The City in Fiction and Film, week 16: JG Ballard’s High-Rise, chapters 1-9

70256Week 15

This week we began to work on JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975; all quotations from pictured edition, London: HarperCollins, 2006), reading the first nine chapters and also watching William Klein’s Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (1977).

We began with some context, outlining the scale and nature of house-building and redevelopment in the UK in the postwar years, drawing largely on John Grindrod’s Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2013) and Lynsley Hansley’s Estates: An Intimate History (2008).

There was already a housing shortage in the UK between World Wars. The promise to ensure that soldiers returned from  WWI to a land fit for heroes (and thus stave off socialism) was never met – construction rates were too low and often the wrong kind of housing was being built in pursuit of the rather different goal of making private profit (Paul Rotha’s documentary Land of Promise (1946) is the classic film account of this issue and its history). During the war years of 1939-45 the UK population grew by one million per year – and during the same period four million homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair by bombing (completely undoing the interwar construction efforts and significantly reducing housing stock in relation to total population).

Aneurin Bevan, the minister responsible for housing in the post-WWII Labour government, set a target of 300,000 new council houses per year – but rarely managed more than 200,000 – because the houses were to be spacious (90 square metres), brick-built with gardens. For him, such decent houses were not to be restricted to the privately-owning middle classes – they should be available to the working class, rented at lower than market rates from local councils. (One policy proposal considered but sadly never pursued was buying out all private landlords, thus monopolising the rental market and keeping down the cost of housing.)

When a succession of Conservative governments took office (from late 1951-64), they took up the challenge of 300,000 new houses per year – and succeeded in meeting the target. But they did so by reducing the size of the houses (70 square metres) and shifting from brick construction to speedier (but less durable) prefabricated structures, with no guarantee of gardens. And there was a shift to building blocks of flats rather than houses because they were cheaper and quicker to throw up from prefabricated materials. Ironically, because these blocks were typically set in parkland of some sort, the same number of people could have been housed in the same space with terraced housing.

In High-Rise, Ballard is fully aware of the economics determining such constructions:

All the evidence accumulated over several decades cast a critical light on the high-rise as a viable social structure, but cost-effectiveness in the area of public housing and high profitability in the private sector kept pushing these vertical townships into the sky against the real needs of their occupants. (52)

Why were the blocks typically surrounded by parkland? Partly, it seems to be the influence of Le Corbusier, whose unrealised ville contemporaine (1922) plan to build 24 60-storey cruciform high-rise skyscrapers in which three million people would live and work did so. Ballard does not pursue the scale of this scheme – Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) comes closer – but he does draw on Le Corbusier in other ways.

Le Corbusier advocated five principles when designing apartment blocks:

1 Lift the structure off the ground on reinforced concrete stilts (pilotis), enabling
2 a free façade (non-supporting exterior walls to allow the architecture freedom in his design) and
3 an open floor plan (interior could be configured without having to worry about supporting walls).
4 The free façade enables ribbon windows so as to provide clear views of surrounding gardens.
5 A roof garden compensates for the ground area covered by the building.

These principles are evident in his Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, often described as resembling a moored ocean liner, contains 337 apartments, with a floor halfway up the block devoted to public amenities, and a roof garden. It is also raised up on pilotis. It became a location of pilgrimage and an object to copy for a generation or two of architects, including many of those planning housing developments for British councils. It also provides the design for Ballard’s own high-rise (it even stands on pilotis, ‘concrete legs’ (19)), one of five spaced equidistantly on the eastern edge of an under-construction square mile development in London’s docklands (in this, the novel is proleptic of material we studied way back in week one of the module, The Long Good Friday and London’s Overthrow – as well as of what has actually happened to such spaces since Ballard wrote the novel).

The other context I introduced was about Ballard himself: his centrality to New Wave sf of the 1960s and 1970s; his early novels refiguring the conventions of disaster fiction, such The Drowned World (1962), which also introduce surrealistic images into narratives indebted to writer like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene; the thematic trilogy, including Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974), which concludes with High-Rise; the autobiographical fictions and the more mainstream respectability that came with Empire of the Sun (1984); and the return of his late novels, Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), to transformations in bourgeois living environments.

Turning to the novel, we began by thinking about the names and characteristics of the three narrators, each of whom is associated with one of the three classes that emerge among the middle class residents of the building.

From the lower levels, Richard Wilder – physical, aspirational – he is the wildest and most overtly violent of the three and a frequent adulterer whose wife calls him Dick.

From the mid-levels, Robert Laing, whose name echoes that of the unorthodox psychiatrist RD Laing (1927-89), who saw mental illness as a product of social environments rather than as some kind of inward-driven deformation of the self, and who considered patients’ descriptions of their responses to their environments as valid in themselves rather than as symptoms of Freudian disorder. Opposed to use of antipsychotics to treat mental illness, he favoured recreational drug use and believed that mental illness could be a kind of transformative, shamanic experience. He also promoted primal scream therapy – most of the inhabitants of Ballard’s building seem to go through some version of it – and rebirthing therapy – foreshadowed for Robert Laing when he is surrounded by the threatening guests at the cocktail party to which he is not invited, with the whole novel constituting a kind of rebirthing for him.

From the very top floor, the architect of the building, Anthony Royal – a royal, the king of the place. Recently injured in a car accident, he suffers from a disability – and wears a distinctive costume – that makes him come across, one of the class suggested, like a Bond villain. Which enabled me to go, ah, funny you should say that…

I have long wondered whether having the architect of the building live in the penthouse was inspired by the fact that Hungarian-born architect Ernő Goldfinger lived for two months in an apartment on the top floor of Poplar’s 26-storey Balfron Tower (built 1965-67), which he had designed. He and his wife are said to have thrown cocktail parties to meet the other residents and learn their thoughts about his design so that he could incorporate criticisms and suggestions in his later building, such as the neighbouring 11-storey Carradale House (built 1967-70). Back in the 1930s, Goldfinger had been responsible for the demolition of some cottages in Hampstead to make way for three new houses, in one of which he would live. Ian Fleming was among those protesting the demolition. Twenty years later, Fleming would name a James Bond novel – and villain – after the architect. Ernő Goldfinger threatened to sue over Auric Goldfinger, to which Fleming reputedly responded, Okay, I’ll just rename him Goldprick. Ernő decided not to pursue the case.

Next we took a look at the opening paragraph, detailing how the design of Ballard’s building displays the influence of Le Corbusier and, in particular, Unité d’Habitation, and then looking at how it introduces patterns of imagery that will recur throughout the novel.

  • a post-apocalyptic sensibility that also suggests a descent into primitivism – Laing is calmly eating a dog (cf. Harlan Ellison’s New Wave story ‘A Boy and His Dog’ (1969) and LQ Jones’s 1975 film adaptation), and the building’s exterior is described as a cliff-face (cf. Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers (1893), possibly the first novel about skyscraper living, complete with domestic violence and an Oedipal struggle)
  • conflict – confrontation, violence and war imagery (there are skirmish grounds, raiding parties, provocations, retaliations, a buffer state, an interregnum, etc, but also some specifically WWII images – Royal’s ‘personal Dunkirk’ (69) and also, more ambiguously, the Blitz: a voice ‘calm and matter-of-fact, like that of a civilian in a war-torn city dealing with yet another air-raid’ (60) and, during the first blackout, the darkness providing conditions not just of sexual peril but also of consensual sexual adventuring (20))
  • the embrace of isolation, anonymity and alienation
  • apartments as prison cells (later, there will be news of a prison breakout (30), Wilder will be involved in filming a prison strike (42, 44), and his wife, Helen, will blandly observe that his desire to film in the apartment block will produce just ‘another prison documentary’ (45)) – this introduces the idea of the apartment block as what Erving Goffman called a total institution, like prisons and asylums (two of the psychosociologsist in Le couple témoin previously worked in an asylum) and even ocean liners (to which Unité d’Habitation has often been compared)

We then looked at the next section of the opening chapter (7-11), in which we learned more about the structure of the building and the docklands development of which it is a part, and the feelings it induces as a tripartite class structure begins to emerge among its bourgeois inhabitants. Highlights include:

  • indifference, giddiness, exhilaration, insomnia and, especially among female residents, boredom and nomadism; these troubling sensations will later develop into rifts that some think foreshadow or imply the mutation of the residents into a posthuman species (35–6; a similar idea is mooted in Silverberg’s The World Inside)
  • Steele’s anal obsession with garbage chutes
  • bigotry – people begin to talk dismissively and angrily about other floors as groups to be denigrated, abhorred (14, 24, 38) – Steele will compare ninth floor residents to ‘a traditionally feckless band of migrant workers’ (25), and the intensity of these emerging prejudices will be compared directly to ‘racial prejudice’ (32)
  • the relationship to London – which is somehow distanced in both space and time, a past of ‘crowded streets, traffic hold-ups, rush-hour journeys on the Underground’ (9), while the building belongs to an emerging future; in Ballard’s descriptions, time is transformed into space and vice versa
  • a grand Ballardian simile connecting the psychological to the urban, with a vague gesture to TS Eliot (he does this sort of thing a lot – never quite makes sense yet seems to imply immensities): ‘the ragged skyline of the city resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis’ (9)
  • the contradictions of the building – Laing’s sister says: ‘You could be alone here, in an empty building … Besides, it’s full of the kind of people you ought to meet’ (10); Laing will soon appreciate the way the place enables both proximity and distance, providing a neutral background for his potential affair with Charlotte, although he immediately questions whether this is really the case (16) – this idea is developed further when they do first have sex (38)
  • the ways in which the building design encourages its inhabitants to turn inwards, away from the city but also from each other

The_Model_Couple-652984484-largeWe closed with a brief discussion of Le couple témoin, William Klein’s film about an average couple who win a competition to live as test subjects in a new urban development – the experiment is ostensibly concerned with designing apartments to ensure that they meet the needs of such a couple, but it clearly is more concerned with engineering their consent and subservience. The psychosociologist experimenters – themselves hardly rational – subject Jean-Michel and Claudine to an array of absurd tests, frequently bullying and brow-beating them, passive-aggressively consulting at them, reinforcing the most conservative of gender roles. The tests become increasingly irrational and arbitrary – authority being exercised because it is authority, not for any greater end. As funding for the experiment withers, and viewing figures for the Big Brother-like media coverage slump, so a group of child and teen revolutionaries are hired to stage a hostage-taking…

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 7 “The Modernity of the Sophisticate and the Misfit: The City through Different Eyes.”
Baxter, Jeanette. J.G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.
Colombino, Laura. “The House as SKIN: J. G. Ballard, Existentialism and Archigram’s Mini-Environments.” European Journal of English Studies 16.1 (2012): 21–31.
Delville, Michel. J.G. Ballard. Plymouth: Northcote, 1998.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 52–86
Gasiorek, Andrzej. J.G. Ballard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Grindrod, John. Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain. London: Old Street, 2013.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 67–93
Hansley, Lynsley. Estates: An Intimate History. London: Granta, 2008.
Matthews, Graham. “Consumerism’s Endgame: Violence and Community in J.G. Ballard’s Late Fiction.” Journal of Modern Literature 36.2 (2013): 122–39.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 8. “The City as Queer Playground.”
Siegel, Allen. “After the Sixties: Changing Paradigms in the Representation of Urban Space.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 137–159.
Shiel, Mark. “A Nostalgia for Modernity: New York, Los Angeles, and American Cinema in the 1970s.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 160 – 179.

Recommended reading
High-Rise is part of a thematic trilogy, including Ballard’s most challenging novel, Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974). Ballard’s ‘late fiction’ returns to similar material but relocated to gated suburban communities in Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).
1970s British novels of urban decay include Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Zoe Fairbairns’s Benefits (1979).

Recommended viewing
Ben Wheatley’s High Rise (2015) adapts Ballard’s novel.
Modern city living deranges or makes miserable in Repulsion (Polanski 1965), Shivers (Cronenberg 1975), Crash (Cronenberg 1996) and Happiness (Solondz 1998).
Films about the decay of urban centres include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971) and Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet 1975).


The City in Fiction and Film, week four

SH_BLUE-01One of the many other things to take into account when designing a coherent degree programme is when and where to fit in all the other things that a HEI is now often expected to provide during scheduled classes – things like study skills, careers, etc, etc. So rather than screen a film this week, this module was responsible for the first library training session, beginning with basics (such as where the library is and what resources and services it provides) and building up to a detailed online workbook (locating different kinds of sources, assessing their reliability, how – and why – to quote and/or paraphrase them, how to reference them, etc). The workbook takes maybe two hours to complete – and in a couple of weeks, students will have their first assignment – an online quiz that tests their knowledge of the library, referencing, etc. Our Faculty Librarian designs and presents this workbook and the quiz, and machines mark it for me!

Back in my day, you were given a library card and told the card catalogue was probably quicker to use and more reliable than the rather basic computer catalogue… Kids today, honestly they don’t know they’re born!

Class began with an informal test about all the semiotic terminology encountered last week – students were free to draw on any resources to help them reformulate the ideas in their own terms to a) probe their understanding of those ideas; b) probe the ideas themselves; and c) tame an alien vocabulary and make it useful.

Next, we took on the James Bond exercise we did not have time for last week. At the start of chapter 25 of Ian Fleming’s From Russia, With Love (1957), called ‘A Tie with a Windsor Knot’, Bond is joined on the Orient Express by psychopathic SMERSH assassin Red Grant posing as an MI6 agent sent by M called Captain Norman Nash. After an exchange of codewords, we are treated to a description of Nash through Bond’s eyes from which Bond extrapolates the character and life story of his new acquaintance. Several codes are evoked to suggest that Nash is untrustworthy or at least unseemly.

He has ‘thick lips’ which writhe briefly rather than forming a smile – whether a friendly greeting or an ironic grin at the ‘childish’ password ‘ritual’. Those lips suggest a racialised sensuality – rather than possessing the British character associated with a stiff upper lip, Nash has stayed behind in the Mediterranean after the war, to ‘avoid the rigours of England’ and to take a foreign girlfriend or marry an Italian.

It gets worse. Not only does he speaks with ‘a hint of … cheap brogue’, so perhaps his off-whiteness can be traced to Irish ancestry, his curious accent is probably also a consequence of speaking a ‘foreign language all the time’. He has simultaneously “gone native” and let the veneer of English civilisation slip sufficiently to reveal beneath it a not-Englishness. Perhaps that is why his calling card mentions his rank, Captain, and that he is a member of the RAC. They are desperate attempts to assert an identity he does not quite possess; and they give themselves  away as such to Bond’s trained – or perhaps merely bigoted –  eye.

Nash’s lips might be given to bestial writhing, but his eyes are at once dead – there is ‘no light in them’ – and a ‘very pale blue’, watery perhaps and lacking resolve. Certainly the career trajectory Bond imagines for him – from ‘minor public school’ (so not from one of the best English families, maybe even from an Irish family) through the Royal Engineers (perhaps not the most frontline of wartime active service, and a bit close to skilled manual labour) to stumbling into a position with MI6 because all the more senior and more qualified men returned to the ‘rigours of England’.

His clothing suggests some mismatching of colours – reddish-brown tweed, pale yellow shirt, blue and red regimental tie, a red bandana handkerchief (that flops out of his breast pocket), a ‘gold signet ring with an indecipherable crest’, a battered silver watch with a leather strap. And then there is that tie tied in a Windsor knot. To Bond, the knot signals Nash’s vanity; it is after all ‘the mark of the cad’ – and was in popular consciousness linked to Edward VII, who after his abdication was seen as a potential pretender to the throne (especially as he was not exactly as unsympathetic to Hitler as one might have hoped).

Throughout, the meanings generated by Nash’s appearance rely on the connotations evoked by specific word choices and combinations, which in turn rely on shared codes through which we understand those connotations. And we can push beyond codes to what Roland Barthes called ‘myth’ – especially around class, masculinity and the colonial imaginary – and thus to ideology.

As Jonathan Bignell explains, for Barthes, ‘myth’ refers

to ways of thinking about people, products, places or ideas which are structured to send particular messages to the reader or viewer of texts … Media texts often connect one signified idea with another, or one signifier with another, in order to attach connotations to people and things and endow them with mythic meaning. (Media Semiotics, 2nd edition, 16, 17)

Fortunately the British press, British Prime Ministers and Fox News never let you down when you want a contemporary examples, so we began by questioning why The Times (14 September 2015) described Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured mode of transport as a ‘Chairman Mao-style bicycle’. Why would a right-wing newspaper want to connect the new moderate centre-left leader of the Labour Party with the head of a brutal communist dictatorship?

We then took a look the first half at this segment from John Oliver, in which he explains why it is problematic for David Cameron to call refugees ‘a swarm’, and why Fox News cannot heavily imply all muslim men and/or refugees are terrorists while claiming that they are not implying precisely that.

In each of these examples, signifiers connote and those connotations draw upon and reinforce Barthesian myths. (We also took a look at Barthes’s own famous example of the Paris-Match cover in which a young black cadet salutes the French flag, thus apparently justifying colonialism.)

After all this (and a break!), it was time for some urban fiction, beginning with Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) – the one in which a lost hat and abandoned Xmas goose lead Holmes to solve the theft of the eponymous gem. Our main focus was on the passage in which Holmes performs a semiotic analysis of the hat (though we also considered the simple techniques Doyle uses to persuade us of the accuracy of Holmes’s reading).

There were some indexical signs: several tallow splashes on the hat suggest its owner, Horner, lives in a house where gas-lighting has not yet been installed; and, more ridiculously, the size of the hat leads Holmes to conclude that Horner has a large head and therefore must be ‘highly intellectual’ – later, Horner’s mannered expression and use of the term ‘disjecta membra‘ will serve to confirm this absurdity. (The story was published the year before HG Wells’s essay ‘The Man of the Year Million’, which led to the design of his Martians and thus all those later big-brained aliens with puny bodies – so clearly something was in the air, not least because Horner is also sedentary and out of shape.)

There is also plenty of evidence of myth, as the connotations Holmes draws from his perusal of the hat reach out into the dimension of Victorian morality. Horner, who is no longer as foresightful as once he was, who has fallen on hard times, who  is not as attentive to his appearance as he used to be, and who has taken to drink, is obviously undergoing ‘a moral retrogression’ and has a ‘weakening nature’, though there are vague hopeful indications that ‘he has not entirely lost his self-respect’. In this aspect of Holmes’s analysis, meanings are converted into values – myth, and behind it ideology, in action.

This can be seen even more starkly in Holmes’s conclusion that Horner’s wife no longer loves him.

This hat has not been brushed for a week. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week’s accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife’s affection.

Patriarchy, anyone? Normative gender roles much? (It took mere seconds to come up with a half a dozen other reasons for Horner’s hat not having been dusted recently.)

We also took a quick look at the sequence from the first episode of Sherlock, in which Frumious Bandersnatch explains his initial reading of Bilbo’s character, history and current situation – culminating in a moment in which his reliance on heteronormative codes leads him to mistake the gender of his new friend’s sibling. (Other parts of his semiotic analysis were also questionable – were Iraq and Afghanistan really the only sunny places overseas British troops were stationed in 2009/10? why are scratches around the port on the phone evidence of the previous owner having a drink problem when we already know the current owner has a hand that sometimes shakes uncontrollably? Etc.)

We also took a look at the start of Holmes’ crime-scene analysis (damp clothes indexing rain, etc). And the handy bit when we see Holmes work along syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes to make sense of the victim’s message scratched in the floor with her fingernails: RACHE. In what languages is that a word? German, meaning revenge. Doesn’t seem very likely. What letter could be added to it to complete an English word? An L? Rachel! It’s a name. That’ll do nicely.

We finally took a look at William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981), but we were all flagging a little by this time. Its main significance for this class is twofold:

  • that there came a point – Gibson argues for the 1930s – when design started to dominate function in the construction of commodities and thus we started reorganising the way we purchase things in terms of their readable connotations;
  • and that that we live in built environments which are to varying degrees designed, and can thus be read for their meanings, which may well change over time. (And that all around us lurk semiotic ghosts.)