Sunday, December 14, 2014

Being moved in London

Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London
Reprint, published by Penguin Books

The final book review in my pre-Christmas handful is rather different from the others. It’s not of a recent book, but a reprint, not of a new discovery, but an old favourite. This review, in fact, returns to a subject that has occupied the English Buildings blog before: the writing of architectural critic, topographer, and television presenter Ian Nairn…

Right. I’m going to suggest that you do something rather extraordinary. I am gong to suggest that you buy a guidebook that’s nearly 50 years out of date. More than that, I’m going to recommend that you read it. And more even than that, I’m going to encourage you to start at the beginning, with the insular City of London, and read to the end, with the book’s evocation of the bare landscape around what was in 1966 still called London Airport. Nairn’s London is that different and that good.

Ian Nairn prefaced his guide by saying, ‘This book is a record of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham.’ His descriptions of London buildings and London scenes benefit from much architectural knowledge (Nairn can evoke Sangallo and Bramante as he contemplates the Banqueting House in Whitehall; he knows when to compare something to Le Corbusier). He knows some history, but doesn’t dwell on it. What counts is his personal responses – the way he is moved – and what he has to say about the visual and spatial impact of buildings and places.

And when he is moved, Nairn’s language really takes off. In St Mary Woolnoth space is so tangible that ‘you can experience, for the price of a bus ticket to the City, the super-reality of the mystics or mescalin’. The improvisatory interior of St Mary Abchurch ‘looks like the result of a scribble on a menu card, and it works perfectly’. All Saints’ Margaret Street is like an orgasm. St Mary, Ealing, is ‘A rag-bag with enough ideas for a dozen churches: and a splendid place for a boggle.’ It’s not all churches, though, and certainly not all landmark buildings. Nairn is just as happy with obscure corners such as the wonderful Goodwin’s Court off St Martin’s Lane, its Georgian bow windows ’as unexpected as anything in London’, and Lazenby Court, which begins like ‘the end of the world’, continues via ‘an evil stretch of dark brick’, and ends with ‘a more than comforting pub’.

Pubs there are a-plenty in Nairn’s London. Critics are fond of saying that the book includes 27 of them, a figure reached by counting the entries in the thematic index. Actually there are more, because pubs mentioned en passant, like the one in the entry on Lazenby Court (the Lamb and Flag), aren’t listed there. The 27 range from the Red Lion in Duke of York Street, which, thanks in part to its mirror-lined interior, ‘throws you back on your own resources’, to Hampstead’s The Spaniards, which Nairn likes because it is unlike other Hampstead pubs which are ‘like a private society whose performance is not worth the entrance fee  – the intellectual equivalent of the Soho striptease club’.

Pubs did for Nairn in the end, which came too soon when he died of the effects of too much alcohol, in his fifties. There are signs of a decline in his late work, but Nairn’s London doesn’t show this, unless one finds his writing itself intoxicating. The comparisons can be far out, but they’re revealing nonetheless. Often they compare architecture to the other arts. Nash, he was fond of saying, is like Offenbach. The greenhouse at Syon House is a Schubertian frolic. Pubs remind him of Manet or Seurat.

I could go on, quoting his entries for such outré places as the Agapemonite Church in Clapton, Eros House in Catford, Huck’s Chalet in Hampton, or Lululand in Bushey. But even if you don’t know this extraordinary book, you probably have the idea by now. They are very personal responses but not so idiosyncratic that they’re not deeply revealing. They’re open-minded responses too. They celebrate grimy buildings as well as pristine ones, the famous and the obscure, the public and the private, Hawksmoor and Butterfield, modern and antique. And although our likes may not be quite the same as Nairn’s the writing makes us want to get out and see what is being described.

The blurb on the original edition tells us to get out quickly, as some of its subjects were already disappearing in 1966. By now, almost half a century on, quite a bit of Nairn’s London has been demolished, although the book is still worth reading as a guide to what’s left. But more than this, the lost buildings and vanished, scarred streets live on through Nairn’s animating prose.

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To be clear: Penguin have reprinted the first edition of Nairn’s London without changes or revisions, as the classic that it is. (There was, a few decades ago, another edition, with revisions by Peter Gasson which are not included here.) For old time’s sake, my picture shows the cover of the first edition, which has been reproduced for the reprint, but with glowing review quotes replacing the destinations in the white panels on the bus. That’s Nairn himself, at the wheel.


Hels said...

I find it an interesting exercise reading all travel books. Not only because buildings have disappeared and gardens built on. But because references which would have been perfectly understood decades ago are not understood now. Or have different meanings now.

One example will do. Depending on when Le Corbusier was cited, he either represented exciting Bauhaus-style modernism or lunatic dense city planning a la 1925 World Fair.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Yes. Or even the later, chunkier post-war Corbusier of Chandigarh and La Tourette, which in some ways prefigures Brutalism.