Next year the Olympics come to London and the world will be watching. Perfect timing then for an innovative new oral history of the capital, Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now—As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It (Granta, November). It reveals the city, not through the clichés of famous sights or its long history, but through the voices of ordinary people who live and work in London now.
Londoners was five years in the making. Canadian-born writer Craig Taylor (known to the book trade as editor of the online literary magazine Five Dials and author of Return to Akenfield and One Million Tiny Plays About Britain) interviewed 200 people from across all 32 London boroughs. “The book itself is the product of nearly a million words of documentation, of people talking,” he says.
“I can’t really be a Peter Ackroyd kind of person. When you choose to engage with a place like London, that’s been written about so much, you have to look at your way in. I knew that I would rather let other people speak about their experiences.”
With that amount of raw material he wasn’t so much writing the book as sculpting it. Eighty people make it into the final book and while each is defined by their job—from the woman who makes the London Underground announcements to a Spitalfields market trader, a guardsman at Buckingham Palace to a marriage registrar at Westminster Town Hall—each voice draws the reader in to the speaker’s whole life. It’s incredibly skilfully done and paints a vivid picture of contemporary London.
We hear from new immigrants such as Jane, a political refugee from Uganda recounting her first London journey from Gatwick to Harrow-on-the-Hill which took 10 hours as she struggled to negotiate the Underground. And natives like John Harris, an East End funeral director carrying on the family firm started by his great-grandfather, who talks about the changes he has made to the business in order to cater for the rites of newer communities—Africans, Filipinos, Chinese. It’s a really fascinating insight into the life of the city. “I think it works in two ways,” says Taylor. “The story that people have and then the way that they tell it. Some people can just talk about themselves in a really interesting way.”
How did he find his subjects? Initially he says he was overwhelmed by the possibilities—walking down any street he would spot potential interviewees everywhere. But then he had the idea of downloading a list of all the verbs in English, and isolating all those that could be applied to London. He gives some examples: “cutting London, cleaning London, selling London . . . and I just started going after people who embodied those verbs. I wanted it to be a book about people’s engagement with the city so that was a good guiding principle.”
Taylor first came to London from his native Canada in 2000 with the intention of staying for just a year. He started freelancing for the Guardian’s Weekend magazine. His first assignment involved a trip to Huddersfield—“for me it was really exotic”—and soon he was travelling around the country doing short interviews, some of which became the genesis for the popular weekly column “One Million Tiny Plays About Britain”.
Earn the right
His interview technique thus honed, Taylor found no problem with the famed British reserve when talking to Londoners. “That’s what I’ve always enjoyed about the city—you have to earn certain things,” he says. “There isn’t an overlay of friendliness, but in terms of reticence—I don’t really buy it. I’ve always found it’s a pretty talkative city.”
He did have a bit of trouble though with some people sticking to the corporate PR line when talking about their jobs and who “have been trained to leach their language of anything interesting”.
Londoners will obviously appeal to, well, Londoners themselves whatever they think about their city. “It’s for people who hate the place, it’s for people who’ve always wanted to be there, people who’ve wanted to escape, people who once did have some glorious years there.” It might also, Taylor suggests, appeal to readers with a general interest in cities, such as those who liked Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.
“Next year, when people are watching the Olympics and they see a massive aerial shot of London, I hope they will think, ‘I wonder what it’s really like down there.’
“Every book you do on a city like this is a failure of some sort. You just cannot capture it all. It’s a liberating thing in a way. You just think—here’s my effort. And at least I know that in 10, almost 11, years of [living in London], at least I’ve engaged with the city.”