J G Ballard on what’s wrong with London and relieving boredom with a Kalashikov

In an interview with Chris Hall in 2003, J G Ballard expounded on his belief that London needed a freeway system comparable to that in LA among other things. These unpublished excerpts were eventually published in the Architect’s Journal on 29 April 2009, shortly after Ballard’s death. Hall developed the interview into the 2004 article, ‘JG Ballard: Millennium People: Entertaining Violence’, which is available to read on Spike.com.

Did you drive here?

Yes … On the whole I’m very pro-car. The anti-car movement of recent years strikes me as deeply sinister. There’s something totalitarian about Livingstone and all these Orwellian cameras. But people aren’t protesting – it’s incredible.

Do we need fewer cars?

What we need isn’t fewer cars, but more roads. London is a low-rise city of of vast area rather like Los Angeles – it’s about the same size. LA built the freeway system, and that’s what we need – a freeway system all over London – roads up in the air, carrying people free of the ground so that the ground is left for local traffic as it is in LA.

Do you like London?

I come into London two or three days a week to visit my girlfriend. It’s not my favourite city I’ll admit. It’s not me. Andy Warhol went to Rome and was reported to have said, “That’s what happens when buildings are allowed to last too long!” I think the same is true of London in a way.

What’s wrong with London?

It’s composed of a lot of late-19th century speculative housing, from South Kensington all the way round north London to Lambeth, that wasn’t meant to last very long. It’s been artificially propped up by the fact that it’s become a secondary banking system. People put their money into bricks and mortar. The fact that the bricks are mostly dust now – one push and the whole lot would fall over – doesn’t matter.

So it’s all going to end in tears?

It’s our own South Sea Bubble. It’s expanding, almost exponentially, but I’d like to see the whole thing levelled. Or chrome-plated!

You’ve no plans to move to central London then?

Most British writers suffer from the handicap that they live in inner London, and they subscribe to a kind of traditional view of what England is. They think England is somewhere between Bloomsbury and Muswell Hill, that England is still heritage London, St Paul’s and the Tower of London, and the Houses of Parliament  – and this view is all held together by a dinner-party culture.

It’s bogus …

Yes, it isn’t the real England. The real England doesn’t go to dinner parties, it’s living out in Staines and Slough on brand-new executive estates. Living out in Shepperton gives me a close up view of the real England. That’s the real England – the M25, the world of business parks and industrial estates and executive housing, sports clubs and marinas, cieplexes, CCTV, car rental forecourts. That’s where boredom comes in – a paralysing conformity and boredom that can only be relieved by a violent act, by taking your mail order Kalashnikov and letting rip.

Is London holding its breath for a terrorist attack?

Yes, I do feel that. I think that’s very true. It’s worrying. I worry for my daughters and my four grandchildren as well as my friends, because there’s so little we could do about it. The IRA proved that over the years. That’s why Blair’s decision to take us into war may be a costly blunder, costly in human lives – he’s helped to destabilise the UN, he’s split us away from our partners in Europe, he’s helped to alienate the Arab world and the Muslim world and beyond. It looks like they have achieved the very instability and breeding ground for terrorism that they were supposed to eliminate. Quite incredible. September 11 was obviously deeply unsettling – these terrorists are not illiterate gunmen squatting in a hillside in Afghanistan with a rusty Kalashnikov – they were highly educated, middle-class architects and engineers, mostly Saudis, who were drinking coffee in shopping malls in Hamburg and north London.

Will you ever retire to somewhere hot?

I’m trapped in Shepperton! I’m leaving it a bit late but I would like to retire to the sun. Locally, the sun is coming north to meet me, to meet all of us. But one of these days, I’ll call it a day and that’s when I’ll pack my suitcase. At the moment, I have no shortage of ideas and a peculiar compulsion to get them down.

Our next event takes place on the 1st April 2019 and will mark the 10th anniversary of British author J. G. Ballard’s death, with an event on his 1975 novel High Rise. Our panel will feature three expert speakers on contemporary literature, science fiction and urban design: Prof. Roger Luckhurst, Dr. Aiden Tynan, and Dr Günter Gassner.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Tickets are available on Eventbrite.

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