Weekly News with Brian 24 to 31 March 2022

This Week with Brian

Including what to believe, life in the 12th and 17th centuries, four breakfast cereals, popular bewilderment, objective truth, Orwell happening today, loss of face, missed moments, less than £2 an hour, a dirty horizon, political poo, political watermelons, the 100% club, the Broadway hotel, seven minutes of Paul, 18 trophies and the life of Brian.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including local homes for Ukraine, nutrient neutrality, Birchwood, Joely’s survey, plans for the north east, football compromises, unintendid consequences, parish stewards, a green light for the lido, Hungerford’s mum, Kintbury’s licence, Inkpen’s hall, Shefford’s toddlers, East Garston’s repairs, Newbury’s awards, Hamstead Marshall’s clerk, Shaw-cum-Donnington’s survey, Greenham’s donkey, Thatcham’s spring, Midgham’s meeting, Cold Ash’s presentation, Brimpton’s map, Compton’s CCTV, West Ilsley’s flowers, East Ilsley’s pipe, Brightwalton’s spire, Chaddleworth’s beacon, Theale’s zebra, Aldermaston’s survey, Burghfield’s hub, Wantage’s parking, Letcombe’s register, Grove’s feast, East Lockinge’s toads, Marlborough’s repairs, Aldbourne’s archaeology, Ramsbury’s gullies, Axford’s VOIP and Swindfon’s stadium – plus our usual trek 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 don’t know what to believe any more. About what? About everything. The trouble is, the more you try to read about things the more you realise how little you actually understand. There was only one time in my life when I really felt I understood everything about something. The subject was 12th century Anglo-Norman property inheritance. A bit of an odd one, I know, but it was an important aspect of one of my finals papers at uni and I’d been lucky enough to have been persuaded to read one article until I got it. It was if a light had been switched on, making everything clear. This sensation lasted until just after I’d written the essay. Then it vanished, never to return. I was 21 at the time and it’s been downhill ever since. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever truly understood anything else.

[more below] 

Of course, it’s possible to believe something without understanding it. I believe in gravity but have no understanding at all of how it works. Time was when we weren’t expected to understand anything much but just have faith in what we were told were essential tenets like the Nicene Creed, the class system or the divine right of kings. Life must then have been wonderfully simple; just as it was before the 1980s when there was one phone company, one gas, electricity and water board, two effective political parties, three TV channels and four kinds breakfast cereal.

It’s not the vast choice that’s now the problem but the utter impossibility of making a reasoned judgement between various products, services or payment tariffs. Would I turn the clock back to these days of uniformity? Of course not. Well, actually, sometimes I would.

Ideas have always been legion but it’s only very recently that they’ve all got their chance to catch our attention. Until the widespread use of the internet and social media (ie this century) the only time in English history when you could lift the lid and see what people were actually thinking was the 1650s during the so-called English Revolution after Charles I’s execution. Effective censorship vanished and a staggeringly wide range of political and social views – unseen in the decades and centuries before or afterwards – were expressed in print.

How people intellectually coped with this sudden outpouring of disparate ideas that could be fairly freely circulated and discussed I can’t imagine. (This was also a subject in my uni finals but I don’t recall that popular bewilderment was one of the themes we needed to consider. Perhaps it would be now.)

• We live in an age of popular bewilderment now. To use social media and accept what one reads is to follow the Red Queen’s advice to Alice to try to believe half a dozen impossible things before breakfast. I suspect, however, that most of us proceed with caution when dealing with new ideas: like pawns on a chessboard or travellers in a dense fog, we tend to make only small adjustments to our initial position. It’s very rarely that I talk to someone about a subject who the next time evinces a radically different opinion. That’s not because we’re incapable of such a change of mind but merely because it’s awkward. To do so is to call into question everything about how we were when we believed otherwise.

We are surrounded by as much information as we choose to absorb but most of us don’t have the time to process it. The world being what it is, we also tend to gravitate towards people, opinions, creative works or whatever that reinforce what we already believe. The most the majority of us can do is to make a small adjustment in our social group, opinions or tastes and convince ourselves that this is all that’s required. The reality is that it’s all that we are in general capable of achieving, certainly without fearing that we need to change everything else or starting to live a lie.

• There’s also the problem of what truth is, to the extent that it exists as an objective certainty. I recently wrote an article about a discussion at a West Berkshire Council meeting. It’s a matter of fact that the vote ended 16 v 16 with four abstentions but such was the confusion in the five minutes before this was announced that I couldn’t say for certain how this came about. I know why some of the members voted the way they did because I asked them but for the rest I have to guess. I quoted certain passages of the debate and not others. I could, with equal accuracy, have chosen different examples from the same source and used this to justify a completely different conclusion. My article might read, in places, like an objective summary of the event. It’s true I had a pre-conception about the issue but I did not ignore the opinions of those who felt otherwise.

My stated intention in writing such pieces with a mixture of fact and comment is to encourage some people to disagree with me and so perhaps to think about the issue in a different way. Is it, though? Perhaps I’m actually trying to finesse my own point of view into people’s heads. This style is, I’ve been told, more interesting to read than straight reportage: it’s certainly a lot more interesting to write. Am, I therefore, really trying to draw attention to myself? If so, why? I have no political ambitions. What exactly am I trying to accomplish? 

The fact that I don’t know the answer to these questions about the thousands of words I write each week makes me see how impossible it is for me to understand what agendas other writers might have.

• Many of these points – mainly what to believe and how to verify it – apply to the Russia-Ukraine situation. Unlike many wars, opinion in most countries is polarised into “Russia bad, Ukraine good.” The problem with this is that any story that supports either view is much more likely to be accepted than one that doesn’t. There have been tales, on the one hand, of Russian forced mass rallies, state clampdowns and military atrocities and, on the other, of heroic resistance, human kindness and remarkable bravery.

All of these may well be wholly or partly true. The problem is that many of the former articles read like accounts of events in Nazi Germany while the latter ones might be describing a united population dealing with the consequences of a natural disaster. All the other wars that have taken place in my lifetime – including the so-called War on Terror which George W Bush wanted to make seem so simple – were, sometimes from the outset, highly ambiguous. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, by contrast, presents the stark black-and-white of a Tintin story. With every passing day, the coverage of this seems increasingly like being trapped inside Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Half my brain feels that it can’t be this simple. The other half feels that I couldn’t deal with it being any more complicated.

• The motives of Putin and Zelensky certainly seem simple, perhaps identical: survival without too much loss of face. I suggested last week that wars (indeed conflicts of any kind) tend to end when both sides simultaneously feel that it can be portrayed, certainly domestically, as a victory and that continuation would reduce the chances of this conjunction happening again (total victory, such as in 1918 and 1945, rarely happens).

The trouble is that, as with two express trains passing in opposite directions, the moment can be hard to anticipate and easy to miss. One such seems to have been missed last week. I believe that what Russia mainly wants to do is to make a point about territory and security. NATO now appears to have ramped up the stakes and threatened extra deployment of troops in Eastern Europe while Russia has intensified its attacks.

• The idea that Russian public opinion might have anything to do with ending the conflict seem fanciful. Anti-conflict protests during the Vietnam and Gulf Wars didn’t stop either becoming long and painful failures. The Russian system doesn’t appear to be particular nuanced towards popular protest. Mind you, to revert to my earlier points, what do I know? I’ve never been to Russia. Even if I were to go there tomorrow, and with a fluent command of the language, I doubt I’d be able to discover anything useful. Indeed, the more I knew about the place, the more my pre-occupations might inform what I had to say. As it is, we’re all relying on people who are taking a third- or fourth-hand report of something (which may itself have been biased) and then pushing it through the final filter of their own particular prejudices. People a bit like me, perhaps.

• Moving back to Blighty, few people will be unaware of P&O’s sacking of 800 staff over a video link and their replacement with agency staff who are allegedly paid less than £2 an hour. The PM has got involved, claiming that P&O’s action broke the law although it later emerged that BoJo may have been quoting from an outdated piece of legislation: the clause he was referring to was changed in 2018 as a result of an EU directive. Doubtless this will in due course be presented as another reason why Brexit was a good idea. We left over 14 months ago, however, and so have had over three years to deal with this.

• The trouble with sacking 800 people is that there’s no nice way of doing it. From a management point of view there’s a lot to be said in getting the whole business over asap. After all, if things have got to this pitch then the staff are just inconvenient figures in the accounts rather than human beings. There was a firm in, I think, the USA that did the same thing during lockdown over Zoom and received a similar reaction. The fact that P&O has offered about £36m in compensation has rather got lost. The unions have said that there was “no consultation, no negotiation and no dialogue.” Then, on 24 March, P&O’s boss admitted to a House of Commons committee that the company had deliberately broken the law. 

All in all, it looks like a PR disaster. One can only assume that the people who run P&O presumably don’t care about PR. After all, there aren’t that many ways of crossing the English Channel. I don’t want to make a glib comparison but Putin would perhaps understand this. If you have a goal – and Putin’s is a lot clearer to me than is P&Os’s – then you must be able to put up with a certain amount of flack and damage if you can eventually achieve it.

• In terms of corporate dereliction of duty, however, it’s hard to see a worse example than the Horizon scandal at the Post Office which resulted in hundreds of sub-postmasters being prosecuted and in many cases imprisoned as a result of accusations of fraud which turned out to be baseless and which were rather caused by colossal and unaddressed failures in the Horizon software.

The most recent development has been that the 555 sub-postmasters who helped expose the scandal but had their compensation eaten up by legal fees will now be compensated. One could find numerous examples of the acerbic comments by the judges at the various trials about the behaviour, collectively and individually, of the Post Office and its  software partner Fujitsu. One of my favourites came in 2019 by Mr Justice Fraser: ‘This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon Issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st-century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”

If there is any justice in the world – and there’s not a lot – then some prison sentences, fines and repetitional trashing will be handed out to PO and Fujitsu directors. I don’t want to sound vindictive but we are talking about people who for reasons of self-interest and colossal corporate defensiveness permitted life-changing catastrophes to descend on people who were wholly blameless. Then they were dragged through the system again to clear their names and a third time to extract compensation. It’s intensely depressing that neither the PO nor Fujitsu has yet admitted any responsibility but is blaming the other. As corporate failings go, this is right up there.

Hats should be raised to Private Eye which, more than any other publication, kept the story alive for years. This was the publication that was driven nearly to extinction by another unconnected corporate felon, Robert Maxwell: I think that every single story that the Eye printed about him, and about which Captain Bob sued and generally won, was later proved to have been true. This doesn’t improve my faith in the British legal system. Hopefully the lawyers and the government can do something to show that it can be used to prosecute the bad, not just help the rich. One can but hope…

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 1,996 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 13 to 19 March, up 435 on the week before. This equates to 1,260 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 868 (661 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

Obeying the call

I’m well aware that the worth of our elected representatives isn’t wholly measured by their attendance at the formal meetings which they are “summoned” to attend. You can be an effective advocate for your residents (which is your real purpose) without attending these. None the less, the best part of three quarters of the way through the current administration – the next elections will be in May 2023 – it seems worth having a quick look at how the West Berkshire Councillors are doing at keeping up with their official summonses to the sessions at which a good deal of important business is transacted. Another way of looking at it is to imagine that you’re a shareholder in a company with a turnover of about £140m and want to know, regardless of what other work they do, how many of the directors turn up to the board and management meetings

There are 43 councillors in West Berkshire (there have been 44 in this period as Peter Argyle died in October 2021 after an illness and Biyi Oloko was elected in his place in December: these have been excluded from what follows). 24 are Conservatives, 16 Lib Dems and three Green. Only six of the 43 are female, though these include two of the three party leaders. The average attendance rate for all councillors for the period since the May 2019 election is 88%. The individual attendance rate varies from 63% to 100%. It seems unfair to name the councillors at the lower end of the list as there may be personal or other factors which would explain this and which I haven’t had time to establish: but I shall ask.

At the top, however, it seems worth congratulating the only two who have attended every meeting to which they’ve been summoned. Hats off, therefore, to James Cole (Con) and Carolyne Culver (Green), the only members of the 100% club. Honourable mentions go to Graham Bridgman and Jeff Beck (both Con), Owen Jeffrey (Lib Dem) and Steve Masters (Green) who between them have missed only seven of the 284 meetings to which they’ve been summoned. Council Leader Lynne Doherty (Con) has both attended (120) and been summoned to (125) more meetings than anyone else.

About about half fall above and about half below the 88% average attendance line. 14 Conservatives, two Greens and only four Lib Dems have a better-than-average attendance record. Of the six female councillors, five of them are in the upper half. As regards the parties as a whole, the Lib Dems have attended 83% of the meetings to which they’ve been summoned, the Conservatives 90% and the Greens 92%.

These figures perhaps tell us more about the way the local political apparatus works than they do about the councillors’ respective levels of diligence. With two exceptions, the members who were summoned to the most meetings were members of the Executive. This comprises only nine members, all from the ruling party. I suspect attendance there is almost total, which would push their figure up. The Lib Dems may feel that their presence at some meetings is pointless if, as is asserted, matters have often effectively been decided in advance. The Greens are spread much more thinly across the committees than the others and so perhaps need to work all the harder to get their views across.

These are my conjectures: but I’ll be asking the party leaders for their comments and shall bring these to you when I have them. The WBC election is only just over a year away in which such statistics are likely to figure.

At the risk of firing the first salvo, I’d ask you when voting to forget about politics. Clearly you might select a member from you preferred party regardless: but if you think that local municipal matters should be as apolitical as possible, you should consider if your ward member has been an effective advocate for your area. If you have already had dealings with them then you will probably  have made up your mind. If you have an issue that you think they can help with, contact them (see here in West Berkshire, here in the Vale, here in Wiltshire and here in Swindon) and judge how they deal with it. Have a look at minutes for your parish council and see if you member/s bother regularly to turn up or send reports. Ask your parish councillors how effective they’ve been for your area. If they’ve been prepared to defy their party on important issues then score them even more highly. 

The overall politics of your district your vote may not influence; but if a councillor doesn’t seem to be doing a good job then quite a small number of votes can be enough to get rid of them. Their attendance at formal meetings will be useful a guide but not the only one. Those who have attended all or almost all meetings should certainly be congratulated as these are often irksome all always time-consuming occasions. However, other often irksome and always time-consuming work is also done by elected representatives outside the meeting room and this can’t easily be expressed on a graph or spreadsheet. Ultimately, when the time comes we need to decide if these people are actually any good at representing the people they’re elected to serve.

Political poo

There’s an article on p9 of this week’s Newbury Weekly News which covers not only the two motions on the subject of sewage discharges into the district’s rivers but also the demonstration in the Market Place which preceded this. I haven’t managed to do more than skim through the debate about the two motions but I’ve read them both and spoken to some of the people who took part. One of these was rejected as being “political”. I think that there was indeed a political motion but it was the other one.

The Green’s motion would have demanded that WBC ask MP Laura Farris for her reason/s for voting against an amendment to the Environment Bill last year. Asking an MP to explain their decisions seems perfectly reasonable. Indeed it’s part of the normal process of scrutiny. The motion did not, as WBC’s Leader Lynne Doherty claimed, tell the MP what to do (which would be impossible: it seems that only government whips possess that power). However politically motivated the Green Party might be, this motion did not strike me as political. What could be more reasonable than asking an MP to explain their actions? What could be less political than sewage?

The motion by the Conservative group (which was adopted with some opposition amendments) welcomed the Environment Act, welcomed the new statutory duty for water companies to provide comprehensive Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans and welcomed Thames Water’s initiation of a restoration project on the River Pang (I’m told by Action for the River Kennet that this will indeed be a major step forward: however congratulations should perhaps be saved for when it’s completed). In general, however, the motion seemed little more than a support for current government policy. Many feel that the Environment Act has missed opportunities and has too few teeth: and, in particular, that it’s meaningless unless Ofwat and the Environment Agency are given more funding to do their jobs. Such unqualified support seems to me to more political than the motion that was so-described. I’d like to add at this point (not for the first time) that I’m not a member of any political party, never have been and never will be.

It’s also unclear to me how useful a council motion is if it merely endorses decisions that have been taken elsewhere. At the very least, it surely should specify some action that the council can take to improve the situation for the benefits of the district. This the Green’s motion made some attempt to do. As we’ll never know whether the ruling group would have cried “foul” were Laura Farris to be, say, a Lib Dem, it’s impossible to say if the objection to the motion was not itself at least as politically motivated as it was claimed the motion was itself.

I’ve mentioned before that the ghastly accusation that one side is “playing politics” is often a prelude to an equally political remark by the accuser. This could be a case in point. Sewage, of course, pays no attention to all this partisan knockabout.

Other news

Please click here for information about what local councils are doing to help support refugees from Ukraine and how you can help.

• The question of which documents could be disclosed to district councillors and which could not was considered by West Berkshire Council at its full council meeting on 17 March. You can read my report of the discussion (which needed in some confusion) by clicking here.

• The sewage problem is attracting an increasing amount of interest. It’s a particular issue in places like the Lambourn Valley and the area around Aldbourne and Ramsbury which have both variable groundwater levels and SSSI rivers which are subject to stringent protection. I spoke to local campaign groups, local councillors, Thames Water and the Environment Agency to see what the latest situation was: you can read the article here.

• West Berkshire Council needs your opinion about the upcoming separate food-waste collections service. The survey is now live and will remain so until midnight on 3 May.

West Berkshire Foodbank has also been in the news recently as a result of debates about its future funding at West Berkshire Council and concerns that demand for its services is outstripping supply. Click here for the latest statement from the Foodbank’s Manager, Fran Chamings.

• West Berkshire Council is encouraging people to pledge to do their bit to clear up the litter that blights the natural environment during the Great British Spring Clean 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.

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.

• I mentioned last week about the singular epistolary style of Councillor Alan Law and he’s back in the NWN letters page this week, watermelon analogy to hand. He makes some specific statements about the Green Party being “in effect an extreme left-wing socialist party” which is at least a climb-down from the previous stone-age Khmer Rouge comments. He lists four examples of this. I haven’t studied the party’s manifesto: these may well be true and the local Green councillors may or may not be proud of them. I’m sure that, like the Bible, any party manifesto could provide evidence of a particular point of view. In any case, as Councillor Law should know by considering the leader of his own party, what you actually you do is a lot more important than what you say you’re going to do (or not do).

He adds that “as a Conservative I am concerned about the environment.” This confuses me: is he saying that all Conservatives are concerned about the environment or that he is only concerned about the environment in his capacity of being a Conservative? He goes on to suggest that “technology, innovation and the market will get us to net zero.” He’s right in that these things will be required but completely wrong in that this is all it will take. Personal responsibility, regulation and enforcement are also vital. His concludes that he doesn’t want the baby to be thrown out with the bathwater. He refers to this as a “metaphor”:  “cliché” is in fact the word he was searching for. I’m not sure what the baby and the bathwater represent in this. At least there were no watermelons in the bath: perhaps they’ll be revealed next time. In the meantime, the ball seems to be in the Green Party’s court. I await next week’s NWN with interest.

• The animals of the week are the mice that, as reported on p26 of this week’s NWN, have been saved by West Berks Rescue from a fate that we would all like to avoid, that of being fed alive to snakes.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of Laura Farris, luddites, the definition of a sports hub, Ron Tarry and dog licences.

• 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); Comic Relief (thanks to Great Shefford primary School); Ukraine charities (thanks to many individuals and groups, including the Hungerford Rotary Club; Oscar Tehrani, Jude Thrower and Toby Auld from Greenham; and Milo and Louis Chaillier from East Ilsley).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So here we are at the Song of the Week. As I might have mentioned before, I do like a song that tells a story or makes a point (so many don’t). Few people do the elegantly rhyming and scanning narrative better than Al Stewart and here’s a good example: Broadway Hotel from his ’76 album Year of the Cat.

• Which must mean that next up is the the Comedy Sketch of the Week. The Paul Merton clip from last week seemed to go down pretty well so here’s an invitation to spend up to another seven minutes in his company in a collection of clips from Have I Got News for You?

• And to conclude matters, here’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What reason did George Harrison give for putting up the £2m needed to make The Life of Brian? Last’s week’s question was: How many major trophies have Chelsea won since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003? The answer is 18. The 98 years before then had yielded a total of eight. How much longer this hot streak goes on for in the current circumstances is uncertain.

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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