Friday, 11 November 2016

Armistice Day, a village poem.

Armistice Day

One of the school children coughed,
a visceral gurgle, exploring
the echo such a sound would make.
The rustle of an anorak as his friend
nudged him, a soft swoosh as he
lowered his gloved hand, trying
to resume his watchful pose.

Several cars went past. They might have
slowed, I couldn't tell, but at least
there was no insistent throbbing from
the radio, no distant bass booming
from within the captive space.  Perhaps
they had turned the radio off, or
perhaps the radio was silent too.

Overhead, branches swayed, the breeze
lifting the few remaining leaves, pressing
them to drop, die at last. A gentle airborne battle,
sending the survivors scuttling, diving from
their lofty positions to crackle to powder
underfoot, the annual explosion of colour
reduced to compost.

There was a crunch of gravel as the
lady from the Legion shifted
her weight, angling one arthritic hip
without any creaking that we could hear,
though I saw the wince of pain
explode across her face, shattering
any illusions about survival.

Someone must have looked at their watch,
or silently counted hippopotamuses.

The two minutes was up.

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.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Carmen - The Musical

Today is the first day of the week we've been working towards since at least January - though behind the scenes, work has been going on much longer than that. Rehearsals began in January, though, so for the majority, that was when it all started.

Carmen - the Musical: all your favourite tunes from the opera with none of the tedious recitative. And it's in English. Audiences have been slow to commit, but finally ticket sales have reached an almost acceptable level (though we will still make a loss).

From a director's point of view (or, at least, co-director), that's not my problem. My/our problem has been making the show fantastic. Which it should be. However, once the orchestra starts and the curtain goes up, it's pretty much out of our control. We can only hope.... So here is a poem I wrote back in March, that sort of sums it up. For those who don't understand the final stanza, you must have missed all the BCOS Lego-oriented publicity posts on Facebook. And get a ticket. It will be fab.

Unspoken rehearsal fears from a director

Our Carmen is a voluptuous Sevillano siren,
coy looks from the corner of her eye
leading every soldier on
and several women.

Don Jose is debonair; he dithers between
home goodness and luscious temptation,
his high notes rivalling theirs,
his despair palpable.

Gorgeous Escamillo flirts with the entire cast,
trailing them all in his bloody wake.
He acts the bar-room braggart,
a disguised gentleman.

Even the cigarette girls are assigned characters,
gang membership to feed their later fight,
backgrounds they can animate,
gossip silently shared.

PR on Facebook, though, is full of Lego figures,
their features frozen, a yellow grimace
for comic effect. For now.
Stage-fright can do strange things.

© Nikki Fine
March 2016

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Shopping military-fashion

It's the second half of May. It's raining. It's the UK. And I'm wondering if I should switch the heating back on....

Unseasonal weather is becoming the norm these days. Unless summer was the three days of warmth and sunshine we had a fortnight ago, and autumn has just started early. Either way, I'm beginning to regret chucking out all the overly large winter clothes I had in the wardrobe.

Yes, they were too big for me. Yes, I am in the fortunate position of being able to afford to buy replacements in more suitable sizes. But are there any warm clothes in the shops? Retailers seem locked, despite the weather, in the traditional seasonal cycle. By the time they finally get round to putting more autumnal clothes out on the racks, I could have knitted myself a jumper (and I'm a very slow knitter). It doesn't help that I am restricted somewhat in the local shops available, and risking the traffic complications of the nearest city fills me with dread.

However, I have a shopping trip to a mega-metropolis planned, going on the train. The operative word here is 'planned'. I am already looking online at which shops will available, trying to work out what to look for where, based largely on their web-presence. But this seems terribly clinical. It's not the same as the browsing round the shops I used to do years and years ago, when I had little or no money and it was nearly all window-shopping. This is more like a military campaign, although my shopping partner-in-crime and I have not yet worked out where we're going for lunch, or even at what time. Perhaps she has already decided that we won't stop for lunch.

At least if I compile a list of requirements and expectations before heading out, I may actually acquire some of them. Though I shall be surprised if I manage to find some decent winter clothing...

Saturday, 7 May 2016

What your musical tastes say about your personality

A recent item on BBC Breakfast looked at how our tastes in music reflect our personality. The guest, who was promoting his book, had asked the four presenters (two on the sofa, the weather and the business) to make a list of their top 10 favourite tracks. He then commented on their personalities, based on the songs chosen, without knowing who had given which list. The presenters didn't seem unhappy about it.

Now, it may just be me, but I would have thought that one's taste in music must obviously reflect one's personality to some extent, so the initial premise was not of much interest to me. The harder thing to contemplate was my top 10 favourite tracks. So much depends on my mood! However, I've given it some thought, and I present, in no particular order and sometimes with illuminating comment, my current top 10 (ask me again when it's cold and pouring with rain and the list will probably be different)....

1. Eurythmics - Right By Your Side. Upbeat song, almost impossible not to sing along with it, and the steel drum instrumentation just brings in a warm Caribbean feeling as well.

2. Pharrell Williams - Happy. Daft lyrics, but almost contagious upbeat rhythm; waiting at traffic lights, I'm pretty certain adjacent drivers have wondered what on earth I'm doing as I clap and click along with it in addition to the singing. Sedentary dancing almost (and you all know I don't dance).

3. Peter Gabriel - Signal to Noise. The first part, with the lyrics, is fairly unremarkable, but once the instrumental starts, with the strings gradually getting higher, the volume needs to be turned up full so that the sound can completely envelop you. Just fabulous!

4. Arvo Part - Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. This is grief in an audible form, physically heart-wrenching. The funereal bell, the slow cascading strings, this is another one for full volume, though possibly not appropriate party music....

5. Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody. The first Queen song I got to know was 'Killer Queen', which I also love, but this one has great lyrics *and* some musical complexity. 

6. Genesis - Mad Man Moon. It was around when I discovered this song that I realised that for me, good lyrics were important as well as good music. 

7. Durufle - Agnus Dei. This was first time I had come across a really good alto solo line in a requiem, so much so that I've already told people I want it playing at my funeral. Planning ahead, folks!

8. Stephen Schwarz - For Good. This duet from Wicked is not only a beautiful song, but has achieved a personal resonance for me, listening to it on the way back from the funeral of an old friend and hearing the lyric "you'll be with me, like a handprint on my heart." I've got past the tears now, but I think of him every time I hear the song still, with one of those good pains.

9. Fats Waller (and others) - Ain't Misbehavin'. Another song with personal resonance, I surprise- serenaded Rod at our renewal of vows with this song, complete with harp accompaniment (kudos to the harpist, all those accidentals were a pain for her!). He's away again at the moment, so check out those lyrics, dear: No one to talk with, all by myself, No one to walk with, I'm happy on the shelf, Ain't misbehavin', savin' my love for you. (I'm not including the cats in this.)

10. David Bowie - Life on Mars. Nearly anything by David Bowie would make the list, and some days I could easily compile a list entirely of David Bowie, but today, I'm picking this one. 

So that's the current list. What does that say about my personality, I wonder. Probably that I should be on medication, but maybe tomorrow's list would be ok.... 

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Cuba: Is it going well?

Cuba has been in the news this morning: lots about the recent visit by President Obama and then, last night, a performance by the Rolling Stones. Everyone was very excited, though possibly more by the latter than the former.

I'm pleased for the Cubans that their isolation appears to be coming to an end. Having visited last month, I have seen for myself the effects of both the embargo and their self-imposed exile from most of the rest of the world. But it is a beautiful country, with willing people who are proud, justifiably so, of what they have achieved in spite of such a lengthy quarantine. I hope their transition to the 21st century goes smoothly, but I worry that they risk losing much of value in the process. This poem, written while I was still in Cuba in February, tries to express a little of my concern, recognise what the revolution achieved, yet acknowledge the existing problems their poverty in a modern world has caused.
Portrait of Che Guevara on the side of the Interior Ministry building in Havana

Hasta la victoria, siempre (A Love Song to Cuba)

¿Vas bien, Cuba?
Homes for all, beggars included
(even the street artist, tourist photo opportunity,
is a government employee)
Children birthed, jabbed, educated at state expense
(yet want an easy life, Coke and Nikes, 
Land now loaned, no lien, just dues
(you sell the obligatory 90% back, 
keep the other 20% for your own)
Cigars still drawn from hand-picked leaves
(the double-bent men octagenarians, 
no up-and-coming successors)
Vitamin R permeates 
(a joke? Rum is cheaper 
than clean water)

Is this the victory Che wanted?

And if it's still socialismo o muerte
be warned:
The Americans are coming.

© Nikki Fine

February 2016

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Being forced offline in Cuba

Last week, having a fantastic holiday in Cuba, on an excellent tour with Explore and part of a lovely group of people, I discovered that once we had left the airport, I was effectively offline. I had posted that we had arrived (though possibly not the suitcases, as they took rather a long time to come through) and then that was it. There was no 3G on Cuba that I ever found and the wifi offered by the hotel was at best erratic (and not free!).

Initially it was almost liberating. There was no need to post photos of the hotel room or to check in at each mojito-stop. There was no point wondering if there had been a reply to any of the numerous emails sent out the previous week, or any fresh issues. No BBC news website to haunt (although, to be fair, we did once accidentally find BBC World news on the TV in the room). No weather forecast to check. We concentrated on the others in the group and the sights and experiences around us - a sort of group mindfulness, I suppose.

But as the week went on, I began to develop a mild anxiety. What if something serious happened and no-one realised that I didn't know about it? (I regularly worry that something serious might happen, so that aspect of it was not unusual.) What if one of the things I had delegated while away was forgotten because I hadn't reminded them nearer the time? What if the lovely people looking after our pussycats had had a catastrophe and the cats were starving, unattended? I had a phone signal so sent a text about one of the issues  - it took a while, as normally it was an imessage number, so the phone had to realise that it couldn't send an imessage before offering me the option of a text. There was no response, and I didn't know if the message hadn't actually been sent after all (despite the phone assuring me to the contrary), hadn't been received, hadn't been replied to, or I just couldn't get the reply. I tried to put it out of my mind; I had done what I could. (I went through the same rigmarole again later in the week. Slow learner, perhaps.)

But beyond my over-actively imagined worries, I did begin to feel a little cut off. I have a few friends. I may not see them every day, or even every week, but I stay in touch with them via Facebook and email and it means that even though my work as a writer is fairly solitary, I still feel part of a global community. Suddenly, that entire community had been torn away from me. I was no longer sharing in my friends' lives, seeing the motivational comments that we often post, or the photos and jokes that have made us all click on the like button. It was a very strange feeling. It has made me wonder how I would have coped as a writer in the days before the internet, amongst other things.

It also makes me wonder how the younger generation, who are even more connected than I am (to generalise splendidly!) will cope in Cuba until access to the internet is improved. And that, of course, along with the imminent arrival of many more American tourists and their expectations, raises a whole load of other issues for the Cuban government to consider.

Meanwhile, I'm just glad to be back in touch with everyone. Though I could do without the wind and the sleet.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

New Year Resolutions, or, Redesigning Myself

I'm not generally a big fan of New Year Resolutions. I'm very aware that many of them have been ditched long before the end of January, some even by the first weekend of January. So I'm wary of making them. Far better, I think, to make a resolution (or two) each day, if that's what it takes. One day at a time, to quote a well-known organisation. This year may be different.

What about the most popular resolutions? I gave up smoking years ago, I don't drink much (honest!), and I already eat fairly healthily. I certainly don't bother with 'I'm going to lose weight' New Year resolutions. Too vague, for starters. Plus, if I go down by one kilo but then up by two over the year, does that count as losing weight? I use the Runkeeper app to set weight-loss goals which I regularly miss, though I have managed some of them. Trying to combine optimism with reality is often a problem.... At least with a cumulative total of exercise, there is the possibility nearer the deadline of spending time on the treadmill to get the kilometres covered. I tend to set short-term goals on the app, with two months to achieve them. And then set them again two months later. And so on. Eventually I shall get there.

I have decided this year, however, to go for some other self-improvement stuff as New Year resolutions. Generally, these are things about me that I find annoying (so if I'm annoyed by them, how must the rest of you feel?!). A lot is to do with fear/courage. Courage is, of course, being scared but doing it anyway. I confronted some elements of fears last year, and they seemed to go quite well, so I'm reaching slightly further out of my comfort zone this year, and going public on what I'm doing in the hope that you will all be able to encourage me further (yes, that verb was chosen deliberately).

Firstly - fear of dogs. Lots of my friends seem to have dogs. I'm not a dog enthusiast, being more a mad-cat-lady-in-training, but my wariness/terror of dogs has got worse in recent years. So I'm going to make much more effort to cope when dogs are around, possibly to the extent of patting them on the head or potentially even going for a walk with them (on a lead, and with their owner. Please. There are limits!). This doesn't mean I would like all dog-owners to come round with their bouncy pet to show me how friendly they are. I know they're friendly: that's part of the problem. I need to deal with them on my own terms.

Secondly - fear of rejection, in publication terms. I have a lot of poetry in a possibly over-edited state, and I keep telling myself it's not ready to be sent out yet. Until I send it out, though, I won't know if that's true or not. Last year, I finally plucked up the courage to send four poems to a respected journal; they're publishing one and really liked two others but didn't quite have room for them. So this year, I am resolving to send poems out to at least two other journals. If they don't like them, they don't like them. It doesn't mean they're not good. (Just keep swimming, just keep swimming....)

Thirdly - fear of failure. There's a meme out there somewhere that if you haven't failed in life, it's because you haven't lived, that failing at least means you're trying. I'd prefer not to fail, if it's all the same to everyone else. I formed a company a couple of years ago and so far it has done absolutely nothing. Its only expenses have been paying the accountant to file the annual accounts saying that there has been no trading (and no income!). So this year, even if it all goes horribly pear-shaped, I am going to take action and do something with it.

Finally - fear of public humiliation. Those who know me well know that I would much rather write and direct than perform, even though on occasion I have been persuaded to do the latter. I'm not really really bad at it, I'd just much rather not do it. The fear of going wrong, forgetting lines/moves/timing, ruining things for everyone else or being laughed at when I wasn't intending to be funny - all these fears merge into a massive anxiety attack that can leave me irritable, unable to eat and sleepless for weeks. I did have a go at some singing again last year that unfortunately got a bit out of hand and involved dancing as well in places, and I won't be repeating *that* in a hurry. But if it's possible to leave out the choreography... Who knows. This is a difficult one that also isn't entirely in my hands. Let's just say, I won't rule it out.

Those are my New Year resolutions. Here's hoping for a successful year but not to the point that you all hope for next year's resolutions to be to tone things down a bit!