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!