London - it sneaks up and impresses you
LONDON LIFE:A decade in, and London hasn’t lost its charm for Irish comedian and resident DARA O'BRIAIN. He admires the city’s multiculturalism, loves the parks, and then there’s the football . . .
HERE ARE, IN my opinion, four great cities in the world. Four members of the A-list. And Irish people live a short plane ride from the only one that doesn’t need a Morrison visa or a working knowledge of French or Japanese. This is why I find it so peculiar that London, my adopted home of (Jesus!) a decade now, seems to have fallen off the Irish radar so much.
Obviously in the last decade or so there was no urgent need to go to London. For many, the city still had that Ralph McTell air about it, more of a grey safety valve for our own economic pressures, than a destination in itself. When emigration receded, London was the first to be struck off the list of destinations.
A couple of years ago I did an interview with the Sunday Tribune which involved meeting up with the journalist, and a photographer in tow, at a hotel in the city. As the chat wound down and I was posing for the accompanying shot, they lamented to me that their plane home, the last of the day, was in danger of being cancelled. “That would be a pain in the arse,” I agreed, “but at least you could use it as an excuse to catch up with friends over here.”
They both looked at me in puzzlement.
“We don’t know anyone who lives in London.”
And to be fair, for a long time the only people I knew emigrating to London were other comedians. Not surprising, really, given that if you are a comic from just about anywhere in the world, except maybe New York or LA, then this is where you come. London is a global headquarters for stand-up. I’ve shared bills with Aussie, Canadian and German comics on the same night.
And you could run a long list of industries for which this city is a world centre. Finance, obviously. Politics and media. Fashion. Libel, interestingly. Publishing. Art, both for sale and on view. Theatre.
The British have it written into their DNA not to be publicly impressed about anything in their own country, or at least anything that didn’t happen in the mid-1950s; but sometimes the scale of this city would astonish you. I remember spending the afternoon in what we Irish would call “the middle of town” and it was only when I got home that I realised that the Tour de France had been starting a mile away. And the Wimbledon men’s final was on. And the British Grand Prix.
There are weekends where you might have the equivalent of four All-Ireland finals and a Six Nations match-worth of fans wandering to various stadia, and you’d hardly notice it. They’ve even stuck the Olympics out to the side of the city. It’s the biggest sports event on the planet; you won’t even have to break stride for it.
Not that Londoners break stride for anything, really. The gait of a local is head-down and focused; a combination of two competing needs, while in motion. You have to constantly calculate and re-calculate your route across the arcanely designed transport system, weighing the various pluses and minuses of the routes underground, overland, bus and taxi, like living in your own endless Königsberg Bridge problem; and all without ever raising your head to check a map, for fear you might accidentally make eye-contact and share a human moment with another commuter. Some people might read that as cold and dehumanising. Good for you. Go live in a village and make friends with the greengrocer and his wife who runs the post office. London is not for you.
You’ll find plenty of English people who don’t go for their capital city, either. The English are a compelling people for their contradictions; they’ll show us up with their professionalism and industry most of the time; and then startle you with their national taste for nostalgia. London has only the first half of that. It’s the least nostalgic place I know. Paris and New York wallow in their own mythology; all Rhapsody in Blue and Amélie on a scooter. This place doesn’t even sell itself as a view. I’ve been living here for a decade and I just had to turn to Google to see if there was any skyscraper in London with a viewing platform. (The London Eye is your best bet. Typically, I’ve never been.)
Another success the English never give themselves credit for is proper, working multiculturalism. The first borough I ever lived in, ordinary, down-at-heel Haringey, was said to be home to 165 spoken languages. Admittedly, I was probably the only Gaelgeoir adding to that tally and got to use very little of the teanga dhúchais while I negotiated the kebab shops and fried-chicken emporia of the Upper Holloway Road. Nonetheless, much like the Irish colonised Kilburn in the past, practically every nation in the world has its own Little Italy, somewhere in London.
This has certain upsides. A canny drinker – let’s call him, say, Andrew Maxwell – would be able to spend an entire football tournament, such as the last World Cup, say, hopping from borough to borough in order to sit with the “home” fans, only pausing to weigh whether more fun was to be had with the Ghanaians in Dalston or the Saudis in Bayswater, should the clash arise.
Of course, “Londoners” like myself and those Ghanaians, or indeed those English who arrive here from other parts of the country, are ourselves an ethnic group, and possibly the largest in the city.
We are the people who moved to London aged between 25 and 35 because it was where the opportunity was; and filled up the countless international house-shares of young lawyers and IT people and the odd comedian, trying to get a foothold. Some will stay, although many will eventually return home, or “greensize” (swap their houses for something more liveable in a suburb, darling) when the city eventually wears them down; when they tired of the grime they see whenever they blow their nose after being on the tube. Others will arrive, though, always keeping this massive engine of a city running, and perpetually in the now.
And yes, it’s a hassle, and yes, it’s expensive, and yes, it’s huge. If you have friends on the other side of the city, you’ll get to an airport quicker than you’ll get to them, so they might as well be in a different country.
But when the sun comes out and people are spilling out of pubs and milling around parks (Londoners really get the best out of their parks); or when you’re on a bridge over the Thames and you look up and see Big Ben in one direction and St Paul’s in the other; or when you flick through the listings bible Time Out and realise that all human life is here, this is when London sneaks up and impresses you.
I’ve laid down my own little markers, a decade in. I’ve picked my little corner to live in, of course, but there’s also a plaque, with my name on it, on the underside of a seat, in a football stadium, in my own little part of north London.
To get there, I simply have to hop on the overland train to Waterloo and change to the Victoria line and get off at Highbury and Islington. Unless it’s Sunday, when it’s better to take the District line and change to the Piccadilly line at Hammersmith for the Arsenal station. But that’s a nightmare coming back, what with the crowds, so then you’d be better off walking back down to Highbury and Islington and taking the North London line to Gunnersby.
Wow, I’m turning into a proper Londoner, aren’t I?