Sunday, September 07, 2014

500th edition.

I, like many other people who visit London on a regular basis, don't really pay any attention to the tourist attractions; for example, I used to work a short walk away from the London Eye, yet I have never been on it. People travel from all over the world to visit such destinations, yet many of the locals remain if not indifferent, then of the opinion “I will get around to it one day”, but subconsciously realise that this will actually be rather unlikely.  I have found the same situation locally. I have been promising myself for at least a couple of years that I would try the Mambocino cafe / coffee shop in the Erith Riverside Shopping Centre, but for whatever reason I just did not get round to it, despite walking past it several times a week. When Mambocino originally opened, it was pretty much like any other coffee shop – a number of sofas were dotted around the place and the shop did a steady business. Not being a coffee drinker (I gave it up about fifteen years ago, after discovering that it triggered migraine attacks) I did not really think very much more about the shop. I did notice over a period of time that Mambocino started serving a lot more cooked food, and the focus of the business shifted – out went all but one of the sofas, and in came more chairs and tables. The menu expanded, and as it did, the number of customers frequenting the establishment went steadily up. Nowadays the place is almost permanently busy, and it seems to be the single most popular shop in the Riverside Shopping Centre. Sundays are no exception – Mambocino serve a traditional English roast dinner for a very reasonable £4.99, and I have seen queues out the door for it. Last Saturday, before attending the Erith Fun Day, I took my Mother to Mambocino, and was a little nervous as to what my experience would be like. I should not have worried – it was excellent. Although the place was very busy, we were greeted as soon as we walked through the door; we were shown a table and immediately asked if we would like a drink whilst we looked at the menu. I ordered a toasted Philly steak and cheese wrap and a glass of sparkling water; Mum ordered Chilli Con Carne with rice. Both arrived within about five minutes – the chilli was obviously home made, and arrived in a rectangular ovenproof serving dish, and not out of a catering pack; the toasted wrap was filled with good quality finely sliced steak, melted cheese, mushrooms, chilli and onions, and was accompanied by a freshly dressed Turkish style salad of shredded red onion, iceberg lettuce, tomato, cucumber, dill and mint with some peppery extra virgin olive oil. It was very light and fresh tasting. Both dishes were quite spicy – something I personally welcome; so often popular places tend to season their food on the bland side – but both dishes had a very good chilli kick. Even thought the place was heaving with customers, the service was quick and attentive, with one exception – one of the waitresses spoke very little English, and did not understand our request for the bill. The head waiter (I would hesitate to call him the Maitre D’, but effectively that is what he was) stepped in and sorted things out very quickly. I was impressed. Talking to a number of local people at the Fun Day, the feedback I got was that Mambocino is consistently very good, and extremely good value. Mambocino is ostensibly a franchise and part of a small chain; I looked at the UK website, and realised that the Erith branch is very different from their mainstream branches – the other outlets almost exclusively concentrate on serving coffee, and have very little in the way of a food offering, other than a choice of cup cakes and cookies to accompany the coffee, whereas the Erith shop is almost entirely dedicated to quality food service. I was talking to one of my regular, and very reliable local contacts about the place; she has told me that it is her understanding that the owners of Erith Mambocino are currently looking to expand, as their current shop unit is not large enough to cope with the number of customers. Apparently talks are under way with the owners of the Riverside Shopping Centre to take out a lease on the large corner unit at the entrance to the centre, opposite Argos. One of the reasons for this is that the current Mambocino has to close at 6pm, when the shopping centre closes and the entrance gates are shut for security reasons. The large corner unit has a door that is outside the security gates, and would thus be able to open in the evenings – something that would be ideal; I have been saying for years that Erith desperately needs a proper “sit down” restaurant that opens in the evening; it would seem that I am not alone in this respect. What is more, my informant had heard that Mambocino may be intending to open the corner retail unit in addition to, rather than in replacement of their existing shop. This remains to be confirmed, but if true, it represents a significant expansion in the company’s local presence, and the first time since the shopping centre was refurbished that the corner unit will actually be occupied by a business. Great quality cooking, good service and reasonable price - what more could you ask? I think they are on to a winner.

One less well publicised event that took place on Erith Fun Day was the opening of Erith Playhouse to the public; guided tours around the theatre were made throughout the day. The cost of the 45 minute tour was £1 for each adult, and 50p for a child. It was certainly the best £1 I have spent in a very long time.  The Playhouse, which is the largest theatre in the London Borough of Bexley, is run entirely by volunteers, and receives no external funding whatsoever. Whilst the frontage of the building dates from the early 1970’s, the bulk of the building is far older; it was originally built as a cinema, which means it has very little backstage space when compared to a purpose built theatre.

The photo above shows the auditorium on the open day; the technical crew were preparing for their next show, which is "The Little Shop of Horrors". Click for a larger view. What really astonished me was the very clever use of space – not an inch goes to waste. The cellar of the building is used to store large pieces of furniture and larger props; there is also a small doorway which leads to the orchestra pit which is often used for prompting.

The upper floor contains a compact rehearsal space, more prop storage (seen in the photo above), and the dressing and makeup rooms for the actors (as per the photo below). Outside in the car park there is a large scenery dock and storage facility; apparently part of the theatre is being closed off for refurbishment.

The photo above shows the dressing room. During the refurbishment, a portakabin will be located in the car park, and used for temporary accommodation. Not ideal, especially as we head towards winter, with the associated dark nights and poor weather, but much better than nothing.

What really impressed me was the lighting and sound control room which is fitted with a state of the art multi channel digital lighting control system – I used to be heavily involved with stage lighting and I had a very interesting chat with the lighting engineer, and he demonstrated the two large carbon arc spotlights the theatre owns – they are the last two in use anywhere in Europe (see the photo above, and click for a larger view), though sadly this may not be for very much longer. The special copper coated carbon rods that create the light when an electrical arc is passed across the gap between them are no longer manufactured. The rods gradually get burned away as they are used, so they have a very finite life. The chap told me that he had located a stock of rods in a theatre in Grays, Essex, who said he could have them for nothing. When he got there, the box containing the carbon rods had been stolen – apparently by someone who did not realise their rarity and value; they were almost certainly broken up to get a few penny worth of copper coating each carbon road. The only other supplier of carbon arc lighting rods is GEC in  America; apparently they have around five hundred in stock, but when these are gone, that will be it, and arc lights will be no more. This will be a real shame, as they form part of our engineering history, and it would be good to keep the last two in working order, even if they are in a museum, rather than in everyday use in Erith Playhouse.

The clock is now ticking for the Bexley Brewery; their brewing plant has now been delivered, and is in the process of being professionally installed. Once this is complete, and it has been thoroughly cleaned and sterilised, the very first brew will begin; I hope to cover this on the Maggot Sandwich in the very near future. The first two beers planned are BOB (Bexley’s Own Beer) a pale ale,  and Red House – a premium bitter. I have tried both beers from a pre – production run, and I found them to both be excellent, with my personal preference being slightly in favour of BOB.  I would say that the samples I tried were in bottled form, and the final draught beers from the full – sized brewery may differ very slightly. Any difference would most likely be favourable though. It will not be very long before local residents will be able to try for themselves. You are in for a treat!

Last Monday afternoon, I was standing on the Kent bound platform of Greenwich station, when I noticed a man standing on the opposite, London bound platform. He was smartly dressed in a medium blue suit, an open necked white shirt, and had a untied red tie draped around his neck and a matching handkerchief in this jacket top pocket. What struck me was how skinny the suit trousers were –I could not fathom how he actually managed to get them on or off. The chap had his head firmly stuck in his BlackBerry; I noticed a couple of teenaged girls near me giggling an nudging each other and whispering loudly. I then realised the person with the unfeasibly tight trousers was none other than Russell Brand.  I would imagine he retains a personal tailor to cut him out of, and sew him back into his trousers – it can be the only explanation that I can think of.

On the subject of railway stations, I wonder if anyone who uses Erith Railway Station has noticed a hidden room on the London bound platform? As you descend the steps of the footbridge over the railway (and don't get me started about the lack of a passenger lift!) you can see that behind the current covered platform area there is a blocked off building, with what appears to be a brick – built chimney. All I can surmise is that it was a waiting room at some point. There is no indication of it once one reaches the platform itself. I wonder why it was blocked off rather than demolished if it was no longer required? Personally I think that the idea of a waiting room would be excellent in the winter. The thought of a coal fire crackling in the grate as you wait for the 7.12 to London is very appealing. What do you think? Should the waiting room be reopened? Did you already know it was there? Are there any other hidden buildings or rooms in the area? Do let me know.

The title of this weeks’ Maggot Sandwich update is a bit of a giveaway. This Sunday marks the five hundredth edition of the blog; it is not precisely the five hundredth Sunday since the blog was launched, as there have been a small number of midweek updates in certain unusual circumstances, but nevertheless it does make for a very large amount of reading since the Blog began back in July 2006. It has evolved quite scarily over the intervening years, and to be honest seems to have taken a life of its own. I spend a great deal of my spare time working on the Maggot Sandwich – I would estimate that an average weekly update takes around ten hours to research, write, edit and publish. One of the things that takes the longest to do is not the physical writing (I am lucky that once I have an idea,  I find the process of putting it into prose fairly straightforward), it is the embedded links that take an age to add. I am fortunate that I often have guest writers to share the work, and then I act as an editor cum content approver. Quite often I have stories for several weeks before they are published – for example I have rough outlines for the next three issues – it has become like producing an online magazine nowadays – which I suppose is what it is. I have been questioned as to why I don’t take advertising; well  the reason is simple. I am unbiased and impartial; if I took advertising I could end up with a conflict of interest between me and my advertisers. On top of that, I don’t like websites that are plastered with adverts, and I doubt that many of my readers do either.

Last week I wrote a piece asking whether Erith should have an RNLI lifeboat substation, as the nearest two full RNLI lifeboat stations are located at London Bridge and Gravesend, and the intervening stretch of the River Thames covers a huge area, and there have been many emergencies involving  risk to and loss of life locally over the last few years. Erith is roughly halfway between the two main lifeboat stations, and would seem to be an ideal place to base a smaller team. A couple of readers were mystified when I mentioned the former Port of London Authority office building which is located at the top of the wooden jetty next to Erith Riverside Gardens. Here above is a photograph for clarity – click for a larger view. The small hut has been there for as long as I can recall, and has been unused for much of the time; I believe it does have plumbing and electrical power. It would seem to be absolutely ideally suited for a small three or four person RNLI rescue team to stay whilst on call, and it is only a handful of feet from the jetty where a lifeboat could be moored between calls. What do you think? Do we need a lifeboat team in Erith, or is the existing coverage good enough? Please leave a comment below, or Email me at

Whilst personally I have no time or use for a mobile phone, I appreciate that they are an important tool for many people. A significant percentage of the UK population seemingly conduct their entire lives via their mobile phone. The danger of this is if the device is compromised – bank details, credit card numbers, personal photos, contactless payment keys, and pretty much everything else that forms part of your digital identity is vulnerable to theft. Physical theft is one thing – if a thief gets your phone and is able to unlock it, you may lose some information; the difference is that you will most likely be aware that you no longer have your mobile phone, and will be able to alert your network provider / bank / credit card company that your details need to be blocked and new ones issued. What is far more pernicious is the far more subtle “man in the middle” attack. This is where a third party is able to intercept and decrypt your voice and data transmissions without your knowledge. This might sound a bit like a “tin foil hat” conspiracy, but it occurs on a regular basis; American technical magazine “Popular Science” has featured an article which lifts the lid on “Interceptor towers” – fake mobile phone base stations which snoop on mobile phone traffic. They have identified a total of seventeen such towers across the USA, mostly located in close proximity to military bases and financial institutions, and other high value targets. It is unclear if the US intelligence community is behind these sites, or if they are being operated by an external intelligence organisation. If such interceptor towers exist in America, it is almost certain that they will also exist in Britain and mainland Europe. Interceptors vary widely in expense and sophistication – but in a nutshell, they are radio-equipped computers with software that can use obscure cellular telephone network protocols and defeat the onboard encryption. At the lower end of the scale, a PC loaded with a set of GSM rainbow tables and equipped with a £10 USB TV tuner could work as a crude snooping device; at the top end, a really sophisticated interceptor can cost in excess of £100,000 and only be available to governments. Whether your phone uses Android or iOS, it also has a second operating system that runs on a part of the phone called a Baseband processor. The Baseband processor functions as a communications middleman between the phone’s main operating system and the mobile phone towers and the wider phone infrastructure. Because chip manufacturers jealously guard details about the baseband O.S., it has been too challenging a target for common or garden-variety hackers. If you can control the Baseband operating system, you can control the whole phone, irrespective of the security features of the overlying Android or iOS operating system. Some interceptors are limited, only able to passively listen to either outgoing or incoming calls. But full-featured devices like the VME Dominator, available only to government agencies, can not only capture calls and texts, but even actively control the phone, sending out spoof texts, for example. Edward Snowden revealed that the N.S.A. is capable of an over-the-air attack that tells the phone to fake a shut-down while leaving the microphone running, turning the seemingly deactivated phone into a bug. Various ethical hackers have demonstrated DIY interceptor projects, using a software programmable radio and the open-source base station software package OpenBTS – this creates a basic interceptor for less than $3,000. On August 11th , the American F.C.C. announced an investigation into the use of interceptors against Americans by foreign intelligence services and even sophisticated criminal gangs. One can sometimes tell if a mobile device is being snooped on by an interceptor, especially if the interceptor is an older, less sophisticated spying device. One may notice that a previously strong 4G signal is replaced by a 2G one – this is because the interceptor is telling your phone to switch to the older, far slower and easier to decrypt in real time technical standard, basically to make it easier for itself. More sophisticated interceptors instruct the phone to display a 4G signal, even though they have switched down to 2G. The only way to prevent intrusion is to use a special, security hardened mobile phone such as the GSMK Cryptophone range. The Cryptophone is an Android based smartphone with over 450 upgrades and changes over standard Android to radically improve device security; it also has a patent pending baseband processor with its own firewall, and cutting edge hardware based voice and data encryption. In a demonstration, a car containing a standard Android phone, an Apple iPhone and a GSMK Cryptophone was driven past a military base in Nevada which is known to be home to a very sophisticated interceptor tower. The iPhone and bog standard Android phone acted as if nothing had happened, but the Cryptophone lit up like a Christmas tree with warnings that attempts to compromise it were being made. The downside to using crypto phones is the cost (about £3,000 per handset) and the fact that both parties on the conversation need to be using them. For heads of industry, government officials and intelligence operatives, the cost may be a small price to pay for secure communications.

If you have been following events in the Middle East to any extent, it is apparent that the place is in a state worse than chaos. Iraq has turned into a state that is in gang war – multiple sects, factions and tribes have engaged open combat. I don't profess to understand it all, and I certainly have no possible solution. One person who does, and who has been working to try and bring peace and reconciliation to all of the warring groups is Upper Belvedere’s own Canon Andrew White, who has been nicknamed “The Vicar of Baghdad”. Andrew, who grew up in Eardley Road has been the sole Church of England representative in Iraq since 2005. He is the vicar of St. George’s Church, Baghdad, the only remaining Anglican church in Iraq. He is also the head of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation – an organisation established to engender dialogue between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and also to act as a negotiator for the release of hostages, where he has met with considerable success. He is under constant threat from all sorts of religious extremists – ISIS being merely the most recent in a long line of nutters that would like to murder him. Canon Andrew White is a person who has dedicated his life to encouraging people to engage in conversation rather than violence, and for this reason the twisted logic of the terrorists means he is a prime target for assassination. He often is seen wearing body armour, and has a team of 35 personal bodyguards to protect him. There is more than just a local connection – I went to school with Andrew and knew him very well; his Mum and my Mum still chat on occasion. Even when he was at school it was obvious he was slightly out of the ordinary (he was a couple of years above me at school, but we got on very well, I think aided by the fact we were both exceptionally tall for our age). He’s never been in the best of health; in his teens he had terrible problems with his knee joints, and had a series of operations – I can recall him making me laugh when he told me that on one occasion he was being wheeled into the operating theatre, and he alarmed the nurses by reciting the last rites in Latin! My mother recalls him regularly using a skateboard to prop up a leg in plaster whilst he used elbow crutches to propel himself along the pavement past her house at some speed. Nowadays he suffers from Multiple Sclerosis (which means his voice sounds slightly slurred – he’s not been at the communion wine, it is a symptom of the condition). He also recently announced that he’s been diagnosed with Hepatitis. He is truly one of the World's gifted peacemakers, and I feel privileged to know him.

Finally - a new video from Simon's Cat - what more could you ask? Comments below, as always.

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