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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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May 15th, 2014
7:05 AM
I was reminiscing about the time I visited McDonalds as a student in Woolwich when it opened in 1974. I googled it and came across this article. Very well written and so sad and poignant. I moved out of London in the 80's - so glad I did but I fear for our children as things go from bad to worse

January 13th, 2012
5:01 AM
As a longtime admirer and occasional visitor to the UK I am SO SAD to see the Foreign Hooligans and Religious Nutcakes take over the Country and the UK Leaders (??) either wring their hands, ignore the problems altogether or try to defend Multi-culturalism. Multi only works if the Immigrants ARE LEGALn and WANT to assimilate and get along with the people who were here first. Otherwise they are like thieves stealing from the rightful owners.

October 11th, 2011
8:10 PM
The author's despair over the decline in a robust working class culture, as the popular taste in music among young urban kids illuminates, is sad. However, I can't help but think the writer is looking through the telescope the wrong way. 40 years of neo liberalism has forced this on working class people. We are talking about a general mist enveloping people - one of despair, nihilism. If the Left have any blame to take, it is the stupendous sectarianism of the left groups, and the retreat of radical ideas into an arcane academic ghetto, where ideas are inaccessible due to the hermeneutic langauge employed.

September 22nd, 2011
1:09 PM
I was shocked to see Woolwich that day, it was sad as they were trying to smarten up the town. Luckily I live in North Woolwich on the east side of the river, an area with a similar ethnic mix but competly untouched not many people no about North Woolwich no one would have any reason to visit here,no one I no has ever heard of it. The history of the area is interesting , however their is a peaceful but uneasy mix of people of Black Aficans and white working class, chavs and older cockneys I dont fit in to any of these bags .Its not trendy atal, i prefer the trendier areas of London like Camden Islington etc as my youth was spent hanging out in the clubs and bars of these places, The Wooolwich area is naff no trendies no style just rude boy blacks and chavvy whites,no vintage shops record shops or swanky bars. There was a time when the Poly was open you would get this heady mix of Goths punks and student types hanging around, the Tramshed, that whole thing has gone and this generation are totally boring. I mix well with certain types of black people, and certain types of white people not the above groups i mentioned, I dont think it has nothing to do with multiculturism, with me its all about style you get this type of White jack the lad pub drinker I despise and rude boys never in pubs but on the street. In parts of the Trendier areas of London black and white mix well. But Woolwich hasn't got any trendy people go to greenwich and you will see what I mean, beatnik black and white guys hanging out listening to Jazz, yea a bygone day you may say, This may mean nonsense to you even alien as we have past those decades that went on, their is no alternative though I will move outta of here up to Herfordshire away from the urban Jungle, a strange look on this I know, but what I say is right. The riots were caused by Rude boy blacks and Chavvy whites, not trendies or level headed people.

September 21st, 2011
7:09 PM
Multi Culturalism doesn't work. Woolwich is like being in a foreign country sometimes as a white person I get dirty looks for living in my own country - Immigration should have been stopped years ago As for woolwich rioting it was mainly black youths and whites laughing laughing at destroying a town and a poor economically deprived town like kicking an old man when he had a fall and is desperately trying to get back up Poor Woolwich - too late to shut the door now we are overrun with them like that film 28 days later

September 20th, 2011
12:09 AM
This is the best of the many items which I have read about the riots. I hope Mr. Whittle is right that the lies of Multiculturalism will not continue to hold.

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