On my recent trip to London I mapped out a walk across the inner north of the city, from Shoredich in the inner East, to Kensal Green in the inner west. Nairn’s London (1966) and the London A-Z (street directory) were my primary navigation aids.
One expects occasional disappointments when travelling with a guidebook written in 1966. There have been big changes across that part of the city over the last half century. Key among these is a massive influx of money and commercial enterprise, particularly in the inner east.
Nairn’s entry for the old Spitalfields market describes it as doomed, unloved and sombre, a far cry from the peculiarly contemporary combination of wholesome, Scandinavian-inspired design (plywood, plants, pastels and bold stripes) and gastronomic cornucopia that now attracts crowds of tourists and corporate lunchers. He would have no doubt had a wry word to say about the cafe adored with fake pot plants in little colourful buckets that now occupies the churchyard at Nicholas Hawksmoor’s much admired Christchurch just across the road. And no doubt the sign on the outside of the Turkish Baths in Bishopsgate Churchyard, which reads ‘A Little Palace of Luxury: Exclusive Event Hire for Up to 150 Standing or 90 seated’, and is now accessible by appointment only, would have provoked negative expressions of a more vehement variety. In 1966 Nairn was already bemoaning the increasingly common habit of locking up churches, which prevented him having a poke around.
On that score, Christchurch was still open, with a chatty lady at the desk selling brochures about the church and keen to engage my travelling partner and I in a conversation about the relationship between the building and the creed that inspired its construction. I didn’t tell her that my pilgrimage was of a literary and architectural nature.
In addition to attracting the effusive praise of Nairn, Hawksmoor’s churches were the key inspiration for Ian Sinclair’s seminal Lud Heat, the first work in Sinclair’s oeuvre which begins a tradition of tracing out routes in the city based on hidden histories, urban wastelands and chance. The book inspired Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and its influence can be registered in the television documentaries of Jonathan Meades, particularly Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloody-mindedness. Meades positions Hawksmoor’s buildings alongside his one time colleague John Vanbrugh as the central proponents of the English Baroque, a style which he regards analogous to the brutalism in its peculiarly austere and yet impactful sense of drama.
The works of storytellers like Sinclair, Meades, Ackroyd and others including Patrick Keiller, Patrick Wright and Will Self were on my mind as I walked this part of the city. I thought about how the new challenge writers for this stripe since the late nineties—and to be sure the melancholic no doubt warms to this kind of thing—must have been to shift into a mode where they write despairingly about the cornucopia of pleasures that now exist in their old haunts, rather than about the neglect and desolation that provided the romance and source of insight in the past. While the force of urban renewal arguably highlights abandonment in the intense contrasts it produces between those with and without money, walking my route through London, there was an unmistakable and perhaps naive sense that life was here in abundance.
I also thought about the vast differences between what I felt walking–sometimes running–the city, the mood evoked by these melancholic writers of London, and the different traditions in which I might have been participating due to my cultural inheritance. In particular, I thought of Barry McKenzie, a character made famous by the Australian comedian Barry Humphries, and whose influence can still be detected, albeit in a significantly watered-down version, in the current iteration of the cringeworthy Qantas air safety videos. It would have been very uncharacteristic for McKenzie to be trekking through the East End, admiring the architecture and a certain literary tradition for whom it is a preoccupation. Nonetheless, the force of the Aussie yokel still glowed within me when conducting my relations with any pompous Londoners and I thought it might be an interesting contribution both to the legacy of the brash Aussie and the literary archive about this area of city if I expressed my relatively esoteric pursuits in tone that was in contrast to the whingeing natives on whose turf I trespassed.
Back in the 1960s, when McKenzie was created and Nairn’s book on London was first published, the Barbican Centre was still being built. The prohibitively expensive cost of its residential real estate aside, this building surely one of the better architectural achievements in this part of the city. For the weary foot traveller, who’s been roughed up by the unrelenting commotion of traffic and construction on the streets around Liverpool Street Station, the Barbican is an oasis of calm. While the massive, multi-towered complex, which includes a library, theatre, school, restaurants, gallery and exclusive residential living, might not be a shining example of affordable public amenity, nonetheless, it remains an achievement to calve out a distinctive, relatively accessible, multipurpose space on this scale in the centre of a city like London. And if my Instagram is anything to go by, it seems the aesthetic elements of the architecture are belatedly finding favour with an increasingly large audience.
Just up the road from the Barbican is The Golden Lane Estate (began 1953). The design shares some similarities with the Barbican: an elevated, multi-winged housing complex, which, as Nairn notes, can be traversed in many different directions: “along corridors, under buildings, down steps and up ramps”. It also makes great use of shared green space, in the form of large, sunken gardens and fenceless little yards, the better maintained of which blend into each other to form one, continuous band of plant-life.
True to form, Nairn commends the Golden Lane development due to itself inclusion of a pub (the Shakespeare, “modern, but without the decorative affectations that plague pub designers”). To my delight, it remains in place, exactly how Nairn described it: a subdued, but not drab environment, that feels as though it could just as easily be in country town. A few customers chat with the bar staff in the main bar (probably about the World Cup) and a young man gives the piano a tickle in one of the other rooms. Entering it is a great chance to experience one of the many atmospheric transformations that London seems to do better than any other city.
One of the things that makes Nairn’s London so great is the attention he pays to the drama, not just of isolated buildings, but the subtle distortions in the flow of the city to which both buildings and topography contribute. A classic example is the passage by St George in Bloomsbury.
After being hugely disappointed by Sun Street passage earlier in the day, the “exhilarating” quality of which is entirely absent, my travelling partner and I weathered the car and bus clogged roads and walked to St George, our second Hawksmoor church for the day.
In Nairn’s London the Sun Street passage was a transition point from the “frilly” importance of Liverpool Street Station and the “sad emptiness of south Shoreditch”. With Shoreditch now far from sad and empty, and one entire wall of the passage obscured by the temporary fence of the construction works, the intensity of the contrast Nairn describes has weakened to such a degree that it is imperceptible.
Thankfully, the experience he describes at St George passage is preserved in full and is further augmented as one marvels at Nairn for having focused on such an inconspicuous urban feature, rather than the “prodigious”church, which, while mentioned, is shunned due its “disparate elements” not seeming to cohere.
It’s unlikely anyone unfamiliar with the church would discover the passage. There are limited visual cues from the street or even from within the churchyard. The surprise that it’s there is certainly part of its value. Nairn describes his route as follows:
Start in Bloomsbury way and follow signs around the left hand side of the portico to St George’s Hall. The gap between the church and the neighbouring buildings narrows to a few feet, so that you are thrust against the prodigious keystones, actually touch the wonderful time-worn scales on the Portland stone. Then the way dives down: a Hawksmoorean turn even though it is provided by accident. It turns a corner by going down and then up again. Seven steps down, a ninety-degree bend, six steps up. It sounds simple but in fact has the drama of a full symphonic movement. (112-113).
In reading this one imagines Nairn moving through his city as though it were a labyrinthine system of theatre sets, each waiting to be made explicit, firstly, by the movement of a body which is attuned to its performative potentials, then, secondly, in the writing, that once again performs the experience, and continues to do so, across time and space, every time it is read. As is typical of his observations, an eye for the mechanical aspects of a design “seven steps down, a ninety-degree bend, six steps up” is combined with an appreciation for what it offers as a whole, the “full symphonic movement”.
The entry finishes with Nairn popping out on the other side of the church, on Little Russel Street, taking in a building that is renewed by this different vantage, the quieter ambience of the street. He suggests that the explorer might go “Back again, if you wish, and whole whole thing unwinds in a completely different sequence”.
This isn’t the kind of place that immediately makes sense as something one would travel halfway across North London on foot to visit. And without Nairn as a guide, the minor details of the surroundings and the different aspects that are woven together aren’t likely to be as affecting. But resting on the steps amid the pot plants along the side of the church, and refilling my water bottle from the tap there, I felt very thankful for this man who had such a generous apprehension of his city and who had bothered to take the time to put down in words so we could share in his experience.
To be continued…