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Sultan of satire

Hugh Pearman

Thank goodness Ian Martin still finds time to share his world of just-plausible madness with us. Except for that dachshund…

Ian Martin’s a sort of friend of mine I think – hard to tell really, he’s so sarcastic and faux-prickly and ALWAYS performing – but we keep up a social-media banter and very occasionally lunch. We were even colleagues long ago in the post-punk era when he had a band with an actual record deal but did the architectural journalism to pay some of the bills. So we go back a bit – nearly 40 years as he obligingly reminds me in his scrawled flyleaf note – but I must be honest: I’ve never been convinced by the satirical dog.

We’re talking about Martin’s weekly – now fortnightly – columns in the Architects’ Journal here. You know, THAT dog. Bauhau, the dachshund writer for the Creative on Sunday who replaced his master Darcy Farquear’say as Epic Space critic on that esteemed paper, so consigning the latter to being an increasingly embittered ghost-writer for his own quivering pet. The dog that wears a Zaha Hadid onesie or whatever. I always prefer the Ian columns where the dog is absent, just as I always used to prefer The Sunday Times on the weeks with the blessed words ‘AA Gill is away’, whereupon one felt a sense of glorious release. For me, Martin jumped the shark with that dog, admittedly an impressive feat. But if that’s a false note (thousands will disagree) it’s pretty much the only one in the world of just-plausible madness he has made.

Anyway, now he’s put together a collection of the best of these columns, published by Unbound, which means by subscription. The subscription list filled up very quickly: Martin’s writing is highly valued, as you’d hope of a writer for TV political satires The Thick of It, VEEP, and the forthcoming feature film The Death of Stalin. When he hit this golden seam of work, all with the crack team assembled by comedy genius Armando Iannucci, I was surprised that he kept up the architectural satire. But it seems to be a kind of relaxation for him, maybe practice, and besides, he’s very loyal and a workaholic. We’re lucky he did. Like every long-term columnist he waxes and wanes but not by much: the consistency over the years is remarkable. And the book boasts a foreword by Chris Addison, comic actor and director, who is becoming a bit of a Iannucci type himself. 

Ian Martin: you hear his voice in the mouths of various TV characters.
Ian Martin: you hear his voice in the mouths of various TV characters.

Addison annoyingly makes all the points about Martin’s writing that I was going to make, plus some better ones. For instance he remarks, with inside knowledge, that you hear Martin’s voice in the mouths of various TV characters even if he hasn’t necessarily written them himself, such is his linguistic influence on his fellow writers. Apparently the man who coined the word ‘omnishambles’ – put in the mouth of the Thick of It’s demented political strategist Malcolm Tucker and declared Word of the Year 2012 – was Tony Roche, not Ian Martin, but Roche did so in homage to his colleague Martin’s style.

Addison also singles out the titles that Martin gives the columns in this book, with particular reference to ‘I Sense My Enemies Massing Like Simpering Starlings’. In fact, any aspiring writer, comic or otherwise, can learn a lot just by glancing down the contents list. There you’ll also find ‘The Slightly Underground Railway’, ‘The Decadent Egg’, ‘There Is No Rationalism But Rationalism’, ‘Little Stripey Crestfallen Moons’, ‘A Bubble of Absence Enclosed by Sentient Retardant Foam’  and ‘Laughable Bear In a Frock’. There are various sweary ones, of course. Martin’s swearing is an exercise in linguistic baroque that deserves grade I listing. The entire character of his diary narrator in these columns – vainglorious, wholly amoral, thin-skinned, disdainful and endlessly ingenious to no good purpose – is captured in that simpering starlings one. As it is, for instance, in ‘Ha Ha Ha You Fucking Ants’. No one need be surprised that Martin greatly admires both Philip Larkin and ultra-dark comedian Frankie Boyle, himself a mighty and filthy wordsmith. 

Ian Martin’s swearing is an exercise in linguistic baroque that deserves grade I listing

The cast of non-canine characters in these columns is huge of course. Amy Blackwater, the permanently balaclava-clad, wheelchair-bound ‘ecomentalist’ whose chosen means of architectural protest is dynamite. My personal favourite, hopeless Tory politician the Hon Aeneas Upmother-Brown with his ever-attendant menacing swarm of mood-sensing bees. Beansy, the nanofuturologist. Rock Steady Eddie, the chip-munching, pint-gulping ‘fixer’ employed by the narrator. Many actual people given pseudonyms, some taking more working out than others (Loaf, Molly Bismuth, Tub Haagendaas). And there’s always The Royal Institute for the Protection (later ‘Pop-Uption’) of British Architects with its unending sequence of fantastically deluded, ritualistically inclined presidents.

And sometimes there’s broad comedy just for the joy of it. ‘Wednesday: I have informed Buildings That Resemble Breasts Quarterly that I am putting it in the hands of my lawyer. More sniggering. Insufferable.’ 

As Chris Addison rightly observes, all this is only incidentally and contractually about architecture. ‘They are satires on an entire culture… they are a satire on language itself.’  That’s it. Bosh!

Epic Space: the architectural diaries, by Ian Martin, is published by Unbound, £20 hardback, £10 ebook.


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