This week with Brian 23 February to 2 March 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including stunning ineptitude, the first casualty, scriptwriting for Putin, a lack of lived experience, the rain in Spain, turnips, a quart in a pint pot, a mysterious sphere, a missing link, what lies beneath, charging the car, tales from Ukraine, yellow and blue donkeys, football letters, a two-toed sloth, Iberian jazz, all of the colours, Brink’s-Mat and six times round the world.

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

Further afield

• Presidents Biden and Putin have recently been setting out their own differing version of, or the invasion or special military operation in – they can’t even agree on a name – Ukraine which began on 24 February last year. Wiser people than me have picked through every phrase so I won’t add to that except to say that it’s very alarming when you hear two versions of the same event that appear to have no points of overlap at all. Where does one go from there? Closer together or further apart?

[more below] 

This article on the BBC website describes the early days of the Russian invasion (I’ll stick with that name). If true – and we all know what the first casualty of war is – it paints a picture of quite stunning ineptitude by the Russians. The early stages, you’ll recall, involved a long column of vehicles moving towards Ukraine. This article describes the column more as a traffic jam with ill-prepared vehicles getting bogged down on unsuitable roads during inclement weather such as might be predicted. It also alleges out-of-date maps and communication methods (including semaphore flags). It also has this wonderful observation: “The Russians were all carrying large metal boxes marked ‘secret’,” says Vladyslav from the 80th Brigade. “We seized one during an ambush. We found their maps marked with their entire route. After that we knew their whole strategy.”

Russia’s opponents want to believe all this is true: and yet, the war goes on. We all want our enemies to be ridiculous, inept, immoral and misguided: and yet, the war goes on. Were I to be Russian and writing this there I might have a different point of view. What might it be?

Our nation has been cheated of its imperial destiny by the collapse of the USSR. Fascism still stalks in the neighbouring countries. The west has bullied and humiliated us and extended its military alliance into areas which within living memory we controlled. We always wanted a peaceful solution to this: the Ukranians are, after all, our brothers. China has since risen to be the other super-power, something which we both welcome and abhor. Our interests and theirs are currently more aligned than not but China represents at least as much of a threat as does the USA. We shall thus deal with them while can to get what we need and sell what we produce. Our economy has not suffered from sanctions as much as was predicted. If we stay together, fight together and work together, we shall prevail.

I can see that this kind of narrative can pack a punch, particularly if you can control the media. I’m therefore very glad I’m nor Russian and so forced to write this kind of stuff every week.

Shamima Begum has lost her challenge over the decision to deprive her of British citizenship, the BBC reports. She claimed that she was trafficked and manipulated into her decision to join Islamic State in 2015, which may or may not be true: this article in The Guardian suggests that the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac) was unable to confer her “lived experience”, being confined by the Supreme Court only to consider whether “the process had been fair and reasonable.” The other factor is that, when she left or was abducted or what you will, she was only 15 and so perhaps not of age to make such decisions. She now lives in a kind if limbo in a Syrian refugee camp.

If the over-riding interest is one of protecting national security, I would regard the presence of an articulate, disgruntled and bi-lingual former UK citizen in such a place as more of a threat than having her in the UK with no passport. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer…

• I can’t remember being more disappointed by the last episode of a series than I was with the conclusion of Happy Valley which we watched last weekend. The series as a whole was A+ for writing, acting and direction and one of the finest drama series I’ve ever seen. The finale, however, seemed to leave a number of interesting plot lines and relationships still unresolved: so much so that I went back and checked to see that there wasn’t in fact an episode seven. The impression was of a quart’s worth of material for some reason being forced into a pint pot. Superb stuff, however. We’re now on to The Gold, which I also recommend.

• A number of supermarkets have restricted or rationed the supplies of certain vegetables in response to, as this BBC article suggests, “extreme weather hit harvests abroad.” I can reassuringly suggest that there was no particular shortage at Karen and Neil’s excellent fruit and veg stand at Hungerford market this Wednesday (also in Thatcham on Fridays). I asked them about this dearth. “It often happens at this time of year,” they told me. “Spain had a bad harvest and the spring harvests in Belgium and there Netherlands aren’t quite ready yet. As you can see, we have all our usual stuff here, though some of it is a bit more expensive. It’s been a busy day.” The inference from this is that supermarkets would rather have occasional periods of dramatic-seeming shortage than risk paying their suppliers more and so not also set a precedent but also risk losing their status as the retailer of the cheapest cucumbers, tomatoes or red peppers. You can normally get what you want if you’re prepared to shop around and sometimes pay a bit more.

• Environment Secretary Therese Coffey has been ridiculed for suggesting that people should think about eating things like turnips if there are shortages of other vegetables but it’s actually quite good advice. Buying stuff that’s cheap, locally produced and in season makes a lot of sense. They are, for instance, very good at padding out stews.

• The award for the most stylish and pertinent use of paint in a public place  this week goes to the group Led by Donkeys, some of whose members painted the road outside the Russian Embassy in London in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. Four people have been arrested. If convicted of criminal damage or whatever they might need to do some community service, which could involve having to clean the paint off the road. I figure they’ll still feel it was all worth it.

• A mysterious spherical object has been washed ashore in Japan which is probably a buoy but which, in the context of the current paranoia about Chinese spy balloons could be, well, anything. My first thought when looking at the picture on this post was that it was the Moon, finally fallen for orbit: I mean, it’s got dips and bumps and everything. Then I reasoned that, if it were the moon, the two people in the photo would have been a lot smaller…

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

What lies beneath

I don’t know how many miles of hedges and acres of woods have been planted by community groups over the last few years but it’s a lot and continues still. The hedges are particularly useful where they join two other vegetated ares, so providing a useful wildlife corridor for a whole range of creatures on whose health and well-being, it is increasingly widely recognised, the whole eco-system depends.

One such hedge was planted here in East Garston last year, going a vegetation gap of about 150m in the Millennium Field where, some years ago and for whatever reason, fencing had been put up instead. A month or so ago, however, the East Garston Environmental Group which organised this received a nasty shock. Most of the infant hedge would need to be dug up as there was a sewer pipe underneath which – as local residents will be well aware – is currently being replaced. Thames Water was very decent about this and offered to lift and re-plant the hedge. This disruption is not ideal and, were the hedge to have been a few years older, might not have been possible at all.

This set me thinking. Information must exist about underground pipes, ducts, cables and all the other paraphernalia of modern life: this needs to be checked, for example, every time a planning application is considered. How great it would be, I thought, if local groups could establish in advance whether anything they were planting might risk being disturbed in this way. Sometimes moving the site only a few metres could make the difference. This digging-up doesn’t happen very often but, when it does, the results can be heartbreaking. It’s also a good general principle to know what lies underneath anything you want to be permanent.

Most voluntary groups don’t have any money so the service would need to be free. Most do not have expert knowledge so the information would need to be clear. Most do have the time or experience to know which of the many organisations to contact so the answer needed to be got from one source. I spoke to District Councillor Carolyne Culver, who’s been actively involved in many such planting exercises across the district: she didn’t know exactly where such information could be found but suggested I contact WBC’s Countryside Officer, Paul Hendry.

I have to confess that my hopes were not high. I know how busy and under-funded council departments are and didn’t expect that this suggestion would be met with anything much more than a polite refusal and perhaps a long list of utility and telecom companies.

How wrong I was. Paul Hendry got the point straight away and agreed with my suggestion that, as WBC was actively encouraging tree planting, it was also sensible that it should offer practical help to the groups doing it. He pointed out that this search was already done where planting was done on WBC-owned land but there was no reason this could not be extended to cover other sites. He then promised that the relevant web page would be updated with this new offer and this has duly happened – click here for the help WBC can offer such groups.

So, hats off to WBC on this one. If any neighbouring councils like the Vale, Swindon and Marlborough also offer such a service – and there seems no reason why they should not, given this example – I’d be very interested to learn of this and will be glad to publicise the details.

The missing link

The election season, certainly in West Berkshire and the Vale of White Horse, is edging closer with voters set to go to the polls on 4 May. We need now to be bracing ourselves for a wave of political literature over the coming weeks. Indeed, the wave has already started.

The first full manifesto I’ve seen was the WBC Conservatives’ one. The summary document kicks of with the headline “Conservative-run West Berkshire Council independently recognised as the best overall performing local authority; in top ten for value for money…” You’ll agree that “best overall performing local authority” is an eye-catching claim.

The manifesto itself repeats this, saying on p4 that “in a recent survey of 304 local authorities across the country, West Berkshire was seen as being in the top ten for value for money and the best for overall performance.”

We read the “best overall” claim yet again in this article in Newbury Today which draws very heavily on a press release sent to several media groups, including Penny Post, on 13 February. This article repeats the manifesto claims, without any comment, but adds that the source for both these is, as the press release stated,

The briefest examination of the report, however, paints a rather different picture. The report – the link to which can be found only with difficulty in the press release – certainly places West Berkshire in the top ten regions in England getting the best return on their council tax, so I have no problem with that and am happy to promote it. There is, however, no mention at all of its being the “best overall performing local authority.”

I asked the local Conservative spokesperson who had sent me the press release about this. I was told that “the overall performance analysis was removed by from their website, unfortunately.” The insouciance surprised me: I certainly would not refer in a press release, however indirectly, to a source which I knew no longer existed.

I therefore contacted and was told not only that the report had not been edited in this way but also that it there was nothing else on the site which might have given a researcher the impression that WBC was “the best overall” council.

There matters rest for now. Either the West Berkshire Conservatives need to produce a source that supports the claim that the district is the “best overall performing local authority” (in which case I shall be happy to link to it and celebrate the achievement), or they need to remove the claim from all their literature.

Note: since writing the above section I have been sent information which shows how’s final rankings (in which West Berkshire came eighth) were arrived at. It is true that in the initial “best overall” ranking West Berkshire came top but this was not the final position (and was not published in the report) as it needed to be weighted against other data to establish which councils gave the best returns on their council tax (the title of the report). I have again contacted and have been promised an answer early next week. When I understand more about the significance of the weighting and the intermediate rankings I’ll write further, hopefully next Thursday. 

It’s also worth stressing that the fact that WBC came eighth in the final ranking of council-tax charging authorities in England is certainly impressive. If you want to know more about what factors were taken into account and where the data came from, see the “Methodology and Sources” section at the bottom of the report.

We have been here before…

Brexit is hardly news: well, I suppose it is, in that surprising things about it (such as the discovery of a land border between the UK and the EU) seem to crop up every week, as do a number of claims for or against the success of the whole project.

This has happened before, about 500 years ago, and we could perhaps learn a lot from how Mr Cromwell managed matters when there was another foreign yoke that needed to be escaped from. Click here for more.

Tales from Ukraine

West Berkshire Council has issued a statement which describes how Ukrainians who have settled in West Berkshire have been sharing their experience of the war and the welcome they have received from local communities.

“As the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine approaches a new video series explores the impact the war has had, how they have settled in the district and their hopes for the future. The short films are included in a new art installation, War.Art.Hope., which shares the art, thoughts and words of some of our Ukrainian guests, one year on from the start of the war.”

Charging the car

I recently received a press release from the Vale Council with the headline “EV charging has doubled in first six months of the council scheme” I read on:

“Vale of White Horse District Council’s installation of Electric Vehicle chargers at its car parks has seen charging volumes double in its first six months. In June last year 62 EV chargers were installed across five of the council’s car parks in Abingdon, Faringdon and Wantage as part of the county-wide Park and Charge scheme.

The number of charging sessions has gone up by 60 per cent in the first six months of installation. During the same period the average amount of electricity consumed has doubled, meaning that people are now using them for longer charges. Since the first chargers went live in summer 2022 there have been 3,631 charging sessions in the first full six months, which equates to around 169,000 EV miles. This represents a saving 45,863kg of CO2 equivalent if those miles had been driven in a petrol or diesel car.” You can read the full statement here.

There were quite a few specific figures here. The Vale is similar in size and demographics to West Berkshire so I wondered how well we were doing south of the border. My next email was therefore right to the top, to Steve Ardagh-Walter, the environment portfolio holder at WBC.

He replied pretty promptly. “I haven’t yet been able to get hold of our car park EV charging usage statistics,” he told me, “but will follow up with this next week.” So, watch this space. 

I also raised again with him a rather longer-running issue about EV charging. This concerned what policies or advice WBC had for people who did not have either off-street parking or access to kerb-side chargers and so needed to run cables across a pavement from their home. In these health-and-safety-conscious and litigious times, any advice councils offer needs to be carefully considered.

“We will announce a new policy for EV pavement charging ducts after the Council’s budget meeting on 2 March, which will formalise fees and charges,” he told me.   “Residents without access to off-street parking will be able to apply for a duct, which will allow them to safely charge an EV parked outside their property.”

“More broadly, we have an ambitious plan to roll out on-street EV charging to all areas in West Berkshire which need this over the coming years. Details of which streets will have chargers installed in which order are currently being worked out and I hope to be able to share more details in the near future.”

More on all that when more information is available.

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has announced that it is “cracking down on littering and fly tipping” in the district – easier said than done but the aspiration is a sound one. Click here to read more on this.

• WBC is also “pleased to announce that we have been allocated just under £1.4 million to directly help local households most in need with essential food and energy costs via the Household Support Fund (HSF). To date, this brings our total HSF allocation to £3,474,248.15.” Read more here.

• A reminder that bus journeys across West Berkshire are capped at £2 for a single journey and £4 for a return journey until 31 March 2023 as a result of a government-funded scheme.

War.Art.Hope is a thought-provoking exhibition that showcases the work of three Ukrainian artists. Click here for more information.

• West Berkshire’s Community Champions have been celebrated in an awards ceremony at Shaw House in Newbury (see also Tales from Ukraine above). Click here for more.

• West Berkshire Council recently issued a statement on 9 February saying that it “is shocked and saddened by the consequences of the devastating earthquakes that hit the south eastern area of Turkey, on the border with Syria.” The statement also adds that people wishing to donate money should “follow the guidance of the Charity Commission to ensure that contributions are made safely, so your generous contributions benefit those that you want to help.” It then provides a suggested list of charities. More information here.

• West Berkshire Council is “inviting residents and businesses across West Berkshire to take part in its draft Local Transport Plan survey by providing your views on our draft priorities and objectives to improve transport facilities and travel options.” You can read more here. This closed at midnight on Wednesday 22 March.

• Seven local charities will share more than £15,000 following successful bids to the West Berkshire Community Fund. The fund is allocated annually by West Berkshire Council with good causes able to bid for additional funding to support specific projects.” For more information, click 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.

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.

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 Health and Wellbeing in Schools 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 animals of the week is this two-toed sloth at the Living Rainforest in Hampstead Norreys. What amazing claws…

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of football pitches and related matters (four of them), gambling, green decisions and Brexit.

• 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 we are at the Song of the Week. Thanks to my friend Prof JC for sending me the latest exquisite piece of Iberian jazz from the Èlia Bastida Quartet: Troublant Bolero.

• Next up comes the Comedy Moment of the Week. It odd to reflect that only a few decades ago BT was spending money on persuading us to use the phone more, whereas now the exhortations are often for us to do the opposite. TV ads don’t normally produce rich comedic content but BT was shrewd enough to sign up Maureen Lipman to do theirs. Here she is with Richard Wilson in All of the colours in all of the sizes.

• And we finish as ever with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: The TV series The Gold (which we recommend) is set in the months and years following the Brink’s-Mat robbery at which £26m-worth of gold was stolen. In what year did this mega-heist take place? Last week’s question was:  If you were to unravel Canada’s coastline like a very long piece of string, how many times would you be able to wind it around the equator? Canada’s coastline is 243,042 km and the equator in 40,075 km. This means that you could wrap the former around the latter six times and still have enough left over to tie the two ends into a neat bow.

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


2 Responses

  1. Hi Brian,

    Re: your comment on access to free info on location of underground utilities and services. There is a free service available called Line Search Before You Dig . This is not infallible as sometimes the utility provider doesn’t know exactly where pipes or cables have been buried but it is pretty good.

    1. Hi Rob,
      Thanks for your comment. In the course of looking into this I was made aware that such on-line sources existed. However, I felt it better to see if WBC could offer this in addition to the other things it already does to help such community groups, so providing a one-stop service. The page has now been updated on WBC’s site and I’ve added the link to the post on which you commented. Well done again to Paul Hendry and his colleagues for sorting this out.

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