Friday, February 28, 2014

On A Plate

Noi has popped up to Melaka with Rozita just for the one night to see Mak who had a nasty fall recently. She's in quite a bit of discomfort as a result and we're hoping the two ladies can help cheer her up and sort out things around the homestead that may need attention. I'd have liked to have accompanied them but have rather too much on my plate at present - so it's set to be a working weekend. Fortunately there's also a fabulous shepherd's pie on my plate courtesy of the Missus and that's going to be receiving my full and fervent attention soon.

We all need something to look forward to, eh?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

List, oh list!

Was entertaining myself in a free moment today by considering a list of the best concerts I've ever attended. What is it about drawing up lists that's so compulsive for chaps like me? Just thinking of the number of great writers who are or were compulsive list-makers makes me feel I'm in the best of company. To name but one, possibly the most compulsive of all: Robert Burton, he of the Anatomy fame. In a sense the whole of his magnum opus is a kind of uber-list, spiralling impossibly, gloriously out of control.

Fortunately I think I've managed to keep my list to a reasonable ten, based on the following: any concert making the cut had to have been: 1) so memorable I can still recall whole stretches; 2) without any draggy moments whatsoever; 3) utterly transcendent for at least ten minutes (and I'm talking about touching eternity here.)

Unfortunately I find myself unable to share my findings at the moment due to a nagging suspicion that ten is too round a number and I'm forgetting something magical. But, rest assured, I'll put an end to the suspense soon.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Charms That Soothe The Savage Breast

Spent a fair part of the evening listening to various students singing in auditions for a competition. When work involves something as delightfully enjoyable as this then the term 'work' seems a misnomer. Memorable in all the right ways.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Being Positive

When the genes for being angry about stuff were handed out I obviously received a fair few. Fortunately over time I've learnt to control those feelings with a reasonable degree of success, but I've always been thankful for having the capacity for such feelings, and I'm rather concerned about the development of a general social mind-set that might seek to deny them or regard being angry in an entirely negative light. I'm with Blake on this (as usual): Damn braces (and he wasn't talking about the things that hold your trousers up or put your teeth straight) and sometimes you need to be braced if you intend to effect change.

I'm very distinctly angry about something at the moment, and have been since Friday morning. (This has nothing to do with my students or loved ones, by the way, so don't panic if you're reading this and come under those categories and think I'm on the warpath.) What I'm angry about is small potatoes in the great sum of things and I've been very successfully not obsessing about it. But I have been coolly calculating the situation with an end in mind. I intend to do a small amount of good within my tiny corner of the universe rather than pretending that everything is okay.

I'm also keenly aware that it's no use being angry with the players involved in the situation, so I'm not, at least not in any conscious manner. But I'm quite prepared to reveal a degree of my anger to them as a means to an end. What I'm wary about is the distorting glass of righteous indignation - always a danger for someone of my kidney, but I'm not seeing too much of that around. And another thing I've learnt over time is not to allow a reasonable degree of reflection to turn into agonising. Once you know you have to act, then do so. And I will.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Everyday People

I've been meaning to say something further about Declan Kiberd's book on the greatest novel of the twentieth century (well, at least until I reread Proust and change my mind again) Ulysses and Us - The Art of Everyday Living, since finishing it a couple of weeks back, so now I will, partly prompted by Don Paterson's thoughts on the need for criticism based on the sheer human joy of lit. Kiberd's tome comes close, and to judge by some of the quotations from reviewers plastered over the paperback edition, and the garish yellow and orange cover featuring the hot blond reading Joyce's masterpiece, you'd think he'd pulled it off. But not quite, I'm afraid. There's too much here that gets bogged down in the usual critical apparatus. Not that that isn't worth reading for its insights. There are plenty of those in the traditional sense and as a sort of Joyce scholar myself I enjoyed them. But as an ordinary bloke I wish the prof had been a tad braver and really gone for the common man approach big time.

His thesis is pretty simple: Joyce had the wisdom to come to understand that the ordinary, everyday muddling-through that we all have to put up with, because it's all we've got, is a source of great joy and sanity that should be celebrated. His novel should be read for its capacity to help us endure rather than as great art as it recognises there's more than a little that's iffy about the whole notion of great art. The humour of the novel, and its tears, (and how often do these come almost as a single unit?) are not happy accidents but central to why we need to read Ulysses.

Out of the great mess of life we get this great mess of a novel. Rejoyce. (This last bit isn't Kiberd, it's me getting suitably carried away.)

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Cervantes's masterpiece is at the centre of my reading at present. It's going at a slow pace though. I'm just over a quarter of the way in and beginning to warm up to the Quixote - Sancho Panza relationship and all the playing around with meta-fictionality. It's nice to be reminded of how much more charming all this post-modern stuff was before we discovered it was post-modern.
I suppose things are going slowly precisely because I'm just warming up to it all and discovering how to read the novel in terms of pacing and focus. The digressions into other stories don't help, but I can't see much point in reading the novel at all if you don't try to grasp why Cervantes felt he needed to do this. Actually I've just passed the Cardenio story and quite enjoyed it. It helps to imagine what Shakespeare may have done with it, assuming he, in collaboration with Fletcher, probably did write a play using the tale, when reading Cervantes's take on it.
Also I've found myself having to branch off into other things, partly related to work. Back in KL at Chinese New Year I re-read Maya Angelou's Caged Bird since I'll be teaching it soon. It was not exactly a burden to find myself re-experiencing a book I rushed through when I first read it a decade or so ago, and if anything the impact of Ms Angelou's vigorous portrayal of black experience in the States, and its attendant miseries, and joys, was greater than the first time round, but it wasn't exactly something I would have read out of choice.
And that goes double for R.J. Palacio's Wonder, a sort of novel for teenagers revolving around a ten-year-old dealing with his facial deformity. This was my set reading for the 'training' I mentioned yesterday that I'm so much looking forward to. Anyway, I duly read it yesterday and this morning and, fortunately, basically enjoyed doing so. It's well written with some outstanding moments. Unfortunately, however, it might also be fairly described as manipulative with regard to its calculated tugging on the heart-strings. Not that I mind this too much - after all, in most respects its heart is in the right place, like a good episode of Oprah - but there's always the nagging worry with this kind of material that it's somehow not entirely doing justice to its extraordinarily difficult concerns.
Must say, I'm amused at the idea that someone, somewhere thinks they need to tell me what I must read.

Friday, February 21, 2014

What's In A Name?

It appears I have been nominated to attend something known as Empathy Training. Unlimited comic potential, methinks. Well, well - the event.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Happy Thoughts

Some time around noon the following thought popped into my head: Well at least I can say I never let school stand in the way of my education. It was such a happy claim that I found myself wondering whether I could genuinely offer it to the world and, on balance decided I could.

Of course, a couple of hours later I realised I was unconsciously quoting good old Sam Clemens - slightly misquoting, actually, as he has it as schooling, American fashion. So, some disappointment on the originality front, but it's reassuring to feel I'm at least to a small degree following in the footsteps of the great humorist (in whose honor I adopt the American English spelling herein.)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Blunderful World

Should have guessed that yesterday I was merely warming up in my incompetence to something truly spectacular. I delivered my piece de resistance after acting as an assessor for an assessment when I managed to mislay a file entirely necessary to my well-being and sanity. Having finally realised the file was not where I expected it be I spent a full forty minutes roving around my place of work, retracing my steps to find the blighter. Readers, believe me when I tell you that today was a hot day and it wasn't wise to be careering around in largely vain search when I could have been getting on with all the work that had piled up for me in the course of the morning.

The one bright spot in all this was that I hardly felt any of the sensations of panic I really should have been feeling as I was possessed of the certainty that the file would turn up in what would turn out to be a perfectly obvious place when my addled brain finally figured out where it was likely to be. It did.

I suppose I should be wondering what tomorrow is likely to bring in terms of my escalating stupidities but I just haven't got the energy to go to that place.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Blundering Along

It's extremely useful to find yourself pushed to a place where you're not coping. In the late afternoon I needed to photocopy a new version of my timetable, the original version having become redundant. I somehow managed to make several completely unnecessary photocopies by brilliantly copying the redundant document - instead of throwing it away - even forgetting, at one point, that I'd left the redundant documents in the copier since I'd elected to wash a cup at the same time. It's not too difficult to find excuses for my appalling levels of incompetence since I'd been besieged by in-coming problems throughout the day and barely had time to think. But the fact that I was painfully capable of making such idiotic mistakes was a wonderful advertisement for the uses of humility. Sometimes it's terribly, effortlessly easy to strive to be humble.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Playing Around

Found myself briefly waxing lyrical with regard to Don Paterson's Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets yesterday afternoon whilst quaffing the cup that cheers with ex-student and rising poetic talent Daryl. It wasn't so much that I was trying to convey how enamoured I found myself of the good Don's take on the mighty fourteen-liners, though enamoured in that direction is basically what I am, as endeavouring to convey my enthusiasm for what I sense could become a whole new way of doing lit crit (well, new to me anyway.) Thinking back to the highly pleasurable experience of reading his commentary (and the sonnets themselves) it's the sense of play and sheer fun of it all that remains with me.

I was trying to recall the section in which Paterson makes this explicit and I've just looked it up to see if it's as resonant for me now as it was when encountering Sonnet 90. It is, possibly even more so:

Serious literary criticism, far enough; but overly serious literary criticism does literature a wee bit of a disservice, because it fails to honour the spirit of play in which the work was conceived. Can't we all just lighten up? When did we become so circumspect? It's all just... monkeys speaking to each other, not a deep interrogation of the nature of physical law. But it's another symptom of the extent to which the scientific research model has infected the Humanities, which have succumbed to terminal physics envy... The truly perverse thing is that science writing discovered this decades ago, and is full of the kind of wry, free, outrageously speculative and ludic stuff that was supposed to be our birthright.

It strikes me that nattering about lit and stuff on-line might usefully go some way to restoring a sense of proportion about these matters. A place to go and play. Lighten up, people!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Bit Of A Stroll

We're just back from a walk up Dover Road, around the university campus, by the hospital and back again - with tea and prata at the end. This is part of our attempt to shed some kilos in 2014 and bring the old cholesterol levels down. I'm not sure any of this is working, but since the trying in itself is highly enjoyable, what's the harm?

I remain convinced, by the way, that walking and thinking as activities serve to each enhance the other, though I can't lay claim to any great depth of thought this evening - other than the fact I was looking forward to the tea and prata at the end. And rightly so, as it turned out.

Friday, February 14, 2014

All You Need Is Love

The Crime and Investigation channel is running a Fatal Vows marathon especially for Valentine's Day even as I write. Each episode features a salutary meltdown of some kind of loving relationship that ends in blood being spilled - usually lots. Now that's what I call appropriately cheerful programming.

The Missus and I don't really aspire to that level of intensity. The ritual exchange of cards is quite enough for us and serves to say it all. The all being more than plenty.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


I was once given a useful tip with regard to trying to sell an apartment. The idea was to make sure you were cooking a meal when prospective buyers came round. The point was not to offer them food but to cunningly create an appropriately beguiling atmosphere.

This evening I came back to smell of steak (with all the trimmings) cooking away. And I was home.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Here Comes The Flood

Remorseless coverage on Sky News of the remorseless floods in the south of England. Watching the various journos wading through the rising waters is somewhat surreal at this safe distance, but it certainly brings home the reality of the horrendous mess so many are facing.

Not many happy thoughts about all this, I'm afraid, though we enjoyed watching shots of a group of kids in a boat grinning away. My guess is that they'll remember all this one day as a great adventure. And another very small cheerful spot, for me at least: I suddenly remembered one of Peter Gabriel's finest tunes, as assayed on the Frippster's brilliant Exposure. Mind you, the prescient quality of the lyric is more than a little unnerving, yes?

Monday, February 10, 2014


I surprised myself by finishing Boey Kim Cheng's Between Stations a couple of days ago. It's not exactly a short book and when I bought it I envisaged it as a bit of a keeper. Basically it comprises a number of essays which whilst being thematically connected can be enjoyed as separate pieces, and I thought I'd manage an essay here and there occasionally. It turned out to be compulsively readable. I raced through quite a bit in KL and finished the last four essays in the time back at work when I had no time.

Impossible to do anything like justice to its many merits, but I just wanted to say how extraordinarily moving the work is. So often Boey returns to the raw wound of his relationship with his late father. He does so with deep feeling yet remarkably without sentimentality. The facts of his pain seem precisely that: facts that need to be acknowledged in an almost detached fashion.  

It's quite fascinating how more and more aspects of their relationship and his father's life and character are revealed as you read along. Yet eventually you know there are mysteries here, as there are about anyone's life, that will never be fathomed. The moment when the writer notes that the accident that lamed his father may also have been responsible for the blood clot that may have had some connection with his less than socially acceptable behaviour which ruined him - and his family - was particularly powerful for me. A reminder of the fierce vulnerability of us all.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

One Of Those Times

This afternoon, around four o'clock, a tiny fragment of paradise came and settled in the front room. The Missus had cunningly baked some chocolate muffins and we were biting into them, two each, with understandable relish. A Mozart piano concerto was doing its thing - Number 24, the one in C Minor, with Murray Perahia tickling the ivories - and time just sort of stopped. I remember reading some stuff on Maslow - he of the Hierarchy of Need, I think they call it - when I was a teenager, relating to the notion of Peak Experiences, and being chuffed to realise that I was acquainted with these as actual events. I think the PE references came to me via that angry young man of the 1950s, Colin Wilson, who it turns out wasn't really angry at all and is now desperately unfashionable, but that's by the by. At the time I thought the PE notion was of great interest, and I still do.

Anyway, I reckon I had one this afternoon, and a very jolly thing it was.

(The Murray Perahia CD came as one of a set of five I picked up dirt cheap in KL when we were there last weekend. The keys to paradise come pretty cheap these days.)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

No End In Sight

The great-sonnet-read-through came to an official end last weekend when I finally arrived at the curious, but rather lovely, 154. Bit of a relief to get there, not due to any sense of achievement, but because the thought world of the sonnets is so uncomfortably obsessive so much of the time that there's a feeling of finally wrenching yourself away from the fascinatingly, dangerously weird guy at the party that you didn't really want to talk about life, the universe and everything with, but have somehow ended up doing so. Goodness me, WS was strange. As are we all.

The thing is though that in my Penguin edition of The Sonnets, editor John Kerrigan provides the full text of A Lover's Complaint (with excellent notes), the longer poem that accompanied the fourteen-liners in the original edition. He regards it as a neglected masterpiece and, four stanzas into it, so do I. Don Paterson mentions the Complaint in his critical commentary on the shorter poems but leaves it at that, so I'll no longer have his wonderfully engaging company as I read on, but read on I will. Which means I'm not really finished, and I still can't get away from the loquacious Will. Doh!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Wonders Never Cease

Saw the back-end of the movie Lincoln on the goggle-box just now. I watched it once on a flight and was impressed, but didn't realise just how beautifully shot it was. At least, I couldn't see enough to be sure it was beautiful though I suspected it was. Anyway the suspicion is now entirely confirmed and I simply must watch a full run of the film, and since they're showing it again on Sunday that shouldn't be much of a problem.

Watching something this good hasn't restored my faith in the cinema, because I never had any. But it confirms my belief that sometimes the transcendentally wonderful somehow becomes available, and then it's wise to grab it.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Under The Influence

The notion of some kind of complete originality of thought is so obviously utterly barmy that's it's difficult to grasp why it is praised so highly. At best we may synthesise received ideas in what appear to be new ways, though it's always likely someone else got there before us. I rather like the sensation of the thoughts of others gaining entrance into the confines of my consciousness; a kind of freedom is thus made available, a getting outside oneself - to become at least twoself - possibly manyself.

There can be a real pleasure in realising whose voice it is you are speaking through. For a few moments today I became my 'A' level Lit teacher, the estimable Jack Connolly, and it felt good. (I nearly said inimitable, but the point is, of course, we're all imitable.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A World Elsewhere

Caught a little item on Sky News about the favelas of Brazil. This one concerned a kind of alley in which homeless, abandoned children congregate. The reporter was interviewing a girl of twelve, already having to sell herself. Almost too painful to watch.

I sometimes think that to have a happy childhood in which one is allowed to be a child is the greatest blessing that can be bestowed on any human being. Having been blessed in that manner it's difficult for me to take in the idea of the dreadful alternatives. But such a failure of imagination cannot be excused.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Spent time this morning getting reacquainted with young Afnan. It's amazing how the world can shrink to the size of a yellow ball (with an Angry Birds logo) and a room to kick it around in, and yet seem so large and full of possibilities at the same time.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Places, Various

We're off to Melaka later today, from whence we'll make our way back on the morrow to our usual Far Place of residence. On the road again, I suppose, but in a curious way we find ourselves at home in all these places. And similarly so when we're back in Manchester. I suppose we're good at belonging. It's striking how long we seem to have been in Hall, for example, but it's only just over three years, having occupied the Mansion for a small life-time before that. We seem to be able to stick to places somehow, but can leave them when necessary without a surplus of regret. Indeed, I think we just feel a sense of gratitude at being able to be around wherever we are.

These thoughts have in part been prompted by my reading of Boey Kim Cheng's extremely readable Between Stations. The predominant mood of this sort-of-memoir has been a kind of embittered nostalgia, so far at least, and it's a mood the poet does well. I'm finding that the Singapore he remembers and evokes with sad intensity is strangely impinging upon my memories of the place. I came into contact with the last remnants of the Singapore he recalls from his childhood and difficult adolescence in my first years out in this part of the world. It was obviously being swept away then and now I grasp something of the keen regret so many must have experienced in that time of heady change. I remember Noi showing me where Change Alley was, a sad echo of what it must have been in its heyday, and now my understanding of that location will be haunted by an image of a little boy on the shoulders of a limping man, both trying to catch some transient happiness from their walks there. I never saw this, or anything like it, but it has become real for me.

We joined our neighbours, Susan and Mike, and some of the other folks from the taman, late last night in their post-CNY celebration. They've only lived here a short time but are clearly very much in the process of belonging, and helping everyone feel they too belong. This strikes me as embodying the antithesis of Boey's sense of the need to wander and explore. Interestingly Susan was very keen on our sticking around and not selling the house. It seems we can be reasonably assured of a good price for it given the current and likely future state of the housing market in KL. I can't say I'm tempted.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Promises To Keep

The long weekend has allowed me time to finish some on-going reading a bit earlier than I otherwise might have expected to. I'm particularly pleased to have read the sixth issue of Ceriph from purple cover to purple cover. Normally I just dip into this worthy publication, picking out the plums as it were, and feeling a bit guilty over what's left disregarded - though in mitigation I should plead that I think I start everything. It's just that I don't always get much further than that.

But this time round it seemed there were plums everywhere - certainly nothing that didn't have something worth an expenditure of attention and imaginative sympathy. Even the three pieces I regarded as the weakest showed what I'm going to patronisingly term 'promise', though that's the wrong word, I know. The fact that I don't have the energy to hunt for the right way to say what I mean perhaps points to the difference between these words and theirs. They are engaged in a genuine and public quest to say something of substance in the real words required.

The delight was, though, that so many of the pieces in this issue, prose and poetry, struck me as fully assured, including those by writers with whom I am personally familiar. I think the younger me would have been a bit jealous of contemporaries capable of such levels of accomplishment. The older me simply looks forward to the enjoyment of reading what's assuredly to come.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

In Health

We gave John and Maureen a ring before setting out for the Malaysian capital, to wish them an entirely irrelevant Chinese New Year and see how they were faring on the health front. The news was basically good. John can sleep through the night now, suggesting his op was basically a success and Maureen sounded entirely like her old self, indicating there hasn't been any kind of relapse. Given the fact that both Steve and Boon were looking well when we saw them last, and Mak's recent hospital stay was short-lived, it's good to know that so many of those on the reasons-to-worry-about-a-trip-to-the-doctor list are surviving if not thriving.

A measure of John's healthily positive view of things at the moment is his dishing out of some three thousand quid on new guns, not to mention his wistful comment regarding his new acquisitions: I wouldn't mind someone breaking in just so I can shoot them.