Sunday, January 21, 2018

Ghosts Beside Our Starlit Thames - Ben Judah's This Is London

Ben Judah, London, This Is London

A post on this blog from as long as four years ago made reference to the need for due regard, diplomacy, respect, tact and dignity in the processing of murderous Troubles history within the legacy process in Northern Ireland. The political outplay this month regarding the fatuous antics of the recently resigned Westminster MP for West Tyrone need not be elaborated upon but surely this event must mark a final line in the sand regarding historical revisionism of the conflict in its most crass, throwaway and offensive manifestations.

Both sides of the Ulster political divide are guilty of such subterfuge and sleight of hand - and of course the rural republican horrors of Kingsmills were mirrored in urban Belfast's loyalist romper rooms - but the trivialising of a mass murder that had the chronological potential to throw the island of Ireland into civil war in early 1976 is truly beyond the pale as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

The political and public response to the matter - including horrifying testimony from the solitary survivor Alan Black on RTE Radio - has been one of genuine mortification on both sides of the border. It clearly underscores an existent and very dangerous social fissure regarding the brutal dynamics of sectarian warfare, the victims it left behind and the psychological safe spaces occupied by the perpetrators that Irish civil society is expected to honour without question.
However mainstream media's own culpability for the longevity of certain political factions' selective amnesia cannot be underestimated. In turn the politician at the centre of the controversy has apologised fulsomely and it must be accepted within our residual Christian culture that that was a genuine display of chastened regret and we move on collectively.

Growing up in the complex battleground of Ulster in the Seventies and Eighties was perhaps the main ingredient underpinning my cognisance during my final years living in London that something of genuine historic import was happening to the metropolis as both the capital of Britain and one of the world's truly great cities. This despite similar lack of analysis from the mainstream media - about property mega-inflation and two-way demographic shifts in the case of London- that allowed gesture politics in Ulster to reach its recent farcical denouement across the Irish Sea.

My own busy and stressful life in London for some reason allowed a singular tract of Orwellian insight pass me by at the time - either that or the fact that the upbeat and hip millenial cover art throws up a somewhat misleading pointer to the gritty downmarket contents inside. Ben Judah's This Is London reportage is an extraordinary and acutely depressing insight into the social transformations since the turn of the century that has turned the city on its head in terms of lifestyles, atmosphere, infrastructure and sustainability. It reads like an even more dystopian, grotesque and hellish update of the writings of Geoffrey Fletcher that inspired Norman Cohen's 1967 documentary The London That Nobody Knows.

The author does not hide from the criminal underbelly of the city or the dynamics of black economies. Furthermore his reportage clearly corroborates the garnering awareness that hundreds of thousands of working people resident in London had sensed all along that tectonic shifts were afoot from one week to the next as we ourselves struggled to barely meet spiralling domestic outgoings on frozen salaries. This transmogrification across both physical streetscapes and within vintage frameworks of social mobility alike. The reality of what was changing in London as we lived and slept was of course much much more malign than even the most pessimistic soul could have foreseen - a truly unparallelled peacetime transformation of a European city that will surely take its own place in the more desperate readings of the continent's modern geopolitical history.

As important of course as Judah's research is the sobering fact that it has been put into the public domain by a major publisher - Pan McMillan's Picador imprint. Released two years ago this month it remains - and most likely will remain - the last word on the capital and its brutal, irreversible and deeply strange transformation into a city that bears little resemblance to 20th Century London. Or indeed any major Western conurbation one would have ever heard of before outside the realms of fiction.

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