Nairn’s London #23, #2, #24, #5

Nairn’s London #23
The Ritz

THEN: The overwhelming thing about the Ritz is not ostentation or even luxury but a deep quiet. Through the swing doors is another world from Piccadilly. The tempo gently winds down; the long corridor, the space and the unhurried waiters seem to have come out of a dream. Money here does not buy a multiplication of gadgets but deep wedges of privacy. At the Ritz they are enclosed by decoration in eighteenth-century French style of the utmost delicacy and discretion, done from conviction and not fashion. The outside is just the same: polite and respectful but never obsequious. Mewes was French and elderly, Davis was English and young, and they made admirable partners.

NOW: I doubt The Ritz has changed all that much since Nairn wrote about it. Calm, quiet and private: it’s still very much a sanctuary for those that need it. The long corridor still runs from end-to-end, with a staff member positioned every few metres; each of which shot me disparaging looks as I hadn’t donned a tie for entry. A bastion of old England.

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Nairn’s London #2
St James Palace

THEN: Like many other places in London, you have to play this by ear. The eye won’t help you much in an organised, Hampton-Court sense. The courtyards are ordinary, deliberately casual: the red tunics and bearskins are no less military than at the Palace but seem here to be just doing a job, semi-casually. Tourists come in accidentally, perhaps sidetracked from the Palace and The Mall by the thought of a cuppa. No hope of that this side of Piccadilly, this is the underside of a monarchy, an equivalent to the garden side of Buckingham Palace which no ordinary person can ever see. And not only of a monarchy: we would have been a republic long ago if this passion for discreet authority, understatement and privacy were not part of the essence of most Englishmen. It is not so much one note in the English scale as a key signature.

NOW: A building I must have skirted past one hundred times, without acknowledging properly. Much like the Tower’s ravens, you sense this is the Royal family’s true stronghold: forget Buckingham Palace, without this one, the crown would fall. No red tunics or bearskins on display when I walked past – a great pity – as their colours would have lifted the brickwork’s warmth on what was a dreary wet day.

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Nairn’s London #24
The Wellington (corner of Strand and Aldwych)

THEN: Extraordinary-ordinary; comfortable and quietly elegant and what every pub or street should be and isn’t. The amazing thing is that this has happened in the last few years. A recent redecoration has realised potentialities which have been lying fallow for half a century. Two bars have been thrown into one: usually a fatal step, here essential to give an overall shape. The distinction between the bars is still made by a couple of steps; everything else is made really new, but quietly, so that you can register the difference without noticing it. Good stuff behind the bar (a Free House), spirited Irish girls to serve it; more truly up to date than the most trumpeted pub rebuilding.

NOW: Now a Nicholsons, I fear that many of the edges that prompted Nairn’s favourable review have been sanded down over the years. The steps up to the second bar remain, and there are subtle design differences in cornicing between the two spaces, but the pub is no longer remarkable. Nonetheless, a perfectly decent boozer, with a variety of beer taps and gins. The spirited Irish girls must have been working a different shift when I visited.

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Nairn’s London #5
Law Courts, Strand

THEN: Just as the Houses of Parliament killed Barry, so the Law Courts put an end to G.E. Street. There was never enough feeling to go round, and it was concentrated into one stupendous room. The rest of his practice – all the outside, all the country churches of the 1870s – was clever, heartless, hack-work. Nothing but duty would entice you through the main entrance, yet inside it is all different. The Great Hall is a superb room, useless only by those legal definitions of architectural function which recognise merely the visible part of the iceberg. It seems as though Street has knocked it back into the thirteenth century through sheer will, the kind of endurance that confounds medical prediction: ‘he shouldn’t have lasted the night out’. And there it is, magisterial in all the good senses of the word: ordered, compassionate, direct and to a huge scale. It is a funny way to get to greatness – Beethoven’s way in the Ninth Symphony, and in human terms the hardest, most meritorious way of all. Every word of this is wrung out against my own inclinations, for I hate what Street did by pretending to himself that he was sensitive and understanding: so this may be the truest entry in the book. There is a good deal more in the Law Courts, including a bar, the unlikeliest local of all, and the courts themselves – stuffy Dickensian rooms where lawyers argue endlessly through civil actions whilst their principals are miles away.

NOW: I’d wager this is one of the most beautiful buildings in London. The entrance is dark and foreboding: a colossal mass that somehow manages to pull focus onto its small front doors (an effect not unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s dolly zoom.) Once you’re through security, and inside, the building is awe-inspiring. The Great Hall is magnificent. I imagine when the balance of evidence is on your side, this space only serves to embolden you. And when you know you’re guilty, its scale intimidates you until you’re near breaking point. Other highlights include the Bear Garden (a room so called because the volume of lawyers in there, discussing last-minute case revisions, prompted Queen Victoria to describe it like ‘a garden full of bears’) and the first floor balcony (which currently houses a costume exhibition.)

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