The Great Variable Cover Debate

The Great Variable Cover Debate

On 13th October 1996, the Central Council Methods Committee met at Whitchurch, Hampshire, by kind invitation of Peter and Juliet Niblett. By some horrible accident, such as can happen in the best regulated systems, a poor aspirant whom the committee had previously invited along as a awed listener was now a Member of the Committee. The existing Chosen Ones seemed to bear the unfortunate occurrence with becoming dignity.

There were a few routine discussions about publications: Treble Dodging Minor Methods (now available, and reviewed in the R.W., after the printers had initially turned everything upside-down) and the Four-Way Table of Minor Methods ("unviable" according to the ruthless capitalists of the Publications Committee, but there are those who still keep the faith that it will appear in this millennium). There was also the tricky matter of "Berwick" Surprise Major. Beverley S. Major, which has three blows in 3rds, crept through a loophole before the Rules on Method Extension outlawed such inelegance, but did that entitle the 8ths place version to be called "Berwick"? The Chairman thought on the whole not, and the rest "concurred", as the Law Reports tend to say.

These skirmishings, though, were just the overture to the Big One, the Great Debate, the deliberations that would change the future of Ringing As We Know It - that's it, the discussion about variable cover (VC) peals. At the Shrewsbury CC meeting, the Chairman had proclaimed his personal view that VC is an abomination against the principles of change ringing, but the Committee had nevertheless collected an action to come up with proposals that would accommodate the horror within the Rules.

Everyone had done his homework and submitted a paper on the VC matter, which revealed some widely contrasting approaches. Some took the philosophical approach, asking the question "What Is Truth?" (and, by the by, discovering that the current CC decisions have little to say on this matter for, say, peals of Triples and Major). For another member, it was more a political matter: "Coaker is a stirrer ... he thinks the CC is ****", and so on.

Those who went back to first principles enjoyed some esoteric pondering whether 123456 was really the same as 234561, but most sided with the view of the Ringer in Clapham Tower, or wherever, that the cover bell is part of the row; no-one seriously disagrees that a 720 of Stedman Doubles (variable cover) should logically have each of the six bells covering for 120 true 5-bell changes. The debate wasn't easy to follow, conducted as it was in pseudo-mathematical shorthand about "VC at stage n being treated as changes at stage n+1" and suchlike.

One member (it might have been the simpleton) put forward the view that VC at stage n (e.g. Triples) should be treated exactly like stage n+1 (e.g. Major) in the rules, and so on for all other numbers of bells, but this turned out to have some strange consequences. For example, it would allow a VC peal of Minor (5,040 changes) to be rung on 8 bells, with one variable cover and one fixed cover (the tenor). The majority thought this was a step too far and suggested that any VC Minor enthusiasts should be sentenced to ring their peals on 7 bells, horrible though that might sound, but, hey, our church's neighbours don't get to speak in CC debates.

As at all good meetings, the final decision was to hold another meeting, this time to codify possible changes to Decisions for the CC to consider at Cambridge in 1997. The mist swirls, it's the year 2020 and a voice pipes up at my elbow: "Uncle, what did you do in the Great Variable Cover Debate?" "Well, my lad, I went to this historic meeting ..."

The Ringing World, December 13, 1996, page 1239