I never thought I'd say it, but I'm beginning to like London

I have met lots of the Irish here, and they are not the home-obsessed exiles of memory
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The Independent Culture
MY FRIENDS tell me there is too much anger creeping into my words these days. I have been denouncing to the left and right and centre. Fickle politicians, gun-glutted paramilitaries, even my media colleagues - all have come within firing range in recent weeks. Not that I don't believe what I've written or take back a line of it but it's beginning to look as if I am taking myself seriously again. This is a common but dangerous failing in columnists, particularly those who have spent their childhood listening to the grim sermons of Irish parish priests.

When I am in my lecturing, hectoring mode my wife likens me to one of those small dogs that hurls itself off its back legs, yapping vainly at the table. And so when I start to sermonise, she smiles and says: "Woof woof." And that generally wipes the pious expression off my face and brings things down to earth again. I generally manage to stay calm... for about 10 minutes or so, until I read or hear of something on the news that makes me mad. (Jack Straw's wretched outburst of "little Englandism" over the travellers is typical of the kind of silliness that would normally have me marching towards the soapbox).

But mindful of my friends' warning, I'm going to step back from the trenchlines of politics and war this August Saturday morning. The temptation to launch a full scale assault on the Home Secretary's performance has come and gone. Yes it was a struggle. But believe me, this morning, dear readers, we are positive.

Regular readers of this column (presuming you exist) will remember that one of my favourite targets of abuse has been the city of London. I have written of my horror at returning back here after a holiday in Africa, of the grim resignation that envelopes me as I drive in from Heathrow and see the little terraced streets glistening under the streetlights and the rain, of my rage at the traffic and the mess of public transport.

It has been an epic of Greek proportions, the Iliad of whines. "I'll never settle here. I feel so out of place here. It's not my town. Too big, too impersonal," I have told friends. Gazing out from my desk in the attic, I have watched the rain falling on the roofs of Chiswick and sighed. I have heard the tom-cats of Turnham Green howl and spit in the early hours and wanted to order an air strike. I have listened to the metallic clatter of trains on the Piccadilly line on winter nights, heard them rushing toward Heathrow and the late flights to Africa and wanted suddenly to be up and away from the winter city that was closing in around me.

It is not a place where I have ever felt a sense of belonging. There is an irony here, in fact. I was born in London at University College Hospital in St Pancras. My first newspaper appearance was in this city - a photograph of me being held by a well known actress who was promoting her appearance in a West End production of The Playboy of the Western World. My father was an understudy in the play at the time and I believe he volunteered me for my first slice of fame. Quite what the connection was between infant and Playboy I have never managed to figure out, but I am sure it helped to sell lots of seats.

We went to Ireland soon after, and I visited London only twice as a child. The journey involved a long puking progress on the mailboat from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead. To a child, it seemed like a voyage to the end of the earth. I still remember the names of some of the stations on the way - Rugby, Crewe - and the faces of an Irish immigrant family with their suitcases bound up with baling twine. The first trip was to see my father act at the Royal Court - I remember little of that except for a late night visit to an Indian takeaway and the exotic delights of cooked breakfasts in our guesthouse on Ebury Street.

Some years later I went back to London as a member of the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland. The trip was anything but Catholic or pious. I remember how we descended on the West End from the huge scout camp at Gilwell in Essex, a horde of hormone-tormented, priest-scourged youngsters who gawped around Soho alternatively horrified and delighted by the images of naked female flesh on the covers of the first pornographic magazines we had ever seen. Some of the older boys bought Penthouse and Mayfair but, if my memory is correct, they lost their treasures to the beady-eyed protectors of the Irish customs service.

Back then and until very recently London seemed an impossibly large city, a place of exile where the Irishman worked hard and long, while all the time nurturing the sacred obsession: the dream of homecoming to the other island across the Irish sea. To go home, to return to one's own place, the country of my memories and roots, the land of Celtic Tigers and fresh air and green fields, that land that is sweeter the further you are away from it.

I associated London with the loneliness of generations of Irish who worked the roads and the building sites and who thronged the pubs of Camden and Kilburn and read the papers from home, the boys and girls who went to the Galtymore to dance and who raised families of children who spoke with English accents. To me the city suggested dislocation and exile, a place where we had only a temporary foothold and where we never quite belonged. But this, I am now seeing, was all inside me.

This summer I have stayed in London without travelling abroad. For the first time in years I have found myself in one place for an extended period of time. Much that is good has been happening. I have made friends and settled into an easier rhythm. And after months of being here and nowhere else, I am happy to say that I'm starting to like this city. Dare I risk saying it, London is starting to feel like home.

I have ventured beyond the leafy protectorate of Chiswick and into the rest of the city. I have learned that the secret of enjoying this place is to break the city down and see it as a collection of villages, each with a distinct character. My favourites in the west are Soho and Chelsea; in the north I have been working in and exploring Islington and Hackney; the east is still mostly undiscovered territory; in the south I have roamed the wider spaces of Clapham and Wandsworth and discovered the pleasures of Richmond Park. This summer I have been going there every week, following the progress of a family of swans, watching the cygnets grow from fluffy oddities to creatures of grace.

And there is the river! Like the song says "Sweet Thames Flow Softly". I have as yet explored only the upper reaches, but by winter I will have navigated southwards. There is so much yet to see in this once detested city. I have met lots of Irish people on my summer travels here and they are not the home-obsessed exiles of memory, but people who are happy to be here. Nor can I ignore the views of my three-year-old son. He has now spent longer in London than anywhere else and he is very clear about this being home. In the past week he has been in Ireland with my wife. She reports daily that he demands to return to "Chiswick Lanes". This is where his toys are and of course (I indulge myself here) where his father is. As I await their return on this August Saturday, I am almost ready to call myself a Londoner. It is only a matter of time.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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