Weekly News with Brian 10 to 17 March 2022

This Week with Brian

Including the return of Kremlinology, long-table theories, life as a buffer state, Pravda’s home page, a servant of the people, degrees of greatness, overheard remarks, hands on the taps, partygate still alive, 12 notes, an amicable settlement, busking in Belfast, not cool, George Smiley, Billy Bunter and a pulse rate. 

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including an in-tray, a solar farm, anti-social behaviour, HGVs full of stuff, Hungerford’s surgery, Inkpen’s scouts, Kintbury’s netball, Lambourn’s donations, Shefford’s delay, East Garston’s repairs, Newbury’s bandstand, Enborne’s panels, Chieveley’s S106, Thatcham’s phoenix, Cold Ash’s picnic, Beedon’s DNA, Aldworth’s beer, Theale’s award, Mortimer’s tree, Aldermaston’s inspection, Wantage’s transformers, East Hanney’s bollard, Marlborough’s forest, Aldbourne’s fibre, Bedwyn’s bench and Swindon’s volunteers – 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

• During the Cold War (the first Cold War, I should say) there were many analysts known as Kremlinologists who would scrutinise press statements, photos, lists of official invitees to events and all the other forensic clues left by a secretive regime to try to decipher whose star was rising and who was in danger of the chop. I don’t know how successful they were nor if, in many cases, the results of their work were capable of proof. However, such people are doubtless being called into action again to provide some insights into what’s going on in Putin’s mind.

[more below] 

On one level, as mentioned last week, his actions are, though appalling, eminently logical. The Ukraine (and Belarus) are seen by Russia as buffer states providing a kind of cordon sanitaire between them and NATO. For Ukraine to wish to join the EU and NATO (Russia, with some justification, sees the latter as the military wing of the former) is no more acceptable to Putin than – were the first Cold War to have played out differently – the idea of Germany joining the Warsaw Pact would be to Macron. The EU and NATO’s encouragement of the possibility of this equates to bear baiting, a notoriously dangerous sport.

When you also remember that within living memory (indeed, during Putin’s career) Ukraine and all the rest of them were forcibly removed from Russia’s sphere of influence, it’s easy to see how Vlad regards this as a mission. I doubt he’s done yet. For all its vast size, Russia has no deep-water port which is ice-free the whole year. Sevastopol in the Crimea is the closest thing but that’s on the Black Sea, meaning that the Bosphorus and then the Med need to be crossed before reaching open water. However, it’s a lot better than nothing. This he must hang on to at all costs. This will be a lot easier if Ukraine were firmly buttoned down as well.

Previous expansions, such as the EU’s and NATO’s eastward creep and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, were seen by the other side as unwelcome but stopped just short of being unacceptable. The problem with the current mess is that the EU and NATO view the invasion of Ukraine as impossible to live with, while Putin finds it equally impossible to permit the idea that the state might one day join either or both of these two bodies. How this will be resolved is anyone’s guess. Certainly the conflict of interests is now in plain sight although the two sides haven’t started fighting each other except with words, threats and sanction. Looks like a Cold War to me.

True, there’s nothing very cold about it to people in the firing or bombing line in Ukraine but in broader terms, and certainly the level of mutual distrust, that’s what it is. Putin is simply making a point, in a horribly direct way. What’s less clear is what might happen to Ukraine in the longer-term. Partition would only postpone the problem. Ukrainians are unfortunate that they are living on one of the world’s major geo-political fault lines (as we are not).

More immediately, the biggest fear is probably whether Putin will start using “non-conventional” weapons including chemical ones. Russia and its allies have form on this in Syria. Russians and Ukranians are, he has averred, really the same people but the world is full of examples of rulers using such weapons against their own citizens, however defined.

• If you want another view of the war, it’s instructive to keep an eye on Pravda’s home page. One story that caught my eye was headlined An Open Letter to Ukranians. “What happened to your Revolution of Dignity?,” the sub-head asks. “What happened to the promised Western lifestyles and incomes? What happened to the promises of protection you thought NATO would provide as they used you to provoke Russia?” It concludes with the menacing instruction “let the Russians deal with the mess the oligarchs and Bandera militias made of your country and when it’s over and peace returns, learn from your mistakes.” 

• It seems that from Friday 11 March, both our view of Russia and the Russians’ view of us might be rather different as I have it on good authority that Russia will disconnect itself from the rest of the internet. This is about as hard a concept for a non-scientist like me to grasp as if I’d been told that it was disconnecting itself from the atmosphere. It appears, from talking to clever people, that this means that (a) Russia can decide what people inside the country get from elsewhere; and (b) outsiders won’t be able to access Russian sites unless Putin gives the OK. I’ve seen enough episodes of Hustle to believe that there’s a way round every digital obstacle. This seems like a pretty big step, though.

One possibility, as happened in post-Mubarak Egypt, is that Russian companies will complain so bitterly that they’re being driven bankrupt that it’ll have to be turned on again. Once again, perhaps Putin just wants to make a point – this tap controls weapons to Ukraine, this one controls the gas to Europe, this one controls the internet and I can turn any of them off or on any damn time I like.

• The next bit may seem a bit flip but, if Kremlinology is back on the agenda, then no clue can be ignored, however seemingly minor. So – what is with Putin’s tables? He’s regularly been photographed sitting at one end of something about the size and shape of a medium-sized whale with others such as French President Macron at the other end. There’s also an even longer but less elegant thing that would do as a giraffe’s stretcher which usually has a few officials crowded down the far end. You see photos of both of them here. What’s going on?

  • One possibility is that he’s seriously paranoid about germs, although there are also recent photos of him sitting closer to officials. A variation of this suggests that he’s seriously ill and so immuno-compromised. The Sun and others claim he has cancer and/or Parkinsons.
  • Another theory is that he’s doing it because he can. Macron refused to have a Russian-made lateral flow test before his summit meeting in February (the official reason reported by the BBC was that it “required a health protocol that was unacceptable and did not fit with the French leader’s schedule” but there were also reports that the Gallic supremo didn’t want Russia to have his DNA) so perhaps he was being punished for that.
  • There’s also perhaps an alpha-male power vibe going on, a kind Roi Soleil “I’m not one of you” thing. For all I know, this could be inspired by some arch Russian saying: “you know what they say about men with long tables…” Also, the big white one cost about £100,000. Things of that size are shown off to best advantage without too many people seated at them.
  • It’s less likely that he’s going through this British-aristocrats-at-breakfast routine just to create easy symbolism for western commentators who want an image to support tales of his arrogance, isolation and out-of-touch-ness. However, as the cover of the recent Private Eye proves, that’s exactly what’s happened (like he cares).
  • Finally, it’s possible that none of these things are true but that Putin is pretending that they might be, to wrong-foot his opponents. As Saul Enderby said to George Smiley in Smiley’s People, “is this just another Bolshie plot to lure us all to our ultimate destruction?”

• Shakespeare observed that some are born to greatness, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky may or not prove to be “great”, however that term is defined, but he’s certainly proved himself to be a charismatic leader since the invasion. A native Russian-speaker and law graduate, his main career was as an actor and comedian. If you watch the Paddington films in Ukranian, it’s his voice doing the dubbing. He was also the creator and star of the TV series Servant of the People (in which a teacher gets elected President of Ukraine) of which there were 51 episodes between 2015 and 2019. By the time the last ones were aired he’d already announced his candidature for the real thing. In a remarkable case of life imitating art, he was elected President in April 2019 with 73% of the vote.

His rise to power could not be more different from that of Putin, who traced a careful path through the snake pit of the KGB before emerging as Boris Yeltsin’s successor on 31 December 1999: a slow-burning millennium bug if ever there was one. The trajectory of Zelensky’s character’s rise to power in Servant of the People must have appalled him: a professional buffoon playing the part of a man who came from nowhere on a tide of popular support with a mandate to deal with problems of graft and corruption. Then, within months, the man actually became President. This must have convinced VP that Ukraine was, as he’s said many times, not really a proper country at all. It was a piece of Russia that had been alienated by an unfortunate historical accident and which was now clearly being run by a lunatic who wanted, among other things, to have Ukraine join the EU. Something, Putin reasoned, had to be done. And he is doing it.

• One could add to Shakespeare’s remark by saying that some wish to re-live or appropriate the greatness of others. Zelensky did this with regard to a fictional character he had himself created while Trump did it in pursuit of a libertarian dream that drew from what he saw as the philosophy of the USA’s founding fathers. Then we have our own PM who sees himself as a combination of Billy Bunter, Winnie-the-Pooh and Winston Churchill. The latter is known to history as having won a war. BJ has so far faced three: Brexit, Covid and Ukraine. None bear any similarity to each other and all are unprecedented. It’s very hard to know what a “good” leader looks like in these situations. With Covid one can of course compare our PM’s performance with those of other leaders but in many ways this would be unfair. There is nowhere exactly like the UK, or France, or Turkmenistan, or Tonga, or anywhere else. Each country has its own unique features including the state of its health system, the compliance of its citizens and its population density, to name but three.

• One thing that one should be able to expect from a leader at any time, however, is honesty. Here we return to a story that seems to have broken in another age, that of partygate. I was thinking about this only yesterday, wondering when it would not seem like bad taste to bring this up again and then the BBC obligingly ran this story. The main gist is that the Met’s activities “have been continuing under the radar.” At the risk of making a glib comparison, we are lucky we live in a country where such cases of alleged hypocrisy and mendacity are investigated and freely reported on. Can you imagine Putin being ridiculed by Pravda over any similar events he might have held, at the end of a table of any length?

• I was at the Hungerford market on Wednesday and heard an woman say to her husband , “you’re never going to eat all that celery.” He had a “just watch me” expression on his face but said nothing. This quite mild overheard remark reminded me of some other ones I’ve been blessed with. So, here we go.

The bronze medal goes to two women walking past me on the shores of Loch Lomond: “…so then, of course, he realised he’d left his trousers in Arbroath…”. The silver goes to a woman talking to her male partner I overheard arguing by the freezer section in Sainsbury’s: “…this isn’t about lamb chops at all, is it? This is about my mother…” The gold medal, though, must go to to two men in a crowded central London pub in about 1990 whom I walked past on the way back from the bar. One had clearly just finished a story. The other nodded sagely. “Well,” he said, “I bet that’s the last time Derek wears an aqualung into the office.”

I trust I am no more plagued with regrets about lost opportunities than are most people. However, I’m sad that I didn’t on these occasions stop what I was doing, turn round and ask them to explain what the hell they were talking about. Mind you, that might have ruined it. The reality might in each case have been very prosaic. Perhaps we are kept alive and alert by these kind of constant unresolved chords that life produces.

• Speaking of music, I’ve been slightly following Ed Sheeran’s copyright case in which he and the co-authors of Shape of You are defending themselves against a claim for infringement of copyright. As some of you may know, my two non-PP things are writing stories and (with rather less success than Mr Sheeran) writing songs. The process of influence interests me. Years ago, I was up half the night in my home studio working on something I thought was rather good until I realised it was actually Blame it on the Boogie by the Jacksons. Only this week I “wrote” something else that turned out to be one of the great soul songs, Midnight Train to Georgia. The idea of knowingly passing something off as mine when it isn’t is abhorrent to me, even if only a hundred people ever hear it.

The problem is that you’re never sure when influence ends and plagiarism starts. No one would claim that the I IV V7 or the VI V IV chord progressions could be copyrighted: yet there are all manner of variations on these, and others, which at some point become too specific to regard as anything other than an impossible co-incidence. I’m not sure what the definition of melodic plagiarism is, ie how many notes and where in the song (the chorus being rather more important than the third line in the verse) a passage would be before it becomes problematic. This is why, unfortunately, we need judges and lawyers.

One example that springs to mind concerns two compositions I know well, the Rolling Stones’ Anyone Seen my Baby and KD Lang’s earlier Constant Craving (a much better song – and, incidentally, one of those I’d pick, along with her Miss Chatelaine, as one of my top-twelve in a personal list of songs with massive emotional associations). Here the descending melody in the chorus is so similar that it’s impossible to believe that anyone could hope to get away with it. Keith Richards said that the similarity only became clear to him when his daughters sung the words of the KD Lang song over the Stones’ one when he was playing them the Bridges to Babylon album. To the Stones’ great credit, they immediately gave KD Lang and her writing partner Ben Mink a co-authorship for it. Many other cases have been settled less amicably. This kind of thing crops up constantly. There are, after all, only 12 notes available.

With writing words, it’s slightly easier. If you’re doing the kind of stuff I do here, quote your sources. If it’s fiction, words have a more empirical quality than music so a passage of text is, particularly these days, pretty easy to check for a bit of previous. However, no one can copyright a style, nor the idea of jilted love, personal disaster, unintended consequences or a locked-room murder. At least, I hope they can’t…

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 913 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 28 February to 6 March, up 225 on the week before. This equates to 576 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 423 (305 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

Three views on WBC’s budget

West Berkshire Council approved its budget earlier this month. In this post I’ve refrained from making any comment about what it contained, or didn’t contain, or should have contained, or how it was decided, debated and voted on but merely handed the microphone to representatives of the three political parties represented on the Council. As I mention at the top of the post, please feel free to add any comments of your own.

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has 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.

• The Household Support Fund Scheme is ending soon – get you applications in by 18 March to be sure you don’t miss out if entitles. More details here.

• 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.

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 animals of the week are this strange collection from Science Focus which defy any kind of description I can think of.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of wrong-headedness, a Khmer Rouge-style socialist-controlled Stone Age, sanctions, West Berkshire Council’s budget and good neighbours.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: several local charities and organisations (thanks to Greenham Trust and parish and town councils); the COSMIC Charity (thanks to Victoria and George Hanbury); various Ukranian charities (thanks to local donors); First Light in Swindon and Wiltshire (thanks to the Wiltshire Community Foundation).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So here we are at the Song of the Week. As it was international Women’s Day on 8 March (just the one day each year?) the chosen song has got to be by a woman. Female solo artists are numerous but female-only bands rather more rare. The Slits and The Bangles spring immediately to mind as do, for a different reason, Russia’s Pussy Riot. It so happened that this week a friend sent me a link of the Northern Irish three-piece Dea Matrona performing Led Zep’s Whole Lotta Love in a a shopping street in Belfast. As well as being several steps up from someone warbling Where Did You To My Lovely (unquestionably the most irritating song ever written) with an out-of-tune guitar, it also proves that it’s possible to play Jimmy Page licks while wearing gloves.

• Which must mean that next up is the the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Very few people outside Ukraine would have heard of Volodymyr Zelensky a few months ago but most of us have now. He was an actor and comedian before rather unexpectedly getting elected President (see also above): here’s a clip from Servant of the People, a spookily self-referential series about an ordinary man who ends up getting the top job.

• And to conclude matters, here’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What is the average pulse rate of a full-grown elephant? Last week’s question was: What do actors Joss Ackland, DJ Jonathan Coleman and footballer Benedikt Höwedes have in common? The answer is that they were all born on 29 February, without doubt the coolest day of the year to have a birthday. Being born on 29 August, I couldn’t be further away from this: still more proof that I am not cool and probably never have been.

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