J.G. Ballard: The Shepperton Shaman
gem of a piece from 1971
It was six years ago this April we lost that great writer, thinker and mythologist of the near future, J.G. Ballard.
Ballard had a complex relationship with the automobile. You can see this most famously in his 1973 novel Crash, where the car was imagined as a metaphorical and literal vehicle for sex, death, and drama. The book shocked many at the time.
In 1971 — when the seeds that grew into Crash must have been germinating — we can get an invaluable insight into the Ballardian mind in a seemingly most un-Ballardian place, the AA’s customer quarterly, DRIVE magazine.
In this very exploratory essay he not only shows us – with the value of hindsight – his near shamanic predictive ability, but we also see the genus of the thinking which would soon become fictionalised in Crash.
“The car crash is the most dramatic event in most peoples lives apart from their own deaths, and for many the two will collide.”
And this in an AA corporate magazine!
The whole piece is deeply insightful and still prescient 40 years later as he holds up the car as a motif for all of modern life. The car condenses, he says “…our sense of speed, drama and aggression, the worlds of advertising and consumer goods, engineering and mass-manufacture, and the shared experience of moving together through an elaborately signaled landscape.”
This early ‘70s vision of our present is unnervingly accurate. He predicts ‘an immense network of motorway systems covering the British Isles’, as well as the increasing intervention of the state over the freedom of the owner driver.
Other insights include the growth of the heritage and custom car market, Steampunk, the congestion charge and even an eerily accurate version of SatNav and Google Maps.
For Ballard the automobile’s final iteration is the driverless car, though not as a matter of choice:
“… it will become illegal to drive a car with a steering wheel. The private car will remain, but one by one its brake pedal, accelerator and control systems, like the atrophying organs of our own bodies, will be removed.”
But he was not anti car, his own visions saddened him, seeing the loss of the car as the loss of ‘a basically old fashioned idea—freedom.’
In fact the article itself was the result of DRIVE magazine sending him on assignment to cover a British Veteran Car Club rally to Stuttgart in which Ballard himself enthusiastically drove a 1904 Renault.
No doubt the editor was a amazed when J.G. filed a beautifully crafted piece of prose some 30 paragraphs long of which only four referenced the rally.
Thankfully he had the nerve to publish it (who would now?) and we are left with a precious and eloquent reminder of the intellectual and cultural chasm left by this visionary commentator.
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