Ian Nairn was a talented architectural critic, writer and broadcaster who poured forth his opinions in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. He championed the characterful, harrumphed the horrible and railed against the unnecessary replacement of the old. He also loved his drink, hence he died relatively young, but his honest words inspired many, and may even have saved a few buildings. You still can watch his 1972 TV series Nairn Across Britain on the iPlayer, or you might recall the BBC4 Nairn documentary from earlier this year... or you can read his book.
Nairn's London was published in 1966, with a photo on the cover of the author at the wheel of a Routemaster, and swiftly became a classic of its genre. Ian picked 450 of his favourite buildings and places that defined the capital and wrote a few hundred words on each in the style of a gazetteer. They range from abbeys to parish churches, from mansions to cinemas and from pubs to housing estates. The first half of the book sticks to central London, but the remainder stretches out to the suburbs, because Nairn knew his Watfords as well as his Westminsters, and his Romfords as well as his Richmonds. The end result is a glorious collection of vivid text, balancing praise and polemic, with every paragraph another descriptive jewel. And it's been out of print for decades, annoyingly, that is until Penguin republished it last week (now £9.99 rather than eight and six).
Having grabbed a copy I thought I'd revisit some of Nairn's London, almost fifty years on, to see what he'd loved had changed and what was still the same. I picked Chapter 8, Thames-Side East, more specifically NORTH SIDE (pp186-189). Here are just three updated entries.
Nairn's London: North Woolwich
"A twin to the Isle of Dogs, though here the contrasts are wilder and more expressive. The ships in the Albert Dock seem bigger, the little terraces seem cosier, the riverside warehouses are more impressive... This feels right out of England, never mind out of London - something from another planet."
I wonder what Nairn would make of North Woolwich today, the docks long transformed from hive of industry into somewhere to go rowing at the weekend. Since 1966 the thin strip of land between dock and river has evolved, more likely decayed, as those who live here no longer work in the import business, if indeed they even work at all. A handful of Victorian terraces remain, notably along the dead end stump of Woolwich Manor Way which used to deliver traffic to the Thames, and the parallel Bargehouse Road. But the majority of the newer housing is bland and downbeat, even the 21st century stuff hemmed into the corner of Gallions Reach, buzzed by incoming flights to City Airport six days out of every seven. North Woolwich's shopping parade focuses on takeaways and charity, while the pubs (where they survive) serve honest pints to a sparse crowd of Sky-Sports-watchers. Crossrail is scything through the area along the route of the old North London line, a concrete wall newly constructed to either side to prevent passengers and local residents from ever coming eye to eye.
"Oddest of all is the Gallions, a huge pub in Norman Shaw style off Manor Way. It is really bizarre, the Bedford Park Hotel transplanted to haunted mudflats with no other building near, only cranes and funnels."
I turned up fully expecting this to have disappeared, the northern banks of the Royal Albert Dock long since subsumed beneath a rash of modern buildings. The pepperpots of UEL Docklands Campus are the most scenic, the neighbouring student accommodation less so, and that's where I believed the Gallions lay. Not so, it's on the riverward side but hemmed in behind three new pointy silver apartment blocks, so I completely failed to spot that this listed peculiarity survives. Ben's been, it having once been a railway hotel where passengers stayed before boarding their liners. I shall have to go back, perhaps even for a beer.
Nairn's London: St Mark, Silvertown
"A hard punch right in the guts. Sombre and compact, brooding over the bizarre landscape of North Woolwich funnels instead of tree-tops... The church is locked but still used; it must be kept. It is the nearest thing to a mystic's revelation that London has."
Silvertown too has changed out of all recognition, with the Thames waterfront covered by a ragbag of factories and warehouses that nowhere else will have. One is the giant Tate and Lyle factory, still belching sugar, another is the Loon Fung oriental food cash and carry whose Chinese temple-top is a new local landmark. In a diminished community such as this, what need is there for a church? Hence St Mark's was deconsecrated in the 1980s, becoming a repository for pigeons, until it was rescued by the unlikely saviour of the Brick Lane Music Hall. They escaped from Shoreditch in 2001 and set up their cabaret tables within, ideal for groups or coach parties who fancy old time fun plus a three course dinner. Fantastic for the building's survival, but there's still no easy or cheap way to peer again within.
Except, as it turns out, on Remembrance Sunday. The Silvertown war memorial stands in the corner of the grounds just behind the railings, so every second Sunday in November the populace turn up to sit in rows outside and take part in a collective act. I arrived towards the end of the ceremony, as the band played God Save The Queen and the Royal British Legion drooped their flags. The Reverend John Griffiths then explained that this was his fifteenth and final year officiating, not one of which had been plagued by rain, and then the Music Hall owner invited everyone inside the building for tea and biscuits. The crowd duly disappeared within, both young and old, or stood outside for a chat and a post-reverential fag. And I considered following behind to view the "glittering poetry, all knobbly with harsh polysyllables", but decided against because the moment was entirely inappropriate. Sufficient to know that the interior has indeed been kept, and you might see it over a supper club show one day.
Nairn's London: Beckton Gasworks
"Gasworks City, a magic world of plant and pipes, holders and small hills of coal - even wharves and funnels, for good measure, at the far end... it could be stressed to become one of the showplaces of London. All the 'interest' which modern architects try to tickle up in blocks of flats is here for the asking."
Alas Beckton Gasworks has long vanished, almost completely and utterly. The site shut down just three years after Nairn published his book, but lay derelict for a few decades more, providing the perfect cinematic backdrop for films like Full Metal Jacket. Stanley Kubrick demolished some of it, now almost nothing remains except for a pair of gasholders, one up one down, like some sort of rusting mascot for the land's new purpose. The largest replacement is the Gallions Reach Retail Park, an out-of-town sprawl of white-cladsheds from Tesco Extra round to TK Maxx. Architecturally it's entirely vacuous, but the attraction here is goods and services, and the trackie-bottomed ride from miles around to parade up and down the car park. Beyond the gasholder is the main depot of the Docklands Light Railway, conveniently located where the price of land is not at a premium. And somehow the remaining acres of the site remain entirely vacant, presumably because not even the rising value of property can yet offset the costs of cleansing this polluted landscape. If Nairn rewrote his book today, this vacuum wouldn't even merit a dismissive footnote.