Irish stew

As the family snapshot above proves, the writer and columnist John Walsh has not always been the suave sophisticate we know and love. (He's the one in the woolly jumper.) In the first of two extracts from his exuberant new memoir, `The Falling Angels', he describes the raucous experience of growing up in an Irish household in deepest south London
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When my family moved to Battersea, south London, in 1963 I was ecstatic to find an air-raid shelter at the end of the garden. It was dank and evil-smelling and the steps down to its murky interior were spongy with mildew and home to a thousand weevils; but it was like having a war trophy outside your door. From the garden you could see the edge of Clapham Common. The war had left scars there in the form of two great ugly blisters of concrete, where anti-aircraft batteries once stood during the Blitz. Clapham and its stately mansions had been a haven of middle-class luxury in the 19th century, home to well-heeled merchants and City gents who rode up to town each morning in gigs and wore stove-pipe hats. EM Forster once rhapsodised about his cousins' fashionable home with the words: "Battersea Rise! What a thrill the name gives me. Did I ever go to the house in the early Eighties, led by some cousin in my peacock-blue velvet suit?"

By the time we got there, however, Battersea was a dump, a service area for Clapham Junction: the busiest railway junction in the country. It was a stridently working-class and immigrant neighbourhood then, a tough, coarse-grained part of inner suburbia. The skinhead phenomenon of the late Sixties started around the Junction, where gangs of 40 or 50 bald adolescents with braces and Doc Marten boots would congregate, before marauding across the Common in search of homosexuals, hippies and (later on) Asian youths to bash up. The station environs, featured in the movie Up the Junction, gave my backyard a sudden, dodgy gleam of trendy squalor, the essence of "Sarf Lunnen" - a place of gormless, listless violent Philistine, charmless non-endeavour, enlivened by shrieks of laughter from fat girls with ragged stockings and white lipstick, who looked (if you were lucky) like Adrienne Posta.

It wasn't the kind of place that encouraged civic pride. Our road, Battersea Rise, gradually become subsumed under another name, the South Circular Road, and at night huge, coughing trucks, immense Italian juggernauts and transporters carrying cages of reconstituted cars from Dagenham and Cowley came wheezing and crashing up the Rise, their headlights sending long bars of light marching across my bedroom ceiling. We weren't a town, or a village, barely even a district. We were just an artery, a migratory conduit, just as England mutates into "Airstrip One" in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. We were a street of grinding machinery and the rhythm of things in transit, a nothing territory, a place in-between places.

But in the heart of the southern metropolis, I had Ireland and the Irish. They were everywhere. Irish things, Irish people, Irish faces, Irish songs, Irish voices, Irish names, Irish drink, Irish newspapers, Irish gossip, Irish tales, Irish woe, Irish exile - it permeated the life I lived in Battersea, it hung around like a great green cloud. In a part of London where I didn't know the neighbours' names, the Irish ghetto-dwellers hung out together as they might have hung out in a three-street district of Brooklyn. Irishness got in your hair and under your fingernails.

Even the smell. Every Saturday morning, my mother would make Irish stew for lunch. She made it the traditional way, with mutton-neck chops rather than lamb, with carrots and onions and potatoes layered on top of each other and gently simmered in boiling water for two hours.

Upstairs in the study, I would be doing my homework (aged 10) when the smell first hit: frying onions, then hot stock and lastly the slightly gross, earthy tang of mutton coming to the boil. As I wrestled with "Artesian Wells, Algebra", "The Rise of Stalin" and the "Descending Fifth", the aroma stole up the stairs and wrapped itself around me like a cloak. There was a distinctly orange tang about it, synaesthetically speaking, a hint of decay and offal outraging the nostrils, but you didn't mind that. You could almost hear the elderly meat falling off the bones in the saucepan. You could practically see the faint little curlicues of iridescence in the seething water that announced a potato had begun to disintegrate in its whirlpoolly depths. You could not sit still. Details of pi, pizzicato and purges became indistinct in the face of this smelly onslaught. It was hard to care what had become of the Australian drainage system when the stew was in such roaring form. By 12.45pm, when my mother called us downstairs, I was gagging for it.

One Saturday, when we hadn't long been in Battersea, I left the table after lunch and ventured out for a walk down the Rise. Outside Ingo Finke, the local Picture Framers, I absently sniffed the air. It smelt funny. Whatever was causing it, it was both horribly familiar and rather off- putting - a combination of overdone carrots, well-hung meat and essence of dishwater. I smelt it all along the Rise, past the traffic lights, right up to St John's Road. What could it be?

It was the smell of my mother's stew, but a nasty debased version: under- seasoned, neglected, utterly stewed. How could it be permeating the whole neighbourhood like this? Months went by before I discovered it was the Ram Brewery in Wandsworth, four miles away, whose filtration facilities occasionally packed up, sending the smell of hops, barley, sugar and roasted yeast across the Clapham air. But I didn't know that. I hadn't previously met the real smell of the borough, head-on. So I stood there convinced that everyone in my new home of London SW11, everybody in every house that lunchtime, was making Irish stew. My heart swelled with a sense of camaraderie. So this was how it felt when a people shared a culture - they all have the same thing for lunch. Battersea had turned into a vast, Hibernian soup-kitchen...

It wouldn't have seemed very strange, had it been true, since so much of Battersea life was, or seemed, Irish. All my parents' friends were from Galway and Sligo and Mayo. All the professional types they dealt with, all the artisans they hired, all the people who entered the house for any reason, were Irish. Our cleaning lady was Mrs Geogehan from Cork. The man who tiled the roof was Pat Hines from Dublin. My mother's gardener was Joe Fergus from Galway. My father's Surrey-dwelling accountant, who came on regular visits with his plump, pretty, perfumed wife, was Tony Freeman from Donegal. My father's dentist was Eddie Cashen from Waterford. In my pram I'd been wheeled around Clapham Common by a sweet, granny-spectacled old friend of my mother's called Molly O'Connor. When I was older, I traipsed up the murky, mouse-scented stairs of Grove Mansions on the north side of the Common, to take piano lessons from her equally spinsterish but less sweet sister, Eily. If my mother wanted a watch mended, she'd ignore the half-dozen jewellers' shops on nearby Lavender Hill and make a detour miles away to Mrs-Laucher-from-Sligo's scruffy little shop in the Queenstown Road.

It was quite a gang this freemasonry of London Irish who were casually keeping each other busy, offering each other employment, implicitly refusing to trust the perfidious Brits to do a job with honesty. The tribe may have been far from home, but they brought their numbers together by way of network and introduction, until everybody was sharing the same Cavan osteopath, the same Wicklow plumber, the same Connemara bookie. My mother always had "a little man around the corner" who could be got to do something for her - as if the corner in question was a promontory of the Irish Sea. Workmen and family friends tended to shade into each other. The charladies and gardeners might not get invited to supper, but they were expected, after the day's work, to sit and have tea and cake and spill the beans about what had become of their families.

The kitchen at Battersea Rise was where I first heard adults' secrets: whispering, say, "she slipped her elbow," meaning some unfortunate girl had had a baby out of wedlock. I came to marvel at the casual racism which marked Irish conversation. "Arrah why would she even think of marryin' him?" one of my mother's friends would say. "He's just an oul' Jewboy."

I wasn't generally invited, or expected, to join the conversations in the kitchen, partly because I was a kid and wasn't worth telling about the fate of Breege or Concepta in the wicked city of Leeds, or wherever they'd fetched up; but also because I had, by the age of 11, turned into a little Englishman. I'd sit doing my homework, in my Wimbledon College uniform, and anything I said out loud amid these rough, murmurous voices sounded impossibly stiff, like an English politician trying to lecture a snug. If I asked a question ("So, er, Joe, what do you think might win the Grand National on Saturday?"), a silence would fall, as though I had committed a frightful gaffe. I felt as stiff as Little Lord Fauntleroy and no more appealing.

The kitchen was Mother's domain, a warm fug of complicity. She would leave the chattering company at the kitchen table and disappear into the tiny closet-like roomlet where the ancient cooker resided. She'd stand there, adjusting the heat, rinsing dishes, stirring soup, straining vegetables, through a green colander, prising panlids without handles from seething iron cauldrons by jabbing a two-pronged black fork into one of the steaming eye-holes, turning monstrous beef sausages with forensic precision - half an inch nor'-nor'-east or west - until they became a uniform glistening ochre, prodding them, provokingly, over and over. At last they burst from their smooth, sun-tanned skins, spilling their guts into mad efflorescent shapes, unable to stand her nagging any longer.

She'd emerge from the tiny hot-house minutes later, arms and face reddened by these scullionly endeavours, but anxious for a precis of the conversation she'd missed. "What was that, Margaret, about poor Maura O'Shaughnessy? Did she marry the airman with the wooden leg?"

My father, meanwhile, presided over the dining room. He sat at the end of a long rosewood table around which he would gather a dozen London-Irish mates: Tim, the locum who turned out to be an illicit raider of the drugs cupboard; Mary Lynch, a handsome GP from Donegal; Luke O'Reilly, a noisy cleric once interned in wartime China; Naula and Eddie, respectively a sweet-faced, chuckling doctor in Balham and her enragingly polymathic English librarian husband; Giles and Hetty, two more London medics and Jack and Cora, my retired godparents. Their dinners would go on for hours. After puddings and brandies would come Irish coffees, the cream poured out with ostentatious delicacy over the back of a dessert spoon above the reeking mix of Nescafe, Jameson's and sugar; then everyone would light up. Despite the high incidence of medical people around the table, everyone, bar my mother, smoked like laboratory beagles at the end of these dinners, turning the dining-room into a fuggy Irish speakeasy. Talk would veer in its ad hominem way from world affairs (Kennedy, Castro, Kruschev) to Irish and English politics (Harold Wilson, Enoch Powell, Eamon de Valera), down to sport (Cassius Clay, Christy O'Connor), music and shows, and someone, usually my father, would call for a song: "I'm as Corny as Kansas in August" from South Pacific or "On the Street Where you Live" from My Fair Lady, and the company would be away. Nobody seemed to mind that all chance of a proper conversational exchange was scuppered for the night as one song begat another. It was the Irish way.

You could have found them all still at it at 6am. Nobody seemed to worry about working. Once or twice, my father recalled rising from the dinner table at 7.30am, in order to drive my sister and me to school. "I swear if the police had ever stopped me on the way to Wimbledon and set a match to my breath," he once told me, "we'd all have been jet-propelled."

I think that's when I absorbed, by some silent osmosis, the information that these people were all fuelled on performance. Sitting in the kitchen with my mother, they spilled the beans like jailbirds unexpectedly let out of solitary confinement. In the dining room, they told stories about people and families they knew, updated the general database about who was doing what in Detroit or Cornwall and which sister was trying, once more, to be a nun (but had, sadly, been up to her old tricks again). Performing seemed mandatory.

The inference I drew - that it was simply polite to show off in company - affected me deeply. Only later, in the grown-up world, did I wonder how English people got by without saying anything colourful for hours.

Tomorrow: Encountering Ireland