If there were any sense of cultural justice in this country, the Westway – that chunk of concrete modernism – would be renamed after J.G. Ballard. These last days have been very Ballardian, a world teetering on the brink of crash and catastrophe; running on empty; driving as projection, as simultaneous flight from the past and voyage into a dark unknown, with all the familiar perspectives of ‘speed, purpose and direction’. Cars full of disembodied voices: bad news, disappearances, falling markets, statistics of recession, global crash, crisis, bad weather and financial storms, experts upbraided, a world in denial.
I have been drafting a project in which, after Ballard, a man always drives, is never at home or in an office. He haunts the Westway, that three-mile elevated expressway singled out by Ballard as a rare example of the modern city that London never became: a ‘motion-sculpture’ and ‘a stone dream’ at whose far end Ballard set his Crusoe-like story ‘Concrete Island’ (1973), which began, ‘Six hundred yards from the junction with the newly built spur of the M4 motorway, when the Jaguar had already passed the 70 mph speed limit, a blow-out collapsed the front near-side tyre. The exploding air reflected from the concrete parapet seemed to detonate inside Robert Maitland’s skull.’
Two true stories I heard recently strike me as very Ballardian. In the first a woman who does a lot of driving, on her own and chauffeuring her unlicensed husband, finds when driving alone she slips into fugue states, which lead her to lose all sense of direction. When she comes to it is in an unfamiliar landscape, miles from home. The second story featured a man whose description of his wife and three children bears no correspondence to his real family because he has given them completely false biographies.
Overlooked now by its new skyline, the Westway feels much slower and smaller than it did when Ballard wrote ‘Concrete Island’. No longer a grand folly – a flyover that went nowhere – its status has been reduced to that of service road for Europe’s largest (ailing) shopping mall. In London Orbital, a film Iain Sinclair and I made, Ballard declared that the future will be boring. Malls are boredom’s cathedrals. Boredom underpins consumerism. It defines leisure (and desire), which collapses into shopping. Boredom invites terror (as its only cure).
That said, Ballard, man and writer, was exempt from the vicissitudes of boredom. Conventionally described as a dystopian, he always struck me as more interesting than that, a combination of amoral diagnostician, terminal patient and an optimist in love with the modern world. No one has written with more loving care about twentieth century technology and design, or the anatomy of celebrity.
For Ballard, the key image of the last century was that of a man driving alone down a superhighway. He transcribed the images that unspooled in his head with an intense reverence and literalness, with no hint of po-mo irony, the last modernist. Ballard’s supercity would come to be realized in the Canary Wharf development. Earlier, in Crash (1973), he re-imagined a dreary part of North London (now the site of the Emirates Stadium) into a totally new development, with an airport, modern housing units, landscaped filling stations and supermarkets, ‘shielded from the distant bulk of London by an access spur of the northern circular motorway which flowed past on its elegant concrete pillars’.
Ballard as a writer was the master of the cinematic drive-by, his terrain that vast suburb of Dusseldorf which Europe has become, with its ubiquitous BMW/Merecedes/VW concessions, a world of radial tyres, cross-cut cityscapes of restless motion, buildings in passing (Bicknell and Hamilton’s fabulous Monsoon building, hard against the Westway). A city built for speed is built for modernity, Corbusier said, and the power of Ballard’s imagination lay in the extent to which he was capable, through a combination of Surrealism and psychosexual pathology, of transforming a London which Borges had called a ‘tattered labyrinth’ into a neo-futuristic landscape. A book with the aptest title by Paul Virilio called City of Panic shows Ballard’s prophesies coming to pass: city as new catastrophe zone (Beirut, Baghdad, New Orleans, Los Angeles, the Rio favelas), conditioned by a need for terror and retribution. Symptomatic of this is the epidemic of siege psychosis which has broken out among the ultra security-conscious loft society and residents of gated communities.
Computerless Ballard, the least technological of men, read humans as intermediaries for technology, saw the car as more than just a vehicle, as a pod for living and receptacle for extreme sexual fantasies. The supermodernity of which he wrote was defined by non-place, transit and passage, those peripheral states catalogued in Marc Auge’s book Non-Places (‘On his way to his car Pierre Dupont stopped at the cash dispenser to draw some money’). Ballard’s radical contention is that these new spaces define us rather than the other way round, as summarized by an exemplary sentence in Crash (with its poetic licence of supermarket turnstiles): ‘I realized that the human inhabitants of this technological landscape no longer provided its sharpest pointers, its keys to the borderzones of identity. The amiable saunter of Frances Waring, bored wife of my partner, through the turnstiles of the local supermarkets, the domestic wrangles of our well-to-do neighbours in our apartment house, all the hopes and fancies of this placid suburban enclave, drenched in a thousand infidelities, faltered before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and un-swerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons.’
The room where he worked was dominated by a large copy of a Delvaux painting that was destroyed in the war, but it was another Belgian Surrealist he always reminded me of: Magritte, and in particular that painting of the man looking at the back of his head in the mirror.
And now what, in the post-Ballard era: eavesdropped conversations through thin motel walls, the audio equivalent to voyeurism? States of entropy and built-in redundancy, abandoned narrative, superfluous protagonists, coagulated consumerism, the last gasp of the petrol age and futility of movement, a speeding car with no one at the wheel.
Photograph by Eye2theSky