Madlands: attempts to (re-)enact JG Ballard’s novel Concrete Island

I lie down in the overtaking lane of the A14, Westbound between Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket. Immediately, distant and approaching traffic rasps. I stand, and glide to the embankment. A summer dawn, 1996.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the publication of JG Ballard’s novel Concrete Island, in which architect Robert Maitland crashes his car on a traffic island caught between overpasses and barriers, and finds himself marooned.

A child, I’d watched a profile of Ballard on daytime television while kept away from school, unwell. It referred, of course, to the novels Concrete Island, Crash, and High-Rise – words and images that never left me. Decades later, I sit on a carefully-landscaped roundabout in Cambridge, a drunken picnic with friends amid roaring traffic. Perhaps it was at my suggestion; details remain unclear.

A likely inspiration for Maitland’s island has been identified in an article by Mike Bonsall on the Ballardian site as an area by London’s Westway interchange with the West Cross Route. I wanted to see for myself.

In the novel Maitland remembers a case of wine in the boot of the car, and drinks. I grab whatever’s left in the flat and leave. A half-bottle of gin vanishes into a deep overcoat pocket.

Emerge from Latimer Grove station: the Lancaster West Estate, multi-storey municipal housing, walkways to the sky. Two super-strength lager pundits on a bench, bellowing. The island, or rather ground enmeshed by the intersecting Westway, West Cross Route, London Overground railway, and the A219 (Wood Lane), is reached through another estate, the Silchester West. Fences cage football pitches, lads in Premiership strips are playing, calling for passes.

Maitland’s waist-high grass wilderness between the flyovers is replaced by waist-height brickwork flowerbeds, shrubs, benches, grass and brickwork paving. It’s well-tended, and a wooden sign informs that it is the handiwork of the Westway Green Community.

Beside Gauntanamo-tall fencing is the Westway Sports Centre, beneath an opening in the thundering canopy of flyovers. Basketball courts, clay tennis courts, a gym, cricket nets, indoor and outdoor climbing, a swimming pool, and handball – a sport previously unfamiliar but on TV for the London 2012 Olympic Games. The din of the overhead traffic is merciless.  Image

Pillars of suburban jacuzzi girth hold aloft the highways. They’re freshly painted up to half way, to thwart graffiti. This instead covers a wall shared with an industrial estate next door. Kids in t-shirts lounge on the ground watching a peer’s efforts.

Further in and sand underfoot, spilling over from a paddock, wooden fences. A young girl on horseback is taught in front of a handful of murmuring parents and other children. Step out from under the concrete into blazing sunlight. A dusty sign lists Stable Way Industrial Estate as car yards, mechanics, a printer, finished off with a travellers’ site. No wilderness here. A train blasts past.

Back out through Silchester West, a pair of legs in blue jeans and trainers poke out from some low bushes. A weighty young man, passed out, sweating.

Approaching the island from the West, by the BBC studios, the only way in is through a zone of garages, scrapyards, and a secure storage facility. Hundreds of cars, minibuses, coaches, and vans, parked, some in regiments beneath the Westway. Dust, corrugated lean-tos, cash-in-hand-land. A tower of crumbling containers, rusted deep Lucozade. Men toiling under motors, waiting in doorways, striding by in hi-viz, wary gaze. Up a slope, more fences and shacks, then a timber structure – a Scandinavian lakehouse comes to mind – but here?

The island is no more; Maitland is imprisoned elsewhere these days. Where? A long shot, but Google shows a tongue of caramel-coloured steppe lazing between the A102 Blackwall Tunnel Approach and a road leading up to the O2, the former Millennium Dome. During my visit re-named the North Greenwich Arena for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, due to sponsorship regulations.

A gasworks, fences, CCTV, landscaping, glass-and-steel redevelopment, the biggest security operation on the planet. What was I thinking? Cut onto a side street: three grubby white lorry trailers, propped up, no tyres. A dirty-bomb deal abandoned mid-handshake, rapid-response Olympics clipboards catching even terrorists off guard, towing vehicles without the right permits in seconds.

Enough: I turn back towards the stately pleasure Dome but veer off, intrigued by the gloomy depots of a riverside trading estate. Lombard Recycling Ltd: Document Destruction. Shredded paper confetti lines the gutter. Closer to the arena, with better river views, the land is acquired for development, flattened, heaps of gravel and parked dumptrucks await finance. I have arrived on the surface of Mars: fine grey-brown dust coats everything, and billows underfoot to leave prints. Image

Maitland’s island must be on the outer fringes, no longer central, but borderland.

Junction 4 of the M1, the interchange with the A41 Watford Bypass and the A5, Brockley Hill. A sapling on an embankment bears the memorial Our Zoe 17.01.79 – 26.04.10.

Behind the interchange’s filling station is a landscaped business park: WELCOME TO CENTENNIAL PARK 24 HOUR CCTV / SECURITY. Turn away from this commuter belt endeavour at Ballard’s Super-Cannes complex. Already a sore throat is developing from the constant fumes. The weather sours, clouding over.

Between the parallel lines of the bypass and the M1 is a strip of land, 40 yards wide, half a mile long, an island enclosed by speeding highways. Darting between bursts of traffic, the pavement frays with each step toward this territory where the 20th century remains unfinished.

A gap in a wooden fence, unrepaired since a crash: moss covers twisted metal strips. On one side, through trees, scrub and fly tipping is the drone of the M1. On the other is a ribbon of litter and grass, soft underfoot from moles. Then a crash barrier, the thrash of the bypass, another barrier, wild grey-brown weeds taller than a tall man, and high metal fencing for the CENTENNIAL PARK.

Thistles, plastic bottles, cigarette packets. A young couple walking a dog. A solitary flip-flop, greening with age; a Styrofoam cup, veined with dirt, a failed biodegrade. Image

Watling Farm Close, private road, residents only. Who lives here? A dusty road leads to a tunnel beneath the M1, then turns out of sight. Sign on the open traffic gate: CAUTION DOG RUNNING FREE. No thanks. I’ve learned while delivering leaflets in council tower blocks to pay attention to signs, to beware of the dog. Beside this track a mattress, upended sink, car bumper. A lone glove, lifelessly pointing.

Onwards: Hertfordshire Constabulary has installed a sign requesting information about a collision. Sign: DIVERSION END. A heap of branches piled up beneath a strange, spindly grey tree seems a Ray Mears bush shelter. I sense something not quite right about it, a shrine to an unnatural death perhaps, and move on.

A roundabout approaches, island’s end. Another tunnel beneath the M1 banishes sunlight, a minor cathedral, traffic provides echoes of devotional chanting. A large panel of some sort leans against the wall, another shelter. Was Maitland here? A fit of coughing overtakes me, drowned out by the deafening commuter rush.

Out the other side, and an overgrown footpath that may once have been tarmac beside a metal fence, screening a reverberating hiss from an installation of thick yellow pipes. Time to turn back. I spot a bicycle seat, chewed, discarded, by something, or someone. In search of more evidence, I head inland: under these trees the traffic rasp is softened, a careful whisper. The ground is highly collapsible, mined by moles. Right next to the pounding weight of the M1.

My teeth are filthy, furred by hours of exhaust. Time for the gin. I raise the bottle, toasting trees that are comatose with carbon dioxide.

Over the interchange and down Brockley Hill. A vision of London’s sprawl washed in grey haze, tiny white pillars as tower blocks.

The sore throat is gone. Traffic heaves by, blasting out, incredibly, leaf-green oxygen. This is odd.

Mustard yellow roadsign denoting a new housing development: Bentley Grove. Named after the classic car, or perhaps the aspiration of a junior development manager for Barratt Homes. More mustard signs: Evolution; plus marketing suite. At a roundabout all is revealed as an executive apartment block – to my fevered mind resembling a car engine, balconies as moving parts, valves. The evolution of domicile into automobile. Beside a business complex, or an enormous Barratt Homes marketing suite.

In a 1974 interview with David Pringle, Ballard said: “What’s so interesting about the technological landscape is the way it plays into people’s hands, people’s worst motives.”

The above makes grateful use of JG Ballard; The First Twenty Years, edited by James Goddard and David Pringle (Bran’s Head Books Ltd, 1976), excerpt re-printed in a 2011 edition of Concrete Island published by Fourth Estate.   Image


About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher
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