Wednesday 28 July, Woolwich Town Hall: In the creaky old council chamber, a man stood up in the public gallery to address the councillors. He was the chair of the safer neighbourhood panel in east Greenwich, and he talked about the sudden closure of the Meridian Music Centre at East Greenwich Library, which he’d organised a petition for. I’ve been there, and the staff did a wonderful job giving local youth the chance to discover talents they didn’t know they had.
He talked powerfully of a recent shooting in the area, and the lack of things to do for young people. The music centre, he said, was “turning people’s lives around”, and giving local youth something to aspire to. All his discussions with local police, he added, had indicated that “diversionary activities” like the music courses helped make the community more cohesive and would give these young people a better start in life.
“I really want my society to have some positive effect on young people and not to have to sit in another meeting about a drug death. It’s shameful,” he says, asking if there was any way Greenwich Council could provide short-term funding to keep the centre going until it could secure new backers.
His words, of course, went unreported by local media, but they stayed with me. Both Labour and Conservative councillors then went on to criticise Greenwich Community College for pulling out of the centre, and the insultingly bad response the council’s officers had prepared justifying the council’s lack of interest in helping to save it (“the music industry does not have a skills shortage” was one cracking line, ignoring the wider effect the college had on the community.)
No such criticism from the council leadership, though, with Labour’s deputy leader Peter Brooks seeming affronted that a partner organisation of the council had been criticised. “Under normal circumstances, I could say, ‘I’ll try to sort it out.’ Now I don’t know because we face cuts,” he said.
The centre closed on 31 July, with the loss of 17 jobs. The council then went on to debate its weekly “campaigning” newspaper, which has not featured the campaign to save the music centre.
Wednesday 4 August, Trafalgar Road, Greenwich: It’s 10.20pm, and I’m walking home from the pub. I see a commotion in the distance and realise it’s a bunch of youths fighting. They turn and run towards me – 10, 11, 12 of them, all mid to late teens – one group chasing another. It’s an awkward point on a fairly narrow pavement where there’s no doorway to step back into – the best I could do to avoid getting knocked over by the chase was to stop and hold onto a lamp post.
As I touched the lamp post, the first youths flew past me, and then a beer bottle smashed onto the path in front me. If I’d carried on walking, the bottle – aimed at the young men who’d just run past me – could well have hit me. This is on a well-lit main road, not some dingy side street.
When the last of them had ran past, I dialled 999, groaning at the inevitablity of blundering into a situation like this once in every while, and realising it was down to me to do something. Some of the group’s slower, more stupid friends ran past me as I was talking to the operator. But by the time I got through to the police, they were out of sight. I gave the best description I could, popped into a shop, and few minutes later two squad cars raced by. Another pair of blue lights came past later. I’ve no idea if my call led to anything other than a futile chase, though.
I walked home thoroughly depressed by what I’d seen, the wasted lives that had rushed past me. What the hell were these idiots fighting over? I thought again about the man in the meeting’s words. “I really want my society to have some positive effect on young people and not to have to sit in another meeting about a drug death. It’s shameful.”
Meridian Music College had already produced successes – probably the most high-profile one being X Factor contestant Rachel Adedeji. Not bad for a little college in the shadow of the self-styled “most popular music venue in the world“.
Like the staff at Tidemill school in Deptford, the music centre’s staff were putting in work that enhanced people’s lives – and could even have saved them. For their efforts, the staff were rewarded with redundancy, but we all may have to pay the cost for it in the long run.
Perhaps the head of Greenwich Community College, Geoff Pine, should be looking closer to home instead of fixing his sights on overseas students instead. The comments on this Times Educational Supplement story are worth a read.
Yes, times are tough, but it’s so much easier to hide behind “cuts” when you’ve lost touch with the community you claim to serve. Even more so, when it’s not you that’s feeling the consequences of your decisions.