The Diary: Brick Lane, Brixton and Jamaican horror

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The Independent Online
And now Brick Lane. The bomb that exploded yesterday in the heart of London's Asian community, coming exactly a week after the Brixton bomb, is enough to make conspiracy theorists of the most level-headed immigrants. Until I heard the news at tea-time I had been thinking, clamly and without much rancour, of St George's Day. It has been gathering dust over the years and the St George's Society promised a revival this year. We were invited to sing "Land of Hope and Glory", recite bits of Shakespeare, 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 - not knowing that pictures of bomb-scarred Brick Lane would be waiting for me in the papers today - as reports drifted in that three more right-wing groups had claimed responsibility for the nail bomb 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.

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.

IT IS 50 years since the Commonwealth was set up in its present form. At its inception it was draped in idealism and the robes of the monarch. It was at the core a huge market for British goods, investment in the extraction of raw materials and the enrichment of the mother country. Yet for a long time thereafter, sentimental ties lingered.

My grandmother's favourite was Margaret, tortured in love and tight- lipped in adversity. I would return home from London and her first words were: "How's my girl?". I knew instantly she was referring to the Princess. I would fabricate some pleasant stories which brought smiles of contentment. Now she would turn in her grave at the sight of a spin-doctor ensconced in the Palace fabricating equally fragrant stories for an unsuspecting generation.

Today in the Caribbean the Commonwealth is a shell, a huge banana skin on which so many farmers will skid into oblivion. Monica Lewinsky is the idol of teenage women and Michael Jordan the hero of young men. The Stars and Stripes flutter in the Caribbean sun. Yet Jamaica's Governor General remains the Queen's representative on the island, hosting parties, I imagine, with cups of tea and scones.

The magic of the Commonwealth cannot stem the tide of revolt. Very recently the minister of finance announced in his budget speech a rise in the price of petrol. The opposition parties called the public to protest and for three days the people burned, looted and destroyed property. Rumours that the Prime Minister was about to purchase himself a spanking new helicopter added fuel to the flames; so too the announcement that millions would be spent on building a new parliament. That's the modern Commonwealth for you.

It gets worse. Europe once provided a safe market for Caribbean bananas. Jamaica, St Vincent and St Lucia benefited. Now the World Trade Organisation demands the end of this old agreement. It will soon end, and with it one of the last trade links between mother and her offspring.

The sword of St George has lost its edge, no more a weapon for the slaying of dragons, but an ornamental sword. The Stars and Stripes, a symbol of the New World Order, rules. And to quote the Bard: "All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death".