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.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book review: The Fall of the House of FIFA by David Conn

“We who have loved football all our lives do not want to believe that those who run the game, on their manifestos of doing good, are this corrupt and rotten,  and so marinated in greed.”

When a World Cup is awarded to Qatar, a country without any real record of football and a climate that makes playing it in the summer almost impossible, you sense that something in the global game is not right.

This book unpicks the story of the spread of corruption that spread across FIFA over decades and meant that most of the organisation's top representatives were making a side income from back handers and bribes. Against a backdrop of a FBI investigation and revelations that exposed the depth of the corruption this book reveals that the culture of corruption has long been steeped in the organisation.

If you had to point the finger of blame at anyone other than the individuals involved, and some of those like Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner are almost cartoonish in their villainy, then it would have to be television. The arrival of TV rights and the ever increasing sums of money that has gone with it have created the opportunity for corruption.

The mixture of sponsorship and TV rights were sources of income that would be paid to be involved and film World Cups but there was also the opportunity for corruption to come as a result of the structure of FIFA. With individuals holding influence over the votes for World Cup host cities and the President role there were always going to be chances that their decisions at the ballot box could be purchased.

Conn unravels a story that sadly got more depressing the deeper he went into it. The fact that Sepp Blatter appears to be able to shake-off the worst of the corruption allegations makes up very little for the numerous country FIFA bosses who did admit to taking bribes.

The suggestion that a new president at FIFA has introduced a fresh broom and a chance for the organisation to put the past behind it is also pretty well destroyed by Conn revealing the greed over salary that Blatter's successor displayed.

FIFA also appears to have been fairly consistent at neutering any investigations and attempts to clean up the organisation and stem the excesses of the past.

Reading this is not always easy because it clearly quotes a lot of legal documents and in order to make sure it does not fall foul of the lawyers keeps the text and the accusations very clear and dry. But there is enough drama here to make it keep you wanting to read on until the end.

If you love football then this book will depress you. It should because the corruption has been excessive and the way the game has been run has been a disappointment. But if you love football then there is also the ray of hope that even with some of these crooks running the game the sport still manages to move people all over the world.

My love of the game is becoming harder to maintain because of the influence of money and the billions pumped in by TV rights is also something that echoes in the Premier League. It's all a long way from kicking a ball around in the back yard and a few more books like this and maybe I too will become like to grey hairs in the crowd moaning about the good old days when everything seemed more simple. The tragedy is that as the case of FIFA shows you have to go back quite a way to find any good old days.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book review: Estuary Out from London to the Sea by Rachel Lichtenstein

This book called out to me from the London section shelves at Camden Lock Books and appealed because the Estuary is a part of London I have driven over and seen but not learnt too much about.

Everytime I get to experience the joy of Ikea over at Lakeside I travel back on the M25 and the bridhe over the river with views of commercial ships, It always stirs up thoughts about the river and my lack of experience wandering along its banks further East than Woolwich.

This book starts as a tale of artists enjoying the Thames from different perspectives, with the author joined by film makers, musicians and other artists. Those few days on the Thames sparks Lichtenstein's interest in delving further.

She lives in Leigh-On-Sea so already has a connection with the Thames, which also goes back through her family. That sense of families living and often earning a living from the sea is a constant theme. She meets fishermen, sailors and eccentrics that have been drawn to remote islands and sea forts. Throughout the book there are photographs that help share in the experiences she is describing.

But this is not just an account of various exhibitions along the coast and onto the water. There is a real sense of history flowing here with the past wrecks having a story along with the Second World War sea forts and defences. This is a river that continues to evolve and the controversial London Gateway Port is the latest change and threat to the river. The deep dredging needed to help the massive container ships get to the port has caused ripples to be felt in the ecosystems of the river and those that work with them.

From the comfort of an arm chair you get to meet some of the characters of this estuarial world and when Lichtenstein describes the river there is a real sense of danger. her final expedition includes being stranded on a sand bank and the weather, sense of historical precedent for what could happen and the brilliant descriptions of the sea conditions take this book above a mere travel journal.

To many people the estuary is an alien world. It is at the meeting point of river and sea and it is a middle ground that many overlook as they travel one way or the other. But it is populated by people that have stories to tell and although there is a sense that in many cases their ways of life are becoming restoration projects there is still hope.

The river that has supported London for so long continues to do so and although the future is not clear the book does end with a sense that the estuary will adapt and more chapters in its story are going to come.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Book review: All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook

Every time I have an appointment at Moorfields for my eyes I like to pop into Camden Lock Books at Old Street tube station if I get the chance. I have to go before the appointment because afterwards, once the drops have been put in, vision is not that clear and it's slightly pointless trying to squint at book spines.

One of the many things that is good about Camden Lock Bookshop is the section of books it has on London. I tend to hover there looking for something that will provide me with more knowledge or stir greater interest in the City I work and live in.

My eyes were drawn to one book on the London shelf,  Estuary: Out from London to the Sea by Rachel Lichtenstein. I headed over to the till to pay and one of the promoted books was All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook. The cover blurb and thumbs up from Iain Sinclair were enough to make me buy it on impulse.

In many ways there are two stories being told here. The first is the one contained in the book and the other is about the author. Seabrook appears to have died just a few years after publication. Further research indicates it was a heart attack that took him but he is a shadow over the book leaving unanswered questions.

He starts a trip through some of the seaside town of Kent with reference to some of the literary, political and film stars of the past that were associated with the different towns. So you get Dickens on Rochester and Moseley on Broadstairs. You end with Charles Hawtrey the Carry On star in Deal.

But this is not just a normal trip down memory lane. There is a sense that place influenced person and the same factors are still at work today.

As he retraces the 39 Steps and John Buchan the same sense of secrets, dangers and plots oozes through modern day Broadstairs where buildings are off limits and neighbours spy on strangers.

As he goes through Kent there are moments that made me laugh having been to some of these towns and his descriptions of Rochester and Chatham were sharp.

"8 June 1870, the date of Dicken's own death, is where Rochester's history officially ends..."

"Chatham is a long time dead, killed off on 31 March 1984 when the Royal Navy, a presence for more than four hundred years, pulled out of the dockyard."

By the end there is a feeling that Seabrook himself has become immersed in the story. The devils that he has described, from mad painters and fascists, have caught up with him and he is being pursued by them. I felt there was a suggestion by the end he had even become one of them. Would people be talking of him in the future in the way he had described some writers of he past.

Of all the aspects of this book the way he described a lost world around the time of the 1950s was the one I found most interesting. The Empire was dwindling and those that lived literally on the edges of British society were forced to return to a place that they could not really call 'home'.

Glad I did pick this up and it will probably lead me into Seabrook's other book about the 60s murderer in West London, Jack the Stripper. He tees it up towards the end of this book with some overlap that acts as a warm up for that other work.

Now though it's time to turn to Estuary before I get the call to head back to Moorfields and my next check up.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Book review: Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

"Psychogeography: The study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals," definition from the International Situationiste movement.

This is a useful guide to an idea that is a much literary these days as it was originally political.

With roots in the works of Defoe, with his plague year trawl through London, and Blake's thoughts about London and Jerusalem, the idea of charting and reacting to an environment went political with the situationist movement in the 50s and 60s. Figures like Guy Debord set about defining psychogeography and underlining the idea of people using it as a tool to find their own space, to create something new.

But in a modern world which seems to work against the pedestrian it has become less about trying to change the environment than sharing a reaction to it.

That's not to say the current psychogeographers do not bemoan modern planning and Sinclair was particularly vocal about the development of the Olympic Park and there has been plenty of criticism of the way Thatcher changed communities during her time in office.

But as Michel de Certeau noted in the 80s things had started to change and even experiencing the environment was becoming a varied experience.

Voyeurs look down from the sky scrapers and walkers are down below. Psychogeography is about giving the emphasis back to the walkers. The vouyeur loses the individual and sees the city as a homogeneous whole.

"Their story begins on ground level, with footsteps," writes de Certeau.

Technology is working against the walker surveillance and closed areas etc as a result the novelist and poet not the psychogeographer who is able to capture the emotions of a city.

London has again become the centre with JG Ballard, Iain Sinclair and others.

Walking is again being seen as a tool for the writer. If someone wants to immerse themselves in the city then they need to do it on foot.

My only concern, which isn't dealt with in the book, is that not only has modern technology made it harder for the modern psychogeographers physically getting in touch with the ground but also in terms of having an open mind.

One of the themes of the book, whether it be about London, Paris or New York, is that psychogeographers can somehow find secret parts of the city and unlock hidden truths.

In the age of social media I find it hard to believe that rose secrets would remain so for very long or that it would be possible to walk to a destination keeping an open mind to allow the feelings it sparks to be felt genuinely.

In summary this is a very useful guide to the main ideas and people involved with psychogeography. Very interesting for anyone who has read Ballard, Sinclair, ackroyd or has an interest in major cities and a passion for walking in them.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Book review: Dottings of a Dosser by Howard Goldsmid

I have been reading The Worst Street in London by Fiona Rule, which is about Dorset Street in the Spitafields area.

One of the main reasons why that street and the neighbouring area went downhill in the Victorian times and became such a place linked with vice, poverty and crime was because of the lodging houses that dotted Dorset Street.

Lodging houses were places where people that could not afford weekly rent could pay just a few pence for a night's lodging. They were desperate folk that spent their waking hours trying to scrape together the money for the night. In theory there were rules that governed just how these lodging houses were run, but in reality people were packed in to foul smelling rooms so landlords could maximise their takings.

In an effort to get a glimpse of what this world was like I discovered the useful Dottings of a Dosser, which saw Howard Goldsmid go undercover to find out what these places were like.

Dressed in his tramp gear the 19 year old Goldsmid bravely set out to share his experiences of spending some nights in the most notorious lodging houses.

The lodging house is not just about the beds lined up next to each other in a stuffy room but starts downstairs in the communal kitchen area. Here the characters emerge with drunken couples fighting, old men sharing their survival wisdom and shocking tales of families struggling with infants in that environment.

Goldsmid rarely lasts more than until the early hours in rooms that are so stuffy and toxic as a result of the foul smelling drunken men that you can really sense the terrible atmosphere in those places. There is one room where his desperation to open the window and breath in fresh air is tangible.

The upshot of his adventure is that he concludes that the law is failing because it is not being observed and enforced. He also warns that people in that situation will surely not stand for it for ever and fears there could be a revolution.

The language is of its time and the references are in the context of the 1880s and the author would have expected the audience to have known those. But it is very readable. The decision he makes to go to different parts of London make sure that any sense of repetition is avoided.

This is an ideal companion to any reading into the state of the East End in the 1880s. It provides a first hand account of a real world that is far more shocking than fiction.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Book review: The Ghost Map - Steven Johnson

Last year I enjoyed Steven Johnson's series about where do great ideas come from- How we got to now, which was shown on the BBC and so already had an idea of who he was when I saw his name on the spine of this book.

Johnson is fascinated about how great ideas come to fruition and is a keen advocate of the theory that the big breakthroughs often come on the back of smaller ones. the concept of a single genius enjoying their light bulb moment is more of a fiction.

The same is here with it taking the efforts of John Snow and Rev Henry Whitehead to crack the cause of the cholera epidemic that ran through Soho in 1854.

Most people have a rough idea of what happened with Snow discovering that it was the drinking water that was the source of the disease and getting the pump shut off that had been spreading cholera.

But getting to that point took a long time and Snow was going against the consensus that diseases like Cholera were airborne.

What clinched the argument for Snow was his dedication in mapping the spread of the disease and finding the Broad Street pump had been the common link. But it also took the efforts of Whitehead, who initially disagreed with Snow and set out to disprove his theory. As he worked hard to counter the waterborne theory he managed to reinforce it by knocking down his own objections. It was Whitehead who found the original cholera case and traced how it found its way into the water supply.

The legacy of Snow's efforts were profound not just in the sense of linking cholera to water supply but also the way he mapped the spread of the disease. His Ghost Map is something that has been mimicked ever since and helped change the way scientists visualise data.

This is a story of the hard working hero plodding around the streets of Soho after working all day as a doctor fighting the establishment to find the real cause of the cholera outbreak.

It is a story well told but my only criticism is the sense of repetition of the main arguments. I got it the first time but there seems to be a fear from the author that unless he really spells it out the main points might be missed.

But that is a minor criticism because overall this book manages not only to share the story of what happened in 1854 but also the legacy. Snow's techniques combined with the internet, social media and the latest mapping techniques are being used right now to save lives. That is a profound legacy that has lasted well beyond the original cholera outbreak.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

I must confess I have not quite finished this book but wanted to get some of my thoughts down about it before I forgot them.

Psychogeorgraphy is something that anyone who has read Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd will be familiar with as it infuses their ideas of the history and development of London. But what exactly is it is perhaps something that is worth looking at on its own.

If geography describes nature and the physical environment then psycho geography describes the emotional reaction to that environment. The best way to experience it is on foot walking and sensing the different areas.

That's why Sinclair is such closely associated with it. Most of his books involve waking through an environment and then sharing observations and reactions to that space.

The ley lines stuff is more new age and had been largely forgotten until a 70s revival. The original theory related to the countryside and not so much to the urban environment. Ackroyd has picked up on this idea in London. Sinclair raised the idea Hawksmoor churches were on ley lines and there is some hidden force governing the development of certain areas of the capital.

What appeals most perhaps is the idea that a city can have different emotions - sad, happy, stressed etc -  and if you are prepared to walk through with an open mind and a critical eye then those secrets are ther to be unlocked.

Will post a fuller review when I get to the finish.