Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Torchwood season :: 1-10 July

Never mind creation and dinosaurs, Torchwood is back!

BBC Promotional image for 2009 Torchwood season

There was an interview with Russell T Davies about Doctor Who and Torchwood on Front Row last night. And for three days this week, Radio 4’s Afternoon Play (14:15-15:00) is running a sequence of 45 minute dramas featuring the regular cast.

  • Wednesday 1 - The Torchwood team investigate after a strange teenage girl is arrested (Anita Sullivan)
  • Thursday 2 - The Torchwood team go to Delhi on the trail of a dangerous energy field (James Goss)
  • Friday 3 - Torchwood investigate when people start falling into coma -like trances (Phil Ford)

Update - the R4 plays are available to download as mono MP3s for three days after broadcast - easier to listen to on your MP3 player than online ... and there's a how-they-recorded-it post on the Radio 4 blog.

And then next week, Torchwood is striped across BBC One and BBC HD from Monday to Friday at 9pm (and repeated at 23:45 on BBC Three, 00:15 on Friday). The story arc follows is summed up in the press pack:

An ordinary day becomes a world of terror, as every single child in the world stops. A message is sent to all the governments of Earth: “We are coming”.

But as a trap closes around Captain Jack, sins of the past are returning, as long-forgotten events from 1965 threaten to reveal an awful truth.

Torchwood are forced underground, as the government takes swift and brutal action. With members of the team being hunted down, Britain risks becoming a rogue state, with the mysterious and powerful 456 drawing ever closer.

Monday, June 29, 2009

There's No Candidate As Honest (in North Norwich) as Craig Murray? and a mention of Catholic Orangemen in Togo

Picture of Craig Murray - from indymedia.ie

Parliamentary by-elections on average attract more candidates than a constituency would at a general election.*

The cause of the day – like a hospital under threat in the area, some local political fallout, or some national issue – attracts independent candidates to the ballot paper like flies to a soft banana.

The North Norwich constituency is due a by-election fairly soon. The date hasn’t been set, but any time from mid-July to September is possible, but before the August holidays is the most likely time for Labour to get it over with.

The sitting Labour MP Ian Gibson resigned “accused of claiming £80,000 of taxpayers' money on a London flat that he later sold to his daughter, below the market price”.

With a majority at the 2005 election of just under five and a half thousand, Craig Murray is targeting the seat under an anti-sleaze banner as the first ever candidate for the Put An Honest Man Into Parliament party. (He reckoned that there could be other Independents on the ballot paper, so he wanted to make sure he’d be identifiable.)

You may have heard of Craig Murray before. As well as being a blogger, he is better remembered as Britain’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan who was sacked “for making a stance against torture” and “for failing to toe the British line on intelligence obtained under torture”. I remember listening to him at that time being interviewed on Newsnight and Radio 4’s Today programme, and he came across as a sensible and principled character. (How easily I’m impressed by a voice on the radio!)

While he didn’t do so well standing against then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in the 2005 election in Blackburn, Murray is hoping his Norfolk roots and previous work as a Labour party activist in the area will count for him.

And he’s been given a leg up by the Corrigan Brothers – the group responsible for the ditty There's No One As Irish As Barack Obama – who this time have penned The MP Expenses Song.

It’s a terrible tune, and an even worse video, but it might provide the novelty value that Murray needs to pick up a few votes.

book cover of The Catholic Orangemen of Togo and Other Conflicts I Have Known by Craig Murray

Not that Murray is unfamiliar with novelty. As well as his memoir of what happened between the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Uzbek in Murder in Samarkand, he went on to publish a book online (after being dropped by his publisher) and later in self-published print curiously titled:

Catholic Orangemen of Togo and Other Conflicts I Have Known

You can follow his campaign on his blog.

* Like 80.2% of good bloggers - and many bad bloggers too - I can make up believable statistics at the drop of a hat. Though I reckon this one is true!

Apple returns: would you like a bag for that?

Apple lanyard headphones for second generation Nano

It's happened before and it'll happen again. Apple's lanyard headphones for first and second generation Nano iPods have some kind of inherent weakness that means that one earpiece silences after six or so months before the other ear gives in a month or so later. So I've been around the loop a time or two to get Apple to repair them

The lanyard headphones - they hang the iPod around your neck with the ear buds built into the next strap - unusually don't have an individual serial number. So the warranty repair is handled against your iPod. Problem is that once your iPod is out of warranty, you have to prove when you bought the lanyard headphones, and email through your proof of purchase.

It would have been nice if they'd given me the correct email address on the first two phone calls. And nice if after the third call they hadn't returned a terse email to say that the warranty date of the iPod couldn't be updated .. when I only needed them to record the purchase date of the headphones.

Fourth call, someone was going to talk to their boss and call me back.

Fifth call, and they could see I'd emailed in the proof of purchase - rejected a second time with a different terse email - and agreed to ignore that and send out the replacement.

You have to send in the old bust ones otherwise they charge you for the replacements.

The size of the prepaid return envelope? Larger than an A3 piece of paper! You could fit a Macbook in there ...

Enormous A3+ sized prepaid envelope to reutn tiny lanyard earphones to Apple

Update - Tuesday - The problem of Apple sticking the sender's address on the front of the envelope is that the Royal Mail delivered the bust headphones back to me today, instead of using the Apple's "to" address ...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The '59 Revival ... Coming soon

Has iPlayer developed a theological sense of humour?

Or was there something particularly shocking in the third of William Crawley's weekend documentaries looking at the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth and the 1859 revival! As usual with iPlayer vagaries, the explanation is usually closer to cock-up than conspiracy.

Note that for the next three weeks this slot - Sunday at 13:30 and the following Thursday at 19:30 - in the Radio Ulster schedule will be filled by Gerry Anderson:

Work! Work! Work! investigates the hidden lives of the Polish community, one of Northern Ireland's biggest ethnic groups.

Update - Monday - The '59 Revival is now available to listen again online until 2pm on Sunday 5 July.

What are your options when a TV breaks after 18 months

Matsui LCD TV

Buy an LCD TV and you expect that it will last five or six years if not longer. So it was disappointing to realise that a TV I’d bought as a gift for someone back at Christmas 2007 had stopped working.

Like most electrical goods, TVs tend to come with a one year warranty from the manufacturer. But just because it breaks down outside the warranty – in this case 18 months after purchase – doesn’t mean to say you have no right of redress.

The Sale of Goods Act (and associated legislation) offers consumers some protection. The Department of Business Innovation & Skills website sums it up in their fact sheet.

Now you can’t take this as legal advice as it’s only my personal reading of various sites and information, but goods bought must “conform to contract” and be fit for purpose and of satisfactory quality. For up to six years after purchase (five in Scotland) purchasers can request their money back (“damages”) from the retailer (not the manufacturer) “within a reasonable time”. Now that’s not to say that all items are built to last six years. So a “reasonable person” would accept that shoes have a much shorter life.

But a TV is meant to be a durable item. And if it fails after 18 months, it might be reasonable to suggest that the failure was a weakness in manufacturing, a substandard component that later failed. The "fault" may not become apparent immediately but it was there at the time of sale and so the product was not of satisfactory standard.

Argos logo

So I wandered into Argos this morning, set the TV down on the counter along with the remote and its receipt, and explained that it was no longer working, was outside its one year warranty but well under the normal expected lifetime, and asked if I could have a repair or refund under the Sale of Goods Act.

All very calm. No challenge. No quibbling. Receipt checked, passed to a colleague who said that since the TV had worked ok for one year (out of its six year life expectancy), he’d offer a five sixths refund. Just like that.

Now reading the fact sheet more carefully tonight, perhaps Argos still got one over on me by giving the refund in the form of a credit note rather than as cash? Or by not offering repair or replacement, but defaulting to damages instead. Difficult to tell – but anyone reading this post from the Northern Ireland Consumer Council or Trading Standards is very welcome to comment or email me the answer!

Until a couple of days ago, I’d no idea that there was any course of redress beyond a manufacturer’s guarantee. A single case was highlighted in the Daily Mail and Radio Five recently – also involving a TV. But reading through material on the local Consumer Line website, I was surprised to find that although there are mentions of “the time set by the guarantee is not necessarily reasonable”, it is less than clear or consistently explained across their wealth of consumer advice.

EU flag

Seems that there’s an EU directive 1999/44/EC which states that “a two-year guarantee applies for the sale of all consumer goods everywhere in the EU. In some countries, this may be more, and some manufacturers also choose to offer a longer warranty period.” The EU directive does not require the buyer to show the fault is inherent in the product and not down to their actions. However, there seem to be large variances in how the EU directive has been incorporated into individual country legislation.

My challenge to the NI Consumer Council would be to tidy up their consumer advice and incorporate the implications of the EU Directive and examples of what people should state when seeking redress into their material as soon as possible.

Anyway, thank you Argos for being straightforward.

Just for completeness: when the TV owner walked into a local independent retailer to ask if TVs could still be repaired, they were told it would be out of warranty, TV workshops had closed down, and promptly sold a new one (at least twice the spec though still missing key features of the original and "a bargain" at twice the price).

They were also told that digital switchover in Northern Ireland has been postponed until 2014 ... which is complete rubbish!

But when we returned the TV and explained that it was an unnecessary (due to ability to ask original retailer for repair) and inappropriate (less/more function than required) sale, they did offer a full refund.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lisburn, Creation, Environment Minister (elect) Edwin Poots and dinosaurs

Local councillor, MLA and Minster of the Environment Edwin Poots stops at the Creation Roadshow in Lisburn's Bow Street

Lisburn is famous for a number of things: flax, linen ... and its council.

Over the years the council have hit the headlines, usually for fractious reasons. There seems to be a lack of practical cooperation, trust and humanity in some reports.

And while the proportion of people in Northern Ireland who believe in a literal seven day creation is actually greater than any other part of the UK, Lisburn Council - and in particular its unionist politicians - seem to be a particularly dense statistical anomaly that bucks the trend.

So it was no surprise to see a trailer parked up in Bow Street advertising the Creation Weekend being organised by the Lisburn and Hillsborough Free Presbyterian Churches in September in conjunction with Answer in Genesis (who for me leave more questions than answers).

Lisburn Creation Weekend roadshow - Answers in Genesis

Having picked up one of their leaflets (click on the images below to see larger versions) which explains the Giant's Causeway is "Evidence for Noah's Flood", I noticed Lisburn Councillor, MLA, and member of the NI Executive (formerly as Minster for Culture, Arts and Leisure and most recently as Minister (elect) of the Environment) wandering down the street. His theological views and their overlap with his ministerial role have been noted in the media. And he took the time this afternoon to have a good chat with the team manning the roadshow.

Answers in Genesis - Giants Causeway leafletAnswers in Genesis - Giants Causeway leaflet

Update - 6 July - Post title and content amended with word "(elect)" for clarification.

Update - 6 July at 6pm - I got an email this morning from the Department of the Environment Information Officer requesting that the “photo of the Minister with his daughter” be taken down”. It went on to state that “On no occasion was permission requested for this photo to be taken, let alone published on this site. It is well known that photos of children should not be taken and published without full parental consent.”

Note:

1. Edwin Poots was Minister (elect) of the Environment when this photograph was taken, so it is difficult to understand why the department’s press office have intervened. When asked - on the phone- the press officer suggested that since it was “a live site” and “had now been brought to their attention” and felt it was within their remit. I’m not aware that retrospective editing of a new minister’s history is the remit of a department press office?

2. The girl in the photograph - identified by the DOE press office as his daughter - was blurred out when the post first went up,: her hair, face and clothing pattern. Still looked like a child, but not a sharp image. But since she wasn’t the subject of the photo - but the photo looks bad cropped above her head - I obscured her identity (without being asked).

3. If you’re in a public place you can take a photograph without permission. There’s no law to stop you. If you’re in a school or a sports club or some other private area, the organisation may have restrictions. But on the street, anyone can take your photo. Pretty obvious that the photograph wasn’t in anyway pornographic so child protection concerns don’t really come into it.

4. After a long conversation, the press officer did eventually say that the photo was causing distress to the minister. Up until that point the discussion all centred around the press officer, what he was doing, what he would feel as a parent, and not directly mentioning the minister.

If Edwin Poots had fired up Outlook and sent an email saying he was distressed and normally kept his family out of the press, I’d have been very sympathetic. Much less sympathetic to the intervention of his department’s press office.

Since I’m off on holiday, I don’t need the hassle of defending a perfectly reasonable photograph, or waiting for Edwin Poots to get in touch directly with what seems to be a personal request. And since the press office eventually verbally state - though not in their original email - that the photo was causing distress to the minister, I’ve crudely cut the girl out of the picture, re-uploaded it, and will now go back to the beach.

In the meantime, I wonder if the DOE Press Office will think again about how they might be perceived to be bullying people to take action on historic online publications that pre-date their minister coming to office, and whether they are representing his departmental responsibilities or his personal wishes.

And I do hope that no distress was caused to Edwin Poots' family. Certainly none was intended.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

NI will count overnight at next General Election

Northern Ireland’s Chief Electoral Officer, Douglas Bain, confirmed this morning his intention to count the votes from the next General Election overnight, with constituency results expected to be “available in the early hours of the morning”. So Northern Ireland will no longer be the last to declare in the UK-wide vote.

Sorting votes at the 2009 European Election

He was speaking at the Electoral Commission’s post-election seminar attended by candidates (one - Steven Agnew), agents, Electoral Office staff, Commission staff and other stakeholder groups including RNIB, Disability Action Ofcom and Royal Mail.

Referring to one of this year’s electoral innovations, he commented that “the significant change to poll cards was that we included a map and in most cases it was correct” though the River Bann was briefly rerouted through Kilkeel on some voters’ cards!

Douglas Bain making an announcement in the Kings Hall, Belfast

And the change to allow Smartlink passes to be used as identification, and the withdrawal of the need for ID to be current on the day of the election, had been an unqualified success.

For the first time, late voter registration was possible in Northern Ireland during the run up to the European Election. So while the normal registration process closed on 7 April, 12,000 late registrants (with brand new or amended details) were processed before 19 May and issued with polling cards, subject to increased scrutiny and unable to request a postal ballot.

Despite the low turnout, the registered (potential) electorate was up by over 69,000 when compared to the 2004 EU election.

The number of permanent absent voters (often due to illness) increased by over 7%, in stark contrast to one-off absent votes which reduced by 76%.

And although it was the first time that the scheme was in operation here, Northern Ireland had more election observers (36 of us) than any other part of the UK. And one even got twenty minutes in the agenda to reflect back to the seminar about his experiences.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

trans festival - urban arts academy

logo for trans festival and urban arts academy

Every summer I wish I was twenty years younger. While I availed of IT camps out at UU at Jordanstown – still remember my first mainframe account on UPVAX with user name CB2126MNA as well as learning about Lotus 123 and programming BBC Micros - there was nothing like the trans festival or the associated Urban Arts Academy. It’s something I’m really glad that Belfast City Council support – particularly as I’m still paying rates in East Belfast!

trans festival Urban Arts Academy radio production

Urban Arts Academy offers in depth courses (usually one to three weeks long). Quite a lot of courses are already booked out, but there are still places radio production, journalism, music production, DJing, comic book illustration, street theatre, 3D animation and urban dance. As long as you’re 15+ (with no upper age limit) you can apply. There are also short two day courses looking at developing iPhone apps, Alternative Reality Gaming, music videos, and lots lots more.

If you know someone who’d be interested, or if you’re interested yourself, get your application in quickly.

With the courses and workshops dealt with, the main trans festival has plenty to offer.

The Electronic Creche is back on Saturday afternoons in the Ulster Hall cafe. 4, 11, 18 and 25 July. Newspapers, free wifi, Wii, coffee and music. A paradise of grown up calm in the middle of the city centre?

Having seen them at the recent Belfast Children’s Festival, I’d highly recommend a trip along to Cotton Court on Sunday 5 July (1pm, 2pm, 3pm or 4pm) to see the high fashion and hire wire antics of the incredible Barren Carrousel Aerial Circus Troupe along with Seamus McJuggler.

Starting at the City Hall at noon on Saturday 18 July, there will be a Flickr meetup going across to tour the less spotted areas in Victoria Square. And it’s free!

During the first two weeks of the festival, you can log onto the trans website and download a scavenger hunt that will take you all over Belfast to search for images and buildings and who knows what else. You can also pick up the instructions at the Waterfront Hall ticket desk. But if you’re less of a loner and want the full group experience, meet up in front of the Waterfront Hall on Sunday 26 July at 3pm, and you can collaborate in a much larger group. Sounds fun.

Harvey Milk

During the fringe events around the time the Ulster Hall reopened, Sunday Service redelivered important speeches from history (usually anti-establishment ones like Martin Luther King and Hitler) together with music that fitted the theme. Well Sunday Service is back, and on Sunday 26 July at 7pm, the Black Box Café will host words from Harvey Milk (read the film review to find out more). Given Northern Ireland’s attitudes to gay and immigrant issues – a third of those surveyed in 2007 wouldn’t want to live next door to someone who was homosexual, the highest figure for any country in Europe, and the figure for immigrant intolerance topped Europe too – could be a timely intervention. Koko and the Boomtown Cats provide the music.

Between the 4 and 31 July, the Ulster Hall Group Space will hosts an exhibition of photos taken at the Do You Remember the First Time concert on the opening weekend of the refurbished Ulster Hall. And it’s not too late to mail your snaps through to info AT transbelfast DOT com along with your name for a credit.

Across in the Waterfront (possibly in the toilets if I read the festival guide correctly) between 4 and 31 July, the Anti exhibition will look at Belfast’s alternative heritage adopted by those (often young) people who rejected the two traditional tribal cultures. Iconic people, places, events – narrowed down to a dozen subjects.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Saturday's anti-racism rally in front of Belfast City Hall

Turn on the breakfast radio news each morning and you’ll still sometimes hear the results of the continuing low level of beatings and intimidation. Our violent past hasn’t gone away. But I seem to have got used to that. But individual misery and abuse seems to wash over me.

A different thing to realise the same violence - maybe some of the same people - had turned on an entire community, twenty families singled out for sustained abuse?

It was awful to see pictures during the week of families scared to stay overnight in their homes. Terrorised. A week old baby unable to go home from hospital to a warm secure home, but spending a night in a church hall and then temporary accommodation.

I wouldn’t want that for my family. And not for theirs. So it felt important to attend today’s rally, and important to go as a family.

I don’t want my four year old daughter to grow up in a society that is intolerant and racist. And I don’t want her to end up intolerant or racist herself. She wanted to go to the swimming pool this afternoon. But when she asks why we went to Belfast first, to stand with all those people with banners and flags, we can tell her that it was to support Romanian families who we let down last week.

To say sorry and stand up to the handful of people who singled them out. And to support the Irish travelling community who we continue to let down. And the Chinese families who speak with Belfast accents but were told a year or two ago where they couldn’t build a community centre unless they wanted it burnt down.

Northern Ireland’s spent too long labelling people as different and then telling them to go away. That’s got to stop.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Return to Sender

Can’t really let this one go past, even it could at a stretch be a bit of viral marketing.

Living in a rented house and getting a lot of mail for the previous tenant - not to mention the phone calls from companies seeking repayment for their debts - I’m well use to writing "return to sender" on pieces of mail. (Hint: write it on a label and stick it over the original address otherwise the same letter will return through your door every three days.)

But this post on the New Humanist magazine’s blog takes the biscuit.

We rediscovered this while tidying up the New Humanist office – if anyone has ever received a wittier piece of returned mail, I can't wait to hear about it.

H/T to Tim.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Out of the Box - behind the scenes film of the European election in NI

BBC NI Politics Show special: Out of the Box, Francis Gorman's behind the scenes look at the how the Electoral Office NI ran the 2009 European Election

During the build up to the recent European election, Francis Gorman filmed behind the scenes as the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland selected polling stations, registered candidates, arranged to print ballot papers, and prepared the Kings Hall for the verification and count.

He also caught polling stations being readied for the surge steady stream of voters who would come through their doors, and was in the Kings Hall to capture the atmosphere as the verification (Friday) and count (Monday) progressed.

Out of the Box was broadcast in the Sunday evening Politics Show slot on Sunday night. After not immediately making it onto iPlayer, it has now appeared. Available until its seven day window expires at 22:39 on Sunday night (21 June).

For political nuts and anyone intrigued by the process, it's an interesting 19 minute film. A great credit to Francis Gorman's skill as a one man film maker and editor, and a great piece of public service programming which opened up the normally closed world of the Electoral Office to public scrutiny.

Belfast's shame

I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me into your home. I needed clothes, and you gave me something to wear. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me.

The story has been escalating in the media and public awareness since the weekend, but it’s been building up over months and years. I’m not sure there is such a thing as low level intimidation, or that what’s happened to the Romanian community living in south Belfast can be described as sporadic attacks. And shamefully, I’m sure the incidents are a lot more widespread than just the one area or the one minority community.

Belfast Romanian Flees - picture (c) 2009 BBC

Having abandoned their homes, twenty families came together in one house, hoping for safety in numbers. The police decided last night that 115 residents of Belfast (including a five day old baby) needed to be sheltered overnight somewhere safe.

And so the call was made to City Church to see if their hall could be used. By the sounds of the news reports this morning, it happened quickly.

There was no need for a church community consultation. No need for a lengthy risk assessment to evaluate the chances of damage to the fabric of the building or indeed future reprisals. No need for a meeting of office bearers to vote on whether this fitted with the church’s mission and vision statements. No need to check the hall booking spreadsheet to see if it was really free or whether the flower arranging group already had first dibs.

No. Someone simply said yes ... and then went about making it happen. (Update - City Church's Trish Morgan explained what happened in Thursday morning's Belfast Telegraph.) The words from Matthew’s Gospel above sum it up well.

With help from the church, neighbouring congregations, the local community as well as statutory and humanitarian organisations. Turns out that the local Red Cross are equipped in “first world” Northern Ireland to support displaced residents just like any other country they operate in.

Belfast’s Lord Mayor Naomi Long summed it up well on Good Morning Ulster as I drove into work. Articulating the shame she felt, Naomi went on to say:

“They have a right to be in Belfast they are part of the fabric of this city. I want to see them treated with the respect and dignity that I would demand for any other citizen.”

And the BBC’s Mark Simpson summed up what he saw last night:

“Looking at 115 Romanians huddled together on the floor of a Belfast church hall, it was possible to see the worst side of Northern Ireland - and the best - all at once.

The speed with which Pastor Malcolm Morgan and his team created a temporary home for 20 families was remarkable.

At the same time, the sight of men, women and children looking so helpless and scared was a stain on Northern Ireland's international reputation.

Many of the families came to Belfast believing that the years of prejudice and narrow-mindedness were over. However, it seems that in some parts of the city, racism is the new sectarianism.”

Looking forward, twenty families can’t live in a church hall forever, nor in the Ormeau Park’s O-Zone. Surely they need to be welcomed back into the community, shown great love and assured of their safety.

Is one of the practical solutions not that the local community, so outraged by this incident, host individual families in their own homes. What a way to show sacrificial love and solidarity, by sharing food, rooms and families. And any stones that do still get thrown while all this gets sorted out longer term will no longer just be hitting the windows of a minority.

Update - Crookedshore posted about the recent One Hundred Thousand (ways to) Welcome event, and finished with something that reminds me that God had already prepared for the eventuality that newcomers and visitors might be treated less well:

The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the alien shall be the same before the Lord. (Numbers 15:15)

Monday, June 15, 2009

The dinosaurs have left the building ... RIP Primeval

Primeval logo

Primeval was seen as ITV’s response to the BBC’s successful reintroduction of Doctor Who into the Saturday night family science fiction schedule. And while the show never grabbed me enormously - though I do admit to at least flicking through most episodes to see how they could possibly introduce another CGI variant of a dinosaur - it was pretty successful with audience, with the latest series averaging 4.5m viewers (23.25% share). It was even announced that a Primeval film is being made in the US.

However, ITV have today confirmed that they won’t be making a fourth series of Primeval stating:

“high quality drama remains a key part of the ITV schedule, although our current focus is on post-watershed production.”

So the dinosaurs are dead at last. Let’s hope Doctor Who and Torchwood don’t suffer the same fate.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cafe Square Bistro ... and a lack of evening toilets in Lisburn

Cafe Square Bistro in Lisburn Square

We'd walked into Lisburn on Saturday night and followed our noses towards Lisburn Square in search for somewhere to have dinner. Turns out that after forgetting to stop at Subway, the only other option was Cafe Square Bistro.

And it was an option we were very satisfied with. A good "early bird" menu: tasty nachos, empty plates after polishing off the lamb burger and chicken, and the rhubarb tart and crème brûlée seemed disappeared too. Nice atmosphere with a live guitarist appearing sometime after 7pm to sing and strum along in the background. Unless you're going to turn up very early like us, I would advise booking a table in advance.

Of course, having found a cosmopolitan corner of Lisburn, wandering home it was impossible to find a toilet. The city's tourist signage points to lots of public toilets, but none of them seem to be open at 8pm on a Saturday night.

Lisburn Island Arts Center - dog toilet - the only thing open

With no cultural event booked in Lisburn's premier arts venue on Saturday night, the Island Arts Centre lights were out and the doors were locked. Good news for canines: the dog toilet was open ... but nothing for their two legged friends. Lucky enough, no one at Lisburn Cricket Club noticed (or minded) strangers wandering in, using the facilities and then leaving!

Lisburn Island Arts Centre -  closed on a Saturday night

So come on Lisburn - sort out some decent facilities - and why isn't there something running in the Island Arts Centre every Saturday night?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

GPS + Stupid People = Awful Results

House knocked down by GPS mistake

You hear stories about drivers blindly following GPS instructions up farm lanes and over fields, well off the beaten track.

But the story I read on engadget tonight was particularly disturbing. In this case, the consequence of someone believing the GPS was unfortunately felt by a third party.

A Sandy Springs man got a phone call Monday that his family home in Carroll County was gone. Torn down. Demolished.

“We had heirlooms in there…my mom’s dining room set…her hutch with her dishes in there,” said homeowner Al Byrd.

Byrd said he cannot believe his eyes.

The house his father built, brick by brick, with his own hands has been mysteriously demolished.

The demolition company said it had paperwork.

“I said, ‘Paperwork for what?’ and he said, ‘For the house, to demolish the house.’ I said, ‘I’m the owner of the house, I haven’t given anybody any authority to demolish this house,’” said Byrd.

Channel 2 Action News reporter Jovita Moore asked Byrd if the demolition company had an address.

“I said, ‘What address did you have?’ and he said, ‘They sent me some GPS coordinates.’ I said, ‘Don’t you have an address?’ (and) he said, ‘Yes, my GPS coordinates led me right to this address here and this house was described,’” said Byrd.

Quite awful. The WSBTV news report can be watched online.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Count ... haa haa ha ha ha

You’re probably fed up reading about elections by now - but this post should finish it off for a (long) while. After all, couldn’t have an election without a count to get the result.

So what to say about Monday’s count?

Over three hundred people fenced in behind the metal crowd barriers generating processing the 488,891 votes cast. The first area sort the ballot papers in play at that point in the count by candidate. So during the morning had to split just under half a million ballots by first preference votes (and find the four thousand or so spoilt ballots). It’s a pretty frenetic effort, with staff standing in front of wire baskets mounted on homemade wooden stands labelled with candidate names.

sorting transfers

The second area check that they’ve got it right, looking through the bundles of sorted votes by candidate to make sure there are no mistakes. The third area count the sorted and checked ballots, grouping them in bundles of one hundred.

The counted ballots are then stored in big metal cabinets with piles of 1000 wrapped in coloured paper ribbons for easy counting. Most of the parties had someone keeping a close eye on the cabinets as the counting continued, totting up the bundles to get an early view of the first preference votes.

And during the first round, there’s a process to look at doubtful ballots and decide - in conjunction with party nominated representatives - whether they are valid ballots or should be counted as spoilt. According to media reports, there were people putting zeros on the ballot papers, a two page essay on the state of politics and various other novel contributions!

As the day goes on the number of baskets in the first area reduces, as do the number of ballots being sorted. However, as candidates get elected or excluded, their job becomes more complicated.

Alliance candidate Ian Parsley and Green's Steven Agnew shaking hands after being excluded from the count

In the first round, Bairbre de Brún was elected. However given that she was just over the quota, her transfers weren’t significant (three pages of logic omitted at this point!) and in the end both Steven Agnew and Ian Parsley were excluded from further stages of the count.

So the count staff in the first area had to take the Agnew and Parsley 1st preference ballots and re-sort them by second preference. But if an Agnew first preference transferred to Parsley (or de Brún), then the third preference would be used. And if there wasn’t a third preference, it would be filed as non-transferable. Just over 7,500 votes fell out of the process at this stage.

baskets for sorting transfers into

Red-bibbed count supervisors keep feeding new ballots to the sorters, checkers and counters keeping up momentum and making the count look like some kind of turn-of-the-last-century workhouse.

It’s a superb feat of organisation, helped by a training session, and despite the 80 votes that fell out of the calculations at one point in the afternoon and caused a partial recount!

After Friday’s shenanigans at the verification, metal barriers had been placed in front of the tables over the weekend to keep people at more of a distance and out of the count staffs’ hair. Though there was a lot less interest in what the count staff were doing once the first preference count was finished. Most people reckoned the final answer was obvious and the only question left was the order in which Nicholson and Dodds would be declared and whether they would reach the quota. But it was just a matter of time.

The other reason that interest was lost was that the verification on Friday was really the only opportunity for the parties to mine the electorate’s ballot papers to get a view of regional trends and find out how individual areas have polled (and transferred).

Final result from the 2009 European Election in Northern Ireland

Once the count starts, the ballot papers get mixed up during the sort, and can no longer be visually traced back to a particular ballot box, never mind a constituency. So other than cursory glances at progress, and some curiosity about the proportion of transfers from Jim Allister to the remaining candidates.

A surprising number of people stuck around to hear all seven candidates complete their speeches. But then we all like a bit of pantomime - even if it comes with a barb. TUV supporters turned their backs and booed Bairbre de Brún when she took to the podium. And they booed, but faced the right way, when Diane Dodds got up to speak. The Green Party’s Steven Agnew reminded the successful candidates that they had all committed to green policies in their manifestos.

TUV at one side, Bairbre de Brun at the other extreme

And as they left the building, somewhere inside the heart of all the count staff, I bet they thanked their lucky stars that de Brún’s deferred transfers never had to be brought out of the cupboards - as no one wanted an extra 126,184 votes to sort, check and count (in order to be proportionally shrunk back down to the 5040 excess).

Overall, looking back on the last week of election observing, it’s been an interesting experience, eye-opening, and from what I saw, one that leaves me with a huge respect for the integrity and professionalism of the electoral process in Northern Ireland. While there are small areas for improvement in the process - and perhaps huge opportunities for improvement in some candidates - there’s a pretty secure foundation to build on.

In the meantime, I’ll hang my election observer badge up on the back of the door and wait for the next election sooner (Autumn 2009) or later (May 2010).

Disappearing Diane Dodds (or is that Doods?)

Typo on the BBC website

Having spent the afternoon observing down at the count, I quickly flicked through the day's TV election coverage last night. And noticeable by her complete absence from TV interviews was Diane Dodds.

She only came into the Kings Hall about five or ten minutes after the first preference votes were declared - which may partially explain the lack of a cheer from the assembled DUP agents and supporters.

But both UTV and BBC seemed to only be able to talk to party leader Peter Robinson and election campight coordinator Jeffrey Donaldson rather than the candidate. The other elected candidates - and many of the unelected ones too - seemed to be more willing to take the media spotlight.

Screen dump of BBC website mistake

Maybe her media shyness explains why they sometimes have trouble spelling her surname! The reference to Diane Doods has been fixed now, but you can see the original webpage if you click on the image to the right.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Verification :: demystification

There are two opinions on what verification of ballots is all about, and only one of them is backed by law!

The Electoral Office need to verify the number of ballot slips in each of the ballot boxes. Without that figure, you can’t set the quota that’s needed for the Single Transferable Vote (STV) process to work.

The actual counting of the votes cast (first preferences, complicated maths with second preferences etc) won’t happen until Monday after the polls have closed across the rest of Europe. But nothing to stop the time-consuming verification happening before that.

You can tell a valid ballot paper by the markings on its back. So verification consists of breaking the seals that keep the boxes closed, tip their contents out onto a table, and verify that the box is now empty. Then it’s simply a matter of taking each ballot from the pile and setting it face down in piles that can be easily counted, and recounted.

Of course that’s where the other definition of verification comes in: getting an early peek at the first preference results.

Once all the count staff had been through security, been parked present and found a seat, another queue formed at the single way in and out of the count pen. Politicians and their agents, armed with multicoloured clipboards and pens. As an electoral observer standing inside the hall, it’s factual to say that the DUP quickly formed an enormous group at the head of the queue.

A couple of days ago, as a count virgin, I showed my innocence by asking why the political parties would bother turning up to the verification? After all, a couple of representatives would be enough to check no one was dropping ballot papers on the floor or stuffing them up their jumper.

Ian Paisley Junior praying for DUP votes in North Antrim ... or trying to see first preferences

Being clever and more aware of the ways of the world, you’ll already know the reality. But just in case, I’ll let you into the poorly kept secret! It turns out that in the process of tipping the ballot papers out onto the desk, some fall out face up. And while the count staff are lifting them and neatly stacking them in face down piles, the political agents can keep a running tally on their clipboards of the first preferences they can see.

A random sample of the box. And once they know the final number of votes cast in that box, they can multiply up their proportions to estimate the final tally of first preferences. Do that for enough boxes, across enough constituencies, and the parties can have a fairly good indication of who’s going to meet the quota or not on Monday.

It seems to be part of the election game. An urgency to translate their gut feelings into an approximation of a result that may be proved correct several days later. Of course, it’s not really meant to happen - though I’m struggling to find the rule that prohibits trending or anonymous sampling as long as no one talks about what they see:

European Parliamentary Election (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2004

Regulation 30

(3) No person attending at the verification of the ballot paper accounts or shall express to any person an opinion based on information obtained at that verification the likely result of the election.

Some political agents and politicians are quite pushy about the whole process of tallying: some maybe more aggressive than pushy. Leaning well over the table, inches away from the count staff’s hands to peer at the votes (and try and see the number 1 pen mark coming through the paper) seemed to put a lot of pressure on some count staff and make them uncomfortable.

Some of the agents/politicians didn’t take kindly to being asked to move back by count supervisors, complaining that they wanted to verify that the ballot papers were valid and they should be placed face up so they could check that they were filled in properly … oh, and get an easier look at which candidates they voted for. But of course weeding out the spoilt ballots is part of the count process on Monday. If it had been an Assembly election the verification and count would be separated by minutes, not a weekend.

Others took a more deferential stance, hunkering down in front of the tables to try and catch a view of the underside of the papers as they were being set on the table. Can’t resist wondering out loud whether Ian Paisley Junior was praying for votes!

Yet others found friendly count staff who might “innocently” turn the ballots vote side up in view of the agents before setting them down. Or in one case, piling them up vote side up in piles of ten or twenty in his hand while the political agents captured a perfect tally before setting them in bundles on the table. From what I saw, count supervisors tended to catch on pretty quickly and move to stop staff helping the agents.

The only candidate I spotted while I was there in the morning was the Green Party’s Steven Agnew, who was there doing his own tallying. But Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley MP & MLA) and Ian Paisley Junior (North Antrim MLA) were there in person to scribble down tallies and see how their own constituencies were voting. Maybe fearful of any change in voting patterns that could unsettle polls in other assembles and parliaments?

And in some cases, I wondered whether two reps from the same party weren’t looking at key areas, maybe one doing first preferences, the other trying to see where their second preferences would come from.

Verification at Kings Hall Belfast for European Elections 2009

Many of the count staff were regulars. Some even turned up early to get seats at tables near the entrance and be able to follow the comings and goings through out the day. It’s a bit stop start, so there’s plenty of opportunity to look around .Some had been manning polling stations the day before - several recognised me and said hello as they came in! The pay’s ok, but at around ten pounds an hour minus tax for twelve hours today and probably about seven hours on Monday, it’s not going to earn any of them a terribly big duck house or moat. But the crack seemed good, and other than the odd deviation away from the mandate to keep ballots face down, everything was well ordered and professional.

The post is all a bit wordy, but it hopefully gives a bit of insight into the process playing out in the Kings Hall, and doubles as a first draft of my report back to the Electoral Commission!

Update - you can catch a better explanation of the art of verification and vote tallying from Gerry Lynch in Inside Politics (starts about half way through) - available on iPlayer until Sunday 14th.

Education: middle class value or fundamental human need? Mike Wardlow in conversation on Tuesday night

Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland logo

Back in May, the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland hosted an evening of conversation with Lesley Carroll who was on the team behind the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past .

This Tuesday night, they're following up with another event, this time on the theme of ever-topical theme of education.

In Conversation with Mike Wardlow discussing “Education - a middle class value or a fundamental human need?”

Tuesday 9 June at 7.30pm up on the 3rd Floor, 21 Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, BT2 8HD

Does the Christian church have anything distinctive to bring to current local education debates and institutions? A space to explore biblical values concerning education, and bringing them to bear on current local educational issues.

Mike Wardlow is Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, has plenty of experience in the world of education and training, and strong views of how faith should inform Christian's engagement with the eduction system.

The event is open, so everyone is welcome to turn up, hear more, and ask questions.

Update - recording of the event and slides below.

Polling :: a tour

If you’ve lived in the same place for a long time, then you’ll have been returning to the same polling station once every year or so when an election is called. So on Thursday as an election observer (having already witnessed postal ballots being opened on Tuesday) it was intriguing to tour around fifteen or so polling stations on the way into work and (mostly) on the way home. Now fifteen out of the 620 polling stations (holding the 1551 ballot boxes) isn’t an enormous sample, but it’s more than I’ve ever been into before!

Up front I’ve got to say that everyone I met working in the polling stations I visited and observed was really friendly and helpful. Thousands of people employed across Northern Ireland yesterday to keep the polls open. Some motivated by the money; others by the craic; many second generation election helpers. All different backgrounds and ages. But all very switched on, and very committed to running an uneventful poll. Presiding officers who had been up at the scraic of dawn to collect the empty boxes and ballot papers from local police stations, and who wouldn’t get to bed until the boxes were secured and returned.

There was near-universal approval from polling staff for the changes to identification. They said they felt bad turning people away at previous elections with driving licences and passports that were in some cases only a day out of date. So lifting the restriction for the id to be still valid was welcomed. And large numbers of voters had brought along Smartlink passes.

Thumbs up too for not having to record what identification was used by each voter. Though still some problems with people bring work passes, taxi licenses, a Polish election identity card, passports issued in maiden names without a marriage licence to explain the change, and a report from Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church Hall in Lisburn of cluster of people arriving with their blue disabled vehicle passes (which now have photographs).

And reports of people at nearly every polling station who were surprised not to be on the electoral register - many of whom had turned up at their regular station assuming that poll cards had been misplaced in the post, and all of who seemed to be redirected towards the Electoral Office Helpline.

Jim Nicholson outside Belmont Primary School polling station in East Belfast

Since it’s well after the event, and the turnout has been announced following Friday’s verification, I’ll be giving away any secrets to say that I found polling pretty light in East Belfast around 5pm - not finding more than one voter in any building. Bumped into Jim Nicholson who had called into Belmont Primary as part of his own tour. West Belfast was a lot busier (though it was nearer tea time) with off-duty black taxis ferrying people up to vote. South Belfast was a bit more varied.

In the polling stations I visited, no one had asked for or made use of the voting instructions that had been translated into Polish, Portuguese and Simple English.

The accessibility improvements seemed to have been well used too. Where there was no convenient alternative entrance, portable ramps were in place, and in some polling stations they reported that good use had been made of them by older voters in wheelchairs and walking frames. Though the one at Brownlee Primary School in Lisburn was a bit too short and pivoted on the middle step, making it a hazard for the woman I spotted going up it with a walking frame. Over at St Kevin’s Primary School in West Belfast, the flat wheelchair route down from the car park to the main door is visually hidden, and with no signage up, people were tripping down the steps on crutches unaware that the smooth path was to the left.

Polling station at Brownlee Primary School in Lisburn, with the wonky ramp

Signage of some polling stations was poor too. Travelling around so many made me a bit like someone moving to a new area, visiting their polling station for the first time. While the map on the front of the polling card gives you a big clue, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the actual entrance to the school or hall is. Particularly when polling is light and there aren’t hundreds of people flooding in and out of the gate.

Driving up to Oakwood Integrated Primary School at The Cutts I expected to see a POLLING STATION poster up at the entrance on the main road. But it was only once you’d gone up the winding driveway and into the car park that signs appeared. Same story at Knock Presbyterian in East Belfast where the pedestrian gate might have been labelled, but the vehicle entrance to its car park fifty metres up the road and round a slight bend wasn’t labelled. And once parked up, no clue as to which building or hall to head towards.

A surprising number of polling stations had car parks on the grounds, but a lot of the time it wasn’t obvious, and I wasn’t alone in parking outside on the street and then walking for what seemed like miles through the grounds to reach the polling station. Christ the Redeemer Primary School, Lagmore Drive was a particularly hard polling station to find, buried in a valley to one side of the road, with a long and steep footpath down in.

While the voting cards do include a map and the full postal address and postcode of the polling stations, it would be helpful for Electoral Observers and agents visiting multiple stations if the Electoral Office’s lists of polling stations by constituency included post codes and house numbers.

Sometimes the locations were more obvious given the throng of party activists (sometimes called tellers) handing out leaflets at the gate - and in some cases samples, of completed ballot papers with a 1 beside their party's name “to encourage you to vote for us”. In previous elections, activists and leaflet givers had to stay out of the polling premises, and could come no closer than the footpath. I found the polling stations where they were inside the grounds a lot easier to get in and out of as they spread out better inside the grounds than standing in a crush, blocking people trying to get through a narrow gate.

Since the Chief Returning Officer in Northern Ireland is not the Chief Executive of the local council, he feels he can control who comes in and out of the building he has commandeered for the day, but has no say (unlike a council CEO) on who comes onto the property surrounding the bricks and mortar.

But polling staff at some stations told me that the new relaxed rules had created hassles when politicians had turned up, didn’t understood the changes, and then made a big fuss - emotions run high on polling day - forcing calls to be made back to the Electoral Office.

Alasdair McDonnell and his son Oisin outside St Bride's Primary School polling station in Derryvolgie Avenue, South Belfast

As well as activists outside polling stations, you might have noticed tables inside, usually marked with a sign indicating that anyone sitting there was a political representatives. If they sign up and attend, they can inside and make sure that the polling station staff aren’t being hoodwinked by people coming into vote twice, or coming in from other areas to impersonate local voters. Anecdotally, they may sometimes in past elections been used by parties to keep a close eye on who hasn’t yet voted and get the word out to mobilise transport to ensure that their vote isn’t lost.

Presiding officers in West Belfast commented on the extra polling clerks that had been allocated to their stations in the run up to polling day. As part of an experiment, the Electoral Office placed extra clerks in some stations to sit alongside the political agents inside. Unable to perform normal polling duties, they couldn’t be used to relieve the other staff. One of the extra clerks explained how boring the day had been - watching, watching, and yet more watching - with only a few words scribbled on a sheet to say “no incidents by 12 noon” to show for it. Next time round he wanted to be doing the real work.

But to be fair, the presiding officers who mentioned their extra staff felt no animosity towards them personally. But it had come as a bit of a surprise to the local political agents and activists, and surprises made for bad feeling, and bad feeling made for extra hassle on the shoulders of the presiding officers.

A lot of the polling stations were pretty quiet all day. But in two of the busier ones (still not as busy as they expected), Presiding Officers spoke positively about the central instruction that they display the number of ballots issued for each ballot box on a small poster at noon, 5pm and 9pm. For once, political agents weren’t continually pestering them for a running total. However, there was a large variation on where the polling snapshots were displayed. Some stations stuck them to the front door, put them up in the hallway on the way in, on the edge of the tables holding the ballot boxes, or up on the walls.

Now I thought there were rules about parking vehicles semi-permanently outside polling stations with large advertisements. In some cases, the posters strapped to school railings were enormous and nearly the size of vehicles anyway. In a couple of the polling stations I visited, opposite the entrance and a bit to the side was a parked van (with a poster mounted on the back in such a way as it couldn’t have been driven without removing it) and a caravan (poll HQ for the transport coordinators).

There’ll be another post about Friday’s verification at the count.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Postal ballots

Over the last few elections, I’ve tended to rely on postal ballots to make my vote count. So I’m aware of the process of getting one - more on that later - and what feels like enormous paperwork to fill it out before stuffing it all inside the various envelopes to return.

But with my electoral observer badge on, I saw the other side of the process when I popped into the Belfast Area Electoral Office for half an hour on Tuesday morning to observe their scheduled opening of postal ballots. Hadn’t seen an actual letter opener put to such good use for a long time!

There’s a lot of checking to prevent fraud. Opening the outer envelope leaves the staff with the voter’s identity declaration and their ballot sealed in a further (smaller) envelope. The first step is to verify the voter’s identity. Compared to England where some areas have 80% of ballots cast by post, but only need to check a minimum of 20% of the postal voter declarations, every last one is scrutinised in NI.

So all the numbers have got to match up, along with dates of birth and signatures are checked against that provided on the original registration. Thorough is not a strong enough word. During the checking of the one box I stayed for, one identity declaration failed: the date of birth didn’t match.

And only then can be the ballot papers be taken out of the inner envelopes and verified , ie counted face down. At this stage there was no need for the votes to be counted, that’ll happen on Monday along with the ballots cast in the polling stations.

In the past when I’ve applied for a postal ballot, it’s always been a bit of a hassle. Identifying yourself is ok, but providing a strong enough excuse that you’ll be out of reach of your local polling station on the vital day was always tricky. In years gone by, I usually ended up working across in England two to four days a week, but with plans never finalised more than a week in advance, wandering into the area electoral office with a blank calendar was not a good way of convincing them that you’d be unavailable!

But talking to the Chief Electoral Officer, Douglas Bain, he didn’t think it should be so difficult. While the procedures for getting postal ballots continue to be significantly tighter and more rigorous than in the rest of the UK, he seemed more mellow and open to reason that I’d experienced in the past.

Getting a simple letter from your boss (or a friend/client if you’re self-employed) to attest that your pattern of work means that you tend to be away from home should be enough to convince the Electoral Office you were legit.

That would have been easy if I'd known that would have been sufficient! Anyhow, next time I apply, I’ll know a lot more about what has to happen to make my vote count in the election.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Random acts of kindness

It's just such a lovely idea. To throw a surprise wedding reception for a couple coming out of a registry office.

Check out their blog post and pictures for the full explanation. The latest in many random acts of entertainment and madness by Improv Everywhere.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Belfast Mystery Players on a glorious Saturday evening

Saturday night was a glorious evening. So why did so many stay indoors hunched up on their sofas in front of Britain’s Got Talent? Instead, I headed down to the main gates of Queen’s and joined a bunch of other folk all eying each other up and wondering whether they were here for the Belfast Mystery Players’ first performance ... If I Should Fall From Grace With God.

Many churches still mark Christmas with a service of nine lessons and carols, taking a brisk run through the Christmas story. Mystery plays take that a stage further, and race through the Bible from cover to cover, selecting episodes here and there to knit the narrative together. Regular readers will recall an earlier post mentioning the event and the explanation:

[Mystery] plays originated as simple tropes, verbal embellishments of liturgical texts, and slowly became more elaborate. As these liturgical dramas increased in popularity, vernacular forms emerged, as traveling [sic] companies of actors and theatrical productions organised by local communities became more common in the later Middle Ages. (source: Wikipedia!)

You can read a longer essay on the development of medieval mystery, miracle and morality plays for even better background.

Deus and the Angels - Creation of the Universe

Students from the Medieval MA course at QUB had been inspired by their reading and translation of medieval mystery plays, and decided to put on their own. Different students wrote each play in the cycle, and Drama students were auditioned to help with the acting. With an underwhelming lack of interest from male students some key traditional roles ended up being played by women! But that didn’t matter.

  • Creation of the Universe
  • Creation of Adam & Eve
  • Fall of Man
  • Joseph’s Trouble with Mary
  • Nativity

There was a contemporary feel to many of the plays, with Lucifer’s fall being likened to an Apprentice’s fall from favour with Sir Alan Sugar. Starting out at the front gate, the action moved in towards the university quad behind the Lanyon Building, allowing Adam and Eve to emerge from the flower bed wearing their white dressing gowns.

Perhaps the most gripping story was the Fall of Man. There was something visually eye catching with the bottles of lurid blue WKD strewn across the perfect green lawn leading up to the tree in the centre. And something canny about the way Lucifer could charm his way into Eve’s head. Acquainted with the forbidden fruit, Eve emerged from her dazzling bath robe into an altogether more grown-up little black dress. Adam – who in this version was played as if he had lost a frontal lobe rather than a rib – got one of the best laughs of the night when he observed:

“Eve! You look really different”
Fall of Man

Joseph’s trouble was with the wee slip of a girl Mary whose companion (mother?) was more West Belfast than West Bank. But after much eating of pink wafers and listening to Gabriel, Joseph had a change of heart.

The Expositors linked together the stories, moving the audience around and thinking out loud between stories. Their dialogue was new, and not adapted from medieval originals, and added to the mystery and thought-provoking-ness of the performance. Lines like:

Nativity

Expositor 1: “You said I’d find joy in that. Where was the joy in that little scene?”

Expositor 2: “The joy, is in the sorrow ... Without sorrow, there can be no joy. Without man’s fall, he cannot be redeemed. Well he could, but it would mean nothing. The joy is in the sorrow.”

And it’s one of the Expositor’s lines that has been stuck in my head since Saturday evening. Right at the end, post Nativity (complete with “friendly beasts” that included an inflatable penguin and sad looking Eeyore), they explain:

“... and so is born the Son of Man, who’s doomed to save us all ...”

Doomed. A word that suggests finality, despair, out of control. Intentional, but not positively so. Not deliberately, or longingly. The tendency for the plays to stray from the “traditional” wording is one of their strengths, trying out new angles and meanings, making room for reappraising the situations and revalidating what they’re about. Making the audience think and react. They don’t have to be conventional to be good. They’re not doomed!

Final song

Forty five minutes after the start, the final song ended and it was all over. Most in the audience seemed to be wanting more. Some extra scenes had been written – including the Passion – but not rehearsed, so hopefully there’ll be a fuller version next year.

It was a brilliant performance. Something that Belfast Festival or Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival should be proud to present - modern drama told against a backdrop of real buildings. A real shame that students’ creative and dramatic talents don’t get more frequent outings in public. A superb evening, and hats off to all involved.

(Lots more photos from Saturday evening on Flickr.)