Saturday, December 29, 2012

City of Books

One of my favourite book haunts is Bras Basah Complex, on Victoria Street, near the National Library building in Singapore. Full of second-hand bookstores, I still go there whenever I'm back home. One of its Chinese names, in fact, is 书城(City of Books). I've spent many an afternoon there, inhaling the uniquely fusty scent that only old books have, searching and finding all manner of treasures. That last thing I bought there was a copy of the Cambridge edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, in almost perfect condition. For $5 (£2.50)! The most visible shop, Evernew Bookstore, still has a ludicrous three books for $5 (£2.50) offer. That whole stretch, of course, from Raffles City to Bugis, is one very close to home, and has a special place in my heart: I recall many days spent in the National Library, researching for my IB extended essay and then retiring for the day to the Hans downstairs for a cup of coffee with friends and teachers. 

What I didn't know was that the Complex merely brought together bookstores that had been operating on Bras Basah Road long before. Bras Basah Road was, in the postwar days, a hive of intellectual activity. (It is still a road with many historic landmarks today.) It played a crucial role in those heady days of anti-colonial fervour. Tan Kok Chiang, one of the first graduates of Nanyang University, recalls that bookstores such as Shanghai Book Store and Youth Book Store (still in Bras Basah today) were hangouts of the Chinese-educated student activists of those days. Tan claimed that while the English-educated students would go to Bras Basah to buy textbooks, more progressive (and radical) literature could be found there as well. That bit of history helps the present-day visitor to Bras Basah understand a strange sight: bookshops selling Mao's Red Book also sell used A-level textbooks. It wasn't just the Chinese-educated though. S Rajaratnam, one of the Singapore's Old Guard politicians and our first Foreign minister, used to haunt the Bras Basah bookstores as well. (I'm still hoping to find a book owned by someone famous.)

There is whole intellectual history to be written here: how postwar intellectuals in Singapore came by their knowledge, where they bought books, where they discussed their ideas and how they spread them. The mere physical process of buying and reading books demands a history that does justice to it,  not to mention the ideas themselves. I can't help but think that those were magnificent days, despite the threat of detention, the poverty and poor living conditions. To be young then, they all say, was very heaven. Today, sniffing cautiously about one of these bookstores, one can perhaps still get a whiff of 50s radicalism.

(The etymology of it all seems quite confused. Bras Basah is a misspelling of 'Beras Basah', meaning 'wet rice' in Malay. Apparently, before the land was filled in in that area, there was a lagoon that allowed boats carrying rice to come in. Wet rice would then need to be dried. Not sure if I buy this: as always, folk etymology needs a bit more research to back it up.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


It is a technical matter, a small thing that I've never quite bothered to explain. Yet it is distinctive. It is instantly recognisable. My name is composed of four parts and does not conform to the Anglo-Saxon /Western model of First Name-Middle Name(s)-Surname. It is a historical phenomenon, the result of migrant Chinese adopting English names -- and limited to this part of the world. Take the name (I don't want to use mine here) of the President of Singapore: Tony Tan Keng Yam. The first two parts, 'Tony Tan', function the same way as a Western name would: David Cameron, James Joyce, John Doe, etc. But the surname, 'Tan', bridges the first part of the name with the Chinese second part. In Chinese names, say 'Hu Jintao', the surname comes first and the given name of one or two characters follows. Mr. Tony Tan's Chinese name is hence 'Tan Keng Yam' (陈庆炎). Some of us then, are given two set of names. And so in our four-part full names we manage to cunningly bridge East and West, like our island-city-nation-state has tried to do for a long time now.

But it's a completely different matters for Malays, of course, who often (but not always) don't use a family name. It's simply a personal name followed by a patronym, like the Icelandic. Take the name of the first President of Singapore, Yusof bin Ishak. He had no surname: 'bin Ishak' means 'son of Ishak'. For a woman, it'd be 'binti/binte' (often seen as 'bte'), meaning 'daughter of'.

Hence, academic citation conventions are potentially very insensitive to us non-Westerners. One ignorant of these rules would be tempted to cite Tony Tan and Yusof bin Ishak as:

Yam, Tony Tan Keng.
bin Ishak, Yusof.

And this is why, my friends, I sometimes place my two Chinese names in the middle, making my initials DWJL rather than DLWJ.


Addendum: a good point, raised by a reader. If one is faced with a three-part Chinese name, like our Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and one (for some imperialistic misguided reason) wishes to render this Given Name-Surname, then the correct procedure would be to take the last two as one part. Note that although it might seem that way, 'Loong' is not a middle name -- 'Hsien Loong' is a single given name. Hence 'Hsien Loong Lee' would be better than any other way of doing this. Of course, no one would ever dare try that on Mr. Lee. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Perpetual Inventiveness

Saul Bellow has been the wondrous discovery of the year. (I confess I got to him by stalking Martin Amis.)  I've just finished reading Herzog -- my second Bellow after The Adventures of Augie March. In Herzog, more than in Augie March, one feels the weight of history bearing upon the shoulders of Moses Herzog, the protagonist, a divorced academic dealing with his dissolution. We're all positioned at the intersection of past and future, but in Herzog, we feel this keenly: he wrestles with familial, personal history -- his father as role model; he wrestles with the European intellectual tradition; the American experiment; and the Jewish story. Caught in the confluence of all these forces, Herzog struggles to make sure these lines coincide to form a regular polygon of a man. At the same time, like us all, Herzog is trying to fashion something new. In this struggle, history can often become nightmare. Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel laureate, contended that Mexicans are obsessed with Form, with limiting expression in traditional ways. Paz writes that 'Order ... brings security and stability, and a person has only to adjust to the models and principles that regulate life; he can express himself without resorting to the perpetual inventiveness demanded by a free society.' Whether we see these forms as established, reassuring models of excellence, giving direction to the young or as tyrannical molds of social reproduction will depend on context, politics and change. 

It has struck me, however, that my particular situation is of newness and possibility. In the political systems of the medieval and early modern West, there was a well-established culture of complaint about 'new men': lubricious social climbers seeking to upset the order, chipping at the sturdy edifices of hierarchy and custom. In reality, of course, nobility was often a house of cards, rebuilt every generation. In the words of the historian K. B. McFarlane, writing about the late medieval English aristocracy, the 'turnover was always rapid, the eminence short-lived, the survivors invariably few'. But, in this new world, I am a new man, like (I hope) nearly every other Singaporean.  I am the first person in my extended family to go to university; I am a citizen of a very young nation, now allegedly functioning in a new paradigm of politics. In this state, there are very few old forms, and most of them are obsolete. The burdens on me are lighter than on most -- but this can also be seen as an unbearable lightness. Should one embrace 'perpetual inventiveness'? The tension seems to be between relief at the lack of historical baggage to shoulder and an uneasy seasick sense of being adrift. One way out is to undertake the recovery of history in personal, familial and national terms: a task that is at once historical and creative. It is what I am trying to do in writing, thinking and interrogating -- though I am still unsure where it's all heading. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Nothing underscores historical distance as much as encountering commonplaces in the past. To recover the what-was-once-banal requires historical excavation to make them comprehensible. The significance of the symbolism of the classical gods, for example, is slowly fading. The humanists and artists of the Renaissance, in engaging with the classical and antique worlds, found far too much to fuel their interpretative overdrive, their exegetic frenzy. The classical myths -- read through Plato, the Neoplatonic authors, the medieval commentators, the Christian allegorising traditions and many such other lenses, possibly edifying but more likely confounding -- generated layers upon layers of meaning, as Renaissance authors competed to come up with ever more fantastic interpretations. No doubt such cloudy mysticism provoked David Hume to comment, magisterially and dismissively, that 'Learning, on its revival ... was attired in the same unnatural garb which it wore at the time of its decay among the Greeks and the Romans'. Hume lamented the 'forced conceits' and 'adulterated relish' of the Italian humanists. But I admit more sympathy than Hume. 

It would be too tedious to rehearse here the precise (or more often, staggeringly imprecise) fancies of Renaissance authors. One small game was much in vogue: the penchant for playing the gods against each other, placing them in different and novel combinations and, to crown this invention, finding a persuasive and shrewd reading of the image. The Hermathena, a combination of Hermes and Athena, had classical precedent, however. Cicero's letters to Atticus mention a bust of the Hermathena for his Tusculan villa, though, frustratingly, he declines to say much about its symbolism. 'The Hermathena you sent I am delighted with: it has been placed with such charming effect that the whole gymnasium seems arranged specially for it,' (I.1.5) says our consul in one of his Martha Stewart moments. But Cicero later hints at a programme of meaning: 'It is an ornament appropriate to my Academy for two reasons: Hermes is a sign common to all gymnasia, Athena specially of this particular one.' (I.4.3). In the hands of the Renaissance humanists, however, the Hermathena was foisted with meaning Cicero refused to supply. Take the explication given by Achille Bocchi, a Bolognese humanist, in his book of emblems, the Symbolicarum quaestionum de universo genere (1555):

Bridging Hermes and Athena, arms interlocked, Eros bridles the beast below his feet. The emblem, with the accompanying slogans, urges us to pair the steadfast wisdom of Athena (modestia sapientiam) with the swift eloquence of Hermes (progressio eloquentiam). With these, we can reach happiness (perficit felicitatem), and if we look at the image itself, are monsters tamed (sic monstra domantur). Edgar Wind points out that there is a suggestion of the union of contrarieties in the opposition of steadfastness and swiftness. Whether this was grounded in the Neoplatonic belief that contraries are ultimately resolved in the One or simply a beguiling and glib use of paradox is, as with the ever-looming question of the problematic link between art and philosophy, unresolved.

Hermathena, Minerva-Mercury -- this pairing appears much in iconography and painting. Rubens' The Apotheosis of the Duke of Buckingham (before 1625) is one example, noteworthy perhaps because its subject is the infamous George Villiers. But the same couple recur in the Banqueting House in Whitehall, in the Peaceful Reign of James I (1632-4). Here the mysteries have been themselves tamed, being little more than the humdrum background noise to power. Such blandness is enough to send one back to the arms of inscrutable Venus in Botticelli's Primavera.

Monday, December 3, 2012

First Memory

It is bathed in a whisky glow: fuzzy, warm and yet clarifying. It is my first memory of anything at all. The scene is illuminated by an otherworldly light, a confounding, angelic brightness. I am two, maybe three. Liberated from some play class, I recall a leaping sensation of delight as I catch sight of my parents. (Usually, it'd be my nanny picking me up, you see: both my parents worked, and still do, in fact.) The day had a definite sense of occasion: an excursion was planned, and I was to be surprised. As I bubble along, babbling excitedly, going in for a hug, my mum brings out, in a deft circular motion, my favourite water bottle. It is purple and yellow and has a screw-on container at the bottom. My delight escalates, my surging about-to-hug motion is slowed, as my mum unscrews the bottom to reveal a pile of peanut butter sandwich biscuits. I still know which ones they are: Khong Guan peanut cream crackers -- peanut butter cream filling sandwiched between two Ritz-like salty cracker rounds. We set off, arm-in-arm, down a path sieged with teeming green. Then nothing else, as I am enveloped in a incandescent haze. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Marks of Use

We should admit that, as a civilisation, we have not yet outgrown the what should be by now banal charm of consumption. The Black Friday sales, for example, are merely a somewhat more concerted, visible and exhausting climax to what is already an interminable series of perpetual climaxes in the cycle of sales and discounts. I await the no doubt impending decision by shops to come clean and declare that the Christmas season starts not now, but in mid-May, or indeed, whenever they so wish. (I, for one, would be glad to get mince pies all year round.) Are we to be surprised by the contradictions in our collective, addled psyche, caused by relentless purchase and acquisition? Why do we feel a twinge of environmental guilt -- left in our minds like driftwood from the great sea of unexamined received wisdom -- when we use a plastic bag? And yet why do we then go home, plastic bag in hand no less, and cheerfully, sinlessly order a new coat we did not need 'for the season'? 

Many evils stem from this. But perhaps the most lamentable one of them is the literally throwaway attitude we take towards objects. One can be silly and romantic about this. There is nonetheless a serious point to be made. In a time of fewer — and better — objects, one would form closer attachments to objects. A belt, a watch, a pair of shoes: these could all be trusty sidekicks, over time turning into curmudgeonly old familiars. (No doubt the appeal of antiques and vintage clothing in part comes from this sense of loss.) In particular, I've been led to reflect on books as physical items.  My work this term on the Italian Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and his reception in England has brought me to many college libraries in Oxford and Cambridge. I've looked at many, many fifteenth- and sixteenth- century copies of Pico's work, trying to figure out how readers read these works from annotations, marginalia and other such clues. What's recorded in these physical remains is evidence, demanding to be interpreted, of the simplest of acts we often take for granted: that of the interaction between a book — both as text and physical object — and the reader.

Books then were much bigger and rarer. Reading was a much more obviously physical exercise: Renaissance readers were known to use a book-wheel. (Though how common they were is in some dispute) This device, to quote Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine in their seminal article '"Studied for Action': How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy':

... enabled its user to lay out on flat surfaces as many books as he might choose, to move them as he needed them without losing his places, and to stop at any selected text — thanks to the cog-wheels
One would have
60 or 70 portions out of large volumes, open, not counting the tiny ones. You sit and with your hand you bring portions of these large volumes before you three at a time. To put it in a nutshell, you can make a whole study revolve, and so easily that it is a delightful exercise. (Grafton and Jardine, p. 46)
All of this has led me to reconsider the relationship I have with my books. I am now more conscious of reading as a physical act: that in reading, I am not merely dealing with Platonised thoughts in some superlunary realm. One feels the quality and texture of paper, one appreciates typefaces, one is affected by light and shade. I've now taken to doing something I once refused to do, and that is to mark books -- annotating, underlining and writing on the margins. To regard the book as sacrosanct is superstition. One keeps a book in good condition in order to preserve it for future readings or for passing it on or down. But ultimately, books are our objects, meant to make us better people. To venerate them is idolatry, a misordering of means and ends. In leaving marks on my books, I take joy in creating a record of use, of historical evidence of reading. One can start making history in this small way, while hoping to move on to greater things. It is also a one-man protest against the cheapening of things, against the mass production of ever-proliferating objects: by marking books, I make them inimitably and undeniably my own.


Maddie, as you'll see in the comments below, has asked me about e-book readers (or e-readers). In one of those moments of strange clairvoyance, she has hit upon some thoughts on them that I cut out of my original post. Such coincidence demands that I replace them here. I think most of the arguments against e-readers are derived from contemptible, thoughtless reaction. But the inability to interact with the e-book in quite the same way as one would with the physical copy is, I think, a regrettable loss, and one to be ardently resisted. My guess is that both forms will exist side-by-side in the future. But that is a worthless prognostication. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Art as Psychosis

We still, generally, think of art as the product of an act of creation. (Cue familiar tropes about the artist as God, the Renaissance, etc. etc.) But unlike God, who -- I assume -- was supremely in control of his creative powers, some artists speak of their urges and impulses to create, as if it were some sort of psychosis. Art in this conception is spontaneous. Relatedly, art is then sometimes viewed as the result of possession, of being seized by the creative process. As Martin Amis said about his novel, Time's Arrow, but more generally about the process of writing itself:
"Why did you decide to write a novel about the Holocaust?" This challenge, which I still sometimes hear, can only be answered as follows: "But I never did." Similarly, I never decided to wite a novel about teenage sexuality, or Thatcher's England, or millennial London, or, indeed, about the Gulag (which I nonetheless completed in 2006). With its hopelessly inapposite verb, and presumptuous preposition, the question reveals an understandable naivety about the way that fictions are made. For the novel, as Norman Mailer put it, is "the spooky art".
This view of creation, as an uncontrollable urge to create, could never have come from the Christian mythos with its concrete sense of beginning and end. It is a pagan conception. Witness the Greek account: a messy and undignified process of starts and false starts, with Uranus, Cronos and Zeus. We have Plato to thank, with his Ion:
For all the good epic poets utter all those fine poems not from art, but as inspired and possessed, and the good lyric poets likewise ... For a poet is a light and winged and sacred thing, and is unable ever to indite until he has been inspired and put out of his senses, and his mind is no longer in him' (533e-534b)
But for Plato, artistic possession was something deeply suspicious, a potential source of anarchy and disorder. In the unbeatable explication of Edgar Wind, the first Professor of Art History at Oxford:
Although no philosopher has praised the divine madness of inspiration more eloquently than Plato, he viewed it (like Goethe and Baudelaire) with grave suspicion. He rated the strength of man’s imagination so high that he thought a man could be transformed by the things he imagined. Hence he found miming a most perilous exercise; and he devised curious laws that would prohibit the miming of extravagant or evil characters.
I'm not an artist, obviously. But I imagine when one is in the full swing of things, this process is supremely empowering, like no other. Yet creative failure must feel akin to failed suicide: Philip Roth, commenting on his recent decision to stop writing, speaks of his liberation from failure, from the fact that 'Writing is frustration -- it's daily frustration, not the mention humiliation'. Roth seems to have found a surprising liberation from his calling. But here another idea comes into play, one I am not concerned to discuss, and that is the idea of the artist as vocation. 

But there is one other conception that intrigues me. Art, in this case, is simply an attempt to cope with life. Art is therapy -- for the artist. It is an attempt to lighten the heavy burdens of memory and experience. But I think this itself often becomes another sort of psychosis. It becomes a struggle to make sure none of it goes to waste. The artist jealously hoards experience, safeguarding it, mining his memories and experiences. It is all grist for his mill, and he ever struggles to make more and more of it. He becomes no longer quite part of human society, and even no longer part of his own life: life is all material, just more material, to be collected for the production of art. I imagine -- again, because I am not an artist -- this must alter own's being quite profoundly, and particularly one's relation to reality. Sometimes I have felt as if I'm in a work of fiction. But the conviction that all of life is simply a primordial soup of potential plots, characters, tropes and symbols is beyond me. The writer I think that most conforms to this is Thomas Mann. Colm Tóibín describes Mann's method as such:
There was always a sense with Mann ... that he was an observer at his own life, that he learned very early to stand back as each thing happened, pretend that it was happening to someone else and then store material for later use. (Love in a Dark Time, p. 127)
Later on, in discussing Elizabeth Bishop, Tóibín rakes up another, perhaps even better example: the poet Robert Lowell, who turned one of Bishop's letters to him into a sonnet. 'Bishop', Tóibín writes, 'was greatly disturbed by his use of this material'. Bishop complained:
One can use one's life as material -- one does, anyway -- but aren't you violating a trust? (p. 192) 
One suspects such questions rarely occur to artists, and that Bishop was herself being slightly disingenuous -- a fact betrayed by the throwaway, but entirely undermining, 'one does, anyway'.

But for me, the great observer is the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. Yes, many will scorn. Yet surely, in her over 70 novels and 150 short stories (and not to mention plays), we can discern that almost pathological desire to make as much of the material as possible. And Christie is an acute social observer. I often say I first encountered the English in Christie, and this gave me a profound understanding of them, far better than any other way. It's completely true: I still recommend Christie for sociological and psychological insight, rather than the mystery.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


My first definitive encounter with America was 9/11. Before then I had, of course, known of it, read about it and heard about it. But after 9/11, as shockwaves were felt all across the globe, I was suddenly made very aware of this huge, unavoidable nation and its impressive (and equally irritating) sense of importance and destiny in the history of the world. I was still in primary school then, but I recall we discussed the events endlessly in school. It was impossible to forget America from that moment onwards: it proceeded to start two wars and re-elect Bush. It is easy for Americans to forget this, but Obama's election in 2008 dramatically changed how many outside America viewed it. No longer did we follow America simply to be appalled, irritated and grimly amused. For once, there seemed to be a positive reason to follow American news. 

The election coincided with my International Baccalaureate exams. I had been following the career of the young senator from Illinois quite a while before that. Reading about the election was pure political crack, and I was a junkie. Fours years on, my hopeless addiction to (political) news coming of the States is uncured. One cannot deny that American politics has a grandness of tenor, vision and narrative that is unmatched in the world. It is this relentless generation of narrative, however, that might obscure a few, more subtle lessons from the election.

Big data, we are told, won the election. It's all a numbers game. Obama's formidable voter-targeting machine turned out enough voters to withstand the inevitable swing against him. Obama built a coalition, a majority, whatever you might call it, of 50+x% to triumph. Not only politics, but punditry is meant to be revolutionised by this election. Nate Silver's impressive prognostications, built on solid statistics and mathematics, at FiveThirtyEight (at the New York Times) will put an end to pointless, blind punditry. The lessons for the Republicans are supposedly numerical too: they need to broaden their platform to get numbers on their side, to appeal to Latinos/Asians/Women/the Young.

But demographics are not destiny. Obama's coalition is fragile, and the Democrats should not bank on particularly high turnout among minorities for the next election. There's no guarantee that pivoting on immigration will win Republicans the next election. Simply targeting and turning voters out is not what democracy is about. Neither is pandering to specific groups of voters in order to squeak past one's opponent. Some have observed that facts were a terrible casualty of the campaign. But the other largely unmourned loss was policy, and it seems to me the focus on numbers is simply the other side of the coin.  There was no sense that these were two parties treating the election as a referendum on policies. Isn't democracy about bringing forth policies for public consideration? This misguided belief in numbers, along with the unprecedented flow of money and negative campaigning, threatens to reduce politics to an elevated game of advertising and marketing. It is certainly not a model to be recommended for other democracies.


Addendum: Sorry if this seems long-winded, and I haven't really got to the point. To summarise: the narrative generated by post-election commentators of the election seems to be that numbers, data and demographics will dominate the democratic process. That's partly because commentators need to generate 'lessons' learnt in the campaign every election cycle. But it's also because the narrative has a seductive appeal with a simple message: politics is becoming more scientific, with better polling, better demographic targeting, better data, better 'operation', better 'machinery'. To me, that's an insidious sidelining of what democracy is about: the presentation of ideas to the public. To put far too simplistically, it's a clash of the two cultures, and how one conceives of democracy: as a science, or as an art. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hard Truths

In the rush of days, lengthening to months, and growing terrifyingly into full Cambridge terms, one thinks too much and too little. (It strikes me that I should be Pseudo-D the Cantabrigian.) I thought I should say something, to avoid skidding past the two-month mark before my last post. Since that post, I have marked yet another birthday (22nd -- an unsexy, uneventful, insignificant number) and I have met and spoken to extraordinary and wonderful people here in Cambridge. I have thought and eaten and drunk and enjoyed the beauty of this city, so similar to and yet different from Oxford. I love it all, of course. But some truths have hit me. (To riff on Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, these are hard truths that keep me going.)

After more than three years in the UK, I know that I love it dearly. I owe a lot to it. It suits me all too well. It has allowed to make and remake myself, according to a cloudy conception I had when I first arrived on these shores a long while ago. (Some of my friends have remarked on this change, but they also tell me -- reassuringly, perhaps they are being disingenuous but I think not -- this change is a better distillation of me. A refinement, paring down the bits that weren't quite authentically me.) But deep down, I know that this country is not my home. It is the home of many good and great people, but it is certainly not mine. This sense of not-belonging -- it is, I hesitate to add, not because I've been made to not feel at home -- is a precious realisation I treasure.

In my undergraduate days, I often chose not to think of Singapore. After all, Oxford was meant to be an experience entirely different. Wishing to experience Oxford and the UK fully, I only went back home in the summers. But now I find myself constantly looking back home. Not out of homesickness -- I am remarkably resistant to that -- but out of duty, and out of love. I feel -- I think all of us Singaporeans feel it -- that Singapore is at a particularly crucial point in its politics and government. There is a lot of room for change, for betterment and for greater freedom. But it could so easily go wrong, through failure of leadership and weakness of resolve, through discord instead of progress. And so I feel a certain call of service.* And when I return, I will return with gladness and joy in my heart.

*You've heard it all before, no doubt. I'd check back in a few years' time, if I were you. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Last Flight There (/Back?)

It's remarkable what they've done to Terminal 3 of Singapore's Changi Airport. If not for the screen announcing departures and arrivals, if not for the somewhat greater-than-average proliferation of travellers' shops, if not for the presence of the armed and uniformed (a sight common enough in Singapore), one might be hard-pressed not to buy into the strange illusion that Changi is just another one of Singapore's ententacling (to neologise), undeniably pullulating shopping centres -- which seem to have firmly embraced my island nation, holding it perhaps all too fondly, in a hug approaching a capitalist death-grip. After all, themed malls exist, so a airport-themed shopping centre, with all the trappings of travel -- such as immaculately clean lavatories; mandatory x-raying of belongings; all too many passport checks; duty-free alcohol and perfume; announcements urging vigilance against existential threats to civilisation; ever-ascending heights of service and friendliness, each more climactic than the last (this might be too much to replicate) -- could easily exist. No doubt such a shopping centre would be a paradox, and would a failure, for the constant message, working insidiously against the need to profit, will be FLIGHT: flight from the vulgar now-ness of looking around for a new kettle, flight from the purchase of unnecessities, flight from the cycle of it all. But alas, Changi Airport is a real airport (I certainly hope so, anyway), though I am undecided as to whether travel itself is the supremely real or unreal. Baudrillard has probably reflected on this already. If he hasn't, someone else will have. But a closing thought: airports make the experience of travel as unreal as possible, substituting travel with another set of sensations and experiences only remotely linked to travel, in fact often trying to minimise the fuss of travel, even as these are replaced by the anxieties of security and terrorism. Yet the illusion is one of hyperreality, announcing travel writ large, as if we have to compensate our non-contribution to the actual journey with grander claims about our ability to travel anywhere and everywhere, announcing the things we can do towards (or against it?) travel -- like buying neck pillows and fiercely countering changes in air pressure through the frantic sucking of sweets, and seeking newer and more ecstatic experiences. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Systems and Teachers

Immobilised by illness, I am driven to reflection -- as even reading proves to be beyond me, and everything invokes nothing but terrible ennui -- in desperation. My mind goes back to a few weeks back, when I was having a wonderfully wide-ranging conversation with a former teacher. After delighting in the evaluation of various novelists, and with honours duly distributed (to give a sampling: Amis fils, good, but only really came together in Money but recent stuff awful; Fitzgerald overrated, often hammered and therefore lacking control, came together in Gatsby and little else; Steinbeck, profound respect; Arundhati Roy, holds up surprisingly well still, outdoes Rushdie because she has a heart), we tackled the common and pernicious problem present in all systems of governance and management -- that of losing sight of what happens on the ground. Therefore, because those in charge are often unaware of the realities, their good intentions produce bad results. When told that their good intentions have produced bad (and sometimes horrible) results, the defence of those in charge is that they meant well; or worse, that those below bungled the implementation of these plans. Sometimes, blindness is not simply a problem at the top, but is endemic throughout the whole body of the corporation, and each person's particular blindness adds up to a tremendous detachment from reality. This teacher of mine gave me an example related to teaching in schools, the details of which I will not reproduce here. But one can imagine the sort of thing: smart chap in the Ministry has a plan with good intentions; fails to fully grapple with the conditions that surround implementation -- like the realities of teaching in a rowdy classroom; tries to implement it; many people tell him the problems; he ignores them; results are unhappy, and they mock him and his ideals. No doubt the annals of management and governance are full of such examples; I faced such an example in my time at Oxford, dealing with a particularly absurd compulsory module. 

How does one avoid such problems inherent in systems, if one is in charge? The teacher had one good piece of advice, which will seem obvious once mentioned: and that is to bypass those in the middle, and speak to the people at the very bottom of the organisation. Only they can tell you what's really happening, and what the problems of implementation might be. But as always, easier said than done. Those in the middle might hinder you, and not necessarily with bad intentions. (Sir Humphrey: 'Minister! I have warned you before about the dangers of speaking to people in the department.') One might cause stress, worry and offence. Those at the bottom might censor themselves. But it's the best we can do, and those in charge must continuously do it.

After all this talk (and not just on this somewhat abstract topic), we departed. As I made my way to another place, I thought about how things had changed between us. In school, we would never have had this conversation -- it would have seemed strangely provocative, even risky. We were limited to looks, to allusions and to the subject he was teaching. He was somehow, after all, in with them, those in charge of the school, even though he clearly wasn't. Truth be told, I wasn't grown-up enough then either; now perhaps we shall speak to each other face to face (but even then -- not quite). I hope my other friendships with my former teachers evolve in a similar manner, though just today part of this hope was shattered. Dum spiro spero.

Monday, August 13, 2012

This and That City

In my room -- where the books seem to have been busy taking over large swathes of territory, claustrophobically embracing me in their literary heat -- I seem to be in unceasing dialogue with the city that raised me. Every whirr, cackle, hum and hiss is comprehensible to me; these metropolitan pulsations are adding up to something; in the wee hours of my jetlagged morning the city and I are briefly but completely one, as I find myself unexpectedly gifted, and able to decipher these signals. I'll tell you something odder -- as I walked along the streets of Singapore once more in the burning sun, the much-decried heat and humidity incited not discomfort but joy. I am gloriously alive, attuned to the city, and it seems to me bursting at its seams with opportunity, novelty and excitement. The buzz and the hit of Singapore is now, to me (I didn't think I'd ever say this) comparable to the stimulant-rich melange that is London. Perhaps it's all distorted by the sheer relief of returning back home -- the enveloping sense of security, the lack of anxiety and worry while I sleep -- but I suspect something else is going on here. In my feverish diagnoses I've been unable to pin down why -- but Singapore now excites me once more. (This is not some pathetic attempt at neo-jingoism. Though, as if on cue, as I made my way home from the airport, the Chinese radio host spoke about the sense of security (安全感) he felt landing in Singapore's Changi Airport. And then, and one couldn't make this up, Kit Chan's '家' (Home) was played.)

That other city that's figured so largely in my life -- Oxford -- has a wholly different feel, though I felt a similar sympathy. My room in the first year -- now, terrifyingly, a ghostly memory -- had a view of Oxford's famed spires and the River Cherwell. (On the best of days, the view, along with a cup of Earl Grey and the companionship of the corridor team, made work almost painless.) Throughout the year though, it was no dialogue. Instead, Oxford declaimed itself to me through my window in stentorian tones. Fascinated, I listened. It had a lot to say, too. It was not furious dynamism that one feels in Oxford, of course. Instead, it's the sheer accumulation of tradition, almost but not quite approaching wisdom (for one never gets there), that first humbles, then instructs and delights. It claims immutability, imperishability and changeless authority. For some, this is stultifying and suffocating. For me, it was a revelation that led to a belief I've now come to hold very deeply -- that tradition is of immense value, even if it is often confected. Furthermore, it is our responsibility to participate in, and even lead, this fabrication if all else fails. 

I don't think I could have chosen two more dissimilar cities. In concert, they have taught me much. In Oxford, the preponderant weight of history will seem, in Joyce's formulation, to be a nightmare from which one is trying to awake. (Coincidentally, Marx: 'The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living'.) In Singapore, the future seems too full of terrifying possibility and nauseous freedom. When I think about these two cities (in) which've forged my life thus far, I am ever more aware of the irresolvable dilemma, the impossible situation that every person that fancies him/herself to be an historical actor has to face up to: the fact, as Hannah Arendt so ably perceived, that one is inextricably caught in the unhelpful position of being in the present, of being the product of the clashing of the (seemingly) infinite past and the infinite future.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Notes on Reading: How Not to Build a Town

This is the prolegomena: I've been busy -- very busy, in fact. I find myself at the University of Reading, now more than halfway through a intensive Latin summer school. My mind is filled to the brim with cases, conjugations and declensions. The programme is entirely commendable, though demanding:  four hours of classes a day, backed up by four (recommended) hours of preparation and study. The campus is tolerable. Its architecture is, like so many universities of its kind, execrable and barely acceptable for the purposes of human habitation, let alone intellectual activity. But it is much improved by the natural surroundings -- an adorable lake, cheerful trees and birdsong in the mornings -- and the incoming summer. (Sunlight, as I've so often found, is a powerful disinfectant, cleansing even the most poisonous of places.) Others will have more to say: my investment in this university is not substantial enough. But my three weeks in Reading have given me some time and boozy evenings to crystallise my thoughts on towns, cities and the ways in which they are made -- and unmade. I share them with you here.

But first, a declaration of prejudice and partisanship. My aesthetics are conservative. I wouldn't go as far as Roger Scruton,* but I would go along pretty far. The central contention I endorse is simply this: beauty is an essential part of what art is; give that up and we can speak of clever ideas, startling 'originality', smart 'messages' and weak jokes (as most of modern art seems to me to be), but let us not say that what's on offer is 'art'. That's the way it is: prejudice helps one get out of bed, out of the door and on with the rest of what life demands. I've kept this prejudice under fairly severe review for a while, and have found it useful and (perhaps more importantly) pleasurable to sustain. I don't think anyone will be able to persuade me otherwise for the rest of this life.

Enough. Hwæt!, as the Anglo-Saxons would have said.   


Step out of Reading station, and one is greeted by an unholy cavalcade of buses and taxis. That is one clue to Reading and its problems. We're told, even by members of the borough council, that Reading is a transitional place. In other words everyone who comes to Reading, and you'll forgive my language here, is actively trying to flee. Visitors do not walk anywhere, except to the shopping centre, and then they flee. So the roads are not designed for walking: they are vast, monstrous creations, alienating pedestrians from the city, tunnelling into the city and draining it of life. This lack of permanence saps at civic life, it guts Reading's centre and leaves a horrible hollow in the middle of it. Reading, in the eyes of those who make excuses for its this embarrassing emptiness, is not so much a town as a sort of machine (goodness knows what -- a coin-sorter perhaps?), sucking people in and then very quickly spewing them out again. The idea of a resident of Reading has become a strange and contradictory one.

Once we accept this central axiom of Reading's existence -- as the town planners and councillors seem to have done -- then the rest of it follows. Of course we don't need a true civic centre. Instead, what we have is a huge, faceless and functional shopping centre, named (one can only imagine sarcastically) the Oracle. The true citizen (empowered by the possession of  πολιτεία or civitas) should react with the fury of Jesus confronted with the merchants in the house of his Father, because the temple of the state has been contaminated with commercialism. Despite what they tell us, not everything is on sale. But because everything is, and once you accept this principle, why should you deny other shops and commercial ventures space in the centre? So Reading's centre has all manner of unholy and profane commerce, but there is nothing civic.

Other things confirm this observation: that Reading is hollow, because those in power believe it ought to be anything more than functional. Herein lies the paradox of so-called 'functional' buildings: they are in fact the least functional, because they're so often hideous. And because they're hideous, no one wishes to be in them or around them. This is easily confirmed by a quick walk around the centre: huge office-blocks, shops and other 'functional' things are completely empty, for reasons that I suspect cannot be entirely blamed on a weak economy. It is because these buildings are ugly; it is more precisely because these buildings, taken together, do not make any sense at all. They clash and offend, they aspire to reflect no unified or complementary aesthetic, they mean nothing to those who inhabit and leave around them. Hence they will face rejection, decay and eventually, the wrecking ball. Then another similarly stranded building will take its place, and the wasteful cycle of destruction and production will continue, incessantly coupled with crises -- as Marx so penetratingly predicted.**

All of this would be unfair on the town of Reading, its denizens and its leaders. But Reading should be judged harshly: it has squandered its promise. For yet another indication of a place gone wrong is its failure to harmonise the advantages and beauty granted by Nature into its built environment. Take a walk around the back of Reading station, across and around Reading bridge, where the Thames flows. It could be truly stunning -- there is much promise in the waters and wildlife. Like so many other places in Berkshire -- Henley comes to mind -- Reading could have made good use of the Thames and its other river, the Kennet (a tributary of the Thames). Instead, the Thames is condemned to the back of the station, whilst the Kennet struggles to show itself at all, submerged by those huge roads that no one would ever wish to walk on. The true civic centre of Reading ought to be this natural heritage, complemented by the medieval heritage -- the ruined Abbey, along with the Forbury gardens. Nowadays, one is not even allowed into the ruins, presumably because the authorities cannot imagine visitors being possibly interested in a few bits of ruined stone. (If pressed, they'll probably cite 'health and safety'.) The ruins and the last remnants of this Abbey struggle to assert themselves against the sleek, soulless office blocks and commercial buildings. I'm frankly surprised they haven't pulled it all down. Because why bother? The fight for Reading's soul has been well and truly lost, and its fate was sealed a long time ago. We can only hope the rest of England, and indeed the rest of the world, does not go along with it.***


*I recommend all of Scruton, but particularly his history of modern philosophy, his exposition of Kant and his book on wine. There is a very amusing appendix in the latter on what wines to have with which philosopher. 
** For the conservative, Marx is invaluable. For Marx provides powerful tools to understand our modern predicament. Take the Olympics. The key question I pose to my readers is this: where is surplus value being generated in the Olympics, by whom, who is it doing the extraction, and how? That is another post.
*** 'What of your own home, Singapore?' you might ask, and you're entitled and right to do so. On the surface, Singapore seems hopelessly lost to the forces of commercialism and bad architecture. But this is not true. Visit our neighbourhoods and you'll find that the centres of life are not the glitzy playgrounds of the wealthy nor the innumerable shopping centres. You'll find people congregating in the coffeeshops and the hawker centres. There is hope yet, and one doesn't want to end up sounding like a Daily Mail columnist.

Friday, June 29, 2012


I've just finished reading the Iliad, in Richmond Lattimore's sinewy and sparse verse. It's a surprising read, as I've been telling some people. When one finally approaches a cultural artefact that's been so widely and pervasively disseminated in numerous forms -- the 2004 film Troy comes to mind -- I suspect there are always bound to be surprises. But even compared to the Odyssey, which is a much more straightforward narrative, the Iliad does come across as difficult, even mysterious. The name is the easiest of the mysteries: Ilion is another name for Troy, and so the Iliad is a song about Troy. There is no Trojan horse (and hence the city of Troy does not fall in the actual text, though its impending fall is always referred to) and Achilles is not shot in the heel (he does not die in the Iliad, though his impending death is constantly referenced -- like the fall of Troy). The story of Paris and Helen is referred to, and is the very cause of the Trojan war, but is never set out in detail. The tale begins in media res,  after nine years of failed fighting by the Greeks against the Trojans. Nearly all of the twenty-four books of the Iliad take place in the battlefield between the Greek ships and Troy itself.  It's claustrophobic: we're all hemmed in, along with the Greeks and Trojans. The action itself has none of the grand scope and vision that we've come to expect from epics, though references to a much larger story are made throughout.

The characters too are unexpected -- take the example of Achilles. His character gives shape to the story. He is the supreme hero of the Greeks. Yet weighed down by his inevitable doom and his own irrational resentment against his king, Agamemmnon, he is unable to control his own spiralling, almost demonic, fury. Anachronistically, we can even view Achilles as an anti-hero, because he is, by the end of the Iliad, an incomprehensible, menacing and inhumane force. His withdrawal from battle is matched by an outburst of scepticism, pointedly directed towards the very foundations of the Iliad itself:
 'Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard.
We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.
A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.
Nothing is won for me, now that my heart has gone through its afflictions
in forever setting my life on the hazard of battle.' (9.318-322, Lattimore translation) 
When he later does return to battle, he does so in a manner unforgiving and hateful, defiling bodies, sacrificing men ritually and in a manner that one can, anachronistically again, call fey.

That's probably enough from me. I don't want to give away too much, but I wish to encourage all my readers to tackle the Iliad. But a final thought. Like that other masterpiece seen as the beginning of an entire tradition -- Cervantes' Don Quixote -- the Iliad is, in fact, the end of a tradition, radically questioning, and even satirising, the values of a society.*

*I am obviously not a scholar of the classics, so don't take my word for anything at all. Entirely a personal reflection which is, as I've already noted, littered with anachronisms. But perhaps that is the only way when we engage with a work so far removed from our own time and culture. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tennis: Some Ill-Formed Thoughts

Tennis is by far the English sport I enjoy watching the most. It celebrates much that is great about England: civilised spectatorship, Pimm's, the English summer (if and when it does make its appearance) and the individual efforts of great men and women. One is, as a rule, not drawn into pointless, entirely meaningless rivalries (as in football): Wimbledon audiences recognise the potency and beauty of each moment, and are willing to celebrate spectacular achievement and heroic effort, regardless of nationality. There is, on the part of the spectator, more of an attempt at objectivity. Of course, it is not free from the ugliness and defects of sports in general. One can still deplore the commercialisation of sport -- as the Olympics show, to a level truly sickening. (But that is another rant.) And they (tennis players), like many other sportspersons, certainly earn far too much. But in a fallen world, tennis isn't too bad at all, and I for one prefer watching it -- in the gym, you understand -- to watching that pointless display of savagery, racism and jingoistic chest-thumping (held in a country that has imprisoned its former prime minister)  that we call Euro 2012.  

But I might be viewing this through glasses irretrievably tinted. My first English summer, back in 2009, was suffused with memories of sun, Wimbledon, barbecues, Pimm's and finally, a wonderful holiday in rural France. It was part of a unitary experience, one so subjective that it is worthless to say much more.  It should feel like part of another life, since I've now (kind of) left Oxford. But things aren't quite settled at the moment: results aren't out, graduation hasn't yet happened, and I am still in Oxford, haunting its streets, libraries and cafes. 

I apologise -- I started off with tennis, and now I am ruminating, like those magnificent cows in Christ Church meadow, upon my particular existence. A sign to stop. My promised continuation of the food post to follow, soon. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Nostalgia, Mark Twain cautioned, is mental and moral masturbation. Harsh but warranted; as Oxford comes to an end, I find it painfully difficult to say anything meaningful. (This post, short as it is, was the product of many deletions and emendations.) Many of my reflections seem to come in shades of the unbearably sentimental and sappy -- those are perhaps best kept unsaid. Saying anything at all seems to violate the sense of ineffable mystery -- one approaching a certain mysticism -- that comes with departing and leaving. It's very much like finally leaving the company (and in particular, ecstatic conversation) of a good friend in the small hours: one wishes for a bond of eternal companionship, an everlasting sympathy that transcends the merciless march of the hours. But one settles for a mutual understanding: the understanding that one's departure of another is a negotiated surrender, a temporary retreat, a stopgap measure and with luck, simply a promise of further meetings.

So I am tempted to think of our scattering to the ends of the earth in this light. This thought cheers me up, as silence in college infects every nook and cranny. It will soon be all-pervasive, leaving me enveloped in a quietude quite unique. I've put the kettle on the boil, and soon I will be sipping Earl Grey from an Oscar Wilde mug, thinking fondly* of you all.

LEAR: Pray, do not mock me:
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


And the blanket of unmitigated grey has returned, with no hint of blue nor gold. I don't mind it much, really. In times of storm -- astonishingly, we've had a few recently -- I like to sit smugly and snugly in my room, sipping a cup of tea, giving fervent thanks that we (as a species) learnt the art of shelter-building. The contrast between the bourgeois, domestic interior of one's room and the almost primal raging of a storm outside has always struck me. I quite like the English grey, truth be told: it imparts a certain placid, unflappable calm (and here comes the cliche), reflecting the English character. It speaks of a reluctance to get worked up and excited over small things -- in short, a desire not to kick up a fuss. In fact, I think we should be wary of the perpetually golden and sunny places, for they often hide deeper, more horrible flaws. Those sunlit American locales -- like Disneyland in California, or Hollywood in general, for example -- are the most suspect. These places mix mindless, excitable optimism with an almost dystopian fantasy of paradise.  I am reminded of what George Clooney's character says at the start of The Descendants (2011):
My friends on the mainland think just because I leave in Hawaii, I live in paradise, like a permanent vacation. We're all just out here, sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips, catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we are immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our cancers less fatal, our heartache less painful? ... Paradise? Paradise can go f*** itself. 
I think the English are taught their first lessons in 'realistic expectations'  when the first April showers come, when they have to make their way through a day of merciless, skyless, cloudful grey, when the winters become bitterer and when Indian summers turn out to be precisely just that. Americans never learn to moderate their expectations, and this why they're in such a mess. 

(I will return to Food and Memory in my next post, when I find the space -- and time -- to think.) 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Food: A Comparison

Just a few days ago, I was talking to my mum on Skype, and she started telling me of yet another place I was to be brought to for good food. (All Singaporeans are, and this is our inalienable birthright, entitled to excellent food. We have boundless enthusiasm for it. Every man and woman is born a connoisseur of food. And every Singaporean has a mental list of great food places.) We hit upon the idea of constructing a list of places I was to visit in my month back home -- and that list stands at nearly 30 places now, and my mouth waters at thought of it. It does give me something to look forward to, after a year of exile in this culinary backwater.

This is, I hasten to add, a relative matter. (I do not say this only to avoid deportation.) The English must be commended for five (!) fields of achievements in food. The first is in the area of hearty stodge, which the English excel at. Pies, bangers and mash, stews and Sunday roasts are what I have in mind here. I would also include fish and chips, actually. The second is baked goods and puddings, and the list here is truly astonishing: bread and butter pudding, scones, Victoria sponge, banoffee pie, lemon meringue pie, Eton mess, Bakewell tart and sticky toffee pudding to name an illustrious few. The third is cheese. I've always found it a shame that the English consume so much continental cheese, when there is a truly bewildering variety of cheeses available within the United Kingdom. I won't bother naming many (Wikipedia has a list of them). But I won't forget my discovery of the utterly delicious Blacksticks Blue as I was staying over at Luke's last Easter. This island is a treasure trove of cheeses. The fourth is jams, preserves and spreads. Marmalade comes to mind. As does lemon curd. But really, my true love is marmite.  But that, as we know, is a divisive issue. And lastly, and this is the cornerstone of the English culinary experience, we have the great English Breakfast. A salve for a hangover, an orgy of grease, salt and meat and an essential part of English psyche -- and I stress to add -- even if one doesn't have it often. (Probably shouldn't or something.) W. Somerset Maugham was being unkind when he quipped that to eat well in England one had to have breakfast three times a day, but he hit upon a truth in his missing the mark. 

Yet the cuisine of a tiny island off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, housing a mere 5 million mortals, has a vibrancy and verve that will astound my English friends. The greatness of Singaporean food lies in the variety of cultures and races: Chinese, Malay, Indian and others.  It is also sustained by an institution not found in the West: that of the hawker centre. The hawker centre brings together many food stalls, each selling many different dishes, in a single place. Food is inexpensive, tasty and often an interesting social experience. But our love of food supports both the humble and sophisticated -- Singapore's casual and fine dining scenes are excellent too.  The English problem with food, and I've said this many times, is typified in a certain barbarism towards vegetables -- basically boiled to hell. You know you're dealing with a sophisticated culinary culture when even the vegetables are treated right -- and that's what happens in Singaporean food. There are simply too many individual delights to be named. (I kid you not: check out the wiki.) Let me try with some of them: take bak chor mee. Springy noodles with pork mince, sometimes served with fish balls or fishcake, tossed in a spicy, sour and salty sauce. Or laksa: rice noodles in an aromatic, rich broth of coconut milk, shrimps and spices, served with cockles, fishcake, egg and prawns. Or a breakfast of kaya toast: butter and kaya (a coconut and egg jam) over toast, served with a soft-boiled egg and cup of sweet, thick coffee. (Enough.) When I recall the dance of flavours that the food of my native city performs on my palate, I know that in my hearts of hearts that I am a Singaporean gourmand. And I will unabashedly champion and trumpet its superiority. 

This is a two-part post: the next (projected) post deals with food and memory. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


It's been a long day -- and will be for about four more weeks. My schedule has become increasingly monastic, as I move from library to library, poring over books. (By the way, the best and most exciting way to experience the monastic life is not to actually become a monk, but to read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.) It's very hard to stop myself from singing psalms at the hour of Lauds, of course. (Eco assures me this is between 5 and 6 in the morning.) 

I bring up the monastic life because there is a certain discipline of mind and body required of the Finalist. One has to restrain the more wayward tendencies of the mind and body, to sustain a purity of thought and action throughout the period of study. This is why I complement study with going to the gym. (See my first post.) One has to keep calm, and purge the mind of absurd and unhelpful fears. One has to keep to a schedule, and resist the temptations. And if one wants to, one should pray, and pray often.

But monkish austerity will soon give way to the festival of carnival. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Collections (for non-Oxonians, these are simply pre-term tests) are over, and the sun and blue sky bring some tranquility into our Finals-troubled hearts. It is -- both the weather and this calm -- a brief respite, but one I am glad for. Another four weeks of slog, and I will be sitting what might just be the last significant examinations of my life. 

I was never really good at examinations, until the only time it mattered -- my IB  (International Baccalaureate) finals. Before that, I had serially underperformed. That memory is all but wiped-out in the minds of my family and friends, but I remember it well. I was nearly last in class when it came to my PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations, for my non-Singaporean readers). I didn't even come close to topping the class for anything in secondary school. The reason for this, and I don't want to sound too much like a revolutionary here, was that I had realised early on that I wasn't very interested in the school syllabus. I much preferred reading whatever else I could get my hands on. In those days, that truly meant anything: I recall being enthralled by the immunology chapter of a secondary school biology textbook when I was still in primary school. (And I still have a strange fascination for immunology now. As I say to many people, it's simply warfare!) Forcing the Lord of the Rings into as many essays as I could was another notable achievement -- much more interesting than whatever malformed piece of writing we were meant to contemplate.  This (to others) inexplicable inability to deliver expected results didn't trouble me, and (god bless them) didn't trouble my parents either. As others sprinted ahead, acquiring marks in the 80s and 90s, I swung between the low 60s and the surprising 70s. (Of course, by Oxford standards that's perfectly fine...) I don't remember caring much -- but perhaps I'm downplaying those feelings with the leveling gaze that the present projects towards the past.

It was well worth it. My wayward interest in things outside the curriculum, and my refusal to learn the syllabus, has paid off richly, in great and bountiful dividends. And it is a method of study I recommend to all.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

List of Things I'd Rather Be Doing Instead of Revising for Finals

1. Learning Italian, Latin or German.
2. Reading any of these books on my reading list: a biography of Dante; Ellman's biography of Joyce; a biography of LBJ (by the acclaimed Robert Caro); a biography of Stephen Tennant, Money, by Martin Amis; a study of the American presidency; Hart Crane; Walt Whitman; Robert Graves's collection of the Greek myths; a history of Jesuit missionaries in China; novels by Christopher Isherwood; novels by Gilbert Adair; novels by Alan Hollinghurst; writings of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola; a monograph on Pico; essays of Francis Bacon.
3. Pub on a sunny summer day, or a long, long lunch. The Trout comes to mind.
4. Using up that £20 drink tab at the Union a team of friends and I won at the Union pub quiz
5. Visiting parts of this country that I've not been to (which is everywhere outside of London, Oxford, Cambridge and bits of Lancashire and the Lake District). Devon/Cornwall, Manchester, Scotland (soon not to be, perhaps) in particular.
6. Punting.
7. Shouting poetry at passers-by
8. Having a cocktail, at the Duke of Cambridge. Or Brown's.
9. Going for a long country walk.
10. Cooking, and baking a bread and butter pud.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

0th week, Sunday

For my non-Oxonian readers, let me first explain that we have, like most British universities, three terms. The Autumn/Winter term is Michaelmas, named after the feast of St. Michael the Archangel. The Winter/Spring term is Hilary, after the feast of St. Hilary of Poitiers. And the Spring/Summer term -- which is just upon us -- is Trinity, after Trinity Sunday. Each of these terms has eight, very intense weeks. Each week starts on a Sunday and ends on a Saturday (unlike in Cambridge, where they start on Thursdays and end on Wednesdays). But undergraduates usually arrive a week before the start of term, and we call this week noughth (0th) week. (Pronunciation trap there.) At the end of noughth week, many of us will have collections -- tests about last term's work. Typically, lots of groovy stuff also happens during the week after term ends -- or 9th week. As for me, being an international student, I always stick all for the holidays, except for Summer. Readers will be led (well, you don't really have a choice now, do you?) to reflect on how these divisions of the year are still very closely tied to the liturgical calendar, and the feasts and celebrations of the Anglican Church.

So much for that. I hope we're all on the same page when I declare that it is now the first day -- Sunday -- of 0th week. This is significant for several reasons. It is the beginning of the last term in Oxford for us Finalists. In a few weeks, terms of (hopefully) hard work will be judged in essays produced in mere hours (by comparison). One scents the end, and is led to dully contemplate the possible permutations of the clichés expressing (and regretting) the brevity of one's apprenticeship at this ancient institution.

I imagine, when my mind is no longer full of quibbles about Dante's vision of providential history (or the political Augustinianism of Giles of Rome, or the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius' conception of hierarchy on Aquinas' metaphyics, or ... I'll stop now), that I'll be led to reflect more deeply on the end of an era. But let me mark the moment with this preliminary placeholder of a post.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


I hate to admit that I really enjoying going to the gym, but I've said it. Despite the distinctly postlapsarian tinge the Iffley Road gym has -- and one would think one of the world's leading universities would have better facilities -- I do enjoy channelling the infinite amount of pent-up aggression and frustration that I seem to possess into a brutal gym sesh. And verily, the gym has all the signs of Satan about it: the constant blasting of vile chart singles, courtesy of MTV; the body-obsessed, muscle-bound men (and women) that frequent it (cf. the Coens' Burn After Reading); and the smell -- oh the smell -- of putrid, potent sweat.

And yet.

And yet.

There is something heroic and noble about physical endeavour. Christopher Isherwood (Chris Ish, as I like to call him) knows what I'm talking about:

'... the uncomplicated relaxed happy mood which is nearly always produced by a workout at the gym. It is so good to feel the body's satisfaction and gratitude; no matter how much it may protest, it likes being forced to perform these tasks.' (A Single Man, p. 87)
The warrior civilisations knew it. And I find myself ready to think and live again, after a heroic exertion of this mortal frame.