Friday, February 10, 2012

Musings: Londoners

Londoners by Craig Taylor
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 is a very long title for a book.  It's also quite descriptive!  Craig Taylor has compiled a Studs Terkel-esque oral history of the city from interviews that he conducted over the first decade of the 21st century.  He interviews a wide variety of people- everyone from a cab driver to a dominatrix, a cruiser to a hedge fund manager, a funeral director to a manicurist and many, many more.

It's obviously a very good time to come out with this book, in preparation for the London Olympics in several months.  But I don't know if this book sells London, really.  The people that populate it are fascinatingly varied and have very distinct voices.  But almost all of them have this hint of melancholy and loneliness.  They feel the city is too fast, too large, too unfriendly.  That you need a thick skin to live there because no one is going to look out for you except you.

It's a pretty bleak picture, and I couldn't help but feel sad when reading the book because it reminded me of just how homesick I often felt in my study abroad months in London.  I loved the museums, the parks, the beautiful historic buildings, the markets and all the rest, but I remember how difficult it was to make friends, and as I was there in the winter, the weather was always so dreary and dull, it just could get so difficult sometimes.

I don't know if that is any different than the snapshot you'd get of life in any large multicultural city, though.  So many people that live in London are not from London, and so I can understand why the loneliness crept in.  I assume the same would happen if you were to compile a series of interviews on New York or Tokyo or Mumbai- hundreds of thousands of people every day going about their lives and not getting any recognition for it at all.  One of the most painful interviews to read was that of a rickshaw driver:
I picked the guy up on Shaftesbury Avenue.  He looked at me with these sad, sad eyes, and he gave me 5 pounds to drive around.  So I drive around and the guy never says a thing.  He's so quiet you can forget he's there.  Unfortunately, I did!  I was riding around and riding around and I got completely lost in myself, and I started thinking and I went into a bit of a daydream.  I went on this massive excursion around looking for fares and just completely forgot he was in the back.  I was going, "Hey miss, where you going?  Would you like a lift?"  And she was going, "No, no, no."  And I was wondering what was going on so I decided to give up and I decided to pull in to a cafe near to Frith Street to have a coffee.  So I pull up, get off my rickshaw, go into the shop, grab a chocolate bar and the guy is still sitting in the rickshaw.  Just sitting there as he always sits, not interested in anything going on around him, just slumped with his shoulders slouched forward, looking ahead, looking completely and utterly miserable.
I can't even describe to you how much that story haunted me as I read this book.  I just kept thinking about this miserable, lonely man whom no one knew or cared about and whether he's okay now or if he's just continuing on in this sad and isolated existence without anyone realizing it.

Another theme that often came out in the stories was race.  I don't mean racism, exactly, but more a very strong awareness of race- your own race and that of other people's and the way certain races or ethnicities or nationalities might act.  For example, many people (including the Muslims interviewed) repeatedly referenced the very strict rules governing Bangladeshi and Pakistani girls.  A nightclub bouncer mentioned that they often don't let Eastern European men in because "a lot of the gropers, the people who sexually harass girls inside the club, tend to be Eastern Europeans."  She hastens to add, of course, "This is based on having worked here for years and having seen the people who get thrown out."  There is so much defensiveness around the issue that comes up in these interviews, it's as though you can see the tension that must have been building before the riots occurred last year.

What also really fascinated me as an American was the way that Londoners (the English?  Europeans?) define "minority" in a completely different way than we do.  For example, the manicurist interviewee said:
I know where Shakespeare got his inspiration from.  He watched Londoners and his plays reflect the times of what was going on.  Like Othello, you know, the Moor?  At the end of the day, this man is an immigrant.  And now it's immigrants coming in, immigrants going out.  I just can't understand the word "minority."  I'm German and no one's going to build me a school.  [She laughs.]  It ain't gonna happen.  So I might as well just get used to it.
When I first came to England, Petticoat Lane was Jewish.  Petticoat Lane had Jewish tailors, it had Jewish merchants.  Everyone was Jewish.  We had the Indians, but they have now decided they've made enough money, and they've moved out to the nicer bits.  Now we've got Eastern Europeans coming in and selling their toot and it is toot.
As an American, I would never equate the life experience of a Black man with a German woman, all under the bucket of "immigrant."  There will always be a distinction in my mind, an acknowledgment that if you are a person of color, your experience in the Western world is different from that of people from a European or White background.  Nor would I ever consider someone German in England to be a "minority."  I have never heard the word applied in that context, though I understand exactly what she means.  I have never considered these words in such completely foreign terms before.  And so it really hit me that this manicurist combined everyone together into a collectivist immigrant experience.  But then, she turns around and separates everyone out again into religion, race and nationality.  (Really, what is with the Londoners interviewed not liking Eastern Europeans?)  It was disturbing, but also very realistic to see the struggles that people have with understanding race in a global context, and how they fit into the puzzle.  When do we combine our experiences and when do we like to separate ourselves from others?

As is inevitable in a book of this nature, some of the interviews really held my attention, and some did not.  I really identified with and felt for some of the people, but for many others, I did not.  It's not really a book you sit and read all at once- it's one that you have by your bed and read several pages of each night before you sleep.  It was a really interesting collection of stories, and I'm glad to have read it.  And now, I'm even more determined to finally get back to the copy of Studs Terkel's Hard Times that I have on my TBR shelf!

28 comments:

  1. I can't say that this book really interest me, oh well

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    1. Hahaha, well, thanks for being honest.

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  2. It just seems so sad for a book about a city to reflect and remind you about the melancholy associated with that city. I mean both in itself and in your experience with reading it. You're right, that one story you included is heartbreaking! If I were reading a book about my fave city, I would definitely want all happy, positive stories (LOL) or something more balanced.

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    1. Yes, it was interesting, but I don't meant to imply there were no happy stories. Some were pretty funny! Or maybe the stories that stood out to me more were the melancholy ones. But I appreciated that it was honest. And I think I'd want an honest portrayal of my favorite city, too. Granted, an honest portrayal of my favorite city would have no bad chapters ;-)

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  3. I've often wondered how fundamentally different the ideas about race and immigration must be in a nation where the vast majority of people are NOT descendent from fairly recent interlopers. As an American, I've always felt inherently that coming to America is part of one's history as an American, along with the culpability in everything that's been taken from Native Americans. In a country without that history, ideas of immigration must be very different, and I've gotten that impression from everything I've read and seen about England. Although of course British colonialism carries its own racial/cultural baggage.

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    1. Yes, I was fascinated by the same thing! It's so interesting how they define immigrant and minority there (or at least, how one person defined it) and how it really seeps into their interactions with other people. It seems even more isolating that way, really, to differentiate so minutely. But that's how it was here, too, earlier on, so maybe in another few generations, Europeans won't differentiate in that manner, either.

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    2. That's exactly how I thought the lumping of immigrants in London harkened back to. It sounds as if they all have their 'native' identities, much more than we do in the US.

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  4. Oh yes, that quote about the rickshaw driver really makes me feel glum. It seems that Londoners see things in a very different way than a lot of other people do, or it might just be that they are incredibly open and honest about the way they feel about different races and classes. I can imagine that this book might have been a bit upsetting to me as well. It seems like it draws a pretty bleak picture, but it is of interest to me. I would like to read this one at some point, and I really loved reading your perceptions on it, even though it was a darker book.

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    1. Yeah, or we can make a Studs Terkel book our next buddy read :-)

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  5. I've lived in two large cities in Britain (one in the North, one in the Midlands), but not London - and I wouldn't be tempted to live in our capital because my perception too is the city is too fast, too large, too unfriendly. That you need a thick skin to live there because no one is going to look out for you except you.
    But then I get the same impression about New York.

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    1. Yes, it's interesting how our perceptions are formed, isn't it? As a Chicagoan, I feel much the same way about New York, but found that the city really does have many smaller neighborhoods that make you feel like you are not in a massive city- but each building has so many stories of tiny apartments! I enjoyed New York, but Chicago just feels friendlier to me. That could be because I am from there, though!

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    2. As with any city (or anywhere in life), you have to find your own small community or 'village' - make the city human-sized again.

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  6. I think this one actually sounds fascinating. I think the dynamic of large cities is so interesting.

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    1. It is! And the book really was very interesting.

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  7. I like the idea of having such a variety of experiences shared about the same place; I would imagine that, if you were still living in the city, and your experience wasn't confined to such melancholy memories, that different stories would "speak" to you at different times, if you were to re-visit and re-read them as time passed.

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    1. That's really insightful. I don't mean it to sound like I had a horrible time in London. I loved the culture and the food and the parks and the arts. But I didn't have many friends there, and so I can completely understand how overwhelmed people feel there. But you're right- maybe if I had met some great love, I would have felt differently :-)

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  8. I read this and loved it I loved how craig had compiled the interview into a cycle london is such a large city I always pleased to leave it as it is tiring to spend time there as it seems like a sprint to my hum drum life ,all the best stu

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    1. Aw, I doubt your life can be THAT humdrum, Stu! You read really interesting books, at the very least :-) Have you ever read any Studs Terkel? I think you might really enjoy him, too, if you liked this one.

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  9. I read your review with curiousity, as London is my favourite big city. I love the history of it, and the places of interest and beauty, and yet what the literature that features London has, is this great loneliness about it. Like the people who live there, it's so big that they feel invisible,like the story you quoted. I'm thinking of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, which was about the hidden other side of London - not the seamy side, but the hidden fantasy side, that is found only by certain people,often lonely. It was a lonely book too, in many ways. I wonder what exactly it is about London that makes it this way? Yet it's so fascinating to go visit, and there is so much to London. I wonder if the problem is so many newcomers live on the surface of London? Did the author interview anyone who lived there all their lives, and came from people who had been there for a few generations?

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    1. Hi Susan, really insightful comment! Yes, the author interviewed all kinds of people. Interestingly, there aren't THAT many generations-long Londoners left in the city, but he did find a few to talk to.

      I don't know if I believe that newcomers live on the "surface" of a city. I think people experience cities differently based on many factors - location, income level, language, community and many other things. So while someone who has lived there for his whole life may know one area really well, or one topic really well, that doesn't mean that his experience of London is so much deeper than a recent immigrant. At least, in my opinion :-)

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  10. I love London but if you have to be out and about all day it can become overwhelming. And it can feel a little lonely, but then with all the running about due to the speed of everything that's expected. Some of London feels quite different though. The thing about Eastern Europeans is that there have been a lot of them coming at once and the lack of available jobs and housing for people already here means that people worry that those who have been here longer/all their life will suffer. So it's more an issue of the ability of the country to be able to provide for everyone rather than the people themselves.

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    1. I suppose that's possible, but the book mentioned much more than just the jobs thing. There was a lot about Eastern Europeans being dirtier, making shabby products, and harassing women. That implies a much deeper-seeded distrust than just the fight for jobs.

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  11. Normally, I'd be all over a book like this. But it sounds too glum for me...I want to be convinced that I need to return to London right now! :-D

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    1. Haha, well, some of the stories were happy! But it seemed like a lot were just sad, too. It was an interesting collection. Didn't make me not want to return to London at all- just made me not want to LIVE there :-)

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  12. As I read the very beginning of this post, I was thinking, "This could be a book about New York," so I agree with you that it is probably relevant to any big, urban city. However, New Yorkers would probably omit the essays about hating and leaving it. Because "real New Yorkers" find no cons of the city and judge those that leave. (This is me being a snarky NYC resident.)

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    1. Haha, fair enough! After spending just one summer in New York, I came to the conclusion that people born and brought up in New York aren't nearly as obsessed with it as are imports from other areas of the country. Everyone I knew in New York that moved there from elsewhere was vehement that it was the greatest place in the world and that it would be ludicrous to live anywhere else. People who had lived in New York much longer, though, or had moved there when much younger, were much more moderate.

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  13. Oh my God YAY. This sounds amazing. I am not surprised at the dislike for Eastern Europeans -- when I lived in England (not London!), a lot of people talked trash about (particularly) the Lithuanians. It was weird.

    Also, I moved to New York from elsewhere and I do not think it would be ludicrous to live anywhere else. Many places are lovely!

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  14. Just finished this book about a week ago and I completely agree with you: I was haunted by the stories. I'm about to write a review of it on my own blog!

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