From Green Park station in central London it takes only 15 minutes to get to Greenwich by the Tube. From there a taxi will get you to Woolwich in another 15. I took this journey a few months ago, and I learned from the taxi driver that I was just the latest member of a fairly crowded pilgrimage to see . . . well, what exactly?
Not where Drummer (Private) Lee Rigby was brutally murdered last May so much as where the English people in their thousands came to lay wreaths, medals, and other mementoes on the weekends following his death. The taxi driver gave me a running commentary: Here was the road where the banks of flowers had spilled over the pavement into the street; they had now been removed by local government authorities, but visitors kept coming; now they usually left flowers at the entrance to the Woolwich Arsenal.
We went there. The Arsenal has a proud past in imperial history. It was one of the main home bases from which the British Army set off to those small wars in Burma, India, the Crimea, South Africa, Matabeleland, and lesser, now-forgotten places that kept the Victorian public patriotically entertained for more than a hundred years. Today’s tribute to that past consists of an ancient cannon propped up on a small green facing the Arsenal, which is itself guarded by a soldier and two policemen at a military barrier. They look at me with detached professional curiosity when I get out of the taxi and walk over to a smaller green, where the latest mementoes have been placed.
These include wreaths, personal letters, small nosegays with loving notes attached, wartime medals, a pair of Army boots, photographs of Rigby, photographs of other soldiers, and more and more flowers in different combinations. Some of these have clearly been left by family, friends, and neighbors of the slain soldier. Quite a number are tributes from other soldiers, current and veteran, some who served in the Second World War, many who fought in the multitude of small “emergencies” that marked the retreat from empire, some from the victorious Falklands War.
They reveal a deep cultural substratum of British life, both middle- and working-class, that values those things at which the dominant metropolitan liberal culture instinctively sneers: courage, the manly virtues in general, family ties, regimental loyalty, comradeship, patriotism, the nation’s past. Such values and emotions have not disappeared, but they have been driven well underground until an event that is either historic or shocking — the Queen Mother’s funeral, the murder of Drummer Rigby — impels people to display them publicly and proudly.
It should be no surprise that the British public came out in its thousands to lay wreaths and other mementoes on the place where Drummer Lee Rigby was brutally murdered. People wanted to show solidarity with his family and with his Army mates.
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But there was something different and distinctive about the crowd too. This was noticed by one seasoned observer, Peter Whittle, the cultural critic at Standpoint magazine, and not coincidentally a native of Woolwich. Shortly after the murder, he devoted a column to the crowd of mourners:
[On] that day at least, around three-quarters of the large crowd at the scene were white working-class, of all ages, many of them families. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a crowd in Woolwich, and it took me aback.
Woolwich is one of those outer-London boroughs that have been transformed by years of mass immigration; in the past decade alone the white population has shrunk by 10 percent. Seeing the people that day was briefly to see the Woolwich of my youth, a working-class military town with a significant immigrant population which was for the most part happily accepted.
Now it is home to everybody and nobody.
Whittle had previously written about Woolwich two years ago following the London riots that effectively trashed the center of his home town. He argued then that mass immigration, white flight, demographic change, and multiculturalism in a broad sense had changed what had been a working-class garrison town half an hour from central London into a kind of Babylon Anywhere, with no common social, class, religious, national, or community standards.