Sunday, May 31, 2015

Better Days

Not out of the woods yet with regard to events taking place in my lower back, but it looks like I may be able to avoid getting a jab to relax the muscles therein. I was delighted to find myself able to get myself moving and walking round the house upon waking this morning, having suspected I'd wake in the early hours to the kind of unbearable pain I suffered back in Madrid, and things have got better since then. It looks like something inside is mending.

I think the fact that this date is a particularly happy one in our domestic calendar has helped the healing process. Knowing that you've managed to get at least one thing right in your life casts a rosy glow on all its various aspects, even the painful ones.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Taking The Strain

Some more moaning today, I'm afraid. I've been increasingly aware as the week has gone on of warning signs suggesting trouble in my lower back. Today the signs emerged as full scale trouble - major back strain - and I only just made it through the five hours of rehearsal that constituted the middle of the day. But made it, I did, so there was relief in that.

The thing is, I'm so busy I can't afford to break down but it's being so busy that's at the root of the problem. I'm worried that the muscles affected are going to really go into spasm and I'm simply not going to be able to walk, as happened in Madrid at the back end of 2013. A jab from the doc should fix that, so it wouldn't be the end of the world, but it'll cause all sorts of hassle.

So I'm officially hoping that I can just grit my teeth and get through. If I make it to next Saturday a complete and glorious collapse will be unproblematic by then. Do wish me luck!

Friday, May 29, 2015

No Time

I seem to have been reading Pope's Essay on Man forever. Thought I'd finish it yonks ago, having made smooth progress to the final Epistle. Then things got ultra-busy at work and I stalled. I've still got about four pages to go and, astonishingly haven't been able to get moving on them despite a few attempts over the last weeks. Every time I get started something Toad-related crops up.

In my universe there's no question: May is the cruellest month.

(Just as a matter of interest our second term saw its conclusion today and I still face a very busy weekend and week ahead. Go figure.)

Thursday, May 28, 2015


Listened to some salutary words of warning with regard to the Internet today. Also listened to some distinctly celebratory words related to the great experiment of our age. All well worth listening to. And all of which I found myself in agreement with.

Sometimes you can't be either-or. Sometimes the only way to function is both-and.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Lots To Learn

Found myself at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies this morning as part of my 'professional development' and had a jolly good time being developed there. It was pleasant to be talked to as if I were a reasonably intelligent person for a change, rather than have to suffer through the usual cliched repetitions that somehow pass for what I am sometimes informed is my 'training'.

The ISEAS premises house a rather tasty little bookshop with quite a variety of their own publications appertaining to the research they've done in the region. And they have an excellent library with, at this time, an engaging display commemorating S. Rajaratnam, one of the founding fathers of the nation - and quite obviously the best read of them all. I say this because a number of the books he left to the library are on display (from an overall collection of over 5000) and it was highly enjoyable getting to look at what had once been on his shelves. Nothing pretentious, by the way, just an eclectic range of paperbacks of all sorts reflecting a man who had a genuine life of the mind and a sense of curiosity about just about everything you can be curious about. It was strangely easy to warm to him just looking at what he'd once loved getting stuck into. (Don't ask me how I know he loved those books, just take it from me I do.)

The visit in its entirety made me keenly aware of the scale of what I don't know about the region - which is more than plenty - and planted a desire to at least mildly alleviate some of that ignorance. A small but potentially significant development in itself.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


I'm doing a talk this Thursday at a seminar on Language and the Media (or something like that) related to how words slip and slide and sort of crash around to change their meaning or produce new ones or do both at once. There's really only one point I intend to make, a takeaway for my poor audience, as they say nowadays in an apt example of language sliding all over the place, and that's to try and notice and enjoy the whole crazy process. It's a most rewarding part of the human comedy.

My intuition is that we're hard-wired to enjoy kicking words around and that it takes an awful lot of repression (in the form of what's generally termed 'education') to take that enjoyment away. So let's take it back, shall we? It's a birth right of a sort, after all, and, let's face it, a nice safe way to live dangerously.

Wonder if I'll manage to offend anyone?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Just Five Minutes

Pleased to report that the Missus and I have been keeping up the exercise regime. We don't have regular days set aside, but we've carved out a reasonable two or three sessions a week since starting at the beginning of March. Actually I suspect that Noi is a bit of natural at this sort of thing, although I don't think she realises it. She can take half an hour on the treadmill in her stride (pun intended) when I rather think it would be well beyond many of her contemporaries, and this despite her never really doing any 'sport' as an adult.

I'm fairly satisfied with my own progress - in fact, delighted I haven't suffered any kind of back injury so far. But I can't help but notice that the addition of an extra five minutes to my usual thirty of cardiovascular exertion feels like I'm doubling the standard amount. Gosh, five minutes seems like a very long time when you're running on empty, as I discovered to my chagrin yesterday evening. Now in recovery.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


Caught an excellent if bleakly depressing episode of Reporters on BBC World this afternoon dealing with the plight of the Rohingya, more specifically those Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar and setting out as migrants to find new lives in Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. It's obvious that these nations are not terribly welcoming and I hope I don't sound too cynical when I say it's not difficult to see why. And it's also obvious that there are plenty of ruthless traffickers in the region - as there are elsewhere in the world - who see a glorious opportunity to exploit. So no easy solutions in sight - though some pressure on those who are responsible for fostering the persecution of the minority in Burma itself might not come amiss.

The plight of those fleeing persecution, or just looking to make a better living somewhere else, looks set to be a familiar theme of this age of globalisation. As I suppose it has been through centuries one way or another. Lucky me, to have been a sort of migrant in a different sense, for whom the luck ran in history's wayward direction.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Anti Social

Popped down to Arab Street and environs after clearing my target for IB exam marking today. The Missus and I enjoyed two cups of tea in separate eateries and I spent a fruitful few minutes in the lovely Wardah Books which continues to offer a fascinating range of material, mainly, but not exclusively, Islamic - all thought-provoking. Somehow managed not to buy anything manifesting magnificent self-control. So why 'fruitful' you may ask? In respect to the happy engendering of ideas, I reply.

Then it was back to the ranch, to munch on the murtabak we picked up and to the cheerful sight of precisely no messages on my not-terribly-trusty non-smart old Nokia phone. Somehow the thought of no one feeling the need to disturb my weekend was immensely consoling. Not that it lasted - but what the heck, it was good while it did.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Good Thing

I've fallen asleep twice today already, and will do so happily again in the next few minutes. This is an entirely good thing. And necessary. Trust me on this.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hitting The Target

I was a bit worried when I set out on Deadeye Dick that it was going to be another of Vonnegut's clunkers, along the lines of the dreadful Slapstick. My concerns were provoked by the laconic references in the excellent Chronology by the LoA editor Sidney Offit to a quickly written novel that received mixed reviews. However, it turned out to be a solid enough effort for post-Slaughterhouse 5 Vonnegut, a little too similar to Jailbird for comfort, but holding together in its own right.

The thing is that whenever KV goes for the first person narrative voice you seem to get some kind of version of Howard J. Campbell from Mother Night: vulnerable, eccentric, self-deceiving. But I enjoyed the interpolated recipes, the occasional bits of dramatisation (narrator Rudy Waltz is a kind of failed playwright) and the digressions into the art world (his dad being a failed painter.) In fact, for a quickly written effort it's good stuff showing Vonnegut hadn't entirely abandoned his sense of craft at this stage.

I've just started Galapagos, which Offit tells us got good reviews, and was relieved to find myself in the company of a third person narrator. This is likely to be my last Vonnegut, at least for two or three years, and I'm hoping this sees echoes of his former glory.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lost Interest

I was trying to explain something to a colleague the other day about the ins and outs of the way teachers are ranked in their schools in this Far Place when it struck me that at one time I would have found what I was saying interesting, yet, at the moment of telling I found it all tedious and, in truth, was only outlining what I knew out of a sense of duty. How different I am now from my younger self who in the early years of his career was genuinely curious about the organisations and systems he found himself in - and others beyond - and how they operated. I suppose it was all part of a natural curiosity about human behaviour mixed in with a healthy desire to make sure I knew enough to maintain some sort of career and perhaps help improve the circumstances of myself and those with whom I worked. 

What led to the change? After all, I still have to work in an organisation and I think I've maintained a reasonable sense of curiosity. But basically I think that over time I learned everything I could learn and just found myself encountering the same lessons.

Now I know this sounds like the most awful hubris but I also suspect that I learned everything there was and is to learn. People are interesting but organisations aren't because they end up behaving like organisations, if you see what I mean. A sort of odd leveling takes place to produce organisational man (and woman, I hasten to add.) No matter how healthily crazy those working for the organisation are, the organisation goes on being, well, organisational (though not necessarily, in fact rarely, organised.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


We remain fans of The Voice (American version) in this household. It remains musically unpredictable enough to hold the attention and often delight. Finishing off tonight's programme with Sawyer (our predicted winner) singing a Neil Young classic is a good example. Plus Pharrell can always be relied on to do stuff that's genuinely musical. Tonight's take on the Isleys' Summer Breeze was gorgeous.

What must it be like to be a youngster hearing great songs like this for the first time?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Up Close

Of all the great composers Haydn is the most open to abuse. The music is so straightforwardly attractive and accessible that it's fatally easy to use it as aural wallpaper, an attractive background against which one's mind can roam on other matters. I know I'm guilty of this. Over the last year or so I've tended to use my 2 CDs of the London Symphonies in this fashion, vaguely enjoying them and thinking that one day I really must listen hard.

Well, that day has arrived - or, rather, I've had a series of such days. I've taken to very intense listening to individual symphonies sometimes in between doing other stuff - like marking. And I'm using ear-phones, which is incredibly helpful in picking out the fine detail of the music. The results have been predictably exhilarating: what is superficially attractive turns out to be deeply engaging, charming, delicate, warm, funny, touching, richly complex and sometimes downright strange.

One characteristic has stood out for me: the way in which quite a simple, straightforward tune or arrangement that you're tapping your foot to or nodding along with, can suddenly, unexpectedly turn into something extraordinarily resonant and powerful. It's as if the composer is saying he can do something magical any time he wants, but would prefer to stay down-to-earth most of the time to allow us mere mortals to breathe.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Pure Luck

Noi discovered a new channel a while back on cable called HGTV. I think HG might stand for House & Gardens since every programme seems to be about buying or renovating houses and the like. The Missus has always enjoyed anything along these lines featuring on the goggle-box and I don't mind having a look at how other folks live. In fact, I've learnt to admire the skills of those who know a thing or two about interior decorating and the like and can oooh and aaah with the best of them when it comes to the 'reveal' as they seem to say these days.

But apart from admiring the wherewithal of those who really know how to make houses look good I can't help but notice the astonishing choosiness of many of those who feature on these programmes as being on the receiving end of the expertise involved. It's clear that they genuinely feel deserving of whatever and wherever they end up being lucky enough to inhabit. Just now one of the hosts involved said to a couple in all sincerity You deserve this space, and they clearly agreed. Wonder what it was they'd done to take such luck for granted?

At one time I might have felt envious of their good fortune. Now I just enjoy it vicariously, and get on with relishing my own lucky life.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Corruption In High Places

Walter F. Starbuck, the narrator of Vonnegut's Jailbird, is supposed to have been one, a very minor one indeed, of the Watergate conspirators. It's a telling idea to use the sorry tale of Watergate as a backdrop for the novel's lacerating and despairing treatment of the inevitable corruption that capitalism inherently entails. The other tale exploited in this manner in this saga of exploitation is that of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti and their executions, a tawdry episode that politicises the young Starbuck.

I've only ever read of the Sacco and Vanzetti story and so I have to guess at the impact it had on the politically aware youth of the US circa the late 1920s, but I grew up with Watergate on television, the radio and all over the press and I know that its impact upon me was immense - or, at least, see that to have been the case in retrospect. Put simply, it made me intensely distrustful of all forms of political authority, as an object, abject lesson in how easily systems rot from the centre. I'm glad to have grown up with it.

By the way, Jailbird, though not exactly Vonnegut on top form, is at least a fully sustained real novel - unlike the two that came before it. But the signs of the writer's complete disillusionment with just about everything you can think of are still apparent and you get a feeling it took a real effort for him to bother to keep it going to the end. On the grounds that if KV can keep going then so can I, I've decided to move right into Deadeye Dick, the third novel in the LoA volume and aim to finish all four of the novels by the time fasting month begins. Sometimes you need to just get despair out of the way.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Something Timeless

I've just been watching Monty's Python's timelessly brilliant Spam sketch as part of the research I'm doing for a talk on 'Semantic Change', believe it or not. Brought back memories of avidly watching the programme when I was around thirteen or fourteen and trying to remember the sketches well enough to imitate them once back in school (on a Thursday morning, if I'm not mistaken.)

Strange, the things I found hysterically funny when I was a kid. And even stranger, I suppose, that I find them just as funny today.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Out Of Time

One of the joys of overseeing a team of examiners for the International Baccalaureate is finding you have to e-mail them late at night because for them it's early in the morning and urgent. What the world needs is a single time zone, though I can't see that working too well somehow.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Something New

Here's an amazing thing. Today, for the first time in my rather long life I heard Rain by The Beatles. Seriously, a great song from the Fab Four at the top of their game, the B side of one of my favourite Beatles' singles, and somehow I've managed never to listen to it. Until today. And it blew my head off. Stellar bass from Paul and some of the best drumming I've ever heard from Ringo. And the greatest voice of the twentieth century leading the way.

It makes me wonder what other astonishing riches I've somehow overlooked over the years.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Living Dangerously

Got the brief report from a freebie medical screening I underwent a couple of weeks ago. We're intending to do the real thing in June, the Missus and I, but I thought it might be useful to get an interim assessment. Happily the numbers on my cholesterol, which have not always been wonderful in the past, looked reasonable and came in as healthy. Unhappily, they only just came in as healthy with the bad cholesterol at the top of the range allowed. One more point and it would have been officially unhealthy.

Those wonderful scones and cakes and the like I so much enjoy are not helping, I suppose. But one must live dangerously sometimes, say I.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Something Good Out Of Baltimore

Sometimes a blight seems to settle on certain locations and they start to look pretty hopeless. I know very little indeed about the place in question and would hesitate to comment on the ins and outs of what's been going on there. But I know a great song when I hear one and it's always good to hear Prince in action.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Drowning In Plastic

Extraordinary sight of the day: there we were queuing for the check-out in the Sunday-afternoon-crowded NTUC in Clementi Mall when we realised that the couple ahead of us had put every individual item they'd purchased into its own plastic bag. The bags I'm talking about here are the ones you tear off to put loose vegetables in before you get them weighed, so they are clearly not intended for such promiscuous use. The shoppers in question, by the way, were buying on the grand scale - I'm guessing this was their weekly 'shop' as people seem to say these days.

The unfortunate lady doing the checking-out actually had to take most of the items out of their unnecessary, utterly superfluous wrappings as she couldn't scan them through the plastic, and then put them back, so that slowed things up considerably. I should add that the couple hadn't bought their own shopping bags with them as we are generally enjoined to these days, so each plastic-wrapped item found its way into another plastic bag to make its way home. Noi and I guessed that the bags would have to be discarded on arrival at the homestead as they could serve no purpose except to obscure what was inside them.

Haven't these people heard that the production of plastic isn't terribly good for the environment and it's not a bad idea to cut down on our use of the stuff - especially when it serves no useful purpose at all? Or perhaps they're fervent climate-change denialists making a pragmatist protest against the status quo? Best guess is they're just stupid. Puts one in mind of old Schiller at his pithiest: Mit der Dummheit kampfen Gotter selbst vergebens.

(Quick confession - I don't know a word of German and lifted the above from the notes provided to Vonnegut's Jailbird - a very tasty little novel indeed, by the way. Old Kurt translates it as, Against stupidity even the gods contend in vain, so it sounds good - and wise - in English too.)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Coming Unstuck

If I don't have a big book on the go, usually a novel, it doesn't matter what I'm reading on the fringes, I feel directionless. After the disappointment of Slapstick I put the LoA Novels 1976 - 1985 aside, having decided that Vonnegut had lost his way sufficiently, post Slaughterhouse 5, to lose me as a reader. But there wasn't any obvious replacement around the house and since I still had unfinished business on my hands I somehow couldn't bring myself to seriously get on with something else.

So I've been applying myself to a couple of magazines (a NYRB and the most recent edition of Prog) and other little bits and pieces, and since I've been woefully busy attending to the Toad, work, I suppose that's been enough in a small sort of way to make me feel my brain is still alive.

But today I picked up the Vonnegut again, with a small prayer that Jailbird would prove to be readable, even if it wasn't a return to top form. I've finished the Prelude and the signs are good. That's proven to be a relief in another way. I've actually felt a bit guilty being so critical of a writer who's given me so much pleasure over the years. It felt like I was betraying him somehow.

Funny how you come to convince yourself you have some kind of relationship with those writers you imagine you become close to.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Low Productivity

I clearly wasn't in the best of moods on this day ten years ago when I wrote in my journal: 'Eternity is in love with the productions of time. I do not produce anything.' (The embedded quotation's from Blake, if you didn't know.)

I still don't produce much of anything, sadly, but I'm quite okay these days with the thought that others do.

Thursday, May 7, 2015


I think it's reasonably fair to regard this Far Place as a sleep-deprived society. On a personal level I'm in that period of time when I feel lucky to get a clear six hours in a night, and find myself settling all too often for four or thereabouts. But at my age who really cares? One learns to get by. However, I was more than a little perturbed today when I did a quick check with one of my classes and found the average for them - at seventeen or eighteen - is just five to five and a half hours. And, trust me, this is not because they're up all night partying or playing computer games.

I can't imagine this is doing much for their developing brains (assuming they are still developing at that age. Must check.) I get the impression they are able to catch up on much needed zzzzzzs in the holidays, but still...

Neat and troubling irony: in a land of plenty, deprivation of the deepest kind.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


Someone told me, earlier today, in all sincerity I suspect, that I was an inspiration to him, the way I kept going at my age. Felt depressed for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Top Gunn

One of the occasionally, sometimes quite unexpectedly, rewarding aspects of my work is getting to see all sorts of poems and prose extracts that colleagues dig out to use as 'unseens' in tests and the like, some of which are so good as to illuminate the whole day on which I get to read them. A few weeks back I was taken aback, in the best sense, to read a poem entitled A School of Resistance by Thom Gunn - which we subsequently went on to use. The surprise came from the fact I'd never come across the poem before, despite being reasonably cognisant with Gunn's work, and it was obviously, for me at least, an absolute gem, possibly the best thing I've read from him in his early period.

The poem has grown in my mind since, as poems sometimes do, as a definitively wonderful piece, one that proves we're dealing with a master of his craft. Yet, and this is the puzzle, I haven't been able to find it in my Collected, and the only link I've found to it so far is, what seems to have been its original publication in the 1961 Winter/Spring Paris Review. I might be completely wrong about this, but as far as I can tell Gunn felt he could afford to leave it out of his works, presumably as a minor piece, not worth further consideration. Good grief! If I'd ever written something half as good as this I'd have made darned sure the world would never forget it.

It's a secret I suspect all poetry lovers share: we get to experience these little explosions of joy over wonderful poems at fairly regular intervals, because there's just so much that's wonderful out there, lying in wait.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Election Fever

Frankly I don't feel remotely feverish about the British General Election, but I do know a good deal more about this one than any other since 1988 because you really can't get away from it on Sky News and that's basically our default channel for current affairs these days. The various politicos have left me possibly more unimpressed than I've ever been with regard to their characters and abilities in any previous election, but that may not be their collective fault. I'm older and, very arguably, wiser than ever and my sense of seeing right through it all is inescapably acute. Mr Cameron's faux pas about this being a career-defining election sort of summed it all up for me. Plus, I can't shake off the cynicism engendered through the various expenses scandals certain legislators have put themselves and the public through of late, and I really don't want to get into my doubts about the establishment in the light of child abuse allegations and the like. 

What I am finding interesting is the strong possibility that Britain may move into coalition politics wholesale, as it were, if it's to remain governable. I've always been sympathetic to the notion of some form of proportional representation and it seems to me that we're seeing a move, possibly, to the next best thing. Doing deals with others, compromising on one's vision, I see as the mark of the civilised man (and woman, let me hastily add.) I'd do a deal with the devil all sorts of not-very-nice people if I thought it might help my fellow-man (and the ladies, of course) to some sort of better life. But, then, I suppose that's why I'd never get elected since I wouldn't be afraid of saying that to anyone who'd listen.

And, no, I'm not going back to vote, before you ask.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Not Going On

Finishing Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick the other day was both painful and a relief. The last thirty or so pages are excruciatingly bad. It's as if the writer has given up all pretence that he's even trying to write a novel. In fact, I'm not even sure there is an ending in anything other than the technical sense that he tells us it's officially over. If you were to ask me how it ended I wouldn't know: I just know I got to the final page and closed the thing.

And I don't intend, at this point in time at least, to go on with the other three novels in the collection, even though I suspect they're an improvement. (They couldn't be worse.) How did the writer of Slaughterhouse 5 sink so low, so quickly? Had he written himself out with his masterpiece?

Fortunately I had the pleasure of reading my birthday gift from Karen twice through in the same period. The work in question goes by the handy title: The Right Word  - Roget and his Thesaurus. It's a cheerful picture book in the Erdmans Books for Young Readers series on the unlikely topic of the life of Roget himself (it seems he practised medicine in Manchester!) and it pulled off the miracle of making me feel young. Seriously lovely stuff. Now that's one I'll be reading again soon.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Transferred Epithet

Gazing at me astutely the other day Noi announced: Your hair looks haggard. I knew how it felt.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Not Exactly Live

Enjoyed an unusual evening of theatre yesterday at the Esplanade. Billed as the National Theatre Live it featured a performance of War Horse which wasn't live in any sense: it was a recording of the original London production. In fact, I'm wondering whether it's generally available on DVD because if it is I'm going to get it, and I'd recommend that you do too. Great theatre, even when it's the recorded version. A moving heart-warming story that manages to be entirely unsentimental and do some kind of justice to all the victims of World War One, regardless of which side they were on. Indeed, the show makes the viewer aware of the absurdity of the very notion of sides.

And the horses themselves! My goodness, the puppet-models somehow come completely to life and remind you of the breath-taking beauty of the noble creatures they represent. And their nobility will stay with me a long time.