September 24, 2003


"the periphery is where the future reveals itself"
J.G. Ballard

I also think Wire and the Banshees count as London since Watford and Bromley are in London's orbit.

Part of embracing the future is always rejecting the past; in fact this applies to people who move from the "provinces" to the "centre" as well. I was a bit surprised to see Luka argue that people from the provinces always want to defend the provinces; surely it can work the other way around as well, you can be over-eager to shake the small-town dust off your feet.

Ballard is one of the few poets of the suburbs. The more typical stance is to dismiss them as non-zones, resting places (the phrase 'dormitory town' capturing this perfectly) whose airy, mediocre pleasantness equates with an incurable existential dullness, a fundamental inauthenticity . That, in fact, would have very much captured my own discomfort about suburbia when I was growing up in it: it never felt real . To us dreaming suburbanites, the only Real Place in the country - paradoxically because of its hypermediatization - was London. (This giving a slightly different spin on Luka's claim that 'London is the only real city in England.') And America, America was even more Real. We who lived in the suburbs of towns that were themselves anonymous and mediocre were exiles from the city's Real: insubstantial wraiths, resigned to our status as non-beings.

The City is not the only Real. The Rural - with its, mighty, deep past-indifference to the ephemeral, its enduring Time, in which 'things go on the same, though generations pass' (Hardy) - has its own claim to fundamental reality. As with the city, it is the rural's aestheticization, its capacity for translation into Art, that gives the countryside its impression of the real.

The suburb is neither-nor, the buffer-zones between these two Reals.

When two years ago (in flight from London logjam, in photosynthetic hunger for greenery, in a curve back towards my childhood?) I moved to Bromley, I was self-consciously fleeing the Real. Yet, upon my (sort of) return, the suburban struck me as less unreal than, as Ballard has tirelessly insisted, surreal . Streets that seem like collages brought to life, full of strange incongruities that could only seem natural in the sedatory stillness of the suburb. Appartment complexes that resemble seaside villas, looking out on a busy thoroughfare rather than the ocean, as if they've been dumped there by one of those cosmic collectors from Dr Who that would wrench lifeforms out of context and reassemble them as carnival exhibits . Lawns so precisely manicured that Lewis Carrol's Queen of Hearts could play croquet upon them.

It's all so ex-centric...

Tempting to lapse into a Lynchian depth pyschoanalysis here (a weakness to which Ballard himself is often prone): to shift from the ironic soft-focus idyll of the long-shot into the unforgiving grisly detail of the close-up, to look for the id beneath the suburban superego. More interesting to recognize that the surface is already psychotic, that Nothing lies beneath....

For Ballard, our assumption that cities are the future is an overhang from nineteenth century modernism, a notion as quaintly, endearingly outmoded as the prophecies of Jules Verne. With its concentrational density, its cramped streets, its unplanned sprawl, London is a horsedrawn Victorian relic. To Ballard's delight, and to Iain Sinclair's horror, the future is not the city, but the suburb. Unlike the old population centres - whether the ancient 'Roman shells' or the relatively recent residual slag heaps of industrialism - the suburbs have been built with the car in mind. They thus give rise to the developments which Sinclair abhors but cannot help be fascinated by: ghostless out-of-town retail parks and shopping complexes, non-places accessible only by car, zones whose calculated, franchised anti-locality makes them resemble nothing so much as airports.

Cities recede like 19 C smog in the strip lit, purpose-built hygiene of Bluewater, Kent.

Posted by mark at September 24, 2003 09:54 PM | TrackBack

V. Good design, and thoughts, but my scrolling finger...ouch!

Posted by: sean at October 14, 2003 11:04 PM