Category: local stuff

Fire wrecks home of the Tunnel Club, Greenwich’s alternative comedy shrine

The Mitre on fire

That big fire you might have seen this lunchtime (if it wasn’t this one in Erith) was up by the Blackwall Tunnel, at the Studio 338 nightclub. It’s fair to say the place isn’t in a good way.

Developers and those that like to boost them up like to claim the Greenwich Peninsula was always a wasteland, but that’s not true. The wrecked building, once the Mitre pub, is one of the last survivors from the community that existed there before the second Blackwall Tunnel and its approach road were built.

There were terraced houses behind the Mitre until the 1970s – they were demolished after the Blackwall Tunnel approach, which opened in 1969, effectively cut them off from the rest of the area – and a church stood nearby until the 1980s.

Stranded by the A102 and with few neighbours left to disturb, the Mitre became a favourite for club promoters. It’s been through a variety of incarnations in the past 20 years or so – including Dorrington’s, That Club, and more recently Studio 338.

But it remains best known for being one of the birthplaces of the alternative comedy scene – Malcolm Hardee‘s Tunnel Club.

The Tunnel Club opened in 1984, and helped begin the careers of Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves, Jeremy Hardy, Jo Brand and many, many more. It was a notoriously intimidating place to perform. Another local comic, Arthur Smith, described the Tunnel in his memoir.

Phil and I played the opening night at the Tunnel, which, under Malcolm’s influence, became the arena where London’s top hecklers gathered every Sunday to slaughter open spots and established acts alike. Some punters even met up beforehand in a kind of heckling seminar and one night, when I was performing solo, a voice in the dark interrupted me with a Latin phrase that turned out to mean ‘show us your tits.’

The word ‘notorious’ soon attached itself to the Tunnel which is now remembered as Alternative Comedy’s equivalent to the previous generation’s Glasgow Empire – a place for confrontation, raucousness, multiple comedy pile-ups and deaths. It was not uncommon for the acts to be booed off with such efficiency that the whole show was over in twenty minutes, an occasion that was greeted by the regulars as a great success.

Malcolm, instinctively anti-authoritarian from his thick black glasses, down his naked hairy body, to his piss-stained odd socks, liked to encourage the mayhem by the frequent exhibition of his titanic testicles, which he advertised as ‘the second biggest in the country – after Jenny Agutter’s father.’ (Apparently, they had once compared notes). If the mood took him he would urinate over the front row and, such was his charisma, the victims cheered rather than remonstrated.

The rest is worth a read, as is Malcolm’s own memoir, I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake.

The Mitre is also remembered in a short film, The Tunnel, released in 2012.

The Tunnel closed in 1988, following an enormous police raid on the Mitre. But some of the Tunnel’s spirit moved down the road to Up The Creek, which Malcolm opened three years later. He died in 2005 after falling into Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe, trying to get to his houseboat. The team behind The Tunnel film are now working on a follow-up about Malcolm’s eventful life.

Today’s fire looks like it has brought a final close to the Mitre’s story. The site isn’t immediately suitable for redevelopment – while the gas holder next to it is out of action, the plot behind is earmarked by Transport for London as a construction site if the Silvertown Tunnel gets the go-ahead.

For now, though, 338’s regulars will be sad, some of the neighbours who’d complained about booming early morning beats, less so. But whatever you thought of the place, today’s fire has destroyed one last little bit of anarchic old Greenwich.

Wednesday update: A Studio 338 staff member, named only as Tomas, has died after suffering severe burns in Monday’s fire.

News Shopper slashed again: What’s the future for SE London journalism?

News Shopper, 3 August 2016

Another nail in the coffin for local journalism in south-east London has arrived this week, with the merger of the Greenwich and Lewisham editions of the News Shopper. In truth, it’s not a huge cutback – papers meant for Sydenham to Abbey Wood largely had the same content anyway. And the paper’s distribution is patchy at best.

But the two papers usually had their own front pages, giving publicity to local campaigns that may not resonate in the neighbouring borough. You may not get a printed Shopper through the letterbox any more, but those front pages can still make waves where it matters. Now the papers will share a front page – bad news for campaigns such as those trying to stop Greenwich schools becoming academies or steep cutbacks to Lewisham’s libraries.

This probably means even more crime stories, because everyone (in theory) identifies with those, even though they’re a hugely depressing turn-off if they appear every week.

Until the 1980s, it was common for south London’s local papers to span borough boundaries. The Mercury used to cover Greenwich, Lewisham and the southern part of Southwark (the old Camberwell borough) in one paper. The Kentish Independent covered Greenwich and Bexley before it closed in 1984. The Kentish Times did the same for Bexley and Bromley. The South London Press still stretches from Wandsworth to Lewisham. But back then, the papers were fully-staffed, well-resourced and based in their patches. People even used to go into newsagents to buy them – imagine!

That old economic model has been smashed – partly by shareholder greed, partly by modern technology. Newsrooms have been emptied and moved out of the area – the Shopper comes from Sutton, the Mercury from the SLP’s base in Streatham. Talented young journalists on poor salaries (and priced out of the area) are being made to run ever faster just to keep up to produce stories for papers that are rarely seen or websites that are becoming increasingly unusable.

If this kind of thing interests you, it’s worth reading the thoughts of Gareth Davies, an investigate reporter who recently left the once-proud Croydon Advertiser. Worth also looking at Inside Croydon, the upstart blog which regularly pulls the “Sadvertiser”‘s pants down and is everything I wish 853 was.

This is the point where I should come in and cackle. Look at him with his so-called “blog”! But I can’t. I take great pride in much of what this website and the Charlton Champion has covered over the years. I’ve even given talks about it to fellow journalists. It’s good to be able to tell people about things you think they’ll be interested in.

But lone wolf blogs like this – and maybe even Inside Croydon – burn out eventually. Even the ones that take the line that everything is brilliant fade away because you can only tell that story once.

Most readers of this website will be aware that the content’s dried up a bit lately. That’s partly because I’m still dealing with complications from breaking my ankle five months ago that make it difficult to get around, and I haven’t had much time to catch up with stories like the Thames Path being closed again.

There’s no incentive for me to get out and do this in my own time – in fact, the reverse is true, particularly when my priorities in life are recovering from my injury and seeking some kind of paid employment. Six months ago, I was screamed at in a pub by a Greenwich Labour figure after I suggested he was in a better position to deal with the problems in his party’s council than I was. What’s the point in carrying on if that happens when you’ve gone out for a quiet drink?

So if the local newspaper model is bust, and lone wolf blogs burn out, where next? Greenwich Council had an opportunity to create a community paper out of Greenwich Time, but blew it by turning it into a propaganda sheet. (Incidentally, it is now planning to try again as a fortnightly, which could land it in more legal disputes.)

There’s the co-op model – the amazing Bristol Cable has over 1,200 members and has made an enormous impact with the kind of investigative journalism that has simply gone out of fashion in local papers. But this takes time and money – are enough people interested?

Or perhaps there’s room to try again with the local printed press – the monthly Greenwich Visitor and SE Nine show there’s still life away from the asset-stripping media giants. But who’s willing to take the financial risk?

The answer, ultimately, lies with you. As Guardian staffers are finding out, news doesn’t grow on trees. Would you be willing to support a local news co-op, or investing in a new paper (even only at the level of buying one each week)? I’d be very interested in your thoughts.

Travellers set up camp at Greenwich’s Ikea site

If you’re the kind of odd person who writes about local issues, and then you suffer a broken ankle, it means you miss some things. It means that you miss the complete disappearance of one of the area’s best-known buildings while you’re propped up not able to do very much.

So, where the “eco” Sainsbury’s in Greenwich once sat, there’s now an empty plot of land. Ikea took ownership last year, ahead of submitting its full planning application for a new store, and demolished the old store in the spring.

Instead of doing some landscaping to protect the land and make look a bit nicer (think of the green mounds outside Woolwich Tesco, awaiting redevelopment; or the green mounds that sat on what’s now the Lewisham Gateway building site), or even finding some ingenious use for the redundant store, Ikea left it empty. And we all know what happens with empty plots of land in this part of town.

IMG_3148

Still, at least the travellers are making use of the site – as Ikea wasn’t – and might be able to keep an eye on the motorcyclists that recently started to race around the site.

None of this will be of any comfort to the site’s neighbours. Nor will this weekend’s news of four-hour delays around the new Ikea in Reading.

But never fear – despite this, despite the Silvertown Tunnel, despite the cruise liner terminal, despite the creation of new retail warehouses on the Charlton riverside – there is money for “the Town Centre and Trafalgar Road Low Emissions Neighbourhood proposal, [which] includes a series of car-free days in the town centre, an incentive scheme to encourage walking and cycling and an extensive series of mini parks throughout the area”.

Too little, too late feels an understatement. It’s like locking the gates once the travellers have moved their vans in…

All change: 108 bus to link SE London with Olympic Park from October

108 bus
Greenwich and Lewisham’s only bus service to east London, the 108, will be re-routed to run via the Olympic Park from October.

The current service runs through the Blackwall Tunnel to Stratford bus station, via the A12, Bow Flyover and Stratford High Street.

From 1 October, it will run via Chrisp Street in Poplar and Campbell Road in Bow, before running through Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to Stratford International station, with stops outside the London Aquatics Centre, Stratford station and the Westfield shopping centre. While the 108’s connection at Bromley-by-Bow tube station is lost, it gains a new one at nearby Bow Road.

But while 108 passengers will escape jams in Stratford town centre as well as on the A12 heading towards the Blackwall Tunnel, they could face new hold-ups due to traffic congestion on the East India Dock Road, which links Chrisp Street with the tunnel.

In its response to a consultation into the proposals – which sees the 108’s north-of-the-river route swapped with another service, the D8 – the agency admits that congestion could affect both routes.

TfL says: “We note this is a risk. However, in developing the scheme, regard was had to existing traffic conditions and it is considered possible for both routes to offer a good quality service to passengers. We will continue to monitor service quality on both routes to ensure a service is being provided.”

It’s also not known what will happen during West Ham home matches at the Olympic Stadium – the current D8 service is diverted during stadium events.

Larger buses, which can hold 70 people, will be used, providing some very limited relief for those caught in the 108’s notorious rush-hour overcrowding. There are no plans as yet to increase the number of buses, although details of a new contract to run the route are yet to be released.

Neither Greenwich nor Lewisham councils responded to the consultation, while Tower Hamlets objected to the changes.

This website mentioned the idea in 2013 as a partly tongue-in-cheek response to Greenwich Council’s “all out” campaign to build the Silvertown Tunnel. It was followed by a surprisingly high number of responses suggesting the switch to a TfL consultation into which routes should serve the Olympic Park.

Stop the propaganda press: Greenwich Time’s final edition published

Greenwich Time, 27 June 2016

Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper – Greenwich Time – has published its final edition, bringing to an end a lengthy battle with the Government over its existence.

The council spent £80,000 fighting a Government order to close it (with the Government spending £23,770), before the two parties reached an out-of-court settlement in December.

This week’s edition brings the title to a close after 32 years, of which its final eight were spent as a weekly. It launched in 1984 as a monthly publication, going fortnightly in 1991.

It was the last weekly council paper in England, following the closure of Tower Hamlets’ East End Life earlier this year.

You’ll have to read carefully to spot it’s the final paper – its closure is mentioned in a letter to residents on page two from council leader Denise Hyland, claiming it was “a reliable source of local information… reflective of the incredible history and characteristics of our area”.

Greenwich Time, 27 June 2016

But the paper, long targeted by a Government which aimed to outlaw “council Pravdas”, had been limping on for years following the sacking of chief reporter Peter Cordwell and assistant editor Rod Kitson.

Indeed, in its final years, the paper looked increasingly like the Soviet propaganda paper its detractors accused it of aping – a long way from the original intention of emulating genuine local newspapers.

The final front page features a bland statement on the council’s reaction to the EU referendum result and one of the council’s regular obsessions – the army, with a photograph of veterans at its Great Get Together event.

Inside, the redevelopment of estates in Woolwich is reannounced, while the Greenwich Heritage Trust’s creation of an exhibition commemorating the history of the Royal Artillery in Woolwich is featured – without mentioning it is a replacement for the failed Firepower museum, which closes next month.

It is not clear what comes next – the council is keeping its cards very close to its chest. We do know that Greenwich has put its statutory notices – planning applications, highway works, etc – out to tender again.

For now, the council leadership has lost a tool it used to paint a portrait of a borough that many simply didn’t recognise. It could have created a genuine community paper, allowing dissenting views and helping fill a vacuum left by the slow demise of the independent local press. But its leadership didn’t trust its residents, and instead used Greenwich Time to attempt to set the agenda – possibly angering as many as it persuaded.

Hyland’s letter continues: “I hope that the enormous legacy left by Greenwich Time will continue online in digital communities.” Well, hello!

Village people: What’s the fingerpost at Blackheath’s Royal Standard all about?

Blackheath Standard
Normally, this website likes to tell you things you didn’t know. But with normal service disrupted and not much time at present to keep this going, here’s something you can tell me. What’s that new village-style fingerpost sign at Blackheath Standard all about? And is it just me that thinks it looks a little bit odd? It looks less strange since Greenwich Council attached its sign to the front of it (does this mean everywhere is getting one?) but it still looks a tad weird to me.

Maybe it’s the Charlton arm pointing into a tree, perhaps it’s the design, or maybe it’s that faux-village street furniture always seems a bit peculiar in urban London. But it always has me scratching my head whenever I pass it. How did it come about?

Update, 21 June: A bit late with this, but thanks to Thomas Turrell for this explanation…

Greenwich Time ad team takes on Hackney as council weekly axe looms

Greenwich Time

Thankfully, Greenwich Time was on hand to deal with a domestic accident

Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, has only weeks left to live – but the council’s communications empire is actually expanding by taking on work for another London borough.

GT will close in its current format next month after an out-of-court settlement with the Government, which has outlawed “town hall Pravdas”.

But, weeks before the end, Greenwich Time’s advertising team has started selling ad space in Hackney Council’s fortnightly paper, Hackney Today.

The names of GT’s highly-regarded ad team, Nicola McGuire and Gaynor Granger, appear as advertising contacts in recent editions of the east London council’s paper.

Independent local paper Hackney Citizen reports that this is a  “temporary arrangement” while Hackney looks for a new ad sales person for its fortnightly paper, with Greenwich receiving a cut of the revenue.

Greenwich’s insistence on publishing Greenwich Time weekly saw it become an early target for former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles’ war on such papers, which can now only be published four times a year. The only other council weekly in England, Tower Hamlets’ East End Life, closed this week.

Hackney is one of a band of councils who continue to defy the law by publishing  fortnightly, and have been threatened with action by chancellor George Osborne, who recently allowed local newspaper premises to allow for business rate relief in an attempt to boost the sector.

It’s not thought any premises in Greenwich borough will qualify (neither Lewisham nor Bexley have any local newspaper premises either) and with Greenwich Council still active in seeking advertising for council publications – and strongly encouraging partner organisations not to place ads with rivals – any new entrant will still find life difficult.

As for Greenwich Time, it remains stubbornly wedded to the agenda of council reputation management over information, with the current edition even ignoring the sinkhole that appeared in Charlton last week, along with printing an out-of-date “what’s on” guide. With some residents not getting the paper until Friday, five days after publication, much of what’s inside is old news by the time it limps onto doormats.

The council leadership is keeping its cards close to its chest on plans for the future. For all the Tories’ bluster over council papers, it took several years to kill off weekly town hall papers and it will no doubt be looking to push the out of court settlement to the letter.

The settlement says the council can publish “regular and frequent communications to those residents who choose to receive such information by whatever medium they they decide (eg, paper or electronic) providing it does not have the appearance of a newspaper, newsletter or similar publication”.

Neighbouring Lewisham has published a weekly email for some years (you can subscribe here and have a chance of winning a trip to Diggerland, the inspiration for the Lewisham Gateway scheme) supported by quarterly magazine Lewisham Life. A tie-up with Greenwich Leisure Limited, the not-for-profit group that runs leisure centres and libraries, has also long been mooted.

Council information... for the wrong borough

Council information… for the wrong borough

Another option is a tie-up with an existing local paper. The Mercury’s publishers have long been keen on recapturing the council’s advertising budget, lost many years ago.

The Mercury was recently bought from octogenarian local news baron Ray Tindle by its South London Press management, quietly reversing his eccentric policy of publishing “hyperlocal” editions for certain areas of Greenwich and Lewisham boroughs and more recently giving the ailing paper a much-needed redesign.

Smiling kids on the front page... look familiar to you?

Smiling kids on the front page… look familiar to you?

The Greenwich edition of the Streatham-based paper now carries the words “Royal Borough of Greenwich” above the masthead, while it also recently featured a worthy “get fit and stay healthy with Royal Greenwich” supplement – also inflicted on Lewisham readers – no doubt intended as a demonstration of what it could do. This week’s edition features a similar supplement, “Let’s do business in Royal Greenwich”.

Whether this will lead to a tie-up between the council and the Mercury remains to be seen. Greenwich residents will find out by the end of June. But for now, Greenwich Time’s ad sales department doesn’t seem to be going away.