“After a million years or so, those screens are about to be removed, and once they have gone, then, for the first time, men will really know what it is to be alive.” — Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, 1967-2008, ed. Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (2012).
“A fertile imagination is better than any drug.” — Ibid.
• Vermilion Glands — review of The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard (W&N 2011)
I came across the writings of Simon Whitechapel a year ago after picking up the first twenty or so issues of Headpress, a 1990s ’zine that dealt with the relentlessly grim, the esoteric and prurient. His style was fascinating, coming across as intelligent and well-read and — at least from first reading — subtly ironic.
In fact he must have impressed some other people during this time too as Headpress’ Critical Vision imprint spun his collected articles together for publication under the title Intense Device: A Journey Through Lust, Murder and the Fires of Hell — they have all the typical interests that run through Whitechapel’s work — there is an obsession with numerology, with Whitehouse-style distortion music, with Hitler and de Sade. There are also articles on farting, on Jack Chick and novelisations of TV shows. They are fascinating, written in a scholarly way with footnotes aplenty but never difficult to understand. He also wrote two non-fiction works during the late 1990s and early 2000s that centred around sadism and the murder of women in South America. They are dark.
There are also the works of fiction. To say that Whitechapel is transgressive is an understatement. His writing bleeds. The ‘official’ work The Slaughter King is filled with the detailed descriptions of sadistic murder, beginning with a serial killer murdering a gay prostitute whilst listening to distortion-atrocity music. The plot is schlocky but serviceable, jumping around inconsistently but the images it creates are terrifying. A bourgeois dinner party straight out of Buñuel and Pasolini’s nightmares where guests are served poisons as if they were the finest consommés: they eat bees until their faces swell, dropping dead at the table, finishing with a trifle “made from the berries of the several varieties of belladonna, of cuckoo-pint, and of the flowers of monkshood”. It’s a sinister book, but nothing compared to his second work.
Whitechapel wrote The Eyes. This is clear just from a simple comparison between his texts, the fascination with language, with sadism, with de Sade. The thing is, The Eyes is supposedly written by some guy called Aldapuerta, Spanish apparently. ‘Aldapuerta’ can be written Alda Puerta — ‘at the gate’, a telling description of these short stories, which go past this point many, many times. The tale of ‘Aldapuerta’ himself is too exact to be believed: a young boy with an interest in de Sade, corrupted by the local pornographer, medical-school training that honed his knowledge, then a mysterious death (echoing shades of Pasolini’s own) and finishing with the “and he might be baaaack” closer. But this point isn’t really an issue and it’s understandable that Whitechapel would want to keep his name away from this work. It is also surrealistically brilliant at times: amongst the brutality, the images it creates are unforgettable.
Of course, Whitechapel is a fake name, redolent of Jack the Ripper, and even Simon was taken from elsewhere — a colleague perhaps? He disappeared during the 2000s, no longer writing for Headpress, a few self-published chapbooks pastiching Clark Ashton Smith… where did he go? There are the rumours of prison time — they are convincing to my mind, as they too revolve around different identities, around extremity and anonymity. I wonder though, if true, just how much this individual actually believed in them. His most recent writings, at his tricksy blog, hint at this, as well as make his ‘relationship’ with Aldapuerta clearer but it’s not in my ability to directly connect the personas.
If you want to be fascinated and repulsed, then the non-author Simon Whitechapel is for you.
• It’s The Gweel Thing… — Gweel & Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Books, 2011)
“Yo no tomo drogas. Yo soy una droga.” — Salvador Dalí (1904-89).
“I do not take drugs. I am a drug.”
The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard, John Baxter (W&N 2011)
“B” is for Bataille, Burroughs, and Ballard. I’ve never read Bataille, I can’t stand Burroughs, I used to love Ballard. Nowadays I have strong doubts about him. Vermilion Sands, yes. Crash, no. Vermilion Sands is surreal, haunting, funny, endlessly inventive, and extravagantly intelligent. Crash, by contrast, is silly and sordid. The last time I tried to read it I quickly gave up. I couldn’t take it seriously any more. It’s a book for pretentious, wanna-be-intellectual adolescents of all ages who like Dark’n’Dangerous Sex’n’Violence. A book for Guardian-readers, in short – the sort of people who continually use and hear the phrase “in terms of”, who believe passionately in Equality, Justice, and the Fight against Hate, and who desperately, desperately, wished they’d been able to stimulate the largest erogenous zone in their bodies by voting for Barack Obama in 2008.
What is that erogenous zone? Well, though not all liberals are Guardianistas, all Guardianistas are liberals, so the largest erogenous zone in a Guardianista’s body is his-or-her narcissism. Guardianistas are also, alas, the sort of people who write biographies of J.G. Ballard. John Baxter is most definitely a committed component of the core community. As a big admirer of Mike Moorcock, Britain’s biggest bearded Burroughsian lit-twat, how could he not be? This is part of why I now have doubts about Ballard. I don’t like liking things that Guardianistas like and I don’t like the fact that Moorcock was mates (on and off) with Ballard. On the other hand, I do like the fact that Moorcock and the Guardian boosted Burroughs big-time back in the day and that the Guardian now bigs up Cormac McCarthy and his Dark’n’Dangerous Sex’n’Violence. Good, I think: they all deserve each other. Perhaps one day, in some drug-stoked, depravity-soaked über-orgy of trans-transgressive hyper-homoeroticism, they’ll all manage to climb up each other’s arseholes and disappear from history.
But Guardianistas don’t just like Burroughs and McCarthy: they like Ballard too. They write books about him. Fortunately, The Inner Man isn’t a good book. That would have been disturbing, believe me. The dedication is by far the best thing in it: “To the insane. I owe them everything.” And guess whose lines those are? After that, it’s mostly Baxter and mostly dull. When it’s not, you’ll usually have Ballard to thank:
Novels sent to him in hope of endorsement got short shrift. He enjoyed describing the satisfying thump of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as it hit the bottom of the dustbin. (pg. 47) In September 1995, the Observer, for a piece about odd bequests, invited him to answer the question, “What would you leave to whom, and why?” Jim said, “I would leave Andrea Dworkin my testicles. She could have testicules flambés.” Anti-pornography campaigner Dworkin was a close friend of Mike and Linda Moorcock but a bête noire of Ballard’s. (pg. 308)
I think Ballard was right in his cod-bequest for Dworkin and bum’s-rush for Rushdie. And if Baxter had the same sense of humour and mischief, The Inner Man would have been a much better book. Okay, it’s not that bad, because I managed to finish it, but that was disappointing in its own way. I’d almost have preferred a boldly, flamboyantly pretentious Ballard bio full of solecisms and mixed metaphors to a plodding, mediocre one like this. I like sneering at and feeling sniffily superior to Guardianistas. And all I’ve got to go on here are occasional lines like these:
Like another diligent civil servant, he [Ballard] was Agent 00∞: licensed to chill… (pg. 3) But in surrealism, as in most things, Jim was drawn to the extremity, the dangerous edge, the abyss which, as H.G. Wells warned, will, if you stare into it long enough, stare back at you. (pg. 36)
It’s puzzling that Baxter misattributes such a famous quote and that his editors didn’t spot the misattribution. It’s also puzzling that Baxter doesn’t seem to like Ballard much, to be very interested in Ballard’s life, or to be very enthusiastic about Ballard’s writing. Born in Shanghai, incarcerated (and half-starved) under the Japanese during the war, trained as a doctor: Ballard had an unusual early life for a writer and one can only admire Baxter’s ability to keep the interest out of it. Baxter devotes much more attention to Ballard’s time in advertising and life in suburbia. Yes, the contrast between this apparently staid existence and the wildness of Ballard’s veridically visceral visions is interesting, but it’s obviously related to his early experiences in China. Baxter has got those out of the way within the first 26 pages of a 377-page book. When he himself takes visionary flight, he doesn’t do so to Ballard’s advantage. Why did Ballard turn down the chance to be published in “a series of de luxe limited editions of fantasy classics” by Manchester’s most maverick messiahs, “the radical publishing enterprise of Savoy Books”? Baxter conducts an interview with his own imagination and reports back with this:
He may have felt that involvement with Savoy and [David] Britton – who had already served two prison terms under the Obscene Publications and Dangerous Dogs Acts – risked once again placing him in hazard, as had been the case with “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”. (pg. 321)
Eh? Yes, he “may”, but simpler explanations are to hand. Either way, Baxter says the rejection meant that “a sense of grievance” now “permeated his relationship with” the messianic Mancas. Again: Eh? The grievance would have been one-sided, there was never much of a relationship, and although Savoy “put a lot of effort” into persuading Fenella Fielding to record extracts from one of Ballard’s books (no prizes for guessing which), they put in the effort without first asking Ballard if he was interested. When the recordings were made and they did ask, he “refused to cooperate”. It was now that grievance began to permeate the relationship.
Reading about this important episode in Ballard’s career, I felt another feeling begin to permeate me. A familiar feeling. Yes, “S” is for Savoy (B), Sontag (S), and Self (W). All three turn up in this biography, variously offering to publish Ballard, heaping praise on him, and having dinner with him. All three are part of the Guardianista demographic in one way or another: Self nails his colours firmly to the gasbag when he speaks of a “scintilla” of an “affectation” that forms an “armature” (pg. 341). All three add to my doubts about Ballard. If people like that like him, should I like him too, like? I think if Ballard had been born ten or twenty years later, the question wouldn’t arise. A younger Ballard would have been sucked fully into the macroverse of Guardianista subversion, radicalism, and counter-cultural twattishness and I’d never have liked him at all. As it was, he was too big to entirely fit. Crash got sucked and does suck. Vermilion Sands didn’t and doesn’t.
And this biography? Well, it could have been much worse. Yes, it’s dull but that may be partly because Ballard himself is such an interesting and memorable writer. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the danger in literary biographies is that the biographee is likely to be a better writer than the biographer. The implicit comparison will always be there and Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life (2008), is likely to remain better, and briefer, than anything a biographer ever turns out. But Baxter tells you about things that Ballard doesn’t, possibly because they’re not true. Like the air of menace Ballard could project and his occasional violence towards his girlfriend Claire Walsh, who “appeared at parties with facial bruises, usually hidden between sunglasses” (pg. 187).
And “girlfriend” is the word: Baxter reports that Ballard “always” and “anachronistically” used it of Walsh (pg. 171), rather than (he implies) the smarmy Guardianista “partner”. Good for Ballard. But bad for Ballard in terms of engagement with issues around the bruises, if true. As George Orwell said:
If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear. (“Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí”, 1944)
It would have been better that Ballard hadn’t punched his girlfriend, just as it would have been better that Caravaggio hadn’t been a murderer. But if they hadn’t been violent men, with more than a touch of psychosis, they might not have produced such interesting art. I don’t think Ballard is as significant a figure in European art as Caravaggio, and even if he is, he and his art won’t have as much time to be significant in. One way or another, Europe is now entering its final days. We are about to reap the whirlwinds so diligently sown for us by the Guardianistas and their continental cousins. And science is busy measuring mankind for its coffin. Ballard saw and wrote about parts of this future, but I now prefer his surreal side to his sinister and his dreams to his depravity. It’s bad, v. bad, that Will Self hails Ballard as “My single most important mentor and influence.” But Self (thank Bog) didn’t write this biography. He didn’t write Vermilion Sands either. He couldn’t. Ballard could and did. He could and did write other good stuff. I don’t love him any more, but, despite the Guardian and the Guardianistas, I will continue to read him. Lucky Jim, eh?
One afternoon, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I was standing in the queue for the children’s counter in a library in Davyhulme in Manchester. I was carrying four or five books and an older girl read out the title of the one that happened to be on top: Uncle and the Treacle Trouble.
It was meant to make me feel stupid, but it didn’t much. Don’t judge a book by its cover – or its title. Like Uncle and Claudius the Camel or Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown, Uncle and the Treacle Trouble might sound twee and childish: in fact, it’s one of the cleverest, funniest, most surreal children’s books ever written. The six books in J.P. Martin’s Uncle series deserve to join Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh among the classics, delighting both children and adults all around the world. Alas, they never have and probably now never will. That gives them a cult cachet, of course, but I’d rather have less cult and more cash for the publishers willing to re-issue them.
How to describe them? “Alice in the Willows” is one way: they combine the surreal invention of Alice in Wonderland with the proper stories of Wind in the Willows. Anthropomorphic animals have odd and interesting adventures. Uncle is a Trunkle: a millionaire elephant living in a city-sized castle with lots of other walking, talking animals. And with humans too, like his loyal librarian Will Shudder, his horticulturalist Butterskin Mute, and the Badfort Crowd, Uncle’s sworn and socialist enemies. Another way of describing the books is to say they might have written by J.G. Bilne or A.A. Mallard: imagine mixing the vivid surrealism of J.G. Ballard with the sun-kissed camaraderie of A.A. Milne. Or the snow-cloaked camaraderie. The Uncle books are set in all the seasons and appeal to all the senses, including the sense of wonder. Martin’s surreal invention is actually oneirography: in part, the books are transcriptions of his dreams.
That’s one reason I would put them above Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. I like all of those books, but they don’t create worlds as large, crowded, and endlessly detailed as the dream-world of Uncle, which has no borders and no barriers. Lewis Carroll’s invention can seem contrived or even didactic. He distorts the real world and plays games with it. Grahame and Milne verge on cosiness or never leave it at all, some would say. Martin doesn’t contrive or do cosy, and his hero has feet of clay. “See that pompous humbug Unc/On the platform raise his trunk…” sing the Badfort Crowd, down but not out after Uncle has thwarted another of their schemes, and they’re right: Uncle, though good and kind-hearted, is pompous. If you wanted to get Nietzschean about it, you could say Uncle represents the calm and ordered world of the Apollonian and the Badfort Gang the chaotic and destructive forces of the Dionysian. But that would probably be taking things too far. Uncle is nearer whimsy than wildness. I would like to know more about J.P. Martin’s education, but if he was influenced by Greek and Roman mythology, he adapted it for a cooler climate and more muted skies. Apollo and Dionysus may do battle in his books, but they do so in the hall of Hypnos, god of sleep. Reading J.P. Martin is like dreaming awake.
But you’ll have sweet dreams, not sour ones: if Martin ever had angst-ridden or ugly dreams, he didn’t transcribe them into his books. He can also, like the late, great Peter Simple, invoke the “mysterious urban poetry” of slag-heaps and abandoned factories. Perhaps Simple, born in 1913, was a fan of Martin, born in 1879, or perhaps they both drew on the same gentle, subtle English traditions of nonsense, whimsy, and satire. Either way, I would place Martin above even Simple. Both are dead now, but the written word, more lasting than bronze, allows their souls to sing on.
Gweel & Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Books, 2011)
Oh no. Say it ain’t so, Shmoe. I thought we’d heard the last of this vile piece-a-shit after his richly deserved execution for hate-crimes – inter alia, he’d claimed that maverick underground editor Dave Kerekes was a M*n *td f*n, that über-maverick gay aesthetician John Coulthart was a G**rd**n-r**d*r, and that post-über-maverick cultural titan Alan Moore had a *ea**. He might, just might, have got away with double-life for those first two crimes against humanity… but fortunately one of the last acts of the righteous New Labour government in Britain had been to pass a law mandating death for any and all forms of pogonophobia. Accordingly, Whitechapel’s attempted genocide against Alan M. earnt him the electric Blair (don’t ask, or you might feel a twinge of sympathy even for a depraved speech-criminal like Whitechapel).
Anyhows, that SHOULDA been the last we’d ever hear of him. No such luck. Either some deluded disciple’s been on the ouija board or the astral, or Whitechapel left material to some deluded disciple for posthumous publication, like a final fetid fart from a putrefying, maggot-infested corpse. It’s difficult to know where to begin hinting at how hateful’n’horrible this book is – “hint” is all I’m gonna do, because I’ve got something Whitechapel obviously never came within a million miles of acquiring, namely, a social conscience. Did you ever read anything and then feel as though you needed to take a looooong shower? Me too. More’n once. But it’s never been as bad as this. I felt as though I needed a shower after the first word of the first sentence of the first story in Gweel. That’s how reprehensible’n’repulsive this book is in terms of issues around feralness’n’fetidity. I’ve read Sade, I’ve read Guyotat, I’ve read Archer – I have never read anything that made me despair of life and humanity the way Gweel did. And still does. I’ll lay it on the line: I am completely and uncompromisingly in favor of absolute and unconditional freedom of speech – except for racists, sexists, and homophobes, natch – but I would gladly see Gweel burned and its ashes ground to powder before being encased in concrete and blasted off for a rendezvous with the all-cleansing fusional furnace of Father Sol himself.
Why? Well, I’m not gonna tell you the worst of what’s within – I’m not even sure I know the worst, given that I couldn’t get some pages unstuck after I threw up on the book halfway thru the second paragraph of that first story – but how’d’ya like these little green apples?:
The suggestion that prime numbers like 17, 31, and 89 could be used as hallucinogenic drugs (as made in the story “Tutu-3”)? Or the suggestion that the digits of √2 somehow encode a Lovecraftian pastiche about two archaeomysteriologists descending to the bottom of the Atlantic in a bathysphere, drinking “whisky-laced coffee” as they go (as in “Kopfwurmkundalini”)? Or how’s about the über-esoteric hidden channel that some prisoner discovers on an old TV and that, left playing overnight, coats his cell in gold-and-scarlet lichen (as in, er, “Lichen”)? And I don’t even like to recall, let alone mention, the microscopic red mite in “Acariasis” and the Martian musings it prompts in another “banged-up” protagonist. As for “Beating the Meat” and “Santa Ana City Jail” – let’s leave it at the titles, shall we? You don’t wanna go there. I have, and I wish to God I hadn’t.
Yeah, I also wish Whitechapel could be brought back to life… and sentenced to death all over again for what he’s done to H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, and Ramsey Campbell. As a committed fan of all three, I can’t tell you how horrified and disgusted I was to see their influence all over Gweel. It was like sipping and savoring a glass of fine wine, then discovering that someone had been washing his syphilitic dick in it. And then some. If you try reading this, Jesus will sob on Mary’s shoulder and Satan will high-five Mephistopheles. Trust me. If you possibly can, get the full width of the planet between yourself and any copy of Gweel that survives the sweep that will begin as soon as I’ve dialled my local hate-crime hotline. (Reviewed by Peter Sotos.)