“After Woolwich”, it’s time to reflect quietly, not take to the streets

The-scene-in-Woolwich-where-people-continue-to-lay-floral-tributes-1908245More than a week on from the appalling murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the full enormity of what has happened is still sinking in.

Artillery Place is not, as some of the media reports suggested, an obscure backstreet behind Woolwich Barracks – it is one of the main roads out of Woolwich heading towards Charlton Village and Blackheath, with five bus routes and lots of traffic using it day and night. It is a spot, just 200 yards from Woolwich Town Hall, which I have passed by thousands of times on foot, or by bus or car. How heartening it is that when the murder happened many of the passers-by did not cross to the other side of the street, but intervened to remonstrate with the attackers, and to try and shield the victim even though his killers were still close by.

The geography of where this horrendous crime was committed matters. About ten years ago I was working as a reporter for the weekly paper of the printing industry, the now-defunct Printing World.  I visited the playing-card printer Richard Edward Ltd, which is still going strong on Nathan Way. In the MD’s office there was (and possibly still is) an LS Lowry-style panorama of Woolwich, painted from a point just above Artillery Place looking eastwards, with the Town Hall’s baroque spire and the Royal Arsenal beyond.

It is a view that would be just about recognisable today, albeit with the new Woolwich Centre and the above-Crossrail developer now looming larger than the Town Hall. It is is a view that still excites the imagination, as you pass over the hill and suddenly see Woolwich before you. But it was exactly here that the crime took place, within yards of the busy South Circular Road and just a few hundred yards from the site of the last terrorist attack in Woolwich, the Kings Arms pub which was bombed by the IRA in 1974.

As recently as a decade ago, there were about ten pubs on the road from Woolwich to Charlton Village, all of which have since closed down (some of them turned into supermarkets, others lying empty) apart from the Kings Arms itself, which obtained planning permission for rebuilding only a few months ago. These closed pubs are symptomatic of wider changes that have affected Woolwich in the last 20 years (apparently Army personnel nowadays frequent pubs in Shooter’s Hill, not Woolwich itself). But Woolwich is still a garrison town, with soldiers seen in uniform frequently – and still doing so, quite rightly, despite the horrendous events of last week.

I took my seven-year old daughter with me to lay flowers at Artillery Place last Saturday. Sainsbury’s in Woolwich had almost sold out of bouquets. The sun was shining and there was a solitary police officer in attendance, as people of all ages and races lay flowers in silence and read the messages tied to the MOD-issue railings. The mood was one of quiet reflection, neither angry nor ghoulish.

The media – who are quite right to give a lot of attention to the story and to ask whether the killing could have been prevented – should nevertheless steer clear of stigmatising Woolwich. One unwelcome feature of the press coverage has been to use the word “Woolwich” as shorthand for the killing itself.

The Times on Friday May 24th ran a Leader entitled “After Woolwich”. In the Guardian on Saturday May 25th, Seamus Milne argued unhelpfully that “Those who send British troops to shed blood in the Muslim world must share the blame for atrocities like Woolwich” (which is a bit like blaming the Taliban for abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib), and eyewitness Boya Dee observed that “My faith in humanity is strong after Woolwich”. The letters page of the Independent on Tuesday May 28th carried the bizarre heading “Is religion to blame for Woolwich?” – an unanswerable question if ever there was one.

Whatever one thinks of the points made under such headlines, I wish the media would stop using the location of the killing as a shorthand for the crime committed, and its consequences. 9/11 is not referred to as “New York and the Pentagon”, and nor is the killing of Stephen Lawrence referred to as “Eltham”. This lazy journalese does Woolwich no favours, and worse still it dehumanises both the victim and his alleged attackers. The hatred that spawned this killing was not conceived in Woolwich, and neither can it be exorcised here.

One further bit of heartening news. The BNP and EDL had applied to march from the murder scene to the Mosque on Lewisham High Street this Saturday, June 1st – a route that would have probably gone through Charlton and Blackheath. I am glad that the police have prevented this from going ahead, and that well-intentioned but unwise counter-demonstrations will not go ahead either. The last thing Woolwich, Charlton, Blackheath – or any part of London – needs is more trouble on the streets while a family mourns and a dead solider awaits burial.

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