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J.G. Ballard Live in LondonAuthor: Simon Sellars • Oct 7th, 2005 •
Photo by Simon Sellars
This transcript was first published in Sub Dee Magazine (no. 5 Summer 1997), a print project I was involved in long before Ballardian. At the time, J.G. Ballard’s career was in the ascendancy after what was perceived to be an average period in his writing. Cocaine Nights had just been released and was enjoying critical acclaim, with its tale of a hermetically sealed group of pleasure-seekers in the Spanish coastal resort of Estrella de Mar, a typically Ballardian sub-cult a la High-Rise. Also, David Cronenberg’s Crash, the controversial film of Ballard’s eponymous novel, was causing a tidal wave of State-sanctioned moral panic in Britain.
On the back of these events, Ballard undertook a series of readings and Q&A sessions around London. The following is a combined transcript of two of these sessions, which were ostensibly to promote Cocaine Nights. The sessions took place at the Royal Festival Hall, London (chaired by writer Kevin Jackson) and at Books, Etc., Charing Cross.
Ballardian is pleased to republish this rare archival piece from one of the most distinctive and controversial phases of JG Ballard’s career.
— Simon Sellars
KEVIN JACKSON: It seems that Cocaine Nights is a premonition of the future, of a slightly ageing, leisured community.
JG BALLARD: Absolutely. But I think this picture I draw is one that’s been around for quite a long time – people tend to not notice it. These enclave communities with high-security protection have been around for many years; you can read about them in Raymond Chandler. People are terrified of crime and they’re prepared to sacrifice almost anything for peace of mind so they can do nothing, as far as I can tell, except watch a lot of football games on satellite TV.
KEVIN JACKSON: Certain parts of the book advance rather unorthodox ideas about crime: that crime cements a community and that, in more concrete terms, it can be seen as a kind of performance art.
JG BALLARD: Well, the main character has stumbled on a way of waking people up. Life for them becomes keener, sharper, and so these people become more prepared to explore their own imaginations. They’re no longer passive. I’m not suggesting we should all leave our doors unlocked; or that we should burgle our neighbours, who, enriched by the experience, will then bring the violin down from the attic and entertain us with a string quartet… Rather, I think we need to look at the world we inhabit and see how these social aggressions are manufactured. It may be that a civilised life comes at a price.
This monoculture that is emerging, a world of noisy, intruding horror: you just want to get on with what you’re doing, which is nothing. These security-suburbs are a way of shutting out the world, like static on a TV set. The British, especially, have retreated into their own homes. We’re obsessed with a material space where we can define all the elements that make up our lives.
KEVIN JACKSON: In the course of research for the book, did you rely on an intuitive, imaginative approach, or did you actually have a look around these communities.
JG BALLARD: I’ve been visiting the Mediterranean for the last 40 years, and I’ve observed this 3,000 mile-long village, containing however many millions of people… It’s a unique phenomenon. This vast metropolis is utterly devoted to leisure, something close to suspended animation. And it’s very inviting. But people lying on their backs are very vulnerable to predators.
KEVIN JACKSON: I was struck by the similarities between Cocaine Nights‘ protagonist, Crawford – who grants people their deepest, darkest wishes – and the character, Vaughan, in Crash.
JG BALLARD: Yes, these lovable psychopaths occur right throughout all of my fiction. I’m not talking about someone like Adolph Hitler, but nowadays our world is so conformist, we need these crazy ogres, a dangerous personality to bring about change. All of my psychopaths are socially integrated. And they’re benevolent!
KEVIN JACKSON: What part did you play in the making of Cronenberg’s Crash?
JG BALLARD: None. I wasn’t involved and I’m glad I wasn’t. Filmmaking is for professionals – I don’t have my taxman telling me how to construct a plot. Having met Cronenberg, I was aware of the nature of his films and the way he writes, which is alone. And Crash is a great film. I think it’s his greatest film, and a masterpiece, but apparently British audiences don’t deserve to see it!
AUDIENCE QUESTION In Crash you have a character say, ‘It’s not sex that Vaughan’s interested in, but technology’. But I’d have to say that it’s not technology that David Cronenberg’s interested in, but sex. His film seems to strongly identify with current obsessions with body modification – piercing, scarification and so on – and the sexual possibilities of these practices…
JG BALLARD: Cronenberg’s film merges seamlessly with the book. The book is far more explicit, but in the framework of cinema, the film is a remarkable translation in every respect. I don’t feel that the emphasis has been shifted from technology to sex, or that Cronenberg has compromised the novel. The film coolly and elegantly conveys the world we already inhabit in our everyday lives. It’s not pornographic, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing!
AUDIENCE QUESTION Crash is set in Britain. Do you think the change to Canada in the film has impacted on the way in which the story is conveyed?
JG BALLARD: When I met Cronenberg, the question of where the film was to be set came up. I said, ‘Don’t set it in England, set it in North America’. That’s the land of the automobile and of great highways, where the car has an iconic beauty. But the film’s greatest strength is that it is not set in a recognisable North American city, like San Francisco, but in Toronto, a kind of idealised American city.
AUDIENCE QUESTION When will Crash be shown in the UK, and how do you feel about the ongoing controversy surrounding the film and its lack of distribution here.
JG BALLARD: I don’t know when it will be released; I hope it will be. It’s very hard to believe that this film – from a very serious filmmaker – which won a prize at Cannes (even if it was for ‘audacity’) and stars James Spader, Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette, is having problems getting a release. It’s really typical of our puritanical society and an indictment of the British conservative attitude towards sex. I mean, the film is showing everywhere else in the world! In France, it’s the Number One box office attraction; as far as I know, it hasn’t caused an upsurge of dangerous driving there, although the French are notoriously bad drivers to begin with!
It says something about us, doesn’t it? We are not considered ‘adult’ and ‘mature’ enough to see this film. We’re too vulnerable; we may go out and behave badly as a result. Are they enlightened, these Virtual Reality Police? It highlights the nervousness of England: we’re trembling in our shoes at the thought of being corrupted by this film, which has far less explicit sex than any Sharon Stone film, far fewer car crashes than the Die Hard movies. In a sense, we’re policing ourselves and that’s the ultimate police state, where people are terrified of challenge.
It goes with the atmosphere in England today. The monarchy has lost its authority; politics is a sleazy game; the church is a farce; bishops turn out to have secret families – Catholic bishops; the city is riddled with insider trading; Lloyds is just a racket. We don’t trust anything and when a terrible tragedy like Dunblane takes place, people jump to conclusions: ‘It must be all those violent films’. But Crash is a cool, elegant , cautionary tale. If you see it, you’ll drive more carefully!
AUDIENCE QUESTION Is the current controversy about the film a rerun of that surrounding the book’s original release?
JG BALLARD: Yes it is – I recognise the same tones of voice. You know, I’ve always respected the Evening Standard‘s film critic, Alexander Walker; I think he’s a very liberal man for the most part. But halfway through Crash‘s press conference at Cannes, he suddenly got up with a flourish and walked straight out. And when he got back to London, he wrote a piece calling Crash the most depraved film ever made. To me, this represents Total Artistic Success!
It’s very hard to estimate these things, but Crash wouldn’t incite any kind of behaviour, whereas the broad mass of American films – which I love, needless to say – can be genuinely corrupting, as they tend to trivialise death and pain in a tidal wave of fantasised violence. Crash is a warning about the desperate need people have to make contact with each other, and how they’ll find the most deviant means of doing so. It’s a love story in many ways, about the love between a wife and husband.
AUDIENCE QUESTION You write a lot about technology and its impact on people. At the same time, you are quoted as saying you’re not interested in technology. Can you talk about that?
JG BALLARD: Well, I am quite fascinated by technology – most homes these days are approaching the technological level of a TV studio! Now, how has technology changed our lives? I’m interested in that interaction with people, and in Crash, with the car, which is like an extension of the home. We’re loaded with technological systems, all converging in the automobile. I’m interested in the psychology arising from these systems and how they modify our imaginations, and how we relate to one other.
AUDIENCE QUESTION In Crash, you call the protagonist by your own name. Why?
JG BALLARD: Well, the book is written in the first person – these are my own speculations and obsessions, whatever you like to call them. I wanted to root the book – with its real-life film star, Elizabeth Taylor – in my obsessions. This is my psychopathology; the book is a psychopathological hymn and I’m singing it. Attaching my name to the protagonist’s reminds the reader where these ideas are coming from: a real human being, a ‘real’ reality.
AUDIENCE QUESTION Cocaine Nights reminded me of your novella, Running Wild. Could one of the young boys in that book have grown up to be Crawford?
JG BALLARD That’s a good point. I wrote Running Wild about an enclave in the Thames Valley, where maximum security is the order of the day – it’s very similar to communities all over the world, but particularly in the United States where they’ve been in place for the last fifty years. And in my Thames Valley enclave, the children mysteriously murder their parents; it’s not so much a ‘whodunnit’ as a ‘whydunnit’. I think a similar logic underpins Cocaine Nights, because people are obsessed with the phenomenon of total security now without realising that it’s bought at such a huge price. The home is now an electronic fortress: you switch on your triple security locks and your hidden cameras and you’re virtually switching off the world. But, in a sense, you’re also switching off the central nervous system that evolution provides us with.
There may be a totally sterilised kind of life that is led in these enclaves, which is probably the way the future is going. More and more of the professional middle class – doctors, lawyers architects, dentists, middle management – are retreating, all over the world, from the center of cities into purpose-built estates where security is the big come-on in the developers’ brochures. I just wonder: if the world is going to be like this, what’s the outlook?
AUDIENCE QUESTION How would you compare that vision of high security with the sort of thing that’s going on in the Walt Disney theme towns – artificially created settlements reacting against the typical North American city, providing a return to ‘roots’ and ‘traditional’ values, searching for something that’s been lost…
JG BALLARD Well, these theme parks and heritage enclaves are another kind of artificial substitute for reality, aren’t they? Ordinary reality is too messy and confusing – why not construct a replica to satisfy all your instant needs for heritage? There’s no litter, it’s comfortable and if somebody has a heart attack, an ambulance disguised as the Fairy Queen will sweep them away to some high-tech creche. But this isn’t reality, it’s not even a dream. It’s sort of a halfway house between the two.
I’m not trying to say that the majority of people, 30 thirty years from now, will be living in ultra high-tech enclaves with no contact with the rest o the human race, turning the inner city centres into a kind of urban guerilla battle ground… However, you can see in the US and Europe extraordinary urban developments based absolutely on the need for total security.
I’ve been visiting a town near Antibes, in the South of France, where there’s a huge new complex housing 10, 000 people in total security – armed guards, everything – to the extent that every apartment has what they call ‘Medical Tele-Linkage’ with the local hospital. So if you’re sitting in your high-tech security apartment and you have what you think is a slight heart attack, you rapidly code in ‘heart attack’ and the screen flashes up in some paramedic’s office – who’s probably in a suburb of Dusseldorf or wherever the records are kept – who then dials back what you should do about it. Now this is bizarre! The intercession of a doctor, nurse or comforter is completely absent; it’s assumed that we don’t need contact on face-to-face level. And in a way, the Disneyland theme parks and their imitators are a way for people to avoid any sort of contact with a real past.
AUDIENCE QUESTION Would you say that Cocaine Nights is similar to your earlier book, High Rise? They both contain similar themes which you obviously want the reader to believe strongly in.
JG BALLARD No, I wouldn’t actually. In any case, I leave things open for the reader. In a lot of my supposedly ‘dystopian’ novels, I don’t say that the sort of thesis Crawford is proposing is what I accept. That’s a silly responsibility…
AUDIENCE QUESTION Is High Rise being made into a film? I remember reading that a screenplay had been written.
JG BALLARD There have been options taken out, but the whole process of movie making, especially in Hollywood, is so convoluted that nothing has seen the light of day.
AUDIENCE QUESTION The situation in Cocaine Nights only represents one section of property owners; the vast majority would be very alienated from that. It’s so negligible and meanwhile the alternative culture flourishes and those people eventually die off. So it’s a cause for celebration, not depression.
JG BALLARD What I’m saying is that over the last 20 or 30 years in Europe – longer in the US (and it was evident in the Shanghai I lived in before the war) – a minority of middle class professionals – any term you like – retain the greatest energising and creative input into life. And they’ve decided for reasons of security to remove themselves from the hurly-burly of city life. American cities were the first to show this; it’s now happening here, Nairobi, Singapore. They’re subtracting themselvs from the whole of these civic interactions that depend on them, virtually conducting an internal immigration – and that’s dangerous. It’s the middle classes who are now abandoning hope and that’s not a good sign, particularly as they’re moving into these sterile communities where, by the nature of security systems, they’re isolated and their only form of contact is via a TV screen.
AUDIENCE QUESTION I’d like to ask you about Empire of the Sun. Do you think you would have been a writer anyway, or did the experience of living in Shanghai push you in that direction?
JG BALLARD I was probably set to be a writer. I was born in 1930 and already in the late ’30s, I was writing short stories; I had an overactive imagination which was a great strain on my parents and friends. In fact, the war gave me a subject matter which I didn’t really write about directly for 40 years. The war made me realise that reality was just a stage set; you couldn’t trust anything , and it made me intensely interested in change. That’s why I started writing science fiction to begin with, because science fiction was about change.
AUDIENCE QUESTION Are you a devotee of the internet?
JG BALLARD Actually, I’m not hooked up to the internet, which is rather bad of me. I write all my books in longhand – don’t believe all this stuff I say about technology! My girlfriend has a PC and a modem, but we don;t seem able to connect it up. But I love the idea. my dream would be to download the entire Harvard University database, or to consult every psychiatric journal ever published. However, I’m terrified that if I do get the modem working, I’d never do anything else!
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