Sunday, January 05, 2014

Robert the Devil.

Following last weeks’ appeal for more information about the notorious Victorian local character Robert Austin (not Austen, as I incorrectly wrote last week), better known as “Robert the Devil”, I have had an Email from local historian and author Ken Chamberlain, who tells me that “Robert William AUSTIN not EN was born in Crayford in 1874. Most of the stories you quote I heard as a child from my father who knew "Robert the Devil" most are probably true. I have never been happy with him swimming over to the Coldharbour Point, a quarter of a mile. UNLESS he managed it at the very top of the tide when it was slack.  He lived at 17 Maxim Road, Erith - the address no longer exists. He was for a time the master of the Sailing Barge "Chance". The subject of the mural on the side of the White Hart ( what is / was Potion bar; see the photo above – click for a larger view). He died on the 4th November 1944, and is buried in the Churchyard of St. Johns Church, West Street. His short obituary does not mention his nickname, but does tell of him being a strong swimmer” Thanks Ken, your observations on Austin probably only being able to manage to swim over from Erith to Coldharbour Point at slack tide; I must admit that I concur. As previously written, I found it very hard to believe that anyone could survive swimming across the Thames at Erith, as the tides and undercurrents are so incredibly powerful – even the strongest of swimmers would seriously struggle. Nearly all of the suicides on the lower Thames happen either by jumping from the Queen Elizabeth Bridge at Dartford, or from Erith foreshore or Pier. I think this says something about the deadly nature of the river in the area.

There very nearly was no Maggot Sandwich this Sunday. I am currently suffering from some kind of stomach bug. I am shivery and achey, very tired, and cannot go far from the loo. I know that there are a couple of gastric infections currently doing the rounds, and I guess that I must have picked up one of them. Not nice.

There has been a lot of activity and attention in the technical and IT security field over the festive break, and a number of lectures and presentations made, many of which are now readily available on YouTube; a lot of classified documents originating in the American National Security Agency (NSA) have been leaked and posted online, initially by Germany's Der Spiegel newspaper. They have been independently verified as genuine by a number of sources, and they make for fascinating reading. Basically, between the American NSA and the British GCHQ every form of electronic communication in the world can be monitored, recorded and decoded. This has been suspected for some time, but this is the first time that it has been backed up with documentary evidence. I was not surprised, by that, but I was astonished as to the level of commercialisation that is now not just government departments spying on other governments, but a lot of it is outsourced to commercial organisations. More on this later. A clanger of jumbo scale was made by British Intelligence when Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. MI5 deployed a device called a Typhon HX; this is a device that mimics a mobile phone providers’ base station and collects phone calls, texts and web traffic – effectively tapping mobile phones. The spying was uncovered as people in the area around the embassy started getting “Welcome to Uganda Telecom” messages on their phones. It would appear that the spooks had not correctly reconfigured the Typhon HX from a previous spying mission in Uganda! I would imagine that the individual responsible would be given a rocket for exposing the whole operation in such an incompetent manner. On top of this, the leaked documents show that no computer, whether it be a server, desktop, laptop or tablet is safe from intrusion. The same is true of mobile phones. The security services are able to remotely control your mobile phone – they can switch on its’ camera and microphone to watch what you are doing, and listen to what you are saying. The phone appears in standby, and there is no way of easily telling it has been hijacked, other than the battery life is far shorter. The documents even detail an exploit for the iPhone code named DROPOUT JEEP which can take complete control of any phone running iOS and is “one hundred percent” reliable. There is some speculation that Apple may have actually helped the NSA to develop the exploit in a bid to assist in potential counter terrorism. A lot of the documentation is quite technical and in great depth, so I will not bore a general readership with it, but you can see more by clicking here, and here for the full repository of leaked documents.  Earlier I referred to the commercialisation of surveillance; the NSA actually manufacture a wide range of electronic spying equipment which they sell to friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) governments to spy on their citizens. There is even a catalogue complete with price list – almost like a parody of a Maplin catalogue. The trouble with all of this is that the security services are (nominally) controlled by politicians – who almost to a person don’t have a clue about the technology that has been developed – there is a real issue as to who is actually in charge when it comes to digital interception and decryption. On the subject of the commercialisation of the intelligence domain, the embedded promotional video below is of a software and hardware suite designed to hack and remotely monitor “targets” – a euphemism for people - the video also makes it clear that the software is capable of monitoring "up to hundreds of thousands of targets" - if you were genuinely monitoring even the largest of terrorist organisations, I would have thought a couple of hundred "targets" would have been all that was required. It sounds to me like they are enabling repressive governments to spy on substantial proportions of their citizens. The Italian company “Hacking Team” behind it are one of a handful that sell their products all over the world; I wish this was some paranoid fantasy, but it is all too real. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

The terrible weather has continued; this has had a knock – on effect with local drainage. Almost every day (including Christmas Day) a Thames Water pumping lorry has been parked by the foul water drainage pumping station in Appold Street, near the far corner of Morrison’s car park. I talked to one of the Thames Water operatives, and apparently the drains have been blocking up on an almost daily basis. The have rodded and jetted the pipes to remove the blockages, but they keep coming back. I recall this happened back in January 2012, when I wrote about how Morrison’s drainage contractors had to run a remote controlled robot equipped with a camera along a waste pipe that ran from Morrison’s to the waste pumping station. It would appear that the same thing is happening again, but from the opposite direction. On top of the holiday period meaning a lot more people were at home, and therefore visiting the loo more often, the huge amount of additional rainwater that has been dropped on the area has also made the problem worse.  I would not be at all surprised if Thames Water end up digging up Appold Street to replace the pipework underneath; one beneficial side effect of this would mean that for a short period it might discourage fly tippers from dumping stuff – for some reason the road is a favourite for them. Only a couple of days ago I found an old, stained and smelly mattress dumped in the street. It had been carefully rolled up and tied with a length of rope, so the person dumping it had clearly planned the operation. The problem in Appold Street, and as previously mentioned, the nearby Morrison’s recycling centre, is that they are relatively quiet and secluded; someone with a van full of old lorry tyres or worn out furniture can easily dump their load and be off with little chance of anyone actually seeing them do it. I have spoken at length to the Environmental Crimes Unit at Bexley Council, and they are acutely aware of the problem. The have told me that the area spanning Appold Street, James Watt Way and the recycling centre in Morrison’s car park has the worst incidence of illegal fly tipping of anywhere in the whole London Borough of Bexley.  There are some plans afoot to counter this, but at this point I don’t know the details – and even if I did, it would probably not be wise to publish them.

The photo above was taken by local resident and Maggot Sandwich reader Paul Thomas, who wrote "Thames Barrier closed today, Saturday 4th. Resultant extra high tide flooding William Cory Parade by Riverside Gardens". Wow! I had not realised the water had come so high; by the time I passed the Riverside Gardens on Saturday evening, it was dark, and the water had begun to recede. Striking stuff anyway. Click on the photo for a larger view. Thanks for the photo Paul.

As I mentioned last week, I was Emailed by a chap who runs a specialist website documenting the history of UK trolley buses. He was concerned that I had used a photo from his site, which was in breach of his copyright. I had published the photo of a trolley bus outside the Wheatley Hotel in Erith, taken some time in the 1950’s in good faith – it was sent to me a couple of weeks ago by a regular reader and occasional contributor. The photo did not contain any metadata or digital watermark indicating it was held under a copyright, so I published it. I apologised to the copyright owner, and he has permitted me to continue to use the image, which you can see here. This led me to some thought. Copyright law in the UK and elsewhere is a complex area; there are plenty of lawyers who make a very healthy living over intellectual property ownership disputes. The problem for anyone posting online content is that unless you produce one hundred percent of the content yourself, you are always at risk of inadvertently treading on someone’s toes.  The other issue is that just because someone says that they own the copyright to something, it does not always mean that they do – especially in the case of historical material – they may have scanned a photograph or postcard and uploaded it onto the web, but the copyright may actually be owned by a third party, or it may have expired altogether, and the content may have become public domain. I have done some reading up over UK copyright laws, and as the Maggot Sandwich is primarily concerned with reporting local news and current affairs, it is covered under the “Fair Use” clause – which permits the quoting of statements and use of content that illustrates a news story. In the case of historical photographs, my understanding is that copyright exists with the owner for 25 years, after which it falls into the public domain, where they can be freely used by anyone. Having said this, I am not a lawyer and may have misunderstood. If you have any thoughts or experience in the subject, please drop me a line to  My policy is that whatever the circumstances, if someone objects to material they claim is their copyright, I will take down the offending item, or give them copyright credit as they see fit; I am not a legal expert,  and life is really too short to argue over such matters – especially as I make no money out of the Maggot Sandwich. Google have written to me a number of times, trying to encourage me to take targeted advertising, but this is something that I refuse to do. As soon as you monetise a website, you lose all semblance of impartiality. I know of a handful of bloggers who make good, full time – livings out of sites they run – because they have corporate sponsorship. If this is a path you wish to follow, that is fine – if it works for you. Personally, the Maggot Sandwich is an amateur online journal that is  researched, written and published by me in my spare time. I have  no desire to make money from it, and am proud of the fact I am independent and answerable to nobody (within the bounds of the law, and good taste, that is).

The photo above is a bit of a mind boggler to anyone with modern sensibilities. The picture was taken in 1910 (and thus most definitely in the public domain) and shows members of the 4th Erith Scout Troop (Vickers’ Own). The scout troop were sponsored by armaments manufacturer Vickers, who had factories in both Erith and Crayford. The boys were trained to fire the Vickers machine gun, by their supervisor Gunner Budge, who can be seen sporting a magnificent moustache in the background. The team took the machine gun around the country to Boy Scout rallies, where they gave demonstrations of its’ firepower.  It makes me wonder how many of the boys in the photo were later killed in the First World War, which started only four years after the photo was taken, when they would all have been old enough to be eligible for call – up. Pseudo military organisations such as the Boy’s Brigade and the Scouts were fertile targets for recruiters at the outbreak of war, and in any case, many young men, who were ignorant of the horrors of the trenches, eagerly joined up “to be with their mates” – as the army allowed young men who lived in the same geographical area to sign up and serve together. Whole factories, clubs and churches were emptied of their menfolk in this manner – many of whom would never return. This year is the centenary of the start of World War One, which makes it all the more poignant.

The Bexley Times have been running a story this week that at first reading is both encouraging and inspiring, to some degree at least. Sidcup based Indian Restaurant Curry Mahal has been voted as having one of the best chefs in the UK by readers of Curry Life magazine. Magazine editor Syed Ahmed took a number of British based curry chefs to India, in a classic case of coals to Newcastle. Ahmed said that British curry chefs are more innovative and creative than their counterparts in India. He illustrates this point by explaining that the award winning  Curry Mahal chef Sayful Alom has a unique way of preparing Chicken Tikka Massala (which as most people already know has nothing whatsoever to do with traditional Asian cooking - it is an entirely British invention); instead of using powdered beetroot to achieve the signature orangey – red colour of the dish, the Curry Mahal used pureed strawberries. I have to say that personally that sounds utterly revolting, but I am sure that for many CTM (Chicken Tikka Massala) devotees it would be entirely to their liking – as it is famously a curry for people who don’t like curries, being very mild, sweet and luridly coloured. Some people start their Indian cuisine education with CTM, and never progress any further. This is a great pity, but as I always say “if it works for you”. I know of one steely eyed, snake eating, veteran of many conflicts army officer (who I am not going to name and shame – he knows who he is) who I had to work on for several years to wean him off either Chicken Korma or CTM every time we met for a meal and a couple of pints. Suffice to say I was eventually successful (if I recall correctly, he broke his culinary duck with a Chicken Korai – The smell of the meat, onions and peppers sizzling on the ultra hot iron skillet as it was brought to the table eventually prised him away from his beloved CTM).  I sometimes half wonder of I should offer a coaching service for diners who want to become more adventurous with their curries – what do you think? Right now, even plain boiled rice would be too much for me, due to my current exceedingly dodgy guts. Anyway, I have somewhat digressed. The fact is that the Curry Mahal and its’ award winning chef are being cited as both an example of a successful local business and an influence on curry chefs back in India. I have a major problem with this; when you look up the Curry Mahal on the “Scores on the Doors” website, you find out that the place only has a one out of five possible star rating for food hygiene. When broken down, the detail of the assessment reads thus:- Food hygiene and safety – Poor. Structural compliance – Poor. Confidence in management – Little. That is absolutely appalling. One of the fundamental tenets of being a successful chef is to ensure that the food that you and your team prepare is not only delicious, but safe to eat. It would seem that the Curry Mahal and chef Sayful Alom have feet of clay. I wonder just how many people reading the glowing report in the Bexley Times visit the restaurant, only to become ill? A worrying thought.

I have been evangelising about Chromebooks for the last year; I was an early adopter, having bought a Samsung Chromebook the October before last. I have been surprisingly satisfied with it. If you have not heard about Chromebooks, they are a cut down laptop that runs Googles’ Chrome operating system (basically a customised version of Linux) and the Chrome web browser. Chromebooks don’t directly run any software other than the browser, which might make them sound rather restricted. Nowadays however, most people spend a vast majority of their time using a computer on the web – Email, social networking, video watching etc, so a browser only machine is not as stupid an approach as initially thought. The upsides of a Chromebook are 1) very fast start time (my £229 Chromebook starts from cold in seven seconds; half the time of my custom build, very high end iMac, which cost well over ten times as much). 2) They have a very long battery life – eight hours between charges, even with WiFi on and showing HD video. 3) They integrate seamlessly with Gmail, Google Docs and other online services (they should  - that is what they were designed for). 4) They are pretty secure – all updates occur automatically in the background. I suppose I have to reboot the machine once a month – that’s it. 5) Unlike a tablet, you don’t need to tether a Bluetooth keyboard to it in order to do some serious typing – and the keyboard (on the Samsung model, anyway) is actually rather good – something that is very important to someone like me who writes around 6,000 words a week online, over half of that on the blog). 6) They are cheap – you can get some models for under two hundred quid, brand new on Amazon and elsewhere. Chromebooks won’t replace the full computer, but they are great as a second machine on which to surf the web, catch up on Emails and generally keep up with the online world.

The ending video this week is a short rant by the Australian stand up comedian Steve Hughes; he's venting his spleen regarding the X-Factor. I have to admit I concur with his views 100%. Watch and leave a comment below.

1 comment:

  1. Wow that photo of the Riverside - had no idea the water level had come up that high.

    Really enjoyed the Steve Hughes rant, the names of artists just kept rolling off his tongue!