Millennium People, p.1J. G. Ballard
J. G. BALLARD
Introduction by Iain Sinclair
1. The Rebellion at Chelsea Marina
2. The Heathrow Bomb
3. ‘Why Me?’
4. The Last Rival
5. Confrontation at Olympia
7. Odd Man Out
8. The Sleepwalkers
9. The Upholstered Apocalypse
10. Appointment with a Revolution
11. The Heart of Darkness
12. The Video Store
13. A Neuroscientist Looks at God
14. From Guildford to Terminal 2
15. The Depot of Dreams
16. The Children’s Sanctuary
17. Absolute Zero
18. Black Millennium
19. The Siege of Broadcasting House
20. White Space
21. The Kindness of Light
22. A Visit to the Bunker
23. The Last Stranger
24. The Defence of Grosvenor Place
25. A Celebrity Murder
26. A Wife’s Concern
27. The Bonfire of the Volvos
28. Vital Clues
29. The Long-term Car Park
30. Amateurs and Revolutions
31. The Sentimental Terrorist
32. A Decline in Property Values
33. Giving Himself to the Sun
34. A Task Completed
35. A Sun Without Shadows
By the same author
About the Author
Interview with J. G. Ballard
About the Publisher
The classic Ballard equation, smoothed to essence by repetition, does not lose the ability to shock. A signature effect transmitted through elegant statements of the obvious. Originality is where we least expect to find it, in plain sight, in folds of the map lifted straight from estate agents’ brochures and partial reports on morning radio. Of the great twentieth-century nihilists, Ballard has much more to say about William Burroughs, as mentor and shadow twin, than Samuel Beckett. But all three writers, in their different guises, are initiates of the abyss, the black hole at the edge of millennial consciousness. They stared at it and it stared right back. In his 1931 essay on Proust, Beckett explains how it is necessary ‘to examine in the first place that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation – Time.’ The ability to travel without obvious strain, instantaneously, both ways in time, is a measure of the contemporary master.
When commentators assumed, after the public triumph of Empire of the Sun (1984), that the Ballardian code was cracked, that the drained swimming pools, perimeter fences around airfields, barbarities occurring among dreaming villas with immaculate lawns, were now explained, the author smiled. Details in the final autobiography, Miracles of Life (2008), revised the picture again. Now his family were with young Jimmy in the Shanghai internment camp. Now there was a sister to be stared at through the eyehole of a large plywood screen placed at the centre of the dining table. ‘A miniature hatch cover that I would flick into place when she noticed my staring eye.’ Cruelty. Humour. Like the sliced eye metaphor, cloud across moon, in Un Chien Andalou, the film-poem by Buñuel and Dali; but somehow domesticated by the perverse genius of Ballard.
The hieratic rituals of middle-class life in pre-war Shanghai were more Surrey than Surrey. As a boy, Ballard enjoyed the unreal privileges of ex-pat existence in an enclave within an enclave, a trading port with architectural elements of Liverpool and décor by Joseph von Sternberg. The future novelist was gifted with outsider status. He became a recording eye, noticing everything, feeling nothing. He was driven to the cinema with Vera, his white Russian nanny: ‘the honour guard of fifty Chinese hunchbacks outside the film premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame sticks in my mind.’ Progress through the crowded streets was a complex sequence of images fixed in a living present, but accessible for future routines.
The academic Philip Tew has positioned Millennium People (2003) as the central panel of a ‘postmillennial’ triptych of interrelated novels; a panel book-ended by Super-Cannes (2000) and Kingdom Come (2006). Locations shift but the moves are established: David Markham, an ordinary sensual man, suffering from loss, anomie, in a drifting second marriage, is drawn into the subversive, potentially lethal games of a messianic psychopath, a rogue scientist. Richard Gould is a sweat-drenched driver in leather flying jacket or slept-in suit, a haunter of airport slip roads and long-stay car parks. ‘The areas peripheral to great airports,’ Ballard told me, when I interviewed him in 1998, ‘are identical all over the world … two-storey factories, flat housing, warehouses.’
Super-Cannes reflects Ballard’s material rise in the world, the career shift that followed the huge success of Empire of the Sun. Holidays, as with all true writers, were research trips with room service. A rented top-of-the-range Mercedes for the run to Matisse’s chapel or Picasso’s ceramic workshop. Science parks colonising the Midi, serviced by efficient airports and a high-speed train service, replace the jazz-era playgrounds of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and the Murphys. Ballard’s forensic eye sharpens in the clear light; prose Polaroids register a new topography: sunset haze violated by sudden violence. ‘Prostitutes came out at dusk, usherettes in the theatre of the night.’
Reflex tourism, by way of shopping mall and duty-free airport, is one of the prime targets of Ballard’s savage comedy, Millennium People. Some voices in the critical reception at publication were uncomfortable with the Shepperton author’s return to London as a set – his prescient satire on gated communities, the terminal uniformity of television, the unblushing mendacity of politicians, the sinister psychopathology of police and Secret State. Ballard, they felt, was not entirely to be trusted as a critic of St John’s Wood, the National Film Theatre, Tate Modern, the London Eye. They were quite wrong. As Millennium People demonstrates Ballard is the London eye. Undeceived. Unblinking. Witness to a city in the process of losing its soul. The distinction between drowsy riparian settlements of the Thames Valley and the fictional Chelsea Marina (neither in Chelsea, nor a marina), was meaningless. Ballard imported suburban anxieties into a capital traumatised between the anti-metropolitan stance of Margaret Thatcher and the bogus piety of Tony Blair and New Labour.
A half-crazed biker-vicar, addicted to the afterflush of whippings he has endured, is a significant presence among the incendiarists and doorstep assassins of SW3. Fundamentalism of every stamp, including the fundamental decencies of the old Surrey stockbroker belt (now given over to Russian oligarchs and Premier League footballers), is suspect. Bourgeois marriage is a lie. Property is debt. ‘The major problem for contemporary civilisation,’ Ballard said, ‘is finding somewhere to park.’ So firebomb a travel agency. Burn down a video-rental store. Leave a fissile art book on the open shelves of the Tate Modern shop, its true hub. ‘A vicious boredom ruled the world, for the first time in human history, interrupted by meaningless acts of violence.’
One aspect of Ballard’s years of apparent exile in Shepperton – actually a strategic retreat to cut out inessentials and facilitate a monkish production of texts – was his virtuosity with the telephone. He kept clear of personal computers, leaving all that to his partner, Claire Walsh. He wrote in longhand. But he facilitated, or invented, a tool against boredom: the interview, often transatlantic, as art form. Afternoons in the modest camouflage of Old Charlton Road are passed in dialogue with some remote and unseen interrogator. Ballard riffs, seamlessly, rehearsing possible novels; provocative takes on US politics, Vietnam, Iraq, oil, pornography.
Ballard the moralist became more radical as he got older, as Michael Moorcock, his New Worlds colleague from the sixties, noticed. The novels, smoother on the surface, were now close to genre fiction. This lightly-worn disguise – page-turning economy in the spirit of Simenon, with backdrops from the Cluedo England of Agatha Christie – proved lethal. As lethal as The Atrocity Exhibition, with its fractured modernist surface. Perhaps more so. Ballard’s millennial bestsellers in their metallic silver jackets, looking like techno-thrillers by Len Deighton, lulled casual readers into fugues of complacency. A malign rewiring of liberal attitudes towards ecology, education and political correctness could be achieved without the anaesthetised patient noticing the first fatal cut.
Above all, as he frequently stated, Ballard remained a displaced painter, a fastidious image-maker, an elective surrealist. He was the prose Paul Delvaux, the English Buñuel: David Markham, the narrator of Millennium People, shares with the Spanish film-maker a visual addiction to the erotic potential of his wife’s psychosomatic disability, her use of walking canes as a weapon of power in the relationship. As he would share Buñuel’s fascinated delight in Catherine Deneuve’s callipers when he exposes them to our gaze in Tristana.
Cinema, infecting Ballard, from those memories of childhood expeditions in Shanghai, through afternoons avoiding his medical studies in Cambridge, becomes the defining aspect of his millennial London: a prompt for acts of urban terrorism. Like the motorcar, cinema was a twentieth-century phenomenon: its usefulness was over, the heroic period was done. In this novel, a sentimental attachment to past masters is registered as a badge of bourgeois self-satisfaction. A punishable confession of pernicious Guardian-grazing cultural orthodoxy.
‘I remembered the quirky young woman I had met at the National Film Theatre, and invited to a late-screening of Antonioni’s Passenger,’ Ballard writes. Seduced by the feral but lizardly sexuality of a film studies lecturer, with posters of Kurosawa samurai and the screaming woman from Battleship Potemkin on the walls of her unruly flat, Markham is soon a passenger of another kind, a participant in attacks on video shops. Part of the outer circle of the group responsible for a bomb left in the National Film Theatre.
Readers who had tracked Ballard’s work for years, and taken his published interviews at face value, trusted him as a guide to the airport margin, the terrain covered by those lists he delivered like a repeat Ocado order: science parks, retail parks, marinas, golf courses, executive housing, pharmaceutical research facilities, motorway junctions. The apotheosis of the M25 in the final Ballard novel, Kingdom Come (2006), produced a landscape that is also internal, as landscape so often is in Ballard. The Swiftian island of a super-mall is the setting for a mirthless comedy of messianic consumerism. Millennium People was more troubling because it played its fate game in a city that Ballard had always told us was devoid of interest, a wasteland. A suitable location for apocalyptic fantasy of the sort previously contrived by Richard Jefferies in After London (1885). Jefferies imagined his own drowned world, a poisonous swamp occupied by stunted inbreeds. Ballard, at the start of his career, concentrated on what would happen on the far side of ecological catastrophe: London frozen, burnt, returned to the Mesozoic era. He compared his Westway overpass with the ruined temples of Ankor Wat: ‘a stone dream that will never awake’.
‘I regard the city as a semi-extinct form,’ Ballard told me in an interview for a book on David Cronenberg’s film of Crash. ‘London is basically a nineteenth-century city. And the habits of mind appropriate to the nineteenth century, which survive into the novels set in London in the twentieth century, aren’t really appropriate to understanding what is going on today.’
Terror and prophecy. The interrogation of the freeze-frame assassination. Cubist scraps of torn newspaper. Silent television monitors in kebab houses. Documentary or drama? ‘The Jaguar pulled in beside us, and the nun stepped out … I noticed a bearded figure in a white raincoat outside the Accident and Emergency entrance. He was staring over the heads of the police and ambulance drivers, eyes fixed on the silent sky, as if expecting a long-awaited aircraft to fly over the hospital and break the spell. He carried a woman’s handbag.’
Perennial urban horror incubated, unseen, in a claustrophobic labyrinth. Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent (1907). The microclimate of Deptford captured by Paul Theroux in The Family Arsenal (1976). And now Ballard’s Millennium People. Writers, coming to terms with the unquantifiable mystery of London, discover an inclination towards nihilistic violence. Atrocity as energy. ‘If you think blowing up Nelson’s column is crazy why did you put the bomb in Euston?’ says one of Theroux’s characters. Ballard’s creative process respects Beckett’s vision of time as a ‘double-headed monster of damnation and salvation’, simultaneously addressing past and future. Reports of anarchist incidents, random killings in quiet Berkshire towns, bombs in department stores and railway terminals, shape the trajectory of literary fiction: fictions that, by some inexplicable magic, become mantic, prophesying – and making inevitable – future disasters.
Don DeLillo, a writer who would subsequently, in Falling Man (2007), compose a novel around the photograph of a figure plunging through the smoke of one of the burning towers, anticipated the confusion of the Sept. 11 attack, more than twenty years before the event, in Players (1977). A group of characters, sharp as off-cuts from Mad Men, take their drinks up to the roof. ‘It’s to give Pammy a look at the World Trade Center whenever she’s depressed,’ the host says. ‘It gets her going again.’ And then: ‘It’s collapsed right in on us. It’s ahead of schedule.’ And then: ‘That plane looks like it’s going to hit.’
This kind of hypnagogic foreshadowing of future headlines is one of Ballard’s great gifts. His nerve-shredding prose has journalists ringing him for quotes every time a car crash in an underpass or a detonated airliner seems to confirm a speculative thesis. The framing material of Millennium People is built from a close reading of recent outrages: the unsolved murder of the television presenter Jill Dando on her Fulham doorstep, the Hungerford killings by Michael Ryan, the massacre of sixteen children and one adult at Dunblane Primary School on 13 March 1996. Ballard’s Chelsea Marina cultists, disaffected middle-class professionals, repeat the Dando assassination like a television re-enactment. The rogue paediatrician, Richard Gould, heretical prophet of the group, makes regular pilgrimages to Hungerford.
The names Ballard gives his actors are always significant. The narrator of Crash, his most celebrated novel of dislocation and perversity in London’s motorway edgeland, is called James Ballard. He asked his girlfriend, Claire Walsh, if she’d like Catherine, the character played by Deborah Kara Unger in the Cronenberg film, to have her name. Claire thought not. But the fiercely independent film lecturer in Millennium People, Kay Churchill, carries Claire’s maiden name.
And what do we make of David Markham, a generic Ballard avatar and the mediating consciousness of Millennium People? Is the first name a gesture towards Cronenberg? And the Markham bit, perhaps, a nod to Ballard’s early supporter and Hampstead friend, Kingsley Amis? Amis, under the pseudonym ‘Robert Markham’, wrote the posthumous James Bond novel, Colonel Sun. The sun, presented on the Japanese flag seen on the cover of Empire of the Sun, has a symbolic role to play in Millennium People. There is a weird epiphany for Richard Gould, after the doorstep shooting of the Dando character in Fulham, when he lifts his arms and salutes the burning orb behind the leaves of the trees in Bishop’s Park.
‘The sirens sounded for many days,’ Ballard wrote, ‘a melancholy tocsin that became the aural signature of west London.’ Producing his novel, right on the hinge of the new millennium, he demonstrated, yet again, a gift for travelling both ways in time, teaching us how to read the runes and how to confront the best as well as the worst of ourselves.
The Rebellion at Chelsea Marina
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.
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