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Irreverent tour guide: Ian Nairn had nothing but contempt for jargon (image: Penguin Press)

It is a most unusual eulogy. There is no congregation, only a BBC cameraman. The church pews have been smashed, the panelling ripped from the walls. The prayer cushions are filthy with dust and losing their stuffing. And the preacher, dressed in suit and tie rather than cassock and collar, has taken to the pulpit to pay tribute to the life, not of a person, but of a building.

"Bolton, St Saviour's in the East, Deane Road," he begins. "One of their noblest churches — and now look at it! Pews flattened. I don't quite know how you would categorise the vandalism of the yobbos who did this."

The preacher, speaking with a furious tremor, was Ian Nairn. There was no fiercer 20th-century defender of Britain's buildings and landscapes and no more fire-and-brimstone critic of the architects and town planners who had destroyed them.

In his writing and broadcasting, he appealed to his audience in simple, direct terms. Nairn, a man who could out-drink Falstaff, had none of the pretensions of the architecture critic, only the catching enthusiasm of a man who could lead you on a walking tour of a city, then take you for a pint afterwards at its best-preserved Victorian pub.

Self-taught, neither public school nor Oxbridge, Nairn made his name with a splenetic essay published in the Architectural Review in 1955 with the title: "Outrage".

It described a drive (Nairn's Morris Minor later became as much a star of his BBC series as its owner) from Southampton to Carlisle, while lamenting the "steamrollering of place . . . into one mediocre pattern". Nairn, a Jeremiah, imagined a future when "the edges of Southampton will look like the edges of Carlisle". Our landscape was in danger of becoming a great homogenised, continuous mess of pylons, signs, roads, fences, petrol stations, roundabouts, and suburban cul-de-sacs. This he christened "Subtopia".

Essays, books and BBC series followed — sometimes extolling, sometimes lamenting the appearance of our towns and countryside. He was a critic for the Observer, the Telegraph and the Sunday Times and contributed to the Pevsner guides to Surrey, where he was brought up, and Sussex. He died in 1983, a week before his 53rd birthday, of cirrhosis of the liver — the sad result of too many afternoons in the St George's Tavern in Pimlico (his local) and the pubs of Bolton, Liverpool, Newcastle, and the rest.

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