Thursday, October 15, 2009

My top three history lit. idols

Yu-Mei and I had discussed writing some serious pieces about literary influences, but I think we've done quite enough of that kind of stuff already. Instead, and in the glorious cause of dumbing down wherever and whenever possible, here are (in no particular order) MY ALL TIME TOP THREE HISTORY LIT. IDOLS!

(My apologies now to all those concerned.)


1. SIMON SCHAMA: or simply 'The Schama' as he is known in my house (Sunday nights are reserved for his highly recommended Power of Art documentary series).

With his sassy delivery, cool jackets and his increasingly camp asides ('Well, he would say that wouldn't he?' seems a current favourite), 'The Schama' has emerged as the new Truman Capote of the TV dons world. His books aren't half bad either, and his personal philosophy when writing about the past, itself taken from his old Cambridge supervisor, is one with which I fully concur: to write history 'with the play of the imagination' and to 'bring a world to life, rather than entomb it in erudite discourse'.

Schama takes a bit of flak these days for being so popular (see the grilling he got in the American Historical Review recently for his hugely successful TV series A History of Britain). But although he might often cut to the chase, he rarely dumbs down and is never less than interesting.

Schama, we salute thee! (And yes, that was me hanging around Columbia last fall trying to get an autograph. The campus security are fascists!).

For more on Simon Schama see his bio on the PBS website.

2. JUNG CHANG

Dear Jung Chang,

I adored Wild Swans, even if one eminent historian I used to work with did dismiss it as merely 'a good beginner's guide to 20th-century Chinese history'. He's just jealous, of course, just like those other academics who got so upset when your Mao: The Unknown Story came out – especially those sentimental lefties who had preferred to think of Mao as an idealistic poet who had been lured to the dark side and were then made to look a bit foolish by all your new research. So what did these academics do? They attacked you for ... for your endnotes.

(Well, sister, we're behind you on that one – Singapore: A Biography has similarly un-academic endnotes.)

Next time you are passing through Hong Kong do drop by HKU and perhaps we can go for a coffee. My office is in the old quadrangle of the old building – you know, the one where Ang Lee filmed those romantic scenes of innocence about to be lost in Lust, Caution?

Not that I mean anything by that, of course.

For more on Jung Chang see this profile in the Guardian.

3. PETER ACKROYD

(Oh damn, I've used up my Truman Capote analogy already).

Well, in that case, Peter Ackroyd is like the Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-playing-Truman-Capote of the history lit. world - a camp old darling who, when he isn't working himself into another heart attack by writing too hard, can be found propping up the bar in one of his favourite East London pubs or wine bars.

Ackroyd has a special place in the genesis of Singapore: A Biography for being the root cause of not one but two cases of severe writer's block. The first instance was when my sister lent me his London: The Biography while I was staying with her in Cape Town and trying to work on our own Singapore: A Biography.

You see, Ackroyd is particularly known for his almost mystical belief in what he calls the 'territorial imperative', whereby a patch of ground, a house or even a city, influences the behaviour of its inhabitants, sometimes over several centuries. Inspired by the man, I tried playing with this idea for weeks before chucking it in when I finally conceded that the only territorial imperative in Singapore seemed to be to ceaselessly demolish, upgrade and develop.

Anyway, my sister then gave me his Shakespeare: The Biography as a birthday present, which I then lent to Yu-Mei. This led to the second instance of apparently Ackroyd-induced writer's block, Yu-Mei's account of which can be found on her blog.

All the same, I still love Ackroyd's work even though there is no point trying to emulate him.

P.S. Ackroyd has just written a book about Venice, the first time he's ventured beyond London and Britain for ages. What next? Surely not another book on another Renaissance City? Surely not ... Singapore: The Biography? (No, he wouldn't, he couldn't).

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

10 quick questions: Yu-Mei asks, Mark answers

1. Who was your favourite author when you were growing up, and why?

I am most definitely still growing up, and during this process there have been many favourites. When I was about 16 I discovered the Russian 'greats' - Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev and Chekhov. The drama of their sometimes manic narratives definitely left a deep impression.

As I grew up a bit more, I began to enjoy a cooler, more controlled prose style. In my late 20s I got hooked on Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Now, in my late 30s, I like reading works that provide some meditative calm (it must be the contrast with the bustle of family life and work). I read far more popular non-fiction than I used to (in addition to what I have to read as an academic), and I am even considering starting on Proust.

Nonetheless, the narrative intensity of the Russian 'greats' probably still influences what I write the most, even when it comes to popular history. Nabokov might have described Dostoevsky as an outrageous 'hack'(and to some extent he was) but he remains a genius 'hack' all the same.

2. What is the most common assumption people make about historians that really annoys you?

It's an assumption that is so annoying because it can be true - that historians are dusty and boring. The problem is we train ourselves to be walking repositories of the past, which no matter how you try to project yourself is not exactly sexy. Even within academia, I think history has an image problem. Compare us with other experts in the humanities and social sciences with their greater penchant for theory and we appear like party-poopers who have turned up at the fancy dress ball in plain clothes. (Indeed, many of us secretly hold that this is our role in life - to puncture grand social and economic theories through our deeper acquaintance with historical detail).

Things are, of course, changing. Many historians have embraced theory. At the same time, narrative history is now back with a bang (and selling fast) while big-name historians are all over the box.

All the same, I will never forget the first time I met my (now) wife in Singapore. It was at a family dinner where her parents were so interested in the fact that I was interested in Singapore history that they didn't give me a chance to talk about anything else. Wife-to-be thought I was boring and dusty, and I had to spend a lot of effort convincing her that I wasn't.

3. Of all the personalities in Singapore: A Biography, who would you invite to dinner and why?

Hardly original, but for a good old gossip and bitch over several bottles of wine (and provided he was not in a bad mood) it would have to be David Marshall.

4. What would you talk about?

Well, first up, did he enjoy jazz? When we did the Companion Guide episode in the National Museum, I lobbied to have his 'Under the Apple Tree' speech mixed over Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five'. I still wonder if he would have enjoyed this or hated it. (Perhaps he'd have preferred a more momentous soundtrack like Beethoven or Wagner.)

I'd also ask him about the best post-war bars in Singapore - especially, what he recalled of the Liberty Cabaret on South Bridge Road. The other important stuff about politics is all in his oral history interview at the National Archives so there would be no need to go back over it.

5. If someone made a film about 1950s Singapore politics, which actors would you like to see cast as David Marshall and Lee Kuan Yew?

(Ha, is this revenge for my WWF historical smackdown question?)

I think with modern SFX, Lee could be played by a digitally slimmed-down and youthful looking combination of two actors: Glen Goei and Sir Anthony Hopkins. After Nixon, Hopkins could play any major leader (given the right prosthetics) and since both actors have worked together they could probably each "inhabit one another's space" and "really get inside each other" to create Lee on the big screen. Hopkins could give Goei a few Hannibal Lecter tips on ruthlessness and Goei could teach Hopkins how to be ... more Chinese?

Marshall would have to be played by Singapore-based Malaysian actor and playwright Huzir Sulaiman - who has written a play about Marshall and must be just waiting for the call.

6. Which two personalities from different time periods in Singapore: A Biography could have been best mates, and why?

Best mates for how long? Like anywhere else, Singapore's political history is so fraught with big egos and break-ups. Remember Raffles and Farquhar, Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong?

Okay, then, probably Dr Goh Keng Swee (self-governing Singapore's first Finance Minister) and Dr John Crawfurd (Singapore's second British Resident). They'd be able to spend hours together discussing domestic growth figures, moaning about the expensive and unrealistic idealism of some of their associates, and comparing who could go longer without wasting money by washing his underpants.

7. One of our reviewers said we seemed to have a lot of fun writing this book. What was you favourite part?

It was also the most difficult: weaving the various sources and individual life-stories into a flowing narrative through effective transitions.

When these transitions worked, it was very satisfying. I especially enjoyed the Chettiar/Little India section that comes just before the outbreak of World War II (Yu-Mei's original idea to place it here) and the filmic indulgences (cut tos, freeze-frames, rewinds etc.) that are employed at crucial moments in the 1950s Merdeka chapters. These were meant to evoke the new mass media that dominated this period (and I know that you at least, illustrious co-author, really liked them).

For more on these, go buy the book.

8. If you hadn't elected to read history when you were an undergraduate, what do you think you would be doing now?

Very simple - English Lit. My family is like an English Lit. mafia.

I was tossing up between English and History, and it was simply the encouraging words of my history teacher (the revered Charles Malyon, regarded by many - me included - as during his career the best history teacher in the UK) that sealed it for me. At the time, my parents thought English Lit. as a subject was going down the plughole anyway, what with the death of the author.

I'd like to say that an alternative life-choice would have meant I'd now be writing great novels and making great films. But, in reality, I'd probably still be sitting here in Hong Kong University, only just a few offices down the corridor, dreaming of the big break-out from the English Department.

9. After living in Singapore for over six years and writing Singapore: A Biography, what is the one thing about Singapore that you still can't get enough of?

Strangely enough, it's not the food. I have a sense Singaporeans are getting a bit short-changed these days when it comes to their culinary delights. A quick trip to Penang might make more people realise something is amiss.

No, for me the answer to that question (sentimental as it may sound) is definitely the people. Beyond the government, the 'system' and the cleanliness, Singapore is defined for me by an extraordinarily diverse range of wonderful people, past and present. This was the main motivation for writing a 'biography' of the island.

And btw, though there are all these courtesy campaigns and repeated self-criticisms in the press about the lack of graciousness in Singapore society, my own experience is that Singapore is a far less aggressive and unfriendly place than many others I have lived in.

10. Please explain your name?

It's partly thanks to Google again.

Mark Frost is a well-known historian, novelist and screenwriter, especially in the US, who is perhaps best known for collaborating with filmmaker David Lynch.

One day, while working on the National Museum project, a curator called me up to congratulate me on my new novel The Six Messiahs (though on the phone I heard him say 'The Sex Messiah' - which took a while to work out and was all rather embarrassing). So I started adding my Indian name Ravinder to become Mark R. Frost or, in the case of our book, Mark Ravinder Frost (so Yu-Mei does not feel so alone with her own epic name).

My mother is from South India (my father from South London) and she gave me the Tamil name Ravinder after her favourite Indian poet, the Bengali Rabindranath Tagore.

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