Saturday, April 25, 2009

Remembering JG Ballard

In a way it is appropriate that JG Ballard should die at the point of which so many of his dystopian forecasts seem to be coming true. Only this week I was listening to Radio 4 where some middle-class talksmiths were discussing a pronouncement that the credit crunch could generate middle-class riots. As one of them said, "bring it on!"

Ballard laid bare the violence that lurks beneath the thin veneer of so-called civilisation. Many times he has documented how he was witness to this when growing up in Shanghai during the war, but it took several decades for him to synthesise the various threads in his thinking, from his earlier accounts of the effects of extremes of nature on humankind, such as The Wind From Nowhere and The Drowned World, through his numerous short stories and his more experimental work that was serialised in the excellent New Worlds magazine, to Crash, and The Atrocity Exhibition, and then to High Rise and Cocaine Nights and following three novels. His mainstream work Empire of the Sun may have bought him a larger audience, but is untypical.

The contrast between his mild manner and the ability of his work to shock middle-class sensibilities was striking. As with William Burroughs, who always dressed like a banker, he seemed to be a man in disguise sent, like de Sade - who wouldn't shut up even when put in an asylum - to remind us of the dark currents beneath the surface of the social world. I can't help thinking that Crash and The Atrocity at Exhibition weren't written firmly with his tongue in his cheek. It is their ambiguity which unsettles. Just as Waiting for Godot or Endgame can be performed as deadpan comedies or as tragedies, it seems that this devoted family man took refuge in imagining the extreme in order to feel comfort in his conventional environment. Or perhaps it was the other way round.

I feel compelled to mention de Sade again, because what really shocked his contemporaries wasn't what he did, but that he wrote about it. Let's face it, all the aristocracy were screwing the hired help anyway they could. As far as we know, Ballard himself lived a clean life, but his reflections of the sides of our existence that we preferred not to reflect upon, bear comparison in that society likes to draw a line between the acceptable and the unacceptable, but often what is deemed "acceptable" actively encourages the "unacceptable", and it is this effect that fascinated Ballard.

It seems strange that much of his work is characterised as science fiction since it has very little in common with spaceships. A well-known fan of Surrealism and Salvador Dali, Ballard claimed that science fiction of the form he knew it, which imagined tendencies of the present, and psychological reality, as the future, was the dominant and most useful literary form of the 20th century. Both Surrealism and science fiction, though themselves not popular labels, have spawned a vast territory of our collective unconscious, thousands of dynamic icons and terms of reference through every conceivable media.

The sexual aspect of car crashes as a subject for writing seemed absurd and offensive, but its metaphorical resonance is felt in every single advertisement for automobiles. Man's fetishism of the car bears a large responsibility for global warming. We are human-automobile hybrids. Our clutches engage with metal and flesh. And it is no coincidence that the car industry is one of the major casualties of the banking crash, which we watch ourselves with horrified fascination.
My own work lies partly on the territory which Ballard and Burroughs laid out, and I remain eternally indebted as a writer to Ballard's advice: "follow your obsession". Bring on the middle-class riots. Thank you James Graham Ballard.

Friday, April 24, 2009

London Book Fair 2009

The Fair was quieter than previous ones. Not surprising really.

I went to a few seminars on: writing for teens, including one with Patrick Ness, who was very polished; Julia Donaldson, Graham Marks; and on the new websites for teen readers, Penguin's, and one upcoming from the Reading Agency [this will be good].

What Teens Really Want featured real teens and they said they don't want to be patronised, they don't need genres, they want cheaper books and they decide to read them on peer recommendation and the cover, most of all.

Remixing reading for teenagers - intelligence from The Reading Agency was about their web based social network site for readers and HeadSpace, the initiative to make library facilities cool and accessible for teens and disadvantaged readers. They need authors to help out and connect with readers - contact, or

I met the Publishing Director of HarperCollins and their Head of Content Licensing, and had a really positive response. I also reconnected with my old agent, Julian Friedmann, and had several meetings with the publisher of my non-fiction book on eco-refurbishment, Earthscan.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

I've won a grant to write a new novel!

I've won grant to write a new novel. The Drowning will be a novel about two sworn enemies - young teen boys - thrust together to survive in the wild when climate change makes them homeless.

I'll be blogging about the process of writing it, and the research results, as I write it. The work will begin in the summer, after I've finished my current book (which I'm just starting), a non-fiction title for Earthscan about eco-refurbishment of existing homes.

The £6,326.90 grant is from 'cyfle i greu' - 'chance to create' a scheme run by Powys Arts Forum under the Wales Assembly Government.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

SCBWI Wales second gathering

At yesterday's crit group gathering of the Welsh Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators were Bear Tyler, Derek Webb, Gordon Jones, Hedley England and Tomos Morgan - and myself. We discussed work by each of us, including in detail, Hedley's Sniffers, my Moebius Trip and Tomos' wonderful witch story written in Welsh and English. Tomos is an illustrator working for the publisher Y Llolfa. We met at the Orangerie, Aberystwyth.

Books for children written in Welsh are submitted to the Welsh Books Council for readers report. If this is favourable, a publisher receives a grant to publish the book.

This was SCBWI Wales' second gathering. Currently we are organising a programme of events for the future, to involve talks and presentations by Welsh publishers, illustrators, editors, Academi and the Welsh Books Council. Watch this space.

Monty Python came to Machynlleth!

Last Monday was the day of the screening I organised of Life of Brian, which featured live on stage to answer the audience's questions: Terry Jones - Star & Director! and Sue Jones-Davies - Star & Aberystwyth Mayor!

It was a charity event at the Machynlleth Tabernacl in aid of Fadeco, a grassroots development agency in Tanzania, which I am on the organising committee of.

poster for screening of Life of Brian,  which featured live on stage to answer  the audience's questions: Terry Jones - Star & Director! and Sue Jones-Davies - Star & Aberystwyth Mayor!

It went extremely well. Congratulations to the audience, many of whom dressed up as members of the Popular Front of Judea, or maybe it was the Judaean Popular Front! there were women with beards, people carrying sandals, and shepherds! Terry Jones was knocked out, as was Sue.

Sue is my former yoga teacher, and now the mayor of Aberystwyth, which, as was pointed out by Terry, just goes to show how appropriate was her casting as the political Judith Iscariot in the film!

I was privileged to be on stage interviewing the actors, and amongst the things they revealed were that Sue got the part because she had the same agent as John Cleese, and was told about the auditions. She went along and the Pythons were so knocked out by her passion and conviction they gave her the part.

Terry revealed many interesting aspects of the production, in Tunisia, including how Spike Milligan walked off set in the middle of shooting his scene because he got bored, and how he is still friends with most of the Pythons. Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam live not far from him in Hampstead above the heath, but he says finds John Cleese a little too critical and judgemental. John and Eric Idle now live on the west coast of America.

Terry also recounted how he is a local boy. He was brought up until the age of four in Colwyn Bay, then the family moved to a street off Camberwell Grove, Grove Park in South London. But he has a hideaway old stone cottage in Pennant, near Staylittle, which is about 8 miles up in the hills to the east of Machynlleth. This was in his wife's family and he used to come here from the mid-'60s onwards to write.

With Sue was her son, Sion, who with my son, Dion, were members of the INCA film/music project from 2005 to 2007. Sion is a lovely young man, and talked about his desire to study architecture.

Terry also talked about his new project, Adam and Eve, an animation, and the argument he is having with his producer, who changed the script he had written without consulting him (so, it doesn't matter how famous you are, this still happens). He marvelled at how self-contradictory the book of Genesis is, and how it is rich in humour. One of the animators working on the development has also worked on The Simpsons.

Discussing whether you could make a film like the Life of Brian today, he said that there was a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the film itself. He did not consider it antireligious, but about the credulity of people. "In many ways everything, Brian, Graham Chapman, says in the film is common sense: how we should get on with each other and think for ourselves. This," he said, "is pretty much what Jesus himself said." Jesus of course figures in the film so the film does not dispute the existence of Jesus. What he does complain about is how people subsequently twisted and misinterpreted what Jesus said. He also got the most animated when he attacked people like Malcolm Muggeridge and other critics at the time who attacked the film for being antireligious without even having seen it, or in one case missing the first half-hour. "How dare these people judge a film without having seen it!" he ranted.

In 1985 I interviewed Graham Chapman because he had just broadcast an Opinion piece on Channel 4 which voiced libertarian, anti-authoritarian views. These were not 1,000,000 miles from the views preached by Brian in the film, so I asked Terry if Graham had written his own dialogue. After all, he says "don't listen to me, think for yourself!" at which point the entire crowd shouts as one "yes, we will think for ourselves!". Terry responded that basically everything Brian said they all worked on together, and it's common sense. Well, that's a matter of opinion!

He also discussed another animation project based on an opera which he wrote the libretto for, and directed, Evil Machines, staged in Lisbon last year, which features singing washing machines, vacuum cleaners and parking meters, not 1,000,000 miles in concept form my own Hybrids. He is currently seeking funding for the project.

The event was a great success, both Terry and Sue agreed to be patrons of Friends of Fadeco, and we raised over £2000. Profuse thanks to both of them, and everyone who helped on the night.