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It’s not a long way from Mayo to London, not in miles anyway, but back in 1994 it did feel like being transported across decades. Everything about London was alien to me. First there was the sheer quantity of bodies jammed into it, and the “it” itself was an unquantifiable space. How big was London? How many hours to cross it? Needless to say, compared to today, ’90s London was different again and I didn’t yet know that every five years or so it tends to shed its skin. Back then it was less glass and much more stone, its institutions still not greatly predisposed to knocking windows through their grey front walls to pretend to let the public see in. It was filled with large wooden doors where now are shops. Fewer bridges and transport options but even the long unrefurbished Northern Line sang of Futurism to me.
And as for all those bodies themselves, it was initially disorientating, then exhilarating to find myself having no tangible existence for them. After years of praying to avoid talkers on the Dublin train, I soon realised that here there was very little chance of becoming so waylaid. People on the Tube looked straight ahead and even my greatly unsociable self had to retrain the instinct to greet whoever I sat alongside.
Those first few months frequently led to late-night, drunk, Tube chats with other recent — and usually Welsh, for some reason — arrivals who, like me, were more accustomed to public displays of generalised sociability. Of course the necessity of greater circumspection was eventually learned but I still don’t subscribe to its characterisation as London’s callousness at its worst. It’s true that I’ve seen people hide in it as an obvious mugging occurred but I’ve also seen people jump out of it to prevent a stranger being kicked in the head. To me it’s the epitome of Londoners’ mannerliness, a basic respect for the privacy of fellow passengers; for how else can such unnatural physical closeness to strangers be otherwise endured? Arriving from a nation of people even less inclined towards touching, British cheek-kissing was challenge enough.
Then there was Time: how it worked very differently over here. Back home minutes counted for nothing, lateness was hours, or years. If arrangements were made for meeting at half past three, strolling up around four was fine. I remember going to see a Brendan Behan at the Barbican and being quite taken aback at the usher’s urgings of “Run, run”. It was inconceivable to me that half seven meant half seven and not roughly a quarter to eight. And although mobile phones have since rounded those edges again — “Caught on the District, be with you in 15” — it took a long while to adjust to the sincerity of English time, not to mention the baleful comments about tardiness whenever I forgot. Nowadays I’m a fully paid-up member of the five minutes’ grace brigade, 10 if the late-comer is abject.
At some point in the late ’90s it suddenly got trendy to be Irish in London, or any kind of Celtic at all. Innumerable bars stuck the — all male — poster of “Irish Writers” on the wall, hung bone-shakers from their ceilings and proclaimed themselves “Irish pubs” with as much scummy-topped Guinness as their bar staff could pour, frequently with a shamrock doodled on top. Having to offer instructions on the matter of pouring three-quarters of a pint first, settling, then finishing became a standard of most nights out. But in 1994 it wasn’t like that. These days it makes me laugh to see myself referred to as British-Irish because — beyond being factually inaccurate — back then such a combination would never have been on the cards. English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, foreign or black were pretty much the choices. And as for Northern Irish . . . well . . . that was just political correctness gone mad!
Very few of the English people I mixed with seemed to understand, or care to find out, what the not infrequent bomb scares were about. And “You f***ing Irish” was a regular hiss I received when anything went off. Mostly from strangers but, occasionally, fellow students as well. As if the very fact of my race made me privy to IRA plans, or that understanding the historical context meant I supported, or felt some kinship with, their aims. Having “Terrorist Terrorist you Irish whore” carved with a knife into my wall was a low point but, compared to the harassment of the Irish community in the decades before, really wasn’t so bad. It certainly opened my eyes though to why the community had withdrawn itself into the famed “Irish” areas of Kilburn, Cricklewood and the like, which offered some day-to-day respite from the suspicion and casual abuse.
But, for me, the point of leaving Ireland was exactly that. I was in hot pursuit of “the other” and was constantly, perhaps naively, surprised when confronted with the idea that “the other” was, in fact, me. At the time I presumed it was presumed I was incapable of deploring murders and bombings for the simple reason that, whenever I opened my mouth, an Irish accent came out. I wonder now, though, if the tendency of some second-generation Irish to romanticise the doings of the IRA — frequently in the light of harassment suffered by their parents’ generation — didn’t, unhelpfully, foster some confusion too. Sound familiar? It does to me. A similar experience but, of course, not the same because I always possessed the luxury of being able to keep my mouth shut. So, when the Good Friday Agreement started doing its work, slowly lifting the onerous mantle of terrorism from Irishness, and “thick Paddy” jokes became again the worst that had to be contended with, I was relieved. But, as London shed its skin again, and the cynical set about making terrorists of Muslims and wastrels of eastern European immigrants, I have often had cause to recall those early experiences. I have never forgotten them or the dangerous appetite for the simplicity of scapegoating.
But these bumps of fate do nothing to efface the memories of my first year in London and all its gloriousness. For native Londoners this, admittedly utopian, view may be a tricky one to reconcile themselves to. The city’s expense, noise and time-consuming commute impose unglamorous hardships which cannot be overlooked, and I didn’t really understand that then. True it was expensive and I was broke. True my staple diet was Kwik Save bread doused with jam for months. True I slept on more floors than I know how to count and I suspect I recollect all of this with more fondness than it truly deserves. It was the moment, though, of coming into life. Unimpeded by common sense or self-preservation half of the time but the fact of London’s readiness to cater to youthful wildness, without reproof, felt like freedom to me. What more can you want at 17? I think its unknowableness was half the thrill. Most of the things I wanted to do I couldn’t afford but still here they were and, at least, possible. London was the best mirror for someone only just learning how to look and paradise for a girl starving for culture and books and not particularly adverse to the odd spot of misadventure too.
As the years rolled on and I stopped being so wild and so young, I began to uncover another London. Older, darker, more full of palpable risk. More likely to crush than support in an unwary moment. But full of the calamitous boredom intrinsic to temping, I ended up walking practically every street. If I had no idea how to sort myself out, I thought I’d learn London inch by inch. And when frightening things happened, and I wanted to escape, I’d catch myself considering if it was London or life that was making everything seem so hard.
Then I left it, almost randomly, and with indecent haste. From the second I did I have never stopped worrying that this might reflect some subconscious tiredness with life. I’ve comforted myself with the surety that, in the blink of an eye, I would return. But I didn’t return and I am still away. It has been so long now that missing it has become part of me. Perhaps I’ve just put the word London in the place where loneliness is. Unreachable, unfixable, good for writing books with. I’ll be 40 soon. I was 30 when I left. It’s the only place that’s ever felt like home and it’s only two hours away but, once the years are added on top, home starts to feel as though it may no longer exist. So I think of it instead, and hope. I remember it and know that on a good day, when it opens itself up, London is like no other city and can, intermittently, be the greatest in the world.
Eimear McBride’s ‘The Lesser Bohemians’ is published next week by Faber, £16.99
Portrait by Eva Vermandel