Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book review: This is London by Ben Judah


 
“It’s like this: Russian and Ukrainian people hate Polish and Lithuanian people. Eastern Europe peoples hate Indian people. Everybody hates the black people. Whites hate everyone . . . That’s just the way it is.” 


This book is brave and has a story to tell. In the tradition of those journalists who go out there and live the story Judah has put himself into this story sleeping rough with Romanians, dossing down with Latvian builders and getting to know African immigrants struggling on zero hour contracts.

Throughout the book, which takes the reader on a tour of an unknown London, facts and figures are given to back up a picture of a City that in some areas is now dominated by a group of Londoners that would be barely recognisable to most of those who lived here just a couple of decades ago.

What has changed is that the poor white working class communities have left areas of London to be replaced by a mixture of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and beyond that have made the likes of the tube station at Hyde Park and Barking their own as they cling onto a perilous existence.

The message that came out of the book is that London has changed, perhaps permanently, and is now no longer a place that even those living here can quite understand. I have seen some of the changes in nearby Woolwich, which gets a very brief mention, and have started to feel that the London I started to know when I was a student here has maybe gone.

Because Judah speaks to drug dealers, prostitutes and those on the fringes there is a sense of danger often. A sense that the underworld is just waiting for those sitting in the big houses to slip up and then they will come and take them. Maybe that was my feeling but after a while I did start to wonder what the message was coming from this book.

If it is that London has changed and all sorts of invisible people now live here then that came across fairly quickly. It did not need to be so exhaustive. But if it was to try and convey a sense of London from West to East, North to South, changing with traditional Londoners heading for the hills then it also did that.

Maybe the readings of this book would differ if you lived in or out of the capital but for me there was almost a moment of giving up and wondering if it was worth staying here. If it has got so bad then why not just pack the bags and exit like so many others appear to?

London is changing and this book provides a snapshot of what is going on. But just like some of those other great exposes the world remains fluid and this is already becoming history. It's important to recognise that London is so mixed, not just in races but in terms of opportunities, but some of the characters here will not stay as permanent fixtures.

You already sense that this is a book written pre-Brexit and the sense of tension at the prospect of more Romanians and Eastern Europeans coming into the capital is one that is already changing. The Polish builders who have lived opposite me for 15 years are packing up and leaving and the Romanian family at the end of the street have sold their house and are moving on.

Other groups will come into replace them and it is perhaps as a snapshot of an ever changing City that this book will take its place alongside other records of the past as a guide to what it once looked like.

Judah has guts and can write with pace and in a way that challenges the reader to open their eyes that bit wider to see what is often not seen. If this can make some of the invisible visible then it will have done its job.
 

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