Weekly News with Brian 24 February to 3 March 2022

This Week with Brian

Including the ridiculous to the sublime, tacit and caulk, words and numbers, precision and approximation, 25% down, Dunbar’s number, life goes on, levels of concern, local engagement, Putin in the past, lots of ants, libraries, my favourite things, an invitation from Boris to Boris, cash registers and a miraculous horse. 

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including a funding boost, a new name, green-washing, a digital trial, a walking experiment, Hungerford’s surgery, Shalbourne’s jigsaws, Kintbury’s netball, Lambourn’s almshouses, Shefford’s plots, East Garston’s bells, Newbury’s dimensions, Falkland’s walk, Shaw-cum-Donnington’s neutrality, Thatcham’s international, Cold Ash’s oak, Bucklebury’s bowls, Compton’s plan in action, East Ilsley’s signs, Hampstead Norreys’ Greenfest, Aldworth’s art, Theale’s fête, Stratfield Mortimer’s records, Burghfield’s fayre, Wantage’s festival, East Hendred’s larder, Hanney’s news, Grove’s anniversary, Marlborough’s funding, Aldbourne’s forgotten fibre and Swindon’s firefighters – plus our usual trip 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 brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

• I’ll move from the faintly ridiculous of last week to the border-line sublime of this. Transposing from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Wordle represents, I think you’ll agree, a distinct change of key. However, anyone who thinks that I’m not going to find something to get annoyed about on the topic of Wordle and related matters is in for a nasty surprise.

[more below] 

Wordle is, as most of the English-speaking planet now knows, a wonderfully simple and at times infuriating (and thus overall highly satisfying) game. The aim is to guess a five-letter word in six goes: each time, you’re told which letters of your word in in the correct place, which appears in the word but you have it in the wrong place and which is not in the word at all. There are 28 buttons: the letters; a delete button; and an enter button to submit your choice. That’s it. It was invented by a Welshman, Josh Wardle, for domestic enjoyment during lockdown. It was launched publicly in late 2021 and within three months had been bought by the New York Times for an undisclosed seven-figure sum. It is – unlike last week’s main subject, JR-M – both straightforward and addictive. The final stroke of genius was to limit the number of words (and plays from one device) to one a day, so avoiding it being tainted by accusations of keeping people up half the night.

After the sale, fears centred on for how long it would remain free or (less worryingly) ad-free. The NYT clearly has to get a return on its investment and having its logo on the webpage probably doesn’t quite cut it. A more surprising beef has, however, recently come to light with people claiming that some of the words were too difficult or “didn’t exist.” Really?

Only a few months in, running out of words seems unlikely. The Scrabble Dictionary lists about 9,000 five-letter English words. Even though some are genuinely obscure, there’s therefore no immediate need to start making ones up. That lot will keep us going until the year 2045 by which time, the way things are going, we’ll all be speaking Russian anyway.

So were they obscure? The two ones that were particularly singled out were “caulk” and “tacit”: not words one uses every day, perhaps, but the same could be said of many others. Oddest of all was the claim that, even after they’d been revealed, some people didn’t know what they meant.

Answer: look them up. If you have the internet capability to play Wordle, you’ll be able to look up the meaning of a word in less time that it would take to say “Oxford English Dictionary” and certainly less time than it would take – if you even had one in the house – to find it. Call me strange if you like but I can’t grasp how someone can play a word game and not be prepared (a) to be defeated every now and then and (b) on learning the answer, not willing to spend a few seconds finding out what the word meant if they didn’t already know. In any case, pre-NYT answers had included slightly more occasional words like “conic”, “exult”, “aback” and “whelp” but that didn’t seem to get people complaining.

It seems that this is a case of NYT bashing. Big company buys game; some answers are a little hard; so big company is trying to mess with our heads, for purposes unspecified. In fact, the NYT is probably the ideal home for this game as on average its words are 4.9 letters long.

I then did a search to see what other similar games there were out there. One called Nerdle was like Wordle but with numbers. Immediately I found myself in a high place of toiling lungs. I’ve never been on first-name terms with numbers anyway and was even less so after five minutes of this. Part of the problem was that there were too many rules. I tried it for a bit without any confidence of success, then gave up. Even if I’d completed it, I doubt that I’d have had the same level of satisfaction I had when “tacit” appeared all in green on my screen last week.

• This led me to reflect on the different way we use words and numbers. Numbers are very precise; words are often not. You may not know what “tacit” means but, if you see “173” you at least immediately know it’s one more than 172 and one less than 174. Whether it’s prime, perfect or anything else may occur to a mathematician but, for most of us, that’s all we need to know about it.

Words, on the other hand, are slippery.”Big” has many synonyms. “Great” is in some contexts one, but this can also refer to a stature other than size, as in “Alfred the Great.” A “great party” could also be described as “fantastic” or “fabulous” but both of these could also fairly be used to refer to something that doesn’t in fact exist. For such events, “mythical” or “legendary” might serve; but the last word could also be applied to, say, some of the stories about Keith Richards. For this one might use “excessive” or “self-destructive.” We’ve come a long was from “big” and without anything more than a few jumps of context.

Although numbers are designed for complete precision, in most of the cases where we use them an approximation is adequate. If I were to say how much money I had in the bank, how many lengths I’ve swum this week, how much I spent at Hungerford market on Wednesday morning or how long I’ve been playing guitar for, in every case a rough answer is all that’s needed. Even when being given change (an increasingly rare occurrence) or checking a monthly newspaper bill, a figure that looks or feels right is often enough. With numbers, we have all the precision we could possibly want yet we hardly ever use it.

Words are a different matter. Here we strive for precision but are forced to use tools that admit of no such thing. The number after “172” can only mean “173”: but – except for words like days of the week or months of the year – there is no next word in a sequence following “big”, “octopus”, “mauve”, “tacit” or any of the rest of them. Many have several meanings, some of which we may not understand. Many depend on context. Their order is important, a “house boat” being different from a “boat house.” Then you have the spectre of punctuation. Commas are by repute avoided in legal documents as, if inconsistently used, they can change the meaning of a sentence,. This can also happen elsewhere: “I enjoy cooking, my family and my cat” means something very different without the comma. “Forty-five pound notes” is £45; “forty five-pound notes” is £200. Then there all the difficulties of politically or socially acceptable or non-acceptable words and phrases to navigate, as well as an appreciation of the mood, preoccupations and prejudices of one’s reader. All in all, it’s amazing that any of us dare to write anything at all, still less hope to get it right. But most of us have to do this every day, with or without emojis to help.

Moreover, the approximation we afford to numbers rarely produces acceptable results with words. If you were to send us a job advert that said “we need people to do stuff for us and we’ll pay you something but you have know various things” we’d call you back and ask what it was you exactly wanted to say. The statement “Boris Johnson is the sort of main leader of the British Isles” is (sort of) right on one level but “Prime Minister of the UK” nails it down. Every time we set pen to paper or hand to mouse we are struggling for precision and often failing to attain it. “65,994” is unambiguous. Perhaps we should revert to numbers for communicating precise ideas and words for dealing with approximations. However, first I need someone to tell me what “65,994” actually means…

• Few people’s words (and actions) are being scrutinised as carefully as Vladimir Putin’s at the moment. His talk of Ukraine being historically part of Russia and that the country needs to be de-Nazified take us right back to the darkest days of the 1940s. Western countries seem undecided as to how to react. Unless military intervention against Russia is contemplated – not something that has a great success rate in the past – sanctions seem the favoured route. How well these might work is another matter, particularly as, according to several reports, including in the afore-mentioned New York Times, Putin has been preparing for this for some time. In any case, Russia has a sanction of its own: turn the gas pipe off.

This offers proof, if further proof be needed, that as much as possible of our energy requirements need to be not only renewable but also localised. Countries, districts, communities and even individual properties can generate at least most of the energy they need and not be at the mercy of supply-chain problems, the weather and global geo-politics. Why the government still seems to be faffing around on these kind of measures is beyond me.

At least UEFA has acted with uncharacteristic speed and said that St Petersburg will not host this year’s Champion’s League final. This on its own is, however, unlikely to make Putin roll back the tanks.

• The Covid figures are going down. If testing is soon not going to free then so, one might expect, the number of reported cases will fall. Deaths seem almost irrelevant due to the confusion of “death with” and “death from”. The main thing is hospitalisations (which are, I understand, “from” than “with”) and which are now about 50% of what they were a month or so ago and 25% of what they were in January 2021.

• The abolition of legal restrictions as of 24 February provides an opportunity to reflect on what the reaction to problems tells us about our government, our society and about ourselves.

To take the last first, most people are incapable of dealing with anything but the most immediate threat. At any time, most of us at most times have some worry which looms largest in our thoughts, ranging from Covid to whether we’ve been ripped off on a mobile deal to whether or partner is cheating on on us or what’s going to come of that ill-judged remark we made to our boss in the pub on Friday night. How much we fret about these varies from person to person: but it seems true that many of us tend to obsess about things in inverse proportion to how much we can control them. Covid provided a good example of this. Unless you locked yourself away completely and whatever precautions you took, infection or not was at least partly a matter of chance, as was how badly you suffered. Even if this was the only thing you worried about, the virus could still sneak through.

Our government, being multifarious, needs to deal with more than one challenge. The perception is that Covid was for two years being concentrated on to the exclusion of all else. That’s clearly not the case. However, there is the nagging fear, certainly in my mind, that our government’s response to future pandemics will be no better than to this one. I would be be amazed if there were not another within ten years. Just as individuals can only focus on one immediate threat, so perhaps our government can only deal in election cycles.

On a local level, life certainly went on: to pick a simple example, during the pandemic the bins were emptied pretty much every week although our council and others could have used Covid as a get-out clause. West Berkshire Council’s Leader Lynne Doherty told Penny Post on 22 February that the relaxing of regulations meant that many staff could get back to their normal jobs. Many would have been trying to do two for the last couple of years.

As regards society as a whole, memories tend to be longer. Reactions and responses are shared and solutions are provided based on previous experience. These owe little to personal obsessions or political pre-occupations. In previous generations, such memories would have been far stronger and would have been the basis on which families and small communities were able to survive. In more recent times, they have been delegated: in one direction to the state, which has assumed the responsibility on our behalf for everything from settling disputes to looking after our sick or elderly relatives; and, in the other, to the cult of the individual, whereby our own aspirations trump those of any societal obligations we might one have felt. This paradox –between a reliance, in some aspects of our lives, on the power of a remote machinery and, in others, on our own will – is a major challenge for every government of every kind.

Neither seventy million people nor one seems to be a suitable basis for a society. Many proposals as to what this might be have been made, one of which is Dunbar’s number. Other theories exist. This suggests that stable social relationships cannot be maintained with a group of more than between 100 and 250 people.

That is likely to be the number that most of our ancestors would have needed to deal with until the industrial revolution. For the best part of a million years until two centuries ago we would have generally limited ourselves to this number of interactions. Since then we have been expected to deal with everyone that real life or social media throws at us; and to subordinate ourselves to the the will of our council; and to the much more severe will of our government.

Considering this rapid change, we’re doing pretty well. As functional and personal relationships go, however, I’d agree with this 100 to 250 number. I’m British, and a resident of West Berkshire, and of East Garston: but most of all, I’m me. My “community” for, say, song-writing, extends beyond these boundaries. However, when push comes to shove, it’s the people immediately around me on whom I most rely for day-to-day issues. If a sufficient number aren’t happy about something then this discontent will extend to me, even if I have a private joy. If all is well with them then part of me feels well too, even if I have a private grief.

Countless online communities have connected people all across the world during lockdown and that this connectivity made a vast difference, much (though not all) positive. However, it Covid proved that human connection is generally most effective with the community we are physically closest to. Many of these, or the effective divisions of them, would be of the roughly 250-people size Dunbar’s number suggests.

However various our communities of choice, our community of necessity is bounded by easy walking distance from where we happen to live. It would be well for the government to recognise this as a natural human expression and not relegate it – and all other aspects of local democracy – to the inconvenient necessity that it appears to be regarded as. Proper funding for local councils would, of course, be welcome. What would also not go amis would be some more clear regognition from Whitehall that local solutions generally work well. 

Such an attitude also invites us to choose between supporting a community we can directly connect with and one which exists as a more general view of national interest. The last two years have shown that local connections are more accountable and more trustworthy than a remote power that is capable of any number of failures and hypocrisies. Isn’t this what the core principle of the “leave” Brexit vote was all about…?

Across the area

• News from your local council if you live in the Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire, Swindon or West Berkshire.

• 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 areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Theale area; Wantage area; Swindon area

• The BBC reports that there were 1,037 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 14 to 20 February, down 280 on the week before. This equates to 654 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 421 (538 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

WBC’s Library Review

The following information is taken directly from the minutes of Stratfield Mortimer Parish Council’s meeting on 10 February but it would seem to be equally relevant to the whole district.

This was an informal session with representatives from several towns and parishes. In looking at the needs of communities it was identified that libraries can play a role in IT provision, social needs and reducing isolation, group activities and through its resources, support for both low-income families and those with income pressures. Areas lacking were identified as meeting the needs of all age groups, especially teenagers, promoting the resources available and the lack of education from an early age in how to use a library and its resources. Of those councils that make a voluntary contribution, most recognised that this was necessary to maintain a service and that such contributions give stakeholders a voice.

The Clerk has requested further information about the Friends of Lambourn Library. This is a group which was established when Lambourn was in danger of losing its library and now supports the current WBC library provision in Lambourn.

WBC may undertake a further consultation depending on any proposed changes to the service.

Other news

• West Berkshire and the surrounding areas seem to have got off pretty lightly from Storm Eunice. WBC had around 150 emergency call outs, most of which related to fallen trees. 

• All six Berkshire authorities have been successful in their joint bid for the Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator (DCIA) pilots competition which will provide £500,000 of funding. You can see more information here.

• 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 helen.dean@ccberks.org.uk 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 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.

• One of the letters in this week’s Newbury Weekly News asserts that the Bible is like a letter sent from God. This is certainly a point of view. However, as letters go, I can’t help feeling it could be improved. Aside from being very long and written by many different hands over several thousand years, it also manages to make several statements which are in stark contradiction to each other, something that helped start and then perpetuate the bitter divisions of the Reformation. Letters also by tradition have a return address so you can contact the sender should you need clarification or further information. If that was ever provided, it seems to have been redacted.

• The animal of the week is Cintia the horse who, as reported in Newbury Today, escaped almost miraculously unscathed from might have seemed a fatal tree collapse during storm Eunice.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of car park predators, an eagle out of kilter, therapy pets, care praise and plastic bans.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: many local voluntary groups (thanks to Greenham Trust and parish and town councils); Young People and Children First (thanks to the Greenham Common fun run); local blood banks (thanks to sanguinary donations by Tony White dating back to the 1950s); SOS Kit Aid (thanks to Hungerford Rugby Club).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• First up, as usual, is the Song of the Week. Let’s have some more bliss Iberian jazz from Joan Chamorro and his entourage of amazingly talented young musicians: here they are performing My Favourite Things in 2013.

• Next, as ever was, is the Comedy Sketch of the Week. I’d never thought of cash registers as being inherently funny things but it might be some time before I can look at one without laughing, even if only inwardly. Mitchell and Webb can explain why this is…

• And bringing up the rear, as it does, is the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Roughly how many ants are there in the world per human being? Last week’s question came 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 statements 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? The answer is that the second one is true and the first wasn’t. It could so easily have been the other way round. Or both of them could have been true. I guess that’s kind of the point.

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

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