Caught by the River

Nairn's London

Ben McCormick | 4th November 2014

Nairn's London

Nairn’s London
by Ian Nairn (Penguin Designer Classics, 288 pages, out now)

Review by Ben McCormick.

If a piece of non-fiction informs, it’s doing its job on one level at least. If it teaches you new things, it’s better. If it does both and subsequently changes the way you behave, it has genuine and superior quality. If it does all that and makes you cry, laugh and consider the sheer beauty of it all at any moment, it’s quite possibly a work of genius.

Reading Ian Nairn’s one-man metropolitan meander through the capital – Nairn s London – has made me lean heavily towards that conclusion. It has provoked tears of sadness and joy, wonder, the dawning light of new revelation and an immediate vow to look at things in a different way.

After one chapter, I’d already looked up more terms in the architects’ vernacular than I ever thought would be necessary in my lifetime. Spandrels, reredos, corbels; all needed defining to aid basic understanding. It reminded me of reading French novels as a student with a dictionary by my side. By section two, I felt my appreciation of the English language burgeoning with every entry and had already committed myself to several church visits (I will do this). But it’s only by the third part of Nairn’s astonishing book that I realise I’m reading something by a true master. It’s as if he’s been coaxing you gently but insistently into his scheme at the outset, but once you’ve arrived at the northern circle, you’re hooked. That’s when the fun starts. Where it all begins to flow and make sense.

Ostensibly a guide book, divided into walkable ‘routes’ around 11 different areas of the city and containing upwards of 240 entries, Nairn’s London is, as the author puts it: ‘A record of what has moved me between Uxbridge and Dagenham’. It’s still moving to this day, nearly 50 years after the original was published.

Throughout this utterly fascinating volume, re-released by Penguin Classics following a clamorous public campaign, Nairn delivers his verdict on the places he chose to include, London’s planners, those who ‘do something in the City’, buildings under threat and, of particular interest to me, pubs. All with the astute, pointed wit you’d expect of the man who coined the derisory term ‘subtopia’ to damn ill-planned and depressingly homogeneous suburbs and delivered in the tone of an irascible uncle who’s just warming to his theme after several pints.”

Nairn’s incredible knowledge of his subject matter and its cultural and historical context fizzes throughout every page and translates into the kind of stupendously rich, beautifully evocative prose more often associated with the great travel writers. There’s just so much in here, it’s often a struggle to take it all in. He’s the Patrick Leigh Fermor of London’s buildings, easily mirroring that author’s command of metaphor, attention to detail and ability to guide the reader through unfamiliar worlds while instilling in them his same sense of wonder.

Take his entry on St Mary Woolnoth church in the City, for example: “Space here is so tangible that you can experience, for the price of a bus ticket to the City, the super reality of the mystics or mescalin.” Or St Peter Cornhill: “A wonderful freehand amplitude that suggests that designer and mason thought it up between them over a pint.”

Never short of a robust opinion, Nairn isn’t afraid to move effortlessly from exultant enthusiasm to outright scorn either.

Reading his 10-page Westminster Abbey entry, it’s as if you’ve uncovered a secret cache of love letters. Yet moments later he delights in giving a verbal lashing to the buildings around Portland House that he describes thus: “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.”

And then there are the pubs (I counted 52 mentioned). Nairn was fond of a beer – there’s even a postscript on London beer at the back of the book – and clearly missed few opportunities to visit what were in all likelihood some of the city’s best examples of public houses at the time, including the Victoria in Bayswater, “The feel of drinking here floats in a delicious lacuna mid way between theatre bar, a club and a Baroque library.” That some are dead and gone by now is inevitable. Others will have been refurbished in a style he’d have hated and slated. But where there was one of note, he wastes no opportunity to point it out.

There’s a theme of impending loss present almost throughout. You sense the book was written partly as a plea for clemency for some of London’s threatened buildings. Nairn fears for the survival of many of the places and the ‘Cockney’ spirit he describes and he was right to worry. Apsley House sums it up perfectly: “It is one of those few places where you have the spirit of London in the palm of your hand, as fragile as an egg.” While the introduction to the City is more direct: “We are squandering its essence without a second thought.” It’s heartbreaking to think many of the places and buildings described here no longer exist; that you won’t be able to experience the visual treats Nairn painstakingly documented. And that you instinctively know he’d have hated much of the city’s skyline were he to see it today.

Balancing that out are some moments of genuine hilarity. He refers to ‘neighing banalities in Chelsea’ in his introduction, Bloomsbury contains ‘doughy intrusions like the droppings of an elephant, while Earls Court and the Empress State Building are ‘two monsters desperately needing to grow more hair.’

Nairn’s London has opened my mind to a world I never knew existed in a city I thought familiar. And fortunately it fits neatly in my coat pocket, so I’ll be treating it like an indispensable A-Z for the foreseeable future.

If you live in London, read this book. It will change the way you see the place. If you hate London, read this book. It will open your eyes to its hidden beauty. If you are ambivalent about London, read this book and have your heart inspired by it. If you’ve moved out of London, read this book and marvel at what you’ve left behind. If you’re about to move to London, read this book. It will take you to the most wondrous places no other guidebook could hope to. But read this book. It really is a work of genius.

On sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £9.99