Nairn’s fabulously evocative London

Nairn's London - PenguinLittle knowing its timeliness, my partner picked up a copy of a new book in a charity shop the other day: Nairn’s London. A reprint of the 1966 ‘guide’ to London’s architectural interest, launched just at the beginning of November, it has immediately got me hooked.

I’ve had to discipline myself to stop dipping in to interesting areas, and read it through from the start. Otherwise, much like London of the period, there’s so much waiting to leap out from unexpected corners that it would be easy to miss many a delight.

I say ‘of the period’ because what makes this work so captivating is the way in which Nairn conjures London in transition, perhaps even at the start of a post-war journey that has led us to the rather po-faced, in-thrall-to-money, oh-so-shiny city that we have today.

This isn’t a review: I haven’t finished the book yet. It’s more of an initial rush of enthusiasm. I am loving this book. I love its wilfulness: it has evident scholarly roots, well-informed but wearing its analysis lightly. Indeed, much of it is clothed in unashamedly opinionated prose. Not far from where I am writing this, Beddington Lane (an industrial sprawl in the hinterlands of Croydon and Sutton) is described as “…always four o’clock in late November here, but in the same positive way as in Peter Grimes.” And then, the twist of the knife: “It is the inevitable counterpart to a million well-mown lawns and family saloons: a respectable suburban housewife surprised straining painfully on the w.c.

Beyond these occasional metaphorical flights, it is the broad thrust of the book that is key to its charm. It is an exploration of all of London’s corners, from Westminster Abbey to Eastbury Manor House in Barking; from All Saints Margaret Street to Sydenham Hill station. The important ‘local’ corners of London, with sleepy histories in constant danger of being washed into homogeneity by the impertinent sprawl of the metropolis. Even when not receiving acclaim (Bexleyheath: ‘nobody’s first choice of the ideal London suburb‘) the whole narrative is still suffused with an affection and respect for the diversity and individuality of London’s component parts. There’s a love of the lived-in feel of London of the time.

God only knows what he would make of today’s London with its obsession with bleak, faceless glass around windswept and personality-swept plazas: he was, for example, against the cleaning of St Paul’s Cathedral (“Because of [its] over-riding humanity, and because soot and Portland stone work a funny magic on each other…“). Maybe he would call on a variant of his judgment on the LCC’s Loughborough Road Estate: from the ground, “…an arid geometrical exercise masquerading as a place.

Portland House: 'a real live idea of a building', seen from Westminster Cathedral [Andreas Praefcke, Creative Commons licensed]

Portland House: ‘a real live idea of a building’, seen from Westminster Cathedral [Andreas Praefcke, Creative Commons licensed]

He is certainly not anti-‘modern’ architecture, but is acute on the distinctions between good and bad, and the effect of a building’s setting on that judgment: “Portland House [Victoria] is no masterpiece, but it has got a spark, it is a real live idea of a building, where the dead fish all around it are just so many square feet of lettable office space to exist in loveless apathy until the time comes for their demolition.” Many of the entries are about urban landscapes, rather than individual buildings.

This is a most important book, as well as entertaining and informative: it is occasionally angry, often benevolent, filled with enthusiasms in either direction. The town planners of London’s local authorities stand penurious at the mercy of soulless and rapacious developers: as they contemplate another heap of steel and glass to bring ‘Grade A office space’ piled upon another branch of Paperchase, perhaps they should all be required to read this book and reflect on what makes London somewhere people want to live, trade and play, beyond mindless tax-efficiency.

A final quote, about the subterranean Turkish Baths by Bishopsgate: “It must stay, to enlighten a city which is losing its true nonconformities in direct proportion to the rate at which false nonconformity multiplies.” I can’t think of a better quote to capture the plight of contemporary London.

  • Nairn’s London, by Ian Nairn with afterword by Gavin Stamp: Penguin, £9.99

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