"A Rebel in Suburbia" by Emily Bearn, in Sunday Telegraph ["Review" section] (September 21, 2003) Interview to publicize Millennium People.
A Rebel in Suburbia.
Bomb the BBC, trash the Tate... in his latest controversial novel, J.G. Ballard chronicles a violent middle-class uprising. But does this jovial septuagenarian really want a revolution in Shepperton?
A few years ago, J. G. Ballard described himself as a man of "complete and serene ordinariness" -- an image he hasn't had much success in getting across. At 72 he remains one of Britain's most bankable novelists, and one of its most controversial. One of his best-known books, Crash, was inspired by his obsession with car crashes and deals with "the mysterious eroticism of wounds; the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels, seat-belts smeared with excrement, sun visors lined with brain tissue". The publisher's reader who first saw the manuscript (herself the wife of a pyschiatrist) wrote: "This author is beyond psychiatric help."
If true -- and Ballard tells me he took it as "proof of complete artistic success" -- it does not appear to have afflicted his writing. He has written 17 novels, all of which have been translated into at least 20 languages and three of which -- The Drowned World, Drought and Crash -- are generally considered modern classics. His latest book, Millennium People, could join the list. It is upliftingly radical, portraying London's middle-classes in violent rebellion against the temples of middle-class propriety -- the BBC, the National Film Theatre, Peter Jones -- there is even murder at Tate Modern. As Ballard explains: "It is about my own people, the English middle classes, having to cope with the world of 2003 and not liking it... they're rebelling simply because they feel ruthlessly exploited."
I have been invited to discuss this middle-class exploitation with Ballard at his home in Shepperton, a somnolent (and resolutely middle-class) London suburb in which he has occupied the same small 1930s semi for the past 43 years. His street is lined with identical-looking houses with names such as "Laurel View" and "Ivy Dene" and bears a passing resemblance to Beverly Hills in that there is no noise and not a single human being in sight.
He used to claim that he stayed in Shepperton because it gave him unique insight into what middle-class England was up to, but this afternoon he insists the motives are more mundane. "When I first came here I liked it because it was green and quiet - it was as simple as that really," he says, ushering me through a hall silted up with junk (including a lawn-mower, a tricycle and a spade), and into a dining-room in which every surface is heaped with yellowing papers and decaying pot plants.
He is reported never to have cleaned the house since he arrived there in 1960, a rumour supported by the thick film of dust coating absolutely everything, in true Quentin Crisp style. Although he has a girlfriend who lives nearby, she has clearly not been let loose on the mess. "Please!" he cries, sitting me down at a table covered with a dead palm tree. "Don't ask me about the dust! Everyone is fascinated by my dust - there must be more interesting things to talk about."
In fact, Ballard seems so jocular one imagines he would be game to discuss just about anything. He speaks in a throaty yet animated voice of the sort that suggests that -- in contrast to the "exploited" middle classes of his fiction -- he is permanently amused. "Shorthand!" he says, roaring with laughter as I dig out a notebook, rather than the tape recorder he expected. "Good for you! I write all my books in longhand!" (He does not have a computer or an answer-machine and, when I ask for his telephone number, he has to look it up.)
One character in Ballard's book claims that "the middle class is the new proletariat", made financially and spiritually impoverished by exorbitant school fees and house prices, and by an anxious need to compete. "They have no job security and they have an education that doesn't equip them for anything much," he explains, rocking his considerable girth back and forth in an antiquated leather chair.
"Fifty years ago, a degree guaranteed you a job for life and a certain standard of living. But that's not true any more. People in middle management are forced into early retirement and the polls reveal huge levels of dissatisfaction. The traditional privileges of the middle classes are no longer there. My characters are extreme cases, but the book anticipates what happens when middle-class dissatisfaction reaches crisis point."
What happens is spectacular. London's bourgeoisie throws off the chains of civic responsibility, smoke-bombing department stores, barricading residential streets and trashing upmarket travel agencies. Molotov cocktails are concocted from bottles of vintage Burgundy filled with petrol and corked with regimental ties. As one character puts it: "This is hard-core. From now on ordering an olive ciabatta is a political act."
"I think there's a lot of humour in it," Ballard says, running a hand over his gently protruding stomach. "But I'm not trying to poke fun at the middle classes. They're an easy target but it's not satire. I suppose one could say that my humour is deadpan."
But would the middle classes resort to violence, as they do en masse in Millenium People? Ballard is confident that they are up to it. "I really do think they are capable of rebellion," he says, brushing away a few strands of untamed grey hair from his collar. "When they attach themselves to protest groups -- CND, animal rights, genetic crops -- they're quite capable of violence, even planting bombs under scientists' cars. It's a myth to think that the middle classes are incapable of violence. They're just very patient and they need to be sufficiently provoked before they explode."
One of the recurrent themes in Ballard's fiction is the notion of a middle class brainwashed both by the BBC -- with, as Ballard puts it, its "Old, Reithian values of education" -- and by cultural institutions such as Tate Modern, "a sort of middle-class disco, designed to anaesthetise any real aesthetic challenges that might occur to them." He repeatedly stresses that the views of his fictional characters do not necessarily reflect his own (although it is bombed in the book, Ballard tells me he himself is "a great supporter of the BBC"), yet he clearly feels some solidarity with them.
"You could certainly say that I'm sympathetic to my characters," he says. "But you have to remember that I am writing about extreme cases. I myself would not go out and start upturning cars."
Indeed, when it comes to rebellion, it's hard to image J. G. Ballard on the front line. His appearance is a study in Pooterish bonhomie -- slightly corpulent; cosily dressed (on the afternoon I visit he is wearing sagging black trousers and a pair of brown loafers, possibly slippers) and with a face permanently erupting in mirth. It is often commented that he looks at least 10 years younger than he is, and he keeps fit with daily walks along the Thames. "I don't know if I'm well," he says, sounding wholly unconcerned by the matter. "You'd have to ask my doctor that."
As a writer he has been described as "the scourge of complacency" -- a notion that makes him quake with laughter. "Am I? Who said that? I've never thought of myself in those terms. I hope I provoke people into the odd thought about the way the world's going. But I'm a novelist, and I don't think novelists are thought of as a threat to the status quo. At least not now."
Certainly, Ballard appears less steamed up than his ficitional characters, and when he talks about politics it is with a sort of affable ponderousness. Blair is "a very strange man"; Cherie is "possibly stranger", and while he believes that "the Hutton inquiry has pulled back the curtains and shown what a corrupt business government is", one senses that he's not minded to do much about it.
Yet when it comes to "provoking people into the odd thought", his fiction has made quite an impact. After abandoning a medical degree at Cambridge University, he established himself in the 1960s with a series of best-selling apocalyptic novels -- The Drowned World, The Drought and The Wind from Nowhere -- portraying the world beset by natural upheavals.
His later works dwelt on the soul-destroying features of the modern world, such as skyscrapers (High Rise), city planning (Concrete Island) and -- most famously -- man's relationship with the motorcar, which became the subject of Crash (1973) -- later made into a controversial film by David Cronenberg.
His obsession with car crashes was to become the stuff of legend. He organised an exhibition of them at the ICA, and could rabbit on cheerfully about the erotic conjunctions of mangled metal and flesh. He was even reported to have silenced dinner parties by producing photographs of his girlfriend's car-crash injuries, or urging her to show off her scars. "Car crashes were simply becoming a popular obsession at the time," he says. "Every film seemed to be about them. I'm just an observer. That's what being a novelist is about. I wasn't actually interested in car crashes myself." (You could have fooled his readers.)
It has been suggested that Crash and the other "atrocity" novels of the 1970s were provoked in part by the loss of his wife, Helen, who died in 1964 after suffering from pneumonia during a holiday in Spain. "I suppose there might be some truth in that," he says. "I was trying to make sense of a terrible tragedy. It seemed to prove that black was white. It was a terrible crime of nature against this young woman, and I think I felt very angry that nature could behave in such a cruel way. I think an attempt to solve the mystery was part of what drove me along."
After his wife's death he was left in charge of their three children, aged four, five and seven, whom he raised single-handedly. "I loved it," he says, implanting a fist on the film of dust lining his dining-room table. (As he once remarked: "You can do all the housework in five minutes if you don't make a fetish of it.") "We were all living here and I didn't have much help, but they were the happiest days of my life. They really were."
His own childhood was less peaceful. In his book Empire of the Sun (later immortalised on screen by Steven Speilberg), he described his childhood in Shanghai and, in particular, the three years, from 12 to 15 years old, which he spent in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War. "It was a huge slum, and like all teenage boys I was running wild," he says. "I enjoyed it most of the time - it was terrifically stimulating. Though I'm not sure that the adults had such a good time.
"I think the war did help shape my view of the world. As a child you can't see grown-ups under extreme stress without learning something about human nature. Most middle-class children never see their parents under stress." (A belief with which today's middle-class parents might not concur.)
While Ballard's fiction depicts a world of soul-destroying blandness, one senses that he doesn't feel a victim of it himself. At 72, he retains a seemingly inexhaustible gusto for life and appears to view the modern world as a source of fascination, rather than as a cause for depression.
"I'm not disillusioned with it but I do sometimes find myself slightly dismayed," he says, fingering one of the dead palm fronds heaped between us on the dining-room table. "We're not living in a heroic age, which some people might think is a very good think. But there's a suburbanisation of the planet going on, and, you see, that's a problem..."
At this point we are interrupted by a ring on the door-bell. "God! Who's this?" he mumbles, levering himself out of his chair and picking over the rakes and lawnmowers to reach the front door. A minute later he returns. "A satisfied customer!" he says, collapsing back into his chair with a clap of his hands and an expression of unmitigated glee. "It was a Shepperton resident wanting a book signed -- I don't get many of them!"