31 May 2011

New Zealand nightwatchmen, and test cricket in Auckland

While I was watching some English cricket coverage of the 2010-11 Ashes series I noted a couple of nightwatchman batting appearances by the English bowler James Anderson. This got me thinking back to see if I could remember nightwatchman batting by New Zealanders, and for the life of me I couldn't think of any. So I've got onto Statsguru to try to find some, and it appears that in recent years New Zealand has been reluctant to send in bowlers to protect the 'proper' batsmen when an innings falls late in the day.

Over the past five years New Zealand has played (only) 34 tests, and in that time there have been only five occasions in which nightwatchmen have been used. For the purposes of this experiment I've excluded Gareth Hopkins' two promotions up the order in India in November 2010. On both occasions he lasted until the end of play but only went on to score 4 at Hyderabad and 8 at Nagpur. But I don't class a wicketkeeper as a valid nightwatchman - it has to be an out-and-out lower order batsman. For that reason, promoting Daniel Vettori up the order doesn't count either: he's a proper all-rounder.

Here's the five stabs at using nightwatchmen in the past five years. Three of the examples could be considered a qualified success, in that the nightwatchmen lasted until the end of the day's play, thereby protecting the genuine batsmen. Only Jeetan Patel's innings of 26 at Galle in August 2009 could be considered to be a complete success, in that he amassed a reasonable total (26, one short of his top score) as well as preserving his wicket overnight. It would appear that there are relatively few opportunities for nightwatchmen in New Zealand test batting lineups, and even fewer chances at the moment. Perhaps this is because the men featured below haven't appeared in the test team for a while, and a new reliable candidate for nightwatchman duties hasn't been identified yet.

v South Africa at Johannesburg, Nov 2007

In New Zealand's first innings Shane Bond came in at no.4 after 11.3 overs before Styris, Taylor, Oram and McCullum and lasted til the end of the day at 13 overs (0no). He was dismissed for 1 when he was bowled in the 5th over of the next day.

v West Indies at Dunedin, Dec 2008

In the second innings on day 4, Kyle Mills came in at no.3 at 7.3 overs before Ryder, Taylor, McCullum and Franklin at 7.3 overs, but was out bowled first ball for a duck. The NZ innings closed at 10 overs due to rain and no play was possible on the following day.

v India at Hamilton, Mar 2009

In the second innings Mills came in at no.4 before Taylor, Ryder, Franklin and McCullum at 25.3 overs but only lasted til last ball of the day (30.6 overs), when he was out lbw for 2.

v Sri Lanka at Galle, Aug 2009

In the first innings Jeetan Patel came in at no.4 before Taylor, Ryder, McCullum and Oram at 26.3 overs. He lasted until the close at 29 overs (6no), and went on to score 26 in a partnership of 49 with Tim McIntosh.

v Sri Lanka at Colombo, Aug 2009

In the first innings Patel came in at no.6 before McCullum and Oram at 40.4 overs, but only lasted til 41.4 overs, scoring 1. The day's play ended at 47 overs.


Also in examining the tests played by New Zealand over recent years it reminded me of the peculiar quirk of New Zealand test cricket: that no test matches have been played in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, since March 2006, more than five years ago. The last match at Eden Park was a narrow victory against the West Indies, which featured an innings of 103 not out from Scott Styris, a strong 148-run opening stand by Chris Gayle and Daren Ganga, and a match-winning five wicket haul in the second innings for Shane Bond.

The ground hasn't been short of ODI and T20 internationals, but test match attendance at Eden Park was low, and in the end New Zealand Cricket opted for tests at smaller venues elsewhere. There was discussion some years ago about refitting Eden Park's smaller Outer Oval, to serve as a test venue, but nothing's come of it so far. Which is a pity, because Aucklanders are missing out on the purest form of the game, even though I imagine some must make the 90-minute drive down to Hamilton to see some of the matches played at Seddon Park. Given proper promotion I have no doubts that Auckland could turn out a reasonable crowd for a test match at the picturesque Outer Oval.

Considering that test cricket recently returned to Dunedin after a gap of more than ten years, with no test match play in that city between March 1997 and January 2008, perhaps New Zealand Cricket should now look to re-engage with cricket supporters in the nation's biggest city, and try to find a way to get test matches back to Auckland. With the ever-encroaching rugby behemoth taking up more and more of Eden Park's calendar, surely it's time to re-open the plans to refurbish the Outer Oval, or even look for a new venue in a more convenient location.

19 May 2011

Natural increase and migration

Recently I noted that the population estimate for New Zealand was currently registering a total of 4.4 million people, which is a far cry from the 'traditional' figure I remember from my youth, which held that New Zealand had a population of three million. You still hear people use that three million figure today, even though it's woefully out of date - it just seems to have stuck in the national psyche: one million during WW1, two million during WW2, and three million after that.

I decided to take a look at how the overall population growth figures are changing. Following a delve through the Stats website trying to hunt down historical data, I decided to limit my search for information to recent years. So here's a look at how the New Zealand population has been growing in the early years of the 21st century (March annual figures):

Source: Statistics NZ

The rate of population growth from natural increase (the difference between live births and deaths) has remained rather static, although the numbers have risen from around 30,000 at the turn of the century to around 35,000 in 2011. But net immigration has fluctuated much more widely, showing the fluidity of modern population movement, which often follows changing economic conditions in New Zealand or overseas.

For the first three years of the table above, New Zealand experienced a net population loss from migration. This was offset by natural increase, but ultimately meant that the national population grew slowly from 1999 to 2001. This was followed by a reversal and three big years of net migration to New Zealand, perhaps partly spurred by the 2001 terrorist attack in New York. In 2002 and 2004 migration contributed nearly half of New Zealand's total population growth, while in 2003 it contributed even more, at 60 percent.

Over the past seven years years net migration decreased to between five and ten thousand people per year, with the exception of a temporary leap to twenty thousand in 2010. This has meant that in recent years New Zealand's population growth has been largely driven by natural increase, with an average of 22.8 percent of population increase derived from migration, with the remaining 77.2 percent of the increase caused by natural increase.

While New Zealand still struggles to construct sufficient new dwellings to house its expanding population, at least the patterns of population growth in recent years have been more consistent than in the earlier part of the century, making planning a little easier.      

18 May 2011


Trinity St cyclists
The weekend before last I paid a visit to my sister Zoe, who is now working as a post-doctoral fellow in the chemistry department at Cambridge. I'd covered the main attractions before, particularly during my rather damp voyage in 2007, when I was soaked to the skin for the entire weekend. But this time around it was much nicer to have a 'local' to see the sights with, and it was a good opportunity to see how Zoe's doing in her new role. Naturally she is in her element at Cambridge, and the experience will be great for her career. And what a super place to live!

As I'm operating on a budget I took the coach up instead of the train, which meant that I spent an hour and 40 minutes in Friday night traffic before the coach had even cleared the edge of London. But I made it to Cambridge in reasonable time without too much delay. There was an opportunity to have a quick drink with Zoe and her chemistry friends at the nearby Panton Arms, which was full of students enjoying a Friday night wind-down tipple. Afterwards we enjoyed a movie and a bit of Friday night TV back at Zoe's apartment; Easy A was still entertaining on a second viewing.

On Saturday we fit in a great deal of rewarding foot-slogging around town. In the morning we took in the Fitzwilliam Museum, which I had so enjoyed in 2007. It's a lovely neo-classical temple of knowledge, akin to the British Museum and the Ashmolean in Oxford. The Fitzwilliam also boasts an excellent art collection, and the museum shop sported a marvellous collection of Cambridge-related illustrations by the children's artist Quentin Blake, completed in honour of the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University in 2009. I bought some lovely Blake postcards to add to the ever-increasing stack of such cards that I'm supposedly going to frame and hang on a wall someday. There's still no photos permitted in the museum other than in the entrance hall, but even that's pretty impressive.
Fitzwilliam Museum entrance hall

After an M&S lunch in the green expanse of Parker's Piece, the city park at which my coach arrived, we set off for a long walk around the Cam, circling Cambridge and admiring the famous Backs of the various colleges and the students punting tourists along the river. After a break back at the apartment to regain some energy, we returned to town for dinner and so I could take some photos in the dusk light. Then to round out the night I attempted to inculcate Zoe into the wonders of Radio 4 by listening to Sandi Toksvig's News Quiz podcast.
River Cam swan
King's College Chapel at dusk (HDR)

Sunday morning is Zoe's weekly sleep-in, so I took myself off to walk in the countryside, which is remarkably easy because her apartment is on the edge of town and overlooks open farmland. The main distinguishing feature of the fields I walked past was that they were inhabited by a burgeoning population of highly fecund and often cute rabbits.

Following my walk, Zoe and I headed into town for lunch, and there was time to fit in one more visit before my afternoon coach back to London. We climbed the winding, spiral staircase of Great St Mary's, the university's church, which occupies the area between King's Parade and the Market Hill. This incarnation of the church was finished in 1519, but the tower we climbed wasn't completed until 1608. It boasts a splendidly spooky bell-ringers' chamber mid-way up, and as the tallest structure in the city it also offers superb 360-degree views over the flat expanses of the city, the market and the colleges, and Cambridgeshire further afield. From this vantage point one can observe the busy streets, which are thronged with cyclists heading every which way - in a refreshing and long-standing university policy, undergraduates are not permitted to have cars.
Western view from Great St Mary's

Soon it was time for me to board my coach back to London. It had been a grand weekend enjoying the sights of Cambridge and seeing Zoe in her element. Perhaps I'll be back to stage a return visit before too long!

16 May 2011

The early settlement of Iceland

Farmland near Stykkisholmur, July 2007
BBC4 is going through a bit of an Icelandic phase at the moment, broadcasting a clutch of programmes from the sub-Arctic island, presumably in the wake of the unexpected success of another Scandinavian programme, the Danish crime drama The Killing. Last night I caught The Viking Sagas, an excellent documentary on one of Iceland's great literary treasures, the Laxdœla Saga, which tells a sweeping story of several intertwined Icelandic families from the earliest days of Icelandic settlement in the 9th century to the early 11th century. On my 2007 visit to Iceland I learned about another such story, Egil's Saga, in which the roguish Egil travelled throughout the Viking world and generally proved that he was a chap you definitely didn't want to mess with.

Both these sagas are characterised by an intriguing pre-Christian sense of morality, generally avoiding the didactic black-and-white judgements of later Christian-era fiction, in which duty and honour were rewarded and villainy and deceit punished. In the sagas there are few such moral judgements, with characters exhibiting all-too-human traits such as greed, lust, jealousy and dishonesty. And one of the strongest qualities of the sagas is that for the most part they tell the tale of real individuals and events, often exposing both the noble and base sides of individual characters.

The programme's presenter, Oxford art historian Dr Janina Ramirez, put together a well-crafted documentary on the Laxdœla saga, showing its place in contemporary history and fiction, and the lasting legacy it has on Icelandic literature and modern Icelanders. She talked to Icelandic and British academics, but also to Icelandic authors, actors and young people to discover the cultural significance of the saga. The short interview with Icelandic youth also speaks volumes for the importance of the sagas and literature in general for Icelanders; the youths are enthusiastic and eloquent (in well-thought-out English) about their appreciation for the stories. As one British newspaper review has pointed out, try replicating Ramirez's experiment by asking a bunch of British adolescents for their views on Beowulf or Chaucer, and see how far you get.

One of the beauties of studying Icelandic history is that it is one of the few long-established nations that can make the claim to having its complete history recorded for posterity. From its earliest days in the late ninth century AD, Icelanders have been telling and re-telling the stories of the colonisation from mainland Scandinavia, and once these stories were written down and printed in the medieval era, their historical legacy was ensured. We can even identify the early settlers by name:

The first settlers of Iceland were two foster-brothers, Ingolf and Hjorleif. They made a reconnoitre of the East Fjords in the late 860s, and around 870 returned to settle. Hjorleif was killed by his Irish slaves during the first winter, but after three years exploring Ingolf made a permanent settlement at Reykjavik. More settlers soon followed; most were from western Norway, but there were also Danes, Swedes and Scandinavians from the Hebrides. By 930 nearly all the good grazing land had been claimed. Except in the south-west, most of the settlements were close to the coast: the barren mountains and lava plains of the interior were, as they still remain, uninhabited. 

The 12th century Icelandic Landnamabok (The Book of the Settlements) identifies some 430 leaders of the settlement period. Mostly men of aristocratic background, they brought their families, personal retinues and slaves. They took personal possession of the land, farming some themselves and settling their retinues as tenants on the rest of their claim. Early settlements were lawless, and disputes often degenerated into protracted blood-feuds.
- John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, 1996.  

While I thought the documentary was excellent, Dr Ramirez raised two points that I feel could use some clarification. There are not vital to the understanding of the Laxdœla saga, but rather they are issues that would have complicated the story unnecessarily.

First, Ramirez suggests that when the earliest settlers arrived Iceland was as barren as it is today, with its dramatic landscape unclad by trees. This was not the case. The terrain in Iceland provides far from ideal conditions for trees to grow, but the lack of tree cover is man-made rather than natural. According to Wikipedia:

When the island was first settled, it was extensively forested. In the late twelfth-century ÍslendingabókAri the Wise described it as "forested from mountain to sea shore". Permanent human settlement greatly disturbed the isolated ecosystem of thin, volcanic soils and limited species diversity. The forests were heavily exploited over the centuries for firewood and timber. Deforestation, climatic deterioration during the Little Ice Age and overgrazing by sheep, caused a loss of critical topsoil due to erosion. Today, many farms have been abandoned and three-quarters of Iceland's forty thousand square miles are affected by soil erosion, seven thousand square miles so seriously as to be useless. Only a few small birch stands now exist in isolated reserves. The planting of new forests has increased the number of trees, but does not compare to the original forests. Some of the planted forests include new foreign species.

Iceland's forests were too fragile and too heavily exploited by the wood-hungry settlers to survive, and once they vanished, much of the island's topsoil went too. Which helps to explain some of Iceland's more peculiar delicacies, like braised sheep's head and rotten shark - they had to eat anything they could lay their hands on.

The second observation Ramirez made about the settlement of Iceland was that it was empty of previous inhabitants. While it is correct to say there is no archaeological evidence of previous inhabitants, there are still reports that Iceland was inhabited by a few Irish monks when the Norse first arrived. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the early 9th century Irish monk Dicuil made mention of such Celtic travellers: 'Completed in 825, his De mensura orbis terrae (“Concerning the Measurement of the World”) contains the earliest mention of Irish hermits having visited Iceland ([in] 795), where they marvelled at the midnight sun'. A later work, the 12th century Íslendingabók ('Book of the Icelanders') contains the following passage on the first settlement (translated, naturally): 

At that time, Iceland had woods growing between the mountains and the shore. Christians were here then, whom Scandinavians [Norðmenn] call Papar, but then they left, because they did not want to be here alongside heathen people. They left Irish books, bells and croziers, from which one can tell that they were Irishmen.

This is accompanied by the suggestion that several placenames in south-eastern Iceland, Papey and Papos, bear traces of Irish wandering monks.

Admittedly without archaeological evidence of Irish settlement there is no way of knowing if the Scandinavians really were the second people to come across Iceland. Even if Irish monks did make landfall in Iceland as part of their search for solitary penitence at the end of the earth, their numbers would have been very small, and the trace they left would be correspondingly tricky to discover.

Historian Axel Kristinsson thinks, on balance, that the claims of Irish settlers before the Norse came are unlikely:

Archaeological research can never disprove the existence of Papar in Iceland, and it is perfectly conceivable that remains might turn up one days with sufficiently strong Celtic Christian characteristics to prove beyond doubt that Papar once lived there. However, as yet no such remains have been found. Despite this, people have generally not seen any reason to doubt that there were once Papar in Iceland and been happy to trust Ari's testimony in the matter.
Recently, however, in his book Um haf innan (Reykjavík, 1997), Helgi Guðmundsson has put forward the view that Ari's account in Íslendingabók is based on the account of the Papar by the Irish monk Dicuil mentioned above, which Ari interpreted as referring to Iceland, though without any firm evidence for this. If Helgi Guðmundsson is correct, the two accounts by Dicuil and Ari are not independent of each other; Ari's statement would then become worthless, and we would no longer have any sources linking the Papar with Iceland.  
So the conclusion is this: there is no tangible evidence to prove that there were ever Papar in Iceland; indeed, there is good reason to doubt that they were. On the other hand, there is no reason to rule out the possibility either.

Perhaps I'll just stick to my first point about Iceland's forests, then. 

11 May 2011

So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star

I used to buy the Sunday Times reasonably regularly in the late 1990s, but nowadays it all seems rather fusty and arch-conservative. But one of my guilty pleasures coincides with a once-a-year event: the publication of the Sunday Times' annual Rich List supplement, in which the newspaper produces its best guess of the thousand wealthiest people or families in Britain and Ireland. I suspect that buying it with the intention of gawping at the huge sums attributed to the various tycoons and celebs marks me out as somewhat immature. I admit to being one of the many who, on hearing of a large lottery jackpot, immediately starts to think of how it could be spent, and when it's people who have succeeded in the music business, it offers a glimpse into an often opaque world.

I'm also interested in how much money creative types end up with, which shows that entertainers can break their way into the realms of the super-rich. But how has the recent recession hit the music Rich Listers? Has it depleted their funds quicker than a gold-encrusted limo sale at Limos R Us? As it happens, I have the 2007 Rich List alongside the one published this Sunday. Let's take a look, shall we?

Only three of the names appearing in both the 2007 and 2011 lists have experienced a substantial improvement in their worth. The greatest leap in proportion to 2007 wealth was for TV impresario Simon Cowell, whose burgeoning bank balance shows the value of tapping into the American market. His estimated wealth doubled over the four years, from £100m in 2007 to £200m in 2011. Next in line was theatre promoter Sir Cameron Mackintosh, whose estimated wealth increased by 50 percent from £450m to £675m, thanks to a wildly successful West End staging of Oliver Twist featuring Rowan Atkinson at Fagin and TV talent show winner Jodie Prenger as Nancy, and revivals of Les Miserables and Hair. Third best gain went to David and Victoria Beckham, whose wealth increased from £112m to £165m, but this is mainly due to David's football career and Victoria's fashion rather than Spice Girls residuals. So third place should properly go to the quixotic George Michael, whose wealth increased from £75m to £95m despite two arrests and a four-week jail sentence in Highpoint Prison in Suffolk. His popularity in America, international touring and sporadic releases helped to boost his funds.

Despite this selection of achievers, most of the names who feature on both the 2007 and 2011 lists have seen their estimated wealth decline, with many experiencing a 10 to 20 percent decline in worth since 2007. The most significant decline was that of Sir Paul McCartney, whose wealth shrunk from £725m to £495m. It has been suggested that McCartney's personal fortune suffered as a result of the impact of the recession on his property and shares portfolio, and due to his divorce settlement with Heather Mills. McCartney's contemporary, Welsh legend Sir Tom Jones, also saw his fortune drop in value, from £190m in 2007 to £140m in 2011. But his star is on the rise once more, with his most recent album selling 130,000 copies in the UK and reaching number 2 in the UK album charts. The former owner of the Chrysalis record label, Chris Wright, also saw his worth fall by a similar proportion, from £95m to £70m.

There are some notable changes in the lists as a result of developments in the past four years. Madonna is no longer a British resident and she divorced Guy Ritchie in 2008, taking most of her wealth with her back to America. Impresario Robert Stigwood, whose £212m fortune resulted in him taking the ninth-highest slot in the 2007 list, is no longer listed. Perhaps he now resides overseas.

Some new names appear in the 2011 list. Moya Doherty and John McColgan (£70m) have made their fortune in the entertainment industry from their Irish base; they own the popular Riverdance show and a TV production company. Others appearing include well-known performers like John Deacon from Queen, Noel and Liam Gallagher, Mark Knopfler, Englebert Humperdinck, and Nick Mason from Pink Floyd, all of whom are valued at over £50m.

It's also interesting to note that while Robbie Williams re-joined Take That in July 2010, it was not for want of a decent income. His personal wealth is estimated at £90m, so clearly Williams relishes the opportunity to stay in the spotlight, even though he doesn't need the money.

The Rich List also contains a healthy selection of young millionaires, many of whom hail from the music profession, like Katherine Jenkins (£13m), Cheryl Cole and Katie Melua (both £12m). So if you're struggling with your guitar or singing lessons, consider that for at least some people, the decision to become a performer can both bring fame and personal achievements, but it can also pay very healthy dividends.

I'd buy that for a pound

This afternoon on one of my occasional visits to TK Maxx in Wimbledon to see if there's anything good on sale I came across an example of how unrealistic some apparel prices can be. Passing a rack of baseball caps, I noticed an interesting-looking Greek inscription on one. This turned out to be on a Nike cap, and Nike products haven't been my cup of tea ever since I read No Logo. (I know, Nike isn't alone in using the methods Naomi Klein described, and singling out just one brand is illogical).

But the main reaction I had wasn't to the quality of the headwear or its origins. Rather, it was to the original price label that TK Maxx affixes to all its products, so customers get an idea of how much they're saving from the original retail price. The red caps were now selling for a hefty £29.99. This when the most expensive Nike cap I could find on the company's website was 'only' £30, and the most expensive on Amazon UK cost under £10. But even more outlandish than that amount is the fact that the original retail price - the one that wasn't tolerated by Nike customers, leading to the caps being shunted off to TK Maxx - was supposedly £72.50. That's the equivalent of 29 Oyster journeys from Wimbledon to Zone 1. Perhaps, as with many such retail offers, buying Nike caps at anything like full price is just a tax on stupidity.

"Buy yerself a new titfer, guv'nor?"

06 May 2011

The No vote's disingenuous referendum campaigning

So today is the national referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system here in the UK, which is apparently only the second ever UK-wide referendum. (The other is the 1975 referendum on EC membership, which was approved by 67 percent of voters). I paused in the middle of my morning jog early this morning to pop into the local church hall to cast my vote in favour of the change. Certainly, AV isn't a great improvement over the existing First Past the Post (FPP) system, but it's better than nothing, and a Yes vote would show that reform of the political process is possible despite the innate small-c conservatism of the political establishment. However, on recent polling it seems the No campaign might emerge victorious.

This is a shame given the nature of their scare campaign against AV. There are a range of genuine complaints that can be made against AV, chief among which is that while it is still somewhat fairer than FPP elections, it still fails to produce proportional representation. The points made in the No to AV campaign brochures don't address points like that though. They are keener to focus on scurrilous and misleading rumours, coupled with a personal attack on the LibDem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. This is hardly a case of 'play the ball, not the man'.

I received one of the No to AV campaign leaflets through my letterbox today. It was posted rather than hand-delivered, which begs the question how much did the No campaign have to spend on postage? Did every house-hold in the UK receive one of these? Every voter, even?

The cover is dominated by a picture of a furtive-looking Nick Clegg patting David Cameron's back. The strapline: 'AV would lead to more hung parliaments, backroom deals and broken promises'. While it's possible that AV would reduce the electoral penalty suffered by LibDem voters and thereby lead to more coalition governments, you'd have to have quite a cheek to suggest this when the UK's existing FPP system  delivered the exact same coalition result that they're dangling the prospect of. As for backroom deals and broken promises, those are buzzwords that can be thrown at politicians everywhere, no matter what electoral system they're elected under. It's clearly meant as an attack linking Clegg's decline in popularity since the formation of the coalition in 2010 with the AV vote.

No to AV leaflet, delivered 5 May.
Then on the reverse the leaflet outlines the six reasons the No campaign offers for voting against AV. I'll look at them one by one:

1. It will produce more coalitions. Under the AV system we would have coalitions most of the time, with Nick Clegg deciding who would be Prime Minister by cutting a deal behind closed doors after the election.

Sure, AV might lead to more coalitions. Why precisely would that be a bad thing? It's a bit rich to criticise coalitions, particularly given it's the only way the Conservatives, the leading opponents of AV, are currently in power. And the personalisation of the argument by pinning these 'evil' coalitions to Nick Clegg is clearly an attempt to tie the popularity of one politician to a far broader and unrelated constitutional issue. It is also disingenuous to suggest that AV coalition negotiations would be any less open than the current negotiations and deal-cutting that go on within the Conservatives or Labour before and after an election. 

2. It is used by only three other countries in the world - Fiji, Australia, and Papua New Guinea - and Australia wants to get rid of it.

There are two responses to this. First, so what? If AV is right for Britain, why not vote for it? And is the No campaign saying that a system used in Australia, a close ally of the UK and a nation with an enormous shared history, is by definition unsuitable for use in the UK? As Channel 4 has pointed out

...around half the democratic population [of the world] does use First Past The Post. What does seem worth noting however is that not one European country, apart from the UK, uses FPTP. Plus, the most popular voting system (by the number of countries in the world, rather than population) is List Proportional Representation or List PR. 
Secondly, 'Australia wants to get rid of it'?  Where's the evidence of that? Complete nonsense.

3. It allows the second or third-placed candidate to win. We would end up with third-best candidates becoming MPs.

That's one way of looking at it.  But FPP allows candidates with pluralities to win, like George Galloway in 2005 being elected MP with only 35.9 percent of the vote. AV ensures that winning candidates have to secure a majority of votes, and it does this by redistributing based on second preferences until a majority is attained. If this isn't sufficient, the count goes on to third preferences. AV simply allows more people to have a say in the outcome of an electorate contest, rather than restricting meaningful voting choice to those who support a candidate with a minimum of one vote more than their nearest opponent. And what does 'third-best' mean anyway? AV would reduce the problem of fragmented electorate contests in which the 'least worst' candidate emerges as the victor, despite achieving only a relatively small proportion of the overall votes.

4. It will cost the country £250 million, at a time when money is tight.

Money is tight, and £250 million is certainly a lot. It's also a change from the earlier No material, which stated that it would cost 'up to £250 million', which is rather different. Either way, the figure is completely made up.

5. It means that someone else's 5th preference is worth the same as your 1st preference.

This is an example of citing a hypothetically accurate worst-case scenario. This would mean that 5th preference vote would have had to go through four full distributions of preferences. This is extremely unlikely, but it also misses the point. Under AV everyone gets the opportunity to rank their voting preferences, but everyone also only gets one vote to count towards a candidate's total. The AV system would mean voters could cast their votes for the candidates or parties they actually want to win, rather than having to pretend they like a particular candidate for the sake of FPP tactical voting.

6. It will mean that supporters of the BNP and other fringe parties would decide who wins, because they will be eliminated first and then their votes could be counted again and again for other parties. That will encourage other candidates to pander to the likes of the BNP.

This is quite clever spin, although as usual it's thoroughly misleading. Every sensible person finds the BNP's policies repulsive, but supporting AV doesn't mean that somehow the toxic policies of that party or any other will somehow taint the electoral process. Parties like the BNP are fringe parties under FPP and will remain so under AV. BNP supporters would have one vote, just like everyone else, and they would need substantial support to achieve any impact on electoral outcomes - support they simply don't have. Thankfully.

Finally, the No pamphlet finishes off with a daft rallying cry:

Remember the core principle in our democracy: every person gets an equal vote and the candidate with the most votes wins. Defend equal votes by voting No on Thursday.

The traditional angle run by FPP supporters is that the system delivers strong, single-party government. Indeed, this was invoked in the leaflet's point 1 above. In shifting to the claim of equal votes, the No leaflet undermines its own argument. The basis of the 'strong government' argument is that it excuses FPP's under-representation of many political parties by citing the importance of a clear, single-party majority, even if that party lacks the support of a majority of voters. Clearly, a FPP election is far from fair. The most recent UK general election, in May 2010, showed that unfairness up front in the number of votes it took to elect each MP. It took over three times as many LibDem votes to elect an MP as it did to elect a Labour or Conservative MP, and Green votes only counted as less than an eighth of the value of those cast for the two biggest parties.

Neither side in the referendum debate have covered themselves with glory. The Yes campaign has also been guilty of misleading claims, particularly some that argue AV would revolutionise British politics and cure a huge range of perceived evils like 'safe seats'. This is also clearly not true. A step towards AV would actually be a fairly minor change, and could be accommodated easily by voters. After all, how hard is it to rank candidates in order of preference? And some seats would still be considered safe.

But if the result of today's referendum is a victory for the No campaign, it will have been won at the cost of a reasoned, informed debate, and will only serve to reinforce public perceptions that political elites are willing to manipulate and mislead public opinion to serve their own ends.

I would've thought that sticking with an out-dated and biased electoral system that rewards some parties and punishes others isn't something that British voters should be proud of. Perhaps instead they could take pride in recognising faults in the system and taking steps to fix them. AV's not perfect but it would be a step in the right direction.

05 May 2011

Later with Jools Holland: Series 38, Episode 5

Adele performs Rolling in the Deep, Later with Jools Holland, 4 May 2011
Last night, thanks to a friend who had secured tickets but couldn't make it, I was able to fulfil a long-held London ambition. After four years of applying for tickets but coming up empty-handed, I finally attended a recording of the BBC's premier live music show, the great Later with Jools Holland, at BBC TV Centre in White City. And it was certainly a top night's entertainment.

After queuing outside TV Centre for an hour in the bitterly cold spring breeze, the audience was ushered into the much-joked-about BBC canteen (which is actually perfectly decent these days) and then into Studio 1 where the programme is recorded. I've been to plenty of TV recordings at the BBC, but none in Studio 1, and it's quietly exciting to be inside the space where so many legendary artists have performed over the years.

Later has been running for nearly 20 years since its 1992 inception, and is an institution in the UK but also, increasingly, around the world, as it is now seen in many other countries too. This is the 38th series, and these days it goes out twice a week. First, the Tuesday night half-hour live show, and then on Friday night the one-hour recorded programme is broadcast. I had previously assumed that Later was just a one-hour recording session, the first half of which was broadcast live and the then re-broadcast along with the second half-hour on Fridays. Instead Later is a 90-minute recording session, with the Friday hour recorded first, followed by the live half-hour after a brief break. As the cameras swivel around the various performing areas, Jools reads his links to camera with the aid of a big prompt card held by a floor manager, which is why he always says something like 'and now it's the Dung Beetles... from Rutland!'

Jools Holland enters Studio 1 at the beginning of the live broadcast

The line-up for this episode illustrates the commendable diversity of musical performance that Later offers, and the value it adds to the public service broadcaster. There's probably no other show in which the pop-soul of Adele, the mega-selling R&B of R. Kelly, and the eclectic indie of Metronomy, Young the Giant and James Blake, could sit alongside the authentic Portuguese fado ballads of Mariza. Indeed, part of the fun of watching a Later show is picking up the hints of shared musical appreciation. On occasion this even leads to off-the-cuff collaborations, like one of my favourite Later clips from a few years ago, in which Eli 'Paperboy' Reed and the True Loves are aided by Solange Knowles (Beyonce's sister) and her lovely backing singers to belt out a storming version of Reed's Take My Love With You.

First up was the charming Adele (305,000 Twitter followers), whose second album 21 has now chalked up 13 weeks at the top of the UK album charts and is also number one in many other territories including the US. She performed a selection of numbers from the new album, leading with the album's strong opening track, Rolling in the Deep. (Here's a nifty version by the American primary school youngsters from PS22). It's clear why Adele enjoys playing this show in particular, because it was her haunting, naturalistic performance of Daydreamer on Later in 2007 that kick-started her career, and there's also the small matter of the nearly 15 million hits the Youtube clip of her ballad Someone Like You has racked up since December 2010.

Adele is a beautiful collision of rightness: because of the quality of the quality of her voice, she demands attention. Because she writes classic pop and torch songs alike, her music stands above much of other artists' more average material. Because she remains seemingly unfazed by all the attention she has retained the unaffected and unpretentious attitude that has solidified the public's regard for her. Amy Winehouse may have showed the huge potential for modern English female soul singers, but she was unable to avoid the distractions that come with fame; Adele is much better placed to build a lasting musical legacy. Initially I thought she would be this decade's Alison Moyet, and that's no mean feat for someone so young, but increasingly it seems she is more likely to proceed to much greater achievements.

On a smaller scale, the other performers of the evening also impressed. The slick, melodic indie guitar-pop of California's Young the Giant (7300 followers) impressed, with their tight performance and polished sound. The sparse, ethereal sound of James Blake (21,300 followers) brought a hush to the studio, particularly his intriguing and atmospheric Limit To Your Love. And the youthful and slightly alarmed-looking four-piece from Devon, Metronomy (7750 followers), who sported large radio-operated glow-lights attached to their chests that blinked in time with the music, offered a clipped, slightly funky synth-driven art-rock. And the afore-mentioned Portuguese singer Mariza held centre stage with a captivating performance of her fado folks songs, earning warm applause from the appreciative audience.

The only other artist I've yet to discuss in full is undoubtedly the richest of those performing in this episode. R&B star R. Kelly (116,000 followers) has been a major artist, song-writer and producer for nearly two decades, and in that time has sold millions of records. He also deserves credit for his most recent album, which attempts to channel the optimistic retro stylings of the 1960s-era soul legends like Sam Cooke. But ultimately I'm not a fan of his, and never have been. Apart from musical differences, mainly this is due to the deep and abiding question mark that hangs over his character, thanks to his 2002 and 2003 arrests on child pornography charges, despite Kelly being ultimately found not guilty on all counts when the matters finally came to trial in 2008.

Kelly's first number, When A Woman Loves, was recently nominated for a Grammy, and it does adopt an old-school soul approach that initially had me hopeful, but in the end it proved to be just another opportunity for Kelly to put his admittedly powerful vocals to use in lengthy bouts of Celine Dion- or Mariah Carey-like melismatic grandstanding. Worse was to come though, because the live broadcast ended with Kelly performing his global hit, I Believe I Can Fly, whose glutinous sentiment and tiresome show-off vocal gymnastics was inexplicably popular and even gave Kelly his only British hit single - a chart-topper in March 1997. I know a lot of people like this song, and certainly some of the younger audience members whooped, cheered and waved their arms aloft during the performance. But if you'll excuse the snark, as far as I'm concerned I Believe I Can Fly is nothing more than one man's valiant attempt to create the ultimate paean to his own personal awesomeness.

03 May 2011

Miss Sugar's inexorable rise

Photograph: BBC/Origin Pictures/Origin Pictures
I haven't yet read Michael Faber's 2002 novel that inspired the recent BBC2 four-part Victorian gothic dramatisation of The Crimson Petal and the White, but having now watched the programmes I'm definitely interested in following the story in more detail. I was drawn to the TV adaptation by the news that Romola Garai was to star as the central character, the prostitute turned mistress known as Sugar, but also by the prospect of viewing another well-made period piece, a genre that the BBC still excels at. And yes, the TV drama was definitely compelling viewing, with high production standards and quality acting performances on display.

I've seen and enjoyed Garai's performances in her early film, I Capture the Castle, and in the 2009 BBC production of Austen's Emma, another four-parter. It's been a while since I saw the former, but in the latter Garai was excellent as the thoughtless, manipulative and naive title character. While Garai's performance in The Crimson Petal is commendable, I wonder if the role was the right fit for her. The character is clearly intelligent and calculating, but the accumulated psychological baggage that goes with her troubled upbringing and demeaning occupation means that it must have been a challenge to judge how to pitch the performance. Faber said in a recent interview:

Scriptwriter Lucinda Coxon, in cutting the 850-page narrative down to filmable size, has wisely decided that at heart, it's about parental nurture or the lack of it – about grownups who are really overgrown children in search of lost or absent mothers, and the children that they in turn produce. I had feared that any film or TV adaptation of The Crimson Petal would discard this theme as uninteresting, and instead generate the drama from Sugar's rise through society: the ruthless, beautiful courtesan who claws her way to the top. Maybe that's the drama most people would have preferred to see. Maybe the risks that Coxon and director Marc Munden have taken, in creating something that's so different from the norm, will lose them their audience. I hope not.

Certainly this was no vehicle for lashings of skin and lasciviousness like that afforded Billie Piper in The Secret Diaries of a Call-Girl, or for a brazen social climber dazzling her way into the elite, like Natasha Little in the 1998 TV adaptation of Vanity Fair. (The latter was also directed by Marc Munden).  Perhaps in achieving a nuanced performance, Garai allowed other cast members to overshadow her a little. Nevertheless, I still believe she has the potential to become a major star as her acting career develops. It would only take one breakthrough film and she could be a household name. 

Chris O'Dowd, as Sugar's wealthy patron Rackham, impresses because his dramatic performance is relatively unexpected. Best known for his central role as tech helpdesk layabout Roy in four seasons of the Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd, the Irish actor does a solid job as the unreliable and self-interested industrialist who Sugar clings to as her escape route from the slums.      

Gillian Anderson also does good work as Sugar's brothel-keeper, Mrs Castaway, and it's refreshing to see an actress relishing performing in such an unglamorous role. Castaway is a wizened, crow-like figure, both dislikeable and sinister in a thoroughly Dickensian fashion.

But the strongest plaudits should go to Amanda Hale as Agnes Rackham, the story's resident Mrs Rochester. Hale delivers a strong performance that steals most of the scenes she's in. At the opening of the dramatisation Rackham's mentally ill wife Agnes is struggling to retain her ability to function in polite society despite the growing onset of schizophrenic symptoms. Agnes' descend from partial lucidity into madness is exacerbated by the harsh medical treatment she is receiving from the family doctor (the villainous Dr Curlew, played by Richard E Grant). It must be hard to pitch the portrayal of the onset of madness so accurately, because it has to be spread out over the four episodes of the series and not appear to be disjointed. Hale is both pitiable and utterly believable as Agnes, struggling to maintain her position as the wife of a pillar of society despite the hallucinations in her head. The scene in which a louche lady friend offers her a 'pick-me-up' pill to be taken before dinner is particularly charming, as Agnes dreamily beams her way through dinner with her bemused husband.

For those who missed it first time around The Crimson Petal and the White is definitely worth seeking out, either in re-run or on DVD when it is released. And no doubt it will encourage others, like me, to seek out Michael Faber's original text to explore the story in greater detail.