Ben Judah. This is London: Life and Death in the World City London: Picador, 2016. £18.99
This is London: Life and Death in the World City is the latest in a long line of books that try to say something new about one of the most written about cities in the world. Ben Judah does this by trying to get to know London’s immigrants, the people who make up almost half of the city’s population, but who only ever get talked about with scaremongering statistics and dehumanising metaphors. It takes all sorts to make a city, and Judah talks to all kinds of people in this book; the wife of a Russian oligarch, a Nigerian policeman, a Polish builder, Filipina maids, a Polish registrar, Afghani shopkeepers, a Nigerian teacher.
I was born in London but I no longer recognize this city. I don’t know if I love the new London or if it frightens me: a city where at least 55 per cent of people are not ethnically British, nearly 40 per cent were born abroad, and 5 per cent are living illegally in the shadows. I have no idea who these Londoners are. Or even what their London really is.
(Judah, 2016; p.3)
This is London starts in the same place that many European migrants arrive in London; Victoria Coach Station- “our miserable Ellis Island” (Judah, 2016; p.1). It ends where some of the city’s one million Muslim inhabitants (according to the 2011 census) end their lives; the mortuary of a mosque in Leyton. It covers a large number of major life events and experiences in between; marriage, birth, employment, illness, faith, and recreation. The book has no introduction or conclusion, which I think is fitting. This is not a story with a nice neat beginning and ending, it is not even a single story. When I review books about London, I try to find a quote in which the author summarises London. I couldn’t find one in This is London. London is complex, multiple, and heterogeneous, it is almost impossible to sum it up. Ben Judah doesn’t offer any solutions or grand plans, he tells stories, and allows the reader to interpret them.
Unfortunately, I have some serious issues with This is London. The biggest is Judah’s ethics and attitudes towards his interviewees. On several occasions he lied to the people he was talking to about who he was, covering up the fact he is a journalist. When he visits Harlesdon Road to try and talk to some of the customers of London’s 1773 betting shops, he has little success until he pretends to be conducting a survey for William Hill (Judah, 2016; p.294). As an academic, I am horrified by the prospect that some people were trusting Judah with their stories, some of them highly personal and traumatic, without knowing what he was going to do with them. Maybe journalists don’t care about informed consent, but I do.
There are other points where Judah seems to relish his power over his interviewees in a way that made me feel very uncomfortable. In the first chapter he follows three recently arrived Roma women from Victoria Coach Station all the way to Hyde Park because he wanted to talk to them. He continued to follow them even once they realised they were being followed. Judah eventually forces a Romanian busker to talk to him, saying “I know he wants to leave but I won’t let him. I have power over him for a few seconds. And I want him to speak” (Judah, 2016; p.8). Later on, he talks to some prostitutes in Ilford Lane, paying them to talk to him. They sit in his car, as one woman, Diana, talks about another woman who was murdered there. He seems to enjoy forcing the second woman to talk; “I know she does not want to talk about this. That she would rather I just fucked them both- or hit them, the way some of the men enjoy doing- than ask about what happened to Mariana. But I don’t care. And I gesture. I want you to talk now” (Judah, 2016; p.370). He exploited the women’s vulnerability in a way that I find completely unacceptable.
I have conflicted feelings about This is London.I really enjoyed the stories the book tells, and reading about parts of London that are completely unfamiliar to me. However, I cannot condone Judah’s methods in obtaining some of these stories; he was unethical, insensitive, and exploitative. Because of this, I think there are other books out there that do similar things to This is London, better. For example, Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now by Craig Taylor (London: Granta, 2012), provides snapshots of what it’s like to live and work in London without making me feel deeply uncomfortable. I would recommend it much more highly than This is London.