Saturday, December 31, 2011

A (Very) Minor Achievement

My resolution for 2011 was NOT TO PANIC. Broadly achieved, with some doubtful moments.

Now thinking of something suitable for the year in view, over the horizon - though there's always mileage in the above, of course.

Friday, December 30, 2011

My Back Pages

I'm about to complete my appointments diary for the year, with the new one for the year ahead also operational, as this week overlaps, being covered by both editions. Creature of habit that I am, I use the same type of diary (week to a view) each year, and have done so for thirty-something years.

Glancing through the contents for 2011 I am, as usual, faintly surprised by just how much got done. Looking at the generally blank pages for 2012 I am, as usual, mildly unnerved by the thought of just how full they're likely to become.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rising Damp

In the car, on the way to the supermarket this afternoon, Noi suddenly brought to my attention the fact that my shoes were unsightly - to say the least. I wasn't able to look down at that moment, driving as I was, but at the supermarket I realised what she meant. Faint patches of whitish mould embellished the surface of each of the pair so that they looked for all the world like something a tramp might have picked up from a bin, thinking they might last a couple more months. A quick rub with one of the Missus's wonderful all-purpose damp cloth thingees solved the problem, showing that, appearances notwithstanding, the sort-of-mould didn't go very deep. But it was a reminder of the penetrating nature of the climate here.

You see the shoes were my back-up pair, left outside our place in Singapore, and left there clean I assure you, one month ago. That's all it took for the damp humidity to get to them - this being the rainy season - and how! In fact, on entering the apartment yesterday you didn't need a particularly strong nose to gain an immediate awareness of the fact it had not been lived in for almost a month and there had been a lot of rain. It smelt wet, a sort of woody wet. This is a smell I first encountered in the August of 1988, on arriving in Singapore. It permeated my room at the Garden Hotel, where I stayed for a couple of weeks, and that wasn't a particularly run-down room - but it had some old wooden furniture that was suffused with the odour. The sweet decay of the tropics.

Funnily enough Noi has been talking quite a bit in the last month about how much she misses the English winter, specifically, I think the cold clear frostiness you get at sub-zero temperatures. A couple of nights of that would certainly do something to our warm tropical damp, though I'm not quite sure what that something is. But I don't miss the winter at all. I sort of enjoy our warm damp.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Further Consideration

Was thinking of the nature of art the other day, partly prompted by my sudden realisation that I might have to lecture on this very topic for our Year 6 students quite early in the new year, but also due to two strands of my reading.

I completed Joyce's Portrait and was reminded of just how good that stretch of dialogue is in Chapter 5 between Stephen and Lynch - though dominated, of course, by Stephen - on art and beauty. I think Stephen's definition of beauty, through Aquinas, is the single most insightful set of ideas I've ever come across regarding aesthetic experience, and this is given even greater resonance by being given a semi-ironic placing and presentation in the novel.

And then later in the day, idly browsing some blogs related to philosophical concerns, I came across this post by Mike LaBossiere with its attendant comments. In truth this all seemed a bit second rate after the electricity of Joyce at his brilliant best, but it served as a reminder of some basic, not terribly well thought through, positions people tend to take in this area.

Whenever I give myself over to consideration of these matters I get a sense that I'm dealing with something of huge importance - possibly crucial to our lives - and something that everyone knows is important. And yet somehow this area of human experience and endeavour forever lies beyond our ability to adequately conceptualise it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Something Lasting

The proggy music I bought the other day - Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull - still sounds fresh to me, but then a significant part of that self is still aged seventeen and loves this kind of thing. I imagine material like this is still getting issued due to the fact there are enough old geezers like myself around who've never quite grown up, prepared to shell out the readies in order to live again their misspent youths.

That seems to me true, but in a limited way. I also think the material genuinely lives because it is of worth. And I would guess that it's picking up listeners a good deal younger than myself, some a long way from being born when it was originally recorded. Just as I more than happily listen to, say, recordings by Duke Ellington and hear them as something new. In fact, a quick look at reviews of albums at and the comments sections under various proggy items uploaded to reveals the degree to which younger listeners are a distinct part of the audience with an ear out for these oldies.

So the question I'm asking myself is how long albums produced in the sixties and seventies, to pick out the two decades in which the recording process had become sophisticated enough to routinely ensure first rate recording of a diverse range of talent, are going to be made fairly easily available and have an audience ready to listen to them, and, of course, this goes beyond the rather narrow confines of what was once termed progressive rock. If the answer is forever, or as long as there is a forever, then this will constitute an important cultural shift. The past will always be close behind, nudging up to the present in consoling and depressing ways, telling us that nothing ever ever ever really changes. I suppose that's always been the case, but one never made with quite the kind of immediacy that can get imprinted on a CD.

(And it's just occurred to me - pardon my obtuseness in failing to see the obvious - that we now no longer even need the physical CDs for the music to be readily available. Can it ever go away? Will its lastingness confirm some kind of value being inherent within it?)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Playing Catch-up

I bought two issues of the New York Review of Books this year - from the magazine stall at Holland Village, the one on the corner near the MRT, where they sell a good deal cheaper than at Borders - and it's taken me until now to read them cover to cover. The younger me would have bought more and built up an impossible backlog, and ended up feeling guilty, so I've obviously learnt something over the years, though not very much all told. I thoroughly enjoyed reading both and hope to increase the number of issues I get to buy and read next year, but I'm not banking on doing so.

The problem is there's so much I'm keen to read in terms of actual books that reading articles feels like a bit of a cop out, a sort of undeserved holiday. And reading one book inevitably leads to just having to read something linked to it. Case in point: I'd no sooner put Dubliners down the other day than I just had to dive into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, reading the first chapter in a couple of hours, even though I originally had no intention of doing so. At the same time I was also caught up in a fast read of Hamlet, the latest Arden edition which is based solely on the second quarto. At least reading the new Arden was not exactly a reread as it is a new edition. (I've also been dipping into my older edition, the one edited by Harold Jenkins, which I've always thought of as the single best Arden edition. In light of the newer edition it now seems a bit dated, inevitably.)

Oh, and I've been reacquainting myself with Whitman's Song of Myself as one of my students is doing her Extended Essay on old Walt and it occurred to me that it's been a heck of a time since I opened my Collected Whitman - I'd forgotten that I'd relocated it to the shelves at Maison KL and was pleased to see it again when we got there in early December.

The wonderful and intimidating thing about having an interest in books is that there's never any shortage of things to be read and no chance at all that you'll ever actually catch up on your reading.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Green Christmas

Whatever the colour of your Christmas, may it be merry and bright.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dancing Out

I have resisted buying any books at all in our time here, despite having spent some time in a fair few bookshops - except, that is, for the books bought for the kids. So in this respect I feel virtuous, which helps balance a slight degree of guilt over having somewhat impulsively purchased no fewer than four CDs. The impulse was provoked by my surprise at seeing quite a decent range of 1970's proggy type material in what was otherwise an entirely run of the mill DVD/CD store in the Mid Valley Megamall. I assume someone involved in running the store has some kind of special interest in the period, resulting in a tasty selection from the likes of Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Yes, Barclay James Harvest et al. (But with some odd lacunae - no Crimson, for instance.)

Anyway, duly tempted I walked out with Tull's Heavy Horses, Yes's Drama and Tormato, and Selling England By the Pound from the classic Genesis line-up. Of the four I'm familiar only with the Genesis, which I had on vinyl in the early seventies, so it was interesting exposing myself to material that I should know, have heard plenty about second hand, but have never in fact listened to.

The one with which I am familiar inevitably brought back memories of a time when I considered Messers Gabriel, Rutherford, Banks, Collins & Hackett as quite the coolest dudes on the planet - except nobody said dudes then. And then trawling the wilds of youtube I discovered this video of them doing what I think is the best track off the album live - which I think proves the point that they were (extremely cool) for any reader not around at the time. Click on Dancing With The Moonlit Night and enjoy a bit of a dance, do.

Friday, December 23, 2011


We're now in Alor Gajah, Melaka having delivered our various erstwhile houseguests back to the loving arms of their parents. I always feel a mild sense of relief in returning them safely, considering all the things that can go wrong in the big, bad world. It's an oddly timorous attitude but I know that such timidity lurks in my character - which is why I strive to hide it and get on with life reasonably fearlessly.

Mind you, I would suggest that when driving in this land a reasonably fearful attitude is, well, reasonable.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Making A Connection

The stint of rereading some of the texts I'm teaching next year is having an odd effect on me. I got through The Great Gatsby feeling entirely detached from the characters, though relishing the precision of the writing. This was quite a different experience from my previous reading of the novel, I think around about a year ago, when I found myself deeply involved in the enigmatic Jimmy Gatz in a way I'd never managed before.

Then it was on to Dubliners, and a similar sense of detachment. I read story after story with an unpitying eye, though feeling deeply involved at the level of style. This may have had something to do with the fact I will have to teach the stories - whatever that means.

Then I arrived at The Dead and something happened. Joyce's polished looking glass somehow evoked that simple sense of compassionate fellowship with his deeply flawed, deeply human citizens of dear dirty Dublin that I think many academic critics miss. I suppose it's because something in me identifies with Gabriel Conroy in a way that is the opposite of reassuring, and yet affords access to some troubling truths. Gabriel is trying to be a good man and in some important ways succeeding. If you are dead to the fact his speech at dinner is genuinely touching it seems to me you don't stand a chance of grasping what Joyce is up to. Yet that speech is, at the same time, deeply self-serving. Not either/or: both. So we are invited to judge him, yet the complexity of what we must deal with resists easy judgement. Like life. And all along we are judging ourselves.

When I got to the reference to Aunt Julia probably dying in the year ahead that comes just before the end of the story I suddenly realised just how much of a tribute to the two rather foolish sisters at its centre the story is, once you shift your attention from Gabriel and his concerns. My own eyes momentarily filled with the kind of generous tears that Gabriel becomes prey to in the final sequence. But, of course, Joyce alerts us to our capacity for ultimately selfish sentimentalising so we can feel that we have somehow learnt something, moved forward through his art.

I think Joyce takes us as far as fiction can go in an awareness of its powers and its real limitations. If not here, then certainly in what follows.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shining Brightly

Our haven at night, last night specifically.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Past

Yesterday we took our little team to The Curve, the new(ish) shopping centre adjacent to the big IKEA store out at Demansara. Whilst imbibing a particularly fine mug of teh tarik at the appropriately named Teh Tarik Place there I found myself in a reverie centring on our old Christmas tree - that is, the Christmas tree I grew up with at various Manchester addresses, in the 1960's and early 1970's. The catalyst for the reverie was a little tree endeavouring to be appropriately festive standing a little forlornly against the wall just behind the table at which we'd chosen to sit. It was a fake tree, curiously reminiscent of the one I grew up with and memories of our tree sort of ganged up on me as a result.

Our tree wasn't real, except it was for me, in that it was the only Christmas tree we ever had and so was the only real tree at Christmas. I remember that I felt a little sad for those poor souls who didn't have the benefit of our perfect tree. It was perfect because it never changed, so it really was Christmas. Unpacking it (we stored in in a little sort of suitcase) was predictably joyful and exciting in equal measures. The ornaments never changed - now it occurs to me that these must have been bought when I was baby, or even earlier, because we never bought any new ones that I can remember, ever. I could see those ornaments with stunning clarity yesterday, not quite what you expect to be looking at in a shopping mall in the capital of Malaysia. I could almost feel myself holding again the two tiny toy trees we used to stand at the base of the tree, unfurling their wire branches, and placing between them the plastic pointed crib, dusted with plastic snow, with the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph inside.

The year Dad died we didn't unpack the tree, and never did again. It remained in its case in the shed in the backyard at Gresham Street disregarded for years and I don't know what became of it. It was Mum who didn't want it out, and we never put up a Christmas tree again, though we enjoyed the real big ones that Maureen had every year. That was enough. I never questioned Mum as to why she didn't want it out, assuming we were on rather dangerous emotional ground, and I was too old to be unduly bothered. In fact, it was the right thing to do, in retrospect. A wonderful part of life was over, couldn't be brought back, and it would have been foolish to do so. And there were to be some fine old times to be lived out ahead of us.

Touchingly the next time I saw a tree at Christmas in Mum's place was in the flat in Hyde when we took Fifi there in December a few years ago. A tiny one appeared in the living room, just in front of the electric fire. I think Mum thought that with a kid in the house some sort of tree was a necessity, though with this child the tree was, of course, quite pointless.

I don't get sentimental about Christmases long gone. They were wonderful, and I am deeply grateful for them, but they are over and there is too much to celebrate about living today to feel any sense of yearning. I was incredibly lucky to have had that tree though.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Fuad & Rozita & family took off this morning for the south, leaving us slightly depleted, slightly quieter. Memories of the past few days above. What larks, eh?

Sunday, December 18, 2011


With Fuad, Rozita & Fifi joining us over the weekend and Hamzah coming across yesterday with Sabrina & Aiman it's been a full house - the way we like it. Major celebration of such at the Bom Corner yesterday simply served to confirm this.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Up To Speed

Racing through Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind the narrator's (or is it the writer's) obsession with food seems at times the most obvious surface feature of the text. I suppose it represents a deep reality of Vietnamese culture, but I do wonder if there isn't something very personal going on here. Assuming Mdm Duong can get cable tv under house arrest (I think that's her situation at this time) I reckon she's an obvious candidate for an addiction to Masterchef.

By the way, the strong women in the novels of Duong Thu Huong and Arundhati Roy shred to little pieces simplistic stereotypes of submissive Asian females - as do the writers themselves, of course. There's something more than a little intimidating reading the work of ladies whose moral courage in standing against oppression sort of puts one's own rather skulking little life to shame.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Slowing Down

It's not all been speed reading at this address in recent days, though I may have given impressions to the contrary of late.

For example, I've been lingering over Seamus Heaney's The Haw Lantern in a most rewarding fashion, though I did read the poems in the 'correct' order. In this case I would read a single poem several times before moving on, but once I'd moved forward there was no looking back. Thus I got the benefit of being able to muse over the placing of the pieces in a larger whole (possibly illusory, of course - a bit like the sequencing of an album) whilst never feeing that I was unduly rushing through.

Also I took my time over a reading of As You Like It, using two editions at the same time, these being the last two Ardens - the second and third series. There's some good material around the business attending upon gender in the most recent edition and I found that refreshing. I doubt that I would have taken it terribly seriously thirty years ago, but times, and readers, change. I'd love to see an all male cast version of the play: a boy playing a girl pretending to be a man pretending to be a girl. And what viewer does not fall in love with fair Rosaline?

As a way of getting going on the Shakespeare I reread James Shapiro's 1599 - he has much to say about As You Like It and Hamlet, among others, since he reckons this was the year of composition for both. What he says is stimulating, though I wouldn't necessarily take it as gospel. These are texts I'm teaching next year, by the way, so I feel I'm being quite the good boy for working so hard, when I'm not really working at all, of course.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Not Knowing

Completed my dash through Doyle's Booker Prize winner this morning. What stood out for me on this reading is the degree to which the novel is concerned with how much we don't know about what's going on around us, especially, though not exclusively, as far as children are concerned. Paddy's world is a poorly constructed patchwork of silly stories, legends - those that children so fruitfully generate, misunderstandings and downright untruths, often comically so. But since we generally only know what we know through him, we're not in much of a better position.

An odd comparison struck me just now. The narrative voice in Ray's The God of Small Things trades in a kind of knowingness, yet equally strongly conjures the essential anxiety that is the centre of childhood. The novels really couldn't be much more different in this regard, and yet are so alike.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fringe Benefits

Almost everything I'm reading at the moment is related to stuff I'll be teaching next year. And that's more than fine by me. In fact, since all the reading involves re-reading, strictly speaking none of it is necessary. Essentially this is all for pleasure.

I'm now racing through Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha having completed Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things in double-quick time yesterday. Keeping up the pace is my way of grasping the totality of novels that I know too well from close analysis - which is, in turn, a way of staying fresh. It works for me, though given the imaginative verve of each of these novels it'd be difficult to conceive of any kind of reading not working.

Just as a matter of interest, Ms Roy's novel seems to me the most extraordinary one-off. Assuming she never writes another we'll be left to wonder how everything came together so perfectly this one time. I'm puzzled over the way she seems to be regarded as some kind of derivative Rushdie-clone in certain quarters. Her single novel is so obviously superior to anything he's done, partly, though not simply, because it has heart as well as intelligence.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kids' Stuff

A little reminder of the realities of life yesterday when one of our house-guests (no names, no pack-drill) decorated the floor of the car with the contents of her stomach. In our over-confidence we'd forgotten to provide the usual quota of plastic bags in front of the back seat, so we were partly to blame.

I must admit to experiencing a flash of irritation following the event, but then memories set in of my own indiscretions in this area as a child, and these, being reinforced by the obvious feelings of guilt of the unfortunate culprit, brought home the common sense realisation that sympathy was the necessary response. It helped that, as always, Noi dealt with the mess and the messer with extraordinary aplomb and oodles of tact. An honorary degree in Child Psychology for that lady would not go amiss, believe me.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cry Freedom

Took the team to the Central Market yesterday, where there are all sorts of art shops, it being a very arty location. We got some rather colourful batik painting done. But the real highlight of the day for me was an exhibition/fund-raiser by Amnesty International (Malaysia) occupying the top floor of the annex to the market building.

The girls bought quite a few little badges there, reminding me of the great punk years of the late-seventies, at which time I was myself a member of Amnesty. There was a table provided for those who wanted to write letters to various governments asking for consideration for particular prisoners of conscience. I got one done, reminding me of efforts in those earlier years.

I walked out full of admiration for the drive of the organisers. I don't think it can be all that easy getting political in this way, in this part of the world. Oh, and feeling pretty guilty that somehow I've managed to let this side of myself lapse.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Deep Sea

When I first read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, quite some years ago, I remember thinking that I didn't really grasp the novel in the way I felt I should. But I also felt its power.

Fast forward a few years, and my response is eerily similar. Somehow I don't quite get the central story. Antoinette remains a mystery to me. Possibly necessarily so? I feel this is another one of those novels I'm failing to live up to.

Though I could not help but wonder if Ms Rhys was completely in control of her material. The initial shifting of perspective in the Rochester section (back to Antoinette) seems ungainly somehow. And Rochester's voice is never that of a nineteenth century gentleman, depite the general strength and insight of the characterisation here. But this is to split hairs over a novel that transcends any limitations (real or imaginary) it might have through the truth at its core.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Quite what it is that makes almost anything anybody says hilariously funny when you are twelve years old, or thereabouts, I have forgotten. But I am reminded that such is the case by the laughter of the four young ladies in our care at present.

Actually Mak Ndak and I are quite supernumerary as things stand - we function simply as providers of the necessities upon which the general hilarity of the household is built. I'm all in favour of this arrangement as it requires little from me other than to drive the transport and open the wallet. Mak Ndak takes care of the sustenance, of course.

The only problem is figuring out where to take the troops so they can entertain themselves. We're working on solving that one for today before our charges surface from their sleep. Yes, it's early afternoon and they still haven't emerged., which is proving par for the course. The hilarious nature of life makes it particularly exhausting, I suppose.


Update on the delayed surfacing of four young ladies in this household. It turns out that they stayed up talking about stuff until 0530. I didn't know there was so much stuff in the world to talk about.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

On The Outside

Read Camus's The Outsider today. I'd forgotten how strange a novel it is. The lack of affect on behalf of the narrator, as psychiatrists would say, is the whole point of the tale, and how curiously appropriate for our times that is.

And then there's Camus's curious afterword - he sees Meursault as characterised by an inability to lie - and that, of course, would make him an outsider in any age.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Squad strength standing at four - Aleen, Ayu, Nurul and Fafa - we're now resident in Maison KL, experiencing the usual problems with phone-lines and getting connected. Fafa particularly bemoans the situation, telling us that three days without Facebook means she'll die. We're now taking steps to access a broadband service, with Hamzah's inestimable assistance, this being the reason I'm able to post this at this ungodly hour.

I'm still recovering from an unpleasant moment undergone at the Starbucks at Times Square the other day. We'd let the kids loose on the indoor theme park and gone to the afore-mentioned coffee house to avail ourselves of their free wifi. I got out the old laptop and fired it up, only to find it didn't fire at all (or, rather, boot up, as I think the jargon goes) despite four attempts to achieve this fairly mundane state of affairs. This strongly suggested to me that there was a major problem with the hard disk thingee, and I spent the next few hours considering life without all the vital data on said disk, which I haven't, I'm afraid to say, regularly backed up.

When we got back in the evening I tried the laptop again and it did the business effortlessly, to my enormous relief. What had gone wrong, I have no idea, and the relief compensated for the anguish of those few hours of uncertainty. And I promise to be a good boy in future and do all the necessary backing-up, having been let off the hook this time.

How on earth and when in history did I ever get to be so utterly dependent on this machine?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Staying Alive

Read Death of a Salesman yesterday. Not sure exactly how many times I've read the play cover to cover - or watched it in performance - but Miller's tragedy just grows in its power for me, to the point where it's become close to unbearable in its truth.

This time round I was struck by just how despicable Willy is in his treatment of Linda, and how far Linda goes to deserve that treatment. (How exactly does she come to admire her husband? That's the word that Miller gives us.) As to how I'd managed previously to somehow ignore this pretty obvious aspect of the drama, I really don't have much of an explanation. This is very, very uncomfortable territory.

Something similar happens with The Crucible. In each case what might have been a thesis-play is transformed by the subterranean concerns of the dramatist and explodes into uncomfortable, uncontrollable life.

Oh, and something else that hit me hard this time. In a world obsessed with telling people, especially young people, to live their dreams, where does Miller's dreaming Salesman sit?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

This Is The Life

We're now in Melaka, having made our way north yesterday. Noi provided a typically succinct summary of our progress here so far earlier in the evening: Eat, eat, eat and sleep, sleep, sleep. Nothing since has served to alter this pleasing pattern. Long may it continue.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rather Too Cool

For the last three years we've found ourselves in not-so-sunny Manchester at this time of year. I suppose this is why Noi has spent much of the day saying, Normally we'd be going into Ashton this afternoon, and the like. I must say that far from finding myself missing the dark satanic mills of Lancashire, my verdict is that it's nice not to be dealing with the cold weather.

Except that I found myself freezing just now on a bus we took over to the east coast. We were on the top deck and whoever determines the settings for these things had obviously decided that all on board were secretly yearning for a frost with regard to how strong the air-conditioning needed to be. So that's what we got. The condensation created on the windows made it impossible to see out. In fact, it looked for all the world like a drab day in Hyde out there.

Brrrhhhh. As they usually don't say in this place.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Darkness Visible

Got hold of a copy of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier the other day. Since I had no idea the volume had been published the acquisition came as a pleasant surprise. It's obviously handsomely produced promising hours of not so innocent fun.

But I must say I'm taken aback at just how many layers of narrative Alan Moore plays around with. Fortunately I like this kind of thing, so it's more than okay with me. But a glance at some reviews on amazon suggests I'm in a minority. Which fills me with a kind of delight - that Messers Moore & O'Neill get away with this.

I can't imagine the Hollywood execs will consider a movie of this one, so we are guaranteed safety in that direction.