Forget the American dream, this is the British dream. Every year tens of thousands of immigrants arrive in London. They come from all over the world in the hope of finding safety and striking gold. For his controversial new book, Ben Judah spent two years following them — Romanians, Poles, Africans, Arabs — trying to understand the reality of their lives

A new life begins: Victoria Coach Station

I have to see everything for myself. I don’t trust statistics. I have to make up my own mind. This is why I am shivering again at 6am. I am being pushed around. Automatic doors slide and close. Crowds are dazed with arrival. African men in hoodies and leather jackets rub their eyes. Polish meatheads grip onto huge toolboxes as they make for the street. Arab men in body warmers and fleeces pull out throwaway phones and dial those they know.

I have been coming to the coach station every morning now for weeks: counting the buses and pacing up to strangers — first dozens, then hundreds — recording what they say into my phone.

This cramped hall, lined with grimy old payphones, echoes with languages I cannot understand: Sinti, Turkish, maybe Swahili. Tiles shine with electric light. Now the Eurolines coach empties. A Romanian woman in a grey shell suit pulls off her hood, smiles timidly, a step away from a stocky man, and flicks her long, glossy, brown hair back and forth. An oily, unshaven boy, in all-black hoodie and puffa jacket, drags a sports bag and stares blankly into the squiggling colours of the Tube map.

I am standing in the damp again, keying in what I can see. Because I only trust what I can see. I was born in London, but I no longer recognise this city. I don’t know if I love the new London, or if it frightens me: a city where at least 55% of people are not white British, nearly 40% were born abroad and 5% are living illegally, in the shadows. I have no idea who these new Londoners are. Or even what their London really is. This is why I keep coming here.

Victoria Coach Station: coach fares are much cheaper than train or plane tickets — a 44-hour, one-way trip from Budapest costs less than £100 — and coaches arrive every few minutes from the Continent. Migrants from EU countries have the right to look for a job in BritainVictoria Coach Station: coach fares are much cheaper than train or plane tickets — a 44-hour, one-way trip from Budapest costs less than £100 — and coaches arrive every few minutes from the Continent. Migrants from EU countries have the right to look for a job in Britain

Paris bleeps in. Wheelie bags click-clack, tugged by French metrosexuals in drainpipe jeans, chirping and gossiping. They wipe the rain off their moisturised faces and brown, horn-rimmed glasses.

Now Cologne bleeps in. Two Bulgarian toughs with lined faces and puffy eyes, in matching sky-blue ski jackets, unload charcoal rucksacks packed with pneumatic drills. They both scowl as the belly of the coaches empty, as frumpy, squabbling Roma in forest-green headscarves and long, black skirts snipe at each other as they haul bin bags, stuffed to bursting with torn blankets and mouldy duvets, over the mirroring puddles.

Every week, more than 2,000 migrants unload at Victoria Coach Station. This is where tens of thousands of them arrive every year, the equivalent of a city the size of Bath or Basildon. They are all part of the same thing: the new London.

There is now a little light. The cold tingles my nerves. I shove my phone into my pocket. You never learn it all just watching. You never learn it all from the numbers. You have to go up and talk to people: completely, utterly different people from you.

African London: Peckham High Street

I need to see every story from the other side. This is why I am on the 136 bus into African London. I need to record successes. I need to record failures. I need to record the beggars. And I need to record the police.

The bus bleeps and stops. They call this Frontline Peckham, where the red-brick police station, with its slate roof, long-defunct chimneys and white-rimmed sash windows, glowers into the cramped little concrete balconies of the council estate, over a white-van-congested road.

Before going in I count the faces coming out of the police station. The tooth-grinding grimace on the black youth, with a fake-fur-rimmed Parka hood, rubbing his right fist. The squint coming from the blubbery face of the Pole in a red fleece and ski jacket, biting his crusty lip. The veined eyes on the exhausted African woman with messed-up braids, scanning, unsure where to go, shaking in a green padded body-warmer. And the light-stunned, knuckle-rubbed stare of the Roma in an unzipped leather jacket, morose, gaunt and blinking into this grey morning along Peckham High Street.

“They all behave differently when you handcuff them.”

The policeman says what he thinks. ‘The English are dying. The English are declining, fast.’ The policeman is Nigerian

His voice is hoarse and he shakes my hand in front of the faded and ignored photograph of Princess Anne in the hallway. The policeman is coming off the night shift and, fidgety from coffee and exhaustion, he guides me through fire doors, into the interview room. The officer pulls up a chair, flips over a paper witness statement on the plastic table and, with a ching-ching, begins playing with his handcuffs.

“The Romanians, they are always very crafty. They come in here and they go to you, ‘I don’t speak English.’ But the moment they go out again they are chatting freely. Now, the Africans… when the boys come in who have stolen some mobile phones, the mothers come and find them. And they are shouting and screaming and slapping them in custody, because they are religious, and the sons have brought shame on the whole community…”

There is no way you can talk comfortably in a police station. The closed space of this interview room is dotted with cameras and recording signs. This man is not like the other policemen. He speaks like a doctor, with a sad, mournful voice. He is uncomfortable answering questions and, as he talks, he keeps touching a chewed Biro on the interview table, fingering it, bit by bit snapping off little pieces off its plastic case, before mindlessly arranging them in a line.

“Last night we got a call, to one of the estates near the river, them ones that look over the blocks, into the lights of the Canary Wharf — just there, over the river. Because there was a Pole sleeping in the bin chutes. He was begging me, ‘Arrest me, arrest me,’ trying to provoke me, going, ‘Please arrest me for being drunk and disorderly.’ But I looked at him and went, ‘Mate, I’m not arresting you to give you a place to sleep.’

“The English are vanishing. London is no longer an English city at all — London is a patchwork of ghettos. Right here in Peckham you have the Africans; over the river in Whitechapel we have the Bengalis; further east from there we have the Pakistanis; and west from here, in Brixton, we have the Jamaicans. I could go on, and on, and on.”

The policeman scans me, and says what he thinks. “The English are dying. The English are declining and they are declining fast.” The policeman is black. He is Nigerian, an immigrant in London since 1989. But he does not tell me this in the police station. The plasticated notice on the wall says we are being recorded. And there are things in London you can and cannot say about race when you are being overheard. As I gather up my papers in the interview room to leave, he looks at me and says: “I don’t come to work to punish people.”

I meet the policeman again. There is a whole African city in London. With more than 550,000 people, this would be a city the size of Sheffield. And it has grown almost 45% since 2001. African London is rich and poor: a city where I have seen Mayfair champagne fights and single mums rummaging through food banks. A city to fill a thousand notebooks. But, for the most part, the hundreds of stories I hear are from a poor city of scrubbers and security guards. They tell me African London began here, in the estates between Peckham and Camberwell Green, back in the 1990s, when this was the first little patch of London Nigerians and Sierra Leoneans felt was really their own.

A worker takes a break outside a cafe on the Edgware Road, on the stretch between Maida Vale and Marble Arch. This part of the street has long been known as Little Beirut — the centre of London’s Middle Eastern community, with immigrants running shops, restaurants and shisha cafesA worker takes a break outside a cafe on the Edgware Road, on the stretch between Maida Vale and Marble Arch. This part of the street has long been known as Little Beirut — the centre of London’s Middle Eastern community, with immigrants running shops, restaurants and shisha cafes

I jump off the bus and rush. The policeman is waiting. The whole of McDonald’s thumps with low-level beats and happy music. I am meeting the policeman upstairs. His police jacket is under a black mac covered in tiny watery beads from the rain. He can’t lose that accent.

“Good ta meet ya, man…”

Policemen are not normally black. Minorities make up 55% of London, but only 10% of its police. Policemen are rarely immigrants. Not normally men who began right at the bottom, without the right papers.

“I wasn’t always in the force.”

The policeman sips some tap water. And tells me he used to be one of those melancholy African men muttering round the other tables, swapping work tips for cigarettes in the back corner of McDonald’s, worrying as the rain patters away.

“When I landed, this city was another place. My London began in 1989…” The plane was landing. He wriggled in his seat. He was about to discover a vast, almost imaginary city, where freedom and suffocation are a daily occurrence, an endless ritual, a constant dance.

This was London. I thought the money would be growing on trees. Six months later, I was crying myself to sleep… I was homeless

“I felt pumped. I was ready to go. Like my life was about to begin. This was London, my London. And I thought the streets would be paved with gold. I thought the money would be growing on trees. And that I would be there, picking it easy.”

Those first few days were vertiginous and free. He wandered breathless along supermarket aisles. He knew, instantly, everything was possible, everything was permitted, in this bombastic city of stucco and glass. Be it money — or love.

“Six months later, I was crying myself to sleep… I was homeless.”

London was glinting, giving nothing up. The policeman flicks his eyes onto these windows lashed with thousands of rushing rain beads. “I was ashamed and embarrassed and upset. I was lost, I was broken, I was ready to do anything to stay in this city, to stay in this world. So, that meant becoming not the businessman I had wanted to be. It meant becoming a kitchen boy.”

The first work he found was in Liverpool Street. The financiers ate decorative food off porcelain plates, while in the back rooms he pulled encrusted grease off a cauldron with a paint scraper. The waiters uncorked hundreds of wine bottles. They raked it in. But, back in the kitchen, the Irish manager barked and snarled at the Africans that one broken porcelain plate was one week’s wages.

“It was almost like accepting the hierarchy. I was an African person and these were the white people. Like, naturally that’s how it should be. There were a lot of Irish and Australian chefs, but the kitchen boys were all Nigerians and Ghanaians. That was when I realised: that’s the pecking order. I hated myself.”

The east Europeans are above us Africans, because they are more acceptable. Because of the likeness of the race. That’s the way it is

The kitchen boys told him there was work in a hotel in rich man’s Chelsea. Laundry work. Down in the basement. But good money. Those 10 years were nothing but steam. Nothing but the whirring machine and the smell of soap. Hours where his hands would sort through piles of stained sheets. They kept on coming, but there was one joy towards the end: when Mariah Carey was in residence, he found her knickers. Pinning them up on the noticeboard, he became a hotel hero.

“Since we did that, every other person started looking for dem stars’ underpants. Everyone wanted to touch them.”

He kept seeing the hierarchy. The room service and the waitresses, the people who touched the food, they were mostly white. Not from England, but the whites who were coming in. Australians, by and large. The receptionists, those who greeted the guests and keyed things in for them, were Irish, with singsong voices. The cleaners, humming, always humming, between the floors and the corridors, with their trolleys and sprays, they were Africans, or a few that had very strange faces, which he thought must be South American.

They were always moaning in the steam of the laundry room. “‘Nobody asked me if I wanted to do this. They just put me there…’ And I was there. Lifting out more and more linen. And they even made me a laundry boss.”

Another surprise. Hotel management lifted him out of the laundry room. And for five years he stood at the whirling entrance door. Rich men — Americans, Russians, Arabs — would toss their car keys at him and he would park those splendid cars.

“The celebrities would ignore me. Be on their phone. They were minted, y’know? And I was there tying up the shoelaces. No, I did not feel angry. I felt I was privileged. Like I was rising up. That one day, when I made it, when I’m back in Africa, when I’m having my pleasure, there would be boys bending down, doing this for me.”

Pipe dreams: a man enjoys a shisha pipe outside a Lebanese restaurant on the Edgware RoadPipe dreams: a man enjoys a shisha pipe outside a Lebanese restaurant on the Edgware Road

Now he was a valet boy he was on call from reception at all times. There were mornings where he found the mirrors smashed and the rooms trashed. There were times when those in residence were violent: there were times when they were also mad. Men like the unhinged aristocrat who would hand him a £50 note every time he came to his room.

“He would come out in his underpants back to front into the corridor. Or sometimes with his underpants over his trousers. But being mad, he was not crazy violent… but more autistic and mental-health issues. He would chuck underpants and Visa card at me and order me, ‘Go to Harrods to buy new underpants!’ Every day. It was really bad. You feel you work hard and you will never get to that level. He was not the one who made the money. It was his family that made the money… And I felt, well, that’s the way money is.

“My previous job, it was completely different… Y’know, the posh drunks they would come in and then vomit there. And you are almost preprogrammed to just clean it up with a smile. And the celebrities they would come in and break the nice vases, and smash the nice flowers and throw the nice cushions… and you would only smile and pick it up for them. Now, I would just arrest them.”

He was scrubbing the vomit off the marble floor when the fantasy began. This was when the valet boy began to fantasise about handcuffing people. Nigerians had passed the word on: the police wanted black men. And now there was no getting the image of him in a constable’s helmet out of his head. The valet boy began applying, over and over again. “Y’see, when I got here, I accepted it… the pecking order. You need so much ammunition — knowledge, money, everything — to jump to the next level. Most, they don’t. They can’t. And they sink into London. For me, I got blessed. I saw a door opening and I jumped through it.”

A barber’s in the Turkish part of Green Lanes in Haringey, north London, a street that has often been held up as a paradigm of how warring communities — originally Turkish and Greek Cypriots, but increasingly Turks and Kurds — can live together in peaceA barber’s in the Turkish part of Green Lanes in Haringey, north London, a street that has often been held up as a paradigm of how warring communities — originally Turkish and Greek Cypriots, but increasingly Turks and Kurds — can live together in peace

There was no more steam. There were streets to his life now, no more long, gloomy, interminably carpeted corridors. He had been in London little more than 10 years. But the city had a surprise for him. He was patrolling up and down the Old Kent Road now, checking what was happening, between the halal butchers, the money transfers, the pavement fruit stalls and the boarded-up pubs. He took it all in.

“I loved putting on the uniform, that beautiful uniform, for the first time.”

He noticed little things on his patrol. The crimes that were more daring, with a bit of punching or running, they were mostly done by the black boys. They were plucky, the ones who were born here, and they wanted their mobile phones. The policeman often wondered what they did with so many mobiles, hundreds and hundreds of them, until one of the senior officers explained the way it worked to him: they were selling them on to those surly Afghans with the shifty electronics shops.

“They are not Afghan Taliban — that’s a myth. They are very hi-tech. They will always be there behind the counter with a laptop or a tablet. They are fixing them and unlocking them for the robber boys. That’s the business. And dem Afghans… they are very much involved, a lot of them are very criminally minded.”

The policeman clears his throat. “I’m gonna be straight with you. Black people tend to get involved in street crime, it’s more confrontational. Those boys, they are dem lost boys. Their parents are too poor in time for them, working double, so when they are teenagers, and they come home, there is no mummy or daddy. So they hug the block.”

He eyes me for a second.

“I’ll be honest, I say this without prejudice. The white community tends to get more involved in burglary. These ones, they are men’s. Y’see, crimes that require a little more planning, like the burglary, those crimes are white. The white community, they are not so daring, but they are more criminal-minded, they do… the proper thinking. They are coming into the homes with the screwdrivers and the tools and everything. That’s why, with the drugs, cannabis — black; crack and cocaine — white. The higher the drug, the whiter the criminal.”

A Nigerian woman cleans the windows of her textiles shop in Peckham, also known as Little Lagos — many of the shops in this corner of south London are Nigerian-owned, selling imported goods and food from LagosA Nigerian woman cleans the floor of her textiles shop in Peckham, also known as Little Lagos — many of the shops in this corner of south London are Nigerian-owned, selling imported goods and food from Lagos

His eyes flick behind him. “But, being frank, when I first became a policeman, in the 1990s, you used to have kids, black people, the West Indies, who were high in crime and at the bottom of things. But that is changing… it’s the way London is moving. But now most of our burglaries, thefts, robbery is coming from the new entrants.

“The worst case I got called to… I got a call to Peckham. There was a naked woman in the rain. And like, wow, everybody wanted to attend to that call. They was all going, ‘Is she fit?’ Because it was a naked woman running around in the rain in Peckham… we all wanted to go in there. So we drove. Almost every unit in Peckham. Almost every unit, racing. And we got there and she was naked. And yes, she was fit.

“One of the girls took her raincoat off to wrap her, and preserve her dignity, and took her to the house. But as soon as we opened the door — smoke… everywhere. She was shouting, ‘What’s happening? What’s happening?’ And she started to cry, ‘Where’s my baby? Where’s my baby?’ “What she had done is she had put the baby in the oven. And put it on. She was having a schizophrenic episode. We crashed… it was from high of the highs to the lowest depths. A three-week-old baby. It was charred. It was burnt. She was suffering from schizophrenia. She was West Indian.”

He flinches, touches his plastic cup and carries on. “I’m gonna level with you. Y’see, in London you’ve always had the Africans at the bottom of the pile along with the West Indians. The east Europeans are above us Africans, because they are more acceptable. Because of the likeness of the race. There is a commonality in Europe of the ethnicity, you know? That’s the way it is… And at the very top you get the rich. Where there is no race.”

Super-rich London: Berkeley Square

Engines roar and pop. And I watch the Arab supercars of Mayfair circle the darkness in the middle of Berkeley Square. The supercars are pulling onto a side street of soaring mahogany doors and glass fronts that open onto galleries and dealerships, or sleazy, theatrical restaurants with a whiff of a sickly perfume. This is where I need to be.

The restaurant doorman greets me by the flame-flanked opening. This is where I meet Nahla. There have always been daughters like her in Mayfair: errant, raffish, refusing to marry to their fathers’ wishes — their rebellion tolerated by Daddy, perhaps because he sees in her eyes shards of his own repressed self. They have been here as long as the townhouses. But the real princesses and heiresses here are no longer English. They are from Dubai and Qatar.

“I’m not like the others. I’m different.”

Nahla is bored. She is Egyptian and she lives like any child of enormous inheritance: attending parties, organising nights — and as her elbow defiantly plants on the table, dangling a diamond bracelet from her wrist, I listen to her rattle frustrations, with her lilting, fuzzy accent of international schools, secluded skiing and Mayfair’s golden mile. And she talks like someone who is used to being listened to.

life in the fast lane: wealthy visitors from the Gulf zoom around the West End of London in their supercarsLife in the fast lane: wealthy visitors from the Gulf zoom around the West End of London in their supercars

“I’m not becoming English. There’s a global culture. It’s very hard to say what’s making someone English. Like cricket and all that? That used to be English, but it’s not any more. Y’know, I feel in London there are so many people here from so many different places, they’ve kinda created their own thing here.”

I try and pin down her hissy voice in my notebook. Her grammar is lazy, her slurring indifferent to received pronunciation, the slang American, not English. Nahla ignores the waiter. She is an Arab blonde and she pities the supercars. Nahla knows the season has started when their calls and texts start dropping. She ignores most of them. But then they become imploring, begging even. And the comedown emotions of the boy on the line always quiver the same way. Nahla, we can’t go table-clubbing without any girls. Nahla, we can’t come to London without going table-clubbing. Nahla, we can’t cope with it back home, please come out.

“The super-super-rich boys…” Her voice is pitched to be dismissive. “When they think of London, they think of getting wasted, going to a club. They do it because they just feel more free… like in Dubai you’re fine if you’re drunk in the club, but the moment you leave, it’s awful. You can get arrested.

“A lot of Arab men are very bottled up. They’ve got a lot of frustration. They’ve got a lot of things they gotta live up to, like… like behaviour, like who they are as human beings. There are a lot of things they are expected to be, but London is so free. Arab men can do whatever they want in London.”

Nahla has a personal rule. More than three missed calls and it means you begged for something. But these boys break that on every occasion. They are Egyptians. They are Saudis. They are Qataris. And in a way, they are all the same. They are all waking up in their fathers’ holiday mansions, still buzzing. They are all dialling the same Moroccan brothers with sleek BMWs who deliver with discretion and Arabic to their bronze-knocker doors.

‘I’m not becoming English,’ says Nahla. ‘In London, there are people from so many different places, they’ve created their own thing’

Nahla sighs when they finally arrive. They are already stoned. They are chirping like birds about the order. They are little boys bragging they have 10 grams, and Valium and Xanax for the comedown. But they sit there listless and miserable. The country is f*****. The other countries are even more f*****. And we’re f*****. There’s no future. They talk about nothing else — until they start to take turns to drift in and out of the lavatory — and that’s when the boys begin to slap their hands and start to smile like jackals.

Nahla finds herself soothing the playboys. Don’t worry, these wars can’t go on for ever. Don’t worry, they can’t get any more extreme than they already are. Don’t worry that your father wants you to marry that girl, there is always a way people can make things work out. But the boys will no longer be listening. Their pupils have swollen. They are forgetting. They are beginning to tingle.

“It’s so, so awful.”

Nahla loathes table-clubbing. But for any heiress in Arab London, table-clubbing is inescapable. This is what the season is all about. The black rooms dancing with bouncing sheens of light.

Nahla watches the boys. They take their positions round the table. But these are almost preordained. Boys have their pecking order — alpha male, beta male — and they always come out in packs. Nahla watches them push and jostle and tease each other round with the first clinks. But she is never sure why they do this. Nahla sometimes squints at the alpha male in the group. This is the big boy who is making the decisions. He decides when people are hungry. He decides when people are tired.

Nahla looks around. The scene is almost always the same. There is always the Russian table. They always have the prettiest girls. But the men seem to have this violent tic and are always telling the girls to shut the f*** up. The Russians never dance. They never seem to stop arguing about politics.

Ageing men with the piggy faces they deserve crane in and whisper their plots with arms around each other’s shoulders. Their pale and bony playthings sit fingering the corners of their hair, or sometimes stare limpidly into the dancefloor with their enormous eyes.

For any heiress in Arab London, table-clubbing is inescapable. There is always the Russian table. They always have the prettiest girls

The Gulfi tables are completely different. They are much younger, for a start; their faces are riven with panic about girls. There will sometimes be a few. But there are never enough and their dance moves are poor. This is where the fireworks come in. The alpha flicks his wrist. The barmen bring out the huge, curved bottles of champagne with fireworks fizzing on the trays around them and begin handing out sparklers, and the betas males begin waving and whooping.

And it always ends the same way. This is always the moment the Russians click their fingers and double the order. The alpha’s face crumbles as the Russians send the barmen around the dancefloor distributing sparklers and glasses to the best girls jumping in their dresses to the beat.

The Gulfi table wants girls bad. They will try and approach them, but often this doesn’t work and they will creep back to the table with cracked grins and forced smiles. But deeper into the night, more Gulfis will start paying and with a wink the barmen will bring them the best blondes, who charge boys by the hour.

There are other classic tables in the house. There is the Indian table. These guys never seem to get good seating and are often stuck in the back without easy access to the dancefloor. They never dance and they never seem to have any girls. But they always stagger out like teenagers because they can’t hold their drink. And there is the Nigerian table. These guys are the only ones really dancing. They are not into drugs so much. They are mostly there for the cocktails and the whisky. But they can be very competitive, too. Once the sparklers get down, they will get right in there.

Nahla becomes exasperated. There is the boy who loses his jacket table-clubbing and begins shouting at her that it is such a rare designer number, he needs three prostitutes to calm himself down. There is the boy whose morning flight back to Cairo is only hours away, who rushes her into the gents with him because he is spinning dizzy and does not know what to do about his wrap.

“Do I cut this into chunky beast lines for the table, or do I flush it down the gurgling water bowl?” And then there is that skinny boy, whose teeth are grinding so loudly, it sounds like a small man in his mouth is trampling through sugar, who grabs her, as the house pounds, and begins shouting. “We’re f*****. The country’s f*****.”

Nahla sits with me in the restaurant, picking at her salad. “I’m just disgusted when I see that in Knightsbridge.”