Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Nice Moment

On our way up to Holland Village just now, to enjoy the cup that cheers and a few rounds of kaya toast, the Missus and I were privileged to witness a cheerful little scene. We'd come to a halt behind a bike with a taxi in front of it at a set of traffic lights. Then this old chap in a wheelchair, with just one leg from the look of things, holding a heap of old newspapers in his lap, started to make his way across what was quite a long crossing. He was pushing himself  along on his one good leg. We were both hoping he'd make it across before the lights changed, and that the taxi ahead wouldn't move too early, when our fears were assuaged.

The cab-driver got out, walked over to the side of the crossing where the old man was still labouring, and helped push him right across, not just to the end of the crossing, but a good way onto the pavement itself. By the time the cabbie started back the lights had changed. Not a vehicle tried to move until he'd reinstalled himself in the taxi and was ready to go.

I felt like cheering.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Losing The Way

It's almost a full ten days since I commented on Vonnegut's Slapstick with regard to its various merits and demerits. At that point in time I seemed to think I was enjoying it, despite having some appreciation as to why it didn't go down too well with the critics at the time of publication. I've been so busy since that I've made very little progress, maybe thirty pages or so, and whatever it was I found enjoyable initially has now evaporated. Every page I read strikes me as tired and contrived.

I wonder if this volte face has something to do with my slowing down in my reading. I've got a feeling that if read quickly it wouldn't seem quite so bad. It's when one's reading is laboured that the laboured quality of the writing becomes startlingly apparent. Wish I'd have ordered some of the Library of America Philip Roth editions instead.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Low Maintenance

Just back from half an hour on the torture machine pedal thingy elliptical trainer in the gym. For around two months now I've been clocking thirty minute sessions on it two or three times a week. On Sunday I upped the duration to thirty-five minutes just to see how it felt, and it didn't feel good at all. I think I've reached an age at which the automatic improvement in stamina you might feel after quite a short period of exercise (I used to think of it as the exercise effect) doesn't happen any more.

But one thing has changed. Initially I found it very difficult to get a steady rhythm of breathing on the machine. I suppose it's because I was being denied the usual sense of the length of my stride. The stride cycles that come naturally on the pedals feel a good deal quicker somehow, which means I need to breathe more quickly, and that felt all wrong when I first got up there. Tonight the breathing felt effortless. Progress, of a kind.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Still Going


If I had to choose a birthday song I'd go for the Paul Simon classic Still Crazy After All These Years. That in itself is a comforting thought. Not to mention the cake - due for imminent consumption.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


Listening to White Willow's Ignis Fatuus, more specifically the lovely Ingenting, and wondering why it is that gentleness is so undervalued in these times. Another virtue sadly out of fashion, my Gentles.

The fact that the song under consideration is sung in the band's native Norwegian just seems to add to its appeal. Wonder what it's actually about?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Of Little Consideration

Funny how the little things count. My left arm has been troubling me for several months. For some reason whenever I try to bend it round my back the pain is excruciating. Fortunately I don't attempt the manoeuvre too often, except when putting something on the back seat of the car when driving, but when I do I regret it.

And then I've got a very unpleasant blister on the inner surface of one of the toes on my right foot - as a result of my sessions on the exercise machine in the gym. This has a way of reminding me it's there just when I don't need it to.

Not exactly major problems, but I wish they'd fade away. Can't complain, I suppose, but that's not going to stop me from doing so.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Highly Cinematic


We're off to the cinema later, in fact soon, for - gasp - the second time this year. A record!

Noi wants to watch the second Exotic Marigold Hotel (think that's something like the title) film, and I don't blame her, having thoroughly enjoyed the first. I'm afraid we fit the demographic, as they say these days.


It turns out that the title was The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and a most enjoyable romp it was. So relaxing to watch a movie without special effects, except for fine acting of the ensemble variety - and what an ensemble! - and an intelligent, literate script.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Not So Well

Spent not a little time today thinking about Maureen and John and their current travails. I spoke to John last night concerning my sister's latest relapse, and it's obvious that on the roller coaster of their lives together the ride has hit an uncomfortable low. We can only hope that the current attempt at recuperation will succeed where others have failed.

Part of me wishes I could be back in Manchester trying to help in some unspecified way. Another part recognises that if I were there I'd most likely be watching helplessly from the sidelines.

They say Time is a healer. I wish he'd get on with it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

All Being Well

A few words spoken just now in our little household: That's two nights of this mee rebus. Two nights of bliss.

Some things just can't be improved upon.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Double-Edged Sword

A cautionary word: think twice before accusing others of having a sense of entitlement.

And then think again.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Falling Off?

Finally embarked on the third and final of the Kurt Vonnegut tomes I got last year from the Library of America, comprising Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick and Galapagos. I've never read any of them before, despite being a huge fan of Vonnegut in my teens. I sort of got the impression he'd lost it somewhat as a writer after the triumph of Slaughterhouse 5, I suppose from reading various reviews, though I can't remember any. Perhaps I also developed a feeling of having grown out of him somewhere along the line? Can't say that this was a particularly conscious thing though.

My recent reading of Breakfast of Champions served to confirm my sense of his powers falling away, though I suppose I enjoyed it well enough, Vonnegut being the kind of writer you can simply have fun being in the company of even when he's not on peak form. But I've been a touch hesitant about getting going on this sequence of novels having got the distinct impression somewhere along the line that Slapstick was seen as a bit of disaster for his reputation.

I'm about halfway through that novel and strongly reminded of the kind of almost can't-be-bothered-ness I felt about Breakfast. It's as if he's forcing himself to go through the motions of writing a novel when he's no longer remotely interested in character, setting or theme. The strange thing is that this is in itself fascinating, as if a kind of anti-novel is being invented. It's like Beckett, except there's not the slightest whiff of the literary about it.

I suppose I'm not supposed to, but I like it.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Overwhelming Beauty

One of the several remarkable features of last night's concert featuring Flood of Beauty, one of Sir John Tavener's later pieces, was that the orchestra and choir bringing it to life were full of students studying at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory at the National University. I'm no expert, of course, but they sounded entirely assured and professional to me, and seemed at home with music of epic dimensions. The giveaway that they were youngsters came in the applause at the end when they cheered their conductors and Chorus Director rather like an audience in school cheers at the end of a concert. It felt juvenile, the last word you might apply to the actual work they'd been playing.

I'm a sort of fan of Tavener, but not an uncritical one. Though, I hasten to add, that I'm aware that some of my criticisms reflect deficiencies in me, probably most of all associated with my ability to concentrate. The concert was billed as being one and a half hours in length, but on my timing it exceeded this by a good twenty minutes, and I reckon I gave my full concentration to about half of its length. There seemed to be fair amounts of repetition in each cycle of the work, which I expected given the composer's concern with music of a meditative nature, and generally I was okay with this since there was always plenty going on to be engaged with. However, I had odd moments of thinking something on the lines of, Oh, not again. And the fact that much of what was being repeated was very loud and extremely heavy in its textures at times seemed to be a touch overly relentless.

I was glad when it was over, but also glad I'd listened and hung in there.

Most of all I'll remember the gorgeous mingling of decaying gong sounds wrapping themselves round a fruitily, yearningly, suggestive cello. It seems that the cellist, Pei-San Ng, is the Principal Cellist with the SSO, and that's no surprise. He was brilliant in a part that looked to have some incredibly difficult sections.

But that was by no means the sole memorable feature of the evening musically, one that's given almost too much to remember. And something I've learnt: beauty survives one's immediate circumstances and limitations regardless of how foolishly earthbound they may be.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Senses Working Overtime

Just back from a concert featuring one of the final works of the recently deceased modern composer John Tavener (whose name I have finally learnt to spell correctly.) Powerful, in a variety of ways. More anon, when time and circumstances permit.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

On Not Writing A List

Thought about making a list today of stuff I have come to own - books, CDs, devices - that I've never really done justice to. Then realised it would be depressing, if salutary, to contemplate the result. So I didn't.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Something To Think Over

Such was my disappointment after reading Z for Zachariah that I began to wonder whether I had been deluding myself over the high regard in which I hold works of what might broadly be termed teenage literature. I need to specify here that I'm talking about works published up to the 1980s. Once I came to this Far Place, and found the concerns of my teaching to be very different, there proved to be little time available for reading such material and I suppose I lost touch with the genre - though with honourable exceptions like Pullman and Gaiman. But there was a time when I would have made the claim that the quality of work written specifically with a younger audience in mind was generally higher than that of most adult literature.

Reading John Branfield's The Fox in Winter over the last weekend did much to confirm the truth of that claim such that I no longer wonder if I'd been deluded. And the funny thing is that I came to read it quite by accident. It's not particularly well-known in any way I'm aware of (unlike Zachariah.) I've never heard of a school adopting it as a 'reader' and never seen any fuss about it, or its author, in print. I'm not even sure how the battered hardback version I've got came into my possession. I didn't buy it, so I assume I must have salvaged it at some point when it was about to be thrown away by some school I've been in in the course of my winding career. The cover doesn't look particularly attractive, and I only read it out of a sense of duty, feeling that since I'd somehow acquired it I'd better do it some kind of justice.

It turned out to be a great little novel, being strong on place, character and theme. It deals wonderfully sympathetically, yet entirely unsentimentally, with the developing relationship between a teenage girl and the old man she befriends as he approaches the end of his life. That might sound somewhat trite but Branfield avoids all the cliches and makes the situation ring entirely true. His treatment of the inevitable indignities of old age is funny and sad and all too real. It's such a rich, and in its way subtle, novel that I've found myself mulling it over despite having finished it last Sunday, a full three days ago.

Strange to think that it's now an almost entirely forgotten work, and I suspect that even in its day it didn't get that much attention.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Starry Night

Walking across to the gym earlier this evening I was treated to a rare sight above this city: a night sky full of stars. They weren't shining quite as clear as they do in those rare places free of light pollution - off the east coast of Malaysia, for example, once you get out to the small islands - but shining they were. I didn't have a lot of time to stop and stare and feel small and happily insignificant, but in what little time I had, that's what I did. And it felt good.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Taking Back The City

So finally I can go back to Manchester with head held high, not having to ignore the snarky comments of certain noisy neighbours. Feel sorry for one Signor Pellegrini though. He seems a decent enough bloke and was once acknowledged as an astute soul in his chosen field. I reckon managing at the top level is pretty much impossible these days. One bad run and your days are numbered. I'll be astonished if City keep him on.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

In Harmony

One of the unexpected perks of being a teacher is that you get frequent opportunities to listen to young people making music, and I'm talking about all kinds of music. Just back from an evening of such. I'd choose this perk over a banker's bonus any time.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Not Getting It

Teaching in the UK back in the 70s and 80s you quickly picked up on the titles of those novels for younger readers that went well in the classroom. One title that was brought frequently to my attention was Robert O'Brien's Z For Zachariah. Numerous schools seemed to use it with older classes as a classroom reader and I heard any number of teachers refer to it with enthusiasm. For some reason I never read it, possibly because I wasn't terribly interested in the kind of post-nuclear war setting I knew the writer employed, possibly because I'd read his novel for younger readers, Mrs Frisby and the Rats from NIMH and hadn't been impressed. Somewhere along the way, though, I picked up a paperback copy, presumably meaning to read it. I know this because I found a copy in the books I stored over there for quite a few years before arranging their transfer to KL. Even then I couldn't summon the enthusiasm to read the book, until last week, that is.

And now I think I know why it took me so long to read it. Some intuition was correctly telling me that it really isn't much good. Goodness knows how it achieved whatever vogue it did in its time - to the point, by the way, of being adapted as a Play For Today by the BBC and receiving a glowing review from the usually perspicacious Peter Ackroyd. The whole post-nuclear thing is entirely unconvincing. The idea of the girl narrator being left alone in her mysteriously unaffected valley just doesn't work and neither does the frankly silly stuff about the guy owning the only suit available giving protection from the surrounding radiation. The rendering of the action through the girl's diary is ponderous in the extreme and her voice never rings true for a moment. The last fifty pages or so, in which the guy emerges as the villain of the piece, are the only ones in which the narrative has any momentum, but he's a poor idea of a villain, being such a grey character. And, I suppose, that lies at the heart of what bothers me about the novel and the style in which it's written: it's all so flat and lacking in vigour.

I suppose I should be pleased that so many readers have disagreed with me, and it's nice to know that reading the book has been a rewarding experience for quite a number. But, frankly, I'm very puzzled as to why this has been so.

Friday, April 10, 2015


Spotted on a t-shirt today: Too busy to die. (Oddly enough the guy wearing it was on his way out of Friday Prayers.) Pithily mordant. Know how he feels.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Full Life

On the anniversary of her death I've been thinking of Mum a bit more than usual today - and of some others who have gone ahead of me into the adventure of Eternity.

I was trying to remember some of the jobs she did in the course of her long life: mill girl; bus conductress; munitions worker; post-lady; barmaid; factory worker; school cleaner; sweet shop owner. Not bad for one little lady. And those are just the ones I can think of for the moment.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Sense Of Order

I've been reading Pope's Essay on Man as the latest in my on-going scheme of tackling a few classic long or longish poems. Progress has been slow, and I'm only up to the second Epistle, but that's the whole point. It's so relaxing to mull over segments of twenty to thirty lines or thereabouts, grasping the flow of thought and attempting to enter into the world that engendered it. I can't think of any good reason to try and speed up.

I suppose Pope gets a bit of a bad press these days for being so entirely magisterial, so utterly sure of himself. But I find a stirring kind of nobility, almost heroism, in the sheer energy with which he imposes a sense of order and proportion on a world so demonstrably lacking those qualities. He can sound rigid and complacent in the Essay, but we're never too far away from a recognition of Man's essential foolishness. This is poetry that can bite you if you're not careful, especially in those moments when you recognise yourself dangling at the end of a satirical barb.

There's also much delight to be found in the inevitable sureness of the rhythms. It's like listening to Handel when he's in the mood for a bit of a dance. There's a lot to be said for elegance for its own sake, though nobody seems to want to say it in these fallen days.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


Noi got back from Korea early this morning and by 4.00 in the afternoon we were enjoying tea and kaya toast together. And everything was well again.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Coming Together

I don't think I've ever felt quite as relaxed before a 'big' drama occasion as I did today, ahead of some of our younger students performing for the Singapore Youth Festival judging. I never really take the whole business of awards for drama too seriously, but my awareness that others, perhaps understandably, do tends to undercut my straightforward enjoyment of proceedings. But this year the only butterflies floating around in my stomach came early in the day, before we set off. Once we were on our way, with nothing forgotten, I had the oddest certainty that everything would go smoothly and a distinct suspicion that the kids were going to go up a few notches on the big day. And so it proved, from the very first moments of the show.

It was the relative youth of our thespians that instilled these feelings. Younger actors tend to 'hide' their final performances, entirely unconsciously, never quite firing on all cylinders in rehearsal, even at their most committed. It's as if they need the reality of public performance to finally bloom, and when this is happening to several of them at the same time something quite magical takes place. Somehow I knew it was going to happen, and it did. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Something Lost

The Thin Man strikes me as a very fine novel, though a little plot-heavy towards the end, and a wholly remarkable conclusion to Dashiell Hammett's career as the best of the hard-boiled school of crime fiction. To invent something so different from anything he'd done in the brilliant sequence of the previous four novels that preceded this one suggests almost limitless powers of imagination. But, of course, they weren't limitless, as the more than thirty year silence that was to follow sadly indicates.

What happened? Despite never having read a full biography of Hammett, I think I know.

The opening pages are the best thing about the novel, and they create an enchanted world. No wonder Nick and Norah would enjoy a further career in the movies based around them. There's a real warmth about their relationship and a genuine glamour that is beguiling. Who wouldn't want to be as clever - and as well-off - as they are, exchanging witty one-liners as they drink their way through the night, looking forward to the next party or show to attend?

The trouble is that no one could possibly consume that much alcohol and remain in one piece for long. Certainly Hammett couldn't. Nick and Norah are a kind of dream, a form of denial. As good as the writing is, it's fundamentally dishonest and it's my guess that Hammett for all his gifts, and all his honesty, couldn't bear to go to the awful place he ended up in real life in his fiction. If he had done, I suppose we'd have had the equivalent of Long Day's Journey Into Night in the American novel. As it is we have to settle for five years or so of stunning accomplishment and then complete loss. Booze can be a terrible thing.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Fear And Trembling

Just back from the Esplanade having listened to the SSO in splendid form doing ample justice to Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. I'd prepared for the occasion by re-reading Alex Ross's chapters on the Russian Master in The Rest is Noise and being reminded of the extremity of the fear he lived with in the days of Stalin. Perhaps that's why all I could hear was cold hard bitter churning stress throughout the symphony, even in what the writer of the programme notes claimed was the exultant ending in glorious E-major. E-major it may have been; exultant it wasn't, except in the sense of a crazed sense of release at the death of the tyrant. I couldn't hear any relaxation in this music at all and my heart bled for the man who felt he had to write it.

There was also a pleasant half hour of Schumann as well, which made me a touch dozy. The Shostakovich woke me up though, I can tell you.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Tyranny Of Numbers

I don't enjoy my thirty minute sessions on the pedal thingy in the gym at all, though I look forward to going and getting some exercise and feeling good afterwards. This is in stark contrast to the days when I could go out running. Forty of so minutes round the taman, or cruising the streets of Katong felt like forty minutes of, if not fun, then a pretty good time, most of which could be spent admiring my surroundings or letting my mind range over other matters.

A big part of the difference lies in the fact that setting the machine to its highest resistance means the thirty minutes feels like very hard work from the first couple of minutes onwards. I go for the highest resistance, not to punish myself but to slow my body down to a more fluid set of movements to avoid any more impact injuries. So far, so good. But there's a mental price to be paid. I can't really get away from thinking about the hard work I'm doing and I find myself focusing on all the numbers that flash in front of me giving me all sorts of data I don't really want on what's happening.

Do I really need to know that the session just used up three hundred and forty-eight calories, or that my heart rate has gone up to one hundred and fifty, whatever that means? (It seems that at my age you're not supposed to go above a hundred and forty, but I'm still breathing, so it doesn't seem to do too much harm.)

I suppose that in a time-starved life such as mine, the idea of getting the maximum out of one's thirty minutes of cardiovascular endeavour has its appeal, and the numbers help keep one on track (pun intended.) But I'm a bit worried that there's something unnecessarily obsessively intense about all this. I can sense my concern that I really should be using up three hundred and fifty calories a session rather than the pathetic three hundred and forty-eight I'm turning in at present. Funnily enough, though, I haven't really been thinking too hard about increasing the time spent on the machine. At least the hard slog has been useful in preventing me overdoing it, a temptation to which I'm temperamentally very prone.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Easily Pleased

It doesn't take much to make me feel that all is well. The prospect of lying in bed tomorrow morning until an unreasonably late hour evokes a quiet delight. All very shallow I'm afraid, but who needs depth when life is good?

Pity Noi isn't around to share the fun. Oh hum.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Worth A Read

I've never really thought much of literary criticism of the academic variety. Correction: I suppose I took it quite seriously as a teenager as representing something important because the academic world seemed to think so and who was I to question that world. By my early twenties I had a fair idea of who I was and had come to the conclusion that not only was such criticism not the only valid response to literary works but it was generally pretty daft as a response when there were much more obvious and healthy ways of responding. (Reading and enjoying springs to mind, for starters.)

However, despite my general scepticism there remain quite a number of academic types who I regard as honourable exceptions to my broad and enjoyably sweeping generalisations, and none is more honourable than Prof Stephen Greenblatt. I loved his book about the development of modern sceptical thought in relation to Lucretius, The Swerve, that Karen got me for my birthday a couple of years back, and his biography of the Bard, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, is one of the best of its kind, and the one I'd probably point the general reader towards.

He's now gone even further up in my already high estimation after reading a piece he's got in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. His essay on Shakespeare in Tehran is wonderful, so much so I felt I had to provide a link to the on-line version just for you, dear Reader. If we're going to build bridges between cultures this is how it will be done, not through empty platitudinous cliches but through intelligent and perceptive and honest analysis.

And I now have something new to strive for: to be honest, and of an open and free nature, like the great man himself. It's not going to be easy.