A Lunch With Pico Iyer

Posted: November 17th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Travel, Yale-NUS College | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

We’re sitting at the Raffles Courtyard in Singapore—chosen for its honouring of writers from Maugham to Malraux—as Pico tells us that when he travels he never spends much time bothering over what to eat. “I’d much rather have a quick meal at KFC and have more time to explore the city” he explains, subsequently offering an apology to Mariel, the Singaporean amongst us, for his neglect of hawker centres. “I ate at one last night with the faculty and enjoyed it, but I don’t go out of my way for them”. He’s ordered the lasagne and a Virgin Singapore Sling.

These comments surprised us not because we had brought him to a restaurant we thought he would truly appreciate, but because they contradicted the image of Pico as the quintessential traveler that we each had formed. Any travel blog or article will never fail to mention the local cuisine, giving recommendations of both “must-see” and “must avoid”; yet here we were, sitting with one of the most renowned travel writers, as he told us that he would usually go to KFC, McDonald’s or Starbucks.

But perhaps he’s more of a traveler because of that. The time not spent on eating is spent walking, and walking, and walking around the city, seeing more of it than us food-lovers would have time for. The city itself is his focus, not the way it fills our stomachs. In response to our questioning whether food is an important part of any city, he admits it might be and that it’s something he could be missing. But we get the feeling that this is said for our benefit, not because he actually believes it.

How does he record what he sees in a new city?, Manas asks. In response, Pico pulls out probably the most beaten-up notebook we’ve ever seen. It’s a reporter-style notebook with metal rings at the top, only the rings are all so bent that he can’t properly flip the pages over. There are only a handful of pages left on the notebook, and as far as we can tell most of those pages are already written on, in writing we can’t make out. “Yes, some of my favourite word-choices are made because I misread something I’ve written”, Pico jokes. The pen stuck through the rings is a plastic ballpoint, one he might’ve picked up at a hotel somewhere in the world—or perhaps from an airline. He mentioned numerous times during the course of our lunch how much he loves airports and hotels (he had heard good things about Air New Zealand, I might add, although his favourite is probably Singapore Airlines).

Having seen the many disclaimers on Pico’s website—“All the photos on this site, other than the one on the Welcome page, are taken by Pico Iyer.”—I ask whether he still uses a camera. The answer is a negative; he hasn’t carried a camera for a decade or so. He used to take photos in analog but lost many when his house in California burnt down.

This leads him to another point: he keeps most of his notes in safety deposit boxes at banks. After losing all the notes he’d taken over years for a novel, he no longer takes chances, and doesn’t want to have to rebuild his life yet again. “I handwrite everything, but input them to the computer soon after.” So most of his work will be safe if disaster strikes, but with the older works he’s not taking any chances; hence the bank deposit box.

Over the course of lunch Pico spots a man he spoke to once in Jaipur, and greets him warmly, even asking after his children. He tells us later that he had seen the man reading aloud to his three children, who were a rapt audience. Not long after, two women and a newborn baby from a nearby table come over tentatively to ask Pico for a photo. “Of course! Thank you so much, it’s so nice to meet you.” His graciousness is genuine, followed up with true surprise that people would care to ask him for a photo. He exudes such a casual, warm persona that means over the course of our lunch one could quite easily forget that he’s a man who people travel sometimes half-way across the world just to meet.

After talking books for a while—Maugham, Greene, Fitzgerald, and Ishiguro, who is a friend of Pico’s (and who apparently does not like his own famous novel Remains of the Day)—Mariel mentions she saw Pico speak last year at the Singapore Writers Festival where he mentioned that he didn’t get much out of taking literature as a major at Oxford. “Oh, did I really say that?” he says with a grin. He explains how for someone who loves literature, taking literature as a major probably isn’t necessary; you’ll read the books and write about them regardless. So he doesn’t recommend it for young people today, and adds another piece of advice he often shares: if you want to be a writer, have a day job. Pico says he’s been lucky enough to be able to write full-time, but admits with journalism drying up he may have to move into teaching in the future.

After finishing our food, we get up to walk around Raffles and look at the Writers’ Bar, where a signed portrait of W. Somerset Maugham, one of Pico’s literary heroes, hangs. Pico stares admiringly at it. The three of us stare admiringly at Mr. Iyer, wondering how long it’ll be before his own portrait hangs grandly in one of his favourite hotels.

Living in the Future’s Past

Posted: November 7th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Thinking Out Loud | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Photos by me, taken from a larger collection I call “Screen Blindness”.

Screen Blindness

Next time you go to a public event — a fireworks display, for instance, or a concert — see if you can spot what I believe is the paradox of our times. Nowhere is this paradox more visible than when thousands of people are crushed together in close quarters, all straining to capture one thing.

As I held up my iPhone between two heads to record the finalé of the Singapore day public fireworks display earlier this year I just happened to look to my right. I saw thousands of sets of eyes trained on one thing, but not the thing I expected. Every set of eyes was set on a small sheet of glass; it was a wall of glass separating this mob from the event they were attempting to witness. Clearly I was a part of this mob, contributing to the scene. I do not know why I happened to look up for a second and reflect, but since doing so I’ve been struck at a variety of other events by the same phenomenon.

It’s as though we live in a form of pre-empted nostalgia. We go out of our ways to attend exciting events and to travel the world, and yet when we do we spend the majority of our time trying to capture our experiences so that we’ll

never lose them. We assume that these experiences and these moments will be of higher value to us in the future than they are at present, and we are afraid to let them slip away from us before we can immortalise them.

We pre-judge the moment’s value to us, and in doing so we pass up the opportunity for the experience to truly etch itself into us. In recording the fireworks, I’ll miss the intricacies of each explosion, the colours and sounds together — I’ll instead focus on the tiny images on my screen, making sure they’re in focus. When I view my recording after the event, I’ll see it once again as I saw it at the time; that is, through my screen, without the beautiful details that I can only capture with my senses at the time.

If instead of recording it I simply focussed on the fireworks themselves, viewing them directly, I’d later have a greater, more detailed memory of what they were like. Another example is when we visit a new city: we could quite easily spend most of the first day exploring taking photos of everything in excitement; snapping away at each new sight, being once-removed from the

scene we are a part of. Sure, we’ll have images of what we saw later, and we can show them to friends and family back home. But I would argue that a more detailed memory of that experience is worth a thousand photos. If we’d instead focussed on absorbing the entire scene, rather than capturing it for later, we will notice things we wouldn’t through our screen.

On a recent trip to Greece I put my theories to the test. I sat at a cafe in the Plaka district of Athens — my seat facing the street, as they seem only to do in Europe — and just watched. I reflected that if I hadn’t made this conscious decision to simply watch, I would’ve lifted my camera with each interesting thing that passed me by. An instant’s sight of something interesting would’ve then had me viewing the scene through the tiny viewfinder; my memories of the scene would forever have been confined to that within the screen.

But by simply watching, I began to put the entire scene together in a way my camera could never capture: a young man hung laundry out on his apartment’s balcony, draping the deep-blue sheets over the railing, while an elderly woman walked below, wearing a thick coat of the same deep-blue. I stopped worrying about trying to capture this so I could always rememb

er it, and just enjoyed the sight itself. And as I write this I’m able to conjure the scene in so much more detail than, say, the Singapore fireworks.

In our desperation to record a moment, the value of the experience is lost; the recorded version instead consumes bytes until we one day need more digital memory to record our next experience, at which point it is deleted and forever forgotten. We pass up the opportunity for the experience itself to etch itself into our subconscious and our memory. We choose the future instead. We choose pre-empted nostalgia.

Screen Blindness

The Reserved Metropolitan Individual [Photo Essay]

Posted: October 24th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Yale-NUS College | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

This is a photo essay I recently completed for my Comparative Social Institutions class at Yale-NUS College, where we’ve been studying the city and urbanisation over the past few weeks. The task was to represent an aspect of Singapore’s urban way of life based on a concept of either Georg Simmel or Louis Wirth.

I stand on the MRT, holding the central pole; a lady stands in front of me, her hand just above mine. Our hands are so close that they practically touch. If we were the only people on this train she would be seen as my partner.

Yet in this metropolis of five million she is but an apparition both to me and to the other thousand people on this train. Not once do our eyes meet, nor do we acknowledge that the other exists. To the other, we are just someone taking up space.

I would not have noticed the significance of this daily occurrence had Georg Simmel not written in 1903 of this reserved attitude in which we “are constantly touching one another in fleeting contact”, and which “necessitates in us that reserve, in consequence of which we do not know by sight neighbours of years standing and which permits us to appear to small-town folk so often as cold and uncongenial.” (Simmel, 1903, p.15)

Through these images I sought to capture this reserved attitude; those instances in peoples’ daily lives in Singapore where they refuse to acknowledge the existence of a human being they are physically so close to.

Perhaps our goal should be to see other humans as something other than Ezra Pound saw them in his poem “A Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.







Planetary Urbanism, or the City as a Vacuum Cleaner

Posted: October 18th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Thinking Out Loud, Yale-NUS College | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Henri Lefebvre wrote in the late 1960′s about “planetary urbanism”. It’s perhaps a valuable exercise to decipher the depth of meaning to this term by thinking about the city in its form today. I began to give this a lot of thought after reading a recent New York Times article looking at the realities of modern Russia. By taking the road from St. Petersburg to Moscow the journalist, Ellen Barry, explores the differences between rural areas and the metropolises at either end.

“…the death of a village is a slow process. A geographer, Tatiana Nefyodova, calls them “black holes,” and estimates that they make up 70 to 80 percent of Russia’s northwest, where Moscow and St. Petersburg act as giant vacuum cleaners, sucking people and capital from the rest of the country.”

A planet’s gravitational force acts on everything around it; the moon stays in earth’s orbit, and other objects in space can be pulled right into earth’s atmosphere. Moscow and St. Petersburg are growing planets. Their growth gives them an added gravity, and this in turn causes them to pull more and more of their periphery into them. Villages are gradually subsumed into the metropolis; people cannot resist the gravity of the metropolis, and as the city grows it can eventually simply grow to include villages within its borders.

People cannot resist the pull of the metropolis for a variety of reasons, primarily economic. The larger a city, the more the opportunities. Once again we have a self-perpetuating cycle leading to the growth of the city. A truck driver, Aleksandr Chertkov, ponders his future:

“Maybe it was time to check out for a season, park his rig in his native village where people are simpler and more virtuous. Put his keys on the shelf and do nothing until the spring.”

“But these were the idle thoughts of a man moving at full speed in the direction of the Kremlin.”

That nostalgia for a simpler, rural life is one felt by generations worldwide: see my discussion of it here in Singapore. But rarely or never does it translate into people propelling themselves away from the pull of the metropolis. They are usually precisely that: idle thoughts of individuals moving in full speed towards or within the metropolis.

Is there an end to the growth of cities? Will they continue to subsume everything around them until eventually the majority of humans live within one?

Those are the questions on my mind and which I won’t attempt to answer here, but which I’d love to hear any thoughts on.

A Long Way From Home

Posted: October 7th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Thinking Out Loud, Yale-NUS College | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

This article was originally posted to the Yale-NUS College Week 7 Blog. Week 7 (also known as Learning Across Boundaries) is a week at Yale-NUS where all students stop classes and travel somewhere in the world to learn in-depth about a specific place, theme, or group. The trips are sponsored by Yale-NUS’ Center for International and Professional Experience. I was lucky enough to travel to Greece for a week where we visited Athens, Olympia, Delphi and Galaxidi. This is a post I wrote on my final day in Athens. Do check out other students’ posts from their trips on the Week 7 blog here.


In April 1941 my Great-Uncle, Charles William Corner, died in combat while fighting as a gunner for the Allies in the Second World War. Like most New Zealanders in both the First and Second World Wars, he died just about as far from home as he could be.

Charles William Corner died in Greece defending the country against German invasion. He was 24 when he died, and died in the early days of the battles in Greece after the New Zealanders arrived as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

Today—our last day in Greece—I visited his grave at the Phaleron War Cemetery just outside of Athens. It was a strange experience, seeing my family’s name engraved in marble buried in the ground. The cemetery was peaceful and well looked-after, but lay nestled between apartment buildings and busy roads on either side. Greece has sprung up and modernized, but it’s history—both ancient and recent—lies juxtaposed with everything modern about the country.

When my great-uncle died New Zealand was still strongly connected with Britain, through family and political ties that had not yet weakened. However after World War Two, New Zealand took a permanent step away from Britain, the main reason being Britain’s inability to protect us, as demonstrated by the fall of Singapore.

I personally find it hard to understand why my great-uncle would be so willing to travel and fight and die on the other side of the world, in and for a country he’d only heard of. I admire and respect all New Zealanders who did so—and we are forever grateful to them—but in this day and age New Zealand would have a hard time convincing anyone of fighting in Europe for the British.

This simple marble stone in Greece sums up how things have changed for my family, for New Zealand, and in the world. I’m hugely grateful to have been able to visit it here in Greece and explore both this country and my own family’s history.

As I walked away from the cemetery thinking about heading home this evening, I mused on the fact that my family will in some very small way always be in Greece. It’s a country I never thought or knew I had a connection to, but here, through luck and the forces of history, my family’s name and New Zealand will always be here on Athen’s coast.

Charles William Corner

Discovering Hong Kong

Posted: October 7th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , | No Comments »

Just over a week ago I visited Hong Kong for a few days and spent most of my time exploring the city. It’s not the first time I’ve been there, but it’s the time I saw the most. I took my camera with me wherever I went and managed to get some photos that I think show quite well the many different aspects to the city that I noticed.

I post most of my photos on the website 500px, and I’ve done the same with my photos from Hong Kong.

You can view them here. They’ll display as a story so you can see them all in an order that I’ve chosen.

I’ve written previously on this blog about why I enjoy photography—the post is titled Encountering Ways of Life, and you can view it here.

I’d love to hear about any of your experiences in Hong Kong or abroad, as well as see some photos if you’ve taken any.

Hong Kong Streets

The Embassy to Sisi

Posted: August 29th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Foreign Policy, Thinking Out Loud, Uncategorized, Yale-NUS College | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

full rest embassy potteryThe Americans have over the past few weeks attempted to find a diplomatic solution to the situation in Egypt, with very few results, demonstrating the limits to American influence in the region. Only in the past week have they begun to use economic incentives as persuasive power (also with seemingly little effect).

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham recently visited Cairo, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called General Sisi many times—each attempted to get Sisi to stop the violent crackdown, and take a different route. What is interesting is the methods that each of these ambassadors used to try to persuade Sisi to end the violence.

Drawing on points made in a recent lecture series given at Yale by Professors John Gaddis and Charles Hill to Yale-NUS College, I want to show here how this envoy—I will call it the Embassy to Sisi—is a perfect modern day example of the diplomacy used in The Iliad.

Odysseus and Reason

In book nine of the Iliad—The Embassy to Achilles—Odysseus, Phoenix and Ajax are each sent as ambassadors to persuade Achilles to return to fight against the Trojans. During a meeting at night at Achilles’ camp, they try very different means of persuasion.

Odysseus begins:

“Up with you now—late as it is, if you want to pull our Argives, our hard-hit armies, clear of the Trojan onslaught. Fail us now? What a grief it will be to you through all the years to come. No remedy, no way to cure the damage once it’s done.

Odysseus’ entire speech is an argument of, in Greek, logos, or an appeal to reason. He explains that “Your Achaean comrades, young and old, will exalt you all the more”, and “The king will give you gifts to match his insults”. It is a series of explanations to show why it is logical, in every way, for Achilles to return to fight with the Achaeans against the Trojans. Achilles will gain nothing by not fighting, but everything by fighting. Why would Achilles refuse to fight?

Now look at Lindsey Graham’s recent attempts to persuade General Sisi to end the violence against Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt (with quotes taken from a recent IHT article, and bold my own):

Mr. Graham recalled arguing with General Sisi. “If Morsi had to stand for re-election anytime soon, he’d lose badly,” the senator remembered saying. “Do you agree?”

“Oh, absolutely,” the general answered.

Then what you’re doing now is making him a martyr,” Mr. Graham said. “It’s no longer about how badly they ruled the country and how they marginalized the democratic institutions. It’s now about you.

Graham is using precisely the same tactic as Odysseus. He tried to force Sisi to see reason—to see why his course of action would only harm himself and benefit others. He, like Odysseus, doesn’t leave a middle ground. His points are presented as black and white: either you do what you’re doing and you hurt yourself, or you do what I suggest and you’ll be better off.

Phoenix and the Appeal to Emotion

After Achilles brushes off Odysseus’ attempts to persuade him, Phoenix then speaks:

“I made you what you are—strong as the Gods, Achilles—I loved you from the heart….

So you, Achilles—great godlike Achilles—I made you my son, I tried, so someday you might fight disaster off my back. But now, Achilles, beat down your mounting fury! It’s wrong to have such an iron, ruthless heart.”

It needs to be noted that Phoenix helped to raise Achilles when he was much younger, and they have had an extremely close relationship for a long time. Achilles has even offered to let Phoenix stay in his camp and then leave with him, so that he does not have to fight the Trojans.

Phoenix’s plea here conjures up many references to their closeness, and tries to force Achilles to reflect on how he might be betraying the people who have helped him throughout his life. Phoenix is using pathos—an appeal to emotion—and this is also shown most clearly by his crying during part of his speech.

Look now at the Americans’ use of pathos in negotiating with Sisi (taken from the same IHT article as above):

As images of Egyptian security forces opening fire flickered across television screens in Washington, Mr. Hagel called General Sisi again and warned him that the violence had put “important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk,” as he put it in a statement afterward.

Hagel appeals to aspects of the American-Egyptian relationship, which for a long time has been “special”, as the Americans have also kept emphasising. Also remember that General Sisi studied at the US Army War College as recently as 2006, where he wrote a paper titled “Democracy in the Middle East.” He met many American leaders during his time studying there, and has personal relationships with them.

Forcing Sisi to think about his betrayal of people who have previously helped him is a different tack of diplomacy, one that puts emotions over reason, and tries to impose a sense of guilt.

Hagel and Sisi, April 2013. /Reuters

Ajax and the Credibility of the Speaker

Ajax is known in The Iliad as the “Bulwark of the Achaeans.” He is depicted as being immensely strong and intelligent, and he’s someone respected by all. So when he begins to speak, it is expected that Achilles too holds him in high regard and respects what he says.

“Achilles, put some human kindness in your heart. Show respect for your own house. Here we are, under your roof, sent from the whole Achaean force! Past all other men, all other Achaean comrades, we long to be your closest, dearest friends.”

Ajax here uses his standing within the Achaean army, and his upholding of Greek values, to flatter Achilles as well as embarrass him. This is a use of ethos—a person with high standing using the ideals of his nation to persuade. Telling Achilles to put some human kindness in his heart implies he is hard and cruel—and is nothing like an Achaean should be. Yet at the same time, telling him that they wish to be his closest friends seems a form of flattery that is expected to make Achilles want to re-think, and to know that his loyalties lie with his friends.

The Americans have many people who could play the role of Ajax, and indeed a few have done so, in different and perhaps less direct ways than Ajax does in The Iliad.

Although President Obama has not visited Cairo, he has essentially been speaking to General Sisi and the Egyptians through a series of highly-crafted statements. For example:

President Obama has said the new government is on a “dangerous path” marked by “arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s associations and supporters” and “violence that’s taken the lives of hundreds of people and wounded thousands more.”

Of everyone who could influence Sisi, Obama must be one of the few who wields such power. His statements, as president, will hold weight around the world, and furthermore his statements are backed up with the ability to cut off military deliveries and aid, as he has recently done. (The Achaean ambassadors were backed up by Agamemnon’s gifts to Achilles, conditional upon his accepting their pleas). The above statement demonstrates the United States’ implied values—it is for peaceful governance, and opposes any form of violence on the part of a government.

The President has also stressed “humanitarian values” in many of his statements, again using his standing and the values of America to try to persuade Sisi against his course of action.

Secretary of State John Kerry has backed up the President’s statements, continually pressing the Military to restore the country to civilian government .

Whether these ambassadors have studied The Iliad and consciously chosen to put its lessons into practice is impossible to determine. What is perhaps more likely is that these forms of rhetoric, and here diplomacy—logos, pathos and ethos—are timeless. They are means of persuasion that have been used throughout human history, and will continue to be used. They cut to the heart of a human’s decision making process, and leave them with little room to think for themselves.

On a daily basis our decisions are guided by reason, emotion, and the credibility of things we read and hear. How what we read and hear fits into our pre-existing notions of right and wrong also plays a crucial role. International diplomacy is in many ways an extension of the ways we decide and persuade in our daily lives—albeit with much larger consequences.

Did the embassy to Achilles achieve its desired outcome? No—the embassy went back to Agamemnon’s camp to report the bad news, and then prepare to fight the Trojans alone.

Did the embassy to Sisi fare any better? Unfortunately not—the ambassadors all admitted the failure of their efforts, marking the end of an American diplomatic effort to end the violence.

Perhaps these means of persuasion are not effective in practice. Or perhaps there is just something deep inside these leaders—Achilles and General Sisi—that allows them to refuse all advice and all persuasion.

Regardless, the point we must leave with is that the classics are inescapable. Their relevance in areas like international diplomacy—and any field that involves human minds—can be seen almost on a daily basis.