Jewish Writer Hits the Streets of London to Document Its Changing Face

Ben Judah lived with Gypsy beggars, worked with Polish builders and rode with Pakistani cabbies, among others, to present their stories in his new book.

Tourists stand on Westminster Bridge near the Big Ben clock tower at the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K.
Bloomberg

The young writer Ben Judah grew up on stories: tales and legends, told by grandmothers and great aunts, about distant relatives-turned-heroic travelers – always, in his family’s case, with just one suitcase in hand, triumphing over vengeful pashas or Nazi exterminators along the way.

Sometimes the family heroes were Baghdadi Jews who escaped to Calcutta then later to London; sometimes they were refugees fleeing Germany to France, en route to England. He noticed, however, that often the details would change: One day, the Sephardic seafarers were blue-eyed brothers; the next, Venetians surviving the Bubonic plague as they journeyed through Hong Kong.

Such creative storytelling of people in flight is par for the course for migrant families, argues Judah – whether Jewish, like his, or any other. A substitute for stories of life in a fixed locale.

“If all of your family has come, for thousands of years, from one place – the myth you tell is about that place,” says Judah, a journalist and author. “For us, it’s about a journey.”

Today, Judah, 28, is still interested in immigrants and journeys – only now he’s seeking out other families’ stories. He recently published “This is London: Life and Death in the World City” (Picador), which is filled with the stories of a broad spectrum of London’s immigrants.

The origins of the book go back two years, when Judah returned to London after several years as a reporter for the literary magazine Standpoint in Russia, and then crisscrossing the former Soviet Union to write his first book, “Fragile Empire.”

As a child growing up in London, he recalls, there was a game he used to play that involved looking around the bus or subway with his friends and imagining the lives of the other passengers. But when he returned from his stint abroad and noticed the many diverse and unfamiliar faces around him – it was suddenly harder to play the game.

“I got a sense I didn’t have a handle on London anymore,” he tells Haaretz. “That a lot of the things I remembered from childhood had changed.”  

And indeed, the city had changed dramatically. When Judah’s grandparents arrived in London – first in the 1930s, the last in the '60s – the population of residents born overseas was about 3 percent. Today, that figure is closer to 37 percent; the majority of Londoners is not white British.

The biggest changes, it seems, have occurred in Judah’s lifetime. Since he was born, it’s estimated that London’s population has grown by close to two million people, mainly because of immigration, reaching 8.6 million, the highest population in its history. Today, there are some three million residents in the city who were not born there – and that figure does not take into account an estimated 600,000 to 1 million foreigners who are in Britain illegally, the majority of them in the capital.

Based on predictions from the last census, in 2011, it is believed that the number of foreign-born people in the city will outnumber British-born Londoners by 2031. And the city feels more diverse too, notes Judah. If, in the past, new immigrants would stick to their own quarters or neighborhoods, today the city is far more mixed, as indicated by the people he profiles – including a Ghanaian Tube cleaner, a Filipina maid, a Romanian contractor, a French banker and a wealthy Russian oligarch who live across almost all the boroughs. Residents originally from India dominate 10 of the capital’s 32 boroughs while those born in Nigeria, Poland, Turkey and Bangladesh each have the highest numbers in at least three of those areas.

Two to a bed

“This is London” comprises 25 chapters, each of which offers a peep into the life of one immigrant to this city: They are black and white, poor and rich, Asian and African, old and young, men and women – each with an epic, shifting, tale of their own.

To find people to profile and understand their lives, Judah, who speaks several languages, including Russian and “enough Romanian to get by,” went to great lengths: He spent nights sleeping alongside Gypsy beggars who camp in the tunnels beneath Hyde Park. He stayed in a cheap rooming house in Barking, East London with Romanians laborers, sleeping two to a bed and dreaming of earning minimum wage. He set off to work at a construction site with Polish workers, and hit the streets with a Nigerian-born policeman who confronted illegal immigrants from his own tribe.

Whether talking to a just-arrived fiddler at Victoria station, a Pakistani mini-cab driver who moonlights washing dead bodies at a morgue, or a Romanian prostitute in a blonde wig, Judah sought to find out not only about their backgrounds and travels, but about their hopes, beliefs, fears, doubts, loves, dreams – and what they thought about the London they encountered.

“I don’t think people typically see with their eyes, but rather with ideas they have in their heads,” he explains. “When we look at people around us, we see them with back stories, with our associations.”

Newcomers, who enter a city with fresh eyes and fewer preconceptions, can often cut through that, says Judah: “Strangers to a city don’t have that mess of associations, or they can make new associations very quickly. They see us closer to how we probably really are.”

The kind of in depth, story-based reporting Judah did, working on “This is London,” is something he says he honed as foreign correspondent traveling across the former Soviet Union but which, he says, is unusual in domestic reporting in Great Britain.

“Being a foreign correspondent is what taught me how to listen to people and listen to their stories. It dawned on me that being a foreign correspondent is a literary style – where we go out and mix in a bit of history, and give a voice to the poor.”

When reporting in Britain, “we just don’t do that,” he notes, leafing through a daily paper on the café counter, to make his point. “Look here,” he says. “We have statistics. And we have interviews with politicians. And basically, the assumption is that this will give us everything we need to know about our society.”

And yet, Judah says, despite knowing the landscape when it came to domestic reporting, what surprised him most about the reactions to the book – which have been very positive – is the surprise of many readers upon hearing the voices of these immigrants.

“It seemed to me that readers were as shocked as if I had gone to Papua New Guinea and interviewed lost tribes,” says Judah. “These people are cleaning our cars, standing guard outside our supermarkets, making our food – and putting salt on it – and collecting our rubbish.”

One of Judah’s conclusions from the experience has thus been, sadly, that many people seem to not really see those around them. For Judah, these immigrants and their stories – inevitably involving one suitcase and triumph against odds – were always, somehow, a little bit familiar.