Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 01 Mar 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

In praise of scruffiness and its counter to capitalism

I’m watching a series of films made by my new hero, architecture critic Ian Nairn. Occasional visitors to this blog will know that Nairn made a name for himself in the late fifties by speaking out against planners’ zeal for bland new housing developments and spent the sixties and seventies railing against their idiocy. By 1983, he had drunk himself to death. Watching him now and re-reading my own blog on ‘Radical Caring’ makes me wonder something else.

Capitalism loves new things. Shiny, shiny new things. It wants you to purchase new stuff to replace the stuff that has not quite worn out but will, and to go on purchasing new stuff all your life, so that the people who make the new stuff will have lots of money, so will their shareholders and the poor sods who actually make the new stuff, well, they’re expendable. What matters here is the newness of your stuff, which has to be better than the old stuff. Because it’s new. And if there’s one thing we won’t countenance, it’s old stuff.

So the story goes. But as I watch this half hour documentary that Nairn made in the early seventies, I’m watching a portly man with receding hair and a sharp nose drive around the country in a threadbare suit, occasionally in his shirt sleeves, sometimes in a shabby mac, but mainly in a Morris Minor that doesn’t seem to have been cleaned since it was made. As he shambles around, looking faintly distracted as though he’s wondering what time the pubs are open, he says incredibly sharp, eloquent things that sum up the essence of what he’s looking at with arch precision.

Image, then, is at odds with reality. If Nairn shambled up to you now, you’d give him 50p for a cup of tea and move away quickly to avoid any unpleasantness, thereby missing out on conversation with one of the most underrated minds this country has produced. But this is because he didn’t look like what he was, which is a genius. We like our people or, rather, David Cameron does, to wear a nice suit and tie and to sing the national anthem. What we don’t like, because we were told at boarding school, or wherever, is scruffiness or unkemptness, because it’s bad form.

I’m not talking about idiots like Boris Johnson, incidentally, whose suits probably cost several grand, whose shoes are perhaps custom made and who plays by the rules. He is no more genuinely scruffy than I am the new England left back. It’s all the most hideous calculation, like Giles Brandreth who, Christopher Hitchens remembered, wanted to be seen as the new Kenneth Tynan while he was at Oxford so walked around wearing a cape. These people are contrived, ghastly and should be vomited over wherever they are seen.

What I’m talking about and what I find so attractive about Nairn is the utter indifference. He wears those clothes simply because it’s illegal to be naked. When he’s hot, his crumpled white shirt gets undone nearly to the navel, exposing a portly stomach that nowadays would have people calling a personal trainer. Not Nairn. He walks around talking to the camera because that’s what he’s there to do. It’s a TV programme about architecture, not a fashion show, and if a voice off camera was heard suggesting that he smarten himself up, you imagine him apologising to the unseen viewer and disappearing for as long as it took to punch the owner of the voice to the ground.

Nairn’s world is one of pubs, of paperbacks shoved into the pocket of an overcoat, of stained but wearable clothes and hair brushed casually back over a high forehead. And it’s a world that I think was probably glorious. His career vindicates the idea that what matters is what you say and the precision with which it is said, rather than whatever you might have put on that morning. Now, this seems like a radical new idea, when even teachers are told to smarten themselves up and shops in the high street compete to sell cheap suits and vile shirts that make people look like a chiselling little shit from an estate agent.

Partly this explains my love of vintage, not because I want to look smart but because I want to vainly cling on to something of that world and to wear clothes that weren’t stitched by some poor worker in an unsafe factory in the developing world for a mockery of a salary. Stephen Fry once talked about what the things we owned would say about the method of their construction and I fear that most of the clothes in my wardrobe would scream. My few vintage items might not have earned vast sums for the people who made them, but at least their lives weren’t pitiable.

A few days ago in a shoe shop, I handled a shoe that had been made by Loake. I was probably cradling in excess of two hundred pounds in my hands, but they were things of wonder, stitched, stamped and made by people who knew what they were doing. By way of contrast, I handled a similar shoe in Primark. I say ‘similar shoe’ in the sense that a lean-to is a residence in the same way that a house is, because the two bear no comparison, the Primark thing having faux stitching and being held together by glue that would have dried and failed in the time that it took to leave the shop. Buy a vastly expensive Loake shoe, and you’ll never buy another. Buy the one from Primark and you’ll need to visit again each time it rains.

But here we arrive at the nub of the argument. Ian Nairn, Loake shoes and tweed jackets are from a bygone age, when craftsmanship and erudition counted for something, where appearance was one thing and substance another. That is gone. We’ve fallen for smarm and glib assurance, seduced by politicians who are no more than expensively dressed hucksters. If we listened to what they’re saying as closely as we looked at what they are wearing, we’d realise that it’s the most appalling neoliberal hogwash, designed to take away the Welfare State from under our very eyes. But Boris had funny hair and Cameron has a nice suit. That’s all we care about.

Just as I argued in the other blog, not giving a tuppenny crap about seductive newness will set us free from capitalism with all its shrill little voices urging us to buy something new. If we shamble around in stained raincoats, read old paperbacks and care more about what we say than what we look like, maybe our minds will go to higher things and the world could yet be a better place. And if my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle. But you have to hope against hope for a New Nairn to lead us all to a new promised land of gentle scruffiness and vast erudition.

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