- Memoirs of an Unjust Fella: An Autobiography by J.M. Richards
Weidenfeld, 279 pp, £10.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77767 X
In the travel-starved Fifties, when the journey was often more glamorous than the destination. Sir Hugh Casson began one of his Observer articles: ‘As the airport bus rolled along Chelsea Embankment, I looked up and saw a light burning late in the study of the architectural correspondent of the Times. No doubt he was writing, “Sir Hugh Casson, whose death in an air accident …” ’
A good Cassonian ploy. Those who were outside the game would be impressed that he knew who the Times architectural correspondent was; those who knew that evasive figure to be J.M. Richards would be interested to learn where he lived; and those who knew Richards personally would groan: ‘Typical Jim. Up all night working on an obit.’
The anonymity of a Times byline – ‘Our Architectural Correspondent’ – was, in some ways, the crowning achievement of his public career. It made him the connection between architecture and the Establishment, a role for which he was peculiarly well fitted by background (Anglo-Irish, Church, Army and some land), training (Architectural Association School, plus practice in London, Ireland and North America) and professional experience as the editor of the Architectural Review on and off since 1935. And he knew absolutely everybody.
In his case, however, architecture meant the Modern Movement, something which the Establishment didn’t like at the beginning of his career, and nobody at all seemed to like by the end of that career in the early Seventies. In 1972, he gave the Annual Discourse to the Royal Institute of British Architects – the high point of the intellectual year for the architectural Establishment – and he called it ‘The Hollow Victory’, for he could see that he had blown it. The public and political part of his life had helped litter the face of the land with ugly and irresponsible lumps and had ended in comparative disaster, not the Utopia of socially progressive structures he had fought for ever since he became a working journalist.
That’s a familiar story, of course. Writing shock-horror-sensational stories of the ‘failure of Modern architecture’ has been a lucrative occupation for the likes of Simon Jenkins, but unlike Jenkins, Richards was the Great Insider. As he said in ‘The Hollow Victory’, he was ‘in the middle of the campaign for modern architecture’, and sure enough, among the illustrations to Unjust Fella, there is a group photograph of the entire Modern Movement in architecture (the lot, bar Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe), and there’s Jim, modestly in the back row but practically in the middle.
The progress (or retreat) of the Modern Movement in architecture from its Thirties role as a revolutionary cadre of the Popular Front to its recent disgrace as the very epitome of ‘Faceless Liberal Oppression’ is one of the great tragedies of hubris and hope in our times, and the Great Insider should be able to reveal to us the inner chemistries of its rise and fall. He doesn’t; I suspect he can’t. The places and dates are all here, because he was there, in the middle. The protagonists are named, blamed or praised as necessary, because he knew them all. But we learn almost nothing about them, because we learn almost nothing about Richards either. This glazed reticence may, however, tell us something in itself, especially if it is viewed as part and parcel of the public persona of the man in the middle of the Modern Movement.
At this point, let me lay my own credentials on the table, since what follows stems in part from my own rather specialised viewpoint and experience. Quite apart from my academic activities as a historian of architecture – mostly modern architecture – I was also a professional colleague of ‘J.M.R.’ for 12 years as a member of the editorial staff of the Architectural Review, still – and largely because of Richards – about the most respected monthly in its field, and its weekly sibling, the Architects’ Journal. I had, therefore, a fairly close, if not always unobstructed view of Jim Richards for most of the years of his greatest power and influence among the counsels of architects. He was a good boss, if not inspiring. I could always admire his professionalism, his devotion to the cares and operations of putting out a high-quality magazine 12 times a year on a limited budget. And he complimented me by offering me the editorial chair when he decided to quit in 1970, though by then I was committed to Academe. Our relationship was restricted, however, to an ‘interaction of role-models’ as the current cant would have it. When I made a gaffe or screwed something up and was summoned to the editor’s room, we slipped naturally into the Headmaster-and-Assistant routine. Reprimand was administered, apologies were returned, no blood was spilt, no passions engaged, actual people were not involved.
Jim was frequently described as ‘headmasterish’; he was even then grey and grave, with a face whose musculature sagged all too easily into an expression of guarded sadness (‘Et Jim? Toujours triste?’ asked Pierre Vago, his almost exactly opposite number in Paris, one time). Together with his conspicuous personal reticence, this gave rise to a legend of ‘almost pathological shyness’ that persists to this day. It seems, on reflection, that the reticence must have been deliberate, almost programmatic.
In all the years I worked with or for him, there was only one occasion when he lowered his guard and spoke from within, and that was at the interview when he offered me the succession to the editorship at the Review. He shocked me – because he had always seemed so well integrated into the job and the organisation – by saying how determined he was to get out the moment he could collect his full pension, because he was so sick and tired of the whole place. I had no idea at that point how wrong everything was going for him at the Review, at the Times (Cudlipp axed him), at the Royal Fine Arts Commission (not a body to help anybody’s reputation after the Piccadilly fiasco) and with the Modern Movement (though he must have been brooding on the hollowness of its victory already).
In general, I think he has always held practically everybody at arm’s length. The narrative of the book is marked by a superficiality which goes beyond being merely unobservant or indifferent. And it becomes baffling and ultimately infuriating as one reads on. As I said earlier, he knew (and knows) everybody. The index to Unjust Fella runs to some six hundred entries, of which three-quarters are people, from Aalto to Zuckermann, taking in Fidel Castro, Elizabeth David, Erskine Childers, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Robert Byron, Lawrence Durrell, Le Corbusier, Malcolm MacDonald, Tambimuttu ... and Donald Maclean.
It is completely typical of the whole book that Maclean (whom he knew at school at Gresham’s) is characterised solely by the phrase: ‘created a sensation ... by defecting to Russia from his post at the Foreign Office’. What is the point of writing an autobiography if you aren’t going to tell the reader anything he doesn’t know? Most of the hundreds of interesting and important people who cross these pages are dealt with similarly – Alexander Calder is described as ‘an amiable bear of a man’ and that’s it – or encapsulated in clear plastic clichés like ‘a slender creature with large doe-like eyes’. I suspect that may be a true description of Tirzah Garwood (Ravilious) but truth is no defence!
The most conspicuous passages of totally gratuitous reticence in the whole thin narrative concern the two people who probably did more to identify the Review with the Modern Movement than he himself did. Both were British-style maniacs of the purest water: Philip Morton Shand and Hubert de Cronin Hastings. Shand was the first writer on the Review to discuss Modern architecture from an international viewpoint. He wrote a brilliantly cockeyed history of Modern in 1934 that anticipates most of Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design under the title ‘Scenario for a Human Drama’, which the Review ran in four parts as a back-up to the launching of F.R.S. Yorke’s book The Modern House – straight-out propaganda for Modern architecture.
Although I never met Shand, the old-timers around the Review had an endless supply of wild stories about his oddities and misadventures, because he had been a real original, not a standard-issue stereotype British eccentric like John Betjeman, who had been Richards’s immediate predecessor. But the Shand stories were nothing like as marvellous as the legends about ‘de Cronin’, ‘H.deC.’, ‘Ivor de Wolfe’ (as he nommed himself de plume) or – to the very oldest servants of the company – ‘Master Hubert’.
Not only had de Cronin hired Richards in the first place, but as the power behind all thrones at the Architectural Press, it was he who had committed the Review to the support of Modern architecture in the first place. Now, being Norfolk-born myself, I would naturally expect a Hastings to be something extraordinary, but de Cronin was a miracle of brilliance, inconsistency, bloody-mindedness and untrammelled originality (Hugh Casson once called him ‘the personification of adventure unlimited’). He presented himself in everyday life as a cross between a musical-comedy country squire and a mad colonel from an Evelyn Waugh novel.
He was also a brilliant journalist whose unforeseeable editorial decisions were right, 98 per cent of the time. And when he ceased to be right, with the disastrous ‘Man-Plan’ issues of the early Seventies, he quit. For ever. Now it occurs to me (and Richards appears to agree on p. 122) that he may have decided to commit the Review to the Modern Movement out of a mixture of journalistic flair and aristocratic whim, without ever stopping to inquire what it was really all about. Furthermore, the whole beginning of the Modern Movement in England had other Hastings-ish peculiarities that Richards might have illuminated, but merely boasts about.
One is that it was very Debrett, full of Hons, and the stray ‘autodidacts’ like Frederick Gibberd get no mention in Unjust Fella. The other is that this gaggle of cut-glass dilettantes was by no means committed heart and soul to Modernity. It was the same connection, plus J.M.R., that founded the Georgian Group in the Thirties and the Victorian Society in the Fifties, actions that would have been inconceivable from a Gropius or a Le Corbusier.
Richards could have illuminated both these anti-Modern tendencies, because he not only had the insider view but also wrote two of the key books – and they are his best books, by far. One was The Castles on the Ground, an evocation of Victorian suburbia for which ideological Modernists have never forgiven him; the other was The Functional Tradition, a celebration of the strictly Georgian beginnings of industrial architecture that industrial archaeologists are just now starting to look askance at.
If one compares either of these to his main contribution to the Modern Movement, the Introduction to Modern Architecture of 1940, they have the qualities of liveliness and heart that the Introduction always lacked. It’s a dry book that reads like it was pushing someone else’s orthodoxies – and perhaps that is what the trouble has always been, for the reading of Unjust Fella left me with the feeling that Jim was much less committed to the Modern Movement than even he himself had supposed, and that his position in ‘the middle’ of it may have been to some extent protective colouring, part of the public façade of his guarded person, part of the programme of holding things and people at arm’s length.
And in the end, he opted for the Establishment rather than Modernism. His knighthood came up in 1972, the same year that he discoursed on the hollow victory of Modern architecture. In the last chapter of Unjust Fella he tries to pretend that the Discourse was not a withdrawal of his ‘allegiance to the modern architectural principles of the Thirties’. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be, but it certainly sounded like it. Even though I knew what was coming, I was quite as shaken as some members of the audience who didn’t, for here was one of the heroes of my youth saying in almost so many words that his connection in the Thirties had mistaken external style for social principles, and had mistaken people who made socially progressive noises for good architects. It was a text that sat well with his customarily woeful countenance – though one must admire his honesty in saying it out straight like that. The pity is only that the honesty could have gone deeper, in both the Discourse and the autobiography, especially about de Cronin Hastings, whose weird views and friends may be the source of those ideological muddles and compromising alliances that left the British Modern Movement helpless to resist the blandishments and establishments of the all-too-corporate welfare state, since the architectural crimes of which Jim complains were committed as much by Big Local Government as by Big Business.
The clincher to my proposal that J.M.R was never deep enough into Modern to realise that the British version may have been fundamentally flawed is the very best chapter of the book, and one that has nothing to do with Modern architecture at all. It’s about fire-watching at St Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz, and in it Jim’s real affection for historical architecture, for history, for British traditions and the ways of the Established Church glows through with a warmth and a lack of superficiality that is quite unlike the rest of Unjust Fella.
Unjust Fella? It’s from the old quatrain about umbrellas and getting wet – or not, if you are unjust enough to nick the just’s brolly. Jim intends it to refer to the lucky breaks in his career, for which he cannot take credit, and allegedly didn’t deserve. But such blatant false modesty does him no credit either but sounds, once again, like protective colouring deliberately adopted.