On the cover of the Daily Mail the other day, there was an aerial photograph of the Thameside town of Shepperton, its achingly dull semis and prosaic garage forecourts submerged in the muddy brown effluvium. The editor of the New Statesman emailed me: “Your pal Jim wouldn’t have been surprised.” This reference to the late J G Ballard, for many years Shepperton’s most notorious resident, got me thinking about the strange conceptual flotsam that the current deluges are dumping on the floodplain of our collective psyche.
Ballard’s fiction brought into sharp relief many of the jagged realities submerged beneath our comforting sense of homeliness. His world was at once relentlessly anthropic – a sodium-lit landscape of motorway flyovers and concretised modernism – and subject to largely inexplicable environmental disasters. In his novels and stories, he drowned the world, parched it, crystallised it and blew it to pieces with a wind from nowhere. Neither the riverside residents of Wraysbury nor the seafront ones of Aberystwyth would find his oeuvre remotely escapist at the moment.
Ballard said of these odd juxtapositions between the banal and the extreme that they, in part, reflected the impact of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, which he had witnessed as a child. Growing up in the comfortable European concession, the son of a wealthy manufacturer, Ballard learned from the war that, “Reality as we mostly perceive it is a social construct”; the skull always lies beneath the skin, whether it’s the human capacity for evil or the weather’s for wanton destruction. You would have to have a very stony heart not to sympathise with the victims of the current flooding: encouraged by successive governments and by uncritical neoliberalism to place their faith and their savings in bricks and mortar, they now have to face the truth that a property bubble won’t keep them afloat.
Ballard found in the landscape around Shepperton strange echoes of the Shanghai of his childhood. In place of the flooded paddy fields, there were the vast reservoirs that rear up out of Staines Moor to the west of Heathrow Airport. If you walk from Shepperton to Heathrow – which I have done, partly in homage to Ballard – you pick your way between the grassy flanks of these leviathans, oddly conscious that like a unitary tribe of Israel you are in a man-made defile created in an artificial sea held in suspension above your head. Then, when your flight takes off, you see these acres of drinking-water-in-waiting glistening beneath you, with the Thames worming alongside, a natural flourish signed beneath the marks of man.
Our geography, for all that we valorise “areas of outstanding natural beauty”, is overwhelmingly a human construct: we understand places in terms of the economic imperatives associated with them. We drive to work, or to buy stuff, or to paid-for leisure activities – even our relationships are mediated by mileage costs and time constraints. And Britain, being the first industrialised nation and a smallish land mass to boot, bears the impress of the human foot more heavily than almost anywhere else. Even in the middle of Rannoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands, you are surrounded by a wilderness that is the product of Iron Age clearance.
The British unconscious registers this, while our daily go-round is tightly circumscribed by concrete and clay brick; so is it any wonder that when Bide-a-Wee gets resolutely pissed on, its inhabitants look to Cameron, that anagrammatic Cnut, to stem the tide? The practice of psychogeography owes its origins to the French surrealists and after them was crystallised by the situationists; both these quasi-Marxist groupuscules looked to the dérive – or aimless drift – through the city as a means of freeing the individual from the physical constraints imposed on her by the nexus of late capitalism. I should imagine the last thing the washed-out householders of Surrey, Berkshire, Somerset, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire et al want to do is drift anywhere but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from going against the prevailing current. To undertake psychogeography is to experience place in a transcendent and unbounded way – to feel the reality of things peeling from the social construction of location, location, location.
In the months to come, I will be writing columns that recount my psychogeographic practice – which I took up in my forties when I began to find this anthropic home of ours almost suffocating in its claustrophobia. Put another way, I could no longer bear to look at the three plaster ducks flying on the wall – I wanted to experience animated ones, paddling in a real brook. But this is not about nature worship – it is about resiling from the dominant consumerist culture that makes a place just a fungible commodity to be traded in the global market: you’ve done Prague, why not have a bit of Bratislava?
No doubt in a few weeks Shepperton will be high and dry once more but perhaps its residents’ biblical experience will lead them to seek out the sort of gnosis the one-time inhabitant of 36 Old Charlton Road excelled in producing. The art of living to the full consists not in securing a place for your home in this ever-inconstant and turbulent world, but in being at home in it even when the apocalyptic horsemen are stabled next door.
Next week: Madness of Crowds