The British Are Here
‘Londoners,’ an Oral History by Craig Taylor
By SARAH LYALL
Published: March 1, 2012
Craig Taylor had a rough time when he first moved to London from Canada a dozen years ago. Someone tried to pick his friend’s pocket. A scam artist took advantage of him. Wandering around with an ancient A-Z street atlas, he often felt “lonely, duped, underprepared, faceless, friendless.” But something about the city got under his skin, so he resolved to push beyond his own experience and take its measure. Happily for us, the result is “Londoners,” a rich and exuberant kaleidoscopic portrait of a great, messy, noisy, daunting, inspiring, maddening, enthralling, constantly shifting Rorschach test of a place, as befits the book’s subtitle, “The Days and Nights of London Now — As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It.”
Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
The Days and Nights of London Now — As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It
By Craig Taylor
413 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99.
Travel Guide: London
Here are subway workers and sex workers; homeless people and millionaires; enthusiasts and malcontents; immigrants and old-timers; the practical and the dreamy; people going and people coming. Taken as a whole, they send us some way toward addressing that slippery big-ticket question: What is London? How do you define a city so sprawling, so changeable, so varied? The answer, of course, is that there is no one answer. My London is as different from your London as you are different from me and that lady over there is different from both of us. And though countless excellent books have been written on the city, this is the one that best captures what it’s like to live in London right now, through the words of the people themselves — just as Studs Terkel did for Chicago in his oral histories years ago.
Taylor devoted five years to collecting the material for “Londoners.” He gathered stories from all 32 boroughs, conducting formal interviews with more than 200 people, running through 300 tape-recorder batteries and taking down enough notes to generate transcripts of more than 950,000 words. Fewer than half the people he talked to made the final cut. Some interviews took months to set up and lasted just a few minutes. Others went on for hours. Very occasionally, glimpses of Taylor himself emerge, as when he stays up all night with a hyperenergetic trader at New Spitalfields Market, a delightful scene that reveals his gameness for the project. (“You feel all right? It’ll start creeping up on you now,” the trader says kindly at 6:40 a.m., as Taylor finally collapses into the delivery van. “Why don’t you close your eyes, and I’ll wake you up when we get there? Little 10 minutes, quarter of an hour will do you a world of good.”)
Anyone who conducts interviews for a living knows how hard it can sometimes be to get subjects to move past cant and cliché, to leave the platitudes and drive on to the good stuff. (How many articles feature people expressing “shock and sadness” at their neighbors’ personal tragedies or noting that a murder victim “kept to himself”?) Londoners can be particularly tough nuts to crack. They may be talkative, but not to you, and there’s hardly any of the sharing-with-strangers you find in, say, Dublin or even New York, where everyone has an opinion and, boy, do they want to express it.
I picture Taylor as a good-natured, cheerful, friendly, patient, constantly engaging fellow. But whatever his demeanor — I’m only guessing — there’s a great deal of art behind his book’s apparent artlessness. Except for a few scene-setting paragraphs here and there, we barely hear from him. But the material he elicits proves his skill not only in asking questions that find the eloquence even in the naturally taciturn, but also in knowing the value of keeping offstage. “Londoners” is a master class in self-effacing journalism. In an age of celebrity interviewers and bombastic, self-loving television hosts, Taylor is the rare specimen who appears genuinely to believe that other people’s words are more interesting than his own.
Oral histories are only as good as the people in them, and this is as good an array as you could hope for. We hear from an artist who spent seven months gathering stray human hair from the Underground (apparently it blows around the tunnels like tumbleweed) and then used it to stuff a sculpture of his own head. “I liked the idea that I could have a little bit of everybody in London in something,” he explains. “It was quite romantic and disgusting at the same time.”
We hear from a professional dominatrix who describes what happened when she made an appointment “to do some public humiliation out in Selfridge’s,” and notes that the French — there’s a healthy French contingent in London these days — are her least favorite submissives. “They’ll come up and grab you,” she explains. “ ‘Maîtresse!’ Get your hands off me. They all think they’re Gérard Depardieu.” We hear from a young teacher in a tough school who says, “Apart from getting your phone stolen every 12 weeks, this is the best job ever”; from a lost-property clerk who describes the time two men came in looking for their swan (“I think they were hallucinating”); and from a registrar who conducts weddings and confesses that it’s sometimes hard to keep a straight face during the readings. (“There’s one, what is it, John Cooper Clarke, ‘I wanna be your vacuum cleaner.’ ”)
In Taylor’s patient and sympathetic hands, regular people become poets, philosophers, orators. “I think of London as a partner. I’m in love with London and always have been,” says Peter Rees, a city planning officer. “London looks like a place that used to be something,” says Davy Jones, a street photographer. “A stretch of water is as tangible as a building,” says John Andrews, an urban angler.
An airline pilot compares the planes circling over London’s crowded skies to “bees around a honey pot.” A refugee from Iran calls the city a place “where they give you two wings to go higher than other people.” “Looking out across the Thames from Waterloo Bridge is like looking at a gemstone that’s been sawn in half,” says Dan Simon, a rickshaw driver. “All the lights sparkle.”
Taylor is the author of two previous books, one of which, “One Million Tiny Plays About Britain,” began as a weekly series in The Guardian and consists entirely of little vignettes of overheard dialogue. If there’s a person whose voice you long to hear more of, it’s his, although of course this book isn’t the place to do it. “I didn’t want my experience of the city to be limited to one person, the first-person singular,” he explains in his graceful introduction. What does London mean to him? It’s complicated, he says, and his search for the truth (his London Chase, he calls it) has proved inconclusive. “London Chase — it’s exhilarating, terrifying, surprising, reaffirming. It’s tiring. It’s never-ending, and that figure you’re chasing, out in the distance, out in the gray streets, always slips away.”