Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Back Again

Now sitting in the Costa Coffee opposite the Arcades in Ashton. Snow falling not so gently outside, as it was the last time I sat here, in December 2009. We're off to visit Mum in what used to be Ashton General Hospital, when I was a lad, and is now Tameside General. The hospital has a terrible reputation locally but looked fine to us when we went yesterday to see her.

Unfortunately Mum didn't look so great, a lot more frail than this time last year. But still here and at this point in time indomitably so. Everything changes but some some things don't.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hurrying On

We're now engaged in our usual dynamic, last-minute flurry of various sorts of activity intended to get us safely on-board our flight to Manchester with all we need to survive a month in that most unsunny city.

Somehow I managed to finish the two books I've been reading this week so I can take a couple of fresh ones with me. It was a particular relief to complete Blood Meridian. Obviously a great, great novel - McCarthy seems to invent a completely new style, a rhetoric all of his own that evokes in astonishing detail an entirely fallen world - but one so grimly shocking that I'd honestly hesitate to recommend it to anyone of faint heart. As far as I can tell the violence is everything and the writer is saying that this is our true condition. And the problem is that as long as you are reading the novel you know it's true.

The novel was heavy-going in another, different way, just to make life that bit more difficult. It's so well written, with a kind of brilliant density, that I found myself on almost every page slowing down to savour just how good the writing was. Quite often I'd read the same paragraph two or three times as if checking if what I'd read was really so powerful, so right - and it was. But when you're keen to finish a book simply to meet artificial deadlines of your own, this quality was not quite what I was looking for.

Fortunately Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness proved to be well-written in quite a different way - in a style that seemed designed to enable easy, effortless, reading. Lots of good ideas, as usual, but not quite the same verve as his best stuff. A touch formulaic - but he invented the formula, and it's a good one, so forgivable.

And now it simply remains for me to choose one or two tomes to ease me through the cramped hours ahead. No more McCarthy for now though.

Friday, November 26, 2010

From Experience

I'm fairly sure that somebody somewhere would assume it a reasonable proposition that taking a bunch of kids round the Singapore Zoo from the late morning onwards, and then moving on to the Night Safari, would be a good way to render them exhausted so they go to sleep as soon as they reach home. Take it from me, it doesn't work - as the noise surrounding me testifies. But it is highly, exhaustingly, enjoyable.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


It's been remarkable to witness the ways in which this small country has changed in the last twenty years or so. I was reminded of this yesterday when Noi and I went down to the Ministry of Manpower to get our renewed passes - the cards that enable us to actually live here at all. It took all of five minutes to pick up the passes and we were treated like guests at some rather swank hotel. All our queries were answered patiently and in detail. Twenty years ago the process involved a long, long wait and trying to talk to people who would never make eye-contact and mumbled unintelligible instructions about proceeding to other desks in unfamiliar locations. Mind you, I'm not sure that those applying for the somewhat less highly-regarded Work Permit get the same stellar treatment. It would be nice to think they do though.

Then it was off to Sentosa, with the troops. Years ago the only way across was on a ferry (oh, and the cable car, which still runs, I think.) Now there's all sorts of ways on to the island, and we picked the speedy monorail, having decided to travel down by bus due to the lack of kid-room in the car. The island was unrecognisable, at least the bit we were on. We spent a fun-packed afternoon in the new Univeral Studios theme park (if that's what they call it.) Expensive but scoring high on the keeping-the-troops-occupied front.

Unfortunately Noi got ill on one of the rides with a nasty bout of motion sickness. (The Revenge of the Mummy, ironically.) Fortunately we were attended to by extremely helpful staff who gave every appearance of being genuinely concerned and ready to spend a lot of time making sure all was well.

This place sometimes gets a bit of flak for poor customer service. Not from me - well not yesterday, at least.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In Flight

Squad strength standing temporarily at six, but Fifi is only temporary as her school has demands upon her this holiday. (So much for family bonding.)

We kept the troops if not happy at least occupied on bicycles and in-line skates at East Coast Park this afternoon. I'd hoped to find some time to read, but there were too many distractions. At least it didn't rain.

Yesterday we took the younger ones among our company to Jurong Bird Park, this being before Sabrina and Aiman made it over from KL. The Bird Park remains a reliable sure fire winner. We managed a couple of the bird shows in the afternoon and got to feed some cheerfully belligerent lorys. (Is that the plural?) I'm more than a bit doubtful of the business of keeping animals in captivity and wheeling them out for our entertainment, but this is a place that looks like it's really trying to educate and the keepers give every appearance of deeply caring for their various charges. And I must admit that any reservations one might have about the park tend to evaporate when one of their superb birds of prey sees fit to swoop within centimetres of one's head: ferociously beautiful!

Monday, November 22, 2010


Sabrina says to Mak Ndak that the Korean barbecue in Singapore is different from the one in Kuala Lumpur.

The missus replies, Lain padang, lain berlallang. (Which I translate as, Different field, different grasshopper.)

Now there's Inscrutable Malay wisdom for you.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

At Rest

Just back from a quick trip to Melaka to pick up some houseguests. We're privileged to have three nieces with us this evening, with the promise of augmentation of squad strength by a further two youngsters tomorrow. Enjoyed a birthday party for the youngest (at least for now) of our many nephews last night with two big cakes, amongst other goodies.

Then it was off to the bedroom for me to shut myself off from the joyous noise of all and sundry. I intended to make progress in Blood Meridian (or Alain de Botton's book on architecture) but it didn't happen. It was only nine o'clock yet, as is so often the case when I'm in Mak's house, I just couldn't stay awake.

I settled on Blood Meridian since I'm finding myself completely gripped by the novel, even if under a degree of protest against its unsettling content. I lay down, ready to knock back a chapter or three, and read the brilliant paragraph I'd reached concerning the Comanchees attacking a crazy Yankee raiding party. Then I realised I was drowsing. So I read the paragraph again, with increased appreciation, and found myself yet again zonked out. Then another read, with the realisation that McCarthy is so good you really can read bits over and over without worrying about making progress. And that was it. Next thing I know it's gone midnight and I need to officially go to bed.

Wonderfully restful. Wish I could bottle it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Red In Tooth And Claw

When I wrote those few words about violence and its place in art yesterday I'd somehow, mysteriously, forgotten that just a couple of hours earlier I'd been watching one of the most extraordinarily violent series ever made for television. The Jungle episode of Planet Earth had stunningly visceral images of fungi erupting from ant inards to extremely unpleasant effect upon the poor ants who'd ingested them, and chimp warfare culminating in chimp cannibalism, to name but two examples of Mother Nature at her less than nurturing work.

Yet none of this was disturbing in the way Raging Bull and Blood Meridian manage to be. (Though, now I really think of it, the bit with the chimps munching on bits of the dead youngster they'd manage to kill had a curious air of the morally transgressive about it. All too human.) The violence of animals can have about it a strange, terrible, beauty.

And I suppose there are echoes of this in human violence. We ignore our evolutionary heritage at our peril. Something the Greeks knew - in fact, all the great civilisations.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Violent Ends

Odd coincidence - I started reading Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian the other day and it got me thinking, in a somewhat troubled fashion, about violence and its depiction in art. And then today I caught the back end of the wonderful Raging Bull, a reminder that it is possible to make utterly compelling films within the Hollywood system (if you happen to be Martin Scorsese, that is.)

I'm not keen on violence, in real life or in art. But I'm no James Joyce in this regard. (The great man's detestation and fear of any manifestation of physical violence leaves its traces everywhere in his work, most notably the Cyclops episode in Ulysses.) I'm capable of a fair degree of aggression myself and can do a mean Robert De Niro impersonation. And an action-packed movie used to be able to set the old pulse racing. But basically I regard flight as superior to fight, and I close my eyes during the gory bits.

So why is it I can't stop myself from watching De Niro's Jake La Motta destroy everything around him and within him? And why does it seem so important to acknowledge his capacity to do so? And why is it somehow entertaining?

As I said, I find myself somewhat troubled, and that's about as far as I can get with this at the moment.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To Be A Pilgrim

Hari Raya Haji; Eid Al Adha; 10 Zulhijjah, 1431

I find the ubiquitous journey metaphor rather tiresome. I am not, unfortunately, on a journey towards excellence, despite often being told I am.

But I am on another journey, and the great pilgrimage is the perfect metaphor for it. And one day I hope to give the metaphor substance. God willing.

At this point in the journey I am, like so many pilgrims, lost. And to be lost is hard. But sometimes necessary.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Chaucer tells us that it's in Aprill when longen folk to goon on pilgrimages. For those of another faith the month is actually Zulhijjah, but the longings are constant across humanity. Of course, Chaucer's pilgrims have very mixed reasons for their journeys to Canterbury but it was one of his greatest insights to recognise that even for the most villainous of them the need to find the still centre of the great turning world was central to their motives.

I'm not yet ready to make the great pilgrimage, but I couldn't be longing for that still centre any more at any time than I am at this moment.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Sense of Release

Heartening to see the crowds greeting Aung San Suu Kyi the other day on her long-delayed release, and her looking so amazingly well. The worry is that it might result in those who released her from house arrest changing their (small) minds.

Also heartening that the news was 'trending', whatever that means, on Singapore's version of the Yahoo main webpage. In contrast the lady didn't warrant any mention at all on the main page of the American version.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


I created a little island of serenity for myself this afternoon, lying back and listening to a compilation CD featuring solos from the soprano Emma Kirkby. I generally have a bit of a problem with the trained operatic voice. I can appreciate the skill and technique involved but sometimes can't get beyond that to the real music. No such barriers exist for me with Miss Kirkby. It helps, I suppose, that she is not an operatic singer really, her repertoire being drawn from the field of 'early' music.

The first time I heard her was in the early eighties when I bought on spec an album entitled A Feather on the Breath of God, featuring the music of the visionary abbess Hildegard of Bingen. The group involved were the Gothic Voices of whom Miss Kirkby was one. One of her solo pieces features on the compilation I've been enjoying this afternoon and listening to that piece in particular was a reminder of the power of great music to take you to other places - notably heaven itself.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


It took me a while to genuinely get started on Tsitsi Dangarembga's novel Nervous Conditions, the one Sakhar passed to me for consideration as a text for next year, but once into it I found it a very rewarding read. I think I expected something on the lines of the Edwidge Danticat novel I read this time last year, but this one confounded any such expectations. The language is not as self-consciously poetic as that of Danticat, it simply does what it needs to and does it well, but Nervous Conditions is a more richly textured experience in terms of rendering the complexity of the lives of those it depicts.

The sympathies of the writer are clearly, and rightly, with her splendid female protagonists Tambu and Nyasha, yet both have sometimes irritating limitations that can alienate the reader, at least at moments. We are not allowed anything in the way of a simplistic analysis of the feminine psyche in Africa - assuming there is such a thing. The brittleness of the wonderfully brave, rebellious Nyasha is particularly well done.

And the book has two or three fine monsters of masculinity, monsters because they are trapped in a way of thinking that demands monstrosity from them. Yet the most striking of these, Babamukuru, is also believably a decent sort who is trying very hard to be not just a good man but an outstanding individual. The scene when he first strikes Nyasha is red hot. Tambu's father Jeremiah though a minor character is also a brilliant picture of a thoroughly lazy good-for-nothing. But then all the minor characters are beautifully drawn, something that I'm just realising as I think back to my reading. This is a writer with real compassion for her creations.

The title, from a line in Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, is in itself perfect. The sense of the unfairness of the demands made upon these people by the circumstances in which they must live pervades the novel, resulting in a nervousness that the reader is made to share, at second hand, at any rate.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hearing Things

Sometimes changing the circumstances in which one listens to something can have startling affects upon the quality of that listening. Yesterday I played Beethoven 5 in its entirety on the way back from work and it seemed completely new though I've heard it a million times. I'd never quite grasped before how everything in it seems to grow from single cells of themes but in the car the organic inter-connections seemed obvious.

And then today listening to Lennon in the exam hall between papers - Jealous Guy felt newly minted - fresh and painful, achingly sincere. That voice!

Thursday, November 11, 2010


You know you're busy at work when you completely forget to eat. I righted the omission around 4.30 this afternoon with a particularly crunchy apple. And, let me tell you, it tasted good.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Not-so Royal Scam

Interesting how language changes. Noi and I have been merrily chatting about would be scammers and their not-so-clever scams, yet I know for sure I'd never heard the word until the mighty Steely Dan released one of their greatest albums, The Royal Scam, in 1976. I know this because I hadn't a clue what the title meant when the album was released, and neither did any of my friends.

The reason the missus and I have been so merry over this, by the way, is that we've had a bit of fun thwarting the attempts of a would-be con artist to rip us off over the rental of an apartment in the UK in December. The whole attempt was so transparent as to be ludicrous. But just in case you come across something similar, avoid using Western Union money transfer (to the UK) if a third party strongly advises you to do so. Some sharks have obviously figured a way to ID themselves as the would-be recipients for the cash and I'm guessing some poor souls somewhere may have fallen for this. Fortunately we're too old and too wise (for once) to be taken in.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

No Escape

I stuck a load of Beethoven in the car CD changer the other day - to be precise, all the symphonies (and three overtures); and to be even more precise, it's the series that Roger Norrington conducted with the London Classical Players using period instruments. The series was regarded as pretty revolutionary for its time, the late eighties, as was Beethoven, of course, for his rather earlier period.

Beethoven always sounds to me a rich burgundy brown.

Whether it's a good thing to have Beethoven blaring away as you drive, with no real choice in the matter (and trust me those authentic period horns blare) I'm not entirely sure. But it's certainly a bracing experience.

The kind of composer you wouldn't want as a house guest, methinks.

Monday, November 8, 2010

No Way Back

I've been a little unsettled in my reading just lately. I've found myself hopping from book to book in what has at times seemed to be an almost random manner, and I've made one distinct false start - though that was only of a page or two. I put this down to having a lot of very appetising books in waiting. I want to start them all and simply can't.

Some progress has been made on the following of late: Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness, American Fantastic Tales - Poe to the Pulps, and Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions. The last of these I borrowed from Sakhar quite a few weeks back and it's been lying on my desk. I suppose I'm reading it out of something of a sense of duty, but I'm genuinely getting into it.

But the one I'm really zooming along on now is Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings Goes To School, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. This marks a real return to the past for me, deliberately so - that's why I bought it - or, rather, it should do so. But it doesn't. You can never go back, not to what you were. As a young lad I thought there was nothing funnier than a Jennings book, or more deeply involving. I suspect that at some level I was genuinely at that prep school, the wonderfully cosy Linbury Court, alongside Jennings and his chums. Now I'm a long way distant.

This is not to say I haven't enjoyed reading about Jennings and Darbishire and Mr Carter and Old Wilkie et al. And I've also found them funny, but in a gently predictable way, not with the kind of helpless hilarity I experienced at ten years of age. At that age I thought Buckeridge a genius; I now see him as a very fine, formulaic kind of writer, who sometimes struggles a bit in technical terms. To be specific, the story wobbles more than a little as soon as he leaves the boys behind and focuses on the adult world. And there's a fair amount of this in the first of the Jennings series. In fact, almost an entire chapter is devoted to some trite comedy based on the exploits of the Dunhambury fire brigade, who get called out when Jennings shows a little too much initiative. It doesn't work at all - except, I suppose, for ten-year-olds who don't think too deeply about such matters.

But what does work wonderfully is the glorious wordplay as the boys muddle themselves and everyone around them - who wouldn't love incongruous triangles? - and the archetypal quality of so many of the characters - like the four I mentioned above.

I did think of ordering more of the series on my last amazonian foray, and now I'm glad I didn't. You can never really go back, but you can gain an added appreciation of what it felt like to be there

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Desert Places

After the debacle of Friday's viewing of the Surviving Species documentary on my Planet Earth DVD set I've wisely been avoiding Into The Wilderness, the next one along focusing on 'environmental issues', i.e., making you feel bad by showing the degree to which our species has screwed this glorious world. Instead yesterday I watched the earlier episode Deserts just to cheer myself up in the company of various camels, Namibian lions and the like. Why is it that just knowing of the existence of places I'll never get to and wouldn't survive for more than a few days if I could, makes me feel a whole lot better?

And before dinner today I'm off to a few gorgeously beautifully extreme Ice Worlds.

Which reminds me, for reasons I can't quite fathom, that over a cup of tea at the Paya Lebar Post Office Coffee Bean outlet we were entertained by the tune Frosty The Snowman sitting out in the sun on a warm and sultry Singapore late afternoon. Go figure, as they say.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Noi is busy fixing for various nieces and nephews to descend upon us later this month. Feeding and entertaining them will be a drain on finances and imagination. But essentially fun and to be welcomed. We're also trying to put into place various aspects of our trip to Manchester in December and figuring out how we're going to move out of the Mansion by January. Last weekend we shipped quite a few books up to Maison KL but there's still a lot to do.

It would be easy for all this to become overwhelming, but it won't be. I don't know why that is, but it's something I know for sure. I suppose it's linked to the fact that we're lucky to be able to do any of these things and have the wherewithal to do them with.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Big mistake early this evening, just when things were going extremely well. I'd got back from work early in the afternoon and decided to allow myself some soothing sounds, and possibly a nap, on the grounds that as it's a public holiday here for Deepavali I deserved a treat as compensation for having to get up and go into the workplace at all.

The sounds were suitably soothing - Songs of Love and Hate by Leonard Cohen; Think Tank by Blur - and I reckon I nodded off once or twice. After that Noi put the kettle on and we got the Polar puffs ready for consumption on the little table in front of the tele.

At this point I thought it would be rather a good wheeze to view one of the programmes from my Planet Earth DVDs and have a nice wallow in the beauties of nature. It's been a long time since the rhythms of my life have allowed me such an opportunity and I've been missing the experience. The problem came in choosing an episode. I've now run through all the main ones, but had not yet looked at anything on the final disk, Planet Earth - The Future, touted as a companion to the series, comprising three documentaries related to conservation issues. I was somewhat hesitant to do so since the depressing experience of watching a similar sort of programme from The Blue Planet DVDs whilst on a conservation boat in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam as part of a trip made with a class some three years ago. (It was so powerful I've not yet been able to watch it again despite now owning the series myself.)

Bravely, foolishly, I plunged in, and, as expected, was knocked sideways, left, right, every-which-way by the excellent first hour, Saving Species. The magnitude of just how badly we've screwed this planet is so monumentally, humungously, overly overwhelming I find myself drowned by it. Basically I've spent the rest of the day brooding over the mess, and it's been guilty brooding - this is something I'm aware I've taken too little care of.

But perhaps if I can get beyond brooding to doing something even slightly useful, which is all the use one is ever going to be able to achieve, my viewing experience might not have been all that mistaken after all.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Odd sight of today: in a Coffee Bean at Kallang - a plenitude of Christmas decorations, and we're only just into November. It's not even bonfire night yet!

Is nothing sacred? Well, no, of course not.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Living Dangerously

Odd sight of the last few days: some daredevil young motorcyclists riding their machines in a distinctly unconventional style along the North-South highway in Malaysia.

But let me start at the beginning. It was last Sunday evening and Noi and I were on the highway on our way back from KL, about ten minutes from Seremban. The light was beginning to go and a few cars had their headlights on. Then in the mirror I spied the lights from a number of motorbikes some way behind. Around about fifteen of them I would have guessed.

I didn't think too much of it. It's quite normal to find bikers packing together on the highway, especially at the weekend. I assumed they'd been out as a group somewhere and were on their way back. I almost commented on their appearance on the road to Noi, but didn't bother when I realised they weren't catching up with me. I further assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that they were unlikely to actually overtake. In fact, I'd decided that they were obviously quite careful riders maintaining a sensible speed.

Then the lights began getting perceptibly closer, and I told Noi that the group were catching up. I took it they had slowed down to group together and were now reunited, as it were. No, wrong again. They had slowed down to prepare the rather grand, crazy stunt that followed. It became clear that they were now going at quite a rate of knots. I was in the centre lane and the bikes had spread right across the three lanes of the highway in a kind of V formation. The first four overtook me going at quite a lick, two on either side, and we were more than a little surprised to see that the riders weren't sitting on their bikes. Each was lying on his belly, with the belly on the seat of the motorbike, in a position horizontal to the ground. Each had crossed his legs in a distinctly insouciant manner and was swerving his machine in between the cars around and ahead.

The remainder of the gang passed also at high speed, but conventionally seated - much to our relief. A few of these bikes had girls riding pillion on them. Part of me hoped that their mums and dads had some idea of what they were up to, and intended to put a stop to it, and another part that their parents knew nothing and so wouldn't be overly worried.

Looking back on all this I can say with some authority I never did anything close to as daft as this when I was a youngster. But, with somewhat less assurance, it did put me in mind of one or two less than estimable scrapes I got myself into. Fortunately I survived. I pray that these kids will.

Monday, November 1, 2010

True Greatness

A word or two more about Fitzgerald's masterpiece while the experience of being quite overwhelmed by it is still fresh in my mind. It's been a few years since I read it cover to cover and this reading was the first time I felt I genuinely plugged into the emotional power of the novel, particularly the bleak melancholy of the ending. Gatsby himself came alive for me as more than just the superb idea of the character. I've always, I think, grasped what the character represents intellectually from the first time I read the book (at university.) But this time he moved me profoundly - as he moves Nick, the narrator.

The bit where Gatsby's (Gatz's) father shows up after he's killed and passes Nick the schedules for self-improvement his son drew up as a child was devastatingly powerful for me. I saw the charming, charmed, doomed boy as Fitzgerald saw him. I suppose living so long in a culture underpinned by precisely the same notions of self-help and self-improvement helped me grasp what before had escaped me at the level of feeling.

Fitzgerald is brilliant in this novel - but not so much in the others, curiously - at providing glimpses of his characters, such that they are illuminated, given to us, as it were, in fragments of hallucinatory clarity. He just doesn't put a foot wrong. Yet all the other novels are patently flawed, despite their moments, sometimes stretches, of genius. How did he get it so right this one time? I suppose it helped that he stayed sober whilst writing it.