The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Ian Nairn: Words in Place & Nairn’s Towns

Ian Nairn: Words in Place by Gillian Darley and David McKie (Five Leaves Publications, 160pp, £10.99)

Nairn’s Towns edited and introduced by Owen Hatherley (Notting Hill Editions, 240pp, £12)

Reviewed by John Grindrod

‘Enter Nairn’ announced the Observer in September 1964, marking the appointment of their new Roving Correspondent on architecture and planning. Penguin guidebooks Nairn’s London and Nairn’s Paris followed in quick succession, and within a decade the BBC had aired documentaries including Nairn’s Europe and Nairn at Large. Nairn, as with Pevsner and Betjeman before him, had quickly become a brand. Yet when Ian Nairn, the man behind this work, died in 1983, all these things were just as quickly on their way to being forgotten.

Two recently published books complete what has been a slow yet miraculous restoration of his reputation and work. His 1967 BBC publication Britain’s Changing Towns has just been reissued as (what else) Nairn’s Towns. It’s joined by Gillian Darley and David McKie’s celebration and introduction to the man and his writing: Ian Nairn:  Words in Place.

Darley and McKie present Ian Nairn as a brilliant, shambolic, romantic critic frequently at odds with a world of rationality and philistinism. As befits a book on one of the great observational writers of his day, their descriptions are delicious: he turns up in a documentary ‘in a suit which doesn’t quite fit and a drab-looking tie, his hair adrift, his hands in his pockets, his expression located somewhere on the slope down from melancholy to lugubrious’. And, for a relatively short book, there’s plenty of eye-opening detail about the man and his world, from his love of flying Gloster Meteors for the RAF and getting a pilot’s-eye view of the English landscape, to the politics and hierarchies of the architectural press in the fifties. They take us through his career in Fleet Street and publishing in the sixties, and on to television in the seventies.

The story of Outrage, his campaigning diatribe against what he termed ‘subtopia’, is told through exchanges of ideas with John Betjeman and open resentment with Reyner Banham. Along the way we also meet Jane Jacobs, with whom he partially agrees, and Nikolaus Pevsner, with whom he forms a slightly awkward odd-couple routine on the eminent critic’s Buildings of England series. This is not an entirely flattering portrait. Chiefly, of course, there’s the drink. It’s a rapid decline: by the mid-seventies alcoholism had made work, and Nairn himself, quite impossible.

We don’t just see Nairn through the eyes of Darley and McKie. There are short preambles to each chapter from long-time Nairn admirers Jonathan Meades, Owen Hatherley, Gavin Stamp, Veronica Horwell, David Thomson, Andrew Saint, Deyan Sudjic and Jonathan Glancey. These heartfelt pieces illustrate how Nairn’s spirit survived those lean years, in the work of a younger generation of architectural critics. With so many voices and tonal shifts, you might expect to feel the gears crunching, like a trip in Nairn’s old Morris Minor. Instead, it’s like a gathering of friends down the pub raising a glass to the man, celebrating him with colourful anecdote. Ian Nairn:  Words in Place is a wonderful book, precise on his passions and outrages, making you want to read his work afresh. It even contains some of his photography, with a great visual gag to start and end with, which I won’t spoil.

One of the people most responsible in the upturn in Nairn’s posthumous fortunes has been Owen Hatherley, and as Hatherley’s star has risen so he has pulled Nairn with him, and a great service it has done us all. As well as contributing to Words in Place, he has edited, updated and produced a new introduction to Nairn’s Towns, as an exquisitely produced little hardback.

These are pieces Nairn wrote for the Listener magazine between 1960 and 1964, on sixteen places from Derry to Norwich, Brighton to Fife. He added a postscript to each for the 1967 edition, and Hatherley has added a further note to each too, bringing the tale of each town up to date. Nairn is at his best here: quixotic, incisive and funny. His piece on Glasgow and Cumbernauld is probably my favourite: the 1960 article describing the city as ‘a topographical epic… like a Beethoven symphony played over 150 years’. His 1967 postscript is heartbroken at Glasgow’s ‘fearsome’ redevelopment: ‘In the Gorbals, Robert Matthew’s blocks wouldn’t say boo to a goose and Basil Spence’s monolith is saying boo to everything.’

It’s a small masterpiece, capturing a Britain in transition. The towns are so altered between the early and late sixties that the perspective of his postscripts really shows his art: the acute eye, the astute phrase, the adroit analysis. Both books illuminate that post-war time, when our cities were lit up by the brilliance of Ian Nairn. May all his books find their way back into print, and soon.