Down and Out in Twenty-First Century London

Review: Ben Judah, This is London: Life and Death in the World City (London: Picador, 2016), pp. 432, RRP £18.99

“The English are dying. The English are declining and they are declining fast … You can see it on the streets. In the markets, there used to be only English people there screaming, in the cockney accent. But they’ve gone now … and all the English pubs, they are boarding up, and the English churches, they are being rented out to the Africans.”

The London policeman’s pronouncement. Pig, he would think that. 90 per cent of Met cops are white. Policing a city where 55 per cent of the population are from ethnic minorities. A city which has seen the white British constituent decline from 86 per cent of London residents down to 45 percent between 1971 and 2011. EastEnders and Only Fools and Horses as alien to London as Alf Garnett. The English are dying. A sentiment to be found in the saloon bar banter of UKIP sympathizers. Not, as in the instance of the Met copper recorded above, a Nigerian who migrated to the UK in 1989.

Following in the footsteps of George Orwell, Ben Judah in This is London takes to the streets and traces the hidden cities within the city. A city which can’t banish Victorian ghosts. Romance-in-reverse redolent of Dickens, Mayhew and Booth. More than 550,000 Africans, akin to a metropolis the size of Sheffield, making up 95 per cent of those who clean up the Coke cans and sandwich wrappers, newspaper pages, piss, puke and spunk from the Tube. More than 35,000 Roma, with thousands like the 16 from Slobozia living in the underpass under Hyde Park Corner eking an existence by begging. Struggling to pay 100 per cent interest loans for the privilege of living so. The night Judah slummed it with the Roma, they collected 82 pence. More than 150,000 Polish migrants, builders dossing, 16 sharing a two-bedroom one-bathroom ex-council house. Ill-educated tramps, over 5,000 of them, mainly from rural Poland and Romania. Unloading trucks for Turkish shopkeepers for sour White Ace high-octane cider, spiced at times with a hit of hospital handwash, men roasting rats in the back streets of Tottenham.

This is London: the liberal lure and lie of multiculturalism. Accommodation adverts: “Europeans, Hindus and Sikhs only”. As one woman mourns:

“I don’t live in Britain … I live in Lithuania. I watch Lithuanian TV … I use Lithuanian internet … My friends they are all Lithuanian … I only meet Lithuanians. The only thing I do in Britain is pay taxes to the British.”

No assimilation or integration, but parallel lives. In the words of Mukhtar, a Somalian living in Harlesden:

“Every community is to their own. Nobody communicates to each other … It’s not like it was … I mean I had a white girlfriend, she was my first … They see each other as aliens … The Somali community is on their own … And the Polish community is on their own.”

Yet commerce has always bred co-operation. Soho sex workers increasingly in thrall to Albanian not Maltese hard men; or, more positively, the erosion of Cockney counter-weighted by the embracement of Street – listen for the ubiquitous “dis” and “dem”. To the shame of those who submit to the belligerent intolerant strain of the religion of peace: “the Pakistani racket hands over a few grams to the Romanian racket, who pay their whores with drugs, and then give the Pakistanis a cut of their profits for their spots.” Even worse, Muslim girls spotted discarding traditional dress at school for makeup, mini skirts and high heels.

For a man who doesn’t trust statistics, Judah presents the reader with a battery of numbers:

There is a whole illegal city in London. This is where 70 per cent of Britain’s illegal immigrants are hiding. This is a city of more than 600,000 people, making it larger than Glasgow or Edinburgh. There are more illegals in London than Indians. Almost 40 per cent of them arrived after 2001. Roughly a third are from Africa. This is the hidden city: hidden from the statistics, hidden from the poverty rates. They all discount them: a minimum 5 per cent of the population.

This is London: launderettes, boarded-up pubs, cash-and-carries, halal butchers, money transfers, pavement fruit stalls and processed sausage-selling corner shops; betting, fried chicken and pound shops. This is London: an alchemical illusion. Aspiration anaesthetized. The streets aren’t paved with gold. East European labourers queueing-up outside Wickes for £4 an hour, waiting to to be called-up like Depression-era dockers. Africans washing-up in restaurants earning per shift what a customer pays for a main dish, not the £3,000 a month promised back home for pushing the button on the mythical magical machine. Brazilian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Slovak and Thai “models” in debt bondage. No Belle Du Jour dream. A glassy-eyed shrivel-breasted crack whore in Edmonton who’ll suck cock for a tenner.

Aspiration? Dad’s gone and mum’s working double shifts to pay the rent. Is it any wonder the teenagers “hug the block”? Gang as family. Gang as a leg-up. Listen to Moses from Grenada:

“It’s about who you are … Are you some sucker who’s gonna do these three GCSEs and go join dem niggas in Tesco bleeping that shit and get replaced in six months by a machine? Are you gonna be like your sad old pops slaving away on the Central Line and who can’t afford two fucking pairs of trainers? Or are you someone who’s gonna take that risk? Are you gonna shot white? Because unless you magically become a lawyer … gang-banging is your only go on the big-money roulette.”

Bolivian marching powder, charlie, coke, white. Cocaine? 30 per cent pure, if you’re lucky. Crap cut with creatine and sugars, dilutions disguised with caffeine, lidocaine or benzocaine. And levamisole: a white blood cell depleting animal de-wormer. Demand fuelling a boom outstripping that of property in the cocaine capital of Europe: “Everyone was doing it now: the investors were sniffing, the solicitors were sniffing, the students were sniffing, even the builders were sniffing now.” Hoxton hipsters unwittingly yet directly fuelling the gang postcode wars of Hackney. A demand so strong that water authorities notice a spike in the presence of this drug in the sewers on Tuesdays.

This is London, the disappearing city. Apparitions of the white working classes absent. A lost tribe whose diminution was depicted back in 1996 in John King’s Football Factory:

I suppose we’re like niggers in a way. White niggers. White trash. White shit. We’re a minority because we’re tight. Small in number. We’re loyal and dedicated. Football gives us something. Hate and fear makes us special. We have a base in the majority which means the cunts in charge can’t work us out. We have most of the same ideas but we’ve worked them round to fit ourselves. We’re a bit of everything. There’s no label. We’re something the rich cunts hate and slumming socialists can’t accept. We’re happy with life and there’s no need for social workers. 

Everyone is being pushed out, not just the natives. The inner city as J.G. Ballard’s redundant mausoleum, a rich man’s playground with locals dispersed to Parisian-style banlieus.  Rumours amongst the blacks of Brixton of an imminent white take over. Brixton in south London. Where Lambeth council have raised £55.65 million since 2011 by selling housing stock. Where house prices have risen 76 per cent over the last ten years and the average rent for a one bedroom property costs £1,744 a month.

In the adjoining borough of Southwark, the Heygate Estate has been demolished in Elephant and Castle. 3,000 people gone. Kicked out to the banlieus and beyond. Only two per cent of the new flats rented to the poor. This is London, the money-laundering capital of the world, where according to Transparency International 36,342 properties covering 2.2 square miles are owned by shell companies. Grass roots campaigns to fight dreaded gentrification, commodifocation and sanitization of East London’s Hackney and Norton Folgate and the West End’s St Giles and Soho.

Gentrification, a term coined in 1964 by the Marxist urban geographer Ruth Glass and popularly associated with developments in East London. Writer and broadcaster Patrick Wright notes:

The Spitalfields Trust, which started buying threatened Huguenot houses along the eastern edge of the City of London in the late Seventies, claims never to have displaced anyone. But the “New Georgian” mythologies that emerged from, or perhaps usurped, its activities as the market took off were hardly so fastidious: they celebrated the discrepancy between the re-Englished Georgian interior and the grainy Bangladeshi world outside, treating the extremes of social inequality not as a spur to reform but as vivid local colour.

Gentrification embodying the ideal of London as the city of villages, an estate agent’s conceit, what historian Roy Porter describes as

a myth of local identity solid, rooted, stable, duckponds and all; in reality, London’s districts were ever in flux, turbulent eddies of change, as citizens ceaselessly moved on, to avoid going down in the world.

This is London, Dryden’s “Phoenix in her ashes”, the perpetual collision and congruence of continuity and change. To the royal blue of Monopoly’s Mayfair, bounded by the retail throughfares of Bond and Oxford Streets and up-market Piccadilly and Park Lane. Mayfair, the address to have by the mid-eighteenth century. Where a survey of the Grosvenor estate (to this day creating cash for the Duke of Westminster) in 1790 revealed the residence of 37 peers, 18 baronets, 15 “Honourables” and 39 “Ladies”. Grand designs including Berkeley Square, Dorchester House, Grosvenor House. Grandees representing less than 10 per cent of the population. 55 butchers living locally.

Mayfair, which witnessed the first transformation of an old stable to “bijou mews house” as early as 1908. Where in the Edwardian period old mansion houses were torn down to make way for luxury apartments. A process magnified after the first world war with the development of opulent hotels and smart shops. A quarter morphing from Fauborg St Germain to the Champs-Elysees. Lamented by Sassoon with the mid-1920s destruction of Devonshire (formerly Berkeley) House:

Strolling one afternoon along a street

Whose valuable vastness can compare

With anything on earth in the complete

Efficiency of its mammoniac air – 

Strolling (to put it plainly) through those bits

Of Londonment adjacent to the Ritz, 

(While musing on the social gap between

Myself, whose arrogance is mostly brainy,

And those whose pride, on sunlit days and rainy,

Must loll and glide in yacht and limousine),

Something I saw, beyond a boarded barrier, 

Which manifested well that Time’s no tarrier.

Where stood the low-built mansion, once so great,

Ducal, demure, secure in its estate – 

Where Byron rang the bell and limped upstairs,

And Lord knows what political affairs

Got muddled and remodelled while Their Graces

Manned unperturbed Elizabethan faces – 

There, blankly overlooked by wintry strange

Frontages of houses rawly-lit by change,

Industrious workmen reconstructed quite

The lumbered, pegged, and excavated site;

And not one nook survived to screen a mouse

In what was Devonshire (God rest it) House.

Talismanic properties evoked in the early 1930s by writer Paul Cohen-Portheim:

Mayfair is one of those golden symbol-words which make millions of people tremble with delight – like Ascot, Cowes, Eton, or Oxford. Most of these millions would probably deny this imputation – but look at the space these symbols take up in print! … Mayfair is still a place for the rich, but for the rich of all nations and of no matter what origin or ancestry. 

Meeting Egyptian rich-kid Nahla, Ben Judah writes of Mayfair today:

There have always been daughters like her in Mayfair: errant, raffish, refusing to marry to their fathers’ wishes – their rebellion tolerated by Daddy, perhaps because he sees in her eyes shards of his own repressed self. They have been here as long as the town houses. But the real princesses and heiresses are no longer English. They are from Dubai and Qatar. 

This is London, testament to the peculiar power of place.

Further Reading

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2 Responses to Down and Out in Twenty-First Century London

  1. Superb article – must buy this book! Many of my old London haunts have completely changed for better or for worse.


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