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Low Culture Essay: Travis Elborough On Ian Nairn's No Two The Same
Travis Elborough , August 22nd, 2023 09:25

In this month's Low Culture Essay, Travis Elborough revisits No Two The Same, a documentary about London's Pimlico that reveals many of the foibles of its creator, thirsty outsider and outspoken architecture critic Ian Nairn

Each time I watch No Two The Same some new oddity jumps out at me. On this occasion it’s Nairn’s skinny necktie. If Bo Diddley had a rattlesnake, then Nairn here has something that looks more like an eel, one valiantly trying to escape his stiff white collar and embark on its migration to the Sargasso Sea. No tie should look quite this errant and unruly, but there it is, cutting curious criss-cross shapes and tying itself in knots. The tie is all the more striking for the contrast it makes with Nairn’s bulky frame, and already rather puffy face. And then there is the discomfort with which, standing in the middle of the Lillington Estate, he’s posed: speaking directly to camera with a left arm he clearly doesn’t know what to do with. It’s tucked awkwardly behind his back, that side of the suit jacket dragged back with it, like a twitched curtain.

No Two The Same is a 1970 essay film by the architectural writer Ian Nairn about the area of Pimlico in London, produced by the Government funded Central Office of Information, a post-war successor to the wartime propaganda unit the Ministry of Information. Nairn’s biographers Gillian Darley and David McKie observed that ‘just to watch’ this film is filled with a kind of ‘deep’ embarrassment for all concerned and not least Nairn himself. And they are not wrong. His language is, as they say, "stilted and awkward" throughout and his attempts to interact with even a specially selected set of local residents makes for often excruciating viewing. And yet I am drawn back to it again and again as a fascinating social document and equally for what it seems, inadvertently or otherwise, to tell us about Nairn, especially in this of all years, the 40th anniversary of his death. It's something I've been even more acutely aware of while writing the introduction to a new edition of Nairn's Modern Buildings in London, a primer on the best of contemporary architecture in the capital that was first published by London Transport in 1964.

No Two The Same appeared six years later. It was fifteen years since Nairn had first come to public prominence with the authorship of ‘Outrage’, a polemical special issue of Architectural Journal published in June 1955. In it Nairn had coined the term ‘subtopia’ to describe what he saw as “the universal suburbanisation… of the whole land surface” with the end of Carlisle looking identical to the beginning of Southampton and vice versa, and everywhere bespoiled by needless junk (pointless signage, barbed-wire, concrete lamp posts et al.) A whole year before John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger hit the Royal Court, Nairn was feted by the press as the original angry young man. His incendiary views on the built environment, enthusiasm for the very best of modern architecture and utter contempt for the shoddy and the second-rate would go on to inspire the Anti-Ugly Action protest group, whose leading members included the tragically short-lived pop artist and actor Pauline Boty.

Nairn was to join The Observer newspaper, using its pages in 1966 to issue ‘Stop the Architects Now!’ a lengthy and impassioned screed against the then widespread and unthinking destruction of many historic townscapes in redevelopment schemes. That same year saw the publication of Nairn’s London, a brilliantly opinionated and deeply personal architectural survey of the capital that many rightly believe remains his masterpiece. Soon after this he was poached by The Sunday Times and approached by John Mapplebeck, a producer at the BBC working on the regional Look North strand, about making a documentary. Their opening salvo was the series Nairn’s North with the writer offering his views on the likes of Bradford, the River Mersey and the Pennines, which aired locally in 1967.

As Mapplebeck would later recall, Nairn was far from a natural TV performer. He insisted on working without a script, extemporising on the spot about whatever he encountered, something that inevitably led to hit and miss moments. Yet his utterly unfiltered and sometimes highly emotional responses to what he saw and found resonated with viewers. Nairn subsequently was to become a familiar presence on BBC television in the 1970s with the series Nairn’s Europe (1970), Nairn’s Journeys (1971), Nairn Across Britain (1972), Football Towns (1975) and finally Finding Follies (1978). The latter screened in the same year that Nairn was forced to resign from The Sunday Times over his excessive drinking. This was quite an achievement in an era when Fleet Street was awash with booze and editors were as likely to be found in El Vino’s as at their desks. He is quite visibly half-cut in most (if not all) of the episodes of Finding Follies and with rather classic understatement, Mapplebeck was to cite “the licensing hours” as one of “main challenges” of working with Nairn on these series.

I wasn’t to see any of these programmes until the early 1990s, when a few of them were dusted off for a short season on BBC2 with an introduction by Jonathan Meades. By this point they seemed like television signals beamed in from some long dead planet. A vanished world of space-port shaped civic centres, brutalist corporation bus stations and drip-dry Bri-Nylon fabrics that the vagaries of fashion and Thatcherism had all consigned to history. A sequence from Football Towns where Nairn driving a Morris Minor whizzed through a concrete motorway tunnel somewhere between Bradford and Halifax (or vice versa) soundtracked to the session-men glam terrace stomp of ‘Pepper Box’ by The Peppers remains etched in my brain, as does the image of Nairn on the brink of tears standing in the pulpit of the wrecked and ruined church of St Saviour’s in Bolton, his voice cracking he denounces, in fire and brimstone terms, the vandalism before him. Then there was the sight of Nairn battling his way through drunken revellers at the Oktoberfest in Munich. His red-faced vehement disgust at groups of tourists guzzling vast quantities of beer in retrospect seems quite possibly tinged with self-loathing, given his own consumption of Fuller’s London Pride and Park Royal-brewed Guinness.

Indeed it was Meades who had the misfortune to experience Nairn in desperate alcoholic action toward the end of his life when he made a forlorn attempt to coax the writer into contributing new pieces to Tatler magazine. Over the course of two liquid lunches in the St George’s Tavern, the pub round the corner from the flat at 14 Warwick Square the writer shared with his second wife Judy for nearly two decades, he was to watch in horror as a barely coherent Nairn sank pint after pint, his tally rapidly exceeding double figures.

Pointedly, No Two The Same also ends in a pub: The Pimlico Tram, a purpose-built modernistic boozer integrated into the Lillington Estate and built by its architects John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke. In less rosy times it became unaffectionately known as ‘The Tramp’ and was infamous for stabbings and skag dealing. Today it trades happily enough as The Cask Pub and Kitchen and caters for craft ale drinkers and burger gourmands. But in any case it lies less than half a mile away from The St George's Tavern (also still in business) and on the evidence of the film clearly proved just as convivial a drinking hole to Nairn as his local back in the day. The concluding pub bit is arguably the only sequence in the entire film where ‘the poet of place’ seems anything like at ease. Ensconced in a table at the back and seated alone, Nairn is revealed by the none-more clunky visual gag of having someone lift an obscuring pint glass out of the camera’s way. The effect is that his face appears momentarily swimming in beer.

Nairn goes on to maintain that the pub is his office – or ‘one of them’. As Owen Hatherley has pointed out, there are some 27 pubs in Nairn’s London alone, along with a postscript on London beer for good measure. In No Two The Same, Nairn claims that in three quarters of an hour “in a pub like this” he “can work much better” than at home or in the office with the telephone constantly ringing. Most revealingly, he talks about how the “background buzz” of other people's conversations here is what gives him “a real internal privacy”. His need to be among other people is palpable. For him there is no greater insult that he can throw at a building than “man-hating”. Pimlico is admired precisely because it contains “a mix of people” with different temperaments rubbing along… “all making the place together” if “not trying too hard to do it”. Yet despite all that, what is painfully obvious throughout is Nairn’s incapacity to truly commune with others, at least when the film is rolling, though it was evidently an issue that ran far deeper.

The first person he is pictured talking to in No Two The Same is a neighbourhood doctor whose option he canvasses on new traffic calming measures and the seemingly successful introduction of a bunch of no entry signs to keep cars out of the side-streets. As they speak, a couple of suedeheads in curiously fluffy woollen tank tops drift by, curiously oblivious to the camera. The contemporary viewer first has to get their head round the idea of an NHS doctor making house calls and that as ‘a professional’ (whose status is clear from his heavy black framed glasses, neat Brylcreemed hair and the ownership of a Ford Zephyr, a vehicle with a chromium radiator grille like a plankton skimming baleen whale), his views are close to sacrosanct. Not even at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic were doctors ever treated this deferentially. Nairn, diffident to a fault, has the air of a cripplingly shy schoolboy who's been sent to speak to the headmaster in his study. Thankfully for all concerned it is all wrapped up pretty rapidly. The doctor, conveniently enough, thinks the scheme is a jolly good idea and welcomes the chance to get a bit of exercise in by walking to appointments when needs must.

Equally excruciating conversations come quick and fast. A pensioner seems content in her new home with aged neighbours on the Lillington Estate – the cradle to grave ethos of the welfare state further exemplified by the addition of an old people’s home elsewhere within its confines. A visit to a family in their flat in Churchill Gardens, the interior decor a marvel in clashing lurid green, orange and purple, hardly gets beyond the opening wooden pleasantries. Whatever else is said is almost immediately drowned out by a voiceover by Nairn which renders the tenants mute.

For me, Nairn’s failure to connect only makes him seem more human, and his inability to join in, if perhaps ultimately a little tragic personally, was part and parcel of what made him such a clear-eyed critic. He was the ultimate outsider, not least within his own chosen field, and that distance was both a gift and a curse.

Unlike Nikolaus Pevsner, who he collaborated with on the Buildings Of England series, completing the volume on his native Surrey and supplying entries for the West Sussex half of Sussex, Nairn never studied architecture. He had obtained a degree in mathematics from the University of Birmingham before joining the RAF. The eagle-eyed view afforded by flying Meteor jets over a changing Britain in the giddy midst of post-war reconstruction helped spur his interest in the state of the nation’s buildings, ancient and modern. Even after leaving the RAF and inveigling his way onto the staff of the Architectural Journal, he continued to fly and kept on observing and photographing the built world from on high until 1966 when, and in a bitter blow, he failed a medical test and lost his pilot’s license. The Old Warden Aerodrome, home to the Shuttleworth collection of restored vintage aeroplanes, was to feature among Nairn’s follies in his final TV series: cue a scene of the writer, looking and sounding distinctly worse for wear, his voice thick and movements unsteady, stepping out of the Morris Minor he’d driven up to a hangar full of Sopwith Triplanes and Blériots XIIs, with clearly nowhere else to go but down from here.

Nairn died on 14 August 1983, just ten days shy of his 53rd birthday. Passing when he did he was at least spared the indignity of seeing the Central Office of Information shill for Thatcher’s sell off of the family silver in the following year. Its state-sponsored services were then weaponised to promote the privatisation of British Gas with the ‘Tell Sid’ TV ad campaign. As a bit of Tory anarchist politically, Nairn might have approved. The Pimlico he visited has changed beyond all recognition in the intervening decades. Aside from some mid-Victorian terraces that he notes, positively, are being restored privately, all of the housing Nairn surveys in No Two The Same is council owned. The doctor and his wife have also opted to live within the community in the Churchill Gardens estate, albeit in a low-rise block with fine Thames views and paying what is said to be “market rate” rent for their home. Across the river and providing the estate with its energy is Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s Battersea Power Station, a building pithily summarised in Nairn’s London with the line: “if there is such a thing as industrial melodrama, this is it”. Its chimneys, whose fluting Nairn deemed “timid” and soon enough to be menaced by Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig, are still billowing grey-black smoke. Its life as a luxury apartment-bedecked shopping mall today would have been as unimaginable back then as the idea that the state would cease to invest in the public housing stock for the common good.

Described by The Guardian’s as ‘one of Britain’s finest pop culture historians’, Travis Elborough’s books include the hymn to vinyl records The Long-Player Goodbye and Through The Looking Glasses: The Spectacular Life of Spectacles. He is the author of a new introduction to Ian Nairn’s Modern Buildings in London, a primer on the best of contemporary architecture in the capital that was first published by London Transport in 1964 and now reissued on fortieth anniversary of Nairn’s death. Quietus subscribers can get 10% off three Ian Nairn titles, Modern Buildings In London, Nairn's Towns and Nairn's Paris by entering the discount code NAIRN10 at the Notting Hill Editions website.