Saturday 31 August 2013

Malaysia 10: A bazaar, heavy rain, a crash
and the death of Seamus Heaney

Day always begins later. No breakfast. We chat to Alvin in the lobby and meet Pauline at 12:00 who checks us out. We pack up the bus and drive to a food court where we eat a little then to a bazaar with a second-hand book stall  on the second floor where everyone buys books. We don't because of the weight. Under the piles of books our friends find early anthologies of poetry, a few novels, some with racy covers, and miscellaneous other things, mostly hard-cover ex-library stock. Among the books on the shelf are some that would not be seen in a regular bookshop such as Irshan Manji's The Trouble with Islam. After a while I sit down at the cafe on the same floor and drink some water. Here are a couple of notes:

An old man in white t-shirt and denim shorts in the cafe of the bazaar so thin he is barely there, his hair too thin, sits immobile at the metal table. He is so still I think he is meditating but when I look harder he seems to be taking his left pulse with his right hand. Then he takes his right pulse with his left hand. Each time a couple of minutes of absolute stillness. Then he folds his hands, palm upward as if to catch something from heaven. Judging from his expression he looks to be in despair but maybe that is just his way of keeping still. Maybe this is the heart of stillness, the capturing of it in moment after moment, capturing it with a purpose but little hope, like rain between dry spells or a moment of dryness between the rains.

Beggars too are models of stillness. This one has bent himself so out of shape he looks permanent. His knee is higher than his shoulder, one leg ends in a stump and is tucked under the other but somehow off the ground. He is like a puzzle that one or other god has tried to solve but gave up, walked off and forgot or left to another god to sort out. His gaze is fixed on the ground or maybe it is the ground that has mesmerised him so it is not within his willpower to raise his eyes. In any case it is stalemate: zugzwang. The stillness is itself forgotten. It is like those pointless pennies in his glass begging jar in which light is the only thing that moves.


Then we set off to KL on the same highway we came on. Once again, as we approach the most spectacular part of the rout with its range of strange hills and mountains, the rain starts and soon it is almost monsoon-like, drenching and driving. Cars throw up spray. Traffic slows. There is a crash up ahead, a car upside drown and crushed. No sign of the driver or passengers. They are already gone. No blood either, but it mighthave been washed away in the rain.

Eddin has his mobile on and suddenly announces; Seamus Heaney has died! Shock. Alvin immediately goes on line. Semus had been ill for a while and had suffered a heart attack a couple of years back. Alvin finds a recording of him reading at Poetry Parnassus, a recording Alvin himself had made. We watch that and listen as well as we can. We talk about him for a while, then fall silent though eventually other conversation begins.

I won't begin to write an appreciation of his work here. I did meet Seamus a few times and had lunch with him in Dublin while I was International Writing Fellow there. He was charming, funny, generous and nicely mischievous, not a saint. I think he was careful not to be seen as a saint. The generosity sprang from his desire to say Yes to a great deal. I think he was deeply aware of his farming background and it kept him human and open to the non-literary. It is in fact what made him a great humane poet.

I don't think he had much influence on my own writing except in terms of technique, the sharp, sheerly sensuous and earthy. He was already established by the time I came to early maturity and his origins were so far from mine that, apart from the humane eye, there was little I could learn from him. My eyes, when it came to Irish poetry, were primarily on Derek Mahon. There was a man more like me in many respects.

But I had no doubt Seamus Heaney was as close to my idea of what a great poet might be as anyone could. He was beyond Irish while being fully so. That is why he, rightly, received the Nobel Prize. That is why he was loved in so many different places. People sometime poked fun at him as Famous Seamus. You could poke fun at his fame, not at him. There has not been a less pompous man.

Good night sweet Seamus. Go well.

Friday 30 August 2013

Malaysia 9:
The I incident

Yesterday (today being Friday 30 August) we went to the Khoo Kongsi..
... one of the most distinctive Chinese clan association in Malaysia. It is well known worldwide for its extensive lineage that can be traced back 650 years ago, as well as its closely-knit and defensive congregation of buildings and a magnificent clanhouse.
As the website tells and shows it is a large maze-like block of several buildings with only three entrances, and, at the centre, a  traditional Chinese theatre and, opposite it, an even more magnificent temple-cum-gathering place, the Leong San Tong. The website tells you far more than I know so there is no point in trying to summarise it. As with all these blogs my aim is to give a subjective impression and to comment when appropriate rather than write a tourist guide.

Eddin, our host, is himself of the Khoo family so it is a place of some importance to him. Not that he has any particular rights to it. There are a great many generations of the Khoo clan that are represented in that 'congregation of buildings' and in the list of names.

While there Eddin receives a call that says that one of his cousins, the artist Anurendera Jegadeva is being investigated by the police for one of his paintings in an exhibition, because someone has made a complaint. Here is one report of the story, here's another. Here is the picture one of a set of works based on letters of the alphabet.

To my eye - granted the reproduction is small - it shows an American flag rather than the Malaysian one, with four stars in the corner, an ape on a bicycle and a figure with the words of George W Bush on it "mission accomplished". The ape on the bike is a little enigmatic but the rest seems plain enough, it being a simple satire on Bush, presumably the Idiot, and the Iraq War. The part that upset the more fervent Islamists, however, is the text, which is, as the Mail / Yahoo article tells us:
..a mirrored inscription of the Arabic word "basmala" that is part of the Islamic phrase commonly translated as "In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful"
Because it is mirrored it is taken to be an insult to Islam and that then completely changes the meaning of the picture so that the flag is the Malaysian flag, and the I is not for Idiot but for Islam. Thereafter the minute iconographers of insult get to work on it, and produce a catalogue of interpretations that would lead to charges and a possible prison sentence.

The police do not hesitate. They confiscate the picture and close the show, intended to open on National Day tomorrow. The whole affair is under investigation while a number of Ismalicist blogs are howling for the artist's blood.

No one imagines an insult to Christianity or Hinduism or Taoism or Buddhism would have the same effect. What makes the accusation worse is that in the critical UMNO blogs the artist is described as an Indian Hindu, in other words not a 'proper' Malay.

There is a good deal of this religious bullying going on in Malaysia. Seeking out insults, arousing indignation and pushing for prosecutions is not unusual. This case seems particularly noxious because of, what appears to me and presumably many other people, a wilful misinterpretation of a work whose meaning seems as clear as day. One of a series of works it is a passing remark on US policy under Bush and the inscription is read in the light of the image. The trick of the acusation is to reverse the relationship, to take the mirroring of the text as an insult and then transfer that insult to everything else.

This news will probably not make it to the western media but if it does it will be noted and people will shrug in that slightly fearful way, dismissing the incident as minor while inwardly thinking: For God's sake let's not interfere in case it goes down as a bad mark against us and endangers our people.


Having heard this news Eddin is busily ringing round trying to organise a petition. Later Pauline has bad news of her mother in Bangkok. She has broken her knee and there are complications. She will have to fly and look after her  at her apartment as there isn't anyone else. This means Kelantan and the shadowplay is off. A change of plans.

This is the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, what the Chinese know as Hungry Ghost month, and even among the most sophisticated there remains a certain wariness, as there is of ghosts generally, of doing the wrong things.

After the Khoo Kongsi we sit down for ice cream and cooling drinks by a Chinese temple area. Drums begin to beat. They are enacting the feeding of the devil to keep him occupied. Apparently they feed him cocaine. There is no special dress for the occasion.

After a lie down we go to the Gurney Food Court a large open space full tables and stools surrounded by a lot of food stalls selling individual dishes. Crowds of local people eat there. We sit in the open and eat till about midnight. The sea is just a few yards away.

The streets are a patchwork of architectural styles, from the rudimentary to the highly ornate. The colonial building are pure, peremptory, clean lined, a little grand. The temples are diverse, overflowing with form, colour and narrative. Life winds around them. It is the nature of the place to be patchwork, to select from a vast and complex pattern of ways of eating and being.

Thursday 29 August 2013

Malaysia 8:
En route Penang / Penang, Rain, Singing, Ladyboys etc

A long wet drive to Penang past fantastical cliffs like half sliced cake, sheer, ever more spectral in the growing dark. The rain pelts down and we wonder how long it will last. A stop at a large service station where the washrooms are a supermarket-sized building to themselves. There is a market where we buy some mangousteens before proceeding in the rain, Karl driving.

After about five hours or so we reach Penang, crossing the long bridge from the mainland, moving past modern tenement blocks and industrial / office complexes and into the centre to our hotel. Having checked in we go straight out for dinner.

The place is very big eaterie with a stage where a girl is singing to a karaoke machine. She has a rather good voice and we move past to a table behind her and eat there, but once done eating we take up a chair right in front of the stage and see a succession of singers, one man in a domino-checked jacket and three girls, two of them in dark and domino checks, the third informal in short pants. They are performing a series of mostly seventies hits from various parts of SE Asia including Japan and Thailand in a range of languages. We grow more enthusiastic over beers and encourage them. The singers can earn a sash or garland, members of the audience paying for them with a few bills. We do that too. It isn't expensive. Karl gets up to dance before the stage. The girl responds. She comes over to our table and talks to Karl. One of the other girls does too, and then the young man. They all have good voices. One girl, in black, is a little shyer but she picks up confidence as they take turns. At a table next door they buy us more beer. I am not in the least drunk but watch. Alvin, Pauline and Eddin all join in with Karl and soon Clarissa and I are hand jiving and waving arms.

Our hosts and Alvin are in their element. Alvin interprets some song lyrics for us. Eddin pays, Karl  and Pamela dance, Pamela straight, Karl with a touch of dramatic irony.  At the end the man at the keyboard sings a couple of tracks. Alvin points out how democratic this all is, no extra charge, songs from everywhere, all familiar from their childhoods, popular hits, disco hits. It is clearly great joy for them, familiar, celebratory, nostalgic, liberating.

We hit a nearby eaterie for tea. More singing. Eddin was a child crooner and sings well now. Alvin does Barry Gibb. Pauline moves beautifully. The tunes are mostly unknown to Clarissa and I and I am aware of being from outside this sphere, not to mention, much older. The company is mostly the age of our children, maybe a little older. If we were by ourselves C and I would probably get up and dance. The talk moves on to dancers and ladyboys who are fully accepted here from an early age. Androgyny and hermaphrodism are no problem except for the strictly religious. They tell of one particular dancer who was very effeminate but moved his Paris audience to tears, who was supposed to turn into a wild boar in the bathroom. When he danced the theatre cat took up position on a chair and wouldn't move for three weeks. The previous night we had talked long of ghosts and demons and succubi. All very real here.

But this is the real Malaysia, they say. 'This is what we are fighting for.' That's not entirely comedy either.

At the next table a streetwalker sits down. She has a low cut dress showing a lot of cleavage. One man seems to be making a deal with her, but she doesn't go with him. Later two more streetwalkers join her. But is it a woman, or a ladyboy? I think she is a woman, Clarissa thinks otherwise.

Then back to the hotel. Today (we are seven hours ahead of the UK) we will walk around. The rain has stopped. It's morning, half-past eight. The sky is grey but we are by the sea, a clear tranquil sheen of silver hardly different from the sky.


Hard to gauge the state of one's soul. Pleased, flattered, dazzled yet quite calm. Here is a missing part of experience, like an enormous wedge. Let it enter. Nothing human is alien, we say, and it is true. Fun is fun, dance is dance, the soul is the soul, as various as life itself. It is something to be deemed worthy of such generosity and deep entertainment, though all this lack of sleep will catch up on me sometime.

I am an introspective sort of creature who has learned to be social. I have become quite good at it, I think, but it's the way a man might learn to monocycle. At night I put the monocycle away and tiptoe round my head like a ghost. God knows what landscapes are forming there. We shall find out.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Malaysia 7:

It's about an hour and a half from KL to Malacca. The old heritage city is the destination. Eddin couldn't come so Karl drove us in a hired eight-seater. I had had a very bad night of some two or three hours sleep so wondered if I would stay awake, but I did so, talking away to Alvin in the back seat while Clarissa talked to Pauline ahead and, at the front, Karl drove on with Iqe beside him. The music was old Weimar jazz, the roads pretty well three-lane carriage all the way.

Alvin and I talked poetry, the nature of it, ways of talking about it. He raised the interesting idea of the computer programme as a kind of poem, the actual text produced being simply a reading of it. I talk of the inherent idea of poetry in humanity at large, the instictive understandimg of what it is, what it is for, and the way education confuses people. He told how one of his poems was being discussed at an educational event and the students were all rather reticent. They were being asked about the 'meaning' of the poem, as though there were a simple answer to it. But when he encouraged them simply to explore what came into their heads as they read the confidence immediately returned.

What to say of Malacca? The old part of town is a heritage site and looks much as it might have before the eighties and nineties, a little more as Clarissa remembers Malaysia. Low buildings, shopping units of equal size, some open, some with doors, a mixture of Portuguese, Dutch and British and various local styles, as well as Islamic and Buddhist temples and Christian churches. There are places to let, empty places, that would be expensive to buy now. Rich colour. One place obsessed with cats and literature has cat figures plastered all over the front. Being a heritage site doesn't mean cramping your style in terms of decoration. Plenty of safes and eateries. A junk and antiques shop selling standard second-hand books of Eng Lit but also Penguin classics: Sartre, Gogol, Lawrence...

First (of course) lunch with our Homer translator, scholar and local parliamentary candidate. He talks of Mao and Stalin and compares them with figures from Malaysian history and myth. I ask him what it was like to stand as candidate. A lot of public meetings he said. It wasn't so much a case of attacking the rival candidate as putting your case, not so much on local as on national issues. Opposite me a TV screen plays advertisements.

Then we walk around the streets and visit the Royal printers. This is nostalgic for us as Clarissa and I ran a monotype press for some eight years in Hertfordshire. Here are the presses, the linotype machines, the platen presses, the type cabinets, the trays, the quads and ems and ens. The press used to produce calendars, bus tickets, death certificates. It still does a little printing but is in the process of being turned into a printing museum. We talk with the young man and woman who show us around. They are very sweet. They show us the paper. A man, naked to the waist, is cutting paper to size. An old woman compositor is at work in another room. The works are not in a special building but in what was a family house, with two courtyards, both covered. The whole place is beautifully in-between, a slowly fading workplace becoming a museum in construction. The light slants through the courtyards and the big open place that was the chimney.

After a little more walking (and a little more eating and drinking) we ride up to the old fort overlooking the Straits. There is a museum of democracy there with a black car in front of it but no-one going in or out. Further up what was the old church of St Franci Xavier, that then became St Paul's for the Dutch, then a fort, then a British ammunition store, and is now a fine look-out point over the Straits. It is a shell with memorial tablets leaning against the wall, the tablets in Dutch and Latin and English, the latter to a four year old daughter. Small slender cats wind about the corners, or sun themselves outside. Outside a man is drawing the view, then stops and performs what might be a form of Tai Chi, his hands and arms moving gracefully, palms now up to the sky then against his chest, as if drawing the light into him. He looks Indian, is quite stout and is fully absorbed in his actions.

Then more food back in old Malacca. We have upstairs to ourselves. There are several screens. Music is playing, a selection from old standards, while the silent screens show the resident band in performance, mouthing. The food is, as ever, good.

Then we move again, drive home, and stop for drinks and more food. Arrive back about half an hour after midnight.

Once home I will put up a selection of photographs. Not much time to edit now.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Malaysia 6:
Walking around, eating

The Petronas Towers

Yesterday from about 11 onwards we went walking with Alvin around KL in the environs of the twin towers, down past Chinese areas and Malay areas, from the relatively - but only relatively - poor and traditional and the wealthier newer shopping areas.

If much of British social life is centred on drink, the pubs where people gather to talk and relax, then much of Malaysian life is based on food. The streets are full of open fronted, walk-in eating places with cheap plastic chairs and tables, whirring fans, quick service and, generally, good food. Nothing smooth or flash in presentation, these are however frequented by every class of patron except the poorest. People eat several times a day, not necessarily a full meal, but a series of snacks. The eatieries - I am not sure whether to call them restaurants - can simply be places to drop in off the hot street to order iced drinks of various kinds, the tall glasses packed with ice, or you might get  a pot of hot tea along with a glass full of ice. The food varies from Chinese to Indian to Malay to Middle Eastern but you can find shepherd's pie in some places, and straight burgers. Rice and noodles are staples and the dishes are often derived from the food available on trading ships, such as nasi goreng, which is rice and egg plus meat and veg and anything else you can find.

Our friends have a series of favourite such places specialising in one or the other style of food. The crab place two nights ago was very much Chinese; last night we went to an Arabian 'tent' restaurant. During the day we dropped in at a Chinese eaterie for what was a lunch peck for us and breakfast for Alvin. We were crowded round tables, needed plenty of liquid.

All along the street are massage parlours that might be for normal massage during the day but are for prostitution in the evening. Even during the day though you see girls sitting outside, dressed for the part, highly made up, ready to be picked up. Some smile and invite you in. They come from various backgrounds and often look to work four or five years and make enough money to start a business. They are not social outcasts and are looked after, as are the restaurants, by the various triads who regulate a lot of the trade. There is, they say, no toleration of paedophilia and work is relatively safe, no drugs and not much chance of violence. The clients are local but also tourists who tend to come from whichever part of the world is relatively wealthy at the time. Currently they are from the Gulf.

The Gulf also buys into the restaurant trade and you can see that in the look of the places themselves. They are smarter and aimed at richer visitors. The older Arabic places are like all the others, the new come with more display, more ostentatious comfort, more decorative hookahs, more kitsch.

Cross one street though and you are in newer middle class KL, where the big brand shops operate as they do in all major cities, including the most expensive. You can stop for a cocktail here that costs much the same as it might in the UK.


The air-conditioned walkway

We cross the bridges in the air and arrive at the Atrium Hyatt where we take a lift to the lobby which is, in this case,  at the top of the building that offers great close up views of the Petrona Towers (above). In other respects the Hyatt is exactly like every other luxury hotel. We take high tea in the floor below the lobby and talk. The talk is of the balance between realpolitik and ideology, of empires and spheres of influence, of the economic rise and fall of states. High tea consists of as much coffee as you want, some finger sandwiches and a selection of cakes on a rack. All very nice, all very luxury. We take photos.

When we go down the gardens and fountains below are quite crowded. Many women in chadors, some in burqa, some in hijab, more than a few years ago, but also many in western dress. It is hot outside. We walk round the corner to face the Petrona Towers (Clarissa later compares them to ribbed condoms) and go in to visit the Kinokuniya bookshop. It is enormous, on two floors, books in English and Malay. Tempted by too many we go to the Coffee Club and drink iced tea. Alvin, who has been browsing, joins us. We talk about families, the idea of the close-knit family with its mutual responsibilities and obligations, we talk about high stress societies, about breakdown, depression, birthrates, health, the NHS, the social stigma of joblessness, the travelling to work, the pressures of school and performance.

Apart from being a poet Alvin is editor-in-chief of a policy magazine (the rough equivalent of the Harvard Business Review)  in Singapore. He has worked in government, writing speeches, interviewing politicians and public servants. His range of knowledge and ready fluency on almost everything is deeply impressive. He wears a number of hats beside editor and poet. He doesn't come from a prominent or wealthy family. His father was a schoolteacher and the family has gone through cycles from relative comfort to fairly minimal comfort. He is the first generation in the professional and intellectual elite. He tends to view things astutely with a pragmatic eye but a very good heart. He knows the progressive, liberal or socialist views of an educated minority are always subject to powers of army and state. Primarily he is a poet.

We wait for Pauline and Eddin, spend a little more time browsing. I am easily persuaded to buy José Rizal's Noli Me Tangere. Sometimes - quite often in fact -I feel shamefully ignorant but I have asked for a list of recommended books that Pauline has promised to send me.

Then we head off to the Arabian restaurant where we talk over the sexual morés of the region, of the idea of coming out as gay, of adolescent marriage, then move to the effects of the Vietnam War on the region about which Eddin is writing a book, as also about the internal struggles of Islam. Eddin starts off tired but grows more animated and wide awake as the conversation goes on. At night the district becomes a red light area, but no doubt many parts of KL serves a similar purpose after dark. The streets are actually safer after dark, says Alvin, because the triads exercise control with co-operation from the police. You are more likely to meet a snatch thief in the day.

In about half an hour we are driving to Malacca.

Monday 26 August 2013

Malaysia 5:
Readings, conversations, politics

Goeawan Mohamad reading at the launch of Obscura

Impossible to say anything in detail about a place you are seeing for the first time. There are only impressions and conversations, plus a little reading.

Yesterday morning, as all mornings so far, I spent writing this blog, then we met for lunch elsewhere opposite Eddin's favourite movie shop where you can pretty well get any movie you like. We ate bountifully and talked then moved on to the Opus restaurant for the event - the launch of Obscura, a new twice-yearly journal for literature and translation, and the readings by Indonesian poet Goenawan Mohamad, Alvin Pang from Singapore and myself as guests, as well as passages from the Iliad, Byron, and The Waste Land in Malay. Part of Eddin and Pauline's project is to introduce as much of world literature as possible to the Malay language so as to enrich it and prepare it to be a vibrant and comprehensive part of world literature. Pauline and Eddin pursue these great projects with tremendous intelligence, energy, generosity and skill. There are competing versions of Malaysia, and theirs is a vision that has major cultural and political repercussions.

The readings themselves were in the upstairs room of the restaurant laid on by Ed the restaurant's owner. We started a little late but soon the place was packed. Eddin did the introductions, the poets spoke and read, their work translated into English or Malay, or even German as the case may be (the head of the Malaysian Goethe Institute was present). The guest poets read three poems each, with translations, my own translated by Pauline. It was my first chance to hear Goenawan, whose poems have appeared in English editions but are currently difficult to find. Eddin says he is one of the great poets not only of the region but of the world at large. There will certainly be more of Goenawan in English by next year, possibly through NYRB, but we will wait till then.

I already know Alvin's poetry - its energy, inventiveness and humanity. He recited two of the poems and read the third with a translation by Eddin. Alvin is ubiquitous. We first met in Norwich, then in St Andrews, then in London, and now here, where we shall meet again next year.

Afterwards we adjourn first to a bar, then to restaurant, and talk.


Talk is always interesting. I am always asking questions, looking to understand the situation and occasionally to respond with parallels in UK or Hungary. The political and social context slowly begins to open out. From yesterday's conversations the following picture emerges:

Malaysia's prime divisions are among racial lines: Malays, Chinese and Indians, and a number of mixed races. Race is the term used in the conversation. The Malays constitute the largest and most powerful group with most of the privileges since they consider themselves deprived. Because they consider themselves deprived they garner ever more privileges. The people's loyalties too are divided along racial lines though there are many complications.

Religion is one of them. As often remarked there are many strands of Islam but the hard line Wahhabi version is the one that is gaining ground fast. It is the group that is easiest to offend, that most desires to restrict cultural and religious forms, and which is already banning the Wayang Kulit plays in certain regions because it finds them un-Islamic. This strain of Islamism is associated with the Malays but they are not quite the same thing. Islamism is a force of its own as is Malay nationalism.

Political corruption is common: there is the fixing of voting registers, the miscounting of votes, the usual run of under the counter deals and pressures. The same party has been in power since independence, though currently the opposition is running it close. Demonstrations and activism are natural reactions to gerrymandering.

There are also the gangs, the various Triads, of the different racial groups. These are often on good terms with the police, though currently there is a clean-up operation going on. Protection rackets are common.

But under it all the racial tension. In one university a lecturer declares: if you see a snake and an Indian at your feet stamp on the Indian first.

Parts of the world have been moving in this dangerous direction for some while now.

Today, the well witnessed vibrancy of the KL street. In ten minutes time we are off to explore it, with Alvin.

What a privilege to be here, to learn something new. And, beyond the political scene to enjoy life. So grateful for the invitiation.

Sunday 25 August 2013

Malaysia 4:
An inaugural lecture at the library

A brief 6 minutes extrat of Wayang Kulit. Full hour long vids are available on YouTube

Another hazy day in KL, the light a little more forthright than yesterday but still hesitant and uncertain.

Yesterday afternoon (24th) was the inaugural PUSAKA lecture and the presentation of the Abdullah Ibrahim Memorial Award for Cultural Preservation. (For a little more information see here) We are driven in by Ken, a friend of P and E, who works with orang-utans and many other species in a protected environment at Sabah in the north-east of Malaysia.

The library is in Merdeka Square that Clarissa recognizes from her childhood, and it is a grand occasion. The Regent Raja Nazrin Shah is present complete with family and entourage.

First there is a brief musical performance by a group of traditional musicians, mostly drummers, from Kelantan, associated with the Wayang Kulit (Shadow Play) tradition, about which much more later. Enough for now to know that Wayang Kulit lies at the heart of PUSAKA's interests since it is an ancient and threatened cultural form whose meaning extends beyond western notions of theatre. The music begins as a chant by the healer then a storm of drums, maybe a dozen or so. It is over all too quickly.

E then makes a speech, quite astounding in that it is perfectly organised and weighted and delivered without a glance at the notes. He talks about the wildness and beauty of the tradition, about the passions associated with it, its importance, his personal involvement, and gives an account of the twenty years of the organisation. Though I know only the little I have read about it in a hurry before we came the speech engages and enthuses me. I think I understand the importance of the form a little better. In political terms it prevents the domination of one culture over another: it asserts the power of the human imagination over the temporal and formally religious powers that seek to define and control it. We are going to see a performance in Kelantan in the next few days and now there is even more reason to look forward to it.

After a brief official speech by the Director General of the responsible ministry, we get the prize giving to Abdul Rahman Dollah, a master musician of the Wayang Kulit tradition.

The inaugural lecture is given by the major Indonesian poet, editor and writer of scripts for Wayang, Goenawan Mohamad (see also here). Beginning with Cartesian notions of the distinction between mind and body he moves on to an exposition of the Other, the way we create distinctions, and how the important thing is not the distinction but the understanding of the creative process that gives work its life. The traditional, he argues, is not a finished historicised object of the past (an Other) but part of the developing creartive process whereby significance is retained and reformulated. I am familiar with the broad lines of the argument but it is presented with grace and power and is a corrective to state enforced notions of identity, privilege and belonging, albeit in a subtle fashion.

(My own thought is that the Other is unavoidable and fully internalised as a distinction between our consciousness and the world, beween individuals and indeed within ourselves, so we may be and are Other to ourselves, but that the idea of art as an enacted process rather than a series of externally viewed objects is right. That is how I myself feel it. I also think the historicised reading of cultural works which are also products of specific circumstances, in other words, history - a Sheridan play for example, or Donne's sermons - is not wrong headed at all in one sense, unless one makes that the exclusive and, eventually, dogmatically determined approach. We live in tensions and move between correctives. )

But this is something we can talk about later with Goenawan himself.  He seems such a good man and afterwards, over food and drink, we talk a little about - well, again - the politics of our respective regions and lives. Before that we nibble some food in the library and meet the singer / dancer / healer who talks - as interpreted by Ken and Pauline - about the nature of the healing, about interpreting sickness, about finding the appropriate words, music and gestures to expel the 'wind' of it, to entice it from the sufferer into the healer. Also at the table an Egyptian writer to whom, naturally, we address a few tentative questions about the situation in Egypt. He is pleased Morsi has gone and says Morsi was trying to turn Egypt into Iran and that he was moving very fast in that direction. The implication is that he had to be stopped.

I should add that the idea of these blogs is not to recount personal conversations in detail. I am not entitled to do that, but the broad swing of talk seems fair enough. It may also be that my impressions are not always right.

Meanwhile the hot KL night sees us drift from bar to restaurant to bar where we - that is to say Pauline, Eddin, Goenawan, Iqe and Karl are joined by Alvin and other writer friends.

KL so far seems to be mainly cars, dual carriageways, flyovers, one-way systems. But there are pockets of pedestrianisation, small squares with bars and big open restaurants with revolving electric fans. But I can't piece the bones of the city together at all, am constantly disorientated by the carriageways. I have some idea of the points of the compass and what lies broadly where, but where we are at any given moment, I cannot tell. That may chiefly be because we are driven from place to place.

Today is the launch of the magazine Obscura where Alvin, Goenawan and I will read, not only from our work but from Eliot and Byron.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Malaysia 3:
Reading the papers

View from fifteenth floor

A daily paper The Star is left at our door each morning. E used to write for it some years back. Yesterday's front page splash was a tragic bus crash in which, according to some, the driver got into road rage with another vehicle and drove straight into the valley at high speed killing many of the passengers. It is still the headline news today with photographs of the wrecked bus both on the front page and inside, with now some dispute about the condition of the driver, who had been working for the line just two months and had received no complaints about his speeding. His son declares in one headline 'My dad wasn't an angry man', the word 'angry' in red, an interesting feature of the paper  where many of the headlines have a key word or phrase in red. Driving and safety seem to be an issue here.

In another headline Thieves loot 180-year-old temple in Penang. Penang is where we are due in a few days time.  Yet another headline - interesting for an Islamic state - Sex bloggers file application. A man and woman apparently run a sex blog for swingers, and producing an inappropriate Ramadan greeting on Facebook, or at least that is how I understand it. They are appealing to have one of the charges dropped.

Most interestingly, in view of the rise of Islamic power and the Ramadan speech about 'the enemies of Islam' there is an article titled Need we be so sensitive (I'd link to it if I could find a link), in which the writer reflects on the incident of a surau in Sedili Besar, which a Buddhist group had booked. This was looked upon as an offence to Muslims (the great majority in the country), who have demanded the building be demolished now. The author pleads for some charity and laments the tendency of the Muslims to see offence everywhere. By way of counter example he quotes the experience of his son in an Anglican boarding school where the school immediately granted him 'a spiritual space' and heard him recite the Takbir when the school parents were in, applauding him afterwards. He says that Islam isn't a small religion to be wiped out with the stroke of a pen and asks that Muslims be loving and merciful. The author is a female social activist who wants to promote a progressive and inclusive Islam. It will be interesting to see the reactions to her piece. A pity I can't link to it: much else in the paper can be linked.

The ancient technique of breeding paranoia and suspicion and seeing offence everywhere works in most circumstances. It is particularly successful in puritanical periods and in authoritarian states. The message is:

Everyone is against us, we must use harsh methods so your freedoms will, as you will understand, be necessarily curtailed. Just look how [the enemy] despise and want to destroy you. Let us show you their atrocities. Some of the atrocities may look small but they protend greater evils. As for those enemies, they are powerful and barely human. Do not trust them an inch and, at the slightest provocation, step on them like noxious insects and crush them.

This is not specifically Islamic teaching (like all religions Islam is complex and has many strands), it is, as we would now say, the discourse of power and, like Lily the Pink's medicinal compound, 'has appilicaitons' in every case. In our time it is the expanding discourse of some forms of puritanical Islam.

But then you get back to the pornographers with their Ramadan greeting and you see how life is complicated, contrary and not a little mad, as we were told it might be.

Friday 23 August 2013

Malaysia 2:
Meals and meals and high rise views

Eddin and Pauline 

Clarissa, Iqe and Karl

Up till 3:30am last night and feeling fresh, but that is  because it was only 8pm UK time. Consequently we don't wake till 11:30 this morning. It is lightly cloudy and will reach about 33C later with some rain. The view from the eleventh floor is much like it was yesterday afternoon, the traffic gently and quietly creeping past on the four-lane carriageways and flyovers below, but just some twenty minutes ago the sight of two storks working their way across the sky. It is many year since I have seen storks.

Yesterday evening we were just by the Indian quarter, full of small Hindu temples and a market. We started in a restaurant opposite, meeting two young friends of P and E, Iqe and Karl (I don't know that I have spelled either of those correctly) both lawyers, one qualified the other about to be. We have a quick light meal, talking throughout, then we move to a restaurant / bar owned by E's friend Ed, which is where our Sunday event is to be. After that we sit down upstairs by the window together with Ed. More talk of politics and film and books. Then we move on to a bar / cafe for a light bite and some sweet tea. Talk doesn't fail, we joke, tease each other a little. We hear about the ins and outs of Malaysian politics, about the role of rhetoric - people addressing stadiums full of supporters. I talk about the function and power of rhetoric in British politics. I doubt whether any British politican woulf even think of trying to fill a stadium. Politics is, generally, articulate, but its effects are restricted to sound-bites. Talk too of political charisma and what that means. I have a faint suspicion of the great charismatic leader, or charisma in general. Dull administrations seem less egotistical and paranoid. Sometimes more radical. No one ever accused Clem Attlee of being charismatic (the old Churchill joke about an empty taxi arriving at no 10 and Attlee getting out). Churchill was witty, but the Attlee government was the most revolutionary British government of the 20C, until Mrs Thatcher who may have been spell-binding in some ways but not exactly charismatic either.

Soon going downstairs for lunch, then in the evening to see Becky, a good friend of daughter Helen.

Strange aquarium-like light. No blazing sun yet. More later.


So, lunch with P and E. They have so much planning to do. Now back in hotel for about half an hour. Learning a great deal about how Malaysia patronage works, more about the rise of fundamentalist Islam which, seems at moments, to parallel the rise of puritanism in many other places. Last Ramadan sermon was on 'the enemies of Islam' - not so much political as ideological, enemies such as liberalism, socialism, feminism, etc. The same aquarium light. More later.


No rain. About 4:40pm we ask for a taxi to take us to B's place. The taxi arrives and using a mobile phone satnav he gets us there. He is a sweet man. When it comes to payment it is a small fee but I only have large denomination that he cannot change. I do have one small note that falls short of the fare by about 40%. He smiles, says don't worry, takes the note and drives off.

B is an old close schoolfriend of our daughter. Her husband is away in Poland, she has a 15 month old son. The building is in a very expensive part of the city, the apartment, up fifteen floors, is paid by his company, the company she too worked for until the baby arrived. The flat is enormous - like a small town, I say - immaculate, modern, up to date in every respect with magnificent views. It feels vaguely unreal and the great glass windows with the views - there is also a balcony - add to the sense of illusion. It is almost film set. Top of Gotham City without the gothic. (I'll put up a photo of the view at dusk soon.)

Poor construction though, she says. Since they've been there over twenty windows have smashed or fallen out. The fabric is not what you'd expect. Corruption, she suggests. We go out for a drink. The security is considerable, all charming Nepalese. B knows them all, they all greet the baby. There is clear mutual fondness.

At the bar she talks about what she doesn't like: the way the state treats people at the bottom of the heap. The way the Malays occupy every position of influence. We are sitting outside. The bar is expensive with a small pool and cascade, the staff very friendly. We are sipping wine, in my case, beer.

B is very impressive, ex-Oxford psychology, years abroad with the big company. The mistreatment of poor minorities rankles with her. So does the crime. She has been shaken down by a policeman looking for easy money. Cops are badly paid. She dislikes both injustice and incompetence.

We drop into the nearby supermarket, which is like a dream of Harrods, to buy some potatoes. The staff greet her. One of them offers me a copy of a glossy mag, The Expat. Then we go back to the dream flat and she gives baby a bath. I tinkle the baby grand piano, then we sit out to eat on the balcony, which is cool and offers spectacular spectacular. Very good talking to B. An outsider's view (though they have been there almost three years). Will she go back to work? She is learning Mandarin. She wants a second child. And then? That is too far ahead.

Taxi back is more expensive, the meter starting at twice the fare the last had started at. It's still cheap. As soon as we arrive, there are Pauline and Eddin with the Indonesian poet Goenewan Mohamad and our good friend Alvin Pang, the two poets with whom I am to read on Sunday, as well as Ken, an old friend of Pauline's who has come to help. Coming for a drink, they say? And food, they add. We have just had a full meal at B's.

But we go, sit round a big table and we manage to nibble something. Talk is difficult to hear but in the middle of the meal a phone message for E. Great news. Bank support for the next five years.

So we return to the hotel. It is 1:15 am.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Malaysia 1:
Descending from clouds, standing on clouds

We set the alarm for 04:00 and made the 05:45 from Wymondham to Heathrow 4, leaving our friends in charge of the house. Two trolleys and light hand luggage, with books to give as presents and many books on the Kindles for reading. A very quiet walk down to the station and, at first, a bare platform then just before the train a slow gathering of early travellers.

We arrive at Heathrow about 09:20, then the long wait. Security double checks my Kindle, then we sit, read and wait. Once on, the flight at 12:00 GMT arrives in KL at 19:40 local time, a flight of a little over 12 hours. It's a packed flight. The boy next to us was born in Trinidad, father a helicopter pilot currently stationed in Malaysia. Bright eyed boy, wants to be an aeronautical engineer, has flown planes, is about 17 maybe.

I watch four and a half movies - reading when tired isn't easy. The Negotiator is very good. Batman Returns (I had never seen it through) is a nice Tim Burton fantasy with Michele Pfeiffer as Catwoman. There is a kind of psychological exploration here but it doesn't go deep. I rather got to like the Penguin by the end. Tough life for a mutant. To stick with mutants I also watch X-Men which sets out as a potentially interesting take on post-Holocaust notions of dangerously gifted mutants, mutants being essentially Jewish untermensch, but quickly moves into zap-the-villain-mode. Start watching Sherlock Holmes, the Guy Ritchie version, but even as semi-dozy hallucination it works more as annoyance than pleasure. Watch Bad Company through. Heaven knows why, possibly because it is close to landing. Chris Rock is in sub-Jim Carrey gurning mode, part cool, sickly sweetness part full eye-stretching panic model. Deeply stupid stuff.

I will only note that in three of these films men are shown apologising to women, two of them with almost exactly the same text. 'I'm sorry, I messed up...'  What are they apologising for? One for getting wrongly accused and shot, the other for being, well, a young man.

Keep apologising guys. It'll put you on the side of the angels, which is where you need to be most of the time.


Arriving in KL it is warm and a little muggy, but far from uncomfortable. Pauline and Eddin meet us and drive us about an hour's distance to central KL, stopping for refreshments (breakfast for P and E, a coffee and an orange juice in my case), on the way. We talk all the time, about Malaysian politics, literature, poetry, novels, the exoticisation of Malaysian experience in books, and about ourselves. P and E work on several fronts. We feel immediately at home with them both, intelligent, beautiful and deeply read people involved in translation, publishing, editing, writing, journalism and more. We talk a little about post-colonial history, about the stages of its development and what effects that has on writing. We talk about the Malay language, its history, literature and future. About the Islamicisation of the country, about how the young are often angrier about what never happened to them than are those who were part of history. 'Few of us have been historical actors, even in a passive sense,' I say.

I go on thinking how those only a little younger than us have watched history happen but rarely as it affected them. Even though Clarissa and I are products of violent historical moments, we too have seen terrors and dramas mostly at a remove. Those a generation down from us will have seen history as ever more a series of semi-virtual moments that disappear almost as soon as they are over. Think Baudrillard. Baudrillard is a dreadful show-off in some ways but he does grasp something valuable. Who remembers the Cold War now? Did it really happen? Did World War 2? Did the first Iraq War? It is as if we were standing on clouds composed of movies clips and nightmares.

Tonight we eat out with Pauline and Eddin and meet some of their friends. It is a privilege being alive, as we often forget, and this is one of those privileges.

Thursday 15 August 2013

Guest Post by Denni Turp
Enthusiasm: On Coursera

[S]ometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Here’s an impossible thing to believe—totally free, short online courses on a vast range of subjects taught by 62 different universities in 16 countries and with NO advertising!

Especially for all you poets reading this, here’s a cliché warning.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  And so on. And when I first heard about Coursera, I was sure that there must be a catch. 

But there isn’t!

I’m currently doing two courses, The Fiction of Relationship, looking at prose fiction with Professor Arnold Weinstein (Google him—he’s one of the best!), and a multidisciplinary course on The Holocaust (which has introduced me to the poetry of Paul Celan).  Earlier this year I took a course on fantasy and science fiction, and I’m signed up for Modern and Contemporary American Poetry which starts in September.

As you’re reading this on George’s blog, I imagine you might like the same kind of courses, but there are about 400 on offer, ranging across not just Humanities but also Medicine, Social Sciences, Biology, Mathematics, Business (yes, I know!) and Computer Sciences.  Some of the courses about to start include: Introduction to Sustainability; Creativity, Innovation and Change; History of Rock (music, not stones!); From the Big Bang to Dark Energy (very tempting, this one!); Metadata; and Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative.

This is a truly global community, with over 9 million students across 195 countries.  Every course is set up with interactive forums so I’ve had the opportunity to share ideas, to converse with people from around the world, people who speak so many other languages, whose experiences may be very different from my own, whose ages range from late teens to well over retirement, some of whom are themselves professors or teachers, but who all share an interest in the subject and a passion for learning more.

Courses are usually about 10 weeks long, with a series of video lectures every week.  There is no requirement to watch the lectures at set times or on set days, or to continue with a course once you start, nor is it essential to take part in discussions, or to complete any of the assignments.  If you want to receive grading and feedback on each of your own assignments then you must review at least three of those submitted by your peers each time:  that’s all.  And, as I said at the beginning, it is all totally, completely and absolutely free.  You might need to buy a book or two (terrible hardship!), but many of the course materials are available online via Project Gutenberg and YouTube, for example.  You will probably find, especially if you sign up for any of the literature courses, that you already have many if not all of the required reading.  And libraries are pretty good for that kind of stuff, aren’t they?  Use them while we still have them.  Prove we love them, prove they are an essential service.

What more can I say to encourage you to have a look?  I think, just give you the link.  Go for it!


I don't do ads but am very happy to do enthusiasms, especially for learning. Delighted to have this by Denni Turp.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Red Man's Way:
Guest Poem by Kim Moore

Red Man’s Way

When I finally get here and see the channel
with the tide out and the boats drowning 

in sand, and the gulls wheeling overhead,
sometimes hassling a lone crow from the sky

and the old path across the channel,
as if someone has drawn a finger across

the wet black mud to make it so, I feel full,
as if one person can’t carry this with them

and be unchanged, as if I could speak seagull
and they would come, cursing, articulate,

their wings the colour of sky, as if I could 
hold my hand up and stop the noise of traffic

from the nearby road, or pinch out the lights
from the shipyard with my finger and thumb

and it’s never silent here, because the wind
likes to run its hands over and over the land,

shaping the newly planted trees to strange angles, 
as slowly, year by year, the bank covers itself

with grass, and last summer, for the first time, 
ox-eye daisies, tall as your knees and fearless. 


I was glad to ask Kim for a poem after I first heard her at Leeds when we read together. I am really pleased with this poem. Red Man's Way, the place, is a 'recreational path running the length of Barrow's slag bank site, in the area formerly occupied by the Hindpool Iron and Steelworks'. 

It is, in effect, a walking poem, both tender and rapt. The emotions are full ("I feel full, / as if one person can't carry this with them // and be unchanged") but the gestures are delicate, of drawing a finger across, pinching out lights with finger and thumb and the wind running hands over the land.

Time and change are major powers in the poem in which change, both in place and person, takes place both immediately and over a vast period at the same time: it is a slow, year by year change among fleet seagulls and the wind.

 Facing the changes implicit in such great temporal powers requires hardiness and courage, a courage particularly  located in the ox-eye daisies at the end. The landscape is ravishing yet potentially a cause for fear in those trees at "strange angles". In the 1870s, as the linked text says, the site was "the biggest Bessemer steel production plant in the world and employed over five thousand men."

The idea of the 'nature poem' as we understand from Wordsworth lies in a sense of the sublime (those great temporal powers) and the memory of childhood experience. More recently Alice Oswald has attempted a direct relationship with the forces of nature, to allow natural forces and patterns into the poem and to steer it. These attempts, now more referred to as ecopoetry - and also associated with John Kinsella, Mario Petrucci and Forest Gander (and possibly John Burnside and others) - often spring out of a desperate sense that we might be losing nature altogether.

I can't speak to that with any authority. Brought up in capital cities and educated in a major industrial city, the urban is what I have known, though my last forty years have been spent somewhat closer to nature. Nature to me has been the movement of wind and light, the look in a cat's eye and its body language, the feeling of fragility about the human bodies around me, including my own.

Kim's poem moves me though because some of those very feelings are applied to water, birds, mud, trees, banks and ox-eyed daisies without forgetting the nearby shipyards. The human trace is part of the poem, and I can't help but read the ox-eyed daisies as human emblems too. They are after all "fearless".

I could say a good deal more about the poem in terms of its blend of freedom with technical control. The language is passionate without being a dramatic performance, the rhyhms quiet on the whole but not muted. It's a very good poem and a pleasure to have.


Kim Moore's first pamphlet 'If We Could Speak Like Wolves' was a winner in the 2012 Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition. It was named in the Independent as a '2012 Book of the Year' and was a runner up in the Lakeland Book of the Year awards. She won an Eric Gregory Award and the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2010 and is published in various magazines including Poetry Review, The TLS, The Rialto and Magma. She works as a peripatetic brass teacher in Cumbria.

Kim's website is here.

Sunday 11 August 2013

Giving up on Southcliffe

I rarely sit down to watch a TV serial. It's mostly the time they demand and the work I'd rather do. But I have watched the first three episodes of Southcliffe. I have now given up.

I did watch the first two episodes as much for the filming and the way the narrative was organised - and the idea that the film was going to concentrate on the effect the killings had on the fictional town rather than doing yet another serial-killer frightener. That was a good idea while it lasted. But it didn't last very long and it ran out in episode three. Now the metaphors are showing and they are fairly big.

The small town, according to the reporter who blows his top because he remembers the wrong done to his father by the town, is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with small-town, white, Anglo-Saxon people. Those are the terms he used. They all deserve to be butchered. I hadn't been sure at that point that it was their whiteness or their Anglo-Saxon genetic make-up that had made the townspeople deserving of death - there are certainly no black characters in Southcliffe.

But then everyone in Southcliffe is mad or corrupt in some way. The father who has lost his daughter, the pub manager who has the hots for every woman in sight. The ex-SAS sadist. The people who work in the bar, the customers in the bar.

We know this is so because the Rory Kinnear character is telling us THE TRUTH. The fact that he is drunk at the time only convinces us the more.


The metaphors rule now. Any resemblance to the realism the film set out with is gone. All we have are realism-devices and smart cuts. But the metaphors are smug and come up with all the easy answers. The easiest answer is that the town (read white, Anglo-Saxons, Brits) breeds its killers out of guilt over corrupt industry and Afghanistan (or Iraq).

I prefer metaphors that don't shout so much, especially when they are banalities.

But this is lazy stuff parading as depth. I don't know why it takes a Hungarian-born writer brought up in two European capital cities to point this out.

The style is great. The slow film is great. I like slow film.

It's the the big easy metaphor I hate.