A First Christmas In London

Great Britain - London

The word ‘rollercoaster’ in conjunction with the numbers 2020 is probably an overused combination, but I find myself struggling to reach a more apt or succinct description of the experience of this past celestial phase. 

Our new little family started out ensconced in Dublin, as I have been in one way or the other for the past decade or more, but we made the abrupt decision to flee as the COVID clouds darkened, and traversed the undulating plains of Lockdown 1 amidst the sentinel reeks and empty beaches of a South Kerry doused in glorious, and it must be said, unlikely, spring sunshine. Suddenly, we found ourselves living a life of bare simplicity, a life which I had so often dreamed about, nestled contentedly betwixt mountain and sea, curiously still as the world spun itself into a harried web of worry all about us. 

Of course we were not totally immune to the ebb and flow of the pandemics relentless unfolding, the pull and screech of the rollercoaster put paid to work, but gave me all the time in the world with our luminous little daughter, and while we were even more isolated that most, our lot seemed a relatively happy one compared to our friends who were unhappily marooned back in claustrophobic cities. So as we eased out of those first troubling months, summer began to bloom, there was talk of staycations and visits from friends, and for all the world we seemed to have struck a seam of luck. 

But, 2020 spun full circle in the blink of an eye – a sudden phone-call, and the advancement of my partner’s father cancer, and suddenly the simple pleasures of a summer in Kerry seemed frivolous and unworthy, and I write from the genteel and leafy, but certainly less dramatic environs of North London facing into my first ever Christmas in the UK. 

I had never spent more than a rushed weekend in London previous to this. Throughout my twenties I somehow chose to largely ignore the truly cosmopolitan world capital, which sat closer in travel time from my begrudgingly adopted home of Dublin than to Home Home in West Limerick. Being a gormless youth, I imagined, in my spectacular lack of imagination, that London was nothing but a Dublin multiplied, or a Limerick cubed, if such a thing could be even imagined.

Of course, the reality of the grandeur and the incredible cultural and creative mix that is held in these 32 boroughs literally blew me away when I first visited, but yet, my suspicions lingered. It took me repeated expeditions of trial and error over the years to find out that London is in fact a thousand different London’s, and it takes time and effort in a city this size to find the stream of energy that connects with your own. But, in time, I did, and every time I came here since, I made the silent pledge to return more often to feel the pulse and excitement of a truly global city more frequently. 

Days draw long, but decades tumble like cards it seems, and it never happened, until of course 2020 stepped in and carried out its most incredible trick of destroying normal life, while conversely magicking dreams into realities.  The strange hypocrisies wrought by this pandemic are almost endless. 

Not being at home for Christmas is a poignant moment for most people. Not being at home in Ireland, and being in London, where there is so much history of Irish longing, and sadness – an almost a palpable technicolour tradition of Gaelic loneliness feels maybe even a little more poignant. But, despite this, I find strange and soothing comfort here in the orderly streets, the polite encounters, the timely transport, the abundance of trees in the urban environment, and the unescapable sense of humanity that is inherent in a place when millions of disparate peoples are hemmed in together. 

I have found Dublin to lack this humanity in recent years. Yes it is there, it is there without any fanfare in certain ways, and it is there smugly celebrated in the feted traditional drinking houses of Grogan’s, The Long Hall, and The Palace Bar too. It is still there in the chatter of the traders on Moore St. And on a crisp winter morning with the grass frosted over and the deer silently watching on in the Phoenix Park. It is there in the routines of a chance encounter in town on a Saturday afternoon. Or equally at a still summer morning swim at Vico Road. Yet Dublin feels to me a city at odds with its inhabitants, a place swept up in the effort of trying to say (and sell) that it is still something that it was, while also desperately trying to be something that it hasn’t yet become. 

Dublin, beset by craic, cranes, co-living complexes, and hotel build upon hotel build, yet who can’t house its own. Dublin who sings the song of a cultural city, but will not allow space for its artists to create. 

London, in its myriad of guises, and its cheek by jowl wealth and poverty, seems somehow forced to have a more realistic view of itself – an absolutely inescapable acknowledgement that all the hypocrisies of the western world are written large and tangled in its streets. 

But at least it seems at ease with this. 

It feels to me, in its vast indifference – a more forgiving place, more accepting of difference, and more at secure in itself than a Dublin that cheated on its past with the Celtic Tiger, ran back to some form of decency during a difficult recession, but has again rebounded towards some new shiny minded iteration of itself, yet plagued with uncertainty, and without ever really asking the questions of itself ‘what am I really?’ or ‘is it me, or is it you?’. 

In London there seem to be space to exist as you are, while in Dublin I feel that space is less plentiful, and what space we have is being either commodified or ignored. 

London is also strikingly beautiful – the UK’s commitment to preserving their built heritage is so admirable, and it makes me weep for the absolute hegemony of the Dealz signs or Centra shop front in our villages, towns and cities at home. Of course there can be no illusion that all of this is quite simply propped up by the rewards of empire. And I am seeing one very pointedly lovely corner of a city of a thousand different streetscapes. But I can finally understand some thread of the origins of a British self-confidence that always seems the most alien trait to Irish people. 

But for all of this enthusiasm for the charms of our temporary home, I miss the sea and the mountains of South Kerry. I miss my friends who, because of the very lack of space in Dublin are so intertwined in the fabric of our lives. I miss the easy interactions and less formal stylings of the Irish encounter. And I am sad that my parents have been robbed of so many of the experiences of the first year of our baby girl’s existence. 

I am humbled by 2020 in many ways, but I know that despite the many difficulties of the past 12 months that we have weathered the storm better than most – surrounded for the large part of it by incredible nature, immunised to some degree to the overbearing worries of the world by the daily joys and challenges of new parenthood, and blessed to have our health intact, and I spend this Christmas, our second as a family, more connected to myself, and as a result where I have come from as I have felt in a long, long time. 

Children are, it turns out, miraculous time machines – real live links to your past, and a cosmic railway track into your suddenly terrifyingly terminal future. I am still somewhat surprised by the fullness that she has brought to my existence, and at the complexity of the suite of emotions that she has brought with her. 

There is suddenly so much to live for. 

Surely this will be a year that we will never forget? How could we? Surely too, the universe, safe in the knowledge that we have been tested, will lay easier terrain on the ground ahead? 

We can only hope.  

Regardless, as I hear the distant rumble of an overground spin through the dark London night, I know deep down that we will move on. The challenges and lessons of 2020 will be remembered and forgotten in equal measure. 

And places such as this, and Dublin, and South Kerry, will do as they have always done – move forward, with or without us.


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