exploring avenues that cannot quite be assimilated by our current understanding of how things are. That understanding, in Sacks's work, is always provisional anyway.

So how do we account for the complete lack of interest in music in the James brothers? Sacks doesn't provide any kind of easy answer and I suppose that's the point. The world becomes a little more fascinating, a little less easy to account for through the simple awkwardness of this fact. Indeed, Musicophilia begins with a meditation on how strange it is that any of us should like music at all, and an awareness of the sheer oddness of music as an experience in itself.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Out Of Time

We found ourselves at some local government offices in Gombak around the middle of the day, trying to pay some sort of bill connected to the title deeds of the house. The offices seem to have put in one of the most out the way locations you can imagine. We got there by asking a taxi to lead the way, once we admitted we were hopelessly lost, and the driver told us that it was not unusual for people to give up and ask for assistance in getting to the place. That helped in that we didn't feel quite so foolish, knowing we were not alone in our incompetence.

The offices themselves are quite large, but very quiet. The grounds are nicely landscaped but the buildings look slightly run-down, as if no one can be bothered to properly maintain them. There seemed to be no system of queue numbers or the like. It took us quite a while to pay as we were shunted between a couple of counters, one of which was deserted when we got there and remained so until the gentleman manning it got back from his lunch. Fortunately we were in no great hurry and used the time to get a cup of tea in a desultory sort of canteen and do the prayer in the surau there. There was actually somebody asleep there when I was praying.

It was very hot and quiet and laidback in the Malaysian way. Like a trip back to the 1950's, we felt. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, but not exactly productive either.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Mum has been on some new medication to help her deal with the pain from her shingles. The pain, it seems, is reluctant to take its leave and her doctor has prescribed something very powerful. It seems to knock her out for a good deal of time and leave her exhausted for the rest. Remarkably she deals with this, and all her other problems, largely uncomplainingly. When she does complain it's obviously in some sense necessary for her to do so.

For quite some time now I've been ringing on an almost daily basis. I suppose I'm trying to comfort her, in some shape or form. Curiously, though, I think it's me who takes the greater comfort from the calls. It's strange how talking about almost nothing takes on a deep and poignant meaning.

Monday, March 15, 2010


One of the saving graces of The Sunday Times here has been that it ran a full two-and-a-half pages of cartoons and a half page of puzzles and bits and pieces for kids in its otherwise uniformly appalling Life section. The pages were a colourful reminder of a kinder, happier world. So, inevitably, someone has decided to cut them back by a full page to leave room for more of the other dreck with which they endeavour to rot the minds of the citizens of this island. At least, I assume this is the reason for the (unannounced) disappearance of said page for the last couple of weeks.

So it's farewell to The Born Loser, The Wizard of Id, Blondie and the weekend version of Get Fuzzy, just to name the ones I can remember from the good old days. I can see a vague logic regarding the removal of the first three. They might have been unfairly regarded as rather old-fashioned, a little passe. Certainly they had a distinct charm, and charm doesn't cut it in the new century, I'm afraid. But the loss of Get Fuzzy defies any kind of logic. It still runs as a daily in The Straits Time, for goodness sake, and its art-work was the highlight of the final half-page of cartoons that was. I suppose it really doesn't matter at all about the loss of the kids' stuff. Again, all it had going for it was a kind of gentle calm and kids don't buy newspapers anyway.

I'm only surprised the editors haven't been doing the usual crowing over the improvements offered to you, the reader. They generally greatly enjoy letting us know how everything is getting better, especially when it obviously isn't.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Went with Noi to Geylang market and then a little shop on Onan Road this afternoon to help her do some shopping. We were buying what she broadly terms 'spices', these being necessary for the industrial scale cooking she'll be undertaking next weekend for her sister Rozaidah's wedding. Given the scale of the cooking, the amounts of 'spices' involved were not small, I can assure you. It was fascinating to watch the lady serving us at the market itself dole it all out, filling large plastic bags with colourful heaps of various powders, hardly missing a beat to consider what should come next in the various mixtures. It also smelled wonderful.

We'll be shipping everything across the border into Melaka around the middle of the week and from then on it will be serious preparations all the way - from which I'll stand well clear. It isn't that I don't want to help. It's simply that I know I'll just get in the way of everyone else who'll know what to do. My job is to make up the numbers, try not to create any further unnecessary fuss, and smile amiably when required. And I'm very happy to try and do so.

One of the (many, many) qualities I admire in my wife is her expertise in these matters, and desire to put it to use simply to help the family and make everyone happy. A tall order - but somehow she succeeds.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Sort Of Relief

Paradoxically I felt a strong sense of relief when I read last week about a guy I taught a few years back who's just received a twelve year jail sentence with twelve strokes of the cane in there for good measure. The relief stemmed from the fact that he could have been facing execution, so no matter how bad the outcome it couldn't have been as utterly devastating as that. He'd got himself involved in a gang killing in Geylang, over some drugs deal gone sour as far as I can make out, and it looks like some kind of justice has been done - though I'm not sure the family of the young man who got himself killed would see it like that.

It's probably not going to surprise anyone when I tell you he, the one going to prison, was a decent enough sort of student. Unfailingly polite but just a little bemused at having to put up with what must have seemed like the irrelevance of school. Me, for example, trying to teach him things about English that had little if anything to do with the worlds in which he moved. But he did what it was necessary to do in the classroom and, most importantly of all, stayed largely out of trouble even when it was clear enough that he'd be able to handle himself when he got into it.

Except that he wasn't able to handle himself in the end, because this kind of trouble can so easily escalate to the point that the forces of the state get themselves involved and a much bigger, realer, harsher world than the streets of Geylang takes control of your life. I can still see him sitting in my classroom, the middle of the second row at the back (where he could be trusted, as he was intent on staying out of trouble) and just getting on with doing what he needed to do to build some kind of life - one he's now thrown away.

And that's why I don't see what has happened as inevitable, despite the difficult background he was from. He had chances. There were other possibilities open to him. People were working to provide them for him, and he got the best advice and guidance he could have had. My old mate Deepak put a lot into his case, and you just don't get better help than that. In the end he made the wrong choices but the choices were real.

He's young though - which is one of the reasons all this is so sad. But it means he'll get out of clink still quite a young man. And I suppose there's some hope in that.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Close Reading

It's taken me a heck of a time to read Praise of Folly. That's a measure of how busy life has conspired to make me recently. I think it took me only a couple of days to read it when I first did so, back in the 70's. It is, after all, hardly a massive tome, though one of great weight for other reasons. But I must say I think I enjoyed it this time round a good deal more than the first time.

This has nothing to do with having developed a greater understanding in the intervening years or anything of that nature. I don't think I've come away with any profoundly new insights. But this time round I've had time to relish the fine detail of the text in a way I denied myself all those years ago when I read it so quickly. Since I've never really had that much time to settle with the book this time, I've tended to just focus on the passage at hand in the fragments of reading time available - a paragraph over a ten-minute cup of tea in the canteen - that kind of thing.

And it has worked wonderfully well, I suppose assisted by the fact that there's little in terms of forward momentum involved in Erasmus's squib. It goes nowhere but circles remorselessly round itself, playing with its ironies in an often dizzying fashion - except going as slowly as I did there was no chance of getting at all dizzy. It was also pleasant to let myself linger on the plentiful footnotes in my old Penguin classic. Now all I have to do is to read the chunky Letter to Martin Dorp which is part of the same edition and I'll consider myself ready to move on and try and do a lingering Trollope some justice, having unkindly, unjustly, unconscionably neglected the great storyteller.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

In Balance

Listened to an eye-witness account of some of the killings in Jos on the way home from work. It was dreadful. But strangely heartening in the humanity of the guy speaking - his pain and outrage manifest. Light in dark places.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


The terrible news of the massacre of so many people in Jos in Nigeria over the weekend got the day off to a depressing start. It's not so good travelling into work with a bitter sense of the hopelessness of our oftentimes benighted species. Of course, living and working where I have the good fortune to helped me gain a sense of balance as the day went on.

But that awful, aching idea that for most people sheer misery is the due portion wouldn't quite go away.

Monday, March 8, 2010

On The Mend

Finally a day when I don't feel like I'm suffering from a clanging headache and my throat is not drawing attention to itself through rasping soreness. And a nose that isn't so runny that it threatens to create puddles, and mountains of tissues, wherever I go - though it's now emphatically blocked. A small price to pay for a process that seems to be one of healing, I hope.

It will be nice to the point of slightly wonderful to feel normal again. And if, in addition to that, I can get to the point of finding some reasonable reading time, I'll be able to return to the embrace of the Goddess Folly and things will be entirely hunky dory.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


The goddess Folly with some apposite observations on her devoted followers: Let's look at those who have some reputation for wisdom amongst mortals and seek the golden bough, as the saying goes. Among them the schoolmasters hold first place. They would surely be the most unfortunate and wretched class of men and the one most hateful to the gods if I didn't mitigate the hardships of their miserable profession by a pleasant kind of madness.

Not much has changed over the centuries, eh?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Strange Meeting

I sat through a one-and-a-half-hour-plus meeting this morning and enjoyed every minute of it.

Have the streaming nose, sore throat and force three headache I'm struggling against finally made me lose all sense of reality? No. It is possible to have fruitful focused meetings that deal with real issues and have real and immediate results. In my experience of the last twenty or so years such meetings have generally been planning meetings for drama productions involving the core team, and today's was no exception.

It helps that the only thing anyone is interested in at such meetings is getting whatever one is doing to work as well as possible. And it helps that when you're dealing with people who know what they're talking about you know the talk is worth listening to. In fact, it's beyond that. The ideas inspire, inflame and you suddenly start to see something you could never have seen on your own.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Cast Away

The odd thing about casting the kind of (very) small time shows I'm involved in (but big time to us!) is that people, understandably, make the assumption that deciding who plays the 'big' roles (as people think of them) is the tricky part. Usually it's not. Generally you pick a script (assuming you're working from one) based on the fact you can visualise someone you've got in such roles. Because if you haven't got that someone, you're in trouble. Not that that means they automatically get the role, but they've got a pretty good chance. My guess is that whoever decided to make There Will Be Blood already had Daniel Day-Lewis in mind. It's difficult thinking of the film working without him. (And that is, unarguably, big time.)

No, it's what people regard as the minor roles that cause the problem. Because they're not 'minor' and the depth and texture of what you do depends on them. But you sometimes can't know what performers can do until they've done it.

So it's often a matter of glimpses, hunches. But here's an optimistic thought based on a few years of experience: whatever you catch a glimpse of in audition, you are guaranteed to get wholesale in performance - and usually, nearly always, better.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cast Down

Sometimes I've been told I'm good at casting - in terms of choosing the best performers for roles in plays and the like. It's nice to be told that, because it suggests that people are comfortable watching something I've been partly responsible for putting together. (Only ever partly: theatre is the great collaborative art.) But the problem is you can never be sure you did choose the best.

You see, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Choose someone with the capacity for a role and some degree of talent and they will make a role their own over weeks of rehearsal. They may well excel, and it's a joy when they do. But the truth is that Candidate B may have done even better. You will never know.

You can't presume you really were right. It would be silly to assume that somehow you got it wrong. Because you didn't.

So I agonise. And I agonise. And I agonise. And then I don't.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Not So Easy

Still feeling several feet under the weather - headache, sore throat, aching arms. The only let-up was when I found myself in front of students either teaching or watching auditions. Magically I forgot I was off-colour for the duration, and then it hit me like the proverbial hammer as soon as I stopped.

I'm lucky to enjoy the essence of my job. I'm unlucky in that so much of what I find myself doing is not of the essence, as it were.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Out Of Flunter

Without actually being ill today I somehow managed to feel not exactly well all day. Not entirely out of sorts, but also far from in sorts. Hardly dis-eased, but not at all at ease. Uneased, I suppose.

Which leaves four days to get through before I can force myself to get up early to clear more marking at the weekend.

This is beginning to sound unhealthily self-pitying, but there's not much else it seems reasonable to be when one feels unhealthy.