Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Five leaves left

A banana leaf lunch at the Royal Selangor Club in KL. We began with an ice-cold lassi. The banana leaf is loaded up with savoury condiments (chopped cucumber in yogurt, mango, deep-fried chilli pods, spicy cabbage) and steamed rice ("with extra vitamin B", said our host). A choice of sauces is ladled on top of the rice - I chose curried daal and then took this picture. Then a sequence of little dishes are passed around - mutton, chicken, beef, and fish - and with the right hand, you scrape up a collection of different flavours and eat. When you're finished, the banana leaf is folded over and removed. A highly efficient way of eating and so tasty that, urged on by everyone around me, I ate much more than I was hungry for as our host and his friends talked Malaysian politics, corruption, legal gossip and compared blood sugar levels (really).

Monday, June 28, 2010

Truly Asia

I'm in Kuala Lumpur, probably for the last time in a while. It's a city quite a few people I know profess to dislike. My first ever visit here seven years ago got off to a shaky start when my overeager taxi driver started telling me his wife didn't understand him and asked me to come and sit next to him in the front seat as we sped in his battered Mercedes along a near-deserted highway from the airport, surrounded by jungle as far as the eye could see. As we raced past an exit ramp clearly marked "Kuala Lumpur", I clutched my mobile phone, which had run out of battery, nervously.

The cityscape here is quite different from other Asian locations such as Hong Kong and Singapore. As Malaysia more or less successfully keeps its inherent racial, ethnic and religious tensions under control, the architecture reflects the mix of cultures and the exigencies of the climate, albeit with a relentless mall-creep which is typical of Asia's successful cities. The extraordinary, gleaming Petronas Towers rise boldly above the city, visible from miles around and startlingly illuminated at night.

There are plenty of flaws: the religious police, the corruption, the terrible traffic, a constant prurient interest in western women on their own; but I always feel a sense of wonder, curiosity and interest here. The lack of uniformity in the buildings means there's constantly some new and interesting conjunction to observe of Islamic minarets, multi-inclined Imperial Chinese roofs, shiny shopping malls, colonial turrets, ancient shop rows and dirty shacks.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Divided by a common language

Because I work for an American company I'm often subjected to the newest corporate newspeak, either directly from source or after it's been adopted with alacrity by my more eager-to-please UK colleagues. The most irksome ones, with the only sensible response in brackets thereafter:

Reach out
. Sample usage: "I will reach out to her about it." (Er, no, surely it would be quicker and easier just to email?)
Around, as in "have we made a decision around this?" (No, but we have made a decision about it.)
Sunset. "Corporate have decided to sunset this product". (Does that mean it will come up again tomorrow morning?)

Can someone please explain to me how any of these tiresome augmentations of the language advance the use of it in any way?

Friday, June 11, 2010

National velvet

I bought the new record by The National, High Violet, in HMV yesterday. I listen to music sitting at my computer, with headphones on (which means I can't hear the phone ringing), which can be unsatisfying as I'm distracted by what I'm reading, the news about peculiar apparent murderer Joran van der Sloot (how can someone who was born in 1987 be a peculiar apparent murderer already?) or looking at fractal patterns or an exposition of geometry in nature, or going on some other internet odyssey or down a blind alley in search of something I can't quite remember.

Listening to this, though, I'm closing my eyes just to take it in. Matt Berninger's voice is deep and resonant, if sometimes world-weary, the arrangements are lush, the lyrics are intriguing ("You'll find commiseration in everyone's eyes/The storm'll suck the pretty girls into the skies" (Little Faith)), and every song draws you into itself in a different way, even though that's often with a kind of graceful bleakness. The first two tracks, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks and England, are both haunting and absolutely beautiful. The latter, in particular, builds to an incredible, wounding climactic chorus and then dies away in contemplation. The sound is brooding and intelligent; at its best, this is an incredible record.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

On the cover of a magazine

Me and my sister used to read a magazine called Jackie (1964-1993), published by D.C. Thomson in Dundee. In my mind's eye, Jackie has Leslie Ash (wearing a checked shirt) on the cover and a special pullout centrefold of Leif Garrett (wearing a checked shirt) inside. Jackie had a splendid, mordant advice column, called Cathy and Claire, true life photo stories featuring true life (ie boyfriend) dilemmas, and fashion and make-up tips, many of which inserted themselves in my brain so thoroughly that I will never forget them.
never pluck a hair out of a mole
don't brush your hair when it's wet
apply foundation with a sponge
don't wear clashing patterns
horizontal stripes make you look fat
chocolate gives you spots
I was recently invited to an event where the trichologist Philip Kingsley was going to share his wisdom about hair. I wasn't able to go, but I was longing to be able to ask him about the veracity of some of those Jackie legends: wash your hair as infrequently as possible (apparently he says the opposite)? Use the hottest water you can bear? These things are modern superstitions. I'll never forget them, but over time I might have worked out that some of them are subject to challenge. Over time I've also added some of my own (from, gasp, other sources):
blot hair with a towel before blow-drying
only condition the ends of your hair, not the roots
dark chocolate contains anti-oxidants and is good for your skin
tomato ketchup contains lycopene (thanks, Men's Health) which ditto
reading a broadsheet newspaper every day is good for your vocabulary (thanks, Mr Campbell)
only floss the teeth you want to keep