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Bluewater, Round 2

Author: • May 28th, 2008 •

Category: architecture, Ballardosphere, consumerism, Iain Sinclair, leisure, suburbia, the middle classes, utopia

Ballardian: Bluewater

Bluewater: photo by James Boardman.

Further to yesterday’s post on Bluewater shopping centre, Michael Collins in the Guardian reports on the construction of Ebbsfleet, “Britain’s first new town of the 21st century”, taking place in the shadow of Bluewater.

Seeking to answer the question, “How do you create a characteristically 21st-century town in the baby years of the 21st century?”, Collins looks at the utopian visions of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and William Morris before concluding that “the concern over what might happen when the masses became acquainted with luxury and leisure was the bugbear that united all these utopianists.”

Unsurprisingly, Collins references Sinclair and Ballard:

But the very thing that makes Ebbsfleet a totally 21st-century British concept is that it will not become a “prairie” town or a dormitory suburb gazing hopefully to the big smoke for its labour, luxury and leisure. This new town is not a suburb of London, but a suburb of Bluewater.

Housed on reclaimed land, which should appease the less hysterical environmentalists, here is the first community to be built around a temple to turbo-consumerism. “Virtual water, glass fountains, had replaced the tired Kentish shore as a place of pilgrimage,” wrote Iain Sinclair in an essay on the site, for the London Review of Books. “Bluewater,” he said, “is a Ballardian resort (Vermilion Sands), shopping is secondary, punters come here to be part of the spectacle.” In the risible Kingdom Come, JG Ballard himself has a shopping mall, clearly based on Bluewater, transforming into, of course, “a fascist state” controlled by armies of plebs distinguished by, of course, their white faces and a flag of St George.

For Collins, Ballard is on a par with those misguided, middle-class 19th-century utopianists who want to “keep luxury, leisure and filthy lucre in the hands of the few who knew what to do with them.” Ebbsfleet, he argues, due to judicious forward planning, will be less like a fascist shopping republic and more like a community that will not repeat the neo-Brutalist mistakes of the 60s, instead adroitly addressing “the issue of what unites and focuses a neighbourhood” by concentrating on effective transport and industry: “By the end of 2009, commuters will be propelled into King’s Cross from Ebbsfleet station in 17 minutes. Also, the 20,000 jobs promised might yet be possible.”

The suggestion that Ballard in Kingdom Come is snobbing “the plebs” is an old argument. Just after the book’s publication we heard it by way of Rod Liddle’s eulogy for the “working class” game of football. For Liddle, Kingdom Come is a “deeply silly and patronising novel, but it does at least encapsulate the contempt and lack of understanding with which working-class pastimes are viewed by our political leaders and, in Ballard’s case, our intelligentsia.”

But how much of the argument actually stands up? As far as the “new town” concept is concerned, we have Ballard’s oft-stated admiration for the hermetically sealed “non spaces” of 21st-century life, about as anti the “prairie town”, “dormitory suburb” mentality as Collins could wish for:

The catchment area of Heathrow extends for at least 10 miles to its south and west, a zone of motorways, intersections, dual carriageways, science parks, marinas and industrial estates, watched by police CCTV speed-check cameras, a landscape which most people affect to loathe but which I regard as the most advanced and admirable in the British Isles, and paradigm of the best that the future offers us.

Ballard, “Airports”, The Observer, September 14, 1997.

And as for Ballard’s perceived classism, this is most obviously undercut by Millennium People, which savages the middle classes, along with their complaints and separatist claims, by suggesting they are entirely complicit in their own problems. But remarkably, given the Liddle/Collins backlash, it’s Kingdom Come itself that consciously mocks Ballard’s own “privileged” world view with a number of sly digs at the public persona he increasingly has to labour under. The infamous line, “This author is beyond psychiatric help — do not publish”, was of course aimed at the original manuscript of Crash by a publisher’s reader, but in Kingdom Come it’s recycled by Ballard himself and used against Pearson, the narrator of the book (and Ballard proxy):

“Tell her to watch my commercials for David Cruise.”
“I did. She says there’s a new one. Something about a man laughing in an abattoir.”
“What did she think of it?”
“She said you’re beyond psychiatric help.”
“Good. That shows she’s warming to me.”

Ballard, Kingdom Come.

But it also includes this aside from Pearson, even more telling:

He probably knew that I was hostile to the mall, another middle-class snob who hated glitter, confidence and opportunity when they were taken up too literally by the lower orders.

Ballard, Kingdom Come.

What I find amusing is that here Ballard has exactly pre-empted the arguments of Liddle and Collins, which makes it seem a bit strange that they would conveniently skip this line in favour of using the self-same argument against him, stripping the author’s sharp self-awareness and replacing it with an image of Ballard as a conservative old fuddy duddy. After all, it’s Pearson who displays the most disturbing, megalomaniac tendencies of all. The book’s world is seen through the eyes of this “middle class snob” with all his privileges and his insulation from reality. How could it be anything less than one-dimensional, then, in its depictions of the stratum of society that its narrator fails to fully understand? And is it not the case that Pearson actually repents by book’s end, sees the error of his ways, admits he was wrong?

I just wonder if Collins has actually read the book. But I also wonder if these kinds of attacks on Ballard are a consequence of the way he has been absorbed by the English media, which is determined to preserve him in aspic as an avuncular heritage figure by defanging the ambiguities and ambivalences that make all his work, even the less successful iterations such as Kingdom Come (which I admit is far from Ballard’s best book), so powerful.

As I’ve noted before, Ben Noys makes the excellent point in his recent writings on Ballard that “while [Ballard’s] work is recognized as provocative and controversial, this is neutralized through the construction of an ‘eccentric’ authorial persona”. Noys sees this reductive process as deriving from the success of Empire of the Sun and the way in which that book’s “biographical keys” and Ballard’s subsequent public image have nullified some of the more extreme conclusions reached in his other fiction, especially the disturbing — and unanswered questions — Ballard raises about “regression, sexual deviance and the role of violence and radicalism in the arts”.

In the end Noys sees this nullification as a result of the stifling “constriction of the terms of literary and cultural debate in Britain”, and ends by calling for critical re-engagement with Ballard’s most urgent concerns.

Unfortunately we are still waiting.

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