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'When in doubt, quote Ballard': An interview with Iain SinclairAuthor: Tim Chapman • Aug 29th, 2006 •
Category: architecture, Chris Petit, David Cronenberg, film, flying, Iain Sinclair, interviews, Michael Moorcock, New Worlds, politics, psychogeography, Shepperton, Steven Spielberg, utopia, William Burroughs
Interview by Tim Chapman
Iain Sinclair at the Barbican. Photo: Tim Chapman, © 2006.
Iain Sinclair has been acclaimed as one of Britain’s most visionary writers and as an incomparable prose stylist. His early writing, notably Lud Heat (1975) and White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), was rooted in his adopted home of East London. It did much to popularise ideas of psychogeography in Britain, and inspired such works as Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and Alan Moore’s From Hell. His non-fiction Lights Out for the Territories (1997), based around a series of walks through some darker corners of London life and history, brought his vision to a wider audience.
Following the controversy over David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Sinclair was commissioned to write on the film for the BFI Modern Classics series. The resulting book, also titled Crash, was hailed by John Gray in the New Statesman as “the most intelligent guide yet to Ballard’s work”. Ballard features heavily — as a reference, or occasionally as a direct presence — in much of Sinclair’s subsequent work, frequently invoked in the novels Landor’s Tower (2001) and Dining on Stones (2004). Ballard also plays a significant role in Sinclair’s M25-circumambulating book and film London Orbital (2002) and the upcoming London: City of Disappearances (to be published by Hamish Hamilton in October).
I met Sinclair in the Barbican, the City of London Corporation’s modernist complex of high-class municipal housing and cultural facilities, which hosted the London Orbital theatrical event in October 2002. On the empty, third-floor Sculpture Court, we discussed JG Ballard and more, surrounded by high rises and interrupted only by the sounds of aircraft flying to and from London’s terrorised airports.
— Tim Chapman
NOTE: Video stills of Ballard are taken from the short film Crash! (1971), directed by Harley Cokliss, filmed among the multistorey carparks of Watford and referenced by Sinclair in the BFI book.
Tim Chapman is a writer and journalist based in Halifax, Yorkshire. See www.2ubh.com for more.
When did you first start reading Ballard?
In the 1960s. I think the first book I read was The Terminal Beach, and I kept picking up on him through things like New Worlds magazine. I was a bit at arm’s length at that time — I was very involved with the American Beat writers, and I saw Ballard in the lineage of William Burroughs. The whole notion of English suburbia, Shepperton, was so strange to my experience that I didn’t really engage that closely with it but I admired him very much as a pared-down stylist.
It was probably with The Atrocity Exhibition that I really recognised him as an English master. I think that’s still the book that affects me most — its use of this American material that I was interested in, and the way it puts it under such incredible pressure to achieve this astonishing paranoiac poetic, is still an example to us all.
Would you say he’s been an influence on your own writing?
Not really. I think my own writing is at absolutely the opposite extreme from Ballard’s. It’s singularly failed to be pared down and accurate and precise in physical details as his is, where you always know exactly what’s going on. My writing tends to be much baggier with more clauses tacked on. It’s more related to the kind of writing that his early partner Michael Moorcock was doing.
I started out as a film-maker in the 60s and came back to it much later on in the late 80s and 90s, getting together to make films with Chris Petit. At that time, I really came back strongly to Ballard and I think he was an influence more on the film-making than the writing. Chris himself was clearly and directly influenced by Ballard. His book Robinson is like an aftershock based on Crash. He made a film with Ballard for The Moving Picture Show at that time. By the time we were making films together, Ballard was one of the people we looked to.
I think then when I got to do a short book for the BFI on Crash, my interest was more in Ballard than in Cronenberg. Having met him, we became friendly. My book London Orbital was one that interested him because it was dealing with borderlands, liminal spaces, the motorway corridor, and all the things he’s written about for years. At that point, he really was a direct influence — not in the style of how I write, but more in the way that his vision of England was something that I was extremely drawn to.
You said in the acknowledgements to the BFI book that it was proposed at the strategic moment when you wanted an excuse to meet Ballard.
Exactly. I thought he’d really got it right. It never was science fiction, it was hyper-sharp reportage. His reality of the 60s had now come into place in the English landscape. That kind of world he’s endlessly talked about — retail parks and marinas and executive homes, and this list that pours out of him on ticker tape — all of that was now the landscape of England. I think we are a motorway culture, and he was the prophet of that. I really did want an excuse, if that was the word, to meet him and talk to him. Of course, when you do talk to him, what you get is almost exactly what you know from having read the books and the previous interviews. He’s quite a guarded person, quite contained and very much a solitary voyager. He’s lived in this time capsule and seen everything, and is now in his later career becoming a kind of stoic comedian. I think he’s getting quite funny in the last books — the satire is beginning to bite.
Photo: Tim Chapman.
I’d been reading your books for a while when the BFI book came out, and thought it wasn’t an obvious combination.
Funnily enough, the first actual physical connection was in a film from Mary Harron, who’s now a well-known Hollywood film-maker. She was working for the BBC Late Show and she was commissioned to make a film about Docklands and Canary Wharf as it was being built. I was invited to be one of the voices with Ballard. As the author of High-Rise, he was seen to be prophetic of this landscape, and he was saying that this is a future that he quite looks forward to. He liked the idea of Docklands. I was being quite apocalyptic and gloomy about it, looking at it from a more social and political perspective, and so curiously we were placed side by side in this now obscure and lost film. As the years went on, probably I’ve shifted more to his position.
Harron filmed American Psycho with Christian Bale, who was young Jim in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.
Yes, she’s an interesting woman. The interesting thing about it was most of these films for the Late Show were made in about two days. But she was tough enough that she had a proper length of time to do this. She was out in this landscape filming for weeks at a time, and persuading Ballard to appear, which is not necessarily always easy either.
I dug out a review of the BFI book by John Gray at the London School of Economics, where he said “the juxtaposition of JG Ballard and Iain Sinclair is far from obvious. Their views on the political and cultural scene from which they are equally estranged are quite different, even opposed”.
I don’t know that they are opposed. Maybe it would have seemed like that at that time, but I think now they would be seen to be quite similar in some ways. I think they’re quite interesting to juxtapose because he’s stayed out in Shepperton since the 1960s and he’s written essentially the same coded arrangements — every single book is a repetition, an extension of the same riff — in the same way that I’ve been in Hackney in the inner city since the 1960s and have also essentially written the same paradigms over and over. Except I kind of felt I’d reached a dead end — the city centre was becoming so heritaged and corrupted, I thought the interesting move was out to the margin, to the motorway, to the M25. As soon as that happened, it’s invading his territory. I certainly felt homage had to be paid. I was walking around the M25 and it was very necessary to stop off at Shepperton and see him, to visit this place of reservoirs and aircraft and future terror.
What was the genesis of the London Orbital project?
I felt quite strongly that with the kind of complicated dense fictions that I’d been writing, there was no place for them in the market. Lights Out for the Territory, which was centred on walks and explorations within London, had been much more successful. I needed to do another book which appeared to be a documentary but went off in other directions. One day when I was out walking up the River Lea to the point where it hit the M25 at Waltham Abbey, I thought this is it. This is the future England. London itself, by being completely enclosed in a motorway, has become a kind of concrete island. The obvious space to explore is this, with this pilgrim journey. It’s a book you can describe in a single sentence — a walk around the M25 — so everything clicked into place. Once I’d taken that decision, the book was there waiting to be written.
The Seer of Shepperton: “I was interested in the gauge of psychoarchitectonics” (still from Crash!, 1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
Was Ballard always part of that plan?
Yeah. I thought the main figures I could see emerging from this landscape were Bram Stoker to the east, because of Carfax Abbey and Purfleet which is the point where the M25 crosses the Thames with the QEII bridge; HG Wells’ War of the Worlds out on the other side in Woking in Surrey, where the Martian invasion takes place; and Ballard himself at Shepperton. That was always my triangulation of the three energy points, the three great metaphors that described that topography. Ballard in a sense is reprising and working over Wells, in this sense of terrorism and viral invasion. In War of the Worlds, the invaders come in through Shepperton — they actually cross the river at that point — and the river turns into this red weed which is very much like the atmosphere of The Drought.
Wells is often seen as primarily a science fiction writer, but he did a lot of political and social comment which is often overlooked.
Ballard’s politics are quite curious. I don’t know whether you could call him conservative, with a small ‘c’, because he celebrates the nature of the bourgeois in its exile: the people that live in these kinds of flats that surround us now, who are anonymous and separated from the mob. Whereas his early partner, Michael Moorcock, said he was a man of the urban mob, who celebrates the crowds and smells of cafes and markets and all of that stuff, which is totally alien to Ballard. He’d like to chuck away all the old buildings, pull them down, get rid of all that heavy 19th-century furniture and have everything straight out of an Ikea catalogue. In that sense, I think there’s something conservative, but in other senses there’s something incredibly anarchic and furious about what he does, which doesn’t fit with any contemporary sense of politics. He doesn’t belong, he’s completely an outsider, although when you meet him he appears to be quite an Establishment person. He’s got a very fruity voice and genial persona, and would fit into the colonial society in which he grew up.
He did declare in the late 70s and 80s that he was a great admirer of Mrs Thatcher, but whether that was the politics or the charisma of it…
I think maybe the sort of psychosexual politics of Thatcher, in the same way that John Gray was a member of the Thatcher thinktanks. He was a significant Thatcher admirer and advocate at that period, but had a complete change of heart and is now violently opposed to American policy and all these things she was supportive of in the ’80s. He’s rather embarrassed about it. There’s interesting things happening there politically.
Ballard said a few years ago that he’s getting more left-wing as he gets older.
It’s quite interesting, because usually it’s the other way around. Someone like Kingsley Amis, who was an early supporter of Ballard, supposedly started off as quite socialist but gradually moved to extreme right to become this kind of Blimpish drunk at the end of his career. His feeling about Ballard’s writing also shifts with the years to become much more uncomfortable about where it’s going, as he’s obviously not the science fiction writer that Amis thought he was at the beginning.
Photo: Tim Chapman.
Could you talk about the London Orbital event here at the Barbican?
London Orbital was never just a book. It was also a TV film made with Chris Petit. The fact of it being a film meant that it couldn’t follow the procedures of walking, which is what I’d done in the book. The whole point was to walk the motorway spaces, and thereby to suck out information slowly and gradually from the ground. Chris is famous as a maker of road movies, and he couldn’t cope with filming the walking aspect because by the time he’d set up his camera the walkers had gone over the horizon. He shifted it all into the car. Once you were in the car, you were much closer to entering a Ballardian space. We accumulated all this road footage. Chris, in the end, discovered the only way to do it was never to switch the camera off. The only way to make sense of the road was to keep the camera running right the way round the whole thing.
It became obvious that maybe the meeting place between the book and the film would be to do a theatre event here at the Barbican, at which a number of people who appeared in the book would appear as themselves. There would be music, there would be three screens for which Chris went out and shot new footage of continual M25 progression. Ballard was supposed to appear here as the star of the show. He agreed to do that, which was surprising. We were just going to have a little discussion, a conversation, he wouldn’t have to read or do anything else. But on the day the phone rang and he said he wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t going to come. I wasn’t altogether surprised because he really doesn’t like doing these things very much.
I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.
Excerpted from ‘What I Believe’ by J.G. Ballard, first published in Interzone #8, 1984
What happened was we made a photographic life-size cut-out of Ballard — there’d been a piece in one of the Sunday newspapers about us and we just blew up that photograph. Chris and I recited alternately this Ballardian screed, ‘What I Believe’, which I think is a terrific take on Ballard. In a sense, his presence was there perfectly. It was not actually necessary to have him physically, and of course he appeared in the London Orbital film as well. At the end of the film there’s this nice moment where he’s saying “Iain, I want you to go out and blow up the Bentall Centre, I want you to destroy Bluewater“, which has now become the subject of his new book Kingdom Come. It’s also been invoked by the present terror alerts at Heathrow Airport which seem to stem in part from places like High Wycombe which is exactly in this Ballardian Thames corridor.
How was the event received?
It wasn’t really received at all — it was an invisible event. As far as I know, practically no one wrote about it. Those that did were kind of uncomfortable because they liked the music, or certain aspects of the music, but didn’t like other stuff, so it was one of those invisible events. The interesting thing was the Barbican was expecting to sell 400 or 500 seats, which is what they’d allowed for, and it completely sold out. It took 2000 seats.
One of the stranger things was within it: there was a whole thing about Essex criminals who were involved in ecstasy and drug wars and Range Rover murders. Some of these figures were in the audience and took a deep objection to the stuff I was reading out about them, and tried to get round the back to kill me. There was a kind of interesting subtext of drama going on. It was almost a Ballardian event in which he was pulling the strings without being there at all. It was actually quite funny.
There’s going to be a repeat of this event here for a book called London: City of Disappearances, for which Ballard has contributed a piece about the Westway. I’ll certainly try and go out and interview him on film, and have a film to show rather than expect him to turn up this time.
The Barbican. Photo: Tim Chapman.
It was said at the time that Ballard had never actually been to the Barbican before.
He said that, which was very surprising, but in a sense he doesn’t need to because it’s almost like his mental landscape. He did say to me he’d never really been to the East End of London — he had no real interest or desire in seeing it. He’d done a car trip once to go and have a look at the Millennium Dome but he never got out of the car — just drove past it and went back again to Shepperton.
It’s probably the best way to see it.
It probably is, but this is the absolute opposite of what I feel. Always, the way is that you walk. You start from wherever you are and you walk slowly through the city, and your narrative is revealed. He just doesn’t feel the need to work in that way at all. He fillets from magazines, watches random TV, and looks at technical reports, scientific journals, and just cuts up and accumulates this material. In the 60s, he was using it fairly straight in a fragmented way, and now it’s become finessed into something that’s almost like a standard literary novel, but once you look below the surface it’s something else.
Photo: Tim Chapman.
Walking and driving is something you riff on in Dining on Stones: pods versus peds.
I had this insight when I was walking down the A13 when I walked into this Travelodge. I was amazed to see that what I thought was this food dispenser giving you pies was actually filled with books. I looked at this and thought god, all of these writers are either walking writers or driving writers. Most people fit into one or the other of these categories. Moorcock I think would be very much a walking writer, even though his foot has gone now and he’s in a wheelchair. His novels are walking novels, and he never did learn to drive. Whereas Ballard, you can’t really see him getting out of the car. Everything is there in this car journey between Shepperton and West London, where he comes in on a regular basis. I thought most people could be put one way or the other.
With Ballard, it’s not so much driving I’d associate with him as flying — aeroplanes, low-flying aircraft.
There’s a lot of flying — he was a pilot. I think he does have a god’s-eye view of things, he’s able to be right up there. You can see him in this building here, the man on the balcony. He’s very much that, sometimes with a camera. There’s a photograph I used in the BFI book with the woman on the balcony, by Helmut Newton who he admires. It’s looking from inside a flat out to the woman who’s maybe naked from behind on the balcony, and looking down into the street. I thought that foreground-middleground-distance is exactly the Ballardian perspective, which is reprised in the Cronenberg film of Crash, quite near the beginning. That’s why I think he was very happy to see the film move to Canada, to Toronto. That was fine, because to him it doesn’t have to be specific to London, whereas the way that Chris Petit and I think about it is: it’s very much a London book, about the Heathrow gas stations and the backroads between Shepperton and Heathrow. He doesn’t need that.
Since the BFI book, most of your work seems to have been stuffed full of Ballard references. As you say in Dining on Stones: “When in doubt, quote Ballard.”
Yeah — he’s so sharp. I’ve been reading back through the interviews in the Re/Search book, and every little aphorism that was very savage and strange at that moment seems incredibly pertinent to this one. Once I was writing about the edges of London, the A13 corridor, down there his voice is playing in your ear the whole time as you have the queues of low-flying aircraft and the reservoirs, and the idea that you could be blown out of the sky or fly straight into a towerblock at any moment. All of that is his world. And the death of Diana — all the journalists rung him up because it was exactly the kind of thing he’d always been describing or thinking about in terms of James Dean or Jayne Mansfield.
You said in the film of London Orbital that he is an icon now, with his own credo. Is it just the fact that he’s been around so long?
I think it’s partly that. It’s quite interesting that in the 60s he’s very much a marginal figure. He’s got a cult following but he doesn’t really register in the mainstream apart from with one or two writers who support him very strongly. In the ’70s, he’s actually become a kind of pariah — Cape, who were publishing Crash, were wearing gloves to do it. Then everything changes with Empire of the Sun — it’s the moment he becomes supremely visible. There’s a Spielberg version of Ballard, which would have been unthinkable.
Then the general middlebrow consensus swerves round and thinks of him as a different kind of writer to what he actually is. He’s seen as a great guru of the West, but the people who are doing that very rarely refer back to the earlier books. They go back maybe to Crash, because they know it’s a film, and they think that’s shocking, but Crash is only a version of what’s in The Atrocity Exhibition which is very rarely referred to, or any of those earlier pieces.
I think he’s been reinvented — not by himself, because he’s carried on doing what he’s always done — but by the literary consensus who have reinvented him and think of him as being something really that he isn’t: this sort of genial but provocative figure sitting out there writing about the Metro Centre and shopping malls and stuff. I can see the reviews even now. But the real early energy and madness is still not appreciated.
James Graham Ballard: “…transcending death, charming motorways, integrating
with birds, enlisting the confidences of madmen” (still from Crash!, 1971; dir. Harley Cokliss)
I think the problem is it’s almost too easy to reduce him to a set of icons — the car crash, the concrete flyover.
That is obviously what’s happened. You see him constantly quoted or brought into catalogues at the Tate Modern and glossy magazines. He’s the first name you think of to underwrite these sorts of things. There was an event at the Serpentine a couple of weeks back with Rem Koolhaas, the architect, doing a 24-hour interview with different people. I was one of the people there. I said I assume you’ve got JG Ballard. He said well, he wouldn’t come here, but he was there as a presence on tape. And yet he’s not really interested in the city, there’s this polemic on the city but the city doesn’t mean anything to him. I don’t think he could describe it, he hardly knows the city. Maybe he comes in to see his publishers or have a meal or go to the Tate, but really it’s of no importance to him and his mental universe.
It’s interesting you mention Koolhaas. At the architecture exhibition here at the Barbican, Future City: Experiment and Utopia in Architecture [1956-2006], there’s an installation of a theoretical work by Koolhaas, Exodus , which is about placing a great strip of ultra-luxury accommodation across London so it divides it in two, and seeing what’ll happen. I thought that’s an unwritten Ballard story.
Absolutely. While other writers were just not thinking about those kinds of things, he was. He didn’t discriminate, he didn’t have this snobbery of being a literary writer. He felt that there were things he could take from the most debased forms of public culture. He would come out and say I think everyone should watch television for eight hours a day in random fashion — there’s no good or bad, you just jump about and let it flow over you, with your glass of whisky. It just meshes together and creates its own strange poetic. Nobody else was saying that at that time. Nobody else liked roads, nobody else liked petrol stations, apart from a few nouveau-pop artists in America. So he’s gone from a position of being right out there and advocating hateful stuff and disliking Ralph Nader and not being politically correct and not being green or ecologically sound, and suddenly here he is as a nice old man.
It’s rather like what happened with Kafka, who was very much a fringe character in his lifetime but later became this iconic figure with his own adjective.
Obviously Ballard has his own adjective in the same way, so he’s very similar to Kafka. Except Kafka was probably even more extreme and much more invisible than Ballard. I mean, Ballard has been there for a very long time in various ways. The interesting thing is that by doing exactly the same things all the time, his status and position have shifted significantly. He’s gone from one extreme to the other. Whereas — and I keep coming back to Moorcock — I think Moorcock was a lot more populist in the 60s, but because his books now are large and unwieldy and complex they’re much less read now than Ballard. They’ve drifted off somewhere where the fans are following him but the general readership just don’t acknowledge him any more. That’s quite a curious thing.
As you say, Ballard’s been doing the same thing all along. Maybe it’s just taken this long for the rest of the world to catch up?
He has done the same thing, but the mode in which it’s done has shifted from something that’s manufactured or tooled to fit in magazines where there was a market for these short sharp pieces, to something that now sits and pretends to be a mainstream literary novel. It comes out looking like a literary novel — Cocaine Nights has almost the form of an Agatha Christie novel, it’s comfortable — except that they’re doing stranger things. There’s a much darker kick in it.
Cocaine Nights was promoted as summer beach reading.
Exactly, which is good too. And things like Alex Garland’s The Beach clearly derive from Ballard. There is a line now from Ballard through Martin Amis and Will Self and Alex Garland – young, hip writers who have taken their tricks from Ballard. And yet I don’t think any of them have what he had to start with.
Garland also scripted the British zombie movie 28 Days Later — he said that large parts of that were a deliberate homage to Ballard. Alan Warner’s another one.
Sure. He’s one of the generators of this new kind of literature.
Ballard’s also doing a lot of work with newspaper columns and book reviews. In Landor’s Tower, you have a mock book review for one of your characters which you attribute to Ballard.
Right! I’d forgotten that.
Photo: Tim Chapman.
“In the canted floors of these multistorey carparks, rephotographed from surveillance tapes…”
Ah yes. That was written in parallel with making a film called Asylum. In the same way the London Orbital book and film were going on together, this film of Asylum had a very strongly Ballardian presence without Ballard being in it, although Moorcock was in it. It finishes up in the Heathrow motorway corridor with planes flying low with a desperate sense of threat — also the shimmering landscapes of those reservoirs and all of that. So, in a sense, by physically invading this territory to make this film my mind was totally set on Ballard. When I was writing the book at the same time, which criss-crosses its inspiration from the film, obviously Ballard was in mind and I came up with this riff in homage to him.
Did you find he was an easy writer to pastiche?
He’s a very easy writer to pastiche badly. I think he’s there with someone like Graham Greene as a stylist. There used to be a New Statesman competition to parody Greene’s style, and Greene came second when he entered.
You mentioned The Atrocity Exhibition as one of the most important books for you. In the BFI book you mention the film of that which was then a work in progress.
Has that finished now?
It has. It’s out on DVD.
I look forward to seeing that. I saw it at the ICA or somewhere as a work in progress. It struck me as probably the most Ballardian of the various films. It worked on his own terms and is therefore likely to be the least popular. I saw Empire of the Sun again the other day, and it’s sort of Spielberg more than Ballard though it’s reasonably close to the book. The Cronenberg is interesting but it’s not remotely in the spirit or the time of the book. But The Atrocity Exhibition I thought was pretty fair.
Simon interviewed the director, Jonathan Weiss. He seems quite an angry man — angry about the film’s mention in the BFI book, and about various things you’d written.
Well, I don’t know. When I saw it, it was certainly a work in progress. It wasn’t finished, and it was announced as such.
You did say in the BFI book that from what you’d seen you thought it was almost too faithful to the book.
I think there was a sense of that. It’s a bit inverted commas, a bit in aspic. They’re treating these literary classics from another era as if they were heritage Dickens. Probably that’s a mistake — you’ve got to really get down and hack it to pieces and find something that really works in film terms, something that honours the spirit of the original book. You can’t just make the film of the book — it doesn’t work.
One thing I find interesting about how you write and how Ballard writes is the way identity is used in a fictional context: particularly in your earlier novels, and with Ballard in Empire of the Sun, The Kindness of Women and, in a very different way, Crash.
None of them are him, and none of them are me. Crash is interesting because there’s this extreme character and he gives him his own name. It’s not him but it represents some avatar of him. When I met Claire Walsh, who he calls his girlfriend, he said here’s Claire, she’s the woman in Crash. It’s quite hard to move beyond that, it’s just a shocking idea. And yet it doesn’t actually mean this is the woman in Crash or this is JG Ballard. It’s just a device, a kind of honest device in a way, and also a convenience. That’s really what I’ve done. When you’re writing fiction, you’re creating a kind of theatre of the world and you push some element of yourself that’s convenient into it.
How much do you distinguish between your books which are sold as fiction and the ones that are sold as documentary or travel?
I don’t at all in terms of writing them, but in terms of presenting or marketing them. The ones that are called travel or whatever now have a kind of market. They can be sold, but the ones that are supposedly just straight fiction really don’t have much of a market any more. I would tend to shape anything I do to pretend to be document or travel even though it probably won’t be. Whereas I suppose most of what Jim has done appears to be fiction, but you could make a pretty good case for it being travel or art criticism or social criticism or polemic — all of these things can be absorbed within what seems to be a fiction. Kingdom Come could have been stripped down to be a series of savage essays or presentations about the motorway corridor with dramatised events happening in the middle.
“Crushed breasts on door handles”: Fiction as a branch of neurology (still from Crash!, 1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
Ballard has said in the past that if he had his time again he’d be a painter. It seems now that he almost wants to be a sociologist.
Maybe not so much a painter as a very good art critic — not in an academic sense, but as someone with the language and the eye to break an image down. That takes in being a form of social critic or geographer, an essayist in the sense that someone like Paul Virilio is. There is an interface between the world of the catalogue and copywriting for Mercedes cars and the film script for a porn movie — all of these things intersect in something that he’s not embarrassed to cut together.
Talking about geography, you’re very much associated with the psychogeography movement…
Have you seen this book that’s just come out on psychogeography that tries to incorporate Ballard into that group? You make of him what you will, but I don’t think he’s in any way a psychogeographer, and I don’t think he’d use those terms himself at all. I think the aspect of him they’ve drawn on is the notion of a spatial geography, of particular lines and movements that you make in describing a city’s geometry, which he does with the multistorey carparks and bridges and motorways and all of that.
Which is maybe closer to Debord’s original ideas.
Much closer than to the London occult versions that have appeared.
There’s another quote from Ballard in the BFI book, on the Watford car parks: “I was quite interested in the gauge of psychoarchitectonics.”
Wonderful. He must have been one of the very first people to get interested in Watford.
A kind of London. The London that Millennium People is concerned with, and the bits of the centre that appear in Kingdom Come, are so very strange, they’re completely surreal and unlike actual London. He talks about a character in Kingdom Come living in Chelsea and his address is given as Chelsea Harbour, which isn’t even in Chelsea — it’s not a harbour either. It’s an unplaced London, a generic catalogue London that he uses as a shorthand, but it’s not an inhabited city. It’s got no landmarks, nothing fixed, and I don’t think he wants it to be fixed. I think he wants it to be fluid, and he wants a sense of alienation, almost like being in this estranged movie at the edge of things.
Whereas your work is very site specific.
It starts with that, and then it pushes through into whatever’s on the other side of it. But it usually starts with something very very specific and concrete.
Millennium People, and the basic idea behind all this middle-class anomie, seems quite specifically London. I think he said he got the idea from his own daughters’ problems in finding affordable living and maintaining that lifestyle.
Funnily enough, after this I’m seeing someone who lives in the Barbican who’s writing a strange thesis. In it I saw something he quoted from Siegfried Kracauer, who was part of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s, talking about how the revolt will come from the middle classes, from the anomie of the middle classes. In a way, that idea is exactly what Ballard’s talking about in Millennium People.
In the context of early 1930s Germany, it seems quite different.
It’s a very different thing, but now Ballard sees fascism arising out of the shopping mall and the airport satellite cities — a fascism based on an advocacy of sport; football hooligans — and blending into that, a very strange picture.
It’s interesting he’s writing that at a time when there’s been a resurgence of BNP support in the eastern fringes of London.
Geographically, in the 70s and early 80s, all of it was based in places like Brick Lane and Bethnal Green at the centre. Those people have now moved out into Essex, and it’s an Essex phenomenon. I don’t think in actuality you’d find any trace of it in those Heathrow satellite towns, but there’s no reason you can’t have it as a literary conceit.
Drowned Barbican. Photo by Tim Chapman.
Do you see Ballard as a London writer? Some of the early novels like The Drowned World were very specifically about the parts of west London where he used to work.
I don’t, no. Obviously London has been one of the locations of his imaginative world, but it just seems like it’s a convenient set. He could just as well have been writing about Lisbon or anywhere else he happened to find himself. He doesn’t thirst for the particulars of the city — he’s not interested in the dust and the detail. It is just a manipulated set, and I think it’s not to do with London but very much to do with being an observer on the edge of things, with the motorways that take you away somewhere else, and the anonymous tower blocks which are a kind of nowhere. He’s a great writer of these nowheres — he’s a defender of them.
I did my best — I gave it a good kicking in the book. Bluewater I thought was one of the most de-energising places on the face of the earth. It’s down in this chalk quarry, which makes it different from any other huge mall. Essentially it’s just a car park — the convenience is that it’s somewhere you can put your car. Shopping is completely separate from it. In fact I’ve never met anyone who could shop there at all — all they can do is walk round the galleries and use one of the many many coffee shops.
He’s never visited, obviously. The Bentall Centre has got these dancing bears which appear in Kingdom Come — I think that’s one of the few places he does go to on a regular basis. In a sense, the specifics of that do re-emerge in this fictional universe he’s created.
Is London: City of Disappearances an edited anthology?
No, it’s a bit more than that. What I did was to feel — in a very opposite way to Ballard, who couldn’t get this idea at all — that London at the moment is somewhere with endless erasures and reinventions and disappearances and amnesia. A lot of important cultural stories and figures were wiped out, buildings would disappear and something else is put up in their places. There’s a constantly shifting landscape, but it’s still very solid and tangible.
I wanted to do a book about that and, rather than me writing a novel or a document from A to Z, it would be much more interesting to invite a whole bunch of quite disparate people to send in their reports. They might take the form of fiction or a document. I had this wad of material and I divided it up partly topographically by zone and partly by theme, and at the end of each section there were gazetteer entries so it’s like a sort of mock guidebook. I tried to shape it like a novel so you could read it right the way through. Where I felt I needed to shift things I’d write a piece myself. I do feel at the end that it makes a new kind of novel, a sort of communal novel which I was editing more in the sense of editing a film rather than editing a book. The result isn’t something I could have prophesied, but it is a new form I think.
“Iain, I want you to blow up Bluewater.” (still from Crash!, 1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
Ballard is in there more as a presence rather than with the piece he wrote himself, which is very short; it has actually appeared somewhere obscure once before, anyway. He describes the Westway so that in a sense the landscape around the Westway is what disappears. He’s just interested in this fragment that could have been the beginning of a new city but which was never followed up. It was just left, like the ruins of an Inca monument.
I think I know what you mean about disappearances — I lived down here, close to the old Gainsborough Studios in Hoxton. I went by this morning and didn’t recognise it.
It’s very smart and modernist flats. The whole of the canal has now undergone this Ballardian process whereby all the warehouses have been turned into loft living for city folk. It is actually a city, a water city, even though the canal is decaying into a drought-like condition, undergoing hideous transformation and being choked with weed, but along it is somewhere that is nowhere. People who live there don’t really know where they are, they just get on the canal bank on their bicycles and commute between the City and Docklands. It actually is a new city — I think it should be called Ballard eventually, or Neo-Shepperton.
“Bring Me the Head of Alfred Hitchcock”. Photo: Tim Chapman.
The flats themselves at the Gainsborough are fairly generic — you could see them in Manchester or Leeds — but at the middle of it there’s this huge semi-submerged head of Alfred Hitchcock.
Fantastic. Of course, he made his early silent films in those studios and grew up not far away. Maybe we should have a submerged head of Ballard out in the middle of this, to go with John Milton in the church down there.
Psychogeography is quite a buzzword now; Will Self’s got his column in the Independent…
Which to me has absolutely no connection whatsoever to whatever psychogeography was originally, or in its second incarnation. It was something very specific in Paris in the 50s and 60s — the Lettrists and Situationists had this politicised conceptual movement called Psychogeography. Then it was reinvented into London with people like Stewart Home and the London Psychogeographical Association, who mixed those ideas with ideas of ley lines and Earth mysteries and cobbled it together as a provocation, and I took it on from that point. Now it’s just become this brand name for more or less anything that’s vaguely to do with walking or vaguely to do with the city. It’s a new form of tourism.
Is there any mileage left in it?
No, I don’t think so, other than if someone can brand it and promote it, which they are doing. Once these little pocket books appear with an easy readers’ guide which can take you back to Ballard or de Quincey or Debord or wherever you want to go, it’s a route map where everything’s laid out for you. It’s very strange. I’m not quite sure why that happened.
What other writers at the moment do you think are worth reading?
Unfortunately I tend to be reading older material that’s related to whatever projects I’m working on. As I’m working on a book about Hackney, where I’ve lived for so long without ever really thinking about it, I’m reading books by forgotten or half-forgotten Hackney writers like Alexander Baron and Roland Camberton, and Harold Pinter’s book The Dwarfs.
Are you working on anything else?
No, that’s all consuming. In the light of having done the Disappearances book, I’m working in a new way, which is going out and carrying out huge numbers of interview. I’m leading the people I’m interviewing to some extent into particular locations and particular figures who I think represent whatever Hackney was in this period before it started to disappear, which I think it will on the back of the Olympic thing. I’m not sure how that’s going to work. It’s going to be partly memoir, partly a series of edited transcripts, partly in essay form — it’ll take its own form as it goes on. After that, for the first time ever, I’ll have reached the end of a contract. I’ll have to stop and think what I can do next, if not back to bookdealing.
Photo: Tim Chapman.
Are you planning anything more on the film side?
There’s one thing on the distant horizon. It’s called Beijing Orbital. When I was in Stavangar in Norway at one of these strange conferences, I saw a presentation by an assistant of Rem Koolhaas which was about the China TV building he’d built. He showed this virtual version of a city with seven orbital motorways just spreading out from the centre of this very traditional city into the desert, and the incredible pieces that were going up. I thought my god, it will be amazing to travel around these seven orbital motorways. Of course, that is relatively attractive to be made into a film. I think it will be reasonably possible to get a commission for that, which may also become a book. It will also involve me doing a lot of other things — circling round China as to what China means to different places in Europe, in the sense of Fu Manchu or people being drowned in Morecombe, all these stories, before I even embark on a journey to the place itself.
Have you thought of doing more comics? You worked with Dave McKean on Slow Chocolate Autopsy.
I’d like to. With Dave McKean it was just starting to get interesting. I was just beginning to understand what the form can do. Apart from the comic itself, he’s a terrific designer of a whole book — you’ve got his typography and the way he plays with images. It’d be great to do another one, but I don’t know if the opportunity will ever come up.
Any final thoughts?
I think we’ve covered the ground pretty thoroughly.
Previously in this series:
+ Child of the Diaspora: Bruce Sterling on JG Ballard
+ Seductive Whirlpools: The John Foxx Interview
+ No One Dances in Ballard: An Interview with Mike Ryan (RE/Search Publications)
Newer: Kingdom Come (2006) »