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The Real Concrete Island?Author: Mike Bonsall • Dec 3rd, 2008 •
by MIKE BONSALL
The Westway from a spot near Little Venice, west London. Photo: Simon Crubellier.
‘J.G. Ballard, the visionary creator of drowned worlds, Vermillion Sands, and now at work on a novel about a motorway desert island…’
Emma Tennant, Burnt Diaries.
‘Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London. Six hundred yards from the junction with the newly built spur of the M4 motorway, when the Jaguar had already passed the 70 m.p.h. speed limit, a blow-out collapsed the front nearside tyre.’
J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island.
The real Concrete Island?
I WAS FASCINATED TO DISCOVER that Ballard had hung around Notting Hill in the 70s with Moorcock and the New Wave SF writers, and Emma Tennant and the Bananas magazine crowd. He must have walked the same streets that years later I was to haunt with my own damaged crew. Living within sight of the Westway, which I felt must have helped form his motorway mythology, I was moved to do some geo-detective work on Concrete Island, that great updating of Crusoe, and was surprised by what I found.
I think the evidence is quite strong for The Concrete Island to be based on the thin, V-shaped area to the south of the Westway interchange, trapped between the two arms of the West Cross Route. This grassed area can be clearly seen at the bottom centre of the Google map above, complete with tyre tracks from more recently crashed vehicles.
The Westway: photo by Simon Crubellier. Surely Ballard would have made his way past this site when rushing back to the suburbs from parties with the Ladbroke Grove crowd?
‘By now Ballard has shot off down the motorway he hymns, in the dark-green station wagon that adds to the image of the solid bourgeois…’
Emma Tennant, Burnt Diaries.
The intended radial motorway. Image via Chris’s British Road Directory.
There was a plan in the 1970s to extend the M4 motorway into central London and create a series of radial motorways, of which the Westway interchange would have been a node. In Concrete Island, JGB is merely working in his favourite time — the near future. Evidence for the motorway master plan can be seen at the northern apex of the Westway interchange, where the buds of the feeder roads for the northward part of the radial motorway, which was never built, can still be seen.
Under the Westway. Photo: Mike Holliday.
In the book, we learn that Maitland is on his way from his Marylebone office to pick up his son in Richmond Park, six miles away. The optimal Google Maps route suggested for this journey approaches the Westway interchange from the East via Marylebone Road and leaves it on the first exit down the West Cross route heading south. The Westway interchange is almost exactly six miles from Richmond Park. The exit onto the West Cross route forms the right-hand arm of the V shape below the circular roundabout and is, I suggest, the right-hand boundary of The Concrete Island.
‘Shielding his eyes from the sunlight, Maitland saw that he had crashed into a small traffic island, some two hundred yards long and triangular in shape, that lay in the waste ground between three converging motorway routes. The apex of the island pointed towards the west and the declining sun, whose warm light lay over the distant television studios at White City. The base was formed by the southbound overpass that swept past seventy feet above the ground. Supported on massive concrete pillars, its six lanes of traffic were sealed from view by the corrugated metal splash-guards installed to protect the vehicles below.’
Ballard, Concrete Island.
The iconic circular BBC TV Centre building at bottom left, visible from the island.
The cut-off space between the roads is indeed about two hundred yards long, and looking West beyond this island, Maitland would see the BBC TV studios — the circular building at the bottom left of the Google Map above. Looking east, he would be able to see his high-rise office in Marylebone, barely three miles away. Looking north, he would see the massive high-level circular interchange. What the Westway interchange is missing is a ‘tunnel below the overpass’, though I would suggest this is added for the dramatic effect of the noises it produces and its cave-like entrance to the ‘underworld’ that is the island. The orientation of my island is also North–South as opposed to West–East, but this might be confusion on JGB’s part — after all, it did, for him, point the way to his home in the West.
The Edwardian terraces of Oxford gardens on the St Quentin Estate, part of which lies under The Island. Photo: Eddie Adams Collection.
‘Parts of the island dated from well before World War II. The eastern end, below the overpass, was its oldest section, with the churchyard and the ground-courses of Edwardian terraced houses. The breaker’s yard and its wrecked cars had been superimposed on the still identifiable streets and alleyways.’
Ballard, Concrete Island.
Turning to the interior of the island, Maitland quickly discovers the remaining outlines of a series of Edwardian terraced houses. This is a fairly specific dating: strictly speaking, ‘Edwardian’ covers the period from 1901 to 1910. And sure enough, the St Quentin Estate, including the part of Latimer Road that was destroyed by the building of the Westway, was built between 1905 and 1914. A ‘central valley’ of Ballard’s Island is formed by a demolished former street. I suggest this could be Bard Road, or the road parallel to it; this can be seen on the overlayed 1953 and modern maps.
Overlay of modern Google Map and 1953 OS Map.
There is something quite unreal and magically marginal about this whole area of London. The Stadium that can be seen to the west of the island on the 1953 map is the White City stadium, where the 1908 Olympics were held, an emergency measure after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This was also the site of the fantastical Franco-British exhibition which gave White City its name.
Part of the White City Exhibition.
The bandstand at the bottom of the above photo can be seen on the overlaid map; it is now buried beneath the BBC TV complex. The exhibition contained a number of ‘Colonial Villiages’, including an ‘Irish Villiage’, Ballymaclinton, home of 150 colleens. Had visitors travelled a few hundred yards east, they would have come across the ‘Latimer Road Gypsy Caravan Site’, and might have seen a less airbrushed version of the Irish experience:
‘The ugliest place we know in the neighbourhood of London, the most dismal and forlorn … is the tract of land torn up for the brickfield clay half consisting of field laid waste in expectation of the house-builder, which lies just outside Shepherd’s Bush and Notting Hill. There it is that the gypsy encampment may be found, squatting within an hour’s walk of the Royal Palaces …’
London Illustrated News, 13 Dec 1879.
Over a hundred years later, things had not improved much for the travellers:
‘The filth and destruction were unimaginable … Physical chaos ruled half the site. An avenue of garbage had led me into the place. Rotting detritus lay in piles on pitches just inside the entrance. So did the wrecked bodies of a bus and caravan lying amid broken glass, smashed plywood and twisted metal.’
Christopher Griffin, on being made warden of the Westway travellers site, May 1984, from his book Nomads Under the Westway.
And here’s a demonstration that the events of Concrete Island were all too possible:
‘[In 1979] An articulated Customs and Excise lorry carrying a cargo of bonded whiskey crashed through the flyover and teetered on the parapet above two of the caravans, before the cabin crashed to the ground, killing its occupant. It is said that Travellers, Gypsies and policemen enjoyed liquor for weeks afterwards and that a bottle could be bought very cheaply in the neighbourhood.’
Griffin, Nomads Under the Westway.
The North boundary of the real island is made up of the modern travellers encampment, their caravans clearly visible in the first Google map. Is Concrete Island’s damaged tumbler, Proctor, intended to be some kind of carnie echo of the travellers? The island is also within a few hundred yards of the site of 10 Rillington Place, where John Christie carried out his grisly murders, a story that left an impression on Ballard as he recalls in Miracles of Life. The whole street was demolished to make way for the Westway.
…this was Christie country, and Rillington Place (later renamed), where the ghastly John Christie committed his murders, was only a few hundred yards away. Back in 1953 … I was walking up Ladbroke Grove when I found a huge crowd outside the police station. They filled the side street, watching the entrance to the car park behind the station. A police car approached, siren ringing, followed by a police van. The crowd drew back, leaving a woman in a red coat standing in the middle of the side street. The constables guarding the car park entrance made no attempt to move her, and she stood her ground, watched admiringly by the crowd as the police car and van swerved at speed through the gates.
The woman in the red coat was the sister of Timothy Evans, a mentally retarded friend of Christie who had been charged with the murder of his son and hanged in 1950. In fact, Christie had murdered the infant, and was himself hanged in 1953. Evans, too late, received a posthumous pardon in 1966. I can still remember the woman in the red coat, and her implacable gaze as she stared at the police van. Inside was John Christie, a now-deranged figure who had just been arrested for the murders he had committed at Rillington Place.
Ballard, Miracles of Life.
I wandered throughout this area in 1980, deep in therapy but pre-Concrete Island. I picked up my welfare cheques from the Post Office next to Hawkwind’s Hall of the Mountain Grill, bought frayed copies of Frendz from angry hippies, stumbled unchallenged into non-white shebeens, mourned the deaths of burned-out friends, and eventually chanced on the bizarrely named Maxilla Walk nearby. Finally, gloriously, I was drawn into the concrete cathedral under the Westway roundabout, where I felt the presence of the master. A couple of traveller lads asked me for a fag but soon twigged I had even less than them. This land under the drumming motorway was raw and magical and empty and beautiful, in a way I felt I could never explain.
North Kensington Amenity Trust poster. Image via Notting Hill History Timeline.
‘Following on from the Westway opening demos in 1970, there was a campaign against the GLC plan for a bus garage between Portobello Road and Ladbroke Grove. This resulted in the founding of the North Kensington Amenity Trust (now the Westway Development Trust), to develop the 23 acres under the flyover for the benefit and use of the local community. After ‘Robert Maitland’ crashed through the barrier on to the Westway roundabout Concrete Island and found himself stuck there in the book, the director of the Westway Trust from 1976 to 2005 was Roger Matland. The motorway also features in JG Ballard’s more notorious 1973 novel Crash, and Trellick Tower influenced his 1975 book High Rise. Ballard contributed to Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds science fiction magazine when it was at 307 Portobello Road, and Hawkwind came up with a `High Rise’ track featuring the line ‘It’s a human zoo, a suicide mission.’ Ballard’s urban myths of the near future would also influence such punk and post-punk groups as the Clash, Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Ultravox, the Human League, the Normal/Mute Records, Grace Jones and 23 Skidoo, most of whom would appear ’under the flyover’ at Acklam Hall.’
Tom Vague, Notting Hill History Timeline, chapter 13: Underground Overground 1972-76.
A war-torn Ladbroke Grove. Image via Notting Hill History Timeline.
‘In the centre of the island were the air-raid shelters among which he was sitting.’
Ballard, Concrete Island.
As the area was bombed in WWII, there would almost certainly have been a number of air-raid shelters surviving — to my surprise I discovered the foundations of an Anderson shelter when replacing the back lawn of my house in West Norwood in London, in 1990.
The Island today, now filled in and a shadow of its former self, as seen from the railway. Photo: Mike Holliday.
Further evidence of the locality: there is a breaker’s yard under the Westway, to the West of Stable Way, just outside my imagined island. There is also a traffic sign on my island, as in the book, visible in the photo above. Although I haven’t found evidence of a cinema or a churchyard, I’m sure they can’t have been far away!
We also learn that a sergeant from Notting Hill police station urinated on Proctor. The actual police station is less than a mile from my island, at 100 Ladbrooke Grove. And finally, the mysterious Jane Sheppard says she is staying with friends near the Harrow Road, again within a mile of the site. I’m imagining her character might be based on another woman, on the run from her rich family, in nearby Notting Hill.
At one point Maitland assumes: “At any moment the ambulance attendants would arrive, he would be carried away to a hospital bed in Hammersmith.” This would surely be Hammersmith Hospital itself, the only large hospital in the area, virtually within sight of the Westway interchange and, ironically, where JGB now meets with his cancer specialist.
Of course the real location of Concrete Island is only to be found inside Ballard’s head. Nevertheless, I think it is interesting to wander around this little slice of Ballardland and breathe in the fumes that helped form that most modern story of a Crusoe stranded in the middle of a giant metropolis.
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