April 29th, 2012


April Books 11) First Frontier, by David McIntee

Rather a good Seventh Doctor romp, with Benny and Ace involved with an attempted alien invasion coinciding with the start of the Space Race in late 1957. It felt from the start rather like The Claws of Axos, only done much better, a feeling intensified by a plot twist about halfway through; it also has the general frenetic pace of a televised New Who story, to the point that I could see it as the basis for a decent script. Good fun.

Links I found interesting for 29-04-2012

train, tintin, leuven

βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ - the frog chorus

We were out for a walk in the Kessel-Lo park near Leuven this afternoon, and the frogs were singing in full chorus. You can see them squabbling in this video I took:

This is yer actual Marsh Frog, not really found much in the UK (and not at all in Ireland), and Aristophanes obviously used either its call or its close relative for the frogs' chorus in the play of the same name: "βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ!" "Brekekekex koax koax!"

Not quite Paul McCartney, let alone this fellow, but it's good to feel that springtime is here.

Ending co-terminosity

One of the less frequently used buzz-words in Northern Irish politics is "co-terminosity", which is shorthand for the fact that members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are elected from constituencies with the same boundaries as those used for Westminster elections. It seems to me that co-terminosity has had its day, and if the long-postponed local government reforms come in, it would make a lot of sense to shift to a system where Assembly members are elected from constituencies which are based on the new local council areas rather than the Westminster election boundaries.

Co-terminosity goes back to 1921, when the 10 Westminster constituencies (three of which were two-seaters) were used as the basis for electing the first 52 members of the Northern Ireland House of Commons, and again in 1925. Arguably it continued until 1948, as the boundaries for the Stormont single-seat constituencies all nestled within the previous Westminster constituencies, which were in turn linked to the local government districts (ie the counties, and Belfast City). In 1948 the link was broken, as the Westminster boundaries were revised and the two-seat constituencies broken up, without reference to where the Stormont boundaries were. However, all elections to regional bodies from 1973 on again took the Westminster boundaries as their basis; these days they elect six from each of the 18 constituencies, giving a total of 108 for no very good reason.

Three recent developments seem to me to spell the end for co-terminosity - not in the current round of boundary changes, but probably in the next or the one after that. First off, co-terminosity has been killed off in both Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, the number of Westminster seats was cut from 72 to 57 in 2005, but the 72 old seats still provide the basis for the 73 single-member seats in the Scottish Parliament (the Orkney and Shetland Isles elect two MSPs but only one MP) and will continue to do so after the next election when the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster will be further cut to 50. In Wales, the existing 40 parliamentary constituencies will also continue to be used for Welsh Assembly elections even after the number of Welsh MPs at Westmister is slashed from 40 to 30 at the next election. There is no reason for Northern Ireland to stick more religiously to keeping the boundaries aligned than the other devolved systems do.

Second, the new system of boundary revisions introduced by the present coalition puts the House of Commons into a state of perpetual revolution. The 650 MPs are to be cut to 600 at the next election. More significantly, the boundaries of the 597 non-island seats are to be revised every five years. Northern Ireland's small size and small number of seats mean that ripple effects of even quite a small population movement can be significant across the whole territory. In particular, it's quite possible that the number of Westminster seats allocated to Northern Ireland may change in future - had NI's electorate been only 0.5% lower when the calculation was made, there would have been only 15 seats to draw instead of 16 (and Scotland would have had 51 instead of 50). So Westminster boundaries are no longer going to be a stable frame of reference. It's maybe not a big deal to inconvenience one MP per seat, but if it's six MLA's as well then it will get tiresome.

Third, the long-postponed local government reform appears to be nearing legislative effect. This will create a new and hopefully long-lasting political framework for local councils, one which could equally well be used as the basis of Assembly constituencies. Using the published figures it is rather easy to allocate 108 Assembly seats among the 11 proposed new councils (Fermanagh and Omagh 7, Antrim and Newtownabbey 8, Lisburn and Castlereagh 8, Mid Ulster 8, Causeway Coast and Glens 9, Derry and Strabane 9, Mid and East Antrim 9, Newry, Mourne and Down 10, North Down and Ards 10, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon 12 and Belfast 18). One would probably want to split these into Assembly constituencies electing between 4 and 7 MLAs, and that would require an independent review process with public consultation; and population shifts would require some fairly regular revision. But, assuming that the new councils have anything resembling the 40-year lifespan of their predecessors, they will be a much more robust basis for electing Assembly members than the ever-changing Westminster seats.

I can't see this happening in the current round of revisions, which are too far down the road to stop. But in five or ten years' time, when the new local councils are fully established and up and running, and politicians (and activists) have started to get annoyed with the five-yearly revision of the Westminster seats, I suspect that the end of co-terminosity will be inevitable.

April Books 12) The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

I seem to be reading a lot less this year; not really sure why this is, perhaps a combination of minor changes to my usual routine along with presbyopia simply making reading less comfortable than it used to be (for example, I can barely read the small print of most articles in Doctor Who Monthly). As I did last year, I set myself about twenty reading lists in 2012, and whereas last year I could expect to cycle through at least one book on each of them in a two-month period, I've only now, at the end of April, reached Dorian Gray, which was at the top of the last of my lists. Things have also been a little skewed by my reading the complete BSFA and Arthur C Clarke shortlists, and also by my decision to prioritise reading Christmas presents, but it's a definite slowdown.

Anyway, The Picture of Dorian Gray was a reread, the top book in my LibraryThing list that I hadn't already written up on-line. I was sorry that I had only the standard Wordsworth Classics edition, with GRRRRR endnotes, rather than the deluxe uncensored edition recently reviewed by Steve Mollmann. But it's a masterpiece anyway, with the hilarious witticisms of Lord Henry punctuating a frenetic narrative of devotion to aesthetic perfection which leads inevitably to moral and personal disaster. It's also very short (having just trudged through yet another Dostoevsky, I appreciated that) and easy to digest, as long as you remain alert to the constant innuendo.

A couple of minor points that struck me: the fictional dukes who pop up as minor characters (and perhaps the other nobles as well) have non-fictional titles; the real Duke of Berwick and Duke of Monmouth were the illegitimate sons of Stuart kings. (Compare Wodehouse's comically named aristocrats.) And the anti-Semitism directed at Isaacs the theatrical agent is very jarring to today's reader in a way that probably would not have been the case earlier.

Anyway, a classic work which I recommend (while envying Steve his access to the unexpurgated text).