In October 1974, McDonald’s opened its first UK branch in Woolwich, south-east London, on the main street, Powis Street, and my sister and I went along. It was quite an event. As local teenagers with recourse only to the Wimpy Bar when we wanted to impress new girl and boyfriends, we were excited by the appearance among us of this thing from another planet — all yellow and red plastic, shiny surfaces, individually-wrapped parcels of food. There was a pretty big crowd of all ages gathered that day, dodging traffic which, before pedestrianisation, still hogged the road, but which also made it feel alive. The strongest memory I have is of our confusion as to how we were meant to eat this stuff; there was no sign of any knives or forks. We looked around anxiously. “Perhaps,” said my sister inncocently, holding up a long, weedy plastic spoon, “we’re meant to use this?”
McDonald’s is still there, although both the town and the people pictured on that opening day nearly 40 years ago have since disappeared. Also remaining is the Wimpy Bar, just about. I stood outside it the evening after the riot last month which had left Woolwich more or less locked down, and watched as groups of mostly young black men took pictures on their phones of the smashed-in windows and wrecked interior. One guy posed in front of a looted jewellery shop, idiot smile on his face, while his friends clicked away moronically. And across the road from us, cordoned off by red tape and passive-looking police, stood the rioters’ piece de resistance: the charred remains of the popular Wetherspoon’s bar The Great Harry, one of the last remaining pubs in central Woolwich and a place where I’d often stopped for a cheap and cheerful glass of wine. The funeral parlour next door, Francis Chappell’s, which has been there since time immemorial, had had its windows smashed in.
Those people who’d gathered in 1974 — what would they have thought of all this? Woolwich was always a white working-class town with an immigrant population which, looking back, now seems to have been remarkably well integrated and accepted. Forty years ago it was a place which, like everywhere else, was dealing with a terrible recession, genuine unemployment, three-day weeks and the rest. But rioting would have been alien to the people then, and looting literally a foreign concept, the kind of thing that happened abroad. They would have been insulted, despite the hardship, to have it assumed that they would naturally resort to smashing, grabbing and burning, and indeed, nobody made such assumptions.
In my lifetime Woolwich has certainly experienced economic decline. When McDonald’s opened, there were three department stores, the biggest of which, the Co-op, housed in a grand Art Deco construction, loomed over the rest of the high street (it’s still there, empty, like a beached liner). There was the strong and historic military presence (the Ministry of Defence moved out some years ago, although the Army is making a gradual comeback). And there were also little oddities, such as a shop specialising in jazz and classical music, and a small but serious bookshop in which as a kid I was bought a copy of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris — remnants of an aspirational working — class culture which has since been forgotten, not least by the working class itself.
Now, in an effort to reverse the tide of decades, there are huge amounts of public money being pumped into the area. It has a new Docklands Light Railway station, there’s new investment in the famous ferry and Europe’s biggest Tesco is due to open next year — a scheme on which so many hopes rest. The central General Gordon Square is being redeveloped, along with the addition of an expensive (and spectacularly ugly) public television screen in time for next year’s Olympics. The old Arsenal has been redeveloped into flats.
But all this expenditure looks increasingly like thick icing on a cake which is rotting away on the inside. I couldn’t get near McDonald’s on my visit this time as most of Powis Street had been cordoned off. About every third shop had been looted, one had been torched, and a taped-off burnt-out police car was being guarded by police like some exhibit in an achingly relevant art show. Groups of people wandered aimlessly about, cheerfully sizing up the damage. There was plenty of joking and laughter, and not a hint of an acknowledgement of the gravity of what had happened. It was difficult to determine what was more depressing — the events themselves, or the reaction to them among these onlookers. There was no sense that something terrible had happened to what BBC broadcasters relentlessly term their “community”. Instead, there was a moral and social vacuum.
The police, standing like Whitehall sentries, were anticipating more trouble, first at 2pm, then at 5pm, but which, by the time I spoke to them, had yet to materialise. They were faultlessly polite; one sensed that they had all gone through some kind of Rank charm school training. But underlying all this courtesy was an almost beseeching quality, a sense that somehow if they were nice enough then people would not misbehave towards them, rather like the way a liberal-minded teacher tries to get troublesome pupils on side by being “down” with them. It was irritating because it stank of weakness, and more importantly, it was not working. They were obviously being regarded as mere curators, impotent, on the back foot, not to be remotely respected, let alone feared.
I asked a couple of policewomen to confirm who had been doing the rioting the night before. “Don’t know,” was the immediate reply. I said it seemed to me just from the YouTube clips that they’d been mostly young black males. They nodded grimly. “I think everyone’s frightened to say that,” said one. Everyone, it seems, and especially the police. Rendered paralysed and apologetic by political correctness, they have appeared in Woolwich, as in the rest of the capital, to be mere bystanders to social carnage. And the rioters knew that they, like the public, were frightened.
For the most part the make-up of the London rioters was in line with the kind of social grouping you see every day in the south of the city, but writ appallingly large: gangs of young blacks with a contingent of white stragglers who have adopted the demeanour of the now dominant youth culture around them, right down to the ridiculous so-called “Jafaican” patois. Cringing multiculturalists have over time failed utterly to condemn the imported gang culture which has played a part in these riots, but which has in any case become a part of everyday life in London (one of the capital’s most infamous gangs is the largely Somali Woolwich Boys).
While condemning and poking fun at those ghastly (white) chavs, metropolitan liberals have turned a blind eye to the aggressively materialist, misogynistic, homophobic and infantile mood music favoured by these gangs, on the basis that this is “their culture” and should therefore be understood, and by implication accepted. Indeed it goes further than that: there’s a sneaking admiration for it to be found in many a young middle-class liberal media white boy. I met the type on a daily basis when working in television: there was an awe and sublimated envy for the cartoon masculinity and swagger of gang members and rappers who were seen as somehow more “authentic”. Well, they should have got their fill of authenticity by now.
Awe, envy — or perhaps just fear? The looting and takeover of the streets we’ve seen in places like Woolwich was in many respects an extreme manifestation of the low-level but grinding anti-social behaviour which most people tolerate nervously on an everyday basis and try to ignore. If faced with a group of gang members in a car playing music unbearably loudly next to them at the traffic lights, I personally know of nobody — nobody, from Daily Telegraph to Guardian reader — who would risk asking them to please turn it down. The Telegraph readers would complain about it afterwards, the Guardian readers, though equally intimidated, would pretend they hadn’t noticed it.
But it’s not just gang culture. A while ago I wrote a piece for this magazine about my attempts to confront this kind of anti-social behaviour on the train journeys I regularly took from Woolwich to central London. What came out of it was the complete moral inversion that had taken place. If asked politely to turn music down, take feet off seats, or not swear so loudly on mobile phones in front of children, people appeared genuinely shocked at what they obviously saw as outrageous rudeness, and abuse of one type or another would follow.
It was also depressing to watch the changing family dynamics. Children were increasingly not just undisciplined but completely unsocialised at the most basic levels by parents who cajole and bribe but set no discernible boundaries. This seemed to be especially true of white families; black kids were, on the whole, much better behaved — in their case it’s at the teenage stage when things seem to go wrong.
There is no sense of there being a public sphere at all, and certainly no sanctions against selfish or aggressive behaviour. Communal pressure is nonexistent and with it has gone any sense of shame. It has been deliberately dismantled. The cultural war waged by moral relativists and liberal self-haters has been hugely successful: they have trashed the place as effectively as any rioter. Authority, whether it be moral, social, familial or legal, has been chipped away at so relentlessly that it has finally collapsed. It is this, pure and simple, and not the tired excuses about disaffection and poverty, that has led so effortlessly to the burning of pubs and looting of shops. Many were shocked at the sight of eight-year-old rioters, but coming into Woolwich Arsenal late at night, I had got used to seeing small kids aimlessly milling about in front of the station, and the implied social anarchy.
Now fully multicultural after years of mass immigration, Woolwich no longer has an over-arching identity. For some time there has been a general air of social fragmentation, of different groups existing side by side but an absence of any collective sense. Certainly different cultures and religions make themselves felt — there are the halal butchers and Woolwich is home to the Greenwich Islamic Centre and mosque, founded in 1973 and which is currently undergoing major expansion. The Pentecostal, largely West African, New Wine Church has been in operation for more than a decade in the old Odeon cinema.
The rioters, whatever their ethnicity, were doubtless almost all British-born. But mass immigration of the unprecedented type that London has seen over the past two decades, and which has had its effect in Woolwich too, certainly loosens if not destroys the natural ties that keep communities together and make things like riots less likely. Simple, small things confirm this: I carried out a little experiment of my own recently, before the rioting when, while in Powis Street, I asked directions to Wellington Street, one of the town’s main thoroughfares, a couple of minutes’ walk from where I stood. In central London, it would be like standing in Parliament Square and asking the way to Whitehall. Of the 11 passers-by I asked, just three knew where it was and could help me.
The surroundings and the people in them have less and less connection in any real organic sense. English is just one of many languages spoken; it’s possible to go for periods without hearing it at all. In the Borough of Greenwich, in which Woolwich is situated, 35 per cent of schoolchildren have English as an “additional” language.
When David Cameron spoke recently of the way in which mass immigration into Britain had created “discomfort and disjointedness” in some areas, he could easily have been talking about Woolwich. People might walk down the same streets, but that does not mean that they are necessarily mixing. Nor does it mean they have the slightest sense that this place is theirs. In such circumstances, it is far easier for riots to take place, whoever is doing the rioting.
The mantra of London as a vibrant, diverse, dynamic city has been rammed home in the past decade with the relentless force of an Orwellian Big Brother, and woe betide anybody who questions it. But in many ways the riots gave the lie to the cliché, by exposing the extent of fragmentation in the capital, and indeed the country.
The media coverage tended to portray the different communities, readying themselves to protect life and limb, as evidence of people coming together, and this narrative is now firmly in place. But the picture one was ultimately left with after the smoke cleared and the smashed glass was replaced was of separate blocs of people operating above a low buzz of tension.
Sikhs locked arms to protect their temple and community (one man, when interviewed by the BBC, talked about protecting their “territories” — a chilling use of word, even if unconscious). The Turks of Dalston won praise for seeing off the looters. The broom-wielding cleaners-up were largely white. The groups of mostly working-class white men who came out in force in Enfield and Eltham immediately got up the noses of the liberal media, who cannot see a white crowd together without suspecting incipient fascism. And the whole episode threatened to take on an overtly racial dimension when three young Asian men in Birmingham were run over and killed by a car.
The multiculturalist argument is that diversity makes us stronger, and that we should celebrate its various manifestations equally at all costs. This has resulted in the absurdity of putting downwardly-aspirational gang culture on an equal footing with, say, the educational and self-betterment culture amongst Indians. Alongside this there is the cultural institutionalisation of a victim mentality which renders criticism of any group unacceptable.
There is, however, little real evidence to support the argument that diversity in and of itself is an unfettered social good. Quite the reverse. Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist who is hardly a right-wing zealot, concluded from his research that communal trust decreases the more diverse a society becomes — not just between different ethnic groups, but, interestingly, also within each of those groups.
This has all sorts of consequences, leading, among other things, to a lessening of the likelihood of working on community projects, a lowering of confidence in local politics, and indeed, less personal happiness. On the simplest of levels, if you cannot understand your neighbour, you will also feel (rightly) that you cannot take anything as given, or granted. Alienation (whether unconscious or not), and not a massively boosted sense of empowerment, is the natural and obvious outcome.
Like everywhere else, Woolwich has been clearing up the mess left by the rioters, life has resumed, and the reasons for what happened will be pored over for months to come. But the public mood seems to have genuinely changed. Despite the steady stream of youth workers and community leaders on the airwaves in the immediate aftermath, the line that it was all the result of poverty, or government cuts, or the institutional racism of the police is simply not holding. There is some encouragement to be had in the fact that such platitudes are no longer accepted at face value, that even the usual suspects on the Left might have had second thoughts.
The truth is dawning on the people of Britain that these riots were the product not of a strong, dynamic society, but an intensely fragile, deeply anxious one. In Woolwich, as in other inner-city districts, the damage has been done. There is no quick or easy way to make good the effects of 40 years of folly. The fear that was palpable on the streets of London this summer is here to stay.