"Of course there is something inherently comic about the idea of a middle-class revolution"
JG Ballard discusses Millennium People with Mariella Frostrup
First broadcast on Book Club, BBC Radio 4, October, 2003
Transcribed by Mike Bonsall
Mariella Frostrup: JG Ballard explains why the middle-classes are revolting. The Booker-nominated author of Empire of the Sun is best known to his fans for the series of novels he terms apocalyptic, which explore the eerie underbelly of modern society. His latest, Millennium People, forms the final part of a trilogy that includes the thrillers, Super-Cannes and Cocaine Nights. The novel is narrated by an industrial psychologist who, on the pretext of investigating his first wife's death in a mysterious Heathrow bombing, finds himself involved in the violent struggle of the new proletariat, the beleaguered, Range-Rover driving residents of Chelsea Marina. I met with JG Ballard at Chelsea Harbour, the inspiration behind the fictional setting of Millennium People.
JGB: When I first came here I suppose about 10 to 15 years ago soon after it got going, I thought, this is fascinating, it's a purpose-built community. It hasn't grown organically, like some hilltop town in France or Italy, or even a district of London, like Notting Hill or Shepherds Bush. This place was designed on the drawing-board, and the sociology was designed at the drawing board stage, before a single bucket of concrete was poured. I thought, it's designed to be the perfect community of well-to-do people but it feels like a stage-set and what would happen if some of these sets collapsed, I thought: well, yes, that's interesting and that seeded the whole idea.
MF: So it was, in a way, that the sociology you wanted to investigate, it's the third time in a row that you've chosen a gated community as the setting in which to do that. Is there something about those communities that's rather like a, sort of desert island for example Lord of the Flies, kind of, trapped people?
JGB: You do get that sense of a, kind of, drama brewing below the surface. And also the sort of opportunities that these strange communities and this in its way is a strange community, like the business park I described in Super-Cannes in the south of France you sense that there are all kinds of hidden agendas, and that these are liable to break out at any moment.
MF: And indeed they do, the scenario that you posit in Millennium People is that the middle-class are revolting. They're out there on the streets, fighting for their right to escape the kind of boundaries in which they've been complicit in, in kind of, tying themself up. Do you feel that they are struggling, that they are the new proletariat?
JGB: Well, some of the characters in Millennium People, certainly feel that they're the new proletariat. The thing is that I suppose 150 years ago or so, in the middle of the 19th century the middle-classes made a sort of contract, an unwritten contract, in which they were given status, slightly higher salaries, and in return they gave: civic responsibility, they ran the civil service, they ran the professions, they were the doctors, solicitors, middle-managers and the like. And the middle-classes have always honoured this contract, right up to the present day, but you can see tremendous signs of restlessness; a lot of the middle-class professions are dissatisfied, they feel they've been taken for a ride, taken for granted and if the middle-class professionals withdrew their consent to the original contract they signed with society everything would collapse, literally, the water would stop running in the taps.
MF: Which is the scenario that you envisage in the book. But it's a subject that you've returned to, really, over the years isn't it, and I wonder how much of it is inspired by your own realisation, at a very early age the ephemeral nature of middle-class life, when you watched the fall of Shanghai, as a boy and saw, literally overnight, the world that you'd grown up in disappear.
JGB: I think that's very true actually. I think that was a great eye-opener for me as a small boy well I was 12.
MF: That's a small boy.
JGB: That's a small boy. But a small boy with his eyes open. It was a stage set the moment that the Japanese tanks rolled down Amherst Avenue, not far from where I used to sleep you know, the show was over, literally.
MF: And in a funny way that's what you're describing again here, 58 years later, when you talk about the overturned cars burning. But I love the way they've actually pushed them into the parking bay because these middle-class people are revolutionaries but they're very polite revolutionaries.
JGB: But that's true, I think, of middle-class people. They do, you know this sort of concern for others is, sort of, in their genes middle-class people don't steal cars, you know, whether that's a good or a bad thing I leave to other people to decide but they are, you know, concerned with the everyday niceties, because that's part of keeping society together.
MF: And this group of rebels is initially inspired by a mysterious doctor Gould, but led by the fiery Kay Churchill. And the targets that she leads them to are places like: The Tate Modern, Pret à Manger, a cat fair in Olympia although actually she's not involved in that and of course, best of all, Broadcasting House, where your protagonists attempt to storm World at One. Obviously, working for the BBC, I have a vested interest and I wondered if you could read me, perhaps, the passage set outside Broadcasting House with the rioting middle-classes of Chelsea Marina.
JGB: "Like most of the demonstrators [sic], Mrs Templeton was listening to her portable radio, tuned to the Radio 4 channel at that moment transmitting a commentary on the demonstration. Microphone at his lips, the reporter stood behind the security guards in the foyer of Broadcasting House, and there were hoots of laughter at some absurd comment about our motives for picketing the BBC. Looking at the attentive faces around me, ears to their radios, I realized that we were taking our orders from the organization against which we were demonstrating. During the past three days the one o’clock news programme had run an investigation into the unrest at Chelsea Marina, and into similar outbursts of middle-income disquiet in Bristol and Leeds. As expected, the journalists had missed the point."
MF: I wondered if you laughed a lot while you wrote this book, because, I have to say, I laughed a lot reading it, and I hoped that was the right reaction.
JGB: Yes, of course it is. I've been at it now for a long time whatever it is, 40 years and people have always accused me of being very humourless as a writer, and I've genuinely been surprised by that. I mean, I think there's a great deal of humour in Millennium People some of it's pretty deadpan. I'd like to just say that I never poke fun at the middle-classes, I take them seriously, and I take their complaints seriously but of course there is something inherently comic about the idea of a middle-class revolution.
MF: Do you think, in that case, that these nihilistic, sort of, near-future visions of yours are misunderstood?
JGB: Yes. It's rather reassuring to feel that you're misunderstood. But I think people are, you know, gradually some people are gradually beginning to grasp what I'm on about.
MF: And just finally, can it be true that the chronicler of the modern world as you are, doesn't own a PC?
JGB: Oh, am I allowed to admit that without destroying my the last shred of authority. I don't own a PC and I even write my novels in longhand.
MF: (laughing) Do you not see a contradiction there at all?
JGB: Unthinkable I know, unthinkable, I'm ashamed to say it. But I have access to my girlfriend's PC and I've seen the Internet unfold in all its wonders.