I live in the part of London no-one likes to talk about – south east London. I have got used to the fact that this means many people think I don’t exist but, nonetheless, I’ve been furious at the lack of concern or interest shown by the major news outlets at the horrific riots that took place here last night.
I’d been working at The Woolwich Grand Theatre and had wondered aloud to Adrian, the creative director, if the north London riots might be replicated down here. Which they were.
Adrian had dropped me home at about 7pm, and by the time he had driven back into Woolwich, a riot had started and a police car was ablaze. He went back to the theatre and called me through the night with updates as the roiting and looting unfolded. I then timidly posted his information in the comments thread on The Guardian website as there seemed to be no other coverage of Woolwich. As I type this, after a night of fires and looting and a day of cordoned-off streets, The Guardian still hasn’t added Woolwich to their ‘riot map’. I can only imagine this is because they’re categorizing reports from Woolwich as ‘unverified’. I’m not sure how they verify their reports, but maybe sending a reporter across the river on the DLR would do it. Just a thought. It’s been odd watching the news focus change as riots started to happen in west London. Coverage of Clapham* and Ealing has been almost constant and, though the riots there should most certainly be covered, London does actually extend beyond Ealing and Clapham, and Guardian-readers and BBC-watchers do exist across the Prime Meridian.
To be fair, the BBC had a 5 Live producer on the scene in Woolwich last night, but his excellent audio report wasn’t repeated today anywhere as far as I can make out. The BBC chose to have a distressed shop-owner from Ealing and an angry Clapham resident on a loop. I’m not saying that these reports aren’t important – they clearly are – but when all major news outlets seem to be focussing on the same areas and you know that there are other areas being ignored, you do start to wonder what drives their choice of location and story. And whether it has anything to do with the number of journalists and BBC employees living in Ealing and Clapham. Cynical? Moi? No. I think I’m probably bang on.
So, anyway, fury at the newshounds’ ignoring of the area where I live aside, here’s what faced Woolwich residents this morning.
The streets were cordoned off and guarded by police. A burnt-out police car stood opposite the DLR station.
The main shopping street, Powis Street, was like a war zone. A war where glass, rubbish, fire extinguishers, rubble and mannequin body parts were the major weapons. I couldn’t see all the shops as parts of the street were totally blocked off, but this incomplete list will give an idea as to what it was like: Argos – looted; M and S – windows smashed and looted; all the mobile phone shops looted and smashed; all the pawnbrokers in the side streets – CashConverters etc and smaller independent jewellers-cum-pawnbrokers – smashed windows, forced security grilles and looted; New Look – windows smashed and looted (I thought it was really bizarre that all their window mannequins had gone), Burton – windows smashed and looted; Bon Marche – smashed and looted, video game shop – smashed and looted; a now-unidentifiable shop (possibly a mobile phone shop) – burnt to a shell with walls collapsing into the street and firefighters still putting out the flames; Natwest bank – smashed windows and looted.
Adrian had seen the Natwest bank being attacked. Inside, a very diligent cleaner had been vacuum cleaning, iPod earphone firmly in lugholes, completely oblivious of the baying mob smashing the plate glass frontage a few metres away from her. I hope she scarpered sharpish when she looked around.
Adrian and several other people reported a priest standing alone against the rioters, gently telling them all to ‘go home’. There had been some police present, but only a handful and, once the fires started, the police had had to provide an escort for the firefighters to stop them being attacked.
There had been least three major fires and other smaller ones. The new Wilkinson on the bus-stop side of General Gordon Square had been set alight. Wimpy (come on, what has Wimpy ever done to anyone??) had been smashed up and, possibly because it was below a CCTV camera, had been set alight – not all that successfully. Greater success had been had with the Wetherspoons pub on Wellington Street, on the other side of the road from the theatre. The Great Harry, scene of many a Woolwich Grand Theatre painting team lunch and named after a Tudor warship accidentally destroyed by, ahem, fire in 1533, was a burnt-out shell. The traffic lights next to it were melted.
This is the picture Adrian took last night before the flames fully took hold:
The pub had been set ablaze by rioters starting fires on two tables. Adrian and another man went into the pub to try to put the fires out before they took hold of the whole building. They couldn’t find the fire extinguishers (these may well have been taken by looters to smash windows with) and were forced back out after a few minutes because of the smoke. Firefighters lobbed bricks at the upper windows to smash them before they exploded and the place is now a shattered, ashen husk.
The rioters also did goodness-knows-what damage to the almost-completed, much-anticipated, refurbished General Gordon Square. I say goodness-knows-what damage because the Square was cordoned off today so it wasn’t possible to see what had gone on there. Adrian said he saw some kids trying to smash up the (admittedly horrific) Big Screen, but all this light in this picture looks like someone had turned on some of the workmen’s machines… or is the light fire? And yes, that sign does say ‘Investing in Woolwich’.
Today, we good burghers of Woolwich and environs wanted, like many other London residents, to help clear up the damage. Alas, no broom-waving with Boris for us southeastern types. The damaged streets were cordoned off all day, what with buildings still potentially about to collapse and, presumably, evidence to be gathered. Greenwich council also advised the organiser of a clear-up Woolwich facebook group that the cordons might still be up tomorrow and that they had their own team to do the clean-up anyway. If the area’s still dangerous, then fine, but if not, then letting willing locals clear up the mess – or even stand and hold things while official clearer-uppers clear up – would be a bloody good thing for morale. There is a strong community feeling out here (working on setting up the theatre has demonstrated that amply, with all the help we’ve been given and interest and support that’s been show), so why isn’t it being celebrated and encouraged at this dark hour? Maybe community clear-ups are only encouraged if the mayor’s popping down for a photo-opportunity.
And today, all the shops that had managed to open closed early and Woolwich was like a ghost town when we left the theatre at about 6pm. A ghost town with a huge police presence. As we were leaving, we saw 2 policemen on Polytechnic Street dealing with a drunk-seeming chap and dog multiply in a matter of seconds to a massive 18 boys and girls in blue. Possibly two or three times the number on the scene last night. So, fingers crossed for a peaceful night. I can’t smell any burning, so that’s probably a good sign.
Anyway. That’s my rambling report from this invisible quadrant. There’s also been massive pretty-much unreported vandalism and looting in the big shops – Currys, JD Sports ( the looter’s favourite) etc – in Charlton and lower-key trouble in Plumstead (including an unsuccessful attempt on the Tesco Express). I’m sure there are other areas in the UK that also aren’t getting coverage, so I reckon doubling or tripling the incidents reported by news outlets would give a more realistic picture of what’s happening in the UK right now.
Hope that things are safe where you are and that this insane destruction stops soon.
* A friend has pointed out that it wasn’t Clapham, but Clapham Junction, which is actually Wandsworth. Apologies. Much of the press has also decided to call the area Clapham for the duration of this event.