Flicking through the Ballard entry on Wikipedia just now, and I was interested to see that they describe him as a dystopian writer. On the surface, a not unreasonable judgement, but for me there’s something a little more complex going on there.
Ballard’s always explored – in a very engaged and fertile way – the destructive forces that make us who we are; our reckless engagements with technology, our roots in profoundly irrational drives that consistently overwhelm and make obsolete our more considered selves.
For Ballard, rationality is a convenient fiction, easily discarded. We love destruction, chaos, mayhem; otherwise we wouldn’t produce so much of them. Ultimately, our most creative response to partial, rationally driven structures – like, for example, classic utopias – can only be to break them. Being human means that dystopia IS utopia.
Good grief, what happened yesterday? Everything seems so much more relaxed today. Very strange. Anyway, a thought to help get things back to normal from J. G. Ballard, who reminds us that:
‘Most people do not even grasp the fact that they need information to keep their imagination up to par.’
A need for jumping off points – the more, the better. And of course the starting point determines the destination. It’s not so much look before you leap, as leap from many places at once.
Went to a reading Ballard did a couple of years back, btb – he comes across as an immensely clubbable, affable fellow, and you listen to him for a couple of minutes, and suddenly realise just how sharp and subversive a mind he has. I imagined an alien scalpel of uncertain origin and purpose, potentially lethal if mishandled, cunningly disguised as a double gin and tonic on a Surrey golf club bar.
‘A person’s obsessions are as close to reality as you can get.’
Words to live by.
Broken city. Shattered buildings, where they had climbed out of the ground, gnawing away at the dense certainties that held them down. I saw so much rubble, so much death – vivid and prowling through the streets, faces carved from chalk, flesh harder and so much more ragged than the bones that support it.
I thought of Erkenwald, summoning the dead to speak, and then dismissing them. These memories of men cannot be so easily laid. The graveyards from the Victorian stews emptied, the plague pits gave up their dead. Churchyards erupted. Bone warriors climbed out of long flattened tumuli, leading skeleton horses behind them. I saw a legion form up by Trafalgar Square, tarnished armour rattling against hollow, dessicated chests.
There is no more history, only now. The past has broken into our world and insisted that we acknowledge it. We are all immigrants in time, losing ourselves as the years pass. I thought I saw the shadows of old buildings staggering up, where the new ones had been shattered. I flew through it all. Ghost lights flickered in Cremorne Gardens as broken dandies danced with their dead ladies. A man fled through Victoria Station, he looked like Chris. The suburbs heave with the children of the necropoli.
Now I will go out into the city again. I have lost thirty five years to yesterdays, I hold a single precious second in the present, and as this broken city I have no future. Like these revenants I shall walk these ageless streets, and reclaim all the lost time that should be mine, and live in it forever.
Every so often there are low, rumbling thuds outside, muttering like thunder. I’m keeping away from the windows. I thought about taking the tube, but when the web was still up it said that no lines were running. There are all those urban legends about stations built through the old plague pits. So many tunnels must pass under churches and graveyards.
I can reach my bike without being seen from the street. Then I’ll go as fast as I can. Chris is coming with me, I hope he can keep up.
It’s worse now that there are no sirens. I thought I heard gunfire earlier, and screaming. Some colleagues went out, and didn’t come back.
There’s nothing at all now.
For some reason I can’t get the ‘unreal city’ sequence at the end of the first section of ‘The Wasteland’ out of my head. Must be the heat. The humidity clings. I’m beginning to feel trapped.
‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?’
Chris says his friend Hal up north has gone quiet, which is very unlike him. News of more ruined buildings in the City. The BBC news website is speculating about earthquakes. It took far longer than normal to load.
I can see the street outside from my window, looking down into the dead building opposite. Funny that I hadn’t noticed all the building works before yesterday. The builders don’t seem to be very active. Some of them are climbing around in the cellar, while the rest seem to be just standing around.
Apparently the rioters at Brookwood are illegal immigrants. Nobody can understand what they’re saying. They just appeared from nowhere. They’ve been contained, it says.
Chris tells me that another building’s collapsed, this time in Aldgate. The builders over there clearly more enthusiastic than the people over the road! They must be really badly paid. Most of them are dressed in rags. The ones without shirts look really skinny.
The building has been almost completely stripped out. Support struts gleam bone white in the sun.
Reading about a disturbance at Brookwood on the news. Then, I went to get lunch. The building over the road has been completely gutted, ready for development. Dead buildings rise again very quickly; in a couple of months it’ll be something completely new. People are more difficult to bring back.
But then again, London is built on dead architecture – layers of the stuff, running all the way back to the Romans and beyond. There’s a layer of ash half an inch deep that Boudicca left behind, when the city first burned; the remains of a temple to Mithras half exposed at Temple Court; street names in Fulham referencing a spring where Belenos was worshipped, 2,500 years ago.
Roman London, Celtic London, Medieval London; all buried, unreclaimable. Maybe it’s the redeveloped buildings that are anomalous, awkwardly reborn where all the rest have fallen away?
Glad I’m cycling home tonight, it’s a hot, sticky day. Just saw Chris Billett, he’s getting even twitchier about his sirens.
Returning to Gerard de Nerval briefly. I was obsessed by him while I was writing my book, and I think he’s someone that – if you’re fascinated by the fantastic – is well worth checking out.
His work covers a very broad range, from vividly evocative reportage of nineteenth century Paris to (quite genuinely) unhinged visions and fantasies, drawn directly from his experiences of mental illness. He was a travel writer, combining the utterly unreliable with the completely truthful into a bonkers, frequently plagiarised, but always wildly entertaining whole. His short stories are fascinating – simultaneously very directly autobiographical and very self consciously fictionalised, as all our memories can be.
It’s that combination of the directly experienced, the (more or less deliberately) misperceived and the entirely fantasised that I love about him. He was very aware of the ways we use fictions to create acceptable versions of the self. He realised that, if you want to be a Realist, you have to engage with fantasy; because fantasy is a part of every one of our worldviews.
And quite apart from that, he’s a great person to spend time with. What’s not to like about someone who gets all the way to Cairo and then bitches about how the real thing isn’t up to much compared to the version you get at the Paris Opera? Or who, visiting Switzerland, can’t be bothered to go and check out Mont Blanc so admires its shape in a passing mountain-like cloud instead? And then wanders off into reveries combining Masonic rituals with the Great Pyramid at Giza, topped and tailed with evocations of Egyptian street life so vividly observed that you’ll need a passport just to read them…
I saw two or three unmarked police cars hurtling through the city last night, then again this morning – each the same shade of dense blue, temporary police lights clamped to the roof. They move with all the unreadable determination of a dream, forcing its way into the traffic of the mind and then as quickly disappearing…
Interesting looking Radio 3 documentary on H.P. Lovecraft here. Can be listened to until the 17th June, includes comments from Neil Gaiman, ST Joshi, Kelly Link, Peter Straub and China Mieville.