Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label JG Ballard. Show all posts
Showing posts with label JG Ballard. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


One of the first “grown up” books I ever discovered and read for myself was HG Wells’ The Time Machine.  It was in the local library and it had a shiny silver cover, and it was also short.

I like to think I still remember it pretty well from that first reading, though I have reread it over the years and of course I’ve seen the George Pal movie. (I preferred the book).

         You couldn’t call The Time Machine a book about walking, and yet when the Time Traveller (“for so it will be convenient to speak of him”) makes his second appearance, having been away on his adventures in the fourth dimension, he “walked with just such a limp as I have seen in footsore tramps,” so evidently he’d been doing plenty of walking on his travels.

Much of the book is the Time Traveller’s own account of his adventures, and walking is certainly involved, some ruin too;  “As I walked I was watching for every impression that could possibly help to explain the condition of ruinous splendour in which I found the world—for ruinous it was. A little way up the hill, for instance, was a great heap of granite, bound together by masses of aluminium, a vast labyrinth of precipitous walls and crumpled heaps ...”  Are we in JG Ballard territory yet?

         And apparently the people of Wells's future don’t do much walking: “There were no large buildings towards the top of the hill, and as my walking powers were evidently miraculous, I was presently left alone for the first time. With a strange sense of freedom and adventure I pushed on up to the crest.”

The description of the time machine in the book is, I think, deliberately vague, leaving you free to imagine your own apparatus. I always liked this futuristic bicycle version:

And I found it rather more convincing than the fairground ride kind of thing that’s in the movie, and of course also in the Big Bang Theory:

But now that I think about it, I can’t see any reason why a movie remake couldn’t employ a form of walking machine, perhaps “The Time Treadmill,” especially some futuristic one like this:

Gardens do appear here and there in the novel, and at one point the  Time Traveller observes that, “There were no hedges, no signs of proprietary rights, no evidences of agriculture; the whole earth had become a garden.”

         There’s a JG Ballard short titled the “Garden of Time” featuring Count Axel “a tall, imperious figure in a black velvet jacket, a gold tie-pin glinting below his George V beard, cane held stiffly in a white-gloved hand.”  Every evening he and his wife walk in the garden attached to their villa.  He looks to the horizon and across the plain where he sees  “that the advance columns of an enormous army were moving slowly over the horizon … the army was composed of a vast confused throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers in ragged uniforms, pressing forward in a disorganised tide.”

Ed Emshwiller’s illustration for The Garden of Time from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Feb 1962

         This rabble is no doubt symbolic, though there are many kinds of symbolism to choose between, but however you slice it, they’re the forces of anarchy and they can only be kept at bay by plucking one of the “time flowers” that grow in the count’s garden.  Pick one of those and the rabble retreats, at least for a day. 
Perhaps they, and the count and his wife, go back in time, but as with most time travel stories, that doesn’t quite work because if time simply reversed then the time flower would still be there unpicked, and the story’s McGuffin is that there are fewer and fewer of the flowers, that chaos and death are coming, at the hands of the riff raff.

This is a picture of JG Ballard doing something (not exactly walking) in his garden.

And here’s a picture of HG Wells in a garden, and again not walking, but playing “Little Wars,” a game he invented.

And then, and this is the beauty part, I was walking in the 'hood the other day, taking my morning constitutional, and there, lurking in a nearby hedge, was the thing in the picture below.  See: time machines come in all shapes and sizes.  

Monday, August 15, 2016


In Everything that Rises: a book of convergences, Lawrence Weschler posits the idea that there are meaningful connections to be found in images from incredibly diverse sources that somehow resemble each other - “uncanny moments of convergence, bizarre associations, eerie rhymes, whispered recollections—sometimes in the weirdest places.”  Some days this sounds interesting to me, other days it just sounds bleedin’ obvious.

 So, for instance, Freddy Alborta’s famous photograph “Che Guevara’s Death,” from 1967:

 looks like Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson” from 1632: 

There’s no denying that the two images do resemble each other, but isn’t it perfectly likely that Alborta had seen “The Anatomy Lesson” and he was reminded of its composition, consciously or subconsciously, as he took the picture?  But even if it didn’t, what exactly does this resemblance mean?  And in what sense is it a “convergence”?  What exactly is coming together?   

Other pictures were certainly taken of that scene with Che, some of them rather less Rembrandt-ish:

That may be a discussion for another time and place, but I did just notice (having known with the images separately for some time) a resemblance, hardly random, and hardly all that surprising, between these two images of Jerry Cornelius (as played by Jon Finch in The Final Programme) and JG Ballard (in Harley Cokliss's 1971 short Crash) walking alongside wrecked cars. 

Both images then reminded me of scenes from Jean Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil.

And then I was reminded of a shot from Derek Jarman’s Jubilee:

Which in turn reminded me of Wim Wenders’ The American Friend

I think you could argue that things here are diverging rather than converging, but that’s OK: free association seems as valid, and as meaningful, as any imagined convergence.  But hold on there.
I’m not sure that Weschler is, or that JG Ballard was, much of a walker, but I do know that Weschler is the author of another book titled, Robert Irwin Getty Garden about the gardens at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.  The book contains transcripts of conversations Weschler and Irwin (the garden’s designer) had on a series of walks through the garden, discussing the philosophical and practical decisions that went into the design.
It is a fabulous garden by any standard – wild and fanciful in some ways, very formal in others.

I don’t think it’s a garden where people do much serious walking, but there is a pretty great (if obviously unwalkable) cactus garden:

I don’t know if JG Ballard would have enjoyed the Getty Garden.  Some evidence suggests he wouldn’t. There’s an interview by Graeme Revell that appears in “Re/Search 8/9: J. G. Ballard,” from 1984, in which he discusses the symmetry of the French garden - JGB: - Which I always find nightmarish for some reason, those formal French gardens. One would think all that intense formality would be the absolute opposite of madness. The gardens were obviously designed to enshrine the most formal, rational and sane society to ever exist during the Age of Reason. Why they should immediately fill me with notions of psychosis, I don't know.
“Have you ever been to Madingley Hall near Cambridge? It's a big Elizabethan mansion, and a couple of years ago some friends took me out there. Behind this large house, which is used for conferences and academic meetings and the like, were notices everywhere requesting silence. We walked into this large, very formal French garden with beautifully crisp hedges, like great green sculptures, everywhere; very severe, rectangular, rectilinear passways - like diagrams - on the ground. Profoundly enclosed, very silent. I nearly went mad....”

As fate would have it, some of us have seen, or at least seen photographs of, JG Ballard’s front garden, images like this one:

Not much formality there and not much wildness either.  I suppose if you live in suburbia you do have to worry just a little about what the neighbours think, however much of a wildman you are in your writing.  You couldn’t have much of a walk in it, obviously.  \

 I wonder if Ballard would have been happier walking here, at the VW Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas.  I think I would.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


I went to see High-Rise – the Ben Wheatley movie of the JG Ballard novel, published in 1975 – anarchy and social upheaval in a 4O floor, one thousand unit apartment block somewhere in London.  It’s as good a movie as anyone has any right to expect, and an awful lot better than most of us Ballard fans feared. 

It would be pointless to claim it’s any kind of walking movie but there is some interesting walking in it.  The movie’s protagonist, Dr. Robert Laing, (I think Ballard may have had trouble with character names) does a fair amount of walking within the building.  Laing is played by Tom Hiddleston of course, who beforehand struck me as an unlikely Ballardian hero but he's pretty great here.

In one dream sequence he half-walks, half-dances, with a group of air hostesses (or whatever we’re supposed to call them these days).  

He walks around his apartment.  He walks around the supermarket.  He walks across the car park – full of 1970s cars (though not in the picture below) - which is pretty much the only time we see him walking outside the building, as I recall. 

And at a couple of points he walks in the rooftop garden, which belongs to the top dog architect who designed the building, named Royal – did I mention that I think Ballard may have had trouble with character names?

Thanks to Mike Bonsall’s brilliantly obsessive concordance of the works of Ballard I can tell you that the word “walked” appears 34 times in the novel of High-Rise, “walk” occurs 6 times, “walking” 3 times, “walking-stick” just once.

The high-rise of the novel is set in London, two miles east of the City, “along the river,” on the north side, which by my calculation would place it somewhere around Limehouse.

The movie for all its temporal accuracy – everything looks amazingly 1975 – is set in even more of a geographical no man’s land, and it doesn’t come as a huge surprise to find that much of the film was shot in Northern Ireland, for good solid tax reasons. 

That walled roof garden that’s supposed to be 40 stories up in the air, even with some CGI work still looks very much like a real, ground level garden, and yes it turns out to be the walled garden at Bangor Castle.

Incidentally, Ballard’s old mucker Michael Moorcock seems to have been mildly obsessed with the roof garden at Derry and Toms in Kensington – which became Biba for a while (Biba closed in 1975!).  It pops up more than once in the Jerry Cornelius novels. I’m guessing that Wheatley is playfully alluding to that, but I wouldn't swear to it. 

         Ballard was supposedly inspired by Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in Notting Hill – 31 stories – 217 flats – though for the purposes of High-Rise the Balfron Tower constructed a few years earlier might be a better model. Goldfinger actually did live there, just like Royal in High-Rise, although by all accounts having Goldfinger for a neighbor would have been pretty intimidating.  

Jeremy Irons as Royal is considerably less scary.

But one thing both the Trellick and the Belfron had - in common with a lot of other 1960s and 70s council blocks - was what we used to call (if we hated them) deck access or (if we liked them) “streets in the sky.”  The flats had front doors that opened into shared external access corridors, along which people could, and had to walk, at least somewhat like a real street. 

Of course these decks might be haunted by roaming bad elements, threatening passersby, banging on doors, settling fire to piles of rubbish etc., but that’s how it is with street life. And that's how it is with High-Rise even though the building doesn’t have external decks.  The interior space is claustrophobic, oppressive, cinematically under lit. 

And afterwards coming out of the movie, it felt good to be able to walk in the open air, in streets on the ground rather than anywhere else.

And walking up Sawtelle Boulevard I saw there’s been some kind of English, or more specifically London, invasion.  There are apartment blocks, with names such as Camden Town, Soho Square, St John’s Wood.  Admittedly they’re fairly low-rise and don’t look inherently threatening, but after the movie all apartment blocks seem potentially sinister.

A look at the developers’ website (it’s premierleagueinc.com - an English football reference - what’s that about?) doesn’t do much to calm the nerves.  Here you’ll find all kinds of greenwash, and inert and empty language of the kind Ballard reveled in.  They “strive for aesthetics and functionality.” They have “cutting edge design and efficient use of space.”  The units are “pre-wired for today’s technological needs.”  And so on.  I can’t help thinking that the inhabitants will be sitting on their balconies roasting their dogs in no time at all.