Every so often, a book comes along that does something quite indescribable, and Londoners does just that.
It would be wrong to call it a love letter to London - free from gush and slush, the city is viewed more like a 30-year marriage through the eyes of a spouse: some are still in love, some are full of detestation; most think the grass is greener, but find it difficult to leave. Author Craig Taylor spoke to 200 different people from all 32 London boroughs over five years and wrote down 80 of their stories. And they have a lot to say.
Devoid of PR spin or political bias, we are given a little peephole into that elusive thing of simultaneous fascination and boredom: other people’s everyday life. Attempting to answer that intangible question – what is a Londoner? – we hear the meandering thought processes of the people who make London work: market traders; bouncers; taxi drivers, and those who inhabit it: homeless people; immigrants; pensioners.
There are disturbing tales – the most harrowing is that of a man who witnessed a suicide on a tube platform. But there are ones that also contradict the stereotyped view of the cold-hearted, ignorant shoal of fish that flood the rush hour streets and ignore everything around them, such as the young Muslim girl who named her firstborn after her English driving instructor, so grateful was she that he gave her a full run-down of Eastenders every week, which she wasn’t allowed to watch. Or the elderly gentleman who carried his entire life savings around in a briefcase and left it on the Underground one day, only to be contacted by a hesitant clerk at the TFL lost property office who assumed it belonged to the next Reggie Kray.
Londoners is engrossing and enlightening, and certainly makes me, as a Londoner (whatever that is), look at my fellow commuters’ faces differently. Everyone has a story, and Taylor’s collection of soliloquies perfectly captures the voices of the city right here and right now. At once significant and utterly insignificant, it makes the reader realise the overwhelming lack of presence one person has in this ever-changing city. As one grateful immigrant says: if you leave, there is always someone who will take your place, whether it’s your job, your flat, your place in a queue or your seat on a bus. London always wins.
Completely voyeuristic and completely fascinating, Londoners is one of the books of the year.