Photo: Kim Aldis
A massive surge of adrenalin. War whoops. Class war whoops. ‘Whoops! Class War!’ A scramble for bricks. ‘I must have a brick. Where are the bricks?’ A hail of bricks. The cops are confused as they realise they are no longer in control. Puppets without a role. They look at us, at one another and around themselves. Them. Run. Away. Down Mayall Road, leaving their vehicles in our hands. In the twinkling of a rioting eye the vehicles are smashed up and turned over.
This is an eyewitness account of the London riots. Not the ones a month ago, but the Brixton riots of 1981. It appears in a report by the ‘We Want to Riot, Not To Work Collective’ in 1982. Despite that being nearly thirty years ago, we haven’t come very far. This isn’t a political piece, but in a fairly short period of time since the coalition came to power we’ve had the student protests, several strikes, a humungous trade union march and now… this. There are individual reasons for each of course, but five years ago, how many would have predicted such events?
Science fiction, with its many faceted sub-genres, is well-known for its attempts at clairvoyance – a position it occupied with some degree of success during the early days of the Space Age. The author as sage: sometimes predicting the bounties of technology, sometimes inventing that technology themselves. Arthur C. Clarke was at least partly responsible for coming up with the geostationary orbit for satellites, something which the world now relies on everyday for communication, but the world of intergalactic space battles and ray guns which was promised never materialised.
There was a small band of SF writers who came into their own just as these over the top space sagas were shown to be just that. J.G. Ballard was one of them and he distinguished himself as a prophet early on in the SF boom, albeit of a very different kind.
Unlike his contemporaries, Ballard took an approach which would become the running theme of almost all his work. Everything he wrote was imbued with scientific pessimism, and each story contained a bunch of vacuous characters who ‘find themselves’ in the chaos of a dystopia.
His 1961 novel The Drowned World was one of the first to suggest that global warming could cause the flooding of the world’s major cities. The Burning World, published in 1964 and since re-titled The Drought, predicted industrial waste entering the sea, preventing evaporation and causing a world-wide drought. In the years since publication, evidence has emerged of similar waste covering large areas of the Pacific Ocean. In 1975’s High Rise, Ballard offers a vision of how tower-block housing projects lead to the isolation of its residents, which in turn leads to the breakdown of social order on a massive scale. These are the kind of tower blocks which they started knocking down a decade ago because of endemic crime.
A streak like that couldn’t last, and inevitably Ballard’s predictions became more fantastical, peaking in 2006 with the rather absurd Kingdom Come. Here’s a version of the blurb:
Richard Pearson, unemployed advertising executive and life-long rebel, is driving out to Brooklands, a motorway town on the M25. A few weeks earlier his father was fatally wounded at the Metro-Centre, a vast shopping mall in the centre of this apparently peaceful town, when a deranged mental patient opened fire on a crowd of shoppers. When the main suspect is released without charge thanks to the dubious testimony of self-styled pillars of the community – including Julia Goodwin, the doctor who treated his father on his deathbed – Richard suspects that there is more to his father’s death than meets the eye, a more sinister element lurking behind the pristine facades of the labyrinthine mall. Determined to unravel the mystery, Richard soon realises that the Metro-Centre, with its round-the-clock cable channel and sports clubs, lies at the very heart of his father’s death. Consumerism rules the lives of everyone in the motorway towns and feeds the cravings of this bored community with its desperate need for something new, whatever the cost. Riots frequently terrorise the streets, immigrant communities are set upon by roving bands of hooligans and sports events mushroom into jingoistic political rallies. Gradually, Richard finds himself drawn into this world, caught up in the workings of the mall, exposed to the insides of the consumer dream, and starts upon dismantling this wayward vision his advertising career helped to found! In this gripping, dystopian tour de force, J.G. Ballard holds up a mirror to middle England, reflecting an unsettling image of suburbia and revealing the darker forces at work beneath the gloss of consumerism and flag-waving patriotism.
Three years ago, when I read the book, I was behind most of the critics when they panned it. (“this is one of his weakest novels” said The London Book Review; “implausible and unsympathetic” said The Observer). I loved High Rise, Crash and his earlier dystopias, and forgave him the hiccup of The Unlimited Dream Company and Kingdom Come. At the time, it felt like this brilliant mind had given up the things which made him great: trying to convince us that a car dashboard could be erotic or that a motorway junction alone could sustain a man for an indeterminable amount of time. He seemed to me to have regressed into a realm which had already been covered before … and better.
If I want to read about absurd materialism, I’ll pick up Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney. The world of these authors is that of the über-rich, so unobtainable as to be unbelievable and, consequently, pretty damn funny; incongruous enough that when we look in the mirror, and don’t look too closely, we can pretend it doesn’t exist in the real world.
The materialism of Ballard is something a little closer to home, something which I can identify with and understand. In this framework, the absurdity of the rioting and the looting and the murder of Kingdom Come are hollow and unbelievable, and don’t manage to be funny either. So three years ago, I finished the book and put it back on the shelf and easily forgot about it. Until a month ago.
Because a month ago cars were set alight, missiles were thrown, shops were broken into and a girl tried on a pair of looted shoes to make sure they fitted. And a hundred people – from the media, to politicians, to celebrities to people in the pub – postulated and labelled and the words that resonated around us were race and family and community and youth and culture and poverty, and almost everything is found, except the point.
Ballard may have suggested that the rioting would happen in middle-class suburbia, but the similarities are enough to make me feel like I’ve stepped through the looking-glass. That book which was once absurd and unbelievable and – let’s be honest – not very good, is now another to add to Ballard’s successful list of predictions. What comes next?
Keir Pratt (@keirpratt) is contributing editor at Structo magazine. This web-exclusive essay is part of his ongoing column The Incidental