Jim had been in hospital over Christmas – the chemical refinery of the Hammersmith, which faces out over the veldt-in-urbe of Wormwood Scrubs – and the experience had nearly done for him.
‘They were suggesting he move to a single room at the end of the ward,’ said Claire, his girlfriend, ‘and you know what that means.’ Of course I did: ninety per cent of the spending on healthcare in any given English individual’s life takes place in their last six weeks. Up until then welfare provision may have been patchy, but a citizen’s final demise is invariably full-board and en suite – assuming, that is, express checkout.
Claire extracted Jim from the hospital and took him back to her flat in Shepherd’s Bush. I could picture the rhythms of this phase of their life together, the coming and going of the district nurse, the pitter–patter of tiny pills. When I spoke to Claire on the phone she remained simply delighted to have got him back from the clutches of hospital medicine – with its all too often pointless heroism – and restored to a domestic context. Ballard, the most outlandish of fictional imaginers, had always dug out his wellspring by the hearth, and remained the perfect exemplar of Magritte’s dictum: a bourgeois in his life, a revolutionary in his dreams.
Claire worked at her computer during the days, a baby alarm next to her mouse mat so she could hear if he needed anything; then, when it was time to go to bed she took it with her. ‘When I take it upstairs,’ she wrote to me, ‘it’s as if I’m carrying his breathing self in the little plastic machine. I hold it very carefully in my hand, like a precious living thing . . . (I haven’t told him).’ I found this quite unbearably affecting; indeed, I had become involved in all of this in a way I found both difficult to understand – and painfully obvious.
I had propped a copy of Jim’s memoir Miracles of Life up on the bookcase in the kitchen, so that each morning, on coming downstairs, I was met by the image of the child Ballard riding his tricycle in Shanghai. I felt myself opening out to the numinous in my communion with the dying writer, an intimation of alternative realities, including, perhaps, some in which we had been as close emotionally – and physically – as we had been imaginatively; for to pretend to an intimate relationship with Jim would’ve been presumptuous – we had met at most five or six times.
The first had been in 1994, when Ballard was publishing Rushing to Paradise, his warped eco-parable version of The Tempest, wherein Greenpeace activists and South Seas sybarites run amok on an atoll used for nuclear weapons testing. Like so many before me, I had made the pilgrimage to the Surrey dormitory town of Shepperton to interview its sage for a newspaper. All was as has been described in scores of articles: the neat little semi along the somnolent suburban street, the mutant yucca straining against the mullions of the front window, the Ford Granada humped in the driveway. Inside, the small rooms were dominated by the reproductions of lost Paul Delvaux nudes that Jim had commissioned himself. Other than this oddity the decor was an exercise in unconcern – and not a studied one.
‘Would you like a drink?’ he asked, vigorous in an open-necked white shirt. ‘I’ve got everything.’
I had had, of course, a fantasy of quaffing Scotch with Ballard – I knew of his legendary and unashamed consumption: the first tumbler poured in the morning when he returned from the school run, the leisurely topping-up throughout the writing day, two fingers per hour, clackety-clack, as he typed his way into inner space. However, like a lot of alcoholics, I couldn’t risk taking a drink in the afternoon, especially if I was working: the comedown was instant, I would have to have more – and more; no leisurely sousing but a sudden spirituous downpour, so I asked, ‘Can I have a cup of tea?’
Jim grimaced. ‘Too much trouble, boiling water and things . . .’ He gestured vaguely.
I settled for water. We sat down in the back sitting room, looking out through French windows to a sunlit garden. Jim chortled. ‘So, you’ve managed to extricate yourself from that cocaine-smuggling business, have you?’
He was referring to a recent bust I’d had for possessing hashish in the Orkney Islands, where I’d been living up until a couple of months previously – the case had recently been heard at the Sheriff Court in Kirkwall, and made a few column inches down south. I explained the situation, but he seemed utterly uninterested in the detail: possession/supply, hash/coke – it was, his manner suggested, all one to him. I found myself strangely bothered by how dégagé Ballard was, as if it should be his responsibility to either condemn or condone my actions. It was absurd: true, he was thirty-one years my senior, but I was a grown man. Besides, he wasn’t my father; or, at least, not biologically.
For that was the problem: as well as the abiding infantilism of my own malaise – the need to blame everyone else for my own derelictions, my ethical clumsiness and emotional incontinence – I also believed I was Ballard’s mind-child, that my hypertrophied creative impulse had burst from his domed forehead, slathering his remaining greyish hair with amniotic fluid. It’s a sensitive business, this one of literary patrimony – although I’d never had any anxiety about my influences. There were those writers whose work spoke to me; those whose mannerisms, tropes, accidents of style were – in Auden’s memorable acronym – GETS, ‘Good Enough to Steal’; and then there were a very select few who had carved out the conceptual space within which I sought to stake my own claim. Of these, Ballard was the pre-eminent.
The great wind from nowhere of October 1987: I awoke in a sepia dawn to a cacophony of tortured metal; through the slats of my venetian blind I could see that six-by-three-foot panels of corrugated iron were being torn from the scaffolding on the old LCC council block opposite. The blasts were strong enough to be holding some of them upright and pushing them along the road surface, striking sparks. Nature, kept away from the city by its mighty radiation – repelled by roofs, walls and fences – had broken through. Except that in this mundane urban context the wind – no matter how strong – could not possibly be from nowhere, only a little further north, say Camden Town.
I associate my Ballardian apprenticeship with this period, in my middle twenties, when, recently sprung from four months in rehab, I shared a flat on Barnsbury Road in Islington with an elfin would-be mime artist. We painted the floors red and listened to southern soul on an antiquated valve record player; occasionally my flatmate did a handspring – a manoeuvre he had used to evade the bulls in Pamplona.
I was nervy and racked by caffeine and nicotine – one morning I even overdosed on coffee, no mean achievement. I had a writerly girlfriend who was more advanced than me – she’d actually completed a novel, and in due course it was published. I found it difficult to get at her: after sweaty midnights, then throughout those cold dawns I struggled to prise apart her thin and resistant white limbs. I recall the feel of hand-me-down parental linen – and sinking into the trough of a broken-backed bed dragged back from the furniture warehouse on Liverpool Road. She turned away from my carefully crafted caresses and I saw peculiar spiral markings on her bare back and stubby neck.
Ringworm. We both had it – the vermiculation of our short-let accommodation had bored through the plaster and into our flesh.
For a vermifuge we read Crash, and savoured its opening lines: ‘Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. During our friendship he had rehearsed his death in many crashes, but this was his only true accident.’ This said it all: the intersection between the performative and the desperate; the gargantuan alienation of the modern machine/man matrix trumped by a studied act of self-violence. When we were out, driving in her Renault 5 van, she would grab hold of my arm, yanking the steering wheel. ‘Crash!’ she’d exhale in my ear. ‘Crash!’ I’d breathe back – and this was the best consummation we ever managed, except for one cold afternoon coupling in the back of the van.
We had driven out from London to the Isle of Grain in the Thames estuary. Since an epiphany experienced the previous summer on a sunlit street in Mayfair, I had spent more and more time cruising the periphery of London: how was it that I had never visited – nor even envisaged – the mouth of the river that ran through my natal city? And so I was drawn to those desolate places where redundant heavy industry was sinking into the mire between retail barns and business parks: Erith Marsh, Thamesmead, Tilbury – and eventually the Ultima Thule of Grain itself, where the cracked pavements were sutured with weeds and the rust-streaked pipelines of the oil refiner y snaked through the marsh grasses. The necrotic flesh of plastic bags flapped on barbed-wire fences, crows descended on the corpse of a muddy field; seagulls followed the plough, pylons engaged in a tug of war with high-tension cables, and the cloud piled up over Sheppey, black upon grey. In the dully humbling cul-de-sac of the last council estate in southern England a child’s bicycle lay unclaimed on an unmown verge; beyond the concrete baffler of the sea wall the Maunsell Towers Sea Forts strode towards the horizon, like Wells’s Martian tripods.
On these forays into the interzones I took photographs and made cryptic notes that no one – not even me – would ever read again. I felt myself to be engaged in some crucial project: the discovery of an essential reality that remained inviolate, incapable of being assimilated to the marketable portions of locale and territory into which the land was being divided. This was no village England or rural idyll, nor could it be incorporated into the smoothly functioning machinery of the conurbation, where built environment, transportation and humanity all played their part in the Taylorization of space.
On the muddy foreshore below the village of Grain there were cracked dragon’s teeth, and an old stone causeway, greasy-green with seaweed, that led out to Grain Tower, a Second World War gun emplacement. I piloted the Renault along the rough track beneath an embankment that protected the power station from the Medway. Freighters came drifting in on the tide, their superstructures as high and white and rectangular as blocks of flats. I stopped the van and – terribly aroused – made my slinky moves.
That brisk March day the sex was probably no great shakes – only the usual soft rasp and toothy snag; but the ridged metal of the van’s floor, the awkward positions we had to assume in order to fit – one into the other, both into the abbreviated compartment – these were thrillingly hard correlates of the interzone that lay beyond the Renault’s double doors: we were fucking the furnaces and cooling towers, the generators and coal hoppers. Our breathy spasms and cramped ejaculations reverberated against the chilled earth and the cold sky. On the way back to London we bought a cheese and pickle sandwich at a petrol station and as we shared it the yellow-white gratings dropped into our laps like the shredded skin of H-bomb victims. I had her stained underwear stuffed in the pocket of my jacket.
The relationship staggered on for another nine months; then, at the beginning of 1988, my mother arrived punctually at the terminal stages of cancer. Each day I went to her flat in Kentish Town to give her sublingual morphine sulphate and other, more cack-handed ministrations. Perhaps, facing this enormity, I was too needy – or maybe my girlfriend’s neediness was now insupportable; one or the other, it was no longer enough for her to yank my arm and implore me to ‘Crash!’ I was crashing. We had read Ballard together, there had been the sex on the Isle of Grain – and that was enough: The Atrocity Exhibition, Vermilion Sands, Hello America – books I had initially consumed in my early teens, when I used to guzzle up the quintuple-decker sandwiches of science fiction I carried back from East Finchley library (rubber-soled sneakers squeaking on the polished floors, the deferential hush now long since sacrificed to espresso machines and computer terminals; up on the wall an old photograph of Dame Henrietta Barnett herding sheep across the fields where Hampstead Garden Suburb now stood, but which had once been an Edwardian interzone).
Then, I had paid no particular attention to Ballard, regarding his works as of a piece with all the other dystopias I hung out in. Possibly I had noticed a certain harder edge, a smoother dovetailing between the commonplace and the fantastic; maybe the wanting seed had been planted. Whatever. But when I reread Ballard the seed germinated with nightmarish alacrity, sending shoots into every portion of my brain. I had been struggling – as every wannabe writer should – with what it was that I could conceivably write. My experience was both threadbare and mundane: the conveyor-belt smoothness of tarmac paths between green privet curtains; dysfunctional family neuroses as regularly patterned as Sanderson wallpaper; painful experimentation with drugs – teaching myself to shoot up, puncturing my skinny forearms with needles while outside the steel-framed windows pigeons coo-burbled. The human organism is an atrocity exhibition at which he is an unwilling spectator. All this, I knew, was nothing; my mind was a tabula rasa sullied with the smears of licked fingertips picking up granules of cocaine and amphetamine sulphate.
Before I’d gone into rehab I’d essayed a few things: a post-apocalyptic novella called The Caring Ones, in which the ton of diamorphine that was allegedly kept in the Mass Disaster Room in the Royal Free Hospital became the cynosure of all power struggles between the pain-ravaged survivors of the bomb. I still have the manuscript somewhere – but that says more about my obsessive need to accumulate paper than anything else, for it was crap. Utter crap.
There were also a handful of comic vignettes and reams of self-indulgent diarizing of the kind that no self-respecting crafter of fiction should ever permit. I had ideas, certainly, but no means of anchoring them with authenticity.
Ballard showed the way: the fiction of the twenty-first century, the fiction that would matter, was there on the Isle of Grain, there in the interzones, there in the psyches of all of us who appreciated the three-mile sinuous chicane of the Westway flyover, there in our numbed responses to those superfluities of space and time that, together with our own narcissistic subjectivity, constituted the very essence of what Marc Augé has termed ‘supermodernity’. That Ballard had got there first – and got there furthest – was only testimony to his genius. He was one of that small coterie of artists who, unafraid of the consequences, had been prepared to turn their minds over to the daemons of creation to make of them what they would. Acutely conscious that in the post-lapsarian world that followed the Holocaust and Hiroshima, no value would escape re-evaluation, Ballard had turned his back on the cosy sentimentalities of so-called naturalistic fiction, its immersion in the he-said, she-said, we-watched of interpersonality. No longer, he averred, could the novelist – like an origami deity – fix fate by folding the page.
Six years later, in Shepperton, I was a published writer – and what was far better, Ballard had read my stuff and approved. I switched on the tape recorder and we talked for a couple of hours, talked easily, ranging freely across the fictional terrain where our estates marched. There were anecdotes that Jim told, the matter of which was not unexpected: the genuine paranoia of William Burroughs, whom he had known fairly well in the 1970s; the continuing capacity of his cloistered life to confound visitors; the whisky . . . But overall it was a conversation about writing, and the worlds that writing actualized, and a conversation about the world, and the writings that it provoked.
The shadows crept across the pocket-handkerchief lawn; if, at the outset, I had been thinking of Jim as a putative parent, when it was time for me to go I was having difficulty not regarding him as a friend. I was heading back to town, to Soho, to meet up with Damien Hirst and his coterie (‘He’s really a novelist,’ Jim had said, ‘who writes very short books’). There would be a lot of drinking, a lot of cocaine, a headlong fall into a dark night of shebeens and spielers. Did he . . .? I ventured to Jim . . . ever go out much? Would it be possible for us to meet up again?
And here, perhaps, my memory lets me down, because what I think Ballard said in reply was one of the most pithily instructive lessons about life and literature that I’ve ever been handed. True, it was a little late for me to be learning this – but then, no one had ever offered to teach me before. No, he said, he didn’t go out much – and besides, there was probably too great a disparity in our ages for us to find much common social ground. Moreover, writers knowing one another in the flesh was almost entirely beside the point; the true communion existed in the texts, and we had that with each other already.
Having placed myself so overtly as a disciple, and then – quite uncharacteristically – to have risked the rebuff, I was surprised by how well I took it. As I walked back to the station it occurred to me that this was because what Ballard had said he meant, and that furthermore it was true. There could be no greater meeting of minds than the one we had already experienced amid the twisted hulks of cars abandoned en route to the terminal beach; even sexually, with his easy acceptance – on the page – of the homoerotic, I had assessed the heft of his body, apprehended the geometry of his genitals. If Ballard felt the same way about me – but a small part of it – then it remained a far more mutual relationship than any I had ever contracted for through the mere accident of propinquity.
And so I took him at his word – and kept away. A year or so later, when I heard that David Cronenberg was about to film Ballard’s Crash, I did get in touch. It was well known among Ballardians that the novel had been optioned by several producers over the years, but was widely regarded as unfilmable. There was said to be a script in existence by the British poet Heathcote Williams. While I had no objection to Cronenberg taking on Crash – how could I? It wasn’t mine to bestow – I nonetheless had a perverse sense of ownership: this seminal novel, with its celebration of the autoerotic potential of car crashes, was played out against a backdrop that seemed to me to be the core of contemporary London – its motorways and interzones. The climactic crashes themselves – from the narrator’s initiatory collision to Vaughan’s final plunge – took place along Western Avenue and on the Chiswick flyover. The car-crash cult’s field of operations was the badlands in the purlieus of Heathrow Airport, the scrublands of Hillingdon and Hayes, the cavernous warehouses and hangars of its Perimeter Road, the reservoir-cratered moonscape of Staines and Shepperton itself – where Ballard’s alter ego, ‘James’, also lives. To transpose this to Toronto would be a dreadful solecism.
I got Jim on the phone. ‘No, no,’ he barked in his genial RAF-officer tones. ‘You don’t get it at all. The whole point of Crash is that it could take place anywhere in the urbanized world. I absolutely relish the idea of Cronenberg filming in Toronto. It’s the perfect location – so anonymous, so dreary.’
To have pursued my case for London with Jim would’ve been crass – but I also spoke with the director himself on the phone. Was there – I wondered – an opening for a screenwriter? Cronenberg laughed. ‘No, I don’t think so.’ He sounded amiable – and very Canadian. ‘You know I write all my shooting scripts myself.’
In the event Cronenberg’s film of Crash was entirely acceptable. I could quibble with the casting and some of the dialogue, but the locations were indeed massively beside the point, for the director was perfectly in tune with the writer’s own vision of cities reduced to the sum of their component parts: concrete, steel, tar. The ceaseless movement of the traffic on the freeway beneath the apartment where James (James Spader) and Catherine (Deborah Unger) perform their soulless acts, skin upon skin, is only the analogue of the ceaseless movement of all traffic, everywhere. The gap between one car and the next is the gap between Tokyo and Los Angeles, New York and London, Paris and Moscow, Beijing and São Paulo – conurbations that retain an allegedly safe distance from each other while hurtling around an orbital road. All this, until the fossils have been burned and entropy ensues – as Jim foresaw: the creepers wreathing the gantries at Cape Canaveral will be the organic confirmation that futurity was just a moment in time.
I stayed away from Shepperton, writing only the occasional note, or sending a book I’d published, or a bottle of Scotch I thought he might like. When my third child was born Jim sent me a letter: ‘Now they outnumber you!’ But of course, ever since his wife’s death in 1964, he himself had been completely outnumbered. Eventually, in 2006, I returned, with the pretext of another interview. This time I came on a folding bicycle and pedalled my way down the suburban street, but otherwise everything remained the same: the somnolent semi, with the yucca in the front window now completely overgrown, a triffid that had usurped the household and perhaps demanded its own troublesome cups of tea.
I had already heard rumours that Jim was ill, but he seemed perfectly hale – intrigued by my folding bicycle and altogether welcoming. Once we were seated at the table in the front room he expostulated, ‘Why don’t you ever come to see me!’ And the last twelve years fell away like multicoloured fish scales. I almost blurted out, ‘But you told me . . . !’ Then didn’t. Instead we talked as before, yet this time – or so it seemed to me – with an easier intimacy: time does this to human lives, evening them up, so that in due course the jejune disciple becomes the well-worn near-contemporary.
Jim talked of his time in the internment camp in Shanghai and with great frankness of the horrors he had witnessed as a child. The novel that was about to be published, Kingdom Come, was in some ways a retread of preoccupations he had showcased in his writing going all the way back to High Rise (1975) – material sufficiency as a prelude to dreadful ennui, violence as an antidote to boredom, enfin the revolt of the bourgeoisie – but from the way he discussed his past I now realize that Jim must already have been working on the memoir Miracles of Life.
Two or three dinners in Shepherd’s Bush followed. We ate either at the Brackenbury or Esarn Kheaw, a northern Thai restaurant. These were quietly sociable affairs – Jim and Claire, my wife, Deborah, and I. The talk was of current events, families, the patchwork of cultural interests to be expected of such representative types: writers, editors, journalists. In many ways the meetings were antithetical to the fierce communion I had experienced with Jim’s psyche in the pages of his books. I had started out, in the 1970s, following him along a cramped and dangerous tunnel when he was unquestionably in the avant-garde, hacking away at the rage-resistant fabric of society, inching his way forward into conceptual space; now we sat opposite one another at a candlelit table and chatted about the London Congestion Charge. I liked both modalities equally well.
Jim had never made any secret of his diagnosis with terminal prostate cancer – he had been open in the press and frank in person. But there was, I felt, a strange disconnection between his seeming acceptance of his own death and his manner, which suggested that the valediction itself could be an eternity. First, the memoir, and now there was a second book of leave-taking in the pipeline, a series of discourses with his oncologist, Jonathan Waxman. I took this stoicism as in line with a life that in some respects had been lived backwards: the tight bomb-pattern of thanatos falling in the first three decades, the subsequent ones more and more vivified; and contrasted it with my own overweening neurosis, the mewling all morning over a hangnail, the adolescent hysteria that popped up to accompany the pubescent spots that still erupted on my middle-aged face.
Image © Jim Linwood