Thursday 11 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook, 7 December:
Last day and a retrospect
Raw or cooked, Redskin or Paleface

Returning from so far away is bound to be a complex process. First the flight from Kota Bharu to Kuala Lumpur on the 7th and a stay overnight in the room we had occupied, then, early next morning, the hop to Singapore, some ten or eleven hours at Changi Airport, then the long flight to England, arriving in the early morning on a freezing cold day some 30 C below that which we had left. Then the early morning rail and tube connections, the messing about with meal times and grabbing snacks, finally arriving home only to dash out again to pick up Lily from the cattery, the heating of the house, the warm bed and a vague sense of feeling one's way round the clock in an internal darkness.

This is the next day and now the day after and that internal disorientation persists though to a lesser degree.

It is too early and rather overweening to assess our experiences of Singapore and Malaysia, on such brief acquaintance while taking into account the intensity of each occasion as it passed but maybe this can be a beginning.


Singapore is hypermodern in appearance and in much of its practice. It's like a large soap bubble. Under the rainbow colours you sense the tension holding the bubble in place. It has been an enormous sacrifice to get so far, to blow the bubble to this size, the price paid in long hours of manic, all-consuming work, devotion to good manners and orderliness, and a willingness to avoid criminal deviance, all under the paternal eye of an unchanging, if flexibly authoritarian administration.

A bubble is a kind of machine. Everything in the Singapore bubble works. It is like the Flower Dome we visited  in the Gardens by the Bay:  plants from everywhere sustained in a delicately adjusted environment, a cocktail bar, a jazz band, Christmas decorations, photo opportunities and above it all an ambitious pleasing architectural structure. It is a miracle of rare device, a sunny, stately pleasure dome. Everything functions.

Singapore is safe, efficient, civic and polite. It offers the possibility of human happiness in terms of stability, material well-being, pride of achievement and work satisfaction.  But something in the machine is slightly out of step, moving to a different rhythm. It is the spectre of anxiety and melancholy. Under the loveliness, sweetness, kindness and intelligence: melancholy. Under the glitter, the proficiency, the ruthless stabilising process: melancholy, the rich melancholy of something not quite recognised and possibly lost, or at least diminished. It is the melancholy that saves.

I myself am an urban child of the modern age, one of Eliot's rootless cosmopolitans. I understand the melancholy. I understand and appreciate the sweetness and spirituality of rootlessness. I understand the nature of the bubble and have felt it with my own hands, appreciating its flexibility while in full knowledge of its potential to burst at any time. Maybe being Singaporean is a form of rootlessness, a kind of floating within a rare device.


No one floats for ever. Nor is anyone so sure of their roots that they can take them for granted. Malaya was a single country once. How come its two old constituents, Singapore and modern-day Malaysia are so different? You find the same ethnic mix in both though in different proportions. In Singapore Chinese outnumber Malays: in Malaysia it is the other way round. But I wouldn't reduce this to an ethnic issue or even an ethnic inclination. Temperament has something to do with it but history has more.

What Alvin Pang was to us in Singapore, Eddin Khoo and Pauline Fan were in Malaysia. There is no great divide in spirit between them - they are as brothers and sisters as all human beings can be, as indeed we are to them. 'We are all cultural bastards,' as Eddin, who is part Chinese, part Sri Lankan, and a Hindu scholar of Islam,  said in an interview some three years ago. When asked about his identity as a Malaysian he answered that he hates the word 'identity'. "I think Malay culture is – this is pre-1981, -1982, when changes were happening but they were not yet so apparent – so naturally cosmopolitan that I think Malays [have an instinctive] openness and acceptance." If Singapore is a bubble, Malaysia is a stew.

I wrote at some stage that Malaysia was more raffish than Singapore. It is less safe, less tidy, more bruising and unreliable if one goes by Kuala Lumpur. But our visit wasn't primarily about KL, it was about the north of the country, Kelantan and, beyond Kota Bharu, the kampungs where the rooted are truly rooted and the songs they sing, the drums they beat and the shadowplays they perform are direct links to the distant past. These practices and communities have a flow, a charm, a magic and resonance that the modern urban world cannot offer. The roots are not exclusive or purely tribal. Wayang Kulit exists in other parts of South East Asia: what we saw was its local adaptation. The full moon, the luminous screen and the companionship of music, food and cigarettes is a rare stew for an outsider.

And of course we were outsiders. We were exotic guests. We took each other's photos. We were exotic to each other. How could one resist moonlight and the evocation of stories and stories within stories?


We have tropes adapted from anthropology and literature. We talk of Lévi-Strauss's distinction between the raw and the cooked or Philip Rahv's between Redskins and Palefaces.

When my parents were young their lives were raw: history would have eaten them raw, its rawness exposing their own rawness. It almost killed them as it did their families and friends. It left them fearing the raw, a rawness they retained in secret and rarely if ever alluded to. They brought me up cooked as best they could. Not perfectly, thank heaven, but dangerously close. Cooking was civilisation at an uncivilised time to them.

Singapore as the cooked - pressure-cooked even - and Malaysia as the raw? The Malays of the kampungs as the Redskins, the educated Chinese of Singapore as the Palefaces?

Binaries are useful, necessary even in a scientic study, but less helpful in everyday matters of human contact, human habit, human happiness. Here we are, as Eddin put it, proud to be 'cultural bastards'. Now, gods, stand up for bastards! cries the wicked Edmund in Lear. Why bastard? Wherefore base? No such thing as pure Paleface. No such thing as pure Redskin either. Our Malaysian Redskins wore Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal shirts, used mobile phones, rode motorbikes, are mostly on Facebook and are threatened by a form of intolerant puritan Islam.  The singing boys could be out sniffing glue or committing petty crimes. Our Singaporean Palefaces yearn now for the harsh ironies and verities of poetry, now for the familial warmth of shared fate, and are threatened by a corporatist blandness that Eddin might call geekishness as supported by an authoritarian state that wants to keep a lid on things, to keep the pressure cooker boiling.

Redskin and Paleface / raw and cooked realities evolved out of compacts made with the powers that were and are, that offered this or that, that addressed this or that condition.

We understand what it is to be bastards. Being bastards is what joins us.

Next time just photos and labels.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 6 December:
The golden monastery
and shadowplay under a full moon

Not even two full days in Kota Bharu - one full day and two halves. This being our full day it is packed tight. As we are walking along with Eddin and Pauline in the morning - walking from where, to where? - we happen to pass a batik shop and happen to walk in and, once there, happen to buy some more batik items (helps the local economy, why not, good gifts - insert own reasons for buying) and feel both indulgent and virtuous at once. We are the batik gods of South Norfolk dispensing our largesse.

Fortified for the rest of the day we drop things off then drive to Mummi's having promised to visit her. Pak Eh Chom's first wife lives next to Mummi (his second wife) on the outskirts of Kota Bharu. The daughter of the first wife - Mummi has four sons, two from a previous marriage, two from the great dancer, handsome strapping young men now out in Australia - is also a dancer as was her mother, the first wife. It seems a complex but harmonious arrangement. Mummi's house is tiled and filled with photographs of her family and images of the dancing days. An early large photograph of her shows her as a startlingly beautiful young woman in three-quarter view. Her late husband is as handsome and as charismatic looking as the publicity photos suggest. There is one of him in the latter stages of his illness, looking older but still with those refined, elegant, mystical features.

Mummi serves us sweet tea as we sit round a small table. The first wife, her daughter, and the daughter's husband come and join us and we are soon shown into the other house - the first house in fact - into an older more ramshackle serviceable room with a raised dancing rehearsal space. The daughter lifts some sheets to reveal masks and other apparatus once used by her father. When Pak Eh Chom grew rich through his dancing and shamanism he built a second house, made of brick, which is where Mummi and the first wife both now live their separate but neighbourly lives.


Now we are running late so there is no time to visit more than one Thai temple. We drive, with Mummi, down neat roads, past well-cared for houses and compounds set on earth not lawn. This must be a slightly more upmarket area. The roads grow narrower, and run past paddy fields with congregations of egrets then, suddenly, in Kampung Bukit Tanah, we arrive at the glittering monastery of Wat Maisuwankiri. We drive in and park in the shade of a tree. There before us stands the great Dragon Boat (see pictures in a later post) - immense, long, and brilliant in a gold that is almost dazzling in the unsparing sunshine. The dragon undulates like waves, the prow and the bow of the ship rising at either end along with the either end of the dragon. Single figures rise at either end of the boat, one bare-chested and male, the other fully dressed with a cap that I took to be a crown (I first took it to be female but am not so sure now), both very like Ana Maria Pacheco's figures in her The Longest Journey, their arms raised in benediction or worship. The dragon's two heads incline towards the dragon figure of the prow, looking up to it.

I could go on but pictures will follow and I don't know the proper terms for specific features. Besides, this is not a museum but a working monastery. There are thin dogs everywhere, some lazing, some loping or hobbling, some running about, a few setting up a loud barking and even a howl or two. We are the only visitors. We move from shade to shade among the several buildings, each more spectacular than the last. The temple with the golden buddha is open and Pauline burns incense in memory of her father. We burn incense too, our memories less focused, floating elsewhere. There is a tall, erect Buddha rising from a roof. There is a statue of Dharma. Profusion, profusion, profusion, both inside and out - and the dogs and a gardener or two brushing the path. The place seems to burn from the ground. I find it both comprehensible and incomprehensible: comprehensible in totality, incomprehensible in detail, or, if not incomprehensible, part of a cosmology that is located in another part of my personal psychic architecture. The totality lies in the idea of transcendence and being-in, both in the present and out-of-time. We are just a few miles from the Thai border. Almost out of the world.

We drive Mummi back to her house, take a few photos and return to lie down in our little oven / freezer room.


At six we set out again, this time for Kampung Kemunchup, Machang for the chief purpose of our visit to Kelantan, the Wayang Kulit. I have written about Wayang Kulit before and the link is a help but the pictures it shows are in an indoor performance space. Ours is to be outside in the front yard of a house, where it is normally performed.  It is not an entertainment as such but an ancient cultural practice based on an almost infinite hoard of stories adapted from the Ramayana, adumbrated, re-told, with variations and curious twists, complete with music and, on occasion - but not this time - trance and healing. It has been outlawed for years by Islamic law which tends to regard it as an enticement to Hinduism, though the whole is far from conventionally religious and certainly does not seek to convert.

It is quite a long journey by major and minor roads and down a track to an old rubber plantation. We are welcomed - particularly Pauline and Eddin whose Pusaka is the chief agent striving to keep the the custom going, partly through financial support and partly by exposing it to an international public that would protect it from fundamentalist religion. There have been international tours already, to Paris last ime, another coming up to Texas and other parts of the US. There will be one in the UK too.  The company has no trouble in exposure to the modern western urban life. The people, says Eddin, are very comfortable in their own skin.

They are certainly very hospitable. First we are offered a meal. We sit on the ground and eat with fingers - chicken, fish, rice, vegetables, always with sauces to dip into. I m dreadful at sitting cross-legged so have to kneel. There are little bowls and jugs of water with which we can wash our hands. Conversation flourishes, in Malay naturally. It is a privilege just to be part of this.

The stage is already set up and slowly the performance is prepared. We have drums and there is a serunai (akind of oboe, the only melodic instrument). There is a troupe manager, a head musician, a dalang (a master puppetteer), a geduk, a gendung, kesi cymbals, a gong, and more. The dalang is also the story teller. The geduk player is a thirteen year old genius in a pirated Chelsea shirt. These are not wealthy people. The puppets are ornate and traditionally made from buffalo skin. Their limbs and, in some cases, their lower jaws are articulable. The ones with moving mouths have grotesque features and are, generally, the comics.

There is a full clear moon and the illuminated screen against which the shadowplay takes place is right below it, making two rival sources of light. Little by little local people gather, some on foot, most on motorbikes. There is a musical overture, then the tree of life appears, and some of the characters: three wise comics, a princess, maybe two, a birth, a prince, some warriors, possibly Hanuman, Sita, or Rama, though what we are seeing is not the performance described here but some kind of apocryphal story. There are fights, there is comic and serious dialogue. Characters appear for a second then are whisked off, as if in the middle of battle, in another part of the wood.  Characters come in twos, threes, and fours. They engage, then vanish. The screen shimmers. All the voices are spoken by the dalang, whose timing is excellent: we don't know what the comedy is but it is clearly comic. Normally the shadow play lasts five or six hours but this is a two hour performance arranged especially for us. Clouds shift in front of the moon then expose it again. It continues to blaze down.

I go backstage to see the musicians at their concentrated work. Eddin joins them after a while. The audience come and go, their small motorbikes puttering down the rough path. Children sit at the front then are whisked off by their parents. It is a constantly shifting audience. There are few left by the end.

But there is time for some dancing. Clarissa and I join Pauline, our hostess Kak Adilah (the manager of the troupe, it is the women round here who do the managing and finance) and Eddin in the joget, the steps simple at this level, the arms in motion, enacting simple flirtation or just a kind of balance with your partner. It is our way of entering the spirit of things.

Then we sit down back in the covered part of the yard.  I have already smoked a couple of cigarettes rolled from local tobacco, slender sticks, quite long,  heavy and rich in flavour. I smoke a more commercial one I am offered. The dalang is a particularly sweet older man who explains the apocryphal story to Pauline and Eddin in Malay.

Eventually we drive back, not stopping anywhere this time. There has been neither thunder or rain. It is the first time in years this has happened apparently. And we had the full moon too. We have been lucky in weather throughout. We have never once got fully soaked, our travel arrangements were not disrupted, and our flights were relatively smooth.

This was our penultimate day in Malaysia. My intention is to write a summing up of both Singapore and Malaysia once the last half day is given its due. There is a great deal to digest and I can't pretend to have begun to digest it.

Monday 8 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 5 December:
Kota Bharu: All Drumming, All Singing and the Relax Cafe

So we get the plane to Kota Bharu in the Wild North. It’s about an hour and twenty by Firefly airline.  Firefly will always be Rufus T Firefly, the Groucho Marx figure to me. Groucho's Firefly shambled but this small twin-propeller Firefly flies and bumps its way through high cloud.

The northern part of Malaysia is more strictly Muslim than KL but we are here to see things more ancient than modern Islam. Eddin hires a car from an airport rental he has long known. Our hotel is dinky and looks modern but the wifi is sporadic, the air-conditioning likely to switch from frozen to lukewarm without warning and there are many switches on the wall which impress by number without actually doing anything. The staff are friendly. All the women wear hijabs, some very stylishly. The softly, occasionally more loudly piped music is unremittingly Christmassy from Hark the Herald Angels to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  We dash through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh to Santa’s grotto where we are met by Boney M. But where is Slade? Slade is missing. Noddy Holder will be blasting from thousands of UK retail stores, blending seamlessly into George Michael or Paul McCartney or even John Lennon, but rarely if ever Boney M. It must be a cultural difference.

Kota Bharu is naturally a bit more ragged at the edges than KL but it’s decent and the older streets have the nobility that several decades of use confer. They are more or less of a size. The temperature in the hotel lobby is on the cool side but once outside the heat soon gets you, particularly in the sun which you can’t avoid for ever. One hurries from shade to shade. Shabbiness is congenial, proof of honesty of purpose. It is your friends round a table and the cat slipping between the chair legs. E and P have their favourite places to which we are introduced.

At the very first stop for late lunch, about 4pm, Eddin and Pauline see a face they recognise at another table, an older woman who bursts into tears on seeing them. They embrace for a long time then we are introduced. She is known to them as Mummi. She is the widow of the great Manora dancer, Pak Eh Chom, who died some four years ago. Mummi is seventy-one now but it is clear she would have been a great beauty in her youth. She still is beautiful. And her husband was very handsome indeed, so handsome that fathers really did lock up their daughters when he came to town. He was also a shaman. Here is a story told about him as a shaman.

Pak Eh Chom, along with other dancers and musicians, was on a tour organised by E and P,  and they were all staying in the YMCA which has communal showers. When Pak Eh Chom discovered this he was distraught and would not be consoled. One of the other dancers explained. 'He refuses to use the the showers because when in the shower he turns into a wild boar.' Shamanism means, among other things,  fully identifying with your spirit animal and turning into it on occasion, particularly when in a trance. We, after all, have our equivalents in comic book form. The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, Batman, Superman and the rest are all downmarket commercial forms of shamanistic beings. For shower read phonebooth.

We were to see Mummi later on a visit so that she might take us to see some Thai temples. Thailand is very close to Kota Bharu and the history is, as ever, complicated. As we were talking to her in the diner, a chapter of the local equivalent of Hell’s Angels were roaring up and down the road - up, down, back, back again, and so forth - the handlebars raised, the silencers ripped away, the purpose of the whole exercise being, presumably, to demonstrate auditory control over their domain. Whoever roars loudest dominates the conversation. We never saw them again after that first day.

But we are not here for the town - we are here for the kampungs, the villages in the sticks that are an hour or two’s drive away, places in the jungle,  old rubber plantations where the last mile or so is not down a proper road but down narrow tracks that are quickly flooded. And floods are frequent since the rain seldom lets up for long. Being rookies, and forewarned, we were inwardly anxious about this but take comfort, reader, the gods were to be on our side to the extent that the natural balance of the weather was quite upset. It was the opposite of The Tempest for us. Some Miranda must have been interceding on our behalf on our way to Pasir Mas and Kampun Barggol Perdana.


We were led there in the evening by Cikgu (teacher) Alam. The rain was threatening and did in fact come streaming down but only for a few minutes as we were driving down a rough and narrow path by the river, but it was relenting, growing intermittent and slowly reducing to large generous drips before dying away altogether.

There is a yard in front of a simple house, some patches of grass, some mud and a covered area. The drums are outside when it is dry and drawn back under cover when it rains. The company is mixed, men, women, old and young. We are all outside a little concerned in case a storm decides to break.

The evening is divided into two: Rebana Ubi (drumming) for the adults and Dikir Barat (singing) for the boys. The drums themselves are marvellous, buffalo skin stretched on local wood, large, decorated, with  spokes the drummers hold onto with one hand. The spokes are like a catherine wheel, red, yellow and green, with crowns and stars on top (See pic). There are only drums and about eight drummers. They beat to a core 4/4 time with many cross rhythms.

Then the boys set to. They sit in a very tight circle with a few percussionists (no teenage girls here - all revising for exams, says Eddin. Boys? Forget revision!) One boy picks up the mic and begins to sing from a sheet of words. His voice is strong and sensitive. The other boys form a chorus, swaying this way and that, clapping, shouting, raising their arms and waving their fingers as if casting a spell. Another boy, an even better singer, takes the mic. The songs go on. They sing us a welcome song. They sing fast and slow. At the end they sing us a farewell. I recognise the tune. It is, unmistakeably, The Isle of Capri. as sung by Bob Hope, but much transformed.

We are offered some food and warm generosity. We take pictures of them. They take pictures of us. We take pictures of each other together. We set out.

On the way home, a little after midnight,  we stop at the Relax Cafe, Maggi Ketam (the Golden Crab) for a bite. A group of young men in blue and white hooped football shirts are at one table. They could be the Queens Park Rangers youth team.  Another group in red are at another. The TV is on. It is showing a thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman which is immediately followed by a spoof horror (I think it’s spoof) where a modern American male with a neat unflappable hairstyle seems to be lost in a medieval village. He undergoes severe horrifying trials without his hair once losing its shape. Demons emerge. Our hero whips out a chainsaw and sends them splurging. Another wave of nasties is dispatched with a rifle. This must be an NRA promotion. A comely maiden admires his hairstyle and weaponry. It was meant to be. The cafe’s opening hours are advertised as being open from 4.44pm to 1.11am. It is just about 1.11 now. We are on our way.

Back at hotel shorly before 2am. Pictures provided once I am home, but there are short movie clips on Facebook. Eddin is a full prince-warrior and Pauline is the glamorous queen of night - and come to think of it, of day too.

Friday 5 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 4 December:
Germany day and Poetry-Film evening

This time lunch at the Roast Duck, a Hong Kong style restaurant in Bangsar Village, with Eddin, Pauline, the head of the Goethe Institut in KL, Rolf Stehle, the director of the Literaturwerkstatt in Berlin, Dr Thomas Wohlfahrt and a young German intern whose name I didn't catch though it might be Alexander. The occasion is the presentation of a selection of poem-films from the Zebra archive of the Literaturwerkstatt. Lunch naturally involves duck and a good many other things. Clarissa and I are nothing to do with the evening except as guests, and being invited to dinner means as rather privileged guests. But then that is what we have been the whole time really. We make friendly conversation, I mostly with Herr Stehle since we are next to each other at the round table. After lunch Eddin drives us back to our accommodation. We could walk it in fifteen minutes but walking isn't done much here when a car is available. When in Kuala Lumpur do as the Kuala Lumpurs do.

The film show is in the evening at APW a converted printing works complete with auditorium, bar and much else. Slowly the hall fills up and, eventually, overfills. The idea of poetry-film is not films that may be poetic but rather the interpretation of an actual poetic text, often through computer work. We see about a dozen short films including a relatively early but ingenious version of Austrian sound poet Ernst Jandl created on an Amiga computer, move on to a snappy rhythmic interpretation of a Peter Reading poem and many others involving drawing, reading, performance, stop-frame animation, abstraction, grotesque and mixtures of them all. The one that takes my breath away is by  one by Taiwanese poet, Ye Mimi, They Are There But I Am Not. Here is the link to it. Its timing, its restraint, its depth, its spare lyricism, the quality of its feeling and thought and its sheer simple precision seemed far beyond the rest to me. There was a fine comic-grotesque version of a poem by Ingeborg Bachman, an excellent rap performance by an exiled American Cambodean poet, versions of Billy Collins (his 'Budapest') and Mahmoud Darwish at the end reading one of his to simple figure images and arabic script in motion. Everything was pretty good and some excellent. The ones that dealt with issues might be most effective in moving emotions but their intentions are clear from the start. They set out to do something and do it. Sometimes they collapse into a kind  of bathos (I don't blame them, their cause is great and drives them into grander forms of rhetoric) before recovering. There are extranous reasons for admiring these and indeed people do admire them. John Giorno speaks a fine comic poem against family values. Everyone laughs and claps loudly in approval of the message before returning to their family values. Another  poem rhapsodises about freedom and jazz,  and all the good things one might rhapsodise about and everyone claps. Sure we clap. It's easy.

We like to be told we are free spirits laughing at convention. It help us to go on with our conventions. We have businesses to run, deals to clinch, jobs to go to, articles to write. I don't think this is precisely hypocrisy but a kind of social behaviour, like people who want to be thought interesting at parties and declare, 'I am mad, me, quite mad!' You can bet your bottom dollar they are saner than you are.

But I love Ye Mimi's film and I love her poem. The two together are a bringing out of the poem not by illustrating it or referring to it, but by realising it at quite another level. I shall be looking out for her work.

We meet old friends from last year, poets and translators. Then a drink at the bar with Herr Stehle, Dr Wohlfahrt, and friends. I try something called a Budapest cocktail (that's two Budapests in one evening, neither of them anything to do with Budapest) simply because of the name. It contains rye whisky and lapsang souchong and a few other things. It is pleasant and strong. Then we are off to a late meal of naan dipped in whatever curried sauce is available together with nibbles of tandoori chicken. It is late.

Today we fly to Kelantan to see  the shadowplay of Wayang Kulit based on the Ramayana. The play can last several hours and involve trance and healing. Fortunately Pauline will be there to interpret for us. Kelantan is about an hour's flight to the north. We stay two nights then return here on Sunday and stay the night before flying back to Singapore to catch our flight to the UK. I don't know whether there will be wifi in Kelantan but I have a strong suspicion there will be.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 3 December:
Meeting the Diana Ross of the Mah Meri,
discovering the sky at the Straits

We breakfast in on the items we bought in Bangsar Village - some cereal, a water melon, a few bananas, some very nice if expensive bread and some cream cheese. There is a kitchen below but we are unlikely to make much use of it. Afterwards I return to our dim lit room to write yesterday's post until eventually it's time for lunch.

It's about ten minutes walk down to the shops to Antipodean, the cafe / restaurant where our daughter's friend took us for coffee. No sign of Snow this time. We order blended iced drinks with fruit and vegetables. I see paprika chicken on the menu and, just because I am curious as to what a Malaysian version of a Hungarian meal tastes like, I order it. It is nothing like Hungarian of course, more a kind of satay with a side dressing of beans. Very nice but not much taste of paprika. That's not a disappointmentI, it is an education, a perfect embodiment of Steiner's notion of modified meaning. (You ask for bread in different languages and you get bread but not the same bread). It would be different paprika, of course. There are many waiters for a small restaurant, each young, t-shirted and anxious to please. Outside it is building up for what promises to be a proper monsoon. On the way out the proprietor, a tall friendly looking Australian, asks us if we have umbrellas. We do. It begins to rain as we walk back. There are two cockerels on the pavement chasing in and out of yards. A man notes us on the hill and cheerfully remarks on the weather. There may be a lot of rain with plenty to come but we are slowly developing tans. The storm doesn't materialise.

In the afternoon we take a drive with Eddin and Pauline down to Pulau Carey to visit the Mah Meri people, one of eighteen (or nineteen, depending on sources) of indigenous people remaining on the island, each of them here tens of thousands of years before anyone else. Eddin and Pauline's organisation, Pusaka, exists to support them and their cultures. The drive takes little over an hour or so. Most of it is down four or five line carriageways, past apparently isolated, miserable looking high-rise estates that remind Clarissa of Kiefer's Monumenta. Eventually we turn off down smaller roads with ranks of palm oil farms and tiny kampungs or villages (pretty much like this) , or just a few stray houses in clearings, and find our way to Pulau Carey and the centre.

Rashid Esa at centre. Refreshments.

The centre is run by a remarkable man, Rashid Esa. Once upon a time he worked in IT then he threw it in and started walking. He walked across India, he walked the Silk Route, he walked to meet the Mujahideen, and to meet (successfully) the Dalai Lama then he found a hut - or built it - in a jungle kampung in Malaysia and lived there fifteen years. He shows us round the place. Many others have written about visiting the Mah Meri at Pulau Carey and their accounts are available elsewhere (for example here and here). When modern people visit indigenous people they describe what they see and look to catch them performing rituals and dances and crafts, which is understandable and even admirable in some ways. I feel a little awkward about it, if only because life isn't a performance and what shows is only part of what is.

Rashid is fully aware of this. He talks quietly. He dwells on Mah Meri secrecy, their several languages, the DNA, the relationship between men and women (the women considered to be equal). He talks of marriage, of sex, of the importance of boats as dwellings, of fishing, of animism and the absence of the concept of beauty. The dream life is as real is the waking life. Trance is part of ritual. The masks and figures they carve are associated with healing and are evocations of powers as dreamt. Beside the masks there is the palm leaf origami woven by the women into ornate crowns, wands, tokens, and skirts. The secrecy extends to the names. Names are taken on, so one girl in the tribe has adopeted the name Diana Ross. We meet her. She is a pretty, modern girl with a slight pout. She is responsible for selling the objects the tribe produces and which is a source of extra income for them. Not that they save the money: it goes as soon as earned. Their number system extends to the figure three.

These contradictions of living a life that, in one way, is ancient, that keeps very much to itself and rejects modernity but which, at the same time, accommodates itself to motorbikes (a red one is parked in one of the huts), amplifiers and various mod cons, are like a fog through which it is hard to see anyone. Who actually is 'Diana Ross'? What is she thinking or feeling? What does she do the rest of the time? Why be 'Diana Ross' at all? She can't be more than eighteen at most. We don't see many of the tribe around but someone is playing an instrument through an expensive wrecked amp. The tribe don't live in the centre, of course, but come in to make things and sell them. Their relationship with Rashid, he tells us, is one of distrust. He has enemies who will take tea or coffee with him.

Impossible not to admire and like Rashid. This has been his dedication and is his life. He persuaded the government to fund the building of the centre but they never asked him what it should look like. He was not consulted. The money went to the developer who put up groups of standard  concrete exhibition spaces and work huts ('losing' some of the money along the way so the open-air  auditorium part isn't finished). In appearance it is like any official idea of a 'heritage site'. The structure is ornamented with some bits of palm origami but it is clearly a product of cultural policy. No wonder the Mah Meri feel suspicious of it. They'd be suspicious of anything to being with.

The first thing I see on entering the centre is what remains with me. In the workshop immediately to the left of the entrance sits an old man. He has made a large 'tiger' representation and there is a smaller part-finished version nearby. He regards us without expression. He does not acknowledge or smile. But then I see his face isn't entirely expressionless. What I see there is a barely disguised disgust. I don't blame him. 'Diana Ross' is a mask too. The Mah Meri are expert mask makers.


Afterwards we drive down to the coast. The road is tarmaced, narrow, with the occasional house either side of it. A drunk man is being helped by his family or friends. One keeps slapping him on the back. Stray dogs (are they stray?) meander or flop or chase each other. They look like miniature deer, slender to the point of starvation, their heads pointed, their ears large. They are almost spirit, graceful and unconcerned about passing cars. Two capuchin monkeys appear in the way and scamper off. Right ahead of us the sun is rapidly falling through the sky. The clouds are complex, grandiose. The moon, almost full, is high and behind us. Then we arrive at the Straits and the sky goes into dazzling overdrive. It is so dramatic, so shifting, so pure it is irresistible. We take out our cameras and point at it. Here is a sample among many.

 Here is the water..

One man is fishing or gathering up nets. A small cormorant-like bird slips across the surface and lands on a stump rising from the water. The dogs lollop down and investigate something at the water's edge. A man a few yards away is reading a book in the fading light. Later his car roars past us back into settled territory. We stop at an enormous hangar of a basic restaurant to taste delicious fresh fish and crab while discussing our impressions of Singapore. The trouble with Singapore, says Eddin, is that it's a country of nerds. I consider the idea but am sleepy by now and fall asleep in the car like an old man. It's true I slept only two and a half hours the last night but I still feel ashamed of it. Once back in the house I quickly enter the kind of sleep out of which no animistic dreams emerge. I couldn't carve it. I can't remember it.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Malaysia Notebook 1 & 2 December
The beautiful monastic guest house and the half-empty purse

I kept a pretty copious notebook on Malaysa last time, about sixteen nmonths ago (you could start from here and move back or forward) discussing politics, religion, culture, people and places. My intention is to continue as from there.

Population of Singapore c 55 million: population of Malaysia has just broken the 30 million mark. It's a shortish hop by plane (about an hour twenty) from Changi in Singapore to Subang in Malaysia. But for the occasional massing of clouds you can see what is below you. It is sea, river, lagoon, jungle, settlement, town, neat and lush palm oil farm, and red clay soil. Subang is a small airport but the difference from Changi is marked. Subang is pocket-sized, scrappier, more like a downmarket version of Luton Airport in England. The small plane is full and judders a little through the heavier cloud which, for the most part, is broken up and under us. They serve us a drink and a slice of cake which is more than Ryan Air does. People go to and fro for family and work reasons.

Eddin is there to take us to Bangsar Village where we are staying. It is a well-to-do suburb with concrete modernist houses. The drive through KL is not like the drive through Singpo. Singpo is ever neat and clear: KL has a more raffish look. From Singapore it looks dangerous. Maybe not just from Singapore. Other friends who were here in previous years have expressed great affection for the place but have also issued warnings. Nor do you need friends to do so when the very street signs in this comfortable, somewhat fashionable neighbourood point to the danger of bag snatching.

But this is Monday and after settling in to our ultra modern, beautiful and faintly monastic guest house in which we have a room  the rest of the place being empty but for Shiva, our Nepalese caretaker who must be spending much the most of his current life in the house. (Photos of the house will follow)

Eddin and Pauline call back in the car about 8pm to take us to supper with Karl, a young lawyer, and Khalid Jaafar, scholar and politican with a new appointment. This is a reunion of sorts as we met Khalid in Malacca last year, and Karl was a constant companion on last year's travels. Everything is a little late because of KL traffic. A strong yellowish light in Fierce Curry House. We are open to the street, the fan turning. The curry is not quite as fierce as the restaurant name suggests.

GS, Khalid J, Pauline, Karl, Eddin, Clarissa

Talk turns, as one might expect, to books, translation, the state of our various nations, extending to the triads and the Japanese yakuza. I find myself engaged and fascinated, both listening and talking. But we're a little tired now so are driven back to the beautiful monastery.


Now it is Tuesday. After a larger than necessary breakfast in a nearby eaterie we return to the room and wait for our daughter's good friend, who has lived here for four years, to take us for coffee as arranged. It is near the shopping complex just down the road. Her advice runs as follows:
  • Watch out for bag snatchers. 
  • Carry a spare half-empty purse even if you are in a car. 
  • Walk closer to the wall than the kerb because bag snatchers might be on bicycles or motorbikes.
  • Don't rely on the police. 
  • If you are driving don't use a filling station at night. 
  • Don't walk at night.
For all that she likes being here. She has grown very fond of it. She is not looking forward to leaving though her family will have to soon as her husband's contract runs out. It is just being streetwise and is more or less what the road sign was telling us. This, among other things, is what being raffish means.

Coffee is served by an exquisitely beautiful, delicate looking girl called Snow who greets our friend with genuine warmth. She has, our friend explains as Snow goes to get our coffee, a one year old son at home in Burma whose first birthday she could not attend because the agency who brought her here has confiscated her passport. This is pretty common and though her employer has tried to help her it's not much use going to the law. The girl returns, smiles and wrings her hands as she talks.  Her hands shift and fly and clutch. She is grateful that her customer asks her things and offers her affection and respect. Is she too cowed, too grateful, I wonder. Waiters at home don't behave like this. They are your equals who just happen to be waiters. Any day the situation could be reversed. Not here. Life presses down on the poor and is unlikely to lift its foot off their necks.

Migrant labour can be pretty much slave labour. But there's no need to feel superior about this. It happens in England too. I have seen it at first hand. It is a rarely acknowledged fact of life.


Later we go for lunch with our hosts,  Pauline and Eddin, two forces of nature. Both write columns for the press, both translate, both fight for threatened cultural causes; they establish magazines and publishing houses for translating world literature into Malay. Both are scholars of an imposing kind, Pauline more quietly but just as impressively. Eddin, who has several books on the go, is in perpetual motion around the world as speaker, lecturer, scholar, writer, historian, advocate. He has hardly been home for months. Pauline runs the show in Malaysia.

Our time together is an endless conversation: the same territories as before, but deeper each time with ever new elements drawn in. There is much personal history too: the dramas, eccentricities and expectations of parents and grandparents, our memories of public events and how they flowed around us. Conversation with them is as dynamic and wide ranging as they themselves are. It can switch from James Callaghan to Paul Celan and back again in minutes. It is exhilarating and touching at the same time.

I don't want to report too directly on conversations though. It always feels like a betrayal of confidence. As in Singapore I will try to give a flavour of things said, maybe a memorable phrase dropped here or there. The gist is that we all feel as though the world has entered a period of madness. For Eddin that period started in 1967, it seemed to me to begin in 1979. I have every confidence that he is right.

In Singapore you try to put your finger delicately on the pulse of social life. You have to seek the pulse out. Life is more sushi than fierce curry, more fresh fish than mutton. Here things are more overt. The subject is constantly in front of your eyes.

A few fragments from the high street bank of the imagination:

From the museum of misery. Two hands moving in the dark. The smell of wrung cloth. A rusting star. Miles of rough sea.
From the museum of misery. Three coins of negligible value. The pavement under the pavement. A tongue in a plastic bag. Rain scraps.
From the museum of misery. An impeccable uniform with change of cheap clothes. Consolations. Tin sheds. Rooms with teeth. A white smile.
Those at the bottom smile and hope to survive. They mount scaffolding, dig ditches, clean windows and serve, serve, serve.
Seasons? Hot and wet, or hotter and wet. Days merge into aeons, clouds gather and disperse. The powerful dispense their wisdom and piety.

Not exactly imagination. Today to travels. An island. A tribe. Details next time.

Monday 1 December 2014

Leaving Singapore 1 December

Brevity now as we are shortly off to the airport. The sky is the full English, the greys translucent, clouds high and vague, a few drips of rain and the whole looking to clear. That is from the window. Out there it is warm and close.

We have said goodbye to the doomed spaceship that is Fusion Spoon with its friendly crew. We have packed away what we unpacked minus my books but adding new books.

All journeys are dreams lodged in the real world. Humankind cannot bear too much reality, said Eliot. We take our reality where we can find it but it comes to use of its own volition when it feels like it. Eliot also suggested that poetry in our time has to be difficult. Yes, it sometimes has to be difficult, but sometimes it just falls into your palm and you just have to place it carefully on paper. Sometimes it is as simple as the light in the morning.

It would be good to think so, wouldn't it? Good to think it will just fall into your palm like that. We can hope so.

We have received love and kindness here. That should be noted. We will think fondly of Singpo and our friends who are dear to us. Thank you. Now to Malaysia, the bigger island.

Sunday 30 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 30 November:
The sea at the marina / the horseman passing by.

Today is our last full day in Singapore. All leaving is sad and so is this. It is as if invisible fingers had already started tying up the parcel that will become the thing we take with us. We know it will begin to fall apart after a while and will need to be reassembled in this or that not-quite-right way.

We have learned how clouds build and re-build themselves, always in the same pattern, as the sky blackens and the first peals of thunder strike distant yet close, as if they were small explosions in our bodies. We have started calculating the time between the build and the rain, without much evidence, since cloudbursts are very localised. We think one is out to get us but then it slips off somewhere. The air and its damp weight does not slip away except for the duration of the storm and, if it's a big one, the cool fresh brief period straight after.

Yesterday evening NTU colleagues met at Barrie and Pat's apartment for a drink and nibbles before heading off to Raffles Marina to the west of us for a goodbye meal. After it we walked along the marina wall, past expensive motor boats and a sleek, streamlined, brilliantly polished yacht straight out of a Bond movie. The bridge to Malaysia has its bridgehead here and you can see the far side, very close. Malaysia is just a few minutes away by car. During the day and in rush hour the bridge is crowded and slow, mostly with Malaysian workers hurrying to jobs in Singapore, now it was quiet.

There had been few people in the restaurant and there were even fewer by the marina, just a couple or two meditatively sitting or lying on dimly-lit benches. One man lay with his head in the lap of a woman delicately stroking his forehead. Silence and rest but for distant music from a radio or a sound system. A small party perhaps on one of the larger boats. Two crew in white examining the Bond yacht. Little said. Every so often the boom of heavy guns being fired in army exercises nearby but the mood of silence immediately returns, settles, flees, then settles again. Silence is framed by its opposite: the distant party, the guns, our own quiet conversation. The Raffles complex is redundantly grand inside, twin Hollywood stairs sweeping up from the atrium entrance to nowhere in particular, or so it seems. Maybe the Golf Club holds its dinners upstairs. Maybe the owners of the expensive boats lie back on their beds there watching TV in well-appointed rooms.

But now, quiet. The air is cooler than at any time so far and there is a light fresh breeze. The sea is black with small shimmering crests as the waves gently roll in. It is both beautiful and slightly desolate. If you leaned over the water it would welcome you, profound and faintly dizzying. It holds its breath a minute or two before letting your eyes drift away. We too drift away. Barrie and Pat drive us back to campus.


On our return, a call waiting on Clarissa's phone. It is Seth, Annela's son. Annela has died. Brain tumour.

Annela, always painfully thin, always transparently beautiful in her own frail, delicate slightly angular way. Her eating very simple, never substantial. Art historian, lover of music and literature, her flat full of books stacked on the floor, rising from it like toppling towers that have to be negotiated even in her bedroom as she shows us on one occasion when looking for a particular book.  Annela, the subject of paintings by various artists. Friend of artists, which is how we met her in the first place, at Ana Maria Pacheco's. Estonian, her mother out in Tallinn, ageing, sickening, then coming over to London for Annela to tend in her difficult last years. Ex-husbands. Lecturing on the history of art here and there. Deeply pacifist.

All personal impressions.

Clarissa was a good friend to Annela, would visit her for conversation, continuing to do so until late, until we left for Singapore. We did not think the tumour would work so fast, believing that the inevitable process - a process of which Annela was highly aware and frightened - would take longer, that she would still be there when we returned. I remember my father telling me how his friends were vanishing one by one. He was much older than we are, of course. That sort of thing is always 'in the future' when people are still older than you. Annela was a few years older than us, but looked youthful for the same reason anyone looks youthful: animation, in the eyes, in the hands, in the intelligence and the spirit. And isn't that what beauty really is?

Clarissa weeps a while. I hold her, then she composes herself. The business of life must go on. This morning, over breakfast, we reflect a little on those who have vanished. The list does mount. In every case I feel regret. Should have done better, done more, been less caught up in my own life, that dreaming, thinking, introspective thing. Invitations not taken up, longer letters briefly replied. The charge sheet is long. Turning life, or what appears to be life, into words is itself a way of life. One becomes one's own fictions, one's own syntax.

Fiction, syntax - song itself - regularly break down but heal - almost too quickly. Fiction resumes, syntax returns to its job of holding speech together, and song, which is in any case a pattern of fractures, absorbs the fracture and turns it into further song, further pattern. The pattern survives because of what it leaves by the door - pain, astonishment, joy, love even. One casts a cold eye on death in order that warm tears might survive the weather.

You ask what is literature? This is.

We will be in Malaysia for a week and I hope to keep a Malaysian notebook going.

Saturday 29 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 29 November:
Where we join the Triads, eat some more, celebrate my birthday and lounge about

We're back in Raffles again, the five of us, in the Long Bar which is crowded. Peanut husks are lying all over the floor, under our feet. The place is pretty full and loud music is playing upstairs, recorded at first, then live. We are lucky to find a table. The clientele is mostly European, older (though probably no older than me) a little tired perhaps, lounging, gazing, some in small parties, in conversation. Might Raffles have come down in the world a little? Where was it in the world? Where in the world am I?

I am sixty-six, or rather will be on the stroke of midnight, but the celebration is now. We are all dressed up. Clarissa and Annaliza are in nonya outfits as appropriate for the Peranakan restaurant we have just left.  The blouse part of the outfit is the kebaya, worn with a sarong or kain panjang Clarissa bought her outfit in the Arab / Malay quarter, the same shop where Alvin and I bought our shirts. She wears cherry red on top with a leaf-green sarong and scarf or selendang. Annaliza is in a lime green top with brown sarong. The terms overlap a little but I am sneaking in two pictures to clarifiy matters.

Clarissa and Annaliza

Emelda is wearing a batik sarong, the whole may be a baju kurung but you are asking the wrong man for confirmation of that. You can see the colors: the gold, the black, the russet brown.

Emelda and Clarissa

I suppose you may as well have Alvin and I, fully batiked up, ready to fight for justice and cocktails for all. We can shoot poems at you from any high height at any well-appointed restaurant you like. We are fully equipped with beautiful women and that makes us dangerous. If that doesn't terrify you, nothing will.

Myself and Alvin. We have no guns but we can spit poems (thank you Auden)

Thus it was and thus it was. Before Raffles, at True Blue, the Peranakan restaurant. Another master chef. I am hoping Alvin will write a post for me on the cuisines of Singapore as his powers in this regard are far greater than mine. It is all very delicious is what I say for now. Check the menu online for yourself.

This high living makes me feel occasionally dizzy looking down into the chasms of Norfolk, but now that I am a fully paid up Triad member we will find ways of changing that.


I make jokes about being on Route 66 and getting my kicks out of that but Route 66 leads on and it's a pretty fast highway. I survive by asking questions, striving to understand things. Looking back on life I don't suppose I have ever been a master of what is called small talk, that necessary filling of the social soup with charming croutons of speech, but it could be worse. At times I retreat into myself a little and try to feel about my soul to see what comes up, but friendship isn't all intensive research: it is, if not a soup, then a kind of bath where one bathes in the presence of those one loves or likes or admires or finds interesting.

Is this any different here? I doubt it. I am sceptical about all broad generalisation, though none of us can help making them if only because we have to start somewhere. Just the weekend left in Singapore then on to Kuala Lumpur and Kelantan.

What have I learned?

The country isn't the caricature some might have it be, a place all technology and money and striving for ever more of the same under a benevolent looking but sinister autocracy. It is historically precarious and nothing is assured. It has hauled itself up by its wits and anxieties. I can't help thinking it works, or has worked, at whatever cost - but what cost? - in terms of things I naturally value. And that thought troubles me because it shouldn't, not really, not in European terms at least. I keep thinking of Viktor Orbán's ambition to turn Hungary into a kind of Singapore and shudder, not for Singapore but for Hungary.

But then there is history to take into account and the history is wildly different: different in the great European colonial powers, different in Hungary, and very different in Singapore.  We were discussing British colonialism at dinner last night and how relatively benign it seems to have been here. People don't think of it as tyranny, nor is Singaporean history, even post-colonial history, taught in those terms. Granted, as our friends round the table agree, that the opposite caricature of gunboats bringing civilisation to naive fishermen is off the mark too, but the British seem to have acted intelligently, relying on existing power structures, not bleeding the country dry as the Dutch had done. It is worth considering this, and then again re-considering it. Truisms about history are the stuff of political expediency. Crass exploitation might have had an element of leavening missionary endeavour that wasn't all about wearing bowler hats, learning reams of Tennyson, attending C of E services, and adopting the missionary position.

Time does not absolve anyone but it packages us too neatly.

Hungarian history - a great epic of one lost war after another, of mounting resentment and linguistic isolation - is different again. I won't re-visit it in this post. Orbán's admiration is not confined to Singapore but includes Russia, China and Turkey. At best he might think he could be his country's Lee Kuan Yew, setting up his post-technological sub-kakania, filling it with patriotic warriors in the cause, and so lead his true people to ever greener pastures.

That's not how it is here. The young are beginning to break out but in a relatively gentle way. It is, for the most part, a gentle place. One bleeds politely. On public transport one stands up for the psychologically battered and allows them briefly to sit down.

I dip myself into the water of the place and splash about a bit at the comfortable end at a comfortable depth.  I am, after all, sixty-six now. The old gentleman must have his comforts and harmless illusions. He is not really a member of the Triad. Give him a book to read. Let him compose his decorative elegies. We won't burn his books yet.

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.

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.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 26 November:
The houses of Nagoya, the play of love, the long-legged fly

They did not expect to return to Raffles Hotel sounds like the beginning of a story but it was more the beginning of a meal. In Raffles there are a number of restaurants, among them Shinji by Kanesaka, which is as pure and aesthetically minimalist as food gets, as you will see by clicking on the link and encountering a home page so pristine it will make you feel ashamed of your untidy physical existence. It is Japanese fish cuisine of the highest order.

Alvin has taken us there because we should, after all, sample the best of Japanese food and this is the best. We are in a narrow sushi bar whose surface is made of single piece of light marble-smooth wood, just ourselves and the chef, Shunsuke Yoshizawa. Two women in delicate parchment-coloured traditional gowns are there to smile, silently serve sake and top up our green tea. Alvin has ordered Hana, a meal of nine pieces that we watch being prepared.  We are presented with ginger shavings that we peck at in between the various nigiri sushi with one course of maki sushi, that is after an appetiser of seaweed and something equally delicious. The successive dishes of nigiri sushi constitute a narrative of mounting excitement, from gentler to stronger flavours, though there is nothing loud enough there (apart from the faint touch of lime or horseradish) to wake a sleeping baby. The fish are laid out before us. Chef takes a piece, slices it with a big sharp knife then applies the delicate ingredients with a delicate finger and places it atop a child-thumb's length of pinched rice. Eaten slowly with interval enough to cleanse the mouth it is, as Alvin says, like a haiku sequence. It is also an adventure in erotics. Under normal circumstances we might bridle at too aesthetic or lavish a description, but it is apt this time. To tell the truth I have never liked Japanese food. Now I think it is wonderful. At the same time I can't help thinking of Derek Mahon's poem, The Snow Party:

...Snow is falling on Nagoya
And farther south
On the tiles of Kyoto;

Eastward, beyond Irago,
It is falling
Like leaves on the cold sea.

Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares,
Thousands have died since dawn
In the service
Of barbarous kings;

But there is silence
In the houses of Nagoya
And the hills of Ise.

Ah yes, that snow, that "tinkling of china / And tea into china" as an earlier tercet has it. 

Alvin's knowledge is astonishing. He takes us through the fish, the preparation of the fish, through the few places that can serve it like this. Not to be found in London. The preparation yes, the fish itself, no.

Our tastes are democratic, but this is aristocracy. These are blue-blooded fish that demand silence in the house of Nagoya and the hills of Ise. Of barbarous kings and burnings we have enough.


Alvin has to go to talk to people in commerce about poetry. We inheritors of the Romantic and Socialist tradition in the west tend to be suspicious of such events. We are rebels by calling. We are rebels by popular demand.  We are a binary culture. Money bad: spirit good. We find it hard to conceive of a society in which poetry has a civilising and humanising role as mediator  between hierarchies. Imagine an advertisement that said: Improve your performance by entering deep meditation with the finest and most successful poets and craftsman in a dynamic yet soothing environment... It would certainly bug us. We don't want to invite business to read poetry only so it might make more profit. We oppose capital to community, and business ethics (the very phrase would have to be presented in quotation marks) to individual impulse. Accountancy was Monty Python's joke career, roughly on a par with Python's lumberjack song. We are keenly conscious of the greed of Gordon Gecko, of the murderous indifference of the bottom line, of the corrupt dealings of high finance. We love a revolutionary gesture though we rarely engage in actual revolutions.

Is it possible for us to imagine a society in which the hierarchies persist but are leavened by an understanding of whatever is humane? Is it possible for us to imagine a society where migrant workers' poems and songs are submitted as evidence in the courts of justice and are reconciled with the finance department or marketing office's love of Wallace Stevens? Or of Derek Mahon for that matter? Or of François Villon?  Or of Bertolt Brecht?

But here is not there. They are not us. We are not this. Binaries remain as distinctions. Our values grow out of our histories however we overlap at times. This is a different set up, a different tradition, a different concept of what makes a workable non-ideological society; it has a different starting point and different aspirations in different historical and economic circumstances. These are the houses of Nagoya and the hills of Ise removed to a map of vulnerabilty, colonialisation and poverty. Here, in Yeatsian terms, the centre has to hold in order to prevent things falling apart and mere anarchy being loosed upon the world. We are, say the voices, a practical people by necessity. Business must go on. Let us make it as humane as we can. The rough beasts slouch on.  They may in fact be slouching this way.


We ourselves have slouched on to Orchard Road, a street lined with back-to-back malls that rise to several storeys offering goods from the cheapest to the most elegant and fashionable. Oxford Street as conveyor belt. We are in one of the malls and have come here to meet three other poet friends who take us, first, to the opening of a venture some ten floors up, a collaboration, as I understand it, between a Japanese food retailer - pancakes chiefly,  an orphanage, and a new arts project. There are drinks and speeches that are exactly what drinks and speeches usually are. The Japanese ambassador makes a speech. Japanese history with Singapore is complicated of course. Let us move on. The press is there. Civic responsibility, creative endeavour and entrepreneurial know-how engage in mutual embrace. I am no more sceptical of this than any westerner might be. This could work. There are people who really believe in it. Art will happen here, art and pancakes. There are worse combinations.

It seems to be Japan day in Singapore. We proceed to a Japanese meal of a quite different, but very nice sort. This is still within the mall. We are artists, poets, musicians, playwrights, arts administrators. We talk poetry and music and books and festivals, comparing societies. Then Clarissa, myself and the poet Yong Shu Hoong make our way over to the SOTA Studio Theatre to see a play by young playwright, Joel Tan.


It is a production by Checkpoint Theatre titled The Way We Go. It has a cast of five - four women and one man - on a simple stage with a coffin upstage centre. The actors are mostly well known not only from theatre but also from television. There are four main relationships in the play: between the forceful head of a convent school and a female colleague, between two girl students who enter a long term gay relationship, between the head and an elderly sceptical male lover, and between the sceptical male and the head's colleague. It is a very human play that, as the link tells you, is "a sensitive meditation on growing up and growing old. It looks at love in places where we least seek it; the love for learning, life, and language; the love between friends and kindred spirits." It is in fact a play about love.

The characters are cleanly drawn, very well played, especially by the three senior leads, and, while exemplary in the sense that the characters exhibit types of behaviour, they don't become stereotypical. There is no 'message' as such, no agenda. The fact that the two younger characters are gay might be controversial in local terms but it's hard to tell. What is certain is that it is quite ambitious for a young male playwright to create four convincing female characters and to imagine the effects of love and cancer on late middle age. The male figure is like one of Chekhov's sceptical doctors (at one stage he claims to be a doctor as a joke), the women remind me a little of Masha in Three Sisters - this is not to say they are like her in any detail, only in that they might be mapped in that broad region. The coffin is there because we are watching the central character die. We don't watch in a linear fashion because the story itself is told in flashbacks and flashes forward. Although the story is set in Singapore and the younger characters talk Singlish some of the time, the theme is universal.

The whole thing is sharply written but essentially gentle. It understands all its characters and presents them sympathetically, mostly in comic terms but always with the sense of human tragedy underneath. Is the head teacher's cancer caused by the refusal of the doctor to move in with her, by the thwarting of her will and authority, by the cramping of her style? No answer is suggested to this important question: cancer just happens. Except nothing 'just happens' in a work of art. If chance enters the composition - as it must - it can be edited out or left in.  Even chance is ordained. Death is at the centre, upstage.

Read this blog as a review if you will. I can certainly recommend the theatre group. Nothing second-hand about them or the production, about anything, just a sense of trust in the difficult idea of love.  We don't do that very much in the west.  We have had to too much lurv. We are bathed in savage ironies. We know the rough beast better than we know the houses of Nagoya or the hills of Ise. We are not here. We are elsewhere.

Neither are the houses of Nagoya of course. The valleys of Ise are jungle and swamp and the need to get on with life. It is not up to us, nor the emperors of Japan to aestheticise the conditions.

The theatre building itself is quite something in terms of construction but this is about the play. I am not a theatre critic. These are not stars or ticks. Imagine the stars and ticks for yourself.


In our conversations we touch on the future. Not the immediate future but not too far off as the world goes. It has taken fifty years in Singapore to get this far. Wherever you go there is a price to be paid but you don't go by yourself nor do you go where they won't let you. Should China be able to divert shipping to a new port of its own Singapore would find it hard. Singapore might be done for, everything lost. The children of those now in their prime would have to face reamalgamtion with Malaysia or something worse.

Under the hubris, sadness. Under the sadness, anxiety. Within it all, a kind of wryness, a calculation of the odds, the need to have things hang together, to make the best of things while keeping life manageable and human. No burnings, no rough beasts, no falling apart. The rough beast has come and gone a few times already. Let us have instead an intelligence hovering about itself, the mind moving, as another Yeats poem has it, like a long-legged fly upon the stream. Upon the wide South China Seas.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 25 November:

We have done a fair amount of walking here and I seem to be walking differently. I don't mean I quite know how I walk in England, nor do I here but every so often I find I straighten myself up and swing my shoulders more. I am becoming more languid and it appears to help progress through the thick, hot air. I have noticed some Africans and Caribbeans walk like this in England. Maybe this is how the walk comes about. Heat makes you languid and you become loose-limbed. Before long it is languor as style. Maybe.

That's a big maybe on the edge of nonsense but one is simply less trussed up than in the bracing climate of England. Nothing braces here only work and work goes beyond bracing, it is practically the rack: the rack of long extra hours, of returning to the office at midnight, of coming up with a solution in the small hours. If you are a child there is the rack of extra activities, the supplementing of school hours teaching with more maths, or language, or art, or physical exercise. For or read and because it is likely to be all those things and more. It is as if everyone were in training for a big event due the next minute. It is, after all, what has brought the place to this extraordinary vertiginous point. What is more, overwork can become pleasure and pride, a corrective to the feeling of inferiority following the disppearance of empire. I can see the t-shirt now: I'M STRESSED AND I'M PROUD.

I suspect there is a languid figure inside the tense Salary Man prototype. The languid figure moves through its own air of memory and desire. It mourns, sighs, yearns, and falls into a gentle sleep. On the bus yesterday two girl students fresh out of an exam with anti-prototype t-shirts, one with a variant on the Keep Calm and Carry On (Whatever) slogan under an image of the crown, with the same crown but upside down, the legend reading: PANIC AND FREAK OUT NOW. The other girl's T-shirt, more subtle perhaps but also telling, says: SHAKESPEARE HATES YOUR EMO POEMS.

Results are vital after all and the exam period is the rack of all racks. One can never assume  anything of the individual soul (mild looking accountants dismember bodies, fierce looking punks secretly adore kittens) but Singapore is, visually at least, a conformist society. The young may be longing all the more to break out but they don't look to have broken much. On the same bus just one young girl with hair dyed silver and lilac and a stud through her lips. The rest are in neat clothes, their dark hair neatly done, with more or less style. The sports posters around campus exhort them to DO BETTER, to EXCEL, to AIM HIGHER.

Languid Man does not get much of a look in. Languid Man languishes, desires, dreams, and feels a certain sadness and regret in the twistings of his much-racked intestines. As to Languid Woman, where is she? She is not the tired figure trudging home with shopping bags or dashing late into the office. I doubt she is hanging about in the doorways of Geylang.


Yesterday we met with two Indian friends who have recently arrived in Singapore to work. Pallavi is a scholar, editor for major publishing houses -  and poet - looking for a job here; Abhishek is an engineer by training but is now in advertising and is trying to write novels and short stories in what spare time he has. They are our children's age - warm-hearted, intelligent, talented, absolutely delightful. We go for a meal near the National Gallery and talk over steamed dumplings and noodles. I first met Pallavi in Delhi on my first visit to India where she attended a class I gave at the Katha Festival. I remember her even then, a lovely attentive face, not very much older than the children in front of me. We have met briefly since, in Delhi again and in London. This is the first time we have met her husband. They were married some six months ago. We ask her if she has some wedding photos and she finds some on her phone. The costumes of both bride and groom are beautiful, they themselves are beautiful. We hear about the preparation, the reception, the families and friends and relatives. She is hurrying to finish her PhD. He reads intensely, his admirations shifting, wondering if he will ever be good enough.

There is something a little uneasy about Singapore for them. The place is beautiful, but too new, too grand, too ostentatious, too Disneyland. India is replete with the past: here the past is erected, demolished, erected and demolished again. It is, in effect, presented in terms of the future. It may be in the haunted building in the park that was the gasworks. It may be in the heart of Languid Man. Hard to know, they think. The future is the past waiting to happen, I think.

The sun is out and the circular building directly in front of our window is all clear lines and sweeping curved shadows. It has something of the flying saucer about it. Perhaps it will rise and head off into the unpredictable sky. Perhaps it will start to spin like a top, like the castle in the Hungarian fairy tale that turns and turns on its one duck leg. You think that's surreal? No, it's just the Folk doing what Folk do, slaving, dreaming of a more languid existence, spinning and spinning, rising and vanishing into the weather.