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London's Soul

LONDON’S SOUL
The strength of a city is not measured in its economic output but in the quality of its relationships. What does this say about the capital?

 

The figures support London’s claim to be the world’s first truly global city and they evoke different responses in people:

More that 55% of people are not ethnically white British
Every week more than two thousand migrants unload at Victoria Station
There are more people with little or no English than live in Newcastle
There are more than 600,000 illegal immigrants in hiding; a minimum 5% of the population hidden from all statistics
57% of births are to migrant mothers
There are at least seven thousand prostitutes in London; 96% are migrants

London has always been different to the rest of the UK, concentrating its government, law and finance into one city. The lack of any meaningful regional policies over generations causing more and more British people to live and work in it. And now they are joined by an unquenchable number of foreign nationals.

Do we understand just how radically London has changed? Probably not. But this does not stop each of us making our own judgment on what is happening. Thankfully Ben Judah has made a spirited effort to let different people and communities speak for themselves in an outstanding book: This is London (Picador 2016), from which these statistics are sourced. He spent time in Polish doss houses in Barking, sleeping rough with the Roma under London’s arches, listening to spoilt Arab princesses in Knightsbridge, bored Russian wives in Mayfair and vulnerable Romanian prostitutes on Ilford Lane. The impressions formed make the reader uneasy.

At one end, the richest have priced out ordinary Londoners and made it impossible for Millennials to gain a property stake. Almost 40% of people living in Kensington do not describe themselves as having any British identity at all and Judah allows the suffocating wealth and its corrosive effects on the soul to speak for itself. In a very different kind of London, unseen numbers eek out a sub-human living by roasting rats in the back alleys of Tottenham or are beaten up for sleeping rough. Many are conned in their country of origin into believing this is the London of Dick Whittington, where the streets are paved with gold, only to find themselves scalding their hands cleaning plates for a pittance under the glare of ruthless small-time chefs, unable to return home for lack of papers.

Many people love the multicultural feel to London, with its rich mix of immigrant cultures and foods, but some lazy judgments are formed in the
process. A Nigerian mental health officer based in Edmonton and interviewed by Judah offered the book’s most astute observation. A truly multicultural city is not one where every conceivable national deli is on display but one where the different ethnic groups are integrated in their relationships and there is mutual respect and understanding.

On this basis London is a long way from its self-description as a global city. Different communities are not mixing well. The housing market is usually a good indication of this and London is balkanised. There is much enmity and racism between ethnic groups. In some cases, it is the importing of existing regional hostilities; in others, the scrabble for housing, jobs, social services are paramount. The battle for criminal territory, the dark underside of London, is especially fierce.

The strength of a city is not measured in its economic product, but in the strength of its relationships. These evolve over decades and longer, but the remarkable influx of recent migrants to London has made this process more volatile and unstable than many are prepared to admit.

This is London is a revelation, an epiphany of an emerging city. I found it a painful, though essential, read as it made me face up to the suffering so near at hand. God in Christ is drawn to the very ugliness that our obsession with beauty causes us to avoid. This is a city in huge ferment, with outcomes we do not yet see and this calls for prayer. The vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21 suggests that people will bring into it ‘the glory and honour of the nations’. The kingdom to come will be rich in culture, but above all its relationships will be strong and true. London’s scene is truly diverse but in gaining the world it could yet lose its soul.


 

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