Sunday, December 28, 2014

The end of the year.

I took the photo above from the footpath along the Thames that runs behind Morrison's in Erith; many people in Bexley don't realise what a strong maritime connection that Erith has - the fact that it is the only town in the whole London Borough of Bexley that has direct access to the River Thames is unknown to many. Until relatively recently many locals were employed on or near the river. Nowadays it is pleasant to walk along the bank of the river and watch the passing shipping. More on river based activities later. 

2014 has been a mixed year for the local area; there have been many beneficial things, but these have to some extent been balanced by a number of negative outcomes – many of which can be laid at the feet of Bexley Council. More on them later. Back in March some concerted action by a group of residents, along with Erith Town Forum were able to stop the franchise holders of the KFC Drive Through in Manor Road Erith from opening 24/7. The fast food outlet is surrounded by residential properties on all four sides, one of which is a residential care home for the elderly. I think the council planning department, and KFC themselves were stunned by the massive and vociferous protests at the application; it was heartening to see the application get very swiftly withdrawn by the franchising company. There have been persistent rumours that the KFC is operating on a “hand to mouth” basis. Customers have repeatedly reported that they were unable to be served Pepsi, or that no napkins or ketchup were available. The drive through is usually busy from around 5 – 6.30pm on weekdays, and a little later at weekends, but during the daytime the restaurant is often close to empty. It will be instructive to see what happens over the next year, as I feel that the application to extend opening hours was an attempt to increase trade which the place so seems to lack at anything outside of dinner time. Whether it will be able to survive is something that only time will tell. On a more positive note, 2014 was most definitely the year of the Micro Pub. Welling’s Door Hinge won CAMRA Regional Pub of the Year, whilst the Penny Farthing opened to great acclaim on Crayford Riverside, and plans continue for the Broken Drum to open in Blackfen. The return of the “back to basics” style of micro pub – where no jukeboxes or televisions are permitted, and conversation is wholly encouraged. Real ale and cider is served, along with a couple of wines; generally spirits are not available. It would be great if some enterprising aspiring publican would open a Micro Pub in Erith or Northumberland Heath, as the area is sorely lacking in decent watering holes – Erith town centre now has only the Running Horses, which as I recently wrote is nowadays only a sad shadow of its’ former self. A Micro Pub would be a very welcome addition. Another great benefit to the town this year has been the opening of the Bexley Brewery in the Manford Industrial Estate. Only three months from opening the brewery is already nominated for two business awards, and is gaining new customers on an almost daily basis. The first hints that the first production brewery in the London Borough of Bexley since Reffells closed in 1956 came about in May; the 2014 Bexley CAMRA beer festival announced a new brew from a local producer was to be premiered. Bexley Brewery Red House Bitter was the first beer to run out at the festival, and it was voted third best beer of the eighty brews on tap – not bad for a very first attempt! Things then went quiet as far as the public were concerned – though head brewer Cliff, his wife Jane and a team of helpers were extremely busy getting the new brewery up and running in the dedicated premises located on the small, well-kept and very pleasant industrial estate next door to the Erith Yacht Club at the Eastern end of Manor Road. I was fortunate to visit the brewery on several occasions before it officially opened, though I was sworn to secrecy over the plans for the place. Since it opened in September, the Bexley Brewery has gone from strength to strength, and 2015 promises to be an excellent year for them. Less popular with the public have been the actions of certain members of Bexley Council who, in their usual manner do as much as possible to alienate and inconvenience residents who live in the North of the borough in order to keep services and resources available for their voters in the prosperous South of the Borough. Following the closure of the Belvedere Splash Park, amongst a huge and vociferous protest, Bexley council have now announced that they are about to relinquish control of a number of public libraries, so that if they are to remain open at all, they will have to be run by volunteers. The libraries affected are Blackfen, Bostall, Northumberland Heath and Upper Belvedere. This effectively means that Bexley Council are shutting these libraries by the back door; volunteer – run libraries rarely succeed, due to a lack of volunteers to run the operation to enable it to operate the opening hours that the users are used to – you may notice the same thing often happens with charity shops – one can often find a charity shop closed during the normal shopping day, merely as no volunteers were available to staff it at that particular time. The same thing is true of pretty much any organisation that relies on unpaid volunteers. This all seems to play into the hands of the Council – there are widespread rumours that Bexley Council want to sell off the parcel of land that contains Upper Belvedere Library, along with the recreation park next door; this could be undertaken by moving the swings and play area across Woolwich Road and onto what has been the Belvedere Splash Park site for the last nine years. A large parcel of prime development land would then be free for the Council to sell off to the highest bidder. No doubt a lot of tiny “shoe box” flats would end up on the site, generating a healthy income for the Council. Cynical? Maybe, but from previous experience this is just the kind of thing they get up to. For more on the misdemeanours and shady dealings that occur locally, I would refer you to Malcolm Knight’s excellent Bexley is Bonkers blog.

Two of my regular readers, and occasional contributors, Paul and Rosemary sent me the photos above - click on either for a closer view; here is a short description from them:- "Both my wife Rosemary, who took the attached photos, and I took a stroll along the river walk heading upstream towards London yesterday morning. The attached photos show where the silos are being installed. The site is just past the Fords factory on the opposite bank in Dagenham. Looking at the area it appears that Erith Pier is the safest point to moor the barge whilst the work is taking place". Excellent stuff, and very helpful as to what is actually going on. The mystery of the barge with the giant silos moored on Erith Pier has now been going on for nearly a month; the sooner they project is completed the better for all concerned.

German IT researchers have discovered security flaws that could let hackers, spies and criminals listen to private phone calls and intercept text messages on a potentially massive scale – even when mobile phone networks are using the most advanced encryption algorithms now available. The flaws, to be reported at a hacker conference in Hamburg this month, are the latest evidence of widespread insecurity on SS7, the global network that allows the world’s mobile phone carriers to route calls, texts and other services to each other. Experts say it is increasingly clear that SS7 (sometimes also referred to as C7), first designed in the 1980s, is riddled with serious vulnerabilities that undermine the privacy of the world’s billions of mobile phone customers. The flaws discovered by the German researchers are actually functions built into SS7 for other purposes – such as keeping calls connected as users speed down highways, switching from cell tower to cell tower – that hackers can repurpose for surveillance because of the lax security on the network. The weakness of global mobile phone networks is that it is immaterial as to what security each network uses, as all networks in the world have to employ SS7 to communicate between networks – hackers don't need to crack the encryption, because weaknesses in SS7 means that they can get around the encryption without actually having to break it. These vulnerabilities continue to exist even as mobile phone carriers invest billions of dollars to upgrade to advanced 3G / 4G technology aimed, in part, at securing communications against unauthorised eavesdropping. But even as individual carriers harden their systems, they still must communicate with each other over SS7, leaving them open to any of thousands of companies worldwide with access to the network. That means that a single carrier in Congo or Kazakhstan, for example, could be used to hack into mobile phone networks in the United States, Europe or anywhere else. It is thought that security services such as the NSA and GCHQ have been exploiting these vulnerabilities for many years, but the information has only recently been available in the public domain. The German researchers found two distinct ways to eavesdrop on calls using SS7 technology. In the first, commands sent over SS7 could be used to hijack a cell phone’s “forwarding” function -- a service offered by many carriers. Hackers would redirect calls to themselves, for listening or recording, and then onward to the intended recipient of a call. Once that system was in place, the hackers could eavesdrop on all incoming and outgoing calls indefinitely, from anywhere in the world. The second technique requires physical proximity but could be deployed on a much wider scale. Hackers would use radio antennas to collect all the calls and texts passing through the airwaves in an area. For calls or texts transmitted using strong encryption, such as is commonly used for advanced 3G and 4G connections, hackers could request through SS7 that each caller’s carrier release a temporary encryption key to unlock the communication after it has been recorded. The German senator who cooperated in the security researchers demonstration of the technology, Thomas Jarzombek of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, said that while many in that nation have been deeply angered by revelations about NSA spying, few are surprised that such intrusions are possible. “After all the NSA and Snowden things we've heard, I guess nobody believes it’s possible to have a truly private conversation on a mobile phone,” he said. “When I really need a confidential conversation, I use a fixed-line phone”. I think the senator has rather missed the point; fixed land line phone conversations are sent unencrypted, and are very easy to intercept. The only really secure method is by having a face to face conversation – something that Osama Bin Laden was acutely aware of, but in the end it still did him no good. To be honest, after the doom and gloom of the news about mobile telephony and privacy, I would like to point out that back in the late 1980’s / early 1990’s when the original analogue ETACS mobile phone technology was in use, voice calls made by the system were sent “in the clear” with no encryption whatsoever. Anyone with a radio scanner that was capable of receiving narrow band FM signals between 890 and 950 MHz could listen in to phone conversations, though it would be a one sided listen, unless the scanner had dual watch and could re – tune to the frequency the base station was using to transmit to the phone handset. I think some local residents would be extremely embarrassed if the contents of their mobile phone conversations had ever been made public back in the day - I have been informed by a reliable source that a a couple of analogue mobile phone owners in Erith used to hire "ladies of negotiable virtue" on a regular basis, unaware that their phone calls were being monitored. Nevertheless the ability to monitor confidential phone traffic was available to anyone able to purchase a scanner. At least nowadays the bad guys have to work a little bit harder when they wish to eavesdrop a phone conversation.

Last week I was heading home from work on the train when a chap sitting diagonally opposite me asked if I could help him; he was unfamiliar with the area, and needed to meet someone outside of Woolwich Arsenal railway station. His mobile phone battery had run out of power and he wanted me to look up the area around Woolwich Arsenal on my mobile phone. As many of you know, I don’t own or use a mobile phone – not only am I deeply concerned by the potential long – term health risks posed by low energy microwave radiation absorbed by the human body, but I also have issues with privacy and tracking which I won't bore you with here and now. The chap was gobsmacked when I told him I did not have a mobile phone – he genuinely could not understand how anyone could function without one. I told him that Woolwich Arsenal station was on the East side of General Gordon Square, and that anyone looking for him would have no difficulty in seeing him waiting there. The chap was unconvinced – it seemed that he trusted his mobile phone more than advice from someone familiar with the area. This is one of the most insidious and worrying aspects of the use of smart phones – the user becomes dependent on them, and does not know what to do when the device runs out of power, is lost or develops a fault. Common sense, ingenuity, and the ability to” think on one’s feet” seem to have been eroded in a substantial number of people in only a few short years of smartphone ownership. What do you think? Leave a comment below, or Email me at

Now for part two of the story of Chic Mackie, the Erith based piper, following on from the previous episode of his story last week. 

From Black Watch to Erith a long …..long….. march.

As much as I would love to continue writing about my Black Watch Service I am afraid this is my concluding story. Oh well …….12 years service with the Black Watch regiment learned me self discipline, social skills, respect for others and how to survive, believe you-me as I marched through my life I had to rely on the fore said! On leaving the Army I joined British Rail. The only question they asked me was I scared of heights? I wondered why they would ask such a question….it did not make sense after all my days of playing with helicopters and climbing mountains or indeed abseiling from any of the above were finished! Wrong!  My offer of employment from BR (prior to privatization) revealed that I was to be given the job of Lamp Boy eh? So before long I was climbing the old semaphore signals servicing the oil lamps. Wonderful job nobody bothered me as long as all the lamps were alight. I spent many hours wandering the track in all weathers just me and my little oil lamps. I did get promoted during my varied Railway career and ended up in a management position involved with Total Quality Management. However privatization ensured redundancy so to move on to pastures new. I moved to London to search for work. I decided to have a little leave and visit some of the landmarks of London. As such I found myself in Harrods (as one does you understand). Then out of the blue I was approached by two rather large Security Officers who invited me to follow them down to the Security Control Centre. Having done nothing I immediately refused! They then informed me that if I refuse I would be arrested! So I had a quick change of mind, they then escorted me through a maze of dark underground tunnels and took me to an interview room. On arrival I was asked to wait to be interviewed by the Security Manager. “Why” I asked they replied “that I had been spotted on the Security Cameras, and was of interest to them” As time passed ever so slowly I began to think, what had I done, this is surely a mistake, I know I paid for the coffee and cake I had the receipt somewhere. The door burst open, “Chic I am so sorry to keep you waiting, I shall come straight to the point would you like to play the Bagpipes for Mohamed Al Fayed and we need you to start on Monday!” “You were spotted in the control room on CCTV by one of your old Army colleagues Andy Coulter” (who was himself to follow the route of a professional piper with all success) “Yes please”, I was to stay with the Harrods Pipe Band for a number of years, had a great time….another chapter in itself!  Time marched on all too quickly. Next Her Majesty’s Tower Of London as a Senior Warden. Civilian Warden not Beefeater. Yes! locked in the Tower for 16 years working in The White Tower and HM Crown Jewels. Playing bagpipes on the more formal occasions. Oh dear that was hard work 7 days a week 16 hour shifts, great staff, some wonderful people at that time I loved it. However things change and as a supervisor and giving my all, I could not give anymore. More and more pressure from the company. God! do I need to move please. I even met my wife Pamela at the Tower and had our wonderful wedding reception there in the Tower Club. Got home one evening, the phone rings Chic how would you like to teach the Bagpipes in Qatar, excellent salary, your reputation goes before you and can you fly out in three weeks time? Pam and I had only been married a few months, however she knew that my days at the Tower were numbered (along with other long standing and dedicated staff) she gave me her instant full support, saying Chic you have got to do this! So a year out in Qatar. Wonderful culture, sunny every day, short working days and doing what I love playing the Bagpipes! Pam came out twice for holidays which was great. Learning Arabic and Arabic Pipe Tunes was a challenge in itself! I will not even mention playing bagpipes on a Camel. But that may be for another time! My year in Qatar soon came to an end, I have been invited back, however another year away from Pam, no thank you.  So here I am back in Erith pursuing my career as a Professional Bagpiper and still marching on! Fascinating stuff, and thanks very much to Chic for sharing it with us. You can see Chic's Facebook page here.

What happens socially in the USA usually ends up being replicated in the UK, so when  a report stating that American teenagers are staying away from cigarettes in greater numbers than they have in generations. That is amongst the good news in a new survey of more than 41,000 students published on Tuesday. But for the first time in a U.S national survey, teens reported puffing on electronic cigarettes more than smoking conventional tobacco. Cigarette smoking among American high school students has been declining since the late 1990s, and the drop got sharper in the last few years. Today just 6.7 percent of high school seniors light up daily, less than half as many as a decade ago. A similar pattern has been noted in Britain – with many school kids preferring to spend their money on credit for their “pay as you go” mobile phones. The level of electronic cigarette use may also have increased due to the relative affordability when compared to conventional tobacco cigarettes. Either way I feel that all forms of smoking should be discouraged - though electronic fags may be a lot less damaging that their "real world" equivalents.

The ending video this week is a bit of a conundrum. It was posted on YouTube some time ago, when I originally came across it. It is a slideshow of photographs of Erith over recent years. I contacted the young lady who put it together, as a large number of the still images had been lifted without permission from my Flickr photo site; to her credit she was mortified (she had not heard of copyright law, and was still at school). I let it go, as she had put the presentation together with the best of intentions, and I did not want to discourage her obvious creativity. See what you think below - you can Email me at

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