The Huffington Post has published Will’s recent essay, “Electric Faith”, about electricity for The Idler Academy’s limited edition book Ampera: We’re Electric collection of essays. You can buy a copy here for £12.99.
This is the speech that Will Self delivered at the Broadcast and Beyond conference on 19 May 2010 in which he addressed an audience of professional broadcasters and told them what he would do if he ruled television:
To me, if there’s a spirit of British television it’s this: a title sequence for a current affairs or news programme that unites the individual viewer with the commonality.
Back when I were a wee lad and Michael Barrat’s hairstyle dripped over his forehead like a melting ice cream, the Nationwide title sequence quickened my pulse every time. A snappy clarion of horns, a rappel of strings: “Dada-daaa-Dada-daaa-Dada-daaa!” The Good Word by Johnny Scott leaping down the scale as archetypes of modern Britain appeared in quick succession: a car accelerating up on to the Severn Bridge; a man with a child in his arms; the Tyne at Newcastle; a man speaking on a car phone the size of a small car; electricity pylons stalking across countryside; the ectomorphic cooling towers of a power station with sheep grazing in the foreground; a train disgorging commuters – to look upon each of these was to experience a thrill of recognition – this is us, that could be me – but most of all, as the threads of Ns and Ws merged in the centre of the screen to form a spinning cog or mandala suggestive of that mystical desideratum, technological progress: You. Are. Here!
It was the same buzz for me watching the News at Ten’s title sequence in the 1980s: the first brass trump of Johnny Pearson’s The Awakening sounding somewhere in the heavens, then the earth, cloud-shrouded and spinning in space – Who are we? the sequence implied, alien visitors perhaps, intent on abducting Alastair Burnet and subjecting him to perverse sexual experimentation – but no! because as the timpani began to chunter: “Brrrumbumbumdoodoodooo! Brrrumbumbumdoodoodooo!” And the POV swooped down we sensed that we were both invaders and invaded – a suspicion rapidly confirmed as we curveted along the Thames and came to a screeching halt, vis-a-vis Big Ben with the famous bongs hammering home exactly the same message: You-bong! Are-bong! Here-bongggg!
It’s a well-known axiom of the character that the cruelest of people are also the most sentimental – so the cage fighter boxer cries at the Andrex puppy while Myra Hindley knits baby bootees. I suppose, as a professional satirist, my title sequence foible represents the same extreme cognitive dissonance: for I loathe patriotism of any kind – regarding my British nationality as an accident of birth on a par with a cleft palate; and I hate the thought of belonging to any demographic group, class or even club; while, as for the spirit of the times, the ceaselessly doubled rhythms of contemporaneity – well, much as it pains me to admit it, in my frenzied evacuation from the Dunkirk of the present, back towards an imperfectly recalled – and so wholly romanticised – past, I resemble just about every other bad tempered old bitch and bastard in the realm.
And yet … and yet, even the asinine title sequence for the news on BBC News 24 still does it to me every time. As the stream of scarlet info-spunk spurts around the world from satellite dish to satellite dish, arcing over Matt Frei’s shoulder, skimming past Reeta Chakrabarti’s cheek – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!” – so my pulse quickens and my heart swells with a wholly perverse pride: we may be a shit country … I think to myself – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!” – … a nation of buy-to-letters, City wide-boys and knicker-boxers moored off Europe – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!” – … and we may be the complaisant poodles of US foreign policy – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!” – but, by golly, look at those kiddies hula-hooping in the South African townships, and those bearded Afghanis earnestly talking to our man in the blue flak jacket, they know what we all know – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!” – that our glory days will never be over so long as – “Doo-d’doo-doo! Doo-d’doo-doo!”, the red jism homes in on the great commode of TV Centre – we still make such brilliant news title sequences!
The brief I was given for this lecture was as baggy as the pants a morbidly obese TV viewer’s just removed so he can watch his umpteenth entertainment factual on gastric band and tummy-tuck operations in comfort while snacking on 99 tubes of Pringles. It was quite simply this: If I Ruled Television? And so, here is my first royal commandment: There shalt be long news programme title sequences – incredibly long, so long they take up whole hours of broadcast time on all channels, so long that they induce a collective hallucination in viewers that they are, once more, part of a commonality who are all watching the same shows in the same place, at the same time. All watching the news! All watching Corrie! All watching the Magic-bloody-Roundabout! All watching Yosser Hughes nutting another unsympathetic official and crying out, “Giss a job!” All watching the little boy traumatically watching his mother getting – metaphorically speaking – a good seeing-to by a squaddie in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, and indeed, all watching Potter himself, in his final television interview during which he informed the perkily brown, handsome walnut formerly known as Melvyn Bragg that he called his cancerous tumor, Rupert. And I think you all know why.
Simon Cowell may worry that the pool of available British talent has been drained, but as his have been some of the few shows to consistently gain ratings up above 10 million, I venture to suggest that it may actually have been this fact alone that’s poisoned the water supply. But then again let’s face it: British television has been in steady decline for years now – albeit through no fault of its own. In decline, because what made British television seem great was that it operated as a medium through which the country dialogued with itself: we were a small enough and homogeneous enough society that the tube was a speaking tube, one end pressed against broadcasters’ lips, the other against viewers’ eyes so they could read our lips.
There are a few programmes that in recent years have seemed to pull off this trick – the talent show we know about, and the celebs eating kangaroo testicles, and the wannabe celebs eating kangaroo testicles, and the kangaroos trying to stop David Attenborough getting at their testicles – but they aren’t actually the real thing: they are passivity-inducing entertainments, not rousers of public debate. So, let’s turn back the clock, let’s do away with multiplatform delivery, watch-on-demand, and the balkanization of the bandwidth that means that there’s a channel for every available foodstuff (my favourite being Lettuce TV, its ident a perky radicchio leaf with a cartoon rabbit nibbling an L, a T and a V shapes out of it). Because really, there’s no pressing need for more than three terrestrial channels: two public service and one commercial.
Indeed, why stop at terrestrial, when what I really mean is that there’s no need for more than three channels altogether. This shall be my second commandment: Rip up the cable! Stack the satellite dishes! Re-analogue the signal! And while we’re at it, remember black and white? It’s a fact that every medium’s perceived fidelity is a function of its novelty – the first time people heard scratchy Victrolas playing the Volga Boat song they thought Chaliapin was standing in the room with them; while the first time people saw films of trains choo-chooing towards them out of the screen they turned tail and fled.
Sure, I don’t expect the reintroduction of black and white television to be met with great enthusiasm by our mephedrone-snorting iPad-rubbing yoof, but give ‘em a few months and they’ll be amazed to discover that greyscale has become a scintillating spectrum, while a sole tinny speaker in the base of the television delivers all the punch of Dolby surround-sound. Think of the benefits of this savage curtailment in the amount and technical sophistication of television produced: for the taxpayer a drastic improvement in the quality of product delivered by their license fee, and for the commercial advertiser an enormous increase in the reach of their spend. I was in Hollywood a couple of years ago and graciously took a meeting in Culver City with Michael Lynton, the head of Sony Pictures. It emerged that what exercised him the most was the advent of PVRs. He told me: “In the 70s there were maybe 60 or 70 movies released a year – now it’s 400. If we want to get people into the multiplexes we have to focus our big TV advertising on the weekend before release, but now, well, if they skip the ads … ”
Of course, it would help if the studios also reduced the amount of releases, but still, I feel confident that if we go back to this future we could also see a revivified British film industry – and wouldn’t that be something? I was hoping to see Jeremy Hunt, the new Culture Secretary, here this afternoon, taking time out from his lambada classes to rub frilly shoulders with us power-dressers. With his background in IT, PR, directory publishing and flogging educational courses to Johnny Foreigner he’s ideally suited – under my benign aegis – to oversee this retrenchment of British TV. If he behaves himself, I’ll even allow him to keep a salary somewhere in the region of 20 times that of the most lowly gofer on the most crappy documentary that airs in the graveyard slot: which will henceforth be 10.30pm, as my three channels all cease transmission by midnight, and only begin broadcasting in the middle of the following morning.
Because, you guessed it, that’s my next commandment: a savage curtailment of salaries. I know that altruistic folk such as you realise we’ve all got to tighten our belts a few score notches, but what better way than to lead by example in this most trailblazing of industries and head back to the kind of pay differentials there were in the late 1970s? Back then there was widespread understanding that the expression “television personality” was an oxymoron to set alongside “military intelligence” or “light well”; TV hoofers and talking heads may have been divvied up a decent wad but there was none of the likes of Wossy creaming off millions for asking superannuated starlets if they’re wearing underpants. Vast emoluments for Simon-coated-with-Cuprinol-Cowells and Jeremy-tailpipe-Clarksons of this world don’t just represent the tail wagging the dog of television, they’re akin to every single viewer in the country standing there with a steaming bag full of freshly presented ordure.
I blame New Labour’s much-vaunted policy of choice: choice in schools, choice in healthcare – these were only ever delusions: rich people have choices in all these things, poor people have to take what’s handed out to them, and in the coming climate there are going to be no free lunches – Turkey Twizzlers or otherwise. I’m sure Jeremy Hunt, as a supporter of David Cameron’s “big society” understands that letting the people have too much of a choice when it comes to television is an equally pernicious idea, after all you supported the Digital Economy Act, now why don’t you enact some more radical restrictions on the great tide of free effluent that’s engulfing us? Currently, the average adult Briton watches four hours of television a day. Four hours! With an eight-hour working day, an average hour’s commute, an hour or so for sucking off a Turkey Twizzler and another hour shouting at your kids to stop playing Call of Duty on their Xboxes, this leaves no time at all for the kind of voluntarism that our new prime minister assures us is going to rebuild broken Britain.
We have to find some more time somewhere, people – and a sharp reduction in television viewing would seem the best place to begin. Accordingly, my fourth royal commandment is to limit television viewing per adult to an average to two hours a day.
Released from their burden of choice I see the great British public getting out there and exercising – thus obviating the need for all those documentaries on obesity and all that spectator sport; involving themselves in charities – thus curtailing any requirement for heart-rending appeals shows – no more Red Nose Day telethon! No more Children in Need! Oh, happy day! Hosannas! – and now at last there will be an answer for Channel 4 executives to that terrible and vexing question: what can we find to replace Big Brother in the schedules? The answer is simple, guys: in place of reality television, we’ll have reality, just as in place of Strictly Ballroom we’ll have ballroom dancing, and in place of sniggering at talentless people, Britons will cultivate their own talents.
Look, I realise that you are probably the least receptive audience possible for my new ideas on broadcasting. I understand that your lives have been dedicated to making more television, and that you believe in what you do – you don’t see yourselves as mere manufacturers of the cultural equivalent of bubble-wrap: something for people to idly pop while their brains run in neutral. You quite reasonably view yourselves as integral to British culture. But I ask you: wouldn’t it be something of a relief to not have to be ever-expanding? And wouldn’t it reduce the pressure on you all if you didn’t have to be all things to all viewers, if your content could be tailored to appeal to people who have proven appetite for what you do? And if rather than being driven by the new technology to dilute both revenue streams and the creativity they support, you were to become its masters?
Which brings me to my fifth commandment: Thou shalt ignore da yoof. Recently, the BBC has been screening a series of 1980s-themed programmes, and on the Review Show the other evening I saw some cultural wonk propose that the reason for an upsurge in interest in this terminally naff decade was: da yoof. Bollocks, da yoof couldn’t give a toss about the 1980s, and I bet my sagging middle-aged denim backside that the audience for the Boy George biopic on Sunday evening and the 80s docco that followed it were almost exclusively Baby Boomers in their 40s and 50s.
A big problem for you senior broadcasters is that you mostly grew up in a society in which da yoof were becoming the majority: the reason why the 1960s and then the 1970s were such influential decades was this burgeoning of the young postwar generation. But now we’re all middle aged – and we’re in the majority. There have been no youth movements since the late 1970s that have had the remotest influence on mainstream culture: what did acid house rave give us to compare with 60s psychedelics – a few Tango ads is about it. The avant garde has become something to flog Right Guard with.
No, if the kids have anything to teach us it’s that their sole maxim in life was “Don’t wanna pay, won’t pay” and will no doubt soon be: “Can’t pay – won’t pay.” Still, what can you expect of an entire generation that has been reared on the fantasy that anyone can be a star if you only put a camera in front of them, especially when that camera was embedded in a mobile phone, and that clip was then uploaded to YouTube and seen around the world? Only shit things – like shit itself – are free, ipso facto: free is shit. In one of my own areas of work, journalism, I see the depredations wrought by content providers running scared with the free barbarians in hot pursuit: newspaper circulations falling five and 10% a year, basically because no one dared from the get-go to assert loud and clear: the opinions of Gary down the pub on world politics aren’t worth a fly’s fart in a hurricane. In my other area of expertise, writing fiction, it’s often remarked – by those who know no better – that, “Everyone has a novel in them”, which may be true, but the business of a functioning cultural industry is to make sure that stays inside them, because it’s crap.
OK, obviously the entire three-channels-only riff was just that: a riff. I don’t rule television; in fact, I barely have control over my own set, which is either babbling Cartoon Network at my eight-year-old or reruns of Sex in the City at my wife. But I do think there’s some truth in the adage that less is more. Now that the movies are self-destructing in a spiral of downward marketing and not-so-special effects, television is unique in being an informational resource, a mass entertainment medium and a high artistic one. The balance between public and commercial models in this country has produced great television – and I believe it can continue to do so.
However, user-generated content and file sharing – these are the pincers of the cancerous crab that’s gnawing away at all our creative industries, so please don’t allow it to consume television – don’t end up like the music business, with all the talent having to go on the road in order earn a crust. I mean, there’s only so many times the punters will pitch up for Grand Designs Live before they head round to Kevin McCloud’s own house and torch it. Pretty please do what it takes to put together a funding model for commercial television: sponsorship – I can wear it; subscription cable – better still. The argument that we don’t have sufficient demand here to fund the kind of productions that HBO put out won’t altogether wash – the secret of HBO’s success is as much the licence it grants its content providers as the budgets it affords. Besides, why not consider a subscription cable channel originated here but sold in the US? This could be a commercial proposition, or it could be a more valid revenue stream for the state broadcaster, whose core undertaking – in my view – beyond news and current affairs, should always be loss-leading content.
Clearly, a complete free-for-all in the commercial sector can only benefit the biggest players, whether they’re content providers, platform builders, broadcasters – or all three. The Ruperts and Richards of this world are like the fictional character of Hiram Potter, the multimillionaire press baron in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, according to Potter: “A newspaper is a business out to make money through advertising revenue. That is predicated on its circulation, and you know what the circulation depends on.” Well, I don’t believe any of you take that view 100% about television, nor do you have to be a pinko who lives by sucking pages of the Guardian dipped in semi-skimmed milk to think that there has to be regulation in broadcasting that helps to foster radical innovation specifically for minority interests.
The BBC has always been anomalous in our national life – and it continues to be so. When George Orwell satirised it as The Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four and furnished this bogey-bureau with observations drawn from his own wartime experience as a BBC radio talks producer, he was as ever very close to the bone: a huge public-service broadcaster like the BBC is more suited to a Soviet-era communist regime than our own deregulated dystopia. Mark Thompson is only the latest BBC supremo to realise that the threat to its revenue stream lies in success quite as much as failure. The BBC is now so big, and operates across so many markets, territories and media, that it is in danger of sucking the life out of whole swaths of the private sector, let alone the other public-service broadcasters.
But you know this – and you probably also appreciate the institutional inertia that means that once an organisation has grown to a certain size it becomes impossible for it to countenance its own diminution, yet successive governments always half-look to morbidly-obese Auntie herself for the self-discipline required to shed all those pounds. If Jeremy Hunt is serious about tackling the politics of British television then he’ll need to get out from behind all the post-Thatcher and now post-Hutton bad blood that lies between the BBC and government; he’ll have to disregard his own strategic inclinations – which will be to play politics with the PBS. He’ll also need to go against his own free-marketeering instincts: the whole concept of imposing the market ethos on public services has failed in this country – it’s failed in the NHS, it’s failed in schools, and it’s failed in broadcasting; hell, it’s even failed in the markets themselves. Someone needs to have the balls to geld the BBC and get it trotting back round the paddock rather than galloping madly through every room of everyone’s house everywhere in the world.
Still, we must be sympathetic; after all, it’s painful for politicians too: they feel our pain, and they feel their own a lot more intensely. Despite the huge ratings, the first prime ministerial electoral debate secured, it remains the case that politics is essentially showbiz for ugly people – ugly people who are, paradoxically, vain. But if the debates taught us anything it was not that the British are a sophisticated electorate, willing to make new choices on the basis of new policies, but that they are a very sophisticated television audience. Let’s recall: we spend four hours a day watching television on average, whereas I doubt even the most committed anorak spends four hours a day reading Lib-Dem position papers.
The Lib-Dem bounce in the polls after the first debate was a positive reaction to a good piece of television, but as the second and then the third debate ground on, viewers tired of the spectacle that had all the intrinsic excitement of watching three six-year-olds chuck darts at the bull’s eye while standing two feet in front of it. And because the Boy Cleggster was really doing well as a TV performer, it’s no surprise that he couldn’t translate this into an electoral result for his party: we may watch a lot of TV, but we aren’t complete morons.
We aren’t complete morons, and we understand that there are testing times ahead – but things couldn’t go on the way they were, I mean, to take just one example: how many media studies graduates can a country physically produce before it begins sinking beneath the waves under the weight of them? No, the harsh truth is that recessions can often be very stimulating for creativity: once again, less becomes more, and people are compelled to cheaply innovate rather than expensively replicate existing formulas. The ideal, surely, must remain the same: to make television worth sitting down for, not simply television that people can’t be bothered to stand up and switch off.
In memory of JG Ballard, who died a year ago today, here is the catalogue essay that Will Self wrote for the Crash exhibition at the Gagosian gallery in London recently:
“Illuminated arrays glowed through the night, like the perimeter lights of a colony of prison camps, a new gulag of penal settlements where the forced labour was shopping and spending … ” So wrote JG Ballard in his final novel, Kingdom Come, a dissection of crap modern Britain before the bubble burst. In Ballard’s evocation of society drifting waywardly into an elective collective psychopathy, it is the shopping mall that is the cynosure – at once a temple of consumerism and biosphere that, poisoned by re-circulated air and piped muzak, becomes wholly decoupled from the dull Surrey dormitory towns that surround it.
In a conversation at the time of the novel’s publication, Ballard told me that much of the inspiration for the book derived from his immediate environment: “A couple of years ago I saw that this house down the road with two enormous flagpoles outside of it, flying the Cross of St George. It sent a tremor through me – it was such a combative statement. For a start I wondered where on earth did they get them; I mean did they look up “flagpoles” in the Yellow Pages? But then it got me thinking about how people have nothing left to believe in, the props that hold society up are decayed. The monarchy is rotten … politics stinks, there’s nothing left to believe in.”
And so, under the big, button eyes of teddy bear mascots in a shopping mall, the lumpen bourgeoisie commit murder while worshipping flat-screen TVs. According to Ballard four years ago: “We’re living in quite scary times. The outward appearance is so calm, but even here in suburbia there are strange currents. I don’t want to make too much of this, but we saw it during the World Cup. Football has become a catalyst for rejecting the norm … And among these people of the flag – tourists or hooligans – there are no Asians or blacks. It’s whites only.”
If it transpires that the racist skull beneath our tolerant society is exposed during the current recession, then this will be by no means the first time that Ballard’s fiction has been startlingly prescient. Indeed, the late tetralogy of novels – Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006) – all explored the kind of willed irrationality that the author located as the wellspring of those awesome 20th century dystopias: Fascist Germany, Soviet Russia, and Maoist China. Not that this theme was a new one for Ballard. During a career that lasted half a century, many of his stories were concerned with the dialectic of social control and breakdown; but whereas most late 20th century writers either took the standpoint of the individual, or cleaved to a grand narrative of historical explanation, Ballard was perhaps unique in appreciating – and even celebrating – the ambivalence of the masses. He understood, in Bakunin’s formulation, that “the lust for destruction is also a creative desire”.
When JG Ballard died in April of last year there was, for those of us who had long appreciated the immense cultural significance of his work, a satisfying confirmation: considerable media attention was paid, with news items, features and even editorials analysing the nature of his thought and the quality of his imagination. There were also overviews that sought to assess his contribution to a number of fields from architecture to film. In the case of some artists there would have been a bitter taste to this ex post facto acknowledgement, but it was Ballard himself who said “For a writer death is always a career move”; and besides, he understood the literary culture of the English-speaking world too well not to have also comprehended why it was impossible for his stature to be fully apprehended during his lifetime.
After all, Ballard had already survived the apotheosis of his name becoming an adjectival form. Collins Dictionary defines Ballardian as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak manmade landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social, or environmental developments.” I’m slightly staggered by this, because it seems to me that all novels and stories should rightly concern themselves with just these things – however, I have to acknowledge that I’ve been a fully paid up Ballardian since I first read his early apocalyptic novels in the mid-1970s. The same cannot be said for the wider culture, and certainly when Ballard began writing in the late 1950s he found nothing in conventional English literary fiction that chimed with his sensibilities. At that time the so-called Angry Young Men such as Kingsley Amis and John Braine were hardly avant garde, being preoccupied just as much as those they opposed with the dramatic ironies of a hermetic and hierarchical class society.
In later years, Ballard was wont to speak of his decision to write science fiction as highly conscious, a direct function of his being passionately interested not in ossified social forms but “the next five minutes”. I doubt that anything was quite that calculated, but without lying down on the couch of psychoanalytic biography it’s hard not to see the writer’s early experiences as leading – almost ineluctably – towards the genre. Born in 1930 in Shanghai, JG Ballard’s was a comfortable upbringing – his father was a wealthy manufacturer – but all this changed when the Japanese invaded China in 1937. A period of anarchy and confusion followed, but it wasn’t until after Pearl Harbour and the entry of the Allies into the Sino-Japanese War that the Ballards, along with other British expatriates were rounded up and placed in an internment camp.
Perhaps too much attention has focused on Ballard’s three years in Lunghua Camp; this is in part a product of his own autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984) – and more so Steven Spielberg’s subsequent film adaptation, but also because the experience and its fictive recreation fulfilled certain familiar cultural paradigms. Ballard’s novel was satisfyingly empirical: a recounting of individual experiences that had historical basis in a conventional narrative form, and as such it became his most widely read book, and even – a solecism in terms of the rest of his oeuvre – was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Ballard said of Empire of the Sun that until he wrote the novel he hadn’t fully articulated to himself how much the scenes he witnessed during the War had been utilised for the furniture of his fiction: the drained swimming pools and abandoned villas of the expatriates’ cantonment; the panicked Chinese citizenry; the stylized violence of the Japanese soldiery. But the Ballardian sensibility surely has its crucible just as much in the pre-War Shanghai through which the child Ballard was either ferried in a chauffeur-driven car, or else travelled alone on reckless cycle rides. In the juxtaposition between the immiseration of the rural peasantry, driven into the city to die on the streets of hunger, and the electronic signboards flashing along the futuristic skyline of the Bund, must surely lie the crucible of that “overlit realm” that forms the very core of Ballard’s fictional world.
Pre-War Shanghai gave Ballard his intense ambivalence about technology and the emergent future. In contrast to so many Old World artists and writers he was always a lover of things American, admiring the openness and energy of its people, and hymning its technology as the true art form of the 20th century. His arrival in England in 1946 was a profound shock. He discovered not the fabled Imperial homeland that he had been inculcated with by a conventional British upper-middle class education, but a nation that looked as if it had lost the war. By now Ballard was already post-lapsarian to his core: he had witnessed firsthand a decline into barbarism, and been saved by the deployment of a “doomsday” weapon – the US atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like his one-time friend and literary influence William Burroughs, Ballard already grasped that a complete reevaluation of all values was underway. The England of the late 1940s and 50s with its smoky coal fires, black cars that looked like prams and consciously recherché culture was unable to contain him.
However, I think that the distinctive quality of Ballard’s vision owes much to this shock of the old: he always retained his neophyte’s view of England and therefore was able to perceive what was anomalous, what was mutating. Also, having been exposed to the modernity of Shanghai, Ballard, unlike his compatriots, grasped the irregular stochastic of futurity: with some probable outcomes relating not to the immediate but a distant past. He was thus a steam-punk long before the coinage.
Other perspectives came from his time as a Cambridge medical student. Ballard has said he studied medicine with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist: “And of course, my first patient would’ve been myself.” But while an immersion in psychopathology is characteristic of his work, so is saturation in the visceral and the organic. In both The Kindness of Women (1991), and his final book, the memoir Miracles of Life (2008), Ballard wrote vividly about his experiences of dissecting cadavers, about the beauty of the human anatomy – and it’s to this that we can attribute the forensic quality of his prose, the single detail linked causally to an entire structure – whether physical or psychic.
Ballard broke off his medical studies and enlisted in the RAF. His time training as a pilot in Canada was as influential as his abortive doctoring. When he came to write science fiction Ballard may have eschewed sagas of extraterrestrial exploration in favour of his own voyages into what he termed “inner space”, but there’s no doubt that the altitudinous perspective of the flyer informed his approach to planet earth. About Ballard’s work there is always a sense of wonder at the fact of our being earthbound at all – while the escape from surly gravity is into dream as much as flight, and once again he grasped immediately that the scaling-down of the US space programme meant the end of Prometheanism as it had been understood since the Enlightenment.
So, a child Modernist, a proto-steam punk, a camp survivor, a fleeing rather than a flying doctor, and an airman manqué: by the time Ballard came to settle in the effortlessly dull Surrey dormitory town of Shepperton in the early 1960s, most of the key elements of his writing persona were intact. The final turn of the screw was yet to come in the form of the premature and shocking death of his wife, Mary, leaving Ballard to raise three small children as a single parent. Again, not wishing to overly psychoanalyse, the stories Ballard had already published in New Worlds, and the novels The Wind from Nowhere (1961) and The Drowned World (1962) may have had a dystopic cast and a phantasmagorical feel, but this was nothing compared with what followed.
“Humanity is an atrocity exhibition at which we are unwilling spectators.” So Ballard wrote in The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), the story cycle that stands at the ground zero of his explosive body of work. Around it is the fallout from this literary experiment, and although successive blast waves can be identified they are by no means discrete, either thematically or chronologically. The apocalyptic novels fade into a trilogy of narratives preoccupied with the impact of present innovations in the built environment on the human psyche: Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975). In turn these fade into a wave of eco-parables, such as The Day of Creation (1987) and Rushing to Paradise (1994). Scattered right across the plain of destruction are the glittering fragments of Ballard’s shorter fictions, stories in which he was fully liberated to contemplate everything from cloud-sculpting as an art form, to the super-saturation of the planet by its human cargo.
The Atrocity Exhibition was written over four years from 1966 to 1969, and while looping through the separate stories is the notion of a psychiatrist suffering from a mental breakdown, this in no way constitutes a unifying narrative. Rather the cycle epitomises Ballard’s espoused credo of “trusting to (his) obsessions”. Here in the late 1960s, with the Vietnam War being televised and the space race at full tilt, Ballard descried the next five minutes in which sex and technology would be indissolubly wed, with the mass media acting as officiant.
One of the stories in the collection is entitled The Assassination of Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race, a nod to Alfred Jarry’s The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race. Ballard was much influenced by Jarry’s cod-philosophical creation, pataphysics, which can loosely be defined as the study of how the universe beyond this one is determined by the unexpected. (An alternative view – equally applicable to Ballard – is that pataphysics concerns itself with the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects to descriptions of their virtuality.)
Indeed, while in the late 1950s and early 1960s Ballard took an interest in emergent Pop Art, the deeper currents in his thinking that now swam to the surface had their origin in the French avant-garde of the Surrealists, Dadaist and Situationists. On the basis of the Kennedy fragment alone, The Atrocity Exhibition would have received the attention of the censors, as it was an obscenity prosecution was launched in England due to another Jarryesque passage entitled Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, a parody of a US election pamphlet. Needless to say, Ballard declined to appear for the defence on the basis that he intended obscenity.
It is significant that Ballard’s most sustained statement of his literary method occurs in the introduction to the French edition of Crash; it is here that he definitively rejects the 19th century naturalistic novel with its omniscient narrator determining the fates of characters imbued with “freewill” – in essence a small-scale model of the Judaeo-Christian cosmology. The uneasiness with which Ballard’s work – barring Empire of the Sun – was met by the literary establishment in the English-speaking world, recalls to my mind Bob Dylan’s lines in Ballad of a Thin Man: “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is / Do you Mr Jones.”
What was happening was the smuggling into English discourse of sinisterly Frenchified ideas, and the philosopher to whom Ballard has most affinities is his near-anagram Jean Baudrillard. Like Baudrillard, Ballard understood that the impact of mass media upon reality was fundamental, that the more a totalising coherence was strived for, the more it would create a “hyperreality” in which simulations and simulacra took the role of actual events. For Ballard as for Baudrillard, an illusory “end” to history has already occurred: there are no longer any complete explanations, only postmodern exchanges of highly-charged symbolic “happenings” in a Maussian intercultural potlatch.
Just as Baudrillard was vilified for his book-length contention that The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991), so Ballard was charged with – in his novel Crash – having anticipated the death of Diana Spencer on the Parisian Peripherique in 1997. In truth, it was Ballard’s intuitive grasp on the choreography of mediatised reality that made so many of his fictions subsequently take place. From his unerring situation of the internecine tower block in High-Rise exactly where Canary Wharf would rise a decade later, to his anticipations of global warming and the entertainment genre of “reality television”, Ballard’s ability to conceive of “the next five minutes” was not some occult, seer-like capability, but the hard-headed product of understanding the work of man in the age of its – and our – technological reproducibility.
And all of this was framed within an acute perception of the urban environment that has distinct affinities with Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Just as for Ballard the individual is best understood as a function of his or her productive relations, so the city is best interpreted as a conjunction of motorway slip roads, gated developments and shopping malls. Living as he did for a half a century in the path of the edge city being extruded by the London conurbation, Ballard was well-placed to see quite how outmoded the Neoclassical conception of the polis had become. During a period when the bulk of English fiction remained perversely static: frozen in realms of metropolitan chichi, suburban kitsch and bucolic charm, Ballard’s narratives cruised the concretised periphery.
Which is where we came in, and it seems perverse to leave without having considered so many other aspects of Ballard’s writing: his willingness to use his own imagination as an experimental test bed, his precocious metrosexuality (that most womanly of male writers, he is always comfortable with homoeroticism), his avowal that “sex plus technology equals the future” – and the seeming-perversities that this necessarily entails, his curious ambivalence towards violence – and so on.
When Ballard died the location of his “influence” in this genre or that medium was a relatively easy task to undertake. What was more difficult for commentators to grasp was how insidiously in the preceding five decades the Ballardian had become … the commonplace. Bleak manmade landscapes, the psychological effects of technological, social and environmental developments – this is the dystopian society we all live in now. Ballard may have started out as a science fiction writer – now his texts read as social fact.
Will Self has written an essay about London from 1989 to 2009 for the London +10 exhibition at the Architectural Association Gallery in London, which is on until March 26. For more details visit their website here. Here is the essay in full:
In 1989 I was working for the Grocer Magazine, the trade paper for the grocery business. They had offices in Southwark, and I was employed to run a small contract publishing company that was based in the building opposite: the Hop Exchange. This was – and remains – a fine example of High Victoriana: a long curved frontage with two-storey pilasters topped by a pediment featuring bas-reliefs of hops. Inside, the atrium had been used as a dealing floor for hop trading under natural light. It was just one of the many single ‘outcry’ commodity exchanges built in London in the latter half of the 19th century – coal, metal, stock etc – but the Hop had been damaged by fire in the 1920s and suffered an early conversion to office space.
Looking back now, this little corner of Southwark represented in embryo all of the main aspects of London’s phenomenology that were to develop in the subsequent two decades. In some cases these evolved into systems of thought – ways in which the city thinks quite rationally about itself; in others they became mental pathologies afflicting the collective unconscious of the metropolis, and producing neurotic/necrotic symptoms in the built environment and its inhabitants.
The Hop Exchange is adjoined by Borough Market, at that time still essentially a wholesale fruit and vegetable market, but just beginning to be encroached upon by the boutique retailing that was transmogrifying the old productive relations of the city into consumer ones. Further east along the river, on the banks of the old Pool of London, boutique retailing had taken root in Hays Galleria, but the littoral between there and Tower Bridge still contained interwar public housing, together with bomb sites upon which the only rooted things were ruderals. Of course, the new Conran cantonment was being speedily developed in the old warehouse quarter beyond Tower Bridge: a flotilla of high-end restaurants heading towards Canary Wharf on the ebb tide, the newly opened Design Museum its flagship.
Meanwhile, to the west of my office lay the hulk of Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station. We would often go and eat lunch on the benches along the embankment, marvelling at the great redbrick cliff face of the building, its organic quality underscored by the large stands of buddleia growing out from the crumbling pointing. It’s perhaps trite to observe that the generating life of the oil-fired power station was a scant 30 years (it ceased operation in 1981), but less so to consider that the elevation of the building was intended by Scott to mirror St Paul’s on the north bank, and that the chimney was deliberately lower than the cathedral dome.
Now the Herzog & De Meuron conversion of Bankside is established in the popular purview as iconic of all that London became in the noughties: a self-consciously designed built environment. I take issue with this, in as much as London is designed at all, it’s merely the same old metropolis, which, like someone who has just bought a new hat, stops repeatedly to check how it looks in the mirrored façade of an office block that’s been built to flip. The is an example of giganticism as social control – even if that control is the command to appreciate art – while all Herzog & De Meuron did to the exterior was to put what looks like a condom on top of the chimney. Perhaps this is intended as a prophylaxis against the insemination of aesthetic leisure by work – or religion.
If so, it hasn’t worked. Tate Modern is the agora of London’s cives aestheticus, an artocracy who rule over a capital whose economy since the Big Bang became dominated by soi-disant ‘financial services’ and the graphic design skills needed to interface between binary blips and more decadent perceptions. The high-art lite of London’s contemporary conceptualists – which became synonymous with ‘Cool Britannia’ during the 1990s – had its origins in the recession of 1991-2 (itself precipitated by an electronic blizzard), but became the home furnishing of the seriously rich – derivatives traders, an exiled Russian kleptocracy – that New Labour was seriously comfortable with.
Whether in the ateliers and galleries of Hoxton or the design studios and copy shops of the West End, London’s graphicism is what must be emphasised: the city has never really had a Modernist period, only a postmodern career referencing its own early modern detailing. Modernism is a bijoux in London, an Oscar Niemeyer pavilion to be worn on the breast of Julia Peyton Jones as she welcomes the artocracy to one of her Serpentine Gallery parties.
But in 1989, the salvation of Bankside lay six years in the future. Civic pride in the city was in abeyance: the dissolution of the Greater London Council by Margaret Thatcher meant, paradoxically, that London was in its natural, anarchic and essentially ungovernable state. The paradigm for the massive redevelopment of Docklands that had got underway five years earlier, went back to the medieval granting of ‘enterprise zones’ off the Strand to the Hanseatic League and other trading freebooters. If there is a discernible stratigraphy to London’s civic space it was still a midden then, with County Hall senescent and Scott’s Battersea Power Station the western brick-end to Bankside.
Twenty years later, the Mayoralty and the Greater London Authority do battle in a City Hall that ogles the Tower of London from the formerly weedy patch. This is democracy on Norman Foster’s half-shell – and as such it’s difficult not to believe it may yet be thrown on the rubbish patch. More timeless was the last public event to take place on the site before the lopsided oculus was erected around its helical core – David Blaine’s 44-day endurance stunt suspended in a Plexiglas box above Potters Field Park. It may have been September 2003, but the response of the crowd to the American’s exhibitionist hunger strike was the London mob at its most reassuring and timeless. They mooned him, they taunted him with food and drink – they behaved like any Tudor rabble bear-baiting in the Liberty of Southwark.
At the time it recalled to my mind the poll tax riots of 13 years before. I had witnessed the breakout from the ‘Battle of Trafalgar Square’: phalanxes of police, ill-protected by their Plexiglas shields, retreating under a hale of scaffolding poles up the Charing Cross Road. The juxtaposition between trendy photographers shooting the action from behind their own makeshift barriers of milk crates, the tourists still manfully masticating behind the plate glass window of the Aberdeen Steak House, and the melee in the street was, again, London at its theatrical best.
Looking back on two decades of riotous – and near riotous – assembly it occurs to me that the mass gallery-going incepted by the Blair regime after 1997 stands in the same relation to the anti-Iraq War demonstrations of February 2003 (and, of course, the annual May Day anti-capitalist jamborees) as the boutique consumerism of Borough Market and Butler’s Wharf does to the bohemian squatting putsches of the 1970s and early 1980s. Only through mass and spontaneous theatricality does London reassert its identity and reclaim its streets from the tedious window-dressing of public art and state-sanctioned aestheticism.
When the state attempts to muscle in on the act, the results are arid and stylised. The funeral of Diana Spencer attempted a reassertion of the Imperial pantomime: the death cart dragged up the Mall to Trafalgar Square and then down Whitehall, symbolically linking the foci of London – and hence metropolitan – power. But it was one of the first definitive examples of the media creating a mass negative feedback loop that I can recall, as throughout that week in August 1997 millions of grief-stricken proles were anticipated along the route – so millions decided to stay away. In so doing, the nation talked itself down from its hysteria, and now, only 12 years on, I was able to speak to a class of London sixth-formers, the majority of whom didn’t know who she was.
But to go back to Southwark in 1989, to walk through the old LCC, Guinness Trust and Peabody estates in back of Borough High Street, or even further afield into the Brutalist hinterland of the Walworth Road, was to enter terrain that by today’s standards remained open. The great encapsulation and disbursement of London’s public housing stock was by then underway, but as yet the majority of flats were walk-up and there were hardly any CCTV cameras or video intercom systems. If London’s civic space has in the past 20 years adjusted its hat brim, London’s housing has increasingly mugged it up for the cameras.
The ceding of public space to enacted paranoia is typified by London’s fetishisation of security. For the rich this has been embodied in property pornography: double-page spreads of houses spreading their wings in the licensed brothels of ‘village’ London (the priapic bubble of which was pumped up by speculative Viagra). For the poor, still reeling from the high-rise purge of the early 1980s, the prescription of lower-density estates came with a rider: you have to pay for it. And so a wedge has been driven into London’s working class, with the Thatcherite climbers aspiring to low-rise units that must be secured against feral hoi polloi. Now we have ‘privatised’ estates, run by housing trusts or pseudo-companies, and a rump of sink public estates. In both cases the implementation of measures intended to humanise communal space – barrier walls, walkways, etc – have resulted in balkanisation.
If I emphasise these developments in the built environment, it’s because they represent the material enactment of the mounting anxiety concerning crime in London. For the last decade or so, when I wrote political and social commentary weekly for the Evening Standard, crime has never strayed far from the top of the agenda. To advocate robust public-housing construction during this period – as I did – was not so much anathema as inconceivable, like arguing for the reintroduction of dinosaurs to the Thames Valley. Yet the large-scale housing policies that have been proposed – one thinks of John Prescott’s Gateway plan, the toxic social housing on the Greenwich peninsula, or now the ‘thriving new community’ predicated on the Stratford Olympics site – all contain within them the same divisive dialectic.
Underlying the debates on crime and the fetishisation of property has been the largest socio-cultural transformation that the city has undergone since the mass inward migration that stacked up redbrick Victorian London. In 1989, the ethnic minority population of inner London was perhaps 10%, a decade later it is 25% overall, and in some places far higher. The impact of this is the elephant in the room, not simply because of old prejudices now remoulded by the fascistic British National Party, but because the liberal left’s tolerance of immigration – both legal and illegal – has been essentially schizophrenic. The kulturkampf has prided itself on ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’; in the 1990s, Blairites took up the ‘multicultural’ standard initially raised by Ken Livingstone’s GLC regime in the previous decade, but underlying this was an economic imperative for cheap – and in many cases off-the-cards – labour.
Not that the ethnic minority populations are all gastarbeiter – far from it: London has become the cosmopolitan city it always prided itself on being by natural increase, and while the process may threaten the ‘donut’ configurations of North American cities – a black core and a white ring of outer suburbs – in practice the psychogeography of the city has militated against this. The same rich-cheek-by-poor-jowl mishmash has been overlain with new centres of ethnic settlement – Asian in Southall and northern suburbs such as Edgware and Finchley; Eastern European in Ealing, and so forth. London in 1989 was still a whitish city that shut down when the pubs did and closed substantially on Sundays; now the old arterial routes from the centre into the suburbs are rivers of light, coursing with multicultural commerce 24-hours a day throughout the year.
In 1989, I began work on my first book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity. One of the narratives in this story cycle concerns a secret cabal of motorcycle couriers whose leader can go into a trance that allows him to extrapolate from the vehicle flows on any given thoroughfare to envision the state of the traffic citywide. The story is entitled – suitably enough – Waiting; and while not wishing to pretend to prophetic powers, looking back I see that this extrasensory gift does prefigure the in-car SatNav that has become intrinsic to London minicabs, allowing those more familiar with the street plan of Lodz or Lagos than London to make a living.
The story was inspired by my own slavish addiction to driving a car in London, and in particular to my demented experience of commuting to work from Shepherd’s Bush to Southwark during a series of tube strikes that the RMT called that year. The absurdity of paying for what had become essentially a hut-on-wheels struck me forcibly at that time, although it took me another decade to begin to seriously address my habit (and I wasn’t cured until 2007!). Of course, transport policy is the very essence of London’s politics, its culture and its economy: a gridlock of passionate concerns revving in real-time and emitting the poisonous hydrocarbons of heightened emotion.
During my time as a London commentator I have written more words on the vexed issues of transport, by a factor of 10, than I have on anything else. The significance of transport is enshrined in London’s governance: the mayoralty and assembly that have notionally been in charge of the city for the past decade are in reality Potemkin creations, largely funded by Westminster, behind which lurk a real responsibility for managing the tube and bus systems. The Thatcherite utility privatisations of the 1980s reached their apotheosis in the misconceived carve up of the Tube in line with the already maladaptive disjunction of British Rail.
All of the citywide elections of recent years have hinged directly on transport policy with Ken Livingstone’s adoption of congestion charging being the most contentious. The victory of Boris Johnson in May of 2008 was a function of a campaign that specifically targeted suburban voters who’re welded to their huts-on-wheels; it was the triumph of outer over inner London, of Little England over the polyglot inner city. Livingstone’s enormous expansion of London buses, the Jubilee Line and the Docklands Light Railway notwithstanding, the last two decades have seen a stultification of public-transport infrastructure unmatched by any other metropolis in the West.
I’d go further: it’s arguable that there has really been no significant improvement in interurban transportation since Yerkes completed the deep-level tube system in the 1900s: average journey times by road and by public transport remain essentially the same, and it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that London, having been the first world city, thrived during the pre-First World War period of globalisation, but then went on – in much the same material condition – to the next. It’s worth noting that the Crossrail project was initially floated in 1974 (when its completion would’ve cost a derisory £300 million), and again in the early 1990s. The political class have repeatedly cited the 2012 Olympics boondoggle as the impetus necessary to carry it to completion – evidence if any were needed that strategic planning is an oxymoron when applied to London.
I am conscious of having barely picked at the scabrous surface of London in this essay. To assay the heft of this gigantic conurbation over the past 20 years, to identify its regularities and recursions is a task appropriate to a shelf-full of weighty books rather than a couple of thousand words. Thankfully, one thing that has changed for the better since 1989 is a growing consciousness of the city as an object of study: no bookshop is now without an entire section, and so London’s phenomenology has an increasingly sentient character. The city may be heading for disaster, but it does so with eyes wide open.
I would like to seize, however, upon a fitting motif – or, rather, a fulcrum; one big enough to lever the city’s recent history into starker relief. Standing at roughly the midpoint is the millennium, the celebration of which entailed a rash of projects most of which failed to reach fruition. Of those that did, the fiasco of the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, and the sight of queuing nabobs let down by inadequate transport provision on New Years Eve has become synonymous in the public mind with London’s inability to enact grandes projets in the manner of our continental cousins. This is just, but to my way of thinking the real and definitive break between the 1990s and noughties occurred a year earlier, when, at the prodigious speed of two degrees per hour, the Millennium Wheel (aka London Eye) was winched upright on the embankment next to County Hall and opposite the Houses of Parliament.
I took a personal interest having toured the construction site with one of the architects, David Marks, but while the project seemed exciting, the monumental Ferris wheel’s ephemeral character (it was originally intended to only be in operation for five years), made it an unlikely London signature structure – with all that this implies. However, with more than 30 million trips undertaken on the Wheel to date it has come to epitomise London’s uneasy self-actualisation. The arc described in ascending the wheel facilitates a novel perspective on the city as it ‘opens up’ like a child’s pop-up book. The Wheel emphasises London as spectacle, London as a tourist destination the popularity of which is predicated on the ebbs and flows of the international currency market. Only from the Wheel can the current of power that runs from the City to Westminster be fully apprehended.
On my first trip on the Wheel, the building that loomed largest was the old Brutalist headquarters of the Ministry of Transport on Marsham Street – a building the size of which couldn’t be apprehended at ground level. On my second trip, the building had been razed and replaced with a relatively inconspicuous Home Office – soon to become the Kafkaesque Ministry of Justice. No other view so elegantly articulated the city’s ability to ceaselessly self-cannibalise, while remaining essentially the same.
© Will Self, 2009
To buy London +10, go here.
For those of you who can read German, there’s also an interesting review of the lecture by Gina Thomas at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
An essay by Will Self on the ever-changing relationship between the literary and visual arts from John Keats to JG Ballard from Tate Etc.
You can now watch, as well as listen to, Will giving his Radio 3 lecture, here.
Will has written about his pipe collection in his study for Granta.