Friday, 28 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 28 November:
The no-knives canteens, the campus ordinaire,
and a dream of magical slam

Mostly quiet apart from the evening. Some two hours in the morning writing up yesterday's notes then reading and soon it is time for lunch. We trek over to Canteen 2 which offers a pretty wide range in a reduced foodcourt arrangement, street food absorbed and licenced by the university institution. There are several canteens on campus, some bigger than others. I haven't counted them all but No 2 is the nearest and more than enough for our needs. It is, of course, very cheap, much cheaper than a sit-down meal anywhere else. No knives available at the canteens only forks, spoons and chopsticks, but no one objects if you pick up a chicken leg and chew it. I am not sure about the absence of knives, even plastic ones. Is there a concern about assault? How much damage could you do with a plastic knife? (About as much as with a nail clipper on an airline but they are banned too.) Maybe it's just culture. Knives? We laugh at your knives! We disdain them!

The canteen is busy at the expected hours, students grabbing food between exams and revision for more exams. They seem remarkably happy given the circumstances. We see them revising by the sports field, hunched over notes or laptops, not looking too miserable, often smiling, often in conversation. They seem to speak mainly Mandarin or Singlish among themselves though they are taught in standard English. They are generally trim, scholarly looking, many bespectacled, ordinary, often in sports or quasi-sports gear, their figures ranging from very tall and athletic to tiny and fragile. True sporty types pound the track even in high heat, a few kick a ball about. In the evening they are joined by steady joggers, basketball players, and even mothers pushing babies round the track. Some runners look impressive,  going along at a fair lick, or sprinting and stopping, or practicing their hop, step and jump by stamping one foot down hard before easing off. On one side of the track a few, mostly staff I think, are at the pool, swimming or dipping. Next to them is a sports hall where couples practice the tango, one couple particularly elegant, the erotics of the dance formalised into something less overt but just as potent and graceful. Somewhere in there, in another hall, people are playing squash in air-conditioned courts.

In the afternoon we return to our rooms and I read and try to write. There are poems under way, others starting. The book about poetry seems likely to get the go-ahead but I am not thinking about that yet. I may write a few pieces on Twitter, looking to join them up into sets. Clarissa draws or reads. We might snooze for half an hour or so before going back into town when we have an arrangement. As we did yesterday

If arrangements coincide in time with the end of an exam the bus out of campus is likely to be packed with students who must be glad to be anywhere but here.  The bus carries us and them to other parts of the campus or out of it towards town, to Pioneer or Boon Lay, where we can change to the MRT metro service. Boon Lay is busy so it is worth getting on one step earlier, at Pioneer, because the chances of a seat are better.

Then into town on the green East-West line, through Lakeside, Chinese Garden, Jurong East, Clementi, Dover, Buona Vista, Commonwealth, Queenstown, Redhill, Tiong Bahru, Outram Park, Tanjong Pagar, Raffles Place, City Hall and beyond, all the way to Changi Airport. Going by the familiar sounding English names of most of those we could be in an unfamiliar suburb of London. I did, at one point, make a list of all the other stations with English names on other lines, such as Labrador Park, Lavender, MacPherson, Somerset, Admiralty, Kent Ridge, Holland Village, Farrer Road, Botanic Gardens, Caldecott, Marymount and many more. Need I go on? I see the word Caldecott and it's not just the illustrator, Randolph Caldecott but the actor Richard Caldicot who immediately spring to mind. Richard Caldicot of The Navy Lark! In Caldicot's wake swim a host of more illustrious names: Dennis Price, Leslie Phillips, Jon Pertwee. That's the generation, right there! Radio comedy of the fifties and sixties. They live again in Singapore. They are buried in the collective memory of empire and spring back to life in Redhill, Dover, Chinese Garden, Labrador Park and the rest. Is that Ian Lavender of Dad's Army fame? I would not be surprised to discover Mornington Crescent somewhere on the MRT map among the more local names such as Bukit Batok, Choa Chu Kang, Potong Pasir, Bras Basah, Toa Pahoh, and Kembangan.


Tonight we are heading to Orchard, just after Somerset, Orchard denoting Orchard Road of course, but also the orchard that was originally hereabouts and is no more. We are meeting our young  earlier-mentioned friends the painter Ruben and the poet, stand-up comedian and (very recently) fashion model, Jennifer. We owe them a meal and Jennifer is performing tonight at a slam in Orchard Road. We stop at a Japanese restaurant (our fourth Japanese meal in three days!) which is, again, rather good, then move on to the slam which is up some stairs, behind the stage and beyond a bar with the darkened auditorium just round the corner. It's not the best night tonight because of the exams - the performers are generally of higher education age - but there is a respectable crowd of about thirty people there including judges and performers. Clarissa and I are very likely to be the oldest. Usually there are twelve performers and a packed and loud audience but this time there are only six slammers. We have three rounds with the theme: animals. Each contestant is introduced by their performance name and very briefly heralded by a snatch of appropriate of music. Then they step to the mic and have three minutes to impress the audience. Some material is simple rhymed verse, some is anecdote or joke, some reflection, some is of a more complex but not wholly articulate cry from the heart.

We are delighted to see Jennifer win a close contest with Cheyenne. Jennifer is tall, very slender and her hair has been styled into a smooth silvery cut. She sings a little, she makes some dancing movements. That would be enough in itself, but she also has her text some of which she has off paper, some by heart.

My personal thoughts on this? The point about performance in this form is not so much text. The text could be good in itself, but it might be even better as part of a complete presence, not text dressed up, but text as spoken under lights in a dark auditorium where every small movement and vocal gesture is amplified into an independent poetic: a verbal circus. Sing-move-say-chant. I would love to see that. I would prefer it to the generous but karaoke-like sociability of the scene. The occasion might be driven further, become something beautiful and authoritative. I think Jennifer in particular could do this: she has the presence, the grace and the skill.

I am excited by the possibilities and try to articulate this afterwards to Ruben and Jennifer but I don't know whether I succeed.  Is it any of my business, after all? I think of my time as chair of our local literary festival in Wymondham and of the old cinema that I wanted to fill with a magical poetry cabaret that partook of all the performance arts. Maybe it's just a weird obsession of mine. I don't do it after all. I am not a Spoken Word artist, no - but I can imagine trying the verbal circus.

We all ride the MRT back to Clementi, where there is a reliable taxi rank, talking movies and TV. I am very fond of both Ruben and Jennifer: we both are. They are sophisticated, animated, overflowing with talent. Ruben is full of warmth and enthusiasm, Jennifer has a lovely concentration in her being. I feel I can say this of them because of the age difference. One wants to nurture and admire them.

Outside a butterfly is hovering over the dense leaves beneath the window. Another large cumulus formation is rising over the halls of residence. It is a blend of the overawing and the delicate, with small frills of pearl grey and hillocks of pigeon grey within the increasing, now breaking, now coagulating mass.

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