By Saul Franks
Fictional associations transmute the mundane into the meaningful, fostering a search for significance in the minutest things. Probably one just can't help finding what one’s looking for, particularly when what one’s looking for are traces of the uncanny vision of a departed Surrealist psychopomp and shaman of the Surrey suburbs.
It was the first Sunday in July. We hopped on the Tube, changed at Vauxhall, and rode the Southwest line all the way down to its terminus at Shepperton. We’d come to see the house of J.G. Ballard, a writer who’d obsessed me for the best part of a decade, the late genius on whose novels I’d written my PhD.
The first surprise was proximity; Ballard’s road is a literal stone’s throw from the station, a long residential avenue just off Station Approach. No time for psychic preparation; a few moments’ walk, a change of direction, and we were imminently approaching the house I'd read about so often it’d infiltrated my dreams, the home where Ballard moved in 1960 with his young family, where he raised his three children in the wake of his wife’s tragic death, and where he’d written almost every single one of the novels and stories over which I’d pored and obsessed for such hours, attempting to unravel the nature of his Faustian compact with Freud, his hijacking of psychoanalysis’ literary and speculative quasi-science as a toolkit for deconstructing the Twentieth Century.
Old Charlton Road is notable for the variety of its domestic architecture; here charming redbrick cottages dating from the Edwardian era jostle with much later bungalows and faux-Tudor villas; there pebbledash and front-garden palms create a convivial mish-mash where teenagers cycle and middle-aged ladies walk amiable mutts. It was far less staid than I’d imagined, far less uniform in its suburbanity. This was a nice place, a place of Wildlife Associations and Catteries, comfortable, rather Home-Counties. Part of Ballard’s problem with it, presumably?
Here was the house itself. A dated, pyramidal semi, with shared central chimney; bow-windows, flaking-framed, above a hastily mown square of lawn. The door, with charmingly wonky numerals, its original (1950s?) latch and letterbox still intact. A plastic-canvas bag of refuse stood in the driveway. Was the house occupied? I knew from the Internet it had been on the market. There was no sign of life. I could see into the front room; a Michelin Man toy faced out towards the window, a piece of twentieth-century industrial tat quite Ballardian somehow, and a picture frame perched on the mantel, square shapes I associated with the Paolozzi in the background of one of Ballard’s best-known dust-jacket photos.
I ran away and stood on the opposite side of the road, not wanting to admit my role as posthumous stalker in this respectable, perhaps now notoriety-jaded suburb. The main thing you noticed about the house, true to a million newspaper and Internet articles, was how run-down it was; the greyed paintwork all flaking and pocked, the crumbling windowframes, faded curtains in the upstairs windows.
Ballard was famous for neglecting his house, but I hadn’t bargained for what a deliberate affront this seemed to the prim and cheery neatness of the rest of the street; the contrast with the other, much more freshly-painted half of the semi was strongly apparent.
The former Ballard front wall was entirely encased in a species of alien ivy, foliage subsuming its shape like some abhorrent cocoon-growth, from a B-movie, 1950s. The same green wave could be seen, down the side of the house, engulfing what was presumably a tree in the back garden, almost as if by this deliberate neglect (cultivation) Ballard sought to recreate the jungle cities of The Drowned World in miniature, deliberately discomfiting his suburban neighbours through this reminder of their precarious ecological niche.
By now I was in something of a state; ten thousand impulses associated with chronic hero-worship were rioting along my neurons, throwing me into a condition of mildly euphoric melancholia. My girlfriend got tired of guiltily snapping photos from the opposite pavement, and we adjourned to Ballard’s local, The Bell, further down the street, in the hope of toasting the great man with lunchtime whisky-and-sodas.
As it happened, there was no lunch to be had at The Bell; a genial, somewhat wideboyish extended family had booked it out for a christening celebration, and sandwiches were unavailable. The bar was abuzz with shiny suits and spray-tan, and as I fulfilled a basic requirement in the cubicle of the gents’ toilet I couldn’t help overhearing the fallout from a successful lads’ holiday in Ibiza being voided uncomfortably into an adjacent handbasin.
Ballard as all hell.
We moved on along the road, heading for Splash Meadow at its end, a bucolic and Arcadian locale eternalised in the poetic accounts of Jim’s familial idyll in The Kindness of Women. It wasn’t as wild or romantically uncultivated as it had appeared in my mind’s eye as I savoured the strange chapters of Ballard’s autobiographical sequel: the visitor was greeted by a plasticated stand-up information board, wide swathes of the greenspace had been carefully mown, and the whole thing was cast into a peculiarly suburban perspective by the green dunes of an immense and neatly manicured golf course in the background. Again, perhaps, this may be the Ballardian point.
The meadow was nonetheless lovely, with reeds caressed by the current of a tiny river recalling to my mind the biological mysticism of Ballard’s Shepperton-set The Unlimited Dream Company, the healthy green stands of reed-grass evoking his recurrent imagery of surreally crystalline vegetation. I think I bored Anise stiff trying to remember the story about the filming of Genevieve recounted in The Kindness of Women.
To misquote D:Ream, things were about to get even better. As we reached the end of the meadow, Anise pointed out something to me, some structure looming dully, obscurely, through the branches above the pathside brambles. It was perfection! a motorway footbridge, carrying the footpath across the nearby A3.
We climbed the helical ramp of concrete, entwined with green trees, like explorers mounting Edward James’s Surrealist-inspired Mexican jungle Xanadu, or like Kerans himself pushing on through the verdant ruins of neo-Triassic-era London. At the top, an epic view awaited us; the motorway, completed, apparently, in 1974, the year after Crash’s publication and the same year as that of Concrete Island.
Latent contents were beginning to lay bare their sense. As we stood, marvelling, atop the worn and weathered concrete-and-tarmac structure, the M3 swept past beneath us in all its glorious and numinous normality, the cars and coaches thrumming busily onward as they intersected momentarily with this eroding and utterly nondescript locus of the terrestrial and psychogeographic surreal. Here, surely, I couldn’t help speculating, the man himself must often have stood of an evening, ruminating, letting his brain cool off after the day’s imaginative exertions, and dreaming of crash-deaths, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy. The very rusted bottle-tops and cigarette-ends that encrusted the edges of the footbridge couldn’t help but summon up for me James’ peculiar fantasy, in Crash, of a race of strange future beachcombers subsisting on their gleanings from the sedimentary detritus of a million motorway accidents; and here I was myself, trying to gather up a last few crumbs and fragments from the terminal moraine of Ballard’s irrevocable passing...
Crossing the motorway, we continued past a local nature reserve and an allotment fenced in Mad-Maxian style by a rusting articulated trailer, and proceeded along a winding lane where flowering brambles pushed up vein-like cracks in the footpath. I began to appreciate something of the strangely walled-in quality of Shepperton which must have inspired The Unlimited Dream Company as we were confronted suddenly with the towering grassy embankment of the Queen Mary Reservoir, dwarfing the houses beneath it like some monumental barrier from an early Ballard fable. Passenger jets drifted overhead like dreams evaporating from the invisible face of the lake.
Continuing along the road, we found ourselves at Shepperton's famous film studios, whose proximity obviously gave Ballard such an enduring buzz. Right at the ominously uninhabited ‘The Cottage’ and along a quiet road at the foot of the embankment, with the studios’ fence to our left, strangled with climbing hops. Sunday-dead, and strangely nondescript, despite the glamorous names of the on-site roads ‘Hitchcock Avenue’, ‘David Lean Street’. Round here all the magic evidently happens indoors, within immense grey corrugated buildings resembling nothing so much as gigantic industrial barns.
We doubled back, past cul-de-sacs with the names of dead directors, along the shores of an ornamental pond infested with bamboo and studded with slabs of slate remnants of some fakey-Japanese movie-scene? As we did so, there came a familiar whooping call, and I glimpsed the red beak and green-gold plumage of one of Greater London’s native-breeding wild parakeets, escaped pets gone feral and endemic, flying above our heads. Now here was an omen, if anything, I thought. In the artificial landscape surrounding the dream factory, a tropical bird flits between the oaks, bringing to literal life the surreal transformation of his suburban hometown Ballard would have been imagining daily as he wrote The Unlimited Dream Company, during 1978, the same year I was born.
Reaching the end of the woods, past security notices and nettles swarming with ladybird larvae, we hung a right past a house whose double-glazed conservatory looked out over the lake and whose new-brick forecourt was home to gleaming BMWs. Hitting a junction with a sign left to Shepperton, we followed it, passing along a residential main street where a sign informed us the community had been welcoming visitors ‘since Anglo-Saxon times’. Right at a white brick pub, with a quick detour inside to ask directions from the Australian barman watching football in an empty bar. He gave us directions for a pub called Thames Court, and we set off to follow them, with me daydreaming about an anecdote of Ballard's I’d read about him and TV scientist Chris Evans feeding sandwiches to the Thames-side swans.
Passing through streets of suburban bungalows, musing on the way London had so thoroughly split its banks, we climbed along a green and leafy B-road that humped its way across an expanse of wind-ruffled broad blue water I took for the Thames, although we still saw no sign of Thames Court. A beautiful willow-tufted flood-meadow spread itself out below us. Down again on the other side, we took a left over a humped dirt bank into the sandy flood-meadow itself, its yellow earthen tracks lined with parading purplish relatives of the pea-flower. A baseball-capped, rough-looking fellow started out from the cover of a derelict brick blockhouse as we took a momentary turn here along the wrong track, for all the world like some modern-day, fugitive Bill Sykes-type character concealing himself in this quiet hinterland by Father Thames.
As it turned out, this was a dirt bike track, and a cheery youngster rattled past us a couple of times as we worked our way across it, grinning from inside his helmet. From here we worked our way along the side of the water, our senses pleased by the warm sunshine, the blue clouds and the willows majestically tickling their turquoise plumes against the English summer’s firmament. A green and embracing pasture; but Ballard was still present: the sight of four distant, mysterious planes in figure-four formation conjured the heritage aviation that soars throughout Kindness and Unlimited Dream, while our first attempt to leave this bramble-wired maze was stymied by the confluence of the roaring, invisible motorway and the chain-link at a reservoir’s edge. Eventually, past a school-field fence graffitied Queers Pooves Rectums, through rutted, high-brambled lanes we calculated must deliver an astonishing yield of blackberries in autumn, we found our way out through a muddy and tree-shaded lane which terminated (O Holy of Holies!) at a roadside pub.
Here, over pints of cool lager, we chatted with the shaven-headed, football-shirted proprietor, who around puffs of his cig regaled us with tales of facing down Rude Boys in a Wood Green pub, and very affably directed us onwards towards the elusive Thames Court. Setting off again, we curved around to the right, passing the broad, tree-shaded sward of Shepperton Green and strolling down the picturesque high-street with its fifteenth-century inn, brick-towered church (entered somewhat bizarrely via an elevated staircase), and family-owned car dealership with its odd collection of vintage and specialist models. We weren't far now from Thames Court, and another stretch down a terraced B-road then an oblique turn down a shady and increasingly dust-floored lane brought us to the Thames, where a boat dealership and a large house on a peninsular lawn flanked the entrance to Shepperton Lock.
Here was an atmosphere of leisure, as comfortable citizens sauntered along with their dogs while weekend captains manoeuvred their white cruisers on the broad flood. Here was another place where one could perhaps begin to understand both Ballard's fascination with the psychology of the leisured, consumerised Thames corridor and, also, his wish to recast it, to reflect its realities in a more subversive and unsettling light. Thames Court was just a little further along to the right, ‘a great place’, as the friendly man we asked for directions informed us. It was time for a very late lunch, and I very blithely ate my fish and chips beneath a branch on which a swarm of honeybees clustered, constructing a nest, while children played on the grass verges and drunken boaters strolled past swans.
Retracing our steps, we took a left along a tree-lined road where the man sweeping the leaves up off the pavement bid us hello and the drying new-cut hay could be seen past the hedges. Past the entrance to a restaurant serving Italian cuisine ‘plus a few English favourites’ and we were back on a B-road, marching along the neatly mowed verge as the beautifully polished cars of Sunday drivers slid noiselessly past us on pristine tarmac. Butterflies distracted us at the edges of ancient shady woodlands surveilled by the all-dominating pylons of attack-drone-mobile-phone-masts: a communications landscape, indeed.
Following the road signs back past our original pub, we were soon back on Shepperton High Street, with its franchise Budgens, its unisex hairdressers’ and small motor repair businesses. A quintessential southern English small town, in many ways, and not so different from the Norfolk village where I myself had grown up, albeit more thoroughly suburbanised, agglomerated into its neighbours.
There was an hour before the next train, so we walked back past the abandoned pub at the end of the High Street for a final look at Old Charlton Road. We strolled past the house again, taking photos of the mouldering woodwork of the back windows from the vantage of a side street, lingering to peer in through the front room window. Daring myself to stand on the concrete forecourt, on the very spot where Ballard would have parked his car, I contemplated what I could see on the old-fashioned mantelpiece; the indistinct yellowish shape of some kind of plastic action-figure, and a picture which, I could now see, was not a Paolozzi at all, but some kind of print of a large country-house facade with many windows.
We traipsed up to the motorway bridge again, and I stood pondering above the roadway, expatiating interminably about the charge accumulated in this non-place traversed momentarily by a million journeys, these metal life-worlds hastening by at such velocity, impelled by the wanton incineration of our planet’s geologic treasures. I thought again about Ballard, about how strangely rustic was this region where his galvanic futurist fantasies arose, the clear space between Old Charlton Road and the M3 still a green and fallow field of grass. In the distance first one, and then two black balloons sailed by in the high summer air above the golf course.
We returned along the avenue, where a whole flock (I shit you not!) of parakeets performed a military flypast in Ballard's honour as we approached the house. Here we could see something different; a small black runabout was parked on the kerb outside on the left near the driveway, and the plastic sack full of refuse which had formerly been sitting in the drive had disappeared.
Through the window of the front room we could see a couple of young people, a man and woman, sitting on a couch smiling and conversing as they consumed their TV dinners. These must be the new residents, unless they were grandchildren, the offspring of either of Ballard's much-vaunted daughters? But I had heard that the house had been on the market, and now my interpretation of the trinkets accumulated on the front room furniture took on a far less fanciful light; of course, there was nothing Ballardian about it at all, it was simply the homely clutter imported by the new owners to make their new acquisition feel like their own. Ballard's house, like the rest of the world around it, was moving on; perhaps it was even becoming a family house again, like the blissful domain eulogised with such bright memory in Kindness.
That, though, was none of our business. We returned for our train, noticing from the platform the terminus buffers at the very end of the line; one thought of Ballard the commuter, living as far out of London as the rail network would allow, popping off after breakfast with Mary and the kids to his editorial job at Chemistry and Industry. A fat loaf of a man, sweating inside one of the carriages, asked us what time the train was supposed to leave, and finally got off a couple of stops down almost, we thought, within walking distance once the train finally left for the centre. The dying sunlight glazed the golf course as we drew away from Shepperton. It seemed to go on forever.
As we rattled into London, I noticed the number of multi-storey car parks that could be seen out of the right-hand side of the train, those strange ciphers whose concrete geometries Ballard had once described as models of a neural interval. Returning to Vauxhall we were back once again in the familiar London I knew, a landscape whose literary ghosts thanks partly to an academic fixation with Ballard I still have some homework ahead of me to exhume. But I knew that I would return again, to walk once again in the footsteps of the ‘shaman of Shepperton’, that sage and poet of the mundane, who was able, by remythologising the incredible strangeness and trauma of his war-torn Shanghai childhood, to disrupt the calm certainties of this pleasant and prettified town and, by extension, of the England of which it is a part and then to hand them straight back to us, re-imagined, irrevocably changed.
© Saul Franks 2012. Photographs by Anise & Rick McGrath