The recent BBC 4 documentary on Ian Nairn is just the latest attempt to bolster the reputation of a writer and broadcaster who is often described as desperately needing of rediscovery yet who has in fact had a singular, negative influence over architectural writing since he died in August 1983. In case you don’t know, Nairn came to prominence after writing a couple of diatribes against the pace and nature of urban change of Britain in the 1950s before going to write some books, present some telly and drink far too much. I suspect that in an era of polite circumscribed behaviour amongst journalists this latter fact lends an allure to Nairn’s reputation. Today, too I think there are some who see a certain glamour in throwing long words vainly in the face of human development. I am not one of them.
In his early work Nairn decried the spread of Britain’s cities into farming areas and harangued modern planning and this makes him, for some, a hero. He had a turn of phrase, of course, but it was largely an aptitude for sneering at things. The bulk of his oft-cited book Outrage, published in 1955 is effectively a travelogue of a trip the length of England with the Highlands an addendum. (The idea of actually going to Glasgow either so terrifies or disgusts him that he omits it). On his way he derides “appallingly genteel gates” around the war memorial in Chipping Norton. He shakes his metaphorical stick at a pair of public benches in Stafford. They are a “perversion of concrete that is more irritating than usual”. He bewails them for their “lumpish arm rests.” (They look fine to me.) Jonathan Glancey and Jonathan Meades describe him as some kind of social pioneer – doing to architectural criticism what John Osborne did to theatre with Look Back in Anger. Osborne famously had only one good play in him. I am not sure that Nairn can even match that. Whilst his prose certainly aspires to the heroic, or the epic at least, it falls some way short of either.
As a writer, he is frequently ridiculous. The impression one gets is of a drunk man wandering the country getting suicidally dismayed at certain kinds of gates and discerning the downfall of modern civilisation in a slightly artless bit of forestry planting near Keswick. All of his assessments can be checked against postage size photographs which, thanks more to the novelist WG Sebald have become obligatory in online or printed architectural musings. This is often to the detriment of Nairns scathing text. Next to a barbed remark about advertising you will find a perfectly pleasant townscape featuring a tiny painted sign which the pint-starved scribe has taken against. Whilst a critic should be free to discuss whatever expression of architectural culture they see fit, it is very difficult to take seriously someone who gets so cross about petrol pumps, especially when they are those beautifully curved ones popular in the 1940s. Getting way, way above himself, Nairn dubs these phenomena collectively as Subtopia.
Indeed beyond the ridiculousness of his tone, I think Nairn is very often simply wrong. His view of the Highlands as somehow under threat from massive overpopulation was even more ludicrous then as it is now. “If hydro-electricity and the Highlands are to come together one or the other must capitulate: the issue is as bald as that,” he writes., advocating that hydro-electric should capitulate. I am glad he was ignored as he would have removed from the eye just for example the dramatic Sloy Power Station dam on the banks of Loch Lomond or the Cruachan Dam. He would also have deprived us of the Tongland turbine hall from the Galloway hydro-electric power scheme by Alexander Gibb and Partners. Hide mankind away is Nairn’s solution. He expresses this further in Counter Attack – which was published the year later by the Architectural Review in which Nairn offers a naive picturesque as an alternative to his “Subtopia” – a frankly meaningless term when you think about it.
Accumulatively though Outrage, like its successor Counter Attack is a disquieting text set as it is within the post-war welfare state settlement. Whilst Nairn’s little pecadilloes are funny enough, frankly I don’t trust him. Ultimately he refuses to see the change in the world around him as an often innocuous expression of simple needs for better homes and better living conditions. Behind Nairn’s dismay at the modernist detailing is a genuine fear of over-population. Let me be clear here. I think Nairn’s distaste for modern development was not based on a love of nature or architectural heritage but on a dislike of people.
The opening essay to Outrage contains the following stand out remark:
“Britain has a population of 50m crammed into an island which could take 25m decently. Popular misunderstanding of one sort and another – misunderstanding of the meaning of democracy – vulgarization of the concept of liberty – have lead the man in the street to kick against the principle of land planning.”
There is a strong neo-Malthusian streak to Nairn. His vision of planning is of a discipline that is part aesthetic, part-eugenic. Nairn doesn’t like people and whilst he may have an idea of “the people” it is a batty, nostalgic one: like Gerard Manley Hopkins without the sensuous catholicism.
Indeed considering Nairn within the context of his literary forefathers is telling. The anthology at the rear of Outrage contains a number of interesting and revealing texts which Nairn places before us, including a quotation from a book by Jacquetta Hawkes – wife of JB Priestley – called Man on Earth.
“History has by now had time to prove that moderately sized non-industrial cities where writers poets, painters, philosophers, statesmen, foreign visitors and wealthy dilettanti habitually meet and mingle, dropping in one another, meeting casually in public and in eating and drinking places make the finest of all hotbeds for producing the prize blooms of consciousness. With modern cities, where millions live in utter social incoherence it is quite otherwise.”
That this was even written takes my breath away. That it was quoted by someone I am supposed to admire makes me question the sanity of the world. (Do I need to spell out why this elitist vision of history is fucking nonsense? I hope not.) Yet this kind of revulsion at the size and scale of human development imbues Nairn’s work.
Of course, his later writing doesn’t deal directly with this idea and he is interested in writing about the good as well as the bad, but frankly, after reading Outrage, I don’t trust him. I also take issue with the idea he was a brilliant stylist. Indeed, I’d like to blame him for that pompous tone that architectural writers still fall back on when they doubt themselves; that makes young men who otherwise speak normally suddenly write that a canopy detail is “quite brilliant” instead of plain brilliant. Take one example: In Modern Buildings in London, Nairn praises Paxton & Whitfield’s cheese shop on Jermyn Street. He writes: “it may seem individuous to put in just one London shop, but this one is a quintessence of what metropolitan choice should stand for”. Never mind the sheer pretension of choosing a cheese shop as the only commercial establishment in the book, his writing is cloying and smug. Individuous? Well, it makes the Shorter Oxford Dictionary but not the Concise and means of “an undivided nature”. To me, it is both inaccurately used and a gross affectation. (As for “quintessence”…. don’t get me started.) Yet this is a sentence that Roger Ebert of all people pulls out as typical of him and worthy of applauding.
So whilst I am sure there was a need to debate the direction and quality of development in the years after the war and I can’t deny that Nairn drew attention to a few nice Victorian pubs, I am definitely not a fan. I get the feeling from his writing that he was uncomfortable about the dramatic step forward in the improvement of conditions for working people that was taking place around him and took this out on certain kinds of war memorials. His revulsion and his conviction that the world is going to the dogs is omnipresent; utterly pervasive. It isn’t Subtopia that covers Britain, but Nairn’s bile. It seems very odd to me that he is often embraced by left-leaning writers although I can see why he is much lamented by a certain kind of critic who equates human development and improvement with philistinism.