out of deserts
December 21, 2011, 3:17 pm
Filed under: departure lounge | Tags: , , , ,

Prophets walk out of deserts for some reason.  I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that lone gunmen do too; they are like prophets of a harsh, frontier religion.

The Yeatsian view of the prophet entering the scene, as the smoke and ash settled from the Great War, was of a lion- man emerging from the desert – an enduring 20th century image, poetic and grand:  “a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi /  Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand; / A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.”

On the other hand, J. G. Ballard’s view of the coming of the prophets is banal and cynical.  He says they will emerge from shopping malls.   Continue reading

positively sunny suburbanite
June 9, 2011, 12:59 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

As a child, British author J. G. Ballard lived through the Japanese internment camps in occupied China in what he called ‘a huge slum family.’  And during that time, he witnessed more human degradation than we might think healthy.  Later, ensconced with his family in a suburban house outside of London, he wrote many strange, dystopian novels.

Though a generation younger, Martin Amis was his sometime friend and wrote these remarks -below – when Ballard died in 2009.  Recalling time spent together, Amis found him happy and full of life, in obvious contradiction to his sinister fictional creations.

Writers, says Flaubert, should be predictable so they can be savage in their work.  The devil’s workship is neat as a pin; it makes accomplishing chaos that much more efficient.  Ballard was suburban and normal in his appearance and daily life, which allowed him to be sinister in his books.  Critical balances struck.

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a more passionate world
January 21, 2011, 2:12 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , , ,

On one of the sides in the great culture wars there is a strong and growing distrust of the city and its institutions.  And a rosy yearning for the – maybe slightly apocryphal – values of church, family, farm, field and personal struggle.

I recently had a rather bleak back and forth in a comments thread in an online newspaper – our own little culture battle.  The article was about how family can nurture civility – the context being the attempted assassination of a US Congresswoman.  My comment disputed the idea that the nuclear family can be a centrally placed and adequately supportive  institution in a large and complex modern state like ours.  Society has broad needs that can’t be met by the usually narrow self interest of the family unit.  I received a return blast of aggressive family values reactions:  to be expected in 21st century America.

One responder claimed that family is natural and all other institutions – the law, the state, the church, school – unnatural and man-made.  He said that all institutions derive from family and that to believe in other institutions is to be ‘academic’ which is bad, apparently.  He was aggressively challenged, mostly by one other writer, and they battled it out for two or three passes.

It was almost breathtaking to watch his retrenchment from an initial broad vision of the relationship between family and our society to a narrow rumination on whether or not a married man with kids had enough personal resources to merely survive.  Nuclear is too small, he decided and his fall back view was ‘groups as small as a dozen families.’  ‘Efficient hunting with found weapons requires several men,’ he advised.  In a few hundred words, the measure of a good life dropped from really living to scraping by.

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fetish housework
June 29, 2009, 12:34 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , ,

This is from Bea Ballard’s article about her late father called My dad, the perfect mum at Times Online. Their mother died when the children were young and the father raised the children alone.

In this way of living, home is a reflection of a state of mind:  cleanliness is next to bourgeois repression.  To me it’s far closer to the truth than its cousin which drags God – unwillingly, no doubt – in.

We lived in what we came to think of as a very happy nest – there was a sense of warm chaos that was hugely liberating. He did not care about bourgeois concerns such as keeping the house tidy – as he once said: “You can do all the housework in five minutes if you don’t make a fetish of it.” He later speculated that the compulsive cleaning of a family home “might be an attempt to erase those repressed emotions that threaten to break through into the daylight” and certainly I remember finding the grander homes of some of my school chums eerily silent and stultifying in their neatness compared with our wonderful home, where old plastic flippers discarded from a beach holiday were used as doorstops.

partly colonized rooms
June 28, 2009, 7:32 pm
Filed under: departure lounge, the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

I am reading JG Ballard’s biography Miracles of Life and highly recommend it for it’s frank tone and sweeping scope:  boyhood in Japanese occupied Shanghai – as far as I’ve gotten – education and creative output in England.

Here is an excerpt from his description of Lunghua Camp where the Ballard family was interned by the Japanese when he was a teenager.   He describes the two years as a period of  material poverty but ironically rich in social and intellectual potential.  He saw it as the beginning of a lifelong creeping alienation from his parents and of a realization that adults were not necessarily in control and chronically made bad decisions.

This excerpt however, is about the loneliness of adult life and how the prisoner of war camp – it’s cruelty and lack of provision and space – was actually much more social and lively than British peace time living.  In acts of sanity later in life, Ballard commits to resisting isolating convention in his own family’s life.  For him, private baths and wardrobes are incarnate private hopes and dreams.

But I flourished in all this intimacy, and I think the years together in that very small room had a profound effect on me and the way I brought up my own children.  Perhaps the reason why I have lived in the same Shepperton house for nearly fifty years, and to the despair of everyone have always preferred make-do-and-mend to buying anew, even when I could easily afford it, is that my small and untidy house reminds me of our family room in Lunghua.

I realize now just how formal English life could be in the 1930s, 40s and 50s for its professional families.  The children of doctors, lawyers and company directors rarely saw their fathers.  They lived in large houses where no one shared a bedroom, they never saw their parents dressing or undressing, never saw them brush their teeth or even take off a watch.  In pre-war Shanghai I would occasionally wander into my parents’ bedroom and see my mother brushing her hair, a strange and almost mysterious event.  I rarely saw my father without a jacket and tie well into the 195os.  The vistas of polished furniture turned a family home into a deserted museum, with a few partly colonised rooms where people slept alone, read and bathed alone, and hung their clothes in private wardrobes, along with their emotions, hopes and dreams.

Miracles of Life, JG Ballard, 2009, Harper Perennial


(photograph by Todd Hido)

… the suburbs are the tundra, and at night the effect is doubled. The suburbs at night are what you see from the window of the plane: chains of light, some of them in patterns like a diagram, some of them too bright, some of them as diffuse as if underwater, all surrounded by nothingness.”

~Luc Sante

“The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.”

~J.G Ballard