Hang in Penang


Excerpts from travel notes capturing a trip to Malaysia.

Day 1
Arrive tired. Only allow ourselves a ten minute nap. Out to eat, kapitan chicken. Good to be back in Asia. Wow Hotel has comedy rooftop disco furniture. V kitch.

Day 2
Return to the Rain Forest café for breakfast bagels (we went last night for cake for the roof). Bagels average. Food from adjacent bakery awesome, however, despite tourist price similar to home. Go to a famed Blue House. Entertaining tour. Place once owned by a self-made Victorian Chinese merchant. Surprised to find original tiles are from Stoke-on-Trent. Have a couple of coolers at nameless bar on Love Lane. This is where I believe I spent most of my trip here in 2000. Move on when guitarist starts singing Oasis covers.

Day 3
No sleep, again. H’s birthday today. Go for daily bagels. Then to Penang Hill. Impressive, steep chain tram to get up. A little bite to eat then a walk down to the monkey cup gardens. Another endearing tour introducing the carnivorous plants. Guide says actually at least a hundred times. Cute. Leave a terrarium of scorpions behind to discover family of monkeys traversing treetops above. Would’ve missed them had we excepted the free ride back up to the summit. Enjoying using Dad’s old Pentax again. Hope the x-ray machine at Penang airport didn’t fry films. Walk back to the top savage. Impressively big ants. HG unhappy with size of ants. Return to Wow hotel for shower (an encasement of glass within room). Evening meal at unmemorable place then back to Wow for more cake, tactically bought in advance. Surprised at lack of younger gen’s appetite to party hard. Mini pool table / table football in games room good clean fun, though. Bought beers from 7-11 to consume solo on the roof.

Day 4
Vetoed bagels for a disaster breakfast elsewhere, overpriced with fussy service. Girls unhappy. C goes to sort a visa for India (their next destination) whilst us others melt in hot sun locating (and posing before) pieces of Bansky-esque street art, dotted around the town. Some better than others. Also look briefly at jetties, original from Colonial/Victorian times. Wooden. Evening between launderette and waiting for table at decent Indian. Quick g&t in old fashioned bar, barman antique as antiques in bar. Thoroughly enjoyable. Once again a visit to the 7-11, drinking solo playing Street Fighter II on games room arcade machine. Lost 13 times to E Honda (first opponent). Was just getting into it when other guests turned up to play pool. Made excuses and left.

Day 5
Checkout of Wow. Returned to Rain forest for one last bagel. Long, quiet taxi ride to resort at Batu Ferringhi. Hotel massive and not what I’m used to. Lovely though, and feels old fashioned. Building has vague eastern/Islamic feel. Also vague Shining feel. Once we’re checked in (we have a connected room!) food in hotel restaurant and then hit the pool, and then off to the night market, which is about a klick long. Have a good supper at local food court, only £2 a plate! HG somehow summons a cat which in turn brings five kittens. HG melts. Not many people about, feels quiet here, so I imagine the days will be variations of the above lines, with the beach thrown in.

Day 6
Chinese New Year. Another night of broken sleep. Awake before HG, start working on my blog. Rediscover and migrate my Dianne Kaufman piece, which has evidently been returning a 404. All assembled, we sit in a joint opposite hotel waiting for the chef to come back from the mosque to make us lunch. Plate of curried okra, which is not bad. HG and I walk through the heat to the ATM, which is empty. Almost destroys us. Gets very hot here. We sit for restorative coke and return slowly. Rewarded by spotting large family of monkeys trapezing over telephone wires. Supper at the Hard Rock Hotel next door. Wasteful portions. Come back to watch a funny but predictable movie, then to bed to hear fireworks petering out.

Day 7
Some nice feedback around my resurrected blog piece via email. Lunch in the hotel and sunbathe on beach. Last twenty minutes only. Paddle then seek shade of palms within which I begin to read Let Down. Each page wants a couple of scratches but by and large the work holds up well. Will crack on tomorrow. For supper we return to food court at Long Beach Café, this time via night market and a stretch of the beach. Cats continue to melt HG. Back at the ranch after successful trip to ATM we play pool and cards. Hotel screening of football sours my mood somewhat. All are concerned for my happiness. Enquiring after said happiness helps to diminish it further. Boy inside alive and well, then! Now on balcony with beer enjoying the spectacle of road below (not sulking).

Day 8
The day starts with an exercise in patience. On the beach yesterday walking, C suggested I make more of jet lag to get up for sunrise, if awake anyway. Wide awake at half six. On balcony the crows crowding treetops beneath already beginning to chatter. All manner of other calls coming from forested hill opposite. The road seems never to have ceased, but after some observation, it’s clear it’s only staff coming and going as they swap shifts. Quick Google search says sun up is at 735. Can I be bothered to wait? Why not? I set fake go pro to face where I predict east to be, and sneak into room again to fetch the Pentax. By a quarter past seven, the light’s changed the sky to a fine pastel yellow. Yellow of a peach. The sun is coming, any minute. I test the light meter in the Pentax, figure out a descent leaning position for my phone to film from too, and wait, casually watching the birds through my bins and the road. 730 comes and goes. So does 745, absolutely indifferently. The light grows everywhere but ahead. The hill has lost its silhouette by now and I can see its depths, its folds and crests illustrated with ribbons of rising mist. At 8, the sky to the west is blue, but still no sign of the sun. Lost patience by half eight. Periodically look at the sky between reading headlines on my phone. I notice then the angles of rays cutting through the mist are steepening. Also some buildings and trees to the left that aren’t in the shadow of the hill are now fully illuminated by orange light of the sun. Just then fake go pro’s battery dies, and with it plan for time lapse film. Should’ve rolled over at half six and gone back to sleep – but when the sun finally creeps over treetops on ridge opposite, I’m rewarded for my staying power with five beautiful minutes of everyday celestial phenomena.

After early start, the rest of the day might’ve been trying. But in fact it was chilled, a pool-side day with more editing and some photos taken. HG and I lay on the beach again and I even try swimming, but it’s a pretty nasty experience – no visibility whatsoever so the sludge underfoot could easily be the jellyfish of the warning signs. I quickly bail. A shame as I usually love swimming in the sea. In the eve we go back to the food court for a banging green curry, best thing I’ve eaten all week. That night we watch a film on Netflix, mediocre, and sleep soundly and straight through.

Day 9
The days at the hotel are getting a bit ground hoggy. More book and pool. Fine underwater swimming, and ballet balances in pool with different gravity, challenging and fun. Very stiff now though which will doubtless take time to undo. Sporting beer belly also. Must buy running shoes upon return. Some entertainment follows installing C’s hammock, a camping one, between two Palm trees. I try it out. Feels like laying to rest in a sarcophagus. H gives it a go also but exits pretty quickly. Laughter accompanies. In the eve we try Helena’s café. Slow service, party unhappy. Home to set alarms for early start – tomorrow harbours a break to the routine with a trip to the national park.

Day 10
We’re only slightly slow to start. In the Grab and arrive by nine. Manage to get past the tour touts and into the park itself, which is free entrance. Discover the path to monkey beach is closed due to landslide, so original itinerary abandoned. Take trail over the top to turtle beach instead. The thick forest to either side of path alive with insect calls. Leaves fall suspiciously from the canopy high above. We spot monkeys of different types, massive ants and big spiders. Too humid for decent photos – lens mists instantly. A lot of steps, a lot of sweat. We arrive at the beach after an hour or so and find the dunny. A chat with some locals and a visit to the thoroughly depressing turtle sanctuary. Miserable devils in there, the adults solitary in blue plastic tubs pushing against the walls to get at the film of algae growing there. It’s no way to live. On the beach we share some nuts and spot a smooth otter (of FWC fame!) and white bellied sea eagles aplenty. By now the sun’s up and the thought of the hike back is too much. We haggle for a boat ride back. Smooth sailing. We’re hungry upon return so go to a cheapy eatery and unintentionally spend exactly the money that we have left between us (uncanny). There’s an ATM up the road but unfortunately it doesn’t take MasterCard. Nevermind, Grab uses PayPal, we discover after some time worrying. Meanwhile we trot to another animal shelter, this time for cats. Seems more eccentric house than cat sanctuary. Apparently 300 cats here. We see 40-odd just at the entrance. One took a shine to me and kept leaping onto my shoulders to meow in my ear. Very cute. A strong smell pervades. Several cats look thin and unwell, but are being treated. We leave feeling a little depressed. Cutting through some houses we see an iguana in a stream. Back at the hotel HG and I nap, and eventually emerge for coffee by the pool / to chill on loungers until sundown. Tonight we go to Front Room café. This place is cool and the owner plays guitar with some old UK rocker guy (sounding vaguely like a retired Rod Stewart). Nice vibe. At home I turn pages whilst HG watches Friends.

Day 11
The penultimate day. I’m writing these entries up for a while, HG snoozes. Not much planned apart from pool and food, over to the food court one last time. At pool I manage to crack the screen on my phone, and HG loses water bottle. H and C a bit coldy. Holiday wheels apparently coming off. We get into water anyway. Overcast today but still warm enough to warrant a drink at the floating bar. Beach smeach. Did go for a massage in the eve, tiny girl with superhuman strength bashes my back in for half an hour, pure bliss. Should’ve been going there every day. Go back to pack and then drink a last solo beer on the balcony. Enjoyed my time up there with my thoughts.

Day 12
Chilled check out. Always reassuring when credit card works! Go for lunch at the Living Room café again, buy a couple packs of sweets for colleagues and a teddy monkey for the neighbours (left Dave geranium for them to water). Managed to arrange Grab for ride to airport. Meanwhile H and C go off to catch a coach to Kuala Lumpur. It’s been fun hanging out. You get so busy working you forget how much you miss those you love. HG and I finish hotel time with a drink by the hammocks and then head off, too. Not much to do in airport so have coffee and board, hoping for the best. Flights are never much fun, eh. During our layover at Doha the perceived threat of the coronavirus is close at hand – I’m used to seeing the occasional person on the metro but never have I seen so many people wearing surgical masks in one place. This along with the international media showing empty streets of locked down Chinese cities, we can’t help but feel we’ve found ourselves in some zombie apocalypse movie’s opening scenes. Given that we’re flying into the UK on Brexit Day, a day I voted against in a referendum conducted in ways I cannot reconcile myself to and that I’m sad to see arrive, the comparison is bitterly close to the bone. At Heathrow we find the Tube is shut due to a signal failure.


©James Bruce May, 2020

Snow in April II


Journeying, cities and beaches, alcohol and music, natural wonders, box-ticking tours, taking digital photographs, making social media updates, good food etc.

Journeying, crossing the long spaces between home and abroad, over great stretches of wildernesses, lonely and misunderstood, only glimpsed at from 30,000 ft above.

Back to life, routines, stress, rubbish out this day, bills due that, date night, movie night, Friday night, pick a fight, social media updates, #goodtimes etc.

Back to life and wildernesses sleep misunderstood in the long spaces where the journeying wind chases specks of shadows over great stretches cast down from 30,000 ft above.


©James Bruce May, 2019

Snow in April

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Let me remind you, as you walk my shores resentfully in coat and scarf, frowning into fresh winds and casting bitterness at the chill waves lapping by your feet; let me remind you, before you _go_ from this endless crunching shingle forwards into spring proper to count the coloured petals of chance, believing in birdsong, in calming cricket calls, to embrace the warmth of new love amongst soft sighing long grasses, sharing in the secrets of golden evening stars; let me remind you _now_ of how I kept your lonesomeness as a gemstone in the heart of distant mountains, safe from sorrow in moaning January caves, turning the temperature low for you, low for you, carefully laying snow for you, flake by quiet flake, knowing all the while the day would come when I should remind you of the long nights that saw us at one with the white moonlit horizon, walking my shores to the gentle lap of unfeeling icy waters; reminding you – at my risk, at my loss – that the spring will follow, the spring will follow; for you, my dear, the spring will come.


©James Bruce May, 2018

Sudden End

Standing in the kitchen, lights bright and nobody near, two hands on the counter to steady the sudden sway, this clarity of thoughts comes as a surprise because, for as long you can remember, they’ve come spread in syrup – at work you wait frowning for words to come and colleagues look at the clock or over towards the door – but in this instant you could conjure exactly the right phrase, articulate your words in precisely the right order, yet your ex isn’t here, your friends aren’t here, your parents aren’t here and as your mouth fills with saliva and the panic comes on strong and your knees thud against the floor and the plates smash in slow silence about you, all that’s truly clear is the hopelessness, the senselessness, the futility of life, for love was in vain for those who die alone.

©James Bruce May, 2018

Wrap Up Warm

Those cold, bleak winter dawns that freeze the city from clear open skies, that go creeping past quiet terraces long before sunrise, and way up, a crescent moon’s blurred dark blue in your eye by a sharp, icy wind; god those dawns cut straight through you and all your thoughts turn to warmth, in some simple language of survival; all you’re doing is hurrying down the same old street to get to work on time but hell, for those few shivering seconds deep in your bones, all you feel is the bitter, bitter cold and deeper still, some ancient longing aches in you for just one ray of sunlight, for just one ray of sunlight to warm you through. You can’t get to the station quickly enough and during those traumatic moments, the idea of no shelter at all is just unthinkable, it’s just unthinkable.

street light jupiter moon

©James Bruce May, 2017

Journal Entry


Come, let’s figure this out. This drain on resources, this wound, weeping tiredness, weeping fatigue. Let’s look at ideas and prepare against the winter, the fall of life to dust and regeneration: an idea curls across the palm of your hand, as they always do; a soft fingertip draws a circle; like the breeze that started blowing when your new lungs cried into the blank space above your cot, a blank space once filled by the huge face of your mother, space that moved from blank to starry when you turned to the window – and how the space shimmered as the breath curled away to petition the seasons and find its place rustling through long grass, moaning in chimneys, rattling branches in forgotten forests. Once, when you were little, you watched a fox emerge from the hedgerow, stop to ponder you and sniff the air. You waited, tense, but the fox dismissed you and returned to the foliage to clamp its jaws into the scruff of its cub’s neck. It brought the young creature into the sunlight, though it immediately retreated into its mother’s tail, letting out a little cry as it settled amongst her thick auburn fur. You saw the grass ripple with a quiet breeze, then; a leaf twitched on a twig, and into the palm of your hand a circle curled: the beginning of a life passing into unknown quantities of danger and nurture, hunger and anxiety: the beginning of life passing through your fingertips, and into the unknown.

©James Bruce May, 2017

Ashton triple: The Dream/Symphonic Variations/Marguerite and Armand: First Night Review (ROH, June 2017)

You enter the auditorium which opens cavernous beneath you. You thank the people who twist and stand to let you pass to your seat. You sit as the oboe sounds, as the strings swarm; the lights begin to dim, drawing the red from the walls, the last murmurs from the crowd. Darkness surrounds the stage and invites you to watch for what might unfold. Polite applause greets the conductor. Art is great when it opens a portal, and you watch for what might unfold. The curtains rise and you find yourself looking out into a glade, spectral, mystical. Music rises, warming the darkness, and fairies gather and begin to dance. You know they’re fairies not only from their shifting, glittering garb: they move with an otherworldly grace. Their king and queen arrive and dote over a young prince; they chide and quarrel with lovers’ time-honoured, flirtatious steps. Men and women arrive, promenading, straying into these enchanted woods, far out of their depth. And here comes the king’s supernatural servant, leaping with the light energy of mischief. And here comes a group of country folk, vigorously celebrating their happy lot in life. All of these gathered are given unique movements to outline the difference in their characters. All of the wit, charm, comedy and romance of Shakespeare is here, you think, as the choral voices of children swell and lilt towards you. And if your mind begins to wander, the choreographer calls you back – this is a genius on a genius, you think; the lightning spins, the vitality and drama in each movement, the donkey on its toes, and the trust between the fairy king and queen who must lean into one another to form the perfect shapes they project – as the applause once again surrounds you, you realise you had travelled, you had been transported.

During the break you chat, you read a bit but your eyes catch the clothes of the crowd; you sense the shared excitement, the thrill of the people. Back in your seat you wait for the silence to fall once more. The orchestra tunes up and you watch for what might unfold. The curtains rise and a pianist plays. Only a handful of dancers gather on stage, dressed skin tight to match the slim flowing lines of the set. The patterns they perform are cyclic; the story they tell isn’t fiction; you can see they are dancing truth; you see they’re telling of the nature of life, its journey from beginning to end, its renewal through love, its simplicity, when stripped to its fundamental parts. You see a striking image you’re not used to seeing in ballet: one man stands with three women – it’s different, it carries a different emotion – and whilst dancers take turns to perform centre stage, to the side, a ballerina stands waiting, alone, staring out into the audience, poised yet calm, and you focus on the movement and the stillness of life. The cycle repeats. The ballet lasts only twenty minutes but you feel it could continue in your mind, or in your heart, forever.

At the bar time passes unnoticed. The people around you are moved by what they’ve seen. Your mind is full now of notions and ideas yet there’s more spectacle to come. Back in your seat you wait for silence to fall once more. The musicians below settle their instruments in their laps and upon their shoulders and you watch for what might unfold. This time the dancers act out the lifespan of a famous, passionate love story. They bring that love to life, but this is love grinding against death, for the prima ballerina’s character is fatally ill: she fights against her health and her desperation to live, to continue to love, pulls your heart to the surface. The music rises and falls, the pianist’s hands climb the keys and play every note in the scale with longing, with yearning; the costumes speak of glamour; the staging allows for intimacy – all come together to coax your imagination, to coax your heart to the surface. The dancers become the characters they play, and the great artistry of the star-crossed lovers makes their performance rare and spectacular. Sharing the experience of watching their performance, and the performances of all the other dancers, has brought between everybody in the auditorium, perfect strangers to one another, an understanding. Applause echoes and ricochets; bouquets are brought to the arms of the dancers as they take their bows.

On the train home people check their phones and read from crumpled dailies. The image of the heartbroken dancer clinging to the body of his lover as she dies in his arms repeats in your mind. You know you spend all your days alone inside your mind but for one small moment, the art you witnessed unified you with the crowd: two thousand people in London go home to dwell on the weight of love grinding against death, to ponder life’s stillness and its renewal, and celebrate again the delicacy of Shakespeare. This meditation is the parting gift of a choreographer whose work still lifts our hearts to the surface.


@ James Bruce May 2017