If you Go Down to the Shops Today...

By James Norton

if-you-go-down-to-the-shops-today.jpg

JG Ballard brings a visionary cinematic intelligence to his prophetic dissections of contemporary society, its places and malaise


JG Ballard’s latest novel Kingdom Come brings his narrative obsessions back closer to home than in any of his recent fiction. The book’s theme is the potential for consumerism to mutate into fascism, and is perhaps his most explicitly political work. It is set around the Metro Centre, “the largest shopping mall in Greater London” seemingly a composite of Gateshead’s Metro Centre and Bluewater in Kent, both of which describe themselves as Europe’s leading shopping and leisure destination. Ballard himself claims to have modelled the place on the Bentall Centre in Kingston, which he detests, near to his home in Shepperton, Iain Sinclair, who has dealt so coruscatingly with Bluewater in text and film, says that Ballard urged him “to blow up the Bentall Centre.”

Amid the vortex of willed insanity, racist violence and suburban military standoffs in Kingdom Come one image stands out as an insult to credulity, preposterous even by the surreal standards of Ballard’s imagination, that of the shopping centre’s mascots, three giant teddy bears whom the shoppers worship and who are the original target for the crazed gunman whose crime opens the novel. So it is most disconcerting to find that these are based on fact, a pirate-themed diorama nesting amid the gantries and concourses of the Bentall Centre, bursting into animatronic life every half hour to entertain children, terrify parents and dispense consumer information. There is an additional and still more Ballardian distraction, although he does not appear in the novel, Dennis the dragon, who drives around the centre in a bright red sports car.

Ballard has famously lived in the same house in a leafy Shepperton cul-de sac since 1960. He works in the front room dominated by a large copy of an eerily erotic Paul Delvaux painting, at an electric typewriter which shares the table with the coiling mass of an enormous yucca plant, like some desiccated sea monster. Stacks of VHS tapes of films and TV documentaries fill much of the remaining space, only The Night Porter conspicuously labelled. In an interview recorded on a cavernous sound stage at Shepperton Studios for a recent ITV South Bank Show documentary, directed by Claire Holland, Ballard elaborated: “I think I came here because of the studios. I was looking for somewhere to live with my wife and children and the London suburbs were a vast mysterious plain with bricky gables and dual carriageways. I spotted a little house that was for sale in Shepperton and I had a vague feeling: the film studios, yes, the Malibu of the Thames Valley. And I thought, there’s a dimension of possibility there because so much of England was so deeply set in its ways.”

if-you-go-down-to-the-shops-today-2.jpg

Although Kingdom Come is not set in Shepperton itself, Ballard admits that the location is very similar: “It’s set in a West London suburb not far from the M25. It’s an area that most inner Londoners are unaware of, never visit, pass by in polite horror as they return from their West Country cottages and speed gratefully off the M25 towards what I call heritage London. By which I mean not just the Tower and Bloomsbury, but Hampstead and Muswell Hill and Notting Hill and Holland Park. They’re heritage London, held together by a dinner party culture; a culture of the good and right thinking. I set my novel near Brooklands between Weybridge and Woking, a sort of un-centred area where there are no civic values, where people are only interested in new patio doors, a new timeshare in the Algarve, another car.” This is a foretaste of the effects of universal consumer culture. The new novel harnesses mobs of England supporters and their vehicles and habitats festooned with the Cross of St. George to a fascist violence that clothes itself in patriotism, the book cannily launched at a time when this ubiquitous drapery is still fresh in the public mind following the recent and inevitably doomed England World Cup frenzy.

While this blurring of coterminous locations is a natural attribute of fiction, to concentrate on the actual settings of Ballard’s work is to belie his radical reconfiguring of the notion of place, which is in his fiction both a solipsistic construct and an entirely internalised vision. Indeed, with the very invention of ‘inner space’ Ballard revolutionised and revitalised science fiction from the early 1960s onwards.

Interviewed for the South Bank Show, Ballard’s avowed follower Will Self explained: “Ballard’s landscape is a kind of transmogrification of his own beloved Shepperton. It has outposts like Cape Kennedy and in the Pacific but really it is this kind of liminal space, the idea of the interzone as a kind of physic space is taken by Ballard and mapped literally onto the emerging edge cities of post war England, onto the periphery of the metropolis. It’s a landscape of motorway flyovers, of reservoirs, of retail business parks, of quiet suburbs interspersed with random acts of senseless violence. The Ballardian world is the world we live in but don’t want to see, the physically real world onto which we impose a human geography. Ballard maps the skull beneath the skin.”

“What his work does is to create several simultaneous dichotomies and then juxtaposes them. His mapping is more complex in that way, he maps the territory of his own psyche onto suburbia, he maps the future onto the present to create a future that never arrives, or he maps the past onto the future, or he maps the psyche onto the future, this is a much more complex and quadrilateral relationship between these kinds of juxtapositions with apparently irreconcilable objects that the surrealists were involved in. In my view this is not a melting watch, it’s something rather more profound than that.”

It is a truism that Ballard’s books alert one to the Ballardian landscape in which we live: the motorways, reservoirs, surveillance cameras, business parks and shopping malls across the suburbs of the western world now present themselves with all the strident beauty with which they are evoked in his fiction. All of these, which are nothing less than the infrastructure of our society, are a gleaming rebuke to their marginalisation in the middle-class English novel. As Ballard told interviewer Melvyn Bragg with great relish: “the great thing about science fiction is that nobody lives in Hampstead!” Ballard’s Shepperton neighbourhood may have appeared modern and unfamiliar half a century ago but today it is relatively indistinguishable from the English pastoral landscape that it was built over. The novelist, now in his 75th year, perennially vital and maintaining the air of hilarity that is a sign of a truly serious mind, gestures out of his window and asks: “What lies behind these streets? These are very strange streets!”


James Norton was Assistant Producer on the JG Ballard South Bank Show. The images are his.