The Spectator's Notes

Remembering Gavin Stamp, former architecture writer of The Spectator

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

Gavin Stamp, who died just before the year’s end, will be mourned by many Spectator readers. For years, particularly in the 1980s, he was the paper’s main voice on architectural questions, notably as they affected the public space. His voice, both angry and compassionate, would be raised whenever he thought someone in authority — in church, state, local government, big business — was damaging what belonged to the people. He was very important at changing official attitudes imbued with fag-end modernism. No one expounded better the conception of a building’s public purpose, so to hear him talk about, say, Lutyens’s Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, was revelatory. Gavin made his greatest splash in the paper early in 1985 with his cover piece ‘Telephone boxes: reverse the changes’. This led our vigorous campaign to force the newly privatised British Telecom to stop ripping out all its 76,500 K2 and K6 red telephone boxes, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, perhaps the best pieces of street furniture ever made. At that time, The Spectator had just been bought by the Australian Fairfax group, and I had to placate the dismay of one of the Fairfax executives at the ‘irrelevance’ of it all. In fact, few campaigns have gained such enthusiastic support of readers, or made such a difference, as Gavin’s. BT retreated, and started to save the boxes it should never — in the interest of ‘rebranding’ — have abandoned. In the end, the red box was destroyed by something neither side had foreseen at the time — the all-conquering mobile phone.

Gavin was a man of great loves and hates. The former included nationalised railways, Germany, Frank Pick of the London Passenger Transport Board and John Betjeman. The latter included anything rural, fizzy water, food that was complicated to open (e.g. crab) and France. Both in terms of people and things he had a particular tenderness for the odd, neglected and unfashionable. He was an unusual mixture of the dogmatic and the open-minded — denouncing some architect, politician or philosophy, yet ready to welcome the new as well. He hated being in a gang. His politics shifted from right to left and yet, to a large extent, his views remained the same. Perhaps he was seeking a home for his historically minded, religious, organic idea of urban civilisation in which what was built dignified the people who inhabited it and what he called the ‘respectable working class’ could thrive. He had an instinctive dislike of anything to do with money, and was therefore poor. Gavin was a romantic and so was often disappointed by the world as it is. But this made his kindness and humour all the more enchanting. My best memories of Gavin are of striding round the East End of London, with him showing me hidden architectural marvels. If we passed through a market, he would find some amazing piece of architectural salvage, buy it on the spot and lug it home on his great shoulders. ‘Salvage’ was the right word for what Gavin did, rescuing beauty with the same love and effort that some people rescue refugees.


Carrie Gracie is more or less in the right, but I did laugh out loud when I heard her, on the BBC programme she was herself presenting, say that her resignation from her post as China editor over the equal pay issue had brought wonderful sympathy from ‘across the country and internationally’, as though speaking of the plight of the Rohingya. People who earn six-figure salaries and are allowed, by the organisation which employs them, to complain on air to millions about an aspect of their pay are not easy for most of us to regard as persecuted victims. Even Ms Gracie’s ‘resignation’ from her Beijing post seems to permit her to stay on the staff. Hers are what young people call ‘first-world problems’. The serious problem with BBC presenters’ and executive pay is that it is much too high for a service funded by a compulsory tax on everyone with a television. Public service broadcasting should require public service salaries. Carrie Gracie made that point when she said — though she didn’t quite put it like this — that she didn’t want her pay to go up, but for that of her male equivalents to go down.

Last Saturday’s Court Circular, published in Monday’s papers, reports: ‘Today being the Feast of the Epiphany, a Sung Eucharist was held in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, when the customary offerings of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh were made on behalf of The Queen by Air Vice-Marshal David Hobart and Brigadier Jonathan Bourne-May (Gentlemen Ushers to Her Majesty).’ This is a charming custom, but why are there only two Gentlemen Ushers to represent the Three Wise Men? Defence cuts?

Our family’s Epiphany custom is the Christmas card game. The Christmas cards received are dealt out in equal hands. Each player, in turn, calls his own trumps. So it could be ‘fattest robin’, ‘most unChristmassy’, ‘woolliest’, or whatever. All must follow suit if they can. The cards played are then submitted (only the front of the card counts) for general arbitrament, which can become heated. This year, I called out ‘happiest family’ and played a lovely picture of Nicholas and Georgia Coleridge and their four children taken at Nick’s 60th birthday party at the V&A last year. My wife, however, who has a ruthless streak in such games, played an Italian Renaissance painting, ‘Madonna worshipping the Child’. I countered that the circumstances of the birth of Jesus might have made the family quite unhappy (in the short term), whereas the Coleridges, united and content at the end of Nick’s long and successful reign at Condé Nast, had no worries. Besides, I went on, since neither Joseph nor the Holy Spirit was depicted on my wife’s card, this was not a full family. Caroline, however, insisted that the Holy Family must, for theological reasons, be the happiest family ever, and indeed the Nativity is one of the Seven Joys of Mary. I lost. She won the entire game, with twice as many tricks as anyone else.

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