Friday, 16 October 2009

Peter Grimes as a paedophile

So I imagine you can tell that I've finally had a hiatus in the hurly-burly. I've properly started my new job, and the flipside is that I finally feel that I've got some real time off. I'm still learning the music for tomorrow's concert, but hey. The new I Fagiolini website is almost there, I'm done with NCT projects (wish I'd seen my Baby Show banners - I've never designed anything two metres wide before!), and at this very moment I can't remember anything else I'm meant to be doing.

So, then. I went to see Peter Grimes at English National Opera back in May - May! Good grief. There's a good review of it here to refresh your memory. My memories are that the sets were very ugly and some of the costumes ludicrous - Auntie and the nieces came off particularly badly - but that the music was just sublime (and at least First Niece was allowed to be standing when she sang her top C). There were moments in the score I'd never heard before, and my favourite parts - 'Mister Hobson, where's your cart? I'm ready'; 'What harbour shelters peace?'; 'Who can turn skies back and begin again?' - made me cry in a way that opera very rarely does (I'm normally dry-eyed while darling A sobs next to me). However, this is all digression as the point of this post was to discuss what seemed to be a throw-away remark by the director, David Alden, in his programme notes. He was discussing Grimes's character, and how dark he can be painted, I think.

"I'd like to see a production where he's played as a straight paedophile," he said (I'm paraphrasing from memory), "though I wouldn't want to direct it." And my question is - what the heck is he talking about? Is there some weird operatic convention that Grimes a paedeophilic? Because I can't see any evidence in the libretto or the action. As I understand it, paedophilia means literally 'liking for children' and is used to mean that you have a specifically sexual interest in them. It's not a term to bandy around lightly.

Firstly, then, I think you'd have to push it to show that Grimes is interested in sex at all. It's a rare production that shows him any closer to Ellen than the touch of hands that's required by the libretto. I should think even a clumsy hug might be pushing it. When Grimes sings about her, he focuses on the respectability that she's going to bring him. That's his goal: social acceptance. In this production I really noticed that passion with which he sings about money. When he dreams about fishing the seas dry, it's so that he can earn money, always money. "They listen to money, only to money!" so money can silence the gossip, he fantasises. I reckon a sexual analysis would get less out of all this than a Marxist one.

Secondly, you'd have to show that Grimes is interested in children, and there again I think you'd be struggling. His whole problem is that he's using the apprentices as orphans because they're cheap - money again - without considering that they're children. He's blind to their physical needs, continually demanding too much of them, refusing time off.

Yes, he's abusive - he's violent, he shouts, he pushes them around - but that has nothing to do with paedophilia that I can see, except for being another kind of child abuse. He's rough and unthinking. He seems in fact to be someone who's almost abnormally uninterested in children. He just wants to get the job done. He's a workaholic, if you like.

The use of the term seemed to me careless. And this isn't something to be careless about. I suspect the term is often bandied around when Britten is discussed, partly because there's an equally careless association of paedophilia with homosexuality which so far as I can see has no justification at all (if male homosexuals fancy little boys, shouldn't male heterosexuals fancy little girls?). There's an interesting flipside to the current paranoia about paedophilia, I think. If anyone (well, anyone male) who wants to be with children must be showing they have an unhealthy sexual interest in them, isn't that asking why on earth anyone would be interested in children otherwise? Isn't that saying there's nothing interesting about children? Do we really believe that?

How to be a freelance writer for the web

A work colleague asked if I'd help out a friend of hers who's looking for work as a freelance writer but hasn't been getting anywhere. She's got experience of writing for television, but that's all. I was trying to analyse what's worked for me, although my working life has now been so long and complicated that I'm not sure I'm a good eaxmple. But here's what I said - I'd be interested to hear your feedback, especially if you're a writer yourself (Ruth, Phil, Clare; Iona, Nadia?).

I think there a few things to consider. You need to demonstrate your ability; make sure you have the core skills; develop specialities; make professional connections; give it time; and keep your standards high.

One is simply how you show that you're any good. Do you have samples of work? Can you point to a website and say what bits you wrote? Have you got your own site? I set myself up with WordPress and it was dead easy and got into search rankings very quickly. (By the way, how are you at search optimisation for copy? Do you know your stuff there? You will need to.) It's here if you want to look - I didn't really get it finished, but got a few pieces of work up there.

Can you get involved in any projects that would give you a chance to show off? Again, I've done two quick and easy sites for friends; I can't code at all so used iWeb on the Mac. They're not great examples, as they wrote their copy and I just edited it, but I did help them work out what they wanted to say, and can be a part of the job too. These are and

And I also run a music festival and wrote the site for - an interesting example (argh, it's so out of date) as it has lots of complicated info that needs to be put in sensible order: every concert has to have a time, a place, tickets prices, contact details. This is more about information design - is that an area you're interested in? Do you think you're better at writing instructional copy, or marketing material? Can you think of snappy headlines for banners? I think it's probably about defining your strengths, but also knowing the basics - search optimisation, or SEO, is vital, as is knowing how online copy is different from printed copy: have you read Jakob Nielsen? Steve Krug?

Think about subjects you know about, and companies who might need people to write about them. For example, I've done lots of stuff for financial services, and sometimes if I've applied for an ISA online or something similar, if there's a space to comment I'll tell the company how bad the copy was - if I was looking for work I'd take that further.

The other thing is to make connections. Use Facebook and tell all your friends what kind of work you're looking for. And join LinkedIn and fill in all your details there too. There are lots of people advertising work there. You could try signing up for mailing lists too - both lists of online writers and editors, and mailing lists of job vacancies. Researching all this is part of the kind of thing that writers often have to do - you'll often just get a bare description, say for a Microsoft site, and have to go and dig out enough info to be able to say something meaningful, so you need to be good at finding stuff online.

My other advice is to give it a bit of time. I got made redundant in March, did all the things I've described, and got my first freelance work though an ex-colleague in July. There's a definite timelag.

Lastly, I'd say, be really scrupulous all the time. All the writers and editors I know have hugely high standards, and I think freelances have to be really professional. Typos in emails - even just emails to someone like me - will be a real turn-off. (NOTE that this was of course a dangerous thing to say, as naturally there was a typo in my email to her - though of course she wasn't a potential referee or employer...) As a writer you're on duty all the time. For example, I went back and changed my first sentence to make it a summary of the content here, as it's such a long email. If I was really keen, I'd put in subheadings. You've got to show you know what you're doing.

Oh, and just a usability thing - it would be better to have an email address that matches your name, so if someone wants you they can find you really easily. Yours is a lot to type!

That was it. Having written it, I'm struck by how specialised online copy-writing has got - you need to know quite a lot about how websites work to write really good copy. In fact, I'm now working with a group of people who are immensely articulate and literate, but their writing is absolutely 'offline': copy for emails that runs to two or three pages. Not that brevity is *my* strong point, I hasten to add. But then I am writing this for fun. So there!

Friday, 10 July 2009

First blog since May

Well, I think you can see the point at which the music festival took over my life. Four of us do absolutely everything, and there's just so much. I got to the stage of tear-filled frustration more than once, especially when I realised how many notes I had to learn in the Mozart. But at least I could wake up every morning and thank heaven (figuratively, of course) that I wasn't singing the 'Et incarnatus est'. Frankly, I just wouldn't have made it. Even the second sop part (as it's traditionally done) covers more than two octaves and quite a few semi-quavers, I can assure you. According to our resident expert, Dr Maunder, the usual split of responsibilities isn't at all authentic - Constanze would have bagged both big solos, and they'd have got a castrato in to sing the duet, trio and quartet. I wasn't sure any of the sops I know would fancy this role, though...

Anywa, I'm not going to ramble on about soloist's paranoias, for once (I've done that every other year....) - I've been mentally writing a post about Peter Grimes as a paedophile since I saw the ENO production (and read the programme notes), and I really want to write it before I forget it all. What's a non-cliché that means the same as 'Watch this space'?

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Eye tracking is evil

Someone on LinkedIn says:
"I was at a public discussion with Jared Spool last week (and about 100 participants in SF at the IxDA discussion). the topic was... when usability is evil. The consensus on eye tracking... everyone hates it, no one seems to trust the results. In the end... and from what i understand as results from the consensus: eye tracking is evil. There were persons who championed eye tracking... (I think there was one), but... just some random data for your study from a room full of UX's. anyone who was there is welcome to chime in here."

You can't say usability is evil, but I would certainly agree that eye-tracking is at worst evil and at best pants. In my opinion, any user testing method that requires such long-winded and dreary analysis, in real time, afterwards, by an expert, is a bummer. If you've got a roomful of users, about the dullest thing you can do is point a camera at them. Go in! Watch! Take notes! Talk to them! *Then* you'll find out stuff. When do you ever learn about people just by watching their eyes? You'd only do it if there was no possibility of talking to them.

Perhaps some of the software available is good stuff if you use it a lot, but everything I've seen seemed to have quite a steep learning curve and be prone to disastrous errors - recording three days of video with no audio, to cite an example from one of my team, who traipsed all the way to the US to capture a lot of data that turned out to be unusable. Instead of faffing about with tracking nonsense, invest some time before your test sessions in writing really good questions and tasks, and talking to the client to make sure you're going to find out everything that they're going to want to know afterwards.


Gosh, I have been quiet. I had meant to boast about carrying Sasha back from Whittlesford station the other night, but needed to gather statistics - we don't have scales in the house. We finally visited a well-equipped friend and I discovered that my very solid child weighs 16kg. (You have to remember that children are always much heavier when they're asleep, but then the differential increases with their age.) According to Google the distance is 1.7 miles. I had a sling, and tried to arrange Sash to be vaguely symmetrical, as it's asymmetry that does your back in. It was partly that I didn't want to pay for a taxi, partly that it was after 10pm when all the Sawston taxi drivers go to bed anyway, and partly sheer bloody-mindedness to know whether I could do it. It wasn't too bad at all, in fact, and of course I felt gloriously rugged too. Self-reliance is very satisfactory. But is it universally so, I wonder, or do some people just not find it to be so? Is there also pleasure in being a parasite - well, that's a little harsh: does it feel good to be a wuss?

Last week I was at the Church Hall, about four minutes' walk away, and asked a woman with a baby of about six months old if she'd like to come back to my house for a cup of tea. She wasn't sure, because she'd parked her car somewhere else and didn't have her pram with her. I stood there and just nodded because it took me about five minutes to work out what she was saying - she couldn't carry a tiny baby a few yards. But in any case, words would have failed me.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Weird week

Well, it has all been rather odd. I went to have a tooth taken out yesterday, for the first time ever. Ate a hearty breakfast as I didn't know when my next meal would be. Tooth out; left with gaping hole which was rather bigger than I was expecting. The dentist assured me that nobody really needs more than twenty teeth, but I feel that my chewing power has been drastically reduced. I schlepped around Cambridge with Sash for the rest of the day and then headed home, but as usual hadn't left enough time for dinner before the Parish Council meeting, so A and I had to make a dash for it. As usual, also, we were so cross afterwards that we came home and knocked back a couple of bottles of wine. We forgot to have any dinner. I think I may have eaten a piece of cheese and finished the pickled onions. Ugh.

I dreamed I was singing evensong, with my top half in a bath towel as of course I'd forgotten my clothes - dreams in which I've remembered to put my clothes on being a minority (honestly, you'd think I'd got a complex about it or something) - and the choir director mouthing the words of the first hymn for us as nobody knew it. For some reason we had to rush over to another chapel to sing the responses, and then my mobile phone alarm went off... at which point I discovered that it was 0645 and I had twenty-five minutes to get out of the house with Sasha. Normally I have ten, but have got everything ready the night before - but this time I'd spent it getting hammered. Boy, did I feel terrible.

Then I went to work and got made redundant. Actually, I think still having half my brain worrying about naked evensong probably helped in not making it too traumatic. But I had been with the company ten years - but then who gives a damn about companies: they don't exist. People are the thing worth caring about. Everyone was very sweet, especially considering tha I was one of about 35 people to get the push so was expecting sympathy to have run out rather.

So, time for bed. Is it true that hearing about other people's dreams is suprememly dull? Does anyone know that really nasty James Thurber story about a man who marries someone who interrupts him all the time to correct everything he says, and he starts talking about his dreams in desperation because they're the only private experiences he has, and slowly goes crazy? Thurber is brilliant - a short-story writer and cartoonist (his most well known is possibly "Well, If I called The Wrong Number, Why Did You Answer The Phone?", which was on my third-year exam on Comedy. A brilliant paper - though I was the only person in the exam hall who laughed out loud.)

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Doctor Atomic

A really splendid first night of John Adams (the Nixon in China man)'s new opera, Doctor Atomic. Fabulous singing, especially from the glorious Gerald Finley. The first-half closer was a solo setting for him of Donne's sonnet 'Batter my heart, three-person'd God', and it was a show-stopper. Donne is a devil to set as it's such twisty, complex stuff: I've never heard a convincing setting, and often you just wish you could get rid of the music. But this was stunning music.

There had been a lull in the middle of the first half, as the bedroom scene with the Oppenhemers didn't work terribly well. The libretto was so abstruse that you couldn't take it seriously as a conversation, and it wasn't clear what anyone was talking about. Beautiful singing, though, from Finley again - god, he's good - and Sasha Cooke as Kitty Oppenheimer. One member of the cast was a last-minute substitution, and I didn't catch who, but it was impossible to tell. Everyone's diction was lovely, and they got the accents spot on, I thought. Good naturalistic pronunciation, too - none of that 'pronounce the words as they are spelt, not how a normal person would say them' rubbish, except from the alto Meredith Arwady, resolutely enunciating 'moun-TAYNS' when everyone else sang 'mountins'. Her part was a bit of a drag, to be honest: she was a sort of ethnic voice of conscience.

The second half - all one and half hours of it - hardly flagged. Adams really built up the tension, but he used touches of humour to release it as effectively as Shakespeare does: they were very nicely judged. Almost at the end, there were two minutes of near silence: brilliant. The final moments had the perfect focus on individual anguish. After the end, there was a silence you could almost feel - until the inevitable over-eager idiot felt they had to start clapping: a great pity.

The chorus work was very effective: for once having everyone in their own little box seemed appropriate to the subject matter. The choruses were all, I think, all homophonic - no: what's it called when everyone sings different notes but at the same time? - which made a few ragged edges obvious. Mostly excellent, though. The staging worked very well, with the bomb dangling ahead for much of the time, and the weather effects were good too. As in Candide, the touches of video and graphics were beautifully judged, eschewing gimmickry.

The whole thing was surprisingly affecting: I cried for the first time ever at an opera, having sat dry-eyed through Madame Butterfly, Tosca, and so on. It's really not at all an odd subject for an opera when you consider it.

Top marks all round - do go and see it! Day seats in the balcony are only £10 and you just phone the box office after 1230 to get one.

Friday, 20 February 2009

The sticking place

Recently, I scrunched up my courage and posted the stuff I'd been writing about Clare Wilkinson, who is a rather fabulous mezzo who sings with I Fagiolini. Unfortunately, Blogspot stuck up the post under the date when I'd started to write it, rather than when I'd finished it, so it's got a bit buried. Do please go and have a look at it - I'd be interested to know what you think (and also grateful if anyone knows how to pronounce 'paean' - A and I don't, we realised).

I had a good conversation with a work colleague a while ago about postivity and negativity, and how your mental attititude colours the world around you to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It reminded me of something someone told me when I was a journalist, which was that to write a positive review of something is much more of a risk than writing a negative one: you really stick your neck out when you praise something. It's always easier to criticise: partly, humour comes more easily when you're being rude. Writing with a positive slant feels slightly naff.

We've been pondering the nature of fandom, too. There was a funny story in the press about a woman who'd sat outside the gate of Prince's estate for several weeks. When he heard about it, he went and asked her to come in and talk to him - at which point she got up and left. It made me think of medieval courtly love, where the adoration is the whole point and consummation would ruin the whole thing. And Petrarch, writing all his poems about Laura after she was dead. Great art, but lousy sex.

Our fandom remains at the point where what we dream about is introducing Russell T Davies to Joss Whedon at a dinner party, and getting the discussion started with some suitably geeky topics. But at least the evening would have a purpose: the problem when you admire people is that all there is to do is gush. If you get that far - when A and I were in the same room as Clare at a post-concert drink session, we stood in the corner staring at our toes and twiddling our glasses. But then you can't really stride up to someone and say baldly "You're wonderful!" - can you?

PS After being so rude about Janet Baker, I was wurgling around on YouTube and found some videos of her. Oops. She's, um, rather good, isn't she? I guess I just didn't like trained voices in the days when I didn't have one...

Sunday, 4 January 2009


My goodness. A is reading volume 3 of the collected letters of Benjamin Britten, and I'm reading volume 2 of Dorothy L Sayers' correspondence. Get us.

Sayers is very impressive, though - so clear-thinking and intelligent, and so professional in her work. She's very good on feminism: often with a lovely quizzical air about why anyone should be so silly as to think differently. I wish I could manage that, rather than always getting indignant straight away. And I must read The Man Who Would be King, as it sounds wonderful. She does always make me feel a little sad, though, that I have never really found a proper career. I suppose at least I know what I'm good at, and have always known that I wasn't in the least creative. And I've been very lucky in the jobs I've found, and the people I've worked with (the companies who've paid my salary have generally been nothing special, but there's capitalism for you). But Sayers makes me feel that I should have been more serious about having a profession. I'll have to ponder this, and not at half-past midnight when I've just watched four episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Too much melodrama, but I was pleased to suddenly realise that the theme music is based on Erlkoenig - perfect! Ooh, someone's clever.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Books, glorious books

I have been having a lovely Christmas binge. I re-read What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School, and What Katy Did Next - the last of these a hilarious account of her European tour with a widowed friend and her daughter, all of them rather disliking foreigners. England is so soggy that they don't stay long - but then of course they don't like the French much either, and as for Italians.... Great stuff. I've always wondered whether the word game that the SSUC attempt is playable: it seems unlikely that many people can produce poetry to order.

Also William Mayne's A Swarm in May, which is a very odd book, and a lot of it about choir-school politics, very much from the boys' point of view. Oh, and I also read Eleanor Farjeon's story '...And a Pearl in the Myddes', which I doubt anyone has heard of unless they're an Antonia Forest fan (Patrick asks Nicola if she's read it when they visit Wade Minster). It was a perfect Christmas story, wonderfully atmospheric and incomprehensible.

Last night I grabbed a random Iris Murdoch: The Flight From The Enchanter. I like Murdoch more as I get older, and suspect I read a lot of it when I was far too young to know what was happening, though I do think the ones where really posh people fall in and out of love with each other in endless combinations are rather silly. (A Severed Head is my favourite of these, with all its delicious kerfuffle over who gets which of the d'Aubusson prints - or is that the name of the carpet? (Of course as soon as I started typing it the word left my head.) And I do like The Italian Girl, which has similar shenanigans. Nobody ever seems to have to earn a living.) My overall favourite, though, is still her first novel, Under the Net (come to think of it, I've never worked out what the title means), which is about a lovely group of bohemians. The politics are more overt and the relationships simpler, and it has huge youthful joie de vivre and some vividly memorable set-pieces: I love the part where the narrator trails someone through a French park but loses her when he stops to pick up the shoes she's hidden in a tree.

Tonight I read Claire Tomalin's biography of Hardy. Another fine work: I really appreciate how non-judgemental Tomalin is, and how carefully she draws her conclusions. I also had no idea of how many bad novels Hardy had written in between his barnstormers: I think I'd vaguely assumed that titles like The Trumpet Major were early works rather than mid-stream duds. I'm not a huge fan of his, since I like to get immersed in books and don't like to be reminded that the heavy hand of the author is dropping misfortunes on his characters from a great height. I found Jude the Obscure disgusting. But I think I'd like to read more of his poetry.