Sunday, July 29, 2012

The South Quay navy.

The picture above has content somewhat different to that which I normally feature; most of the time you will see a photo or two that I have taken in and around Erith; I try to give a little bit of the flavour of the local areas to readers who may have never visited the area, either because they live in another country, or because they read my moans and decide they would be better off staying put. Just for a change the photo content this week is focussed on Canary Wharf, the business district part of East London about ten miles to the North and West of Erith, on the opposite bank of the River Thames. Specifically one particular dock in the massive redevelopment - South Quay, which is the location of some rather uncharacteristically glamorous ships for the next few weeks. The Maggot Sandwich this week has a distinctly nautical flavour; more on this later.

Following on from last weeks’ Olympic torch relay in Erith, I have some further thoughts on the event. The parade was organised with almost military precision; the number of Police officers involved rather surprised me. The bulk of them were not from the local force – I saw a group who had Northumbria Police insignia on their shoulder boards. They were rather out of their area. I was expecting a greater involvement from the local Safer Neighbourhood teams – after all they know the area intimately, and know who any potential trouble makers are. The sheer number of Police, as well as private security officers was quite amazing; there were hundreds of people lining Manor Road as the torch convoy slowly progressed along the street, and in some points it felt that the security detail almost outnumbered the noisy and enthusiastic audience. At one point there was some fairly aggressive shouting / chanting from a group of low – lives lurking opposite the Londis corner store, but after a visit from the Police and a not so quiet word with them, they shut up. The road itself was closed for a relatively short amount of time, though incongruously the 99 bus was allowed through, and one Bexleyheath bound one had quite a close encounter with a couple of the corporate sponsors vehicles. I was surprised by the size of the turn – out; it was apparent that quite a few in the crowd were not residents of the road, but had come from other parts of Erith to see what all of the fuss was about. Talking of the Olympics, I have noticed a strange and perplexing phenomenon on the platforms of all stations on the Dartford to London via Greenwich line. There are station staff present! Normally you are very unlikely to see anyone from South-eastern Trains on the platform, with the notable exception of the occasional member of their revenue protection team. All of a sudden a host of previously invisible staff have appeared as if from out of the wood work – all I can surmise is that office bound staff have been handed high visibility jackets, and instructed to press the flesh of the Olympic visitors. I reckon that they will disappear as mysteriously as they appeared as soon as the last event in the Paralympics is completed. I also notice that the work to extend the platform length at a number of stations on the Dartford to London via Greenwich line have been very quietly stopped, most notably at Plumstead – which is only about half done. At least Erith got finished, even if commuters are currently unable to use the extended areas. I don’t know if there is a specific reason for the cessation of construction work, but the whole project appeared to start with a bang, and finish with a fizzle.

The M.S Deutschland, temporary waterborne home of the German Olympic team. More in a bit. If you feel like looking at some other photographs, click here to visit my Flickr site.

Following my away team visit to Putney last weekend, I thought I would take a virtual tour round several South West London estate agents, to get a feel of what the housing market in that area was like. I am grateful that I made a virtual, rather than a real life visit. The results of my visit were truly eye watering. I reckon for the price of a medium sized semi detached house in Putney, you could buy all of Erith and half of Slade Green as well!

Well, as suspected, the Thames Emirates cable car, sometimes better known as the Arabfly Dangleway has already had its’ first breakdown. The rather pointless ride, which goes from nowhere to nowhere and back, whilst entertaining its’ passengers with panoramic views of scrap yards and empty industrial warehouses, gave up the ghost on Wednesday lunch time, leaving passengers stranded in mid air, baking in the thirty degree heat. It was fortunate that the operators managed to get the thing working again relatively quickly – most passengers were able to get back onto solid ground within around half an hour. Still, being trapped in a (relatively) unventilated glass box with the midday sun beating down on it cannot have been a pleasant experience. It makes me wonder what emergency plans the Emirates operators have in place. It would be disastrous PR for them to have a further breakdown during the period of the Olympic Games. Toasting your fare paying passengers is not a move likely to enamour the public or indeed the press.

Erith Riverside Shopping Centre finally seems to be fulfilling its owners’ expectations; for years the centre has had vacant shop units. The combination of high rents and punitive business rates proved a deterrent to many small shop owners keen to get into the area. I know of one small operator who wanted to open a coffee shop (in the days before Mambocino arrived). When they enquired about the rental fees, they were told that a single retail unit would cost £500 per week, with a substantial deposit. That level of rent was beyond them, and they dropped the plan. It would now seem that most of the units are now occupied, albeit mainly with large chain stores – the kind of organisation that have deep enough pockets to cover high start up fees. Over the last year or so I have noticed that some of the more successful places have been the pay day lenders and pawnbrokers such as Cash Generator. The trouble with these places is, that whilst they are perfectly legal, they charge such punitive rates of interest on small loans that they keep their vulnerable customers in a permanent state of penury; quite often customers take out a loan to pay off another loan, and end up in a vicious cycle of ever increasing debt. A solution is on the horizon, however. Greenwich Credit Union (an ethical, non profit organisation that offers many of the functions of a bank or a payday lender) is expanding its operations into the London Borough of Bexley. The service has been operating in Greenwich since 1998 and members must save at least £10 a month for a minimum of three months to apply for their first loan through Greenwich Credit Union. For more information call 0208 855 4344 or click here for further details.

Over the last year or so, the craze for all things 3D seems to have raged; it seems that pretty much all Hollywood blockbusters have to be issued in a 3D version, and 3D capable televisions are all over the place. I have to say that I am unimpressed. I watched parts of Wimbledon which was specially broadcast by the BBC in 3D HD, and it left me cold. I have spoken to an industry insider who tells me that the major television manufacturers such as Samsung and LG are fully aware that the 3D images produced even on very large televisions cannot even begin to match those from a projector in a cinema. He explained to me that it will be around five years before really effective imagery will be available in the home – and it will not be using any current technology. Personally I have no interest in 3D – either at home, or in the cinema; it strikes me that every few years the movie studios roll out a new gimmick to try and tempt more bums onto seats; they plug the gimmick for a couple of years until people grow bored by it, and they then move onto something new. I gather that 3D revenues in cinemas are now starting to fall; the additional cost of a ticket to a 3D version of a film seems now to be putting the punters off – either that, or they too have realised that the King is not wearing any clothes. One other thing I discovered when researching the whole 3D phenomenon is that it is not recommended that children under around seven years of age be allowed to watch 3D content. The reason for this is that their visual and cognitive abilities are still developing, and they are unable to perceive the pseudo 3D shifted images created by the interference of the on screen image with the polarised micro shutters in the glasses. I have heard some evidence exists that prolonged exposure to small children can actually harm the development of their perception – so all round it is not a good idea.

There is more than a touch of glamour round my office in Canary Wharf right now. South Quay, one of the largest docks in the Wharf is currently temporary home to a fleet of super yachts; they are moored so that their oligarch and billionaire owners have a base whilst they attend the 2012 London Olympic Games. The Quay is normally pretty quiet and is treated as a bit of a backwater to the wharf – there are a few bars and restaurants around the perimeter, but usually it is not much of a tourist trap. I have been out for a stroll on a couple of recent lunch times, and the quay is heaving with curious visitors from the office buildings in the surrounding area. Some people seem keen to star spot (fat chance), others – mainly slightly anorakky blokes like myself just want a closer look at the yachts themselves; I have a background in ships and the sea, and I am a sucker for any kind of marine vessel. There is a large cruise liner, the MS Deutschland, which is acting as temporary home to the German Olympic team. There are nearly a dozen other super yachts of varying designs and sizes, a couple of which are relatively modest, and would not look out of place in somewhere like St. Katherine’s Dock. 

At the other end of the scale you have the Octopus (click on the photo above for a larger version) – a gargantuan and very menacing looking vessel owned by Paul Allen of Microsoft. It carries two full sized helicopters, a couple of launches in an internal stern located dry dock (seen moored by the stern in the photo above), and to cap it all, it also carries a brace of submarines. It is almost the clichéd James Bond super villain ship. A more recent arrival is the M/Y Eclipse – the world’s largest giga yacht, owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. It seems like there is a weapons race to see which shady super businessman can outdo the others to commission the biggest and most vulgar expression of their wealth. The yachts do satisfy a very important role – they quite often spend their time at sea, moving from glamorous location to glamorous location around the world, even if their obscenely wealthy owner is not aboard. The reason for this is that they get registered as the location of a number of the owners’ businesses – and thus enable the owner to avoid mind boggling amounts of tax. To their credit, theses vessels employ large crews, often who are ex Royal Navy or US Navy, so there is a fair degree of "trickle down" of money (the ships have to be fuelled and provisioned locally, thus putting some money back into the local economy of their destination). I overheard two security guards talking about the giant fleet - one was saying that by gross tonnage alone, the vessels currently in South Quay would make up the World's twelfth largest navy! I don't know how true it is, but it certainly makes for an interesting story. The Octopus was surrounded by a cordon consisting of a mix of Metropolitan Police, Canary Wharf Security, and some dark suited Microsoft storm troopers. I managed to sweet talk my way past this cordon quite easily - 1) I looked like I was meant to be there (look confident and smile at them - it works most times); and 2) When asked who I was, I told them the truth - from a certain point of view. I won't let on exactly what I said, as I may be able to pull the same trick again in future! Suffice to say, I was able to get up close and personal to the Octopus, getting the photos of the bows from directly in front - as you can see in this photo here. Paul Allen is apparently funding an expedition to retrieve the ship's bell from the wreck of HMS Hood. The bell is understood to be separated from the main body of the sunken WWII warship, so any salvage efforts will not disturb the site, which is a legally designated war grave.

Bexley Council have recently launched a new website. It tracks the food hygiene standards of restaurants, takeaways and pubs throughout the borough. All establishments are rated by a star system – five stars to the very best places that have impeccable food hygiene, down to zero stars – which I take to mean it should be shut down, or at best completely avoided. Unfortunately, Erith scores very poorly indeed on the survey. I have trawled through all 67 pages of entries for Bexley, and I was appalled to discover that the very highest food safety rating for an outlet in Erith is the  Ark Cafe / Christian book shop in Pier Road, opposite the car park – and that only manages to scrape a measly two out of five stars. After that, it is downhill all the way. The Manor Fish Bar in Manor Road gets one star (not surprising, the place is a dump and has seriously gone to pot since it was sold by the last owners a few years ago). Town Kebab opposite the hideous fish sculpture also gets a single star – if it does stay open long enough to feed the Bexley College students when the new Walnut Tree Road campus opens, it will likely poison them if it does not do something drastic about its’ hygiene standards. The former Oyins Nigerian cafe gets only one star - this may be part of the reason not long ago it changed its' name to Wazobia, but the staff and management would appear to be the same. Masala Reef Indian takeaway in West Street also gets only one star, but even this is eclipsed by the West Street Cafe, which manages to score zero stars. This sounds like a recipe for disaster; I normally like to support independent local businesses, but all I can say about the cafe is I will be studiously avoiding it! Hopefully once this star rating system becomes better known, it will encourage restaurants to raise the bar to better hygiene. You can read more about the star rating system and how Bexley food outlets score by clicking here. If you are anything like me, you may be reluctant to read the often shocking results. Restaurants I thought would garner high scores do very badly – and there are a couple that I have eaten at that I won’t return to until I see a dramatic increase in their scores. The Council gets a lot of criticism, but for once I think they are onto a good thing with this ratings scheme.

Just recently the Maggot Sandwich appears to be attracting readers from the Antipodes; I had another comment logged from an Australian reader on Monday morning; they were keen to use one of my photos. Thus far I have not heard a reply to my message of greeting; I will let you know what happens. I am not holding my breath!

The closing video this week is a bit of a ; you may recall that some weeks back I featured a website called the Sci Fi Air Show. Well, the imaginative chap behind the site has created the following thirty second video trailer for the 2012 season of the air show.

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