Anyone unfamiliar with London who hears the name Pimlico might think of Passport To Pimlico, in which a community of knees-up-muvver-brown cockneys spend a mad fortnight seceding from the UK; but then that was the 1940s, when Islington was considered a slum… the real Pimlico has always struck me as weirder than the black-and-white Burgundy. A dozen years ago, when I was just taking up permanent residence in London, I remember people discussing this anomalous district. Sat between Belgravia and the river, flats in its grandiose stucco-fronted Regency buildings went for scarcely any more than those in Zone 2, despite Parliament sitting round the corner (pretty much everything has tripled in price since, it’s just that the hitherto unfancied areas we now flock to started from a lower base).
Being in Pimlico reminds me of one of those awful jobs I had for a very short time in those early days, at a consultancy posing as a charity. My manager had started there as a cleaner and, having been obsequious enough to the right person, somehow attained the post of office manager post at £33,000 (good money in 2002), a flat in St George’s Square SW1, and was clinging onto both for dear life. Claimed to have sent the Empire Strikes Back script to George Lucas, which he failed to acknowledge and then used in its entirety. Spent the first fortnight promising to show me what my duties were “tomorrow” until someone in another department took pity and did it themselves. Got drunk at a conference and told the team I was about to be sacked, the same day I was offered a job with my current employers. I never was much of a forelock-tugger. They knew my heart wasn’t in it.
I digress. I can never quite put my finger on Pimlico. The stucco and the fat round pillars by the front doors are very Brighton, and suggest grandeur gone to seed in the manner of those great seafront squares on the way to Hove. The chilly wide squares and prestigious embassies of Belgravia are next door, but here there’ll be a laundrette or a cheap Food & Wine on every corner. There’s something post-apocalyptic about the jaundiced pastel whitewash of these XXL house-fronts (a suggestion of ghostly Trieste), and these spacious streets which feel so empty even when residents are out and about.
Many of the side streets run off at diagonal angles; the effect is faintly disorienting and gives the place the same Pinteresque menace as one of those seaside towns whose jolly countenance strikes a false note. Ditto the highly-concentrated glut of questionable hotels.
It’s one of those scorching afternoons where you can imagine nothing better than a cold pint, so I walk the length of Belgrave Road to pay tribute to Nairn at St George’s Tavern, where he spent his twilight years drinking all the money the Sunday Times had spunked on his waning star. Famously, Jonathan Meades met him here twice. The first time, 14 pints and a packet of crisps were his lunch; the second time he was dieting, so just the 11 pints.
There’s a tendency in our culture to glamourize this sort of thing, and making a pilgrimage to this pub I am complicit (or worse) in something neither big nor clever. Alcoholism kills people. When we were new to London my mates and I got a thrill from drinking in the Coach & Horses in the last days of Norman’s tenure, but a dying Jeffrey Bernard having his legs amputated is nothing to celebrate. I met his nurse once. “He was really horrible to me, then he wrote every week in The Spectator about how useless the NHS was”. Neither surprising nor gratifying.
In any case, the pub stoutly refuses me even a trace of louche, raffish bohemianism. It’s now run by Nicholsons, one of those gloomy chains offering Wetherspoons fare at gastro prices. Although it’s been expensively decorated and the toilets have mandarin & grapefruit handwash and the European girls carrying burgers and coffees to tourists are working terribly hard, a layer of joylessness coats everything in the way it doesn’t in a Sam Smiths. Out the back looks a bit more cosy but, following the trend for pub apartheid, the “Churchill Dining Room” has been reserved for diners (you’ll find the same arrangement in The Black Friar, a marvellous pub, much to my chagrin also run by this chain). Nairn was a connoisseur of pubs but either I have a blind spot, or what he got from this pub has been stubbed out. I suppose there are worse fates for a pub.
Just down from the pub, Eccleston and Warwick Squares catch my eye, with their gated gardens a la South Ken and their outsize house numbers painted in a cartoonish old font that belongs on a dodgem. Only afterwards, reading Pimlico’s Wikipedia entry, do I realise that Nairn lived here (14 Eccleston or 14 Warwick, depending on which sources you believe).
As I’m dehydrated and the busy pub feels ill-suited to rest and reflection, I dispatch my £4.75 pint far too quickly and stagger out to explore Pimlico without any route in mind.
Like so much of London, the well-heeled and the very poor exist side by side.
De Quincey House! I presume that William S Burroughs Court is on the first right after the pawn shop. Hearteningly in a time when it feels like the marginalised are having a particularly hard time of it, there are still a few raving lunatics about the place.
I remember a brutalist library and performance school from previous visits. These have recently been demolished and replaced by this edifice, which apparently has taken its lead from a suburban GP’s [Edit: friends assure me the original library is still there, for now].
Eventually all these streets start blurring into one, and I consult Nairn for his two places of interest. First is St James the Less; as I try to take it in, I’m pondering the red brick tower and biscuit-tin Victorian Gothic looks.
I scarcely notice the very thing that sends Nairn into raptures, the black iron railings. “Everything is taut, curled in, fighting mad- a superb performance, on the level of the best nineteenth-century romantic music, far above the best of the Pre-Raphaelites”. No less! It’s the Kings Cross gasholders again. This man can certainly give you a unique slant on things.
The church gets the nod too. “Pimlico can be dull, but this building would liven up any walk… slate and dusty red brick fuming at the shabby surroundings.” As I walk round to the entrance, it’s the little details that pull me into the church’s orbit, such as the carved scenes from Genesis that could pass for centuries older than they are.
I think I can hear the music of Gershwin as I circle the exterior. As I’ve been listening to Gershwin all week, I attribute this to downing a pint in a state of heatstroke. But when I peek through the door, a young man tiptoes out to meet me and whispers “The recital is free. You’re very welcome to come in”, and so I find myself listening to a saxophone quartet (I didn’t know such ensembles existed) play a Gershwin concerto, followed by modern pieces in that tradition but slightly more atonal; one is an attempt to replicate the traffic of a busy street in Warsaw. A pleasant chance encounter and a fine venue for live music.
There’s a slightly blasphemous crucifixion made of musical instruments (Christ’s torso is an elongated accordion, his fingers and toes made of piano keys). I like all the features of the interior very much; the altar, the mini-Albert Memorial over the baptismal font, the mosaics and the Microdisney references in the stained glass.
Whether they all add up or fit together I couldn’t say. For Nairn, the church “lacks the overwhelming spatial power… which could weld all these separate pieces into a great interior… but even as a repository for fittings, it is a place to walk around with child-like astonishment, like being transported back to the Great Exhibition.” More of a wunderkammer than a masterpiece, perhaps, but still well worth a visit.
Nairn’s other tip is the high-rise Hide Tower, completed in 1960. “It has no faults and at first sight it seems to have no special virtues.”
On my first sight, this seems pure contrarianism. High rises have negative connotations; having lived in one for a year, where the frequently broken lift was dominated by the graffiti “I ❤ ANNE-MARIE’S PISS FLAPS”, I know all about it. And here Nairn is, commending a plain porridge grey slab in the heart of a district where most homes look like this (Montaigne!).
As Nairn keeps looking, he decides that the lack of decoration is “due to deliberate austerity, not lack of feeling… carried out with devoted quietness”, putting the tower above the “meretricious and fancy concrete” that was going up at the time. There may be an element of projection here. I don’t know if it’s the power of suggestion, but as I keep looking I like it more and more myself. It simply looks like simple, good design. Its rising out of the trees perhaps offsets the “bruteness” of the concrete.
“The entrance hall, usually the worst part of a block of flats, is more like a church than most churches through sheer integrity”. I really did try to see it, but unless the intention is to stick the boot into “most churches” I’m afraid he’s lost me here.
This particular corner of the postcode Nairn calls “the scrappy hinterland of the Tate Gallery”, but I found the diversity quite intriguing. There are fancy houses facing onto the playing fields of Westminster School.
There’s this café, apparently a favoured place for cabbies to take their breaks; the way London is today, however, I can’t tell if the décor has been like this for 60 years or was installed two weeks ago by a bearded cyclist running the café as a start-up pop-up.
There’s a huge swathe of social housing and I’m sure a great many of the flats have gone private, but the clientèle seems fairly poor and many blocks have Asian children playing in the courtyards.
Live here and your local council is the City of Westminster; anyone getting one of these flats is going to stay firmly put. Feast your eyes on this:
There are new blocks going up too, which are decidedly not social. The foyer of this block gave every impression of belonging to a fancy hotel, but there was nothing around to indicate that it was a hotel. A day later, the Guardian broke the story about “poor doors” and the token social flats in new-build having separate entrances around the back, and separate lifts for their floor so that the hedge fund managers don’t have to ever see their peasant neighbours (or, depending on how you look at it, so the poor folk don’t have to fork out eye-watering service charges for a gym, concierge, etc).
Marching back towards Victoria Station, amongst the pretty mansions and estates an interesting curved and metal-clad building catches my eye. As I wander around its side I see Pompidou-style lifts ferrying workers up and down, and as I reach the front a familiar piece of animation is acted out before my eyes.