Retracing the steps of the late, great architectural critic Ian Nairn is a tricky proposition that one has to plot carefully; take it too far and you’d end up drinking yourself to death as the man himself did at the age of 52 in 1983. His fondness for the public house, about which he wrote with such eloquent verve (especially in his classic 1966 guide to the capital, ‘Nairn’s London’), proved to be his downfall, bringing to a premature end a career that illuminated both the printed page and the television screen in the 60s and 70s. A superbly witty, poetic and passionate writer on architecture and environment, Nairn had sprung to prominence in the mid-50s with his acclaimed ‘Outrage’ edition of the ‘Architectural Review’ magazine, establishing the concept of Subtopia as a dreary development on the post-war landscape and adding his name to the list of the decade’s Angry Young Men.
Although the criminally few books he authored are worth investing in as an example of his skills, the majority of his writing could be found in the Observer in the 60s and then the Sunday Times in the 70s. By this time, he’d also begun a TV career, presenting several idiosyncratic, eccentric and thought-provoking series for the BBC that showcased him as a highly original and refreshingly individual voice. Nairn as a presenter is not a television natural, but his emotional response to the always-intriguing and never-obvious locations he chose to introduce to the viewer can be a compelling experience. His often lugubrious demeanour depended upon whether or not filming took place before or after opening hours, but when his hackles are raised by a depressingly predictable piece of ill-advised town planning characteristic of the era, it regularly appears as though he’s poised to burst into tears, so incensed is he by the loss of a building he evidently adores.
Buildings like the quirky Emporium Arcade in Northampton, which he praised and regarded as worthy of preservation, were swept away despite his pleas; and perhaps the most moving moment of his TV output came when he stood in the gutted carcass of Bolton’s St Saviour church and railed against the men responsible for its imminent demolition. ‘We talk about football vandalism,’ he says in quivering tones. ‘I don’t quite know how you would categorise the vandalism of the yobbos who did this; it makes me ashamed to be part of the same branch of biology.’ It’s as though the ruination of what he describes as one of the town’s ‘most noblest churches’ is the final blow to any hope he still harboured, reducing him to a tragic, Lear-like figure, close to breakdown as he roams from one wasteland to another. It’s rare to see a man’s soul laid bare in such a manner, and when it seemed so many of his heartfelt pleas to the developers to think again constantly fell on deaf ears, it’s reasonable to theorise – as many have – that his weariness with fighting a losing battle accelerated his slide into terminal alcoholism.
The segment in St Saviour church was part of a series Nairn presented in which he visited six unfashionable destinations more familiar as names on a pools coupon than for their architecture; each programme was a game of two halves as he contrasted a pair of ‘football towns’ by selecting places in them that he regarded as notable and interesting. The Bolton edition was coupled with a visit to Preston, with Nairn beginning at the North End home of its historical football club and then working his way into the town centre. Having watched this edition numerous times over the years – and so few of his TV programmes are available that one tends to view the same small number – I found myself in Preston last week, and it was inevitable I sought out the locations he had highlighted, wondering whether or not they’d improved or deteriorated in the half-century that had elapsed since his visit.
Although Preston is now officially a city, it still has the feel of a classic provincial town built on 19th century industry, albeit one with the ambition that eventually resulted in its promotion to that of metropolis. That ambition can be seen in the Guild Hall, a modern (1972) building Nairn singled out as a fine example of Preston’s refusal to rest on its Victorian laurels. Much of the original redbrick exterior of the Guild Hall has subsequently been clad in wood to perhaps bring it into line with contemporary tastes, though the confidence the building exudes, one that so caught Nairn’s eye, remains. Nairn’s judgement was never clouded by simple nostalgia; he was just as eager to celebrate the best of the new as he was to preserve the best of the old, and his enthusiasm for Preston’s modernist bus station is typical of how he could see the good in an edifice many traditionalists might have greeted with disdain. Bar one or two alterations to the outside, the dramatic sweeping concrete curves housing the multi-storey car-park above the bus station are intact.
Amongst Preston’s ‘heritage’ buildings to have happily survived is its distinctive market hall, which Nairn rightly praised due to its half-in/half-out appearance, with the cast iron roof protruding out into the street and open to the elements; a collection of market stalls which stood on the pedestrianised square in front of the town’s impressive slice of classic Victorian civic pride, the Harris Art Gallery and Museum, has now gone; but the square itself – including a towering cenotaph – seems largely untouched. When Nairn was there, the town centre was undergoing the introduction of a frustrating one-way system, which appears to discourage the sightseer from travelling around it as a motorist; the best way to really explore the place, as Nairn discovered, is on foot. And one of the best things about Preston from the point of view of the pedestrian is the fact that all the areas Nairn visited are within a short walking distance of each other. A side-street off the main shopping thoroughfare, which is now wholly pedestrianised, leads to a unique public square – a ‘sunken’ one.
Rather than the flat, neat Georgian squares one associates with London, Winkley Square was deliberately not levelled out and left as nature intended. A tranquil little oasis that provides office workers with a bucolic interlude from the urban hustle and bustle, it serves as a prelude to what is probably Preston’s best-kept secret just round the corner – and this was a location Nairn only gives a brief glimpse of on screen. For all the current (and clueless) fashion for portraying the Victorians as one-dimensional imperial heathens, there’s no disputing the lasting legacy they left on Britain’s best towns and cities, none more so than one of their most necessary innovations intended to be enjoyed by everyone, the public park; and Preston’s Avenham Park is one of the finest in the land. Outside of the capital, it’s quite unusual to find such a vast green space smack bang in a city centre rather than out in the suburbs, and the mere snippet that appears on Nairn’s ‘Football Towns’ series gives no real indication of the sheer scale of that space when one actually sets foot in it. It’s also clear from the 1970s programme that a good deal of loving restoration has taken place since the great man took a look at it; an imposing statue of three-times 19th century Lancastrian Prime Minister the Earl of Derby is included in the roll-call of sights to see, and the longest-serving leader of any British political party (22 years) did set me wondering if statues of any current party leaders might one day grace such a space. Somehow, I doubt it.
Ian Nairn ends his summary of Preston and Bolton by recommending the viewer makes the effort to visit these neglected towns and I’m pleased to say that, 30-odd years after my initial viewing of the programme, I finally made the effort. I may have been standing on the shoulders of a giant, but I did so sober, and the Gods shone down on me with an early burst of spring sunshine that made the jaunt all the more memorable. I can think of worse ways to spend a weekend.
© The Editor