Monday, April 20, 2009

JG Ballard 1930-2009

Portraits of the author (by tim2ubh)
JG Ballard, probably the greatest British novelist of the 20th century, died yesterday after a long battle with prostate cancer. He's been a huge influence on and inspiration for my own non-commercial work (writing and photography), and in recent years I've been an irregular contributor to the Ballardian website. The site editor, Simon Sellars, asked me to write something as part of the tribute to the man and his work. I sent the following.

I first read JG Ballard when I was 12 or so, after picking up 'Crash' (with that lurid orange Chris Foss cover) at a village hall jumble sale. I occasionally wonder to what degree this might have affected my development.

Over the next decade or so, I picked up a few other titles, but none hit me with quite the same force. I just wasn't struck by that intensity, that outrageous lucidity, which radiated from that battered paperback. But I gradually started to appreciate the subtler qualities of the writing, the humour, and the semi-detached perception. Gradually, his books started to just make sense to me. By the time I was living in a tiny flat in the dullest part of south London, barely writing a first novel and trying to find that elusive first job in journalism, I was a devotee.

So sometime round autumn 1996, I was thinking Ballardian thoughts as I trundled through the South Croydon wastelands towards an interview at some obscure trade journal. At the interview, the editor noted that, according to my desperately padded CV, I was working on a novel. 'Oh yeah,' he said. 'JG Ballard used to work here.' I got the job.

That's basically my Ballardian claim to fame - I used to do JG Ballard's old job at 'Chemistry & Industry'. Well, more or less - he was deputy editor, a role that didn't exist in my time, while I was production assistant and reporter. The magazine was still at the same premises on Belgrave Square, surrounded by the same pubs and curved balconies of concrete hotels, and my desk was certainly old enough to pre-date the 1950s. I felt a certain kinship.

The one time I met the man himself was in February 1998 at the ICA, where he was talking about movies with David Leland. Afterwards, Ballard stayed on stage to chat with anyone who wanted to jump up and say hello, even as the ICA staff tried to clear the room for the next event. I said I was doing his old job and showed him my business card. He briefly reminisced about his own time there, and seemed genuinely pleased and interested to hear how things were going, some four decades after.

My plan to follow in his footsteps by rapidly finishing an acclaimed novel or two, then quitting work to write in creative seclusion, never quite worked out. But he remained an inspiration, in work and life. That long-unfinished first novel definitely bears his influence (along with Norman Mailer, another recent loss), though possibly not in ways detectable to anyone else. As an intensely visual writer, he's also a constant presence when I'm out taking photographs. Whether in stories or pictures, that influence comes from his unique way of seeing - that forensic examination of the landscapes of the late 20th century, the disasters and psychopathologies, the art and the technology. That medically-trained analysis of the nature of the catastrophe, and the acceptance of it all.

Ballard's also proved a near-infallible guide to a parallel world of literature (though, personally, I still can't be bothered with Self or Amis Jr). Any book I might find while scavenging secondhand shops which carries an adulatory blurb from the man gets added to the pile. Equally, I've found various writers (from Nathanael West to John Gray) by other routes and been greatly impressed by them, only later finding that they're also favourites of Ballard's. And of course you could build a library out of the many other writers, artists, musicians and film-makers who've acknowledged their deep debts to the man.

Unlike many of the other folk adding their tributes here, I'm not a literary critic or academic (nor, to be honest, would I wish to be). I'm a fan, though I wish there was another word for that. And through my developing fascination with the man's work, I've been privileged to meet, drink, and make friends with a whole bunch of fantastically creative and intelligent people, of all ages and professions, from as near as Sheffield to as far as Australia, who've all been equally enthused in their own idiosyncratic ways.

Apart from the infinitely explorable mass of his writing, I think maybe that's the legacy of JG Ballard - the dispersed generations of people who might call themselves, in whatever sense, Ballardians. The readers for whom his writing and his vision just made sense. The saddest realisation is that there'll be no more.

Ballard's Chinese restaurant (by tim2ubh)

Pics: (Top) Set of photos by Donovan Wylie for an unpublished magazine profile of JG Ballard, on show at the 'Autopsia del nou Mil.leni' exhibition at CCCB, Barcelona, October 2008.
(Above) JG Ballard's childhood home at 31a Amherst Avenue in Shanghai's old international settlement, now the SH508 restaurant, October 2008.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

On the futility of carbon trading

The New Scientist has a provocative comment piece on the shortcomings of carbon trading from Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation:

Unless the parameters for carbon markets are set tightly in line with what science tells us is necessary to preventing runaway warming, they cannot work. That palpably did not happen with the ETS, which initially issued more permits to pollute than there were emissions and now, in the recession, is trading emissions that don't exist - so-called hot air.
Carbon markets cannot save us unless they operate within a global carbon cap sufficient to prevent a rise of more than 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures.
Governments are there to compensate for market failure but seem to have a blind spot about carbon markets. They could counteract the impact of low carbon prices by spending on renewable energy as part of their economic stimulus packages, yet they have not done so. The UK, for example, has spent nearly 20 per cent of its GDP to prop up the financial sector, but just 0.0083 per cent in new money on green economic stimulus.
Price mechanisms alone are unable to do the vital job of reducing carbon emissions. They are too vague, imperfect, and frequently socially unjust.

It's more than just a criticism of current trading schemes, it's pretty much a broadside against a large portion of environmental economics. I await the response, not least from these guys.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Without the hot air

Inspired by the glowing review in the Economist, I've just been reading David MacKay's Sustainable Energy - without the hot air (available as a book through the usual sources, or as a free download under a Creative Commons licence). Like the Economist, I'd strongly recommend the book for anyone interested in sustainable energy.

MacKay might seem like an unlikely person to write such a book - a physics professor from Cambridge, he's primarily a specialist in information theory, with a sideline in international development. It's maybe that off-centre viewpoint that allows him to use some simple tools from physics and maths to address the most basic question - can renewable (or, at least, sustainable) sources replace fossil fuels for the UK?

Along the way, he demolishes some of the wilder, waftier claims of industry boosters and environmental campaigners, as well as many of the tedious objections of the climate change deniers and do-nothings.

It's mostly to do with totting up the energy consumption and potential renewable resources for the UK, based on pretty basic material considerations. There's very little about what would usually be considered as the economics of the problem - the marginal costs, externalities, public preferences, game theories, discounted cost-benefit analyses, etc - but the book is, at heart, pure economics: how we can make best use of limited resources to achieve a social goal.

I've written a longer review over at Clean Ventures.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009


I picked up the launch issue of the new UK edition of venerable US tech culture mag Wired. It's a curious rebirth.

The original UK edition ran from 1995-97, expiring before the dotcom bubble began to inflate. Check out Phil Gyford's covers gallery on Flickr - I got quite a buzz of nostalgia. This was around when I was training and starting work as a journo. I recall phoning their London office in early '96 to ask for a work placement, and getting knocked back by one of the staffers, the now rather famous Hari Kunzru.

In the years since then, I'd occasionally pick up the US edition. So I was very interested to see how the new local incarnation turned out.

First impressions: at 186 pages with a thick multi-fold cover, it's a fair bit thicker than the last US issue I read, though not as doorstop-like as the mag at its bubbly peak. But I wonder how much of the advertising was paid for at full rates.

Visually, the cover is cluttered and dim and hardly leaps off the shelf - not a great choice of image (a twilight cityscape) or tagline ('Your life in the future.' - is that the best they could come up with?). Also, the cover's printed on horrible, scrapey textured paper - it's probably a personal dislike, but it really didn't make me want to actually have the mag in my hands. The inner page design also doesn't quite have the practiced style of the US edition - though, mercifully, they do avoid that US practice of hiving off the last few pages of each feature into a spartan back section (another pet hate).

Content-wise, it also seems a little off. Unforgivably for a title which is supposed to be at the cutting edge, the first item in the zeitgeisty 'Start' section, a double-page splash of a CGI flooded London, dates from last July (possibly this was a tit-for-tat between the mag and the agency responsible who also provided the cover art). Otherwise it's all similar stuff to the parent, though maybe less self-assured. A few items could fit as well in any other bloke mag, while others (the 'Fetish' section of elaborately photographed hi-fi kit, including Bad Science-worthy £170 cables that come with a CD that 'demagnetises the cables, removing interference'; and another six pages of supercomputer cabling porn) seem more like Barleyesque pastiche.

The lead feature, a scrappy assemblage of predictions from a panel of professional futurists and such, won't startle anyone. I'd guess it's meant as a statement piece for the relaunch, but it just seems a painfully obvious thing to do. John O'Reilly's piece on 'life-tracking' (keeping an online record of the minutiae of your daily existence) is more interesting, but possibly for the wrong reasons - it all seems more like a personality disorder than the exciting new trend it's painted as.

Worryingly for the mag's potential future as a UK title, the most interesting articles are the ones reprinted from the US edition, including the very good one by Felix Salmon on Li's copula, aka 'the formula that brought down the global economy' (which I'd already read the previous month); and the riproaring 'Cowboys of the deep' piece by Joshua Davis, first published in February and already optioned as a movie. Nice to see them again, but surely a large part of the target audience will already have read them in the US mag, which has been widely available over here? There's also Andrew Corsello's hagiography of Elon Musk, recycled from Conde Nast stablemate GQ.

There's some fairly big name columnists, but the sheer ubiquity of people like Susan Greenfield, the always faintly ludicrous Alain de Botton and the rather tired Warren Ellis (who might have been an interesting choice about 10 years ago when he was walking off Hellblazer) means that there's very little reason to buy the mag to read their thoughts, which is surely the whole point of columnists.

It's good to see this ambitious popular tech title back on the racks, but I do think it'll have to up its game to survive, particularly in the current market. And for all the excitement about Web2.0 (or whatever it's called this week), one has to wonder whether the target readers for WiredUK2.0 are too wrapped up in their TwitFaceSpotified social meedja networks to actually go out and buy anything as old-fashioned as a paper magazine.