I open Underground Man with a posting about Shepperton, a nondescript riverside suburb of London across the Thames from where I live in another ‘dull’ suburb-Walton-on-Thames. Its dullness is deceptive and only seen as such by those unacquainted with the work of the visionary writer J.G. Ballard. Ballard has lived in Shepperton most of his adult life and his corpus of writings have transformed the area into a lost kingdom of alienation and strange desire-see specifically his novels ‘Crash’, ‘Unlimited Dream Company’, ‘Kindness of Women’ and ‘Kingdom Come’.
I made my own journey to Shepperton last year to take a look at the house and the environs of the author who over the years, creeping up on me like an addiction, has become my favourite writer. His works of fiction were increasingly haunting my mind and living virtually next door, I had wondered, when occasionally walking to Shepperton railway station, if I might be passing his home. Of course there is a clue of his whereabouts in his autobiographical novel ‘Kindness of Women’, but idly I glanced at the local phone book and there to my complete surprise was his address and phone number. I cannot imagine self-important literary types like Ian McEwan or Martin Amis listed in the Hampstead (or wherever they live) directory somehow. I think this all shows JGB’s genuine modesty and lack of ego (and lack of a huge fan base as well I suppose.) The road (and the house) is as commonplace as any in the suburbs but it gave me an extraordinary feeling glancing at that very scruffy and unpainted semi. Here resides one of the great imaginative writers on a par with Wells, Kafka and Borges but I assume his neighbours are completely oblivious to this. I felt like asking the middle-aged couple who strolled out of a nearby house or the man taking his dog for a walk if they knew J.G. Ballard lived in their street.
At the end of the road is the evocatively named Splash Meadow as featured in ‘Chapter Six, Magic World’, of ‘Kindness of Women’.
“The splash meadow was filled with children playing on the grass and fishing for minnows along the reedy banks of the stream. I could almost believe that the bright summer frocks, fishing nets and children’s voices were a dream conjured from this placid stream asleep beneath the willows.”
Walking further on there is a concrete footbridge across the very Ballardian M3 motorway. This was constructed (I think) in the mid 70’s shortly after JG had written Crash, eradicating the ford or ‘water splash’ and dividing Shepperton. On the other side are the ‘gravel lakes’, reservoirs and the famous Shepperton Studios. As is the case with Ballard it seems uncannily as if his imagination had escaped from his head and infected or transformed the surroundings.
I decided to turn back and not visit the Thames river side where Blake’s stolen aircraft crashed in ‘Unlimited Dream Company’; that would be for another day. I caught a train from Shepperton station to Kingston instead to meet a friend. I was a bit early so I had an over priced coffee in the Bentall Centre, inspiration for the Metro-Centre, the giant shopping mall in the novel ‘Kingdom Come’, but I was glad to see the Teddy Bears had returned, encircled by their infant worshippers. In ‘Kingdom Come,’ the mechanical bears constructed to entertain children and encourage families to shop in this consumer paradise become religious totems to irrational violence.
On my return to Shepperton a few months later I made a mysterious discovery…
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