Dreams deferred For many, London throbs with exciting shopping opportunities; it is also a living repository of history. Along comes a book that presents a side of London few know or even care about.

This Is London by Ben Judah was longlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction in 2016. This award is touted as the UK’s premier honour for a work of nonfiction, and for those who enjoy nonfiction, a visit to its website is a must. The 2021 winner was Patrick Radden Keefe’s The Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. The Sackler name, apparently, ‘adorns the walls of many storied institutions — Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oxford, the Louvre. They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations to the arts and the sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing a blockbuster painkiller that was the catalyst for the opioid crisis.’

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Previous winners include East West Street by Phillipe Sands, How to Survive a Plague by David France, Chernobyl by Serhil Plokhy, The Five: The Untold Lives of Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold, and One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown. But it’s not just the winning titles that will hook you, the longlists in themselves are a library of amazing reading that will engage you for years!

Judah’s London reaches out to us in the voices of Arabs, Afghans, Nigerians, Poles, Romanians, Russians and others. As the Baillie Gifford citation describes it: ‘This is the new London: an immigrant city. Over one-third of Londoners were born abroad, with half arriving since the millennium. This has utterly transformed the capital, for better and for worse. … Ben Judah is an acclaimed foreign correspondent, but here he turns his reporter’s gaze on home, immersing himself in the hidden world of London’s immigrants to reveal the city in the eyes of its beggars, bankers, coppers, gangsters, carers and witch-doctors. From the backrooms of its mosques, Tube tunnels and nightclubs to the frontlines of its streets, Judah has supped with oligarchs and spent nights sleeping rough, worked on building sites and talked business with prostitutes; he’s heard stories of heart-breaking failure, but also witnessed extraordinary acts of compassion. … This is London explodes fossilized myths and offers a portrait of what it’s like to live, work, fall in love, raise children, grow old and die in London now.’

Just back from a visit to this most engaging of cities, I instantly connect with these words. I’ve met an Albanian cleaner, a Bolivian waiter, and seen the work of a Lithuanian house painter. Whichever way you turn, you see its rainbow-coloured hues. At Thai Taste restaurant in Kensington, a young man from Rwanda waits our table. At the Cos showroom in Westfield mall, a charming woman from Bangladesh finds exactly the right woollens for us. And when we thank the distinctly un-white young man at the checkout for the friendly service, he smiles and speaks proudly of their multicultural profile. In M&S we bump into ‘Divya’ who checks her stocklist to answer our queries regarding the availability of a certain style of jacket; we discover that she has lived in Nungambakkam, Chennai! And in a neighbourhood shop where we go to get colour printouts of documents for the return travel, we meet two helpful brothers of Pakistani origin who patiently attend to all our technologically-challenged needs. Everywhere you are made aware that population of London is no longer ‘English-Vinglish’, and statistics reinforce this perception.

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However, that’s just one flavour emanating from this salad bowl. Judah’s stories are not about those who have assimilated or become true-blue Londoners. It’s about those on or outside the fringes of society, both economically and socially. It’s a narrative the author conveys in direct but compelling prose, often in the lingo of his subjects. Sometimes it seems overstated, but we know that in life, we actually never know.

The best way to listen to these stories, then, is by accepting that they need to be told repeatedly. Take the Romanian outside Lanesborough Hotel, for instance, fiddling scratchily on a violin, confessing, ‘I’ve come to London to fiddle and beg’. The crops in his northern Romanian village had sold for nothing, his fridge was empty, his children were weeping and the loan sharks didn’t care for him. ‘They told me these were the richest streets in the whole world,’ he tells Judah. ‘You’ll never get anything about what it is to be a beggar until you’ve slept on the streets.’ And that’s exactly what the author sets out to do in order to understand migrant lives from the inside out.

Blake Morrison points out in a review in The Guardian: ‘Some of what he uncovers makes for dispiriting reading: the fierceness with which each ethnic group sticks to its own enclave; the drug wars and protection rackets; the speed at which the inner city is being socially cleansed and “old immigrant London” pushed out to the fringes. But the book is reportage, not a moral tract; Judah wants to tell it like it is, with I-am-a-webcam neutrality, not preach or harangue. He hears things being said and, even if they are paranoid or semi-literate, faithfully sets them down: “Look what’s happening in London, mate … Zone 1’s being sold to the Russians and Zone 2’s being bought by the poshos.” “You know what shock me about the London. That you on your own. People not friendly … Some bad men come and mug you … and they will walk right past you.” “You want the same fucking Mo Farah* wonder story … well, let me tell you what, you’re ain’t gonna find it.” (*Mohamed Muktar Jama Farah is a Somali-born long distance runner, and Britain’s most successful track athlete in modern Olympics history.)

I’ve come to London to fiddle and beg. They told me these were the richest streets in the whole world.
– A Romanian in London

Judah seems to have a knack for getting people to share their stories: the policeman of Nigerian origin who like countless others slipped into England seeking a better life which translated into doing odd jobs in restaurants, cleaning trains and finally being recruited into the police force. Or Moses whose life as a teenager was ruled by drugs and trafficking, or the Filipina housemaid or the imam… Margarita, a cleaner from Poland, who boasts she knows everything about the homeowners. ‘I know a lot. I know that the woman I am cleaning in the Clapham, she cheats, because I clean the sheets. I know the banker who I clean in Clerkenwell, he is taking the cocaine, because I find the Oyster card with the powders on the table.’ We get a glimpse into the kind of work migrants do and we read about what migrants think about the British: rude, snobbish, entitled, lazy. Still, they pin their hopes on London the city and the possibility of survival government policies enable.

The best thing about the book is that Judah or Judah’s voice pops up only occasionally; most of the time it’s the migrants’ voices you hear, their eyes you see through. It’s social history writing that gets as good as it can get, though, clearly, no record of any kind of history can be entirely unbiased. Keep this in mind and there’s no doubt this book with ‘the stories you never hear, the people you never see’ will compel you to empathise with the world it describes.

The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist

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