Sunday, June 30, 2013

Trouble on the jetty.

If you are a visitor to the News Shopper website, you may recognise the photo above. It is one of a series that the local paper is currently using to illustrate a story that happened on Wednesday this week; luckily I was in the vicinity at the time of the incident, and took some photos which the News Shopper have published. I was walking home from Erith station after having spent the day working in Canary Wharf. I had stopped off as usual to pick up a few things in Morrison's, and was cutting across the car park on route to Pewty Acres. I heard the distinctive gas turbine whine of a helicopter engine, and seconds later a Police helicopter swooped very low over my head. "Blimey!" I thought; "The Police Safer Neighbourhood Team must have really cracked down on shoplifting!" It appeared that the pilot was somewhat unfamiliar with the area, and was getting his bearings. He climbed over Morrison's and then the chopper hovered over what appeared to be the Erith Riverside Gardens. I made a speedy trip home, picked up my camera, along with my 18-300mm Nikon zoom lens, and made my way as speedily as possible to the river front. A fair sized crowd had already gathered on Erith Pier and along the riverside gardens. The old wooden jetty adjacent to Erith Rowing Club was literally crawling with Police; there was a Police river patrol vessel, and an RNLI RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) also in attendance - as you can see from my photo above. Click on it for a larger version. The suspect was wanted by the Police; he had allegedly assaulted a person outside of Erith Health Centre. The Health Centre staff hit their panic button, and the Police then arrived, and chased him into the Riverside Gardens, where they appeared to lose him. He spoke to two women he apparently knew, when suddenly the Police caught sight of him, and he rushed onto the jetty. Fearful that the suspect might jump into the river, the Police did not follow him, but waited in the Riverside Gardens. He jumped in anyway. The Police helicopter and motor launch were called, and the RNLI inshore vessel was nearby, as the crew were undergoing training. They all turned up very quickly, and the man was pulled out of the water after only eight minutes. He tried to resist being rescued by the RNLI, who managed to wrap him in a blanket for his own protection. The suspect was taken to hospital for a checkup, was found to be OK, and was then arrested for assault and affray. I am not aware of any date for a court hearing yet. Local rumour is that he was also wanted for a number of other, previous offences, but I don't currently have any details of these. I was later interviewed by a reporter from the News Shopper; I think they were looking for some kind of sensationalist angle on the story, but I could only give them the facts as I had witnessed them; much of the action had taken place before I arrived on site, and I really only managed to capture the emergency services doing an excellent job of managing the situation. 
The situation with Bexley council meetings and their ban on recordings has now got to what seems to be farcical proportions. The News Shopper have reported in depth on the story, quoting the person at the centre of the issue, a local chap called Nicholas Dowling, who took a digital audio recorder to the public realm, community safety, economic development and regeneration overview and scrutiny committee meeting on June the 19th. I have to admit that he could not have picked a more innocuous and uncontroversial meeting to attend, or at least so it would have seemed beforehand. Once Dowling entered the council chamber and announced that he was going to record the proceedings, quoting the statement made by Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, that the public are allowed to record and blog about Council meetings, in order to ensure accountability and a sense of openness. This was countered by Councillor Cheryl Bacon, the chair of the meeting refused to permit recording. She moved the meeting into a secondary chamber and also called the Police when Dowling initially refused to leave. From my understanding, the Police arrived some three quarters of an hour later and actually took no direct action. The supreme irony of the whole ridiculous situation is that the digital sound recorder that Nicholas Dowling used was not actually working! A great way to make a point though. Dowling was interviewed by the News Shopper and was quoted as saying ”Councillors need to stop thinking of themselves as a select little club where the members do as they please. To eject me for merely highlighting to them that I had every right to record their meeting indicates a fear of real accountability”. I could not have put it better myself. I have had accounts of this farcical situation from a couple of independent sources; it is apparent both to me and a lot of other people with an interest in the subject, that Bexley Council acts more like governor of a Siberian Gulag than the responsible custodian of a minor outer London suburban borough. It seems that others feel the same; the News Shopper conducted an (admittedly unscientific) reader poll as to what local people felt about the situation. At the time of writing, 82% of the respondents are in overall favour of council meetings being recorded, with 51% saying that meetings should also be broadcast live online. What is also disturbing is the different account of what actually transpired during the meeting, with a council spokesperson saying “A member of the public was asked to leave the meeting on June 19th after they were asked to stop recording on several occasions. Their subsequent behaviour was so disruptive that it was impossible for the meeting to continue. The meeting was moved to another room after the person causing the disruption refused to leave”. This appears to be contradicted by observations from third parties, and also by the Police. The only “disturbance” was that Mr. Dowling refused to leave the council chamber – there was no other disturbance or any hint of violence, either implied or actual, as the Police confirmed in their statement, where an officer said “Police attended at 8.25pm at which time the group dispersed peacefully. No offences had been committed and there were no arrests”. On top of this, one of my regular informants, who was present at the meeting, and a witness to the whole incident told me "The council is wrong to say that anyone but Nicholas was warned but they are trying to build it up into a riot. The police were called to evict Nicholas, not me or anyone else as is implied. Holding a public meeting in closed session is illegal under the 1972 Local Government Act. Bexley are trying to cover this by saying we could have followed them to the other room but we expressly asked to be allowed to do that and were refused". This does not sit well with the account the council made. Just why they would appear to twist the truth is something I am probably better leaving to Malcolm Knight of Bexley is Bonkers to explore. As I wrote last week, one of my other well – placed informants is strongly of the opinion that webcasting council meetings would soon bore most viewers, as the average meeting is filled with procedure and does not make for engaging viewing. Nevertheless, at present, Bexley Council are in direct contravention in Government guidelines, and the fact that they wish to remain unaccountable to the council tax paying borough residents is deeply alarming. Eric Pickles' deputy, Brandon Lewis, has given Bexley Council a verbal slippering over the whole issue. He said "To call the police to a public council meeting is an interesting use of their time at best. I think it is a real shame and Bexley Council should be embracing transparency. It seems the complete antithesis of what they are there for to be against this kind of public involvement. I don’t see why any publicly elected councillor should have a problem with being filmed - MPs are filmed in parliament whenever we speak". The council are acting as though they believe themselves to be an unaccountable totalitarian regime. Let us not forget that they are elected by us and (supposedly) accountable to us, as we employ them by paying our not inconsiderable council taxes. It does seem that the whole situation is now blowing up in their pasty and over - paid faces, with the story getting more attention as other online publications are beginning to cover it. It will be interesting to see where this story goes next. The London Evening Standard perhaps?

The University of Kent at Canterbury are about to begin a large project which may well be of interest to Maggot Sandwich readers. You may not be aware that the award winning, late comedienne Linda Smith was born and raised in Erith. She attended Erith (now Bexley) College, and then went on to study English and Drama at the University of Sheffield. After graduating, she went into professional theatre before starting a career as a stand – up comic. She appeared in a lot of small venues – comedy and social clubs, where she really learned her trade; in 1987 she won the award of “Hackney Empire New Act of the Year”. Shortly thereafter she appeared in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where she met with critical and some limited commercial success. It was when she made the move into radio comedy where Linda really began to make her mark. She was a regular panellist on The News Quiz, Just a Minute and I’m Sorry I Haven’t Got a Clue for BBC Radio 4, and on TV with Qi, Mock the Week and Countdown. She also starred in her own BBC Radio 4 sitcom “Linda Smith’s A Brief History of Time Wasting”. Linda Smith once did a whole stand up routine on what it was like to live in Erith, most memorably saying “Erith isn’t twinned with anywhere, but it does have a mutual suicide pact with Dagenham”! in 2002 BBC Radio 4 listeners voted Linda Smith as “Wittiest Living Person”. In a cruel irony, she died of ovarian cancer in 2006; she was only 48 years old.  Her life partner, Warren Larking has recently been working with The University of Kent to archive her work. Like many comedians, Linda Smith recorded every performance she made – mainly to find out what jokes and stories worked with her audience, and those that did not. Warren Larkin inherited this cast collection of cassettes, video tapes and CD’s upon her death, and has now decided to donate the thousands of hours of recording to The University of Kent, so that they can digitise the recordings before the magnetic tape deteriorates to the point where it becomes unplayable.  The head of Drama at the University, Professor Double said of the collection” “Having her complete work is incredible. Usually we just hear the ‘best of’ compilations, but this collection includes off-air work so you can hear how she developed her skills and when things go a bit wonky. It is still early days, but ultimately it would be great if we can get most of this available online, much like the history of cartoons archive the university has, but that is some way in to the future.  We have the time consuming job of going through it all first to see exactly what we have. It is an exciting time.” This all sounds like excellent news – Linda Smith was an important comic and writer, and one of the few people from Erith to make a name for themselves outside of the local area.

Whilst walking to the office from Canary Wharf Docklands Light Railway station, I cut through the underground shopping centre. If you have not tried it, the Canary Wharf shopping centre is a bit of an eye opener. Don’t go expecting to find a convenient branch of Netto or Primark; it is so upmarket that it makes the (admittedly far larger) Bluewater look positively dowdy in comparison. If your thing includes stores like Tiffany and Charles Fish, then you are not in for a disappointment – you can see watches with price tags on the thick end of £60,000 displayed in more than one shop window. The place is very much set up to relieve bankers of their huge bonuses in the most discreet and stylish way possible. Not really my cup of tea to be honest; the upside of all this extravagance is that the place does provide a lot of jobs for “normal” people – shop workers, security guards, cleaning staff and administrators, amongst many other trades all make a living because of the whole Canary Wharf edifice. One constantly hears about the “fat cat bankers” and stories of obscene bonuses for the elite in the Wharf. One never hears anything about the vast majority of reasonably paid people who do every day jobs in the business hub. I would estimate that the uber – paid make up only around five or six percent of people working in Canary Wharf; the reality is that most people employed in the area earn regular salaries – but this doesn’t make for a good press story – hence the public impression that Canary Wharf is paved with gold. I digress; Whilst I was walking through the aforementioned shopping centre mid week, I was stopped by a bloke who was part of a small team working on a stand on the shopping centre concourse. They were promoting the Microsoft Surface tablet computers. The chap was trying to interest me in one of the devices, to which I told him that he was flogging a dead horse, and walked off.  The Microsoft surface family of tablet / notebook computers looks initially like a really good idea – a thin and well made tablet PC running Windows 8, with an optional detachable keyboard. There are two models, with differing solid state storage abilities. The models are known as the RT and the professional; the RT is aimed at students, it uses an ARM processor (a first for Microsoft) which means it is light, cool running and has a long battery life. All this sounds great, but the downside of running on an ARM processor is that no normal Windows software will run on it – any software needs to be recompiled to run on the non standard (for Windows) processor architecture. Very few software companies have released application software for the Surface RT, and this has caused a bit of a feedback loop. People won’t buy the surface RT, as there is little software for the machine, and developers won’t port stuff to the machine as few people are buying them. The story is a little different for the Surface Pro; it uses a conventional Intel processor, and thus can run any and all Windows software, which is what users really want. The down side to running a “full fat” desktop processor chip is that the unit runs hot. And I mean really hot! It has a short battery life as well – more on this point in a minute. Both the RT and the Pro versions of the Surface are very expensive for what they are. The entry level 32Gb RT model is £399, about a hundred quid more than an equivalent ARM based Android tablet. Not only that, but neither versions of the Surface come with the keyboards that they are invariably pictured with in all promotional materials. The keyboard is £100 extra on both models. In practical terms, this means that the entry level RT is £479 with the current “special offer” Microsoft are making to promote the machine – bearing in mind this model cannot run normal Windows software. For this price a user could buy a “real” mid – range laptop running Windows 8, and capable of running anything written for Windows for this price. At the other end of the spectrum, the top end Surface Pro 128Gb model with the keyboard comes out at £899 – getting into Macbook territory at this price point. To add insult to injury, both the RT and Pro models share a couple of absolutely clunking design faults. The lesser of the two is pretty astonishing; with the attached keyboard it is essentially a laptop – but a laptop that you cannot use on your lap. The little stand that pops out of the back of the screen unit is wobbly and unstable when perched on a persons’ knees. It is only practically usable when parked on a desk. The second problem is an utter howler. Both the keyboard and the tablet components of the Surface range have separate batteries. One would have thought that when working on battery power that the keyboard would discharge first, so that when it became dead, the tablet component could continue under its’ own power. Unfortunately this is not the case. On battery power the tablet discharges first, so that when it runs out of juice, you have a fully functioning and completely useless keyboard unit. Someone really did not think this product design through properly. If none of this puts you off either Surface product, I would strongly advise you to hold fire on buying one. Stories in the IT trade say that Microsoft has warehouses full of the tablets that that have been unable to shift. It is likely the prices will be slashed to try and recoup some of the investment, even if this means selling them at a loss. This could mean a bargain for the consumer if you wait until the retail price gets slashed.

I have been banging on about the appalling  “Scores on the Doors” health ratings that have been awarded to a lot of local food outlets. The only fast food establishments in Erith with 5 star hygiene ratings are McDonald’s and KFC – neither of which are the kind of food I want to eat; effectively this has meant that I just don’t eat out locally, or phone for a takeaway, as I cannot be certain of the state of cleanliness in which the meal was prepared. Just for once there is some good news regarding one particular local takeaway. Chilli Chill Indian takeaway in Riverdale Road was recently re – inspected; it was one of the local restaurants that had scored a zero out of five star rating last year. I wrote not that long ago that I felt that the place should have been shut down until such time as it could meet the minimum acceptable hygiene level of a three star rating. Well, whilst Chilli Chill did not close down, it has improved its rating and indeed now does merit a three star award. Let’s hope that it can improve still further by the time of its’ next inspection. A new outlet in Erith Riverside Shopping Centre has been inspected and rated for the first time this May – the Nemesis Health and Nutrition Centre, which is part of the Nemesis Gym and Thai Boxing Centre. Unfortunately the Nemesis centre in actuality provides neither health or nutrition, as it only just scraped a one star rating – which equates to a “Major Improvement Necessary” according to the Scores on the Doors website. You would have thought that an organisation whose central aim is health and wellbeing (as well as equipping its’ members to beat people to a bloody pulp) would have taken more care over the cleanliness of its’ catering arrangements. Maybe they will now be shamed into making improvements? I still note that no independent takeaways in and around Erith actually display their star rating certificate in the window. I wonder why?

And now, for the ending video; I did consider something thoughtful and with a deep meaning for the end of this weeks' entry. Then I thought, what the hell - here is a bloke playing "Thunderstruck" By AC/DC on a set of bagpipes that would appear to be cross bred with a flame thrower. AC/DC, bagpipes and flames - what's not to like? Please feel to leave a comment below.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant new look to blog site Hugh, and I really do get a lot of useful info on a lot of local issues and happenings. Will someone do something about the Untouchable by Law Bexley Council. Love the Bag Pipes video at the end. keep up the good work Buddy!