Heart Of Darkness By The Thames

An epic journey through 21st century London

Books
A disillusioned Dick Whittington? The number of rough sleepers in London has more than doubled in the past five years (CP Grey CC BY-SA 2.0)

“I have to see everything for myself. I don’t trust statistics. I don’t trust columnists. I don’t trust self-appointed spokesmen. I have to make up my own mind.” The declamatory opening of Ben Judah’s This is London, which started life as a dispatch for Standpoint, could be that of a Hollywood blockbuster, the voiceover of a lone-ranger hero, spoken as the camera pans over a stark wasteland. Except that apocalyptic scene is nothing so dramatic as daily London life in the 21st-century.

From that opening hook, the reader cannot help but be sucked into Judah’s London, accompanying him on his epic journey through the modern city, armed only with a tape recorder, notepad, and a hell of a lot of stamina. Each of the 25 areas he visits, from Peckham to Newham, via Berkeley Square and White City, is designated a chapter, filled with grim, undoctored photos, and populated vividly with the “new Londoners”. These are the foreign immigrants, disillusioned Dick Whittingtons who are flocking to the city they’ve been told is paved with gold, only to discover the harsh reality. It is a masterly — and deeply depressing — portrait of London today, as shocking as it is necessary.

Somewhat ironically, the Londoners who actually read Judah’s book are most likely to be, like him, in that dwindling minority of middle-class white Brits. At least 55 per cent of Londoners today are not British-born, and illegal immigrants make up 5 per cent of the population, says Judah. Thus the majority, regardless of how militantly politically correct they might be, are likely to sympathise with Judah’s motive: “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 . . . I have no idea who these new Londoners are. Or even what their London really is.”

A sorry carousel of those living “in the shadows” passes before the reader: the Underground cleaners forced to witness suicides, the contract hospital workers travelling all over the capital at a moment’s notice, the Polish cash-in-hand builders renovating Kensington oligarchs’ mega-mansions for less than £4 an hour. Such people live packed like rats in dosshouses (in which Judah, pretending to be a Russian immigrant, stays) on the outskirts of a London that appears to have reverted to a Victorian hell. Countless numbers of helpless people are stuck working themselves to the bone for next to nothing (interestingly, aprt from the homeless Roma, Judah doesn’t meet any unemployed immigrants living off the state).

Hesitations, speech mannerisms and patois in the interviews, left unedited, create a sense of a fly-on-the-wall television documentary. Comparisons with George Orwell’s 1933 memoir Down and Out in Paris and London are inevitable and doubtless intentional: like his predecessor, Judah is a somewhat removed young gentleman on a Grand Tour of London, rarely in danger and always able to escape to the warmth and safety of middle-class life: exactly the sort of life absent from these pages. His black and white London of Africans and Eastern Europeans can seem a little too black and white in terms of its absolutism — rich Knightsbridge drunks versus homeless Roma in the Hyde Park underpass; Shepherds Bush ghetto gangsters versus inherited-wealth cokeheads. The average middle-class resident, whose numbers may have shrunk but still undeniably populate great swathes of the city, barely appears — except in comments about the “compounds of white privilege in Peckham” where nightclubs have an “eerie colonial feel”: “These people tell you they like Peckham, that they love the ethnic colour. But this is an expat society. They love it like a prop. Like a stage backdrop to evenings that the Africans are not invited to.”

There is a touch of the bleeding-heart liberal in Judah’s disdain for these hipsters. But, as a rule, he tells the grippingly fascinating stories of the new London without making judgments. Addiction is rife in this nightmare city: from the cheap cans of beer downed in the park (their consumers, the Poles, sniff contemptuously at the British habit of wasting money on more expensive pub pints) to the skunk and cocaine which surfaces in the majority of the stories, a route of escape for the new Londoners whose expectations have been so drastically dashed. The seemingly hopeless, pointless existence of so many is perhaps the reason for the title: a riff on Shane Meadows’s cult 2006 film This is England, which dramatised the lives and nationalist views of skinheads. In fact, so melodramatically apocalyptic does Judah’s story read at times that This is London seems more reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Danny in the film Blood Diamond, who explains the ineffectuality of charity workers, the government and rebels in Sierra Leone with the cynical shrug, “TIA — this is Africa.”

Judah’s Londoners came to the city convinced that they would meet with immediate success and wealth. They swiftly discover the harsh reality.  One African immigrant, Akwese, describes the realisation that, far from the paradise he’d been led to expect, he is trapped in a cruel, ruthless nightmare. “The disappointment . . . It was bitter, so bitter.” It is hard not to finish Judah’s book feeling, if not the same despair as Akwese, a distinct sense of unease, due to the lack of any resolution. Judah did not set out to solve the migration crisis, or to right any of the terrible injustices meted out on a daily basis to those living illegally in London’s shadows. But This is London places the darkening condition of our city starkly before our eyes. It is a book that should not be ignored.