Buildings and roadways no more define a city than mere walls and aisles could ever define a church. Architecture and infrastructure are byproducts of the human story—embodiments of our historical and present-day sagas captured in rip-rap, wood and stone. In his new book, Londoners, Canadian journalist (now London resident) Craig Taylor set out to define the city of London and its inhabitants through a collection of ordinary people’s stories. The end product is not a guide or an authoritative historical tome, but a unique 21st-century “snapshot of London here and now.”
Londoners has been likened by other reviewers to the oral histories of Studs Terkel, but Taylor’s curation does not frame decades long past; it mines the voices of those now inhabiting London. Over the five years of what he called his “London Chase,” Taylor interviewed more than 200 people from more than 600 square miles of the city environs. He sought not the usual “official” voices, but ordinary people inhabiting London’s “Victorian pubs and chain cafes, sitting rooms and offices.” The result is a sometimes weird, often wonderful and always emotionally resonant narrative of 83 voices telling stories of love, disgust, ennui, lust, delight—tales about being a resident, whether permanently, temporarily or formerly, of today’s London.
In sections grouped under quirky headings such as “Arriving,” “Getting on with It” and “Gleaning on the Margins,” Taylor’s interviewees run the gamut of sensibilities, proclivities and eccentricities. There’s a bird’s-eye description of London from on high from a commercial airline pilot; nostalgic reminiscences and incisive observations from Smartie, a London cabbie; bizarre stories of passenger mishaps from Dan, the rickshaw driver; and insights into lustful London from dominatrix Mistress Absolute. And if you’ve ever wondered if the voice intoning “Mind the Gap” in the London Underground stations belongs to a real person, here’s your chance to find out.
Londoners is a truly unique “non”-taxonomy. In a departure from his original intention, Taylor never reached an absolute classification of the inhabitants of this iconic city, but instead produced something much better: a true-to-life exploration of the constantly shifting landscapes of people’s hearts and minds, their despairs and desires—all centered on the streets and structures of foggy London town. Says Smartie, “I like the idea of escaping all the nonsense of London, but . . . my heart and soul are here in the city . . . that’s where I’ll always be.”