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.