thehuzzingsea

'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: Travel

A soupçon of Ian Nairn – review of Nairn’s Paris 

To call Ian Nairn a great architectural writer is too restrictive; he was a great writer who happened to write about buildings and places. If your preconception of writing on architecture is one of fusty, jargonistic, dandruff-dull prose, then Nairn brushes off any shouldered burden that may concern a reader. With brisk pen and plenty of shoe leather, he does all the work. It’s a given now that any publication by Notting Hill Editions is pleasing to the eye (this one features a warm and affectionate introduction by Paris resident Andrew Hussey). What gives this title extra sheen is that it has been out of print since 1968, with originals fetching £50. Cities change, but the quality of Nairn’s writing will always hold. He will take you to unexpected places, make you look at the familiar anew, or at least poke you into thinking about them again (For example, Nairn describes the basilica of Sacré-Coeur as “a waste of talent”.) But as he says, “this book is not an invitation to argument but to discovery… go and decide for yourself”.

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times

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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.

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/pre-troubles-derry-through-ian-nairn-s-eyes-1.3060627?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

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 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

Mansion among the people

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Mansion House Dublin (all photos courtesy of Dublin City Council)

Pomp and ceremony does little for me usually, but if I’m ever trudging through the Dublin streets on a crisp cold or ragged wet night then I always find warmth passing the Mansion House on Dawson Street which, until the Luas line developments, was always the prettiest street in the city.

Set back from the road, with two-storeys of seven bay windows, the elegant illuminated facade of the Mansion House has a curative quality to lift any cursing part of your soul, even as you walk into the teeth of a howling gale. It looks best at Christmas time, when snow is falling: its understated tree stood out front, while the shadows loll in the iridescence of the stemmed lanterns running along the lower face of the house, distinguished by its Georgian porch (by Simon Vierpyl) and Victorian wrought iron portico (by Daniel Freeman). The building takes on a magical quality in these moments: like some lustrous smile peering out at you from the depths of winter’s darkness. It always makes me think of the ghosts that may be fleeting ethereally through Dawson Street; past St Ann’s Church, built in 1719 , and the Mansion House, its older neighbour by nine years.

It’s a little more than 300 years since Mansion House came into the ownership of Dublin Corporation, having been purchased on 18 May 1715 from the property developer Joshua Dawson for the princely sum of £3,500 sterling, a yearly rent of forty shillings to Dawson, and the rather bizarre condition of a loaf of double-refined sugar weighing six pounds to be handed over each Christmas (unsurprisingly this was never paid, nor sought out).

Dawson was originally from Dawson’s Bridge, Co Derry but moved to Dublin to further his career, where he became a high-ranking civil servant based in Dublin Castle and MP for Wicklow borough (apparently while living in the city he kept his evenings full too by managing a network of spies working to undermine Catholic priests; well before they started doing it for themselves).

In Dublin Dawson built the Mansion House as his private residence in the Queen Anne style. It was quite an unusual move in a quintessentially Georgian city. But such was the Tory from Derry’s love for the ruling monarch he went ahead with a design type that artist Osbert Lancaster said ‘would be more rational and more just to call Wren… few monarchs have displayed less interest in architecture than that monarch’.

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Stain glass window

Dawson bought a tract of land to the east of St Stephen’s Green in 1705 and drained the marshy ground and laid out a straight road running parallel to Grafton Street, unabashedly naming it after himself; Duke Street and Anne Street soon followed as part of his urban plan. After the development flurry Dawson was called back to take over the family estate in his home county, and he promptly offered the house to Dublin City Assembly on the proviso he would build an extra room that could be used for civic receptions – the now famous Oak room. It’s fitting the man originally from the county of oaks would depart on such a note.

When the First Citizen of the city duly took residence in the house he was given an annuity of £500 sterling each year for entertainment purposes, along with 10,000 oysters from the civic oyster beds. It’s a pity the Mayor could not get hold of Thackeray in order to lubricate his quill with claret-soused kindness and salt his tongue with Dublin Bay’s finest. The great English writer was not impressed by the Mansion House when his eyes fell upon it. In his essay ‘A Summer Day in Dublin’ from ‘The Irish Sketch Book’ (published in1843) he noted:

I had just passed his lordship’s mansion in Dawson Street, – a queer old dirty brick-house, with dumpy urns at each extremity, and looking as if a storey of it had been cut off – a rassée-house. Close at hand, and peering over a paling, is a statue of our blessed sovereign George II. How absurd these pompous images look, of defunct majesties, for whom no breathing soul cares a halfpenny!” 

He certainly was right on the second point. From reading his travelogues, the ‘Vanity Fair’ scribbler could be dyspeptic at the best of times, and the Queen Anne style had fallen thumpingly out of fashion by that stage of the 19thcentury – Victorian buildings were vogue – and nothing fell harder from Thackery’s pen than that which was not in fashion.

Many original features of the Mansion House remain, the two main staircases for example; quite a feat for a house now in the foothills of its fourth century (it’s worth noting the city of London did not build a mansion house until thirty years after Dublin). Naturally there has been changes to the likes of the Supper Room, the Oak Room, the Lord Mayor’s Garden, and the surrounding area of the house. For indepth details of changes made (and the many mooted) throughout its history it is worth consulting the impressive ‘The Mansion House Dublin – 300 years of history and hospitality’ by Dublin City Council for a rich account and meticulous itinerary of this Dublin landmark. Some of the more significant additions or alterations to the house have played a part in Ireland’s storied past. The Round Room stands out for one. It was built beside the Mansion House, on part of the former bowling green, in just six weeks for the visit of King George VI in 1821 (the roof atop the Round Room was a temporary one, such was the builder’s haste; a permanent one was put in place three years later).

This same room would go on to hold the meeting of the first Dáil on 21 January 1919, which is so memorably captured in Tom Ryan’s painting which now hangs above the entrance to the Dáil chamber. What goes around comes around in the Round Room it seems, which John Croker Wilson described as: ‘the circular court of a Moorish palace open to the sky: the battlements were a gallery walled with ladies, music and a company of halberdiers in Spanish dresses of light blue silk, as a guard of honour to the king.’

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Drawing Room

The Round Room was also scene to many a Lord Mayor’s Ball down the years, and the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1861 had ‘The Irish Times’ praising the House Steward Mr McCleaverty whose arrangements were ‘so perfect that although there were over 100 persons present, no inconvenience resulted to the guests’. Things must have become somewhat boisterous however, and maybe even out of hand (although these details were sadly not reported) as the same newspaper carried a number of advertisements looking for valuable property lost at the ball. One offered a reward ‘if found by a poor person’. If such a poor beggar had chanced upon an expensive bracelet or a purse stuffed with coins, I can’t imagine they would have handed them in. Not for all the oysters in Dublin Bay.

  • The Mansion House Dublin – 300 years of history and hospitality is published by Dublin City Council, Dublin City Library and Archive
  • Article first appeared in Architecture Ireland http://architectureireland.ie/

The future, unfinished

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Railway Station

 

This year sees the centenary of the death of Antonio Sant’Elia, who is considered one of the finest draftsmen in the history of architecture.

Yet few of his plans were ever built, which is quite an anomaly considering the influence and quality of the drawings made by the Italian. A similar comparison would be if the songs of George Gershwin or Cole Porter had never been performed; Sant’Elia’s sketchbook is like the Great American Songbook, unsung.

Born in Como and a builder by trade, Sant’Elia became an integral part of the Futurist movement in Italy.

Italian writer and poet Filippo Marinetti was the ideological founder of Futurism, publishing his manifesto for the movement in Paris newspaper Le Figaro in 1909: “For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards”. The artistic movement rejected traditional forms and embraced the revolutionary possibility that technology could bring to culture, cities, and modern living.

Marinetti’s words were bricks for a modernism that he wished others would build and the ideas quickly took hold in his homeland, with painters, sculptors, musicians and architects such as Mario Chiattone and Sant’ Elia soon adapting them into their work.

(Futurist ideas travelled as far as Russia, influencing Mayakovsky and Malevich, among others. But through time the movement lost all credibility when Marinetti began to couple Fascism with the movement. He became a vocal supporter of Mussolini, and continued to glorify the idea of war, releasing a collection of poems in 1915 called ‘War the Only Hygiene of the World’.)

Sant’Elia opened a design office with Chiattone in Milan in 1912, where he created his bold and vivid sketches that would have a profound influence on Modernism. In the heart of a bustling metropolis that was undergoing major industrial and population growth, Sant’Elia worked on his grand design for a futurist city, Citta Nuova (New City), made up of monolithic and monumental skyscrapers with bridges and walkways that cut across the sky. He wanted the modern city to be a living, functioning organism; built with dynamism, speed, straight lines, and with the man and machine at its heart. His urban vision was pure cinematic projection. Although people do not feature in his drawings to give a sense of scale or society (“Futurist architecture . . . is not an arid combination of practicality and utility, but remains art, that is, synthesis and expression”, he wrote), many of the designs give a feeling of activity and existence. We can imagine the commotion among the calm construction.

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Stepped House

In fact when one looks closely at the drawings, they appear almost too beautiful, (itals) too perfect. And if they are too perfect for the eye to behold, then what do the designs mean to the engineer, who has to move the imagination of the page towards the reality of the physical rule? Nevertheless, the modern world has come close, or at least tried to, in replicating Sant’Elia’s ideas – see Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Centre in Chicago and the Marriott Marquis hotel by John Portman (both built in the 1980s), for example.

In 1914 a manifesto titled Futurist Architecture was published and attributed to Sant’Elia – it detailed an architecture of fantastic possibilities. The short credo has its share of abstract, jargonistic writing, but for its time it was an important document outlining a new world of architecture, where the city is dynamic, modern and, consequently, huge. Streets and squares were to be done away with; our space was to be lifted skywards instead.

To get a flavour of its radicalism, it is worth quoting some of the declarations in full.

‘We must invent and rebuild our Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, active, mobile, and everywhere dynamic, and the Futurist house like a gigantic machine.’

‘We feel that we are no longer the men of the cathedrals and ancient moot halls, but men of the Grand Hotels, railroad stations, giant roads, colossal harbors, covered markets, glittering arcades, reconstruction areas, and salutary slum clearances’.

In this context, it is easy to understand how Sant’Elia’s drawings, penned on small surfaces but with layers of detail, influenced the future cinematic worlds of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; both directors dreamed of future cities in the sky too.

Hundreds of Sant’Elia’s drawings survive and many can be viewed at Pinacoteca, Como’s art gallery. In historical terms, he was the legitimate father of Futurism, however he did not live long enough to see the movement become bastardised in its sordid relationship with Fascism. With a strong sense of patriotism (fighting for one’s coutry was still viewed with naive romanticism in Sant’Elia’s day), he joined the army as Italy entered the First World War in 1915, and was killed in battle in October the following year.

A hundred years on since his death, our buildings have yet to catch up with him.

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Antonio Sant’Elia

  • Article originally appeared in The Irish Times

Great London Pubs: One Princess worth fawning over

 

An impressive lady, the Princess Louise. She discretely catches your eye as you pass on a relatively drab stretch of High Holborn, where you will find that her beauty lies within, rather than without.

The exterior is a paint-by-numbers pub, but inside is where all the magic and charm happens. Here we have the remnants of Victorian craftsmanship at its finest: beautifully cut and gilded mirrors (Richard Morris of Kennington); default atmosphere, whatever the time of day, from the gentle gloaming of tulip and snowdrop-shaped lights. Add in some tasteful abstract tile work, detailed and decorated borders, and the Princess Louise may as well whisper in your ear to stop a while.

The elongated, circular dark-oak bar cleverly runs the punters’ energy around both sides of the house, creating a smart circuit of comfort. As a result, the staff are like buses when you are looking for a refill – you always knows one should be along shortly.

The Princess Louise does another smart thing: it divides and conquers. The front and back of the pub are opened up, allowing for larger groups to gather and sup, while a series of snugs feature on both sides of the bar. One always feels connected to the place, wherever you may be sitting, yet the snugs allow enough detachment so that you will never blow a fuse when it gets very busy (which can always be the case at knocking-off time for nearby workers).

 

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The great writer (and legendary imbiber) Ian Nairn said that any long bar implies serious drinking and the Princess Louise has lots of leg. But this is a sturdy, meaty leg, not some dainty Victorian ‘church-bell’ flashing glimpses of garter. This is a pub that pumps its legs all day, every day, and is always sensitive and alive to performance, which makes it most pleasing on the eye. My favourite feature is the tall clock-tower in the middle of the bar, where time literally stands still. Here, it is always noon. High noon in High Holborn, with high praise attached.

  • The Princess Louise is a short skip from John Soane’s house/museum, so why not pop in there first for a tour to clarify the eye, before calling at the pub to lubricate the gullet.

Ian Nairn in Derry

Ian Nairn

 

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’s London

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.

Return ticket

Warrior Universe by John Hoyland

You could say that god got his own back on me somewhat. The other day I had been travelling on a plane, train and auto-mobile journey, so for reading material I had finally gotten started on ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins.  The book is well written and vividly engaging: it’s accessible and well-informed and it is also surprisingly funny for such an abstract subject.

The last laugh was not mine however.

On the last leg of the epic trip, the bus broke down due to an over-heating engine. We were in the middle of nowhere. It was wintry, desolate and pitch black outside. Inside the bus, there was no power and consequently no reading light. So I had to close my book and look at the stars.

And darkness was upon the face of the deep.

The moment made me think of Dostoyevsky’s line in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ too:

It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.

The art of staying put

Photo: David du Plessis

The hot air filling the balloon of common consensus that travelling to far-flung places somehow aids the human condition is an idea worth deflating.

There is a mild degree of fascism from ‘fellow travellers’ with well-thumbed round-the-world tickets towards those who have not to taken the same journey. ‘How could you possibly not want to?’ is the inference; the tone is one of condescension, as though the person who stays at home is wrong – and condemned to suffering a massive void in their lives. By all accounts heroin is a sublime experience too, yet one doesn’t have emaciated partakers ramming the message down one’s throat: you haven’t lived until you’ve tried junk, baby!

The myth perpetuated by anyone who has lugged a backpack almost the same size as themselves around some god forsaken outback is one of transcendence; as though strapping 20kgs to one’s shoulders will allow shed your inner, psychological baggage and strip one’s mind of social inhibitions.  But let’s weigh up the average backpacker’s journey: fly to some location on the other side of the world, hang around hostels and befriend fellow westerners, take in some sights and sample exotic cuisine, while scurrying around for power points and wi-fi to send photographs or email missives to everyone back home, to remind them of the fun time being had. Bravo. Irish writer George Moore said: ‘A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it’. In a modern context, the item discovered by the traveller is ego, and then he or she comes home in the certain knowledge that we all wish to stroke it.

Of course the idea of the loveliness of the long distance backpacker was aided by the revolution of low-cost airfares in the nineties and noughties (the latter such a fitting epithet, now that we can look back on a decade filled with decadence, financial meltdown and moral panic). One positive change of cheap aeroplane tickets is that it democratised travel, making it accessible to most, whereas fifty years ago only the rich were privy to the jet streams. However when the votes are tallied as to whether this has enabled a more civilised age, the nays surely have it. Consider some of the major social concerns since the Ryanair revolution: an upsurge in racism and isolationism; terrorism and holy wars (which we are keeping at bay by putting our toiletries in a plastic bag); an increasingly selfish, consumer-centric western society; social uprisings driven by scarcity of resources; the rapid erosion of civil liberties by our governments.

If travel is meant to ‘open up the world’ and drag our minds along with it – the usual mantra of those whom have spent several thousand pounds on trekking the globe to find their new, better selves – and if record numbers of people are doing it, how come we live in society more distrustful, narcissistic and selfish than ever before? To give a smaller, but fitting, example: how is it that a backpacker will happily put their fate in the hands of some chancer in (say) Colombia or India, yet, absurdly, are unable to mutter hello or befriend a neighbour living in their own apartment complex?

* * * * *

The only thing worse than travel is listening to someone talk about his or her travels. I dread the moment when someone at dinner or a party gets on to the subject – their travels become my travails. For some reason, the inveterate trekkers always have the demeanour of a pent up tour guide, earnestly trying to impress. This person, call him Tim, will drone on about how they once drank coffee consisting of a mixture of beetle droppings and tree sap in some small Asian village, in the idea that he is impressing us, while we sit around nursing our freshly brewed Italian blend. Then they might follow this up with how they once excreted into a 20-foot-hole, while the fifty-degree sun scorched their back, and a pack of stray mongrels lolled around, growling with each intestinal strain.

In which case I always wonder about their faux chagrin and what they expected visiting an isolated village made up of bamboo housing, a dozen people and three asses (Tim not being counted).

When Tim has finally exhausted his stock of travel anecdote – and exhausted your patience – if you are really unlucky, and have inadvertently cursed the place seating gods somehow, the person next to you may feel suitably inspired to begin wittering on about their ski holiday to truly enervate one’s desire to live. In which case you can either feign illness and slope off home, but many a time I prefer to roll a conversational hand grenade into the middle of the table to blow the après ski bore back to his chalet: this is the precise moment to change the topic to global warming, terrorism or the consumer-centric western society we live in etc.

The problem is that these culprits talk about a holiday with the same air as someone who valiantly decided to leave their comfortable home in order to go to battle – and while away zapped a dozen Nazis, liberated the small town where they were based, and won the hearts of six women (all sisters) on the trip back– and all this with only one change of trouser.

They completely lose the run of themselves: instead of realising that all they have done is bought a lemming-spawning, passé guide book, booked a flight online, caught it, wandered around somewhere they had no logical reason to be for a while, had the good fortune not to be mugged, murdered or raped and returned home after indulging in some form of crass class tourism. Emerson wrote ‘travelling is a fool’s paradise’ for a reason and in the modern backpacker’s mind, he or she think they have achieved something truly unique or special; along with the thousands of others who have stomped the same path before or after them.

Worse still, they want to tell us all about it.

But let me put it on record: I don’t care about your trip. When someone talks to me about some thing or some place where I have no frame of reference, I simply detach my mind; a glazed look takes hold. You may as well be talking about the history of jazz-fusion, or nuclear fusion for that matter. Thankfully, age allows one the wisdom to switch off and in my mind’s eye, I’m drizzling liberally on their dusty flip-flops, while bursting their hostel ping-pong ball of conceit.

At this stage, you are probably wondering about my previous travel itinerary. I have travelled only as far as mainland Western Europe and am content to go no further. There is little desire for me to breach some remote frontier – give me a civilised vista to look upon. When travelling, I wish for art and architecture, good food and wine and comfortable beds, with the rudimentary joy of a flushing toilet.

For all their deluded poncing around the world for their own satisfaction, backpackers increase carbon emissions and global warming; cause hyper-inflation and fracture indigenous economies; add tourist footfall contributing to the destruction and gradual decay of previously unspoiled sites; (directly and indirectly) impose western culture and values on local communities and create a vicious cycle of tourist pimping that local people and their families can never break free from. Then add in the fact that the global backpacker sees these places through a sanitised, inauthentic looking glass and perpetuate the condition of post-colonial superiority.

* * * * *

Alongside the amorphous army of backpackers, a similar plague of delusion has infected those westerners who raise thousands of pounds through sponsorship – from the kindness of ordinary people – to travel to a part of the African continent on the premise of building houses, hospitals or schools. However, considering the majority of participants wouldn’t know one end of a trowel to another and that the perfunctory training will enable them to carry out only menial tasks, one has to question the value of this altruistic tilting at the white man’s windmills? An acquaintance of mine who has worked in construction all his life and went on one of these bricks and mortar missions, told me that the untrained do-gooders end up only getting in the way of the skilled workers. Instead, these good hearted but misguided innocents abroad, would be better sending the money directly to the charity and staying put.

Aside from the pain of the rest of us having to listen to them, what are the tangible benefits to these quixotic crusades by the ‘Y generation’ (or maybe that should be ‘why?’ generation)?  Secularisation of society has perhaps made us embody the spirit of the seeker more readily than we realise, and we imagine travelling to the other side of the world will give us some answers to our roles within it. However, as Horace once wrote, ‘they change their sky, not their mind’ and I don’t think a boarding pass is a journey towards one’s true self. That search always has to begin at home and for better or worse, that’s where you will find me.

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