When architect Robert Maitland –just the type of officer-class professional whom we’d expect to meet in a Ballard novel– loses control of his car and crashes over a West London flyover slip-road, he finds himself trapped in the netherworld of the steeply-banked bowl beneath. The jammed lanes above him comprise London’s infamous Westway, the brutalist, elevated fragment of the A40 trunk road that Ballard liked to hold in mythic reverence, as though it were akin to the derelict temples of Ankor Wat: “a stone dream that never awakes.” In Concrete Island it’s possible to see the Westway as a character or some autonomous deity, whimsically both vindictive and benign, a thrumming presence forever looming in Maitland’s new sky. The iconic flyover is also an emblem of Ballard’s intentions —this is how the author will now be modelling his illusory environments. “I always suspected that eternity would look like Milton Keynes,” he once said. The sentence could, who knows, have been uttered on his beloved telephone, an epigrammatic broadside from writer to journalist from the statement anonymity of his family three-bed semi-detached in Shepperton’s Old Charlton Road: behind the Art Deco white-framed bay window, modest lawn and cosy dog present and correct.
Concrete Island, Ballard’s 1973 novel, is sandwiched thematically and chronologically by Crash on one side and High Rise on the other, establishing an unofficial trilogy frequently cited amongst followers. This pattern repeated with his 2003 novel Millennium People, in which ‘Chelsea Marina’ is positioned as a see-through fiction of London’s contrived Chelsea Harbour development: a bright 1990s playground charmed out of nothing for second-division yacht owners, unspecified oligarchs, dubious art traders and a post-Charles, gym-dwelling Diana. Stood between Super Cannes and Kingdom Come, Millennium People is described by Iain Sinclair as “the central panel of a triptych of interrelated novels,” which can also be applied to Concrete Island. It all adds to the feeling of Ballard’s post-Atrocity Exhibition output doubling down on a kind of brittle domestic regularity —lives in which even the luxury is dreary— that seems to be partitioning the work into two camps. The ‘before’ era is described by Alan Moore in Cometh The Moment, Cometh The Mandrill as “beautifully jewelled,” the latter as “a decadent conjuring of apocalypse.” Moore’s anecdotal riff on Concrete Island further clarifies the split.
“From what I understand, Ballard based Concrete Island on a real incident that had happened in Australia. Somebody, I believe, had crashed their vehicle onto a large central island in the middle of a three or four lane traffic system that was busy all the time. They’d not been able to get off the island, subsisting entirely on remnants of meals thrown from cars. Ballard must have read this and thought: this is just like Robinson Crusoe. In a present day context. So he took it a step further and came up with Concrete Island. It’s part of that brilliant trilogy of Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise, where he was extrapolating from the landscape around him, not plastering everything with jewels, or having everything filled with water so that London becomes a system of lagoons.”
“The future is going to be boring,” said Ballard, appearing at times to take a slightly roguish pleasure in such prophecies, for example when informing us that society’s main concern would be finding somewhere to park. If there’s a faint whiff of Andy Warhol and his greatest hits (the number one smash, we’d surely all agree, being “fifteen minutes of fame”), slightly spookier is the concealed pre-cognitive frequency that this period of Ballard at times tunes into —like the threads coupling the social implosion of Millennium People and its Chelsea Marina protagonist David Markham with the 2008 armed siege at Chelsea’s Markham Square, in which police ultimately shot dead the unhinged barrister Mark Saunders.
If Crash was a serving of erotica embedded in a showreel of the motorway ecosystem (this aspect of the novel foreshadowing Chris Petit’s coming Westway-starring road movie Radio On), a dissection of the topographies of the journey, the motion of monotony and vice versa, then it comes to a stop in Concrete Island. The monolithic Westway intervenes, a bridge too far. For the injured Maitland, the immediate future does prove boring, pain and frustration only partially assuaged by the hallucinogenic voices of his wife and mistress, and the bottles of wine in his boot that have survived the crash. And what of the crash? Where the previous novel deployed such events as a means to an end, here it’s the accident itself that is the be-all and end-all. Determinism is where Concrete Island, a novel arguably masquerading as a rather lightweight entry in the Ballard canon, gets interesting. Maitland, we find out, has been hankering for a life that has long expired in the whirl of a successful modern career and its trappings. His new life in the bowl is very possibly no more an accident than, say, the beach-set disappearance of Leonard Rossiter’s slightly later TV sit-com character Reginald Perrin, who fakes being swallowed up by the ocean in the opening credits to each episode. In fact, pathos redolent of Perrin attaches to Maitland in a number of ways, such as when it transpires that nobody has reported him missing: his wife and mistress each assumed him to be with the other.
In the 1990s Ballard wrote a preface to Concrete Island acknowledging the obvious Robinson Crusoe associations of the castaway furnishing his new environs with certain motifs of his old life, such as Maitland’s cases of wine in the boot of his ruined car. But when he happens upon Jane and Proctor, two damaged people self-exiled from society and secluded in a derelict construction site, unobserved down in the sub-motorway island, it brings into play not only shades of Shakespeare’s real-time fantasy The Tempest but an emerging resonance with the moral debts of colonialism. Maitland, even in his knackered state, innately senses what he views as his rightful place in this recently-found world: alpha male, would-be chief, keen to exploit Proctor and Jane’s ingrained (or so he thinks) predisposition to be, at best, governed members of the rank and file. Seeing the mentally disadvantaged hulk Proctor lumbering around his playground of objects, baited and used, Caliban to Maitland’s Prospero and Jane’s Ariel, intentionally prompts awkward feelings. All the while London and its professional classes —Ballard’s idea of his own readership, you might say— continue blithely above, and the lines dividing his fiction and our reality begin to fade even more. The world has caught up: eco-fragility, impossible apartments, super yachts and ex-pat lucid-dream communities in the sun. Infinite traffic on an airport motorway.
“Art exists,” said Ballard, “because reality is neither real nor significant.” It sounds like another of those lines vouchsafed through the telephone portal from his Shepperton suburbia, as he sits behind that window, casting a glance at the sitting-room wall and his 1939 Paul Delvaux painting The Mirror, immensely enjoying the fact that it is also not in any way real, but a commissioned reproduction. A sample from the artist responsible, Brigid Marlin, can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery. Her subject, positioned inscrutably behind the papers on his desk: J. G. Ballard.--Neil Jackson