Repave – 2017, In Review

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Inside the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Paris, March 2017.

Time is relentless
it casts long, tremulous shadows
& we, we are always in transit
fleeting & flitting
between light & dark & translucence 
always fickle
always whisked away by loftiness
by that crumbling feeling
or the lift away.
We don’t study the minute details
but we take in beauty in spoonfuls, gallons…
What ephemeral creatures we are.
We must tread lightly on this earth.

Time is indeed relentless. Each calendar year folds us in without our volition, without countdowns or resolutions, without eyes squeezed shut at a wish being prayed in the middle of a street glistening with rain, praying for better, for more, for an expanse of white happiness to spread into the hours & days & months that will trudge on. When do we stand still long enough to let our souls catch up with our bodies that are always going places? When do we repave?

Rely, rely, rely, rely
Behave, behave, behave, behave
(spent all of that time not wanting to…)
Decide, decide, decide, decide
Repave, repave, repave, repave
(spent all of that time not wanting to…)

Alaskans – Volcano Choir

Now’s as good a time as any. Here are some highlights – with lots of pictures, because sometimes words just don’t do enough justice.


Swansea / Hay-on-Wye/ Cardiff / Paris / Berlin / London.

Six places in five weeks. A pilgrimage like none other.

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Bible school & moody coastlines.
The world’s first national book town.
A harrowing experience.
Wordlessness in my soul city.
Contemplation in the concrete.
Lightheartedness & the going home.


New Beginnings.

& yet all of that didn’t mean I had any real answers to the biggest question… What next? It’s not easy picking up the pieces when what you thought you would be doing your own life suddenly grinds to a halt. Coming back home, I prayed hard & knuckled down, steeling myself for a lengthy, vigorous search.

Turns out I didn’t have to. I went for an interview for a job that I don’t think I was even qualified for, got an offer a few hours after, & started at a new workplace two weeks later. & while the first few months were incredibly tough (still is, most days), I cut my teeth at whatever task I was given & tried to positively impact the people I was surrounded with. Ministry in the marketplace. & while I’m still making mistakes & learning fast & furious on the job, I’m more convinced than ever that this is where God has placed me in this season.

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Four people with two Beatles songs between us, all in a illicitly-booked meeting room.

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ASLB Halloween – where we all drew names & came dressed as each other. One of my favourite workdays of the year.
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Of course, there’s the real Halloween, where the true nightmare is the client who gives you sleepless nights & sore eyes. 
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Getting coffee. Anywhere. Always. 


Church.

Another huge curveball was ministry. What was supposed to be a year of rest turned into a year of shock, struggle, & anger. This came with the painful leaving of many lifelong friends as well – planned or unplanned.

But finally, things came to a head & all the shock & struggle & anger turned into an acceptance of new responsibility, of new calling. Where did it come from? I suppose from the realisation that what mattered at the end of the day was the people & knowing how precious each of them were to God.

Break my heart for what breaks yours
Everything I am for your kingdom’s cause

Even though I could walk away from a ministry, there was no way I could walk away from its people. I will serve the church – my church – with as much strength as I have & for however long God grants me the grace to.

Ministry is such a joy, anyway. Like when I got to see three new people from my lifenet get baptised:

Incredible.

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The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
    you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

Psalm 16:5 – 6 (ESV)


My Dinner with André.

For the longest time, I dreamt about eating food like this. I spent hours poring over Lucky Peach & Bon Appétit magazines, devouring the column inches & holding the glossy images close to my nose. People who know me know how much food means to me (somewhere between the extremes of gluttony & gastronomy, I hope). I read about restaurants like The French Laundry, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, Noma, El Bulli, Fäviken, D.O.M., Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Atelier Crenn & André. André. I never thought I would be able to eat at one of them. Last year, I finally did.

29 courses. 16 glasses of champagne & wine. 5 hours. A dizzy night full of curiosity & surprises. A night redolent with memory.


… & speaking of good food.

In 2017, I ate…

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& ate…

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& ate some more…

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& so the pattern continues on, well into 2018.

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Yay!


Concerts / Festivals / Exhibitions

Totally blew my entertainment budget but loved every single minute spent at a gig or museum.

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Lucy Rose. A beautiful set & documentary showing held in an old-fashioned theatre (The Projector). No frills, all heart.
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The wonderful, inimitable Leslie Feist at the Esplanade Theatre playing most of her latest album – Pleasure – & a few classics, of course.
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HONNE at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. A night of groovy, “baby-making” music. One more off the bucket list.
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Singapore Design Film Festival. Interesting set of films at a nostalgic venue.

Singapore Writer’s Festival. Highlights included getting to meet my ex- creative writing professor Jennifer Crawford, the teacher who impacted me most in my university days & whose double-book release we celebrated together, attending a Simon Armitage poetry reading session & taking a picture with him after (sublime, & then not so much), & all-in-all, remembering how far Singapore has come in the literary world – how after decades, poetry is a luxury that we can finally afford.

Century of Light – An exhibition of impressionist works curated by the National Gallery. So happy to have gotten a taste of the Musée d’Orsay in the most beautiful museum in Singapore.


& last but not least… the little creative things I managed to accomplish last year.

Because I’ve already written so much about the importance of creating, I won’t go into another spiel. It’s been an incredible year with a few sparks of inspiration. All glory to God, my creator. Among all the little essays & poems & sketches, here are a few of the bigger milestones.

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Dream, Memory, Life – a collection of travel essays proudly brought to you by the Hougang Literary Society. We printed 100 copies & sold them at our church’s Christmas fest to raise funds. This little book took most nights for three months (publishing is hard, guys) but it was worth it because we raised over a thousand dollars for missionary work in Kyrgyzstan!

An accompanying photo exhibition – another fund-raising effort, made possible mostly because of my talented photographer friend Faith. Loved how much effort was put into this & how so many people supported this artistic endeavour. To think that our photos of doors & elephants & trees & all the other little things we found beautiful are having in people’s homes, right now.

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Another fun photoshoot that I did for a client. Was pretty stressed about it, but thank God it turned out okay!

A second little gig – opening for Jean Tan, one of my favourite local songwriters & friend, who officially released her Hideaway EP that night. It was a three-song set but as usual, it’s daunting to be in the presence of such great talent. But this gig did force me to write a song that I ended up spontaneously singing with Jawn Chan that night. Such a magical moment to sing a line & hear a roomful of people chiming in after, singing back to me – I am a writer, I am gone / tell me your story, oh come to me…

 


Storytelling. That’s what 2017 was about. Come to think of it, it’s been a year spent repaving, a restoration of joy in the search of all things beautiful.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

 

(Gerald Manley Hopkins, 1884 – 1889)

 

& 2018?

Therein lies cities to be traveled. Lines waiting to be written. A hundred things to be made with one’s hands, conversations to be had, love to be lost & then won again. Newness in a page turning. Hello, hello. 

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If You Tell

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“How stationary life has become, & the hours impossibly elongated… & in the end all that we can do is to sit at the table over which our hands cross, listening to tunes from the Wurlitzer, with love huge & simple between us, & nothing more to be said.”

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down & Wept – Elizabeth Smart


These days, I’m finding it quite difficult to get into the right space to write. It is near impossible to write well when one does not have time to read, time to sit in the nook of comfort & silence & soak in time, sublime. Now that the end of the year is approaching, I look back at the resolutions I made at the beginning of 2017 & as usual, feel despondent at how many I’ve let slip between my fingers. Write three new songs. Read at least 20 books. Learn to sketch properly. Take better photographs.

These unmet resolutions far outweigh those I’ve managed to complete. It’s a little disappointing. For some reason, being creative has always been extremely important to me; an act of worship unto God, like how someone else would connect by singing a praise song or reading the bible. It’s just the way I’m wired & without the luxury of time, I end up being restless, uneasy, frustrated, which is why this year feels so long & so challenging.

At work, I’m surrounded by the most passionate, driven & highest-functioning people that I’ve ever met, which are basic traits since we work in a competitive industry with near impossible deadlines. I love my work & the people I do it with but it’s no doubt that the nature of the job is changing the way & speed at which I process things, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Sure, one might become more efficient but there’s a great cost. Even after I clock off, I leave the workplace with my mind still ticking, ruminating on a deadline to meet, a schedule to plan, the next task to check off on a very long list of things to do, up till the time I fall asleep. Sometimes, work even invades my dreams. Every minute where I do slow down seems like a minute wasted. It is as if this increased efficiency has robbed me of my ability to look at the world with wonder. Some days, I just exist.

It’s worrying what can happen when you let your sense of awe slip away. Creativity, or rather, the want to create, comes first from wonderment at a world that is filled with beautiful things, created by a beautiful being. & because we are made in His likeness, we then seek to create similar things of loveliness, things that help us interrogate & reinforce truth, celebrate momentous and minute events, encapsulate the feelings that ebb beneath our very skin.

Have you ever seen the wonder
In the air of second life
Having come out of the waters
With the old one left behind
If you have so say

I see the world in light
I see the world in wonder
I see the world in life
Bursting in living colour
I see the world Your way
And I’m walking in the light

(Wonder – Hillsong United)

A wise friend of mine once said that we each have our own “non-negotiables” & it’s up to us to figure out what they are & how to protect them. It took me a long time to recognise that being creative was my non-negotiable & an even longer time to realise that it wasn’t secondary to other people’s, whether their’s might seem more noble (taking care of family, doing church work) or more socially-appropriate (having a relationship or an active social life). For me, being creative equates to basic self-care, the bare bones of your humanity. & time should be carved out for the things that make you human, no?

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I feel like it’s been such a long time since I’ve written something good, but as the year draws to a close, I feel like it doesn’t really matter as long as I try. Begin again, as they say. So I’m starting with lists to rekindle a sense of wonder, to remind myself that things of beauty do exist, if only you’d look hard enough.

An apricot danish, warmed in the oven for thirty seconds, the fruit cradled in a little bubbling pool of custard, puff pastry & a ring of icing sugar.

Hearing a French accent in the middle of the day, soft & delicious, jolting me back to streets of a certain city.

The company of a friend, two coffee cups between us & unabashed laughter at a shared memory.

A church spire extending above a green horizon of trees, its tip like an arrow, pointing to answers in the blinding sky.

A solitary bus ride with my mind pleasantly blank – oh, it has been so long – marvelling at a huge life shared with the rest of the universe, who leans in & says: Darling, I’m listening if you tell…

In between worlds exists a century of light.

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Impressionism is the movement most closely identified with the emergence of the modern era. Its sparking scenes of everyday life – of Paris boulevards & smartly dressed bourgeoisie, of the new leisure class boating on the river or relaxing on the beach – have become part of the visual landscape for the late 19th century. However, Impressionism was also revolutionary; breaking with the established conventions of European painting, it proposed bold new approaches in colour, composition, technique & subject matter, changing painting forever.

(…)

Paris in the late 19th century was a modern city that embraced technological innovation, such as gas & then electric lighting, which dazzled its many visitors. (Juan) Luna, writing to a friend, said, ‘this is a century of light, of electric light’. Arts & culture also thrived in Paris, & artists from around the world flocked there to seek recognition & to learn the latest developments in art.

A Century of Light | In Between Worlds
Exhibition by National Gallery Singapore

In Praise of Simon Armitage

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“hold the page out like a work of art,
see for yourself, comb through it twice, three times,
look for your likeness in the lines but find
someone else…”


At the Singapore Writers Festival a couple of weekends ago, I had the opportunity of attending Armitage’s poetry panel with Rae Armantrout on the role of poetry in society. I have been a big fan ever since I first encountered his work in The English Bookshop, back when I was studying in Sweden & was a stranger to its curious language with all its sharp turns & confusing vowel system. The English Bookshop in Uppsala was & still is an institution, an oasis for foreign students hungry for Norton Anthologies or English poetry translations.

Along with Mark Doty’s Atlantis, I picked up Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches without much of a thought. I’ve loved both poets ever since, but am drawn to the natural rhythms & jolting descriptions of the latter. Book of Matches consists primarily of short, untitled sonnets, each meant to be read in 20 seconds – the time it takes for a match to burn out completely from the time it is lit. Here’s one:

My party piece:
I strike, then from the moment when the matchstick
conjures up its light, to when the brightness moves
beyond its means, and dies, I say the story
of my life –

dates and places, torches I carried,
a cast of names and faces, those
who showed me love, or came close,
the changes I made, the lessons I learnt –

then somehow still find time to stall and blush
before I’m bitten by the flame, and burnt.

A warning, though, to anyone nursing
an ounce of sadness, anyone alone:
don’t try this on your own; it’s dangerous,
madness.

Another one.

I like vivid, true-to-life love scenes
in a movie. No, that’s a lie,
that’s when I like love least;
it’s the turn of the head or a pale blue eye
that moves me.

Keep love in the mind
and out of the blood, beds
are for sleep, for dreams, for good.

I can see what it takes
to keep a friendship in the heart,
the chest. That’s
when I like love best – not locked away
but left unsung, unsaid.
And then the rest.

And another one, that is perhaps my favourite.

Mother, any distance greater than a single span
requires a second pair of hands.
You come to help me measure windows, pelmets, doors,
the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors.

You at the zero end, me with the spool of tape, recording
length, reporting metres, centimetres back to base, then leaving
up the stairs, the line still feeding out, unreeling
years between us. Anchor. Kite.

I space-walk through the empty bedrooms, climb
the ladder to the loft, to breaking point, where something
has to give;
two floors below your fingertips still pinch
the last one-hundredth of an inch . . . I reach
towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky
to fall or fly.

What is it? What is it about these poems that makes Armitage both a popular & critically-acclaimed poet? It’s all because of style, a quality sorely lacking in this digital age, which Armitage emphasises time & time again is the essence of poetry. I have never read or written a poem which contained content that I couldn’t Google, he said, and I have to agree, which is why I am not surprised at the fact that Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur are receiving so much backlash lately. Unfortunately, social media has given confessional poetry a bad name – a genre once carried by the likes of Plath and Lowell, who valued language craftsmanship & prosody at the highest level – building it around a cult personality rather than the art form.

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There is no point being outraged by Kaur even though one might be tempted to. She is famous in her own right & is at the very least lucrative, if not talented. But like Armitage & Armantrout addressed at that panel, the good that poetry does is found in the form it serves, not in the subject matter. While topics can & should be compelling, poetry is not composed of statements or personal opinions broken up on a page, but of form, & sound, & syntax. Style is integral for poetry as plot is to prose, or setting is to plays.

Is this thinking old-fashioned? I don’t know. I just know that like Armitage & Armantrout, a poet like Rupi Kaur cannot give me what I want from poetry. A poem can be simple but it cannot be simplistic. One cannot simplify what is meant to be complex. In 14 lines, selected words in the right order translates into an effervescent feeling. In 14 lines, a creature becomes a world unto itself.

It is why I love Armitage so much, because he upholds the integrity of the art form without being unreachable by the masses. His poems exist at the fringe of popular culture, dipping toes, dialoguing, touching on socio-political & even environmental issues without losing its characteristic style. In the poem In Praise of Air, the good in poetry manifests itself in a very tangible way.

“In May 2014 the University of Sheffield unveiled the world’s first catalytic poem. 20 metres in height, the poem is mounted on the wall of the Alfred Denny building on Western Bank. It is an original work by Sheffield University’s Professor of Poetry, Simon Armitage, and the result of a collaboration with Pro-Vice Chancellor for Science, Professor Tony Ryan. The giant banner on which the poem is printed has been manufactured using revolutionary nano-technology. It is coated with a photocatalyst which eats pollution, enabling the poem to clean the air around it as it sits in place, overlooking the busy A57.”

In Praise of Air was the first poem that Armitage read that afternoon. In a small chamber room at The Arts House, we listened as he read the 16-line poem in his slight, Yorkshire accent, enraptured at the way the words washed over all of us, knowing perfectly well what needed to be said & was said, & at the same time, being delightfully surprised by the warm, half-familiar feeling it gave anyway.

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In Praise of Air

I write in praise of air. I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.
I’ve carried it with me ever since.

Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted
to the lips. Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…

Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep
a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street

with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.

Lo! The Magical Kingdom

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In 2014, I was browsing through Cereal magazine when I stumbled upon this article about a “Town of Books”. The feature was brief but evocative, & in characteristic Cereal Magazine aesthetic, generously layered with moody, rain-washed images – a spindly chair at the back of a bookstore in dusky light, clothbound volumes stacked against each other, the humble yet majestic Welsh plains. I devoured the pictures as I did the words, & remember being drawn to this particular line: The books of Hay-on-Wye outnumber its human inhabitants by an estimated 6800 to one. 

It was a figure that did not make sense, perhaps because all my life I had felt that there was no real limit of how much one could read if he or she was willing. But there it was, the impossible number as stark as day – 6800. If a resident of Hay-on-Wye were to read a book every week, it would take 130.77 years to finish the volumes allotted to him or her, book swaps aside. It was unreachable, astounding, daunting.

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Image by Finn Beales, for Cereal Magazine

According to the feature, Hay-on-Wye (commonly abbreviated to just “Hay”) lies just on the border between Wales & England, far away from the capital cities of each country. Up till the 1960s, Hay was nothing more than a floundering market town until Richard Booth – a wiry, 20-something graduate who had gone off to study at Oxford University – returned home & became frustrated at how all his friends were leaving for cities like Cardiff & London for greater prospects. He decided to save the dwindling economy of his rural home the only way he knew how – through books. In 1962, he shipped hundreds of them in containers from the soon-to-be derelict libraries of America & scoured the counties for the forgotten collections of English aristocrats & opened a secondhand bookstore in Hay’s abandoned fire station.

It worked. Tourists started coming, followed by quizzical literati in the years after (it was after all the famed playwright Arthur Miller, who upon being asked to attend the town’s annual literary festival, asked: Hay-on-Wye? What is that, some kind of sandwich?). The sleepy town was finally & thankfully drawn out of slumber, saved from the fate of going out like a whisper like so many others. Since then, many have followed Booth’s example in setting up their own book enclaves, peppered all around town. Fifty-odd years later, Hay is home to two dozen bookstores & something like two million books. It is also hosts the annual Hay festival. Every year in May to June, writers, poets, artists, philosophers & bibliophiles, the likes of which include Alain De Botton & Joseph Heller, descend to the little town for this very reason.

What a story, what a place. I wanted to be there. For 22 years, I had sat on the floor of my tiny “library” & inhabited pages of novels & their fantastic tales. Books had been my world. How would it be like then, to live in a world of books?

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Richard Booth’s Bookshop – Image by Finn Beales, for Cereal Magazine

“Books are the cumulative livelihood, directly or indirectly, of hundreds living in this town, and the draw for the many hundreds of thousands more who come to visit. They contain every imaginable world within their covers, our sum knowledge, every hope and every fear, in scores of languages by countless hands.”

– Richard Aslan, for Cereal Magazine. 

For a long time, the natural rhythms of life intervened. Final year thesis, relationships, fixations with other cities, first job, tragedy. As each year passed, my life became a little messier & confusing & I read a little less until I read nothing at all. The mystical town of Hay faded into the background like a forgotten poet. But then like a miracle, three years later, I found myself in Swansea, Wales under the most unlikely of circumstances & remembered the book town that existed in between the folds of the Welsh countryside. Hay-on-Wye. A whimsical, three-note melody that beckoned me to thee. & so I booked my bus tickets, packed a night bag, & went.

Here’s the story of my 36 hours in the magical kingdom.


From where I am in Swansea, it takes 25 pounds, four hours & three buses to get to Hay, all to visit a town that you can walk across in ten minutes. The morning I leave, the temperature drops to a frigid four degrees & I miss the first bus out & have to wait forty minutes for the next one to arrive. Waiting at the interchange, it’s so cold that I can hardly feel my face. I finally clamber onto the regional bus at 7am. It is just me & an old couple sitting two seats ahead. The radiator is on full blast. I fall asleep almost immediately, unable to witness Swansea City fading behind me.

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Brecon Beacons National Park – Image by Dean Hearne

I wake up a half hour later & all I see is green. This is not the green that I am used to – that gaudy shade caught in jarring, tropical sunlight – but green touched by hues of brown & unbridled rock, an expansive landscape that forms the backdrop of books by Dylan Thomas & Bruce Chatwin. I realise that we are in the heart of Brecon Beacons National Park. There seems to be no horizon to this rolling greenery & a strange feeling rises in the pit of my stomach, swelling like a bubble, a feeling that I’ve only felt a few times before when I found myself in the middle of infinities… what was it? Peace? Bliss? Awe?

I wish I could ask someone about this. The old man turns around & gestures to the top window above his head. He’s asking me if it’s alright to open it. I nod, & he cracks the glass panel wide open & the bus is filled with fresh, vale air. I listen to James Vincent McMorrow & Sam Amidon & Lucy Rose. For more than an hour, we watch the hills twist slowly into roads, the old couple & I; we pass by clusters of thatched cottages, clusters of sheep, all the things in clusters against the sheet of green.

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Brecon Beacons National Park – Image by Dean Hearne

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Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

(…)

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

(Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953)

I get off at Brecon & catch bus 39 as per instructions from Chrissy, my Airbnb host. From the looks of her online profile, she is fifty or sixty-something, has a doughy, not unpleasant face & wears purple glasses. She says that she will meet me outside Hay Castle at exactly noon. I’m nervous because my phone has run out of battery & I have stupidly not written her phone number or address down.

We pass by a few stone mansions, a few road signs, a few people. Suddenly, Hay-on-Wye bursts into view. I can’t believe it, I’ve arrived. It’s down season here – the literary festival isn’t for a few more months – so the streets are mostly clear with the odd couple or lone traveller milling about at a pleasant pace. The bus stops right outside Hay Castle & seconds after I step down, I meet Chrissy. She is exactly like how I imagined – chatty, kind, warm. Immediately she launches into questions about where I came from, what I was doing in here in Hay, if I’ve had any lunch, etc. Her little apartment sits on the edge of town & when we reach, we trudge up two flights of steps & step into a warm little abode.

Bedroom view

She shows me my room – spacious, comfy, big windows with a view of Hay Castle – & tells me where the amenities are. The tour takes two minutes because besides my bedroom, the only things to see are the bathroom (which we both share), a tiny sitting room & an even tinier kitchen. We don’t talk very much because she knows that I have come all this way & am itching to explore the town & its many bookstores. Chrissy leaves me with some food recommendations & retreats into her own room. I take only what I need, including two empty book bags & step out.

I don’t really know where to go so I stop everywhere. I go into The Fudge Shop & get a piece of chocolate fudge to nibble at as I let the streets take me where they may. To get to Castle Road, which is the main vein where most of the bookshops are clustered on, I make a turn into “Back Fold”, an unsuspecting lane, in itself a self-contained world of record shops & knick-knack boutiques & hidden tea salons. Back Fold narrows steadily until one has to squeeze oneself through the opening at the end. As I slide through the two building walls, I think to myself, this is what Alice in Wonderland must have felt like, falling through the rabbit hole.

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A bookshelf built into one of the nestled houses on Back Fold.

Castle Street. The store signs are studded with old-fashioned names – apothecary, antiques, antiquarian – spelt out in fading gold letter & winding curlicues. I duck into Hay-on-Wye Booksellers first & lose myself in the first of many shelves of books. I marvel at the first editions locked behind glass boxes in the antiquarian section & talk briefly to the woman behind the counter, who has a shock of white blond hair & is meticulously cataloguing new arrivals, only stopping to make a sale or answer queries.

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Image by Finn Beales, for Cereal Magazine

The next stop is Hay Castle, the crumbling monument that is the heart of Hay-on-Wye. I enter the castle via a small staircase & am surprised to find a dozen shelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of books, abandoned to the raw elements on this cold day.

The Honesty Bookshop is a peculiar feature of Hay-on-Wye, the only one in town that has no till nor owner. It gets its supply from a variety of sources & works like this – 50p for paperbacks, £1 for hardbacks, take all the time you need & leave the money in the little box at the stairs after you’re done. All proceeds go to the restoration & upkeep of the castle. The castle grounds & the sweet, spring air are yours alone to take in.

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The Honesty Bookshop

Hay Castle isn’t much when you compare it to the other massive stone castles scattered across England, but it is here where Richard Booth, the unofficial founding father of Hay, laid down the cornerstone for the first national book town in the world & all the eccentric booksellers to come. Similar to the eponymous, hapless hero of Miguel de Cervantes’ Spanish classic Don Quixote, Booth is a queer enigma with ridiculous dreams. Quixote dubs himself a knight-errant & Booth proclaims Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom under his self-declared kingship, taking Hay Castle as his throne room; Quixote recruits an unsuspecting farmer to be his squire & Booth establishes a House of Lords made out of ordinary citizens & names his horse his prime minister. They are both driven by the same, unrealistic desire, or in Cervantes’ words: to set out to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, bring justice to the world… & if not the world, at least this little corner of the once mighty Welsh kingdom.

What fools. What kings.

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A candid shot of Richard Booth, tin crown & sceptre & all.
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The Addyman Annexe & two ladies in blue

Next is Addyman Annexe, complete with a book passage & thousands of penguin paperbacks. Then Rose’s Books, all pretty in pink, a children’s books specialty store stocked with hundreds of out-of-print Tin Tin magazines & Grimm compendiums & beautifully illustrated fables. Then Francis Edwards, whose name sounds familiar until I remember that this is the “same” bookshop that I stumbled into four years ago in London’s west end when I was wet & cold & beginning to feel the first pangs of loneliness in that big, English city. As I stepped into this sister bookshop, I felt a rush of familiarity & recalled that moment from years ago tenderly. Francis Edwards welcomed me then & it was welcoming me now.

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London, 2013


Quinto Bookshop & Francis Edwards

The sheet tacked on the front door reads
Open till late for midnight browsers
so I enter just after eleven

& even when the stinging spring chill blows
through the narrow shop space
nobody lifts their head to look, nobody notices

In a second everything is stock-still.
The first thing I see is an old man in a corner
apart from the rest, tenderly touching the book spines

& I want to cry from the beauty of it
from the realization that this city
is not of love or light or sin

but of little moments & things;
the shelves like billowing arms
& I can’t help it, I let myself fall

You’ve felt like this before, haven’t you?
Battened. held. safe.
(how well you know it

though you’ve never been before)
like maybe you could settle your words down into the dust
like maybe it would keep your secret for you

(London, 2013)

The rest of the afternoon passes in a salubrious haze. Lunch at Oscars – a ham pie & coffee with cream unspooling slowly in its warm centre. Broad Street Book Centre. A sundae at Shepherd’s Ice Cream Parlour, listening to Willie Nelson. I finally arrive at Richard Booth’s Bookstore, the grandest one in town by a mile with two massive storeys, a cafe & a cinema. One can spot it from far away with its red lacquered front & huge glass windows.

Here, I take my time. I order a beer & an English muffin from the cafe & read some poetry; I melt into one of the plush chairs on the second floor, light streaming in from the open ceiling as I navigate worlds of botany, sailing, history, & philosophy. I’m beginning to taste the edges of that feeling of being battened, held, safe, the feeling of finally settling into the skin that I was always meant to be in, like a fitting book jacket. Ah.

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Richard Booth’s Bookshop
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Richard Booth’s Bookshop, second level

That night, after a quick dinner at one of the two open pubs in town, I go back to Richard Booth’s 47-seat cinema, where I’ve purchased a ticket for that night’s showing of “Jackie”. Here, going for a film feels like you’re going to the opera, & rightfully so, in a town where the weekly film is the only form of entertainment besides the local pub or watching TV at home. At the foyer, there is a man in a trim vest & bow tie that serves wine, ice cream & candy from big, glass jars. I get gummy bears & a glass of red, feeling a little sheepish.

At 730pm sharp, me & 46 other people troop into the theatre & nestle into the plush red seats. We watch Natalie Portman on the big screen in all of her lithe beauty, watch her go into a catatonic state of shock & nearly mad with grief as Mr Kennedy is assassinated. We marvel at her polished, mid-Atlantic accent & her expressive brown eyes. We see her go from devastation to gracefulness in seconds & then back again, feeling our own hearts skip a beat at the tumult of raw emotion.

When the credits roll, everybody claps. It is a very good film. I sit in my corner seat for a little while longer while people get up to leave. I realise that I’m tearing up. From what? It has been months since I’ve watched a movie & enjoyed it, but it goes beyond that. Something about community, or home. I can’t be too sure.


The next morning I get up early to spend a few more daylight hours in Booth’s kingdom, but before I venture out, Chrissy prepares breakfast for me – three kinds of cereal, fresh fruit juice, & a really delicious toast that has all kinds of nuts & fruit in it. She brews me a cup of strong, Welsh tea & while I devour my bowl of sweet oats on a foldable table in her tiny living room, we talk about life & people & books. Like me, Chrissy isn’t a native of Hay-on-Wye. She’s not even Welsh. She is a welcome stranger in the land, who left a bad marriage, stumbled upon Hay after traversing the English countryside for days & then decided to stay.

“I came across this little town, & I know this sounds strange but when I arrived at Hay, I just felt it sort of… embrace me, you know? There was such an air of love in this place & somehow I knew that I would fit right in.”

– Chrissy

Strange, I felt it too.

She tells me about her life, the whole unfiltered version of it too, all without asking, & I listen. She talks about how tough it is to make ends meet, but how she knits little hats & scarves to sell at the main square on Market day & rents out the second room & gets by. She says she’s happier then she’s ever been. I don’t know how to respond to the stark openness, but I buy a red knit cap from her & promise I will take some photos of her apartment with my DSLR camera so that she can put them up on the site.

Oh that would be so nice! I’ll need to clean up the place first though…

I decide to leave her to it, & so I thank her for the wonderful breakfast & go out. It’s another morning of the same – Hay Cinema Bookshop, Clocktower Books, Hancock & Monks Music. I do a little shopping in The Old Electric Shop, a space flooded with natural light & odds & ends.

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I love this, the quiet tinkering. Two feet away from me, there is a couple sitting in silence on a couch, just holding hands & bathing in the glow of early morning. A few more people scattered around, reading or writing. I don’t know what it is that draws writers to cafes, to coffee & wine, but I love it – you know you are with the like-minded. Here, the gentle whir of the espresso machine will keep you company; here, the muffled conversations will inspire you. You will inhale, sigh with relief, & perhaps if you are lucky, the word will start flowing.

One rarely has days like these in Singapore. I treasure the effervescent moment.

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It’s eleven – time to go.

After half an hour of walking around, I finally find The Poetry Bookshop, a quiet space in a back alley run by Chris & his wife, where I have a lovely conversation with him & find a rare, first edition poetry collection by Elizabeth Smart aptly titled “A Bonus”. Smart, like most other poets, was unknown & unappreciated in her time & only achieved relative fame years after she died with the prose-poetry volume titled “By Grand Central Station I Set Down & Wept”, a pivotal piece of work for me in my late teens, writing that joined two worlds that I never knew could touch. Her poetry though, is very different, but lovely all the same, & true.

How I used to long
For silence and solitude.
Because in a day or two
Out of the blue
Angels descended then
Connecting me with heaven
In a constant consummation
Independent of men
and things and events
All day and night
A long long amen.

Is This Pain Justified – Elizabeth Smart, from “The Bonus”

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Image by Finn Beales, for Cereal Magazine

In my reverie, I realise that I’m blocking someone from making an actual query. I make way for a man in a beautiful navy blue coat who asks Chris a question about an author I’ve never heard of before & Chris says that while he does not have any copies, Richard Booth’s might have some. He writes down a few things on a scrap of paper & the man leaves happy, hopeful, his leather satchel bouncing behind him as he exits the bookshop & makes his way to the bookseller down the street.

Booksellers. I realise that this is the company that I am in – booksellers – people who have made it their life’s work to hunt down gems of the written word, who have driven for hours or days in search for their favourite author’s work. Next to them, I pale in comparison when it comes to a singular love for books. I can only peer through the looking glass, my fingers grazing the cold illuminated surface, in wonderment of these bookshops & their inhabitants.

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Image by Finn Beales, for Cereal Magazine

Two o’ clock. My time in Hay has come to an end. I pick up my things, say goodbye to Chrissy, & catch the 39 out of Herefordshire. I settle into the seat, thinking about the hours that have passed in a tranquil fury. It was everything hoped for & more. It has been a rough year & I feel like maybe these 36 hours in Hay-on-Wye have done a healing work, that maybe something that I’ve been holding within me has broken like a dam. Lo, the Magical Kingdom.

Hay is a town that is full of dreamers, & not the kind of dreamers that sit around all day doing nothing. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sylvia Beach, George Whitman & his daughter, Richard Booth… these booksellers are men & women of greatness because they know & believe in the magic of storytelling, of print, of curation. Booth just decided to do something, & a bunch of people then did the same.

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In his memoir, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, the poet Lewis Buzbee says this: I am fatally attracted to all bookstores, & I identify with this gravitational pull well because in this day & age where we see the world through pixels & screens, there is a certain comfort & romance to reading with unadulterated eyes. By reading, you partake not only in your past, but someone else’s, or maybe even a whole civilisation’s. It is a necessity & a privilege.

So go ahead. Open the door, dip your finger into the jar, let your eye linger on the page. It’s all waiting for you.

Somehow I Always End Up Back Here

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Somehow I Always End Up Back Here

the ruining has begun
& I am going to the other side
I must reach before the night seeps
(already the clicking of cicadas
are prising apart my mind)
yes, it has begun, the setting
the sun altering
me, undulating
into a pool of gold, licked up
from the concrete
it’s all in the detail
all in the cracks
like the note folded thrice
in my back pocket
the sweat, diamonds on
my neck, slicked back
& you’re jittery, I get it
so am I
because this tension
it’s found its way into everything
sticky heat, a pomegranate
splits open at your feet
scooped out like a bad habit
the rupture, it sickens me
& so I quicken my step
on this covered lane
that never seems to end
like the ruining
the quick stab in my left side
this ramshackling of a time
I try & lay it all to rest
but if you could tell yourself
a lie in a dream
why not in real life?