JG Ballard

It’s easy to point yourself in the direction of Shepperton. You follow the line of the incoming jets from Central London. Out on the new M3 -- reservoirs, the motion sculpture of the motorway and its slip roads, modern light industrial buildings -- a landscape at first non-descript, later compelling. Heathrow Airport isn’t far away: its influence is subtle but all-pervasive: the feeling of transience, man-made landscape, isolation in limbo from a strict sense of time...

Naturally, I got trapped on the motorway and am shot 15 miles beyond where I wish to go. Unable to turn off, cross and claustrophobic in a sudden heat wave, I find the cool sweep of the motorway insolent and malevolent. Once off, it takes me another 20 minutes to travel in effect a mile -- the road system has abandoned any logic to the needs of the motorway. Ballard lives in a semi-detached -- 30's at a guess -- quite close to the centre of Shepperton: the street is quiet and residential. He is ebullient, intense, a rapid talker (with an inflection reminiscent of George Sanders at times)...

Interview by Jon Savage....

S&D: I've just been reading High-Rise -- what interested me was the idea of a modern sort of Barbarism in the midst of technology -- or the fact that maybe the technology in creating the situation for that.

JGB: Right, that was the idea.

S&D: It seemed to be very much what's happening now, in microcosm, because coming on the way here on the M3 I noticed it was all very beautiful -- all these beautiful new gleaming buildings, despoiled by graffiti -- very strange.

JGB: Yes, apparently the events I described in that novel have taken place -- high rises all over the world been so vandalized, that in some cases they've had to've been blown up! –- they’ve shown on TV many times the dynamiting of these things. Something’s happening over here, there's a cluster of blocks near Manchester which are scheduled for demolition because they're just not viable social structures. But I wasn't trying just to make that point -- I was trying to point out that people discover there's some dubious pleasures of life in advanced technology tapped -- they canalize & tame & make tolerable perverse impulses that in previous societies would've been nipped in the bud -- the body on the beach -- the prowl cars would've been around in no time at all. Modern technology makes possible the expression of a guilt-free -- I really feel we're moving towards that – don’t know whether you've read a novel of mine called Crash…

S&D: Yes I have, I actually couldn't finish it...

JGB: In which I tried to show the first signs of a sort of institutionalized, morally free psychopathology emerging, in which people will be able to, almost encouraged by the nature of the societies in which they live, to give vent to all sorts of perverse impulses which won't be socially damaging!

S&D: Like those places in New York, sort of gay bars, the Anvil and the Toilet, where you get everything possible... an interesting thing I noticed in the book: it was much more of an American high-rise situation -- in England the high-rises are usually council…

JGB: They're usually municipal…

S&D: I presumed that was sort of a vehicle, a way of doing it.

JGB: Funny enough, years & years ago the idea of High-Rise came to me, way back 15 years ago -- my parents had a flat in the Red Lion Square, Victoria. There's a little complex of office blocks. A there's one block of flats, mostly rich business people live there. There were always rich people over with Rolls Royces -- immodestly appointed flats, huge rents. These rich tenants (rich & successful tenants) -- the women (they were the ones at home) spent all their time bickering with one another, complaining about small things constantly -- 'Who's going to pay for the maintenance of the potted plant display on the 17th floor landing" -- all that sort of thing -- and "So-and-so's curtains do not match' -- the most incredible triviality. Then, about 5 years ago, I was in Spain. I rented a flat for a month, close to Costa Brava: really, it's a French resort, near Dali's place. Most of the people were French middle-class professional people -- they all had their bloody boats...

S&D: …which they used once…

JGB: And they spent an enormous amount of time bickering about things. I remember once – I was in a ground floor flat, looking out over -- the sea’s sort of there, straight below beyond the beach -- and one of the residents who also lived in a ground floor flat was standing with his back to the sea, looking up at this big block, about 12 stories high, with a camera. I thought, "What is this -- This man's a peeping tom!” 'cause my girlfriend was walking around in the nude. But what he was doing was -- there was an enormous amount of antagonism between the people in the lower floors and the people at the top. Because there was this constant onshore wind flow, cigarette ends in particular, flung down into the flats, & also water (some child would kick over a bucket of water) -- the whole damn lot would come down over everybody else's balconies. A notice went up saying: Residents are asked not to throw cigarette ends over their balconies. This chap said in his notice, I am taking photographs of any offenders, and these photographs will be pinned up on this notice board. I remember thinking, "This is unbelievable, I think I'll keep this -- who would believe it?" A holiday, this expensive block -- and here's this guy so upset with the misbehavior of those people on the 12th floor that he stands with his back to the sea with his camera, waiting to catch somebody in the act! Some guy who is probably a dentist, so obsessed ... with the sort of hostilities that are easily provoked...

S&D: I like the fact that all these hidden & delicious urge, are being released -- that people would pee in the swimming pool...

JGB: Want any more tea? Half a cup?

S&D: ...you were taking earlier about this sort of new class…

JGB: A new professional class, right. If you take a 35-year-old working-class dentist from Lyons -- he has more in common with another 35-year-old dentist of whatever class, than he has with someone who grew up in the same street -- members of a professional caste (whatever you like to call them, social group) play in an elaborately signaled landscape where they understand all the codes that govern -- and once they've mastered the system of codes, they become part of a separate social group. The old class criteria, Marxist criteria, don't apply... Marxism is a social philosophy for the Poor, whereas what we need nowadays is a social philosophy for the Rich, which is what most people are... having been brought up in the Far East, I know what poverty is about. (Ballard describes an old “communist” wearing a tattered brown shirt saying "I'm poor" ho had an annual income, 5,000 pounds, probably in excess of the life income of someone in the Far East, or in Africa)

S&D: Another thing about High-Rise... was a new tribalism, barbarism -- even that professional class got broken down to the actual floor, so it's right down to territory --- basics. So that it all got basic and barbaric, but in a very perverse way.

JGB: Well, that was the whole object -- they were embracing the "Original Sin”, not fleeing…

S&D: Do you see that happening now in England generally?

JGB: Yeah, I think it is happening, rather less dramatically than it takes place in that book. The rate of change is so slow that it's imperceptible, but by god change is taking place...

S&D: I think the media accelerate change, and a lot of people are beginning not to be able to cope with that and are actually going to go psychotic or catatonic

JGB: Yeah -- every now and then people seem to wake up, look around them and decide that they’ve had too much -- more change than they can stand. So the pendulum appears to swing in the direction of Conservatism -- I mean people like Mary Whitehouse do express, the kind of half-conscious need by people to slam on the brakes -- most people can't take too much change, most people aren't happy with change, that's why science fiction actually isn't that popular. That's why it's most popular with the young, who embrace change, and need it and are eager for change.

S&D: Also, (science fiction's) not particularly respectable.

JGB: It's less unrespectable than it used to be -- it's changing, particularly in the States -- you can bloody nearly take a degree in SF. It's cutting in slowly -- you can probably find the Day of the Triffids on some (University) reading list. I even find my own output being chased, particularly in France, also in Italy -- people writing M.A. theses on my stuff, y'know -- I got one up there (points to wall) I don't want you to read it... Look at these charts. That strikes me as hilariously funny... People are getting M.A.'s on this sort of stuff -- that side of it I don't like. I like fiction that is free, vulgar even, noisy, not worrying about dropping it’s 'H's' -- vitality in the most important thing where the imagination is concerned. I don't care about the rough edges.

S&D: Ore of my favorite science fiction authors is Olaf Stapledon

JGB: First and Last Men

S&D: Starmaker -- I love Odd John, Sirius as well...

JGB: The time charts in First and Last Men -- they haven't dated at all. They are still mind-blowing. I've stared at those over the years, thinking, “Well, I've got a strong imagination, maybe I can do better" -- but for once I can't see how you can do that better.

S&D: ... One of the things I like about science fiction is -- for me it isn't Future fiction, it's an Alternative Present

JGB: Well it's became that. When I started writing it was very much future oriented, 20 years ago. It was very difficult then to write, really, science fiction set in the present -- editors -- readers were very nervous

S&D: How did that break down?

JGB: By persistence. I may say, on my own part -- a lot of rejection slips, slowly getting your message through. Also for internal reasons. SF, rather like Hollywood, was sort of a one-generation business... The modern cinema, let's say from 1935 to 1960, was one generation of cameramen, one generation of lighting men, writers, producers, directors, stars even -- once this generation grew old there was no new generation to take its place. And this happened in SF too, once Azimov-Pohl-Heinlein-Bradbury & Co stopped writing -- once they had established conventions of a modern literature, there was nobody else to take its place, so it was decided to start establishing conventions of another, even more modern literature, and this has happened -- art of new wave.

S&D: I don't find various ones you're talking about -- Heinlein, Asimov -- very readable.

JGB: I'm not too keen on Asimov and Heinlein -- I think Bradbury's a great writer, I'm very keen on Bradbury.

S&D: I do like Philip K Dick when he's on -- I think Man in the High Castle and Time Out of Joint are brilliant. And like the fact that he writes them very quickly.

JGB: Yes, that's something in their favor, I agree.

S&D: Be interesting to find out whether there'll be another generation

JGB: I think there are the first signs of it taking place. What you're going to get is -- the first generation of writers to whom SF is part of the normal landscape, rather than something separate. Rather than an alternative to the present day, we’re going to get a generation to whom SF is the present. Obviously William Burroughs – the greatest post-war writer, I think the most important writer to emerge since World War II. I first read 15 years ago the four -- well, then there were three: Naked Lunch, The Ticket and Soft Machine -- I stood up and cheered (I was in this room) -- and I cheered because I thought, "God, this man's a genius, he's changed everything." There're elements of SF in all Burroughs because they're part of the landscape, part of the air one breathes.

S&D: I really like Burroughs' magazine, a small magazine like Time.

JGB: Yeah, I remember Time.

S&D: I like magazines very such

JGB: Me, too

S&D: I like ephemera, and I very much like the way he mixes text and pictures, I'm fairly visually oriented... Some of the things he said are very important -- technological control, the pace of his books. I remember one day I was reading Maldoror and I was reading Naked Lunch and I couldn't read Maldoror -- the pace was so slow.

JGB: Brilliant ideas... whereas Burroughs reads like Rimbaud, full of drive.

S&D: Those days, I think people's attention-time spans are a bit less.

JGB: I think the Form is part of the reason the novel has been losing ground for the last half century -- the Form is wrong -- the form of the extended narrative, the long story, doesn't accord. It may accord with the way people lived or thought they lived in the 19th Century, but it doesn't accord with the way people see themselves in the 20th, certainly not the Late Twentieth. Whereas Burroughs gets rid of, he jettisons, the long scale of narrative and action and drama and all the rest are sort of subsumed within each paragraph... the trouble is -- does it take a writer of genius to write like that? Maybe it does, because there've been so many bad imitations of Burroughs... the hazards of that sort of thing.

S&D: I find that very rarely I can sit down and read a book -- I often speed read them very quickly.

JGB: I like stylized narratives where there's a great deal of form and flow, like a good Raymond Chandler or a good B movie, a hard-driving thriller in fact where you know there's a plot, you know there's a story, but you don't need to follow the detailed ramifications... Probably going to see this one called The Driver that's just come out, sounds good. Like Vanishing Point, which I loved.

S&D: Did you set Duel?

JGB: Yeah, I did, on TV -- was a bit disappointed possibly because it'd been built up. The first half-hour was great, but then it didn't develop that way.

S&D: Did you see Two-Lane Blacktop?

JGB: Started to, I got a little bored with that... this as about the “race", wasn't it? I prefer Vanishing Point. I thought that was a colossal film....

S&D: Did you see Star Wars?

JGB: Yes ... I did.

S&D: I liked it. I was very uncritical, I accepted the fact that it was a sort of trend.

JGB: It was -- all right. It could have been so much more interesting, it had no stories... the space technology was impressive

S&D: It was like Starsky & Hutch on a big screen

JGB: Beautifully.

S&D: The science fiction films I really like are the English ones between about 1958 and 1963.

JGB: Which are those?

S&D: Stuff like Village of the Damned.

JGB: That was a lovely film.

S&D: The Day The Earth Caught Fire.

JGB: That was a good movie too.

S&D: Children of the Damned is one of my favorite…

JGB: That was a sequel to Village of the Damned?

S&D: 1 think so. It's sort of after the Midwich Cuckoo (by John Wyndham)

JGB: The Village of the Damned was based on the The Midwich Cuckoos.

S&D: It’s a theme I like very much, the theme that Stapledon has in Odd John: the extraordinary child, and the ways they can go. I think it's very educational, almost like laying down guidelines for your own behavior... I was going to ask you about Crash -- were you showing films of car crashes at an exhibition?

JGB: No, this was at the New Arts Lab – I just put 3 crashed cars on display. Just there, in their gallery. I did it as a sort of test, actually, because I'd written my book The Atrocity Exhibition in which I'd had a character who had put on a display of crashed cars, and I was thinking at the time of getting ready to write Crash. I put on the exhibition in a way to test my hunches. And that was interesting because, I had an opening party. I sent out invitations to art critics, invited a lot of people along. I've been to a lot of parties, but I've never been to one where everybody got drunk so quickly... A crashed Pontiac and a couple of English cars that'd been in massive collisions. As we were setting up the show, where people'd walk into the gallery without realizing what was going on, they'd see these crashed cars, and you'd get a kind of hysterical laugh. At the actual opening party, I’ve never seen people getting drunk socially with so much more aggression and belligerence -- I got nearly attacked physically by a reporter from the New Society. I had a topless girl interviewing people, and Hoppy, the old TVX man connected with the Velox Lab, he had a closed circuit TV going so people could see themselves being interviewed around these crashed cars by this topless girl -- it was all too much. Everybody got overexcited, the girl nearly got raped in the back of the crashed Pontiac -- it confirmed all my hunches, that show. During the month that the cars were on display, they were continually attacked -- they wore rolled over, splashed with white paint by communiqué men, windows that weren’t broken were broken, wing mirrors ripped off these wrecks – it’s absolutely amazing the amount of hostility.

Why is that?

JGB: Something about putting these crashed vehicles on display focused, pointed obviously a finger, at certain areas that most people kept quietly concealed. Their ambiguous feelings about cars and car crashes, obviously were released!

S&D: All the James Bond films up the ante with car crashes.

JGB: That was interesting -- once I'd put on that show, I knew I had to write Crash -- that was all the confirmation I needed. Funny thing was -- the topless girl, she was originally going to interview people nude (I hired her to interview everybody nude) but once she saw the cars (I don't know what was going on in her mind) she refused to be nude, she would only be topless. So that the proprieties would be maintained -- you "had to hold the line somewhere” in the face of all this latent sexuality and perversion and all the rest of it. And (unknown to me) she later wrote a review, a very critical review of me at the exhibition, in French. Certainly the wheels were coming full circle -- rather like opening a topless restaurant and having one of the waiters review your "restaurant' in the local newspaper.

S&D: Did you over see the Man Who Fell To Earth?

JGB: Yes, I did... I guess it was a brave failure, the accent an the "brave” and not the “failure”. Again, it needed a slightly stronger story line. I know the screenwriter ‘cause he actually has written a filmscript of High-Rise, and he has a tendency to sacrifice the overall story line in order to follow up his own little (obsessions) which is a shame. I mean, Nick Roeg is so good a filmmaker, director, but he too actually needs a stronger story line.

S&D: Walkabout...

JGB: An amazing film, lovely film.

S&D: Always remember the scene at the end with the housewife.

JGB: Back at the flat -- was never quite sure what was going on there actually. This was years later –- as the idea that this whole walkabout thing was a fantasy of this bored housewife?

S&D: Or that it happened out it was so distant -- that's how I saw it.

JGB: I assumed, yes, that.

S&D: And I loved that bit of awful unhealthiness of the cigarette as she was cooking this elaborate food -- so claustrophobic with the cigarette, and everything was so artificial -- it was brilliantly done.

JGB: Marvelous film. I loved the landscape too -- apparently a desert, but every 20 yards there's a wreck of an old car or something, like Shepperton.

S&D: The landscapes around here are extraordinary.

JGB: But people aren’t aware of it -- you know most people see the world thru very traditional focus, through a very traditional lens. Just as to somebody reared on, say, renaissance and post-renaissance painting, with formal perspectives and all the rest of it, who are absolutely unable to take, say, Cubism or any form of non-representational painting, or any distortions of representation. It's difficult now to realize just how, say the Impressionists, who strike us an damn nearly chocolate in sweetness... at the time, in the 1870's-80's -- Impressionism as virtually described as a criminal conspiracy to destroy a civilization.

S&D: Which it was.

JGB: Well it was in a way, it merely offered an alternative viewing hole. This is why people drive around, live in a landscape like this or like the landscape around Heathrow, without realizing what's going on... what I'm interested in is the sort of -- you see it coming in London, that type of inner-urban development: which is not designed certainly for pedestrians, but also not really designed for motorcars an well. You get it, say, in Paris around the Montparnasse Tower, the DeVorss complex in Paris -- you drive to a place like that and you have to know your destination. You want to go to such-and-such a building, you go into the carpark of that building and that's it baby, you don't walk around. You don't drive around... you've got to have a specific target (like, to the Festival Hall or the Shell Complex) you don't have any options.

S&D: That's another thing very noticeable in High-Rise and Concrete Island that modern isolation -- because of all that, as in the case of the guy an the Concrete Island, you can actually be on the road trying to hitch a ride -- you might as well be light years away.

JGB: You can't stop here and you can't stop there -- well even if you wanted to if you’re driving along, say the Westway near Shepherd's Bush at 60 miles an hour, and you saw somebody bleeding by the roadside -- you try to stop, you'll be in a multi-car pile-up, you'd be dead, you'd be hit by about 15 or 20 cars. And of course you don't want to stop -- the whole system is engineered around the assumption that nobody is going to express any impulsive charity -- or do anything impulsive, for that matter! You no more can express some original impulse than somebody riding a rollercoaster who suddenly decided to got off -- once the rollercoaster begins you have to ride it through to the end. Many of these modern roads are beautifully landscaped, actually. The old people who've lived around are complaining like mad -- they're not complaining about the noise, but the destruction of the visual amenities -- "we remember what the Harran road was like, and look at it now" -- but the Motorway's the most elegant structure in that part of London, the houses are all decaying wrecks.

S&D: A group called The Clash did a song called “London’s Burning” -- the guy who wrote it lived in one of those flats by the Harran road with a view down the Westway. He was saying, “What a lovely way to spend the night/It's so great/ driving in the red and yellow lights (on the Westway)”.

JGB: Someone told me that Hawkwind based a song on my novel High-Rise, but I doubt that myself.

S&D: Well, I think... high-rise blocks are very compelling pieces of architecture, and when you look from Archway toward Hampstead Heath, the City of London looks like a graveyard, the tall office buildings look like tombstones -- very frightening. An interesting thing, the top things you see are flat; it used to be the churches would rise, ever upward. And now you've got this "flat" which keeps you down on the ground.

JGB: A couple of years ago, when I drove back from Sussex... and I passed Croydon, about a mile away, suddenly I looked to my right, and there was this cluster of high-rise blocks like a mini-Manhattan that had just sort of come up from nowhere -- it was weird.

S&D: Have you been to Manhattan?

JGB: No... I haven't been to the 'States in about 25 years (bored tone). I must go again. Also, people who've been there tell me frightening stories about all the violence, which I'm afraid rather puts me off.

S&D: I think London's pretty violent, some places.

JGB: The notion of a completely random event an the result of just some sort of meaningless attack lasting 10 seconds: one my be not necessarily killed, but profoundly traumatized, even severely physically disabled for years. I mean, I can walk around parts of London -- those parts of London that I visit, let's say -- or I can walk around those parts of Paris I visit, or Rome, with complete confidence that a meaningless attack is not going to happen anymore than say, an engine is going to fall off an aircraft and land on my head. Well, you're getting a certain element of political violence now, aren't you? If one had scripted an episode five years ago, and had a scene where  a passenger in an airline bus were machine-gunned as they got out of their hotel in Grosvenor Square in broad daylight by an Arab terrorist -- I mean it would be put down as a ludicrous fantasy, you know -- one just wouldn't have believed something like that.

S&D: Do you watch television?

JGB: All the time. I watch a lot of TV when my eyes are tired and weaving -- also I enjoy it. I think it's terribly important to watch TV. I think there's a sort of minimum number of hours of TV you ought to watch every day, and unless you're watching 3 or 4 hours of TV a day you're just closing your eyes to some of the most -- synthesis of reality, & the creation of reality that TV achieves. It's the most important sort of stream-of-consciousness that's going on! I mean, not watching TV is even worse than say, never reading a book. I think the biggest developments over the next 20, 30 years are going to be through the introduction of VHS systems -- and I don't just mean the cassette thing -- playback gadgets -- that in itself would be quite revolutionary -- but when, say, every room in everybody's house or flat's got a camera recording what's going on -- the transformation of the home into the TV Studio is the creation of a new kind of reality. I mean reality is electronic.

S&D: But what's it going to do -- it's going to make people so introverted, self-conscious, is it not?

JGB: I think only in the short term -- in exactly the same way as, when you first get a camera, you spend your time photographing children playing in a paddling pool. But after awhile, you get more ambitious, and you start taking an interest in the world at large. I think the same thing will happen -- beginning with endlessly photographing themselves, shaving, having dinner together, having domestic rows -- of course the bedroom applications are obvious. But I think they'll go beyond that to the point where each of us will be at the center of a sort of non-stop serial, with all kinds of possibilities let in. You may be able to splice in bits of Key Largo and Casablanca into the daily record of your life, to the point where you literally do become a character in a Bogey movie, or what have you.

S&D: But they always say that people fantasize ... making love with somebody else -- this in just a logical extension of that

JGB: I can see that coming. But I can see a sort of huge extension of video live material which will be accessible at the press of a button, so that just as now you can dial a poem or a record of the weather, you'll, be able to dial a visual input of say, all the newsreel material filmed yesterday in Los Angeles --  I'm talking about somebody living in a London suburb.

S&D: There was that story in Low Flying Aircraft about re-creating history on TV

JGB: Oh yes -- "The Greatest TV Show On Earth.' But I can see that happening -- that one will have access to vast amounts of filmed information of every conceivable kind. One will be able to sort of merge one's own identity with a huge flux of images of various kinds being generated everywhere else.

S&D: But how will that fit in socially -- will that mean people will spend less time working? I think the 4-day work week is already around the corner.

JGB: Well, most people are already working a 3-day week without realizing it. They're going to work on a 5-day-a week basis, but they're probably working a 3-day week. It's just a social convention to work Monday through Friday.

S&D: I'm very pessimistic about the likelihood of natural man-made catastrophes over the next 20 years

JGB: I don't see western Europe or the United States, societies there derailing themselves -- quite practically. I don't think that's likely to happen. I think the reason why it won't happen is that the rate of change itself is going to be so great, positively exponential, particularly when there's a whole development at present of what I call an invisible technology -- mostly computers, processing devices, etc. etc. etc. which is going on around us -- which we don't know about. I mean I think the rate of change is a sort of pause suppressant -- 20 years from no one will begin to realize the extent to which the applications of the computer in a thousand and one ways, will really create a state of perpetual change which will be a tide that will just sweep everybody along without…

S&D: …being able to do anything about it

JGB: Right! They'll be happy to go along with the tide. I think you'll get an inflammation, a rate of information flow and a sort of rate of change, in the last 2 decades of this century and the first 2 of the next, equal to the enormous rate of visible, enormous rate of change, that took place in the first 30 years of this century... let’s say from 1880 to 1920. In everything: auto's are obvious things, I mean things you can see, like houses; electric lights, cars, radios, telephones, bridges, ships – everything! The creation of the twentieth century took place. What we may see, I think, in the years 1980 to 2020, will be the creation of the twenty-first century. It could be done in term of information systems, TV, the whole video world.

S&D: The whole thing is now access to information.

JGB: Yeah, but that'll end. Once everybody's got a computer terminal in their home, to satisfy all the needs, & all the domestic needs, there'll be a dismantling of the present broadcasting structure which is far too limited, limiting.

S&D: Do you think there'll be enormous social charges which... a lot of people severely will not be able to cope with?

JGB: I don't know about that -- I think people are far more flexible than they realize... Take somebody with a fairly sort of limited social background in this country today, without any advantages of birth, education, intelligence or, special talent, let's say. Say some factory worker in the midlands. He takes for granted a range of possibilities in his life -- an average holiday in the Bahamas, or if not the Bahamas the Seychelles... a Cortina, a fairly high standard of medical care in absolute terms, etc etc etc... TV, records, a vast range of goods hygienically presented in supermarkets. His local Hyde Street offers a range of fabrics, styles, furnishings, you name it -- a staggering diversity of possibilities, of a kind that say, his father in the 1930's would have been amazed at. But this is the average sort of working class (man) taking it in stride.... I think this applies on all levels. My father took for granted things that would've amazed his father -- I look at my own life or the lives of my friends, people in their 40's -- we take for, granted, we make a whole huge list of assumptions about things, say that my mother (if she were still alive, in her mid-70's) would really be rather shocked by. I mean, kind of built-in tolerance, for example, of a huge range of what to my mother would be regarded as rather deviant interests – I mean something like being interested in abstract painting. I think tolerances are something that's increasing...

S&D: I hope so. I'm not quite as confident as you are, I see a lot of intolerance in lots of people, especially younger people, people younger than me, and I find that very frightening.

JGB: Yes, I think the main threat comes from the very young. My son did something that really surprised me – he was brought up in a (say, agnostic) humane, intelligent and loving home atmosphere. The first thing he did when he went to Warwick 3 years ago was to join a Christian Union -- he became a sort of devout Christian: I don't think there's anything particularly unusual about this: somebody at Cambridge was telling me that the largest student societies now – sorry, he was saying that he was at John's Chapel, some Sunday Service or something -- he was amazed to find half the place full of undergraduates.

S&D: Well, that really disturbs me.

JGB: And at Warwick, and at most universities I think these days... the larger student society now is the C.U. Curiously enough, I noticed that my son -- he goes away each summer, he'll go off with the C.U. party, which takes a group of spastics to the seacoast -- they load these people in their wheelchairs into vans and they all go off somewhere, and they give these severely handicapped people a good time... They themselves are absolutely knackered, staying out late til 3 in the morning, that kind of thing -- no joke. At the same time, he's also become (my son, although he's a very engaging. pleasant character) he's become surprisingly dogmatic and moralistic. 

S&D: It’s dogma that I hate.

JGB: That's frightening; I sometimes worry (because he's now 23) he may well make a rather repressive parent... it may well be just a temporary phase.

S&D: Well, even so, it’s going to have its effect.

JGB: Actually, about the height of Swinging London, 1966-67, a long time ago, I thought to myself. "Well, being young is synonymous with freedom, tolerance and all the rest of it". I thought to myself. "I'm an SF writer" (I tend to just play around with ideas, invert things deliberately) -- I visualized a society where the young all wore Mao uniforms and were extremely puritanical , and moralistic -- this was 10 years ago -- but you can actually see this going on… one can see, actually, a whole range of New Orthodoxies emerging -- attitudes about race, attitudes about “inherited intelligence”, attitudes about “women's lib”, “woman's place in the world" -- attitudes about all sorts of things have sort of fossilized into a sort of fixed position where, if you in any way deviate -- you're in trouble. You’re either a male chauvinist (you may well be a male chauvinist) but you are attacked merely because you choose to express an original opinion on the subject, and don't subscribe to the established authority. I mean you can see it in, say, Time Out -- I like Time Out and I have contributed to it myself. I think it's a great magazine -- but you see a whole set of received opinions there going through its columns, both political and aesthetic -- aesthetic orthodoxies are paraded in that magazine, in every issue ... I’m 30 years older than the oldest Time Out contributor – wait a minute, how old an I? -- I'm 20 years older -- wait I probably am 30 years older than some of them -- but it's not them that bothers me so much as the fact that I don't quite know what to expect.

S&D: Again, talking about orthodoxies -- when an orthodoxy gets set up, I almost per se want to attack it

JGB: Oh, right! Me, too, rather willfully.

S&D: And make a nuisance of myself. I mean... you talked about the Sixties, maybe you observed it -- in what case did you think the generation failed or succeeded, if you can think of it in those terms.

JGB: Well, I certainly wasn't part of it. I was an outsider. I was 35 by the time "Swinging London” got into its stride (Never trust anyone over 30)… I think the transformation of English life that took place between 1965 to '70 is absolutely to be admired -- biggest shot in the arm this country ever had seen, marking the real revolution, social revolution, as big as the creation of the welfare state (and the social revolution that was part of it) that took place after '45... I thought it was a stupendous event -- sort of the youth, the young people of the 60's, who saved this country from middle-aged oblivion.

S&D: But I think now there's a new generation of people.

JGB: I think that's totally true. The trouble is, the sort of means of achieving one revolution become institutionalized -- I mean the formulas that are liberating, become clichés and the establishment of the next. So it seems to me that, if you take say, that social revolution which was achieved between '65 and '70, was made of many many things, of course among them were say, pop music, a certain kind of fashion free of sort of class and all the rest of it, the drugs, psychedelics -- they were all revolutionary in their different places -- they've now become part of an established way of life. I mean you now go to parties in this part of the world, say, and you find people with BMWs in their drives, smoking pot on immaculate lawns, and these people are 35, and absolutely in every sense pillars of the establishment. I mean they are the young professionals who hold the society together.

S&D: Right. And a lot of them take cocaine.

JGB: So I think you're right -- there's a new shot in the arm needed, it'll probably come.

S&D: I think punk is making a start...

JGB: I think so, I find a lot of fascinating people... 'cause, from my point of view what I'm interested in (thinking of High-Rise and social graft) is a new conceptualization of psychopathology, where you’re getting a real liberation of the apparently deviant... but merely an expression of certain sort of universal quirk.

S&D: Well, I think the point is, you get squeezed by the society today in certain ways, and the squeeze is bound to product the quirks.

JGB: Yeah, well by quirk I mean merely the particular shape each of us takes in time and space. Normally the means of expressing we’ve each got are very limited -- each of us are allowed very little freedom to express our identities: and we have a very impoverished -- not impoverished, just a meager -- vocabulary for expressing our own identities. What is interesting about punk is a fairly extensive, in its own way, vocabulary for expressing certain parts of ourselves. It’s come out, and I think that's great.

S&D: I can see a lot of very interesting strands here – I can see a strand, as I was saying to you earlier – “psychedelic without drugs” and (an attitude of being) social-realistic (discusses Sex Pistols challenge and what the media made out of it).

JGB: My impression (is that) the original punk groups were reacting in a very direct way against the establishment music scene -- someone like Mick Jagger, he was as much a part of the show business establishment as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. And, although he's regarded as of some importance to us as a "great rebel” -- in fact, he's a completely socially accepted and integrated performer. And I guess the original punk was reacting against that sort of thing... what is interesting now is that the time span between the Rebel -- the Revolution -- and total social acceptance -- is getting shorter and shorter. It took Jagger about 10 years.

S&D: It took Johnny Rotten a year and a half!

JGB: In the future (this is part of the problem in the “arts” as well) you'll get some radical new idea, but within 3 minutes it's totally accepted, and it's coming out in sort of your local supermarket....

S&D: Andy Warhol has been so perceptive about this...

JGB: Absolutely, everything Warhol's said is so right about -- he's terribly, a genius

S&D: The group he worked with is probably one of the most influential groups ever -- The Velvet Underground -- in very many ways. Their ideas are so compressed, they're full of ideas, some people have made careers by just taking one strand of it ... and there's all these circles... There's a very heavy Burroughs influence that's been coming into punk in the last year or so -- very indirect but – there’s a strand of groups now who are really attacking media and technological conditioning.

JGB: To be honest – I don't listen to music. It’s just a blank spot....

JGB at home in Shepperton in 1978. Photos by Leslie Evans.