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What's All This Then?

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Millennium People
by J.G. Ballard

Field-Tested by Jonathan Bell

in Scotland

Reading J.G.Ballard’s Millennium People amongst the springy hills, fluffy clouds, and epic landscapes of Scotland’s west coast, the book’s premise seemed a tad over the top, ludicrous even. This is a tale of middle-class, metropolitan meltdown, with all Ballard’s pet perversities present and correct — violence, obsession, self-delusion, disability, and warped sexuality (frequently combined) — with the anti-hero making stoic forays towards disaster, chin forward, like a polar explorer. Could the middle-class world implode? I pondered the question as I selected a pair of green Wellington boots from the several pairs thoughtfully left in my host’s cottage, instant country uniform for the ill-prepared urbanist. Out here, where gentle rain specked the hills and tea tasted even better, such a scenario seemed unlikely.

Ballard weaves the tale of an uncertain middle-class revolt with real and imagined events, people and places, stoking up life’s everyday annoyances into full-blooded revolutionary fervour, neatly kicking the stool from beneath our comfortable lifestyles. Despite the darkening mood, the dialogue and set pieces are strangely (and characteristically) static, and we become as dislocated from the action as the narrator, David Markham, a man searching for meaning but unable, or unwilling, to see the wider picture.

There are also plenty of Ballardesque women; taut, middle-aged, and dangerous, urgent in their obsessions, but also languid and mysterious.

I read the second half on my return to London, and the sources of the author’s chilling logic became more apparent. Glimpsed sideways, a revolution seemed poised and inevitable as city life did its worst. Crowded underground trains inch through tunnels filled with century-old fug, slow-moving traffic crawls past cameras and speed bumps, over endless roadworks, the pneumatic drills rattling our membranes, the pavements throng with summer irritability. And for what? A salary cheque, TV dinner, and a gameshow? Surely someone would snap soon? Yet the book climaxed and the moment passed — true to form, for London perpetually teeters on the brink of revolutionary abyss and people rarely step right in. The Millennium People, too, couldn’t make the last leap, too wedded to property prices, home comforts, and the security of mass consumption. Next time, perhaps I’ll buy my own pair of boots.

Jonathan Bell writes about architecture and automotive design for Wallpaper* and also edits Things Magazine and is an irregular contributor to The Morning News. He lives in South London with his wife and children.

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