Wednesday, February 22, 2012

London—the Promise, the Dream

With the Olympics coming, the eyes of the world will turn to London this summer. But they will not turn to the real London; they will turn to a deliberately designed confection that will come down when the games leave town. Real people will continue to live in the city, sweeping streets and driving cabs and acting in theatres, servicing tourists, and teaching schools. London will continue being a real human city.

Canadian-born journalist Craig Taylor, who has adopted London as his own, looks at the real city in Londoners. Not the street maps or the tourist landmarks, but the people who walk those streets. He follows the people—the prestigious and the humble, the wealthy and the workaday—and lets them tell their own stories. And those stories really uncover the sparkling human beauty that lies beneath the Tourist Bureau veneer.

Ranging from a few lines to several pages, the stories Taylor gathers emphasize the scope of a city that draws people with visions of upward mobility. Dreamers, like the business student or the ex-convict or the expatriate, who strive to build new lives. The rapper, the photographer, the teacher, who try to leave something bigger behind them. The civil engineer, the barrister, the driving instructor, who just want to build a better London.

Some of the stories are remarkably revealing. Though known internationally as a financial powerhouse, a floor broker reveals that “Londin” is a stratified mess that reduces its citizens to mechanical drudges. A South Bank dominatrix describes the magnitude of subcultures that percolate under the surface of urban anonymity. Two bus operation specialists reveal the effort necessary to keep a city of millions thriving.

My favorite story is told by Sarah, a South London “skipper”—what Americans would call a “dumpster diver.” But as she lays out her life story, she actually reveals the life of a transsexual as the son of immigrants with old-world values. The contradictory pulls between urbane British modernity and the continuity of culture lie under most of what Taylor says about London. Dumpster diving is only part of a much wilder story.

And that is, beyond a doubt, the most important message Taylor gives us. Despite its millenia of history and its grand Gothic architecture, London exists very much in the present tense. People come to the city to shed their history and become new, and because of that, the city constantly reinvents itself. Unlike outlying Cotswalds crofters’ villages and Welsh hay farms, London does not pass its culture on to the next generation.

Those who, like me, imagine stepping outside our lives and remaking ourselves in a city like London can read a book like this and imagine. Whether we hope to follow through and learn from those who went before, or we decide this isn’t really the path we prefer, Taylor’s narrative speaks to anyone who has dreamed big. In that way, it’s not really about London; it’s about the part of ourselves that wants something more.

Do not expect to find maps, directions, and highlights for outsiders. Taylor does not care about travel and tourism. He does not try to teach us the parameters of pub culture. (If you want that, I enjoyed this year’s Fodor's England.) Instead, Taylor would rather create a biography of a city that refuses to stand still. His style and sweep make it come to life; Taylor’s London is a place we can imagine immersing ourselves in. We could walk to the corner, the workplace, or the store, and meet these people. London is so very real.

Taylor’s London is also more. It’s the heart of the dreams we all carry. The prerelease press pack compares Taylor’s book to American oral historian Studs Terkel, which is fair. Like Terkel, Taylor celebrates the people who turn the wheels, not the people who reap the benefits of the turning. But I would also compare him to historians like A.L. Morton and Howard Zinn, writers of “history from below.” Like them, Taylor believes that life happens in the streets, in the shadows, not in the spotlight of public acclaim.

This is no small book. Running over four hundred pages and over eighty interviews, Taylor takes readers on a real journey, not a package tour. But we don’t want a package tour, sanitized, with all the hard edges sanded off. Like a real visit to a strange city, Taylor gives us the pleasure of getting lost, seeing amazing new sights, and making our own discoveries. And what we find more than justifies the trip.

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