One Day In Woolwich
Atrocity visited Woolwich this week. Like everyone else, I’ve spent a lot of time searching for words. Sometimes, if we can describe and perhaps categorise our pain, it can become easier to bear. But like everyone else, I have failed. Instead, I’ve gone through the motions: sleep, work, tube, dinner, sleep. Not that much sleep, to be honest.
But I’d like to write something, however clumsy and inadequate. After all, this blog is about Woolwich, and Woolwich has come under a fair bit of scrutiny in the last few days. After the abhorrent events of Wednesday, I thought for a split second about shutting my twitter account and this blog down. How dare I claim Woolwich is “the only way”, even in jest? As it happened, this week I have also been the guest curator of the London Is Yours twitter account and was supposed to be making the most of the opportunity to bring “my” London to a wider, indeed global, audience.
I didn’t shut anything down, in the end. Like most local tweeters, Wednesday night was devoted to reporting on the movements of the EDL, to warning people about trouble spots, and to sharing information about rerouted buses, road blocks and the closure of Woolwich Arsenal Station. As we collectively struggled to come to terms with what had happened on our doorstep, we also did what humans do. We complained. About the noise of the police chopper overhead. About the media throng suddenly in our midst. About other social media users.
But I kept circling back to one theme. The need to defend my neighbourhood. Twitter was strewn with anti-Woolwich sentiment. There was the feeling (for some, the certainty) that what the rest of the world was condemning as an atrocity was “just another day” in Woolwich. The norm. Bound to happen. Again and again.
I’ve only lived here since January 2011 and three years ago I wouldn’t have been able to find Woolwich on a map. I’d never even heard of it. I knew nothing of its military history, nothing of its past and recent struggles, nothing of its diverse community. When I arrived here, fresh off the plane from Melbourne, I marched straight into the Arsenal and rented out a furnished flat because it was near Canary Wharf.
One night, in the August of that year, the sky over Woolwich turned a smoky reddish brown. The London Riots were on and Woolwich was copping its fair share.
That was the turning point. The moment when I fell in love with Woolwich. What a bashed, broken, angry, bewildered, burnt, and wretched place it seemed to be the next morning. But also defiant, practical, proud, and unbowed. Makeshift hoardings appeared, temporarily, around the charred husk of the Great Harry (since rebuilt and again a popular pub). The Woolwich Wall became a tapestry of passionate, incensed, nostalgic, affectionate, and occasionally quite witty scribblings. In much larger letters someone had written simply, “We Love Woolwich”.
Since the riots, good things have happened in Woolwich. New businesses and people have moved in and most of the damage caused during the riots has been repaired. The place has felt resurgent.
My online strategy for the rest of this extremely sad week has been to impart snippets of Woolwich history, culture, community events, and photos I’ve taken around the place. It hasn’t been about pretending nothing has happened. I tweeted this stuff because people asked me to and because I wanted to. Others have been doing the same and a positive mood of sorts seems to have prevailed. In the real world too, the Woolwich Singers went ahead with their planned concert on Thursday night, belting out tunes to a large and appreciative audience.
We still love Woolwich.
On Friday, my morning bus slowed to a crawl because the horses of the King’s Troop were being taken from their plush stables in Woolwich to exercise in Charlton Park. They looked magnificent and regal (I guess that’s their job) as they trotted along, holding up the peak hour traffic. I’m sure no one minded. Because this is the sort of thing that happens on the streets of Woolwich every other day.
RIP Lee Rigby.