As of this week, J.G. Ballard has replaced William Burroughs as my favourite author. It is a fairly juvenile thing to have, a ‘favourite’ author, but Ballard represents not only a titan in British post-war fiction, but also a series of peculiar congruities in my life that I have noticed only recently. As a warning then, this post will be a long one with much potential for error, and I offer no apologies for my standard fucking of chronologies.
The Overloaded Man
In the last seven days, I have read four Ballard books in a row, starting with Empire of the Sun, followed by Cocaine Nights, Crash and the first volume of short stories, which contains the genesis for almost all the aforementioned. My usual approach to reading fiction* is to read a book by an author, chosen at random via a process of staring at the bookshelves until a title announces itself as ‘the next one’, finish it, and then not read another work by that author for some time. Essentially I like the variety of going from one author to another, giving them all a chance. The same applies to genre – I’ll never read two science fiction novels in a row for example. With Ballard though, this process went out of the window.
My previous experiences with the author included Millennium People, Vermilion Sands and his autobiography Memories of Life. All these books were sadly lost in what I am supposed to term ‘The Great Fire of ’06’, and I only recently started reconstituting my Ballard collection with the books I am yet to read. I liked them greatly, particularly Memories of Life, which I thought was a painful re-visitation of past haunts for a man who was very sick at the time. I had not returned to Ballard until a chance find whilst at work in the Library whereby some unknown student had left a copy of Super-Cannes on the enquiry desk. I immediately took it out for myself, but left it to one side, instead devoured Empire of the Sun from the small collection I had amassed. The discovery of Super-Cannes though acted as a catalyst for this. When I finished it, I automatically gravitated to the book that had perhaps been left for me, and then on to Crash, a book which I think occupies the same space as Naked Lunch in the sense that everyone knows it to be controversial but few people have actual read it (Ballard suggests the same in the essay tagged on the end).
The result of this approach has meant I have become familiar with his work in a way I may otherwise have missed. The recurrent themes, characters and obsessions running throughout the work are clearer than if I had left my prerequisite time between readings; Ballard as the central character in all of his work, marriage, aircraft, urban landscape (or more specifically the potential for distortion, both physical and mental), cars (Lincoln’s and Buick’s), the psychological collapse of the middle classes. The recurring image of the car in particular, has drawn strange parallels this last week.
(Crashing Into A) Concrete Island
I lived on a road called Lincoln Street in Norwich (pictured here on fire, and previously mentioned in my post on New Build ‘architecture’ I think) with three men and one woman, all of whom were or had been students. The centre piece of our living room was a giant CRT television, the kind thankfully no longer produced – it was the sort of TV that would be occasionally featured on the news because it was overly heavy at the front where the glass was, and as a result a few children each year were crushed to death by one falling from a TV cabinet…though to my knowledge nobody was killed by this particular television. Underneath the TV was an original Xbox. The most used game was not Halo, though it was infrequently played, but Burnout 3, a game where the intention is to purposefully crash your car and cause as much damage (in insurance money) as possible. I was pretty good at it, managing to spend enough time on each course to know the perfect time to launch the car in to oncoming traffic. Afterwards, the field of play would be littered with a varied assortment of destroyed vehicles**. Pete and myself would play week long tournaments (I was a student and therefore used it as an excuse to play the game for such lengthy sessions…he was working at Norwich Union and therefore used it as an excuse to play the game for such lengthy sessions) which generally averaged in a draw.
On one occasion we combined the ability to play the game in 8 player mode (4 teams of 2 taking it in turns) with an extended drinking binge. It was raucous in an entirely unsexual sense*** and the living room stank of sweat in that special way that anyone familiar with male based gaming sessions will know all too well. We were drunk, loud and probably incredibly obnoxious. My memory is hazy as to the exact participants, or at least that can be my poor excuse as to why I shall avoid naming people, though this is largely to save on embarrassment/potential non-truths I might offer (shit, I mentioned Pete earlier). This gaming session coincided, I believe, with the slow & depressing collapse of the relationship of two of my housemates. One joined us for the session, the other remained in her room. At one stage, she emerged from the stairway, charging through the hot box we had created, before proceeding to the kitchen. We paid here little notice, though I called out for a beer to be brought through. I received understandably reciprocal ignorance. She stormed back in to the room, clambering over our prostrate bodies in an effort to return upstairs. We complained about her blocking the TV. Her response was to say, ‘This is pathetic. I can’t believe how unsociable you are all being’. She then made her way up the stairs to the solitude of her room.
This reminiscence came up at work, in a discussion on awkward housemates. This was the same shift that I found The Zahir (see Report from an Obscure Planet).
A Place and A Time to Die
Robert Vaughn drives James Ballard’s car into a coach load of airline passengers. David Greenwood executes numerous high flying executives and administrators at an exclusive business park in the South of France. Wilfred Penrose recommends drug fuelled rape and immigrant hunting trips as a form of psychotherapy. A Japanese kamikaze pilot dies of exposure out on the endless marshes to the south of Shanghai. Ballard wrote of
“the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television – that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here”.
The far future is an impossible fabrication, at best a murky projection of current troubles which, through subjective distancing, are rendered as obscure fantasy rather than revealing their explicit terror. The present is a submerged hell of high rise buildings, consumerist fascism, the re-appropriation of cultural artefacts in to meaningless trinkets. The troubling aspect is how casually death appears and recedes in Ballard’s work, particularly when his subject is truly the here and now. It blends in to a disturbingly accurate prediction that is both fact and fiction, of the moment but also further away from us, just out of grasp. The real horror is that his work acts as a reflection.
Report From An Obscure Planet
At the same time as describing the Lincoln Street aside to my colleague, and recommending Super-Cannes to her (see End-Game), I discovered the University of York’s Culture magazine, which is called The Zahir – presumably after the story by Borges. The magazine was in a heap in the new RBL building which I was closing down. I had a brief flick through, noting that the articles in the issue, and I assume previous issues, were thematically linked; the theme was urbanisation and urban decline. When I got home, I started flicking through the magazine which, to my surprise (caused by yet another linkage to the master), included an article about Ballard, in relation to the Brutalist beauty that is the Central Hall at the University. Broadly speaking, the point was that this style or architecture should be re-evaluated. Unfortunately the article was riddled with mistakes about Ballard’s work and only the briefest of explanations as to why it mattered. Now I wouldn’t normally have intervened, but because of the odd timing of the find in relation to my continuing exploration of Ballard’s work, I decided to email the editor(s) to point out the mistakes in the article. They seemed pleased to receive the feedback and responded in kind. I mentioned that the reason I had emailed was because of this weird coming together of Ballard related things in my life – I finished by mentioning the piece on architecture posted on this blog a while back. I said to Zoe about it the next day, as I was impressed that anyone had even responded to my original email (Channel 4 took 12 weeks once…now I sound terminally sad). She said ‘You should write for them’. I considered it and decided it would be a nice idea, logging on that same day to suggest it. I didn’t get the chance though as they had already emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in writing a piece in response to the original article.
In a pleasingly cyclical way, I have mentioned this because it may be viewed by people related to the magazine or its readership and I like the idea that by reading this they too will be involved in this Ballard loop. My response will more than likely be built upon elements of this post and the one on Brutalism, though I obviously wont use this particular paragraph as I feel it would be a cycle too far. Additionally, I had issues with the author’s other article on the novel as being 500 years out of date, but I think it best to hold back on that in case it comes across as a personal vendetta. It isn’t. I just disagree with the majority of what he has written thus far.
News from the Sun, but also South Wales
I would have been about 11 or 12 years old when I was involved in a serious car crash in South Wales. We were driving back to the cottage we were staying in, which overlooked Carreg Cennen Castle on the outskirts of the Brecon Beacons National Park, and it was pouring with rain. We were on a minor road, somewhere outside Carmarthen, quite high up. A red Renault Clio came careering around a blind bend as we approached a row of tin roofed cottages precariously balanced on the edge of a drop to a swollen river. It hit us full on, throwing our car off the road and in to an embankment (narrowly missing a telegraph pole which my Dad later informed me would have killed him). The Renault skidded to a halt further up the road, smoke rising from its engine. It had avoided the plunge in to the river. My brother, who was asleep during the journey, was shaken awake by the impact and instinctively began crying. The radio, which somehow still functioned, was playing With or Without You by U2****. I managed to climb out of the sunroof with my Dad’s help, and started off up the road towards the other car. There was an odd atmosphere on the hillside, as if everything was operating at a distance, the environment sliding away from the point of collision. I didn’t notice the rain so much, even though it had soaked me completely. I picked my way around the debris strewn across the tarmac before reaching the totalled Renault. Everything around me was quiet in a profound way I had not experienced in the past; I now assume was the result of two essentially noisy elements silencing one another through impact. The only real sound was the subdued sobbing of the woman in the car. Her legs were trapped. She appeared to have come off a lot worse than I had. An unspecified period of time passed, with me looking at the wreckage of the car and the trail it had left across the wet sheen of the road. Behind me, Mum had climbed out of a broken window and stumbled up the road to join me, calling the woman a ‘Stupid Cow!’, which although a restrained use of language, I thought somewhat unhelpful considering the situation. I left Mum, who was standing, crying in the rain, and started moving the larger pieces of debris from the road, being careful not to pick up anything too sharp or dangerous looking. After I’d done this, I walked up to the four cars that had stopped in front of the accident. A man with a thin unpleasant moustache wound down his window. I said to him that I’d cleared the road of debris, and if he was careful and drove slowly he could safely negotiate the accident and continue his journey. He responded by looking at me blankly and saying ‘Jesus, what happened!’. I instinctively reassured him that everything was being dealt with, even though I had no idea if it was or not. Eventually he moved on, and I repeated the explanation to the three cars that came after him.
My Dad had phoned the police prior to the emergence of the shocked residents from their unusual houses on the hillside. The woman who had hit our car was the partner of one of the men who lived with his family on the hillside. The car she had crashed was his, and she was not insured on it. A miscellaneous man took over my role of directing traffic. I wondered if that was perhaps his job in real life. The father of the man whose car had been wrecked invited us in to his house. We waited for the authorities there, exchanging nervous glances. I didn’t notice at the time, but Mum had disappeared. In the confusion she had gone off with another resident, a strange little old woman who lived in house that was considerably more dilapidated than the one I sat in with my Dad and brother. I vaguely recall her standing at the roadside after the accident. She had the thickest glasses I had ever seen. Eventually the police, fire brigade and ambulance arrived. The firemen cut the woman out of the car; she only had minor injuries in the end which was good…I had assumed something terrible had happened to her, and she would lose her legs completely, but that was probably my childish imagination. The ambulance treated my Dad, who was also only slightly hurt (whiplash I think). The police confirmed our story by measuring out the skidmarks on the road – the woman had simply been driving too fast and lost control. My Dad was concerned that, had they not been present, there would have been an issue with the insurance claim. The woman could perhaps have suggested we were equally responsible, which was not the case. The policeman thanked me for my work directing the traffic and clearing the debris, saying I’d been a great help and had showed a level head in a crisis. He shook my hand. It made me feel very proud of myself, though slightly concerned at my emotional detachment from the situation. Aside from my Dad, who having lived longer than me had had more time to adjust to and understand upsetting events, I had been the only one involved, including the people who had emerged from the houses on the hill, who had not burst in to tears. I was also slightly confused as to how the policeman knew I had helped out when he had only arrived after the fact. Perhaps the man who had taken over my role told him. When we were in the tow truck on the way back to our cottage, Mum explained that the strange little old woman had invited her to her house for tea, and in a state of shock she followed her without thinking or wondering where we had gone. The old woman had fallen down a mud track that ran around the side of her house and had slid in to her front door, injuring her leg. In a reversal of intention, my Mum ended up helping her inside and making tea for her. The following day we played chess whilst waiting for a hire car. I also remember being confused by the idea of S4C and having a crush on Martine McCutcheon, at least I think the crush was around the same time, or maybe a little later.
In putting this blog together, my writing has assumed a semi-familiar pattern. The content ranges from occasional musical asides to lists of sounds and album recommendations, to the even more infrequent ‘large rambling post on a subject I don’t entirely understand but would like to via this medium’ (a discussion with myself, but sort of in public). The last one I wrote, where several aspects of my life coalesced in to a slightly coherent picture, was the piece on new builds and Brutalism, a subject that also links in to this current preoccupation. The architecture of the modern period was another of Ballard’s recurring motifs, memorably captured in the hellish structures of The Concentration City and permeating the majority of his novels (the echo of identikit developments in Super-Cannes and Millennium People). I had written a section, that I subsequently discarded, about the Brunswick centre, which is perhaps the only remaining and entirely functional Brutalist housing project in the country – thanks to an expensive overhaul that saw the installation of a Waitrose and space designed specifically for a farmers market. I remember when I was much younger, walking past it on the way to the British Museum and being startled by its look and its architectural posturing in relation to the buildings around it. Now it reminds me of two things; firstly, the ziggurats I lived in at UEA in my first year at University and secondly, housing for the sort of world Ballard described in Crash, an occupational equivalent of endless flyovers and jammed motorway lanes, the logical location where his disturbed characters would reside. After a London drinking session, most likely the precursor to the time when the tradition of toasting Ballard with every round developed, I wandered back to St.Pancras and past the Brunswick wondering about the cost of living in a functional icon. At the back of my mind there was something else nagging me as to why I had combined these Ballard and the Brunswick, and not other buildings or novels. Last week, whilst clearing away a load of old newspapers I had screwed up and used from wrapping breakables when moving house, I noticed an article about Vicky Richardson, a journalist of design and architecture who had apparently heckled Prince Charles during his RIBA speech a while back. She lives/lived in the Brunswick Centre and is J.G Ballard’s niece.
Someone with whom I work, and a self confessed non-fiction-only kind of reader, asked for a recommendation during my Ballard marathon. She is a trained psychologist, and after I had finished Super-Cannes myself, I suggested it might be a good read for her, as it would mix fiction with her professional concerns. Perhaps I could act as a bridge between the two worlds? When I mentioned this to Zoe, she reacted with surprise: ‘Is it really the sort of book you should recommend as a ‘way-in’ for a first time reader…she’ll think you’re a psychopath’. I reasoned she might already think that of me. Any way, my response to the article awaits, which as I mentioned will most likely be a combination of my rumination on Brutalism and this piece. I now have Cocaine Nights and Kingdom Come to come.
* I prize my time for reading fiction very highly, considering the amount of non-fiction I read day-to-day for the FUD, and I try to dedicate around 2 hours a day to it; this may seem short to some, long to others – for me it is simply what works best and is most enjoyable. Perhaps it will change when TV execs and producers start making something worth staring at for aimless hours.
**…obliterated tuk-tuks, the mangled shells of district buses, hideously compacted sports coupés with their fronts concertinaed like a retarded accordion, the peculiarly distended cabs of articulated lorries…all the while the dollars would mount at the top of the screen…a wet patch of semen where Vaughn had ejaculated through his already soiled trousers at the sight of so much snarled metal…
***The repeated use of imagery and/or themes from Crash meant I wanted to include that non-sex caveat, just in case there was the inference that the key scene towards the end of the novel, where Ballard fucks Vaughn underneath a flyover before Vaughn tries to kill Ballard, was in anyway linked to the men I was with in that room on that occasion. They undoubtedly have reputations I wouldn’t like to besmirch with perceived sexual allusions.
****To this day my Mum will turn off the radio if she hears this song.
nb. I spent longer than I should have fucking up the pictures I used for this post…I could have spent that time reading.