“The Vines was built in the last year of the [19th] century and every majestic detail is kept up as good as new… Tall and luminous, brown and gold giant pilasters combining elegance with immense force, and huge Victorian paintings between. Sitting in it, you feel ten feet tall, for it is the kind of grandeur that raises you up rather than crushes you. Drinking beer which is both better and cheaper than the metropolitan brew — any kind of Liverpool bitter is a good drop — you realize that London has nothing like this.”
“This is a basement under the angle between Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street. It is not trying to be Irish; it just is. A big, bare room with a central zinc-topped bar; no concession to comfort, but on the other hand some of the best draught Guinness in London… It has surely got the fairies on it, though mentioning fairies in this rough, shabby, real place you might get some strange looks.”
Ian Nairn on Ward’s Irish House, in Nairn’s London, 1966.
This Thursday night, 20 February, at 22:00, BBC4 (the channel for swots) is showing The Man Who Fought the Planners, an hour-long documentary about architecture critic Ian Nairn.
As well as writing about buildings and places, Nairn was also a beer and pub enthusiast, as we explained in the Winter 2013 edition of the Campaign for the Real Ale’s BEER magazine:
[Nairn’s] contribution to CAMRA’s success came in 1974 when, rather out of the blue, he published a lengthy essay in The Sunday Times entitled ‘The Best Beers of Our Lives’. A passionate argument in favour of local breweries and regionally specific products, as opposed to ‘national brew’, it opened with this statement: “It may be the fifty-ninth second of the fifty-ninth minute after eleven o’clock, but I think there is now a chance of saving what remains of draught beer in Britain. CAMRA… had 1,000 members a year ago: it now has 18,000, including me.”
He also, for this reason and others, has a recurring walk-on part in our book, Brew Britannia.
We’re not sure how much The Man Who Fought the Planners will touch on his love of pubs, but if it doesn’t end with Philip Glass’s Façades playing over a photo of Nairn holding a pint while the narrator explains that he drank himself to death, we’ll be very surprised.
We do know that Gillian Darley has been involved in the programme, and should take this opportunity to belatedly recommend the anthology of writing about Nairn, Words in Place, which she edited with David McKie last year. It gives a flavour of each of his books (some of which are very hard to get hold of) as well as an overview of his life. The chapter on his mid-1960s US road tour is, we think, begging to be made into a film by the Coen Brothers.
Having come across several mentions of an influential article on beer by Ian Nairn which appeared in the Sunday Times in the early 70s (some sources said 1972, others ’74), last week, we finally managed to track down a copy at the British Library Newspaper Archive at Colindale. It was worth the wait.
‘The Best Beers of Our Lives’ is more essay than article and just begging to be anthologised in some kind‘beer reader’. Here’s what he has to say on the disappearance of local breweries during the Big Six takeover binge of the 1960s:
…to extinguish a local flavour, which is what has happened a hundred times in the last ten years, is like abolishing the Beaujolais: it is red and alcoholic, might as well make it in a Eurocity to an agreed Common Market recipe…. the peasants wouldn’t know the difference . . . but the peasants are fighting back.
Though he’d been raging for almost twenty years against Subtopia — ‘the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern’ (Outrage, 1955) — this is the first time, as far as we are aware, that he had explicity applied that idea to beer.
And here’s what he has to say about being part of a niche market:
The choice. As a consumer, that’s all I ask. You can brew bland brand X until it runs out of your conditioned reflexes as long as you give me the choice. Otherwise I’ll drink Guinness, and there may be tens of thousands of others with the same calibre of unsatisfied throat.
Yes! Exactly! (Well, not exactly — Guinness isn’t much cop these days either.) He was right on numbers, too: the week after this article appeared, Michael Hardman told us, CAMRA received another thousand or so membership applications in an overwhelming deluge.
If you want to read it yourself, first check whether your local library service has signed up for this trial of the digitised Sunday Times archive. If the answer is ‘no’, then don your best moth-eaten tweed jacket, half-moon glasses and bicycle clips; get yourself to the Colindale microfilm readers; and wind your way on to page 33 of the 30 June 1974 edition of the paper.
We’d never heard of Ian Nairn until a couple of weeks ago, but he’s unavoidable if you spend any time at all reading newspapers from the 1950s and 60s. He made his name with Outrage (1955), a treatise on the architectural (and therefore cultural) homogenisation of British culture, lavishly illustrated with photographs from towns around the country which demonstrate the increasing difficulty of telling the suburbs of Southampton from those of Carlisle. Thereafter, he wrote hundreds of weekly columns and books, and hosted several TV shows up until the 1970s.
He worked with, and was a disciple of, Nikolaus Pevsner, but his own books were much more accessible. Perhaps disproving the point we made here, his architectural guide to the capital, Nairn’s London (1966), includes almost thirty pubs and, in many cases, mentions the quality of the beer. (Nairn liked a drink. No, actually, Nairn liked lots of drinks.)
He writes about pubs with flourish and wit.
The Barley Mow, Marylebone: has ‘cubicles… for romantic indiscretion or flogging atomic secrets’.
The Beehive, a Fuller’s pub in Brentford: ‘a song’, but causes him to lament that ‘there don’t seem to be the same number of real people around any more, especially among the designers of pubs’.
The Black Friar, Blackfriars: ‘tainted with a particularly musty imagination which has clouded the space like a bad pint of bitter’.
The Black Lion, Plaistow: ‘has gone back to the fountain-head of human pubbiness’.
Crown and Greyhound, Dulwich: ‘an act of love, it bursts out all over — and has the same reverberating effect as a an untouched nineteenth-century pub, because it is set off by a similar gusto’.
The Grenadier, Wilton Row: ‘untouched by half timber, leaded light, chromium plate, or Festival of Britain lettering… the old servants’ pub that has short-circuited to become a local for rich mews-dwellers’.
The Swan and Mitre, Bromley: ‘teeters all the time on the brink of preciousness, but never quite falls in… the tension is invigorating… The notice requesting you not to take draught beer into the lounge… is in fact topographically just: this really is the place where you drink with your little finger crooked’.
Our 1967 paperback, on the brink of disintegration, wasn’t cheap: if you see a copy, snap it up.
Over-thinking beer, pubs and the meaning of craft since 2007