A Very Modern Preservationist
In the last year there has been a great Nairn revival – I would have loved to buy him a pint and hear him speak unpretentiously about his love of architecture
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.
There followed three decades when his books, essays and documentaries were neglected. In the last year, however, there has been a great Nairn revival.
First, an edition of essays: Ian Nairn: Words in Place, edited by Gillian Darley and David McKie. Then, a BBC documentary: The Man Who Fought the Planners: The Story of Ian Nairn. Told through archive footage of Nairn’s own programmes, it is riveting. Once you have heard Nairn speak, you cannot read his essays without hearing his terse, interrogative voice, quavering with rage or on the edge of tears as he contemplates some new visual assault.
Notting Hill Editions have continued the restoration of Nairn with a new edition of Nairn’s Towns. It should be kept in the glove box of every car and consulted should the driver ever find himself in Newcastle, Sheffield, Cardiff or Plymouth with an hour to spare. At a time when politics and the media are attacked for their myopic focus on London, Nairn’s tribute to the overlooked buildings of Britain’s second, third, and indeed, fourth, fifth and 17th cities, is a robust riposte to the notion that the capital is the only place of any merit.
Penguin, joining the charge, have republished Nairn’s London with its original 1966 cover showing the author, portly, smiling, tie skew-whiff, leaning out the driver’s window of a red Routemaster bus.
The new edition of Nairn’s Towns is prefaced with an excellent introduction by Owen Hatherley. Nairn was “too modernist for the preservationists, too much a preservationist for the modernists, he was too ambiguous, urban and bitter to become a Betjeman, too sophisticated and reflective for a Simon Jenkins”. His BBC programmes “all involve Nairn rambling round various locations and very obviously making it up as he goes along”.
In the essays, Nairn’s prose is clubbable, confiding, outraged and purple. At Canterbury Cathedral “your head is drawn up and back as though you were in a half-nelson”; the Birmingham Council House is “as full of unexpected things as a plum cake”; the architect J.A. Hansom “was to drop enormous overblown Gothic Roman Churches round England like ripe peaches”. Nairn wrote that the decline in the fortunes of Charles Rennie Mackintosh could be put down to “increasing cantankerousness, decreasing commissions, increasing whisky, and decreasing hope”.
The Gothicising architect Augustus Pugin “was, literally, insane with Gothic enthusiasm . . . When he had too little money the result was tawdry, and when he had too much money the crockets went to his head.”
Nairn has nothing but contempt for buzzwords and jargon: “urban renewal” meant “replacing lively old dirt with dead new cleanness”. He has a knack, too, of damning with faint praise: “St John’s Wood is a light, pleasant affair that hurts nobody.”
His selection of buildings worthy of inclusion is catholic. The gents’ loos of the Windsor Bars pub in Birmingham are commended to visitors (“the Ladies, I am told, is nowhere near as good”) and the Penguin Pool at London Zoo is discussed with the same seriousness as Manchester Town Hall.
He returns to the Zoo in Nairn’s London. “It would be a good place . . . simply to drown one’s indignation at human imbecility and the antics of the rest of Nature’s jokers. After all, it costs no more than the price of a scotch and soda, which is a more usual remedy. And if the baboons and sea-lions don’t work, you can always have the scotch and soda anyway, in the Zoo’s bar.” Sightseeing was only fun if there were drinking stops along the way.
He wrote that the book was only his list of the best things in London, and wasn’t to be consulted as a definitive guide. He used to joke that he would have put his wife, Judy Perry, into the book “had she only been made of brick or stucco”.
He is scathing about the National Gallery — “a set of good porticoes and bad domes, badly arranged” — and nostalgic for the old Soho: “The tarts are off the streets now. Instead there are traffic wardens, taking up the same kind of stance but not looking nearly so inviting.”
One of the pleasures of the book, if you live in London, is looking up your own part of town. My nearest pub gets its own entry. It is “dark and plushy and glowing” and the atmosphere is “somewhere between a theatre bar, a club, and a Baroque library”.
Like many other Nairnites, I would have liked to buy him a pint and hear him speak about the medieval “chares” or steps of Newcastle — a favourite subject. I fear, though, that he would have drunk — and talked — me under the table.