The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 26 Feb 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

In praise of Ian Nairn

What does it mean to behold idiocy in all its awfulness and not shamble along with it on the nice, anodyne and easy path, but to rage, rage, rage against it? In the end, it breaks you, and the breaking of you will not, generally speaking, be a nice, quick Hollywood ending, but a long, drawn out retreat from whatever you were and in which any eloquence you once had slowly gets reduced to incoherent shouting and you end up like the hostel-dwellers I saw in the park today, flapping at unseen foes. mouths slackly hanging open when they weren’t contorted in anguish.

The alternative, to me, is worse. You slip into some ghastly, sickly sweet parody of a life in which everything is tasteful and understated, there are no extremes of anything and all the edges and the sharp points have been ground down so that you’re round and smooth and just like every other stupid, misbegotten sod who stares into the middle distance in the rare moments that he or she has some awareness of what’s happened to them, and realises it’s bloody pointless and all that’s left is cancer, death and a crap funeral in some bland out-of-town crematoria.

This has been brought on by finding out about the existence of an architecture critic called Ian Nairn who I think I would have liked very, very much. He qualified as a pilot and flew Gloster Meteors, which is something I wish I could have done and then surprised everyone be resigning his commission and forcing his way into the architectural press by sheer, brute force of will where he made a name for himself by coining the phrase ‘subtopia.’

A portmanteau word made by shoving together ‘suburbia’ and ‘utopia,’ it was intended to evoke the idea that Britain was drowning under a weight of sprawling suburban developments, each strikingly bland and appalling in that blandness. Nairn coined the term in the fifties, a time when Britain was becoming prosperous without developing any artistic sensibility, leading to the rise, or rather outward spread, of the kind of brick built, quiet armageddon that is still popular with the planners today and which can be seen ringing every town.

Nairn was the angry young man who raged against this the most eloquently and the most forcefully, striking out at the mean little dwellings just as he celebrated the architecture that he loved. What is, perhaps, significant, is that he valued the grand, sweeping statement, but he also valued the human building meant to do a job of work for the people who used it. He loved the boozy bonhomie of the pub, the immense modernist car park but, as the documentary that I’ve just watched pointed out, despised the meek attempt at the in-between. Nothing seems to have drawn his ire faster than a modernist brick box behind which there was no great plan.

His readers’ and, later on, watchers, fortune was that Nairn had plenty to rage against. As the fifties gave way to the sixties, the destruction of the buildings he loved only increased until, by the seventies, it seems to have reached a hectic pace, churches and buildings built for people or with a holy purpose in mind giving way to high rises of indifferent design or more styleless boxes that were designed less with people in mind and more around some vague idea of them as being discreet units of production with 2.4 children.

It was Nairn’s misfortune, however. He got angrier and more exasperated by what he saw, by the imbecile planners who tore down an shopping arcade in Northampton for a new, modern development that the council were intent on foisting on a sheep-faced, cow-brained populace who meekly went along with it. There’s a pleading note to his voice in some of the later programmes, sitting, exasperated on a station platform denuded of its tracks by that prize prick from the road lobby, Dr Beeching, or standing in a church in which the pews have been smashed and the font is lying, broken, on its side.

By the end, when he made a documentary series about follies, the alcoholism had a good hold on him and he seemed permanently pissed and largely bewildered, lost in a reverie and staggering around the Shuttleworth Collection in Old Warden, remarking on the plane he’d learned to fly in and yet still coming out with the memorable line ‘all love is folly.’ It’s here that I fell in love with him, not with the angry young man intent on arguing the world back into reason, but with the older man, prematurely aged and drink-sodden, knowing that he can’t and that his wisest words have all fallen on deaf ears owned by people too stupid to know what they mean. His answer is to retreat into himself, with a drink, and I can’t find it in myself to say that he’s wrong.

It’s idiocy of the worst and most venal kind to say that Britain makes people like Ian Nairn in any greater number than anywhere else, so I’ll say that there’s something glorious in humanity’s ability to produce people like him. They realise, too late to redeem themselves, that they’ve gone too far down a path that will destroy them and instead of trying to argue their way into some kind of motley repentance, say ‘bollocks’ to it and go on exactly the way they’ve come, raging and swearing and fulminating in a way that lesser lights would never imagine, still less dream of.

So years after you died from cirrhosis of the liver, Ian Nairn, I salute you and I adore you. Every word that you spoke about the country that destroyed the things you loved was right, and I almost wish you were around to see what it’s become, if only because I know that you’d lacerate it with a few, well chosen phrases. With its appalling shopping malls, uniform high streets and shop after shop peddling endless consumerist tat to orange-headed people who can’t afford it, what would your reaction have been? What would you have made of a country that denied people benefits and did nothing while they starved or committed suicide?

I think I know. I think you’d have hated it and I think you bowed out at the right time, before the full extent of the Thatcherite calumny became known and the country started devouring its own. Those of us who are left sitting in the rubble, watching our vast flatscreen TVs in our boxlike, bland little houses while the old person down the road eats dog food because she can’t afford anything else, can only wonder at your genius and marvel that you were ever able to exist at all.

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