A blog for everything bookish

Sunday, 6 March 2016

It's been a while

It's been a while since I've posted anything here. I had this crazy idea that I would focus on my writing rather than blogging, as though those were different things. Needless to say, I've written less than ever. So I'm back blogging, but I've moved myself over to Wordpress and will be closing this blog down. So if you're interested, please join me over at Wordpress. I have two sites, neither of which are regularly serviced. No promises, in other words.

Look forward to seeing you on the other side.

Bii's (new) Books :
A Life More Ordinary:

Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Every book is a kind of encounter, an encounter with the mind of the writer and whatever it is about themself that they choose to reveal. Some reveal more than others. Some reveal themselves by accident, or unintentionally, trying to disguise themselves in the intricacies of their stories. Yet the writer is always there, waiting to be revealed in the rhythm of their words, in the parts of the story they feel to be important. In the case of Rebecca Solnit there is no thin disguise of fiction; if anything in her personal essays she is quite palpably present, as though you are watching her through the false privacy of a webcam she doesn’t know is operating. Except she does. It is a brave way of writing rarely seen, brave and honest and vividly intelligent. I always feel my mind has been expanded when reading Solnit, like the world I have been watching so jadedly has suddenly revealed an scene of such impeccable beauty that I revel in it like a child. It is rare to encounter writing which affects me so forcefully.

Image result for the faraway nearbyIn The Faraway Nearby, Solnit explores a duo of personal dramas which shaped a period of her life: her mother’s descent into Alzheimers and her own, almost simultaneous, encounter with cancer. Both events had a profound effect on Solnit’s experience, both events serve now as fodder for her relentless exploration of the world, of herself, of human experience. There is, always, so much packed into these short essays by Solnit that it is breathtaking, impossible to condense into a pithy (or not) little review. The tracks her mind follows are extraordinary: the delivery of an abundance of apricots stripped from her mother’s tree lead her to Alzheimers, to her difficult relationship with her mother, the way it had shaped her, her disappearance into books which leads to books which include doorways as means of escape or deliverance or discovery, to the merits of reading, to what it means to read and to write, to Frankenstein, to ice and glass, to Iceland, to darkness and light, to isolation, to leprosy. To each subject Solnit brings a sharp eye and an intelligence which, frankly, dwarfs the capacity of most.

What strikes me most about Solnit’s writing, aside from her crippling intelligence and precision skill, is how so often she puts into succinct words the things I find most difficult to express. Like here, when she talks of writing:  

“Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matter that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Everyone once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to must in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers.”

This feels so true, and it is so true of my own experience. I have always, I think, found it most powerful to express myself in writing. Verbal communication, to me, seems so awkward, so fraught with the unsaid with the said so filled with alternate and unstated meaning, that words turn to ash in my mouth and it is easier, or more true, to say nothing. And there is always that feeling that if you said what you really mean, if you talked about the things that really mattered, that either you would be most likely greeted with silence or incomprehension and having taken the trouble to speak either of those responses would simply confirm to you that verbal conversation was empty pushing you further down the route of silence. Well, perhaps that’s why I’m here writing about it to strangers rather than discussing it with the people close to me.

Solnit sees, she sees and expresses so skilfully that my burgeoning desire to write essays may have died on my fingers. It is often, as an aspiring writer, hard to read someone who has such an admirable skill set that it’s intimidating. Yet as a reader, Solnit is a wonderful read. I’ve read A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which is somewhat less personal than this, and both are excellent reads, but somehow The Faraway Nearby is just that little bit more brilliant. What Solnit has to teach us about art, about sorrow, about reading, about solitude, about friendship cannot be described in this blog so my advice to you is just go out and read it. You won’t be sorry. I’ll leave you, here, with another example of her extraordinary writing.

“In darkness things merge, which might be how passion becomes love and how making love begets progeny of all natures and forms. Merging is dangerous, at least to the boundaries and definition of the self. Darkness is generative, and generation, biological and artistic both, requires this amorous engagement with the unknown, this entry into the realm where you do not quite know what you are doing and what will happen next. Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you’re doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that’s where they may be seen by others, that’s not where they’re born.”  

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

“It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age,” Shepherd writes in 1947 and 58 years later it is an observation which couldn’t feel more true, and is astonishing in the way it reminds us that whatever the era the demand for human progress outstrips our sensation of time. Yet this entirely book is about timelessness, about one woman’s brief, if long by human terms, relationship with a mountain range, the Cairngorms of Scotland. It is a slender book, yet somehow packed with wisdom and beauty. It contains a life, a life lived slow and in harmony with an environment which is hazardous and fulfilling simultaneously.

The book doesn’t follow a linear narrative, but rather meanders in a series of connections: chapters on the plateau, on groups of walkers, on the influence of water, frost and snow. As the words flow, you begin to build up a sense of the mountains, their power and structure, their danger and their beauty, the ways in which they can surprise even the seasoned walker, taking lives in a sudden freeze. That Shepherd has a total respect and love for the mountains is apparent, there is a sense that they are the gift that kept giving through the course of her life and the book is her gift to the rest of us, sharing her experience and her observations.

Not surprisingly the subject of silence, a subject which is becoming a favourite of mine, is one which Shepherd covers in some depth. As she explains here, taken from two separate sections:

“The presence of another person does not detract from, but enhances, the silence, if the other is the right sort of hill companion. The perfect hill companion is the one whose identity is for the time being merged into that of the mountains, as you feel your own to be. Then such speech as arises is part of a common life and cannot be alien.”

“Having disciplined mind and body to quiescence, I must discipline them also to activity. The senses must be used. For the ear, the most vital thing that can be listened to here is silence. To bend the ear to silence is to discover how seldom it is there. Always something moves. When the air is quite still, there is always running water; and up here that is a sound one can hardly lose, though on many stony parts of the plateau one is above the watercourses. But now and then comes an hour when the silence is all but absolute, and listening to it one slips out of time.”

This is something I’ve found myself thinking about a great deal recently: the difference between chatter and conversation, how silence can be more companionable than speech. We fill our lives with sound, but fail to hear anything. Shepherd’s words draw it out so clearly. And there’s a reverence to her language, a joy which is quiet and profound. She describes the mountain so beautifully, from her nights sleeping under the stars to the walks swathed in sudden fog, the changes in perspective, the hidden lochs, the people she encounters, the wildlife. It is a stunningly beautiful book which concludes, perhaps not surprisingly, in something approaching a zen Buddhist philosophy, as she describes here:

“It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.”

What The Living Mountain offers us is a vision of a life lived slowly, the value of coming to know something so intimately and yet still feel you barely know it at all, the importance of our senses and using them, of loving even the inanimate, of not underestimating, of the experience of being and how fleeting it is and yet how wonderful. And this book is indeed wonderful.

Monday, 1 June 2015


As an inveterate book buyer, almost unapologetic, recently released to a book buying spree, I often try to understand what it is that makes me want to acquire more and more books. There is a gulf between buying and reading which is often unbridgeable – meaning, of course, that I buy books which I never quite get around to reading – and as my shelves fill up I find I can no longer ignore the little voice that is telling me I need to clear out some space to make room for my new books and that, perhaps, there are a few books cluttering the decks which I will never read, or for which it is time to let go. This is a dilemma for me. I don’t enjoy letting go, I don’t like to dispose of books I haven’t yet read and those I have I wish to keep on the basis that I would like to read them again. When is a question I might ask myself, but I have been around long enough to know that life is full of mysteries I will never solve and this is another of those questions I have contented myself to ignorance of the answer.  

Then there is the challenge that arises from freeing up the space only to find myself gleefully filling it again with those little bargains, little treasures, found in the secondhand book shop, or the impulse bought firsthand book. Vacant space in my bookcase is space to be filled. Nature abhors a vacuum, someone once said, a sage observation I’ve taken too closely to heart as my rows of books, squeezed like a slovenly woman into last year’s clothes, attest (which might more specifically read: me into my clothes. Sitting and reading is not conducive to slenderness at my age). Having recently, quite diligently, completed a gruelling TBR challenge, instead of learning my lesson I’ve gorged myself like sugar addict at the end of Lent. Not a pretty sight. My shelves groan, my walls shudder under the weight of all that paper shoved mercilessly into the tiniest sliver of space.

It’s not healthy. It’s not healthy, particularly, because if I don’t read a book within about a month of purchase, the odds of reading it at all deteriorate rapidly. Consequently my shelves are filled with books I once wanted to read, books I bought for reasons that mystify me – I can’t imagine why I would ever have wanted to read Gravity’s Rainbow if it had, perhaps, not been £0.20p at the library sale. Book bargains have always been a temptation to me, and there are a good many books sitting on my shelves purely on account of their cheapness. I won’t dwell on what that says about me. Then there are the books which were gifts, books which I may never have bought which sit accusingly unread on my shelves reminding me how horribly ungrateful I am. I put off reading them because I didn’t choose them myself and there are already so many books that I did choose that I haven’t yet got around to reading. I know this is silly. I have read some amazing books which came to me purely as a gift: Megan Abbott’s Dare Me being the most obvious which springs to mind. A book I would have walked past without regret turned out to be a crackling, enjoyable little thriller that changed my mind entirely about the subject of cheerleading. If you happen to be reading this as a person who may at one time or other have kindly gifted me a book, forgive me. I do get around to them all eventually (honest).

This isn’t the whole story. As I thought about it, I realised there was another phenomenon at work. Once I bought a book, once I filed it onto my shelf, its existence curiously faded into the back of my consciousness. When I desire a book, whether specifically or a book of a character or subject, it is all I can think about. I make lists. I look in the library catalogue, I read the ‘Look inside’ on Amazon (but never buy there); I look for it in the bookshop, I take it from the shelf and cradle it. The presence and existence of the book fills my thoughts in a way little else does. I am consumed by it, whatever it is, and it feels like if I don’t grasp it right now, guzzle its plot, its diction, its unique and significant prose down instantaneously my mind will immediately atrophy. But my desire for reading outstrips my available time, and even I haven’t yet deteriorated to the point where I can eschew my commitments to satisfy my reading needs. Notwithstanding the other things I want to do: spare time for writing, for research, for speaking to my family and reminding them I exist as something other than the dusty article sitting in the corner, face in book. So I buy a book and I place it on my shelves and then I have it. This frees me up to think about the next book I want and the next. I think I’ve already mentioned before how unhealthy this is.

And this is, perhaps, the point of all of this. In constantly thinking about what I don’t yet have, I’d forgotten the treasures in my possession. I’ve forgotten so completely that sometimes I look at my shelves and feel surprised at what I find there. So I decided to conduct an experiment. The experiment, I should admit now, went slightly  awry. I had planned to spend some time just sitting and appreciating my book shelves – observing what I had and reminding myself why it is exciting, why I wanted to read or re-read it, rekindling my passion for the books I’d already shown a passion for at least once before. In principle this would not be difficult, however on the day in question I bent over my dressing table to get something out of a drawer and when I straightened I felt one of those ominous twinges which quickly turned into the old woman hobble of a back done inexplicably in. So instead of sitting, zen-like and mindful, staring at my shelves for an hour or so, I’ve had to imagine it from the semi-prone position it is temporarily comfortable to be in.

What did I discover? A treasure trove, a gluttony of books I didn’t just want to read historically but which I still wanted to read. Like the Country Girls series by Edna O’Brien, the Neopolitan series by Elena Ferrante (yes, how did I forget about that?), like Foe by Coetzee, the Icelandic Sagas, The Dream of the Red Chamber. That’s not counting, of course, the books I’ve already read which are crying out to me to be read again: The Last Samurai which I want to read every year, Middlemarch, Kristen Lavransdatter, The Tale of Genji, To the Lighthouse. It is great, reading broadly and widely, there is something exciting in the appeal of a brand new book, the spark of discovery, but there comes a point where a deeper, more meaningful relationship is needed. It is, perhaps, the difference between the thrill of having many lovers and the understanding which comes from a long-term relationship. Both have merits, both are experiences which the other, seemingly, precludes. In my relationship with reading, I have had one type of relationship for so long I’ve forgotten the joys of the other. It is possible to have both, but not the way I’m approaching it.

This is a blog about treasure, about discovering the hidden treasures that are buried right where I am, that have become so commonplace I no longer see them for what they are. It is about not taking for granted the things already available to me. It is not just about books, but about everything. Sitting and staring at my shelves for however long I can do so, learning to see what is there, is a practice I can apply to my whole life. I can apply it to my family and my relationships, enriching my experience and deepening those connections. I can apply it to my work, valuing the input of my colleagues, of their achievements and their strengths. I can apply it to my decrepit old body which may creak, may be peppered with cracks and fissures and imperfections, but which contains all of me, which is strong in ways I don’t appreciate, which is a marvel and a mystery.

I have written about this before; I am, it seems, in danger of becoming repetitive. Yet repetitive is exactly what I think I need. I need to repeat the feeling that led me to a book which I then acquired and allow it to propel me to read it. I need to constantly remind myself, when my mind is wandering along its path of fanciful desires, that I don’t need something new to invigorate me, that invigoration is already available to me in the richness of what I already have. I have a marvellous life. I am lucky to be able to read deeply, to read regularly, to have the space and time, their leisure and capacity, to enter into the minds of others, to share their insights and experiences. I spend far too much time feeling like I’m missing something. I know this is how I’ve been socially wired – our capitalist society relies upon the desire for more, for the new, for the different. It is time to overcome my conditioning. I know I sound like a seasoned alcoholic trying to convince myself that coffee is a fair substitute for a litre of vodka, and perhaps that’s exactly what I am. But even a seasoned alcoholic can break the self-defeating habit of a lifetime. As long as that remains the case, there is hope for me. 

Friday, 29 May 2015

Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski

I had just started my latest attempt at book writing, limiting my reading and blogging to one book a week, when I picked up this book by Jenny Diski on an impulse from the local Oxfam shop. It was only £2.99, which was part of the reason (though Oxfam books are rarely more expensive than that), and another blogger had mentioned Diski positively quite recently which was another piece of the strange puzzle that is my book buying disease. I had also, some time ago, encountered Diski’s name when researching books about the Arctic and had flagged one of her books for future reading (Skating to Antarctica, specifically. Yes, I do know that is quite the other side of the planet). I had no real idea what this book was about, yet when I was mooching about the house feeling a little sorry for myself I picked it up thinking I’d read a few pages to get a feel for it and then next thing you know I’d put all my other books to one side and made this my one book of the week. Or the quarter, at least.

Diski is a travel writer, and this book explores three journeys she undertook: one to New Zealand, one in Somerset and one to Lapland. Yet whilst the structure of the book is created around these journeys, this is very much an exploration of Diski’s desire to keep still.  This seems a crazy premise for someone who is a travel writer, though it also seems that becoming a travel writer is something that mystifies Diski and results, largely, from her more pressing inability to say no. What follows is a strange kind of meditation on the idea of stillness, the guilt at not wanting to leave the house (or even her bed necessarily), the social pressure to enjoy activities such as walking or going out in general, the internal and, sometimes, external conflicts that arise and the difficulty in being honest. It is also very amusing, very truth-filled and wry. What Diski does or doesn’t explain about travel is neither here nor there, but her musings are absorbing, like here:

“What people always say about being alone for long periods is some variation on the theme of the immense and unimagined difficulties of having to confront oneself, a concealed self which lurks unnoticed below the requirements of everyday sociability. Coming face to face with yourself, is how they describe it. ‘You really find out who you are’, they say with a look of agonisingly acquired wisdom, implying an inevitable dark night of the soul. What I have discovered during these periods of being alone for as long as possible, is that I am extremely good at passing the time, and taking pleasure in passing the time, reading, idling and pottering, rarely bored, hardly ever restless, sometimes miserable, often dissatisfied with myself and the world, without finding out an iota more than that about who I am, because that is pretty much what I’m like in company too. The agony of solitude passes me by, until, because social guilt and self-analysis are never far away, the lack of agony at being with myself become an agony of lack of self.”

It is a book very heavily seated in introspection, the journeys being as much about Diski’s own response to her environment as the environment itself. Not such much travel writing as a woman writing about herself travelling. And it works. It is insightful and amusing, it is wise, it is challenging in the way watching anyone doing mental gymnastics whilst being rigidly honest can only be. There were times when reading this book that I felt like I was reading my own thoughts expressed more articulately and with greater insight and humility. It had such a familiarity about it, like listening to the rambling of your own thoughts in a dead moment, which was exactly the space I happened to be in at the time of reading it.

For the purists who like a travel writer to write about travel, there is still plenty of travel in this book. But what makes it so interesting is the intensity of reluctance Diski brings to the whole experience “nothing will persuade me that the mere fact of being in a place is enough in itself to justify the effort of getting out of bed to become a tourist, or even a traveller” Diski says, and there is so much truth in that little statement, the reminder that everything we experience is happening exactly where we are right now and we don’t really need to go anywhere to find it, or prove ourselves to anyone. And if this book tells us anything it’s that we can be exactly who we are, without the need to take part or live up to a certain standard. Exactly what I needed to read.

What I didn’t need, however, was the extraordinary list of books she took away with her to Somerset, listed on pages 77 and 78 and from which I have lifted a shortlist of about 5 or 6 I want to read for myself. Including Montaigne, who I think has heavily influenced this book but whom I know too little about to truly appreciate the connection. And I don’t have to either. In fact it is perfectly fine if I never read Montaigne, though I think I will in the end.

I can’t express here how much I enjoyed this book. It was a breath of stale bedroom air, beckoning me to sleep in. It won’t quash my love of travelling, unlike Diski I love walking and experiencing new places. But in many respects she articulated, with great clarity, the way my mind has been turning. It may have been a stroke of serendipity, but I don’t care. I loved it. 

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North & Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho (translator Nobuyuki Yuasa)

No, not that Narrow Road to the Deep North, the ubiquitous Booker winning novel by Richard Flanagan gracing every shelf of every bookshop at the moment, but the original travel sketches by 17th century haiku master Matsuo Basho. He of the sublime poetry. That one.

Translated by Nobuyiki Yuasa, this slim volume presents all of Basho’s travel sketches, starting with his novice work ‘The Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton’ to the work which is believed to be his most perfect ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. For those unfamiliar with Basho and his significance in Japanese literary tradition, there is an excellent introduction by Yuasa which details both Basho’s history and life, as well as the tradition of haiku poetry of which Basho’s are the most sublime. For a more Westernised analogy, think Japan’s Shakespeare and you’ve probably got it about right. Haiku, for the uninitiated, is a three line poem composed in of lines of five – seven – five syllables. There is infinitely more to it than that, and obviously the haiku in the book are translations so the five – seven –five structure doesn’t entirely come across. Yuasa explains in some detail his approach to the translation, and it is well worth reading the introduction before embarking on a reading of the sketches.

Interjection: I love haiku. They are little breathless moments of abject perfection. Like watching a heron’s graceful landing break the perfect surface of a pond.

Image result for the narrow road to the deep north matsuo basho penguin classicsThe book includes the five travel sketches Basho made in his lifespan and these are presented in chronological order which elucidates how Basho’s skill develops over his various journeys. In the sketches, Basho seeks to combine prose with haiku which gives both a record and a flavour of the journey he has undertaken. It is a strange combination, elevating the sketches beyond mere journaling into something which moves the spirit, and this is no more evident in the final sketch, the memorable Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which the blend of haiku and prose, his personless observations, attain a kind of eternal grace. It is hard to put it into words, but it is at once calming and uplifting. And there’s a perfection about it which seems effortless.

“Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by.” Basho begins in this brief tale. What follows is, largely, unimportant. He visits some shrines, meets an old friend, writes some poetry, suffers, struggles, regrets the trip and regrets its ending. But this, these facts and elements, are not what is important about this book. It is the perfect pace, the peerless intermingling of poetry and descriptive prose, the gentleness of emotion, the faint odour of melancholy. I’ll allow the book to speak for itself for a moment.

“The whole mountain was made of massive rocks thrown together, and covered with age old pines and oaks. The stony ground itself bore the colour of eternity, paved with velvety moss. The doors of the shrines built on the rocks were firmly barred and there was not a soul to be heard. As I moved on all fours from rock to rock, bowing reverently at each shrine, I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being.

In the utter silence
of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.”

I have read, in my time, quite a number of Japanese books. I have learned some of the history of Japan and a little about its culture. Reading Basho makes me realise that I have barely scratched the surface, that there is a depth here that I can barely penetrate without the cultural background and understanding to untangle it. In spite of this, and perhaps because of the benefit of reading the earlier travel sketches, I can still feel something magical in this brief travel note. I can only respond with a meagre haiku of my own:

It may be narrow –
the road to the deep north, yet
I am enlightened.

My copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North was published by Penguin Classics

Saturday, 16 May 2015

High Rise by J. G. Ballard

I was walking to work recently and I was thinking about J. G. Ballard, I’m not sure why. For some reason J. G. Ballard popped into my head, and I had a hankering after reading something by him, something I hadn’t read before. I was thinking about islands, books about islands and what motivates them and the themes they engender: survival, breakdown or absence of social structures, limited resources, enclosure, isolation. I had started to write a novel about a woman cast adrift on an island and was finding myself dissatisfied with the setting, with the cliché of it, the inability to write anything new on the subject. Then I thought about Ballard.

Ballard writes about islands. This thought hit me with an unexpected force. I have read a few books by Ballard: The Drowned World, The Unlimited Dream Company, Empire of the Sun, Crash. All these books involve islands of sorts, even Crash in which the ‘island’ is the motor car and within it and surrounding it a new kind of social order emerges. I had heard about Concrete Island – a story of a man who crashes on a traffic island and becomes trapped there – and, of course, High Rise in which the story takes place entirely within a tower block. All these are islands. I realised that reading Ballard could inform my work. Of course, thinking about Ballard and his personal history this island theme is no surprise, and perhaps rather than islands it is more that Ballard focuses on enclosed environments in which the normal rules of social order are shattered – and knowing his early childhood spent in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai, that this subject is the primary fodder for his work is perhaps not too surprising.

They had High Rise in my local library, so that’s where I started. The story focuses on three men: Robert Laing, a doctor (there is often a doctor in Ballard’s novels – reflecting his training as a doctor which he abandoned); Anthony Royal an architect responsible for some of the building’s structure, a man who was injured in a car crash (yes!) and who Laing has been aiding in his recuperation; Richard Wilder, a TV journalist and some time friend to Robert Laing. The men are connected, and each live in distinct hierarchies within the high rise: Wilder on the lower floors, Laing in the centre, Royal in the penthouse suite on the roof. At the beginning of the novel, the last tenant of the high rise has just moved in and the building is now complete, self-contained. Within the high rise is everything the tenants might need: supermarket, liquor store, school, swimming pools, hairdresser. Almost immediately, Ballard sets up the sense that the high rise takes over from the ‘natural’ environment, and its design is somehow key to the events which then take place therein:

Image result for high rise jg ballard“The high-rises seemed almost to challenge the sun itself – Anthony Royal and the architects which had designed the complex could not have foreseen the drama of confrontation each morning between these concrete slabs and the rising sun. It was only fitting that the sun first appeared between the legs of the apartment blocks, raising itself over the horizon as if nervous of waking this line of giants. During the morning, from his office on the top floor of the medical school, Laing would watch their shadows swing across the parking-lots and empty plazas of the project, sluice gates opening to admit the day. For all his reservations, Laing was the first to concede that these huge buildings had won their attempt to colonize the sky.”   

This is, perhaps, another pre-occupation of Ballard’s work: the way in which the environment shapes the people within it. At the point of completion, a change takes place within the high rise. Almost immediately, the social order begins to break down. There are parties which become increasingly wild, bottles thrown from windows damaging the cars parked in the car park below. Aggression towards women and children, a sense of violence in the air, breakdown of shared resources – elevators, waste disposal, air-conditioning. There is an aura of insomnia, with noise and parties going on until the early hours of the morning. Yet life continues almost as normal. People go to work in the morning in a civilised manner, and no one talks about what is happening in the high rise.

Prescience is a word which is often associated with Ballard, and this is no less true in relation to High Rise. I was stalled out of the book when I read the following paragraph, written in 1975, which seems to predict the world of social media and which reflects the polarisation of life within the high rise of the book, the point at which the building splits into three: the lower classes in the lower floors – the first to lose their lights and air-conditioning -, the middle classes in the centre playing the lower and upper floors off against each other, the upper classes at the top maintaining their semblance of civilisation whilst being the first to commit atrocious acts of violence. But before I go on, here is Ballard, ever prescient:  

“Perhaps the recent incidents represented a last attempt by Wilder and the airline pilots to rebel against this unfolding logic? Sadly, they had little chance of success, precisely because their opponents were people who were content with their lives in the high-rise, who felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organisations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusion, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of twentieth century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.”


What follows is a descent into violence, sexual violence, degradation, starvation. Someone intentionally drowns a dog. The building turns into a free-for-all battle zone, with stairwells turned into war zones, barricaded against the ‘enemy’ being anyone from a different floor. The three men: Royal, Laing, Wilder become representatives of their zone. Wilder becomes obsessed with the idea of reaching the upper floors, confronting Royal who he perceives as the ‘king’ of the high rise. He reaches it once, only to be violently slung back to the ground with the rest of the waste. Yet he doesn’t give up. Laing hovers in the middle, cementing his territory, collecting his women and hunkering down. Royal is waiting for Wilder on the roof, anticipating the violence to come with a sick relish. As he describes here:

“Royal stepped down on to the roof deck. He enjoyed the hostile gaze of the birds sitting on the elevator heads. The sense of a renascent barbarism hung among the overturned chairs and struggling palms, the discarded pair of diamante sunglasses from which the jewels had been picked. What attracted the birds to this isolated realm on the roof? As Royal approached, a group of the gulls fived into the air, soaring down to catch the scraps flung from a balcony ten floors below them. They fed on the refuse thrown into the car-park, but Royal liked to think that their real motives for taking over the roof were close to his own, and that they had flown here from some archaic landscape, responding to the same image of the sacred violence to come. Fearing that they might leave, he frequently brought them food, as if to convince them that the wait would be worth their while.”

There is always an edge of violence, the descent into chaos and pure will in Ballard’s work, quite probably informed by his experiences in the prison camp. Whilst the unwillingness to talk, the unwillingness to escape from the high rise seems implausible, I couldn’t help feeling that it is this very fact that Ballard is seeking to warn us about. His own experiences have shown how the breakdown of the social order to which we cling – the ideas of justice, of civilisation, of honour and righteousness – are a thin barrier holding back our inherently violent nature, in which whatever we want is there for the taking if only we are powerful enough, violent enough, depraved enough to grab it. Yet though they may be seemingly mere sexual pawns in the men’s violent game, Ballard never underestimates the women and, in the end, they may become the ultimate rulers of the high rise…

High Rise is a short whirlwind of a novel, hard to read at times and heavily violent. The words ‘rectilinear’ and ‘chromium’ appear perhaps a tad too often, but this is a signature Ballard flourish and forgivable in the wider context of the novel. Uncannily prescient, Ballard shows us how dystopias can arise in pockets even within the wider confines of a civilised society, and whilst the residents’ compliance makes little sense, any descent into violence is nonsensical. One might argue this is domestic violence on a macrocosmic scale. But sense doesn’t matter in a violent world, only the violence and those surviving it matter. It is a warning worth paying heed to.