Monday, July 11, 2011

Non-alterations to a suburban house

Appropriately enough in a week when I've been discussing the secret lives of ordinary homes, J G Ballard's infamously normal semi-detached house in Shepperton has appeared discreetly on the market. A news story in the Independent (first tweeted by architect David Knight) led me to a quick search of estate agent Haart's website where the 1930's crittal windowed semi-d is for sale, a snip at just £319,950.

Both the Independent story and the advert have a lot of inadvertently amusing things about them, not least the comment from a neighbour that "I doubt many people will have heard of him", referring to the best-selling and highly influential novelist who died in 2009. But the thoroughly ordinary nature of the advert is entirely appropriate to the myth that built up around Ballard's life. The fact that he lived a life of improbable anonymity in suburban Shepperton has been the subject of endless speculation by admirers of his extraordinary and futuristic writing, almost to the point of overkill. 

Writers like Iain Sinclair and Martin Amis, along with countless others, have attempted to find meaning in Ballard's choice of house and his ability to live there quietly with his three children, as if it were a form of ironic commentary on his early science fiction writing. Its absolute ordinariness has itself been described as "Ballardian", a shorthand for the inexplicably strange aspects of contemporary life that seem to pass us by almost unnoticed. Such writers seem to long for Ballard to have lived in a high-rise overlooking the Westway or even a travel lodge on the edge of an industrial trading estate.

Image: Alterations to a suburban house, 1978, by Dan Graham.

Ballard's writing has never been about suburbia particularly either, certainly not in the English lit tradition of satirising the lives lived there. So what else can be gleaned by looking at pictures of the house on Old Charlton Road? That Ballard wasn't much of a gardener? Or an enthusiast for DIY, given the original Crittal windows and authentically 1930's front doorway. 

But the house's significance is always held to lie in what it's not rather than what it is. It seems to resist analysis, offering instead a stunningly blank container that, like the artist Dan Graham's Alterations to a suburban house, merely reflects our projections back at us.

Ballard was a rarity in English writing, a conceptualist who used avant-garde techniques of collage and displacement to make startling and disturbing work. My favourite example of his writing is Princess Margaret's Facelift (taken from the Atrocity Exhibition), a short story of sorts which substitutes a minor member of the Royal Family's name for an anonymous 'patient x' within a medical textbook description of a plastic surgery operation. And here might be a key to the lack of symbolism to be found in Ballard's choice of house. Like the textbook that forms the basis of Princess Margaret's Facelift, his language purports to have no obvious marks of authorship. It is transparent and seemingly without value, or signature.

Given that, his house might have been just another everyday fragment adopted for convenience, a sampled piece of the ordinary life. Then again he may just have liked living there. It would also make an odd kind of sense that, as seems likely, someone who has indeed never heard of Ballard might choose to live there. Or, perhaps, following Ballard archivist Simon Sellers suggestion, an international group of enthusiasts will club together to buy it and, like the fabulously rich autobiographical interior Sir John Soane's museum, the house on Old Charlton Road's utterly normal spaces will be studied for elusive and opaque meaning for centuries to come.

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