Sunday, January 19, 2014

Electricity House.

The photo above shows a new visitor to Erith Pier. It is a newly built tug called the GPS Avenger, and it is normally based in Chatham. I think it was waiting for the tide to come in before it went home - click on the photo for a larger view. Erith Pier is a popular local attraction to both anglers and people just out for a walk on a cold but sunny morning. The pier is definitely something that few outside the local area are very, if at all aware of.

The News Shopper are reporting that Erith's Cross Street Law Centre is finally going to close some time towards the end of March. The Centre, which has provided legal advice to local people on low incomes since 2006 has lost a large portion of funding from the Council; on top of which, changes to the legal aid laws by the Government have meant that it is no longer possible for low income families to get free advice on legal matters relating to employment disputes, marital breakups, and issues relating to personal debt – all areas in which the Cross Street Law Centre specialised. The closure of the centre will lead to three paid staff being made redundant, on top of two who have already gone, which is a further blow to the local economy. Once again it is very expensive to have a low income. Private solicitors are very expensive indeed, even for those people on a relatively healthy income, and for those on benefits it is an impossibility without external financial assistance. Stopping legal aid effectively blocks people on limited incomes from access to the justice system. I am unsure whether the Citizen’s Advice Bureau will be able to take up the slack in this respect; somehow I think it unlikely.

You may recall that back in October last year I wrote about how having a BrightHouse store opening in a town was a sure indicator of poverty. It would seem that BrightHouse are not alone in this respect. Some of the (quite rightly) reviled payday loan companies are opening high street branches – as if their TV and web based advertising was not enough. It would seem that their huge profits from their outrageously high – and to my mind immoral, if not technically illegal interest rates are being ploughed into property. I sense that the whole payday loan industry realises the public revulsion for their activities, and are trying to make as much money as possible, before draconian legislation is introduced to clamp down on them. I think that the biggest threat to the high street in general is one thing that so far has been largely ignored, or indeed people in the most part are unaware of. We all know how many betting shops have been opening all over the UK for the last few years. It seems like every high street now has three or four shops, whereas in the past one might have sufficed. What I have discovered is that the reason for the explosion in the number of shops has got little if anything to do with more people wanting to put a few quid on a horse, or bet on the outcome of a football match – in fact research shows that “conventional” betting is now a minority activity for UK betting shops. What people are visiting betting shops for nowadays is something else entirely – the Fixed Odds Betting Terminal (FOBT).  This bears little resemblance to the old style “one armed bandit” which would accept your 10p in the slot. Fixed Odds Betting Terminals are slick, computerised devices that offer games such as poker, blackjack and roulette. Gamblers can place bets using debit or credit cards, and it is possible to lose £100 every twenty seconds on such machines. In the betting shop industry, these machines are known as “the crack cocaine of gambling” as studies have proved that they are four times more psychologically addictive than any other activity in a bookmaker. There are currently no reliable estimates of the number of people (and it is usually young men) who are addicted to FOBT machines. The insidious spread of bookmakers on British high streets can be followed back to 2005, when Tony Blair’s government passed the Gambling Act, which at the time was feared to allow the creation of “super casinos”. This did not happen; instead it opened the doors for a deluge of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. There are currently 33,000 such terminals in the UK, and they generate £1.5 billion in profit for the bookmakers. The real reason for the explosion in the number, rather than the size of bookmakers shops is simple. The Gambling Act 2005 placed restrictions on the number of FOBT’s in each bookmaker. What it did not do was place any restriction on the number of bookmakers on any high street. Consequently you may see several bookmakers in the same area, all from the same parent company. If a bookmaker wants to run more Fixed Odds Betting Terminals in a particular area, all it has to do is get permission to open another shop. Until recently many local councils have been reluctant to  block these extra shops, as they bring in council tax revenue, and often occupy otherwise empty premises. This attitude is starting to change, as the realisation that FOBT machines suck cash out of hard pressed communities – yes, the shops do employ a small number of staff –  but these usually on very long hours, and paid the minimum wage. Most of the bookmaker chains are owned by FTSE listed companies who  operate aggressive, but technically legal tax avoidance schemes – so the money that comes out of bookmakers does not go back into the local economy. Personally I have absolutely no interest in any form of gambling – I regard it as a tax on the stupid; I have been into a bookmakers once in my life – to place a bet for a disabled friend on Grand National day 1988. That was the first and the last time. The only way to reduce the attraction of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals would seem to be to be simple – the law should be changed to bring them alongside “ordinary” one armed bandits in having a maximum stake of £2, and proportionate maximum pay out. The bookmakers would hate this, as their main revenue stream would be cut overnight, but bearing in mind how little tax revenue comes from them, it would be a relatively painless move on the part of the government. Somehow I doubt this will happen, as the gambling companies have very effective lobbyists in Parliament. Meanwhile they continue to hoover up cash from impoverished communities all over the UK. There is a national campaign to get FOBT's treated as other gambling machines - you can read all about it here.

I am certain that I am not the only person driven to distraction by the amount of unsolicited mail that I get through my letterbox on a daily basis. The local fast food places are not the worst sinners in this regard, though regularly receiving pizza flyers from the Brent does somewhat perplex me; Pewty Acres is miles outside of their delivery area, and even if they did get an order from Erith, it would be a cold and congealed mess by the time it did eventually arrive. No, by far the worst offender is Virgin Media. I am aware that they offer some good products at a relatively competitive rate, but the fact that I choose not to avail myself of their services does not deter their marketing department. They hatch increasingly stealthy methods to get me to open their envelopes filled with marketing materials – “hand writing” the labels and making it unclear who the sender is seems to be a popular ploy. Nevertheless I am compelled to open them all in order to remove the address details and any personal contact information for shredding before the bulk of the post is consigned to the paper bag, ready for recycling. This is all time and effort that I would rather not be spending on something I would rather not have received in the first place. Any thoughts I might have had about swapping my television provider were instantly quashed by this intrusive advertising  - Virgin, the more you spam me, the less chance you have got of ever getting any business from me. Indeed, my feeling right now is that I would rather cut off both my legs with a blunt and rusty bread knife than buy anything from Virgin. Do you have any similar experiences? Leave a comment below.

Between 1982 and 1984, a large number of new and innovative home and office computer systems were released, at the beginning of what we now refer to as the technology revolution. These systems have now, or shortly will have reached their thirtieth birthday. The latest computer to commemorate its third decade is the Sinclair QL. “QL – don’t you mean the Spectrum?” I hear several readers ask. No, the QL, a computer designed to supplement the Spectrum as a business and scientific computer, aimed at a professional market. It was designed to compete with the IBM PC and the Apple IIe, both of which were very expensive in the British market. A IBM 5150 PC with a floppy disk, monitor and printer would set you back the thick end of £2000 or more, depending on specification. It is a lot of money now, and was an utter fortune back then. What Sinclair set out to do was produce a computer with similar or better specifications than a PC, at a price not exceeding £399. Clive Sinclair had ambitions to do for the business market what he had for the home market only a year or so earlier. Lofty ambitions indeed, but at that point Sinclair were awash with cash – the Spectrum was a phenomenal success, and was selling like hot cakes. The QL design was very clever; the number of electronic components inside it were kept to an absolute minimum in order to keep the production costs down (it is said that Sinclair copied this technique from Apple, who has pioneered “low component count” designs with the Apple II). Instead of using conventional floppy disk drives, the QL used “Microdrives” – which were tiny cartridges with a continuous loop of magnetic tape inside them. The QL looked great on paper, and the company advertised the computer widely, as you can see in the photo above - click for a larger version. The problem was that the design was nowhere near complete when the orders started coming in. Contemporary accounts say that the QL was around six months from completion on its launch date. The problem was, Clive Sinclair set his staff some impossible deadlines. Eventually the machines were released, but the early ones were blatantly not ready for the market. A hardware “dongle” cartridge had to be plugged into the back, as the computers’ internal ROM software would not fit onto the originally specified chip. Later on these early machines would be recalled by Sinclair to be “upgraded” with a full internal ROM set. In actuality, the recalled machines were scrapped, and the customer sent a brand new machine, as this was cheaper than actually carrying out the upgrade. On top of this, the internal micro tape drives were incredibly unreliable. They were meant to be an equivalent to a floppy drive, but they were nothing of the sort; they were a kind of mini cartridge with a thin and very fragile loop of tape inside. It turned out that one of the reasons for the reliability was that the drives were located directly over the TV modulator, and interference from it caused read and write errors. One contemporary report from a Dixon’s warehouse manager said that of a thousand QL’s delivered from Sinclair, only one hundred and ninety actually worked as advertised. I know when I worked at Silica Shop in Sidcup, I cannot recall a single faultless machine.  If this all was not bad enough, the keyboard on the QL had a fatal flaw which was quickly discovered. If you turned an early machine upside down, the keys would all fall off! This eventually got resolved, but not before irritating gits (i.e. me) would go into Dixons or Boots and rearrange the QL keyboard letterings to make rude words! QL was meant to stand for "Quantum Leap", but most in the industry at the time (myself included) referred to it as the "Quantum Lurch". What is ironic is that Sinclair intended the name to signify that it was a huge jump in performance for the price, but as you will know, quantum designates something on the smallest scale possible. Probably an accurate description in hindsight. The QL did have some interesting design features, and the Psion business software that was bundled with it was actually very good indeed once the bugs were ironed out, but the hardware was just not good enough – too expensive and there were not enough games for home users, and not “grown up”, too fragile, and not reliable enough for a professional environment. Sinclair lost a fortune on the machine, and nowadays it is a relic that many don’t remember. Things pretty much went downhill for Sinclair from then on. The Spectrum continued to be developed, before being sold off to Amstrad to try and cover the costs of the next big commercial flop – the Sinclair C5 personal transport – but that is another story, and one I have told before. 

The advert above (click on it for a larger view) comes from a vintage map of Erith I have owned since my schooldays. I have been in contact with local history guru Ken Chamberlain, as I was unsure of the vintage of either the map, or the advert it contained. Ken very helpfully gave me quite a bit of information, which I will relate here.  It turns out that it dates from a few months between November 1938 and the very early months of 1939. Back then, services like electricity, gas and water were the responsibility of the Council. I did not realise how relatively recently Erith was electrified; I had always assumed that it had happened around the turn of the 20th Century, but from this evidence, this was far from the case. The office mentioned is the building that is what is now home to The Celestial Church of Christ African church, the Erith Snooker Centre and the row of shops facing the car park in Pier Road. The building is very run down and exceedingly scruffy now, but from contemporary accounts when the building opened in November 1939, the building, which is correctly called “Electricity House” was a minor Art Deco masterpiece. Back then, as well as containing a large showroom displaying electrically powered domestic products, which were available for hire purchase to use on the newly installed Council power supply; the building also was home to a dance hall with a large Canadian Maple dance floor, and a small Pathe cinema. In the very short period between when it opened and the outbreak of World War II, the Erith Electricity Board was astonishingly successful - it offered the cheapest domestic electricity rates in the whole UK. Just one old penny per unit. Ten thousand local people signed up in the first month alone, no doubt attracted by the offer of free electrical device installation when you opened an account. The board made a profit of £13,000 in their single year of operation. This was a stunning amount of money at the time. The money was meant to be used to improve and expand electrification, and generally make things more pleasant for local people. It is unlikely these facilities got much, if any use, as once war was declared other priorities took over. In 1940 Electricity House was handed over to the authorities, and the building was re – assigned for war work - and in 1947 the £13,000 profits got absorbed to no benefit for Erith people when the London Electricity Board was formed, and the whole thing nationalised. Below you can see a photo of Electricity House taken in early 1939, which is from Ken's own collection, which he has kindly given me permission to reproduce here.  Below it is a photo I took earlier this morning from as close as I could possibly get to the location of the original photographer. Unfortunately there is a brick wall in the precise location nowadays, so I got as close as I could.

London Travelwatch is the independent, statutory watchdog set up by the London Assembly to monitor and advise on all forms of transport within the capital, out as far as the M25. This week they published a report which shows that incidents of antisocial behaviour are on the increase, especially in respect of tram and bus journeys. The main cause of the increase is poor behaviour by school children, with the report citing examples of violence, swearing, vandalism, threatening behaviour and racially motivated abuse. This is not the expected boisterous behaviour from a bunch of kids on the way home from school – this is outright criminality. The report also finds that bus drivers and station staff are unwilling or unable to deal with this behaviour (probably scared of either being beaten or stabbed, or landed with a false accusation of child abuse), and that it mostly goes unremarked and unreported. I know from the experiences of myself and others that people try to avoid using the buses when large numbers of school children are around – and at Bexleyheath Clock Tower on schooldays, the local police normally assign a couple of PCSO’s to try and maintain some kind of order. The report also states that interviews with passengers have shown that many will even go so far as getting off the bus when trouble with school children starts. From the report findings, it does sound very much like the decision to give school children Oyster cards allowing free travel on public transport was a major mistake. Kids often get on the bus for one or two stops, then get off, as they were too lazy to walk – completely pointless, and to my mind a misuse of a privilege; in addition most school children don’t live very far from school, and could greatly benefit from the exercise – we are forever being told about childhood obesity – surely this would be one way to combat it? For those children with a genuine need for public transport, it would seem to both myself and many others that instead of a blanket “go where you please, when you please” Oyster card as is now the case, they instead should be issued with a warrant for a journey with a specified starting and ending point which was valid only during term time.  What do you think? Would this be too draconian, and affect the considerable number of good kids as well as the little hoodlums? What do you feel the answer is, if there even is one? Whatever the outcome, I don’t feel that maintaining the current situation is tenable, and it would appear that London Travelwatch are in agreement with this. 

Regular Maggot Sandwich reader Joe Ferreira dropped a comment on last weeks’ update. He had come across a story on MSN about how the London Borough of Bexley came bottom in the UK charts when it came to food outlet health inspections. Sky News also covered the story online. You may recall that – using the “Scores on the Doors” own statistics, I determined that not only is Bexley the worst Borough, but Erith is the worst town in the Borough, and West Street is the worst location, with a total of nine outlets with a zero star rating. It would appear that cutbacks mean that fewer places are being checked, and even when they are, little enforcement action is being taken because of the associated costs. If any readers have any direct experience of this, please do let me know.

The ending video this week is something that I stumbled upon by accident. It is an official information film about the development of Stage One of Thamesmead from back in 1970. It shows the idealism and good intentions that went behind the construction of the new town, and gives little insight into how it would all go horribly wrong in a very short time. The place looks lovely in many of the shots during the 25 minute film. It is sad tho think that Thamesmead so shortly thereafter became a concrete nightmare. It is ironic that many of the buildings featured have now, or will shortly be demolished. Watch and feel free to leave a comment below.


  1. I agree with your comments about the Oyster card , so annoying sitting there watching them swap buses because their friends are on the other bus , if you are on an 89 with a 229 following coming up from Erith in the mornings they stop at every stop for this to happen. They don't even see it as the privilege it actually is

    I certainly recall queuing up at the school office on the first day of each term to collect my 'bus pass' Which stated that it was weekdays / term time only and only for use on routes between Bexleyheath and Mottingham. Try and use it at the weekend even if you were going to attend school event like sport and you got short shrift from the driver Also we were warned each time that if you lost it , it would not be replaced .

    There must be a way the chip could be modified to produce the same results , it certainly collects the data. when I look at my oyster account online it tells me what bus and what time I boarded. ( that's if the little buggers actually swipe the card , most of the time they just push on and through .

  2. You forgot to mention that FOBTs are heavily promoted by Bexley councillor Peter Craske. Just Google 'Peter Craske betting'. He's been on TV and in the press lots of times, pushing how betting benefits the community. He's not just a local (parking) rip off merchant you know!

    Like you I have only been in a betting shop once in my life. 1965 when the phone in a Shoreditch shop went out of order and I worked for the GPO. Didn't have much option over that one.

  3. Interesting Blog as ever Mr.P'!
    Sorry I've not commented for ages!

    Have to say hearing about the Erith Law Centre lack of funding doesn't surprise me. This Government seems intent to taking the ability to any sort of official recourse away from those who sadly need it the most. They're building a quiet Time bomb.

    Didn't the QL share the same keyboard/case as the Amstrad Spectrum? I know that had a inbuilt tape deck instead of the Microdrive but by then I'd moved on to early PC's and (at the time jaw droppingly amazing) Apple Mac so the Spectrum seemed very old hat. Mind you I'd been playing and tinkering with them for about 3 years at that point (Spectrum's, not old hats!). A year maybe a long time in politics but to a teenage mind and the white hot early 80's home computer boom 3 years was a Timelord's lifespan...

    FACINATING stuff about the bringing of "Electrickery" to Eriff!
    Something I never knew.
    Funnily enough Councils are recently starting to offer the same sort of deal. They sign up residents then go to Energy providers and say "we have X people who will sign up with you if you offer cheap rates". Dunno if it actually works but nice idea.
    Talking of Council's the Scores Of The Doors is worthless, any scheme like that is without transparent reasoning and teeth.
    What's the difference between a 3 and a 4?
    A 5 is obvious or is it?
    Does it mean you can eat off the floor as it's so clean or just "perfectly serviceable"? As you've often said 0 stars should mean instant closure but then saying that I regularly eat from a Somalian "Kentish Fried Chicken" type shop in Woolwich and the shop looks ramshackle to say the least but the food is gorgeous and freshly cooked. Their also incredibly friendly to the point that if i just happen to walk past i have to wave "NO!" or else they're smiling and pointing and getting my order ready with shouts of "Alwight Boss!".

    I must admit I rarely travel by bus these days and the train I get is almost always empty so I can't comment on the Kids On The Bus debate but I do agree that their passes should be for Term Time only. Why do they get 365 day of free travel? I'm just old enough to remember the GLC making buses 5p for kids, what's wrong with okay giving them free Term Time transport (say between 6am and 6pm) but making a minimal charge of say 50p for the rest of the time? Who foots the bill for free Kids Transport?

    I too have only once set foot in a Bookies (Ramsgate, 1998, to drag a very drunk mate out as he wanted to bet on Colchester FC willing the FA Cup or something!) and didn't even know these machines existed. I have quite a compulsive personality so have steadfastly always refused to bet but always wonder why people bother. If you have a chance of winning why is there so many betting shops? A shop is only going to be opened if they think they'll make a profit they're not there to give you more choices of where to collect your winnings.
    I saw an interesting BBC4 documentary on of all things Bingo just before Christmas and it was a real eye opener about how the law has changed in recent history. For years it seemed the view was "no-one can be trusted to bet" so it was massively regulated then in the 50's is was gradually loosened and now it seems it's totally sown up by big business.