Weekly News with Brian 7-14 October 2021

This Week with Brian

Including an interchangeable group, thwarted money-laundering, misogyny and misandry, certainty and doubt, failure and success, oranges and apples, an outage, levelling up, Don Juan and his ilk, gendered insults, hate crimes, fat bear week, Greenham’s birthday, lifelong learning, council tax, library questions, new recycling, an inexplicable axe, crying doves, my dear boy, criminal brothers-in-law and old Mother Riley.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including the nature of NADAS, gotcha, Councillor Peter argyle, Oxfordshire’s poets, Hungerford’s denial, Inkpen’s scouts, Kintbury’s lead, Lambourn’s beetles, Shefford’s club, East Garston’s clean-up, Shalbourne’s HGVs, Froxfield’s drains, Newbury’s apples, Hamstead Marshall’s hedgehogs, Chieveley’s verges, Thatcham’s festival, Cold Ash’s logs, Aldworth’s path, Peasemore’s ownership, West Ilsley’s cherries, Theale’s dogs, Burghfield’s rats, Mortimer’s fish, Wantage’s MP, East Hanney’s posts, Marlborough’s pepper, Ramsbury’s award and Swindon’s spaces – plus our usual trawl 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

The recent release of the Pandora papers has told us that a decent chunk of the world’s wealth is held by oligarchs, kleptocrats, tyrants, offshore tycoons and hedge-fund managers: a fairly interchangeable group of people, most of whom, it will come as no surprise, are middle-aged or elderly men. This only confirms something we knew already and so misses being genuinely alarming, surprising or even depressing.

[more below] 

For anyone who wants to criticise the banking system for failing to clamp down on illegal practices, I can offer two examples of how well its money-laundering policies work. Firstly, in 2019 I was told that the account details of a very small company in which I’m involved would need to change. I asked why: “because of the changes demanded by the banking crisis,” was the proud reply. “But that was eleven years ago,” I said. “Well…” he said and then rather spluttered to a halt. Secondly, so enraged was I by this and other examples of hopelessness I’d experienced from them, that I went to another bank to try to open up an account there instead. The forms I was presented with and the questions I was asked made me feel almost physically sick so I gave up and left things as they were. They’re all pretty the same, anyway.

So, it may take the banks more than a decade to change anything but when they do they arrange matters so that it’s impossible for you to engage with them; thus preventing you from laundering money. Job done. I’m sure that time will show that the 11,903,676 documents that were released by Pandora were no more than a few unfortunate exceptions in an otherwise perfect system.

• The Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has been ridiculed for not knowing what the word “misogyny” means. It’s true that one rarely hears the opposite of this, misandry. This seems odd as I’d have thought women have a lot more reason to hate men than vice versa. It’s possible that, inspired by this gaffe, misogyny will now shape-shift its meaning to cover both directions of gender dislike.

Some have also doubted the sincerity of Raab’s interest in women’s rights: in 2019 he was forced to defend his remark that “feminists are now amongst the most obnoxious bigots.” The original observation was made in 2011 and was reported here in The Guardian. It appears he was trying to make a point about discrimination against males in matters such as maternity/paternity leave and suggested that “we are blind to some of the most flagrant discrimination – against men.” Such a comparison was hardly likely to go down well with everyone. More revealing, however, is that these rather clumsy observations were seemingly ignored by the mainstream media until – after eight years on the back benches or in minor ministerial roles (as well as four months as Brexit secretary during the storm-tossed years of Theresa May’s government) – the searchlight was suddenly shone on him when he became a Tory leadership contender. In all that time, he never learned what “misogyny” meant. I bet he knows now.

• The BBC article on this point goes on to look at his opposition to making misogyny (and presumably misandry) hate crimes, calls for which have been stepped up in the wake of the Sarah Everard case. I very much doubt, as Raab himself asserts, that were this to have been in force it would saved her life. This is part of the problem: legislating against something doesn’t solve it, although a politician might claim a particular piece of legislation as is a success. Numerous laws against violence have failed to eradicate it.

I’m not quite sure what I think about a crime being defined in terms of an emotion, but the Crown Prosecution Service seems to like it: this report from the House of Commons shows that there were over 105,000 reported cases (though not prosecutions) in 2020. The report also suggests that incidents where hate crime was a factor stood a greater chance of coming to court that those that did not. However, the number of prosecutions for this kind of offence has fallen in each of the last four years although the percentage of convictions has remained fairly stable. The report doesn’t offer any suggestion why this might be.

• Mr Raab said that his opposition to adding misogyny to the list of hate crimes was that it would “criminalise insults.” Leaving aside the question of what he regards as an acceptable level of insult – would calling a group of people “bigots” qualify, perhaps? – he seems to be missing the point. The Crown Prosecution Service says that “any crime can be prosecuted as a hate crime if the offender has either: demonstrated hostility based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity; or been motivated by hostility based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity.” This makes clear that a crime must have also taken place before the added matter of hate crime can be applied. As insulting someone is not, so far as I’m aware, a crime, then Mr Raab’s suggestion doesn’t make sense. Then again, he’s the SoS for Justice and I’m not, so what do I know?

• Returning to his theme of sexual equality, I’ve been pondering what kind of insults might be gender-specific. The most common concern what we might delicately call matters of excessive promiscuity. A quick trawl through my mental thesaurus tells me that all such terms applied to women are pejorative. With men, however, they verge on praise – womaniser, ladies’ man, Prince Charming and playboy, for instance. Nor, it seems, are the English language or English role models adequate, for foreign terms like Lothario, Romeo, Casanova and Don Juan have needed to be drafted in as well. In fact, I’m struggling to think of a single such abusive epithet which might be applied to a man, or a single complimentary one to a woman, unless they’ve borrowed a phrase from the other sex’s list. The mere fact that I can list all the male ones with impunity but would be considered at best vulgar and at worst abusive if I did the same for the women’s tells you all you need to know. Given how society has long been structured this isn’t perhaps surprising. If, therefore, such insults are to be criminalised – providing that they are a motive for a crime, as mentioned above – then it would benefit women far more than men. Whether legislation will change our behaviour is another matter.

• With regard to the list of hate crimes the CPS cites, I have no problem with four of them as these are matters over which a person has no control. I’m less happy about religion being in the list. It is, or ought to be, possible to change one’s religion and so I’m uneasy about protecting what is ultimately a matter of personal choice. I get it that, in certain communities (even in as diverse a country as the UK), to do this would have serious and perhaps fatal repercussions (so too could coming out as gay or wishing to self-identify as a different sex). If we accept the latter two as being honest coming-to-terms with your own nature, they are surely very different from amending your faith as a result of some sudden insight, crisis or re-evaluation that usually has some external cause.

There is nothing innate about having a Muslim or a Christian point of view, although all the other four are to a greater or lesser extent formed in us before we are born. To include in such a list anything which is more a matter of volition than obligation seems to set a dangerous precedent. What other things might be added in the future? Also, to accept a religious orientation as being in some way above criticism is, perhaps, also to accept some of their more abhorrent practices. Some of these conflict with the other four aspects. We are dealing with four apples and an orange here.

As this BBC report on the his recent speech at the Conservative party conference points out, no one could accuse the PM of not being an optimist (not, of course, that optimism always achieves its ends). His remarks were peppered with his trademark bullish phrases but did include, at the very end of the clip, an admission I’d previously not heard about the government’s flagship levelling up project: “There are,” he told the party faithful, as well as inequalies between London and the south east (or, he might have added, parts of these areas) and the rest of the country, “aching gaps within the regions themselves.”

I mentioned a month or so ago about some experts on Nottinghamshire talking on BBC R4. Three years ago, Nottingham was doing great and the towns in the hinterland in the doldrums. Wind forward to late-pandemic (I hesitate to say post-pandemic) times and this situation has been completely reversed. Much the same, in a smaller way, could be said of our district of West Berkshire. This suggests two things to me: first, that any previous assumptions about need for levelling have to be constantly revised; and second, that as much power as possible should be given to district councils as to how any funds are spent. This is, in short, a bottom-up matter. If Whitehall needs any encouragement on this point, look at how well the councils, West Berkshire included, handled Covid matters when they were given the power to do so. More of the same needed here.

• The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has suggested that council tax bills in England could rise by as much as £220 per year within three years “to keep local services running and help pay for social care reforms.” I think we all understand that more money is needed to solve this problem: the debate to be had is precisely on whose shoulders it should fall. As there is freedom of movement around the UK and as some areas are more attractive than others to retire to, this should perhaps be a national, rather than local, contribution.

• It seems that the world had to do without Facebook for a few hours last week, a calamity which for some must have been as bad as the sun not rising. It appears that this was due to problems caused by installing some upgrades, which led me to wonder if Mark Z has read the post I published on 1 April 2019 “reporting” on a couple of new features the social-media titan had recently added. Could it perhaps have been these features that caused the outage?

• The Covid thing has led to discussions about whether the people elected to rule us are in all cases the best placed to make decisions. An excellent article by Philip Ball in The Guardian on 25 September asks the question “should scientists run the country?” As he admits to being one himself, you might expect an unambiguous “yes”. As it happens – and, remember, this is after all The Guardian, not a Facebook post – the conclusion is a bit more nuanced. His final remark was that “Mature leaders who respect science (he could have added “and other disciplines”) for what it is will not struggle to put it to good use. All we have to do is elect them.” He, correctly, points to the dangers of believing that any one scientist at any one time has a monopoly of the truth. The last 18 months have provided plentiful examples of science not speaking with the one clear voice that we all craved.

The problem is that politicians deal with truth and certainty, or their versions of these things – “if you elect me, this will happen. The other side is wrong.” Scientists, however, deal in doubt. Very little that’s “proved” has permanence and can always be overtaken by other discoveries which, for an honest practitioner, will require an evidence-based re-evaluation of a previously firmly held position. Politicians usually claim they have been proved right; scientists can generally only be proved wrong. It’s this recognition of uncertainty that makes scientists so valuable, and also so unsuitable to rule a country (at least as scientists). It’s this assumption of certainty that makes politicians less valuable but also more attractive as leaders. The tension between these two points of view has been regularly evident during the pandemic. Enoch Powell said that all political careers end in failure. It could be argued that all scientific careers – if they have advanced our knowledge by even a fraction, as they tend to do – end in success. On which note, I leave you…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 235 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 27 September to 3 October, down 177 on the week before. This equates to 148 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 335 (335 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• This week’s Newbury Weekly News reports on the percentage of people aged 16 and above in West Berkshire who have had their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, saying that “almost 80%” have had at least one appointment with Dr Jab-jab. According to the Gov website’s vaccinations map, the district appears to be doing rather better than that, the first-dose figure being 83.6% (the same as the Vale, better than Swindon and not quite as high as Wiltshire). For reasons explained below, this data now refers to people aged 12+. The NWN seems to have referred to a different page on Gov.uk (though I can’t see how to see the district-level chart which is featured in the article). This shows that as of 6 October, 85.3% of the country had received their first dose, putting West Berkshire slightly below the national average.

Matters are complicated by the fact that on 7 October the age range of the figures was changed from 16+ to 12+: both we and NWN did our research before this alteration (I’ve re-written this on 8 October). I’ve asked WBC’s Communities & Wellbeing team if they can give a final judgement on the matter. In the mean time, we can both agree that the vast majority of us have been jabbed at least once.

• We’re all looking for things that have changed as a result of Covid. Many have been for the better. One local example was brought home to me by a presentation by the Greenham Trust’s CEO Chris Boulton at the monthly meeting of Hungerford Town Council (HTC) earlier this week. Many of you will know the word “Greenham” from your memories and perhaps experiences of peace camps and cold-war protests. Through a process that is welcome but all too rare – and which owed a lot to local pressure – the site was, on decommission in the late 1990s, re-invented not as an MoD ghetto or cash cow but as (in the case of the Common) a reversion to its ancient habitat and (in the case of the buildings) to a community-focussed trust which will celebrate its 25th birthday next year.

I was aware of many of Greenham Trust’s activities – including its £60m+ donations to numerous local causes and its creation of its match-funding vehicle of the Good Exchange – but was, until I heard Chris Boulton’s address to HTC, unaware that it also re-invented itself as a source not just of funding but also as a facilitator for helping to identify grants available from numerous smaller trusts in the area which have money to spend but which often lack the ability to communicate their presence and areas of interest. Greenham Trust is now helping to address this. Perhaps even more importantly, Greenham Trust has also, since the pandemic, shifted from being merely reactive to launching funding appeals of its own. its causes have ranged from Covid support to tree-planting and from laptops for schools to Afghan refugees. I don’t know how many other areas have something like Greenham Trust but the residents of West Berkshire and north Hampshire should be very grateful for it. A big hats off also to all those who who were involved in creating such an imaginative solution to the problem of a former US airbase.

• West Berkshire Council has announced that the 2021 Learner Achievement Awards are now open for nominations. These celebrate adult learning in general but also the concept of “lifelong learning.” The awards are organised by West Berkshire Council on behalf of the West Berkshire Community Learning Partnership: the awards are sponsored by Newbury College, West Berkshire Training Consortium and the Newbury Community Resource Centre. Alison Prudden, Principal Community Learning Officer at West Berkshire Council, told Penny Post that “the awards recognise the wider benefits of learning” and help people, particular in these times, for the many changes of professional direction which life now demands. Anyone who is nominated for these deserves a huge round of applause. You have until 15 October to do this. The awards ceremony will take place on 12 November.

Alison also said that 9m working-age people in England have “lower-level literacy skills.” This seemed to me an alarming statistic, referring as it does to about 25% of the adult population of one of the richest countries in the world. This claim is supported by this article in The Guardian in March 2019. This is surely a classic case of something that needs to be caught early. This in turn leads to what is now an unpopular or unfashionable view that intervention in children’s lives should in some cases take place before the four-year-old intake into the reception classes. By then it’s almost too late to deal with a number of problems. Many evils have certainly resulted from heavy-handed intervention. There isn’t an easy answer. Literacy is, however, a basic skill which, like so many others, becomes progressively less easy to adopt as one gets older so leading to all kinds of later problems and missed opportunities. It’s all a question of whether England wants to teach everyone to bake bread or – possibly with increasing reluctance and ill-grace – accept that it might need to give them a loaf a day for the rest of their lives. If we can find a way to do it correctly (and it’s not easy) early intervention in basic, widely-accepted issues such as this pays untold dividends.

• All of this – and excuse a familiar soap-box but just indulge me for a moment – makes me constantly amazed at the seemingly permanent funding axe hanging over the 400-odd maintained nursery schools (MSNs) in the country. For several years the government has, for whatever inexplicable reason, seen fit now to say that all funding will be withdrawn, then to announce a stay of execution for a brief period. All of this makes anything other than short-term budgeting and planning impossible. No other organisation – particularly if dealing with vulnerable children, as these often are – could be expected to work on a one- or two-year promise of finance. Imagine if that were applied to the Ministry of Defence. Exactly. And yet this is happening now and in West Berkshire to children who deserve a lot more certainty. There are two MSNs in West Berkshire. One is the Hungerford Nursery School, which has never received any other Ofsted rating apart from “outstanding”. This post gives some background to the school’s constant struggle against this funding crisis. It must be said that Hungerford Town Council, West Berkshire Council, both the current and the former MPs and a large number of their colleagues from all parties support a proper funding model. Indeed, it’s hard to see who opposes it, or why.

• West Berkshire Council is investing an additional £250,000 to further the support offered to victims of domestic abuse, including children. The funding, provided by the Government, follows the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which has resulted in new duties being placed on local authorities across the country to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation. For more information, click here.

Libraries were, along with a few other services like bus services, marched forward as the “soft” targets for closure during the funding cuts of the mid 2010s. Many residents and local communities had other ideas and all have survived in one form or another. Much credit for this must be given to the new input of officers who embraced some of the more imaginative solutions proposed, such as in Hungerford. There’s no room for complacency, however, as part of the funding now depends on voluntary levies of about £1 per resident from local councils which, in the case of Thatcham and Newbury (obviously the two biggest donors) have been made conditional on satisfactory evidence of usage and engagement. Many other parishes also make contributions.

This people-power makes every successive library review more important, and your contribution to is more important. Here is the link to the latest one: you have until 15 November to make your views known. Even if you don’t visit a library, WBC is keen to hear from you. Libraries have provided the springboard for countless people to realise goals they might otherwise not have been able to. What might they do for you, or your children? Make your views known. Such consultations can influence how they evolve. They remain a soft target for closures (though they are now better prepared than they were in 2015). None the less…

• Another West Berkshire Council’s initiative, and one we fully support, is its nomination for its 2021 Community Champion Awards. The voluntary sector has always been an important – no, “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. 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.

• A new recycling service has been introduced in West Berkshire for paper containers with metal ends, such as Pringles tubes, packaging used for hot chocolate, nuts and other products. These containers can be recycled alongside food and drink cartons at specialist banks at the Council’s Newbury and Padworth Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) and Mini Recycling Centres (MRCs): Newbury (Waitrose and Sainsbury’s); Hungerford (Station Car Park); Thatcham (Kingsland Centre); Hermitage (Hillier Garden Centre); and Burghfield (Willink Leisure Centre). Click here for more information.

WBC adds that “the introduction of the new service follows a number of other improvements made together with Veolia UK in the past year. These include the introduction of plastic pots, tubs and trays from selected recycling centres along with the expansion of the small waste electronic equipment and carton recycling banks at our MRCs.”

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.

• The animal of the week is 480 Otis. Who? Oh, do stay awake at the back…as I’m sure you’re aware, this has, of course, been Fat Bear Week at Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve. These brown bears are as skinny as you like early in the summer and then eat salmon like there’s no tomorrow to stock up for their winter hibernation – a kind of ursine panic-buying but with real-life consequences. Otis (his number is 480) was champion as estimated by the wardens in three previous years and has scooped the crown again.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of Universal Credit, the care sector, estate management charges, recycling and mental health.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: The Wallace and Gromi’s Children’s Charity (thanks to Cole Bowers); Macmillan Cancer Support (thanks to Newbury Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s roll-athon); Speakability (thanks to the recent quiz in Newbury Town Hall); The League Against Cruel Sports (thanks to Rachel Cooper); Riding for the Disabled (thanks to M&P Hardware in Hungerford); numerous good causes (thanks to all those who took part in the London Marathon); Cancer Research (thanks to those who took part in the Race for Life at Newbury Racecourse); numerous local charities (thanks to Greenham Trust).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we find ourselves at the Song of the Week. I read somewhere that if all of the songs unreleased by (the artist formerly known as) Prince at the time of his death were packaged into normal length albums and one released each year, the last would be out in about 2055. Even if so, any of the tracks on them would do well to be better than When Doves Cry.

• And coming right up after it is the Comedy Sketch of the Week. I’ve suggested it before and, I don’t care, I’m suggesting it again – Fry and Laurie’s superbly arch My Dear Boy.

• And to bring matters to a graceful conclusion we have the Quiz Question of the Week. Congratulations to all those who took part in the Mayor of Newbury’s quiz at the Town Hall last weekend in aid of his chosen charity Speakability. The winners, I can exclusively reveal, were the local Green Party. The entire democratic machine of the West Berkshire’s Green Party (all three elected members) and the organiser romped home to a glory by a massive half a point. This week’s question comes from that event: Who played the titular role in the 1930s Old Mother Riley films? Last week’s question was: What is the connection between the gentleman thief AJ Raffles and the master sleuth Sherlock Holmes? The answer is that their creators, EW Hornung and Arthur Conan Doyle, were brothers-in-law.

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