As a child during the 1970s, I would be consuming American popcorn movies at the ABC Edgware Road / Harrow Road. I recall When The North Wind Blows (man co-exists with tiger, 1974) and King Kong (men in conflict with giant ape, 1976).
Driving past the cinema and on another plane of reality was the author J G Ballard. Using the recently built Westway "motorway" from central London to his home in Shepperton, Ballard would pass the faded visage of the ABC with its local community displaced by slum clearance and road building. Further on he might spy the iconic Brutalist Trellick Tower and ponder the news headlines critiquing the social housing bloc that had degenerated into vandalism and tenant isolation. Nearing the West Cross interchange, perhaps Ballard has a vicarious thrill: hand caressing the steering wheel; foot poking the accelerator; car sliding and swerving, dangerously.
This type of imaginative journey across the Westway would inform the subject matter of Ballard's seminal trilogy: Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975).
Here's a quick summary for the uninitiated:
Crash postulates a new form of human sexuality, born from the collision of car on car. A film adaption was vividly directed by David Cronenberg in 1997 and initially banned by Westminster City Council.
Concrete Island is about an architect who crashes his Jaguar off the Westway and struggles to survive in a cocooned wasteland.This is slated to be a future Christian Bale film.
High Rise (my personal favourite) has a classic opening. The protagonist, is admiring the view from his balcony and tucking into the tasty morsel of dog. Forget co-existence or conflict with nature. Welcome conspicuous consumption of the canine variety. In 2015, High Rise will hit the cinema screens.
In these dystopian texts, Ballard is inverting the 1960s confidence in high rises and inner city motorways. These were seen at the time as progressive solutions to housing and transport needs.
The Guardian recently celebrated Ballard, five years on (after death). Seven writers articulated what was unique and memorable about his work. Many visual artists and film makers could also reference the impact of his writing. I first discovered Ballard in the early 1980s as a moody teen listening to Joy Division. I revisited Ballard in 2010 when devising Flood Light. This involved a film making guided tour under the Westway and a re-enactment from Concrete Island. I have also made a trio of short films about the urban environment of the area with Ballard as a guiding spirit.
At an art event recently, I met Ray, who during the 1970s lived in the twenty-floor high rise, Frinstead House, on the Silchester Estate. He may or may not have been turned on and tuned in. But he was definitely having apocalyptic visions of vehicles dropping out of the concrete sky. This was a nightmare that came true. Ray recounted, how one day, he witnessed a lorry crashing over the barrier and bursting into flames. He made a drawing of this incident (see image above).
On a related note, I recently read an archive letter written by Fred Vermorel and published in the Times in Nov 1978. Fred is now Associate Professor of Communication at The American University in London. Back in the day he was living at Frinstead House with his wife Judy. They could almost have been characters in the scary fictional High Rise of J. G. Ballard. This is what Fred wrote to the press:
"The noise is sickening. We live day and night with the unceasing thunder of motor vehicles, flat out and passing up and down the several slipways, and with the racket of passing trains (goods trains shunt through the night). All this noise hits our home directly. It is impossible to read, think or listen to music.
I must confess that the vandalism which is slowly eating away this particular estate elates rather than horrifies us. How else does one react? The GLC is dead to transfer requests and there are no effective ways of protest or redress. If to destroy these places is some sort of crime, to have built them is worse! All around us are squatters, living in “derelict” (GLC owned) property. Built by speculators at the turn of the century, these houses are shielded from road and rail lines, are solidly built on a human scale, and have gardens. We would gladly rent one. But they will shortly be demolished.
The GLC is still building unsheltered dwellings all along the Westway. With millions of pounds worth of expertise and materials, it is disseminating the suffering and environmental poverty I have described: factory farms for psychosis and barbarity.”
Fred and Judy Vermorel were being driven out of their senses, but successfully campaigned to be rehoused. However we should note, they still found time while at Frinstead House during 1978-79, to write the first book about the Sex Pistols and produce a punk song for the Cash Pussies.
During my forthcoming V&A Museum Community Artist in Residence, I hope to be based in a studio next to the high-rise, Frinstead House. I will definitely tap into the creative energy of Ballard and the DIY spirit of punk. Hopefully realise some long-term art projects that render and re-imagine the Westway and connect old residents in the high rises with new occupants of buildings currently being erected on the estate. I need to provide a counter-measure to the radicalism of Ballard and stereotypical perceptions about estate culture. Estates are not a car crash. Dig beneath the veneer and talk to people who have made this their home. There is a space here for high quality, multi-cultural and collaborative art.