Awhile ago Survival Research Laboratories founder Mark Pauline visited J.G. Ballard at his home in Shepperton, England. They discussed various topics including Ronald Reagan, conformism, the triumph of bourgeois society, travel, recreational drugs, nostalgia, Kathy Acker, and William S. Burroughs. What follows are excerpts from that encounter . . . J.G. BALLARD: People take you at face value. Any role that people see you in they will accept, by and large. That seems to be a rule of life.
MARK PAULINE: They don’t need too much information. Imagination takes care of the rest.
JGB: You’ve got to remember our perception of things in England is very different because it’s very important, from our point of view, that America be well-led–for obvious reasons. You’re defending us–it’s your rockets that are keeping the Russkies away–
MP: Where’s the closest Cruise Missile?
JGB: Well, it’s not that far away. Greenham Common is where the Cruise Missiles are–that’s where the women protestors have been camped, about thirty or forty miles southwest of here.
MP: There are two bases in England–
JGB: Yes, Millsworth [sic] is the other one, I think–southwest of London, about fifty or sixty miles. Most of the big American air bases are in Norfolk, about 100 miles to the northeast of London. You know, I want my own cruise missile at the bottom of my garden, with three technical sergeants smoking Lucky Strikes and asking where they can buy a good hamburger. Also, I would like an encampment of Greenham Common ladies living in a cardboard box out front. That strikes me as perfect!
My reaction to Libya was three cheers–I’m all for bombing Khadafi. [April 15, 1986, the U.S. bombed Libya in retaliation for linkage to terrorist activity, including the bombing of a disco in Berlin which killed several U.S. servicemen and dozens of others.] But I was practically alone–Thatcher and I are the only two people who supported the action! The British reaction, on the whole, was hostile, and I thought this was deplorable and showed the country in its weakest light, frankly.
There are generations of people here–children of parents who are themselves children of parents who were brought up in the post-war welfare state. Their freedom has been guaranteed by the United States, basically, and the nuclear defenses that France and Britain have as well. These people have no perception of the realities of the world, and what it’s like to live under a tyranny east of the Iron curtain. They think that consent and ‘appealing to reason’ is going to mean something in times of international crisis. This vast army of half-baked and inexperienced people were the ones protesting the loudest, while my lonely voice was cheering vigorously.
I thought that was a remarkable feat of arms actually, to fly all that way and hit those targets in Libya.
MP: Well, it’s not like those Libyan terrorists are really the people’s terrorists. They’re really just an arm of Khadafi’s government. It’s not like going and bombing Nicaragua, which is obviously much more complicated.
JGB: If you look at the East and West today, the situation is stable and has been for years and years. If you look at the Thirties when you had Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, it was damned unstable then. People like Mussolini and Hitler tapped psychological forces that came straight out of the abyss. Forces deep down in the core of the human psyche were certainly empowering Hitler, the Nazis, and Mussolini to a large extent, and, I would guess, Stalin and the Soviet regime. And Hitler and the Nazis were these huge media constructs . . .
The only wars that the United States has involved itself in the last twenty years are all rather peripheral matters, aren’t they? You wouldn’t even be allowed to have World War III–
MP: They’d vote it down in a referendum . . . During Vietnam, there was a lot of exciting ill will that isn’t around these days–
JGB: In Vietnam, they stopped calling American soldiers on the ground ‘advisors’ and started calling them ‘soldiers’–then things started going wrong. Around ’66 I said to a friend of mine, ‘They should start calling those soldiers Œadvisors’ again–then everything would be okay.’ As long as you call them ‘advisors,’ there’s no emotional commitment, but once they’re G.I.’s or soldiers or British Grenadiers or whatever, and they walk into battle carrying the flag, then you want them to win, don’t you?
MP: There’s a difference between ‘winning’ and just persuading someone nicely: ‘I think you’d better just move along now.’
JGB: If you’re only an advisor, you can step back and say: ‘Well, the client was a damn fool and he lost,’ and go off with another client.
JGB: The Presidency is now a movie, and presumably will remain so from now on.
I saw a film that was a documentary investigation into the way Reagan confused fiction and reality. It was conducted by some university researcher, I think. The documentary showed Reagan delivering speeches referring to brave bomber pilots in the Second World War who refused to bail out because of two or three injured crew members, and went down to their deaths. Reagan even quoted their last words over the radio transmitter. Then the documentary excerpted the film clip from the 1940’s which Reagan had actually quoted from–in his mind he had confused movie reality with ‘real’ reality–the two had just merged.
I remember Reagan when he was in his fifties; I wrote my [‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’] piece in 1966. I wrote it on the strength of his performance as Governor of California. Then he was a much tougher character, with a real latent nastiness. Well, not so latent–manifest nastiness, with a sneering side to his makeup which is completely absent now. His platform was: ‘Get government off our backs!’ Well, an ideal society is the one with the least government–
MP: Why even have a President anymore?
JGB: One thing that puzzled people over here during the Watergate crisis was the way in which Americans as a whole, even the hard-bitten press, seemed genuinely shocked by this evidence of wrong-doing in high places in the White House and elsewhere. Yet every Hollywood movie made since the 1930’s (and there must have been tens of thousands) always showed politicians in an unfavorable light. In all those Frank Capra movies and all those small-town melodramas, if you want a corrupt figure you don’t pick the local doctor or schoolmaster or fire chief, you pick the local politician. And, if you make a movie set in Washington, the politicians are always shown to be corrupt. Yet not withstanding this, Americans seem shocked when–
MP: Well, you’re not supposed to get caught.
JGB: Yes–it’s getting caught.
MP: Yeah; it’s fine to be crooked, it’s fine to be a criminal, it’s fine to be all that. But good criminals never get caught; good criminals never go to prison. And good politicians never get tripped up. Nixon just didn’t know how. He had no precedent to act from . . .
JGB: Yes, Nixon was a very confused character–an internally confused character, wasn’t he? Of all the post-war presidents, he was probably the most capable intellectually, in terms of being fit for the highest office–more so than Eisenhower. Yet there was this deep internal flaw that became quite evident. God knows what that flaw was, but–!
In England we have as our Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I’ve always admired her enormously. I always found her extremely mysterious and attractive at the same time. I think she exerts a powerful sexual spell, and I’m not alone. I think there are a lot of men who find themselves driven to distraction by the mystery of Margaret Thatcher. She’s remarkable. I think she taps all sorts of extreme responses on the part of, certainly, men in the population at large.
MP: How do you think she fits in with the whole English historical tendency to have female rulers?
JGB: I think she exemplifies that. She taps very deep levels of response. There are elements of La Belle Dame Sans Merci–the merciless muse, in her. Also the archetype of the–
JGB: Yes, the Medusa. She taps a large number of deep responses which people express in present-day terms. She’s the nanny, she’s the headmistress, and she’s school-marmy as well. I think her appeal goes far beyond . . . it’s a very ambiguous appeal. She represents all these sort of half-stages–half-conscious, primordial forces . . . that she certainly tapped.
There’s certainly no other woman politician here who remotely approaches her in that respect. I don’t know if she’s aware of all this; I don’t think she is. She’s quite unlike Reagan in that respect, because I think Reagan is quite aware of his appeal. He is quite cunning in his way, orchestrating his image with a lot of help from his friends. Whereas I don’t think Thatcher does that; I think she just plays her hunches and acts from her gut–like her response to the Falklands crisis. I don’t think she realized this would be a popular move electorally at the time–she just sent the fleet down there. Yet sending the fleet down was the right thing to do–it touched the right nerve.
Thatcher is a mysterious figure. Her day is probably over because she’s been in office for seven years. That’s a long time–you want a new show or you’ll get bored. That’s a very important consideration, you know, because England is a much smaller country and there’s less variety. It’s more of a village here, and once you’ve exhausted the pool of gossip, you want something new to happen…