Monday, December 22, 2008

Credit Crunch Cloud has Silver Lining

To a well-known supermarket (not T*sco, obviously)  with 'er indoors to purchase such Christmas baubles as we require for our frugal Winterval celebration. Amongst the seasonal tat, I discover a CD of Ella Fitzgerald for one of your English pounds, or Euros, as we now call them. A quid! I spent £2.95 on a very indifferent coffee at Piccadilly station last week. For a third of that, I get Ella with Satchmo, the Inkspots, Louis Jordan and others singing a great collection of classic tunes. I can't think of anything for a pound that would give me greater pleasure.

Friday, December 12, 2008

An announcement

Over the tannoy in a supermarket yesterday:
"Can a member of price integrity go to aisle 24, please? Customer waiting."
Price Integrity? Do you think there's a Price Integrity team? Do they have team meetings where they pledge to uphold price integrity against all threats? Do they finish with a group hug and a rousing chorus of "Simply the Best?"

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reading as a chore

A colleague (thanks Anthony!) drew my attention to this rant from Susan Hill. It's not the first time she has expressed her views on this topic, and doubtless won't be the last as long as GCSE and A level students see the reading of books as a chore to be got through as painlessly as possible and with the least possible effort. I don't think it's actually their fault: the system encourages it, and has been running like this so long now, that, as "Suze" points out, there are teachers with the same attitude. I have commented in similar fashion myself before now.
Ms Hill used to publish a lively blog until she suddenly pulled it recently. At the time, I thought it might be because she'd received criticism for a post which, without apparent irony, praised Sarah Palin to the skies. I wonder if actually she just became so fed up with being accessible to all and sundry that she just felt she should concentrate on her writing.
We have a generation of students now for whom failure is not possible. A "pass" rate of 97% at A level means, in essence, that you pass by turning up. Coursework can, it seems, be endlessly deferred, and multiple attempts can be made to improve it. I have had to explain very patiently to lots of students what a deadline is, and also counsel them when they relapse into shock at the notion that once work is marked, that's it.
The idea that students of Literature might actually enjoy reading is seen as a quaint one by many eighteen-year-olds. I notice a distinct difference in the attitude of older students, who accept with equanimity, and, indeed, enthusiasm, the instruction to read a book - a whole book!- for next week's class.
I don't think there's any way round this. We need to re-establish in schools the habit of reading, and reading entire texts rather than the bleeding chunks beloved of A level syllabuses. I've no confidence that this will actually happen of course.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Next stop

On the train to Stafford yesterday, the announcement for each stop went:
"We will shortly be arriving at Stoke. Stoke is the next stopping station on this service today"
How is this better than "The next stop is Stoke"?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Pennine Host

On the train to York yesterday, I was startled by an announcement: "The Pennine Host will shortly be passing through the train." I had a vision of some grizzled warriors dressed in sheepskins, rampaging through the ranks of commuters prior to a spot of ritual boat (or train) burning. Turns out it was a bloke wheeling a tea trolley.

Friday, October 31, 2008

My Motorway Reading


..and no, I don't mean I tool along with War and Peace propped open on the dashboard. What strikes me as I make my journey to work, largely on motorways these days, is how vans and trucks have become mobile advertising hoardings, with a sprinkling of mission statement thrown in.
Years ago, if you were in the business of moving stuff from one place to another, you would call yourself a haulier, and your lorry would say something like "Thos. Jenkins, Hauliers, Derby". There would be a phone number, and, if you were at the cutting edge of technology, a fax. (By the way, what is the point of putting phone numbers on the side of trucks? Do people say, as they speed past, "Oh look darling, there's an Eddie Stobart - just scribble down the phone number, will you?") Now, however, the vehicle has to make a statement. So, forget being a haulier- you are in distribution, or, better, logistics. You don't want anything as obvious as your own name as the identifier of your company. You need to have a name that is preferably meaningless, and you need to combine it with a statement about what you do. So now, you may go on the road as something like "Interlock Logistics - delivering quality to the nation". Recently, of course, no activity has been considered worthy unless it contains the "solutions" tag. So, as we have seen, supermarkets now sell "meal solutions" instead of meals, hardware stores sell "DIY solutions" instead of tools, and one insurance company I noted wanted to sell me "risk solutions". It's all documented fortnightly in Private Eye, though not in the online version, I notice. This raises the stakes, of course, as haulage now has to become "logistics solutions", and the mission statement becomes ever more complex as companies struggle to present themselves as distinctive. Thus, a firm that might have got by with "Perkins: Refrigerated Distribution" a few years ago now has to have "Ice-spire: Delivering Coldchain Logistics Solutions to the Frozen Food Industry Community" or some such abomination.
There are some compensations to this thin reading diet on the road, though. I forgave one catering company its incorrect use of the apostrophe in "Caterer's" for its notice on the back of the van "No cakes are left in the van overnight". My favourite, though, is the firm of electricians I often spot on the way to work. Their logo is unmistakeable - a silhouette of a head with an aquiline nose, with a deerstalker and pipe. The name of the company? "Mr Ohms".

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Muriel Spark, The Finishing School

This novel was sent to me by Penguin, so that I could add a review to their Blog a Holiday Read site, where, apparently, it will appear sometime. You, discerning reader, can read about it now though.

Many things are coming to an end at the faux-bohemian College Sunrise: not just the education of a motley bunch of multi-national teenagers, but also the marriage of the proprietors, Rowland and Nina, and Rowland’s grip on sanity. It also marks another ending too: Muriel Spark, at the age of 87, published this novel in 2004. It was her last work. It is a testament to her vitality that the novel is as witty, sly and mordantly funny as the books for which she is most famous, Memento Mori, and, of course, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The major conflict in the novel is between Rowland, whose youthful success as a playwright he cannot now replicate, and Chris, precocious and faintly sinister red-haired prodigy, whose half-written novel about Mary, Queen of Scots triggers a bout of uncontrollable jealousy in the older man.

All this detail and much more is deftly delineated in the opening pages of this slight but immensely enjoyable novel. Spark’s reputation for a kind of elegant nastiness, most obviously on show in novels such as The Abbess of Crewe and The Ballad of Peckham Rye, is certainly sustained here. The lives of the characters are sharply observed, with the telling detail often being used to skewer the pretensions of her cast of minor European royals, county-set girls, ambitious youths and phlegmatic locals. The running joke throughout is that Rowland, consumed utterly by his jealousy of Chris, has writer’s block, but is obliged to teach creative writing.

Those reviews that claim this is a satire on the publishing industry seem wide of the mark to me. True, a couple of publishers are exposed as shallow and grasping, but then, no-one emerges as wholly pleasant, as Spark anatomises the rivalries, ambitions and narcissism of her entirely believable characters.

This novel is not great literature, yet it is compelling, a genuine page-turner that can be read in a day with comfort. What keeps you turning the pages is the sheer pleasure of discovering what the next development will be in this fascinating tale of obsession and jealousy.

A Thousand Days in Tuscany by Marlena de Blasi

This is not the sort of book I would usually read, but since I was going to be in Tuscany for seven days, I thought it seemed an appropriate travelling companion. Evidently, it's a sequel to her A Thousand Days in Venice, and there are other volumes on Umbria and Sicily- so you can see a pattern, no? In the Venice volume, this American-Italian gourmet journalist of a certain age meets, falls in love with, and marries Fernando, a Venetian banker. The sequel chronicles their new life in a Tuscan village. It's a romanticised version of Tuscany, to be sure, and the heavy emphasis on the food of the region contributes to the production of a bucolic utopia only occasionally darkened by the intrusions of modern life.
Having made a leap into the dark by deciding to forge a new life in Tuscany, the couple immediately become the gastronomic heart and soul of the village, a fixture at the Bar Centrale, and enthusiastic preservers and revivers of old Tuscan customs. Their main ally in this project is a kind of village elder called Barlazzo whose knowledge is apparently infinite- he becomes their guide.
It's an entertaining journey, following the rustic rituals of the calendar, interspersed with recipes that, to this vegetarian seem somewhat long on preparation and short on consumption. My favourite was a leg of pork marinaded in three bottles of wine and cooked over seven days in a specially built outdoor oven. Life's too short.
The author, clearly a somewhat head-in-clouds romantic, veers off from her account of the ways of the Tuscan peasant occasionally to indulge in the kind of soul searching often to be found in those "follow your dream" life coaching manuals beloved of Americans. These passages are rather cloying, but they are compensated for by the pervasive presence of Barlazzo, for me the hero of this book. It is his dark secret that provides a teasing thread through the narrative.
Barlazzo's status as the village chieftain (de Blasi calls him 'the duke') is undisputed, and he is at the heart of every culinary activity. He also provides the historical and cultural context in not entirely credible style when, for no apparent reason, he decides to recount the history of Tuscany in guide book fashion. These sections are clunky, and although the context is useful, I don't see why de Blasi couldn't have told us in her own voice.
The book is published here by Virago, once fiercely feminist but now just another imprint of the giant Hachette empire. The text is, as is the way of things these days, resolutely American, so the usual linguistic differences occur- rigor, clamor, practicing, fall and so on. Less acceptable, it seems to me, is the use of 'sharecroppers' for the Tuscan tenant farmers, and 'unphased' for 'unfazed'.

It's an enjoyable read, especially if, like I did, you read it whilst gazing out over a beautiful Tuscan valley as pictured above. It's educational too, as even herbivores are provided with some useful recipes. And now I can pronounce 'bruschetta' correctly.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Gruaniad in shock horror

The Guardian has a feature where readers say how wonderful the paper is. It's usually either someone who has read the paper man and boy for fifty years, or some youngster who says how he picked up a copy in an idle moment, and abandoned the Daily Telegraph, or the Neasden Gazette, or whatever, on the spot. It's not particularly edifying, and a bit pointless, since, because it's printed in the Guardian, it's unlikely to convince non-readers to switch. The second group is presumably the demographic that the Guardian is trying to attract with its Saturday Guide, in which events are listed, and associated articles are printed. One section is on Clubs, and I don't mean the Athenaeum or Whites- I mean ones where rare groove trance grunge garage house- or whatever it is - is played. Given the average Guardian reader is distinctly middle-aged, I wonder who they think reads these pages. I do use the listings bits, but this week my attention was drawn to the opening page, which attempts to dissect a current TV commercial.This week's was about an advert for Northampton University, but also contains a gratuitous attack on my place of work, Edge Hill University.
It's the worst kind of lazy journalism. The author, one James Donaghy, has decided, on no evidence at all, that Edge Hill's degrees are worthless, and that anyone who goes there is an idiot. I think he's trying to be funny, but it's hard to say, so puerile is his prose. A sample: "Too thick to get into a real uni? Come to Edge Hill University where we will ruin your life with a meaningless qualification, rubbish social scene and low quality sex and drugs". (But see update at the end of this post) Now, I suppose one could say, well, this guy is obviously a complete tosser so why bother even acknowledging him? If he'd published this in some grotty little internet forum, I would- but he's published it in the paper I read every day, a serious national newspaper, whose readers will include many potential Edge Hill students and their parents. It's easy enough to refute his pathetic drivel- any serious examination of the progress at Edge Hill over recent years will confirm this- we were shortlisted for the Times Higher's University of the Year award last year, and there's endless material available to show that we have an excellent reputation in our field. But Donaghy isn't interested in facts. And that's really my point. Famously, CP Scott, the guiding light of the Guardian, said that "comment is free" as the Guardian blog pages confirm on a daily basis- but the second part of his statement was "...but facts are sacred" . Donaghy's vile little piece sets out consciously to ignore the facts, in the name of humour- but I'm afraid it fails there, because it just isn't funny.
Donaghy appears to be a freelance, who runs a website. It's not an edifying read. Those of a nervous disposition should look away now as I give you a sample of his marvellous wit:
Imagine it. It is December 2001. You are Spencer McCallum, Keeley Hawes's newly acquired husband. You couldn't be happier....Update: in the original post, I quoted a lot more of this, but I think it's sullied my blog enough now. Go to the website for the full experience, but take a shower afterwards.
Brilliant, eh? There's loads more like this. Why let this man loose in the pages of the Guardian? Well, presumably because the Graun wants to attract the kind of readers who like this sort of thing - the same reason they are increasingly covering the vacuous lives of alleged celebs, and dumbing down all over the place. And to do this, they are employing people such as Donaghy. Well, I'm afraid the schoolboy pottymouth "humour" has made me consider whether I need to part with my cash every day for this stuff- and since I can get the diminishing amount of readable material on the net anyway, I've decided I've had enough. So if the Guardian want a column on why a former reader has stopped reading, I'll be happy to provide it. This stuff is not big, not clever, and not funny. The Guardian is owned by the Scott Trust. They have betrayed the principles of that great editor, and lost me as a reader.
Update: the reference to Edge Hill has now been removed...

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Bog people, Rosencrantz and a fake grave

To Aarhus for the 9th international ESSE conference.'Er indoors accompanied me to this lovely city in Denmark, and we had a great time, both academically and socially. Aarhus has a very pleasant feel to it, and we certainly intend to be back in the future. You can get a flavour of what we saw from the flickr stream on the right.
Highlights included Den Gamle By, or the Old Town, where you can wander about the 17th century buildings; the buzz of the cafes and bars on Aboulevarden; and the Museum at Moesgård where the Grauballe Man is exhibited. This was a really impressive place, and the story of Grauballe Man, and other peat bog sacifices is told very clearly. The exhibit is displayed brilliantly, and I was reminded of how disappointed I was with Manchester Museum's recent Lindow Man exhibition, which focuses, for reasons that escape me, on the lives and times of the people who found it in the sixties. Seamus Heaney's poem about Grauballe Man conveys some of the impact of the sight of this man, apparently sacrificed to the gods of the bog two thousand years ago.
We also went on an organised trip to Rosenholm, castle residence of the Rosencrantz family. There's no real Hamlet conection, though the guide told us that a member of the family and his friend Guildenstern were reportedly in London in the 1590s. The family was very aristocratic, and that's reflected in the grandeur of the castle. It was occupied by the family until relatively recently, and is now run by a trust. As part of the trip we were taken to an unremarkable mound where a stone with a poem about Hamlet is located. It's not Hamlet's grave, but is roughly where it might have been, according to the 1930s councillors who wanted to drum up a little tourist custom.
Did I learn any Danish? No- everybody, but everybody, speaks excellent English. I did note the connection between the By (pronounced Bu) of Den Gamle By and the Orkney word Bu, meaning place of dwelling. On the academic front, there was much of interest, but I'll save that for another post.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Penelope Fitzgerald

Good news that Penelope Fitzgerald now has a permanent space on the web, and a little shameful that the originators are American- why couldn't we manage it in Britain? Well, I suppose the web knows no boundaries, and it is an excellent site- congratulations to those who put it together. It's curious, as Dovegreyreader says, how PF has never had the kind of reputation that her work deserves. I hope this will be the start of an upswing in her fortunes. It would help if the US press would review her letters!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Powers of 10

This film was made by the Eameses thirty-one years ago. I thought they made chairs...
Fascinating, and remarkable to think that it's three decades since it was made. Not sure about the cheesy organ though, even if it is by Elmer Bernstein.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Little Monsters

I suppose the way I encountered Charles Lambert's excellent debut novel Little Monsters is emblematic of how the interweb works these days. I hadn't read a review, despite my voracious appetite for the book pages of the proper papers, but came across Charles's engaging blog, which in turn led to some correspondence. The upshot is, I have had the privilege of reading a brilliant novel, and now Charles has very kindly agreed to a kind of long distance Q and A session, which I will be including in the new e-journal I am co-editing at Edge Hill. As we speak, Charles is eating pork pies in Wolverhampton, apparently, but when he returns to his lovely home in Italy, I hope to do the email interview. With luck, that will be available in September via Edge Hill's web site.
The novel is a study of damaged people, but also touches on the possibilities of human renewal in the face of what used to be called man's inhumanity to man. The opening sentence has already lodged itself in my consciousness as one of the most startling and arresting I've read: "When I was thirteen my father killed my mother." I still think Burgess's opening line in Earthly Powers is my favourite, but this is now a high new entry on the chart.
The central character and narrator, Carol, deals with the traumatic events of her childhood, and her exile to the loveless home of her aunt, by reinventing herself. The narrative switches from the memories of an adolescence growing up in the pub owned by her aunt and her Polish refugee husband in the sixties, to the contemporary setting of the camp for asylum seekers in Italy where the present day Carol works. Lambert's prose is delicate and nuanced, and one of the delights of the novel is seeing how each narrative strand informs the other, through the repetition and variation of images and references. I was particularly struck by the use of what pompous academics would call tropes of flight, used by the author to link the strands and the characters. It is a beautifully realised novel, and one which manages to deal with very big issues on a human scale. I loved it.
Charles writes about it here, and there are reviews by John Self here and Scott Pack here. Oh, and now I know what Pokemon means, so it's educational too...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Leonard Cohen: First he took Manchester

I expect that, by now, septuagenarian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen will have his feet up, having completed a remarkable series of gigs in Europe, largely, it seems, to supplement his pension after being ripped off by his accountant. It was quite a coup for the Manchester International Festival to book him for a series of concerts in the intimate surroundings of the City's Opera House, especially since the festival is due to begin, er, next year. One in the eye for the Scouse capital of kulchur, methinks.
I was there for one of these concerts, with 'er indoors, who has always been a big Laughing Len fan, courtesy of The Guardian. They advertised a free prize draw, and, extraordinarily, I won- so, two prime £75 tickets on row D were mine.
We went with a friend, Rachel, who was going for the second time. She is a stalwart of the Len discussion forums, and we met up with some of her correspondents at the Deansgate pub beforehand where I learned that tickets were going for £400 on ebay. What a lovely bunch the Cohenites are - a man in a pinstripe suit bought me a drink before scurrying off to the venue, and afterwards, we had a great chat with some fans before they got their bus home.
The concert itself was fabulous, and I won't go into the detail here - you can read very good accounts at the Leonard Cohen files and at the Guardian. I was hugely impressed at the professionalism and intensity of the presentation. Despite the rather snide reference in the Guardian review, I thought Dino Soldo's energy and humour added a great deal to the band sound. The youngest people on stage were the sublime (Len's word) Webb Sisters, who judged their contribution perfectly. They were really impressive, especially when they took over the very moving song If It Be Your Will. A really brilliant multi-instrumentalist band, and some very sensitive singing made this as good a show as it gets- one of the most memorable nights I've experienced in my concert-going career.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Playing tunefully away on the right is music by Pantagruel, whose album is available from the estimable Magnatune. They are appearing on simpering Sean Rafferty's In Tune tonight on Radio 3. I'd love to see them perform.
Update: I've taken the link down, because I got fed up with the same tune starting up every time I visited the blog. But it's still available on Magnatune.

Wigfall windfall

I haven't read Clare Wigfall's short stories, but with a bio like this, she just had to become a writer, didn't she?:
"Wigfall was born in London, but spent the first years of her childhood under the liberal sway of late 1970s California. She returned to England for most of her schooling, but her vital early impressions of travel are reflected in the places she has considered home and put pen to paper - from Morocco to Norwich to Prague. She now lives in Berlin."

Monday, July 14, 2008

It's Woody's birthday

Woody Guthrie was born today, and I suppose it's kind of appropriate that he shares his birthday with Bastille day.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pig in Boots

As a vegetarian, I can enjoy this with unalloyed pleasure. If you are a carnivore - how can you eat this?

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Meaning of Recognition

If you go, and you should, regularly, to the Clive James website, you'll now find, in the links on the Cultural Amnesia page, a link to my review. I'm chuffed at that, and so I bring you, by commodious vicus of recirculation back to Topsyturvydom.

Singing in the Baths

To Victoria Baths, star of BBC's Restoration  programme, and also star, I now know, of Life on Mars, for which it provided some atmospheric locations. Our object was to see and hear the Clerks, best known for their performances of medieval and renaissance polyphony - so why are we at the baths? Because, dear reader, in an innovative and imaginative step, the Clerks are performing a new programme in some unusual places, and the acoustic of the empty pool is ideal. The ambience is ideal too, and more of that anon.
First, we had a tour of the building, which is essentially still derelict, even some years after the votes of viewers made it the winner in Restoration. We were told about the various difficulties that the council, who own the building had had with the people they contracted to work on the building, and the various plans that had been proposed and rejected. It seems though, that there is little chance that the baths, with its three pools (First Class Men's, Second Class Men's...and Ladies) will be restored to the condition it was at its opening in 1903, but the aim is to have at least one of the pools operating again. We saw all the pools, heard tales of famous swimmers, and of the local people for whom the baths was an important resource in the days before washing machines; we inspected the tanks and the chimney, and nodded sagely as we were told about the filtering process; but mostly we admired the scale and grandeur of the place, redolent of the civic optimism of the time.
The Clerks were arrayed in the main pool, and we watched from the dusty seats in the gallery above. The programme is an unusual one. It's called In Memoria, and, whilst part of it is familiar territory for them, one piece is a new commission, and the whole is performed as a single piece, interwoven with a recorded collage of sounds and voices, mainly children's, speaking about the topic of death. That might sound unbearably pretentious, but it worked brilliantly. The programme features ancient chant from the Mass of the Dead, motets by Josquin Desprez, Guillaume Dufay and Jean Ockeghem and a new work by composer and sound artist Antony Pitts. Visually, the sight of the six black-clad Clerks gathered in the pool was arresting, and as they sung, their voices rose up through the building to the glass roof, where the evening sun shone through the cracked and broken panes. It seemed somehow appropriate to be listening to these laments in this noble but fractured building, in the dust and the peeling paintwork.
The Clerks are to be commended for going way beyond the normal confines of early music, to produce an intense and vibrant experience.

Friday, May 16, 2008

On this day...

Encyclopedia Britannica has made all of its content available to bloggers and other "web publishers". Which is nice. It means I can link to their "On the Day" feature, which today is about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There was a certain resonance in this, as nestling in my inbox today was the latest "Stop the Boycott" bulletin. When academic freedom is attacked in the way that some members of the UCU propose, it is salutary to heed the warnings of history.
So, rather predictably, UCU have decided to keep the boycott as a live possibility, without even having a debate. How marvellously democratic.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Make this man the DG!

How many millions of words, what seas of verbiage, what torrents of tosh have been expended on the problem of public service broadcasting? And to what end? Into the debate steps Stephen Fry, and in a speech of forty minutes absolutely nails the problem. He was invited to make a contribution to the current inquiry into public service broadcasting. And this is some contribution. I defy you not to be impressed with this serious, but witty and incisive analysis. No fancy graphics, no sound or video clips, just that highly intelligent talking head. Go on - get a cup of coffee, and watch- and if you want a further incentive, you get to see Kirsty Wark telling people where the fire exits are.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


This is a fabulous little film. And most of us will recognise most of these techniques...

Thanks to Mister Roy for the tip.

Morphing Cats

Over at the Muddy Island, Juliet found a fascinating video showing 500 years of women in Western Art. I flippantly suggested that there should be a cat version, and, this being the internet, there is one of course- thanks for finding it Juliet - brilliant.
Oh, and please sponsor Juliet on her race for life - details on her blog.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The best bookshop in the world?

Well, possibly. I certainly would like to compare it to some of my favourites.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Save the canon!

Sean O'Brien is one of my favourite poets. His work has always shown its rootedness in tradition, even when questioning that tradition - see Cousin Coat, for instance. Here, in an excellent article, he makes a case for the restoration of the canon in education, before something very precious is lost. He's right.

Saturday, March 01, 2008


Harriet's comment on my last post prompted me to go back to my Ella collection. She really is the consummate jazz singer, and I agree with Harriet that her Rodgers and Hart interpretations are sublime, though my all time favourite Ella album is The Cole Porter Songbook. There was an interesting programme on Ella in the BBC Jazz library series- to which you can subscribe for podcasts, or just listen again- which I would recommend to anyone who doesn't know much about her. (Though it does raise the question where have you been?) Not many of the current crop come close, though I would recommend Stacey Kent, who has intriguingly employed Kazuo Ishiguro as a lyricist on her recent album.

His songs are quirky, and suit Stacey's delivery well. I've played this a lot.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The seal

Nearly letting February go by without a post - good job it's a leap year and I can just sneak under the wire.
Now that my profile doesn't show a seal picture, the tagline, "the faint aroma of performing seals" is a bit redundant, I suppose. But I'll leave it, as a reminder of one of my favourite songs, the Rodgers and Hart classic "I Wish I Were in Love Again" which contains the brilliant lines:
When love congeals
it soon reveals
the faint aroma of performing seals
the double-crossing of a pair of heels.
I wish I were in love again...
Not many of my tiny group of readers have noticed the reference, but Naomi Hyamson, mezzo-chanteuse and, improbably, Times journalist, did. The song's in her repertoire, along with lots of Weimar-era Brecht / Weill. Originally from the show "Babes in Arms", though not featured in the Mickey Rooney/ Judy Garland film version, the song is usally treated as a lively comic number, though I bet Naomi doesn't sing it like that. Certainly, Joni Mitchell's version, on her "Both Sides Now" album, exudes a desperate yearning. So- now you know.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Monkeys, Tigers and Temples

When not engaged in things Burgessian in Malaysia, we had the chance to wander around Kuala Lumpur. I think the term "City of Contrasts" might have been minted for it. The high tech, ultra-modern cityscape, symbolised by the Petronas Towers, lives cheek-by-jowl with the remnants of the colonial past, and reminders of the cultural diversity of the place. There are also lots of monkeys:

This was one of the few that stayed still long enough for me to photograph. This was on a Sunday stroll through the park, during which we regularly encountered dozens of these chaps.
Elsewhere in the city, it's not unusual to encounter, in a suburban street, an extraordinary temple like this:

In the Chinese quarter, where apparently lots of traders don't really like photographs, because of the, ahem, provenance of the goods on offer, we came across temples to Mammon

and to more dignified deities:

Another highlight was the night market at Bangsar, where the senses are assailed by a mass of competing aromas. Not sure I'd go for this guy's produce though:

More Malaysian images to come.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mr Wilson's Old Boys probably a good title for an article I shall write about my experience addressing the old boys of Malay College on the subject of their old teacher John Anthony Burgess Wilson. I hadn't anticipated the scale of the event, though I had a suspicion when we arrived early and saw the banners.Here's one:
Sharon has other photos in her account.
Although I was billed as the main event, the real stars of the show were the old boys who offered some great reminiscences of their encounters with Burgess. It seems that Time for A Tiger, which we all knew was autobiographical, was even more closely based on the actual experiences of Burgess and some of the boys. I particularly liked one anecdote. One boy, who had known Burgess earlier in his school life, discovered when he was head boy that Mr Wilson had published a novel, and that it was set in a school obviously based on MCKK. He asked the head if the school might buy a copy for the library. "Over my dead body!" was the terse reply from Mr Howell, who had been instrumental in ridding the school of Burgess's presence.
I was privileged to be able to speak to a good many folk at this event, including the Malaysian laureate Datuk A. Samad Said and Dr Zawiah Yahya, whose book Resisting Colonialist Discourse has a section on Burgess.
It was clear that interest in Burgess goes beyond the MCOBA. I hope to write more, both here and in more formal style, on Burgess's time in Malaysia. Meanwhile, I should thank once again the MCOBA committee and members for making me and Elaine so welcome. I came away with lots of gifts, including one of those banners. I hope I can manage to visit again in the not-so-distant future, to build on these new acquaintanceships.

Monday, January 14, 2008


I've been east before, of course. Why, only last year, I holidayed in Aldeburgh. But this is a bit different. I'm in Malaysia as the guest of uberblogger and Kuala Lumpur literary scene maven, Sharon Bakar. My mission is to give a couple of talks about Anthony Burgess, first to the old boys of Malay College, where he worked in the 50s, and then to a seminar at the university here.
It's fascinating to be here, and to see this vibrant country at first hand. What's more, we have expert guidance from Sharon and her husband Abu, himself an old boy of the college. We went up to Kuala Kangsar to visit the college, and to see the area generally. Sharon shamed me by being able to quote verbatim from Time For A Tiger. Her blog shows her reading from the novel at a very appropriate location. We also ate an "egg steak" at KK. This is, basically, fried eggs in a kind of HP sauce with chips- apparently the staple diet of Aussie and Brit troops who couldn't afford meat. Delicious- and veggie too!
The talk for the old boys has aroused lots of interest, so I'm hoping they will be gentle with me. Certainly, the committee members who invited us to a delicious tea at the Petaling Jaya Hilton yesterday could not have been more gracious and welcoming.
Last night we also had the great pleasure of meeting Tan Twan Eng, Booker longlisted author,with whom we spent a very pleasant few hours chatting about all kinds of things.
Full report to follow. Scores so far: mosquito bites- 6; Tiger beers consumed- 1; egg steaks demolished-1; monkeys encountered- 487; fainting fits- 1.