Sunday, April 1, 2012

In the Key of Studs Terkel: Craig Taylor's Londoners

Big Ben from Trafalgar Square - Photo by David Churchill

Over the years, I have been fortunate to visit cities considered some of the most exciting in the world: New York, Paris, Rome, Bombay and London. Like many before me, I fell in love with each one of them for their own unique reasons. Heck, Paris so inspired me during my one and only (so far) visit that it became the setting, and partial inspiration, for my first novel, The Empire of Death. But it is without question London that has its siren call still singing in my ears. I've only been there twice, but upon my return home each time I've longed to go back so I could continue to explore this great and historic city. Sure, two trips barely scratches the surface of this locale, but for whatever reason (perhaps because England is half my heritage – Irish being the other) it is a city I feel instantly comfortable and at home in, even if they don't seem to know they drive on the wrong side of the road.

Little Driver pub - East London - Photo by David Churchill

When I travel, the first thing I always do is toss my suitcases into my hotel room and go for a stroll around the neighbourhood. The last time I was in London in 2009, I stayed at a lovely little hotel in the east end near the Bow Street Tube station called City Stay (its appeal, beyond good rates, is that they had a kitchen you can cook your own meals in as long as you bring in your own food – it saved me a bundle). Across the road is a terrific working class pub, called Little Driver, which instantly became my local after a long day exploring. (I did an edit on The Empire of Death there while enjoying their perfect-temperature drafts of Guinness. Isn't that what pubs and coffee shops are for, drinking and writing?)

Craig Taylor - Author of Londoners
This is a very long way to introduce a wonderful oral history of London compiled by Craig Taylor, called 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 (Ecco/Harper Collins – 2012), to give it its full title. The book is inspired by the work of the great American oral historian Studs Terkel (Working, The Good War, Hard Times, and many others). Taylor, an ex-pat Canadian living in London (ironically, he's lived there for several years before he felt comfortable to call himself a Londoner – he didn't think he'd earned it), like me became enthralled with the city, but unlike me he made the decision to make it his new home. As he walked around the city, he began to pick up conversations with the people all around him. He realized there were so many stories, so many voices, that he had to compile the voices in order to, as he says, give us a “snapshot of how London is now.” It sure took him a great deal of time. The project took five years: he burned through 300 AA batteries, and the transcripts took up almost a million words. With the help of his hard-working editor, Matt Weiland, he winnowed the hundreds of interviews down to 90 voices. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to roll this much data into a coherent and compelling text, but regardless of how he did it, he has succeeded admirably.

With voices ranging from the down and out, to the upper crust, Taylor creates a wonderfully full portrait of the city as it goes about its life. He expertly breaks the interviews into themes, such as “Arriving” (conversations with people who have just arrived), “Seeing the Sights” (talks with people who are either working at the city's tourist attractions or visiting them), “Earning Ones Keep” (everyday people doing everyday jobs), etc. As with any book like this, sometimes you wish people's stories would carry on, but then we have to leave them behind and move onto the next one. Taylor does return to a few voices more than once, such as Smartie, a streetwise fellow who worked his way up from a working class beginning to working on the floor of the futures market. We've all seen the old scenes of these guys yelling their heads off trading and wheeling dealing on the stock market floor. What we learn from someone like Smartie is where these guys, in the UK at least, came from (barrow boys, in the following quote, were the guys who worked in the futures 'pit'): “Barrow boys were streetwise. They could add up very quickly because a lot of them played darts, dominoes, any games that made you add up quickly. If you look at the trading floor where I worked, the futures market, most of the traders in the pit environment were barrow boys.” Today, Smartie, very happily, is driving cab. We return to him twice more and discover how he came to be a hack driver from a futures trader. Ironically, I wouldn't call it a come down.

Emma Clarke - Miss "Mind the Gap"

The book is filled with stories like this. Londoners is like eating salted peanuts or popcorn; it's just impossible to read just one. I don't want to spoil a reader's fun too much, but there were two others I just loved reading about. Emma Clarke, in the section of the book “Getting Around,” is the voice you hear on the Tube as you get on and off the subways. Her “mind the gap,” “alight here for Tower Bridge,” “the next station is Oxford Circus,” made me smile every time I heard it. (Though she also wondered how tired people must get hearing her when there's a delay and her recorded voice endlessly mentions it. She also admits the trouble an ex-boyfriend had for a time after they split hearing her voice every time he took the Tube!) She explains in her narrative how precise, and somewhat unnatural, the diction must be, and how neutral she must make her accent so as not to alienate the locals or confuse the tourists (she's a northerner; she had to substantially soften her accent to get the job).

Fruit & Vegetable trader Peter Thomas

The other 'good 'un' (amongst many) is titled “Peter Thomas et al” (it's done in a Q&A of Thomas and all those Taylor met rather than first-person singular that is used most of the time). Thomas is a fruit and vegetable trader at the New Spitalfields Market. Taylor spends the night with Thomas, from 1AM to 6AM, as Thomas moves rapidly around the market making buys for his clients. It's a great, complete narrative that tells you how, in London, they get its vegetables and fruit to the city's favourite restaurant or grocery store (it's probably the same in every big western world city).

As with peanuts or popcorn, sometimes you get a stale piece. Some of the narratives are not that compelling (especially featuring those who work in offices), but because of the nature of the book, you never feel that you are missing something if you skip them. There's always another good one with the flip of the page. The only other major caveat I have is I have no idea why Taylor starts the book with a Prologue narrated by one Simon Kushner, a former Londoner who hates the city. It is a strange way to start, since his is not the only voice who did not like the city in the book.

Studs Terkel, Oral Historian
The best frame is actually supplied by the voice that starts the first part, “Arriving,” and ends the last part, “Departing,” Kevin Plover. Plover is a commercial airline pilot, and his first narrative is as he lands his plane at Heathrow; his last is as he takes off for parts unknown. As Plover says at the end, “You do feel you're leaving behind the beehive. You change to another frequency and you know it's going to get quieter. But then, of course it would. You're leaving the energy behind.”

I came away from reading Londoners with a deeper understanding for the city I love, and look forward to visiting again. In fact, this book is the very best kind of tourist guide. In particular, it gives me new ideas for investigating more interesting nooks and crannies the next time I visit London; that is, the kind you rarely ever hear about.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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