Friday, April 30, 2010


The Gordon Brown gaffe of a day or so back suggested a rather good wheeze to me. If we all went around wearing microphones that switched themselves on at arbitrary intervals, and broadcast our conversations to all and sundry, the world would be a more interesting place. I'm guessing the technology would be readily available in these digitally enhanced days.

I reckon I'd survive at least a couple of days before my reputation would be completely blown. At least that's a bit longer than poor Gordon managed.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

On The Odiferous

Medicine doesn't smell like medicine anymore. At one time when you were ill you knew you were ill because of the lingering odours of all those unpleasantly thick liquids you were forced to ingest. Nowadays only the fact that you feel yucky is left as evidence of the state of being less than tickety-boo. All the pills and liquids these days taste either neutral or suspiciously pleasant and the lotions have the whiff of the mildly edifying.

I was reminded of this aspect of progress the other night when I put on one of those deep heat plaster whotsits on an uncomfortably aching lower back. Actually it was Noi who put it on after sensibly suggesting I wear one through the night. Now those things do smell, and you know you're getting your money's worth. Every time I turned over in bed I caught a noseful of my patch's richly pink heatiness and felt like a genuine invalid.

Come to think of it, hospitals don't smell much like hospitals. No wonder health tourism is catching on.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Surviving, Still

I used to regard birthdays with indifference. Nowadays I relish them. The older I get, the younger, and dafter, I feel. When I was a youngster of around forty I used to think folk of my age had achieved some small degree of wisdom. How wonderfully wrong I was, as the pictures above goofily testify.

Of course, getting lovely presents helps.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cashing In

Trollope is excellent on money. He hasn't got Dickens's massive mythic power, but he knows how the stuff works, and to the degree to which we are all in thrall to its power.

Take this fine bit, from a uniformly fine much longer paragraph, on Mrs Greenow, one of the characters in the comic sub-plot of Can You Forgive Her?:

But she had already married for money once, as she told herself very plainly on this occasion, and she thought she might now venture on a little love. Her marriage for money had been altogether successful. The nursing of old Greenow had not been very disagreeable to her, nor had it taken longer than she had anticipated. She had now got all the reward that she had ever promised herself, and she really did feel grateful to his memory. I almost think that amongst those plentiful tears some few drops belonged to sincerity.

There's a refreshing, clubbable tolerance behind this clear-sighted analysis that you rarely find in the Victorian novel. Jane Austen has something of this, but her charity wouldn't extend to the Mrs Greenows of this world. Trollope's charity is central to his vision. I suppose that's why he tends to be regarded as a comfortable writer, peddling a kind of early version of the compassionate conservatism we've all come to roundly distrust. But I trust Trollope, because he doesn't hide from what money can and does do to people. Mrs Greenow is, in many ways, a dreadful woman, but she's also extremely likeable in her fashion.

By the way, the chap who wrote the rather snooty introduction to my edition of the novel (one Sir Edward Marsh, whoever he be, the edition being one of those natty little OUP World Classics in hardback that you don't see around anymore) thinks the entire Mrs Greenow plot is a waste of time and extraneous to the concerns of the novel. Never trust a Trollope fan, which is what he purports to be. Rarely has a major writer (and I think he is one, when on form) been so badly served by his 'supporters'. A bit like all those dreadful Jane-ites, I guess.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

More Demands

It's incredibly difficult to deal with the work of students who struggle to express themselves with any degree of clarity. I've spent over thirty years trying to think myself into the position of kids who can't do what seems to come reasonably naturally to me. The problem is that if you can't figure out why what's going wrong is going wrong there's little you can do about it. Pointing out it is going wrong is important, but can only be a starting point. But I seem to spend a lot of time stuck at this level.

One thing that characterises the work of quite a few students is an apparent desire to make simple things more confusing than they are. I'm guessing that this is done in the vain hope that obfuscation will be mistaken for depth. Although, having said that, quite a few folk have built careers based on this strategy, so who am I to criticise?

Saturday, April 24, 2010


After a demandingly enjoyable morning of drama and more drama I'm now waiting to get slapped around and pummeled by Noi's surpassingly excellent massage lady. Mind you, I'm in a queue comprising many of the Singaporean branch of Noi's family, so patience is called for. Worth the wait, though. A bit like the long wait for Scholsey's moment of genius against City last week.

And that's a reminder of another variety of drama - one sometimes so traumatic in its outcomes (the Bayern game!!!) that the pleasures of satisfied fulfilment are by no means guaranteed. At times I'm almost inclined to stick to massages.

Friday, April 23, 2010


When I consider how little I know about anything, it adds to that small but distinct sense of astonishment that I can manage to get to the end of each day if not exactly unscathed then not entirely scathed.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

So Tired

Two great songs about being tired: I'm Only Sleeping and I'm So Tired - both by the late, great John Lennon, the laziest Beatle of them all, by repute. Oddly enough I can't think of a single other song on the subject - surely one of the most universal of human experiences. And ironically enough, I'm too tired to care.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Down To Earth

I was told this morning that today is Earth Day, though I'm not sure if the information was accurate. I remember a time when we didn't have an Earth Day because we didn't know we needed one. And I'm not sure we do now, insofar as I'm always dubious about any form of media-driven hoopla, and its costs.

But I do know that thinking seriously and carefully about how we treat our planet is an urgent necessity. Fortunately the young people with whom I have contact are more than prepared to do so - and. I think, they'll have the gumption to act on their thoughts. I just hope they have more sense than previous generations, especially mine.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Real Thing

I've been reading Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism in tandem with Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? They make an odd pair. But then anything by Frye makes an odd pair with whatever you put it up against. I suppose if you can have a favourite literary critic, a breed I generally detest, then Frye is it. You don't so much read Anatomy of Criticism as get lost in its goofy pattern-making and dazzling insights - I reckon at least three dazzlers, minimum, per page. Interestingly, I think I understand the overall thesis on this reading less than on my previous two. Always a good sign.

To some degree this is all preliminary to a reading of Fearful Symmetry, Frye's greatest book (I think) on Blake, I'm planning for later in the year - when I get a life again. I first read FS after innocently coming across it in the school library at Xaverian College, the scene of a good deal of my misspent youth. Talk about a window opening on the world: the realisation that things were a good deal more complex than I had hitherto suspected was welcome if somewhat intimidating for a kid who'd not that long since graduated from the Bunter books. (Does anyone still read Frank Richards?)

I hasten to add that the Frye itself is intended as preliminary to a big push on Blake's Prophetic Books and assorted goodies. And I'm planning a major Hughes festival of one. You've got to get beyond the critics, no matter how good they are, and Lear-like deal with the thing itself.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Learning From Experience

When walking through what you assume to be an open glass door check that there isn't any actual glass in the place you assume there isn't. I didn't, and am now nursing a terrific headache and a cut & bruise over my left eyebrow. It seems that when walking at pace I lead with my head. Fortunately the glass door didn't break, even if it felt like my head did.

Amazingly a number of students who witnessed the collision (certainly some must have heard it - it being of the resounding variety) didn't find it funny enough to laugh, but actually offered sympathy. Young people are obviously far more civilised now than of old. When I was a student I'm pretty sure I'd have enjoyed the spectacle of teacher meeting glass door more than a little. In fact, I recall the wonderful Jack Connolly colliding with a half-open window when going incendiary doing one of Lear's speeches on the heath, half knocking-off his spectacles, and still keeping going, much to our merriment, admiration and general delight.

So this joins the other piece of advice every male teacher should take to heart: always check your zip before embarking on an assembly. Fortunately I learnt that one without having to undergo the requisite experience.

One last, odd little detail. Following said collision I walked around with bloodied brow for a good twenty minutes without exciting a single comment from anyone. (I was so busy at that point I just didn't have time to clean the cut.) I suppose it was taken for granted that a teacher on his way to a drama rehearsal might well go to extremes to get into character.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Other Side

Reading Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? I'm oddly reminded of the world of Jane Austen. Odd I suppose because Trollope tends to be regarded to some degree as the meat and potatoes man of the Victorian novel. Tasty, in his way, but a trifle stodgy. But Can You Forgive Her? has, at times, a subtlety worthy of the finest light gourmet cuisine. It lacks Austen's delicious irony, but it has the same piercing insight into its characters' social behaviour, especially - and this is the surprising thing - the young women at its centre.

I'm just about at the halfway mark and, so far, whatever has concerned Alice Vavasor, Kate Vavasor and Lady Glencora has been remarkably convincing and generally riveting. Our novelist really gets inside their minds in a way that is quite remarkable for its time, or any time at all. Whatever else Trollope was, he was in touch with whatever feminine side he possessed.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Another Puzzle

On a day largely devoid of music I just found myself listening to Yessongs, the live Yes album from the early seventies, featuring material from The Yes Album, Fragile and Close To The Edge. It sounded better on the Bose system than I've ever heard it before, but I can't say it really stirred me. A bit too busy for my tastes. But when I first heard it during my university days I know I thought Yessongs was the bee's knees. I was extremely jealous of the guy who owned it for being able to afford it. (An over-priced triple album, it was way beyond my limited capacities.)

Now here's the puzzle. As I pointed out the other day, my opinions are invariably correct. So why is it that recalling those of the past so often involves contemplation of pretty egregious errors?

Mind you, I always thought Jon Anderson's lyrics were more than a little iffy. Some things never change.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Puzzle

Since my opinions on pretty much every subject are self-evidently correct it remains a matter of some small puzzlement that there are people who think differently. I have attempted to resolve the conundrum by developing a genuine fascination with regard to what these misguided souls think. But the fascination tends to derive from a sense of bewilderment as to how they can be so wrong.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


When I get my life back I'm intending to devote a small part of it to Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? As it is I'm actually making progress even under the worst conditions. Trollope demands momentum. Small doses don't suit. But they're enough. Just. At least for now.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Sense Of Loss

It was only when I read the most recent issue of The Muslim Reader, a magazine published by Darul Arqam, an association for Muslim converts of which I am a member, that I learnt of the death of Shaykh Zakaria. I had the great good fortune to attend a number of his classes a few years ago on Tawhid, which might loosely translate as Theology. He's the only teacher I've ever known who would begin lessons sometimes by laughing - not at anything in particular as far as one could tell - just the sheer joy or absurdity of it all. Such laughter could last for up to five minutes a time without a single word being said. He was also prone to telling extraordinarily elaborate stories which would seem to be leading nowhere and then conclude with startlingly obvious lessons - almost cliches - which seemed mysteriously to have just come to life and been rendered unforgettable. One such epic tale concerned a late night he spent in a mosque, the point of which turned out to be that only God is worth being frightened of. I've never forgotten that, and in moments of cowardice try and place it in the centre of my thoughts.

He was a lovely man, his warmth and tolerance palpable, and our world will be a sadder place without him. But I suspect heaven will be all the richer.

Monday, April 12, 2010


I'll be phoning Mum later with salutations as she plunges astonishingly deeper into her nineties. I'm hoping the card has got there by now - she didn't mention anything when I rang yesterday and normally it gets there early.

She'll probably have a good moan when I ring. Yesterday's concerned her increasing difficulty in getting around. And I'll do what I did yesterday - hopelessly murmur my agreements along with all her complaints. It's not enough, but it's the best I can do across the distance, and I think it helps ease her frustrations. If you can't have a good moan when you're ninety-odd then when can you?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Something Rich And Strange

Sam Mendes's production of The Tempest did not disappoint. It did what a good modern production should do: it gave a sense of being bang up-to-date, with no sense of gimmickry. It felt like a new play, yet stayed true to the spirit of the original.

And isn't that original an odd thing in itself, often disconcertingly so? Several of the big laughs in the theatre yesterday had a distinctly troubled undercurrent to them - especially the one following Caliban's wry observation that being taught language means he knows how to curse.

I found myself, for the first time ever, watching the Ferdinand - Miranda sequences almost entirely from the perspective of Prospero. The fruits of aging, I guess. Their Romeo & Julietishness was as obvious as ever, but so was the truth, yet fragility of their beauty. It was almost unbearably lovely-sad, as is the comedy as a whole.

Art changes nothing. The enchantment will never last. The books are for drowning or burning. And the afternoon in the theatre made it all worthwhile. Perhaps.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Just Messing

One the nice running gags in Bill Forsythe's movie Gregory's Girl is the hapless penguin (human variety, in costume) wandering the corridors of Gregory's school in search of the room in which whatever penguin-oriented activity it/he/she is meant to be involved is, presumably, going on. I was reminded of the wandering bird this morning by a little lad I encountered at work wearing a sort of uniform made out of black bin liners, his face encased in a snorkel, and a colourful cap on his head. He seemed comfortably at home in this outfit, so who was I to ask him whither he was bound?

I must confess, I knew perfectly well he was looking for his team-mates in the rather jolly Odyssey of the Mind competition to which our school annually plays host. But it was nice to imagine he'd done it all of his own accord. Sometimes being daft just for the sake of it is the best way to be. But being daft on a competitive basis also has its rewards, I suppose.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Gentleness and charm: not qualities one normally associates with American tv series, particularly those of the crime genre. But the wonderful Monk overflows with them. Plus the viewer gets a master-class in acting from Tony Shaloub.

For reasons too complicated to explain (but which relate to the idiotic scheduling attendant upon excellent programmes of all varieties) I've not really been a regular viewer since the first series, which I watched in its entirety. Having just watched one of the episodes from the final series, in which erstwhile assistant Sharona comes back for a guest appearance, I'm wondering why.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


I look forward to that time of day here, just after 7.00 pm, when the light Shakespearianly thickens and the birds, the ones on Upper East Coast Road particularly, get together in conference. If I happen to be on the way home with the missus, with a cup of tea and various bits of kueh warming the innards, that time invariably transcends whatever troubles the day has thrown my way.

Such was the case this evening. For which I give thanks.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


I avoided reading the review of Sam Mendes's production of The Tempest in yesterday's paper as we're off to see it on Saturday afternoon. In doing so I was struck by the very obvious fact that so much of what we experience artistically is mediated, one way or another, through the eyes of others. It's hard to see things innocently, as it were. Not that this is a terribly bad thing. I suppose it's the result of the natural development of what we might term artistic communities - in the loosest sense. The important thing is that we develop an independent framework through which we can make our own genuine assessments. If we don't we'll always be at the mercy of the latest artistic fad.

The best artistic community in that respect is the immediate audience of the work. Being in a good audience can be a learning experience in itself; being in a lousy one can be disastrous in all sorts of ways.

My guess is that the first audience for The Tempest, groundlings and all, was as good as you can get in a theatre, and that in itself feeds into Shakespeare's genius. Wouldn't it be wonderful going to the play without a clue of what you were going to experience?

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Freezer

The school in which I teach has a lot more air-conditioned areas (like classrooms) than most schools in Singapore. This was not something which attracted me to apply for a job there as I'm no great fan of air-con - we never switch on the units in our living room and the computer room at home, for example. But some people seem to like it, for reasons that escape me.

One of the reasons those reasons escape me is typified by my experience of the early afternoon: listening to a series of TOK presentations in a lecture theatre whose mean (and I mean, mean) temperature would have put an igloo to shame. The temperature there is controlled (or possibly isn't) centrally so there was nothing to be done about it except to shiver and barely bear it.

Of course, I wasn't dressed for the occasion. But, then, I never am because everywhere else is so hot and clammy. There's an irony in all this somewhere, but I'm still too chilled to bother to tease it out.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Game Over?

I never have been into computer games of any kind. I suppose I was born too early. At university I remember first seeing and playing one of those very simple tennis games in which two players batted a bouncing ball from one side of the screen to the other. But it was never going to supplant the appeal of snooker and the like for us. And then came all those Pac Man machines into the pubs. One or two of my contemporaries took them quite seriously, but I could never figure out how to play them, and could never really afford to.

And when computer gaming really took off it never took me with it, for pretty much that reason. It was way too complicated for me to bend my brain to. And I've always been thankful for that. It's not that I disapprove of such gaming. In fact, I do have at least some small sense of its appeal, especially the historical simulation stuff and role-play games. And that's why I know that if this had been current when I was a lad I'd have been hooked with the best of them. I'm not too sure that many intense hours at the computer screen would have been all that good for me.

That connection of games with a peculiar intensity is an interesting one. There's no point in playing if you don't play to win. But loss is inevitable (as yesterday's grim result usefully reminded me.) It's the balance between the two that creates the space to lose oneself, and, in the process, find oneself in. Learning to get back up to play on for the sake of playing.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Still Playing

Spent most of the day so far watching young people playing on stage, preparing for a real live audience at the end of it all. It's funny how making things up can be so much more intense than the reality of just living. I can understand how some players can become addicted to the rush when you get it all to work.

And just at this moment I'm suffering, sort of enjoyably, the intensity of the United - Chelsea game. About twenty minutes left and a season to save. It doesn't get more real than this!

Friday, April 2, 2010

More Fun And Games

Having posted the little piece yesterday about games, I realised I'd unaccountably forgotten about some pretty intense playing post-university. Usually this took place at times of holiday, celebration or general partying. I'm thinking of quizzes like Trivial Pursuit played with company at Dave Stott's or Tony Steel's. And I recall several sessions of Formula One, a Waddington's board game that became a particular favourite. (I neglected to pay tribute to Waddington's yesterday, a brand name to be trusted in England. I think they were the equivalent of the States's Parker Brothers.)

In fact Tony at one point developed quite a selection of fairly sophisticated games, like a Sherlock Holmes one with Baker Street in the title that I remember as distinctly complicated. But perhaps memory is addled by the fact that reasonably profuse quantities of alcohol accompanied the gaming of that period. It added to the fun, certainly, but detracted from the clarity of it all. I suppose that's why I don't really regard this playing as having quite the same quality as that of my genuine youth.

I also forgot to consider games played with our various nieces and nephews, predominantly Fifi and Fafa. Cadoo springs to mind. And Pictionary at silly Christmasses visiting England. But here the fun took over from the intensity, I think. You really need to passionately want to win, even if you don't mind losing, for games to mean something.

Oh, and what about Scrabble which the missus and I used to play quite often at weekends? And sometimes with Mum when she was visiting Singapore. Gosh, I'd forgotten how good that was. Probably due to the shock of sometimes losing!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Games People Play

On a day for fooling I've been thinking about games. More specifically, I've been considering the joys of escaping into them, and how long it's been since I've done so. At a rough estimate some thirty years.

I'm not counting games of a sporting nature here. I played football for far too long actually, contributing to some of my current aches and pains - but I can't say I've got too many regrets about that. No, I'm thinking of games as in the board games variety - Monopoly and that sort of thing. I last played seriously escapistly at university. Not Monopoly - but we had a thing about the wonderful Diplomacy, which I've not heard spoken of in years. I don't think I've seen a set since then. And I got into chess in a small way, playing a couple of guys who were much better than me - which was not difficult as I've no gift at all in that direction.

I also got interested in war gaming in a fair way, or rather developed an interest sparked by reading H.G. Wells's Little Wars (I think that's the title) as a kid. In fact, all the stuff I played at university was a development of what I'd been doing since being around nine or ten. Monopoly, Totopoly, Mine-A-Million, Scoop, Cluedo, The Battle of the Little Big Horn, Risk. Subbuteo, Scaletric. Elaborate battlefields of those little Airfix soldiers, especially Confederates versus Union in the American Civil War. Blackjack, gin rummy, chase-the-lady. Dominoes.

I must have spent far more time on all that than anything productive. Except that it was productive of a great deal of happiness. Paradise, almost.

I must get to play more.