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.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Wonderful Bodies

If I'm not mistaken there'll be an announcement of the winner of the Booker Prize for the year soon. I've just finished Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies, the follow-up to her Booker winner Wolf Hall, and, remarkably, it's even better, so I wouldn't be surprised if she proves a double winner. But, equally, I wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't win anything. It really doesn't matter. The only relevance of the prize, or any kind of prizes for works of art, is the good publicity they bring to work that deserves it and is very unlikely to get widely publicised in any other way.

I reckon I'm not the only fanboy her Cromwell saga will have gained by now, and I use the term (fanboy, not saga) advisedly. I read Bodies with the kind of uncritical relish you give to a novel that you just love despite its flaws. Mind you, I'm so hypnotised by the story I can't think of any flaws at all at present - and don't intend to try. I'll leave that to the worthy Booker judges.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Way It Was

I don't claim to have particularly fantastic recall of childhood - not as strong as that of author Roddy Doyle, I suspect - but I know I remember some things (incidents, people, places) with a vivid particularity that lets me drift unstuck in time if I so wish. And there are some more general feelings I experienced as a child, peculiar to childhood, that I can recall to the extent of almost feeling them again.

For example, I know for an absolute certainty that I felt extremely irritated with adults reminding me, and they did so often, that childhood was the best time of life - or words to that effect. In fact, on more than one occasion I vowed to remember as an adult that much of the time I - the junior version of myself - felt either slightly worried or very worried about a thousand and one things that I never quite got under control. I also knew as a child that I wasn't an unusually anxious child and that other kids felt pretty much the same way I did in this respect.

So now I'm remembering my vow and honouring the peculiar little lad who came up with it. And I'm also thinking that essentially I remained a happy little soul despite all my worries, perhaps because whatever it was I felt in those days was felt with such intensity that you could always lose yourself in that intensity.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Shelter In The Storm

Yesterday's post was prompted in part by the fact I've had Tempest in daily rotation since acquiring it on Thursday evening, so all things Dylanesque have been on my mind.

And is Tempest as good as the rave reviews say it is? Simply, yes. But isn't it tiresome the way critics compare albums like they are attempting the draw up some kind of league table? Just listen, and celebrate.

Normally I don't tear up at Dylan songs, though I have plenty of other visceral reactions. But Roll On John got to me on the first listen. It's hard to put up barriers against tenderness and truth combined.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Deep Buckets

There comes a point where you've got to answer the small question: Which is your favourite Dylan song? When I heard this put to the mighty Prof Christopher Ricks he came up with I Want You from Blonde on Blonde, rightly clarifying that he wasn't saying this was the greatest of all the songs, simply the one he had the most spreading soft spot for. I found myself, oddly, in instant agreement. I say oddly since it's not exactly the best known item in the Bobster's vast output despite its utter perfection. However, I've since changed my mind, even though the song has not in any way fallen in my esteem.

It's simply that I've come to realise that Buckets of Rain from Blood on the Tracks speaks to me with a huge intensity and seems, in a sense, more representative of the later bluesy, real Dylan - despite being closer in time to his earlier folksy, rock star incarnation. Anyway, it happens to have the one verse that pretty much corresponds to whatever I've got as a philosophy of life: Life is sad / Life is a bust / All ya can do / Is do what ya must / Ya do what ya must do, and ya do it well / I do it for you, honey, baby can't ya tell?

It helps that whoever he's playing with on the album hardly seem to have had time to run through the music before committing it to vinyl. Pure rough and ready feeling. It took me years to figure out why he did that. Now I wonder why hardly anybody else ever does.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Not So Empty

Back to yesterday's question, and let's extend it a little. What is it about reading Beckett and Joyce (I just can't help but link them - the dynamic duo of Modernism) so life-affirming?

I suppose the humour helps, despite its often dark and forbidding nature. (Not so unusual, by the way. Typical Irish, and I grew up with it on the streets of Manchester.)

But the key thing is the fact that we know they are telling the truth, and, somehow, the truth does set us free. I suppose because of the wonderful sense that we (or, rather, they) are able to tell it, face it. As Eliot reminds us, as a species we simply cannot bear too much of what is real. So to be able to face at least a little is sort of refreshing.

That's why I can't go along with all that power of positive thinking blabber too much of the time. Basically it makes some kind of sense, and can be very useful, but ultimately you can't rely on faking things. The glass isn't really half full, nor is it half empty. It's both.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Worth Waiting For

Last night's Godot was a thing of beauty. A sterling performance by a great cast. My only criticism, they looked a bit too youthful, especially the splendidly gangling Vladimir, but since age is just another matter of irrelevancy in the drama, this wasn't any kind of sticking point.

Great accents from all: the Irish lilt of most of the dialogue was gorgeous, and neatly offset by Pozzo's upper-crust Englishness. Distinct sub-text here of the oppression of Ireland under Saxon rule. Everything looked right. The comedy was, rightly, uproarious, and appropriately vertiginous switches of tone abounded, at moments like dropping off a cliff edge.

Given that the ensemble playing was so good, I hate to pick an individual out - but I can't resist saying just how good Patrick O'Donnell's Estragon was. Nithya, who was sitting next to me, remarked that she found herself picking him out all the time because his expressions were just so right, and I knew exactly what she meant.

The mystery remains. How is it that a play that deals remorsely with the emptiness of human experience always delivers something worth waiting for?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Off to the theatre tomorrow to watch Waiting For Godot, and I am entirely stoked up about it. (Hoping for Irish accents from Vladimir & Estragon because that's how I always hear them in my head.) What is it about staring into the abyss that makes for a great night out?

Must be a nightmare to remember your lines, for Didi & Gogo at least. Lucky if you're Lucky that you get the big speech over with in Act 1. After that it's just a matter of putting up with all the physical abuse.

Monday, October 8, 2012

On The Go

The little lot pictured above represents my current reading. Promiscuous as I may be in this respect I'm trying to retain some semblance of faithfulness by seeing each one through to the end, sequentially, no matter how long it may take.

Actually I've already completed McEwan's Solar, which I found an easy read, as is invariably the case for me with his work. But what was a bit different for me this time round was finding myself twice laughing out loud whilst reading. The first time was during the bit when the obnoxious protagonist Prof Beard was caught short on the ice and decided to relieve himself out there, at great risk to the nether parts of his person. I can't remember the second bit, but it was funny at the time.

Oddly, much as I enjoy McEwan I generally seem to find him a bit contrived, and Solar was no exception. I'd read rave reviews from people whose judgment I trust when the novel first came out but even then thought it all sounded a bit clunky somehow, and I was right. Fun, though.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Real Life

I seem to be pulling through my little crisis on the energy front having nodded off only once today, and that being to Copland's Billy The Kid suite which I always find a touch soporific (in a good way!) And I must put on record that yesterday was by no means entirely wasted as I spent an hour or so of it viewing the art works on display of those of our graduating students who opt for Art as a subject. Sadly there are only about ten students who did so for this cohort; happily they all produced work that more than justified their option.

Whatever energy I lacked was compensated for by the abundance of it not so much on display as inherent in every detail of what the students had produced. One or two of the artists were strikingly single-minded in their choice of medium and subject; others notably more eclectic, unfixed. Virtues in both approaches, methinks. Similarly there was a wide range in terms of emotional investment in the work on offer. Some of it overtly, almost painfully, expressive; a fair amount, in contrast, wryly, almost wilfully, detached.

As with last year it wasn't difficult to find something from each artist that I would have paid good money for. And, yet again, it would be no surprise at all to hear of one of them making it big in the future. Yet, curiously, that didn't seem to me to be what the work was all about. They'd made something big and splendidly alive now, which is all that really matters.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Energy Crisis

I had vaguely planned to get a few things done today, especially in the way of writing references, and the day wasn't entirely wasted. But it wasn't exactly as fruitful as I would have liked it to have been. Somehow I contrived to fall asleep, and I mean deeply asleep, four times in its course, and I still feel tired now. Whatever batteries I have onboard are drained.

The odd thing is, is that this is by no means an unpleasant state to be in.

Friday, October 5, 2012


Thoroughly enjoyed a cuppa plus kaya toast at Holland Village this afternoon with the Missus. (When don't I?) We've long decided that Ya Kun Kaya Toast serves the best on the island - so there's a bit of a plug for that noble franchise. But now follows a bit of a critical question, so I don't think this post will be of any help in my campaign for well-remunerated product placement in these virtual pages.

You see the franchise has four little prohibitive posters on its walls, of the No Pets variety. In fact, that's one of them, and I can understand why. But what I just don't get is one saying something to the effect of No Photography or Videoing. (Actually, I've got a horrible feeling it's No Videography, but I couldn't quite bring myself to type that.) Now what is wrong with taking a picture in one of their fine establishments? I can't see what the inconvenience to other customers might be. Truth to be told, I can't imagine why anyone should want to be taking snapshots in those surroundings. But imagining they did, what possible harm could there be?

Is it that the Ya Kun people are protecting trade secrets, preventing espionage from rivals determined to mimic their decor, their kaya-making expertise? And how are you going to stop determined spies from getting the precious info on camera?

I know I'm probably completely wrong about the espionage bit, though it is rather fun to think of it, but I really am baffled as to any logical explanation for the prohibition. And, to add to the puzzle, I'm vaguely aware of seeing the notice in other places of business. Is it just that the taking of pictures is now regarded as a social menace? If so, why isn't an old curmudgeon such as myself bothered by it?

Now a ban on handphones, that I can understand, and welcome.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

In Time

I've always been the kind of person that needs deadlines. Without the pressure of needing to deliver I could faff around for ever. But tell me the show opens next Friday and somehow the script gets written and something gets up on that stage.

Time was there was something vaguely rewarding about this. A sense of the deadlines usefully assisting in accomplishing something. But that time is long gone - and the reason for this is simple. Now the deadlines are so numerous the problem is keeping track of them all. So meeting them comes as a series of minor surprises as none can ever be significant enough to generate any sense of accomplishment, and even if I could feel such a sense, there wouldn't be time to feel it for long.

I say this without complaint - all appearances to the contrary. It's just the way things are. Like so many aspects of modern life: silly and sad.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In Judgment

Generally I advise students against being dragged too rapidly into matters of judgment of their texts, the characters that may lurk within them, and so on. Generally my words fall on deaf ears, not surprisingly since we seem hard-wired to rush to judgment.

In that spirit let me offer the one absolutely sure-fire certain judgment that can be made, related to matters of a literary bent: Never, ever, trust a chap incapable of falling under the spell of P.G. Wodehouse.

(I offer the observation above particularly to those sitting on interview panels for various positions of worth. It never fails. Hire accordingly, and the world would be a better place.)

Monday, October 1, 2012

In Transition

It's becoming a little bit of a ritual for me to reacquaint myself with the appropriate segment of John Clare's The Shepherd's Calendar as the month turns. Here he is beginning October: Nature now spreads around in dreary hue / A pall to cover all that summer knew. We don't get a pall exactly in this Far Place because we don't get any real change of season, which suits me fine just in case you thought I was getting nostalgic. But there are other subtle transitions as the year ages and, inevitably, one ages with it. Sometimes it's a pall of the spirit that descends - not to be taken likely.

But poor mad Clare continues by noting there are always pleasing objects to delay us as we journey, and, of course, picks out a fair few for us to passively observe as the great poem continues. If this were all that poetry ever did, teach us to look, it would be enough. And Clare's harvest renders more than plenty.