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'His personal horizon': Sinclair and Self on Ballard

Author: • Jun 16th, 2008 •

Category: Ballardosphere, CCTV, film, Iain Sinclair, Ian Curtis, music, psychogeography, Shepperton, suburbia, surveillance, Will Self

Ballardian: Will Self & Iain Sinclair

When Iain Sinclair and Will Self appeared on stage together earlier this year to talk about psychogeography, chaired by Kevin Jackson, I wondered what mystical forces aligned for this event to come to pass, given that Sinclair on a couple of occasions has publicly expressed the view that Self has got ‘absolutely nothing to do with psychogeography’.

Enter Steve Barfield of the University of Westminster, who informs me, ‘Well, writers say all kinds of things …at different times … is probably the shortest answer. But why not look at the full transcript of the VAM conversation, that is now published in the Literary London Journal. I edited the transcript for the journal from the recording with little tidying up of grammar and footnoting for the reader and the Guardian review was a wee bit wayward to my mind. But it’s journalism, after all, they didn’t have the tape and Self and Sinclair spoke at breakneck speed. Nothing mystical about the event, I’m afraid, the intention was to bring them together to interrogate the term [psychogeography] and see what happened!’

Thanks Steve — you are absolutely correct to point out that writers say different things at different times. Let’s not forget that Ballard himself told the Guardian in 1999 that ‘Most television is remarkably good, bearing in mind that it is a popular entertainment medium, but Melvyn Bragg poses a problem of his own making. The South Bank Show is a classic example of dumbing down: most television trivialises the already trivial, but the South Bank Show trivialises the serious, which is far more dangerous.’

To which Bragg responded: ‘I find this snobbish, offensive and depressing, particularly as I admire Ballard’s work and thought better of him. It’s also wrong. I think that a programme on UB40 is every bit as serious as a programme on Harold Pinter. We did both last season and neither was trivial… I am genuinely interested to know if he can tell me how any of those programmes fit his lazy smear… Unless JG Ballard can prove his point, his comment stands as no more than a sad and sour little swipe.’

Yet seven years later, both men amiably faced off on the South Bank Show to celebrate Ballard’s life and latest novel, Kingdom Come.

But back to Self and Sinclair: the transcript does indeed make interesting reading, not least for the way in which Sinclair now seems to go out of his way to praise Self’s work! Also, there’s quite a bit of chat about Ballard as an inspiration to both:

Will Self: It’s interesting what you were saying Iain, about in Jim Ballard’s memoir, about this weird period where he would only walk for what he reckoned was his personal horizon …

Iain Sinclair: His personal horizon … for his own height and I don’t know how he calculated that. But in Shepperton you are on the flat I suppose. He’d seemed to work out that three-quarters of a mile would do him. So he went three quarters of a mile in every direction and he got to know the area intimately.

Will Self: Because he was on a driving ban.

Iain Sinclair: Yeah, for a year. But he said it completely changed his life, because he decided he just wasn’t going to use public transport, it was horrendous. To get into Notting Hill or Hampstead where he wanted to see people was just such a hassle, he wouldn’t do it. So he then became a recluse in some ways. The upside of it was that he wrote more and better — and presumably he was coming towards the period of writing Crash. And, secondly, I think because he now had to walk rather than just leaping into the car, he actually released different kind of energies and it was a wonderful thing. This notion of horizon, a personal horizon, is obviously very important. And the whole culture, the mainstream culture, has followed him into acknowledging the significance of the airport fringe. Ballard says that London is a suburb of Heathrow rather than the other way around, everything you need is out there. This does seem to be true and you walking there, Will, pays homage to this concept.

It’s a lengthy conversation, the anecdotes flow thick and fast, and I have to say that Sinclair and Self do seem to bounce off each other. The audience questions are good, too, and I especially liked the point made that the psychogeographical revival in England in the 1980s seemed to coincide with the rise of CCTV and surveillance culture, with the act of walking perceived as an act of resistance — disappearing from view in the age of perpetual telesurveillance.

There’s also a rambling Sinclair story about Orson Welles, widening the psychogeographical frame to include not only this Hollywood maverick, but also none other than Mr Lemmy Caution himself — Eddie Constantine — and the ubiquitous aura of Godard and Alphaville:

Iain Sinclair: I was telling you earlier about the figure of Orson Welles, the great American director, who pitched up in Hackney in the 1950s to make a play, he was rehearsing a play about Moby Dick — which, incidentally, was J. G. Ballard’s favourite novel. [Orson Welles, Moby Dick – Rehearsed (1955) –ed.] Welles came out of the theatre and found these old ladies who were living in an alms house, the Spurstowe alms houses, and he decided that he would shoot a documentary piece. So he shoots this interview with these old woman — of course the alms house is now gone, the only record of it is this fragmented film by Orson Wells. He put the film together as a series of little essays or home movies which were shot in Paris, Spain and London. [Orson Welles, Around the World with Orson Welles (1955) originally made for BBC television. –ed.]

So it was 1955, and he goes into a Paris bookshop and here are those psychogeographers and Lettrists [Lettrism is a French avant-garde movement, established in Paris in the 1940s by Isidore Isou, inspired by dada and surrealism –ed. ] and they are reciting incantatory poems, and it is just extraordinary that the date is ’55 — and from Welles moves into a nightclub where the American actor Eddie Constantine, who later emerges in Godard’s Alphaville, is sitting with a hat on, looking sinister and grinning and then there is Jean-Paul Sartre. So there’s a weird cultural stew that appropriates this term psychogeography, which is a way of thinking and dealing with how the city emerges. It didn’t mean a lot to me then, and looking back I find, in documentaries that I was involved with at that time, the term used with more frequency was psychopolitics. I’m not sure what it meant, but people like R. D. Lang and Ginsberg and Paul Goodman and Gregory Bateson were all using this term constantly …

Read the rest of the transcript at the Literary London site.

This post also gives me the opportunity to post a snippet from ‘The Gnome Zone’, another transcript featuring Sinclair taken from a program broadcast on BBC radio in 2006 about the warped nature of English suburbia, hosted by Richard Weight:

WEIGHT: Someone who imagines such events in his work is the novelist, J.G. Ballard, himself a suburbanite.

SINCLAIR: J.G. Ballard’s become the great sort of sage of the suburbs, living for years and years in Shepperton. And Ballard, sitting there and thinking about what the suburbs are, says that they are very interesting because whatever we’re taking on in terms of Ikea furniture, kind of Swedish design, modernism, the use of the Internet, making pornographic movies at home—whatever it is you do to kind of create some sort of shock to your imagination, get you out of boredom and inertia, will happen in the suburbs rather than in the centre. That’s his pitch. And to react against this inertia and boredom that is endemic to that place, you have to come up with solutions like acts of subversion.

Finally, for those wanting even more Sinclair, Greg emails to tell me of ‘Babylon Afterburn: Adventures in Iain Sinclair’s The Firewall’. This is Robert Bond’s 30-page, 12,000-word essay on Sinclair’s latest book of poems, posted over at Jacket magazine. I’ve not had the time to read this, although a quick glance tells me that although there’s no Ballard, at one point Bond compares Sinclair’s work with the post-punk sensibilities of early Fall and Public Image Ltd. (inevitably, Ian Curtis pops up, too), and uses the work of Simon Reynolds (previously interviewed here on ballardian.com) to make the point:

The affinity of Sinclair’s poetic to the post-punk ecology points to a general attempt, throughout the early 1980s, to renovate urban spiritual energies through the evolution of a post-lyric, visionary populism. A quick look at the titles of Simon Reynolds’s books of music history — such as Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock and Energy Flash — tells us that he is the archivist of youthful, energetic, supernaturalism in popular music. Post-punk is just the latest area within which he has delineated the radical transcendence offered by contemporary music’s spiritual energy, and found precisely that visionary populism which is lacking in so much contemporary poetry, the lyric category, and present-day Protestantism.

Intriguing, and I look forward to reading more.

PS: Speaking of psychogeography and music, Jude Rogers in the Guardian was recently spotted championing a so-called ‘psychogeographic rock’ movement, supposedly including the likes of Belbury Poly and the Ghost Box crew. But isn’t this music hauntological? Were Reynolds’ and Fisher’s efforts all in vain?

Rogers describes psychogeography as ‘the study of the spooky effects of the geographical environment on individuals’, which is quite the paraphrase…

‘Psychogeography is the study of the exact effects of the geographical environment, controlled or otherwise, on the affective behaviour of individuals’ — Guy Debord.

What was that Sinclair said about creating a monster?

..:: Previously on Ballardian…
+ Bluewater, Round 2
+ Your mission…
+ ‘Obeying the surrealist formula’: Iain Sinclair & Hermione Lee on Ballard’
+ Iain Sinclair’s Ballard biography
+ ‘When in doubt, quote Ballard’: An Interview with Iain Sinclair
+ ‘This most astonishing penumbra’: Will Self on J.G. Ballard
+ Random Ballard: Will Self/JGB mashup

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9 Responses »

  1. Perhaps Sinclair is more kindly disposed to Self in general now, what with Self receiving the official Ballard seal of approval.
    The suburbs? I was born and bred near Heathrow, just up the road from Shepperton and I met more certifiable loons and witnessed more wayward behaviour in my formative years than I have ever encountered since moving to the Big Smoke. I’ve always put it down to the high level of toxins and heavy metals in the atmosphere, under those flight paths.

  2. I’m guessing that as both writers were mentioned in glowing terms on one page towards the end of Miracles of Life, they decided to bury the hatchet and strengthen the bond that connects them to Ballard (plus it’s probably hard to avoid one another all the time in the same city if you’re in the same line of work). Although I’m sure Sinclair secretly knows that he has the upper hand over psy******grapher-come-lately Self, a man whose position here in the UK is unclear: touted from the beginning (by others and himself) as a ‘literary bad boy’, riding in on the gaudy coat-tails of Martin Amis, and yet happy to appear on all levels of TV quiz shows, as well as building a reputation as the UK’s Stephen King of paperback blurbs. Sinclair remains the greater writer, in my eyes.

    Last word to Colin Wilson’s 1963 novel, Man Without A Shadow:

    “‘Let us not be modest about this. We are probably the four most remarkable men in London. How is it, then, that we have come together like this? I believe there is some strange destiny that brings together men who willl have a great effect upon the age. Think of Nietzsche and Wagner, Schumann and Brahms, Goethe and Schiller…. The great men gravitate together.’ I was so flattered by this remark that I didn’t point out that most great men meet when they’ve become sufficiently famous to be able to seek one another out.”

  3. the next five minutes

    always interesting reading the articles here. new ballard and ballardian vid clips turn up on youtube from time to time; some good, some not so much. an interesting question was posted by supervert over at reality studios. ‘what would you ask ballard?’ it’s true that many questions are repeated by his interviewers. talking with a creative thinker like ballard, i would mostly state topics, and let him roll. i believe this would lead to more spontaneous segues. i’d be interested to hear what others would ask, or how they’d approach an interview.

    i’m sure this 2001interview (imprint, writer in profile) is posted somewhere on this site. i found it so good i watched it twice. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7JF02av1ec

  4. re/search used the ‘state topics and let him roll’ tactic to great effect. i have been quite unimpressed with recent interviewers and their efforts to engage ballard. i’m sure he has been bored, too.

  5. for a man who believes so strongly in his obsessions, boredom doesn’t seem quite right, disappointed probably.

  6. ‘re/search used the ’state topics and let him roll’ tactic to great effect.’

    are you thinking of the REsearch book QUOTES? but that is a book comprised of quotes from other interviews culled by vale and mike ryan from a myriad of publications, and throughout the years, then arranged under subjects like: pornography, science fiction etc.. it’s one of my favorite ballard books, and probably is the source for my idea, but not the same.

  7. Hello – Jude Rogers here. Just to point something out – I’d mention Reynolds’ piece about hauntology when I filed my piece about July Skies and the psychogeographic rock lot, but it didn’t make the cut, and neither did my mention of Debord. Which, I know, is a shame, but, gah, that’s the way it is.

  8. Ah, fair enough Jude — the curse of the sub-editor strikes again….

  9. […] has much at all to do with psychogeographical conceptions of urban space? He appears to have been co-opted into the ‘movement’, such as it […]

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