Friday, May 31, 2013


On a day when the Missus and I annually celebrate being together we find ourselves ironically apart. She's gone up north to oversee the beginning of our renovation work on Maison KL and I alone sit lingering here - fortunately with a well-stocked refrigerator.

At such times I have the oddest feeling of incompleteness.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Making A Noise

I grew up in the city and have lived in places close to busy main roads. I'm not someone who complains about noise. You learn to live with it.

The extent to which it's possible to filter noise out of consciousness was brought home forcibly to me earlier this evening when I standing around in one of this Place's ubiquitous shopping malls for twenty minutes or so waiting for Noi to get back to me. Lost in thought, I was completely unaware of the fact it was noisy until it suddenly occurred to me to listen (carrying out an exercise I get students to do in drama sometimes, just listening to ambient noise.) At that point I realised just how ferocious the noise was, and how curiously empty. This is not noise I would want to live with.

That put me in mind of something that happened to us over the weekend. We went to a branch of a bank in which I have an account in another mall in order to transfer some funds to Malaysia, for payment towards our soon-to-be-realised renovation work. To my astonishment whoever manages the branch had arranged for extra loud music to be played on a big sound system, as part of some kind of promotion, right next to the information desk. Oh, and there were balloons as well, as if to soften the pain.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Looking Ahead

Still paddling madly to stay afloat, but keeping my head above water just enough to catch sight of an island of rest about a week and a half away. Also being forced to think ahead anyway as Noi is going off to KL ahead of me at the end of the week. She'll be at Maison KL as our contractor starts the work we have planned to busybody around and make sure everything is in order. She's intending to take supplies with her which means I have to consider what reading and listening material to send on ahead.

This in turn leads me to the realisation that there remains an awful lot on the shelves, printed-word-wise, to which I've never really done justice. In truth, if I never purchased a book again I wouldn't run out of material to occupy myself with. This is simultaneously a comforting and daunting thought. If the shekels ever run out there'll be no need to panic on the bibliographic front; but it's difficult to imagine not being able to once again relish the smell of a new volume before taking the plunge.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Get Happy

When you weigh it up most of these writer johnnies are not terribly good on people being happy. I mean, you think of Literature with a capital 'L' and, let's face it, you're thinking immediately of misery, suffering, meaninglessness, and all that palaver (with the odd funny bit thrown in if you're lucky enough to be reading Dickens, Twain, Austen, or someone else with an actual sense of humour.) Now I know you're going to tell me that life is a pretty miserable business so these folk are only telling the truth, and, yes, you have a point, there's something in that. You get a bad roll of the dice - think Oedipus, think Lear - and there's not much to be chortling about. But the fact remains that there's still an awful lot of happiness around in reasonably sane societies, and, oddly enough, there are quite a few societies that might just pass the sanity test. So why is this so rarely reflected in Lit?

And here's a thought: could it be that the test of a truly great writer is to be all-inclusive enough to acknowledge, contain, celebrate that sense of ordinary happiness? Off-hand I can think of two undoubted greats who do it, yet both, paradoxically are responsible for some of the darkest pages you're ever likely to read.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Not Exactly Justice

It's difficult to do justice with regard to the absolute perfection of a full-force massage from Noi's surpassingly wonderful massage lady, Kak Sabariah. So I won't even try. I'll just say that the last two and a half hours counted as amongst the most relaxing of my life.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Quick Good-Bye

Somehow I managed to forget the entire plot of Chandler's The Long Good-Bye since first reading it thirty-odd years ago. And I was pleased to have done so since I re-read the novel with a sense of increasing enjoyment purely on the level of story. And what a strange story it is!

At times it's as if Chandler has forgotten the first half of the novel, the Terry Lennox story, as we move into the equally troubled territory of the alcoholic writer Roger Wade. But there're always hints that somehow it will all cohere in the end, and, triumphantly, it does. Yet in certain ways the novel seems to be on the edge of exhaustion. It's a surprise that Marlowe keeps going, but he does.

And so does Chandler - somehow summoning up the energy for great set pieces and a gloriously bleak portrait of Los Angeles, indeed, America itself, when you get the distinct feeling he would rather go off somewhere with a bottle of the hard stuff and escape it all.

With impossible dialogue, an entirely unbelievable hero and whole paragraphs of sententious moralising surfacing when you least expect them, and from the unlikeliest characters, this novel really shouldn't work. But it does.

Friday, May 24, 2013

On The Small Screen

Now busy e-marking various examination scripts from all around the world. E-marking is another facet of the brave new world of education in which the scripts are put on-line for you to grade and annotate. Strangely I seem to have adjusted to all this in reasonably quick time, having dreaded making the transition - though these are early days.

The most obvious downside for me is that I'd developed a degree of mastery in being able to mark just about anywhere. But now it's not so easy to get on-line just about anywhere so it feels a bit restricted. The quite unexpected upside is that the whole experience feels 'cleaner' somehow - more elegant. I'm used to having packages of not necessarily well-packed scripts filling various spaces at home and at work. But now the full load is on one little machine. And the annotations look a lot neater using the software provided than in my scruffy handwriting - more convincing somehow.

And so far I've not had a single illegible script - the type in which the handwriting is designed to hide the fatuity of whatever's been written in it. But I'm sure I've got plenty of that to come.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Enjoyed listening to some students expatiate on (what's) The Meaning of Life (?) today and was asked at one point what I thought the answer was. Was tempted to reply 42 (of course) but declined to answer, except to point out that I think it's very interesting indeed that there's something rather than nothing.

Went on to think about this for quite a bit of the afternoon, and it got even more interesting. Much ado about something, indeed.

And as a bit of a digression, Donne is very good on nothing: if I an ordinary nothing were...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Looking at the scenes of devastation from Oklahoma on the news this morning made me feel uneasy, especially when one astute commentator pointed out the danger of other people's misery turning into some kind of entertainment for those of us viewing from comfortable, safe surroundings. And, of course, these days there's plenty of misery available to any viewer with just a click or two.

I'm hopeful though. I think there's a fair chance our awareness of others' misfortunes makes us more human, or, rather, humane. The test I suppose is in how we respond. And there's a term that seems to have entered common usage to describe those who hurry in to a disaster area immediately to render some kind of assistance, sometimes at real risk to themselves: first responders. It seems there were lots of these in Oklahoma. Good.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On The Bright Side

With the Pythonic injunction in mind that one should always look on the bright side of life - the only inspirational song I know that actually manages to inspire - I sat down earlier to consider the various bright spots that illumine my darkness and it occurred to me that it's a rather wonderful thing that I don't own a jacket - not of the respectable variety that is - and have not done so since 1988. One day I'll throw away my ties and my illumination will be complete.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Lost Days

I've spent a fair amount of the day working (as I did yesterday), just to keep my head above water. In other words, I'll be struggling to cope with what hits my desk tomorrow regardless of today's efforts. The odd thing about all this is that I really don't mind too much. These days I go into any given year knowing that some of the days ahead won't be terribly rewarding; and indeed, as long as they are not actually terrible I can put up with them.

Another odd thing. Working like this involves absolutely no sense of accomplishment. It's just a matter of getting through. Surviving. And I do. And I will.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Pipe Dreams

Reading The Long Good-Bye I was startled to be reminded that Marlowe smokes a pipe. Can't think of anyone playing him in the movies with that level of authenticity. Even in the 1950s it couldn't have been considered cool as a habit. I suppose Chandler must have smoked one and given the habit to his alter ego - just as he gives his drinking to a whole range of characters. It's as obsessive a topic here as it is anywhere in Hemingway, and that's saying something.

I can't think of the last time I was actually in the company of someone smoking a pipe. How fashions in damaging ourselves change, eh? Mind you, I can't see the demon drink going out of fashion soon - more's the pity.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Silver Screen

I'd sort of intended to watch two or three movies on my recent flights to and from Wales. But as it turned out I watched only one, that being Lincoln. I enjoyed it, but I think it would have worked better on the big screen. It was just too dark, in the visual sense, to watch comfortably on the tiny screen you get on a plane. Excellent performances though - Day Lewis as expected, but also Sally Fields and Tommy Lee Jones are entirely convincing in roles that might not seem so obviously tailor-made for them. Nice to see a film dealing intelligently with the pragmatics of politics for once - Lincoln is rightly celebrated for being compromised and getting his hands dirty.

And that was it for me as far as Hollywood was concerned. I thought about calling forth The Life of Pi and The Hobbit from the system, but couldn't summon the enthusiasm. Perhaps it's because I know the books well and that sense of knowing what to expect took the impulse to view away. Also, of course, I was feeling tired on both legs of the journey.

But I did find time for several episodes of Big Bang Theory on the way back here. It was Fifi and Fafa that alerted me back in December to this very funny American comedy and I'd caught odd snippets now and again with appreciation. Watching much of the first series in sequence was not something I'd ever imagined myself doing, however, yet it turned out to be very easy to do so. It's slick but daft enough to avoid the complacently irritating self-awareness that comes with stuff like Friends. And it's distinctly cruel at times in a disturbingly liberating manner. Anyway it served to pass the time in what seemed an almost fruitful manner.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Standing Corrected

One of my favourite mordantly sarcastic lines to use on students is to suggest that it helps to get the title of a literary work correct when they are writing an essay in those sadly all-too-frequent cases when they get it wrong. So now I stand, or, rather, lie wounded, hoist by my own petard, as a result of an egregious blunder in a post a couple of days ago in which I turned Prof Greenblatt's clumsily titled The Swerve into, let's gently say, something else. (Many thanks to Karen for pointing this out, even if it was done possibly a touch too gleefully.)

I can see three perspectives on this. One I've already outlined: the blunder, for that's what it was, was essentially idiotic and deserving of reprimand. The second takes a more charitable view: the minor slip, which only the most anal of critics would bother about, came about in the wee small hours of Tuesday morning in the bleak (and cold) confines of Dublin Airport when a lesser character would have been weeping for lack of sleep rather than posting manfully to his blog. The third takes the higher ground, in the words of a famous son of Dublin: A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery. In fact, I reckon my title is better than the prof's and makes more sense of the Latin involved.

(And if this last sentiment strikes you, Gentle Reader, as impossibly arrogant, I can only remind you that whilst the quotation above is frequently ascribed to Joyce himself it more properly belongs to the often insufferable Stephen Dedalus, adding properly to the ironies all round,)

And if there are any blunders in this post, remember, this comes from a man who's just marked eight scripts and is jet-lagged to boot. So there.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Time For Bed

I haven't slept in any sort of continuous, comfortable way since Sunday night, so I'm hoping to feel the embrace of Morpheus more deeply than usual in the next few hours. If I don't I'll be a liability to myself and to others - well, more than usually so that is.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sitting Still

I'm enjoying a moment of stillness here at Dublin Airport. In fact, more than a moment. I have several hours to kill before I can move on and I'm hoping to spend at least some of them sleeping. I finished one of the two books I brought to read on the flight from Cardiff, having read a fair amount on the flight out of Singapore on Thursday, and I'm intending to make a bit of progress on the other when I feel awake enough to do so. The tome completed was one Karen kindly bought me as a birthday present - Stephen Greenblatt's account of the influence of Lucretius's great poem On The Nature of Things on European civilisation, inelegantly entitled The Curve. (Sounds like it's going to be about baseball somehow.) When I originally unwrapped it my delight in ownership had been tempered by a sense that I would have to delay reading it until I was less busy, but I just couldn't resist, and I'm glad I didn't. When I got to the bit on Montaigne in the last chapter I was cheering and cheerful. The volume that I sort of put aside for Greenblatt - Chandler's The Long Good-Bye - I anticipate as another delight. (It's a re-read so I know how good it's going to be, and the first fifty pages have not disappointed.)

I'm also contemplating getting on with some actual work as I have scripts with me to mark, but I'll need to dig deep to find the wherewithal.

One thing I haven't been able to do all day is to message the Missus as any sms I attempt to send remains stubbornly stuck in my phone. So if you're reading this, dear, I apologise for not getting in touch, and a flight with me on it should be touching down at Changi Terminal 2 at 06.50 on Wednesday, insha'allah. (It's amazing the uses a blog can be put to, when you weigh up!)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Start The Week

It really is Monday now in Cardiff, and I'll be dragging myself to breakfast in another half an hour or so. And then I'll need to deal with the complex question of when exactly to check-out and arrange a cab to the airport. My to-do list for today is already looking intimidating, but that's business as usual for any given Monday. All I can say is that I'm already looking forward to the weekend. It's going to take a long and eventful time to get there.

Other Far Places

It's late on Sunday evening here and I'm just back at my hotel having got soaked again on the way back from another hotel in which most of the other IB examiners I'm working with are staying. Twelve of us enjoyed dinner together there as a prelude to our final day of subjecting a variety of scripts to extremely close scrutiny in an attempt to standardise the marking of papers world wide in our subject. It was nice to be able to chat about different versions of life in Baltimore, Berlin, Colombia, Manitoba and the Dominican Republic rather than how students manifest knowledge of context, important though such knowledge certainly is.

It's a big world out there. Such variety; little in the way of standardisation. How can anyone ever claim to be bored?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Another Saturday Night

I must say, after a day of reasonable weather Cardiff was beginning to look vaguely attractive, in a sullen manner. So I waltzed out earlier this evening (it's still Saturday, by the way) into the  city centre to partake of the street life and grab some grub. It says much for how long I've been away from these isles that it never occurred to me that it was likely to rain. But rain it did, persistently so in a peculiarly vengeful Welsh manner, and I duly got thoroughly damp walking back along the uncovered pavements to my hotel.

That was enough adventure for one evening. And to think I missed watching City come a cropper in the cup final just to get soaked.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Normal Service Is Resumed

It's late Friday night in Cardiff and I'm listening to a bit of Handel on Radio 3 - specifically his fine oratorio L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a very satisfying way to spend a cold, wet evening in Wales, I can assure you. And adding considerably to the satisfaction is the rather marvellous fact that my bag finally arrived at the hotel and I have shaved and am wearing reasonably civilised underwear.

In fact, I believe I can claim to have discovered something. It is almost worth losing your luggage in transit for the unadulterated joy of finding it again. Almost - but not quite.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Not Too Much Baggage

Well I'm here in Cardiff (where, due to the change of time zone, it's still Thursday whatever the date above may say) but my baggage isn't. This is not a good thing.

I've been assured that it is on the way at some point in the future, which is good. But the utter indifference of anyone at the airport regarding the fact that they weren't able to give me the baggage they claimed to be handling for me was irritating, to say the least. It's clearly my problem, not theirs. And they don't even begin to pretend otherwise.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Back On The Road Again

I've got a horrible feeling that despite my feeling extremely tired I'm not going to sleep too well on tonight's flight. In which case it's highly unlikely I'll be on top form for my working weekend. And, a further point to consider, I'll probably be in an even worse mess when I get back here to work next week. It's good to be optimistic about these things.

And, of far greater importance in the great scheme of things, I reckon United will go for Moyes, and I for one won't be disappointed if they do. The end of an era, eh?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Well Well

Poor Noi is coughing, spluttering and complaining of feeling feverish. And at a time when I can't afford to be ill, with a (working) trip to the UK looming, I'm selfishly worried about being next in line for a little bout of misery. I'm not very good at being ill, which is why, I suppose, I'm generally lucky enough not to be.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Time For Change

Some disappointment in this household, on the distaff side, with regard to the election results of last night. But here's the thing. Anyone who thinks a change of government anywhere will magically change a nation is naive. Real change in organisations is possible, but  happens slowly, sometimes so slowly you're not consciously aware of it until the day when you recognise things are not really the same anymore. (This requires memory - genuine memory.) Real change in nations is also possible, and a change for the worse can come very quickly indeed once you've passed the tipping point. But making things better requires engagement from citizens at all levels all the time. And it can happen under any government assuming a reasonable level of sanity in the people at the top because, in its essence, real change is not dependent upon them.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


It looks set to be a long and exciting night for those watching the results of the General Election in Malaysia. I reckon the Missus is likely to be one of them, although she has said she might just wait until morning to find out who's going to be in charge for the next few years in the country of which she is a citizen.

I just feel privileged to be around to witness events in this part of the world. I've seen considerable changes in a number of nations in the region in the last twenty-five years, most being for the better, I reckon. But the only real judges can be those who really live here. And no one's ever come up with a better place to judge than the ballot box, says this believer in democracy.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


Finished Philip Roth's incredibly sad Nemesis and immediately listened to Bill Frisell's Have A Little Faith, an album featuring all sorts of melancholy Americana. The initial connection for me was the cover of the CD, featuring a photo of kids racing towards the camera in some sort of impromptu race undertaken on 4 July 1941. It reminded me of the scenes at the Indian Camp in the second half of the novel. But then the music seemed to fit as well. Never such innocence again.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Looking Back

Very occasionally I take a look at my journal from years back. Usually I limit myself, in an entirely arbitrary manner, to whatever was going on ten years ago. Sometimes it's hard to recognise myself, sometimes not.

I was a little startled just now looking back to May 2003 to realise I'd written one or two things relating to my considering asking for a transfer from the school in which I was teaching at that time. Indeed, it turns out that it was in that month that I made the request. I must say I was pleased at the sense of cold logic that went into the decision. It would have been more comfortable to stay where I was, but I would have been betraying whatever principles I've got.

Doing the right thing is always tricky when you don't know what the right thing is. But doing the difficult thing that could be right is preferable to doing the easy thing which probably isn't. At least you can live with yourself after.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Under The Spell

I blame the library. After returning Philip Roth's wonderful Indignation what else could I do but take out the other novel by the American master on the shelves? So now I'm utterly captivated by the opening pages of Nemesis at a time when I really can't afford to be. But at least there's nothing more to tempt me: one advantage of a (very) basic library - the only advantage.

In fact, I've only ever owned one book by Roth and that was a long time ago. The tome in question was Portnoy's Complaint, which was something you sort of expected to see on a university student's shelves in those days - that and Goodbye Columbus and Letting Go, both of which I borrowed from other guys' shelves. I don't think Roth was held in terribly high regard back then. He was just seen as a pretty good popular novelist, as far as I can remember. I think somebody purloined my copy of Portnoy somewhere along the way - probably thinking it was a bit of a dirty book and, therefore, worth grabbing.

I only started to read him again back when I was living in the Mansion because the highly accessible Marine Parade Library had a few of the later novels and I'd noticed just how good the reviews had been getting. They weren't wrong.

Roth does something I can't think any other writer comes close to. He writes in such a direct, uncluttered simple way that you really start to think it is simple. He's so easy to read it's ridiculous, as if transparent. A bit like Anthony Burgess's idea of Somerset Maugham as story-teller when he compares Maugham to Joyce. In Maugham the medium, the language, doesn't matter. And so it seems to be with Roth, until you realise just how crafty, how much of an artificer, he is. And when that's allied to an emotional wallop - my goodness.

The early pages about the protagonist of Nemesis visiting the parents of the little lad who's the first victim of polio in the story are just excruciating in the way that Dostoevsky at his best can be. Yes, really that good.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Goofing Off

This being a public holiday I'd intended to get quite a bit of work done, as is the way of things in this Far Place. But I ended up doing not very much at all. I kept finding ways of urgently entertaining myself, and I must say I consider the day well spent.

First I indulged in a bit of serious listening to Ludwig Van - Symphony 1, as essayed by Roger Norrington and a group of those original instrument chappies. From what I can gather the cognoscenti regard the First as more than a little conventional and, thus, a bit of a damp squib in the great Romantic revolutionary's array of fireworks. But I love the piece, especially when it features the kind of drums Norrington employs.

After that I decided I needed to make some headway with Anthony Price's The Alamut Ambush, having got bogged down around the third chapter. To my surprise I'd finished it by early afternoon. Definitely readable, but lacking the kind of historical background that becomes a hallmark of the later Audley novels.

Then for some reason I don't quite understand I put on Roger Waters's The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking. I suppose because I've hardly listened to it since buying it on a whim and felt it deserved better. Now I'm not sure it does. Some excellent playing, especially by Eric Clapton, but hollow at the centre, and Mr Waters's vocals are off-puttingly overwrought.

And then I picked up Philip Roth's Indignation, and was lost. Another in the remarkable line of extremely readable, resonant novels Roth has produced seemingly effortlessly in his senior years. I couldn't put it down and went cover to cover in around three hours, most happily.

Yes, a day wasted is a day to savour.