The archaeology of now

When St Pauls and Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh

Recently whilst reading Acrylic Afternoons, Jarvis Cocker’s amusing tale of attempting to row along the River Porter towards the countryside by following the dank and grimy concrete sluice of urban Sheffield I was reminded of a similar hinterland encounter last summer on the edge of suburban Reading and the M4.

Although the phrase Ballardian has long since passed into mainstream culture, it’s a description that’s hard to pin down. However, as we crossed an abandoned road bridge that leapt from the city fringe over the M4 and into the sleepy Berkshire countryside we experienced the notion of a Ballardian space at first hand. Curiously, a linking structure heading northwards towards Reading had been barricaded off and subsequently left unfinished. Perambulators and eager cyclists are still able to traverse its worn concrete span, but the vivid white lines and soft asphalt rapidly begins to crumble and hesitate, barred by cheap steel work. Viewed from above the bridge appears as an apparent glitch in Google’s mapping software.

M4 bridge
(© Google Earth 2011)

Heading further southward into rich farmland the road surface became more fractured, fresh plants eagerly pushed their way up through zig-zag cracks and burgeoning trees wrapped themselves around the jagged crash barriers. Finally, the curious landscape ended with two large flat concrete drums to deter motorised vehicles, standing like megaliths upon the ground. Passing through this decrepit gateway of industrial detritus we traipsed onwards into gentle winding country lanes shaded by swaying foliage, the bridge a potent metaphor for the end of suburbia. Beyond this marker a rural ideal embraced us as we watched a vibrant kingfisher play along a winding river under dappled sunshine.

There are strong parallels here with the 18th century fetish for follies, a melancholy obsession with the fragility of domestic existence. A fake medieval tower ruinous and often implausible, was fabricated like a stage dressing at the fringes of a country estate, to incite both intrigue and allude to mysterious drama. The architect Sir John Soane even commissioned Joseph Gandy to paint his Bank of England as a flame licked ruin, mirroring the glorious classical remains one could view on a Grand Tour of Europe. The aborted bridge is perhaps a potent modern folly lurking within the M4 landscape of JG Ballard’s stomping grounds, of sodium car parks, vapour strewn airports and ghostly high tech business parks. This mythos made real echoes writer Alan Moore’s cult comic series From Hell which concerns an interpretation of the Victorian Ripper legends centred around a royal physician named Sir William Gull. Gull uses ritual magic in order to visualise his role in history,  fabricating a physical manifestation of which can “be said to have an architecture” as he puts it. That is, the character of the mutable events helps shapes their tangible legacy. In this case the character of the city termination informs the strange barrier.

Jarvis’ brave adventure ends with him and his friend abandoning the fragile dingy, approaching Rotherham, terrified of the stagnant water and tired. Pulp’s Wickerman song which references the river episode has the charmingly appropriate part “…but if we go just another mile we will surface surrounded by grass and trees and the flyover that takes the cars to the cities.” These journeys then neatly describe the liminal city, of that metaphysical subjective state located between two worlds.



  1. At a couple of points throughout this piece, mostly the J C (mis)adventure parts, I kept encountering the uncanny.
    What was it? Then slowly surfacing through flu/cold came Ben Jonson, irascible laureate to King James 1/V1.

    It was a piece he wrote, a take on Ulysses’ wanderings, called The Furious Voyage. It was the rendering of a (mis)adventure into the sewers of Elizabethan London, by boat. The liminal of the city indeed!
    As with most ‘perceptions’ of this kind, the juxtaposings never really hang true, but only suggest that ideal match. Suggestion is so powerful, though; I would go so far as to say, that it is (perhaps: I cover my myself, my tracks, my failings) the most powerful of our dynamics.
    I must look into this, which means digging, excavating, remembering, altering my perceptions….

    best wishes


  2. Thank you, the Ben Johnson parallel is thoroughly appropriate. The JC piece comes from a collection in a book called Caught by the River (they have an interesting blog too). JC is a suitably delinquent poet for our times. I shall investigate The Furious Voyage, I do like the idea of a misadventure giving rise to either unexpected creativity or surprise. In turn that has reminded me of various Umberto Eco novels in which the characters invariable dream of their adventures willing them to be real.

    1. Alas you’ll have a hard job finding ‘The Furious Voyage’ by yer man; The Famous Voyage, yes, ending the Epigrammes in the Collected.
      Finding that is maybe an adventure in itself! Ah, the wit.

      You are definately nudging yourself into the river mouth of Calvino and Borges-land here.
      Let Das Narrenschiff takes us all on Rimbaud’s drunken voyage. Yay!
      (Well, I’m up for it!)

      1. That’s a shame. I recall that the excellent BLDGBLOG regularly has articles on mysterious underground caves, passages and subterranean peril as people investigate the strange guts of their city. Oh and yes Calvino’s mighty Invisible Cities has provided so much rich material for us all, well certainly myself, all cities as a story.

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