PAUL DELVAUX: Le canapé bleu, 1967 (Oil on canvas/55 1/8 x 70 7/8 inches)
Shortly before JG Ballard’s death last year, Iain Sinclair made a pilgrimage to the author’s Shepperton semi, a shrine to his surreal tastes and happy family life. A new exhibition of his favourite paintings and of art work he has inspired honours this distinctive vision
Coming away from the official path, on a walk from the mouth of the Thames to Oxford in October 2008, I diverted through Shepperton. Light rain misted my spectacles. An uncertain detour was blocked by a two-tonne Jaguar saloon, white and racing green: XJ MOTOR SERVICES. The upstream settlement has evident 21st-century loot, as well as Edwardian weekend villas and chalets. There is a blue plaque to the literary giant they choose to commemorate: THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK LIVED HERE, 1823-1866. Modernist white cubes with big windows are attracted by reflections of light on water. Natural metaphors for unnatural liquidity in a time of recession.
I head for the station. That’s where JG Ballard met me when I visited him. I never saw the inside of his house. We drove to a riverside pub and sat under whirring fans. I wondered why, after his great success with Empire of the Sun, he didn’t relocate to one of those balconied, sharp-angled properties that were so attractive to the convalescing architects and blocked advertising men who populate his books. Foolish thought. Ballard was a working writer, first and last; the where of it was not to be disturbed. Fixed routines served him well; so many hours, so many words. Breakfast. Times crossword. Desk overlooking a natural garden. Stroll to the shops to observe the erotic rhythms of consumerism. Lunch standing up with The World at One on the radio. Back to the study. Forty-minute constitutional down to the river. TV chill-out meditation: Hawaii Five-O and The Rockford Files rather than Kenneth Clark.
The interior landscape of the suburban semi was a mirage. The more you studied it, the cannier the decision to settle the family in Shepperton, all those years ago, appeared. It was far enough out of London to limit the pests, the time-devourers. When journalists gained access they were mesmerised by the reproduction Delvaux canvases propped on the floor, the aluminium palm tree, the lounger in the front room; dutifully they repeated the standard questions about surrealism and how The Drowned World was saturated in Max Ernst. The house in Old Charlton Road was a premature installation; a stage set designed to confirm the expectations of awed pilgrims. But it was also a home in which the widowed author brought up three children who are always laughing in family snapshots.
Ballard may be the first serious novelist whose oeuvre is most widely represented in books of interviews. And whose future belongs as much in white-walled warehouse galleries as the diminishing shelves of public libraries. He was so generous to those who found his phone number, so direct: he rehearsed polished routines – and always agreed, with unfailing courtesy, that the world was indeed a pale Xerox made in homage to the manifold of his fiction. A late moralist, he practised undeceived reportage, not prophecy: closer to Orwell than HG Wells. Closer to Orson Welles than to either. Closer to Hitchcock. Take out the moving figures on staircases that go nowhere and stick with hollow architecture that co-authors subversive drama.
CHRIS BURDEN: L.A.P.D. Uniform (1994, Fabric, leather, wood, metal and plastic
88 x 72 x 6 inches Ed. of 30)
Spurning critical theory, Ballard joined his near-namesake Baudrillard as the hot topic for air-miles academics. Off-highway universities, indistinguishable from hospitals or hotels, approve infinite theses. A hall of mirrors in which students, who have lost the habit of literature, recognise, in the Shepperton master’s exquisitely calibrated prose, intimations of a hybrid form capable of processing autopsy reports and invasion politics into accidental poetry. The incantatory manifesto, “What I Believe”, deploys Ballard’s favourite device, the list, as he curates a museum of affinities: “I believe in Max Ernst, Delvaux, Dalí, Titian, / Goya, Leonardo, Vermeer, Chirico, Magritte, / Redon, Dürer, Tanguy, the Facteur Cheval, / the Watts Towers, Böcklin, Francis Bacon, and all the invisible artists / within the psychiatric institutions of the planet.”
It was almost dark when I got there, after walking down a street occupied by Indian restaurants, Chinese takeaways, charity and novelty shops. A man spotted me as I lined up the shot.
“A writer bloke is supposed to live in that house. We’ve been out here 25 years and I’ve never set eyes on him, tell the truth. But he’s on the box….”
Read on at The Guardian