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Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It
London Times write-up
Polish workers, African refugees and East End funeral directors rub shoulders in a thrilling portrait of the city
Why would anyone write another book about London — especially if they’ve only lived there for a decade? I wondered what I, as a Londoner of more than 40 years, could learn from reading Londoners? The answer, it turned out, was almost too much. Because to read about London is to read about the world.
Take the young man who set out for the city from Tehran: “It was my first time in an airplane. When the plane took off, everyone [women] took off the scarf. I’d never seen ladies with all their scarves off and I thought: ‘Oh my, what they are doing?’ I’d heard about that and seen it in the movies, but I’d never seen it in reality.”
I studied the Iranian revolution at university, but one sentence from an Iranian Londoner revealed more about life under an ayatollah than all the textbooks. Taylor’s book is like a gigantic camera, spewing out hundreds of snapshots to provide a panoramic vision.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste; those who want information in an ordered, linear fashion will feel queasy. London isn’t very ordered. But it is electrifying. As Taylor writes: “Living history is thrilling, especially in an eloquent city, in a talkative town, in a place where people fought to get here, fought to stay here, fought to get out.”
The eloquence of the voices in this book — from marriage registrars to the London Underground’s lost property clerk, to a Ugandan asylum seeker — is remarkable. Not because they speak the Queen’s English (they clearly don’t) but because they reveal a world you know, and yet don’t know at all.
Londoners will recognise some incontrovertible truths in this book, and then recognise the most important truth: everyone’s truth is different. Taylor asks how you can tell who is a real Londoner. Some mention Bow Bells, or the length of time in London, or say that a true Londoner is identified by his or her postcode, or is born within the M25. But the incontrovertible truth is revealed by someone in a Cricklewood pub: “A real Londoner would never eat at one of those bloody Angus bloody steak houses in the West End. That’s how you tell.”
The enchanting thing about Londoners is that it turns statistics into people. With most political books it’s the other way round. Take the half a million Poles living in the UK. Poles have been arriving in London since at least 1015AD, when King Canute — whose mother was Polish — landed with Polish soldiers in Kent. But they are lumped in with Eastern European stereotypes, grafted on to the universal economic migrant’s tale: coming here to send money there. Ludmila, a Polish waitress working in an Irish pub in Kilburn, spoke about the human cost: “I would make time each day to call my daughter, Alexandra, who was 4 and living with my mother in Warsaw ... It was hard to hear my daughter from so far away. She comes on the phone, she doesn’t always speak to me, and I said, ‘Come on, say something,’ and there was her breathing and other small sounds but sometimes no words, and that is so hard to hear. Just sounds. It made me wonder if she knew it was me. This is when you think: ‘What am I doing in London? How much do I make? What do I have to do before I go home?’”
Then there’s the East End funeral director who remembers when traffic in the East End regularly stopped to make way for extraordinary funeral processions. What you realise from these accounts is that the changing landscape and clientele of any job — funeral director, nail manicurist, hedge fund manager, grief counsellor, publican, estate agent — provides as much information about the political economy or anthropology of a country as a journalist’s report or a politician’s speech. It’s merely less predictable, and much more interesting.
Talking about running a funeral parlour in Canning Town, John Harris explains: “We didn’t have to advertise because we had no mobility. If you was born in the East End you died in the East End ... Funerals were big then. The working classes, you had to go out with some style. We didn’t need Yellow Pages, we didn’t need fancy adverts on TV ... The foreigners we had then were leftovers from the war or pre-war. We had a Polish community — always have had — because you got to remember this was a dock area ... The Hindus and Sikhs, a lot of the African countries, they do traditional washing. We put a different god up on the wall for whoever’s coming. When we have Chinese ashes staying here, they have a two-soul system ... The Filipino community, they like to do an all-night vigil. It’s quite a big population. But that might not last forever because the new generation ... will they want to fly the bodies back to the Philippines? No. The younger generations, they’re English. They want burials here. It’s a bit like the Africans. This generation: 95 per cent flown back. By the time you get down to the third generation, they’re all going to be buried here so that traffic will stop.”
I feel I almost learned more about Londoners from this book than from being a Londoner for more than four decades. And yet it’s not the sort of book I’d usually buy; the politician in me yearns for the “brief brief”, not a 400-page yarn. But many of these stories are simply too good to miss.
Later this year, thousands of Olympians will march into London under flapping flags, and the global TV audience will be treated to a romanticized version of the city, with helicopter shots of Big Ben competing for time against footage of Buckingham Palace guards staring stone-faced into the distance and double-decker buses bouncing unsteadily through too-narrow streets. By the end of the ceremonies, you’ll have seen the city’s bridges so many times that you’ll wish they had all fallen down years ago.
The overall impression these images are meant to give off is that London, for all its recent convulsions, is a city that remains preserved in its past, obsessed with its royals (the queen will celebrate her diamond jubilee in June) and populated by the type of cheeky folks mythologized in those postwar BBC social documentaries and kept alive by the likes of Guy Ritchie’s tired gangster clichés. Not Londoners. Lahndannahs.
But London in 2012, like most other global cities, is in significant flux, much less beholden to sepia-tinged notions of what it used to be and much more a product of its new arrivals. Over the last decade, the foreign-born population reached 2.6 million, just about a third of the city. In addition to longstanding Irish, Indian, Jamaican and Bangladeshi communities, there are now many new immigrants from Nigeria, Slovenia, Ghana, Vietnam and Somalia. I’ve seen Russians fly in on their private jets, and Eastern Europeans breach the city limits in cars filled to the roof with suitcases and potted plants.
The changing population has inspired a certain amount of nativism in the city, sometimes good-natured, sometimes less so. There are those who believe that true Londoners are cockneys, and to be one of those you must be born within earshot of Bow Bells. Or: True Londoners are born within the ring of the M25 motorway. Others think that all it takes to be a Londoner is to have lived here for a great deal of time — at least 70 years, or 52 years, or 8 years, or, in one case, just over a month. “But it was a very good month,” this new Londoner told me, fresh from the north of England. “I’ve totally forgotten Macclesfield.”
True Londoners are extinct, another person told me. Foreigners can’t be Londoners, a British National Party campaigner said one Saturday afternoon on Hampstead High Street, before recounting a moving story of his own father’s journey from Cyprus to London and the way this shell-shocked man was welcomed into the city. A true Londoner would never support Manchester United, I was told. “The only thing I know” — and this was uttered in a very loud pub in Cricklewood — “is that a real Londoner would never, ever, ever eat at one of those bloody Angus bloody Steakhouses in the West End. That’s how you tell,” the man said, steadying himself with a hand on the bar. “That’s how you tell.”
No one is just a Londoner. You quickly discover which part of the city suits your temperament. West London, one woman said, was “too brittle” for her. South Londoners hate going north. North Londoners forget there’s a south beyond the South Bank. Years ago, when I moved from Highbury to Clapham, north to south, my slightly grand landlady took a drag from her cigarette and said: “I used to have friends who lived south of the river. Whatever happened to them?”
For all their differences, the neighborhoods are a bit of a jumble. The rich parts of town aren’t as hermetic as they first appear. One night I accompanied a police officer around Islington, North London, and as he drove his unmarked car past all the tony houses, he said: “We’ve got two extremes, affluence and poverty, and there isn’t the separation people might imagine. If I had the money, I wouldn’t live there if you gave me the house for half the price. I know what’s on the doorstep.”
Even the East, with its celebrated heritage, has changed and changed again. A funeral director named John Harris, who inherited the family business, remembered his own not-far-off past, in which if you were born in the East End, you died in the East End, and then you were given the grand procession that was an East End funeral — complete with horses and the name of the deceased spelled out in floral tribute. “The working classes,” he said, “you had to go out with some style.” Now he provides space for the traditional washing at Hindu and Sikh funerals, watches over the all-night vigils of the Filipino community, stores ashes for the Chinese and arranges extravagant funerals for the Ghanaians.
The London of the past decade felt stable. Why else had the Russian billionaires come here to buy football clubs and newspapers? Why else did the Saudis descend on Knightsbridge? The equation seemed to be working — until suddenly it wasn’t. The riots last summer didn’t so much spread from one neighborhood to the next; they blossomed in disparate parts of the city. Older conservatives blamed the youth; the youth blamed other youth. It was always someone else, but the people in the grainy YouTube videos weren’t invaders at all.
“I certainly didn’t expect this in London,” said Nick Smith, a television executive. During the riots, he stepped off a bus in South London and saw 15 people rattling the metal shutters of a Foot Locker. “The people I saw, they didn’t come from another country. They were the people who would, on any other day, be sitting next to me on the bus. They were smashing up shops.”
“You can’t cut the defiance out of London,” a university student said at a pub near the Strand, where protesters had stacked placards near the door during another of the recent protests against higher tuition fees. “There are people in London here who look at Beijing with great envy. To be able to call in the tanks, to be able to push people around. ‘Oh, the things we could do if we never had to worry about the streets.’ As if that was not the most important thing about this place. As if London was anything other than a place of defiance, a staging ground.”
But London’s uneasy alchemy is also what gives the city its propulsion. “The Games will be fine, and there’ll be a lovely opening ceremony, and there’ll be a lovely closing ceremony,” a theater director told me at a cafe in Holborn when I asked her about the Olympics. “Some things will work and plenty of things won’t work, and somehow that combination of the working and not working is what gives it a particular energy and a particular life. If everything worked, it would be like Canberra. It would be dead in the water. And if nothing worked, it would be a third-world country, like Haiti. But this combination of not being able to get everything to work that we say will work seems to (make London) more appealing, perhaps, than a well-run, efficient city.
“I mean, if you’re always striving for success, you end up with something like America, and nobody,” she said, smiling, “wants to be like America, really.”
A quick guide to what Londoners say and what they really think.
“Don’t mention it . . . ”
“Please continue to thank me . . . ”
“I’m not being funny, but . . . ”
Prelude to a socially unacceptable remark
“I’m running 10 minutes late . . . ”
“I will be there anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour after we agreed to meet”
“I have half a mind to say something . . . ”
“I am adding to years’ worth of unspoken resentment that I will silence with claret or a very dry white wine”
“Musn’t complain . . . ”
“I have just complained”
“Probably my fault . . . ”
“This is your fault.”
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