Chris Hall talks to JG Ballard about Millennium People, the middle classes and mail order Kalashnikovs
This interview was orginally published in January 2004, on Spike magazine
It’s been 70 years since HG Wells published The Shape of Things to Come but there has been a far more astute chronicler of our contemporary reality living among us in the suburbs for more than half a century. JG Ballard’s gimlet eye for the psychopathology of everyday life has never deserted him. Instead of characters with emotions, a history and a moral compass, Ballard’s fictional landscape is peopled with affectless casualties of the nihilistic, over-mediated consumer landscape, searching for meaning in a meaningless universe. This is fiction as biopsy, and its results are devastating.
Millennium People is the last in a trilogy of detective thrillers – along with Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes – to examine what might happen when all we have left as an ideology is consumerism. “People resent the fact that the most moral decision in their lives is choosing what colour the next car will be,” he says witheringly. “All we’ve got left is our own psychopathology. It’s the only freedom we have – that’s a dangerous state of affairs.”
I meet Jim Ballard at the Hilton International hotel on Holland Park Avenue. “I used to come here a lot because there was a Japanese restaurant called the Hiroku for many years. It would be impossible to identify your location,” he says approvingly, looking around the virtually deserted lounge we’re sat in with its palm trees and low-level skylight.
Despite reports, Ballard does not permanently reside in the suburbs – he spends two or three days a week in London visiting his girlfriend, Claire. “But living out in Shepperton gives me a close-up view of the real England – the M25, the world of business parks, industrial estates and executive housing, sports clubs and marinas, cineplexes, CCTV, car-rental forecourts… That’s where boredom comes in – a paralysing conformity and boredom that can only be relieved by some sort of violent act; by taking your mail-order Kalashnikov into the nearest supermarket and letting rip.”
Millennium People begins with a bomb attack at Heathrow airport, which kills three people. The proposition of the novel is that “the middle-classes are the new proletariat”, with the residents of Chelsea Marina, another gated community of his, so sick of school fees, private healthcare costs, stealth taxes and parking meters that they begin to dismantle the “self-imposed burdens” of civic responsibility and consumer culture. They are led, as is the psychologist narrator David Markham, by a charismatic paediatrician, Richard Gould, into attacking the shibboleths of the middle-class metropolis – the National Film Theatre, the BBC, Tate Modern – and then out into the suburbs.
But how seriously do these middle-class rebels take their claims of oppression? At one point in the book, there is the suggestion that the residents of Chelsea Marina might change the street names to those of Japanese film directors, but this is quickly scotched as it “might damage property prices”…
It is full too of perverse inversions and unsettling paradoxes – “Nothing brings out violence like a peaceful demonstration’ or “If your target is the global money system, you don’t attack a bank. You attack the Oxfam shop next door.”
Millennium People describes in part a murder with strong affinities to the Jill Dando case. “What all these murders – Hungerford, Dunblane, Jill Dando – have in common,” says Ballard, “is that they appear to be meaningless. There are no motives. Dando wasn’t even a celebrity. It may be that this is their great appeal.
“There are shifts in the unseen tectonic plates that make up our national consciousness. I’ve tried to nail down a certain kind of nihilism that people may embrace, and which politicians may embrace, which is much more terrifying; all tapping into this vast, untouched resource as big as the Arabian oilfields called psychopathology.”
Ballard continues to be endlessly engaged in what’s happening now. And as he says himself, he’s bucked the trend by becoming more left-wing as he’s got older. He is particularly disturbed by the apparently motiveless actions of our Prime Minister and has been following the “great smokescreen” that is the Hutton Inquiry. “Blair has this evangelical commitment to what he believes is right, and he invents the truth when he can’t find it out in front of him,’ he says incredulously. “I think we’re living in dangerous times and most people aren’t really aware of it. They’re worrying about asylum seekers or abortion or paedophilia…”
Does it get harder the older he gets (he’s 73), to anticipate, as he’s put it before, the next five minutes?
“I have no shortage of ideas and a peculiar kind of compulsion to get them down. Not that it makes a damn bit of difference…”
In what way?
“When you’re a young writer you want to change the world in some small way, but when you get to my age you realise that it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever, but you still go on. It’s a strange way to view the world. If I had my time again, I’d be a journalist. Writing is too solitary. I think journalists have more fun!”
J G Ballard on the middle classes and mail order Kalashnikovs