A stranger's eye

Fergal Keane has reported from many of the world's most dangerous places. But in his powerful new book, he turns his attention to Britain in the 21st century.
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The Independent Online

Here, in the first of three exclusive extracts, he explains why he still feels an outsider in the land of his birth

I was born in Britain, but it was not my country. My people came from the island next door. They arrived in 1960 with thousands of others who were sailing in the same direction for work. In Camden Town my parents found a flat among the other exiles and waited for the birth of their first child. They had arrived in a Britain ruled by what was the last true "One Nation" Tory cabinet. The previous year Harold Macmillan had led the Conservatives to victory in the General Election with a comfortable majority of 100 seats. Britain was in the midst of its retreat from empire. India was gone, Africa was going - but the country was stable and relatively prosperous; historians might later conclude that this was a period of stagnation in Britain, but to my mother in particular the new country was a place of shelter. She loved Britain. "Imagine a place where they give mothers free milk and nappies for their children," she said, "and free medicine and rent money too."

I was about seven when she described the circumstances of my British birth. There was still a sense of wonder in her voice. The land of milk and nappies had been good to my mother. Penniless and left to her own devices by an alcoholic husband, she had given birth to her first child in the maternity ward of University College Hospital, St Pancras, London. A London taxi driver had noticed her slumped in a shop doorway and taken her gratis to hospital. There, as a guest of the welfare state, my mother brought me squealing into the world. She remembers sharing a ward with women from many different countries. What she liked was that nobody at the hospital made you feel second best. The care you were being given was your right, not a favour, she would later tell me. At home in Ireland in the 1950s, Catholic bishops had destroyed the government's plan to introduce a comprehensive health-care scheme for mothers and their children. It was, they believed, a socialistic virus in a Catholic country. To my mother, down on her luck with a child about to be born, the munificence of the National Health Service must have seemed a remarkable deliverance. The idea that anyone could walk in off the streets and be taken care of!

Our Dublin neighbour Breda Thunder agreed. She lived next door to us in the big council estate where I spent my early childhood years. Breda had worked in a factory in Birmingham, where her aunt ran a boarding house for Irish labourers. "Damn glad we were of England, I can tell ye," she would proclaim. She had stronger reasons for gratitude. Her father had served with the British army in two world wars, a "shilling a day" man who'd seen the Somme, gone into Russia in 1919 and fought the Japanese in Asia. Half of Dublin would have starved without the wage money from the British army, she said. Her husband's family also had strong connections with the British forces. Upstairs in Breda's house there was a little wardrobe in which she kept the dress uniform belonging to her brother- in-law, Paddy Thunder. Paddy was killed in action with the Irish Guards in Aden. I remember as a child sneaking upstairs and opening the wardrobe, running my hands over the thick fabric of his uniform and then racing out of the room, terrified of the ghost of a dead British soldier. Paddy was buried in the British military cemetery in Silent Valley, County Down. He was killed in the Sixties before the Troubles up North got started. Had he been still alive and serving in the British army after 1970, the threat from the IRA would have ended his visits home. To them he would have been a lackey of the Crown and a traitor to his people.

I would later conclude that the relationship with the big island next door was profoundly schizophrenic: on one hand the cause of all our ills, on the other our economic salvation. In the stagnant post-war years, the Irish poor - urban and rural - took the mailboats to Muirhead and Liverpool in ever increasing numbers. There was a popular song at the time that briefly made an appearance in the charts: "Many Young Men of Twenty Said Goodbye". My uncle, who'd travelled from Kerry to Colchester in search of work, wrote the song. There was hardly a family in the country outside the small middle class who didn't experience the pain of enforced emigration. My family sought work in Britain, as did my wife's parents. She too was born in London, another child of a vast diaspora that huddled around the cities of London, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester and Liverpool.

They worked on building sites, on the buses, in pubs. They listened to Englishmen make Irish jokes and learned to grit their teeth; they worked and sent money home. A great many of them stayed on. Their children became British, though they were rarely allowed to forget that they were Irish under the skin. In time they would be replaced in the tougher jobs by West Indians, Pakistanis, Somalis, Eastern Europeans. Their children would go to British universities and become part of the burgeoning middle class. They assimilated, though always keeping one eye to home.

Without the safety valve of the British labour market, Ireland might well have experienced serious instability. Our politicians and Church leaders knew this but pretended otherwise. We all knew it. And Britain didn't just offer jobs; it was where we exported (and still do) the shame of tens of thousands of unwanted pregnancies. The National Health Service did what our own laws forbade, providing abortions to frightened young women while establishment Ireland looked the other way. They are still coming.

As a child I had a vaguely hostile attitude to the country of my birth. It wasn't transmitted by my parents, both of whom resisted any tendency towards atavism. But an undercurrent of hostility towards the British ran through our early education; I learned a lot about British atrocities in Ireland, but little else about the country that I can remember. The idea that part of the island I lived on was considered British by the majority of its occupants was something I never accepted. I'd been taught that the North was British in name only. Some fine day and they'd be sent packing. I knew nothing about the island next door. And in the absence of knowledge I was prey to the prejudices of the schoolteachers and balladeers who defined much of the popular culture of the era. But it wasn't a genuinely antagonistic relationship, more a subdued national ritual that occasionally erupted into belligerent shouting across the water. The eruption of the Northern Troubles sharpened the atmosphere considerably; in the wake of Bloody Sunday, crowds burned the British Embassy in Dublin. I found myself veering between anger at Britain and a quiet shame at the atrocities being perpetrated by the IRA in the name of all Irishmen. Yet the truth is that all of that happened on the periphery of my life. Had I grown up on the Falls Road, it would have been very different. But as a child in a Southern city, I was largely untouched by the dramas unfolding in Belfast and Derry.

As the Sixties progressed we were increasingly prone to the influence of contemporary British culture. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were mobbed when they came to play Dublin; the comics we read - The Victor, Hotspur, Hornet - were filled with the heroic exploits of British soldiers fighting the Huns and Japs. I was taken to see the film The Battle of Britain and sat cheering with hundreds of other Dublin schoolboys as the RAF drove the Luftwaffe from the skies over Kent. And one memorable night at the end of the decade British television arrived. Suddenly we had Blue Peter and Jackanory and Top of the Pops and Coronation Street. The alien accents became part of our daily life; the cultural separation between my world and that of a child living in London or Manchester was increasingly blurred. We cheered for England in World Cup football (this was long before an Englishman, Jack Charlton, brought an Irish side to the competition) and the teams we supported were British. I was a Man United fanatic along with half the population of the country. English tabloid newspapers were also starting to enjoy widespread circulation in urban areas: my first memory of a newspaper front page is of walking into a neighbour's kitchen when I was about nine and seeing a copy of the News of the World. It carried a banner headline announcing that an actress named Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered in Los Angeles.

I visited Britain twice as a child. Of that first journey I have only the vaguest of memories. Late night on a train travelling down to London from the Welsh coast. A family sitting opposite us with children the same age. Their father spoke with an Irish accent but the kids were English. I remember being confused by that. How could you be Irish and English, I asked my mother. I don't remember her answer, but I do remember the names of stations - Crewe, Rugby, Chester - crackling on the Tannoy and the great noise of the city when we got off the train in London. I remember men with black faces, men with turbans, red buses and black taxis, and an Indian takeaway eaten on the floor of a guesthouse on Ebury Street. That was London in 1968. It was bigger and noisier than anywhere I'd ever been before and it frightened me.

I came again when I was a teenager, this time with a company from the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland. We were camping in Chingford in Essex, but we made for the West End of London whenever we could. I remember that there were Girl Guides from the north of England on the trip. They were the same age as us, but seemed light years more sophisticated. We kept our distance. On that trip I discovered pornography and French letters. The former I contemplated in nervous astonishment, the latter I had no use for, but still kept one in my pocket for months afterwards. On our way back to Ireland we hid magazines and condoms in our rucksacks. Both items were banned at home, and we sweated our way nervously past the customs officers in Cork Harbour. There were two short visits to Britain in my twenties, both to rugby matches at Twickenham, which passed in a blur of late nights and heavy drinking. In all, my first-hand knowledge of Britain came down to four quick visits. I had a jumbled understanding of our shared history, I cheered for Manchester United, and I read the New Musical Express.

I knew nothing. This was exactly the situation when I was given the job of Ireland Correspondent with the British Broadcasting Corporation. On my first day in the BBC, a sub-editor in radio news came over and asked if I knew any Irish jokes. Bristling, I replied that we'd had seven hundred years of them... they were called the English. The sub-editor retreated with a red face. I was very pleased with myself at the time, but the fact is that I overreacted. The sub-editor was a very rare creature. Nobody else seemed to care where I came from; in fact they went out of their way to make me feel that I belonged. If anything the English tended to defer to me rather ludicrously on matters Irish; they seemed to regard the Irish Troubles as one of history's great mysteries. You had to be Irish to make sense of it. That it was a local variation on the theme of intolerance that had bedevilled the world since creation escaped many of them.

After a few weeks' acclimatisation in London, the BBC sent me back to Ireland to report the ongoing violence and struggle for a political solution. These were years of drift in Northern Ireland. The violence was killing between 60 and 100 people every year, and the politicians were shouting and not hearing. Yet, beneath the surface, attitudes were changing. Strands of moderation were emerging among the previously recalcitrant republican and Unionist blocs. It would take years before the behind-the-scenes dialogue of the early Nineties matured into the Good Friday Agreement. The collapse of the power-sharing executive has underlined what most observers already knew: it may take years before that Agreement delivers a lasting peace.

The hardest struggles are still taking place in small towns where the killing had a particularly intimate horror. My encounters with politicians from the British mainland were limited to dreary briefings at Stormont Castle or the occasional, heavily policed walkabout in Belfast city centre. From the point of view of many British people I met - though they would never say it quite so crudely - Northern Ireland felt like the padded annexe in which the crazy relatives were locked away.

After 18 months in Belfast I was sent to South Africa to report on the transition to democratic rule. And for the first time I began receiving large numbers of letters from British listeners. Most were appreciative and warm-hearted, displaying a deep concern for the marginalised majority. When I made a film on the plight of a mother and her five children in a squatter camp, the British public dug deep into their pockets to build her a house. Likewise in Rwanda, where BBC1 viewers purchased a small herd of cows for a village decimated by the genocide. There was a real concern for the oppressed that crossed political boundaries.

From South Africa I moved to Hong Kong to report on Asia and specifically the imminent handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese. I found myself covering wars in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, a dictatorship of fear in Burma and the rise of authoritarian governments in South East Asia which proclaimed a new set of "Asian values". This involved a governing elite deciding what was best for the people, with little in the way of genuine democracy. People were certainly materially better off, but there were restrictions on press freedom and an exaggerated deference for authority. It was the era of the Asian Tiger economies, a gold rush in which there were vast profits to be made but where human rights were under constant threat.

In all, I spent nearly 10 years living abroad as a BBC correspondent. Once or twice a year the BBC would fly me to London for consultations. Those days were spent in a dull conference room, the Crown & Sceptre Pub in Portland Street and Efe's Kebab House. This was my London, a small patch of the West End; the rest of Britain I didn't know at all.

During my time in South Africa and Hong Kong I'd developed a keen interest in British imperial history. I immersed myself in the literature of the colonial age; and I travelled to the battlegrounds of the Zulu and Boer wars, I visited the humid war cemeteries of Singapore, Rangoon and Hong Kong. I came from one of the conquered races, I was myself a child of the colonised. A large part of me revolted at the mess empires left in their wake - modern-day Burma being a case in point - yet I could not help but surrender to awe, to a sneaking admiration at the breathtaking nerve it all demanded. I was present in Hong Kong to witness the last significant act of imperial retreat. By any rational judgement the notion of a colony of Chinese being ruled by a white nation thousands of miles away was anachronistic if not downright absurd. And yet the colonised were sad to see the British leave. Certainly they complained that the British had left it far too late to introduce democratic change. But when you asked ordinary Chinese people what they would miss about the British, they invariably talked about the rule of law, a sense of fair play. They felt safe with the British.

And then I came to live in Britain. I left Hong Kong two months after the handover. The decision to come to Britain was motivated by a growing desire to put down roots. Ten years constantly on the move can be wearing on the body and mind, not to mention the effects on a young family. When much of that time is spent in zones of conflict, there invariably comes a point when serious choices need to be made. Do you stay on the road, roaming from one war to another, an increasingly burnt-out case? Or do you find a place to call "home" from where it is still possible to do interesting, if not necessarily life-threatening, things? In my own life, the imperative to seek a secure and sane place to live was hugely influenced by the birth of my child. In my late thirties I found myself questioning not what was good for me or my wife, but what place and country would be a fit place to raise my son and any other offspring who might come along. We took a long look around the world and for a variety of reasons, most of them practical, decided that London was the best bet.

It was not an easy decision. To me, Britain was a fine place to visit for a few days; but I feared that it would suffocate me. I thought that I'd spent too long under foreign skies to settle for the tedium of domesticity in west London. The notion that Britain itself could be an interesting place to report conflicted with some rather grand notions I had about myself: could I really give up the drama of the frontlines to tramp around sink estates in the north of England? What about the drama of those foreign lives in which everything happened?

I decided that I would still travel out of London, but in buying a house I knew I was making a long-term commitment. I was deciding that my son would grow up with an English accent. He had been born in the last British colony in Asia and would travel on a British passport; he would grow up in London and, whether I liked it or not, his identity would in part be shaped by the children he played with, the schools he attended, the culture he absorbed. This was brought home forcefully to me when, visiting Ireland during the summer holidays, a relative announced that my son had a "fierce English accent". It didn't bother me, but for the first time in my life I became aware of a sense of permanence creeping into my relationship with Britain. I was going to be there for the long haul.

And so when the BBC asked me to think about making a journey through the country, I did not rush to find a foreign journey as an alternative. I listened to the proposal and was intrigued. If this was the country where my child would be reared, I felt I'd better get to know something beyond the middle-class zone of comfort in which I'd settled. Over nearly two years my ideas about the dullness of Britain were to be altered sharply; the stories I heard were to be a vivid corrective to my foolish presumption that nothing much happened in British lives.