|The Meaningless Universe Demands Meaningless Acts
JG Ballard discusses Millennium People with Philip Dodd
First broadcast on Night Waves, BBC Radio 3, October, 2003
Transcribed by Mike Bonsall
Philip Dodd: Harold Macmillan once said that Britain took its politicians to its heart if they survived into their seventies, perhaps that's true of its writers too, including the one in extended interview in this evening's Night Waves. Now, it's not uncommon to hear JG Ballard proclaimed as Britain's greatest writer; just think of the praise heaped on his novel Empire of the Sun, the controversy round the film version of his novel Crash, or the warmth that greeted his recent novels, Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes. Yet for much of his writing career, JG Ballard found it difficult to be accepted either by the genteel literary world, or its mutant sister, the world of science fiction.
His new novel, Millennium People, is set in recognizable Ballardland, a west London living in the shadow of Heathrow, full of unhappy professionals. The storyteller's David Markham, a psychotherapist whose former wife is killed by a Heathrow bomb. Markham goes in search of her killer and finds himself initially involved with a middle-class revolt in Chelsea Marina one of those strange gated communities that fascinate Ballard. Slowly Markham's drawn under the influence of the charismatic Richard Gould, a paediatrician, and also a more radical figure, in love with random acts of violence; whether a fire in Tate Modern, the destruction of the National Film Theatre, or the murder of a minor TV celebrity. We are in the heart of darkness indeed. But the novel begins with Ballard's characteristically precise and understated prose.
Unidentified Reader: A small revolution was taking place, so modest and well behaved that almost no one had noticed. Like a visitor to an abandoned film set, I stood by the entrance to Chelsea Marina and listened to the morning traffic in the King’s Road, a reassuring medley of car stereos and ambulance sirens. Beyond the gatehouse were the streets of the deserted estate, an apocalyptic vision deprived of its soundtrack. Protest banners sagged from the balconies, and I counted a dozen overturned cars and at least two burnt-out houses. Yet none of the shoppers walking past me showed the slightest concern. Another Chelsea party had run out of control, though the guests were too drunk to realize it. And, in a way, this was true. Most of the rebels, and even a few of the ringleaders, never grasped what was happening in this comfortable enclave. But then these likeable and over-educated revolutionaries were rebelling against themselves.
PD: The first paragraph of your new novel, JG Ballard, and I want to talk about the novel in some detail, but I want to put something to you that may seem perverse, which is as I read the book, I felt it was haunted by the past. Everybody says JG Ballard's a predictive writer, but actually: Lenin on the way to Finland Station, the Maginot Line, Frida Kahlo, the Futurists, the Berlin Wall, concentration camps, The Third Man, and Central Europe. It's all there, does that sense of my reading of the book make any sense to you?
JG Ballard: Some people have suggested that all my fiction is based on the experiences I had in my Japanese internment camp during the war. And I think that was something very, very important for me. It was the first time I saw adults under severe stress and that's an education it's an education incidentally that most middle-class and educated people never have, because they're protected from exactly that, I mean, if you've come from a poor background you probably have seen your parents under stress, and it's a very valuable experience, but it's also quite a disturbing experience.
PD: Because that's what Millennium People is at least partly interested in which is a middle-class under stress, in this kind of Americanised world that's been invented for them, the Chelsea Marina. Did the book begin with an image, with a character, with the beginning of the story that we've heard? How did Millennium People begin?
JGB: Ten or 15 years ago I went to Chelsea Harbour, which is a much more upmarket, purpose-built enclave of luxury flats and townhouses, and looking around it I remember thinking this is a stage set. The whole thing was engineered on the drawing board, including, I suspect, a sort of psychology of the place and if it's a stage set the fact remains that the scenery could be moved at a moment's notice. Looking around one can imagine something going wrong here. And it lingered with me for quite a few years and then I thought: if you took a more, slightly more, downmarket version and imagined a hard-pressed, salaried middle-class, struggling to make ends meet, one could see this whole enclave implode. The social pressures, the psychological pressures of maintaining the middle-class way of life would be too great, the natives might realise that far from being a privileged stratum of society, that they actually are as some of them believe in the novel the new proletariat. Just as the middle-classes are supposed to have lead the French Revolution so it's possible, just that this English middle-class might say, we've had enough.
PD: I want to read you, if I may, the end of the book, the last sentence. I think is a beautiful sentence, quite remarkable. And one of the figures it may be the major figure in it is the narrator, David Markham. And he is one of those figures who often features in your books, the kind of member of the caring analytic professions he's an Adlerian psychologist and Markham says: "But I was thinking of another time, a brief time [sic] when Chelsea Marina was a place of real promise, when a young paediatrician (that's Gould) persuaded the residents to create a unique republic, a city without street signs, laws without penalties, events without significance, a sun without shadows." It's that dream of absolutism, isn't it, that's so compelling for your rational characters?
JGB: Yes I think that's true. I mean, Gould is on a quest simply to make sense of the world around him. I mean he's a paediatrician and he's looking after these severely brain-damaged infants, some of whom have made only the briefest visit to life. He sees them as a sort of model of the world at large. The world itself is deeply crippled, human beings show a sort of failure to grasp their real situation. And they amuse themselves with a trivial entertainment culture; they fly off on pointless holidays not realising that there's this vast void around them. He's determined, if he can, to fill that void in some way, to make sense of it. And he's decided that a revolution of the middle-class that he launched at Chelsea Marina is really rather trivial and childish. It's going nowhere. There's a much larger revolution needed, and he thinks that the only way you can pay a meaningless universe back in its own coin is by performing meaningless acts.
PD: We want to play you a small piece from William Burroughs, whom I know you knew, and who wrote the preface to that really quite extraordinary book of yours, The Atrocity Exhibition, in 1970. And he's meditating on revolution and its implications.
William Burroughs reads: The creaky, antiquated social structures we have now simply cannot support this escalating rate of change. The artist as part of the whole social structure would also be involved in its collapse; the artist is going to be the first to go. Say if Wallace gets in in the States, the army takes over. I mean, he said he was going to take care of hippies, anarchists and guideline writers. So I think just for their own personal survival, writers must take a very definite stand with the liberal left. I think it's time the revolutionaries got their revolution out of the 19th century.
PD: Well of course that was William Burroughs referring for those of us not as old as me to George Wallace, the racist politician. How do you feel listening to that old, ghostly voice again?
JGB: Well, needless to say, I'm a huge admirer of Burroughs and always have been. For me he's still very much alive, whenever I dip into The Naked Lunch, I can hear his strange voice. And he was I first met him in the early 1960s, and met him, at intervals, over the next 30 years he was the most important writer in the English language, I think, to appear since the Second World War. He didn't seem to be really aware of the, sort of, compliments I paid him, because he was completely locked into a really, rather paranoid world. I mean he, he believed that there was this huge conspiracy, in which the CIA were collaborating with Time magazine to pervert the very language that the rest of us used in everyday speech; because once they've got their hands on the language they could then deform the way we thought. And I remember him saying something about: there's this laundry van down in the street this was behind Hatchard's you know, they've got agents in there keeping an eye on me. I thought: is this a joke? Because he had a bizarre sense of humour, but I think he seriously thought that.
PD: Is he a kind of Gould-like figure to you?
JGB: He was a genuine original, but he was a very American figure, in the way that Bournemouth Colonels are very English. This wide-ranging mind, full of extraordinary, arcane knowledge about the best way to kill somebody by stabbing them in the stomach. And sort of paranoid delusions about Time Incorporated strange gravelly humour. He was a complete original but difficult to get to know if you weren't (a) homosexual, which I wasn't, and (b) a drug user, which again I wasn't.
PD: And he was a man drawn towards extremes wasn't he? There's a lovely sentence very near the end of Millennium People, which speaks of Gould as a man who carried out atrocious crimes you love that word, atrocious who carried out atrocious crimes in their attempts to resanctify the world. And of course the person who came to my mind there was Jean Genet and Burroughs and Genet they must have been uncles if not father-figures to you, in the 60s.
JGB: They confirmed my own take on the world and the approach of my fiction, there's no doubt about that.
PD: One of the things about you that I've been thinking about is you're wonderfully difficult to place in the literary tradition which is part of what makes you really interesting. You've found it as interesting to talk to visual artists as you did to writers?
JGB: More so, of course, much more so. When I started meeting English mainstream writers because I'd met a good number of science fiction writers in the very early 60s when I started meeting literary writers at publisher's parties it took me five minutes to realise that likeable though they might be, and not many of them were likeable, I have to report (I hope things have changed) I had nothing in common with them. They weren't interested in the world really, in the world of change. If you said in the late 60s to a writer, you know, the psychology of the British landscape is really being changed by all these new motorways, and supermarkets, and multi-storey car parks they would have thought you were mad!
PD: We want, if we may, now to play a passage by Claire Walsh, a very long-term friend of yours, who's got some interesting things to say about you and the visual arts.
Claire Walsh reads: He's was always very interested in the visual arts and he did things that, now you take for granted almost in, I suppose fields of conceptual art but was completely unknown then. I mean, for instance, he took out advertisements in literary magazines, and he tried to put an advertisement in the Sunday Times. But this was long before Dan Graham did it. They advertised Princess Margaret's armpit, an angle between two walls, me my face and all sorts of things, and they were absolutely abstract, quite extraordinary. And he wants painting that is still a mystery, and I think he feels, in fact, if he could have his time again he wouldn't be a writer I think he'd be a painter I really do, because that's what excites and interests him. He claims that he can't pick up a paintbrush, but it's there, and he has the painter's eye. It's such a shame he doesn't listen to music.
PD: That true you would prefer to be a painter?
JGB: Yes, I think, I've always thought that all my writing, over 40 years has been, sort of, substitute work of a disappointed painter. I wanted to be a painter when I was in my very early 20s, but I realised I just didn't have the facility. That it was a waste of time trying to that I could achieve what I want to achieve through the medium of words.
PD: The first novel you produced, I think one of the great books of the 60s, is The Drowned World, where of course there's a wonderful description of a Delvaux painting. When did you learn about surrealism?
JGB: I think when I was in school, I was interested in psychoanalysis, and a lot of works on psychoanalysis referred to the surrealists and I began to see illustrations of the surrealist painters who were regarded really as, odd fringe group who to some extent had anticipated the madness of the Nazi era, but also were tarred by the same brush to some extent. If you were interested in the dream you know, Freud's royal road to the unconscious the surrealists were a set of signposts to all sorts of strange places in the mind: Max Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Delvaux. I think before I left school in '49, you know, I had a well-stocked little gallery of postcards and clippings from newspapers they were very difficult to get hold of actually.
PD: Now, I mean, it's one of the things that's very hard since everything proliferates now to understand that immediate post-war period, when there was a dearth of material about.
JGB: Cheap colour printing hadn't really arrived on the scene. If you wanted to see the latest Dali, or Max Ernst, or Magritte, you were more likely to find it in the pages of the Daily Mirror, than you were in the pages of The Observer. I mean, in the Mirror it would be: 'look what these continental madman are doing now', but, you know, there they were, and I thought, my god, this is it. You've got to remember the English painters of the time were, you know John Piper and Graham Sutherland who didn't seem to explore the world.
PD: Burroughs uses an extraordinary phrase about Robert Rauschenberg which he relates to you in The Atrocity Exhibition preface where he speaks about exploding the image and of course Ernst is about... I mean, did that make sense to you when Burroughs wrote that phrase?
JGB: Yes, Burroughs almost, I mean, he wanted to destroy the world and then reassemble it. To some extent in a very different way I was trying to do the same sort of thing.
PD: We have the writer Iain Sinclair talking, precisely, about you and 'technical writing'.
Iain Sinclair reads: You used to see this term in advertisements, asking for 'technical writers' never knew quite what a 'technical writer' was. But, with the passage of time, I've come to see Ballard is the ultimate technical writer, his language reflects that medical training that both he and Burroughs had. Everything is used with extreme precision it's very cold it's slightly anonymous, and you only realise what it's doing when you've got in too deep to get out.
Recording of JGB reading from Crash: Around me the interior of the car glowed like a magician's bower, the light within the compartment becoming darker and brighter as I moved my eyes. The instrument dials irradiated my skin with their luminous needles and numerals. The carapace of the instrument binnacle, the inclined planes of the dashboard panel, the metal sills of the radio and ashtrays gleamed around me like altarpieces, their geometries reaching towards my body like the stylized embraces of some hyper-cerebral machine.
Iain Sinclair reads: Ballard's fiction is like a sort of Sadeian dialogue, the characters are abstractions and the names don't mean anything, he's interested in something that's got to be as clear, and as sharp, and as delineated as surreal painting as Paul Delvaux or something.
PD: Now you were a technical writer, or you were involved in a technical magazine, in a science magazine. Did that style, did it matter to you, as Iain Sinclair claimed? Did you learn from it?
JGB: Yes, I think I did. I worked on this journal, that was one of our chemical societies, for several years. And there's no doubt that the offices of a scientific magazine are a wonderful nexus of interesting information in the sciences, from all over the world and from every conceivable discipline, and I just ransacked the morning's mail, looking at all these brochures put by American pharmaceutical companies new psychoactive chemicals new this, new that. I mean this was an alternative language; I've often used the phrase 'invisible literatures', to describe the world of sales brochures, annual reports of psychiatric institutions, and so on and so forth. Which most writers never come across most readers never come across but which are enormously rich in all sorts of teasing and tempting possibilities. You feel you're getting close to the, kind of, unconscious mind of an era when you read this sales literature of a very exalted kind.
PD: You see this is why you may have been a great painter for all I know Jim, but I mean, you've just given yourself away because the excitement as you describe that, is the excitement of somebody in love with words. Let's for a moment forget what you say but from The Drowned World, where the style is extraordinarily rich and ornate, through to the kind of clarity and the coolness of this this is somebody with a deep passion for words, isn't it?
JGB: You might be right, I mean, you know, no doctor should make a diagnosis of himself. I've never thought I was particularly interested in words; I'm much more interested in what they describe. I think there's probably a lot of truth in what you say.
PD: What I mean is Ballard has a lot of styles. It's not as though he just does his thing and the ideas come out.
JGB: No, I mean if you look at a book like The Atrocity Exhibition, it's full of parodies of scientific papers and scientific theorising. Parodies, you know, that in a way, are as true as the original models. In some of those parodies, written in the mid-to late 60s, I describe scenes like: corpses being used in car crash tests, which seemed, sort of cruel and rather disgusting at the time offended people who read the piece and yet, you know, some years afterwards, I read that, car crash experimenters in America were indeed using corpses. You know, that, almost any fantasy you had about scientific investigators might well come true.
PD: If I'm right about your love of words, nevertheless it's a love of words different from what I might call the dominant paradigm of 20th century literature you know Walter Pater said: 'all art aspires to the condition of music' and Claire Walsh says: 'he's got no interest in music', so this is a love of words without a musical kind of analogue isn't it?
JGB: Yes, I think I'm more interested in the kind of ideas that certain kinds of narratives throw up. You know, the tape recordings of people with severe brain damage, the kind of very odd lingo that, say, arms manufacturers use in their sales brochures, and so on. These sort of perversions of language which they all are in their different way are interesting for what they reveal about, you know, the voices speaking.
PD: What was it Eliot said, he'd: 'do the police in different voices'. I want to play you something that is as near to a Proustian moment as, I think, as we can probably offer you.
[sound of Sputnik transmission]
JGB: Sputnik 1, I hope.
PD: It is indeed and do you remember where you were? My mother remembers where she was when she heard that sound.
JGB: Yes, I was in a flat, I lived in with my wife and children in St Margaret's near Twickenham. And I remember switching on the BBC news and hearing Sputnik 1, which was a sort of call-sign of a new future that had just been born it was an exhilarating moment it's still exhilarating.
PD: But it was an exhilaration that didn't pass directly into your books did it? By that I mean the first great novel, The Drowned World, didn't go for the white-hot heat of technology to use Harold Wilson's phrase. You were always very lateral when you thought about technology.
JGB: Well I was interested in the sort of, psychological underpinning of technology, because I've always seen technology as a kind of facilitator of all sorts of, hidden impulses. That's why I'm interested in cars, not because cars themselves are of any interest to me, I'm not interested in them, but, I mean, the car does serve as a facilitator for all sorts of human aggressions, fantasies of power, dreams unconscious dreams of one's own death. The car is a facilitator for a huge range of human hopes, fears and dreams.
And many other types of technology, for example, a modern hospital, particularly when you get into the sort of CT scans and, you know, complex x-ray departments. Again, you feel you're entering into a kind of psychological space, rather than a place where x-rays are poured through you. I'm interested in technology as a whole. You know, even something like a giant airport, or a business park, is interesting as a piece of technology that has facilitated all kinds of unexpected psychological impulses. That's what interests me.
PD: That may help to explain what David Pringle who's editor of Interzone, and an early admirer of your work why he thinks you, quite, sat oddly inside the science fiction establishment.
David Pringle reads: Let's not pigeonhole Ballard too much as a science fiction writer, because he is one, he certainly came out of that and he still is to some extent, some of the time. Ballard was actually in the 60s I'd say he was actually quite unpopular with a lot of science fiction readers so those of us, those science fiction readers like myself, who were young at the time, who latched on to Ballard, were, almost rebels, within the field, you know, in our taste. We felt we were being a bit rebellious by admiring him because the done thing was more to admire Asimov and Heinlein. He wasn't positive enough. He wasn't talking about our great future in space. He was talking about how the space age has ended already, he was saying that in the 60s, even before the moon landing, and in a sense subsequent history's borne him out, it does seem to have ended.
PD: It's a wonderful kind of summary, because I begin to think of you as a non-belonger, you don't quite fit anywhere. Did it make sense what Pringle said, did you feel you were accepted in the science fiction community?
JGB: No, when I first started writing science fiction, it didn't take very long. I think my first short story was published in an sf magazine in 1956, and it seemed to me at the time that it only took about six months before I became a hate object for most science-fiction readers who are really very traditional, and very conservative, in a paradoxical way. You'd expect science-fiction readers to be open-minded and, you know, interested in possibility, but most of them weren't. And they had charge, as it were, of this unique modern literature and they didn't want to see it changed. I, in my small way, threatened the eternal verities of Asimov on Heinlein and Astounding Science Fiction. When I first started sending short stories to British and particularly to American magazines I found it very difficult to have accepted short stories set in the present day. They were suspicious, these psychological yarns, drawing heavily on my reading of psychiatry, and the like they suspected there was something, you know, there was a hidden agenda that was being infiltrated into their sacred world.
PD: Did you feel isolated or were you, kind of, settled in your own world and you knew what you were going to do?
JGB: I didn't feel particularly isolated, I mean, I still think of myself as, you know, an exception to the rule, a bit of a maverick. I think I was as a child, the odd one out, you know, if there was someone in a group photograph who was looking the wrong way, it was always me. You know, I was always was out of step on a parade ground.
PD: Do you like that about yourself?
JGB: Not particularly, no, I think I've missed out a lot actually. I've missed, the kind of comradeship, that you know, you get when a group of people of like-mind are together, in a saloon-bar or wherever. I've missed that, but I have to make do with what I've got. Being isolated has allowed me to, sort of, push on following my hunches, following my obsessions, which I've always relied on like, sort of, stepping-stones that emerge from the mist.
PD: It's true that I can't understand the leap that happened and I have immense admiration for both books between The Drowned World, which is '62 and The Atrocity Exhibition, which is '69, did you have somebody urging you on in those shifts or really was it solitary?
JGB: I don't think, when I started writing the pieces that made up The Atrocity Exhibition, I don't think I had any particular models in mind. I think I was responding to the 60s as I perceived them, because they were an extraordinary time, from the media point of view. For the first time you had, you know, a media landscape dominated by television. Television utterly changed the national consciousness. For the first time one could see important political events, like the assassination of Kennedy, and then the murder of his assassin almost live on television. We saw the Vietnam War virtually live and I think the programme makers, particularly of documentaries, and the news programmes, had much more freedom then than they do now. People were shocked to see atrocities being carried out in the Congo and in Vietnam which would never be shown today.
And I think the way in which the mass media began to remake the world, and redefine it redefine what reality itself was that was what inspired me. I remember seeing opening a fashion magazine, and seeing a photograph of a fashion display of models parading somewhere, showing off the latest frocks, and the background this is in the mid to late 60s - the background was a huge blow-up of a Zapruder frame of the Kennedy assassination, which was used for its sort of, iconic value as a style statement. I thought, my god, a man died in that car, in the arms of his wife, with his brains spattered all over her Chanel suit. And here we have already, within the space of two or three years this has become no more than a style statement. I thought, what's going on, because layers of reality were beginning to penetrate each other and these very bizarre crossovers were taking place. And I wanted a fiction that in its small way could represent this new world where you could switch from a newsreel of Vietnam, to a lipstick commercial, to a documentary about neuropsychiatry. What were these rapid changes doing to the minds of the people watching, say, television or turning the pages of magazines?
PD: Did you let your kids watch television?
JGB: Yes I did. God I think I got a TV set as a sort of glorified babysitter actually!
PD: We've all used it in those kinds of ways. It reminds me as you describe the Zapruder, of course, that celebrity is something that you've been fascinated from and of course the new novel Millennium People there's no heart to it because I think it's novel structurally, deliberately, without a centre but one of the key moments in it is the killing of a minor TV celebrity seems to be, one way or another, based on Jill Dando when did that idea of celebrity first come to you? Do you remember? I mean it's there centrally in The Atrocity Exhibition from Reagan, and Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor. Was it very early in the 60s?
JGB: Yes it was, I think it was evident with Kennedy's election in fact. Because Kennedy president Kennedy was, to some extent, a creation of the mass media and, in a sad way, sort of fitting that he should, sort of, die on television and that his death would be, you know, transmitted all over the world in TV images and newspaper images so that the death became a kind of sacrament in which the world's TV viewers became a sort of congregation. I mean, the Zapruder images of his assassination were almost icons of this slain god. I think from that moment on, I mean, television transformed the famous into celebrities in the modern sense of the term of being famous for being famous.
PD: You've shifted rather beautifully in what you've just said, between an anthropological term, speaking of Kennedy as a 'slain god', to a very specific location, which is the 1960s. And the figure (as I read Millennium People and I re-read The Drowned World) I think is your father if I might so describe him is Joseph Conrad? Because actually Millennium People is just as indebted in its way to that wonderful tension between Marlow and Kurtz between the rational man, who wants to believe in a good world and the god who well may be a damned devil. Does Conrad matter to you as much as I think he matters to you?
JGB: I admire him enormously and always have done, I mean, there's something about that, almost narcotic prose, those great rhythms that flow like a tide, and his higher romanticism, and the sense, of course, of dark forces below the surface exerting a tremendous pull, so that the world of reason of some late, high Edwardian world of reason is constantly being threatened by this sort of madness just below the surface. You know, it got me straight away.
PD: Do you remember when you first read Conrad?
JGB: Not as a child no, but probably as a schoolboy. I mean, I read him thinking that he was a writer of adventure stories; because I think he was rather regarded in that way then, in the 1950s. But I admired him right from the word go.
PD: Because, you know, Conrad was very different from you, he was Polish, but he belonged, and didn't belong, and given your history this perverse determination of yours, which everyone comments on to live in Shepperton. This sense of belonging and not belonging is one of the things that ties you to him, you know, you're English, and yet you look at it from the outside.
JGB: I think that's inevitable, if you come to a country for the first time when you're 15 or so, I mean the brain is hardwired by then. Shanghai, where I was born and brought up, was at a lower latitude and the angle of the sun has always seemed too shallow here, everything seems rather grey. More so socially speaking… British society, even today, is enormously inbred, its class system is still very strong. I was brought up in a polyglot city with about 30 nationalities, hundreds of radio stations in all the languages of the world, and the British there all belonged to the same sort of class. I mean, when I came to England for the first time in ’46 I discovered that there was this huge sector of the population called the working-class, whom I never realised existed because I’d been brought up on not just American comics but Chums Annuals and Boys Own Papers, Just William stories and AA Milne, Christopher Robin. I visualised a world that was completely middle-class, though I didn’t think of it in those terms. Then I discovered this vast, submerged nation, and I realised also that not only did Britain have this very strong class system but that the class system here was used as an instrument of political control, it was designed to keep the lower classes which now include the middle-classes, as I try to point out in Millennium People to keep them in their place. All this was so strange that I never became used to it, and it was always part of the engine of my imagination.
PD: I’m sure you’re right that you need not to become used to it as well to keep writing the things. But of course, for good and bad, we’re now used to you in a certain kind of way, in other words you cannot but open a newspaper that speaks of Ballard as our greatest living writer which I think is always a curse as well as a compliment in these terms and Iain Sinclair, who I think probably is amongst your greatest admirers has interesting some reflections on, as it were, the fate of becoming acceptable.
Iain Sinclair reads: I think most culture now can handle Crash because it’s a long time back, it’s mid-‘70s, and after that he goes on a stage further, and starts to produce these beautifully hand-tooled, best-selling novels like smoothed-out or heritaged versions of what he was writing about earlier. They’re still subversive in their own way, but the liberal consensus can now approve of them where once they hated them, and they are a kind of existentialism-light, they’re like Agatha Christie or something written in a marine landscape and gone feral and dirty and awkward underneath. Everything he’s proposed for the suburbs has come to pass London is a suburb of Heathrow, rather than Heathrow of London. All of that is there, what can he do? He’s written himself into a complete corner, and the language is so cool and discreet and mannered that people haven’t really noticed how strange it is and it is strange and I think probably now he’s come pretty close to the end of the line.
JGB (laughing): Thank you, Iain Sinclair.
PD: Yes, that’s the obituary! I think the interesting bit about that is what does a writer do like you, for whom it is possible to read your books from 20 or 30 years ago, to go back to The Drowned World and to see the Triassic period mentioned and to think ‘Hey, this feels more contemporary now than it would have done than if I’d have been able to read it in 1962’, and Iain’s not wrong to think that London is some curious suburb of Heathrow as much as the other way round. So the big question is what does a writer do like you where the future that you predicted seems to have come to pass?
JGB: What a challenge! Well, firstly, I’m nearly 73 years old, so whether I go on writing in the future really isn’t in my hands anymore. I still find that everything seems as strange and unusual as it ever did. It may be that to some extent events have overtaken me, but I think my repertory of obsessions and dreams that have sustained me all these years is still working away inside my head. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I’ve never found it hard work - though obviously the mental effort of carrying around a novel for a year-and-a-half or two years, this entire universe of characters and incidents…
PD: Is that what time it took you to write Millennium People a couple of years?
PD: You write on an electric typewriter, which I have to say is an act of sheer perversity, isn’t it?
JGB: No, I write in longhand…
PD: Ah… even more perverse!
JGB: Yes I know, but the editing functions of longhand are remarkably efficient! It’s what I’ve always done. I’ve tried composing on a PC, but I don’t like the sense that the screen is watching me. Also, there’s no doubt that PCs and their editing functions do encourage sloppy habits; as a book reviewer, I could tell. When people started using PCs about 10 to 15 years ago, the first books that were written on PCs started to emerge, you could see that there was this wonderfully clear and crisp line-by-line construction, but the overall chapter-by-chapter construction was often haywire. Most books became much too long, particularly from America.
PD: Did you write Millennium People from beginning to end, or was the end at the very beginning of it?
JGB: I wrote it from beginning to end.
PD: And is that mostly how your books…
JGB: Oh, all of them, yes.
PD: So this wonderful last sentence…
JGB: What’s the last sentence?
PD: ‘City without street signs…’ It is the last sentence…
PD: And the book’s not going towards it, from the beginning?
JGB: No, it didn’t occur to me until I came to within four lines of the end.
PD: And what’s the next one?
JGB: I’m thinking about a number of ideas, and one of them will suddenly sit up and grab me by the throat and then I’ll start on it. I’ve got plenty of time, after all.
PD: JG Ballard, thank you very much indeed.