Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Critical Eye


Imam Zaid Shakir, writer of the foreword to the rather handy little Guide to Visiting Makka and Madina that we took with us on our travels, doesn't think much of the new hotels surrounding al Masjid al Haram. He describes them as, kitsch towers, designed by architectural firms in Paris, New York and London... That's actually kinder than the blistering comments on them by Ziauddin Sardar in his new book on Mecca: The Sacred City as quoted by Malise Ruthven in his review of the same in the October number of the Literary Review: The skyline above the Sacred Mosque is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling mountains. It is surrounded by the brutalism of hideously ugly rectangular steel and concrete buildings, built with the proceeds of enormous oil wealth that showcase the Saudi vision for Mecca. They look like downtown office blocks in any mid-American city. Ruthven goes on to outline some of the less-than-righteous motivations that, according to Sardar, lie behind this development - most associated with the generating of filthy lucre, and lots of it.

Now I'd read Ruthven's review before setting out and was, therefore, aware that aspects of development of the holy city were open to criticism. But what I hadn't quite expected was that we'd be staying, very comfortably indeed, in one of the hotels being criticised and thus greatly benefitting, not least from their proximity to the sacred precincts. I realised, to my surprise, that I'm one of the rich - well, not quite in the super-rich league that's making all the money, but certainly well enough off to enjoy the fruits of these developments.

It also struck me, as Noi insightfully pointed out, that the new developments were necessary to cope with the sheer numbers of visitors now allowed in throughout the year and not only at the time of the Haj. And whilst the super-rich would enjoy the super-luxurious apartments in the giddy heights well above our rooms with the superlative views of the Kaaba, our travelling companions were quite ordinary folk, who happened to enjoy the luck of coming from a developed nation. So there're genuinely wide benefits involved for a much wider range of people than Sardar's book would seem to suggest.

So now I'm conflicted. Chatting just now to Fuad and Rozita about our experiences I found them sympathetic to a critical view of the new architecture - especially the clock tower - which wasn't around when they visited when Fifi was still a babe in arms, but I felt a nagging suspicion that I was being a bit holier than thou about all this. One thing though is clear, the Haj has to be made affordable and accessible to pilgrims from all over the world, which means to those who aren't necessarily from the comfortably-off middle classes of whatever nation you care to name, and I'm really not sure this is the case at present. Otherwise I wouldn't worry too much about the egregious architecture and the kleptocracy making oodles of cash. Bad taste and greed are always with us. But so is the quiet majesty of the Kaaba, which survives, and will survive, it all.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Transitional Phase

Now in the Quiet Room at Hamad International Airport in Doha. We've got a five hour stop-over here before our flight to Singapore, and if you have to have a five hour break at an airport, Doha is the place to be. Trust me!

Listened to Radiohead, Neil Young and Bowie on the flight from Jeddah, thus breaking my musical fast: The Bends, After the Goldrush and Ziggy Stardust respectively - bits of, that is. Goldrush was incredibly evocative - sweet and melancholy. And I remembered just how good Radiohead are: the first half of The Bends (all I listened to actually) is pretty near flawless. Unfortunately we landed in the middle of Bowie's You'd Better Hang On To Yourself, which shows that life is never quite perfect, even when it comes close.

Afterword: Back in Hall safely in two pieces - one piece each - by the early afternoon. Tired but deeply content. Prata and teh tarik to end the day.

Monday, December 29, 2014


At breakfast, after we'd completed our own circling of the Kaaba and then done the Dawn Prayer, Noi tentatively observed: I felt so... small, in relation to her experience directly in front of the Kaaba. It was well put. The structure is by no means grand, yet looking into the mystery of things dwarfs you.

In a way this trip has reduced our individuality, yet made us part of a greater whole. In simple, everyday terms I would not have been able to deal with certain occasions without the help of our fellows in the tour group, and for that I'm deeply thankful. Particularly memorable is the manner in which two different guys looked after me on two different occasions in the scrum to pray near the Prophet's (peace be upon him) tomb in the mosque in Medinah, when they had plenty to take care of for themselves.

The Missus, of course, has entered into all the communing with gusto. As far as I can tell she's friends with all the ladies in the group and has been merrily chatting away to everyone she meets in the mosque - where she's been handing out dates to all around her and sweets to the children, lucky them.

Now packing for the return trip, so the ties we've made can only be temporary. But then, that's true of life in general, I suppose.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Still Seeing Things


Since they say a picture paints a thousand words, hope you enjoy reading ten thousand words above on al Masjid al Haram in Makkah.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Being Challenged

My feet are extremely sore, so that walking is difficult, the crowds in Makkah are irrationally large and behave in seemingly irrational ways, and completing the umrah rites is not simple by any means, especially wearing the ihram, which I haven't got used to at all. Yet I'm having a wonderful time, and all the above constitutes room for celebration. As al Ghazzali (my current reading, and a wise old bird if ever there was one) might have put it if he'd been rather less articulate than he actually is: in the challenge lies the whole point, as this is what makes us grow - in this case, growing in patience.

First the feet, appropriately since as Beckett so shrewdly shows us through poor Estragon in Godot, they are the much neglected, often ignored, basis of everything. Mine do not adjust well to dry, colder climates. Now it's not exactly cold here - in fact the temperature is wonderfully temperate at the moment - but it's colder than Singapore, and drier, and that's all that's needed to make my heels and toes crack. Add to that the bare-foot walking, sometimes jogging, on marble floors that's often required here, and the damage caused by the chafing of the straps on some new flip-flops I've been using, and you have a recipe for a painful, blistered mess, which is what my feet have become.

The crowds are extraordinary, much worse than those in Medinah. Frequently, around prayer-times, there are lots of folk trying to get into the masjid as lots of folk are trying to get out, and lots of other folk are sitting down and praying, eating, chatting, reading the Qur'an in the middle of them all. Initially I could see no logic whatsoever to all the movement but I'm gradually getting some sense of what's going on.

When performing the umrah rites the crowds involved also present their fair share of problems. I was initially puzzled when circling the Kaaba as to why there were so many people going in odd directions, sometimes seemingly against the flow. Now I've come to realise that they need to move away from the circumambulating themselves and have their problems staying together. But, as I mentioned above, it's the wearing of the ihram, the two pieces of unsewn cloth required to be worn by all male pilgrims that has really stretched me. The bottom piece isn't too bad as you are allowed to use a belt to secure it. But the top piece has a nasty habit, with me anyway, of deciding to come loose and fall away at the most inopportune moments. Some guys manage to wear ihram with real style and dignity: I am not one of them.

The great thing about ihram, well one of them, is the way it makes clear that all pilgrims are equal in their status, so it's more than worth the inconvenience involved. And you get a tremendous sense of belonging to a tradition of pilgrimage that stretches back centuries. And that's the thing about all the problems: they point the individual to a greater understanding of self - and humanity in general. Bad feet teach you how vulnerable you are; the crowds help you understand the plight of the weak and vulnerable - the elderly, the infirm, the children; the ihram reduces you to your less-than-wonderful essence.

And think of this: we are enjoying the comfort of a five star hotel and easy travel to and from these far places. In the past pilgrims risked their lives to do what we can do so easily. It makes me feel very small, for which I'm very grateful.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Bringing In The Dead

There seem to be a lot of people dying in Medinah and Makkah. I say this because Solat Jenazah, the prayer for the dead said when the body is bought into the mosque before being taken for burial, has been said at every prayer bar one that I've attended since arriving in both cities. (The picture above is of the door that the bodies are taken through at al Masjid al Nawabi.)

So this means at least five deaths a day, given the five sets of prayers we pray daily. I'm not sure how this figures in terms of general population size, but I do know that I can count on less than half a hand the number of times I've attended Solat Jenazah while attending Friday Prayers in Singapore and Malaysia. I assume the seemingly high number is due to just the sheer size of the mosques involved and the fact that many Muslims come to these holy cities hoping to die.

Whatever the explanation is it's clear that there's a close acquaintance involved, as it were, with the brutal fact of death and an awareness of such. And I note a kind of paradox here. According to our gnu atheist friends religion functions as a kind of delusional means of avoiding reality, offering false consolation. But in my experience religions are much readier to accept the reality of death and suffering and human vulnerability than what we might term secular ways of thinking, which seem to wish to tidy these realities away. Here you can't escape the fact that people are dying thus around us every day.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Something To See


A new hotel with faster connections means it's possible to get a bit visual. All shots above taken in and around al Masjid al Nawabi. I told you it was gorgeous!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Still Centre

Now in Makkah where al Masjid al Haram in places resembles nothing so much as a building site, especially round the Kaaba. Early this morning - really the middle of the night, around 2.00 - 3.00 am we completed the rites of the umrah for the first time, and the odd thing is that far from in any way detracting from the experience, the surrounding reconstruction seemed to enhance the enigmatic stillness and centrality of the Kaaba itself: the still centre of the turning world.

Perfectly simple.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Yes, I know there is no real word 'departuring', but it's a term our beloved ustad often uses as he translates from Malay to English, and one which seems to me to have a sense of gravitas. We're leaving the illuminated city, al Medinatul al Munawwara soon, to perform the actual umrah in Makkah. Fittingly there was a radiant sunset at Maghrib prayers, which I witnessed at the same spot I prayed the same prayer last Friday. That seems a long time ago now. Time seems to move with a special slowness in this special place.

If we get faster connections to the Internet at our next hotel I'll try posting some pictures. But really the only pictures that count are those in the mind's eye. I have one in mind now which I didn't have the camera for. As I approached the masjid for the Asr prayer last Friday, when I happened to be on my own, a large flock of birds came shooting low just over the heads of the crowd moving towards the main front gate of the masjid, the King Fahd gate. (There are lots of birds that gather in the big open space before the outer perimeter of the mosque, because worshippers feed them there - a bit like Trafalgar Square in London.) The flight of the birds was exhilarating in their speed and positioning, and quite frightening as they came so close to the heads of the crowd. It seemed like a sign of something; most obviously, of course, of the glory of the creation.

Monday, December 22, 2014


Al Masjid al Nawabi really seems to belong to its users. It looks like some folk are there all the time - chatting, learning, reciting, eating, drinking, praying, sleeping. It's a dramatically monumental building, but manages to be a great deal more than a monument. Which is part of its magnificence.

I assume, by the way, that the modern day architects modelled the columns of the interior on the great cathedral in Cordoba. They chose the best of role models, and there's a lesson in that.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Impressively slow Internet speeds and a wobbly hotel connection mean it's been difficult to post from here in Medinah, where we've been stationed since yesterday.

However, it's difficult to feel like complaining since we happen to be within a five minute walk of al Masjid al Nawabi and we've been on a steady high as we've been doing all our prayers there since the congregational prayer yesterday. Impressive is too frail a word to describe the effect of worshipping in the Prophet's (peace be upon him) own mosque. Awesome is a bit better, though devalued by current usage. Transformative is the best I can do for the moment.

Yesterday as I arrived for the Maghrib prayer - and then stayed on for Ishaq, which was only about an hour and a half later - I underwent one of the most intense aesthetic experiences of my life, stunned as I was by the sight of the evening sky framed in a sort of open courtyard that lies deeply inside the masjid. The sky turned imperceptibly from a deep blue, to indigo, to navy blue, to close to black as the lights in the interior glowed more and more brightly over the two hours for which I stared at it - at the times when I was not actually praying. All this accompanied by birdsong and the sight of the green dome and a gorgeous minaret, framed against that sky. Oh, and if I turned away from that I had the repetitively, unremittingly beautiful mosque interior to admire.

Actually I felt a bit guilty that I was enjoying just looking so much, almost to the point of extravagance, when prayer was in order, but then I recalled: God is beauty, and loves that which is beautiful.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


A programme entitled Between Time and Timbuktu was my introduction to the work of Kurt Vonnegut (Junior, as he was then.) I suppose that was when I was sixteen since the useful Chronology of the writer's life provided in the LoA editions dates the first broadcast of the programme as being in March 1972, in America that is. As far as I can remember I'd read the first six novels by the time I went to university, though I could be wrong about this. I do know I started with Cat's Cradle and finished with Slaughterhouse Five. Oddly I stopped there, though Breakfast of Champions had obviously been published by then, but I can't for the life of me remember why. I've got a feeling I looked down on novel number seven, but it's a mystery to me why I should have done so. Had I read some scathing reviews? Had I simply had enough of Vonnegut? Certainly Slaughterhouse Five takes his work to a kind of perfection. I felt that then, and having just read it a few days back after God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, I feel the same way.

Funnily enough, I read a few pages into Champions and stopped a couple of days ago. It felt a bit tired and possibly I've glutted on my favourite humourist overmuch. But I didn't face any difficulty with Rosewater, which, frankly, is an incredibly ill-constructed mess. I just enjoyed the messiness. I suppose my stalling on Champions is related to our forthcoming trip to Medinah and Makkah. I decided some time ago, before our aborted attempt in June, that my reading for the duration of the trip would be largely devotional and I see no reason to change my mind. I think I need a rest from fiction, even in its most enjoyable form.

When I watched the Timbuktu broadcast I recall being excited at the sheer fecundity of KV's ideas and general inventiveness. Reading the first six novels again much later in life I still get that sense, but I now recognise a paradoxical weariness about his work, a sense of disillusion with the absurdity of it all that translates into an almost quietist desire for withdrawal. The tension between these two elements of his work seems to me to be deeply characteristic. One example: the way the story of poor Edgar Derby, shot simply for stealing a teapot in the aftermath of the Dresden bombing, is never actually told as such is extraordinary. On one hand you have the inventiveness of a narrative structure that tells you precisely what is going to happen to a character as soon as you meet him; on the other you have a narrative that refuses to give you the details you assume will be forthcoming as if it's simply too painful to do so.

I see Vonnegut as an intensely and honestly contradictory writer, and I think that's what makes him, if not great, then very, very good indeed. And, frankly, who cares about such distinctions, anyway? Mr Vonnegut taught me not to a long time ago.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

All Systems Go

A sense of celebration in the homestead this evening. Just received news that we've been granted visas by the Saudis, which means we can leave for our umrah, as scheduled, late tomorrow. Talk about going to the wire! Mind you, Noi was telling me about one couple who went a few weeks back who got their visas at 6.00 pm when they were due to take-off around 11.00 pm. So all we feel is a deep sense of gratitude.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Just Listening

Continued to find myself watching quite a bit on the old goggle-box today, mainly related to the various news channels. Struck by the inability of certain hosts, if that's what they call them, to actually listen to what their guests are saying. One lady, who hosts a sort of crime-themed programme, with a disturbingly relentless intensity, actually ordered one of her functionaries behind the scenes to cut the microphone of another lady who refused to allow herself to be interrupted. It was strange as the interrupted lady had obviously not come to the end of what she was saying - which happened to diverge quite considerably from the host's view of things - and it was very difficult to figure out why she'd invited on as, in effect, she was not being allowed to speak. She was attempting to mount some kind of defence of a well-known American comedian/performer who's facing a series of allegations relating to abusing women sexually, though none of this has gone to court yet. For what it's worth, I can see why a majority might assume the man to be guilty at this point, given the information that is out there, but I was very interested in hearing what a defender might have to say at this point, and I certainly know that I'm nowhere close to a position to come to some sort of final verdict on the matter. It seemed to me that the lady hosting the programme simply could not stand to hear any opinion that differed from her own.

That seems to me to be both strange and disturbing given she's a reasonably intelligent human being, and is involved in what might loosely be regarded as an industry related to communication, and deals with subject matter related directly to issues of justice. And it leads me to what I think is a useful test for any of us: can you allow someone to speak uninterruptedly in order to state their case coherently when you deeply disagree with their point of view?

By the way, there's a particular news channel, which shall remain nameless, that seems to hire its hosts based on their ability to rudely interrupt others. And to turn almost every statement they make into a stridently angry declaration. It seems to me a useful rule of thumb to treat whatever you hear on the goggle-box with reasonable caution, and to treble the degree of caution if people are shouting at you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Just Watching

Being at a fairly loose end today meant I had the time to follow the unfolding of the hostage-taking going on in a café in Sydney. As I am writing now the authorities over there and most of the commentators on various news channels seem hopeful of a peaceful resolution to the situation and it was heartening when five of the poor souls involved got out in the middle of the day without injury. So I'm hoping I can reasonably claim that what gripped my attention was a desire for a good outcome, rather than simply the excitement (horrible word to have to use) of it all. The worry is that this kind of breaking news, as they now call it, is turning into a form of entertainment - one that can be exploited by the crazies of the world.

Postscript: with two of the hostages dead and others injured we can't talk about a good outcome. I suppose things could have been worse - except that for the dead and their loved ones it's as bad as can be.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Not Exactly Original

Why are people often so determined to tell you how original, indeed, unique, they are? Wouldn't it make more sense to assert our commonalities - just how much we are made up of other people? There's something very soothing about the idea that you are simply recycling other people's thoughts.

Real originality, I suspect, lies in deciding who best to imitate.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sort Of Progress

Managing to get a reasonable amount of reading done of late. Finished a set of magazines: issues of Prog, The New York Review of Books, Philosophy Now and The Literary Review - thus freeing myself to buy yet another set. I'm holding firm to my resolution not to purchase any new issue of a publication until the previous has been read. It's useful to no longer be a completest; no pesky feelings of guilt over leaving pages unread.

On the fiction front, read a compilation of short stories on the unlikely subject of falling in love, one of my books for teenagers under the Pelican imprint published in the early 80s, title: The Real Thing. Some big name writers of the time: William Trevor, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Rumer Godden, Lyne Reade Banks among others. Don't think something as literary as this would get published in today's market. Can't imagine many teenagers would have enjoyed it all that much back then, though horizons may have been widened.

Just read The Maltese Falcon and Cat's Cradle in their various volumes of the Hammett/Vonnegut Library of America series. Can't imagine any novels being more entertaining, or easier to read. Finished the Vonnegut in less than a day and was surprised how many chunks I vividly remembered from more than four decades ago. Bit worried about the element of nostalgia involved in my reading at the moment, but not enough to change direction. Having too much fun.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Real Tribute

Listened to Songs For Drella by Lou Reed and John Cale late last night and in the late morning. It's a kind of tribute to Andy Warhol, whom they had come to regard as a kind of mentor I suppose, which they put together just after his death, this being the first time the two ex-Velvet Undergrounders had performed together in years. It both gets inside the perplexing artist and keeps a critical distance, miraculously avoiding anything in the nature of a final judgment - though with plenty of pungent observations along the way. Chockful of idiosyncratic wit, apposite for a supremely idiosyncratic individual. You'd think it would be cold, wouldn't you, yet it's deeply, genuinely emotional. The best sequence of songs about art and what art does I can think of, Sunday In The Park With George not withstanding. I intend to listen again later.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Other Worlds

I'd never heard of Leigh Brackett prior to reading her novel The Long Tomorrow, and I only read the novel because it features in American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956, and having bought this tasty anthology from the Library of America I felt I needed to get my money's worth. And I did. It's a genuine classic, the title of the collection does not lie.

The strength of the work lies in its brilliantly imagined setting. Ms Brackett presents us with an America that has regressed to a  primitive rural economy, populated by a sort of post-Amish brethren as a result of a devastating nuclear war which occurred at some unspecified time in the past (though within two generations of the family of the protagonist.) Written in 1955 the novel eschews the usual post-Apocalyptic clichés, I suppose because they hadn't been invented then. In some ways we are given an optimistic picture of the aftermath of Armageddon. There's been no nuclear winter and the land remains habitable and fertile, if generally empty. In the final part of the novel there are references to the horrors of Hiroshima, but the writer seems to assume that the general catastrophe has remained at that level: the horror has remained localised, centred on the cities, and society is recovering, though for the most part profoundly technophobic. Within these premises wonders are worked in terms of the depth and thoroughness of the imagination involved. As the young protagonist, Len Colter, moves through this world on a quest to find a place that has managed to keep the secrets of the great cities, the America evoked is utterly coherent and entirely believable in terms of its landscapes and population. Indeed, I reckon there's a basis here for a whole series of fictions rather than just the single, deeply-achieved one we have.

I wonder why no one ever thought of making a movie based on the book. Could it be the gender of the writer that somehow stood in the way? Or is it related to the relative lack of fireworks in the plot? There's a kind of quietness about the novel, a lack of demonstrativeness in its very sureness about the world created, that is impressive but perhaps not loud enough for its genre.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In The Balance

Nice to see the addition to the very fine Oxford series of Very Short Introductions of a text that manages to be straightforwardly sympathetic to what might be regarded as an Islamic perspective. The two previous numbers relating to the faith, whilst being very readable were hardly written in a manner that suggests Islam has much to offer the world, Michael Cook's The Koran being pretty much overtly antagonistic, and Malise Ruthven's Islam judiciously, critically distanced from the world it purports to explain. Not that I see anything wrong with that at a personal level. It's bracing to have one's faith examined and found wanting: it ensures you reach an understanding of what such critical observers have missed, or misunderstood. However, I do find it somewhat troubling that a reader presumably seeking to understand Islam and what it involves is being guided by what I think one might fairly term typical Orientalists, to adopt Edward Said's useful term, in a series that seeks to give basic introductions to thinkers and concepts, as if no other point of view exists other than that of the unthinking true believers which is, almost by definition, not worth giving space to.

At least Jonathan A. C. Brown in his Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction makes a determined effort to explore the perspective of the true believers in a sincerely sympathetic manner, and is genuinely illuminating on what the life of the Prophet - peace be upon him - means in terms of Muslim piety and devotion. And the chapter dealing with the historiography involved is clear and balanced, leaving you to make up your own mind, and pointing you in directions that will allow you to do so when you read on, as clearly you must in order to do the subject justice.

Mind you, it'd be nice to see Oxford inviting someone like Tariq Ramadan to pen one of these intros for them. Maybe they could offer him Orientalism?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Well Versed

I've been making headway into some of the poetry books I purchased back in September, having now read the ones from Daljit Nagra, Alice Oswald and Kathleen Jamie. There's lots to like about all three, reinforcing my sense that we live in a golden age for lyric verse, but it was Ms Oswald's Dart that had the greatest impact. Funnily enough this was the book I had the highest expectations of, though I'd never heard of the writer before - but the idea of a sequence that followed the river (the River Dart in Devon) from source to sea, and captured the voices of those associated with it, making them part of the river's own monologue, struck me as so obvious yet original that I just knew it was going to work. And it did, but at an extraordinarily high level. Think Hughes, think Heaney. Seriously, she's that good. I want to read the whole thing again and soon.

Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! delivered pretty much what the title, with its three exclamation marks promises. Lots of energy, inventive playfulness, edgy perspectives. In comparison, Ms Jamie's The Overhaul felt restrained, almost muted, even though language was being stretched again with the Scots element involved. There's room for both approaches, of course, assuming the course taken is true to what the writer needs to say; but I must say I like a bit of showmanship in my poets. I suppose this is an age when there's sometimes a need to be loud to be heard.

Monday, December 8, 2014


Not at all sure what to make of the latest issue of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009. I read it, as usual, ultra-fast, but kept wondering if I might be missing the point. Individual panels and brief episodes proved gripping, but what they were meant to add up to was a bit of a puzzle. But having said that, I know I'm going to find myself reading all the Century issues soon in order to try and make them fit together.

After all, halfway through From Hell I didn't think Moore was going to make it work, and look how that one turned out. Which reminds me: I must re-read the best version ever of the Ripper saga with Eddie Campbell's Companion at hand.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Late To The Party

I finally acquired the iPod Classic I've been searching for, through Noi's good offices. She trawled ebay for me to come up with the goods. This means I'm ready to make the long-awaited transition from actual CDs to stuff downloaded from iTunes. Which in turns means I'm in grave danger of spending lots of money as the floodgates open.

Fortunately I've been extraordinarily restrained so far, and restricted myself to a single album: Bill Frisell's magical Disfarmer. Actually this is so rich in itself that I feel I've already got sufficient riches to keep me going for weeks, days at least a little while.

To be honest, if buying CDs in a straightforward way were still possible that's what I'd be doing, but change is good, they tell me, and I'll go along with that even though they, as usual, are wrong.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Rough And The Smooth

Listening to Count Basie: The Complete Decca Recordings, a very fine 3 CD set by the way, I was struck by the powerful contrast between the voices of Jimmy Rushing and Earl Warren, juxtaposed as they were in the cuts Good Morning Blues (featuring Rushing) and Our Love Was Meant To Be (featuring the multi-talented alto sax player.) JR sounds natural, a real blues singer, modern; EW sounds soupily lugubrious, like something out of an Ivor Novello musical, dated.) Yet presumably at the time of recording the difference wouldn't have seemed quite so sharp. And for all the contrasts there are features the styles of singing share: clarity of phrasing; clarity of the melodic line, especially in terms of holding single notes; an effortless musicality.

It's astonishing how styles in voices change. It's impossible to imagine anyone today essaying the Warren approach, except in parody. For all its virtues there's something faintly comic about the performance. And maybe we're in danger of losing what made Rushing so great. For all his brilliance as a blues shouter there's a smoothness in that voice to relish that makes it perfectly balanced. That's extremely rare these days.

I wonder if anyone's tried writing a history of vocal style in western music? I've got a feeling that such an account would shed much light on the kind of societies various voices have emerged from and given voice to.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Sheer Fun

We took the girls last night to watch the performance of Mamma Mia at Marina Bay Sands expecting to have a really good time and were not disappointed. The sense of expectation was based on the fact that we'd watched the film some time back and very much enjoyed it, and an evening listening to Abba songs played live can never be considered wasted. It's been a few years since we exposed Fifi and Fafa to Abba's Greatest Hits in one of our holiday breaks in KL, but once listened to that level of pop genius cannot be forgotten.

The show fulfilled all expectations: unpretentious, cheesy, energetic, cheerfully daft fun. The only cloud on the horizon initially was the relatively small audience - only about a quarter or so of the seats were filled. And I did wonder if this might take some of the oomph out of the performers. But they turned out to be super troopers, emitting enough energy to light up a city and its hinterland. And it was clear that a fair number of those in the audience had, rightly, come prepared to have a noisy good time come what may. And so they did. (Oddly enough my experience of school shows is that this size of audience often delivers a stronger sense of all-out engagement than a full house.)

One slightly more serious point. The music had been lovingly arranged, keeping all of the structural and harmonic detail of the original such that the sophistication behind the superficial simplicity of the music was rendered dazzlingly clear. Just to mention one piece: the gorgeous density of the harmonies in Super Trooper stunned this listener, even though he's heard them hundreds of times. Whatever you think of Abba - and I was no great fan when they were dominating the charts, being way too cool for anything so straightforwardly popular - this is craftsmanship of the highest order.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Nothing Much

After a visit to my back doc to verify all is in good working order, for the moment at least, we took ourselves off to Parkway Parade for a bit of a wander. Our favourite emporium in the East has changed a bit since the last time we were there, and none of it is for the good. But then it never is. I enjoyed finding absolutely nothing I wanted to spend money on. (Except for a bite to eat, mine being a salad. Yes, I'm in the process of shedding a couple of kilos.) As a consumer I am a major failure, I'm more than happy to say.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Actually the celebratory nosh-up for Noi's birthday was conducted a couple of days ago. Today featured simply a gentle blooming.

Monday, December 1, 2014


Now here's a bit of an odd thing. My most recent novel for 'grown-ups', Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, was so easy to read I had to hold back from rushing at points; in contrast, my reading for 'kids', Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore - the third novel in her Earthsea sequence - took a heck of a lot of concentration to get through, and even when I'd finished I still wasn't entirely sure what it was all about.

Does this imply a greater seriousness, a gravitas behind Le Guin's fiction that my favourite literary comedian lacks? I think some of his critics think so. It seems that giving Mr Vonnegut the LoA stamp of approval raised a few hackles here and there, and I'm glad that it did as that will allow him a chuckle or two up in heaven. But I see his sharpness and clarity - his ease as a story-teller - as a strength; in contrast, I think the fine writing involved in the Earthsea sequence (and there's some wonderfully atmospheric stuff in The Farthest Shore, especially when any of the dragons are on the scene) gets in the way of real momentum.

I suppose that Ms Le Guin's ultimate concern is our coming to terms with death, yet there was something terribly theoretical about the notion of dying in her novel. Vonnegut's deaths somehow manage to be real, even when at their most casual. So it goes, I suppose.

Mind you, isn't it wonderful that a writer of fantasy intended primarily for children was able to get away with something like Earthsea at all? Can't see that happening today somehow. Now you'd have to throw a few vampires in just to get published.