Something fishy

 

© Heinemann

 

The other week my better half (Mrs Blood and Porridge) and I were travelling in a three-wheeler along Colombo’s Marine Drive when we found unexpectedly found ourselves at the back of a traffic jam.  This was unexpected because we were on a wide part of the drive that isn’t normally prone to bottlenecks; and it was the middle of a Sunday, when Colombo’s frequently severe traffic isn’t that severe.

 

Then we realised that the congestion was caused by a large number of vehicles left parked at the seaward side of Marine Drive.  Crowds of people had climbed out of those vehicles and crossed the railway tracks, which run alongside the drive, to get to the rocky shoreline overlooking the Indian Ocean.  We asked our driver what was happening.  He didn’t know, but thought that someone might have drowned – and the onlookers were there out of ghoulish curiosity to see the police retrieve and remove the body.

 

By chance, the place we were travelling to on Marine Drive, the 14-storey Ozo Hotel, stood opposite the spot that seemed to be the focus of the crowds.  We planned to have some lunch at the hotel’s rooftop bar.  After we’d finally arrived there and taken the lift to the top of the building, the first thing I did was go to the railing and look down over Marine Drive and the railway, shoreline and sea and find out what had been drawing all those spectators.

 

Far below, lying across some sand whilst being gently pummelled by endless silvery breakers, was a big pale carcass maybe twenty feet long.   A carcass of what, I couldn’t tell.  It was so decayed and shapeless and bloated that it was unrecognisable.  I was relieved to be 14 storeys above the scene, well out of the way of what must have been a vile reek of putrefaction.

 

 

At first I thought it might be the remains of a whale-shark – the world’s biggest fish species – because two months earlier someone had told me she’d been scuba-diving at a shipwreck a short distance out into the ocean from Colombo when one of those giant (but non-carnivorous) sharks had swum at her out of the murk and spent a minute moseying around her.  However, according to a news report that appeared subsequently, the badly-decomposed carcass was identified not as a shark but as a whale.

 

This occurred just a fortnight after a well-publicised incident where a 50-foot-long corpse was washed up at Seram Island in Indonesia.  Rotting, but still bleeding enough to turn the surrounding waters red, the thing initially caused speculation that it might be the remains of some gargantuan and hitherto-unknown sea-creature.  Later, though, marine experts were able to identify it, from the presence of baleen plates, grooves along its body and certain skeletal features, as a whale too.

 

Being into literature, the carcass on Marine Drive set me wondering about giant washed-up bodies in books and stories I’d read.  I could think of two examples.  One occurred in the whimsical (and occasionally twee) fantasy novel Mr Pye (1953) by Mervyn Peake, which is set on Sark in the Channel Islands and concerns an eccentric evangelist who arrives to preach a message of love and compassion to the islanders.  A first attempt to convert a mass audience ends in disaster, however – he assembles Sark’s inhabitants on a beach one evening with the promise of a giant picnic, but before he can start proselytising, the waves inconveniently dump a dead whale on the sand nearby and the stench of it drives everyone away.

 

The other example I thought of was the short story The Drowned Giant by J.G. Ballard, which appeared in his 1964 collection The Terminal Beach and, as its name suggests, isn’t about a whale carcass but about a gigantic human one that’s inexplicably deposited on a beach following a violent storm.  In his typically perverse fashion, Ballard has no interest in who the giant was or how he came into existence or how he ended up on the beach.  Rather, he focuses on the reaction to him by the ordinary, normal-sized humans living along the coast.

 

This begins with intense and rather disrespectful curiosity – soon they’re clambering over his huge, dead bulk like the Lilliputians swarming over Gulliver.  Then it turns into even less respectful greed, with the body gradually being dismantled and processed by “a fertiliser company and a cattle-food manufacturer”.  And finally the poor giant fades out of both the landscape and human consciousness.  The stretch of beach that was his final resting place is left empty save for a “clutter of bleached ribs like the timbers of a derelict ship” that “make an excellent perch for the sea-wearying gulls.”  Meanwhile, the anonymous narrator observes that “most people, even those who first saw him cast up on the shore after the storm, now remember the giant, if at all, as a large sea beast.”

 

One of Ballard’s most haunting and melancholic stories, The Drowned Giant can be read here.

 

Ballard rises

 

(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal

 

J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, about a community living in a towering luxury apartment complex who gradually lose their marbles and grow dysfunctional and then dystopian, was first published in 1975.  However, I read it a decade later, after I’d become a massive fan of Ballard’s stories of psychological and sociological aberration.  So in my mind the novel is connected more with the 1980s.  I imagined the book’s well-heeled but losing-it characters as sleek Thatcherite yuppies.  Indeed, a few years after I read it, the Canary Wharf business district, including the 50-floor One Canada Square that for many years was Britain’s tallest building, started to spring up in east London.

 

Now, an additional three decades later, director Ben Wheatley, producer Jeremy Thomas and scriptwriter Amy Jump have unveiled their film version of High Rise and given it a strongly retro-1970s aesthetic.  Thus, when I watched it the other day, it was slightly discombobulating to see a book written in the 1970s, read by me in the 1980s, brought to the screen in the 2010s and set in a world that is the filmmakers’ exaggerated reimagining of the 1970s.

 

Just how retro-1970s is Wheatley and co.’s take on High Rise?  Answer: very.  There’s the stylistically gruesome 1970s – blokes wear flared trousers and have shit moustaches (Luke Evans’ moustache is particularly shit), ladies totter about on platform heels, everyone puffs on cigarettes.  There’s the happy, silly 1970s – Abba get referenced with a version of SOS, though it’s actually Portishead doing a slow, spooky rendition of the song.  And there’s the apocalyptic 1970s, the 1970s that had Britain’s conservatives worried their country was going to hell in a handcart – we catch a glimpse of Mary Whitehouse’s least favourite children’s comic, the notoriously violent Action (or ‘the seven-penny nightmare’ as it was dubbed by horrified tabloids); and we hear punk rock arrive in the form of Mark E. Smith of the Fall snarling his way through 1979’s Industrial Estate.  And the piles of garbage that accumulate with disconcerting speed in the high-rise building’s foyer bring to mind Britain’s strike-plagued Winter of Discontent in 1978/79.

 

(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal

 

It’s no surprise that Wheatley has opted for this setting because 1970s British culture is clearly a big influence on him.  His earlier movies Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) owe much to the 1970s British ‘folk horror’ films The Wicker Man (1973) and Blood on Satan Claw (1970); while his amusing black comedy about caravanning serial killers, Sightseers (2012), is a reworking of the famous 1976 TV play by Mike Leigh, Nuts in May (with a body count, obviously).  He’s also described the visionary British directors Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell and John Boorman, all of whom hit their creative peak in the 1970s, as ‘the holy trinity’ for him.  I wonder if he was attracted to High Rise not so much because of the chance to film a J.G. Ballard novel as because of the fact that long ago it’d been a directorial project for his one of his heroes, Nicholas Roeg.

 

That’s not to say that Wheatley’s cinematic tastes diminish High Rise as an adaptation of a literary work.  It doesn’t lose the peculiar flavour of the original novel or its author. In fact, compared to the previous big movie versions of Ballard’s work, Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) and David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), both of which bear the unmistakable stamp of their directors’ personalities, High Rise is the most Ballardian film of a Ballardian book yet.

 

We get that strange combination, so typical of Ballard, of well-bred, buttoned-up Englishness – like boys in a posh boarding school, the men in High Rise refer to one another by their surnames – and creeping madness.  In High Rise, like in much of his fiction, the characters tend not to resist the cataclysm that’s taking place around them. They conspire with and embrace it instead.  Here, while life in the building gradually goes tits-up through an escalating series of lift malfunctions, power-failures, water-stoppages and outbreaks of anti-social behaviour, its inhabitants don’t seem that bothered.  They celebrate the process by partying in the corridors and need little incentive before they graduate to staging raids against rival floors and finally to killing each other.

 

Tom Hiddleston neatly captures this unsettling blend of conventionality and insanity, repression and regression, in his portrayal of the main character, Robert Laing.  He’s a gentleman physiologist who moves into one of the building’s shiny new apartments but who never gets around to unpacking the stacks of boxes containing his possessions.  He ends up wearing the metallic grey paint he’s bought for redecorating the place like war-paint.  (This is after he nearly beats to death a customer who also wants the paint in the building’s 15th-storey supermarket: “It’s my paint!”)  By the movie’s finish – which also serves as its prologue – Hiddleston is acting out the novel’s opening line, which incidentally is one of the greatest opening lines in modern British literature: “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 previous three months.”

 

(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal

 

Wheatley is also well-served by the supporting cast, which includes Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Reece Shearsmith and Bill Paterson; and, in the role of Royal, the architect who designed the high rise and now lives at its top in an opulent penthouse surrounded by rooftop gardens, Jeremy Irons.  Early on, we see Irons and his wife hosting a fancy dress party with the theme of the Palace of Versailles, the Ancien Régime and Louis XVI, which is tempting fate when the less wealthy families on the lower floors are already getting pissed off about the faltering infrastructure.

 

High Rise won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s received mixed reviews, with detractors throwing around terms like ‘muddle’ and ‘dog’s dinner’.  Anyone expecting a straightforward yarn wherein folk in a block of flats go Lord of the Flies will be disappointed.  Ballard was never terribly interested in linear narratives and Wheatley honours the tradition by providing scenes that seem randomly hallucinogenic, comedic and horrific.  Like Ballard’s fiction generally, the film is stuffed with ideas that are played around with for a while before being discarded.  And given that some of the characters appear a bit unhinged even when the high rise is functioning normally, it’s a bit difficult to develop a logical plot here.  How do you chart a descent into collective madness when several participants seem mad anyway?

 

Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed High Rise and I assume other fans of J.G. Ballard’s work will enjoy it too; and I suspect the great man himself – who died in 2009 – would have got a big kick out of it.  I found the film enthralling and compulsive, disturbing and at times unfathomable; and since seeing it I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  Which is the same effect that Ballard’s books have always had on me.  A result for Ben Wheatley, I’d say.

 

From www.miskatonic-london.com

 

Detours into dystopia

 

(c) Warner Brothers

 

A little while ago I read The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s troubling 1985 novel about a near-future USA where the religious right rule the roost.  Society is militarised, elitist, patriarchal and supposedly puritanical.  The majority of women are either kept as domestic servants or kept as ‘handmaids’, i.e. veiled and isolated receptacles into which the male members of the elite pour their seed during brutal sex rituals in a desperate effort to propagate the species – the ladies of the elite are too old and / or too genetically damaged to reproduce healthily themselves.  Late on in the book, we learn too that some women are kept as hostesses / prostitutes in gaudy out-of-the-way brothels because the elite’s menfolk, no matter how Christian, Bible-quoting and sanctimonious they are, still have certain needs, urges and desires to satisfy.  Because they’re still blokes, after all.

 

I have mixed feelings about the ‘academic’ epilogue that Ms Atwood tags on at the end of the book but overall I found it an impressive, if depressing, piece of work.  When I finally set it aside, I decided it was good enough – and spiritually bad enough – to feature among the best pieces of dystopian fiction I’ve ever read.  And that set me thinking.  If I had to name my favourite dystopian novels, what would they be?  What books would make my top dystopian dozen?

 

(c) Vintage

 

Firstly, though, I will define my terms.  By dystopian fiction I mean a story set in a society that’s gone seriously off the rails – either because of hellish political oppression of some fashion, or because of a natural or man-made cataclysm that’s suddenly turned life into a frantic scramble for survival.  It has to be set at least a little way into the future, not in the present.  Otherwise, Graham Greene – whose novels were commonly set in totalitarian or failing states (or in a combination of both, as in The Comedians) – would be king of the dystopian hill.

 

There’s also the issue of location.  The horribleness described in a proper dystopian story, for me, has to be widespread, if not global.  Therefore, books like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies or J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, where the societal breakdown takes place respectively on an island and in a tower block, don’t qualify because they’re too localised in scale.

 

I will disqualify novels where the setting for the story is pretty grim, but that’s all the dystopian element is, a setting.  It’s a backdrop against which a character-filled, twisting-and-turning plot takes place.  We gets glimpses of bad stuff in the background, but we’re more interested in the narrative and in the psychology of the characters who populate it.  So for that reason I will exclude William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  In a proper dystopian story, the world is in an awful state and that state has to be at the forefront.  The setting has to be so vivid that it becomes an important character itself in the story, if not the most important character.

 

And finally, I will leave out novels where, yes, present-day society has met its nemesis and collapsed, presumably bloodily and destructively; but where the narratives take place so far in the future that they feel like fantasy or fairy stories.  The settings are so distant and fantastic that there’s little or no link with our own world, and the reader isn’t really disturbed by the thought of what happened to civilisation between now and then.  So that means H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse are both out.

 

Anyway, here are my literary-dystopia top twelve:

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

The Iron Heel by Jack London.

I am Legend by Richard Matheson.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

1984 by George Orwell.

Fugue for a Darkening Island by Christopher Priest.

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.

 

A few books that are regarded as classics of dystopian writing aren’t on the list because, simply, I haven’t read them yet.  These include P.D. James’s Children of Men, Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor and another Atwood novel, Oryx and Crake.  I’ve seen the film version of Children of Men, however, and thought it was pretty darned good – despite Clive Owen being in it, acting on autopilot.

 

Another novel I haven’t read that might have been a contender is Harry Harrison’s meditation on the threat of human overpopulation, Make Room! Make Room!  This was also made into a film, the 1973 Hollywood production Soylent Green, which added mass cannibalism to Harrison’s story.  I remember one critic making an interesting observation about Soylent Green.  He noted that the American filmmakers seemed not to realise that the crowded, impoverished world they were showing was actually real life (apart from the cannibalism) for many people living on the planet in the 20th century.  Hence, the film didn’t really reflect American fears about the end of the world.  It reflected American fears about the USA becoming just another, bog-standard poor country.

 

But to the list itself.  Some of my inclusions are predictable – Orwell, Huxley, Burgess, McCarthy.  A number of J.G. Ballard’s novels could easily have made the list, like The Drought and The Crystal World, but I’ve chosen The Drowned World because it’s the first and perhaps most famous of that sub-genre of surreal, psychological and hallucinogenic post-disaster novels that Ballard pioneered and made his own.  Many people would argue that Richard Matheson’s I am Legend is really a horror novel, a vampire one, but the apocalyptic plague Matheson describes is given a scientific rationale; so it could happen, just about.

 

(c) Penguin

 

Nowadays it’s fashionable to knock Day of the Triffids because of the middle-class cosiness of its characters – their personalities manage to remain decent, upstanding and Radio 4-ish even after 99% of the population have been blinded and giant, mobile, flesh-eating plants have invaded the streets.  And even some of Wyndham’s admirers might argue that The Chrysalids and The Kraken Wakes, both of which feature dystopias of their own, are better books.  But I think Day of the Triffids deserves its place in the list because of its impact on popular culture.  The word ‘triffid’ has entered the English language.  I’ve heard it used to describe everything from a tangled, noxious-looking weed in someone’s garden to the condition of Helena Bonham-Carter’s hair.

 

On the other hand, I’ve picked John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island because they offer an antidote to Wyndham’s cosiness.  Both books have characters who start out as respectable middle-class English types, but whose personalities undergo a breakdown as violent and frightening as that wrought on the societies around them.  Fugue, which was written in 1972 and which is probably regarded as a minor book in Priest’s canon, seems particularly chilling in 2014.  It sees Britain go to hell after a nuclear war breaks out in the developing world and the country gets swamped by desperate refugees.  In the 21st century, if climate change — as most scientists warn — wreaks environmental and economic havoc on certain parts of the globe, there could be a lot of refugees on the move very soon.

 

(c) Panther

 

Incidentally, my brother, who works in the building industry, once told me that while he was attending a health-and-safety seminar about the dangers of asbestos, the speaker mentioned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  He said that in 1953, as a publicity gimmick, the publisher Ballantine produced 200 numbered and signed copies of Fahrenheit 451 that were bound in asbestos – the joke being that, in a future society where are books had to be burned, these 200 copies of the novel couldn’t be burned.  Obviously, at the time, people were unaware of the links between asbestos and lung cancer.  Now that sounds like a truly dystopian book – one that tells a story about a totalitarian future society whilst having the power to induce a dystopian-style breakdown inside the reader’s body.

 

http://io9.com/5988144/limited-edition-of-fahrenheit-451-was-bound-in-asbestos-so-it-wouldnt-burn

 

Kingsley goes green: book review / The Green Man, by Kingsley Amis

 

(c) Penguin

 

I can claim to be neither an expert on nor a fan of Kingsley Amis.  While I’ve enthusiastically worked my way through the fiction of several of his contemporaries – Anthony Burgess, William Golding, Graham Greene – until recently I’d read only a couple of Amis’s short stories and one of his books, Lucky Jim.  The latter was an early (1954) example of the literary sub-genre now known as the ‘campus novel’ and I have to say I found it pretty dated and unfunny.

 

I suspect the main reason for my aversion to Kingsley Amis, though, is the persona he projected when he was alive.  He didn’t seem like a nice piece of work and so I rarely felt an urge to dip into his writing.  In the 1950s he trumpeted his support for the Labour Party but by the 1980s he’d become an enthusiastic fan of Mrs Thatcher.  He seemed to me pretty typical of major figures in Britain’s arts and media establishments whose politics undergo a severe rightward turn during their lifetimes.  Socialist egalitarianism and liberal permissiveness are great things when you have youth (and a lack of material possessions) on your side.  But when you reach a point in your life when you’re too old, and too moneyed, to benefit from them  any longer, and when a younger, upstart generation arrives on the scene with their own ideas about how to do things, it’s time to change into reactionary old fart and deny those freedoms you once enjoyed to anyone else.

 

But far worse than Amis’s Conservatism was the fact that in later years he seemed unashamedly anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic.  I’ve read an interview with his long-suffering second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard (who died at the beginning of this year) in which she, rather gallantly, blamed much of that nastiness not on Amis but on his fondness for alcohol.  In other words, his odiousness was really just the drink speaking.  However, I can’t help thinking of an old saying they have in Northern Ireland: “If it’s not in you when you’re sober, it won’t come out of you when you’re drunk.”

 

Still, I have one reason for liking Amis, and that’s because unlike nearly everyone else in Britain’s snobbish literary establishment at the time, he didn’t look down his nose at genre writing – he was openly supportive of it and dabbled in it himself.  For example, Amis was one of Ian Fleming’s most heavyweight admirers and it’s fitting that, after Fleming’s passing, he was the first person to write a non-Fleming James Bond novel, Colonel Sun (which he published in 1968 under the pseudonym Robert Markham).

 

Amis was also a big fan of science fiction and in 1960 he wrote a critique of the genre, New Maps of Hell.  As J.G. Ballard noted, New Maps of Hell was important for science fiction’s development because Amis “threw open the gates of the ghetto, and ushered in a new audience which he almost singlehandedly recruited from those intelligent readers of general fiction who until then had considered science fiction on par with horror comics and pulp westerns.”  Predictably, though, the curmudgeonly Amis went off science fiction in the 1960s when younger sci-fi writers like Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison and Thomas M. Disch started going all experimental and New Wave-y on him.  Before long he was raging at how those whippersnappers had contaminated his beloved science fiction with horrible things like “pop music, hippie clothes and hairdos, pornography, reefers” and “tricks with typography, one-line chapters, strained metaphors, obscurities, obscenities, drugs, Oriental religions and left-wing politics.”

 

Amis seemed too to be interested in supernatural stories and in 1969 he tried his hand at writing one, a novel called The Green Man.  This has long been a neglected entry in Amis’s oeuvre, overshadowed by more prestigious books like Jake’s Thing (1978) and The Old Devils (1986), out of print and near impossible to find in bookshops.  It was, however, adapted into a three-part drama serial by the BBC in 1990, with the script written by none other than Malcolm Bradbury, an author whose own books like Eating People is Wrong (1959) and The History Man (1975) were examples of the campus novel that Amis had helped pioneer with Lucky Jim.  The TV version of The Green Man starred the splendid Albert Finney and it began with a memorable and grisly sequence that didn’t evoke Kingsley Amis, or Malcolm Bradbury, so much as it evoked Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic schlock-horror movie The Evil Dead.

 

(c) BBC 

 

Unfortunately, when The Green Man was televised, I was in the middle of moving from London to Essex and I didn’t get a chance to see its second or third episodes.  However, I was impressed enough by the first episode to make a mental note to set aside my prejudices against Amis and hunt down the original novel of The Green Man sometime.

 

Recently, nearly a quarter-century later, I noticed a new edition of The Green Man sitting on a shelf in a bookshop, bought it and finally got around to reading it.  So here are my thoughts about this particular foray by Kingsley Amis into the realms of the paranormal and macabre.

 

The Green Man is narrated by the fifty-something Maurice Allington – the character played by Albert Finney in its TV adaptation – who owns and runs an inn of some antiquity, the titular Green Man, on the way from London to Cambridge.  Living on the premises with his second wife Joyce (his junior by a number of years), his teenage daughter Amy and his ailing father, Allington is unnerved when the hoary old ghost stories associated with the inn over the centuries start to intrude on reality.  In particular, he has several encounters with the ghost of Thomas Underhill, a supposed sorcerer who lived in the building in the 17th century; and he senses the presence of a more monstrous apparition, a demonic creature that Underhill once summoned up from the local woods to destroy his antagonists.  The inn’s name is a clue to this demon’s constitution.

 

Allington eventually realises he’s become enmeshed in a scheme that Underhill has devised to transcend his own death.  However, his attempts to outwit the ghostly sorcerer are hampered by his own failings: his ill-health, his liking for the bottle – to which, of course, his family and friends attribute his strange visions – and the distractions posed by his carnal appetites.  Not only is the lusty Allington engaged in an affair with another younger woman, Diana, who’s the wife of the local doctor, but he’s devised a less-than-noble scheme of his own.  He wants to persuade both Joyce and Diana to participate with him in a ménage à trois.

 

I hadn’t got far into The Green Man before I’d realised that both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness are its characterisations.  Amis does an excellent job of sketching Allington, with his many vices and virtues.  He’s annoyingly conceited, intellectually as well as socially.  Talking about his book collection, he says sniffily: “I have no novelists, finding theirs a puny and piffling art, one that, even at its best, can render truthfully no more than a few minor parts of the total world it pretends to take as its field of reference.  A man has only to feel some emotion, any emotion, anything differentiated at all, and spend a minute speculating how this would be rendered in a novel… to grasp the pitiful inadequacy of all prose fiction to the task it sets itself.”  Allington, in fact, is a poetry snob.  “By comparison… verse – lyric verse, at least – is equidistant from fiction and life, and is autonomous.”

 

(Actually, his love for the poetic and his disdain for the more mechanical medium of prose remind me slightly of the late 19th century / early 20th century occult writer Arthur Machen, who speculated in his fiction that supernatural phenomena are best perceived by people with receptive intellects and imaginations – the very young, the insane and the poetically-inclined.  Perhaps that’s why, of all the people living, dining and drinking in the Green Man, the verse-loving Allington is the one with whom the supernatural intelligence of Thomas Underhill makes contact.)

 

Meanwhile, feminist readers will no doubt feel like strangling Allington on account of his baser musings.  “Ejaculation,” he comments at one point, “as all good mistresses know, is a great agent of change of mind and mood.”

 

And yet as a bundle of contradictory traits – stuck-up, sexist, cynical, drunken, cranky, comical, cunning, occasionally courageous and very occasionally principled – Allington is a believable figure in this story.  He might be a hapless mess of vanity, lust and booze, but at the book’s finale, when he rushes out of the inn and into the night to try to save the sleepwalking Amy from the predatory green man, we aren’t surprised that he shows a streak of heroism as well.  Incidentally, with hindsight, it’s easy to see why Albert Finney was ideal for the role in the TV version.

 

But on the other hand, Amis is hopeless at drawing believable female characters here.  Joyce and Diana give little impression of having minds of their own.  They seem like manifestations of Amis’s notion of what women should be like – statuesque, well-bred and utterly pliable to the needs of the local Alpha Male.  “Together,” says Allington, “they made an impressive, rather erectile sight, both of them tall, blonde and full-breasted…  Dull would he be of soul that would pass up the chance of taking the pair of them to bed.”  In their speech, meanwhile, they spout irritating upper-class adverb-adjective couplings: “jolly closed up”, “perfectly awful”, “frightfully exciting”, “damn good”.  Late on in the book, Allington’s devious ménage à trois plan backfires and Joyce and Diana get their revenge on him, but this isn’t enough to convince me that they’re anything more than Kingsley Amis’s idea of desirable posh totty.

 

Elsewhere in the book, predictably, we’re treated to a list of things in the modern world (or at least, the 1960s) that the grumpy, ageing Amis finds appalling.  He sounds off against radical students: “First one whiskered youth in an open frugiferous shirt, then another with long hair like oakum, scanned me closely as they passed, each slowing almost to a stop the better to check me for bodily signs of fascism, oppression by free speech, passive racial violence and the like.”  He rails against popular music: “Amy’s gramophone was playing some farrago of crashes, bumps and yells from her room down the passage…  I listened, or endured hearing it…”  He has a go at trendy vicars: “I found it odd, and oddly unwelcoming too, to meet a clergyman who was turning out to be, doctrinally speaking, rather to the left of a hardened unbeliever like myself.”  Readers will either find this aggravating or endearing.  Now that Amis has been dead for nearly twenty years, and I’m in the process of turning into a grumpy old man myself, I have to confess I found it rather endearing – more so than I would have if I’d read the novel in my youth.

 

Failures in female characterisation aside, I generally enjoyed The Green Man and I had more fun reading it than I had with Lucky Jim.  However, is the novel successful as a ghost story?  In my opinion, for a ghost story to succeed, it needs to convey a degree of believability.  If I can be lulled into thinking, however fleetingly, that this could be happening, I’m more likely to be affected, unsettled, even frightened by it.  On this account, Amis’s book almost succeeds.  For the most part, he convincingly moves the plot from being about a man whose home has some strange old tales attached to it to being about a man who has to deal with the unwelcome, ghostly protagonists of those tales.  To facilitate this jump from the credible to the incredible, Amis adds some persuasive background details.  A section where Allington visits a library at Cambridge University in search of a long-lost journal by Underhill has a scholarly believability that’s worthy of M.R. James.

 

Alas, all is betrayed by a scene near the novel’s climax where Amis goes too far and introduces another supernatural character, the most famous and powerful supernatural character of the lot – guess who it is.  Now any story involving ghosts has implications about the wider scheme of things.  It makes life after death a fact, which raises questions about the design and purpose of the universe and about the intelligence that might be behind it.  However, for the sake of believability, it’s advisable for ghost-story writers to keep things localised and small-scale.  In M.R. James’s celebrated short story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad, for example, what’s important is that the hero is being pursued along a beach by a terrifying supernatural entity.  Not that this entity’s existence calls into question our scientific assumptions about the universe – because if it does exist, then scientists are likely wrong and all the priests, magicians and shamans of history were likely right.

 

Amis, unfortunately, can’t resist exploring the universe he’s created in The Green Man further than is necessary and so Allington ends up having an unexpected visit from the Big Man Himself.  Their confrontation resembles something from the classic 1946 Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger fantasy movie, A Matter of Life and Death.  And that’s what The Green Man promptly becomes, a fantasy rather than a ghost story – a story that’s no longer believable and hence no longer scary.

 

J.G. Ballard once said of Kingsley Amis: “as with so many English novelists he was vaguely suspicious of the power of the imagination: it could be too much of a good thing.  Yet the radical imagination is what we seek in a writer; when we read we want to encounter a very different world that will make sense of our own.”  Ironically, the problem with The Green Man is that in the end, and atypically, Amis lets his own imagination run away with him.  The book would have been more effective if – like those English novelists whom Ballard complains about – he had decided that too much imagination here is a bad thing.

 

By David Smith, from The Guardian

 

You can, by the way, watch Albert Finney strut his glorious stuff in the BBC’s adaptation of The Green Man on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdK93bYG6gE.

 

Welcome to the Hotel Ballard

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a fan of the late writer J.G. Ballard, whose dystopian fiction was famous for the hallucinogenic landscapes it created.  Using prose that was simultaneously concise and dream-like, his novels and short stories would transport you ten minutes into the future, where the most unnerving trends you’d read about in the media – rampant consumerism, environmental degradation, urban decay, social dysfunction – had become a little more extreme, a little more perverse, but had gone far enough to reach a tipping point.  Accordingly, Ballard’s characters moved against surreal but disturbingly-familiar backdrops of abandoned hotels and derelict shopping malls, drained swimming pools, sand dunes dotted with half-swallowed pillboxes, wreckage-strewn motorways and flyovers, and wrecked luxury apartment blocks whose inhabitants had gone Lord of the Flies.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

A few months ago, a friend and I were exploring the Basilique de Saint Cyprien, an early Christian site just north of Tunis, on the coast between Carthage and Sidi Bou Said.  The site provided a perfect tourist-brochure view over a beach and a glassy-blue section of the Mediterranean, through which a couple of expensive-looking yachts were cutting furrows.  However, when we turned our heads northwards, we saw something that changed the place’s atmosphere.  Our gazes fell upon the nearby remains of the Hotel Amilcar and my immediate thought was: “That’s something out of J.G. Ballard.”

 

From what I can gather, the Hotel Amilcar closed its doors in 2008.  Its location, on the Rue Mohamed Ali Hammi, is somewhat below the level of the Basilique de Saint Cyprien but it still must’ve offered its customers good views of the sea.  It’s been gradually dismantled since its closure.  Depending on who you talk to, the plan is either to dismantle it entirely, or, once it’s been stripped to a skeleton, to assemble a new hotel over its steel-and-concrete bones.

 

 

What stands now looks pretty skeletal.  The hotel retains its floors, columns and roofs but has almost no walls at all.  From a distance, it rises above the undergrowth like a gigantic set of Ikea shelves.  Meanwhile, close up – a chunk of the perimeter wall is missing, so it’s possible to venture in and root around the rubble-littered spaces of the building’s ground floors – the contrast between how it once was and how it is now is haunting.  Ballard would’ve loved it.  He’d have wandered around these emaciated ruins whilst composing sentences about package-groups of phantom tourists, setting their weightless cases down amid the piles of masonry in the gutted, grimy shell of the lobby, or later making themselves at home in the wall-less squares of their bedrooms, their ghostly eyes drawn by the shimmer of the Mediterranean beyond the non-existent windows.  (Obviously, his sentences would’ve been better-written than mine.)

 

 

Ballard would also have liked this little boat at the side of the hotel, beached amid heaps of debris and rubbish.  (If you look closely, you may see that the boat was crewed by a dozy cat when I took the picture.)  Meanwhile, I noticed an additional and very Ballardian detail in the hotel grounds, a drained swimming pool, though I was only able to photograph it from a distance.

 

 

Lady of the flies: book review / Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard

 

(c) Flamingo Books

 

I opened J.G. Ballard’s 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise with a little trepidation because of two common assumptions about Ballard’s oeuvre: firstly, that he was better at writing short stories than at writing novels; and secondly, that his earlier novels – those up until 1984’s Empire of the Sun, including the loose trilogies of The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World (1964-1966) and Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise (1973-1975) – are better than his later ones.

 

Generally, I agree with both assumptions.  While I think Ballard, who died in 2009, wrote some excellent novels, none of them had quite the same impact on me that his best short stories did – items like Concentration City, The Drowned Giant, Now Wakes the Sea and The Air Disaster are masterpieces of short fiction that aspiring young writers should be made to study in order to learn How It Is Done.  And though I always got some enjoyment out of his later novels, such as SuperCannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), it was clear that they weren’t in the same league as his earlier novels.

 

The problem with his later books, I feel, is that there’s too much going on in them and as a consequence they lack focus.  For example, Kingdom Come, which looks at the disturbing influence that a huge new shopping mall has on the inhabitants of a satellite town outside London, begins with a shooting spree by a crazed gunman, then touches on several contemporary issues like racism, football hooliganism and rampant 21st-century consumerism, and ends with a bizarre final section where an assortment of misfits take over the mall and try to set up a new (and inevitably dystopian) society inside it, like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Alex Garland’s The Beach crossed with the George A. Romero movie Dawn of the Dead.  In other words, just as you’ve managed to take one trope on board, another one bustles along to confuse you further.

 

Sometimes I feel that this was due not so much to a decline in Ballard’s writing powers, as to the fact that the modern world – which all Ballard’s work portrayed through a uniquely distorted prism, part Franz Kafka and part Salvador Dali – was by the 21st century changing so fast.  Even his satirical radar couldn’t keep up with all the weird social, political and technological developments that contemporary life was generating.  Neither could he quite manage to accommodate everything adequately in each new book.

 

(Having said that, I should thank Kingdom Come for a memorable frisson it gave me last year, while I was reading it.  I’d arranged to meet a friend one afternoon in Carthage, the swankiest of Tunis’s suburbs.  My friend hadn’t yet turned up when I got off at the local TCM station, which was next door to the Carthage Branch of Monoprix, so I took Kingdom Come out of my bag and spent a few minutes waiting beside the big supermarket with my nose stuck in its pages.  It took me a minute or two to realise that the supermarket wasn’t just closed for the afternoon.  It was gutted.  During the Tunisian revolution in January, it’d been looted and trashed and stood now as a razed shell, a disturbingly incongruous spectacle in the middle of this smart neighbourhood of high white walls and thick iron gates, four-by-fours and swimming pools, orange trees and jasmine bushes.  This was all spookily similar to what was happening in the book I was holding – wow, the prophetic power of literature!  If Ballard’s ghost had been nearby, having a quiet chuckle, I wouldn’t have been surprised.)

 

A plot summary of Rushing to Paradise suggests a similar lack of focus.  It tells the story of a group of environmental activists, led by an intense and plainly unbalanced woman called Dr Barbara Rafferty, who head for Saint Esprit, a Pacific atoll, to protest against a French nuclear test and save the albatrosses that nest there.  By dumb luck rather than by any tactical ability, they manage to force the French to withdraw from the atoll and, with the place to themselves, Barbara hits on the idea of converting it into a global eco-sanctuary, one where endangered plants and animals can brought from other continents and allowed to grow or breed in safety.  “Think of Saint Esprit as the ultimate environmental project,” she tells the youngest member of the group, a naïve 16-year-old called Neil Dempsey who is the novel’s focal character and whose loyalty to Barbara strays further into psychosis as the story progresses.  “We’re engineering the ecology of paradise!”  Needless to say, things don’t go as planned and the utopian society that the environmentalists set up on Saint Esprit falls more than slightly short of its goals.  In fact, it all goes Lord of the Flies.  (That happened a lot in Ballard’s fiction.)

 

Later, however, Ballard shifts gears and what had been a dark satire of environmental idealism becomes an even darker satire of feminism.  Barbara starts to muse that, “Women don’t dislike men… We bring them into this world and spend the rest of our lives helping them to understand themselves.  If anything, we’ve been too kind to them, letting them play their dangerous games.”  Meanwhile, the male members of the party start dying of strange, debilitating sicknesses.  And whenever boatloads of environmental sympathisers arrive at the atoll, the women on board are persuaded to stay while the men go mysteriously missing.  It eventually dawns on Neil that Barbara is keeping him alive so that he can impregnate the women around him and the atoll can propagate what she has identified now as the most valuable species of all – the human female.  And if anything happens to compromise Neil’s fitness and virility, he’ll go the same way as the other men.

 

But the sudden switch from environmental satire to feminist satire here isn’t as jarring as the competing elements in Kingdom Come or Ballard’s other later books.  Perhaps it’s because we’re set up for this transition early on in Rushing to Paradise.  After meeting Barbara for the first time, a curious Neil does some research on her.  He discovers that in her youth she was a proper medical doctor but was disgraced in a scandal where she assisted some terminally ill patients with their (alleged) wish to die.  Thus, Ballard establishes her as a chameleon of trendy causes – voluntary euthanasia, environmentalism, feminism – who happily drops one and adopts another whenever it suits her damaged state of mind.

 

In fact, I found Rushing to Paradise a surprisingly enjoyable book, more enjoyable than the assumptions I mentioned at the start of this review had led me to believe.  Nonetheless, the strongest part of it is the bleakly-amusing central section, which details the environmentalists’ hopeless attempts to build a Gaia-friendly Shangri-La on the atoll after the French have abandoned it.  (After sinking the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in 1985, and after deciding to run nuclear tests at Moruroa to pre-empt the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, those beastly French were definitely the environmental villains du jour when Ballard penned this novel.)  He has a merry time skewering his characters for the gulf between their rhetoric and (the consequences of) their actions.  For instance, the ship that carries them to the atoll causes an oil slick that destroys most of its birdlife.  And the endangered animals that environmental groups around the world send to them, believing they’ve turned the atoll into an ecological Noah’s Ark, end up in their cooking pots as survival there becomes more desperate.

 

Although his early novels like The Drowned World and The Drought dealt ostensibly with environmental disasters and were prescient of our modern fears about global warming, Ballard never seemed to have much truck with the environmental movement.  Indeed, one or two of the pieces in his 1996 collection of non-fiction, A User’s Guide to the Millennium, were published originally in motoring magazines and suggested he was even a bit of a petrol-head.  However, I wouldn’t go so far as the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle who, on the event of Ballard’s death, declared that the writer had been a Conservative (http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/3557201/jg-ballard-was-a-man-of-the-right-not-that-the-right-really-wanted-him/).  I know he did write once about “the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher… the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip…” but as this came from the pen of a man who’d written in Crash about people being sexually aroused by car accidents, Mrs Thatcher would be ill-advised to take it as a compliment.  Besides, in the 1990s, Ballard turned down the offer of a CBE, condemning the British honours system as “a Ruritanian charade that helps prop up our top-heavy monarchy.”  Hardly the words of a man of the right.

 

My feeling is that, rather than expressing Ballard’s disdain for the environmental movement or for the feminist movement, Rushing to Paradise is merely a character study.  It examines a megalomaniac who, as I’ve said, uses causes such as environmentalism and feminism as tools to herd her followers closer and closer to her messianic goals.  Indeed, Barbara is one of the most intriguing of Ballard’s characters, managing to be a tyrant and mass-murderer but managing to engage the reader’s pity too.  In one of Neil’s rare moments of insight, he glimpses the profound solitude that she really longs for, realising “for the first time that she would only be happy when was alone on Saint Esprit, when Kino, Monique and the Saitos had gone and even the albatross had abandoned her.”  And her demented spirit seems to shine ever more brightly as people die around her and as her own body withers with malnutrition, illness and overwork.

 

Correspondingly, if Rushing to Paradise has a fault, it lies in the characterisation of Neil.  Possessing little spirit himself, easily manipulated and more than a little stupid, he seems to exist only as a literary device — as a blank page for recording, and an empty mirror for reflecting, Barbara’s glorious insanity.  And unsurprisingly, at the book’s finale, when he is rescued from the atoll, his one impulse is directed towards the mad but magnetic older woman who has dominated him for so long.  Neil, writes Ballard, “would join her, happy to be embraced again by Dr Barbara’s cruel and generous heart.”

 

Indeed, his passivity becomes downright annoying.  Reading the book, there were times when I wished that I could step into its pages, onto the sands of Saint Esprit, and throttle him — or that Dr Barbara Rafferty would bump him off too and finish the job of rendering Saint Esprit’s male population extinct.