Adam Somerset reviews Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now, As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It
by Craig Taylor.
London’s enthusiasts love to quote Wordsworth. Commentators at the great, if damp, Diamond Jubilee Thames Festival cited, or mis-cited, his lines from Westminster Bridge. But Wordsworth is just one of many writers to have celebrated London. For Shelley ‘Hell is a city much like London.’ When Alexander Pope removed himself to leafy Twickenham: ‘Dear, damned, distracting town, farewell!’ ‘A great cesspool’ is how Conan Doyle put it in a Sherlock Holmes story.
Wordsworth may have marvelled at Westminster’s view but he also noticed that ‘next-door neighbours’ can be ‘yet still/ Strangers, and knowing not each other’s names.’ Craig Taylor has sought out eighty voices from the eight million. He has worked hard, very hard, to find a span of voices that are both distinctive and far-reaching. In his after-word he thanks more than two hundred people who have helped him. Taylor is himself from a seaside village in Western Canada and writes how he at first felt ‘lonely, duped, under-prepared, faceless, friendless.’ The first words from Jo the Geordie are ‘London is a vast and lonely place.’
London’s population reached a peak in 1939. It then dropped by a quarter over the next forty years. Now it rises and rises and no-one knows quite why. The sheer ungraspable scale of the mega-city is caught here in the off-the-cuff remark; the twenty-eight and a half thousand streets, the seventeen and a half thousand bus stops, the two hundred and seventy-three tube stations, the three hundred languages spoken by schoolchildren. When one of Taylor’s interviewees arrives at Claridge’s as a trainee chef he is eighty-eighth in the pecking order. London has more French residents, four hundred thousand, than live in the cities of Nice or Nantes.
The lure to the French, and every other nationality, is the vaunted flexible labour market, or just plain money. Taylor has dug deep into the social strata of the teeming city. The hedge fund manager recounts a career from boiler room to Berkeley Square office where a four thousand pound lunch at the Connaught is ‘well, it’s like half an hour’s work.’ The estate agent reports that one in three house purchases in zones one and two are for straight cash. And money begets money. When Goldman Sachs has a clear-out of its staff the nearby manicurist worries. Out of her three hundred clients one hundred and fifty are Goldman people. But, of course, says Davy the photographer Londoners never see the real rich. They don’t go out on the streets.
London is division. ‘William the Conqueror created the Tower of London’, says Canary Wharf’s CEO ‘to the west was money and pleasure, and to the east was poverty, and it is still here.’ The nightclub bouncer can see it still. The West Londoners look healthier. But Taylor travels all over. He is shown round Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall by a social worker. His companion in Greenwich is a teacher. ‘This is the best job ever’ she says ‘apart from getting your phone stolen every twelve weeks.’
Taylor is good on the city’s physical fabric. He opens and closes with the pilot’s view. There is a paradox to the view from above. Fly in on a sunny day from the Essex marshes and London looks a stretch of amiable greenery. Down on the ground an arboriculturalist tells him of the different soils and the ways in which trees deal with clay or sandy, gravelly effluvium. A character called Smartie remembers that London not so long ago had great swathes of dereliction. The Barrie Keefe-scripted film ‘The Long Good Friday’ still stands up as a cracking piece of action but it also has the status of a fascinating historical document.
As for the sheer architectural diversity a planning officer takes a walk from the Temples round Norman church to the Black Friar pub, a wonderful Arts and Crafts building. ‘I’m in love with London’ he says ‘And always have been.’ The endless strange architectural adjacencies are exemplified on the unlovely Holloway Road. Sex shops and fry-up cafes stand cheek-by-jowl with a Buddhist centre and a Daniel Libeskind-designed university building.
The book has an unstoppable inquisitiveness. Paris as a city spends between five and seven times as much per head on street cleaning ‘and it shows.’ At Billingsgate the hundred and fifty types of fish include one hundred kilogram chunks of swordfish. Many a taxi driver was once a city trader. The format of the Marriage Register has not changed since 1837. The ink has a special formulation so that it darkens with age. Men who are heading for strip clubs do so in clusters, reports the rickshaw rider, while those seeking brothels are invariably in pairs. The cost of reclaiming a lost laptop is twenty pounds. Other items left in the back of a cab have a fee based on their value. It is to compensate the cabbie for the fares lost in the hour or more spent in depositing them.
This kind of Studs Terkel reportage lives by the range and the distinctiveness of the voices. A beekeeper, up on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall, sees the damage to the city’s ecological richness when park attendants mow down some daffodils. Taylor meets the funeral director who has flown out to Ghana to learn how to broaden his service. The illegal immigrant has a saga of a tale that includes a nasty stint in a French gaol. A Bangladeshi woman is released from home twice a fortnight, once to sign on and once to take a driving lesson. Taylor is greeted regularly outside Brixton station with: ‘Bruv, bruv, bruv, skunkweed, bruv, bruv, bruv.’ I know that voice.
‘London is propulsion’ says a speaker ‘it rewards those who push forward.’ Taylor’s voices take in every emotion. He meets a late-thirties Asian woman who has created her own life. Of her father she says ‘it matters more to him what strangers think than what makes his children happy.’ Another thirty-something young professional, who has become a mother, starts to see a different city: the bad air, the smells, the men with their pit bull companions, the impatience at her buggy that impedes the sheer speed of it all. Cambridge beckons.
As for the City, it never ceases to be itself. If you are an artist ‘you’ve got to bear in mind’ says a City grandee ‘that most of the artistic field is paid for by the financial business.’
If Craig Taylor’s epic journey up, down, across London leaves a single image in its wake it must be the Lost Property Office at the back of Baker Street. Each and every lost phone is tagged and bagged. The ringing from all these individual brown envelopes is constant. Human beings live by symbols. That cacophony of ring tones can stand for anything; technology and its accomplishment, consumerism and individualism, waste and the throw-away society, money, and, underneath, the sheer dogged, struggling, organising force of civil order. In short, London. Reading Taylor’s exhilarating series of snapshots made me want to run for the first train to Euston.
main image ‘double yellow two’ copyright Tony Day