London looks like a place that used to be something.
Davy Jones, street photographer
London is propulsion, it rewards those who push forward.
This weighty account of London is told by its people: the Londoners. 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 (Granta, 2011) is the most absorbing, addictive book I’ve read for a pretty long time. It’s a great clamour of voices; each voice cuts straight through the traditional work of history to the quick of human story.
“There’s something about that hour when you don’t encounter a single lucid, sane person. People who are absolutely off their face and have been taken out of the club because it’s dangerous for them to be there, they will just sway. They’ll hold on to the barrier and they’ll sway and they’ll be in their own world, talking to themselves. It’s bizarre. It’s quite gross as well. … all the boundaries and rules that apply in the daytime are gone. And you can’t reason with people like that. People’s worst qualities come out at night.”
Emmajo Read, nightclub door attendant
“There’s this thing you’re supposed to be part of in London. But what is it? That’s the million-dollar question. Everyone’s there because they’re searching, aspiring. A very small percentage is actually living the dream. Ill, tired, unhappy, the rent is fucking loads, what is it you’re getting? The idea of it, or something.”
Jo the Geordie, who stayed in Newcastle
“Most of the doors in Docklands on the expensive flats, they’re basically made of cheese. One kick, and they’ll split in one of two ways: the door hinges will come off the side or they’ll split in half. They’ll say, ‘Somebody’s sawn my door off!’ I’m sorry to tell you this, but no, they haven’t. You have an incredibly cheap door.”
Paul Jones, home security expert
Craig Taylor has interviewed eighty citizens and strangers of London, and the result is an unromantic but seductive portrait of a city. These are often quiet lives: the banker, the bin-diver, the translator, the squatter, the artist, the real estate agent, the manicurist, the cabbie, the lost property attendant. Taylor’s mediation in each story is invisible, so each tale is like a soliloquy. Often Taylor frames an interview with one or two scene-setting details: “In the front room of his house, just off the King’s Road in Chelsea, there are photos of his family on the walls and drawings by his grandchildren on the door.” “He walks into a room in the Hoxton Square Gallery where his work of art, Crapula, stands by itself, surrounded by a few empty plinths.”
Even though these are other people’s stories, Taylor is at the foreground of the book. He’s the investigator, the skilled listener who transcribes and translates the ‘loose talk, asides, grumbles, false history, outright lies, wild exaggerations, declarations, mistakes, strings of anger hung with expletive, affirmations and sometimes revelations – so much that is, really, so little.’ In this way Londoners echoes the work of Studs Terkel and Ronald Blythe, both pioneers of the oral history.
When I finished this book, I felt rather bereft. I am someone who struggles with endings. So I hunted Craig’s details down and got in touch with him. He agreed to answer a few questions about the book.
AY: This book must have been a huge undertaking – five years in the making, and around two hundred interviewees whittled down to eighty. Was it difficult to sustain your energy and enthusiasm for the project?
CT: Yes it was.
Thankfully I worked with two excellent editors. Over the years the primary editor, Matt Weiland, took on a number of roles: terrifying task master, sympathetic friend, astute reader, judicious cutter, questioner, nudger, arbiter. ‘No you don’t’ he responded every time I sent him an ‘I need more time’ email. The book would still be a 960,000 word morass if he hadn’t waded in with his famous red pen.
How did you go about selecting people to interview? Did any interviews really not work out?
I made phone calls, emailed people, spoke to people. I tried to be open to what the city offered. Lots of interviews didn’t work out. The failure rate is stratospheric in this kind of work, but what works and what doesn’t often only becomes apparent much later. Of course, some interviews don’t work because the interviewee says ‘Fuck off’ and walks away.
I came across this account by Raymond Lunn (who in the book talks about his experience of being homeless in London when he arrived from Leeds) of an interview with you in a Soho pub a couple of years ago. He seemed quite affected by having the opportunity to tell his story. It made me wonder how other people reacted to being approached for an interview? For some it may have been a strange or exciting experience, to give an account of their lives in London.
I’m sure there was a broad response. I hope for the interviewees it was a chance to mark this moment in time. I hope someday they’ll reread this book and reflect on their own extraordinary experiences of London. I was lucky to stumble across such incredible lives. They enriched my own.
One of my favourite interviews in the book is with the artist Henry Hudson, who talks about collecting clumps of human hair from the London Underground for one of his artworks. The hairball is this disgusting thing, but it’s also strangely wonderful and hopeful from an artist’s point of view. This paradox recurs in Londoners. There’s the dirt, the crowding, the hostility, but a kind of beauty radiates from it. In your experience, is this a general rule of all cities? Is it something London is particularly good at?
I liked Henry’s project because it reminded me of my own. Walking London, gathering, and hoping the parts would someday form a piece of art. If anyone gets through this book and thinks ‘I’ve just read the literary equivalent of a scavenged hairball head sculpture’, then I’ll know I’ve succeeded. London will always be a combination of beauty and horror; the two have always rested in close proximity, perhaps closer than other cities. The police officer in the book talks about Islington, where wealth and deprivation are often metres apart. I can’t see that changing anytime soon.
As a world centre, London bears a heavy weight: ‘the geography, the architecture, the great mass of London facts and figures, all its history’, as you say in your introduction. But I got the impression that many people you spoke to for this book didn’t necessarily feel that weight. They speak about the everyday, about living their lives in a city that is sometimes uncaring and difficult, sometimes forgiving and kind. And in fact, your approach is to make a distinction between the lives of the people and London’s weight of history and tradition. Why do you think it’s important to make this distinction?
There are enough books on London history. I love Jerry White’s books on London in the last two centuries. I love Mayhew, Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd and many others. I love Rachel Lichtenstein‘s work. I knew this book would have to be different. Thankfully, most people don’t push through London constantly thinking of its history — its a heavy weight to drag when you’re switching from the Victoria to the Northern. They’re thinking of survival. I wanted to speak to people about what they needed to do in London. Some saw their life in the context of history. Some — like one young man — said London history began with him and would end with him. In a way, he’s right.
Your account of life in Brixton in the early 2000s, as a newcomer to London, resonated with me. The pickpockets, the market sellers, the feeling of being pressed up against the windows of the 159 bus. And of course the ‘love, ambivalence and loathing’ when asked how you felt about London. What is your everyday London like these days?
Much the same. Loving moments often outweigh loathing. I buy fewer phone cards than I did when I first arrived, but I still ride a lot of night buses with steamed windows. I haven’t been pickpocketed in a while, probably because of the sheer success of David Cameron’s Big Society initiative.
(The most depressing interviews were often with people working for vital London charities and social initiatives. After telling me about the work they’d been doing with youth in the area, or trafficked women, or isolated OAPs, they’d say: ‘But all our funding has just been cut.’ London’s going to look very different in the next few years.)
A part of you must have wanted to keep on collecting stories for this book (and there’s a nice quote by Diana Athill on the dust jacket: ‘It’s a wonderful book – I wanted it to be twice as long’) – but obviously London defies all efforts to capture it, just as it’s impossible to define a ‘true Londoner’. How did you know that the project was finished, how did you let it go?
My editor said: ‘You’re out of time.’ I could have kept going. I could have kept going forever and transformed into Joe Gould. (If you don’t know Joe Gould, please read the Joseph Mitchell book.) Diana Athill was kind to say she wanted it to be twice as long, but who would want to inflict that brick of a book on anyone, even a voracious reader like Diana?
Finally, do you have any inklings, yet, of what your next big project might be? (The marvellous Five Dials must be a lot of work in itself.)
Five Dials will continue. My next project is going to be called ‘Sitting In The Library Quietly Reading Books For As Long As I Possibly Can.’ After that, who knows? I’m often told I should head back to Canada so that I can start work on ‘Regina-ers: The Days and Nights of Regina, Saskatchewan, Now — As Told By Some Guy Named Blair At The Tim Hortons Out By The Highway.’