Great London Books #1: Nairn’s London by Ian Nairn (1966)

“Nairn’s London” is perhaps the about-architecture version of the music book of my (our?) dreams. It’s smart and its funny and it doesn’t bother second guessing what the reader might be thinking. It’s honest and provocative and funny: Nairn will praise a Catford tower block as highly as a Hawksmoor, he likes pubs and ordinary people as much as he likes mansions and the people who build them. He understands the importance of context, the difference between imperfection in design and failure as a building.

Ian Nairn, in short, is an architectural anti-rockist.

Here’s what’s wrong with “Nairn’s London”: the tone is so accessibly conversational that when Nairn’s eye lets him down (tr.: he disagrees with me, obviously) you want to have it out with him there and then, which is tricky with a fellow who died in 1983. He has an awkward habit of using the word ‘real’ (“this rough, shabby, real place”, he says of some long-gone Irish boozer on Piccadilly Circus, like the Ritz is any more imaginary), though he’s not a seeker after authentic misery but spaces which encourage unaffected behaviour, some of the time, at least. He doesn’t like the Royal Festival Hall.

Here’s what’s right about it: where it covers extant buildings it’s a pleasure to consult, bright insights and sharp opinions. Where the buildings are gone or an area’s changed it’s easy to imagine how things might have been. He talks about Peckham in glowing terms, as one of the few “cockney streets” to have survived the Second World War. The Peckham he describes is largely gone now but his words ring true. It’s wonderfully written from start to finish, sentences which balance as beautifully as the ones you compose on the bus in the morning but are strangely out of reach by the time you’ve reached your desk.

I rarely hear “Nairn’s London” mentioned, but when I do, it always seems to be in the right places. Most recently, in the wonderful film St Etienne had made for “Finisterre”, a film which shares a sense of loving, critical wonder with “Nairn’s London”. You need to know when to take a hint.