Monday, January 31, 2011

Not So Cheerful

Throat: raspy, scratchy, sandpapery. Left knee: vulnerably twisted - apt to suddenly make its presence felt. Head: throbbing, hotly. Arms: hanging heavily, aching. Nose: starting to run. In general: feeling not quite there, not entirely present.

A day to just keep going - and then, thankfully, not keep going any longer.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Looking Back - Reasons To Be Cheerful

I mentioned the upset created by the less than temperate language of the comedian Frankie Boyle in a post earlier this month. One of the Sunday papers, at the time of the contretemps, featured a couple of columns on the topic, one speaking for our outspoken friend and his right to tell it as he saw it and another more wary of his way of upsetting all and sundry. Both made worthy points and I reckon the result of their little debate was an honourable draw with some useful light shed on the very real issues involved.

But one tiny detail of one column, the one taking Mr Boyle's side, stuck in my mind as an example of someone very clever getting something absolutely wrong. The columnist was giving some telling examples of our tendency not to speak truly and pointing out the need for voices that punctured our pretences. Well said. Except that one of the examples was that of the fake cheeriness encountered in homes for the aged. (Not the exact words, but close enough.) Now at that time I'd just come from one such establishment, the one with Mum in it, and I can tell you that there's nothing fake about the cheeriness. Of course, it's all a pretence, but that doesn't make it fake. It's an act of supreme grace and understanding; making the impossible, dignity in the face of absolute indignity, possible - indeed, real.

Mum will soon be moving to what is likely to be her final home, in this world at least, a nursing home in Hyde, close to where she used to live. If she meets with the same level of care, attention and fake cheeriness she has encountered in her two residences since last September we'll be more than pleased.

I think the one thing people like Frankie Boyle aren't equipped to deal with is the manifestation of real goodness in others.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Welcome Guests

We received our first guests at the Hall today in the form of the birthday girl Fafa, her kakak, ibu & ayah and Fuad's mum. This meant Noi and I rushing to put a few finishing touches in place so that it looked like we had a real home. And it worked. So we do. Yowza!

Friday, January 28, 2011

It's Curtains

Under the tutelage of the missus I have come to realise the essential importance of curtains to the well-being of a household. How do women see these things (especially at those points in time when they're not there to be seen)? Is it something genetic?

Our little place has been transformed. Of course, it helps that the piles of boxes into which our worldly goods were packed have been reduced to almost nil and that we can now see our floor. (Which turns out to look rather nice - especially with carpets on. A whole new story, there.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Seeing Things

Still thinking about television sets. It occurs to me that I didn't see a colour tv until I was around sixteen years old for the simple reason they hadn't been invented (or made it as far as the shores of the United Kingdom, if they had.) I caught a glimpse of some ultra-expensive models in a shop showing a game of football. I wasn't terribly impressed. Since life itself was in colour the new-fangled sets seemed a bit superfluous.

In fact, now I come to think of it, we saw black and white in colour anyway. The imagination served to provide what was missing on the screen. Case in point: I saw the red of England's shirts in the 1966 World Cup Final even though we watched in black and white. A further example: I recall watching the movie Alien at university, circa 1976, on a tiny black and white set knowing perfectly well how it would have looked on the big screen. And the clincher: I never watched a single episode of Dr Who on anything other than a black and white set and all my memories of it are in colour.

I suppose that's why I don't really care for the idea of a high definition plasma whotsit. It would be far too good for the likes of me - sort of visual overkill.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Getting Past It

When the removal men call attention to the age of your computer it's time for an upgrade. We're now considering going lap-top crazy in the interests of space (more) and mobility (greater.) Even now, though, we're not rushing it. A few considered decisions should see us through the next twelve years or so, until we, once again, have rendered ourselves laughably obsolete.

Mind you, we have no intention of changing things on the television front and that's where people who've visited us seem to have derived the greatest amusement. It was a good six years ago that one of my rugby boys from Bedok Town paying a visit to the Mansion asked with genuine concern how poor we were on seeing the set in our living room. That's the one that Siew told us qualified as an antique.

I read an article the other day telling me that in five years or so tvs will be paper thin and hang on the walls. I'll stick to our 14 inch Sony, thanks.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Tangled Web

Part of yesterday was spent wiring up various spiffy devices in order to ensure we can receive various media and play DVDs and the like. Almost everything in that line is now fixed. Unfortunately this has necessitated the usual mind-bogglingly complex knots of wires that we try to hide behind big chunks of furniture and attempt to forget are there. These chunks over time attract vast amounts of dust and dirt becoming, I suppose, our big dirty secrets. We had quite a number of these to untangle and un-dirty at the Mansion and we are resolved not to fall into the same trap here. Our solution will be to heave forward said chunky furniture at regular intervals and face the mess manfully. (Not womanfully; it's going to be my task.)

The problem, of course, is going to be keeping up with this resolution when it's a sad truth that out of sight so often equates to out of mind.

I'm reminded of Ridley Scott's great insight in the first Alien movie. Far from appearing gleaming and glitteringly new, the future will look used - that is, the bits in the background, down where the engines are, that drive the whole shebang.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

C'est moi!

Reading Madame Bovary again to prepare for teaching it to our scholars later in the year. It gets better with each reading - a possible factor in identifying what makes a work of literature great that I found myself pointing out to a class as we read Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha last week. (It works for Mr Doyle as well.)

But as well as it being a delight to read I do find myself with a radical problem with Flaubert's great novel. As he tears apart all his characters, laying bare their painful superficiality, I find the level of self-recognition painfully disconcerting. Are we really all as stupid as that? Well, yes, I'm afraid.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Handing Over

We passed the keys to the now empty Mansion this afternoon to Johnny and his mum. The place looked almost exactly the same as it had done some seventeen years ago. Noi did an amazing job of getting our stuff out and cleaning up.

I realised with some surprise that I'd lived there far longer than at any other home in my life. It was a wonderful seventeen years. From the beginning we both sensed the fundamental happiness of the house. It didn't let us down. And I like to think we didn't disappoint it either.

I suppose I should have felt sad leaving. I did, but only mildly. We enjoyed handing it back in good condition (and we've got our friend Gebian going in to paint and Siew to help Mdm Chng get some good tenants.) And we happily enjoyed thinking of all the good times, knowing we'll create more in the future, wherever we are, insha'allah.

Friday, January 21, 2011


In the course of the Big Move we've been reasonably ruthless in throwing away stuff we don't need any more. The number of black plastic bagfulls we've disposed of has been remarkable. Which leads me to reflecting on the capacity for waste of our species, especially since, with a painful sense of irony, I've never regarded myself as a wasteful sort of chap.

Next time I moan about global warming I must remember that I'm the one to blame.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stuff, Lots Of

We have a problem. It's been a day of crossing the river for us - from Mansion to Hall. This has entailed a reduction of one room in our living space. But we have somehow acquired enough stuff over many years in the Mansion to have filled every corner thereof. With fewer corners to fill we now face a surplus.

So this is not such a terrible problem. There are plenty of people in this world for whom the lack of stuff is not simply a headache but an issue of life and death. But it remains a genuine problem in our little corner of the world, one the missus has heroically been attempting to solve. She's been leading the way whilst I've been skulking at work.

It'll take time, lots, to resolve the situation and resume business as usual, but we'll get there in the end. In the meantime I'm left contemplating the mystery of how easy it is to accumulate so much that you can convince yourself you really need, when you don't. (I hasten to add that I'm the real offender in this. Who would have thought the old man to have had so many CDs in him?)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Not So Hard Labour

My usual reading has been sort of interrupted due to my having to read the material we've got lined up for a class of Humanities Scholars who are going to be doing a somewhat different programme for this year. I'm now setting off again on Madame Bovary having just completed the very fine Paradise of the Blind by Vietnamese writer Duong Thu Huong - my first ever novel from that nation (I'm ashamed to say.) I'm not sure the translation of Paradise really did it justice. There's some obviously wonderfully observed lyrical detail, but that sort of thing only ever really works to its full effect in the original. Nevertheless I think something of the original flavour of the text was conveyed. I certainly got an intense sense of atmosphere.

I've also come away from the novel reminded of the brutality of work as it presents itself for many people in the world. Ms Duong pulls no punches when it comes to reminding us of just how tough life is in the poorer nations for those who are not so privileged. Just having to read good books and communicate what it is exactly that makes them so good hardly seems like a proper job at all.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Real Wages

I found myself puzzled recently over the opprobrium heaped upon the shoulders of Wayne Rooney for attempting to screw as much money as possible out of the Mighty Reds for the work he does. Whilst it is obvious why the ordinary man in the street gets a bit aeriated over footballers' wages, it surely doesn't take long to figure out that this sort of thing simply follows the not terribly pleasant logic of capitalism. Why is it that footballers get particularly singled out for criticism when it's obvious that at least what they do requires genuine, and exceptional, talent, whilst highly paid bankers and their ilk only come into the firing line when we realise just how badly their talents have screwed up the lives of the rest of us? Trust me, if the Rooon is seen to completely fail to deliver his wages will drop alarmingly and his bonuses dry up. And the line of guys who have tried and failed to deliver what the top players manage to give is a very, very long one. It's really a high risk to enter their profession.

To be honest I know perfectly well why footballers get singled out for special criticism. And so do you. It's because they are predominantly working class young men and are looked down on for that reason by those who regard themselves as their betters.

I caught the back end of a programme on the World Service the other day looking back on the days of the maximum wage in football (still operating when I was born.) A great player like Jimmy Armfield happy to get twenty quid a week because it was more than he could have earnt in a factory or down the pit. The good old days. Yeah, right.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Artful Matters

Spent the afternoon with Noi, Fifi and Fafa at Art Fair Singapore, at the invitation of sister-in-law and talented art-person Rozana. Her main item, a sort of real but fake old-fashioned provision shop which was actually selling all sorts of real bits and pieces, cheerfully bemused the various art-goers we saw gathered around it, and was utterly charming. Is it art or is it a shop? I asked loudly. Both, said Noi, knowingly.

In fact the whole fair had a great atmosphere, or so it seemed to me. People were snapping away with their cameras and phones despite photography being described as not allowed on the back of the ticket for entry, which was a wholly good thing. They were obviously enjoying themselves none too self-consciously. This was funky art as fun. Lots of over bright, exuberant works on show, many of which were unironically wearing their hearts on their colourful sleeves.

Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


It's only when you're clearing it up that you realise what a mess you've made.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Cleaning Up

We're now in a sort of limbo between the Hall and the Mansion, and by next Friday we'll have left our former residence. The past couple of weeks have involved a lot of evenings spent preparing the new premises, with Noi leading the way on the cleaning front. She is a wonder to behold.

For me today involved three hours of fairly intense elbow grease after a moderately busy day at work, and a thankful hour at Friday Prayers. And, oddly, it felt good - the physical labour bit, that is. It reminded me of those long-ago days as an industrial cleaner.Mind you, in those days I could keep up the cleaning for hours and go off partying after. Now my back is aching like the proverbial billyho and all that really interests me is getting to bed for some shut-eye. But it still feels good.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Just Making It Up

We tend to forget that many of the great classical composers were very fine improvisors. Beethoven's early career was built on this ability.

I recently heard Roger Norrington, conductor, and superb Beethoven interpreter, pointing out that it's useful to listen to the great symphonies, and other pieces, as if the music is being improvised by a sort of super-sensitive orchestral consciousness. Abandon all expectations of something that is inevitably unrolling itself and hear the music as if it's going in unexpected, almost playful, directions, developing in ways that are less than inevitable, constantly surprising the listener.

This is not just a useful idea - it's transformative. I played the first symphony the other day - in a performance conducted by Sir Roger - and felt dizzied by it, even though I know it backwards. I suppose it helps that Norrington's tempi are generally pretty helter skelter - something else I think he's right about.

Underlying all this is the healthy idea that it doesn't pay to be overly reverential about the music we listen to. Let it live instead.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Utterly Juvenile

I have just one Australian colleague, the estimable Blake, and, astonishingly, it turns out he knows nothing about cricket. He genuinely had no idea at all of the Aussies' recent Ashes humiliation at the hands of the English tourists. Can you believe that? There was absolutely no point in rubbing it in as it meant nothing to him. A glorious and, let's face it, rare opportunity wasted.

Fortunately there are lots of Liverpool fans around in the staffroom. Hah!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Looking Back - Book Of The Year

If I had to nominate a single tome as my book of 2010 it would have to be Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, her Booker-winning novel about that wily young/old fox Thomas Cromwell. I started to read it on the plane going to England, finishing it about two weeks later, having deliberately taken it as slowly as possible just to savour its delights. Finally the ins and outs of the tyrant Henry's reign made sense.

And what a creation her Cromwell is! A convincingly Tudor man (I almost write gentleman, but he isn't - well not in Tudor terms) allied to an almost modern sensibility, the result of his being just about as self-made as it's possible a man might be. I think that Ms Mantel is more than a little in love with him herself, and no wonder. Her Thomas More is equally convincing - convincingly repulsive. I felt an urgent need to re-read Ackroyd's biography, and the saint's own Utopia and A Dialogue of Comfort, just to check how accurate our Booker-winner is. I suspect she's spot-on and I need to seriously reconsider just about every one of my original opinions.

The marvelous thing is that whilst Wolf Hall is a distinctly literary read, being literate in the very best sense, it's also easy to see it as a genuinely popular novel. It's simply a great read. And there's going to be a sequel! Yowza!!!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Looking Back - Travelling Tunes

In the interests of full disclosure, and because I like lists, here's what I brought back from Manchester on the music front: Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes (already the subject of a confession in a previous post); Arthur Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire by The Kinks; The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys by Traffic; Lennon's Plastic Ono Band; Springsteen's The Promise; K.T. Tunstall's Tiger Suit; All Delighted People and The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens; and, gulp, the Original Movie Soundtrack of Grease. The last of these was a birthday present for the missus. Honest.

No spoken word stuff this time. It's largely dried up in the shops. The Waterstone's on Deansgate used to have several shelves devoted to the same, as did HMV. Now it's hard to spot. I suppose interested parties obtain it on-line. In fact, generally the range of books available seems to have been reduced. Fewer philosophy shelves at the aforementioned Waterstone's, for example, though, in fairness, the poetry section has not shrunk.

But, going back to the music, I was pleased to note that the big HMV in Manchester is making some kind of attempt to provide a fair range. I was heartened to find the Traffic, Yes and Kinks' CDs there and could have bought a few more if I'd had room in the luggage - though not the full catalogues by any means.

I'm a bit concerned by my retreating into the past though. That's why I bought the K.T. Tunstall disc, to get something reasonably current that I wasn't familiar with. I heard her live on Radio 2 and was quite impressed so I thought I'd give it a go. Toe-tapping stuff, but a bit light. I may see what Fifi thinks of it. It's nice that the BBC goes out of its way now to promote live coverage of bands.

And, of course, you can't get more current than the wildly eccentrically creative Mr Stevens. The Adz album is like a huge, multi-layered cake of extraordinarily sweet delights. Everything seems to be in there, including the tuneful kitchen sink. Does this kind of thing ever win Grammys? Does it need to?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Looking Back - Speaking Freely

A comedian called Frankie Boyle got himself into a bit of bother when we were in England as a result of comments he made (on tv, I think) regarding the backward child of a rather vacuous celebrity model, followed (a couple of weeks later) by his use of some pretty unpleasant racial epithets. Mind you, I'm not sure it would be appropriate to say he'd got himself into trouble. Based on the maxim that any publicity is good publicity he'd probably made an astute career move.

I've seen the guy now a few times on one of the many programmes that feature fast-talking, witty comics doing their bit with their fellows in an improvisatory setting - commenting on the news, that sort of thing - and he struck me as pretty clever, sometimes quite funny, generally entertaining and not terribly pleasant. (Think Thersites in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.) But then few of these chaps are. The humour involved in such programmes is nearly always less than generous, indeed essentially reductive in nature with a slightly desperate, competitive air about it.

Having said that, I'm broadly in favour of allowing this kind of thing air-time. Sometimes a bit of nastiness is good for us. Sometimes it's a way of approaching the truth. And I'd rather people be allowed to think these issues through for themselves rather than being told what they're allowed to expose themselves to. Eventually you can simply turn Mr Boyle off if you want and I don't really buy into the idea that somehow this kind of thing poisons a society.

Except: where is the line between honest outspokenness and hate-speech? I think there is one. What I found interesting about this particular fuss over Boyle's comments is that he seems to be treading that line. The devil here really is in the details - he's always worth looking out for - and that makes the fuss worthwhile. I hope.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Looking Back - The Other Side of the Coin

On recent visits to Britain I've found myself critical of the coinage. Basically it's a mess. There's no sense of order or logic to the size, shape and colour of coins there; at least, none that I can see.

This year, however, I found myself rather enjoying the mess, finding it a refreshing change from the predictable neatness of, say, the coins here, or those in use with the Euro. The sheer bloody-mindedness of British coins points to something deeply comforting (and disturbing) in the national character. Now, if only they'd bring back the old threepenny bit and tanner...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Looking Back - Slightly Chilled

I didn't get as much reading done in Manchester as I would have liked. But this is always the case when there's so much for us to do over there and only four weeks to do it in. I read a lot in terms of newspapers and magazines as there was an awful lot of good material available, but that seemed to interfere with the usual flow of my regular reading.

A book I made reasonable progress with, however, was the American Fantastic Tales volume edited by Peter Straub, the one featuring material From Poe to the Pulps. Every story had something to recommend it but, interestingly, hardly any proved to be genuinely frightening. It wasn't until I was some two-thirds of the way through that I read something that actually got under the old skin, the story in question being Edith Wharton's Afterward. The slow, steady building of unease was done to perfection and I reminded of reading M.R. James as a kid, wanting yet not wanting to read on, knowing that bad dreams would follow. But there wasn't much else that chilled me in that way.

Having said that, the 'pulp' stories at the end of the volume - Derleth, Lovecraft and that mob - which I finished over here in the last few days, were tremendous fun simply as tales. I just enjoyed the sheer verve of the telling.

I'm contemplating moving on now to the second later volume with Straub providing lots of contemporary stuff - including himself and his old mate Stephen King. I suspect there may be some genuine shocks in store. It would nice to be comfortably frightened again.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Looking Back - The Big Chill

Sweltering my way through a soggily humid afternoon in Singapore it's difficult to believe that a couple of weeks ago I was chilled to the bone, nay, the very marrow. But I was, as the pictures above bear silently shivering witness.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Looking Back - On The Street

I surprise myself when I report that two of the most memorable programmes we watched on television back in England related to that most venerable of British 'soaps', Coronation Street. The series has now been going for fifty years and was the centre of its own little nostalgia fest in December. We watched the episode in which the script writers arranged the demise of a fair number of the cast through various explosions and a train plunging from a viaduct, but this was not terribly memorable, except for provoking Noi to laughter when various of the denizens of the street started running towards the scene of the disaster in ungainly fashion. The acting's as bad as Malaysia, she chortled.

No, it was the re-broadcast of the first ever episode, from 1960, that really stood out as fine television, along with a BBC drama entitled The Road To Coronation Street which was a kind of celebration of that event, focusing on how the creator, Tony Warren, moved heaven, earth and Granada TV to get his work on screen. And celebrated it should have been. As a little boy I took the Street for granted as something rather old-fashioned that adults enjoyed because it was all a little dull - like real life. The point I missed then was that that was what was revolutionary about the enterprise. Ordinary Manchester people, speaking in an ordinary Manchester way, about ordinary Manchester stuff. It was us on screen.

And that first episode was genuinely good stuff. Tony Warren's script really caught the rhythms, the poetry of everyday speech. And the characters immediately suggested something of the archetypal - especially Pat Phoenix's brilliant Elsie Tanner. No wonder it ran and ran.

Noi was disappointed because they didn't broadcast the second episode. She wanted to know what happened next. But I suppose it would have been a bit much to have repeated the whole fifty years.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Looking Back - On The Ocean

I practised quite a bit of the old teeth gritting whilst in England and restricted my purchases of CDs to what any reasonable person would regard as the bare minimum. Evidence of this is the fact I didn’t buy a single John Martyn CD despite there being plenty on offer, including the wonderful Live at Leeds, and despite the provocation of having listened to the great man at length whilst dining with Simon and Judy.

But I wasn’t able to resist shelling out for Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes. This isn’t because it ranks as one of my favourite pieces, however. In fact, I hardly know it all. When it came out I was a fairly big fan of the band, though I never rated Close To The Edge quite so highly as others did much preferring Fragile and The Yes Album. Also Tales was way too expensive for my pocket. I heard it, or a fair bit of it, once at a friend’s house, didn’t find it terribly stirring, read a number of tepid reviews and decided it was not for me. After that my musical interests drifted away from prog rock generally. In recent years I have found myself thinking over why I felt out of love with groups like Yes and became particularly intrigued by what Tales was actually like, especially since it has, if anything, accumulated more critical flak than anything else by the band over the years, becoming a bit of a by-word for prog excess.

I’ve listened to it a couple of times now and really don’t know what all the fuss was about. Musically it’s unexceptional. It sounds like fairly good though not brilliant Yes of the period. (There’s nothing as exciting as Roundabout, for example.) Pleasant to listen to if you enjoy listening to musicians who can genuinely play, and not much of the aimless noodling and filler I was half expecting.

So why has it attracted such opprobrium over the years, and, indeed, when it was released? My guess is that the audience expected too much. An album full of Roundabouts. And the group didn’t help matters by being so ambitious in terms of the sheer scope of the thing. It’s curious just how often musicians are drawn towards the expansive epic when their talents really lie in shorter, crisper forms. But I don’t see much wrong with ambition if it results in something that can be listened to and enjoyed – and I have enjoyed the voyage, now that I can afford to go on it. Will sail again, soon.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Looking Back

I’ve brought a box of old diaries to Maison KL, to clear these from the Mansion since we’re moving to smaller premises this month. These are simply my appointment diaries stretching back to 1988. I am none too sure why I’m keeping hold of them, actually. Most are showing signs of decay. But I’m finding it difficult to simply throw them out. A sort of clinging to the past, I suppose. I’m reminded of that peculiar genre of reality tv programmes dealing with people enduing cluttered houses due to their inability to part with objects of ‘sentimental value’.

This inability to let go of the past seems to me connected to the kind of wallowing in nostalgia I noted on British television at Christmas time (and possibly in general – I’m only ever there in December so that’s the only time I know.)

But I’m also reminded of another kind of programme I watched back in Manchester. On one channel devoted to the idea of looking back to the past (I forget the actual name of the channel, but it wasn’t the History Channel, though something along those lines) just after Christmas, I caught a series of documentaries one day being run back-to-back on the development of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, with a particular focus on Auschwitz. Needless to say it was uncomfortably devastating stuff. But what was particularly striking was the extraordinary detail given regarding the day-to-day nuts and bolts of the whole ghastly enterprise. Names were named, dates were given. At moments you were back in the meetings in which mass murder was under discussion by ordinary functionaries of the state, a lot like you and me.

This is worth looking back to. This is what we must remember.