a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Accidental Reads: 'Londoners' by Craig Taylor

My poor blog has been a little neglected of late thanks to a recent spot of globe-trotting and also writing about a bit of past globe-trotting.  But one good thing about travelling is that it usually allows for uninterrupted reading time on trains, planes or automobiles.  And so, last weekend (a heavenly couple of days in beautiful, civilised Paris), I finally got round to reading 'Londoners' by Craig Taylor; a pristine, fat copy of which had been sat on my shelf for several months unopened.  I have seen Twitter and the blogosphere rave about 'Londoners'.  The press wrote charming reviews of this book.  I have had endless people tell me how much they loved reading it.  I was excited to get the chance to open this wondrous tome myself...but, I found it rather disappointing.  Actually that's not quite true.  I found it intensely irritating and a bit depressing.

The weighty book takes the form of a compilation of interviews, of interviews conducted - I had assumed from the title and marketing blurb - with people who live or have lived in London.  I was somewhat surprised to find therefore that a few of the interviewees had, at best, tenuous links with the city, or had never lived there at all.  These individuals, and those who had spent mere weeks in the city, seemed an odd choice for inclusion, when this city is heaving with those who have lived here for years, hating it or loving it, but persisting because something about this city just won't let them go.

But any sense of deep ties with this strange place, or an unequivocal fondness for London were entirely stifled by the overall negative tone of the book.  If one had never been to London, this book would not sell the city to you.  Nor would it say much about its people.  Taylor introduces the book (in a brief twelve pages of his own somewhat sloppily assembled words) outlining his own experience of the city.  He sounds rather terrified of London, vaguely in awe, but also slightly repulsed by it.  In any form of oral history project or qualitative research the researcher has an obligation to retain as much objectivity as possible.  Yet here, Taylor's sentiments about the city seem to have influenced his subjects.  I would love to know what form his interviews had taken, what questions he had asked his interviewees and how he had got them to talk about London.

And the London they talked about was a London that makes me want to move somewhere else.  It was a London that is all about money and working, tedious commuting and struggling to find a place to live.  Rarely was it about the London of fun, quirky fashion or world-class art and drama, or the London of relaxing pub lunches and stomping through green parks full of leaves and scurrying squirrels.  The lives of these 'Londoners' were ones of drudgery and hard graft, often with little or no reward.  Whilst an interviewee told a disturbing tale about witnessing the August riots last year in 2011, there was no inclusion of an account of the clean-up efforts that followed; the response of the vast majority of Londoners pulling together to repair their communities after last year's riots was a phenomenon that made me feel immensely proud to live in this city.  Reading this book, I did not feel proud at all.

Within the interview transcripts, Taylor's interjected comments for the reader on the colour of the interviewees' shirts or their glancing out of a cafe window add little to the narrative, distracting the reader rather than enhancing the stories recounted.  Whilst some of the interviewees present new views of the capital (like an aboriculturalist for whom London is one giant flower-bed), others tell you more about what it means to be a paramedic or pilot rather than what it means to be a Londoner.  For many interviewees, London is the backdrop to their lives in an entirely abstract way; it has no direct influence over who they are, who they become and how they live.  They merely exist within this urban space.  When I think of my own evolution into a Londoner (and yes, after 4 and a half years of living, studying, working, playing, exploring and story-telling here I do think of myself as a Londoner) I feel an immensely strong tie between myself and this city.  London has made me my current self - the person who glowers at people who don't swipe their Oystercards on the bus, who has perfected a tourist-dodging speedwalk, who knows which bars won't be swamped by office-evacuees at 5.30pm on a Friday night, and who loves catching a glimpse of the London Zoo penguins from a footpath in Regents Park.  She's tougher than she was when she arrived, more independent, more financially-sensible, more self-aware.  And when I move on to my next city, I will take all those qualities that London gave me along for the ride.  Is that not what being a part of a city is all about?

Returning to reviews (almost all utterly glowing) of 'Londoners' I worry that I am missing something.  Why am I not moved by this book?  Why, as a Londoner, does it not resonate with me or make me feel more of a part of the city?  Maybe it resonates too well, with a part of me that recognises that I do not want to be here forever.  Maybe I find the book unremarkable because so many of the themes are so familiar to me, so tacitly obvious that to record them here is nothing ground-breaking or imaginative.  Yes, life in a big, busy city is expensive, and unglamourous, and frustrating.  What's new?  But it also allows one so much, in terms of freedom of expression, knowledge and information, entertainment, new acquaintances and relationships, and it makes me sad that this more positive aspect of city-life was not as evenly represented throughout Taylor's book as the more melancholy tales.  

Reading this book in Paris, I looked around me at the calm, beautiful architecture, and the calm, beautiful Parisians in admiration, and thought 'This would be a nice place to live if I didn't live in London'.  And it made me wonder if 'Londoners' was really what lay ahead for me.  Am I destined to remember my time in the city as a work-centric experience?  Will I only think of expense and frustration, and dirt and over-crowding?  I certainly hope not.  For in amongst these things are the people themselves, the real Londoners, who provide endless inspirational examples of courage, kindness, humour and spirit in their everyday lives.  They are the noble man on the Underground who rescued my shoe for me when it got stuck on some steps, and the grinning cafe-owner who greets me as a long-lost daughter as he makes me a sandwich, and the cheeky stall-holder who tosses in an extra couple of peaches with my bag of plums for free.  And these are the people and the city that I will try and remember, and those that I will try and continue to tell everyone about in my writing.  They may not be Craig Taylor's 'Londoners', but they are mine.


  1. Really thorough review Flora! Made us think - we spend enough time limping our way through the grind of London life and whinging about it: who needs to read about it!

    Agree, we should focus on all the good things that London has to offer.

    1. Exactly! Maybe it's an easier read for people who don't live here?

  2. I have recently begun "Londoners" and I too am rather disappointed in it. I haven't (so far) found it as negative in tone as you do, but then I haven't read enough. But I don't think the interviews are well enough done. Tony Parker did this kind of thing so much better, and so did Studs Terkel in the US (not about London though). I find that Taylor doesn't give me a feeling of the people and the variety there is. His people seem a bit samey to me.

    The other point is that a lot of people, perhaps most, do have rather difficult lives. I have done quite a lot of interviews over the years (not about London) and it is surprising how so many people really aren't that happy about their lives. I wouldn't necessarily expect them to be happy about their city because they are not happy with their lives.
    Other people are happy enough but their lives are really boring, dull and hard because they are so poor. I suspect that those of us who have the health, intelligence, money and leisure to appreciate London are the lucky ones, not the norm.

    Anyhow I will persevere with Londoners, and your book has reminded me to do so. Thanks for this really thoughtful and interesting review.

    1. Well I'm hugely relieved to hear that it's not just me who found the book a bit disappointing, Jenny. And I do agree that I found a lack of variety amongst the interviewees. One actually gets very little sense of all the different personalities which they must have had.

      I think you make an excellent point about peoples' lives too. I got the impression that whatever these people went through and however they felt about themselves and their lives had very little to do with London. No surprise there though; poverty, employment struggles, housing struggles occur here and everywhere else - they sadly are not unique to this single city.

      I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the entire book when you finish it...

  3. What a thorough review Flora! I couldn't help thinking hat you resented a book that didn't recognise the qualities of a city you have learned to love.
    The other thought that crossed my mind was that you probably know London better than Craig Taylor. Come on, who knew about Coco Chanel and the Duke of Westminster? You are such a fountain of knowledge!
    So, when are we reading your book about London? I am sure that you would have plenty of anecdotes to tell us!

    1. Maybe that's just it - I used to loathe London, but have been so won over by the city that I just felt it merited a more balanced appraisal!

      Glad you liked the Chanel/Westminster fact, Muriel - it's a rather lovely tale; I think it was a story passed on from a cabbie...


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