Monday, June 16, 2014

Craig Taylor's Magnificent Oral History of a City in "Londoners"


In his new book “Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now--As Told By Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long For It”(Ecco, $29.99, 448pp), the Canadian journalist and playwright Craig Taylor has written a scintillating oral history of his adopted city. Taylor went both high and low, speaking with cops, a cyclist, a city planner and a dominatrix among many others, exploring the social fabric and varied cultures of a vibrant city.

Taylor met a wide spectrum of Londoners, from a recent immigrant from Iran to a driving instructor, a street photographer and a singer who become a plumber. Using long-form interviews, Taylor captured the personality of Raymond Lum, a formally homeless ex-convict who tells how he moved to London to make a new start. Transsexual squatter Sarah took Taylor Dumpster diving for his supper. In roughly 90 interviews, Taylor asked his subjects to soul search on what it means to be a modern Londoner, while creating an impressive oral history in the tradition of Studs Terkel.

Taylor, 35, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from London.

Q. What drew you to writing an oral history of London?

A. I had been doing interviews for The Guardian. A lot of my writing was very condensed and the interview subjects would get these brief little bursts. I knew there was more to be said, but I had no idea it would take five years.

Q. How did you approach people for interviews?

A. I downloaded a list of the verbs in the English language and pulled out the ones that applied to London--earning one’s keep, feeding the city, keeping the peace. I started using these as a framework, looking for people who enacted these verbs. I could approach people, saying “I’m doing this project. You seem to be embody this verb.” It was easier that saying, “Could you tell me about your hopes and dreams?”

Q. You are Canadian. Did you benefit by being an outsider to London society?

A. It was helpful, I was allowed to ask seemingly stupid questions and I could dodge the normal things people do when they meet--where did they go to school, how they define each other.

Q. One of the great characters in the book is Smartie, a working-class ex-financial worker, ex-d.j. and present London cab driver. He’s a Rosetta Stone for London. Were his stories true?

A. The book wasn’t really about the “true facts” of London, but how people perceived the city. Smartie is like many of us, who may embroider parts of their story. The fact that he’s touched on so many levels of British life was fascinating to me. He spoke well and had a great knowledge of many parts of the city. Instead of saying something hackneyed about soccer hooligans, Smartie was able to talk about hooligans and how fashion worked in other groups.

Q. You had to cut the interviews down from 200 to about 90 in the final book, but kept the long interviews. Why?

A. The length was pretty organic. We wanted to allow the people to talk, not just about a focused part of their life, but to revel in their language, their cadence. I wanted some sections to be quite long, like a short story.

Q. What were your influences on your oral history?

A. My influences developed by reading the people who had done these histories--Ronald Blythe, Studs Terkel. Then there was a certain approach to journalism, like (New Yorker writer) Joseph Mitchell, who let people speak at length. I am less and less comfortable with the editorializing I see in journalism, the judgments that journalists make when they profile people. Class is such a tricky thing in England. It is better to have people introduce themselves. You can figure out who they are in a way that is more interesting.

(This interview ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in February 2012

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