Wednesday, September 29, 2010

For The Best

Mum was taken to Tameside General Hospital yesterday, which was a bit of relief to all, I think. She's deteriorated alarmingly in recent weeks, according to John & Maureen, and from what I can hear for myself in my now daily phone calls. Her short term memory has really gone and that's created havoc with her taking her medicine. So a hospital bed is obviously the best place for her, for now, at least.

It also takes a bit of pressure off my sister and brother-in-law who've been holding things together heroically. John had managed to get Social Services in with various helpers over the last few days, but it's not really been systematic enough for the intervention to be all that effective. Remarkably, the number of times I've phoned and Mum's managed to sound if not exactly cheerful at least almost normal has been in the majority.

I'm just hoping she realises this is the best thing to do - though I can't imagine she'll be best pleased not being allowed to have her cigarettes.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Man Of Distinction

Sometimes getting home you've just got to bang on Steeleye's Below The Salt and morris dance around the place to Maddy Prior giving it a bit of the Spotted Cow.

I suspect I'm the only resident of this island capable of writing the sentence above and meaning it - and, possibly, understanding it. As to whether that's necessarily a good thing…

Monday, September 27, 2010

Oh, The Intensity


I will be suffering through the MasterChef final tonight. It's just kicked off next door. Don't get me wrong, Noi's favourite programme is illuminating and enjoyable - but very intense. Who knew cooking could be so stressful? (Probably most cooks, I suppose, but I didn't prior to watching this.)


And the Mansion favourite, Mat, was the winner, which was great, except that Andy and Chris didn't win, which was sad because their stuff was obviously first rate. But there can only be one winner, which, of course, isn't really true but helps to provide entertainment.

All three guys looked like crying at the end, and I don't blame them one bit.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

On Time

I've just set my wrist-watches to the 'right' time (GMT according to the World Service), followed by the timer on the DVD player, and finally the timer on the VCR in the back bedroom. By wrist-watches I'm referring to my prized (but cheap) Casio digital watches, one I that regularly wear on my wrist, the other - exactly the same brand (the one without a strap because the attachment broke beyond repair) - that resides on my bedside table. The one on the bedside table gains a little. Having not reset it for some three weeks it had gained three seconds. The one I wear loses at a faster rate. Today it was out by eleven seconds. The DVD player loses even faster and needed to be adjusted by half a minute or so. The VCR gains at a phenomenal rate and was around three minutes ahead today, but then I don't always include it in the ritual re-set, out of sight being reasonably out of mind.

Clearly there's more than a tiny measure of the obsessive about all this. But I find it useful, and not excessive. The usefulness lies in the fact that I find it comforting to foster the illusion of having some control over the temporal flow, and being on time for the odd bits of things you're expected to be on time for keeps life running reasonably smoothly. (Notice I associate being on time with the setting of the clocks. Possibly these activities run on different processes, but they feel the same to me.) And I'd argue it's not terribly obsessive as I don't feel the need to set the clocks every day, or even every week. Indeed I'm prepared to let the VCR clock run rampant - for a little while, anyway.

However, I'm keenly aware that not all the world shares my mild obsession and there are times I envy the bit that doesn't. It could well be that a healthy portion of sanity lies in that direction. But I suppose I'm too far gone to change - until I finally, irrevocably, inevitably, become unstuck in time.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Finished Julian Barnes's Arthur & George the other day and wished I hadn't, it was so good. A sweet, autumnal ending, with George attending a sort of mega-séance for Arthur, at the Albert Hall. I thought we'd get something about those obviously faked fairy photographs that Conan Doyle got himself mixed up with but Barnes didn't bother with this embarrassment in his novel at all. I suppose the whole spiritualist movement thing was bad enough as it was.

So finally it was a novel about what we think we know and how we think we know it - good for TOK, but a touch too indirect to be all that useful.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Bit Of A Mess

Inky fingers were the order of the day, particularly those on my left hand. They were the product of a rather intense bit of work that I had no choice but to complete in a rushed manner. The work itself was fairly mindless, but the old fingers looked almost scholarly. Of course, it wasn't really ink in the true sense: the blue stuff came from something called a permanent marker, and the red splotches from a non-permanent marker.

The only marker we had when I was in primary school was the teacher who left red ink on your work. In fact, I remember filling little ink-pots and dipping short stubby pen-things in them around the time I was nine. It felt terribly grown-up, but it also resulted in some quite glorious messes. If I remember rightly, biros were frowned upon at the time.

And when I started teaching there were these wonderful things called blackboards. Somehow they were a lot more fun than the whiteboards of today. More organic, I suppose. I had a terrible habit of leaning back against them and covering my backside with chalk. And now I come to think of it, the chalk-dust got everywhere. It was difficult to deny you were a teacher in those days.

I like a good mess once in a while.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


The Arthur of Arthur & George is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Barnes paints a wonderfully penetrating yet sympathetic portrait. As I read I keep thinking back to how much I enjoyed the Holmes stories as a kid, and also, perhaps surprisingly, how much they spooked me. I found quite a few of them more frightening than the kind of horror stories I was exposed to as a youngster, but I'd be hard-pressed to explain why this was.

Their unnerving quality was captured in one or two of the Basil Rathbone movies though. Gosh, it's been years since I've seen one. The later ones in the series descend into caricature - but it's a comfortably comforting rather jolly sort of caricature.

I also loved Doyle's Brigadier Gerard tales. You don't hear about them these days but they were so often beautifully wrought pieces. In some ways the good brigadier is as archetypal as Holmes, and much more likable. For some reason I always felt very grown-up reading them.

The libraries I visited around ten years old had plenty of Sir Arthur on their shelves. I don't expect you'd see that nowadays - more's the pity.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Bit Of A Fan

Reading Julian Barnes's Arthur & George at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it, to the extent that I realise I've become a bit of a fan of his work. It looks like he joins the ranks of Robertson Davies, Peter Ackroyd, J.M. Coetzee, Margaret Atwood and David Lodge - novelists who, as far as I'm concerned, can do no wrong, the sure sign of this being that reading their stuff is effortless for me - the only effort, I suppose, being having to slow down to relish the pleasure of reading. I don't mean that I consider all their books to be masterpieces, simply that I have a kind of automatic sympathy with their work that makes it unputdownable.

I should have realised this, with regards to Barnes, before, but oddly enough I didn't. And this despite relishing A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and Flaubert's Parrot. The problem is that I read Metroland years ago, my first exposure to his work, and just didn't get it. I suppose that coloured my view and afterwards I regarded the material I liked as 'one-offs'. Except they clearly weren't. It's nice to know there are plenty of treats in store.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Out Of Time

Enjoyed a distinctly Proustian moment earlier this evening. No, I wasn't munching on a Madeline. I'm referring to that bit in the opening of Combray where Marcel talks of the disorientation of waking up and not quite knowing where you are in time and space - or who you are even.

I think I knew who I was, but when Noi got back from an outing with Siew to find me crashed out on the floor and woke me, I had no idea of the where and when of things. It took me a couple of minutes to remember I'd been listening to Her Majesty The Decemberists (terrific album) and was waiting for Noi to brew the cup that cheers when Morpheus overtook me to deep effect. The ravell'd sleeve of care had most definitely been knitted up, I can tell you.

Isn't sleep a wonderful thing? I just wish I had more of it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Just Visiting

Made it to Kak Kiah's today - our first Raya visit in this little country. Noi had to do the driving though. Still feel bad about not getting to Hakim's yesterday. I seem to have gone thoroughly native regarding the degree of importance that visiting friends and family post-Ramadhan now holds for me. I just wish I had the strength to do it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

More Moaning

At 13.40 yesterday I stood from my chair at the conclusion of a meeting and moaned, or rather yelped, if not in agony then in something suspiciously close. I thought I'd slipped yet another disk - not too many left now. And this, seemingly having successfully negotiated a very tough week involving lots of bending and lifting as part of my examination duties - assisted by the painkillers I'd got in Melaka at the end of last week. Ironically I'd simply been sitting down in reasonably relaxed fashion for a little under an hour when the pain struck. And once the pain came it stayed. The rest of the day did not go well.

And today has been pretty much of a match. Unfortunately I've had to get some examination scripts marked and this has proved unusually difficult as there isn't any position at all for marking that I'm comfortable in. I have had to keep shifting around and as a result the marking has taken a long, long time. We were intending to visit Hakim and Intan as part of our Raya walkabout but that scheme has had to be abandoned.

The only good thing, apart from Noi taking care of me, is that the doc says it isn't actually a slipped disk, just severe muscle strain. I'd sort of guessed this as Noi helped me last night on some leg lifts that my back doc does with me, and my left leg could be raised to its full extension. (The pain, by the way, is located in the left lower back.) He also gave me a magic jab and some more pills. I don't feel any obvious relief just yet, but I live in hope.

In the meantime I'm figuring out how I might get out of this chair once I've uploaded this post. Wish me luck - it isn't going to be easy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

No Worries

Isn't it strangely destabilising when someone tells you not to worry about something that you haven't been worrying about?

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Heard from two old friends this week. It was heartening to note that the news from one, old buddy Simon who it seems sometimes drops into this Far Place, was largely good - except for the sadness of losing his splendid dogs. In fact, he's now got five grandchildren which seems to me about as good as news can get.

The sad thing is though that I've reached an age when some of the news that really counts, of friends and family, is sometimes not so good at all. On the same day Simon's e-mail came we got a letter from another old friend to tell us that his wife had passed away. We were stunned. The last time we saw the lady in question she was, as usual, full of the joys of life (despite- perhaps because of - being in her seventies.) We're still trying to take it in.

And I suppose that's been the case with news of the illness or death of other friends. I'm thinking just now of the names on the list. Too many; far, far too many. And I'm thinking of how to find some comfort in all this. But other than a weak attempt to convey some to others I can't think of anything at this sombre point in time.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Something Pleasant

It's a simple enough truth, but one I find that consistently surprises and delights me: almost without exception the people I work with, and have worked with over a period of thirty years, are so thoroughly nice. Of course we all remember being told by English teachers to avoid using the word 'nice', but it's really the only one that will do.

Quite a tough day today was made a lot less difficult by all sorts of folk going out of their way to help when they really need not have done so.

Perhaps this is why I've never been able to develop a consistently dark picture of the way the world is despite the abundant temptations to do so.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Something Terrible

J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians is a terrible novel - terrible in the most uncomfortable sense of that word: it invokes a sense of something approaching moral dread in its unrelenting focus on human weakness and stupidity. As usual with his work, I finished it almost too quickly as I found myself needing to read it almost against my will.

I assume the reader is intended in some sense to identify with the unnamed Magistrate who narrates the story, and I suppose Coetzee leaves a sliver of light in the odd decency and strange courage of the man. But I found myself only in his weaknesses.

There's a point where you feel you can have too much moral intensity - and that, I suspect, is the point to which Coetzee intends to push us to show us how shabby we are.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Less Than Full Capacity

Yesterday's pain lingers. In fact, it's now worse. Fortunately lying down brings complete relief so I enjoyed an excellent night's sleep. But any other position entails a fair degree of unpleasantness - including the position adopted to type these words. Ouch.

So it looks like I may call upon the missus for driving duties to deliver us back to blighty, though I did manage the driving for last night's Raya visiting. We're also considering popping round to the doctor's to see if a magic jab might be in order. I'm guessing that the problem is related to some kind of muscle-spasm. Years ago, in Mak's old house before the widening of the road here, I went through something similar and I'm hoping the pain might be similarly relieved.

If not, I can't see myself being overly happy in the week ahead. Over and ouch.


Quick update: survived the four hour drive back, with me in the driver's seat, with the help of some painkillers from the doc and a bit of grit and determination. Fortunately it was easy-going through Tuas (we were expecting a big jam) with the only really slow bit being after Machap, presumably on account of all the Raya-visiting traffic.

Undoubted highlight of the journey was Noi dedicating a Hari Raya song to me on the Warna radio station when we hit Singapore. My first ever song dedication! I can't put into words how simply lovely it was except to say it was simply lovely.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Throughout Ramadhan I was worried that I wouldn't be able to attend the mosque for prayers when Eid arrived due to problems with my left knee. Just before fasting month I found myself unable to bend said knee properly. The problem righted itself, but reappeared on two occasions in the course of the month. It is actually possible to do prayers in congregation even if you can't perform all the movements. Doing them seated is perfectly acceptable - but I'm ignobly self-conscious about this and concerned that people will assume I just don't know what I'm doing and my dreadful Malay just isn't up to explanations. Also there's no particular reason why it should have been so important to me to attend the mosque for prayers yesterday. It just was. And somehow I coped, even though my knee was indicating it was not entirely happy with proceedings in the last sequence of the prayers. In fact, I used a chair at home for the three remaining sets of prayers of the day.

This is all by way of prelude to a bit of a catastrophe today. This morning I managed to wrench my back reaching for a t-shirt in a bag. The result is that I'm now moving with all the grace of a ninety-year-old with pain, or rather extreme discomfort, as a constant companion, except when I'm lying flat on the floor, which is often. Ah, the irony of it all.

I'm also finding myself in the grip of another form of extreme discomfort. Part of my post-Ramadhan reading has been in the form of J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. As usual Coetzee's writing is taking me to places I'd rather not go, but making it impossible for me to avoid them.

The dark places are real and must be dealt with.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Hari Raya Puasa; Eid-ul Fitr; 1 Shawal 1431

Attended Hari Raya prayers with Hamzah and Fuad at the mosque by the sea in Melaka - near Makhota Parade. Sea breeze very welcome after a morning drive through a largely deserted downtown Melaka. Prayers were followed by a welcome cuppa at the White Coffee place opposite Makhota, a reminder of the pleasures of actually drinking during the day.

Then we did Friday Prayers at the mosque in Alor Gajah. A pleasing variety.

Much merriment & some tears seeking forgiveness and doling out the green packets. Will remember both as a fair summary of the concerns of this life when lived well.

Selamat Hari Raya to all.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Crossing The Line

30 Ramadhan 1431

Just been killing the last minutes of fasting down at the Pasar Malam at Alor Gajah with Hamza & Ashraf. As is so often the case, the final day has proved peculiarly taxing, basically because I've spent so much of it watching the clock.

So it's another year of a special and difficult variety of learning almost completed - with the prospect of learning the same lessons in new ways in years to come, God willing.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Finishing Line In Sight

29 Ramadhan 1431

We're now in Melaka, and it took quite some getting here.

The original plan was to leave after the zuhur prayer - that's around the middle of the day. I needed to spend the morning at work helping to prepare an examination hall and other sundry matters whilst Noi was running the last of her many errands. Some fierce rain slowed everything down, reminding us that whilst Man proposes, God disposes. And then we were off, as far as Geylang where I needed to pay my zakat - the sort of annual tithe on income & property we pay, usually in Ramadhan. I have made a habit of paying most of mine at Darul Arqam, the centre for converts at which I once took classes. It's a jolly little place with, thankfully, very short queues for payment this afternoon, so we were soon on our way, after Noi had bought a few more mysterious things related to her baking at a specialist shop for all your baking needs just around the corner.

By now I was estimating we'd arrive in Melaka a good while before the time for breaking the fast. But then Noi reminded me that we'd decided to pay a visit to Alexandra Hospital to see Zainab's mum who'd been recently admitted after a fall in which she'd broken her leg. The old lady was looking quite a bit the worse for wear, having just come round from an operation, but it was nice to have had the chance to pop by if only for a few minutes.

Unfortunately back in the car park came the sudden realisation that somewhere along the way I had parted company from my employment pass. The green card is an absolute necessity for getting through immigration, and vital to the smooth running of my life here. So this was a blow of major proportions - though made a little easier by my sense of certainty that the card was in the hands of the young man I'd paid the zakat to an hour or so before. A quick call to Darul Arqam confirmed this (accompanied by huge shivers of relief from me and the missus) and off we went to retrace our steps across the island to reclaim it.

The traffic was now getting heavier, but wasn't too bad, and we finally made it out if the country by the early evening. This meant that we had to break our fast on the road, something we don't do often but to which we're not exactly unaccustomed. It was sort of fun really, stopping off at Pagoh, the timing being propitious, and dining on dates, a polar puff and water underneath the noisily gathering bird population of Malaysia.

And now we've arrived, eaten well, started to sort of unpack, and I'm gazing ahead to the end of Ramadhan,with just one day of fasting left. The truth is though that there's no real finish to any of the journeying. It's just nice to entertain that illusion sometimes.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Got Soul

28 Ramadhan 1431

These new atheist chappies who deny the existence of the soul and suchlike obviously suffered deprived childhoods. I was reminded of the richness of my own watching a lovely little documentary this afternoon entitled Soul Deep. Its subject - the southern soul of Stax: Otis, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Sam & Dave, Aretha, Booker T and the MGs.

Sweet soul music. Hymns to the Maker.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Making Over

27 Ramadhan 1431

It's remarkable how many television programmes you can watch on cable based on the notion of the 'makeover'. I can't remember when I first heard the word used in this sense but I don't think it was all that long ago. Yet now the concept is ubiquitous.

Folks in dire financial difficulties have their budgets made over; slovenly dwellings that probably constitute health hazards are made over; bodies that have piled on many too many pounds/kilograms make themselves over; people with absolutely zero sense of what to wear and how to present themselves (a bit like myself really) are stylishly made over The list isn't endless - it just feels that way.

The essential plot of the drama - for that's what it is - remains consistent: a team of 'lifestyle experts' of one sort or another are assembled to intervene. The victim is shown to be past all redemption, a dire warning to us all. No matter, against the odds our experts persevere and at some point in the mind of the victim-now-turned-beneficiary the light dawns. Salvation arrives in the 'reveal'. Saved from themselves our new man/woman celebrates a new life, or sometimes an old one which has been 'given back' to them. And all ends happily ever after - except for a sneaking suspicion that perhaps it doesn't.

Curiously this does make good television of a sort. It's difficult not to enjoy feeling superior to folks who've screwed up big-time, and then that's off-set by a warm sense of one's charity in feeling good that they've finally managed to do something about the mess they created.

Just a suggestion though. Yes, it's possible to change the direction of a life. A new, better self can be found. But not neatly edited in less than an hour.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


26 Ramadhan 1431

The missus has just announced we will be eating on the floor this evening. We've done it before, she says. And I suppose we have, though I can't quite remember.

The table is unavailable for dining as it has been made massively available for biscuit trays and their attendant biscuits and all the cards and notes from Teachers' Day. Normally Noi and myself would eat at the coffee table - our default setting, in fact. But with Rozita, Fuad, Fifi & Fafa gracing us with their presence before we set off for an evening at the bazaar at Geylang that's not a feasible option. Hence the excitement of the floor as a dining area. And excitement it is, as I know well from the twinkle in Noi's eye as she made her announcement.

Yes the disruption caused by all the preparation for Raya is not really the price we pay for the fun of it all, it is the fun of it all.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Further Education

25 Ramadhan 1431

I am a creature of routine, as are we all - but me more than most.

It wasn't always this way. I remember leaving home for university some time in the last century and feeling a certain desperation to escape what I then regarded as the stifling confines of home. I no longer understand that young man.

Now away from home for one night, at a camp we're having in school for our drama guys, all my fasting month routines are shredded and the fast is twice, three times as difficult as it would normally be. Mind you, I'm enjoying the company of the young people at the camp and watching them relishing the new-ness of it all helps me understand my old self a little better.

Make it new! makes a nice slogan. If I'm not mistaken that old fascist and, on his day, wonderful poet Ezra Pound was churning that one out decades ago. But I prefer to stick to what I know, thanks, with just enough glimpses of the uncomfortably new to make me feel a bit younger. Or maybe just less old.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

An Education

23 Ramadhan 1431

Sometimes I think there's very little I've ever really learned in my life. But I know for sure that nothing, and I mean nothing at all, tastes better than a glass of water, a bowl of longans, two dates and a cup of hot sweet tea when you've been fasting all day. And somehow that's enough.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Feeling Tired

22 Ramadhan 1431

I dozed spectacularly this afternoon, as I did yesterday also. A well-timed holiday for Teachers' Day put me in a position to do so and I gratefully took advantage. This was in addition to a return to the comfort of our bed after the morning prayer where I luxuriated until 9.00 am. Yet I still feel tired, such weariness being the default state for the month. I suppose the tiredness is related in some way to fasting though I'm not entirely sure how.

Only three days of work are left (one being a Saturday I'll be spending at our Drama Camp) before we get a week off, the week in which Eid falls. So that has worked out well, and I'm thankful.

But I can't say I mind the tiredness. In truth, it's something I almost welcome for its otherness. It's a way of redefining one's relations with the world, once the potential for irritation is overcome. It's important to ride the feeling, going with the flow, as they used to say. The gift of patience is almost inherent in the inability of the body to get too excited about anything. I suppose the danger is of breeding a kind of easy passivity, but there's so much to be watchful of that passive and active states of mind seem to balance out.

The odd thing is that I can't recall ever feeling actually stretched in Ramadhan though one might assume it would be otherwise.