This week with Brian 18 to 25 August 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including Salman Rushdie, troublebubble, a long obsession, smuggled onto the list, a failed vaccine, a new vaccine, bread and wine, Napoleon’s hangover, keeping it simple, my reading list, more sewage, rain, energy, Covid, the election grinds on, a flat-pack revolt, dirty words, the smallest cat, the highest score, caddying for the Dalai Lama and writing the book.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) 

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

Last week Salman Rushdie – Booker Prize-winning novelist, long-term fatwa sufferer and inventor of the strapline “irresistibubble” for Aero chocolate bars – was attacked and seriously wounded when about to give a speech in New York. 

[more below] 

His assailant was Hadi Matar of New Jersey, an alleged Iranian sympathiser who, according to his mother as reported in the Daily Mail, changed from being a “popular, loving son” into “a moody introvert” after returning from a trip to the Middle East in 2018. He thereafter spent much of his time locked in the basement where, judging by the results of a search of the house by the FBI, he played computer games and sharpened knives, occasionally venturing out berate his mother for not having given him a strict Muslim upbringing. His new-found faith doesn’t on this evidence seem to have made his life better: indeed, has got him into a good deal of troublebubble.

Rushdie has been, to put it mildly, at odds with many Muslims since the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988. This was seen by some – a few of whom may have actually read it – as involving an irreverent depiction of Mohamed. A fatwa was declared against him in February 1989 by Ayatollah Rulhollah Khomeini which called on “all brave Muslims” to kill the author and anyone involved with the translation, publishing or sale of the book, a $1m bounty (increased to $3m as recently as February 2021) being added for good measure. A fatwa can only be rescinded by the religious scholar who has issued it: as Khomeini died in 1989, that can now never happen. In 1998, the Iranian government said that it would “neither support nor hinder” Rushdie’s assassination which seems to be a rather pointless position to adopt: does the Iranian top brass believe the man should be killed or not?

Statements from Tehran a couple of days after the attack pointed out that it was all the writer’s fault anyway, not the attacker’s. “Bravo to this courageous and duty-conscious man who attacked the apostate and depraved Salman Rushdie,” a pro-government newspaper in Iran fulminated. “Let us kiss the hands of the one who tore the neck of the enemy of God with a knife.” In response to the fact that the writer might lose one of his eyes, the country’s state broadcaster observed that “an eye of the Satan has been blinded.”

This is familiar fighting talk from a country which seems obsessed with Rushdie: indeed, Arash Azizi, writing in New Lines, claims that the regime’s continued incitement for killing him is integral to its identity. The article also refers to the strange case of Ata’ollah Mohajerani, one of the fatwa’s strongest apologists. Despite having been a reformist politician in Iran during the late 1990s who was ousted because of his liberal attitudes and who now lives in exile in London, Mohajerani has never wavered in support of the fatwa, including publishing a lengthy book defending it. He has repeatedly praised those who have carried out attacks in pursuit of its aims, including those who set fire to a hotel in Turkey in 1993 in an attempt to kill the book’s  Turkish translator: 37 people died in the blaze, including the perpetrators (but not the translator).

Mohajerani’s comments after that attack included saying that the fatwa “had worked like a vaccine preventing further criticism of the prophet of Islam.” This clearly was not the case: but the sentiments were alive and well from official Iranian sources last week which claimed that Rushdie had “insulted the sacred matters of Islam and crossing the red lines of more than 1.5 billion Muslims.” From moderates or hardliners, the message is the same: you can’t criticise Islam; not even a tiny bit. Some Iranian religious intellectuals recently issued a joint statement condemning the attack as “terrorism” but many others will not be brave enough to echo the sentiments, even if they share them. It’s all rather as if a large part of the world is stuck in the 15th century.

The idea that religions are beyond criticism is dangerous drivel. One can choose whether to believe in a supernatural point of view or not (though in many societies it’s harder to escape from the need to maintain outward observance). Anyone who holds a religious point of view does so to some extent because of their own convictions and thus should be prepared to have these challenged and to defend them; in just the same way that someone should should about their political affiliations. Religion invented the idea of something being sacred and then neatly turned it round to apply to the whole self-interested and man-made edifice that supports it, and from which many people profit in terms of wealth or power. I cannot see how it’s possible to discriminate against a point of view that is a matter of choice. Matters such as gender, race, disability, sex, sexuality or age are utterly and completely different matters as one cannot choose those. Religion has somehow managed to smuggle itself onto this list.

The idea that religions cannot be criticised would carry a lot more weight were any of them to have a clear sense of what they actually believed in. The basic tenets are in most cases are fairly clear: but humans, particularly those trying to get a new movement off the ground, can’t resist talking too much and coming up with soundbites that may be in contradiction to each other. This was made progressively worse by the emergence of an industry of pointless and divisive theorising in madrassas and seminaries by over-educated men trying to establish how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. The resulting vast corpus of supposition and commentary, some of which became adopted as official dogma, provided plentiful pretexts for disputes between different factions of the faith and the ammunition to keep these going, sometimes for centuries.

Even the founders of the religions often couldn’t get their stories straight. The question of whether the bread and wine actually is the body and blood of Christ, transformed by the priest (as the Catholics believe), or merely props for a ceremonial act of remembrance (as the Protestants believe, or at least those who believe in the idea of holy communion at all) is one of the central doctrinal differences between the two factions and had most of Europe in turmoil for about 200 years. Both sides can find evidence to support their claim from Jesus’ remarks in the New Testament.

Then we have Mohamed’s attitude to alcohol. The Quran discourages this but doesn’t forbid it, as it does carrion and pork. This discouragement is mentioned several times in several different ways but there is also (in 4.43) the instruction that you should not go to prayers while in a state of drunkenness: so it is clearly less a matter of what you do than where you do it. Indeed, his views on booze don’t go as far as Napoleon’s in Orwell’s Animal Farm who decreed, the morning after the pigs had got themselves outside a case of whisky with disastrous results, that the drinking of alcohol would be punishable by death (he later changed his mind).

(I’m not going to mention about how either of these religions, and many others, behave with regard to women. I think you can come to your own conclusions by looking at which sex is setting the rules.)

Political parties do the same thing: they take a simple message but over-complicate it and repeat it too many times in different ways which contradict each other and then fall to bickering about whose view is right. Before you know where you are you have The People’s Front of Judea and The Judean People’s Front. Keep it simple would be my advice. The Ten Commandments, for instance, was one of the great missed opportunities. I don’t know who came up with the definitive version of the Bible but a decent editor would have looked at list on the tablets of stone and said “that’s really all we need.”

Even that’s not perfect – you can’t covet your neighbour’s wife, for instance, but you can covet your neighbour’s husband, or the wife of someone who lives a mile away – but all that could be sorted with some deft re-drafting. Eventually, of course, it might shrink to the perfect reduction of the seven commandments in Animal Farm, “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”

That is another thing that religion (certainly monotheistic ones) and politics both share: you’re either with us or against us. If you’re with us, you can do what you like and we have plenty of protocols, policies and precedents to back this up: if you’re not with us then you’re the shit on our shoes. Thus it was; thus it is; thus it ever shall be. Go in peace but get out of my way.

So, what’s on my reading list? I went into the Hungerford Bookshop and asked if they had a copy of The Satanic Verses. “All of Rushdie’s books are being reprinted,” I was told. “Good,” I said. I’d never felt moved to read it before but I do now. I may like or agree with it and I may not. But either way, I won’t go on the rampage with a basement-sharpened knife.

• Having got all that off my chest I find myself with little to say. On second thoughts…

• Many water companies have now introduced hosepipe bans. This seems sensible and rather overdue. In my experience it’s almost impossible to kill grass (which, unlike a lot of plants, grows from the bottom); while, as we have discovered, flowers or veg that you particularly want to keep alive seem to like basins of old washing-up water. The water companies have the power to fine us for using hosepipes. They themselves seem largely immune from fines for water leakage, particularly of sewage.

• I’m amazed by how much even a couple of days’ of rain has started returning the brown landscape round here back to its original green. However, as it’s likely that the usage of water in our area in the last two days is greater than the rainfall, this means that the shortage is even more acute than it was. We still need to be prudent about using it so that those who really need it, like farmers and the emergency services, have enough.

• The Conservative Party leadership election grinds on and will do until the results is announced on 5 September. This article in The Guardian on 13 August suggests that Liz Truss is well ahead but that the gap is closing. It also suggests, exactly as I did a couple of weeks ago, that if the mendacious, shape-shifting, egomaniacal, manipulative opportunist BoJo were in the race he would win hands-down.

• What is the energy price cap? When did it start? Who administers it? What will happen next? What can you do about all this? I didn’t know enough about any of these questions until yesterday when Penny and I looked in to some of the issues and wrote this article, which might shed some light (or might not).

A dog has caught monkeypox from its owner. Oh great, that’s just what we wanted to hear right now. Sorry for mentioning this.

• Does anyone remember Coronavirus, aka Covid? Cases are now falling in the UK, having risen earlier in the summer. I don’t think many of us can cope with any more news about this given everything else: but there it is. Don’t shoot the messenger. A new booster jab will be offered from September which should offer protection against the now prevalent Omicron variant. Or it may infect you with brain-warping chemicals and micro-chips designed by Bill Gates. Your choice.

• I’ve never been to China but everything I’ve heard about it suggests a general reluctance to disobey official instructions. How gratifying, therefore, to see this video which appeared to show shoppers in Shanghai forcing their way out of an IKEA store after being told that they’d be quarantined there after a Covid case had been identified (the country still maintains a zero-Covid policy, which provides a convenient pretext for any number of restrictions).

If you’re dealing with people who’ve been shopping in IKEA, you have to expect extreme reactions if you try to prevent them from leaving. All these people wanted to do was assemble the flat-packed stuff they’d bought there as quickly as possible. Isn’t this what the Chinese state is doing with housing, hospitals, railway lines and power stations at home and anywhere else where it’s done a deal? These therefore seem like hyper-loyal subjects to me…

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 district, county or borough 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; Burghfield area; Wantage area

Dirty words

There’s a letter in the Newbury Weekly News this week from Lib Dem Councillor Jeff Brooks bemoaning the “filthy and badly maintained road signs” across the district. His letter is illustrated with a couple of examples. Plenty more could be found on the side of any of the district’s roads.

Councillor Brookes goes on to make a political point which will doubtless prompt a retort next week from one of the other lot. I’m not a politician but I completely agree with him. I get it that budgets have been cut; also that for parish councils or volunteers to do the work could at times be dangerous. Someone used to do this, however, so it’s clearly not impossible. Perhaps WBC could do the tricky ones and leave the parishes to do the rest. Mind you, by the time the task group looking into which were tricky and which not had met and deliberated and reported back and send the reports to the officers and the results were debated by Full Council, a lot of the signs would possibly have collapsed under the weight of their own grime or been totally engulfed by the surrounding vegetation.

As well as being, as Councillor Brookes says, intensely depressing to look at and conveying a “don’t care” attitude, some of them are filthy or obscured to the point of illegibility; which makes them dangerous. This turns it from an aesthetic to a legal problem. I bet a bit of budget could be found for dealing for that

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has issued a statement on the subject of moving-traffic offences, which you can read more about here. The consultation closes on 20 September.

• From the same council, click here for details of the 2020 Summer Reading Challenge.

• West Berkshire Council is hoping to secure £4.5 million for a series of local projects. “If we succeed in securing a share of the Government’s UK Shared Prosperity Fund,” this statement reads, “we would use £1 million of that money for projects focussed around four main themes.  These include: re-designing Newbury Wharf; creating new sports facilities in Purley on Thames; supporting local culture and heritage activities in rural communities; and giving advice and guidance to businesses to help them thrive.”

Click here for news of summer events and activities for families and children in West Berkshire.

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

• 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 the best coverage we’ve seen of all things football-related in Berkshire.

Click here for the latest museums newsletter from WBC.

• Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Click here to visit WBC’s business website.

Click here for details of consultations currently being run by WBC.

Click here for the latest libraries newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest Covid newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest waste and recycling newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest residents’ newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest business newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest environmental newsletter from WBC.

• You can click here to choose to receive all or any of West Berkshire Council’s e-newsletters.

• 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.

• 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 is this rusty spotted cat from India, the world’s smallest feline.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of nuclear power, committee quitting, a sanity check and clean water.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So, here comes the Song of the Week. Continuing the theme (as mentioned last week) of songs which I can hardly bear to listen to because they have too much emotional baggage attached to them, here comes Every Day I Write the Book by the great (and only) Elvis, Elvis Costello. Breaks my heart all over again every time I hear it…

• Which means it must next be the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Some people think that the film Caddyshack is the acme of western humour; others disagree. The most memorable character in it is surely Bill Murray’s deranged golf-course groundsman. Most of his scenes were improvised by him, including this one in which he tells the unlikely story of how he once caddied for the Dalai Lama on a golf course in Tibet and what he received in way of payment.

• And, to conclude, we have as ever the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Americans give their Presidents numbers: which number is Joe Biden? Last week’s question was: What record did Will Sneed set on 10 August 2022? The answer is that he was the first person to score a hundred (101 not out to be exact) in the Hundred, the cricket competition that was launched last year, for Birmingham Phoenix. (A few days later this achievement Will Jacks scored 108 not out for the Oval Invincibles). At some point, someone who’s not called Will is going to score a century in this competition: but it hasn’t happened yet.

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

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