Sunday, January 20, 2013

High Street implosion?

Sometimes I get the distinct feeling that my powers of prediction are rather better than they really should be. As you may well know, the days of me sitting down at my computer on Sunday afternoon to write the latest update to the Maggot Sandwich are long gone. The amount of research, and the sheer work involved putting together a weekly update that averages 2,800 words, means that I now start the next entry within hours of the previous one being published. By Monday evening, it is not uncommon for me to already have around a thousand words written for the next entry. The down side of this, is that sometimes my musings can be overtaken by events. On Monday evening I wrote that I thought that Blockbuster, who have a large store in Erith, would be one of the next retailers to go broke. By Wednesday afternoon my prediction was proved correct rather more quickly than I anticipated. More on this shortly.

There has been a lot of fuss in the press this week about horse meat being found in cheap and nasty burgers from Tesco, Aldi and a few other high street outlets. Personally I don't have a problem with eating horse - I have done in the past, and it it not very dissimilar to lean steak; I have also eaten Ostrich (very tasty indeed - like a cross between turkey and fillet steak) and Wildebeest (not very nice - it tastes like the smell of new leather) I fail to see what the problem is. Teresa May was quoted in the week, saying that "this was an issue of concern to all consumers" - not to me it isn't - I shop at Waitrose.

I have come to the conclusion that Matalan in Erith Riverside Shopping Centre only sells garments in Small, Medium, or Extra Extra Extra Large. I can never find anything in sizes to fit me, whatever it is that I am looking for.  I have heard the same complaint from others; it strikes me that if they don’t give more attention to both stocking levels and customer service (Matalan never seem to have any staff, other than on one or two tills) they will end up going the way of HMV, who famously went bust last week. HMV have been a “zombie company” for quite a while, despite posting record profits only two years ago. To my mind HMV were always an “also ran” in the entertainment media market; they never had the breadth of stock of somewhere like Virgin Records, and they could never offer the keen prices of the long gone and much lamented Our Price Records, a store chain I am sure I am not alone in missing. Digital downloads are only part of the reason for the demise of HMV; until their very recent ruthless price cuts they were always an expensive option. Many people still want a physical recording, rather than a download, but put off by the previous high prices in HMV, they inevitably end up buying from Amazon instead. This change in content purchasing behaviour from a majority of physical purchases now changing to a majority of downloads is set to continue.  Blockbuster famously also bit the dust last week. The American owned chain was the death knell for nearly every independent video store in the early 90’s. You may recall that in the 1980’s, almost every village would have a family run video hire store, stocked to the gunwales with VHS video cassettes. These shops were very successful for a number of years – before the advent of satellite and cable TV, the terrestrial television stations showed very few new movies, except a small handful at Christmas. VHS video machines were incredibly popular at the time, due I suspect at least partly to the lack of movie choice. The independent video hire shops fed this market with a diet of a sprinkling of Hollywood blockbusters, padded out with an incredible number of B movies and low budget direct to video films usually starring Chuck Norris or Cynthia Rothrock (who I suspect was actually a shaved Chuck Norris in a wig, as you never saw the two of them in the same place, a la Batman and Bruce Wayne). Quite often, groups of kids would hang around the shops, playing arcade games and waiting for one of the scarce copies of the premium movies to be returned by the previous renter - there would often be a scrum to get to the counter to snatch this precious cassette and bag the rights to take it home for the evening. Happy days. All this came to an end when big hitter Blockbuster arrived across the pond from the USA, building large stores on the edge of towns where you got free parking and discounts on multiple film hires – they were even fairly flexible about returning movies. The downfall also coincided with the advent of DVD. Many family run video hire shops could not afford the overheads of restocking with the (then) very expensive DVD format, and quietly closed up. Blockbuster effectively became the only significant player on the block, a position it has held until relatively recently. Now it has been being assailed by the likes of Netflix and Lovefilm. Blockbuster launched its’ own online movie rental service, but it did not seem to have made much difference to its' market traction. Blockbuster had an extensive estate of large and expensive physical stores. The shop in Erith Riverside Shopping Centre was seldom busy, and must have cost a small fortune to run; I doubt it ever made a profit. I feel sorry for those who will lose their jobs in the liquidation, but the whole physical media hire business model has become unsustainable now that fast broadband network access has become ubiquitous and cheap. To mourn for the loss of jobs in the video hire industry is akin to mourning the loss of lamplighter jobs in the late Edwardian era – it is something inevitable now that technology has changed, and business practices are forced to change to accommodate it.  Better to get out before the physical hire market collapses completely, and to get into another line of work. It is going to happen, it is merely a question of how long before the business finally goes down the tubes. Now that Blockbuster have crashed, there is little left for physical media hire. We are most definitely seeing the end of an era.

Blog comments, like buses seem thin on the ground, then suddenly a bunch of them will turn up at once, as was the case following last week’s update regarding the noisome Pizza Hut takeaway in Northumberland Heath. It would seem that I struck somewhat of a chord with certain readers. The unanimous opinion seems to be that Bexley Council Environmental Health Department should automatically shut any food outlet scoring zero stars on the “scores on the doors” points system. Bearing in mind that there are currently fifty such unhygienic establishments in the borough, that would be a lot of enforcement for them to carry out.
Over the past year or so, I have been reporting on a number of technological anniversaries, and this week is not an exception. It it the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Apple Lisa computer. The Lisa was the first generally available computer to have a Graphical User Interface (GUI). Xerox had produced a couple of earlier models, the Xerox Alto, and the later Xerox Star computers, both of which had a GUI in the mid 1970's. Neither was a commercial product, more of a research project with a limited production run. Apple did licence the desktop analogy and aspects of the overall look and feel from Xerox, which they then developed into the Lisa. The Lisa cost $10,000 in 1983 (an absolute fortune), and to be honest it was a slow and underpowered machine, even by the standards of the day. It is generally regarded that the Lisa was a flop, but it did make Apple $100 million profit, even though relatively few units (100,000) were shipped. The Apple Macintosh was developed in tandem with the Lisa (in fact, most of the original Mac software was developed on Lisas). What the Lisa did do was bring the concept of the GUI to end users and the general public, and completely shape the face of modern computing like no other single product. Apple Lisas are now exceedingly rare indeed. There is a complete, fully working one in mint condition on EBay right now - and look at the price of it! You can read more about the Lisa by clicking here. The video below is a very rare American TV commercial for  the Lisa; it features a very young "before they were famous" Kevin Costner as the Lisa using businessman. Those of you with very long memories may recall I featured this clip about four years ago, but I feel that it could to with a a swift re-showing, just for the cheesy eighties feel of it. 

Word reaches Pewty Acres that E4 have given the green light to the producers of sci fi comedy series "Misfits" for a fifth season of the show. I suspect that this may well be the final season, as many of the locations that are key to the look and feel of the show are shortly to be demolished. "Misfits" is filmed in and around Thamesmead, principally at Tavy Bridge and Southmere Lake Community Centre. Much of the area is being redeveloped, and the current, late 60's brutalist concrete architecture which features so heavily in the show will be no more.

Last week’s video of the documentary about the Avro Vulcan raid on Port Stanley airport during the Falklands War in 1982 has brought some very interesting feedback from an unexpected source. More of that in a bit; my own memories of the Falklands War are still strong. I had been given a poster featuring the crest of every ship in the Royal Navy some time before the conflict began, and I dutifully crossed out each ship as it was sunk or badly damaged. By the end of the war there were a depressingly large number of black crosses. I was still at school at the time, and smack bang in the middle of the Falklands War, I went on a geography field trip to Barry Island in Wales. The school party stayed at Barry Island Butlins – at the time a scruffy and run – down place with indifferent staff and greasy, inedible food. During the evenings the school kids were given pretty much free rein of the holiday camp, providing we did not leave the premises. There was a kids disco run by a very dubious looking Welsh Jimmy Saville clone. One evening he was playing some terrible records (“Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners seemed to be on almost constant rotation) when one of a large group of Spanish school kids that were also staying at the camp ran up onto the low stage and grabbed the DJ’s microphone. He began a chant amongst the Spanish kids of “Malvinas, Malvinas!” It had to be said this ended in pretty short order when Phil Peskitt, school bully and all round hard man, leapt onto the stage and punched the Spanish kid on the nose, knocking him over. A small riot then ensued. All of the teachers from my school who were supervising the event seemed to be looking in the opposite direction during the whole incident! There was plenty of military activity around much of South Wales at the time; mainly due to the fact that the army used the area for training. We got to see lots of Harrier jets and military transports rushing here and there, and when we visited Pen Y Fan, the second highest peak in Wales, there was a small group of scruffy and very tired looking blokes in old fashioned army greatcoats and hob nailed boots climbing up and down the mountain. We did not really think very much about them, but with hindsight, these were almost certainly troops training for SAS selection. Anyway, for more memories from that dark time in our recent history, we have a guest contributor to the Maggot Sandwich – Malcolm Knight of the Bexley is Bonkers website, who had a very important role in the Falklands conflict. Here are his memories of the time:- From 1979 until 1984 the phone line to Port Stanley was entirely my responsibility. Not many calls and no one was very interested in it. It only operated for 2 x 2 hours a day and Stanley/London was their only public comms to the outside world. In Jan 82 the number of calls started going up and I upped the hours of operation eventually to 24/7. I didn't monitor the conversations, in retrospect I wish I had broken the rules and done so. I reported up the management chain that something weird was going on but was ignored and to be honest I never suspected an invasion or I might have kicked up a bigger fuss. Before the Vulcan raid the MoD got twitchy about the local small population on Ascension telling their relations abroad about the RAF build up. Ascension Is. comms was entirely mine too and they had no other access to the outside world - so I stopped the potential leaks by the only method I could think of. I pulled the appropriate plug. The day after the Vulcan raid the MoD called me to say I could stick the Ascension plug back in again and I asked if they were going to bomb Stanley again. Probably they said (with appropriate reticence) so I said in that case I wasn't going to restore the Ascension plug. They took some persuading that pulling the plug before the night of a raid was going to send a signal to the outside world. The pattern would be detected, if not by someone in Argentina but certainly by the Spanish nationals I employed in the exchange and whose loyalties could not be trusted. They got the point eventually. I spoke to the manager of the Falklands telecoms during the conflict and met him afterwards. He said his staff worked with machine guns pointing at their backs so they didn't try to send 'coded' messages abroad. One of the things the Argies did as soon as they got on the island was set up a public phone service to Buenos Aires. The Falklands had no satellite link at the time - it went in pretty quickly afterwards! - so the Argie link was HF (Shortwave) radio, no encryption, nothing, so I sat a Spanish speaking Englishwoman on the end of a suitable receiver connected to British Telecom's aerial system at Rugby, so I could know what was going on. Not official, just me being nosey. All we got was government talk about changing the currency and putting Argentinian postage stamps in the post office. They certainly intended to stay. Half way through the war the Argentinians came up on the Stanley circuit, which had been dead since they took over, and asked to speak to me and together we arranged to re-establish normal telephone services immediately. This was standard practice between nations at war, just carry on regardless as far as possible. The agreement was that on our single circuit one call would come from them alternating with one from us.  In typical British fashion we had queued the UK requests for calls and proceeded to connect them in that order. Unfortunately that meant that all the calls came from newspapers and the Argies got very stroppy with me accusing me of some underhand trick when none was intended. I had to agree that all calls would be inbound from then on. Most were from worried Falklanders anxious to call friends in the UK as there had been no telephone service for several weeks. Sometimes the calls got No Reply and when the Falklander claimed special urgency I got in the habit of phoning the appropriate local radio station if available and getting them to put out an SOS to get back to their phone quickly! All very unofficial of course but in most cases it worked a treat and the radio station staff were always pleased to do it. I met the Falklands' comms manager because Mrs. Thatcher invited him to London for the victory parade. The Ascension Island people didn’t get their service restored until the war was over.  What a fascinating story. Not something I have seen recorded in any history of the Falklands conflict. Thanks for letting me re-tell your memories Malcolm!

A story that seems to have thus far got under the radar of most local news outlets is that the owners of the famous, and now decommissioned cruise liner the Queen Elizabeth II are hoping to be allowed to permanently moor the vessel at Carlsberg Wharf, directly opposite the O2 Arena on the  banks of the River Thames. They want to convert the ship into a luxury floating hotel with 550 cabins, seven international restaurants and a cinema. If the plans get approved (and Boris is backing it) the ship would employ a crew of around 1,500 people, bringing permanent jobs to what is an otherwise economically depressed area. It would also add a touch of glamour to Greenwich Peninsular – not the most aesthetically pleasing place at present. Bearing in mind the cruise liners and gigantic luxury super yachts that filled the South Quay in Canary Wharf at the time of the Olympics (click here to see my photos) I think that this project could well be a winner. The QEII is currently moored in storage in Dubai; whilst the work to convert her into a floating hotel would be extensive, I think that the kind of publicity the project would bring to the region could only be a positive thing. I am sure the novelty of a luxurious floating hotel would add a sparkle of glamour to a part of South East London that could surely use it. If the project does not take off, there is a strong possibility that the QEII would be scrapped. Not a pleasant demise for what is one of the World’s best known passenger ships.

Erith Model Railway Society have their annual exhibition at the Bexley Business Academy in Yarnton Way, Thamesmead on the 26th and 27th of January. Over eighty stands and twenty five different model railway layouts will be featured. The entry price will be £6 for adults, £5 for concessions and £3 per child. You can read more about the exhibition by clicking here. You can see some HD footage of last years exhibition in the video below. It certainly looks like a hell of a lot of work goes into the event; I wish them well. Comments below, as always.


  1. With all your recent correct predictions should the good citizens of Eriff be building a pyre? "BURN 'im! 'E's a WITCH!!" What's next weeks lottery numbers?!!
    I have to say when I was a kid I devoured local video shops and knew exactly what nearly everyone stocked and what time they opened and closed, everything from Lessness Motor Spares (1 rack of films mainly horror/war/soft pr0n stuff) to the big one in Welling (nirvana in a tape box).
    I have used Blockbusters afew times in the past 5 years but they had next to no choice, it was literally blockbusters only, nothing less than mainstream. As for HMV I haven't bought anything thing from then since I discovered Play.Com and the like. Why pay £18 for something I can get for £8??
    Did you know Gazelle Video is still going in the Pantiles (next door the Earl Haig)? I was getting video's from there in the early 80's riding round on my bike and encroaching into "unfamiliar enemy territory", well that’s how it felt as a kid! It stocks games and sweets and things now and it's the only independent video store (or possibly video store) in the bourgh. VERY fond memories of going in there, I got most of the films that formed my taste in movies from there: all the Trek movies, Romero's zombie flicks, Troma films, 80's B-movies/sci-fi etc etc….Ahhhhh happy day's!
    I'm also a big fan of Misfits but like Viz it's "not as good as it used to be". I've got the 4th series recorded but not bothered with it yet. Continentally I have a reason to be in the neck of the woods where it's filled and it does have a kind of beauty to it.
    Mind you so would it if it was raised to the ground…

    I think The Maggot Sandwich is starting to turn from a quick bite to a 3 course meal and not a bit of horse meat filler in sight!…Unless you count the Waitrose joke nicked from Radio 4's The News Quiz!

    I'm always fascinated with old computers.
    I was a Speccy kid (by that I mean I had a ZX Spectrum not wear glasses) and used to read all the magazines and type in the (naff) games and play about with basic programming. I remember the arguments me and mates who had C64's had and then how we used to laugh at the poor sods who had a Vic 20 or Dragon 32. The BBC micro kids were just pitied, I mean, the same computer as they used at SCHOOL??! SERIOUSLY?
    Talking about old Apple Mac's I was playing around with a Mac drawing stuff for most of my lunchtimes and breaks at school around '87 and '88. It totally blew me away. A GRAPHICAL interface? Easy to use? 2.5 inch discs not tape? WOW!
    Then I discovered girls, music and booze and things were never the same again…

    Fascinating stuff on the Falklands War.
    It's a bit of a hazy memory for me as I was about 10 at the time but I have a very strong memory of being on a family holiday in Wales (what is it with Wales and the Falklands?...weird coincidence) and being on the rickety train going up Snowden reading that days Sun "newspaper" over the shoulder of the train driver when the Belgrano was sunk when it had the infamous "GOTCHA!" headline. I was still slightly worried about nuclear Armageddon as I'd been taught "Duck & Cover" in my infant school by a slightly unhinged left wing teacher who drummed it into us how dangerous "the bomb" was.

  2. So if the QEII lans up where you stated, would that mean the 'arab flight dangleway' would serve a more useful purpose eg ferrying hotel occupants to the O2 and hotel employees to the hotel??
    Sandwich is a bit of a visual mouthful with the new format - could you break it up a bit with paragraphs and spaces; and make it less stark with a pastel (mmmmm darling) background? Stick to the stream of consciousness approach too - I like the conversational style and you'll get it done quicker too!