Ballard, Sinclair, Place & the Novel (Where's Poetry?)

Image: JG Ballard and Iain Sinclair in London Orbital (dirs. Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, 2002).

Image: JG Ballard and Iain Sinclair in London Orbital (dirs. Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, 2002).

Came across a fascinating essay on PLACE in contemporary British writing by David Cunningham on a Ballardian website — extracted below, full essay can be read here. The piece goes to the novel, rather than to poetry, although Charles Olson, Eric Mottram & Allen Fisher are briefly paid lip-service. Which may be a shame in the end, as the rather clear opposition between Iain Sinclair’s mytho-poetic fascination with place (even if it now plays itself out mainly in prose, i.e. novel, essay, memoir) and JG Ballard’s dystopian geometries of postmodern urban space may be too pat  to allow for insight beyond what the two novelists — or maybe the novel as such? — can say on those matters. I don’t know if this has been done, but I would really like to see a critic investigate the genre question in Sinclair’s writing: he started out as a poet,  Lud Heat — the motherload of nearly all his subsequent writing — as well as Suicide Bridge were “books” (he called them, or “texts”) of/with poems, though with prose already  framing the writing, but then moved on to “novels.” the extract below comes about a quarter of the way through the essay:

In London Orbital, Sinclair records an actual meeting with Ballard at his home in Shepperton — an act of ‘homage’, he suggests — but we find the first explicit staging of this confrontation a few years earlier in the short book on Crash, written for the BFI Modern Classics series, in which Sinclair addresses, at some length, his particular interest in Ballard’s definitive ‘fascination with a frozen aesthetic of motorways, business parks, airport hotels … A present tense world of swift, sharp sentences’. This is a fiction that ‘grows out of [an] undisclosed, over-familiar urban landscape. Ballard’s trick [is] to forge a poetic out of that which contains least poetry’ (Crash 77). In this way, Sinclair argues, Ballard’s writing conforms, in its own idiosyncratic manner, to a poetics of place. Like the areas of London that, in Lights Out For The Territory, Sinclair parcels out to the likes of Angela Carter, Allen Fisher and Aidan Dun, this fiction can be sited, insofar as it is a particular place, Sinclair claims—’the transitional landscape of gravel pits, reservoirs and slip-roads that surround Heathrow’ — that activates Ballard the poet. The ‘psychogeographical field’ of Crash ‘was posited entirely on the London perimeter, the Heathrow pentagram that Ballard knew so well’.[17]

Yet it is worth noting that there is — by contrast to Fisher or Dun, who fully subscribe to their own versions of an Olsonian poetics of place — a rather deliberate elision of certain key aspects of Ballard’s own self-understanding apparent in such a reading; an elision which is, for example, revealed in discussion with Sinclair’s sometime collaborator Chris Petit. As Sinclair relates the latter’s conversations with Ballard around the possibility of making a film of Crash, he recounts that a major problem for Petit concerned his difficulty in imagining it ‘being set anywhere except the isthmus between the Westway, Heathrow and Shepperton’. The implicit basis for such a view is re-iterated in Sinclair’s own judgement on the David Cronenberg film that was eventually made, where, he writes, ‘the strange particulars of London that Ballard pressed into a Blakean mapping of his own…dissolve into the netherworld of … Toronto’. Yet, as Sinclair is also compelled to acknowledge here, such disappointment was emphatically not shared by Ballard himself. Indeed Ballard would love Cronenberg’s film.[18]

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3 Responses

  1. Ken Edwards says:

    It’s thought-provoking essay (coincidentally, I came across it earlier today when it was referenced on M John Harrison’s blog,
    usually an interesting place to visit). Writing (whether poetry or fiction) that complexly inhabits Somewhere, Everywhere and Nowhere has always fascinated me and increasingly does so now. Sinclair is interesting because he is too intelligent to submit to his own mythologising of place and so is forever trying to extricate himself from it. Ballard was always clear-sighted and somewhat cynical about the contemporary Nowhere. Allen Fisher’s poetics of place has constantly been misunderstood – it was never entirely about history and geography, and has increasingly become concerned with the impossibility of fixing a space and an orientation.

  2. bill sherman says:

    i think Dining on Stones is Sinclair’s “best” novel, “Lights Out…” weak, no longer have but must see what he says about Angela Carter, which i had forgotten….”Olson, Mottram, Fisher” yes, i like that, … psychogeo very pop these days..once named, now what?

  3. Deby says:

    Has anyone thought that Sinclair sees Crash as poetic merely to it a romantic quality so he can easier digest it.. Rather like religion which offers up polythesium and totemism in the same way? It seems that what crash offers up is the chance for us to question just how detached we have become ourselves, not only as individuals, but also as vast nations of care-less-ness that have abandoned empathy and spirituality and embraced an ‘it’s all about ME’ quick fix for everything!

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