Ben Judah feels like a stranger in his native London

Following in the steps of Orwell, Judah reports on the desperate circumstances of the city’s (mainly immigrant) down-and-outs

6 February 2016

9:00 AM

6 February 2016

9:00 AM

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

Picador, pp.424, £18.99, ISBN: 9781447272441

‘I was born in London,’ Ben Judah tells us early in this vivid portrait of Britain’s capital, ‘but I no longer recognise the city.’ London has become a building site where dirty money is converted into gleaming blocks of bullion. The smartest parts of town are lined with empty houses owned by foreign plutocrats, and London’s spirit is embodied not so much by the bearded hipster brewing your £3 cup of coffee as by the Shard, a soaring monument to wealth and inequality.

Judah isn’t all that interested in the well-shod hirelings who lubricate this shiny capitalism. We’re halfway into the book before we encounter anyone who could be described as privileged (other than the widely-travelled, Oxford-educated Judah). Then it’s Nahla, a bored Egyptian who introduces him to a world of expensive nightclubs where rich young men from the Middle East sit surrounded by glinting champagne bottles. Later, he traipses along the King’s Road and observes the red-trousered swells lolloping towards Fulham — ‘a ghetto of signet rings’.

But mostly he focuses on the ‘immigrant city’ — the third of London’s population that was born abroad — and especially its paupers, earnest strivers and petty crims. The book’s cast consists of prostitutes and their patrons, pleading beggars and crack addicts rummaging in bins, jaundiced social workers and police officers dishing up heavily caffeinated insights. There are walk-on parts for loafers and gamblers, chatty cleaners and solemn imams. We see maids from the Philippines, ironing their master’s 40 new polo shirts, and Vietnamese gangs furtively wrapping little parcels of skunk. Judah mixes with builders from Poland and Lithuania who laugh at the English propensity for wasting their wage packets in the pub (rather than loading up with cans at the corner shop and necking them in the park), and he notices the Muslim girls who go to school carrying two bags, removing their hijabs and putting on make-up the moment they arrive.

Unsure whether to be alarmed or excited by London’s new flavours, Judah noses around its grubby highways and unfamiliar suburbs — Neasden, Catford, Plaistow. He listens and assiduously takes notes, waiting for golden epigrams to drop from the lips of the chancers and mendicants he encounters. It’s an avocation that demands patience. ‘Eighteen times I walked up and down the Old Kent Road,’ he reports, and that ancient, tired route is just the sort of place he finds fascinating. Once the joke of the Monopoly board — the game’s one location south of the Thames — it’s now puffed by estate agents and property journos; but Judah witnesses more misery than majesty. An almost pub-less and Cockney-free zone, it’s an artery channelling cheap labour into the City, and at four o’clock in the morning the pavements teem with cleaners coughing and shivering as they head towards the Square Mile to spruce up acres of carpet.

Judah mentions that he doesn’t look Anglo-Saxon and can therefore move among these people without attracting (much) suspicion. He spends time with the Romanians living in the tunnels beneath Marble Arch — ‘an invisible village’ — and passes himself off as a Russian in order to explore the doss-houses that glut some of East London’s shabbier parishes. A different kind of flexibility enables him to fall in with Moses, a Shepherd’s Bush drug-dealer who surveys his patch like a foreman inspecting a building site, and with Big Yaw, who breaks from picking up litter on the underground to show off a grainy film clip of the dream home he’s constructing in Ghana.

There’s more than a touch of George Orwell in Judah’s grimy tour. He shares Orwell’s appetite for fieldwork and documenting parts of society that are easily overlooked — for going native in his own country, to borrow an image from
V. S. Pritchett. But while Judah also shares Orwell’s bruised resilience and scepticism about British institutions, his prose is more impressionistic — and not as seductive.

A less obvious yet equally significant precursor is Henry Mayhew, the Victorian journalist and social reformer whose London Labour and the London Poor was the fruit of long urban rambles and bulged with startling details such as the number of cigar ends Londoners discarded each week (30,000). Like Mayhew, Judah enjoys brandishing statistics. ‘There are more illegals in London than Indians,’ he tells us, and: ‘A gun is fired in London on average every six hours.’ There are at least 7,000 prostitutes in London, and 96 per cent are immigrants. A white woman in a Chelsea town house can expect to live to nearly 90, whereas a Moroccan on an estate overlooking the Westway will be doing well if he makes it to 63.

The numbers are irresistibly quotable. But the real strength of This is London is the intimacy of its portraits — of Moses patrolling the White City favelas, the denizens of Harlesden’s betting shops (‘frazzled Jamaican bums and owlish Nigerian security guards, whimsical Polish carpenters and pouty Irish soaks’), and the so-called Plato of Edmonton, a mental-health worker who warns of the perils of multiculturalism while Judah perches on his faux-leather sofa. Though there are swathes of contemporary London that Judah barely acknowledges, and at times the mephitic air of a bad dream hangs too heavily over his testimony, this vision of ‘the world city’ is compassionate, fresh and courageous.

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Show comments
  • Kasperlos

    The Shard is but the latest incarnation of the Tower of Babel. Many such shiny sentinels are sprouting like weeds to the heavens in paved-over dystopian cities around the world. Welcome to the nightmare of unintended consequences of the elites’ paradise called globalisation. ‘I go to the city. I open the window. I see 10,000 people. I see h*ll.’ – Charles Bukowski

  • steve taylor

    I went to live in London in the 1980s. Goodness it was awful. One of the best moves Ken Livingstone did (though I doubt he meant to) was getting shut of miserable, unfriendly and basically idle “Londoners” and replacing them with hard working, smiling foreigners.

    • Andy JS

      But surely the solution to dreadful British people is for them to improve themselves, not to import foreigners.

  • Hybird

    Can anyone imagine the Japanese allowing the situation to arise where the majority of the inhabitants of Tokyo were not Japanese? Or the Russians and Chinese allowing other ethnic groups to outnumber their own people in their capital cities? They must think we are totally insane.

    • Frank

      And to have politicians who do not understand that this is a problem.

    • tjamesjones

      You wait till you learn about the Qing dynasty.

    • Mark Racz

      oh, it’s a matter of numbers. that worked well in history.

  • damon

    I think a lot of people won’t like this book and will attack it where they can.
    It may well have some faults, but it’s time someone said what has happened to places like the Old Kent Road and New Cross. What happened to all the white working class from there?

    • Polly Radical


    • Mark Racz

      I live around there and there are lots of white working-class people there. I have no idea how ‘white’ it used to be 20-30 years ago, but considering the Caribbean/African population in SE London is second/third generation, I don’t think it was very white in recent times.

      • damon

        I remember it when there were still several pubs that the Cockney white people used drink in and the culture was still there. The old culture of the dockers and Millwall supporters etc. Now you only see them in any numbers when they all turn up from Kent and the Home Counties for Millwall home games.
        Just see how East Street market has changed (in 2011)

        And then see the other Youtube there on East Street Market in 1971, a generation earlier.

        • post_x_it

          This is all true, but it’s a chicken and egg question.
          The cockney dockers didn’t have much reason to live near the docks after the docks closed. Many went into other lines of work and moved out to Essex and Kent for bigger houses and a better quality of life. They left behind space for immigrants to fill, which in turn led to more of the cockney working class selling up and leaving as their neighbourhoods changed.

          • damon

            What you say is true. But from what I read on a Millwall supporters online blog site a couple of years, ago also told a story of people finding that the old neighbourhoods where they nearly all had roots in, was no no longer a place where people like them wanted to live.
            There was a thread asking ”were do you live?” and then asking where their families had come from.
            Nearly everyone had roots in that part of south east London unsurprisingly and most of them no longer lived within a couple of miles of the ground. Asked why they moved to places like Maidstone or wherever, several gave the reason that the old area was now lost in a sea of multiculturalism and black and African culture. One said he didn’t want his kids talking the street patois that has taken over from the way they still speak now (even though they live in Kent) – the old style south London/Bermondsey accent.
            Some felt that they had been ethnically cleansed.
            But it is a website that tolerates racist views.

      • Andy JS

        London was 86% white British in 1971.

  • There is nothing new about any of this stuff. Just take a look at Pepys’s diaries. ‘Twas ever thus.

    • JEK68

      There have always been extremes of wealth in the city, but there’s never been a situation where the majority of the London’s residents were not the native population of the country.

      • That’s true of course.

        • tjamesjones

          Yes, that’s true. Skype’s new too.

      • Todd Unctious

        Yes their has. Around 65AD.

        • JEK68

          It wasn’t really a city or a country but OK…. Since 1066 at the latest.

        • ossettian

          Evidence that the population was majority non-native?

          You think they didn’t have servants?

          • TrscoopFO

            Stats and facts aren’t on your side. Servants were overwhelmingly native Britons. The Left’s head in the sand is hilarious. Can’t wait for the millionaire Marxists to have their generosity imposed and finding themselves out in the fields.

  • Patrick

    Being English I am a foreigner in London. I have over the last 5-10 years started to feel like a foreigner in England.

    • Mark Racz

      cool story bro.

    • IainRMuir

      5-10 ?????????

      You haven’t spent much time in Bradford over the last 40 or so years then.