Monday, December 28, 2015

Poet of places

The man who fought the planners

For many, I know, the period between Christmas and the New Year is a dead time, especially for those who don’t fancy what in the UK are still referred to as ‘the January sales’ – the post-Christmas time when the shops lure us on to the High Street with promises of massively discounted goods. Now many of the the sales start before Christmas anyway. But there’s always television or that Christmas-stocking box-set or whatever the online suppliers can offer…

Or maybe something a little different. I thought one or two of my readers might like The Man Who Fought the Planners, a documentary about the writer and broadcaster Ian Nairn that was made a while back and has surfaced on YouTube. Ian Nairn (1930–1953) was a writer, broadcaster, and poet of descriptive prose whose work I’ve enthused about before. My review of a an excellent book about him will fill in the background for those who don’t know about him; my account of Nairn’s London, which I think is his best book and one of the all-time best books on London, is here.

If you want something to cheer you up in the post-Christmas gloom, this video may not be a good idea. This is, after all, a documentary about a man who drank himself to death, who spent a lot of energy lamenting destructive planning decisions, and even whose enthusiasms, which are many and revealing, are expressed with a kind of melancholy. But fans of Nairn will know that his observations on buildings and, especially, places are the things that make this unlikely and unglamorous broadcaster worth watching – the insights into townscapes, the sense of space, the love of the unloved. The memories of those who knew him, worked with him, or who, like me, are simply people who like his writing and have benefitted from his perceptions – all these are valuable too.


David Gouldstone said...

I much enjoy visiting Sussex churches and other buildings with his Pevsner (i.e. the volume of The Buildings of England written mostly by him) in hand. His descriptions are much more idiosyncratic than Pevner's, and, while I don't always agree with him (I rather like the west window of Chichester cathedral, e.g.), he's always stimulating reading

While he's very good at explaining (in the extracts from his tv programmes) why he doesn't like some buildings, I don't think he's at his best when actually angry (who is?). The scene in the ruined church, e.g., although impressive in its undoubted sincerity and strength of feeling is spoilt by his being almost incoherent. And the scene in the beer festival is uncomfortable viewing; he's at a beer festival, and he's furious they're not drinking enough?

Philip Wilkinson said...

David: I agree, substantially. Nairn's contributions to the Pevsner volumes (Sussex and Surrey) are to be cherished, and are revealing in a different way from Pevsner's own writing. No wonder Nairn found the Buildings of England format too restrictive (he resisted offers to do more).

Both the church and beer festival scenes I find disturbing. For me, the church scene works – I can see why it becomes incoherent and I can go with it, for once. But the beer festival sequence is very uncomfortable. Especially when one knows (as most viewers would not have done, at the time) that it was drinking, and drinking beer specifically, that finally did for Nairn.

bazza said...

He puts me in mind of Dan Farson; also a wonderful documentary maker/alcoholic!
All the best for the New Year Philip.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

I am managing the History Carnival for January 2016 and need nominations for your own blog post or someone else’s by 31/1/2016. The theme I have chosen is History of the Visual, Performing, Musical and Literary Arts, but all good history posts will be welcomed. Needless to say I love a lot of your topics.

The nomination form is at

HunterGatherer said...

Thanks very much for posting this.

Ian Nairn is very good on pubs, and not just their architectural qualities. One of my favourite pub quotations is from Nairn: ‘Pubs are places to shake off loneliness without being in anyone's company.’

How very true! He assays a version of this in the film. Drinking in The Pride of Pimlico, Nairn says: ‘This kind of background buzz of conversation gives a real internal privacy. But it doesn't mean it's indifference, there's friendliness there, it's not the trumpeted indifference of big cities, and this for me is exactly what city living, living in Pimlico is’ (30m 03s).

Now here’s a query. Throughout the film, whenever Richard Girling, Brian Jackman et al are filmed reminiscing about Nairn in a pub, they are shown drinking Guinness (or, in the case of Jonathan Glancey, steadfastly ignoring the full pint of the black stuff on the table in front of him). This is clearly meant to be a homage to Nairn. And in an article in the Guardian, Glancey refers to Nairn sinking ‘a fatal tide of Guinness’ in the public bar of St George's Tavern, Pimlico.

But my understanding, from his books and articles, is that Nairn was a dedicated and single-minded bitter drinker — what at the time would have been called ‘traditional draught beer’ and would now be called ‘real ale’ — with a preference for Fuller’s in London and Bass or the local brew elsewhere. Sitting in The Vines in Liverpool, Nairn writes of ‘drinking beer which is both better and cheaper than the Metropolitan brew — any kind of Liverpool bitter is a good drop’ (Britain’s Changing Towns, p146). In the film, after footage of Nairn’s outrage and disgust at the drunken antics of revellers at the Munich Beer Festival, the narrator says: ‘For Nairn, the function and flavour of a building or a place had to be genuine, just like real ale, and anything short of that left him with a bitter taste in his mouth’ (46m 19s). And it’s bitter that Nairn is shown drinking in The Pride of Pimlico.

So where does the Guinness come in? In his latter days did Nairn forsake bitter for Guinness and sink a fatal tide of the stuff? Was the bitter at St George's Tavern not up to snuff — or keg rather than ‘real’? Or are these references to Guinness simply mistaken and Nairn remained a bitter drinker right to the end — subsiding under a tidal wave of the brown stuff?

Philip Wilkinson said...

HunterGatherer: Thanks very much for your comment. I'd always thought it was bitter that Nairn drank, but I'm not sure just how I got that impression. I quickly looked up what Jonathan Meades had to say about this in Museum Without Walls, which contains an essay on Nairn – I remembered that Meades had met Nairn about a year before he (Nairn) died, and had said something about his drinking. Meades says that Nairn "surrendered his body to Bass Charrington". There's a short piece at the back of Nairn's London headed "Postscript: London Beer". In this, Nairn recommends "proper draught beer", in particular Fuller's London Pride, and notes that Whitbread can produce good beer when they're on form. At the end of the piece, though, he says, "Draught Guinness, from Park Royal, is of course in a class by itself." So clearly Nairn appreciated both bitter and Guinness, although which he drank in Pimlico I don't know.