Sunday, November 11, 2012

Duplicitous Southeastern Trains.

As regular Maggot Sandwich readers will know, I have been vocal in my support for Government measures to crack down on shady scrap dealers and the associated metal theft that they support. It would seem that just for once my wishes are about to become reality. On Wednesday afternoon, Crime Prevention Minister Jeremy Browne visited Erith as part of his launch of a series of tough new regulations designed to crack down on metal theft and associated money laundering. The new regulations come into effect on the 3rd of December, and will ban scrap dealers from making payments in cash to people who come in to their yards to sell scrap. The size of fines that judges will be able to impose on metal thieves will be increased, and the powers of entry the Police will have to enter and search scrap dealers premises. Jeremy Browne visited European Metal Recycling (EMR) in Manor Road to publicise the new bill; this was a bit ironic, as EMR are one of the largest and most reputable scrap dealers in the UK, and to my knowledge have not dealt in cash for years. A more appropriate visit might have been to one of the smaller, non ferrous scrap dealers in the road, who tend to be frequented by sole traders – local builders, plumbers and electricians. On Friday afternoons, rain or shine, you will see their vans queuing up in Manor Road, near the junction with Frobisher Road. The traders have collected bits and bobs of scrap during the course of their working week, and they take it to the scrappies to convert it into their beer money for the weekend. Earlier in the day, Jeremy Browne also visited Erith War Memorial, to highlight the serious problem of theft from memorials and cemeteries that has been blighting the country for the last few years. The situation has improved somewhat over the last year – mainly due to the increased negative publicity the thieves have been getting (locally I am thinking about the furore around the plaque thefts from the war memorial in Bexleyheath a while back) also the price of scrap has fallen markedly – due mainly to the slowdown in the Chinese economy, and the reduction in new building work. Much of the scrap copper and lead has for many years ended up reprocessed and sold to China. This might sound like it was good for the UK’s balance of payments, but in reality much would not appear in these figures, as the scrap business has historically been closely associated with the black economy and tax evasion. The new rules should help eliminate this in future, and also give the authorities increased power to act and punish accordingly when scrap dealers do act illegally.

Whilst I was waiting for “Skyfall” to start last Saturday evening (more on the movie later), when who should come into the cinema with his family and sit adjacent to me other than David Evennett, one of our local MP’s. He looked pretty pleased with himself, and with some justification. The News Shopper are reporting that Evennett has been instrumental in getting step free access to Crayford station. Apparently this involved resurfacing a pathway and getting a locked gate opened. Straightforward, common sense stuff, but which will make a great improvement for wheelchair users, and those with prams. This throws into sharp relief the work that Erith and Thamesmead MP Teresa Pearce has been doing to get step free access to Erith Station, and the London bound platform. She has been plugging away for a couple of years now, trying to get Southeastern Trains to install a lift at the station, and thus far that campaign appears to have been broadly ignored by the train company. You can see Teresa’sGet a lift installed at Erith Station” site here. I know that installing a lift is far more technically onerous and expensive than the relatively straightforward work carried out at Crayford – but the principle is the same; if Southeastern Trains have agreed to improve access at one local station, thus admitting that an access problem existed, then why would they not do the same for Erith, where the access situation is so much worse, and the station caters for far more travellers than Crayford does? The fact remains that if you are a wheelchair user, or a parent with a heavy pram or buggy, it is not possible to take a train towards London from Erith. You have to go on the Kent bound platform to Dartford, then change there to pick up a London bound train. This means you go three stops in the opposite direction, only to then come back on yourself. Apart from the inconvenience this brings, there is the added expense of what should really be an unnecessary journey. It strikes me that the forthcoming work to build the new Bexley College campus adjacent to Erith Station would be an excellent opportunity for some joined up thinking to ensure that step free access to both platforms at Erith station becomes a reality. I know that Teresa Pearce is a Maggot Sandwich reader; it will be instructive to find out what the latest on the situation is; Southeastern Trains have been very quiet of late on the issue. I think that using the precedent of the work at Crayford may possibly pay dividends, as it shows that the company does acknowledge that there are access problems at some of their local stations, and that they will take action if the profile of the problem is high enough. Hopefully Teresa can give Southeastern a further prod to get the ball rolling again. I would also recommend joining her campaign site here to lend more weight to getting a lift installed. *Update* - since I wrote the last paragraph earlier in the week, some new information has come to light via one of my confidential sources. "Southeastern had told a local forum that it was Network Rail's fault that there was no lift at Erith, but it was confirmed by Network Rail that Southeastern had NEVER raised the issue of Erith with them. The train operator has the ability to nominate stations and whilst trying to sympathise with local people and saying they could not understand why Network Rail ignored Erith its clear that Southeastern were being duplicitous."

Erith has cropped up a few times in the course of the greater history of the United Kingdom, most famously as the place where Alexander Selkirk – the real life “Robinson Crusoe” came ashore after being shipwrecked and living on a desert island. Something that until now has been less known is that Erith is thought by some historians from Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre to have played a pivotal role in the Gunpowder Plot. In some information they released just in time for Guy Fawkes’ Night, they indicated that their research showed that in the summer of 1605, Erith Manor House, which was located on what is now Erith High Street, was rented under a pseudonym by Anne Vaux, the daughter of Lord William Vaux, the head of one of the wealthiest and most prominent Catholic families in the country at the time. Anne Vaux was known to arrange for safe houses to be made available for Catholic priests to hide up and hold underground church services – Catholics were widely persecuted in England at the time. Erith Manor House was considered an ideal location for Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and the other plotters against the King to hide up, as it had, according to Catesby “a secluded but convenient location” on the banks of the Thames, which had the added benefit of offering an easy escape route by boat, should the situation arise. What the plotters did not realise was that the intelligence service of the time was aware of them – spymaster Sir Anthony Standen, first assistant to Sir Francis Walsingham, who was then head of the English Secret Service, working directly for King James I, had broken up a plot (The Bye Plot – click here for more details) eighteen months before hand, and was now acutely aware that other Catholic activists had designs on the life of the Protestant monarch. Sir Anthony had informants all over the place, and soon became aware of the small group of men who were acting very suspiciously in and around Erith. Several of the plotters had also been seen in a number of taverns in Southwark, and it is possible that they were followed back to Erith, where their safe house was then discovered. When agents subsequently raided the house, the conspirators had already made their escape, and the place was deserted. Some of this is extrapolation from verified facts – it is certain that Anne Vaux did indeed rent Erith Manor House using the cover name Mrs Perkins, though it is not certain the Gunpowder Plotters did use it as their primary base of operations – there may well have been an underground church in the house, which in itself would have aroused suspicions. Unfortunately there is no opportunity for Erith Manor House to become a tourist attraction, as it was demolished in the 19th century after falling into a state of disrepair. The story has been featured in the News Shopper here, but by the nature of writing up a news story, some of the nuances and subtlety of the history is lost.

Over the last few weeks I have taken a bit of a pop at a number of television commercials, specifically those for BT Infinity (which is a little ironic, as I think the Infinity product is superb, if expensive). What has increasingly drawn my ire over the last month or so are the growing number of exploitative, sexist adverts on the box right now. I can think of three particularly odious examples – the Oykos yoghurt advert with Amanda Holden, the Moonpig advert, and the Maltesers advert. What links all three of these is the objectification of men; the Oykos advert features Holden being waited on hand (and literally) on foot by a bunch of semi clad himbos – with one a human foot stool for her. The Moonpig advert features a bloke who is encouraged to remove his T-Shirt for the entertainment of the off screen advert narrator, and the third commercial, for Maltesers, features a couple of women ogling a bunch of male strippers on a theatre stage. As I watched each of these adverts, the thought struck me that if the situation had been reversed and women had been the subject of titillation, the adverts would have been banned, and a huge scandal would have resulted. It seems to me that there are some double standards at work. Back in the 80’s and earlier, advertising was sexist and sometimes cruelly offensive, and nearly always women were the focus of the objectification. Now we seem to have gone past the point of equality and the pendulum has swung the opposite way. What I also find astonishing is that I have not seen or heard of any objection to the adverts. Two wrongs most certainly don’t make a right, and I think a stand against sexist advertising of any slant should be made. Even the Guardian, that uptight focus of political correctness have thus far not picked up on the situation. I wonder what you think?

The SciFy Channel HD started showing a digitally remastered and upscaled high definition episodes of "Star Trek - The Next Generation" last week, starting from the pilot double episode "Encounter at Far Point". The picture quality of the restoration is utterly stunning - although the show is still being transmitted in its' original 4:3 aspect ratio, rather than a more modern 16:9 ratio. The quality of the images astounds me - you can see individual hairs on the actors heads moving - which is quite disconcerting when you see some of the dire 1980's hair cuts! Seriously, do give the series a check out on the SciFy Channel HD. I have read that the HD remastering of all seven seasons of ST:TNG is the largest and most expensive film restoration project in history.

A tech story that made the BBC News earlier in the week had a bit of a personal resonance with me. Developer David Braban is raising cash via online community Kickstarter in order to rewrite his original space trading / combat game “Elite” – which first appeared for the BBC Micro back in 1984. Braban wants to create a modern reboot of the classic game to utilise the power of contemporary PC’s and also to be playable collaboratively online. Elite really was a deal breaker when it was originally released. It used pseudo 3D wire frame graphics, and was sophisticated enough to have hidden line removal and to run in only 27 kilobytes of RAM. Those were the days of hyper efficient coding! The original Elite was the best selling game of all time for the BBC Micro; it was said that there were as many copies of Elite sold as there were BBC model B computers in the UK – whether this was marketing hype is debatable, but whatever the facts, Elite shifted a whole ton Beebs. Consequently the game was ported, with varying degrees of success, to virtually every 8 (and later 16) bit home computer on the market. You can read the whole fascinating story by clicking here.

About the only machine that Elite was not converted for were the Atari 8 bit computers, which was a shame. It has to be said that Elite was “inspired” by an earlier (non wire frame) Atari 8 bit computer game called Star Raiders, which was first released back in 1979. The embedded video above will give you a great idea of how the game played. Star Raiders was the original “first person” game – giving you a view out of your starship’s cockpit. The game was more combat oriented than Elite, and to be honest it pretty blatantly ripped off ideas from TV shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica – copyright law being a lot more forgiving back then. Graphically, for the time, Star Raiders was stunning – it had great sound effects and gripping game play. What was so surprising was that it ran in only 8 kilobytes of RAM. You can read more about Star Raiders here.

According to Bexley Councils’ own figures, the car park in Stonewood Road, Erith (opposite the old swimming baths site, and adjacent to Erith Station) is the least used public car park in the borough. Apparently it only got used 1,177 times in the whole year, which is next to nothing for a facility with 42 parking spaces. It only generated £2,800 in parking fees – which probably cost more to collect and administer than was received in parking charges. I would not be at all surprised if the council sell the site to the developers who get hired to build the new Bexley College campus, which is due to be constructed on the brown field site directly next door to the car park. It would make sense – a larger area, and also a convenient access and storage area for construction vehicles and materials used on the campus build. I suppose that time will tell. I don’t know whether it is a coincidence, but some clearance of under brush and vegetation has been undertaken on both the site, and the nearby approach to Erith Station – the bushes next to the pathway to the station have been incredibly choked and overgrown for years, and have been home to a large colony of rats for much of the time as well. The bushes also acted as concealment for fare evaders climbing over the fence from Platform 1 – they used to be able to quite easily bunk over and make their way up the path towards Christ Church without being easily seen. Hopefully this will now cease.

You may recall that at around this time last year I reported that the second unit for what we later learned was the current Bond movie “Skyfall” were filming over night on the outdoor ice rink in Canada Square in Docklands, and that my office window directly overlooked the scene (I told you I was coming back to "Skyfall", didn't I?). I was never in the office during the filming, as action apparently did not begin until around 9pm, but I spoke to several colleagues who did, including one who saw Daniel Craig standing outside of Waitrose. If you have seen the film (which is as I reported last week, utterly excellent) you will recall that there are no scenes at all set in Docklands in the movie. Well, the mystery is now solved. I have discovered that what was going on were the rehearsals for the fight scene on the frozen lake in the grounds of Skyfall house, very near the climax of the movie. Stunt doubles, the fight arranger and the principal actors were on site, and the cameras were there to film the rehearsal for later reference – the footage was never intended for release, though no doubt it may make it onto the Blu-Ray or DVD “extras”. All fascinating stuff, and it goes to show the unseen efforts that go into big budget movie making.

And now, an intro into series 6 of "The Big Bang Theory".

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