Weekly News with Brian 27 May to 3 June 2021

This Week with Brian

Honest Dom, Hillsborough, official delays, Auntie in the dock, death by dinosaur, Lawnchair Larry, rising figures, travel tips, first-time winners, soul food, how not to answer questions and why you should ask the right one.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday).

Matters covered here include Readibus, Sandleford, the Kennet Centre, Welford’s marsh, Newbury’s show, Hungerford’s cows, Thatcham’s freshen-up, Downland’s Handybus, Theale’s consultation, Wantage’s wrong target, Marlborough’s secret sale, Swindon’s battered oasis and a trip round the various town and parish council websites.

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

• The only show in town this week – unless you happen to have been waiting for justice from the Hillsborough enquiry or from the BBC, on which more below – was Dominic Cummings’ appearance before there joint session of the Commons Heath, and Science and Technology committees 26 May. [more below>]

As this excellent article in i points out, it’s slightly hard to disentangle all the layers when a man who has admitted to having been untruthful in the past is accusing a notoriously untruthful PM of being untruthful. A lot of Cummings’ accusations seem to strike home – you can read the BBC’s summary of them here – but we kind of knew most of these already. As for the timing, it seems suggestive that DC’s Twitter offensive started six months almost to the day after he left office in November. I wonder what his employment contract had to say about confidentiality?

There were some quite eye-catching claims. Tens of thousands of people died needlessly; the PM was not fit to hold office; Matt Hancock should have been fired 15 or 20 times; the government fell disastrously short of what was expected; it was “completely crackers” that someone like himself should have held such a senior position at all. This sudden burst of honesty was, of course, all from the person who helped come up with the infamous £350m a week claim on the Brexit battle bus in 2016, something he knew was false and the controversy surrounding which he welcomed as it would keep the figure in the public eye. The episode proves that the effectiveness of your mendacity has become the true currency of government.

If lies won’t do, then try bare-faced evasion. Priti Patel’s performance on the Andrew Marr programme last Sunday provides a wonderful example of this (when being questioned about herd immunity) that anyone who fancies a career in politics would be well advised to study. Note in particular her use of the interviewer’s first name as often as possible as well as references to what “the British public” wants, knows or are interested in (a time-honoured tactic that the PM himself followed in this more recent interview). For those who claim that the British political system is broken, this interview (from a minister who, even by the standards of previous Home Secretaries, is particularly abrasive and whom BJ seems to have been shrewd enough to keep away from the camera as much as possible) and Cummings’ statements provide ample evidence.

• The official public enquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic won’t be starting until the spring of 2022. The unofficial one seems to have been publicly started this week. The virus is meanwhile, publicly or otherwise, mutating all the time.

• So that’s integrity dealt with. If you want justice, then you also might want to look away. The inability of our system to come up with anything approaching a full understanding on what happened at Hillsborough during the FA Cup semi-final in 1989 at which 96 people died seemed to take another backwards step this week with the acquittal of two police officers and a lawyer. These three men haven’t been found guilty of a crime and so I won’t accuse them of having committed one: but someone did. Statements were doctored and evidence was suppressed. As the mother of one of the victims said, “we’ve got the death certificate with “96 unlawfully killed” but yet not one person has been held to account.”

• Then we have the BBC in the dock over the Diana/Martin Bashir interviews. Like Hillsborough, this happened so long ago that, even if you remember the original events (as I do), you have to pinch yourself to think that they’re all being re-awakened now, 20 to 30 years later. Is a Covid enquiry going to take that long? The basic premise that the BBC was A Good Thing has been instilled in me as an article of faith (and one I can’t shake off) but I now have to question the ambition, complacency and arrogance that Auntie is capable of. It’s akin to discovering that David Attenborough is a cannibal or that Michael Palin a sex pest. Part of me just doesn’t want to know about it.

The original enquiry seems to have been pretty poorly handled. On the other hand, why did Earl Spencer not speak up sooner? Why was the matter dormant for so long” How did Martin Bashir ever get to work for there BBC again? The sanctimonious reactions from the national press, most of whom swarmed around every detail of this increasingly unhappy woman’s life with all the reticence of tiger sharks, is almost equally unedifying. Some of them are owned by media organisations which regard the overthrow of the BBC as a top priority.

Diana’s relationship with Prince Charles was already over at the time of the interview and her claim that the royal family is a bit weird was hardly a surprise. Her most famous assertion, that there were three people in the marriage, was all too true. I don’t want to condone what Martin Bashir did but his interview seems at least a version of the truth, however dishonourably arrived at and however effectively covered up by his bosses. It can’t, however, now be un-made. To suggest, as Prince William has done, that it should never be broadcast again is an idiotic remark that can be excused by filial love. One commentator on R4 recently suggested that, were it to be aired again, it should be bookended by a warning about the circumstances in which it was made. If so, it’s hard to think of any TV programme that wouldn’t need to be set in context like this, if not because of dishonesty then because attitudes had since altered or something had been insinuated about one of the participants.

• In fact, all of these matters seem to draw from same murky well as did the Post Office’s persecution of its Postmasters, as reported last week – delay enquiries, spin the narrative, ignore the collateral damage, hope that the awkward questions will go away and, as a last resort, trust that you have better lawyers than the other lot. There are also cases of this on a more local level and closer to home.

• An extraordinary story was drawn to my attention the other day by a friend, headlined “Body of missing man found in Spanish dinosaur statue”. I don’t think that sentence has ever been written before. The unfortunate man died after dropping his mobile phone inside the statue – how and why did that happen? – and getting stuck in one of the legs. It reminded me of a sinister little short film, also Spanish and also about telephones, called La Cabina.

• Even odder in its own way was this tale of a man in Delhi who tied a load of helium balloons to Dollar, his dog, to give it an aerial experience (and his YouTube channel a few hits). He was arrested and, following a backlash, took the video down. This reminds me of one my favourite news stories ever which, despite having shared with you a few years ago, I shall now relate again. This concerns a man known as Lawnchair Larry, of San Pedro, CA. Larry had long wanted to be a pilot but his eyesight was too poor: undeterred, in July 1982 he took matters into his own hands. He strapped himself into a garden chair to which were attached 43 helium-filled weather balloons. On his lap, in time-honoured American fashion, was a CB radio, some sandwiches, a four-pack of beer and an air rifle. Christopher Robin going off to discover the North Pole or Winnie the Pooh making his daring raid on the bees’ nest were almost better prepared. His plan was to float about for a bit at a reasonable altitude and, when he’d had enough, start shooting the balloons to make a controlled descent. What could possibly go wrong with that?

What in fact happened, when his friends severed the tethering ropes, was that he shot up to a height of about 16,000 feet and into the flightpath of LAX airport, something witnessed by the startled passengers of several passing planes. When he decided he’d had enough – which amazingly took 45 minutes – he started shooting out the balloons one by one before dropping the gun. He gradually descended towards Long Beach but became entangled in an electricity cable causing a 30-minute local blackout. Eventually he landed unharmed and was arrested. “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act,” an officer said. “As soon as we work out which part, charges will be filed.” He was eventually fined $4,000 (reduced on appeal to $1,500) for a range of violations.

• Meanwhile, back on planet Covid, which we all inhabit, the cases in the UK are rising again. How much this matters depends on how well local authorities can contain the spread of cases (despite confusing advice from Whitehall) and how effective the vaccines are (which seem to work against the Indian variant, currently the major “variant of concern”). Why the Indian variant is so concerning can perhaps best be answered by whoever decided to put Pakistan and Bangladesh on the UK’s red list in early April, but not India.

• And speaking of travel, Veronica Bailey from Fare Wise Travel in Hungerford has good news about the new cheaper and easier Covid ‘spit’ tests, Spain opening to UK visitors, looking forward to an updated green list, a reminder about quarantine risks, short cruise sea staycations and summer choices in England, Channel Islands and the Scilly Isles. Listen to this interview from 05’50”

• Congratulations to Villarreal for winning their first-ever major trophy by beating Man Utd in the Europa League Final on Wednesday. Man Utd have won more than enough titles. A lot more than enough, actually. Four years now since they won anything, though. Long may that continue…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 43 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 17-23 May, down 10 on the week before. This equates to 27 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 13 (13 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a much more local level to be obtained.

Click here for details of Covid lateral flow tests, which are available at four sites across the district (Hungerford, Newbury, Thatcham and Burghfield); and of home-testing kits. This post also has information about such facilities in neighbouring districts.

• There has recently been a spike in Covid cases in West Berkshire which seems to mainly the result of two unrelated outbreaks in local schools. An article on p5 of this week’s NWN reports on a meeting of the Local Outbreak Board on 24 May. Communities and Wellbeing Service Director Matt Pearce is quoted as saying that there is not “the same level of community transmission” as was seen in earlier waves in the district, or currently in some parts of the north west of England. He went on to say that, “although rates had risen, we are not seeing this translate into an increase in hospital admissions or, fortunately, deaths.” He suggested that this was partly due to the vaccination programme and also because most of the new cases were among school-age children and younger adults. Council Leader Lynne Doherty added that “if you take out the outbreak at Falkland, we come right down to the south-east England average.”

• West Berkshire Council has “refreshed” its strategy for next two years – click here for more.

• Councillor Claire Rowles, one of the three members representing Hungerford and Kintbury, has been appointed as West Berkshire’s Safer streets champion.

Sovereign Housing is offering £90,000 of community grants to community groups within three miles of any Sovereign-managed property. See The Good Exchange website for more.

• West Berkshire Council says that one in six people who invested in the Council’s Climate Change Bond liked the idea so much they have donated their interest back to the scheme.

• The West Berkshire Covid dashboard can be visited here.

• Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest business newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest residents’ newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest Covid newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

• West Berkshire, Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire and Swindon Councils have their own web pages relating to the outbreak. Click here as follows for the high-level links for West BerkshireVale of White HorseWiltshire and Swindon.

• See also the sections for Wantage, Marlborough and Swindon below for initiatives from Vale of White Course Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council.

Click here to visit the website for West Berkshire Council’s Community Support Hub. You can also or call 01635 503 579 to speak to the the Building Communities Together team. The Hub has also set up two FAQ pages, for residents and for businesses. You can also click here to sign up to receive the Hub’s e-bulletins and click here to see the weekly updates.

• You can click here to choose to receive all or any of West Berkshire Council’s e-newsletters.

• Click here for a post listing the various places which are offering a takeaway and/or delivery service. As with the volunteers’ post above, if you are aware of any others, let us know.

• The animal of the week is Dollar, the helium-powered dog from Delhi (see the Further Afield section above).

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those mentioned elsewhere, ones on the subject of concrete blocks, a weedy roundabout, piecemeal development, lacrosse and a terrapin.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: the bells of St Mary’s in Preshute (thanks to Richard “Bones” Metters); Little princess Trust (thanks to Bertie Pilkington; victims of period poverty (thanks to Caroline and Cara Herman); Bharati Shakha Newbury (thanks to the recent fundraising event); Parenting Special Children, Hungerford Town FC, the Trust for Sustainable Living, West Berkshire Mencap and West Berkshire Therapy Centre (thanks to Greenham trust’s imminent double matched funding day).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And so we come to the Song of the Week. Thanks once again to Prof JC for drawing my attention to Soul Food by Martina Topley-Bird; so I now draw it to yours.

• Which means it’s Comedy Sketch of the Week o’clock. Another film clip, from one of the Pink Panther films. I always found these slightly tedious as, like the Carry On franchise, they basically had one joke which was kept on repeat. This little scene, however, works for me and also provides a cautionary tale about being sure that you’re careful to ask exactly the right question.

• And we come to the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is as follows: St Johnstone won both Scottish cups this season. Aside from that, what was remarkable about the two results? For last week’s question, I again referred you to the current Penny Post quiz with a chance to win £75-worth of local market and produce vouchers which closes on 31 May 2021 (so not long now).

For weekly news sections for Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Theale area; Wantage area; Swindon area please click on the appropriate link.


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Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale