Review: Notes From An Even Smaller Island by Neil Humphreys

Reviewer: Yeo Han Hwee

Review of Book 1 of 3:

In screenwriting there is a narrative structure sometimes called “the traveller” or “the journey”. What it means is that we follow a person who undergoes a journey of discovery (into a new country, sub-culture etc) and we see and experience things and events through his/her perspective.

This is what Neil Humphreys has done in Notes “From An Even Smaller Island” (hereafter referred to as “Notes”). An Englishman from the working class suburb of Dagenham in East London, he first came to Singapore in 1996 and worked as a speech/drama teacher and a sports journalist. Unlike most expats, though, he stayed in Toa Payoh and has mixed and socialized with mostly HDB heartlanders.

“Notes” is Humphreys’ love letter to Singapore. First published in 2001, it caused a bit of a stir and topped the bestseller list. It is part memoir of his stay in the Little Red Dot – he recounts going to watch “Army Daze: The Movie”; gets lost while trekking at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve; and how aghast he was when a drunken Aussie tries to chat up his girlfriend (in front of him).

“Notes” is also part cultural observation and examination of Singapore. Humphreys examines many facets of Singapore life and behaviour that we regard as normal or not given much thought – eccentric uncles and aunties wandering the corridors of HDB estates; supporting local football; how overworked Singaporean students are; and materialism in Singapore culture. There is also the de rigueur nod to hawker food, criticizing the absolutely stifling humidity, his struggles with Singlish, and encounters with strange taxi drivers.

The book is at its best when he writes honestly about his opinions and what he sees (the good and the bad). The man has good insights. But admittedly, he has to walk a fine line. Humphreys is well aware of cultural sensitivities and wants to be diplomatic. When he criticizes an aspect of Singapore culture (a lot of his observations are still valid), He makes sure to contrast his experience with what he would likely encounter back in England. He clearly loved his time in Singapore and makes sure the reader is well aware that his criticism comes from a place of affection and respect.
Some of the references and jokes are outdated, but this is to be expected as it was published almost 15 years ago. He peppers his writing with expletives, which will amuse some people and irritate others. He goes for the “Cockney cheeky chappie” tone and mixes in a lot of British self-deprecating humour. Overall, Humphreys writes in a fast paced, lively and witty style and “Notes” is an easy, fun read.

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