Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Thamesmead Grump.

The photo above was taken by photographer and Erith resident Petras Gagilas from from high up in one of the now demolished tower blocks on the Larner Road housing estate, now renamed Erith Park. It shows the view looking North East over Erith Town Centre and the River Thames. You can see more of Petras's excellent photographs by clicking here.

As I was getting ready for work earlier this week, I heard a loud thump as something came through the letter box of Pewty Acres. I went downstairs, mystified. I had not ordered anything online, and whatever had come through the door had made a pretty substantial noise as it landed on the door mat. It turned out to be a copy of Yellow Pages. You may recall that some months ago I bemoaned being sent a hard copy of the local telephone directory, which I felt was a waste of resources as very few people use it nowadays. My copy went straight round to the recycling point, unread. I later found out from Malcolm Knight (who, before retirement was the guru behind the compilation of all UK telephone directories) that it is still a legal requirement for BT to produce a hard copy directory for every household. This is not the case for the Yellow Pages, which has indeed shrunk to a shadow of its’ former size. I know that has taken over for much of their business, and I don’t know how they can justify still stuffing the paper directories through everyone in the local areas’ letter box. Mine has gone for recycling. I strongly feel that there ought to be an “opt in” option for those who still need a hard copy of the book. I doubt the level of take up would be very high.  What do you think? Do you still hanker after the reassuring bulk of the printed directory, or do you prefer to browse for traders and contractors online?

You may have seen the story about Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, and how this week marks the thirtieth anniversary of how his inaction may well have saved the world from nuclear annihilation. Back in September 1983 Petrov was the officer in charge of a missile warning unit just outside of Moscow. The unit had not long commissioned a (then) state of the art missile warning system that used satellites to look over America for the distinctive infra red heat signature of a nuclear missile’s rocket engine as it launched. The new monitoring system repeatedly sounded an alarm to say that a single missile had been launched; Petrov was aware that the system was riddled with bugs, and could not believe that the Americans would only launch a single missile. He reset the system, which went off a total of five separate times. Petrov should have got on the hotline to his superiors to warn of an impending attack. This would have almost certainly started World War 3. Instead, Petrov waited – and the predicted missile attack did not happen. Later investigations determined that the spy satellites the detection system employed had been fooled into thinking a launch was in progress by sunlight reflected off some high altitude clouds. Only Stansilav Petrov’s cool thinking and common sense averted the possible end of the world. One would have thought Petrov would have been lauded for his actions; instead he was made to take early retirement and pensioned off into obscurity for not following procedure, something regarded as unforgivable under the old Soviet regime. One would think that the world would now be a far safer place after the collapse of the communist regime and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the reality may be something rather different. Since last weeks’ dreadful terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, I have been giving thought to the whole international terror situation. It would seem that Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda sponsored terrorist groups are getting their acts together after a couple of years of being on the back foot, following the Americans successfully killing Osama Bin Laden and gaining a huge amount of physical intelligence on his global terror network. The Americans and their allies have been able to use much of this to hit the terrorists where it hurts – closing bank accounts, diverting funds away from front organisations and also directly by supporting efforts by friendly governments to counter the terrorist threat. To be honest, the Westgate incident is a real boon for the bad guys – the World’s press covers the tragic event in minute detail, giving the criminal organisation much needed publicity, causing fear in the West (and hurting the Kenyan tourist industry, on which a sizeable part of their economy depends); it also boosts the kudos of Al Qaeda in countries which have sympathy with the extreme Islamacist group. From their point of view, the loss of a handful of low level foot soldiers is more than paid off by the results, in their sick and twisted world view.  The problem is that terrorists all backgrounds want more than this – they have not had a proper “spectacular” since 2001 and the World Trade Center attacks. The propaganda benefit (in their view) has been boosted by the continual repeating of the disturbing images of the towers coming down ad infinitum on television, and via sources like YouTube. All of this has indirectly played into the terrorists’ hands. Nevertheless, they have not innovated, or moved on to other outrages in the meantime. Not long ago, the History Channel featured a documentary outlining what would happen if terrorists managed to detonate a 10Kt nuclear weapon in Washington DC. Suffice to say, that even with the extensive planning and preparation, along with the huge resources their emergency services can muster, the results were not encouraging.  A ten kiloton weapon is actually rather a small weapon by nuclear standards, but it is within the technical capabilities of a worryingly large number of people. A physicist friend of mine once sat me down in a pub (The Fox in Upper Belvedere, since you ask) with a pad of paper and a pencil and sketched out how a terrorist could construct a viable nuclear weapon. If you search around online, you can find a large amount of detailed information on how to make a bomb, though I would not encourage you so to do, as you might well end up with a knock on your door! Suffice to say it is actually rather simple. All you need is a six foot long heavy cast iron drainage pipe (the heavier the better). One end of the pipe needs to have a very thick, Tungsten Carbide coated iron plate welded to the end, sealing it. The last eighteen inches of the pipe at the sealed end also needs to be treated with a layer of Tungsten Carbide - (Tungsten Carbide acts as a "Happy Shopper" neutron reflector, making sure as many neutrons get bounced back into the warhead when it reaches a critical mass and goes into a runaway cascade reaction - getting a bigger bang. Boron is a far better neutron reflector, but it is very expensive, brittle and hard to work). On the inside of the sealed end, you need a sub critical mass of weapons grade (90% pure) Uranium 235 shaped like a plug. At the other end of the pipe you need another welded iron plate – no Tungsten Carbide needed at this end. On the inside face of this, you need a container filled with gun cotton or gun powder – a low explosive (high explosive would physically blow the weapon apart before a critical nuclear reaction could occur, causing a “fizzle”). In front of the explosive charge would be a tamper made of Tungsten Carbide, in front of which was a cup shaped second sub critical mass of weapons grade Uranium 235. To detonate the weapon, you set off the low explosive, pushing the cup shaped uranium piece down the barrel and directly over the plug shaped piece so that they form a critical mass; as the pieces come together, a neutron emitter sprays a stream of high energy neutrons into the mass, initiating a runaway nuclear reaction, and a very large bang indeed.  That is pretty much all there is to it. Refinements (if you can call them that) to this design would be to embed the iron pipe in about a ton of concrete. This holds the weapon together for a few microseconds longer, meaning that more of the super critical mass of uranium gets to react before it is blown apart and the nuclear reaction stops. Another way to make the thing even more awful is to wrap the pipe exterior in cobalt, which increases the radioactive fallout massively. The level of knowledge and skill to produce a crude weapon of this type is not particularly high; anyone with a good physics degree and a fair level of engineering skills could do it. To construct the weapon any fair to middling machine shop would have the tools to produce it. The electronics to control the timing and to generate the stream of neutrons can all be obtained from an old tube – type television and the guts of a microwave oven. No fancy components are required. The difficulty is in getting the fissile material. It is publicly known that at least a dozen attempts to sell weapons grade material have been made from Russia alone. The head of the Russian nuclear defence forces was quoted as saying that fissile materials were “less well guarded than the potato store” for several years in the 1990’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is known that an amount of material went missing during this period, but lax accounting means that they don’t actually know how much. The primitive bomb design I have outlined would only work with Uranium 235. Plutonium, the other radioactive metal used in nuclear weapons is more efficient, in that you get a bigger “bang per buck” for a given mass of material, but it is not suitable for a terrorist type “gun” weapon, as the two sub critical masses start reacting and go critical too early, blowing the weapon apart and “fizzling” before a nuclear explosion happens. On top of this, Plutonium is a horrible metal – it is very hard to machine (it has to be cut and shaped by lathe in a inert gas environment, as tiny scraps of Plutonium react with the oxygen in air, releasing poisonous gas; indeed, forgetting the radioactive properties of Plutonium, as a metal it is extremely poisonous – if you dealt with it unprotected, you would die of Plutonium poisoning long before you got radiation sickness. In effect this means that the “gun” type design most readily constructed is limited to Uranium 235 as an explosive. The “Gun” design was used in “Little Boy” – the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. So confident were the scientists and engineers on the Manhattan Project that the design would work , that they never tested it. The first time the design was proved was when it was used to obliterate Hiroshima. “Little Boy” contained 64 kilos of Uranium 235; the primitive design meant that less than 2 kilos of the warhead actually underwent fission, the rest was blown away before it could react; even this was enough to effectively wipe the city from the map and to kill and wound nearly 200,000 people, almost all of whom were non – combatants. The implications of this in a modern terrorism context make very uncomfortable reading.  A weapon that is relatively easy to construct from materials that are commonly available, with the exception of the material for the warhead – and it is known that Al Qaeda have sponsors with very deep pockets indeed. The purchase of weapons grade Uranium 235 is within the realms of possibility. I think that we have a situation of when, rather than if this will come to pass. Every Western large city is a potential target, but I personally think the most vulnerable cities for such an attack are 1) Washington DC (the U.S capital and centre of both government and the judiciary) 2) New York City (high profile target and a good follow up to the World Trade Center atrocity) and 3) London – capital of a staunch American ally and a country with very porous borders – smuggling in either  the fissile materials, or the pre – made bomb would be very easy indeed. To illustrate the carnage and destruction even a “small” ten kiloton home brew weapon would wreak, I have created the image below – please click for a larger view.  It shows a simulation engine that interfaces with Google Maps. The NukeMap simulator uses the same data and calculation algorithms used by NATO to model nuclear weapons effects, and shows the results overlaid onto a map. You can select a weapon type and size, whether it would be detonated on the ground or in the air, and what damage criteria you want to display. The model also takes into account the prevailing wind in the area, and then predicts the path of the resulting radioactive fallout. The simulation I have selected show what would happen if Al Qaeda were to set off a 10 kiloton improvised weapon of the type I have described above, in the back garden of Pewty Acres. The results are worrying, to say the least.  The damage is not restricted to the shaded areas on the map – they merely show the worst affected parts. In reality every part of the map shown would suffer a degree of damage, as would the residents. Whilst Erith and its’ surrounding area are not as heavily populated as the centre of Hiroshima, the casualties could run into the tens of thousands.  I picked a local target rather than central London to illustrate how awful these weapons are in a locally relevant way. I don’t know what can be done to prevent an atrocity happening for real, but people need to realise that this scenario is not something limited to a Tom Clancy novel. Indeed, Tom Clancy wrote of a Boeing 747 being flown into the Congress building in his 1994 novel “Debt of Honour”, effectively predicting the 9/11 attacks by nearly seven years. He subsequently was recruited as an independent security advisor to George Bush jr on the strength of his technical knowledge and eye for the possible.
Whenever I feature an article about the history of Erith and the surrounding areas, I get very positive feedback from readers; I wish I could have history articles more regularly, but as the amount of information is finite, I have to ration it. Despite this situation, this week the Maggot Sandwich has a guest contributor; the gentleman in question has lived in and around Erith for many years, and has many memories of the old town centre, prior to its' demolition. As he is also one of my confidential contacts, he will remain anonymous...

My connections with the town go back two generations as my grandparents once lived at The Nursery, North End, my father went to the primary school there and he married my step mother from Crescent Road, Erith in the Baptist Chapel in Queen Street. My own knowledge of Erith probably starts in the mid 1950's when we used to pay our electricity bill at the LEB shop at the top of Pier Road having travelled there on the 122a bus. In the same parade of shops was the original Owens Ironmongers shop who used to fill the pavement outside with their wares. My grandmother used to take me for a Knickerbocker Glory ice cream treat at Dimasio's a little way down on the opposite side of Pier Road. Although I cannot remember all the shop names Barclays Bank was the the first premises on the south side of Pier Road, other shops were a mens clothing shop (Braybrook's or Clare's), a photographers (Gilbert's), a stationers (Randal's), Woolworth's, a bakers (VV Carrier) and a greengrocers.  On the bottom corner with the High Street was the Westminster Bank. Around this corner was George Mence Smith's, the ironmongers and then Tip Top Bakery. Crossing Queen Street were other shops and around the next corner in Avenue Road was Self's, a jewellers.  Opposite this small parade of shops was the Prince of Wales pub and restaurant as well as the main bus stops out of Erith. There was also a Salvation Army hostel next to the pub. My school arranged an annual visit to the Odeon cinema on the corner of the High Street and Avenue Road. On the corner opposite the Odeon was a Co-operative store. From the Odeon back along the High Street was a DER TV rental shop, another mens clothing shop (Braybrook's or Clare's) - I think they were related. The Midland Bank was next door although this changed from a single shop premises to a double one in about 1962.  On the corner of the High Street and Pier Road was Invicta Carpets.  On the opposite corner was a Montague Burtons store which was set back a little and it had a dance studio which I once attended.  The next shop was a chemist Howells and Harrison and then a sandwich shop run by a Eastern European man who prepared fresh sandwiches in a slow automated fashion and could never be rushed! There were a few other shops along this side of the High Street towards the White Hart pub including a shop that only appeared to sell foam rubber seating material.  Further along this side was the Erith Playhouse and the Cross Keys pub. Opposite the White Hart was Erith Post Office, one of the few remaining establishments still in the town.  Back towards Pier Road was Alibar's, a tool and electrical shop, Stevens the butchers and Boots the Chemist. It's now time mention the main store in Erith - Hedley Mitchell's Department Store which I estimate occupied about eight to ten shops around the corner of the High Street and Pier Road.  This shop was the mainstay of Erith's commercial existence and when it closed it was the start of a period of Erith's decline. The shop was certainly quaint especially the method of passing customers cash to a remote office via a series of wire pulley systems. There were other shops back up towards Cross Street including the Estate Agents Jennings and Barrett, a solicitors Charles Weedon and a sweet shop. On the other side of Cross Street was another cinema whichwas called the Ritz, but this was never open during my time in Erith. Other pubs that I have visited were the Running Horses and the Plough near where the railway crosses the main road towards North End.  The Riverside Gardens were laid out with more grassy areas than now and there was the Burndept building just before the creek where the Sea Scouts had a vessel moored as a HQ. Factories that I remember in West Street were Venesta's, Submarine Cables and Sebel's (Mobel Toys).  There was also a railway line with level crossing gates across West Street close to Osram GEC. I also seem to remember that there was a firm who made guitar amplifiers - Vox. Further towards Belvedere were firms such as BOCM, BICC, Burt Bolton and Haywood and Leon Frenkel. At the junction of Crabtree Manorway (when it was a continuous road to the river across level crossing gates) and Lower Road is a semi detached house with a shop which was occupied by my uncle and aunt and his parents and they ran a Market Garden or Nursery called George Ford.  I spent many times looking around the greenhouses which were used to raise tomatoes and bedding geraniums. At the entrance to the nursery were a pair notice boards which were sign written by my father. Sadly the 1952 floods caused havoc to the premises and although they traded for a few more years Bexley Council decided that their plot would make a good place to build a primary school so it was compulsory purchased. I worked in one of the Banks in the town from 1961 to 1964 when I was transferred to another branch.  I never saw the dismantling of the town into the first concrete monstrosity which I am glad about as I had so many happy times while working in the old town there. I also never saw the the building of the second generation of the town centre. 

Excellent, very evocative stuff. Many thanks for it.

My personal fight against local fly - tippers has taken a positive turn. Unfortunately I am unable to give precise details at present. This is due to the event possibly being part of a legal action. Take a good look at the photo below (click for a larger version).
Just be grateful that you cannot smell from a digital photograph. The stench from the dumped pallets was utterly revolting. On Tuesday evening I popped round to the Council recycling centre to drop off some glass bottles, cardboard and a couple of empty soft drinks cans. I caught a couple of people illegally fly tipping the load of extremely rotten bananas that you can see in the photo above; so far gone were they, that they reeked of a mixture of vinegar and ammonia; the smell was disgusting. I have passed the photos, along with an account of what transpires to the relevant authorities, and actions are being taken. I hope to be able to report more fully soon. You can read more about the incident on the Erith Watch website here.

A new local blog has been started, and very good it is too. It is the diametric opposite of the toe - curlingly bad Bostal News (sic). In that it is well set out, engagingly written and totally original. I would urge you to give The Thamesmead Grump a visit, and add to your browser bookmarks. I for one will be checking it regularly. Nice to see a couple of new faces added to the local blogging community.

The end video this week is by online cook and general bonkers person Titli Nihaan - why she does not have her own TV show, I really don't know; she's excellent, and very funny. This week she cooks an extra hot, very tasty Chicken Vindaloo curry. Do give it a watch and see what you think.


  1. Thought your man would mention the Locomotive pub - too young to go in, but the beer 'n suds smell from the door probably helped me become a toper. The other question was the name of the pub at the river end of Crabtree Manor Way - any leads ? Finally the Royal Alfred. As someone who worked at the TAC plant I used it a bit. Nickname for it amongst the older regulars was the 'New Light' which I assume dated to when it hooked up to electric lighting.............

  2. Hi Anonymous; my understanding of the Royal Alfred having the nick name of "The New Light" was that pre - war, it had a navigation beacon on the roof, to alert mariners to the bend in the River Thames at Anchor Bay. The name was coined by the local barge men.


  3. Agreed. Seems logical. It was after all the highest building at that point then.

  4. Hi Anonymous: I think the pub on the left side of Crabtree Manorway looking towards the river was the "Crabtree Tavern". I seem to remember passing on my bike in my teens.
    With regard to your comment about the Locomotive pub I really cannot place it in the High Street. Which side of the road was it?