This summer has been largely spent in London. Prowling the parks and pavements by day with my kids as we follow my eldest’s incessant demands to catch Pokemon. To say he is addicted is an understatement, but I don’t mind as it gets us out and about. In Holland Park we found Bulbasaurs, while in Ally Pally we found Squirtles. We have found other strange virtual creatures on Hampstead Heath, Primrose Hill and in the Olympic Park in Stratford.
I love this city almost as much as I love my own children. I have lived here for 43 out of my 46 years on this earth and it still has the capacity to suprise me. Shock me even. Which is possibly why I found Ben Judah’s book This is London so fascinating.
The book reminds me of the writing of George Orwell. If you are reading this Ben Judah, that is a BIG COMPLIMENT. I worship the writing of George Orwell – not just the novels but the essays. I love the immediacy and economy of his prose and I tore through Judah’s book much as would tear through writing by Orwell. Get this book and read it. You will not regret it.
Judah’s book contains interviews with recent immigrants and tells the story of multicultural London in their own words. He sleeps with Romanian beggars in the underpass under Hyde Park corner and lives in a doss house in East London with Eastern European builders. He shows how badly we pay and treat immigrants to our country. He speaks to cleaners, carers, dealers and prostitutes – the people who meet the varied needs of London’s population. He is neither sentimental nor critical – the people he meets are not romanticised or demonised. They are just allowed to talk and tell their stories. This Is London does not shy away from speaking to people who could be classed as criminals – it is refreshingly non judgemental.
I found the book especially interesting as I will be back at work on Wednesday teaching students who come from the communities outlined in the book. My students are black Africans from Peckham, Romanians and Poles from East London and Arabs from Kilburn and Edgware Road. I heard their voices in this book – Judah works well to replicate the vocabulary of contemporary London, where Multicultural London English (what he calls ‘street’ and other call ‘ghetto’) has replaced old school Cockney. My students’ parents drive cabs and work night shifts in hospitals. They are the people who make London work, who keep it silently ticking away so that the white middle class population can have what they want when they want – be it a Soy Latte in Starbucks, a night tube or a gramme of coke in a hipster club in Dalston.
However, the book has a fundamental flaw. Conspicuous by their absence in Judah’s book are white working class people, whose numbers plummeted between 2001 and 2011 (the most recent census). Although I loved the book and tore through it, I think this is a weakness. In the area I live in, there are still a significant number of white working class people – often of Irish origin. I would like to hear their voices in this book. We hear what immigrants think of the indigenous white working class – that they are lazy and claim benefits – but we do not hear the other side of the story. We do not hear how traditional working class jobs in light industry and trades have been destroyed by the double whammy of globalisation and automation – though the effects of rising property prices are frequently discussed. I am all for multiculturalism, but my version of multiculturalism also includes white people. I think feelings of being ignored, excluded and left behind fuel the far right and obviously culminated in the recent Brexit vote.
Back in 2004, Michael Collins wrote a fascinating account of white working class culture called The Likes of Us. The book focused on Elephant and Castle, where many generations of his family had grown up. In many ways,the book was an elegy for something that was already dying – I want to re-read it to see how it has stood the test of time. In Judah’s book we are given the impression that white working class London is totally dead. I am not so sure that I totally agree. I would like to see him explore this topic and interview white working class Londoners with the enthusiasm and empathy with which he interviews immigrants. I think it would make for fascinating reading.