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'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Category: Books

Ian Nairn and serendipity 

There must be something to it surely: in the week when I had my essay on the inspirational, non-clubbable writer and broadcaster published in The Irish Times, I had a peruse of a second-hand bookshop only to find, side by side, original copies of Nairn’s London and Nairn’s Paris. 

For the princely sum of £4 (in the inside cover of Paris is another marking for 20p).

I’ve added pictures below, comparing them with my facsimile of London, well thumbed as you can see and with some ale markings, and the new edition of Paris, published with typical elan by Notting Hill Editions. Just look at Nairn’s face on those covers – the child-like, goofy grin is nothing but endearing; he’s like a portly John Turturro.

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I shall run Nairn’s BBC travelogues again this weekend (with some Guinness West Indies Porter, which I’m sure he would slap his lips in satisfaction with) as a small gesture to his ghost, if indeed he was tapping my shoulder to go into that bookshop. ‘Look here mate…’, I hear him saying. 

The Nairn films are infinitely watchable in spite of their low-budget, dated (happily, in this instance), and cobbled together feel. He has a strange, melancholic relationship with the camera; I find him as compelling to watch on screen as, say, Richard Burton or Marlon Brando. At times I imagine he might start riffing towards a Shakespearean soliloquy as he shuffles around Halifax.

Anyway, I shall finish with this, because I have just uncapped another porter: despite his documented drift into darkness in his personal life and an unhealthy relationship with the booze, Nairn makes me laugh hard, and often, in his writing. (Whatever people think about him looking through a glass darkly, my instinct is that he lived his life the way he wanted to, and if that meant living until 53 or 83 years of age, I imagine Nairn would have thought, ‘well, so bloody what’.)
Here he is describing a pub, one of his true passions, The King’s Arms on the Fulham Road:


Below is how they advertise the pub on its website today. Nairn, how prescient you were…

…once again I hear his ghost: ‘And nooooowwww look at it! It makes me burn!’

Fads will come and go. 

Ian Nairn will remain. Raise a glass, chin chin.

The World-Ending Fire by Wendell Berry: Environmental philosophy

American poet Wendell Berry is a ‘farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts’

Wendell Berry did not sit on my shelves before; nor yours probably. This collection sees the American published on these islands for the first time, and now he has finally stepped ashore, it’s worth getting to know him. He describes himself as “a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts” and it shows. In these pieces, which span five decades, Berry overturns plenty of thoughtful topsoil on environmental issues with a precise pen, and clears any thicket of cosy consensus with a clear eye and cutting hand. Bound to the land, Berry speaks with a considered and credible voice. Part nature writing, part philosophy, part polemic, he examines humanity’s impact on the world – is the land unfit for use, or are we unfit to use it, he asks. Although he keeps his plough mainly on the furrows of nature and farming, there are digressions: Mark Twain, feminism, and computers among them. Berry believes there is a music to nature, so instead of drowning it out, we had better start listening. This book is a good starting point.

The World-Ending Fire – The Essential Wendell Berry. (£20; 354 pp Allen Lane)

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

Muhammad Ali’s idea of heaven

Reviews: Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974; Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band 1975 and Jazz Festival: Jim Marshall

 

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Muhammad Ali captured at his training camp by Peter Angelo Simon.

Since Muhammad Ali’s passing in June, the image that springs to my mind when thinking about him is no longer the iconic Neil Leifer shot from 1965 of Ali towering over a vanquished Sonny Liston on the canvas, admonishing the recumbent fighter “Git up sucka; git up and fight!” Nor is it the photo generally considered the greatest in sports photography, again taken by Leifer, a year later. The picture is from above the ring, and shows Cleveland Williams (who was still carrying a bullet in his body going into the fight after a police shooting the year before) floored in the third, flat on his back on the square canvas. Ali is walking back to his corner, his arms raised in a victory many aficionados say was perfection personified (he sent Williams to the canvas four times). The perfect shot for the perfect fight. But it’s not that one, nor is it Flip Schulke’s famous underwater photograph of Ali eternally poised with his dukes ready for launch.

Instead, my mind’s eye conjures an image taken by Peter Angelo Simon in 1974. It shows Ali from behind, in black and white, doing his early-morning roadwork; pounding the Pennsylvania gravel in a grey tracksuit and heavy black boots. We see his breath cutting through the stillness of the new morning air, while a shaft of sunlight cuts across the middle of the frame. It’s a photograph that will never run out of road for me anyhow.

Now Ali is no longer of this earth, I can only think of this picture in a cosmological context, where he is being called back to where he started from; a cosmic ray bouncing back to that great ball of energy at the centre of our universe. Indulging the celestial metaphor once more, I always feel that if you had labelled Ali a meteorite, he would have slapped you down saying a meteorite was too small-time – he was the asteroid! Either way, aren’t we fortunate he shot through our universe?

But Ali was just a man (even if the distinction of super- is unconditionally prefixed to him). Just like the rest of us, he would bleed, hurt, cry, laugh and eventually die. We get a welcome new glimpse of his human side in Muhammad Ali Fighter’s Heaven 1974 (Reel Art Press), the cover of which is Simon’s astral image. The book is the fruits of two days shooting for Simon at Ali’s remote training camp, as the artist formerly known as Cassius Clay prepared to take on George Foreman in Zaire in a month’s time. Simon recalls that he and Ali had an unspoken agreement: “he’d do his thing and I’d do mine”.

What’s striking in most photographs of Muhammad Ali where he is surrounded by all sorts of people is that they are always smiling, even if he is not. It’s as if Ali swallowed life whole and transmitted only its joy through himself to anyone within his orbit.

“If there’s a secret to my fights,” Ali once said, “it’s how I prepare.” This collection of photographs gives us a privileged window into both the brutality and humanity that this preparation entailed.

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Jim Marshall’s portrait of Miles Davis and Steve McQueen at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

If boxing is taking something of a standing count from mainstream consciousness nowadays, then jazz has showered and shaved, checked out of the hotel, and slunk off into defeated obscurity. It might be hard to fathom, but there was a time when jazz was the absolute symbol of hep, as we can see in Jazz Festival, which is based on Jim Marshall’s photography at Monterey and Newport in the 1960s. The greats are here: Coltrane, Miles, Satch, Nina and some unexpected figures too: Kim Novak, Steve McQueen, Joan Baez. This large book is an eye-catching testament to an age of effortless cool – sharp suits, smoked edges, sounds rising to the stratosphere – and features a foreword from famous sax player (and sometime president of the United States) Bill Clinton. The historian Nat Hentoff places jazz of that era in its proper cultural context – an integrated scene that maintained its dignity in the maelstrom of the civil rights struggle.

Hentoff references Cambridge University’s Tim Blanning who laid out in his book The Triumph of Music the idea that black musicians readied America for the civil rights movement. He’s right: straight-no-chaser. Just like Muhammad Ali, jazz changed white American attitudes and America changed for the better, eventually.

Someone we think of as the embodiment of American values is Bruce Springsteen and – unlike jazz and boxing – it feels like he has never had anything but praise and approbation during his career. However, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band 1975 (also by Reel Art Press) documents a time when “The Boss” was struggling to break into the mainstream of American culture; at one point back then it seemed touch and go. Following two critically acclaimed albums, a lo-fi Boss is captured in these gritty portraits trying to piece together what would become his breakout album Born To Run.

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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band photographed by Barbara Pyle in 1975.

With his trusted band in tow, we see a stripped-back Bruce: unadorned, living out of a bag, and from meal to meal probably. It’s also touching to see “The Big Man”, the late Clarence Clemons so full of life in these early photos, as well as a very lithe Steven Van Zandt, who is as well known for his role in The Sopranos these days as for cutting licks with Springsteen. The book is a snapshot in time of Bruce and his band living the life that he so painstakingly crafted into his music, and we are lucky to have this perspective. One suspects that “The Boss” has carried these pictures around in his head in the 40 years since they were taken; it’s probably why he’s “Mr Integrity” for so many of us.

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

 

Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974 (Reel Art Press, £29.95)

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band 1975 (Reel Art Press, £40)

Jazz Festival: Jim Marshall (Reel Art Press, £45)

Building books – a best of 2016

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Construction of Manchester Ship Canal 1889 (From Lost England)

James Joyce once famously declared of ‘Ulysses’: I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book’. It’s unlikely Ellen Rowley had the same lofty aspirations when editing More than concrete blocks: Dublin City’s 20th century buildings and their stories 1900-1940 (Four Courts Press/Dublin City Council). But she has done a fine job with the subject at hand all the same, in this first book of a three volume series. It’s aimed at the general reader and hits the target with its clean, brisk style; you will find no leaden prose loaded with architectural jargon here, thankfully. Rowley and her team have mined the archives astutely and there is rich new photography from Paul Tierney on Dublin’s landmark buildings. Accessible can be a grubby word when used in any field of the arts, but this is a book for both the academic and architecture aficionado. The essays and case studies within present an erudite and enlightening path on the development of Dublin City in the years leading up to the establishment of the Free State and beyond. An ideal gift for the Dublin flâneur.

Travelling across the Irish Sea to our neighbours in Lost England 1870-1930 (Atlantic Publishing),this hefty slab of a book mainly consists of 1200 images from the invaluable Historic England archive, with an accompanying text written by Phillip Davies providing plenty of sociological insight. Striking photographs show the extraordinary change experienced by England in such a short period of time, covering the regions of the North West, the Midlands, East England etc. It takes in the huge Irish influence on the country’s demographic too – in the first five months of 1849, more than 300,000 Irish arrived in Liverpool, then a town of 250,000 people; parts of London and Manchester were known as ‘Little Ireland’ or ‘Little Dublin’. Many of the buildings of the Victorian and Edwardian age were beautiful and perusing this tome will make you question why we let so much of it slip through our hands; or indeed tumbled it with the very same hands. A worthy follow on to ‘Lost London’, this book is a poignant and elegiac publication that will have you wondering if we have learnt any lessons of such philistinism in terms of what we build and bulldoze nowadays.

If you like to holiday in Italy as much as possible, but also enjoy getting off the well-beaten tourist track, then picking up Italo Modern 1 and 2: Architecture in Northern Italy 1946-1976 (Park Books) would be a wise investment. Detailing many hidden jewels of post-war Italian Modernism, the books are beautifully designed in presenting the explorations of the Feiersinger brothers, Martin and Werner (one an architect, the other a sculptor) through contemporary photographs and plans and text on all kinds of buildings sprinkled across Italian cities and countryside. Volume 2 is the more comprehensive of the two books and both are considerately marked for individual architects and well mapped, from Milano to the tip of Trieste, where (that man again) Joyce of course spent a large part of his life.

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From Italo Modern

Moving further east is Hidden Urbanism: Architecture and Design of the Moscow Metro (DOM publishers). Muscovites are justifiably proud of their Metro network and this coffee table book compiled by Soviet architecture experts Philipp Meuser and Philipp Meuser gives an understanding of its social history and radical heritage. Photographs by Alexander Popov shows the Metro’s unforgettable beauty, and the book includes a rich seam of design plans, typography, and maps. The text could offer more on contentious issues surrounding the Metro’s history, such as the forced labour used to build it or the shameless religiosity of the Stalin-era architecture. However, a useful companion volume on these issues can be found in Landscapes of Communism – A History Through Buildings (Penguin) which has been published in paperback this year. Owen Hatherley has been writing with verve and knowledge of Soviet and Balkan built environments long before these subjects became fetishized by a flock of whimsical Instagrammers and tweeters. Here he takes on a weighty subject, a selective history of 20th century Communist Europe told through its buildings and designs, and despite limited finances tramps widely: Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, and what was once Yugoslavia and East Germany to list some of the destinations. It is a strangely compelling book, and oddly relaxing to read due to Hatherley’s unfaltering approach – it’s as though you can hear the sound of your lonely footsteps echoing through the corridors of history. As the author says himself, ‘this is history read through buildings’ – unlike some other books, it is much more than a cursory snapshot of a fascinating era in the 20th century and Landscapes of Communism will delight anyone with an interest in this complex part of the world.

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

 

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Mosaic panel depicting Vladimir Lenin at Komsomolskaya Station on the Koltsevaya line. Image: © Alexander Popov

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After the Fire – the Great Fire of London

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This painting shows the enormous scale of The Great Fire. Unknown artist, c.1700. (Credit London Fire Brigade)

There must have been some sense of irony in London from the fact that the replacement churches for many of those destroyed in the Great Fire were funded by a Coal Tax. Frying pans and fires bring Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s change in circumstances to mind these days. As calamitous as he was as Lord Mayor of the city, he could not top one of his predecessors Thomas Bludworth. When roused to deal with the Great Fire, which started on 2 September 1666, Bludworth dismissed it with a response not quite befitting public office: ‘a woman might piss it out’ he said, before returning to bed. No doubt he was far from gruntled, to use PG Wodehouse’s word, when he awoke.

In slight mitigation, small fires were a common occurrence at the time. But if Bludworth had been more of a jobsworth, then history might not have recorded the devastating outbreak that spread quickly and raged for four days. The catastrophe almost destroyed the entire city: at least 13,000 houses were lost, 87 parish churches were destroyed, including St Paul’s Cathedral, although the death toll was remarkably low. Fewer than 10 people were known to have died, but the figure was probably higher as many bodies would have been cremated in the intense heat; poor Londoners’ deaths would have gone unrecorded most likely.

In ‘After The Fire’, Angelo Hornak leaves the bodies (or lack of them) aside and focuses on the Baroque. Hornak details the huge rebuilding job of the London churches in the sixty years that followed the fire. It’s a lavish book filled with his impressive photography, which is accompanied by readable and unfussy architectural text. The publication is a hefty slab though, so it is unlikely to be used as a mobile reference for ambling from church to church (perhaps the publisher will include a digital download with future purchases?).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London will no doubt see a flurry of publications attached to it. The story of how Christopher Wren and his colleagues Robert Hooke, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and James Gibbs, seized the opportunity of turning a city’s devastation into a triumph by making it more beautiful is worth retelling in the context of the homogenisation of present-day architecture. The skills of these men, and the many others involved in the buildings, meant London was presented with one of the most idiosyncratic skylines in the world, thanks to joined-up government, openness to influences from European neighbours in Rome, Paris, and the Netherlands, and a desire to build for spiritual enrichment, as much as economic necessity. An engraving by Johannes Kip from 1724 called ‘A Prospect of the City of London’ captures the scene perfectly, with the many steeples of the rebuilt churches scattered like wayward children around St Paul’s newly realised beauty: its father-figure dome.

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Things could have been very different. When Wren was handed overall charge of the church-building programme (St James’s, Piccadilly is the only one he claimed to have solely designed incidentally), his master plan proposed replacing medieval London with a new geometric grid, with grand avenues converging on the piazza at St Paul’s. Thankfully, the only elements of the plan stamped were the building of new quays along the Thames and the Fleet. Speed was of the essence: the city had to be rebuilt quickly to maintain its dominance as a centre of commerce. Yet Hornak’s book shows how God, if He didn’t quite trump Mammon in making London the attraction it is today, played a supporting role in the city’s magnetism through this rich array churches. Pull up a pew and savour it.

After the Fire – London Churches in the Age of Wren, Hooke, Hawksmoor and Gibbs by Angelo Hornak (Pimpernel Press)

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

 

Marcel Breuer – the last modernist

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St. John’s Abbey and University, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1953-68; bell- banner and church. Picture credit: Peter Sieger

There is an arresting photograph of Marcel Breuer sitting in the upper-floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It is 1967, a year after his building has opened and Breuer, dressed in a smart suit, and in an armchair with his back to one of the museum’s signature trapezoid windows, looks as if he is explaining something – perhaps trying to justify something.

From the picture one gets a sense that this was something he had been used to throughout his long career; even here, in his most popular (eventually) and best-known building.

If Breuer was spelling something out, then he didn’t look troubled by it: his body language has vim, even with him slouching slightly to the right in the chair, which was probably to soften his imposing frame. What would have exasperated Breuer though, and is not easily explained away, is that in the 35 years since his death, he is primarily remembered for his furniture designs, while his architectural works have been largely overshadowed. But an impressive and weighty new monograph by Robert McCarter (published by Phaidon Press) should realign Breuer’s position in the canon of modern masters, however.

When he died, Breuer was hailed as “the last modernist”. McCarter bumps him up the VIP list in a club that includes Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe (a place that always had something of a rarefied air).

McCarter calls Breuer “the last of the first moderns and the first of the last moderns” thanks to a career spanning 50 years that saw him criss-crossing many bridges of the so-called International Style, before embarking on his own artistic course in a combination of iconic private houses and public buildings in Europe and the United States.

Breuer was among the first students in the Bauhaus at the birth of modernism and, towards the latter part of his career, he readily swam against the flood of steel and glass that was defining modernism’s dull death.

Once Breuer discovered the malleability of reinforced concrete, a beautiful relationship was formed, with béton brut (raw concrete) being used to memorable effect in the building of the Unesco headquarters in Paris (1952-58), with the collaboration of Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss.

Phaidon’s tome covers 100 buildings and 24 furniture designs, and is a joy to spend time over, with its beautiful array of photographs, and McCarter’s exhaustive – but never exhausting – text on the designs (for a useful measuring stick on the depth of detail, here is McCarter on Flainé, a ski resort by Breuer built in the 1960s: “the wood is doussié, similar to teak, imported from Cameroon in French West Africa”).

Breuer’s ideas on architecture were made manifest in his practice, not in polemics, so the written documentation McCarter has to work on by his subject is limited. The author does a satisfying excavation job nonetheless, and we learn a little more about what made Breuer tick: he was sceptical of dogma; he was to have been a much-loved teacher; and he managed to both build his commissions and run a successful practice at the same time – a rare feat. (He also employed an unusual number of women in those old-fashioned days).

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UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France, 1952-8; lobby and promenade of Secretariat. Picture credit: Fonds Zehrfuss.

Before writing this book McCarter was already an admirer of Breuer (as was I), and I’m happily in agreement with him on what he regards as Breuer’s greatest architectural work: St John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota (1953-68). That said, the tone is objective and the author does not spare the critical rod when it is warranted: many of Breuer’s houses went over budget, while some of the large public buildings had serious overheating problems inside, for example.

But, all things considered, it is time to rightfully rank Breuer alongside Mies, Wright and Le Corbusier, and this publication should aid that cause. Many believe his position of architectural greatness would have already been secured but for the remoteness of his best work (that fact that it is sited on the rolling plains of Minnesota means few people get to see St John’s). Breuer’s reticence to pronounce from upon high, or put forward jargonistic soundbites – unlike some others – did not help his case for future recognition either.

If Breuer were alive he would likely have been diffident at the thought of any fuss being made over his legacy. But that would only be true to form. Those who worked with him or knew him well said he was always both self-deprecating and self-effacing. As he once stated in a letter to a friend: “All my life I have been wondering how somebody can be a genius from morning to evening.”

Breuer by Robert McCarter is published by Phaidon Press.

  • Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement

 

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Resort Town of Flaine, Haute-Savoie, France, 1960-9; view from below of Grand Hotel (Le Flaine). Picture credit: Yves Guillernaut

Books which set the bar for journalism

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The Fields family, Alabama 1936 (Photograph: Walker Evans)

 

Nothing dates so decidedly as journalism. This is probably one of the most solipsistic statements to begin any article, but it’s true: so much spilt ink is soon swept out from the attic of memory; very little journalism is read twice. I refer to traditional journalism in this case, as new media listicles and click-bait copy are rarely read through at all, despite the increasing volume foisted upon our mental space.

Reportage remains a style of journalism which can lift itself above the frivolous freeway of traffic-generating content that obsesses modern media. In such form, the strange hinterlands of a good story can be transformed from journalism into literature. The continuing success of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review proves that there is still a place for long-form writing even in our increasingly time-starved lives. The United States seems to cherish its indepth journalistic tradition somewhat more than we do in Europe. This noble lineage was brought into mind reading the posthumously-published Cotton Tenants by James Agee. The 30,000-word book – punctuated with remarkable photographs by Walker Evans – originally was an article for Fortune magazine from 1936, documenting the lives of three families struggling through desperate times in Alabama. Fortune chose not to run it at the time of its writing for reasons that are still unknown. The book portrays a world that essentially doesn’t exist any more, a snapshot of impoverished cotton farmers, and I could not put it down until I had finished it.

Agee is best-known for his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (written later, it’s a much broader canvas for his work in Cotton Tenants; one is meant to be sung, one is meant to be preached, said the author) and as a screenwriter of two classic films The Night of the Hunter and The African Queen. Despite this, Agee always felt a sense of dread of squandering his talent, which he carried with him to his early death from a fatal second heart attack at the age of 45 in 1955. He died in the back of a New York City cab on his way to a doctor’s appointment.

Cotton Tenants is a small book but it packs a heavy punch with its clinical details of the families’ subsistence, where the weight of living is crushing them slowly, grinding them into the very ground they furrow. The three families are inescapably locked into capitalism’s cruel cycle; their only release will be death, the finality of their laborious existence is their only escape from the abject misery of poverty.

This brutal archaic agriculture system is no longer part of American life, yet it remains heartbreaking to read their stories all the same. The book is compelling, largely thanks to Agee’s machine-gun fire prose, as he rattles out descriptions of the families’ lives: diet, clothes, education and so on. The fact he never lays it on thick is part of the book’s appeal; then again, he doesn’t have to. The suffering is there in black and white, and in the photographs too, even if they do have a compassionate dignity to them. That being said, a page never slips by Agee where he’s not lifting the prosaic day-to-day into poetry: the families’ disenfranchisement always finds an unsettling death dance under his pen. The writer Adam Haslett describes Agee’s prose style perfectly as “Jesus strained through Marx”. For example: “A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage, is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance.”

Some may ask why we should read a piece of journalism that’s 80 years old and recounts an age that’s long since disappeared. One reason is because the likes of Agee’s work sets the bar as to what journalistic inquiry should be. Another reason is that dehumanization can take different forms and remains with us today, be it in sweat shops in Bangladesh, tourist hustlers in Thailand, or the absurd debt trap culture forced upon ordinary working people in western society. In the modern age, progress is always pitched in positive terms under the yoke of capitalism. However you will be hard pressed to find many positives from such a consensus in David Bandurski’s valuable account of rural resistance to economic regeneration in China.

China’s seemingly unrelenting growth figures – which are readily cast in doubt by economists – has resulted in voracious demand for land and natural resources, meaning much of the ground rural villagers stand on is as valuable as diamond jewels. Hence the book’s title, Dragons in Diamond Village, from Bandurski who is an American journalist and film-maker. Being a fluent Mandarin speaker and having extensive experience of Chinese culture allows Bandurski to take us into the heart of the matter, and in meticulous detail he tells the human stories involved in the battle against corruption, cronyism and intimidation perpetrated by a faceless ruling class.

China had 320 cities when it put in place its economic reforms in 1978; as of this year the country has 660 cities, many of which have ruthlessly swallowed up urban villages, which traditionally were farmed and developed by rural communities. The Chinese state now wants even more of this land, at any cost, to continue the drive for economic growth, and (similar to the cotton tenants of 1930s Alabama) many poor people are at the mercy of the political establishment. There is no private land ownership in China; it belongs to the state. “State-held” land can be developed for commercial reasons, while “collectively held” land is controlled by village communities, and rural Chinese people consider this land their birth right. The latter is what the developers want to take hold of, by any means.

The villagers are organising and fighting back though, and Dragons in Diamond Village paints a painful, but brave, picture of their struggles against an unchecked ideology of communism on one hand, and capitalism on the other. (To give an idea of China’s development and monocratic political makeup, between 2011-2013 the country consumed more concrete than the United States consumed in the entire 20th century; as Bandurski notes, rural China is being paved out of existence. According to Forbes magazine more than 90 per cent of the richest people in the country are members of the ruling Communist Party). Bandurski makes a good fist of simplifying a complex land system and tradition, and densely details the plight of many individuals, while holding a light to the hypocrisy of the Chinese Communist Party. It is a just account of social struggle well worth reading.

Someone who had little time for any Communist party was George Orwell, a master of long-form reportage with such timeless non-fiction as Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s account of the working class in north England has often (depressingly) been used to give him an intellectual kicking post factum, especially due to a particular sentence he included in the book: “. . . the lower classes smell”. A simple statement of truth never got in the way of a revisionist ideologue’s opinion when it comes to a minor critic bashing a major reputation.

Thankfully the English academic John Sutherland resides nowhere near this cul-de-sac of cranks, but instead uses this sentence of Orwell’s as a jumping off point to write a biography of one of his literary heroes, warts and all considered. Having lost his sense of smell recently, Sutherland decided to re-read Orwell’s oeuvre and was struck by the importance the author placed on odour throughout his writing, be it shag tobacco, or furtive rolls in the summer grass with a lady friend (Sutherland does seem disconcertingly fixated on Orwell’s “rutting” throughout the book).

Having read three biographies on Orwell before, I wondered what more could be excavated from the bones of Eric Blair and his alter ego George with Orwell’s Nose. Sutherland’s book is an excellent read though. Written with a breezy and freewheeling style, he skilfully manages to encapsulate the life of one of the 20th century’s most important writers in about a third of the word count of other books. The prose is infused with wry humour and apt judgment on George’s endeavours. If you’ve yet to read an Orwell biography, it is a fine starting point. If you can’t resist all things Orwell, like me, then pinch your nose and dive in on this admirable portrait of a deeply flawed man with faultless prose.

Orwell’s Nose by John Sutherland (Reaktion Books)

Dragons in Diamond Village by David Bandurski (Melville House)

Cotton Tenants by James Agee & Walker Evans (The Baffler)

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times

Street life: visionary who changed how we think about cities

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Jane Jacobs (photo: The Center for the Living City)

This year cannot be allowed to pass by without reference to its being the centenary of Jane Jacobs, the renowned American thinker and writer on cities and urban spaces. Jacobs was an activist who emboldened many to challenge the established order when it came to public planning, someone who said of the metropolis: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

We should hold on to her ideas: Jacobs was a common-sense champion of how places should be allowed to grow and shape themselves around us, not the other way around.

Down the years her work has been a source of elucidation for many people who have cared for the environment surrounding them, but who perhaps have been unsure about how to mobilise their thoughts against the abstraction of civil bureaucracy, something which often seeks to depersonalise – disengage us from – our living space.

Understandably a raft of books have appeared to coincide with the centenary of her birth. Becoming Jane Jacobs by Peter L Laurence (University of Pennsylvania Press), Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House Books) and Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, the biography by Robert Kanigel (Knopf) look like notable additions to the canon.

However, it is a masterwork from her own pen for which Jacobs will be best remembered. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was first published in 1961 – a reprint is available from Vintage – after an article by Jacobs three years earlier in Fortune magazine was noticed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which offered her funding to write about cities.

A postage-stamp synopsis of the book is that Jacobs felt cities to be organic, that they evolve and develop over time depending on how the people living in the space use it; cities would not be formed with some painting-by-colours methodology of planning.

The streets are what make the city, wrote Jacobs, which was contra-modernism and its fashionable Corbusien ideas at the time of neat grids and high-rise towers lifting people off the streets. These ideas would have resulted in a place where people are looking inwards at courtyards, rather than outwards to what Jacobs called the ballet of the daily workings of the street.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” said Jacobs, in her ardent opposition to one-size fits all planning. She wanted diversity, density and engagement and maintained that cities were safer with “eyes on the street”.

Jacobs was an autodidact and an outsider, just like that other great poet of place Ian Nairn. She was not some sleek metropolitan and The Death and Life of Great American Cities rocked the establishment and rattled architecture’s gilded cage.

Quite an achievement for someone born in the unfashionable coal-mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, and who had no college education or formal training.

It is also worth bearing in mind the general attitudes to a strong-willed woman in that era; all these facts probably added to the shock felt by Jacobs’s temerity; the New Yorker critic Lewis Mumford dismissed her reflections as naive while reviewing the book under the headline Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies, for example).

Born Butzner to a doctor father and school teacher mother, it seemed young Jane was something of a firebrand from early on: playing pranks at school, showing little concern for authority by secretly reading books during lessons and holding imaginary conversations with Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin (depending on who was lodging in her imagination at the time).

She chose an unpaid internship at the Scranton Tribune instead of going to college, before moving to join her sister in New York in 1934. She worked various jobs, all the while immersing herself in the big city, before her first writing opportunity came. It was an unglamorous one in a metal trades paper, but it got her started, leading to a series of commissions from Vogue magazine.

Supposedly her pieces about the city were earning Jacobs $40 a time, while she was on $12 a week working as a secretary. While hosting a party in her apartment in April 1944, she met her husband, Robert Jacobs, an architect, and they married in May. Jacobs said later in life that she only wrote books due to his encouragement.

The Jacobs made their home above a sweet shop in 555 Hudson Street, in Greenwich Village, which these days can attract as many fans of architecture as any modernist masterpiece. Here she watched the dance of the street at dawn and dusk and evolved her ideas on urban planning even further by taking a position at the Architectural Forum.

The esteem bestowed on Jacobs after the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities saw her become involved in the protests against New York City planning chief Robert Moses’s proposals to build the Lower Manhattan expressway. This was to run through the heart of Greenwich Village and the very streets where Bob Dylan would scuff his shoes and polish his verse.

The tussle between Jacobs and Moses has already been well documented (there’s even an opera based on it) so there is no need to go into it here. But the victory and Jacobs’s organisation of like-minded citizens who fought to preserve the Village was the embodiment of citizen empowerment. It showed everyone else that planning was too important to be left to the planners.

The long-running dispute has become the stuff of legend, partly because “ordinary mom” Jacobs took the fight both on to the street and into the corridors of powers. She took on Moses, one of the most powerful figures in the US at the time, and won.

Many on the left saw her as an inspiration of how an organised community can take on capitalism and come out victorious. Of course, Moses’s haughty attitude to the public played a significant role in the project’s defeat as well: at a proposal hearing on the plans, he was quoted as saying: “There is nobody against this – nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of . . . a bunch of mothers!”

As time went on, and the proposed motorway’s momentum faded, one imagines Moses probably affixed another word to the merry band of “mothers”.

In the end those who fought to save Greenwich Village were triumphant, although the Jacobs moved on. They went to Canada in 1968 after their two sons said they would rather go to jail than be conscripted to fight in Vietnam.

Unsurprisingly, Jane Jacobs soon became involved in similar campaigns in Toronto. She remained there until her death in 2006, aged 89.

The historian Robert Caro, who has written a tome on Moses, said she was not the first person to stress the importance of neighbourhood, which is correct, but he went on to add: “But no one had ever said it so brilliantly before. She gave voice to something that needed a voice.”

What Jacobs would make of what we call “gentrification” today is hard to say. She believed in cities growing by themselves, so would her theories apply to the tech generation that has taken over San Francisco, squeezing out the diversity and freakbeat fabric that made the city one of the most distinctive in the world? Or to Paris, which is now mostly an urban centre for the wealthy, ringfenced by poverty and the rest of the population?

Organic developments can also embody undesired change and urban cleansing; it would have been nice to have heard her views on such places.

Ultimately, Jacobs helped change the way we think about cities, whether you believe her ideas stand or fall. She gave us another prism through which to consider how we plan our urban space: when we do intervene, it shouldn’t be just about making things new, it should be about making things better.

One hundred years on from her birth, we now have the necessary perspective to realise how perceptive she was. Those “eyes on the street” she talked about included her own, always framed by those striking owlish glasses. We were lucky to have them.

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times

The émigrés who built modernism

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Glasgow School of Art (Charles Rennie Mackintosh) Credit – John Peter Photography/Alamy

Finsbury Health Centre in London, De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, and the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank were important urban developments during inter-war 20th century Britain. Now rightly categorised as landmarks, each of them has a commonality worth pondering in the context of the social narrative dominating political discourse in modern-day Britain and Ireland (England, especially). Each building was designed, wholly or in part, by refugees or émigrés.

Reading Alan Powers’ excellent 100 Years of Architecture, which begins in 1914, it is striking to see the positive role played by immigrants in their new communities in an age defined by upheaval and mass movement of people. The book traces the path modernism beat through the 20th century; it is well written, smartly defined and put together, and a pleasure to leaf through (Powers disputes categorising all the building selections under the modernism label, but that’s a moot point).

The residual positivity and original thinking one finds in early- to mid-century modernism is remarkable, and its legacy remains in the buildings that are still relevant and used today. This era saw an England that welcomed Erich Mendelsohn as a refugee in 1933, when he began working with the Russian-born Serge Chermayeff.

A year later they had won the competition to build De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex, which created a space for the public to enjoy a seaside setting; a simple, but nourishing pleasure. The sweeping, cantilevered, glazed staircase inside is a modernist icon and thankfully the pavilion remains a concert and arts space, or simply somewhere you can rest your limbs in an Aalto chair.

Polish-born Mendelsohn served in the first World War and soon made his name in designing what became known as the Einstein Tower – a 1924 commission for an observatory to prove the scientist’s theory that gravity changed the colour of light. Mendelsohn also designed an exemplary shop style with the Schocken Department Store in Chemnitz five years later and after his time in England, he worked in Palestine (under British Mandate) where he produced the impressive Hadassah Hospital and Medical School at Mount Scopus in 1939, before eventually settling in the United States.

Work on Finsbury Health Centre began the same year De La Warr Pavilion opened in 1935, and was based on plans by Berthold Lubetkin. An émigré from Georgia, Lubetkin arrived in England in 1932 and was soon creating waves in architecture with his newly-established partnership Tecton.

The health centre was ambitious for its time: doctors’ consultation rooms, a dental surgery, lecture hall, solarium and antenatal facilities were some of the features inside a markedly modern-looking building.

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Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight, England, Dom. Paul Bellot (1876–1944) Credit – John Henshall/Alamy

German-born Peter Moro was also an émigré, and a former assistant to Lubetkin. As interior designer, Moro became one of the visionaries behind the Royal Festival Hall (alongside Robert Matthews and Leslie Martin as part of the London County Council). The opening of the new festival hall coincided with the Festival of Britain in 1951. As Powers notes, it came from the “pent-up ideas of 15 years of wartime austerity and its aftermath burst forth in a collaborative team effort”.

The building helped transform the Southbank area on the Thames into one of the main public arteries in the heart of London. Here, in one space, we find the openness and internationalism the city embraced, and which defines it today; the place pulses with energy.

The bestowal of buildings built by ‘foreigners’ is acknowledged long after the fact, although it can be lost in a present climate dominated by thoughts of getting rid of émigrés; preventing them coming in to our countries; building walls to keep them out.

A dominant right-wing political establishment and media in both Britain and Ireland has forced this shameful agenda. The debate on the Brexit referendum, for example, became a debate on immigration after it was hijacked and distorted with misinformation from the Leave campaign.

In Ireland a similar agenda was set during the boom and bust years, when the arbiters of power initially attempted to deflect blame towards foreigners for the country’s economic woes.

Context is everything. The ruling elites and hypocritical media moguls tell us that ‘Johnny Foreigner’ is to blame for problems in society or any strains on infrastructure.

In the context of the last century we can say the left has won the argument. Gone are the slums, diseases, and impoverishment of the working classes; gained are universal education and healthcare, workers’ rights and a standard of living that means we are all living longer than any generation before. But the left has been shouted down by the bullying, contemptible, vested-interests of the rich and privileged.

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AN866F Leicester University Faculty of Engineering, England, 1959 – 1963. Exterior of workshops and office and laboratory tower.

Going back to Finsbury Health Centre, there is a pertinent poster designed by the talented Abram Games in 1942 that features in Powers’ book. The image shows a sleek new health centre being positioned in a grim bombed-out site that has a headstone and the word ‘disease’ scrawled on a wall. Above the building it says ‘Your Britain’ and beside it ‘Fight For It Now’. In the shadows lurks a child suffering from rickets. The poster was withdrawn though, after Winston Churchill deemed it would be bad for public morale during wartime. Context is everything.

Modernist architecture was winning the argument of the last century (on points at least), until it was stiffed by the moneyed classes. As Powers notes, it ‘converges through this 100-year period towards a greater sameness in line with globalisation’.

Years of property speculation, government deference to neo-liberal capitalism, and a dulling of public engagement by the infliction upon us of mass consumption means we no longer look to architecture for the betterment of society. We no longer think of architecture as something for us. Many new buildings have little impact on our communities; do not create spaces for public enjoyment. Instead we have cloistered office blocks, silly garden bridges, or hubristic high rises that offer little but a blot on the skyline, or ostentatious symbols of corporate greed.

Powers remains impartial and admirably restrained throughout his book; it is certainly not polemical. One has no sense that he feels deflated by modernism, or that the movement is defeated, despite being tarnished by all the -isms of the 20th century. There is no inkling that he has a pining for a return to classical forms either.

It is telling that the buildings selected in the last quarter century of the book are mainly cultural centres: galleries, opera houses, museums etc. All worthy ventures of course, but again they are buildings that are usually monetised – enjoyment of them is linked to cash – and it’s unlikely they will draw in people outside of the middle- or upper-classes.

Modernism now means that for every conscientious project such as the Student Centre Building at Cork Institute of Technology or FAT’s New Islington Houses in Manchester, we must suffer a Shard or Cheesegrater (The Leadenhall Building) in London. This is the pay-off. We know which of these types of buildings shouts the loudest. We also know, and must not forget, which buildings give people a say.

100 Years of Architecture by Alan Powers (Laurence King Publishing) is out now

  • Article first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement http://www.the-tls.co.uk/

The local

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General disparagement that anyone concerned with their own patch must be a small-minded xenophobe fuelled the Brexit debate. Such lazy stereotyping of Leave voters by the liberal collective undermines its own self-perception as open-minded.

In the midst of this continuing existential maelstrom, my metaphysical GPS has been happily trekking a terrain of books based on the idea of place and our connection to it. The volumes are very different in style, sensibility, and age. But each one possesses a common thread: a love of the local, be it knowledge; the land; or the language we attach to it.

This convergence of homegrown thought enveloped a strong environmental message too. The books are a perfect rebuke to anyone who vaingloriously carries a lumpen backpack around the globe (with the associated grotesque carbon footprint) in an effort to accumulate knowledge about the world. The writings prompt questions: why do we disdain knowledge of the wild flowers that grow in our own fields, for example; why do we think learning is only impressive when the flowers grow 6000 miles away?

One of the books is by Hubert Butler, who died 25 years ago this year. His relatively littleknown voice is fortunately abloom again in a collection of essays published by Notting Hill Editions called ‘The Eggman and the Fairies’. I am grateful, otherwise I might not have found this tactful and enlightening writer. Butler’s unfussy talent might have been tucked away quietly in his home county of Kilkenny, travelling no further than the libraries of the literati.

The central philosophy of Butler’s connection with civic consciousness literally jumps off the page – the engraved quote on the cover reads: “I have always believed that local history is more important than national history. Where life is fully and consciously lived in our own neighbourhood, we are cushioned a little from the impact of great far-off events which should be of only marginal concern to us”. His inherent sense of locus is a refutation to the hate-lacquered acronym NIMBYISM and its implied curtain-twitching malevolence. Instead, Butler’s cipher could read: KYOBISM, Know Your Own Backyard: for there you will find a world of wonder to be getting on with.

In his introduction to the book John Banville places Butler alongside Hazlitt, Orwell, and Robert Louis Stevenson in the canon of great essayists. Banville describes him as “the least noisy of writers”, which is delineating as one moves through the pages with Butler, for he seemingly shuffles through places such as the River Nore or Fethard-on-Sea.

His markings are usually near to hand, but his mind is always large, pan-European, in spirit.

The sensibility can remain broad, even if the eyes are restricted. “These essays appear to be about Russia or Greece or Spain or Yugoslavia, (but) they are really about Ireland”, he writes in the preface, before expounding on subjects as diverse as Wolfe Tone or plans to build ‘a new Geneva’ on the River Suir in Waterford. “I go on believing that the strength to live comes from an understanding of ourselves and our neighbours or the diaspora that has replaced them”.

Butler was born in 1900. After an education at Charterhouse in England and St John’s College, Oxford, followed by some travel through Europe, he returned to his birthplace Maidenhall in Kilkenny for the rest of his days. His family was part of the landed gentry, yet he was staunchly Irish, describing himself as part of Ireland’s rich strain of Protestant Republicanism. The essays were written over a period of sixty years for various newspapers and magazines, as he cleaved – to use Banville’s word – steadfastly to the home place. The book is a treasure trove of knowledge, shared with dignity and a deliberate style. The topics are unapologetically indigenous, yet the themes resound universally, in an artful synthesis akin to Orwell’s musing on that quintessential English subject: the per-fect cup of tea.

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Michael Harkin contrasts markedly to Hubert Butler in background, but when it comes to wit they could have been brothers. Born in Carndonagh, Donegal in 1830, he penned a precious jewel of local history while working as a post office master, ‘Inishowen – its History, Traditions, and Antiquities’ under the nom de plume Maghtochair. “Our legends and traditions are dying, the customs and habits of the olden time are nearly extinct, but in order to preserve some of them from total oblivion I thought it well to gather this collection”, he declares. The book is a tidy volume of rural life and community in microcosm: mixing topography, history, songs, anecdotes, and verse. Just like Butler, Harkin drew beauty and depth and anchored a deep-seated affection, in the local. Presented in gazette format, these segments also appeared initially in a newspaper, The Derry Journal(how many local or regional papers carry such columns today?). The stories were inspired by Harkin’s travels around the Donegal peninsula in a rattling little car, stuffed with books of poetry and prose, collating information from the local seanachies all the while. In Maghtochair, the people in the Big Houses are sidelined. Instead we find monks or clergy, and issues such as the fight for better rights for farmers in rural Ireland: “Was it the landlords who made our valleys smile with plenty and teem with fertility?”, Maghtochair asks pointedly. “Certainly not; it was the peasantry”.

A chapter on ‘Illicit Distillation’ is a joy to drink in, combining fact with plenty of fiction in all likelihood. It humorously sends up officialdom’s presumptive interference and folly in trying to reform human nature. He seems to say, “we like things that are bad for us: if you commit to the futility of preventing us from enjoying them, we will only enjoy them even more”. Maghtochair describes “the lynx-eyed constables of the Revenue Board” tilting at windmills with their still-hunting and concludes, not without reason, that the production of contraband Inishowen whiskey “probably will be carried on while light and dark succeed each other”. The imagination flickers at the thought of the Donegal night sky being lit up with torches firing across the landscape as a warning of custom men on the prowl.

Scraping and shaping of language is local too and can be carved in the land, as John R Stilgoe argues in ‘What is Landscape?’. Landscape is a noun, he tells us, stripped of ornament and necessity. Stilgoe is Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard University and his love of language and the land sees him ploughing through outdated and specialist dictionaries for our benefit, in this illuminating and entertaining book (apparently Chambers Dictionary still champions Scottish perspectives unlike the Anglocentric Oxford English Dictionary (OED), he tells us). Reading this will have you thinking anew about words, as it breaks down both the language and the land that it may originate from or be attached to. Some words have been simply lost through time, fallen through sinkholes in our syntax. “Swashbuckler”, for example. Does it have any relevance in modern terms? Swash as a verb or noun can relate to water; but usually we take it to mean flamboyantly to swagger about, or to wield a sword (the word’s origin is to “make a noise like swords clashing or beating on shields” according to the OED; combined then with “buckler”, a small round shield worn on the forearm). We use the word rarely now, describing a film or a sportsperson’s style say, but swash still has everyday usage for local fisherman: to them it usually means a stretch of low-tide water snaking through sandbars.

Stilgoe’s book flows with sparkling streams of enlightenment; how language with the land can give it different meaning, and he unearths such diamond words as ensamhet, unique to Sweden, meaning “the restorative, relaxing effect of being solitary and thoughtful, but not lonely”. Along the way he notes plenty of quirks too: how experienced beach-goers know how to sit on sand; the idea of classrooms in the sky momentarily posed by the advent of aviation; how the mariner measures land with his fist. All robust and succulent.

‘What is Landscape?’ is a great read to dip into (another phrase I’m sure Stilgoe could give many new shades). Reading part of its preface again, it could apply to any of the three books mentioned: “neither dictionary nor field guide, it is only an invitation to walk, to notice, to ask, sometimes to look up and around, sometimes to look up in a dictionary…”. A nudge, to look around.

The Eggman and the Fairies – Irish Essays By Hubert Butler
(Notting Hill Editions)

What is Landscape? By John R Stilgoe
(The MIT Press)

Inishowen – its History, Traditions, and Antiquities by Maghtochair (Three Candles Printers, Dublin)

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times & Village magazine
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