This week with Brian 5 to 12 January 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including writer’s block, mental muscle memory, keeping busy, stress, relaxation, half-overhead conversations, social-media overload, the same problems, being nasty to Matt, the perfectly safe walled garden, advice on the plan, another look back, scrutiny and oversight, Thor the Walrus, what’s he building?, George Parr, a missing letter and F sharp.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (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

• The thing about writing a column every week is that you just do it. Each Wednesday evening I sit down, clone the previous week’s post, delete the stuff that’s going to get replaced and start writing. I rarely have any clear idea about what I’m going to say (you may think that that’s all too obvious from reading the results): I just start doing it and out it comes. OK, it may not be very good but at least it’s regular and is easy and fun to write (and, I hope, to read).

[more below] 

Two weeks off over Christmas has, however, obliterated the mental muscle memory on which the process depends. The first shock, having cloned the previous post from 15 December, was that I had no recollection of having written any of it. The second was that I couldn’t think of anything to replace it. My brain felt like a car that had stalled and then needed to be bump-started, uphill and by myself. I wonder when the engine will start to fire, if it ever does…

This perhaps isn’t a surprise. Part of us are like sharks: once we stop moving we start to die. Several people have told me that as soon as the Christmas break started they fell ill. Is this actually a thing or just some trick of selective memory? Perhaps people stress this when it happens to them, partly to elicit sympathy for as damaged holiday and partly to show that they’re finely-tuned machines, designed for constant high-performance activity.

A quick web search – which is often a passable substitute for both research and inspiration – produced two articles that interested me in the sense that they included statements with which I disagreed.

One, from The Joint (which appears to be a chiropractic franchise in California rather than, as the name could also imply, a west-coast hippy collective, though the two aren’t mutually exclusive) kicked off with the seemingly uncontroversial headline “Why slowing down my be the answer to better health.”

The first paragraph was mainly platitudes but it was the second that caught my eye. This touched on the matter of stress, “When we are too busy,” The Joint informs us, “it raises our stress and brings the negative side effects that come with it.” These include “headaches and raised blood pressure and exhaustion and heightened risk of major diseases.”

• This doesn’t ring true to me. Being busy is not the problem. What matters is what this busyness accomplishes. If I’m getting something done, I can stay up til 2am, sleep like a baby and wake up six hours later fresh and enthusiastic. When I’m stuck, I might wander around the house, idly watch some YouTube videos, go to bed early, find myself unable to concentrate on a simple whodunnit book, sleep badly and wake up ten hours later feeling as if I’d drunk two bottles of Scotch.

• The word “stress” is used very freely and means different things to different people; and probably something specific to psychiatrists (though perhaps not the same thing to all psychiatrists). For me, it’s a sense of feeling trapped in a situation, mental or physical, which I can’t see a way out of it. This is often coupled with a feeling of achiness, lassitude and pessimism – all in all, pretty much the “negative side effects” referred to above.

However, for me, these feelings can always be traced to a specific external cause. Identifying this is quite easy. What’s often harder is dealing with it so it doesn’t return.

What must be a thousand times worse is when these feelings descend but without any obvious trigger. This seems to be what bi-polarity or depression is. I have never experienced these, thank goodness, but I know many who have.

At least now these things are discussed. Back in the day, they weren’t. My lovely and late uncle Michael was a manic depressive (he worked in the UK film industry, where such eccentricities were less noticeable than they might have been elsewhere). To me, as a small child, he was a gorgeous figure of fun and unpredictable excitement. What caused me stress – that word again – was hearing his malady discussed by the rest of the family in voices quiet enough to make it clear that they didn’t want me to hear but not so quiet as to prevent my doing so. I filled in the gaps with suppositions that were often even worse than the reality.

The Joint goes on to say that “slowing down gives us more time to actually take care of ourselves. When we get really busy, one of the first things that suffers is our self-care habits. We make less time for exercise and eating healthy [sic]. We make less time for rest. When we take a step back and slow down, we may find that our self-care habits are all but non-existent. Take this opportunity to reinstate your self-care, and you will be feeling more like yourself and better than ever before in no time at all.”

I’m not quite sure what “self-care” means here: it could almost be advice to a cat about spending enough time grooming itself. We’re being advised to “slow down” and “take a step back” but these on their own are surely not enough. Both could result in spending the same amount of time scrolling through our phones but doing so on the sofa rather than in an office.

I can think of no worse way of relaxing. Our obsession with connectivity gives us the illusion not only that we’re better informed as a result but also that we have to contribute. Even half an hour on many social-media platforms or news posts will – like me listening to the whispered conversations about my uncle’s mental health – deluge us with more information than we can ever need or can possibly process.

I strongly suspect that this is for many people the biggest cause of stress, at least subliminally. Most if us like to have a reasonable degree of certainty about what we know or believe. The digital life, however, constantly presents us with things about which we know very little, a fact which on its own makes it impossible to judge if any particular piece of information is accurate. To make it worse, and despite this ignorance, we’re also generally expected immediately to express a strong opinion on the matter, and to share it with others. This seems as good a recipe for stress as I can think of.

• The other article, from Cosmopolitan, has the headline “Why do we get sick when we relax (and can we really ‘delay’ illness)?” This starts with the journalist espousing the point I made several paragraphs above, that when we stop we get ill. It then quotes Dr Luke Powles from BUPA as saying that “It isn’t possible to ‘delay’ getting sick. However, it’s possible you might not notice you’re becoming poorly until you have a break, especially if you’ve had a lot on.”

However, he then undermines this by saying that adrenaline – which is produced at moments of fight or flight – boosts your immune system. “Once work pressures have eased and you’re feeling more relaxed, your body stops producing as much adrenaline and increases your cortisol levels, weakening your immune system. This again can leave you open to infection.”

So, you can delay illness: at least that’s what I take from this. No one knows, in other words.

• The article goes on to quote psychologist Dr Becky Spelman as saying that “it’s crucial we allow ourselves proper and adequate time to rest when we become sick.” This comes back to the point I made above about activity being validated by accomplishment.

I also don’t think we’re programmed to relax. What keeps us going is the fear of the immediate consequences of doing, or not doing, something. We live and have always lived in a world of deadlines – this must be done by 9am tomorrow, by sunset, by the time the rains come – if they are be worth anything. We need, on a more or less daily basis, to eat, kill, hunt, gather, procreate, capture, avenge, earn, pay and all the rest, and usually by a certain time. If we fail, we’re stressed; if we succeed, we’re not. In the final analysis, a lot of stress comes down to our inability to deal with our enemies in good time. Sort this out and all will (perhaps) be well.

• All this is, of course, all about me. Sorry. The change of year has, as I mentioned, discombobulated me slightly. The clocks and calendars may have changed but there are the same problems leering at us – Ukraine, the cost of living, climate change, Covid, flu, the NHS crisis, strikes…the list goes on and on. I have no words of irony or comfort to append to this except to say that we should not expect that 2023 will be any better (if it is, then great…)

• An recent email exchange with some old friends touched on the subject of online passwords and the best way of protecting these. As there are a couple of Computer Science professors in the group, some good advice was offered. This led to someone asking about the Apple ID which, as any Mac user will tell you, is pretty important but doesn’t always behave as it should.

One of the Profs offered this wonderful whimsical description which I’d like to share with you verbatim. It perfectly captures not only the illusion of the digital idyll that Apple has for decades been selling about its “community” but also the menacing fear that, like Adam and Eve, we might at any moment be banished from paradise:

You need the Apple ID to enter the Perfectly Safe Apple Walled Garden. Once you are in the garden you are perfectly safe at all times, as long as you behave in exactly the right way and only use Apple-authorised software on Apple-authorised systems running on Apple-authorised hardware. Apple will totally and perfectly look after you, your data, and your user experience. You are totally safe and need not worry about anything.

“Of course, it’s their “safe space” not your “safe space” and you can be cut off from it in an instant. Apple can do this by the simple act of denying the validity of your Apple ID. It’s not always clear what kind of crime merits such a draconian sanction, nor who decides the penance you must perform to be re-admitted to the garden. However, it is clearly understood that Apple acts at all times in your best interests in order to keep you perfectly safe. Don’t worry – all is well.”

This is another example of stress, of course. Will my password or Apple ID or what have you work? If it doesn’t, we’re effectively excommunicated.

• Poor old Matt Hancock hasn’t been many people’s favourite person for some time but this article on the BBC website made me feel rather more sympathetic towards him. He’s said that he’s switched off his app which he launched in 2018 to “promote a healthy, open and impartial debate.” This seems like a laudable motive but to what extent it was accomplished the BBC article doesn’t seem interested in looking into. It quoted the Wall Street Journal as saying that about 243,000 people had signed up for it but that “not all of them were who they appeared to be. The app was initially trolled and mocked by users, with some impersonating politicians such as Ed Balls, Donald Trump and Liz Truss.’

Well, of course there would have been. How is that Hancock’s fault? Every social-media platform has fake followers. Twitter has billions. What’s the story here?

The article concludes with some snide remarks taken from what it termed “irony-laced reviews” on Apple’s App Store. Who, with close on a quarter of a million people (allegedly) signing up for something, would not attract at least the two comments that were picked out or ones like them? In any case, one was prefixed with “mockingly” and the other with “wryly” although, without these descriptions, both could have been read in different ways.

All in all, a piss-poor piece of knee-jerk opinion masquerading as reporting from an organisation that we need to trust. Matt Hancock could stand accused of several things, and may yet be: but making snide comments about what might have been a genuine attempt to engage with his constituents (n0 evidence was suggested in the article to suggest the motive was otherwise) is a bit dismal. Shame on you, Auntie…

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

Scrutiny and oversight

I mentioned about this issue last time out (Click here to visit the Newbury Area Weekly News section for 15 December, then scroll down to Scrutiny and oversight.) A letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News caught my eye about just this matter. I’ve already suggested that the Chair of the Oversight and Scrutiny Committee should be from an opposition party. The writer goes one stage further and suggests that the Chair should be from another council altogether. If the scrutiny is to be truly effective, I also wonder if there should be lay members from outside the municipal bubble.

The big question with all of these options is how and by whom these extra members would be appointed and for how long. However, the current system doesn’t appear to work as well as it might do. Moreover, having the chair from the ruling party t immediately leaves its conclusions open to just these kind of accusations, whether justified or not. Why risk it?

The Cost of Living Support Hub

We’ve mentioned this several times and are happy to do so again.

In this article, we look at how successful this initiative has been, what it can do to help you or people you know and how you can help support its work. It also explains how other organisation like Greenham Trust and Volunteer Centre West Berkshire are working with WBC on this and how you can help support their work.

The Cost of Living Support Hub is a great example of a local success story, so hats off to all those involved in its creation and operation. Hats off also to all the voluntary organisations in the area which are, despite ever-higher levels of demand and ever-rising costs, continuing to do what they each set out to do. We all thought we’d never need you more than during the pandemic. It seems that we need you even more now.

The local plan

The public consultation on this important document starts on 6 January and runs to 17 February. It’s very important but also very long and very technical – so, in this post we’ve suggested a few people and organisations you might want to contact to help set the scene before making your views known (which everyone is urged to do).

A look back at 2022

Yes, I know 2022 is over and done with now but its legacy lives on. Another chance here to reflect on some of the things that happened in the area that we covered last year and which are still one way or another in the municipal  “pending” trays.

Other news

• Health and care partners across the Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West Integrated Care Partnership (BOB ICP) are asking for the public’s views on a set of proposed priorities to support improved health and wellbeing.

• West Berkshire Council has “welcomed the recent announcement from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) on amendments to the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill (The Bill), specifically changes to Community Control and Local Plans, which support the policies already outlined in the Council’s local plan review.” See the full statement here.

• West Berkshire Council has launched a sustainable warmth scheme which offers help “to make homes cheaper, warmer and greener through funded energy-saving improvements.” More details here.

• West Berkshire Council has announced that it has received confirmation on a £1m investment boost through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) following a plan submitted in August.

Advice here from WBC on keeping safe and warm during a cold snap and protecting the most vulnerable people in our communities.

• The new weekly food-waste collection system has started in West Berkshire. You can click here to see a separate post we’ve done on the subject; and click here to see WBC’s newsletter about this. As well as being environmentally beneficial, financially advantageous and legislatively compliant, the scheme may also reduce food waste by confronting us with the consequences of what we throw away.

Click here for information about help available with the cost of living crisis in West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire.

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 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.

• 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 for a post listing the various places which are offering a takeaway and/or delivery service. If you are aware of any others, let us know.

• The animal of the week is Thor the Scarborough walrus which recently returned to the sea after a few days lounging in the harbour.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of hampers, the lottery, peace women, carers and a lost hearing aid.

• 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

• And here we are already at the Song of the Week. Let’s start 2023 on a really upbeat note with this sinister Tom Waits song (if “song” is the right word), What’s he Building?

• Which means that next must be the Comedy Sketch of the Week. The wonderful John Bird died over the Christmas holidays. With John Fortune, he created some memorable interview sketches known as the Long J0hns. This is one of them: George Parr, Tory MP.

• And so we welcome the new year with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which is the only letter that doesn’t appear in the name of any of the 50 US States? Last week’s question was: which major key has six sharps? The answer is F sharp.

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