Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On The Streets Today

Yes, he looks rather sad and tired, doesn't he? I bet you would be, too, if you had to stand outside the shop the entire day, dealing with hordes of miserable tourists. I feel sorry for him. My day, in contrast, was a lil' better. For the streets of London were bathed today in glorious sunlight, with spirits lifted by the unexpected cancellation of a lecture, with the weather again unseasonably mild, and with the attraction of another Dining In at the hall. The theme this evening was Scottish, and the enigmatic haggis made a loud and dramatic entrance, accompanied by a bagpiper, who proceeded to deliver the Address to a Haggis. For me, I had a nice and tasteless serving of venison.

Today also marks the end of the first month of the year, and therefore, it's a perfectly logical time for a short series of scattered images taken today from around town.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Journal of a Glutton

As I write this, I feel as though I'm about to burst. I've just returned from a mega dinner at the Four Seasons in Bayswater again, this time round with a large group of friends from school. We've gathered often before over a drink, or perhaps dined together one on one, but I think this is one of the few occasions where we've had the opportunity to sit down over a good meal.

Not that the restaurant offers a convivial environment for polite chatter. It's a typical Chinese restaurant - loud, crowded, brash and noisy. But then, I wasn't there for the service. Rather, we hungered for the famous Four Seasons roast duck, served also with good portions of roast pork, a hot beef plate, yummy shrimps, and token dishes of vegetables. I left the place a happy man indeed.

However, I've also been informed that the longtime chef of the Four Seasons had earlier decamped to another restaurant - the Gold Mine on 102 Queensway. Is the report true? Is Gold Mine any good? We'll need to find out the truth real soon.


Here's a quick mention as well of The Gunmakers, a little gastropub in the Clerkenwell area where a few of us from the hall were at yesterday for lunch. Apparently, they had only recently begun serving Sunday lunch, and we were among their first customers. Roast garlic and leg of lamb never go wrong for me, especially when accompanied by succulent roast potatoes and an invigourating cup of coffee thereafter.

Here's to a good week of feasting ahead.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

What The Papers Say

So there I was late last evening, sitting on my bed and reading the Saturday edition of The Daily Telegraph. I enjoy simple moments such as these. There were many stories in the lead section, but a few stood out, grabbing my attention:

Page 8 - NICE wants incentives for addicts days after refusing cancer drug

"Drug addicts could win prizes including televisions and MP3 players in clinic lotteries to help them keep off drugs, a Government advisory agency recommended yesterday." According to the report, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) had just turned down a new bowel cancer drug for use on the UK's National Health System three days earlier. NICE said it realised its ideas were "controversial".

Page 11 - Girl recycled her rubbish and council threatened her with jail

A environmentally-conscious girl in East Sussex wanted to send a used cardboard box for recycling. The recycling bin, however, was full. As such, she placed the box right next to it. “The 12 year-old was (then) issued with a notice stating that illegal dumping carries a £50,000 penalty and possible six-month jail sentence.” How did the local council track her down? Well, apparently officials scrutinized the box, found her details on it, and decided to go after her.

Page 13 – Police refuse to chase bike thieves not wearing helmets

Two brothers in Manchester had their motorbikes stolen, and duly reported the loss to the local police. Did the authorities manage to find the thieves? Reportedly, they did. However, they couldn’t give chase, because the suspects weren’t wearing helmets. An inspector at the road policing unit said, “In situations like this officers need to carefully consider the safety of all road users before deciding whether or not to begin a pursuit.”

Page 15 – Head is told he cannot open boy’s lunch box

“Head teachers have been told they cannot look inside children’s lunch boxes for fear of contravening their human rights.” A 10 year old student in Kent had earlier been thrown out of the school dining room after the school noticed that his lunch items “contravened the school’s healthy food policy.” According to the assistant secretary general of the Association of School and College Leaders, teachers can open a child’s lunch box “only with a police officer present or with parental permission.”

Page 15 – School bans football because balls hurt

“The lunchtime kick-about, a feature of school life for generations, has been banned in a school because pupils might get hurt.” The head teacher of a school in Buckinghamshire banned the games after a teacher was struck while crossing the playground. The school is reputed to boast of modern sports training facilities. “But the head teacher said pupils were abusing the facilities by ‘kicking balls quite hard’ at each other.”

What do you make of all this? An accurate snapshot of a society? Or a biased sampling? For me, I think I'll have more fun reading The Sun instead.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Quick Night Out

I was out this evening for a quick drink with DB, whom I’ve not been in touch with since I attended his wedding in Barcelona last October. During that hectic weekend, it was difficult to get too much of his time, and thus it was good to be able to catch up over a pint at the Lamb and Flag, an old pub by Lazenby Court in the Covent Garden area, hidden from the main street.

Yes, it’s a cliché, but when you meet up with old friends, especially those whom you don’t see often, you’re reminded invariably of your previous encounters. It’s pretty amazing how long it’s been. It’s almost twelve years since I first met him. And it was on a January day ten years ago that he visited Singapore as well.

But I was also keen to learn how married life was treating him. The Missus was still based in Barcelona, busy with various projects. And the most impressive and astonishing thing he told me was that his wife had been appointed onto the advisory board of FC Barcelona. Yes, the team whose colours soccer greats such as Lilian Thuram, Samuel Eto’o, Deco and Ronaldinho wear! Wah paing eh. And it goes without saying that they’ve never had a problem with securing tickets for home games.

The evening out, though brief, was very nice. We shook hands, and I ventured forth on my own. Walking down central London, past Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus and through the thronging merry crowds in the wintry air, you do feel what’s often termed as buzz – difficult to define but understood by all. I then realised I’ve actually not been out on the streets of London too often at nightfall. Have I been studying too much?

It’s good, of course, to be living so close to school. Yet at times, one can feel kinda trapped in the Russell Square/Bloomsbury area, and every departure from my comfort zone there to the rest of London, even to areas familiar, brings with it a sense of freshness and excitement. That's what I certainly felt this evening. And to top it all off - the simple joy of browsing at the giant Waterstones on Piccadilly.

It’s clear. I need to get out more often.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Smoking Fantasy

Sometimes it’s nice, isn’t it, just to sit back, tossing aside all other thoughts, to indulge in a wee bit of fantasizing...So let’s start right now.

I love smoked food – particularly smoked salmon and smoked cheese. I imagine a nice warm fire burning, with its vapours engulfing the culinary delights that hang above. There was a juicy article in yesterday’s thelondonpaper on this cooking sensation. “The process is straight forward”, it reported. “Hard woods, such as oak, burn slowly and their smoke infuses the ingredients, enhancing their taste.” Mmmmm.

“Oak has a delicate flavour and is often used for fish; fruit trees produce a mild smoke for general use; walnut is stronger and best for beef.”

What was interesting was that there were, according to the article, a few “smoking” establishments out there which handle direct home deliveries, such as Forman and Field, Richardson’s Smokehouse and Rannock Smokery. Check out their mouth-watering websites.

But this was the exciting bit. “If you get really hooked, you can buy your own smoker.” Can we really? Apparently, if you’d like to be a home smoker, you can get your own indoor gadget. I don’t think we’re referring to barbecue grills. A smoking set is somewhat different. There are fine examples available at Brooks Home Smokers and Bradley Smokers. Imagine that! Getting me own mackerel and then doing some DIY smoking at home? It’s such a lovely thought.

Yet it is, alas, just a fantasy. No point thinking about it too much. Furthermore, I’m still dreaming about a plate of XO crab bee hoon...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Nochmal In Einer Deutschen Klasse

This was one of the minor goals I had set for myself when embarking on this one year in London – to take some time out to attend formal German language classes again after a break of too many years. I missed out on registering with the UCL Language Centre in the first term. But after months of waiting, I finally had the first of the second term evening classes today.

My abilities in German had reached somewhat strange level. After four years learning it in university and being quite passionate about it, I had attained a sufficiently deep base of knowledge, internalizing and absorbing quite a bit, to the point that I can say with confidence that there are certain parts of the language I shall never forget, even if I stop speaking it for years. That’s when a language moves from being a mechanical skill you acquire, to something that’s organic to you.

Yet, I can’t claim to be totally conversant and fluent either. The little trip to Munich last month provided clear evidence of that. There is still so so much more for me to improve, especially in aspects of speaking and listening. Admittedly, I could have tried over the past years to keep up with the language. But let’s be frank. Back home, when you’re busy with work, mana oo eng to study?

So this sabbatical has provided me an excellent opportunity to delve seriously into the language again. I emerged from this evening’s class with mixed feelings, though, for I may have signed myself up at a teaching level beneath my current linguistic standard. I’m intend definitely to continue, but I don’t know if transferring classes would be possible. Let’s see how things go…

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

It's Snowing In London

Winter’s here at last! We woke up this morning and found that about an inch of snow had fallen overnight across London. I peered out of my window and savoured the layer of delightful icing covering everything out there. I’ve seen snow often - most recently only a month ago – and have cursed it frequently. But the magic and excitement still remains.

Of course, let’s be clear here. After all, this is only English snow. Compared to what the continent gets, this is pittance. London, in particular, is not a very snowy capital. And according to the papers, what we saw was already deemed the heaviest snowfall since 2003. But it was enough, naturally, to cause chaos in the London transport system. There’s even a chance of more snow tonight.

Some places deal with snow exceptionally well, while some are terrible. I spent four winters in Washington, a city notorious for being a complete wimp when it comes to snowy weather. Schooldays are easily cancelled, and even the federal government is liable to shut down officially.

Heading one day to Montreal, where a former language tutor of mine was then living, I asked, innocuously, “So how many days each winter does the city close down because of snow?” Typically, Montreal receives massive amounts of snow.

She threw me a puzzled look and said, “Never.”

Monday, January 22, 2007

Why We Are Here

Why are we here? Each of us now in London – we each have our own reasons why we’ve chosen to pursue graduate studies, taking a precious year or more out of our lives. As I learn more about my friends in school and in the hall, I begin also to understand the different motivations behind their move here. And in so doing, it’s given me an opportunity to reflect as well on why and how I’ve come to find myself here right now.

It’s never an easy decision to make, is it? It’s hardly self-evident. No one comes to London purely because of the inherent attractions that the city offers, contrary to the impressions this blog might have conveyed. The quest for further studies is, ostensibly, always the main reason. And it should rightly be so. But frequently, it’s also fraught with so many other factors. For rarely is the decision to come here entirely one dimensional.

We're all in London by choice as much as by circumstance. We go through four years of undergraduate studies almost as a matter of routine, for that’s what expected of us. A few proceed then to work. It’s a very conventional route so many of us take. It’s not complicated.

Graduate school, in comparison, is different. Coming to graduate school means that you’ve taken a conscious decision to stay within or return to academic life, in the expectation of something further. It is a decision freely made, consciously taken. You want something more. You feel, perhaps, that what you had back then was just not good enough for yourself and the life you’re looking for.

But are we really clear about what we’re seeking? A year cloistered in studies is costly, and not just in terms of funds depleted and the income forgone. We leave behind family and friends and a familiar life. Some turn away from unsettled issues, lingering concerns, festering problems, even. Some forgo a lucrative salary. Some give up on an existing job. Some need a break from the job they will return to. Some have run away from that which they do not want to face. Some have come here, and have found disappointment. Some don’t really know, even now, why they are here. And neither do they know what’s next.

So, once again, why are we here? Our lives now intersect, but what’s conspired to bring all of us together at this moment? There are surely reasons personal, just as there are reasons professional. And there are both positive and negative motives. We may have certain ideas, but we press on nonetheless, grappling for clarity. The fortunate few sit there content with certainty. Many others remain hesitant, and the search for meaning continues. Perhaps, when we look back one day to this one year here, the answers will become evident, finally.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Sunny and Smiling Saturday

So, where does one head to in order to wipe away the thoughts of Terrible Thursday? The answer’s obvious! To Cambridge, of course. And that was where I found myself today, accompanied by several good friends from the hall, including the prettier one-half of the Canadian Couple.

It’s a lovely city less than two hours from London, and we were blessed with wonderful sightseeing weather. I last paid a visit there in the spring of 2000 - a long time ago - and it sure was great to make this return visit. Typically, we think of Cambridge as a university town – a place which has produced international luminaries such as Issac Newton, Stephen Hawking, Erasmus, Wittgenstein, Darwin, and dare I say, even Lee Kuan Yew.

The many established colleges commanded plenty of interest for us. We wandered past a majestic 19th century Gothic gatehouse into the green grounds of King’s College – one of Cambridge’s most famous – and then into the amazing Chapel, where we stumbled upon a rehearsal of Bach’s magnificent B Minor Mass. To hear those sublime sounds swirling around the vaulted ceilings and the stained glass panellings was an experience which one wouldn’t easily forget.

And then there was St. John’s College as well, including its Chapel, where we found another choir rehearsal in session. Heading outwards, past the Second Court, we came to the lovely Bridge of Sighs over the River Cam, named after its Venetian namesake. And beyond lay the New Court, with a luxuriant green lawn in front of it. It was very lovely, very calm.

We walked past the adjacent Trinity and Clare Colleges too, wending our way down the idyllic river, where there was quite a bit of punting action going on. There were a few within the group who decided to try their hand at it. It was, not to put a too fine point on it, a bit of a mess. But I had decided, along with someone else, to remain dry and to tour the immaculate Fitzwilliam Museum instead.

This is one of Britain’s oldest public museums and surely a jewel of Cambridge. Think of it as a National Gallery and British Museum in miniature, for the collections included not only an entire floor of visual art works, ranging from Flemish and Italian masterpieces, but also British and Impressionist marvels, but also another floor that offered up ancient antiquities and decorative arts.

We had time earlier in the day as well to check out the 12th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as a Round Church, for it’s perfectly round, with striking Romanesque architecture within. And there was also the wonderfully-named Mathematical Bridge. And of course, I have to mention our nice long lunch at the Mitre pub.

It was a nice visit. But I don’t think I would have wanted to study in Cambridge, or to stay there at some length. Well, let’s just assume imaginatively that the University would even have wanted to accept me! But compared to London, it’s such a sleepy place. Perhaps that’s why it’s fostered such great learning and discoveries. The scholars there had no distractions and nothing to do on the weekends….Or perhaps that’s just me admitting the existence of my lazy, pleasure-seeking self…

Friday, January 19, 2007

As For Today...

Here's an image taken today from the inner courtyard of Goodenough College's London House, where I have my little rabbit hutch. We had good weather, with bright blue sunny skies. Now, why couldn't I have had such weather yesterday?

But mopping up continues after the storms of Thursday. Ten dead, many roads and rail tracks still closed, and millions in property loss. The BBC's described it as Britain's strongest storms in 17 years. And many parts of Europe were affected as well.

It's generally been a mild winter so far across this part of the world. But the forecasters are calling for much cooler temperatures next week. Let's see what we get in London. Some hope for snow. And it will be fun, although I think slush would be more likely. But to be honest, I don't really care, so long as it doesn't snow the next time I try to travel out of the city.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Terrible Thursday

Warning: Weary and Resigned Rant Up Ahead!

Well, this sucks. Big time. How do I even begin to describe the day I’ve just had? At this moment, I shouldn’t even be here in the hall, writing this. I should have landed long ago, after a successful flight. I should have checked into my hotel, savouring the soft bed linen. I should then have gone pounding the pavements, drawn by the strong aroma of freshly brewing coffee. I should have been breathing in the crisp winter air, and marvelling at the strange new sights and wondrous new colours around.

Instead, here I am, still in London, having survived more than 10 hours of absolute commuting hell. I’ve lost hundreds of pounds, wasted an entire day, been totally drained and deflated, with my patience sorely tested. And yes – my weekend break is no more. Where was I headed to? Well, it doesn’t really matter now, does it?

The entire country has been hit by gale force winds this past week, and conditions today were especially awful, leading to madness and mayhem in the transportation sector. Hundreds of flights were cancelled, and large sections of the rail network were shut down totally. And I, of course, had the imaginative foresight to plan a get-away this particular day.

I don’t even know if my flight had been cancelled, or if took off as scheduled. I finally got to Stansted Airport three hours after its original departure time. I was on a Stansted Express train service from London’s Liverpool Street station, but barely a half hour after it pulled away, the train came to a halt, apparently because it had run over a “wooden pellet.”

And when that was finally sorted out, we learnt that a tree had fallen across the track some miles ahead. And when that was finally sorted out, we learnt that another tree had fallen across the track some miles ahead. Déjà vu happens often. But surely not in such quick succession? Our train soon creaked up to Broxbourne – wherever that might be – and all passengers were unceremoniously dumped onto the platform. The entire service was halted.

A relief bus soon appeared, but not too long after boarding, it managed to embroil itself in an almighty traffic jam. And as the sun began setting, frustrated after a day being hidden behind the clouds, I finally made it to Stansted Airport, whereupon I turned around right away and began a two hour wait in the open – accompanied by thousands of cheerful passengers, and entertained by strong winds and plunging temperatures – for a bus ride back into London.

So, that’s life in the UK for you. My journey last December to Munich was similarly tortuous, but at least I did get into the city by the end of the day. The original flight had been delayed severely because of fog. This time round, the culprit, it seems, is wind.

What should we make of it? Not just that the British Isles is subject to crappy weather, but also that transportation here is frequently a nightmare. This is a small, crowded and over-populated island, and when you think about London, with its narrow streets and ancient infrastructure, magnify the problems posed by several magnitudes. All it takes, thus, is for a catalyst such as bad weather to occur, or any other disruption, and the transportation network descended into gridlock.

I was well aware of the reality of life here. I had travelled to London and to the UK before. In my old job back home, we commissioned a docudrama series that sought to flesh out various emergency scenarios in Singapore. And one of our guiding inspirations was a BBC mock documentary, The Day Britain Stopped, which depicted how the entire country came to a virtual standstill one day. It was a nightmare scenario, variants of which have since been playing out in real life.

I was to have returned from the weekend refreshed and recharged, ready to regale everyone with tales from a distant land. It’s not to be, alas. Instead, here I am, hungry, crabby and distinctly unhappy. It’s easy, almost trite, to put this down as the inherent condition of life in London. I know that, too. But it doesn’t make living through it any easier. Wah sibeh dulan liao.

- End of rant -

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Quite Devious

I come pretty late in life to quite a few things, and this is definitely one of them. Until today, the formula above may have spoken volumes to many of you, but it meant absolutely nothing to me. For the uninitiated, that’s the formula, of course, for calculating standard deviation in statistics.

We’ve come to the stage in our Research Methods course where things start to get quantitative, where calculators and SPSS packages are in order, and where terms such as variance, central tendency and multivariate analysis are brandished about with gleeful abandon. And this is where you begin to hear the collective groans around the lecture theatre as well.

I have absolutely no background in statistics. I remember sitting for an civil service entrance test some time back, and among the questions posed was one on probability. And I recall thinking to myself – "Well, this is nice. It’s not as though I had forgotten how to calculate probability. I’ve never even learnt the damm thing before…" Go make a guess as to whether I got the job.

And here I am now. It’s going to be a challenge. But quantitative statistics hold much promise, and are sure to come in useful in future. At least that’s how I feel at this moment. But wait. Lying ahead are concepts such as regression analysis, inferential statistics, multinomial logit, and more wild and wonderful formulas. Let’s see how I feel in a few weeks time.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Impressions On Trafalgar Square

The seminar presentation yesterday was a success. I was tired after a weekend of work, and I needed a break. I needed to head back to the National Gallery a dose of art therapy. When I last stepped into this great institution on Trafalgar Square, I had been in London for barely a few days. The modern galleries were closed then, but a new exhibition has since opened, comprising the core of the National Gallery's Impressionist and Post-Impressionist holdings.

They’ve come to be among its most popular attractions. But if you dig into the history of the collection, you would have learnt, to some surprise, that at the turn of the last century, the trustees of the National Gallery were distinctly unenthusiastic about these new, highly coloured and forthright works from France. And were it not for the efforts of certain perceptive champions, and quite a few fortunate bequests, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity now to view these monumental works right in the centre of London.

Manet to Picasso, as the exhibition's called, drew a capacity crowd. And this was late in the afternoon on a winter’s day in January. It’s a clear testament, surely, to the enduring popularity of this band of mainly continental painters who challenged the artistic conventions of their era, forging ahead instead with their own interpretation of what constitutes art.

They were by no means a unitary group. Rather, each brought his own distinctive mark to the overall genre. And this diversity was clearly on display. We saw Manet and his defiant portrayals of everyday life; Monet and his focus on shifting moods and light; Toulouse-Lautrec and his soft and playful pastels; Gauguin with his dark drawings; Van Gogh and his hard renderings; Seurat and his scientific pointillism; Cezanne and his intense landscapes; Rousseau and his childlike depictions. And there was Renoir, and Vuillard, and Signac, and more.

Some chose to head outdoors and paint quickly - en plein air, as it’s known, where a quick sketch represents the final version. A Monet worth millions today could have been cooked up in one afternoon. Others, in contrast, made repeated preparatory drawings, before executing the finished work in the studio. Some chose landscapes. Others focused on the human form.

But while techniques may have differed, they shared the clear central concern – to depict not the lives of ancient saints or kings, but how the common man and woman actually lived. What they did, what they say, where they went – the drudgery of daily life, even. All became worthy topics. This was a great democratization of art. And today, we have them to thank for as well for introducing us to such wondrous colours from the past.

In Hampstead Again

So what was it exactly? A Thai eatery masquerading as a traditional English pub? Or an English pub which got schizophrenic, and thought itself to be a Thai restaurant? I still haven’t really figured it out. But whatever the case, the food was good, and the company excellent. And that was quite enough for me.

We had found ourselves traipsing through Hampstead in North London, before we landed at the White Horse pub in South End Green. Step beyond the bar area in front, and you’re ushered into a delightful little dining room further in, complete with a charming fireplace.

Settled snugly in a corner, we studied the menu intently…. mmmmm. Could I eat it all, I wondered. Curries red, green and yellow. Tom yum and spring rolls. Pad Thai and fried rice, both laden with leaves and spice. What more could we ask for?

Great music, perhaps. And we weren't disappointed. I had no inkling I was to be immersed in the soundtrack of my life – Nightswimming by REM, and also Everybody Hurts; Bitter Sweet Symphony by the Verve, With Or Without You by U2, In My Place by Coldplay, and a few more. They certainly brought back memories of years past.

But I was very glad to have had the time to talk. I shall treasure these moments. We’ve not gotten together properly since the new term began, and it was wonderful catching up. We’ll be seeing less of each other in class this year, alas. This evening, it was just the two of us. But make no mistake. The Monday Night Dining Club is back in business.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Another Sunday, Another Pub

And we found ourselves at the Euston Flyer along Euston Road, facing the new British Library complex and the striking Victorian masonry of St Pancras station. Greeting us was a diverse lunch menu selection, but what stood out for me was the chilli con carne. It’s been ages since I had Mexican food, and the mix of rice, minced meat, beans, nachos and guacamole was marvellous.

We talked, and we bantered, and we laughed. These are moments difficult to come by when you’re back home. Caught up in the harried hustle of each day, you don’t really have the latitude to stand aside and think deeply about who you are, where you stand, what you believe in.

Coming here to London changes the rhythm of one's days right away. Yet it takes some time before the new life fully sinks in. And that happens very gradually, almost imperceptibly. And then you realise you’re no longer a person plucked abruptly from elsewhere. You begin to feel, instead, that you have a rich, full and entirely organic existence here as well.

This is, for all of us, a transient moment. It will not last. But for now, this is real life, as we know it. This is where we are, even as we may be anchored to the past. And when the next phase comes, as it will surely come, we’ll step forward, as we must, and we’ll face it.

This has been a quiet day. After a week of sombre grey, we were welcomed with a sunny, blue sky amidst Spring-like temperatures, although, as I write this, darkness has descended upon Mecklenburgh Square, and soon, a new week beckons.

I’m now mid-way through my preparations for a seminar presentation tomorrow in my Globalization and Global Governance class. I thought I’d focus on how globalization, as a phenomenon, can best be measured. Is it principally an economic process? Or should we consider other dimensions as well, such as the technological, the cultural and political? As part of my material, I plan also to highlight the AT Kearney/Foreign Policy Globalization Index, which currently ranks Singapore at number one.

The Index commands attention in its own right. But perhaps there’s a part of me here in London that's lingered on from my time in Washington. Because I do want to tell the Singapore story to audiences here, although, this time round, I shall do it my way.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A Classic Trio

It’s been with me my entire life. It’s seen me at my best and worst. It’s provided periods of calm through turbulent times. Where would I be without classical music? Would I even be me?

And the amazing truth is that classical music’s anything but old. Far from it. There’re still so many works out there which I’ve yet to fully encounter, and the standard repertoire’s getting ever broader, too. Here’s a quick note of three string works, the recordings of which I just need to get very soon:

Jean Sibelius – Andante Festivo
Philip Glass – Violin Concerto
Ralph Vaughn Williams – 5 Variants on Dives and Lazurus

Meanwhile, it’s high time to check out London’s classical offerings this coming year. I’ll have to kick myself I don’t find more opportunities to savour the variety of performances available in this city.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A Distant Land

I've generally had a good time in London so far - especially if you discount the moments of studying. But being away from home, I'm reminded of something I wrote some time back, and it's a piece which I'm happy to present here.

A Distant Land

I wandered off to a distant land
Where flowers bloomed from every hill
And everything that came to hand
Did seem to fill my every thrill
Encouraged by an eager will

On lush green trees there grew luscious fruits
Which back home I could never taste
Resolved I thus to sink my roots
Down here with dizzying, blinding haste
For dazzling sights had left me dazed

Yet when I tried soon to pluck my share
There lay beyond a chasm wide
On branches high on fields so bare
On frozen grounds the flowers died
And cold winds swept past where I’d cried

Through valleys low I was forced to roam
Through winter’s squalls of furious wrath
And when I cast my eyes back home
The showers there had moved on north
And fresh new flowers blossomed forth

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dining In

We had another Dining In at the hall this evening. The theme today was Italian – something which I seem to be having quite a bit of over the past few weeks. And the standard was as good as it gets here, which is to say, it wasn’t that great. But of course I had to go grab my fair share. It’s a bad habit to turn down the offer of free food, no matter how crappy it might be. And, well, I’m sure it’s not really free. The kinds folks running this place would surely have factored the costs of organizing these Dining Ins into our rent.

So there you are. I made it a point earlier this week to write to the restaurant manager, seeking a list of Dining In dates for this coming term. And there are quite a few – with one more at the end of this month, one in February, and three in March. Fantastic.

Because a Dining In’s more than just an opportunity to dine in. It’s a social occasion, too, and one of few where you see young kids running around merrily – the children of student-parents who would usually keep more to themselves. It’s also an opportunity for us here to hang around, not just around the dining table, but usually over a beer as well after dinner. By now, all in our circle who had departed for the year-end holidays have safely returned. So, a welcome toast to Hot Mama, and thanks for the tarts from home : )

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

At the Circus

It’s one of the perks of being a member of Goodenough College – access to a permanent box at the Royal Albert Hall. And I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a pair of tickets to a performance this evening of Alegria by Cirque du Soleil.

This ranks as my second outing to the Cirque. The first was to a production of Dralion some four or five years back in Baltimore, where I enjoyed myself thoroughly. Cirque du Soleil, of course, is more than a human circus. They’re a massive commercial enterprise, with concurrent performances all over the world. This BusinessWeek article sheds some light on the figures involved.

But enough of commerce. What about the artistry? Alegria forms one of Cirque du Soleil’s more established works, with its own distinctive choreography and music. And like all Cirque productions, there’s a unifying theme that links the individual items together – that of power, and its use and misuse. We see kings and courtiers and nymphets. But were it not for a quick trawl throught the Net, I wouldn’t have known about the storyline. It’s not readily apparent nor entirely consequential.

That did not detract, therefore, from what we saw. Superhuman handstands, amazing acrobatics, synchronized tumbling, gripping fire twirling, plus two girls with contorted rubber bodies. As someone who once was laid up in hospital with a ruptured spinal disk, I had to grit my teeth looking at them as their limbs entwined.

Perhaps the Albert Hall wasn’t the best venue for the Cirque. It’s obviously not purpose-built, and lacked a certain intimacy, especially when it came to the clowning moments. But the production overall was smooth, professional and polished. You can't get a more ready example demonstrating the commodification of culture.

A quick mention, as well, of Spago, where we had our pre-show dinner. It’s a charming little Italian restaurant on Glendower Street, barely two minutes from South Kensington station. The area around Old Brompton Road’s certainly rich with culinary offerings. Spago had a wide pizza selection, but I couldn’t resist the seafood linguine. And it proved to be the start to a most delightful evening.

An Evening At Covent Garden

Is it a simple children’s story of friendship and loyalty? Or are there more subversive undertones, with references to class warfare and rebellion? Whatever the case, Kenneth Grahame’s timeless tale, The Wind in the Willows, has charmed readers ever since it was published nearly a century ago during the Edwardian era. We may not all know the storyline well. But many of us would have doubtlessly heard of the adventures of Mole, Ratty, Toad and Badger.

It’s a story that has been adapted many times since, whether in print, on stage, or even on the big screen. Courtesy of the Singapore Lawyer, who managed to snag a few well-placed student tickets, we found ourselves this evening at the Royal Opera House’s Linsbury Theatre for an entertaining ballet production of The Wind in the Willows.

It was a very sweet and uplifting performance before a capacity crowd. We laughed along with everyone, eager to see how Toad could regain his manor home, Toad Hall, which he lost after getting into trouble with the law. We identified with Mole and Ratty’s earnest sincerity in wanting to help their friend. And we were gripped by the final fight between them and the bunch of mean weasels who had occupied Toad Hall.

The orchestral score brilliantly integrated composer George Butterworth’s charming pastoral work, Banks of Green Willow. I can think only of a few other pieces that are so exquisitely English in sound. And when we see Mole and Ratty enjoying themselves by the river early on, accompanied by Butterworth’s sweet, idyllic melody, a contented image of leisurely bliss and calm is readily conjured up.

After the ballet, we wandered off to Chinatown for dinner, stepping into the 1997 restaurant on Wardour Street. She had the char siew rice, and I the Hainanese Chicken rice. There were portraits of Marx, Lenin, Engels and Sun Yat Sen on the walls, along with assorted other Chinese political figures. But apart from these bizarre icons and the jackets we wore, we were in very familiar territory. It was the food, the setting and decor, and the language. It needed little imagination. We could have been back home.

Is this another aspect of the Singapore condition? To move effortlessly from enjoying a thoroughly English stage production, to indulging in a wholly Asian eating experience? And to feel eminently comfortable in both?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sunday at the Pub

The tour of gastropubs in London continues. Today, we found ourselves at the Norfolk Arms on Leigh Street. It’s located in a quiet, residential area about a ten minute walk from the hall. An interesting review can be found here.

The pub name sounds very British, but what greeted us was an eclectic menu selection. There were items such as chorizo in cider and bay leaf (think lup cheong), rabbit in cider, tarragon strew and celeriac mash, a squid, lentil and bacon stew, and a Spanish charcuterie, comprising "serano ham, chorizo, lomo, salsichon iberico." I think the dominant theme must be Spanish. But I settled for a more conventional Duke of Berkshire pork sausages, with braised red cabbage and apple sauce.

Even the pub itself was curiously decorated. Behind the counter hung legs of jamon and strings of salami. There was Orthodox iconography on wall. Three green Corinthian columns stood in the middle of the room. It was rather odd.

This has been an overcast and understated Sunday, punctuated by a long maiden run in the local Cannon’s gym. I’ll be exercising indoors this winter. Day One of Term Two at UCL starts tomorrow, and a full schedule awaits me. It begins again.

Here and Now

I’ve been staying up late over the past couple of evenings, getting my stuff ready for the new term, with the smooth sounds of Classic FM in the background. It’s a very comforting station. I’m in Central London, but silence prevails here on Mecklenburg Square. Apart from the music – they’re playing a Debussy piano piece now – I hear nothing apart from the occasional chipring of birds outside. Perfect.

There are thoughts aplenty in my mind, not all of which are inspiring. I’m certainly not starting this year with a clear head. There are different concerns, and there are regrets. We’ll deal with them as they emerge. We’ll have to manage. But I remind myself, just for a while, of blessed I am in many ways. And for now, I shall savour this moment.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The British Press

On my previous visits to the UK, you’d have found me an avid consumer of British newspapers, snapping up different titles from the newsstands and devouring the contents within which much gusto. That’s the peril of being a news junkie.

But things have moved on since. The only print papers I read regularly these days are the newly-launched London Lite and The London Paper – free evening tabloids with hardly any serious news in them, but laden instead with juicy gossip about Kate Moss and Pete Doherty, Prince William and Kate Middleton, Britney Spears and God-Knows-Who, latest fashion trends, the travails of London living etc…You get the idea. Some prefer one title over the other in this ongoing battle between the two. I’m pretty agnostic, and am happy to take copies of both.

But don’t get me wrong. I still track the news closely, except that I now read the papers on-line, in particular the Daily Telegraph and The Times. One is conservative-leaning, while the other is more middle-of-the-road. On weekends, however, I’d shell out a few quid to get the massive Saturday and Sunday editions, packed with sections upon sections of news and reviews. The Singapore Doctor has been kind enough to help get the papers on my behalf on those weekends I’ve been away. For this is English-language journalism at its best – something which we don’t get in back home, for a number of reasons.

Occasionally, I’ve been picking up other titles, though - I must state for the record – not the one that features this. Click at your own risk. It’s good to scan the wide range of perspectives out there, although I would admit a strong dislike of the Independent. It’s anything but. What I can’t stand about the Independent is its sanctimonious, holier-than-thou attitude which reflects nothing more than liberal, chattering-class received wisdom. If you hate America, love the state and supranational organizations, and believe unquestioningly in a variety of “progressive” causes, then this is the paper for you.

But of course, unlike the US, the British press tradition doesn’t carry as high a level of pretension to objectivity. But this means that newspapers here are often more fun and entertaining to read. I spent a few years in Washington earlier this decade going through ponderous titles such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal on a professional basis each day. It’s difficult to characterise it well, but American journalism is often more stuffy and self-important than what one finds in the UK, with the writing frequently bloated beyond necessity.

Surveying the British print media, I’m reminded again of a scene from Yes, Prime Minister – one of the all-time greatest British comedy series. In the episode, “A Conflict of Interest”, circa 1987, Cabinet Secretary and career civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby was about to proffer his views on the British media, when he was cut short by Prime Minister Jim Hacker.

“Don’t tell me about the press,” snapped Hacker, who, as a politician, was obviously more adept at dealing with the media. “I know exactly who reads the papers:
  • The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country;
  • The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country;
  • The Times is read by people who actually do run the country;
  • The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country;
  • The Financial Times is read by people who own the country;
  • The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country;
  • And the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is."

Responding, Sir Humphrey asks, “Prime Minister, what about the people who read the Sun?”

“Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, so long as she’s got big tits,” suddenly intoned Bernard Woolley, the PM’s Principal Private Secretary.

Hilarious, innit? And still amazingly perceptive.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Little Link To Home

Recognise the gentleman in the picture? Yes, that’s Raffles – Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles – agent of the British East India Company, Lieutenant-Governor of Java, keen naturalist, and also the dude who founded modern Singapore in 1819.

This is definitely a frequently-reproduced image of Raffles that many of us in Lion City are familiar with, and it was entirely serendipitous that I came to learn of the original's display at London’s National Portrait Gallery. It was painted by George Francis Joseph in 1817, and shows a confident, self-assured man. His legacy was immense, although he led a rather tragic life, losing his first wife and three of his children, and then dying early.

The New York Times this past Sunday published a travel guide to select attractions in London, and one of the mentions was the Portraits Restaurant, sited at the top floor of the National Portrait Gallery, affording a very good view of the city. Some weeks earlier, someone from class had also cited Portraits as a cool place to check out, and it was rather charming to be there in person yesterday evening.

A cocktail later, we were off to Café Emm on Firth Street for dinner. This little area north of Leicester Square and south of the British Museum and Bloomsbury is home to many little eateries. And as I march forth on my year-long mission to eat my way through London, regardless of what stands in the way, it may well be a place I’d return to very soon.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Glimpses of Milan

Sitting here in the hall as I am, mindlessly searching, searching and downloading all the required readings for the coming term, something which has occupied me for hours, I’m drawn to thoughts of the week just past in Milan. The time there with the family was priceless. The cappucino in the shadow of the Duomo was memorable. The hotel was delightful. And there will be images such as these, some fleeting glimpses, to remind me of my stay in the city:

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What's Wrong With The Weather?

It was rather disconcerting returning to London and finding myself breaking out in a sweat on the way back to the hall from Gatwick Airport. We’re now in January, but Old Man Winter has been acting rather strangely. Temperatures are in double digits and even a tree inside the Goodenough College quadrangle has started blossoming. What’s happening? And just next it on the lawn, luscious bikini-clad babes can be seen, sunning themselves, obviously delighted at this turn of events.

OK. So I exaggerate. But only slightly...

It’s not as though I prefer to freeze, although many of my friends know that I do enjoy my fair share of cold weather. The concern I have is what this might portend for the coming summer. With its ancient infrastructure and concrete architecture, London’s not a place to be enjoyed when things get hot. Last year, I understand, was one of the warmest on record. Air conditioning is still comparatively rare here. And let's not even talk about the human oven that the London Tube system becomes.

Picking up my copy of the London Lite paper this evening, however, I chanced upon the massive headline on Page 11, “Met puts UK on snow alert”. Heh. Here's the adapted online version. Apparently, the experts are predicting a few cold snaps, although this winter is expected to remain mild generally. But “the winter could be followed by a cool summer, rather than the heatwaves of recent years.”

Now, that’s definitely some good news : )

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Back in London

Well, I’m back in London and back to reality. The past two weeks in the continent were certainly good. The time in Milan proved to be very relaxing, and the opportunity to check out Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper was divine. The Duomo was remarkable as well, and we had a good time climbing up to the top. The Pinacoteca di Brera was underwhelming, but the array of designer outlets elsewere was impressive. And after too many fulfilling trips to this ristorante and that trattoria, all I need to do now is to lay off pasta and delicacies Italian for at least a month.

I wish I could begin this year, blog-wise, on a more inspiring note, yet somehow, a return to the gray and dampness of this city doesn’t really lift anyone’s spirit. January marks the start of another long slog.

But, of course, I’m not being fair to London. There is much out there waiting to be relished. Except that I’ve been spending the past couple of days on wonderfully uplifting chores like downloading course materials and readings for the coming term, stocking up the fridge, burying my dead house plant (R.I.P.), and – yes – trying to sort out the mess caused by the laptop which had given up on me.

Someone from hall has offered to lend me one of his two laptops for the moment, and it’s a gesture I really appreciate, as I try to fight things out with Toshiba UK. This seems like such a dreary, even parochial concern. There are evidently more important matters in life. Yet I really do feel the loss of the laptop tremendously. My life in London, each day, is intimately tied up with it – for work, music, TV and radio, emailing and chatting, and surfing the web.

We have the rest of this week to gird ourselves for the dawn of a new term next Monday. Chin up and chest out. The routine begins once again…