Deborah Orr: Jersey is an unwilling star in this drama

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The Independent Online

I doubt that there has ever been a performance of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes that has not found some sort of disturbing echo in the news of the day. But that didn't make it any more comfortable this week to watch Opera North's touring production of this demanding exploration of child abuse in a small and tight community.

Any failure to catch the contemporary resonance of the themes was hammered home with the sudden elevation to punning significance of John the apprentice's leitmotif jersey. Grimes kept his boys in a fisherman's hut, when they were not out at sea, and the townspeople conspired to know and to not know what happened in there. They shunned Grimes, and they talked of lynching, But they didn't stop further abuse, either through sympathetic intervention or harshly bombastic dissociation. In Jersey, the island, over these past few days, the exact themes of the opera have been playing out around the hidden darkness of a cellar. Concern about the exploitation of children has been with us for a long time, as is confirmed by the fact that Britten's libretto was taken from an 18th-century poem, "The Borough", by George Crabbe.

What became clear this week in the darkness of Sadler's Wells is that society is well used to greeting the issue with noisy and self-regarding hypocrisy as well. Such criticism as Britten's masterpiece ever receives tends to focus on the fact that we know little of the eponymous anti-hero's motives or even his actions – some productions, and some speculations, hint more at a sexual element than others. All we do know about Grimes is that he is violent, capricious, stubborn and self-pitying. But that is the point of the opera. This alone should be enough to prompt the community to protect children from him in the most practical way they can.

Advocating for the child ought to be far more important than either punishing or understanding the perpetrator. But it isn't. More easily grasped is the reason why John the apprentice is silent, while the previous apprentice is just a corpse from the past.

Abused children are not in a position to express their fear and their suffering, at the time, or sometimes, ever. In Jersey, at the moment, news reports claim that "significant finds" in the hidden cellars may provide real evidence of the stories survivors have told.

Their own testimony is not "real evidence", even when they are still around to give it.

Anyway, it all went on so long ago that neither they nor others are likely now to be saved.

The really significant entity in Britten's opera – the "star" if you will – is the community itself, as was communicated so powerfully in the choreography of Phyllida Lloyd's production.

Likewise, in Jersey, the victims of the alleged abuse, and the perpetrators too, are shadowy projections, while the focus of interest, and the main speaking parts, fall to and on the people of the island – what they knew, what they didn't know, what they covered up and what they could be excused for remaining in ignorance of.

In this unwelcome drama, the people of the island are the main player, unwilling as they may be.

The people of Aldeburgh, the village that presented Crabbe with the incident on which he based his poem, and also Britten's home, are deeply ambivalent about the way their town is portrayed in this great work.

In Aldeburgh, as in Jersey, there is a feeling of being singled out unfairly. It's a sad though understandable reaction, as unhelpful as the pathology of Grimes, which it echoes.

The desire to locate abuse of children somewhere else, in a hut, in a cellar, in a village, on an island, is just another way of creating the distance that allows such cruelty to thrive. The themes in Peter Grimes, and in Jersey, are unfortunately universal. The wish to particularise them, and keep them somehow at bay through geography, is part of the trouble.

Anorexia is an age-old issue

The British Dietetic Association has warned that anorexia, typically viewed as an illness of early womanhood, is increasingly being diagnosed among the over-50s. It is more frequently being diagnosed among men, as well, but that's not such a good story, as it can't be illustrated with an accusatory photograph of Sharon Stone, pictured left.

Anorexia is a serious psychological illness, with devastating physical effects, so one doesn't want to make light of it. However, when the woman from the National Centre for Eating Disorders takes it upon herself to declare that in the good old days "people simply grew old gracefully", there are some grounds for rebuttal.

The BDA is more circumspect in its discussion of the phenomenon. It suggests: "While it could be a question of better diagnosis and treating cases in these groups, it may reflect a more general demographic trend." Certainly, there is more pressure on women to look attractive when they are older, and in the affluent West attractive does mean slender. But some of this, at least, surely reflects the fact that middle-aged women are now more visible because their lives are more dynamic. They are taken seriously enough for their health problems to be sympathetically scrutinised.

In those good old days there were plenty of skinny older women. They used to be described as "frail" or as "bird-like".

The thin, querulous old lady was a staple cliché, even when she was still pretty young. If it got to the point of medical diagnosis, usually after hospitalisation, such women would be described as "malnourished" or "starving", and it would be revealed that for some unspecified reason they lived on a bowl of soup a day, or some other equally punitive little regime, while their 18 cats got pan-fried liver morning, noon and night.

No one really cared what was going on in the minds of these hunger strikers at all. They were simply the short-lived objects of repulsed and embarrassed pity. I'm not quite saying here that diagnosis of middle-aged anorexia is "progress". But the idea that things were all fine and dandy when older women were out of sight and out of mind is, quite definitely, not one that should be accepted without question.

Sorry, but Ken is not getting my vote

A bossy letter was this week published in The Guardian, signed by 100 people who feel it is their right and duty to tell left-leaning types whom they should be voting for. If we're Londoners, apparently, we've got to vote for Ken Livingstone for mayor again, because if we don't, Boris Johnston will get in. It must be great to grasp How Polling Works, and be able to come up with such prescient feats of analysis.

In the next election, no doubt with clothes pegs on our noses again, we have to vote for Labour, even if the past 10 years have rendered our sons illiterate, our mothers dead from C. difficile, our neighbourhood a teenage shooting gallery, and our personal finances a time bomb. If we don't, the Tories will get in, and we'll only have ourselves to blame.

Who do these people think they are? And why, if they are so clever, don't they tell the people running things how it's important that they should earn our votes, instead of suggesting that as far as their 100 wise heads are concerned, that relationship is negotiable or simply unbreakable?

They could tell Livingstone, for a start, that if he doesn't at least begin to feign some respect for democracy, then democracy will rear up and bite him. The sight of that cocky little demagogue rudely insulting and berating the London Assembly, to which he is supposed to answer, is enough to persuade me that the man has no understanding of, or respect for, the concept of accountability.

He's the Mayor, and if he thinks the constraints on the governance on the city he's supposed to care for so much are so pathetic, then where are his alternative suggestions? He has none, because the situation suits him, and he's too arrogant even to conceal his contempt for the system over which he presides.

For that reason alone, he won't be getting my vote, whatever the consequences. The idea that this is my fault and not his, as espoused by the 100 signers, is a big part of why democratic accountability has been so eroded in Britain, and why it's so hard to find a party to support.

* The much-desired Australian-style points system has finally been adopted by Britain, and the only widespread complaint about it is that it doesn't go nearly far enough. My understanding of the situation in Australia is that the indigenous population lives in the places the ruling immigrant classes have little interest in, because they are too far from the beach, wailing in their abject misery about their stolen land rights. I therefore counsel those most enthusiastic about the Antipodean way of dealing with such matters to be careful what they wish for.

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