Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

Information superhighway

Shortly before JG Ballard's death last year, Iain Sinclair made a pilgrimage to the author's Shepperton semi, a shrine to his surreal tastes and happy family life. A new exhibition of his favourite paintings and of art work he has inspired honours this distinctive vision

Coming away from the official path, on a walk from the mouth of the Thames to Oxford in October 2008, I diverted through Shepperton. Light rain misted my spectacles. An uncertain detour was blocked by a two-tonne Jaguar saloon, white and racing green: XJ MOTOR SERVICES. The upstream settlement has evident 21st-century loot, as well as Edwardian weekend villas and chalets. There is a blue plaque to the literary giant they choose to commemorate: THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK LIVED HERE, 1823-1866. Modernist white cubes with big windows are attracted by reflections of light on water. Natural metaphors for unnatural liquidity in a time of recession.

I head for the station. That's where JG Ballard met me when I visited him. I never saw the inside of his house. We drove to a riverside pub and sat under whirring fans. I wondered why, after his great success with Empire of the Sun, he didn't relocate to one of those balconied, sharp-angled properties that were so attractive to the convalescing architects and blocked advertising men who populate his books. Foolish thought. Ballard was a working writer, first and last; the where of it was not to be disturbed. Fixed routines served him well; so many hours, so many words. Breakfast. Times crossword. Desk overlooking a natural ­garden. Stroll to the shops to observe the erotic rhythms of consumerism. Lunch standing up with The World at One on the radio. Back to the study. Forty-minute constitutional down to the river. TV chill-out meditation: ­Hawaii Five-O and The Rockford Files rather than Kenneth Clark.

The interior landscape of the suburban semi was a mirage. The more you studied it, the cannier the decision to settle the family in Shepperton, all those years ago, appeared. It was far enough out of London to limit the pests, the time-devourers. When journalists gained access they were mesmerised by the reproduction Delvaux canvases propped on the floor, the ­aluminium palm tree, the lounger in the front room; dutifully they repeated the standard questions about surrealism and how The Drowned World was saturated in Max Ernst. The house in Old Charlton Road was a premature ­installation; a stage set designed to confirm the expectations of awed pilgrims. But it was also a home in which the widowed author brought up three children who are always laughing in family snapshots.

Ballard may be the first serious ­novelist whose oeuvre is most widely represented in books of interviews. And whose future belongs as much in white-walled warehouse galleries as the diminishing shelves of public libra­ries. He was so generous to those who found his phone number, so direct: he rehearsed polished routines – and ­always agreed, with unfailing courtesy, that the world was indeed a pale Xerox made in homage to the manifold of his fiction. A late moralist, he practised undeceived reportage, not prophecy: closer to Orwell than HG Wells. Closer to Orson Welles than to either. Closer to Hitchcock. Take out the moving ­figures on staircases that go nowhere and stick with hollow architecture that co-authors subversive drama.

Spurning critical theory, Ballard joined his near-namesake Baudrillard as the hot topic for air-miles academics. Off-highway universities, indistinguishable from hospitals or hotels, approve infinite theses. A hall of mirrors in which students, who have lost the habit of literature, recognise, in the Shepperton master's exquisitely calibrated prose, intimations of a hybrid form capable of processing autopsy ­reports and invasion politics into accidental poetry. The incantatory manifesto, "What I Believe", deploys Ballard's favourite device, the list, as he curates a museum of affinities: "I believe in Max Ernst, Delvaux, Dalí, ­Titian, / Goya, Leonardo, Vermeer, Chirico, Magritte, / Redon, Dürer, ­Tanguy, the Facteur Cheval, / the Watts Towers, Böcklin, Francis Bacon, and all the invisible artists / within the psychiatric institutions of the planet."

It was almost dark when I got there, after walking down a street occupied by Indian ­restaurants, Chinese take­aways, charity and novelty shops. A man spotted me as I lined up the shot.

"A writer bloke is supposed to live in that house. We've been out here 25 years and I've never set eyes on him, tell the truth. But he's on the box."

The silver Ford Granada is tilted at a drunken angle, like a sinking cabin-cruiser, in the vestigial driveway. The privet hedge has been trimmed, the napkin of lawn made tidy. The Crittall window of the front room is overwhelmed by the sinister fecundity of a yucca. There is a cheerful yellow door with an inset panel of dark glass. The rear elevation is gritty with pebbledash. Perched on the wooden fence is a cutout Sylvester, the Loony Tunes cat, waiting to pounce.

It is easy to understand how Ballard, after he lost his driving licence in the 1970s, found everything he required within an hour's walk, in any direction, out from this house. The ford where Martian invaders from The War of the Worlds crossed the river. Film studios. Reservoirs. Airport perimeter roads. And the footpaths, playgrounds, woods and streams he never felt the need to describe. Territory in which his three children grew up and thrived. That is the particular magic of his final book, Miracles of Life: how, through minimal changes of emphasis, he revises his mythology to give readers the illusion of being guided, at last, close to the heart of the mystery. A mystery that is somehow incarnate in the ­hidden spaces of the bereaved Shepperton property.

Even now, when Ballard was unwell and removed to the care and comfort of his partner, Claire Walsh, in Shepherds Bush, the house seemed possessed by a form of illumination not on stream to the rest of Old Charlton Road. The afterglow of decades of scrupulous composition. Physical ­effects we impose, in default of sentiment, to compensate for the writer's troubling absence. Fay, Ballard's elder daughter, told me that in her childhood the house did indeed stand out from its shrouded neighbours.

"When I was young, the lights used to be on the whole time, even on bright summer days. Daddy loved the idea of brightness, intensity, as if we were living in the Med."

In too much pain to take the wheel, Ballard returned to the old house with Fay. It was strange now, this installation her father had created from the objects of his private obsessions: Ed Ruscha postcards, Paolozzi silkscreen prints, a lurid corduroy sofa. A domesticated Kurt Schwitters assemblage, in which the writer could actually live and work. And thrive.

"I hadn't visited Shepperton for many years, until the summer of 2008, when Daddy was quite ill," Fay said. "I remembered a dried-up orange sitting on the mantelpiece in the nursery. I walked through the door and it was still there. I said, 'Oh my goodness, you still have the orange.' He looked at me and he said, very quietly but seriously, 'It's a lemon'. It must have been there for at least 40 years. I don't see the lemon as something eccentric. It's not a relic. It's covered in dust. It hasn't been moved. It's obviously important to him. And it's very beautiful."

The front room, guarded by the spiky fronds of the yucca, was known, in an echo of colonial times, as the nursery. Fay presented Ballard with the plant, his Triffid-like co-tenant, in 1976; a Christmas present from Marks & Spencer. It was re-potted several times and addicted to regular hits of Baby Bio. Fay reckoned that, over the years, influenced by that story "Prima Belladonna", the yucca learned to sway and sing. The nursery was the family tele­vision room, where supper was taken. An unused exercise bike, now a junk sculpture, faced the substantial set.

When royalties and film rights rolled in, Ballard, modest and circumspect with consumer durables, commissioned copies of two Delvaux paintings destroyed in the second world war. Brigid Malin, who undertook this project, wanted to paint a Ballard portrait. He agreed, visiting the artist in her studio in Hemel Hempstead, and inviting her, in return, to recreate the lost works. One of which, The Violation, was placed in his study. Fay ­remembered how her father loved ­feeling "as if he could walk into the painting and be part of the landscape with these beautiful women". The propped-up Delvaux stood like a permanently occupied mirror to the left of the author's desk; with a long window, looking over the undisturbed garden, to the right.

Ballard was fascinated by technique, craftsmanship. When Fay, herself a painter, became a student of art history, he would discuss the anonymous interior spaces of Francis Bacon compositions and enthuse over the synthetic colours of carpets in hotel lobbies and airport lounges. As a young girl, Fay perched on the corduroy sofa in the study, fascinated by a Max Ernst poster, The Robing of the Bride, in which the fur-feather cloak of a naked birdwoman reprised the blood-orange tones of the ridged ­material on which she was sitting. She trawled through the shelves of reference books: Dalí, Warhol, Bacon, ­Helmut Newton. And other less obvious interests. Reviewing a Stanley Spencer biography in 1991, Ballard ­proclaimed the Cookham painter as the last representative of an "innocent world before the coming of the mass media". In a gesture of recognition, he said: "Small Thames-side towns have a special magic, each an ­island waiting for its Prospero."

Playing along with telephone interrogators, Ballard claimed that, like William Burroughs, he would have preferred to be a painter. Meaning that he lived by the discipline of the studio, infinite variations on a menu of established themes and motifs; that his books were sometimes collaged and cut-up like The Atrocity Exhibition, so that the texture of friable newsprint and degraded scene-of-the-crime photographs was palpable beneath the charged surface. He could move a narrative through time and space by a forensic cataloguing of objects, buildings, machines. Burroughs, in his final period in the red cabin in Lawrence, Kansas, did indeed become a painter and an elective surrealist, a recorder of dreams. He would tend the cats, pick up his prescription, and blast away at cans of paint. The house, through vanity portraits by visiting celebrities, remembers him.

"Daddy produced two sculptures in the garden," Fay said. "I was very young, four or five. Sculptures made with milk bottles, chicken-wire and concrete, slightly in the style of Henry Moore, but moving towards Paolozzi."

I imagine an accretion of convenient materials inspired by the eccentric Facteur Cheval with his free-form towers, the lime-mortar-cement Palais idéal, that suburban temple of quotations. The Shepperton sculptures have vanished, they will not be part of the Crash show, the "Homage to JG Ballard", at the Gagosian Gallery in London. It is the first major gathering after the ­writer's death in April last year of work by ­artists he admired and by younger ­contemporaries challenged or seduced by the microclimate of the novels, ­essays and interviews.

The only record of the sculptures is a family photograph, taken in the garden, and reproduced in cropped form on the jacket of Miracles of Life. The three children, school-blazered, hair-ribboned, are delighted by something out of shot. Ballard, in dark sweater, white shirt, neat tie, smiles indulgently. Behind the fat cigar dangling from his hand, a minor sculptural ­intervention can be located: three ­diminishing Dalí mouths stacked one above the other. The cement used in this work was also employed to make a monument for his son's pet rabbit.

There were Ballard oil paintings too, much later, with strong primary colours. And painstaking Dalí copies undertaken to find how it was done: the bread, the rocks, the clouds. These things have disappeared. But typographical collages, like ransom notes to an alien culture, will be shown, in reproduction, at the Gagosian show; along with the provocative ­advertisements Ballard contrived for Dr Martin Bax's Ambit magazine. The ads display oblique fragments of text against found images. Walsh, Ballard's conduit to the information super-­highway, is presented in these pieces as an early muse. One of the photographs was taken by Ballard in his Ford Zephyr – he was loyal to Ford – after Walsh came close to drowning, when she plunged into the sea in ­Margate wearing a coat and wellington boots.

A grid of monochrome snaps, ­recording the after-effects of a rollover accident in the Zephyr, will feature in the exhibition. The younger Ballard had ­active contacts in the London ­subterranea of the 1960s. Michael Moorcock, collaborator in mischief, ­editor of New Worlds, joined Ballard on a whirling carousel that led them ­towards Burroughs, Borges and Paolozzi. But the two writers were never more than tourists on the skirts of the hive at Muriel Belcher's Colony Room. "There were a couple of ­drun­ken days around Bacon," Moorcock told me, "but Jimmy and I tended to make our excuses and leave, because we were really family men and wanted to get home in time to fetch the kids."

Anecdotes proliferate and overlap, but shows like the necessary Ballard tribute at the Gagosian are made from hard evidence. Kay Pallister, who ­curated the exhibition, drawing on Walsh's archival scholarship, was surprised when I pointed out that the handsome and ­informative catalogue, in shocking pink with stencil-­effect block title, was a reprise of ­Wyndham Lewis's Blast from 1914-15. ­History, in the white-walled bunker, is pyramid-based: the closer to the present moment, the more we are ­permitted to know. The warehouses and factories of the metropolis, solid Victorian ghosts outside Ballard's ­remit, are processing tanks for ­securing his posthumous reputation. The ­Gagosian's Crash assemblage, while ­respecting ­genealogies of peer-group influence, is most assiduous in showcasing the range of practising artists who ­deploy Ballardian themes. A steady-stare at signature metaphors: Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, the ­colonnades of abandoned surrealist ­cities, acid-­attacked hoardings of movie-star faces. Faithful to the ­perverse doctrine of the "What I Believe" manifesto, disciples hallucinate a spinal topography of death-roads, ­minatory power plants and the flesh-pink atolls of inner-space.

The Ballard of Brigid Malin's portrait is a St Jerome of Shepperton: bare ­table, pencil and manuscript. He ­undertook numerous European ­pilgrimages with Walsh, as they ­investigated the genius of Velásquez, Goya, Dürer, Manet. "He loved Netherlandish art," Walsh reported, "especially Van Eyck." In London, on Sunday afternoons, they haunted the National Gallery. When I followed their footsteps, to search out the Malin portrait, it was not on display. "We've left him in the dark," the man at the desk said. "Much better for preservation. We can only show writers the general public request. Like Jane Austen."

I looked for a lemon by Francisco de Zubarán to represent the decaying object on the nursery mantelpiece. The closest I came was a still life of ­oranges and walnuts by Luis Meléndez. It wouldn't do, Ballard was nothing if not precise. He said what he meant and he meant what he said. The lemon, according to Lucia Impelluso, is a potent antidote to poison and a symbol of "amorous fidelity". © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

No Soup for you

Don't be the product, buy the product!

YES, I want to SOUP ●UP for ...