The cover of Holland Blind Twilight, the second volume of John Martin Robinson’s memoirs, shows the author in herald’s uniform within a Gothic ciborium. It points to his twin identity as modern courtier and architectural historian with a belligerent preference for the decaying, the feudal and the Catholic. The first volume, chronicling his upbringing in Lancashire and his coming of age at St Andrews and Oxford, was published as long ago as 2006. Holland Blind Twilight takes up the story with Robinson launching himself into the London conservation world in the mid-1970s.
At just over two hundred pages, this new book’s length is clearly not the reason for the hiatus. Nor does the immediacy of its material explain it: the text barely ventures beyond the 1990s – meaning that we are spared Robinson’s thoughts on the present state of the National Trust. The delay may, though, have something to do with the author keeping a judicious eye on the obituaries pages. Robinson, by his own admission, already has one libel writ to his name. His withering account here of the ‘rape’ of the Althorp art collection by Raine Spencer – ‘a ridiculous figure in her crinolines and swept up hair, like those dolls the Hyacinth Bucket-type of New Yorkers use to hide their telephones or lavatory brushes’ – would surely have earned him another had Spencer not done the courtesy of dying five years ago.
Robinson is possibly the last representative of a tradition reaching back to John Dee, Ben Jonson and Thomas Hobbes: the public man of letters sustained, at least in part, by private patronage. Robinson has at various times belonged to the households of Woodrow Wyatt, who sponsored his research on the Wyatt architectural dynasty, and successive dukes of Norfolk, to whom he has been librarian since 1978. He is also Maltravers herald extraordinary, an office that requires him twice a year to dress up as the jack of hearts and process before the Queen. He praises his patrons in conventional terms, but his wider independence of mind and his prolific output (he has almost thirty books to his name) attest to the peculiar freedom such a status confers.
This book takes the form of a series of meandering reminiscences, each hanging off an organising theme – homes, travels, Wyatts old and new, and so on. The opening chapter is the best: an atmospheric and at times thrillingly lurid account of the campaign to rescue Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields – a ‘towering, blackened limestone hulk’ when Robinson started working for the Greater London Council’s historic buildings division in 1974 – that also sets out, almost by inference, the conservative case for urban renewal through restoration rather than redevelopment. Encountered long before the arrival of the Michelin-starred restaurants, advertising executives and boutique perfumiers that characterise it today, Spitalfields appears in Robinson’s rendering as outré as Naples’s Quartieri Spagnoli, a place of ‘mouldy oranges and rotten cabbages’, ‘ravaged men in ragged coats’ and ‘remote, ancient, decrepit romance’.
Elsewhere, there are affectionate portraits of fellow travellers, such as Gavin Stamp, Alan Powers and David Watkin, and valuable vignettes of aristocratic time pieces, such as Ursula d’Abo and the 17th Duke of Norfolk, who as Britain’s Catholic No 1 played a crucial yet unheralded role in Anglo-Vatican relations in the second half of the 20th century. The memoir is almost entirely free of personal revelations. There is a reference to the author being ‘in love’ at the age of twenty-six, but the object of his affections is never named and the reader is left wondering whether it was another human being or a neoclassical pediment glimpsed from a passing train. The only other mention of his private life is a brief account of a visit to a New York gay club called Mine Shaft, which he describes as though it were a Georgian rectory: ‘It comprised a ground floor reception and small basement rooms. It was dark, with grey painted walls, sawdust sprinkled floors and naked black boys dancing on the bar top.’ The writing contains curious anachronisms (a tall building is a ‘Hi-Rise’, as though it were a distant star) and on occasions Robinson grows allergic to the first-person pronoun, giving his prose a rather constipated feel (‘In America, one was struck by the dynamism of local non-profit organisations’).
Throughout, Robinson wears his prejudices on his sleeve. Modern altar cloths, ‘on sweet’ bathrooms, trade unions, the new British Library and Roy Jenkins (‘pompously uncomfortable in company’) are all damned. There are, though, some surprising judgements. Ken Livingstone is praised for his enlightened leadership of the GLC (which mainly meant giving money to Robinson’s department), while Margaret Thatcher is condemned for ‘opening the way’ for London’s ‘trashed skyline’. And there are, inevitably, one or two moments of gratuitous snobbery, which no honest reader will begrudge: ‘It was a joke when driving out on the A4 or the A1 past miles of identical half-timbered pre-war “semis”: “Do you know who owns these or who lives over there?” “Only Thomas Lyttelton” was the answer, or with a wave towards Winchmore Hill, “And, of course, Roy Strong was born over there.”’
As the winsome black-and-white pictures attest, Robinson has an excellent eye. The chapter on his restoration of his own Georgian houses in Bloomsbury and Lancashire could serve as a vade mecum for anyone thinking of buying a doer-upper, at least if marble and cornicing are likely to be involved. Some of his architectural pronouncements have an epigrammatic quality: ‘Mild poverty is the best preservative.’ Others, however – ‘there is no point in commissioning a surveyor’s report; it will only give you reasons for not buying a place’ – would be better directed to a duke than a first-time buyer.