Thursday, August 11, 2011

About as soothing as a punch in the face: An interview with J.G Ballard

I've just finished reading J.G. Ballard's Kingdom Come and was amazed at the relevancy of this book in regards to the devastating riots happening in the UK. Kingdom Come follows Richard Pearson into the motorway town of Brooklands after the murder of his father. On the surface the town seems like your typical sleepy, idyllic English town but it soon becomes clear to Pearson that bubbling below the surface is a dangerous yearning to attack, riot and leap willingly into madness. The book looks at issues of boredom, suburbia, consumerism, class, race and football (soccer) hooliganism in an explosive environment. I'll get a review up next week but in the meantime I thought I'd share the interview* which was featured at the back of my edition of the novel. In it Ballard answers questions on the English people and English society in ways that parallels the current global discussion on the cause/reason for the riots.

Kingdom Come, with its cast of marauding hooligans and morality-free 'pillars of the community', dwells on the dark and dangerous side of human nature. Is this sensitivity to the depth our behaviours can plumb attributable to any particular experience you've endured, do you think?

Ballard:Yes. I think a number of experiences, particularly during my childhood in the Far East during the Second World War, encouraged me to regard the human race as potentially quite dangerous. People brought up in the comfortable suburbs of Western Europe and North America tend to think that human beings are at heart governed by a kind of enlightened self-interest; that they are thoughtful and humane above all. I'm not sure if that is true. If you look at the behaviour of, say, the warring factions in Iraq at the moment with their endless suicides bombings and terrible carnage, or the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, where the most incredible brutality and ethnic cleansing took place, or if you go back to the Second World War in Europe, where tens of millions died in the most brutal way, I'm not convinced that human beings can be trusted beyond a certain point. I think they are quite capable in the right, or rather the wrong, circumstances of behaving irrationally. That's certainly my experience.

People think that the events in Kingdom Come are a bit extreme. But they actually aren't. For example, about two years ago there were riots in an IKEA store near the North Circular road in London. People abandoned their cars and were fighting over sofas; there was a huge riot in which people were hurt. Football hooliganism has been a terrible stain on the national character, and it could come back. Nothing I describe is all that extreme.

It's interesting that you mention the IKEA riots when discussing Kingdom Come because in the British media they weren't reported in a serious way at all.

Ballard: I think it's because we have a sort of Passport in Pimlico view of social behaviours in this country. It's an Ealing-comedy, Dad's Army view of the world: we laugh, but forget that in the real world there is a war going on too, as it were. We like to think of England as a big brown teapot with a nice tea cosy over it but actually we should remember that there isn't always tea in the pot. Sometimes it's something a little stronger.

There's a line in Kingdom Come which says: "Like English life as a whole, nothing in Brooklands can be taken at face value." Was that your experience of English life, when you moved here in 1946?

Ballard: I think the English are great actors, there's no doubt about it, and we're all performing roles whether we're aware of it or not. We don't have the sort of frankness and openness of the Australians, or Americans or Canadians. In England there's a very complex social landscape dominated by the class system, which still seems to be very strong. Here people tend not to say what they think. It's always because we're a crowded island. We behave like people on a crowded aircraft or, if you like, a crowded lifeboat: we put on a face that is designed to lower the temperature, allowing everything to carry on without too much discomfort. The trouble is that this hides the underlying truth about what we feel. Look at how the English are notorious for their pleases and thank yous: when we go into a shop we please and thank you to such an extent that visitors are amazed. After all, you're paying fot the think: you don't need to say thank you. But what the pleases and thank yous actually do is hide an underlying aggression and unease. They are all to do with our desire to paper over the cracks-and there are a lot of cracks.

Kingdom Come seems to have anticipated the recent resurgence of film noir. Is there something in the air at the moment?

Ballard: I think it taps into the same thing. In Kingdom Come Pearson believes that you've got to dip a toe into the waters of psychopathology to provide the kind of high-tension excitement that people need, because everyone in the consumer world is very bored. This is the thing about suburbia: there's enormous boredom, and we've reached the stage where people need something a little frightening, a little deviant, to take notice. It's not enough these days to say this detergent washes whiter; you've got to put a spin on it of some kind. Yes, I think there's something in the air. Compare, say, TV programmes like Inspector Morse, which had a gentleman detective sipping his pint and listening to Mozart as he solved a crossword puzzle, and something like CSI, where you're looking at a corpse on an autopsy table, and ribcages are being opened like suitcases. It's dangerous because I think violence and madness have a huge appeal, and it'll move into the area of politics sooner or later too. We've already seen it, in fact, with the rise of the Nazis.

Your own narrator in Kingdom Come is described as 'beyond psychiatric help'.

Ballard:Yes, although that particular reference is actually a joke at my expense. When I submitted the manuscript of my novel Crash to Jonathan Cape in 1972 the reader was the wife of a psychiatrist and she recommended the book be rejected, saying that I was 'beyond psychiatric help'. I of course took it as the greatest compliment - total artistic success!

Does Kingdom Come match the dictionary definition of a 'Ballardian' novel? Is it concerned with 'dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments'?

Ballard: It's certainly not a bleak novel. It has the bright glitter of big shopping malls, and is quite upbeat in tone, so I don't think one should that dictionary definition too literally. Having said that, if you do believe that England is all cricket grounds and villages and cycling to evensong then you're going to find Kingdom Come about as soothing as a punch in the face.

You're noted as being a writer who's interested in the landscape and how it evolves.

Ballard: I think that's true. Many people have complained that old town centres are being abandoned because huge retail parks are opening on the outskirts of towns. The whole social landscape of England is changing tremendously, and particularly, I think, around the big motorways. Not that the people who work in newspapers and television ever visit these areas. They come back from their cottages in the West Country and they look down for the M4 at places like Staines and Slough and Houslow and they give a shudder and drive on! But it is happening.

Lastly, I have to ask about your own shopping habits. 

Ballard: I hate shopping! It drives me mad. I do as little of it as possible. A big retail park is my idea of hell. Every so often I need to buy a new washing machine and it leads me into a nervous breakdown.

*The interview takes place between Ballard and Sarah O'Reilly and was featured in the 2007 Harper Perennial edition of the novel, Kingdom Come.


  1. A fascinating interview, thanks for sharing -- I really need to get around to reading this book. J.G. Ballard was so ahead of his time.

  2. It was pretty good. I'll get around to a review sooner or later, but it's definitely an interesting and frightening read.

    I really need to read more of his books, I'm not sure how I've managed to miss out on so many of his books



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