Sunday, 23 November 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 22 November 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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


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



Friday, 21 November 2014

Singapore Notebook 21 November:
Dance and Spectacle


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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

It is the wealth dreamed by the poor.

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

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


Thursday, 20 November 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tuesday, 18 November 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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



Monday, 17 November 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pics later.

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


I am getting used to being here.

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

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

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

But back to record.

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

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

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

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

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

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