Monday, 20 December 2010

Outrage at the student violence, or just an excuse to express a long-standing distaste towards university-goers?

The vast number of middle-class students at middle-class universities studying middle-class subjects and leading middle-class lifestyles has caused an explosion of hatred towards a social cohort that was once deemed the revered future of our country. People don’t hate students because they smashed a few windows and vented their anger at the tuition fee rises through violence. They hate them because all they hear about today’s students is that they get drunk, engage in a three-year pseudo-intellectualist ego trip and clog up weekend trains. The violence of recent weeks has finally given the masses a tangible reason to detest the presence of students.

The symbolic outpouring of students gave self-righteous adults everywhere a reason to release their pent-up hatred for their imagined psychoses surrounding the ‘wasteful’ lifestyles of students. Very few tax-paying adults believe that an arts student deserves funding from their tax contributions. Nor do they see that it is their society and their lives that will be enriched as an indirect result of what John Sutherland called ‘the diffuse benefits’ of arts teaching.

Hell hath no fury like an indignantly suited-and-booted ‘authority’, verbalising his disgust at hedonistic students flushing the country’s scarce funds down the proverbial toilet. Such base, simplified ideas infiltrate through society because they are just that: simple. Everyone likes a quick soundbite that they can bleat out on social occasions. With the burgeoning hatred of the student population finally finding its outlet in the violence of the protests, frustration will continue to grow. Vitriol directed towards students is vitriol directed towards the lifestyles of students and the state-funding of degrees where people cannot draw a direct benefit between their taxes and the improvement of the services society receives. It is this narrow-mindedness and the certainty of the people who perpetuate these ideas that will continue to paint students in a negative light. The violence just gave people a way of justifying their long-brewing distaste for students and recent graduates alike.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Wouldn’t it be great if… Simon Cowell didn’t control Christmas

Now in its seventh year, The X-Factor has once more taken over our TV screens in the ubiquitous Christmas countdown. It’s difficult to avoid this whirlwind of pseudo-celebrity hysteria as Cowell and co march into our lives every year, bringing with them a stream of cyclical carnage from which I often wonder if I’ll ever be free.

I could probably manage if The X-Factor was just an innocent TV programme. But it isn’t. I can’t talk to my family on weekend evenings anymore and Facebook is a no-go zone, particularly if there is a ‘shock’ elimination, Cheryl has adopted Minnie Mouse’s ears or Louis has had another binge on the Just For Men. Not to mention the poor old genuine recording artists who struggle to reach No. 24 in the charts at Christmas, thanks to Cowell and his merry band of generic wannabes. And woe betide me if I want to eat breakfast without Jedward gazing out of the window of a sad, sorry advent calendar. I bet he’s elated that we already managed to abbreviate Christmas to ‘Xmas’ ourselves; that’s one X-Factor related prefix that needs no further attention. Perhaps we’re all subconscious suckers to the corporate machine- especially here at eXeter University.

Of course I only intend to use The X-Factor as a symbolic metaphor for all that is wrong with Christmas in the glittering spectacle that is the twenty-first century. I’m not a raging scrooge-in fact I love Christmas. From around the 20th December to the 5th January, I am happy as a twelve-year-old girl in the front row of a Justin Bieber concert. However, given that decorations start to appear in shops in early September and the ‘January’ sales continue well into March, it pretty much occupies half the year. I think that Christmas needs stripping back, not to its religious beginnings, but to what makes it special, year after year.

‘X-Factorisation’ as it shall henceforth be known, takes Christmas away from family, food, community and the exchanging of gifts and turns it into an unrelenting commercial juggernaut. I don’t want to see the world turned into an apocalyptic vision of red, green and gold, but I do want to make mince pies and drink mulled wine. There is a difference. A certain air of joie de vivre pervades around this time of year, but the moans of ‘Tesco had tinsel up in August this year! August, would you believe it!’ mar what would otherwise be an intrinsically warm and fuzzy feeling. We don’t need the excess and we definitely don’t need Terry’s to bring out 4 different flavours of Chocolate Orange, when Milk is always going to be the best anyway. I don’t want an uber-deluxe cracker containing a bejewelled crown and a full size chess board and I would rather buy my little sister something tasteful than a JLS album.

Christmas is a brilliant excuse for catching up with family, visiting friends that have been unintentionally neglected and spending time on things that really matter. Simon Cowell wouldn’t have it this way. He wants you all to eschew Saturday and Sunday night invitations and stampede around HMV buying thousands of copies of The X-Factor winner’s Christmas single, which will undoubtedly reach No. 1 unless a global campaign blights chart domination.

There’s also a sense of ‘togetherness’ that is forgotten through X-Factorisation. Those of us without bottomless wallets can still enjoy Christmas to the maximum because it shouldn’t be about the biggest or most expensive present. It’s about enjoying what you’ve got with the people that you have. This year in particular, the spending cuts have ensured that extravagancy is no longer relevant. If you expend vast amounts on the products of X-Factorisation then redundancy will not a merry Christmas make. Moreso than ever, we need to ignore the bells and whistles of Simon Cowell’s monotonous, materialistic venture in order to find that satisfaction is gained whilst beating tipsy relatives at Trivial Pursuit.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Wouldn’t it be great if… Kate Middleton had a job?

Okay, so my point isn’t as harsh as it sounds, but in the name of short-snappy column titles, I’m trying to be succinct. After the news last week that Prince William has (finally) proposed to Kate Middleton, it emerged that they would begin their married life in their house in Anglesey, North Wales. His majesty will go out and continue his training with the RAF and Kate will spend her time… cooking his meals.

Now, I’m not a staunch feminist who believes that every woman should sell herself to a corporate machine whilst accidentally forgetting to feed her small, token baby, but in these modern times, I feel that a future Queen consort should be relevant to the women of her day. In many ways, as the future King’s bride, Kate has bagged herself a job for life, but that doesn’t accommodate the eight years she spent sat on her bum waiting for him to pop the question. What if that day had never come? Did Kate go out and carve herself a career? No. Miss Middleton has effectively advocated that one needs to be continually on hand and readily available should the whims of one’s working other demand. By taking on part-time work for both her family’s mail order party firm and Jigsaw (the high end, high street store that friends of the Middleton family own) she ensured that she had the flexibility to be the girlfriend of a future king. She prioritized William above herself.

Some might say that obviously, her ‘investment’ in not investing paid off- after all, she finally got her guy. But she didn’t even give their relationship a chance to see whether it could function with both of them fashioning independent careers. It takes a certain kind of woman to wait (both on and for) a man whose devotion will always be to his country, first and foremost, and it’s not the kind of woman I’d trust myself to be.

Imagine a different scenario, where Kate is a doctor and they met a university whilst she was completing a degree in Medicine. Would she be in the position she is now? It would take a brave woman to find out, but at least she’d be self-sufficient and ready to earn her own living should the Prince she’d been dating decide to gallop off and spread his royal seed.

Women (and men) may choose not to work for a variety of reasons: disability, looking after children, being in the midst of a career change and illness to name but a few. But Kate’s mistake has been to dismiss the notion of building up her own career whilst being very well placed to do so. Hardly unemployable, Kate graduated with a 2:1 in History of Art from the University of St. Andrews. She is attractive, articulate and well-connected, so how did a girl from a rags-to-riches Berkshire family manage to dismiss any prospects of a potentially flourishing career? Pretty and prim does not a modern royal make. Whilst I will forever be in awe of THAT blow-dry and THAT Sapphire-hued Issa dress, I would want to feel like I had chosen my partner, instead of them choosing me because I had preened myself to mirror his ideas of perfection.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Review: Riptide Vol. 6

It’s not often that a university is lucky enough to be home to its own creative writing journal but, here at Exeter, we are blessed with not only a series which publishes writers from the South West and beyond, but an astoundingly good one at that.

Riptide is now into its sixth volume and still growing. Edited by Ginny Baily and Sally Flint, this volume of Riptide is something of a unique project and presents the ten short stories that were shortlisted in the Riptide International Competition for young adult fiction 2010. The competition was judged by the university’s own, Philip Hensher, and also contains his introduction. The book was launched on 2nd November at Exeter Central Library as part of the Exeter Children’s Literature Festival, where prizes were also given to the authors of the top three stories and the winner of the Reader’s Prize.

Although these are stories for young adults, their richness and diversity is testament to the fact that good fiction is universal. Even Philip Hensher admitted at the launch that it took him a while to realise that this was in fact a competition for young fiction targeted at people aged 12+. Indeed the editors believe that ‘What unites [the stories] and sets up an echo between them is the youthful nature of all the protagonists struggling to find their path in worlds where adults don’t always hear their voices’. As a student, it can be incredibly nostalgic to look back at what seems so near, and yet is buried in past childhood memories and I found the stories to be both sensitive and complex enough for the older reader.

The stories themselves are at once hypnotic and beautiful, unnerving and thought-provoking. The winning story overall was Belfast author Sheena Wilkinson’s ‘What You Will’, a hilarious and frightfully cringing account of a group of teenagers putting on a performance of Twelfth Night at their school, which had me giggling in the solitude of the library. The short tale lets us into the life of Jordan, whose teenage crush spirals into a heady whirlwind of obsession and vodka: ‘I smelt his breath, Pringles and beer. My heart pounded.’

Second prize went to Amy Shuckburgh for her heart-rending story ‘The Lifeguard’. Annie’s Dad has been hospitalised with a serious throat problem and the story reflects on the need for family, strength and care, in all areas of life. My personal favourite, however, was ‘Kite Season’ by Anita Sivakumaran. An account of the uniquely bittersweet and competitive relationship that exists between brother and sister, ‘Kite Season’ is set in the tamarind groves of India, As Anand attempts to build the strongest kite, his sister is forced into the role of assistant, hanging from her bullying brother’s every words. The luscious language coupled with the grappling humility of sibling rivalry is conducive to a story that is both rich and poignant. Thankfully, karma reigns supreme as the narrative closes and Anand’s kite reaches an inevitably perilous fate.

I could go on about every story. Each one exemplifies the craft of the creative writer and each captures the imagination of the reader so completely in such a way that I didn’t think possible for stories as short as seven or eight pages. The stories in the volume represent the versatility of the short story form, the potential for discovery and the scope of human emotions. As Philip Hensher says in his introduction, ‘They are about very different sorts of people, and very different ways of life’ and we should relish the diversity that this volume of Riptide allows us to experience.

Copies of Riptide can be bought from the Guild Shop in Devonshire House, Blackwells on campus or online at

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: The sky’s the limit for the platform of social media

Six Degrees of Separation refers to the idea that every single human being on the planet is connected to every other human being by a maximum of six steps.

Put to the test by the omnipresence of Facebook, the phenomenon has come under much scrutiny. One could argue that population growth might cause six to become seven and so on, but this depends on the rate of people joining Facebook compared with the rate of population growth. Even so, should it hold to be true, the sky should indeed be the limit for advertisers looking to capitalize on the platform of social media, as no potential customer should ever be any more than six people away.

But how can companies ensure that the messages that they put out are not just skimmed past by five out of the six degrees? And just because someone is a ‘mutual friend’ does it mean that they are a genuine acquaintance or merely an ubiquitous ‘Facebook friend’? The Six Degrees of Separation is a useful tool, but on Facebook, where the nature of a friend is too arbitrary to rely on and where pages are so saturated with advertising that one can barely distinguish between promotions, it takes something piercingly novel to capture the attention of the fickle young things of today.

The key is in the relevance. Despite the possibilities that the theory discloses, the Six Degrees of Separation doesn’t target specific audiences, and as we all know, blanket communication is not the way forward. Businesses who engage with social media need to take a flexible approach to advertising and not indulge in the draw of reaching everyone via six links in the chain, tempting as it may be.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Feminism is a fantasy for the sex-obsessed culture of today

As any man will testify, women can be a fickle bunch. However, it really shouldn’t be like this. A recent survey found that 63% of women would rather be a glamour model than a doctor, nurse or teacher- surely insurmountable evidence that the female population is devoted to the pleasure our male compatriots. Fulfilling the fantasies of men has become something that women are more than adept at, but what we don’t realise is that through these aspirations, we’re not emancipating anyone or anything other than the libido of the guy who has turned with brooding anticipation to page three.

It’s a very sad, sorry situation when young women make efforts to distort their bodies and personalities into a male fantasy. What’s worse is that the media perpetuate this sordid image of what women should find inspirational. Let’s take a closer look at the very paradigm of what we shamefully call a modern feminist icon: Katie Price. A woman who gallops around on horses that she transports in a pink bus, with enough filler in her face to prevent even the vaguest of genuine emotions. A woman who made her name by undressing for the satisfaction of men and spending more money on plastic surgery than most people earn in a lifetime. ‘Inspiration’, they say, ‘girl power’. Girl power invoked by a pseudo-celebrity who spends more time splashing her children and personal life over the cover of cheap magazines. But ‘she’s making it in a man’s world’, I hear you cry, ‘she’s a modern businesswoman’. Yes, Price is shrewd, cocky and irrevocably canny, but the bravado isn’t even her own. Her management team are the brains behind the money making, Price herself is a mere puppet.

Contemporary celebrity cheapens what spirited women fought for years before silicon was even invented and the feminist fantasies of today are creating a disappointing culture of pseudo-empowerment. But we’ve become so good at artificially creating the male fantasy that it’s more of a commodity now than it ever has been. Women today seem to think that empowerment can be derived from enslaving men. But we need to learn that reducing men to their base instincts does not constitute power or intelligence, nor does it produce a society based on equality. Sadly, Price’s female fans worship her for being ‘real’, yet I am irretrievably led to ask what is so real about her? A life devoted to the camera lenses of ageing paparazzi? A body that needs continuous maintenance to keep the pennies coming in? This is a female selling herself, and the image that is purveyed only makes any money because it succeeds in gratifying males.

Purely for the purpose of investigative research, I found myself repeatedly watching What Katie Did Next, the addictively trashy reality TV show that documents Price’s life with her new husband, cage fighter Alex Reid. Watching her attempt to fathom the location of Dublin whilst attempting to remain in a state of concentration for the duration of her online IQ test exemplified the profound despair that I feel whenever I hear anyone deeming a plastic, processed, overly-lacquered female an icon. You don’t have to be a staunch feminist to see that Price manifests a mainstream culture sodden with pornographic values. Other, though not quite so explicit, members of this proud 21st century version of the Women’s Institute include Kelly Brook, The Saturdays and tirades of footballers’ wives and soap ‘stars’.

As a society we must ensure that young women start to believe that their futures rest on the talents of their brains and not their bodies. Women like Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of support charity Kids Company or Carol Bartz, Chief Executive of Yahoo need to be celebrated because they embody the sentiment that flesh should not and need not equal success. They don’t need anyone to leer at them to ensure their salary and they use their talents to give back to society and provide important services worldwide. Satisfying the domestic and sexual appetites of males has too long been the aspiration of women, it’s time for empowerment to mean more than a plastic fantasy

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Clouded Judgement

Word clouds tell a detailed story, perhaps more meticulous than their name would suggest. Constructed using a piece of text the size of the word is proportionate to the number of times it is used in the text. One is able to deduce implicit or subconscious messages from them, be they intended or unintended. If anything, word clouds are useful to the author in terms of illustrating whether or not they are saying what they want to be saying or, indeed, communicating something slightly less desirable. It’s not telepathy, but it’s the next best thing.

To demonstrate my point, I looked at word clouds which were generated from two interviews with Tony Blair, one with Jeremy Paxman about the Iraq war and one more recently with Martin Kettle, concerning the recent publication of his memoirs.

The former, as one would expect, contains brutal language: war, regime, weapons, inspectors, chemical, oil, nuclear, aggression, sanctions, threat, destruction, breach, extreme and terrorism. It’s raw and clinical, not to mention defensive: effectively, agree, believe. There’s even a small indication of frustration on the right hand side in the words ‘done’ and ‘talking’, surreptitiously sat together below a beacon of apparent ‘resolution’. Surprisingly, ‘inspectors’ crops up more often than ‘war’, perhaps Blair was unintentionally trying to shift blame onto the sources of what was perceived to be false intelligence.

Furthermore, a specific tone of voice can be gauged from the Iraq interview, as opposed to the one about memoirs. Blair regularly identifies people and countries: George (Bush), Colin (Powell), Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Korea and Afghanistan to name but a few, pointing an invisible finger at the many facets of the situation he has found himself in. The lack of this direct language in the Kettle interview shows how Blair is now distanced from his former political situation, aside from the smaller yet undeniable presence of ‘Gordon’. The language is softer and retrospectively vague: end, issues, support, state, reason, progressive, going, time, know, welfare, respect, reforms, relation, conversations, public, explain, sense, social, engaged, frank. However, a lasting strain remains in the former prime minister’s words, perhaps a hint towards his continuous involvement in the public eye, and the incessant criticism which follows: still, difficult, argument, danger, problem, order, changes, completely, absolutely, never.

What becomes clear from comparing these two images is that the insightful phrases in fact lie in the periphery of the clouds. Political language is permeated irretrievably with words such as ‘think’ and ‘people’, and so the larger words, in these clouds, don’t really tell us much about the particulars of the person or situation. Further evidence of this can be seen in the word clouds that were produced from the televised political debates during the election earlier this year, where ‘think’ was the predominant choice of word for both Nick Clegg and David Cameron. The truth therefore resides in the words that sit outside of the main bulk of political jargon. There’s still hoping then, for those than can squint hard enough to see the ‘sorry’ that sits pitifully between ‘country’ and that ubiquitous end goal: ‘resolution’.

Word cloud generated from Tony Blair's interview concerning his book with Martin Kettle.

Word cloud generated from Tony Blair's interview about the Iraq war with Jeremy Paxman.

Friday, 29 October 2010

A Lust for Leather

Remember that episode in Friends where Ross wears leather trousers on a date, goes to the loo and can’t get them back on again? The one where the lotion and the powder come together to form a paste? Well if you thought that was a fate that was far beyond you, this season, think again…

That’s right folks, leather trousers have made the comeback of all comebacks. The epitome of a sartorial nightmare, leathers were thought to have bitten the dust along with the Backstreet Boys, 5ive and most other forms of mid-nineties paraphernalia, but woe betide those who believe this to be true. The fashion powers that be have hailed the return of the most difficult item of clothing to wear. Ever. The woman to blame is French fashion designer of the moment, Isabel Marant. Her skinny, cropped leather trousers in cherry red and black sparked a stampede of trend-hungry stylists and French fashion editors with long, lean legs. Now clearly your average British body doesn’t exactly match up to this vision of chic, but I’d like to think that we could give them a run for their money.

The question is, should we embrace leather trousers, or run screaming in the opposite direction? Perpetual recollections of unshaven men, mid-life crisis, atop gleaming motorbikes might dash your hopes of achieving goddess-like, leather-clad proportions, but perseverance is the key. If you’re going to embrace, do so with utter confidence and conviction. Not for the light-hearted, leathers need fierce heels and an attitude to match, unless you have the legs of Elle Macpherson, in which case go as flat as you like. What’s more, the British high street is unbeatable; so trawl the stores until you find a style that suits. Leather trousers are risqué, but they are also ever so slightly risky, so be on your guard for any mutton-dressed-as-lamb-esque incidents. If in doubt, drag a skeptical friend along to view your transformation.

It is important to keep in mind that leather trousers say far more than good old denim. Like your friend for life, jeans will stick around throughout your moments of black, biker madness, whereas leathers are for now. They’re the friend that tells you that one more drink won’t hurt. For women, they’re about fashion and power, for men they cannot help but be sexual and slightly scary at the same time.

Of course there are other ways to wear leather this season: shorts, boots, skinny belts and shearling-lined jackets, but for me at least, none incite a distinct lust for dishevelled insouciance in quite the same way. For the ultimate in edgy yet minimal, trend-led but not try-hard, look no further that the leather trouser. They’re having a moment, a moment of madness perhaps, but a moment nevertheless.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

What does the decrease in popularity of French at GCSE level mean for Britain and its students?

Parlez-vous Francais? Apparently not, any more. With the recent news that GCSE French has dropped out of the top ten choices for secondary school pupils, it would appear that communications between us and our francophone neighbours aren’t going to improve in forthcoming generations.

Taking a more long-term perspective, the number of students studying GCSE French has dropped by 45% in eight years. Although Brits have never exactly been the linguistic answer to Mensa when compared with our European counterparts, French is a language that most of us could always vaguely grasp thanks to our early experiences with tedious vocabulary and grammar lessons at school. We’re a dab hand at asking for l’addition and never forget to say merci, but is this all about to change?

Not without reason, says language learning expert Paul Noble. School-level French is notoriously unhelpful past basic conversation, he says, ‘Even students who come out of doing French A-levels can be surprised at what they can't say - the teaching should be far more conversationally based.’ Furthermore, a modern foreign language at GCSE is now no longer compulsory, so students are opting for seemingly ‘softer’ subjects such as media or religious studies.

But this research does not explain why Spanish is up 16% among GCSE students since 2002, Mandarin has increased by 38% largely because of ambitious pupils with hopes for careers in business and German has become more attractive since it became the central language of the EU’s most dominant economy. These statistics would indicate that students are now selecting the languages that they feel will be most relevant to their lives and job prospects. Far from a communication breakdown, the decrease in the popularity of French when aligned with figures from comparable languages points towards school students actually becoming more in-touch with global development.

The world around us encompasses a myriad of cultures, languages and, increasingly, potential job locations. Practically, it can only be a good thing that students are realising the latent possibilities of exploring other languages aside from seeing French as the solitary choice. The more options that are open to school pupils the better, and Britain can only benefit from its discerning adolescents broadening their perspectives and widening their horizons beyond the English Channel.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Ad Wars: Should companies focus on their assets or aim to outsmart their competitors?

If you were a passenger on the London Underground in the latter months of 2009, you may have noticed a fairly immodest advertising campaign run by low-price high-street electricals retailer, Dixons. One ad boldly encourages shoppers to ‘Step into middle England’s best loved department store, stroll though haberdashery to the audiovisual department where an awfully well brought up man will bend over backwards to find the right TV for you’. Then the font changes into Dixon’s red and white lettering and adds: ‘Then go to and buy it’. If Dixons weren’t struggling against the onrushing tide of even cheaper and exclusively online stores such as Amazon, then the campaign probably wouldn’t be so tragic. The discerning buyer inevitably realizes Dixons catch-22 predicament whereby they cannot supersede John Lewis’s quality but in the same breath cannot afford to undercut low-overhead online brands. As it desperately tries its best to do tongue-in-cheek, DSGi-owned Dixons becomes the victim of a similar strain to Woolworths.

So was this attacking strategy ill-advised? The 2009-2010 Sales results indicate that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Whilst DSGi International Sales were up 3%, the John Lewis Partnership Sales rose 6.5%, boosted by the opening of their second-largest store in Cardiff and a new chain of John Lewis Home stores, the first of which opened in Poole. Taking the upper moral ground, John Lewis reacted to Dixons blunt campaign with a series of exquisitely photographed images of their products, placing emphasis on quality and service. It would appear that the smirk has been wiped clean from Dixons face.

Dixons’s M & C Saatchi adverts assume that price is king, which to some extent it is, but of all the side-effects of the recession-ridden past two years, one has risen to the surface quite surprisingly. Shoppers are looking for quality too. We’d rather spend a little more on something which is built to last, which is sold to us by someone we can trust and who knows their stuff, which we can return with ease in the unlikely event that it is faulty. By belittling the John Lewis brand and its associated stereotypes, Dixons opened the eyes of many a shopper who had previously rejected John Lewis for being too ‘middle England’. The ad campaign became famous, neglecting John Lewis couldn’t be cool any more if it was the obvious thing to do. People thought, hang on, maybe there’s a reason for John Lewis’s status as a ‘best loved department store’? And ‘I’d quite like someone knowledgeable to ‘bend over backwards’ for me? And finally, if I drive off with ‘the right TV for you’ then surely all is well?

Seemingly, Dixons learned the hard way that the best advertising sells your product and doesn’t rely on disparaging competitors to make a fast buck on the back of a derisive laugh. Parody is a dangerous tool.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Freedom, the camera and what lies beneath

There are very few people who aren’t photographers these days. Very few people who don’t carry a camera, knowingly or otherwise. We’ve become both the victims and the perpetrators of our own loss of freedom. Blame it on digital cameras, mobile phones, CCTV or simply health and safety gone mad, but you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who could argue that they were truly free.

This summer, an exhibition at the Tate Modern, entitled ‘Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera’ looks at the subversive ways in which cameras and photographers capture people, either aware or unaware, whilst going about their daily lives- and much more besides. The Tate’s Curator of Photography, Simon Baker, rightly points out that we’re all photographers now, but it took this exhibition to point it out to me. The artists use photography to capture the people looking at the spectacles, and not the spectacles themselves, and engaging in illicit or sensitive activities. The photographs are invasive, explicit, seedy and compelling in the same moment.

Artist Merry Alpern’s photographic work ‘Dirty Windows’, is about as invasive as it comes. Alpern discovered that from a friend’s attic, she could see through the toilet window of one of New York’s secret clubs. For months she surreptitiously photographed the workings of what looks like a brothel and drug den. This prolific piece encapsulates what this exhibition is all about: exploiting the camera’s ability to capture the fragility of people in pictures, without the knowledge of some or all of their subjects.

Today, we are not free for two reasons. Firstly because we are being watched. Secondly because we forget that we are being watched. We assume that people only see what we want them to see, but the pathways into the inner workings of our minds and the plethora of mediums which we use to express ourselves mean that it is all too easy for humans of our generation to expose themselves far beyond their intentions. Did the New York sex workers and drug pushers think that anyone was capable of anonymously recording their antics? No, of course not. They took for granted that their identity existed within only that club and only that city. But neither do we help ourselves. Many of us use Facebook haphazardly, saying intimate things meant for close friends on a social networking site has become the norm. For this reason, we are also our own jailkeepers. Cheaters text because they think they won’t get caught, but networks intertwine, and information cannot be fenced in so easily. As out foibles with modern technology have taught us, it transpires that these methods of communication, which we believe to be infallible, are in fact those that let us down.

Sometimes we are watched in manners that are threatening and abrasive, our freedom is ripped, as opposed to eased, from us. At the Tate, the photographs showing a KGB spy rifling through documents illustrate this. The exhibition even goes as far as to display the newspaper coverage from the death of Princess Diana, who allegedly died at the hands of the lenses that marred her short life. Brutality plays a big part in the camera’s invasiveness. But turn another corner, and you come to see Harry Callahan’s ‘Women Lost in Thought’, a tentative approach to record women in a state of musing. Although this is a voyeuristic exercise, it is also a candid one, which tells a story without, presumably directly harming its subjects.

Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the iconic red, white and blue image of Obama that became the unofficial poster of his campaign, has found that free speech is a fallacy the hard way. When Iggy Pop interviewed him for a recent issue of Interview magazine, Fairey spoke of how Associated Press, the owners of the news photograph from which he took inspiration, are going after him for copyright infringement. Fairey sees his free speech as being ‘exercised visually’, but we aren’t even allowed to interpret any more.

This idea that we are being constantly policed is one that inspired the tagline of ‘OBEY’ for Fairey’s work. There is an increasing sense that there are forces surrounding us which have agendas and make us act in certain ways without our direct knowledge. He aligns advertising with propaganda. Indeed I believe it to be true that whilst we may believe some advertising to be ineffectual and passive, the subconscious impact may be quite different. So long as the package is friendly, the content must be harmless. But it is not, and we are increasingly affected by the existence of these power mechanisms. Discursive regimes dictate how we act, speak, think and feel and their place in our societies is getting more and more oppressive by the day. Whilst we might all want to be masters of our own destinies, we are not, and the camera acts as the façade for the devices which are unspoken.

People don’t like the idea that there is something out there controlling them, they like to think that their free will is paramount, but deep down, we all know that the structuralised network of power is there, we just have to look hard enough.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

My Diary of India: Seventeenth Extract

In the afternoon, Pru, Kath, Alison, Guy and I went to a cooking class at The Whistling Teal with a lady called Gitika. She taught us amazing recipes for Moong Dal, Aloo and a really nice chicken curry. She had a huge collection of spices and made everything look so easy. The food was delicious and the whole thing, meal included, only cost 400 rupees. She was lovely and so articulate in English. I went back to the hotel afterwards to try and squeeze everything into my bulging rucksack. I’m thinking keep shopping and worry about it later. I’m not worried about getting stuff home, it’s the internal flight that’s concerning me because I can’t shed stuff yet.

We went out for dinner to another lovely outdoor restaurant called Ambrai and had a gorgeous candlelit meal next to the dried up field of a lake. Udaipur is known as the Venice of the East and now I finally understand why. The architecture along the lake was beautiful and the Rialto wouldn’t have looked out of place. Some water would have helped though! I ate chicken sagwala and has my first cocktail ‘Sex on the Pichola’. It was really sad when we got back to the hotel because we had to say goodbye to Jackie and Liv, who I’ve become quite close to.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

My Diary of India: Sixteenth Extract

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t end up going to the palace. We went shopping and I bought a few bits and pieces before going for dinner at The Whistling Teal. We sat outside on the cushioned seats and talked about life and love and religion. Having strangers open up to you like that was really magical. We were there fore hours sat around a sheesha. Alison told us all about her divorce and Pru about her family. We wandered back to the hotel at about midnight and went to bed.

As soon as Alison and I went into the room it felt like an absolute sauna; we started sweating immediately and within seconds my bed was soaked. It was digusting. I managed to fall asleep for an hour before waking up feeling as though I had just showered. I couldn’t sleep, it was 2am and I kept thinking that this definitely wasn’t right for an air-conditioned room and had to be fixed before our early start for the flight to Cochin the next morning. I lay outside on the balcony in my sleeping bag before going down to reception, completely soaked and so angry, but there was no-one there! I lay down on one of the benches to wait and a cleaner came and found me. I told him about it and he put me in an amazing room at 3am- but I couldn’t leave Alison locked in our room. She was awake when I went in and we found the manager. I made him come up to our room, which was at this point billowing with hot air. Apparently we needed a window open because the rooms were not air-conditioned but air-cooled and fresh air needed to circulate. It got better after a bit but I still wasn’t dry by the morning and after 3 hours sleep, so now we’ve been moved to a luxury suite!

This morning, we went to Jagdish Temple, a Hindu place of worship, and the Udaipur City Palace, where the most exuberant tour guide took us around. There were some amazing views of Pichola Lake and the Lake Palace but unfortunately the lake was dry and resembled a field. The gardens were pretty though, and the grounds were ‘hireable but not affordable’ according to the hilarious guide. On the way home we went shopping again, because it’s irresistible. I saw some jewellery boxes in an antique shop and fell in love! I decided to buy them and worry about getting them to Cochin later. One was a box and the other was a miniature chest of drawers, and I lugged them both back to the hotel and plonked myself down in our new, cooler, room.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Emily Dickinson & I: The Journey of a Portrayal

It was all very intimate. A one-woman play about one woman, performed to fifty scholars and members of the public on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Oxford’s Burton Taylor Theatre. The play consists of Edie Campbell, actress and self-confessed Emily Dickinson obsessive, and her partner Jack Lynch, Director and Lighting Designer with an audience pitched like awkward luddites between them. I feel almost in the way of Edie and Jack’s at once incredibly personal but also very professional relationship.

The play tells the story of Campbell’s journey to write a play about Emily Dickinson, but without putting words into the poet’s mouth. There is a great deal of care taken over this journey, a great deal of time also. But I fear that I am about to see a play that is not actually about Dickinson, but more about Campbell’s infatuation, and I am right. Campbell’s attempts to tell Emily’s story through her letters and poetry fail and by her own admission would have bored any audience but herself. What emerges is a deep insight into Campbell’s own life, her own passion for Emily and her relationship with Lynch. And whilst it is a journey, I do not feel that what abides is a portrayal of Emily Dickinson.

This is a play about the artistic expedition that one embarks on when telling someone else’s story. Not, as Campbell originally set out, a play about Emily Dickinson. Had she let go of her demons and realised that when one tells a story from beyond the grave, interpretation is key. Maybe if Campbell wasn’t so obsessed, in love, with the mesmerizing poet, then we would have gauged a sense of what it was like to be Emily. Putting words into someone’s mouth isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly when you have read all one thousand, seven hundred and seventy five poems and the existing one thousand and forty nine letters, and the figure in question is dead. I get the feeling that had Campbell been brave enough to use her accumulated knowledge to tell Emily’s story in full, as opposed to believing that an audience was there to hear her own autobiography, she would have written an exemplary play about Emily Dickinson.

Fascinating, innovative, interesting and well-directed this play may be, but there comes a time when the playwright should step back from their own work, assess their audience and be courageous enough to tell another’s story, particularly when the person in question was never able to do it for themselves.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

My Diary of India: Fifteenth Extract

I had an awful night’s sleep last night. Since that night in Agra, when a cricket jumped onto my mouth in the dark and Tiffany and I spent an age finding and killing it, I can’t sleep with the thought of insects on my face! I got a few hours though, and after breakfast we caught Jeeps to Udaipur. The Jeep ride lasted six hours. After the first hour, Alison joined the other Jeep to give Jackie, Liv and I more room. With the wind sweeping through my hair and my legs dangling from the side, it was great- for about another hour. We stopped at what were possibly the world’s most foul toilets. Just concrete and a gutter…! We then saw dead cow, whose bladder had exploded, in the road. More guys drove past on a moped and they took some photos of us. All in all it was pretty distressing and the stench of diesel was so overpowering that we all felt really sick.

However, the hotel in Udaipur turned out to be really nice, with a big pool and powerful air-conditioning. They also have Diet Coke! I was still feeling quite sick and when we went out for lunch, I didn’t eat much. After returning to the hotel and chilling out by the pool, I felt much better. We’re about to go to the Monsoon Palace to take pictures of Udaipur from the hillside.

My Diary of India: Fourteenth Extract

We all went for dinner at a well-renowned vegetarian restaurant. Dinner was way too spicy for everyone, but pudding turned out to be a laugh. We ordered plates of traditional Indian sweets and they were… less than delicious. We all tried a bit of each and a couple were bearable but the rest got left behind. The camaraderie in the group is fantastic, we all have a great time together and there is this energy between us which binds us all. It’s nice to know that I now have places to stay all over the world!

The next day, we set off early after breakfast after saying goodbye to Tiffany, Bill and Renata. It was sad to see them go and has left a bit of a hole in the group. Moving on, we drove off in our jeeps to catch another bus for the five hour stint to Nimaj Bagh, a village where we are staying in this lovely villa hotel with a gorgeous terrace and pool. After relaxing in the pool (which was needed after my first experience of the squat toilet, the five hour bus ride and nearly abandoning Alison in a service station) we went for a walk around the village, which brought the usual hassle. I got some lovely photos though. We visited a bigger, local ‘palace’, but the rabid dogs and the sewage, the flies and the bulls distract you from the one beautiful monument that there is. All this grandeur against a backdrop of poverty is very weird and hard to understand. We had dinner on the terrace and talked about our families.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Creation Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet: 12/08/10

It was looking dubious, to say the least. Torrential downpours never make for particularly enjoyable al-fresco theatrical experiences. We later discovered that this little shower was equivalent to the entire rainfall of July occurring in the space of about twenty minutes on what should have been a peachy August evening.

Nevertheless, we persevered. The Creation Theatre Company has been running for fifteen years. Proving that you don’t need a conventional theatre to put on a good show, this production of Shakespeare’s most famous play took place on the roof of Oxford’s Said Business School. Tonight’s performance was extra-special, as it was in aid of Oxford charity, Helen and Douglas House, who provide respite and end of life care for young people and their families. With such a worthy cause at stake, we were willing the rain to come to an abrupt end, which, miraculously, it did.

And so with minutes to go, we made our way outside. It was just as well the rain had stopped, as for the next two and a half hours the cast ran, jumped, danced and tottered in five-inch stilettos across the damp concrete stage, a display of their abilities in itself.

The play began in the courtyard with the angry Montagues and Capulets locked in battle. As always with Creation Theatre performances, it’s about bringing a new lease of life to the surrounding landscape, and this they did with aplomb. We made our way to our seats (we had come prepared with seat cushions) and the show continued. The talented pairing of actors Ben Ashton and Benjamin Askew, Benvolio and Mercutio respectively set the stage alight with their boisterous wit and energy, as they cheekily chastised Romeo and even planted a kiss on Nurse’s lips. The production did well to be irreverent at appropriate times, and lean more towards a classical adaptation at others, not to mention the hilarious addition of the Nurse’s piercing Yorkshire accent. Director Charlotte Conquest and her cast manage to inject laughter and action in what is often described as an overworked play.

Dance plays a prominent role, particularly in between scenes and during the masquerade ball. With African Beats and Drum and Bass permeating the Bard’s tragic love story, the play seems fresh and above all, original. It is clear that Movement Director, Aidan Treays has worked extensively with the cast as the space on stage and in the surrounding areas is used to a maximum. Romeo and Juliet’s final night together after his exile is masterfully executed and convincing, with contemporary dance techniques and physical theatre lending a hand.

The overall production offers Shakespeare with a twist and achieves this with resounding success. Delivered with striking impact, the play is thoroughly enjoyable and provides satisfaction for those altruistic among us with a raffle for Helen and Douglas House. The night raises £3000 for the charity, with orange-t-shirted volunteers encouraging us to give more to this worthy cause. We leave smiling, with that ubiquitous warm and fuzzy feeling testament to what a brilliant night it has been.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

My Diary of India: Thirteenth Extract

The Jeeps took us straight to Hava Mahal, the Old City’s central bazaar. It was crazy! Each shop sold identical things and each shopkeeper shouted at us to come into his shop! Trying to keep a group of seven together was difficult enough without men saying ‘Come into my shop Madam, your friends are in here’, when actually they’re in the shop next door. I had shoe sellers trying to sell me shoes that didn’t fit and jewellers chasing me down the road! In the end, the thrill of negotiating a lower price than the one before is what leads you into the sale, not the salesperson himself. I bought two pairs of shoes and four pairs of ali baba pants! We were going to go sightseeing but in my pursuit of a bargain I managed to lose the rest of the group, so I climbed into a cycle rickshaw and went for a quick look around the city palace. It was more like a village with an art gallery inside. I also went to Jantar Mantar Observatory, which had the biggest sundial I had ever seen, by myself. It was really liberating but I felt even more preyed upon than I had earlier this year in Paris. People everywhere tried to take advantage of you, although it ws really nice to have time alone. On the way back to the hotel, I went to an ATM: my balance was 146000 rupees!

Le Smoking Hot: Yves Saint Laurent remembered at Le Petit Palais, Paris.

Far from the achingly chic entrance of my imagination, the Tour de France had entered Paris in full force on the weekend of our visit and the promotional junkyard that afflicted the Avenue Winston Churchill could have left me easily thinking that I had signed up for a weekend at Butlin’s.

However, the truth will out and once we had ascended the steps of the architectural feast that is Le Petit Palais, I was inclined to believe that our Eurostar journey had not merely been a figment of my subconscious. The exhibition was surprisingly dark, with spotlights bathing the decadent mannequins in glittering white light. Rooms peeled off to the side, revealing photos and videos from Pierre Berge’s collections. The narrow entrance hall feels as though it is the last catwalk, a final tribute to the inimitable designer.

Yves Saint Laurent joined Dior in 1955, as his personal assistant. Three years later, as Christian Dior’s successor, the twenty one year old created the ‘Trapeze’ line that saw him hailed as an outstanding couturier by the fashion press. However, Saint Laurent soon began to break away from the classic Dior ethos and took inspiration from the streets around him. In 1962, the style revolutionary opened his own house and went on to become one of the world’s leading and best-loved designers. His passionate approach to his art, coupled with his understanding of the female form and desires is truly realised in this retrospective.

Over three hundred pieces manifest their beauty in this stunning display. A whole wall is devoted to ‘Le Smoking’ in all its guises. The grid of black and white, beginning in 1966, shows the career-long development of one of Saint Laurent’s most iconic and memorable phenomenas. The abundance of rainbow-coloured chiffon shapes which paraded the catwalk for Spring/Summer 2002 are suspended aloft, each dress with its own wind machine underneath, to convey the movement of the fabric. This was the designer’s last collection, and the exhibition does the work justice, as you would expect, right up until the end. Nothing is left hanging or unexplained.

The pieces that have been chosen encapsulate the sentiment that whilst Chanel gave women freedom, Yves Saint Laurent gave them power. Just as 1966 brought the first smoking, 1967 brought the trouser suit and 1968, the jumpsuit. Simplicity is key, and by transposing men’s work clothes onto female figures, women were able to dress in functional, pared-down clothes yet still wear them in a totally feminine way.

This emphasis on the female led to the couturier’s fascination with the naked female form, it was as though Saint Laurent knew more about what women wanted than they knew themselves. Expectedly, the sheer pieces are transfixing, simultaneously disguising and revealing anything between glimpses of skin and the full curve of the naked female back. Through the transparencies of chiffon, lace and muslin, the maestro bestowed women with a thousand new gestures and a higher degree of sensuality. Chief curator, Florence Muller, explains how ‘a dress was designed like a second skin that was slipped over the body’. Women were finally able to feel free.

The ‘little prince of fashion’ designed fifteen thousand haute couture pieces in his lifetime, and Berge says that the exhibition demonstrates the ‘timeless modernity in the style of Yves Saint Laurent’. This includes extensive reference to the scandal of the designer’s forties-inspired collection that emerged in Spring/Summer 1971. It was the collection that the critics panned without hesitation. Eugenia Sheppard of the New York Post wrote that it was ‘the ugliest show in town’, with its short dresses, green fox coats, red corsets and heavily made-up mannequins. The exhibition displays a number of these heavily criticised designs and does well to use Saint Laurent’s words to justify them. ‘Women’s liberation is also the liberation of their seduction’ he said. Ironically, the box-shoulders and fur that permeate the collection can be seen in abundance on today’s catwalks, portraying the unique way in which Saint-Laurent really was ahead of his time.

Despite his favourite colour being black, and the remarkable emphasis on simplicity, the paradoxical emergence of exoticism, colour and foreign influences made its mark all over Saint Laurent’s collections. Although he detested travelling, the designer often commented on how he put his imagination to work with books and photographs of lands he knew nothing of. ‘If I read a book about India, with photos, or Egypt, where I’ve never been, my imagination just goes wild’ he said, ‘That’s how I go on my most marvellous voyages’. And thank goodness for the potency of his imagination, for it bore many astounding garments. As I follow the twisting pathway through what is quickly becoming more of a theatrical show than a conventional exhibition, I reach the room which defines Saint Laurent’s taste for the tropical. India, Morocco, Russia and China all make substantial appearances. Heavy embroidery and embellishment and luxurious fabrics helped make the gypsy skirts, gold-threaded capes, fur hats and Chinese lacquered jackets such a resounding success, with that delectably modern, wearable edge banishing any hint of the folksy. The high-ceilinged, ethnic rainbow of a room dazzles with delights from across the globe and illustrate a how-to in fashion fusion.

This exhibition appears to take great pride in stunning you into silence every so often. We entered a majestic hall, darkened in a blanket of night and spotted with stars across the velvet ceiling. Each mannequin seemed a guest at prestigious ball, the ‘Last Ball’, in fact, each dazzling in a piece of Yves Saint Laurent from the exhibition’s amassed collection. This is a room which denotes the scale of the couturier’s achievement. With minimal text, the dresses explain themselves and every single one tells a story.

Finding a fitting end, I imagine, was always going to be touched with both a practical and sentimental difficulty. The last object one sees is Saint Laurent’s

astounding jewel, The Heart. Designed for his first collection, the magnificent piece was worn by the model wearing his favourite design from each collection henceforth. Some of us may quiver at the thought of choosing just one piece, and the troves of ‘Femmes Saint Laurent’ are testament to his great understanding of both the female form and feminine desire. And so we are left, marvelling at the legacy of one man, a man who created thousands of dresses and inspired many more of us. Yet I can’t help feeling, despite the staggering exhibition, that none of us will ever truly be able to comprehend the scope of Yves Saint Laurent’s genius, the man who preferred to ‘let the mystery be’.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Bodleian’s Old Quadrangle

A perennial British favourite, watching Shakespeare performed alfresco in the summertime is something I had experienced before. However, the Globe on tour team must have known they were on to a very good thing when they secured the beautiful surroundings of Oxford’s Bodleian Library as the setting for their adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Occasionally I remember how lucky I am to live in this special city, and this play gave me more than just a gentle reminder. We walked into the Old Quadrangle, our enclosed venue for the evening. Halfway through the performance I looked up and wondered if there were hoards of people outside these great golden walls contemplating where on earth all this noise was coming from. It felt like the audience’s little secret; a piece of magic that we were sharing amongst ourselves.

The actors themselves were fabulously energetic and the entire show was witty, irreverent and utterly engaging from start to finish. The young cast bounced off the walls, the rigging and Lysander even managed to scale the Bodleian and lean precariously out of a third floor window. Actor Will Mannering, who played Egeus, spoke afterwards of how the cast is required to adapt to the set of each new location on tour: ‘the environment dictates the show’ he said, ‘we have the freedom to bring our own ideas and explore the play in new ways’.

And explore the play they did, to what can only be described as the highest standard. The eight cast members used various props, including wings, overalls and hats to move between roles seamlessly. There is one scene in particular, that where Helena is rightly confused by both Lysander and Demetrius’s new-found love for her, after Puck has unknowingly afflicted them with the magic of the flower given to her by Oberon, King of the Fairies, that encompasses the brilliant skill of the cast. Fearing she is being mocked by the previously dismissive men, Helena gives her speech whilst the lustful Lysander and Demetrius raunchily pursue her around the stage, removing their garments as they do so. Hilarity ensues as we watch the two desperate youths joust for her attention, playfully trying to outdo each other in the process. It’s always nice to see actors having fun playing their roles, and there is no doubt that the cast do here. Their faces and voices are expressive and comedic, just as the complex mid-sleep, mid-dream script demands. Director Raz Shaw clearly asks a lot of his talented cast, whilst simultaneously allowing them to inject their own wit through a surprising amount of improvisation.

A glass of mulled wine during the interval kept us warm and merry as the second half proceeded into the Oxfordshire night. We weren’t delightfully pissed, as my mother was when she saw the play on it’s opening night, but contentedly happy. Not adhering to her ‘but you have to be drunk when we watch Shakespeare don’t you, otherwise how do you even begin to feel like you understand it?’ mantra, I firmly believe this kind of experience to be about that warm feeling you get from being part of something unique. She was right not to take it too seriously, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the cultural fun of the outdoor Shakespearean play was partially lost on my mother and her trolleyed band of compatriots.

The magical thing about the Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that it isn’t polished; it doesn’t set out to pay a wholehearted tribute to the vision many people have of The Bard on a pedestal. ‘It is as the play would have been performed five hundred years ago’ comments Shaw, ‘when Shakespeare wasn’t idolized akin to a God-like figure, bestowed with beyond human capabilities’. This allows the actors to have fun, not take themselves to seriously and not be scared of the text. It means that a female Puck, played by Bethan Walker, can gyrate around the stage in sequinned hotpants and suspenders and have a bit of cheeky banter with the male members of the audience’s front row (whose wives and girlfriends did not look impressed!). Puck is a mischievous character who encompassed just one of the play’s many elements which are perfectly realised in this adaptation.

We left the quad in a little bubble of pride and pleasure. There is no better way to spend an Oxford evening, and I speak for both locals and visitors to the city. The row of Americans behind us wooped with excitement and the Oxfordians next to us clapped equally as enthusiastically as we shared one of those enchanting, effortless experiences that one can only dream of on a hazy night in midsummer.

Friday, 6 August 2010

My Diary of India: Twelfth Extract

Later, I went to a jewellery shop and spent the money that Mum and Dad gave me for my birthday on some turquoise and lapis lazuli. I am genuinely worried about how I’m going to get all this stuff home! Cant believe there’s only two weeks to go! After my crazy shopping spree, we went out for dinner at this really cool, outdoor, illuminated restaurant where we ate as we watched Bollywood dancers. It was really unique and following a manic tuktuk ride home, we went to bed but I couldn’t sleep. The feeling of insects crawling all around you isn’t one I could shake off easily, especially when you stay up watching the mosquitoes! The lack of fibre in this diet isn’t helping things either.

05/07/09: Yesterday morning, our second day in Jaipur, we went to Agra Fort (it was actually a palace next to the original fort). The views during the jeep-ride there were stunning. When we got to the fort, the group walked uphill to the fort, but my roommate and I took an elephant! As we climbed aboard, the elephant started plodding off and we were just clinging on, bouncing around but it was great fun. The elephant was spraying us, but not to worry, the driver assured us that it was only ‘elephant perfume’! We were being sold stuff as we ascended the hill; vendors don’t let go when they see tourists, even the driver was trying to negotiate his tip. When we jumped off, we gave him twenty rupees and he asked for more. It’s sad but also really frustrating when you have an enjoyable time and then it’s ruined by money.

Anyway, the palace was absolutely, jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The Maharaja had twelve legal wives and they had their own apartments. One, his favourite, had to be transported by wheelchair as she was made to wear a fifty kilo dress! The walls were covered with mirror mosaics and the views from the watchtower were beautiful. It was kind of awe-inspiring and made me feel really small. On the way back, we stopped at the palace on the lake to take pictures. We got accosted and some guy even asked me if I was married, which was quite scary!

'Reader, we married each other'

In Charlotte Bronte’s novel ‘Jane Eyre’, our eponymous heroine finally unearths equality in her relationship with the fiery Mr Rochester, yet the resounding line of the final chapter appears to assert a certain feminine authority; ‘she marries him’. There is no ‘our’ or ‘us’, the two characters do not marry each other. As a symbol for modern women, Jane Eyre is universal; she represents our fight for equality, and some. She wants it all, she doesn’t just want to live in marital harmony and narrow the gender pay gap, she wants her husband to be utterly dependent on her. Is there a secret desire amongst modern women to be the breadwinner- because it certainly seems that way? Between motherhood and career-induced self-fulfillment, women everywhere are searching for justice, they wants to avenge a history of subservience, to maybe even be a little bit better than their male counterparts. However, there is a growing paradox emerging, as modern women demand not only equality, but also those old chivalries. Your average beer-swilling, tabloid reading microwave glutton is shifting on the couch of unease as he realizes that his partner still secretly wishes he would be her door-opening, flower-giving, complement-showering knight in shining armour.

Our yearning for equality is in danger of becoming greedy and hypocritical as men discover that actually, what we want is the best of both worlds. Both in a personal and a professional capacity, we’ve continued to enjoy a growing authority, but for this to truly become a reality we must sacrifice the golden touches that traditionally came with being a woman at home and in the office. We can’t expect to be the only one on the receiving end of a Valentine’s gift or an engagement ring just as we should no longer feel that little bit of self-satisfaction as our catwalk-inspired office outfit gets our opinion noticed. Either the hope for chivalry, or the quest for equality must be quenched and the other, binned. We, as females, have a choice to make. As pedantic as it sounds, we’ve driven our case for equality so far that surely the saying now must be ‘Reader, we got married- and I didn’t care that I wasn’t treated like a princess’.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Ashmolean Museum: An Oxfordian Jewel

The phrase ‘museum’ does not conjure up the most exciting of thoughts. Dusty ornaments, indecipherable bone matter and stale pastries from a dated café might be more like it, but that’s until you’ve visited Oxford’s newest and most enlightening attraction.

The Ashmolean Museum reopened on November 7th 2009 to awaiting academics, tourists and curious members of the public subsequent to a £61 million development. Early reviews showed that architect Rick Mather’s majestic fusion of old and new, quirky and traditional presented what was once your archetypal museum as an entirely new concept. The now illuminated space is modern yet inviting, a trove of wonders to be unwrapped and visually devoured. Its chic, contemporary design contrasts with Charles Cockerell’s original 1845 Beaumont Street construction and allows the collections to be viewed in a novel and interesting way. The transformation is seamless and fitting to the space. Mather’s work must not be underestimated. The Ashmolean Museum was once an imposing hub, dark and cavernous, which needed reinvigorating so that its staggering contents could be aptly and righteously displayed.

As one enters the new Ashmolean, the central atrium sheds light throughout the rooms over the five floors of ancient artefacts and paintings. The galleries are varied in shape and size, with each one presenting its contents in a new way, revealing new ways of perceiving. The museum, by its own admission, displays a collection of collections. On my lunchtime tour, the guide, Lynne, informed us that medals worn by the Ashmolean’s original benefactor, Elias Ashmole, were unfortunately kept behind the scenes as there simply wasn’t room to hang them next to his portrait. She was right. The sheer quality of the museum’s possessions came to light when I realised that there wasn’t anything that one could forgo in this particular gallery to make room for old Ashmole’s medals. Not a distinguished art expert myself, I found the Ashmolean’s educational provisions very helpful. There is a real sense that the staff and academics here want you to learn and understand what you’re seeing. I know I for one wonder aimlessly around these places all to often without really grasping what I came for. The two tours I attended, ‘Cracking Codes in Paintings’ on a Tuesday and the weekly Saturday highlights tour, were both memorable and insightful, without a hint of that creeping shroud of boredom that regularly blights museum tours.

Both locals and visitors to the Oxfordshire area will be pleased to see the impetus that is given to displays and art linked to the county. It’s always nice to learn about a place you know of or share history with. Joseph Mallord William Turner’s artistic views of the High Street in Oxford faithfully depict our city pre-capitalism. Turning a corner and bumping into a Titan really exemplified how diverse and well-curated the collections in this majestic building truly are. The book accompanying the museum does not overstate when it defines the collections as the result of ‘four centuries of evolving knowledge about the world’s greatest and oldest civilisations’.

The cultural feast that awaits is exponentially enhanced by Oxford’s first rooftop dining room, which sits like a trophy atop this marvellous achievement. This is no ordinary museum café but a restaurant in its own right, with prices to match, so be prepared. Although the museum contains a café, a visit to the restaurant really completes the experience. The menu is a European-Asian fusion, containing sharing platters, charcuterie and dishes for both small and slightly larger appetites. All include new and pioneering cuisine, rarely seen in Oxford. There’s veal, babaganoush, salt cod croquettes, bresola, gazpacho and even a baby cuttlefish, chickpea & saffron stew. And if you’re feeling flash, go for dinner and have the chateaubriand for two. This is innovative yet fairly rustic; you get the feeling that those responsible see food as a convivial and a source of enjoyment in itself. The wine list is extensive and well arranged, with a good range of both old and new world wines by the glass.

Gone are the dowdy connotations with obligatory boredom and wasted holidays, the Ashmolean Museum is one attarction which should entice us all. The exemplary interior and brilliant facilities make it a must-visit for smart, stylish art, architecture and food. You’d hardly believe that it was Britain’s first museum, but it seems that where the Ashmolean leads, other can only try and keep up.

My Diary of India: Eleventh Extract

We woke up early this morning to see the birds at the Keolodo Bird Sanctuary. We wanted to hire bikes but they conned us into hiring rickshaws instead because the bikes, apparently, had no ‘contact’. Anyway, we saw antelopes and monkeys but very few birds, the odd parakeet or peacock. It made the most of the day but it did seem a bit pointless- yet another moneymaking exercise for the owners.

Later we boarded a public bus for the five-hour journey through Rajasthan to its capital, Jaipur. It was hot ad sweaty with mild air-conditioning, but I got quite engrossed in my current book, Shantaram. Now that I’m actually in India, I can understand it a bit more; the words mean twice as much: ‘Europeans do that. They work for a while, then they travel around, lonely, for a while with no family, until they get old, and then they get married, and become very serious!’. I LOVE this book! It’s turning into one of my all time favourites, ‘We know who we are and define what we are by the references to the people we love and our reasons for loving them’. It’s the first book I’ve really battered and it’s worn with the places I’ve taken it to.

When we reached Jaipur, the new part of the city reminded me of the bad parts of Delhi. However, when we found the clearly defined ‘Old City’, which is painted entirely in pink terracotta, it began to look more beautiful. The shopping was beautiful too, as is our hotel, where they painted the Hindu mark n our foreheads and put flower garlands round our necks when we entered.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

My Diary of India: Tenth Extract

03/07/09: Yesterday evening we went to visit a school that Gecko supports. It was hardly recognisable as a school. The children were on holidays and the classrooms and courtyard were bare; it was haunting. We walked through the school to the village behind, cowpat lined the streets and the whole place stank like a sewer. However, as soon as word of our arrival began to spread, children in brightly coloured saris and shirts came clambering out of the brick huts shouting ‘One photo, one photo!’ They were so sweet and it struck me that they were so happy just being in each other’s company. I only wished I was that content- it was a bit of a wake up call! They followed us and held our hands. The really funny thing about photographing the people here is that they’re all smiles and then they put on these really stern, funeral expressions in front of the camera. It’s as if they’re posing for a Victorian portrait. Seeing how people really live was a highlight for everyone. I had a go on the village’s plant-chopping wheel and they all laughed at how useless we were- we didn’t have an ounce of strength between us! It was quite poignant but also really good fun! The kids walked all the way down the road to our tuktuks and waved goodbye. Their happiness will stay with me for a very long time to come.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

My Diary of India: Ninth Extract

After leaving the astounding Taj, we drove to ‘Indiana’ to have a meal. I’m so sick of curry that I had Chinese. Bad move. It was so gristly and horrible- never again! Had a nice evening chatting with Alison, Karen and Adrian though so that was cool. I’m now sat in bed writing this after going to the internet café in my pyjamas: yet another bad move! Flies everywhere and the stench was so bad! Bharatpur tomorrow…

02/07/09: Having a great day today! After an hour or so on the bus, we got to Bharatpur. So far there is nothing here apart from this fantastic hotel ‘Kadamb-Kury’. We have spent the day around the pool, sunbathing at last, and it has been so relaxing. I really want to come back here in peak season when the heat is a bit less of an issue and there are more tourists around. I felt comfortable having a pool day today because Bharatpur isn’t the most happening of places. If there was more to do, I would do it, but I’m enjoying relaxing with a clean conscience!

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

My Diary of India: Eighth Extract

Right now, I’m writing from the bottom bunk of another sleeper train. It has been our last day in Varanasi and after a really nice lie-in, we checked out of the hotel to find that the monsoon had come! In our wet weather ponchos, Mehboob took us to an amazing bead factory with the largest selection of beads and jewellery ever! I nearly cried with happiness! My first basket came to 13,000 rupees, so I had to edit it and after some hard negotiating, spent 4,300! Everyone is so happy because the rain has finally come and now there is a new energy amongst the people. We had lunch and waited to be picked up to catch the train, which was delayed. Once we finally got to the train station, it was smelly and packed. There were even cows on the platform! But now it has become too wobbly to write anymore!

01/07/09: Had a good night’s sleep, surprisingly, on the sleeper train. We weren’t stared at too much. After freshening up at Hotel Ganga Ratan(!) we went to visit Agra Fort. I began to realise how overrated Delhi was; the fort was beautiful, the carvings were so much more intricate than in Delhi, everything was so green and lush, despite the heat. Sellers clung to our bus, waving their hands through the bus windows as the barrage began. Through one side of the fort there were distant views of the Taj Mahal standing like a big, white, marble colossus. Although the heat was deadening, the architecture was so beautiful that it didn’t matter. Afterwards we went for a walk around the local jewellery shops. Big mistake. After much bartering, I came out with a silver and pearl ring and Rob’s wooden elephants! After some more shopping, we made the short bus ride to the Taj Mahal. There were very few tourists and thousands of natives, although I later realised that they were probably tourists from different parts of India. The mausoleum itself is so majestic and stunning, the detail and scripture in the marble beggars belief and the grounds are so well-kept. There are two mosques either side of the tomb and three gateways, which you never see in pictures, so I was quite surprised at how crowded it seemed. However, inside the Taj is tiny, you aren’t allowed to see the actual tomb and it is packed, noisy and dark. We were groped from every angle and it was a relief to get outside again. Despite the building being impressive, my experience of it was horrible as there were groups of young guys who followed us around with their cameras and phones. Whenever we stopped to take pictures of each other, crowds of men took one too. It was like the Red Fort but even worse- so disgusting. I got really angry because I really wanted to enjoy myself but couldn’t whilst being followed and watched from every angle. I was covered from head to toe and was wearing a headscarf for most of the time. The more polite ones asked for photos, to which you have to say no. I cant describe the revolting looks on their faces or the lecherous way in which they sneakily took photos but it was really abhorrent. Some even left their wives and children to follow us. I don’t understand why they think they can treat guests to their country this way- it wasn’t like they didn’t have anything better to look at! Anyway, it tarnished the whole experience, but I suppose that this is what all westerners can expect.