I was 14 when I first came to London. I was with my mother, and we were visiting her sister, Mary, who lived in Greenford, which is about as close to Central London as the Arctic Tundra. She worked security in Heathrow Airport; I remember her wowing me with tales of all the celebrities that she’d patted down. The Beckhams, Bruce Willis… she’d seen and screened them all!
As it is for most newcomers, London was quite a shock to the system for me. We wandered through the markets and stalls, the bizarre bazaars of Southall. I remember feeling like we’d stepped into a portal to a different end of the planet, and brought the weather with us – Mam and I were the only pasty, white Irish faces amidst a sea of dark, exotic complexions from all parts of Asia, selling their exotic wares.
When we made the pilgrimage to the West End, on the tube, my mind couldn’t comprehend the idea that this underground mode of transport was a necessary part of people’s daily routines. It was incredibly loud, hot and intense, and everyone’s insistence on not speaking or interacting with each other made it awkward to the point of torturous. Caught in the bustle, nudged, fondled and elbowed all the way up the stairway, I yearned for air, yearned to be back on the surface, yearned to be free of the swarming crowd. My 14-year-old Irish countryside mind was absolutely boggled by the number of people I was witnessing. The entire experience was jarring but illuminating. I even bought a Sunderland football jersey on that trip – my head must have been completely spun.
When I finally came across the water for a more significant length of time, it was, of course, for two very typical reasons: work and a girl. I’d worked on a film with a girl called Amy and fallen madly in love with her. This happened to coincide roughly with coming to London to do a TV show: Misfits. I rented a flat in Covent Garden from this bonkers lady who carried a painting around with her because she was scared it was going to get robbed or damaged. I often saw her scuttling up the street, wearing dirty dungarees, carrying the painting and talking to herself. I lost the deposit on that place because another member of the cast of Misfits, who shall remain unnamed (the small, pasty Welsh one), broke a window! I blamed it on a wayward pigeon, but apparently some do-gooder neighbours had come forward as witnesses.
That period was fantastic. It was like Britain and I were on our honeymoon. Britain opened herself to me, the big harlot, and I delighted in all of her hidden treats. But she can be a lonely, scary place if you don’t actually live here, if you have no base. Before, I would often come over for a day to do an audition, and spend the vast proportion of that day huddled in the corner of a café, nursing a cup of tea and trying to practise my lines without looking like an insane person. In that Covent Garden period, though, London was my oyster, yet Ireland was still very much home, still that inert magnet pulling me back to where I’d spent my whole life. I was only at the tender age of 21 at the time.
In the four years between then and now, however, the point pulling me home has become London as opposed to fair olde Ireland. Ireland remains my romantic home, a home of the heart, but not long after I’m through the door, I’m turning on my heel and heading back to London: my place of residence, the place I’ve become settled in, acclimatised and accustomed to.
Britain has been good to me. She’s provided me with a big, booming, bustling metropolis in which to have adventures and chase my dreams. For now. Who knows where I will be pulled next.