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London is paradoxical: crowded but often lonely, diverse yet dis–integrated, pulling you in yet throwing you out with its high rents and house prices. It’s also a city which steeps in its own history, but is now one that is changing so quickly and so dramatically that it really does warrant a book like Ben Judah’s This Is London.
The book comprises 25 chapters framed around the story of an individual or a small group – Ghanaian tube ‘pickers’, Filipino maids, a Polish registrar, Romanian builders. There’s a kind of arc to Judah’s story, subtitled ‘life and death in a world city’. It starts in Victoria coach station – a birth canal for London’s migrants – and a few nights spent with Roma beggars in the underpass at Hyde Park Corner, driven to begging on London’s streets by bad harvests and bad debts. It ends with an extended meditation on death, led by a Hajji who washes bodies in preparation for burial in the Garden of Peace in Hainault. In between, Judah offers the life and experience of largely immigrant London, of the work they come looking for and sometimes find, and of the semi–submerged worlds of drug dealing and taking, gang violence, trafficking and prostitution that seem to lie like traps in every corner of the capital.
This is not just a book about ‘what’ you need to know about London but also a book about how you can come to know it. Since the work of Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth, London has constantly been mapped, measured and documented but not always understood. Judah rightly avoids that route, which can only lead to being buried by data, and offers granularity instead. There are echoes of the ‘investigative tramping’ of Jack London (People of the Abyss) and George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London, Road to Wigan Pier). He is informed by one of his Roma beggar contacts that he would have to spend a few nights with them to really ‘get it’. To his credit he accepts the challenge. Of course, to understand today’s London Judah must access the super–rich as well as the impoverished. Indeed, the very poor and the very rich somehow occupy a similar position, which is to say that their lives and experience of London will be almost entirely foreign to most of Judah’s readers.
How so? On a superficial level, it often seems like London has achieved the ‘melting pot’ status which used to flatter cities like New York, but Judah show that this is not the case. In the perception of Judah’s contacts, if not in reality, London operates by ethnic hierarchy and profiling – race equals place. Poles resent the Romanians for working for low wages. Poles and Romanians fear Albanians. Blacks are like this. ‘Pakis’ are like that. This is far from the diverse multicultural metropolis of complacent liberal imagining, and it’s not clear if there’s anything other than collective self–interest that makes the whole thing work. The only other centrifugal force seems to be a disregard for the English, who are seen as lazy and complacent, an absent host of the party. For Judah, those that make places like Peckham or Shoreditch their home are like colonials or ex–pats – they claim to love it, but they love it “like a prop”, a venue for pop–up bars and hipster restaurants.
If ethnicity is the main story, religion is a notable subplot. Judah doesn’t go looking, but ultimately can’t but help stumbling over it. The decline of the English and their culture is seen in the decline of their religion. Polish masses fill out the Catholic churches twice on a Sunday. Old Kent Road is full of churches which leaven the life of the people that have to board the N21 at 4.30am to clean the city offices: “Their mission hoardings say it all, Raising Breakthrough Generation, the House of Refuge, the Church for Overcomers”. A teacher in East London worries about the integration of her Muslim pupils, and the way that their faith seems to prompt them to see themselves apart from others. There’s more esoteric fare on offer also. Peckham hipsters rent out a hall that an African prayer group uses during the week, and are unnerved to discover bits of voodoo paraphernalia. Judah himself seeks out a Yoruba prophetess.
This picture is often a bleak one, not just because of material hardship but also because of the way that many of the people are adrift from each other and are faced with lives that lack meaning and purpose. Romanians stand by looking to be hired as day–labourers outside a branch of Wicks – they are either hired on sub–minimum wages or left disappointed for a pointless day. At least they have a reason to be here; the daughter of an Arab sheik has nothing better to do than smoke pot and eat McDonalds. The book is also peculiarly un–political – London seems a city full of denizens rather than citizens. Judah does not attempt to resolve this by editorialising his encounters and narratives – no questions are formulated, no answers offered.
This is London is a fine piece of journalism and a compelling book, with only one important reservation. This is not London. Judah tends to observe the extreme and the notable and has no journalistic stake in the stable parts, the humdrum boroughs, the times when people rub along ok, or – even better – begin to shape a genuinely common life. Early on in the book Judah rejects the statistical approach, insisting he must “see everything for himself”. He falls short of this ambition, but he does a very good job of seeing the things that would usually remain (intentionally?) unseen by the average commuter zombie, travelling from suburban dormitory to central workplace and back again.
Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme at Theos | @mrbickley
Ben Judah will be speaking at Theos about his book on 28th April. See here for more details.
This is London: Life and Death in a World City is published by Pan Macmillan