It’s a fallacy when people go to a park, sit amongst trees, grass and water, and decide that they like Nature and that Nature=good, the built environment=bad. Far likelier than not, the green space you’re enjoying is every bit as man-made as The Shard. The rolling Tuscan hills where you had your last holiday were covered in forest and thick undergrowth before man intervened. The last time I was taken for a walk in proper wilderness, in the Scottish Glens, getting from A to B was a fight and we all ended up covered in cuts, scratches, aches and pains.
The houses clustered around the Great Portland Street entrance to Regents Park are a formidable proposition, inhabiting that stretch where bona fide Central London ends and well-heeled NW begins. Pinter lived here after hitting the big time, not particularly happily if Hirst from No Man’s Land is anything to go by; the celebrated writer drinking heavily and rattling around a North London mansion, all sorts of disreputable types wanting a piece of him.
In his description of the ostentatiously lavish games put on by the vain tyrant Commodus, Edward Gibbon tells us that “Commodus killed a camelopardis, or giraffe, the tallest, the most gentle and the most useless of the large quadrupeds. This singular animal, a native only of the interior parts of Africa, has not been seen in Africa since the revival of letters”. In today’s age, when anyone can fly to Rome for the price of a dozen pints of beer, it’s only the history buffs who revere the Romans. But this small footnote, which tells us that the Romans enjoyed goods which were unavailable to the Enlightenment some 17 centuries later, gives a clue as to why Rome has usually loomed so large in the imagination of its descendants.
We are declinists. We like lost causes and giving up. We like to imagine that certain ways of life are gone forever, and that we’ve lost a good thing. It fits with our tendency to think the very worst of each other. It’s a truism nowadays that Venice is dead; the glorious city and topographical treasure trove that once ruled a vast empire reduced to a Disneyland of shoebox hotel rooms and plastic gondolas. Yet explore the depths of San Polo or Cannaregio, and you can shake off Disney Venice altogether; they may be ageing and shrivelling, but these communities are still bigger than we imagine and this is where they get on with it. Say 95% of a vast thing is lost; we of course write the thing off altogether, but when you explore that 5% it can be a real surprise to see just how much is left. Look while you still can.
Despite his relish for the modern done well, Nairn seldom gives as much attention to stations as to churches. On the whole, I find stations to have the bigger personalities; thinking about Kings X got me wondering if it’s generational. Everybody used to attend their church with a season ticket; it was where they were baptised, confirmed, married, buried. In our post-Christian age there is less of a connection to the drama of one’s life. A grand terminus is where we enter or leave cities, meet or part with loved ones, with all the attendant theatre this entails. Transport is as much of a necessity, and as heavily used, as a medieval duomo would have been in 1350. The crucifix loses centre stage to the clock-face. Then it was imperative that we got our seat in heaven, now it is imperative that we get a seat on the 08.39 to London Bridge. Are stations our cathedrals?
Sometimes you can know a place your whole life without ever having looked at it. It’s something you have to train yourself to do. Sure, you’ll take a Lonely Planet on your European city break and you’ll dutifully see the sights and form an opinion. What about that place that’s been a backdrop to your life for 20+ years as you’ve rushed from one activity to another? My reasons for trying this Nairn project are partly to see the old through new eyes. We tend only to notice changes and so ‘see’ the familiar places without looking, but there’s nothing to stop us from turning any commute into a sightseeing excursion; scrutinising that building you pass every day and thinking “What is this building saying to us, to the space around it?”
Nairn’s London starts with The City, follows it up with Westminster and the West End, then works its way out. A bit contrary, perhaps, to start with one of the very last entries in the book, but I was sent to Enfield for training today and given an hour for lunch. The day return to Enfield Chase is an eye-watering £7.60, so chronology be damned.
Enfield was new to me. I know that as Seven Sisters bleeds into Tottenham the area gets shabbier and shabbier, and I have experienced small boys lobbing bricks at the Stansted Express around Enfield Lock, so in my head the area was a mix of West Croydon and Novosibirsk. I could scarcely have been more wrong.