THE recent and long-overdue jailing of David Norris and Gary Dobson for the vicious and hate-filled murder of Stephen Lawrence has, for all the wrong reasons, brought the historic South-east London town of Eltham back into the spotlight.
Received wisdom is at least three more of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers still walk the streets of south east London, although police are now saying that number could be even higher.
There is no doubt that his killers were a bloodthirsty and racist bunch of scumbags who deserve the longest possible stretch of incarceration at Her Majesty's pleasure.
Eltham under the microscope
The facts of the case, the police incompetence and corruption, and the links of the suspects to the top of the criminal underworld and beyond, have been scrutinised thoroughly by both the state and by many great journalists - not least Brian Cathcart in his brilliant book The Case of Stephen Lawrence – a must read if you ever really want to understand this whole affair.
But over the past 18 years, many articles have been printed in the national papers portraying Eltham as the race-hate capital of London - where black and Asian people fear to set foot, where reams of neo-Nazi graffiti are plastered on every available wall and where both the political far-right and various academics have attempted to suggest there is some kind of invisible “frontline” in a perceived “fight” against multiculturalism.
Perhaps the most notorious article was Brian Reade’s visceral piece in The Daily Mirror in early 1999 with the headline “Into Hell: Estate of Hate”. Reade spends a Saturday wandering the streets and visiting the shops and pubs of Eltham, and paints an almost hysterically bleak picture of sink-estates, outright neo-Nazi-indoctrination of children and utter fear amongst what few BME people he could find in the area.
His article was joined by pieces appearing in several other papers, including The Times, that thundered Eltham was “notorious” and a “no-go” area for anyone without a pale pink complexion.
The profile articles have been brought up to date and many now seem to accept, to some extent at least, the area has moved on. But still the media seems to paint Eltham as an anomaly town - some kind of abnormal blight on the landscape populated by violent white gangs who bully their way around with police turning a blind eye. The question I want to address here is whether the portrayals were justified, and whether they remain so now.
A normal place to grow up?
I spent the first 20 years of my life growing up in the very centre of Eltham and I was almost 15 at the time of the Stephen Lawrence murder. I was abroad on a school exchange trip at the time of the murder - but the news that a young man had been stabbed half a mile from my home travelled even as far as our coach taking us around northern Germany.
I have to confess I don’t recall being especially surprised or shocked about the murder at the time – certainly not any more so than by any other major crime that took place on my doorstep. It was something of an accepted fact in the 90s, even amongst my more middle class contemporaries, that stabbings happened in London. Long before the recent tabloid hysteria over inner-city knife-crime had reached its full crescendo, the carrying of blades was fairly commonplace. I even remember some teenage classmates from the very school trip I had been on in April 1993 smuggling butterfly knives they had purchased back through customs, as they had recently been banned in the UK but remained on sale in Germany.
This is not in any way to justify or trivialise the seriousness of knife crime of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. But it is to point out that even back in the relatively innocent “good old days” before mobile phones, the internet and globalisation had taken hold, violent crime in London was not something consigned a few movies. Those many people with rose-tinted spectacles about how everything was better in the “good old days” would do well to remember that.
To me and my friends, Eltham was always a place you didn’t hang about in unless you were a bit of a tough nut – particularly outside the church at the crossroads of Well Hall Road and the High Street. Instead, leafy Bromley with its safe and shiny new indoor shopping centre was our hangout of choice.
On the times we did walk the streets of Eltham, I remember being careful to avoid other groups of youngsters, particularly older ones, on the absurd basis they were likely be “harder” than you and would almost certainly have to beat you up if you crossed their path. As a pupil of a smaller school slightly outside of the main Eltham area, I also went to great lengths to hide my uniform from sight on my daily route to the bus stop after being deliberately knocked to the floor in the High Street by some of the kids from the bigger schools.
But was my experience of growing up in Eltham any different from that of other youngsters anywhere else in England? I suspect not.
I remember spending many a happy weekend hour in 93 & 94 at the back row of The Coronet cinema engaging in my first torrid teenage fumbles – merely yards from the very spot Stephen Lawrence was slaughtered.
I spent many hours at my best friends Turk-Cypriot father’s cafe down by Eltham Station on Well Hall Road - even helping him out with pizza deliveries on the very same Brooke estate Brian Reade and many other journalists had painted as being the very epicentre of race-hate hell in England.
I even remember the mocking of Reade’s article at my old local The Rising Sun which was a pub singled out in the piece as having “no black face to be seen” with the then landlord of the pub – who happened to be a black St Lucian.
But as a pasty-white Anglo-Saxon middle-class kid, terrifying similar in many respects to something out of The Inbetweeners, clearly my experience of growing up in Eltham would almost certainly have been different had I been black.
The evil side
This was brought home to me a number of times when I had grown up a bit. In summer 1997 I had a visit from a mixed-race friend from the north of England and we went for a drink in the Greyhound pub – allegedly a favourite of the “Acourt gang”. Sat outside in the sunshine having a smoke, we were soon engaged in conversation by a group of white drinkers of a similar age. Their initial false bonhomie quickly gave way to a nasty tangent of bullying and belittling, attacking our dress sense, suggesting we were homosexual and all the usual school-playground level personal attacks. But having personally drunk in the Greyhound without issue many times in the past, I realised we had attracted their attention simply because my friend had black skin. They were desperate to goad us into a fight. When the reality of where the banter was leading sunk in, we left in a hurry.
A few months later I went to the fabulously dreadful Waltons Sports Bar on Eltham Hill to watch live coverage of England’s friendly against Cameroon. I heard a stream of grunted “monkey” impersonations from several of the yobbish balding middle-aged wankers drinking at the bar to accompany the live commentary, reaching a peak when Rio Ferdinand was brought on as a sub for his first ever England game.
My mother, a former lecturer at the vast multicultural melting pot of Lewisham College, told me that when she worked late and got in a cab to come home it was always difficult to convince any of the black drivers to take her to Eltham after the Lawrence murder.
I even now remember the one and only time I have had a knife pulled on me and yes – it was Eltham. It was an almost comically ridiculous event. Walking down outside the Mecca Bingo with a female friend after an uneventful teen disco and a fat, drunken man wearing a garish pink bomber jacket decided to jump out at us from behind the bus stop wielding a kitchen knife screaming “come on then, where’s your mates?” In a textbook move from my Krav Maga defence technique book, we ran away as fast as we possibly could in panic and called the police.
So on reflection, perhaps Eltham wasn’t really that nice a place. But the over-arching memory that my friends and I all have, though, is simply one of boredom. There wasn’t much else to do in Eltham other than go to the run-down cinema or the pub. Perhaps that’s why almost as early as I was financially able to as a young working adult, I moved away.
The picture today
A large number of my close family still live in Eltham, and I visit regularly. Just 25 minutes on frequent trains from the heart of the West End, less to Docklands and the City of London, it is one of the best connected and comparatively cheapest parts of London to reside in. There are acres of unspoilt open space, and a number of very nice pubs and restaurants. It’s within a fifteen minute drive of the Kent countryside but from Shooters Hill and other high points you can see all the landmarks of the greatest city in Europe. And the new combined library and leisure complex is possibly one of the best municipal facilities in the entire country.
As a town, it is thriving. Unlike my adult home-town of Stoke, I didn’t find a single boarded up shop or house in Eltham during my annual Christmas visit last year. The beautifully refurbished Park Tavern pub had a wide selection of real ale and one of the most genteel atmospheres I have experienced in any London boozer. The Greyhound pub I mentioned above is now a smart Himalayan restaurant. The poor old Coronet cinema is being converted into flats. Walton's Sports Bar - the scene of the monkey chanting - has thankfully shut down.
Whilst still far more “white” than some neighbouring areas like Woolwich, Catford or Lewisham, I definitely saw a more diverse community out on the High Street in the run-up to Christmas. And as for those gangs of kids, as a fully-fledged mortgaged-up boring adult I certainly felt no less safe in Eltham at night than in any other part of the capital.
To that end, it does raise the question as to whether Eltham in 2012 is fundamentally different to any other town in provincial or suburban England. In spite of their best efforts to hijack the poisonous atmosphere around the Stephen Lawrence murder, the BNP at their height have never even saved an election deposit in Eltham - unlike many other parts of the country in recent years where out and out Hitler-worshippers have been elected to parliamentary, assembly and council chambers.
That is not to say there have not been serious problems in Eltham that have still not gone away. The summer 2011 riots saw gangs chanting “EDL” congregating on Eltham High Street to “defend” the area from looters. When it was clear that the looters had no intention of coming to Eltham, the imbecilic gangs promptly set upon attacking the police they had purported to be supporting with their “protest”. The history of the area still acts as some kind of totem to the far-right, in whatever guise they come.
I originally wrote this post back in January of 2012. In discussing this blog post at the time, by sheer chance I spoke to one long-standing anti-fascist who quite angrily told me that class was not the root problem and that Eltham always suffered from a peculiarly ingrained local racism within the community. I backed away from publishing the post in light of that (rather tetchy) conversation. But I have revisited this some months later.
I still feel that to single out Eltham as some kind of special-case hotbed is ignoring the wider problem of residual racism in England as a whole. As Eltham is a largely working class area, it is easy for the media and the establishment to pin racial problems down to the fact the area is populated by ignorant lumpen proles as opposed to neighbouring, and no less white, middle-class areas such as Blackheath, Bromley and Greenwich.
The fact remains there is a very, very long way to go to a peaceful and inclusive society where the colour of skin is no issue. But I would argue Eltham is now getting there much quicker than other parts of England.