Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard (1996)

‘Leisure societies lie ahead of us…’ (Irving Sanger, p.180)

A poolside thriller

Although it’s longer than almost any of Ballard’s other novels, Cocaine Nights feels like a nice easy read, an airport or poolside thriller with an increasingly psychotic edge.

I found Day of Creation and Rushing to Paradise a struggle to finish because their stories were so preposterous, but Cocaine Nights fits much more easily into the thriller genre and for much of the time was as easy as eating an ice cream at the cinema. It was published 26 long years after Ballard had published the angular, challenging, Atrocity Exhibition and, reading this book, it feels worlds away in size, form and approach…

Cocaine Nights is a confident first-person narrative told by Charles Prentice, a seasoned travel writer who’s knocked about a bit and knows the ways of the world. When he learns that his kid brother Frank has been arrested and will be going on trial in Marbella, in the south of Spain, Charles flies to Gibraltar, hires a car and drives up the Spanish coast.

Frank has been living for the past few years in an exclusive resort named Estrella de Mar where he was manager of the popular Club Nautico, overseeing ‘a familiar world of squash courts, jacuzzis and plunge-pools’.

Charles checks into a nearby hotel, and makes an appointment to meet Frank’s Spanish lawyer. Here, for the first time, he discovers the charges against his brother. A swanky holiday house overlooking the resort was set on fire in an act of deliberate arson, and the retired British couple who lived there, the Hollingers, along with their niece Anne, an au pair and the male secretary, Roger Sansom, were all burned to death in the arson attack.

Frank was discovered by the police a few hours later in possession of molotov cocktails – wine bottles filled with a highly flammable mix of ether and petrol – of the kind which without doubt started the fire. When Charles finally manages to visit Frank at his Spanish prison he discovers, to his bewilderment and consternation, that Frank is going to plead guilty.

Charles spends a week snooping round Estrella, interviewing as many of the inhabitants as he can. On the surface it’s bustling with good, clean, wholesome bourgeois activities, a theatre club putting on plays by Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, an arts cinema, pottery classes, tennis lessons, choral societies – it’s Surrey by the sea.

In many ways Estrella de Mar was the halcyon county-town England of the mythical 1930s, brought back to life and moved south into the sun. Here there were no gangs of bored teenagers, no deracinated suburbs where neighbours scarcely knew each other and their only civic loyalties were to the nearest hypermarket and DIY store. As everyone never tired of saying, Estrella de Mar was a true community, with schools for the French and British children, a thriving Anglican church and a local council of elected members which met at the Club Nautico. However modestly, a happier twentieth century had rediscovered itself in this corner of the Costa del Sol…

And:

Purpose-built in the 1970s by a consortium of Anglo-Dutch developers, Estrella de Mar was a residential retreat for the professional classes of northern Europe. The resort had turned its back on mass tourism, and there were none of the skyscraper blocks that rose from the water’s edge at Benalmadena and Torremolinos. The old town by the harbour had been pleasantly bijouized, the fishermen’s cottages converted to wine bars and antique shops. Taking the road that led to the Club Nautico, I passed an elegant tea salon, a bureau de change decorated with Tudor half-timbering, and a boutique whose demure window displayed a solitary but exquisite designer gown. I waited as a van emblazoned with trompe-l’œil traffic scenes reversed into the courtyard of a sculpture studio…

What with this thriving art scene, drama club, art classes, pilates, swimming lessons, sailing, tennis and much, much more, Estrella de Mar seems like paradise:

Secure on their handsome peninsula, the people of the resort were an example of the liberation that follows when continuous sunlight is shone on the British.

But the more ‘amateur sleuthing’ Charles does and the more he finds out, the stranger the place appears.

One night, sitting in his car outside the resort’s main nightclub, the Club Nautico, pondering his next move, he sees what he takes to be a violent rape taking place in a car parked nearby. He runs over to rescue the woman, the man makes a getaway out the other door, but the woman, although obviously assaulted, with her knickers round her ankles and bleeding from the mouth, shrugs him off, pulls herself together and walks away. More disconcerting, as he stands there confused, Charles realises there was an audience watching: there are couples sitting in all the cars facing the one where the assault was taking place. Exasperated, Charles bangs his fists on their windshields:

‘What are you people playing at?’ I shouted. ‘For God’s sake . . .’

But one by one the cars turn on their ignitions, and slowly drive way.

Similarly, Charles notices prostitutes hanging round some of the streets in micro-skirts and boob tubes, mingling with the traffic, waiters, delivery men, shopkeepers and so on of the busy resort. But, on closer examination, he is disconcerted to realise that they are two ‘respectable’ women, wives of two men who run the town’s travel agency. Is it a kind of sex game, played to excite their husbands, or themselves? Or do they need the money?

A similar sense of bafflement surrounds descriptions of the fateful fire which killed the Hollingers. It happened on the Queen’s birthday, 15 June, and wasn’t a secret affair, the opposite. The villa was hosting a big party with everyone who was anyone at the resort invited, and so there was a crowd of over 200 drinking, partying, laughing, around the villa’s massive swimming pool. Hollinger even proposed a loyal toast to the Queen from his balcony, before going back inside (he was, Charles is repeatedly told, patriotic but aloof and rather pompous). Then suddenly the crowd started to realise that the big villa was on fire. Various guests tried to smash in the patio doors or windows, but they were fire-sealed and security-locked. Some guests tried to put ladders up to the first floor balcony and windows but the ladder caught fire.

So a) everyone saw the fire happen happen b) a lot of people tried to intervene but c) the Hollingers didn’t try to open any doors or windows but, apparently, stayed snug inside their separate bedrooms while their villa burned to the ground around them.

Charles visits the scene of the burned-out villa with one of the ex-pats who was there that night and who takes him through the events in detail. He closely questions all the other ex-pats who’ll agree to see him. He has long conversations with Frank himself, on his visits to him in prison, but his brother is infuriatingly vague about what happened or who is to blame. Charles is stunned when Frank’s lawyer tells him Frank is definitely going to please guilty to all five counts of murder.

Why? Why confess to a crime he didn’t commit? What the hell is going on?

To find out Charles decides he has to move into Estrella de Mar itself, so he checks out of the hotel up the coast where he’d been staying (the Los Monteros Hotel) and takes up occupation of Frank’s now-empty apartment, and starts digging deeper into the place and its inhabitants. All this has taken place by about page 70 – chapter 6 of the book’s 28 chapters – and the rest of the novel describes what he finds out.

And he finds out… that there is, as the BBC Sunday night drama has it, Death in Paradise. From the start Ballard had set a tone of aggressive sexuality – Charles has only just got into his hire car at Gibraltar when he spies a sultry woman driver in a nearby car fixing her make-up and has sexual fantasies about her. He is quick to spot the hookers on the streets of Estrella da Mar and quick to embark on a sexual affair with the resort’s troubled doctor, Paula Hamilton, and quickly suspects the bruises around her face are not from some harmless accident, but from the rough sex games, the S&M scene he quickly suspects exists behind closed doors at the resort.

So far so BDSM, so Crash, so porny. But if you park the porn – and Charless quick realisation that a certain amount of drugs is being consumed at the resort, mainly speed and cocaine – if you put all this modish window dressing to one side, the basic structure of the story is the same as a hundred Agatha Christie novels, and a thousand sleepy, Sunday night BBC ‘dramas’, the same basic structure:

  1. at an idyllic country community / stately home / happy family
  2. a mysterious death occurs
  3. an outsider comes in to investigate (Poirot, Miss Marple, Charles Prentice)
  4. who conducts a series of interviews with half a dozen key players
  5. which slowly reveal that any one of half a dozen characters might have had motives to carry out the murder(s)
  6. in which he or she uncovers clues carefully placed by the writer to keep us guessing
  7. so that the outsider/investigator slowly discovers that the idyllic community / stately home / happy family has dark (and hopefully depraved) secrets
  8. until by a process of induction, or through further incriminating events, the outsider/investigator finally discovers ‘the truth’

Thus, although the sex and drugs elements are fashionably depraved, and some of the details are quirky (like when Charles is buzz-bombed by a man-powered glider, which is a throwback to his weirder sci-fi stories) on the whole the narrative unfolds with the utter predictability of a 1930s murder mystery.

As you might have predicted, ‘shadowy figures’ try to warn Charles off, starting with a half-hearted attempt to strangle him on the balcony of Frank’s apartment, which is arranged to frighten him but not to actually hurt him.

As you might expect, Charles accompanies the Spanish detective in charge of the investigation on an extended tour of the burned-out villa as they retrace the stages of the crime, step by gruesome step, lingering over each room in which one or more of the victims were found burned or asphyxiated to death.

As you might expect, the detective reveals some unusual facts, such as that old Hollinger died in the house jacuzzi (good idea) but not with his wife, with young Anna the au pair. And that Anna was pregnant – but with whose child? Tut tut. And that Mrs Hollinger wasn’t in her room but in bed with the male secretary, Sansom. Saucy goings-on. ‘Lawks a-mercy, Monsieur Poirot, whoever would have thought it!’

As you might expect, Charles discovers a videotape in the melted VHS player of the burned-out villa – which the police have somehow overlooked – and takes it back to Frank’s apartment to view. It is, to no-one’s surprise, a porno, an amateur hand-held affair which starts with a standard lesbian romp, but turns nasty when some tough young men enter and appear to genuinely rape the tearful central figure. Yes, Estrella de Mar has a darker side, which grows a lot darker when Charles discovers it was his new girlfriend, Dr Paula Hamilton, who filmed the whole event.

As you might expect, there is a morose outsider, who has his own secrets to hide. In a Christie novel it’s often the gamekeeper or family retainer who turns out to have his own secrets. In this book it is the gloomy Swede Andersson, who maintains high powered speedboats which – on investigation – defy the Spanish navy to import hashish and heroin from North Africa. Drug smuggling.

Stuff happens. Someone sets fire to a stolen speedboat in the harbour. Someone sets fire to Prentice’s hire car. Someone dive bombs him with a hang glider when he climbs to the lemon grove above the Hollingers’ burned-out villa looking for evidence.

He feels himself settling into this world of casual crime, drug-taking and porn film-making, a ‘hidden Estrella de Mar, a shadow world of backstreet bars, hard-core video-stores and fringe pharmacies’, his brother Frank, stuck in gaol, becoming an ever more notional figure. Sanger the resort psychiatrist says he’s beginning to resemble his brother.

The Bobby Crawford effect

Bobby Crawford, the resort’s energetic tennis coach, was drifting down the coast from one sleepy resort to the next. When he arrived at Estrella da Mar he found it as torpid and somnolent as all the others he’d been at. But party by accident he was involved in some petty crimes and observed that it pepped the victims up no end. Experimentally, he embarked on a one-man crime wave, breaking into the luxury villas, nicking video players, pouring wine on precious carpets, spraying graffiti on garage doors, vandalising cars.

The effect is dramatic. People come out of their TV-induced coma to come to the resort offices to complain. They set up neighbourhood watch schemes. Having met each other they have parties to discuss latest developments, discover they have a taste for amateur dramatics or sports. People started turning up at what had previously been Crawford’s moribund tennis club.

I understood how [Frank] had fallen under Crawford’s spell, accepting the irresistible logic that had revived the Club Nautico and the moribund town around it. Crime would always be rife, but Crawford had put vice and prostitution and drug-dealing to positive social ends. Estrella de Mar had rediscovered itself.

The owners and investors – notably the shark-like Betty Shand – in the resort observe all this. They egg Crawford on. Encouraged he explores how far he can take the notion of energising crime. Some of the members of the newly founded film club are encouraged to make saucy films. A handful of the tougher sports club members are recruited into Crawford’s gang which carries out random attacks or thefts.

Ballard’s thesis

So bit by bit, Ballard’s thesis is at first hinted at by various characters, and then finally explained at length by Crawford in what might as well be a Shakespearian soliloquy addressed directly to the audience. The thesis is that society is sinking into a profound slump of boredom and accidie, addicted to TV while its mind vegetates. But people need excitement and an environment of petty crime energises and enlivens entire communities.

What they need, though they refuse to accept it, is a certain amount of amoral crime. And the person who supplies it, the impresario of crime, is the unacknowledged saviour of moribund communities. In the right time and place, the psychopath can be a saint.

‘The psychopath plays a vital role. He meets the needs of the hour, touches our graceless lives with the only magic we know…’ (Bobby Crawford explaining to Charles)

Put to the test – the Residencia Costasol

And all this is put to the test, when the likeable energetic Crawford recruits Charles in him and his rich sponsors’ next project which is to move on to the next sleepy ex-pat resort down the coast, the Residencia Costasol.

Half-reluctant but intrigued, Charles allows himself to be persuaded to become the manager of the main nightclub in the resort down the road. It is dead in the water, an utterly moribund community of numbed zombies who stay indoors all day watching TV. Charles watches how just a few incidents of petty crime begin to waken the dead. Crawford takes him on a car tour of the empty, perfectly manicured streets, with Crawford stopping every so often to break into an empty villa and steal a video recorder, or some jewellery, to spraypaint a garage door or vandalise a slumbering Porsche.

Charles is initially sceptical but then amazed when people start visiting the resort offices to complain, stop to buy some stuff, go into the bars for a drink, a few of them sign up with Crawford’s tennis club, some of them ask about entertainment at Charles’s nightclub.

Charles finds himself sucked into the scheme and becoming compliant to ever greater scandals. When a luxury yacht is burned down in the marina, it not only shocks the inhabitants, it reminds everyone that they own yachts, and soon the yacht club is booming. And so is Charles’s nightclub, doing a roaring trade, with people staying up late partying to the dance music. Which of course attracts drug dealers who Crawford, we find out, is managing and running. Similarly, some prostitutes arrive but Charles is stunned when he realises some of the women tottering in high heels, micro-skirts and boob tubes are wives of well-to-do residents. The Crawford Effect works. Residencia Costasol is becoming another Estrella da Mar.

Charles turns into his brother

All this has taken some months and Charles changes. He had rushed out to Spain on the first flight to help his brother and pestered his lawyers and the police for his first few weeks. Then, as he uncovers more about Estrella’s secret sub-culture, he put off seeing his brother until he understands more. And this quest to understand takes him down the road we’ve described, until he realises he has become his brother – performing exactly the role in the Residencia Costasol that Frank played in Estrella, a lynchpin in the resort’s social life, turning a blind eye to activities which skirt illegality and, increasingly, veer into outright immorality, but not taking an active part so much as trying to restrain or channel Bobby Crawford’s boyish, unstoppable, amoral appetite for stirring things up.

And so it is that Charles puts off opportunities to visit his brother for months on end, and slowly comes to the realisation that he doesn’t want to or need to. When Paul Hamilton tells him that Frank’s much-delayed trial is about to start the next day, Charles brushes it off. His metamorphosis into his amoral brother is complete.

Whodunnit

Eventually we get to the payoff, which comes as little or no surprise. Who set fire to the Hollingers’ villa? They all did or, to be more precise, all the main characters Charles has met played a part. There wasn’t really a central mastermind or fixed plan, but some of the people he’s met got hold of petrol and ether, others filled the villa’s air conditioning with this flammable mix. Each individual told themselves they were preparing a prank, a practical joke, a bit extreme maybe, but essentially harmless. In an act of collective psychosis none of them acknowledged what they were doing, until it began to happen and then it was too late – the fire spread too fast and aggressively for anyone to stop it or the villa’s inhabitants to escape.

And then the collective act had performed its function. The entire community felt bound together by collective guilt, like members of some primitive tribe who kill, cook and eat their chief. They have all partaken of the blood sacrifice. They are bound more closely than ever together.

‘He [Bobby Crawford] stumbled on the first and last truth about the leisure society, and perhaps all societies. Crime and creativity go together, and always have done. The greater the sense of crime, the greater the civic awareness and richer the civilization. Nothing else binds a community together. It’s a strange paradox.’ (Paula Hamilton explaining to Charles)

And in fact, to his dismay, his lover Paul Hamilton who finally reveals all this to him, also reveals that Frank did in fact play a key role in the arson. And that’s why he has decided to plead guilty. By pleading guilty he saves the others, saves the community.

Novel or fable?

By this stage you can see how the book has ceased to be a realistic novel or thriller. It is making a case. It is what the French call a roman à thèse – a novel which is didactic or which expounds a theory. Humans are animals. Despite all propaganda to the opposite, they need excitement and thrills. The person who provides this excitement – the psychopath as saint – is reviled but secretly welcomed. The sequence of petty crimes leads inexorably to a great act of collective murder which binds the community in collective guilt.

By this point the book has ceased being a realistic novel and become a kind of elaboration of Sigmund Freud’s highly questionable anthropological theories. In his later writings Freud speculated that early human societies were bound together through the ritual murder of The Father, and claimed to have found evidence for this in ancient mythology, from the Greeks to the ancient Israelites.

If you buy into this logic, or if you are now reading the book more as a Freudian fable than as a Christie-style whodunnit, the final section comes as no surprise, but has a pleasing inevitability about it. Things are thriving at the Residencia Costasol but Charles picks up more and more signals that another extreme event is in the offing, though he can’t discover what it is, and for a while the reader is alarmed that he himself might be the target, or his erstwhile lover, Paul Hamilton.

Or, in a big red herring, maybe the target will be Dr Irwin Sanger, the resident psychotherapist at Estrella de Mar who, we come to learn, has a fetish for under-age girls, and is more or less driven out of Estralla, taking refuge in a villa he’s bought at the Residencia Costasol, close to the one Charles is living in. Is a gang of vigilantes going to attack the increasingly fragile old man and torch his villa?

In the event it is Bobby Crawford. He’d made an appointment to meet Charles, but as Charles approaches the tennis court where Bobby spends all his time between supervising the community’s criminal activities, he finds Crawford lying on the court, shot through the heart. Charles stoops and picks up the small handgun which killed him, moves Bobby’s head, gets blood all over his shirt and hands… just as he hears the siren of the police car, looks up to see Inspector Cabrera, who had investigated the original arson attack, who had quizzed him at length about his brother, who had watched his character slowly transform… Inspector Cabrera walks towards him across the court and in the last sentences Charles realises that he, Charles Prentice, will take the blame, take the rap, plead guilty of Bobby’s murder… for the greater good of the community.

And the novel ends on this Grand Guignol, Edgar Allen Poe moment.


Characters

An indication of its difference from previous novels is the sheer number of characters. A novel like The Crystal World had about eight named characters, Concrete Island only about four, whereas Cocaine Nights feels has the extended cast of Eastenders.

The narrator

  • Charles Prentice, travel writer and older brother of Frank
  • Frank Prentice, long term inhabitant of Estrella de Mar, accused of the murder by arson of the Hollingers

The ex pats

  • David Hennessy, retired Lloyd’s underwriter, now doddery the treasurer of the Club Nautico
  • Bobby Crawford, Club Nautico’s tennis professional and impresario of crime and transgressive behaviour
  • Dr Paula Hamilton, physician at the Princess Margaret Clinic, formerly Frank’s girlfriend
  • Sonny Gardner, barman and crew member on  Frank’s thirty-foot yacht
  • Elizabeth Shand, Estrella de Mar’s most successful businesswoman, a former partner of Hollinger’s
  • Dr Irwin Sanger, Bibi’s psychiatrist
  • Anthony Bevis, owner of the Cabo D’Ora Gallery
  • Colin Dewhurst, manager of a bookshop in the Plaza Iglesias
  • Blanche and Marion Keswick, two jaunty Englishwomen who ran the Restaurant du Cap, an elegant brasserie by the harbour
  • Gunnar Andersson, a young Swede who tuned speedboat engines at the marina, boyfriend of Bibi
  • a retired Bournemouth accountant and his sharp-eyed wife who runs a video-rental store in the Avenida Ortega
  • the Reverend Davis, the pale and earnest vicar of the Anglican church (officiates at one of the funerals of the arson victims)

The five arson victims

  • the Hollingers – he a retired British film producer, she (Alice) one of the last of the Rank Charm School starlets
  • Anne, their niece
  • Bibi Jansen, the Swedish au pair who died in the fire
  • the gay male secretary, Roger Sansom

The Spanish authorities

  • Senor Danvila – Frank’s lawyer
  • Inspector Cabrera, detective investigating the arson case
  • Rodney Lewis, Charles’s agent in London

Strengths

Ballard writes so vividly. Almost every paragraph has a phrase which scintillates with linguistic charge. There is a wonderful clarity and precision to his vision.

  • The pool terrace was deserted, the choppy water settling itself for the night
  • I walked into the dining room, listening to my footsteps as they dogged me across the parquet flooring
  • [after the fire] The remote-control unit lay on the bedside table, melted like black chocolate
  • Shreds of burnt chintz clung to the walls, and the dressing room resembled a coal scuttle in a rage
  • Dominating all the other craft in the yard was a fibre-glass powerboat almost forty feet long, three immense outboards at its stern like the genitalia of a giant aquatic machine

He’s not always on song. Sometimes the rhetoric can become overwrought, almost always when he lapses into cliché, into the expected:

  •  The faint scent of bath gel still clung to my skin, the perfume of my own strangulation that embraced me like a forbidden memory

And so part of the pleasure of reading the book comes from watching Ballard navigate the fine line between acuity and pretentiousness, between vivid originality and something a little more clumsy. For example, which side of the line is this?

He left the boatyard and led me along the walkway between the moored yachts and cabin-cruisers. The white-hulled craft seemed almost spectral in the dusk, a fleet waiting to sail on a phantom wind.

That’s a little over-ripe for me, a bit too self-consciously Gothic. A phrase like this overlays the scene with a forced or pretentious comparison. It moves from the specific outwards to the general and so diffuses the effect. I prefer descriptions which travel in the opposite direction, which zero in, which make you sit up and pay closer attention to the thing itself:

Andersson stopped at the end of the quay, where a small sloop rode at anchor. Beneath the Club Nautico pennant at the stern was its name: Halcyon. Police exclusion tapes looped along its rails, falling into the water where they drifted like streamers from a forgotten party.

This acuteness also applies to his perceptions of people.

As his eyes searched the sky over the town I noticed that he was looking everywhere but at the Hollinger house. His natural aloofness shaded into some unhappy emotion that I could only glimpse around the bony corners of his face.

That feels acute to me, and original. Very simple vocabulary, but conveying a way of perceiving new to most of us. Only prose fiction can do this, surprise us in this way.

Ballard’s sardonic vision of ex-pat communities

The whole narrative is premised on the idea that the ex-pat communities along the Mediterranean have a special atmosphere of zombified inanition. Sometimes Ballard describes this with the seriousness that the premise of a fable requires, but other times he is wonderfully acute and funny at describing the strange limbo world of these kind of over-heated ex-pat resorts. He doesn’t hold back:

While a young Frenchwoman topped up my tank I strolled past the supermarket that shared the forecourt,where elderly women in fluffy towelling suits drifted like clouds along the lines of ice-cold merchandise. I climbed a pathway of blue tiles to a grass knoll and looked down on an endless terrain of picture windows, patios and miniature pools. Together they had a curiously calming effect, as if these residential compounds -British, Dutch and German – were a series of psychological pens that soothed and domesticated these émigré populations…

The retirement pueblos lay by the motorway, embalmed in a dream of the sun from which they would never awake. As always, when I drove along the coast to Marbella, I seemed to be moving through a zone that was fully accessible only to a neuroscientist, and scarcely at all to a travel writer. The white facades of the villas and apartment houses were like blocks of time that had crystallised beside the road. Here on the Costa del Sol nothing would ever happen again, and the people of the pueblos were already the ghosts of themselves…

Estrella de Mar seemed a place without shadows, its charms worn as openly as the bare breasts of the women of all ages who sunbathed at the Club Nautico. Secure on their handsome peninsula, the people of the resort were an example of the liberation that follows when continuous sunlight is shone on the British.

Via his characters, Ballard can be even more forthright in his opinions:

‘Have you seen the pueblos along the coast? Zombieland. Fifty thousand Brits, one huge liver perfused by vodka and tonic. Embalming fluid piped door to door…’

Charles is more detached and analytical – he is, after all, a writer by profession – but is given the same point of view:

Already thinking of a travel article, I noted the features of this silent world: the memory-erasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilised the nervous system; the almost Africanised aspect, but a North Africa invented by someone who had never visited the Maghreb; the apparent absence of any social structure; the timelessness of a world beyond boredom, with no past, no future and a diminishing present. Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools…

Empty pools and full pools

One symbolic way of indicating the difference between Ballard’s pre-Empire of the Sun fiction and the novels he wrote after that catharsis, is that, in all his pre-Empire stories and novels, the swimming pools are drained and empty; in all the post-Empire stories, the swimming pools are filled to the brim, reflecting the bright blue Mediterranean sky, and denoting a world of timeless, affectless plenty.

Weaknesses

It’s hard not to notice Ballard’s use of a deliberately limited descriptive vocabulary, a very restricted number of moods or gestures which all the characters display, as if they are androids with about five settings. This lexical narrowness bespeaks, indicates and enacts a sort of emotional and cognitive narrowness in his characters.

People are always needing to be ‘calmed’, because something is ‘unsettling’ or over-exciting them; many of the characters or situations are described almost from the start as ‘deranged’ or ‘demented’; the narrator does no end of ‘sensing’, ‘sensing’ that people know more than they let on, ‘sensing’ that he is unwelcome, ‘sensing’ that characters really mean this or that secret motive.

Calm

  • Paula tried to calm me, sitting me in the leather armchair and putting a cushion behind my head…
  • Cabrera watched me from the door, restraining Paula when she tried to calm me…
  • She turned to face me, and touched my forehead with a calming hand…
  • Before I could remonstrate with her she turned to face me, and touched my forehead with a calming hand…
  • ‘Now, sit down and try to calm yourself,’ Sanger steered me from the garden door, whose handle I was trying to turn, concerned for my overexcited state…
  • One of them touched my cheek, as if calming a child…
  • Trying to calm myself, I sipped Frank’s whisky and listened to the shrieks and laughter as the sun came up over the sea…
  • I put my hands on her shoulders to calm her.

Demented/deranged

  • I remembered the disagreeable Guardia Civil at Gibraltar and speculated that the fire had been started by a deranged Spanish policeman protesting at Britain’s occupation of the Rock.
  • Andersson stood astride the grave, spade held across his chest like a jousting pole, glaring in a deranged way at the psychiatrist.
  • Repeated cleanings had blurred the pigments, and the triptych of garage, windows and door resembled the self-accusing effort of a deranged Expressionist painter
  • The bedrooms were daubed with graffiti, a riot of black and silver whorls, a demented EEG trace searching for a brain
  • As Laurie Fox screamed in her demented way, spitting out the blood she had sucked into her mouth, Sanger seized her around the waist.
  • In the soil scattered from the plant tubs a demented geometer had set out the diagram of a bizarre dance of death…

Unsettled

  • ‘You’ve unsettled a great many people since you arrived, understandably so…’
  • His talk of re-opening the case unsettled me…
  • The frankness of her erotic response, the unashamed way in which she used her sex, seemed to unsettle Crawford..
  • I fingered the plastic sachet, tempted to help myself to this forgotten cache, but I was too unsettled by the visit to the Hollinger house
  • The testy humour, and the edgy manner of someone unsettled by standing more than a few seconds in front of a mirror, would have appealed to Frank…
  • Cabrera hesitated before getting into his car, unsettled by my change of tack
  • Crawford sat forward, speaking quietly as if not wanting to unsettle the silence.

Sensed

He uses the phrase ‘Already I…’ to convey the sense that something is creeping up on the narrator, that things are overtaking him, that things are moving at pace…

  • Already I sensed that she was looking on me with more favour, for whatever reasons of her own…
  • Already I sensed that I was being kept under surveillance…
  • Already I could sense the freedom that this intimate world would have given to Alice Hollinger…

Narrowness and repetition

Obviously we all have restricted vocabularies, our own idiolects (‘the speech habits peculiar to a particular person’) and Ballard is a very clever, self-aware writer.

Sol much so that I wonder whether the repetition of actions, of moods and of the relatively small range of words that he uses to describe them is deliberate – that he accepts the same narrow set of words which suggest themselves as he writes, because doing this adds to the stylisation of the text. That the repetitions not only of plot, but of specific words and phrases, adds to the sense of stylisation which accompanied, in the old days, coronations and religious rituals, and in our media age, define the camera angles and gestures of movie actors.

So that when the any of the other characters tell Charles to ‘calm’ himself, we remember Jim in Empire of the Sun continually being told by the adults to calm down. When the narrator remembers his father sparring with the Saudi police and so ‘unsettling’ his mother, we remember all the other Ballard characters who have been ‘unsettled’ by a drowned world, crystallising forests, the inhabitants of high rises killing each other, and so on.

This narrowness of plotting, and the narrowness of vocabulary, are central issues in critiquing Ballard’s work.

Running Wild is about a luxury gated community for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Cocaine Nights is about a luxury ex-pat community for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Super-Cannes is about a luxury business park for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Is the repetition of the same basic plot, told in prose which heavily features the same stylised attitudes and words (unsettle, calm, deranged) a bad thing or a good thing? Does the repetition of ideas and phrases cumulatively build up a powerful vision of the world?

Or feel like the repetition of a writer who’s lost inspiration? I think it’s more the former, that the hammering away of the same vocabulary is like a miner hammering away at a coal seam underground, relentlessly chipping away at the same pressure point to try and achieve a breakthrough into a new way of seeing.

Ballard’s improbable dialogue

Dialogue in thrillers is always pat, neat and snappy. Think of any of the classic American writers, Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler. By this late stage in his career Ballard had evolved his own version of this stagey dialogue in which characters don’t speak like hard-boiled gangsters but like lecturers in media studies, all very savvy and smart about Freud and Fellini. Here’s Crawford the tennis coach talking to Charles the narrator about his brother, Frank:

He stared at the air with his arms raised to the sky, as if waiting for a sympathetic genie to materialize out of the spiralling dust.
‘Charles, I know. What’s going on? This is Kafka re-shot in the style of Psycho. You’ve talked to him?’
‘Of course. He insists he’s guilty. Why?’
‘No one knows. We’re all racking our brains. I think it’s Frank playing his strange games again, like those peculiar chess problems he’s always making up. King to move and mate in one, though this time there are no other pieces on the board and he has to mate himself.’

‘This is Kafka reshot in the style of Psycho‘ and then moving on to make comparisons with chess games. Do you think anyone, anywhere has ever spoken like that, let alone a professional tennis coach?

Here’s Charles sparring with nervous Dr Paul Hamilton.

‘Besides, my patients need me. Someone has to wean them off the Valium and Mogadon, teach them how to face the day without a bottle and a half of vodka.’
‘So what Joan of Arc was to the English soldiery you are to the pharmaceutical industry?’

Has anyone ever said something is sharp and snappy as that to you? Here’s Charles talking to Inspector Cabrera:

‘Inspector, when I meet Frank I’ll say that I’ve seen the house. If he knows I’ve been here he’ll realize how absurd his confession is. The idea that he’s guilty is preposterous.’
Cabrera seemed disappointed in me. ‘It’s possible, Mr Prentice. Guilt is so flexible, it’s a currency that changes hands . . . each time losing a little value.’

Ah, the literary policeman as philosopher. Here’s Charles with Dr Hamilton, again:

‘Who is he exactly?’
‘Not even Bobby Crawford knows that. He’s three different people before breakfast. Every morning he takes his personalities out of the wardrobe and decides which one he’ll wear for the day.’

Snappy. Or:

As we stood together I placed my hand on her breast, my index finger following the blue vein that rose to the surface of her sunburnt skin before descending into the warm deeps below her nipple. She watched me uncritically, curious to see what I would do next. Without moving my hand from her breast, she said: ‘Charles, this is your doctor speaking. You’ve had enough stress for one day.’
‘Would making love to you be very stressful?’
‘Making love to me is always stressful. Quite a few men in Estrella de Mar would confirm that. I don’t want to visit the cemetery again.’
‘Next time I’m there I’ll read the epitaphs. Is it full of your lovers, Paula?’
‘One or two. As they say, doctors can bury their mistakes.’

Boom boom, as artful as Oscar Wilde or Joe Orton. Here’s Charles interviewing Andersson the boat repair man:

‘You don’t like looking at the Hollinger house, do you?’
‘I don’t like looking at anything, Mr Prentice. I dream in Braille.’

It’s all as slick and stylised as the dialogue in a Noel Coward play, mingled with a pleasant stream of sub-Wildean paradoxes.

‘Money, sex, drugs. What else is there these days? Outside Estrella de Mar no one gives a damn about the arts. The only real philosophers left are the police.’ (Dr Hammond)

‘Selfish men make the best lovers. They’re prepared to invest in the woman’s pleasure so that they can collect an even bigger dividend for themselves.’ (Dr Hammond)

‘The arts and criminality have always flourished side by side.’ (Dr Sanger)

This whip-smart repartee mixes oddly with Ballard’s very limited set of emotional responses, and then again with the off-hand references to hard drugs or kiddie-porn or BDSM sex. It’s an odd combination.


Ballard’s erroneous futurology

‘Everything comes sooner these days. The future rushes towards us like a tennis player charging the net.’ (The psychiatrist Irwin Sanger)

Ballard is routinely trotted out as a ‘prophet’ or ‘futurologist’, but this strikes me as plain wrong.

Cocaine Nights obsessively repeats the idea that the enclaves of bored wealthy ex-pats along the Costa del Sol somehow indicate what the future will be like:

  • Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools…
  • ‘Frank always claimed that Estrella de Mar is what the future will be like…’
  • ‘In Estrella de Mar, like everywhere in the future, crimes have no motives…’
  • ‘I talked to Sanger the other day – he thinks we’re the prototype of all the leisure communities of the future…’
  • ‘Charles, this is the way the world is going. You’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work or play. The Costasols of this planet are spreading outwards. I’ve toured them in Florida and New Mexico. You should visit the Fontainebleau Sud complex outside Paris – it’s a replica of this, ten times the size. The Residencia Costasol wasn’t thrown together by some gimcrack developer; it was carefully planned to give people the chance of a better life. And what have they got? Brain-death…’
  • ‘It’s Europe‘s future. Everywhere will be like this soon…’

At its bluntest, here is Dr Sanger lecturing Charles:

‘Our governments are preparing for a future without work, and that includes the petty criminals. Leisure societies lie ahead of us, like those you see on this coast. People will still work – or, rather, some people will work, but only for a decade of their lives. They will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them.’
‘A billion balconies facing the sun. Still, it means a final goodbye to wars and ideologies.’

Has anything more inaccurate and misleading ever been written? This is spectacularly wrong, isn’t it? Ballard was reading from a script first devised in the 1970s, which looked forward to a utopian leisure society in which we’d all struggle to fill our countless hours of pampered idleness. Is that what happened? No. The exact opposite has happened:

Money-rich, time-poor is an expression which arose in Britain at the end of the 20th century to describe groups of people who, whilst having a high disposable income through well-paid employment, have relatively little leisure time as a result. Time poverty has also been coined as a noun for the phenomenon. (Wikipedia)

Spending day after day with nothing to do is not really an accurate portrait of Britain in 2020. Do you feel like you live in ‘a leisure-dominated future’? Plus, this whole discussion only takes place among the moneyed bourgeoisie. Most normal people are having to work harder than ever to make ends meet.

More women are in the workforce not because of abstract principles of ‘equality’ but because they’ve been forced to go to work to supplement their husband’s wages. More people than ever before are working on zero hours contracts. All the articles I read are about how work has invaded people’s ‘leisure’ hours, their evenings and weekends because work emails, texts and documents are now sent to people’s personal devices 24/7. And that’s before you get to the dire condition of the underclass, which I was reading about recently.

A few numbers: In 2014 the officially registered population of British nationals in Spain was 236,669, let’s call it 240,000. In 2014 the UK population numbered about 65 million. So British ex-pats in Spain make up less than 0.4% of the UK population. Hardly at the cutting edge of British social trends.

And even more obviously, this kind of thing is highly Eurocentric – it describes a world of overwhelmingly white chaps and chapesses from the professional classes who are all very comfortably off, thank you very much – Estrella de Mar is full of retired bank managers and accountants and doctors and property developers. What has come to be referred to by their impoverished children as the ‘boomers’.

As a vision of the future of the entire world it is obviously flawed for the simple reason that it totally omits, not only most of the population of European countries, but the whole of the rest of the world. A moment’s reflection on the condition of the population of either China or India (combined populations 2.75 billion people) suggests that the future of the planet is not one of luxury resorts offering a wide range of sports activities…

Ballard’s view of the future. My view of the present

Ballard’s vision of an affluent society where the well-off retire at 30 and have so much time on their hands that they take to drugs and murder to spice up their lives is plausible enough when you read it, as is much science fiction or genre fiction.

But the moment you start seriously thinking about it, you realise it is a ludicrously out-of-touch fantasy. The kind of thing only a writer – a person who spends almost all their time at home, staring out of windows, or meeting other like-minded middle class types – could conceive of, and that only academics who’ve spent a lifetime reading about transgressive sex and literary tropes, but who have precious little knowledge of international affairs, geopolitics, environmental or population trends, could take seriously.

This is a clever, very educated and very literary book, with an enormous amount of pleasure to be had from Ballard’s often inspired way with language and his endless stream of acute insights and vivid turns of phrase.

And yet the social vision at the heart of the narrative felt to me curiously dated, remote and out of touch with the actual world the rest of us live in, and are going to live in.


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Running Wild by J.G. Ballard (1988)

‘Well done, Jeremy!’

This is a very short book, a macabre and gruesome little shocker which is barely a novella, really just a long short story, just about stretching to 106 pages in the big-print Flamingo paperback version. It took me just an hour and a half to read it.

It’s a first-person narrative told by a doctor (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor), in this instance, Dr Richard Greville, Deputy Psychiatric Adviser for the Metropolitan Police.

Greville has been called to help investigate a murder. Well, not so much a murder as a massacre. Early on the morning of 25 June 1988, all the adult inhabitants of a luxury, gated community for upper-middle-class professionals, named Pangbourne Village, were murdered in a variety of gruesome ways.

Some were electrocuted in their bath, or on their exercise bicycle, many were shot, some were stabbed to death, a couple were crushed against their garage by their own Porsche, some were shot with crossbow bolts. The phone cables to the outside world had been cut and all the cables from the estate’s numerous CCTV cameras to the central Security lodge had also been severed, and the security guard asphyxiated in a complicated kite-cum-tourniquet device developed by the Viet Cong in Vietnam.

Ten families lives in the community, each in a perfect, luxury home, many with indoor gyms and swimming pools and tennis courts in the grounds. All twenty of the parents were executed, along with twelve staff, including au pairs, tutors, gardeners and the two security guards.

And the thirteen children whose parents were murdered? Have disappeared. Vanished without trace.

The media go wild and there’s an explosion of theories as to what happened, from a random terrorist attack, to a mass suicide on the lines of the Jonestown Massacre, maybe an attack by Russian Special Forces at key managers of vital British infrastructure… all the way to the lunatic fringe who claim the parents were murdered and the children abducted by aliens. There’s always a few…

Greville sets about investigating the massacre systematically, and so does Ballard. The text is presented in a very neat format, divided into clear, precise sections chronicling events and developments, as Greville investigates – reviews a police video of the crime scene, reviews the history of the gated community, reads profiles of its residents, reviews all the theories, then visits the scene, where he is shown round by Sergeant Payne of Reading Police CID, has a breakthrough, tests his theory, and comes to his conclusions.

Structure

These are the titles (and sub-sections) of the (short) chapters:

  • The police video
  • Pangbourne Village
  • The Residents
  • The Murdered Staff
  • The Missing Children
  • The Massacre: Various Theories
    • Lone assassin
    • Thrill killer
    • A misdirected military exercise
    • The political dimension: Foreign powers
    • International Terrorism
    • Organised Crime
    • The Parents as Killers
    • The Domestic Staff
    • Bizarre Theories:
      • Soviet Spetznaz commandos attack the wrong location
      • Experimental nerve gas bomb falls on the estate by accident and drives the inhabitants mad
      • The parents were brainwashed foreign agents who, when their work was done, were triggered to murder each other
      • The parents were murdered by aliens from outer space who took the children as specimens
      • The parents were murdered by their own children
  • A Visit to Pangbourne: August 29, 1988
  • The Psychiatrists’ Home
  • Marion Miller, the First ‘Hostage’
  • The Television Film
  • Return to Pangbourne Village: October 17, 1988
  • The Pangbourne Massacre: The Evidence
  • The Pangbourne Children
  • The Great Ormond Street Kidnapping
  • The Pangbourne Massacre: The Murderers Identified
  • A Tentative Explanation
  • The Trigger
  • June 25, 1988 – The Reconstruction
  • Disappearance of the Children
  • POSTSCRIPT, DECEMBER 8, 1993

Spoiler alert

The kids did it. The thirteen children formed a tight-knit conspiracy, laid intricate plans, and then murdered their parents, house by house, over an intense half hour period starting at 8.15am.

they stated with the murder of Mrs Miller on her exercise bicycle, followed swiftly by the murder of Mr Miller, who is sitting in his bath when his 8-year-old daughter Marion plugs a hairdryer into a nearby power socket and drops it into the bath. While Miller’s body is spasming in electric shock, his son, Robin, stabs him to death with a kitchen knife.

The Miller children then signal to the children in the house opposite, who proceed to murder their parents, and so on in a domino effect throughout the estate, with the security guards taken out separately, and then all the ancillary staff – au pairs, tutors etc – cold-bloodedly shot dead.

These events are actually described twice – once at the start, when Dr Griffiths watches the police video of the crime scene which shows all the dead bodies splayed around their houses – and once near the end, when the narrator walks us through his detailed, grisly and disgusting reconstruction of the massacre.

I had begun to suspect it was the kids by page 10. When I read the long list of possible theories, the last one – that the kids did it – leaped out at me. Greville suddenly realises the kids did it on page 50 i.e. exactly half way through the book.

So there is an element of suspense for the first 40 or 50 pages, but that isn’t really the point: the point of the book is investigating the reason Why.

It’s because the children were pampered to within an inch of their lives and eventually rebelled in order to find some freedom.

Their parents sent them to posh private schools, but not boarding schools, day schools, so that the kids returned home every evening, and so that every aspect of their lives could be monitored and enthusiastically supported by this parents.

Their parents told them what to read, what they should watch on TV, and organised drama societies and chess clubs in which they supported and encouraged their children all the time.

In the seventeen-year-old Jeremy Maxted’s room Griffiths and Payne discover that the boy’s computer is wired up so that his parents can send him loving, encouraging messages at any time of day or night, especially about his favourite hobby, swimming.

Payne pressed the computer keyboard, tapping out a simple code. The screen lit up with a message dated May 17, 1988:
_47 lengths today!_
There was a pause, and then:
_Well done, Jeremy!

The members of staff who weren’t on shift on the fateful day and so missed the massacre, all testify that:

The murder victims were enlightened and loving parents, who shared liberal and humane values which they displayed almost to a fault. The children attended exclusive private day schools near Reading, and their successful academic records reveal a complete absence of stress in their home lives. The parents (all of whom, untypically for their professional class, seem to have objected to boarding schools) devoted long hours to their offspring, even to the extent of sacrificing their own social lives. They joined the children in various activities at the recreation club, organised discotheques and bridge contests in which they took full part, and in the best sense were guiding their sons and daughters toward fulfilled and happy lives…

And that is the point. As a psychiatrist, Griffiths speculates that the children were smothered – cribbed, cabined and confined by their own parents, with no possibility of escape anywhere from the utter smothering of every single instinctive or spontaneous feeling, thought or emotion.

This emerges powerfully during Griffith’s second visit to the village, when Sergeant Payne shows him evidence which sheds more light on the children. They all kept secret diaries or journals but it went beyond that. There was a newsletter – The Pangbourne Pang – just for the estate’s thirteen children, which, when you looked carefully at it, revealed an almost screaming level of boredom and frustration. Two of the girls, Gail and Annabel Reade, kept elaborate secret journals which described Jane Austen-style fine ladies and gentlemen, only with a lot pf pornography thrown in. Jeremy Maxted had a porn stash in his cupboard (what healthy 17-year-old boy doesn’t) but Sergeant Payne shows Griffiths that this was just a conventional cover. Hidden deeper was a collection of magazines about guns and weapons – they were Jeremy’s real pornography. But exhibit A is

the curious home video, filmed by Amanda Lymington and Jasper Ogilvy, which at first sight appeared to be a matter-of-fact documentary of daily life at Pangbourne Village. Some seventeen minutes long, it was made with the happy cooperation of the parents, and adopts the style of a real-estate developer’s promotional video. With its glossy colour and tableau-like settings, it depicts the parents sitting in their drawing rooms, having dinner, parking their cars. The commentary is warm and affectionate… There is a certain gentle leg-pulling at the parents’ expense – the camera lingers on Mrs. Sterling as she mistimes a swallow dive, and on Mr. Garfield as he drops his cocktail shaker. Extracts of the film were shown to the parents and often screened for the benefit of visitors.

However, the final version that secretly circulated among the children was very different. This carried the identical jovial sound track, but Jasper and Amanda had added some twenty-five seconds of footage, culled from TV news documentaries, of car crashes, electric chairs and concentration-camp mass graves. Scattered at random among the scenes of their parents, this atrocity footage transformed the film into a work of eerie and threatening prophecy…

There you have it. All the time they took part in the happy affectionate life of the community, the children were going mad with frustration. But it was much more than that and towards the end of the short text Griffiths attempts a deeper psychological explanation:

My own view is that far from being an event of huge significance for the children, the murder of their parents was a matter of comparative unimportance. I believe that the actual murders were no more than a final postscript to a process of withdrawal from the external world that had begun many months beforehand, if not years.

As with the Hungerford killer, Michael Ryan, or the numerous American examples of crazed gunmen opening fire on passersby, the identity of the victims probably had no special significance for them. More than this, I would argue that for such killings to take place at all, the deaths of their victims must be without any meaning.

By a grim paradox, the instrument of the parents’ deaths was the devoted and caring regime which they had instituted at Pangbourne Village. The children had been brainwashed, by the unlimited tolerance and understanding that had erased all freedom and all trace of emotion – for emotion was never needed at Pangbourne, by either parents or children.

Denied any self-expression, and with even the most wayward impulse defused by the parents’ infinite patience, the children were trapped within an endless round of praiseworthy activities – for nowhere were praise and encouragement lavished more generously than at Pangbourne Village, whether earned or not.

Altogether, the children existed in a state closely akin to sensory deprivation. Far from hating their parents when they killed them, the Pangbourne children probably saw them as nothing more than the last bars to be removed before they could reach out to the light.

I remember the experiments in sensory deprivation that I attended at the School of Aviation Medicine at RAF Farnborough, and the great dangers to the laboratory staff presented by these deeply desensitized volunteers. The attempt to help them from their soundproof immersion tanks could be fraught with risk. On numerous occasions the volunteers had injured themselves and even attempted to strangle the laboratory staff while under the impression that they were warding off stray equipment that had intruded into their zero world.

The same schizophrenic detachment from reality can be seen in the members of the Manson gang, in Mark Chapman and Lee Harvey Oswald, and in the guards at the Nazi death camps. One has no sympathy for Manson and the others – an element of choice existed for them all – but the Pangbourne children had no such choice. Unable to express their own emotions or respond to those of the people around them, suffocated under a mantle of praise and encouragement, they were trapped forever within a perfect universe.

In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom.

The cradle of terrorism

Is that it? No. There’s a Postscript written five years later. Griffiths had speculated towards the end of the initial text that fanaticism of the type necessary to bond these thirteen individuals in the worst crime known to humanity won’t just fade away. They have become fanatics, and fanatics obsessed with overthrowing authority figures, leading him to make a melodramatic statement to the much more phlegmatic Sergeant Payne.

‘The Pangbourne children are a Baader-Meinhof gang for the day after tomorrow.’

And so it is that, in this postscript, Griffiths shares with us the news that five years after the Pangbourne Massacre an assassination attempt was made on a certain woman Prime Minister who had retired to a luxury house in Dulwich (he must mean Mrs Thatcher although, possibly for legal reasons, he refrains from mentioning her). An armoured truck was driven at high speed through the gates of the house and there followed a massive explosion which rocked the neighbourhood. The ex-PM was miraculously unharmed, the blast was put down to a gas mains explosion, and the lady herself was photographed by the press handing out cups of tea to police and firemen.

But one of the ex-PM’s bodyguards gives a description of one of the attackers which matches perfectly with the appearance and strange mannerisms of Marion Miller, the only one of the children who was ever found and identified after the massacre and who was kidnapped by some of the other children in a daring armed raid on Great Ormond Street Hospital, which is described in detail in the middle chapters of the book.

Anyway, this incident is added so as to reinforce Griffith’s point that an excess of smothering love desensitises children and risks turning them into emotionless zombies. Children need risk, and risk involves failure, it involves disobeying parents and being told off, and learning to cope with it. It means being introduced to all the ups and downs of adult life. Which these pampered, over-loved children never had.

Comments

On the back of the paperback edition there’s a quote from a laudatory review by novelist Jonathan Coe, who writes:

As a malevolent gesture in the direction of facts which we prefer to ignore, it provides a salutary chill.

Many blurb writers and reviewers are given to describing Ballard as a ‘prophet’ (maybe because they don’t know how else to categorise him) but I bridle at this description, I don’t really think he is ‘prophetic’. What struck me about Running Wild was:

  1. how old-fashioned the book seemed
  2. how inaccurate its social analysis is

1. Old fashioned

By ‘old-fashioned’ I simply mean that many of the phrases, and the entire concept of the text being notes from a doctor’s diary about a world-famous ‘case’, come straight from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Here’s the opening of Running Wild:

So much has been written about the Pangbourne Massacre, as it is now known in the popular press throughout the world, that I find it difficult to see this tragic event with a clear eye. In the past two months there have been so many television programs about the thirty-two murdered residents of this exclusive estate to the west of London, and so much speculation about the abduction of their thirteen children, that there scarcely seems room for even a single fresh hypothesis.

Compare and contrast with the opening of a typical Sherlock Holmes case:

The Lord St. Simon marriage, and its curious termination, have long ceased to be a subject of interest in those exalted circles in which the unfortunate bridegroom moves. Fresh scandals have eclipsed it, and their more piquant details have drawn the gossips away from this four-year-old drama.

It is the same lofty, confident, educated, man-of-the-world tone, and it is the same fundamental structure: a well-balanced, educated professional taking us for a foray into the dark underbelly of society, as Dr Watson does in so many of the 60 Sherlock Holmes short stories.

Prophetic

1. I don’t deny that there’s a lot about Ballard’s contemporary ‘urban disaster’ novels (CrashConcrete IslandHigh Rise and this one) which feel urgent and relevant because they describe a highly urbanised environment, dominated by concrete flyovers and council high rises, which people many people now live in. It’s a worldview which is easy to subscribe to if you’re a troubled teenager, or an over-thoughtful student, or an academic paid to write papers and books about urban alienation, and yet…

When you look really closely, Ballard’s view is not really that ‘prophetic’, and on several levels.

At its simplest, there may well have been a steady increase in the number of gated communities for the rich all over the industrialised world over the past thirty or so years but, far from providing a cradle for psychotic terrorist, children brought up as the pampered children of the rich… seem to enjoy it. Is Ivanka Trump a psychotic murderer? No. The children of the rich turn out, by and large, to be living a fabulous, jet-setting, luxury yacht and Manhattan apartment kind of life, thank you very much.

I’m not aware of the kind of massacre Ballard describes having happened anywhere in the world. It is a science fiction fantasy and exaggeration, for moralising or propaganda effect.

2. At a more grass roots level, Is the trouble with British society in 2020 that there are too many pampered children of the rich growing up in stiflingly loving families? Not really. Yesterday there was an article in the Guardian about the growing problem of child hunger and malnutrition, about the number of children who are now reliant on food banks and the larger number who are just above that level, but are still not getting enough food.

3. The book ends with the dramatic suggestion that it is from the children of the pampered middle-classes that the most ferocious terrorist groups emerge, and Ballard cites the well-known case of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, all of whom came from secure middle-class homes. But it seems to me that he is once again, writing about the past and not the future. The wave of middle-class terrorists who rocked Western Europe in the 1970s (the Angry Brigade, the Red Brigade, ETA, the Baader-Meinhof etc) had died off by the 1980s (although the independence movements of ETA and the IRA continued their bombing and shooting campaigns), but European middle-class terrorism had, for the most part, run its course.

What the world was trembling on the brink of was a new type of Islamist terrorism. Many people forget that the 9/11 airplane attacks on the World Trade Centre weren’t the first time the buildings had been attacked.

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, carried out on February 26, 1993, when a truck bomb detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The 1,336 lb (606 kg) urea nitrate–hydrogen gas enhanced device was intended to send the North Tower (Tower 1) crashing into the South Tower (Tower 2), bringing both towers down and killing thousands of people. It failed to do so but killed six people and injured over one thousand. The attack was planned by a group of terrorists including Ramzi Yousef, Mahmud Abouhalima, Mohammad Salameh, Nidal A. Ayyad, Abdul Rahman Yasin, and Ahmed Ajaj. They received financing from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

To be blunt, the ‘psychotic’ element of Running Wild, the details of the cold-blooded mass killing feels sort of modern, but the format – the Sherlock Holmes-style casebook format – and above all the location and personnel – nice, middle-class professionals who are merchant bankers and TV producers – felt very dated. I live not far from Streatham High Street where two weeks ago a young Muslim man took a knife from his back pack and started stabbing all the passersby he could get to, before being shot dead by the police. British prisons are hotbeds of Islamic radicalisation. Every week Islamist murderers or plotters are released back into the community to resume their murderous activities, while at the same time, unprecedented numbers of British children need food aid just to get the basic nutrition they require to grow.

So in my opinion, Ballard isn’t ‘prophetic’ of any aspect of our contemporary situation. The reverse: his anxieties about the gated communities of the rich and the desensitising impact of cable TV seem distinctly quaint and old fashioned. I think the claim that he is ‘prophetic’ can only be made and sustained by humanities academics who, in this as in so many other areas of society, culture and politics, have been shown to be wildly out of touch with the actual reality of the society they live in.

Credit

Running Wild by J.G. Ballard was published by Hutchinson in 1988. References are to the 1997 Flamingo paperback edition.


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Cindy Sherman @ the National Portrait Gallery

According to the press release, Cindy Sherman is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. This is a massive retrospective of Sherman’s entire career, from the mid-1970s to the present day. It includes over 190 works from international public and private collections, some of them never seen in public before, some of them reunited after decades apart.

What is Sherman famous for? For dressing up as fictional characters and types, and taking photos of herself.

She stumbled across the idea as an art student in the mid-1970s and – in an impressive example of an artist hitting a style, establishing a brand, and then sticking to it through thick and thin – she has followed the same practice for the past 45 years.

Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chronological order

The exhibition is arranged in a straightforward chronological order allowing you to see how Sherman’s art has evolved and developed from the mid-1970s to today. It opens with rarely exhibited photographs and films created while she was still an art student at the State University College at Buffalo from 1972 to 1976.

One early set, from 1976, is titled Unhappy Hooker where Sherman depicts herself as a prostitute waiting for a client.

In Murder Mystery (also 1976) she made a series of black-and-white photos of herself, in each one dressed up in the outfit of a character from a fictional murder mystery play (which she herself wrote) – the butler, the waitress, the rich old lady, the detective etc. Note the stereotyping of the characters.

In November 1976, shortly after she graduated from art school, Sherman created a series titled Cover Girl, in which she takes the covers of five fashion or ‘women’s’ magazines (CosmopolitanVogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle), and transposes her own face (generally pulling a yucky, silly expression) onto the face of the glamour model on the cover. Each work accomplishes the transformation from sensible to satirical in three images, and the five sets of three images are displayed here together for the first time since that heady summer of 76!

In Line-Up (1977) made just after she graduated and just before she moved to New York City, there are thirty-five black and white photos, in each of which Sherman appears, on her own, dressed in costume with make-up, playing thirty-five different characters.

So right from the beginning we can see the patterns emerging in Sherman’s work which will hold true for the rest of her career:

  1. She works in projects or series, all addressing a particular theme or taking a similar approach
  2. All the photos are of herself. There is never anyone else in the photos. But she is always ‘in character’, playing a role.
  3. None of her photos has ever had a title. They are all called Untitled and then given a number. Thus the final photo in the exhibition is named Untitled #549. (They may have brackets added after the number indicating the particular series the image belongs to.) One of the intentions of this is to ‘universalize the particular’, and leave the images open to the widest possible range of interpretations by the viewer.

Untitled Film Stills

Her breakthrough piece was Untitled Film Stills. Building on the previous series but going one big aesthetic step further, Untitled Film Stills is a series of 70 black-and-white photos which Sherman started creating soon after she arrived in New York City in 1977, and which, when they were exhibited, made her reputation. They are also – to give away the plot – in my opinion, by far and away the best thing in the exhibition.

They’re fairly small, portrait-shaped prints, about 18 inches high by a foot wide. In each of them Sherman dresses and poses as a completely different character. So that’s 70 female characters going about their business in the big bad city. Each of the figures is caught in different setting, in apartments, out on the street, in a suburban garden, several appear to be set in a swimming pool.

If there’s a consistent ‘look’ to the photos it derives from 1950s and 60s Hollywood – from film noir, B-movies and, maybe, from European art-house films. Some could be papparazzi shots of unknown celebs. The most obvious vibe they emit is a sense of suppressed anxiety or, in some of the long lens photos of blurred figures, a sense of mystery. Though all that makes them sounds too dark and indoors-y. Many of the best ones are outdoors or in full sunlight.

Untitled Film Still #7 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

A number of things make them great. As compositions, they are all top quality, imaginatively posed, full of detail and interest.

But the really obvious thing is how dramatic they are. They are like stills from a wider drama. You feel the presence of other people just out of the shot, who are about to walk in and say or do something, or else have just left the frame after saying something explosive. They suggest all kinds of possible backstories – who where what why how? – and prompt an incredibly rich response in the viewer, making you imagine all kinds of films and stories and plots of which these are decisive moments and fragments. Each one is like a short story in itself.

The Untitled Film Stills are given a room to themselves early on in the show and – in my humble opinion – it is by far the best room, the one I came back to at the end, once I’d reviewed the entire exhibition, and sat on the bench conveniently provided for visitors, and let my eye wander over the images and my mind – not exactly work out a complete story for each image – but respond to the mood and vibe and possibilities contained in each one.

This idea, of a kind of photo pregnant with meaning, struck me as a wonderful achievement. And doing them as a set hugely contributes to the cumulative effect, creating the sense of an entire world set in this one but, because of the demonstrably false and made-up actor Cindy Sherman featuring centre stage in each photo, both this world and vividly artificial, fake and created.

Bigger

From this point onwards, the remaining eight or so rooms show three things happening to Sherman’s work over the succeeding decades:

  1. the photos go from black and white to colour
  2. they get bigger and bigger until, soon they are four or five foor tall, in the work from the 1990s they are horribly, oppressively huge and, in the final room, have become photo-murals covering entire walls
  3. and, as a result, I felt that – as the photos became more technically adroit in colour and saturation, and evermore grandiose in size – the viewer, and the viewer’s imagination, gets progressively more and more squeezed out of the photos and, eventually, instead of leaning forward and entering her imaginative world, I felt I was cowering backwards and being harangued

Later series

Each of the remaining rooms hangs samples from Sherman’s major series, namely:

Rear Screen Projections (1980-1)

The first series she made in colour, the Rear Screen Projections are also noticeably larger than the Film Stills, about five times bigger. The camera is closer up to her face, which is more subtly made-up to create different characters. The commentary says this greater close-up creates more psychological depth, but I felt there was more imaginative depth in the Untitled Film Stills.

Centrefolds (1981)

In the new larger size, and in the new full colour, Centrefolds are cast in a wide, landscape format which is deliberately reminiscent of the centrefolds of men’s magazines i.e. soft porn. But instead of scantily-clad women arranged to titillate ‘the male gaze’, Sherman’s personas look ill at ease and troubled, women in trouble or some kind of extreme situation. Though referencing magazine culture, some of the images very clearly derive from the aesthetic of film posters or the kind of dramatic stills used to promote movies.

Untitled #92 by Cindy Sherman (1981) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Pink Robes (1982)

A series of big colour photos in which Sherman dresses as an artist’s or photographer’s model, who wraps herself in a pink robe between shots. So the idea is these are off-the-cuff casual moments in a photographer’s studio, with Sherman posing as the bored model.

For the first time in these photos Sherman stares directly at the camera, which led some critics to get over-excited about how we were ‘seeing the real Cindy Sherman for the first time’! This strikes me as taking a strikingly naive view of what constitutes ‘reality’.

Fashion (1983)

In 1983 Sherman was commissioned by New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce advertising images to promote clothes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Sherman responded with photos of herself – in different personas – wearing the clothes alright, but in characters which are obviously abject and neurotic. This was intended as a satirical critique of the shallow superficiality of the fashion world.

The trouble is you cannot satirise fashion. There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which the inhabitants of the fashion world are not completely aware of, but still love. Thus the client loved the photos, so new, so original daaahling.

Vogue Paris (1984)

Sherman received another fashion commission from a French fashion house to provide photos for a shoot for Vogue Paris. She created images of herself made-up to be the models, again wearing the designer clothes alright, but again shooting them in a subversive style, making her look deliberately gawky, clumsy and unhappy. The client loved them. And a glance at her Wikipedia article shows that she has had a long and extensive engagement with the world of fashion, receiving numerous further commissions, designing jewellery and other accessories etc. ‘There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which…’

Fairy Tales (1985)

In this series Sherman dresses up as ‘types’ from fairy tales, in enormous colour photos, heavily made-up to create some really aggressive, scary images. The lighting is (inevitably) more dark and in most of these shots, the settings looking like the forests and gravelly soil of the Germanic Grimm stories – a visual departure for Sherman most of whose photos – you realise – have been set in city streets or urban interiors. In some of them the Sherman personas looking like they’re undergoing real physical ordeals.

Untitled #153 by Cindy Sherman (1985) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

History Portraits (1988-90)

the fairy tale series represents a conscious departure from the urban setting of most of her photos hitherto,

At the end of the 1980s Sherman took a conscious break from dissecting / analysing / subverting contemporary culture and immersed herself in the world of Old Master paintings, including a trip to Rome to see the real thing.

The result was a series of thirty elaborately staged, huge, richly coloured photos in which Sherman appears in a range of costumes and uses prosthetic noses, breasts and other accessories to drastically change her appearance and parody the appearance of male and female royalty and aristocrats, even a madonna and child.

Untitled Film Still #216 by Cindy Sherman, 1989. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

I didn’t like these at all. I thought they were a bad joke in poor taste. I thought they showed a complete lack of empathy with the Middle Ages, Renaissance or Old Master painting. You can’t really dress them up as a feminist ‘reclamation’ of the images as – unusually – half the images are of Sherman dressing up as late medieval men.

Sex Pictures (1992)

In a room by themselves – with a warning that it contains ‘adult content’ – is a set of huge, garishly coloured and disturbing photos of what look like plastic mannequins, cut up and reassembled to emphasise their (generally female) genitals, which – presumably – were specially created for these photos. The general aim is to produce disturbingly transgressive rewrites of porn tropes, and the handful of massive images here certainly are disgusting, showing cobbled-together bits and pieces of fake plastic human bodies, featuring not only vulvas but anuses, penises made of plastic, in one image a string of sausage-like turds proceeding from what looks like a vulva.

As far as I can see, these are the only series in which she does not appear. A very great deal has been written about these pictures, by critics who, apparently, do not understand what pornography is or who it is for. By which I mean they imagine that disassembling the human body into surreal conglomerates of chopped up pieces will act as a once and for all, decisive ‘subversion’ and undermining of the male gaze and pornographic imagery.

How pitifully, it seems to me, they underestimate the baseness of human nature, and woefully underestimate the ubiquitous power of pornography. A few repellent art photos change nothing, nothing at all.

Office Killer (1997)

In the later 1990s Sherman got involved in making films, directing an art movie titled Office Killer released in 1997. One critic called it ‘sadly inept’, others ‘crude’ and ‘laugh-free’. Having produced and directed TV myself, I know there is a world of difference between taking one inspired photo and creating a plausible and effective series of moving shots.

Clowns (2003-4)

Sherman dresses up as a variety of clown types. Obviously all looking miserable and forlorn. The sad reality behind the clown strikes me as being one of the more exhausted, clichéd tropes of all time.

Society Portraits (2008)

A series satirising rich women in high society. The ageing female characters created in these huge colour photos are all using make-up and cosmetics to try and mask the ageing process and, failing in that, emphasise their wealth via fashionable dresses, expensive accessories and to-die-for houses.

Untitled #466 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Presumably these are meaningful if you in any way read about, or are aware of, rich American society ladies – from magazines and high society and gossip columns in newspapers, or from the publicity surrounding fashion houses, or at the openings of new operas or plays or art exhibitions at the Met or New York’s fashionable art galleries. Not engaging with any of this content or people, I saw them less as satire than fictionalised portraits of a social type I’ve been aware of for decades – the swank American millionaire wife – who has been lampooned and satirised for centuries, going back to the so-called Gilded Age (1870s to 1900) and before.

Balenciaga (2008)

Balenciaga is a luxury fashion house, originally from Spain. Echoing her repeated engagement with the world of fashion, and mixing it with the ageing heroines of Society Portraits, Sherman created a series of six enormous, colour digital photos of herself playing the character of an ageing fashion doyenne, a bit like Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. Like I say, this is maybe hilarious or relevant if you give a damn about the world of high fashion or rich-bitch society women – but I don’t.

Untitled #462 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chanel (2012)

Sherman was then commissioned by the perfumier Chanel to record some of their dresses and outfits. Sherman chose to create her biggest works to date, a set of absolutely enormous, wall-sized photos depicting more-than-life-sized women standing alone in enormous landscapes. On closer inspection these landscapes appear to have been either painted in, or digitally altered to have a painterly feel. The landscapes were from both Iceland and the isle of Capri, and I found them, artistically, the most interesting part of the compositions.

Flappers (2016-18)

Sherman dresses up as flappers from the 1920s.

Untitled #574 by Cindy Sherman (2016) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

For completists

If you are a Sherman completist then I can imagine you will be thrilled by the digital version on display here of A Cindy Book, a private album of family photographs that Sherman began compiling when she was eight or nine-years-old, which has never been seen before, and which reveals an early fascination with her own changing appearance.

Similarly, one whole room (in fact it’s the ‘transition’ space between the galleries at the front and the galleries at the back of the building) has been given over to a recreation of Sherman’s studio in New York, with wall-sized photos of her bookshelves, posters and collections of photos torn from glamour magazines and pinned to the wall, and shelves and cupboards full of masks and make-up and prosthetic attachments – all designed to provide ‘an unprecedented insight into the artist’s working processes.’

During the recent big exhibition at the NPG of photos by Martin Parr (which I found much more interesting and fun than Sherman) this space was converted into a working model of a transport caff which actually sold hot tea and cake. It would be funny if, for every exhibition they hold in these galleries, the National Portrait Gallery created a themed eaterie. A Giacometti pizzeria would have been good – imagine how thin the crusts would have been! Or a Cézanne café, with French peasants smoking pipes and playing cards, and a view of Mont Saint Victoire in the distance…

Thoughts

First of all, it is a striking achievement to have made a career out of what is basically one idea.

This is because Sherman has been able to come up with a succession of subjects and topics to each of which she can apply her distinctive, dressing-up approach and each of which are susceptible to rich and stimulating critical interpretation.

Then there’s the quality of the photographs themselves. The wall labels don’t go into as much detail about this as I’d like, but you get the impression that, as digital photography has evolved over the past forty years, Sherman has kept well abreast of all the developments and been able to incorporate each new wave of technology into her trademark concept. The sheer size of prints which modern digital photography enables, with pinpoint focus at every part of the image, becoming the most obvious one, as the exhibition progresses.

To keep mining the same vein and consistently coming up with apparently new and innovative variations on more or less the same theme deserves respect, especially in the shark pool which is the New York art scene.

However, at about this point questions of personal taste begin to intrude. All of the series certainly contained at least several highly impactful and striking photographs. And, unlike me, readers of this post may well like the fairy tale or Old Master or Flapper photos more than the earlier ones. Different people will have different responses.

All I can say is that, as the exhibition advanced through the decades and series, I was less and less engaged and attracted, and slowly became repelled by the sheer size and garish colouring of some of the photos. Way before the porn room I was actively shrinking from these big, shouty images, and I had certainly had enough by the end, and was relieved when I got to the final room with its overpowering wall-sized murals of vague landscapes with a modern woman plonked in front of them. Phew. Duty done, I could stroll back to the early room and enjoy again the marvelous Untitled Film Stills.

As well as feeling more and more repelled by the images, I also quickly disliked the ideas and subjects. Satirising the world of New York fashion, while making a lot of money from working within the world of New York fashion, just struck me as hypocritical and typically… American. If you are American, an American artist or photographer or film-maker, it appears to be very difficult to escape from the vast money-making machine which is American culture.

When it came to the society photos, taking the mickey out of vain, rich, wrinkly old American millionairesses is something I grew up watching the great Alan Whicker do on his TV documentaries back in the 1970s. It just seemed such a very…. old idea.

And lampooning Old Master paintings seemed to me a rather pointless thing to do, particularly when it’s done in such a grim and humourless way. Strapping on a fake plastic boob and spending hours dressing up to look like a madonna and child seemed a peculiarly futile exercise. If you’re going to mock them at least be funny, in the manner of Monty Python or the Horrible Histories. Just pointing out that the real-life kings and queens of that time were probably not as smooth-skinned and luminously handsome as their portraitists depicted them strikes me as being, well, not the most original or interesting idea.

The notes to the porn room made the point for me that her photos heavily referenced the disturbing sexualised mannequins the Surrealist sculptor Hans Bellmer was making back in the 1930s. Well, quite.

The curators suggest that Sherman’s work has never been more relevant than here and now, in the age of the selfie and the internet and Instagram and social media – but I disagree.

Watching my teenage kids and their friends has shown me that all my ideas about images and how they should and shouldn’t be used, assessed and consumed, belong in the Stone Age. The speed and sophistication of modern teenagers’ attitudes to movies, TV shows, stills, photos, ads and selfies is light years ahead of the kind of mainstream, dad culture represented by this exhibition.

For this exhibition – like most of the exhibitions I go to – was mostly populated by mums and dads, mostly filled, as usual, with grey-haired, older, white people, the majority of them women. No doubt some of the visitors have done courses in Critical Theory and Feminist Studies and are conversant with the numberless theories of gender and identity and performance which have been generated over the past fifty years, all of which can be liberally applied to Sherman’s work.

But a) Cindy Sherman’s basic idea – dressing up as ‘characters’ contemporary or historical or from fairy tales, and photographing herself – seems so old-fashioned, so pre-digital, as to be sweet and naive.

And b) I didn’t really believe anything I read in the wall labels about gender and identity and subverting this or that stereotype. In most of the photos she looks like a woman. When she was a young woman, she looks like a young woman, sometimes dressed and posed as a noticeably attractive young woman, pink towel about to fall off her lissom body as in a Kenny Everett sketch.

As she’s grown older, Sherman’s subjects have changed and, for example, the series of photos depicting fictional American women using cosmetics to appear younger than they are… well… that’s actually what millions of ageing American women do, isn’t it? I didn’t see that it was subverting any stereotypes. On the contrary, I thought almost all of her images reinforced the stereotypes so actively produced and disseminated by the mainstream American bubblegum culture which she so constantly refers to (all those compositions which look like scenes from movies) or which she has herself, personally, contributed to (all those fashion shoots).

For me the Untitled Film Stills series was the best series. It was the most modest in aim and so, somehow, the most effective. It had the most mystery and each one of the shots created an imaginative space for the viewer to inhabit and populate as they wished.

You may well disagree and find her later work funny or disturbing or inspiring or bitingly satirical, and I can see how different people – old and young, gay and straight, men or women – might get very different things from her work.

The one thing which is unquestionably true is that this is as definitive and complete an overview of a figure many critics refer to as ‘one of the most important and influential artists of our time’ (the Observer) as we are likely to see in our lifetimes.

So if you want to find out for yourself whether you like some, all, or none of Cindy Sherman’s work, you should definitely go along and check it out for yourself.

Video

This short video by Divento.com gives a good feel for the variety and layout of the exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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