Little Birds Fly No More

Three little birds,
Flying high in thunderous skies,
The sky turns black,
Two little birds remain.

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Catherine Mayer on Equality, Red Heads and the Manifesto She Wants You to Steal

“Crossing the stage, Catherine Mayer strikes a formidable figure as she throws down her bag and proclaims, “will there be rock?!””

Check out my review on Catherine Mayer here:  Catherine Mayer on Equality, Red Heads and the Manifesto She Wants You to Steal

catherine-mayer

How to Organise a Summer Ball (and not lose your head in the process)

“India! Start cutting flowers! Emily, can you put bubble wands out on the tables? Alice, I need to get this table plan pinned up, can you sort it please? Oh and can someone please go and tell Laura to stroll around the park, we’re not ready to receive guests yet.”

When local press called me on Wednesday to talk through my decision to organise a Summer Ball single handed the above scene flooded back into memory. At that very second it felt like I was back there in Lydiard’s Luxborogh Suite, although I had long stopped calling it anything more than ‘the room’. For the briefest of moments I witnessed myself dashing around with multiple centre pieces, tired eyes hidden by hair refusing to follow any routine on the hottest day of the year. It was the first time I had felt completely in control of a situation yet at the same time totally out of it. Controlled chaos at it’s pinnacle.

Apologises, it seems I’m getting ahead of myself as always. Let’s leave stressed, sweaty, Alice behind so she can set up bunting and name cards in peace while we take this back to the start.

Amazingly you don’t have to go too far back to find a (relatively) care-free girl. A world where the mere notion of a Summer Ball would have been laughed at. At the beginning of Spring life was, well, normal. I mean sure there was the job and the Meet Up group but the day to day was fairly uneventful (FYI I am fully aware of the irony of the term being applied to a social group, but it’s true.) Life ticked on, bearing me no trouble, and in return I accepted the odd morning of clothes drama (#SockShortageSaturday) and food limitations (#OffMilkMonday).

It all changed in April 2016.

In April one of my event organisers hosted a pub quiz. To say it was ‘just a pub quiz’ would be a vast understatement. When Swindon 18-30 attend a pub quiz it means only three things: beer drinking, outrageous exclamations and open discussion. It’s one of the few times all bets are off and anyone can say whatever they want about anything they want, good or bad. The result? A hot bed of ideas, opinions and, on occasion, the odd eyelash flutter.

It was in Mid April that I received the fatal Facebook message (because that’s how all news is transpired nowadays). Over the pub quiz’s sports round several members had expressed an interest in attending a Summer Ball. Some of them had friends outside Swindon planning for theirs, others never had the opportunity to attend one. Regardless of their situation and the theories of Darwin, women in the group suddenly had this deep animalistic urge to attend a formal Ball. Unfortunately, because I am also of the female variety, it only took Alistair’s brief message to convince me round to this idea. And with that the Summer Ball was conceived. Totally unplanned, totally off guard and soon to take up my total life.

In all honestly the first few days were hardly event milestones. As I recall I bought a muffin hat in Accessorise the next day. I hadn’t seen or been able to buy a reasonably priced muffin hat in years, so this (understandably) engulfed the Ball in terms of joy for the rest of the week. It was a mini success story in my little bubble.

The initial feedback from leadership and member meetings all pointed to Lydiard Park as the venue of choice. But what is Lydiard Park I hear you ask?

Listen to this introduction music and look at the photos.

 

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That, dear readers, is what Lydiard Park is to Swindon. I hope no additional explanation is required of the venue’s status. It’s pretty decent.

So, myself and two others went to see the venue. Our thoughts?

 

Anyway, we liked it. The guys were keen to have a theme, but having watched one too many episodes of Don’t Tell The Bride I knew that themes either end in a blown budget or a grumpy lady in a dress. I was not of the persuasion to be broke or moody on the night. With the notion of a theme quietly put to bed there was then the minor arrangement of bookings and deposits. There was only one Saturday left in August for an evening booking. Given I was making enquiries in April for Lydiard Park in peak wedding season I could only come to the conclusion the availability was the work of divinity. If only everyone could have seen that at the time. In an alternate Universe the Summer Ball never happened due to opposition to Lydiard. I won’t go into the grizzly details of it all, but there were loud voices that felt the venue should be made to wait while we searched elsewhere first. Strong opinions that tore into every aspect of the venue and catering. It wouldn’t be the last time I faced a set back, but I remember feeling desperately low for days after those one-sided meetings. It was the first time I’d had my decision openly objected and thus had my stability as a leader violently shaken. It actually took the push of an impatient venue to snap me into sense. If I didn’t pay up the deposit in two days then I’d lose the elusive Saturday reservation. For me that was the deciding factor. There would be no debate or second viewings, the venue would be Lydiard.

This links me nicely to another fundamental element of the Summer Ball, getting money. Until fairly late on into the planning, ticket sales were a major underlying stress for me. As any human being will tell you, getting money off a person for an event happening months in advance is never an easy challenge, but trying to get £40 for a theoretical event from a 20-something? Washing feral cats in a bath would be an easier task. Some members were great, and in all honestly I am grateful to those few. When you’re given 48 hours to cough up £200 you need people to back you up quickly. Other members were less keen to throw their cash at me. Perfectly understandable from an objective point of view, they didn’t want to commit, they were low on cash, nights out planned etc., etc. However what most members didn’t see when I was chasing them for payment was the girl sat in her room desperately trying to make the books balance. If we didn’t hit ticket sales of 35 the venue would pull out, meaning I’d lose £200 and all respectability within my group. Of course I couldn’t show my concern to members. I couldn’t tell them that I was scared that no one was buying tickets, I mean how would that encourage people to invest in me? So I smiled and cheerfully told them that tickets were flying off the shelf, that sales were better than hoped. Some days it took every ounce of energy I had to remain positive. It worked though, the final number of tickets sold were 45.

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The design of the ticket/poster was probably the only thing I ended up delegating. Even I was prepared to acknowledge my shortcomings as a designer.
The budget only held itself together though by the grace of my sponsors. Baker Street were incredibly generous with their offer of six bottles of table wine (costing £17 each) and Baila Coffee and Vinyl’s contribution of £30 proved to be the essential contingency budget when I required it later on. I owe both of them a great deal of gratitude. That’s not to say it was easy to get the latter sponsor. I emailed so many different businesses over the course of two months, I had almost given up hope of anyone wanting to help. I had hoped that people would see the rewards of supporting a growing social group, but I guess some people are more short sighted than others.

Whilst all this was going on, I also had to source evening entertainment. The truth is if people really wanted a three course meal and the excuse to wear a dress they could hit Wetherspoons on a Saturday Night and then roll into a nightclub. Lydiard’s location is in it’s name, it’s located in a park. A big park. I needed a DJ at the very least to keep people happy. Budget was always going to be very tight on this element, having invested a large chunk of the ticket sales into a generous drinks package, so I was overjoyed when I managed to find a guy who would do a DJ set for £150. DJ Danny proved to be the biggest physical and mental exhaustion of the whole event.

I should have seen the signs from day one.

On no level was it looking positive. After the initial quote he never returned my calls or texts, blaming shift work and poor mobile signal. Bizarrely it took me posting a letter through Danny’s door to get him to call me. Posting a letter! When I communicated with him he never chased for a deposit or additional information on the event. When the venue started chasing for his documentation I foolishly believed every excuse he made. He was working, he was ill, he’d recently moved house and misplaced the certificates. Even when my family got involved he lied to their face, promising my father that his friend would do the gig if he could not. I was so blinded by the low fee and painfully tight budgets that I trusted him and hung off his every word.

The final blow came when I received a text two and a half weeks before the event. In it Danny told me he’d been rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack and he wouldn’t be out for at least three weeks. He ended his text with a cheery smiley face emoji and the helpful advice that “there are lots of DJs online”. In anger I texted him back, but oddly enough he never responded. Yet again it was a Holy miracle that blessed me with Andy Grimgrod. He charged a bit more but at that stage it was a case of either cutting back on the flower decorations or no DJ. I booked Andy that night.

Photographer, same thing but on a lesser scale. Agreed for one guy to do it, he later told me he’d charge £35 to take arrival photos. Photographer A swiftly dumped for photographer B, Phil Elliot, who did as good a job on the night as any professional photographer. Unlike photographer A, he also did formal photography as well as arrival shots, a real plus. Added to this the extra freebie of a member doing balloon modelling on the night and entertainment as all set.

Menu options created the same predictable drama there with handling dietary requirements. Requests for dishes to be served without mushrooms, for alternative vegetarian options and, my personal favourite, for Bailey’s cheesecake to be served without the Bailey’s. Those ones really kept me on my toes.

A week before the event I transferred the final balance to Lydiard. The venue was booked. The event was go.

Before I knew it the fateful day of Saturday 6th August was upon me. Cue our delightfully scruffy hostess, yelling at people to move out the way and making Alistair hand out welcome drinks. I bet I looked like such a bossy cow that afternoon, barking orders and commanding people out of my way like some eight year old diva queen. If only they knew the stress involved in getting to that place, and the heightened pressure to ensure that it didn’t all fall apart when it mattered most.

But you know what? I actually pulled it off.

 

After the Summer Ball life seemed eerily quiet. For days I woke up in the morning convinced that the whole affair was a dream and went to bed at night trying to stop thinking about the logistics of ticket distribution. There were still things to do, the Summer Ball didn’t leave my life that night. I had to select and buy photos from the photographer and get in touch with local press to ensure the event was covered in the newspaper and given the full credit it deserved. I’m still in talks with getting Cotswold Life to put photos in an upcoming issue and, as you can see here, I’m currently writing a blog post on the whole thing.

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The Summer Ball got it’s own column in the Swindon Advertiser. I often imagined it up in times of stress to spur me on, so to see it in physical print was an emotional experience. I could finally tell myself I’d done a good job.

I hosted a Summer Ball pretty much single handed and would you know it, I still have a head. Granted at times I felt certain it was going to fall off, alongside the odd limb here and there from all the running around, but I can confirm all appendages are still intact.

Do I wish I’d perhaps thought about the logistics of tackling such a large scale event before ploughing myself, heart and soul, into it? Yes, 110% yes.

Would I recommend others do it themselves? On their own? No. With the support of others? Yes, 110% yes.

And would I host another Summer Ball? Hmm, let me think about that…

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Yes, 250% yes.