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However you organise UK railways, the Treasury always wins

April 22, 2018

David Boyle writes:

I never went inter-railing, as so many of my friends did in the 1970s, but I have now to mark the imminent arrival of my sixtieth birthday.  So I went with my children and family, and the trip included Rome, Venice and Vienna, and – my goodness – was I didactic. I’m surprised they never throttled me.

As those who have read my short book about the Southern Rail fiasco will know (Cancelled!), I have recently found myself rather unexpectedly involved in the railway debate. The latest incarnation of this is on the new Financial Times TV report on rail privatisation, which – unusually for television – includes some definite facts which I didn’t know already. There I am in a disturbingly pink scarf.

But travelling around Europe by rail has given me a new perspective on the debate. The trains were not just on time, they were also comfortable, well-designed. And, they were also designed for human beings, unlike the new Southern and Thameslink trains, which look as if they have been designed to be hosed down after use.

The days when Laurence Olivier caught the Brighton Belle, and ate kippers all the way home after an opening night. Never mind the incessant lateness, the constant breakdowns, the sheer incompetence – it is the technocratic transformation of human trains to trucks that really upsets me.

I keep on being asked why. Why is it so bad in Sussex compared to continental rail travel?

Is it primarily because they are nationalised, integrated systems? Because that is the current solution being touted by the Labour Party.

I find myself explaining two peculiarities of the Govia franchise which better explain what has gone wrong. The first is the dysfunctional contract, whereby Govia only gets 3 per cent of the takings, and nothing they can do will make them more of a profit.

The second is that – because of the contract – the dead hand of the Treasury is hugely influential. This is ironic, because under both the current system, and the nationalised solution that Labour proposes, our trains  are run more or less directly by Treasury mandarins. Don’t let us pretend that anything about the current system has much to do with privatisation in any sense of the word.

And there you have what, to my mind, is the biggest threat to humane public services – direct control by the Treasury. Inflexible, technocratic, inhumane, they provide precisely the oversight that privatisation was designed to end – and yet…


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Why the BBC finds the truth about their wartime role embarrassing

January 16, 2018

David Boyle writes…

If the period portrayed in the film Darkest Hour is the founding myth of the modern British state, it also provides a kind of mythic justification for the BBC – for pretty much everything. And we can listen to the BBC’s Ed Stourton weaving it again on Radio 4, in last week’s Book of the Week, his own Auntie’s War.

It goes like this. The commitment to truth in the news led to huge respect, not just at home but across Europe. From a dull, preachy, rather puritanical radio station among so many, it became a beacon of hope.

This was largely true, but the real question is: who was primarily responsible for it? Because, like all the official BBC histories, this one sidesteps the real issue – the furious struggle in and around the BBC over wartime broadcasting to Europe, and the role of the controversial figure in charge, Noel Newsome.

As director of European broadcasts, Newsome led what is still the biggest broadcasting operation ever mounted, in 25 different languages for a total of just over 25 hours a day, across three wavelengths.

It was he who set out the strategy to use news as a weapon on war – it had to be not just true but also recognisably British.

Newsome and his deputy, Douglas Ritchie, presided over the V for Victory campaign, designed to foment a spirit of resistance in occupied Europe – so successful that Joseph Goebbels tried to organise his own V campaign to subvert it. Find out more in my book V for Victory.

And it was Newsome who, frustrated with the pettifogging delays of the BBC bureaucracy, persuaded the Foreign Office to take control of the European Service from the BBC. In practice, he came under the control of the diplomat Ivone Kirkpatrick, the man who had just interviewed Rudolf Hess after his unexpected flight to the UK, and “Kirk” let Newsome get on with the job. Stourton’s book tells the story with great atmosphere and names Newsome and Ritchie properly. But even in the book, he does not get to the real reasons why the BBC is still so nervous about it.

There was postwar embarrassment at the BBC about the V for Victory campaign and its instructions for sabotage, assassination and industrial action in the sort of style that would later be used for making Christmas decorations or collecting silver paper for the lifeboats.

But it seems likely that it was the bid for independence from the BBC which was never forgiven by Auntie. Newsome was sacked by the BBC at the end of the war and remains almost unmentioned in the official BBC histories.

“There were giants in Bush House at that time, and battles of giants,” wrote a member of his staff, Maurice Latey, later eastern Europe editor. “At the centre the massive figure of Noel Newsome … engaged in epic contests with Hugh Greene, in charge of German broadcasts – six or seven feet of quiet implacable determination beside a basilisk stare – and the late Darsie Gillie, in charge of French broadcasts, six or seven feet of gesticulating vehemence which earned him the nick-name of ‘the semaphore’.”

The two-hour BBC epic to celebrate 50 years from VE Day in 1995, a two-part documentary called What Did You Do in the War Auntie?, devoted just seven minutes to the European Service. Only a few of the Colonel Britton broadcasts by Ritchie, or Newsome’s The Man in the Street broadcasts, remain in the BBC’s archives.

Newsome had to wait for the historian Asa Briggs, in his mammoth history of broadcasting in the UK in 1970, to give him his place as “the central figure in the organisation … and the most industrious, lively and imaginative of all its wartime recruits”.

I never met Newsome (full disclosure: he married a relative of mine). He died in 1976. But it was Newsome and Ritchie who really created the myth of the BBC, by using news as a weapon – not quite what the myth suggests – with all the resources of culture and music and humour.

Hitler’s propaganda chief Goebbels warned in 1944: “There is one way in which the British, despite the narrowness of their political thinking, are ahead of us – they know that news can be a weapon and are experts in its strategy.” (This quotation is disputed: it may have been a Stuttgart reporter at the same date).

So they seem to have been right. It is time they took their full places in the history books. See this one: V for Victory.

This post first appeared in the Guardian

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How I came to write Tearagh’t…

December 06, 2017

Craig Newnes writes…

Dunquin is unremarkable as you approach – apart from the extraordinary views over the Atlantic. On blustery days you can see four or five storm systems and the curve of the earth.

It lies on the Dingle peninsula not far from Coumenole beach where Ryan’s Daughter was filmed. The pub – of course there’s a pub – has photographs of Sir John Mills and the cast drinking Guinness and enjoying the craik.

There’s a fine restaurant where I was once served by a man in his nineties whose grandmother had been born in 1796 – really. His mum had lived on the Great Blasket, an island cleared of its ageing population in 1953 but a place with a literary history second to none. Millions of books describing the hazardous life of the islanders have been sold since Tomás Ó Crohan wrote The Islandman – in Irish – in 1929.

Born in 1856, O Crohan lived on the island until his death in 1937. In my 64 Ways to Change Your Life (a volume comprising one line per page), visiting the Great Blasket is high on the list. To the west of the Blasket lies Tearagh’t; the fact you can see the mainland from there, but reaching it is potentially lethal, may make it the loneliest place on earth.

But Dunquin has something else; an ancient church and graveyard. In the graveyard lies the grave of the fourteen-year-old son of the Santa Maria de la Rosa. The ship went down in the treacherous Blasket sound in 1588 and the boy, the only survivor, was tortured to death by the English seeking information. He had none; most of Felipe II’s Armada had either sunk or gone off course and was heading south for Spain. There had to be a story in there somewhere – after all, there are already two novels simply called “Armada”.

So, I started writing; recording conversations and converting them to a version of Elizabethan English, visiting Vigo fish market at five in the morning, noting down menus and other script on the walls of pubs in London and Dartmouth, remembering people I knew from holidays around Slea Head – Padraig used to run a Dingle pub.

But what to do for a central tale? The characters came easily; the men are mostly versions of me: writers, peacocks, animal-lovers, gardeners, fathers. Isidore is, I think, a man many aspire to be – loyal, brave, observant. But he has at least one flaw – he thinks being a man must involve adventure.

My grandmother is in the book – Jewish and shocked at the behaviour of her husband. It was said that my grandfather had two families in Greece as a result of his exploits in the Merchant Navy. If it’s a myth – it’s also true for countless families.

And the reason for writing? When my eldest daughter’s mum died I promised her I would live forever – and writing is the closest any of us will get.

You can buy the book here. We are also giving away a signed paperback copy of Tearagh’t through the Goodreads Giveaway this week – you just have to sign up here! See below…

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Tearagh't by Craig Newnes


by Craig Newnes

Giveaway ends December 23, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

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In praise of great mavericks

December 03, 2017

David Boyle writes…

I met the folk singer Pete Seeger just before he died. He was jamming outside in the July sunshine, with some young violinists, playing Ashokan Farewell. He was at a conference near the Hudson River about local currencies where I had just been speaking.

It was a great honour to meet him, a friend of Woody Guthrie no less, partly also because – when I was growing up – the only 45rpm single my parents possessed was Seeger singing Little Boxes. I told him this and he told me how the author, Malvina Reynolds, composed the song driving just outside San Francisco when it came into her head – she said to her husband ‘Stop the car! I feel a song coming on…’

It is a powerful song about sprawling suburbs, but it goes beyond that in my favourite lines:

“They were doctors
and lawyers
and business executives
and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
and they all look just the same…”

Because Little Boxes was not just about houses, it was about minds – “tinned minds”, as John Betjeman put it. The song is a hymn to the only kind of Liberalism I recognise, which is prepared to think outside the little boxes, even though the world thinks differently.

I don’t believe this need to encourage the kind of nihilistic approach to everything that you might hear, to choose a random example, on most BBC comedy panels – I may be showing my age here – but it is an approach to life and politics which dares to think differently and to stand out from the crowd.

I have also realised that a great deal of my writing has been about the maverick approach, so I have collected an anthology of three short books, all about people living or working differently, and daring to refuse to submit to the generally accepted tramlines of thought. I have called it Great British Mavericks.

The first of these books, Scandal: How homosexuality became a crime is also in a series of Goodreads Giveaways before Christmas. So if you want to enter the draw for a new one, click here…

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Scandal by David Boyle


by David Boyle

Giveaway ends December 23, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

For me, the mavericks are the glory of the nation, and we need to find ways of encouraging more of them. Here’s a start anyway – do feel free to buy the book for Christmas!

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Ireland, Irish politics and the homosexuality laws

December 01, 2017

David Boyle writes…

The main roadblock to a negotiated Brexit still looks as though it is likely to be the Irish border. And that reminds me about other incident of Anglo-Irish muddle which led to extreme events on the mainland – in this case, the so-called Dublin Scandal of 1884, which led directly to the criminalisation of homosexuality the following summer.

It also, as I discovered when I wrote Scandal two years ago, involved my great-great-grandfather as one of its central figures. He had been chairman of the Dublin Stock Exchange, but he was forced to escape on the ferry to Spain wearing a false nose, turning up in Denmark Hill, of all places, using false identities, as an ‘artist in glass’.

His life, and the unprecedented moment of intolerance and fear which swept England ten years later on the arrest of Oscar Wilde under the same law, were intertwined in unusual ways. Writing the book completely obsessed me, and there are still details I long to track down, and his unconventional relationship with the landlord of the Rising Sun in Blackfriars Road.

Most of it I shall never know, but know a great deal more than I did, and I’m glad to say that we are giving away a number of free copies of Scandal in the weeks leading up to Christmas, through Goodreads. See details here

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Scandal by David Boyle


by David Boyle

Giveaway ends December 23, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

I have also included Scandal in the anthology of recent books that we have bundled together as Great British Mavericks – all stories about people who thought for themselves and in their own way, in defiance of the authorities and of accepted wisdom. Three books for the price of, well, about one!

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Why would scientists, economists and ecologists replace facts with folk tales?

November 28, 2017

Andrew Simms, the editor of Knock Twice, writes: 

‘The last person on earth sat alone in a room, and there was a knock at the door…’ If you want to know what happened next, so do I.

But what about this: ‘the concentration of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere, recently hit 404.19 parts per million.’ Is the curiosity quite the same? Less so, I suspect, even for those who care passionately about our destabilising climate. Stories, more than facts, hold our attention and pattern our lives. Facts we can deny, but stories slip passed our ideological guard into the imagination.

That’s why a group of leading scientists, economists and ecologists recently sat themselves alone in their rooms, put facts momentarily to one side, and wrote modern folk tales for troubling times to convey their issues of concern.

In stories, we make sense of the world, and find ways to deal with what doesn’t make sense. They let us imagine how things can be different, helping them become so.  It doesn’t take many words. ‘For sale, baby shoes, never worn,’ has been called the saddest story written.  Margaret Atwood’s, ‘Longed for him. Got him. Shit,’ needs no elaboration. And, Eileen Gunn’s six word story: ‘Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?’ in all its brevity detonates a tension at the heart of human progress. Love allowed in. Demons cast out. Questions raised.

It may be the season of flamboyant, escapist horror, but from manipulative male impresarios exploiting fairy tale ambitions, to overheated hurricanes fuelled, fundamentally, by myths of limitless natural abundance, it seems there are real monsters out there.

Folk tales typically emerge in circumstances of upheaval, enabling us to process and assimilate extreme experience.  The irony is that the excesses we wreak on each other through chauvinism and prejudice, or on the non-human world through self-centredness, happen because at some level they are justified by the tales we have told ourselves.  That might be to do with apparently innate patterns of power in an industry, or about humanity’s own, unchallengeable power over the natural world. Bad things happen because of the stories we tell that normalise and justify them.

So, if you want change to happen, you have to change deeply embedded cultural narratives. Progressive have learned the hard way in an age of Brexit and Trump that views which resonate with mythologies – such as ‘making America great again’ tapping the former frontier optimism of nation builders, or ‘taking back control’ for the brave, resilient island – are impervious to fact and rational argument.

In both you might also glimpse the village whipped-up by the charismatic trickster who appears in their midst, into a fury of self-destructive suspicion and isolation.

Progressive politics needs better stories as much as it needs facts and policies. Without them, it will flail and flounder. That’s what pushed the group of policy experts to go beyond simply presenting evidence and hoping for the best, to write their own, new compelling tales.

They range from one of the world leading authorities on climate and geo hazards, to one of India’s most prominent and progressive economists, to a leading authority on corporate corruption, the former head of a UK Cabinet Office inquiry, to the head of a UN inquiry into designing a sustainable financial system, and several members from a new generation economic and social activists.

Philip Pullman, the great contemporary storyteller whose new novel is out, like William Blake, is healthily sceptical of institutional religion. But he is evangelical about the importance of stories, which he calls the most ancient and effective ways of making sense of the world that can guide us, as we try to live good lives in a world we seem to be simultaneously destroying.

But Pullman also laments how the devil too often gets all the best lines. That’s why it’s so urgent for progressive voices to practise and experiment with their own, more compelling and convincing stories of how to reimagine the world. We can be led by tales that leave frozen by shadows and insecurity, vulnerable to the pedlars of dark myths, who manipulate us with our own fears.

The technocratic world of politics, whether green, left, liberal or other shade of progressive, feels like it has had an imagination by-pass. Compared to the resurgent right its stories too often seem flat and less able to hold an audience. No one is going to change the world if they can’t hold its attention. For those who are committed to creating a fairer world where everyone can thrive within planetary ecological boundaries, it’s time to tell better tales of what went wrong, and how that better world  might come to pass.

Knock twice: 25 modern folk tales for troubling times, was published by the Real Press and the New Weather Institute on All Hallows Eve, October 2017.


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Ten reasons for writing Fourth to First (and for reading it too!)

November 22, 2017

Steffan Aquarone writes:

I confess to knowing very little about anything – in particular political campaigning.  But one thing I can talk about at length is how we did it in a small rural patch of North Norfolk (six shops, four pubs, two petrol stations and zero towns), going from fourth position last time to first in May 2017 with a majority of 420.

It was the first time I’d fought a campaign from start to finish, and it was quite a ride.  So much so that Freya, my sister and campaign manager, and I decided to write a book about it called Fourth to First.

Regularly topping the top 40 within Amazon’s “Books > Society, Politics & Philosophy > Government & Politics > Political Structure & Processes > Elections & Referendums” category (what other category would readers of this blog even look at?!) – it was hardly a money-spinning undertaking.  Instead, here are ten reasons why we did it:

  1. To get information out of the heads of experienced campaigners and into the hands of everyone. I don’t know if our party’s reluctance to talk about tactics is because people are afraid that the Tories will steal our ideas if we share them… I certainly don’t know many Tories who would be willing to go to the lengths we went to and if there are, well, good on them: at least their communities will get hard working local representatives.  We wanted to produce something that told the true, warts-and-all account of how to win a campaign so our fellow candidates and potential candidates had something to go by.
  2. We’ve got to do something about the recruitment problem in my party, which is a function of politics in general. It’s not just that not enough capable, different people are coming forward to stand – it’s that not enough capable people of any variety are choosing to go into politics. I believe we’ll only change this when we can make politics a more attractive career path for talented, ambitious people who care about the society they live in.   Telling the story of how we did it is our contribution to making trudging around in the snow delivering bits of your fingers through letterboxes sound more attractive.
  3. Half the truths we take for granted are bogus. Like the frequency of literature mattering more than whether people find the content useful, interesting or entertaining. Or that you shouldn’t talk about your values on the doorstep.  We wanted to work out what was right, root out the rubbish, and share the results.
  4. We wanted to show that political campaigning can be tremendous fun. Putting yourself out there is nerve-racking, but it reveals a beautiful diversity about our species. No other job lets you step briefly inside people lives in such a wide-ranging way; it’s both humbling and deeply fascinating.
  1. A lot of our success is simply about how we got out and spoke to voters. Listening to people is the best way to understand why they do things like vote Brexit, and it will make you a better politician and a better liberal. Most of the people I’ve met who voted to leave are competent, rational people who didn’t believe the bogus bus any more than we did.
  1. To share the list of things you need in order to succeed – at the top of which is having someone like Freya. Freya has the fortitude of an ox and a near-fanatical belligerence that gets things done. There are more people like her out there.  And you might not even need to work quite as hard as we did.
  1. To put people off. I implore you not to stand as a half-hearted gesture, because it means your politics will be half-hearted. There are lots of people who really believe in our cause, and lots more of them would vote for us if we actually started behaving like we intended to win, and that means focusing our efforts where we will (even if not on the first go).
  1. To debunk the myth of “where we work we win”, which is gold-plated nonsense. Working hard is not enough. Besides, a statement whose opposite is self-evidently true has little value.  We wanted to know how much of what sort of work we needed to do in order to win, because I wasn’t going to stand unless I thought we could.  This book will save you some of the hassle.
  1. Showing that it can be done. We went from fourth to first and I hope that, in sharing our experiences of this campaign, you will find you can do it too.
  1. Local politics matters and can change people’s lives. Radical change at national level might seem like a long way off, but even just campaigning can radically change individuals’ lives for the better. What some of us might see as trivial things can have a transformative effect on people’s happiness.  And action and activism rub off and leave legacy – even if you don’t do it first time round.

Fourth to First is written by Steffan Aquarone and Freya Aquarone and is available from Amazon here:  It is available also in pdf and epub here:

Read Mark Pack’s review here: “a must read guide on how to win a council election”.


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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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