29 January 2016

This Is London, by Ben Judah: bringing to life the London we don’t see

By David Patrikarakos

London. Its epithets trip automatically, almost thoughtlessly, off the tongue: financial centre, world city. Go back a few centuries and you find them still: birthplace of modern parliamentary democracy, the city that ended the slave trade. Rich with history, re-imagined countless times in literature, London has squatted in the global consciousness for half a thousand years.

But for reporter Ben Judah these labels have become insufficient to describe what he sees all around him. “I was born in London but I no longer recognize this city,” he writes early on in the book. “A city where at least 55 per cent of people are not ethnically British, nearly 40 per cent were born abroad, and 5 per cent are living illegally in the shadows.”

Judah wants to explore this reconfiguration of London, something he senses but initially doesn’t understand, and his method for doing so is to immerse himself in his home city. As he says: he wants to see everything for himself. The book duly opens at Victoria Station (“Our miserable Ellis Island”) where coaches unload “Paris, Bucharest and Rome”. It is, Judah tells us, “the point at which our society is changing”.

What follows is a descent into the immigrant underbelly of London. The exploration of a city that, as a policeman tells him, is now little more than a “patchwork of ghettos.” He explains:

“Right here is Peckham, you have the Africans, over in Whitechapel we have the Bengalis, further east from there we have the Pakistanis, and west from here in Brixton we have the Jamaicans. I could go on, and on, and on.”

But this policeman is no nativist racist. He is a Nigerian immigrant to London. And his story is the story of London in microcosm – one that Judah tells with exceptional skill and acuity. Arriving here in 1989 the policeman (he is only ever named as such) dreamt of being a businessman, of making money – “he thought he might become a millionaire, or even more: the next big one”. Six months later he was homeless and crying himself to sleep.

But this is London, the city where anything is possible. The policeman managed to find a job as kitchen hand scraping encrusted grease off cauldrons and serving drunken city boys. From there he became – via a stint in a laundry room – a valet in a Chelsea hotel, cleaning up guest-trashed rooms and calming violent prima donnas, under strict instruction to always meet every insult with silence. It was during this time that, perhaps unsurprisingly, “the valet-boy began to fantasize about handcuffing people”.

Then: his big break. The police, he was told, were looking for black recruits and he applied, and applied. Eventually he made it. And so he said goodbye to saying good morning to dyspeptic drunks and exchanged the uniform of a valet for that of a policeman. “London can crush you,” he says, “Or London can transform you. You can rise up here.”

The book is built on stories like this and Judah weaves them together expertly to produce the clearest and most vivid picture of contemporary London written so far this century. It is a London where cityscape meets dreamscape as Judah enters the vertiginous world of Roma fiddlers and Bulgarian beggars and Polish builders that lies beneath the city’s gilded surface of Mayfair bars and boutique hotels.

And he meets them all: Prince, Bright Eyes, The Lawyer, The Fiddler, the men and women trying to survive on London’s streets, with their bad English and unyielding desperation, soaked in quiet suffering and immigrant demotic.

Judah’s reporter’s eye stores almost everything he sees – and what he sees he writes. He spits out rapid-fire sentences like a sten gun. The accretion of layer upon layer of detail brings London viscerally alive to the reader – the London that is all around us that we don’t see. But Judah sees it: From the African tube workers who rise before dawn to ease our passage into work to the eastern European prostitutes who limply congregate on the gloomy streets of Edmonton, he brings the faceless to the fore. In so doing he leads the reader to a final understanding of what London has become: a truly international city, whose very fabric has been altered by the peripatetic trends of globalisation.

Judah never judges; he merely records. He allows modern London to speak for itself – and the book is all the better for it. The overall result is a considerable work of literary non-fiction that is also of significant political and cultural importance. In this book, the reader will find the veneer of 21st century London stripped away to reveal its kaleidoscopic parts, and in Judah 21st century London has found a chronicler worthy of Orwell.

This is London: Life and Death in the World City was first published on 28th January 2016 by Picador, £15.99, hardback

David Patrikarakos is the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State.