Owen Luder has certainly lived a colourful life. From living through the Blitz as a young boy, surviving a shipwreck, becoming a renowned architect and award-winning journalist and two stints as the president of the Royal Insitute of British Architects (RIBA). His later years inspired by his late wife have produced an outpouring of poetry, a fair amount erotic I’ve been told.
So without quite knowing what to expect I head to his Westminster flat to discover what books have accompanied the highs and lows of a man with a plethora of stories to tell. Upon arrival it takes no time at all to realise that Owen is a man of varying passions, his impressive art collection adorns the walls, floor to ceiling shelves full of models of classic cars and aircraft fill the corridor and an impressively varied bookcase briefly grabs my attention. It doesn’t take long for me to be distracted by the photos of Owen with many a famous face, Messers Major and Heseltine sit next to snaps with their royal highnesses Elizabeth, Phillip and Charles. Owen presents me with a glass of bubbly to start, I had been told before coming that he always keeps a half bottle in the fridge, if a man is going to be habitual then I believe it’s a fine habit to have. I now notice that a chunk of the bookcase has been relocated to the coffee table and as I peer over the top of the pile to start the interview I realise that Owen either didn’t get my email about picking out his five favourite books or simply that it is a mammoth of a task to pick so few titles to reflect a lifetime such as Owen’s.
So we start with Architecture and it becomes apparent quickly that this is going to be one of those interviews with continual segue and tangential tales. So I will do my best to stay on a straight course but if I veer off with one of Owen’s tales and write myself into a corner I’m sure you won’t mind. Owen gives me a potted history of his early schooling which was unusual due to the fair amount of disruption caused by World War II. Having not been evacuated he found himself attending Peckham School for Girls for a period of time. Owen recalls driving past there years later with his daughters and gleefully telling them that was his old school and watching their puzzled expressions at the ‘For Girls’ sign.
A brief segue diverts us to Owen’s first book – The First Day of the Blitz- Peter Stansky – an event a 12 year-old Owen experienced and remembers well. He recalls playing outside and hearing the approaching planes and presuming they would be Spitfires, and running to see them only to be presented with German Heinkie 111 s.
Returning to Owen’s wartime education, he then had to decide what to do for further study, he said to his ferocious Headmistress Miss O’Reilly that he wanted to design Spitfires, so that was that and she put him down for Lewisham School for Engineering. But a second choice was needed, and Owen didn’t know, so she put him down for building. Little did Owen know that it was actually Government policy to get people into construction rather than engineering even back in 1941, aware of the number of Engineers likely to come out of the services and the need post-war for people with construction knowledge. So to the book – A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method – Banister Fletcher – was one of the main books in that period of time that inspired Owen to pursue a career in Architecture and abandon his dream of aircraft design. He admits to swatting up on a particular building from the book the night before an exam and it luckily coming up.
Originally from Islington, despite growing up just off the Old Kent Road Owen, is a passionate Arsenal fan. Being the glamour team of the 1930’s and from his neck of the wood Owen says it was inevitable he would end up a ‘Gooner’. His first game was October 16th 1941 against Charlton at the Valley, he can quote you the team sheet if you want. Owen as well as being an Arsenal shareholder and season ticket holder for decades he also had a professional relationship with football. He designed a proposed stadium for Sunderland in 1975 which was never built and did the national stadium for Nigeria. He also, when RIBA president, awarded the Building of the Year to Huddersfield’s new stadium over Rodgers’ Channel 4 building.
There are a healthy pile of books on Arsenal in Owen’s collection and after flirting with Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch he plumps for Forward Arsenal – Bernard Joy. Bernard Joy was a pre-war Arsenal legend and one of Owen’s favourites. Talking of Owen’s heroes we delve into another category of books on Lawrence of Arabia. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is the book Owen recites to me most. Owen described to me his connection to Lawrence. His father met Lawrence and remembers fondly being shown pictures with the two of them in. Also it later emerged Owen’s previous house had once been frequented by Lawrence. I suspect though that the true connection was their approach to life- that of adventure and romance.
Through all the tales and tangents it becomes apparent that this fifth and final book contains Owen’s greatest story. The book is Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas and the tale is that of his late second wife Jacqui. Over the course of the evening Owen tells me how they meet, their love, the passionate love affair, their many happy times together over the years and how he lost her- to a brain tumour. The melancholic joy and cheeky grin permanently fixed to Owen’s face throughout.
Dylan Thomas and Under Milkwood was important as it is the play about Laugharne the Welsh town introduced to Owen by Jacqui and loved by both of them. Jacqui when visiting Laugharne with her mother in 1961 said one day she would own a cliff top house there. In 1995 Jacqui and Owen bought Craig-y-Don. It became their holiday home and Jacqui and Thomas introduced Owen to writing poetry. Owen finds it’s easy to write and to design, it’s to a brief, but to write poetry you have to have something to say. His poetry I hear is full of love, a joy for life, and full of winks and nods. He starts to recite to me a poem about a hotel-bound weekend with Jacqui, each verse ends – What could be more Erotic than that?
Article by Morgan Hamilton-Griffin
Illustration by Alice Griffin