Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Read a couple of plays yesterday, and they really couldn't have been more different. Absolutely loved John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, and knew I was going to, since I saw the film a while ago and loved that. In fact, I seem to remember writing good things about Meryl Streep's performance particularly in this very Place, and if I didn't mention it then I can tell you that Philip Seymour Hoffman - may he Rest In Peace - was no slouch either as the guilty? guiltless? priest. The play itself is a marvellous piece of theatre: cool, intelligent, taut, compassionate.

Very different from Sarah Kane's Blasted  which I loathed, though not absolutely. Part of me thought it was brilliant, which made the loathing even more intense. And loathed is the wrong word for something that got deeply under whatever layer protects my cerebrum, lodging itself in my consciousness like a malignant tumour. That's a pretty lame image for what I'm trying to express and I can tell you now, Ms Kane would have come up with something a lot more viscerally unpleasant because this is what she did very, very well indeed when she was with us. The sad fact she isn't any longer, just adds to all that makes Blasted an almost unbearable piece of work. If I ever had the chance to see it staged I doubt if I would want to go.

But I'm not sure. Almost unbearable is not quite the same thing as completely unwatchable and amidst all the cruelty and despair of the play there are glimpses of some kind of redemptive power. Having felt fairly sick when I finished it last night - in bed, actually - I read it again today, still numbed, and I suppose that says something, though I'm not quite sure what. I'll have to come back to this. Unfinished business. Cannot process.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Expanding The Mind

Just finished the Summer Issue (August - September) of The New York Review of Books and, golly, it was a corker. Not a single duff article in there. I hesitate to pick the stand-outs, but the Charles Simic essay The Prisoner of History lingers in the mind, and Hugh Eakin's piece on Oman made me keen to get to grips with what's going on these days in the quieter spots in the Middle East. But, then, every review made me keen to get hold of the material under scrutiny - but since this is just not humanly possible I guess I'll have to settle for second best and accept it as the excellent second best it is.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Indignity Of Labour

We were on our way to the Jalan Kayu Prata place this afternoon for tea and a snack, driving along Dover Road, when I noticed a group of labourers resting at the roadside. I think they were waiting to be picked up at the end of their shift since they were on the opposite side of the road from the big construction site for what appear to be some new university buildings - appalling examples of the New Brutalism in what passes for architecture these days, by the by. Also judging by the way the gents were slouched down in various deflated shapes I assumed they'd had enough for the day. They made up a tableau of tiredness to the point of something approaching exhaustion. And, as an afternote of sorts, a couple of their colleagues (I assume) were actually stretched out at full length along the grass verge adjacent to the main road asleep, poor souls, about a hundred yards further up the road.

It put me in mind of my discovery of just how exhausting manual labour can be, made when I was seventeen and, rather foolishly working seven days a week: five days at the factory I got a job at after leaving school, including all the overtime I could get, and two at the weekend job as an industrial cleaner I'd been doing then for a couple of years. Even as a reasonably fit kid I quickly worked out that the body just can't take the relentless demands this kind of work makes upon it - and I suspect it was a lot easier than construction work under the hot sun. Anyway I ditched the weekend job and survived until I could get away to university.

All that Soviet Realist propaganda with its images of their heroic workers is a big turn off because it falsifies. But the irony is, it falsifies something that is deeply real - the simple undignified heroism of the guys who go in everyday and get the job done because they have no choice. One thing factory work taught me, by the way, is never to work in a factory if you can help it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

All Very Ordinary

Highlights of the day: reminiscing with the Missus about recent holidays, especially our time in Paris, and munching some scones for afternoon tea. Isn't it splendid to be very ordinary?

The counterbalance to all this: completing my quota of marking for the day.

Now listening to Daniel Lanois's Acadie, which wins the day for the good guys. I finally figured out how to get it to play via the iTunes on my laptop more than a year after downloading it via Noi's iPad. Slow learner, eh?

Friday, September 26, 2014

History Unfolding

Joe Sacco on the first day of the Somme. Genius. You need to be a bit mad to capture the madness.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Reason Not The Need

Just lately I've been showing quite remarkable restraint on the magazine-buying front. Until two days ago my policy of not buying a new copy of any given mag until the current one under scrutiny has been read from to cover was firmly intact. I'd manfully resisted a new issue of Philosophy Now featuring old Wittgenstein on the cover - in itself a huge pull-factor to get out the old wallet - and dutifully plodded through a couple of dry pieces from the previous edition that I'd really got stalled on before allowing it into the house. 

And then I encountered the latest issue of Prog as pictured above. I still hadn't finished Issue 48, not having looked at the reviews in any serious manner, but I think you'll understand why Issue 49 (as above) had to be mine immediately. And so it was.

(Of course this in no way makes up for having no chance of ever seeing the mighty Krim live again, but I'm old enough to accept that some deep needs can never be fulfilled, I'm afraid.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

One Day

How do you keep going? I once asked a colleague very much senior to me. (This was a long time ago. No one is very much senior to me anymore.)

Take it a day at a time, came the sage advice.

And how do I keep going these days? many years later, you may ask, and someone actually did of me the other day.

A day at a time still works pretty well, though sometimes I settle for just figuring out the hour immediately ahead of me.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Something To Reflect On

It seems that ten years ago to the day I was forced to endure something called 'Reflection Time' at the school at which I was then working. I say this not because I can actually remember anything about the experience - I suppose the horror of it has been suitably repressed by my conscious mind - but because I've just been reading my journal of ten years back and that's what it says.

Indeed, I went on a bit of a rant about the whole thing:

I had an odd experience this morning watching three so-called inspirational slide-shows in order to 'reflect' on them. I ended up reflecting on the oddness of the experience. Why do so many people in Singapore seem to regard watching these things as having anything to do with thinking? I don't think they promote thought in themselves as they present closed systems - they tell you what is right and don't invite you into any kind of dialectic. I suppose the people who think that thought is promoted wish the viewer to think about their lives/work and how the lessons of the slide shows can be applied (and I guess there is some value in this.) However, this loses out on what is most powerful about thought and reflection: its ability to remake the world and ourselves by its engagement with that world.

In the motivational paradigm we are never fully engaged because anything that may threaten our motivation is closed out of the experience. But these things, those that threaten, are tied to the most interesting and real opportunities to make progress. Because that which fails to acknowledge the real, takes on the texture of a fake. Ultimately it is empty. And what is real threatens us because we are not built to cope with reality. We are built to bend reality to our wills.

Funnily enough I think my reflections of the evening (when I presume I wrote the above) are pretty decent, as far as they go (though the last sentence is more than a bit iffy), but I rather think they wouldn't have been at all welcome during the time allotted for 'Reflection.' There is some irony in this, methinks.

Fortunately no one at present is forcing asking me to reflect. So I won't.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Pure Envy

I am caught in a rage of dark bitter envy. My target? Any Crimson fan within striking distance of NYC who is, as I write, able to sample KC (Mark VIII) live and kicking. The on-line commentary has made it all too clear this version of the band is a monster. And I'll never get to see them!!!

(Unless the Frippster decides to tour Japan and it's at a time I could reasonably get there. Or, more likely, he allows the release of a DVD of the show. Not quite the same as live, but I'll settle.) In the meantime I just have to imagine what I'm missing and it's killing me. (I just read this from the Boston Herald on-line and it did nothing to heal the pain.)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Coming Into View

Caught a documentary over the weekend (in two different bits - they repeated the programme) about modern painters from Holland and Belgium - well, modern in terms of starting with Van Gogh. The presenter chappie was that hyphenated fellow Andrew something-something who generally does a good job of looking enthusiastic and saying enlightening things about the canvases they park him in front of. Really enjoyed the bits about Van Gogh's The Potato-eaters, a painting I know quite well from reproductions and have always enjoyed without quite knowing why (and now I know why) and some early landscapes by Mondrian. I think I'm supposed to be more impressed by later Mondrian - the famous geometric stuff - but it's the pieces that he did during the First World War when making the move from figurative art to pure abstraction that spoke to me.

It occurs to me that I really don't watch enough of this kind of thing. There's quite a bit on youtube, I now realise, that I've been utterly blind to. At one time I aspired to be reasonably knowledgeable about visual art. Now I just enjoy what I can, when I can, and I reckon I should aim to do a bit more of that.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Music In Mind

Entertained myself during one of my invigilation slots on Friday by running some tunes from Sondheim's Sweeny Todd through my head. Then went on to an internal rendition of the Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall. Quite ironic considering it was an examination.

This got me thinking of the obsessive element in music, or in my experience of music, that is. Once I'd started on my Friday renditions I really couldn't stop myself, so it's a good job the examination hall was a hive of inactivity for that particular fifty minutes. Similarly I'm at a loss to explain why my recent discovery of material from Bill Frisell's Disfarmer project on-line means that it's become imperative for me to get my clammy fingers on the whole set. Except, perhaps, that something as uselessly beautiful as this cannot be ignored by anyone with ears.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Just Our Imagination

When you're at the bleak immigration desk at border control a nation can seem awfully real. But really any nation is, at least to some degree, an act of imagination - collective imagination, that is, and the more collective the better. One of the few ways I know of uniting the thoughts of the living and the dead.

So we must be careful what we imagine.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Was listening to a story on the BBC World Service yesterday about a guy who'd lived for the last eight years in his car. Felt almost envious for some reason. I suppose it's the idea of reducing one's responsibilities to the minimum that oddly appeals.

Not entirely sure how he managed going to the toilet, though. He spoke of bushes and long grass at the side of the road. At that point the notion of car-life lost its appeal and responsibilities transmuted into privileges.

The guy was a musician, by the way: a guitarist. I suppose that explains everything.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Bad Example

Was looking at some photos of Camus today - he was smoking in all of them, of course - and was struck by how utterly cool he looked. Rather disturbing to be responding in such an adolescent fashion but I suppose the sixteen-year-old part of me had suddenly taken charge. Clearly a lot of young ladies back in Algeria and France circa 1940 thought the same way if we are to believe his reputation for womanising, and, let's face it, we are.

This all put me in mind of one of the best recent issues of Existential Comics, which I think manages to be spot on with regard to both Camus and his (eventual) bĂȘte noir. Difficult to think of anyone siding with Sartre in their big row. (Frankly, difficult to think of anyone siding with Sartre on anything of real note.)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Slowing Down

Just watched a mildly entertaining programme on H2 (which, if my understanding is correct means something like History Channel 2) concerning the development of certain American idioms related to transportation and drug use. However, I doubt that I'll watch any further episodes, despite finding the content fairly interesting since whoever produced the episode saw fit to imitate the style of music videos. Individuals shots rarely lasted longer than a few seconds. Even if the presenter was interviewing someone in a relatively staid setting the camera angle kept changing such that the viewer was never allowed to settle. I think this was supposed to engender a kind of excitement. Oddly, though, a number of shots were repeated ad nauseam which created something akin to a distinct lack of excitement in this viewer.

I have a horrible feeling that this is how some folks picture that hoary cliché: the classroom of the future. Thank goodness I belong to the past.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Second Thoughts

Having the week off has proved fairly productive in terms of getting some reading done. I've completed my reading of the Auden Selected and found myself having to reconsider the way I look at Auden the Poet. I suppose I've always thought that the late stuff, from the mid-fifties onwards, was hardly vintage and we needed to look at the Thirties Auden for the real thing. Curiously I found myself enjoying the final poems in the Selected a good deal more than anything else (except for the out-and-out 'classics' no one's going to argue with) and starting to wonder whether this was the ultimate authentic voice of the writer, hard-fought for and entirely achieved. I remember W.H. being interviewed by Michael Parkinson for his late night chat show some time in the early seventies and giving a reading of his poem on the moon landings. At the time I thought it disappointing, as a choice and a poem; now it seems perfect for its time and, indeed, these times.

Oddly I've got a feeling that I once read, long ago, one of Auden's later books of poems - was it Homage to Clio? - and got something of the same feeling of enjoyment, but thought that the book must represent something of a falling-off because all the critics seemed to think so. I suppose I really must get hold of the Collected Shorter Poems at some point and see how much I've missed.

Also found myself having second thoughts about Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun. I've never seen a stage version of this but I can just about remember the movie and I've always thought of it as a worthy period piece, representative of the early stages of the movement for civil rights in the U.S. Not exactly great drama, but expressing something that needed to be said at that period. The play swam back into my consciousness through marking IB papers as one or two centres have taken it up in the classroom, and I was pleased to get hold of a copy along with that cache of cheap novels from the shop at Holland Village. It turns out that I underestimated the work. Ms Hansberry, who sadly died very young, was clearly a dramatist of great mythic power. The Younger family have something of the archetypal power of the Lomans about them and the play entirely transcends its period, making the concerns of black Americans in 1959 seem universal in their scope. I'll bet the drama positively fizzes in a theatre.

As ever, it's nice to be wrong, and it makes life a lot more interesting.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Advice For Newly-weds

I managed to impart a little bit of hard-won wisdom to niece Aziqah last Wednesday evening, ahead of her marriage, which was solemnised last night. To summarise: When you find yourself with a plentiful supply of fries on your plate (that's what they call chips over here) offer them all to your husband. Thus are formed the ties that bind.

Deep as this is, it has its limitations - especially if you're not in the habit of eating chips. So I'll attempt something more general for the population at large. Namely: Don't take marriage for granted. Work at it. It's an incredibly rewarding experience, but it all depends on what you put into it and the spooky thing is that what comes out is seemingly infinitely greater than anything that you can put in. A kind of celestial maths is operational, as long as you open yourself to it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Not Entirely Farcical

Finished Michael Frayn's Headlong this morning. Highly entertaining, as you might expect from the guy who wrote the brilliant farce Noises Off and the screenplay for the wonderfully daft Clockwork - my favourite John Cleese movie, A Fish Called Wanda not withstanding. Frayn's protagonist-narrator is a typically ineffectual philosopher turned inept con-man with an interest on the side in Dutch art, which develops into quite an obsession and if you like this sort of stuff, which I do, there's not much you're not going to enjoy about the novel. It turns out to be a great way to learn about the life and work of Pieter Breugel and since at one time, back in my teens, I would have claimed him as my favourite artist this aspect of the book in itself held enormous appeal for me.

Indeed, I rather think it's Frayn's dark picture of life in the Lowlands under authoritarian Spanish rule that I'll most clearly remember about the novel as opposed to the laugh-out-loud moments, of which there are several. I suppose the fact that he doesn't really marry these two aspects of the work together means it's not really possible to regard Headlong as anything other than a well-crafted entertainment, but that was quite good enough for me, thanks.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Place Of Light


Of course, it's the people who bring light to a house. But a steady supply of electricity is a big help.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Night Journey

We came here threading dark-eyed night, arriving just after 1.00 am. Here is Maison KL and we weren't exactly threading the north-south highway but fairly barrelling along with not that many other vehicles on the road and no hold-ups at all. In fact, I reckon we saw more lorries than ordinary cars. I assume a lot of goods get moved during the nether hours in Malaysia as they'll go a good deal faster. I wonder whether the drivers are paid for unsocial hours. I doubt it somehow. 

There's precious little to look at along the highway when you're driving at night, but occasionally you pass isolated little houses set back from the main road and wonder who lives there and why. They appear curiously welcoming as their lights shine into the darkness, almost cosy, though I doubt whether this would actually be the case once inside. Why is it that other people's lives look so attractive when you're just passing alongside them?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Wedding Bells

We're off soon to the wilds of KL and this time it's not just personal. Niece and nephew Aziqah and Ashraf will be getting married this weekend (it's cost effective to marry off two of your kids at once) and we'll be there to help celebrate the occasion. In fact, Noi has already been in attendance for the first leg of Ashraf's big fling and has been heavily involved in the arrangements for Part 2 (don't ask - Malay weddings are a complex business) so she'll be more than just an on-looker, if you see what I mean.

There's already been a kerfuffle about the wedding dress (Aziqah's, well, one of them) and the venue for Saturday's night's nosh-up, which is not allowing a tent to be erected, though a tent is an absolute necessity given the likely size of the turn-out; so I reckon parents Hamzah and Sharifah are feeling more than a little up-tight at this point in time. These things have a way of working themselves out though and, come what may, the youngsters still have that long dark mystery ride to look forward to - which is the point of it all.

Focus on the marriage, not the wedding, say I (sounding suspiciously wise for once.)

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Long Haul

Pictured above: the spoils from my most recent appearance at the annual Lit Seminar. Not a bad haul, eh, and I actually gave away over half the book vouchers I received for my services to our three nieces resident this side of the Causeway.

Almost all poetry, of course, in deference to how they're earned, and chosen for the most part on the principle that I've never heard of them before and somebody somewhere thinks they're good so let's give them a go. Honourable exceptions, it goes without saying, the excellent Billy Collins - though since I own nothing by him I suppose he qualifies in that respect - and the equally excellent Michael Ondaatje - of whom I own a battered second hand copy of his Billy The Kid book which is wonderfully strange.

My standard prediction at this time of the year applies: it will probably take me until next September to work my way through this little lot. I've still got to clear my Selected Auden before I can make a start.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Out Of Focus

Odd sort of day. Found myself with plenty of time on my hands and didn't quite know what to do with it. Couldn't read anything in a sustained fashion but skittishly kept jerking from one thing to another, though I did finish Anita Shreve's Testimony. I suppose the novel lends itself to a broken-up kind of  reading as it does the perspective thing - moving from viewpoint to viewpoint across quite a range of characters - and does it well, but anything that followed Ms Oates's blisteringly good The Tattooed Girl was likely to feel a bit inadequate and this did.
Funnily enough we've had at least two requests from students to work on Testimony as a text for an Extended Essay, both involving other supervisors who've then asked me for advice about this, and in each case we've put them off. It's a worthy enough novel but dealing as it does with a graphically described scandal concerning teenage sex in a private school I was of the opinion it's going to be difficult for any student to write about without feeling constrained if not extremely embarrassed about how to deal with such content. When I saw it going cheap just recently I sort of felt obliged to read it, rather than just going off the reviews I'd read, in order to make my recommendations. And now I have read it I feel reasonably vindicated insofar as in addition to the genuine problems involved in the embarrassment factor I don't think the writer finds anything of great weight to say on her subject. It read like a very good Hallmark movie for tv, if you see what I mean (though I think the channel's now called Diva.) I kept thinking she was going to surprise me about her characters and their motives, but she didn't, though she did keep me reading despite my lack of focus.
In case you're wondering, the poems of W.H. Auden kept pulling me away from the novel as did a compulsion to listen to the following: Blur's 13; the Faure Requiem (and other bits and pieces from the coolest Frenchman after Camus); The White Album, by you know who; Want Two, by Rufus Wainwright; and Stravinsky's Symphony in C. There, I told you I was skittish.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Random Dramatic Individuals


Some people live to see their names in lights, eh?

Friday, September 5, 2014


Reading Joyce Carol Oates's The Tattooed Girl. (It's a blast.)

Listening to Stravinsky - or, rather, I will be later in the day. The Rite of Spring, since you ask.

Wondering why Man U bought Falcao and what this means for the future of Wayne Rooney.

Hoping to get a good lie-in tomorrow after having had to get up early for a day with my drama guys today.

Praying for peace in troubled places.

Writing this.

Worrying about nothing. Hah!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

High Spirits

Found myself meditating on the notion of generosity of spirit in the afternoon, having witnessed so many manifestations of it in the morning. Realised for the first time what a deeply subversive quality it is. Possibly the most powerful of all weapons in the War on Capitalism.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Not So Cramped

To my baffled, delighted surprise I find myself with time to breathe. The insane busyness of the last three weeks has suddenly been replaced by business as usual, which is still busy, but doesn't involve getting something crucial done in the next half hour every half hour.

This is partly, but not entirely, related to the fact that I've cleared all my marking. For the moment. This is a particularly good thing at this point in time as the right side of my right hand (the bit with the little finger) has been showing signs of cramping up since Sunday and I can't afford another body part taking it upon itself to rebel.

I find it a matter of some small fascination, by the by, that in the course of my career I've witnessed a gradual shift from an understanding that it's quite important to ensure that teachers get time to mark, to an environment that seems designed to prevent them from indulging in any such selfish frivolity.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Coming Unstuck

Finally, finally, finally I made it to the end of the Caliban to the Audience segment of Auden's The Mirror and the Sea. The problem is I'm not sure I'm any wiser regarding what it's about than I was when I hadn't read it.

This is WH at his most bafflingly obscure, as bad as the densest pages of The Dyer's Hand. How is it that a writer who can be so thrillingly, transparently brilliant (think, The Shield of Achilles, one example of many) can be so utterly opaque at times? The problem is that I'm inclined to suspect the problem lies in me, as a less than ideal reader, rather than in the great man having an off-day.

Although maybe there's an argument to be made that when he moves from the concrete to the abstract Auden has more than a tendency to obscurity for the sake of obscurity.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Spirit Of Our Age

Ever since reading Hazlitt's tome of (nearly) the same title I've been thinking of how one might reasonably capture the spirit of our own age. Reading Auden along the way and thinking about his own anxious age served to keep the topic in view for this thinker. (Not that I'm entirely convinced that's what I am, but let's not go down that road for now.)

As close as I can come to any sense of the zeitgeist, it seems to me a distinctly plural age, a time for everything, and too much of everything at that. And thus, defeated, I'll let this one go.