It was a hot and humid day in early June 2009. I took my bike out and I rode out of my village, over to the next one and onto a long bridleway that followed the boundary of two vast fields. The landscape was almost completely flat except for two hills that flanked me – one topped by a church and the other by the bumpy ramparts of an old fort. On this bridleway, long and straight as far as the eye could see, I knew I would be totally alone. I also knew that I would see anyone else coming long before they saw me. I rode out until I was in the middle of this part of the trackway and then, feeling confident that I wouldn’t be discovered, I took out my camera phone and I recorded a video blog. The first part remains – me talking about my experiences and frustrations at being unemployed. But I also talked about someone else, and that video has sadly long since been lost.
JG Ballard had died a couple of months beforehand, and I finally felt compelled to talk about it. It wasn’t that I was completely choked up and strewn with tears; the delay was more in understanding exactly what had happened. JG Ballard had died, as had many other authors in the past. Why should this one feel different?
Myself and JG Ballard had a difficult beginning. As a late teenager/early twenty-something, I read a couple of his works and admired his spirit whilst dismissing him as a one-trick pony, with all the snarky late-teenage rebellion that inhabits every confused nineteen year old mind. It didn’t matter that I’d only read about two or three of his books; as far as I was concerned he was talented but too caught up in writing dystopias. A hack, who’d found his niche and then stuck to it. And because I was nineteen years old, and had penned a couple of unpublished short stories, I obviously knew everything about literature.
Things are different now though. I’m 30, and approaching 31. Post-pubescent insouciance, I now appreciate Ballard properly. As I grew up, he left that unfair categorization and entered my self-penned Holy Trinity Top Three Of Authors. Finally, he exploded out of that constantly shifting and swapping triumvirate to become my favourite author, and my personal pick for The Greatest Author Of The 20th Century where he remains to this day. Other authors have written books more emotionally personal to me (Iain Banks – The Crow Road) and other authors have written books I consider more perfectly executed in form and function (George Orwell – Animal Farm). But on sheer imagination, use of language and just the Total Autherian Package, no one comes close to JG Ballard. No one.
I don’t think Ballard is given enough credit for his foresight. When we think of authors with amazing foresight, we usually come down on people like Huxley, or Orwell and his nightmarish 1984 with it’s use of a Big Brother, constant surveillance and the ghettoisation of the working classes. But Ballard foresaw many societal breakdowns of his own. Sometimes the targets were slightly wrong, but the message was the same. In novels like High Rise and Kingdom Come, we saw societies that had everything, had a standard of decent living and etiquette, revert to a basic state of instinct and reaction. Reading a novel like High Rise, documenting the inward destruction of a tower block community, you need to remind yourself that this isn’t some post-modern commentary on the poor inner-city communities that are now ubiquitous with gun and knife crime. It was written in 1975.
If I can give my idiotic teenage self some credit, Ballard did revel in the dystopia. But now I see that as just the background colours to the foreground brush strokes. In a very-strong-almost-equal second place to Ballard’s trope of enjoying dystopias is enjoying people losing what they have, particularly when they have everything they desire. Ballard’s anti-heroes and heroines are often middle-class and educated. Many of them are in positions not just of financial and hierarchical superiority but intellectual superiority as well. Lecturers, lawyers, people who earn decent money instructing their future generations. In other words, these are people with a lot to lose beyond their polished door signs and car parking spaces. These people are supposed to be examples. As their world collapses they will denigrate themselves. They will end up little better than beasts, covered in their own fecal matter, debasing themselves to a Stone Age level of social interaction. Something in their minds will snap resulting in them reverting to their base instincts, a kind of reverse evolution.
Ballard famously made this desire to see mankind destroyed, clear in a quote – “I want to rub the human face in it’s own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror.” It would be easy therefore to regard Ballard as an anti middle-class terrorist, someone who wanted to see all those Volvo’s used in hit-and-runs to inevitable prosecution, all those white picket fences drenched in blood, all those conservatories used as makeshift morgues for the dead of Daily Mail Britain. This idea of educated, conservative people who end up losing everything and reverting to an ape like existence is a common theme – from the destruction of High Rise and Kingdom Come, to the sexual politics of Crash, and the general aesthetic detachment of Vermillion Sands. In these stories, people have everything and leave with nothing but fire, death and destruction.
I think a lot of this was wish fulfillment though. Whilst I would never dream of putting words in Ballard’s mouth, because my words would be utterly inferior to his, I feel that a lot of his stories didn’t simply reflect a desire to see the middle-classes lose everything in an ongoing case of schadenfreude. I think that Ballard wanted these terrible things to happen. When he wrote a story like High Rise, he wasn’t just commenting on how a tightly packed community would eventually turn on each other. After all, he deliberately handpicked the residents of his High Rise to be middle class and successful. I think he wanted the beige and magnolia brigade to one day debase themselves. I think he yearned for one lawyer or bank manager to smear themselves in their own dung and wildly swing an iron bar at passers by in the street until their imminent arrest. I think, reading between the lines, when Ballard declared that he wanted to rub the human face in his vomit it wasn’t simply about making the human race feel debased or ashamed, it was about making the human race feel. And if that feeling was to be affronted or disgusted or frustrated, then all the better.
In theory, Ballard’s people (on the whole) have no reason to rebel. This is precisely the reason why he wants them to. The occupants of the High Rise have no logical reason to destroy their modern complex, but they do out of a desire to feel something more than exquisite champagne and pay rises. Ballard’s dystopias are usually utopias with dissenting voices, which is surely a contraction in terms – if everything is perfect, why raise hell? This is the crucial difference – a dystopic or totalitarian empire usually has a common enemy. A utopia is supposed to be the paragon of perfection. But what if we became tired of perfection?
This ultimately boils down to one of the many reasons why I hold Ballard in such high regard. He asks questions without ever being provocative. He examines the human condition without ever (really) having a forthright agenda. I could go on for another couple of paragraphs about his ferocious imagination, I could continue about his tremendous foresight or his exquisite metaphors and similes, but I won’t.
Because you don’t need me to diminish a man’s achievements down to a few token quotations to prove a point. But here is what worries me. I accept that Ballard was one-of-a-kind. You cannot call someone the greatest writer of the 20th century and then expect someone to walk into his shoes. But where is literature going now? Even as I speak, someone is becoming incredibly wealthy on the back of yet another story surrounding a Hunger Games-esque heroine overcoming a tyrannical government. With literature seemingly more and more enthrall with the movie industry, what chance of another Ballard being published? Generic fiction – you have your idols…. where are ours?
A few months ago, I stood in front of the WH Smith Bestselling 100 list and it was an utterly depressing experience. Dan Brown, Nicholas Sparks, Cookson, Cussler and James… it was a lesson in Safety In Numbers, with the numbers being next to ‘£’ signs. I know that I am never going to be good enough to be the next JG Ballard. What worries me is that no one else seems to be good enough either.