A few years ago I came across Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor: an extraordinary feat of investigative journalism from the 1860s: an oral history of those living and working on the streets of Victorian London.
Having spent many years volunteering with street homeless people, I realised that many things haven’t changed, and that it would be interesting to do a (smaller!) modern equivalent. I was daunted, but when I saw an extraordinary collage for the same scene then and now, I knew I had to do it.
From December 2018 I spent about fifteen months pounding the streets of central London every day, interviewing and recording people from some twenty-five nationalities: from gardeners to dustmen, Big Issue sellers to living statues. Those begging, building, selling, campaigning or entertaining – and those working in the gig economy. Apart from casual unrecorded chats, everyone signed consent forms for the use of their material.
I was lucky enough to be joined by two people whose expertise and experience enabled them to do interviews that I couldn’t – at night, for instance, or with drug dealers. We talked to a lot of organisations too – those who work in the homelessness industry, or help those without recourse to public funds. An excellent young artist provided drawings for the book. We were lucky too that we finished interviewing just before the first lockdown, so I spent the first couple of months of the pandemic pulling the book together.
And the result? It is, I hope, an X-ray of life on the streets today: the stories of those who work and live in our capital. On the surface, the streets of London in 1861 and in 2021 are entirely different places. But dig just a little and the similarities are striking and, in many cases, shocking. Gone are the workhouses, almshouses, paupers’ asylums. Enter shelters, day centres, hostels and food banks.
It is important to stress that not all the voices are negative. I was struck, and touched, by how few people complained. People who are struggling to make enough to live on, who sleep on the pavement or who get up at 2 a.m. to travel into London to work, show extraordinary resilience and positivity. And a love of London. Yes, there are desperate, heart-breaking voices, but that’s not the whole story.
I worry, of course, that the book will be a picture of a London that has gone into history. But another way of seeing it is that the pandemic has brought into focus the very subject of this book. The crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities and inequalities that are embedded in our society, but usually hidden from public view. My hope is that ‘Whatever the situation, however individual lives might change, the picture of London revealed by these rarely heard voices is one that will endure. It is a reminder of our common humanity and the invaluable contribution of those who have least and are often invisible.’
Jennifer Kavanagh is the author of Let Me Take You By The Hand: True Tales From London’s Streets, published by Little, Brown Book Group and is available from 3 June 2021. You can pre-order it from Bookshop.org.