London Made Us is a deeply nostalgic memoir, a celebration of the dirty, slummy, sometimes dangerous and sickening but utterly vital past, and a stinging critique of present pseudo-posh. Yet Elms recognises, if sometimes reluctantly, the importance of the passions of young people in London today who know something of history. This last is a resolution of what might otherwise be too stark a paradox, but memoirs should offer at least a glimmer of hope, when the author himself is still alive to have it and share it with his family and readers.
Elms’s book is perhaps best read less as a history of a city than as a nostalgia-soaked account of a middle-aged man pining for his youth. It’s significant that he opens with his mother’s final days in a hospital on Euston Road, during which she waved a frail hand towards the window and said: “This is no longer my London.” She had worked as a parlour maid in Belgravia and as a clippie on double-decker buses, but in her dotage the city had become a stranger. In London Made Us, Elms grieves both for his mother, who died a few days later, and for the city that forges forward irrespective of the wishes of those who live in it.
...this is a freewheeling book that revels in the tales it tells — and it tells plenty... “This cockney saudade is a common malaise,” he says earlier, of a yearning for places one didn’t actually grow up in (as an East Finchley boy, I know exactly what he means). But if you are reading this newspaper, ideally on public transport, then you are a part of London, like it or not — and this book will help you see it through new eyes. It is a delight.