8 January 2012

The Eltham I knew

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Today’s Independent on Sunday offers a nuanced take in its prominent  investigation on how race relations have changed since Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993, able to argue both that Britain changed for the better, and that major challenges remain on racial inequality. That might seem a common sense perspective, but this has not been a week in which intelligent or substantive discussion of race and racism has been easy to find.

A commentary piece from Paul Vallelly offers a well-argued challenge to the general view, which I share, that the inquiry into the failures of the Stephen Lawrence investigation made his a landmark case. His piece makes a good point about the often anthropological approach taken not just to those found guilty, but to the communities that they come from.

That is also a theme of David Goodhart’s Prospect commentary about the case, which finds something to celebrate in the ending of this racial morality tale, but which is anxious about both the stereotyping and marginalising of white working-class south London by metropolitan Britain.

My question would be whether we have to accept a trade-off here, which risks leaving us with the question of which needs, or grievances, take priority.

The counter-case is well made in two posts from the Bob from Brockley blog, reflecting on the case combining local anti-racist advocacy with a challenge to the lazy stereotyping of South London, while also going on to challenging some media sympathy with the white working-class as characterised by the metropolitan media as often itself a little bit metropolitan.

I have written up my own personal account of living on Eltham’s Well Hall Road, a few years later, at the time the Lawrence inquiry reported in 1999, for the British Future website.

“Everyday, at Eltham station, I could pick up a newspaper to read intrepid investigations about fear, loathing and racism, just around the corner on the Progress Estate. Eltham and Greenwich did have an unenviable history of racist violence in the early 1990s, stirred partly by the efforts to rachet up tensions of the nearby Welling headquarters of the BNP, as well as by the strutting of the now infamous Acorts and their racist gang. That was clearly an important part of the truth about Eltham, but it was not the only truth. If there were fears that a community would close ranks, with witnesses not saying what they knew, the Lawrence inquiry also showed how many people wanted the suspects caught, and their reign of local terror and violence to end, which is why the suspect’s names poured into the police inquiry from every direction within 72 hours.

But our Eltham offered a different, everyday story of suburban south London. For me, it was the routine of the daily commute. As I walked those few hundred yards from Eltham Station home each day, it was impossible not to think about what had happened to Stephen as he looked for a bus which might get him home to Plumstead. So I could never stop being bewildered at the contrast between that blur of hatred which had killed Stephen in a few frenzied seconds, and the mundane normality of this busy road, with its local co-op supermarket and competitive selection of local curry houses, kebab shops and newsagents, as well as the once grand and fading old-style Coronet cinema on the roundabout, where we went just once before it closed its doors and lay empty”.


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