I’ve often thought writing takes equal parts alienation and ego, one to see things and the other to think your vision warrants recording. But, after reading Craig Taylor’s Londoners, I think it’s just alienation. He writes utterly without ego and creates this great soaring book on London. He moved there and was miserable, and that got him to look around and wonder about all the people who’d apparently cracked the city. He went to work for the Guardian, had to leave (and got to return) after losing his visa, wrote a book about a village in the English countryside and wrote a book based on his Guardian columns, the ravishing One Million Tiny Plays About Britain. And, still he was curious – still wondering who these people were and how they managed. Londoners was his answer.
When I lived there, I was miserable. I was one of the leavers (a distinct category in the book. Its subhead is “The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It”). I’d drag my homesickness to Buckingham Palace to hear an American accent. My journey is nearly the mirror opposite of Taylor’s, going from the city to a rural village in Upstate NY, while he went from a rural Canadian fishing village to London. Now that I don’t live there, I love it – and his book – not because it’s about London but for what it says about the city and how it says it – as well as who says it. Most of the time it’s not Taylor at all. It’s anyone, everyone but him.
The book is “oral history.” Yes, that clunky awkward thing, but in his hands the results are transfixing. The voices are hypnotic, turned into solos where people tell their stories, and each is unexpected. They defy the clichés of a London book, you know those by Peter Ackroyd with his histories and novels and historic novels or more recently William Boyd and John Lanchester’s novels that feel saddled with London types. Here, Taylor tells a greater story, and more than that it’s a lesson in interviewing.
In the New York Times Book Review Sarah Lyall called it a masterclass: “The material he elicits proves his skill not only in asking questions that find the eloquence even in the naturally taciturn, but also in knowing the value of keeping offstage…. In an age of celebrity interviewers and bombastic, self-loving television hosts, Taylor is the rare specimen who appears genuinely to believe that other people’s words are more interesting than his own.”
The book is far from a Q&A, but I thought interviewing him might yield some answers about interviews and people and stories. Unlike Taylor and his interviews in the book, we spoke on the phone, from the sticks to his office at Hamish Hamilton in London.
The Rumpus: How did you get started on Londoners?
Craig Taylor: It sort of emerged when I moved here. I didn’t have a great time, and I was always wondering who these people were around me who’d seemed to figure out the city. I started working on the Guardian and interviewed a lot of people in London, and I was curious about them. I thought it would be good to use the city as an excuse to talk to people I wouldn’t have a reason to otherwise. I think any book is an excuse and this just provided me with a really good one.
Rumpus: When I moved to London I felt like looking for a flat was this advanced form of tourism. I was looking in Brixton – far off the tourist track – and felt like it gave me a picture of people’s real lives being in their homes, kind of like interviewing people about their place in the city.
Taylor: Yeah, it’s an excuse to go deeper than your own life, and I always worried that living here, I would get that one perspective, my perspective. This was a chance to move myself out of the picture, and I think everyone intuitively feels about a city that, wow, here are all these people walking this exact same patch of ground, but they’re seeing it differently and they’re doing things completely differently.
Rumpus: How was moving there? I felt lost, and you talked about that too in your introduction.
Taylor: I always thought it was this burst of happiness where you get here it’s almost like a drug. It can be euphoric. You’re in this incredible city, and then if you decide to say, there’s often – and there was in my case – this precipitous drop into a really bleak place where you see that there’s a veneer here that the very rich can live on, but for the rest of us it’s tough work. Then if you stick around, there’s a slow crescendo of satisfaction as you learn to manage the city.
Rumpus: Not to sound like the tourist board but what do you like and hate about London?
Taylor: It’s constantly offering up this parade of sights and sounds and people and stories and status games and all that stuff you look for as a writer. And, I love the places that I’ve made my own and I love the way it looks at dusk. But, I think it’s hard to have one constant feeling about the place. If you just hate it, well, you get out, and if you just love it, you must be making a lot of money, but for the rest of us you hate the way it pushes against you sometimes.
The book really showed me that even when people hate this place, it can be done often in a very entertaining, operatic way. I always loved what people hate about the city. They’d talk about how someone would tilt their foot out on the escalator so no one could get by. The complaining is done in a way that makes it very funny and entertaining. Londoners can be almost operatic complainers.
Rumpus: Did your feelings about the city change in the course of the book?
Taylor: They deepened. It made me really love the complexity of it all. This is such a complex city, and all you can do if you’re dealing with it honestly is embrace that. I hold all these contradictory viewpoints of the city. It’s like one of the people in the book this city planner said, you have this endlessly intimate relationship with this partner that’s constantly offering up endless possibilities and art, but it can also be mean to you. A lot of my own feelings were expressed by people in the book, and I really shied away from generalizations.
Rumpus: Yeah, and by doing that you managed to have this individuality that was rich and surprising but also incredibly specific, as if the specificity tells the bigger story of the city.
Taylor: I love expertise and listening to people who are experts in whatever they do whether they’re an investment banker or a manicurist. They have this specialty, and as people talk about what they do well, the world just comes alive. One of the people who didn’t make it into a book because of a time constraint was this waterman. He talked about coming up the river in heavy fog and being able to tell where he was on the Thames by the different smells that would emanate from the various docks and wharfs, so even in fog he would smell cinnamon and know where he was.
The worst thing you could do with a book like this is have a lot of people speaking very generally. You have to go deep in the details. There’s the guy who works as an STD nurse. He says so much about the city through the particulars of his job. All these people come in to get tested in the New Year just after the Christmas parties. I always thought that in that detail of his job was this greater truth about the city. I didn’t need to talk about the greater truth. I had to have someone say, “Yeah, in January we have a lot of worried people coming in.”
Rumpus: Which is really pretty sharp as details go. It says so much for London.
Taylor: Yeah, but he’s an expert and no one can argue that fact. If someone said, “God, all Londoners do is drink and screw at Christmas parties,” you can dispute that.
Rumpus: There’s also this humanism, I guess you’d call it in the book, with characters like Pakistani currency trader and the gay Iraqi refugee. They tell this larger story about immigration and what people want in London, but their stories are so idiosyncratic they yield up this richness, this detail.
Taylor: I think with nonfiction you’re allowed to surprise people in a way you can’t with a novel. Some of these stories here would seem impossible or just ludicrous in a novel, like they couldn’t exist. The wonderful thing about nonfiction is that those people do exist, and sometimes that’s the hard thing for novelists writing about London. They choose these archetypes, and I didn’t have to do that. I just went with the real people who are in my mind infinitely more surprising and rich in their experiences.
Rumpus: How did you find everyone? Wasn’t this insanely complex and time consuming? Yet you manage to create a real sense of a journey through the city and how you get to the city, from arriving to leaving, loving and hating it, but getting that sense of narrative must have been hard.
Taylor: Some of the best compliments I’ve had are from people who say, “Oh, that must have come easily.” “Oh, you just went out and talked to a few people and typed it up. Well done you.” That’s great, that’s what it’s supposed to feel like, but hopefully at some point they’ll see it must have taken time to get to the point where someone would say certain things.
It took a great mass of words – almost a million words – and just finding everyone….
I still have the notebooks that show all the phone calls logged and all the emails over a good five years. I spoke to something like 200 people, and sometimes the person you’ll see in the book is the result of five or six interviews with other people who are similar but couldn’t quite say the things that needed to be said or just weren’t as eloquent. It takes a long time, but you just make those calls and talk to people and listen. That’s the big thing, listening.
You can’t do it on the phone; you can’t do it quickly. You just show up, and you have to be present. You have to be with them, and you have to shut up and let them talk and you have to accept that you’re not there to be the most interesting person in the room. It’s more like the stuff you don’t do than what you do, and genuine curiosity is what makes it. At a time when so much is sped up and so much journalism is sped up, there’s no way to make this process quicker. You can’t rush into a room and say, “Okay: hopes and dreams I will need all of them and I will need them said well.”
Rumpus: I like what you said about not being the most interesting person in the room. You’ve largely absented yourself from the book. It’s not about you and that’s really interesting as a writer.
Taylor: I knew I wasn’t able to stand astride London and look at it as a great historian, but it’s weird that we’ve gotten to this place with journalism where you can pick up a magazine or newspaper and learn more about the interviewer than the interviewee. That can sometimes be incredibly interesting but for this project there was no way I was going down that path.
Rumpus: You have a clear affinity for people’s stories. What do you like in telling them?
Taylor: Real people aren’t constricted by the rules of fiction. They are infinitely weird and wonderful, with a depth that’s so unexpected. There are people in the book that I spoke to for one reason and they just veered off from that into this territory that was incredible, their lives, their struggles and what they’ve been through. You just can’t come out of doing a project like this without a sense of, I don’t know, empathy towards others. It’s hard for me to hold certain political views or certain stereotypical views of other people because of the stories I’ve heard and hearing about how people live their lives. That’s an incredibly privileged position.
Every interview you do is sort of an improvisation with the person. I remember speaking to this older woman in her house, and I just remember the light changing and the light on the walls changed through the shades, and you get to this point with people where it’s unique. Sometimes they get to a place where they are explaining things they’ve always wanted to talk about but never have, and that can be a pretty incredible experience.
Rumpus: Yeah, after I quit stripping I went back and interviewed a bunch of my old customers. I was curious about what they’d been doing in the club, and their reasons were all very individual. It felt though like this insane responsibility because I asked these men to open up to me, and in some cases I was the first person they’d talked about some of these issues with. We’d left that really prescribed space – a strip club is like the underground, like the Tube, where you don’t really interact with people – but that act of being with someone and giving them space to open up is amazing and intense.
Taylor: Yeah, there’s definitely an energy there when you’re in these situations and you’re listening with purpose. And, there’s this inexplicable urge to need to understand more, whether it’s about a group of men who came through your life at one point or the city.
Rumpus: Did anyone lie to you as you were interviewing them? Did you care?
Taylor: I was never too worried about the lying. If I tell stories about my youth, I change them. I change details; I collapse time. I change things around to gain effect. I make myself more or less sympathetic. Anyone does that when they’re talking about their life, so with that in mind, this form becomes a series of unreliable narrators in the best possible way because we all are. There were some people who were obviously deluding themselves or exaggerating or in some cases just making some stuff up, but that seemed secondary to the purpose. The way they tell and convey is what’s important.
I think it’s summed up by that Samuel Johnson quote I mention in the introduction. It was repeated back to me and mangled and paraphrased. Someone said, “When a lady’s tired of London, that lady’s gonna be tired of lots of other things.” There were people who swore they knew the wording and would be way off. I thought that sums up this project. It’s not about getting things right. It’s about finding a way, and London for me is very much about that. Living here, you have to change the story because the real story might be too grim. I know I certainly do that. Historians have dedicated their lives to getting it right, but this book is something else entirely.
Rumpus: When I was last in London we were talking about oral history and its flaws. Just the phrase itself doesn’t fit what you’re doing. So what do you call it?
Taylor: Yeah, it has a kind of fustiness, like it’s this kind of thing people do in local history clubs where they indiscriminately interview people for the sake of it. So you’ll have all sorts of old people just talking about what it was like to live in the Thirties. Then, there’s that bias that it’s not really writing, that it only is if you put quotation marks and a “she said” and throw in a detail about where you’re sitting, that that elevates it, whereas this sort of pure voice is not writing.
The more I look at what it can do though, the more I think it’s a kind of avant-garde form. You’re able to do stuff a novel just can’t. There have been some books that have come out about the city recently. Well, there are always books coming out about London and other cities, and the novels are run by these rules where characters have to meet up or their lives have to intersect. The great thing about this book is that no one is going to ever ask me why the plumber never met the banker or why the dominatrix never showed up and talked to the ex-dockman.
This form can carry the depth of fiction, but it can do stuff that the novel just can’t. It can smash itself into these eighty, ninety different pieces and never cohere because the real city doesn’t. The person you meet on the first day, that cab driver who picks you up when you come to the city, isn’t the one who takes you to the airport on the day you leave because cities don’t cohere to that sort of thing. I think the form – this collage of voices – can be a very freeing way of telling a story. At times when the novel feels a bit stale, I love having this ability to do things differently from what a novelist would be bound to do.
Rumpus: Also there’s something about just giving over to a voice too, which is really powerful.
Taylor: All writing is judgmental, but I never had to say, “She was obviously a working class woman who did this or that.” Things come out in people’s voices. They come out in word choice and in cadence and in different attributes. They just emerge as people speak. Also, it is mysterious when this voice starts up. There’s just this narrator, and you have to piece together things. I think in the book there are some clues for each person about where they fit in the social spectrum, but I would much rather the reader figure that out rather than my telling them.