On 8th March 1998, the Central Council Methods Committee met at Whitchurch, Hampshire, by kind invitation of Peter and Juliet Niblett. Now, the last time I wrote an opening sentence like that, what followed got me into big trouble and by "big trouble" I mean fire and brimstone, bolt of displeasure from the heavens kind of stuff. Zap! The RW Editor's desk still bears the burn marks left by that stinging letter from Mr Andrew Stubbs. The Methods Committee - the public pillory's too good for them! We, the Ancient Society, have given the Ringing Exercise the wonderful invention of Variable Cover and entrusted the Committee with the sacred task of codifying the Law. And they have dared to treat their weighty duty with levity. Fie upon them! And so on, and so on.
Now, since it is the season for repentance, I must confess that the fault was entirely mine. The Committee's debate was deeply serious and, had I reported it verbatim, the RW's readership would have needed no sleeping tablets that month; a couple of paragraphs would have done the trick. So, it was the reporter who was guilty of flippancy, not the learned Committee, who treated the unwelcome task in a typically careful and thorough way. Those who know Tony Smith can have expected no less.
Nearly ten months after that great day in Cambridge, when delirious hordes of revellers filled the streets as History Was Made and the Council approved Variable Cover, it was time to reflect - was it all worthwhile? Certainly, the committee was quietly satisfied that, after so much debate and controversy, the motions eventually passed with virtually no debate. What's more, surely no ringer can doubt that the entire Art and Science now wears a different face, thanks to the marvels of Variable Cover. Sunday ringing has been transformed, it is a rare tower that does not boast a waiting list for its training programme and countless peals After the New Fashion have filled the RW - to be precise, two, of which one was really the previously illegal Stedman Major first rung in 1856. So, Uncle, did that wicked Stephen Coaker really just ring it to stir up the Central Council? Hush, child, of course not.
All that excitement over, there has been some quiet progress in the Committee's real work. With the release of a collection of Principles, virtually all named methods and principles are now available in machine-readable format (the exceptions are oddities like Minimus methods, but where do you stop?) The collection of Principles raised an interesting question: where should the published division start? In a few cases, such as the recently rung Tyler's Cinques, the band published the notation in one way, but actually rang it with a different start. The committee had a slight preference for recording the "natural" division (i.e. as regarded by the band).
Thanks to a well-oiled procedure, details of new methods are now on the Web almost before the conductor calls "Stand". However, touchingly old-fashioned paper is still with us and next year the Methods Committee inherits the Collection of Rung Surprise (etc) methods from the Records Committee and has to decide how to handle it. There were pleas from the CC Computer Co-ordination Committee (C5) for some technical improvements in the way the collections appear, including incremental updates. To explain what that means, the current collection of Surprise Major methods is a computer file, 726Kb in size. Every method has a sequence number, assigned in place notation order, so adding a new one means redoing the whole lot - and a complete new version of that 726Kb file. The Chairman, who is the holder of that priceless treasure, the Central Methods Database (which apparently doesn't actually exist) agreed to look into what could be done.
A letter from Mr Denis Mottershead provided a diversion. This concerned a method, Fazeley Junction Alliance Major, (devised by Mr M, conducted by Mr M and, indeed, rung by Mr M) in which the treble has an unusual path (dodge 1-2, dodge 3-4, point 8ths, 5ths). Mr M considered that the name "Alliance" should be reserved for methods in which the treble's path is a combination of plain hunting and dodging. He invited the committee to propose a Council motion defining a new class of "Junction" methods. The committee's answer could be summarised as "no way"; not only would this go against immemorial practice, but it would involve the reclassification of 34 existing methods.
"Junction" methods may be off the agenda, but "Differential" methods could just be in luck. There has been a "slow but continuous rumble" suggesting that the CC should officially recognise Differentials, in which two (or possibly more) groups of bells do completely different work. Currently, these methods have to be recorded, in an artificial way, as Treble Place methods. The committee's report to Council will suggest that we officially codify Differentials - not quite as glamorous as the Great Variable Cover Debate, perhaps, but easily enough excitement for a few months' worth of meetings.
The Ringing World, April 24, 1998, page 423