Thursday, 27 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 27 November:
What is writing? What is being written?
A quiet day between theory and practice


Wednesday was a genuinely quiet day. We need those every now and then to catch up on rest. The life we lead here is very unlike life back home. We see more, do more, encounter more in a less familiar setting. It is exhilarating but tiring. In two days time I will be sixty-six and, naturally enough perhaps, I tire earlier than I used to and the diabetes doesn't help. It occasionally stops me dead for a few minutes, then I move forward again and everything is fine.  I remember my father saying he couldn't believe he was seventy, or eighty. I can't quite believe I am the age I am.  Everything in me rebels at the thought of it.

The theory of mortality is not the same as its practice. We are at the age when theory becomes practice for deeper practice.

Here are two notes I posted on Facebook, one last night, one this morning:

1
Supper outside Fusion Spoon on the terrace tonight. The long storm has created the loveliest, coolest night yet. One could lie back on the air and drift on it. Everything feels fresh. Inside the restaurant a big loud party, women tottering on high heels, roars of laughter and shouts to outshout other shouts. Not outside. Outside only cicada, faint distant cries, the odd car - a taxi with a big IKEA sign on it - and guests leaving the restaurant.
 Frankly I don't quite know what I am doing here, I only know what I have been doing. I have been writing and reading and thinking, thinking intensely at times, striving to understand, sort, and record, and letting the rest wash over me. We have been places and talked to people, talked almost constantly in one or other circumstance, mostly with dear friends. Clarissa has been making small paintings in her book. This was her childhood climate but without the air conditioning.
No air conditioning needed tonight, or not very much. I can hear it faintly buzzing as I type this in our room. I feel like one of the minor poets of late Imperial Rome making notes on what was once empire. It's pleasant yet precarious, vibrant yet melancholy, as if the whole place were on the edge of curiosity about itself, a curiosity no one can satisfy for fear of coming up with an unwanted answer. I can't answer any of it. Ignorance may be bliss.

2

One gets used to what seems to be the rhythm of the monsoon. The storms come and go two or three times a day; there is the rise of statuesque cumulus cloud then, beyond it, the darkening into a thin then thicker grey. The approaching rain has a smell I have learned to distinguish (it's not difficult, it's just that I am slow with smells). We are in an intermediate state at the moment. The cloud is high, thin, cirrus, but the light is far from strong. It doesn't look like a storm coming, just a slightly hazy day. It could be almost England.
Looking out of the window is misleading though. We are at a stable temperature. The t-shirt I am wearing is just about warm enough. Outside it will be more than enough. Do we take an umbrella on the short walk to breakfast at Fusion Spoon or simply prepare to run? Do we go anywhere without an umbrella? No, we don't. 

They are useful in strong direct sunlight too. Many people - chiefly women and girls - walk along with them raised. Man and boys don't. Either they feel the sun less or they set out to be tough. For us, ten minutes in it at its strongest begins to feel dangerous. Everyone looks for shade and fortunately the NTU campus is full of covered walkways that run beside deep drainage channels for when the rain falls particularly long and hard.

It is 12 or 13 C in England we see. Warm for the time of year. Add perhaps 20 C to that at midday here. We cope and learn to enjoy the part which can be enjoyed, the time after the storm especially.

I keep up these notes as mementos because writing is good for me. It is what I need to do. I sometimes wonder about the voice I have found increasingly convenient for the notebook, about whether it is turning into a style that is in danger of eating its material, the kind of 'travel writing' in which other people's normality is turned into the writer's signature.

'Writing eats what it writes about so that it may be digested into imagined experience for the reader. '  - Discuss.

How much of my writing of Singapore is imagination? Surely, the point of writing is to to be able to imagine a reality we can believe in. But belief-systems rapidly wear out. The god has to be reinvented time again in a form that retains its potency. Here, this is life, you have touched it. Feel the electricity course through you. This is not a dream, it is what there is. Language is invention too. It is its own belief system. It is a vast city constantly filling and emptying, a location where a million things happen at once.

Singapore is a city state. We can imagine it any time we like, but to imagine it credibly takes more than the leafing-through of a guide or a walk down a few streets. It is, in some ways, small enough to hold together as an idea, but not as practice.  Practice is imagining those who are perfectly capable of imagining you.

Theory and practice again. I am practising writing. I am practising to be sixty-six and utterly mortal. That's the theory, anyway. Let's imagine this is Late Imperial Rome. Let me imagine myself a minor poet within it. Anything more would be grandiosity.

Here we are. The sky is still high cirrus. But we know that will change.


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 26 November:
The houses of Nagoya, the play of love, the long-legged fly


They did not expect to return to Raffles Hotel sounds like the beginning of a story but it was more the beginning of a meal. In Raffles there are a number of restaurants, among them Shinji by Kanesaka, which is as pure and aesthetically minimalist as food gets, as you will see by clicking on the link and encountering a home page so pristine it will make you feel ashamed of your untidy physical existence. It is Japanese fish cuisine of the highest order.

Alvin has taken us there because we should, after all, sample the best of Japanese food and this is the best. We are in a narrow sushi bar whose surface is made of single piece of light marble-smooth wood, just ourselves and the chef, Shunsuke Yoshizawa. Two women in delicate parchment-coloured traditional gowns are there to smile, silently serve sake and top up our green tea. Alvin has ordered Hana, a meal of nine pieces that we watch being prepared.  We are presented with ginger shavings that we peck at in between the various nigiri sushi with one course of maki sushi, that is after an appetiser of seaweed and something equally delicious. The successive dishes of nigiri sushi constitute a narrative of mounting excitement, from gentler to stronger flavours, though there is nothing loud enough there (apart from the faint touch of lime or horseradish) to wake a sleeping baby. The fish are laid out before us. Chef takes a piece, slices it with a big sharp knife then applies the delicate ingredients with a delicate finger and places it atop a child-thumb's length of pinched rice. Eaten slowly with interval enough to cleanse the mouth it is, as Alvin says, like a haiku sequence. It is also an adventure in erotics. Under normal circumstances we might bridle at too aesthetic or lavish a description, but it is apt this time. To tell the truth I have never liked Japanese food. Now I think it is wonderful. At the same time I can't help thinking of Derek Mahon's poem, The Snow Party:

...Snow is falling on Nagoya
And farther south
On the tiles of Kyoto;

Eastward, beyond Irago,
It is falling
Like leaves on the cold sea.

Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares,
Thousands have died since dawn
In the service
Of barbarous kings;

But there is silence
In the houses of Nagoya
And the hills of Ise.

Ah yes, that snow, that "tinkling of china / And tea into china" as an earlier tercet has it. 

Alvin's knowledge is astonishing. He takes us through the fish, the preparation of the fish, through the few places that can serve it like this. Not to be found in London. The preparation yes, the fish itself, no.

Our tastes are democratic, but this is aristocracy. These are blue-blooded fish that demand silence in the house of Nagoya and the hills of Ise. Of barbarous kings and burnings we have enough.

*

Alvin has to go to talk to people in commerce about poetry. We inheritors of the Romantic and Socialist tradition in the west tend to be suspicious of such events. We are rebels by calling. We are rebels by popular demand.  We are a binary culture. Money bad: spirit good. We find it hard to conceive of a society in which poetry has a civilising and humanising role as mediator  between hierarchies. Imagine an advertisement that said: Improve your performance by entering deep meditation with the finest and most successful poets and craftsman in a dynamic yet soothing environment... It would certainly bug us. We don't want to invite business to read poetry only so it might make more profit. We oppose capital to community, and business ethics (the very phrase would have to be presented in quotation marks) to individual impulse. Accountancy was Monty Python's joke career, roughly on a par with Python's lumberjack song. We are keenly conscious of the greed of Gordon Gecko, of the murderous indifference of the bottom line, of the corrupt dealings of high finance. We love a revolutionary gesture though we rarely engage in actual revolutions.

Is it possible for us to imagine a society in which the hierarchies persist but are leavened by an understanding of whatever is humane? Is it possible for us to imagine a society where migrant workers' poems and songs are submitted as evidence in the courts of justice and are reconciled with the finance department or marketing office's love of Wallace Stevens? Or of Derek Mahon for that matter? Or of François Villon?  Or of Bertolt Brecht?

But here is not there. They are not us. We are not this. Binaries remain as distinctions. Our values grow out of our histories however we overlap at times. This is a different set up, a different tradition, a different concept of what makes a workable non-ideological society; it has a different starting point and different aspirations in different historical and economic circumstances. These are the houses of Nagoya and the hills of Ise removed to a map of vulnerabilty, colonialisation and poverty. Here, in Yeatsian terms, the centre has to hold in order to prevent things falling apart and mere anarchy being loosed upon the world. We are, say the voices, a practical people by necessity. Business must go on. Let us make it as humane as we can. The rough beasts slouch on.  They may in fact be slouching this way.

*

We ourselves have slouched on to Orchard Road, a street lined with back-to-back malls that rise to several storeys offering goods from the cheapest to the most elegant and fashionable. Oxford Street as conveyor belt. We are in one of the malls and have come here to meet three other poet friends who take us, first, to the opening of a venture some ten floors up, a collaboration, as I understand it, between a Japanese food retailer - pancakes chiefly,  an orphanage, and a new arts project. There are drinks and speeches that are exactly what drinks and speeches usually are. The Japanese ambassador makes a speech. Japanese history with Singapore is complicated of course. Let us move on. The press is there. Civic responsibility, creative endeavour and entrepreneurial know-how engage in mutual embrace. I am no more sceptical of this than any westerner might be. This could work. There are people who really believe in it. Art will happen here, art and pancakes. There are worse combinations.

It seems to be Japan day in Singapore. We proceed to a Japanese meal of a quite different, but very nice sort. This is still within the mall. We are artists, poets, musicians, playwrights, arts administrators. We talk poetry and music and books and festivals, comparing societies. Then Clarissa, myself and the poet Yong Shu Hoong make our way over to the SOTA Studio Theatre to see a play by young playwright, Joel Tan.


*

It is a production by Checkpoint Theatre titled The Way We Go. It has a cast of five - four women and one man - on a simple stage with a coffin upstage centre. The actors are mostly well known not only from theatre but also from television. There are four main relationships in the play: between the forceful head of a convent school and a female colleague, between two girl students who enter a long term gay relationship, between the head and an elderly sceptical male lover, and between the sceptical male and the head's colleague. It is a very human play that, as the link tells you, is "a sensitive meditation on growing up and growing old. It looks at love in places where we least seek it; the love for learning, life, and language; the love between friends and kindred spirits." It is in fact a play about love.

The characters are cleanly drawn, very well played, especially by the three senior leads, and, while exemplary in the sense that the characters exhibit types of behaviour, they don't become stereotypical. There is no 'message' as such, no agenda. The fact that the two younger characters are gay might be controversial in local terms but it's hard to tell. What is certain is that it is quite ambitious for a young male playwright to create four convincing female characters and to imagine the effects of love and cancer on late middle age. The male figure is like one of Chekhov's sceptical doctors (at one stage he claims to be a doctor as a joke), the women remind me a little of Masha in Three Sisters - this is not to say they are like her in any detail, only in that they might be mapped in that broad region. The coffin is there because we are watching the central character die. We don't watch in a linear fashion because the story itself is told in flashbacks and flashes forward. Although the story is set in Singapore and the younger characters talk Singlish some of the time, the theme is universal.

The whole thing is sharply written but essentially gentle. It understands all its characters and presents them sympathetically, mostly in comic terms but always with the sense of human tragedy underneath. Is the head teacher's cancer caused by the refusal of the doctor to move in with her, by the thwarting of her will and authority, by the cramping of her style? No answer is suggested to this important question: cancer just happens. Except nothing 'just happens' in a work of art. If chance enters the composition - as it must - it can be edited out or left in.  Even chance is ordained. Death is at the centre, upstage.

Read this blog as a review if you will. I can certainly recommend the theatre group. Nothing second-hand about them or the production, about anything, just a sense of trust in the difficult idea of love.  We don't do that very much in the west.  We have had to too much lurv. We are bathed in savage ironies. We know the rough beast better than we know the houses of Nagoya or the hills of Ise. We are not here. We are elsewhere.

Neither are the houses of Nagoya of course. The valleys of Ise are jungle and swamp and the need to get on with life. It is not up to us, nor the emperors of Japan to aestheticise the conditions.

The theatre building itself is quite something in terms of construction but this is about the play. I am not a theatre critic. These are not stars or ticks. Imagine the stars and ticks for yourself.

*

In our conversations we touch on the future. Not the immediate future but not too far off as the world goes. It has taken fifty years in Singapore to get this far. Wherever you go there is a price to be paid but you don't go by yourself nor do you go where they won't let you. Should China be able to divert shipping to a new port of its own Singapore would find it hard. Singapore might be done for, everything lost. The children of those now in their prime would have to face reamalgamtion with Malaysia or something worse.

Under the hubris, sadness. Under the sadness, anxiety. Within it all, a kind of wryness, a calculation of the odds, the need to have things hang together, to make the best of things while keeping life manageable and human. No burnings, no rough beasts, no falling apart. The rough beast has come and gone a few times already. Let us have instead an intelligence hovering about itself, the mind moving, as another Yeats poem has it, like a long-legged fly upon the stream. Upon the wide South China Seas.




Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 25 November:
SHAKESPEARE HATES YOUR EMO POEMS / Languid Man freaks out


We have done a fair amount of walking here and I seem to be walking differently. I don't mean I quite know how I walk in England, nor do I here but every so often I find I straighten myself up and swing my shoulders more. I am becoming more languid and it appears to help progress through the thick, hot air. I have noticed some Africans and Caribbeans walk like this in England. Maybe this is how the walk comes about. Heat makes you languid and you become loose-limbed. Before long it is languor as style. Maybe.

That's a big maybe on the edge of nonsense but one is simply less trussed up than in the bracing climate of England. Nothing braces here only work and work goes beyond bracing, it is practically the rack: the rack of long extra hours, of returning to the office at midnight, of coming up with a solution in the small hours. If you are a child there is the rack of extra activities, the supplementing of school hours teaching with more maths, or language, or art, or physical exercise. For or read and because it is likely to be all those things and more. It is as if everyone were in training for a big event due the next minute. It is, after all, what has brought the place to this extraordinary vertiginous point. What is more, overwork can become pleasure and pride, a corrective to the feeling of inferiority following the disppearance of empire. I can see the t-shirt now: I'M STRESSED AND I'M PROUD.

I suspect there is a languid figure inside the tense Salary Man prototype. The languid figure moves through its own air of memory and desire. It mourns, sighs, yearns, and falls into a gentle sleep. On the bus yesterday two girl students fresh out of an exam with anti-prototype t-shirts, one with a variant on the Keep Calm and Carry On (Whatever) slogan under an image of the crown, with the same crown but upside down, the legend reading: PANIC AND FREAK OUT NOW. The other girl's T-shirt, more subtle perhaps but also telling, says: SHAKESPEARE HATES YOUR EMO POEMS.

Results are vital after all and the exam period is the rack of all racks. One can never assume  anything of the individual soul (mild looking accountants dismember bodies, fierce looking punks secretly adore kittens) but Singapore is, visually at least, a conformist society. The young may be longing all the more to break out but they don't look to have broken much. On the same bus just one young girl with hair dyed silver and lilac and a stud through her lips. The rest are in neat clothes, their dark hair neatly done, with more or less style. The sports posters around campus exhort them to DO BETTER, to EXCEL, to AIM HIGHER.

Languid Man does not get much of a look in. Languid Man languishes, desires, dreams, and feels a certain sadness and regret in the twistings of his much-racked intestines. As to Languid Woman, where is she? She is not the tired figure trudging home with shopping bags or dashing late into the office. I doubt she is hanging about in the doorways of Geylang.

*

Yesterday we met with two Indian friends who have recently arrived in Singapore to work. Pallavi is a scholar, editor for major publishing houses -  and poet - looking for a job here; Abhishek is an engineer by training but is now in advertising and is trying to write novels and short stories in what spare time he has. They are our children's age - warm-hearted, intelligent, talented, absolutely delightful. We go for a meal near the National Gallery and talk over steamed dumplings and noodles. I first met Pallavi in Delhi on my first visit to India where she attended a class I gave at the Katha Festival. I remember her even then, a lovely attentive face, not very much older than the children in front of me. We have met briefly since, in Delhi again and in London. This is the first time we have met her husband. They were married some six months ago. We ask her if she has some wedding photos and she finds some on her phone. The costumes of both bride and groom are beautiful, they themselves are beautiful. We hear about the preparation, the reception, the families and friends and relatives. She is hurrying to finish her PhD. He reads intensely, his admirations shifting, wondering if he will ever be good enough.

There is something a little uneasy about Singapore for them. The place is beautiful, but too new, too grand, too ostentatious, too Disneyland. India is replete with the past: here the past is erected, demolished, erected and demolished again. It is, in effect, presented in terms of the future. It may be in the haunted building in the park that was the gasworks. It may be in the heart of Languid Man. Hard to know, they think. The future is the past waiting to happen, I think.

The sun is out and the circular building directly in front of our window is all clear lines and sweeping curved shadows. It has something of the flying saucer about it. Perhaps it will rise and head off into the unpredictable sky. Perhaps it will start to spin like a top, like the castle in the Hungarian fairy tale that turns and turns on its one duck leg. You think that's surreal? No, it's just the Folk doing what Folk do, slaving, dreaming of a more languid existence, spinning and spinning, rising and vanishing into the weather.


Monday, 24 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 24 November:
Profusion, Garden, Death,
and the Supermarket Smurfs


Profusion, plenitude, plethora, cornucopia, abundance, bonanza, surfeit, excess, oversupply, overkill...

Very well, let's stick with profusion. There is a lot of it. It is tangible and pressing. It fills the eye and oozes through the skin. It is what you breathe.

First of all there is air: megatons of it, gathering, bursting, drenching, cooling, then gathering again into its multitude of personal saunas that embalm you as you go. It is with you as your mobile phone is with you, as your camera is with you, or as your mobile-phone-camera is with you. I have talked of spectacle but it is partly ourselves that are the spectacle. We photograph ourselves photographing ourselves, we become part of the goods on display to ourselves and our friends. The distance between camera and subject becomes personal space as of right. When people are photographing each other we don't walk across their sightlines, not without an apology first. It is focal distance as real estate. And you can carry it with you, like the air you breathe and move through.

*

The day did not begin that way. Very close to the university are the ancient dragon kilns which have become part of an eco project. The kilns are rarely fired up, chiefly because they are so enormous, long caverns extending up a slope so the fire can rise along the length of it, burning at temperatures of about 1200 C. There are little windows along them through which extra firewood can be thrust to carry the flame onward and which then have immediately to be filled in to retain the heat. This being an eco garden the firewood is all recycled waste. You really need a considerable number of clay pots to make the firing worth while. One of them was being publicly fired up last Friday. The other is even longer and available for inspection from inside. It is like being in the sewers of Paris, or in a scene from Wajda's Kanal. One child wants to explore further in but his mother tells him to come way because she herself is scared.

Several artists work with the kilns and in the ecogarden, alongside volunteers, including those who learn to serve coffee so that they may become expert baristas and others whose task it is to show adults and children  (we have come with our friends as a family group with one child) how to make pinch pots. We too sit down to make pinch pots. Clarissa makes a splendid pot with lid and handle. I am content to make one round pot and cover it with sgraffito designs and a naked dancing figure. It is Clarissa who has the full sense of volume, I was ever a painter of surfaces. I suspect I am not as clumsy as I think I am or as I was told I was as a child. My fingers are quite nimble. I play the piano after all, after a fashion. My feet are nimble too. But maybe there is an essential lack of co-ordination at brain level. Give me a surface and I'll cover it but don't ask me to make that surface.

The storm begins as we are pinching pots and it is a big one, right above us, a proper King Lear of a storm, the rain violent and solid, the thunder not so much out there as inside us. The construction we are in is essentially a large open shed with a simple roof, no more. It echoes and resounds. Outside the earth is quickly turning into mud. This goes on for some time but then it dies away and the cycle begins again. By the time our pinch pots are ready for whatever firing happens next, the soil is already drying.

We wander round the ecogarden and spot dragonflies, millipedes and glorious tiny sunbirds, probably of this sort, bright yellow with a black head. They hang on stalks and feed off drops. The millipedes are having races along the concrete path. The dragonflies buzz the pondskaters. Everyone is having a wild time. On the way out a notice tells us what we should do should we meet snakes, wild boars and monkeys. The general advice is we should slink away quietly which seems sensible.

From ecogarden back to The Gardens by the Bay, this time to the Flower Dome beginning with cocktails and nibbles at Pollen. Cocktails are cocktails any part of the world. They are what you drink when you are feeling a little flush and wanting a little glamour in your life. To add to the glamour a band in the dome is belting out songs from the shows, Start Spreading the News, My Favourite Things. It's loud and full of huzzah, plump with itself. It is a far cry from Raffles Hotel where the merest whisper of brass would be enough to crack the china.

The dome itself is the embodiment of profusion: profusion of flowers, trees and people from every part of the world. There is a Mediterranean part, an Africa part, an Australia part - you name it, it is there, densely packed together. There is lavender and rose and cactus, all available to touch and smell. Nature gangs up on us, albeit pieced and parcelled and thoroughly at attention. The structure is rather splendid, sweeping, a little reminiscent of the new Kings Cross station in London. There are weddings and brides (one looks rather miserable and stares into the distance outside as others fuss around her) There are myriads of visitors with cameras and dense kilometres of personal camera space. I am beginning to feel a little weak.  The good king's beneficence is more than lavish. This is people's park with silver bells on. It is for the public at large. And they are distinctly at large, very large.  At the centre there is a large Christmas display with holly, fake snow, Christmas trees, lights, and a constant swirl of families and, especially groups of young girls taking selfie after selfie in front of fragments of spectacle. There are again polite suggestions as to where you might like to take your photo. Why not become part of the iconic gallery, part of the iconic procession pausing at the iconic spot? Freeze yourself into the continuum of history with a snap of your built-in camera.

I mention the idea of Winterval to Alvin. We hate to offend, etc. He can't quite believe it. You need to come to Asia to get a proper unabashed multi-cultural Christmas! No cultural cringe here.

*

After the Flower Dome the food court along the beach. More profusion. Stall after stall offering variations on a profusion of dishes. A profusion of people of a profusion of cultures sitting at a profusion of tables by the profuse yet single, quietly thrumming sea. We eat fish and chicken and salad and fruit. We are well provided. Our culinary world is refined, differentiated, multiple, close to overwhelming. It is profoundly democratic.

Afterwards we walk along the shore in the dark. Opposite us an endless crew of lit cargo vessels waiting to dock or leave. The bay is deep enough to allow for an aircraft carrier. Boys are fishing off the long jetty. There are barbecue spots available to the public. The sea is dark and pushes to and fro with its sweet yet ominous surge.

Along this beach the Japanese ordered young Chinese Singaporean males to dig their own graves then shot them. They would bayonet them afterwards just to make sure, but toward the end of the war things had to be done in a hurry so some escaped with their lives.

Under the profusion, another darker profusion. That is the order of things in the world. It is its own dread Law. We do exactly as Blake suggested in his Proverbs of Hell. We drive our ploughs over the bones of the dead.

*

This morning we buy some milk and fruit in one of the university supermarkets right opposite Canteen No 2. There is always music in the supermarket and, all this last week, it has been Christmas music, or what passes for Christmas music in the retail arenas of the world. The aisles are brightly lit. I feel a little like the Dude at the beginning of The Big Lebowsky. The music tinkles on. It is the Smurfs again, with the Smurf's version of Boney M's version of and love will live for evermore because of Christmas Day. Hark, the herald Smurfs do sing. Glory. Glory. Glory.



Sunday, 23 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 23 November:
The pleasures of high humidity /
Peranakan vice zone


He explains the pleasures of tropical climate as we are exploring the Botanical Gardens just after the peak hours of sunshine but still under a ton's weight of humidity. It is like being embraced, he says, like feeling the air hold you, feeling its resistance, its weight, like the air is really there. It makes you aware of your skin. I found it harder to breathe in England, he adds. There is no resistance there.

I try to imagine this. It has never occurred to me as a possibility. I have often enough wondered whether the unchanging climate, here where there are no seasons and the sun rises and sets at the same time every day of the year, is something Singaporeans enjoy as such or whether they simply accommodate themselves to it by installing as much air-conditioning in as many places as possible. That would indicate that people do feel discomfort but, it seems, this too is possible.

And it is true, you do notice your skin. It is wet all the time. When you touch your brow - you hardly notice it before then - it is damp. It is tiring walking the Botanical Gardens for a few hours but not exhausting.

We are with two new friends, a couple. Y is a Chinese poet from mainland China whose family has been living in New York for some time. She writes mostly in English,  studied with Tim Liardet at Bath and has published a book in the US. She misses New York. She had come to my readings and introduced herself. Her husband, W, is Singaporean. They met in Bath while he was reading psychology there. He is now working as a rehabilitation expert for the Singapore prison service while she is a translator and interpreter for a commercial enterprise.

I ask about prisons in Singapore as we are sipping cool drinks before entering the gardens. The prisons, like the architecture everywhere, is new. There is nothing primitive about them. Crime is, as we have been told before, very low - some drug trafficking, some sex crime, not much robbery, not much fraud: the place is entirely safe to wander round in the middle of the night, particularly for women. There is, of course, the death penalty for trafficking drugs. Yes, there are the Triads but they operate chiefly in prostitution. The police have the ultimate power over the gangs, he believes. There are the red light streets (albeit without red lights). There are the brothels and the hookers but prostitutes are not allowed to solicit and the pimps are liable to arrest. It depends on who exchanges money with whom and how. In any case, he explains, most prostitution is carried on via the internet. But they will take us for dinner in Geylang later, he says. One of the students had mentioned Geylang to me as the vice area of Singapore.

What to say of the Botanic Gardens? All I know about botany could be written on one side of a privet leaf, so, for me, it is a matter of size, scent, shape and changing ambient temperature. We see a squirrel, some spectacular wildfowl, hear (but not see) frogs and toads. There are areas for plants that cure and plants that kill. There are extraordinary petrified trees and bamboos that huddle together like a bundle of sticks. At the core of the park, at its highest spot, is the orchid garden together with a lodge where couples get married. W and Y were married here and there is a wedding going on as we walk around. The wedding is a mixed affair, partly western, partly liberal islamic. We see the guests and hear the music being set up. The singer rips into Wonderwall. Pop is its own empire.

Orchids are spectacular and this is orchidophile heaven. There are orchids of various sizes, shapes, intensities and modesties of colour. There are orchids developed for diplomatic purposes. One of the first we see is the orchid for Margaret Thatcher. Another is a posthumus one for Princess Diana. But a good number of foreign dignitaries are represented there. There are troubling carnivorous plants too. Both Clarissa and I take photos - as we do of everything - and note that there are specific places marked with notices saying TAKE PICTURE HERE. An elderly Malay couple in their beautiful best is being arranged by younger members of the family into a standard composition that will be new for them. We slowly disappear into the night.

*

We get a taxi to Geylang and are dropped near the long established Guan Hoe Soon restaurant (photo of founder on the wall, a small shrine to a kitchen god above the kitchen) that specialises in Peranakan cuisine. We eat Ayam Boah Kelauk (chicken with nuts), Nonya Chap Chye, (braised cabbage) Ikan Bakar, (whole charcoal-grilled fish) Nogh Hiang (Pork and prawn roll), followed by Chen Dool (shaved ice and coconut milk) for dessert. Drink is a liquefied jelly. The dishes are unlike anything else we have eaten in Singapore so far. Some spiciness but nothing skull-splitting. The lanky boy who runs about moving people to tables and taking their orders is, like Y, mainland Chinese. He looks about sixteen but takes charge, waving his arms, dashing away from an order to the door and back, to another table and back, like the captain of a burning ship. He is fraught but smiles when he has a moment. The place is full of families (we like families, says W) all talking at the top of their voices. It is Saturday night after all.

Then we take a walk down the main drag and environs. This is a Chinese style quarter, a place complete in itself. The street is crowded, and, yes, there are a few hookers clearly waiting at doorways, and there is a convenience hotel or two with rooms to let by the hour. There are restaurants and cafes and crowds at tables and music coming from bars. It is more the world of Miss Saigon, than of 21st century downtown Singapore: it is an escape from the 21st century. It is picturesque in the way you imagine the past to have been. You can probably let your hair down here providing you do it politely and play by the rules. The quieter streets are elegant, made up of rows of individual Chinese-style houses with front yards, some with a car jammed into the near impossible space between front gate and front door. There is nothing unruly about any of this. The gangs operate their own auxiliary police force.

Everyone we talk to mentions the rapid change in the country. W's mother hoards things in case it all falls apart. The taxi driver back to NTU is talkative. He too says it. One the one hand he hates it, hates the fact that kids can't run around in the streets like they used to, hates the conformity, disapproves of all the foreign labour (they dont do things as well as the Singaporeans did, just look at the MRT, he says), on the other he likes the safety, the education, the order and the sheer spectacle. He is genial.  The talk drifts on to football and now he is in his element. He is a Liverpool and England supporter. He can name the teams of twenty or thirty years ago, he has strong opinions about Hodgson and Brendan Rogers (he wants Rogers out). He loves Stephen Gerrard. We exchange hallowed names and recall significant matches. When dropping us off he mentions that he was once a Singapore rugby international. No rugby now, he says. Football is a dead loss here.  No crowds. We don't have cricket. Nor does he have small change for the fiddling part of the fare but rather than accept a bigger note he lets us off. It's been fun, he says.

We are exhausted and quickly fall asleep.  Next week I will be sixty-six. There are moments when I feel it.


Saturday, 22 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 22 November:
Pleasure cruises and maps in motion


I sometimes wonder whether I am writing about Singapore in itself or about the Hungarian, or indeed UK analogy with Singapore. In any case I have no particular perception into Singapore society or history except what I gain from friends, meetings with other writers including students, and what I see - or appear to see. And what I appear to see is a kind of party full of bright lights and architectural swank, of people at crowded tables in food courts, of students huddled at the entrance of the examination hall catching a last look at their exercise books full of formulae and equations, and indeed of poets at performances partying, sharing and celebrating their own shaky slant on the world. I used the word amiable before. It is that, or so it appears, but there is also something a little hyper about it which makes me think of parties on delicate ships setting forth on a cruise in unpredictable weather.

I can't help but be glad for them - and myself - that things are rather hunky-dory for now. I am pretty sure most people would prefer to wander through electric gardens, to sip cocktails a hundred floors up, to gawp at The Shoppe, or even to snack in one of the endless and multiple eateries rather than toil in a swamp, have to watch every last bit of food or to labour in stifling offices without air-conditioning. We get sentimental about what is lost and feel the loss deeply. We are aware of  a bottomless but not fully defined anxiety. Everything is all so new, so precarious, so deprived of values that would appear to have been firm. As soon as we are materially secure we begin to find money vulgar. The poor don't and never have.

The ecological arguments are unavoidable. Conspicuous consumption? Very well, let's have some modest consumption instead. If you eat the jungle the jungle might bite back. If you eat the sea the sea might bite back. Let us at least be polite to the gods of nature we have unseated and restricted to governable reservations. That's OK. A few natural pieties are in order as long as we remember they are pieties and not much more. It was what rankled with me a little at the Barry Lopez lecture. Why talk about telling better stories or about being nice to each other? Why not just say abandon your cars and start eating grass, because at bottom that is what we know we mean. Back to the paddy fields. Back to the swamp. On the other hand there is a voice inside us that says: hey boss, we all gonna die anyway, why not die a hundred floors up sipping a cocktail? Let's party!

Poets are ordinary people with a sensitive streak and a gift for language. Otherwise there is nothing new or strange about them. By 'them' I mean us of course. Our sensitivity might render us weak and febrile at times, and rather frenetic and thumping at others. We like the sound of a revolution providing it makes good poetry. We make dreadful administrators and very bad tyrants. Even our parties are places where we secretly wander off into ourselves.

I am meditating on all this as yesterday was a rest day. We didn't go out anywhere, we didn't experience anything except being where we happened to be, in our own air-conditioned skins. I did however meet a young student who wanted to show me a sequence of poems. We sat for a couple of hours in Fusion Spoon talking generally, then talking poetry and finally looking at his poem. Time and again I am impressed by how intelligent, perceptive, well-read and open they are, the young especially. We talked about our changing circumstances, the new wealth, the world of Google and social media, about the change in perceptions such things bring about, and he had thought about all of this and more. I liked him immensely and admired his sequence which was not perfect (though only the gods are judges of perfection, I don't claim to be) but amibitious, with splendid passages and a guiding thought or vision he was trying to explore.


It may be fanciful but I sense, almost everywhere, not just anxiety but a kind of melancholy, an implicit sadness, as if the mind had arrived where it is by accident, without a map and suddenly there it is, in a street or a park that seems unfamiliar, a tiny planet in a vast uncharted cosmos. I think there is a specifically Singaporean scent about that mental place. I have my tourist map but it is the internal ones that matter.  As time passes we impose the maps we prefer on that which we think we know. But what if you don't really know? What if the map itself is in motion?



Friday, 21 November 2014

Singapore Notebook 21 November:
Dance and Spectacle


The longer the monsoon season goes on the more oppressive the humidity until you can hardly breathe, writes one. In the monsoon season you pick up viruses that ruin your summer, writes another, both Europeans with experience of the tropics. Breathing has been all right on the whole except on upward climbs in the hot sun. My mother suffered badly with her heart and frequently had to stop for breath up hills. So this is what it was like, I think as I stop to breathe.

It was a quiet morning of work and revision but we had arranged to meet Jennifer at the doomed spaceship that is Fusion Spoon. The crew remain friendly and to some degree complicit. When we finally hit the planet with aliens on it they will be on our side until the aliens pop out of our stomachs at which point they will offer them a menu. Jennifer is head of Creative Writing, five months pregnant and about to take up a new position in Canberra in less oppressive climes but, like me, she is fond of the students.

We talk of this and that, of impressions and experience. On our return to our rooms a wave of sleep hits us but we are wide awake by 4:15 ready to take public transport, first to City Hall to meet Annaliza, thence to Bayfront, where we meet Emelda. We are going to see a performance at the ArtScience museum but first we walk around the enormous glittering mall that is The Shoppes and have a bite. The stores here are not only high-end: they are somewhere up in the Alps for brand and price. You can pay a fortune for a cup of tea and a bun, but those cruising The Shoppes don't look particularly high end for the most part. Maybe they're not customers but gawkers like us. In each of the elegant stores a single elegant girl assistant looking somewhere between lost and defiant in the empty palace of her emporium.

For the fashion conscious, I am wearing a shirt inherited from Clarissa's late father. He must have received it in Malaya (as it was then) back in the Fifties and it looks brand new, presumably because he never wore it. Annaliza and Emelda appraise it. It seems to be from a specific northern region of Malaya because its motif (white and amber on black) is made up of stylised images of kites. It is considered beautiful. It is certainly very light. Nobody is wearing one like it. Oh, what it is to be retro-fashion icon, a walking museum piece!

*

That is a perfect link to the fabulous ArtScience museum which is shaped like an opening lotus. We are a little early so lounge around the museum shop where the young assistant follows us around commending items such as a vast, and vastly expensive, portfolio featuring a print of one of Leonardo da Vinci's machine designs and, at the other end of the scale,  a tiny model of the building itself just too big to make a decent keyring.

The performance is in a room upstairs that has carpeting so soft you could drown in it. It features a Cambodian dancer and an American video artist, the whole titled Transporting Rituals (scroll down for the title and basic information). Dancer and artist only met two weeks ago to devise the programme which is a fusion (not, not that Fusion) of traditional and contemporary Cambodian dance and spectacular visual effect so that, for instance, when the dancer stops before the screen a stream of light seems to issue from her head which she can then dance around or produce from her hands. The whole performance is based on that kind of interaction, but it is the opening part with traditional Cambodian dance that is mesmerising. So much slowness and athletic stillness. So much work for the fingers and the feet. Looking at dance this way is like understanding dance from zero. It is magical and necessary. She, Chey Chankethya, is tiny and slender: a statue in movement. She is a marvellous dancer in any form of course but when the performance moves into contemporary dance, interwoven with the traditional moves, the stillness and slowness are lost and some of the power dissipates.

The visuals, by Blake Shaw,  are brilliant but not strictly necessary in the way the dance is. They fit around the dance and offer a language of their own suggesting multiple presence and violence. They interpret the way that contemporary dance interprets, but the strict, austere-yet-sensual traditional dance element is not an interpretation, or rather it doesnt feel like one. It is itself. What dance is.

*

Then we walk and do the spectacle that is the whole harbour front. It is all recently reclaimed land, sea and swamp, an enormous, celebratory finger up to the past and to jealous neighbours. It is hard to say what is the centrepiece, but possibly it is the Three Towers that are surmounted by a horizontal structure that looks like a brightly illuminated boat. There is something of a set of cricket stumps there too. We watch the end of a laser show, we cross the bridge to the Gardens by the Bay a great assembly of domes and plants and supertrees and lights, lights, lights. The night garden is a dozen Christmases at once, the city looking back at it, an eternity of Christmases, Christmas as a video game, the moment as virtual eternity.

But these analogies are wild shots in the dark. The display means something deep and complex. Singapore is not Vegas, though it certainly has a big casino: it is more contemporary than that. As I wrote on Facebook:
'Marina Bay is the most spectacular part of Singapore in terms of modernity. City as spectacle, the ultimate circenses on an island of panem. I am dazzled by the mixture of razzmatazz, celebration and hubris. It's like having colour telly in 1950.'
So, yes, bread and circuses, plenty of both but more still. It is as if it were saying: Out of the swamp THIS!

It is the wealth dreamed by the poor.

David Beckham is a frequent visitor here, especially to The Shoppes. It is the boy from Leytonstone with the un-posh Posh Spice wife elevated to thrones of purple and gold. You too can bend it like Beckham.

We teeter between celebration and hubris, between the trump card of capitalism and the burning of the gifts for the dead. We are waiting for Godzilla to arise out of the sea and take back what is hers.