So, it’s here. Today – Friday 3 February, 2012 – I become a resident of a royal borough. Get up – it’s a beautiful, crisp morning, and take a look around. Does it feel any different?
Nah, me neither. For the vast majority of us, life will trundle along as normal. Once the regional news crews have buggered off, we’ll go back to being forgotten about. But – hey, royal! Woo-hoo! It’s party time!
Chief among the celebrants will be the councillors of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, many of whom will be joining “key stakeholders” at a bash this afternoon at the council’s new Woolwich HQ. They’ll get to see the freshly-awarded letter patent, and then settle back to a speech from council leader Chris Roberts that’s scheduled to last an hour and a quarter. Sadly, this blog’s invitation got lost in the post.
There’ll then be a public celebration in Woolwich between 4.30pm-7.00pm, including another speech from Roberts and some fireworks, and more in Eltham and Greenwich across the weekend – details on the council’s website.
Hopefully the councillors and “key stakeholders” will remember all this is about us, and not them.
It’ll be a proud day for the Dear Leader, nonetheless – he gets to go to Westminster with his loyal mayor, Jim Gillman, to collect the paperwork before returning in triumph for a celebration. He’s a figure who sharply divides opinion – witness this intriguing exchange with a member of the public at a council meeting, and this spoof Twitter account, set up in anticipation of a rumoured knighthood which didn’t arrive at New Year. A less-than-loyal citizen sent me a special reworking of the new borough crest to mark his contribution.
But his skills have always been in big projects and big schemes, and he’ll no doubt feel finally getting the borough branded “royal” after nearly 50 years of knockbacks will be a crowning (arf) achievement.
I saw some council workers in new uniforms last week, and this week new street signs have emerged throughout Greenwich town centre. They don’t look too bad, actually – by Greenwich standards they’re very nice – although unfortunately at least one or two of the old lozenge-shaped signs, which predate the council’s current incarnation, have been replaced by the new designs. I hope that was a mistake – those old wooden signs (below) are more a part of our shared heritage than royal status is.
Trinkets are nice, royal status is nice, but that’s about all it is. Union flag banners are already up in central Greenwich, councillors are no doubt preparing to toast Her Majesty and her lovely family. The council’s newspaper, Greenwich Time, has even suggested we put its back page – which features the new crest – in our windows to celebrate.
But all the royal borough bunting just papers over the cracks. Royal status costs the government nothing, but us lots in renewing signage and paperwork. If they wanted to honour this area, why not give us a new Tube line instead?
It’s infrastructure and investment we need here, not a pat on the head because some old kings and queens lived here, followed by the fervent hope that we’ll go away, content with our new shiny thing.
All in all, this whole celebration just feels odd. If the royals really cared, wouldn’t they come to visit this weekend? I quite liked living in something called a “London borough”, and they’re taking that away from me. My local identity’s not bound up in borders drawn up in the 1960s, it’s in coming from a determinedly down-to-earth corner of the capital city. The council’s new logo emphasises “ROYAL GREENWICH” with a Tudor rose, but it all feels more Lancashire than London.
In fact, I can’t help thinking it’ll be more tedious ammunition for the “oh, it’s not really in London” crowd, who think of Greenwich as that funny place that’s not on the Tube and “feels like being at the seaside” (I’ve never, ever understood that one), when more than ever we need to be a part of London, connected to and playing a part in the life of the capital. I can’t help fearing the royal obsession pushes us further away from that, into a place where it’s easy to be forgotten about – like usual.
One challenge is making this “special” status relevant to the places in the borough which aren’t, well, Greenwich. It’s striking how the royal borough signage vanishes as soon as you head into east Greenwich, never mind Charlton. Yes, Woolwich and Eltham have royal pasts, but if the council’s own iPhone tourist guide barely even mentions them, why bother? People in the borough’s other two big town centres will have to watch their identities aren’t completely snuffed out under some all-encompassing “Royal Greenwich” brand.
The other challenge, frankly, is making the place look the part. Let’s be honest, here, Greenwich borough is home to some spectacularly ugly street furniture, and the council’s never really been a good guardian of public spaces. The royal borough signs are a pleasant surprise, getting some nicer street lights would be lovely. but even just keeping the streets clean would be a start. When your road’s strewn with rubbish, royal status rings rather hollow, frankly.
There’ll be lots of talk about “civic pride”, but around here that usually means “the council celebrating itself again”. If this status means it gets off its backside and makes our streets look good, like London’s other royal boroughs, then maybe this will be worth something.
It’s all about turning this into a tangible benefit. Will those guzzling champagne this afternoon be up to the job? We’ll be watching.
Still, it could have been dafter, it could have been city status. Ignore the crawling councillors, drink a toast to your neighbours – whether they’re in Greenwich, Charlton, Woolwich, Eltham, Blackheath, Plumstead or (gasp) Lewisham, and remember the words of the Irish socialist Jim Larkin. “The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.”
Now, when’s my road getting a smart new street sign, and when are the old ones going on eBay?