Weekly News with Brian 30 September to 7 October 2021

This Week with Brian

Including distinguishing news and comment, civil liberties, coerced consent, welcome to my world, plenty of water, a national signifier, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, many votes for community champions, lost and found in the forest, 23 extinctions, a 25th birthday, headlines, a peek in the letterbox, a habit of leaving, trusting doctors, a criminal link and a paper cup.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including a new chapter for the Showground, calendar girls, harvest time, open days, Hungerford’s jumble, Denford’s bridge, Kintbury’s lodge, Lambourn’s jabs, East Garston’s morning, Great Shefford’s breakthrough, Newbury’s fireworks, Hamstead Marshall’s verges, Thatcham’s costs, Cold Ash’s fences, Bucklebury’s questions, Brimpton’s ownership, Compton’s walk, East Ilsley’s byway, Chaddleworth’s ghost, Aldworth’s donation, Brightwalton’s tree, Theale’s church, Bradfield’s negotiations, Beenham’s condition, Wantage’s postponement, East Challow’s quilts, Grove’s search, Marlborough’s entries, Aldbourne’s pond, Ramsbury’s collapse, Bedwyn’s dyke and Swindon’s knitting – plus our usual prowl around the local websites and social-media pages across the area.

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

• Any of you who read the stuff I write, here or in the nine regional sections covering the Penny Post local areas, will be aware that I mix news and comment, sometimes within a sentence. This may well fall foul of the classic standards of journalism but it has two main advantages: (i) it’s more interesting to write; and (ii) I hope it’s therefore more interesting to read. The distinction is one I’m clear about and I hope that you are too. The issue has recently been highlighted by the decision by Ipso in August 2021; this ruled Peter Hitchens’ article in the Mail on Sunday claiming experiments had shown that face masks were useless was not, as he asserted, a statement of opinion but one of (incorrect) fact.

[more below] 

The latest (1557) Private Eye also refers, on p11, to a similar case involving another writer Toby Young, whom Ipso also judged to have strayed the wrong side of the fact/comment line when covering the rise in Covid infections in mid-2020. He claimed was that “there’s no reason to think” that these were doubling every three four days, something that’s since been proved to have been so. To say otherwise, he said at the time, was according to Private Eye “odd…a myth…and fake news.” The Telegraph, where the article appeared, asserted that the phrase could be recognised as comment and that “there’s no reason to think” was “clearly rhetorical and not meant to be taken seriously.” This has made me re-evaluate my own approach to writing these columns and, indeed, my relationship with the truth (which is, I accept, a shifting thing, and a lot more subjective than we might like to pretend).

There is (or should be) a presumption of accuracy if you read an article in a major national paper about the results of scientific experiments. In a perverse way, we are perhaps more distrustful of statements made in the news pages, understanding as we increasingly do that these represent the faceless publication’s often politicised views. A statement from a named columnist, however, carries far more punch. This is someone we’ve come to trust. They make us laugh or shake or head or raise our eyebrows. Without even thinking, we might absorb and repeat their phrases until we feel they are our own. This isn’t a national newspaper thundering headlines at us but a cosy chat with someone you’d like to feel you’ve got to know. How much more insidious, therefore, are their words once the distinction between hard fact and personal comment becomes blurred.

It’s absolutely OK to disagree with anything as long as you can offer reasonable evidence to the contrary, or at least suggest reasons as to why a received opinion just feels wrong. Any academic or scientific research will always include dissenting voices from a generally held position and quoting such sources would be one way of going about this. You could also claim that the experiments were not sufficiently large or randomised, that they were incorrectly conducted or that the evidence was misinterpreted. You might also seek to show that new evidence has come to light or new technology has emerged which casts doubt on previous results. (For all the above, if you weren’t a scientist or a doctor yourself you might want to have a reliable one on speed-dial before you wrote anything.)

It might also be – as in the rather less relevant world of Anglo-Norman feudalism, with which I grappled for three years at university – that an entire 40-year body of argument was, like an upside-down pyramid, delicately balanced on one word in one charter which was later shown to have been mis-translated. It may be you feel that, despite all the evidence, you still disagree with a widely held view for no reason you can exactly out your finger on at the moment. Most of us believe the earth is round and that it orbits the sun: but if you have reasons to believe otherwise, however whimsical, then go for it.

What doesn’t seem right, though, is to present your views as facts. This seems pretty basic to me. The English language is blessed with many phrases expressing doubt or equivocation. Both these writers, and many others who might fall foul of the same rulings, are seasoned practitioners and should have these at their fingertips. If nothing else, more carefully considered language intruding your own views can still convince almost as many people that you’re right but, if it comes to it, be more defensible in court.

Private Eye went on to quote the Telegraph’s defence of another of its correspondents. In 2019, the paper claimed that a senior columnist’s remarks were merely “sweeping generalisations based on his opinions…(which) could not reasonably be read as serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters.” The columnist in question is now our Prime Minister.

• Covid has turned a number of matters that are firmly in the area of medical expertise into civil-liberties issues. Face masks, lockdowns and vaccinations are perhaps the three most potent. The last has spawned entire websites and fuelled countless social-media road-rages, many of the anti-vax claims being started by people who are only alive because their parents had them jabbed against a carnival of infectious diseases when they were kids. It’s beyond doubt that drugs were given out a lot more freely in the past and that the testing regime was less strenuous. All the research I’ve done suggests that things have got a lot better since. Of course there will be side-effects that even detailed trials won’t reveal: but if there have been any huge problems from the hundreds of millions of people who’ve been given Covid jabs then I’ve yet to hear about it. This is, after all, largest vaccination programme in human history so there should be no shortage of evidence.

• Vaccines were widely accepted until Dr Andrew Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet in 1998 which suggested a link between the MMR jab and autism. A scientist friend has pointed out that this issue is “a good deal more subtle than has been presented in the press” (isn’t it always?) and that perhaps some of his work was relevant to rare cases. Without appreciating these subtleties, Penny and I fell for this and arranged expensive and, as matters proved, unnecessary individual inoculations for our two young sons. Wakefield was since disgraced in the UK (it later transpired that his research was based on only a handful of cases) but re-invented himself in the USA as a continuing opponent of MMR and, more recently, of the Covid jabs. As this article in The Guardian suggests, the distrust of the MMR jab that he encouraged may have contributed to a number of outbreaks, and thus deaths, in the USA of the diseases it was designed to combat.

• One piece of anti-vax propaganda that has recently been doing the rounds in West Berkshire and Swindon (and elsewhere) is a form which purports to be a consent checklist to be completed (by patient and clinician) before any jab is administered. These have been circulating online with printed copies also appearing in some schools and GPs’ surgeries. It has an NHS logo on the top and makes a series of statements which, although falling short of claiming that the vaccines are at best useless and at worse mind-alteringly dangerous, would create a sense of mounting unease in the mind of anyone who was already even slightly mistrustful.

West Berkshire Council issued a statement to schools this week saying that the document was not official and was being “circulated by an unknown malicious source and is causing some parents to withdraw their consent.” If something has an NHS logo on the top and we’re told to distrust it, we really are in quite deep water.

A scientist friend made a good point about this to me: all genuine consent forms will be given to you by a clinician at the time of treatment and anything else should be ignored. Obviously, no responsible clinician would sign their part of this form. This wouldn’t worry the authors as the intention is that the readers never get as far as seeing clinician in the first place.

On closer reading, the document has some serious flaws. Some of the links on the second page don’t work and seem to be the result of copying URLs from specific searches which can’t be repeated by one click. One of the statements refers to vaccination as a “treatment” (which it isn’t). Another states how many people who have received a jab have since died, without citing any evidence about causation. On two occasions – but, to make the point with more subtly, not on every occasion – the vaccines are described as “experimental.” The final statement the reader is asked to accept is that they do not “feel coerced.” This is the most cunning of the lot as it assumes that the previous phrases do not amount to coercion (which they do).

I showed this to a friend of mine who’s a GP in South London. “I’d not seen it until you showed it to me, but I may yet,” he told me. “I’m not surprised. It gives me a sense of despair and annoyance in roughly equal measure. Mind you you, it’s just the latest in a long series of anti-vax stuff that we have to combat. Welcome to my world…”

• Driving into Hungerford, as I do three or four times a week, has been complicated by the queues at the town’s two petrol stations. There seems to be a direct link between this and Monday’s “panic at the pumps” headlines in most of the headlines on Monday. Even when they purport to be calming matters down, newspapers can’t resit the P-word. “Stop fuelling petrol panic” the Wantage & Grove Herald thundered on its front page this week. All papers might want to follow this advice.

Bland reassurance doesn’t help much either. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said earlier this week that this is “no shortage of fuel” and that he knows because he checked with the six refineries and 47 storage centres. This isn’t, however, where people buy their petrol. It’s as asinine a remark as telling people experiencing a drought that there’s no shortage of water in the world and you know this because the Pacific Ocean, Loch Ness and Lake Baikal are still full.

• Once again, my thanks to Jon Williams for this little gem from Bursa in Turkey via the BBC website. It seems that a man, who had been out drinking with friends, wandered in a forest (like you do). A few hours later he stumbled out and found himself  surrounded by people. It turned out this was a search party: and, being a seemingly good-natured if not terribly bright man, he joined in with them. It was quite some time later that he realised that the person they was looking for was him.

• Brexit still continues to spring surprises, the latest being that GB number-plate stickers are no longer valid abroad. It was always a mystery to me why GB was ever used as it’s only part of our snappy name of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. UK is fine as an abbreviation of all this, but not some bit in the middle. This move, it seems from this article on the BBC website, comes not from Brussels but from Whitehall, to “symbolise our unity as a nation.” The statement goes on to say that it’s “part of a wider move towards using the UK signifier across government.” I can’t believe other countries get themselves into this muddle. Imagine Macron inviting some consultants to the Elysée Palace and saying “what signifier should we use across government to symbolise our unity as a nation?” Three months later, the consultants shuffle back and say “we suggest calling it “France.” Now – where do we send the invoice…?”

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 412 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 20 to 26 September, up 70 on the week before. This equates to 260 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 335 (271 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• I mentioned last week that West Berkshire Council is, along with the other five authorities in Berkshire, looking at the possibility of using the as-yet somewhat vague proposals of the government’s county devolution deal to explore closer co-operation in certain areas. I pointed out that – as WBC Lynne Doherty had stressed and contrary to what you might have read elsewhere – that this did not mean that a return to the old Berkshire County Council was part of the agenda. This may transpire, of course, but if so I’ve not seen any sign of it.

The Reading Chronicle covered this story last week and quoted the Leader of Reading Borough Council as saying that the move was to consider “how the Berkshire authorities as independent entities [my italics] can collaborate in the future to drive investment in the local economy of the county and in its infrastructure.” He added that “I cannot be more categoric about the fact that we will never support any merger of local authorities in Berkshire or any resurrection of Berkshire County Council.” You never really say never in politics, of course, but any such re-amalgamation would be exceedingly complex and divisive and a very clear case would need to be made for it.

One argument in favour of doing so is that the six Berkshire unitaries are too small. As there is no clear agreement as to what an ideal size is, this could be cancelled out by saying that some other ones are too large. There are 314 districts in England (total population 56m) so the average district council, borough or unitary authority has about 178,000 people. It’s true that all of Berkshire’s are below this – they range from Wokingham in 116th place with 171,000 to Bracknell Forest in 189th place with 123,000 – but not by much. West Berkshire, with 159,000 people, is larger than the six smallest English authorities combined, so if size were an issue then there would seem to be better places to start. Were the six Berkshire authorities to be combined, the new authority would become the second most populous authority in the country with over 920,000 inhabitants, larger than anywhere else except Birmingham. This doesn’t seem an goal worth striving for.

In such cases it’s always a good idea to look over the fence and see what the neighbours are doing. Just to the north of West Berkshire we have the Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire. These share a number of functions including HR, IT and communications (most of their press releases are issued jointly). They operate from the same office and are even considering having a local plan. Their co-operation could hardly be closer and their intimacy has led some to ask whether they should not tie the knot. Although there have, I’m sure, been some blushing discussions on this subject, both seem to feel that unmarried co-habitation works for them.

Were Oxfordshire’s five district councils – which range from 111,000 to 152,000 inhabitants and so are similar sizes to Berkshire’s – to be combined, the new authority would be the third largest (behind Birmingham and Leeds). In Oxfordshire, the issue is complicated by whether there should still be an over-riding authority in the shape of Oxfordshire County Council. Why this persisted with in the 1990s when Berkshire’s CC was abolished, I don’t know. Having an extra layer can’t make decision-making any easier and can hardly save money. It certainly doesnlt make it easier to understand what each does.

The logic of the figures above suggest that abolishing Oxfordshire CC would be more feasible, equitable, rational and consistent than re-creating Berkshire CC: not, of course, that these four considerations can always be relied on in government decisions. Look at the recent planning white paper, for instance; look at HS2. None the less, there’s so far nothing I’ve seen to suggest either that Whitehall plans to impose changes or that the component councils plan to request them. If this seems likely to change, I’ll let you know (or you let me know).

• West Berkshire Council’s big initiative this week, and one we fully support, is its nomination for its 2021 Community Champion Awards. The voluntary sector has always been an important – no, make that “vital” – part of this and doubtless every other area. However, the desire to find “this year’s Community Champions to recognise the amazing contributions local residents make to West Berkshire” has been given extra importance by the pandemic. This demonstrated how local organisations from district councils down to local community groups were able to provide quick, effective and relevant support in the way that the top-heavy attempts from Whitehall could, despite several attempts, never accomplish.

This is the first such emergency I’ve lived through and I’ve spent the whole of it in West Berkshire so I have no personal basis of comparison. Allowing for this qualification, I’ve been pretty impressed with how West Berkshire Council has responded. I know that several WBC members were frustrated that councils’ active involvement in the test and trace was green-lighted by Whitehall many months later than it should have been, but they seemed to have reacted well when this finally happened. WBC had already set up a Community Hub to provide information, worked with the excellent and pre-existing Volunteer Centre West Berkshire to co-ordinate volunteers and liaised with the towns and parishes – with which WBC’s relationship was not in every respect and every case previously perfectly harmonious – to help support local groups. On a personal note, the two portfolio holders and several specialist officers answered my numerous questions promptly, often late into the evening. So, hats off to WBC and, so far as I’m aware, the other authorities in the area and further afield. I don’t always agree with what you do but praise where it’s due.

Even more hats can perhaps be doffed to the parish councils. Some of these operate with an annual precept that would hardly buy a decent second-hand car and so rely on the councillors giving their time up for nothing. In our own village of East Garson, for instance, within days of the lockdown the PC had helped set up a group run by one of the councillors to provide help for people who were vulnerable or shielding. The village website and e-newsletter immediately switched to providing regular Covid information information. Leaflets were put through letterboxes. This was replicated all across the district and all across the country without any government instructions and certainly not (at this level at least) with the promise of any extra government funding.

More important still were the organisations that already existed which re-adapted themselves to provide help (but which had no statutory duty to provide it). One of the problems with offering help in an emergency is knowing where it will most be needed: communities which were already well-connected probably to fare better (East Garston is lucky in that’s it’s compact and so neighbours and their needs are perhaps better known than in more dispersed communities). Covid support groups of various kinds sprang up everywhere, defeating our attempts to list and link to them all.

In some larger places like Hungerford, which already had numerous excellent active voluntary groups such as CHAIN, the need was none the less identified for something new to deal with the crisis. The Hungerford Self-isolation Network, supported by Hungerford Town Council and other groups, was started up within a week or so of lockdown and made a huge difference to hundreds of people in the town who were unable to shop or get prescriptions. The organiser Geordie Taylor even managed to achieve the seemingly impossible feat of getting GWR to change its timetable so more trains could stop at the Racecourse station ,near where the vaccination centre was for many months. Again, this kind of commitment and selfless resourcefulness was repeated across the area.

Spare a thought also for the various small media groups like Village Views and Great Shefford Parish News which, despite the obvious logistical problems caused by Covid, continued (with some interruptions) to keep publishing and providing information in printed form for those who want to receive it in this way. Again, the same comments apply to other such publications across the area. The online ones had it easier but – and I really do speak from experience on this – to produce a regular publication during a time which has upset all your normal editorial and financial models requires a certain dedication to what you believe in. Whether weekly or quarterly, printed or digital, you too were doing your bit to spread accurate news and to help keep life going on.

So, I’d like to nominate all the organisations mentioned above, and the hundreds of others like them, for my Community Champions for 2021 (and 2020, come to that). I don’t think this is quite the response WBC is looking for as you’ll need to pick one recipient in the four categories offered. Click here to read more about the award and to make your nominations, which need to be in by the end of October. The winners will be announced in January 2021.

• West Berkshire Council is consulting on its Local Flood Risk Management Strategy (LFRMS). See here for more information. The survey takes an estimated 10 minutes to complete although reading the various documents, including the 75-page Draft Strategy document, would be on top. You have until 3 October (so not that long) to make your views known.

Greenham Trust will be celebrating its 25th birthday in 2022. It’s proved to be an unlikely, and highly welcome, evolution from the time when the site it now occupies at the former Greenham Common air base was rather more divisive. In support of the Queen’s Green Canopy (marking the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee) and Great Big Green Week, “Greenham Trust is delighted to be working alongside West Berkshire Council to offer local schools, councils and community groups the opportunity to plant one or more trees to enhance the local environment for years to come.” Click here for more.

Click here for information about lateral flow tests available in West Berkshire. Note that several changes have recently been made (including the closure of some centres).

• 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 residents’ newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest business 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.

• These animals of the week are no more: 23 species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, are about to be declared extinct.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of cash for councils, flood forums, mixed messages, Singapore’s lessons, Greenham Common and threats to our wildlife.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: Speakability (thanks to Martin Colston); New Life Special Care Babies (thanks to Trevor Goodall); Newbury Cancer Care (thanks to Thatcham;s calendar girls); Loose Ends (thanks to Andy Downs); The Downs School (thanks to 1,300 of its pupils); Cold Ash pre-school (thanks to Selina Hall); Thatcham’s litter pickers (thanks to Thatcham Town Council).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we’re at the penultimate fence with the Song of the Week. A new David Bowie album, Toy, is about to be released. Recorded in 2000, his record company seemed unwilling to go with it – inexplicable though many would find such a decision about more or less anything he produced – and he moved on to other projects. It includes some new songs and some oldies of his: You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving, written in the 1960s, is one such. What a talent he was.

• And we’re coming up to the last at the  Comedy Sketch of the Week. We’re all being told we need to trust what our doctors in particular, or the NHS in general tell us: this sketch from The Fast Show may make you think again.

• And we’re into the home straight with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What is the connection between the gentleman thief AJ Raffles and the master sleuth Sherlock Holmes? Last week’s question was: The author Raymond Chandler described LA as having all the personality of a…what? The answer was a paper cup. It’s certainly pretty near the top of the list of places I never want to go back to.

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