Book Review: Walk the Lines- The London Underground, Overground

Walk the Lines Cover

Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason.

Mark Mason. Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground. London: Random House, 2011. RRP £8.99 paperback.

The London Underground is one of the most distinctive elements of the city, but it does result in a disjointed perception of the metropolis–I don’t feel like I really got to know how the various areas of London fit together until I moved there and started to walk or get the bus more. Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground is the ultimate exercise in getting to know London; author Mark Mason walked the route of every underground line from beginning to end, then wrote a book about it.

I think the concept for this book is excellent; but unfortunately I am not so keen on its execution. I think it would be really interesting to repeat this challenge in a decade or so, London changes so quickly that some of Mason’s observations already feel out of date. Part of me also wants to recreate the exercise in my home town of Brighton, based on a map of a fictional underground network created by illustrator John Sims (see below). Walk the Lines is a fascinating idea that got me thinking about my own relationship with London, and as well as other British cities

The Brighton Line version 2

If Brighton had an underground network, it might look something like this (Source: John Sims)

Sadly, I did not get on so well with Mark Mason’s writing. I did not like the tone of the book at all when I started reading it; it felt like Mason was trying too hard to be funny. This did become less noticeable as I progressed through the book, but I couldn’t say whether it’s because the tone improves or because I just got used to it. I also dislike Mason’s heavy use of footnotes. They interrupt the flow of the writing, and sometimes I missed the superscript, and found myself searching the page for the relevant point. I think they are unnecessary in Walk the Lines.

I also found Mason himself to be a bit arrogant–one of his reasons for undertaking the challenge was to own London, a desire which I think is conceited and a bit odd, quite frankly (p. 4-5). Nobody owns London. If anything, the opposite is true; there have been several occasions when I have felt that London’s influence over my life has been a bit too significant for comfort. In addition, Mason is snobbish about anything that is ‘not London.’ He seems to look down on other cities and London’s suburbs, and view them as automatically inferior. I understand that both of these attitudes come from a great love of London, I too am captivated by it. I am just not so keen on how this affection manifests itself in Mason’s writing.

The final significant issue with Walk the Lines is the lack of photographs. This is a book about the many different faces of London, but there is not a single image of Mason or the different aspects of London he encountered on his walks.

The concept of Walk the Lines is not the only element of the book that I liked however. I enjoyed Mason’s musings on the subjectivity and power of maps, although these are not new ideas to geographers. The book also contains some decent historical facts. For example, London cabbies call the junction on which the Royal Geographical Society sits ‘Hot and Cold Corner,’ because the building has statures of David Livingstone and Ernest Shackleton. Finally, I enjoyed the sections when Mason stops along his walks to talk to other people about their perceptions of London, such as: artist and ex-Popstar Bill Drummond; The Archers actor Tim Bentinck, who was the ‘Mind the Gap’ voice on the Piccadilly Line for 15 years; and John Pearson, the official biographer of the Kray twins.

I enjoy reading books about London, and I admire the inventive approach in Walk the Lines. I’ve always thought that the best way to get to know a city is to walk around it, and I like the idea of using a city’s transport network, effectively its circulatory system, to organise such exploration. However, I am not so keen on Mason’s writing style or attitude towards London. This is not a bad book, it just isn’t a great one either.

 

Book Review: Buda’s Wagon- A Brief History of the Car Bomb

Buda's Wagon Front cover

The front cover of the 2017 edition of Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by Mike Davis.

Mike Davis. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. London: Verso, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.

Among geographers, Mike Davis is particularly well-known for his writing on cities. Books like Planet of the Slums and City of Quartz are staples of undergraduate Geography reading lists. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb is not one I was familiar with, until Verso released new editions of some of his works at the start of 2017. My family can always tell when I’m enjoying what I’m reading because I bombard them with facts and stories from the book. My family have had to listen to a lot of facts about car bombs.

It is the car bombers’ incessant blasting-away at the moral and physical shell of the city, not the more apocalyptic threats of nuclear or bioterrorism, that is producing the most significant mutations in city form and urban lifestyle.

Davies, 2017: p. 7

Buda’s Wagon doesn’t have an introduction as such, instead launching into the story of Mario Buda, an Italian anarchist living in New York who packed his horse-drawn wagon with explosives and iron slugs, drove it to Wall Street, and left it there. At midday, the wagon exploded, killing 40 and injuring more than 200. Mario Buda has the dubious distinction of being the world’s first car bomber-sort of. From there, Buda’s Wagon ricochets around the world and through a century of conflict, finishing up in the Middle East in the early 2000s. Davis makes a convincing case for the car bomb as a powerful leveller for terrorists and insurgent groups confronting powerful and well-resourced  governments. He also conveys the human cost of a weapon that is indiscriminate at best. At it’s worst, it is deliberately meant to cause further hatred and violence.

Davis does not explicitly state his opinion on the issues he’s writing about, he lets the statistics he uses and the stories he tells speak for themselves. I like this style, it feels like Davis is trusting the reader to form their own opinion. At some points, it highlights the strength of Davis’ feeling, as you can almost sense his opinion fighting its way out through his non-judgmental language.

There aren’t many pictures in Buda’s Wagon, which some readers might not like, but I think was a sensible decision. It would be difficult to include many pictures without becoming ghoulish. I did find the narrative a bit difficult to follow when it reached the Middle East, but I imagine simplifying the politics in a way that would make them comprehensible for most readers would be a very difficult task.

Buda’s Wagon is a poignant, engaging read, that thinks systematically about the car bomb in a way that is scholarly, but not insensitive. I would recommend it to anyone interested in contentious politics or geopolitics, or anyone who wants to try and understand what can seem like a senseless and inexplicable act.

Book Review: The English Rebel- One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties

the-english-rebel-by-david-horspool

The English Rebel by David Horspool.

David Horspool. The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties. London: Penguin, 2010. RRP £12.99 paperback.

I have read several books about the history of protest in London, but I recently realised that I haven’t read much about the national history of protest. The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties is a good place to start for anyone interested in how dissent has shaped the history of England. It is well-written, well-paced, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

David Horspool sets out to disprove the stereotype that the English are peaceful and submissive by demonstrating that “from Cornwall to Norfolk, from Sussex to Northumbria, England is crisscrossed with the ghosts of rebels marching, meeting, and fighting” (p xvi). The book is arranged chronologically, starting with opposition to the Norman invasion in 1066. Contrary to popular belief, the English did not just roll over and submit after the Battle of Hastings. Horspool then traces the history of rebellion in England featuring well known examples, such as the Peasant’s Revolt (1381) and the English Civil Wars (1642-51), as well as more obscure events, such as the Revolt of the Earls in 1075 and an uprising in Norfolk led by Robert Kett in 1549. I don’t pretend to know everything about the history of protest (far from it!), but I have been studying it for more than four years now, and there was quite a bit in there that was new to me.

The English rebel may only rarely be a triumphant or even a particularly likeable character. But he and she are as much a part of the fabric of English history as the monarchs, law-makers and political leaders they defied. They serve as inspiration, as warning, and sometimes simply as example.

Horspool, 2010; p. xxiii

In his Introduction, Horspool is very clear about the parameters of The English Rebel. He defines a rebel as a political opponent who risks their life or their liberty. Their opposition does not have to be aimed at government or the state, nor does it have to be violent or left-wing. The decision to focus only on England was also a deliberate one; Horspool argued that rebellions in a British or imperial context tend to have different objectives from English ones. It can be easy to criticise a project for leaving things out (I see it quite often in academia), and by explaining his decisions about what to include, Horspool fends off such criticism before its even made.

Rebels are drawn towards centres of power so the content of the book is inevitably skewed towards London and the south east, but Horspool does his best to balance it out. My biggest complaint about The English Rebel is a pet hate of mine–putting all the images together in the middle, then not mentioning them in the main text, so they feel rather detached and unnecessary. This is only a minor gripe however.

The English Rebel is an engaging read, which I would highly recommend for those with a general interest in history, as well as those with a more specific interest in protest and dissent. Horspool makes a convincing case that the English are much more rebellious than the stereotypes make out. I’ve always seen myself as British rather than English, but I feel just a bit more proud of my Anglo-Saxon heritage after reading The English Rebel.

Book Review: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

the-rebellious-life-of-mrs-rosa-parks-front-cover

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Harris

Jeanne Theoharis. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013). £16.99.

I buy a lot of books. To the extent that I cannot read books as fast as I buy them. As a result, I have a lot of unread books sitting on my bookshelves. Whenever I finish reading a book I go to my bookcase, look at all the unread books, and see which one takes my fancy to read next. A few weeks ago, it was the turn of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jeanne Theoharis. It has been sitting on my shelves since the great book-buying spree of ’15, during my trip to New York two years ago. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get round to reading it- I loved this book.

Theoharis starts this book at the end, with all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the funeral of Rosa Parks when she died in 2005. Perhaps one of the best known individuals in American history for her role in kickstarting the civil rights movement, Parks became a legend in her own lifetime. The quiet, soft-spoken seamstress who refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white man in Montgomery, Alabama is well known the world over. However, the legend of Rosa Parks bears only passing resemblance to the real woman. An activist all her life, her decision not to move on that bus was the result of years of anger and frustration at American injustice, not tired feet.

In this thoroughly researched, well-paced book, Theoharis details the life of a woman who was brought up with a sense of pride and her own self-worth, who was willing to stand up and defend herself if she was attacked. Along with others, Parks campaigned for civil rights in Montgomery for decades before her bus protest in 1955. The protest took its toll, leaving Parks, her husband, and her mother economically insecure and dealing with constant threats. In 1957, the family moved to Detroit, where Rosa continued to campaign for civil rights for the next four days. Whilst segregation was not legally enforced in northern US states, Parks saw it as just as pervasive as in the south, and continued to fight in any way she could.

In The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Theoharis looks at the myth of Rosa Parks, considering its purpose and effects, then dismantles it, writing a biography of a life-long activist who was not afraid to ruffle some feathers. Rosa Parks was a fascinating woman who had a fascinating life; she was a great admirer of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and she supported both the civil rights movement and the more antagonistic Black Power movement. Parks threw herself into so many campaigns and activities that her life is like a slice though the struggle for racial equality in mid- and late-twentieth century America.

I think most people are familiar with the myth of Rosa Parks, and know that she was someone special. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks reveals that the reality is much more interesting than the myth.

Book Review: The Leveller Revolution- Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650

the-leveller-revolution-front-cover

The Leveller Revolution by John Rees.

John Rees. The Reveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650. London: Verso, 2016. £25.

John Rees co-authored one of my favourite books, A People’s History of London. As such, I was really looking forward to the publication of The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650, and I had high expectations. Whilst it doesn’t quite live up to A People’s History of London, it is a very good book.

The Leveller Revolution is derived from Rees’ doctoral research. As such it is thoroughly researched, as evidenced by the detailed content and and considered analysis. The book is not just a narrative of the rise and fall of the Levellers as a political force, it is also an intervention in the scholarly debate on the nature and significance of the Levellers. Rees argues that whilst other groups used similar organisational and campaigning tactics, no one else used them as consistently and to such effect as the Levellers. He also argues that the Levellers were the only group to focus on popular politics and mobilisation, as opposed to social and political elites.

I have tried to…examine the Levellers as a political movement integrating activists from different constituencies, and creating still broader alliances with other political currents, for the joint pursuance of revolutionary ends.

(Rees, The Leveller Revolution, p. xx)

The Leveller Revolution has multiple strengths. Rees’ arguments are persuasive; he makes a strong case that the Leveller organisation emerged out of pre-existing radical networks consisting of individuals who already had extensive experience of activism. Rees argues that London was significant to the development of the Levellers, but the book is not London-centric; many of the examples Rees uses to demonstrate his arguments come from elsewhere in the country. In addition, whenever there is historical doubt (e.g. over the authorship of a pamphlet, or exactly who was present at a particular event), Rees is open about that uncertainty, then justifies his own opinion. I always appreciate it when authors who are willing to acknowledge these kind of metholodogical subtleties.

Unfortunately, I often struggled to keep track of the book’s narrative, and I think there are 2 reasons for this. The first is that there were a large number of individuals involved in the radical networks around the time of the English Civil Wars, many of whom had quite similar names. As such, I found it difficult to remember who was who. Whilst there is little Rees could have done about the number of individuals involved and their names, a dramatis personae might have been helpful. The second reason for my confusion is, I think, that Rees assumes that the reader has a confident knowledge of the chronology of the Civil Wars. The book refers to events or battles by name only, making it hard to follow the narrative if you do not know when they took place or what happened. I did study the period as part of an A-level in Early Modern History, but that was almost a decade ago, and my knowledge is a bit rusty. If you are not familiar with the period, then I suggest reading The Leveller Revolution in conjunction with another book that details the key events of that time (I would recommend A Brief History of The English Civil Wars: Roundheads, Cavaliers and the Execution of the King by John Miller).

The Leveller Revolution is a thoroughly-researched, well-argued book. Whilst I found it less approachable than A People’s History of London, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has a interest in the English Civil Wars, or the history of protest and dissent.

Book Review: Attack on London- Disaster, Rebellion, Riot, Terror and War

attack-on-london-disaster-riot-war-jonathan-oates-hardcover-cover-art

Attack on London by Jonathan Oates

Jonathan Oates. Attack on London: Disaster, Rebellion, Riot, Terror and War. Barnsley: Wharncliffe Local History, 2009. £19.99.

Out of all the high street chains of bookstores, I have a particular fondness for The Works. If you’ve never come across one before, it’s a sort of outlet store for books and stationary, and I can rarely resist having a browse when I walk past one. I have found numerous bargains in there over the years, including Attack on London by Jonathan Oates.

Dr. Jonathan Oates is the Ealing Borough Archivist and Local History Librarian, but he has also published numerous books on London’s history, particularly its more criminal elements. In Attack on London Oates, inspired by the 7/7 bombings, traces how Londoners have reacted to tragedy, shock, and trauma. Starting with the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, Oates documents some of the most severe hardships faced by London, including the Great Plague (1665-1666), the Gordon Riots (1780), the Clerkenwell Outrage (1867), Bloody Sunday (1887), aerial bombing during both World Wars, IRA bombings during the 1970s, and the 7/7 bombings in 2005. Oates concludes by arguing that such dramatic events bring out both the best and the worst of Londoners; there has been resilience, bravery, and unity, but also looting and xenophobia.

If you are familiar with London’s history, then there probably isn’t much in Attack on London that will be new to you, although I was surprised to learn about the extent of aerial bombing on the capital during the First World War. However, the way the which Londoners reacted to these well-known events is a new angle, which brings together disparate events such as riot, war, disease, and fire in an interesting way. Oates’ referencing style is not very detailed, so it is difficult to identify the exact sources of his work, but it seems to be a well-researched book.

There are some elements of Attack on London that feel a little ‘amateur’. For example, each chapter ends with a conclusion identified as such with a subheading. This feels a little out of place in a history book aimed at a popular audience. Also, one of the photos reproduced in the book, of a plaque commemorating the deaths of 77 people in an air raid bombing in Southwark in October 1940, is blurry. I know I’m being picky, but little things like these combine to give a general impression of not-quite-finishedness that could have been so easily avoided. In addition, the book commits one of my biggest personal faux pas; putting all of the images on a few glossy pages in the middle of the book, and not referring to them in the main text. I know that lots of books have their images arranged in such a way, I guess it is an effective or cost-efficient way of illustrating books. I can understand that, although I would prefer to have the images close to the relevant text. However, when the author does not refer to the images in the text, then they become almost pointless, as they do not serve to back up or illustrate a particular point. Attack on London is by no means the only book that does this, but it winds me up nonetheless.

Because I found Attack on London in a bargain bookshop, it cost me quite a bit less than the £19.99 recommended retail price, which is a bit steep, in my opinion, for what you get. Nevertheless, it is an easy-to-read, engaging reflection on the best and the worst facets of Londoners.

 

Book Review: Sophia- Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary

Sophia front cover

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand.

Anita Anand. Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. Paperback £9.99.

If you asked the average person to name individual suffragettes, they would probably say Emmeline or Christabel Pankhurst, or perhaps Emily Davison. There were, however, many individual women who contributed to the campaign for female suffrage, including Sylvia Pankhurst, Daisy Parsons, Clementina Black, and Charlotte DespardSophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary tells the story of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, one of these lesser known, but just as fascinating, women who devoted herself to the fight.

Granddaughter of Ranjit Singh, the Maharaj of the Punjab, Princess Sophia and her siblings occupied a unique position in British society. Her father, originally beloved by Queen Victoria, had turned against the British empire which had taken his birthright. Her family relied on the British government for everything, but their status as Indian royalty gave them a degree of protection that meant they could still be troublesome. Sophia did not resent the British government like her father and some of her siblings, but she did care deeply for the people of India, which she visited several times. There was little she could do for the burgeoning independence movement from so far away, however, and women’s suffrage became the cause to which she devoted her energies.

Sophia is a well-written, thoroughly researched, and detailed biography. Anita Anand has included a wealth of rich details that makes you feel like you really know Sophia, that you understand her motivations. Personally, I welcome anything that helps to extend popular awareness of the suffragettes beyond Emmeline Pankhurst and her most famous daughter, and I also appreciate the way Sophia puts the suffragettes in the context of contemporary non-British social movements, particularly the early campaign for Indian independence. They are mostly seen as a stand-alone phenomena, but the campaign for women’s suffrage took place in the context of a whole range of other social justice movements.

Whilst I understand the necessity of context, there are times where it feels like the book goes into too much contextual detail. Sophia isn’t even born until page 44, and the narrative sometimes veers away from Sophia to dwell on other people and events. It feels a little like padding, which seems unnecessary considering how much source material Anand was able to find about Sophia herself.

Sophia is an enjoyable read, and Anita Anand deserves the praise she has received for it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in women’s history, colonialism, or the women’s suffrage movement.

Book Review: Revolutions without Borders- The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World

Revolutions without Borders Front Cover

Revolutions without Borders by Janet Polansky.

Janet Polansky. Revolution without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World. London: Yale University Press, 2015. 

Back in May, I went to a seminar given by historian Janet Polansky organised by the London Group of Historical Geographers. I enjoyed the seminar so much that I got the book so I could read Polansky’s arguments in more detail. And I wasn’t disappointed; I think Revolutions without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World is a very good read.

In the late eighteenth century Europe and the Americas went through a period of political turmoil which saw revolutions “From the Americas to Geneva, the Netherlands, Ireland, the Belgian provinces, France, Saint-Domingue, Guadaloupe, Poland, Martinique, Sierra Leone, Italy, Hungary, and Haiti” (Polansky, 2015; p.2 ). The American and French Revolutions are by far the best known, but almost no country surrounding the Atlantic Ocean remained untouched. Ideas, information, and people circulated back and forth across the Atlantic in an age before the Internet, telephones, even a postal service. Revolutions without Borders is about how these radical ideas and individuals traveled, both adapting to and shaping the contexts that they found themselves in.

Two centuries before the Arab Spring, without social media or even an international postal system, revolutionaries shared ideals of liberty and equality across entire continents. Theirs, too, was an international movement connected by ideas that traveled.

(Polansky, 2015; p. 3)

Polanksy structured the book by source material- each chapter is devoted to a different method of circulation such as official decrees, rumours, letters and travelers. Overall, I like this unusual approach because it brings archival research to the fore, which a lot of history books tend to gloss over. Different sources contain different kinds of information, and the structure of Revolutions without Borders highlights this. However, structuring the book in this way does necessitate some jumping back and forwards in terms of time, which did prove a little confusing on occasion. There is a Dramatis Personae and a Chronology, which may alleviate the effects of this confusion for some.

Sometimes when you read a book it resonates with current events. I experienced this whilst reading Revolutions without Borders. Chapter 9 focuses on itinerant revolutionaries, individuals who traveled the world during the revolutionary period, sometimes running from failed revolutions, sometimes running towards budding ones. Many of these people, including Benjamin Franklin, who lived in London for two decades*, had high hopes for the future of cosmopolitanism. They dreamt of universal citizenship, where a traveler would be welcomed as if returning home wherever they went in the world. Unfortunately this dream was not to be, and as the 1790s progressed travelers returning to America from Europe were shunned as dangerous radicals. The dream of universal citizenship struck a chord with me as I was reading this book, in the aftermath of the EU Referendum, and I couldn’t help but think that Benjamin Franklin would be disappointed with the result of the referendum. Universal citizenship seems that much further away now.

Revolutions without Borders is well-written and accessible. Relevant to both historians and geographers, I think it would also be enjoyable for those who read for leisure.

*The house where Franklin lived whilst in London is now a small museum, to which I would definitely recommend a visit.

Book Review: Nightwalking- A Nocturnal History of London

Nightwalking Front Cover

Nightwalking by Matthew Beaumont.

Matthew Beaumont. Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. London: Verso, 2015. £9.99

Nightwalking by Matthew Beaumont is an exploration of London at night through the eyes of the men (and it is all men) who wrote about it. Starting with Chaucer, Beaumont traces evolving societal attitudes to night time and darkness in the city. He ends the book with Dickens (well, sort of- Edgar Allen Poe features heavily in the conclusion), “the great heroic and neurotic nightwalker of the nineteenth century” (Beaumont, 2015; p.6). The writers Beaumont studies walked the line between polite society and the world of the social outcasts; the prostitutes, criminals, orphans, and homeless who inhabited London’s streets after dark. Some writers managed the balance better than others.

Who walks the streets alone at night? The sad, the mad, the bad. The lost, the lonely. The hypomanic, the catatonic. The sleepless, the homeless. All the city’s internal exiles.

Beaumont, 2015; p.3

When I first got Nightwalking, I was a little disappointed to realise that it had a literary focus. I like to read, but I’m not a fan of literary analysis; perhaps there are too many bad memories from GCSE and A-Level English Literature. I thought Nightwalking was a straight social history, and I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the literary angle.

I needn’t have worried. Beaumont uses the cultural history of the London night to explore its social, political and economic history. He strikes a nice balance between detailed textual analysis and wider contextual discussion. The social and legal discourses surrounding those who wander the streets of the city at night have developed over time, but in an uneven manner. For hundreds of years, being caught outside after dark was a criminal offence. As society and technology developed, the night became a space of recreation, initially just for the wealthy; the evolution of cheap and effective street lighting is one factor that contributed to this process. Although the legal restrictions faded, moral restrictions remained, dictating which kinds of activity, and which kinds of people, were acceptable on London’s streets after dark.

London’s writers were drawn to this moral ambiguity, taking to the streets at night in order to better understand the city or themselves, to have a good time, and sometimes because they had no choice. Men such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Johnson, Blake, and Dickens “used the night as a means of creatively thinking the limits of an increasingly enlightened, rationalist culture” (Beaumont, 2015; p.10). Beaumont balances all the contradictory and sometimes vague associations and motivations for nightwalking well, explaining his arguments in a clear and concise manner. It is obvious to me that Beaumont is an academic, and that the book is based on extensive scholarly research, but I don’t think that the book would be unapproachable to non-academics, although another reviewer has said his style can be “cloudily academic.”

Nightwalking is a well-researched, well-reasoned book that manages to tell a complicated story in a way that is easy to follow. I can see this book being useful to students of English Literature and History alike, but I would also recommend it to those who just enjoy reading a good book.

Book Review: This is London- Life and Death in the World City

Front cover- This is London.jpg

This is London by Ben Judah.

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.