Saturday, 21 January 2012

"Cryin over SE9": Eltham and the Lawrence case

The verdict was announced on Tuesday 3 January for the trial of the brutal murder of Stephen Lawrence in Eltham in 1993. David Norris and Gary Dobson have since been sentenced to 14 and 15 years maximum though neither has shown any remorse nor admitted to their guilt.

(Though I have been too busy with life to post anything more than a summary post and was only able to follow the news and media reactions, I too shared the mutual sign of relief. However, I also wanted just a bit of distance from the initial impact of the verdict and also from the plethora of stuff written. Consequently, this may all seem a bit after the event. This is a long post (sorry) and was difficult to write in places, but I found I had a ‘planning blight’ on the blog until I got it out of my system.)

Analysis of this case in the media and social networking seems to centre on:
- the extent to which the Lawrence case has raised awareness about racism, especially in institutions
- what was responsible for the way Norris and Dobson turned out? Why them, not others?
- how different is racial awareness / ‘race relations’ now in the UK, compared to 1993?
- whether there was something different about Eltham which gave rise to this horrendous crime and if so, how things have changed now

Many of these questions were tackled in excellent pieces on local blogs, e.g.
- by Darryl at the 835 blog
- by Bob from Brockley

Others have also written about their Eltham experiences, e.g.
- Lee Cox, at Jackabnory, republished at Kidbrooke Kite
- Sunder Katwala, British Future and here
- Peter Howitt in Huffington Post - ex-local boy, now actor, director (‘Joey Boswell’ in Bread)
- Owen Hylton’s personal reflection

There are also the ‘mainstream’ media pieces seeking to give a picture of Eltham today, e.g. The Independent, The Guardian and Mail online - some of which are being re-tweeted as truthful reflections, while others decry them for their generalisations about the Eltham population.

More latterly, there have also been pieces which criticise the ‘excessive racialisation of the public domain’ and suggest that ‘class’ should instead be the driver for achieving social justice. These include a piece by David Goodhart at Prospect magazine and chime with recent pleas for a greater focus on ‘white working class communities’. The magazine is known for its left-liberal critique of multiculturalism. Such articles point to a sense of grievence stoked up amongst these communities by cases such as the Lawrence one. The reactions to the Diane Abbott twittergate affair also demonstrates this sense of competing grievances i.e. we’ve got it just as bad, why are you getting all the attention etc.  (Sunder Katwala suggests a sensible solution to this in his piece).

Like many people, and to repeat the cliche, I feel as though I have grown up with the Lawrence case. I am a brown, (now) middle-aged, woman who has lived in Eltham since 1989. I lived for over a decade near Footscray Road/ Eltham High Street (in my single days) but for the last 12 years or so have lived with my husband (Greenwich-born and bred) and children in the Eltham North ward, not far from Well Hall Road, the site of that terrible murder.


All those years ago, I had never heard of Eltham before a chance rental opportunity came up through a friend (thanks Chris!). I remember my young brother coming to see me in an inaugural visit  (from west London, Southall/Bedfont, from whence I hail) and deciding to take me on a pub tour to get acquainted with my new area (more for his benefit than mine I think). We went innocently into old The Castle pub (now the site of the KFC)  (this decision now reads like a suicide mission...confirmed later by astonished local friends who told me it was the local NF haunt!). My brother, being a very friendly, sporting, chap, put his money down on the pool table, to join in the fun. It was soon shoved back to him and he thought it wise to leave quickly. I’ll always remember on the way out glancing over my shoulder at the out-of-place glitter ball spinning on the ceiling of the grubby, empty, back ‘lounge’.


Pretty soon after moving here I remember the frequent reports of various murders and stabbings. A Telegraph article gives a useful summary (in the context of how the same gang were involved):

“In 1991 Lee Pearson was stabbed outside a kebab shop in Well Hall Road, the same street Stephen was killed. The Acourts were the police’s main suspects, but Mr Pearson refused to sign a statement implicating them.


In July 1992 an Asian boy, Rohit Duggal, was stabbed to death by Peter Thompson, again on Well Hall Road. Thompson was named as a member of the Acourts’ gang in the anonymous calls to the police the day after Stephen’s death.

In November 1992 a black youth named Kevin London said that Gary Dobson threatened him with a knife after challenging him over the fact he had a white girlfriend. Dobson denied it and no charges were brought.

Norris and Jamie Acourt were also suspects in the stabbing of Darren Witham in Chislehurst in 1992. Both were charged, but the charges were later dropped.

A month before Stephen’s death, in March 1993, David Norris is alleged to stabbed a man named Stacey Benefield with a miniature sword after he tried to calm an argument Norris had with a friend of his.  Norris and Neil Acourt were suspected by police of being involved in the attack. Only Norris stood trial and was acquitted.

The same month Gurdeep Banghal, 22 was stabbed by a white youth while working in a Wimpy restaurant in Eltham. His attacker is said to have called him a “P*** b******”.
Information received by the police suggested those responsible for the Lawrence murder were also responsible for the stabbing of Mr Banghal.”

And of course, earlier in 1991, there was the murder of Rolan Adams in Thamesmead.


I decided it would be a good time to get a car. By 1993 I was working at a university in south-west London and had been travelling there by train, using Eltham train station. 


I very much remember the heightened tensions around that time. Far-right parties used to frequently leaflet in the High Street and the BNP ‘bookshop’ in Welling (an adjacent town) was frequently in the news.


I remember the campaigns around this time about the local stabbings and murders - I attended a conference at the Greenwich Borough Hall around this time, with many of the bereaved parents and families attending, including the Lawrences.  In the meantime I carried on driving to south-west London for work, studying in the evenings at Birkbeck College and also mostly socialising in central London.


Today, however, my life is much more integrated with Eltham, mostly because of having young children (and abandoning late night partying up town...). My children attend an Eltham primary school, they are part of a local beavers and cubs group, my son trains and plays for a local football club and my daughter plays her clarinet in the school band at various places. 


Some people have been attesting in the media articles to the racist atmosphere in certain parts of SE London, in its schools, pubs and cafes, while others are putting a display of pride in Eltham above giving the Lawrences their day, without any nuance in their comments.  I think that the true picture of Eltham is different to the one portrayed in the extreme hyperbole used in some of the articles - for example, the Mail online article refers to Eltham as an ‘insular bastion of bigotry’. That sort of language really is lazy, but in this case also inaccurate. 


On the whole, I feel that Eltham is a good suburban town for family life. It has its fair share of problems similar to many towns on the outer ring of London but it also has lots of facilities, lots of green spaces (including its own woods) and great historical places. I’ve had good relations with most people I deal with and am happy to see a mix of cultures about the place.


I have to say though that I probably only come across certain sections of Eltham and probably not the people and parts of Eltham which have been written about recently. And I haven’t been to an Eltham pub probably for years; I rarely wait at bus stops and I never have cause to walk around at night on my own. All this possibly puts things in a rather different perspective to the experiences that others have had. 


The nub of a current concern is the question “is there something particular about Eltham in relation to racism?” (yes, I’ve framed this in the openest way possible). In true academic style, I think the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’.


No, because I don’t believe that people’s views here are really any different to the variety of views to be found in any typical suburb in the other corners of London - more especially what has been called the corridors of ‘white flight’ around inner London e.g. Northolt, Woodford, Brentford (or at least these used to be such when I knew them well a while ago). In all these places there are some concentrations of views against immigrants/black people amongst some communities, perhaps those experiencing the worst economic problems. But there are there are many people in these towns that don’t have these views. Eltham is far more varied than the suggested proliferation of the Brook Estate as implied by numerous media articles. The town is more mixed than people allow for - it’s fairly mixed in class terms, housing, and “quietly more diverse than the 1993 imagery suggests.” (BBC, lost the link!)


Following the Lawrence trial, there were many comments on social networking sites but I thought that this one was a good illustration of Eltham have more than one side - a comment by a (white) Eltham woman: “The Estate Agents I worked for in Eltham used to tear up the registration cards of anyone of an ethnic background who registered to buy property in the area. I used to fish them out the bin and re-write them!”


Yes, because I think that the mere reputation of Eltham as racist (whether we agree or disagree), has attracted others of that ilk and made the town a target of far-right parties and whipped up that hysteria. A sizeable number, to my mind, of people in Eltham were motivated to spend their one vote on the BNP in the 2010 general elections. The EDL have also turned their gaze on Eltham and reared their heads on Eltham during the August riots. 


The association of Eltham with race also of course heightens all sensitivities so that more behaviours and comments come to viewed through the prism of race.


That Tuesday morning, the last day of the Christmas holidays for most Greenwich primary schools, just before the verdict was announced, I went to Eltham High Street with my children - it was very windy and rainy after a long, mild, dry spell. We visited the Nissan car show room (lovely service), the bakers (lovely service) and then had a long session at the Eltham Leisure Centre Pools (really nice atmosphere, especially the young attendants entertaining the kids with squirts of water). Life goes on in this town for ordinary people. I really applaud the people who highlight racism and work towards eliminating all forms of prejudice, but the situation is not helped by the hysteria whipped up in the press, some balance would be welcome. Apart from the generally desirable aim of being accurate, hysteria is to be avoided if more people are not to feel alienated at ‘got at’. Sometimes it’s a fine line. (There are, of course, some people who just can’t be reached by ‘balance’ - I’ve been disgusted by some of extreme and mindless comments in reaction to the verdict).

Finally, I completely bizarrely came across this video a few weeks ago which seems apt in some ways (without wishing trivialise things). It’s “Cryin over SE9” by Sister Company, a 2008 video shot in and around Oxleas woods, opening in Falconwood station:

 
“Can’t sleep tonight I’m crying over my glass of wine
My thought trains (?) just had a direct line through SE9
Coz now whenever my imagination roams
Eltham is calling my soul back home......etc.”

3 comments:

Paul W said...

Good piece - thank you.

In the 2010 General Election 1745 people (4.2%) voted for the BNP in Eltham. I suppose it's a matter of opinion whether that's a "substantial number" and it's less than in many other places where the BNP stood

Raven said...

Thanks Paul. Yes, I understand that in the 2010 General Election the average vote per BNP candidate was 1,679, so there's not much remarkable about the Eltham result in comparative terms. But it struck me as an absolute number, that that many people around me chose to vote for them.

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