The most telling thing about the past week was watching people when they first clapped eyes on the burnt-out wreck of The Great Harry. Some stood and stared. Others shook their head. A few looked ready to shed a tear. If seeing the wrecked pub wasn’t moving enough, observing people’s reactions certainly was.
It was mostly older people, who weren’t expecting it. They never saw Woolwich on the news, because it wasn’t on the news. Younger people saw the Wetherspoons pub on the internet as it burned last Monday night, and the charred wreck on Tuesday as photos and stories flew around the social networks.
Now the old pub’s boarded up, and it’s the centre of attention at the location for the Woolwich wall. No, it didn’t get the coverage of the Peckham post-it notes, nor the brooms of Battersea, until one of its instigators badgered Sky News into coming down on Sunday night.
But then that shouldn’t have been a surprise, because as is well-known by now, Woolwich was virtually ignored by most of the London media, never mind the national media. Infamously, an Evening Standard map of flashpoints went no further east than Deptford.
While other places’ troubles were glossed over – Catford barely got a mention, neither did Bromley or Walworth, the sheer scale of the disruption and destruction in Woolwich should have been a focus of at least some of the coverage.
The disparity struck me on Wednesday evening. I walked through Lewisham expecting to find similar scenes of devastation after aerial shots of trouble last Monday. But nobody had burned down a pub, and all its shops were still standing. The same can’t be said for Woolwich. It hit again on Friday, when I flicked to the BBC News channel to find two young people hauled into TV Centre in Shepherds Bush talk about the rebuilding process in Ealing. No disrespect to our west London neighbours, who have also suffered badly and saw a man lose his life, but my only thought was “not bloody Ealing again”.
Why was Woolwich ignored? By any means, this should be a compelling story. A host district for the Olympic Games finally starting to see some fruits of regeneration, only for them to be stamped on by looters and arsonists. Some smell an Olympics-related conspiracy – parts of Canning Town and East Ham were also hit – but there’s enough journalists looking for a London 2012 bad news story to have covered it if they wanted to.
Instead, my own suspicion is that it’s a symptom of the same old malaise – the media simply isn’t interested in this part of south-east London. It knows nothing about it, for it lies off the Tube and we all know there be dragons when you step off the Tube map. London’s own media is particularly weak. Its radio stations are led by phone-ins rather than news. London’s TV stations have to work around national colleagues in a comfort zone covering the capital as opposed to the rest of the country, and the parts of the capital they know best as opposed to the rest of the city.
Ealing’s packed full of BBC staff, hence the coverage that area got. The Clapham Junction trouble was close enough to Nappy Valley to ensure that got covered. But poor old Woolwich? No chance. Radio 5 Live producer Richard Fenton-Smith did cover incidents in the area live last Monday night – but wasn’t able to influence the coverage afterwards. As someone that worked at the BBC for 10 years myself, his words struck a chord:
When I tell people I live in Woolwich, I’m often met with a mockney snigger of “Saaarf-eaast Landahn”. Unlike Hackney, Ealing, Clapham, Camberwell and Camden, it’s not very ‘media luvvy’. So come Tuesday morning, newsrooms would have been buzzing with what happened in these more fashionable neighbourhoods. Perhaps Woolwich just wasn’t cool enough to count.
After a couple of people suggested I give it a go, I pitched a piece about Woolwich to a newspaper’s website. I didn’t even get a response. I started to understand where the conspiracy theorists got it from.
So, just like citizens of distant Middle East cities reporters can’t get to, locals took to the web. Danny Mercer had the phone slammed down on him by the Daily Telegraph. Instead, he penned his own account of The Forgotten Corner of London and Chris Suffield shared his eyewitness view of the riots.
Credit also to Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher, who pressed media organisations to cover Woolwich and wrote about his experiences for the influential ConservativeHome website – contrasting the lack of attention Woolwich had with the sudden helicopter-led excitement when the likes of Sky News thought there would be a riot in Eltham.
Maybe that was Woolwich’s biggest problem. The skirmishes in Lewisham took place in daylight, where they could be seen by TV helicopters. Come nightfall, the choppers were grounded – meaning the full-blown riot in Woolwich wasn’t seen by them, and remained out of sight to editors. A lack of high-profile visitors also didn’t help – communities minister Bob Neill’s visit wasn’t revealed to journalists, and there’s been no sign of Boris Johnson, David Cameron or Ed Miliband. Not even a cheeky campaign visit from Ken Livingstone. And when local MP Nick Raynsford stood up in the Commons, he didn’t even give the place a mention.
Thankfully, the Woolwich wall finally gave the place some attention on Sky News this morning.
But what now? Greenwich Council’s immediate response worried me. Swaggering around demanding the eviction of any council tenants caught looting got a nice easy headline and brought BBC London News to the area, but did nothing to address the long-term future of Woolwich. Indeed, one locally-based Labour blogger was “ashamed” of the council’s stance. (See also Labour-run Camden’s condemnation of “jackboot” evictions.)
Down the road in Lewisham, councillors urged locals to come to the market on Saturday and support local traders. Beyond leader Chris Roberts and cabinet members, most Greenwich councillors kept their usual low profiles, however.
That’s not to say good things weren’t done. Greenwich Council staff directed this clean-up squad to the jewellers on Hare Street. A lot of work has gone on behind the scenes. But I still can’t help feeling the initial response focused too much on the criminals, because trade and business is what Woolwich needs most right now, and people need to be lured back into the town centre.
Thankfully, though, this message has begun to change – this week’s Greenwich Time says Woolwich is “back in business”, which is what people need to know. Yes, there’s a new square coming, the Olympics, and a Tesco and more to come… but none of these will be any good if small businesses in Woolwich go under in the meantime. Support from local people is going to be at least as important as support from the council and the government in that, and councillors – all of them, not just the leader – are in a position to build that up.
Back at the Woolwich wall, a few have scrawled “RIP Woolwich” and “RIP SE18” there, demonstrating the fears for the future. It’s time to get out and tell people the old girl’s still alive and kicking. And that’s a job not just for the council, but for you and me too. Even those of us who’ve taken the mickey out of our battered neighbour in the past. (Come on, we’ve all done it.)
Let’s celebrate Woolwich’s history and its people. When hoardings go up around the damaged buildings, let’s cover them in stories of the past, and pictures of the residents who come from all over the globe. And when it’s time to take the Woolwich wall down, preserve it somewhere, so this turning point in its history can be marked.
Think of 50 weeks time, when there’ll be a big bang of new openings in Woolwich coinciding with the start of the Olympics. We’ll look back at this time and think how quickly Woolwich has recovered from its biggest disaster since the war. It can happen – and with all of us helping, it will happen.