Thursday, 25 February 2016

this is london [ben judah]

The author has a fascination with his city that goes beyond pure journalism. If you’re of a curious mind, London is a gift. There always have been and always will be corners and cultures to explore. Judah’s thesis would appear to be that in the past 20 years the process of immigration has grown at an exponential rate. There are times when he appears to delight in this, and others when his book, or at least the characters who populate it, would appear to be taking a more ambivalent line. These characters being the immigrants themselves, who are more honest and aware of the racial and cultural conflicts that the multicultural model turns a blind eye to. What Judah’s text does with a great deal of rigour and fidelity (sometimes to the point of near-incoherence) is offer these new Londoners their voice; a voice which the mainstream doesn’t have time for. The Romanian beggars and prostitutes; the Nigerian contract health worker; the Arab princess; these are just some of the London voices which speak through the text. Whilst mainstream drama is still struggling to incorporate the previous generations of Caribbean and Asian immigrants, Judah leaps straight to the next. He roots them out, from Edmonton to Plaistow to Knightsbridge with a journalistic doggedness. These sub-cultures, demi-mondes are the new margin and he pursues this edge even to the point of personal danger. (One of the curiosities or possible inconsistencies of the book is that in the opening pages, Judah seems set on enforcing his presence as the narrator, something that he subsequently, and in the opinion of this reviewer, wisely, downplays. They are the protagonist, he’s the shadowy figure on the edge of their vision, a place which reflects their position in society and perhaps helps to explain why so many open up to him with such apparent honesty.)

Is this melting pot. or Babel, a utopia or a dystopia? As mentioned, there are moments, such as the haunting episode with the prostitutes, remembering their murdered colleague, which seem to veer towards the latter. At the same time, the author himself observes that the murder itself is an echo of the Ripper murders; the city’s margins have always been a dangerous place, inhabited by the marginals. Judah is also acute about the issue of gentrification, observing the way in which barrios that the white middle class wouldn’t have touched a decade ago have now been transformed, just as happened to Notting Hill and Bayswater in the 60s/ 70s. The demographic impact of this on communities has been much discussed; the comparison that isn’t made is with the mega-cities, where the very idea of centrality has begun to erode, something that will happen to London, perhaps, allowing for more elasticity in the way it’s structured, with the line between suburb and centre eliding. 

Maybe the centre doesn’t need to hold. Maybe it needs to fragment.  The issue is tangible in the cafe I’m sitting in right now, in a corner of Peckham that hasn’t been transformed. Judah is a bit sniffy about Peckham and its gentrification.However, as I write, there’s the visible image of a racial mix that has integrated, to the degree at least that they come here and drink coffees and eat pricey bread, not just the white middle class emigres but also the 2nd generation Caribbean, Indian, the 1st generation Polish and Eastern Europeans. Maybe this is all a phantasmagoria, the wool pulled over my eyes, but from the seat I’m sat it, it does look as though there might exist the possibility that the city can continue to integrate, recycle, develop, in spite of all that isn’t working, in spite of the avarice and the philistinism. 

Judah never seems to draw any real conclusions about the capital’s ultimate fate, although many of the characters who people his book hold strong opinions, both positive and negative. No matter what London’s future, Judah’s book offers an intrepid, back-door portrayal of his city, a worthy successor to a tradition that banks and skirts Pepys, Defoe, Cobbett, Addison and Steele, Dickens… The list could go on. There is a fine tradition of British writers getting down and dirty in their investigations and This is London is a welcome addition to that club.

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