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Disappearing Act

Craig Taylor interviewed by Anna Aslanyan.


Craig Taylor interviewed 200 people about their London experiences, and the only certainty he came away with was: “The bedbugs in Tottenham look just the same as the bedbugs in South Ken” – a wisdom imparted by a pest control officer. Other facts he has learnt may be less chiselled but equally fascinating: apparently squatting in the arches of London Bridge station is prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws; the Lost Property Office near Baker Street gets tons of books given away by Evening Standard and an occasional Samurai sword; “London is the kinkiest city in the world” if you ask a professional dominatrix. These and many other snippets of information obtained from Londoners can be found in the eponymous book, which follows in the footsteps of One Million Tiny Plays about Britain. But if Taylor’s 2009 collection is made up of fictionalised conversations, the monologues here are all real, each recited in a different voice. The author’s own is almost never heard, so it’s good to meet him in person and confirm that after over ten years in London he still sounds Canadian – more of which later.

3:AM: That London is perpetually changing is a thread that runs through the accounts of many characters in your book, from a city planner to a grief councillor. At the same time, there is a school of thought that insists on the place’s eternal nature. According to this theory, it has its own energy which dictates people’s actions, century after century. How does it fit in with your observations?

Craig Taylor: I was a bit concerned about the book coming out too specific to the present moment, too of its time. For instance, people would start talking about the Olympics – a big deal now, but would it still be relevant a couple of years down the line? I was worried the whole thing would turn out too particular. But there are, of course, some eternal themes, which gradually started to rise out of the text; the more I worked on it, the more visible they became. When the crematorium technician talks about his fear of epidemics you remember the plague raging in the city ages ago. The street cleaner puts you in mind of all the mess that’s always been there: it’s different now, there are probably more McDonald’s wrappings than ever, but the process of it appearing and being removed by someone is continuous. So yes, the book is full of particulars – although it was never going to be complete, however much you write about London you are bound to miss something – yet, hopefully, it also touches upon some things that never change.

3:AM: The presence of violence being one of them. You have a lot of it in the book, from street quarrels to police operations to the recent riots. Some people say that it’s violence that gives them the strongest creative impulse. Do you ever feel in a similar way when faced with certain sides of London life?

CT: Violence is important not so much for my work – I’m just curious about all sorts of things, they don’t have to be particularly outrageous to get my attention – but it’s there on the streets of London, you can’t talk about the city without mentioning it. That policeman who told me about almost beating someone to death with his baton, he patrols Islington, an area most people think of as placid and quiet. You have a street with lovely houses, all those beautifully painted doors, but turn a corner and the atmosphere becomes vicious. The policeman knows it all, that’s why I wanted him to speak. Another idea was to talk about the way our lives intersect with violence, because it does happen, in this city probably more often than in others. Take the guy who witnessed a suicide on the Tube – it actually happened here, at Camden.

3:AM : Yes, when he says the girl “basically disintegrated on impact”, it sticks in the memory. As for less random, more channelled forms of violence, you mention last year’s student protests, all that window smashing. Why do you think they were so subdued this time around? Does it mean the revolution is off, or will it happen quietly?

CT: I suppose the police tightened things up to make sure there is no disruption. But the lack of clashes doesn’t make protests less effective – quite the contrary. What matters is whether or not you stick around. One of my interviewees in the book talks about the 2003 demonstration against the war in Iraq: people gathered together one Saturday afternoon, made some noise and dispersed. What difference could it possibly make? Remember Brian Haw, the anti-war activist who died recently? He did make a huge impact – just by taking up residence outside the Houses of Parliament and saying: I’m not leaving. He was there every day, calling them killers, and that’s what really angered them, much more than any one-off action would. What he did was extremely powerful, they changed the legislation as a result. Look at the Occupy London movement today – don’t you think they are being successful? Everyone knows they are there, they’ve been making headlines, it’s been a very efficient campaign. Their aim wasn’t exactly to topple the government, but you have to dig in, that’s when people get agitated.


3:AM: Another popular image of the city is London as a stage. You’ve adapted your books for the theatre and have a good ear for dialogue. One of the sections of Londoners is called ‘Putting on a Show’, and although it’s quite short, there are performances galore in the book. Was that one of your focal points as a playwright?

CT: Of course London has often been compared to a multitude of performances happening around us all the time. I had this in mind too, but didn’t want to have lots of professional actors in the book – they can be quite tiresome, you know. In fact, the best actor I’ve come across is Peter Thomas, the fruit market trader – he really is great, he goes and performs with his supporting cast every night, rhyming slang and all. I think it’s more interesting to see people who act naturally, whatever their job.

3:AM: For a theatrical place like London, there is relatively little dressing up in the book. One of you interlocutors, who wears shoes signed by Bjorn Borg, talks about fashion at length, but that’s about it. Presumably the tensions of modern life are to blame?

CT: There’s that, but still you get people dressing up all the time, here in Camden, in Dalston and elsewhere. The thing is, it is not necessarily the dressers themselves who give the most interesting perspective on fashion. My nightclub door attendant has a sharp eye for it; she needs to measure people up instantly, and she does that just by looking at their clothes and manners – she is an ethnographer of sorts. When she herself dresses down and a bunch of Australian girls appears, all dolled up, she knows straight away they are going to be trouble. The longer you live in this city, the more you learn about these things yourself: if you see a guy wearing a particular kind of skinny jeans you place him accordingly, as you do someone wearing a puffa jacket.

3:AM: Your nurse working at an STD clinic says at the end of his monologue: “If there was no alcohol in the city I probably wouldn’t have a job.” The same probably applies to the very existence of London. So you see booze as a cohesive element in its life?

CT: Yes, it’s a great unifying force, and not something I was used to growing up on the West Coast of Canada. Where I am from, people drive to a pub and have a half pint with their meal; over here it couldn’t be more different. Pubs are also invaluable for a project like this as you get to explore various slices of London through its drinking places. And you have to see a swanky bar in the City where someone is having a birthday bash before you go to some place in Kilburn to encounter a bunch of old drinkers.

3:AM: One of the most crucial things in your study of London is language. An Iranian refugee, a black actress turned plumber, a hedge fund manager born in Derbyshire – they all have their speech peculiarities, as do Cockneys, Geordies, and the rest. Instead of making full introductions, you let your subjects speak for themselves, so by the end of each monologue the reader has a fair idea of their background. And then there’s your own, outlined at the beginning. Does it help being a foreigner in London?

CT: Yes, I managed to keep my accent unlike some of my Canadian friends who’ve acquired English ways. It wasn’t deliberate – it just happened. But I can’t claim any great talent for recognising different registers. Well, perhaps as an outsider your ear is more attuned, you listen more carefully to what’s going on around you. I thought letting a voice tell the story was much more interesting than just saying at the beginning: he is white, middle-class, etc. Several of my interviewees talk about the role your accent plays, how you are judged by it. For instance, Emma Clarke, the voice of the London Underground, is a Northerner, but had to go for RP, just so the announcements would be easier to understand. It’s also interesting to think about her intonations – they have long been part of the fabric of people’s lives, so imagine what effect it would have made if she tweaked her way of speaking. There’s also the mother who is bringing up her son in Hackney; she knows that to get to the top he’d have to drop his wivs and whatevas, which he uses all the time to be accepted by his friends. These things still matter, of course, the outcome of your job interview still depends on the way you speak. As a foreigner, I’m judged not by class, but by other criteria. When I was interviewing people for this project they usually thought I was a weird American. Still, I like the fact that I speak with a strong accent – having your own, distinctive voice helps you find your place here.

3:AM : And where is that place? You talk to people from all walks of life, but there are no writers among them, while you yourself tend to step back, never interfering with your subject. Not so much an artist in the landscape, but rather one dissolved in it?

CT: No, I didn’t feel like posing against that backdrop, I’m kind of allergic to these things. The idea was to disappear into the project after a brief introduction, just to indicate that I am somewhere among those voices. I didn’t want to make any judgements, you know, along the lines of “After he told me this I knew…” So the whole process wasn’t like painting a landscape on an empty canvas, more like chipping away at a piece of sculpture that’s already there. Initially I had a million words to be pared down, so writing the book was all about finding that perfect line, somewhere in the middle. And I did work very hard on it, cutting and stitching and splicing; my editor was also a great help. Not sure how close I managed to get to that imaginary line, but whenever someone says to me: yeah, it must’ve been easy, you’ve just gone and typed up all those interviews – when I hear that I say: that’s perfect, if you think so, my job is done.


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011.