I ARRIVED in London in April 2008. Before I left home my mother asked me had I organised somewhere to live? Of course I hadn’t. “Sure have you not seen the size of the place? There’ll be loads”.
So I spent the first two weeks living out of a hostel near Ravenscourt Park, walking to work at The Irish Post in a new brown suit - I must have been the best dressed backpacker in West London.
It took a while to get going but networking through friends back home in Kildare I got out of the hostel and poxed a room over a pub in Wandsworth.
That first Saturday night I asked the landlord could he put on TG4? He had an Irish Sky box down the back – much sought after contraband for the overseas sports fan. The Kildare under-21s were playing. I sat down and smiled politely at strangers little knowing the friendships, raucous nights and p**** up early mornings in the Swan that lay in wait.
At half-time I remember wondering how things were going to work out. Six years later I’m still wondering.
Those early days were full of the kind of confusion you feel when you’re out of your comfort zone and I was out of mine.
I was 30 when I arrived in London, I followed a job, “a short term contract,” they said “Just three months,” they said…and now, six years later…
London was the last place on my mind. My perception of the city wasn’t ever really that good. Growing up, I’d watch RTÉ’s Brian O’Connell file his news reports from outside Westminster and none of them filled me with cheer.
It felt like Irish people fell through the gaps in London. The Troubles in the North and the IRA bombing campaign further widened those gaps.
Later, I learned that it wasn’t just people who fell through them, but all their stories, shouted down by the noise of explosions, the weight of sad tales, the unbalanced reporting.
My Uncle Jimmy would come back from St Albans and my Uncle Martin would return from West Ham, both on holidays. I loved their sceals: the ducking, the weaving, the drinking, the characters. I’d always go with my Da when he was bringing them to the plane.
On the way home I’d ask him: “Will they ever come back?” Only Jimmy ever made it. But when he did it felt like he wasn’t back where he belonged. He was gone too long.
But then all my family had done their time here and got out. My Da met my Ma here, my sister never used the Tube here; imagine, got taxis everywhere.
Some of my relations were among the ‘Men who built Britain’ others nursed the National Health Service (NHS) through its early years - two massive social achievements that more should be made of.
And after a couple of years in London pennies like these achievements started dropping like pounds. Because contrary to the Pogues' song, it didn’t rain every night in Soho and Barry McGuigan’s World Title success in Loftus Road in 1985 wasn’t our only cause for celebration: There were thousands of ‘ordinary’ people in London leading extraordinary lives, doing well, some really well.
I’m impressed by their stories, always, fascinated by what they did and how they did it? But being Irish in Britain never got the same billing as being Irish in America.
And always the enduring question: “Will you go back?”
Those early years were filled with the kind of discomfort that comes with living away, balanced by the comfort of sharing that experience with others.
But as long as I’m in London I’ll be asking Irish people how long they’ve been in England and whether they plan on staying?
We all do it, search for some kind of insight, half-time in a football match, the six-years in, 16 years in probably.
So when I go home, I’m braced for the question:
“What’s London like?”
I still don’t know how to answer that question. Where to even begin? So when I return home I just say “it’s grand” leave it at that then try and join back in on the conversations which didn’t stop when I left.
It can take a couple of days but then I don’t share the same kind of life anymore.
I got used to it, have been hardened by it.
I go home now and acts of friendliness from strangers check my step then slow it when it comes to flying back… just when I’ve gotten used to it again.
But I’ll never get used to that bit – leaving.
Yet these things are not enough to bring me back. Not yet.
London is addictive, the everything about the place and the absence of any pressure to conform to anything.
In the movie, In the Name of the Father, Giuseppe Conlon walks his son Gerry to the boat in Belfast and just before he leaves he tells him to “go and live”.
Where do I belong? That’s easy – the place that provides the best opportunity to do that.