Sunday, March 31, 2013

Acts Of Protest

After parting ways with the good Mr Green yesterday I found myself with enough time on my hands to pop into the HMV shop opposite Centrepoint, there to purchase a couple of CDs. These were, in no particular order, a collection of the early Kinks's singles, the ones that came out on Pye, and the recording of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony made at the 2011 Proms.

Not much in common between the two CDs, you may be thinking, but I see both writers involved as guys who were very much out of step with their times, and whose strengths issued from their lack of any real connection with those times. Listening to Davies's magical Autumn Almanac is a powerful reminder of just how much of a musical outsider the great Kink was.

After crossing back over to Centrepoint I finished my afternoon sojourn in the city by proceeding to read a couple of chapters of Trollope's The Prime Minister whilst standing on the steps outside, trying not to pay too much attention to all the many aspects of the scene ahead of me that seemed to be demanding that I look at it. Again I was aware of being wonderfully out of time in my tastes. And, in a slightly glorious way, I didn't care.

Saturday, March 30, 2013


Found myself down town this afternoon in one of its larger shopping centres. I was there to share a cuppa and confab with old chum Tony Green, and very jolly it all was. But I felt completely lost with regard to the building we were in and equally lost, later, when wandering down Orchard Road which bears little resemblance to the thoroughfare I first encountered on arrival in this Far Place.

At that time it was a lively sort of spot with lots of rather inviting shops almost on a human scale. Now it's even livelier and the shops are entirely uninviting. There always seems to be some sort of demolition and rebuilding going on down its length which makes no sense as all the buildings are pretty much brand new. Oh, and the shops are always the same shops selling the same expensive things that nobody really needs.

Tony and I spent quite a bit of our meandering conversation mourning lost worlds, now I come to think of it. Just sad old men, I suppose, but none the worse for that.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Nodding Off

As I expected, now the pressure is off in terms of having no rehearsing to do, reinforced by the fact that today has been a public holiday here, I've been feeling overwhelmingly tired. The weariness has manifested itself in my having managed to nod off numerous times in the course of the day. In fact, the line between waking and sleep seems to have been eliminated. At several points I haven't really known how my state of consciousness might be classified. The closest analogy for all this might be severe jet  lag.

This state is by no means an unpleasant one. But I'm hoping for respite by the time work begins on Monday.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

What Does It All Mean?

One of the wonderful things about doing a production is that there are quite unexpected, delightful spin-offs that could never be planned for, yet come to seem almost inevitable aspects of the whole process. A little conversation I overheard the other day between a younger and older student reminded me of this. They were amusing themselves asking each other what exactly the plays they were involved in actually meant, neither of them being too sure. The situation was summed up in the plaintive question from one: But how do you perform in something when you don't understand what it means?

It wasn't the only conversation of this nature I heard, and I noted some fascinating ideas of what certain aspects of each play were supposed to mean which sounded to me wonderfully inventive and occasionally quite wrong-headed (though none the worse for that.) In some quarters I'd imagine there was a fair amount of exasperation over the obscurities of what we were doing, though I must say I have a bit of a problem genuinely relating to those feelings since I'm the kind who actually enjoys not 'getting' something and struggling to come to terms with it.

My answer to the question at the end of the first paragraph above, by the way, is to pretend you understand it, perform it, and see what happens. It's surprising how often just trusting the material leads you to some kind of resolution. And it's also interesting just how often you end up feeling you know what it means without being able to explain adequately what it means.

Sometimes there's a disturbing strangeness to all this. The young people I work with now are all intelligent, in many cases highly intelligent, and so there's a natural expectation that they will bring some understanding to even the most seemingly recalcitrant material. But I've also worked with youngsters in the past who were not in any sense academically able yet could bring a subtle sophistication to performance that would have been quite beyond most of the adults teaching them.

I never quite resolved the puzzle: where did their 'knowing' come from, and how were they so effortlessly able to elicit meaning from stuff that in terms of any form of assessment of which I know lay beyond their comprehension? Don't you just love impossible questions?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

In A Sweat

It's been a physically demanding day. The evidence: my shirt got uncomfortably soaked in sweat on four separate occasions in the course of the day before drying out under the air-conditioning of the area in which we were rehearsing.

At one point I found myself thinking of the younger me, working as a factory labourer before going to university, recalling just how physically tough those days were (and the huge lunches I ate in the course of them to re-fuel.) It occurred to me as I was thinking about those times that I rather despised middle class people who'd never spent a day loading and unloading lorries.

It occurs to me now that in a sense I still do. You live and sometimes don't learn.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Only Things

News of the grave illness of a friend has inevitably darkened the day. Sometimes prayer is the only thing left. And hope.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Heat Is On

With the UK having some foul weather lately it would be tactless of me to complain about the hot spell we're undergoing in this Far Place - and I wouldn't complain anyway as my reptilian blood enjoys being warmed up. It was with the idea of basking in the heat that I set off earlier in the day for Holland Village, that and to imbibe the cup that cheers at the rather jolly Coffeebean there. Sitting outside with my somewhat over-sized cup (they do make them big these days, don't they?), enjoying a couple of chapters of Trollope, was just the thing to make me feel reasonably tickety-boo. And I managed to pick up a copy of the January/February Philosophy Now, confirming the fact that the magazine stall on the corner regularly stocks it. I added an issue of The New York Review of Books, the one reviewing Oliver Sacks's Hallucinations, just to feel complete. (By the way, my policy now is to buy literary and other worthy mags only when I've finished reading whatever's on the shelves and delivered that, in its turn, to my desk at work where other folk can borrow them.)

After that I walked back to the Hall, having caught the bus to actually get there, timing the journey at about half an hour. This resulted in damp clothing but a sense of refreshment to off-set the mild discomfort. I really should do more walking than I do, having been a great walker back in England, but this is one way in which the climate here can defeat me.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Fed Up

The Missus has gone up to Melaka over the weekend to join in various birthday celebrations, leaving me to get on with doing the necessary to keep my head above the water line (just.) Fortunately she, as always, has seen fit to provide me with a range of comestibles to ease the ache of her absence.

My consumption earlier in the evening of the other half of the shepherd's pie I had manfully made in-roads into yesterday evening almost made up for her not being around. But I'm afraid these things don't ultimately balance out. Having said which, there's much to be said for knowing she's having a good time and keeping up the commitment to family that the world of work threatens to erode.

And now I'm going to finish the muffins she left. So there.

Friday, March 22, 2013


Some three and a half decades ago I took lessons in silence. I learnt to listen to its special qualities, one of which is, of course, never quite being real silence. I leant to hold back when bubbles of noise surfaced, understanding the wisdom of sometimes letting those bubbles burst themselves. And I learnt how to know when they would not burst of their own accord and how to ensure they would not grow beyond reasonable dimensions.

It's fascinating the degree to which silence upsets people, often without them realising that this is the case.

I could listen to it all day.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

As Others See

Noi and I have spent a goodly highly enjoyable portion of the last couple of days entertaining old friends from England. It's been fascinating seeing this Far Place through their eyes - a reminder that there's much to praise here. They crossed paths with a few of our students on Wednesday and were highly impressed, noting how lovely the kids are. And that's a truth it's easy to lose sight of encountering them on a day-to-day basis, but a truth is what it is.

It was also enlightening to get David's take on his many years of teaching in England. (He's been retired for some twenty years now after a very full career.) I suppose his views might be characterised as resolutely old-fashioned, being based on a firm grip of human behaviour inter-laced with a lot of common sense. Somewhere along the line these virtues have been misplaced. That's the world I see myself belonging to, I suppose. I don't think there's too much of it left.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

In Danger

Now listening to Danny Lanois's utterly gorgeous Acadie, yet feeling troubled.

Why so? Because this is the first ever full album I've downloaded. I did the business yesterday on the Missus's iPod from the iTunes shop and it was suspiciously easy and reasonably cheap. The iPod itself can be played on a simple but effective Sony radio/CD player that occupies my desk (which can also be used to amplify the computer that resides on the desk.) All this works surprisingly well when you think it was put together in an entirely piecemeal fashion. And therein lies the problem.

It's now simple and well within my pocket to acquire lots and lots of the kind of material I could lose myself in forever, and I'm not sure I really have enough spare self to lose.

Ho hum. There are worse dilemmas to face, I must admit, but perhaps none quite so invidious.

Monday, March 18, 2013


I'm experiencing something of a haunting at the moment. This is a result of working with my drama guys on a piece by Kuo Pao Kun. Initially I wasn't at all sure I really 'got' the play in question, and even now I find it puzzling in some ways. But we're managing to bring to the material a kind of certainty as to what we think is going on which is usefully convincing in making us feel we're going somewhere.

The haunting comes in whenever I think of the one and only time I saw the playwright in the flesh, as it were, and I found myself particularly thinking of him when writing a kind of introduction to the show we'll be doing (which actually features two of his short plays.) The intro features a little bit about the man himself and I keep seeing him as he was when he was a guest speaker at a Literature Seminar organised by MOE here a couple of years before his death. (At least, I think that's when it was. I really can't place the exact year in my mind. I'm assuming this was around 2000.)

It's difficult to explain just how strong the sheer presence of the man was at that seminar. He's the one thing I actually remember from it. He exuded a sense of having genuinely lived somehow. He was, or seemed to be, extremely slow and considered in his speech as if each sentence was carefully weighed and weighted prior to delivery. He was slow and considered also in simple movement - entirely unhurried. Yet there was absolutely no sense of self-importance about the man.

His brief references to his years of imprisonment, related to comments about what might be seen as of lasting importance in life, were deeply telling somehow. I can remember thinking of him as being wise, and I rarely, if ever, think that of anyone. I also remember wondering if there was a kind of theatricality about all this. After all, the man was not simply a writer of plays but a theatrical practitioner. But I somehow knew that there wasn't; that this was real.

It's a privilege to be encountering him again, if only in his work.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Affairs Of Men

I'm making little progress in Trollope's The Prime Minister, but I don't think either Trollope or myself is much to blame for this. Indeed, given the circumstances of my life lately I'm pleased to be making any progress at all.

The pity is that if I weren't so busy I know that the early chapters would have had me hooked enough to read at high speed. Despite the somewhat equivocal reputation of the novel in the canon I had a feeling I would find it more than palatable. I seem to remember reading somewhere - I think it's in C.P. Snow's rather fine book about those whom he terms realist writers - that Tolstoy regarded The Prime Minister as a major novel and, despite the great Russian's critical dottiness, when he says something like this about a novel of his own period you've got to sit up and take notice.

I think Tolstoy was impressed with the panoramic quality of the writing, the sense that Trollope really knows and understands the workings of the upper reaches of British society, and is able to make fine and telling discriminations within that understanding. How many writers write well about politics in the practical day-to-day sense and convince you that they know what they are talking about? It's a very short list, and Trollope is right there at, or near, the top.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Raw And The Cooked

Ever since I was just a lad I've had a preference for music delivered live, even if that just means a live recording, as opposed to the visceral excitement of really being there. And now I'm considerably older that preference seems to be even more definite, to the point that I find some over-produced recordings almost impossible to listen to. And this is especially the case when there's been a drum machine involved.

But I'm also aware of the need to at least try to be more accepting, especially when the use of synthesiser-style technology is central to a genre and rejection of the production values would entail complete non-participation, in listening terms, in music that must have some value.

This conflict surfaced for me earlier this evening when I gave a spin to one of the most disappointing CDs I've ever purchased. In fact, it was Noi's idea to buy the CD a few years ago when we were in Piccadilly Records in Manchester, and I was nothing loath, as they say. Entitled Rai Rebels it's a compilation of various 'all-time' classics from the world of Algerian rai, with Cheb Khalid featured amongst other luminaries. I really thought we were on to something great, expecting rough and ready recordings reflecting rough and ready rebel music.

And the voices certainly deliver. But the production is just so darn clean. For every track featured the producer, a highly talented guy called Rachid Ahmed, provides the music quite separate from the vocal track. Obviously a gifted multi-instrumentalist, as far as I can make out he plays everything you hear. And the effect is generally sort of mechanical. Not a real band in sight.

Now in the context from which these recordings emerged such clarity and high production values must have been refreshing when the alternative was muddy, messy, poorly mixed one-take attempts at songs going onto cheap cassettes. And it was with that understanding that I listened again to the CD today. And given the fact that, with the Missus not around at that point, I was able to indulge in a reasonable level of volume, suddenly what I was listening to didn't sound quite so sterile.

But still I found myself longing to have been in one of those off-colour clubs where Khalid first performed live just hearing him let rip in front of real noise.

Friday, March 15, 2013

In Judgement

Found myself this evening in the slightly odd position (again) of judging the talents of people who have a lot more talent than myself. I suppose literary critics feel like this all the time. Hah!

Thursday, March 14, 2013


Somewhat to my surprise, and with a degree of gratification, I seem to have discovered some deep reservoir of energy lately. And I needed to. If I don't keep going at relentless levels for another couple of weeks things are going to get messy. Very.

If previous instances of these periods of being seemingly super-charged are anything to go by, when I finally stop needing quite so much current I'm going to come crashing down in a big way - like hitting the wall in a marathon (an experience I once had, and never wish to repeat.) Something to look forward to, eh?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Noi is watching the Masterchef final as I gaze on from a distance. It isn't that I don't enjoy the programme - it's a delight - but, as I have mentioned before, the level of stress it engenders, especially when you're really rooting for the participants, is extraordinary. Who knew that cooking could be this exciting?

The problem with the final is I just don't want any of the three to lose. The (amateur!!) cooks are obviously brilliant, and that's without being able to taste, or even smell, their dishes.

What I love about the programme, though, is the sense of celebration it engenders. Why can't we have more tv that's about ability and accomplishment and the sheer pleasure of seeing others create wonderful things? (And if anyone ever wonders why I put cooking on the list of The Arts when I lecture on the topic, watching this would answer them.)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Poorly Lit

There's been a bit of a fuss lately in the press in this Far Place about the decline of Literature as a subject in schools. Such fussing is somewhat cyclical. Every four years or so brows are furrowed and there's a bit of a moan, but life goes on pretty much as usual and fewer kids get exposed to anything vaguely literary in the classroom.

It's always puzzled me that since it was perfectly obvious this would be one of  the results of the introduction of the ranking of schools why hardly anyone admitted this as such at the time. And then there's the fact that despite its marginalisation we hear hardly a single dissenting voice when the utilitarian value of lit is concerned. (This seems to me particularly odd as, as far as I can see, it has no obviously utilitarian value at all. The idea that somehow 'values can be taught through literature' is an extraordinarily dubious proposition, on par with the idea that reading the stuff somehow makes us better people.)

To be honest I don't mind the 'teaching' of lit disappearing altogether, except for the fact it would mean it would be harder for me to make a living. But it will be genuinely sad when the possibility of kids encountering the magic engendered through poetry, drama and well-told stories disappears from schools. The solution, I think, is to ban the stuff. It's obviously dangerous anyway - Plato didn't kick the poets out of the Republic for nothing, you know - so there'd be a certain logic in an unenforceable ban. And once it's forbidden we could look forward to the growth of a healthy and happy readership.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

In Sickness

At this point in time I have four friends in states of ill health ranging from the pretty serious to the very serious indeed. They are in my prayers. And, fortunately, they are in hands of various doctors who have the remarkable expertise to heal. Unfortunately there can be no guarantee that they will be able to do so. But then this is the human condition, something we will all come face to face with at some time. Guaranteed.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Inspirational, Sort Of

At morning assembly the other day this little couplet popped into my head, as if from nowhere: Fish gotta swim, bird gotta fly, / Man gotta ask himself the reason why. I entitled it Existential Song on the spot. Even at the moment of inception though I was aware it wasn't exactly from nowhere. It had clearly been provoked by the musings on rabbits, eagles and ducks and their various abilities issuing from the podium. And by the time we were leaving the assembly ground I had the distinct feeling that it wasn't mine at all.

It popped back into my head later in the morning when I was teaching a bit of Albert Camus, and I recited it to a rather startled class, advising them to go forth and google it. By this time I had grown to suspect I'd remembered it from somewhere in a Kurt Vonnegut novel, the likeliest novel being the wonderful Cat's Cradle. (By the way, just as a side issue, if you happen to be a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old reading this with an inquiring mind, you could do no better than to get a copy of said novel, or Slaughterhouse 5, or The Sirens of Titan, or Mother Night, and change your outlook on life forever.)

I followed my own advice about the googling, though I always use Yahoo for some primitive reason, and, yes, I was right, though I'd managed to misquote a bit. (Well, it was about forty years ago, after all.) But what I'd never realised was that our favourite American humorist was in turn pastiching a line from the musical Showboat.

And there was I, thinking I might have had an original thought.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Somewhat Misanthropic

There's a very strange case being played out in the States at the moment regarding a cop who fantasised about perpetrating extreme violence upon women, including his wife, and cannibalising them. He shared his fantasies on-line with like-minded gentlemen - it seems there are websites dedicated to this sort of thing - and is now facing conspiracy charges. Fortunately none of these fantasies were made real.

The implications of the guy going to prison (for a good many years) simply for fantasising are profound. But, then, my guess is that a lot of women, especially the ones he fantasised about, would feel a lot safer if he were behind bars. The case seems impossible to judge.

The level of violence also seems to reach impossible heights, even at the level of fantasy. A couple of details were mentioned in the first article I read and I didn't want to read anymore. But I read today that one of the websites involved has some 38,000 subscribers. Presumably these would have been more than happy to read on.

Which brings me to my hopeless conclusion. I have no idea what to make of all this, but am reminded of a sage piece of advice at the end of one of James Thurber's little stories. If I remember rightly it goes: Run, don't walk, to the nearest desert island.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


A day to forget. So that's what I'm doing.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Life Just Isn't Fair

Okay, I'll keep this very simple. No way in this or any other universe was Nani's tackle on Arbeloa worth a red card. I've seen worse from girls playing touch rugby. Farcical. And if you think different you haven't got eyes to see.

It speaks volumes for my strength of character that I've hardly talked about this all day. Except a few times. AAArrrrggghhhhhhh. Enough.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

More Ways Of Making Life Great

We've just had a day celebrating and promoting innovation at my place of work. Nicely done, and well meant, but I remain a bit of a sceptic on this front. For example, the assumption that the genuinely astonishing world of IT has made life better seems highly doubtful to me. Things have changed certainly, but that isn't quite the same thing as getting better. When I point this out to younger colleagues they are genuinely puzzled, but then many have never experienced the lost paradise of a world without handphones.

But just to put a positive spin on these grumpy reflections I am prepared to accept that some features of modern life have added to its quality. Fridge magnets and post-it notes spring to mind.

Oh, and anything that has served to genuinely benefit the ill, the handicapped and the poor. Let's sell all our various electronic communicating devices and invest in something that would secure clean water for everyone, shall we?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Making Demands

Found myself getting quite tough with someone this evening in a way I know I could not have found within me thirty years ago. I'm not happy at the change, by the way, but I accept it as a necessary part of the business of getting things done. I don't like feeling that others have authority over me, and, equally, I dislike wielding authority over others.

The only justification I can see for either is when the result of whoever wielding whatever authority is something that is, in some sense, better than what there was before. The problem is that results take time to emerge and until they do you have to live with uncertainty.

Nobody said life was easy.And weren't they right!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Ways Of Making Life Great

I was innocently shopping this afternoon for cheap black biros and my favourite, slightly more expensive, red pens - for marking - when I noticed a little electronic device at the cashier's staring up at me and telling me to Make Life Great. I say telling as it really didn't sound like an invitation, leaving me little choice but to carry out the invocation. So there lay the dilemma. I was honestly clueless with regard to achieving anything close to greatness in my life or that of anyone else.

But I was able to frame an idea for effecting a mild but significant improvement in the quality of life in modern times. Yes, you've guessed it. Find some way of preventing the kleptocracy's commercial concerns from bombarding us with emptily 'positive' messages.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Quite A Long Sleep

When I brought back my old paperback of The Big Sleep from KL I was thinking of a quick, turbo-charged read of an old favourite, to be completed in a couple of days. That wasn't to be. The rather silly, but very real, busyness of things recently means that I only finished the novel today despite starting it more than a while ago. But something has been unexpectedly gained from all this.

Needing to read at such a slow speed in the few gaps of real life I've had of late has involved a greater degree of concentration on my part on the wonderful poetry of the novel. And I'm not just talking of the obviously superb images: He looked a lot more like a dead man than most dead men look. (So Chandler-esque, and so easy to parody, but perfect in its place in the actual novel - Marlowe's final encounter with the old, dying General, for whom he, and we, have come to have an unexpected respect.) No, I also have in mind the larger sense of the novel as a whole as a poetic construction.

The description of the sump towards the end, for example, where Rusty Regan sleeps the big sleep. Chandler uncannily evokes both the rottenness just below the surface of the big city, and the darker places of the human mind: There was the stagnant, oil-scummed water of an old sump iridescent in the sunlight. (I love it that he ends the paragraph with sunlight here.)

I'm sorely tempted to move on this evening to The Long Good-Bye, but I'm not sure I can take more of this intensity. I reckon I'll go for a bit of Trollope instead and just settle for a story I can't put down.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Sacred Places

Even in those days when I thought of myself as an agnostic I loved churches. And now being in a mosque, especially a well-designed one, is an intensely restful experience.

But the strangely contradictory thing is that some of my most intense experiences of prayer in mosques are associated with the run-down variety, or when I've found myself praying outside the actual mosque, when it has been packed, in less than salubrious circumstances.

I mention this as today I arrived at Darussalam Mosque quite late and was very much on the periphery of things, staring straight at a bare wall, sitting on a rough bit of concreted floor. Yet it all felt oddly right. I was reminded of a time I was in Indonesia with some teaching colleagues who were Muslims and we were directed to a mesjid that was nothing more than an empty, very run-down, shop unit, and felt entirely, rightly, at home.

In Islamic thought, by the way, the whole world is regarded as a mosque, fit for prayer - assuming the ground has not actually been dirtied in some way. The idea that literally everywhere is sacred is powerfully appealing. And sane.