An old love revisited

They say you should never go back. Never revisit old haunts or imagine that you could rekindle the flames of a past love. They won’t be the same and as we all know the past is a foreign country. Does the same apply to books? Is it safe to re-read something that was a favourite over 40 years ago but you haven’t read since?

I read a lot of Alistair MacLean when I was a teenager. I couldn’t get enough of them, though even in my youth I think I recognised that his novels became increasingly formulaic. They were fun for a holiday read, and some of them made great movies of course, but that was all and I rarely read any of them more than once. The one major exception to this was his first novel, HMS Ulysses, which tells the story of an Arctic convoy taking arms and supplies to Murmansk and was based on MacLean’s own wartime experiences.

As a boy I adored the book, so it was with some trepidation that I recently bought a copy and read it for the first time since…well, let’s just say many years. My main reason was research. In my current WIP, which is set a few years after the war, a central character had served in the Arctic convoys, but I was also curious as to whether the book would live up to my memory of it. And does it? The short answer is yes, but perhaps with a couple of caveats.

The Cruel Sea may be more famous, if only because of the film, and is perhaps more literary, but MacLean is ruthless in giving us the horrors of serving in the Arctic convoys. There are countless examples but none more terrible than when Captain Vallery has to take the Ulysses directly through a patch of sea that is full of survivors from a ship that has just been torpedoed. The fact that he is giving them a mercifully quick death is scant consolation either to him or the reader. There is no light in the novel, and any humour is definitely of the gallows-kind. By the end of the book the Ulysses has been sunk and all but one of the central characters are dead. Reading HMS Ulysses now, with a more writerly eye, I can see that it is unusual in many ways. At times it reads almost like non-fiction (there are even a few footnotes!) and I struggle to see any of the structural forms that we are told a good novel should have: Where is the three act structure? Where is the inciting incident? Occasionally the handling of point of view is not quite as clear as it could be. But this just serves to remind us that rules are only there to be broken, at least when it is right to do so. Instead we follow the progressive disasters that befall the Ulysses and the response of the crew to them, which is told with a sympathetic eye but without sentimentality.

Perhaps some of the minor characters are a little two-dimensional, and there’s a fair bit of nautical jargon that a modern reader either has to look up or simply gloss over, but its central theme of duty, loyalty and service – not to the country or any political ideology, but to each other as human beings – rings loud and clear. So, yes, my affection for what is a remarkable novel remains strong.

Which is a relief.

Farewell to an era

There’s a line in Robert Altman’s movie “A Prairie Home Companion” where Virginia Madsen – playing the angel Asphodel dressed in a white trench-coat – comforts a bereaved woman by reminding her that the death of an old man is not a tragedy.

I had to remind myself of those words last week with the death of Harrison Birtwistle. He was 87 and after a rich and fulfilling life his death was not a tragedy, and yet it seemed one to me. I felt as if a huge figure in my life had gone. His music was amongst the first that I came to know when I started exploring the world of contemporary music back in the late 1970s early 80s: Verses for Ensembles, Punch & Judy, The Triumph of Time and perhaps above all The Mask of Orpheus (how I adore that opera and how I hated the 2019 ENO production). Others can express better than I can the combination of intellectual rigour coupled with a physicality, a visceral quality that was all his own and yet with a lyrical aspect that was all too often overlooked.

But perhaps what hits home the most is that his death in many ways feels like the end of an era. Norman Lebrecht referred to “the death of Britain’s last great composer”, and while I am sure he was as usual being deliberately provocative, and I hope that he is wrong, there is a glimmer of truth in this and it’s not just in the UK. Birtwistle was of the generation that gave us Boulez, Ligeti, Xenakis and Berio, all now gone. I love the likes of Glass, Reich, Adams and Pärt, but let’s face it, they’re no spring chickens. I hope that it’s not just my advancing years speaking when I say that I don’t find their counterparts among today’s composers, talented though they may be. There are plenty of people writing fluent, enjoyable music, but few with any strong sense of identity and with such a strong personal voice.

I worry. I worry that this is a reflection of today’s world where there seems to be a reaction against high art, where elite is a dirty concept and shallow ideas rule over depth and intellect. So, I worry, but in the meantime all I can do is to enjoy the legacy that Birtwistle left for us.

A(nother) Black Day

The news today that in Hong Kong 47 pro-democracy politicians are to be charged with conspiracy to subvert state power is deeply depressing. Their crime? Organising and participating in primaries to identify the candidates with the best chance of winning seats in an upcoming election to the Legislative Council. An election that in any event never took place, with Covid used as a smokescreen. Just when you think that things can’t get any worse in Hong Kong, somehow they do.

When I started writing On Borrowed Time back in 2015, I knew that the future of Hong Kong was something that I wanted to address. The novel is set at the time of the transfer of Hong Kong to China and I couldn’t ignore the anxieties and concerns that people had back then. For those of us with foreign passports perhaps it wasn’t such an issue, but even we spoke with an uncertain confidence of the future. Locals ranged from those who were happy to serve their new masters as they had been the British – notwithstanding that many were from families who had fled Communist China in the 1950s and 60s – to those who made sure they had their potential escape routes mapped out with Canadian and Australian passports. In between the vast majority just had to get on with life and hope for the best.

The characters in On Borrowed Time reflect those concerns: Sam, the lawyer, confident that business will continue, Alice’s family unsure whether to stay or move to Vancouver, Kelvin anxious to protect the Hong Kong he loves. But did any of them guess just how badly things would turn out? I doubt it – certainly their creator didn’t – and yet so many of the things I included in the book as fiction are now fact:

Denial of work visas as a political weapon.                            

Chinese security agents operating freely in Hong Kong.             

Covert surveillance through tapping phones of general public.

Intimidation of journalists.

But in my wildest dreams I never imagined that identifying the best candidates to run in what was already a flawed election to a flawed legislature would be an illegal act.

My seventeen years in Hong Kong gave me a deep love for the city and its people. It is a city that I owe so much to, and at the risk of sounding overly sentimental there will always be a place for it in my heart. But my love for Hong Kong means that the pain I feel at the moment is all the deeper.

Stories and Places

In all my writing I usually have a strong image in my head of the physical setting for the story. Whether that comes over to the reader is not for me to say, but nowhere is it more true than in my Macau short stories. Take for example A Short History of Chinese Tea. The family of my narrator – Lei-Wai – have fallen on somewhat reduced circumstances, I wonder where they lived? Somewhere like this perhaps? Somewhere a little rundown? A house that like the family has seen better times?

Old Portuguese Houses

When she marries it is into money, so a grander home. Perhaps not quite as grand as this, but the restored Casa do Mandarim gives some idea of the sort of style of house she may have moved to.


At the end of the story she has a tea-shop. The Long Wa Tea House is a famous place for dim sum in Macau and Lei-Wai’s would have been smaller than this, but similar in appearance and style. The perfect setting for mahjong and gossip.

Long Wa Tea House

You can see/hear me read A Short History of Chinese Tea courtesy of the Fly on the Wall Press YouTube channel (  or better still buy my collection The Goddess of Macau coming from Fly on the Wall in August.

Behind the façade

In many ways Macau is symbolised by a building that is not there – the church of São Paulo, built in the early 1600s and for two hundred years one of the largest Catholic churches in Asia, until it was destroyed by fire in 1835.

But not completely destroyed. What remains is the mighty southern stone façade, intricately carved between 1620 and 1627 by Japanese Christians in exile, and it is this very Catholic ruin that remains the most famous landmark in the city, standing as it does at the top of a long flight of steps. All that remains behind the façade are the foundations and the crypt. Bizarrely it always puts me in mind of a film set for a Western; a one horse town with a saloon bar that is nothing more than a wooden front.


By Paolobon140 licensed under Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA (


When the sixty-eight steps leading up to the façade are not overflowing with tour groups taking selfies, the ruins themselves form a striking image – and perhaps an appropriate one. After all, what is a façade if not something to be projected with nothing to support it, and what is Macau if not a complex reality hiding behind a superficial – if attractive – aspect. The vision of Macau that the tourist board presents is one of entertainment, vacations and good times. The gambling is wholesome and combined with shows from big name stars – Las Vegas eat your heart out – and when you’re tired of the slot machines and baccarat, explore the history and food, shop for Portuguese cakes and biscuits. Join the queue outside Lord Stow’s bakery.


But don’t look behind that façade. Don’t look at the prostitution. Don’t worry about the money-laundering. Don’t talk about the increasing political repression, and the erosion of a Macanese identity in favour of the glorious motherland. Don’t concern yourself with the writers and activists banned from visiting the city.

Have a plate of African chicken and perhaps some garlic prawns, wash it down with a Macau beer, then get back to the casino.

Don’t look to see what lies behind.



Elegy in a Macau Graveyard

Cemeteries are strange things, or rather it is our reaction to them that is often contradictory. The graveyard of an English country church nestled in the heart of the countryside can be a beautiful place, on the other hand I live in a converted church which we would never have bought if the graveyard was part of the garden. Thankfully it is over the road and out of sight. In Hong Kong apartments are cheaper if they overlook a cemetery, while traditional hillside graves are often in the most beautiful locations.

Some have become tourist attractions based on who is interred there. Highgate in London or Père Lachaise in Paris are, of course, the most well-known depending on whether your interest is in radical politics or 1960s music, but the one that speaks the most to me is the Old Protestant Cemetery in Macau. A quiet, peaceful gem in the middle of the city and which started a writing project that for me has become enormously fulfilling.

Old Protestant Cemetery

Old Protestant Cemetery, Macau

The cemetery was founded in 1821 to provide a protestant burial ground in Catholic Macau. Next to the cemetery is Casa Garden, a salmon-pink and white building that was the East India Company’s base when Macau was the centre of its China business.

Casa Garden

Casa Garden

A later addition was the plain, simple white-walled Morrison Chapel.

Morrison Chapel

Morrison Chapel

The result is a haven of peace where the graves and memorials stand in the shade of frangipani trees. Most of those who were buried there were British, American and Dutch sailors and missionaries, but also their families and some of the most tragic are the infants such as Charlotte M Livingstone who died in 1858 aged 5 months and 10 days, and the even younger Charles Hodge who died in 1857 aged 2 months and 6 days. Of course there was nothing unusual in infant death in those days, but there’s something particularly heart-breaking when it occurs so far from home.

At the other end of the scale from small stones to the memory of children are the large, grand memorials such as that to Lord Henry John Spencer Churchill.

The cemetery closed in 1858, by which time most British and Americans had moved to Hong Kong, and gradually fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that the cemetery was restored and documented primarily through the efforts of the University of Hong Kong Vice-Chancellor Sir Lindsay Ride and his wife Mary. Their book “An East India Company Cemetery” is a testament to their love of the place and to the work they put into bringing the cemetery back to life (as it were). It’s well worth reading if you can get hold of a copy. Lindsay Ride’s own ashes were interred there in 1977.

At a personal level it was thoughts of the cemetery that set me on the course of writing about Macau and realising just how many stories there were to be told about this remarkable city. I am really excited that the fruits of this obsession will be available for all to see in August when Fly on the Wall Press ( publish my first short story collection “The Goddess of Macau”. Until then, you can still read my first Macau story (“Sacred to the Memory”), which was directly inspired by the cemetery and this grave stone in particular,

George Duncan

Sleep. Perchance to listen.

Sleep. Perchance to dream.

There are of course plenty of pieces of music where sleep is an unintended, unwanted consequence, and let’s be honest it’s happened to all of us at one time or another, but with Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep it is the objective. Described as an eight-hour lullaby when it was premiered in 2015 at the Wellcome Collection library in London – as part of an exhibition devoted to the science of sleep I recall – the audience had beds and sleeping bags. The recording of that premiere was broadcast again on BBC Radio 3 the night of Saturday into Easter Sunday morning, in response to lockdown-anxiety, and broadcast in many other countries over the same weekend. I knew more or less what to expect from the one hour extracts available on the from Sleep disc but I had never heard the whole piece, so that night I decamped to the spare bedroom (for the sake of marital harmony) with a Bluetooth speaker.

It is possible to read about how Max Richter worked with neuroscientist David Eagleman, to learn about how the music references sleep patterns, about how the pitch spectrum was chosen to bring the listener into a womb-like state, but that all falls away in the face of the sheer sensual beauty of the music. The subtle interplay between the live musicians (piano and keyboards, five string players, and the ethereal soprano of Grace Davidson) and electronics was such that at times I wasn’t even sure which I was listening to, and the transitions as one section segued into the next…blissful.

I didn’t want to fall asleep, so gorgeous was the music I wanted to keep listening, but after an hour or two I inevitably did and the music worked its way into my dreams. I woke a couple of times during the night and when I did I felt a sense of extreme contentment, lying in bed bathed in this magical sound world and knowing that other people across the country were doing just the same.

Sleep. Perchance to listen.

On Bruckner, Writing, and Self-Confidence

I never expected there to be a connection between the music of Anton Bruckner and my writing, but somehow the two have come together in the last few days.

I hated Bruckner in my youth, but in my mid-years he has become more and more important to me. I might even go as far as to say that he is a composer I really couldn’t live without. But this isn’t going to be about his music, wonderful though it is, but about artistic self-confidence – something he famously lacked.

In addition to the canon of nine symphonies that I love, there are two others that until recently I hadn’t heard at all. Bizarrely, they are known as the Symphony No.00 and Symphony No.0. The “00” is a student work – though Bruckner was such a late-starter that in this case “student” means 39 years old, which is another story – it’s enjoyable and interesting for Bruckner lovers, but it’s the background to the “0” that struck a chord with me (pun intended).

It should really have been his second symphony, completed in its final form after his first, but he was so disheartened by a single negative comment from the conductor Otto Dessoff that he withdrew the symphony completely. Bruckner scratched out the “No.2” in the score replacing it with the German “annulirt”, cancelled. These days it’s known as the “Nullte” – the Zero.

Bruckner was so lacking in self-confidence, so doubtful of his own talent, that all it took was one negative comment. Just one comment, that was enough. But he never destroyed the score and the symphony was finally played in 1924. And it’s terrific music, not perhaps in the same league as his later mature symphonies but well worth playing and hearing.

So, what has this to do with my writing? Well, the day after failing to win a competition I had high hopes with, it’s a reminder that critics and judges are not always right, and that to have belief in your own writing is one of the most important things any writer (or artist) must have.

I don’t want any of my stories to be published decades after my death under the title “The Cancelled Stories”.

On The Perils Of Not Being Able To Plot

I have decided that I hate those writers who plot their novels in advance to the last detail; writers who have precise storyboards showing every last nuance of the story, writers who have written lengthy biographies of all their characters before they start.

Well I don’t hate them of course. I’m just very jealous. I am incapable of doing that. I start with a general idea for what the novel is going to be about, but only by the act of writing itself can I generate plot ideas, and only be writing can I find out who my characters are.

Which is all very well, but it comes with a price.

I’ve just finished a first draft of a new novel. It has come in at only 70,000 words, but that’s okay because later sections are a little skeletal: there wasn’t much point in expending a huge amount of effort on them when I know how much needs to be revised or added in the second draft because I didn’t properly plot in the first place.

Take the ending. When it came to the final chapter I suddenly discovered that my narrator needed access to a boat. Stealing a boat would be out of character, chartering one unrealistic in the context, so he is going to have to own one. For this character it is perfectly plausible that he might, but I’m going to have to write various chunks to explain this so that the boat doesn’t appear out of nowhere as a deus ex machina!

Then there’s the little matter of how the entire thrust of the novel has changed. To the extent that I had planned it, I had a main storyline and one subsidiary. Of course the subsidiary idea has proved far more fruitful, and in particular one minor character (barely more than an incidental figure on the sidelines in the early chapters) has completely taken over the book, so she will need to be introduced more thoughtfully than before.

Oh well, lots to do in the second draft.

My next novel will feature a frustrated writer who becomes a serial killer tracking down all those smug novelists who have more control over their characters and their fate.

On the Importance of a Unique Voice

Today is John Cage’s birthday, a composer whose music I find myself turning to more and more as I get older, a composer who devoted so much of his work to questioning our assumptions about music, and a composer who has made me ponder one of the mysteries of my own response to music.

Over the years I have unconsciously developed a test for whether a composer is worthy of my further attention or not: Does he or she have an individual voice that marks them out from others? You can use this test with music of any period old or new, and indeed it can be extended to other genres of music such as jazz, though then I normally ask the question of the performer rather than the composer. I am picking my words carefully. Worthy of further attention is not the same as like. There are plenty of composers whose music passes that test, and who are undoubtedly important in the history of music, but where I struggle to say that I enjoy them. Liszt, Rossini and Verdi for example. Equally there are minor composers who do not have that special something, but who have written at least some pieces that I enjoy regardless. Guilty pleasures such as Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphonyand d’Indy’s Symphonie sur un Chant montagnard français.

Musicians and others more expert than I am can probably explain why Mozart has a different voice from Haydn, Schubert from Schumann, Shostakovich from Prokofiev, but from years of listening I think that I have a good ear for identifying the composer when it is a piece that I don’t know. Sometimes of course you get other clues. Once when driving I turned on the radio and found myself in the middle of a violin concerto that was clearly mid-twentieth century and probably Russian (or Soviet anyway) but wasn’t one that I knew and therefore I could rule out Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The soloist was evidently brilliant but the recording quality less so and perhaps dated from the late 50s early 60s. Adding those facts together surely it had to be David Oistrakh? So, I asked myself, what other composers were there that Oistrakh championed? Khatchachurian? Correct on both accounts as it turned out, though I think I might have been lucky.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with John Cage, seen by many as the ultimate avant-garde crazy composer of silent pieces, chance operations and general wackiness? I have listened to a lot of Cage over the years, both on CD and in concert, and what has struck me is that he is an example of a composer with a unique voice (or perhaps several different voices) even though in some of his music – particularly the music that involves chance elements – his stated aim has been to remove the composer from the music and to allow the sounds to exist independently from the composer’s ego. That is the mystery for me. Even when Cage uses the most extreme aleatoric elements, such as using the I Ching, star maps, or even flaws in manuscript paper to derive the notes, it still ends up sounding like John Cage. How can that be?

One of my favourite Cage discs is a CD of vocal works performed by Paul Hillier and his Theatre of Voices. The main work is the haunting Litany for the Whale which gives the disc its title and which could be enjoyed by anybody who likes the music of Arvo Pärt or John Tavener. The track I enjoy the most though is Experiences #2 which is one of the more misleading titles in music, giving the impression of a difficult obscure over-complicated piece when the reality is very different. Experiences #2 is an exquisite setting for solo voice of an e.e. cummings poem, highly modal, sung with very little vibrato, and with an almost folk-like melody. So why does it sound like Cage and nobody else? I don’t know though perhaps it is the extended silences between the musical phrases that gives it away.