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Jonathan Meades - The critical brilliance of Ian Nairn

Features | By Jonathan Meades

Nairn, Westminster Abbey, 1956

The critic who cared too much - Ian Nairn wrote brilliantly about buildings, made glorious TV – and drowned his sorrows too deeply, remembers Jonathan Meades

Were Ian Nairn to have been alive for his 90th birthday on 15th August, he’d doubtless have celebrated with yet another new liver and several gallons of beer.

But it wasn’t to be. He died a few days before his 53rd birthday in August 1983 – though he seemed all but dead when I met him the previous autumn in St George’s Tavern (pictured), a fag-ash pub in Victoria which he favoured because it was just a short waddle from his flat.

I entertained the vain hope of reviving his career, long since in desuetude – hardly surprising given the volume of liquid punishment he had inflicted on himself. He was a terrible sight. Folds of flesh hung from him as from a Brahman cow with oedema. He looked in need of some form of drainage.

He wasn’t immune to flattery; he simply didn’t acknowledge it. When I referred admiringly to various things he had written and filmed, he seemed mildly baffled, as though he didn’t recognise them. They had, after all, been the achievements of someone who no longer existed. He said he’d think it over.

When I told Tina Brown, for whose Tatler I was then working, about this singular lunch, she said that her husband, Harry Evans, referred to him as ‘the formerly talented Nairn’. There was a persuasive Sunday Times faction who believed that Nairn’s demise was caused by Evans’s misunderstanding of him, and that poaching the greatest of British architecture critics from the Observer to turn him into a mere travel writer was bound to come to an unhappy end.

I used to be persuaded. But the more I have read about Nairn and written about him, the more I have reconsidered.

It seems more likely that he was burnt out. He never stopped working and he must have wondered what all the effort had been for. He suffered professional disillusion, which, given his emotional investment in his work, he felt personally as a betrayal. He cared too much: a mistake for a critic.

Nairn’s contemporary Kenneth Tynan famously wrote, ‘I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger.’ It was a neat slogan at the end of a review to light up the exterior of the Royal Court. Had it been written by Nairn, it would have been more than a slogan. It would have been an article of faith. He really felt the same way about beautiful buildings and the people who wished to see them. He should have stood back. Rather, such buildings affected him to the point that he considered himself to have been traduced by the architects who would rebuild Britain.

He had looked forward to a new Elizabethan age which never showed up.

It must be recalled that, in the mid-’50s, when he became parish-famous for his polemical rant against dismal sprawl, Outrage, and his coinage ‘subtopia’, the postwar building boom had hardly begun. Plans and perspectives are nothing more than idealisations, promises to be broken. Of course they are liable to promote optimism, which is always silly. It was not a mistake he’d make again.

By the mid-’60s, Britain was being transformed with a neophiliac frenzy which moved at a furious and careless pace. Nairn’s Britain’s Changing Towns comprised 16 essays written for the Listener between 1960 and 1964, to each of which Nairn added a postscript in 1967. In the introduction, he writes of his sadness ‘about the prospect of a proper modern architecture; even more about the capabilities of modern architects’.

He had already published in the Observer a no-holds-barred attack on Britain’s recent architecture: ‘a soggy, shoddy mass of half-digested clichés’. The Royal Institute of British Architects was furious. Its president, the old fool Lord Esher, pulled rank and laughably ordered the paper’s editor, David Astor, to sack Nairn. Astor disobliged.

Ian Nairn was not opposed to modern architecture. Indeed, exactly a year after that Observer article he wrote in the paper a marvellous hymn to the Tricorn in Portsmouth, the most sublime of all British Brutalist buildings, demolished by half-witted planners in 2004 with the connivance of English Heritage under Simon Thurley’s feeble leadership.

He wrote, ‘The great belly-laugh of forms is [as] completely natural as Vanbrugh’s fireworks at Blenheim … the rhino has got into the marketplace.’

Nairn’s London, published in 1966, abounds in weird similes and pithy metaphors. It is an imperious mongrel: part vade-mecum, part polemic, part poetic contemplation, part deflected autobiography and part conversation with himself – wholly original. It is the testament of a man steeped in London.

Even though it is of a particular moment, it has dated no more than, say, Housman or Hardy, whose melancholy humours infect Nairn. It is a work of literature; not an architectural guide.

If we go looking in Ludlow for Terence Hearsay we don’t find him; the same goes for the tragic trampwoman on the Polden crest. They belong to a compact between writer and reader on the page. Nairn’s writing is usually more compelling and adhesive to the brain than the places it describes.

Nairn’s Paris (1968) – by any measure, a fine work though one of discovery rather than of profound immersion. Still, just as the London book may encourage us to seek out the former Agapemonite church off Clapton Common (where, in 1899, J>span class="s3"> H Smyth-Pigott declared himself Christ reborn), so will its successor encourage a trip to Buttes Chaumont, 50 years ago a forgotten monument to municipal neglect, concrete rocks all crumbling.

Nairn’s films were strange affairs. He worked at a time when television was not formulaic and had yet to be hijacked by morons; when some executives could actually read and write; when producers had great autonomy. It was a glorious moment in the history of the medium.

Nairn, like Ray Gosling, revelled in it. He made no effort to be telegenic: he seldom smiled; he clearly didn’t care whether he was liked; he was true to himself; he never spoke down to his audience. He crossed and recrossed Britain in an open-top Morris Minor, railing at city engineers, comprehensive redevelopment (the precursor of ‘regeneration’) and louts who desecrated deconsecrated churches, but mostly praising. He got on a train and railed at boozers at Munich’s Oktoberfest.

His voice was magnificent and utterly distinctive. Cadences fell and fell down into the abyss. Every word signals the futility of life and every word celebrates kicking against that futility.

Two weeks after I had met him, I returned to St George’s Tavern. He was evidently on a regime. He drank only 11 pints. He muttered that he had often considered writing about Hawksmoor. I told him that would be ideal; go ahead. He never sent it.

This story was from September 2020 issue. Subscribe Now