Tuesday, 6 September 2016

How to Stuff Three Hundred Goody Bags

Subtitled: Please feel free to learn from our mistakes! A light-hearted look at just one aspect of conference preparation.

So, my weekend was a rather frantic one, helping with the running of the Historical Novel Society 2016 Conference. It seemed to go very well, with lots of positive feedback (check out the Twitter comments for #HNSOxford16!)  and much general enjoyment. However, there were a few fraught hours before we opened for registration on Friday evening, not least when we were attempting to get 300 goody bags stuffed as quickly as possible.

In case it is of any help to anyone, here are some lessons that we learned, some more quickly than others.

1. It is a really good idea to know exactly how many you have of each item. 
We guesstimated how many books there were, started off by putting four books in each bag, and ultimately had a couple of our fabulous volunteer helpers retrieving two or three from the early bags so that we had *any* books for the later ones. Our guesstimate of the pens, however, was seriously under, so there were quite a few left over by the end. Useful for the FoH team, though.

2. Spread out. Really, really, s p r e a d  o u t  the piles you will be selecting your goodies from. 
We didn't. We tried to fit everything onto one long row of tables, despite the fact there were plenty of other tables around. The piles fell over. People stood by the several piles trying to select one of each for the bag they were filling but preventing anyone else from accessing them. Gradually we moved blocks of postcards, or half the bookmarks, onto a different table, but those filling the bags didn't always remember to take the newly-circuitous route so some bags missed out on some cards/flyers/bookmarks. In retrospect, we should have used at least twice as many tables to set out the selections from. At least.

3. Try to figure out a system before you start.
We had a system, to be fair. But then we introduced a new system. Then we refined it slightly. More than once. And not everyone heard every refinement, because it was, you know, a friendly volunteer activity and there was chatting. So some changes were taken on board more (ahem!) rigorously than others. 

4. Not everyone needs to be on bag-filling duty.
We all started by filling bags, but it quickly become apparent that this was impractical. There just wasn't room. So a few people moved onto assembling subsets of goodies for handing on to those with the bags. This was particularly useful for bookmarks - which frequently stuck together - and postcards.

5. Work out beforehand where you will be storing the filled goody bags.
We decided a nice long wall was a good collection point, but after filling about half of our bags, thought maybe we shouldn't block access to a fire extinguisher. At which point, a whole load of bags needed to be moved. At least it was a good opportunity to check some of the bags for more books for redistribution! 

It should be noted we did get all our goody bags filled and stored, and by the end of the conference - in fact, by Sunday morning - they had all gone. So something went right... ;-)

Big thanks to all those involved in both the stuffing of the bags and the provision of both the bags themselves and their contents, plus a huge congratulations to the organisers of the conference. The bar appears to have been raised!

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

It's a bit of truism, to be fair, but sometimes it's worth bearing in mind.

The news is full today of young people who have achieved fantastic results in their 'A' levels, including one who now has a tally of nine As andA*s. For lots of these students, their immediate plans of university or other training can now proceed; they've reached the particular hurdle their careers had been set and they've cleared it. Their lives will change but largely in ways they had expected.

For some, however, the news was not so good. They worked hard - sometimes possibly not as hard as they should/could have done - but for whatever reason, the grades they needed just haven't happened. Having been in that position, I do know how it can feel. I felt sick. Gutted. Unable to speak. My world had ended. My results were so catastrophically awful there was no point even trying to go through Clearing.

But fast-forward to nearly five years later, and I was collecting a degree in a subject that I hadn't even studied for that first disastrous set of results (an advantage of going to the local sixth form college for resits, with the timetable limitations that included), coming close to getting a First. It was something I couldn't have envisaged happening when I failed my 'A' levels first time round. I ended up doing a much broader degree course too, which in hindsight was much better for me.

There's another oft-quoted cliché, 'When one door closes, another door opens.' When you've just collected the letter that says you've failed, you're probably more interested in closing your bedroom door and sinking into a private gloom than thinking about other opportunities. But they're out there. Cunningly disguised as 'what failures do' on occasion, but take a look. You might be surprised at what you find.

So congratulations to all of you, whatever your result. Today is the first day of the rest of your life and the beginning of a new journey - even if at the moment you have no idea where it will take you.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

In honour of my father's birthday

My father would have been 85 today. He was a softly-spoken man, who read widely and almost continuously, and listened to (mostly) classical music at what felt like full volume. I say mostly, as he introduced Led Zeppelin to me, after hearing them on the Radio Three programme 'Sounds Interesting', and I first came across Gryphon courtesy of my father. More usually, though, it was some variant of classical music that rattled the rafters in our house, sometimes as part of a game we played in which I had to identify first the period, then the nationality and finally the identity of the composer. I did quite well at this game, but it helped that I had a reasonable idea from an early age of what he had in his record collection and therefore what the possible limitations were.

Saturdays followed a very regular routine in our household. Various chores needed to be done, but my mother always ensured that my father was able to watch the TV at 4 pm, when the wrestling came on. It's not something I ever developed a taste for, and I suppose there must be some wrestling as part of the Olympics, but I won't be watching it, even if Team GB are potential medal winners. But it was part of who my father was and part of my childhood.

So happy birthday, Dad, and here's a poem sort of about you.

Tea with my father

Saturdays, it was always the wrestling on tv
             - the only sport he liked -
and then, after the football results have been intoned,
milk-drenched poached mushrooms
on toast made under the grill and enhanced by the risk,
and weekend tea, made in the teapot,
aromatic loose-leaf Ceylon black
with a spoonful of gunpowder,
warming the pot first of course;

afterwards, arguments over the chores,
clear or put away, wash or dry,
and who has to tip the tea-leaves over
a distant rose-bush that retains its glory
for a sunnier day.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Dangers of a Little Knowledge

So, I finally bit the bullet and sang a solo in a BCOS (Bicester Choral and Operatic Society) concert for the first time at the weekend. It seemed to go ok, I didn't drop the microphone, and I didn't forget the words.

But part of me finds it odd that it was so hard. I mean, at university I was in a band as keyboard player and lead singer, I performed with relatively little nervousness, I even had a green face for a Halloween Party we performed at (yes, there is photographic proof of that, no, I will not be sharing it on Facebook). What changed? Why am I now so frightened of performing in public?

Mainly, I suspect, it's down to a general increase in my level of social anxiety. I don't know if that's an age thing or an effect of modern society, so that other people have noticed a similar increase in themselves. And I also suffer from the typical British disease of being unable to take a compliment.

But I suspect also that the other change between then and now is that I started having singing lessons.

My first singing teacher was an American-Italian opera singer in New York, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, took me through a mixture of Italian arias and American jazz, both of them unexplored genres for me. Suddenly, the length of the notes, the shape of the vowels and other technical things like that, mattered. It turned out there was a whole lot to learn about the previously simple act of breathing. Singing was no longer a carefree thing that I could just launch into, it required concentration.

And now I was beginning to know what it should sound like.

For some people, that's ok, it's a marker that they're aware of but they're not concerned if they don't reach it. For me, not so much. Being a perfectionist can be a wonderful thing, but it can also slow you down. Learning to accept less than perfection is really really hard! Even if other people aren't bothered that what is proffered is less than perfect, I still know that it's not what it could be.

I know I'm not an expert when it comes to singing, but I know enough now to recognise some of my errors. And because I know I'm not an expert, part of me also knows there must be other errors that I haven't yet spotted. That knowledge, combined with all the errors, just makes me cringe inside. Which then puts me off performing.

One way of dealing with it, I am finding, is to set different goals. So this time, rather than the goal 'sing the song perfectly' which was never going to be attained, the goal was 'sing the song in public'. It's not a qualitative goal so there's no option for debate about it at home. I've done it. Tick.

I don't know what my next goal should be. Possibly something completely unrelated to singing, though I am back having singing lessons and cringing most of the way through them (poor teacher!). But Francesca Luel, wherever you are now, what a dangerous course we embarked on together all those years ago!

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Our Face to the rest of the world: another political post

There is a meme doing the rounds already. The PM wrote F.Off next to Boris Johnson's name and some civil servant misunderstood. It would be funny if it wasn't serious.

I struggle to understand her rationale on this appointment. I don't dispute his intelligence, for all his cuddly appearance. But he is a maverick. At a time when most of the rest of the western world is already questioning our sanity in voting for Brexit, surely we need a steady pair of hands to help our relations with the rest of the world. Steady is not the same as bizarre.

I've come to two possible explanations. One is that she is appointing the most outrageous cabinet possible, prior to resigning abruptly as she leaves them (and us) to stew in the catastrophic outcome of the referendum. Alternatively, she has appointed him for a, say, three month period, so that the Americans can see what happens when you give power to a complete loon, realise the error of their Trumpish ways, and then she can sack him and put someone slightly less erratic in place.

I'm beginning to think that leaving the country will not be sufficient. I may have to investigate leaving the planet...

Thursday, 23 June 2016

On Politicians rather than Politics (Perhaps)

There are lots of sayings about politicians. I googled and quickly found 'Politicians are like sperm; one in a million turns out to be a human being' (I haven't found the origin of that one yet). Or from Nikita Kruschev, 'Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.' I don't know how it was phrased in Russian, but evidently it translates to 'politicians are globally useless'.

General thoughts along the lines of 'Those who want to govern shouldn't be allowed to' pervade my understanding of politicians. The behaviour of the Republican party in the US, and Donald Trump in particular, would have most of the Founding Fathers spinning in their graves, should there be any substance there left to spin. When elected representatives have to resort to a sit-in to have an important topic discussed, and are then threatened with arrest, something is badly wrong.

Our own Esteemed Leaders aren't a whole lot better. Promises that are rarely kept, 'facts' that turn out to have rather a lot of small print that undermines them completely, and statements that could be interpreted as incitement to violence as a legitimate next step for the dissatisfied. It's enough to make one weep. Or at the very least, become extremely cynical.

I could never be a politician myself. Hopeless at confrontation, I don't take rejection well (I've even stopped sending out Facebook friend requests in case they're turned down!) and I couldn't put up with the boorish behaviour that appears to be all too common these days.  I know deep down there must be some decent politicians, but they are few and far between. The death of Jo Cox is a great loss to British politics, as she appears to have been principled and with the mental strength to put up with the metaphorical crap that flies around, but I can only hope that others step forward to take her place defending the weak and standing up to corporate bullies.

Fingers crossed for good results (from my perspective) of both the key political events going on today. The young people of the USA desperately need gun reform laws and the young people of the UK need a future unblighted by belligerent neighbours. The politicians seem to have little to do with either outcome, caught up as they appear to be in personalities rather than democracy.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

To Change or not To Change, that is the question

The first play I ever directed was a school production of Macbeth. Luckily, there are very few stage directions in Shakespeare, so directors don't have a little voice telling them how they should be doing the play. We staged it in a way that worked for us, cut out a large section of Act 4 that was more for the benefit of the 17th century audience anyway, and the kids did a stonking good version of a well-known piece. (A number of the cast had an exam the following term in which they had to write an essay on a play they'd studied; they did brilliantly because, having performed it, they now understood the play very thoroughly.)

I've looked at scripts that specify 'no cuts or alterations' (this included Oliver!, in which some of the chorus numbers are, frankly, a little long, especially for a cast entirely of pre-teens; is it possible we forgot to do a verse or two? But we didn't specifically make any cuts). From an amateur director's point of view, they're annoying. The chance of ending up with anything more than a clone or a pale shadow of a professional production is pretty slim. I know in cinema there are homage films that recreate their subjects frame by frame, but generally movie remakes try to do something a little different with the initial topic.

On stage, it's more fun for a director and cast, and better for an audience too, if there is room for interpretation that can throw an interesting light on the key points of a dramatic piece. Carmen set in 1936 instead of 1820 emphasises the unchanged attitudes to women in 20th century Spain, for example. A reinterpretation of a dramatic piece is just a different form of textual intervention.

Most writers know that once a piece of writing has been handed over for performance, it is likely to change, and it's something they just have to deal with. I've had a few pieces performed, most close to the text, one radically different that I personally felt spoiled it, but once a cast has it, it's the property of the cast and audience - because of course they also influence the performance. And it may end up being nothing like it was on the page.

So I was bemused by the reviewer on IMDb who didn't like the recent Midsummer Night's Dream on BBC because the text had been changed. He had studied it at school, loved the play, had seen many versions of it over the years, but took exception to a couple of the changes (I won't specify in case you haven't seen it yet!), on the grounds that "this wondrous play has all the magical ingredients in its original form which already provides plenty of scope for a variety of interpretations; so this work need no updating or unexpected twists to bring it to a new audience." (Given how little Shakespeare is actually studied in schools nowadays, I think it *precisely* needed updating to bring it to a new audience. And jolly good updating it was too - really, if you haven't seen it yet, you should. Whether you're a Dr Who fan or not.) I find it hard to believe that the reviewer hadn't encountered other changes in all the multiple versions he claimed to have seen.

Let's face it, if you know anything about Shakespeare, or even if you've just been watching Upstart Crow on TV, you'll be aware that Shakespeare originally wrote Titania to be played by a man. Everything on the page can be transformed by the time it reaches the stage - just do it for a reason. If it's a good one, the audience will get it. And if they don't - maybe you weren't bold enough with your changes.