This book has been looking at me for months, sitting on the shelf in an accusing position, in the stack received during and since Christmas and somehow not yet read, because I knew full well it would not be a nice read, not be comforting, not be bedtime reading, not be reading I could prop open one-handed and munch lunch to. This is London would be hardcore guilt-inducing, white liberal middle-class agony-inducing because it would be full of the grimy lives of the crushed poor who I can’t do anything to help. I knew it would be awful, though I still wanted to read it. This is London needs to be read, if you want to know about, acknowledge, take a fragment of responsibility for, life in London today, and why there are so many people trapped in misery.
It wasn’t awful at all: it was bloody marvellous. Ben Judah’s achievement is not so much finding the people to talk to, as transmuting their stories into parables of modern slavery and brutal, mindless drudgery inflicted on one set of humans by others. It is a marvel that he sorted these stories out, followed trails and links to find other stories, and found ways to let the anonymised speak and the hidden people record their voices.
The cover of the book trumpets plaudits from the big Tory newspapers: ‘astonishing’ (certainly is, but not if you’ve ever seen a Tube worker trudge in exhaustion down the rails at night, and wondered about their job). ‘Revelatory’ (yes, to those who don’t live near the depots where the jobless and paperless wait for labouring jobs that pay pennies, sometimes nothing). ‘Eye-opening’ (for Middle England, yes, I bet it was eye-opening: I wonder how many broadsheet readers actually bought the book).
This is London tells stories of migrants who came and still come to London, and get trapped in jobs that pay little, or nothing, and have to live in the slums of Zone Five and beyond. He begins with the most familiar of London’s poor, the Roma beggars who inhabit Tube tunnels near Hyde Park Corner, the girls and women in long skirts and head scarves, the men carrying elderly musical instruments and ironed-in expressions from squinting at sun and wind. Their crops have failed, or they’ve lost their jobs, or there are no jobs, so they’ve left their children in Romania to beg in London for brutal gangmasters. They’re slaves, and they cannot be rescued, because if the money doesn’t reach their owners, their children are hostages.
Judah tells stories that break through the indifference barrier, when arrival in Britain is the triumphant happy ending after a torturous journey from Afghanistan. Here the money side seemed a little more controllable, with the traffickers being paid when each successful stage in the odyssey has been completed. But Shaifullah still loves the girl in his home village whom he will never be allowed to marry, since she has been married off to someone else, and so his glorious happy future in London, to make a life that no-one in his village could have imagined (running a cheap corner shop on a grotty north London highway) is unhappy.
Polish labourers come from no prospects, make money and drink it, and smash things and people up. Polish and Romanian prostitutes are torpedoed with drugs. They’re stuck, everybody is stuck in this invisible migrant underworld. Judah makes us see the people who will never get away, or who have no means of moving from where they are. So much endurance against the conditions that grind everybody down: this is miraculous and a marvel, and why this book is so readable.
The refrain throughout the book is that the English are leaving, there is no-one indigenous left on the Old Kent Road, no Cockneys in the Elephant and Castle. This shouldn’t be a problem, since Londoners have always been migrants. But ownership is leaving, that’s what really causes problems. Ownership of a house, a flat, a room, a bed, isn’t possible if you earn barely anything. Renting out four bunk-beds in rotation in a crumbling nineteenth-century north London terrace front room, just to make the rent, that’s Depression-era economics. In the 1930s there was a very fine line between a lodging-house and a doss-house, and beds in the living-room was one of the indicators.
Secret doss-houses for migrants cater for different nationalities, and different trades. Judah’s ability to pass as Russian or Romanian got him into these places. It’s a marvel that he didn’t get beaten up (maybe he did, but he doesn’t mention it). He mentions his notebook a lot (when posing as a beggar he got screamed at by a drunk woman for owning a Moleskine). I wondered how he recorded everything on his phone, and how he managed to hang onto it, how not to get into fights, or be attacked by pimps when he tried talking to prostitutes.
It isn’t all physical endurance. Mental and emotional endurance is just as draining. The washer of bodies at the mosque morgue, and the care worker who washes the bodies of the old men with dementia, both do their appointed duties with compassion and attention: they shine like angels among the morass of misery in the surrounding pages. There is institutional endurance, from the duty psychiatrist who sees the city’s mental health passing through his hands. The policeman saw a baby roasted by its naked psychotic mother. The teacher who sees her girls in hijabs getting married off at fifteen and disappearing from school, and the boys who turn to drug-dealing at twelve.
Judah makes sure we see the infiltration of drugs and how their traffic determines a particular kind of misery. The Notting Hill drugs baron is an empty voice, long lost inside his appalling empire of little boys on bikes selling packets to rich boys. There is a curious Knightsbridge voice, of a rich London girl who hangs out with the Saudi teenagers sent or brought over for the season, who have no occupation except spending money until they are married. The Filipinas are the anonymised mass of women who rejoiced when they were brought to London by their Saudi and other hyper-rich Middle-Eastern owners as domestic slaves, because in London they can escape. Judah spends afternoons in the safe house of their organiser, eating their cakes and hearing the stories of the babies they miss, the madams they don’t miss, and the housework they still do, for better owners, or employers.
Judah shows us an extraordinary world, under our feet and behind the curtains and doors we barely notice. It is marvellous, full of marvels, and desperately true.
Ben Judah, This is London (Picador 1916), ISBN 978-1-4472-7627-2, £9.99