I spent a little time in Berlin last week, and visited the DDR Museum. More serious historians complain that it glosses over some of East Germany’s grimmer aspects, but for primer on life under a thoroughly nasty regime, it’s well worth a visit. One thing that struck me was the control the Communist dictators had over the country’s media, from duff propaganda films to an iron grip on the printed press. Most people only ever saw one point of view about their local affairs expressed in print.
Watching a film about housing, and looking at copies of Neues Deutschland, a feeling of eerie familiarity began to take hold.
Taking claims and treating them as facts? Acknowledging just one point of view? Plenty of photographs of the party leader? Indeed, the suspicion that all this was just here to bolster the position of the party leader? Where had I seen all that before?
Then I got home, and I discovered the council’s started delivering Neues Greenwich… sorry, Greenwich Time to my door again. Full of interesting material to discuss with the Brigade about choice-based housing, some stuff happening in parks, and other successes to bolster the image of the… yeah, yeah, you get it.
Inside, a centre spread about Woolwich that sounded so exciting, I had to get there straight away.
Here’s some jolly chaps underneath a hoarding that cost a supposedly cash-strapped council £8,038 of taxpayers’ money (and was ordered the day after the “Woolwich wall” was painted over).
“There’s an upbeat atmosphere sweeping through the streets of Woolwich this week as people celebrate all that’s good about living, working, and shopping in the town,” it cheered, adding that this was “Woolwich Back to Business Week” and we should “celebrate the town’s exciting regeneration, and draw a line under August’s disorder”.
Draw a line? We’ve barely even started! This week saw Wandsworth Council release findings from an independent report into its experience of the rioting, in Battersea, discussing why there were so few riot-trained police to defend the town.
The same question could be asked of Woolwich, where the lack of police protection was painfully clear to anyone stranded in the area. But two months on, there’s been no public meeting, no explanation from the police commander, nothing to reassure residents, and not even a meeting of councillors.
Still, let’s draw a line underneath the riots, and pretend they never happened, eh?
Local skateboarders are heeding the council’s advice, mind, and drawing lines all over the newly-done-up General Gordon Square, which looks a mess just weeks after it belatedly opened.
Stalls are up to mark “Woolwich Back to Business Week” – but there was no evidence of business there on my visit, except for a man dressed as a Nando’s chicken. Even he wasn’t hanging around. Instead, the stalls were the usual sorry-looking collection of council and NHS-related stalls, staffed by bored-looking souls who looked like they’d rather be getting some proper work done than hanging around in a tent soliciting “suggestions for a royal borough”.
One cheery soul from an organisation I’d never heard of, the Greenwich Partnership, handed me a glossy brochure so I could “find out what’s happening in Greenwich”. Since the booklet was dated “2006-2015”, it all seemed like it’d been decided anyway.
Powis Street looked the same as usual. Not really much to celebrate. I bumped into the Nando’s chicken man again, and builders are now working on the wrecked Blue Inc shop. On the corner of Hare Street – here it is in happier days – the latest occupant of what used to be Burton’s is shutting down.
I stopped at the old Art Deco Co-Op department store, shut since the 1990s and now looking in an even worse way than before, with no known plans for its future. Indeed, the Co-Operative closed its last retail outlet in Woolwich earlier this year, severing long-held links with the town.
One of the “back to business” boasts is that there’ll be a new hotel in the old Royal Arsenal Co-Operative Society HQ opposite – but this is what guests will see from their windows…
Greenwich Council can shout “Woolwich back to business” as much as it likes. But with a chunk of the town centre left rotting away, major chains pulling out (whatever happened to The Body Shop?) and pound shops proliferating, on top of the damage caused by the riot, it’s clear that there’s a long way until Woolwich gets back to respectability. And how many of these smaller businesses will survive the imminent arrival of a Tesco?
Indeed, what is the future shape of Woolwich town centre, with Tesco moving its centre of gravity further east? Nobody knows – or nobody’s saying, at least.
This isn’t to do Woolwich down. There’s plenty to celebrate in Woolwich – from its royal and military past, through to its role in the founding of the modern co-operative movement. Heck, it was the birthplace of the ill-fated Auto-Stacker, if nothing else. And there’s an amazing range of people there, from recent migrants to long-established families clinging on to the old town.
But this “celebration” isn’t about the people, nor is it about the history. It’s about “the town’s exciting regeneration”, something which hasn’t happened yet – apart from the council’s new offices – and which lies solely in the hands of the council and large multinational companies. So basically, people are being told to “celebrate” the actions of the council – at an event which is being marked with a military parade which will be met by, no, not the mayor, but Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts.
Generations of old East German communists would be proud to preside over a celebration of civic building works and the military. If a child runs up to present a flower to the Dear Leader, be worried.
Of course, East Germany fell when its people saw that things were better elsewhere, and when the dictators’ lapdog allies realised they’d have to grow some backbone after 40 years of doing as they were told and believing in illusions.
Whether similar change will come to Woolwich, and the borough of Greenwich, remains to be seen.