This Isn’t London: Some Thoughts on This is London

I left London over ten years ago. Each time I’ve been back, once or sometimes twice a year, I’ve left with the feeling that the city has changed dramatically, certainly more than during the 25 years I lived there. The journalist Ben Judah had a similar feeling, inspiring him to write This is London, an examination of how the city has changed as a result of immigration: today minorities make up more than 55 percent of the city’s population; between 1971 and 2011 the white British share of London’s population fell from 86 to 45 percent.

Judah, though “doesn’t trust statistics”. He has to see everything for himself. So he goes out into the city, from Victoria Coach Station to Peckham, from Kensington to Ilford, meeting the builders, beggars, policemen and prostitutes (and others) who make up the new city. Some of these encounters take the form of regular interviews, while others see Judah bunking down for the night in a tunnel with a group of Roma, spending a day or two working on a building site for a Pole, or taking up residence in a doss house for migrant workers.

The encounters Judah describes are often fascinating. An Afghan butcher in Neasden talking about his Jewish landlord with surprised affection (“The Jew has a soft spot for them, he is a cockney feller, and he calls them the lads”), a Polish builder regretfully explaining that his “job is to destroy London” (“The lovely things I rip out…the mouldings, the wallpapers, the carved old basins”), a Pakistani in Peckham explaining racial tensions between Asians and Africans (“They [Africans] think they [Asians] are more racist than the whites”). This is multiculturalism through the eyes of the people who actually put the multi into the cultural, and have no time to discuss its benefits, because they are too busy competing with one another for low-paying jobs.

Judah captures their views well. But I was left with an uncomfortable feeling, as if he was exploiting them. “I know he wants to leave,” he writes about the Roma violinist he corners in the book’s first few pages, “but I won’t let him. I have power over him for a few seconds. And I want him to speak.” Later, sat in a car with two prostitutes, he speculates that they would rather he “fucked them both — or hit them” than talk about the murder of their friend. “But I don’t care. And I gesture. I want you to talk now.”

This aggression is occasionally reflected in the descriptions of the people he meets, which in places sounds like something one might expect to read in an England First newspaper. For example, the two prostitutes: “These two faces are framed in my mirror. The sunken, frightened, long face of Loredana, who talks so brokenly, her black, greasy hair tied as tightly as can be to her skull. And I keep noticing, my eyes fixed into the mirror, how the older whore keeps looking to her left, at the round, pale peasant child-face, next to her in the maladjusted wig, whose eyes keep rolling up slightly into her head, whose lips keep curling with such a strange, grimacing smile. And with, a gurgle, she speaks.” He wants to convey their misery, but this description seems excessive, and is also contradicted by the accompanying photos (the images in the book are excellent, although a map would have been beneficial). Elsewhere he is even less subtle: “Prince turns to the Old Man scrunched up next to him. He wears a sheepskin kaftan and has a gnarled and gullied face of sharp points and missing teeth. His flaking jaw hangs leathery and covered in black and white stubble. His thick lips hang in an exhausted, degenerating way.” I imagine this to be the kind of stuff people wrote about Jewish migrants coming to London in the late nineteenth century.

Judah set out to meet these people because he doesn’t trust statistics, but statistics litter the book, and nowhere does he contradict them. And, despite stating that he needs to record successes and he needs to record failures, almost every encounter is depressing. Given the problems Britain has faced over the last few years, I wasn’t expecting a cheery book, but given the sheer number of people coming to London, and given the statistics documenting how much they’re contributing to the economy, it seems odd that there is nobody to lighten the gloom, although in writing this I am conscious of what one Romanian tells Judah: “Now don’t you pull your fucking Jewish grandparents on me…and be like, “Oh but it’s the same,” coz it’s not.” Still, to use a word that has been particularly contested in British politics over the last few years, there is a strange absence of aspiration.

The pessimism of Judah’s interviewees is matched by the bleakness with which he describes the city. These descriptions are littered with cliches: “blank stares”, “thundering traffic” and “gleaming plastic spaces”, to give three examples. Elsewhere, he tries hard to present an original vision of London, but overwriting obscures what he is trying to show us. “The train to Catford puffs with its pistons to a stop at London Bridge. These platforms of long and curving concrete are washed in a harsh and functional light. This is a whiteness that bleaches out our make-up and brings out the lines in a human face. Commuters are jostling as the blazers and puffas are sucked into the battered carriage. I catch a glimpse of rising glass. The Shard. The glinting panes reach up, unlit, and dark, broken by some floors ringing it with light, over the heave of the stressed and tender.” Why can’t the train just come to a stop? And why the predictable remarks linking the modern city to dehumanization? Are commuters really “sucked” into train carriages? What exactly is the “heave of the stressed and tender” and what does it really have to do with The Shard?

When he doesn’t try too hard and when he doesn’t insert himself obtrusively into the exchanges, there are some fascinating insights and observations: Shepherd’s Bush common as a “dystopian mockery of an English country green”, Polish builders as the “Norman Tebbit fantasy of the working class”, East London’s Zone 3 as a “Parisian banlieue”. And there are some moving, uncluttered passages, for example: “The longer I spend in the halfway house the more I realize it is falling to pieces: the paint peels, black and white, from the rotten window frames, and shoved into the cracks are flimsy pieces of foam that make no difference to the whistling draughts that creep into the room, cracking the builders’ voices, and coughing out in the night.” This is a sharp insight that helps us understand why a doss house would be such a terrible place to live in; it does not rely on Judah’s ideas, merely his powers of observation.

The strongest chapter is the final one, Lea Bridge Road, in which Judah meets Haiji, who washes dead Muslims before they are buried. Here the writing takes a distinctly novelistic turn, as Judah recedes into the background and listens. “The bodies they are telling me they were fighting…and that he was mentally upset always, and his head put into a wall, that he was living saying, “I have done a mistake…I have to go back.” They are saying…sometimes their work problem, sometimes their finance problem, sometimes he make some little mistake…and the police catch him. A lot of different things they tell me in the washing time.” It is the book’s most powerful chapter, but it still jars, because it feels too contrived, to end so morbidly. It is as if Judah wants to shock and depress us into accepting his vision of a London awash with misery, but beyond the fascinating exchanges there is not enough reflection to convince us that he has got the city right. This is London isn’t London, not by a long shot, even if, despite its hubris, there is still much to commend it.