Sunday, 28 February 2010

Krakow: not so good for a play on words, but frickin awesome for a holiday

I visited Krakow for the very first time this weekend, however the chain of events that started the wheels of this visit in motion began in early 2004. In the Spring of that year, my first UK visa ran out and I was looking for something to occupy my time until I went back to the States to start law school in NYC. I was deciding between a field research trip to Bolivia, something else that I now can't seem to remember, or walking the Camino de Santiago. The latter ultimately won out and so it was I found myself in Vézelay, France about to walk the length of France and the breadth of Spain over the following two months (you can check out the map here - Vézelay is in the sort of middlish bit of France, not too far from Paris by train, and is incidentally a very lovely town and a quite nice place to visit).

Towards the end of my trip on the Camino, I met a man who later became quite an important figure in my life. I can't remember exactly when or where the conversation took place - if it was while we were on the Camino or after, but I remember having a conversation about a book called Salt. At the time, I couldn't fathom how anyone might find a book about the history of salt even remotely interesting, but then, as now, I'm still pretty good about following up on recommendations from people I respect and so I duly went out and purchased a copy of Mark Kurlansky's "Salt". Like most good stories, this one turned out to have a happy ending - of a kind - even though unlike a fairy tale, the closure came five years later instead of only two hours. I remember enjoying "Salt" at the time, but the thing that really captivated my imagination was the section where Kurlansky talked about the salt mine in Poland where the miners carved entire chapels out of salt caves that they had previously extracted all the salt from. I put the salt mines on my travel to-do list and then sort of forgot about them.

As part of my holistic package of un-ironic new year resolutions, I decided that I would try to travel at least once a month, even if it was only to Scotland. I'd just come back from Venice for NYE and was wondering where to go to next, when I remembered the salt mines and decided I had to go to Krakow. I booked the flights and in an extension of my recently developed policy re cultural events to not find out anything before the experience, just decided to rock up and wing it - not to read anything or to look at any pictures - nothing.

I haven't developed an especially articulate theory yet, but I'd wager a guess that there's some kind of equation to be made that goes something like expectation + experience = how good a time you have. I learned again last weekend that too much expectation can kill the experience itself stone-cold dead dead dead. But if you just rock up to the new experience open and ready for whatever, with zero expectations, that's when the magic happens. So up I dully rocked. And did Krackow kick ass? Hell yes it did.

What an awesome city! Take one part Stockholm, one part Berlin, and throw in a healthy dash of Paris for good measure: volia, Krakow. The food was AMAZING, the bars/coffee shops were quickly and plentiful, and the city is just stupidly lovely, like wandering into a fairy tale. Marvellous. My only complaint - and it's a rather small one - is that I couldn't find any place to listen to live music on Friday or Saturday that wasn't jazz. Don't get me wrong, I'm crazy about jazz, but sometimes a girl just needs to rock out a bit.

And low and behold (my, we're full of cliches today), I finally made it to the salt mines, which were every bit as incredible as I suspected/hoped they would be. If you want to know more, you can Wiki or read Kurlansky's fascinating book, but if you haven't been, what I really suggest you do is high tail it to Krakow ASAP. Marvellous place...

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Something's rotten in the state of academia

Being a 3rd year PhD student, I've spent a fair amount of space (on this blog and elsewhere) bemoaning the state of academia in this country: the under appreciation of academic culture, coupled with the totally inappropriate and frankly bizarre class snobbery lurking underneath the surface of much of the hostility towards academia in this country is something I simply do not understand.

At least, I thought, I'm fairly insulated from much of the drama at King's College - one of the UK's best academic institutions. Alas, the last few months have proved this assumption to be foolishly naive. With a horrid Principal, Rick Trainor, who cares more about the acquisition of new buildings and getting fashion designers to update academic gowns for graduation, rather than safeguarding the academic reputation of his institution by nurturing its departments and staff, things look more than grim for King's.

Trainor has claimed that the international academic community - who have mobilised to act vocally against the cuts at King's - don't understand the current financial situation and the pressure faced by major UK institutions especially after the financial fall-out associated with the baking bail out.

Does anyone else see a problem here? The government finds it perfectly acceptable to use a staggering £850 BILLION pounds of UK taxpayer money to bail out the banks, but can't be bothered to prioritise funding for one of its most important social institutions. The hypocrisy and carelessness is absolutely chilling.

And yet, Trainor could just as easily fight the government. He could be leading the way in calling for reforms to the projected cuts and protect the outstanding reputation of his institution. Instead, not only is he damaging its reputation, but his actions will quite literally damage its capability to produce outstanding new research. Not only will it be difficult to attract high-quality students to King's with a significant decrease to departmental faculty, but it will also make it incredibly difficult to attract (and even retain) new staff members as well - would you want to join an institution with so obvious a lack of concern for its faculty. Of course not.

What makes this all so laughable is that Trainor anticipates King's will receive £40 million less in funding from the government, which is approximately 30% of King's operating budget and the equivalent - according to Trainor - of about 700 lectureships!! It was only late last year that Trainor closed on an aggressive deal to purchase the East Wing of the nearby Somerset House for an estimated £20 million. The incredible cynicism of a College Principal in prioritising the purchase of an unnecessary building at the cost of 350 academic jobs is wholly and utterly inexcusable.

Yet another thing which makes the protest campaign so difficult is that the general public often misunderstand the concept of tenure and think academics have no right to bitch about the loss of their cushy 'jobs for life.' First of all, aside from the fact that tenure is increasingly rare in many Universities, which are now being run as if they were corporations with the sole aim of turning a profit, it also discounts the enormous amount of time and effort that goes into the obtaining of an academic job in the first place.

By the time you finally get a lecturing position - these days, anyway - most academics have completed a 10 training period - longer than most surgeons or lawyers. Also, unlike doctors or lawyers, professors are definitely not in it for the money. Just a brief comparison: our dear Rick Trainor receives a salary of well over £200,000 per year, while the average professorial salary is between £30,000 and £50,000. You tell me what's wrong with this picture...

Unlike Trainor, the vast majority of academics aren't in it for the money. Generally, academics work in Universities because the love knowledge and information and they care passionately about the discovery, analysis, dissemination, and safekeeping of this knowledge. As for tenure, think about the US Supreme Court. There are nine justices and each one is appointed for life. There's a very, very important reason for this: it's to avoid the politicisation of the law. The law is above politics and should not be corrupted/influenced by current social concerns of contemporary politics. Imagine if justices were subject to being fired by the President or a 2/3rds majority of the Senate: Roe v. Wade and Miranda v. Arizona would have most likely had very different outcomes were the justices subject to political pressure for fear of losing their jobs.

Tenure is the same concept only applied in an academic context. Tenure is the foundation which guarantees intellectual freedom in academic institutions and is absolutely necessary to maintain the ability of all academics to conduct research without fear of reprisals if the government or whoever disagrees with the results of a study or the conclusions drawn about a historical civilisation, etc. There can be no intellectual freedom without a safety catch: tenure is that safety mechanism. This is the whole point of research Universities.

You may disagree, but in my view the role of academia is to acquire, analyse, and disseminate knowledge and information. Unfortunately, this is simply impossible in a culture which demands not only the politicisation of such institutions, but the commercialisation of them as well.

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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

music is my hot, hot

Probably a few I've forgotton...

And it's not even the end of February!

Whoop whoop!

Monday, 22 February 2010

London Fashion Week round-up (Days 1 and 2)



So fashion week kicked off on Friday and if you follow me on Twitter, you'll have noticed that I've been out and about going fashion crazy. Apologies to Twitter friends (and real life friends) who have no interest in fashion. I promise it will be all over soon.

Good start to Friday with Paul Costelloe - which I didn't like much at the time [you can watch it here if you like]. I didn't take any pictures at the show] and thought it was a bit 80s glamazon meets Little House on the Prairie with some Victoriana thrown in for good measure. But I loved the latex legwarmers and the bouffant hair and after watching the Caroline Charles show later that morning, reassessed my opinion of Costelloe in hindsight.

The best shows I saw on Friday were the David Koma off-schedule show for Vauxhall Fashion Scout and the BodyAMR presentation both in the magnificent Freemason's Hall on Great Queen Street. The BFC tent is great, but it's really interesting to see shows in random locations. It's also good to see off-schedule shows get spoiled a bit with spectacular venues. A few year's ago London used to be pretty scruffy: showing in car parks and what not - nowhere near the glamour of couture shows in the Grand Palais of Paris - but with On¦Off and VFS showing in Freemason's, Julien MacDonald showing in Whitehall and Vivienne Westwood showing in the Royal Courts of Justice, seems like LFW is finally waking up to the possibilities of London's built environment.

Much hyped David Koma came out with a beautiful show. All super body con and very geometric, with cut out leather and wool in zig-zag patterns stretching across the body. He wasn't as hyper-futuristic as his earlier collection, which was nice as it's always good to see dresses you'd actually *wear* at fashion week. I loved the bizarre silver and gold zip fasteners (I think that's what they were) used to create a more three dimensional feel to some of the dresses - exaggerating the silhouette without going crazy.

After Koma, I went upstairs to the BodyAMR presentation. I've been a fan of this label since I picked up one of his dresses last year - a gorgeous, hooded, black chiffon dream. I'm not crazy about everything produced under the BodyAMR label, but there are some absolute knockouts. This collection was all desert-dwelling space-age princess clothes and the venue was awesome - upstairs in the Freemason's Hall - the models going through these stunningly intricate carved gates to get to the press pack at the end of the runway. The models all looked incredible - in fact most of the models I've seen this year have looked great - really healthy and glowing. A nice change from some years...




The funniest thing was that I was sitting behind this girl with a really cute hat on. I snapped a cheeky pic and two seconds later the papps went haywire. Turned out she was Olivia Inge - mega famous model. She seemed pretty good-humoured when we admitted we had no idea who she was. Nice girl.

Olivia Inge at BodyAMR


tribute wall to McQueen inside the main BFC tent

so much queuing!

Saturday morning I was supposed to be at the Charles Anastase show, but my ticket didn't arrive and I couldn't get in touch with the PR people so I had no idea where the show was and missed it. Whoops. Twitter people surprisingly unhelpful. Alas, Kinder Agguginig and Emilio de la Morena shows were brilliant and the eggs florentine and coffee at the rather wonderful Fleet River Bakery more than made up for missing Anastase.

Thought the Kinder collection was beautiful - check out the full collection here, but was quite amused when reading the press blurb before the show which indicated this season's inspiration was provided by Juliette Recamier - a darling of neoclassical France who was even painted by David. Impressive, thought I, though Kinder's collection turned out to be Napoleonic costume a la Sophia Coppola - half new romantic, half rock and roll.

The Emilio show was absolutely gorgeous - I 've been saying that about most of the shows - but it's true. Didn't take many pics either as the lighting in the BFC tent is really crap for point and shoot cameras, but here's a snap of the final walk. The show blurb said that the collection was inspired by planetary landscapes, but I thought that the McQueen-inspired techno prints in various shades of aqua/blue/teal/silver looked more like something a forward-thinking princess of Atlantis might wear on a Friday night out.

photo from Dazed Digital

final walk at Emilio

bloggers area in the main tent

I rocked up to the PPQ show at 7.30 only to wait outside for almost AN HOUR trying to get in to the tent. It was a total scrap heap of chaos and lots of angry well-dressed people. By the time I finally got into the tent, the music was just going on and they refused to let anyone else I didn't get to see the show. Bad, bad PR people. Over allocating tickets and mis-managing admission is really unprofessional.

During the day I also managed to get a good look round the exhibition in Somerset House and saw some really great stuff. I especially loved Holly Fulton's inspired by an imaginary trip to NYC collection - which was all art deco prints and amazing accessories. This punched leather mini dress with perspex cut outs was really quite something.


photo from

I also really loved the outerwear by Christopher Raeburn, a British designer who makes beautiful coats and bomber jackets out of recycled military uniforms and parachutes. Such an imaginative and inventive way to reuse military surplus and as a big plus, the lady watching over the stand was super nice.

menswear jackets at Christopher Raeburn

above and below photos from Christopher Raeburn blog



Mostly I lay on the couch at my friend's nursing the hangover from hell after an all-nighter on Saturday, even though I had tickets to quite a few shows. Whoops. I did get up to watch the CMS show on the live stream - which is an amazing development in the fashion world - way to innovate, London!

The CSM show is a LFW institution as many a now well-known designer (e.g. John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Giles Deacon) took their first steps toward fashion stardom in those grimy halls. There was an awful lot of architectural minimalism and not a lot of colour. Some good stuff, but the only thing that really rocked my world were these dresses by knitwear designer Shao-yen Chen. Marie Antoinette mini-dresses that look like they've been attacked by poodles and they're just awesome. No idea where I'd wear them, but I so would.

photos by Marcio Madeira/ at


messing about being 'fashion-y'

waiting inside the tent

Note: all photos are my own unless otherwise noted.