Ben Judah’s new book This Is London is an exhilarating account of the British capital as a nerve centre of global culture and of a metropolis transformed by the effects of mass immigration.
Judah embeds himself with Roma beggars in Hyde Park, Romanians labourers in a North Circular doss house, and African ‘pickers’ (cleaners) slogging through the late shift on the Tube. He “doesn’t trust statistics” and so insists on soaking these experiences in at first hand. His writing is visceral, and at its best echoes the immersive style of the great Polish reporter and author Ryszard Kapuściński.
Judah is a foreign correspondent by training and approaches London with a foreign correspondent’s curiosity. The portrait he develops of the city, drawn largely from interviews he has conducted with members of its migrant under and upper classes, is surprisingly bleak.
Few of his interviewees lead happy lives. In Knightsbridge, he meets Filipina housemaids struggling to escape oppressive employers. In Mayfair, he speaks to the daughter of a wealthy Arab family who has been left to rattle around a vast Berkeley Square mansion. On Fore Street near the Barbican, he talks to an Eastern European sex worker frightened of her violent, erratic clients.
Judah’s London is sharply divided along ethnic lines. There is an Afghan London, a Nigerian London, a Somali London, and a fading but persistent Irish London. Each nationality keeps to its designated enclave. Shepard’s Bush is run by the Caribbean gangs, while some schools in Stratford are populated almost exclusively by the children of recent Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants.
Efforts at cultural integration have been abandoned and, as class inequalities deepen, the currents of racial animosity that have always murmured through the city are intensifying. “East London’s Zone 3 is turning into a Parisan banlieue,” Judah writes. “Poverty pushed to edges … The DLR dream brochure [has] turned into a place less than 25 per cent white British … grittier types take to wearing England football shirts at every occasion.”
If this makes Judah sound like a critic of immigration, it isn’t meant to. He treats the people he writes about with great sensitivity and seems more thrilled than depressed by the chaotic ethnic jumble modern London has become.
The final two chapters are perhaps the most arresting. They recount the stories of Femi, a zero-hours hospital orderly in Brixton, and Hajji, who volunteers at a Lea Bridge Road mosque preparing bodies for burial in accordance with Islamic ritual.
Femi arrived in Britain from Nigeria on a student visa and dreams one day of graduating into professional London: “Femi wants to work in an office. He wants to sit back on a swivel chair, and say things like, ‘I’m in a meeting.’ Femi has always thought about offices. He thought about offices as he stacked up piles of plastic saucers at his mother’s market stall [and] as he watched her sweat, swear and screech at the top of her voice that hers were the cheapest.”
Hajji, meanwhile, faints every time he is presented with the corpse of someone who has died recently on the Tube lines: “The feet and the hands are gone, severed off. There are huge gashes of ripped flesh into the broken torso. He begs the family not to come in. He blocks the doors, pleading, ‘Do not see this body.’ But they always force him. ‘Believe me . . . When you hear the sisters scream you never forget it.’”
Despite superb, vivd passages such as these, the book suffers from one sizeable flaw: Judah spends so much time constructing an elaborate picture of London as a world city that he forgets it is also a British one. The financial services industry, Westminster and Whitehall, the network of elite private schools and universities that produce such a disproportionate share of Britain’s political leaders – none of these feature in Judah’s sweeping profile of the UK capital.
This omission is bound to alienate readers elsewhere in the UK who have felt the rough edge of an economy too heavily leveraged on the Square Mile and of a political system too tightly controlled by SW1 policy-makers. London can’t be removed from its British context any more than Belfast or Edinburgh can. Any record of the city that overlooks its dominant status within the UK is ultimately incomplete.
Nonetheless, This Is London is an important, unflinching piece of reportage. Judah digs deep into parts of London that less a adventurous journalist would avoid, unearthing some of the many tragic narratives shaping a city at the turbulent forefront of globalisation.
This article is a review of This Is London: Life And Death In The World City by Ben Judah.