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.