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.

Monday 24 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 24 November:
Profusion, Garden, Death,
and the Supermarket Smurfs

Profusion, plenitude, plethora, cornucopia, abundance, bonanza, surfeit, excess, oversupply, overkill...

Very well, let's stick with profusion. There is a lot of it. It is tangible and pressing. It fills the eye and oozes through the skin. It is what you breathe.

First of all there is air: megatons of it, gathering, bursting, drenching, cooling, then gathering again into its multitude of personal saunas that embalm you as you go. It is with you as your mobile phone is with you, as your camera is with you, or as your mobile-phone-camera is with you. I have talked of spectacle but it is partly ourselves that are the spectacle. We photograph ourselves photographing ourselves, we become part of the goods on display to ourselves and our friends. The distance between camera and subject becomes personal space as of right. When people are photographing each other we don't walk across their sightlines, not without an apology first. It is focal distance as real estate. And you can carry it with you, like the air you breathe and move through.


The day did not begin that way. Very close to the university are the ancient dragon kilns which have become part of an eco project. The kilns are rarely fired up, chiefly because they are so enormous, long caverns extending up a slope so the fire can rise along the length of it, burning at temperatures of about 1200 C. There are little windows along them through which extra firewood can be thrust to carry the flame onward and which then have immediately to be filled in to retain the heat. This being an eco garden the firewood is all recycled waste. You really need a considerable number of clay pots to make the firing worth while. One of them was being publicly fired up last Friday. The other is even longer and available for inspection from inside. It is like being in the sewers of Paris, or in a scene from Wajda's Kanal. One child wants to explore further in but his mother tells him to come way because she herself is scared.

Several artists work with the kilns and in the ecogarden, alongside volunteers, including those who learn to serve coffee so that they may become expert baristas and others whose task it is to show adults and children  (we have come with our friends as a family group with one child) how to make pinch pots. We too sit down to make pinch pots. Clarissa makes a splendid pot with lid and handle. I am content to make one round pot and cover it with sgraffito designs and a naked dancing figure. It is Clarissa who has the full sense of volume, I was ever a painter of surfaces. I suspect I am not as clumsy as I think I am or as I was told I was as a child. My fingers are quite nimble. I play the piano after all, after a fashion. My feet are nimble too. But maybe there is an essential lack of co-ordination at brain level. Give me a surface and I'll cover it but don't ask me to make that surface.

The storm begins as we are pinching pots and it is a big one, right above us, a proper King Lear of a storm, the rain violent and solid, the thunder not so much out there as inside us. The construction we are in is essentially a large open shed with a simple roof, no more. It echoes and resounds. Outside the earth is quickly turning into mud. This goes on for some time but then it dies away and the cycle begins again. By the time our pinch pots are ready for whatever firing happens next, the soil is already drying.

We wander round the ecogarden and spot dragonflies, millipedes and glorious tiny sunbirds, probably of this sort, bright yellow with a black head. They hang on stalks and feed off drops. The millipedes are having races along the concrete path. The dragonflies buzz the pondskaters. Everyone is having a wild time. On the way out a notice tells us what we should do should we meet snakes, wild boars and monkeys. The general advice is we should slink away quietly which seems sensible.

From ecogarden back to The Gardens by the Bay, this time to the Flower Dome beginning with cocktails and nibbles at Pollen. Cocktails are cocktails any part of the world. They are what you drink when you are feeling a little flush and wanting a little glamour in your life. To add to the glamour a band in the dome is belting out songs from the shows, Start Spreading the News, My Favourite Things. It's loud and full of huzzah, plump with itself. It is a far cry from Raffles Hotel where the merest whisper of brass would be enough to crack the china.

The dome itself is the embodiment of profusion: profusion of flowers, trees and people from every part of the world. There is a Mediterranean part, an Africa part, an Australia part - you name it, it is there, densely packed together. There is lavender and rose and cactus, all available to touch and smell. Nature gangs up on us, albeit pieced and parcelled and thoroughly at attention. The structure is rather splendid, sweeping, a little reminiscent of the new Kings Cross station in London. There are weddings and brides (one looks rather miserable and stares into the distance outside as others fuss around her) There are myriads of visitors with cameras and dense kilometres of personal camera space. I am beginning to feel a little weak.  The good king's beneficence is more than lavish. This is people's park with silver bells on. It is for the public at large. And they are distinctly at large, very large.  At the centre there is a large Christmas display with holly, fake snow, Christmas trees, lights, and a constant swirl of families and, especially groups of young girls taking selfie after selfie in front of fragments of spectacle. There are again polite suggestions as to where you might like to take your photo. Why not become part of the iconic gallery, part of the iconic procession pausing at the iconic spot? Freeze yourself into the continuum of history with a snap of your built-in camera.

I mention the idea of Winterval to Alvin. We hate to offend, etc. He can't quite believe it. You need to come to Asia to get a proper unabashed multi-cultural Christmas! No cultural cringe here.


After the Flower Dome the food court along the beach. More profusion. Stall after stall offering variations on a profusion of dishes. A profusion of people of a profusion of cultures sitting at a profusion of tables by the profuse yet single, quietly thrumming sea. We eat fish and chicken and salad and fruit. We are well provided. Our culinary world is refined, differentiated, multiple, close to overwhelming. It is profoundly democratic.

Afterwards we walk along the shore in the dark. Opposite us an endless crew of lit cargo vessels waiting to dock or leave. The bay is deep enough to allow for an aircraft carrier. Boys are fishing off the long jetty. There are barbecue spots available to the public. The sea is dark and pushes to and fro with its sweet yet ominous surge.

Along this beach the Japanese ordered young Chinese Singaporean males to dig their own graves then shot them. They would bayonet them afterwards just to make sure, but toward the end of the war things had to be done in a hurry so some escaped with their lives.

Under the profusion, another darker profusion. That is the order of things in the world. It is its own dread Law. We do exactly as Blake suggested in his Proverbs of Hell. We drive our ploughs over the bones of the dead.


This morning we buy some milk and fruit in one of the university supermarkets right opposite Canteen No 2. There is always music in the supermarket and, all this last week, it has been Christmas music, or what passes for Christmas music in the retail arenas of the world. The aisles are brightly lit. I feel a little like the Dude at the beginning of The Big Lebowsky. The music tinkles on. It is the Smurfs again, with the Smurf's version of Boney M's version of and love will live for evermore because of Christmas Day. Hark, the herald Smurfs do sing. Glory. Glory. Glory.

Sunday 23 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 23 November:
The pleasures of high humidity /
Peranakan vice zone

He explains the pleasures of tropical climate as we are exploring the Botanical Gardens just after the peak hours of sunshine but still under a ton's weight of humidity. It is like being embraced, he says, like feeling the air hold you, feeling its resistance, its weight, like the air is really there. It makes you aware of your skin. I found it harder to breathe in England, he adds. There is no resistance there.

I try to imagine this. It has never occurred to me as a possibility. I have often enough wondered whether the unchanging climate, here where there are no seasons and the sun rises and sets at the same time every day of the year, is something Singaporeans enjoy as such or whether they simply accommodate themselves to it by installing as much air-conditioning in as many places as possible. That would indicate that people do feel discomfort but, it seems, this too is possible.

And it is true, you do notice your skin. It is wet all the time. When you touch your brow - you hardly notice it before then - it is damp. It is tiring walking the Botanical Gardens for a few hours but not exhausting.

We are with two new friends, a couple. Y is a Chinese poet from mainland China whose family has been living in New York for some time. She writes mostly in English,  studied with Tim Liardet at Bath and has published a book in the US. She misses New York. She had come to my readings and introduced herself. Her husband, W, is Singaporean. They met in Bath while he was reading psychology there. He is now working as a rehabilitation expert for the Singapore prison service while she is a translator and interpreter for a commercial enterprise.

I ask about prisons in Singapore as we are sipping cool drinks before entering the gardens. The prisons, like the architecture everywhere, is new. There is nothing primitive about them. Crime is, as we have been told before, very low - some drug trafficking, some sex crime, not much robbery, not much fraud: the place is entirely safe to wander round in the middle of the night, particularly for women. There is, of course, the death penalty for trafficking drugs. Yes, there are the Triads but they operate chiefly in prostitution. The police have the ultimate power over the gangs, he believes. There are the red light streets (albeit without red lights). There are the brothels and the hookers but prostitutes are not allowed to solicit and the pimps are liable to arrest. It depends on who exchanges money with whom and how. In any case, he explains, most prostitution is carried on via the internet. But they will take us for dinner in Geylang later, he says. One of the students had mentioned Geylang to me as the vice area of Singapore.

What to say of the Botanic Gardens? All I know about botany could be written on one side of a privet leaf, so, for me, it is a matter of size, scent, shape and changing ambient temperature. We see a squirrel, some spectacular wildfowl, hear (but not see) frogs and toads. There are areas for plants that cure and plants that kill. There are extraordinary petrified trees and bamboos that huddle together like a bundle of sticks. At the core of the park, at its highest spot, is the orchid garden together with a lodge where couples get married. W and Y were married here and there is a wedding going on as we walk around. The wedding is a mixed affair, partly western, partly liberal islamic. We see the guests and hear the music being set up. The singer rips into Wonderwall. Pop is its own empire.

Orchids are spectacular and this is orchidophile heaven. There are orchids of various sizes, shapes, intensities and modesties of colour. There are orchids developed for diplomatic purposes. One of the first we see is the orchid for Margaret Thatcher. Another is a posthumus one for Princess Diana. But a good number of foreign dignitaries are represented there. There are troubling carnivorous plants too. Both Clarissa and I take photos - as we do of everything - and note that there are specific places marked with notices saying TAKE PICTURE HERE. An elderly Malay couple in their beautiful best is being arranged by younger members of the family into a standard composition that will be new for them. We slowly disappear into the night.


We get a taxi to Geylang and are dropped near the long established Guan Hoe Soon restaurant (photo of founder on the wall, a small shrine to a kitchen god above the kitchen) that specialises in Peranakan cuisine. We eat Ayam Boah Kelauk (chicken with nuts), Nonya Chap Chye, (braised cabbage) Ikan Bakar, (whole charcoal-grilled fish) Nogh Hiang (Pork and prawn roll), followed by Chen Dool (shaved ice and coconut milk) for dessert. Drink is a liquefied jelly. The dishes are unlike anything else we have eaten in Singapore so far. Some spiciness but nothing skull-splitting. The lanky boy who runs about moving people to tables and taking their orders is, like Y, mainland Chinese. He looks about sixteen but takes charge, waving his arms, dashing away from an order to the door and back, to another table and back, like the captain of a burning ship. He is fraught but smiles when he has a moment. The place is full of families (we like families, says W) all talking at the top of their voices. It is Saturday night after all.

Then we take a walk down the main drag and environs. This is a Chinese style quarter, a place complete in itself. The street is crowded, and, yes, there are a few hookers clearly waiting at doorways, and there is a convenience hotel or two with rooms to let by the hour. There are restaurants and cafes and crowds at tables and music coming from bars. It is more the world of Miss Saigon, than of 21st century downtown Singapore: it is an escape from the 21st century. It is picturesque in the way you imagine the past to have been. You can probably let your hair down here providing you do it politely and play by the rules. The quieter streets are elegant, made up of rows of individual Chinese-style houses with front yards, some with a car jammed into the near impossible space between front gate and front door. There is nothing unruly about any of this. The gangs operate their own auxiliary police force.

Everyone we talk to mentions the rapid change in the country. W's mother hoards things in case it all falls apart. The taxi driver back to NTU is talkative. He too says it. One the one hand he hates it, hates the fact that kids can't run around in the streets like they used to, hates the conformity, disapproves of all the foreign labour (they dont do things as well as the Singaporeans did, just look at the MRT, he says), on the other he likes the safety, the education, the order and the sheer spectacle. He is genial.  The talk drifts on to football and now he is in his element. He is a Liverpool and England supporter. He can name the teams of twenty or thirty years ago, he has strong opinions about Hodgson and Brendan Rogers (he wants Rogers out). He loves Stephen Gerrard. We exchange hallowed names and recall significant matches. When dropping us off he mentions that he was once a Singapore rugby international. No rugby now, he says. Football is a dead loss here.  No crowds. We don't have cricket. Nor does he have small change for the fiddling part of the fare but rather than accept a bigger note he lets us off. It's been fun, he says.

We are exhausted and quickly fall asleep.  Next week I will be sixty-six. There are moments when I feel it.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 22 November:
Pleasure cruises and maps in motion

I sometimes wonder whether I am writing about Singapore in itself or about the Hungarian, or indeed UK analogy with Singapore. In any case I have no particular perception into Singapore society or history except what I gain from friends, meetings with other writers including students, and what I see - or appear to see. And what I appear to see is a kind of party full of bright lights and architectural swank, of people at crowded tables in food courts, of students huddled at the entrance of the examination hall catching a last look at their exercise books full of formulae and equations, and indeed of poets at performances partying, sharing and celebrating their own shaky slant on the world. I used the word amiable before. It is that, or so it appears, but there is also something a little hyper about it which makes me think of parties on delicate ships setting forth on a cruise in unpredictable weather.

I can't help but be glad for them - and myself - that things are rather hunky-dory for now. I am pretty sure most people would prefer to wander through electric gardens, to sip cocktails a hundred floors up, to gawp at The Shoppe, or even to snack in one of the endless and multiple eateries rather than toil in a swamp, have to watch every last bit of food or to labour in stifling offices without air-conditioning. We get sentimental about what is lost and feel the loss deeply. We are aware of  a bottomless but not fully defined anxiety. Everything is all so new, so precarious, so deprived of values that would appear to have been firm. As soon as we are materially secure we begin to find money vulgar. The poor don't and never have.

The ecological arguments are unavoidable. Conspicuous consumption? Very well, let's have some modest consumption instead. If you eat the jungle the jungle might bite back. If you eat the sea the sea might bite back. Let us at least be polite to the gods of nature we have unseated and restricted to governable reservations. That's OK. A few natural pieties are in order as long as we remember they are pieties and not much more. It was what rankled with me a little at the Barry Lopez lecture. Why talk about telling better stories or about being nice to each other? Why not just say abandon your cars and start eating grass, because at bottom that is what we know we mean. Back to the paddy fields. Back to the swamp. On the other hand there is a voice inside us that says: hey boss, we all gonna die anyway, why not die a hundred floors up sipping a cocktail? Let's party!

Poets are ordinary people with a sensitive streak and a gift for language. Otherwise there is nothing new or strange about them. By 'them' I mean us of course. Our sensitivity might render us weak and febrile at times, and rather frenetic and thumping at others. We like the sound of a revolution providing it makes good poetry. We make dreadful administrators and very bad tyrants. Even our parties are places where we secretly wander off into ourselves.

I am meditating on all this as yesterday was a rest day. We didn't go out anywhere, we didn't experience anything except being where we happened to be, in our own air-conditioned skins. I did however meet a young student who wanted to show me a sequence of poems. We sat for a couple of hours in Fusion Spoon talking generally, then talking poetry and finally looking at his poem. Time and again I am impressed by how intelligent, perceptive, well-read and open they are, the young especially. We talked about our changing circumstances, the new wealth, the world of Google and social media, about the change in perceptions such things bring about, and he had thought about all of this and more. I liked him immensely and admired his sequence which was not perfect (though only the gods are judges of perfection, I don't claim to be) but amibitious, with splendid passages and a guiding thought or vision he was trying to explore.

It may be fanciful but I sense, almost everywhere, not just anxiety but a kind of melancholy, an implicit sadness, as if the mind had arrived where it is by accident, without a map and suddenly there it is, in a street or a park that seems unfamiliar, a tiny planet in a vast uncharted cosmos. I think there is a specifically Singaporean scent about that mental place. I have my tourist map but it is the internal ones that matter.  As time passes we impose the maps we prefer on that which we think we know. But what if you don't really know? What if the map itself is in motion?

Friday 21 November 2014

Singapore Notebook 21 November:
Dance and Spectacle

The longer the monsoon season goes on the more oppressive the humidity until you can hardly breathe, writes one. In the monsoon season you pick up viruses that ruin your summer, writes another, both Europeans with experience of the tropics. Breathing has been all right on the whole except on upward climbs in the hot sun. My mother suffered badly with her heart and frequently had to stop for breath up hills. So this is what it was like, I think as I stop to breathe.

It was a quiet morning of work and revision but we had arranged to meet Jennifer at the doomed spaceship that is Fusion Spoon. The crew remain friendly and to some degree complicit. When we finally hit the planet with aliens on it they will be on our side until the aliens pop out of our stomachs at which point they will offer them a menu. Jennifer is head of Creative Writing, five months pregnant and about to take up a new position in Canberra in less oppressive climes but, like me, she is fond of the students.

We talk of this and that, of impressions and experience. On our return to our rooms a wave of sleep hits us but we are wide awake by 4:15 ready to take public transport, first to City Hall to meet Annaliza, thence to Bayfront, where we meet Emelda. We are going to see a performance at the ArtScience museum but first we walk around the enormous glittering mall that is The Shoppes and have a bite. The stores here are not only high-end: they are somewhere up in the Alps for brand and price. You can pay a fortune for a cup of tea and a bun, but those cruising The Shoppes don't look particularly high end for the most part. Maybe they're not customers but gawkers like us. In each of the elegant stores a single elegant girl assistant looking somewhere between lost and defiant in the empty palace of her emporium.

For the fashion conscious, I am wearing a shirt inherited from Clarissa's late father. He must have received it in Malaya (as it was then) back in the Fifties and it looks brand new, presumably because he never wore it. Annaliza and Emelda appraise it. It seems to be from a specific northern region of Malaya because its motif (white and amber on black) is made up of stylised images of kites. It is considered beautiful. It is certainly very light. Nobody is wearing one like it. Oh, what it is to be retro-fashion icon, a walking museum piece!


That is a perfect link to the fabulous ArtScience museum which is shaped like an opening lotus. We are a little early so lounge around the museum shop where the young assistant follows us around commending items such as a vast, and vastly expensive, portfolio featuring a print of one of Leonardo da Vinci's machine designs and, at the other end of the scale,  a tiny model of the building itself just too big to make a decent keyring.

The performance is in a room upstairs that has carpeting so soft you could drown in it. It features a Cambodian dancer and an American video artist, the whole titled Transporting Rituals (scroll down for the title and basic information). Dancer and artist only met two weeks ago to devise the programme which is a fusion (not, not that Fusion) of traditional and contemporary Cambodian dance and spectacular visual effect so that, for instance, when the dancer stops before the screen a stream of light seems to issue from her head which she can then dance around or produce from her hands. The whole performance is based on that kind of interaction, but it is the opening part with traditional Cambodian dance that is mesmerising. So much slowness and athletic stillness. So much work for the fingers and the feet. Looking at dance this way is like understanding dance from zero. It is magical and necessary. She, Chey Chankethya, is tiny and slender: a statue in movement. She is a marvellous dancer in any form of course but when the performance moves into contemporary dance, interwoven with the traditional moves, the stillness and slowness are lost and some of the power dissipates.

The visuals, by Blake Shaw,  are brilliant but not strictly necessary in the way the dance is. They fit around the dance and offer a language of their own suggesting multiple presence and violence. They interpret the way that contemporary dance interprets, but the strict, austere-yet-sensual traditional dance element is not an interpretation, or rather it doesnt feel like one. It is itself. What dance is.


Then we walk and do the spectacle that is the whole harbour front. It is all recently reclaimed land, sea and swamp, an enormous, celebratory finger up to the past and to jealous neighbours. It is hard to say what is the centrepiece, but possibly it is the Three Towers that are surmounted by a horizontal structure that looks like a brightly illuminated boat. There is something of a set of cricket stumps there too. We watch the end of a laser show, we cross the bridge to the Gardens by the Bay a great assembly of domes and plants and supertrees and lights, lights, lights. The night garden is a dozen Christmases at once, the city looking back at it, an eternity of Christmases, Christmas as a video game, the moment as virtual eternity.

But these analogies are wild shots in the dark. The display means something deep and complex. Singapore is not Vegas, though it certainly has a big casino: it is more contemporary than that. As I wrote on Facebook:
'Marina Bay is the most spectacular part of Singapore in terms of modernity. City as spectacle, the ultimate circenses on an island of panem. I am dazzled by the mixture of razzmatazz, celebration and hubris. It's like having colour telly in 1950.'
So, yes, bread and circuses, plenty of both but more still. It is as if it were saying: Out of the swamp THIS!

It is the wealth dreamed by the poor.

David Beckham is a frequent visitor here, especially to The Shoppes. It is the boy from Leytonstone with the un-posh Posh Spice wife elevated to thrones of purple and gold. You too can bend it like Beckham.

We teeter between celebration and hubris, between the trump card of capitalism and the burning of the gifts for the dead. We are waiting for Godzilla to arise out of the sea and take back what is hers.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 19 November:
The Malay-Arab Quarter / Reading at Speakeasy

We are approaching the top of the hill. Time will slip down the slope ever faster now. That first sense of apprehensive disorientation combined with visual and cultural over-excitement has gone. Now there is a period of stillness in which one hovers between time running forward and time running backward, in a gap between braincells and heartbeats.

Everything so far has happened at breakneck speed as if the country were presenting itself to us in the guise of a rapid-change act. The totality, the all-comprehending presence of it, no sooner forms out of one mist before disappearing into another.

Yesterday I mentioned corruption. But that might have been a misunderstanding. There might not be any - or very little. We were talking - Alvin, Annaliza, Clarissa and I - about this upstairs in a restaurant near Bugis in the Malay-Arab quarter. I am looking to understand why the prime minister of Hungary should take Singapore for a model. There is plenty of corruption in Hungary, some of it now a matter of diplomatic incident, and that, I imagine, is a state of affairs that is almost inevitable when any stable group retains central control and concentrates power. With the best will in the world (and there is rarely best will anywhere for long) people get to know each other, do each other favours, try to make things look mutually good, and this process becomes ever easier, ever more natural, ever more insidious over time. There is, of course, the historical background to consider and, in that respect, comparisons with Hungary might prove shaky. The supersonic speed of development in Singapore might mean that some level of innocence has been retained, that niceness and courtesy really are forms of altruism, that there are no favours to be granted for some appropriate form of thanks whether that be in cash or compliance. Mao wanted a permanent revolution for reasons something like this. An ideology under constant violent revision might retain its puritan zeal. Then again, it might not. Puritan zeal often means blood in the street. We are becoming used to that in our time.

But this is a few streets in Singapore. There is the mosque, there a mudrassa, there an Islamic bookshop. This isn't a fundamentalist society. The bookshop stocks books of a liberal, if mostly religious nature. Darwish's poems are there. There are plenty of shops selling attractive clothes including hijabs. We stop at one where Clarissa buys a beautiful dark red top and a sarong, and Alvin and I buy batik shirts. A photograph of the owner's grandfather hangs near the entrance to the changing booth. It was taken in 1932. He started the shop and it has passed down the family which also owns a good deal of valuable land. Nothing is cheap here but most things are desirable. In another shop we buy some toys for the grandchildren. We walk down the Kampong version of Covent Garden, very fashionable now, full of the young. The muezzin calls for prayer. I can't see much praying going on in the street - they'll all be in the mosque. As ever we take photographs. It takes such a time to shift them from the phone to the computer and then to stick them in I shall save all that for later and put up a good number at once.

Then we drive to the river where I collect my thoughts about the reading. There is a cafe there that makes delicious coffee, roasting beans from scratch. It is opposite a site that used to be a gas works but is now a small park. Within that park there is a densely overgrown small building barely visible through the slender trees and interwoven branches. It's very dark inside. No one goes there not even our enlightened, secular friends. It is supposed to be associated with evil. Little fetish dolls sit at the skirts of the dark patch. Flags warding off evil spirits have been hung on the nearest branches. It's a little shock-mark on the dynamic modern surface of the city. It does look distinctly creepy. A cat with a crooked tail slinks along the lawn.


Annaliza goes for her Russian lesson. We have arranged to meet well-known poet and reading organiser, Pooja, at an upstairs cocktail bar nearby. The place is small but famous. The owner here has made the most expensive cocktail in the world comprised of crushed diamonds and pearls. We are asked to describe the kind of drink we fancy and the waiter goes away and concocts something to match the mood. I get a long vodka-based monument including ginger and lime and a mass of crushed ice. Later there is a pina colada to pass round. Jennifer and Divya from NTU are there.

The Speakeasy is a remarkably successful venue that takes forty comfortably and many more uncomfortably. Tonight's audience fits well enough. I am reading with Ng Yi-Sheng, a poet who has won the top literary award in Singapore but who, in recent years, has been working on the slam and performance ciruit. He was supposed to read first and me second, but somehow or other this has got turned round which is just as well.

The audience is mostly very young, loudly appreciative and attuned to slam. I am twice as old as they are and 'performance' for me is just reading my poems as best I can. I am in almost every respect from an 'elsewhere' that might have little to do with them. I drink two whiskies. They won't be young for ever. I won't be here for ever.

But I am a trooper. I have chosen my poems with some care in terms of rhetorical drive and imagery, which distorts my work as a whole but who cares about that? I do what I do. It goes well. There are whoops and there is applause, though frankly I don't know what target, if any, I have hit. I am essentially a private individual and little of my work is about me or has a directly autobiographical core. It's probably best to read me rather than hear me, ideally alone, ideally in circumstances that are not redolent of performance space. Got that? Those are my best footnotes, right there. Though writing is itself performance of course in some arena of the mind, heart and imagination, you'll probably have to settle down with me for a while if you ever get that far.

Not so with Yi-Sheng. He is gay and proud. His work is him, delivered at full rhetorical volume, his whole body pumping. Sometimes he runs on the spot. Sometimes he whispers, sometines he bellows, sometimes he talks of his mother who is in the audience, checking with her it's OK to read something she might find shocking. He is verbally dextrous, rhymes, alliterates. He can do all that: he is a fully dramatised presence. He throws some water at the audience, he beats a plastic cup against his head, he takes off his shirt. I notice all this more than I notice the poems but that's because I am older and less certain about who or what I am. I am, should you want to know,  more the person I told you about in the previous paragraph.

The audience love Yi-Sheng. He represents liberation on a number of levels that I can only guess at. Just as well I went first. But what does it matter? My fate is in the stern stars not on this floor and I too was applauded and whooped. Despite this, despite that, I was comforted by the approval of whoever was sitting in my amplified voice range. My natural cry-baby is tucked up with its comforter. Anyway, I can't see the audience since I am in the light and they in shadow. Look, ma! Top of the world! as Cagney bragged on some nondescript eminence before being blown to kingdom come.

It takes me about twenty minutes to readjust to social life, but there we all are sitting around another table - in fact two tables since there are eleven of us. We happily chatter on before Alvin, who is the kindness of the land personified, and - one should never forget this - a majestic humane poet, drives us all the way back to NTU to this morning's surreal comfort of Fusion Spoon, somewhere between a morgue and an alien space-craft in feeling, very like the bar at the end of the world. But the crew is friendly. We are becoming one of them.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Singapore Notebook 18 November:
Singapore v Hungary / a day on the ranch

Reading about the demonstrations in Hungary I can't help thinking of the situation in Singapore, since Singapore is one of the countries the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor ('Viktator') Orbán mentioned as a model, the others being Russia, China and Turkey.

Putinism, Erdoganism and the Communist Party of China are rather intimidating models, but Singapore? It is true that Singapore has had the same government since independence some fifty years ago nor is there a likely change looming. It is true that there is corruption and that the country is controlled by a narrow group. It is true that there is basically one major newspaper and that it supports the government. It is true that every so often there are moves towards raw censorship - the case of the gay penguin being the most recent and obvious. It is true that there is an underclass and that migrant labour goes under the radar while doing all the heavy lifting. It is true that the economic model is essentially Thatcherite.

All this is true, but look around you. The place is booming. The jungle is mostly gone as has some of the sea which has been reclaimed for city use but the buildings soar and sparkle and while there are obviously poorer places such as Little India and probably many others we have not seen, places where migrant workers share small rooms and tiny wages, the general air is of stable, civil - almost amiable - prosperity. Who'd want to rock such a boat? The military is well equipped and on the alert. The ships keep docking. Money flies in through every possible orifice.

Twenty-five years ago little of this existed. It has been a breakneck sprint. Old buildings are razed and vast ones appear in their place. Blink and they've gone. The late-capitalist postmodern imagination plays itself out, positively frolics in architectural form, some of it quite beautiful. The views from the top are spectacular. Once, not so long ago, art was a luxury the country couldn't afford. Now the state provides better support for it than the UK does. The young are hungry for it. They are sophisticated, intelligent, acutely perceptive and catholic in their tastes. The slam scene is thriving. There are elegant publishers with new ideas.

Most accommodation is high-rise public housing of good quality. People take out leases on apartments but if you haven't a family or are under thirty-five the chances are you are living with your parents. There is control in everything but it's control with a pack of goodies under its arm. There is in fact plenty of goodwill welling up from below. As I say, it is amiable.

And how would this pan out in Hungary where the history, the geography, the culture and conditions are quite different? I have long suspected - with plenty of reason - that the true aim of the Orbán government is a Horthyite sub-fascist regime based on a long-term head of state (that means you, Mr Orbán) operating a relatively tolerant but controlled economic base alongside a deeply intolerant arch-conservative cultural and political order, the whole adding up to a country whose natural friends would be other authoritarian states. The only problem is that, going by all the evidence so far, the Hungarian version seems far cruder, far less amiable, far less civilised, far less tolerant of opposing ideas than the government here, who - while controlling - understand that a certain cultural liberalism is impossible without dissenting noises. The best you could say of Orbánism is that it might be satisfied with the Singapore formula provided it produced the Singapore results.

All this is guesswork on my part, of course. I have no right to interpret events in Singapore on the basis of a few conversations and a few walks, but, since the analogy was invited by Viktor Orbán himself, it seems unreasonable not to pursue it.


Meanwhile work. I have completed and sent off a commissioned set of poems, based on the work of the physicist Dennis Gabor, to Imperial College together with an introduction (more about this later) and have written most of the invited proposal for a book that might serve as an introduction to poetry. I have written three parts of a poem based on being here that might just be decent enough. I have been reading intermittently but copiously. I have also fallen asleep, or almost asleep at certain times. Our walks round the campus are making ever more sense of the map. My diabetic diet is under threat here as might the walking be because of the heat and humidity, not to mention the occasional monsoon downpour or cloudburst.

This morning I met with another young poet, Hao Guang, who is very interested in poetic form, We talked for an hour and half or so in Fusion Spoon. He is, like the others I have talked to, a very highly educated, highly articulate, energetic presence, a little isolated for his love of metre and set form, but far from a conservative. Form is innovation to him - not just received form - any form.

They are, as Pound said of certain novelists 'a darn clever bunch' - and more than clever, I think, going by the books. Clever, almost anxiously so sometimes, but more. More what? We shall see.

Monday 17 November 2014

Singapore Notebook: Sunday and Monday
Little India and Migrant Workers 2

Yesterday - Sunday - we had arranged to meet Alvin at Raffles Hotel. Well, I mean Raffles Hotel. You don't get out of Singapore without visiting Raffles. We wanted to see Raffles.

For the first time we go by public transport which takes a little over an hour. I should explain that the NTU campus is at least half an hour by taxi and a bus ride beyond the end of the MRT or tube line. The trouble is you can get a taxi back from town but a taxi into town is rare. You can't blame the cabbies. They have to drive half an unpaid hour out here and that must seem a trial. You could argue that having driven us from town to NTU they still have to drive back but at least the money is in their pockets by then. The fact remains that calling a cab here is like fishing by a river not known for its fish. You can wait a very long time.

But it's not necessary. Public transport is just fine and we have bought the equivalent of Oyster Cards that are good for a couple of weeks on both bus and tube. The bus takes us to Boon Lay, a shopping mall with an MRT station, maybe more, but that is all we see. The train is clean, efficient, air conditioned, and the travellers are well mannered. Seven out of ten are on mobile devices of one sort or another. The line takes us directly to the station we need and after a while we find our way to Raffles. We are prepared to be disappointed with Raffles because others back in England - not all by any means - have told us it is not what it was. The thing is we don't know what it was but could still be disappointed if we had undue expectations. But that could be said about most of life and there's not much point in constant disappointment so we don't have undue expectations.

We sit and wait for Alvin in the wrong place. We are also meeting Jill Jones the Australian poet on her way back to Stockholm. Alvin finds us and we all find Jill then proceed to high tea where we are joined by Annaliza.

High tea at Raffles is accompanied by a white orchid and a stern Filippino waitress. It is lovely and airy and somewhat Agatha Christie. The food is top class fingerfood: little Wildean sandwiches, cakelets, sconelets, dim sum, endless tea, and very expensive champagne (which we do not order). The colony lives on if nowhere else then here. It is almost a frisson but we know what year it is and, frankly, I have never felt a true frisson for empire. It is, however, elegant, and crystalline, and precise.  It is another treat. We talk employment and union laws as a kind of corrective. We compare notes on our respective countries. I am still working out - with a great deal of help from Alvin - just how things work here. It is simple in some ways and very complicated in others.

After high tea we walk a little round the area where Alvin's father used to live. It is close to another red light street but is now overhung with the vast modernity that is downtown Singpo. Beach Road where Raffles stands actually used to be the beach but now the sea is two km out. Reclaimed land. New high buildings. We work our way over to the National Library which is in fact beautiful and eco-friendly. It is here that Alvin, along with two others, is to judge the very first poetry competition for migrant workers.

The country relies on migrant workers. There is no minimum wage but apparently there is a sort of wage floor and some state aid for those living under floor level. The migrant workers do what migrant workers everywhere do - construction, sanitation, hotel work. They are ignored as non-persons, figures on scaffolding, figures flitting down hotel corridors, figure emerging from ditches. There is little safety or security for them. They are not all unskilled but many earn more from unskilled work here than from skilled work at home.

The migrant poets here are mostly Bangladeshi. The big room is filled with standing room only, a mixture of young and old, of this and that ethnic group. Elements of the press are here with cameras and recording devices. The editor of a Bangla newspaper does part of the introduction then we are briskly taken through the ten finalist poets. They take turns coming up to the lectern and reading in their own language while an English text version of their poem appears on the screen and, once they have read, a student from the drama school reads the poem in English. The construction workers - since that is what they mostly are - are confident in delivery, some dramatic, some songlike, some gesticulating, some very still. Some of them have published back home. Some are primarily political. There is a poem celebrating May Day that distances itself from both the political left and the right. Several speak stirringly about the workers and heavy duty labour. About missing home. About world peace. The best of them do more. They have idea, images,  a sense of place and of complex emotions. Some are particularly moving but all are moving. Here they are, for the very first time in public, recognised for the creative human personalities they are, not just lost figures in the distance.

Music follows. They make the music with drums, guitar, and a harmonium. Three of them sing. The middle one has Elvis sideburns and is clearly used to performing. Another gets up and dances. A third joins in. One of them has written the words for one of the songs. He is the first to dance.

Then the prizes are given and the press interviews take place. Annaliza sneaks us out and away to City Space, another bar in the sky, seventy floors up with magnificent views. No throbbing music here, but semi darkness, comfort and cocktails. I try a Pennicilin 2. There's whisky in it. That's the main thing. Alvin - whose brainchild the Migrant Poet competition was  - eventually returns and we all share a pizza. We talk more about Singapore. The country is pure Thatcherism but working on a different population and cultural base. It doesn't produce much and it doesn't tax much but it makes money. It has had the same government since Independence almost fifty-years ago. There is what Alvin calls, 'a pyramid of power' which is stable and includes the opposition. Is there corruption? You betcha. There is legal money laundering but the showy super-rich tend to be foreign. Are the people living in, say, Little India, an underclass? Not exactly. Annaliza and Alvin are both involved on the cultural politics level. Still much to learn.

Thunder and lightning outside but all silent in the penthouse bar except for the background music. Big cars down below. Alvin drives us all the way back in his more modest, quiet car. If there is anything Alvin doesn't know it is a mystery to me. But then Annaliza might know it.

Pics later.

Singapore Notebook: Sunday and Monday
Little India and Migrant Workers 1

I am getting used to being here.

No, that's not true. I am getting used to the climate. I am getting used to drifting storms that throw a fit then either die away or hang around for a couple of hours stomping about in the dark. I am getting used to the rough layout of the island. I am getting used to taxis. I am getting used to the campus (though I still walk the wrong way from the return shuttle bus stop) and I am certainly getting used to Fusion Spoon / Fork and am beginning to like it. I like the staff. I like that hollow, almost cavernous space with its mad chandeliers. I am certainly getting used to food in all its varieties - or maybe I am simply getting used to eating. One eats. One learns to eat. One learns to eat in moderation. One survives or one thrives. We shall find out which.

Today, for the first time, a day in, apart from a meeting in my office, to which I now catch the shuttle bus, with a student who gave me some poems to look at. The topmost poem in the sheaf was a sequence on food - beautifully constructed, sharp, funny, even a touch melancholy. 'This poem about food is not a poem about food' as the censor might say. Or not entirely. Food itself, like most things, is about something else. There were a couple of other good poems too, one about the custom of burning paper effigies on the anniversaries of family deaths, another about being a child in the war, possibly taken from a memory of the grandfather.

There is so much intelligence in this place it is a little humbling. I have a number of slim volumes now and they are all, if nothing else, intelligent. And, of course, they are more.

But back to record.

On Sunday we were met by a friend, the poet Toh Hsien Min who is also high up in banking now. Hsien Min was President of the Oxord University Poetry Society and had invited me some sixteen years ago. His poems are humane, often formal, elegant.  He asked where we would like to go and we said Little India.

In the heat of the day Little India looks and feels much like Big India. Arcades, street stalls, lots of jewelry, lots of gold, lots of sweat, some temples, some clothes, some food courts. (The reader may detect a food theme running through this and every other post, but let me tell you there are very few fat people here.) Narrow street on wide street. Old red light streets that are still red light streets but without the red light. Prositution and brothels are legal but soliciting is not. I don't see girls hanging around but perhaps they are and I just haven't noticed them because they don't look particularly like girls hanging around.

It is hot. A tiny cinema is playing a film titled FUTURE OF IMAGINATION NINE. A van selling MARINE EQUIPMENT is parked in front of it. I want to see the first eight in the series.

It begins to rain. It begins to pour down. We raise umbrellas and proceed until the rain stops and the sun takes up its proper place. We chase round shops looking to find sim cards that will work in our phones, but without success. We have bought sim cards but they don't work because, as someone suggests, the phones are locked. We can manage without.

We stay down town to meet a young couple, Ruben the (internationally successful) painter and Jennifer (poet, slam-champion, model, stand up comedy artist). They are both slim as saplings and look about sixteen. Ruben meets us at the MRT station and walks us down the riverside where we find somewhere to eat. Jenn arrives later, utterly changed. Her hair has been bleached, severely cut, straightened. It has been a long and painful process but she is about to go off to Monaco to model something. She looks a little shocked but new and beautiful. They are sophisticated, charming, urbane and half our age. Or less. We talk art, poetry, performance, language, football. They insist on paying for the meal which includes two different kind of pretty large crab and much else. Delicious crab. Later we see the live crab in bundles waiting to become food. We don't see this first. We walk a while past the museums and the area where the Writers Festival had taken place then I suddenly feel very tired. We grab a taxi back.

This post is going to be too long so I am splitting it into two. Pictures to come later.