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This Is London:
Life and Death in the World City
by Ben Judah
(Science of Us)
Open any newspaper and you will find 'colour pieces'. They're the ones where a reporter describes the scene of an event and interviews locals. They are usually no more than a few hundreds words long. It's just colour after all.
This Is London is the longest colour piece ever written - more than 80,000 words. It is far too long to work, but it does. That's because Ben Judah, a former foreign correspondent in Russia and eastern Europe for Reuters, eschews the subjects that preoccupy most writers who make the capital their subject. He's not interested in house prices, never goes to fancy shops or restaurants and has no time for oligarchs. He prefers the company of those for whom the streets are paved with cold.
He does more than open his notebook to London's huddled masses. He opens his life. He describes sleeping rough with Romanian beggars in the underpass at Hyde Park Corner and moving into dosshouses in Barking, where East European builders bunk down eight to a room.
He crisscrosses London by Tube and bus, talking to Filipina maids who are beaten in Knightsbridge mansions by their bosses; African men who rise at 4am to clean the carriages of Tube trains; the drug dealers of Shepherd's Bush and the prostitutes of Edmonton.
Along the way, he points out how the arrival of immigrants, rich and poor, has transformed London. 'Tube zone 1 used to belong to the rich English,' one man tells him. 'Tube zone 2, Whitechapel, Notting Hill, and all the rest of it, that was the old immigrant land. Then there was Tube zone 3, 4, 5... That used to be posh or working-class suburbs. But what's happening now is zone 1's being sold to the Russians, and zone 2's being bought by the poshos...pushing the migrants into white land.' You won't read a more succinct analysis of London's changing social geography.
Judah also turns up the kind of facts that journalists like to call 'fancy thats' - although there is nothing fancy about his revelations. Who knew that Poles are among the most burgled nationalities in London?
'Burglars love Poles because they are paid in cash and hide it in shoeboxes,' he explains. 'When they see builders and cleaners moving in over the road, the burglars are already laughing. They can sometimes make £5,000 from one bedsit. And they know the Poles will never call the police.'
In one chapter he explains how Albanians brutally wrested control of the sex trade in Soho from Maltese gangsters. The Albanians regarded the Maltese as 'weak bisexuals in pink bow ties and floral shirts selling only ugly girls from Newcastle,' he writes. They forced out the Maltese at the end of the barrel of a gun. 'Now they needed girls. Girls who were better and cheaper. One Albanian got in a truck and drove to Moldova. They trundled around the peasant villages promising glittering careers in waitressing and modelling. Then they raped and trafficked them.'
This Is London is part social disaster tourism, part Judah's personal quest to reacquaint himself with a home town he no longer recognises after the mass immigration of the past 15 years, and part a reminder to the majority of Londoners that many of the First World problems they enjoy are built on the back of what, for many, is a near Third World labour market.
It is tough going, but you stick with it, not just because it matters but also because much of the writing is strong. Victoria Coach Station, where a bus arrives every few minutes between 5am and 9am disgorging Europeans into the 'damp air that kneads itself into their clothes', is 'our miserable Ellis Island'. When the homeless bed down on the pavement beneath the penthouses of the Dorchester and the Grosvenor House hotels in the small hours, Park Lane looks like 'a seaside promenade, where washed-up people stare into the darkness - kilometres of park - lightless like the night sea'.
He has a reporter's knack for picking out the smallest, yet most revealing details. He describes how a registrar in Catford can always tell if the foreign couple she has just married has done it simply to qualify for a British passport. 'When they leave, they stop pretending that they are a couple. The man walks out first, and lets the door swing back in the girl's face. That's when you know.'
This Is London is not without flaws. It is too long. Judah could lose at least 25% of it. He repeats certain favourite phrases from time to time. Arab men dressed in their white dishdashas are always 'flowing like pure priests of money'. He is too quick to blame rich foreigners, especially Russians, for London's ills. He cites figures to support his arguments, but only reveals the sources in the appendix, leaving you wondering when you read the book for the first time whether the numbers are true.
Judah has been accused of making mistakes before. Two years ago, he wrote an article for The New York Times that accused London of selling its soul to wealthy foreigners. On the top floors of the Shard, he wrote: 'Ultra-high net-worth individuals entertain escorts in luxury apartments. By day, on floors below, investment bankers trade incomprehensible derivatives.' Critics pointed out that the luxury apartments had not been sold at the time - and still haven't. Nor were there any derivatives traders in the Shard then.
Most important of all, he fails adequately to explain why, if London is so miserable, do the 100,000 people who flock to the city each year remain? London is not Dubai, after all, where workers have to surrender their passports to their employers, so cannot leave.
The answer is that the new arrivals cling to the 'London dream' that one day they might be able to live at the top of the Shard, rather than doss down in the roads below, where the 'alcoves and doorways are fitted with metal studs to keep them away'.
Any Londoner with even an elemental sense of curiosity must, a thousand times, have looked at the faces around him on the Tube, say, or heard the accents of the nurses in outpatients and wondered where all these people came from and what their stories were. If you’re in the office early you catch the cleaners finishing their shift; if you’re driving to a football match on a Sunday you see the dozens of beautifully dressed Africans leaving church; if you’re in the high street you’re accosted by a broadly smiling Big Issue seller whose face and clothes suggest a Roma village in the Carpathians, maybe.
Mostly we don’t find out who these people are. It is the singular virtue of Ben Judah’s book that he tries to. In 25 sequences and over 400 pages he reports back from nights spent in a crowded hostel for Romanians or in the underpass at Hyde Park with the Roma, or a car journey with sad street prostitutes, or a café encounter with an urban Arab princess. Everyone who speaks to Judah is a migrant both into London and into Britain. These are their stories.
The best chapters in this book are quite brilliant. Perhaps it’s no accident but almost all the incomers whose accounts really illuminate the extraordinary Babel of the capital are from West Africa. I will not easily forget the Tube cleaner from Ghana with his stories of what happens after a “person under a train” incident on the Underground, or the carer from Nigeria, speaking from his tiny flat in Brixton about how he came to be looking after the elderly demented of the world’s greatest city. The final chapter in which Judah listens to Hajji, the volunteer who washes dead bodies for the mosque in Leyton, is a small masterpiece concerning what it means to be human. You might buy this book for those chapters alone.
However, though tough, these episodes are weak rays of sun barely penetrating an otherwise unremittingly gloomy depiction of immigrant life in London. In fact so pessimistic is Judah’s tone generally that even before I received the proof copy various excerpts had been sent to me by those correspondents of mine who have been most anxious to prove to me that the city I have lived in almost all my life is a filthy, crime-ridden agglomeration of festering resentments.
This reaction, of course, doesn’t make Judah wrong, but his intention from the beginning — despite a protestation to the contrary — seems to have been to emphasise the negative. His subjects, for example, never seem to have functional families (or, if they do, we never meet them), never go to the cinema when they could get drunk, never walk in the park when they could take crack, never drop the kids off at school and never seem to have anything positive to say about anyone else.
Indeed one generalisation it is possible to make about This is London is that everyone Judah talks to generalises about everyone else: the blacks are violent; the Poles are drunk; the Romanians are criminal; and the English (in so far as you can find them) are lazy.
The second generalisation is that Judah talks only to tired people since virtually everyone in the book is “exhausted”. Readers on Kindle will easily be able to check this claim. If they are not too tired.
This feeling — that the book has been written by a very clever teenager the morning after a bad party — begins on page one in Victoria coach station at 6am. In just a few lines things are “dirty”, “grubby”, “grimy”, “cramped” and “oily”. A “hard rain” despite being hard, merely “patters”. And Judah is “hung over”. Well, that’s not going to be a good day, is it?
By telling Londoners and others what happens to people they otherwise just pass by, Judah has performed a huge service. But I ended up questioning his own internal (and possibly unconscious) agenda. It is, for example, useful and important that he illustrate his portraits with some contextual statistics about demographic changes in London. But if you are going to quote stats about crime and prostitution and those who don’t have English as a first language it seems perverse not to also include those about, say, school performance in London. Which has improved remarkably in the past two decades, a fact that some educationists have plausibly attributed to having the children of aspirant migrants in London classrooms.
This tendency to notice and emphasise the bad side of change seems to arise from Judah’s belief — odd for a 27 year old — that he “no longer recognises” the city he was born in. The same sentence then goes on to make a telling error – “a city where at least 55 per cent of people are not ethnically British”.
This is wrong in a very particular way. Forget “ethnic British”, 55 per cent are not classified as “white British”. There are, however, plenty of black and brown Britons so that Britishness is not anything like a minority status in London. Or if your problem, heaven forfend, was a racial one, there are sufficient white non-Britons to bring “white” up to a big majority of Londoners.
This error will no doubt be corrected in the paperback edition, but in chapter after chapter Judah mentions and appears to lament the “disappearance” of the “white English”. Except when they turn up in Brixton as hipsters wanting to buy houses where blacks live. Then he laments that instead. For Judah, everyone who moves anywhere is driven out. And all this churning is attributed to the period since he was young (ie, 12 years ago).
And here, however much I may want not to, I shake my hoary locks in his direction. Judah is too young and seemingly too incurious about the past to know that London is a constant story of massive change, migration and churn. In the year he was born — 1988 — London reached its lowest population since 1939. In that earlier year Tower Hamlets, where my father then lived, had a population of 419,000. By 1988 it was down to 159,000. Inner London had hollowed out.
The displacement Judah talks about — almost conjuring images of cockney refugees trudging behind Steptoe carts carrying their few possessions: portraits of Pearly King and Queen ancestors, special pie-and-mash crockery and the 40in telly with the Sky Sports subscription — was in reality people moving after the war to the new towns or “classing up” and following the great English fantasy, Escape to the Country.
Success and migration began to reverse this trend. By 2011 the Tower Hamlets population was up to 254,000, most of them migrants or the children of migrants. London unhollowed.
The London I was born into in the Fifties was thought to be a city in decline. It was coal-fire filthy, its buildings black, its private tenancies unregulated. As for the conditions for those migrants who built its infrastructure, I suggest Judah just consult the lyrics of McAlpine’s Fusiliers, the song of the Irish navvies written in the early Sixties. The truth is that London never changes; it always changes.
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