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Reid’s Reads: This is London: Life and Death in the World City by Ben Judah

Ben Judah’s second book is a glorious mess of detail and life. This is London endeavours to paint a picture of what it’s like to live in today’s London through a series of isolated stories. Though it sounds rather dross and humdrum at first, Judah has not just coldly observed from afar, he’s gone to the glitz and the gutter and gathered beautifully-described tales of heartbreaking woes, crippling addictions and blurry day-to-day livelihood.

The most refreshing aspect of the book is its readability. Though often heavy and hard, Judah has taken it upon himself to only describe. There is no analysis, no boggy and cold hypotheses and no data samples – which as a third-year is great news. Occasionally, there is a statistic referring to, for example, London birth records or the ethnicity of an area’s population. The twenty-five chapters are each based on a single interview or a collection of them and the references are always grounded in the tale being told, never forced and always fascinating.

The description is so ornately adorned – it has a wondrous effect drawing you in. Like Hammersmith and City where Judah reflects on a tube journey:

“…modernized carriages, the big ones where a hundred thousand humans have not worn in the seats. These are gleaming plastic spaces: fitted with bright, electric-yellow hand poles, the ones I see gripped tightly by the muttering old white woman, her hair a purple wash, in a fluffy green coat with an emerald brooch, her face pinched in irritation.”

Ben Judah, foreign affairs correspondent and author. Photo credit: https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-02-09/post-dickens-new-london-mega-city-migrants

Judah is a foreign correspondent, and as he turns his skills to cover London, it feels like reading the reports of an alien land. This is in part the fact that the book focuses on so many cultures and first-generation migrants – although as this account shows, it’d be foolish to think of London as anything but saturated-multicultural. But also, Judah describes London with an objective lack of affection. I’m used to reading warm accounts of the city: columns by journalists who are smilingly recording the place they grew up or always dreamed of living and working. Having only visited London as a tourist myself, my experience is culture-shaped not factually informed. This is London has taught me a lot.

Judah also expresses himself as a person. Worrying when a black man runs past – “is he being followed” – and catching his casual racism, or being self-aware as he quizzes a Russian oligarch’s wife about giving birth. Judah slept rough, shared a migrant house, strolled countless streets and gathered precious contacts. This is a collection of human life written by a human. The bleakness, humour, mannerisms, hopes, struggles, gains and losses scattered across the pages are too life-like to be lightly passed over.

There are some questionable moments. How can Judah really know if the group of men on a bus are Lithuanians? Certainly some of the interviews are censored purposefully to make a point. The author himself admits a bias in his questioning towards a teacher, looking for “a success story”, and you have to wonder which stories were left out in this account, and why the ones present were chosen – not that the quality of the chapters are in question.

Verdict – 9/10 – Phenomenal

From the lively account of one man’s journey from Afghanistan in Peshawar – London, to the gut-wrenching conversations the author has with prostitutes in Ilford Lane, This is London is a book with a heartbeat. Gorgeously written, brutally honest and piercingly thought-provoking. What Judah has to share is worth reading.

This is London: Life and Death in the World City by Ben Judah. 2016.

ISBN: 1447272447