JG BALLARD: UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT
INTERVIEW 10.7.06, 2-4PM, IN THE FRONT ROOM OF BALLARD'S HOUSE
[Note: On 5.7.06, five days before I was due to interview JG Ballard, I received a piece of spam with the subject: 'Enter: Impress your girl with prolonged hardness, plentiful explosions and increased duration'. It was from Ballard. These things happen.]
TL: I'm here to talk to you about Kingdom Come
JB: In the context of the Waterstones Quarterly Journal. Which, assumes, I take it that every book involved is
TL: Positively looked upon
JB: Is wonderfully entertaining, and gripping, and a profound human drama - and I'm all for that.
TL: I wouldn't worry. I enjoyed the book very much.
JB: And he's read the book, too! My God.
TL: You can test me.
JB: I'm pleased you have read the book. And if you liked it, I'm very very glad.
TL: I reviewed Millennium People, and this seems a less humorous book.
TL: In the Guardian.
JB: Guardian? Oh, I must have seen it. Don't know what's the matter with me.
TL: And I think was less humorous than Millennium People.
JB: That wasn't typical of my stuff, actually. I wouldn't say that - I lot of people found that very funny, and I'm glad. Humour is something I've always been accused of lacking. There's a lot of humour in my novels and short stories, but it's of a rather deadpan kind.
TL: I don't think it's lacking in anything you've written. But I did find that Millennium People took a slightly more slapstick approach to, say, chaos encroaching on a place you wouldn't expect it - Chelsea Marina, or somewhere like that. Whereas in Kingdom Come, it's slightly more sombre but also more directly political. Was that the aim of the book?
JB: I think that's right. The thing about MP is that there's something inherently comical about the middle-classes claiming to be the new exploited proletariat. I mean one can't help but laugh at the absurdity of the notion.
TL: Why is that absurd?
JB: The fact that we laugh is a measure of the degree, perhaps, to which the middle-classes have been conned into thinking that they represent the upper echelons of society, which in fact they don't any longer.
TL: So who holds the power?
JB: Hey, we're supposed to be talking about another book
TL: [Laughs] This goes into it.
JB: Oh, fair enough!
TL: If with, say, Millennium People, it's a ridiculous idea that the bourgeoisie should see themselves as revolutionary, so in Kingdom Come we have the - not really the bourgeoisie, but the slightly lower middle-class seeing themselves becoming fascist.
JB: The new middle class of the motorway towns.
TL: Why is that less ridiculous? A national socialism for the M25 rather than
JB: I think it's less ridiculous because we see uneasy, sort of, tremors fluttering all those St George's flags. I mean, had you come here a week ago, every bloody shop in Shepperton had a large St George's flag. Many of the houses around here had flags fluttering. Every other car had more than one flat. You know, you can't help but think the excitement over the World Cup was about more than mere sport, I feel I don't say that it's the first sign of a fascist takeover. But -
TL: I beg to differ.
JB: Maybe it is. I mean, the point is that people are obviously bored and they are very dissatisfied with their lives, and I think it only would take a small push, and something rather unsettling might begin to happen. Um
TL: I'm not going to quote you back to yourself very much, but -
JB: God, all those mistakes. What happened to that proof-reader?!
TL: In the book of Conversations that's just come out, edited by V.Vale -
JB: Lovely book.
TL: You say in that, in the first interview: 'Consumer society is a collaborative soft tyranny which most people are happy with, others like me would call it the new Dark Age!' And in the book you have the Dr Maxted character say, 'The danger is that consumerism will need something close to fascism in order to keep growing.' And slightly later, 'The consumer society is a kind of soft police state.' So, he seems very close - he's not exactly quoting you, but he's you speaking through a character. When you say 'fascism' the problem in the novel, one of the issues, is that the fuehrer doesn't really want to be the fuehrer. Is that a defining characteristic of fascism, that it needs the leader, and that's the only thing missing at the moment, for England?
JB: I think fascism it does need a leader. But the leader may take an unexpected form. And I suggest in the book that our equivalent of the ranting fuehrer is the cable channel chatshow host. The thing about fuehrers and messiahs is that they always come out of the least expected places - deserts, usually. But of course the shopping malls and retail parks of 2006, England, are a desert by any yardstick you like to apply. I mean, consumerism itself is a vast desert. A desert without a single oasis as far as I can see. But the point one of the characters made, several times, is that we don't need a ranting, jackbooted messiah. Um This a sort of soft fascism, almost a fascism lite - horrible phrase, but you know what I mean. But the underlying motivation is probably the same. I mean, one sees what people are looking for is their own psychopathology. They're looking for madness as a way out. They're bored, and they want to start breaking the furniture. They are, you know, the tribe of chimpanzees who are tired of chewing twigs and decide to go on a hunting party. And to do so they first work themselves up into a bloodcurdling state of rage, and then they go and tear a lot of monkeys limb from limb. And I'm suggesting a similar sort of mechanism may have been at work in the fascist Germany of the 1930s. No explanations I've seen are ever convincing of why cultivated and intelligent people like the Germans and Italians should plunge into this insane world-view. And that's the sort of comparable thing, in a lower note, the other end of the piano, that might take place [here].
TL: Might take place or has taken place?
JB: Well, there are warning signs. I won't go further than that. But if you'd like to go further, I'm happy to sublet part of the franchise.
TL: I'd like to come back to that, if I can. But I'd like to ask you about madness and psychopathology. Someone asked me, in passing - I have a couple of questions from other people. 'Why is every single female character in Vermilion Sands beautiful but insane?'
JB: They're more fun that way!
TL: Right. That'll do. But you have a clinical background in understanding insanity or psychopathology - or, at least, more than the layman does. But when you say 'mad' or 'insane' you don't really diagnose very often. You wouldn't say that one of our character was paranoid schizophrenic or, more recently, bi-polar. You say that they were 'mad' or 'insane'. Why is that?
JB: Well, firstly, I'm not a psychiatrist. And secondly, I prefer to leave it open. Because these psychiatric definitions seem to shift around. I mean, they take many forms. Whereas we all know what 'mad' or 'insane' means. I mean, one look at Hitler and his henchman, one look at the Pol Pot brigade, one look into Stalin's eyes and you can see something very dangerous is going on. The normal constrains of civic feeling have no role to play. These people were trading on their own psychopathology. Somewhere in his diaries Goebbels more or less admits it. He says that he and the Nazi leaders had merely done in reality what Dostoyevsky had done in the novel. And So, anyway, we all know what's madness.
TL: So the figures that you use
JB: A lot of psychiatric categories - Forgive me butting in. A lot of psychiatric categories are defined by patients who present themselves to psychiatrists in institutions, and these are people who may not be self-maintaining in the community at large, who are actually ripe for sectioning. But the sort of people that I'm talking about are not. I mean, nobody would have said - I think Hitler, for example, and the Nazis, Mussolini, [Chilano], and the others, even Stalin and his henchmen, Mao and his colleagues would all of them have passed any sanity test. But we know that most of them were completely mad by the larger standards that the lay public applied. I'm not making any clinical diagnoses. That would rapidly lead me into trouble.
TL: But it leaves it open, in a way, that people could write about the uses of 'mad' in 'Hamlet' or Macbeth, where it could at one point mean 'very very angry', it can at one point mean 'unable to control oneself' and at another something closer to 'clinically insane' or 'schizophrenic'. But are you splitting a sort of political madness - the madness of the powerful from the madness of the powerless. Because if someone is just on the street shouting and hearing voices, that's a different thing.
JB: Well, he's going to be sectioned fairly soon. Whereas if someone stands on the street saying it's all the fault of the Muslims or the Jews or whatever, he probably won't be. I mean, some new bit of legislation might lead him to the nearest magistrates court. But in general, one can hold extremely deranged ideas - someone like Le Pen, I think, does - without the men in white coats arriving on the scene.
TL: So have you ever felt not mad in that way, but that what you would think of as your sanity was threatened?
JB: [Mishearing] Do I think society is threatened?
TL: No, no. Have you ever felt that your own sanity was threatened. Not that you were coming close to holding those views, but that you were close to losing your rational mind.
JB: No, I never have, actually. Maybe it's lucky I became a writer.
TL: Have people thought that of you?
JB: Take your jacket off, if you want.
TL: No, no. I'm fine.
JB: Well, I think some people have. Particular in respect to books like Crash, for example. That's such an obvious one. I don't think the madness thing is a big issue as far as Kingdom Come is concerned. Because this is a warning. I'm trying to say 'Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down.' The point is that what see as threatening about the all-pervasive and all-powerful consumer society is that it's not any specific individual who is responsible for anything nasty that may happen in the future. This is a collective enterprise. All of us who are members of consumer society - all of us are responsible, in a way. I think that these are sort of almost seismic movements that drift through the collective psyche and which facilitate the emergence of ultra-right wing groups like the Nazis and the fascists in Italy. Or even the communist regime under Stalin. There you have extremely threatening political organizations which come to power with the complicity - that's the extraordinary thing - with the complicity of the populations they rule. People still think that Hitler and his henchmen imposed Nazi Germany on the German people. I don't believe they did for a moment. All the eye-witnesses at the time suggest that Hitler and the Nazi leaders were extremely popular. Once they'd got into the saddle they were able to manipulate radio and the mass-media, film and the like, and the Germans, you know, unemployment started coming down, people prospered, and they had certainty in their lives for the first time, and the unpleasant undercurrent, involving killing large numbers of Jews and Slavs and Russians and God knows what else, that was sort of played down. The Germans went along with regime to the end. There was no serious attempt, as far as I can make out, to reject the regime. And the same thing was true in Stalin's Russia. I think it may be that in the future we'll be dominated by huge masochistic systems. Soviet Russia was an example of this. I mean, people tolerated their own abuse because for some reason they wanted to be abused. Someone says in this book that the future is a system of huge competing psychopathologies. I'd say that was true of the 20th century. It sort of sums it up, in a way. So I'm not talking about an individual impetus that will drive engine. This engine has been assembled, and will be started, by everyone probably working unconsciously.
TL: So, when you say a 'warning' . I went to a reading recently by American writer George Saunders, and someone asked him from the audience, and it's a fairly bland way of putting it, 'Are you an anti-capitalist?' So, are you an anti-capitalist?
JB: No. Not really. I mean, I was a great supporter of Margaret Thatcher. I thought economic freedom was the one thing this country desperately needed. I think her economic policies were right almost to the end. I think her social policies got out of hand, and she paid the price. I rather supported Tony Blair in his early days. I thought he was a con from the word go. I think I wrote to that effect in the Statesman. I think we wanted to be conned. We wanted this nice young man with his people-carrier and his suburban wife and kids. We wanted him. Out on the M25, that's where I live, I could see that people wanted the new suburbia. And Blair promised a sort of blandness. He just played mood music, but we like mood music.
TL: There must be a step up between what you're saying and some kind of I don't think you go as far as utopia. You're not a utopian in any way. But there must be some political idealism in what you do. The idea that people could be freer, in a way, but that that wouldn't necessarily be anarchic in the sense of people killing one another, it would be anarchic in the sense of a self-regulating system that wasn't imposed by oppressive external power. A lot of your books open up what a Shakespearean critic might call 'carnival', where everyone goes into the forest and everyone goes mad for a bit, but they tend to zip it back up at the end.
JB: As human beings tend to do.
TL: You wouldn't see things as getting exponentially worse.
JB: No, I don't. They might get worse for extended periods. The point is that all societies base civic order on a trade-off between various dominant forces. Which may take many different forms. In the old days, we had monarchy, we had parliament (the world of Westminster politics), we had the armed forced (which played a big role in keeping the British Empire together), we had the Church of England and we had the capitalist system (insofar as it flourished in a real way post-1945, it certainly did in the period previous to that, from the Industrial Revolution onwards). The point is that all these powers in the land played off against each other. But they kept the show on the road, um. What has happened now, as I try to explain in the book, is that almost every one of these former powers in the land has been discredited. The monarchy inspires no loyalty, except for a very small number of people. Our armed forces - I don't know if you're old enough to remember, just about, people lining the docks at Plymouth or somewhere as our boys, the Navy, sailed off for the Falklands. That war was an election campaign, as I imagine Thatcher realised at the time. She tapped into a powerful nationalist spirit. We wanted our boys to come back safely. We wanted them to win. Compare that with today. I know there's nothing quite comparable in Iraq and Afghanistan. But you can't feel any pride in what our soldiers are doing out there. That's why the bereaved relatives are so indignant. Their sons and husbands are dying for nothing - dying for some PR whim of Tony Blair. No pride in the Armed Forces. No pride in the monarchy. And politics is totally discredited. I mean, people aren't that outraged by Tony Blair lying to get us into the Second Gulf War. If we're not outraged by that, why should we be outraged by John Prescott's far less grievous sins. I think all that is left - I mean, the monarchy is just a huge dysfunctional family. God knows whether Charles will rise to the challenge when his mother goes. I've no idea. He doesn't show many signs of realising the damage he's done. That just leaves the only steady ingredient, the only steady element, in our lives, the only one that offers hope and the probability of a better world, if we do what the advertisements say, is consumerism. That has finite goals and finite means for achieving those goals. 'Buy this new microwave and you will cook delicious suppers and your husband will love you all the more.' And you'll probably find it's true. I mean, most of our lives are dedicated to consumerism in one form or another, and it seems to work. What I'm saying is that, left on its own, without the constraints of the other great former civic powers, it could get out of hand. Because consumerism makes inherent demands, it has inherent needs, which can only be satisfied by pressing the accelerator down a little harder, moving a little faster, upping all the antes, and this could, you know In order to keep spending and keep believing, we need to move into the area of the psychopathic. That's the fear. You see it over the world cup. Maybe I'm just old, but it does seem to me all a bit over the top. 'What's next?' That's what I'm asking. 'What's next?' Could it play into a worse - I don't think there's a little group, Mohammed Atta and his boys sitting in a Hamburg shopping mall thinking 'This is our chance, chaps. We hijack some airliners.' I don't think there is. I think the need comes from within us all. We want more exciting lives. There are limits to the number of TV sets you can have at home. There are limits to the number of cars you can own. Once you've got all those things, what happens next?
TL: Can I just ? The opening paragraph of Kingdom Come. If I just imagine a reader for you
JB: Remember, this is for Waterstones. You're supposed to be on my side.
TL: I am. Look, half the interview is for Waterstones. Half is me.
JB: Oh, fair enough. I can trust you.
TL: Yeah, you can trust me, trust me. So the reader reads 'Kingdom Come' [the title], and will have associations of Anglican religion and the King James' Bible
JB: I quote from the Lord's Prayer.
TL: And then 'The St George's Cross'. 'The suburbs dream of violence, asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares which will wake them into a more passionate world.'
JB: That sums up the entire book in three lines!
TL: Yes, it does. That's why I'm going to quote it. But I'm sure that you've been incredibly careful with all of those things, and also with the names of the characters.
JB: Oh, God!
TL: So 'passionate' suggests the Passion, the Passion of Christ. So the people would want something verging on the religious. And, towards the end of the book, they are making shrines in the Metro-Centre. But the book isn't about religion as the central thing. More central is the soft fascism and also sport.
JB: Sport is the catalyst.
TL: Why didn't it become a book where religion was the central thing?
JB: Well, I don't feel that religion is. I don't religion could carry - could act as the catalyst. Could it become the end in itself? Could we get a religious response? It's hard to imagine because I think we're a secular society. We've fallen out of love with the notion of the supernatural. In fact, somebody says [in the book], the two sickest societies - the psychiatrist says, you know, are, these are the two most religious societies, America and the Middle East - and they're also the sickest societies. And they're getting sicker. Now, it's very worrying. You see in America another direction being taken, towards a sort of religious fundamentalism. So that could easily swing back into some sort of fascist I think basically America is too corrupt, in a sense. I mean, it's a very corrupt place. (I hope you're wife or girlfriend isn't American.) You know, it is obsessed with the Almighty dollar. It's the only thing that makes sense of American lives, really. I've always been a great fan of the US, but here, I suggest, we move Why are we so interested in sport? It's a very puzzling question. I don't ask it in the book because you can't squeeze everything in. But why are we so obsessed with sport? Particularly as the sports we're most obsessed by, we're not good at. You know, we're no damn good at football. There's this huge myth that Beckham and his boys are going to win in the world cup. Everybody knows they're not going to win. Maybe they know and don't care, they just want the feeling that he might win. Likewise, you know, we're not much good at cricket. We're no damn good at tennis. But since the sort of Henman-effect, winning is not what it's about. It's almost about losing. Which is a very peculiar I don't want to sound too much the amateur psychiatrist. I try to steer away from that. But it does make you think, you know, what the heck is going on in these people's lives? Something strange
TL: The sports fan or the sports obsessive - what's going on in their lives?
JB: Yes, exactly. But the appeal of sport, you see, in this book, of course, is that it does facilitate a lot of quasi-fascist activity. The sense of, you know, we're all marching together. The arms and legs swinging like windmills. The health-thing, a very important part of the whole Nazi creed. But also, you know, the sense of constant expectation, of challenge, that we're all in this together, we've got to fight the enemy, etcetera etcetera. All of this is sort of tied in to the consumerist thing. All these loyalty cards and cable channel programmes and the whole stadium lights blazing. I chose that route, which I think is truer to this country.
TL: But if someone were to read your book, and take it as a warning, and they were living somewhere up or down this street -
JB: Shepperton is not Brooklands.
TL: What might you want them to change in their behaviour, in their life?
JB: Well, nothing. I would not ask the people of Shepperton to change a thing, because they're not typical of it. I would say that - you see Brooklands is partly based - the racetrack is still there. I wanted somewhere that didn't really exist. If Brooklands is anywhere it's somewhere like Kingston. I don't know if whether know Kingston? It's a ghastly place. I hate Kingston. It represents the absolute nadir of English consumer and suburban life. It is just one vast mall. Put a dome over it and you would have the Metro-Centre. It's Kingston or it's somewhere like Staines, which is also pretty ghastly. What would I say to these people there, assuming they read my book? How do you have to change? Quite a question because the obvious answer is 'Stop buying things'. You know, the whole economy is going to collapse. This is part of the problem, of course. The engine is now revving so fast that you can't apply the brakes. You'd just tear off the brake-drums and hurl the whole vehicle into the ditch.
TL: And then you try to make a life in the ditch.
JB: That's very good. [Laughs.]
TL: Or on a traffic island, perhaps.
JB: On a traffic island, yeah.
TL: That would be one thing you could say. You know, 'The wheels have to come off. We have to attempt in the wreckage of what we've built so far, when they do.' But you don't tend to go that far.
JB: Well, I'm issuing a warning. I'm saying, 'Slow down'. But of course there's a small part of me which has always said, 'Dangerous bends ahead. Speed up.' Because I'm curious to know
TL: But why not? Do you think you've changed? Do you think if the author of Crash, yourself at that age, were sitting next to you, you would disagree on this point? That he would be saying, 'It's false to assert that there can be any slowing down. Therefore the only thing is to speed up until you miss the bend.'
JB: I I've got a feeling that, were the author of Crash, whenever it was, 35 years ago, something like that - were he to be tackling this subject, I don't think be would necessarily approach it in a different way. I don't think so. I think I would write the same book, even though I'm much older. It's hard to know. But, um, The thing is I am not offering a grand answer to all societies problems. I leave that to others. I'm issuing warnings. And I can't anticipate how people will respond. They may well say, 'Oh, this consumerism and all this football, it's driving us crazy. Let's turn to something else, you know. Let's let's teach ourselves to play the piano and take up glass-blowing and look for something less Look for less drama in our lives rather than more.' It's possible. You know, war, the inter-European wars, and the wars associated with maintaining empires have always had a sort of moderating [effect]. 'Right, now, having survived this terrible encounter. Lost all these men, our civilians. We must now calm down for a bit and rebuild and try to find a better world.' We don't have wars any more, in that sense. You could almost say that - it may be that the Gulf War will be the last war. It's the last roll of the dice by an old-style of politician: Blair and Bush, you know, who think they can beat the patriotic drum, and this will rally everyone. Well, people haven't been rallied. And I think that's quite interesting. It's hard to say Waterstones It's quite I wouldn't like you to convey the impression that I was in any way pretentious. You understand.
TL: Okay. Like I say, maybe I should just formally do the Waterstones questions. There are things that I'm interested in because they're what I think about when I read your books. And one of the things I find most deeply appealing about them is your insistence on people's perversity.
TL: [To perverse people] a warning would actually be an incitement. So, you can't warn them to slow down -
JB: I think we're a mix of things, a mix of impulses, you know. We're civilized but we can be very uncivilized. We're governed by reason, obviously, but not all of the time. Much of the time, we're not governed by reason. Much of the time, we exploit that fact. A world entirely governed by reason would be a nightmare. That's one dystopia I would never embark on. You know, I don't think that there's an innate decency about human beings. I don't think there is. I think, you know, we respond, most of the time, thanks to the rule of law, and our mutual self-interest, societies in the west, Western Europe and the States and Australasia, you know, are run, on the whole, in sane and sensible ways. There plenty of societies there are not - where it's dangerous to walk the streets.
JB: For you?
JB: Let it ring.
TL: These are the Waterstones questions
JB: Oh God! They provide their own questions.
TL: They did.
JB: I wasn't trying to stop you in full flood. It's a pleasure to talk to a highly intelligent person about the deeper elements.
TL: I think, what you've said already, it gives me a good explanation of the way I want to write about the book, in terms of what you're saying about consumerism and sport. Those are some of the things I wanted to cover.
JB: I think there are dangerous things going on. That's basically what I'm saying. Markets are no longer contributing much to social cohesion. This is a dangerous time, because if all we're going to rely on is consumerism, we may play in to the worst states in our own make-up. You know, need for more excitement or thrills. This is an important fact, I think - a daunting fact to face - but we are vastly more tolerant today of, whatever you like to call them, deviant and perverse strains in our make-up than we were, say, fifty years ago. I mean if you look at something like the evolution over, whatever is it?, six or seven years of the Big Brother series. Maybe it's less than that. It has evolved in an extraordinary way. The opening series, which I watched, actually, out of curiosity, was practically a university department by comparison with today!
TL: I think every writer in the country watched Big Brother, the first one.
JB: So, it's fascinating. But now, what is interesting is that all these people have obviously been recruited because they are going to humiliate themselves. But they know that. And we know that. And nobody cares. But this is how people become rich and famous, by humiliating themselves. There's something rather nasty about the way that we, in a sense, are sort of looking through the bars of the old Eighteenth century asylums and jeering at the inmates. It's not much superior to that, now. Morally, I don't see any difference whatsoever. Because for every sad case paraded on the TV screen for our amusement, there are ten thousand or a hundred thousand sad cases who will never make it to fame and fortune. And yet they cling to this big hope. Everything is much - there's a coarser texture to life today, there's no doubt about it. We don't, you know - self-restraint is not admired. It'll get you nowhere.
TL: In a way, My next question is, You wrote about the sixties as basically a crisis-point - as a time when something new happens. And new is a word which comes up a lot in Kingdom Come - the idea that something new is happening in the Metro-Centre, a new kind of people But do you think they are new, as compared to 1966, say, or 1968, when I was born? Do you think that there is a qualitative difference? That there is an essential difference between this stage of consumerism and that? Or is it merely an acceleration?
JB: You said '66. What happened then?
TL: Well, I was just picking a point when the sixties had got going. But then I was thinking that if you take the Kennedy assassination as important, then maybe you need some time for the effects to be felt.
JB: The mid-sixties? I think there is a qualitative difference. I don't doubt that for a second. I think there is a coarseness and boorishness. You know, you see it. Shepperton used to have a little library, and it wasn't a bad library. A large number of the books reviewed every Sunday in the Observer, not all, but quite a number of them, biographies and so on, histories of the war etcetera, serious novels, were available there. Now, I mean, you can just walk in the door and you can just tell from the particularly ugly jackets which popular books have collectively Individually, a popular novel or popular biography, showbusiness biography, may look just about passable. But when you have shelves of popular hardbacks, you suddenly see there's something wrong. Those jackets, you know, there's some terrible vulgarity about them. The library, now, is unusable. I don't know whether it still has books on offer. Probably not. Probably just DVDs and the like. So there is a change. I think there's a change but there's a sort of, Not change that's necessarily resisted. There's a kind of appetite for more sort of horrors waiting below the surface. I mean, the response after Di's death, which most people agree - I thought she was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. When she appears, briefly, on the screen today, I think, 'Gosh! She had something, that young woman. There was some sort of magic there.' But at the same time I thought the collective response was bizarrely over the top. It was saying something. I don't know what, but it was saying something loud and clear. You could find a hundred examples.
TL: You were quite restrained when it came to public comment after that, I seem to remember.
JB: Was I?
TL: Well, I think a lot of people were expecting you to almost claim her death as within your -
JB: One or two Fleet Streeters rang me up and said, 'Do you feel you've made her death possible?' [Holds up hands to ward off imaginary journalistic onslaught.] Whoa! Slow down!
TL: I didn't mean claim responsibility.
JB: But kind of in the larger sense. The death only makes sense, a true sense, a real sense, a larger sense, if we see it Ballardian terms, you know. No thanks. No.
TL: You don't want to claim that. But in a sense -
JB: Oddly enough, I don't think the car crash - There's no doubt, I think, James Dean's death in a Porsche Spyder, or whatever it was, did help to generate the huge myth which sprang up about him. But then driving fast cars and killing yourself was part of his world. It wasn't part of Diana's world.
TL: And you couldn't psychopathologize it for her, because she wasn't driving.
TL: And she wasn't sexually involved with the person who was driving, as far as we know.
TL: It didn't tie in to her story, in that sense. But the reaction to the people of her death was
JB: Bizarre, I thought. I thought it was incredible. I don't know what it said, but I think it shows how bored we are, frankly. I mean, if the Queen were to die the lamentation would fill the land and silence every television set.
TL: Well, it has to be every television set by law. There's a rank. I used to work subtitling TV programmes. And we did various obituary programmes. So I did the Queen Mother's several years in advance. And they'd be updated. But there are various levels that they have, of a royal death, as it comes down, depending on how long the schedules will be blank and how long solemn music will be played, and Purcell, and all that kind of stuff. Can I ask about the main character, Richard? Because he's more involved in a way with things than some of your previous main characters. Firstly, I found the scene where he goes to his father's house, and his father is dead so the job of clearing it out has devolved to him, it much more moving, in a sense, and much more straightforwardly moving than [a scene] you would allow others of your characters to be involved with. They seem very disengaged from their affairs, often. Affairs with women, if they're men. But also they tend to go to less emotionally charged places.
JB: Yes. That's the big difference.
TL: But do you think that was something new for you. Were you aware of that? It's quite gentle really.
JB: I think it probably reflects my rather ambivalent feelings towards my own father, who died in the 1960s, but from whom I was pretty estranged, I think. Something that went back to the war, actually, as I've said. You know, one effect of being interned in a camp for nearly three years with my parents was that estrangement. I never really felt that close to my parents afterwards. And I think, actually, that something that might never have occurred to me, had I not been through that, the fact that my parents, like all the other adults with children, could not feed me, clothe me, keep me warm, give me any hope for the future - the fact that they were often frightened, more frightened than I was I mean, I didn't know what was the likely outcome. The Japanese traditionally killed all their prisoners before making a last stand, and they planned to make a last stand at the mouth of the Yangtse. And there were well-developed decisions had been made, and plans had been laid out for the marching - for emptying all the civilian camps around Shanghai, and marching us all up country out of the way, and getting rid of us. My parents, I think, knew this - this had been talked about - and were obviously worried sick. But I think, you know, one effect of civil war of any kind is that children look to their parents - I see this when watching the news from the Gulf - you see children looking to their parents, sort of, 'Why didn't you stop this? Can't you do anything now?' And if the parents are powerless, and they usually are, civilian parents, they can do nothing. And that's damaging. Very damaging. And I think, I came to England in '46 with my mother, went to school here, became a medical student. But by the time I saw my father, it was the early fifties, and I'd made a lot of important decisions in my life. Coping with England for a start. I didn't have any help from him, there. And it was a very strange place. You know, this was a country that had lost the war, in effect, though nobody admitted it. I don't think anybody realised it, you know, just how badly we'd come out of the war. When I saw him in the 1950s, it was too late. I'd made all these decisions - to become a doctor or whatever - and as soon as I left school I knew I wanted to become a writer. These are decisions I never talked over with him. So I think, in a way, in this book, writing about the central character, Richard, has never really known his father, which is something he shares with me, for different reasons. And I think that sort of rediscovery of one's parents is something that I went through. And I think it shows through. It's just by a matter of coincidence. It's not central to the book.
TL: Well, in a way, what he wants to do -
JB: It drives him, of course. It drives him. Had he know his father well, he'd probably have said, 'Oh God, this ghastly place. I've been here a hundred times. Never liked it. Sad that he should get shot by some lunatic in a shopping mall, but that's that. And now we thankfully leave.' Well, he doesn't. He stays on. Partly because he wants to discover more about his father and more about himself. And so he's helped create, as an advertising man, he's helped create this vast mall.
TL: I terms of how you position him as a character, he's implicated, and he supports what's going on. He draws back when it comes to racism. But a lot of the rest of it he still goes along with.
JB: He turns a blind eye to it.
TL: He's not a drifter, as some of your other characters. Where you feel that they've entered a world because they've no motivation to do anything else. I mean, in filmic script terms, he has a very strong motivation that any Hollywood producer would recognise: avenging or discovering the truth about the death of his father. It's a good solid motive. So he's powered by that but, as you say, he seems quite unengaged with the morality of what's around him. Apart from the racist attacks. That seemed also quite explicit. You're not saying this is something that you could see as morally neutral in any way. It's something that you condemn in the book. But there could be other things that could be seen as maybe quite as bad, in moral terms, in terms of violence or how much they damage people, that you've written about in other books, which aren't condemned. So do you think this - Is there something different about racism? Or is it something that you think is a moral absolute?
JB: Well, I don't think any of the narrators or substitutes for myself in other books have shown any tendency to support questionable behaviours, you know.
TL: But he seems to say that consumerism is okay. But the things that stem from it - and the logic of the sport coming out of that
JB: He's slightly seduced.
TL: He says, 'I want the elephant. But I don't want the left hind leg.' And that's part of the elephant. It can't walk without it. And the reader knows that. The reader knows that all these things are working together - they have synergy, to create what's going on. So, throughout the book he is not recognising that fact. He's fighting against it.
JB: I think it's clear to the reader that he's a dissatisfied advertising man who had this notion - I mean, he anticipates the logic that the psychiatrist, Tony Maxted, unfolds for him later on. He's got this idea - I forget his phrase, what is it? - 'Mad is Bad. Bad is Good'. If you're thinking about, 'How do we get people to buy our bloody products? Right?' I mean, we can't tell them this car is more powerful, this washing-machine washes whiter. They're bored with that. They need a deeper appeal. Then need an appeal to their darker sides, you see. And he tries to bring this off, but it doesn't work. He loses his job. Then when he gets to Brooklands, he begins to sense that here is a chance, particularly when he meets David Cruise, the chatshow hose - he realises that this is a wonderful chance to test out his original theory. And he devises these brief commercials which present Cruise not as a sleek chatshow host - you know, traditional afternoon TV - but as a sort of noir hero who looks as if he's going to drop dead at any moment. This is a chance [for him] to try this out. And he seems to, of course - if he has any doubt, his father's apparent involvement with these violent sports groups (he doesn't realise at this stage what his father's motives actually were - he thinks his father supported [them]. He doesn't go along with this National Front stuff) - but the fact that his father seemed to be interested gives him this - almost sanctions him getting involved with the nastier sides of people's characters. So he's seduced by the possibilities - particularly when they seem to work so well. What he hasn't anticipated, and he's constantly being warned by the young woman doctor, by the Headmaster, and by Maxted, is that, you know, you're playing with fire, you're going to get burned. These impulses are damn dangerous. Just because we haven't got a strutting Fuhrer and a lot of guys in black shirts doesn't mean that the suburban version is going to be any less dangerous. He's warned, but he's seduced by the possibilities of what is a marketing plan. He's using psychopathology as a marketing device. Now, he doesn't have a vast, all-encompassing world-view. He's not St Thomas Aquinas. He's an advertising man who sees a chance. And he learns his lesson the bitter way. At the end he realises, 'What a fool I've been!' Um So, in a way, an experiment has been carried out on him. He doesn't realise, but he's carrying out an experiment on himself.
TL: But with a lot of your other characters, say the main character in High Rise who we begin with. He's sitting on the balcony eating Alsatian. He hasn't learnt 'What a fool I've been.'
JB: I can't remember. Doesn't he?
TL: No. I think he's looking across to the other building -
JB: Look, listen, I think you could safely say, I wouldn't object - you can safely say that Ballard himself, a very nice guy,
TL: Not pretentious...
JB: Not pretentious. Yes. But there are things he hasn't thought through properly. He admits that he hasn't thought through them properly. You know, I mean, I mean all of these questions you're asking are the questions posed by people in the 1930s, some of whom did say, 'What is the appeal of these nightmare jackbooted thugs stamping their way around Central Europe, openly promising that they're going to start killing anybody they don't like? What is it? And all these millions of people cheering them on. What is it? What's wrong with human nature?' Those questions were asked. The trouble is they were all ignored because people found the conventional political explanation - and the conventional political explanation is enough to be going on with. You know, 'We've got to start re-arming so we can fight these bastards.' But it doesn't answer the questions. Why were [they] allowed to stay in power and kill all these tens of millions of people has never properly been answered. And I'm taking the view that human beings are naturally quite a dangerous species, you know, with a well-tested appetite for killing each other -
TL: [Laughs at well-timed dog bark outside the front of the house]
JB: - and we probably get a lot of pleasure out of it. What's that out there?
TL: It's a dog. Going mad. Barking wildly. Now the last question from Waterstones. You don't have to answer this. 'How does his work - your work - fit into the grand scheme of 20th and now 21st century post-modernism, be it Surrealist art or counterculture writers? Are we now reaching a time when counterculture is ceasing to mean anything, or is it more vital than ever before?'
JB: [Mishearing] 'Campf' culture?
TL: Counter-culture. Not kampf.
JB: I thought it was a new thing.
TL: Kampf culture would be struggle culture, wouldn't it?
JB: That's right. 'My struggle'. Maybe that's what we're waiting for.
TL: Just more generally. Reading in The Kindness of Women, you were embraced by the festival culture. There's the section where you go along to this rock concert, and you read there. And obviously it was slightly traumatic. And Burroughs was there, as well. You were both quite distanced from that. You had a family. Burroughs was a man in a suit surrounded by hippies. But -
JB: Not Burroughs. I mean, the whole thing.
TL: To ask about the counterculture. Do you see yourself being embraced by any similar groups of young people?
JB: No, I'm too old. I don't think they're interested any more. They've got their own idols, haven't they?
TL: Yes. You'd be surprised.
JB: I think, This is the trouble with being a writer, as you know, you never see your readers. I've never seen anybody reading a book of mine. But I used to do one or two book-signings. I gather they've faded out. And I've never been to a big literary conventions. As a result - I mean, who reads my stuff? I don't know. Some painter could go along to a gallery showing his or her one-man show, you know, ditto, a playwright, film-maker, choreographer. They can all see the audience responding. But novelists are in a weird position.
TL: The strange thing is, there's a website called Myspace that's now being talked about everywhere. And one of the things that it allows people to do is put up a list of their favourite things. So you can put up a list of your favourite music. And it works partly, in networking, by people searching other people's favourite things and finding like-minded individuals. This also means that the writer can go on and look at pictures and read the profiles of the people who have listed them as one of their favourite writers. So, you assume these are the people who like what you do. And I did this last week, and it's quite bizarre, because you are looking at your readers -
TL: And they haven't done anything to contact you. But you can see what else they say they like, see roughly what they look like. So maybe that's a change
JB: Maybe that's the solution.
TL: I don't know if it's - I do think that the - I went to a marketing thing a Penguin the other day, to talk to the authors about how they market their books, and the accessibility of authors is what they were talking about, essentially. A different relationship between the writer and the reader, so the reader has a lot more direct contact
JB: Is it a good thing?
TL: They see it as a good thing.
JB: Probably is. Yeah. I mean, when I was growing up, in my teens, I'm talking about the late forties and then the fifties, one never dreamed of meeting - the idea that I might, just as an ordinary reader and civilian, meet Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene or whoever, Camas or Moravia
TL: Did you meet any of them?
TL: You didn't meet Greene?
JB: No. The idea of meeting any of these people, as an ordinary reader - I mean, writers didn't do signings, they didn't go to conferences. Now that's changed, of course. We all have to, you know, put on a bit of a performance. If you've got an extrovert temperament and you enjoy that sort of thing, fair enough. But if you haven't, then you've got problems, haven't you? I mean, reclusive writers don't do very well, these days. There were one or two who should, I think, James Hamilton-Paterson. He's quite an interesting writer. He lives in - he did live in the Philippines for a long time. And now, I think, he lives in Italy. He doesn't seem to take party in any sort of conference or other activities.
TL: Pynchon is the great avoider of any media, although there have been a couple of photographs - people tracked him down. His popularity hasn't suffered. It's hard to gauge, because there hadn't been a book that recently. He's benefited, but it has to be an absolute decision, and most writers don't take it because they're not brave enough, really.
JB: True. Also he had huge success under his belt.
TL: He did. Yes.
JB: It's a matter of degree, isn't it. If you don't enjoy public meetings, don't do them.
TL: I think maybe one more question. Are you working on something at the moment?
JB: [Whispers] No. [Speaks loudly] For the benefit of Waterstones, 'Yes, I am hard at work on a new novel.'
TL: Or a short story?
JB: I haven't written any short stories for a long time. It's a shame because I loved writing them. There's nowhere to publish them, these days.
TL: Not really. No.
JB: Not compared with when I started out. There were dozens of outlets. I think people have lost the knack of reading short stories. That's my impression. They find the form slightly mysterious because there's an awful lot of ambiguity built into it. Bringing all this imaginative weight to bear on a small, small subject matter. I think they've lost the knack. It's a shame. There's a helluva lot of not very good novels around, but a lot of good short stories. Nothing you can do about it.
TL: One other question I have to pass on was, 'Have you joined the Shanghai Writers Club'?
JB: Is there such a beast?
TL: I would guess so, yes.
JB: Are these people resident in Shanghai?
TL: No, they're resident in Cork, southern Ireland.
JB: I take this is a sort of surrealist club, is it?
TL: It's a joke.
JB: But you haven't been back to Shanghai?
JB: Oh, well, I went in '91. No. It was an extraordinary experience. I wish that I could write about it again.
TL: You're not tempted to go now?
JB: No, I'm too old. It's such a hell of a long way.
TL: I've been two times recently.
JB: To Shanghai? Ah, good for you.
TL: I stayed at the Peace Hotel. And it's extraordinary now.
JB: The city?
TL: The Pudong District wasn't there in 1991.
JB: [Mishearing] You were there in '91?
TL: No. That wasn't there in '91, when you were there.
JB: No. It was just a lot of old cotton mills. Built, I guess, in the fifties and sixties. They've levelled the whole area. I accompanied my father round. He had a cotton mill on that Pudong site. Already there was a huge amount of high-rise building there. But a lot of the old Shanghai was there on ground level.
TL: It's almost completely gone. Trying to find something old there is futile, really. I was led round by a Chinese writer who writes about Shanghai, called Chen Dan Yan. She is a best-selling author there. She writes about old Shanghai, in the '20s and '30s. She tried to take me to somewhere old but we ended up in a Starbucks. Or, we ended up in a coffee-house opposite a Starbucks, because I didn't want to come all that way and end up in a Starbucks. And we were in a road that was meant to be a similar architectural style to old-style Shanghai. And she said, 'Do you see that piece of stone up there? That's original.' That was it. That was all that was left.
JB: Because the Chinese themselves don't have any feeling for the past, curiously. They're the oldest civilized nation, continuously civilised nation on the planet, and yet they're not the least bit interested.
TL: The thing is, we have cathedrals as our venerable buildings. But if they have a Chan temple. It's made of wood and they rebuild it anyway - they rebuild it every couple of hundred years. So, they have no equivalent. Even the things that were the most venerable -
JB: I think the explanation is that the culture of Chinese society is fixed, now - the kind of role of the family, the role children play with respect to their parents, to elders and betters. Chinese society hasn't changed. Go to a big Chinese restaurant in London. They're usually run by families. I think they don't trust anyone outside the family to handle the cash. Which is actually a very good brake on[things] - as I think it is in India. You don't get large firms because you reach a size where, inevitably, you've got to bring in an outsider who's going to count the cash. 'Ugh! We know what that leads to.' But if you go to a big restaurant in London and look at the family running it - although they were probably all born here, and, if not, born in Hong Kong, their lives are no different from the lives they would have had had they been brought up in Shanghai or Hong Kong. You know, it's all it's all absolutely set in the cement under their feet. Whether they'll change a great deal, I don't know. It's very hard to say. I mean, Communism was never going to work there. I didn't have to think about it for ten seconds. It's preposterous. Everything is dominated by the family. They can't feel any loyalty to anything outside the family, and it's taken for granted.
TL: I'm going to stop there.
JB: Thank you.
[Tape cuts out]
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