Thursday, 27 September 2012

Millennium People by JG Ballard

Middle-class revolt... Millenium People is a Ballardian examination of the vacuity of bourgeois existence, and the subsequent search for meaning that leads professionals in their thirties and forties to start a random bombing campaign in London.

David Markham, a psychologist living in North London, is drawn into the conspiracy after his ex wife is killed by a bomb at Heathrow Airport. Going under cover, he infiltrates a group of dissatisfied home owners living in Chelsea Marina who, fed up with negative equity and the exorbitant cost of living, have begun to wage a campaign of arson against video stores in the area. Suspecting that they are behind the larger, more deadly explosion at Heathrow, he quickly gets involved, putting smoke bombs onto tape racks in Blockbuster and quickly graduating to helping his new friends set fire to the National Film Theatre.

As the South Bank disintegrates into an inferno, Markham flees the scene, already abandoned by the others. He finds himself on the Millennium Wheel, the perfect observatory for his crimes:

I stepped into the gondola and leaned on the rail overlooking the river, almost too weary to breathe. While we moved along the boarding platform an off-duty waiter swung himself through the door, a tray bearing two champagne flutes in his hand. He placed the tray on the seat and sat beside it, searching his pockets for a cigarette. As we rose above County Hall the fires lit the night air and seemed to burn on the dark water of the Thames. A huge caldera had opened beside Waterloo Bridge and was devouring the South Bank Centre. Billows of smoke leaned across the river, and I could see the flames reflected in the distant casements of the Houses of Parliament, as if the entire Palace of Westminster was about to ignite from within. The waiter pointed to a champagne glass on the tray. Without thanking him, I tasted the warm wine. The bubbles stung my lips, cracked by the fierce heat in the auditorium. I though of the smoke-swept corridors lined with portraits of the film world’s greatest stars. The fires set by Vera Blackburn had taken hold, burning fiercely throughout the NFT, engulfing the smiles of James Stewart and Orson Welles, Chaplin and Joan Crawford. My memories of them seemed to rise with the turning Wheel, escaping from a depot of dreams that was giving its ghosts to the night. I crossed the gondola, my back to the smoking waiter and the Thames, and searched the streets around County Hall. I almost expected to see Kay and Joan Chang darting from one doorway to another as the police cars sped past, sirens wailing down the night. Needless to say, they had escaped without warning me, through the riverside entrance to the theatre café, which they had left open to create a fire-spurring draught. The first smoke had reached the windows of the gondola, laying itself across the curved panes. I began to cough, tasting the acrid vapour that had churned outside the manager’s office. I retched onto the rail, and spilled the champagne over the floor at my feet.

The waiter is in fact Richard Gould, a disgraced doctor who acts as the movement’s Svengali. Markham already suspects how far Gould is prepared to go, the question is, how far is Markham prepared to follow him?

A fantastic and darkly humorous novel, Millenium People also contains this gem from the author in the Q&A at the back:

Q: How do you organize your time? Do you write by timetable? A: Yes. Unless you’re disciplined, all you end up with is a lot of empty wine bottles. All through my career I’ve written 1,000 words a day – even if I’ve got a hangover. You’ve got to discipline yourself if you’re a professional. There’s no other way.

I’ll raise a glass to that.

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