IS declare day off to commemorate Prince

IS declared yesterday a “day off” and urged people across the caliphate to remember Prince by “playing his records, wearing silly clothes and just having a good time”, according to a statement made to news channel Al-Jazeera.

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Mr. Prince, from Minnesota, was not a Muslim

“Prince may seem an odd choice for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to like,” said IS spokesperson Abu Mohammed Al-Arjwani, “what with the ambigious and liberal sexuality and androgyny, but I challenge you to play Raspberry Beret and not get out of your seat for a dance. I dare you.”

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Even as the British parliament discussed whether or not the horrific actions of IS could be called genocide, the group initiated a day of groovy love making and funky guitar playing in frilly shirts. Beards were ordered to be styled in an over-neat pencilled fashion.

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Prince fancy dress costumes sold out quickly in Baghdad

“I’ve always felt that I Would Die 4 U must be a song about God,” Al-Arjwani added thoughtfully. “But I love the ballads myself. Purple Rain, of course, or Diamonds and Pearls. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. His later stuff is underrated, too. The missis loves the raunchier stuff, Cream and that, you know.”

The IS Prince tribute act, Emir, played a free concert last night in Iraq.

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Hanif Kureishi on Prince

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Hanif Kureishi
The Black Album is not Hanif Kureishi’s best novel, but like all of his works, it contains a great many references to his (always excellent) favourite music and literature.

The protagonist of The Black Album, Shahid Hassan, like Kureishi himself or the hero of his The Buddha of Suburbia, Karim, is half ‘white’, half South Asian, and not completely sure if he likes girls or boys. Prince then becomes a kind of perfect representation of a kind of man of the future.

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Prince

Noticing [Shahid] looking at the Prince photograph, she said, “You like Prince?”

He nodded.

“Why?”

Idly he said, “Well, the sound.”

“Anything else?”

Grasping that this was not chatter but part of the interview, he strained to order his words into sense, but for months he’d barely spoken to anyone with half a brain. She coaxed him. “He’s half black and half white, half man, half woman, half size, feminine but macho too. His work contains and extends the history of American black music, Little Richard, James Brown, Sly Stone, Hendrix…”

“He’s a river of talent. He can play soul and funk and rock and rap – ”

Off he went, being exemplary, until, that is, she crossed her legs and tugged her skirt down. He had, so far, successfully kept his eyes averted from her breasts and legs.But the whole eloquent movement – what amounted in that room to an erotic landslide of rustling and hissing – was so sensational and almost provided the total effect of a Prince concert that his mind took off into a scenario about how he might be able to tape-record the whisper of her legs, copy it, add a backbeat and play it through his headphones.

Hanif Kureishi,
(London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 25 The Black Album

The Strangest Movie Remakes: Mannequin

Many would consider the sequel to the eighties classic Mannequin, titled Mannequin 2 (1991), to be simply a remake of the original, albeit with actors of lesser fame and talent (and featuring the exact same theme song, the 80s-soaked Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, which, curiously, was originally titled ‘Nothing Will Prevent us for the Immediate Future.’)

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The first film had been a great success, and Hollywood sought to reproduce that success by simply recreating the entire film in a cheaper way.

There was however an actual remake of the original film. Unlike the official sequel, a lot of changes were made. Director Kurt Risenborg loved the first film but found many aspects of it ridiculous. Risenborg agreed with French theorist Jean Baudrillard’s enthused insights on the 1987 movie,  but felt it had even greater potential. This led him to make his masterpiece, Black Mannequin.

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James Spader

James Spader, who in the original 1987 film played a grouchy Vice President, the strict manager to Andrew McCarthy’s lovable window display artist Jonathan Switcher, retains the role but is the sole lead male – the focus is entirely on his relationship with the mannequin.

It is Spader’s character, Richards, who falls in love with the inanimate woman, and McCarthy’s character Switcher is removed completely. Richards is still stern and uptight with the employees of the department store, but when we see him in his office with a tall whiskey after hours, we see his mournful, lonely side. His wife having died in a car accident, he spends all his spare time in his office reading pornography, or wandering aimlessly around the dark, empty department store among the shadowy products. It is his wish, rather than that of a young woman in Ancient Egypt, that leads to the transchronoportation of a woman in ancient Africa into the body of a wooden dummy in modern day New York.

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Kim Catrall, not pictured

There was a change to the mannequin itself. Kim Catrall was on hiatus before taking up the role of aging sex-pest Samantha in the hit show Sex in the City, and in any case she would not have been the actress for director Risenborg, who was clear about what kind of woman he wanted:

The most ridiculous thing about the original movie was that Emmy was from Egypt and yet was as white as a slab of tofu. It just wasn’t believable, and one wonders why it was considered acceptable – indeed, natural – to do so.

Indeed, Risenborg even relocated the setting of the original time and place of the wooden woman’s home – from Egypt to the court of King Mansa Musa I (1312 – 1337) in Mali.

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Fulani girl, Mali

The casting of a sub-Saharan actress for the role of mannequin made the situation a lot more interesting for me personally. I don’t know about anyone else. For me, it is the historical destiny of the African-American woman.

On his nightly drunken rounds of the department store Richards develops an over-fondness for a new, controversial ‘black mannequin’, which has only started being used in the store at his insistence.

Crucially, the mannequin comes to life only after Richards begins to make love to it. This startles him to say the least. Those scenes in American Psycho in which Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman runs sweating and panicking through the streets of Manhattan are surely an homage to similar scenes in Black Mannequin. Spader sweats buckets of whiskey in despair and leaves a drunken message on his mother-in-law’s answering machine in which he confesses to raping a woman at work.

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The next afternoon, having missed a morning of work, he tentatively calls the office and finds all is normal. Returning to the store, he hesitatingly approaches the ‘African Fashions’ area of the store, only to find the mannequin as beautiful and dead to the world as she had been the afternoon before. He had done nothing wrong, he felt, and the woman had returned to its previous lifeless, silent form.

Richards and the black mannequin engage in an erotic relationship at night, and it isn’t long before he wants to make it official and introduce her to society.

He takes her to balls, parties and charity events. Very proud of his new partner, he shows her off to anyone and everyone. He introduces her variously as ‘Manny’ and ‘Quinny’. She is waved to, at the most expensive Manhatten restaurants. An older lady compliments her great beauty and elegance, and calls her ‘a black Diana Ross.’ He has no control over when and where she will change into an animate object (or back to inanimate) but he doesn’t let this affect the relationship. He dresses her the way he likes. He becomes jealous when she allows other men to flirt with and fawn over her. He gets into a fist fight with a black ambulance driver who is attempting to take her stiff cadaver into an ambulance.

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Diana Ross, woman.

One morning, he wakes up hungover and cannot find her. Recalling his deceased wife’s own disappearance, Richards almost has a nervous breakdown – he finds her eventually at a friend’s apartment where he had left her the previous evening. He is unable to contain his paranoia and jealousy, and her silence only makes things worse. Eventually, full of grief, Richards sends Quinny to Chicago. He mails her next-day delivery to a crash test dummy center, and her fate remains unknown to the viewer.

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The HybridIII Crash Test Dummy Family

The film was unsuccessful, which Risenborg credits to the loss of McCarthy, who was used in the original movie to attract a young female audience. But the film was a success for actor James Spader: few people know that it was strange role in 1994’s Black Mannequin which made him the immediate first choice for David Cronenberg when he came to make Crash (1996).

 

The Madness of King George: Blue Urine and Bondage Chairs!

An Historian Goes to the Movies

Viewing Dragon Knight while I was sick left me a little mentally imbalanced, and I needed something to help me recover. So I turned to a film about another man seeking help with mental illness, The Madness of King George (1994, dir. Nicholas Hytner, based on Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, adapted by Bennett for the film). Fortunately, the film proved to be the right treatment, because by the end of it, I felt my wits returning just like King George’s.

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What Was the Madness of King George?

The film examines an important incident in English history generally known as the Regency Crisis. The Crisis happened in 1788, when King George III experienced a bout of insanity. George’s symptoms were varied: a brief stomach ache at the start, obstructive jaundice, hypomania (euphoric or irritable moods, physically energetic behavior, extreme talkativeness, and bursts of creative ideas), howling…

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Haggard Heroes: How To Be A Country Legend

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Linton Barwick (In the Loop):                                                                                  “I can’t stand to see a woman bleed from the mouth. It reminds me of that Country & Western music which I cannot abide.”

 

I used to think that ‘Merle Haggard’ was a stage name – the term ‘haggard’ like ‘beat’ to the Beat Generation – looking exhausted and unwell, especially from fatigue, worry, or suffering… careworn, tired, drained, drawn, raddled, beat.

Whilst for moaning bluesmen the more suffering you sing about the better and the cooler, country music is sometimes thought of as cry-in-your-beer music for rednecks. Music lovers know that there is good country music and bad country music. The great country artists were born in the Great Depression, and experienced truly hard times – and this becomes inseparable from their music.

Jimmie Rodgers

Rodgers’ mother died when he was about six or seven years old. He spent the next few years living with various relatives in southeast Mississippi and southwest Alabama. He eventually returned home to live with his father, Aaron Rodgers, a Maintenance-of-Way foreman on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, who had settled with a new wife in Meridian.

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By age 13, Rodgers had twice organised and begun traveling shows, only to be brought home by his father. His father found him his first job working on the railroad as a water boy, where he was taught to pick and strum by rail workers and hobos. As a water boy, he would have been exposed to the work chants of the African American railroad workers known as gandy dancers.

Called ‘the father of country music’, it was when he wrote a popular song about his own tuberculosis that country music truly became the more poignant ‘lovesick blues’ – his devastatingly personal T.B Blues was more popular than his old railman songs.

 

Hank Williams

When the train whistle blows / All the sadness that Hank Williams knows – Van Morrison, Ancient Highway

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Williams’ father was drafted during World War I, and was severely injured after falling from a truck, breaking his collarbone and suffering a severe blow to the head. After his return, Williams’ mother Lille had several children, one of which died shortly after birth.

Named after Hiram of Tyre, ‘Hiriam Williams’ was nicknamed ‘Harm’ by his family. He was born with spina bifida occulta, a disorder of the spinal column, which gave him lifelong pain – a factor, perhaps, in his later use of alcohol and drugs. Williams’ father was frequently relocated by the lumber company railway for which he worked, and the family lived in many southern Alabama towns. In 1930, when Williams was seven years old, his father began suffering from facial paralysis. Doctors determined that the cause was a brain aneurysm, and he remained hospitalised for eight years, rendering him mostly absent throughout Williams’ childhood.

Lillie Williams opened a boarding house, as well as having several side jobs to support her children during the bleak economic climate of the Great Depression. She worked in a cannery and served as a night-shift nurse in the local hospital.

Their first house burned and the family lost its possessions. They moved to a new house on the other side of town, which Lille soon turned into a boarding house.

Apparently, Williams bought his first guitar using money from selling peanuts.

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Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in I Saw The Light

 

George Jones

George Glenn Jones was born  in 1931 in Texas. During his delivery, one of the doctors dropped him and broke his arm. 

His father worked in a shipyard and played harmonica and guitar while his mother, Clara, played piano in the Pentecostal Church on Sundays. When he was seven, his parents bought a radio and he heard country music for the first time. In his autobiography I Lived To Tell It All, Jones explains that the early death of his sister Ethel spurred on his father’s drinking problem. George Washington Jones could be physically and emotionally abusive to his wife and children when he drank. In the book George Jones: The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend, Bob Allen recounts how George Sr. would return home in the middle of the night with his cronies roaring drunk, wake up a terrified George Jr., and demand that he sing for them or face a beating.

 

Johnny Cash

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Born in 1932 in Arkansas, Cash started working in cotton fields at age five, singing along with his family while working. The family farm was flooded on at least two occasions, which later inspired his song Five Feet High and Rising. His family’s economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties.

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Cash was very close to his older brother, Jack. In May 1944, Jack was pulled into a whirling head saw in the mill where he worked and was almost cut in two. He suffered for over a week before he died. Cash often spoke of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident, and write in Cash: The Autobiography that his father was away that morning, but he and his mother, and Jack himself, all had premonitions or a sense of foreboding about that day, causing his mother to urge Jack to skip work and go fishing with his brother. Jack insisted on working, as the family needed the money.

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Joaquin Phoenix as Cash in Walk the Line

 

Willie Nelson

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Nelson’s mother left soon after he was born, and his father remarried and also moved away, leaving Willie and his sister Bobbie to be raised by their grandparents. The Nelsons, who taught singing back in Arkansas, started their grandchildren in music. During the summer, the family picked cotton along with other citizens of Abbott. Nelson disliked picking cotton, so he earned money by singing in dance halls, taverns, and honky tonks from age 13.

 

Merle Haggard

Haggard’s parents moved to California from their home in Oklahoma, during the Great Depression, after their barn burned down.

Haggard was born in a converted boxcar where his parents lived, in Oildale near Bakersfield.

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His father died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945. To support the family, his mother worked as a bookkeeper. As his mother was absent due to work, Haggard became progressively rebellious.

If Johnny Cash’s life could be easily condensed into the popular musical biopic format (trauma – success – excess and addiction – fall – redemption) a film of Haggard’s life would more closely resemble Cool Hand Luke. Haggard committed a number of minor offences, such as thefts and writing bad checks, and was sent to a juvenile detention centre for shoplifting in 1950.When he was 14, he ran away to Texas with a friend. They rode freight trains and hitchhiked throughout the state. When he returned the same year, he and his friend were arrested for robbery, but were released when the real robbers were found. They were later sent to the juvenile detention centre, and escaped again, this time to Modesto, California.

He had a series of labourer jobs, including driving a potato truck, being a short order cook, a hay pitcher, and an oil well shooter. His debut performance was with Teague in a Modesto bar named Fun Center, being paid $5, with free beer. He returned to Bakersfield in 1951, and was again arrested for truancy and petty larceny and sent to a juvenile detention centre.

After another escape, he was sent to the Preston School of Industry, a high-security installation. He was released 15 months later, but was sent back after beating a local boy during a burglary attempt.

After his release, Haggard worked as a farmhand or in oil fields, and in the evenings played in nightclubs. Despite some growing success, he and his new wife were plagued by financial issues. He was arrested in 1957 shortly after he tried to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse. He was sent to Bakersfield Jail, and was transferred after an escape attempt to San Quentin Prison on February 21, 1958.

While in prison, Haggard discovered that his wife was expecting a child from another man. He was fired from a series of prison jobs, and planned to escape along with another inmate nicknamed Rabbit. Haggard was convinced not to escape by fellow inmates. Haggard started to run a gambling and brewing racket with his cellmate. After he was caught drunk, he was sent for a week to solitary confinement where he encountered Caryl Chessman, an author and death row inmate.

Rabbit successfully escaped, only to shoot a police officer and return to San Quentin for execution.

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Haggard soon earned a high school equivalency diploma and kept a steady job in the prison’s textile plant, while also playing for the prison’s country music band, attributing Johnny Cash’s famous performance at the prison as his main inspiration to join it. He was released from San Quentin on parole in 1960.

 

Garth Brooks – Not a haggard hero

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Troyal Garth Brooks was born in 1962, in Oklahoma.

As a child, Brooks often sang in casual family settings, but his primary focus was athletics. In high school, he played football and baseball and ran track and field. He received a track scholarship to Oklahoma State University, where he competed in the javelin. 

Brooks graduated in 1984 with a degree in advertising.

 

 

Jules Renard on God

  

Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes is one of the best books of recent years. Part memoir, part meditation on death, Barnes quotes hilariously and poignantly from his wide reading – wide, though generally French. 

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As much as he loves Gustave Flaubert, the 19th century writer Barnes returns to most in this book is Jules Renard, who wrote vividly and thoughtfully about the deaths of his brother, father and mother… as well as his own impending demise. His diaries seem as insightful yet down-to-earth as his counterpart of the 1500s, Michel de Montaigne. Barnes quotes Montainge’s famous phrase (before pointing out that he’s really quoting Cicero, who in turn was referring to Socrates):

To be a philosopher is to learn how to die.

Barnes himself admits to being more terrified of death as he gets older, as well to being an atheist as a teenager, but agnostic after middle-age.

  
Barnes muses on the possibility of dying whilst writing the book: writers can be superstitious – Ballard expressed concern when he wrote Crash that he would inevitably end up in a crash, despite his quite cautious driving.

Tragically, Barnes’ wife died after the book was published. The uxorious Barnes writes very movingly of her death and its affect on him in his book Levels of Life.

I imagine the following musings on God from Jules Renard feel all the more true to Barnes today:

I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if he didn’t.

Yes, God exists, but He knows more about it than we do.

Perhaps the fact that God is incomprehensible is the strongest argument for His existence.

‘The Enormous Space’: J.G Ballard and Suburbia

  1. Towards an new architecture

Le Corbusier:

We must create the mass production spirit…

The spirit of constructing mass production houses.

The spirit of living in mass production houses.

The spirit of conceiving mass production houses.

Towards an Architecture, (1923)

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Le Corbusier, 1933

 

Sigmund Freud:

The fateful question for the human race seems to be whether, and to what extent, the development of its civilisation will manage to overcome the disturbance of communal life caused by the human drive for aggression and self-destruction…

Civilisation and its Discontents, (1929)

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Sigmund Freud, 1920

 

Why did J.G Ballard proclaim Le Corbusier ‘the greatest architect of the 20th Century’? Surely, the urbanist designer’s planned utopias provide the emotionless settings for what we call the dystopias of Ballard’s writing?  

Le Corbusier is most often associated, negatively, with post-war concrete high-rise buildings. Though he never worked in Britain, he is often blamed for buildings such as Ernõ Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, supposedly the inspiration for Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise. 

Many claim that Le Corbusier was merely misinterpreted. ‘To blame Le Corbusier for this,’ one commentator said of a construction in Brasilia, ‘is like blaming Mozart for Muzak.’

 

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Trellick Tower, London (photo by Gurkan Sengun)

 

In Towards an Architecture (1923Le Corbusier wrote that ‘the problem of the house is the problem of the epoch’. We can certainly see his influence in the suburbanization of cities the world over, such as Los Angeles, Tokyo and London. 

In 1960 Ballard moved with his family to Shepperton, in the Thames Valley, and over the years watched it become what he considers a suburb of London (Heathrow) Airport.

 

Ballard and his family in the garden in Shepperton


Ballard was as ambiguous as ever on suburbanisation:

In the late 1960s the 20th century at last arrived and began to transform the Thames Valley into a pleasing replica of Los Angeles, with all the ambiguous but heady charms of alienation and anonymity…

For me, this inter-urban landscape of marinas, research labs, hypermarkets and industrial parks represent the most hopeful face of Britain at the end of the century. […] We live in the suburbs, among the video-shops, take-aways and police speed-check cameras, and we might as well make the most of them, since there is nowhere else to go.

 


The remark is not entirely tongue-in-cheek. Ballard admired Le Corbusier and also the Futurists for their embrace of the new, for their reinvention and desire to create a world of the future in the present. He admired the clinical and supposedly futuristic Los Angeles and the cool and swift movement of the novels of Raymond Chandler. London was, and is, a ‘semi-extinct’ city belonging to the 19th century and Ballard welcomed change.

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The former Amhearst Avenue, Shanghai


Ballard grew up in an exhilarating and fantastical Shanghai filled with beggars and businessmen, gangsters and bar-girls, European sailors and mobs of factory workers, fireworks displays and open sewers; but the Ballards only saw this from their chauffeured car. They ate only British food, spoke only English and lived in Amherst Avenue. It all seemed like ‘a stage set’:

Each foreign nationality in Shanghai its houses in its own idioms – the French built Provençal villas and art deco mansions, the German Bauhaus white boxes, the English their half-timbered fantasies of gold-club elegance, exercises in a partly bogus nostalgia that I recognized decades later when I visited Beverly Hills.

 

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The sit of Ballard’s childhood home in Shanghai is now a club
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The former Amhearst Avenue, Shanghai



Ballard watched as the masquerade was torn to pieces by the Japanese invasion. 

Even before visiting LA he could see this hyperreal Beverly Hills reading Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust. 

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Metromedia Square, Hollywood, 1994


Ballard’s sense of the illusory quality of housing styles and ornamentations must have intensified even further when Steven Spielberg used London suburbs near to Shepperton to recreate Jim’s faux-English dwelling when filming Empire of the Sun, as he described in The Kindness of Women:

[A] reasonable replica of Amherst Avenue lay to hand on the other side of the world, a few miles from the studios at Shepperton. These handsome, half-timbered mansions, built in the 1930s beside the golf course, had served as the models for the houses which the British émigrés like my parents had built in the suburbs of Shanghai – houses whose Tudor exteriors were themselves facades, hiding American bathrooms, kitchens and air-conditioning.

There was something odd in the notion that the home of a near-neighbour could serve so plausibly as my childhood house…


Empire of the Sun, 1987


 

It is no wonder, then, that Ballard so prized Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus design school, as old models and ornamentation were superseded by function-defined form, ‘expressed in a pure geometry that the eye could easily grasp in its entirety’ as he outlined in ‘A Handful of Dust’.  However, as Ballard pointed out in the article, ‘architecture provides us with camouflage’:

All of us have our dreams to reassure us. Architecture is a stage set where we need to be at ease in order to perform. Fearing ourselves, we need our illusions to protect us, even if the protection takes the form of finials and cartouches, Corinthian columns and acanthus leaves. Modernism lacked mystery and emotion, [and] was a little too frank about the limits of human nature

 

 

The Enormous Space was made into a one-off TV film by Richard Curson Smith, titled Home.


 

In his short story ‘The Enormous Space’, (1989) the narrator Ballantyne has decided never to leave his suburban home again. Ballard is exploring the house, the ‘machine for living in’, as Le Corbusier put it so famously. He investigates the ‘spirit’ of living in and conceiving the house, as Le Corbusier proposed, but in a late 80s suburb of Heathrow airport, a post-war Los-Angeles-Thames-Valley (LA-TV?). Le Corbusier was certainly optimistic, believing that with remedial design, city-dwellers could live peacefully. As David Pinder notes, ‘the more exact the order of the landscape is, [Le Corbusier] suggested, the more happy and secure will the human subject feel.’

Ballard may well have admired the Modernist architect, but he also greatly admired Freud – the quote at the beginning of this essay is his favourite. As in High Rise, it is with Dali’s sense of Freudian mental exploration that he investigates the seemingly banal house-machine in The Enormous Space.  Focusing on inner space does not mean ignoring outer space. Perhaps we can say that all of his work concerns how our surroundings conceive us.

 

For all the criticisms of the harsh urban environment, it is infinitely more exciting than the suburbs. We sympathize with the narrator of ‘The Enormous Space’, and his decision to shut himself off in his suburban home to never go out again. He wants to become ‘a reductive Crusoe’:

Crusoe wanted to bring the Croydons of his own day to life again on his island. I want to expel them, and find in their place a far richer realm formed from the elements of light, time and space.

This seems ironic: an agoraphobic response to claustrophobia. But perhaps that is the very nature of suburbanisation. Ballard takes the seemingly mundane aspects of our society and throws fresh light upon them, revealing the strangeness in their normality. Ballantyne lives in the semblance of a community, where people ‘measure their lives by consumer goods, the dreams that money can buy.’

In a sense, the lack of any response reflects the tranquil air of the London suburb. If I were living, not in Croydon but in the Bronx or West Beirut, my action would be no more than sensible local camouflage. Here it runs counter to every social value, but is invisible to those it most offends.

The unglamorous Los Angelification of the periphery of London is an exile from the city, and an exile from a drab post-war, post-Empire England. Like many of Paul Auster’s characters, Ballantyne seeks to exile into himself – not in a narcissistic way, but as the only escape possible. 

 

However, in the works Auster is most famous for, collected as The New York Trilogy, the protagonists’ exile-into-self is so complete that the confines of a room are no longer important: ‘“Home” is everywhere since the self is not at home with itself. […] nomadism as a means of escape.’ Or to quote Auster, from ‘City of Glass’:

Nearly every day, rain or shine, hot or cold, he would leave his apartment to walk through the city – never really going anywhere, but simply going wherever his legs happened to take him.

New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighbourhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost.

 

Ballard’s narrator is not lost. His exploration of the actual contours of the house-machine carries a strange but confident logic:

I would depend on the world for nothing. I would eat only whatever food I could find within the house. After that I would rely on time and space to sustain me.

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Grand Central Station  (photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Paul Auster has the camouflage of Manhattan and Brooklyn to wander in to, he has Grand Central Station, Madison Avenue or the Colombia library as a familiar setting – this New York is older than the Europe of ‘The Enormous Space’. This inverts Baudrillard’s analysis of the difference between Europe and the US today:

Ours is a crisis of historical ideals facing up to the impossibility of their realization. Theirs is the crisis of an achieved utopia, confronted with the problem of its duration and permanence.

Auster’s New York is seductive – and it is a backdrop to his characters’ existential crisis, whereas Ballard’s airport suburbia is the achieved utopia – a dull utopia with no past and no dreams of the future. From his window, Ballantyne watches a neighbour stare at a plane taking off from nearby Heathrow:

She is dreaming of Martinique, or Mauritius, while I am dreaming of nothing.

 

My decision to dream that dream may have been made this morning, but I assume its secret logic had begun to run through my life many months ago. Some unknown source of strength sustained me through the unhappy period of my car accident, convalescence and divorce, and the unending problems that faced me at the merchant bank on my return.

 

Readers familiar with Ballard are aware this spells trouble: his protagonists always head towards danger; more often than not they are shaken awake due to some accident. A decision to ‘dream of nothing’ spells danger because of the latent dreams, repressed but not necessarily controlled. Like the protagonists of Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes and others Ballantyne is recovering from an accident. These cross-work rhymes also rhyme with his controversial novel of 1973, Crash. Not that Ballard is insinuating these characters enjoy erotic car accidents, but it implies a play around with the unconscious, the awakening of something wild, primitive and even brutal inherent in the mind, regimented but not fully restrained by the ordered environment. These protagonists are already victims, the casualties of suburban non-society and non-places. Whereas Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes explore gated communities on the Med, ‘The Enormous Space’, the house itself becomes the gated community for one.

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Empire of Light, Rene Magritte, 1954

Ballard is shrewd enough to know that, in a way, to ‘depend on the outside world for nothing’ is appealing. Indeed, the story is a parody of the writer himself – Ballard was a stay-at-home Dad in suburban Shepperton. Everyday he sat at his desk next to his huge replication of Paul Delvaux’s The Violation and wrote. His 2006 novel Kingdom Come delineated precisely the unattractiveness of an M25 town:

Already I was lost. I had entered what the AA map represented as an area of ancient Thames Valley towns – Chertsey, Weybridge, Walton – but no towns were visible around me, and there were few signs of permanent human settlement. I was moving through a terrain of inter-urban sprawl, a geography of sensory deprivation, a zone of dual carriageways and petrol stations, business parks and signposts to Heathrow…

A terrace of small houses appeared, hiding in the shadow of a reservoir embankment, linked to any sense of community only by the used-car lots that surrounded it. Moving towards a notional south, I passed a Chinese takeaway, a discount furniture warehouse…. There were no cinemas, churches or civic centres, and the endless billboards advertising a glossy consumerism sustained the only cultural life.

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Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? Richard Hamilton, 1956

It is perfectly understandable to want to close the door to this – but ‘The Enormous Space’ is not merely dissent at a meaningless landscape centred on consumerism. Ballard is returning the suburban house to its fundamental essentials, to what he admires as Le Corbusier’s ‘minimal functionalism’ triggering an exuberant re-evaluation on the part of Ballantyne:

I feel tremendously buoyant; almost light headed. […] Think only of the essentials: the physics of the gyroscope, the flux of photons, the architecture of very large structures…

Suffused with light, the house can breathe. Upstairs the windows are open to the sky and less confined, as if they too have found freedom. […] Without doubt, I am very much better. I have put away the past, a zone I regret ever entering.

 

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It is at this point he goes beyond Le Corbusier’s call to ‘eradicate from your mind any hard and fast conceptions in regard to the dwelling house and look at the question from an objective and critical angle’. Michel de Certeau criticised Le Corbusier for being an architect who only plans from 30,000 miles above the ground. Ballard moves his narrator into the ‘house-tool’ and begins to worship the very light, angles and geometry of the structure, fetishizes Le Corbusier’s enthralments beyond normality, as in Crash automobile eroticism stood as an ‘extreme metaphor’ playing on the car’s domination of 20th century culture. Ballantyne’s ex-wife removes much of his furniture, and ‘uncluttered by the paraphernalia of conventional life’, he makes a ‘curious discovery – the rooms are larger’. It is not long before he begins to get lost, finding danger and exhilaration in this simplest of spaces:

The house is revealing itself to me in the most subtle ways. Surprised by its perspectives, I trip over my own feet and feel my heart race ahead of me. I find a wall and press my hands to the striped paper, then fumble through the overlit air towards the landing. At last I reach the top of a huge staircase, whose banisters shrink together as I race to the safety of the floor below.

The true dimensions of this house may be exhilarating to perceive, but from now on I will sleep downstairs. Time and space are not necessarily on my side.

Ballantyne, having decided to ‘dream of nothing’, is already conjuring and applying meaning to the bare walls, with logic at once absurd and plausible. Some criticize Ballard for always reverting to the death-drive, for example with Kingdom Come, which opens pondering the latent nature of suburbanites:

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…

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Interviewed about his tendency to dwell on the dangerous side of human nature, Ballard expressed surprise that his isn’t the more common tendency:

People brought up in the comfortable suburbs of Western Europe and North America tend to think that human beings are at heart governed by a kind of enlightened self-interest; that they are thoughtful and humane above all […] If you go back to the Second World War, when tens of millions died in the most brutal way, I’m not convinced that human beings can be trusted in the […] wrong circumstances of behaving irrationally.

Whatever aspects of Le Corbusier’s architectural design Ballard might admire, a post-war writer (especially one so affected by the war) could not possibly share the modernist’s optimism or faith in human nature. ‘The Enormous Space’, like much of Ballard’s work, flirts with but finally devastates this optimism, as Francis Bacon’s paintings, such as Figure in a Landscape (1945) horrifically mocks the confidence of the pre-1939 humanists.

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Figure in a Landscape, Francis Bacon, 1945

Another rhyme across Ballard’s works is the casual eating of domestic pets, notably the beginning of his 1975 novel High Rise:

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the past three months.

Having long ago exhausted his food rations, Ballantyne merrily consumes a cat, a poodle-pie, ‘Bonzo, Major, Yorky and Mr Fred.’ It is a disturbing and amusing device, an unexpected glimpse of primitive instincts, upsetting the harmony and order of Le Corbusier’s ‘concept-city’. It acts in a similar way to lush weeds sprouting incongruously in the midst of the apocalyptic city in so many disaster films. It is not long before Ballantyne’s very English politeness gives way to cannibalism, and dinner in the form of a television repairman:

I followed him up the stairs, concerned that he might lose his way among those vast rooms.

Sadly, my attempt to warn him came to nothing. As he stepped into the first of those white chambers, as large as aircraft hangers carved in the roof of an iceberg, he seemed to realise that he had entered a zone of danger. I grappled with him as we blundered through that white world, like artic explorers losing all sense of distance within a few steps of their tent. An hour later, when I had calmed his fears and carried him down the staircase, he had sadly yielded to the terrors of light and space.

With a politely evasive tone Ballard seamlessly merges Ballantyne’s repressed psychosis with his architectural ‘project’. He is a Norman Bates who dresses up as a town planner. The story concludes when Ballantyne receives a visit from his concerned secretary: she too succumbs to ‘the almost planetary vastness of [the] house’:

This morning I gave in briefly to the sudden fear that all this has been taking place within my own head. By shutting out the world my mind may have drifted into a realm without yardsticks or sense of scale…

Behind me Brenda lies comfortably […] Covered by a jewelled frost, she rests quietly in the compartment of the freezer, a queen waiting one day to be reborn from her cryogenic sleep.

The perspective lines flow from me, enlarging the interior of the compartment. Soon I will lie beside her, in a palace of ice that will crystallise around us…

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Perhaps Ballard is playing with the relation between Le Corbusier’s brutal functionalism and Hitler’s fascism – a suburban Albert Speer? The need for purification and the human sacrifice involved… perhaps that is too simplistic an argument to follow, but certainly Ballard is playfully experimenting with the ‘logic’ of idealists, and giving an inkling of the skeletons in the utopian urbanist’s closet: ‘the modest villa which Mrs Johnson imagines herself to occupy is in fact an immense Versailles!’

In 1992 Ballard listed among his favourite reads West’s The Day of the Locust, Baudrillard’s America and the Los Angeles Yellow Pages. The Yellow Pages revealed more, he claimed about the residents of that horizontal city than any Hollywood film. The most listed service? Of course, psychiatrists…

 

Bibliography

  • Auster, Paul, The Invention of Solitude, (London: Penguin, 2007)
  • Auster, Paul, The New York Trilogy, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1987)
  • Ballard, J.G, Miracles of Life: From Shanghai to Shepperton, (London: Fourth Estate, 2008)
  • Ballard, J.G, The User’s Guide to the Millennium, (London: HarperCollins, 1996)
  • Ballard, J.G, The Kindness of Women, (London: HarperCollins, 1991)
  • Ballard, J.G, The Complete Short Stories, (London: Flamingo, 2001)
  • Ballard, J.G, High-Rise, (London: Flamingo, 2000)
  • Ballard, J.G, Kingdom Come,(London: Fourth Estate, 2007)
  • Ballard, J.G, Cocaine Nights, (London: Flamingo, 1997)
  • Ballard, J.G, Super-Cannes,
  • Baudrillard, Jean, America, trans., Chris Turner, (London, Verso, 1989)
  • Pinder, David, Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power and Politics in Twentieth-Century Urbanism, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, ????)
  • Raeburn, Michael and Victoria Wilson, ed., Le Corbusier, architect of the century,
  • Vale, V., ed., J.G Ballard: Quotes, (San Francisco: RE/Search Publications, 2005)