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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 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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How I came to write William Shakespeare, Apprentice

October 31, 2016

Ursula Bertele de Allendesalazar writes:

shakespeare-for-websiteAt the grammar school I attended, back in the 1950s, Shakespeare was on the menu in force.

Coming straight from the 11- plus, we were started on a Midsummer Night’s Dream. We then worked our way successively through half of Shakespeare’s plays and did Hamlet, The Tempest and the Sonnets for A-Levels. So it is not an exaggeration to say that, next to our mother’s milk, we imbibed Shakespeare.

As highlights, I remember school outings to the Old Vic to see Richard Burton play Henry V, and John Neville as Hamlet. We were also taken to the unforgettable performance of Othello at Stratford with Paul Robeson and Sam Wanamaker. On leaving school, I received a prize: the Tudor edition of William Shakespeare, The Complete Works. It has accompanied me to this day.

For the past few years, at the end of June, I have taken to spending a week up in the Swiss Alps. Last year I went to Soglio, a tiny village southwest of St Moritz, almost on the frontier with Italy. It was there that I heard about John Florio where a flourishing society would like to establish him as a possibility of having been Shakespeare. Intrigued and inspired by this John Florio fantasy, I believe it is beautiful Soglio that I have to thank for bringing me to write William Shakespeare, apprentice, a romp through the lost years.

William Shakespeare, Apprentice is available as a paperback here and on Amazon here.

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An empty railway, echoing to the sound of machinery

October 27, 2016

31806-at-barry-woodhamsDavid Boyle writes:

When the former Prime Minister David Lloyd George intervened in the debate which led to the resignation of Neville Chamberlain in April 1940, he urged Winston Churchill not to act as an “air raid shelter” for the prime minister.

I have felt something rather similar over the past fortnight during the first two weeks of the strike by guards on Southern Rail.

I’m not sure what effect the RMT thought they would have by their action. I’m not sure why they sent their brave and resourceful members over the top to charge the barbed wire quite so directly. I’m unsure whether they have gained more than a few inches of No Man’s Land as a result. They have certainly behaved like an air raid shelter for Southern.

The problem was that both Southern’s operators GTR, and the Department of Transport which pulls the strings, had been planning for a strike. More than that, they had actually been hoping for one. It gave them an excuse for their appalling record. It allowed King Log (I’m referring of course to the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling) to regard himself as a bastion of courageous resistance to trade union chaos, rather than a defender of one of the worst public service records anywhere.

On the other hand I have been amazed at what the commuters together have managed to do, raising the money to employ barristers to ask questions – their latest, very urgent question, is how the Department and their contractors are monitoring health and safety during the crisis.

This includes, of course, whether disabled people are being provided with any accessible service at all.

What has changed since I last wrote about this is the publication of the Parliamentary select committee report on Southern which confirms much of what I have written. This is the Guardian’s report:

“MPs said there was evidence of poor management of the franchise from the beginning, with inadequate staffing, along with rolling stock issues, prolonged industrial action and the complications of major engineering work. The government’s response to calls for GTR to be stripped of its franchise, the claim that no other operator could do better, was “simply not credible”, the report said. It said that the number of train cancellations on GTR’s network was substantially more than the default level, which would normally be a trigger for termination of the franchise. But the report said the DfT was “evasive and opaque” in addressing the question. “The answers provided to us by very senior officials … give us little confidence that it has a firm grip on the monitoring of GTR’s contractual obligations.”

You do have to be sympathetic to Charles Horton, whose room for manoeuvre is so limited and who is trying to operate a railway right up against its constraining limitations.

But the truth is that, no thanks to King Log, Horton and GTR are themselves managed by accountants from Go Ahead who have determined that Southern should continue to operate at between  fifth and a quarter below the frontline staff it needs.

Then they are surprised when their ability to cajole their staff into doing enough overtime is limited – so limited that they have to pretend that they are being hit by a ‘sicknote strike’ for which there was no evidence.

What is frightening about Southern, as I have written in my book Cancelled!, is that it is an empty husk, a vacant company run by accountants for accountants, and it is a model for the future of pubic services everywhere. It also leads to serious dissembling by ministers.

I’m not saying that driver only operation is massively dangerous, though it is certainly not safer. Though I’m not sure we would welcome and announcement from the airlines explaining that they were going to improve customer service by removing responsibilities on the fight deck from the co-pilot.

No, but I also don’t want to travel by an inhuman machine with no human contact. I’m lucky enough also not to need a wheelchair which does require human support. But even so, I don’t want my services to be empty, echoing places punctuated only by the sound of machinery.

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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Amazon’s worrying new puritanism

September 02, 2016

the men cover for websiteIn the Spring, we were very excited to publish Fanny Calder’s unique novel The Men, and it is attracted quite a lot of interest and some excellent reviews on Amazon.

I took the decision to test out the new advertising service on Amazon too, and was pleased with the result. After a lot of thought, we decided on the following, very simple strapline:

13 men. 10 parties. 1 woman.’

It was not just simple, it summed up the story pretty clearly. There was a hint of excess about it, a whiff of suggestion, but no more than that. The book itself describes a series of affairs, but there is no gratuitous sex. It is definitely not an ‘adult’ novel in that sense.

But when I came to repeat the advert, Amazon rejected it. There had been a change in their rules, I was told. When I appealed, I eventually got this reply:

“We have rejected both the ads for ‘Erotic content’. As per our policy we do not approve books which contain erotic words as it is not appropriate for general audience. Hence the Ads will remain rejected.
Thank you for your patience and cooperation.
Have a nice day.

Please let us know how we did.
Were you satisfied with the support provided?”

There then appear a number of links if I was not satisfied, none of which worked. Such is the way the new monopolies treat their customers.

But I was disturbed about the new puritanism. I asked them which the ‘erotic words’ were I had used so that I could delete them. There was no reply – or maybe some committee in the Magisterium is still considering their answer.

The problem is that Amazon is, to all intents and purposes, a monopoly. I have no choice but abide by their new puritanism. I can’t go elsewhere. I can appeal to some machine that, for all I know, cranks out their rejections. But that’s all.

Now I ask you – what should I do? And what can we all do with a behemoth in control which doesn’t understand subtlety. And how long before they reject subtle books altogether?

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A new insight into why Southern rail unravelled

July 13, 2016

David Boyle, the author of Cancelled!, writes:

I am extremely grateful, not to say humbled, by the response to my book. Every day, I am getting feedback, information, insights – particularly from Southern’s guards and drivers. I am blogging elsewhere to keep up, though the mainstream media has finally now caught up with the story of the Southern trains which don’t run – even if they have not yet grasped the full implications for other services, which I set out in the book.

Since the book was published (mid-June), the company has now cancelled 341 trains a day in an attempt to get the rest to run on time. I write on the second day of this experiment – which has no end date, I notice – and the initial signs are not that good. The driver-only routes remain the least efficient, though the other routes have tended to be sacrificed for the driver-only ones. Nor does this bear out company claims that driver-only trains will improve the customer experience.

Last week, on one day, no less than three trains broke down and had to be taken out of service. This implies a more systematic failure which goes some way beyond staff sickness.

The present situation remains impossible – especially for those whose regular trains (and in some cases, whose regular routes) have been removed. I have therefore written an open letter to the owners of Govia Thameslink (GTR), to the Go Ahead group chairman Andrew Allner, asking him to intervene. You can read it here.

But my reason for writing now is to share a letter I received last week from a Southern driver, whose name I have removed, whose letter I reproduce below with his permission. I was fascinated to get it because it throws real light on the issue of why the chaos has happened, and what happens when the centralised management of an imperial company starts to treat their staff like young offenders.

Here it is:

“I’ve read your blog posts with interest. Your blog’s very accurate and well researched. I would like to add something, a reason for so many cancellations. In the past, the resource managers (they look after train crew in the depots, making sure we are at work and try to find crew when people go sick or there’s a shortage of staff) have actively tried to get people to work overtime when they don’t have enough staff. Once the industrial dispute started, the resource managers were told not to offer overtime to anyone who had gone on strike. Staff could still phone up and ask for overtime, but work would not be offered. So overtime wasn’t banned, but it wasn’t offered.

“The way the railway works means sometimes staff levels are sufficient and sometimes they aren’t. When there’s a shortfall, the resource managers work hard to try and make sure all trains are covered, they phone us up, they encourage us to work, they remind us of favours they have done us in the past. A small amount of train crew volunteer to work as much overtime as possible, a small amount won’t work any over time, and the majority of us volunteer occasionally if we want some extra money or will help out if possible if we are asked. The point is that, as soon as the resource managers stop asking, they don’t have enough volunteers.

“Add the low morale, or no morale, because it’s obvious GTR management hate train crews, and people are less inclined to want to work. Why am I going to work my only day off this week just to get shouted and sworn at numerous times, and help out a company who don’t value what I’ve been doing for many years?

“Several months ago, I worked a long hour shift, I spent over eight hours on trains, every ten minutes an automatic announcement went off: ‘bing bong, bing bong, bing bong’. The three bing bongs every ten minutes seriously annoyed people, then an announcement scrolled across the screens ‘sorry for the cancellations… too many conductors off sick…’. So eight hours on trains with this message scrolling above my head, I have never been so depressed at work. Customers were tutting every time the three bing bongs interrupted them. I was constantly being asked about the unofficial strike action we were taking, I was accused of making passengers journeys a nightmare. I would have quit, but I have commitments…”

My own understanding is that the practice of discouraging overtime among those who had been on strike only lasted ten days at the end of April, and – as the driver says – does not amount to an overtime ban.

If you want to read or download Cancelled!, you can buy a pdf or epub version here, a kindle version here or a paperback version here. I’m giving 10p from every sale to the Rail Benefit Fund.

 

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Cancelled: the new twist in the Southern Rail meltdown

July 03, 2016

The Real Press is partly a new way of publishing and thinking about history, and partly – in a small way – an attempt to reinvent publishing. So when David Boyle suddenly found himself receiving hundreds of messages about the bizarre unravelling of the Southern Railways, he thought it was a perfect moment to show what could be done.

In the course of a week, he had  researched and written, and we had published, his book Cancelled! It is now available in a range of formats (and as an ePub file from today) and 10p of the cover price goes to the Rail Benefit Fund (the ebook only costs £1.99).

It shows that publishing doesn’t have to wait for a year between the delivery of a manuscript and it hitting the bookshelves.

The rest of this post updates the story a little (and a version of it is also published here).

We had wondered whether the situation with Southern Railways had improved a little. It seemed unlikely that we could lose a Prime Minister, most of the shadow cabinet, the England football manager, Boris Johnson – and still face chaos on the train lines to the coast. But that was clearly naive.

Perhaps the element that we find particularly frustrating about the situation is the way that government ministers are defending operators Govia Thameslink Railway – the rail minister Claire Perry even went out of her way to praise their managers. And the way so many MPs who should know better are still blaming the situation on some kind of industrial dispute.

The truth is there is really no evidence at all that the rise in sickness has anything to do with the rail unions – and quite a lot of evidence that it has everything to do with rising stress levels among the staff.

David was overwhelmed with information and personal testimony after my first blog posts on this (read by over 100,000 people so far) and he researched and wrote a book about the situation called Cancelled!, now available on Kindle, as a paperback and as an ePub file.

He writes as follows: “As you can read in the book, I’ve come to believe – having gathered as much information as I possibly could from as wide a range of sources as possible – that the company has little idea themselves why the franchise is grinding to a halt. It just seems easier to blame the unions for something neither they nor ministers can understand.

“They seem to be in the grip of the traditional official fallacy – namely, if we don’t understand why something is happening, it must somehow be someone’s deliberate plot.

“In fact, as you can see in more detail in the book, the situation is a direct result of the centralised management techniques used by GTR – and used by many of the companies which have won public service contracts.

“This is therefore the beginning of what may prove a widespread phenomenon. We shall see.

“In the meantime, I hope MPs will ask about what planning is going into the current cancellations.

“I simply can’t imagine that GTR is being so irresponsible that they are not planning the inevitable cancellations in some kind of regular pattern. In fact, a recently leaked document showed that they were negotiating with the Department or Transport to cancel 192 trains every day.

“The company tell me that the negotiations came to nothing. But there must be some planning going on – otherwise it would be wholly irresponsible.

“But then, if they are really planning which trains to cancel, why are they not keeping passengers informed? Why are they still waiting until five minutes before departure when everyone is on board?

“So which is it – are they failing to plan or are they failing to inform? I think we should be told.”

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