#10 Twenty-year Orbit, part 2A
Moving on to look at Sinclair's and Petit's 2002 London Orbital film.
The English motorway system is beautiful and strange
It's been there forever, it's never going to change
It eliminates all diversions, it eliminates all emotions
All you’ve got to do to stay alive is drive
‘The English Motorway System’, Black Box Recorder1
Some readers of Some Private Diagonal may recall that my second piece on this Substack (free to read) concerned itself with Jean Baudrillard’s America, specifically with a phrase from that book, ‘the desertification of signs and men.’2 In that 1986 text, Baudrillard envisages a ‘desertified’ future, but needless to say, not in an ecological sense. What he sees ahead is a human world growing ever more barren and impoverished spiritually and metaphysically. Even though, as I explained in that early post, Baudrillard did not present this as a baleful eventuality, and instead seemed to accept it without a qualm, in a mode of serene indifference, in 1986 many readers may have felt it to be an unduly pessimistic prediction. The Eighties was an exciting decade (I do remember it, albeit vaguely) and there appeared to be at least as many reasons for optimism as for its opposite. Of course the intervening decades have schooled us on that score. Who now would seriously argue that Baudrillard’s vision of a desertified future was wide of the mark?
One can find striking echoes of Baudrillard’s disquieting prophecy in the fiction of J.G. Ballard. I might even say pre-echoes, as Ballard was writing stories set in the desert resort of Vermilion Sands—a playground for the jealous lovers and idle dreamers of an enervated and rich leisure society of the future—as early as the 1950s. In the introduction to a 1981 story collection, Ballard offered a gloss on the Vermilion Sands stories, of which he had written about nine by that point:
The chief characteristic of this desert resort, not abandoned but forever out of season, is that everything is over. Its past lies behind it, and nothing that can happen in the future will substantially change it again. It has come to terms with its past, and now lies there on its deck chair beside a drained swimming pool, somewhere in the middle of this endless afternoon. It’s against this background that chimeras stir, fancies take flight…3
Ballard is a strong presence in Iain Sinclair’s and Chris Petit’s London Orbital4, and not only because he actually appears in it5. The monotonous motorway landscape the film concerns itself with is precisely the terrain that Ballard managed to make his own, to put his indelible stamp on, over the course of his 50-year career. And Sinclair and Petit undoubtedly get Ballard, they understand his peculiar bent, his highly original philosophy: that approach to things in which utopianism and dystopianism seem to somehow fold into each other. Rather like that peculiar photo in which the dress was blue for some and gold for others, some readers find somber pessimism in his works, while others discover a strange, visionary optimism. Sinclair:
What I admire most about Ballard is his genial stoicism, his Buddha tenacity. A fixed point, a stalactite formed from sediments of road rage and air terminal frustration. Interrogate him, and he’ll give you precisely what you want: the riff, the loop, the famous Ballardian twist. Pro-suburb, anti-metropolis. The future is boring, the future is Shepperton, and the future is all used up.6
That barren future once again. If Ballard and Baudrillard were right, and the world we’re moving into is a spiritual desert, then the task at hand would seem to be to come up with survival strategies. How does one live in a desert? One seeks out water sources; ideally, oases. Now the M25 may not seem a promising candidate for an oasis, a refuge from the desert of the (un)culture. Especially to those who, in recent months, have found themselves spending much more time on the orbital motorway than they bargained for, thanks to Just Stop Oil protestors or Arctic blizzards. But according to London Orbital (the film), the M25 is more interesting than people let on. Even when it’s boring (and it can be extremely boring), it’s interesting: a paradox I will try to resolve below.
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