The Diary: A blunt response to St George's sword

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The Independent Online
St George's Day had been gathering dust over the years and the St George's Society promised a revival this year, so much so that we were invited to perform several duties in celebration. Sing "Land of Hope and Glory", recite bits of Shakespeare (it's the Bard's birthday too), prepare a medieval banquet and raise our voices to the melody of Blake's "Jerusalem".

With Scotland drifting off to some kind of independence, and Wales too, and heaven and Ian Paisley knowing that Ireland is likely to become one state, some voices said that the quest for national identity among the English was bound to increase support for St George. Surely there was no better place to test this than Eltham, where a strong national sentiment, exclusive in its English identity, put Stephen Lawrence to the sword. A dragon slain, six years ago almost to the day.

I left bomb-scarred Brixton just after lunch with reports drifting in that three more right-wing groups had claimed responsibility for the mayhem caused a week ago when a nail bomb exploded in our shopping centre. On my way to Eltham I pause at 439 New Cross Road in memory of the 13 party-goers who died in a fire 18 years ago. "A bomb caused the fire" was one of the slogans used in the demonstration against what was seen as a neo-Nazi attack against a black celebration.

I HAD never been to Eltham before. Blackheath, where my daughter was born, was as far as I had ever been in that direction. It turned out to be classic English suburbia: leafy, quiet and demure. Nevertheless it had concealed a deadly assassin, blade in hand. I made my way to the spot where Stephen fell, to "drown an eye, unus'd to flow". There was little sign of St George's Day celebrations in these parts: flags were on display in only two houses in what is an all-white suburb. No sign of medieval feasts, no sound of Blake's "Jerusalem", no quotes from Shakespeare. I turned into Dickson Road, down which Stephen's assailants had escaped. I was looking for Brooks Estate where two of them lived. I strained my neck seeking out the estate of my imagination - a place of high rises housing the poorest of the poor. All I could see were tiny, elegant cottages where hate once resided and the red rose formed a crown of thorns. Eltham with its hint of rural peace must feel the weight of this sad time, drawn out of its anonymity by the rabid supporters of St George's Day.

Just across the way in nearby Charlton locals were celebrating with an evening of English music. There was a village hall atmosphere where "Land of Hope and Glory", "Rule Britannia" and "Jerusalem" were sung with much jingoism. I sat quietly and tapped my feet only during the medley of Beatles songs. St George's Day? John Lennon? I couldn't reconcile the contradiction.