This is London
by Ben Judah Reviewed by Louis Wilkins
[This review appeared in the Journal of the London Society, edition 470. More details here.]
Ben Judah’s eye-opening account of London’s hidden population of Roma beggars and street musicians, of West Indian cocaine dealers, Filipina maids, of pimps and prostitutes and African carers is a timely reminder of the changing make-up of the capital, its increasing levels of inequality as well as the wider pressures of economic migration which, Brexit or no, will continue to have a major impact on our economy and society.
It is a remarkable book. Judah has a real skill in getting his often frightened and threatened subjects to spill out their grim experiences of living third class in fast-growing London. This is London provides an important reality check for a city that is frequently touted as the world’s greatest.
The statistics are stark: every week 2,000 migrants unload at Victoria Coach Station; there are 550,000 Africans in London – equivalent to the population of Sheffield – up 45% since 2001; there are 15,000 servants in Mayfair; there are 7,000 prostitutes in London, 96% of whom are migrants, mostly from Romania, Slovakia and Lithuania; 60% of carers and nurses in London are migrants.
This might suggest that Judah’s book is a polemic against the scale of immigration to London, but it doesn’t feel like that. His portraits of those struggling to eke out a living, to survive in the underworld of London are sympathetically drawn. 'I was born in London,' he writes, 'but I no longer recognise this city. I don’t know if I love the new London or it frightens me.' He describes lives that are certainly frightening and he celebrates the resilience of those at the bottom of the pile.
But was it not ever thus for economic migrants throughout the ages settling in London and working their way into its society? Or is the scale of the change we are facing in London so great that we are looking at a permanent class of excluded citizens?