Weekly News with Brian 12-19 August 2021

This Week with Brian

This week, Brian discusses four fat men in a lift, two double wardrobes, code red, the greatest impact, apes with a thesaurus, Nigel Farage, going for a curry, going for an English, farewell to Mr C, a tight fit, 500 days in a row, scary wheelbarrows, life upside-down and far out with a partial capo.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday) including the Showground (again), pigeons (again), 2,500 homes (again), a fast bowler, Hungerford’s impossibility, Froxfield’s hedge, Lambourn’s dates, Newbury’s ballot, Speen’s vacancies, Greenham’s tower, Thatcham’s growth, Midgham’s opposition, Theale’s lunch, Aldermaston’s ramp, Wantage vaccines, Grove’s animals, Marlborough’s fridge, Ramsbury’s award, Aldbourne’s bounds and Swindon’s windows – plus our usual whistle stop tour around the various parish council websites and local FB pages.

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

• As a beardless western atheist who likes a drink, plays guitar and doesn’t think that women should constantly be bossed about by men I’m not anywhere close to being one of the Taliban’s “potential key markets”, assuming it uses focus-group techniques to identify likely converts (which I rather doubt). For the long-suffering people of Afghanistan, however, no choice exists.

[more below] 

Periodically, these alarming people just turn up, usually whenever the Russians or the Americans are looking the other way. I appreciate that isn’t a very sophisticated analysis of one of the world’s many recurring geo-political tragedies. A glance at a map is perhaps instructive: this shows that Afghanistan borders Iran to the west, various former USSR republics to the north, China to the east and Pakistan to the south. This is not a great situation to be in (Alsace-Lorraine, Poland and Palestine are in much the same boat) and is like being permanently stuck in a lift with four fat men who are constantly picking fights with each other. The UK has played its own part in this, Afghanistan having been used as a pawn in the “great game” of diplomatic chess between the British and the Russian empires in the 19th century. This map showing the current state the country and which group controls which area resembles like a nightmare jigsaw puzzle. What a planet.

• One thing that won’t directly affect landlocked Afghanistan is the rise in sea levels, one of many climate-change consequences which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) described as “a code red for humanity” and “widespread, rapid and intensifying.” This isn’t one elephant in one room but a herd of them rampaging throughout the house: the problem in these situations is perhaps one of knowing which elephant to deal with first. Clarity and firmness of purpose is the first requirement and fortunately we have a current example to draw on. To pick but one instance of someone referring to this, the BBC quotes Northern Ireland’s infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon as saying that “we need to show the same urgency in terms of tackling the climate crisis” as we did with Covid.

Well, indeed: except Covid is far from tackled and a lot of the problems that remain – such as with the inequality of the vaccine roll-out – are down to nationalistic rivalries. Our World in Data reports that, as of 10 August 2021, over 60 countries – about 25% of them – had less than 10% of their population vaccinated at least once. This includes populous places like Nigeria (1.2%), Egypt (2.75%), Algeria (7.8%), Bangladesh (8.8%), Vietnam (9.2%) and Ukraine (9.9%). The WHO’s Covax programme has so far provided fewer than 200m doses to 138 different countries worldwide. Every person who isn’t vaccinated is a highly efficient mobile laboratory for the creation of mutations. This explains why the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group has criticised the UK’s decision to start offering booster jabs from next month on the grounds that they should actually go “where they can have the greatest impact” and be used to protect unvaccinated people abroad.

• This leads to the question of the what the role of a government should be. Clearly these are elected (other selection methods exist) to look after (other motivations exist) their own populations. However, a number of countries – the USA, the UK, Russia, China and France, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, spring immediately to mind – have long claimed a role as global arbitrators, regularly backing this up with military action. International bodies like the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, have only as much clout as their most powerful members permit. In the case of the UN, any one of the five above-mentioned countries can veto an important geo-political issue and I’m struggling to think of any one issue of any magnitude on which all these five are likely to agree. Covid doesn’t seem to have accomplished this. Nationalism is an unavoidable trait of us humans as we’re tribal creatures: ultimately, just apes with a thesaurus.

• One such human is Nigel Farage who, despite a number of climatically sceptical remarks in the past, has recently signed up as a lobbyist for a green finance firm, Dutch Green Business Group. This is, as The Guardian observed in March, “part of the rapidly growing but controversial carbon offsetting industry.” It’s probably the “finance” part of the job that appealed to him as he spent more than 20 years working in the City of London. He recently said on GB News that he thought the above-mentioned IPCC report was “alarmist.” I think that alarm is probably exactly the reaction its authors were looking for. Reading through some of his comments, diatribes and sideswipes on the subject it’s not immediately obvious that he sees his climate-change scepticism as anything other than a continuation of the Brexit campaign by other means. Further battles to protect libertarian self-interest, the message seems to be, remain un-fought.

A-level results day took place this week, the third different system in three years (and there’ll be a new one next year) causing any number of problems for universities and employers: comparing these must be a bit like comparing apples, hedgehogs and fish fingers. I spoke to two friends who’re university professors about this. However, each of them has a brain the size of a double wardrobe and I don’t and they’ve told me stuff I need to process so I’ll hold off any attempt to summarise their thoughts until next week.

• There was a R4 programme the other day in which a couple of Asian food experts were lamenting the fact that the word “curry” was used as a catch-all to describe just about everything that most people in England think people in the sub-continent eat three times every day. It wasn’t put so bluntly but that was the implication. This area’s food – may I use the word “cuisine”? – was, they explained, infinitely more varied than a single word suggested. It’s for exactly that reason, I found myself saying to the radio, that we need to have a noun that conveniently summarises something that we in this country broadly understand as “curry” and which, perhaps more importantly, makes it marketable. I dare say the word means something different in the UK than it does in India (if it means anything there at all), just as “pants” has a different meaning here from in the USA. We’re told a lot about words that we mustn’t use, or must use instead of others, or can only use if we’ve been on some kind of societal training course: however, the day is a long way off when I shall stop using the word “curry”.

The main result of the programme was to make me realise how much I wanted a good, traditional English curry – invented (I believe) in Birmingham – something I haven’t had for some time. Take-aways don’t do it. I need the starched white linen, the piped sitar music, the garish paintings, the pint of Cobra and the moment of salivation when the sizzling shiny silver salvers (try saying that with four pints inside you) finally get wheeled towards your table. That’s what I mean by a curry. Goodness gracious me, I’m starting to sound a bit like Nigel Farage…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 365 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 2 to 8 August, up 31 on the week before. This equates to 230 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 284 (255 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

Nick Carter has just stepped down as West Berkshire Council’s (WBC) CEO and we’re grateful to him for finding time during his hand-over to do an interview with Penny Post which you can read here. You can also read his own valedictory remarks in the 12 August Residents’ News Bulletin.

• The Newbury Weekly News has its own interview with him on p10 (even though the page number isn’t printed). He repeats the comment he made in our interview that his biggest regret was not providing more affordable housing and admitted that WBC has been “a bit slow off the mark” on this: he wishes now, he says, that less money could have been invested into commercial property (which, in good years, provides income) and more into homes. He also says he regrets not tackling “the green agenda” sooner although, as he goes on to add with some justification, this has only fairly recently become a government priority and so diverting funds towards this might previously have been “difficult.”

• I find his assessment of the London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE) rather harder to agree with. The only visible change to the area (apart from the access road from the A339, a controversial issue in itself) since the plans were mooted in about 2003 has been the closure of the football ground. He claims this was “entirely appropriate.” Many would disagree, particularly given the delays and legal entanglements which have followed and which can’t have been a total surprise. Nick Carter at one point claimed that WBC had no obligation to find a replacement ground, a statement which didn’t seem to square with Sport England’s view of the matter (nor with WBC’s later decision to spend £18,000 on consultants to do just this). He adds that “there was a sense of putting a leisure quarter together and Monks Lane [where the Rugby Club is located] was seen as the place for that.” If there was such a sense it seems to have been a transitory one. I understand that a proposal was indeed made in 2018 but discussions with the Rugby Club petered out. The matter has only recently been given fresh impetus when there was a change of leisure portfolio holder in May 2020. As a result there is now at least a plan (even though not all agree with it and its schedule is, as Blackadder might say, tighter than an incredibly tight pair of tights). Nick Carter added that “sporting provision will come,” before switching to rhyme to sign off with “it ain’t gonna be at LRIE.” That is, of course, a decision for the elected members working with the new CEO. It’s not been a great chapter in WBC’s history.

Nick Carter also says that he “doesn’t view [the LRIE] as a failure.” I think that ‘failure” is a very interesting choice of word. As nothing has yet been built, any judgement on the success or not of the project is hypothetical. However, it’s hard to see anything that has over 18 years produced so little, and cost so much, as a success. (Much the same could be said of Sandleford.) Both of these will, I suspect, be fairly close to the top of Nigel Lynn’s in-tray when he takes over in the autumn.

We wish Nick Carter well in his retirement, armed with the Desert Island Disc items that we granted him in our interview. He claims that he leaves WBC on a sound financial footing: I wish it had less money invested in the roulette of the commercial property market but otherwise would probably agree. There’s also another solid achievement he can reflect on: he has, to my knowledge, never been mentioned in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column. Not all council CEOs can say the same.

• West Berkshire’s green-waste collection services have now resumed and it has offered “a goodwill gesture” of a small reduction in the collection service rates for next year as a result of this disruption. One corresponded in this week’s NWN suggests that this is not necessary and might cost WBC £80,000 which, at a later date, might need to be clawed back from other more important services. Let’s hope he’s wrong. 

• Details of West Berkshire Council’s holiday activities and for programme can be found here.

• West Berkshire Council has launched a consultation (which closes at midnight on Sunday 5 September) into the lido at the Northcroft Centre, a much loved facility which, just having celebrated its 150th birthday, is in need of some serious TLC.

• Another West Berkshire consultation (which closes at midnight on Friday 30 August) covers the region’s bus services. 

• WBC has announced a second round of grants for local infrastructure projects proposed by community groups for the benefit of their residents and businesses. Bids are now invited from community groups to be received by Tuesday 31 August. Final decisions will be made as part of the 2022-23 budget debate next year. Click here for more.

Click here for information about lateral flow tests available in West Berkshire.

• The West Berkshire Covid dashboard can be visited here.

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

Click here for details of consultations currently being run by 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 for initiatives from Vale of White Horse Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council and the various towns and parishes.

Click here to visit the website for West Berkshire Council’s Community Support Hub. You can also 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 this two-toed sloth from The Living Rainforest in Hampstead Norreys. which spends pretty much all its time upside down. Apparently they can hold their breath for 40 minutes (though I don’t know why they would want to do this unless they’re swimming underwater – backstroke if so, I imagine.)

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, correspondence on the subject of pigeons, bribing youngsters, tip charges and too many people. There’s also a photograph of a dog that’s scared of wheelbarrows and poppadoms.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Wiltshire Air Ambulance (thanks to Swindon Town FC); Time2Talk (thanks to the recent charity orienteering event at The Plough in Eastbury); Macmillan Cancer Support (thanks to the MCC charity cricket match at Welford Park; and to Emma Smith and Sarah Liles); Berkshire Youth (thanks to its recent fundraising event); Charity Links (thanks to Neil and Sandi Smithers).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we’re now well into the final over with the Song of the Week. Something a little different this time, a kind of short informal gig from the singer-songwriter Ben Howard including a re-working of his song Far Out. Plank spankers amongst you will note his unusual tunings, considerable use of John Martin-style effects and a partial capo which enables him to access low notes which a full capo would prevent: this is important as he’s adept at playing bass and top-line parts at the same time.

• And, with just one ball to go, it’s the Comedy Sketch of the Week. This also isn’t the first time I’ve referred to Indian restaurants in this column. Sketches succeed for a range of reasons, one of which is when they perfectly invert or subvert some common situation and make us see it from the opposite point of view. Few do this better than the wonderful Going for an English from the excellent and groundbreaking Goodness, Gracious Me. 

• So here comes the final ball of the innings that is the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What has 11-year-old Max Woosley from Devon just done for the 500th consecutive time? Last week’s question was: According to the Guinness World of Records, what is the most number of people who have fitted themselves into a UK phone box? Well, you can believe this or not, but the answer is 14. This unlikely event took place in Edinburgh on 20 August 2003. During the Fringe Festival, that would have been, so they were probably all contortionists promoting a show. Or perhaps it was a show: some of the venues performers are forced to use there are not much bigger than a phone box, and just as uncomfortable.

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 

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