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Ballardian Secession Theory

Author: • Nov 8th, 2007 •

Category: Ballardosphere, celebrity culture

Ballardian: Great Britons

J.G. Ballard is being suggested as a nominee in the arts section of the Morgan Stanley Great Briton Awards, which seek ‘to explore, express and celebrate what it means to be British according to people living in Britain today’. Morgan Stanley recently held a ‘Great Britons debate’ which asked, ” ‘Can Britishness be taught?’ The debate discussed the challenges of engaging young people in questions of national identity, as well as moving to a broader discussion of Britishness.”

Here’s the JGB blurb (click on ‘arts’; with each refresh of the page it throws up random suggestions, and Ballard’s in there somewhere):

JG Ballard: A prominent member of the New Wave in science fiction, who is best known for his controversial book Crash, and autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, both of which have been adapted to film. His style of writing is so distinctive that the adjective “Ballardian” has even been entered into the Collins English dictionary. His recent novels, particularly Cocaine Nights, have continued to be well received.

Past winners in this category include Philip Pullman (2004), Alan Bennett (2005) and Dame Helen Mirren (2006).

A Ballard nomination would be interesting, given that he has effectively ‘seceded’ from England (and Britain), building his own non-place urban field in Shepperton. As the Electronic Labyrinth notes, ‘Ballard’s post-War Britain, like The Atrocity Exhibition itself, is a hypertext, a non-sequential space of heterogenous materials. The connections between these images must be made according to an ever more dangerous logic of submission and always at the risk of disconnecting completely.’

Ballard’s fiction evokes liminal urban zones that are as interchangeable as late capitalism dictates — it’s why I’ve been able to find so much in my immediate surrounds here in Melbourne that’s able to be identified through the lens of his work.

So, while I would never begrudge a writer of Ballard’s calibre the chance for further recognition, and while I in no way speak for the man or his views, with this site being a very unofficial examination and extrapolation of his work, the fact remains: Ballard has always taken great pains to divorce himself from any notion of ‘Britishness’, famously turning down an OBE on the basis that it recognises ‘a non-existent Empire’.

As Andrzej Gasiorek writes in his invaluable volume on Ballard: “In response to a question about the British landscape, Ballard responds bluntly: ‘Didn’t like that. Didn’t like the English psychology, the class system … Didn’t like anything about it at all. Still don’t!’ ”

What do you think? I’d be especially interested in the reactions of UK-based readers. Perhaps ‘Britishness’ these days means a tacit acceptance that the notion of traditional British values doesn’t exist. In fact, the Morgan Stanley awards seem to acknowledge this in the section of their website that lists the judging criteria for ‘British characteristics’:

1. Adaptability … people who work within the system are sometimes perceived as more “typically” British than those who subvert it, but there is also a strong school of thought that Britain is fundamentally a subversive, revolutionary, challenging society – which is why we have such a strong record of invention and creativity.

As I’ve outlined, Ballard certainly does subvert ‘the system’. Actually, looking through the rest of this list, Ballard seems to meet all criteria:

+ 2. ‘Modesty’
Ballard possesses that, as interviews with him consistently demonstrate.

+ 3. ‘Sense of humour’
Despite the one-dimensional, po-faced readings his writing often attracts, Ballard does have one, a marvellously self-deprecating, dry, absurdist wit.

+ 4. ‘Strength & determination’
Ballard survived wartime incarceration under the Japanese, then forged a successful writing career under extreme circumstances, bringing up three children as a single father after his wife died unexpectedly in 1964.

According to Morgan Stanley’s test, then, Ballard is wholly British.

So, vote for him. If you dare.

Meanwhile, here’s an interesting appraisal of the whole process: ‘Gong Show for Brand Britons’:

With the potential for anyone to become someone almost overnight, the old tried and trusted formula for selecting a person who exemplifies the best in Great Britons has been turned on its head…

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6 Responses »

  1. Yes! Vote for Ballard!
    The spectacle of JG walking up to a podium to recieve a ‘Great Briton Award’ would be sublime! The fact that he has turned resolutely away from any notions of ‘britishness’ and that his work is an ongoing attempt to unpack the psychology of (particularly) the western male is obviously lost on the asses who concieved of this televisual stale fart.

  2. Hell, yes! If only for the cognitive dissonance it would cause in some quarters. And the sponsor seems particularly fitting, given today’s news that they’re likely to be the next big casualty of the credit market going tits-up.

    Some of the other suggestions seem a little modish. David Tennant, or James Mcavoy? Talented young actors, sure, but ‘Great’?

    Perhaps ‘Britishness’ these days means a tacit acceptance that the notion of traditional British values doesn’t exist.
    It’s one of the nation’s finer values that, on the whole, we don’t really go in for too much nationalist grandstanding. Your proper Brit just doesn’t really worry about all that sort of nonsense.

  3. alright john and tim, you’ve convinced me — i’m voting for the great jgb! spread the word, lads. it would be good timing for him to win, too, given that the award is announced the month before his autobiography is released.

  4. When you travel from country to country you see that the values are all about the same. In every society there are a wide range of values and people who behave in very different ways.

    Appropriating ‘values’ and labelling them with ‘British’ or whatever is just Nationalism or perverted wishful thinking.

    It ranks up there with the worst of nationalist myth-making – like, for example, that English is a uniquely beautiful or creative language, or that there is a Western Culture that can be traced back to Greece and viewed in glorious isolation.

    Why would anyone with their own ideas or vision want to be associated with any of that?

  5. Andy, I absolutely agree — however, as Jim and Tim suggest, the notion of JGB winning such an award would doubtless whack certain noses completely out of joint. Doubt whether he’d accept the award, though…

  6. I suspect that our Mr B might at least be amused by the fact that this arbiter of ‘Britishness’ is a US financial group of rather dubious governance.

    “Without the largely foreign-owned City of London the whole country would be a suburb of Longbridge, retraining as an offshore call-centre servicing the Chinese super-economy.”

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