Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Strange Meeting

He died in the last year of his war; this poem was found among his personal effects. I found myself thinking of Wilfred Owen and Iraq all at once, this day. The poem is rich with words like overripe fruit, rotting in the carnage of some far-flung battlefield. It is ghastly, and profane, and yet seems like the zenith of a war-poet's gift.

Here are some of its lines:

"Strange, friend," I said, "Here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said the other, "Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

And this is what a paean to the modern world might sound like.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Book Alert: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

This is the largest novel of the year, as far as I can tell. Susanna Clark's 782-page opus may not have Tolkien's magisterial bulk, but it is certainly a sustained narrative of peculiar and commendable strengths. Set during the English Regency period, it is the story of how certain unique arts are lost, then discovered — but deliberately confined and controlled by one man and his power-hungry advisors — and later liberated to bring in a new age. And is the new age better than the one before? We are left with mixed feelings; it is a satisfactory state of ambivalence which agrees with what we know of human nature.

The book as a whole can be read as an analogy for technological power and its control. Of course, the most obvious of the age-defining technologies of our time is that which allows us to split the atom. True to form, the knowledge of Messrs Strange and Norrell takes most of the book to percolate to other practitioners, but once unleashed, cannot be rescinded. Also true to the reflexes of most modern states, the first practical applications of the new arts are in war — the Napoleonic wars, to be exact.

Yet, this isn't all the book is about. It is also a moving and sometimes very disturbing disquisition about the nature of human knowledge, its attainment, cost, and deployment. Jonathan Strange begins as Mr Norrell's apprentice, but rapidly comes to realise that the apprenticeship offered is merely a way of keeping his talent in check and subordinate to the state. He serves faithfully at first, but in the end realises that the state and the country are not the same, and that knowledge itself may prove more important than either. Mr Norrell begins with good intentions, but is quickly brought into the establishment so that only that august self-elected group will have the benefit of his naïve and earnest philosophizing.

The establishment quickly grows bored of Mr Norrell and wary of Mr Strange. And as is the case in many similar situations, it is the women and the disenfranchised who suffer most. Jonathan's wife Arabella is a particularly nasty casualty, as are the manservant and wife of Lord Pole, Norrell's establishment mentor. All these will be saved in the end, but the upheaval is tremendous, and there are many others who will be strewn by the wayside when the darkness is finally over.

Behind it all is the dark spectre of John Uskglass, the Raven King. Custodian of the hidden knowledge, he is an enigma at best, and a harbinger of doom at worst. All fear him, and they deal with that fear by through ultimately futile attempts to expunge all traces of his existence. But the never-present (and yet ever-present) Uskglass will have the last laugh.

The only objection one might have to this strongly atmospheric and fluent novel is that it is an epic which — while falling short of Wuthering Heights and outscoring the equally massive Harry Potter sequence — is too finely-textured, too broad, too difficult to swallow at one go. Those who get through it will have read something quite wonderful; but it is the getting through which might prove difficult.

Sunday, November 07, 2004


As kíngfishers cátch fire, drágonflies dráw fláme is the first line of one of the most beautiful poems I have ever read. I first came across Hopkins and his alarming sense of metre, his 'sprung rhythm', in an English Lit class more than 20 years ago. He has never left me, this Jesuit whose eye saw angels and whose ear heard dominions and the salutes of the seraphim. Of all the poets I know, he is the only one who speaks so intimately to the spiritual sense of self, over so many pages, in such multifarious and mellifluous guise. Read him for yourself — the stresses marked are the poet's own.


As kíngfishers cátch fire, drágonflies dráw fláme;
As túmbled óver rím in róundy wélls
Stones ríng; like éach tucked stríng tells, éach hung béll's
Bow swúng finds tóngue to flíng out bróad its náme;
Each mórtal thíng does óne thing ánd the sáme:
Déals out that béing indoors éach one dwélls;
Selves-góes itsélf; mysélf it spéaks and spélls,
Whát I dó is mé: for thát I cáme.

Í say móre: the júst man jústicés;
Keeps gráce: thát keeps áll his góings gráces;
Ácts in God's éye whát in God's éye he ís-
Christ-for Chríst pláys in ten thóusand pláces,
Lóvely in límbs, and lóvely in éyes not his
To the Fáther thróugh the féatures of méns's fáces.

Gerard Manley Hopkins


Saturday, November 06, 2004

Not Quite A Wasteland

It is years since I last sat in the mellow half-light of the Library in the College of the Wyvern. Some moments there will always live with me, clear crystal fragments of old dreams. But it was here that I decided that Thomas Stearns Eliot was a worthy ally in the fight for life, and it was here that I decided that apart from his The Waste Land, there were not a few other poems of his which inspired me.

A few days ago, I remembered one particular verse:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

It has always been that choice — to be Fool or Magician. And if neither, for the moment, then why not an attendant lord? There is enough honour there.

Friday, November 05, 2004


Today, I was struck by the corvids in my life. In casual conversation, I heard the words 'crow' (used as a verb), 'rook' (as a chess piece), 'jay' (a visiting colleague from NYC), and 'raven' (for once, the bird itself). I have always loved corvids as images, for their sass and air of knowledge, for their mythical and mythological aspects.

And today, I had a full set. The things which infiltrate our lives can be so strangely wonderful.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Ambushed At The Polls

US President George W Bush has won a second term. The event seems to resonate beyond its small 21st Century borders, summoning forth old ghosts and pointing towards future spectres. And yet, it came down to a simple equation. The man who was more real to more people won.

Quoting from Lepanto again:

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
 (Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man's house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery...

President Bush, for all his apparent inability to forge international consensus, or even to bow to its seeming necessity, has got some painful issues very clear in his mind. He has the largest weapon of mass destruction of all, the United States of America. He has a domestic plurality now, of sorts — he has increased his legitimate right to govern, both in the popular vote and in the electoral college, and with both houses of Congress sharing his affiliation. He is not shy to use any of that.

He knows how to build a win out of chaos and what looked like a 50/50 split all the way down to the wire. He knows how to fight a war abroad while putting out fires at home. He seems to have a horrible socioeconomic record, though, but things in those areas may yet come right. Even more important, he knows who his enemies are and doesn't try to make peace with those who won't make peace themselves. He is no wimp.

In the final analysis, the bottom line for most people was, "Will the man we vote for be true to himself? Will he make decisions in good faith, whether right or wrong?" It was hard to tell with Senator John Kerry.

Debating Our Destiny

Does anyone still remember Dukakis-Bentsen vs Bush-Quayle in 1988? For those who weren't around then, or who, in the famous words of the late President Reagan, cannot recall, it might be educational to look back 16 years, to a time when things were debated with a civilised passion. This entry is linked to the 1988 Vice-Presidential Debate between Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Senator Dan Quayle. It has some very good moments in it.

The Long Day Wanes

It's night in monsoon Singapore. The streets are redolent with damp mineral scents, and all around is the faint dripping of old rain. It has been a very long day for me, fatiguing to the heart and mind. It is also the time of year when colleagues depart, when the shifting exigencies of service demand movement, change, renewal.


Saturday morning she came
She had boxed her years away -
Several packages, her name
Quietly upon them lay.

They carted her life downstairs;
She had always been modest,
She never gave herself airs,
Always had given her best.

Like caterpillars work hard
She had worked lovingly here;
Now her cocoon has been made
She will shortly disappear.

Only to reappear; for
Butterflies sometimes return,
Gracing trees they knew once more
With caterpillar concern.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


It's easy to say that change is the only constant — that's very glib. But it isn't. Change is what masters us in the end; nobody can always win, nobody can always be young; nobody can always be the brightest, the best, the bravest.

Times change — and we must change with them. Tempus mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Duty With Honour

It's odd, the kind of things that one reflects on as one heads deeper into one's middle years. I slept awkwardly, awoke, realised it was yet too early to be awake, and found myself thinking about the oddest thing — the familiar soldier's triad, 'Duty, Honour, Country'.

And in what odd way was I thinking about these things? Perhaps the strangest thing was that for a few moments, I was seeing in my mind two pairs of quatrains from A E Housman. The first pair was his Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries:

These, in the day when heaven was falling
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

So paltry, it seems, that men might die simply because they were paid to do so. Such a tattered thing, honour might seem, when it is paid for in gold (or silver) and not in some more abstract, more noble coin of the spirit. But that is not the tenor of the epitaph at all — rather, it suggests that from base foundations something greater might spring; it suggests that salvation might come from the businesslike and mundane, not only from the spiritual and divine.

The other two quatrains are the last two of Housman's Jubilee poem, 1887:

'God save the Queen' we living sing,
From height to height 'tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-Third.

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you've been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God
will save the Queen.

The dead in this poem are as dead as those in the first. The only difference is that Housman speaks of them as "...friends of ours/Who shared the work with God." How unalike the mercenaries in the other poem! Their rest seems more sacred, more remembered. Yet, in both poems, one sees that both kinds have done the work of God — a deliberately absent hand in the former, a partner in the latter — and both have some kind of memorial.

So what of 'Duty, Honour, Country'? One is often tempted to go with Wilfred Owen and say, "... that old lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." Still, amid the cynicism and the human unbelief, there is a place for heroism, whether as a duty or an honour — and some might add, whether for God or for country.

I have no idea why one wakes in the middle of the night with such thoughts echoing in one's head, like beacons casting the sight of flame from one dark hill to another. Like a soldier, one awakes, does one's duty, and returns to rest. How odd.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Reflections On Time

This evening, an old family friend called. She wanted to talk about quantum physics, with sidetracks to Proust and Shakespeare, Greek mythology, nanotech intelligences, and a whole bunch of really peculiar stuff which my poor aching head could hardly tie together.

Well, that set me off on a tangent of self-discovery. As I type this, I am timing myself. Can I be coherent? Will the quality suffer badly, as I type my thoughts against time, the clicking of the keys against the ticking of the clock? Is it like chess, where some moves are pre-analysed and both players breeze through them without much thought? Or is it like a race, in which one might not know how much each second counts until it is almost at an end?

I remember writing examination essays a long time ago. The dank air of the auditorium consumed sensation like a pall. After an hour of that punishment, my essay was done and I was dozing. The invigilators thought I was ill — after all, there were still ninety minutes or so left in the examination. But I was done. Why would one want to take longer than necessary to write for an examination? Of course, careful checking and editing is possible, and indeed, laudable. Yet, it isn't always the best thing — occasionally, instinct must override ratiocination.

I remember writing my Master's thesis in ten days. The incubation period, however, was about thirty months. I wrote exactly two chapters in three days. Then there was this really long hiatus, which worried everyone except my very encouraging supervisor. I had to go to Tennessee for a while. When I got back, I was on the verge of disaster. Then inspiration struck and those ten days ground out the rest of my almost 60,000 words.

This post has taken not more than seven minutes. The thought can indeed be father to the act; where will and power are one, so let it be, as Dante's Virgil said.