Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Point

Since posting yesterday I've had the oddest feeling that I was missing my own point. I'd had the experience and missed the meaning.

What does it matter where Hart Crane stands in terms of the bubble reputation? What does it matter if a writer is in vogue? Or a musician, or a painter? To speak with compelling clarity to a single reader, listener, viewer is more than enough, though it won't feed the kids, of course. To create something of beauty connects you to the love of the Creator for what is beautiful.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


It's become a bit of an annual affair for me to do a workshop at the Gifted Education Branch's Literature Seminar, and in very recent years also feature as a 'literary critic' listening to various students present their research into texts and writers that have somehow come to their attention. Today one of the organisers remarked to me at the end of it all that I had had a long day and, yes, it was, but it really didn't feel too long, unlike days, all too frequent I'm afraid, filled with stuff that doesn't feel in the slightest bit educational - for me or anyone else. In fact, the time fairly flew by, fuelled by the intelligence and enthusiasm of the participants. There's something very exciting about seeing kids experiencing or recounting those moments of seeing that constitute real education.

Of course, generally students' presentations tread fairly familiar ground, and rightly so. After all, it's hardly familiar to them. Imagine discovering Orwell's 1984, for instance. I can recall the heady excitement of getting to the bit when Winston starts to read the account of Oceania's history and you find out how the nightmare works. My thirteen-year-old brain felt like it was exploding.

But today I was taken aback by one or two of the delightfully odd choices made of topics and writers. One young man, for example, was a Hart Crane fan and had some fascinating things to say about him which managed to be engaging despite being mediated through the dreaded net of Theory (and not just any theory but Bloom - Harold not Leopold - at his most obscure.) Funnily enough I'd been thinking half seriously about getting hold of the Hart Crane collection in the Library of America series, not so much as a fan, which I'm not, having very little acquaintance with the poet, but just to see whether he's any good. Going back in time to my callow years, I remember his name being fairly frequently mentioned among the accepted big or biggish ones of American letters but it seems to me, possibly incorrectly, that his reputation has been in something of a decline. On a simple level, he doesn't get name-checked that often these days and I was vaguely interested to see if we were all missing something.

If today's presentation is anything to go by, we are. And that seems to me to point towards something extraordinarily valuable in engaging in the critical pursuit - which is quite a concession coming from someone as cynical about the business of lit crit as I tend to be these days. Being made to really pay full attention to a writer who may otherwise be neglected is potentially a way of doing a kind of justice. Who knows, some years from now a Hart Crane vogue of major proportions might grow out of a single reader's perspicacity and insight.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Beyond Imagination

Evidence of how terrifically readable Reginald Hill's The Stranger House is can be adduced from the fact that somehow I've kept on reading it at a time when I have absolutely no time in which to read. I should finish it either later tonight or tomorrow and I can't wait to find out how Hill unties all the threads of the mystery and, more importantly, just what happens to the folks involved.

Apart from being a great read it's also got me interested in the whole sorry business of the child migration scheme on which the plot is based. Thousands of children over many years abused by the government and religious officials who were supposed to look after them! Interested is the wrong word though. It's inadequate to be just interested in this kind of horror. A failure of imagination. Fortunately Mr Hill's imagination does not fail.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Lights Out

Syawal is now at an end and our happy twinkling Raya lights will soon be coming down. A bit sad, but not very sad. Quite different from that Twelfth Night feeling I used to get come January.

I suppose any sense of sadness related to Muslim celebrations comes, paradoxically, at the end of fasting month itself, amid the festivities. It's difficult, I suppose, to understand why this is so and it didn't used to be for me. But it's going that way these days.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Horror Story

Settled down to watch Sky News at 9.00 this evening and was stunned by the live press conference they were covering regarding the sexual exploitation of children in Rotherham. An independent report has just revealed something of the scale of this: 1400 victims at a conservative estimate from 1997 - 2013. Rotherham Borough Council had completely failed to deal with this, despite the evidence that was coming into them, as had their Child Protection officers and the police. These people, the Council I mean, were my last employers in the UK, for ten years in the decade before the abuse is said to have occurred.

And that makes me wonder if there was anything going on related to all this in those earlier years when I was teaching in Rotherham. If there were I didn't get a smell of it at my place of work and we dealt with a fair few kids in care. But were we being na├»ve? Or maybe the nefarious networks that need to develop for this kind of thing to take place on this kind of scale just weren't in place back then?

One thing I do know - the notion that somehow in these periods of 'historical' abuse systems to deal with this kind of thing didn't exist or there was a lack of awareness of what might happen with regard to teenagers, both boys and girls, being sexually exploited is nonsense. The sort of failure we're looking at here is unforgivable, and if it turns out that the horror stretches further back in time I'll be asking myself a few questions as to what I might have been able to know and do about it in my little corner of Rotherham.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Taste Of The Divine

Coming from a background in which 'classical music' was regarded as something monumentally boring and definitely to be avoided at all costs - like immediately switching off the radio if any got played - I've had to fight for much of my adult listening life against the powerful prejudices I learnt in that period. The single greatest problem I'm left with to this day is a mindless aversion to operatic singers, though, oddly, I've never had any problem at all with choral music. And I'm afraid it's those poor diva-ish sopranos I have the greatest problem of all with, amazingly even in pieces I love. I really have to work hard at losing myself in the textures of the music, sort of forgetting it's a voice I'm listening to, which creates a bit of a problem for me in entering into the dramatic qualities of performance. 

But there's an exception to every rule, and mine is the wonderful Emma Kirkby. I've never heard her sing live but I can't think of a single recording of her I've heard when I started to think something along the lines of: a bit too fruity for me, a bit too Home Counties ma'am. (Talk about reverse snobbery - but, there you are, I'm afraid I suffer from more than my fair share of that debilitating condition.) I got in this evening and bunged on my treasured compilation of her work for the Hyperion label and, trust me, it was pure bliss.

In case you've never had the pleasure, lend an ear to her doing the business with Purcell's An Evening Hymn, and then tell me you don't think it's worth trying to get to heaven to hear more of this stuff. (Not that the wonderful lady is there yet; but when she arrives, a long time hence I pray, the angels will have a run for their money I can tell you.)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

An Anxious Age

My reading of the Auden Selected finds itself severely paused in the Caliban to the Audience segment of The Sea and the Mirror. Do you know, I've never actually got through this bit ever, despite generally being quite a fan of W.H.'s riffs on themes Shakespearian. In fact, the song of the Master and Boatswain might just make it into my all time top-ten favourite poems being one of the few I memorised entirely by accident. I suppose it's the sheer density of the Caliban piece that makes it so forbidding. Anyway, it's managed to stall me yet again.

Bit surprised to realise that these poems were written as the war was going on. I've always thought of them as products of the peaceful fifties, which shows just how wrong you can be. I'm not sure how registering the full context alters my reading, but I've got a feeling it does. Somehow Auden is one of those writers for whom context is everything. The whole 'Thirties' bit seems crucial to any grasp of the earlier stuff. And, my goodness, doesn't he do the whole darkness of our times thing so well? Probably because he's not really doing it so much as feeling it.

It's an interesting exercise to try and get a sense of the totality of the world and what it was up to circa 1940. Puts our worries in perspective.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Slow Starts

My reading of Reginald Hill's The Stranger House has been interrupted by the demands of the Toad, work quite a bit so I'm happy to report I'm now a quarter way and going strong. It's not one of his Dalziel and Pascoe books and I suppose I needed to make a bit of an effort to familiarise myself with the two young protagonists on offer in the early pages such that my reading didn't exactly flow but I now find I really want to know what happens next.

Something similar happened to me reading Peter Straub's A Dark Matter. It turned out to be great fun in the end, crazy gothic like Stephen King on amphetamines, but I wasn't entirely sure of its demands initially. Where would a reader be who wasn't keenly aware of the idea of delayed gratification? I suppose not a reader at all.

Friday, August 22, 2014

In Conclusion

There are days when not a lot goes right and this was one of them. And with that thought I'm off to bed to end it. The day, that is.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


It felt extremely refreshing spending the afternoon watching accomplished students do their thing in an accomplished manner without having to worry about some of their less-accomplished peers falling well short of what might be, indeed, should be deemed reasonable standards of behaviour. I won't go into the gory details concerning the latter - just lately a particular irritant, I'm afraid - preferring to enjoy thinking over the former.

For once I felt distinctly relaxed watching the final of the Plain English Speaking Competition for the older students of this Far Place. In previous years I've sometimes felt a little bit nervous that one of them is going to mess up and have a less than enjoyable experience such that I only really breathe easy when the last contestant clears the hurdle of speaking impromptu on a given theme for the stipulated four minutes or so. (Try it yourself, by the way, if you want to get a sense of the stress that might be involved in doing this on stage.) Today it struck me that the seven contestants were uniformly more than able to keep going confidently and put together ideas worth listening to, and in several instances most engagingly so.

I also got a distinct sense that although the competition mattered it didn't matter enough to distort a general sense of supportiveness. Our school took a number of 'supporters' and they did just that: listened and supported everyone. Nice.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Nice Blokes

Not quite sure why I did it, but in recent days I've been watching the four guys who made up Pink Floyd, Rogers Waters, Dave Gilmour, Rick Wright and Nick Mason, talking about the missing fifth, the tragic Syd Barrett, in a sequence of four individual interviews. I suppose the watching followed from my enjoyment of the interview I caught with Roger Waters on the BBC's Hardtalk which made me heavily revise the impression I'd formed (on no real basis at all) of the band's bassist, chief lyricist and, arguably, main composer. Basically I came away impressed at what a decent guy he appeared to be, someone who seemed to have kept growing over time.

Anyway, watching him talk about Syd Barrett in an earlier interview did nothing to change my mind. And now I extend my opinion to all the guys in the band. They struck me as remarkably nice blokes, especially considering the sort of hothouse they'd lived through, both during the Syd period and the years following - indeed, all their professional lives. To manage to hold together long enough to produce the work they did was quite something when you think, or I think, of just how dopey one could be in one's youth.

It was also refreshing to see people actually trying to think on camera and stumble through genuine answers.

But all very sad about Syd himself. He haunts every word, even when they're not talking directly about him. Not a nice bloke, in the end anyway. Something more.

Monday, August 18, 2014


It struck me the other day that you're never very far from some sign or something similar exhorting you to be something or do something or aspire to something in this part of the world. This came home to me particularly strongly earlier this year when we took some students to an army camp on a visit and they even had messages printed on the blocks around the running track. I can't remember encountering quite so much of this back in England, even in schools there, but who knows times may well have changed over there.

The thing is though, does any of this actually work? I know there's a whole school of thought about being positive and the like but eventually it seems to me people either become dead to constant exhortations or the whole experience just grates on them. I mean there's actually a building on the university campus just up the road that carries in big bold bright letters the injunction CREATE. Whenever I see it I feel distinctly less creative. Similarly I suspect that telling others to listen rarely inspires a desire to do so, or an understanding of how you can become a more skilful listener.

My other worry in any educational setting is that the exhortations might become in themselves a replacement for actually educating people. Telling students what they must achieve without some clarity about how exactly, or broadly, to achieve it strikes me as potentially counter-productive.

The problem is, of course, that I do as much of this as everyone else, so preaching on the matter is more than a little hypocritical.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Good Time

In the great sum of things an evening of food and drink and conversation may not amount to much. But it seems an awful lot at the time.

Much assistance from Intan, Hakim and daughter Zahira helped lubricate the machinery behind it all.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Open Doors

We're throwing open our doors this evening to anyone who cares to sample Noi's cuisine. She's been on the go since yesterday afternoon working her customary magic. I'm just along for the ride, as it were.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Listening Hard

The guy who writes the music-themed blog On An Overgrown Path is a bit of an obsessive, but I like that. The entry for 14 August happily happens to chime with a number of my own obsessions. Listening to music, and I mean listening hard, alters the music, and preparing to listen makes it twice as strange. And wonderful.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

But Is It Art?

Something I wrote in my journal ten years ago to the day:
Watched a very interesting documentary this afternoon on BBC World about this young British artist, Michael Landy, who created a kind of piece of performance art based on the destruction of all his possessions. It was oddly powerful - funny, disturbing, moving, thought-provoking. The artist himself came across as very likeable, even if obviously a driven kind of guy. Certainly the ambivalent feelings I experience about my possessions and consumerism in general surfaced strongly as I watched. If art is meant to engage you then this art succeeded in a big way.
Just checked on Wikipedia if the chap's still at it, and he is, though the entry didn't say much about his work beyond the 'piece' I remember. Generally I'm a bit of a cynic about all this conceptual art malarkey, but this was one example that opened my eyes in some small way to the possibilities involved. I actually remember the programme in question in vivid detail a decade on whilst being completely clueless with regard to references I made on the adjoining days to what I was then doing at work.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Sense Of Depression

So far I have never had to deal with suffering from any kind of major depression in my life. Like most people I've had my share of intensely low moments, but not too many all told. The closest I've come to an extended period featuring a few symptoms commonly associated with depression was early in my career when I was struggling to be something close to a half-way competent teacher. That period lasted a brief four months and even then things were never genuinely bleak since it wasn't difficult to imagine quitting for another job.

So far I've been lucky. My guess is that I've inherited no predispositions to depression (a conjecture based on the evidence for the heritability of the condition.) Even though a number of my interests steer dangerously close to the dark waters of depression I've so far found it easy to keep to the sunlit surface. For example, I'm entirely gripped by the work of Sam Beckett and, let's face it, it doesn't get much darker. Yet reading Beckett and watching his works on the stage generally makes me feel oddly cheerful. I can watch King Lear knowing every word is true, especially words like nothing and never, and feel refreshed two hours later. In my agnostic phase - which lasted many years - I could face the notion of a meaningless universe without getting overly worked up. Actually, this is why I'm pretty sure my faith doesn't function as a crutch: I don't need one, not because I'm terribly brave, but because I'm temperamentally pretty cheerful.

Fortunately the brief but painful glimpse of depression my early career afforded me, and the one genuine panic attack I experienced in hospital in 1995 as a result of a reaction to the medication I was given, have allowed me a tiny insight into what the real thing might be like. My admiration for those who cope with the condition is boundless, and extends to those who've done their damnedest to cope but couldn't manage it in the end. Perhaps especially to those.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Not Entirely Final

I really thought I'd achieved a reasonable summary of what's on my plate as far as reading is concerned for the next few weeks. However, one fairly major item was added to the list due to an acquisition made when I picked up Noi from Fifi's place last night, whence she'd gone for much of the day to help Rozita prepare the nosh for a group of our niece's friends visiting her for Raya. The tome in question was Watership Down which I bought quite a while back and lent to Fifi believing she would find it irresistible. She didn't. How can any right-thinking teenager not love Adams's marvellous epic? Anyway, it's time for this old fellow to give it another read and see if it's actually as good as he remembers it to be. I have complete confidence it will prove so.

And then it occurred to me that I really should make mention of a book of essays concerning Shakespeare & the Question of Theory which I picked up from the library the other day. Of course, regular visitors to this Far Place will know that I'm not exactly keen on lit crit in general terms and that anything that reeks of Theory is not likely to win my heart. But I do try to keep an open mind on these matters and I actually enjoyed Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare and the Exorcists. The other essays, of which I've read three so far, not so much.

And that, I'm fairly sure, is that.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mapping It Out, Sort Of

I didn't do any justice at all last night to Powers, the story I was thinking about reading ahead of going to sleep. Fortunately I made up for that this morning with a focused reading that opened up the story to me as surely as its predecessor. I am now a confirmed Alice Munro fanboy. There is something quite remarkable going on in her fiction, sober and restrained as that remarkable thing is. I think it's something to do with the sense of openness she creates: you really don't know where the stories are heading, in the same arbitrary way life has.

Now I've finished Runaway I'm thinking of where my reading is heading to next. There's a certain random quality about the choices I make that seems to work but is less than reassuringly serious. But then I've never been a serious reader in any serious sense, I'm pleased to say.

It looks like the next few novels I'll be reading will be based on the fact I came away from a sale at the old second-hand bookstore at Holland Village - the one that closed down, but then reopened briefly to sell off old stock - with no fewer than six books at ridiculously low prices ($20 for the lot.) I gleefully grabbed stuff by Peter Straub, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Frayn, Anita Shreeve and Reginald Hill, hoping to get back up to speed, in every sense, in terms of the fiction that sort of straddles the line between worthiness and straightforward entertainment. The fact that I found it impossible not to purchase my little cache solely on the grounds of how cheap it all was points to a major deficiency of character, but since this is a deficiency with which I am more than familiar I feel I can let it pass without becoming overly concerned.

I also bought a biography of Camus the other day, and The From Hell Companion by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell after the Missus told me to go across the road into Kinokuniya whilst she was buying some Raya gifts at Orchard Road. These weren't cheap but having purchased the six books I mentioned above I seem to have no resistance to general book-buying. The idea of getting hold of some kind of e-reader thingummy has now been all but officially abandoned, though it just might re-surface when I discover there's no place to squirrel away my recent purchases. (My current plan is to off-load items that I'm never going to re-visit but which might have some appeal to someone, somewhere.)

I'm also on-going with a Selected Poems of W.H. Auden, one of two 'selecteds' I've got of a poet who I find is either utterly on the nose, or terribly turgid. I've just waded my way through the sonnets grouped together under The Quest, from the early 40s which I'd previously thought of as turgid Auden. This reading did nothing to alter that opinion. Mind you, I tend to favour later Auden so there's plenty to look forward to on that front.

Finally I suppose I should mention that I'm showing incredible restraint in not succumbing to the on-line purchase of the three collections of Vonnegut novels in the Library of America edition, plus the Dashiell Hammett volumes, plus the collection of Pound's poetry under the same aegis. How long this resistance will last is uncertain though. I'm fantasising about holding them in my hands.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Hard Going

Another day of eating and drinking and making merry - well, from 4.00 pm onwards at least. I did manage to get some work done before that and to read a particularly good story in Alice Munro's collection Runaway, this being the penultimate tale, neatly entitled Tricks. At one point, when the protagonist Robin is devastatingly cold-shouldered by the man she has fallen desperately in love with on their single meeting, it seemed to be simply, though powerfully, a sad narrative of lost opportunity, but the resolution took it to quite another level.

The whole book is obviously excellent, yet I've had quite a difficult time getting through the stories and Tricks was the first one I really 'got' first time, being held from start to finish. The problem is that Munro creates fresh, dense worlds in each story such that each one presents a challenge akin to starting a new novel. At a time when demands are being made on me both in terms of work and community I'm finding it difficult to be a good enough reader and rise to the demands being made on the fictional front. In this case that's especially ironic since I've no doubt whatsoever that the demands are all too reasonable given the rewards in store.

I'm just off to see if I can do justice to the final story in the collection before drifting into dreamland. I've a feeling it's going to be a close-run thing.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Perfect Evening

Noi turned hostess this evening for some of our friends in Hall, a role she plays to perfection. What is it about eating, drinking and laughing that is so enthusiastically exhausting?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Looking Great

Caught a few minutes of the Luhrmann version of The Great Gatsby this afternoon. Happened to switch on the goggle box and there it was on one of the movie channels. I can't say I'm familiar with all of Luhrmann's work but what I do know I like - especially Strictly Ballroom and his Romeo + Juliet (which I thought was brilliant.) I suppose in some ways I've been avoiding his Gatsby. I'm teaching the novel and generally I avoid watching versions of stuff I'm in the middle of teaching as it seems like an odd kind of overkill.

Anyway, I watched a fair chunk of the film, from Gatsby driving Nick into New York to Daisy crying over the shirts and I must say I thought it was superlatively good. In fact, something quite strange happened to me. I found the Gatsby-Daisy romance deeply touching, in a way that reading the novel has never quite done for me. The director pulls off the same trick he performed with his Shakespeare adaptation: by not bothering to be faithful to the original he somehow conjures the spirit of the original.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What A Rush

One thing I used to find extremely irritating about working in schools here was that any kind of discussion between teachers regarding the fundamentals of teaching and learning always takes place in an extraordinary, impossible rush such that there's no way in which to develop any kind of coherent ideas of genuine substance. On two separate occasions today questions of profound depth were put to groups of which I was a member, the groups being asked to answer them in five minutes.

I think I now understand why this happens, indeed is bound to happen, given the context in which we work. One key factor is, of course, the sheer manic busy-ness of schools.

Funnily enough I have come to appreciate the strange, at times exhilarating comedy of all this. Once you abandon all hope of any kind of genuine intellectual progress a sombre satisfaction can be salvaged from the brittle shards of thought on offer. Moments of genuine insight rub up against what we might charitably term moments lacking such insight in ways that lead nowhere except to an understanding of why it's sometimes better, like Lear's Fool, just to hold one's peace.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

We Are The Champions, Sort Of

I'm getting this one in early, knowing there's the distinct possibility it could all go pear-shaped, as they say in Cockney-influenced dramas, but a victory over those chaps from the Mersey in a cup final is a victory to relish. If this keeps up I should be smiling a lot more in lessons in the second semester.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Changing Times

A telling juxtaposition on the news just now: an item on the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War rubbing against another grim piece on the horror in Gaza. But think of this: if you'd have told a European a hundred years ago that there would be a time when Western Europe would be involved in a peace so deep it would be difficult to imagine there might be any other state he or she would have laughed hollowly.

It's an extraordinary thing, but times do change. The question is whether the people trapped within them can move forward accordingly.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Social Network


After the fasting follows the feasting. Well, that's overstating it a wee bit, but we were never hungry as we did the rounds of several houses of relations in this Far Place. (Back in Melaka Noi and I managed three households on the afternoon of the first day of Syawal.) Of course, it's the people that count and it's nice to be part of something that values real people in community above other forms of 'networking'.

The custom is to seek for forgiveness from those you visit, and vice-versa. Something we could all use a little of.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


It's very satisfying to sit in a theatre and watch something without the pressure of wondering if a projector is going to fail, or a curtain will take it upon itself to malfunction in mid-performance. And it's even more satisfying if you happen to be watching a really great show, like the one our dancers put on tonight.

The energy of the youngsters alone was astonishing, quite apart from their considerable talent. I reckon you could keep a small city alight with the trains running based on what was emanating from the stage tonight.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Retiring Type

Last weekend back in Melaka I was asked three times in two days, by different people, when I intended to retire. Disconcerting. Do I look like I need to retire? I suspect the answer is in the affirmative.