This Week with Brian
Including the the Fat Controller goes forth, more dirty water, the next step for the nutrients, a retracted apologia, a delayed memoir, roughly right, more assaults, objective and subjective offence, a pain in the economy, missing accounts, gremlin update, school buildings, an excellent speech, solar, scrutiny, Jesus and the Devil, three palindromes, a short frontier and Dupree’s diamond blues.
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 [email protected].
I like trains: that’s to say, I like the idea of them connecting communities and obviating me from the need for any motor skills or drink-driving regulations once I’m on board, although the prices in this country are enough to make you want to hire a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce instead. Above all, I have a deep-seated fear of missing them or finding myself on the wrong one. This has happened a lot less often in reality than it does in my dreams. Perhaps that’s what dreams are for: to provide us with a version of life that is in most cases even more horrible that the reality so that when we wake up we we say “thank god that didn’t happen.”
Your Local Area
Where was I? Oh yes, trains. One important train trip took place this week when Kim Jong Un embarked on a 733-mile journey to Russia in his private train to meet up with his new best mate. The BBC estimates that its speed was little more than 30mph due to the antiquity of the North Korean railway infrastructure, the massive weight of the armoured carriages and the amount of lobster, donkey meat, molluscs, vodka, French wines and other delicacies that the Respected Comrade might wish to consume during the journey there and back.
The meeting, with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin – who seems with each photograph more and more to be turning into a crocodile – was ostensibly to discuss “bilateral relations.” The reality seems to be Russian help for Kim’s space ambitions in exchange for ammunition, possibly about the only thing that the strange state of North Korea manufactures in quantities sufficient to be exported.
I doubt that Putin cares about this very much, but the idea of a would-be world tyrant scuttling about with a man like Kim to buy bullets seems a tad grotesque. Mind you, both men have re-defined what this word means; indeed rendered it obsolete by most people’s reckoning. None the less, I think it marks a new low in Putin’s behaviour.
And then, the meetings concluded, the Fat Controller got back on his train and went shush-te-cuff shush-te-cuff all the way back to his starving and adoring subjects in Animal Farm. There’s a peculiar horror story in this as well but one so ghastly and permanently stuck in parody that it seems almost beyond censure. Orwell has never seemed so relevant.
The Office for Environmental Protection has suggested that the government and the regulators have broken the law over how they regulate and manage sewage leaks. The issue turns on the discharges of sewage into waterways on “dry days” without rain. This happens plenty of times and so appears to infringe a 2012 EU directive, still in force in the UK. Campaign groups including WildFish and River Action have supported the assertion, the former claiming that the government and the regulators have been “complicit in allowing the pollution”: DEFRA, OfWat and the EA have issued more ponderous statements which, in DEFRA’s case, seems to stop only just short of claiming that it feels the allegation is a load of rubbish.
“This tough approach from the OEP is welcome news,” Charlotte Hitchmough from Action for the River Kennet told Penny Post on 13 September. “Our rivers have been let down by all the agencies whose job is to regulate pollution. It’s particularly pertinent for the Kennet and Lambourn. The permits for sewage treatment works issued by the Environment Agency are clear that storm overflows are only permitted after exceptional weather conditions or snow melt. In catchments with high groundwater like ours, spilling of untreated sewage goes on for weeks or months on end in averagely wet years – not due to exceptional circumstances.
“The Environment Agency turns a blind eye because the effluent is diluted by clean spring water, as a result the impact isn’t immediately catastrophic – however untreated sewage is still reaching the river and it’s hard to imagine that there is no impact from that constant stream of pollution.”
In a related development, the Labour Party has said that, if elected, it would re-introduce the nutrient neutrality (NN) regulations which were, in the Lambourn catchment area and many others, implemented in March 2022. In August 2023 the government announced that – pending legislation – these would be removed. With the necessary bill passing through parliament (though the proposed changes were rejected by the House of Lords on 13 September) and a general election on the horizon, there’s every chance that the regulations could be, over about three years, not in force, in force, not in force again and in force again.
I suggested in this article that NN may have been aimed at the wrong target (home building) and using the wrong method (the planning system) with which to implement it. In particular, I argued that to insist that developers, of whatever size, be forced to provide mitigations for the effect of new homes suggests that we accept that the water companies aren’t doing their job and that a good part of the phosphates and nitrates that result from toilet flushes are going to end up in the rivers.
Charlotte Hitchmough pointed out to me “even the best system will increase nutrient load if we put more sewage through it. No system removes everything. All the effluent treated and untreated ends up in the river (with the exception of a few treatment works that discharge to ground).”
I concede the point: however, it still seems to me that the NN regulations as they stood are akin to saying that a planning application should be refused because it’s felt that the owner will create more rubbish than the council can deal with – if so the solution is to fix the rubbish-collection system.
Charlotte Hitchmough suggests that the bigger question is “who pays? It will be us as customers and government have made it clear to water companies that they can’t put bills up.”
The flip side to this is that the country is desperately short of housing, particularly of the “affordable” kind. Businesses like pubs and racing yards also need to change and expand. Certainly in West Berkshire, the regulations seemed to have acted as a brake on even quite benign development.
The government’s announcement was ecstatic about the economic boost and the number of new homes that will be miraculously created as a result of abolishing the NN regulations. These are good examples of pre-election fantasy. A more certain reality, Charlotte Hitchmough reminds us, is that “the government has relaxed EU rules designed to protect the environment, something it promised not to do.”
Agriculture produces more nutrient pollution than do new homes do and in a way which is far more difficult to constrain. In what appears to be another example of post-Brexit weakening standards, The Guardian claims that the UK “has failed to ban 36 harmful pesticides outlawed for use in EU.” (It should be added that an industry expert speaking on BBC R4’s World at One on 13 September said that some of the chemicals banned by the EU had since been withdrawn by their makers). None the less, the claim that the UK is “the toxic poster child of Europe” may tale some shaking off. The results of all of this will end up in our rivers. No such chemicals are, so far as I’m aware, used in domestic homes and flushed down the toilet. If we want cheap and plentiful food, this seems to be the price we have to pay for it until someone has a better idea.
There are other ways. Evidence suggests that good crop yields without intensive fertilisers are possible while examples from Scandinavia show that more effective water-treatment is possible. The key issue is whether we’re prepared to pay for this. The answer, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and the need to make changes to our habits to work towards de-carbonisation, seems to be “no.” Certainly it’s not an option any politician has so far dared suggest.
These pollution issues will not, however, go away. Our precious chalk streams may get killed off as a result. If so, many might not immediately be affected. However, even if we ignore that tragedy, everything is connected to everything else in ways we are only starting to understand. The NN regulations may not have been perfect but the aspiration was worthy, even if the target and method were flawed.
Rather than re-introducing them as they stand, Labour should (if elected) discard the bad, re-inforce the good and re-focus the rest. Ideally, that would involve getting the opinions of organisations like Action for the River Kennet to provide on-the-ground experience of how the world actually works in affected areas. Will this happen? Whether the next government is Labour, Conservative or a coalition, I may be holding my nose but won’t’ be holding my breath.
There don’t seem to be any safe professions for women. The problems of being a victim of unwelcome attention by a male member of the Metropolitan Police or the captain of the World Cup-winning football team are well documented: but more is coming out every day. Female surgeons have, it appears, been sexually assaulted during operations. This is a horrific story on every level and gives a new dimension to the traditional pre-op remark for patients that “you’re only going to feel a little prick.” The the DJ Annie Mac announced that there is a “tidal wave” of revelations about sexual assault in the music industry waiting to be told. Who’s next?
Perhaps we should all move to Afghanistan in the strength of Tory MP Tobias Ellwood’s assertion that society there has been “transformed” since the Taliban took over. Well, that’s one way of putting it. What does your wife think, Tobe? He’s since been forced to resign as Commons defence committee chairman, one of the members having branded him “a fucking idiot” after making a video which some have seen as being an apologia for the Taliban.
It seems that the long-awaited The Plot: The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson by the current but soon to be ex member for Mid-Bedfordshire Nadine Dorries has been delayed. This is, according to Private Eye 1606, because of, as the publishers claim ” the huge volume of material the author has consulted, the number of high-level sources spoken to and the required legal process needed to share her story”: a rather opaque sentence which Lord Gnome helpfully translated as “we don’t want to get sued.” This will mean that publication will be after the Conservative conference in early October which the author so hoped to gatecrash in this way.
There’s something rather dismal about these kind of political memoirs. Perhaps she felt that her career had ended prematurely, falling on the sword of BoJo for whom she increasingly to have developed an almost unhealthy devotion, and that the world still owed her something more. It seems incredible that we’re still talking about these yesterday’s people: and yet I am. So I shall now stop.
Penny was talking to someone in her 30s this week who said that, as part of her education in Wokingham, there was a compulsory life-skills course. This included how to cook half a dozen basic meals, how to open a bank account and how to fix a rip in a piece of clothing with needle and thread. I’m not aware that anything like this happens here in West Berkshire: certainly our sons weren’t taught these things.
This seems like a good idea to me and set me thinking about what other things might feature on such a course. How to change a flat tyre on a car, how fuse boards and trip switches work and how to use a power drill all might have their place. So too might how to keep calm while waiting for someone at a call centre to answer the phone, how to give a pill to a cat without having your thumb bitten off and how to say “please”, “sorry” and “thank you” in half a dozen major languages. The advanced course could include things like the LBW law, the difference between the British Isles, Great Britain, the UK and the four constituent countries and the correct use of the apostrophe. There could also be a module on the “good enough” concept for maths, my contention being that getting the answer to questions such as “what’s 12% of 80?” roughly right is good enough about 95% (see what I mean?) of the time. I look forward to seeing all this on all school curriculums from next September.
• And finally
• I’ve just had a press statement from one local political party calling out a member of another local political party for using the term “Chinglish” in a tweet, or whatever they’re called these days. This describes the term as “offensive” and “insensitive” and urges the councillor to withdraw it. I’ve not seen the tweet (though the link was provided) as I don’t want to vanish down a political rabbit hole. I am, however, interested in where the increasingly common “offence” lines are drawn regarding a word or phrase (and who draws them).
Context is, of course, everything. So too is the fact that some people are more sensitive than others. Offence needs to be taken as well as given. That said, there are some words which could be called objectively offensive and would be seen as such in any context and by any rational person (not, of course, that we all agree about which these are). Many more terms, however, are subjectively offensive, depending on how and to whom they’re used. “Chinglish” might be one of these.
Wikipedia says that word “may have pejorative or deprecating connotations” (note the “may”) whereas the OED describes it as “a mixture of Chinese and English; esp. a variety of English used by speakers of Chinese or in a bilingual Chinese and English context, typically incorporating some Chinese vocabulary or constructions, or English terms specific to a Chinese context.” This blog from journalist Serena Puang (who speaks both languages) observes that “recently, there has been controversy surrounding this word. Some people use it in a derogatory/pejorative sense, and in reaction, others call it racist. However, Chinese Linguists and people in my parents’ generation (first-generation immigrants) use the term to describe Chinese influenced English.”
We certainly need to tread with caution through the maze of language and all its connotations and sub texts, some of which seem to change by the day. What does seem clear is that “Chinglish” has its place and its uses in a non-pejorative way. Whether this context was one of them I couldn’t say. It’s up to all of us to judge and take our chances.
• Many might say that it’s “objectively offensive” to suggest that “we need to see pain in the economy” and that higher levels of unemployment would serve to remind “arrogant” workers of their place. Thus spoke Australian millionaire Tim Gurner earlier this week but, following “a global backlash”, he’s retracted his comments which he now says he “deeply regretted.” I suppose all employers want to see high unemployment as it reduces staff costs (though if there are too many unemployed then fewer people will be able to buy your products). The only odd thing was that he actually said it out loud.
• Some numbers, or the lack of them, can also be offensive. Private Eye 1606 reports that Copeland Borough Council has not filed any accounts for four years, presumably because they wouldn’t make very happy reading. A massive rebate claim, a cyber attack and accusations of political incompetence all seem to be part of the problem. I don’t know which is more remarkable, the fact that the council’s financial officer felt that not filing accounts was OK or that no one from Whitehall seemed to have chased them up.
I wonder how many more there are in this situation? Each case is probably a section 114 notice (an admission of effective bankruptcy) in waiting. Birmingham’s recent high-profile collapse won’t be the last.
• So far there have been no signs of the gremlins which knocked PP sidewise last week and caused us to delay publication by a day, something that only the death of the Queen almost exactly twelve months before had managed to accomplish. Trouble is, gremlins don’t give any warning or book an appointment to come and mess you up – they just arrive, often at the worst possible moment. As we all know, they’re also more dangerous after dark. Perhaps this is nature’s way of tell us we should try to get the newsletter out before sunset…