The building in the above photo is one of the landmarks of Erith. It is the first thing many visitors see when they enter the town for the first time, but it is also one of the least memorable. The large and nowadays rather run down and scruffy brick building is called Electricity House – though many locals are unaware of this. It was built back in 1938 and opened in November 1939 as a showroom and offices for the local electricity company, which at the time was run by the council. Pre – war services such as gas, water and electricity supply were quite commonly managed and supplied by local councils; the idea of private companies being involved was something that did not happen until after the war had ended. Electricity House was also a place where new electrical customers could view domestic appliances which they could buy via hire purchase (it sounds like an early version of BrightHouse, but without the crippling interest rates). As well as the showroom, Electricity House was home to what contemporary accounts say was a very upmarket dance hall with a fully sprung Canadian Maple floor; there was also a small Pathe cinema. The local electricity business was astonishingly successful – probably much helped by the fact that it offered the cheapest metered electricity in the entire UK at the time – one penny per unit. Ten thousand local people signed up for electrification in the first month alone, attracted by the offer of free connection to the local power grid – unusual at the time – many suppliers would even charge for the copper cable to connect new customers. In 1939 the Erith electricity board made a (for then) massive profit of £13,000. The idea was that the money would be used to improve local services and amenities for all, but the advent of war meant that early in 1940 Electricity House was handed over for war work, and once peace was restored, the money intended to benefit local people was absorbed by the LEB during nationalisation, and nothing was ever seen of it. Much of Erith was still lit by gas until relatively recently. I believe that some houses in West Street did not get electricity until 1947 when the London Electricity Board was formed, and the local council control of power was nationalised. I have heard a rumour (and I must stress that at this stage, it is only a rumour), that Electricity House may be coming up for sale in the not too distant future. The story goes that the current owners of Electricity House realise that the building is end of life, and no longer fit for purpose. The current commercial tenants don’t pay very much rent for the place, and as the building is old and very scruffy, it is unlikely to attract new tenants prepared to pay higher rents. The only real money earning part of the building is actually the roof, which hosts a number of cellular telephone repeaters and their associated antenna masts. The most profitable course of action would be for the owners of the site to sell the building to a property developer, and for the current building to be demolished to make way for a modern alternative which would attract new and more prosperous tenants prepared to pay higher rents. Personally I would rather see the existing building extensively refurbished, but I somehow doubt that would be commercially viable. The longest term tenant in the building is Erith Snooker Centre, which occupies a large portion of the upper floor, and has been there since at least 1946. Others like the various African stores, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, and the Celestial Church of Christ (which seem to both share the former tyre warehouse part of the building that faces Erith Council Offices) would all have to find alternative accommodation if this redevelopment rumour has any foundation in truth. If anyone has any information about the future of Electricity House, please drop me a private line to email@example.com.
Back in 2011 a great FaceBook campaign was set up to prevent Belvedere Splash Park introducing entrance fees. The park, which is the largest computerised children’s wet play area in the UK is incredibly popular in the summer months, when it offers a fun and convenient (not to say cheap) day out for parents with young children. Bexley Council quickly backed down when they discovered the extent and depth of feeling against the introduction of charges, despite council policy seemingly being that anything that involves pleasure being banned or charged for to the point where use is positively discouraged – for example the permanent cancellation of the Danson Festival and the discontinuation of the “Bexley in Bloom” competition, even so the ending of the latter would save only a handful of pennies. I have now heard from multiple sources that the council are at it again; they are now closing the splash park for two days a week for “cleaning and maintenance”, yet on those days nobody is to be seen. Malcolm Knight of Bexley is Bonkers has already written on the subject, which you can read here. Malcolm has the advantage of publishing almost every day, whereas for logistical reasons the Maggot Sandwich only gets updated once per week on a Sunday. What all the concerned people who have contacted me on the subject note is that whilst Belvedere Splash Park is being closed two days a week, the equivalent splash park at Danson is not. The real reason for the Belvedere closure is to save on staff wages; why they are not doing the same at Danson is the usual one – all of the councillors and their families who make these decisions live in the South of the borough, and cutbacks in the North part of the borough don’t affect them – the posh parts of Bexley keep their amenities whilst the “plebs” in the poorer North take all of the cuts. Nothing new there then.
I have noticed that residents in certain parts of Erith, Northumberland Heath and Lower Belvedere are currently being targeted by the marketing departments of certain banks and credit card companies. It would seem that they have been trawling the electoral register and comparing it against a database of areas whose inhabitants are thought to be on a lower than average income. Locals are currently receiving a steady barrage of envelopes containing offers of loans and credit cards, typically with a wording along the lines of “CCJ’s need not be a problem – even if you have been turned down before – tenants and the unemployed welcome to apply – fixed weekly repayments” – the quotation was taken directly from a letter from Provident Personal Credit. Much has been written by both myself and many others about the online payday loan companies such as Wonga, and the high street crisis lenders such as The Money Shop, and their scandalous rates of interest. It would seem that the “respectable” financial institutions are now trying to get a slice of the market. The aforementioned Provident charge an eye watering 399.7 percent interest on their loans, whereas if you shop around (not difficult with online comparison websites) you can get a credit card with 18.9 percent interest and better repayment conditions. The difference is that in order to get a credit card with those kind of terms, one needs to be in full time, well paid employment and have a good credit history. The people the unscrupulous lenders are targeting are not this demographic – they are hoping to snare vulnerable “high risk” borrowers. Once again being poor can be seen to be very expensive. A better alternative would be to approach Greenwich and Bexley Credit Union. I have heard some strong rumours that a group of local churches are looking to set up a credit union for the people of Erith, Northumberland Heath and Belvedere. If this turns out to be the case, it will be a far better prospect than these unscrupulous high interest lenders that are actively seeking out people with a low income to charge outrageous sums in interest to.
If you were watching television on Monday night, you might have happened to come across the Channel 4 cookery show “Food Unwrapped” and the article about the resurgence in interest in eating jellied eels. If the fisherman and his little vessel looked familiar, it is with a reason. The chap featured was Dave Pearce, who fishes for eels off Erith. He and fellow Eel fisherman Gary Hillier are pretty much the only people who regularly fish for the eels nowadays. Back in 1981 there were around thirty eel fishermen, over half of whom made a living from fishing in the river Thames off Erith. The irony is that eels have become rarer, and their price has subsequently risen to the point that nowadays very few traditional pie and mash shops sell jellied or stewed eels, as they have become too expensive for their main customers, who often are retired people on a budget. “Food Unwrapped” gave the impression that eating eels was moving upmarket, and that smoking and barbecuing the fish was becoming increasingly popular. Bearing in mind how eel fishing has formed part of the historical culture of Erith, it is remarkable just how little the humble eel is celebrated locally. Perhaps something roughly analogous to the Whitstable Oyster Festival could be set up in Erith? After all, the Oyster Festival has been tremendously successful and brings visitors and business to Whitstable, to the point where it is now the commercial and social highlight of the year. Perhaps something like it could be established for an Erith Eel Extravaganza could be set up? What do you think? About a decade ago, we had an Erith Multicultural Festival, which involved lots of food stalls along the high Street, and dragon boat races on the river, along with a big firework display in the evening. Perhaps an Erith Eel Extravaganza could be organised along similar lines. I concede that we might have a bit of an image problem; you think of oysters and you think of James Bond, whereas when you think of eels, you think of Alf Garnett. Eels have been a working class staple food since Roman times, and ironically until relatively recently, so were oysters, but overfishing of oysters caused them to become rare, and consequently they went up market – exactly the same thing is happening to the humble eel nowadays. Is the time right for an eel revival and a new image? Should Erith be nailing eels to the mast (poor analogy, but you see where this is going). Should we be celebrating the Erith eel, or is it just a sad footnote in history? What do you think? Do give me your feedback; you can comment below, or Email me to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Basic computer programming language has just celebrated its fiftieth birthday. Whilst not the first computer language designed to be used by non – professional programmers (Cobol and Fortran could both claim that title) it was the language that gained massive popularity in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when it started to be taught in secondary schools and further education colleges, first on Commodore Pet and Research Machines 380Z computers, and slightly later on the massively popular and ubiquitous in education BBC Micro. Kids of the time, myself included also had early 8 – bit home computers, and learned to program them by a mixture of trial and error, and by laboriously copying game Basic source code by hand from magazines such as Computer and Video Games. One soon learned to save the input code on a very regular basis, as having the computer crash after spending three hours typing in code was a quick way to learn the benefits of a backup. Basic was relatively easy to learn, though different computers often employed slightly different versions, usually to accommodate special features that they had, which meant one could not expect a Basic program from say a Sinclair ZX Spectrum to work on a Commodore 64 without some fairly extensive rewrites to the code. One thing basic did allow you to do which cannot be done with modern programming languages is it enabled you to read and write data to areas of the computers’ memory which would normally not be permitted. The PEEK command enabled a programmer to see the value that was stored at a specific memory location, and the POKE command enabled you to write a value into a specified memory location. This might sound pretty dull and boring, but in reality it enabled you to get the computer to do all sorts of things that it was really not meant to. For example, there was a bug in the chip which controlled the video display in the very early versions of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. The bug meant that the clock rate of the chip (how many instructions it could obey per second) could be radically altered by inputting a certain numerical value to a very specific address in the video memory. The increase in the clock rate caused the chip to suddenly heat up, to the point where it would begin to melt the rubber keys and thin plastic case of the Spectrum. Once this trick was discovered, there were numerous little oiks around the country who would go into Boots or Rumbelows (remember them?) and type in a short program to the Spectrums on display. The program had a FOR: NEXT loop in it, which acted as a timer to allow the perpetrator to make a stealthy exit. At the end of the loop, the POKE which over clocked the video chip would be executed. About ten minutes later, the shops’ fire alarm would sound as smoke poured out of the hapless Spectrum. Oh how we laughed. Not that I would condone this kind of behaviour of course (apologies to Boots in Bexleyheath Broadway Shopping Centre) – nowadays shops are covered by CCTV, and in any case this direct control of a computer via software is just not possible. Nowadays the operating system and firmware act as a barrier to such tricks.
I have heard that recently launched London Live – the TV service set up and run by the London Evening Standard is already in deep trouble. The channel, which broadcasts a series of London – centric programmes, along with a lot of re – runs from other channels is already looking to cut back broadcasting hours. At present the station broadcasts around the clock, but I have heard that they would like to cut back to opening at 7am and going off air at around midnight. Initial viewing statistics for the station have been woeful. The station, which launched back at the end of March is only attracting between two and four thousand viewers for its flagship early evening news and current affairs programme. The highest viewing figure for any one day were approximately fifteen thousand people – in a capital of nine million, this figure is statistically as close to zero as makes very little difference. I am really not surprised that London Live has had these problems. The production values and technical quality of their original programming is amateurish to say the least; it is painfully apparent that the broadcasts are made with minimal resources and little in the way of money. One critic wrote” The schedule is appalling; the picture quality at times is worse than a worn-out VHS tape and at other times, it is like watching a 240p YouTube video on a 60" plasma screen. The whole thing is a dog's dinner, so why would anyone want to watch it in the first place? Never mind the advertisers!” Quite. Bearing in mind that the station is heavily promoted in the London Evening Standard every weekday, to the extent that London Live features before BBC1 on their television scheduling page, and London Live based programmes invariably get featured on the “pick of the day” page. Even with the overt and heavy promotion that the paper, which has a circulation in excess of nine hundred thousand readers, they cannot get more viewers to the station. What do you think? Have you watched the station? You can leave a comment below, or Email me directly to email@example.com.
Please click on the questionnaire above to be able to read a larger version. It is a sneak preview of a document that will be handed out to visitors to Erith Fun Day on Saturday the 30th August. I have mentioned in passing over the last few months that I have had some involvement in the work to restore and convert the Cross Keys in Erith High Street into a venue available for all local people to use. I have been a member of the local residents steering committee since it was formed, and over the next couple of weeks I will be outlining the way in which the Aleff Group who own and are restoring the building are very keen to engage with the local residents to create a facility which will act as a community centre, restaurant, tea shop and local small business resource with bookable hot desks, private meeting rooms, 100 seat presentation suite / cinema, WiFi internet access and printing facilities. The project has the full backing of local MP Teresa Pearce, the local Police, Erith Town Forum, the Rotary Club, Bexley Business Forum, and a host of other worthwhile local organisations.
The battle for the radio airwaves over London grinds on. The competition between Capital Radio and Magic has been a close run thing for several years, with Capital finally beating Magic in the most recent polls. This is interesting stuff, as when Magic first started in 1990 it was called Melody FM and had a very old school , unchallenging easy listening music format – Mantovani style big bands, crooners and hardly any music from later than the mid 1970’s. This, along with the station policy of very little speech from the presenter and no station identification jingles quickly got it the nickname of “Mogadon FM” as the laid back format allegedly sent the listeners to sleep! Advertisers were initially pleased with this approach, but soon realised that the demographic of the station was overwhelmingly amongst pensioners, many of which had little in the way of disposable income; the advertising revenue then began to dry up. This, along with the sudden deaths of two presenters persuaded the owners to change the format slightly to allow more interaction from the presenters and slightly modernise the playlist to allow artists such as Enya to be played. By 1998 the station was sold and rebranded as Magic 105.4 and further marketed to attract a younger audience. The rebranding worked very well, and Capital Radio got its first real direct competitor for the music listening Londoner.
Resurfacing work in Manor Road has been completed two weeks ahead of the planned schedule. I am gratified by this; after my blog posting criticizing the contractor Conway as to the level of resources they were employing on the site, the number of workers and the length of time they were working on Manor Road dramatically increased. There is every chance that this was a happy coincidence, but you can draw your own conclusions. A very useful new confidential contact dropped me a line during the week to let me know that as Conway had finished resurfacing Manor Road early, they were in a position to carry out maintenance on the roundabout opposite the KFC drive through, and a few other small jobs in the area. I think that this makes eminent sense – after all, the workers and equipment are already on site, it will just require some more hot tarmac and a splash or two of road paint. I have also been in contact with the council about the illegal traffic cut through at the end of Appold Street where it joins James Watt Way. There are bollards to (supposedly) prevent vehicles other than push bikes from using this route as a cut - through, but historically the bollards were placed too far apart, and small cars and vans could get through. During the Manor Road surfacing work, there was a constant stream of vehicles illegally cutting through. The matter was raised the with the Police, but by the time this was done, Conway had removed several bollards and were actively encouraging vehicles to used the illegal diversion. Understandably the residents of Appold Street were very upset by the huge increase in vehicles using the road - most have houses with no front gardens, and their front doors open directly onto the pavement. The noise, smell and disruption was very bad, and during rush hour there were often queues of cars waiting to share the one – way only cut through. Impatient drivers hooted their vehicle horns and a number of road rage incidents and two minor accidents involving children in baby buggies being clipped by passing vehicles were reported. Fortunately no serious injuries resulted from the situation. Following a midweek Email I sent to a chap called Dimitri Araj of Bexley Council Engineering Services team, I got the following response on Friday afternoon:- "Thank you for your constructive comments about our works in Manor Road. You will be glad to know that because of the savings we have made in the works, we shall be resurfacing Appold Street on 22 August 2014 after clearing the temporary site holding compound from the bottom of the road at the junction of James Watt Way. We shall replace all the broken kerb stones from the island in the road and renew the road markings as well. We shall write to the local residents about this work next week. Also as suggested by you and other local residents, we will increase the number of steel bollards at the junction of James Watt Way to reduce the gaps between them. We shall endeavour to complete this by the 22 August 2014 or as soon as possible after that if there is problem with the supply of these steel bollards. I am hoping that these additional measures will work. The closure of the KFC roundabout is limited to 10 hours this Sunday afternoon / night and 4 hours on Monday night and we are hoping that the traffic will be very light then. The site holding compound is blocking Appold Street and there will be debris and construction materials to discourage any passage through there while the diversion is in place. My colleagues in Street Works Team have regular contacts with the police and they have asked the police to increase their presence in the area during our works. I have personally reported two incidents to the police recently. Finally I would like to thank you and all the local residents for your patients with us during the Manor Road works which have improved the local environment in my view". What a result!
The ending video this week is a few months old, so it may not be completely up to date. It shows some of the demolition and rebuilding work going on in the Southmere part of Thamesmead, prior to the Crossrail project opening in Abbey Wood, which will bring a lot of new people to the area, and also is certain to put local property prices up.