This Week with Brian
Including a very strange beast, unwanted laws, unintended consequences, the bank of mum, cash for honours, settling all family business, history for vampires, Nordic advantages, a seagull hound, giving and taking away, de-cluttering, my baby, 82 years, fake news and Bona Books.
Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including walking the streets, a flood scheme inches nearer, a time in the sun, leaking pipes, capital expenditure, overwhelming support, looking for Joe, keeping the lights on, storm warnings, Hungerford’s hold-ups, Kintbury’s opening, Chilton Foliat’s plaque, Lambourn’s day, Shefford’s scheme, East Garston’s objection, Newbury’s woods, Enborne’s charities, Greenham’s golf, Thatcham’s pickers, Woolhampton’s walk, Cold Ash’s rainbow, Compton’s praise, East Ilsley’s silt, Aldworth’s suggestions, Theale’s tigers, Burghfield’s diver, Aldermaston’s coffee, Wantage’s poet, Groves unaccepted apologies, Letcombe’s register, Marlborough’s grant, Ogbourne St George’s small disruption and Swindon’s letter-writer – plus our usual prowl around the websites and FB 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 email@example.com.
• Jacob Rees-Mogg is a strange beast, part old-school Tory grandee, part self-admitted fogey and part smiling and sleepy-eyed political fixer. He could be a character out of an Evelyn Waugh novel: indeed, with his Catholicism, his Oxford education, his Euro-sceptic views, his Somerset home and his six children, he could be Evelyn Waugh. There’s something parodic about him, as there is with our PM. It’s as if they and a few others of their ilk have long been having an enormous joke at our expense.
Your Local Area
Let’s have a look at his biography. The fourth child of the Editor of The Times, JRM’s childhood was divided between a grade II former rectory in Somerset and a town house in Chelsea. By the time he was 12 he’d developed an interest in stocks and shares and, while still at prep school, delighted in attending the AGMs of large companies and haranguing the chairmen about poor dividend rates. He was voted “Oxford’s pushiest fresher” in 1989. He fought his first election in 1997 in the rock-solid Labour seat in Ayr in which he campaigned with his former nanny by his side being driven around in what was variously described as a Bentley and a Mercedes. He tried again in Shropshire in 2001 before finally being elected for his home constituency in 2010. During the premiership of the hapless David Cameron he was one of the Tory party’s most notorious rebels and became a staunch Brexiteer. He had what seems to be a ruthlessly successful career in hedge-fund management and retired from the active work in, if not the profit share from, these when becoming Leader of the House of Commons in 2019. He claims never to have cried during his adult life. He once used the word “floccinaucinihilipilification” in a Commons speech. He has six children but has never changed a nappy. He has his own coat of arms.
None of these make him in any sense a normal person. Politicians are, however, almost by definition not normal so perhaps this isn’t relevant. However, there is, as Bertie Wooster would say, something distinctly rum about him; something Spode-like, perhaps. Part of him seems locked in the PG Wodehouse world of the early 20th century, a figure of a parody and ridicule. This would seem to be confirmed by his appointment in the latest reshuffle, by a PM whose career is going off the rails and who needs to throw as big bone to the right of his party, as Minister for Brexit Opportunities.
Brexit was meant to be a self-evidently good thing that would produce its opportunities as a matter of course. There can be no surer sign that some aspect of life is not working as predicted than by appointing either some “tsar” or else a minister to oversee it. JRM went straight onto the offensive, claiming that there was little evidence Brexit has adversely affected UK trade since January 2021. Others, including the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Public Accounts Committee disagree, the latter saying, according to The National, that “the only detectable impact of leaving the EU so far has been to increase the burden on businesses.”
One of his first actions on taking office was to issue an appeal to readers of The Sun, and perhaps other papers, to come up with some ideas to add to what the the Financial Times claims is a hit list of 1,000 regulations the UK wants to get rid of. This may tick a populist box but seems an odd way of formulating government policy. What’s next – an Apprentice-like reality show hosted by JRM in which contestants vie with each other to choose which bits of legislation get the chop?
What are these regulations, anyway? The Brexit campaign was a bit short on facts here, the main appeal being to abstract ideas like “freedom” and “sovereignty”. Many of the old tropes of EU bureaucracy like the bendy bananas and the iced kippers were lies invented or spread by newspapers or, yet again, by our own PM. Some were printed on the side of busses. Many, however, are solid and useful things pertaining to matters ranging from food standards to rules for lorry drivers. I’m not confident that if these are to swept away we can be sure that they’ll not leave a gap we might regret.
This has happened before. Shortly after the Brexit vote, Theresa May decided to pull the UK out of a number of organisations that had the word “European” in them, even though some (including the body governing the movement of radioactive materials) had nothing to do with the EU at all. All this could look uncomfortably like a half-cocked piece of DIY in which someone starting to knock through a new doorway before discovering that they’d demolished part of a supporting wall.
One of these ambitions might, however, have a relevance to an increasingly toxic planning dispute here in West Berkshire. This concerns the EU-inspired REPPIR (Radiation Emergency Preparation and Public Information Regulations of 2019). For many years West Berkshire, Wokingham and Reading Councils were developing a scheme to put a whopping 15,000 homes in Grazeley, south-west of M4’s junction 11. The REPPIR regulations, however, demanded a larger DEPZ (Detailed Emergency Planning Zone) around the two slightly creaking AWE sites in Burghfield and Aldermaston, which included Grazeley. The implementation of this in 2020 seemingly put the final nail in the coffin of the project and. As a result, West Berkshire Council pushed forward plans for a smaller development of “only” 2,500 homes to the north-east of Thatcham. If REPPIR is repealed, however, then the new DEPZ might disappear, in which case everything changes. Were Grazeley to come back to life then the justification of the NE Thatcham plan largely disappears.
If this happens, the Leader of Thatcham Town Council – a body which has strenuously opposed the Thatcham plan, claiming that better schemes exist – might be moved to buy JRM a drink. As Thatcham’s Leader is a Lib Dem and as JRM was one of the chief architects of Brexit, the pints might be drunk with a certain amount of awkwardness. If nothing else, it proves yet another example of both the odd bedfellows politics can create and of the law of unintended consequences. If 1,000 regulations – which were not constructed by idiots and not designed to make life more difficult but to make it safer and more consistent – are going to be wiped off the statute books then there might be a good many more of these consequences to grapple with in the coming years.
• When it comes to wealthy and over-entitled oddballs, however, Jacob Rees-Mogg seems pretty normal compared to Prince Andrew. It’s hard to think of anything more squalid than a sexual assault case needing to be settled out of court by yet another vast pay-off but that’s exactly what seems to have happened this week. The Guardian suggests that “the weakness of Prince Andrew’s legal position and fears over his own performance in the witness stand left his legal team with few options.” The Independent adds that the sixth in line to the throne “agreed not to repeat the claim that he didn’t rape Victoria Giuffre,” which kind of says it all.
I find the image of this ermined predator not being able to sweat, as he admitted in his Newsnight interview, faintly horror-film. I looked up anhidrosis, as the condition is called. As it’s not particularly irksome and as there are degrees of it and as not being sweaty is more likely to be regarded as an advantage than a reason to visit a doctor, no one seems to know how many sufferers there are. The Mirror claims that he’s not being honest about this anyway and that it can cite at least five occasions when he sweated. Few activities produce more sweat than sex with a new partner, particularly in the sub-tropical areas in which these events were alleged to have taken place. Where did all his sweat go? Actually, I don’t want to think about it and I’m sorry to have brought the matter up at all.
The settlement is rumoured to be between £7 and £12m, which asks the question about how he’s going to pay for it. As this BBC article suggests, this might be a bit difficult for him. It seems his resourceful but doubtless exasperated mother will need to step in to sort it out if this is in preference to his being declared bankrupt. If my mother were still alive, I’m very glad that I don’t have to ask her, when in my sixties, to hock a tiara or two in order to help me settle a high-profile sex-pest case. I bet this is not the platinum-jubilee backdrop she was hoping for – another annus horribilus.
I have a huge amount of respect for the Queen. Aside from my not wanting to have a meddling president as our head of state, you’ve got to respect 70 years in a job which demands an almost superhuman level of self-control. This seems to have done nothing to dim her faculties when it comes to direct action. Her recent pronouncements about the demotion of her ghastly third child and her acceptance of Camilla’s validity as a consort has a faint echo of Michael Corleone’s day of vengeance when he “settled all family business” in The Godfather. OK, no guns were involved but there was the same level of steely determination that family is the most important thing. This analogy makes Prince Andrew a cross between the weak Fredo and the priapic Sonny. Works for me.
• And now, it seems, Prince Charles has become embroiled in a possible scandal, this about a cash for honours allegation concerning The Prince’s Foundation. I can understand if HMQ decides quite soon that she’s had enough of all of this. 95, remember.
• The MD column in the most recent Private Eye (1567) spends its opening paragraphs comparing the UK’s Covid performance with those of our Nordic neighbours. There, Dr Phil asserts, a lighter and more consensual touch was employed and those countries generally enjoyed better Covid outcomes. He also refers to the alarming adverts and press communications which the UK adopted and which the Scandinavians did not. I don’t know if MD was including Chris Whitty’s bleak opening announcement last autumn at one of the “next slide please” press sessions that “winter is coming.” For my part, I’ve rarely been as adversely affected by a sentence containing only three words.
As MD kind of admits, however, comparing the two areas is unfair. The five Nordic countries have about 27.5m people spread over 1.3m sq km; the UK has 70m spread over 242,000sq km which makes social distancing a good deal easier over there. All five have a higher GDP per capita than do we. He says that they have higher levels of trust in their political leaders, which is to be expected given the latter figure. He also says that they have better public-health systems, which one would also expect from such wealth and from decades of high taxes (and in Norway’s case a sovereign wealth fund from North Sea oil) to pay for it. Indeed, with these advantages, anything less than a stellar performance at a time of national crisis should be seen as a failure.
The UK is a smaller and busier place and a major transport hub (as MD concedes) and with a decades-long decline in investment as a result of a succession of tax-cutting election promises which would, it was wrongly hoped, be redressed by the market forces’ trickle-down effect. I know little of Nordic politics: but if their leaders have managed to keep a general level of public confidence over the last decades then well done to them. Ours have not. The legacy of distrust that BoJo inherited wasn’t his fault – though he has seriously added to it – and he and his government had to decide what best to do given the UK’s domestic circumstances, not some idealised Nordic approach from across the North Sea.
Given our level of distrust for government, perhaps the alarmist campaigns were logical, even though they appeared not to work. I don’t think anything could have worked in this country. There are too many divisions which I doubt the Nordics fully understand – four nations, class, ethnicity, religion, north/south and wealth to pick but six – and these made any effective response very hard. The fact that we had a leader who wanted to be Churchill but who lies like a schoolboy didn’t help. Given the political, social and demographic position the UK was in in early 2020, it’s perhaps hard to see how we could have done much better. It has been said that every country gets the government it deserves. I think we’re a bit better than our current leadership but I’m not sure that comparing us to our wealthier, more obedient and less densely populated neighbours is helpful.
• I don’t understand what’s happening in Ukraine either. Well, I sort of do: Putin is making a point and wants to get everyone’s attention. The problem seems to be a cold-war one. Imagine if that had ended differently and it was the Warsaw Pact that was expanding and, say, Belgium was thinking of joining up. How would we in the UK feel about that? The Russian viewpoint has eloquently expressed the idea that, as regards Ukraine possibly joining NATO, actions have consequences. In the early 1940s, Russia suffered one of the most brutal invasions the world has seen, and responded in kind. These scars don’t heal quickly. For a canny politician like Putin, credibility can be gained by scratching them. Ukraine suffered too, as did France and Germany and many others. The UK got off lightly. There are a lot of countries in Europe and they all have their traumas. History, like a vampire, has an awkward habit of not always being over and done with.
• My son Michael had some good things to say about the current state of the world in his latest On the Fence show on 4LEGS radio, which you can listen to here.
• We had an opportunity to clear out some clothes this week in support of the local young people’s mental-health charity Time to Talk. We both have some items that date back to long-ago times in our lives: and because we’re both lucky enough to be about the same sizes now as we were then, there’s always the thought that these might be used again. I can’t, however, imagine any situation in which I would again wear a smart jacket and tie and yet I find it hard to part with the ones I have in the wardrobe, just in case.
Enough donations were made to justify the trip to drop them off; but I was left with the nagging feeling that I’d disposed of clothes I might want but not enough of the ones I was keeping for reasons unconnected with wearing them: all in all, a kind of inability to confront the fact that life had moved on. As it happened, I was then prompted to watch this video about this man who has reduced his personal possession to 406 items, all of which he has digitally tagged: then I saw this video about someone who was an obsessive hoarder. Both of these go some way beyond my own attitude to my stuff: however, I find both of their takes sufficiently odd to make me feel quite normal…
Across the area
• Further information on your council’s activities is referred to in the respective Weekly News sections for the nine areas that Penny Post covers – Hungerford area; Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Theale area; Wantage area; Swindon area.
• The BBC reports that there were 1,315 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 7 to 13 February, down 434 on the week before. This equates to 830 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 538 (805 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.
Weathering the storm
West Berkshire Council has recently sent a newsletter warning Storm Eunice is expected to hit the area late on Thursday 17 February and early on Friday February 18 February with the risk of “significant disruption due to extremely strong winds.” Most of the information and advice in this is equally relevant to other districts.
“The Met Office has issued an amber weather warning,” the newsletter continues, “from 5am on 17 February to 9pm on 28 February with gusts up to 80mph expected. This could cause disruption to travel, fallen trees as well as the possibility of power cuts and damage to homes and other buildings. To help keep yourselves and others safe, please consider the following advice from the Met Office.
• West Berkshire Council has launched an initiative that will see cherry blossom trees planted to remember residents who died from Covid.
• West Berkshire Council has awarded a contract for a new integrated drug and alcohol service in West Berkshire. The new service will be delivered by WDP, “a leading drug and alcohol charity”, and will begin on 1 April 2022.
• Local charity Connecting Communities in Berkshire (CCB) has stressed that help is available for those struggling with rising energy bills. CCB has been running a project tackling fuel poverty for 10 years and can provide expertise in supporting low-income families that are struggling with the recently confirmed price rises. For more information, contact Helen Dean on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ccberks.org.uk.
• The successful holiday activities and food programmes run by West Berkshire Council last year will continue in 2022, funding having recently been secured from the government. Those who are entitled to participate will be contacted by their schools in good time.
• West Berkshire Council is accepting applications for a new grant scheme to support businesses in hospitality, leisure and accommodation that have been impacted by Omicron. See more details here.
• 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 libraries newsletter from West Berkshire Council.
• Click here for the latest Covid newsletter from 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.
• Click here for the latest environmental 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 Berkshire, Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire and Swindon.
• 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.
• One of the letters in the NWN this week was Grahame Murphy of Chaddleworth (whom I know as probably the best-dressed and certainly the most colourfully-dressed parish councillor in the district). He referred to and praised a parking system he encountered in Newent in the Forest of Dean which included a perforated strip from the machine enabling you to get your fee back from participating retailers. This has been used in Hungerford more than once but I’m not sure why it was stopped. One for the Hungerford C of C to look at perhaps. My only criticism of his letter is that he described Newent as being in the Midlands. Really? I wonder what the residents of the town would think of that.
• Another letter praises (I think ironically) the author of a waste collection notice which explained how the service provider was seeking to “enhance the efficiency and resilience of our collection rounds.”) It’s fine phrase that perhaps means less than it appears to but I think I can trump this. A few years ago in Hungerford I saw a waste lorry that claimed to be “delivering refuse collection services.” The verb “to deliver” is now used far too freely to describe things like services that don’t physically exist. What made my brain spin round, however, was the idea that you can deliver something and take it away at the same time. Come to think of it, I suppose the Chancellor does this every year on budget day.
• The animal of the week is this dog employed by a café in Sydney to chase away seagulls from the outside tables. Looking at the dog in action against the birds, I’m not sure which I’d find the more annoying.
• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of: the tyranny of the smartphone; Ukraine; slipping under the radar; two people unfit to rule; and wasting money.
• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: Lambourn Junction (thanks to 4LEGS Radio); the Ray Collins Charitable Trust (thanks to the Christmas tree carol service in Grove and Grove PC); Comic Relief (thanks to Tom Daley); Macmillan Cancer (thanks to Greene King’s Tub2Pub scheme)’; Newbury Cancer Care and Prior’s Court (thanks to Newbury Building Society); Loose Ends (thanks to the St Nicolas’ Church Christmas appeal); numerous local charities (thanks to parish and town councils and Greenham Trust).
The quiz, the sketch and the song
• And here we are again at the Song of the Week. I’ll follow my friend Jon’s rec for Josh and Larkin’s version of Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares for Me.
• Which must mean it’s now time for the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Quite how Around the Horne managed to get away with the arch, lewd and Polari-rich content of the Julian and Sandy sketches when homosexuality was still illegal defeats me. They remain a delight from what was both a more innocent and a more troubled age. Here’s a sample of Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick on full-on camping form: Bona Bookshops.
• So, to close, we have the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question come from the recent quiz held by the Friends of Wash Common Library. One round asked you to identify which of a pair of hair-raising statement s had been made by our PM and which was fake news. One of them was (i) “This Corbyn fellow is nothing more than a bearded oaf with about as much charisma as a soiled nappy”; and (b) “I love tennis with a passion. I challenged Boris Becker to a match once and he said he was up for it, but he never called back.” So, which was a genuine prime-ministerial utterance and which was media make-believe? 50/50 shot. Last week’s question was: Elizabeth II recently clocked up 70 years on the throne. However, she has some way to go to catch up with Sobhuza II, the Paramount Chief of Swaziland. For how long did he reign? The answer is 82 years and 254 days.