Caught by the River

The forgotten genius of Ian Nairn

Ken Worpole | 18th December 2013


By Ken Worpole.

‘Miss the Tower of London, if you have to, but don’t miss this.’

Just behind Victoria Station is St George’s Tavern, Pimlico, where for many years a photograph of the writer and architectural critic Ian Nairn hung on the wall. For my generation, reading Nairn’s ebullient columns in the Observer (1964 – 68), or watching his serendipitous travel programmes on television (1967 – 78), was our first introduction to the idea that buildings and townscapes had as great an effect on people’s lives, as work or home.

Nairn was a force of nature, which meant, as Gillian Darley and David McKie document in Ian Nairn: Words in Place (Five Leaves, £10.99) – a warm and kindly celebration of this now neglected writer – he could be sometimes difficult to work with, and a man who did not care whom he upset in the cause of protecting the historic towns and cities he loved. Only Nairn could have written a 6,000 word polemic in The Observer (13 February 1966) headlined: Stop the Architects Now, a take-no-prisoners attack on architects and planners who were designing places and buildings with completely ‘untested perceptions of what people want’. Alas the reckless courage displayed in Nairn’s continuing barnstorming reviews of old and new buildings and developments across Britain, had its roots in a depressive personality increasingly dependent on drink; he died at the age of 52 in near obscurity.

The ostensibly populist style which Nairn deployed in his print and television journalism was nevertheless underpinned by a deep historical and technical understanding of architectural history and building form. This is perhaps not surprising given that he worked on several of the Pevsner guides. A number of contributors to the Darley/McKie collection point out that whereas Pevsner told the reader what was to be seen, Nairn’s writing made the reader want to drop everything immediately and rush to see it. Hence, as he wrote of the Granada Cinema in Tooting, ‘Miss the Tower of London, if you have to, but don’t miss this.’ That was from what many regard as his finest book: Nairn’s London (1966)


Equally timely is a handsome new edition of Nairn’s 1967 book, Britain’s Changing Towns, edited by Owen Hatherley and published by the lively Notting Hill Editions as Nairn’s Towns (£12). These pithy city guides to Birmingham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Canterbury, Manchester, Glasgow, Cumbernauld, Llanidloes, Sheffield, Plymouth, St Marylebone, Chester, Derry, Brighton, Cardiff, Liverpool, Norwich and coastal Fife, are bursts of quickfire, highly opinionated, but which capture the spirit of place, architecture, townscape and strength of settlement, like few other writers achieved before or since. However, given that so much has changed in the fifty years since they were written, there’s a slight antiquarian air to some of the original essays, redeemed, with interest, by Owen Hatherley’s acerbic contemporary postscripts.

Hatherley can dish it out with the best of Nairn when it comes to detailing the dreadful regeneration programmes, empty civic boosterism, shoddy shopping malls, PFI hospitals, and cheap volume house-building schemes which have continued to blight these towns and cities since the 1960s, which Nairn presciently anticipated. The skyline increasingly mirrors the bottom line.

Fortunately, for both Nairn and Hatherley, city life refuses to conform, then and now: Brighton, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and many other towns still generate all kinds of sub-cultures, arts, music and lifestyles, even in the dullest of back-streets and gimcrack buildings. For psycho-geographers and everybody else who loves visiting and walking around towns and cities other than their own, both books provide a lively introduction to many of the best, and for which Iain Nairn remains the pre-eminent guide and sensibility.

Nairn’s Towns is on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £10.
The New English Landscape by Ken Worpole and Jason Orton can also be found in our shop, priced £15.