Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Doctor and the Tramshed.

The photo above (click for a larger view) shows the controversial Erith wind turbine; the photo was taken from the end of Erith Pier, looking Eastwards and down river. In the background you can see the QEII Bridge across the River Thames. The wind turbine is 288 feet tall, and has quickly become a local landmark. I can see it clearly from the window in my office in Pewty Acres. I like it a lot. It tells me what direction and approximate speed the wind is blowing, and provides an instant low cloud indicator - all by me looking out of my window. It is also a far more aesthetically pleasing and practical piece of industrial sculpture than the hideous (and useless) psychedelic fish sculpture I have bemoaned in the past.

Work has now begun on first phase of the conversion of the former Cross Keys pub into offices for the multinational management consultancy the Aleff Group. I went along to the Grade II listed building on Thursday afternoon for a look. Builders were just in the process of packing up for the day. There were large blue tarpaulins over the first floor balcony and windows, and lights were on in the rooms on the second floor; it looks like the existing windows were being replaced with identical looking new ones. A high quality CCTV system has been added, with multiple cameras covering what looks like every corner of the structure. The work has only just begun; as I recently wrote, the previous owners had run the Cross Keys into the ground, and a huge amount of remedial work will be needed before the directors and staff of the Aleff Group can move in and carry out their business.  I will be keeping a close eye on the progress and reporting back regularly. I have already secured a tour round the building and an interview with Dr. Julian Hilton, the Chief Executive, once the place is ready to open. It is heartening to see a historic local building being restored and returned to service, rather than converted into unwanted flats or otherwise demolished, as has happened in the past to other local listed buildings such as the former Odeon cinema turned Bingo hall that used to be on the corner of Erith High Street and James Watt Way. It was a grade 2* listed building (essentially halfway to a grade 1 listing). The developers decided it was going to be too expensive to sympathetically convert it for residential use, so instead they knocked it down, stating it was full of blue asbestos. I walked past the demolition site every day on the way to and from work, and I saw no sign whatsoever of any kind of asbestos. I get the feeling this was just a ruse to enable the developers to maximise their profits.  You can see an old photo of what the cinema used to look like below. Click for a slightly larger version. 
One thing the area sorely lacks is a medium sized live music venue. Aside from local bands playing in pubs, there is no outlet for  musical talent, which is a great pity. Years ago the Tramshed in Woolwich was a great venue for seeing local, up and coming bands. I recall that whilst I was still at school, a friend played bass in a hobby band; they were lucky enough to get booked to play support for a then unknown band. By the time the day of the gig arrived, the band he was supporting had a number one hit single, and suddenly the profile of the event went through the roof. The band were Doctor and the Medics, who had a big hit with their cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”. I had a front row seat for the gig, which was compared by the then unknown comedy duo Hale and Pace, before their subsequent TV fame. Nowadays the only place that offers anything remotely similar is the Mick Jagger Centre in Dartford, though this is mainly geared for larger groups. Other than that, there is very little opportunity for bands who are too popular to still play the pub circuit, but not yet big enough for theatre sized venues to play. Somewhere like the now long abandoned Erith Trade and Social Club in James Watt Way. This building would make an ideal music venue; the trouble is that it would require too much expensive refurbishment and conversion, and it has now been standing empty and abandoned for so long that the fabric has deteriorated to the point which I think demolition is the only viable option. The local area has fostered some remarkable musical talent in the past; it seems that it will be more difficult for new talent to find a live outlet in future, and however useful YouTube is for showcasing talent, it is no substitute for a noisy, sweaty live venue. It is not widely known that Woolwich was host to a number of big name gigs in the past. Buddy Holly famously played two concerts in the Woolwich Granada cinema on the 14th March 1958. It was quite common in those days for artists to play a matinee, and then a later evening performance. In 1985, Level 42 recorded much of their live album "A Physical Presence" in the Woolwich Coronet on the evening of March the 30th 1985. You can see some photos taken at the gig by clicking here.

Whilst researching the history of local live music, I also came across an interesting fact. The 3rd of June 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles only local performance, which also took place at the Woolwich Granada, where they performed on the same bill as Roy Orbison. Many locals know that Kate Bush started off in Welling, and played her early gigs in the We Anchor In Hope pub on Shooter’s Hill. What is not so well known is that bassist, arranger and multi instrumentalist  John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin comes from Sidcup.

The national horse meat scandal continues unabated; I don’t know what all the fuss is about –the health authorities have been telling us for years that ready meals contain too much salt and Shergar! I understand that Findus took quite a long time to identify horse meat in their ready meal Lasagna, as it was covered in Marscapone cheese (think about it and groan).

The Arabfly Dangleway seems to hit problem after problem, and the passenger figures are now even further reduced. I have passed underneath it a few times since I last wrote about it, and it seems that the operators are getting so few passengers at certain times of the day that they are switching the cable cars off to save electricity when there are no passengers on board. It already closes down when the wind gets too strong, which at this time of year is quite often. The Transport for London website has weekly passenger usage figures, and for the week commencing the 9th of February, the cable car only carried 16,400 people, which equates to something like one per minute for the entire system. The figures also show that 60% of travellers use the cable car at weekends only, and they only make one round trip journey. It is clear that the system is being used for entertainment (figures also show a slight upward blip at school holidays) – it is clear the system is not being used by commuters as was heavily touted when it opened. The fact that Oyster and standard overland travel cards cannot be used with the system would seem to have impacted on the uptake by the regular commuter.  I have not heard anything in respect of the progress of the plans to move the QEII to be moored on the banks of the Thames to become a floating hotel; about the only thing that could save the Arabfly Dangleway. Let’s see what the spring brings.

There has been some coverage of the widespread take-up of electronic cigarettes by former smokers. The medical opinion seems to be that the ingestion of regulated doses of pure vapourised nicotine is far less unhealthy than traditional smoking, as the part of the cigarette that causes the major health problems is the tar that burning tobacco produces. The electronic cigarette does not generate tar, and is thus thought to be a safer alternative. All this is a bit confusing to me as a lifelong non smoker. I was always under the impression that nicotine was a potent poison in itself. It certainly makes a very effective natural insecticide (if you steep cigarette butts in water for a couple of hours, and collect the resulting liquid, this can be used as a very effective organic poison against greenfly and other nasties, just by spraying your plants with the solution. It is advised that any vegetables should be thoroughly washed before being eaten – again reinforcing the fact that nicotine is poisonous. All very confusing. It seems strange to me that some medical authorities are promoting the use of the electronic fags. It may be that it is a question of degree – they are substantially less hazardous than conventional  gaspers, and they have a very welcome feature in that they don’t smell. One of my confidential contacts demonstrated this to me recently; he had an electronic cigarette and it gave off no noxious pong whatsoever – the small puff coming out of the end of the device was actually water vapour with no aroma at all. Will this mean that these devices will be permitted in public where ordinary cigarettes are now banned? I don’t know, as when the current anti smoking regulations were created, such devices did not exist. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me?

I see that our local MP Teresa Pearce has backed the Scrap Metal Dealers bill which is currently going through the House of Lords on its’ way to becoming law. The bill will make the practice of scrap dealers handing over cash for metal illegal; all trades will have to be done via accredited bank transfers to registered users – and thus stop the current huge level of trader and scrap dealer tax fiddling. The bill will also ensure that all scrap dealers will have to be properly licenced and regulated – I was appalled to discover that many scrap dealers currently are unlicenced. Bearing in mind it is estimated that the scrap metal business is worth something like £5.6 billion a year in the UK alone, there looks to be a ton of money washing around that is essentially anonymous and untaxed. The benefit to the UK as a whole of getting this money out of the dealers pockets and into the general economy must be huge. The bill also seeks to give the Police more power to investigate metal thefts, and greater penalties for those thieving scumbags who get caught. I have written about metal theft on a number of recent occasions; it is a country wide problem, but the London Borough of Bexley is one of the very worst affected areas, and many local residents have bitter first hand experience of metal theft, whether it be from having their front garden gate nicked, to being late for work due to the rail power lines having been dug up and stolen. Metal theft is not a victimless crime, and it is reassuring that at last the Government are taking it seriously. It will be instructive to see what sentences the courts hand out to convicted metal thieves once the new law comes into effect.

Back at the end of last October, I wrote at some length about the area’s independent record shops, and lamented at the passing of Erith’s T.W Records – something that was picked up by a number of readers. I have since discovered that one of the stores I featured – Cruisin’ Records in Welling has lost its’ owner, who recently died after a short battle with cancer. The shop is still open, and hopefully a permanent arrangement can be made so that the excellent shop can continue to provide specialist services to the music loving public. The big music chains such as HMV have been hit by a combination of digital downloads, and by the large supermarket chains, who sell top 20 CD’s at eye wateringly low prices, often as loss leaders to attract customers into their stores. Independent record shops are never going to be able to compete on price – that is a battle they will never be able to win; instead they need, as Cruisin’ Records does, to supply specialist / obscure records, to offer more than just the current album by an artist or group – keeping a stock of back catalogue records for example, or by concentrating on niche markets, as Bexleyheath based record label / online music store Talking Elephant Records does. They are the pre – eminent specialists in folk , folk rock and roots music, and the “go to “ people for these genres. It would seem that by specialising, record shops can not only survive against the big boys, but can actually thrive.

A few days ago I had an Email from local resident, webmaster of the excellent web resource and Maggot Sandwich reader Brian. He wrote the following: “I checked out Ark of Erith, today. In over eight years living here, I'd never been in. But I fancied a baked potato for lunch and it looked pleasant inside. And it certainly was pleasant. And friendly. And my baked potato was freshly-prepared, taking something like 10 mins until it was ready. In the meantime, I enjoyed a mug of tea and a newspaper - brought to my table. When it arrived, the potato was crammed with cheese and tasted excellent. I'd also add that the man there introduced himself and started a conversation, but in a non-intrusive way. He did tell me that it was a Christian bookshop (I'm not a Christian) but the religious bit didn't seem pushy. One other thing to note are the books, mainly donated. I spotted some 60 year old Penguins in excellent condition, selling for 50p. I told the man they were probably worth more and have since discovered they sell for upwards of £6 on eBay. I do hope he takes my advice and sells them there himself”. Brian’s observations and conclusions are very interesting; as you will no doubt recall, I gave several local food out lets a bit of a pasting for their poor performance on the “Scores on the Doors” hygiene rating system. The Ark Christian book shop and cafe scored a disappointing two out of five stars when it was visited by Bexley Environmental Health department inspectors on the 1st of August 2012; I get the feeling that they have substantially improved their hygiene standards in the following few months - Brian’s findings would tend to support this. It is good to hear of local businesses making a success of things, and hopefully the Ark can be an example to other Erith food outlets to improve.
Did you know that the area has a professional recording studio? Abbey Studios, which house a high end recording facility, as well as rehearsal rooms and all sorts of resources for both professional and amateur musicians is located in the old Goldie Leigh hospital site in Bostall Heath.  It amazes me that such facilities can have been around for years, yet they are almost “under your nose” without ever being apparent. It is in an ideal location – secluded in a woodland setting, yet only moments away from Woolwich Road and connections into London and elsewhere.

One of the perks of my day job is that I get to test out all sorts of new and existing technology; part of my role is to find new and interesting uses for technology, and to work out ways to deploy it in the work environment. I bought a couple of Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet computers running Android 4.1.1 and have been using one of the pair for the best part of a week. The experienced has rather reinforced my opinion of tablet computers. I think they are fine if you are a consumer of content – if you watch a lot of online video content, or listen to music; the caveat here is that unlike a laptop, you have to hold the tablet in order to watch the screen, unless you shell out some money for a case that doubles as an angled support. If, like me, you are primarily a content creator (using a lot of office type applications, or blogging) then they are less suitable. The on screen keyboard on Android devices is pretty intelligent, but typing more than a couple of lines on an unyielding surface is hard work on the finger tips. An external Bluetooth keyboard is really required for any serious text entry. Personally I prefer a “”proper” laptop with an integrated, full travel keyboard, as banging out 2,500 or so words each week on the Maggot Sandwich takes a lot of hard typing. All the stuff above also holds true for the Apple iPad; they are great as passive devices, but not so much fun if you need to use them in an interactive manner. Now that I have had some time with a tablet device, it has confirmed my suspicions that they are not really for me. As ever, your mileage may vary.

The story about the fatal shooting of Kevin McKinley in Overy Street, Dartford on Tuesday night made the national press. From what I have read, the murder victim was no saint, but the reaction of readers of the News Shopper website has been nothing short of venomous; I have said on several occasions that the un-moderated talkback feature on the News Shopper website would sooner or later get them into hot water with the authorities, and I am wondering if this is the story that causes it. In essence, the heated mudslinging seems to be divided into three camps: The first are people claiming to be McKinley’s direct family, claiming what a good person he was. The second group are those who claim to know him and say what a bad lad he was, and the third group would seem to be people who have read a little bit about the story, and have jumped to their own, sometimes wildly improbable conclusions. Those writers who really are in the know about the background to the murder should definitely not be posting information online; they should be talking to the Police in confidence. Everyone else should really be very careful of anything they post online, as it has the potential to influence a future court case. I only know what I read about the case, and that amounts to very little indeed. I am sure that more detail will come out as the case is investigated.

The ending video this week is another cookery lesson from the excellent Titli Nihaan. Will someone please give her a TV series? Comments and feedback below.


  1. Hugh,
    I have been using e-cigarettes regularly since September 22nd 2012, having been a cigarette smoker since before I was sixteen. When I started smoking it was not seen as dangerous as we now know it to be. At the time that I switched to e-cigs I was smoking about 30 tobacco cigarettes a day. I am shortly to retire from work, when my finances will require more scrutiny than when I was working and the e-cigarettes are costing me a quarter of the cost of the equivalent number of tobacco cigarettes. As regrads health, I no longer have a rasping cough, and my voice is much clearer. There are a number of companies selling e-cigarettes, and also what they describe as e-juice, which is the liquid nicotine product that can be used to replenish used 'cartomisers'. as for the legal position, all sites that sell the products claim that they are perfectly legal to use indoors, in pubs, cinemas, and also on planes, although I have yet to try that option. I have used e-cigarettes in pubs, locally and in the City, and have not yet been taken to task. The maitre d of a restaurant in the West End, welcomed me with a large drag of his own e-cig, having seen me taking my last drags before entering the restaurant. I was pulled up by a security guard at the Clarendon Hotel, Blackheath, but when I explained and demonstrated the e-cig, he laughed and waved me on. I have not yet been asked or told to desist.
    I have not smoked a cigarette for 147 days now, and will hopefully be able to ween myself off of the e-cigarettes in time.
    Thanks for the blog, I read every Sunday afternoon, and always find it informative and interesting. Keep it up. Dave.

    1. Hugh,
      Ever the early adopter that I am back in January 2011 I bought some of the first E-cigs available in the UK via our online friends up the jungle. I only needed them for a month and in the end of this month it will be 2 years since any tobacco product has entered my body. I used to smoke something like 30 to 40 roll ups a day, around 150grams a week. 2 years ago people were very tolerant of me using them in doors but now I have noticed that people are being put of using them in pubs etc as the managers so that people think they are the real thing or just ignorance in the law. Shame really because if you have to go outside and join the smokers in their pit you may as well smoke the real thing.