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:

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.


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.


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

My wife and I taught English in Kuwait City for three years. Kuwait is the hottest country in the world and during the summer, temperatures routinely climb above 50 degrees centigrade. If you can't park your car in the shade, it is usually too hot to drive home.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

Anonymous said...

hello, i got here from Today's migrant workers' poetry article. it's funny - there you are in singapore and here i am in england watching the dreary rain, my thoughts pooling into puddled images of home and bak kut teh. i miss singapore's noisy suburban silence, the alive baking stillness of the heartlands. even when it rained it did so with torrential brutality, not limpidly, limply. in my first year of uni here and i have no doubt the sounds of england will one day cease to be a foreign language to me, but not just yet. i'm sleepy and my fingers are moving faster than my brain but i suppose thank you for this mundane snapshot of life back home is what i'm saying.