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Ben Judah’s return to Darkest England

Delving into the heart of modern poverty, This Is London is part of an English literary tradition that dates back to 1840s

Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard.  Proverbs 21:13

When Jack London set out on a tramping sojourn in the east end of London in 1902, he likened his work to that of an explorer about to tread on virgin lands. “I was open to be convinced by the evidence of my own eyes, rather than by the teachings of those who had not seen,” London wrote in the preface to The People of the Abyss, the book which eventually came out of his experiences with the capital’s wastrels. A new work about the capital city’s hidden life begins in a similar vein. “I have to see everything for myself. I don’t trust statistics. I don’t trust columnists. I don’t trust self-appointed spokesmen. I have to make up my own mind,” writes Ben Judah in This is London.

Like London, Judah follows in the Darkest England literary tradition of seeking out the poor and writing about them. One of the early exponents of reporting poverty in this manner was Henry Mayhew, who meticulously documented the working lives of Londoners in a series of detailed articles for the Morning Chronicle in the 1840s.

Half a century later, William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, published his best-selling In Darkest England And The Way Out, a tract which compared the lives of the poor in “civilised” England with those of “Darkest Africa”. Booth concluded that life for the down-at-heel in Victorian London was not in essence a great deal better than life for the masses on the “dark continent”. Booth turned his ire at the sight of starving wastrels littering the streets of the capital into an early blueprint for the welfare state.

Yet a later generation of socialist writers rejected the whiff of soul-snatching charity which lingered around Booth’s project. Both Orwell and London wrote pejoratively about their respective experiences in Salvation Army hostels. For Orwell, they smacked of the workhouse and were “far drearier than the worst of the common lodging-houses” due to the compulsory religious services and barracks-like discipline imposed on the men. Similarly, London noted the capricious way in which the Salvation Army orderlies often revelled in the divine authority they believed they were exercising over a thousand ragged wretches who were “yearning, not for salvation, but for grub”.

"Judah finds poverty in the gutter rather than in the pages of a sociology text book"

Judah’s book is unusual today in that it resurrects this forsaken tradition of spending time among the poor rather than pontificating from a great distance on their behalf. “If you look for the working class in fiction, all you find is a hole,” wrote Orwell in his 1940 essay on Charles Dickens. Something similar might be said of left-wing non-fiction today. The 2008 financial crash has produced noticeably less in the way of “belly to earth” English writing than the aftermath of the last crash of comparable size in the 1930s. There is a seemingly never-ending search for “our generation’s Orwell”, yet one might equally inquire as to the whereabouts of our generation’s Mayhew, Morton Priestley or Booth. A number of informative books have certainly been produced in recent times about the treatment of the working and non-working poor by governments, landlords and capitalists – Chavs, Inequality And The 1%, Austerity Bites, Breadline Britain, Against Austerity, The Precariat, Cameron’s Coup – yet the perspective of such works is usually that of a surveyor clasping a calculator and a balance sheet. In the “austerity Britain” oeuvre, a ream of damnatory data is summoned together with the requisite bar charts and graphs, yet there are few human beings with dirt, stories and, more importantly, voices of their own.

Much like the pioneers of a century ago, Judah finds poverty in the gutter rather than in the pages of a sociology text book. Statistics are deployed in This is London, but they are used as ornamentation to the central melody rather than as something to drum repeatedly into the cranium of the reader. The book is brought to life by its conversations: the Roma tramps who carry their homes on their backs like snails and have left behind “five children… and debts and debts”; the Africans who clean up vomit and urine on the Underground; and the Plaistow school teacher who sees the young Muslim girls slipping off their hijabs and hiking up their skirts for the English boys as soon as they enter the school gates.

Judah can lay the prose on far too thickly at times to the point where the reader can feel he is being dashed about the head with Martin Amis’s thesaurus. But to dwell on his style would be petty. Judah is brilliant at winning the confidence of London’s immigrant poor and encouraging them to talk. He has ventured beyond the frappuccino-flavoured property pages of the Evening Standard and into London as it is lived by its poorest residents. In terms of getting under the skin of a small part of England, Judah has written the most impressive book since Nick Davies’ Dark Heart, an investigation into the return of mass poverty after 18 years of Thatcherism.

Predictably, Orwell’s towering literary shadow means he is the go-to reference for any reviewer in possession of a work that notices the existence of the poor. The ubiquity of the Orwell comparison has turned it into something of a cliché. Fighting with the Kurds against Islamic State, documenting poverty in the East End, resisting the world’s autocrats from the inside – all are liable to trigger an evocation of the angry old Etonian.

"When he first set out on his tramping expeditions in 1931, Eric Blair was not yet even his generation’s Orwell"

In the case of Judah’s book a better comparison is, as the opening sentence of this essay suggests, Jack London’s The People of the Abyss. This is not to disparage This is London. On the contrary. The People of the Abyss is a superior book to Down and Out in Paris and London – a fairly crude document which has been posthumously canonised along with the rest of the Orwell back-catalogue. Both Jack London and Henry Mayhew were Orwell’s predecessors and both made a more comprehensive fist of recording the lives of what London described unflinchingly as the “refuse of a human sty”. Aside from his masterful essay The Spike, most of Orwell’s best work was written in the years after his experiences on the road with the wretched poor. When he first set out on his tramping expeditions in 1931, Eric Blair was not yet even his generation’s Orwell.

Another overused literary modifier in relation to London is “Dickensian”. Read any left-wing newspaper or periodical today and London is perpetually one government cut away from a “Dickensian” level of poverty or a state of affairs which “Dickens would undoubtedly have recognised”. This adjective will invariably be tossed around in relation to Judah’s book. Yet This is London simultaneously captures both how near and how far London has travelled from the city chronicled so memorably by Dickens. Whilst born in London, Judah admits that he no longer really recognises the place. Two things are by and large responsible for this: an influx of money and an influx of people. Every accent except cockney seems to pepper the street corners in the East End, while even the tramps have seemingly clambered off a budget coach from the outskirts of Bucharest. What has disappeared like steam from a kettle is the positively English backdrop to Dickens’ fiction. The London of the Fine Old English Gentleman and the impoverished spinster are gone. So is Mr Murdstone’s blacking factory and the cubby-hole in which Mr Scrooge once counted his pennies. In their place stands the Shard, a Polish delicatessen and chicken shops – row after row of chicken shops.

What really is Dickensian in the new London is not so much the depth of poverty as the apparent quietism of the poor in the face of it. “The workers here are a migrant underclass,” writes Judah, “and the English trade unions are alien and meaningless to most of the Turks, Poles and Ghanaians…”. As in Dickens’ London, the poor in the world city lack a voice – or at least, they lack an English voice with which to make their grievances voluble and stand up to a new generation of exploiters.

"There is no colour bar on the cracks in the pavement that lead to the abyss"

The new London, then, is not a showcase for trickle-down economics in which even the lowly tramps dine on the discarded caviar of sharp-suited Goldman Sachs interns. The poor of Judah’s book are of a different creed and talk in a different language to the residents of the capital city in which Dickens, Mayhew and Orwell drew their portraits. Yet London’s capitalists, many of whom are migrants themselves, have bigger worries than the creed or colour of the human material they chew up and spit out. Discrimination may persist in England but there is no colour bar on the cracks in the pavement that lead to the abyss. For recent arrivals like the eastern European prostitutes offering blowjobs for ten pounds in Ilford Lane, the new London is as far away from clean sheets and net curtains as the London of eternally wandering human refuse was from titled men in the House of Lords a century ago.

The danger in Judah’s book lies in the potential it has to further encourage the middle class conceit that dirt and squalor are things that only afflict foreigners. In the pages of the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator no English person is considered poor anymore unless it is the result of a “chaotic” lifestyle or some other personal imprudence. A similar unspoken assumption occasionally creeps into progressive literature. Migrants are celebrated for their tenacity and pluck – “they want to get on and I say good luck to them” – and quietly contrasted with the pampered English who wait in perpetuity for the next giro.

One hopes that This is London helps to rejuvenate the neglected Darkest England tradition outside of the capital city too. Work like this is vital in reminding the middle classes that poverty – the filthy and beggarly poverty of soul-destroying drudgery and an empty stomach – is more than a set of figures in the negative column of the UK PLC balance sheet. It is an ineradicable feature of the economic system on which much of the middle classes’ own prosperity depends.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and the former editor of the political blog Left Foot Forward. He writes a regular column for the International Business Times and can be read in various publications, including the Daily Beast, Politico and the Wall Street Journal. He is currently writing a book for Atlantic about living on the breadline in Tory Britain.

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