Friday, 17 December 2010

CousCous Darna & Celebrating Liberation

Two days ago was a monumental day. It was one I had been looking forward to for quite a while as it marked the end of the university term and the beginning of the Christmas holidays. After twelve weeks, over 13,000 words, plus a photography project and workbook, the feeling of liberation was immense. One of the biggest challenges this term was the self motivation and organisation: rather than a manic last-minute dash, the workload required consistent endurance over the weeks, which in turn necessitated some tough self-discipline. At the end of it, then, there was no reason not to celebrate, so my friend Fred and I decided to go for a meal somewhere in London, preferably more central than we were currently located.

The plan for the evening was to be as relaxed and disorganised as possible; we'd get off a random tube station and amble aimlessly in any direction until we found a restaurant that tickled our fancy, then we would eat and spend as much time there as we liked. This approach, an antidote to the constraints that the past weeks had subjected us to, led us eventually to Couscous Darna, a Moroccan restaurant in South Kensington. I hadn't eaten at a Moroccan before and the restaurant looked inviting. The menu was on the pricey side, but after months of tight budgeting it seemed like a good (and further liberating) idea to throw caution to the wind.

The interior was fantastic. The Moroccan styling of the decoration was utterly convincing; from the terracotta walls to the intricately patterned crockery, right through to the Moroccan music and faint smell of incenses. The lighting was dim, but not too much so (something that can be irritating – I like to be able to see my food, and put my fork in my mouth rather than my eye) and the atmosphere was pleasantly convivial.

The staff were friendly too, especially the manager, a Moroccan from Fès, who was exceedingly polite and welcoming. After half an hour, our main courses arrived. Fred had ordered a pan fried 'Duck Magret', which was presented beautifully. More importantly, he was ecstatic about the flavour, so I think we can safely assume that it tasted as good, if not better, than it looked. I had ordered the 'Tagine Lahem Bal Barkouk', a 'traditional saddle of lamb with caramelised prunes, rosted almonds, cinnamon Seasame seeds, egg, and saffron' cooked in terracotta clay. It sounded good on paper, and happily it was good to eat too. The lamb was wonderfully soft and the sauce was subtly spiced, but for me the caramelised prunes were the star of the show. That said, I wasn't as enthusiastic about it as Fred was about his duck.

I decided to go all out and have a dessert too, for which I chose the 'Baked Fig Tartlette', a shortcrust pastry with 'almond and pistachio cream and roasted figs served with a cinnamon ice cream'. When it came it was nice – again subtly flavoured – but I have to say, disappointingly small.

Overall the food was good, the staff were friendly and the atmosphere was spot on – it is definitely worth a look, even if simply lap up the atmosphere. I couldn't help feeling a little ripped-off though. The main course was expensive enough, then the dessert was a further six pounds for a tiny tart and an even smaller dollop of ice cream. But worse was the fact that the bread rolls we were offered as a starter came with an Aubergine Zaalouk. It tasted fine, but I do not remember asking for it, and when it came to the bill we were charged an astonishing £6.95 for the small bowl of compote, plus an extra pound for the rolls. I felt a little robbed, to be perfectly honest.

The classic Cinnabon. Well worth it.

But we were not there to save money; we were there to enjoy the release from stress, deadlines and hardcore budgeting, and to embrace the free spirit of indulgence (just for once). With that in mind, we headed to Piccadilly Circus, where I simply couldn't resist a second dessert in the form of a classic Cinnabon bun. If you haven't tried one, just try to imagine a classic Danish pastry, but on steroids. Now there is a good way to spend (a further) £3.50. Well, come on, you've got to treat yourself every once in a while, right?

Monday, 6 December 2010

Why I'm Learning to Loathe Academia

(It’s not about food! #1)

Before I went to university I belived in myself, the career I wanted and my ability to write. I decided (roughly) what I wanted to do for a career and how I would need to get there. University seemed the best route.

Since enrolling on my course in Photography and Journalism, I have learned a lot of skills and information; particularly from the journalism side of things. Now, however, one and a half years into my course, I’m beginning to lose the will to carry on, and am learning to despise the pompous and seemingly arrogant world of academia.

Let’s start with reading. I used to enjoy reading a lot. Despite the un-cool and nerdy-associations that secondary school attributed reading with, I did a fair bit in my spare time. There was nothing like the losing yourself in the blissful escapism of a beautifully written piece of fiction. Since enrolling for a degree, my reading time has deceased. No time for fiction, practically none for magazines and newspapers (ironically, considering that I’m on a Journalism degree). This is quite acceptable – I understand perfectly that one should have to do a lot of academic, course-related reading for a degree.

However, after suffering many a page of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Benjamin Walter and Sigmund Freud, to name but a few, I don’t really enjoy it anymore. Their incessant use of complex syntax and inconceivably complex lexis has left me confused and frustrated on many occasions. I don’t know whether these people had some kind of issue with their egos, but I really can’t see the necessity of making things so difficult to read, let alone understand. Or maybe I am just stupid. Either way I’m losing belief in my ability to read.

Sigmund Freud: You will learn to hate this guy.

Closely related to reading is writing. Academic essays come thick and fast at university, so one has to get to grips with very specific forms of referencing and bibliography styles quickly. It’s not a problem; it just slows you down a bit. When it does become a problem, though, is when different lecturers prefer you to use different styles for different essays. To make things worse, the style guide I have been given contradicts itself. Did I mention that marks are deducted for incorrect referencing too?

More importantly, in the space of a week I have been sat down with different tutors for tutorials about essays, and listened as several pieces of writing, the products of hours of painstaking reading, writing and editing, have been torn apart. In some places I’m too informal. In some I’m not using the correct referencing. Sometimes they’re not interested in contextual information, and sometimes they are. I should be talking less about this and more about that. It’s not the end of the world, as I know I can improve these essays. But it is wearing me down and I am losing the belief I had in my ability to write – as well as read. When I was at secondary school and during A-Levels, I was actively encouraged to pursue writing. I haven’t been encouraged to write – or about my ability to write – in any way since starting my course. I’m beginning to worry that Blogspot might kick me off their servers soon for failing to reach their minimum writing standards.

Finally, there is photography. On my course I have learned less about improving my photography, and more about understanding photography. The seminars, and the discussions we had in them, with Michael O’Brien were a highlight of the course so far. I learnt a lot and my mind was opened. But the problem is, is that I can no longer enjoy photography for the sake of photography. A photo always – always – has some interpretation to be made, some hidden meaning to discover.

And this is all very well, but this approach has to pollute even my own photography. As far as my tutors are concerned, a photo is rubbish unless it contains some kind of reading – whether that be feminist, Marxist or whatever. Photographs of a random piece of tarmac are applauded if they relate to some Freudian theory. A penguin on an iceberg lit by an astronomically beautiful sunset is not applauded, because it is kitsch, cliché, and doesn’t ‘do’ or ‘say’ anything.

But do you know what? I honestly don’t care whether that penguin suffers from the Oedipus complex, or whether he represents individualism and the freedom of the West. I want to enjoy, appreciate and relish in this photo simply because it is beautiful, an achievement and work of art by the photographer and a tribute to incredible aesthetics of nature. And by doing this, I believe that I shouldn’t have to suffer the disregard and disrespect from so-called academics that feel their brains are simply too large to appreciate this.

Victim of the Oedipus complex, or simply photogenic material? You decide...

To conclude then, I must ponder these emotions and thoughts that have been provoked by higher education: the feeling that I have been robbed of the ability to read and write, the idea that I lack the intelligence to appreciate the ‘superior’ realms of photography. Maybe I am simply too stupid. Perhaps I lack the intellectual capacity to surf the shallow wave of academia. Whether I am right or whether I am wrong, who knows – but either way I’m paying well over £3000 per year for this demoralisation.