Saturday, July 31, 2010

Higher Things

The thing about that tiresome cliché about the magic of theatre is that, like all tiresome clichés, it's essentially true. It doesn't always work for everyone in the audience or on the stage, but when it works for most, it becomes a specie of rough magic, and on those rare occasions it works for all the roof comes off and something holy is glimpsed.

If it works all the time you're watching Shakespeare or Aeschylus or some such johnny done as it's meant to be.

I offer the conjecture that all art, real art, aspires to such transcendence. And the curious thing is that in the performing arts even the weakest performance can have its moments - which is why so many of those involved keep searching.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Getting On

Something I've discovered from years of mounting plays: at dress rehearsal stage it's generally getting the thing started that's the biggest headache one faces. Once it's up and running it runs, but getting over the tipping point often demands a ferocious effort of will. And when time is at a premium, as it always is, that effort of will is generally attended by a considerable degree of stress.

I'm getting too old for this.

But then it's doing it that keeps me young. (Well, youngish.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Say Again?

For all connoisseurs of low level paradox, this is one overheard yesterday: A little pain never hurt anybody. Sadly I was the witless perpetrator. Sometimes it isn't terribly wise to listen in on oneself.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Final Frame

Saddened to read in today's paper of the death of Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins, a finely unpredictable snooker player of some years back. I won quite a bit of money on him in the World Championship of 1982, having placed a wager at excellent odds when he reached the last sixteen (if memory serves me correctly.) The odds were excellent because, despite his undoubted ability, he had shown little sign of the discipline needed to turn that to real account since winning the title ten years earlier. In that ten years a lot had changed. The game had moved from seedy, dingy backstreet dives to becoming quite a television spectacle with the championship played at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre. (Not the most obvious venue - but somehow it worked.)

So snooker had become respectable, whilst Alex hadn't - which, I suppose, is why I backed him. And somehow he held it together for a change and surprised everyone. Then he reverted to being the archetypal Irish bad boy and it duly fell apart.

But it was nice whilst it lasted. And he's name-checked in Van Morrison's So Long In Exile, which is in itself a kind of (dubious) immortality.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Children's Things

On a whim I read Ted Hughes's How The Whale Became And Other Stories today and was very glad I did. A wonderfully anthropomorphic God, who wears a sun hat and calls endlessly for iced drinks on the particularly hot day on which he creates Tortoise, is just one of many splendid highlights.

And I was equally happy reading Leon Garfield's Apprentices a couple of weeks ago. In this case though any children attempting to read the stories would need to be considerably older than the seven or so recommended for Hughes's Whale tales. I remember Longmans publishing Apprentices in shorter versions - the original twelve stories, corresponding to the months of the year and various associated festivals, reduced to groups of four, was it? I got the impression they were hoping schools would pick these up as standard texts for literature classes, but I don't know how successful this was.

In fact, I'm not sure Garfield is read much at all now. Which is a pity since stylistically he's so interesting and 'usable' in the classroom. Certainly his Shakespeare Stories should be the prescribed text everywhere for schools who want to give kids a set of tales from Shakespeare. Astonishingly I've heard of the Lambs' hoary old versions still getting into classrooms, which is a crime when you consider the obvious superiority and accessibility of Garfield's work.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Branching Out

Trees, or rather bits of them, crop up in the oddest of places here. Early this afternoon Noi and I whilst shopping at the new Geylang Market were quaffing the cup that cheers on the higher level and munching some munchables. Looking out towards Joo Chiat Complex on the other side of the road I realised we were positioned at the same height of the canopies of the trees, raintrees, I think, planted along the roadside. The canopies, three in my immediate range of vision, were intriguingly variegated in terms of colour - one especially standing out with its gorgeous mixing of light greens and yellows.

There's a tiresome cliché trotted out here about Singapore being a 'garden city'. Tiresome because one hears it so often. But the profusion of trees goes a long way to making it not entirely vapid.

The trees, in fact, go an extremely long way to, if not making this a beautiful city, at least making Singapore a place where beauty is easy to find. Now if only the same could be said for the architecture.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Threshing Around

There's a lovely view through one of the windows of the SAC at work (that's the sort of canteen area.) It's of a garden, but not of the English style. Sort of orientally jungly, in the nicest possible sense. I often sit facing it, supping my tea and thinking zen-like thoughts.

Yesterday I noticed, really noticed, just how much movement there was in the trees out there. They appeared a good deal more animated than I felt. I don't think their movement had ever quite registered with me before, but their collective dance held me hypnotised for a good ten minutes or so - long enough for me to finish the tea, anyway.

I was reminded of a couple of favourite lines of mine from Larkin's The Trees: Yet still the unresting castles thresh / In full grown thickness every May. Of course, these trees weren't castles in any sense, and it's not May, but who needs excuses for recalling great lines? And I further decided that I'd read Larkin's Collected Poems from cover to cover which I'm now about to do - well, make a start, that is.

And I further reflected upon the fact that Larkin himself was, from all accounts, quite an awful sort of fellow. Sad, but in a nasty way. It's a funny thing, beauty. It can emerge in the most unexpected of places.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Not Despairing, Not Presuming

When attempting to bring some cheer to the lives of colleagues who are looking a trifle glum I've pointed out that all those impossible jobs on that depressing to-do list will be long gone in another year. The list will have been replaced by something most likely a few items longer. I sometimes think my good counsel leaves a little to be desired.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Making A Difference

Something fresh for me: I've just finished reading Garrison Keillor's poetry anthology Good Poems from cover to cover, keeping to the sequence of the placing of the poems. I don't think I've ever done this with any poetry anthology before and I suspect it's not something that readers generally do. A poetry anthology is more obviously for dipping into in a sort of random manner, and that's what I'd been doing previous to the read-through, such that I was familiar with quite a number of the individual poems as I read them.

So what difference did it make, going cover to cover? Well it certainly made me far more aware of the deliberateness of the editor's sequencing - I suppose that's pretty obviously bound to be the case. But I think it altered how I read the poems themselves. I certainly read more at one sitting than I normally would have done, almost as if I were attempting to maintain a kind of momentum. Of course this was done in the knowledge that I would inevitably revisit most of what I was reading, because that's what you do with poetry. But it meant that I was less inclined to dwell on a poem, or one part of a poem, and that felt curiously liberating.

We don't really talk much about exactly how we read things, or listen to music, or look at paintings and by not doing so we miss opportunities to widen our frame of response. I didn't really begin to understand serious music until I stopped trying to understand it and just listened.

Monday, July 19, 2010


One of the ways I found to console myself over the weekend for Noi not being around was by viewing two of the episodes of the wonderful Planet Earth, the two being the last pair of the original series. (The DVD set comes with another three documentaries on an extra disk which I think are 'extras'. Good value, eh?) So I luxuriated in Seasonal Forests on Saturdays and explored the Deep Ocean on Sunday.

Each episode on the DVD set comes with a corresponding Planet Earth Diaries, a ten minute film of one aspect or another of the making of what you've just viewed. I assume these are part of the original series, being both illuminating and informative. In a way they bring you down to earth, showing you some of the impressive nuts and bolts of the filming. Watching them has served to make me more aware of the sense in which these programmes are genuine works of art. You realise just how impressive the editing of the images has been and how careful the selection has been. Ally that to the gorgeously expressive music by George Fenton and the commentary by David Attenborough which is informative, humane and emotionally engaging, often in a single finely crafted, finely enunciated sentence, and you've got something that does whatever art is supposed to do - with knobs on.

The last awesome image of the mighty blue whale making its way through the even mightier ocean, the camera then pulling away to the point the whale is no longer quite visible as Attenborough asks us do we intend to save the planet at this crucial time struck me as being as powerfully iconic as the gorilla sequence from Life On Earth - high praise indeed. The trouble is that watching it I couldn't get out of my mind the image of all that BP oil gushing into the ocean. And I still can't, despite their claims to have capped the leak.

I wonder if some hundred or so years in the future some kids will be viewing the image in a gallery somewhere as a reminder of a paradise we lost and can never reclaim. Not much consolation there, I'm afraid.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Little Cache

I recently purchased some CDs through the good people at, the first time in quite a while I've bought anything on-line. The order got here remarkably quickly, at least a week ahead of the earliest date I thought they'd manage. A little reminder of how easy it is to use such services. Which is both wonderful and a bit of a worry. The wonderful bit is obvious. The bit of a worry comes about when considering the sheer volume of books & CDs I could easily decide as necessary to my existence, when they are not. Nice, yes, and easy to justify, but not essential. As it is, I've struggled to find time to listen properly to what I've now got. Mind you, I've enjoyed every moment of what I have heard.

Just for the record the cache comprises two Procul Harum classics, from the beautifully packaged reissues on the Salvo label - Grand Hotel and Exotic Birds and Fruit. My suspicions of the 1970's, that this was a band who'd stand the test of time, are confirmed. Also another two albums from roughly the same period by Steeleye Span - Please To See The King and Below The Salt. They make good listening, as they always did, but do sound a little bit of their time, I think. And finally, no fewer than four offerings from The Decemberists, having failed to find anything other than the wonderful Hazards of Love either in Singapore or the UK. (I must admit, I forgot to look for their stuff when we were in Paris, where there might have been a chance.) - Her Majesty, Castaways and Cutouts, Picaresque and The Crane Wife. Not a dud among them. We live in fruitful times, almost too much so.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Soup Of The Day

Pictured above is last night's dinner. To be more specific, a bowl of oxtail soup, as prepared by the missus. And to be even more specific, my part of the dinner, the first of two bowls - though Noi and I shared the bread. The bowl may not look too deep but it contained plenty. Which meant it was particularly foolish of me to consume one of Noi's cranberry muffin specials about an hour after being swamped by the soup. I live dangerously, but deliciously.

Today she's gone off to Melaka to help prepare some kind of kenduri for Mak leaving me home alone, except for plentiful further supplies of soup and muffins. So whilst a big part of me is missing her another part thinks life is really rather splendid.

(For those poor benighted souls out there who only know of oxtail soup from cans I should tell you that under those potatoes and carrots lurks a real oxtail and its real meat. Bliss. Unless you happen to be vegetarian.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

On Board

Set sail a few days back on the good ship Beagle with one Charles Darwin as guide and companion. I keep thinking of the Thomas Hardy line about a man who used to notice such things, except that Darwin notices everything.

A curiously modern sensibility also in so many respects. The frequent condemnations of slavery, for example. Yet he casually hunts the creatures he so obviously respects and loves. Aren't we an odd species?

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Caught the last episode of Prime Suspect on cable the other night, on the Granada channel which we now get. We always have enjoyed the various episodes, though I think the first series remains the most effective.

The last episode was particularly good though with a strong story-line - the one leading to Tennison's (is that how you spell it? - not sure) retirement. Helen Mirren is always impressive, no matter what she's in, and her performance as Tennison is possibly the best thing she's ever done - certainly for the screen, anyway. But what was quite astonishing in the last Prime Suspect was her depiction of her character's drunkenness. She was utterly convincing in at least four distinct states of inebriation, without the slightest sign of 'acting drunk'.

The moment when the suspect she's interviewing simply points out what everyone else knows, that the smell of alcohol in the room comes from her not him, was stunning. Since the viewer can't smell anything, of course, we share her sudden, bitter, realisation that she is not covering up the reality of her condition as effectively as she/we may have assumed, despite her heroic efforts to hold it all together. I'm guessing that many a drunk has had such moments.

The whole thing left me meditating on the horror of alcoholism, recalling people I've known well, as friends, who've had to deal with the condition. I counted five - and one would be too many.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Glance Ahead

1 Syaaban 1431H

The date tells the story. The awnings are going up at Geylang. One month to go: some trepidation; plenty of anticipation. And then we'll need to hold fast.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Considering how barbaric van Bommel was against Uruguay without getting himself sent off, I suppose it made sense that he managed to stay on the pitch for the final.

Thank goodness the best team won.

Even better: that South Africa pulled the whole thing off triumphantly in the eyes of the world. Hope they break even. Hope this really makes a difference in places like Soweto. The signs are good.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

All In The Timing

I can't see myself watching the World Cup final tonight. Getting up at 2.30 am to watch footie of any variety on a working day is now, officially, well beyond whatever powers I possess. The sole exceptions in recent years have been United games in Europe - usually finals. Having said that, I can find enough that's intriguing about the Spain - Netherlands clash to be genuinely tempted.

Truth be told, for the reasons stated above allied to a particularly busy week at work, and because of the poor coverage on cable here, I didn't get to see the semi-finals until this weekend. I sort of expected they'd be repeated in the evenings of the days following and was wrong. (In contrast, Astro in Malaysia used its four (free!) channels devoted to coverage of events in South Africa to provide round-the-clock repeats of recently played games.) I must say, I thought the Germany - Spain game was a cracker in terms of the quality of football played which makes me rather hope that Spain put their name on the trophy.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tea Time

Just back from afternoon tea at the little coffeshop opposite the mosque up Still Road. Teh tarik plus sweet potato, fried. Oh, and teh 'O' plus goreng pisang and other goodies for the missus. I've said it before and I'll say it again (frequently, I hope): it doesn't get any better.

Apropos of nothing: in Manchester, when I was a little lad, your tea was what people now call dinner, and your dinner was what you had at lunch. We used to eat our tea around five-thirty which meant that later in the evening you'd often feel a bit peckish. Have a piece of bread was my mother's invariable remedy.

By the time I was old enough to go to university eating supper had become quite fashionable, a meal consumed after leaving the pub. This did not contribute to a healthy lifestyle. Said meal was usually prefaced by someone announcing: I could murder an Indian. Entirely without any racist overtones, by the way. In fact, expressive of a deep admiration for the right kind of grub.

Friday, July 9, 2010

For Art's Sake

Back in early June, when we were in KL, we spent one rather jolly evening mooching around a small art gallery somewhere in Brickfields. Essentially we were there to give a bit of moral support to one of the artists - Noi's younger sister Rozanah who's more than a bit handy as a potter and is now trying to strike out on her own and build a career in that line. The general jollity of the evening was due in no small part to the more than obvious talents of all the young artists on display in a very funky little place (tucked away on Cross Street, as I remember.) I could have lived with almost any of the pieces on view and it was good to see quite a few being snapped up by the KL cognoscenti - including a few by our very own potter.

So it was even more irritating than it normally might have been, and it's irritating enough as it stands, to hear from the missus how her sister was asked by a curator of some exhibition or other to provide some of her work, duly obliged, having spent a good deal of her ready cash (of which there's not a lot) for her materials, only to be told that her work was no longer required. I don't know all the background to the episode, and I'm glad I don't as I suspect I'd get even more angry, but I smell the none-too-subtle odour of exploitation here - fueled by the mythology that artists are somehow so dedicated to their muse that the cash doesn't matter.

This is why I can't join Joe Public in his occasional bouts of outrage over how much the Damien Hursts of this world take the system for. More power to their artistic elbows, say I. (I think my wife's sister is more talented than he is, by the way, but what do I know?)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Hard Lesson

I've always had a bit of a talent for feeling sorry for myself. Fortunately I can recognise this in myself which is a bit of a help in controlling what seems to be almost an instinct.

I was lucky enough to once be given a sharp, memorable shock regarding this aspect of my behaviour around about my twenty-first birthday. In fact, the birthday of itself was integral to what happened.

I was at university in my final year and too busy to celebrate the afore-mentioned birthday. Truth be told, birthdays were not something I had ever celebrated to any great degree, parties and the like being not something my family did - or could afford, I suppose. But I didn't terribly miss them and had always felt pretty well-done by as a kid at that time of year. However, by this particular birthday I'd been exposed to a different sort of world to that of my childhood. I had come to know people from reasonably prosperous backgrounds who knew how to have a good time when they could. Luckily for me these were usually generous sorts who'd extended their sense of the good life to include myself and I'd happily benefited.

Generally I don't think I suffered from any great jealousy regarding their good fortune, but for some reason, at least on one night, I found myself really, really wanting my birthday to be marked in some special way, but knowing it wasn't to be. Embarrassingly I phoned Mum and sort of told her how glum I felt, I suppose expecting some sort of consolation.

What she actually said went something like this: When my Dad was twenty-one he'd spent his birthday along with lots of other young fellows up to his backside in the crap of war and I was lucky to be as privileged as I was, allowed an education and a good life I'd done nothing to deserve.

It hurt, and I was fiercely angry for about two or three seconds, at which point the absolute truth of what she had to say hit powerfully home - and I simply agreed.

That's a moment I try and recapture when I'm unhealthily luxuriating in feelings suspiciously similar to those of that night all those decades ago. Unfortunately I still harbour that destructive talent. Fortunately I've had the best kind of lesson to deal with it. Unfortunately I'm a slow learner.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Sort Of Progress

The Pilgrim's Progress is the sort of book everyone thinks they've read but usually haven't. They've probably encountered the core story somehow, somewhere - through dramatisation, abridgement or the like - but the original has so often escaped them. So it was with me up to a week or so ago when I decided to get to grips with the original, and I'm glad I did.

The theology is a bit laboured, Bunyan being the sort of chap one admires from a distance but wouldn't necessarily welcome as a house-guest. But there's some highly insightful and entertaining psychology at work in the allegory, and even if you don't buy the argument you can wallow in his language - the poetry of the Authorised Version mixed with the gossip of the street market. And then, above all, there's the endearing clumsiness of the whole enterprise.

The big surprise for me was Part 2 featuring Christian's missus Christiana and her pilgrimage in her husband's footsteps with his children. By the end of the book she's gathered quite a crowd around her, including such as Mister Feeble-mind - the names are always wonderful - and they're all knocking on the door of the Celestial City, as it were. It's fascinating to see Bunyan varying the allegory in this reprise whilst, obviously, maintaining the same broad outline. He struck me as somehow more mellow and strangely certain of things in the later book, almost more at ease with himself, though the distinct, almost sad, yearning of the first part is still there.

I suppose the most curious thing of all is that Bunyan's work became a story shared by a whole culture transcending the individual yet remains peculiarly, obsessionally the vision of one man.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Once Again

My definition of literature is writing that I want to remember - not for its content alone, as one might want to remember a computer manual, but for itself: those particular words in that particular order. This from John Carey In his magisterially commonsensical What Good Are The Arts? And it's not a definition I would quarrel with.

Indeed it goes a long way to explaining why I chose to re-read Yukio Mishima's The Sound of Waves in addition to Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel just before term started - both texts on our English A1 course, but encountered in Part 4, a segment we do our best to avoid teaching too directly so students have a chance to come up with genuinely independent readings. (Well, we hope they're genuine, but who can tell?)

The Mishima has an odd, engaging simplicity about it which, considering how loopy the writer was, is clearly misleading. The fun lies in identifying the potential loopiness shining through the cracks, as it were.

That's the nice thing about teaching literature. Its craziness helps keeps one sane. Well, sort of. Maybe.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Something Beautiful

Still breathless after four engaging quarter-finals, all with at least something to get the pulse racing. In the case of the Germany game it was the sheer excellence of the German play that did the trick. On the break they are nothing less than sensational. Without making excuses for England, who don't deserve any on any account, this casts the 4 - 1 drubbing in a slightly different light. Woeful as England were perhaps folks will begin to acknowledge that Germany are playing the game as it is meant to be played. Beautifully.

What I found most significant was the lack of any of the defensive frailty that had been previously apparent. Even the back four are now playing out of their skins. Finally I know who I want to lift the trophy - and it's not Spain. (Mind you, I wouldn't mind Uruguay pulling a fast one on everybody, simply as a turn-up for the books of major proportions.)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Something Scary

With Noi out shopping at Arab Street I just took the opportunity to play at reasonable volume, the kind that does some justice to the music, one or two CDs which happened to include Crimso's Starless and Bible Black, one I've not listened to for quite a while. As the title track shuddered the walls (a wonderful bit of free playing, improvised at the Concertgebrouw) I was reminded of playing this same piece on my vinyl version of the album many starless moons ago, in my bedroom at Gresham Street, grooving to it over my chunky headphones. Niece Cheryl, who would then have been around five (I think this was around 1976, with me home from university) wanted to listen in, so I leant her the headphones.

Within a few seconds her face rendered evidence of genuine distress. The poor kid was terrified. It's amazing what a bit of noisy dissonance can do to the innocent.

Listening to it now the thing that frightens me is how fresh it sounds yet how long ago that all was.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Bit Of A Mystery

I know not why but for some reason I got to thinking about outside toilets today, especially in winter, and how cold and uncomfortable they can be. I remembered particularly the smell from the paraffin lamps we put inside one in order to unfreeze the pipes to keep the thing running.

But then came the mystery. Which house was I thinking of? I'm sure the house at Hartford Street in which I was born only had an outside toilet, (definitely no bathroom, we used a tin bath) but we flitted from there when I was five and I have no recall whatsoever of what the interior or lavatory outside were like. I'm certain the place at Cargate Road had an inside toilet - and bathroom - because that's why I felt we were moving up in the world when we arrived there. (I believe in later years, long after we left, the houses on the road became rat-infested!) So that leaves the back of the shop on Guide Lane and the house I spent my teenage years in on Gresham Street - which Mum only left some four years ago. Yes, Gresham Street had an outside toilet but it definitely had a bathroom and toilet inside. In fact when we first moved there they were in a massive room upstairs and I had to sleep downstairs. We did sometimes use the outside lavatory but that was from some kind of atavistic choice rather than necessity.

So does that mean Guide Lane had an outside toilet only? Maybe, but there was certainly a bath there, in a pokey little room right at the back which I was a bit frightened to be in on my own. So the idea is not terribly likely. Which means I just can't figure why I'm seeing myself reluctantly freezing my extremities off in the dead of winter when there doesn't seem to be any reason for having to do so.

Consideration of such matters is a useful way of helping to pass time when you're bored stiff invigilating examinations, I find.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Yesterday I was talking about doing art as superior to doing drugs. I didn't have it in mind at the time but it further occurs to me that doing art, or being on the receiving end of it, can be a great substitute for medicine. I was reminded of this by a nice article in today's paper about Music Therapy. I wouldn't mind some of that myself.

In fact, I came home to some - a late Haydn symphony. Now that's what I call healing.

Why does Haydn seem so sane?

At one time I would have despised the notions of art as therapy or art as escape. Grown old and weak, now I'll take whatever it has to offer with huge gratitude.