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.
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.