Weekly News with Brian 3 to 10 March 2022

This Week with Brian

Including Putin’s logic, two recent empires, the eye of a vulture, climate change off the top spot again, an invasion-free life, oranges, Macbeth and Michael Corleone, Chaucer and Portugal, violence and death, romance and geography, 1.6 million ants, a re-education with Joni, three in common, Hamish the bear, playing politics and the Marseillaise. 

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including the strain on the trains, a CIL petition, the valley of the hedgehog, 32 plans, watery myths, the sports hub, heating homes, Hungerford’s loss, Kintbury’s speed, Inkpen’s hall, Lambourn’s swaps, East Garston’s greengages, Shefford’s third chance, Newbury’s flag, Greenham’s base, Chieveley’s show ground, Thatcham’s spaces, Hermitage’s news, Cold Ash’s view, Compton’s heating, Chaddleworth’s cricket, Hampstead Norreys’ drain, Theale’s retirement, Mortimer’s congratulations, Padworth’s communiqué, Beenham’s market, Aldermaston’s coffee, Wantage’s surgeries, Grove’s oaks, Marlborough’s museum, Aldbourne’s vacancies and Swindon’s forest – 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 brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

• There’s only one thing on our minds at present: and it’s not Covid. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now into its second week and has already produced the usual catastrophes of war including human misery, destruction, threats, more threats, shuttle diplomacy and accusations of mis- or dis-information. Putin is being branded as deluded, evil and insane. He may be all those things though none of them really explain why this invasion has happened.

[more below] 

“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?”

This is the opening passage from Edgar Allan Poe’s little masterpiece The Tell-tale Heart. The narrator in this story clearly is mad but refuses to accept anyone else’s assessment on the matter. To proceed carefully towards a violent conclusion is, in his rationale, proof that he must be sane. All that follows is based on this assumption. Once accepted, his actions become, if not reasonable by an objective standard, then at least logical.

Putin is displaying something of this. He has proceeded carefully. He tested the waters by annexing the Crimea in 2014 and, finding that this occasioned no particular opposition, spent the next eight years preparing Russia’s economy as best he could for the sanctions that would inevitably follow a larger step. Then, when this was in place, he pounced. But why is he doing this at all?

One of the most difficult things to deal with is a defeated but still powerful opponent. One only has to wind back to the inter-war years to see how disastrously the allies’ high-handed post-WW1 treatment of Germany backfired within a generation. Other tactics exist, ranging from the vast re-construction of Germany and Japan after WW2 to Rome’s very different handling of the problem of Carthage which involved razing it to the ground. In 1989, Russia effectively lost the Cold War and, in the process, its empire. The response from NATO and the EU was eastwards expansion. None of this was ever accepted by Putin, who learned his trade in the USSR’s KGB.

The thing about empires is that, however history may judge them, at the time they seem like self-evidently good things to their creators. Obviously, they enrich the home country – the Soviet Empire is ironically an exception, probably the only imperial creation where the standard of living tended to decrease the closer you got to its centre – but, so the arguments run, they produce a number of trickle-down benefits for an increasingly wide group of people. For that is another thing about empires: almost by definition, they need to expand. The more powerful the aspiration and the greater the area covered, the more self-evidently true it becomes that the area of coverage needs to be increased still further.

With this in mind, it’s useful to regard the EU and NATO – which are, in Europe at least, largely co-extensive – as empires, That is certainly how Putin sees them. Their eastwards expansion in the last 30 years, without a shot being fired, is a new kind of imperialism (similar perhaps to China’s economic take-over of mineral rights in Africa and elsewhere).  With both NATO and EU now having several borders with Russia, yet another seemed to be coming by stealth. Russia has already experienced two invasions by powerful western European armies. The Baltic states and Finland, the Russian bear could just about cope with. The possibility of Ukraine, with over 2,200km of border with Russia, joining either NATO or the EU was, for Putin, a bridge too far.

Whether the EU or NATO were wise to extend eastwards is something only the future can judge. Perhaps, given their respective alleged purely economic and defensive intentions and given that they had triumphed in an idealogical struggle, it would have perhaps been impossible for them to have done otherwise. However, today it seems that they can take no action. This article from AOL suggests some reasons why trying to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be almost impossible and might lead to the third world war.

Some military actions are a desire for aggrandisement. Others are a pre-emptive reaction to a perceived threat. If you and your neighbours both own cats, you will see this acted out every day. Since Putin first came to power in 2000, the USA has several times engaged in military action to defend its own security, even though these were in states on the other side of the world. Britain and France did the same in Suez. Putin would argue that, faced with a closer and immediate challenge, he is doing the same thing in Ukraine.

The same can be said of collateral damage. Putin has been accused of using banned weapons like vacuum bombs which, in the perplexing words of the US Ambassador to the UN, “have no place on the battlefield.” (Where then might they find a place?) Few wars have been won without the victorious side using something never previously employed, be this gunpowder, armed cavalry, long-bows, muskets, tanks or atomic bombs. Civilian casualties are likewise irrelevant. Those who wage wars are impervious to any of these considerations.

In The Tell-tale Heart, the narrator doesn’t at first know what makes him hate his victim – then he hits on it: “I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold…” Ukraine, with its pale blue and yellow flag, certainly had that effect on Putin. Its eyes were also looking in two directions: one east, one west. Poe’s narrator de-humanises the old man, so making it easier and more logical to kill him.

Putin did the same with Ukraine, claiming that it wasn’t a real country at all (a remark he made to a “surprised” President Bush in 2008 and, with variations, several times since). On the eve of the invasion, he claimed that his aim was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine and prevent the “genocide” that its government had been committing. For central and eastern Europeans, these are probably the two most emotive words that exist. Presumably Putin didn’t choose them at random. If he doesn’t accept what’s happened since 1989 it’s to be expected that he also has his own views on the events of the fifty years before that. The immediate point, though, is that by relegating the country to non-statehood and its government to criminals, he was using exactly the same de-humanising logic the Nazis used against the Jews and others. (Their opinion of the Russians wasn’t much higher.)

Given all this paranoia and revisionism, Putin’s reaction is eminently logical. The security and peace of Europe has often been secured by buffer states which, like a knee cartilage, have the necessary but thankless job of absorbing pressure. NATO’s and the EU’s expansion have, or threatens to, eliminate this middle zone. Thus we are where we are: the fruits of victory too over-confidently exploited and the bitterness of defeat chewed over by a powerful man with too few people prepared to call him out. I find it odd that NATO’s strategists didn’t suspect that this might be a possible outcome. In The Tell-tale Heart, the murderer is finally unmasked by the workings of his own conscience. It would be unwise to hope Putin’s conscience will help create a similar conclusion.

• Here in the UK, we are doubly insulated from invasion. Not only have we had no living-memory experience of this, unlike many European countries, but also absolutely no historical reason to fear one. The risk of invasion by Napoleon and Hitler were, some historians now claim, fairly remote and kept alive as a threat by the governments of the day to help create a sense of national purpose. Aside from those, a few abortive attempts such as in 1216 and 1588 and the odd royal coup d’état involving an English monarch bringing an army from abroad such as in 1327, 1485 and 1689, the last successful invasion was by William the Conqueror nearly a thousand years ago. The same can’t be said in reverse. Kottke.org suggests that there are only 22 countries which we have not invaded ourselves: in Europe, aside from the minnows like San Marino and Andorra, only Sweden and Belarus (which has only existed since 1989 and so hardly counts) have evaded our attention. (If you’re French, don’t get too excited: your record isn’t much better.)

• For most people in Britain, WW2 exists as a something approaching a romantic age. Churchill’s tub-thumping speeches, the spirit of the Blitz and of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, D-day, Dad’s Army, In Which we Serve, land girls, Vera Lynn, the future Queen Mum in the East End, VE Day – our experience of war is rose-tinted and, for the most part, in black-and-white. In reality, our performance, particularly with regard to our colonies in the east, was a lot less heroic. We got away with it. But why did we do so and why do Ukraine, Poland, Palestine, Afghanistan and so many other places regularly do not?

Just look at an atlas. We are very fortunate: an island warmed by the Gulf Stream with a fertile soil and a temperate climate; of just about the right size to enable a stable system of government to be created and maintained; with a number of deep-water ports and surrounded by protective seas with powerful tides perilous for would-be invaders; and conveniently situated within sight of the world’s largest landmass. From these advantages we created probably the largest empire the world has seen, which involved massive predations on others. We remain the sixth richest country in the world, have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and speak probably what is still the most important language in the world. We’ve never been a buffer state in an uneasy peace, a makeweight in a diplomatic treaty or a pawn in a war. How can we understand the unending plight of those who find themselves living on a violent crossroads or trapped between two implacable enemies?

• Darting back, I’m not 100% sure about the UK stats about European invasions. I recall reading somewhere that the only European country we’ve never been to war with is Portugal (though there were times when Portugal was part of Spain so perhaps Kottke.org is counting those). This partly dates back to a marriage arrangement and treaty of friendship between the two countries in the 1390s negotiated by a man called Geoffrey Chaucer. What on earth happened to him?

• One side-effect of the conflict is that Putin has managed to achieve in a week what Trump failed to do in four years. The former PotUS had criticised NATO, and Germany in particular, for not putting their fair share in the tin when the defence collection box came round each year. (According to Statistica, in 2020 Germany spent 1.4% of its GDP on defence, compared to about 2.15% by Britain and France and 3.7% by the USA: Russia spent 4.3%). German military non-involvement is a sensitive issue and is, indeed, written into its constitution: involvement in the last European war in the Balkans in the 1990s involved this being amended. The decision of the new Chancellor on 27 February to raise its military spending by about a third therefore came as a shock to many there.

I spoke this week to an old friend who’s lived in Hamburg for over thirty years. “The idea of re-arming has always been a nervous issue in Germany,” he told me. “This is particularly so for older people and those of any age on the left or centre-left, which covers a sufficient number of people to call it something like a consensus.” He felt that the general consensus now, however, was that this crisis probably justified it. He suggested that a lot of the money would need to be spent on modernising an army which probably lags some ways behind those of its allies (or opponents) in sophistication.

Traditionally, an increase in German military expenditure tends to have a similar inflationary effect on that of its neighbours, as the 20th century has shown many times. The German government might say that it would be impossible for it to have done anything else. As my friend said, “Ukraine feels very close at the moment” Indeed it is. Only Poland – another country with sore memories of foreign intervention – stands between it and Germany.

• Another thing that Putin, and Covid, have managed to do is keep the issue of climate change off the top of the agenda. Humans can only deal with one major threat at a time and that will be the most immediate one. It seems that there will always be a higher priority: meanwhile, as relentless as the tide, our climate is changing and will if unchecked create worse problems than either Covid or Ukraine. As worrying is the fact that all the pandemic-recovery policies, and Germany’s defence hike, means less money for the colossal investment needed to combat this issue. As Europe’s reliance on Russian gas has shown, the first aim should be towards encouraging communities to become not only as sustainable but also as self-sufficient as possible. I don’t see any government making this a priority.

• I go shopping at Hungerford market every Wednesday and a friend in the village asked if I could get a dozen oranges for her. I replied saying I could and was she planning a re-enactment of the pivotal scenes in The Godfather (in which oranges always presaged death)? She said she didn’t know what I meant, admitting she’d never seen the film on the grounds that it was so violent. I asked if she’s seen Macbeth: yes, many times. This made me wonder if there was a significant mortality difference between these two epic fables of moral dissolution.

This site suggests that 12 people died during the Scottish play (I’m assuming two guards and three member of MacDuff’s family). This one suggests 20 deaths in The Godfather (I’m ignoring the horse and Vito Corleone, who died of a heart attack). Macbeth has a run-time of perhaps two hours: The Godfather is about three hours long. This means one death every ten minutes in Macbeth and one every nine in The Godfather, which makes them pretty equal. What’s more, Little Italy in the 1960s or Scotland in the mid-eleventh century were probably safer places to live than Midsomer, St Mary Mead or Inspector Morse’s Oxford.

It is depressing how much human interest is centred on violence and death, as much of this column has been. In fiction it is a powerful way of showing how wrongs can be avenged and malefactors punished, which is perhaps useful. Formalised violence on the part of a state, however, admits of no such resolution: victims suffer and the perpetrators often get little more than a conditional discharge or the ability to re-locate. Perhaps we’re expecting too much of ourselves. We’re only animals, after all. Many of us can co-operate and are happy to do so. However, the pack leaders – who will rise to the top despite structures put in place to limit their ascent – are principally predatory, acquisitive, and ruthless.

In The Tell-tale Heart, an individual conscience unmasked the crime. That isn’t possible with warfare as that involves the action of a state (which has no conscience) led by someone who has repressed his own (the male pronoun is chosen deliberately) to support the interests of the pack. Macbeth and Michael Corleone both did the same, abnegating their moral responsibilities to the higher claim of their family’s advancement. As for the narrator of The Tell-tale Heart, he – like Putin – managed to create an internally consistent alternative reality which was impervious to any external logic.

We can try to understand men’s baser motivations through these three very different literary masterpieces. Putin seems to have learned from them all. He is a highly successful predator and one that the west’s massively remunerated military strategists should have seen coming. It appears they didn’t: so, until his character’s moment of hubris comes, here we all are…

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 688 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 21 to 27 February, down 348 on the week before. This equates to 434 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 305 (421 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

Setting the budget

• Last year’s budget meeting at West Berkshire Council was a singularly divisive and prickly affair. Quite late in the evening, the opposition parties eventually walked out after claims that insufficient time had been allowed for their amendments to be debated and that these had all been lumped together and then voted on (and, obviously, defeated) en bloc. Both opposition parties feel that this year they have hit upon a procedural way of preventing this from happening. Whether these will have any effect on either the conduct of the meeting or its conclusions remains to be seen.

Local democracy, which produces some excellent results when the members are working collectively or at least apolitically, is rarely seen to best advantage during these high-profile spats. I particularly loathe the accusation that one member or one party is “playing politics”: aside from the fact that is normally the prelude to an overtly political point by the person making the observation, that is surely what they are all doing. I know that one has to get things done and that people will, formally or not, coalesce into like-minded groups. I also get it that, come election time, voters need to know roughly what each candidate stands for (though in local politics their past record as a good ward member tests much higher with me than does political affiliation). However it seems consistently disappointing that ideas, certainly in public, only seem to be valued by someone if they come from those with same coloured rosette. I have no idea what the solution is. A move away from cabinet-style government, which seems to echo some of the worse excesses of Westminster and Whitehall, might be one solution. Either that or just according a bit more respect for ideas that may come from opposition members who might know a good deal more about the matter in hand than does the administration member.

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has recently issued the following statement with regard to the situation in Ukraine. “Our thoughts, prayers and sympathies are with the people of Ukraine at this difficult time. The disturbing events of the last few days have been felt across Europe, the world, and also here in West Berkshire. We are proud of our history of supporting refugees in West Berkshire and we stand ready to offer assistance again as and when it’s required.”

• 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.

• 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.

• The animal of the week is Hamish, this ridiculously cute polar bear who has recently been born in a Scottish zoo. Ridiculously cute now, of course, but just give him a couple of years. I mean, look at the size of those claws already…

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of refugees, Laura Farris, Storm Eunice, energy advice and free speech.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: the many charities raising funds for Ukraine (thanks to everyone who donated); many local charities and voluntary groups (thanks to Greenham Trust and to local town and parish councils); the Alzheimer’s Society (thanks to Newbury Building Society); Young People and Children First (thanks to those who took part in the recent fun run at Greenham Common); Newbury Cancer Care (thanks to Elliot and Ethan Heaver).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• Let’s get straight into the Song of the Week. There was a programme on BBC R4 earlier this week about Joni Mitchell, or one aspect of her career. I’ve never really clicked with her music and I immediately penned an email to about a dozen friends with whom I commune regularly on all kind of things saying expressing my views. A deluge of criticism by return, convincing me that I was, once again, probably wrong. It’s since been suggested that the programme, or the bit of it I heard, looked at quite a small and perhaps inaccessible part of her work. Anyway, I must improve my knowledge. I started with listening to a few of the many songs that were selected for my re-education. Woodstock was among these (though I still think the Crosby, Stills & Nash version is far better) but the one that really stood out for me was Both Sides Now. She uses some really weird guitar tunings, which contributes to the ethereal and unresolved quality some of her songs have. One of them, for example, appears involve tuned to Csus 4 (add 9) not a chord we guitarists encounter every day. She doesn’t restrict herself to one or two such variations, either: her guitar technician must earn their corn every time she does a tour.

• Now it must be the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Not comedy (though perhaps we need it more than ever) but one of the great scenes from probably the greatest film ever made and one that seems particularly relevant at the moment – the La Marseillaise scene from Casablanca.

• And finally, the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What do actor Joss Ackland, DJ Jonathan Coleman and footballer Benedikt Höwedes have in common? Last week’s question was: Roughly how many ants are there in the world per human being? For obvious reasons opinions differ on the exact number but there seems to be a consensus that there are about 1.5 million ants for every human on the planet. Some say about one million, some 1.6 million: but I think we can agree it’s a lot and more than most of us will ever need. Mind you, they don’t have much use for us either.

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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