Last week, the day job took me to Kuala Lumpur. I was away for five days, two of which were spent travelling almost around the clock (mad, I know, but I assure you it was worth it!). Once I had arrived, I was privileged to be the honoured and somewhat overwhelmed guest of two universities in the city. My impressions of the country and its people during so short a stay, although vivid, are therefore inevitably sketchy, so I apologise in advance for any observations that may strike those who know Malaysia better than I do as either incomplete or simply wrong.
Malaysia is a young (just over half a century since independence), very proud country, and also a thrustingly ambitious one. All of these qualities are epitomised by the twin towers – the Petronas Towers – that were built in the KLC district of the city in 1998 and are now the tallest twin towers in the world. Following many recommendations from my Asian colleagues, I chose to spend most of my single free half-day travelling to them and taking the tourists’ trip to the top. As the Towers are eighty-eight storeys high, this provides a panoramic view of Kuala Lumpur and delivers a 360-degree demonstration of just how much development work is taking place there. High-rise buildings are everywhere and many, although dwarfed by the Petronas Towers themselves, are giants by UK standards. Nor is it all about size: most of the buildings are beautifully designed and Malaysians are increasingly strict about the standards of architecture they consider acceptable for their capital city. Whilst at the top of one of the Petronas Towers, I was lucky enough to see an inferior skyscraper being demolished: it collapsed in clouds of black dust.
As I’ve said, my impressions are based on only a little information, but it did strike me that Kuala Lumpans are in such a hurry to become world leaders that they are in danger of destroying not just their immediate past, but also their much older heritage; and this notion resonated with some of my colleagues when I voiced it. I saw little architecture in the city that was more than thirty years old and nothing at all that was likely to have pre-dated my own birth.
Yet, paradoxically, despite their keenness to ‘get on’, the overwhelming majority of Malaysians whom I met, almost all of whom were extremely well-educated, were gentle, polite, courteous, humorous and modest. They were not ‘go-getters’ in the sharp-elbowed sense. They have their own, highly honourable, way of making progress in today’s world. Much of this stems from the fact that they are also very devout. At both of the universities that I visited, the call to prayers sounded five times each day. The prayer rooms hold only twenty to thirty people and those not able to take part exactly on the hour await their turn patiently, but they make it quite clear, whatever the task in which they are engaged or the conference or focus group to which they are contributing, that prayer comes first.
Despite this apparent unanimity about how things should be done, I did observe some collisions as Eastern values met Western ones; not, however, at the universities, where highly-qualified librarians and academics have no problem with reconciling traditional dress and customs with exacting, high-profile jobs. The suite of rooms in which our meetings took place are normally occupied by eminent doctors and surgeons and are designed to help them relax from cutting-edge medical research and surgical operations. That we were very privileged to have had them generously give up these quarters to us for a whole day was not lost upon us.
Most of the men and women employed by the university wear traditional dress. This is at once exuberant and dignified. The men’s tunics and the women’s shalwar kameezes (they call them this, even though mostly the garments consist of three-quarter-length tunics and long skirts, rather than trousers) are beautifully made, often embroidered or sequined, and frequently in very bright colours. Sometimes the women wear tailored versions in heavy silk. The more austere outfits are a little more nun-like, and stick to plainer cloth – usually cotton – in light blues, greys and navy. But all these advocates of traditional dress wear their clothes with pride and often the women fasten their hijabs with many-jewelled brooches or enhance them with a framework of pearls. I saw no black burqas or niqabs at the universities.
Where I did see one such outfit was at the Petronas Towers. Since these are frequented by tourists, its owner may not have been Malaysian. I could see from her eyes and deduce from the age of her husband that she was very young – probably a girl still in her teens. And she didn’t look unhappy: he was holding her hand and they were walking along together, laughing. What was striking was the difference between this couple and another Asian couple (again, of course, I cannot make an accurate guess at their nationality), also taking the Twin Towers tour and also holding hands. The girl, also probably in her late teens, was wearing a short-sleeved black T-shirt and immaculate, but very short, white shorts.
How will Malaysia’s future unfold? From now on, I shall be fascinated to observe and find out. I hope that it will prosper as it wishes, and I also hope that it will at the same time manage to preserve its heritage and its traditions. I think that its most prominent religion may be the key: this week I was extremely honoured to have been able to immerse myself in how true Islam – tolerant, humorous, friendly, hospitable and forgiving – makes a huge contribution to the world in which we live.
Ethel Lang, the lady who held the record as Britain’s oldest woman, died last Wednesday aged 114. I salute her.
I’m hugely pleased and not a little tickled that Mrs Lang’s home town was Barnsley, which I’ve known very well for at least forty years (my husband’s grandmother, aunt and uncle lived in Pogmoor; his uncle worked for the Coal Board). In fact, she spent her whole life there: Barnsley, the heart of the South Yorkshire mining industry and base of Arthur Scargill, former miner and for twenty years president of the National Union of Mineworkers (the final home of the NUM stands stolidly at the corner of Victoria Road and Huddersfield Road, a rather grim, castle-like building, with a poignant sculpture of a mining family as a memorial in front of it); Barnsley, home of the Barnsley chop (effectively a double lamb chop, of almost joint-sized proportions, served to an individual), one of which once famously over-faced Princess Diana; Barnsley, a town dominated by its massive town hall (George Orwell thought the money spent on it would have been better used to improve the terrible living conditions of the miners) and wonderfully served by a fine covered market with two identical car parks (I’m not alone in having had to seek assistance, having ‘mislaid’ my car: the non-pc male attendant told me with some glee that ‘lasses are always doing it!’); Barnsley, whose living and much-loved bard, Ian McMillan, sings its spirit in verse and paints its picture in tweets; Barnsley, whose huge and thriving college has sent out many of the district’s sons and daughters, including the Arctic Monkeys, to succeed in the world; Barnsley, whose metropolitan borough council struggles heroically to maintain its vast rural hinterland as well as the town itself without raising the council tax: a bastion of The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, as my husband observes with great affection.
So it was the bracing atmosphere and modest amenities of Barnsley that supported Mrs. Lang well into her twelfth decade, not the leafy lanes and rarefied air of a bijou village in the home counties or the endless facilities available in one of our great metropolises. How remarkable is that! And she wasn’t a member of the upper classes or even one of the ‘middle sort’: she left school at fourteen to become a seamstress in a shirt factory and married a plumber. From a solid working-class background, therefore: clearly not in want, but not a life packed with luxury, either.
Not surprisingly, there has been quite a lot of news coverage following Mrs Lang’s death. Most of the articles and TV stories have looked back at the main national and international events of her very long life and, of course, the list is rich and varied: she was born when Queen Victoria still had a year left to reign and lived through two world wars, all the moon landings that have taken place so far and, according to The Times, the births of ten billion people during her lifetime.
I’m sure Mrs. Lang will have been interested in these things, but what are likely to have affected her more nearly are the changes that have happened in Barnsley itself during the same period. She will have remembered vividly the General Strike that took place in 1926, the year before her daughter was born, which was called by the Trades Union Congress in support of 800,000 locked-out coal miners, including the ones working the Barnsley coalfield; she’s likely to have remembered the young evacuees sent to Barnsley during the Second World War and may even have helped to look after some of them; she’s bound to have remembered also the miners’ strikes of 1974, the first since 1926, which led to the temporary introduction of a three-day week, and the strikes of 1984, which were triggered by the announcement that some twenty pits, including Cortonwood Colliery, close by, near Rotherham, were to be closed; she’ll have seen the town grow shabby and poor as the prosperity brought by mining declined, gradually at first, but inexorably, and later much more swiftly, throughout the twentieth century. And I hope that she was also well enough – and mobile enough, after her eyesight began to fail – to see this proud town reinvent itself for the twenty-first century.
Mrs Lang’s daughter said that ‘she tried very, very hard with everything that she did’ and that she enjoyed dancing, knitting, baking her own bread and having her nails painted bright colours. Endeavour and enjoyment seem to have been the secrets of her longevity. She obviously had a strong work ethic. I think it’s likely that she wasn’t a driver, but, if she had been, she’d probably have scorned to be one of the ‘lasses’ who couldn’t find her car (though, if she had found herself in my mislaid-car predicament, it would be nice to think that, like other strong Yorkshire women I have known, she would have given as good as she got if a car park attendant had tried to patronise her).
I propose a toast to Mrs Lang. May her spirit live on in her home town. And may many other daughters and sons of Barnsley chalk up a century or more, sustained by a town that continues to try very, very hard.
How does one write a review of an anthology of poetry that will do justice to all its poets and encourage readers to want to taste its fruit? Let me dangle that last word, tantalisingly close, on one of the boughs of Salt Publishing’s latest collection of compressed experience and knowledge, The Best British Poetry 2014. Ah, the temptation of the succulent flavours of sixty-six authors, when insinuated into the conscious and the sub-conscious by Guest Editor Mark Ford, whose introductory blandishments would out-Satan Satan (‘What would Milton or Tennyson make of this poem?’ he asks.). He doesn’t, however, sell the fruit individually, but tells us, to make such a selection as this, that he goes on his ‘nerve: a poem rings one’s bell, or it doesn’t.’
So here I am, already reaching out to taste and try, knowing that not all Ford’s choices will ring my bell, for an anthology is a single collection to appeal to many and, as editor, he can’t please everyone all of the time. And, in a sense, I have the same problem; if I single out individual poets, then those omitted may well feel slighted, even if I explain patiently that my preferences are the ones which chimed with me.
What’s my solution? To say that I’m delighted with the range of poems here and I’m going to highlight one, purely because it sums up for me what the whole is all about. It’s ‘Girl to Snake’, which didn’t just ring out at me; it waved its clapper in my face!
Apart, of course, from the poems themselves, one of the best features of the Salt ‘Best Poetry’ selections is the section of potted bio.s, which include comments about each of the poems by their respective authors. Abigail Parry didn’t need to say much about ‘Girl to Snake’, which speaks plentifully all on its own, though she admits to an ‘attraction’ to poems about ‘transgression, particularly when they feature smooth-talking animals and particularly when the poem’s on the side of the transgression.’ Tantalising, indeed.
Since the poem consists entirely of a girl talking to a snake, the creature itself does no smooth talking, but ‘Ropey Joe’ is seductive, nevertheless, and insinuates himself into the household; he’s ‘thin enough
To slip beneath the door and spill [his] wicked do-si-do
In curlicues and hoops across the floor.’
There is an unmistakeable sense of naughty fun in this, though Abigail Parry says quite clearly that she didn’t intend it to be an ‘overtly sexual poem’. And she’s correct: the sexual symbolism and some gorgeous double-entendres are there all right (and, in slang terms, equally relevant to drug-taking!), but what she captures is the desire for knowledge that overwhelms a girl on the cusp of adulthood; she is desperate to make sense of the things that she has heard of, that appeal because they are forbidden, that constitute a ‘wicked line of dominoes’ in our post-lapsarian world. And she will taste… and she will find out… and the knowledge, however dangerous, will be preferable to the ignorance of innocence.
Parry’s inclusion of the colloquial appellation ‘pal’, her choice of a monologue, her use of those lists to which I’ve recently referred, her deft handling of monosyllables for pace, her command of metre and her deliberate play to the ear all cohere to make the poem ring true and capture that moment in a girl’s life when she simply must step away from the tediously tame reality of the domestic safety her parents have created.
And that’s what you get with this anthology: a tantalising verse crop of fruit on the tree of knowledge, dangled by Mark Ford for our delectation and designed to appeal to our taste and our sense of adventure in a poetic world that has darkness and sadness and pain and disease and war and death and destruction and sex and drugs and vice… and delight. Of course, Milton and Tennyson (and, especially, Blake) knew perfectly well that the things on the knowledge side of the world make much more interesting subjects for poetry than innocence.
Is anything beginning to chime with you yet?
The Best British Poetry 2014, available from Salt Publishing here.