Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hogwarts in Erith?

Last Sunday afternoon, after the weekly publication of the Maggot Sandwich, I attended the first open day of the bell tower at Christ Church Erith. The bell tower is celebrating its 100th birthday this year; unusually the tower is actually younger than the main body of the Grade II listed church, which was opened in 1874, but the tower was not added until nearly forty years later. There is going to be a series of open days to enable people to see the interior of the tower, and for the more adventurous ones to make their way up the steep and narrow spiral staircase to both the bell ringers’ chamber, and possibly also up above that to the clock room. I took the two photographs above, and the one below, which give a pretty good idea of what this little known place looks like. I have already had comments that the photos are very reminiscent of Hogwarts! The church itself is an amazing piece of architecture – from the outside is a smart if somewhat unremarkable large, Victorian parish church, but once you enter, the place is stunning – it looks very much older than it actually is, partly due to the intricate frescoes and elaborate stained glass windows, and the huge, vaulted ceiling. These all hark back to an early Medieval style; the whole interior of the building to my mind has immense theatre, and must have cost an absolute mint to build. During the Bell Tower open days, the local bell ringers are holding demonstrations of their craft. I must admit that I had not given much thought to bell ringing until I saw it demonstrated in the flesh. The elaborate, shifting patterns of ringing have their own descriptive language. Indeed – when it is written down, the annotations are very similar to a computer program, which I suppose in many ways it is, except instead of sending instructions to a register in a computer processor, the instructions are going to a human bell ringer. Fascinating stuff. I would strongly recommend a visit during an open day. The next Bell Tower open days are on the following occasions:-

Sundays 3-5pm

April 19th, May 17th, June 21st, July 19th, August 16th and September 20th.

Sundays 11.30 - 12.30pm

June 7th and July 5th.

Admission to the events is free, although donations would be gratefully received.

One thing I have always been quite strict about when writing the Maggot Sandwich is that I do not get involved in party politics. I do get involved with issues, which inevitably get local politicians involved, which to me is not quite the same thing. I certainly have no interest in reflecting national issues on the blog. Inevitably when election time comes around, and politicians pick up on local matters of importance, then I am pretty much bound to observe and comment accordingly. Our current MP for Erith and Thamesmead, Teresa Pearce is being challenged by a new candidate from the Conservative party, a lady called Anna Firth. Anna has a new website that I stumbled across earlier in the week. I have to say at the outset that I, along with many others have been very pleased with the performance and dedication of Teresa Pearce; she’s excelled as a local MP, and has always responded promptly when I have contacted her with questions or observations. As many readers will be acutely aware, my overall opinion of politicians is not good – my favourite phrase to describe many of them is “you always know when a politician is lying – their lips are moving”. I have found this to manifestly not be the case with Teresa Pearce. She’s been resolutely honest and open, and really does put her constituency first. It will be interesting to see how Teresa and Anna compare – as with pretty much anything, a bit of competition normally works in favour of the consumer – in this case, local residents. Last Saturday the Conservatives were campaigning outside the Erith Riverside Shopping Centre. I passed on the bus on my way to Upper Belvedere. I would have liked to have a chat with Anna Firth, as her website lists one of her highest priorities if she were to get elected is to ensure a “safe and sustainable Splash Park” in Upper Belvedere. You can read her pledges here. I am sure she means very well, but unfortunately there are a  couple of factual inaccuracies in her assumptions; firstly she writes “That even if an all singing, all dancing Splash Park turns out to be unviable, some sort of children’s facility must remain. It would be wholly unacceptable for the site to simply be sold off for housing”. This is / was never going to be the case. The Splash Park site is protected by a covenant and cannot be sold off for housing; what one of the options I understand that Bexley Council are considering is shifting all of the swings and playground activities from across the road in the main “Swings Park” onto the current Splash Park site, then selling off Belvedere Library which is adjacent to the “Swings Park”,  making a site of a decent couple of acres which could be sold off to developers so that they could cram a lot of high revenue flats onto the site; not only would the rapacious Council gain from the sale of a prime piece of real estate, but they would also get a steady revenue stream from council tax on the properties. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, Bexley Council don’t really care about the residents in the North of the Borough – as the electorate who keep the majority Conservative council in power are located almost exclusively in the more prosperous South. Thereby also hangs a challenge for Anna Firth. Her personal manifesto flies in direct contravention of Bexley Conservative policy. The Conservatives on the council will stop at almost anything to get rid of the Splash Park, which they regard as an expensive waste of money that is used by residents who generally don't vote for them anyway, so what’s the point of keeping it? In the event of Anna Firth being elected, she would almost certainly have to massively backtrack on her public views on the aforementioned Splash Park, or risk serious conflict with senior members of Bexley Council. As with anything of this nature, time will tell. “Bexley is Bonkers” author Malcolm Knight pointed out last Monday that Anna Firth is also standing as a candidate as a councillor in Sevenoaks on the same day she will be standing for Parliament. I am not sure that this will look too good with the local electorate – it smacks of hedging her bets. The fact that she does not live locally, or have any direct connection with Erith and Thamesmead is also a bit of a worry.

If the news around the closure of the Belvedere Splash Park was not bad enough, Bexley council are now even more brazenly looking to sell off another public park in the local area. The Barnehurst Children’s Play area, located in Old Manor Way is also under threat. I regularly pass the play area when I travel to Bexleyheath on the 99 bus, and I can say with confidence that the park gets very solid use – it is rare to see the place empty, and you usually see a handful of parents with small children enjoying the amenities. The Council, in typical bombastic manner, propose to sell off the play area to a property developer to build yet more high density housing on it. Local MP David Evennett (recently promoted to the Privy Council) is involved with the issue; The Bexley Times have reported him as saying “I was surprised to learn that the playground was on the list of possible sites to be sold by the council and have been in touch with councillors and cabinet member Alec Sawyer. This playground is well used and an important facility which has existed since the Second World War. I do hope the council will not proceed with disposal and will listen to the views of local people”. Mr. Evennett’s defence of the playground and statement of support are encouraging, although how long he will publicly espouse this view is open to conjecture. The problem lies with the Conservative dominated council group – whose strategy seems to be to sell off everything that they can in the North of the Borough in order to both subsidise the wealthier South (where the main part of their support lies) and to line their already bulging wallets. The beauty (in their eyes) is that not only do you gain a large lump of capital when you sell off public land, but you also guarantee a constant and predictable ongoing revenue stream from the council tax levied on the properties once they are occupied. I have read Bexley council’s platitudes concerning fighting childhood and adult obesity many times before; this proposed sell – off shows their true colours in my opinion. David Evennett’s stance to defend the play park may not last very long when he gets pressurised by the Conservative councillors to back down so that they can sell yet more of the family silver.

The News Shopper have reported that the abandoned Bexley in Bloom competition has been resurrected. Bexley Council abandoned the event in 2014, citing budget cuts, but sponsorship from Ruxley Manor Garden Centre in Sidcup has meant that the event is now back up on the calendar. Now that “Bexley in Bloom” has commercial sponsorship, the avenues of entry have been widened in order to appeal to a far wider audience. Now, any resident, business, school, allotment or community group  living within a fifteen mile radius of the garden centre can enter (so the name “Bexley in Bloom” is a bit on the misleading side, if one was to be pedantic). Nice to have it back anyway.

A number of the electricity companies that operate in Erith and Belvedere are currently leafleting and writing to local residents telling them that they need to book an appointment to get their conventional electricity meter swapped out for a smart meter.  Regular Maggot Sandwich readers may recall that I wrote back in September last year about the security hazards of installing Smart power meters in residential homes. Power usage data from the meters is sent unencrypted over a 3G phone transmitter built into the meter, which opens a whole host of security and privacy issues. You can read my original post about the subject by clicking here.  Since last September, the situation has developed somewhat. The government has opened a consultation on its proposals not to extend the deadline for businesses to opt out of the hated smart meter programme – despite hitting major delays with the programme itself. The government plans to force two million "non-domestic" premises to install smart meters by 2020. These include a variety of organisations such as small shops, schools and large businesses. However, those organisations can currently opt out of the scheme if they install lower-specification "advanced meters" by April 2016. Advanced meters are defined as being able to provide half-hourly electricity or hourly gas data that can be remotely accessed by a supplier. But the £10.9bn scheme itself has been hit with significant delays. Earlier this month MPs warned that the programme was in danger of becoming a "costly failure". The report by the Energy and Climate Change Committee said it does "not believe" plans to install 53 million devices in homes and businesses by 2020 will be achieved. Capita, which runs the Data Communications Company (DCC) responsible for rolling out the programme, has also said "there is no feasible way to maintain the time-scales".

I have had a couple of rather surreal, but well intentioned conversations recently with local residents who are fed up with Bexley Council for a whole host of reasons, mainly centred around the disbelief that the council can carry on cutting services, but can still afford to pay their leadership team huge salaries for apparently doing very little.  As previously mentioned, the North of the borough suffers disproportionately when compared to the more prosperous South; one rather ambitious person did suggest to me whilst I was chatting to him at the Christ Church bell tower open day that Erith, Thamesmead, Crayford and Slade Green ought to secede from Bexley and form a new borough to reflect the nature of the area, and to better represent the people who currently feel disenfranchised and ignored by Bexley. I countered this with a suggestion that we could go the whole hog and declare an independent state (echoes of “Passport to Pimlico”). Back in the 5th Century the local area formed part of the royal lands of King Eadbald of Kent. Perhaps if one of his royal bloodline could be discovered, we could have them crowned? If you think this is a bit far – fetched, then look at the palaver and press coverage of the re – burial of Richard the 3rd last week. I don't think declaration of independence would be a huge step further than that enterprise – and just think what fun we could have! 

Now that Spring is with us – incidentally my favourite time of the year. I love the lengthening hours of daylight and the way in which nature appears to wake up from the long winter sleep. Unfortunately it does bring problems with it. A chap called Chris Smith from Sidcup has written to the News Shopper describing how a fox attacked one of his chickens in broad daylight, mere feet from where he was standing. The problem of urban foxes not being scared of humans has been steadily getting worse for a number of years. Readers may recall my account last summer; I was sitting in my living room reading one evening. I had the back door open. Suddenly I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye; when I looked up, there was a young adult fox, sitting in the middle of my living room less than ten feet from where I was sitting. I had to stand up and shout at it before it decided to move, and it calmly sauntered back across the living room, over the kitchen lobby, where it picked up one of my gardening boots in its’ mouth, before it tried to then make off with its’ plunder. Fortunately I managed to get it to drop the heavy boot.  That was just one of several incidents I have experienced, and I see foxes on an almost daily basis. Some locals have taken to putting bricks on the lids of their recycling wheelie bins, but the intelligent and resourceful foxes soon learned to push the bricks off. 

I have uncovered a strange link with the local area to one of the largest and most successful counter – intelligence operations in British history. Some readers may have seen the excellent Ben Macintyre television documentary on the World War II German spies and double agents that were controlled by MI5 throughout the war. The Nazis were under the impression that they had a widespread and successful network of spies in the UK, when in fact every single agent was working for the British, to the point that MI5 were actually controlling German Military intelligence for much of the war. This was a vital part of Operation Fortitude – the plan to keep Nazi high command from discovering when and where the D-Day invasion of France would take place. As Winston Churchill said “The truth is so precious, it needs to be protected with a bodyguard of lies”. As well as the fake agents sending false information back to the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) the plan constructed entire armies of fake vehicles, buildings and radio messages indicating troop build – ups where in reality there was nothing but empty fields. On top of all this, the planning to fool the Nazis took some rather surreal turns. It was anticipated that in addition to using portable radio transmitters, and sending letters written in invisible ink via neutral countries, that any German spies in the UK would also want to communicate via carrier pigeon; this was a very old, but virtually undetectable method of passing secret information. The use of animals in covert warfare was nothing new; the Special Operations Executive (SOE) stuffed dead rats with explosive to be used in sabotage operations. The American Navy trained dolphins to place explosive charges under enemy ships, but the most bizarre use of animals has to be a plan hatched by a Royal Air Force officer by the name of Flight Lieutenant Walker; his plan flourished in that grey area that exists between ingenuity and insanity. His idea was called the “Double Cross Pigeon Racket” - a plan designed to wipe out the Nazi carrier pigeon operation in a single stroke. Every German intelligence section in occupied France had a carrier pigeon section; on top of this, collaborators within the French civilian population were being recruited by the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) to act as a “stay behind” group, who would harbour German carrier pigeons to be released with vital intelligence messages in the event of a successful allied invasion. Lieutenant Walker was aware that Nazi propaganda minister Heinrich Himmler was a keen pigeon fancier, and he began to wonder if Himmler’s interest could be manipulated to the Allied advantage. If the Nazis could be fooled into thinking that British spy pigeons had infiltrated their lofts, then it would throw suspicion on the entire Nazi carrier pigeon service; if the Nazis could no longer trust their own pigeons, they might well end up killing the lot to be on the safe side. In the winter of 1943, Flight Lieutenant Walker presented his plan to MI5 with a memo entitled “Pigeon Contamination Plan” – “A stray or lost pigeon will almost always find its way into some loft. If a number of British pigeons could be disguised as German pigeons by putting forged German identity rings on them, then releasing them on the continent (deliberately choosing second rate birds which would be unlikely to attempt the long flight back over the English Channel) they would eventually find their way into German controlled pigeon lofts. Sooner or later the Germans would discover that they were being fooled. They would find two pigeons with the same leg ring number, or a grey pigeon wearing a ring that was clearly assigned to a red pigeon. They would begin to wonder just how many of their pigeons were phoney, and the only thing they could do would be to call in all of their birds and check them. Until they had checked all of their birds in all of their lofts they would be unable to use any carrier pigeon services, and by the time they had gone through them all, I would have delivered more phonies”. MI5 were enthusiastic and gave the project the go – ahead. The Germans were braced for the invasion of Europe by the Allies, the discovery that their carrier pigeon lofts had been infiltrated by double – agent pigeons could throw them off balance at a critical psychological moment. The double agent pigeons were housed in lofts all over the South East of England, one of which was based at Hall Place in Bexley, which was also the home of an SOE training unit and a Y- Intercept station run by the U.S Army (a radio receiving unit that intercepted Nazi signals communications for onwards transmission via dedicated phone lines to Bletchley Park for decoding). The “Double Cross Pigeon Racket” was put into operation, and …. Nothing happened. After the war, captured Abwehr records showed that the forged identification leg rings on the double agent pigeons were so convincingly crafted that the Nazi pigeon handlers never actually realised that the birds they were receiving were phony. The plan was so well executed that the Germans never realised they had been duped, and so carried on sending messages to their “agents” – all of whom were already working for MI5 anyway. A bizarre, ironic  but true story.

The photo of old Erith above was taken in (I believe) 1901; it shows Pier Road looking up towards Cross Street. On the left is the bookshop owned by R.H Starkey, who also sold stationery. Next is Harry Palmer the Draper, and on the right is C.F Savage's Boot Warehouse. Nothing in the photo exists in Erith today, with the exception of the name Pier Road.

Further to my earlier musings on the next election, there may be a large elephant sitting in the corner that currently very few people appear to be aware of. There have been fundamental changes in the system that registers people to vote, and the new system appears to have some serious flaws. This is the first General Election to use “Individual Voter Registration” (IVR), which requires each voter to register to vote individually. The change was made in the 2013 Electoral Registration and Administration Act. Previously, the “head of the household” was responsible for ensuring voters were registered to vote. In October, the Electoral Commission reported that 5.5million voters were missing from the Electoral Register. But this shouldn't be a surprise to the Cabinet Office, who knew of the problems two years ago. Back in August last year, the Cabinet Office’s own in – house IT development team called the Government Digital Service (GDS) said “The digital service allows anyone to register to vote online, from any device connected to the web. It’s incredibly quick and simple – it takes less than five minutes. All you need is your National Insurance number (or your passport, if you’re abroad). It’s so quick, you could be forgiven for thinking 'Is that it?' when you’ve finished your registration,” wrote GDS boss Mike Bracken CBE, adding “This is how democracy works now. Voters are users too, and this service was designed to meet their needs”. The problem was, nothing in the statement was actually correct.  At a stroke, the Electoral Register was a lot shorter than it had been. On top of this bizarre anomalies began to pop up;  A five-year-old boy in Crewe had been given the vote – but he could not get off the Electoral Register, because he couldn't produce his National Insurance number. He couldn't produce his National Insurance number because he didn’t have one. Problems with data matching were endemic. One particular one reoccurred – and was raised during the Cabinet Office pilots, but brushed aside. After completing the GDS form, an eligible voter who had been on the Electoral Roll for twenty years failed to get on the Electoral Register. The reason was that She had acquired citizenship many years before, and her National Insurance number was in her maiden name. Using the GDS form, she had applied in her married name. The name and the National Insurance number check didn’t match. When the voter rang her ERO office, the ERO explained that staff had experienced exactly the same problem during the Cabinet Office’s pilots. Yet nobody thought it important enough to identify as a problem. Astonishingly, GDS had failed to include a basic data Captcha state to weed out junk data. It simply packaged up the data gathered from the web form and handed it over to Electoral Registration Officers to sort out. There may be a more insidious problem. GDS boasted it was “registering people to vote”, yet, as has been pointed out. The level of confusion GDS have sown with their IER publicity is impressive. We now have people filling in the form thinking that they have as a result registered to vote. They haven't. They've submitted an application to register to vote, but no guarantee of being registered actually is in place. The only way to verify the estimated 5.5 million missing voters would be to manually canvass the addresses using Electoral Registration Officers – a very expensive and time consuming process. I would not be surprised if this story hits the mainstream press very soon, as it is a potential bombshell.

The ending video was sent to me by Francis Mallinson of Lexington Communications - the PR company representing the developers of the Erith Quarry site. It makes for interesting viewing. Erith is in serious need of an additional Primary School - this proposal would go a long way in supplying it. What do you think? Comment below, or Email me at:-

1 comment:

  1. Love the circular design of the primary school, perhaps they could apply this to housing too instead of the ugly blocks all the developers come up with nowadays!