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Digital Magic

I am learning to edit. As someone who up until a few months ago shot exclusively film and rarely digitally-altered images beyond straightening or exposure correction, I feel a little at sea. Lightroom is a confusing place, and the temptation to simply try and make everything look as much like 35mm as possible is a strong one. A long-time lover of VSCO for my iPhoneography, I have followed the recommendation of a helpful photographer friend and sunk some cash into buying two of their preset packs to ease my inevitable evolution from Clueless Analogue Dinosaur to Genius Adobe Whizz Kid. It has made a big difference towards giving my photographs the look I enjoy within a few clicks as opposed to having to spend six hours sliding dials up and down at random whilst crying over my keyboard, but I often do feel like I’m just using expensive Instagram for adults. Bunging on filters left right and centre.

I’m keen to update my Portfolio to reflect my new digital leanings, so I hope to reach my final form as Fantastic At Editing sooner rather than later; luckily I have had many friends and acquaintances willing to lend their faces to my mission, as Adam and Imo are demonstrating above. (Always looking for new volunteers though, so drop me a line at alexkrook@yahoo.com if you’re interested.)

There’s a long way to go until I’ll feel at all confident at being able to edit work within a time constraint, but I’m glad that I’m no longer hating and resenting this new learning curve. It’s a work in progress – just like my photography itself. And, indeed, life in general.

Caffeinating

When I lived in Oxford, I drank a lot of coffee. (One had to.) In my last year I wrote an extensive catalogue of every coffee spot I visited and why it was nice and/or nasty. It’s over on Bonjournal if you want to read the full whammy of twenty eight spots, but here I have compiled my top five, because ranking all things in life is important whether it is your preferred coffee corner or your children.

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Truck Store is a coffee cum vinyl shop, and the sort of absurdly trendy establishment that I outwardly decry but in whose sunlit corners I secretly while away entire afternoons. The pros of such a hip establishment are a constantly evolving soundtrack of ambient beats and staff who really “know” their coffee (as well as presumably their 90s neo pop bands and their purveyors of vintage moustache trimmers). I still hold the top floor of Waterstones as home to the best chai latte in Oxford, but Truck Store’s comes pretty close, and its prices certainly reflect the student market it’s catering to in a way that central Oxford cafes do not. And although it’s true that the clientele is predominantly early 20s based, on my last visit I did get into an interesting conversation about romantic poetry with a very old woman in a dressing gown and slippers; unfortunately it swiftly evolved into an attack on language-censoring that left myself and the two Brookes students listening in desperately trying to reverse out of. The price Cowley pays for being a ‘real’ city is that it has its fair share of real opinions.

Quarter Horse Coffee

I’m always won over by an attractive barista, and this place has at least five. It’s an artsy little cafe always bristling with MacBooks, tortoiseshell spectacles, and hushed philosophical conversation. If you’re into caffeine products for the taste as well as the buzz, then this place is the dream; they have a constant rotation of exotic blends (this week’s is deathly strong and Ethiopian), and sell various fancy coffee-making products that resemble alien possibly-sexual accessories to the tea-drinking proletariat. There’s also a great selection of toast and pastries for the breakfast market, which you can eat perched on stools against the window and stare/be stared at by Cowley Road’s 9am zombies. It’s also not just a coffee place; there a host of events that go on in this space in the evenings, from wine and cheese and conversation to talks from big dog writers and artists – although I’m not sure I’m cool enough to attend any of them.

Zappi’s Cafe

Zappi’s is a recent discovery – mainly because of it’s in-the-know location so sneakily hidden away above one of the myriad bike shops of central Oxford. Always littered with laptops and men in very form-fitting gear, Zappi’s attracts both the trendy student crowd and the edgier end of town. As well as plenty of extremely keen old cyclists – late morning on a Saturday you cannot move for lycra, if that’s what you’re into. The service is delightful, if slow, and the quality of coffee and conversation is always top notch. A nice little coffee nook for when TSK and the Missing Bean are just unbearable.

w604_a719b878-0826-468a-ad69-4bf64dc0df1eTurl Street Kitchen

A go-to. Ideally placed in centre-town and opposite a bank of that rare Oxford breed of the ATM, TSK is a favourite amongst undergrads and professors alike. It’s got squishy armchairs and oak tables, great coffee and tattooed staff, and there’s an upstairs lounge full of sofas and sunlight for quiet contemplation – or surreptitious gossiping. I
don’t know, you do you. A long-established favourite for those who eschew the Rad Cam for the coffee-shop-studying experience, this cafe is a hub for constant charity and social events; fundraising and music-making evenings galore, and a varied selection of artwork and photography can be found gracing the walls of the dining area. On writing, the front room is taken up with an installation for the Oxford Photography Festival, and Student Minds have their HQ in the upper storeys.

The culinary credentials are just as impressive as the caffeine side of things, and the kitchen flaunts its delicious and regularly changing selection of home-cooked food and varied wines on giant chalkboards – but that’s all beside the point. Because if you want a quiet coffee in the centre of town, whether it’s for a date with a dishy dude or a date with your essay on postmodernism, TSK is the place.

The Missing Bean

The Missing Bean is a tiny one room cafe in the heart of Oxford – a hipster’s dream that on your average weekday is furnished with two MacBooks a table and almost as many horn-rimmed specs. You’ll also find it packed with middle-aged tutors discussing romantic poetry, business types on their lunch break, and everyone else you can imagine because the coffee here is absolutely divine. There’s not too much to say beyond that; the hygiene rating is dire, so don’t try the food, but the atmosphere is always buzzing and you will be too after caffeinating here.

So there you have it; go forth and caffeinate.

12 Things…

… that I love about family Christmas in Amsterdam.

  1. My mum’s bread sauce. Culinary event of the year. (In fact all of these could be food-related, because we all know that gluttony is the true meaning of Christmas.)
  2. Feeling hip and young and one of the kids through internet in-jokes with my teenage cousin.
  3. The Dutch style of leaving their living room curtains open to the world at large, creating evening streets lined with cosy glimpses of family life and beautiful interior design.
  4. Dutch style generally; women in enormous scarves cycling over bridges and bald men in round glasses walking dogs.
  5. Terrible dancing in the kitchen to everything from Abba to BB King.
  6. Aggressive and competitive word games with my aggressive and competitive family.
  7. Aggressive and competitive participation in celebrity University Challenge with my aggressive and competitive family.
  8. My mum and her sisters collapsing into unanimous incomprehensible hysteria – this year over a particularly un-PC mime of Angela Merkel during Round 3 of the hat game.
  9. Everyone rallying forces to demolish three bottles of Baileys in three days.
  10. Schokomelk with extra whipped cream and a view over the canal.
  11. Chaotic group Skype sessions to cousins 11 hours and two seasons away.
  12. A million festive tea light holders and a million dancing shadows.

 

#NewMayDays Day 13: Holywell Cemetery

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This week has been one of those weeks. For one reason or another relating to work and play and my favourite animal being put down I have not been feeling on top form, so to make myself feel like SOMETHING in life is going right I have been jogging almost every morning – which is novel in and of itself. A few days ago I finally took the plunge and crept through the unassuming shrub-shrouded side-gate off St Cross Road that leads to Holywell Cemetery. And that place really is a revelation in a hazy dawn. There is such a Secret Garden feel; dew-soaked grass, limbs breaking through overnight cobwebs strung between the gravestones etc etc – many of which belong to ex-masters or fellows of various Colleges, with the occasional mournful child’s tomb. The graves stretch on for an unbelievable distance just like a rural churchyard, and then when you get to the wall at the end there’s nothing but an expanse of field and trees and a broken down wood shed. Left alone with the birdsong and dappled trickles of sunlight it really did feel like a “morning has broken” moment in the middle of the countryside.  I had a five minute silent stand-off with a fox that stood defiantly at the other end of the grassy expanse beyond, and the whole experience was incredibly surreal. I’ll admit to getting a bit spooked by the various rustles as nature woke up for the day (but actually more so by the deafening silence in the middle of a city), and broke into a nervous trot to get out the gate again… But if you’re a central Oxford resident (like me) and a lover of graveyards (like me) then this spot is not to be missed.

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NewMayDays Day 4: Hungover Crafts

NewMayDays Day 4: Hungover CraftsYesterday was a very dear friend’s last night in Oxford, so needless to say I spent today crushingly hungover and only left my room for pizza and lucozade. This limited my doing-something-new options, but I did learn how to make origami swans, something I’ve been meaning to do since a Springboard friend taught us how to make mini kabutos out of post-its. Such arts! Very craft!

My swan results were surprisingly pleasing and the process surprisingly relaxing – and good training for my grossly indelicate fingers.

Christiania: Free but flawed?

When telling people I was planning to visit Copenhagen this holiday, Christiania was a universal recommendation. According to its website, Christiania is “a self-governing society where each individual is free to themselves under the authority of the community. This society shall be financially self-supporting, and the common aim must always be to show that the mental and physical contamination can averted”. According to a Danish politician, Christiania is “a dwelling for people who wish to live in a different manner”. According to many Danes, Christiania is “a hippie squat”

The mural that marks the entrance to Christiania

The mural that marks the entrance to Christiania

In basic terms, Christiania is a “freetown”, an autonomous neighbourhood in the middle of Copenhagen that has existed as a commune since 1971, and whose residents (roughly 700 adults and 250 kids) struck a deal with the Danish government in 2011 to purchase the land off of them for a more official independence. Up-to-date information about this deal and the situation in general is pretty hard to find online, but since this loose agreement the community has been raising funds via selling off “shares” in Christiania for anything between 100 and 10, 000 krona (£10-£1000). Although officially subject to Danish jurisdiction, the area is famous for a rather more lax approach to law-keeping, particularly when it comes to the drugs trade – the aptly-titled titled “Pusher Street” that Christiania is famous for has been portrayed as both a tourist draw and guilty of scaring visitors away. Since the “junk blockade” of 1979 residents have maintained that hard drugs no longer circulate, but this is fairly easily disproven even if such sales are rather more low-key than the brazen high street trade of the softer stuff. Hash is dealt openly despite frequent police raids, with dealers dressing themselves and their stalls up in camouflage and many wearing balaclavas and sunglasses – according to the website this is because Pusher Street chooses to strike against the government’s misguided marijuana policy and emphasis camouflage netting over all the stalls to make hash less visible”. Christiania has its own “state” gallery, many outdoor art installations, and several cafes and food stalls. Signs above its exits proclaim that “you are now entering the European Union”.

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Christiana’s island from the other side of the water

We visited Christiania with a Canadian we’d met at our hostel. She passed on what she’d heard from all the Danes she’d encountered: Christiania is where Copenhagen residents go when they’re fifteen and want to try something illicit, a glorified squat full of hobos and hippies and drug addicts. It took us a while to find, as it’s situated on an island in the middle of the city accessible only by bridges; at first we thought the whole island was the commune, and were shocked at how clean and family-friendly and totally normal the streets looked, nothing different from the rest of the city. The sight of a giant psychedelic mural by a narrow door through which wafted a certain familiar smell informed us that the commune makes up only a corner of the island, and is completely walled off from neighbouring suburbia.

My first impressions of the place were that it has a similar vibe to Tacheles, the late and great artist squat in a similarly central position in Berlin. Graffiti coats every surface, dark doorways and passages lead to who knows where, weird refuse sculptures are dotted left right and centre. As we walked in deeper signs told us that we were now entering the “green light district”, where photography was banned along with running and sudden movements. Pusher Street is the central market square of Christiania, a cluster of camouflaged stalls run by men in dark clothes and often hidden behind the netting that hangs over their wares. We decided to make a purchase (when in Rome), and the experience definitely felt very illegal and pretty intimidating – and was the most expensive transaction I made in my entire time in Denmark. Which is saying something. After wandering round the remaining few streets (it really is just a collection of a couple of squares and alleys) we wended our way out through the exits and back into Denmark proper. We were underwhelmed, and unimpressed, by both the goods and the town.

I think there’s something fairly depressing about Christiania, and its not because all of the buildings look abandoned and most of the graffiti can’t really be classified as art. To me it felt seedy. It felt like some of the rougher areas of Amsterdam, aided by the preponderance of stalls selling tacky t-shirts and marijuana paraphernalia, and people with eyes like pies cramming overpriced hotdogs into their faces. There’s certainly a feeling of existence outside the law, but not in an “our town, our rules” kind of way… it’s more of the vibe of illegality. I’m all for decriminalisation, but that isn’t what Christiania is – its residents are painfully aware, as they have to be, of the officially forbidden nature of their merchandise, and they conduct their sales as such. For a town set up to celebrate independence and variety outside of the system, it seemed to me there was precious little variety of enterprise. We did come across Danish people who commented on the positives of the freetown, people raising their children all together and growing their own food, the stuff of idealistic 60s communes. Maybe all of that happens and it’s just not on show to non-residential visitors – but it would be a far cry from the Christiania that we saw.

London in 48 Hours

London. Capital of culture and pigeons. I grew up in London, and I feel that makes it inherently difficult for me to make the most of it. When you’re given one of the greatest cities in the world on a plate, can hop on the tube and be in the largest centre of freely accessible museums and galleries within half an hour, it’s an effort to actually make the effort (#firstworldproblems). But what I have found is that if I give myself short bursts of exposure to my capital I tend to cram in a lot more than I otherwise would have done.

Friday

Spent the morning doing very boring things like seeing the dentist and getting my hair cut, before visiting Hammersmith’s Polish Centre’s cafe for a beverage and a questionable piece of cake. Sometimes the joys of the suburban west need to be savoured too. My proper Londoning began at midday when my mum and I headed into town to check out the National Portrait Gallery’s Vivien Leigh exhibit, and lunch at a new favourite restaurant just off Trafalgar Square.

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Les Deux Salons is by now right up there in the list of my top London eateries. The food is always delish (and not even that overpriced), the setting unpretentious, and the cocktails carry a kick and a half. This time round I had a fantastically smoky butternut squash and chorizo soup, followed by grilled chicken and delightfully nutmeggy gratin dauphinois. Perf.

After lunch we had a leisurely stroll through some of our favourite Covent Garden backstreets before heading towards the British Museum and our goal of the relatively new “Vikings: life and legend” exhibit. With a British membership card at hand we flounced right in, to be met by a crowd of such vastness that we instantly turned tail and ran, promising to return the next day at a more favourable hour.

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At this point we went our separate ways, and I caught up with a friend over porn star martinis before fighting through the crowds at Leicester Square station. Literally the worst. Finished off my evening with a pint and a pal in a Chiswick pub that I had never tried before (we all have our regulars) but will certainly be patronising from now on. The Bollo is full of dusty paperbacks and pineapple shaped table lamps – the only things I look for in a drinking establishment.

Saturday

We dragged ourselves out of the house at half 9 to avoid the same nightmare of tourists (surely the collective noun) that had plagued our afternoon the day before, and were rewarded with a slightly less crowded exhibit. Although inherently a little disappointing (I complain in full over here), I got to gawp at some objects I’d previously only seen in my books, and also acquired a longship necklace as accessorising is the sole way of expressing academic rigour. We went up to the members’ lounge to revel in the birds’ eye view of what remains one of my fave Norman Foster constructions (and that’s saying something), and discuss funding options for my summer internship over tea and scones. It was unashamedly middle class and I loved it. We then wandered off to Lincoln’s Inn Fields where my mum went and did something at the Royal College of Radiologists’ HQ and I went to look at things floating in jars at the Hunterian Museum. Things floating jars are my favourite sort of things.

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Having stared at preserved bits and pieces for long enough we indulged ourselves in a wander around quiet Bloomsbury squares and then hit up Les Deux Salons for the second time in 24 hours (we are nothing if not creatures of habit); I had an amazing pea and mint soup and a killer burger and chips. Treating ourselves continued after eating with a viewing from a BOX of Jeeves and Wooster at the Duke of York – although much as I love P.G. Wodehouse and the episode of the cow creamer I was not particularly impressed. It was rather too slap-stick for my liking, and Stephen Mangan’s normally impeccable comedic timing was rather muted by the self-aware script, all the more obvious through a fantastic piece of improvised banter with an audience member halfway through. We did luxuriate in our fancy seating though, and followed it up with a cocktail at Joe’s Southern Bar and Grill. It’s a surprisingy fantastic underground affair off Covent Garden where we were met by a friend briefly in town from Berlin, before it was time to battle solo into Leicester Square again and head towards Caledonian Road for dinner.

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My friend Rosie lives in a fab little house just off the Cally Road, almost always full of great housemates and loads of food. She cooked us a roast chicken with her trademark sweet potato wedges, and we discussed our travel plans around the US of A this summer and re-visited her stick and poke tattoo from a drunken evening with sk8er bois in Seattle on her gap yah. What a pleasure it is to have interesting friends. We finished off the evening by watching the whole of Beyonce’s new album videography, and then strapping on the house supply of roller skates to attempt her impossible choreography. A rare treat.

Sunday

A morning spent enjoying my coveted double bed and then meeting some gal pals at a Mexican restaurant in Victoria for fajitas and sangria. A long weekend well spent; when I know I have such a limited time in my home town it really jump-starts me into seeking out everyone who’s around and enforcing my company upon them. It’s nice to live in an amazing city, and it’s nice to have nice friends, and it’s nice to take the time to appreciate all of these things all together.

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