Book Review from the June 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
'This Is London: Life and Death in the World City'. By Ben Judah, Picador. 2016.
This is a sad, insightful and ultimately haunting insider account of life in London by a writer who can really write. It is a picture of what life is truly like for hundreds of thousands of London’s current inhabitants by someone determined to identify their struggles and recount their lives – people who most of us know are there, but perhaps never quite get to know. The Romanian beggars working for gangs to pay off their debts in the subways under Hyde Park Corner, the Mayfair Arab princess out of her mind on skunk most days because her every move is controlled by her father (even remotely via his security team), the itinerant Polish builders of Beckton creating the ‘dig down’ basement flats for the rich in Knightsbridge, the East European and Latin American street walkers of Ilford Lane, ever fearful of the next attack from a punter.
Judah’s opening lines tell us his motivation: ‘I have to see everything for myself. I don’t trust statistics. I don’t trust columnists. I don’t trust self-appointed spokesmen. I have to make up my own mind. This is why I am shivering again, in Victoria Coach station, at 6 am.’
By spending months trying to uncover the ‘other side’ of London to the one the tourists see, he has managed to create a fascinating and compelling book based on his experiences of the street. The facts are clear – as few as 45 percent of Londoners now are ‘white British’ and over a third have been born abroad. But this is not a UKIP manifesto in disguise, it is book that focuses on the lives of real people who are now more genuinely representative of those scraping a living in ‘the world city’ than the occupants of the glossy colour supplements and property magazines. These are the 95 percent of cleaners working for Transport for London who are immigrants, doing the job that others won’t do or can’t. The occupants of Zones 3 and 4 who have been pushed by the global elite out of central London – the traditional first home to UK immigrants – into what were once mainly white working class suburbs full of semis and terraces. This is where multi-occupancy now reigns courtesy of buy-to-let landlords, and life is precarious and often dangerous – the Edmontons and Leytons of this world, the Harlesdens and Neasdens. This is the world of pounds shops, ‘cash converters’, mobile phone un-locking, and pubs now converted into African churches, of betting shops, and fried chicken and kebabs.
You will have sensed this not an uplifting read. Some of the laziest racism, for instance, is to be found among poor, black evangelical Christians in Peckham, ever suspicious of the Asian shopkeepers they think fleece them at every turn. And when you have nothing, materialism and competition can be brutish enough and a descent to drink, drugs and desperate gambling close around the corner.
It is partly because of situations like this that socialists are socialists – not because of some abstract moral pity for those less fortunate, but because the society we live in is based on the need to keep us insecure and fearful, with a descent into the ‘underclass’ or ‘precariat’ all too vivid a misfortune for those who struggle every day in the grandly- named ‘market economy’.