Criminally out of print for decades and republished in paperback by Penguin last month, Nairn’s London is the work of the unique and passionate architecture critic Ian Nairn, who more or less drank himself to death in 1983 at the age of 52. If you watch his strangely beautiful and intense 1972 TV programmes on BBC iPlayer you feel as if you are already seeing a man tearing himself apart with his love for the built environment and his rage at the mistakes he sees made all around him. Nairn was a wonderful character – witty, opinionated, democratic, obstinate, unpredictable and obsessed with pubs. I’m not an expert on architectural guides but I doubt there are many that, like Nairn’s London, contain a postscript on which beers you should drink while you’re looking around.
Here he is on old Billingsgate Market in the City of London:
For a few streets east of the Monument, the City of London becomes a real direct working city instead of a vast warren of office workers sitting on their fannies. Fish is what does it, and you can guarantee the townscape and the back chat by the sharp clean smell, as good as a seaside holiday… Men with wonderful, diverse faces are cutting up fish or fishy things (blocks of ice, for example), there’s a spare eel or two in the street and lots of used fish-boxes. People being different, and the place as a whole having the same direct connexion with life (“See, I work in London and I do this”) as the old parts of Genoa or Naples… Market caffs which are a good place for fish and chips… If ladies want to know whether they have genuine sex appeal instead of one of fashion’s counterfeits, this is a good place to find out.
To read this book as one who loves London is to ache with frustration at what we have lost. Nairn’s London was first published in 1966, when the docks and river were still active and shops largely remained independent, offering a real experience to the visitor. Nairn’s descriptions of the working river are, with hindsight, heartbreaking. The Gun pub in Coldharbour (now a popular gastropub) is described as having “a verandah, reached through the Saloon, which is the quintessence of Thames-side London. It juts out into a muddy river between muddy buildings. Barges crowd up to it, the even skyline and sombre palette seep in until it has as strong a hold as the silhouette of Manhattan… Long may it remain truly boaty and unsophisticated, not one more place for the unspeakable to come and see how the other half lives.” Phrases like these get you to understanding why an architecture critic might turn heavily to booze in the 1980s.
A fun game is turning to a favourite building to see where Nairn stands on it. Like me he admires the “overwhelming honesty” of King’s Cross Station, arguing that it should be “as impossible for the station to go [as was apparently scheduled for the 1970s] as it would be for the Church of England to demolish St Paul’s”. French Ordinary Court (“neither French nor ordinary”) “is in effect a big and very dark wedge-shaped room carved out under the railway tracks, full of mysterious and seductive smells (spices? scent?) from bonded warehouses. A fine and private place; but, as the sign says, ‘Commit no nuisance’.” I love weird wonderful French Ordinary Court too, a bizarre cave in the middle of the City. The smells of scent and spice have gone today though, and last time I passed it was a building site, so it’s probably disappeared altogether by now.
The book is wonderfully, gloriously subjective. The Tower of London is “a full-blown farce”, “London’s one big hostage to the unreality of organized sight-seeing” (again, one feels the author might need a pint if he saw how the touristification of our great buildings went on today). On the other hand, the “real excitement” of the Hammersmith Flyover “is underneath… segmental spans between a single line of columns… grooved and finny, never overbearing.” Nairn suggests it could house an open-air market. Alas, Hammersmith hasn’t learned to love its flyover with quite the same vigour and it looks certain to be consigned to the list of things poor old Nairn wasn’t heeded on over the next few years.
Nairn’s London is a joy to dip into or to binge on great swathes of in a sitting. Even better is to take it out onto the streets and try to recognise the remaining fragments from its pages in the London of today. As many have said before me, it teaches the reader to look at the city in a new way, to notice detail to a level that is almost obsessive, and to value purpose and humanity over architectural pomposity and either progress or heritage.
It’s utterly tantalising to wonder what Nairn might have made of the Shard, say, or the “Walkie-Talkie” (probably he’d have loved them, he’s so pigheadedly contrary). But you feel fairly certain he’d have despaired at the loss of real people from the heart of the metropolis, at the gentrification of the East End and Soho, and at the endless building of bland luxury apartments for the “unspeakable” to invest in.
We’ll never really know, of course, but Nairn’s London is an exhilarating window into a past city that was more connected with real life, that still bustled and stank and brimmed with uninhibited working people getting their hands dirty; but also into a brilliant, compassionate and flawed human being – despite only having lived here for ten years by the time the book was first published, Nairn’s a Londoner through and through.