After a recent trip to the city I view “Nairn’s London” (2014 ) through a prism of nostalgia and confusion. Like Nairn, parts of the city have morphed for me beyond recognition. But, unlike Nairn, I am part of a parasitic condition. Flown in, dropped off, I displace the fulcrum of this ancient city with my huge carbon imprint. As much as I believe – with Nairn – that the heart of a ‘coherent city’ is ‘its people’ I will never truly know them (15). Like me they are the products of a forced mobility, or units to be shifted from one place to another. Like me, their dream of a city cozily transplants what that city actually is. London is a phantom limb, a traumatic act of collective remembrance. The ‘penile and montane edifices’ of Bill Griffiths’ Spilt Cities (1999) glower down upon the exposed bodies of its inhabitants. “You are not”, I imagine Boris Jonson happily sniffing, “welcome”!
London is a place of exile, of removals. The flabby centre dislodges those who do not have the economic right. Its distended residue is quite visibly manifest in the warehouses on the periphery. Unwanted trinkets are stowed neatly in boxes to maintain the effortless chic of bare interiors. Sterility is defined as the a priori condition. But Nairn’s writing outlives our dystopian moment because it makes itself so readily available as ‘city craft’. His invective drifts across cultural sites rendered in primary colours. Nairn’s Soho, for instance, is recognizable not holistically but by a purposeful glimmer out of time with the ‘Soho of today’. ‘The clearest identity in London’, as he calls it, stands out purely in terms of its lack. Nairn’s process of mapping was portentous. The signs of change might not be fully understood, but they are very clearly registered. ‘The tarts are off the streets’, writes Nairn, ‘ [i]nstead there are traffic wardens, taking up the same kind of stance but not looking nearly as inviting’ (74). In today’s Soho those wardens have assumed city planning responsibilities. This is a ‘world of serial astonishment’ no longer, as hipsters flaunt their beards in increasingly ridiculous restaurants. Nairn’s depiction of Soho as a place where there is ‘something for everybody’ seems utopian in the extreme.
Nairn’s London, then, is meant as a point of embarkation only. Avoiding the subterraneous city, it is a guidebook to be engaged with on foot. The text identifies recognizable patterns of development that are in some senses ahistorical. When Nairn saw the Tower of London as an immense folly – ‘hostage to the unreality of sightseeing’ (35) – we can see ‘improvements’ in Soho as part of the same conditions. ‘People actually went to their death through this pasteboard Traitor’s Gate’?, smirks Nairn, ‘Nonsense’! By the same token the sea of poppies at the Tower of London this November must be seen as a similar ‘full blown farce’. ‘All that is left’ of London consistently represented in such a way, as Nairn suggests, ‘is a vast hulk peppered with spectacular buildings, quaint occasions, fake sophistication and too many people in the underground” (15).