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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > February 2016 > London calling

London calling

Immigrants are drawn to the capital with the promise of success. At what price?

Ben Judah no longer recognises the city in which he was born. In London, 55 per cent of the population is not ethnically British, 40 per cent were born abroad and five per cent live in the shadowy illegal economy. An acclaimed foreign correspondent, Judah decided to investigate the unreported stories on his doorstep by interviewing many recent immigrants. The new London is where Polish builders rail against the Romanians undercutting their prices; where homeless Roma men play the fiddle on the street in exchange for a few pounds; and where Filipino maids look for the chance to escape overbearing Arab employers.

These voices offer an insight into our capital’s unreported world. They show us the prejudices of migrants and their aspirations, their cruelties and the cruelties done to them, and what they think of the English people whose houses they build and whose children they look after.

Pawel does not look like a builder, with his thick black glasses and plush grey mane. Pawel doesn’t sound like one either. Inside his overheated white van he talks about communism, literature, politics, chess: everything he lost in 1981 when he became a dissident refugee. He misses those first building days.

“You know what it was like then? Back in the eighties, the nineties, when I was first building, your painter, he would’ve come from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts... You’d tell him to rip offthe wallpaper and throw on three thick coats of paint and he would just begin telling you about Polish minimalism. Your bricklayer... He would be a sociologist, talking Hayek when it was tea break.”

His voice purrs.

“Those days... When we finished and the sun would come pouring in... Lo conversions were very popular then, that’s what I remember... We would have all these nice chats as we cleaned up. The English... hah, they probably thought it was football we were always arguing about so passionately.”

Pawel’s first job on site was wall painting, in a building trade then run by Irish wide boys. Pawel is one of the old Poles. Today he swerves the corners between his sites. Pawel is one of the winners: one of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along building bosses who benefited from the mass migration of labour in the 2000s.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s February issue: Lawrence Summers questions Robert J Gordon’s thesis on the impact of the digital revolution, John Sawers, the former Chief of MI6, highlights how technology is making the work of spies harder and Frank Furedi examines the student movements demanding protection from the offensive and uncomfortable. Also in this issue: Gershom Gorenberg on Israel, Ben Judah on the complexity of London and Elizabeth Pisani on the impact of fake drugs. Plus Sam Tanenhaus on Obama’s gun control plans.
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