This is a kind of compendium of favourite snatches, prompted by the recent publication of Ian Nairn: Words in Place, (edited by Gillian Darley and David McKie, Five Leaves Press) a new collection of essays dedicated to the best architectural writer of the twentieth century - and a a great writer full stop. He also had a brief career in broadcasting and happily some of his documentaries are now appearing on YouTube. Here he is in an extract from the 1970s BBC television series Nairn Across Britain,
He had a mournful voice, every phrase seeming to end in a dying fall. In this clip he knows he's on a hiding to nothing when it comes to preserving the fine Emporium building in Northampton's market square. Town councils in the 1970s were enthusiastically demolishing beautiful Victorian and Edwardian arcades to make way for ugly shopping centres. The councillors are now, one imagines, all dead. Their legacy is with us still.
But back to Nairn. His best book - and it's a real masterpiece - is this cheap-looking paperback called Nairn's London, published in 1966 and easily the most brilliant and compelling volume about the capital ever written. I'm on my third copy - the others have disintegrated with use. Many of the buildings he describes are now long gone; the skyline back then was still pretty much as it had been since Wren's day. Even the stylish Routemaster class bus featured on the cover with a smiling Nairn at the wheel has been withdrawn. But it's not so much a guide book as a richly poetic portrait of the city he loved, and one from which I could quote all day. An abiding pleasure is to come across something he wrote about which is still in place (such as the Albert Memorial) and to see it afresh through his eyes. One extract should give an idea of the man and his style:
All Saints, Margaret Street William Butterfield, 1849-59
To describe a church as an orgasm is bound to offend someone; yet this building can only be understood in terms of compelling, overwhelming passion. Why boggle, when there are a hundred ways of reaching God? Here is the force of Wuthering Heights translated into dusky red and black bricks, put-down in a mundane Marylebone street to rivet you, pluck you into the courtyard with its harsh welcoming wings and quivering steeple. Outer and inner doorways show you in, within a few inches of each other; both flowing over with ornament – nothing was too much trouble for the beloved. Inside, Butterfield had to rely for decoration on other men's intensity of feeling, so it is pointless to look closely at the walls; but the proportions and transfigured gilded violence of this unexpected Heathcliff burn through any artificiality. The violent selfless love carries you up with it, just as the serenity of Bevis Marks lifts another part of you to the same end.
Butterfield never repeated this – how could he? – and his passion set iron-hard, unapproachable, altering his pupils’ drawings in ink so that they had to do them all again. Perhaps he met too many portly bishops; perhaps there is no way but death to discharge an experience as violent as this.’
Nairn's London was one of cobbled passages, shadowy squares, cabbage stalks in market gutters, tiddlers foraging bomb sites, sooty churches, canalside sheds and the comforting fug of pubs. He makes all that come alive. A brilliant writer.
My review of Ian Nairn: Words in Place should will in the February 2014 issue of the Literary Review.
Extracts © The Estate of Ian Nairn
Extracts © The Estate of Ian Nairn