Most London Historians Members will have read Simon Fowler’s article in last month’s newsletter about Ian Nairn. The acerbic, witty, erudite and frequently waspish architecture critic’s celebrated book, Nairn’s London (1966), has very recently been reissued by Penguin.
I first ever heard him mentioned just over a year ago when chatting to someone about City churches. This man mentioned Nairn in that way people sometimes do, assuming you simply must know the fellow. Rather than let it pass I plucked up some courage and enquired weakly: “Who is Ian Nairn?”. Having been enlightened, I promised myself to find out more… and then did nothing.
Eventually came Simon’s article and finally I bought my copy about a month ago. I am now a Nairn disciple. It’s quite a small book and thus far from comprehensive; but it is eclectic and quite thorough in its own way. All parts of London are covered and all types of buildings or structures are addressed, even the Hammersmith flyover, which Nairn admired without irony: these highways in the air were still new and quite exciting at that time. The content is arranged by area. There is a very large section of black and white photos in the middle of the book.
My copy already is defaced by pencil and by biro and by highlighting pen, something I don’t lightly do; some pages are a bit damaged from rapid flipping; when I go out, it is in my bag at all times. I reach for it constantly now, to ask myself: “I wonder what Nairn has to say about this?”
Last weekend we visited the strange-looking St Mary’s in Ealing. Nairn: “The architect [S.S. Teulon] on the razzmatazz, out for a day in the suburbs… … Who? What? How? A rag-bag with enough ideas for a dozen churches: and a splendid place for a boggle.” The weekend before, we passed St Mary Woolnoth. “…it transcends originality. It is the mind, afterwards, which asks what on earth two small towers are doing on top of an oblong, columned temple on top of a prodigious rustication”
On the Albert Memorial:
“…the elephant on one of the corners has a backside just like a businessman scrambling under a restaurant table for his cheque-book.”
On the magnificent Tooting Grenada:
“Miss the Tower of London if you have to, but don’t miss this.”
On William Kent’s Horseguards:
“… this is a blatant tourist-trap, neither better nor worse than a Soho strip-tease club.”
Nairn so admires Abbey Mills pumping station, he dubs it “God’s bowels”.
And so on. His writing is highly opinionated, yet hugely engaging; it is often deliciously withering and pithy; it is always interesting. I quickly discovered why the man has such a dedicated fan-base. As Jonathan Meades has noted: “Nairn’s London belongs to no genre save its own. It is a school of one.”
Like all of us, Nairn has his heroes and villains. He adores Hawksmoor, “that old wizard”. But he workships Nash to whom the book is actually dedicated. Others are less lucky. He’s not a fan of Richard Norman Shaw, for example, talking of his “beefy heartlessness.”
Above all, though, Nairn enemies were modern: he detested the increasing ugliness of England’s post-war streetscapes and railed against them and their progenitors: town planners and architects.
Ian Nairn’s first job was as a fighter pilot flying Gloucester Meteors. He resigned his commission and became a self-taught and self-styled architecture critic for the traditional Architectural Review. Immediately controversial and polemical, he soon made a name for himself and built a career as a journalist, critic and TV presenter, working with Pevsner and others. Towards the end of his life Nairn gambled and drank heavily. In 1983 he died from liver failure in the Cromwell Hospital, aged 52 . He was buried in the Westminster Cemetery in Hanwell. It’s not far from me, so the other day I paid him a visit. His grave is modest indeed.
Do invest some time to watch this excellent documentary on Ian Nairn: The Man who Fought the Planners The Story of Ian Nairn. He had a great love for Northern industrial towns.
Nairn’s London (1966) is re-published by Penguin and available for a tenner or less.