Sunday, April 24, 2016

Fly grazing.

The photo above shows the traveller pony that has been resident on the small parcel of land that occupies the area between the end of James Watt Way and the Thames riverside pathway behind Morrison’s in Erith. One or more ponies have been kept on this piece of land for a number of years now. The owner of the land seems to be happy with the arrangement, and no laws have been broken. That is, until recently. Over the last two weeks the pony has escaped from the enclosure twice, causing a Police incident in both instances. On the most recent occasion it ran up Appold Street and had to be headed off before it got into the very busy Manor Road, with fast moving heavy vehicles and regular double decker 99 buses. The problem seems to be that the fence surrounding part of the pony’s enclosure is in a very poor state of repair, and it has been relatively easy for the animal to escape. The police are eager to speak to the owners of the pony, but as far as I am aware, they are having trouble locating or contacting them. The practice of “fly-grazing” has become increasingly common both in the local area, and also around the country. Thousands of horses and ponies are being abandoned by their erstwhile owners as irresponsible breeding, spiralling bills and sale prices which have reached rock bottom take their toll. A pony can fetch as little as £5 at auction – if it sells at all, whilst stable costs, feed and vets bills can amount to around £100 per week per animal. The six main horse welfare charities have come together to compile a report on the situation; it would also appear that the European appetite for horse meat may be fuelling the situation – a £5 pony can turn into a £230 carcass on the European meat market. It may be that ponies are actually being farmed for live export to France, Belgium and Italy. The RSPCA have called for legislation that will enable them to more quickly identify owners and punish them with fines and the seizure of animals for fly-grazing. They also want a review of agreements allowing the free movement of horses not intended for slaughter between Britain, Ireland and France. The British horse population is thought to be just under one million animals in size. The vast majority are owned privately for leisure – a sector which, unlike the horse racing industry, is not tightly regulated. I know that whenever travellers put one or more ponies on the waste land, the ponies become an attraction for parents and childminders looking after small children – the animals end up getting fat, as they have a seemingly non ending series of treats given to them by their small visitors.

Back in 1939, Burton’s opened a bespoke tailors shop at 82 - 84 Erith High Street, where you could get a custom made suit for 45 shillings (£2.50 equivalent). Local Historian Ken Chamberlain has memories of the place being extremely impressive, and sent me the advert a while back, with the very dashing looking chap in the photo above - click on the image for a larger view. I notice that the sharp styling is heavily influenced by American fashions of the time – wide shoulders and a narrow waist – a look that featured in many period gangster movies which were very popular then. Montague Burton was the head of what became the biggest bespoke tailoring business in the world. He was born Meshe David Osinky in the pogrom-ravaged Russian province of Kovno (now part of Lithuania) in 1885, to turn up alone in Yorkshire with only a few words of English at the age of 15. In Tsarist Russia, where Jews had been largely confined to the zone known as the Pale of Settlement and restricted there to making a hard living from trades such as tailoring, cobbling and cabinet making. Of the 150,000 to 200,000 Jews who fled to Britain between 1881 and 1914, many simply transferred their skills to the sweatshops of London; others, however, settled near the Yorkshire wool industry, where a Methodist tailor, Joseph Hepworth, had begun to sell his wares directly from his Leeds factory to the public through a chain of ready-made clothes shops. Osinky/Burton wasn’t the only trader to take the idea an important stage further by adding a bespoke alternative to the suit on the hanger. Nor was he the cheapest; by the 1920s plenty of tailors were offering suits priced in shillings – “the 30-bob suit” – and not guineas. But no rival had his dedication to organisation, salesmanship and publicity. He transformed the look of the nation. In 1960, the peak year of Burton's output, the company turned out 1,739,397 made-to-measure garments that, when jackets and trousers were put together, and omitting a few waistcoats from the picture, became roughly equivalent to 850,000 men’s suits. In terms of employment, it was among Britain’s six biggest companies. No other business in the world had a bigger chain of textile shops – Burton’s had around 600 – and few shops of any kind were as distinct in their appearance. Ranked by facades that descended in importance from Portland stone through polished granite to white terracotta, they stood out among the jumbled Victorian architecture of industrial Britain like beacons of modernity. Many are now listed buildings. One or two still house the billiard halls that the teetotal Montague Burton liked to house above his shops, in the belief that they kept young men from drinking. Burton was knighted in 1933, and his empire survived for another two or three decades after his death in 1952 and then, after diversifications into women’s wear and the merciless assault of jeans, it began to crumble. Today, the Topman chain is the Burton family’s last significant legacy in retail.

You may have seen a few mentions in the business press recently of rumours that the Daily Mail is in talks to buy veteran Internet company Yahoo! I was intrigued by this, and have been doing some digging. The potential link up between the mid-market tabloid newspaper and the former search and web content giant does not seem an obvious one. The Daily Mail wants to break into the North American market, and needs a means of doing so, though one analyst has likened the potential purchase of Yahoo! To the tying of two bricks together to see if they will now help each other float. Having said that, in the context of the UK, the Mail does better than all the other newspapers, at this, but not as well as Yahoo – so it is no rescue. This is more a case of buying Yahoo to get a foot in the US and some help with online content, when in fact Yahoo in the US is considered weak in these respects. It is a shadow of its former self – back in the early days of the World Wide Web, the Yahoo! Search engine and content portal was a world leader. The smart money is that Yahoo! Will not exist in name form by the end of this year, but instead will be subsumed into either the Daily Mail, or another media organisation. If this does happen, it is quite likely that Yahoo! Mail and Flickr may be sold off to a third party, which might cause worry for long – time users of those services.

In a related story, web researchers have been investigating some statistics regarding the average memory size of modern web pages; their results are astonishing. The average web page is now roughly the same size as the full install image for the pioneering first person shoot - em - up DOS game Doom from back in 1993, which weighed in at roughly 2.3Mb. Most of the web page bloat is due to images, which take up on average 1,463KB of data. Next is script code, which occupies 360KB, followed by video, averaging 200KB per page. If you are familiar with the classic video game Doom, you may recall that Doom is a multi-level first person shooter that ships with an advanced 3D rendering engine and multiple levels, each comprised of maps, sprites and sound effects. By comparison, 2016's web struggles to deliver a page of web content in the same size. If that doesn't give you pause for thought, then you are missing something. I suppose that one also needs to factor in that we are no longer living in a world of PCs with 4MB of RAM, 33MHz processors, text-only bulletin boards, and 33 kbps modems – everything is scaled up, including the complexity and size of internet downloads. The world has moved on, and technology with it. More information has been created and stored in the last twenty years than in the whole of human history before it. Information technology has changed the world far more than we are really aware of.

Pewty Acres is currently undergoing a substantial refit; the front bedroom is currently in the process of being gutted; I had a manky old white melamine wardrobe which has been slowly disintegrating over the last few years. It has now been dismantled (though “demolished” would be a more accurate description). The bedroom is now going to be repainted, a new fitted wardrobe installed, along with a new bed and mattress. I have managed to source all of the labour and bedroom goods from independent local companies at little more cost had I gone to one of the large chain stores usually located on retail parks and that advertise heavily on TV. On top of this, the quality of the mass produced stuff (usually made in Chinese sweatshops) is not a patch on the local stuff, and you get a far superior level of customer service. I have a policy of always using local independent suppliers whenever possible. It does not usually mean more expense, and it keeps the money in the local economy rather than going to some faceless private equity company or investment bank.

House prices are increasing all round London and the South East. I do get to wonder how much longer that they can continue to spiral upwards. The housing charity Shelter has been carrying out research on the subject; it found that house prices in Greater London are currently rising at a rate fifteen times greater than wage rises. Normally this would be called a housing bubble, and it would burst fairly quickly as property became unaffordable and the market stabilised itself. This looks unlikely in the present environment, as much of the property purchasing being undertaken is not by local people, but by foreign investors. London is a great place for foreign investors to stash their cash in the form of real estate. Whatever else we may be, the country is stable, has the rule of law, and a rock solid banking system. Wealthy people can invest in the certain knowledge that their cash will not go missing courtesy of a bent banker, or a despotic politician. In a way this has made the situation for local people worse. Money is flowing out of restrictive regimes such as China and Russia and into UK banks via property developers. It may be good for the balance of payments of the country, but it is terrible news for the average person trying to get on the property ladder. Because the money is mainly coming from abroad, the housing bubble is far less likely to burst in the near future. Property is being purchased by wealthy foreign investors in an effort to get their money out of their own country and converted into a resource which they deem likely to be a better investment than stocks and shares, and is a lot less heavily regulated. The imminent arrival of Crossrail and the opening of the Paramount London theme park will only make this situation worse for any local person looking to buy a property to live in. The number of high – end houses and flats that have been bought by vacant owners and left standing empty as an investment is huge. It does nothing to alleviate the housing crisis and in reality causes heartache for many.

Several of the tabloid newspapers got themselves very worked up earlier in the week with something that to be honest in my opinion they made out of pretty much nothing, in what appears to be a classic case of "never let the facts get in the way of a good story". On Tuesday the Daily Star published a story about how a UFO had been spotted on a live video feed from the International Space Station, and that when NASA official realised, they cut the video feed to the public.  The Star wrote "Shocking footage – broadcast live by NASA – shows a blurry, apparently diamond-shaped object near the space station in orbit above Earth. But as the object appears to be coming closer and into focus the live feed is cut. The bombshell video has sent conspiracy theorists and UFO hunters into meltdown. Though far off, the object looks huge and appears to be flying high over the rotating Earth below. It seems to be getting larger and larger as the video continues – until the screen suddenly turns blue. When the feed restarts it is of a different angle, showing the space station – where British astronaut Tim Peake is right now. But if the change of shot was supposed to hush up the “alien spacecraft” it failed – as the object is still visible in the background". So NASA are part of a global conspiracy and cover up? - NASA has enough money to pay someone to watch the feed, their hand hovering over a giant "SHUT IT ALL DOWN" button. They don't. NASA knows they might have something to hide, so DOESN'T delay the live stream by one minute in case "Hey, aliens wandered into the frame, let's just static out those seconds and go oops, technical difficulties". The aliens are intelligent enough to travel between worlds but aren't smart enough to hide from a camera that NASA could have told them, in advance, that they were pointing in this one place - after all space is very big. None of the other observation devices pointed randomly at the sky (including people observing the ISS through their amateur telescopes and remote cameras, as people are want to do) saw this. The EU, Russians, Chinese and Indians with all their hardware and observation technology (none of whom save possibly the EU have any incentive to cooperate with the US and would, in fact, leap at the chance to discredit and shame them) didn't see it either. The "UFO" is almost certainly an internal reflection on the porthole that the camera was looking through. The "object is blurry, and would appear to be outside of the camera's depth of field setting, which seems to be set at infinity, as the Earth is in good focus. Logically that would mean that the object was small, and very close to the camera. Either way it is extremely unlikely to be anything of any consequence. Also the "NASA cut - off" was nothing of the sort. The International Space Station uses a series of communication satellites to beam its transmissions back to Earth, every few minutes it "hands over" from one satellite to another as the ISS orbits the Earth - in the same way as a mobile phone switches between cells as it moves around. This causes the signal from the ISS to drop for a couple of seconds, it is certainly not anything in any way suspicious. It merely shows an example of ill - informed and poorly researched journalism. Still, the Daily Mail not long ago featured a "story" about a "ghost child" climbing on a parked car outside of someone's house. The "chilling video" which was shown was taken from the house owners CCTV system. What it actually showed was a spider weaving a web over the camera lens. As anyone who has a domestic CCTV system will know, spiders are attracted to the infra red LED lights that typical CCTV cameras use at night. Nothing supernatural, just a straightforward spider looking for a home. As I mentioned earlier, certain newspapers don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Erith Fun Day is set for a new venue this year. For the last couple of years the well - supported local event has been held in Erith Riverside Gardens, but this year it is moving to the recreation ground at Erith Sports Centre. I understand the reason for this is they expect a larger number of stall holders, and the ground offers a larger amount of space. I am in two minds about this - the new venue will be closer to the large number of residents of the Erith Park development, which is virtually next door, but it is a less central venue that the much loved Erith Riverside Gardens. I think we will just have to wait and see how it turns out. I always look forward to the Fun Day. It is taking place on Saturday the 9th of July. You can see further details by clicking here. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below, or by Emailing

I have read quite widely that Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife are quite partial to a curry. It has been reported in the press that the prime minister even pledged to protect the struggling £4.2bn curry industry, which employs 100,000 people, at the British Curry awards in 2013. He said he would “get the skilled Asian chefs you need” to the UK, while the home secretary, Theresa May, has admitted that curry chefs are a shortage occupation. This shortage has been caused by increasingly tough immigration rules, so that restaurants are unable to hire the skilled chefs they need. This makes it difficult for these businesses to grow, while restaurants are unable to provide adequate customer service levels or fulfil orders. If the problem was acute when Cameron made that pledge, it is now a full-blown crisis. Around six hundred curry restaurants have closed in the past eighteen months, while there are fears that a further four thousand – about a third of the industry – could shut. Current immigration rules stipulate that a chef from outside the UK must be paid £29,570, after deductions for accommodation and meals, which is too expensive for most curry restaurants. Moreover, the jobs cannot be in a restaurant with a takeaway service, which most curry houses rely upon. Several schemes have been set up to teach people unfamiliar with Indian food how to cook and serve it in a restaurant setting; it would seem that these schemes have not been as successful as had been anticipated. Personally I think the problem is somewhat more complex and nuanced than is currently being reported. I cannot believe that restaurants need to recruit from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. As the older head chefs retire, why are the existing junior chefs not being promoted? On top of this, there are many British people of UK origin who can cook excellent British Indian Restaurant style curries - you only have to take a look at the number of YouTube videos showing how to cook various recipes. One excellent example is the very popular series - "Al's Kitchen" - Al shows how to cook all sorts of very authentic restaurant style curries, and I believe he's never been anywhere near the Indian subcontinent. I cannot see the need for importing chefs from abroad - there are many UK based chefs who could do the job just as well. I think the real reason the restaurants have to import chefs is that working in a restaurant kitchen is not the job of choice for many - the first generation of Asian immigrants often did not have much English, and set up doing something they knew, which was cooking. Their sons and daughters have been brought up in the UK, and for them running a restaurant is not an aspirational career for many - they would rather be a doctor, lawyer or accountant. Many Indian restaurants struggle to keep the business within the family for this reason. Their overheads are steadily increasing, but they are reluctant to increase their prices as they feel that the market is already weak, and their customers may end up voting with their feet. What do you think? Leave a comment below, or Email me at

The end video this week is a time lapse film showing the construction work that was carried out on the Crossrail development between Abbey Wood and Plumstead over the course of the Easter bank holiday weekend. It is certainly impressive. Give it a watch and see what you think.

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