Boyd Tonkin: Strange tales of a prophet and a prince
The Week In Books
Friday 24 April 2009
Which guru of planetary menace and calamity would you rather read on the grave threats to our fragile home: the Sage of Shepperton, or the Worrier of Windsor? JG Ballard, who died at the weekend, so far exceeded and transcended every label attached to him that we will be mining his precious legacy in fiction for many years to come. At this point, I feel inclined to celebrate the "disaster quartet": four pioneering novels of catastrophe that Ballard published in the early 1960s. During that Mad Men epoch, many of his peers wallowed in fantasies of rampant growth on which the sun would never set.
If Prince Charles has never read early Ballard, he should do so soon. This week also saw the announcement by HarperCollins (Ballard's publisher, as it happens) that it has bought world rights to Harmony, "a book by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales" which will advocate our "sacred duty of stewardship of the natural order of things".
Before the prince ever buttonholed a brassica, Ballard had already heard the news of doom. As his cherishable late memoir Miracles of Life makes plain, he knew that his seemingly outlandish "trademark images" of pulverised city blocks, overgrown suburbs and crumbling infrastructure derived from what he saw a child in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. That imagination-shaping trauma gave him a blueprint for breakdown. Supposedly futuristic in scene and tone, early novels such as The Drowned World and The Drought drew their uncanny prescience from an ability not simply to envisage an apocalyptic finale to the status quo, but to show how stranded humankind would react to their loss. As a boy, his small world had ended suddenly in panic and terror. Unlike most writers, he had the evidence of how that looked and felt.
So, on top of his other distinctions, Ballard deserves an extra laurel wreath as the prophet of environmental doomsday who always enriches ecology with psychology. The addled protagonists of his urban dystopias – Crash, High Rise or Concrete Island - exist in a sort of entropic partnership with the cheerless landscapes of multi-lane motorways, tower blocks and wrecking-yards where their flaky sense of self frays and finally unravels. Like some back-to-front Wordsworth, with nature's consoling grandeur and plenty reversed out into visions of poisoned metropolises and flooded littorals, he matched the weather in the streets with the weather in our heads.
That is surely how "green" art and thought should work: royal scribes, take note. In a work promised for 2010, Prince Charles will argue that if we could "rediscover that sense of harmony; that sense of being a part of, rather than apart from Nature, we would perhaps be less likely to see the world as some sort of gigantic production system capable of ever-increasing outputs for our benefit – at no cost."
Yes, I know – don't trust the teller; trust the tale. The flagrant contradictions in the delivery of this message by this person do not invalidate the truth of what he has to say. All the same, I can't refrain from noting that the Prince of Wales will be represented in his book deal by living-legend Bob Barnett of Washington lawyers Williams & Connolly, the fixer-in-chief for the Democrats - thanks to him, Hillary and Barack made up - who also acts as agent for Obama, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
"Robert B Barnett has a diverse practice representing national and international corporations and individuals," his firm's profile informs us. Moreover, "Mr Barnett represents major corporations in litigation matters". Which ones, precisely? "His clients have included McDonald's Corporation, General Electric" - take a look at their green record, HRH - not to mention "Sunbeam, Toyota, Deutsche Bank". He should invite Charles to meet fellow clients at a DC soirée, even if Ballard himself – happy for decades in his relatively low-carbon suburban semi – could hardly have made this one up.
P.S.Two examples of how to make friends and influence people, Venezuelan style. At the Americas summit in Trinidad, Hugo Chávez presented Barack Obama with Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America: the Uruguayan author's damning chronicle of the continent's exploitation. Will Obama read it? Since the copy was in Spanish, perhaps not. Last weekend, I heard the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra at a Festival Hall gig that pulsed with enough energy and elan to light up London. Among their encores was as rhapsodic and impassioned a rendering of "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations as you will ever hear. Maestro Abreu's fabled Sistema of musical education predated Chávez by decades and has survived several changes of government. But el presidente must grasp that this band is probably now worth as much as his entire diplomatic corps.
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