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"Paradigm of nowhere": Shepperton, a photo essay (part 2)

Author: • Mar 5th, 2009 •

Category: autobiography, biography, boredom, consumerism, crime, deep time, features, flying, Iain Sinclair, inner space, perception, photography, psychogeography, psychopathology, Shepperton, suburbia, time travel

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

All photography by Simon Sellars.

Bizarrely, it has been almost a year since I posted the first part of this photo essay. There are so many loose ends dangling from this site, frayed and incomplete due to the mad scramble to complete my PhD in the latter half of 2008. Now it’s my mission to clear the backlog as best I can, beginning with this, the conclusion to ‘”Paradigm of Nowhere”: Shepperton, a photo essay’, my attempt to traverse the fantasy-film of Ballard’s Unlimited Dream Company playing in my head. As I wrote in Part 1, I had intended to take photographs of Shepperton, the arena that has supplied so much raw material for Ballard’s writing, but at the same time I had no intention of infringing on his privacy. What I was aiming for instead was the traversal of a distinct psychic terrain (studiously avoiding the dreaded “p*****geography” word): the blanket overlay of Shepperton with a mental template gleaned from so many Ballard novels and short stories, UDC in particular.

In Part 1, we set out from Shepperton train station, making a direct line for the fields and water meadows surrounding the motorway just past Ballard’s street. Crossing this metallized river by bridge, which Blake in The Unlimited Dream Company was unable to do, we made our way to the famous film studios, which feature prominently in the book (doubtless Blake made it by flying). Now in Part 2, we explore the reservoirs near the film studios before crossing back over the motorway and into town, finally alighting in Old Shepperton, where we attempt to locate the exact spot where Blake ditched his plane in the Thames.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

I was struck by the fact, when I [first] came [to Shepperton], that I was living in a sort of marine landscape, most unusual. There are these enormous reservoirs, the nearest is only four or five hundred yards away, the Queen Mary Reservoir, which is a gigantic reservoir about a mile in diameter. The whole area in fact is infested with reservoirs and settling beds and conduits and little private canals. When you fly from London airport, when you look down while the plane circles around, you will see what looks like a huge expanse of water, with the Thames of course here too.

J.G. Ballard, interviewed by Alan Burns, 1974.

Above is the entrance to the reservoir that worked its magic on Ballard’s psyche. Although we were disappointed that the reservoir embankment was fenced-off and inaccessible, it must be remembered that for a man of Ballard’s imaginative powers, it would not be necessary to empirically observe a water body to imagine Shepperton — or London — submerged.

Rather, the reservoir is high above us; we are literally ‘under water’.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

In fact, [in Shepperton] we’re living … on little causeways. There are huge gravel lakes as well; for a hundred years they’ve been digging sand out, and some of these old pits are damn big, ten times the size of the Serpentine. We’re living in these houses, these little quiet suburban streets, which are little causeways running between these reservoirs. Most of them are invisible because there are high embankments for obvious reasons; the Water Board doesn’t want people peeing in them, throwing cigarette ends in and so on. So they’re well screened off, but one is aware of a sort of invisible marine world, of living below the water line. It works on you imaginatively after a while.

JGB, interviewed by Burns, 1974.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

It was plainly not by chance that I had crash-landed my burning aircraft into this riverside town. On all sides Shepperton was surrounded by water — gravel lakes and reservoirs, the settling beds, canals and conduits of the local water authority, the divided arms of the river fed by a maze of creeks and streams. The high embankments of the reservoirs formed a series of raised horizons, and I realized that I was wandering through a marine world. The dappled light below the trees fell upon an ocean floor. Unknown to themselves, these modest suburbanites were exotic marine creatures with the dream-filled minds of aquatic mammals. Around these placid housewives with their tamed appliances everything was suspended in a profound calm. Perhaps the glimmer of threatening light I had seen over Shepperton was a premonitory reflection of this drowned suburban town?

J.G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company.

I am a scholar of Ballard’s interviews, especially the ‘Golden Age’ spanning the late 60s to the mid-70s. I find them endlessly fascinating. Once you have a good knowledge of the many interviews he has given, you begin to unravel themes and motifs that he has discoursed on at length before committing to fiction. These interviews are laboratories in which Ballard unleashes thought experiments upon his unwitting interrogators, who sometimes are unable to keep up (see his 1974 conversation with Carol Orr, where Orr seems quite flustered, taken aback at the brutal clarity of Ballard’s futurology). Having taken his creations for a dry run, we then find them machine-tooled and recalibrated in his writing: compare the previous quotes from the Burns interview (‘I was living in a sort of marine landscape’), with the one above from UDC (‘I realized that I was wandering through a marine world’). It’s a fascinating, holographic process, and in some cases appears to work retrospectively. In the Burns interview, for example, Ballard is talking about when he first settled in Shepperton with his wife and kids in 1960. Now we know where the inspiration for The Drowned World, published in 1962, really came from…

Or is it all an elaborate metaphysical game — another version of Ballard’s maddening, yet emancipatory, version of circular time?

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

It was now late afternoon, and the bridge approaches were filled with traffic returning from London. Although Walton lay to the south of Shepperton, even further from the airport, at least it would spring me from this zone of danger.

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

…back across the bridge and into town, crossing the always-flowing metal sea that seems to both energise and enervate the citizens in UDC’s version of Shepperton.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

I … set off for the pedestrian bridge that spanned the motorway. Poppies and yellow broom brushed my legs, hopefully leaving their pollen on me. They flowered among the debris of worn tyres and abandoned mattresses. To my right was a furniture hypermarket, its open courtyard packed with three-piece suites, dining-tables and wardrobes, through which a few customers moved in an abstracted way, like spectators in a boring museum. Next to the hypermarket was an automobile repair yard, its forecourt filled with used cars. They sat in the sunlight with numerals on their windshields, the advance guard of a digital universe in which everything would be tagged and numbered, a doomsday catalogue listing each stone and grain of sand under my feet, each eager poppy.

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

To my utter amazement, the virtual and the actual continued to merge down to the smallest detail: as we began walking back to Shepperton centre through the parkland just over the bridge, we noticed pollen from poppies and yellow broom dusted on the legs of my jeans. Suitably tagged with Ballardian seed, I dutifully followed the road back into town.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

That evening I saw the faces of the three crippled children watching me through the damp light, small moons quietly circling each other. They squatted among the dead flowers and macaws, and played with the pennants of my blood. Rachel fondled them, her blind eyes flickering raptly, trying to read their mysterious codes, cryptic messages from another universe transmitted by the ticker-tape of my heart.

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

When you observe Shepperton through a Ballardian lens, everything seems in code. I imagined Rachel had daubed the back of this sign with the glyphs of her psyche, marked out using the pennants of Blake’s blood.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Already I was convinced that there was no evil, and that even the most plainly evil impulses were merely crude attempts to accept the demands of a higher realm that existed within each of us. By accepting these perversions and obsessions I was opening the gates into the real world, where we would all fly together, transform ourselves at will into the fish and the birds, the flowers and the dust, unite ourselves once more within the great commonwealth of nature.

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

In the book, Blake encourages all to slip the noose of consumerism, to rouse from the waking dream of late capitalism, to throw down whitegoods and gadgets and escape into the unfetettered realm of the imagination, passing through into a micronational realm, ‘the commonwealth of nature’, responsible to no master, least of all bored London admen selling lifestyles to the satellite towns. Pyramids of discarded goods line the streets, expanding upon the consumer bricolage of ‘The Ultimate City’ and presaging the razed shopscapes of Kingdom Come.

Here, the barbaric razor wire surrounding something as banal as the Shepperton Carpet & Flooring Centre triggered something suitably apocalyptic in my mind.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Over my head the sky brightened, bathing the placid roofs in an auroral light, transforming this suburban high street into an avenue of temples. I felt queasy and leaned against the chestnut tree outside the post office. I waited for this retinal illusion to pass, unsure whether to halt the passing traffic and warn these ruminating women that they and their offspring were about to be annihilated.

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Above: Shepperton’s placid high street, over-ripe for transcendence and transformation…

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

There is an antiseptic quality about Pangbourne Village, as if these company directors, financiers and television tycoons have succeeded in ridding their private Parnassus of every strain of dirt and untidiness. Here, even the drifting leaves look as if they have too much freedom. Thirteen children once lived in these houses, but it is hard to visualize them at play.

J.G. Ballard, Running Wild.

I recalled the above quote from Running Wild when I came across this leaf that had been embedded in the tarmac. It seemed to be lacquered solid into the road surface, losing any semblance of nature, losing its ability to drift, its colours supervivid and oversaturated; the organic encased in concrete, the fusing of the animate with the inanimate: UDC in a nutshell.

Waiting for release…

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Soon after dawn the river had disgorged this antique Pegasus on to the same beach where I had swum ashore. I approached the horse and pulled it on to the bank. The fresh paint silvered my hands, leaving a speckled trail across the sand. As I wiped the paint on to the grass, the pelicans watched me from the flowerbeds. The same vivid light flared from their plumage. The foliage of the willows and ornamental firs seemed to have been retouched by a psychedelic gardener with a taste for garish colours. A magpie swooped across the overlit lawn, feathers brilliant as a macaw’s.

Stimulated by this display of light, I stared into the stained water.

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

The levels in this photograph have been messed with to give it a suitably lysergic feel — as much a cliche as it sounds, UDC feels like an acid trip; but the synaesthetic elements of tripping, rather than any notions of ‘cosmic consciousness’. Ballard’s work, after all, is relentlessly about reordering and recoding the senses to subvert dominant systems of control.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

We were soon more than a mile above Shepperton, this jungle town surrounded by its palisade of forest bamboo, an Amazon enclave set down here in the quiet valley of the Thames.

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Above: the jungle-like gateway to Old Shepperton, the third part of the town’s tripartite structure (high street/reservoir/old town)… and representing our best chance of locating the sunken Cessna.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Pinned to the wall were the X-ray plates of my head, deformed jewels through which a ghostly light still shone, like that corona of destruction I had first seen over Shepperton.

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

In interviews, Ballard has often said that in the suburbs one needs to perform a deviant act almost daily — like kicking the dog — to get a charge out of one’s flaccid existence. This ‘report vandalism’ sign, itself vandalised by a blob of incoherent spray paint, amused me, as I imagined it to be the first bumbling stirrings of Blake’s legions awakening themselves from their perimeter-town stupor.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

The sun hid itself behind my naked body, dazzled by the tropical vegetation that had invaded this modest suburban town. Pausing to rest, the crowd began to settle itself. Mothers and their infants sat on the appliances in the shopping mall, children perched on the branches of the banyan tree, elderly couples relaxed in the rear seats of the abandoned cars. There was a sense of intermission.

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Intermission: lurking in the background, the invading chaotic rhizomes of supernature prepare to engulf the arboreal trap-cars and litter patrols of civic duty.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

Father Wingate unlocked the doors of the church. ‘So it was a dream … ? I’m relieved to hear you say so, Blake.’ He stepped through the doors and beckoned me to follow him. ‘Right — we’ll get this over with.’

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

If I had known that only ten minutes after taking off from London Airport the burning machine was to crash into the Thames, would I still have climbed into its cock-pit? Perhaps even then I had a confused premonition of the strange events that would take place in the hours following my rescue.

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

When Blake crashes into the Thames at Shepperton, I can’t help but think of Ballard hitting the town in 1960, wondering what he had got himself in for, but deciding after all, in a strange way, that his perverse talent could be explored to the hilt here. When Blake’s love interest, Miriam St Cloud, dies, I can’t help but think of Ballard’s wife, Mary (known as “Miriam” in The Kindness of Women, of course), and her sudden death in 1964. When Blake teaches the townspeople to not only fly but to explore the farthest reaches of their sexuality, I can’t help but think of the obsessed Ballard, stricken with grief at the death of his wife, hatching The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash on an unsuspecting world; what must the good people of Shepperton have thought of this ‘madman’ lurking in their midst? When Blake is shot down by Stark, I can’t help but think of the storms of outrage that greeted Crash on its publication — and perhaps of Ballard’s later, more cautious narrative approach, when he managed to touch the same veins of psychopathology in his work, but without flying as close to the sun himself.

The final pages of UDC are touching, as Blake yearns to once again merge with Miriam in the afterlife. Ballard has always stared with extraordinarily clear, unmisted eyes at the spectre of death, perhaps never more so than in this book. Ballard’s announcement that he has cancer is very sad, of course, but I can think of no other writer more prepared for whatever may follow.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

I decide to visit J.G. Ballard at Shepperton. How does he feel about predicting, and thereby confirming, the psychogeography of Heathrow’s retail/recreation fallout zone? The river was my target… We drove to a riverside pub and, too hot to sit outside, lounged under an overhead fan in a comfortable, clubbish atmosphere. … He’s here, but he doesn’t belong. I think of him as a long-term sleeper, an intelligence operative forgotten by his paymasters.

Iain Sinclair, London Orbital.

Ballardian: Shepperton Photo Essay

The Cessna was almost submerged, its wings tipping below the sweeping tide. As I watched, the fuselage turned and slipped below the coverlet of the water. When the river had carried it away I walked across the beach to the bone-bed of the winged creature whose place I was about to take. I would lie down here, in this seam of ancient shingle, a couch prepared for me millions of years earlier.

There I would rest, certain now that one day Miriam would come for me. Then we would set off, with the inhabitants of all the other towns in the valley of the Thames, and in the world beyond.

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company.

Here it is: the exact spot where Blake crashed his plane into the river. How did we know? Call it instinct…

Ballard said that The Unlimited Dream Company was yet another preview of his, at the time, still-to-be-written autobiography; thus the book’s transformation of Shepperton is about ‘the writer’s imagination, and in particular my own imagination, transforming the humdrum reality that he occupies and turning it into an unlimited dream company’ (interview with David Pringle, 1996).

The book is a beautifully vivid evocation of Ballard’s love for Shepperton. He may playfully run it down in interviews, but it’s precisely Shepperton’s anonymity that has allowed Ballard to play out his own psychopathology in the pages of his books. He has lived there for almost 50 years now and virtually his entire ouevre has been composed within its boundaries. If, as Ballard has repeatedly claimed, the nature of fiction and reality has reversed in the post-war era, with the imagination the only true node of reality left in a world of endlessly mediated fictions, then The Unlimited Dream Company can be read as more autobiographical than either of Ballard’s so-called ‘semi-autobiographical’ works, Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women.

In this light, visiting the place is an enriching experience, as Iain Sinclair identifies from his own Shepperton sojourn:

“To be here, in bright sunshine, a small Thames-side town where nobody hurries, is to balance on a hinge. Specifics of the geography that inspired a writer seem, in their turn, to be responding to that ouevre.”

To take a trip to (or even in) Shepperton, ‘the everywhere of suburbia, the paradigm of nowhere’, as Blake declares, is to submit to a form of virtual reality that anyone admiring of Ballard’s work simply must experience.

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ ‘Paradigm of nowhere’: Shepperton, a photo essay, part 1
+ JGB: a ‘billionaire’ in Shepperton?
+ J.G. Ballard: The Oracle of Shepperton
+ Sam Scoggins: ‘Unlimited Dream Company’ film
+ A Home and a Grave: Mike Holliday on The Unlimited Dream Company
+ Shepperton under water

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19 Responses »

  1. Worth the wait! Interesting to see this following my own visit last summer.

    The spot you identify as where Blake crashed into the river looks to be directly by the hotel (the Warren Lodge) where I stayed with Messrs McGrath and Bonsall –

    I also zeroed in on the defences at that carpet shop –

  2. Amazing conclusion!

    Congratulations on getting it done, and thank you for such an amazing look into the world of Ballard once again.

  3. A fine photo essay, well done! Many people miss how visual a writer Ballard is.

    I live in Richmond, another location with an H.G.Wells connection. Despite being only a short train trip from Shepperton I did not visit the town until finally getting round to “walking the Thames” (well worth it by the way). In Shepperton I was immediately struck by (1) how absurdly normal it was, and (2) how other worldly it was. Strange that a place can be both things at once. I’d be surprised if it has changed much since 1960 and as the London area will always need water, motorways and suburbia perhaps it never will.

    I notice on the Shepperton Village Information website [www.shepperton-info.co.uk/] today the new main news items are typically Ballardian. The gratuitous shooting of swans (why?) and a piece of bafflingly mindless road rage.

  4. Great stuff Simon, even more lively and edifying than part 1. The photos capture the place precisely.

    Visiting the boat chandler’s a few yards from your site of the Cessna drowning, I bought a copy of ‘Shepperton Story’ by Valerie Brooking, published by the Sunbury and Shepperton Local History Society, revised and reprinted 2008.

    There is a short chapter on Shepperton in Literature with quotations from, among others, Oliver Twist, Three Men in a Boat, and, of course, The War of the Worlds. The chapter ends: ‘Although the authors of these extracts knew the area, none was actually living here at the time of writing. A present day author, J.G.Ballard is a resident, his varied works include the highly acclaimed “Empire of the Sun”, made into a major film. His book “The Unlimited Dream Company” is set in a fantastic, but recognizable Shepperton.’

    Thank you for bringing us another insight into this fantastic, but recognizable, place.

  5. Really compelling stuff Simon. I like that you have focussed on UDC here, not necessarily an ignored Ballard novel, but one that is shunted aside for his more spectacular or experimental fare. This report, academic, personal and like a psychogeographical travel guide, almost made me homesick. Welcome back.

  6. The thing which I find most striking is how familiar the shops and the roundabout are from many minor feature films which use them as locations. Shepperton, Bray and other small towns close to UK film studios turn up continually. In one of HR Giger’s books he has a photo of the King’s Head pub where he used to lunch during the filming of Alien and I recall it being that same part of the high street which is used by Ray Harryhausen as a supposedly American town from which the balloon departs at the beginning of Mysterious Island.

  7. In response to John – Yes, that is a wonderful side-effect of the studios being situated there. A whole host of films, particularly in the 60s and 70s, and often horrors, use the locale a great deal. ‘Psychomania’ feels like it’s filming was being watched by Ballard from his back bedroom window with binoculars. I also love the anecdote of Ballards about him turning a corner in his car and seeing the set for Empire of the Sun at Shepperton Studios. His home in Shanghai perfectly recreated around the corner from his new home in Shepperton. Makes one salivate with psychogeographical pleasure…

  8. Thanks all — I was really pleased with how it turned out; I just wish I hadn’t waited so long to do the 2nd part. I did one photo with the acid colours, but for the most part I was really pleased with the desaturated, Lomo-like effect of the majority. That’s how Ballard’s version of Shepperton appears to me: vaguely familiar, slightly out of focus, blurred at the edges. The descriptions just followed from that aesthetic, really.

    Tim: interesting that you also spotted the carpet war(e)house! And your river shot is lovely: that part of Shepperton certainly isn’t generic.

    Jonathan: I fully agree! But it’s otherworldly because we’ve absorbed Ballard, right?

    Mike: ‘fantastic but recognizable’ — succinct and accurate.

    Jamie: I chose UDC as my guidebook because it’s set completely in Shepperton.

    John & Jamie: which films do you know of that have been set in Shepperton? I’d love to track some down.

  9. […] This is an aside titled ‘Shepperton’ dated 3/8/09 Ballardian (now on Twitter!) concludes his photo essay of Shepperton. […]

  10. Jamie – now I’m going to have to watch ‘Psychomania’ again. Fantastic, fascinating film – I hadn’t clicked that it was filmed in Shepperton, but I think I’ve still got a VHS lying around somewhere…

  11. http://www.famouslocations.com/film-movie-locations/where_was_Psychomania_1971_filmed.htm
    I adore that film. It probably seems quite corny and clunky now, but watching it as a Middlesex based 12-year-old, and recognising the locations that it was filmed, was quite an experience. I think it is genuinely unusual – a surreal mixture of humour and disturbing horror/occult. It was filmed mainly in Walton-on-Thames, just south of Shepperton, but included scenes filmed in Ballard’s lair also.
    The director, George Sanders, committed suicide just after finishing this film. There have been no confirmed sightings of him riding a bike around Walton.

  12. Wow, thanks Jamie — I’d never heard of this film, but your descriptions make it a must-see. ‘Occult Shepperton’ … I smell a new meme …

  13. You’d love it, Simon – it’s the Home Counties undead hippy equivalent of ‘Mad Max’, with Beryl Reid as a Satanist. Great soundtrack too – Trunk Records released it a few years ago.

    George (voice of Shere Khan) Sanders plays Beryl’s butler, by the way, and wasn’t the director. The director was Hammer veteran Don Sharp.

  14. Quite right Tim, my error. I don’t if appearing in a low-budget exploitation movie of dubious production quality convinced him that it was time to go, after years of working with Hitchcock, and even getting an Oscar for All About Eve. I actually think he turns in a fantastic performance in Psychomania that for me is reminiscent of Ralph Richardson in The Fallen Idol and Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard.

  15. Brilliant! I love the effect that you use on the photographs. It gives them that Ballardian overlit quality, as though you’d made a replica Shepperton in your attic lit by strip lighting – signposts, sheep and tarmac at the edge of deliquescing under the pressure of their own brightness.

  16. Cheers Ian, yes I was really pleased with the effect. It does give the scenarios that ‘toy trainset’ look…

  17. I guess it’s the obvious one but parts of African Queen were filmed on the River Ash which runs through the studios. It’s laugahble really as the Ash is one of least attractive, most stagnant rivers I’ve ever had the displeasure of falling into – and hardly foaming with occult energy. I’ve always had it in mind to ‘walk’ the Ash from its source on Stanwell Moor to the Thames at Sunbury but have never managed it.

    Other than that I can’t think of a single film that uses Shepperton as a stage set.

    Another great piece and good to see you back, Simon.

  18. […] often used to comment on the contrast between the prim suburban order of Shepperton, where Jim Ballard lived for the past 50 years or so, and the dark, dystopian worlds of his […]

  19. You may be interested in reading my novel based in Walton-on-Thames over the bridge from Shepperton, inspired by Psychomania and cinema. Have a look for Dark Windows on Googlebooks – if you’d like a review copy, let me know.

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