Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Which? report.

Last Sunday I spent a large part of the day in or around Erith Pier. I originally went round there specifically to photograph the workers from environmental charity Thames 21 as they coordinated a large group of local army cadets as they removed shopping trolleys and other detritus from the mud by the river bank and underneath Erith Pier.  If you read last weeks’ update you will have seen a few photos that I took at the time. I got talking to a couple of Maggot Sandwich readers who recognised me, and we had a very pleasant chat – thanks for your complimentary comments, ladies! A little later I talked to an elderly gentleman who was one of the people who regularly fish from Erith Pier. He was very unhappy about the ships that moor on the pier; he felt that they were doing a degree of damage to the structure of the pier. I must admit that I found this argument a little strange, as the pier was originally designed specifically as a mooring point for large ships. It has only relatively recently become a leisure resource as well as a point for marine vessels to tie up to. We had a very pleasant chat, and I soon had a pretty good picture of what was really going on. There is a fair degree of damage to the wooden blocks that form a protective rubbing strip along the water facing horizontal edge of the pier, as you can clearly see in the bottom left corner of the photo above, that I took at the time - click on it to enlarge for easier viewing. The wood that makes up these blocks is old, and in many places it is also rotten. The movement of moored ships against the rotten blocks is slowly causing them to fall apart. This rubbing strip is designed to be sacrificial – that is, to take damage, rather than impart damage to the ship, so seeing damage to the wood is actually not surprising. What will be important is will the affected blocks be replaced before too much longer? The chap I was talking to had been in contact with a number of authorities, including the Port of London Authority (PLA) and Morrison’s property department. It would seem that nobody wishes to take responsibility for the pier. I can see why he would have a element of concern. It did become apparent that the people who regularly fish on the pier have formed a pressure group to try and “defend” the pier against any influences that would impair their ability to fish on it. Putting two and two together, and asking a few questions, it seems that the fishermen deeply resent the ships that moor on the pier, and would rather that they were not there. Personally I think that the pier is a resource that is open and should be shared by all. The ships are there for a reason – they are hauling spoil and muck excavated from the Crossrail project tunnels and other civil engineering, and there is no way that anything which risks impacting that multi billion pound transport infrastructure project will be allowed.  I did try and persuade the chap that a “live and let live” attitude would be more conducive to good relations, but I feel my words fell on deaf ears. The fishermen would seem to want to keep the pier for themselves, which is simply not going to happen. On a lighter note, the chap did introduce me to a group of his friends – three retired gentlemen who regaled me with a number of tales about the history of the area that I had not heard before. I will be recounting a couple of these stories in due course. They did seem to me to be an Erith version of the characters from "Last of the Summer Wine".

Please don’t think that I am in any way ignoring the events that occurred in Woolwich this week; indeed I have been sent photos taken by eye witnesses during the course of the terrible murder – one of my regular sources of local information actually works in an office in very close proximity to the crime scene. I just feel that the whole incident has been covered in great detail by the mainstream media, and I don’t have anything unique to add to the account – indeed the sometimes wild speculation on some social media websites may cloud the investigation. I feel that it may be several months before the story behind the murder, and the motivation of the perpetrators really comes to full public light. I think that many more column inches will be written on the horrible incident over the next few months; I just don’t feel that it is appropriate for me to add to them.

On  lighter note, over the past year or so, there have been a steady trickle of thirtieth anniversaries in the IT world. There is another one this week; it is both the 30th anniversary of the launch of Lotus 1-2-3 in Europe, and the week when the venerable application falls out of support by its’ current owner, IBM. Lotus 1-2-3 was not the first computer spreadsheet – that honour falls to Visicalc, which invented the entire concept of a spreadsheet on anything more than just a piece of paper. When Lotus 1-2-3 came along, it became the first “killer app” – a piece of software so powerful and compelling that businesses would buy a computer, specifically a PC running MS-DOS just to be able to run it.  1-2-3 really ignited the 1980’s PC revolution, and for several years it was the de facto spreadsheet standard, with many third party companies writing plug-ins and macros specifically to add specialist functionality to the “out of the box” spreadsheet. It was not until the early 1990’s that the dominance of 1-2-3 was ended by the arrival of the now all conquering Microsoft Excel, which is still by far the most dominant spreadsheet application today, although cloud based alternatives like Google Docs Spreadsheet are now making headway.  IBM, which have owned the Lotus brand since 1995 are exiting the desktop software market and closing down the whole Lotus brand for good. Goodbye Lotus 1-2-3, you kicked off the Personal Computer revolution.

It does not happen very often, but right now I can honestly say that “I told you so”. As you may have seen in the national press over the last couple of days, Which? Magazine is reporting in its’ June issue the postcode areas of DA7 and DA8 in the London Borough of Bexley have been rated as having the worst food hygiene standards in its’ restaurants and takeaways of anywhere in the United Kingdom. Six out of the ten worst rated post codes for the entire country are in Bexley. This has been reported by the BBC, Sky News and a host of other news outlets.  Regular readers of the Maggot Sandwich will recall that I have been  banging on about the issue of food hygiene standards, and the “Scores on the Doors” scheme for quite some time. To his credit, fellow local Blogger Malcolm Knight of the Bexley is Bonkers site has also been featuring the ongoing local problem with food outlets with poor hygiene ratings, and by virtue of daily posting, he has beaten me to the scoop on the story, as I only “go to press” on a Sunday. One could say that at least Bexley comes top in one poll – even if it is an award that the area would really rather not have.  As I have previously written, one thing concerns me about the rating system. I have yet to see any evidence that the same standards and metrics are used by different local authorities. It is possible that Bexley is more rigorous and demanding in its’ testing that other boroughs – I really don’t know, but it is important to take the results of the survey at more than face value. After speaking to a couple of shop keepers who have been subject to the “Scores on the Doors” examination, it seems that the inspection consists mainly of a person with a laptop asking the shop proprietor questions, which are then input onto a spreadsheet, which then automatically generates a score based on the aggregated results.  I also am aware that part of the score is weighted by a pre – inspection questionnaire which is supposed to be completed by the shop owner. The problem would appear to be that the form is quite dense and difficult to complete – more so when you consider many independent fast food outlets are owned and run be people who do not have English as their first language. After an admittedly totally non – scientific ask around of friends and acquaintances, the feeling seems to be that the problem with both the rating system and the public perception of it is that very little of the process is compulsory. The consensus of opinion I have gathered is that 1) The inspections should be run on a nationally agreed basis, with standard methodologies and a uniform rating structure. 2) It should be compulsory for all food outlets to display their “Scores on the Doors” award sticker in a prominent position; failure to so do would result in a hefty fine. 3) All outlets should have to achieve a three out of five star rating to avoid penalty action. Outlets scoring one or two stars should get a written warning with a check list of areas which needed to be improved. The shop would be allowed to continue trading for the improvement period, of say, a month. At the end of the improvement period the place would be re – inspected and graded again. If the hygiene level had improved to rate a three star or better rating, the improvement notice would be cancelled, and the shop then allowed to trade normally. If the rating had not improved, the outlet would be closed down until such time as the rating improved, or the place went out of business. What every person I ran this proposed policy past was unanimous  that any food outlet scoring a zero out of five stars should be shut with immediate effect, given a month to bring the hygiene rating up to a minimum of a three star rating, and if it failed it should then be permanently closed with no exceptions.  The problem with this is that it requires a level of staffing and enforcement that I doubt that Bexley council (or indeed many councils both in London and elsewhere) would be able to support. There are simply not enough health inspectors to go around, or money available to support such a stringent regime. The problem thus remains; It concerns me that we could end up in a similar situation to that which happened in Hornchurch last Christmas, where diners at the Railway Inn pub suffered severe food poisoning. Thirty people were ill, and one woman died as a result of the tainted food. I worry that the same kind of thing could very easily happen on the doorstep of Erith, Bexleyheath and Northumberland Heath. Until such time as the health inspectors can get some real enforcement teeth, the only way to force things to improve is by market forces. If more people regularly use and refer to the “Scores on the Doors” website for their particular area, and strenuously avoid any food outlets with a rating of three or more stars out of five, then the lower rating places will either be forced to improve, or they will go bust. Let us make this happen. Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

Don't forget that next Sunday is the Erith Riverside Festival. The event is free to attend and takes place in Erith Riverside Gardens from 10am until 4pm - it is organised by a tiny handful of unpaid volunteers who really don't get the credit that they richly deserve. Hopefully the weather will be a major improvement on the washout of last year. I always attend the event with my camera. If you see me wandering around, do come over to say hello and to introduce yourself. You never know, you could end up being featured here!

The whole issue in respect of new crossings for the Thames to the east of London is polarising local opinion. Some of the most succinct and well written coverage of the whole matter can be found on Darryl Chamberlain’s excellent “853” blog, which mainly concentrates on the Charlton and Woolwich areas (the name 853 comes from the now long discontinued telephone dialling code for that area).  Darryl makes no secret of his opposition to any new river crossings in any form, as true to his green views, people should be discouraged from using private vehicles wherever possible. Some might counter this by saying that Darryl wants Londoners to return to an era of living in mud huts and eating twigs, and that better transport links across the river would stimulate growth and create new jobs. Personally I am pretty ambivalent about the whole thing – I can see valid arguments on both sides of the discussion. On balance I feel that whilst there are far more cars in London than twenty or so years ago, the level of population rise compared with the increase in cars has not kept up. There are more cars than people. A person can only drive one car at a time, so it would seem logical to me that provision of river crossings to mirror those to the West of central London would be the best way to ensure that businesses and private individuals can navigate around the capital with a minimum of fuss and disruption. As a caveat to this, I also feel that the provision of better public transport that crosses the river is also vital. I think a "joined up" transport policy really needs to be put in place to prevent the primacy of private over public transportation - the playing field needs to be level for both sides.

Further to the news about the absolutely shockingly poor levels of food hygiene in local eateries, you may be tempted to cook something at home instead. Below is a curry recipe of my own invention that you may like to try - click on it for a larger version for print - out. Apologies that it is not a PDF; unfortunately Blogger does not support the PDF file format. If you give it a try, do let me know what you think of the dish. 
Long – time Maggot Sandwich readers will recall that I have a historical background in free radio (what some people incorrectly call pirate radio). In the late 1980’s I worked on a number of radio stations; some legitimate, others less so. I started off on Bexleyheath based station Radio Lumberjack (the most fun I ever had on air – I just wish some archive recordings would turn up online). At the same time I spent a short spell as a weekend programme assistant on what was then BBC Radio London – I would come home from a day at the “Beeb” to then go out and do an evening show for Lumberjack – I was even able to nick the old BBC news scripts for use on Lumberjack! Around this time I was also working as a volunteer on Meridian Radio – the hospital radio service that was syndicated to the Brook, Queen Elizabeth military and the Memorial hospitals, as well as providing programming content for BFBS (the British Forces Broadcasting Service). Later I became involved in the shore – side support for Radio Caroline; eventually I became a full time crew member and parts of 1989 and a large chunk of 1990 at sea. I started off doing a daytime show that was heavily formatted (you get told what to play and when). This did not really suit my rather laid back style, and I soon transferred to an overnight slot, where I was able to play album oriented music – which suited me, and by my post bag, the listeners too. All this was pre – world wide web. Nowadays there are a multitude of online radio stations, offering every genre of music and talk. One new such station has been recently set up by Gary Drew of well known shortwave station Laser Hot Hits. His new station has a historically significant name; it is called Radio 2LO – named after the second, pre BBC radio station that was used by the Marconi Wireless Company to make test broadcasts to parts of Essex and Greater London from May, 1922. The new Radio 2LO is a bit of a different beast – you can see that stations’ website and listen online by clicking here

I don't normally feature the same kind of ending video two weeks in a row; I am making an exception this time; I had a lot of interest about classic 1979 ITV historical wartime drama "Danger UXB" last week - one person even commented that they clearly recalled one episode featuring anti personnel "Butterfly Bombs". Well here is that very episode in full.  I recall that after this episode was originally broadcast, a number of genuine butterfly bombs were discovered in people's lofts and garden sheds, as people who had watched the show realised that what they had thought was a harmless bit of wartime junk was actually a deadly anti personnel weapon. Both the Sun and the Mirror featured drawings of the weapons to allow people to more easily identify them, and around half a dozen were picked up and defused - many years after the end of the war. The last person to be killed by a Nazi butterfly bomb was a chap in Malta in 1981; the last bomb unearthed was also in Malta in October 2009, by an eleven year old boy, who had the sense to leave it alone for the professionals to defuse in a proper manner.


  1. great blog :-) scores on the doors have a nice app for android (and im guessing iOS too) which can show local outlets on a map and let you see the score. I always invoke this before frequenting a new place. it would seem the nearest safe kebab shop to me (orpington) is in Bexley village :-(

  2. I loved 'Lotus' - well, still do and still put it on each new computer ( always issued with a incompatibility warning, but it always works)