Farewell 2011: Confessions of a hyperlocal scribe
I don’t know about you, but I’m wading through New Year’s Eve itching to consign the last 12 months to the incinerator. It’s been a pile of crap. My most vivid memory was sitting on my front doorstep in the early hours of 9 August with a beer in hand. I should have been toasting my birthday – instead I was watching looters speed up the road from the Charlton retail park.
I never planned to spend this year spending so much time writing this stuff. Sat in the creaky public gallery at Woolwich Town Hall, backside getting numb, clock approaching nine and considering an escape to the pub; a thought often runs though my mind. How did I end up here? For a multitude of reasons, I’ve had far too much time on my hands and have spent far too much of that reading council documents, inspecting grass in Greenwich Park, talking to people, finding out lots of interesting things, and sharing them with you.
You know what, it’s been fun. I’m proud of the exclusive stuff this site has run over the past year. Working alongside Rob from Greenwich.co.uk, Matt from In the Meantime and Adam Bienkov has been rewarding as well as fun. I hope you’ve found it interesting. Someone was even kind enough to by me a crate of beer last Christmas, and others have sent nice messages, so I know some people enjoy it. More importantly, I hope it’s spurred you to do something – find out more, to spread the word, to complain or compliment somebody.
By the way, thanks to everybody who’s got in touch with tips and information. It’s much appreciated – even the stuff I haven’t used.
The hardest thing about a site like this in an area like this – where the local press is struggling for relevance – is that most of the time, it’s nearly impossible to know how well you are doing. On a foggy night, you can throw a stone into a pond and see it vanish as you throw it. You know it’s hit the water, but you’ve no idea if it’s caused any ripples.
That said, the moment that made me smile the most wasn’t getting recognition from other media, it was discovering (from two separate sources) that Greenwich councillors were getting complaints from constituents over my story about their cutting short a council meeting so they could drink wine. Finding my barber getting news from The Charlton Champion put a spring in my step, too.
Everybody thinks their local council is the barmiest. There’s a telling passage in the excellent Private Eye: the First 50 Years where Rotten Boroughs editor Tim Minogue tells how he only has space for six or seven stories each fortnight – but reckons he gets 60-70 viable stories each week, many of which are getting ignored by local media. To be fair, the News Shopper and Mercury have upped their game a bit in recent months. But the Shopper’s editorial priorities remain in cuckoo-land (or maybe chicken land) while Mercury proprietor Ray Tindle still refuses to give his free paper a proper web presence, shutting it out of the 21st century debate.
(Tindle’s eccentric policy also means you can’t see that you can’t see the South London Press following up my story from a month ago about Southeastern covering up Oyster card readers at Blackheath station and pocketing the excess fare.)
Greenwich’s problem is its insularity, together with a communications strategy based around reputation management (here’s a picture of the council leader with some kids) rather than engaging with people (unless they are “key stakeholders”) or passing on useful information (like when a foot tunnel is closed). Entering a council meeting is like walking into an alternative reality, where the incumbents can do no wrong.
The Woolwich riots – the footage of which still shocks, nearly five months on – was a case in point. Locals’ reactions to a traumatic event got brushed under the carpet by a council more keen on asserting its will than listening to to its people. Don’t just take my word for it – ask local Claire Burlington.
You’d think that after a display of societal breakdown, community feeling would be encouraged and celebrated by the powers that be. Out here it seems that Greenwich Council just want to pretend none of it happened – even the good bits. They even pulled out of attending a public meeting about how to move on after the riots, and just held a private one for local businesses.
Anyway, even if the council is determined to turn a blind eye to efforts of locals to rally round and build something good, the residents of southeast London are, frankly, so used to being ignored that they’ll just get on and do what they’re going to do anyway.
The close relationship between the council and the police was also disturbing, with Greenwich police following the council’s top-down “do as you’re told” attitude. In Lewisham, shops and businesses were given open letters to display explaining what the police were doing. This side of the border, we never did get an explanation as to why Woolwich and Charlton were left undefended.
At least the Olympics haven’t been derailed. Beyond the born cynics, there’s a strange mix of excitement and apprehension in the air. LOCOG have been a lot more proactive in trying to get their message out, and Greenwich Park has bounced back to normal after July’s test events.
My most baffling moment of 2011 was getting hate mail from NOGOE spokesperson Rachel “Indigo” Mawhood accusing me of “trying to poison the atmosphere and dictate to elected councillors”. “Get a life,” she added.
The full NOGOE charm offensive can be enjoyed here.
For LOCOG, the most important task will be keeping people happy and informed as closures and disruption loom. My own suspicion is that we’ll be fine, but with a couple of last-minute changes of plan and a few surprises on the way. I’m convinced the proposed live site at Blackheath Village will be the biggest attraction of the summer, by the way, but don’t forget the Peninsula Festival or the Dutch campsite…
Speaking of Blackheath, the planned music festival unleashed a fascinating (although costly) ding-dong over the use of the heath and its self-styled “guardians”, the Blackheath Society. On Blackheath will finally take place at the end of September, and we’ll see whether south-east London can put on a show on a par with the gigs at Clapham Common or Victoria Park.
It doesn’t take much to realise that 2012 will be a big year. We’ll never get another Olympics in our lifetime, yet the party will contrast with a bleak background of a likely second recession and further austerity measures, another nervous summer of social tension, and what’s likely to be a dismal mayoral election.
Will Greenwich councillors continue to cut with one hand while toasting themselves with the other? Will Southeastern railway finally get its comeuppance? Can the Olympic Route Network last? Will the new-look Cutty Sark be alright? How many NOGOE-rs will lose limbs after supergluing themselves to the Greenwich Park gates? I’ll hopefully have a little less time to answer these questions in 2012. But I’ll try to give it my best shot. Or maybe it’ll be the year I win a Euromillions rollover and set up a decent local newspaper with the loot. Investing in local journalism? Now there’s a revolutionary idea…
Thanks for your support in 2011, and here’s to 2012.