Wednesday, November 27, 2013
On the town
Next in my series of book reviews, Ian Nairn (and Owen Hatherley) on Britain's towns...
Ian Nairn, Nairn's Towns, introduced by Owen Hatherley
Published by Notting Hill Editions
Even I, a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s, find it hard to believe now what a service the magazine The Listener did in bringing fresh and thoughtful analysis of current affairs and culture to the attention of so many in Britain. The magazine's brief was to put into print the best of the words broadcast by the BBC, but it cast its net wider than this, commissioning new pieces as well. It was a kind of Third Programme in print that I, for one, was fortunate to find in the school library every week. One thing it commissioned was a series of articles by Ian Nairn on British towns, from Canterbury to Newcastle, Cardiff to Cumbernauld. They were printed in The Listener in 1961 and 1964, and revised and reprinted in book form, as Britain's Changing Towns, in 1967. Here they are again, introduced by Owen Hatherley, who also provides brief updates to each essay, outlining what has happened to each town in the intervening years. They make fascinating and invigorating reading and, given that there is little else of Nairn in print (except for his contributions to the Pevsner volumes on Sussex and the outstanding Surrey), this beautifully produced volume from Notting Hill Editions is a good place to start.
No one before or since saw places quite the way Nairn did, no one has quite his combination of clear eye, willingness to look at the unregarded, and his particular prismatic quality of mind, an unusual blend of melancholy and enthusiasm. Time and time again he singles out the unexpected architectural highlights – a gents in a Birmingham pub and another in Liverpool, the Jarrold's printing works in Norwich, oddities like the Egyptian-style Oddfellows' Hall in Devonport. He comes out with judgements that make you think again, or look anew – English Perpendicular churches have a hysterical quality, he says; the Georgian churches of Marylebone are too 'polite'; soot-blackened or dirty buildings, from Birmingham to Sheffield, have a grandeur of their own.
It's not all oddity and perversity, though. When he gets stuck in, Nairn describes buildings and places beautifully, and gives one a sense of what makes them tick. He is particularly good on the way buildings, roads, and terrain interact – on townscape, in other words. Describing the slightly off-kilter central crossroads in Llanidloes, or the dramatic changes of level in Newcastle, or the American-style grid plan of Glasgow, or the varied grain of Brighton, he is at his best.
Good too, are the turns – and turns again – of phrase. He responds to buildings viscerally, and this often comes across in the physicality of his language. A flight of steps in Newcastle 'sucks you in like a vortex'; the meat and fish markets in Sheffield offer 'a staggering perspective of hooks and flesh'; St Bartholomew's in Brighton is 'more like a volcanic convulsion than a building'; the low ceiling height of the open ground floor of the Market Hall in Llanidloes means that when you step into it you put it on 'like a hat'. There are often comparisons with the other arts – a group of buildings can be like a fugue and the architecture of Nash is like Offenbach, an inspired comparison, that, with its overtones of the elegant, the cheeky, the sophisticated, the classical, the continental, and the not-quite-proper.
Nairn is discerning about architecture. He can see that some old buildings are dull, and that many modern buildings are bad, but finds room to praise the good ones and to appreciate the best of modern planning, while pouring scorn on the worst. His appreciation of townscapes and buildings comes from the heart, as his warmed-up turns of phrase reveal, but his mind is at work too, analysing and making suggestions for the future.
Did the planners take any notice? Owen Hatherley's postscripts to each essay tell us how things have gone in the half century since the accounts were first written. The reports vary a lot, of course. Canterbury and Chester have managed to conserve a lot, without putting up many very distinguished new buildings. Glasgow and Manchester have found new vigour, and some good new buildings, but at the expense of much sub-standard development. And so on. Hatherley mostly responds positively to the older writer's judgements, but rightly notes that Nairn's apolitical standpoint could land him in trouble – Nairn was optimistic about Derry in 1967, but it saw the beginning of the Troubles in 1968.
Hatherley is one of those, though, who have learned much from Nairn, and know it. In the postscripts he notices quite a few buildings and bits of planning that Nairn would have seized on. In one of the Fife towns he notices a 'staggeringly good' secondhand bookshop. I do not think Nairn's Towns will be ending up in that shop any time soon. People will want to hang on to this book. And rightly so.