Thursday, 20 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 19 November:
The Malay-Arab Quarter / Reading at Speakeasy

We are approaching the top of the hill. Time will slip down the slope ever faster now. That first sense of apprehensive disorientation combined with visual and cultural over-excitement has gone. Now there is a period of stillness in which one hovers between time running forward and time running backward, in a gap between braincells and heartbeats.

Everything so far has happened at breakneck speed as if the country were presenting itself to us in the guise of a rapid-change act. The totality, the all-comprehending presence of it, no sooner forms out of one mist before disappearing into another.

Yesterday I mentioned corruption. But that might have been a misunderstanding. There might not be any - or very little. We were talking - Alvin, Annaliza, Clarissa and I - about this upstairs in a restaurant near Bugis in the Malay-Arab quarter. I am looking to understand why the prime minister of Hungary should take Singapore for a model. There is plenty of corruption in Hungary, some of it now a matter of diplomatic incident, and that, I imagine, is a state of affairs that is almost inevitable when any stable group retains central control and concentrates power. With the best will in the world (and there is rarely best will anywhere for long) people get to know each other, do each other favours, try to make things look mutually good, and this process becomes ever easier, ever more natural, ever more insidious over time. There is, of course, the historical background to consider and, in that respect, comparisons with Hungary might prove shaky. The supersonic speed of development in Singapore might mean that some level of innocence has been retained, that niceness and courtesy really are forms of altruism, that there are no favours to be granted for some appropriate form of thanks whether that be in cash or compliance. Mao wanted a permanent revolution for reasons something like this. An ideology under constant violent revision might retain its puritan zeal. Then again, it might not. Puritan zeal often means blood in the street. We are becoming used to that in our time.

But this is a few streets in Singapore. There is the mosque, there a mudrassa, there an Islamic bookshop. This isn't a fundamentalist society. The bookshop stocks books of a liberal, if mostly religious nature. Darwish's poems are there. There are plenty of shops selling attractive clothes including hijabs. We stop at one where Clarissa buys a beautiful dark red top and a sarong, and Alvin and I buy batik shirts. A photograph of the owner's grandfather hangs near the entrance to the changing booth. It was taken in 1932. He started the shop and it has passed down the family which also owns a good deal of valuable land. Nothing is cheap here but most things are desirable. In another shop we buy some toys for the grandchildren. We walk down the Kampong version of Covent Garden, very fashionable now, full of the young. The muezzin calls for prayer. I can't see much praying going on in the street - they'll all be in the mosque. As ever we take photographs. It takes such a time to shift them from the phone to the computer and then to stick them in I shall save all that for later and put up a good number at once.

Then we drive to the river where I collect my thoughts about the reading. There is a cafe there that makes delicious coffee, roasting beans from scratch. It is opposite a site that used to be a gas works but is now a small park. Within that park there is a densely overgrown small building barely visible through the slender trees and interwoven branches. It's very dark inside. No one goes there not even our enlightened, secular friends. It is supposed to be associated with evil. Little fetish dolls sit at the skirts of the dark patch. Flags warding off evil spirits have been hung on the nearest branches. It's a little shock-mark on the dynamic modern surface of the city. It does look distinctly creepy. A cat with a crooked tail slinks along the lawn.


Annaliza goes for her Russian lesson. We have arranged to meet well-known poet and reading organiser, Pooja, at an upstairs cocktail bar nearby. The place is small but famous. The owner here has made the most expensive cocktail in the world comprised of crushed diamonds and pearls. We are asked to describe the kind of drink we fancy and the waiter goes away and concocts something to match the mood. I get a long vodka-based monument including ginger and lime and a mass of crushed ice. Later there is a pina colada to pass round. Jennifer and Divya from NTU are there.

The Speakeasy is a remarkably successful venue that takes forty comfortably and many more uncomfortably. Tonight's audience fits well enough. I am reading with Ng Yi-Sheng, a poet who has won the top literary award in Singapore but who, in recent years, has been working on the slam and performance ciruit. He was supposed to read first and me second, but somehow or other this has got turned round which is just as well.

The audience is mostly very young, loudly appreciative and attuned to slam. I am twice as old as they are and 'performance' for me is just reading my poems as best I can. I am in almost every respect from an 'elsewhere' that might have little to do with them. I drink two whiskies. They won't be young for ever. I won't be here for ever.

But I am a trooper. I have chosen my poems with some care in terms of rhetorical drive and imagery, which distorts my work as a whole but who cares about that? I do what I do. It goes well. There are whoops and there is applause, though frankly I don't know what target, if any, I have hit. I am essentially a private individual and little of my work is about me or has a directly autobiographical core. It's probably best to read me rather than hear me, ideally alone, ideally in circumstances that are not redolent of performance space. Got that? Those are my best footnotes, right there. Though writing is itself performance of course in some arena of the mind, heart and imagination, you'll probably have to settle down with me for a while if you ever get that far.

Not so with Yi-Sheng. He is gay and proud. His work is him, delivered at full rhetorical volume, his whole body pumping. Sometimes he runs on the spot. Sometimes he whispers, sometines he bellows, sometimes he talks of his mother who is in the audience, checking with her it's OK to read something she might find shocking. He is verbally dextrous, rhymes, alliterates. He can do all that: he is a fully dramatised presence. He throws some water at the audience, he beats a plastic cup against his head, he takes off his shirt. I notice all this more than I notice the poems but that's because I am older and less certain about who or what I am. I am, should you want to know,  more the person I told you about in the previous paragraph.

The audience love Yi-Sheng. He represents liberation on a number of levels that I can only guess at. Just as well I went first. But what does it matter? My fate is in the stern stars not on this floor and I too was applauded and whooped. Despite this, despite that, I was comforted by the approval of whoever was sitting in my amplified voice range. My natural cry-baby is tucked up with its comforter. Anyway, I can't see the audience since I am in the light and they in shadow. Look, ma! Top of the world! as Cagney bragged on some nondescript eminence before being blown to kingdom come.

It takes me about twenty minutes to readjust to social life, but there we all are sitting around another table - in fact two tables since there are eleven of us. We happily chatter on before Alvin, who is the kindness of the land personified, and - one should never forget this - a majestic humane poet, drives us all the way back to NTU to this morning's surreal comfort of Fusion Spoon, somewhere between a morgue and an alien space-craft in feeling, very like the bar at the end of the world. But the crew is friendly. We are becoming one of them.


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

Today Singapore won yet another international award for its business prowess. I hope that you are being well remunerated for all your endeavours there!

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

George S said...

I am being handsomely treated by all and sundry. I should really be numbered among the great undeserving, like one of those benefit tourists the UK seems so to despise at the moment, but the kindness is all but overwhelming.

Anonymous said...

We don't do it for everyone, George. But we do try to look after our friends :)