Tuesday, May 31, 2016


There are some writers it's difficult to trust. Leading the pack, surely, is one John Donne. Is he ever entirely sincere, even in the great sermons?

Yet out of his wonderful rhetoric come words to live by: Only our love hath no decay, / This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday, / Running it never runs from us away, / But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day. My annual reading of The Anniversary on this day of days tells me, in technicolour as it were, what I already knew in plain black and white.

Monday, May 30, 2016

For Free

Visitors to this Far Place will know that I have occasionally noted how little real change has occurred in schools over the years I've been teaching despite the fact we're always being told about how much progress has been made in education. But one thing has altered over time: increasingly people have found ways to commodify education and these days it's much more of a business than ever it used to be. If this is progress, then let me be left well behind.

Fortunately there are forces that push in a different direction. I suppose a fundamental sense of goodwill is not so foreign to us that we abandon it completely for the big bucks. It's interesting that as much as there are plenty of instances of folks trying to make money out of educationally-related stuff on the Internet, there's a lot of free stuff easily available.

One small but striking example comes courtesy of Harvard. They have made available a whole series of lectures by the excellent Professor Marjorie Garber on Shakespeare's later plays. To be able to sit-in a lecture with a major scholar of the Bard in the comfort of one's home seems to me somewhat astonishing, and for anyone interested in being similarly astonished and edified I suggest you start here.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Under Consideration

It took me all of two minutes on the elliptical trainer just now to figure out I was not going to have an easy time of it. The truth is that that these days I never do. Time was when a run around the taman or the streets of Siglap was distinctly enjoyable. A time to relish the shaking off of the constraints of an ordinary day to become something distinctly, if only mildly, extraordinary - a body in easy motion. I did some of my best thinking on those jaunts.

I don't think of my current 40 minute sessions as anything close to jaunts. They are sheer hard work. Somehow I'm given the grace to forget this when I'm not actually peddling away and I walk down to the gym vaguely expecting to enjoy myself - but that just doesn't happen, not these days. It could be, I suppose, that working against the highest resistance the machine has to offer is not the best strategy. I did this initially to slow myself down to prevent over-doing it, and to get the most out of every trip to the gym, but I'm now seriously thinking of a different approach - at least occasionally.

Of course, underlying all this is a simple truth. I'm too old now to enjoy the kind of rapid improvements in fitness levels that training used to render so easily, and I miss those days.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Hungry Again

One of the uncharacteristic features of my life for the last three weeks or so has been my inability to settle down to serious reading of a particular book. I've been reading Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue for quite some time yet I'm only round the halfway mark. Certainly it isn't a work that should be rushed, its various arguments being tightly, if cogently, argued and each step of the way demanding a certain reframing of perspectives. But still, despite the fascination of the ideas involved I've found it suspiciously easy to put down, as if part of me just doesn't want to make the effort to match up to its demands.
Then I thought I'd find myself swept away by Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, only to fail to manage take-off despite reading the opening chapters a couple of times now. I know I'll read it soon, but not immediately, just not being able to find the energy to get going on it. After that failure I thought I'd have no problem with Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which some kind soul gave me for my birthday. I was wrong. I ran out of steam about thirty pages in, despite enjoying what I'd read.

I'm not entirely sure what's going on here. I'm busy in terms of the Toad, work, but then I always am, so that isn't any kind of explanation. It feels curiously like a kind of burn-out.

Or, rather, it did until I picked up a paperback edition of James Shapiro's 1606, Shakespeare and the Year of Lear. I've been waiting for this to make itself available for months, and now it's finally in my sweaty palms - having found it in the inestimable Kinokuniya just now - nothing but nothing is going to get in the way of my reading this immediately. Maybe twice, just for the hell of it. Appetite restored, and how.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Lost Time

Watching something on the telly about cyclists in Malaysia I had a vivid memory of how important my bike was to me when I was around ten years old and living at Haughton Green. Our gang created what we considered a speedway track on a field near one of the schools up there, where we also built bonfires. I think we spent more time on our bikes in those days than on foot.

The local speedway team, the Belle Vue Aces were our great heroes. They seemed to win everything associated with the sport. But I don't think I ever actually saw them live, as it were. Hearing of their exploits was good enough for me.

Does speedway exist as a sport anymore? I imagine the Belle Vue Aces must have passed into legend long ago, along with the amusement park. Paradise lost, as it always is.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Just ten years ago I wrote this in my journal, relating to an interview I'd just undergone for my present employers:

I got back from the interview about an hour ago. It wasn't really at all like I expected it to be - not that I had formed any very clear picture of what might be going to take place. It was pretty informal, pretty short. This is a different country - they do things differently here. The good thing is that they were talking in terms of one year contracts. Now that would suit me down to the ground and lower.
The funny thing is that despite my applying for a number of jobs, this institution was the only one that replied, which made me keenly aware that at my advanced age (even then!) people weren't exactly falling over themselves to employ me. At the point of writing the above I was really quite casual about it all; now I realise how lucky I was to walk into another job with seeming ease at that time.
The difference I'm referring to above, between interviews here and those one undergoes in the UK for equivalent positions, was striking then, and remains so in my mind. Nobody gives you an easy ride getting into an English school, not in my experience anyway. Odd really - I suppose in a vague sort of fashion you'd expect things to be the other way around.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


In the great battle of life I took a few knocks today, but managed a couple of small victories.

You'd think I might have outgrown military metaphors at my age, eh? Sad, but life won't let me.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The New English

It's one of those times of year in which I'm busy marking scripts from around the world. These days the marking comes to me on-line, which means I no longer have any idea of what geographical background any script in front of me is from. Previously examiners would receive thick envelopes of examination papers from clearly indicated locations - we'd know the specific schools involved. Now the scripts come at random. You download one and it could be answering any one of six essay questions, and it might occupy anything from less than a page (rare, but I got one this morning) to an upper limit of around ten sides or so. (My longest ever was sixteen sides of unreadable handwriting, that being the first script I ever marked for IB, believe it or not, which immediately made me consider giving up the job.) And the script could come from anywhere from Africa to Alaska, from Zimbabwe to New Zealand.

The striking thing is that I rarely, if ever, have the slightest idea as to the origins of a script. It isn't that the essays are all written in a neutral Standard English such that they all sound the same; rather, and this is the odd thing, most seem to be written in the same variety of slightly skewed English, such that one begins to recognise similar odd constructions that aren't terribly wrong but are never quite 'right' somehow. I find myself wondering whether the people writing these essays are all frequently talking to each other since so many of them seem to be saying the same kind of thing in the same slightly slanted kind of way.

One simple example: it's very common indeed to be told in answers that a writer uses a mood in order to portray a theme (especially if a kid is writing an essay related to a question on mood.) Since so many write this or something like it, I suppose that in their minds it means something, that they are thinking of an actual sequence of some kind a writer sets into motion. But what on earth takes place in the course of this process?

Of course, there are some very well written scripts and there are some which are barely coherent. But the vast majority occupy a shared territory in between the two extremes which appears to have developed its own variety of the language. And I'm really not sure at all if this is cause for celebration or complaint.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

No Class

Somehow I contrived to miss the FA Cup Final yesterday. I completely lost track of what day it was to be played on, vaguely thinking it was Sunday, and had no idea of whether it was featured live on any of the channels we can get. I managed to watch the highlights on the Internet, but that didn't go far in making up for the excitement of the game live, and exciting it obviously was. Reminiscent of the final when Kevin Moran got himself sent off before we achieved an unlikely victory. And also a United side reminiscent of those inconsistent days.

Unfortunately the victory has been entirely overshadowed by the likely dismissal of Van Gaal and appointment of you-know-who. Now I'm quite a fan of the ex-Special One, but I shudder to think we're in an age when a manager can win a major trophy (well, what used to be major) and be unceremoniously shown the door on pretty much the same day. But then again I shuddered at the dismissal of Moyes given the fact that I thought they'd give a new manager time to actually manage.

Those days are long gone. The sense of continuity that used to underlie the game has gone with them. The turnover rate of players and coaches just about everywhere leaves no club with any real sense of identity, and I'm not at all sure that this will ultimately prove to be what the fans want.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Shelter From The Storm

About an hour ago seemingly out of nowhere came a sudden, violent storm. It didn't last too long, probably around fifteen minutes, but it made up in intensity for what it lacked in terms of duration. I paid witness through the front window and was very glad indeed there was something sturdy between me and the elements as I watched.

It was a reminder of one of the few pleasures of English life I miss: the sense of utter cosiness you enjoy when you're in a gorgeously warm house on a freezing cold day, with no need to venture out. Utterly selfish of course, there'll always be some poor souls out there for whatever reason, but deeply satisfying at some primitive level of feeling.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Stretching It

Going to the gym on a Friday evening, at the end of a particularly busy week, will probably look like a good idea tomorrow, but at the point of actually being there and discovering just how little juice I had left, it lost its appeal somehow.

Over and most definitely out.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Troubling Question

Was mulling over today issues of mental health and contemplating the useful notion of a fairly lengthy continuum between exceptionally poor mental health - someone perhaps suffering from a major disability, with likely a physiological basis, like schizophrenia - and exceptionally good mental health - a completely balanced, 'together' individual. We might then consider placing ourselves somewhere along the line, bearing in mind the possibility our position is fluid rather than fixed. Such a model usefully gets us away from the simplistically false dichotomy between being either troubled or sane, which leaves us nothing really in between, nothing of that troubled no man's land most of us find ourselves operating in.

Further considering how one might describe the model of mental well-being at the top end of the continuum led me to consider whether such an individual might be considered also a model of virtue. I think this is a good question for the simple reason I haven't got a clue what the answer might be yet have the oddest feeling that it might be important to find out.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Apropos the very fine Hillsborough documentary mentioned yesterday, it would be remiss of me not to record the fact that in addition to being alternately bewildered and moved by the unfolding of events I found myself angry to the point of enraged regarding the lies told by those in power, mainly officers of the South Yorkshire Police, in order to blacken the reputation of the Liverpool fans as part of a cowardly strategy to somehow avoid the blame that was so richly theirs.

I never read the Sun's notorious The Truth article, being here in Singapore at the time of the tragedy, but I did pick up from the newspaper coverage here a sense of some degree of hooliganism having taken place which contributed to the disaster. Even then it struck me as odd that I hadn't seen any sign of misbehaviour when watching events unfold on the telly. Nobody cut the feed from the cameras in the UK so we got to see everything as it dreadfully panned out live. I took it that the reports about some fans urinating on the police must have been referring to stuff taking place quite far from the pitch. All I could see were the fans helping the fallen, improvising stretchers and doing their damnedest to provide some kind of help.

And now I know that's all I could see because that was ALL that was taking place. And, do you know, I'm getting angry again just thinking about this. So I'll break off here. How the families of the bereaved coped with all this with no chancing of breaking off from it for almost three decades I cannot imagine.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


After celebrating the verdicts in April from the second inquest into the Hillsborough disaster I've been building on my very basic knowledge of what took place, taking advantage of some of the excellent and informative material available on the Internet. The BBC's recent documentary, in collaboration with ESPN, is a particularly good example of material that manages to be both informative and deeply moving at the same time. It should be compulsory viewing for all who believe that those in authority are somehow automatically worthy of trust.

One thing I've found viewing this and other worthy sources is that whilst the negligence of the police and other authorities is abundantly, painfully clear there remains a mystery, for me at least, as to how exactly they could get it all so absolutely wrong. When the disaster took place I assumed the problems of crowd control must have been pretty complex. But the terrible thing is that they weren't. Understanding what went wrong at the Leppings Lane end is very simple; the mistakes made were simple ones. It's actually difficult to grasp how someone sitting in the central control box could have screwed up so spectacularly.

And it seems oddly important to understand not just the dreadful fact of the criminal negligence but what lay behind it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

In The Ascendant

I've just finished a bowl of oxtail soup, as perfected by the Missus, with a mound of freshly cut bread to accompany. And, let's face it Gentle Reader, you haven't. I don't want to boast, but you really have no idea of just how much you are missing. (Actually I do want to boast, and have pretty effectively done so, I reckon.)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Time To Exit?

Just after catching a bit of an item on Sky News this afternoon relating to Boris Johnson having said something pretty silly in relation to the question of whether Britain should stay in Europe, Noi asked me what the whole Brexit thing was about and why Britain, or part of it, wanted out of the EU. My attempt at explanation was a total failure, and simply served to illustrate my lack of any real understanding of the issues involved. So I won't be hurrying back to vote in the referendum, even if I'm allowed to, which I doubt.

If I did vote it'd most likely be a vote to remain in. It's not that I'm a passionate European, and I'm definitely something less than a committed federalist, but on the whole I think cooperation between nations is a good idea, especially cooperation of the economic variety. And the fact that war between the main European powers now seems ludicrous despite the last one occurring within living memory seems to me not just a good thing but one of the fantastic, implausible facts of history that allow hope for our species. 

That isn't to say that there aren't some sobering reasons for thinking otherwise and arguing for an exit. But I just wish the argument might be conducted as a sober, sensible one, based on dispassionate reason. At the moment it all seems pretty small-minded, pretty squalid, and not so prettily self-seeking. It's politics as usual in the UK, I'm afraid.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

One Man's Meat

The Indian lady chatting to the guy behind the till at Wardah Books this afternoon didn't hold back in a pretty thorough condemnation of the celebrated novelist Orhan Pamuk. Her failure to grasp how a writer so completely dull, who just seemed to ramble, could win all those literary awards was amply shared with both cashier and whoever wished to eavesdrop (i.e., myself, who, by an odd coincidence, happened to be browsing the rather limited Pamuk titles on offer.) I toyed with jovially voicing a balancing opinion, but decided it would probably come out rude and condescending, before the guy actually being addressed noted, Well, one man's meat...  I'm guessing he was a fan of the Nobel Laureate judging by the somewhat rueful tone of his rejoinder. 

The encounter was a useful reminder of the fact that we're simply not designed to share each others' sense of quality and achievement. The lady, to do her justice, had obviously tried to find out what it was about Pamuk that gets so many readers excited, so her failure did her a kind of credit in my eyes. I suppose this is why I can't get worked up about those who, mysteriously, fail to share my tastes in music and literature (and life in general) though finding it quite remarkable that they don't.

Mind you, anyone who fails to understand the complete joy of popping down to Arab Street and environs for a cup of tea and a samosa and vadai and just sitting at a roadside table to partake thereof - which is where we'd been prior to visiting the bookshop - seriously needs their head examined.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Still Rushing

I made a silly mistake today, just before heading to Prayers, rushing a task I could easily have put on hold. The error was no big deal, but since it was eminently avoidable I found it particularly irritating, and, most irritating of all was the fact that I'm still prone to falling prey to what I know is a correctable fault of character.

The fault became painfully apparent to me in my teens, and I knew then exactly where it came from. I'm not blaming Mum, you understand, just facing the truth that whatever genetic material caused her to unnecessarily rush her way through life was passed on to me. I realised then that I seemed programmed to need to do everything at double-speed and get frustrated when the world didn't cooperate. The fact that this behaviour exactly mirrored that of my mother, and that I could see clearly the absurdity of her frustration, was painful but salutary. I vowed to get a grip on the tendency and have spent years occasionally, indeed often, succeeding and, sadly, equally often failing to do so.

On a daily basis I can still get irritated when stuck walking behind someone who insists on moving at a snail's pace - i.e., what to most people is obviously normal speed. Exiting the masjid just now I had to remind myself that not everyone felt impelled to get themselves back to work as fast as possible and they were a good deal healthier in that respect than the poor fool who did.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Up Ahead

I'm happily thinking ahead to June at this point in time. Fasting and music lie ahead. And time to sleep. So much for living in the moment, eh?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Status Quo

Sat in a workshop this morning in which I was told several times that everything about teaching was soon to change. I'm guessing that when people feel the need to repeat the assertion they are making they think this somehow makes the assertion more real. I have heard this assertion repeatedly repeated in each decade of my career as a teacher and in the following decades thinking historically: the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s. If I live until the 2020s and am still plying my trade (a sad possibility, I'm afraid) I'm expecting that someone somewhere will feel the need to tell me the same thing.

In that time very little about the job has changed. Except it's got busier.

Oh, and by the by, as a kid in school in the 1960s the lessons I experienced were pretty much the same as those that kids enjoy and endure today. But the teachers looked more relaxed somehow.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Home From Home

There was always something clenched and anxious in me until the classes were over. Thus the late, great Seamus Heaney in an interview he did some years after retiring from active teaching at Harvard and other places. Beautifully expressed, typically so, yet so surprising, especially to someone like myself who is never more relaxed than when he's in a classroom or lecturing.

It wasn't always so, by the way. In my first year of teaching the classroom was a place in which I felt on trial. But since then it's been my second home. Not sure what happened to cause this, but I'm glad it did.

Monday, May 9, 2016



At last Saturday's birthday bash I found myself the bemused recipient of a number of delightful gifts. It seemed odd that someone who owns far more than he needs should be given even more, and it was another reminder of how lucky my life has been. One of the gifts, from Karen as it happens, was an engaging little book entitled Gratitude, comprising the final essays of that wisest of all wise old doctors, Doc Oliver Sacks. They are very brief essays - I read them all before the day was out - but, as you might expect, their depth belies their brevity. The title alone came close to summarising my feelings about the day and, indeed, life itself in its wonderful, unlikely, generous variety.

I'm hoping I've got another good decade in front of me. But I'll have nothing to complain about if it doesn't turn out that way.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Quite A Spread


The Missus surpassed herself in her cunning planning of a birthday bash for yours truly, which took place yesterday afternoon. I knew she was up to something, but severely underestimated the scale of that something. Just some of the evidence above.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Small Injustice

Just watched a fascinating programme on the Crime & Investigation channel telling the story of a guy wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his mother-in-law and rape of his niece. To say that the evidence on which they banged him up was flimsy would be an understatement. There was absolutely no physical evidence to link him to the crime scene with no DNA check carried out, despite the abundance of the perp's DNA available at the scene.

But the extraordinary thing is that the authorities decided to keep him in the clink (a particularly nasty one for sex offenders) even when the evidence of obvious innocence was steadily accumulating. It seems they didn't like the idea of being shown up as being in the wrong.

He served over seven years eventually, even though the cops had in their records something close to a confession from the actual villain given fairly soon after the crime.

There won't be a big feature film made of this. It was interesting, but in a drab kind of manner. Nothing terribly heroic about the guy who suffered. It makes you wonder just how many other minor victims of police and/or prosecutorial incompetence have had their lives ruined without getting their hour on C&I to let the world know.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Hard Way

Encountered this evening, one of life's sharper truths: it is not wise to go to the gym ten minutes after consuming two of Dunkin' Donut's finest, and two mugs of tea. Theory of Knowledge students around the world may like to figure out which Ways of Knowing I applied to arrive at this unforgiving conclusion.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Out Of Time

Leafing through my journals of past exploits I was very much taken aback to realise it's fifteen years since I read Stephen King's On Writing and Ted Hughes's translation of The Oresteia. Each receives an enthusiastic mention in May 2001. Surely this can't be right? The experience of reading them lives so powerfully in memory that it feels like I read them just a few weeks ago.

How wonderful it is to be able to step out of time occasionally.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

In Movement

I thought of myself as a big fan of Radiohead circa The Bends and OK Computer. However, I gradually fell out of love with the later electronic albums, though admiring the integrity of what they were doing and recognising that for a lot of listeners they remained cutting edge. It was a case of too many blips and squeaks for me and a sameness of melodic line that I couldn't find exciting somehow. But I knew that it was me that was somehow missing something and kept the jury open as to whether I'd find the band worth really listening to again.

Then a couple of days ago I happened to come across a bit of on-line chatter about Thom and the boys, regarding the current status of the band. Several posters shared my broad opinion, but more than a few pointed out that it was the live experience of Radiohead that really counted these days and there was a lot of material featured at youtube that would back this up. It didn't take long to find out they were not wrong.

One performance featuring material from In Rainbows, From The Basement (whatever that means) seems to me to be both stunning in itself and a sort of explanation of what they are now about. They sound great, but it's the visual aspect of the performance that speaks to me somehow and says so much about what's happening in the music. I think I'm a fan again.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Taking It Slowly

It took me a few days to finish Shirley Jackson's The Haunting despite the brevity of the text. In what has been a busy period with regard to the Toad, work, I found myself enjoying just three or four pages of her chiller late at night, not wanting to rush and fail to do justice to a deceptively easy-to-read classic of its kind. The best pages are genuinely frightening in their evocation of the otherness of the house, and the weakest - those concerning the two late arrivals to the scene who, rightly, were omitted from both film versions - are interesting in terms of bringing in something quite unexpected in terms of the usual rules of the genre.

Strangely enough after completing The Haunting I found myself re-reading Purple Hibiscus at high speed, devouring it over two days, just to get the old reading muscles going again.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Not Exactly Routine

We found ourselves at the gym in the early morning, directly after prayers, a first for us. Our usual routines have been happily disrupted over the weekend as we are playing host to Hamza, Sharifah and Sabrinah and it was Sabrinah who accompanied her auntie and uncle in their unaccustomed morning workout. I enjoyed the newness of the experience, but managed to post my worst performance of the year for reasons I don't quite comprehend, but which may relate to my body protesting at being forced to do something at such an unreasonable hour.

And I'm experiencing another unaccustomed first today. For the first time in my life I am entirely sanguine as to the idea of United getting beat at Old Trafford. It's not exactly the case that I'm welcoming such a defeat, after all the possibility of fourth place is a real one, but I'm going to be so delighted over Leicester winning the EPL however it happens that the pain of defeat will be considerably if not entirely assuaged.

Go you Foxes! as they say.