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Extreme Metaphors Interviews with J.G. BallardExtreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (Fourth Estate 2014)

This book reminded me of one of Ballard’s most remarkable stories:

People were now clambering all over the giant, whose reclining arms provided a double stairway. From the palms they walked along the forearms to the elbow and then crawled over the distended belly of the biceps to the flat promenade of the pectoral muscles which covered the upper half of the smooth hairless chest. From here they climbed up on to the face, hand over hand along the lips and nose, or forayed down the abdomen to meet others who had straddled the ankles and were patrolling the twin columns of the thighs. (“The Drowned Giant”, 1964)

There are lots of interviewers in this book clambering over the gigantic person and work of J.G. Ballard. But Ballard is alive, not drowned, so he responds to the clambering feet and clutching hands. He laughs and wriggles. He offers a commentary on his own body, explaining his own scars and birthmarks, demonstrating his own reflexes and justifying the use he’s made of his muscles. By the time you finish the interviews, you’ll understand the giant better.

And you may have had some surprises on the way. Ballard liked Margaret Thatcher and didn’t like drugs:

This story [“The Voices of Time” (1960)] also came without drugs, and that, I believe, confirms what I’ve just said, that the human imagination is [capable of anything], it doesn’t have to fall back on artificial stimulants, on chemicals, to release something that the brain can do even on its own. A fertile imagination is better than any drug. (“1982: Werner Fuchs & Joachim Körber. An Interview with J.G. Ballard”, pg. 145 – translated from German)

He didn’t practise what some thought he preached:

People used to come out to this little suburban house [Ballard’s home in Shepperton] expecting a miasma of drug addiction and perversion of every conceivable kind. Instead they found this easy-going man playing with his golden retriever and bringing up a family of happy young children. (“1995: Will Self. Conversations: J.G. Ballard”, pg. 315)

The giant was gentle, you see: he wrote a lot about violence, but didn’t believe in practising it or promoting it. Which becomes a bit of a shame in the interview by Will Self. How good would it have been if Ballard had lifted his gigantic fist and turned Self into a splot on the floor? Very. Alas, it didn’t happen.

And I must admit that the Self interview has some of the most interesting replies in it. But Self’s presence is a reminder that Ballard appeals greatly to the Guardianista community, which is not a good thing. Most of the interviewers here are Guardianistas or some overseas equivalent and they often pursue a Guardianista agenda. Fortunately, Ballard doesn’t say “in terms of” very often, but it would have been interesting to have questions about more things than are in the Guardian’s philosophy. Ballard shared that philosophy in some ways:

Of course men, on account of their greater physical strength, were the dominant figures in most social activities: commerce, industry, agriculture, transportation. Those activities no longer require a man’s great physical strength. A woman can just as easily fly a 747 across the Atlantic. A very small part of industry requires brute muscle. A woman computer programmer can control a machine tool that cuts out a car door. A large number of traditional male strengths, in both senses of the term, are no longer needed. The male sex is a rust bowl. (“1995: Will Self”, pg. 312)

There is much more to the difference between men and women than physical strength. It’s easier for a woman to use a gun than to fly a 747, but almost all gun-crime is committed by men. There are genetic, neural and psychological reasons for that. But men differ too, within races and between them, which is something else that Ballard and his interviewers don’t acknowledge. I’m puzzled by this, because Ballard saw big differences between races in his childhood: English, Chinese and Japanese. He later wrote about them extensively. Did he think they were simply due to upbringing and culture, that the human race was one-and-indivisible?

H.P. Lovecraft didn’t and Lovecraft is a regrettable absence from this feast of analysis, prophecy and metaphor – just as William S. Burroughs is, for me, a regrettable presence. It would have been good if the former had replaced the latter, with Ballard discussing and praising Lovecraft instead of Burroughs. After all, H.P.L., like J.G.B., drew on dreams, not drugs. But I assume Ballard never read Lovecraft and perhaps never even heard of him. That’s a shame, because Lovecraft might have fertilized Ballard’s work with even stranger and stronger ideas. And might have made him use mathematics more.

But Lovecraft wouldn’t have needed to fertilize Ballard with humour, because it was already there. The giant was ticklish. The world made him laugh and so did his own work. There’s a lot of fun in Extreme Metaphors:

Crash a corrupting book? I’ll take my younger self’s word for it. (“1984: Thomas Frick. The Art of Fiction”, pg. 185)

There’s also a detailed index and a clever cover: a crashed, overturned car, a mysterious solar/sanguinary glow and some blue inviting sky. If I wish that Lovecraft had fertilized Ballard, I also wish that Ballard could have fertilized Lovecraft with gusto, joie de vivre and optimism:

I would say we were moving towards an era where the brain with its tremendous sensory, aesthetic and emotional possibilities will be switched on, totally instead of partially, for the very first time. The enormous, detailed, meticulously chosen reruns [of everyday life] that I have been talking about will give one a new awareness of the wonder and mystery of life, an awareness that most of us, for biologically important reasons, have been trained to exclude. […] After a million years or so, those screens are about to be removed, and once they have gone, then, for the first time, men will really know what it is to be alive. (“1979: Christopher Evans: The Space Age Is Over”, pg. 131)

If you’re interested in the giant, you can clamber all over him here.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Vermilion Glands – review of The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard (W&N 2011)

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Ruthless by Geoff SmallRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

Because Geoff Small is black he can say things in this book that would have been called racist if they had been said by a white journalist. For example, he tries to explain differing levels of violence in the island nations making up the West Indies by the differing natures of the African tribes who were enslaved and transported there. Some tribes were peaceful, some warlike, and Jamaica, birthplace of the Yardies, was populated by representatives of the warlike ones.

Combine that with dire poverty and illegal drugs, add the intense rivalries of local politics and asinine interference by the CIA, and you have a recipe for some very violent and dangerous gangs: the Yardies, named after the Jamaican word “yard”, meaning a neighbourhood or district. They started to come to the attention of the media and the general public in the 1980s, as they broke their way into the drugs market in the United States and United Kingdom, and the word used of them then is still being used of them now: “ruthless”. If you have a quarrel with the Mafia, the Mafia will kill you. If you have a quarrel with the Colombians, the Colombians will kill you and your wife. If you have a quarrel with the Yardies, the Yardies will kill you, your wife and your children.

With anyone else who happens to be in your house or on the street or in the nightclub at the time. In fact, “ruthless” is hardly strong enough: another word that Small uses comes closer to the truth: “nihilistic”. The Yardies seem to cultivate a complete disregard for human life. Anyone who wonders if their bark is worse than their bite is likely to stop wondering when he reads about this kind of thing:

In terms of utter ruthlessness, the killing of Cassandra Higgins ranks high on the list. A Jamaican visa overstayer, she was certainly no angel. Still, her demise was shocking by any standards. The nineteen-year-old was stripped naked by five Rude Boys in an eighteenth-floor crack-house on the Cathall Road Estate in Leytonstone, east London. Then, to the horror of those who looked on, she was thrown out of the window 160 feet to the ground. Higgins’s death, in September 1993, was thought to have been the result of a rudie drug deal double-cross on her part. The brutal murder was witnessed by several people, but true to form the mouths of those assembled were welded shut by the force of the posse code: ‘See and blind, hear and deaf’; in fact, not one person was willing to go to court to testify against the killers.

Gangs and gang-warfare have long been fashionable on screen and in print, and this book offers many satisfying fixes for the aficionado of other people’s thuggery as it describes how the Yardies or Rude Boys – “rude” meaning “lawless” or “aggressive” in Jamaican English – invaded expatriate Jamaican communities in the US and UK. Their intent was to take over the drugs-markets there and they succeeded through a combination of extreme violence and use of a Jamaican patois that local police forces often found impossible to understand during phone-taps or surveillances.

An often fascinating, sometimes frightening book, Ruthless seems to me more proof of the harm done both by mass immigration and by the illegality of drugs like marijuana and cocaine. Yardies do not kill and terrorize people just for the fun of it: they do it because there are huge sums of money to be made from the illegal sale of drugs and huge amounts of excitement and satisfaction to be had from confronting and outwitting the authorities. Small describes Jamaicans as naturally rebellious, ambitious and aggressive, making a mark on the world in international fields like music and sport out of all proportion to their numbers. The Yardies are another example of Jamaicans making their mark in an international field: that of crime. If we legalized drugs, that field would get much smaller. And if Jamaicans had not been allowed to immigrate in such large numbers into Britain and North America, their criminality would not have inflicted so much misery and imposed so much expense.

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Front cover of Treasures of Nirvana by Gillian G. GaarTreasures of Nirvana, Gillian G. Gaar (Carlton 2011)

A boxed book with “facsimiles of rare material” and a good guide to why Nirvana became so successful. I like their music, but it wasn’t enough on its own to take them right to the top. Successful bands have to appeal to the eye as well as the ear.* Mudhoney and the Melvins appeal to the latter, but not the former. Nirvana appealed to both. Like Jim Morrison before him, Kurt Cobain looked very good on camera. Even his flying hair did. He’s an eye-magnet in almost every photo here and would be even if you didn’t know who he was. But very few people will look at this book without knowing who he was and what happened to him, so his magnetism merely increases. Krist Noveselic and Dave Grohl look ordinary: Kurt looks special. And he’s sealed special for ever, because he died before he got old, just like Jim Morrison.

There’s a glamour to going before your time and Kurt went well before his. Seventy or eighty years too soon, or maybe much longer. Unless something big gets in the way, science and technology will extend the human life-span indefinitely for people who were, like him, born in and after the 1960s. But humans will stop being human in the process: man, as Nietzsche pointed out long ago, is something to be surpassed. The Deus Ex Machina is on his way: the electronically enhanced super-human who will have vastly increased powers of mind, memory and body. I don’t think Nirvana’s music will interest the D.E.M. much, but that’s one of the things that are still interesting about Nirvana. They’re the last of the real rockers. They grew up without the internet and came to fame while it didn’t matter much. That was part of their appeal: Washington State and Seattle were isolated places, lost in obscurity, far from the spotlights focussed on New York and Los Angeles. It wasn’t easy to learn about them. And there was more. Kurt and Krist came from an isolated part of Washington: Aberdeen, on the muddy banks of the Wishkah.

Treasures of Nirvana by Gillian G. Gaar (back cover)

The grungy design of this book tries to capture that distance and difficulty, using a lot of blur, smear and shadow. Kurt stayed in the shadow and stayed in Nirvana, young for ever. Krist and Dave have an afterlife and the book follows them there: Krist gets bald and Dave loses the scared-kid look he had in Nirvana and becomes the confident leader of Foo Fighters. The other big figure in the Nirvana story, Courtney Love, doesn’t develop at all here, because she gets only one photo, grinning a sharkish grin at the MTV Awards. That was enough for me, just as I assume it was for Gillian Gaar: marrying Courtney was one of the two big mistakes Kurt made in life. The other was becoming a heroin addict. But if his stomach problems were as bad as he said they were, maybe heroin extended his life rather than shortening it. His stomach problems are something else that seals him into the old days. I don’t think they were psychosomatic and even if they were, they were a sign of something badly wrong with his body. The brain is part of the body, after all. Kurt, like most people then and now, didn’t have much control over his brain. Drugs like lithium are a crude way of adjusting the way brains work.

Much stronger methods of adjustment and improvement are on their way. When they arrive, the human race will follow Kurt into history. Nirvana’s music used technology to sing about human flesh and its woes. When flesh combines with technology, Nirvana’s music probably won’t matter any more: the clamour-glamour of rock will be gone. I don’t think Kurt would mind. After all, he ended his life playing unplugged and looking back to the Middle Ages, not forward to the Deus Ex Machina. But there was also something medieval about the importance of paper in Nirvana’s story. Fans got real letters from bands and record companies in Nirvana’s day, not emails or tweets. The facsimiles here try to capture the way physical things mattered more back then: tickets, posters, flyers. So this book is about two vanishing things: flesh and paper. It’s not long and detailed like some Nirvana/Cobain biographies, but it’s worth a look while Nirvana and Kurt Cobain are still glamorous.


*Yes, apart from Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones looked odd or ugly, but that still appealed to their fans, because of its contrast with the Beatles.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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