Saturday, November 30, 2013
For my third pre-Christmas book review: Roman Britain revisited...
Charlotte Higgins, Under Another Sky
Published by Jonathan Cape
In some ways, the Romans made Britain. Cities, roads, classical architecture, a Latinate hoard of words – it sometimes seems as if the Romans built the foundations of the country and framed the way in which we talk about it. And yet the evidence on the ground is fragmentary – no standing Roman buildings remain intact in Britain. We have to make do with the occasional bit of wall, the odd arch, coins and mosaics in museums. So what would happen if one travelled the country in search of the Romans? Charlotte Higgins's book Under Another Sky is one answer.
Travelling, often puttering along in an old Volkswagen camper van, from Kent to Scotland and back again, Higgins surveys Roman Britain. In doing so she describes the Roman set-pieces – Hadrian's Wall, Bath – and little known sites like Lydney Park with its Roman temple or Scotland's Kinneil House, where there is a Roman fortlet. Her descriptions are evocative, whether she is surveying Silchester with its air 'sickly-sharp with the scent of elderflower' or contemplating the modern creations one must encounter when searching for Roman Scotland, such as the oil refinery at Grangemouth, where 'Monstrous pipes vermiculated their way around structures made on no human scale'. On the way the author describes not just the remains but the people associated with them, and an incendiary lot they are, from queen Boudica to Britain's breakaway Roman emperor, Carausius.
Good as it is to read about these journeys through Roman Britain, the book comes yet more alive with the author's meditations on others' encounters with the country's Roman past. In its pages we meet the 18th-century antiquarian William Stukeley, who advocated a study of Roman Britain as a kind of antidote to the grand tour, and his contemporary William Roy, who made meticulous plans of Scotland's Roman forts and the Antonine Wall. We read about the response to Rome of the members of the Scottish enlightenment and of the historian R G Collingwood. The excitement of discovery is brought to life in Higgins's meeting with the translators of the Vindolanda tablets. And then there are the literary responses to Roman Britain, from Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness and Rosemary Sutcliff (in The Eagle of the Ninth and all) with her sharp eye and retentive visual memory, to W H Auden and his radio play Hadrian's Wall. The treasure trove here is Benjamin Britten's song 'Roman Wall Blues', written for the play but thought lost until 2005, when a copy of the vocal line turned up. Colin Matthews has now written a piano part, and the song has been recorded.
Higgins also helps to make some of the complexity of Roman Britain clear. She devotes several pages to the ethnic diversity of Roman Britain, patiently explaining the clear evidence that people from Africa and Syria, for example, lived in Britain in the Roman period. She also describes the torrents of abuse unleashed when a tabloid newspaper referred to this diversity as 'Roman multiculturalism' and its readers lambasted the careful work of the archaeologists as 'neo-Marxist, multicultist [sic] propaganda'.
This book, of course, is always on the side of the evidence and its thoughtful interpretation. It contains vivid, sometimes haunting, descriptions of Roman remains and places, while never losing sight of the fact that archaeological evidence is sometimes ambiguous and difficult to make sense of. There is a wonderful story from 1904 about the scholar Edward Nicholson translating a faint inscription on a small lead tablet, but getting it completely wrong because he was holding the tablet upside-down. Amusing as this is, for Higgins it's a salutary tale about the whole business of interpreting Roman Britain. Look at the evidence one way and it seems to say one thing; turn it around and the message is utterly different. This is the story of all interpretation, and also its fascination.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Next in my series of book reviews, Ian Nairn (and Owen Hatherley) on Britain's towns...
Ian Nairn, Nairn's Towns, introduced by Owen Hatherley
Published by Notting Hill Editions
Even I, a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s, find it hard to believe now what a service the magazine The Listener did in bringing fresh and thoughtful analysis of current affairs and culture to the attention of so many in Britain. The magazine's brief was to put into print the best of the words broadcast by the BBC, but it cast its net wider than this, commissioning new pieces as well. It was a kind of Third Programme in print that I, for one, was fortunate to find in the school library every week. One thing it commissioned was a series of articles by Ian Nairn on British towns, from Canterbury to Newcastle, Cardiff to Cumbernauld. They were printed in The Listener in 1961 and 1964, and revised and reprinted in book form, as Britain's Changing Towns, in 1967. Here they are again, introduced by Owen Hatherley, who also provides brief updates to each essay, outlining what has happened to each town in the intervening years. They make fascinating and invigorating reading and, given that there is little else of Nairn in print (except for his contributions to the Pevsner volumes on Sussex and the outstanding Surrey), this beautifully produced volume from Notting Hill Editions is a good place to start.
No one before or since saw places quite the way Nairn did, no one has quite his combination of clear eye, willingness to look at the unregarded, and his particular prismatic quality of mind, an unusual blend of melancholy and enthusiasm. Time and time again he singles out the unexpected architectural highlights – a gents in a Birmingham pub and another in Liverpool, the Jarrold's printing works in Norwich, oddities like the Egyptian-style Oddfellows' Hall in Devonport. He comes out with judgements that make you think again, or look anew – English Perpendicular churches have a hysterical quality, he says; the Georgian churches of Marylebone are too 'polite'; soot-blackened or dirty buildings, from Birmingham to Sheffield, have a grandeur of their own.
It's not all oddity and perversity, though. When he gets stuck in, Nairn describes buildings and places beautifully, and gives one a sense of what makes them tick. He is particularly good on the way buildings, roads, and terrain interact – on townscape, in other words. Describing the slightly off-kilter central crossroads in Llanidloes, or the dramatic changes of level in Newcastle, or the American-style grid plan of Glasgow, or the varied grain of Brighton, he is at his best.
Good too, are the turns – and turns again – of phrase. He responds to buildings viscerally, and this often comes across in the physicality of his language. A flight of steps in Newcastle 'sucks you in like a vortex'; the meat and fish markets in Sheffield offer 'a staggering perspective of hooks and flesh'; St Bartholomew's in Brighton is 'more like a volcanic convulsion than a building'; the low ceiling height of the open ground floor of the Market Hall in Llanidloes means that when you step into it you put it on 'like a hat'. There are often comparisons with the other arts – a group of buildings can be like a fugue and the architecture of Nash is like Offenbach, an inspired comparison, that, with its overtones of the elegant, the cheeky, the sophisticated, the classical, the continental, and the not-quite-proper.
Nairn is discerning about architecture. He can see that some old buildings are dull, and that many modern buildings are bad, but finds room to praise the good ones and to appreciate the best of modern planning, while pouring scorn on the worst. His appreciation of townscapes and buildings comes from the heart, as his warmed-up turns of phrase reveal, but his mind is at work too, analysing and making suggestions for the future.
Did the planners take any notice? Owen Hatherley's postscripts to each essay tell us how things have gone in the half century since the accounts were first written. The reports vary a lot, of course. Canterbury and Chester have managed to conserve a lot, without putting up many very distinguished new buildings. Glasgow and Manchester have found new vigour, and some good new buildings, but at the expense of much sub-standard development. And so on. Hatherley mostly responds positively to the older writer's judgements, but rightly notes that Nairn's apolitical standpoint could land him in trouble – Nairn was optimistic about Derry in 1967, but it saw the beginning of the Troubles in 1968.
Hatherley is one of those, though, who have learned much from Nairn, and know it. In the postscripts he notices quite a few buildings and bits of planning that Nairn would have seized on. In one of the Fife towns he notices a 'staggeringly good' secondhand bookshop. I do not think Nairn's Towns will be ending up in that shop any time soon. People will want to hang on to this book. And rightly so.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
For ten days or so, English Buildings turns into a book blog as I review some of the new publications that have struck me this year. To begin with, a book about a presiding spirit of this blog, the writer and broadcaster, Ian Nairn...
Gillian Darley and David McKie, Ian Nairn: Words in Place
Published by Five Leaves Publications
There's a YouTube video in which Iain Sinclair and Jonathan Meades discuss their work. Before long, the name of Ian Nairn comes up, an inspiration for both writers for his fresh reactions to places, his combative stance towards architects, and his bracing prose style. His guidebook to London (Nairn's London, 1966) is singled out for particular praise. In the comments accompanying the video, some young, interested watchers exchange views: 'Who is that bloke they talked about? Ian Nunn? Ian Nenn?' Ian Nairn: Words in Place tells them what they need to know, combining a study of his work with such biographical facts as are useful for an understanding of the man and his writing.
Briefly, born in Bedford in 1930 and raised in Surrey, Nairn read mathematics at Birmingham University before going into the Royal Air Force. As he flew, he looked down towards England's towns and villages and landscapes: the first of the series of views from odd angles that drove his career. He realised that his aerial views of England gave him unique insights into the buildings on the ground – that he could often see what earthbound architectural historians could not. Oddly, he could do the same thing when standing on terra firma too. By the early 1950s he was sending articles to the Architectural Review.
Ian Nairn: Words in Place describes this unusual career. It begins with the story of how Nairn exploded on to the scene of architectural writing in 1955 with his first masterpiece, Outrage. Outrage was Nairn's special edition of the Architectural Review chronicling the destructive effects on the environment of the tendency to reduce once-individual places to the same mediocre and uniform pattern. To make this point, Nairn drove from Southampton to Carlisle, taking photographs of everything grim and similar – lamp posts, semi-detached houses, telegraph poles, badly designed signs, misplaced factories, gauche roundabouts, wires, wires, wires. For the result he coined a new term, subtopia, a word that suggests suburbia and well as dystopia, and that was intended to embody the fact that soon 'the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle' with everything in between looking the same too. Outrage, trenchantly argued, angry, emotional, laid out with the graphic flair that characterized the AR in the 1950s, caught the imagination and fired people up. It was soon republished as a book, and spawned a sequel, Counter-attack, which suggested what to do about the mess, with examples of good planning and design. Outrage and Counter-attack were Nairn's seminal early works.
Darley and McKie chronicle the creation and impact of these early triumphs (the formation of the Civic Trust was one result). They continue with the other landmarks of Nairn's career – his book on America, The American Landscape; his work with Pevsner on the Buildings of England volumes for Sussex and Surrey; his guidebooks to London and Paris; his relationship with the professions; his journalism; and his television work. Each chapter is accompanied by a short commentary in which another writer describes their response to a specific part of Nairn's oeuvre – Jonathan Meades on Nairn and the Buildings of England, Owen Hatherley on Nairn and the Professions, and David Thomson and Andrew Saint on Nairn's London, for example.
It's Nairn's London that stands out as the other masterpiece, a love-song to a great city in the form of a guidebook, as radically and whackily positive as Outrage was negative. As ever with Nairn, what stand out are the unusual choices of buildings (27 pubs, a timber merchant's, the Agapemonite Church in Clapton, gloomy alleys, a boat-builder's Swiss chalet, the odd council estate, Eros House in Catford), the striking and sometimes assertive prose, the insistence on the importance of being moved, emotionally, by what he sees. It's that emotion that's the key. When a building moves him, when he loves a place, his prose takes off and you want to dash out and look at the place yourself. How could one resist a church that resembles an orgasm, or a bank that looks like something left when the seas receded, or a bit of public art that is 'energy made visible'? The arresting prose can be mind-boggling, but it always conveys something about the place. Nairn's London can still tell you more about the capital than a dozen newly-minted, media-savvy, buzzword-saturated guidebooks. It is good to know that there are plans to reprint it.
Ian Nairn: Words in Place is a celebration of all this, but it's also an elegy to a man who died too soon. Alcoholism got him, and, with a sheaf of ideas in his trademark raincoat pocket for further, unwritten books (Nairn's Industrial North – if only), he died, at just 53. His books, very much of their time, have been little reprinted, but Nairn should remain important to all who think about Britain's places and buildings. Never a favourite with architects (though appreciative of many modern buildings, he wrote a famous Observer article headed 'Stop the architects now!') he has always been read by people who, like himself, care about architecture but have no architectural qualifications. He still deserves to be read, and so does this engaging account of his work.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
To Dumbleton, on the border of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, to visit the grave of Patrick Leigh Fermor, now marked with a headstone, which was revealed on 8 November, the feast of the Archangel Michael. Michael was the writer's second name and one he often used – as an infant he was 'Paddy-Mike', later he sometimes used Michael, although he was, and is, universally known among friends (and fans) as Paddy. So the feast of St Michael was his name day in Greece.
The stone matches that of his wife, Joan, to the left in the picture. Both are of Portland stone, both beautifully lettered, and both bear carved olive branches, Paddy's curving the opposite way to Joan's, but pointing towards hers, as hers now points towards his. The back of Paddy's stone is carved with the four points of the compass, a touch that makes the grave easy to navigate towards as one crosses Dumbleton churchyard.
Naturally, there is a line of Greek. Tom Sawford's excellent blog on Patrick Leigh Fermor translates the line as 'He was of that excellence which is of Greece', adding that it is a line in a poem by the great Alexandrian poet C P Cavafy. Looking at the volume of translated Cavafy poems on my shelves, I take it to be an extract from 'Epitaph of Antiochus, King of Kommagini' (if I have got this wrong, I'd welcome correction from the Greek scholars out there). In Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard's looser translation, the relevant passage of the poem comes out like this:
He was just, wise, and courageous.
In addition he was that best of all things, Hellenic –
mankind has no quality more precious...
Various other translators try alternatives to 'Hellenic', including 'a Greek', 'a Hellene', 'Greek-souled', and 'Greek-cultured'. But perhaps the best bit is the following, and final, line: 'everything beyond that belongs to the gods'.
My review of Artemis Cooper's biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor is here. I will try to post a review of Paddy's The Broken Road soon.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
A friend recently lent me a bound volume of copies of the Illustrated London News from 1852. What had struck my friend about this volume was the extraordinary amount of space devoted to the Duke of Wellington, who died on 14 September 1852. This coverage is indeed remarkable, but amongst the various special supplements on Wellington's life, the pages of reminiscences, and the exhaustive illustrated account of the Duke's funeral, are scattered a few items of news about London's buildings.
One that I thought was particularly timely is headed 'Great Northern Railway' and records that 'The buildings for the passenger traffic of this railway at King's Cross are fast approaching completion.' The article dwells at some length on the station front, with its two imposing arches, each of a span of 'no less than 71 feet', marking the ends of the arrival and departure platforms, and its clock, brought here after being displayed at the Great Exhibition. The piece also quotes the analysis of the facade in The Builder, which notices how 'great plainness prevails; the architect depends wholly for effect on the largeness of some of the features, the fitness of the structure for its purpose, and a characteristic expression of the purpose.'
In 1852, as the image in the Illustrated London News shows, there was plenty of space in front of Lewis Cubitt's facade, affording room for all the Victorian bustle that surrounded such a place – carriages, wagons, omnibi, sandwichmen, and the pedestrian host.
By the last decades of the last century, however, our eyes were distracted from the size, plainness, and purposefulness of this frontage by the sorry accumulation of additional buildings that had been piled in front. Now, as part of the restoration of King's Cross station, these have been swept away and, although parts of the square in front of the building are still boarded up, people can bustle and the amazing facade may be seen again. True, the architects of the restoration and upgrade have provided a discreet canopy that cuts through the small lower entrance arches. But this seems a small price to pay for the clearing up of the frontage and the chance to see clearly the two magnificent arches once again.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
The red and the black
The multiple name sign in my previous post reminded me of this conjunction of old and newish in Soho. I mostly associate street names made of individual ceramic tile letters with Hampstead (London NW3), although they also appear in other places, including Ilfracombe, I believe. In NW3 they go back well into the Victorian period, and help create the pleasing coherence of the street design in that part of North London.
In my picture, however, similar letters were used in Berwick Street, Soho, and now they are a little the worse for wear. What to do, when two letters fall off and no replacements can be found? Resisting the idea of renaming the street Erwic Street and being done with it, the solution seems to have been to install one of the City of Westminster's more recent sign designs. These enamelled steel plates are now ubiquitous in Central London and so familiar that the overused word iconic might be applied to them by the unwary. The design was produced in around 1968 by Chris Tinings (and/or Misha Black: sources vary) of the consultancy Design Research Unit. The lettering is in Univers Bold Condensed with a careful use of red and black to make the information really clear.
So while the standard metal sign tells us where we are, the remains of the old tiled sign remind us how we might once have found our way around. Once more, graphic clutter reveals a bit of the past.
Saturday, November 9, 2013
In a name
Tucked between Charing Cross Road and Centre Point are a couple of rather dusty-looking blocks of presumably Victorian flats with shops below. They are called Clifton Mansions and York Mansions, and, although I must have passed them scores of times I'd not noticed much about them except to register a general impression of rows of windows and classical details. When we were passing by again the other day, the Resident Wise Woman looked up and pointed at this interesting bit of signage. 'Look at the two kinds of lettering,' she said, and I got out my camera and snapped, holding the thing as steadily as I could in the gloaming. We commented on changing fashions, how someone had felt the need to replace high Victorian curvaceous carved lettering with plainer, blockier, more grotesque capitals to satisfy some late-Victorian taste. And then we continued our journey in the direction of Covent Garden.
I thought nothing more of this until I picked out my picture to post on the blog, took a closer look, and realised that there are in fact three generations of lettering not two. One is, indeed, curvaceous and carved, and part of it, saying 'SIONS' (presumably part of the word 'Mansions') is clearly visible where the later plaster has peeled away. Another is, indeed, in bold capitals, painted on the plaster that has partly peeled, and enough of it survives that we can read 'CLIFTON MAN'. But look closely to the right of 'CLIFTON' and a ghostly 'Y' can be seen. Look closer still (you'll have to click on the image to make it display larger) and there is clearly another word in bold capitals beneath 'CLIFTON'. I think it's 'SALISBURY' but the first 'S' has vanished. And what is that under the bottom line? 'HO'? Could this building have begun as Clifton Mansions, changed its name to Salisbury House, then changed back to Clifton Mansions?
So what was going to be a post about two styles of lettering has developed into a puzzle about naming that has left me mystified. Does anyone know anything about these buildings and their names?
* * *
In the comments section there is now an incredibly detailed and interesting note from Shui-Long (for which many thanks), the conclusion of which is that the building had three successive names:
'Some time between 1895 and 1899 flats were created on the upper floors as no.54 High St, with the name "Dover Mansions"; between 1899 and 1910 this was changed, with no.54 becoming "Salisbury House" and no.57 becoming "Winchester House"; and some time after 1915, the names were changed again to "Clifton Mansions" (54) and "York Mansions" (57).'
The part of the building in my photograph is No.54, so it was successively Dover Mansions, Salisbury House, and Clifton Mansions. Please see the Comments section for more detail.
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Lost village, lost church
Writing in the Observer in March 1967, Ian Nairn listed thirteen English churches that he recommended to readers as worth a visit over the coming Easter Holiday. This baker's dozen were, he said, untouched by restorers and included such wonders as the parish church at Whitby, Yorkshire, and that at Inglesham, Wiltshire, both among my personal favourites. One of the smallest and least known was the church of St George, Goltho, lost among fields and trees not far from Wragby in Lincolnshire, a church that belonged to a 'deserted' medieval village.
If you were after atmosphere, Goltho was the place: a brick church with a whitewashed interior, simple pews, a two-decker pulpit. It was a place of quiet and tranquility that transcended its basic, if interesting, architecture of perhaps around 1530. It was right, somehow, that the derivation of the village name is from Saxon words meaning 'the place where the marigolds grow', even if oilseed rape is the more likely source of local colour these days.
I'm sad to be writing about this building in the past tense. A few days ago the building caught fire. There is not much left now except the walls – roof and fittings have gone, the plaster has come off the interior walls. It's a sorry mess, due, it's thought, to a lightning strike. Nature, that provided the building with its perfect setting, can also take its toll.
* * *
Photograph © Copyright J.Hannan-Briggs and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Friday, November 1, 2013
Sweet and simple
Trim 18th-century brickwork, perhaps of 1717, the date on the rainwater heads, marks out the Old Sugar Loaf as a building of some consequence, and a plaque says that there has been an inn on this site in the centre of Dunstable since 1660. It was a first-class posting and coaching inn by the time of its 18th and 19th-century heyday, a place where travellers liked to stop, especially if their coach arrived in time for dinner – the early menus were said to be lavish. But what caught my eye of course was the sign, a gigantic conical sugar loaf placed atop the rather stripped-down, Regency-looking Doric portico. Eyecatching, bold, and literal, it does the job, I suppose, though it's hardly the most artful of the unusual English inn signs I've spotted in my travels.
The thin bands running around the cone seem to be the wires of fairy lights, which presumably enliven the scene at night. The idea of sparkling lights reminds me that the sugar loaf also looks like one of those 'volcano' fireworks that spark and splutter on bonfire night. Here's to architectural (and semiological) fireworks.