Monday, December 31, 2012

Still Ending

We complete our year surrounded by cats and children though not necessarily in that order. The children are, for the most part, of the very small and demanding variety. A useful reminder that whatever you thought of as really important pales into insignificance at the side of their intense, all-encompassing concerns.

Just completed the maghrib prayer with a cat in attendance. A first for me, and a bit distracting. Not sure of the protocol, so I just got on with things and pretended it was business as usual. The protocol on children being around when you pray is very straightforward: you let them do what they please, even if it involves crawling all over you. A wonderfully sane way to approach the solemnity of devotion, I've always thought.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

An End Of Things

In the second half of the year I've had occasion more than once to reflect on the melancholy fact that I'm now older than Dad was when he died. The strangeness of existence seems to be rendered even stranger as a result.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

On The Cliffs

Felt rather pleased with myself for finishing W.S. Merwin's The Folding Cliffs whilst we were in Australia, though I also felt a bit silly about having taken so long to read it. I have it on a list of must-read material from May 2009 to give you some idea of just how long it's taken me. I think I made at least three false starts on it since then. Part of the feeling of silliness relates to the fact that once you get to the fourth of its seven segments the story becomes very easy indeed to follow and you are left wondering what was so difficult in the first place. Indeed, at times the poem is a model of simplicity in its language and even at the beginning the lack of punctuation was never a hindrance to figuring out sentence structure. In places there are many entirely monosyllabic lines, utilising direct, concrete vocabulary - this is, I suppose, the predominant mode of the poem.

So why the difficulty? I suppose the sense of obscurity at the beginning comes from being plunged into quite an alien world at the back-end of the main narrative strand. You are given a sense of important events having already taken place but can't quite make out the shape of these. It's the odd overall structure adopted by Merwin that creates the problem; the narrative, clear as it eventually is, just doesn't follow accepted structural conventions.

As to why Merwin does this, I'd hazard a guess that he is very much concerned with drawing the reader into the world of the indigenous Hawaiians and making the reader work at grasping the basics of the narrative is important to our surrendering to the world view that comes along with their way of life. It certainly worked in my case, eventually.

Curiously it seemed appropriate to read most of the poem in Australia with its occasional reminders of a displaced, marginalised native people. It was a reminder of the huge importance of the lives of those on the losing end of history and the price they paid for that which worked to the benefit of the world I come from.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Moving Pictures

Watched yet another film on the way back from Australia, meaning I've achieved record numbers of movies actually viewed from start to finish this year. In this case it was pure fluff, some silly stuff about extremely cool bicycle dispatch riders in New York (I think.) If I remember rightly it was called Premium Rush and featured the very engaging Joseph Gordon-Levitt (hope I've got the name right - he used to play Tommy in the brilliant Third Rock From The Sun.) I can't say I would have gone to the cinema to watch it, but it helped pass the time painlessly.

And then today two colleagues, on separate occasions, gave glowing accounts of The Life of Pi, which I must say I quite fancied anyway given how enjoyable the novel was. So it looks like I might just make the effort to catch this on the big screen, though I can't honestly say that 3D does anything for me, except make me feel slightly nauseous. This is in addition to very positive feedback on the movie of Les Miserables (which made Paul's good lady reach for the tissues) and my hankering for Lincoln, based on the reviews and Daniel Day-Lewis chewing the scenery, and the inevitability of a trip to The Hobbit. It must be years since I had four films that I really quite fancied seeing. The problem is, of course, finding time to do the necessary viewing in my time-starved existence, especially when nothing good ever lasts very long at the cinema here. Lincoln might not make it at all.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


I've just been downloading a whole lot of photos from our recent jaunt Down Under, from the rather tasty camera of niece Ayu, who is still with us here until we return her to her family at the weekend. There are those sniffy people who argue that when folks are busy taking pictures they are missing the actual experiences they should really be focusing on (pun intended.) Like many clever arguments this sounds sort of plausible, but is essentially silly. You don't have to observe the rituals of photo-taking long to realise how it adds to the intensity of the experience being undertaken to eventually allow it to be relived in tranquillity. Pictures are a wonderful aid to recollection - something my wife has taught me, over the years. Looking at Ayu's photos, the majority of which celebrate the antics of herself and her cousins, the sheer exuberant fun of being young teenagers comes almost exhaustingly to life in a way that I can only think of as precious.

And something else Noi captured for me today. She was remarking on the friendly helpfulness we'd experienced on our trip from so many Aussies. This was summed up by one particular lady who was driving the free shuttle bus we took to get around the centre of Melbourne on our first day there. Her commentary on the journey was incredibly detailed and useful. She sounded as if she really enjoyed her work - quite a feat for someone who was plying the same route day after day. She actually held up the bus for us before we alighted, obviously recognising our indecision with regard to what we were going to do and quite happy to let us hold her up.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Matters Musical

One of the several joys of being in Melbourne at this time has been the relative lack of cheesy Xmas music in the air. Prowling the city today - a remarkably easy thing to do as all public transport was free - we heard hardly any such music despite spending at least a little time in those shops and hostelries which had remained open on the day in question. This is not to say that I dislike the proper music of the season: give me a Sally Army band playing carols, or Bach's Christmas Oratorio, and my eyes have been known to go a bit watery; and I still remember being taught to sing Hark the herald angels sing in junior school and thinking it the most joyous melody possible, an opinion that time has not severely altered - except when said melody is degraded into muzak. But let the bells ring out for Christmas in every store you visit in December (and November these days) and I rapidly suffer a sickening surfeit.

Another musically related pleasure of the trip has been taking note of Fifi's development of something approaching real taste in what she listens to. We found an excellent CD store on Elizabeth Road on our first full day here and I was more than pleased to buy for her Muse's The 2nd Law, having happily realised she'd been listening to them on the plane over to Tasmania. She was also keen on an album called Conditions by a  band called The Temper Trap. It turned out to be very listenable also - as well as having a rather nice connection to Melbourne, whence one of the  leading lights hails.

There was a refreshingly diverse range of CDs on offer in the store and I could have bought quite a few more than I did, but was cognisant of baggage restrictions and the need not to be unduly greedy. So I settled for: Dylan's Nashville Skyline (never owned a copy) and The Bootleg Series Volumes 1 - 3 (only got on a crappy cassette from Indonesia); The Duke by Joe Jackson (a purchase partly inspired by hearing Jackson's Is She Really Going Out With Him? in a shop in Tasmania and being reminded of what a great tune that was); Gentle Giant's live album Playing The Fool; The Who By Numbers (don't understand why I've never owned this); and Caravan's In the Land of Grey and Pink.

So we've had some groovy sounds playing in the apartment here, all told. Unfortunately, Fafa's taste in music remains understandably primitive, her CD of choice being from some chaps known as One Direction. Ahem.

Monday, December 24, 2012

On The Beach

A bit of a first this Christmas Eve: at least 40 minutes spent on the beach, in this case at St Kilda, near the little fun-park. A bit windy, with the sand blowing all over the place. Not a reindeer in sight.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Waxing Poetic

Found myself reading Sketches by Boz, in one of those very old little hardbacks that Collins used to publish, in the middle of Melbourne as the crowds completing Christmas shopping ebbed and flowed around me (I was sitting on a bench), Noi and the girls having gone off to do some serious shopping of their own. I got my edition second hand  for 30p some time in the last century, but never read it cover to cover, just dipping in at random really. I'm now going through it sequentially, as I've been doing with the various poetry collections on my shelves. Actually it's a bit of a substitute for not having any of the Inimitable's novels to read - having read them all. It's fairly obviously apprentice work with none of the hallucinatory drive of the great fiction, but any Dickens is good Dickens in my estimation (except for the bad Dickens, of which there's a bit somewhere in everything he wrote - even Dorrit, I'm afraid.)

It was interesting trying to sustain images of Dickens's London in the sweltering heat of the distinctly multi-racial Melbourne - in fact, in some ways it was surprisingly easy to do so as one sort of foreignness seemed to make another imaginable.

But this is all a bit off the point, for it was my intention to make note of how much the reading of poetry has dominated this trip for me - when I have been able to get any reading done, that is. The big book has been Merwin's narrative poem The Folding Cliffs which, as I have had occasion to mention in this Place previously more than once, had proved to be seemingly beyond my powers to make any real progress in. I am happy to say I've now got halfway through the sixth of its seven sections and I should finish the whole thing before we leave Australia. I'm also happy to say that this is a truly great piece of writing, proof that sometimes what may seem obscurity for obscurity's sake can be more than worth the demands it makes. More of this when I've got more time.

Oh, and I've also been dipping into Paul Muldoon's Maggot (in sequence, mind you), which might also be accused of a certain wilful obscurity but which, again, offers rewards when you persevere. And that was true of Jo Shapcott's Of Mutability which I finished when I was in KL. Except you don't really finish these kinds of collections because you know you're never really getting the richest possible experience of every poem when focused re-reading will open up further connections, understandings, possibilities.

And now a random apology for yesterday's rather bitchy comments on our current city of residence: the centre of Melbourne is, as cities go, a decent sort of place. It's not Paris, true, but it's several steps up on Manchester. It's the south bank of the Yarra, where we are situated and the big new developments are taking place that the bleakness lies. Follow the money, as they say.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Under Construction

In Tasmania both Noi and I commented at different times on the pleasant lack of building sites. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of houses we saw either being built or renovated. In contrast, arriving at Southern Cross off the bus from the airport here in Melbourne we were confronted by a substantial area under construction. And now looking down from the windows of our very pleasant apartment we are witness to another one.

I'm afraid I have to say it: Melbourne, or at least the bit we are in, is an impressively ugly city. Or possibly, it's simply that arriving from a place that has been built on a human scale, the New Brutality of the modern city is more apparent than usual. I suppose we'll get used to it again.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Still Chilling

It was very cold up Mount Wellington this morning despite it being a hot day in Hobart. But this didn't deter the Missus and various accomplices from having a thoroughly good time at the pinnacle. Splendid photo opportunities are not to be sniffed at, no matter what the temperature.

Next stop Melbourne. Now packing in a relaxed sort of fashion.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


It's Summer here, I'm told, but the weather is more reminiscent of a cool English Spring. This may have contributed to the runny nose from which I've been suffering for the last four days. Despite the chill I'm applying strong sun block every day, though. When the sun comes out it's fierce and I know I'd burn without protection.

Years ago, as a child, the application of what we called sun tan lotion was something of an ordeal. The stuff was essentially liquid, took forever to soak in, smelt strongly, and got all over your clothes. The stuff I'm applying now goes on easily, seems to disappear in a couple of minutes and leaves clothes untouched. Of course, the ordeal of the past was part of summer and something I now miss, in a sense - but a very limited sense indeed.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Small World

We're now in Hobart having travelled from Launceston via Strahan on the west coast over the last couple of days. I've had one or two Wordsworthian moments in the process, especially at Cradle Mountain. We didn't actually climb it, but just looking up from Lake Dove was enough. The problem with such moments is that you can't be sure they're your own rather than Wordsworth's, of course.

There are a lot of dead trees here, one of the features that reminds you you're not traversing an English landscape. I think they are the product of bush fires. Remarkably a fair number might look dead but seem to be showing signs of growth, sprouting bits of green in unlikely places.

No stone cottages or thatched roofs here. Most roofs seem to be made of some kind of corrugated metal but manage to look quite attractive despite this. In fact, generally the houses are highly attractive: the vast majority just comprise a single storey, many are wood-clad and are small and tidy, just as Dickens liked his women to be. (Small and tidy, not clad with wood.) I think he would have approved.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Kids' Stuff

We are having no problems at all keeping the troops amused over here in the land of Oz. Tasmania is distinctly kid-friendly in terms of its tourist attractions. Or perhaps I should more accurately say teenager-friendly now that most of the troops have achieved a certain level of seniority. In fact, our team is now strikingly independent and sometimes more obviously worldly-wise than either Noi or myself. It's certainly not my good offices that mean we get on-line here, except for the attendant opening of the wallet.

Today we found out pretty much everything lavender oil can be used for on a visit to a lavender farm. I never knew such places existed, but if they're all as easy on the eye as this one then they must be a good thing. Can't say I think much of lavender tea though. Then it was on to Cataract Gorge for more dazzling scenery. And finally fish and chips on the sea front, whilst admiring the boats in the harbour. Mind you nothing yet has been quite as good as Tasmazia, a very funky spot we visited on our first day. It's a complex of hedge mazes in the middle of nowhere (of which there's quite an abundance here), one based on the Hampton Court maze, and home to a miniature village named Lower Crackpot. It sounds whimsical in the worst way but turned out to be genuinely charming, eccentric, original and quirky. Above all, astonishingly non-corporate: proof that humour and tourism can mix.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Big Country

A day spent plucking strawberries is a day that can never be considered wasted. And when you've driven through the most beautiful countryside to get there you can double that sentiment. Tasmania's landscape seems uncannily English at times, but subtly different in ways that are definite but difficult to pin down. More roadkill for instance.

Lots of big people here, and I don't really mean that in a good way. Sometimes too much of the good life can be more than enough.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Safe Place

We were a small part of the celebration today for Sharifah and Hamza's daughter's graduation from her Masters course here in Launceston. On such an occasion, in the midst of lots of highly promising young people taking pause before plunging into futures that one prays will see the fruition of that promise, it was difficult to feel anything other than gently optimistic.

And then home to news of the killing of twenty children at their primary school in the States on a routine Friday morning, just days before the excitement of Christmas for them. The Australian commentators to a man, and woman, expressed bewilderment at the easy availability of guns in that benighted nation and wondered whether this appalling massacre would be the one to change things. With pessimistic confidence I'm afraid I'd have to say it won't.

It seems to me that our first and most important duty is to try and provide a world in which we can keep things ordinary enough for ordinary happiness to manifest itself in.

Friday, December 14, 2012

From Down Under

Now happily resident in Tasmania, the very pleasant town of Launceston actually. Birdsong plentiful. Noi drinking Coke Light on the balcony, the variety that comes without caffeine. Why is this unavailable in Singapore and Malaysia one wonders, though not particularly deeply. The girls downloading various pictures of the day's adventures onto various of the devices now so necessary to our lives.

Viewed two films, and stayed awake through both, on the flight over - a record for me. Felt conflicted as I watched The Queen with regard to exactly how much I despise the royal family: with rabid intensity, or just a lot. Was possibly even more firmly republican by the end than when I started, though I assume the film-makers were not counting on such an effect. Felt less conflicted when watching Good Night and Good Luck about the American reporter Ed Murrow and his stand against the egregious Joseph McCarthy, just saddened with regard to the accuracy of the critique of the influence of commercial considerations upon broadcast journalism.

Reading a lot of poetry here. It goes well with our surroundings. Have not read a newspaper for days.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Painful Viewing

When I really should have been organising myself for our trip to the land down under I found myself watching the excellent Inside Job, a documentary narrated by Matt Damon on the culpability of the various players in the financial collapse of 2008. Nothing terribly new here, but it was fun and darkly illuminating to be reminded of the appalling greed and hubris of the brightest and best that America has to offer. Mind you, I must admit to being a little surprised by the complete lack of any accountability regarding conflicts of interest of various academics being paid big bucks by the major financial institutions. There's a lovely moment when some bigwig economic chap from Columbia realises to his horror that he's backing himself into an impossible corner regarding his connections with big business. The rather thin sheen of charm and reasonableness suddenly gets pushed aside and for a moment you see the twerp as he really is. Instructive. I wonder what his students think of him?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Simply Checking In

Have just spent over an hour attempting an on-line check-in with Qantas. Why so long? Their system refuses to accept any of the versions I have come up for the names of my good wife and three nieces. It has no problem with my name, which is a simple 'western' name. However, the other four names I need to key in for simple verification are Malay names which, in case you didn't know, don't follow the formula of 'given name - middle name - family name' quite so straightforwardly. Clearly somehow or other this has escaped the attention of the airline since this the only formula their website will allow.

Wouldn't you think that someone employed by an airline that obviously is highly likely to carry lots of passengers with different ways of forming their names would have had the wit to devise a system that allows a variety of ways of keying-in a name so as to represent the actual names of their passengers correctly?

Monday, December 10, 2012

On Edge

One of the penalties inherent in supporting the greatest football team in the world is that part of that greatness involves said team never doing anything easily. This has been demonstrated time and again this season and, of course, was always going to be a feature of our visit to the noisy neighbours.

I wasn't at all sure I was going to get to see any of the game as we on our way back to the Hall from Melaka at the appointed time, yesterday evening. In fact, I thought the game would be over by the time we got back. So it was with some little delight that I realised I was in time for the second half and we were already two up. And how that delight threatened to blossom further when Young netted again after RVP had hit the post! But as soon as the ref disallowed a perfectly good goal, the sense that it wasn't going to be that easy inevitably blossomed, confirmed doomily just moments later by City's first goal.

About five minutes later I was eerily reminded of the events of the last game(s) of last season when my Mio television service decided not to provide further service - despite the extortionate amount I have to pay for it. All I could do was turn to Sky News, on my Starhub service which doesn't freeze, but hasn't got the rights to the football, to get very sporadic updates to let me know we were still 2 - 1 up to the point that I couldn't take the pressure anymore and switched to the Malay channel so the Missus could watch something and I could pretend I really didn't care all that much about the result.

Once I judged it was all over I toddled off to the computer to check the final score, only to discover that was so bombarded by traffic at that point that the page took forever to load. Once I was able to view the result the sense of relief was powerful, along with the sensation that I had probably gained a fair number of additional grey hairs as a result of the experience of (not) watching the game.

Even viewing the replay today put me on edge, the final conclusive goal seeming quite unlikely given the run of play at that late stage of the game. Football, bloody hell, eh, as a wise manager once summed it all up.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Taking Note

By accident have read Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man again over the last couple of days. Originally I'd intended merely to check some of the notes in the edition we're using next year to teach the novel. I don't think I've ever read an edition before with notes - my most recent readings have been from the old Penguin Portable Joyce edited by Harry Levin - and whilst I don't think they are all that necessary for getting the gist of the text, they did add something to the texture of the novel for me. But the truth is that it doesn't take much to seduce me into any reading of the greatest of the Moderns, and I was more than happy to go from beginning to end.

I always seem to see something new when reading Portrait. This time round Stephen's observation of the birds flying in Chapter 5 and his semi-comic attempts to divine his future from them jumped out at me as it has never done before - especially his sense of uncertainty about that future. In fact, amongst the various 'nets' that Joyce (or Stephen, I suppose) avoids we might add a false sense of closure. Young men are notoriously unfinished, and this one had yet to meet his Nora and bloom.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cleaning House

Our KL house is getting the finishing touches of its latest clean-up, with my redoubtable Missus leading the way, as is always the case - though I've contributed something to the operation, largely in the form of dealing with the books and various other small items. We're off south to Mak's house in a little while, though we'll be stopping off for Noi to get her feet 'scrubbed', a curious operation undertaken by her at an establishment at Times Square for reasons that, whilst probably perfectly valid, escape me.

Actually we've spent the year considering the need to fix or replace a good deal of the woodwork here, repaint the house, and re-lay the car porch. The house still looks good after some ten years of operation in its present incarnation, but it won't stay this way too much longer without a firm helping hand. The problem has been making time to see to all this. In fact, we've 'lived' here for less time this year than any previous, and our forthcoming trip to Australia will take us away at the time we would normally be in residence for the longest period.

I have a sense that we'll need to right the balance next year. I miss the birdsong.

Friday, December 7, 2012


Still on the subject of The Solitude of Prime Numbers and its main characters, part of the undoubted power and drive of the novel lies in its recognition of how easily people can be damaged. I suppose the obvious example is Mattio's twin sister who is literally retarded, but it's difficult to think of a single character depicted by Giordano who is recognisably normal. Even Fabio, initially presented as a rather suave, self-assured doctor seems to have some kind of odd need for Alice, who is clearly not an attractive young lady in the usual sense. The writer is particularly good at conveying how uneasy so many of his characters are in their own bodies - a defining trait of adolescence, well, for geeks like me at least. 

In this respect the book seems to me to deal with an essential truth: people really are not normal. But in its intensity of vision I think it fails to recognise another truth: most people are very good at pretending to be normal, and somehow that's how most of us get through the day. In this respect humour helps enormously, and in retrospect I realise there wasn't much of that in the novel. Nor was it an obvious quality of The Garden of Evening Mists, the other novel I recently finished reading. I suppose that's why I never felt quite comfortable with either text, despite finding much to admire in both.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


It took me a couple of days to read Paolo Giordano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers, one more than Fifi needed. In fact, I read the book because of Fifi. She bought it using the book tokens I got from doing the Lit Seminar this year, the first time she's picked something that might generally be seen as an adult work of fiction. I was intrigued by her choice at the time, and struck by her enthusiasm for the novel, so I borrowed it from her ahead of coming to KL. And now I must say I'm intrigued to ask her in more detail what she made of it.

I suppose that to some degree my response to the novel has been curiously coloured by the fact she read it first. In some ways it strikes me as something that teenagers would respond to, dealing as it does with two protagonists who seem very much stuck in adolescence, even at the conclusion of the story, by which time they'd be around thirty. The focus is very much on relationships, of various kinds. It outlines their rather miserable childhoods in sometimes painful detail - the girl is anorexic; the boy cuts his hands - and we're certainly made to feel for them as lonely outsiders. But there's also a sense of objectivity in their depiction and some very fine scenes dealing with a more obviously adult understanding of the world. (The final argument between the girl, Alice, and her husband, Fabio, is superbly done, and evokes sympathy for the husband in ways you would not expect from the early parts of the story dealing with Alice.)

Also I must admit I assumed that the story would end in the protagonists coming together - and they don't. That in itself demands a deeper reading. I find myself resisting any kind of leap to judgment on this one - except to say that being made to inhabit the worlds of others seems to me in itself a useful exercise, specially when those worlds are painful places.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

At The Doctor's

It's rare these days that Noi and I find ourselves going out of our way to watch a full series on the goggle box together. Even though we enjoy The Voice we're not so passionate that we can't bear to miss an episode or two. But we were determined to watch the episode of Doc Martin broadcast today on Granada (which we get here through the Astro system.) We are fairly sure it was the last episode in the current series (number 5, I think) and I reckon it might just be the end of the whole thing.

If so, it ended well. Very fine acting - Martin Clunes especially, of course - beautifully shot, well-scripted. A bit formulaic, but that was part of the charm.  Very English. Sometimes a good quality.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On The Go

Now happily ensconced on the restaurant on the hill - using their internet connection actually - and looking forward to arrival at Maison KL once we get moving again. The roti prata (here known as roti canai for reasons that remain mysterious to me) was excellent and the teh tarik not bad at all. Above all, a journey entirely lacking in incident to celebrate.

The Missus is now moving to cleaning mode. I can see it in her eyes.

Monday, December 3, 2012


I feel I've been quite unnecessarily harsh in my comments in this Place on the last couple of books I finished. Mind you, I was only two-thirds into Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists when I criticised his protagonist, and the final third, in part detailing her experiences in a Japanese labour camp, goes a long way towards giving a full sense of the character as being psychologically convincing. And similarly with the general development of themes in the novel. I came to realise just how ambitious Mr Tan is in his exploration of the Japanese psyche and the art that derives from thence and I think he goes a long way to pulling off a quite remarkable analysis.

Similarly on reflection I've come to realise that what seem pretentious in Simon Reynolds's book on the postpunk era, and the behaviour of a number of the musicians involved, can also be interpreted as a refreshing attempt to break away from the mundane and routine offered by commercial interests. At the very least Reynolds is informative about what was going on in his chosen period in a way that I did find illuminating. The chapter on Talking Heads, to cite a single example, was really worth reading and quite a few of the points made have stuck in my mind. And the enthusiasm shown for the period is endearing; it's just that I find it hard to share some aspects of that enthusiasm.

I'm reminded of a simple truth: a full response takes time to develop and any writer deserves that. It's too easy to be glib and there are too many contexts in which there's a strong temptation to be so.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Crossing The Bar

Just back from a birthday dinner for the Missus which, most unusually for us, was actually undertaken on the day itself. Usually we are in transit one way or another at this time of year, so it has been a small joy to stay in one place long enough to celebrate the great day - and it was of especial greatness this year - reasonably fully, building on last week's surprisingly early surprise party.

What do you give to the woman who gives you everything worth having? Tricky one, eh?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Health And (Un)Fitness

Went to my back doctor this morning and was delighted to be officially told what I already knew: the most problematic part of me isn't such a problem at the moment. I will continue to savour the delights of not taking any kind of medication.

Poor Noi, however, was feeling a bit under the weather today, partly because she was stung by a bee yesterday, and partly because she embarked on some stretches recommended by Karen over a rather jolly afternoon cup of tea at Parkway Parade also yesterday, and I think was feeling the after effects today. This is not to suggest there was any folly involved in the stretching, or Karen's advice. Far from it: the truth is we both need to get some exercise on a regular basis if we are to continue riding our good fortune as far as reasonably robust health is concerned.

Another reminder of this truth came in the obviously glowingly healthy shape of young Ian, who accompanied his mum to tea with us, and is something of an exercise nut, in the best possible sense. It was fascinating to hear him expound upon the benefits of what used to be known as calisthenics. But it all made me feel more than a little guilty.

Noi says we'll do lots of walking in Australia, where we intend to spend a couple of weeks later in December, so I suppose that'll make something of a start. A sorely needed one.

Friday, November 30, 2012

In The Garden

Been making slow progress reading my latest novel, Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists. I first read about it when it was shortlisted for the Booker and felt almost obliged to read it - a Malaysian writer getting close to the big one! Also it sounded interesting in terms of its subject matter. The period of the Emergency is a fascinating one and has been too rarely treated in fiction.

So why so slow? It isn't that the novel is particularly difficult to read, being resolutely conventional in its shaping of the narrative. And there are many very fine moments, like the one I've just read about the execution of Captain Hideyoshi, as witnessed by the central character Teoh Yun Ling. The descriptions of the natural world are uniformly fine, if a touch consciously poetic. Yet something isn't entirely cohering for me.

I think the problem may lie in my lack of sympathy for the protagonist, though I'm not at all sure why I feel so negatively towards her. Could it be that I don't really believe in her, despite the writer's manifest craft? Something about the novel feels very staged, somehow.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Easy Listening

The BBC has been coming in for an awful lot of criticism lately, and quite rightly so. But the positive good the corporation has to offer surely outweighs its sins. Radio Three, for instance.

And another example, one I've only recently become happily familiar with: the number of podcasts it offers for free downloads is staggering. The episodes of Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time, for example, offer in themselves a liberal education. I've just downloaded one gem on Psychoanalysis and Literature that's worth repeated listening. I got it from this page devoted to programmes of cultural appeal if you're interested.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Virtuous Reality

Cleared out, then put into some kind of order, the two drawers of stationery at my desk this morning. This might not sound like terribly startling news, but this was the first major clean up I've undertaken of said drawers in six years. Isn't it amazing how many dead biros a man can accumulate? And why is that I regularly lose the pen tops for black biros - but not red ones? And where do the tops go once they are out of my sight? Douglas Adams's worm holes in space inevitably suggest themselves.

The good news is that there was nothing organic to be found in there. I've moved forward from the days of my youth when the contents of my desk at the end of a school year generally deserved a health warning. They don't have those kinds of desks anymore, do they? Probably a good thing.

Why do I always feel virtuous after cleaning-up when it was me that made the mess?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

No Escape

Woke twice this morning, as is my routine these days. The first waking was for the dawn prayer, and then I returned to the land of nod, to awake a second time at a slightly more civilised time of the morning. This time I returned to consciousness with a distinct sense of guilt, however. The troubled feeling was related to a dream my waking seemed to interrupt, the last clear event of which had involved smoking a cigarette.

Now it's been many years since I broke my addiction to the demon tobacco. The last cigarette I smoked was on the evening, a Monday actually, the BBC first broadcast Arthur Penn's excellent movie Bonnie and Clyde, some thirty-five years back. So it was disconcerting, to say the least, to still be dreaming of the things.

Not only that: I had the distinct sense this wasn't a terribly unusual sort of dream for me - it was just that normally I don't remember 'smoking' dreams. In fact, I know for sure I frequently dreamt of smoking in the years immediately following breaking the habit, but I thought such dreams were long, long in the past.

So there you have it: you can't escape your misspent youth, even after your youth has long escaped you.

Monday, November 26, 2012

In The Family

Yesterday afternoon was spent watching Noi instruct Fafa in the grave art of baking cookies for her friends, and trying to figure out a way of getting her, Noi that is, to agree to getting the girls back with their parents in Woodlands by 7.00 pm. Not that their parents particularly wanted them back by that time. No, this was part of a cunning plan to drop their Mak Ndak into a surprise party waiting cunningly at the other end of the island. And we succeeded - much to the surprise of us all, I suspect.

Actually the party took place a week before the highly significant birthday it was designed to commemorate, but I suppose that was part of the surprise. And nobody needed much of an excuse to celebrate my Missus being around, least of all myself. There were quite a few younger members of the clan to provide entertainment - gangnam style, at one point. And it was particularly good to see Fahmi back from Afghanistan.

In recent months I have had a couple of dreams of being back in Uncle Peter and Auntie Bet's, in inimitably happy days, feeling the cosy baking warmth of family as it radiated back then. Nice to feel it here. Nice to be making memories for the youngsters who will, one day, happily mourn another world that has passed.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pretentious, Moi?

Another book I picked up at the library the other day was Simon Reynolds's Rip It Up And Start Again; Postpunk 1978 - 1984. According to Q magazine, This remarkable and perfectly timed cultural history is required reading, which begs the question, required of whom? It certainly illustrates, often in an unintentionally hilarious manner, the deep idiocy of a number of people involved in what one might term the music business, and the spectacular degree of self-involved stupidity of which reasonably intelligent young people can be capable.

Simple lesson here: a preoccupation with image, especially one's own, is not to be recommended. Oh, and never, ever fall for the next big thing.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Just Walking

I've always enjoyed a good walk, and we indulged in an excellent one this morning.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Not Exactly Timely

Treading the corridors of Clementi Mall this afternoon I couldn't help but notice that the check-out girls at the supermarket downstairs were wearing silly little Santa hats. In November, for goodness' sake. And we're not even close to the end of the month.

Says I, to the Missus, Why are the check-out girls wearing little Santa hats when it's the 22 of November?

This is Singapore, she sagely replies.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Everything In Its Time

Tentatively embarked on the end-of-the-year-clean-up of books and CDs at home - i.e., the Hall (as opposed to Maison KL, which gets its own operation.) This will run in tandem with the end-of-year-clean-up of my desk at work. All a bit obsessive, I know, but usefully so.

Managed one shelf of CDs, reminding myself, in the process, of the riches therein. I haven't played Crimso's The Power to Believe for yonks; something I will put right soon. But there's a downside to all this - the (repeated) realisation I lack world enough and time to do justice to what I own.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Re Discovery

Sometime back in the 80s I got hold of an all Webern CD, with all the pieces done by von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Over the years I've played it occasionally, generally sort of enjoying what's going on, but never really quite 'getting it', except for Passacaglia for Orchestra (Opus 1) which is fairly obvious stuff in the late-Romantic, everyone-in-Vienna-is-ravingly-neurotic, tradition. (Think Schoenberg on steroids.)

Then this week it clicked for me. Or, rather, Five Movements (Opus 5 - version for String Orchestra) and Six Pieces for Orchestra (Opus 6) did. Every note seemed to fall into place with a sense of inevitability, as if the music had written itself. And I was left wondering why I had been so deaf to all this before.

I was assisted in my listening, enormously so, by the excellent account of the pieces in question in Jan Swafford's The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. Just before I bunged the disk on I remembered there was an interesting chapter by Swafford on Webern, and, to my delight, on going back to this I found the wonderful movement-by-movement accounts in the second half of the chapter. I read them as I listened, to my profit.

Thinking about this reminds me that I tend to be a little too negative with regard to the work of critics and commentators at times. The best critics (and Swafford is one) don't so much judge as illuminate. According to the sleeve notes that accompany the CD the original audience for Six Pieces for Orchestra chatted and laughed throughout. Pity them: so deep in the dark and nothing to light their way.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Done And Dusted

Put Ferguson's The War of the World behind me over the weekend, and returned it to the library today. Replaced by a tome, a sort of compilation of stuff from Mojo, on Bob Dylan with lots of pictures - I need to relax mentally. It will be a relief to get away from the horrors of the twentieth century and deal with one of its delights.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tea Time

Henry James summed it up nicely in the opening sentence of what I think is his best novel: Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. But, unfortunately for poor Henry, he never had the opportunity to attend afternoon tea as provided by my Missus, which lasts considerably longer than an hour, I can tell you. This afternoon provided yet another outstanding example, and, to be honest, agreeable is too mild a word to express my feelings with regard to the utterly satisfactory nature of the proceedings. Some evidence above, and this inadequately represents just the opening salvo of the affair.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Further Discoveries

I really liked the two poems that were employed in the English A1 Paper 1 examinations this year. The one about the cat, by Marge Piercy, I think, was a lovely piece, which reminded me in some ways of Ted Hughes's animal poems. Less obviously 'masculine' though, I suppose. Certainly made me want to look out for more of her work - another case where I'm sort of familiar with the name (assuming I've got it right - I haven't got any copy of the paper), but need to do some more serious research and reading. So, in line with what I was saying the other day, a little bit of a discovery is made which may well lead somewhere rewarding.

The other poem, in the HL paper, was by Alfred Noyes, and an example of more obviously 'traditional' verse: Now that's what I call a poem, with rhymes and a nice beat and everything. (But no one seems to talk like that anymore, do they? Similarly with regard to painting. Modernism won. Inevitably.) Actually stupid me got confused. I recognised the name Noyes and, for some reason, got it in my head that he'd written Invictus. So that got me thinking that Noyes was pretty outstanding, since the poem selected for the paper was an excellent piece, in its (traditional) way, and I reckon Invictus is superb. And not just for its 'inspirational' qualities - though it's got those in buckets. I finally recognised just what a fine poem it is as a poem after hearing it read by Ted Hughes - odd that his name pops up again - and recommend you try and get to listen to that reading, if you have any doubts regarding its status.

But then I realised I was about half a century out in terms of dating Noyes and Henley, and it finally came to me that the place I'd seen Noyes's name with the greatest regularity was at the bottom of The Highwayman, that wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully crafted tale of melodramatic derring-do, beloved of English teachers in the 1950s. (I was still using it to good effect in the 1980s, by the way, in many a captivated, haunted classroom. So much for poems being 'dated'.) Now The Highwayman, lovely as it is, is no Invictus, but that has not put me off from seeking out more Noyes. There's something very exciting about coming across what the great and good of the literary world regard as a minor talent that you recognise as being liable to afford major enjoyment.

Friday, November 16, 2012


One of the perks of having an interest in what you might broadly term music and the arts is the frequency with which you encounter the sense of discovering something fresh and exciting - whether it's a single work or, best of all, a composer or writer who offers a new world of works just waiting for you to rampage through. To this day I remember exactly how it felt (I'm talking of something entirely visceral here) to read Tolkien's preface to The Lord of the Rings and know just how much sheer pleasure lay in waiting in the pages following.

I was set to thinking about this today when I came across two versions of Donald Hall's poem Her Long Illness tucked away in one of my files. These were thoughtfully provided for me by my student Victor when I supervised him for his Extended Essay on precisely this text (or, rather, texts - which in a sense was the point of the essay) a couple or so years back. From the moment Victor described the poem, which I'd never heard of before - indeed, I was barely aware of Hall's output - I knew, without quite knowing how I knew with such certainty, that I was going to enjoy it. And when I actually read it, it sort of exploded into my consciousness. Indeed, simply reading the opening lines today set me all a tremble: Daybreak until nightfall, / he sat by his wife at the hospital / while chemotherapy dripped / through the catheter into her heart.

Remarkably Victor's EE did the poem some justice. (I say 'remarkably' since the poem is so powerful it just goes beyond any kind of analysis.) Supervising the EE was probably amongst the easiest jobs I've ever had, and definitely amongst the most simply pleasurable. And I'd strongly encourage all poetry lovers out there to get hold of both Hall's versions of the poem, and a box of tissues just in case.

But what I'm leading up to is the fact that a rather tasty edition of some of Hall's earlier poems now sits beckoning on my shelves, and my ending up a fan is massively odds on. And if you feel envious, I'm sorry, but I intend you to. Ha!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

New Morning

1 Muharam 1434

It’s always useful to be offered a new beginning. And living in this Far Place involves access to all sorts of starting points. We have three New Years, for example, and those are just the ones I’m aware of.

Today sees us setting out into 1434, in terms of the Islamic calendar. Just one thousand, four hundred and thirty-four years ago saw the formation of possibly the most remarkable community this rather remarkable world of ours has seen.

I’m celebrating it simply by recognising the possibility of hope.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Light Relief

Niall Ferguson's The War of the World is an excellent read, but deeply depressing. I'm at the two-thirds mark and I need to put it behind me as I'm spending too much time away from the book thinking about the darn book, or rather the material with which it deals.

The saving grace in all this is the occasional moment of humour. Sometimes these derive from Ferguson's wry commentary; sometimes from the deep ironies inherent in his various subjects. A segment on Nazi commanders in occupied Poland trying to sub-divide the population into a coherent variety of racial groups is worthy of Beckett at his most extreme. In fact, you come to realise why Beckett is not actually extreme in any sense. Unfortunately the laughter dies in your throat when Ferguson makes it all dreadfully real by giving the names and backgrounds of specific victims of the madness.

And then there's the hilarious account of paranoid old Joe Stalin managing to trust the most egregious, and, let's face it, obvious liar of the twentieth century when everybody and their grandfather seemed to know almost to the day when Hitler intended to invade the Soviet Union. Though, I must say, the fact that there are plenty of folk around in today's Russia who credit Uncle Joe with saving his nation at the time in question surely evinces more than a single horrified chuckle.

Ferguson reckons that if Chamberlain had stood up to Herr Hitler in 1938 it would have been game over for the Third Reich, and I'm very much inclined to agree. The thesis certainly dovetails with Kershaw's account of the nothingman. The younger me had some sympathy for the appeasers, believing that hindsight made it too easy to severely judge those caught up in trying to deal with the situation in Europe as it unfolded in the late-thirties. Now I'm not so sure. I think I would have recognised Hitler for what he was, a classic bully. And I know exactly how to deal with bullies. You make it clear that under no circumstances are they going to work their power on you - and they don't.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Kind Of Temporary

We went over to our old stomping grounds in Geylang this afternoon, to take a misbehaving fan to a service centre located near-by, and to purchase a couple of desk calendars from Darul Arqam, the Muslim Converts' Centre opposite the Malay Village. Or, rather, opposite a big space where the Village used to be. It was never a 'real' village, essentially being an ersatz kampung intended for tourists. But it had been there for some years and, as a result, felt like a landmark of sorts.

The lesson is, of course, that we are in a place where it isn't wise to think in terms of landmarks. We have arrived at a future in which the past has little or no place.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Something Special

Just in case you're wondering I'm still deeply in love with Dylan's Tempest. In fact, a number of the tracks have been prominent ear-worms on certain days, acting as a kind of hidden sound track to my life. The most recent example has been Roll On John, which has played in my head relentlessly, and welcomely, every time I've been invigilating exams.

And what an astonishing song, by the way. Like nothing Dylan has done before. I find it incredibly moving on each listen, partly because it doesn't try and manipulate you emotionally.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Taking The Cake

We've Fifi and Fafa in residence since Mak Ndak took the girls to go jalan jalan yesterday, Fifi having now completed her 'O' levels. Today they baked a cake together, for one of Fifi's friends. It was pink. Very. Evidence above.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Staunch Conservatism

I didn't wear a tie to work today. My new look elicited alarmed reactions from three colleagues, one of whom commented that I looked naked. Fear not. I have no desire to perturb the populace. It will be business as usual next week.

(Oddly it was only the ladies who commented. I suspect guys don't notice these things. I certainly don't - with regard to others, I mean.)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Hard Listening

It's hard to watch others struggle and know they're never really going to listen to you. It's hard to know that the best you can do is listen to them, and nothing more than that. But it's sometimes - too often - necessary.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Slightly Foxed

Entertained myself in the early evening watching Fox News attempting to rationalise the Obama victory. Sample: a guy who seems to act as some kind of news anchor stating that after waging four years of class warfare (sic) the President should reach across the aisles to his rivals by abandoning all his policies and adopting those of the Republicans. Or, rather, those Republicans who identify themselves as belonging to some odd entity known as the Tea Party.

But isn't the President's victory evidence that the majority of Americans accept his policies as generally pretty reasonable - despite four years of unabashed bad-mouthing by the likes of Fox News and their ilk? So wouldn't it be incumbent on Fox News to do some reaching out to him, perhaps by attempting some form of mild neutrality or balance in their coverage?

And why is everyone on Fox always angrily outraged at the state of America when they are earning so much money? Although I suppose this explains why when they are not angry they manage to laugh so exaggeratedly at each other's bad jokes.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

More Hard Going

I'm also finding My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me; Forty New Fairy Tales edited by Kate Bernheimer heavy going, and I seem to have been reading it forever. So far each of the stories I've read (a grand total of twenty-six so far) has proved to have its distinct challenges. Most have been rewarding, but in an exhausting way - exhausting, that is, for this tired old brain.

There's a very strong sense of the writers involved really writing; i.e., showing their writing chops, which are generally plentiful. There are a lot of clever people around but you don't necessarily want to meet them all the time. Well, not me, anyway. (Which leads to the very interesting question as to why one wilfully, gleefully surrenders to certain demandingly obscure writers, but not others.)

But having said all that, I'm fairly sure I'll be browsing through the collection again, once completed, in search of the definite gems in there - and most of the big names are still to come: Joyce Carol Oates, Updike, Gaiman.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Hard Going

I'm finding The War of the World a tough read. Not because it's particularly difficult. In fact, it's all too easy to follow. But that's the problem. A history of human stupidity and cruelty, as I suppose all history must be, wears you down such that eventually it starts to feel more of a duty than a pleasure to read it.

The material on the Bolsheviks is particularly depressing, especially the ease with which supposedly intelligent types from the West were duped as to the nature of the regime. What was Bernard Shaw thinking of?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

More Guests

No sooner had I posted yesterday's rather funky guest list than I realised I'd made at least two startling omissions. Which means I'm going to have to increase the numbers, not to twelve, a number I don't care for, but fifteen, which is curiously satisfying.

The first missing person that came to mind was Chekov. I'd sort of run down the list of Russian novelists, briefly considered Dostoevsky, simply for his capacity to cause an entertaining scandal, then decided it was safer to stick with writers who were basically sane, and completely forgot the dramatists. Chekov always strikes me as a nice guy (have no idea why) and with two notable hypochondriacs at the table - I'm thinking of those princes of Modernism, Proust & Joyce - we need a doctor at hand.

Then I suddenly remembered Coleridge. Not sure how I overlooked this master of table talk - and, by the way, he came to mind long before I read young Daryl's uncannily canny suggestion/comment to be found in yesterday's comments. (I'm completely dismissing Trebuchet's characteristically mind-bending surfacing of Velikovsky on similar grounds to my stand against Dostoevsky - can't really deal with loonies at the dining table.)

But if you're going to invite Coleridge how can you leave out his eighteenth century equivalent, the Great Cham himself, old Sam Johnson? The question now, of course, is whether anyone else will get a word in edgeways.

Which is why I'm happy to invite the laconic Kurt Vonnegut to table. I feel a bit guilty actually over my critical comments regarding our (former) colonial cousins, and remembering just how excited I was to realise that the major early novels are now available in two fine volumes from the Library of America it seemed churlish to leave out one of my teenage idols.

And, finally, it occurred to me that having invited a fair number of folks who are somewhat challenged on the glamour-front (pity anyone opposite Johnson) I needed someone very easy on the eye as well as being able to offer intelligently fresh perspectives. Ms Chimamanda Adichie more than fits the bill on that front - so that's my fifteen, and enough of this for now.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Welcome Guests

Recently I learned how to check various statistics regarding those who drop into this Far Place. Nothing terribly enlightening, except I doubt that any major corporations are likely to come knocking on my virtual doors asking for advertising space any time soon. But since I wouldn't give it them, this is not exactly an issue.

However, there is one rather odd discovery I've made. It seems that, a bit of a squib I wrote back in April 2011 has attracted more readers than any other post, bar one. (When I tell you the numbers went up from the usual average by a factor of well over a thousand per cent you'll understand just how anomalous the number appears.)

At first I wondered whether it was the sheer wit and joie de vivre of the post that had made it go mildly viral. Then it occurred to me that the fact it mentions the names of 10 Writers You Really Wouldn't Want To Invite For Dinner - and in the process of hacking out this little list a few other notable literati get a quick mention - may have inadvertently attracted a substantial number of folk surfing the net in search of useful information on one or more of these notables. How disappointed they must have been to end up here.

And it is with that in mind that I now offer to the world this utterly inessential list of the 10 Writers To Get Around Your Dinner Table To Guarantee A Memorable Evening.

Even back in the April of last year the Hierophant made the excellent suggestion of Montaigne, and I had duly conceded him a place, along with the automatic choice of James Joyce. So that's my two for the heads of the table. I'm also going with the Hierophant's suggestion of Ruskin, though this is purely on trust (but Wilde, no, far too great a risk, and Irish, and we've already got one Irishman in place. Also I can't resist Sam Beckett, just for the jokes, so my ancestors' nation is more than well represented as it is.)

We'll need at least a couple of ladies to keep things civilised, and who might be more civilised than Jane Austen? Then we'll need Margaret Atwood if they feel the need to get less lady-like, and to represent the Americas. (I'm not accepting anyone from the States as they're all drinkers and this is a strictly alcohol free occasion. And if Joyce finds that tough he'll just have to show a bit of self control for once.)

Proust is in, of course, just for his exquisitely good manners, and to chat about his health with Joyce. And the final three are R.K. Narayan (partly to pay him back for once giving me extremely gracious permission to adapt some of his short stories for a school play, and partly because he was obviously a lovely man in every way); P.G. Wodehouse (ditto on the loveliness front); and John Keats, because we need a poet, and I'd like to see him flirt with Jane.

And I know this is exceeding the given number, but I don't see how we can get along without the eventual Mrs Joyce. Anyway she's not a writer, so in that sense she's not adding to the number, but she's someone of great wit and wisdom and that's always worth having around the table. I reckon my Missus would get on with her like a house on fire.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Straight From From The Cat's Mouth

A brilliant Get Fuzzy today from Darby Conley. Bucky Katt asks the oddball cat from England (I think his name is Mac): Is there any good horror on tv in England? - and gets the eerily accurate reply: Uhhh... Liverpool F.C. Hah!

Don't blame me, Scousers, the cat said it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

More Sloganising

Most cheerful sight of the day, spotted in the supermarket across the road, a little nipper in a pink t-shirt announcing Yes, actually, The world does revolve around ME! Worth a chuckle or two, methinks.

Oh, and I suddenly realised that I'd unaccountably forgotten to make reference to that most potent of all rock'n'roll sloganisers, Mr Robert Zimmerman. My favourite by a country mile: DON'T FOLLOW LEADERS / WATCH YER PARKIN' METERS - which doesn't work half so well if you only quote the first line.

And a final addendum - I've had occasion over the last day or two to remind some of my students of those big friendly letters on the side of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy embodying the most useful single piece of advice you're likely to find anywhere in this small part of the universe: DON'T PANIC.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Got quite a shock this afternoon. Flabbergasted to discover that my drama guys had never heard of the Marx Brothers!!! The names Groucho, Harpo and Chico meant nothing to them. My Groucho impersonation (and zingers)  merely elicited embarrassed smiles. (Mind you, that's what usually happens, even amongst the Marxist cognoscenti - so we can let that pass.)

But seriously, to have grown up and never, ever, ever watched A Day At the Races, A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup... It doesn't bear thinking about. So I won't.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


I've never been a great one for slogans. Tell me to Just Do It and part of me thinks, well, that's a supremely silly piece of advice, I must say.

But I found some small entertainment today in considering if there are any slogans that do somehow do something for me. A swift realisation: pretty much anything pithy from Blake, of course. And then, more gradually, two gems from the world of rock'n'roll to live by: RUST NEVER SLEEPS (courtesy of Neil Young, in case you didn't know, who in turn got it from an actual advert, I think) and STOP MAKING SENSE (courtesy of David Byrne or Talking Heads or both, being pretty much one and the same, I suppose.)

In some odd and disturbing ways such choices throw some light on my character, I'm afraid. Worrying, eh?

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Bit Of A Moan

Wrenched my back this morning leaning forward from the sofa to pick up a cup of milo. And if that sounds pathetic, it's meant to.

A day of gritted teeth and manfully getting on with things despite the pain. Except for all my moaning, and ouching, and cursing under the breath, and complaining piteously to the Missus. I didn't actually cry though. Yes, I know, pathetic.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Utter Bosh

In between marking essays, and having my hair cut, and listening to some podcasts from the BBC's In Our Time series, I've been getting a bit of reading done. The big book I've got on the go is Niall Ferguson's The War of the World and it's highly readable in the way one comes to expect of Ferguson. I'm still in its early stages and found the material on the economic background to WW1 fascinating - Ferguson reckons it doesn't make sense to accept that the Great War was felt to be inevitable in the key months of 1914 given that the markets showed no sign of responding in any such manner., and I reckon he's right. (Which makes the ensuing slaughter even more ghastly and idiotic. Surprise, surprise.)

Other than such ruminations on the nightmare of history it's been poetry all the way, basically to escape the nightmare, I suppose. I finished A.R. Ammons's Bosh and Flapdoodle yesterday and my reactions confirmed  my fanboy status regarding anything from the greatest American poet that hardly anyone else I know seems to have heard of. What is it about some writers that makes you fall in love with anything they write? I mean there are stretches of Bosh I don't really get, but I just don't care. Being in Ammons's company is enough.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Man At Work

Yesterday evening the Missus pointed out to me, in a surprised if not aggrieved sort of voice, that I hadn't done any work all day. When I replied that it was a holiday she reminded me that I work every day, so my not working was somewhat disturbing to her understanding of the scheme of things.

Worry not, gentle reader, and my Missus, normal service has been resumed today. Sadly. Inevitably.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Hot, Hot, Hot

Went to the mosque, the one down the road from Mak's house, twice today - initially early in the morning for prayers for Hari Raya Haji, and then in the early afternoon for Friday Prayers. Walking down at 1.00 pm I was aware of just how much warmer it had become from the morning, and I found myself sweating when in the mosque, quite uncomfortably so.

By the middle of the afternoon even lying under a busy fan in the bedroom couldn't quite relieve the sense of oppression engendered by the gathering heat. Fortunately I found myself so tired from the last few weeks of work, and last night's journey here, that it was easy to escape into a profound, and profoundly welcome, sleep.

We've now got the air-conditioning running, and I'm attempting to get something useful done, but, happily, not quite succeeding.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

On The Way

Just finished work for the day and now planning for an evening journey up to Melaka where we'll be over the long weekend. A good time to think of other more significant journeys in other more significant places.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Seriously Funny

I've always enjoyed the cartoons/funnies/comic strips you get in newspapers, but I think my appreciation of them as genuinely remarkable works of the imagination has only really blossomed in very recent years. At one time I might have cited admiring the obviously classy stuff like Doonesbury - not that I get to see that too often now as it's not run in the dailies here, and I rarely look at this stuff on-line. But now my admiration is more general, extending to material that doesn't do all that much for me personally - Garfield, for example.

Why so? I suppose it's my belated recognition of the staying power of the creators involved - their extraordinary ability to be funny, in their own terms, every day of the year.

And another factor in my heightened sense of appreciation is that I've arrived a greater awareness of the visual qualities of the drawings in themselves. Just one example: I've become a bit of a fan of Baby Blues, run daily in The Straits Times. Yes, it's a bit cutesy and has a distinct sense of appealing to a definite demographic, but within its self-imposed limitations it creates a wonderfully rich world. And the drawings of the kids are in themselves so absolutely right that it's startling, yet the rightness is achieved in a remarkably spare way.

I'm guessing the guys who are responsible for the heavily syndicated strips earn huge amounts of money. They deserve it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Climate Change

One of the useful aspects of living a reasonably long life, as I have had the good fortune to do, is that you get to see all sorts of changes, for the better and for the worse, and are granted the precious understanding that things really do change in unexpectedly fundamental ways. (Except for human nature. We remain, and always will remain, an extraordinarily stupid species. Experience merely confirms the obvious on this one.)

I've been reminded lately of something one of my teachers pointed out many years ago which, at the time, sounded deeply unlikely to me. He reckoned that we would eventually see a distinct move away from the general permissiveness of British society in terms of its prevailing sexual mores towards a kind of new puritanism. I stress here that he wasn't launching into some kind of jeremiad against those mores, simply taking a cool-headed view of long-term possibilities.

Recent references in the British media to the 'culture' of the period in which the egregious Savile perpetrated his horrors seem to me to confirm this. Yes, there was a period in which the idea of very young girls being involved in relationships of a sexual nature with older men, sometimes considerably older, would have hardly raised an eyebrow. Yet it now seems almost unthinkable, certainly painful, that this could have been the case. (By the way, it's by no means unthinkable that such relationships exist, and will continue to do so. Human folly remains fairly consistent, I suspect, from generation to generation. See the parenthesis above.)

So what changed? I suspect we rediscovered what we've always known: the powerful sometimes, too often, are prone to exploit the weak and vulnerable. Create a climate in which sexual predators can flourish and they will flourish. (It's important to bear in mind that such characters can also flourish in a climate of unreasonable oppression. Unlike Mrs Thatcher I have distinct doubts about Victorian Values.)

One thing I've learned from lived experience is that the ethical climate of a society is something real, even though apparently nebulous as a concept. A sane society seeks to cultivate that climate in ways conducive to a general flourishing of what we are. Get it wrong and someone will pay the price.

Monday, October 22, 2012


If ever you find yourself a feature writer for one of the broadsheets and are stuck for a theme, I’d recommend a rant against the utterly trivial uses of cyberspace indulged in by our species. It never fails (I seem to read a similar article every month or so), and there’s an abundance of material to hand.

On the other hand, I’ve sometimes wondered if that might be what the Creator intended us for: to project meaning onto the unlikeliest fragments of creation.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Days Of Innocence

Over the last couple of weeks I've had occasion to check some of the stories from British sources relating to the scandal surrounding the late Jimmy Savile. I'm not exactly sure what's been drawing me to this, but I rather hope it's a concern with the operations of power and influence in the land of my birth, and the need to reflect upon the implications of various schools of sexual morality, and not just the lurid fascination of the whole mess.

One thing apparent in a number of accounts of the man's alleged activities jumped out at me as worthy of puzzled consideration. I was surprised at the number of commentators on the period of time involved - taking the crucial decades to be the sixties and seventies - who insisted that this had been a time of innocence. It wasn't. I was there and I know this to be so, even though I was fairly young at the time. It was like all periods: a sense of jaded knowingness pervaded most areas of public debate of an adult nature. There never has been a time of innocence anywhere, anyworld.

Why are we so keen to create versions of the past that rely on a wistful vision of something close to infantilism? Is our longing for the time before the fall so powerful that we are forced to project it onto any surface that can give back even a faint reflection of our yearning?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

What A Shame

Something in today's paper about BlackBerry users caught my eye. Of course, normally I have next to no interest in articles about new-fangled devices, but this one wasn't concerned with the devices per se but rather the odd creatures that make use of them. It seems that these particular gadgets are now deeply unfashionable for unaccountable reasons that make sense to someone somewhere, but not to me. Anyway this being so it was reported that many owners suffer shame and public humiliation if seen having to make use of one.

Now we're not talking about children here, or highly self-conscious teenagers who might have some excuse, but adults, most of whom, I assume, are in fairly high-powered careers. And we're not talking about a mild sense of being slightly behind the times, according to the article, but reasonably deep and powerful emotions. Well, as deep as emotions might go in folks who seem remorselessly shallow. Hah!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Not Exactly Seasonal

Attended a Christmas dinner today. Yes, really.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


I think I've mentioned here before the element of vampirism in my work. Sometimes this tired old geezer finds himself feeding off the energy of the young people he's lucky enough to come into contact with - one of the few real perks of the job.

There was a good example of this today. A class I teach was involved in a discussion partly relating to Athol Fugard's wonderful play 'Master Harold'... and the boys. There's a beautiful metaphor in the play developed by one of the characters, Sam, of ballroom dancing as a wonderful world without collisions in which real human potential can be expressed - a better kind of society than that of the Apartheid era South Africa in which he lives and in which he has to find a way to stay human.

One of the students participating in the discussion, Barnabas, built on this in a very powerful manner. Comparing the world of the play to our little world, he ruefully pointed out the sad reality of the collisions we inevitably face with each other on this island, but suggested that the thing to do was to keep on dancing, to strive for the beauty of the dance despite those collisions. I'm paraphrasing here, a bit clumsily, and can't capture the earnestness with which he conveyed the idea, but I can tell you how moved I was at the notion. The circumstances were such that I chose not to express my feelings, and I'm guessing no one around the table would have quite understood me if I had drawn attention to my reaction, but it's a moment I won't soon forget. More than food for thought - food for feeling.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sorely Missed

I was having a jolly good time the other day exploring various aural delights on when I came across this version of How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live by the wonderful Ry Cooder. Hugely impressed by the musicians playing along with the hugely gifted Mr Cooder I checked the details of the band and the provenance of the recording. Initially the 1987 date didn't mean that much to me, then I suddenly, painfully registered the fact that this was the year before I came to this far place and it was in that year, or early 1988, that I got my hands on a ticket to watch Ry and his band at Sheffield City Hall - a concert that was cancelled!

In all likelihood this was the band I would have got to watch and it never happened. (I remember distinctly seeing Flaco Jimenez's name somewhere in relation to the concert, making the likelihood even more of a likelihood, if you see what I mean.) Now much as I enjoy accessing the delights of youtube in the comfort of my living room, this pales into major insignificance compared to the actual experience of the real thing. And I missed it! Even though I paid for it! (Though I remember going to the venue to get my money back.)

So now I'm mourning something that never happened. Which has reminded me of all the performers I never quite got to see, despite having reasonable opportunities to do so at an age when I didn't feel worn out all the time. (I passed on Fairport Convention when I was at university, the reformed version featuring Sandy Denny and Dave Swarbrick, because I was ultra-busy. Mind you, friends who did go reported that Sandy was a bit of disaster, being well past her prime by that time. But still...)

Epic, epic sulk.