It seems a very long time now since I first wrote something about how the pandemic had affected my situation as a freelancer (see below). We’re still not out of the woods but as I write this I have just finished my first visit to Egypt with a group of tourists since the pandemic began and life seems to be returning to something like normal. So, the piece I wrote in April 2020 certainly needs updating, and now that I have finally been able to resume this aspect of my work, along with most others, now seems a good moment to reflect.
Me – with mask on! – inside the tomb of Ramose (TT 55) in Luxor last week (Feb 2022). Thanks to Marie Best for the photo!
It’s almost two years since it became clear that COVID was going to be a blight on our lives. By the time of my first piece, I had had one trip to Egypt postponed and it seemed fairly clear that any others that were on the cards weren’t going to happen (they didn’t). Any lectures I was due to give in various places around the UK and beyond were also postponed indefinitely.
Opening slide from my very first talk online – seems a long time ago now!
However, lecturing online suddenly became something which I, and lots of others like me, could do to keep ourselves occupied when so many other things weren’t possible, and for which there was suddenly a substantial and enthusiastic audience. It quickly took over my life in fact, and it was very exciting. The audiences I could reach online were generally much bigger than any I would normally speak to in person. My second talk – ‘After Akhenaten’ – sold out three sessions and was attended by around 700 in total. Attendees included regulars on the Egyptology circuit, many of them friends I have known for years, but also many I was ‘meeting’ for the first time. And they came from far and wide including places where Egyptology lectures were simply never available in person – it was really great to hear from all those who were able to listen in to talks like this for the first time as no such thing would be available for them locally.
In some ways though it was harder to see and to know my audience. Not being able to see anyone I couldn’t recognise any faces that might have been familiar, and I knew that, potentially, anyone could be watching including colleagues who might well know more about that day’s subject than I did… The pressure not to make any crashing mistakes and to give a good account of myself really motivated me to raise my game: I made sure I was on top of my material and paid more attention to my presentations, making sure I included captions and image credits where necessary. Although the talks were always based on subjects I knew to some extent, putting together the material for the presentations almost always gave me the excuse to look at certain things in more detail, allowing me to learn a lot as I went along. I also created guides to ‘further reading’ after each talk, partly so that the entertainment didn’t have to stop at the end of the lecture but also partly as a way of covering any themes or details I had to leave out, and to provide my audience with all the information on which my interpretations were based and alternative explanations so that they could make up their own minds.
It gave me a huge lift to have so many people joining the talks and to feel the huge wave of enthusiasm for all this Egyptology that was suddenly available at a time when we all sorely needed distractions.
Opening slide from my talk on Imhotep, the first for which I charged a small fee
The next step for me – which seemed like a big risk at the time – was to see if the lectures would still be of interest if I were to charge a small fee. It was enormously rewarding to find that the numbers held up and that many people even said that I should be charging more! Since I first charged for one of my talks in June 2020 this has become my main source of income, and I really feel as though it saved me both financially and psychologically thanks to the good feelings that came with it.
There is another advantage to this which I hope will endure, pandemic or not: hosting my own lectures has not only allowed me to generate a little income but to my schedule too. One of the hardest things about the kind of freelance work I do it is that it’s mostly intermittent and unpredictable. I have periods when there’s loads of work and others when there is very little. But now, if I have the time and am a bit short of funds I can put a lecture in the diary and know I’ll have something to work on and a with any luck a bit of money to show for it.
Two years on I now have a mass of material in much better shape than my presentations were ever in before and have made recordings of several my talks available on YouTube – more content which I hope will be of value in its own right while also perhaps introducing more people to my work.
Recorded lectures waiting to be watched on YouTube!
In addition to my own lectures I’ve been very fortunate to have been invited to give talks online for various other groups in the UK and overseas. I’m very grateful that all involved were able to make the transition to online events helping those of us for whom public speaking is an important part of our work to carry on, albeit in a new way.
I also feel very lucky that when the pandemic began I had just finished working on a book – Egyptologists’ Notebooks – and despite COVID it was published on schedule in October 2020. So I had a new book to promote and lots of new material to use as the focus for new lectures. I also published a book for children – King Tutankhamun Tells All – in June 2021. Those also have helped to keep me busy.
The postponement of a Nile Cruise that was due to set sail in April 2020 gave me the idea for a ‘Virtual Nile Cruise’ – a daily photo series on social media taking in sites and monuments as one might encounter them on a journey up the Nile, which eventually took in 80 sites / days in the Nile Valley, Delta, Western Desert and Sudan. Aside from providing a bit more content and an excellent opportunity to keep in touch with my audience it gave me a great excuse to go back over all the thousands of photos I have taken in Egypt in over 40 visits since 1998, and having pulled out the best ones I now have a definitive and well-organised set. I can find things quickly at last!
A felucca on the Nile – the image Dr Kate Sheppard and I used to promote the Nile Cruise Then & Now podcast
Other projects have come my way too, including the ‘Nile Cruise Then & Now’ podcast with Dr Kate Sheppard, and the ‘Playing in the Past Project’ with Kate and Gemma Renshaw which explored the ways in which the video game Assassins Creed: Origins could be used as an educational tool.
Visiting a Theban temple of the late Ptolemaic Period in Assassin’s Creed: Origins
Throughout the two years I have been incredibly fortunate to have the support an encouragement of so many people who have joined the talks, watched something I’ve been in on TV, read one of my books, or seen the photos I’ve posted online and responded with positive comments.
It’s been lovely to know that there is an audience out there for what I do. Getting offers of work enables me to earn a living but it also helps remind me that there is a point to what I do, that there’s value in what I have to offer. I’m really grateful for all the supportive messages I’ve received in the last couple of years, and extra specially thankful to all those of you who have gone above and beyond by sending contributions of money to support what I do, and also books. Putting together so many lectures in the last year or so has meant making more use of my own small library than I have ever needed to do before and being able to augment it with exactly the things I needed thanks to your generosity has been of great practical benefit but, again, just helped give me such a lift. Thank you!
What comes next?
False dawns and dashed hopes have been a feature of this pandemic but dare I say it 2022 is shaping up to be better year than the previous two. In fact I managed to get back to Egypt – for two days’ filming – in October 2021, and In January 2022 I spent a week in London making a documentary for HistoryHit.
DoP Milo after hours in the Egyptian sculpture gallery at the British Museum while filming for HistoryHit
Following two weeks of visits to sites in the Luxor area with groups from Ancient World Tours (details here) I will be back at home now for another week or so before flying out again to join another group. Altogether I have three more tours coming up in the next few weeks and have work on three more films lined up as well. And I have another book for children coming out in May (watch this space!). I also have a number of talks in the diary, both in person and online. The summer is likely to be quieter and at that point I plan to give a couple new talks of my own, and perhaps to make a few more recordings available too.
Thanks for sticking with me, it’s really nice to think that I still have a freelance career despite the last two years and I’m not sure I could have done it without your help. Again, THANK YOU!
ORIGINAL ‘Support My Work’ text:
UPDATE 20 May 2020: I’ve been incredibly touched by the response to this page since I first posted it at the end of April. You’ve sent donations of money and books, and messages of support, advice and encouragement. It’s helped keep my spirits up, and off-set the loss of earnings; I have now heard from the government that I will be eligible for a grant from the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme so that will help further still. It has all been enormously helpful and moreover, encouraging. Thank you to all of you who responded however you’ve been able to, it’s all been very much appreciated.
At the start of the lockdown I was thinking that these online activities – lectures, #virtualnilecruise etc – would help keep us all going for a few weeks until things got back to normal, but it now seems likely ‘normal’ is still a long way away, and may never return completely, and that ‘lockdown lectures’ like these might be a part of a ‘new normal’. It’s for this reason that I’m beginning to experiment with charging for online talks; I will need to bring money in if I’m going to continue – as I’d really like to – and it’s your thoughtful and generous responses that have persuaded me that it might be possible. Thank you!
I’ve written a little more about my plans and how I got to this point here.
Lockdown, lost earnings
I’ve been self-employed for 3 and a half years now and I earn my living from writing, TV, lecturing and leading tours to Egypt and elsewhere. I also earn an honorarium from my work for the Robert Anderson Trust. The lockdown has changed things for me as it has for everyone. I’ve lost some paid work – a tour to Egypt, a few lectures and a TV project. This has meant I’ve had a bit of extra time to work on making the best of the situation, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to give a few lectures online, to lead a ‘virtual Nile cruise’, and in general to share more via social media than I would have done otherwise, knowing that there are probably more people out there with the time and inclination to indulge their interests in Egyptology than there would be normally. This has been great fun, but so far I haven’t taken any steps towards trying to recover any of my lost income, and I couldn’t carry on working like this without earning any money for very long.
Online lectures – details here
Being very English I don’t like to ask, but it’s been suggested to me that anyone who appreciates the lectures etc might like to support their friendly neighbourhood Egyptologist…
I’m by no means the worst affected by the current crisis: I’m healthy, safe, I’m with my loved ones, and certainly have plenty to occupy me. There are plenty of people who need support much more than I do, those in the NHS (to support NHS Charities Together go here), those who are homeless (go here) or struggling to feed themselves or their families (here) , and those working at historic sites and monuments for whom a lack of income from visitors threatens their ability to protect these vital parts of our shared heritage (see the campaign here) – to name but four that have been in my mind.
But in case you were wondering if or how you could help a freelance Egyptologist, here are a few suggestions.
My first book, Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt is available now in print and e-book form (via Amazon, or your local bookshop), and my next one Egyptologists’ Notebooks will be out in September 2020 and is available now for pre-order (Amazon.co.uk and Blackwells in the UK, Amazon.com in the US). Buying copies for yourself or your friends and family really helps, as does pre-ordering – this encourages sellers to buy in more stock from the publisher, and to do more to promote the book to readers. Leaving a review – on Amazon, GoodReads and elsewhere – can really help encourage people to buy books as well (unless you really didn’t enjoy what you read I which case I imagine you probably wouldn’t be here…).
A small contribution
If you’d like to show your support by making a small financial contribution you can do so via PayPal.Me. So far I have avoided charging any fee for online lectures but putting together and giving talks takes time, and I now pay for a Zoom subscription for hosting webinars; ordinarily I would be paid a small lecturer’s fee, and I often take the opportunity to sell books afterwards – neither of these things are available to me at the moment. I’d rather keep the lectures free for now, but if you’d like to show your support by making a small contribution, I‘d be really grateful. If the lectures weren’t free I’d probably charge somewhere between £2 and £5 (I think?).
In order to do my work, I need books! I’m very lucky that in 20 years of studying and working in Egyptology I’ve amassed a decent collection of my own, and I also have access to the collection of the late Dr Robert Anderson, former honorary Secretary of the EES. But I don’t have everything I need and ordinarily I would need to supplement what I have at home with visits to the British Library, EES and elsewhere. If you’d like to help add to the collection a list of titles on my ‘wish list’ is here.
UPDATE JULY 2021: Thank you so much to all of you who have sent books for my library in the last few months – it’s been so helpful with my work prepping lectures, writing and answering questions. I have tried to thank everyone concerned but parcels occasionally arrive without any information about the sender so if you haven’t had a reply please accept my apologies and feel free to drop me a line to let me know what you sent! I have been updating my wish list on Amazon.co.uk – it’s a great way to make a note of books that I think will be useful! – and I have also now added a list of Amazon.fr (here) as I’ve been coming across quite a few titles lately that are only listed on the French version of the site. You should find this works in the same way as the UK – version you can log-in with your usual account etc and pay using the same methods. Thank you again for your support!
Thanks for reading this. As I said above, I don’t like asking, and I’m not expecting to get anything from this. Any and every response to the above will be very, very welcome. If you have any questions or thoughts, please let me know via this page. Thank you!
One thought on “The freelancer and the pandemic – two years on”
Do hope you are well.
Would love to read this – please may I have the password?