Sunday, April 15, 2012

For the masses, not the classes.

The photo above shows one of the regular anglers who fish on the pier behind Morrison's. If the tide is in, you will invariably find a handful of fishermen (and why is it always men?) casting their baited lines into the River Thames. The more serious anglers can be found night fishing, normally accompanied by a lantern and a small tent. It must be nice in the summer months, but many times I have seen the night fishers out in the depths of winter, with the icy wind coming straight off the North Sea. Not for me, I think! The pier is definitely one of the under appreciated and overlooked attractions in the whole of the London Borough of Bexley. You may not be aware that Erith Riverside Gardens and the pier are the only places within the Borough that you can access the River Thames. This is a unique selling point, and something that Erith does not do enough to promote. 

One is forever hearing of family run local businesses being taken over by multi national corporations and effectively forced out of the market. This was true of a Greenwich based enterprise - Goddard's Pie and Mash Shop, which was closed down in 2006 and replaced with a Gourmet Burger Kitchen outlet. It was not the end for Goddards - a family run company that first opened its' doors in 1890. They moved into wholesale pie baking and also ran a pie and mash stall in Greenwich Market. Now they are back in their old premises, selling traditional London fare. I think that they have picked an excellent moment to re - open their shop. The Olympics will be heavily based around central Greenwich and the park, and I am sure that many visitors will be keen to try a fare that is so quintessentially English; it could be a very opportune moment to be in the Pie and Mash business. You can read more about Goddards' move back into Greenwich by clicking here

Another family run local business has also relaunched itself. I went along to the grand opening or the new showroom of Wellingtons' Electrical in Northumberland Heath last Saturday morning. The family run firm was first set up in 1898, and has been serving the local community ever since. Their original double fronted shop in Bexley Road, Northumberland Heath has been closed, and they have built a new double fronted shop directly next door. On the day of re-opening the place was packed; many visitors no doubt attracted to the generous opening prize draw, and the hefty discounts on offer for the first week. I did notice that I was by far the youngest visitor during my time in the shop - most of the other customers appeared to be retired. It was extremely busy, but I had no problems getting advice from a very helpful assistant. The shop is now rather more focused than it used to be; previously they would pretty much stock and sell anything with an electrical plug on it. Now they concentrate on two areas - kitchen equipement such as cookers, hobs and fridge freezers, and on home entertainment systems - principally large screen televisions, surround sound systems and Blu - Ray players. My main interest in my visit - apart from having a good nose around the relaunched but long established store, was to source and purchase a built in fan oven, a combination oven and a separate cooker hob with wok burner for my soon to be newly refurbished kitchen.  After extensive pondering and consulting of catalogues, I chose a matching set of Neff appliances - rather on the pricey side, but then the German company are a premium brand. I was very lucky with my timing; all kitchen appliances were subject to a 20% discount during the first week of opening. This saved me just over £400, which is not to be sniffed at. Currently Pewty Acres is looking like a building site. The bathroom refurbishment is now about two thirds done, and most of the rest of the work is cosmetic. I have visited local carpet retailer Brittles, who have shops in Bexleyheath and Welling to place an order for both vinyl flooring for the bathroom, and replacement for my faded lounge carpet. They are a very old fashioned company in many ways, still using a mechanical till, and when my debit card was processed by the card machine, I could hear the distinctive chirp of a dial up modem. Their Welling flagship shop is huge - it looks deceptive from the outside, but goes back a very long way indeed, with a maze of narrow corridors and rooms, covered from floor to ceiling in carpet samples. Their trade knowledge and service is second to none. You can view Brittles' website here.

In Friday night, Alan, Ian and I attended the 7th Bexley Beer Festival, held at the Sidcup Rugby Club and sports centre in Sydney Road, Sidcup. As has been the custom for a majority of the years the festival has been running, the weather was awful. Squally rain and a strong gusting cold wind meant that the majority of festival attendees did not venture outside onto the patio overlooking the sports centre's excellently looked after cricket pitch, as can be the case on the rare occasions the event takes place when there is more clement weather. There was the usual wide range of real ales and ciders, including a relatively new range of ciders from Horton Kirby, which are produced by the Magic Bus Cider Company. I had a taster of a couple of their brews, and very nice they were too - very smooth and appley - none of the roughness and high tannin levels you tend to find with Scrumpy type ciders. I would definitely ask for a pint if it was available in a local pub - come on publicans - support your local cider maker!

The popular press have given almost as much coverage as the specialist computer press to the death of Jack Tramiel last week. Tramiel was a man who never quite made the public consciousness in the same way as his contemporary, Steve Jobs of Apple. Tramiel was as big, if not a bigger influence on the early years of home computing than Jobs, but lacked the personal charisma, or the will to self promote like Jobs. I met Jack Tramiel on two occasions, only an hour or so apart. I was working for Silica Shop at the 1985 Personal Computer World Show at Olympia. Tramiel had recently bought Atari Corporation, and came to London to rally the troops. At the time, Silica Shop were the largest retailer of Atari products in Europe, and number three in the world. Understandably Tramiel wanted to ensure his products were presented in the best possible light, so he came to the show to address the Silica Shop team. I rather put my foot in my mouth during a question and answer session, when I referred to the Atari 520 ST as the “Jackintosh” (a not so subtle reference to the similarities to the Apple Macintosh, though the ST had colour when the Mac was still black and white, and the ST was quarter the price of an entry level Mac. The ST used a very similar look and feel to its’ GEM user interface, which some critics thought was a direct rip – off of Apple; little did we know at the time that the Apple GUI was a very close copy of the older, pioneering Xerox Alto interface, which Apple licenced from Xerox). One of Tramiels’ lieutenants was quick to shut me up, and the man himself gave me a pretty venomous look. Tramiel was a salesman, not a technocrat. Later that day I was in the gents lavatory at the exhibition centre, when Tramiel entered; I feared a second telling off, but he evidently failed to recognise me as the young upstart that had annoyed him earlier, and did not give me a second look. I left the loo relieved in more ways than one! It struck me that he was not actually too bothered what he sold, just as long as there was a demand, and he could make a few bob. To his credit, Jack Tramiel was the (joint) first person to being computing to the masses, alongside his British competitor, Sir Clive Sinclair. It is interesting to note how the two men conformed so closely to their national stereotypes; Polish American Tramiel, the loud, brash salesman with a line in fast patter, and British Clive Sinclair, the bookish, quietly spoken academic. Between them they made huge progress in bringing computing to the masses. Both Tramiel’s Commodore Vic 20, followed by the Commodore 64 and the Atari 800XL  made huge inroads to the bedrooms and living rooms of ordinary people, initially in the USA, then the rest of the world. Sinclair’s ZX81, followed by the Spectrum were more influential in the UK, and in Europe. Both companies were fundamental to the spread of IT literacy; Tramiel had coined the phrase ”We need to build computers for the masses, not the classes” which pretty much summed up his attitude. A man who did not get the widespread public recognition he deserved during his lifetime.

The Royal Mail sorting offices in both Erith and Belvedere are closing; the one in Belvedere closed for good yesterday, and the one at 207 Manor Road, Erith (see the photo above) closes in a day or so too. When you consider the amount of business that the post office is currently losing, and the crippling level to which they are raising the price of postage stamps, there is little wonder that their business is heading down the tubes. The rise of Email and the competition from private courier and delivery firms are slowly grinding away at Royal Mail, who don’t appear to have any kind of coherent business plan to counter this. I predict that it will not be very long before the Royal Mail is broken up into several smaller and more attractive units and then sold off to the highest bidder. To be honest, the attitude of the Royal Mail almost seems to anticipate this happening. A sad state of affairs indeed.

The magnificent Robin Hood and Little John pub in Lion Road, Bexleyheath is in the running again for CAMRA London pub of the year. It wins Bexley borough pub of the year every time it is eligible to enter – indeed, after winning for ten years in a row, the competition rules were changed to say that a winning pub could not enter the competition in the following year. Consequently the pub only wins every other year, though I suspect that the other pubs that now win must feel that theirs is a hollow victory  - they know that if the Robin Hood and Little John had been permitted to compete, they would have only have come second. Basically the competition is really about who runs the second best pub in the borough – as everyone knows which the best consistently is. I have been a regular at the Robin Hood and Little John for around ten years, and I can honestly say that it is head and shoulders better than any other I have visited in the local area. It will be interesting to see how it fares in competition with pubs from other London Boroughs. Unfortunately there are a lot of indifferent pubs in Bexley – one thinks of the chain establishments and the rather faceless service they provide. When you look at a nearby town like Dartford, it supports a number of high quality establishments The Royal Oak (Shepherd Neame), The Malt Shovel (Young’s), The Wat Tyler (free house) and The Stage Door (Shepherd Neame) to name but four. The whole of the London Borough of Bexley struggles to match this, which I feel is a great shame. Upper Belvedere (no calling it Nuxley Village – there is no such place – that name is a construct of local estate agents) has a couple of decent watering holes. The Royal Standard is a good pub with a very friendly landlord and landlady. They serve decent pub food at reasonable prices, and there is a nice conservatory and garden at the back. The only thing that lets the place down is that the pub is relatively cavernous, which affects the atmosphere on occasion; having said that, it is well run and I like it. The other pub of note is the immaculately kept The Prince of Wales; strangely until a couple of years ago I, along with several friends avoided the place for no rational reason whatsoever. I am now an occasional visitor, mainly for the excellently kept Westerham Brewery ales that they keep on tap. 

This weeks’ ending video is something I have been looking for online for quite a while; it is called “Steam Trek - the Moving Picture” and it is a clever Star Trek parody. The ten minute mini movie posits what if Star Trek had been conceived in 1910, rather than in 1962, and then made as a black and white silent movie, using the technology of the time - how would the attitudes and conventions of the period have affected the end result? It is a funny and charming bit of light comedy fluff. It was originally made by a group of film students who were regulars at the Westminster based sci fi themed pub Pages Bar in the mid to late 1990’s,  I used to visit there at least once a month on a Saturday night. Pages Bar was an amazing place, and I may well write more about it in the future. Feel free to leave a comment below, as always.

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