Sunday, January 31, 2016

The haunted pint.


I had an old school friend come and stay at Pewty Acres last weekend; whilst he was here, he was keen to see around Erith, as he had not visited the town in some years - he now lives down in the West Country. I was keen to see what his opinion of the town nowadays was, as we seem to get so many negative opinions on local websites such as the News Shopper (not that the journalists say anything negative, but the comments left on the talkback pages tend to be negative, if not sometimes downright insulting). I am pleased to say that my friend Steve was impressed at how Erith had improved since his last visit in 2008, although he did note the number of still vacant and unlet shop units in Erith Riverside Shopping Centre. Overall he could see that the town is improving in many ways - not least since the construction and opening of the new Bexley College campus adjacent to Erith Station and the fish roundabout. He also observed how lucky local residents are to have access to the River Thames via the excellent Riverside Gardens and Erith Pier. I took the photo of the tugs moored on Erith Pier a little while ago - click on the photo to see a larger version; it would be great to see more people going for a walk, or just sitting on one of the park benches and enjoying the view once the weather improves. As I have said before, Erith is almost unique in being the only place in the area where you can see an unobstructed view from horizon to horizon. I call it "the Erith big sky". Whilst Steve was visiting, I organised a small get together of fellow school friends; we met for a quiet drink and a chat at the Royal Standard pub in Nuxley Road, Upper Belvedere. The pub has an excellent conservatory at the back, and the group sat at a table there. One of my friends bought me a pint of Young's bitter (one of my favourite "bog standard" real ales) and placed it on the table. As we chatted, seemingly all on its own, the full pint glass started sliding across the table and dropped to the floor, spilling beer down my trousers and into my shoes. Fortunately the glass itself did not break. A replacement pint was sourced - and the landlady gave it free, saying that the pub was well known to be haunted by a ghost, and that the ghost must take the blame. Since I got a free replacement drink, I was not going to argue. What I did note was that the wooden table top we sat at was recently varnished and had also been polished, possibly earlier that evening, and that the pint glass had a flat and smooth bottom that was wet with a little spilt beer. The actions of the "ghost" was actually physics. The table top was inclined at a very slight angle, and the spilled beer formed a thin, frictionless layer between the underside of the glass and the waxed table. The glass actually aquaplaned over the table and onto the floor. Science works whether you believe in it or not. 

For such a significant part that the local area had in recent history, it is quite surprising how little seems to have been recorded; why I don’t know, but the pivotal role that Belvedere, Erith and Slade Green paid in World War 2 seems to have been largely overlooked by anyone outside of the area. Respected historians like Ken Chamberlain are full of knowledge from that period, but when compared to the level of recognition other outer London boroughs get, we seem to draw the short straw. As I have written in the past, Erith and Crayford were the home of Vickers Limited, who had factories in both locations which made a whole range of armaments and ammunition, principally the Vickers Machine Gun – which was an easier to produce, lighter and cheaper version of the original Maxim Gun, invented by Sir Hiram Maxim. The Vickers machine gun or Vickers gun is a name primarily used to refer to the water-cooled .303 British (7.7 mm) machine gun produced by Vickers Limited, originally for the British Army. The machine gun typically required a six to eight-man team to operate: one fired, one fed the ammunition, the rest helped to carry the weapon, its ammunition and spare parts. It was in service from before the First World War until the 1960s, with air-cooled versions of it on many Allied World War I fighter aircraft. The weapon had a reputation for great solidity and reliability. Ian V. Hogg, in Weapons and War Machines, describes an action that took place in August 1916, during which the British 100th Company of the Machine Gun Corps fired their ten Vickers guns continuously for twelve hours. Using 100 barrels, they fired a million rounds without a failure. "It was this absolute fool proof reliability which endeared the Vickers to every British soldier who ever fired one.” The Vickers machine gun was based on the successful Maxim gun of the late 19th century. After purchasing the Maxim company outright in 1896, Vickers took the design of the Maxim gun and improved it, reducing its weight by lightening and simplifying the action and substituting components made with high strength alloys. A muzzle booster was also added. The British Army formally adopted the Vickers gun as its standard machine gun on 26 November 1912, using it alongside their existing Maxims. There were still great shortages when the First World War began, and the British Expeditionary Force was still equipped with Maxims when sent to France in 1914. Vickers was, in fact, threatened with prosecution for war profiteering, due to the exorbitant price it was demanding for each gun. As a result, the price was slashed. As the war progressed, and numbers increased, it became the British Army's primary machine gun, and served on all fronts during the conflict. When the Lewis Gun was adopted as a light machine gun and issued to infantry units, the Vickers guns were redefined as heavy machine guns, withdrawn from infantry units, and grouped in the hands of the new Machine Gun Corps (when heavier 0.5 in/12.7 mm calibre machine guns appeared, the tripod-mounted, rifle-calibre machine guns like the Vickers became medium machine guns). After the First World War, the Machine Gun Corps (MGC) was disbanded and the Vickers returned to infantry units. Before the Second World War, there were plans to replace the Vickers gun.  However, the Vickers remained in service with the British Army until 30 March 1968. Hundreds of thousands of these guns were manufactured in Erith and Crayford over several decades, and during both World Wars, this meant that the towns were legitimate wartime bombing targets. Bombing in World War two was especially bad; a letter sent from a lady in Berkhampstead Road, Upper Belvedere during 1941 has been published on several websites in the past. The letter, written by a lady called Phylis to an unknown relative called Harry reads:- "I was unable to finish off your letter on Saturday owing to a very heavy raid. I cannot stop now to write much but this will let you know we are alright. We had several landmines in Belvedere, one in Albert Road or rather a little turning off there behind the dairy, four persons were killed in the Busy Bee. I expect there are more deaths but we have not heard yet. One on Calendars no one was killed, and one in Lessness Park, Just the other side of Maycocks garden wall. This did considerable amount of damage to all the houses around. That is why I have been unable to write and get the parcel off before this. I have been cleaning up the mess. I'll let you know more details later. I have to write this letter as the typewriter was more or less bombed. I hope to be able to repair it later. We are the only inhabitants left in Berkhampstead Road. The other houses being more damaged than ours. We have been cleaning ceilings up since 5.30am Sunday. This afternoon we are going over to have a cup of tea with Gladys and a bath. A bath is quite out of the question at Tower House as the bath is full up with ceiling. All day yesterday and today we have been hearing noises like bombs. They are pulling down houses. Burndepts is burnt right down. Belvedere Station is to be pulled down. Dr Barr had a fire in his place. Dad & I have been getting some of the stones off the lawn. Dad had only just cut and rolled the lawn on Saturday. The cars are alright although there is a nasty dent in the back of the roof of ours. The garage looks a mess. 14 ceilings are down, all windows out and all doors from the back of the house. Several inside doors are off and just splintered to nothing. Fortunately I had packed all the china and we had packed almost all the ornaments too. The silver and pewter I have packed away too and your lady. We didn't know where to start cleaning up, but are gradually getting down to it.  I'll write again soon as I can. We are quite alright and there is no need to worry. We sleep in the cellar and have our meals in the kitchen. We are hoping they will come and do the roof soon. Tower House stood up to it very well on Saturday night. Dad sends his love and says we are still holding the Fort (what's left of it). I must close here as I have lots to do before we go out this afternoon. I hope you are quite alright".

Following my recent article explaining why the government announcement that there were "no safe levels" of alcohol drinking was completely misleading and incorrect, another very extremely reputable organisation have come to refute this statement, which was made mainly at the behest of prohibitionists and anti-alcohol campaigners. The heads of Britain’s statistics society have written to the Health Secretary to point out that the government’s alcohol guidelines don’t accurately reflect the numbers. Two weeks ago the British civil servant at the Department of Health responsible for issuing medical advice (who rejoices in the corporate-inspired title of “Chief Medical Officer”), Dame Sally Davies, declared that there was “no safe level” of alcohol drinking. This followed a report produced for her by an “expert group” which contradicts evidence that teetotallers are at higher risk than moderate drinkers, and drinking after middle age correlates with a substantially lower level of risk of heart disease and strokes. Drinkers live longer. Professors Peter Diggle and Sir David Spiegelhalter – the current and next presidents of the Royal Statistical Society – say the report was unbalanced (a nice way of not saying “biased”) and that the bureaucrat’s claims don’t reflect the evidence available to the government’s working group on safe alcohol levels. The report recommend an upper limit of 14 units per week for both adult men and women, and then included the much-derided “no safe limits” observation.  In their letter to Health Minister Jeremy Hunt, the two statistics professors argue that the derision which greeted Hawkins report will make more pressing public health campaigns less credible. Once the public has ignored Hawkins crying wolf over alcohol they may be inclined to ignore the others, too. They add that Hawkins’ group contradicts the principle that the public deserves an “informed choice”. Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk in the Statistical Laboratory at Cambridge University, had already commented on the relative “dangers” of alcohol. An hour of TV watching a day, or a bacon sandwich a couple of times a week, is more dangerous to your long-term health,” he noted.

BARC (Bexley Against Road Crossings) have been  extensively featured in the News Shopper this week; regular Maggot Sandwich readers will know that I have featured the group on a couple of occasions in the past. Unlike BARC, I have a fairly neutral view on the proposed new river crossings over or under the River Thames. I can see positive arguments on both sides of the issue. A lively debate on the subject of transport and congestion has been under way on the News Shopper talkback page here. I think both sides miss several important observations. Firstly, the argument that elderly people don’t always have access to the web, and may thus be left out of any representations regarding the choice of river crossing is to my mind spurious. Those aged 70+ now may sadly well not be around in 2025 when development of whatever solution is selected, and if they are, many very elderly people don’t travel much – though their opinions and feedback should most definitely be taken into account. Secondly, the oft – quoted issue of air pollution is also worth examining. By the time any cross river solution is put in place, the numbers of zero emission vehicles in public use will have bloomed – the hydrocarbon internal combustion engine is in its last decade in my opinion. By the time any crossing is open and in use, a majority of cars and lorries will run on batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. Using present day arguments for future developments seems to me like fighting last decade’s war. I think a rational look at the whole Cross Thames  transport system needs to be undertaken – the trouble is, the area is full of people with vested interests and their own agendas, which turns the whole thing into an adversarial contest, which in my opinion does nobody any good. What do you think? Leave a comment below, or Email me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.




The Barge Pole pub in Coraline Walk in Thamesmead has had its alcohol licence suspended by Bexley Magistrates this week; I understand that the pub was the location of a large drunken fight in the early hours of the 1st January during some News Year celebrations that got well out of hand.  To anyone that knows the pub, it is a revelation that it has taken so long to do something about the place, which on the one occasion many years ago that I took my life in my hands and ventured inside, resembled the Cantina in Mos Eisley – “you will not find a greater hive of scum and villainy”. It really is a dump, full of the kind of people you would cross the road to avoid; one of the main qualifications for entry seems to be the sporting of facial tattoos of varying levels of repulsiveness. The only vaguely positive contribution to culture the Barge Pole has ever made was back in 2009, when it was used as the location for the filming of the Kaiser Chiefs video for "Never miss a beat"I am a strong supporter of the preservation of local pubs, but I most definitely make an exception in the case of the aptly named Barge Pole, which in my opinion ought to be nuked from space – it is the only way to be sure. 

Erith has been in the national news twice again this week; first because of the news that Arthur Simpson – Kent, the suspected murderer of former EastEnders actress Sian Blake and her two sons aged eight and four and is alleged to have buried them in the garden of 54 Pembroke Road, Erith, is due back in the UK to face charges and trial. Normally I don’t mention stories that have a national coverage, as there is little I can add to the “professional” reporters who cover the news; in this instance the extremely high profile nature of this case, and the international press interest the murders have attracted. If this horrible case was not enough, the news this week that an Erith resident has been jailed for nineteen years and six months for a string of horrendous paedophile offences. Trevor Monk, 47, from Erith, travelled to the Far East with the sole purpose of abusing children and kept thousands of indecent pictures and videos on his computer, including mementos from his trip. Sentencing him for a total of 18 offences at the Old Bailey, Judge Anuja Dhir QC told Monk that the consequences of child abuse of this kind “wrecks lives”. She said: “I have no doubt from the material I have seen today you had a perverted fascination with young females and that is what led you to behave in this abhorrent manner. Your actions were depraved and revolting. It is astonishing that anyone would want to film such abuse, but you did. I have no doubt you did so that you could watch it again for your own sexual gratification.” An examination of computers, external hard drives and memory cards found at Monk’s home revealed tens of thousands of indecent images and videos of children, and evidence that he had himself molested young girls in the Philippines. Just one of the computers contained evidence of more than 43,000 indecent images of children. Thankfully the judge and jury saw fit to put the criminal away for a decent length of time; even if he serves only half of his time inside, he will be away for around ten years, and the life of a sex offender in prison is never an easy one. I am led to believe the derogatory term Nonce comes from the acronym “Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise”. At least he is safely locked up for a considerable length of time.  What is also of concern is that two nationally publicised high profile criminals are being associated with Erith, just as the town is starting to improve its image. Locals know of all the good things and progress that has been made over the last decade or so, but outsiders do tend to hold onto outdated views about the town and the people who live there (you only have to look at wording of some of the talkbacks on the News Shopper website – okay, most of the comments are made by trolls that are trying to initiate an argument, but nevertheless if you repeat a lie often enough, some people will take it as fact – an observation originally made by Heinrich Himmler). 


The letter above has been sent to many Erith, Slade Green and Crayford residents - click on the image for a larger view. Suffice to say the traffic into and around Erith is going to be severely affected over the period of the roadworks. The town suffers greatly from traffic congestion at the best of times; it will be interesting to see if the changes to the road and roundabout layout will improve things. Many locals suspect not. More on this story in the future. If you have an insight into this issue, please contact me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.

It has been known for over a year that the Peabody Trust, which controls large parts of Thamesmead, has had plans drawn up to try and move the town upmarket. Since the mid-seventies Thamesmead has had an unfortunate image problem as being a giant sink estate full of problem families, anti-social behaviour and crime. Whilst there are definitely problems of this nature in the town, a vast majority of residents are peaceful and law abiding, but the image has stuck for decades. I recall back in 1989, as Belmarsh Prison was being built, a common joke was “why bother building Belmarsh – just build a great big wall around Thamesmead!” Now Peabody are working to move the outdated image of Thamesmead upmarket. They have promised to build 1,300 new dwellings, and create a "temporary high street" at Harrow Manor Way with shops, food and drink outlets. There will also be affordable workspaces and facilities for local businesses, artists and community groups – following a £1m regeneration fund from the Mayor of London. Peabody's plans are being developed with partners including Bexley Council and the Thames Innovation Centre. In an interview with the News Shopper, Peabody Chief Executive Stephen Howlett said: "We want to create a thriving district close to the station which will provide commercial, social and leisure opportunities for residents in Abbey Wood and South Thamesmead. We hope the new mobile high street will provide a platform for local people, harnessing their talent and innovation. These are exciting times for everyone associated with Thamesmead which is fast becoming an even greater place to live, work and visit." This all sounds good; as long as a substantial part of the new development is truly affordable, and not just aimed at property banking investors in the Far East, as was notoriously the case with the tower block recently constructed close to Abbey Wood station which made the national news when it was advertised as having “no social housing” as a bonus attraction to wealthy investors. I feel that this story will develop over the coming months. 


This week guest writer and local resident Alec Tapper has much to say on the proposed (and now approved) housing development on the site of the former Erith Riverside Swimming Baths site. An artist's impression of the development is shown above. Here is his piece:- "Whilst it is very good news to learn that the Mayor of London's London regeneration Fund has allocated just under £2m which is to be matched by the council to provide £3.9m of investment in Erith. It is understood that this finance will be for major improvements to key areas of the town particularly between the Town Hall and the Post Office. It is also designed to re-energise the area an improve training and job opportunities for local residence. We also understand complementary bids have been made for two further funds managed by the Mayor of London  and we will learn of these in the next few weeks. For a number of residents this will be promising news but there are concerns with many residents over the density of developments being proposed for many sites both large and small in Central Erith. A major development such as that on the former Riverside Swimming Pool Site has plans to build some 81 flats and 10 to12 houses to the rear. This development does not recognise that this is a preservation area alongside the River Thames. This site along with a number of other smaller sites are earmarked for even more dense developments. Erith already has more flats than any other ward in the borough and it seems that this pressurized development has the potential to create new problems for Erith in the future. Open spaces are critical to the wellbeing of communities. This proposal brings its frontage hard up against the pavement of the Erith High street up to the Running Horses, which lays back from this harsh development line. This tight development policy with inadequate parking spaces, play areas for children and inadequate work opportunities will militate against harmonious living and reduce any sense of wellbeing for those living in such a packed and intensive manner. The tenants these kind of developments will attract are most unlikely to be from professional, commercial and entrepreneurial background. This in turn will be reflected in a failure to grow Erith's economy. Numerous shops, restaurants and businesses will continue to fail to be convinced by the uptake of people in this density developments who are likely to be open to semi-skilled or unskilled work. Erith is one of the most deprived areas in Bexley and the fear is, it will continue in the same vein. Unfortunately, it seems that Bexley adopts very different policies for developments across the Borough whilst the policy for Erith, North end and Thamesmead East are targeted for density infilling, wards like Longlands, Blackfen and Lamorbey, Blendon and Penhill and Cray meadows with reducing populations are preserved from any innovation for housing developments. Similar examples like Surbiton, Thames Ditton, and Woking in Surrey do effectively increase housing within existing developments. Indeed there are some long term residents that indicate consideration should be given to the wards earmarked from dense developments to be separated entirely and form a  separate District Council.  Clearly a case of sauce for the Goose isn't sauce for the Gander". Some very thought provoking observations. If you have another view, please feel free to drop me a line with an article of your own. 

If you look back at the now very extensive archive of old Maggot Sandwich updates, and visit some of the entries over the last nine and a half years that I have been running the blog (under the "About Me" panel at the top right of the screen) you will see a box marked "Blog Archive" - if you click on the dropdown button, you can see a list of the well over five hundred weekly entries that I have made - select and click on any of these to see old, historical content). You will notice on some entries that photos just show placeholders, or embedded YouTube videos no longer play. This is caused by a phenomenon called "Link Rot"There are lots of reasons for link rot: websites are restructured or shifted to a new content management system and break all the previous URLs; articles get moved behind a paywall; people delete social media accounts or change their privacy settings; or links contain information that goes out of date, or YouTube videos are taken down due to copyright violations. A piece of software called "Amber" has been created to stop this from happening. Amber has been designed by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and it provides what it calls a "persistent route" to information on the internet by automatically taking and retaining a snapshot of every page on a website and storing it on the same website's server. If for whatever reason a URL goes dead, rather than returning a 404 error page, the tool should provide visitors with the relevant snapshot. The snapshots are stored on the same server as the website but can be configured to save them on third-party systems or in archival systems. All very clever stuff, but no good to me at present, as at the time of writing, the platform which hosts the Maggot Sandwich does not support Amber - maybe in time; it would be a very powerful tool to have access to.

The end video this week explores the inconsistencies and loopholes in London's Oyster travel card system. Personally I find that the old fashioned monthly travel card works very well for me. See what you think, and feel free to leave a comment below, or Email me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.