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.


Rob T. said...

I read with interest, and only a mild bout of nausea,your paean to the poetaster Clive James. Let me congratulate you: Your visual acuity for admiring the Emperor's New Clothes is 20/10, at the least.

George S said...

I love people who use the word 'poetaster'. It reminds me of Pope's couplet: I am his Highness' dog at Kew / Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?' Woof.