22 January, 2009


Tales from the Multiculture: Woolwich

The DLR began running trains through to Woolwich Arsenal on Saturday 10 January. I found this out through a combination of accident and rumour. TfL and the DLR have been remarkably cagey about the exact opening date of the Woolwich extension. Originally scheduled for opening in late February, this DLR extension project was completed (once again) ahead of schedule; I imagine the powers that be were happy to open early but didn't want to commit themselves to an overambitious date and then fail to meet it.

The DLR is a serendipitous unintended by-product of Thatcherism. When the London Docklands were redeveloped, the free-market fundamentalists of the Thatcher regime were deeply reluctant to provide more than the most grudging public finance for the necessary public transport infrastructure improvements. So we ended up with a cut-price light-railway, in its original one-car form little more than a glorified bendy bus on rails.

As was obvious from the outset, the DLR could never meet the transport requirements of the finished Docklands project, and eventually a proper railway - the Jubilee Line extension - had to be built to serve the "merchant bankers" of Canary Wharf. This left us with the DLR, which would not otherwise have been built, as a successful and hugely effective suburban railway which now has two river crossings reaching into South East London and is actively eyeing other expansion possibilities.

I hadn't set out to "celebrate" the opening of Woolwich Arsenal DLR. I had travelled to Woolwich that Saturday morning for the mundane purpose of visiting Sainsbury's. But having got there, I decided to take a quick dekko. A fairly token celebration was in progress around the Green's End entrance to the new station. There was the mandatory trad jazz band perched on a float: the standard line-up of middle-aged White geezers and a blonde lady of similar vintage on vocals. Curiously out of synch with the local demographic, but pleasant enough. There were some complimentary balloons, in green or blue, and a few trailers and stalls organized by Greenwich council, these latter apparently devoted to telling us what a wonderful place Woolwich is and how committed the local authority is to equality and diversity and stuff. Bit of a lost cause really; if you visit the page on the DLR website devoted to the attractions of Woolwich, most of it seems to be devoted to advice on how to travel on to somewhere else. Apparently the band of the Royal Artillery was supposed to put in an appearance at the festivities but presumably they'd been and gone by the time I got there.

So I wandered off along the pedestrianized Powis Street, taking in the sight of the pound shops, dodging a couple of twats in Victorian costume who were riding around on penny-farthings tooting at pedestrians. I assume this was intended to be part of the entertainments. I drank in the exotic and vibrant diversity of Woolwich. Actually there isn't much diversity: it's overwhelmingly Black. I suppose it's diverse if you count the Somalis, Nigerians and West Indians separately.

Suddenly, I found the place too depressing to deal with and abandoned my shopping trip in favour of taking a ride on the new railway. And jolly fine it is too. Like, apparently, Boris, who took part in the official opening ceremony on the following Monday, I had never visited the eastern end of the Docklands before. The area is oddly reminiscent of Germany, the small towns of the post-war reconstruction, with modest but decent housing interspersed with light-industrial buildings. This being the UK, of course, the "industrial" buildings are devoted to warehousing and distribution of imported goods rather than to primary manufacture.

On the following day, Sunday 11th, I had occasion to use the new railway again. I needed to go up to London, but my National Rail line had decided to take the day off, as it does from time to time, to allow chappies from Network Rail to polish the rails and wash the ballast, or whatever it is they do on these occasions. So I took the bus down to Woolwich to catch the DLR into town.

I was a bit better prepared for the culture shock this time. I visit Woolwich regularly, but solely for the purpose of visiting the Sainsbury's supermarket there. It happens to be, logistically, the most convenient supermarket outlet for me as a non-driver, although this is something I have, as they say, "under review". Otherwise I avoid Woolwich like the proverbial plague.

What I had forgotten the day before is that I have learnt to deal with Woolwich by tuning it out. Get in, get to the supermarket, get out. Possibly a stop off at the Earl of Chatham for a quiet pint. I had dropped my guard and seen the place in all its horror.

I recall Woolwich 30 years ago, when I first settled in this area. It was a slightly run-down working class "embedded" suburban town. The shops were prosperous, the open market sold the sort of things you expect open markets to sell. These was some local employment. The population was largely, but not exclusively, White.

Over the years, and particularly in the past ten years, it has become a truly Third World place. The employment has largely gone, there is a rash of pound shops along Powis Street replacing the former more upmarket businesses, both standalone and chain. The former shopping area down towards the ferry has been largely taken over by Greenwich council outlets catering to the demands of the indigent, in more languages than you can shake a stick at, and fatuous taxpayer-funded diversity "projects". There isn't a branch of the Lee Jasper Memorial Drop-In Centre for Disabled Black Lesbian Single Mothers down there yet, but it's only a matter of time.

The population is overwhelmingly African. The shops are being replaced by Nigerian-run general stores, each one offering a money-transfer service. There are Afro hairdressers by the dozen. Even the local Co-op funeral office emphasizes the multi-faith range of its services. To provide a little diversity, there is the usual sprinkling of South Asians and Chinese running assorted ethnic eateries and the like. A large halal butcher's and a an equally large seemingly Muslim-run fishmongers front onto the semi-derelict General Gordon Square, next to an instant-loan emporium ("just leave your car log book with us as a hostage") and some kind of council office. The token Marks and Spencer seems to have given up and now sells only food. The sprinkling of other national chains seem rather sad.

Visiting on the Sunday, I took the opportunity to look at a part of the town I have not taken much notice of for some years. The African Cash-and-Carry was doing a roaring trade, hopefully not in bushmeat. (It will come!) Phone stalls were everywhere, operating on little stalls set up in the doorways of seemingly closed or semifunctioning shops and other buildings. These sell international calling cards, SIMs and SIM-unlocking services. The pub, actually no great loss, seems to be an improvised Afro hairdresser. Money remittance services are everywhere. I don't know what the "GDP" of Woolwich might be, but I suspect little of it remains in this country for long.

The residual White population in downtown Woolwich - apart from a few still employed, probably in the public sector, who presumably commute into the Occupied Territories from England - seems to consist largely of the dirt-poor and the elderly.

Whether the arrival of the DLR will revitalize this crumbling Third World shithole remains to be seen. I am not sanguine.

Come on there is no such thing as the 'dirt poor' in England. Believe it or not a lot of these people do work.

Otherwise you are spot on. Woolwich, and many other 'urban' areas of London look and feel like the Third World.

Lawrence Auster has pointed out that many of the formerly great western cities all look alike now that so many of their inhabitants are actually from the Third World.

Richard East London

Dogwash- Many thanks for this, and the companion piece about Bexleyheath. I got here via the link from Laban's blog, where unusually the word 'Woolwich' (my birthplace)figured in the right hand corner this lunchtime.
You've captured very well the palpable sense of decline that infests present day Woolwich. I still live fairly close by and like you ration out my visits to Woolwich sparingly. The light industrial units that now take up a fair slice of the old Arsenal site include (in Nathan Way) at least two pretty obvious 'visa mills'- private colleges offering NVQ type qualifications in accountancy, 'home care' and, in one case, divinity degrees (for all the budding 'pastors' to the new flocks still arriving in large numbers). These are the sort of places that should be on the radar of the 'Borders Agency', as they provide many of the immigrants you saw on your visit their entree into the UK. (And of course, students from West Africa, unlike their counterparts from North America or East Asia, NEVER go back unless they are forced to).

The conspirologist in me wonders about the culpability of Greenwich Council in all of this. Forty years ago the demographics of LB Wandworth in SW London, and Greenwich in SE London were very similar. In the eighties the stalinist-cum-sinn fein retards who run Greenwich Council must have looked on in horror at the gentrification (and consequent shift in political allegiances) going on in Wandsworth and though 'shit- how do we stop that occurring HERE ?' LBG thus became one of the main settlement areas for, firstly Somalis (c 18 years ago), and subsequently the rest of Africa.Quite coincidentally of course, they also provide very reliable voting fodder for the local Labour party (in return, naturally, for plenty of grants to 'community led' organisations).

Whether or not Bexleyheath will be the next shoe to drop is still, just about, open (most of the blacks schoolkids you saw on your trip probably hail from Thamesmead).However your dispatches from the frontline will I'm sure continue to docement the process.

Keep up the good work.

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