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Previous Blogs

AFC Wimbledon - A Celebration
(July 2018)

Is automation taking the pleasure out of shopping?
(Tuesday 24 January 2018)

Rail Fare Rises - Should the Railways be Renationalised?
(Tuesday 2 January 2018)

Paul Simon Feature
(Tuesday 13 February)

 

Philip Grant broadcasts daily on Surrey Sound from 9am to midday. 

Apart from looking at the morning's papers, he delves into the day's top news stories.

Read his take on the news with his regular blog articles.


WW2 Re-enactment Events - Sanitising History?
(8 December 2018)

This year we are commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War - the war to end all wars.

What was the end of the war for France and Great Britain was also the beginning of a catastrophic disaster for Germany. The end of WWI changed the nation, ushering in the 1918 revolution that brought down the monarchy and installed the fractious, short-lived Weimar republic that led, ultimately, to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime.

In Germany, the trauma and atrocities of World War II completely overshadow the Great War and in schools, teachers often regard the events of 1914-18 simply as a prelude to the much larger disaster to come.

Earlier this year anti Semitism was very much in the news with the Labour party being embroiled in a row over the matter. There is also the rise in far-right political organisations across Europe which to some have shades of Germany in the 1930's.

In August I came across a story of a Jewish lady who spoke of her fear after seeing people "dressed in SS officer uniform" at a living history event in Wiltshire.

She told The Sun newspaper she cried when she saw people in German military uniforms from the Second World War.

"It was fascist fetishism," she said. "People were posing with these 'soldiers'."

She said that this was a gruesome part of history that needed to be handled with care and there needs to be a duty of care to people attending these events.

"My descendants are from Europe, and although I don't know by name who perished, I am sure members of my family died in the Holocaust."

It seems that Nazi items were on sale at the West Wiltshire Military Vehicle Trust (MVT) event and an original Star of David arm patch Jews had to wear was on display. John Wardle, secretary of MVT, said there is nothing illegal about selling Nazi memorabilia.

This has led me to think about World War 2 re-enactments in general. These seem to be popular with a number of heritage steam railways around the country. But do these events show the horror of living through the war? Or is the story sanitised entertainment?

I will admit to some indirect personal experience. My father was brought up in Romford and experienced the Blitz - his home was bombed by a doodlebug and neighbours suffered casualties from these attacks. My late mother was German and narrowly escaped the bombing of Dresden in 1945.

Last year, The North Yorkshire Moors Railway barred a group who dress as German soldiers for its annual World War 2 re-enactment.

The decision not to include the Das Reich group came in response to negative publicity in the press. For the past 12 years, the railway station at Levisham, near Pickering, has been turned into 'Le Visham', a German-occupied town in northern France.

Neil Robertson, from the Das Reich group explained that the scenarios used were aimed at educating the public and were not intended to cause offence. The railway say their wartime events are to remember and pay our respects to the railway men and women who fought and lost their lives during WWII, recreating history through re-enactment.

However in their publicity they say:

"Over the three-day event families can hop on board steam and heritage diesel trains and relive the amazing spirit and camaraderie of World War II whilst enjoying various war-themed entertainment . . ."

I take exception to that description. World War II was not "war-themed entertainment" to be "enjoyed". There may well have been "amazing spirit and camaraderie" but there was also fear and real loss of life.

So how to other heritage railways portray these kind of events?

The Severn Valley Railway, in their publicity for their event earlier this year say:

"We turn the clocks back to the 1940s with this light-hearted journey back to wartime Britain."

I somehow don't think the residents of Coventry who survived the bombing on the 14 November 1940 would say it was a time to be light-hearted. The operation that night involved 515 German bombers who intended to destroy the factories of Coventry in a single night. Such an operation could not be achieved without heavily hitting residential areas.

Marker flares were dropped in the first wave, followed by the discharge of high explosive bombs that shook the ancient city. That was followed by wave after wave of incendiary bombs. This created the perfect firestorm. Many of those who died, and there were mercifully few compared to the bombing of Dresden in 1945, were asphyxiated - the lack of oxygen, smoke poisoning and carbon monoxide poisoning.

The Severn Valley Railway's publicity continued:

"With a fantastic selection of daytime attractions up and down the line, get dressed up and join in with the celebrations with costumed re-enactors on our stations and in our trains helping to tell the wartime story!"

Celebration?

Amongst the numerous activities were Big Band Shows featuring 1940's music. But thinking back to Coventry, their line "The night is sure to go out with a bang . . . an air-raid is looming" is in my opinion rather insensitive.

To be fair to the railway, they do acknowledge that ". . . the Severn Valley Railway event is, as always, primarily an event to recall the Home Front atmosphere during World War II and the majority of our re-enactors will be dressed for this period, there will be soldiers in WWI uniform at this commemoration."

What about other heritage railways?

The Mid Hants Railway held their war time event in June.

" Transport yourself back in time to the 1940s, against the backdrop of a Second World War railway, to experience the 'Blitz Spirit'.

"Enjoy unlimited train travel and mingle with civilian and military re-enactors, hop off at each station to explore period displays, music, dancing, vintage vehicles and stalls selling retro wares. 

"Each station provides you with a different experience of life in wartime Britain. Help run the recreated RAF Plotting Room, dance alongside GIs, learn about the ‘Home Front’ and wartime railway manufacturing or have your hair styled for the 40s. There is something different at every station.

"War on the Line is as much about reliving this period as enjoying the rush of the steam engine."

I don't think anyone visiting will experience the 'Blitz Spirit'. I doubt my elderly relatives who survived the blitz in East London will say it was a time of music, dancing with GIs or having your hair styled. It was about surviving the demolition of your home, spending hours in a cramped air raid shelter and mourning lost family and friends. My grandmother took in an 8 year old orphan boy whose mother and siblings died when their home was bombed.

Yes, there was a blitz spirit but one of determination in the face of fear. Can the Mid Hants Railway really recreate that? 

And to say ". . . come along to soak up the atmosphere, War on the Line is a unique way to enjoy a day on the railway."

I would suggest that a line like that is disrespectful to those who survived, not least because they can't recreate the atmosphere.

The Great Central Railway in Loughborough invite you to:

"Thrill to mock battles, live music and theatre- there's more activities than ever before! Dance to the music of time gone by with live acts to entertain you throughout the weekend . . ." 

" Hundreds of re-enactors will bring the stations and trains to life wearing period clothes, giving twenty first century visitors the closest experience to time travel they can get."

It speaks for itself really. However the railway do say that:

"As always, remembrance is at the heart of the event. On Sunday morning there will be a church service and on Sunday afternoon there will be a drumhead service and a 'poppy shower' tribute as we remember."

And then there was the unfortunate event on the Bluebell Railway in May 2009. 

Their War on the Line event in May 2009, included the re-enactment of a summary execution of a German spy at Horsted Keynes station by British soldiers. It would appear for nothing more treasonable than carrying a bottle of beer. The Military Police corporal administered the shot to the back of the head.

I’m sorry? Was that re-enacting the past? 

The definition for re-enactment, according to the Oxford Dictionary is:

noun: reenactment

the acting out of a past event.  As a definition: ‘Historical re-enactment is a type of role-play in which participants attempt to recreate some aspects of a historical event or period’.

This story was picked up by the national press including the Sun and led to quite a debate on social media. Comments on the railwayeye.blogspot.com website include these from people who thought this 're-enactment' was a worthwhile activity:

"I think it was all done in good taste, it certainly makes it more realistic."

"If people get offended by that then maybe we should outlaw all films showing such actions which mean historic footage of WW2 going into the bin etc..."

"I do think this was in good taste as even children understand the concept of war, just that they don't have a concept of how graphic it was. And as for the German tourists etc. well they understand that a war happened between us and them and it was resolved. It's not like they put up a sign saying 'Germans are evil'."

One correspondent thought these World War II events should be renamed '1940's weekend'

"You know, the music, the vintage vehicles, the trains, the posters everywhere, the dress, the 'rationing', air raid precautions, etc. All of that is what makes it a fun event! The military aspect - in my opinion - shouldn't really go further than a few 'home guard' patrols."

Others were not convinced by the event:

"Nostalgia is fine but this stuff is effectively ‘tabloid’ history and demeans those who fought for our freedom 70 years ago".

"What's the preservation movement come to? Summary executions as a form of family entertainment? Thank heaven no railway has a rake of cattle trucks otherwise we might see a 'tasteful' re-enactment of trains to... (deleted for reasons of taste)".

"As for this being 'a lesson to kids' - fantastic: we now have mock summary executions as a form of entertainment for children. It's a travesty of the truth, history and in poor taste."

"The British forces (even the irregulars like the Home Guard) would not have carried out summary executions if they had arrested a suspected spy".

"I find the whole idea of a 'family' event that is centred around the greatest loss of life in history to be idiotic in the extreme. These events should be remembered, yes, but not used as a money spinner for a heritage railway."

"Even though I agree that history should not be forgotten and that mistakes from our past should be remembered simply to learn from - there is a time and place for everything."

"I am certain that if anyone was there with very young kids they would have been outraged. I have a 5 year old and the last thing I would want to take him too is a mock execution. There seems to be a real lack of common sense here. In an age where knife and gun crime is starting to plague our youngsters do we really need to show kids maybe as young as 3 or 4 a 'mock' execution done for entertainment purposes?"

"Unlike certain other world powers at the time, the British were keen to ensure that the unwritten rules of warfare were followed. That's not to say that there weren't regrettable incidents (e.g. Bomber Command's targeting of the German civilian population)."

This last comment is well intended but I am not sure that accurate.

Bomber Command did bomb many residential areas in the Ruhr and other industrial areas of Northern Germany and these were not regrettable but deliberate attempts to destroy the munitions factories to reduce the Nazi's destructive capacity.

Even Dresden was not considered 'regrettable'. Whilst by February 1945 the end of the war was in sight, Bomber Command, under 'Bomber Harris' deliberately set out to destroy a beautiful city with no meaningful industry that contributed to the German war effort. The wisdom of this action is still debated to this day.

Many people see Churchill as the great war hero who stuck to the rules and 'fought for Britain'. But going back to the Coventry bombing of November 1940, there is the strong suspicion that Churchill and the Air Ministry knew in advance about the target and chose to keep it to themselves. The reason being to protect the Bletchley code breakers from German intelligence.

It has been suggested that he took the philosophical stance of utilitarianism, whereby the sacrifice of the few could be sanctioned in the name of the greater good.

With these thoughts in mind, I wonder whether the British were that keen to "ensure the unwritten rules of warfare were followed" or whether pragmatic decisions were taken to ensure victory?

I am not advocating that heritage railways should stop these World Ward II re-enactment events. They can be educational and give a younger generation a glimpse into that period of this country's history. Some railways do turn the spotlight on the war's unsung heroes and tell the story of the drivers and firemen driving trains loaded with hundreds of tons of munitions in black-out conditions through the night.

Many of these railway workers were civilians and their courage should be recognised. We should be telling the story of railwaymen like Benjamin Gimbert and James Nightall. But alas this doesn't make a good show that can attract the punters.

The two world wars are a major part of our history. The Nazi's were particularly brutal and what they did to Jews and other 'undesirable' minorities was sickening and memorials such as the Auschwitz camp in Poland are a permanent reminder.

But that is not to say all Germans in the 1930's or even during World War I were bad or evil. I'm sure you know the story of Shindler's list and the danger this brave German put himself in to help and protect his Jewish workers at his factory. Other Germans had no choice but to join the army.

Well there was a choice - fight for the Nazis or take a bullet in the back of the head.

Against this backdrop of death and destruction on both sides, I do find the World War II events on heritage railways do to a large extent sanitise history.

I will leave the last word with the North Yorkshire Railway. In their guidance notes to re-enactors, they say:

"Please note that we do not allow anyone wearing German uniforms on any of our stations or trains. They are also not welcomed in the towns along the Railway. Please show consideration as we have many original veterans attending the event.

Please remember the reason we have the event is to remember and pay our respects to the railway men and women who fought and lost their lives during WWII, recreating history through re-enactment."

Post script - Benjamin Gimbert and James Nightall

Benjamin Gimbert and James Nightall were driving an ammunition train (June 1944).  As they approached Soham station, Gimbert noticed the wagon behind the engine was on fire. He made Nightall aware of it and stopped the train, but by the time it had come to rest the wagon was enveloped in flames.

Gimbert instructed Nightall to uncouple the rest of the train. Without hesitation, he uncoupled the wagon, knowing full well it contained explosives, and then rejoined the driver on the footplate. The blazing wagon was close to the station building and Gimbert realised it was essential to move it into the open.

He set the engine in motion and as he approached the signal box he shouted to signalman to stop any trains that were due and indicated what he intended to do.

At that moment the bombs in the burning wagon exploded and a massive crater some 20ft deep and 60ft wide was blown in the middle of the railway and all the station buildings were destroyed.

As many as 600 buildings in Soham was damaged. Nightall was killed outright and Gimbert was severely injured. The signalman, Frank Bridges died later from his injuries.

 


AFC Wimbledon - A Celebration
(July 2018)  

As the 2018/19 football season gets under way and England bask in the glory of their progress in the World Cup, there is one story that seems to have missed the mainstream sport press.

AFC Wimbledon. 

The club was set up by supporters of the old Wimbledon FC back in 2002 when their club was moved from SW London to Milton Keynes.

So what have AFC Wimbledon done that merits particular mention. They are currently in League 1 and will play in this league again next season. But the team that was taken to Milton Keynes back in 2002 and had also been in League 1 last season have been relegated to League 2.

For the first time in the history of the club, AFC Wimbledon will be playing in a league above MK Dons. This is particularly satisfying to AFC Wimbledon fans that saw the club start in the low levels of non league football and work their way up to their present position – unlike MK Dons.

So first let’s look at why the old Wimbledon FC moved.

Wimbledon FC was founded in 1889 and was based at Plough Lane from 1912 to 1991. During that time they moved from being a non league to one of the founding members of the FA Premier League.

One memorable success was the 1988 FA Cup Final when they beat the League winners, Liverpool. They were known as the “Crazy Gang” this being down to the boisterous and eccentric behaviour of the players.

In 1991, following the publication of the Taylor Report recommending all-seater grounds for top-flight clubs, Wimbledon left Plough Lane to groundshare with nearby Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.  


Wimbledon FC "at home" at Selhurst Park against Manchester United - August 1996

This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement while Wimbledon sought a new stadium site in south-west London. With no tangible success, the club’s Chairman, Sam Hammam proposed new locations for the team outside London, including Dublin.

In 1997 Hammam sold Wimbledon FC to two Norwegian businessmen, Kjell Inge Røkke and Bjørn Rune Gjelsten and the following year the Plough Lane site was sold for a supermarket redevelopment.

Meanwhile in Buckinghamshire, the Milton Keynes Development Corporation had for a number of years planned a stadium in the town hosting top-flight football and was keen on the idea of an established League team relocating there.

In 2000 a consortium led by Pete Winkelman proposed a large retail development in Milton Keynes including a Football league-standard stadium. Luton, Wimbledon, Barnet, Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers were all approached to consider a move to Milton Keynes.

At Wimbledon, Charles Koppel was appointed chairman and in 2001 announced that the team intended to relocate to Milton Keynes. Koppel said the club would otherwise go out of business.

Such a proposal was unprecedented in English football and the Football League refused permission for the move. Koppel launched an appeal, leading to an FA arbitration hearing and subsequently the appointment of a three-man independent commission. In May 2002 this commission ruled in favour, two to one, for the move.

The League and FA contributions were summarised in the commission’s report as concerns that a relocated club would, in effect, "drive a coach and horses through the pyramid structure", "herald, or risk heralding, a franchise system for football whereby the investors in football could relocate clubs at will" and "dramatically change the defining characteristics of the English domestic game where clubs are identified with the locality or community built up over time"

For its part, Wimbledon's statement centred on the club's precarious financial situation and a claim that its case was unique. It stressed that Wimbledon had lacked its own home stadium for 11 years. Milton Keynes was Wimbledon's "last chance of financial survival".

In their submission, they claimed that Wimbledon's identity—"traditions, history, colours, name, strip, stadium design and the like"—would be preserved in Milton Keynes and supporters from London would be offered subsidised travel and tickets.

After the decision was made – which was to be final and binding, the FA stated that it still strongly opposed the relocation. It emphasised that its recommendation to the commissioners had been against the move. The chief executive of the FA, Adam Crozier, said that he believed the commission to have made an "appalling decision".

A spokesman for Milton Keynes Council said the people of Milton Keynes were looking forward to the team's arrival, stating: "It will be of great benefit to the city. Milton Keynes is becoming a city of sport."

Looking at all the above, firstly Milton Keynes is not a city and the promise of keeping Wimbledon’s identity and offering fans subsidised travel – well that never happened.

Milton Keynes at that time had it’s own football team, Milton Keynes City, a non league team which, with the right support and injection of capital, could have risen through the football pyramid to achieve league status but Pete Winkleman’s consortium preferred to buy a league place rather than develop a home grown team.

Milton Keynes City FC was subsequently wound up.

As the FA said at the time, if a club breaks links with its community and moves to a new community with a new identity and yet won’t relinquish its place in the pyramid such a move would have a fundamental impact on the way football is organised.

So in May 2002 what could fans of Wimbledon FC do?

The birth of AFC Wimbledon

The three man commission in its report said that "resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, 'Wimbledon Town'" would be "not in the wider interests of football.”

So were the fans to trek up the M1 to Milton Keynes? No way!

Following the FA's announcement of their decision, a group of Wimbledon supporters led by Kris Stewart and fellow founding members Marc Jones and Trevor Williams met in The Fox and Grapes pub on Wimbledon Common to plan what was to be done next as part of the protest.

It was agreed that, as there was no right of appeal, the only option was to start the club again from scratch. On 30 May 2002 the idea was put forward in a Wimbledon Independent Supporters' Association meeting to create a new community-based club named AFC Wimbledon and an appeal for funds was launched.

On 13 June 2002, a new manager, a playing strip and badge, based on that of the original Wimbledon FC, and a stadium were unveiled to fans and the media at the packed-out Wimbledon Community Centre.  


Trials on Wimbledon Common in June 2002

In order to assemble a competitive team at very short notice, AFC Wimbledon held player trials on 29 June 2002 on Wimbledon Common, open to any unattached player who felt he was good enough to try out for the team. The event attracted 230 hopeful players, from whom the club's squad for their inaugural season was eventually chosen.

In the 2002–03 season, AFC Wimbledon competed in the Combined Counties League Premier Division under the management of former Wimbledon FC player Terry Eames.

Their first ever game, a pre-season friendly against Sutton United on 10 July 2002, resulted in a 4–0 loss in front of a crowd of 4,657

Their first competitive match in the CCL was away to Sandhurst Town where around 1500 supporters cheered their team to a 2-1 victory.  


Kris Stewart and Ivor Hellor at Sandhurst.

Kevin Cooper scored AFC Wimbledon's second goal against Sandhurst Town.

I’m proud to say I was there – standing on hay bales to get a good view. This venue was very different from Selhurst Park or even Plough Lane and to me demonstrated the delights of non league football.

The demise of Wimbledon FC and the creation of MK Dons

Meanwhile, Wimbledon FC started the season at Selhurst Park due to a lack of a suitable ground in Milton Keynes that met the Football League requirements.

The attendance at Selhurst Park was officially announced as 2,476, including 1,808 from Gillingham. AFC Wimbledon claimed an average crowd of over 3,700 during its first months, while Wimbledon FC attracted less than 3,000, most of whom were followers of visiting teams.

Wimbledon FC's relocation was delayed for over a year and in June 2003 the club went into administration.

Pete Winkelman had not intended to own Wimbledon FC himself. His plan had been to work alongside it while the new stadium was built, and then give the ground to the club in exchange for shares and a place on the board. He had not expected it to go into administration. With the move threatened and the club facing liquidation, he made the decision to take it on himself.

He secured funds from his consortium for the administrators to pay the players' wages, keep the club operating, and pay for the necessary renovations for the National Hockey Stadium to host League football. He made clear that his group's interest was conditional on the club moving to Milton Keynes.

 Pete Winkelman's consortium injected funds to keep it operating and paid for the renovation of the National Hockey Stadium in Milton Keynes, where the team played its first match in September 2003.

Winkelman's Inter MK Group bought the relocated club in 2004 and concurrently changed its name, badge and colours. The team's new ground, Stadium MK, opened three years later.

Meanwhile, Milton Keynes City FC went out of business before the start of the season following an unsuccessful drive for new directors and investors.

The ups and downs of the two clubs

So how have the two teams faired.

AFC Wimbledon had 6 promotions since 2002. 5 of these were over a 9 year period which saw them climb from the lowly Combined Counties League and get into the Football League. 


AFC Wimbledon fans at the playoff final that saw the team promoted to the Football League in 2011.

They have played in League 2 before their final promotion to League 1 after the 2015/16 season.

In contrast, MK Dons had 2 promotions and 3 relegations. They started off in League 1 and now back in League 2

Earlier this year, the MK Dons chairman Pete Winkelman says it has been "an absolutely horrible year" for the club but insists he still has work to do before seeking investment.

Winkelman has led the Dons since they were founded in 2004 and says the club has lost him £3m in the past year.

He told the BBC in an interview that: "To be going backwards, it's terrible and it wasn't supposed to happen. I'll be honest, I am worried - this is absolutely not where we wanted to be, it's not where we can be."

MK Dons chairman Pete Winkelman speaking in April 2018 says the prospect of being relegated from League One is "absolutely horrendous".

He told BBC Three Counties Radio that he wanted "to apologise to our supporters and the city of Milton Keynes - this is not what we expect.

"I thought going down from the Championship was bad. To be in this position is just unthinkable. None of us planned or expected. It is probably the worst ever thing that has happened."

Plough Lane

Meanwhile what of the spiritual home of Wimbledon - Plough Lane?

The old stadium was demolished and is now the site for a housing complex.  

The site of the old Plough Lane ground.

In December 2017, AFC Wimbledon was granted permission to begin work on constructing a new 11,000-seater stadium (which could be expanded to hold up to 20,000 in the future) on the site of Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium. The new ground will be only 250 yards away from the original Plough Lane, Wimbledon's home from 1912 until 1991.  

The moral of the story

After the decision by the commission to allow Wimbledon FC to relocate, the Football Association changed their rules to ensure such a situation does not happen in the future.

MK Dons could have supported MK City (which was subsequently closed), but instead bought a club and a league place. Did MK Dons earn their place in the Football League? Many would argue not.

Unlike AFC Wimbledon who earned their place in the League 1 after starting in level 9 of the football pyramid.

And that is why AFC Wimbledon fans have a smile on their faces.

 

Paul Simon Feature
(Tuesday 13 February)

Musician Paul Simon has recently announced that he is giving up live touring. His farewell tour - "Homeward Bound" will end in London in July. Philip Grant has made this feature looking back at his career.

 


Is automation taking the pleasure out of shopping?
(Tuesday 24 January 2018)

That is, of course, if you find shopping a "pleasure" - which I don't.

I welcome the march of automation and I must admit I welcome the news that a checkout designed to scan an entire basket or trolley’s worth of shopping in one go, is being tested in a store in North London.

The centre piece of IBM’s shop of the future are the self-service checkouts. The technology allows large numbers of items to be scanned at once. It does this as each shopping item has a tiny “radio frequency identification” chip embedded in it. This system could make the traditional barcodes obsolete as the chip contains much more information.

The customer places their items on a scanning platform, which displays the full list on a screen. They open a smartphone app and tap the device on a reader to deduct payment from an account linked to a card app, such as Apple Pay or Android Pay, and are then emailed a receipt.

(See the London Evening Standard review here)

Fantastic!

This trial comes as Amazon opens its first supermarket without checkouts whether human operated or self-service.

Amazon Go, as it's called, has been tested by staff for the past year in Seattle.

It uses an array of ceiling-mounted cameras to identify each customer and track what items they select, eliminating the need for billing. Before entering, shoppers must scan the Amazon Go smartphone app. Sensors on the shelves add items to the bill as customers pick them up - and deletes any they put back. Purchases are billed to customers' credit cards when they leave the store.

This makes the dreaded supermarket queue a thing of the past and will no doubt give any retailer a huge advantage over its competitors.

I think these are great advances with technology. It means I can buy my pint of milk or loaf of bread without having to speak to a human - something I don't want to do when I'm in a hurry.

However research has shown that automated checkout machines put off about a quarter of older people from going shopping.

According to the charity Anchor, older people find the automated checkouts intimidating and unfriendly. They say that without someone to talk to at the tills, shopping can be a miserable experience for some people.

The British Retail Consortium said it was important for shops to be welcoming for everyone and warned that automated checkouts could add to loneliness and isolation among the elderly.

Mario Ambrosi, a spokesman from Anchor said, "There was a time when people knew their shopkeepers and could pass the time of day. You can't do that with a machine."

A study by the charity suggests 24% of older people are deterred from shopping by automated checkouts. It means they can have gone shopping without having said 'hello' to a single person - and that, according to Mr Ambrosi, can be quite a miserable experience.

Also this week fears that robots could take the jobs of humans may be premature after Britain’s first cyborg shop assistant was sacked after a week of confusing customers.

In an experiment run by Heriot-Watt University, the Scottish supermarket chain Margiotta was asked to trial ‘ShopBot’, who they affectionately named ‘Fabio’. Fabio was programmed with directions to hundreds of items in the company’s Edinburgh store and initially charmed customers with his ‘hello gorgeous’ greeting, playful high fives, jokes and offers of hugs.

But within just a few days, the robot was demoted after giving unhelpful advice such as ‘it’s in the alcohol section’ when asked where to find beer. Banished to an aisle where he was only allowed to offer samples of pulled pork, Fabio started to alarm customers who went out of their way to avoid him.

While human staff managed to tempt 12 customers to try the meat every 15 minutes, Fabio only managed two.

The supermarket owner, Luisa Margiotta, soon realised the robot was actually putting off shoppers. Ironically, when they packed up Fabio to send it back to the lab, some staff were reduced to tears! Dr Oliver Lemon, director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt, admits he was surprised by the reaction his invention got. He admitted that one of the things they didn't expect was the people working in the shop becoming quite attached to it.

So will robots replace shop workers in the future? Luisa Margiotta was sceptical. She said: “We find our customers love a personal interaction and speaking to our staff is a big part of that.

“Our staff members know our regulars very well and can have conversations on a daily a basis, and I doubt robots would be able to fulfil this."

One comment I saw on twitter suggested that staff at their local corner shop were willing to chat, have a laugh and a joke and talk about things with the customer and whilst prices were a bit more than at a supermarket, the experience is far better and it makes life a little more fun.


That may be true for some but sometimes when all you want is a pint of milk, you don't want a conversation.

If I want a conversation, I'll go down to my local.

Now I will admit I do fall in the "older person" bracket. I have my bus pass. But I get so frustrated standing in a check out queue wasting time waiting for dithering pensioners idly gossiping, loading their shopping into their bags before fumbling for a purse and counting out their cash. And when they have paid they still carry on chatting to the checkout attendant.

Now I may be accused of being a miserable old sod but I say thank goodness for self service technology!

But what is the answer?

Most of us work for a living and only get an hour for lunch or a couple of days off a week, I would suggest that supermarkets offer a 5% discount on items bought by pensioners, or those who want a chat, between 9:30 and 11:30 on weekday mornings.

And what about checkout aisles specifically for those who want to stop and chat? A kind of slow lane?

My compromise is to have three types of checkouts. The self service for those in a hurry and are only buying a couple of items. An attended checkout for those with a larger shop but still limited with time and a "slow" checkout for those who want to "have a chat".

I know which one I would use.

What do you think? Give us your thoughts on our facebook page.  


 


Rail Fare Rises - Should the Railways be Renationalised?
(Tuesday 2 January 2018)

Average rail ticket prices have risen by 3.4% across the UK. This is the largest increase to fares since 2013.

Commuters say they are being priced out of getting to work. The Department for Transport said price rises were capped in line with inflation. Fare increases to regulated fares are calculated using the previous July's Retail Prices Index (RPI) measure of inflation. Around half of all tickets fall under this category.

Paul Plummer, chief executive of industry trade body the Rail Delivery Group, said the fare changes would provide cash for better services and investment. Figures released by the Rail Delivery Group suggest that for every pound paid in fares, 97p goes directly back to operating and improving services.

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, accused the government of choosing to ignore rail passengers, while fuel duty continued to be frozen. He asks that there be a level playing field.

Meanwhile the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) said the need for public ownership of the railways had "never been more popular or necessary".

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said it was investing in the biggest modernisation of our railways since the Victorian times. One example is the major rebuilding of London Bridge station which was fully reopened on the 2 January.

So is nationalisation the answer?

Britain's rail network was first nationalised in 1948 and privatised again in 1993. The Labour Party says our railways have become inefficient and expensive. They want to see a return to public ownership.

Labour's pledge appears to resonate with the public. Two years ago, a YouGov poll suggested half of voters would prefer trains to be run by the public sector.

So do we want to go back to the days of British Rail?

As a nationalised industry, they were under funded and inefficient and lacked innovation.

Overcrowding on many routes has become a problem, but this is largely down to Victorian infrastructure rather than any fault of the private operators. If British Rail was around now it would be facing exactly the same problems.

Since privatisation Train Operating Companies have developed services and been far more innovative than the old British Rail. This zeal of innovation on the railways has not been seen since the Twenties and Thirties when the “Big Four” train companies competed for passengers. This new innovation has helped deliver a doubling in the annual number of passenger journeys since the early Nineties.  

The number of passenger journeys have increased from 735 million in 1994-95 to 1.7 billion in 2015-16 (source: Office of Rail and Road). That is as high as the 1950's. Would this have happened under British Rail? And if so how would they have responded?

Punctuality is at a record high and Britain can now boast the safest railways in Europe. BR’s safety record was lamentable and regional routes were often ignored and suffered chronic under investment. It is also worth remembering that fares rose at an alarming rate under BR; it was not unusual for them to rise by 5pc or 6pc a year. Under privatisation fare rises have been pegged at less than inflation.

And what about private investment? Private companies invested a total of £925 million in Britain’s rail network in 2016-17, the highest figure recorded since the Office of Rail and Road’s data series began in 2006-07. Of this figure, £767m was spent on rolling stock.

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