Friday, 30 July 2010

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful

I do love this September ELLE cover, tweeted earlier by their Executive Editor, Tom Macklin. Not only do I adore Miss Blunt (for her style, for her Brit cool, for her show-stealing character in The Devil Wears Prada, for having dated everyone's guilty-pleasure crush, Michael Bublé... the list is endless.) I like that ELLE don't just stick the current face of L'Oreal in a jewel-coloured frock and make her laugh next to a wind machine. The pose is striking, the lace is chic and autumnal, the kohl-smudged eyes grab your attention and she looks porcelain yet very real. And not to get too curvy-girl crusader-y, but they notably haven't emaciated her shapely thighs with an overzealous airbrush. Big thumbs up to ELLE; this will no doubt shine out on a shelf full of cluttered, psychadelic covers. Can't wait to read the star interview.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Internships: heaven or hell?

At the weekend The Guardian brought this issue to my attention, and it's quite nice to see a range of opinions on it in the piece itself and the fervent web comments below. For a long time the topic depressed me because I was living it; for the eighteen months following my degree, I flitted between internships and unpaid work experience placements, drifting around London on the airy high that comes from being (albeit superficially) in the industry you desperately want to work in. To the credit of the UK's major publishing companies, I was rarely out of ‘work’ – it just so happened that the work was challenging, unpaid and with no guarantee of progesssion.

Being an intern is a giddy sensation at first. You’re in the big city, in my case in the chic West London HQs of the glossy magazines you’ve been reading for years, everyone’s very glam and you’re walking past Stella McCartney, Selfridges, McQueen and admiring the displays before work (while worrying about forking out for that essential H&M purchase in your lunch hour). You don’t even think about the money to start with, you just feel lucky to be there. Then a few months go by, you learn some skills and gain confidence, you feel qualified to comment on things and contribute ideas and you start to feel the hours and the poverty kicking your ass a bit. I have always been very fortunate to work at places that are reasonably grateful to have interns, that pay expenses (bar one or two publications) and crucially, that give you exciting things to do.

Working at top magazines, you do see that the fashion interns have it harder. There are more of them, usually 6-8 girls - all tall, slim and stylish with a hungry look of ambition in their eyes (that might actually just be hunger). They get the everyday mundaneities of sending out and calling in merchandise, keeping records and tidying the fashion cupboard – but once in a while there’ll be a chance to go to an incredible shoot, personally assist a fashion Ed or contribute to the style pages, and thus competition is fierce. And all while looking chic and on trend with hardly any bank balance to work with. It’s a bit like an episode of America’s Next Top Model, but without the big mansion and the raw sexual magnetism of Nigel Barker. So I do appreciate that fashion interning can be a thankless task. If I hadn’t had the fairly frequent boost of seeing my words in print, I don’t know if I would have hung in there as long as I did.

Features is different; I think you learn a lot quite quickly because you’re constantly having ideas knocked back, writing picked apart and being sent on wild goose chases in your research – you have to get tough and work harder. I think if I hadn’t had those eighteen months I wouldn’t be as resilient and as sure as I am that it’s still worth it. Going straight into a salary would put more pressure on you – Am I earning this? What if I don’t know what I’m doing? What if this isn’t right for me and I need to get out? – with an internship, you are allowed to get things wrong, try again, and leave with zero guilt if it’s not for you. You also learn useful things for your career decisions, such as there are no straight men (I've maybe met three in total in the magazine world), some women are just allowed to act like Mariah on a daily basis, and there are a lot of fun freebies and invitations to keep you going on even the bleakest day. People forget to mention that internships can be fun - and if they're not fun at all, maybe you're in the wrong work environment.

But I do agree that you shouldn’t have to do it forever. Unfortunately all my enthusiasm went into my first few months of whirlwind unpaid work experience, and by the time I was a paid features intern at Elle, I was feeling the grind a bit. It was still the best work experience I’ve ever had, responsibility and opportunities-wise, but being the young not-quite-staff-member amongst all the regulars was hard. So this is where the sheer length of interning time at the moment is a drawback – there is the potential to become jaded before you’ve even found your first job. In the media no-one seems to have moved up since I started doing work experience back in 2007. The people I met as juniors and assistants back then are for the most part still in those roles, and as no one is getting pay rises or promotions, and people are fearful of leaving because of the recession, there is no natural movement up the ladder. I’m staying focused in the hope that this will change. What is true in the Guardian piece comments is that there is an elite club of media hopefuls being bankrolled by their parents, who can of course afford to be in London on zero pay, mingling with the hot new faces in the hot new clubs, and drifting home to a comfortably central flat paid for by Daddy. Lucky them - but surely this doesn't make for an ideal range of young writers and trendsetters? As suggested by Caitlin Moran recently, we don't want to end up with a media industry filled with braying Hatties, Fenellas and Sheherazades - so there have to be opportunities for the less-than-minted state school brains to come through. Internships are a way of doing that, and if you're savvy enough you can do one, work for a bit and save, do another, and so on. It may take longer but it will feel much sweeter when you do break through the wall of blonde hair and jodhpurs.

What many people point out in their comments on the Guardian article is that many artistic and creative industries are frivolous, expensive and not essential to our economy. Why shouldn’t it be a little harder than getting into them? In my bohemian-wannabe generation everyone seems to want to be an actor or an artist, but equally want the money and the lifestyle they are used to – as such people end up pursuing their dream for a few years after studying, then slipping into a more corporate role as they realise bills must be paid and actors are often little more than auditioning waiters. Industry placements help you weigh up what’s worth sacrificing and what’s not – a bad experience can turn into something wonderful for your career perspective. But this doesn’t mean I want to hit 26 or 27 and still have gotten no further than being a student and an intern. Especially without having had gap years or long periods of unemployment. That would be taking the biscuit, and I wouldn’t hesitate to find a more attainable role. I do think fashion and art should be harder to get into than being a nurse or a teacher, as they’re often better paid (and with a lot more perks) at the top than those socially vital roles.

In relation to this article, I must contradict commenter TaylorHarrison when they suggest that Guardian News & Media themselves are just as bad as the cutthroat high-fashion industry. I have only had two weeks in their delightful Kings Place building (at the lovely Observer Culture section), but I found them to be flexible with my hours, a suitably buzzy and creative environment and somewhere that kept me very occupied, including getting a couple of bylines. That may not sound like a lot, but for two weeks - which is really the maximum you should do completely unpaid – it actually did more for me than many of my month-long placements. From lunch and walks round the canal with the team, to the fact that when people google me now the Observer pages will come up, it was beneficial and exactly what it said on the tin – an experience of the job. The bad thing with being so ethically organised is that they won’t have people back after the appropriately short unpaid placements, for fear of exploiting them, when I would dearly love to be exploited by the Observer for a more sustained period. So magazines have it right in terms of lengthier intern opportunities – special mention must go to Elle here, who regularly employ multiple interns on a modest but significant salary, as well as being generous with exciting opportunities, invitations and assignments. Others could do better, but everyone’s just watching their costs at the moment, and that can’t be helped. It can’t be any nicer to work for 20 years in the industry, get to the top and have your pay and budget frozen for the same economic reasons.

There is a real camaraderie in an industry where pretty much everyone has been an unpaid lackie, and thus know what they’re looking for in a newbie but want to help them grow as a writer, designer or stylist. Internships can be bliss and they can be hell, but I think you can lose sight of their value if you constantly think about the money or the time. There is no better time to be out of pocket and rich in life experiences than your early twenties, so try and make the best of it.


Tuesday, 27 July 2010

G is for Girl Crush

Ellen Page is just cool. She oozes attitude by being a diminutive powerhouse in the massive boy club that is Inception, with her wit and guts in Juno and decidedly non-fluffy roles in Hard Candy and X Men: The Last Stand. Page should depress me as we are more or less the same age, with very different life CVs, but she's just too damn likeable.

In an interview with The Guardian following the success of Juno, Page said somewhat presciently, "I think a lot of the time in films, men get roles where they create their own destiny and women are just tools, supporters for that." So it was wonderful to see her work her charm and individuality as dream architect Ariadne in Inception last night. The film had my eyes widening, my head spinning and my fists clenched for its entirety, and the swirling plot was enhanced by drops of lightness and comedy here and there in a brilliant script. Page more than holds her own with Hollywood heavyweights Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Caine and Marion Cotillard (who I’ve always found a little creepy… great that Inception brought that out in her.) To be 5ft and baby-faced and still have the presence and sharpness to be cast as a lead in a blockbuster like this is an incredible feat.

At the modest age 0f 23, she's an Oscar-nominated acting veteran with a huge indie following and has achieved a boyish, funky style which means she avoids cutesy photo shoots in favour of the classic edginess that usually comes with being an 8ft gazelle with jutting cheekbones and vacant eyes.

Loving the big pants

To top it all, she’s a dog person, loves outdoorsy things and just seems like a smart, down-to-earth lass:

[On role models] "As a girl, you're supposed to love Sleeping Beauty. I mean who wants to love Sleeping Beauty when you can be Aladdin?"

[On abortion] “I am a feminist and I am totally pro-choice, but what's funny is when you say that people assume that you are pro-abortion. I don't love abortion but I want women to be able to choose and I don't want white dudes in an office being able to make laws on things like this.”

[On courting the press] “I don’t really think they’ll do a story about Ellen Page eating a mooseburger in Newfoundland.”

So box up the Doc Martens and order me a pint, because I’d definitely give up men to turn the Page.

Ellen Page designs dream worlds in the brilliant psychological thriller, Inception

Monday, 26 July 2010

Les Bizarrables

The first musical theatre I can ever remember hearing is the 80s classic Les Misérables by Boublil and Schönberg. We used to have the tape of the soundtrack in the car, and on long car journeys and driving holidays we sang merrily along (no Tweenies for us, oh no – death, prostitution and revolution galore.) And we loved it, along with our well-worn cassettes of Miss Saigon and The Phantom of the Opera. When I went to see the blockbuster adaptation of the latter, I was shocked to realise I know every trilled word of the score. But Les Mis was our favourite by far. Cruising along the M1 back in the early Nineties, you might have caught a glimpse of three cute little girls chirping along to the rousing Lovely Ladies:

Lovely ladies
Waiting for the call
Standing up or lying down or any way at all
Bargain prices up against the wall

Yes, we were worldly children. But we didn’t need to fully understand the complex social tragedies of Victor Hugo’s plot (although mummy spent much time patiently explaining: ‘Yes, she’s selling her hair… Because she needs money to pay for her illegitimate child. It means she wasn’t married to the child’s daddy. No, she hasn’t made enough money from being a Lovely Lady.’ Dad, helpfully: ‘In the original text, she actually sells her teeth.’) The music spoke volumes: the exhilarating melodies of the student uprising, the über-romantic strains of first love and unrequited love, the swansongs, the feuds and the hopeless waste of young life.

It is a connection that has never faltered – while I have ‘grown out’ of some scores and showtunes, the recitative, the melodrama and the romance of Les Mis are timeless. Which is probably why this year it celebrates its 25th anniversary. In honour of its sage longevity, there are a number of tributes – a touring production which will climax at the Barbican and an anniversary concert at the O2, with tickets like gold dust (actually I hear gold dust is probably less likely to bankrupt you.) I browsed the shiny Flash-tastic website for some info today, and this page made me very sad. All of the plum female roles seem to have gone to TV ‘faces’ - and not even hugely impressive ones at that. Samantha ‘Isle of Sam’ Barks was only third favourite to play Nancy – a much less emotionally fragile and charismatic role – in a TV casting show, and Lucie bloody Jones is X Factor alumni. She shouldn’t be allowed NEAR a West End stage (although we know the folks down at Chicago and Legally Blonde would have pretty much anyone from prime time at this point.) But I expected better from you, Cameron Mackintosh; Les Mis deserves exceptional, breathtaking, once-in-a-generation actors and singers, and happily has a range of playing ages and vocal ranges to cast, which should make it easier to get the very best for each. I was a little sick in my mouth when Kimberley from Girls Aloud was allowed to ‘join in’ with the show on the band's Passions reality show, but as she was merely Ensemble/Whore (great billing) for a short time I let that one pass. Then Jodie ‘actually Nancy’ Prenger joined the cast to get some work experience before her leading lady engagement. Now, don’t get me wrong – the Prenger was the best thing in Oliver - but Les Miserables is no-one’s West End test drive.

Incidentally, X Factor’s Lucie (who memorably sang a song from Disney’s Camp Rock, not well, on the show) follows Camilla Kerslake in the role of Cossette. Who? Exactly. She happens to be the latest moderately-talented classical hottie whose bland album deal was entirely based and plugged on the fact that she was discovered by Gary Barlow. Are there really no elegant young sopranos on the musical theatre circuit wishing to audition for this part? Or could it be that the Les Mis hall of fame (boasting Ruthie Henshall, Kerry Ellis, Lea Salonga, Judy Kuhn, Frances Ruffelle and Michael Ball among others) is now set to be cluttered with people having their five minutes of TV-whored fame? I dislike this notion and it almost makes me wish the show had gone out quietly before ticket sales, PR pushes or plain vanity brought it to this.

Talking of Michael Ball, the role he originated is currently filled by the irritatingly pure teenage face of Nick Jonas (and the stage door area subsequently filled with a tsunami of hormones and Charlie Girl perfume) which offends me even more. I don’t care if Nick Jonas and Lucie Jones’ true love finds a way amongst political turmoil and danger. I know their smug, airbrushed faces too well to get caught up in the moment, and I’ll probably end up hoping a stray bullet rebounds off the barricades and right into one of their skulls. Producers of Les Mis, I implore you: go back to casting from the thousands of individual, raw, talented nobodies who have loved the music for years and been inspired to act and sing because of it, or close the show if it really can’t last without casting integrity. Every time one of those beautiful refrains is sung by someone whose generic face I have been battered to death with in Now magazine, I die a little inside. Thanks.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Turning points

I’ve read a lot of try-hard books lately. Or more accurately, I’ve attempted to read them. After three years of over-analysis in lecture theatres and libraries, books start to become merely a product to pull apart and judge, rather than the cosy old friends of my childhood (when I would routinely romanticise the process by trying to find a window-seat to curl up in – or at last the end of the sofa nearest the window.) Books used to be an irresistible chance to float away on a story and become completely embroiled with its characters; from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tragic and hopeful A Little Princess – dogeared with re-reading, even in adulthood – to Noel Streatfeild’s charming Ballet Shoes, I devoured my houseful of books. Wherever myself and my family went, we brought far too many books, and there were even books I associated lovingly with my grandparents’ houses. My childhood reading just preceded the trend of absolutely everyone reading a series (think Jacqueline Wilson, Harry Potter, Horrible Histories) and I like to think I chose and loved my books free from PR tactics and peer pressure.

So how I came to be two years out of an English Literature degree, a self-confessed bookworm but secretly, thoroughly out of love with reading – I don’t know. When you’ve learnt to take apart a piece of music bar by bar and question the composer’s motives and influences, it never quite sounds the same. And so it is with books; I find myself unconsciously picking up on Shakespeare-derived sayings, Austenian plots, oxymorons, repeated words, mixed metaphors, overpunctuation, streams of consciousness and the influence of postmodernism, when really wishing I could go back to finding characters, stories and little worlds created seemingly for my entertainment alone. Post-degree, I also tried to go for prize-winners, dark themes and inaccessible styles to continue my analytical education, when really I should have been letting myself back into the groove of enjoyable bookwormery with that elusive of genres, the Great Read. Only two GRs have this year sliced through the pedantic layer of academia that still obscures my reading: the first was the beyond-charming The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (highly recommended) and the second was my most recent commuting - and lunch hour, and bedtime – book, the newly-published Turning the Tide by Christine Stovell. This book has, quite simply, made me hate having a job and a life. What I wouldn’t have given to have an empty weekend to sit and read it from intriguing beginning to satisfying end (it definitely warrants a re-read.) But then again, it just may be the perfect commuter's novel. With the artful suspense of a six-part TV drama – a form which I think it would suit perfectly – the plot ebbs and flows with each chapter, giving you a little more information with each burst of reading.

When smooth-talking hottie Matthew Corrigan starts nosing around the sleepy seaside town of Little Spitmarsh, its bored residents are stirred by his plans for a chic new restaurant on the waterfront, to be followed by apartment blocks and a new-look waterfront. Many think a change is just what the town needs, but tomboy Harry Watling is distraught at the thought of her scenic childhood haunts and the tiny boatyard she inherited from her father being swept away by modernization. As Matthew puts his plans into motion, his cool business head is turned by feisty Harry as she becomes determined to make it as hard for him as possible (no pun intended, although there is a more than a dash of sauce to this classic romance.) Any girl who has been single for too long will identify with the confused and restless girl below Harry’s spiky exterior, and rakish Matthew is almost more fanciable than fictional. I was completely absorbed by the comings and goings of the Little Spitmarshers; adorable gay couple Frankie and Trevor trying to start a new life together, Sophia Loren-esque trout-pouting Carmen Moult waxing, plucking and coiffing the locals and gruff ex-naval handyman George with his immaculately kept caravan and tightly-sealed biscuit tin. You wish them all well in different ways, desperate for Harry to use her feminine wiles as well as her fighting spirit, willing father-figure George to come clean about the family secrets of Harry's past, wanting Matthew to soften and see the natural beauty of the place and its most snarling inhabitant. There is even a compelling mini-drama involving the florists’ canine companions Kirstie and Phil. The book’s magic lies in the frankness of its characters, the balance of their perspectives and Stovell’s ingenious ability to add a tiny twist or leak a piece of vital information just at the end of every chapter, making the wait for the conclusion absolutely thrilling. The romance is, perhaps, inevitable but their slow-burning attraction is realistically muddled and complex, making the reader root for them even more.

The bottom line is this is a fabulous summer read – romance, escapism and chuckles galore – but it is also intelligent, exploring business head versus vulnerable heart, natural beauty threatened by modern progress and the pain of losing an idolised parent, all while neatly avoiding cliché and schmaltz. I would love to go to a rugged coastal town and re-read this compelling novel in a complimentary setting, but it was vivid and absorbing even when wedged against a fellow commuter’s shoulder or in a city park surrounded by noisy teenagers and daytime drunks. Huge credit to Stovell’s talent as an author – she paints the quaintest seaside setting, complete with flaws, and makes her reader care about it so fervently that they begin to feel fiercely defensive of Harry and her quirky home. The chemistry between the two lead characters is tangible and the obstacles dividing them excellently placed. Even if you are nautically ignorant, the sailing theme gives you a taste of the freedom and beauty of our native waters, and Harry is the ultimate independent woman, mastering manual labour and tempestuous seas if not her own desires. As the last chapter came to a close, I got off at my station, sat on a bench in the sun and postponed my walk home by ten minutes or so to enjoy the last few pages uninterrupted, a little oasis of sublime romance in my rushed day. I knew from the first time I picked up Turning the Tide that this was a chance to renew my friendship with reading, and I greatly look forward to enjoying more of Christine Stovell's animated and intricate storytelling in the future. If your mind needs a little break from urban life, take a trip to Little Spitmarsh and fall in love with the sensation of diving into a Great Read again.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

F is for Fear

Since graduating, I’ve felt a little like I’m freefalling without a parachute. An arts degree does not lend itself to a clear or secure career path, the job market is the worst it has been in decades, and I don’t seem to be able to hold on to a comfortable routine or familiar relationship at the moment. At the beginning of this year something happened which I had feared, and it seemed that the abyss was even closer than before. But I was determined not to let a few changes of situation and fortune ruin my year, and I decided, as a instinctively passive and introverted person, to face up to a number of things that scare me. Against my nature, I was taught as a child that you should try things once, from buttery Escargot to rock climbing, and then see if the result is really revulsion or revelation. Some of the things I approached with trepidation never made it into the Likes list – mushrooms and speaking to a large group still make my stomach turn – but a good many have proven to be completely unfounded.

I got the ball rolling a week after being emotionally crushed, by auditioning for a local amateur dramatic show. I used to do a lot of drama and music, but dropped it after high school; incredibly rusty four years on, I felt terrified by the prospect of any audition, let alone one in front of a strange panel with unspecified standards. However, I braced myself, learnt the song, fudged my way through a traumatic dance audition and was delighted when I got a small part. Unsure how it would fit in to my life and whether I’d struggle, I went along to rehearsals and what followed were some of the best weeks of my life, featuring some of the greatest people I have ever met. I don’t know how long I would have stayed in my numb self-esteem crash had it not been for the whirlwind distraction of learning harmonies and lines, costume fittings and on show week, sheer adrenaline. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and cemented my idea that scaring yourself can work wonders.

Some other things that make my heart pound…

This is a tricky one; although not rare, I have an odd detachment from my fear of flying. It is the only one I can truly deem a phobia, as fearing it is like an out-of-body experience for me – I know it is irrational, I will still get on planes every year and I think it is a very unappealing trait in a person. But the minute I get near an airport terminal I feel unsettled, and the adrenaline that rushes through me as we speed down the runway is a far from pleasant high. It feels like a deep-rooted, animal fear of something that feels so totally unnatural to me; perhaps because I don’t even come close to understanding the genius of aviation, every time I fly I feel like I’m part of some dicey maiden voyage on an experimental type of transport. I try to talk myself down from the ledge by reminding myself of all the rational facts: statistics, physics, the fact that people take flights every day as their regular commute. But to no avail; I fear I will always fear the speed, the suspension and the precarious feeling. But I still hope to conquer it. After years of Rescue Remedy, deep breathing and calm visualisations, the only thing I can truly recommend is a large glass of red wine a little while before and perhaps midway through the flight. This is often controversial on early morning departures.

Hand in hand with performing (but much, much worse) Karaoke is literally my idea of a night-out nightmare. Yes, it’s meant to be fun, but anyone who has sat through someone very seriously mewling their way through a Mariah Carey classic knows it can turn from tuneful to tragic in no time at all. Getting up in front of a roomful of strangers (or worse, friends) and getting through a whole three minutes of song is simply my idea of hell. It’s not so much that I take it as a serious challenge to sound good, but that I know the extent of judgement that goes on in my own head, let alone the rest of the crowd’s, when someone takes the mic. I even have three or four pre-approved tracks in my head should I ever be forced up on to a platform with a neon screen of lyrics; a sort of survival plan should the worst happen. Shudder.

No, not the shrivelled fruit snacks, but one-on-one time with newly discovered men. As I’ve mentioned in my recent posts about online dating, although I enjoy the basic concept of the date, the time leading up to one is unbearable. I suppose this means on some level I can’t bear someone thinking badly of me, or just the hugeness of it all – that this could be someone pivotally important to your life, or even that they might be horribly insignificant. I always have a short phase of ‘How do I get out of this?’ followed neatly by ‘No, I have to do this’ and right at the last minute, ‘Is it too late to run away really, really fast?’ I’ve mostly had good dating experiences, so this isn’t a reflection on the men I’ve been out with, but I can never quite get over the potential shyness or awkwardness a budding relationship poses. Hence the maximum-dating plan, a sort of baptism of fire which I hope will burn off the nervous energy that envelops me when I’m single.

Public Speaking
Though not the quietest member of my family, I have always been the shyest. As a child I found it incredibly difficult to talk to new people, and always relied on my more boisterous siblings when it came to the momentous challenge of making friends. I have no idea why I was hit with the timid stick when I come from such a sociable clan, but I spent lots of my childhood trying to speak louder and more clearly, make eye contact and basically not hide in a cupboard somewhere in the foetal position when it came to new faces or places. Somewhere along the line I gained friends and confidence (junior school?) learned how to fake a bit of attitude and guts, and basically tricked myself into being a more confident person. Drama helped, and getting to an age where it was more acceptable and powerful to be clever. But most of all, I had exceptional examples all around me of articulate speakers and can-do attitudes. I knew just how people went about seeming at ease, and I learned to imitate it until it felt natural to go up and start conversations from scratch. Saying that, the thought of getting up in front of more than twenty people and saying anything makes my head spin slightly; the prospect of having to lecture was one of the main reasons I passed on continuing with the academic route, which is terrible, thinking about it. Commanding the room is a skill I’ve been determined to develop for a while, and it’s definitely on my To Quell list.

As has been so delightfully pointed out by many of my readers - sense the bristling already? - I become somewhat defensive when faced with criticism of my writing in particular, and my character in general. I find it hard to brush off a comment once made, and probably because I’m not as resilient and confident as I try to project (see above) it does make me doubt my own ability rather than helping me to get better. Of course it does help, in the long run, especially when I can see that I’ve oversimplified, been arrogant or failed to provide the facts, but at the moment of impact I feel about two inches tall. I now have my blog comments emailed to me to approve; they always go up eventually, but it means I can swallow, take it on board and absorb it before putting it up there for all the world to see. I am trying to be a better person about this (it’s definitely a maturity thing; I’m already much more willing to concede some debating ground than I was pre-twenties) especially, as so many have emphasised, because my ideal career choice will involve all the flack and weekly ranting from every ‘Disgusted of Berkshire’ and lunatic reading. I have to deal with it, but it’s an ongoing challenge for someone who does actually care quite a lot if people like her.

Fear is just fear, you can’t let it rule your life or prevent you from meeting your goals and living your dreams. As Mr Darcy (or Colin Firth, as I hear he likes to be called) once growled during a sweaty fencing lesson: ‘I shall conquer this. I shall.’ And I shall leave you with the words of that fictional hottie as I go off to jab at my own fears with a pointy stick.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

You get what you pay for

A man walks into a bar and orders a pint. The barman carefully pours it, puts it on the bar and walks to the till to ring it up. While he does this, the customer downs the pint and casually strolls out of the bar, refreshed and happy.

Where's the punchline, you ask? Nowhere to be seen - it's not a joke, it's stealing. Stealing liquid, mind, of which there are thousands more barrels, and which the innocent barman did not create, brew and transport all by himself. But a service and a product were provided, and not paid for. Most people wouldn't dream of doing this (although my friend did see someone steal a 6-inch Subway the other day) but thieving isn't such a crisply defined concept anymore. Partly because people feel so disillusioned by prices, recessions and authority in general, but mainly because of the big playground of freebies that is the internet. Young people were the first to hop on the cyber bandwagon in the naughties, and they quickly learnt about the joys of file-sharing, downloading and online trading, before the elders who had established businesses and copyrights had figured out how to stop them. In print media, publishers were delighted at the prospect of reaching a wider audience and providing up-to-the-minute news reporting, and soon most publications were available, gratis, online.

The Times has taken a lot of flack over the past month for deciding to put a paywall up (a week's subscription working out to around 28p per day), with experts predicting the venture will fail and the Guardian in particular taking the opportunity to filch their unimpressed readers. My favourite Times columnist (and general legend) Caitlin Moran wrote a wonderful article a couple of days before the wall went up, defending their decision against a lot of very public outrage and Murdoch-bashing. Of course, if you don't believe in paying for online news, you won't be able to access the article. But she made a good case for the change, which perhaps I am more sensitive to as a would-be journalist, as well as driving home the basic and excellent point that 'Bitch gotta make rent.' The perks of creative jobs are falling fast with the rise of the net, as people can access music, literature, journalism, film and photography without paying a penny to their creator. Moran simply stated, amongst other rational business reasons, that it is hard enough to be a working journalist without your pay diminishing even further. It is a hard business to get into, not at all well paid and almost impossible to live on as a freelancer, and thus more and more financially privileged young writers who can afford to do the job as a hobby are seeping into the industry. No more feisty lasses like Caitlin, who hails from a Wolverhampton council estate and the comprehensive system, writing in one of Britain's oldest and most prestigious rags. An exclusively privileged comment and editorial team would make for a much more conservative and monotonous tone, undoing all the good work the paper has done in recent years in becoming more balanced with diverse comment writers and a wider perspective than, say, the Mail or the Telegraph. Also, I agree with Caitlin that writers deserve to get paid - we read their work most days, they work challenging hours and with tough deadlines, and get nothing like the salaries of the ankers and politicians whose deviance they so often expose. Many would argue that it's too late to start putting up paywalls; the internet has been free to read for years now. But the Times does have a certain caché, and as such many rely on it for firm facts and expert analysis. So I think they'll keep some audience, but more liberal fence sitters and those likely to list the Guardian as 'their' paper (myself included) will just stop reading online, perhaps grabbing the paper itself once in a while. I'm just saying I don't think it's that controversial to put a price on something a lot of people work hard on, especially when that price is under 30p per day.

This discussion had gone on for a while when I followed a link on Twitter that led to the website of the great musical theatre composer & lyricist Jason Robert Brown, where he had posted a very similar discussion about sheet music. Brown, who is a bit of a hero in the niche world of musical theatre, decided enough was enough and went online to try and stem the tide of sheet music 'trading' online and defend his work and copyright. So he sent maybe 400 people advertising the sheet music for his songs online a polite message asking them to take their ad down, including his email address in case they had any questions. Many did, but one tenacious teen emailed back demanding to know what his problem was and questioning his identity and motives. What followed is a very interesting back-and-forth between two generations; the older artist that has worked hard for many years to build his reputation and career, and the young, confident teenager with a strong feeling of entitlement. The teen who argued with him, Eleanor, is fairly articulate and makes a very forceful case that many teens 'can't afford' sheet music, mp3 files and movies legally, and the big 'jerks' who created them shouldn't make a fuss about what is surely a drop in the ocean to them. The thing is, why should they let it go? JRB spent years writing beautiful, witty, perceptive songs that are sung in most musical theatre cabarets here and in the US. They are popular for a reason; his genius and effort. The fact that he is successful shouldn't mean he deserves to lose a massive cut of his potential salary from sneaky sharing and illegal downloads.

Perhaps because money has become less tangible over the years, with plastic, paypal, online banking and standing orders, it’s harder to teach your kids about value and saving. I remember having a solid concept of pocket money; if you saved it up for a few weeks you could hit Woolworths and splurge on that coveted toy (or later, Tammy Girl for that lusted-after shiny lycra top), and at school fetes and bring’n’buy sales myself and my sisters had a couple of pounds to spend wisely on treats. I remember clubbing together with my sister to the tune of £1.50 each for a Barbie Dream House and feeling the first high of a business partnership. Later, we would spend our hard-saved, if not earned, cash on CD singles and albums (back when the CD was still a futuristic novelty.) Jointly we bought All Saints’ first album, and I eyed her Britney Spears Baby One More Time single with envy, knowing instinctively that it was a landmark musical moment. Even now, I find loans, credit cards and overdrafts hugely daunting; not being fiscally minded, I don’t understand and therefore fear laying down money I don’t have. I am saving to self-fund a postgraduate course and money is on my mind most days. I do hope that is not the case my whole life, but with the media nosediving and people refusing to pay, who knows?

The point with Brown and Moran’s defence of their work is, while it may be a bit of a hassle or a dent in your pocket to fork out for their writing or composing skills, tough luck – they provided a product and completed a task which you are now reading/learning from/playing/singing. Cough up. The paywall will continue to be controversial (largely because of Rupert Murdoch’s unpopularity rather than the paper itself) as there are other strong print media options, but I do think at the very least people should buy their music, films and sheet music legally - and come on, an iTunes mp3 is around 79p, sometimes Amazon’s are as little as 29p. Those singles we scraped together for as starstruck teens were £1.99 including packaging – now we can whisk them on to our laptops seconds after they are released for less than a pound. If everyone stopped supporting musicians and writers, only the wealthy self-funders or the Katie Price-style overexposed could afford or would bother to put out their work. The message from the creative industries is clear – we’ve had enough, pay for your stuff.

But I want it NOW!

Friday, 2 July 2010


Ok, so I took the plunge and had my first MySingleFriend date last night. I was practically hyperventilating for the 24 hours preceding it, which is unusual for me. It just seemed such a strange medium to show up at a discussed time and place to spend an evening with, essentially, a stranger. Although I knew all this when I signed up, the reality was truly daunting. What if I couldn't think of anything to say? What if he took one look at me and quietly left? How would I escape if he looked like a gremlin and dressed like Jimmy Saville? All these questions and many crazier ones flitted through my mind during my work day.

Luckily Date 1 was great company, very sweet and had fabulous taste. A gorgeous specialist wine bar in South London, Artisan and Vine (highly recommended) a bottle of crisp white outside on a hot evening, and ceaseless conversation. I definitely talked about myself too much, but he had that 'good listener' air, so I fully blame him. No more to report as I certainly would never kiss and tell, but possible MSF Date 2 next week, so the saga continues.

Oh, and I looked nice I think. Skinny jeans, epic heels - he's basically twice my height - and a subtly curve-flattering top. I hope. I also didn't drink to much and overshare. I hope. Survived it though, and that's all we can expect when I was running on adrenaline, fear and alcohol alone. I must be a passable actress though as I certainly don't think that came over - although admittedly this could have been the glow of vino rather than actual success.

I feel like my glory days of dating are over a bit - at university I dated all the time and it was no more significant a mark in my calendar than heading to the pub with friends. I don't know where the nerves come from (apart from the Stranger Danger aspect), as I have been told I'm a good date - polite, interesting, hopefully not too self-involved or rambly, offer to chip in etc. But maybe my little heart has been thrown around a little too much in the last couple of years, and my attitude has changed. But if I break it down to the basics, the whole process shouldn't be too traumatic: I essentially like sharing food and drinks with people and finding out a bit about them, all the good or bad impressions are just surplus. So that's how I'm going to try and see it from now on. No strings (heart or otherwise) to tangle up.