Book Review: This is London: Life and Death in the World City by Ben Judah

Quote of the book

“London can crush you. Or London can transform you.”

5 key points

  • The demographics of London have evolved substantially, with 55% of the city being made up of ethnic minorities.
  • The melting pot of cultures and backgrounds is what makes London the international city it is today.
  • The inequalities in London are substantial: one example in this book draws on how the average London life expectancy falls by 11 years over 5 tube stops, a 15 minute journey.
  • Similarly, despite making up more than half of the population, only 10% of the policy force are minorities.
  • Financial inequality is pushing migrants away from the centre of the city in Zone 1 and Zone 2, as rich international investors are buying properties and pushing up the cost of apartments and houses.

Review

Against the rest of the UK, London is so vast and diverse, that it can feel like its own country at times. Moving between boroughs can feel like moving between whole different cultures and atmospheres – this is one of the things that makes London such a cosmopolitan and dynamic place to be. But, what is London really like behind the glossy representation in films and the perspective of the media? What goes on in the sides of London that remain concealed? Judah aims to uncover this side of London, his birth city, sharing the stories of people that he spoke with from all different walks of life in this bold book.

Depending on your experience of London, there are likely to be some surprises in this book and new sides of London you have not already been exposed to – especially given that Judah explores 25 parts of London which transcend all cultural and socio-economic lines. I was moved by the stories of different communities in London and what the dynamic between these communities is, from the perspective of those interviewed by Judah. Of course – it should be noted that these experiences cannot be extrapolated to make a generalisation across everyone from the named community. These are only the perspectives of the individual(s) interviewed by Judah, but this doesn’t diminish how important it is to hear them.

Additionally, Judah offers some statistics around the evolving landscape of London that makes London the city it is today. For example, in the 40 years after 1971, the white British population of London fell from 86% to 45% for various reasons. More tragically, 643 suicide attempts happened on the London Underground in the first decade of the 21 century. There are stories behind these statistics; these are not just numbers, and Judah’s conversations are revealing of these stories that are usually forgotten or dismissed.

For example, one revealed that drugs are evidently there, but this is dismissed in reality: “this is a city that can’t own up that so much cocaine gets snorted at weekends that the water authorities notice its presence spiking in the sewers on a Tuesday afternoon”, whilst another goes to a six-storey estate in Elephant and Castle. Tony Blair visited this estate and called the residents “the people forgotten by government”, only for their homes to be in the process of being knocked down. Other stories expressed the frustration that people who arrive in London with the hope of dreams feel: it is a place “where a poor man could become a rich man” but “the frontiers of any paradise are as gated and unreachable as his kingdom” and “you need so much ammunition – knowledge, money, everything – to jump to the next level” in London.

From these stories, you can feel the sense of injustice experienced by those who have been forgotten, pushed out of their original homes because of destruction or rich investors pushing up property prices, and the desire to be heard. Judah has given them that voice here; however, this is yet to be translated into action because this pattern of forcing people out of their homes continues to happen.

The way the book is structured might imply that there are differences between the communities – they live in different neighbourhoods, between some there is resentment that others are economically, socially or otherwise better off, but I think if you look beneath that, the underlying anxieties, concerns and desires are similar, emphasising all that unites these communities and how they share each other’s cultures to collectively form the city that is London.

One criticism of the book is that the examples included in the book are of the more extreme level, which may not reflect a ‘typical Londoner’s’ everyday experience of the city, almost glorifying the plight of these individuals and focusing heavily on the negatives. Whilst the book on its own should not be taken as a comprehensive reflection of life in London, it should be read alongside experiencing London first hand, whether that is experience is through studying there as a student, living there as a young professional, being born-and-bred in London, visiting for a holiday, or anything in between. I feel like it makes you feel more open minded as a resident or visitor to the city to who your neighbours are and what their stories are in their own words – something Judah does in this book.

Overall, this book does not aim to define what a ‘Londoner’ is. It instead aims to reveal how London has evolved over the years, particularly demographically, and to make the point that there is no ‘typical’ Londoner. It emphasises how London is a melting pot of cultures and this is a defining trait of the city; this is what gives London its identity as an international, inclusive and cosmopolitan city.

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Get the book | Official website | Goodreads

Published by sharemylibrary

Non-fiction book reviews, summaries, and recommendations

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