Living life fully and simply

Former Straits Times deputy editor Alan John's memoir on love, life and loss is into its second print run after its launch last Sunday


By Alan John

Straits Times Press, paperback/ 160 pages/$22.01 with GST from leading bookstores

Today, Chinese families everywhere will sit down to their yearly reunion dinner, a tableau Singaporean author Alan John calls "a wonderful celebration" in his just- released memoir, Good Grief!.

John, 62, muses in the book that it is "that one important meal that tells everyone: Look, we are a family, we obey tradition, we respect the hierarchy, we acknowledge our elders and the ways of our forefathers."

  • Meet Alan John on Feb 24

  • Author Alan John is a consummate storyteller, as is evident in his memoir Good Grief!

    Let him regale you with his experiences from a 35-year career at The Straits Times at this month's Big Read Meet. The fun begins at 6.30pm on Feb 24 at The Possibility Room, Level 5, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

    Sign up at any NLB e-Kiosk or click on, look for The Big Read Meet and follow the steps there.

    If you cannot make it to the session, share your views of the book by e-mailing your thoughts in not more than 100 words to We will publish the best contributions on The Big Read page.


  • 1 How has Singapore changed in the past 35 years?

    2 What does being a parent mean?

    3 How might you build character?

    4 How might you best help others?

    5 What is it like to have loved and lost?

  • Just a minute

  • The good

    1. Former newspaper editor Alan John is a master of "less is more" in writing. He is concise, precise and incisive in his essays, which makes this book a delight to read and a primer on how to write well.

    2. Add to that his sturdy moral backbone and healthy funnybone, and you have a rare gem of a read. He tells it like it is.

    For example, here he is on bringing up his first child, Nicola: "We squashed too much parenting into too little time with her." He also rues how many among his colleagues were "absent fathers" or "mothers raising their children by telephone".

    3. John has carefully avoided grouping the 49 pieces in this book chronologically, which is a wise move as that approach so often leads to tedium for the reader.

    Instead, he has woven themes around his pet passions such as roots, food and journeys. But within each theme, he has ordered his writings chronologically, say, from 1981 till 1994 till 2016. This lends valuable perspective, and a more comprehensive outlook, on all that he holds dear.

    4. You will also likely enjoy a lot of received wisdom from his friends, of whom there are many in this book.

    He also recommends many good books from which he has drawn insights and solace, such as American scholar-sculptor Kent Nerburn's Small Graces, Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life and Marc Freedman's Prime Time: How Babyboomers Will Revolutionise Retirement And Transform America.

    The bad

    He writes so warmly and vividly about his immediate and extended families that when you reach the last page, you will think they are your family too. So why is it that there is not a single photograph or illustration of him or them in this memoir?

    John tells me that his book editor had advised that photographs were not necessary. I am certain readers would not agree. We live in a time when people prefer pictures to words and so some things should best not be left to the imagination.

    The iffy

    As John spent half his life in newsrooms working 12-hour days, often on Saturday nights too, it is head-scratching that this book on his life's journey excludes such a big part of his life.

    He tells me that he deliberately left those work experiences out of the book. "I've thought of writing 'Dear God!' about being an editor," he says, "but it would mostly be a survival manual for people who spend their days and nights in a newsroom. I don't know who would want to read that."

That he, an English-educated Indian who is Catholic, rejoices in another's culture is a testament to how much he embodies the joys of multi-culturalism in this book, which was launched last Sunday. It has already sold out its initial print run of 1,500 copies. At press time, it is into its second print run.

But first things first: John, who retired as deputy editor of The Straits Times in September last year, is my former boss. Also, I am mentioned in passing in this book, though not by name and not positively. Come to The Big Read Meet on Feb 24 if you want to know where and why.

Full disclosure done, this book takes its rightful place alongside well-loved autobiographies such as David Niven's The Moon's A Balloon and its sequel, Bring On The Empty Horses, Liv Ullman's Changing and, more recently, Anna Quindlen's Lots Of Candles, Plenty Of Cake as well as Jean Trumpington's Coming Up Trumps.

It will resonate with those who, like me, used to devour Malaysian columnist Adibah Amin's wistful musings titled As I Was Passing in the 1970s and the 1980s.

As it happens, Adibah was the senior editor at The New Straits Times in Kuala Lumpur and it was she who asked John to write his first personal column when he was a young reporter there.

"I nearly collapsed with joy," he recalls in Good Grief! He chewed his fingernails off awaiting her verdict on it. She ran that column, which was about his hometown KL and asked him to write another one.

After John joined The Straits Times in 1980, he wrote such columns occasionally in the mid-1990s and the mid-Noughties. Some of these pieces are reproduced in Good Grief!, which is bolstered by 10 fresh essays he wrote late last year.

The happily married father of two tells me that his ideal reader is "anyone who sometimes despairs that doing life can be so hard" and that he still does not know why his "streak of recklessness" has him baring his soul in print on some sensitive subjects.

Chief among them is his mother. He has not spoken to her in years. Among many other things, he says that she is "the original queen of the sharp remark and killer put-down" and that he has his mother's mouth, save that he swears less.

He recalls the straw that broke the camel's back in their long-strained relationship: "Once I was in Chicago when I learnt news that distressed me enough to make the long-distance call to KL. It ended it once and for all. We screamed at each other, spewed venom and bile, and then it was over."

Asked what the distressing news was, he declines to elaborate and would only say: "The details don't matter to those not involved and I left them out deliberately. The point I wanted to make is that I reached a turning point that day, and then I got off the rollercoaster."

His recollections have the tang and bite so often missing in books of this sort, which tend towards the trite and twee.

He is a man of passion. He loves his wife, university lecturer Hedwig Alfred, and their children to bits. He is man enough to weep in public. He has been known to scoff 100 pineapple tarts in the first week of Chinese New Year and then amass stacks of books on how to lose weight.

At age 50 and in intensive care after a heart attack, he was raring to return to the office to be on top of breaking news. And at 58, he completed his first full marathon in six hours and 19 minutes.

The reader would likely not be familiar with the few names he drops in this memoir, including Joo Hock, his hairdresser of almost 30 years. As he tells me: "I used full names where it seemed right or I suddenly had a good feeling about a particular person."

As he unwinds the skeins of his being to the reader, in the well-paced way of a striptease, you will likely exult in how far he has come in life.

Born the youngest child of four in a humble family, his father died when he was two years old. Yet each apparent cul de sac in John's life proves a vista.

Thus is this book an exuberant companion on how to live life with purpose and meaning.

As the avid reader, cook and traveller says: "If you're alive, you must live."

So you will find him in Kerala, land of his forefathers where, after savouring prawn curry and beans tossed with shredded coconut, he asks the bemused waitress if the chef looks like him.

In Istanbul, shopkeepers hail him as Shah Rukh Khan and try to sell him six things at once while insisting: "We cheat you less than the others."

In Tralee, new friends get him to deliver their weekly newspaper around their little Irish town, whose denizens hardly see any non-Caucasians.

In Monaco, he tries to keep up with his feisty friend, a Catholic nun named Tessie, whose convent is right next to the palace of Monaco's royals, the Rainiers.

And he arrives in Albania, fully expecting to see his intrepid son Zachary shacked up with a gypsy with six children.

John, who considered social work before becoming a journalist, has found time to help, among many others, Aids sufferers, those with suicidal thoughts and victims of abuse. In fact, what he earns from his re-issued first book, Unholy Trinity, later this month will go to Pave, the lead agency against domestic violence. He is its vice-president.

There are many sobering moments in this book, but many more to make you chuckle. In all that, you will recognise yourself in his trials and travails, for while he has been luckier than most, he is the everyman writing for the everyman. One of his many exchanges with his children goes like this:

Child: "You touch me one more time and I'll report you for child abuse."

John: "Parent abuse is a crime too, okay?"

The wry passages in which he recalls his mother's disapproval about him co-habiting with the girlfriend who became his wife, his many uncles or his wife's aunt Daisy Vaithilingam's zest for living, would not have been out of place in Bailey White's riotous memoir, Mama Makes Up Her Mind.

Life is not usually pretty and he does not pretend otherwise.

But, through it all, he shows the reader how to leaven it with grace and gladness. From his mother, he learnt that "no matter what happens, you never wring your hands and wallow" but "you move on".

To give you an idea of what a trove of wit and perception this book is, I am giving little away in mentioning the anecdotes above.

His is a life seen clearly, told simply and felt fully. Would that more of us could say the same of our own lives.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline Living life fully and simply. Subscribe