My article in The Irish Times.
My article in The Irish Times.
Excellent article from the New York Review of Books:
When the renowned architecture writer and broadcaster Ian Nairn visited Derry more than fifty years ago, the title of his essay was both concise and reflective of his ever-present pragmatism. ‘Proud Derry’ was the summation of his feature on the North’s second city, written in December 1961 for ‘The Listener’ magazine; a series then collected and updated several years later in a volume called ‘Britain’s Changing Towns’.
Much of Nairn’s work has long been out of print but thankfully this anthology is available again in a beautiful copy published by Notting Hill Editions. Something resembling a Nairn revival is afoot as well, with a book on the irrepressible writer recently released by Gillian Darley and David McKie (Words In Place), while BBC4 ran a programme on his life on 20 February.
Nairn’s ruminations on Derry are wonderful to read. He must have felt comfortable there: Nairn did not suffer fools and was always direct in his manner and writing. When he visited a place, he not only studied the bricks and mortar surrounding him, but he concerned himself with the heartbeat of somewhere too, visiting the local shops and pubs and getting to know local people. How else could he have come up with this nugget about an economically choked Derry, which nevertheless was continuing to breathe with some degree of dignity: ‘If there were only rags to wear (here), they would be worn with a swagger’.
Nairn wasn’t being blithely flippant in writing this. He understood the turbulent history and tough topography of Derry – a border location suffering from the effects of partition; a divided community; a port town hit hard by the shipyard closure in 1924; and a place long forgotten by London, despite its strong Plantation links and the original idea of Derry being a ‘little-London-in-Ulster’. In his essay, Nairn gives the powerbrokers an angry blast of his horn: ‘if the experts at the Treasury were forced to live in Derryfor six months to experience the exact result of their abstract fiddlings with the Bank Rate, it might be a very good thing’. A similar charge could easily be made today, as London-centric politicians and financial analysts trumpet a UK-wide recovery, which in reality seems to have stalled outside Watford.
Despite his acknowledgement of Derry’s many problems in 1961 – high unemployment, lack of investment, its remote location, and a frosty relationship with its privileged cousin Belfast (what has changed, you may ask?) – the place entersNairn’s imagination, describing it as ‘one of the most unexpected and paradoxical of our cities. For every hundred Englishmen who know York and Chester, how many know Derry?’
It is significant that Nairn places a pre-Troubles Derry firmly within the UK (our city) yet never reverts to the Anglicised title ofLondonderry. Instead, his recognition of Derry’s English character is more nuanced: he sees it in buildings such as St Columba’s Church, with its ‘cockney’ details which ‘hammers home the London connexion’. Other buildings and places he notes with appreciation include Bishop’s Gate (‘compact, tough design’), the ‘suavely done’ Walker’s Column (which was permanently damaged by an IRA bomb in 1972) and the residential St Columb’s Wells, marked out for how a city can work for people first and foremost; keeping social patterns intact, or as Nairn wanted, ‘the crazy human touch’.
Nairn coined the term ‘subtopia’ when he made his first splash in the 1950s with the ‘Architectural Review’ in a special issue titled ‘Outrage’, in which he railed against the ‘steamrolling of plane into one mediocre pattern’. Pugnacious from the outset, he started writing for the Observer, Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times, with his searing prose shaking the town-planning establishment with articles such as ‘Stop The Architects Now’. It is little wonder that he is not widely read by architects and that this book is his first to be in print since the 1980s. Along with his vivacious, and frequently funny writing, his outsider status is also probably the core of Nairn’s appeal: no architectural training, no public school, no Oxbridge. He looked at and recorded this art form (and profession) with new and uninhibited eyes. Nairn wanted preservation on the one hand yes, but engaging modern architecture too, while reputations meant little to him, as he travelled from place to place by train or in his tiny convertible Morris Minor.
Getting back to his essay on Derry, Great James Street also suitably impressed him, as did Clarendon Street (‘elegant and stately as anything in Dublin’) with their buildings decorated with distinctive doorcase and fanlight. However, he reserved his highest praise for Derry’s Court House, ‘Derry’s best Georgian building’, he writes, marking out the white sandstone brought locally from Dungiven to build it in 1817.
Nairn was an enthusiastic imbiber and, although the habit was eventually his undoing – he died of cirrhosis of the liver aged only 53 – he was a solid believer in the role the pub had to play in society; just as important to the local fabric as the corner shop, the local bank branch or the butchers. A pub is a place ‘to shake off loneliness without being in anyone’s company’ was his melancholically, typically poetic judgment. Sadly his thirst was not sated in Derry, with Nairn bemoaning the lack of pub decoration compared to Belfast (particular appreciation is given to the Crown Bar) and the problem is little rectified today, had he the opportunity to visit, with few pubs giving little sense of history. In fact, a few of them feel like they’ve been cobbled together over the course of a weekend. Another great void in the city is the long-departed Café Nobile on the Strand Road, a place that surprises Nairn with its ‘high-backed dark wooden benches and marble-topped tables’.
Nairn wrote about the lack of many new buildings to look at in Derry in 1961, however he does give reference to Altnagelvin Hospital (designed by Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, creators of the original Gatwick Airport Terminal). He recommends that the building is best seen coming from Belfast, with his usual tuneful phrasing: ‘the eastern front, square-on in the morning sun fixes you with its complicated skip of balconies as a good jazz rhythm would…’
Summing up, Nairn captured the strong soul of Derry and how its practical problems forged much of what is likeable about the place: it is a town displaying something approaching good grace in the face of strong adversity. It’s worth quoting him in full here: ‘a less proud place would have had its spirit broken under its crippling topographical disadvantage. Derry needs help, and its pride is not the false variety that would scorn assistance.’
Nairn returned to Derry in 1967 to find that little had changed although he does refer to the developments in ‘Irishtown’ (the Bogside as its better known) and the large rebuilding operation, taking place at the time.
The final thought of his essay proved he was no great reader of the political wind blowing round the buildings he was weighing up: ‘the tension has lessened: the six and twenty-six counties may have begun a slow growing-together.’ Nairn seemed blissfully unaware how the system of gerrymandering was rotting the heart of the city at the time. In his defence, considering how quickly the Troubles erupted, he was not the only observer caught on the back foot and any foundations of fraternity Nairnhad in ‘67 would depressingly crumble over the coming years. But if he was alive and returned to Derry today, one would hope that he could see some of the invisible scaffolding helping the Maiden City get up off its knees, in order to stand tall once more.
A recent lazy weekend off was filled with my first-time reading of Michael Frayn’s bittersweet journalism romp ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ – and a combination of belly-shaking laughter and nostalgic, almost mournful sighing duly ensued.
Written in 1967, the book, although fiction, came from the pen of someone who worked for both the Guardian and Observer newspapers, so you can be sure substantial chunks of the story were experienced first or second hand by Frayn, with only the names being changed to protect the not-so-innocent. It has a surreal workaday heart at the centre of it all, describing the golden age of Fleet Street, where entropy abounds and Frayn’s writing is as mirthful and easy to read as anything from the playful jottings of Wodehouse.
The book rings with truisms that will probably always be part of a journalist’s Sisyphus-like existence: “I toil all the hours God made at this job and somehow I feel I never quite get on top of it. It’s like trying to fill a bottomless bucket. You just about get next week’s stuff straightened out – and already it’s gone, it’s used, it’s forgotten and the week after is on top of you.” Or the book’s main protagonist, John Dyson, experiencing one of those days when the headline will just not come, albeit for good reason in this case: “(He) sat hyper tensely clenching and unclenching his fingers, trying to think of a headline with no more than ten characters for a piece about the dangers of the exaggeratedly indifferentist liturgical tendencies inherent in ecumenicalism.”
Frayn’s work, including earlier novel ‘Tin Men’, deserves to sit along side Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scoop’ for biting humour and describing (tongue placed firmly in cheek, or not) that least noble of trades: journalism.
Reading the book forty-five years after it was written has also given it the unlikely guise of a social-historical document – for the only thing that dates the work is that it’s of a time, and industry, that sadly no longer exists.
You will find plenty of journalistic time capsules in Frayn’s amuse-bouche that are probably as scarce in a modern newspaper as (say) an under-worked hack, empathetic accountant, or big-hearted manager: for example, there is Dyson perpetually complaining of feeling too sleepy in the afternoon to get any work done – while each day promising vainly to cut out the beers over the two-hour lunches. Why did He create so few hours in a day in which to edit the nature notes and crosswords, bawls our ink-stained, paper-swamped anti-hero.
Then we have Dyson’s colleague, the old-timer Eddy Moulton, who collates the “In Years Gone By” column with the kind of vigour that could almost equate to somnambulism, except he doesn’t move around that much. Elsewhere, over at the ‘coalface’ of the picture desk, there is the coarse chief Reg Mounce, who, after being given his written notice by the editor “to make other arrangements”, walks defiantly around the office asking which smart bastard is behind the gag. “For no one in this newspaper gets the sack. This isn’t the Express you know!” fumes Mounce. His anger is partly fuelled by no one seeming to know what the people-shy editor looks like (imagine that form of restraint in today’s endless tirade of media talking-shops). Meanwhile, the book’s summation of journalist’s expenses is best left for you to discover – if you haven’t done so already – and allow yourself a bittersweet chuckle eating your pre-packed lunchtime sandwich, while chained to the desk.
It is doubtful if Frayn would recognise much from ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ in modern media, even if we strip away the book’s parodic veneer; the DNA, if not the culture, has changed significantly and it is unlikely that any newspaper would have such a melange of misfits as those so wickedly sketched by the author.
One theory for this is that the media has now become a genuine career choice for the aspirational classes whom before would have only considered respectable subjects such as medicine, law, and banking etc upon leaving university. Now, they also look towards the trade (or ‘profession’ as they like to call it) of journalism. Not long after I started out in newspapers, one storied writer proudly explained the lay of the land to me: “journalism was always the last refuge for the scoundrel. No more. We are being forced out by the conscientious.” The scowl with which he told me this could have turned the milk in my coffee.
Another reporter I spoke to recently postulated “too many pen pushers, bean counters and clock watchers have made the business of journalism safe, boring and cosy.” (His phrasing made me think of Wodehouse’s creation: Psmith, and his rallying call for a quality press. After taking over the editorial reins of gentle lifestyle journal ‘Cosy Moments’, the wacky eponymous hero makes a radical change to the editorial line and begins a social justice publishing campaign. Inevitably those dark forces with vested interests start to lean on Psmith, upon which he spunkily declares: “Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled!”)
“Nowadays,” continued my erstwhile companion, “a reporter’s job is a glorified office job; stuck at their desks, which are scattered with boxes of herbal tea, their five-a-day fruits and ready meals, while they source their stories through Facebook and Twitter.”
The antithesis to this and someone you could have found in ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ was journalist and bon vivant Noel Botham (the legendary French House pub in Soho, which he part-owned, was his office); Botham was described by John Dale in a ‘Press Gazette’ interview before his death in November as symbolising “free range against the battery farms of Canary Wharf and other media plantations” (The old hack used to soften up his interviewees with lashings of champagne). Another example of the ‘old-school’ is the late Derek Jameson, who became a renowned editor of several national newspapers after working his way up as a copy boy from the East End of London.
Jameson frequently lamented the idea that the media was becoming elitist and how someone from his background wouldn’t stand a chance nowadays. The Sutton Trust, which was established in the UK to promote social mobility and to highlight educational inequality, carried this argument further. It noted in its most recent report on the educational background of journalists that more than half (54%) of the country’s leading news journalists were educated in private schools, which account for 7% of the UK’s entire school population. Meanwhile, a separate survey of journalists and editors suggested that the latest new recruits to the national news media are even more likely to come from privileged backgrounds than those from previous generations because of low pay and insecurity at junior levels; high costs of living in media centres such as London; the increasing costs of postgraduate courses; and a bias towards those with family or personal connections within the industry.
The high number of (mainly unpaid) internships currently being offered by media outlets – which, depressingly, in many cases are jobs dressed in poor clothing – also means that only those from advantaged backgrounds can take up these positions, while others are squeezed out.
The age of ‘celebrity’ has not helped journalism’s cause in the last decade either: whether you are a beleaguered, everyday hack peering into that shallow, cheap, infantile puppet show and trying to generate ‘stories’; or you’ve been handed your own column on the basis that your face is either pretty enough or your opinions sufficiently ugly. Frayn’s book was somewhat prescient in this regard – his main character Dyson harbours a long desire to break out of his station in the back office of the paper and become known by featuring on TV programmes dealing with such glamorous issues as race relations, or drainage in Africa. He soon realises better and intuitively goes back to his, if not noble, then at least habitable calling. For there is a common misperception, especially by those standing outside the fishbowl looking in, that working in the media is somehow glamorous; perhaps that was true during the gilded age of Fleet Street and it may also be true of the elite band referenced in the Sutton Trust report. But the media is no different to our society, sadly: the top five per cent bask in the spoils, while the rest have to pick up the toils of the trade, editing the equivalent of Dyson’s “The Country Day By Day” column. Someone has to do it, however banal it may seem.
Writer and multimedia journalist
Virtual meets real adventures in digital heritage, culture, community and place
An archaeologist finds herself writing fiction — what stories will she unearth?
A Historic England Blog
scríobh | eat | sleep
Maria Johnston, Poetry Critic
Exploring the world of heritage, art and culture
A blog on pub crawling, and beer generally, in London
Boxing News & Opinion
Images of People Photoblog
Musings from the North Country
Lauren Murphy on music
Words are my bag ...
The online site of poet and novelist Jenni Fagan