This is London: Life and Death in the World City – Ben Judah

It  was probably one of the last books I bought on my Kindle before the book buying ban and also the last one in my recent non-fiction reading spree. Now I moved on to fiction, again hoping to find something more uplifting, I had the same hopes for non-fiction earlier and no such luck – I liked the books I read a lot but it would be difficult to call them uplifting, as they dealt with death, grief, poverty or getting old…

I was drawn to this book, because despite living in London I always feel I don’t really know this city, I only know my bubble of it, my places, my routes, my parks. This book definitely pushed me outside of my bubble, as Judah writes about immigrant communities in London, and as much as I am an immigrant I don’t have much to do with ‘my’ community. Judah put an extraordinary amount of effort to do the research, he joined homeless Romanians close to Park Lane, he lived in an overcrowded shared house with Eastern European workers, he spent plenty of time with police in Peckham, gang leader in West London, teachers, nurses, prostitutes all over the city.

The city Judah shows us is poor, desperate and deeply unhappy. I don’t think it is a fair description of London as a whole, but it shows the aspect of it that’s often overlooked by luckier Londoners. People that were so desperate in their countries that begging in London seemed a good idea, people coming with great dreams of London being the city of opportunities only to get crushed within first few weeks. Judah started his research because he realized he does not understand the city he lives in anymore, the population structure changes that happened in the last twenty years were on one hand massive, on the other because they happened outside of the ‘bubble’ they were often overlooked until they couldn’t be ignored anymore. Judah describes how waves of incoming immigrants were settling in specific neighborhoods depending on where they came from, how the previous inhabitants of those neighborhoods decided to move to other places, how state and city are not able to create any working strategy to prevent creation of those pockets of poverty.

The other thing this book made me realize is how different groups of immigrants have completely different reasons for coming to London, they all dream about better life, but the life they’re leaving behind varies immensely. He shows London is now an immigrant’s city in both extremes – the poor and the super-rich. I am not necessarily convinced that it has ever been different, perhaps only the scale has changed, but what do I know I’ve only been here six years.

This book made me look at the place I live, somewhere between Greenwich and Deptford, and how it changed in the last six years, and it changed a lot. The pure fact I live here already indicates progressing gentrification. Over the last six years more than ten new developments have been built within 10 min walk from my place, the high street is now a mixture of halal butcher shops, chicken shops and hipster cafes and pubs. Right now it is this good mixture of the new and old, but looking at the speed of changes this won’t last long, it’s too easy commute to Canary Wharf to stay the way it is.

One thing I think Judah missed in his books is showing the positive side of London, I know there is more bad than good, but people in London are often very kind, those small gestures that make your day happen very often, people here often realize we’re all in the same boat, so no need to rock it unnecessarily. That’s why I think his account was very imbalanced, what he shows in his book is not London, at least not all of it. The London Judah shows brings to my mind the quote from Joseph Conrad from his preface to ‘The Secret Agent’: ‘Then the vision of an enormous town presented itself, of a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made might as if indifferent to heaven’s frowns and smiles; a cruel devourer of the world’s light. There was room enough there to place any story, depth enough for any passion, variety enough there for any setting, darkness enough to bury five millions of lives.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @ vkphotospace

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One thought on “This is London: Life and Death in the World City – Ben Judah

  1. That does sound interesting. I spent several years in New Cross Gate and don’t think that will have changed too much still. It was very much a place people came to first when they arrived here.

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