THIS IS LONDON: LIFE AND DEATH IN THE WORLD CITY
BY BEN JUDAH
1st February 2017
- A REVIEW BY TIM ADAMS (THE GUARIDAN) -
CLASSIFICATION: DA676.9 A1 J92
Find the book here
“An immersive account of life among London’s recent arrivals is salutary but frustrating.”
There have always been people to complain that London is losing its identity, that it is being overrun. In 1185 Richard of Devizes suggested: “I do not at all like that city. All sorts of men crowd there from every country under the heavens. Each brings its own vices and its own customs.” In 1255 a monk with the unlikely name of Matthew Paris remarked that London was “overflowing” with “Poitevins, Provençals, Italians and Spaniards”. In the 15th century certain splenetic commentators were railing against Flemish, Danish, German and Dutch arrivals; Icelanders, commonly employed as servants, were viewed as an underclass.
Only occasionally has that suspicion – often voiced by visitors to the city rather than natives – hardened into repression, with intimidation and threats of deportation for those who don’t know the language, or who worship unfamiliar gods, or who keep themselves to themselves, or who dress in a different way. Mostly, though, as Peter Ackroyd observed in his life-loving London: The Biography, “despite violent acts inspired by demagoguery and financial panic, the immigrant communities of the city have generally been permitted to settle down, engage with their neighbours in trade, adopt English as their native language, intermarry and bring up their children as Londoners”.
It is worth remembering that in the week of the publication of Ben Judah’s latest snapshot of the most storied and international of all cities, the prime minister floated a policy of “language tests” for recent immigrants, and measures to send home mothers who fail them, deflecting attention from the global financial turmoil that again threatens to destabilise the economy.
Judah is 27; the son of a distinguished foreign correspondent who himself has reported extensively from Russia and the Middle East. He approaches London, it seems, with something of an ingrained war reporter’s tenacity. He begins with a bold statement of journalistic intent: “I have to see everything for myself. I don’t trust statistics. I don’t trust self-appointed spokesmen. I have to make up my own mind.” All well and good, you might think, but you are writing a book about London and you want to see everything? Good luck with that.
The greatest chroniclers of the city – Pepys, Samuel Johnson, Hogarth, Dickens, Iain Sinclair – have always been picked up and swept along on its myriad minute currents, been open to its accidental variety. They have also learned early on that London, like all cities, will humble those who attempt to impose order or single points of view, or narrow arguments on its shifting nature; better to observe and record with candour and humility and a sense of the comic limitations of the whole exercise. Judah’s aim is something like that – he wants to get under the skin of all the recent caricatures of London’s life, “Afghan shopkeeper”, “Polish builder”, “Romanian busker” and so on – but mostly without a sense of comic limitation.
He begins very much in earnest, at Victoria coach station at 6am every morning for weeks, often hungover, and cold, recording impressions on his smartphone. His mission is a simple one: “I was born in London but I no longer recognise this city. I don’t know if I love the new London or if it frightens me.” He has come here to find out. Every week, he suggests – relying on a somewhat debatable 2007 statistic from a Westminster council memo – 2,000 immigrants arrive at Victoria coach station, unchecked and unreported. Who are they? Why have they come? To discover more, after several weeks, Judah determines to ask some of them. He follows a trio of Roma beggars, chases them down into a subway, and ends up talking to a traveller, a gypsy violinist, who busks for money.
What follows is a kind of descent into the London underworld, as Judah sleeps in subways with Romanians, squats in Barking in a dosshouse full of east European builders, follows overnight cleaning teams on vomit-erasing duty, pitches up with prostitutes among the halal shops on Ilford High Road, visits a psychiatrist in Seven Sisters, an oligarch’s wife in Knightsbridge, a West Indian gangster in Shepherd’s Bush, a Nigerian policeman in Camberwell Green and an Islamic undertaker in Leyton… Judah is obsessive in his quest, piling up impressions, recording conversations, all the while jabbing out declarative sentences as if they were targeted blows to the body. As he confesses from time to time, a good deal of the book appears to have been written on the notes function of his phone, furtively concealed in his sleeping bag, or covertly accessed. What this practice gains in immediacy it tends to lose in nuance. Often, the writer seems to have a mistrust of dependent clauses, as if they might get in the way of the important truth.
“‘I was deceived,’ says Pale Eyes, ‘like so many others, by the television and the double-decker buses’”
There is a courageous dedication in all of this, an Orwellian desire to bring back stories from the down-and-out and the voiceless, but there are, too, habits in Judah’s approach that render some of the effort frustrating to the reader. For unexplained reasons he never identifies any of the people he dosses down with either by their full names – generally the first writerly rule of giving identity to the faceless – or with precise biographical detail. They often remain Poles or Russians or Bulgarians, without ever quite coming alive as people. Thus the Roma violinist becomes the Fiddler, his fellow beggars, all apparently from the Moldovan town of Slobozia and now living under Park Lane are the Lawyer, and Pale Eyes and the Old Man and so on. What they do share is an ability to conceptualise their plight in often unsurprising ways. “I was deceived,” says Pale Eyes. “I was deceived like so many others by the television. I was deceived by the double-decker buses. And all the television of the London state.”Snatched uncaptioned photographs punctuate Judah’s impressions, lending the whole a slightly unmoored, surreal quality, as if this London, perhaps intentionally, is happening inside his head. In among this sometimes alienating drift, there are real moments of insight, well worth clinging on to: the story of the tube cleaner, the Ghanaian Akwese, for example, is full of lived truths about the invisible labour force that keeps the city functioning overnight; the imam Hajji washing dead bodies in the mosque’s mortuary by day, driving a minicab after hours, offers another kind of reality. Journalism at its best is an exercise in empathy not discrimination; London, this book reminds you, will always demand that too.