This is London: Life and death in the world city
Church Times Bookshop £17.10
WHAT is London? There is a host of answers, depending on who you are, where you come from, how much money you earn, and what your prospects are.
Ben Judah’s Jewish forebears came to the capital from Eastern Europe, assimilated, and climbed the social ladder. As a 27-year-old Londoner with a First from Oxford, and a background as a foreign correspondent, he turned his attention to his home city. Impatient with detachment and statistics, he decided to experience the place from the bottom up.
This is London bears an evident resemblance to George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. His account is personal, visceral, and heartfelt. Like another (though rural) volume of vernacular record, Akenfield by Ronald Blythe, it gives a voice to those who aren’t often heard. This is anecdotal evidence to the max — crammed with personal testimony.
Judah starts by spending the night with Romanian beggars in a Hyde Park underpass. He goes on to spend time with the — largely immigrant — underclass of Harlesden, Beckton, Peckham, Ilford. . . He talked to cleaners, carers, a (Nigerian-born) policeman, a drug-dealer, prostitutes, labourers, and more.
He does not paint a pretty picture. While he rejects a statistical approach, he nevertheless lards his narrative with some startling figures. Over the past 40 years, the number of white British people living in the city has fallen from 86 per cent to 45 pert cent. There are 600,000 illegal immigrants living there; 96 per cent of all prostitutes and 60 per cent of all carers come from abroad.
A Romanian describes to Judah the tidal wash of the London districts by tube zones, as old immigrant communities, and former working-class and lower-middle-class suburbs, change their complexion: “Zone 1’s being sold to the Russians, and Zone 2’s being bought by the poshos . . . pushing the migrants into white land, that’s why there’s beef.”
But the older, slower process of assimilation and social mobility, Judah observes, is not following a familiar pattern. He is disabused of the “Mo Farah wonder story”. He’s told, “I don’t see it. I see anxiety, I see exhaustion, I see powerlessness. I don’t get no British dream bullshit.”
The latest generations of migrants tend to stick in their tribal ghettos: Poles, Romanians, Afghans, Nigerians, Bangladeshis — each supplied from their own shops, fed from their own restaurants, and entertained by their own satellite-beamed TV.
Judah deliberately offers no evaluation, no prognosis. He turns on the recorder and lets it run, quite often for too long. But he is an outstanding reporter, clearly gifted at gaining people’s confidence. His observation is acute and occasionally poetic. His description of an Old Kent Road night bus rammed with the sleepy multiplicity of the city’s cleaners is unforgettable. The elderly, cab-driving imam who washes dead bodies lives on, too.
This is an almost Dickensian-Hogarthian account of London’s underbelly. It is a true story but not the whole truth. There are other Londons, too, but the torch beam that he shines into these dark corners reveals a multifarious struggle for survival which we need to see. As Ben Judah himself says, “I don’t know if I love the new London, or if it frightens me.”
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a freelance writer and Anglican priest.