The sound of the streets, the sounds on the streets. My, how we missed the hustle and bustle, the vibrancy of London’s street life during lockdown. The image of a solitary traffic light blinking in vain onto an empty road in the heart of the City captured the bleakness of the shutdown. No people, no work, no life.
Through it all did you spare a thought for the Big Issue seller, the pop-up coffee stall holder, the nightclub security guard, the Covent Garden magician or indeed any of the Londoners who make a living from or on the streets of London? Covid affected so many lives in so many different ways it is hard to keep a tally. We all adjusted as best we could, but how did those whose lives were precariously balanced before the lockdowns, with no savings to draw on or network for support, manage?
This thought haunts the pages of Jennifer Kavanagh’s richly detailed mapping of the stories of those who have least, are often invisible, and bear the brunt of market forces they cannot influence. Her research, which ran from 2018 into the early months of the first lockdown, involved interviewing scores of people across Inner London. She was keen to present a balance of gender, ethnicity and age and to cover, as best she could, the myriad activities that take place on the streets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she finds that she and the two colleagues she worked with interviewed people of some 25 nationalities.
The title of Kavanagh’s book is drawn from Ralph McTell’s song Streets of London, though its most direct inspiration and frame of reference is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, a sprawling oral history of those living and working on the streets of Victorian London, published in four volumes in 1861-2. The streets are different now, of course, but the precariousness of life on the edges of the labour market, the lack of housing options and the blankness of the future for many are the same. While Mayhew classified his stories by the work people did – the watercress girl, the crossing-sweeper, the sewer hunter – Kavanagh takes a broader approach, using the stories she has collected to illuminate the hidden details of how the economy really ticks.
We learn about how building site sub-contractors find work and of the shift patterns of hotel doormen, of the inner workings of Billingsgate market, the logistics of selling caramelised peanuts and how “Delia” subsidised her law studies by giving out free magazines. Kavanagh is a compassionate guide, gently teasing out often difficult stories from the people she speaks to, and skilfully weaving them together to reflect on wider social concerns such as racism, family breakdown and mental health.
While many have patchwork jobs – sometimes two different jobs to make a bit extra to supplement a day job that doesn’t pay enough to get by – they all value the freedom of being out-of-doors and interacting with the public. Resilience and stoicism, particularly with regard to the weather, are key notes, yet there’s also a powerful sense of being part of some wider community, of being alive among the grand sweep of people.
For those who hit rock bottom and have to live on the street, interacting with the public is a more tense and potentially dangerous affair. With a background in working with homeless groups and refugees Kavanagh is passionate about giving those sleeping rough a space to have their voices heard. The reasons people end up living on the streets are many and varied, and the struggle to get off them is often long and arduous, despite the support proffered by the statutory services, churches, charities and volunteers.
Some of the stories are difficult to read, such as that of the young woman in care targeted by gangs, or the domestic abuse victim forced into sleeping on a park bench. There is powerful testimony too from those for whom staying in what should be safe and secure hostel accommodation became a living hell of crack dealing and random violence. Across successive chapters, Kavanagh charts the tragic slip from Big Issue seller to begging, to stealing, to destitution, to sex work and drug abuse. There are stories of redemption too though: many of those she speaks to have moved on from lives of homelessness and drug use to actively helping others make the same transition.
In 2000, Sir Peter Hall, the doyen of urbanism, led a multi-disciplinary team of researchers to investigate the relationships between economic competitiveness and social cohesion. This was done through a combination of statistical analysis and evidence from over one hundred interviews with Londoners in their different roles, in their different neighbourhoods.
The main product of this project – Working Capital: Life and Labour in Contemporary London, published in 2002 – amplified the evolving narrative of London as both a global city and as the world in one city. It illustrated the almost breathless changes that were taking place across the capital in terms of new migration, new businesses and investment, and it captured the uneasiness many felt about the way their neighbourhoods were changing. Hall’s work staked out key policy areas that London regional government in the form of the Greater London Authority – at that stage, barely up and running – would grapple with for the next two decades: insufficient housing, poor transport options, employment insecurity, growing inequality and entrenched poverty.
Kavanagh’s writing too reflects a city in transition, albeit one where people are perhaps now more habituated to change. It is less policy-focused, despite finding space to advocate for micro-initiatives, such as Groundswell, which uses those with experience of homelessness to design and deliver services. Her aim is more personal: to use these stories to show you something to “make you change your mind” and invite you into a world you most probably rush past, to ask you to take a moment and to consider the common humanity you share with all those trying to make a living on the streets of London.
Richard Derecki is an economist and governance expert who has worked for the 10 Downing Street strategy unit and the Greater London Authority. Follow Richard on Twitter.
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