The Irish rover

The Falling Angels

John Walsh <em>HarperCollins, 282pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0002570602

If the overstatement that colours John Walsh's newspaper columns is an Irish trait, then the understatement of this memoir came from the English side of his soul. The persona of the bon viveur that sparkles in his journalism is not to be found in these pages. What we have instead is a sober and faithful record of times, places and people. The author treads through them very carefully, making sure to offset a jibe at their expense with two of their own at his. He explains that he was always far from a natural master of his Irish roots in life, and he has eschewed a retrospective dominance in letters. Irreverence takes second place to respect for "the mysterious neighbouring land where everyone talked in my parents' accents and everyone seemed to be called the same kind of thing".

The falling angels of the title are those J M Synge fancied God did not quite have the heart to send to Hell after casting them from Heaven. They have been falling ever since, and this condition, Walsh writes, is shared by the Irish expatriates of London. Caught between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures, between Battersea and Galway, the author was something of a foreigner in two countries and a prodigal son to both. While the 1960s were noises that could just be heard from the other side of Battersea Bridge, Walsh was learning the songs that "make you sing yourself into becoming Irish". His formidable mother had created an Ireland-across-the-sea in her kitchen. Priests were such frequent visitors to the house that she had door-keys cut for them. Her nest was an unconventional launching-pad for an aspirant London sophisticate. By the age of 13, he says, he had Ireland pinned as a blank and dismal holiday retreat - "about as interesting as the neighbours in Battersea".

At around the same time, he seems to have faced another problem: the question of what a would-be rebel is to do when accepted by his peers and urged to win elocution competitions by his teachers. He turned to Ireland for guidance and provoked his friends' derision by festooning himself with shamrocks and cardboard harps on St Patrick's Day.

Winning the affections of Irish boys on his trips across the Irish sea became as important to him as impressing the London set was later, and he proceeded to steep himself in his Irish heritage until he loved it like a native. At the same time, his metropolitan defiance remained irreconcilable with the small traditions of a backwater country. He describes his more learned self as "like an outsider at a square dance, one who knows all the moves through constant repetition, but dreads being asked to join in".

The bone of contention lay in his family. By the time his parents decided to return home it was too late. The old country had become a new one. The party they threw for his first visit was attended by neighbours who praised Mrs Thatcher and declined the Walshes' homecooked food because they had already eaten a ready-made rogan josh from the supermarket. He is as unsentimental about their Ireland as he is about the rest of his past. One would expect the new, adventurous Ireland to be more to Walsh's liking, but the transformation reads like a tale of "Be careful what you wish for". Perhaps he wanted to go to the mountain, and was disappointed when it was delivered to him neatly wrapped.

Nicholas Fearn is compiling a guide to philosophy