Ten years ago I got lucky and went to see Mr Ballard…
This is what happened…
Thirty years ago J. G. Ballard writes novel about a prophetic madman who saw in the car crash the ultimate pile-up of man’s fascination with technology, celebrity, sex and death. It is called Crash, and is then filmed in the late nineteen-nineties by David Cronenberg, with James Spader, Elias Koteas and Holly Hunter along for the ride. The resultant movie is one of those unusual beasts that can apparently be loathed without the luxury of having been seen, like the Basilisk or Gorgon, as is attested by those local governments and media commentators across Middle England who vilify and attempt to suppress it. In so doing these assuredly well-meaning homunculi manage to make Crash the only movie worth watching, Cronenberg the only filmmaker worth discussing and Ballard the only writer worth reading in 1997. If you ignore this trinity just what do you think you are going to be talking about at those dinner parties you are attending this summer? Princess Diana’s romantic flings with wealthy international playboys? Please.
Two or three weeks ago, I go to Bournemouth and happen to pass the graveyard where Mary Shelley is buried. She wrote at least five novels, but none is so well remembered as her 1816 story about a prophetic madman who sees in surgery the ultimate hybrid of man’s fascination with technology, infamy, sex and death. We are told that Frankenstein had selected his creature’s features as beautiful but, “Beautiful! – Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”
One hundred and fifty-seven years later, Crash’s narrator, coincidentally named James Ballard, meets “nightmare angel of the highways”, Vaughan, for the first time. “The headlamps illuminated the hard ridges of scar tissue above his eyebrows and mouth, the broken and re-set nose bridge… His features looked as if they had been displaced laterally… The scars on his mouth and forehead, the self-cut hair and two missing upper canine gave him a neglected and hostile appearance.”
Frankenstein’s creature teaches himself a Miltonian aesthetic of responsibility and exile and avenges himself on his creator by destroying the lives of those he loves – women and children – before vanishing into an Arctic wilderness. Meanwhile, Ballard’s prophet evolves a creed of “the mysterious eroticism of wounds” and, in between plotting the death of Ballard’s wife, contrives to end his own life in an automotive collision with Elizabeth Taylor.
In early September 1997, J. G. Ballard receives a telephone call from a journalist wondering what he thinks of the recent death by motorcar of Princess Diana and her consort, Dodi Fayed. When he recounts this anecdote he seems baffled by the prosaic and idiotic nature of the question.
In mid September 2003, J. G. Ballard arrives at the TUC Conference Centre in London to discuss and read from his latest novel, Millennium People.
He is one of Britain’s greatest novelists, expertly delineating obscenities while never leaving his highly-respected place at the heart of our national sense of culture. Filmmakers as diverse as Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg have attempted to depict his world; one fresh from cute aliens, the other fresh from monsters ejaculating heroin into the mouths of skeletal junkies. According to the blurb across the front cover of my copy of Crash, Anthony Burgess considers Ballard “amongst our finest writers of fiction.” A similar slash of graffito across the cover of my copy of Cocaine Nights quotes Will Self arguing that Ballard “knocks the work of other avant-garde writers into a hatted cock.” His 1987 incarnation in Empire of the Sun is of a plucky and imaginative boy played by Christian Bale, incarcerated in a WWII prison camp. Ten years later he is incarnated as James Spader, coldly exploring his own dismembered grief and visceral lusts from an anonymous concrete city.
And now, six years after that, he appears on the stage as an avuncular and charming raconteur, elegantly dressed in a slightly old-fashioned linen jacket and slacks, grey hair receded far from his brow and spilling back over an open-necked collar. His smile is a little coy and a little shy and doesn’t for a second distract from an imagination that has been expertly and minutely exploring sexualised violence and political perversion with a clinical obsession for over forty years. In a very odd sense he reminds me of Doctor Who with an erection – an avatar of bad taste, immaculately and quirkily presented.
Millennium People is the third part of a loose saga about the deliberate adoption of corruption by a society in order to evolve past an inevitable and otherwise insurmountable impasse in civilisation. In 1996’s Cocaine Nights, a Spanish resort town is so beleaguered by its all-encompassing leisure culture that it embraces a vicious crime spree in order to drag itself out of its zombie indolence. In 2000’s Super-Cannes, a small French town operated by the business park at its heart realises that it needs to organise sex and violence with the same precision as its legitimate industry in order to provide its employees with a break from otherwise endless workaholicism. And in 2003’s Millennium People, an anarchic terrorist cell of middle class suburbanites is operating out of London’s Canary Wharf in protest at the slave culture of banal civility by which they have found themselves imprisoned. In all three novels, Ballard shows the face of the unrepentant criminal behind the mask of our own respectability. The outsider as insider… society as cabal… neighbour as co-conspirator.
He is friendly and funny, his audience diverse and well-represented. Over there he banters with a young mother who has brought her mewling and excited child (“You see? He agrees with me…” he smiles as the baby suddenly screams, interrupting him mid-argument), while over here he is obliging to a drunken middle-aged woman desperate to attract his attention with her brandy-fuelled barks of hero-worshipping incoherence. Somewhere in the middle are a herd of Times readers and a belt of students. The usual suspects, you imagine.
There’s no doubt that he is on friendly territory here, but still he seems almost nervous, almost anxious. He plays with his hair almost constantly, talking at length in halting staccato, only later, as he warms to his themes, rolling around in anecdotes and digressions. Nevertheless, nothing that is discussed is directly personal, even accidentally, nothing that could be construed as meat behind the mask. He leaves long pauses and in between them tells us more about his friends than himself.
Not to say that his friends don’t sound diverting. One is a psychiatrist, a Ballard staple, and apparently on one visit to his office Ballard tells us that he noticed a rather interesting article discarded in his bin. As a psychiatrist, his friend explained, he got sent all kinds of strange material -the results of drug trials, discussions of psychoanalytic techniques, neurochemical theses, proposed technical advancements, “really good stuff”- but all these ultimately ended up in the same bin. Ballard made his friend promise to send him the contents of his bin whenever it got too full, and around thirty years later he still has it all. An intriguing cross-section of the cutting edge, and even after a decade or so he won’t be without it. I suppose the moral is never to ask from where a writer may get his or her ideas. A loony bin’s bin. Ahem.
Another friend is not exactly the country’s greatest driver. Once, while attempting to get from point A to point B on the M25, she accidentally missed her turning; but rather than pull off and retrace her steps, she decided instead to keep on going and complete her circuit of the ringroad, making sure to take the exit next time around. A silly story, but one with a more pertinent moral. For now Ballard falls into a discussion about his love of motorways – the M1 being for him a magnificent invention, our Route 66, a romantic escape route to the other side of the country. What could be a finer path for technology to take, he asks, than to provide us with the ability to leave our lives behind, quickly and efficiently, and find ourselves elsewhere? He has found a romance to cars still beyond the automotive eroticism of Crash. But now, years later, what have we come up with as a “modern” equivalent? The M25: a giant circle. Travel for hours and wind up where you started. For all his infamy as a bombastic critic of civilisation, his message is pointed and subtle and charmingly convincing. There really might be something wrong with the world after all.
But then this is the future. He tells us that the signs have been obvious for years – motorways and supermarkets, that ubiquitous touch of everyday modernity, as liberating as it is demeaning.
The interviewer wonders about this odd ambivalence. Ballard’s novels often feature the articulate psychopath mastermind at war with Society, willing to destroy himself on the anvil of his New Order rather than compromise, while his ostensible protagonists -damaged everymen, but everymen all the same- vacillate and wind up being dominated by his more forceful “nightmare angels”. Society will fall, but then so will its Successor, and Ballard seems to sympathise with the plight of both endangered species. However, whereas the high-tech luxury of the Super-Cannes settlement and the impossibly expensive faux rusticism of Estrella de Mar in Cocaine Nights seem like remote mutations of the workplaces and holiday resorts with which we are familiar, the world of Millennium People is demonstrably our world here today. He has his sights set on our own petty petit bourgeois lives. Isn’t it a bit ironic, the interviewer asks, to discuss the smashing of turgid mediocre Middle England at an after-work book reading in Bloomsbury?
Perhaps he’s come here on a recruiting drive, he suggests, and that’s the closest we get to a serious answer. From his novels you would think that he hated us, luxuriating in our opulent prisons and trapped by our slave minds, but here in person he seems chipper and personable. He admits to having “sympathies” with those rebels who roam the hearts of his novels, but there is no firebrand punky political passion in his performance tonight. Perhaps it is just his art.
When asked to discuss the artists he admires, he cites the Surrealist painters – politically evocative like himself but bereft of the narratives that drive his own art – and Hitchcock, who of course made narrative his own, but who rarely if ever strayed into any political arena that wasn’t simply sexual. When asked about his favourite writers, he mentions his love of William Burroughs but more or less deflects the question: after spending all day writing his own novels, why would he want to try and relax by reading somebody else’s? No, he is more likely to watch films – which have become, as he puts it, “the wallpaper on the inside of my mind.” In Crash we remember that his alter-ego is a filmmaker.
Surprisingly, but then this is Ballard, so perhaps not, he says that one of his genuine favourites is Salvador Dalí. He explains that a lot of people consider Dalí a sell-out, indeed his fellow Surrealists expelled him from their movement because of his penchant for self-publicity, but to Ballard it is Dalí’s perverse and gaudy avarice that cements him as a true Surrealist, a true artist. While his contemporaries were content to allow themselves to be mythologised and their work co-opted into the canon of high art, Dalí spent his life cashing the cheques and painting himself large on the canvass of the world as a “celebrity”. It was his total refusal to allow himself or his work to be taken seriously by the Bourgeoisie, his gleeful willingness to demean his image by taking the money and running, that is exactly what makes him the consummate Surrealist in Ballard’s view. Of course, Dalí spent his childhood in a Spanish coastal village not that dissimilar from Estrella de Mar.
Something else that occurs to me is that Dalí and Hitchcock actually collaborated together on a film, 1945’s Spellbound, with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. Unusually for both artists, Spellbound is a rather leaden and humourless film, in spite of its brilliant visuals, but pertinently for Mr Ballard it is all about psychiatry.
Still reluctant to surrender the extended driving metaphor that has made him infamous, he talks to us about his novels as journeys, each one travelling slowly through the outer shell towards the inner life of his protagonists. He says that he is fascinated with his characters’ psychology. Often his characters are exploring some strange landscape themselves, or investigating some crime, and interestingly it is in this examination that they take that they are opened up to Ballard’s scrutiny. Pitch-perfect Nietzsche: stare too long into the abyss and the abyss will stare back out through you. Someone said of Ballard that for him obsession frequently stands for character development, and there is some truth to this. The more obsessed his characters become – with both the dark plots of their alter-egos and the sex lives of their remote lovers – the more naked they are.
Which brings us to the two staple Ballard professions: traveller and psychiatrist. His protagonists, pilots, travel writers, outsiders all, are often well-travelled – and occasionally physically disabled in some way that make them even more obvious in their environment. Frequently they will encounter a doctor, usually one with experience of psychiatry or psychoanalysis, and invariably they will be studied by this person that they are studying. Whatever journey the protagonist is on, it will always be richly symbolic.
So it is activity that reveals the inner life of his characters, the plot is there to highlight the psychology of the character. This is emblematic of his writing as a whole: his novels are alive with similes and metaphors – everything is like something else.
This makes his interest in cinema easier to appreciate. When the floor is opened up for questions, it is initially disappointing that so many people just want to ask about future plans for film adaptations rather than about future plans for writing, but perhaps this is appropriate. In this way the film literally becomes a metaphor for the book – it is symbolism once more removed. He suspects that the next adaptation will be of Super-Cannes, appropriately the book features a riot breaking out during the film festival.
Perhaps this is why an interview is such a false way to understand him, why in person he seems so different from his work. In his writing, understanding is gradually achieved by action and pursuit – by a journey, by slow deduction. When the protagonist arrives on the scene after the dust has settled, as in Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, then the crime needs to be re-staged, repeated. It is never enough simply to talk about it.
So finally we all file out of the conference room, having spent over an hour and a half with a witty, charming, urbane and intelligent man who just happens to be one of the most accomplished British novelists alive today. We don’t understand him one iota, but at least we know why we don’t understand him. The interviewer thanks him for being “frank” and it’s almost as if she isn’t being ironic, but it doesn’t matter. What did we expect? We’d only really know him if we watched him do it. And then we’d all be implicated.