Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Amazing Weariness

I've been sleeping well recently, and especially in the last few days. So how is that my weariness sometimes amazes me? Further evidence, if it were needed, of the depredations of old age. For some reason my left knee has decided not to function adding to my general sense of all not being terribly well. Oh, and I'm sort of sniffling with a semi-sore throat that's been around for over a week now. But apart from that, I'm pretty well, thanks.

Monday, January 30, 2017


We decided to enjoy a Chinese New Year afternoon at downtown KLCC and it looked like the rest of KL elected to follow suit. It was crowded to the point that we couldn't even get parking on our usual level (where we've had no trouble finding a place for twelve years or so.) I spent an hour or so fairly fruitlessly in the big Kinokuniya there and Noi went jalan jalan solo, as is her wont.

The big mistake I made was in exiting the bookstore a little earlier than I'd intended and completing The Road, which I just happened to be carrying with me in case of such an emergency, whilst awaiting The Missus. The ending of McCarthy's novel is just as devastating as everything else in it, only more so. It sort of took the top of my head off, taking me to anywhere but where I was. This was not wise, considering the hyper-public nature of the location. I felt like I'd had an out-of-body experience of the most disturbing kind. Fortunately I'd regained equilibrium by the time Noi arrived, but I'm not going to try that again.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Bit Of A Contrast

Just finished the Elvis Costello memoir that looked so beguiling when I first spotted it in hardback. A great helter-skelter of a read. The best memoir from a musician I've read so far, excepting, of course, the Bobster's Chronicles which seems to me on quite a different level from anything else in the genre. Mind you, I've not read the stuff from Neil Young, Keith Richard and Bruce Springsteen yet, so maybe Elvis will have some competition there. It'll take a lot to beat the depth of the material on his family, though, especially his extraordinary dad. I vaguely knew about him, the father that is, performing with the Joe Loss Orchestra, but never realised the depth of involvement that implied with the making of music and the impact of this on his son.

I recently made a start on Cormac McCarthy's The Road. A strange contrast to the muso memoir. One with the words and memories pouring out, generally with unstoppably garrulous enthusiasm - especially when it dealt with music and musicians; the other with words harshly chiselled from a place of utter bleakness. Not for the faint-hearted, but then McCarthy never is.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

On Not Stopping

We arrived in KL yesterday just before midnight, having survived an epic jam on the Malaysian side of Tuas. After that things were reasonably plain sailing, with nary a jam in sight on arrival in the capital. Opening our door we were treated to an unreasonably but seasonably loud barrage of fire-crackers from the valley below, and from somewhere on our hill itself. Not the sort of thing you get exposed to in well-regulated Singapore.

And with the new year - or one of the three new years I get to enjoy these days - comes the question of the renewal of this blog which began just ten years ago, on 27 January 2007. I thought of it then as a ten-year project with three aims in mind, the first being to act as a quick way of letting friends in their own far places know I was still alive and kicking and give a rough idea of what I was up to if they happened to drop by. Sadly at least two folks who did so have gone to their long homes in that time - a sort of reminder of the relevance of my intention.

The second aim was to see what happened to my voice when it sounded not in pages intended for my own perusal but was unleashed on the wider world. Well, it changed, in marked and interesting ways. Funnily enough I much prefer the public voice of this space to the private version; and, equally strangely, I suppose, I generally find it oddly unfamiliar when I look back over what I've posted.

My third aim was related to my work. It has always seemed odd to me that English teachers are not seen as being required to practise a crucial aspect of their craft in the same way that we expect music teachers to make music, and dance teachers to themselves dance. The on-line public context affords some opportunity for students to read the matter herein expressed, if they find out where it is, and a chance to read what I produce with the same critical eye I bring to their own efforts. Fair's fair, after all.

Anyway, ten years is a quite a long time, and it was vaguely always my intention to let this project run for a decade and then see if it was worth continuing. In that time we've been told the Conversation (whatever that is) has moved on from the on-line blog to Facebook (now equally passé, I'm guessing) and instagram and twitter and other platforms I've never heard of (I'm pleased to say.) I can't say I've ever built up a sizable audience, and have precious few 'followers' - for which I am deeply thankful. And it's the almost complete irrelevance of this Place to the bigger world which has convinced me to have a go at keeping it going for another decade, if the mercy of time allows. Plus, I suppose the original aims are still valid.

To be honest, I enjoy writing it too much to stop.

Friday, January 27, 2017

An Anniversary

Odd coincidence. Today auspiciously marks the eve of the Lunar New Year, and we'll be on the road to the deep north to enjoy the break in Maison KL. At the same time it happens to mark a full ten years since In A Far Place had its Beginnings. Now considering what lies on the road ahead, and if any ending is in sight.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Relevance Of Irrelevance

When you weigh it all up, this world, and all the others, visible and invisible, are all connected, one way or another. A conspiracy theory on the grandest scale possible. And with that somewhat weighty thought I'm now off to connect with my bed. Good night, all!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Irrelevance Of Relevance

Just adding on a bit to yesterday's post. After writing it I found myself thinking back to when I first began teaching, some time in the last century, long ago in the last millennium, and how I used to get the heebie-jeebies when various worthies in the world of education told me that I needed to teach books in the classroom - novels and short stories they meant - that kids found relevant to their own lives, which they could relate to. Basically the idea was that if you were a working class kid from Manchester you only wanted to read about other working class kids from Manchester, and anything else was so outside your experience that you'd never be able to make sense of it so it would bore you.

Now I suppose this sounds vaguely plausible and has a primitive logic about it. Except if you happened to be a working class kid from Manchester, as I was, and knew it wasn't true. Actually I wanted to read about pretty anywhere else than Manchester, finding it, and myself as part of it, pretty dull generally and very much worth escaping from. It was only when I got a lot older and a good deal more sophisticated that I realised that even the most quotidian of existences is utterly fascinating. (I need to thank James Joyce for that lesson.)

As a young teacher when I read novels with kids in classrooms my prime aim was to take them somewhere else other than where they were to escape the prisons of place and self. I like to think it usually worked. It certainly helped me survive in the classroom since it invariably kept everyone quiet.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Something Relevant

Am thinking about a lecture I'll need to give in May at a Language & Literature Seminar we're arranging. Have got a title: The Textuality of Bob Dylan, which I really like. The problem now is that I'm not sure what I mean by textuality. But it should be fun finding out.

It seems that a key theme of the whole seminar is the notion of 'staying relevant'. Since I have a horror of the very notion of relevance, having a taste for the mightily irrelevant, it's going to be tricky to make anything I say fit in. Dylan, I reckon, has stayed relevant through a mixture of being splendidly himself and continually trying to find out who he is. But I'm not sure that's going to go down well with folk yearning to discover what it takes to  find out what everyone wants in order to be the same as everyone else.

Monday, January 23, 2017

In Error

What was I thinking a few posts ago when I renamed the esteemed film director Roman Polanski? Not very much, I suppose is the answer. I spotted the error just now and supplied the necessary correction, but left the original moment of stupidity (with a line through it) for all to admire (and because it amused me as well as worrying me.)

Mistakes are fascinating, aren't they? Today I've not felt well so the whole day has felt like one big mistake, but some days just do. Still, things got done which is just about as much as anyone can hope for, even on the best of days.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Catching A Breath

On this, the anniversary of Dad's death, I've been thinking of how fortunate it is to be able to breathe easy - something denied to Jack Connor for the final years of his life. I suppose that's why I half-thought of Dad's leaving us as a kind of release, despite how relatively young he was.

This isn't something to dwell on, but it's something to remember.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fun & Games

It's a packed day ahead. Having heroically cleared my marking this morning, I'm off for a game of futsal in a minute or two, to be followed by a celebratory BBQ this afternoon (for little Safiy, from whom the invite for the futsal came), to be followed by the SSO doing their stuff this evening with a mixture of Adams (can't wait) and Bernstein (ditto.) We're taking Fafa to the concert since she's a bit of a serious music listener these days.

Am now psyching myself up to survive the futsal by telling myself to linger stoically in defence and not run round like a maniac like last time. Wish me luck!

Futsal survived, I think. Lots of youngsters on the pitch meant I didn't have to run into big open spaces, so I wisely lingered, mopping up at the back, occasionally falling over.

Excellent concert. The soloist in the Adams's Violin Concerto was a local lass, Kam Ming, who can definitely play more than a bit. She did the whirling dervish, bluegrass thing to perfection and then some more. And the West Side Story stuff offered much to wallow in. Very struck by how many of the lovely bits are so reminiscent of Aaron Copeland.

Friday, January 20, 2017


I found myself roundly cursing a few days back when playing the second CD from Crimso's Live in Toronto set I realised there was an odd glitch towards the end of The Letters just before the segue into Sailor's Tale. After two lines of Jakko's (wonderful) unaccompanied singing of the final verse there was a weird pause and then a traumatic jump into somewhere around twenty or so bars into the instrumental. What puzzled me was the fact I hadn't noticed anything amiss playing the disk in the UK. I seriously wondered whether I'd ever made it into the second CD at all, but felt sure that I'd listened to it at least once in the car. Had I been distracted and missed the jump somehow? I was seriously thinking of purchasing the entire set again through amazon and giving away the faulty set to someone who might just appreciate the mighty seven-headed beast comprising the greatest rock band in the known universe.

Fortunately I had the wit to test out the disk on a different player, this being the cheapo Sony thingy in the bedroom. This negotiated the segue, a bit creakily true, but Jakko was able to finish the last verse and the three drummers/percussionists picked up the lovely circling cymbal motif that heralds the beginning of what is surely one of the great instrumental pieces of rock music of all time. And today I played it in the car where even the creaky scratchy sounds vanished. So I won't have to buy the set over again, thankfully.

But why would I have even considered doing so? Gentle Reader, let me tell you that the Toronto set is one of the greatest live recordings of a concert I have ever heard. The way this version of the band re-work old and more recent material is masterful. But it isn't just that. It seems to these ears that there's something quite new, in the rock world anyway, going on here. It's as if a kind of conservatory approach has been taken to the music. I know there's been some criticism on-line of what some listeners perceive as a kind of reining-in of rhythmic power - caused, in part, by having to coordinate those three drummers. As far as I understand it a click track is used to keep things together.

But what I hear is, if anything, a gain in the already extraordinary power of the band. It's as if the massive onward momentum of the heavier stuff is being just about held in, against its wishes, and the tension created is intensely dynamic. And there's a gain in subtlety for this always most subtle of rock groups. The version of VROOM, for example, actually made me laugh, as well as shudder, as Mel's baritone sax kicked in with the primary theme in a sort of manically jaunty fashion.

In fact, there are so many such wonderful moments in the concert that it's almost overwhelming to try and take in the imaginative power of what these guys are doing with otherwise familiar material. Seriously, it's beyond brilliant, and I have run out of superlatives.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Changed Man

When I first bought my copy of Ruth Padel's 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, the title of one of the poems she analyses jumped out at me immediately. I recognised both names and the relation between them in the curiously titled Keith Chegwin as Fleance, names which I suspect would be quite mystifying to most readers outside the British Isles - well, the first of them anyway.

Keith Chegwin was, or is, I suppose, a minor broadcasting celebrity, who appeared regularly when I was a teenager on Saturday morning tv shows aimed at kids. As a child he appeared in Raymond Roman Polanski's film of Macbeth as Banquo's son Fleance who narrowly escapes with his life when his dad is assassinated by Macbeth's bad guys. I know the film well having used it a few times in the classroom when teaching the Scottish Play for 'O' level. Hence my recognition of the thoroughly arcane reference which led me to read the poem.

I sort of got it on first reading, having glanced at Ms Padel's helpful commentary, but it didn't leave any deep impression. Then today I read it again, having suddenly thought of checking whether the poet, Paul Farley, I'd been reading in Edinburgh, having picked up a collection from in York, featured amongst the 52 writers. He did, and he - you've guessed it - was the writer of the Keith Chegwin poem I'd read several years ago.

When I bought the collection in York I was convinced I'd never heard of Mr Farley, so it was a bit embarrassing to realise I'd read something by him, and a lively extended commentary on him as a writer already. But here's the funny thing. Reading his poem today I found it a powerful piece even on the first reading and wondered how it was I'd not reacted to its strangely comical melancholy years back. I suppose I was different then. I'd not been changed, as I am today, ever so slightly, but enough to count, by my experience of a protracted reading of other work by its writer.

What we read makes us no longer quite ourselves.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Talking Trees

Happened upon a wonderful article in the December NYRB about trees the other day. I read it in my actual copy of the mag, but realised today it's available on-line here. (The NYRB is incredibly generous in terms of what it makes freely available to anyone with a wi-fi connection.)

I've always admired trees just for being trees and, therefore, pretty obviously superior to most other forms of life. But in the light of what real experts on the subject have to say that admiration is now officially boundless.

Isn't the world an astonishing place? And aren't we incredibly stupid to keep losing sight of that fact?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Odd People In And Around Edinburgh - Retrospective

It was pretty cold when we were in Edinburgh back in December. So how come all my memories are warm ones?

(Possibly the answer lies somewhere in the evidence above.)

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sweet Sounds

I must say I admired my own sense of restraint on our recent trip to the UK with regard to the buying of CDs. Or, rather, with regard to the fact I purchased only 9 CDs in total despite the manifold temptations I faced. Just one example: in Edinburgh I chanced upon a delightful shop near the theatres on the way to the Castle which specialised in folk music. I reckon I could have come away with at least 100 absolutely necessary purchases but restricted to myself to 4, these being, not in any order of merit: Eliza Carthy's Dreams of Breathing Underwater; Roy Harper's Stormcock (astonishingly only the second Harper album I've owned, the other being HQ); the second album for The Imagined Village, Empire & Love, featuring lots of Ms Carthy and her dad; and one I've been trying to hunt down for some years now, Live Love, Larf & Loaf by that stellar quartet French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson.

Just listing these, and thinking of the other 5 I bought in December, makes me feel warm inside and desperately keen to listen again to them all. Just take the last in the list above. I first became aware of the existence of this, in anyone's terms, extraordinary collaboration when I heard a track from it, I Am A Bird In God's Garden, in a 3 CD Richard Thompson compilation. This is RT in Islamic mode, and most tasty it is too, especially the lovely off-kilter violin courtesy, I assume, of Fred Frith. It turns out that pretty much every track on the original album is distinct unto itself and everyone's a gem. I foresee, or fore-hear, I suppose, hours of happy listening ahead.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Odd People In And Around London - Retrospective

Thinking back to having a capital time in the capital.

Saturday, January 14, 2017


Since I've recently been posting pictures of last month's trip to the UK I suppose the assumption might be made that somehow I'm longing to be back there. Nothing could be further from the truth. We always enjoy our travels, and it's highly satisfactory to think back on them, but I'm more than content with where I am at the present moment. Funnily enough I can recall a time - when I lived in the UK - when that wasn't so. Despite a general enjoyment of life then and what it had to offer, I know I felt a need to be somewhere else. I can recall evenings in the pub at weekends, often with Dave Stott (with whom we shared some time on our recent trip), on which I felt vaguely discontented at what seemed the littleness of my experience. I needed to go somewhere else. And I did.

And here I simply don't have those feelings, despite the littleness of our world in this Far Place and environs. This came home to me with particular force this afternoon, munching on some freshly concocted blueberry & lemon bread (courtesy of the Missus), drinking immoderate amounts of tea and listening to Richard Hawley's Lowedges and Bill Frisell's Nashville (both albums named after other far places, oddly enough.) I neither needed nor wanted to be elsewhere.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Signs Of Life

Was taken aback earlier today by a sudden distinct improvement in my performance on my trainer thingy in the gym. Very gratifying. I thought I'd never experience the training effect again.

Life in the old dog yet, mayhap.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Do We Need This?

Sometimes when I'm in a classroom a silence will descend, generally when it's willed by myself and compliant students bend to that will, and, very occasionally, just by accident, emerging from the circumstances of the moment. I really enjoy those moments, especially when the silence manifests but the preceding noise is still somehow lingering, at least in memory. The sudden stillness is so rich, so full of possibility somehow.

It just so happens that I enjoyed a couple of moments today comprising such descents and they got me wondering whether we - I mean people in general, we human stuff - actually need silence, hunger for it. At least sometimes.

No, that's not quite true. The question as to whether we need silence emerged also from the fact that I've actually read, or heard, the claim that we do a couple of times in the last few days. Encountering the claim I immediately felt assent, it chimed with my own experience. I know for sure I need the stuff. And it was, in a way, reassuring to be told that I'm not so different from other folk in this regard.

But here's the thing. If we do in some essential way need silence why are we so good these days at making darn sure it's so hard to achieve? I can't think of any public space in which there aren't concerted attempts to abolish any quiet that might intrude. All too frequently piped music inhabits the space where silence might have been, but there are other techniques to ensure we don't get what we need and, at some level, crave for (as some of the experts say we do.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Odd People In Devon - Retrospective

It's quite a privilege to be able to look back and say, What larks, eh?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Speeding Up

After lingering over Daniel Deronda in the most delightful of ways I've found my reading speeding up and spreading out. Over the weekend I completed my third reading of Kawabata's Snow Country, partly inspired by the fact I've started the year teaching it to one class and even after the second reading felt pretty unsure as to what the writer was up to. I'm still not all that sure, by the by, but the puzzlement seems to me part of the response intended.

At the same time as exploring the more extreme regions of Japan as explored in Kawabata's fiction I found myself in downtown Tokyo in Daryl Yam's Kappa Quartet. I'd started on this in late November and enjoyed the opening few pages, but then put it aside as I didn't think (rightly as it turned out) that I'd get time to read it in the UK. Anyway, I'm now moving ahead with it and it's a bit of a page-turner.

But not quite enough of one to have stopped me from buying Elvis Costello's memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. This has been on my radar since I saw a hardback of it a few months ago and decided to hold off until the paperback came out. And now I've got it I 'm finding it predictably addictive reading. Fortunately it's written in short, digressively anecdotal chapters, each circling round a distinct theme or sequence of memories so it's not so difficult to put down despite being unputdownable.

Oh, and I'm chugging along quite nicely in Sean O'Brien's collection The Beautiful Librarians. This was one of the two poetry titles I purchased with my book tokens late last year and it turns out to have been a good choice, despite being entirely random. The blurb refers to the poems as Audenesque and that's fair comment, though O'Brien tends to be a bit more opaque than the Master, which, considering Auden's occasional opacities is quite an achievement.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Slowing Down

I'm feeling reasonably pleased with myself for getting myself over to the gym this evening, and for convincing the Missus to accompany me for her first visit to the treadmill of the year. I've managed to establish a bit of a routine already but I must say for some reason I wasn't looking forward to tonight's session - at least, that is, in the two hours immediately prior to our trip. For reasons unknown I felt weak to the point of suspecting I wasn't going to be able to manage my routine 40 minutes. In the event I kept going, but consciously eased up compared to my previous visit.

Now I'm wondering how much of my sense of weakness was a reaction to feeling that I'd overdone it the last time I was there, out of a determination to get back to posting the kind of results I was getting in my best sessions last year. These were the ones immediately prior to our Hajj. I've not got close to covering the same amount of ground since.

I reckon it would do me a lot of good to ease up on the counting of numbers and just enjoy getting some kind of exercise, regardless of its presumed effectiveness, for the next couple of months. Whether my highly defective character lets me do so is another question.

Sunday, January 8, 2017


Was briefly reunited this afternoon with my companions, most of them that is, from last year's Hajj. Just seeing the likes of Salim, Sani, Hussein, Said, Mat Rus, Adi and Haroun was enough to provoke a flood of good memories, not that I was in any real danger of forgetting the experience and its manifold aspects.

Of course, the important question is whether we were changed by the experience. It isn't the memories that count, it's the outcome.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Missing The Point

After finishing Daniel Deronda I was keen to set about reading Terence Cave's introduction to the Penguin edition I'd been reading. I'd deliberately avoided looking at this earlier based on Prof Cave's own advice that the intro contained spoilers, and good advice it was. I found the narrative drive of the novel well nigh irresistible, especially in its second half. But I did find the prof's footnotes to the text extremely useful and these gave a few pointers to his own reading of the text, which further fuelled my desire to read his introduction.

I must say his appreciative comments on the text in the intro (and his notes) echoed my responses, particularly with regard to the ambition of the writer in going outside the comfortable English frame of Gwendolen's world and exploring the world of the Other in the Jewish part of the novel. In that respect Eliot's final work seemed to me remarkably prescient of more modern concerns, and relevant to my own experience in ways that, say, Middlemarch, for all its insight, indeed greatness, falls short of. I found an urgency about Deronda that took me aback.

The intro also reminded me of something I'd largely forgotten: the negativity of much critical comment on the work, particularly with regard to the Jewish part. I found myself scurrying to my battered old copy of Leavis's The Great Tradition in order to re-read his less than complimentary treatment of the novel. He's certainly appreciative of the part he entitles (with some arrogance, I must say) Gwendolen Harleth, and does justice to the psychological depths involved, but he's stunningly dismissive of Eliot's treatment of Daniel, Mirah, Mordecai et al.

I find this baffling. Certainly these characters lack the psychological depths of Gwendolen and Grandcourt, but isn't it obvious that Eliot is not interested in duplicating that kind of writing in this part of the novel? And isn't it extraordinary that a remarkable reader like Leavis isn't able to surrender to what the writer is doing in the Jewish segments? Prof Cave nicely puts a name to what GE is up to here; he sees it as a step from Realism into Romance. I'm not keen on literary labels generally, but I think that in this case they are useful. Certainly what I felt when I was reading - and I felt it very intensely - is to some degree explained by those terms.

So for the last few days I've been thinking not just of this great novel and my responses to it, though it has lodged itself in my imagination, but of literary criticism and how at its best it can illuminate and excite and at its worse entirely miss the point of why we read at all.

Friday, January 6, 2017


We're off to visit Rohana and Osman after Maghrib. He's having the stitches from his operation removed today so we're hoping that will be seen as a sign of good progress. His chemotherapy will begin, I assume, once he's recovered from the trauma of the surgery.

The real problems of a friend put one's own minor irritations into perspective in a big way.

Postscript: Stayed, happily, at Rohana & Osman's until midnight. They are amazingly cheerful and positive despite their troubles. A model of resilience.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Odd People In And Around York - Retrospective

Looking back it's fair to echo Paul Simon: Still crazy after all these years.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


Was dead right about Deronda and Mirah - easy one. Completely wrong about Gwendolen. Who would have thought GE would leave that story wonderfully, rightly, unfinished? (I think the possibility of eventual marriage to Rex is hinted at, however.)

Yes, I finished DD even though I had no real time in which to read the final chapters. Enthralled as I was, I made the time - and the final pages turned out to be the most gripping, and in some ways unexpected, in the novel. I've been knocked sideways by what initially seemed a difficult read. Cannot stop thinking of the text and its implications. Brilliant stuff.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

What Next?

Now into the final pages of Daniel Deronda (about 40 left) and can't wait to see how GE wraps it all up, though I think I can see what's coming. Here's my prediction: Daniel to marry Mirah (dead certainty) and Gwendolen to marry Rex (a lot less sure of that. In fact, bit of a wild guess. Fascinated to see what's in store for our heroine, if that's what she is.) Of course, wrapping it up involves a lot more than who gets hitched to whom - as does life - and it's going to be interesting to get a general sense of the various characters' fates as well as the closure achieved in terms of the thematic concerns.

I'm puzzled over all those clever critics who don't seem to find plot of any great importance in novels or plays, as if it doesn't matter how things turn out. They're missing out on one of the greatest pleasures of reading: the simple, deep desire to find out what happens next.

Monday, January 2, 2017

10 Nice Views In Devon - Retrospective

Of course, 'nice' doesn't really do justice to just how astonishingly beautiful bits of our world frequently manifest themselves as. The unlikely glory of it all is enough to mangle any man's syntax.