Shameless: The remains of the Blue Inc clothing store on Powis Street, Woolwich (Malcolm Crowthers)
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.
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