"The Dog Beneath the Skin" by John Walsh, in Independent on Sunday ["Talk of the Town" magazine] (September 14, 2003): 8-14. Interview to publicize Millennium People, perhaps the most substantial and interesting of this season's round.
The Dog Beneath The Skin.
by John Walsh
What has the modern world done to the human soul? What is technology -- cars, cities, television -- doing to our behaviour? These are the constant concerns of J G Ballard, in whose work shocking, sudden violence is never far away, a warning of our species' atavistic nature. JOHN WALSH meets our leading literary seer to discuss his new novel, `Millennium People'.
You catch sight of the novelist J G Ballard as he stands on the pavement in west London's fashionable Holland Park Avenue, peering suspiciously at the Pay and Display machine. Generously girthed and jowled, hair worn long and sleek like a Cromwellian puritan's, jauntily dressed in a summer jacket and pink-patterned tie, he looks a decade younger than 73. He and the machine regard each other with blank hostility, just as Ballard had regarded the ever-more-sophisticated Western world with dislike and awful warnings, throughout his career.
He was born in Shanghai, where he witnessed the turmoil of the Japanese invasion during the war (as documented in the novel Empire of the Sun) and came to the Blitzed and rubble-strewn England in 1946. He studied medicine but turned more and more to writing in the 1960s. His first works were science fiction stories, but after 1962, he wrote a series of apocalyptic novels portraying the world beset by natural upheavals - The Drowned World, The Drought, The Wind from Nowhere. Later he came to address various blank and soul-destroying features of the modern world, from skyscrapers (High Rise) to city planning (Concrete Island) to man's twisted relationship with automobiles (Crash, controversially filmed by David Cronenberg). His most recent books have explored the territory of super-sophistication and its effect on the human soul: in Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, both alarming hybrids of detective story and Awful Warning, he portrays the inhabitants of business parks and high- tech enterprise zones, places where both work and leisure are regimented, as driven to acts of violence and insanity.
The nation's most vividly imaginative literary seer and scourge of complacency, Ballard lives in Shepperton. His exuberantly radical new novel, Millennium People, goes further and portrays the middle-classes of London in the act of rebellion - bombs at the BBC, arson at the NFT, murder at Tate Modern and the inhabitants of Chelsea Marina refusing to pay their council tax. From St John's Wood to Richmond, bourgeois insurrection hits the streets. Molotov cocktails are fashioned from bottles of vintage Burgundy filled with petrol and stoppered with regimental ties...
JOHN WALSH: Your last couple of books were both about the human spirit asserting itself in a nightmare world of blandness. How much of a departure is the new book?
J G BALLARD: I'm not sure it is a departure. The previous books, Cocaine Nights, set in Spain, and Super-Cannes, set in south of France, were at arm's-length from where I live in south-east England, whereas the new one, Millennium People is set right where I live. It's not about expatriates living on the Mediterranean. It's about my own people, the English middle class, having to cope with the world of 2003 and not liking it. For the first time, they're refusing to accept the unwritten contract into which their class entered about 150 years ago, when their ancestor formed the first great British bureaucracies. And they're rebelling simply because they feel ruthlessly exploited. It's something we'll very conscious of today. Look in the papers and you see polls of doctors - one of the great pillars of society - in which 50 per cent of doctors would like to do something else, would like to give up medicine. Not 5 per cent, but 50. There's a huge dissatisfaction in this country, across the board.
JW: Isn't there something inherently a bit ridiculous about writing about radical extremists at a cat show, people firebombing Blockbuster Video and saying things like: "This is hard-core. From now on, ordering an olive ciabatta is as political act".
JGB: [Laughs]. Well, I hope there's a lot of humour in it. The trouble with my humour is, it's very deadpan. What I try not to do when writing is to poke fun at the middle classes - they're such an easy target. I don't want to become a dime-store satirist. There's no satire in this book at all. The middle-class complaints that are levelled at society by the characters are things I take seriously. Take the case of my own daughters, for instance. One works for the BBC and other worked for many years for the Tate Gallery. Almost all their after-tax salaries went to pay for the nannies and child- care, without whom they couldn't have gone out to work at all. There they are, trapped in this circular bind. Both are well paid in real terms, both earn much more than I earned as a parent with young children, but they're up against a society that has de-privileged the middle classes.
JW: Some of the characters claim "the middle class is the new proletariat". Do you think there's a germ of truth in that?
JGB: Yes indeed. They have no job security, just as the old proletariat did not, they have an education that doesn't equip them for anything much, like the old proletariat getting a craft skill that's no longer needed.
Fifty years ago, if you had a degree, it guaranteed you a job for life, in middle management or in the civil service - so long as you didn't seduce the office manager's wife, you were safe. You'd never be sacked, and you'd enjoy a slightly higher standard of living than the great mass of the people. That's not true any more. A degree doesn't guarantee you a job for life. It's about as valuable as a diploma in flower-arranging. All the privileges that came the way of the middle-class salariat have been lost. More and more, they can't afford private education, they can't afford private medical treatment -- they can't enjoy these status symbols that used to be conferred on the middle classes. So my book envisages middle- class dissatisfaction reaching crisis point -- when they reach that moment where you start overturning cars.
JW: The bourgeois revolutionaries in your book -- what are they protesting about, beyond the school fees and the delicatessen culture?
JGB: Many of the people I envisage living in the Chelsea and Fulham estates, they've talked through their grievances and come to conclusion that the middle classes have been brainwashed. First by the BBC, with its old Reithian values of education, enlightenment and so on, then brainwashed by their middle-class education, which is just a means of turning out people who are docile - a cowed bureaucracy that is going to run society and the professions - and they resent that docility. They see even something as innocuous as Tate Modern as a sort of middle-class disco, designed to anaesthetise any real aesthetic challenges that might occur to them and fob them off with an emasculated version of modernism - which was revolutionary in its day, and challenged everything that the then middle classes held most dear. Now it's just another disco tune. They've thought about their own role in society, and they realise they're an exploited class just like the old working class. The new proletariat. And you start to feel the ground shaking under your feet.
JW: How much of it is a kind of warning for the future?
JGB: My children are in their mid-40s. They're going to cope, as you and I are going to cope. But one looks ahead. I look at my grandchildren who'll be adult in 15 to 20 years' time, and I wonder - how're they going to cope? Because then a house in London, even a small two-up-two-down in Acton, is going to cost a million quid.
JW: I understand that the cheapest one-bedroom flat in London now costs pounds 130,000. That's beyond the reach of anyone earning less than about pounds 27,000. So the chances of most people in their early 20s buying property are very slim...
JGB: Absolutely. The salaried middle classes are being pushed out. It's already happened in Manhattan, where middle-class professionals like teachers and accountants have been pushed out to the suburbs, to Brooklyn and Queens. Only the very rich or very poor are left actually living in Manhattan. The same will happen in central London.
JW: In Millennium People, a character very like the television girl Jill Dando appears as random killing. She's described as having "developed a persona of good-natured blandness and therefore had no enemies". But in your terms, the persona of blandness is precisely what people can't stand and that's why she was killed. Are you commenting on the cult of celebrity - the elevating of uninteresting people whom we're told we should admire but don't?
JGB: Well, it's all part of the con, isn't? Part of the whole project of turning us into docile, uncomplaining wage-slaves. Everything's designed to be bland, homogenised, user-friendly. As someone says in the book (and I've used it before, I know, but it's a slogan I'm going to keep pushing) the totalitarian regimes of the future will be ingratiating, subservient. No longer will it be Orwell's vision of a boot stamping on a human face. We'll have something highly subservient and ingratiating, where the tyranny is imposed for our own good. We see it all the time.
JW: You do? Here? In modern England?
JGB: Here in London. Ken Livingstone's Orwellian congestion zone is an example of just that. It's for your own good, cutting down the numbers of cars so you can get about more. Everything's for our own good. The new totalitarians come forward, smiling obsequiously like head waiters in third-rate Indian restaurants, and assuring us that everything is for our benefit, everything's been thought out very carefully. And of course we fall for it - if we're middle class, we think everyone is as responsible as ourselves. So one gets this smiling tyranny, which is something my characters rebel against.
JW: But why did you want to have Jill Dando in the narrative?
JGB: I don't. I never mention Jill Dando. I hardly know who she is, or rather was.
JW: Vapidly pretty young women who ran a holiday programme and looked a bit like Princess Di.
JGB: The whole entertainment world we inhabit is a tyranny of blandness.
One reason why the Big Brother series were so popular is that for a few weeks, people briefly got a glimpse of what reality was - a whole lot of louts lying scratching themselves, and looking bored. This was genuinely something new. You were never allowed to see Jill Dando looking bored, though I'm sure she was a lot of the time. People who make these programmes screen out anything that might threaten the viewer.
JW: You used to claim that you stayed in Shepperton because it gave you unique insights into what middle-class England was up to. Do you meet doctors and lawyers in Shepperton who are capable of doing something violent? That's the big difference isn't? Because the real-life middle classes aren't capable of a rebellion. They aren't really going to start overturning cars and running riot...
JGB: That's because it's been bred out of them. The ability to resist physically has been bred out of them. You can, though, find a surprising number of middle-class professionals resorting to violence when they join fringe protest movements. There's a whole spectrum of middle-class protest groups - animal rights, Neighbourhood Watch groups, anti-hunt demonstrators, anti- abortionists, Green campaigners, you name it - where the middle- classes are heavily involved and are prepared to do violence, even to the extent of putting bombs under the cars of animal experimenters. And I suggest it would only need a turn of the screw before you'd get an explosion of the kind I describe in this book. It's not that far-fetched.
JW: All the stuff about "the proletariat" - are you now, or have you ever been, a Marxist? Did you go through a Marxist phase when you were young?
JGB: No, John, I went through a Marxist phase when I was older. Actually I've just read The Communist Manifesto for the first time. A very powerful piece of work, I'd recommend it to anybody. Very sharp. Written about 150 years ago and feels like it could have been written yesterday.
JW: But did you believe in a revolution as an inevitable thing, in which the working class would take over?
JGB: When I was young, I did. When I was a student.
JW: Did you study politics at university?
JGB: No, I read medicine. And like most students, I was left- wing, I could see that Clement Atlee's post-war government was bringing about some much-needed changes to this country. I first came to England in 1946, as a 15-year-old boy. I took one look at England and didn't like what I saw... We'd virtually lost the war. That's what it looked like. Looking around, you saw a class-ridden society, in which everything was cold and worn out and didn't work. The institutions didn't work. If it was going to change, we needed a crash course in change, we needed to Americanise the place.
But we didn't. Corelli Barnett, in his book The Audit of War, argues that the British wasted the aid they received from America after the war on rebuilding the infrastructure - new housing, now town centres, new hospitals - instead of ploughing the money into new industries, as the Germans, the French and the Italians were doing, re-tooling car plants and the rest of it. With the result that, once they'd recovered from the war, they had all these brand new factories, while in England we had nothing but lots of brand-new housing, shopping precincts and factories that went back to the Stone Age.
JW: There are so many landscapes of disillusion in your work. You seem to have a positive fetish for business parks in which nobody used the leisure facilities. Manicured lawns, immaculate but deserted swimming pools, empty expensive gymnasia, play areas with no children...
JGB: I rather like all that stuff. Give me an abandoned hotel or a drained swimming pool any day...
JW: ... so I wondered if you have an ideal landscape, in the town or the countryside, in Britain or abroad. Of course, some of your characters are distrustful of abroad, and see tourism as a kind of pabulum for the masses. Do you share that view?
JGB: Yes, they see tourism as part of this brain-washing process. It's a sort of vast soporific. It's like Valium for a mass audience.
JW: But is there nowhere you can find an authentic landscape today, a town perhaps that's hung on to its own identity?
JGB: Nowhere. It's all gone. It's all over.
JW: Mind you, I've seen shopping centres in Antwerp that are indistinguishable from shopping malls in Croydon or Gateshead...
JGB: No, it's all part of a universal phenomenon. "You can travel from London to Tokyo in the air-conditioned comfort of our corridors" as the advertisements say. It's just a vast marina complex with Autotels. shopping malls, airports, perimeter roads, car-hire franchises, all of them just rolling round the planet. That's all there is.
JW: Come now, surely there's some fields in Dorset or Wiltshire or the Highlands of Scotland where you can look at the view and say, "Look - it's still there. This is still recognisably and truly England"?
JGB: Yes, well, if you can get into them. They're probably owned by some investment company in the Cayman Islands, and they've probably got - not in this country yet, but they soon will have - men in Range-Rovers with pump-action guns, keeping you out. I think that [heavy pause] that part of the human story is now complete - the story that's been running since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution has run its course. It's consumerised the Western world and a large part of the Third World. And now it's over.
JW: You mean, we can't get any more sophisticated than we are now?
JGB: It's hard to see how. I don't know if you've read Samuel Huntingdon's book on the clash of civilisations. He sees the West in slow decline and the core civilisations of Asia, Islam and China are rising to a point where they may confront a declining West, in open military combat. Assuming that it won't happen, things will carry on as they have done for the last 50 years, and everything will be turned into, say, Monte Carlo. Have you been there? It's totally dedicated to expensive shopping. You go to these gallerias and walk past a great temple to ultra-expensive watches, and then another to ultra-expensive clothes. It's quite incredible - you see the future of the human race there. There's a particularly big galleria, which never has anyone inside it. It's five or six floors of cool, scented air, with no one in it. I thought to myself - is this supposed to be Heaven? And I realised that, no, it's not Heaven. It's The Future.
JW: So we're all heading for a future with no people in it?
JGB: Look at this lounge we're in [at the Kensington Hilton Hotel]. Everything aspires to the condition of those gallerias in those high-priced enclaves in Monte Carlo, or Palm Springs, or Miami Beach - or certain suburbs of Tokyo for all I know. Once everyone achieves an imitation of that shopping world (and it won't be the real thing, it will be just a simulacrum that they can afford) - well, what then?
I believe that, in a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom. I think people will turn to bizarre religions, or odd strains of psychopathology or retreat into the Internet, immerse themselves in some weird forms of pornography that they don't feel sexually attracted to at all.
JW: What do you mean?
JGB: Reading horrific cases of paedophile sex and accounts of policemen and others who've been accused of downloading child porn onto their PCs, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe they're not even sexually aroused by this stuff. People may be drawn to bizarre forms of sexual fantasy in the way they're drawn to bizarre forms of religious fantasy. They don't actually believe in this peculiar god, but assuming a posture of belief gives them something that they can't get from a shopping mall. Maybe the human race will lean in that sort of direction. It suggests a rather scary future...
JW: When 11 September broke - what did you think? The central idea of taking the most sophisticated technology of a society and using it against itself - it seemed a very Ballardian concept...
JGB: It certainly took me surprise. Like everybody who saw it, I felt stunned by pity for the people who were lost, but then I had this odd feeling that we were looking at something conjured up from our innermost destruction fantasies. This was a scene that had been rehearsed again and again, in US comic books and disaster movies, images of skyscrapers, and aircraft flying into them. Whether intentionally or not, the 11 September hijackers were using our own deepest dreams of self-destruction against ourselves. As if a blueprint had been laid down: this is the way to attack the West, by using its own fantasies against it. Play on these infantilising dreams and you'll destabilise them, and derail their psyches. It's an attack on sacred things. It's rather like finding that Micky Mouse and Alice have VD, that Snow White has a nasty little complaint. Is nothing sacred? It's these deep myths that sustain the Western imagination that are under challenge. Crashing two planes into skyscrapers in the heart of the American capitalist system, and bringing them down so easily, was enough to shock American into launching a couple of nasty wars. Had plane Number Four succeeded in hitting the White House, I really believe America would have gone nuclear. You can see there's an unconscious need on the part of the present American government to nuke the rest of the world. They started with Afghanistan. But they won't be satisfied. You can see they're already lining up the French. [Laughs].
JW: For being part of "Old Europe"?
JGB: "Old" has a special sort of echo or vibration, doesn't it, and it's not a good one. You don't want an old car, you want a new one, not an old fridge, you want a new one. Saying "old" means: Junk it, get rid of it, replace it with a new model. But as I was saying, 11 September, in addition to the enormous human tragedy, was a raid on the collective unconscious of the Western mind. If you look at old newsreels of the Blitz, the wartime German bombing of London, you feel compassion for the Eastenders and, although the scene looks apocalyptic, you know that it isn't. It's just war, it's what happens. This is war, but that's all there is. But if you look at the 11 September footage, you feel something quite different inside your brain - a kind of tremor.
JW: Remember the footage of the plane as it headed for the second tower? It was banked over at an angle then suddenly it straightens up to crash head-on into the building - as if the pilot was thinking, "Whoops - nearly missed it". The idea of those human hands adjusting the controls just a an inch or two...
JGB: Or it's like watching a video game in an arcade... Very scary.
JW: If one were to ask about literary antecedents, are you more a George Orwell or a William Golding? Golding thinks that human nature will always conspire to screw things up. Orwell would argue that it's human society organising a system that screws things up. Are we more screwed up by ideology than by our own flawed selves?
JGB: I feel close to Orwell. But we're strangers in a strange land. We humans weren't designed to sit around in the lobby of the Hilton hotel, or to fly on package holidays to the Seychelles. Hundreds of thousands of years of biological programming weren't designed to end in nothing more significant than a bar code. It's in our nature to be extremely combative. It's probably in our nature to be unhappy...
JW: I thought you believed that our combative, warlike genes had been bred out of us.
JGB: Not all of them. I think they're still there. We still are incredibly warlike. Our potential for violence is enormous. In my book, the character Richard Gould, the doctor who is basically my mouthpiece, takes the view that nothing in life has any meaning. He says that things we most value, like love for children or spouse, are programmed into our genetic codes like nest-building in birds, and that we can't take credit for them. Nothing, he says, has any meaning. The kinds of meaning we like to ascribe to the universe don't stand up to scrutiny. It's only completely meaningless acts that can answer the universe in its own terms. And therefore, meaningless acts are all we can do to make sense of anything. Like killing the TV entertainer in the book is a meaningful act, by virtue of the fact that it's pointless. What I'm saying is, there are no answers. But maybe that is the answer.
JW: As a writer, how would you characterise the present government?
JGB: Six years ago, people elected a man who was, frankly, a very personable hotel greeter. You know? Walking across the carpet of a Las Vegas Hotel, greeting the slightly nervous tourists from Cleveland or Milwaukee who aren't quite sure what's in store for them. Saying: "You're all going to have a great time. The taps don't work in the rooms? Don't worry. We're dealing with it..."
People realised six years ago, in the first Labour term, there was no way they could have a better health service, better schools, less crime, better transport, without paying higher taxes. The only way you could bridge that gap was through PR. And they had the perfect PR man in this very likeable, quite handsome man with his wife and 3.2 kids, driving a People Carrier. He seemed like a guy who paid the mortgage bills and worried about the schools and the rest of it. He was their kind of guy - and they voted for him. They know only PR could fill the gap.
Unfortunately, the gap has got wider over the last six years. People feel that hospitals are slightly worse, and the schools, the transport system's broken down, and the PR is stretched to breaking point. The problem from Blair's point of view is that one little tear and the whole thing will unzip. The trouble is, there's no alternative. Nobody's going to vote for Iain Duncan Smith.
JW: Of the first government, all you can remember is a huge fuss about foxhunting. Of the second, all we will remember is a long row about weapons of mass destruction. It seems to be the politics of distraction...
JGB: I think going to war with the Americans revealed an unseen side of Blair, the evangelical side. It was a damned strange thing to do, to take this country into war. It revealed a vulnerable side. His subsequent behaviour - well, he's suddenly started smiling again, like a child who's caught out setting fire to the bicycle shed, and has got away with it for a bit, but knows the day of reckoning is going to come. Something very strange is going on in Blair's psyche. There's something going on, inside his head.
JW: What do you make of Cherie as a psychological phenomenon?
JGB: They're a very strange family, aren't they? A psychoanalyst I know thinks she's profoundly depressed. I don't know if that's true or not. But what we see is a big effort to look a cheerful, normal and happy prime minister's wife. But in fact, she's this deeply depressed woman who needs constant attention and sympathy.
JW: Is all your visionary stuff, the writings about social collapse and the human spirit - does it all come from the boy you once were, standing there in Shanghai aged eight of nine, and watching the world collapse? Or was it from the business of coming to England and finding everything destroyed?
JGB: I think our characters, our personalities, are set at an early age. Probably by the time we're 10, our world views are virtually hard-wired into our brains. Coming to England in 1946 was the biggest shock. Not just the physical dereliction, but the social and mental dereliction, the class system collapsing like an old country house. Nothing worked. None of the institutions and traditions worked any more. The monarchy was ludicrously top-heavy; it took half a century to self-destruct. You can't go through a war as a child without it having a big effect on you.
But maybe I've just got that sort of mind. If you're not brought up in a place, you always go on seeing it afresh every day. I think I still do. I've been living in Shepperton for 43 years, but I look out of the window every morning and think, "This place is a bit odd -- what's going on?"
The first chapter of J G Ballard's `Millennium People' appears on page 28