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Why people long for stories

November 10, 2017

David Boyle writes… (this post began life on the New Weather blog):

“It takes a civilized man,” said George Bernard Shaw, “to be deeply moved by statistics.”

The whole edifice of Fabian statistics, outcomes, learnings, KPIs and so on were built on those foundations. Shaw was not wrong. You do need an imagination to imagine the picture that the statistics paint.

But he was not entirely right either, because we have become immune to the ability to imagine that Shaw referred to. We know only too well that statistics can be cherry-picked for their impact, that the world they refer to is not as objective as they claim, that the numbers are linked umbilically to definitions, which are endlessly malleable.

Shaw’s avalanche of numbers has stopped working. Not because people have no imaginations, but because their imagination allows them to be critical. Statistics no longer change the world. Data may be important but it doesn’t work any more.

That rather counter-intuitive  truth goes some way to explaining why environmentalists and leading green economists came together under the New Weather banner to write a series of modern folk tales – so that, instead of bombarding people with statistics, they are providing them with stories. And the Real Press has published them.

Hence our second book Knock Twice, as distinct from our first book There was a Knock at the Door. It appears to be successful because people battered with statistics long for stories – as Andrew Simms explained in the Guardian. It also appears that the experts and campaigners long to write stories too. They want to bring those statistics to life and, as Keynes said of Schumacher, to “make them sing”.

Knock twice is available here:

Knock twice, the paperback available from the Real Press

Knock twice, the ebook available from the Real Press

 

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A century since the fairy photographs

November 04, 2017

When I wrote my first novel, Leaves the World to Darkness, I had been determined to write a novel for grown-ups about fairies. A serious subject, after all.

The consternation and confusion the whole idea seemed to cause was irritating and finally rather amusing. One fiction editor, interested in publishing the book, asked me if I was prepared to excise the fairies out of the plot – the whole purpose of the story.

I nearly lost one ghostwriting job because the subject (actually the subject’s father-in-law) saw I had written a book about fairies, and they weren’t his cup of tea. I never brought it up when I was working in the Cabinet Office. Perhaps that was just as well,

Fairies play such a central role in English and Celtic culture, so it seems a pity that they have been reserved for children. And the moment this may have happened may have been exactly a century ago this year when two little girls from Cottingley in Yorkshire claimed to have take photographs of them.

What happened next, the furore of the world media and the involvement of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Theosophists, has kept the incident before us for a century. Even then, the recantation by the girls overshadowed the fact that the youngest of the two maintained to her death that one of the photos was genuine. I’m not sure that the serious study of fairy belief has ever recovered.

Certainly, when I was seeking out the Fairy Investigation Society in the 1990s, it appeared to have gone underground, leaving an address outside Dublin.

So the work of Simon Young and the reformed Fairy Investigation Society is extremely worthwhile, and their Facebook page and their surveys about people’s experience of fairies are going very well – and their last newsletter (I can’t find a link to this) was devoted to Cottingley.

In the meantime, there is Hazel Gaynor’s new novel The Cottingley Secret. There is also my own Leaves the World to Darkness, in paperback published by the Real Press or on Kindle as published by Endeavour.

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Why have leading economists and environmentalists turned to folk tales?

October 30, 2017

Andrew Simms writes:

It’s Hallowe’en today. Why is a group of leading scientists, economists, environmentalists and policy experts turning to modern folk tales to get their message across?

The answer is that our new book Knock Twice is part of an ongoing project of the New Weather Institute. Decades of campaigning for a better world still finds us all in troubling times, on the verge of potentially irreversible ecological decline and toxic social division.

Knock Twice is our second volume of tales following There was a Knock at the Door, which was produced jointly with our friends at Bread, Print & Roses. In his foreword for the first collection, the author Philip Pullman wrote:

“Stories are one of the most ancient and most effective ways of making sense of the world… When we try to live a good life in a world we seem to be simultaneously destroying, there is nothing more valuable or worth encouraging.”

Knock Twice brings together earth scientists, experts on climate change and finance, archaeologists, writers, poets, economists, activists and artists (download contents and contributors). Each contributor works daily in different ways to make the world safe from systemic threats, but has become aware of the limits of simply throwing facts at people and hoping for change.

Instead, they’ve decided to take a new approach, and to try and tell some better stories. We thank them all very much for their creative gifts and being willing – in fact enthusiastic – to try something different. These tales are very modern, yet rooted in ancient story telling traditions.

We hope that, when you knock, they will open doors…

Knock Twice is available as a paperback, also on kindle from here, and as an epub or pdf file from here.

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You’ll believe you were there, sailing on the Armada…

October 25, 2017

Thysse message is o’er long. It doth comprise two main parts, a briefe note from one of mie oarsmenne on the findinge of the Spaniartt’s papers and the translat’d papers themselffes. These are in onlie part sensible order as the oarsman had yet to right them and the manne that translat’d the Spanish writinge simplye retold the tale in the order receiv’d. The originale paperes have disapper’d thysse xi daie of September 1589. They were soak’d butte legible and found bound at the stern of a small craft adrift in the baie call’d Coumenole.

So begins the new novel we have just published, by Craig Newnes. You may notice that at least half the novel is written in a language which has been invented by the author so successfully, and authentically, that we sink into the 1580s as if we had never gone away. Craig is also an eminent psychologist, and the book is as much about human relationships and love, erotic and otherwise, as it is about the Armada. But the language this adds depth to the whole experience.

We wanted to publish Tearagh’t because of this sense of another reality, moving under the surface – and because believing you are in another moment of history is a rare experience. Making it possible is one of those underlying purposes that the Real Press was set up to achieve.  Personally, I think Tearagh’t succeeds triumphantly – so let me know what you think…

But the real lesson to me of the experience publishing Craig’s book was that – perhaps for the first time – I became fully aware of the possibilities and importance of small publishing. The manuscript for Tearagh’t has sat on the desk of a New York literary agent for nearly ten years. It could have been issued by the biggest and most prominent publishers in the world. But somehow they seek out the safe and the formulaic instead, and it falls to the new wave of small publishers like the Real Press to issue it. We are certainly proud to have done so.

By whether I am right or wrong about this, Tearagh’t is a brilliant read and something that lives with you long after you reach the final page. And that makes it a rarity. See what you think!

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The great debate about children’s online time starts now!

August 11, 2017

David Boyle writes (crossposted from Radix):

You can see how this kind of manufactured argument happens, especially in the period they used to call the silly season.

The Children’s Commissioner takes over the lead story of the Observerurging parents to limit their children’s online bingeing. Then the Telegraph hits on the idea of asking a former head of GCHQ to hit back, bizarrely, in the national interest. Then that becomes their lead, and so it goes on.

And actually, this is a real debate and a vital one which has not yet been joined. There is acres of newsprint and bookshelf space about online safety, but next to nothing about how much time children of various ages should spent glued to their games or mobiles – a figure that has risen to an average of over six hours a day.

By coincidence, my own contribution to the debate – a guide for parents, by parents (Techno Tantrums: 10 Strategies to Cope with your Child’s Time Online ) – has only just come out, and is selling very well. People who doubt what they are told by the tech companies, the schools and by ministers, need to find out how other parents deal with it.

So, thanks to the silly season, the great debate is finally grinding into life. What is bizarre is what it says about politics now. Why should the left take the side of parents? Why should the right claim, oddly, that children should be in front of screens as much as possible, to help the nation recruit the right knowledge base – though why GCHQ can’t find the right staff, given that children are spending six hours a day online, I simply can’t imagine?

My own experience suggests that too long online leads to depression, no matter how happy the messages people read there. Too long playing online games also makes children bored of real life.

These things matter very much indeed. And oddly enough, some of the original tech gurus knew that – as I explain in the book, Steve Jobs rigorously controlled the time his children spent on ipads. But that didn’t stop UK schools gorging on them in the vain hope that it might help disadvantaged children learn – we all know that what helps people learn is good teaching and good relationships with teachers.

But there is a more fundamental disagreement below the radar here. It is the fundamental difference, which the official mind seems unable to grasp, between real and virtual.

Former GCHQ director Robert Hannigan said this in his Telegraph article:

“Parental guilt is also driven by a failure to appreciate that life online and ‘real’ life are not separate: they are all part of the same experience. Millennials understand this…”

Quite the reverse, in fact. The extent that millennials fail to understand the distinction between online and real life is precisely the extent to which they are disadvantaged. Or are your Facebook friends your real friends? If you really can’t distinguish the two, you are in trouble, it seems to me.

This is a confusion, not so much among children – who tell the difference often and easily – but among officials. Their bureaucracies create the same kind of virtual simulacra of the world, and they need to believe there is a continuity between the two worlds, the real one and the bureaucratic copy. Yet actually the real world is almost infinitely more complex, unexpected, magical and humane.

This is an absolutely vital debate and perhaps the first step is to have the discussion with our children (see the book!, currently at special price of 99p for the ebook).

 

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Win a copy of Techno Tantrums

July 13, 2017

David Boyle writes:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Techno Tantrums by David Boyle

Techno Tantrums

by David Boyle

Giveaway ends September 17, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

What is the most difficult elements of bringing up children these days? Homework, bullying, bedtime? At least one study puts the issue of time spent online – on games or social media – some way above all the rest.

Yet oddly, though there are libraries of guides to keeping your children safe online, avoiding bullying or grooming or porn or all the rest – there has been very little published about how to decide how much time they should spend there, and how much in the real world.

It would be too much to call this a conspiracy of silence, though there are powerful forces who are keen to get our children online as much as possible and to keep them there – the IT companies, the phone manufacturers, the government, the schools, not to mention all our children’s friends and peers. But, even so, parents who are concerned about it and unsure how to act do sometimes feel very alone.

But there was one reason why Judith Hodge and I wanted to write the book that became Techno Tantrums: 10 strategies to cope with your children’s time online. It was that many of the people who launched the IT revolution on the world, who made the online world possible, turn out to be pretty strict.

In fact, Apple founder Steve Jobs used to ban his children from using iPads. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” he said.

So if people like Steve knew the damage too much of the online world could do to their own children, it seemed peculiar that so many of the rest of us are apparently lost in a world of little advice, much of it conflicting.

We didn’t want to scaremonger either. There is quite enough of that directed at parents as it is. But we did want to research and write a guide to the issue for parents, by parents. I hope it will be as interesting and useful as researching it has been for us.

We found, strangely, that – although most of the parents we interviewed had very different attitudes to technology – most of them had reached similar practical conclusions. That formed the basis of our ten-point advice.

If you would like a copy of Techno Tantrums, we are giving away a free copy on Goodreads, see below…

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Techno Tantrums by David Boyle

Techno Tantrums

by David Boyle

Giveaway ends September 17, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

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The first two Brexits: Dunkirk and Henry VIII

June 13, 2017

A version of this post first appeared on the Radix blog. David Boyle writes…

There are so many candidates for regular circles of life, from Halley’s Comet to the Kondratieff Cycle. I have been arguing for a year or two that we were hurtling towards a major political and economic shift, not because of the rise of Trump or Corbyn, but because there appears to be a forty-year cycle involved.

The last one was in 1979, after all. Before that, it was 1940; before that 1906, so perhaps it is a little shorter than four decades. But either way, we are due for something.

But when you set them out clearly like that, you can see that – for those shifts during the twentieth century – there was a slow seeping into the mainstream of the new dispensation beforehand, which we are not really seeing now.

They also, I see, follow major resettings of the British relationship with Europe – the first European referendum in 1975, Dunkirk in 1940 and the Entente Cordiale in 1904. It isn’t entirely clear to me what the relationship is between these factors, or whether they are symptom or cause.

The Dunkirk Brexit – when the UK made a handbrake turn, catapulting themselves out of the Anglo-French alliance, only to lead the recapture of continental Europe four years later – is an important precedent. It led to a very rapid change of direction, policy and personnel. It meant that we needed to construct a new policy on virtually everything, while simultaneously defending the nation from invasion.

But there is always a disaster behind the shift, which leaves the mainstream ideas without justification, though they usually struggle on for a while. Before 1979 it was the Three Day Week, before 1940 it was outbreak of war, and before 1906 – what was it? Perhaps the Jameson Raid and what it said about Imperial Preference.

But let us stick with 1940. I have been fascinated for some time with what Dunkirk was actually like, when you see behind the myth, and the struggle – not just on the beaches – but in the French and British war cabinets. Looked at day by day, you can see clearly how the British leadership managed to delude themselves – telling themselves that the French were being kept fully informed while simultaneously making sure they did not know what was planned. It was agonising, bloody and desperate – and fascinating as a frame for understanding what is happening in UK politics now.

See my new book Dunkirk to get a short day-by-day account of ten extraordinary days in summer.

And if you are interested by the historical precedents of Brexit, my Brexit thriller – set between the Treasury and the Pilgrim’s Way and reaching back to the days of Thomas Cromwell – is also now available. See The Remains of the Way…

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The right to break out of classifications (special offer this week)

April 06, 2017

The film Mad to be Normal goes on release next week, and this is rather an important moment – at least for me.

Partly because I have been fascinated by the revolutionary psychiatrist R D Laing my whole adult life – I even went to a poetry reading by him when I was a student (he sat slumped on the floor for most of the reading).

But partly also because I have a short book out which tells the strange and courageous story of his radicalisation, as a military psychiatrist and tries to set him in the context of a period of tumultuous debate, the 1960s and 70s.

The book is on special offer this week – including 99p for the ebook versions and £4.25 for the paperback. I would love to hear from anyone what they think of it.

Laing is a somewhat forgotten figure. You might almost believe that the psychiatric establishment won (as it did – they managed to get him to resign from the Medical Register before he died in 1989). When I mentioned his theories to a group of NHS staff I was teaching recently, they laughed.

But something is stirring. Partly, of course, it is David Tennant’s portrayal of him in the film. But partly also because he stands for two critical elements which are as important now as they have always been.

First, human understanding in the professions – and he stood for this at a time when psychiatrists could, without consultation, cart people off to have electric currents passed through their brains, or part of their brains removed, and often did. If they had been sectioned.

Laing is one of the reasons we don’t live in that world any more, at least quite so much.

The other reason can be summed up by this paragraph he wrote towards the end of his life about the American psychiatric diagnostic handbook:

“What DSM III seems to be is a comprehensive compendium of thoughts, feelings, experiences, unusual experiences, impulses, actions, conduct, which are deemed undesirable, and should be put a stop to, in our culture. It is so all-inclusive that most items of what all the world over at all times and places were deemed to be ordinary manifestations of ordinary human minds, speech and conduct, are ruled out. We, as we used to take ourselves to be, are to be cultured out, to be replaced by a homogenised creature I can hardly recognise as a human being.”
In this respect, Laing’s radical spirit continues to this day. He knew what would happen if we standardised people, and tried to encapsulate their individuality with numbers to make them easier to process. He stood then – and stands now – for the right to break out of standard classifications, however sophisticated.

It is a guarantee of our freedom and individuality.

Do read the book if you can – you can buy it at the special price until the end of the week on the publisher’s website or on Amazon. Or catch up with the film here.

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The story behind Mad to be Normal

March 09, 2017

Something about our culture is riveted by the 1960s and 70s, and it was certainly a peculiar time – I’m old enough to remember it. But the ultimate period film is coming out in April, where the actor David Tennant plays the ultimate 1970s icon, the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing.

The film, Mad to be Normal, takes us back to the tale of Kingsley Hall in the late 1960s – and you can also read about that, and what led up to it in my book Ronald Laing; The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist

But for me the key year was 1973.

It was a strange year, 1973. There was an energy crisis which destroyed the certainties of the postwar generation. Oil shot up in price. There was war in the Middle East. There were private armies in the UK, widespread industrial action and people like David Bowie singing about “five years – that’s all we’ve got”.

There was bombing, rioting and, by the end of the year, a three-day week enforced by law which forbade companies to work any more than that. And, amidst the chaos and the fundamental questions and criticisms, the world of psychiatry was rocked by a study published that year in Science by the Stanford University professor, David Rosenhan.

Rosenhan had tested the assumptions of conventional psychiatric medicine to destruction by seeing how they stood up to the real world. He recruited a team of his students, including himself, who were all instructed to go to their doctor complaining of hearing voices in their head. It was the only symptom they would mention – they would otherwise have no problems or issues, mental or physical. The voices would say rather anodyne things like “thud”. The pretend patients would have no previous mental issues either.

Without exception, Rosenhan’s students all found themselves admitted to mental hospital, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Once they were in hospital, their instructions were all the same. They were to behave completely normally and they found their experience of incarceration was also remarkably similar. Not one of the fake patients was recognised as sane by the hospital staff and, over a period of between seven and 53 days, they were all discharged as “schizophrenics whose symptoms had temporarily abated”.

Rosenhan was able to see the clinical notes written about his team when they were in hospital, and was fascinated to find that nothing they could do would be interpreted as sane. One of his students kept a diary about his time in hospital, and had been seen doing so by one of the hospital staff, who had written that “he indulges in writing behaviour”. It was a telling, worrying phrase.

What he could not have hoped for when he was designing his experiment was what happened next. The research team had involved twelve mental hospitals, and they were not happy when the news came out with the publication of Rosenhan’s study.

But another one – what had not been involved – boasted in the public forore that followed that it would never happen there. Rosenhan seized the initiative and threatened to send some fake patients there too. The hospital then judged 41 of 193 recent patients as sane, and – only when he discovered this – Rosenhan revealed that he had actually not sent them any.

The Rosenhan experiment went to the heart of an issue in psychiatry in those days, a generation ago, when all professions were suddenly under scrutiny for the arrogant ways they used their professional privileges and powers. After all, psychiatrists could uniquely lock up people they decided were not sane, and do so indefinitely, without a second opinion, and carry out a series of irreversible and unproven treatments on them without their consent.

But what did it mean? Rosenhan seemed to imply that psychiatry was in the grip of a series of self-supporting assumptions about the sanity or otherwise of the population, which had no obvious relationship to the real world.

But the most important implication was set out clearly by Rosenhan: that psychiatrists were unable to tell the sane from the insane, with serious implications for these concepts. It seemed to imply, if nothing else, that there was something seriously wrong with the whole mental health profession.

Rosenhan had been inspired to try his experiment during a lecture by Laing about how insecure conventional psychiatric definitions were. He had wondered if he could design an experiment to test the proposition. It turned out that he could.

Ronald Laing was an enigma, then at the height of his fame, and people immediately saw that Rosenhan’s findings were important evidence that Laing was right. He was at the heart of a passionate debate, and a bitter argument, about sanity and what it meant – and how to claw it back – which seemed to go to the very heart of everything. Especially when the world seemed pretty insane, was perched on the edge of nuclear oblivion, and seemed unable to heal the rifts between rich and poor, black and white, old and young and East and West.

Since his groundbreaking book A Divided Self was published in a popular Penguin edition in 1965, Laing had been on a stratospheric journey that took him from a career as a major critic of the psychiatric establishment, and a spokesperson for those who had been misused by it, to something else entirely – a religious guru, the author of a million radical T-shirt slogans, a leading poet, a social critic and a theological maverick.

It is nearly half a century since Rosenhan’s research which marked the high point of Laing’s fame. Treatments are often a good deal more effective and more permanent than those offered in Laing’s day. Mental hospital inmates are no longer treated with the sheer cruelty, that Laing exposed to the light of day. But those in great mental distress are often forced to beg for help from overstretched mental health trusts, or to live isolated lives being cared for ‘in the community’, which tends to mean not being cared for at all.

Those in the grip of mental ill-health – which may be anything up to a quarter of us at some time in our lives – are categorised against the same kind of numerical classifications that Laing condemned, and weaned onto drugs that can still undermine their ability to recover.

Now David Tennant is playing Laing in the story of his alternative therapeutic community, Mad to be Normal (released in April). Our new book Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist sets that story in context – telling the strange tale of Laing’s revolt inside Scottish mental hospitals, and also his wider story in the context of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture.

If you want a good read around the story of Laing, we would humbly recommend it.

You can buy the Kindle edition here.

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How the #passengerstrike struck home

January 18, 2017

David Boyle, the author of Cancelled! writes:C2ZZoqbXAAEDxiV

I have two questions about the unravelling of Southern Rail, and the plight of the passengers, and I’m going to ask them both in the hope that people can answer them for me – but I’m also going to suggest some answers myself.

First, why do the platform indicators on Southern now provide us with slightly different times than the departure boards – not at the London terminals, but everywhere else? Second, why was Govia Thameslink (GTR) so confident about the talks going on now that they were able to promise to reinstate the full timetable on Tuesday (we will see, of course!).

Lets try the second one first. This may be deeply immodest of me, but it strikes me that the sheer weight of response to the #passengerstrike, still mainly a threat and not yet a reality, but extremely noisy on social media (3,500 retweeted or shared the Guardian article about it just from the Guardian website), may have played a role.

When I write about how people had reacted on the train, when I asked them to join me at the barriers and refuse to show their tickets – and I quoted G. K. Chesterton (“We are the people of England/That never have spoken yet”) – I believe ministers realised that the game was up, and they have already agreed to the concessions to drivers that GTR have been asking permission to make.

If there is no settlement, I will have been proved wrong. We shall see. In the meantime, for want of other evidence, the mere threat of a #passengerstrike seems to have had its effect. All the more reason for putting it into practice when GTR have tried and failed to reinstate their full service.

Second question, and this one is related. Two things have changed about the departures lists boards – they say ‘on time’ when the platform indicators are showing some minutes of delay. They are also not showing cancelled trains. I assume that both these new definitions feed through into the official statistics you can see on trains.im – which presumably provide day-to-day statistics which ease GTR into a better light. It may be why those statistics suggest that they cancelled only three per cent of trains today, which seems unlikely…

Are they not playing straight with us or the government? I think we should be told. Or are they suffering from Ministers Disease – the fatal delusion that, if they can change the way statistics show a problem, then it has been successfully tackled?

You can read more about the strage story of the Southern crisis in my book Cancelled!, for Kindle, paperback, ePub and pdf.  I’m giving 10p from every sale to the Rail Benefit Fund.

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