Monday, February 28, 2011

Sleep - Lack Of

I don't expect to sleep through the night, warbled a middle-aged Paul Simon some years back, and the old fogies listening like myself nodded and murmured, Yeah you got that right, or words to that effect. There was nothing terribly special about this - just an astute observation of the way things are, and sort of rightly so, following the natural order of things.

But I can’t see it as part of the order of things that many of the teenagers I teach routinely tell me they get only around five hours of sleep a night, and these are not guys wasting their time on computer games and the like. They are simply busy fulfilling what they see as being necessary to fulfil. I suppose I'd lose sleep worrying about this, if I had any left to lose.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

High Energy

Here in late February 2011 I'm happily awaiting Noi's return from her little trip north, but a good part of me is locked in the April of 1781 with William Herschel pretty sure the tailless Comet he has spotted is the seventh planet of our sun and just waiting for the world to catch up with him. (Yet another part is celebrating the mighty Reds storming to victory last night over at Wigan pier, but we'll let that pass.)

The writer responsible for transporting me back to the eighteenth century is, of course, the incomparable Richard Holmes. I reckon The Age of Wonders has at least three to four exciting ideas on pretty much every page. And he's superb at communicating the ordinary humanity of the extraordinary thinkers he deals with. But what I've found overwhelming about the great astronomer so far (I'm now in Chapter 2) is his abundant energy - and that of his equally remarkable sister, by the way.

Which leads me to wonder (in more ways than one). Did folks back then simply have more drive than we do now as a result of the sheer difficulty of their lives? Did the relative lack of ways of idling away the time make for lives of greater accomplishment? Or is it just that we're looking at the most exceptional, those who made the best of the hands they were dealt? I get exhausted just reading about what Banks and Herschel got up to. I mean Herschel, an accomplished musician - that was his day job - found time to write an entire oratorio on Paradise Lost which only just makes it into Holmes's entertaining footnotes.

It probably wasn't a very good oratorio, but that's not the point (for me, anyway). Just as it is equally not the point that Herschel's ideas were sometimes spectacularly wrong. It's the drive to have the ideas, to create the music, to devise and assemble those beautiful telescopes (making one heck of a mess in the process) that counts.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Something Tasty

Noi has popped up to Melaka today as brother Hakim has put together some sort of barbecue for abah and she's lending cheerful support. Bogged down by the Toad work, I have remained here to consume the fine tuna sandwiches she so thoughtfully prepared earlier and strive to make inroads into the mountains of stuff that require reducing, scaling, mining.

Missing the missus, I've been seeking the company of Zappa with his Hot Rats, Louis Jordan & his Tympany Five in jump blues mode, and Papa Haydn with some of the Sturm und Drang symphonies. It sometimes happily occurs to me that I have odd (and loud) tastes in music.

Friday, February 25, 2011

In Judgment

More than a little alarmingly I've been asked to sit in judgment on those with genuine talent this evening. I'll be doing my best to avoid becoming overly pontifical. One of these days someone's going to see through me and the game will be up. As it will be for all of us eventually, I suppose.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Back On Track

I've felt oddly discombobulated over the last three months with regard to what I've been reading. It's particularly odd since I've enjoyed everything one way or another yet had to wrestle with a sense that I should have been reading something else, as if I've been somehow sidetracked. I suppose this might relate to the line of books on my top shelf waiting, rather deliciously, for my attention - these being the tomes purchased last year with the money my employers set aside with which I'm supposed to improve myself. Oh, and the equally enticing pile on my shelves at work that constitute the new course which we devised for the Year 5 class I'm teaching.

Anyway I finally feel I'm getting somewhere, though where that somewhere is I have no real idea, in that I finally got to open Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder (one of the (very) few books I purchased in Manchester on our December jaunt), which I'm reading in tandem with Anna Karenina.

But what's this? you cry. I thought you'd binged on the Tolstoy in very recent memory!? Yes, indeed. About a year or so ago. But that was before I knew that the good (or bad) lady was going to be the centre of attention in my classroom for the early part of next term. So I'm back for more, like the moth drawn to the flame. Now I know just how Vronsky felt, eh?

Having said that, the good news is that Holmes's 'romantic scientists' are giving her quite a run for her money. Joseph Banks has just left Tahiti in Chapter 1 and I suspect memories of that memorable visit will stay with me for a long time.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Word Of Caution

For tyrants everywhere: You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire / Once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher. From the mouth of Gabriel himself.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Something Incredible

According to today's paper there're an awful lot of planets in our little branch of the Milky Way thought capable of supporting life. And I'm talking big, big numbers here - like five hundred million or something. Definitely more than ten, at any rate.

So here's a thought: it'd be pretty incredible if there were really life out there, eh?

But then, here's another: it'd be pretty incredible if there weren't.

So either way, it's all a bit mind-boggling. Which leads me to mention the incredible lamb shank the missus just cooked for dinner, which puts both the former observations into some kind of perspective.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Real Racism

Read Conrad's short story Karain: A Memory yesterday after completing my quota of marking for the day. It's the first time I've read it, and I made three or four false starts in the course of the week as I just couldn't tune in to the first page. The problem lay in the initial deliberate generalising behind the frame story, a feature of Conrad that can be irritating and endearing in roughly equal measures and accounts for the fact that rereading him is such a pleasure: the second time round you get the point of all you missed the first.

The fact that there's quite a bit of generalising about Malay culture added to the piquancy of the tale for me and got me thinking about Conrad and race in general. No, that's a bit misleading. I've been thinking about this since reading Heart of Darkness again since it's no longer possible to read the novella in the relatively innocent way I managed when a teenager. After all, if someone of the stature of Chinua Achebe tells you Conrad is a racist and you need to have that at the forefront of your mind when reading him, you'd better listen.

I'm afraid I've not managed to come to any deep conclusions on the matter. Pretty clearly Conrad is a racist in terms of seeing the racial divisions of humanity in what might be clumsily termed an essentialist manner - I mean, he obviously think that race counts big-time (as would have been pretty much inevitable for any man, or woman, of his time.). But does this somehow compromise or invalidate his work?

What struck me on my most recent reading of that fateful journey into the Congo was the determination of Marlow (or Conrad? - it's a typically tricky one) to make himself see the suffering humanity of the Africans encountered though fully aware that he sees them in a kind of distanced 'otherly' manner. (That's dreadfully expressed, but it will have to do for now.) It's not very pleasant or edifying, but then I don't think it's supposed to be. But it is very real and disturbing, necessarily so.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Making A Mark

Spent a fair amount of the day ploughing through various essays with the old red pen in my hand and, curiously, unbelievably, almost enjoyed the experience. I've always seen marking as important but in recent years I've come to regard it as moving to the centre of my teaching. I try to regard each piece as almost a cry from the writer's soul, worthy of my full attention. 'Try' is the operative word here, though; all too often the attempt ends in failure. Mind you, that's tied to the sad fact that the cry from the soul bit is generally just a useful fiction.

I also find it strangely useful to break off marking in the middle of an essay, do something else for a minute or two, and then get back to it. I started doing this because of problems with my back, seeking to ensure I didn't hold the same position too long, but I've come to find it psychologically refreshing. Usually it means I have to reread the bit I've already done but it helps me see the whole thing with fresh eyes somehow.

When I first started teaching one of the problems I found marking students' work was the pretty startling evidence of how often I'd failed to convey clearly what they needed to know. Now I've come to take that for granted such that when someone gets it right it's enormously refreshing. I can't think of that many jobs that have failure as a kind of built-in component. Banking, maybe?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Good Company

Finished The Fry Chronicles a few days ago, and glad to have to have done so. Mr Fry was good company - diffusely rambling in a relaxing sort of way - and it was just the kind of book to read when carrying out the messy business of moving house - but towards the end I felt I'd had enough and needed to get back to something with a bit more substance. Not that the Chronicles were entirely vapid - there's some very interesting material on the writer's bi-polar disorder, and quite a few passages of comment on various issues that had an impact through the tolerant good sense expressed - but they got a bit gossipy at times and a little overly indulgent when it came to spelling out the virtues of various partners in his work. Mind you, those are endearing faults.

And, all in all, it was an endearing read. I found myself really liking the guy despite - or possibly because of - his many faults.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Forbidden Fruit

Told a class today they were forbidden to read Blake's Proverbs From Hell which happen to occupy a couple of pages of an anthology we're using. This should guarantee some close reading and a fair bit of thought, eh? A touch of wisdom from the tygers of wrath. (Which I've always thought would make a great name for a punk rock band.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Heart of the Matter

As I was finishing Madame Bovary recently I found myself dipping into the Conrad collection we picked as a Part 4 text for the class with the Humanities Scholars in it. The thing about a text in that part of the course is that we don't really teach it as such in the old-fashioned 'A' level way. The students decide what they want to focus on for a presentation to the class from a group of four texts - probably just focusing on one - so we do little more than introduce each of the four and give broad guidelines for individual students to operate independently. I mention this partly because in some ways I'd really love to teach the Conrad and have to hold back from delivering it on a plate for the class. So dipping in was a bit painful as I was aware of a lot of material we would most likely by-pass.

The two stories I read at that point I suspect are not likely to attract too much attention and that's a pity because they're so darned good. I reacquainted myself with Youth, which ironically I last read as a youth, and got to wondering whether anyone has done the mystical lure of the Orient better than JC. The answer is no. There's more to the tale than that, of course (there always is in Conrad), the sheer unpleasantness of life aboard a merchant ship for one, but the level on which it operates as a gloriously nostalgic, melancholy mood-piece is unsurpassable. And the first story, An Outpost of Progress, which I'd not read before, seemed the perfect sardonic evocation of the depravity of Empire.

Perfect, that is, until you get to Heart of Darkness. This is the one I think the students who fall under the Conradian spell are likely to go for, and rightly. I can't remember how many times I've read it, but each time is new. I'm now on the final third, with Kurtz encountered in person, insofar as you can call it an encounter, and I'm stunned, again. It's as if Conrad is knocking on the door of some final meaning of things - but, of course, the door will remained closed. There are some texts that seem to take you beyond language, into the heart of things, I suppose. What a journey!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Film of the Year

As far as I understand these matters which is not particularly far, The King's Speech is likely to win a shelf-full of Oscars. It is certainly the Film of the Year for me and the missus, but since it's the only film we've actually been to see so far, and quite possibly the only one we're likely to see given our usual dismal track record on this front, this is, in itself, no great recommendation. Having said that, we both thoroughly enjoyed it and if it does win a load of silverware I wouldn't be terribly surprised. We went to see it last Saturday, by the way.

So what is there to like about it? Well, for one, it's a small film on a human scale, essentially about relationships. It's well acted, with solid performances from all, and a particularly good one from Colin Firth as the stammering monarch. He manages to play the man rather than the defect. It's a well-told, well-paced story that explores its themes intelligently with enough depth to say something useful about the virtues of behaving decently.

It also manages to steer clear of over-slavish appreciation of the various royals on show, though it gets a bit syrupy about the four at the centre. But then the point appears to be that they constituted a real family as Bertie sought to rectify the damage caused by his own dreadful upbringing.

I suppose it succeeds in depicting a chap, well a couple of them really, who managed to be what Mum and Auntie Norah and Auntie Bet would have termed true gentlemen. Not a bad title to aspire to. Better than 'king' any day.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Working for the Pharaoh

Recent events in the Middle East had me reaching for Richard Thompson's excellent Amnesia album this morning, specifically to enjoy the last track, Pharaoh, a song I've always admired. Oddly Patrick Humphries, the writer of a fine book on the great singer--songwriter entitled Strange Affair, doesn't have particularly positive things to say about the song, regarding its lyric as somewhat muddled, I think. I find this odd as the lyric strikes me as possessing great clarity and cohesion, being entirely successful in its overall effect.

I wonder if what is getting in the way of Mr Humphries' understanding of the lyric is a lack of grasp of the Islamic frame of ideas here. Although Pharaoh features on an album that comes after the more overtly Islamic-themed songs following Thompson's conversion, like so much of his material it benefits from some insight into the belief system that the writer still adheres to. A grasp of that system can help us appreciate the metaphorical underpinnings of the song. (By the way, lyric apart, the music is gorgeous, featuring a languorous melody that seems to hang somewhere between English folk and a prayer-like chant, and an arrangement subtly evoking some lazy desert ensemble whilst remaining solidly English in its instrumentation.)

The Pharaoh here is a dreadful tyrant, yes, but, and this is the tricky bit, he's ultimately trivial - which makes him all the more dangerous. This is similar to the idea that lies behind the slogan that emerged after the revolution in Iran characterising America as the Great Satan. In a sense this might have been translated as the Great Trivialiser, Satan, or Iblis, being seen as ultimately a trivial, pathetic figure who just doesn't get it. (Think Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost in the later books.) So the Pharaoh in our song is everywhere and we are all Living in Egypt land. We are all aware of the dogs of money, of course, and the song alerts us to their magicians, seen every night on our tv and computer screens, telling us what's true and real. Their images make them men of shadow - but there's a grim possibility that that's what we too have become.

It's easy to think of, indeed to see, the idols that rise into the sky and the pyramids that soar. Those lying sphinxes are more problematic, and by their very nature more enigmatic. To some degree I think its our choice for whom we shoulder the wheel. As another great singer-songwriter pointed out, working in a rather different religious tradition, you've gotta serve somebody.

I'm thinking now of those who've had no choice for the last thirty years of those they've had to serve politically and the powerful sense of exhilaration many of them must now feel and many of us feel for them. I hope they don't simply find themselves blindly kneeling to worship a new pharaoh, of whatever ilk that may be.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


I misquoted Miller a Sunday ago, thinking Linda Loman told Willy that life was a taking leave. She was tougher than that. She told him it was a casting off. My version was so much more gentle. Linda's points to the sad truth that often those who leave us are heading for big new oceans where they hope the air is cleaner. Or we are deliberately pushing them away from us. Either way it's all very sad.

She immediately follows her observation by saying It's always that way, but Willy, of course, denies her wisdom. He's sure that some people accomplish something. Isn't that odd? She hadn't said they didn't.

So often we just don't hear each other.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Falling Short

At the beginning of my working life I devised a dictum of sorts that struck me, callow as I was, as reasonably wise and useful. It went like this: Be hard on yourself; be easy on others. Thinking about it today I must say it sounds even wiser than it did some thirty-odd years ago, and even more useful. In that light, I offer it to the world.

I wish I were able to say I'd lived up to it over those thirty-plus years. But I haven't. Still it's something to aspire to, especially following those rueful moments of reflection on the damage done.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Saw a little girl at Geylang yesterday, about three I'd guess, wearing a complete little Liverpool replica kit, the shirt being that of one Fernando Torres. Found this almost as bleakly sad as the ending of Madame Bovary, and almost as darkly comic.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Fullness of Things

Finished Flaubert's masterpiece yesterday and immediately wanted to read it again knowing that I would discover a different novel next time round. The first time I ever read it I remember being stunned by just how much he seemed to take us into the dying Emma's consciousness. This time round it was the idiotic nobility of Charles at the end that skewered me. Next time, who knows what secret places of the heart he will make me weep (metaphorically! - I think) over?

Monday, February 7, 2011

In Totality

It's amazing how intelligent hard-working students can contrive to miss the point of a poem or passage set as an 'unseen' exercise. I've always known this, I mean as a teacher, but it's useful to be reminded of this law of the universe in another set of marking. I suppose it relates to the fact that the tone of a piece emerges as a result of everything else, like consciousness as a mysteriously emergent quality of biological processes, and if you don't quite get the everything else you'll have little grasp of the tone.

When I'm reading a cheerfully extrovert relaxed sort of work it seems obvious to me that that's what it is. There may be other shadings usefully colouring the fabric, adding variety, and you come to expect these, but they don't generally confuse the main issue. It all seems to me a matter of common sense. But I know that to others, some of whom I teach, it constitutes a sometimes impenetrable mystery. My job is to de-mystify, but I'm not at all sure how this might be done despite having spent over thirty years worrying at the problem.

Oddly, when you ask students to read something out loud they often get it right, even down to the subtleties. Perhaps the answer is to find ways of by-passing the intellect, to avoid over-thinking?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Flying Away

Popped into Hamzah and Sharifah's house at Shah Alam on the way back to Melaka this evening both to see them and to bid the fondest of farewells to niece Aziqah who sets off for Tasmania tomorrow for a course in architecture. Unbeknowst to Aziqah her doting father murmured mournfully to me about just how much he was going to miss her at least three times in the short space of our visit. I don't think you ever quite realise when you're young just what a wrench it is for your elders when you're ready to fly the nest. I'm pretty sure Hamzah rightly has protected his daughter from this dispiriting information and the attendant melancholy.

I'm reminded, as I often am these days for some reason, of that line from Linda Loman in the greatest and most real and relevant of all American tragedies (and I hope I'm quoting it correctly as this is purely from (a bad) memory): Life is a taking leave. Yes, it is, isn't it?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

At Its Best

This house is at its best when we have visitors. So today, with Rohana and Osman staying overnight, and Fajar and family popping in this evening, was a very good day.

Friday, February 4, 2011


I’m back to reading Madame Bovary again after something of a hiatus. I sort of broke off when we were in the throes of moving apartment, partly as a result of Boon lending me The Fry Chronicles which became my default reading for a week or so, partly because it slipped down so easily. This is not to say that Bovary is a difficult read, far from it I think, but it makes some curious demands on the reader at times which means that it doesn’t necessarily slip down without a fight.

I was reminded of this today when starting to read Chapter 9 of Part 2, the one in which Charles operates to disastrous effect on Hippolyte’s club foot. As I realised what was coming, and remembered how uncomfortable I’d felt in the past when reading the chapter, I felt very inclined to skip the sequence. I don’t think there’s ever been a better description (if that’s what it is – evocation might be a better word) of utterly pointless, miserable, dreadfully almost comic, suffering in literature.

I suppose what makes it so painful, so powerful, is that the poor guy’s pains are almost off-stage, as it were. In the spotlight instead we have the folly of Homais, the incompetence amounting to idiocy of Bovary and the utterly self-centred machinations of Emma. And the attendant sense of horror that this is the way the world is. We know of the very real distress that’s everywhere around us, but to which we cannot choose but shut ourselves away – until it becomes our own, I suppose.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


One of life’s great puzzles for me has always been that desire for power that is so obviously embedded in some people. I don’t seem to have even a trace of this. I don’t mind taking charge when something needs to be done, but once done no one could be happier to relinquish whatever status or influence or position that has been unfortunately acquired in the process.

So why the major and minor dictators of this world find it almost impossible to give up even a shred of whatever it is that presses their buttons remains an intriguing curiosity. But it’s nothing like as intriguing as what it is that motivates so many to put everything on the line for the good of others. On one side a distressing pettiness; on the other a life-expanding nobility.

Something of this is being played out, methinks, on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and other fabled places. If we are fortunate new myths will emerge.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Making Room

With yet another new year to welcome in, with that of the Rabbit (or the Hare, not too sure of this) fast approaching, we're loading up the car with yet more stuff to create a little more elbow room for ourselves in the Hall. Various bits and pieces (mainly electrical) are destined for a new home in Melaka, and the rest can fill up Maison KL. We're not too sure what customs will make of our not-so-little load, so let's hope they'll be too busy to bother to stop us.


And here we are in the Malaysian capital having shed half a car load at Melaka – in terms of goods picked up by Yasser & Wan, destined for a good home in Alor Gajah. Travelling up on the afternoon of the Lunar New Year is to be recommended, by the way. Remarkably, thankfully jam-less. (I suppose a good half of the population are already at their reunion dinners.) And no hassle at customs!

Sadly lots of signs of flooding along the way though. Noi says that Rozaidah’s rented place at Alor Gajah suffered a bit. Compared to the mess some folks are dealing with the tribulations of our recent change of address weren’t even close to tribulating (assuming there were such a state.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Reality Shows

Gripped by events in Tunisia and Egypt. Noi's comment on Mubarak: Why not just have an election and get rid of him? The kind of good sense that people sometimes have to lose their lives to make real.

Pleased we are able to get BBC World in the Hall. Their coverage has conveyed both the excitement and complexity of the situation. Took some time out earlier to watch a bit of Fox News that actually attempted to cover what was going on. Jaw dropping stuff, and I don't mean that in a good way. One commentator referred to riots on the streets of France, Greece and Egypt as evidence of Obama's support of corrupt regimes. Quite entertaining in a scary sort of way.

Interesting question - Why would anyone, anywhere assume it was a good idea for them personally to remain unchallenged in power for thirty years?