Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Kentish Belle.


The photo above (click on it for a larger version) shows the former Port of London Authority hut next to the recently repaired wooden jetty adjacent to Erith Riverside Gardens. As regular readers will be aware, I have been calling for this to be put to some constructive use for several years. The hut has been empty and unused for over a decade. It has drainage, running fresh water and electricity, and I had suggested that it would make an ideal substation for the RNLI. My suggestions have not been taken up, but the hut has recently come back into productive use. The hut is now used as a rest point for local bus drivers between shifts. They use the hut to put their feet up and have a cup of tea during their legally required rest breaks. It is not quite the outcome that I had anticipated, but the hut is being used, which to my mind is a very good thing. I also noticed that the new mini bushes have now been planted in the Riverside Gardens, and these will hopefully look really good in a few months’ time. I do have concerns that the bushes may suffer due to the recent lack of rain. Hopefully they will get watered from time to time. FORGE (the Friends of Riverside Gardens Erith) have been instrumental in obtaining and planting the new bushes.

Yesterday morning there was a very serious assault that took place at the junction of Bilton Road and Manor Road in Erith; a man was stabbed in the head, and suffered life threatening injuries. Details of the case are still sketchy, but the London Air Ambulance was called to take the victim to hospital, and a man in his thirties was arrested by the Police. I understand that he was found in possession of a knife, and has been charged with GBH. Anyone who witnessed the incident or has any information is asked to contact police on 101 or via Twitter @MetCC Alternatively, Crimestoppers can be contacted anonymously on 0800 555 111.

The Association of Bexley Charities '78 is holding a Spring Fair at the United Reformed Church, Geddes Place, Bexleyheath DA6 7DJ (near the Broadway Shopping Centre) on Saturday 29th April 2017 from 9.45 am  - 1.00 pm. Do give this worthwhile event your support.

Press reports in the last week have given weight to my long held personal concerns over the use of mobile phones, and their possible long - term health effects. An Italian court has ruled that excessive, work-related use of a mobile phone caused an executive to develop a benign brain tumour. In what could become a landmark ruling, the court in the northern town of Ivrea awarded the plaintiff a state-funded pension. The judgment, which was handed down on 11th of April but only made public on Thursday, is subject to a possible appeal. Roberto Romeo, 57, had testified that his work duties obliged him to use his mobile for three to four hours of each working day for 15 years. “For the first time in the world, a court has recognised a causal link between inappropriate use of a mobile phone and a brain tumour,” his lawyers said in a statement. Romeo said he did not want to demonise mobiles, “but I believe we have to be more aware about how to use them. I had no choice but to use my mobile to talk to colleagues and organise work – for 15 years I was calling all the time, from home, in the car. I started to have the feeling of my right ear being blocked all the time and the tumour was diagnosed in 2010. Happily, it was benign but I can no longer hear anything because they had to remove my acoustic nerve.” A medical expert estimated the damage to Romeo at 23 percent of his bodily function, prompting the judge to make a compensation award of €500 per month to be paid by a national insurance scheme covering workplace accidents. It will be interesting to see if this sets a precedent.


You may recall that some months ago I reported that it was hoped that a micro pub was being planned for Barnehurst, but due to a number of factors, the plans ended up falling through. Well, now there is some good news; whilst the Barnehurst deal failed, another entrepreneur is currently transforming the shop at number 8, Pickford Lane, Bexleyheath into a micro pub which will open in June. It is going to be called The Kentish Belle, due at least partly to its close proximity to Bexleyheath Station, which is only seventy five metres from the venue. You can see the Twitter account for the forthcoming micro pub here. When looking at the location of the micro pub, some observers may think that the William Camden pub very close by would mean that the new venture would struggle to attract customers. I feel strongly that this will absolutely not be the case. The two places cater for very different customers; the William Camden is primarily a lager and football pub, whereas The Kentish Belle will cater for discerning real ale enthusiasts. Experience in other areas shows that micro pubs not only survive, but in fact thrive in the presence of mainstream pubs in their vicinity. The Kentish Belle also will benefit from a large foot fall from passing commuters getting off the train at Bexleyheath Station on their way home. I would imagine a number would pop in for a swift pint before their dinner. I will be visiting The Kentish Belle as soon as it opens, and I will be contacting the owners in the meantime; more on this subject in the coming weeks. It is just as well that a new micro pub is opening in the local area, as news was released this week that the number of pubs in London has fallen by more than a quarter because of developers and rising business rates, according to City Hall research. In total the number of pubs in the capital decreased from 4,835 to 3,615 between 2001 and 2016, a decline of 1,220 at a rate of 81 pubs a year. Mayor Sadiq Khan commissioned the research as part of his 2030 Cultural Infrastructure Plan to identify which buildings and businesses should be protected to maintain the capital’s cultural and community life. The study was conducted in partnership with the Campaign for Real Ale and looked only at pubs, as opposed to bars and restaurants. The study is to become an annual audit. In an interview with the London Evening Standard this week, Mayor Mr Khan said: “I’m shocked at the rate of closure highlighted by these statistics. We have partnered with CAMRA to ensure we can track the number of pubs open in the capital and redouble our efforts to stem the rate of closures.”

Many people like tablet computers such as the Apple iPad range; personally for any small and portable computing device, I really need a keyboard. Tablet devices are fine for consuming content, such as watching YouTube videos, but less than satisfactory for creating content, such as writing a Blog. Back in 2012 I experimented with what was then a very new technology; Google had recently announced their range of Chrome OS devices, not to be confused with tablets and mobile phones running the similar, but separate Android operating system, also developed by engineers at Google. I have been surprisingly satisfied with it. If you have not heard about Chromebooks, they are a cut down laptop that runs Googles’ Chrome operating system (basically a customised version of Linux) and the Chrome web browser. Chromebooks don’t directly run any software other than the browser, which might make them sound rather restricted. Nowadays however, most people spend a vast majority of their time using a computer on the web – Email, social networking, video watching etc, so a browser only machine is not as stupid an approach as initially thought. The upsides of a Chromebook are 1) very fast start time (my £229 Chromebook starts from cold in seven seconds; half the time of my custom build, very high end iMac, which cost well over ten times as much). 2) They have a very long battery life – eight hours between charges, even with WiFi on and showing HD video. 3) They integrate seamlessly with GMail, Google Docs and other online services (they should  - that is what they were designed for). 4) They are pretty secure – all updates occur automatically in the background. I suppose I have to reboot the machine once a month – that’s it. 5) Unlike a tablet, you don’t need to tether a Bluetooth keyboard to it in order to do some serious typing – and the keyboard (on the Samsung model, anyway) is actually rather good – something that is very important to someone like me who writes around 6,000 words a week online, over half of that on the blog). 6) They are cheap – you can get some models for under two hundred pounds, brand new on Amazon and elsewhere. Chromebooks won’t replace the full computer, but they are great as a second machine on which to surf the web, catch up on Emails and generally keep up with the online world. Something that has happened in the USA, and will almost certainly also happen here. The late 2013 introduction of the low-cost Chromebook has given U.S school districts an affordable alternative that they are gravitating to with enthusiasm. Official numbers from market research firm IDC confirmed the news last December when the company announced that while Apple had shipped 702,000 iPads to U.S educational buyers in the third quarter, Google partners had shipped 715,000 Chromebooks. They are cheaper, more robust, easier to remotely administer, and are better suited to use in classrooms. I wonder how long it will be until we see widespread use of Chromebooks in British schools? And now onto another computer related subject, but one that is far older. 


One of my favoured sources of accurate and up to date information on IT and technical related issues is the excellent website – The Register. Stories that get into the general press usually break on The Register at least a day earlier, and in greater detail. The site is very tongue in cheek, and often finds a humorous angle on technology issues. It broke a story recently that caught my attention; an employment agency are looking for programmers who have skills in writing and maintaining software for the DEC PDP-11 series of mini computers. What is so unusual about that? I hear some of you ask. Well, the PDP 11 computer range was first introduced in 1970, and went out of general production in 1990. The machines were large – even a relatively small installation would be the equivalent of three or four full height fridge freezers, plus a terminal the size of a small school desk. By any modern standards they are museum pieces – indeed, The National Museum of Computing does have some examples of PDP hardware in its collection. When they were first offered for sale, they offered a relatively cheap and reliable entry into business and industrial computing; indeed many PDP 11’s were used to control machine tools in factories – some of the early car welding robots were controlled in this way. Other key users were (and in some cases still are) large banks and insurance companies, who require reliability and very high up time over performance and the latest features. Quite often the old computers such as the PDP 11 range are still employed on the “back end” systems that the customers (and indeed many of the staff) never see. Many of such organisations are exceptionally risk averse, and would rather support an ancient technology than take a chance on upgrading to a modern alternative that may have new and undocumented bugs, possibly causing loss of earnings and damage to reputation. I know that there are a small handful of independent contractors who earn a very good living continuing to support these old clunkers – because the knowledge required to maintain and repair the hardware and software is so specialised, they are able to charge pretty much what they like for their services, as they have their clients “over a barrel” – nice work if you can get it. My first foray into the world of “serious” computers was back in the early 1980’s, when I had a Saturday job as an assistant in Silica Shop in Sidcup. During the 1980’s, Silica Shop were the largest privately owned, independent computer retailers in the UK. They specialised in the early 8 – bit home computers, especially the range made by Atari – for whom they were the European dealers. Silica Shop had its’ HQ in Hatherley Road, Sidcup, where there was a large retail unit on the lower floor of the two storey building, and on the upstairs was a warehouse, an office, and an air conditioned computer room, which housed a large DEC PDP 11- 44 mini  computer - almost identical to the one in the photograph above. As well as working in the shop on Saturdays, I was also able to work during school holidays; during this time I would sometimes be called out of the shop to help the computer system administrator, who for a while made me his unofficial assistant. I learned lots about working with large scale business computers, and all of the basics of system administration – adding and removing users, changing security settings, creating files, running batch processes and the like. Even back then, the 11-44 was quite an elderly piece of kit – the company having purchased the machine second hand, as new they were well over two hundred thousand pounds, depending on the specification and peripherals required. One quirk of the 11-44 operating system was that you could not reformat the large 8 inch floppy disks it used (earlier versions of the machine used reels of magnetic tape). In order to re – use the expensive floppy disks, you first had to manually wipe them of data using a degaussing machine – which was basically a large electromagnet. I think everyone was scared of the degausser – it hummed and buzzed, occasionally emitting a crackle of electricity, accompanied by a faint smell of ozone. I think even by the lax health and safety standards of the time, the machine should have been condemned! What I did to avoid the dreaded machine was looking back, pretty imaginative. The computer room had several old – style telephones with rotary dials. I would place a small pile of disks underneath a phone, then ring it from another extension. The bell ringer built into the phone was an electromagnet, and in ringing it would wipe the disks! Silica Shop wrote their own customer database; what would nowadays be called a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system. Whenever someone came into the shop and bought something, a sales docket would be completed by the shop assistant. It included the buyer's name, address and what they bought, along with an itemised total. Each item of stock was allocated a unique part number, which staff could look up on VT100 computer terminals in the shop, which would also record how many of that particular item were left in stock; the real old hands would know most, if not all of the popular stock item codes off the top of their heads. When the stock level got down to a certain point, the system would automatically place a re – order, and debit the company account accordingly. The system would also target postal advertising at customers according to what they had already purchased – there was no point in sending a leaflet on Atari 800XL software to a customer who had bought a Commodore 64 for example. You can see an example of a typical Silica Shop advertising flyer below - notice the large amount of detailed text - this was a Silica Shop trait - they lumped huge amounts of technical detail into all of their advertising; something that would put off a lot of potential shoppers today. All this is targetted advertising is routine nowadays, but back in 1983 it was unique, and debatably the most sophisticated customer database used anywhere in the United Kingdom. My own thoughts are that if Silica Shop had taken this ground breaking business software and ported it onto the then new IBM PC, they would have had a huge business in selling and supporting enterprise level CRM applications now. Instead they continued to shift boxes of home computers, and eventually went out of business in the mid 1990’s. If the management had employed a more creative vision, Silica could have been a global software name like Oracle now. I have to say that I learned more about computing in my few years working at Silica Shop than I have learned anywhere else. My entire career in IT has been built on stuff I picked up in a quiet side street in Sidcup.


Don't forget that the twelfth Bexley Beer Festival will be taking place in the Old Dartfordians Rugby Club. The popular festival will take place between Thursday, May 4th to Sunday, May 6th, though the busiest day is the Friday afternoon / evening session, which is when I will be attending. Do come over and say hello if you happen to see me.

KFC have just announced that they are partnering with takeaway food delivery company JustEat to enable local people to order fried chicken and chips and have it delivered to their homes. The pilot scheme is taking place in the following fast food outlet locations:- Bexleyheath, Bromley, Erith, Thamesmead and Welling. The Bexley Times are reporting that Graham Corfield, UK Managing Director at Just Eat commented: “We’re adding KFC restaurants every week, meaning more customers will be able to enjoy KFC at the click of a button in their area very soon.” The growing appetite for home delivery has reportedly seen growing favour for chicken, with JustEat claiming it as one of the top five cuisines ordered through the service in the past 12 months. Not my kind of thing I am afraid. There are additional costs to having your KFC delivered, which the new adverts neglect to mention. Suffice to say that I live a couple of hundred metres from the Erith KFC, but have only visited the outlet twice - and the second time was merely to use their toilets when I had a seriously upset stomach. I don't think that I need to say more.

It seems that the illegal activities of uninsured, unlicensed and no - helmet wearing bikers are not now limited to the Slade Green and Crayford Marshes. Reports have been made to the Police in respect of illegal biker activity in Lower Belvedere. Local Safer Neighbourhood officer PC Robert Holmes reported "Over the Easter period the team have been out and out about across the ward. We have been attending Frank’s Park responding to residents’ concerns over off road bikes driving in the woods. The team did stop one youth and warned him about his conduct. His mother was also spoken to advised on the legality of her son using an off road bike, as well as safety implications. Upcoming events: Police Surgery on the 28/04/2017, Belvedere Library, Woolwich Road at 14:00. Coffee with Cops on 03/05/2017 at the Pop In Parlour, Woolwich Road (next to the library) at 11:30". Another bike related crime has recently taken place in Barnehurst. PCSO Cathy Nolan reports "Barnehurst Ward have suffered another incident of vehicle crime in Martens Close whereby a Silver PCX Honda Moped was taken. Witness saw two persons riding a similar moped to the one that was stolen, both riders were wearing dark clothing with helmets on. The moped was seen driving down Martens Close, one person got off the bike, approached victims bike and was seen then to drive off on it. This incident happened at 21:15 on 12th April 2017. If anyone has any information please call 101 or contact your Local Policing Team. Barnehurst Team will be available to discuss any local issues at Barnehurst Golf Club on Friday 21st April 2017 between 11:00 – 12:00".


The great comic actor Will Hay, a comedy legend in his own lifetime and a huge star of early British film, died this week back in 1949. Will Hay is largely forgotten today, but a comic actor whose best work influenced the likes of The Goon Show, and Monty Python, and his most famous film "Oh, Mister Porter!" was a direct influence on "Dad's Army". I have to declare a family connection with Will Hay; my Great Uncle Horace (whom I have written about previously) was a very close friend of Will Hay for many years. Born in Stockton in 1888, Hay’s family moved him south to Suffolk before his first birthday. As his father became a jobbing engineer so the family’s mobility quickly increased – moving next to Hemel Hempstead then to London and finally to Manchester where Hay Senior established his own firm. Wanting independence, Will refused to join the family company and started instead as an apprentice engineer for Westinghouse. Yet Hay was no typical engineer and his humour hid by the fact that, by the age of 19, he had learnt German, French and Italian to such a high level that he was able to leave engineering and became an interpreter. His nineteenth year also saw him married to fellow teenager Gladys Perkins and when his daughter Gladys Elspeth was born some eighteen months later Hay decided he could make a better living for his new family in the pre-Great War music halls. Stealing some of his sister Eppie’s staff room reminiscences – she was a full time teacher – Hay began to develop his pompous, bumbling schoolmaster act. After working for over three years with the Fred Karno troupe, where Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin had developed their craft, Hay swiftly found himself the talk of the town: selling out Britain’s biggest music halls, playing sets for the Prince of Wales and successfully touring America, South Africa and Canada. Then came Boys Will Be Boys (1935) his first starring film role with a screenplay written by Hay himself. The story wasn't overly deep – a prison teacher cons his way into a boarding school job and helps stop a diamond theft – but it did have its moments. And it was the perfect frame for Hay’s idiot teacher routines. Then, in 1937,  Graham Moffat joined Moore Marriott as Hay’s two sidekicks in the finest comic film any of them would ever be involved with, Oh, Mr Porter! wherein Hay discovers the (Northern) Irish railway station he’s been sent to run, Buggleskelly, is actually a run-down mess. Gun-runners, ghosts, secret windmills and missing trains – Hay and his two stooges come out on top in a film that is, even now, genuinely funny, at times hilarious. Oh, Mister Porter! (1937) was a deserved box office smash in its day, taking some £500,000 in British cinemas alone – the equivalent now would be over £30 million. In the immediate pre - war years, Will Hay was the second highest paid entertainer in Britain, earning a reputed £800 per week - narrowly pipped in the earnings stakes by George Formby. Outside of show business, Will Hay was a dedicated and respected amateur astronomer. He constructed a personal observatory in his garden in Mill Hill and built a glider in 1909. He became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1932 and is noted for having discovered a Great White Spot on the planet Saturn in 1933. The spot lasted for a few months and then faded away. He also measured the positions of comets with a micrometer he built himself, and designed and built a blink comparator. He wrote the book Through My Telescope in 1935, which had a foreword by Sir Richard Gregory, formerly Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at Queen's College, London. When Hay died, a few items of his equipment were bequeathed to the British Astronomical Association. Some years ago I came across a long out of print book on the life of Will Hay, and it had some photos taken of his garden and his private observatory; in one of the early shots, the construction of his observatory is shown; several people are helping with the digging. One chap is seen stripped to his string vest and leaning on a shovel - it was my late Great Uncle Horace on what must have been a very hot day for manual labour. I wish I had a copy of the book. In 1947, Will Hay suffered a stroke which left him physically disabled. He died at his flat in Chelsea, London after a further stroke in 1949, and is buried in Streatham Park Cemetery, London SW16.

The video clip below dates from the time when Will Hay was approaching the height of his fame and fortune; it shows Danson Park as it looked back in 1935. Do give it a watch and either leave a comment below, or Email me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.