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The top ten Ballardian destinations in London

March 29, 2015

Ballardian: resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments

Are you visiting London? Are you a fan of JG Ballard and so find something horrendous yet kind of beautiful in shopping malls,  traffic gyratories, industrial estates and other features of dystopian modernity? Yes?! Then why not check out my top 10 Ballardian locations in London. Conveniently, most of these are served by the DLR, or in relatively close vicinity to a DLR station, which brings me to our first entry…

10. The DLR itself

DLR train Trains without drivers that swoosh along elevated tracks, passing through places like ‘Blackwall’, ‘Cyprus’ and ‘Star Lane’ and some lines terminating at Bank (imagine a future dystopia where all stations are named after capitalist functions).

A ride from one end to the other of most of the Docklands Light Railway lines would be a pretty soulless experience*, passing through stations made of concrete and glass, everywhere that cold, jarring, green and blue version of the normally cheery London Underground logo.

*Apart from if you’re going to Tower Gateway as the Tower of London is pretty good fun.

 

9. Canary Wharf

At Canary Wharf everything is ordered. Nature, where allowed, is contained in little boxes, hemmed in by concrete. There are two very straight roads that go either side of a massive conglomerate of glass and concrete and there lots of water which is a bit ‘Drowned World’. All the bars are chains. There’s a massive, narrow skyscraper where only people who look like this are allowed to live, or more likely no one actually lives there, it’s just floor after floor of hermetically sealed, empty apartments which are owned by Russian and Saudi oligarchs for tax reasons.

8. New Cross housing estates

I used to live in New Cross. It’s a pretty cool area of London as it’s home to Goldsmiths University, used to be notorious for it’s number of squats, and was name-checked by Carter USM in their song: ‘The Only Living Boy in New Cross‘, however, I think the squats must have been demolished because in the 1980s they built several estates of identical looking apartment blocks.

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These might not look Ballardian in this picture, but imagine street after street of buildings that look just like this. I was unfortunate enough to get very lost one evening when I was so drunk I couldn’t find my way home, and spent a considerable amount of time wandering around these weird fucking estates. There’s a nice undercurrent of violence too, as a few years before I moved there, a really gristly murder had taken place in on the very street where I was to live.

7. Bow Junction

What has actually prompted me to write this list was a weekend shuttling around east, east London. Last night I decided to cycle to my friend Web Sheldon’s party and, after a nice ride down the river Lea, I emerged onto Bow Roundabout. Car fumes, hurtling traffic, a massive fuck off roundabout, traffic lights, but no zebra crossings, like whoever made all this never imagined that anyone would want to walk around here, and all there is for succour and shelter is a McDonalds or a huge Tesco. Off to the sides loom council tower blocks and the skeletons of gas towers, and there is big deserted building which reminded me of a blown out bank in Mostar, Bosnia. Oh, and three cyclists have died here in recent years.  Too depressing to have a picture.

North_Circular_Road_-_geograph.org.uk_-_11224366. The North Circular

Similar to Bow Junction, the North Circular is included here because it’s a massive traffic-fest and totally anti-cyclist/ pedestrian. Motorists passing over the massive roundabout, Great Cambridge Junction, are greeted by the sign ‘learn to Scuba Dive’, as there is dive shop located just off the roundabout in what is probably the most un-exotic place in the world that you could have a scuba diving shop. There is some water nearby though, a dirty stretch of canal that runs under the roads. The fumes are so bad and the traffic so heavy it’s reminiscent Bangkok (but with grey skies), and it’s the kind of place you find self storage depots, which are very Ballardian indeed.

The O25. The O2

As bleak an edifice of dystopian modernity as you can get. There is nothing comforting anywhere within the O2. And it used to be called the Millennium Dome but now it doesn’t even have a building noun, it’s just a brand name.

 

 

 

Westminster tube4. Westminster tube station

Westminster tube station is kind of cool, and totally at odds with the politician-dullness that is synonymous with the area itself. It’s all grey and metallic with exposed ventilation shafts, but the most Ballardian thing is the extra, see-through screen that separates the platform from the track which only opens when the train in docked, presumably so suicidal political aides can’t jump in front of incoming Jubilee tubes.

 

3. The Greenway at night.

The GreenwaySimilar to Bow Junction, this entry was inspired by my cycle home from the party last night. The Greenway is a cycle and footpath that goes through places like Bow and West Ham. By day, it forms part of the Capital Ring, but at night, it’s as dark as London gets. I was pretty nervous as I passed under the metal bridge and turned my bike light onto full beam. On the path, I could only see about a metre ahead of me at a time, and it felt like anything could be lurking in the darkness, but I didn’t encounter a single other sole. Either side of me, down below the Greenway, the industrial landscape glowed – cranes, scrapyards, clusters of boxy new build flats. And then I almost crashed into a wire fence and a sign proclaiming that from here on the Greenway was closed because of Crossrail construction. Boo! I was really enjoying the Ballardian dystopianism up til then.

2. Westgate Stratford

Ballard set a large part of Kingdom Come, his last novel, in a shopping mall. No surprise, shopping malls were made for JG Ballard stories, and Westgate would surely be in contention should Kingdom Come ever be adapted for the screen. It’s vast cess-pit of consumerism where everything is for sale, always heaving with bodies seeking out their capitalist fix. It all bright lighting and shiny floors but the toilets absolutely reek, suggesting something is rotting underneath it all.

1 . Olympic Park

Olympic park somewhere in the background

Olympic park somewhere in the background

If you ever want to be alone in London, go to Olympic park at night, it’s dead. It’s often relatively dead in the day too. The Orbit rises up in front of you, a dazzling tangle of red metal, and the disused stadium, the glory long faded, looms in the background. The only sound is the hum of far off traffic. There’s some sculpted landscapes going on, a smell of canal slime prevails and the Olympic Village flats look like something from China. It’s impossible to imagine that Ryan Lochte et al once partied here. The party is long over and the decay is setting in.

If you haven’t got a clue what I’m on about, go and read some JG Ballard novels. I’d start with Crash, but Empire of the Sun is, whilst not very ‘Ballardian’,  one of the best books ever written.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Graham Lowell permalink
    April 30, 2015 9:36 am

    1 huge omission: Balfron Towers St Leonards Road, E14 0QT is widely held to be the model for Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ a brutalist tower block where the architect Erno Goldfinger briefly lived in a penthouse atop his creation. Details on Balfron Tower http://www.balfrontower.org/
    Alternatively you can do two at once and see Trellick Towers in W10, built to the same design, from the Westway flyover which inspired ‘Concrete Island’. There was also an architect involved in the Westway development named Robert Maitland…

    • HJHampson permalink*
      April 30, 2015 11:01 am

      Hey thanks for comment. I’m no expert in architecture and wrote this rather off the cuff, so probably missed out a lot of places! That blog is really interesting. It sounds like it’s going to be well and truly gentrified with the refurb and no more social housing tenants, right? I wonder what JG B would make of that.

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