On microclimates of diversity
By Toh Hsien Min
The sun pouring down on the island was halfway to the colour of molten ore and halfway as hot. I was trying to write but all I could do was to sit there in the overwork of artificial air and listen to my brain sizzling in the heat. There was no help for it. I was not getting anything done and anything was preferable to that. The weather being what it was, the decision was easy enough. Within two minutes, I was round the corner at the ice cream shop that had just opened on Mackenzie Road, a few doors down from where Mirabelle used to be. I was mulling over whether to pick earl grey or passionfruit when one of the owners called out to me from behind the counter.
"You came by recently didn't you?"
"Um, yes, I was here last night."
"Yeah, I thought you looked familiar."
I was a little startled because she seemed to have been engaged in a conversation with these two girls at the counter. "Don't mind us, we're just slacking off," one of them said.
I turned. "Ah right," I said. "From the café." This was a new café cum gallery that had just opened on Selegie Road, which I had also been to for the first time the previous day. It was a beautiful setting, and already I was thinking of nudging Shu Hoong to do a reading there.
One of the café owners had just had an earl grey, and was going for a salted caramel. Even though I'd asked for a passionfruit by then, I was curious. The liquid nitrogen started flowing, and wisps of grey were floating out from the counter as the mixer churned my ice cream on the spot. "Are you a tea drinker?" she asked.
I shrugged. "Yes, somewhat."
"You might like it a bit stronger then. You can ask them for a double shot."
"He's a hot Americano drinker," said the other girl.
I didn't hear it at first. Told you my cook was braining. "Hot Americano," she repeated.
"Wow," I may have thought out loud. "You remember."
I thought back to this as I read about a small Devon town called Totnes that managed to dissuade Costa Coffee, the largest café chain in Britain, from opening a branch on their high street. I've been to Costa; there is one near our London offices and I've even managed to have a professional work meeting there. As the article suggests, it's better than most (certainly better than that American chain), but the chain store is still about economies of scale and slowly nudging out the competition. But that competition, while never going to be the cheapest, can provide something the process-driven chain cannot: unique offerings, a true personality and a warm welcome from proprietors who remember you.
There is sort of a literary angle on all this. Earlier this week, Pearson, the owners of the Penguin Group, announced that they had agreed to merge the publisher with Random House, to create the world's largest trade publisher. The combined firm will account for a staggering one-quarter of both the UK and US book markets. There's a feeling like this could be like Costa - better than the other ball-and-chain - but it's hard not to be concerned. There are industries in which size is a good thing - you wouldn't want the bank in which you keep your money to be a four-man operation, for instance, and even there the thinking nowadays is that size is only a good thing up to a point - but literature is a field always better served by organic biodiversity than concentrated monoculture.
In this vein, I've been quite impressed by the output of independent publishers Math Paper Press, who many will know as the publishing arm of independent bookshop Books Actually. There's but a week to go to the Singapore Writers Festival - our country's strongest contribution to literary diversity - and it seems that every other day Kenny and co. are sending out an invite to yet another book launch. Hope to see you at a couple of these. Call it keeping the spirit of Totnes burning.
This issue of QLRS has taken longer than usual to put together. Being busy at work was one thing, but the other was being absolutely swamped by submissions: there hasn't been an issue in the last three years with quite as much material to get through. Kai Chai and I seem to have responded in slightly different ways; while he's lifted the number of stories he's taken along with the tide, I've kept to my usual target of 8-10 poems, which meant that the competition this time was more intense than usual. On that score, I have to commend what Shu Hoong's managed to put together in his section: two essays by Chew Yi Wei and Zhang Ruihe that echo each other (and indeed the first two poems) in their restraint of sorrow. I shall leave you, however, to assess the reviews, since it includes a sadly rare outing from yours truly, albeit not without some haggling with Wei Chian, a fearsomely meticulous editor, over whether it should be "summarize" or "summarise". And for the hordes who will be descending on the SMU grounds, do have a read of the interviews we have with Booker-shortlisted guest author Jeet Thayil as well as our homegrown writers who will be at the Festival. Don't forget to get some coffee or nitro ice cream afterwards.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012