Tuesday, December 06, 2016

This isn't my London

This is London by Ben Judah
Picador 2016
It's not all so bad: reproduced from https://www.flickr.com/photos/dgeezer/6141438138
I wanted to like Ben Judah’s This Is London, and certainly it’s a book which will stick with me for a long time. Partly undercover, partly through interviews, Judah investigates the hidden lives of migrant London. The haunting beginning sees him spending the dawn hours at Victoria Coach Station, ‘our miserable Ellis Island’, as the buses arrive from across Europe bringing new people to stay and work in the UK’s capital. In the chill grey rain, he follows a group of Roma people until he finds someone who will speak with him. His dedication cannot be understated, and at times, such as when he interviews the addict sex workers of Ilford Lane about the murder of one of their number, I was overwhelmed by his bravery and his honesty.

Judah reports faithfully on the homeless, the destitute, the beggars and addicts and jobseekers of the four corners of the city, from Barking to Shepherd’s Bush, Kensington to Peckham. A sociologist or anthropologist would be horrified by his style: he neither reveals his methods nor investigates his own motivation, after a short and troubling introduction:

I was born in London but I no longer recognise 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 the people are not ethnically white British, nearly 40 per cent were born abroad, and 5 per cent are living illegally in the shadows. [1]

I see this confession of uncertainty, too, as a sign of Judah’s courage: in a world where the right claim we are censored through political correctness, it is right for a researcher or a writer to express their own confusion or positionality. I research migration; I’m an activist against borders; and yet I’d be lying if I claimed never to have caught myself out in anxiety, negativity, generalisation, prejudice… and racism. 

Yet Judah’s lack of methodology raises serious questions about the ethics of his research. He speaks to extremely vulnerable people; he reports on serious crime and very personal issues, including immigration contraventions, and uses full-front photos of many of his subjects as well as detailed written descriptions of their appearance, workplaces and homes. I was surprised to find no appendix detailing how he negotiated this ethical minefield in his subjects’ best interests. Perhaps he did.

Certainly Judah’s book has little academic standing in the usual sense. I hate reading academic books, even though it’s my job, and yet I stayed up late and whizzed through this book in 24 hours. It’s a great read, and god knows we need sharply, tightly-written non-academic books. But it left me depressed, sad, troubled. Something wasn’t right. Somehow the only voice in the whole 400-odd pages was the voice of Judah. I was worried his interviewees were being robbed. I was worried about who his audience were. Were they middle-class, younger (perhaps white) Londoners just like Judah and myself? If so, was Judah informing, educating, or just preaching to the choir?

I was delighted (as part of a continuing turf war with my NW best friend) to see Brent explained with a supermarket metaphor, and instantly texted her the passage. I have a childish love of anything that proves East London is better than North-West (don’t worry, this will not be in my doctoral thesis):
Imagine Neasden as a shop, it would come out like that mini-market: Way2Save. Polish rock music blasts out. The shop smells of flour: fresh Anatolian bread is being made round the back. There are sacks of African powders.[2]

Her response was swift and predictably partisan. But she wanted to know what the context was? I sent her more: the descriptions of Afghan shopkeepers in Cricklewood and Neasden.

You know what I don’t like – when ppl casually drop ‘crack addicts’.[3]

And that got me closer to what had been troubling me: the book is casual. It’s written in the voice of those university students in Mile End and New Cross you hear on the phone to their parents inthe provinces: ‘No, mum, everything’s fine, I told you. Yeah, there was a stabbing, but it was just the local youth. No of course I took a minicab back! I need you to send me some money… ‘

It’s certainly cool in middle-class East London to seem a bit ‘street’, to buy your recreational drugs from some kind of ‘local’, to speak fluently and knowledgeably about the social deprivations of people going to work on the night bus that takes you home. (I myself get plenty of social capital out of this, so… glass houses, stones, and so on.)  Yet if you want to write a book about these things, your responsibility should be to move away from the clichés and present people a bit more faithfully, personally, seriously. Otherwise you’re not bringing the wealthy closer to their poorer neighbours, but displaying one for the amusement, or at best, education of the other. You’re not breaking down barriers but erecting borders.

Judah’s book was unremittingly bleak. His characters were mainly victims: drug addicts and gang members, builders from Romania looking for work in the Wickes carpark every morning, Roma beggars forced to hand over their takings to the people who smuggled them in, care workers shunted around London’s hospitals by agencies, treated with racism by those they cared for.

The few migrant ‘success stories’ he included, such as the Nigerian woman who had worked her way up from McDonalds to become a secondary teacher, focus in the interviews on the terrible social problems they witness. In this particular chapter, Plaistow Road, he and the teacher discuss young Muslim girls who take off their headscarves, roll up their skirts, paint on eyeliner before arriving in class. To me, the story seemed so incredibly banal that I almost laughed: show me the fourteen-year-old girl who does not somehow modify her appearance on the bus to school! Just the same day, by funny coincidence, I read an article about Salafi Muslim girls putting on their secret niqabs as they left their parents’ homes.[4] 

The school described by Judah, apparently Lister in Plaistow, is an area I know well, because I went to Plashet School (for which I, too, put on eyeliner, although I had no headscarf to remove). There are problems of integration, problems of tradition, problems of culture, but all of these are just a cloud of smoke obscuring the real, oh-so-curable problem in both Plaistow and neighbouring Plashet: poverty. And history has shown us that once the problems of unemployment, bad housing, access to education, financial security are solved, the integration smoke tends to just blow away by itself.

A city is not a graph or a sum or a picture or a simple, solvable puzzle. More than a series of places and people, it’s a network of relationships, all dependent on each other, and all constantly changing. Thus to separate migrant London from the rest of the city is like taking out one of the ingredients from a cake recipe: you might end up with some butter or sugar, tasty and tempting, but you’ll never end up knowing what the cake is like.

However deeply you research, you can never extract yourself from your own perspective on the complex web. And so it is much better to admit where you’re standing and what you can see from there, than to claim falsely that you have a birds-eye view over the whole city. I’d love to see Judah write more about this terrible, wonderful place we love and hate so much, but I fear his London will never be my London, and not just because he hails from the west and I from the east and never the twain shall meet.




[1] p. 3 About statistics on the ‘White British’ population, more elsewhere, but it’s a highly irritating and woolly measure, if not automatically racist. It puts a ‘black’ person whose family have been in London for ten generations into the same category as a ‘black’ or ‘white’ or whatever migrant personwho arrived yesterday, both othered against the ‘norm’, the White Brit. It’s important to measure these things: we should establish a clear definition of ‘migrant’, a much contested term, but bringing racial/ethnic identity into it is very worrying. I wouldn’t harp on about it except that this arises throughout the book: black people born here are presented as migrants despite not personally identifying as such.
This blog uses as its definition a person born outside of the UK/NI and without British citizenship at birth who is living in the UK/NI now. It’s still not perfect but whatevs.
[2] p. 60
[3] AMH
[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/young-british-salafi-women-a7436611.html

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