Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Black Fingers

I have an unhappy history as a gardener. A history which leaves behind blackened, withered plants, shriveled from lack of care. My father once gave me an orchid as a birthday present. I tried to keep it alive, but erratic watering and my evil charm with plants did not do well for it. A few months later it was very poorly. When my parents came round for dinner I asked my father whether he could take it home and revive it (as he had in the past with an almost-dead African violet.) 'It's dead' he announced dryly.

My parents, my father in particular, are excellent gardeners. He is often found wandering in their garden around breakfast time in his '#1' yukata, teapot in hand, lovingly checking on each plant as though they were sleeping babies. It seems they thrive for him from love and attention as much as water and bone meal.

Meanwhile my green genocide continues. I bought plants for our roof terrace. Hardy plants. Difficult to kill. Chosen expressly for their resilience - bamboo and leafy palms. Several months in they were still alive. So far, I thought, so good. Though withered at the edges, still alive. Or so I thought.

Recently, guilt, and Sunday, sent me up to water my neglected charges and I noticed that the sprouts of green from one pot of bamboo were coming from the thick bamboo poles the bamboo plant had been tied to to keep it upright. Up and down the pole sprouts of green were escaping, bursting out. The dead bamboo pole had come back to life. The original bamboo plant, unfortunately, was dead.

Monday, 26 May 2014


We have a new cleaner on my floor at work. I'm worried that his predecessor might have died. There is no welfare state in Singapore so old people do the jobs that no one else wants to: clearing the tables at hawker centre and cleaning our offices.

Well, I say cleaning. The cleaners don't do very much actual cleaning. They empty the bins, occasionally hoover and mop parts of the floor, never the whole thing but patches. This is considerably less cleaning than was done my last company and says a lot about this place, an organization where to send a letter you need to fill out a form and get the HOD (Head of Department) to sign it. Not for something to be couriered mark you, I'm talking about the price of a stamp. Crazy.  

Anyhow, I have bought a squirter of Cif, sponge scourers and ant traps for my desk. The last cleaner was so withered and wasted that he looked as though he might snap when he bent over to empty the wastepaper baskets into his binliner. It was clearly painful for him. His gratitude when I emptied mine into his binliner for him was embarrassing. His replacement is mildly disabled but far more sprightly though still well over the age of 70. When I try and empty my bin into the liner for him he won't let me, so I'm reduced to nodding and smiling, my most reliably fallback until the Mandarin lessons kick in.

This will take some time. My teacher (laoshi) is also an extremely old, shrivelled man. Last lesson someone asked him what would happen at the end of the course. Could we move onto Conversational Mandarin Beginners Level 2? He looked extremely surprised and said no one had ever asked him that before. Usually, he said, he just goes back and repeats Conversational Mandarin Beginners Level 1 over and over. No one ever wants to continue. This isn't very shocking. He's a rubbish teacher and the class is extremely dull.

You know that stage babies get to when they chatter conversationally without any actual words but it almost sounds as though the chatter means something because they've got the cadences and rhythms right? Well I'm a really long way from getting that advanced with my Mandarin. I need to find a better teacher. I need to learn fast. Half my students are Chinese I need to understand as a matter of urgency. The comments that float. You can understand why.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


The rain has finally come. Singapore, parched since January, is drenched.

In England, home, people live and die by the weather. It levels us all. It's more democratic than our democracy. The British are governed more by the rain, the cold and their resulting effects on the garden, than anything the Government do. In the end. This is why, unlike the rest of Europe, we've never risen up in revolution against our ridiculous monarchy.

In Singapore the niceties are framed around food, have you eaten yet, have you tried this place or that? Unsurprising when the weather flattens into hot or wet over months. We've had the haze again too. The smoke from Indonesian fires burning in the back of Singaporean throats. The horizon blurred. Reality is softened. A taste of burning in the air. People complain. I rather like it. Shhhh.

Work is busy. Often stressful. Often wonderful. It's an old truism, but teaching is a privilege and I am falling in love with my students. Less so the accompanying paperwork. There's a lot to fix. It leaves less time for everything else. Less headspace. I haven't been here since December. My writing in general is suffering. My hard won habit of writing every day has disintegrated. The battle with my head is hard for me.

But so many aspects of life now are good, very good. So much better than they have been for years. I love this job, warts and all. I want to stay in it and change things. Make a difference. Don't we all?

It's amazing how a job can change your whole perspective on a place. My view of Singapore has altered. I feel at home here. I like everything about it more. The people, the weather, the possibilities. I am still uncomfortable with some aspects and always will be. I hesitated before showing students an extract of a fantastic DV8 piece, To be straight with you because of, what would be described here as 'homosexual content'. Hesitated, but then showed in anyway. I will stand behind my beliefs.

I have booked to come home again in the summer and am looking forwards to it, but not with the desperation I've had in the past. I need to find better ways to manage my stress levels and make sure I write. To keep balancing priorities. But on the whole, life is good.

Friday, 13 December 2013


If Eastbourne is the place old people go to die, Wimbledon is the place middle class people go to breed. Like my parents. And my friend S*** (two children) who I met earlier this week.

Unfortunately because of the booming baby population she has to move to Epsom because they can't get their kids into either of the schools just around the corner, both C of E church schools, because they aren't religious. I think that's dreadful. Apparently church schools are now all powerful and demand that people attend church and do volunteering if their children are to get in. I suppose the going to church bit is fair enough, except that they get 50% state funding and there's no school place for my mate's child.

I am amazed how I am back and immediately step into the old ways. I potter around, visiting the same people, shopping in the same shops. Of course there are changes. Wimbledon seems to be getting posher each time I come back, as though the village is seeping down the hill.

I go to the theatre and in the daytimes I meet up with friends. I am able to do this because they (almost) all have small children. (The DFP can't come because of work, but this is not a schedule that the DFP would enjoy so it's just as well I'm travelling solo.)

On Sunday I went to the soft play centre in Raynes Park (the horror) with A***** (two children) who thought she had escaped from Wimbledon but has been sucked back in.

On Tuesday I went round to S***'s (two children) house and we talked non stop for four hours. Soon I will meet up with P*** (five children), J**** (two children – twins) and hopefully with G***** (two children). I probably won't be able to make it down to Warwickshire to see M*** (one child) but I am going up to see my brother in Scotland (three children) and my old friends H**** (three children) and M***** (three children) will come and meet me there.

A few years ago they would all have been at work during the day, so this does well for my holiday plans. Though some are starting to go back to work, which won't work well for my holidays at all. The arty types (largely no children, yet) I have to see in the evenings because they are busy working during the days.

I've had a wonderful run of theatre. I can recommend 'The Curious Incident of the dog in the Night-time', 'Jumpers for Goalposts' and 'The Elephantom' and, if you haven't seen a Punchdrunk show before and are feeling flush, 'The Drowned Man' is worth a visit.

I find it very emotional being back. Seeing people I love and miss, hearing the big things which don't travel well, and small things which don't either.

I realise I miss the quality of the light. The variations you don't get in Singapore. Life here altogether seems more piquant, in good ways and bad. Walking home from the theatre on Tuesday night I looked down onto Villiars street from the walkway onto the Hungerford footbridge. Police cars lined the street and a man with a bloodied nose was being held in a doorway by two police, garbling about not wanting to fight anyone. When I reached Waterloo it was swaying with festive drunkards.

Now I'm on the train to Scotland with the countryside tumbling beautifully past the window and plenty of layers packed. It's hard to put into words what these trips mean for me. Suffice to say they are too infrequent and very important for my well-being.

The new job, which I am a couple of months into and loving, means I will be in Singapore for at least another couple of years. But the years slip by quickly in seasonless Singapore. In the meantime I must make sure that I come back often.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Counting down...

The other day I asked the DFP whether he wanted a cup of tea and because he was doing something on the computer, he didn't answer. Without thinking about it I started counting down from 5. (Surefire way to hurry along a 3-5 year old.) Fortunately he didn't notice. I have definitely been teaching small children too long.

I am currently negotiating the terms for a new job. This is a lovely, lovely job. Almost a dream job. A real game changer for me. But what it also means is that I will be here in Singapore for, at the very least, another two years. And that is quite a thing. It gives me a funny feeling in my stomach when I think about that.

Another dear friend got married this weekend, and I wasn't there. She put the video on facebook and I wept a little weep to be so far away from my dear ones. It doesn't get easier being so far away. But then I look at this amazing job, which I would never, ever have got in the UK and think, this really is the land of opportunity.

I am sitting on the roof terrace writing this. In half an hour I will be directing another dear, but far flung friend who is preparing a one woman turn for a variety night. She is in America. I am in Singapore. We are so far away but in our isolated-farawayness we are connecting and reconnecting more often than we did when I was surrounded by friends in the UK. There is something wonderful about that.

When I say alone, of course, that's not true. I do have lovely people around me who are becoming firmer friends. But friendship takes time and here I have been out of my creative circle. I miss those people particularly. I hope this job will change that.

I am counting down the days until I start. Fingers crossed.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Butchering a chicken

One thing I think I will never get used to is having to cut the head and feet off a chicken. In Singapore chicken's feet are a delicacy so the standard shopper would be most put out to find the best bit missing on buying a whole bird.

The chicken you want is, of course, a kampong chicken. Kampong is Malay for village. To buy the closest possible thing to free range, you go for Kampong ayam (chicken). Both at the wet market and in the supermarket chickens come with head and feet attached. They tuck the feet into the the chicken's bottom so before attacking you have to pull them out.

I am not averse to making a stock using the head and feet but I really dislike the way the feet curl around your hand as you chop them off, the way you have to hack a few times to get through the leg bone, the sickening thud as you chop through the neck. My days of vegetarianism are long behind me. Making casserole has become a whole new experience.

I have, unsurprisingly, been on holiday since I last wrote. Hari Raya, the end of Ramadan, was the day before National Day giving us Thursday, Friday and Saturday off. We went to a resort called Rimba on a small Malaysian island called Sibu. It was heavenly. There was very little to do except eat, drink, read and snorkel and then do them all again. With all the decisions taken away from us there was nothing to squabble about at all.

Not a great picture, but this is a baby wild boar. Fortunately the DFP wasn't fast enough to catch and eat it.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Sunday morning

While I often complain vociferously about working on a Sunday there are some things I like about it.

I like being slightly out of step with the rest of the working world. I like having a day off during the working week. I like that when I cycle into work on a Sunday morning the roads are quiet. I like the things I see.

I get up and, still half asleep, before I've even had my coffee, get on my bike to cycle into work. This is what I saw this morning on my way.

As I cycled up grimy Geylang road I saw the tail ends of last night. Sometimes I'll catch sight of a lady or notlady making a deal, people still drunk falling across the road. The numerous food stalls are already peopled.

Sitting along a pavement, cheek by jowl, was a row of construction workers, Chinese and Indian, waiting to be collected by one of the open backed trucks and taken to one of Singapore's never ending building sites. I'm not the only one who has to work today.

The next part of my route, past Kallang, through Lavender is motorway. I cross over the river and see people running alongside it, before the sun is fully up and the heat sets in. Marathons here start at night. I snake away from the motorway and come up into Bugis, past the golden onion domed mosque. During the week I'll sometimes catch sight of children on their way to the Madrasah the boys wearing small white caps, the girls in mini hijab and niqab.

The further I cycle away from Geylang the cleaner and brighter Singapore gets. I pass the famous Batman building. I used to think that this was the oldest sky scraper in Singapore, an original 1930's office block. It isn't. It was built in the 80's or 90's, a vanity project owned by a rich Malaysian business man, but still impressive.

The Batman building
I leave Bugis and cycle past Raffles hotel, past Chimes, once a church now a complex of (what else in Singapore) restaurants. I turn up towards the lush greenery of Fort Canning park passing beautiful old colonial buildings currently being gutted, turning into yet another mall leaving, only their beautiful fa├žades as a memory of the past.

Out of the tunnel I pass Dhoby Ghat, more malls, and Singapore is getting shinier and shinier with each push of the pedal. Up Somerset, the backside of Orchard, malls on either side of me. Past Grange Road and another breath of the past, a row of old Chinese shophouses, spruced into desirable residences. 

Up Orchard Boulevard and a surprising slice of greenery tucked away from the malls and condominiums that make up orchard, a canopy of green.

And I'm there. I lock up my bike and go and find a coffee to wake me up while I write my diary and prepare for my day.