Central to what you do is the act of walking – in fact you’ve alluded to it bringing about a particular state.
Walking itself, if you have the time to walk for a period of hours, does engender a fugue-like state, which is an interesting thing to achieve. You get into a natural rhythm, establish a dialogue with the landscape, and it brings with it a receptive state of mind for creating fiction or gathering documentary evidence, whatever you might be doing. So in that sense it’s a useful tactic. In another sense it has almost become a radical political act just to walk. The whole political bias in London is moving towards getting people onto bicycles; so you have these rows of blue Barclays-sponsored cycles, and you’re supposed to ride about advertising a disgraced bank that isn’t even putting money into the scheme anymore. Bicycles are taking over the pavements, the canal banks, everything – and of course walking, as a life style, goes to the bottom of the pile, because there’s no way you can exploit the walker. There’s nothing to buy into, nothing can be done with pedestrianism, unless you can get walkers dressed up in sponsored T-shirts advertising some conspicuous charity. Making a designer boast about ecological credentials. The walker is the last anarchist of the city.
There’s a sense that everything, particularly with London, is now scoped out as a branding opportunity.
There’s always a slogan. Improving the image of construction. Working for a better Hackney. People come with their own advert. Even myself: to carry on being published, it only works if I have a brand – and that brand is to do with walking. I find that a little bit depressing. I’m stuck with it, but really that’s only an element of what I’m interested in.
One development with city walking is the way so many people are wired in to electronic devices. Physically they’re moving; mentally they’re not. At Liverpool Street station you can be swept aside by them, coming at you, heads down. Gabbling. Shouting. Jabbing at screens. So all those benefits I’ve been mentioning are no longer part of it. You’re logged in to the supernova digital cloud, speeding away from the sense of a physical locality. It’s eroding the present tense of the act of walking. When you do that, you’re taking everything away.
Devices are powerful in the way they end up changing mass behaviour.
I feel that what I do is already redundant. It’s from another age. There are still a lot of people doing exactly what I do, but it’s not the way the world is configured. The ability to navigate a passage through a large book, or to negotiate a complex structure, is vanishing fast. You want what you want before you know what that is. You want it now. Students who might be looking into the things I do, for an essay or a doctorate, wouldn’t dream of reading the books. They send an email and ask if they can come round, so that I can tell them what I’m on about. Bullet points. Make a recording. Transcribe. Print. Edit.
Just like this, our conversation. I think JG Ballard was the person for whom the interview form, or the transatlantic phone conversation, became as visible as the books. The publication of the Re/Search collection of interviews in 1984 was a significant moment in Ballard’s career. Personality, attitude, archive were as important now as text.