JG Ballard in 1985. Pix by Bleddyn Butcher.
Closely Observed S/Trains
By Don Watson
Transcribed by Mike Holliday
Here's another lengthy and interesting interview, this time from "New Musical Express", 26 October 1985. It starts with a load of rumination from the interviewer, but eventually he gets down to what JGB had to say.
He never listens to music but he inspired the writing of "Warm Leatherette" and Magazine's "Motorcade", his trilogy of "Crash", "High Rise" and "Concrete Island" provided the definitive picture of the landscape of Britain in the '70s, opening the way for industrial romanticists like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and Clock DVA. Now, after 20 years, J G Ballard is a best-selling author, with his partly autobiographical novel of wartime Shanghai "Empire Of The Sun", reckoned the moral winner of the Booker prize, now released in paperback. Don Watson takes a train to Shepperton to meet a hero and talk of TV, World War III and other modern jokes in the comedy of terrors. Tracking shots Bleddyn Butcher.
There's something fascinating, almost strangely exhilarating, about watching England unfold on the other side of the train window.
As modern flight networks and falling fares shrink the world by the hour, the reliably untrustworthy railway system restores a sense of distance. Its speed is sufficient to set you apart as you rattle past suburban back gardens, its interruptions frequent enough to leave you one foot grounded in the Englishness you observe.
Driving through this country you get the feeling that, as in Gilliam's "Brazil", the real sights are hidden behind the advertising hoardings. Watching from the train you see the scenes that lie behind the billboards - great yawning panoramic displays of decay.
Now showing, BR's answer to the in-flight movie: "England In Decline", the moving picture show. The sun glints off the black gloss of a deserted gas cylinder, the racy red and white stripes it's finished with slip past in a blur. Shot on location on the outskirts of the surreal! The metal frame shows through a gaping hole in the concrete of a deserted tower block. Live from the morning after the Planner's Dream! As the train rushes past a high grassy bank, the figure of a 12-year-old boy stands against the sky. He aims an air-rifle direct at the train window. The real Railway Children -- a study in modern psychosis!
The train thunders on over a high flyover -- and my eyes fall on a line in the book in front of me.
"The passengers at the windows resembled rows of the dead looking down at us from the galleries of a columbarium. The enormous energy of the twentieth century, enough to drive the planet into a new orbit around a happier star, was being expended to maintain this immense motionless pause."
As always I am accompanied on my travels by a J G Ballard novel, "Crash" this time. As always the speed of his prose, the obsessive sexuality of his imagery, fuses with the physical motion of the train to form a powerful intoxicant. The imagination shoots down Ballard's infinite regress of concrete, motorways and dazzling motorcades as the dizzying rush of landscape flashes past. The only way to travel.
Six months ago, tiring of the tedious leisure time pursuits on offer in the capital city of this shinking [sic] isle, I took to making small excursions by train. Each time I'd take along a Ballard novel. His fiction, I found, blurred perfectly with the reality of the trip. Upon reaching the half-way point in the book I'd alight at the next station, turn round and come right back.
Since then I've been eating lightly and drinking heavily from station bars and train bars, eavesdropping on conversations between delayed passengers in misty waiting rooms at half dead stations, reconstructing the news from snippets of talk and glimpses of headlines at newspaper stalls. Every time I finish whatever Ballard it is I'm reading at the time, I just stop and buy another one. Fortunately the re-release of all his paperbacks makes them easily available from station bookstands.
Looking out of the window once more at a dreary flat suburban avenue I feel something flicker in the back of my mind, and find myself staring back down the street in Shepperton, destination of one of my early day trips.
There was a light heat haze floating above the front gardens of Shepperton, lending the houses the strange, expectant air of the Indian summer, as I turned into Ballard's road. It was here, down one of these driveways, through one of these frosted windowed doors, behind one set of these miles of net curtains, that some of Britain's most imaginative fiction was created.
A few doors down from the appointed house, one of the thinning lawns has been cultivated into a bizarre tangle of semi-tropical foliage. Somehow flourishing in the watery sunshine, six-foot vines have coiled around the centrepoint of a giant sunflower. It was as if one of Shepperton's inhabitants had taken it upon himself to pay tribute to his illustrious neighbour by turning his front lawn into a living testament to the Ernst-like tableux of one of Ballard's early short stories.
Really?" Ballard enquired. "I hadn't noticed that, I don't suppose I've actually looked at this road for years."
Born in Shanghai, imprisoned in a Japanese camp during the war, bred on the American-dominated media, on surrealism and psychoanalysis, JG Ballard has always inhabited a flickering world of images that lies between his own, and our collective, imagination. To read one of his books is to be genuinely immersed in obsession. It can be a disturbing experience -- it can also change the way you look at things.
I first discovered Ballard only two years ago, in a hotel room in Los Angeles. Sleep patterns hopelessly shattered I picked up the copy of "The Atrocity Exhibition" I'd brought with me (at that time one of the few Ballard books to be found), finding the nightmare world of overblown images on billboards, palm trees and psychosis uncomfortably close to the one that sprawled out beyond my balcony. I spent the remaining time in the city ciphering the 24-foot advertising posters and the 24-hour TV through the filter of Ballard's eruption of visions.
Ballard's obsessions are unmistakably personal; his repertoire of symbols -- the drained swimming pools, the deserted aerodromes and abandoned planes -- are memories of a particularly unique childhood. And yet his grasp on the popular imagination frames them in such a way that they appear not only accessible but sometimes positively seductive -- who can claim not to have found a residue of appeal in the deviant automobile sexuality outlined in "Crash"?
Above all Ballard knows how to trick, excite and fire the imaginations of his readers. He understood early on that the idea of Space within the Science Fiction novel was just a metaphor for the imagination, so he invented his concept of Inner Space - not the Space encountered by Armstrong, but the Space that opened up in the minds of the millions watching the Apollo missions on television. His novels were concerned with dreamtime -- with fantasy not as an escape from reality but as an expression of a truer reality. Like the much misinterpreted surrealism; his writing was more real than realism.
Sitting in his Shepperton study, this outsider saw the Stars that were the crystalisation of the hopes and dreams of the unseen millions around him - Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, JF Kennedy, Jackie Onassis. In the early days the landscape was provided by Max Ernst's rainscapes and bird sanctuaries and Dali's sandscapes. Then in the '70s it was invaded by the tower blocks and hard shoulders of motorway Britain for the classic modern trilogy "Crash", "High Rise" and "Concrete Island".
Ballard was the train passenger who not only looked out of the window, but understood what he saw. He watched Englishness roll past with the attentive eye of the exile at home.
"The person that is both insider and outsider at the same time," he told me, "brings with him an ambivalence which serves the author very well, because you have mixed emotions about the subject -- you love it and hate it. You know it and yet don't know it, so it's constantly surprising in little ways.
"If you're a complete insider it's very difficult to get any perspective lines going. It's like being the member of closed institution, like a prison or a boarding school. In a small country, which Britain is nowadays, there's the same sort of hothouse excitement that you find in a boarding school, a sort of 'Why isn't matron smiling today?' -- and a frisson of terror moves through the assembly hall.
"Enormous importance is attached to the most unimportant things, so the outsider looks in and thinks 'My God who are these people and why are they getting so worked up about all these tiny little things'."
The opening of the automatic door allows a single roll of clashing metal to clatter down the sound-sealed carriage as the train picks up speed. The flat landscape reels past, a high speed tape loop of stubble field.
Suddenly, in a flare of sodium, a huge, golfball structure looms above the window, the last natural light catching for a moment on one of its hexagonal surfaces. Behind it rises the mushroom cloud that's the crystalisation of modern fears and fascinations. We live our lives now under the constant shadow of the disaster that this compelling icon threatens.
As usual Ballard seems to have tapped this undertow to the nation's subconscious -- perhaps more effectively than ever since his current bestseller "Empire Of The Sun", whose red and white cover rises in banks in every station bookshop, is his most popular book so far. Ostensibly the autobiography of his early life in Shanghai and in a Japanese prison camp, presented in a fictional form, it captures modem obsessions in much the same way as a book like "Crash". Where "Crash" was concerned with the expansion of the frontiers of sex and technology, "Empire Of The Sun" deals with the fear of apocalypse, the obsession of survival and its psychological offshoots. The title, of course, is a neat double-entendre -- referring not only to the phrase applied to the Japanese empire of the Second World War, but to the empire of the second sun, the one that rose at Hiroshima.
Looking through my own reflection into the darkness, listening to the comfortable rattle of the train's motion, secure in the illusion of going somewhere, I think of the words of Christopher Lasch: "(the world is) perceived not -- just by writers but by ordinary men and women or at least by those who instruct them in the art of survival -- as a comfortable concentration camp".
I look once more into the suburban room, with this affable, rotund, perfect gentleman slumped in his armchair, the French windows open to admit the twitterings of the gathering birds in the overgrown back garden.
"Absolutely," he'd said, leaning back in the chair, "it's something that none of the critics seemed to spot, that the inmates of Lunghua camp are a metaphor for the inhabitants of Britain today. They're selfish, they squabble amongst themselves, because the myth of the British co-operating in the adversity of the prison camp is something entirely created by wartime films like 'The Great Escape' -- in fact it was very much a matter of every man for himself. Also they have this strange sense of security which the boundaries of the camp give them -- they're reluctant to look outside and they're even more reluctant to let anybody else in.
"The other thing you'll notice is that the adults persist in this naive notion of the war coming to an end. The war never comes to an end, it just changes form. This is something that Jim, who is young enough to have known little else besides the war, realizes. I think it's very much like that in Britain today. The adults look back to the depression of the '30s and look to an end of the crisis, while the younger generation see it as a permanent state."
The irony is that "Empire Of The Sun" has been received as "The best British novel about the Second World War" (The Guardian), when actually it's a book about World War III, the World War III that already exists as the shadow of the mushroom cloud in the popular imagination.
"Of course it benefits from the particular British obsession with the Second World War -- I don't think any other country has quite our fascination with it. But I think you're right -- it is about World War III, despite the fact that it is also partly autobiographical.
"I don't actually think that 'Empire Of The Sun' is really that different from the rest of my fiction. In the rest of my novels I think, in one way or another, I've been trying to recreate the landscape of wartime Shanghai, where I assume I glimpsed some sort of truth, and I used the techniques of surrealism to remake the present into something consonant with the past that I experienced. It's quite a common thing to take place, when people have been through harrowing experiences of one kind or another, they tend to return to it in disguised form and endlessly recreate the situation that inflicted on them pain, disaster or whatever revelation.
"It just happens that 40 years after the event I was able to come out and openly face the fact. It's probably a lot more to do with being in your 50s and having lost touch with one's adolescent self. Your adolescent self by that time is just a shadowy photograph in your family album."
As the darkness floods past the train window, broken every now and then by a dimly lit industrial building, I think of something else he said, something about the young girls who survived one of the recent plane crashes and how that experience would profoundly affect their lives. In a flash of Ballardthink I imagined a whole school of new literature springing out of the jarred imaginations of survivors of aeronautical disasters.
Looking through the window at the striking horizontal lines of the deserted station I think of another exiled writer making his own fictional journey back to his birthplace, and reflect that where Franz Kafka captured a world of bureaucracy that was benevolent and malevolent by turns, Ballard has done the same for a world of emergent technology.
A flattered voice floats back from the Shepperton room.
"If that is the case I can't think of a higher praise. A lot of people mis-read Kafka in that they assume that in describing his particularly nightmarish world he saw it in an exclusively unfavourable light. I think it had invaded him, and this vast bureaucracy which is so impenetrable, whose value system is so totally elusive, had enfolded him and the whole power of his fiction rises from this ambivalent response.
"I'd like to think that I've done the same for technology in novels like 'Crash', 'High Rise' and 'The Atrocity Exhibition', I hope I've managed to communicate the same ambivalence, in that that one has to embrace the possibilities offered by technology, however threatening they may be. We must immerse ourselves in the threatening possibilities in which we're suspended to have a hope of swimming through to the other end.
"The new technology of computers and word processors do create a new set of values which you can perceive actually when you go to a big international airport or a hypermarket. It's this new landscape of values that needs to be tracked. Do we owe more allegiance to multi-national companies or to royalty? Do I owe more to Avis Rentacar or to Queen Elizabeth II, after all it's now the multinationals who provide the empire on which the sun never sets.
"We are in the situation where elements of psychopathology have been annexed into normal life and neutralised. TV is the biggest influence on that, of course, the blurring of poetic images of earthquakes, cheek by jowl with commercials for cars and whatever. It seems to me that the progress of the 20th century has been the greater accessibility of states of psychopathology. The doors of a great many cages have been unlocked and all the armatures that hold upright the systems that we live in; the franchises and dealerships of our consumer-good transactions have a very high degree of tolerance for what would previously have been regarded as rather perverse and reprehensible sets of values.
"The Vietnam war enormously increased the availability of psychopathology, large areas of pop music do. One gets the notion nowadays of the psychopath as saint. The technological medium of cinema creates the communication level by which something like the De Niro character in 'Taxi Driver' becomes a hero. Our moral values are neutralised by the whole technological boom, by movies, rock music, videos. Our notion of the world as a whole is neutralised. Sooner or later we are going to have to face the fact that a whole section of what has become our consciousness is not very far removed from criminal psychology."
Looking through the window the mushroom cloud is counterpointed by David Bowie's lightning stripe, Siouxsie Sioux's cheekbones.
"Those images are tremendously powerful, those popular icons monitor the changes in the cultural landscape and the changes in popular culture far more effectively than any politician. Music is the carrier wave and on it is modulated all this fascinating stuff, what I call the real news.
"Punk was so interesting -- I still haven't recovered from it. Not knowing anything about the music I saw it as a purely political movement, the powerful political and social resentment of an under-caste who reacted to the values of bourgeois society with pure destructiveness and hate. Bourgeois society offered them the mortgage, they offered back psychosis."
And then the dawn of the Playboy Popstar, the image salvaged from Hugh Hefner's waste bin.
"I'm glad you said that, because it fits in with a lot of things I've been noticing, a lot of it now seems to be underpinning bourgeois values. You wouldn't expect The Beatles or The Rolling Stones to have escaped the encroachment of bourgeoisification, but it's when you see it beginning to happen straight off, because then you look and see 'Here are the '50s coming back again -- yeuch, watch out'. The dullness and the conformism of the '50s, offering people what you think is the safe offering all the time, that bothers me.
"Now we're looking at the situation where bourgeois society is controlling everything, without exception. One looks at certain publications, you can guess the one I'm talking about, the glossy magazine, it interviews young designers, artists, photographers. It asks them what they want and they say money and fame. Someone of 19 who can only sum up his own ambition in terms of money and fame, for God's sake that's the end, that's death of the spirit."
Pass the soap..
"I've referred in the past to the tendency to transform the home into a TV studio, with everybody playing star, director and audience of their personal 'Coronation Street'. I don't mind that as long as the script is provided by the individual himself - too many people have accepted other people's scripts, they're living out a script provided well, not by Saatchi & Saatchi but by J. Walter Thompson, which is rather more sinister in a way, representing all those big, American based multi-nationals. There's nothing particularly bad if an individual takes the view of a washing-up liquid from the advertising screen; where it begins to become dangerous is when people's ideas about education, technology, medicine, cultural values, when they are taken from advertising."
Looking from the train window I saw a whole bank of screaming heads.
"We nowadays take enormous pains to screen off. It's like one of those international hotels where they have conferences. Two hundred yards away there may be a festering slum of people living in appalling poverty, but the delegates fly to the international airport and are limo'd to the hotel and never stray from those air-conditioned interiors and paging systems.
"People are actually beginning to decorate their homes in that international hotel manner. I've watched them. It's not exaggeration, I could take you to places around here that are indistinguishable from the lobbies of the International Hilton.
"We are surrounded by invisible technologies and a change in social and psychological attitudes. The changes you had in the '60s were all up front, now they're much more difficult to read and in a way much more threatening.
"But I think there is a certain anarchic part in all of us that given a bit of luck will burst out of whatever conventional framework. There is something to be said for living in a total bourgeois society and that is that it gives maximum opportunity for the surrealist spirit. At least one's got something to flex the imagination against."
In my occasional venture into station bookshops I saw ever increasing numbers of display cases each selling another conspiracy.
"Yes, I think one does see that institutionalised paranoia as being a satisfactory way of explaining what does go on. Burroughs said somewhere that the paranoid is the person who really does know what's going on, and quite a lot of the time the paranoid view of things is actually proved right. People will gravitate towards something that does appear to explain what's happening."
Paranoia is the modern comfort since if everything is a conspiracy, at least it does all fit together. The opposite conclusion. that nothing is connected to anything else is infinitely more disturbing.
"That's something we're miles away from, though, I don't think there's any danger that things are going to fall apart. Far from there being no centre to things, l think we're in a huge black hole where everyone is being pulled towards this enormous gravitational centre and one can't see out, light can't escape.
"We're not in the position of Weimar Germany when all values are disintegrating, we're on all sides surrounded by systems and values and sets of moral obligations, people are forever wagging their fingers at us from the TV screen, telling us what we should and should not do. The trouble is too many people are conforming."
Looking from the train window it's been difficult to see whether it's been J G Ballard's year or not. The year in which they find the Titanic must have some significance, all his paperbacks are re-released, "Empire Of The Sun" out in paperback, plans for a film.
"I wasn't sure about the film of 'Empire Of The Sun' when I heard they'd commissioned Tom Stoppard to write the screenplay. I only knew him as some Czech-born playwright who produced all this Wildean dialogue. Then it turns out that he and his family moved from Czechoslovakia to Shanghai when he was still very young, and that in fact he'd lived through the same period.
"The only trouble is I asked them where they were going to shoot the prison camp sequences and they said 'Oh, we'll do that in the studio'. I thought 'Oh no, they'll do it all in Shepperton studios down the road and recruit all my neighbours as extras!'"
"Reading is going towards something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be …" from Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveller".
"I don't think the printed word is dying out, if anything the novel is undergoing a certain mini-renaissance, which curiously enough has coincided with a fall in television viewing figures. I think the reason is that the novel is the only form of fiction where you are reading the product of another human being, it's the only private medium of communication. The writer is in sole control of this imaginative universe. When you read a novel you're as close to another human being as you can be, even closer than if you were in bed with them."
I looked out of the train window and wondered just how much of this was really happening.
"The only mode of reality now is inside our own heads, that's the only thing we can trust. And surrounding us on all sides is this massive bank of fiction. Even the English countryside and most of the countryside in the Western world is totally artificial what with factory farming, landscaping, concrete cows at Milton Keynes, colour co-ordinated nature trails. To a large extent it's impossible to say that the external landscape is anything but a fiction."
The trains stops. I get out and walk down a misty Shepperton street.