“the enemy of creativity in the world today is that so much thinking is done for you” = J G Ballard on Creativity

A while back I reposted an essay I wrote on Nthposition.com (which is now offline) in which featured a quote from J G Ballard:

“Cyril Connolly said that the greatest enemy of creativity is the pram in the hall, but I think he was completely wrong. It was the enemy of a certain kind of dilettante life that he aspired to, the man of letters, but for the real novelist the pram in the hall is the greatest ally – it brings you up sharp and you realise what reality is all about.”

In the essay I cited as the source my paperback edition of Ballard’s Kingdom Come, but in fact Ballard’s thoughts on creativity were originally in The Observer of September 22nd 2002. Here is the essay in full:

I think the enemy of creativity in the world today is that so much thinking is done for you. The environment is so full of television, party political broadcasts and advertising campaigns, you hardly need to do anything. We’re just drowning under manufactured fiction, which satisfies our need for fiction – you scarcely need to go and read a novel.

Cyril Connolly, the 50s critic and writer, said that the greatest enemy of creativity is the pram in the hall, but I think that was completely wrong. It was the enemy of a certain kind of dilettante life that he aspired to, the man of letters, but for the real novelist the pram in the hall is the greatest ally – it brings you up sharp and you realise what reality is all about. My children were a huge inspiration for me. Watching three young minds creating their separate worlds was a very enriching experience.

For most of my working life as a professional, which began over 40 years ago, what kick-started the day was a large scotch and soda. After my wife died, I was bringing up my children on my own much of the time: getting them up and to school and finding their satchels, all that sort of thing, and I needed a sort of change of climate. I used to find that a couple of large scotches did the trick – it created a different microclimate inside my head.

I find the imaginative pressure has always been strong, thank god. I’ve always felt that I had this message I had to bring the reader – a deluded notion, I’m sure, but it’s kept me going. I’ve also always been a very disciplined writer, because that’s the only way you ever get anything done. Usually when I’m writing a novel I set myself 1,000 words a day, and I stick to it religiously. I sometimes stop in the middle of a sentence, which isn’t a bad idea, as the next day it’s very easy to get back into it.

As for learning to be creative, I think there’s a lot of basic-level storytelling skills that you need to be born with. I wrote from a pretty early age, eight or nine, and I’ve always had a very vivid imagination. If you’ve got a strong imagination it’s there all the time, it’s working away. You’re kind of remaking the world as you walk down a street, sort of reinventing it. I have a walk every day and a good think about things. I sometimes think maybe this town is a complete conspiracy, or maybe it’s a very advanced kind of psychological experiment – all these ideas occur to me and every now and again I think: ‘Hey, that’s not bad. That’s worth pursuing.’


 A story for Christmas – F. Scott Fitzgerald ,  “The Lost Decade”

When I was 14 or of 15 the Penguin Classics editions of F Scott Fitzgerald short stories made an indelible impression – to some degree the covers (which forged a sense of tragic glamour and wistful style) , but mostly the casual magic of Fitzgerald. Reading them now, many bear the marks of being written in haste and for money, but the magic remains, especially in some passages that flash like meteors. Among these passages are the last paragraphs of The Last Decade, especially the final line which captures something essential about those moments something forces us not to take the wonderful everyday for granted. Not a Christmas story as such, but a story whose message resonates for me this Christmas.

 From this site, the full text of The Lost Decade:

Esquire (December 1939)

All sorts of people came into the offices of the news-weekly and Orrison Brown had all sorts of relations with them. Outside of office hours he was “one of the editors” — during work time he was simply a curly-haired man who a year before had edited the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern and was now only too glad to take the undesirable assignments around the office, from straightening out illegible copy to playing call boy without the title.

He had seen this visitor go into the editor’s office — a pale, tall man of forty with blond statuesque hair and a manner that was neither shy nor timid, nor otherworldly like a monk, but something of all three. The name on his card, Louis Trimble, evoked some vague memory, but having nothing to start on, Orrison did not puzzle over it — until a buzzer sounded on his desk, and previous experience warned him that Mr. Trimble was to be his first course at lunch.

“Mr. Trimble — Mr. Brown,” said the Source of all luncheon money. “Orrison — Mr. Trimble’s been away a long time. Or he feels it’s a long time — almost twelve years. Some people would consider themselves lucky to’ve missed the last decade.”

“That’s so,” said Orrison.

“I can’t lunch today,” continued his chief. “Take him to Voisin or 21 or anywhere he’d like. Mr. Trimble feels there’re lots of things he hasn’t seen.”

Trimble demurred politely.

“Oh, I can get around.”

“I know it, old boy. Nobody knew this place like you did once — and if Brown tries to explain the horseless carriage just send him back here to me. And you’ll be back yourself by four, won’t you?”

Orrison got his hat.

“You’ve been away ten years?” he asked while they went down in the elevator.

“They’d begun the Empire State Building,” said Trimble. “What does that add up to?”

“About 1928. But as the chief said, you’ve been lucky to miss a lot.” As a feeler he added, “Probably had more interesting things to look at.”

“Can’t say I have.”

They reached the street and the way Trimble’s face tightened at the roar of traffic made Orrison take one more guess.

“You’ve been out of civilization?”

“In a sense.” The words were spoken in such a measured way that Orrison concluded this man wouldn’t talk unless he wanted to — and simultaneously wondered if he could have possibly spent the thirties in a prison or an insane asylum.

“This is the famous 21,” he said. “Do you think you’d rather eat somewhere else?”

Trimble paused, looking carefully at the brownstone house.

“I can remember when the name 21 got to be famous,” he said, “about the same year as Moriarity’s.” Then he continued almost apologetically, “I thought we might walk up Fifth Avenue about five minutes and eat wherever we happened to be. Some place with young people to look at.”

Orrison gave him a quick glance and once again thought of bars and gray walls and bars; he wondered if his duties included introducing Mr. Trimble to complaisant girls. But Mr. Trimble didn’t look as if that was in his mind — the dominant expression was of absolute and deep-seated curiosity and Orrison attempted to connect the name with Admiral Byrd’s hideout at the South Pole or flyers lost in Brazilian jungles. He was, or he had been, quite a fellow — that was obvious. But the only definite clue to his environment — and to Orrison the clue that led nowhere — was his countryman’s obedience to the traffic lights and his predilection for walking on the side next to the shops and not the street. Once he stopped and gazed into a haberdasher’s window.

“Crêpe ties,” he said. “I haven’t seen one since I left college.”

“Where’d you go?”

“Massachusetts Tech.”

“Great place.”

“I’m going to take a look at it next week. Let’s eat somewhere along here — ” They were in the upper Fifties “ — you choose.”

There was a good restaurant with a little awning just around the corner.

“What do you want to see most?” Orrison asked, as they sat down.

Trimble considered.

“Well — the back of people’s heads,” he suggested. “Their necks — how their heads are joined to their bodies. I’d like to hear what those two little girls are saying to their father. Not exactly what they’re saying but whether the words float or submerge, how their mouths shut when they’ve finished speaking. Just a matter of rhythm — Cole Porter came back to the States in 1928 because he felt that there were new rhythms around.”

Orrison was sure he had his clue now, and with nice delicacy did not pursue it by a millimeter — even suppressing a sudden desire to say there was a fine concert in Carnegie Hall tonight.

“The weight of spoons,” said Trimble, “so light. A little bowl with a stick attached. The cast in that waiter’s eye. I knew him once but he wouldn’t remember me.”

But as they left the restaurant the same waiter looked at Trimble rather puzzled as if he almost knew him. When they were outside Orrison laughed:

“After ten years people will forget.”

“Oh, I had dinner there last May — ” He broke off in an abrupt manner.

It was all kind of nutsy, Orrison decided — and changed himself suddenly into a guide.

“From here you get a good candid focus on Rockefeller Center,” he pointed out with spirit “ — and the Chrysler Building and the Armistead Building, the daddy of all the new ones.”

“The Armistead Building,” Trimble rubber-necked obediently. “Yes — I designed it.”

Orrison shook his head cheerfully — he was used to going out with all kinds of people. But that stuff about having been in the restaurant last May . . .

He paused by the brass entablature in the cornerstone of the building. “Erected 1928,” it said.

Trimble nodded.

“But I was taken drunk that year — every-which-way drunk. So I never saw it before now.”

“Oh.” Orrison hesitated. “Like to go in now?”

“I’ve been in it — lots of times. But I’ve never seen it. And now it isn’t what I want to see. I wouldn’t ever be able to see it now. I simply want to see how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of. And their eyes and hands. Would you mind shaking hands with me?”

“Not at all, sir.”

“Thanks. Thanks. That’s very kind. I suppose it looks strange — but people will think we’re saying good-by. I’m going to walk up the avenue for awhile, so we will say good-by. Tell your office I’ll be in at four.”

Orrison looked after him when he started out, half expecting him to turn into a bar. But there was nothing about him that suggested or ever had suggested drink.

“Jesus,” he said to himself. “Drunk for ten years.”

He felt suddenly of the texture of his own coat and then he reached out and pressed his thumb against the granite of the building by his side.

“For my sins”


In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor expertly sketches the lives of the elderly long-term residents of the Claremont Hotel, a somwhat shabby-genteel premises on the Cromwell Road which acts as a (bare) alternative to the nursing home.

Mrs Palfrey, widow of a colonial administrator, takes up residence in the Claremont. Unvisited by her grandson Desmond “who works in the British Musuem”, and ignored by her daughter in Scotland, Mrs Palfrey ends up engaging in one of the first deceptions of her life – pretending that Ludo, a writer who she meets through a fall on the street, is her grandson.

Ludo himself lives a hand-to-mouth existence, “working at Harrod’s” – meaning he writes his novels in a café there – and making occasional resentful visits to his narcissistic mother and her new lover, “the Major.”


Anyway, all this is as prelude to this wonderful passage with its play on the trite phrase “for my sins.” A final background – here we meet Lady Swayne, who uses the Claremont yearly as a base for a London fortnight, and condescends spectacularly to all present:

At that moment, out of the life stepped brocaded Lady Swayne. Mrs Palfrey, who had sometimes in her life been majestic, but never graceful, thrust out the violets as Lady Swayne paused beside her.

‘A breath of spring,’ she said. She seemed un-coordinated, Ludo thought, like a robot that gone wrong. Lady Swayne took full advantage of this state of mind, with a flowing, gracious gesture. ‘Exquisite,’ she breathed, in the softest of tones. ‘Alas though! They never last.”

‘My grandson,’ Mrs Palfrey continued wildly, nodding towards Ludo.

‘Ah, I’ve heard of you, heard of you.’

‘Desmond,’ Mrs Palfrey added firmly. ‘Lady Swayne.’

‘You are at the B.M., I believe’, said Lady Swayne.

Mrs Palfrey was alarmed, but Ludo’s pause was brief. ‘For my sins,’ he said, smiling. He had often thought of using this meaningless phrase, which was one of the Major’s favourites.

‘Do you know Carr Templeton?’

Mrs Palfrey was now mesmerised like a startled hare. ‘Only vaguely,’ said Ludo. He had quickly summed up Lady Swayne, and decided that Carr Templeton must be grand, or would not have been mentioned by her. ‘I am hardly on that plane as yet,’ he said, and almost added ‘for my sins’ again, but took a grip of himself. He might have extricated himself by talking of being in different departments, if he had known what Carr Templeton’s department was. He was not even sure of his own, and felt that the British Museum background should be gone into in greater detail.

‘You are young,’ Lady Swayne was saying graciously. ‘Your time will come.’

‘My Grandmamma is going to give me a glass of sherry.’ (‘For my sins’ would have gone beautifully with that, too.) He moved a little, and took Mrs Palfrey’s elbow.

‘That will be nice,’ said Lady Swayne. ‘ Your grandmother has such peaceful, quiet evenings that you will make a little change for her. Unlike poor little me.’ (She was at least give foot ten, and with shoulders like a bison’s.) ‘I am whirled round London in a way more fitting to a deb than an old, old lady. Yes, a taxi, please, Summers. This evening … ‘ – she sighed – ‘I’m off to the Savoy,’ and then, to Ludo’s immense delight, she added, ‘for my sins.’ It is infectious, he decided.

“an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same” – Elizabeth Taylor and Andrei Makine


I have just begun reading Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s (not, it feels obligatory to point out, not that Elizabeth Taylor. From Valerie Martin‘s introduction:

Though I never met either of them, Kingsley Amis introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor. He did it slyly, with deceptive nonchalance, as one might present a powerful relative to an acquaintance at a party; he knew she was important but had his doubts about me. This happened in his novel Difficulties With Girls. After a poor lunch of macaroni cheese, Jenny Standish, much neglected wife of the libidinous Patrick, has gone to the library in search of steady company. ‘Everything seemed to be out, bar an enormous saga about Southern Belles, but then she spotted a new Elizabeth Taylor on the returns shelf.’ At home, Jenny is disappointed to discover that ‘the new Elizabeth Taylor turned out to be an old Elizabeth Taylor in a new impression and with a different outside, and she must have been slipping not to have checked, always advisable with an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same.’

I am just starting to read Elizabeth Taylor (though I already know her mother died of politeness, suffering appendicitis on Christmas Day and refusing to bother the doctor), but, as Martin goes on to write “for any novelist, let alone one as famously cranky and hard on the women as Sir Kingsley, to stop cold the progress of his own story in order to extol the virtues of another novelist is unusual, to say the least” and so far I am impressed. The quote from Difficulties With Girls Martin cites also put me in mind of another novelist with a seemingly very different thematic concern than Taylor’s, Andrei Makine. I have had occasion to cite Makine a couple of times before. And I am nursing a longer essay on this remarkable writer, whose work is of a high pitch of lyrical intensity, who offers an unimpeachable insight into the tragedy of Russia in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, with emotion but without sentimentality, managing to depict the USSR as a tyranny which treated the lives of its citizens (supposedly what the whole enterprise was about) as utterly disposable – while, without exoneration or excuse, capturing the moments of idealism that could capture youthful enthusiasm.


But they are rather the same – a narrator born in the post war couple of decades, now an exile in the West rather like Makine himself, recovering via memory a now vanished world which was defined by the gargantuan, heroic sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is still known in Russia) There are variations – The Woman Who Waited’s erotic longing and ironic release, The Life of An Unknown Man’s satire of the New Russia, Confessions of a Lapsed Standard Bearer’s more direct focus on childhood memory, A Life’s Music musical themes – but the overall pattern is the same.

And yet, his work is marvellous. So much for range!


Benjamin Parzybok . “The Hole in the Reef”, Reckoning #1

From Reckoning “an annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice”, comes this tight little story about a father and son, the ocean, and waste by Benjamin Parzybok.

A couple of slightly awkward sentences aside (“Sometimes it felt like gliding through a child’s crayon drawing in which turquoise had been over-wielded’) the story conveys the tensions of the father-son relationship and, by extension, different approaches to the world extremely well. Reckoning have an interview with Parzybok on the story here – worth reading the story first. The story alternates above-water dialogue with below-water prose:

The plunge over felt like entering a planet’s atmosphere. The bubbles floated past like little stars, sparks and ash, aswarm with insects. And the sound—ten million molecules all sung together with a concussive white noise.
When the bubbles cleared he made his way down, his snorkel gripped tightly between his teeth, his breath tight in his lungs. The reef swam about him, brilliant and colored—displaying more colors than the cone-cells in his own eyes could detect. He was a stranger here; an alien creature, not biologically well-equipped. Unlike his father.
He scanned about. On dry land, they lived in two dimensions. But in the reef, danger came from any angle, above or below.
It was his father’s growing incompetence that had ensnared the anchor. Drunk and sudden and impulsive. He had studied his father for signs of dementia; a hobbling thing for a man so ruthlessly independent. As he finned further down he glanced back to see the otherworldly silhouette of their small boat’s hull above, where inside, like the meat of a nut, his father hummed some dirty ditty to himself.
At fifteen feet down he held his nose and blew, to clear the pressure in his ears. At twenty five feet they ached again, but he was still not close enough.
At thirty feet he could see the anchor in the foggy blue light of the bottom, nestled into an indentation between patches of coral, but the pain seared in his head and he was out of breath.

In the interview Parzybok says that to believe the world has a designer (or creator I guess) is to disclaim responsibility for it – I think I know where he is coming from but surely notions of stewardship and responsibility being given chime as much with the idea of creation as with the idea that responsibility is something self-defined and self-ordained?

From “The Making of Mr Bolsover”, Cornelius Medvei


Perhaps then, Mr Cruikshank suggested, he would like to tell everyone which political figures he did admire.

Without hesitation Mr Bolsover named Lord Salisbury, Queen Victoria’s last prime minister.

Amid the general murmur of surprise and disbelief, he went on to explain. It was not the details of Salisbury’s policies that Mr Bolsover admired, but his guiding principles. Salisbury had a deep aversion to officials and lawmakers. He took a quietist approach to government, and was contemptuous of those who believed that a government’s effectiveness is directly proportional the number of laws it passes.

There was also his appearance. Salisbury’s luxuriant, flowing beard and the great balding dome of his head lent him an air of immense gravitas, as did his pensive expression: his portraits generally showed him lost in thought, as thought pondering important matters of state. This was in direct contrast to his great contemporary and rival Gladstone who posed for photographs looking, so Mr Bolsover said, warming to his theme, ‘like an indignant owl’, and whose bristling side-whiskers appeared merely eccentric to modern eyes. Both men, however presented a salutary contrast the moon-faced chldren who held political office today. And Salisbury had been a supreme pragmatist: not for him the lethal devotion to an ideology at the expense of everything else. ‘The axioms of the last age are the fallacies of the present,’ he once wrote ‘There is nothing abiding in political science but the necessity for truth, purity and justice.’

Review of “Wild Abandon”, Joe Dunthorne, TLS, August 19th 2011


This is a brief review of an entertaining second novel by Joe Dunthorne. It didn’t quite have the success of Submarine, which was a pity, since in many ways the focus expanded quite effectively. Some tendency towards journalistese (see the Happy Mondays quote I mention below) it was a very effective comic novel that did a certain justice to its characters. With thanks to Maren Meinhardt for sending me the full published text.

Joe Dunthorne’s first novel, Submarine (2008), depicted a Swansea teenager’s comically sex-obsessed, self-dramatizing existence and his tragic attempts to keep his parents together. In his new novel, Dunthorne broadens his canvas to a commune in South Wales, but the focus remains on growing up, family life and marital breakdown. These, the novel suggests, are equally painful in unconventional families and in nuclear ones. Blean-y-llyn is a secular, non mystical exercise in communal living, conceived in the early 1990s by Don Riley and his companions. The Welsh name is not significant since all the communards are English, and it is known to the locals as the Rave House after a legendary fifteenth birthday party for Don’s daughter, Kate, which turned into an all-night affair.

The opening scene, in which seventeen year-old Kate and her eleven-year-old brother Albert have a shower together – it is the only way to get Albert to wash – suggests the eccentricity of the Riley ménage, in which Freya, the children’s mother, is increasingly alienated from Don. While Kate leaves every day to attend a sixth form college, Albert, who feels “puberty’s greasy palm on his shoulder”, is still schooled in the commune, with only six-year-old Isaac for company. Sensible Kate is one of those exasperated daughters of ostentatiously countercultural parents, but Albert has absorbed the apocalyptic beliefs of Isaac’s mother Marina, a serial commune-dweller and a believer in the upcoming cosmic dislocations of 2012.

Don Riley is a monster of righteousness and ill-judged humour. In one excruciating scene he tells his unwilling eleven-year-old son how he lost his virginity: “he leaned down to Albert’s ear and whispered conspiratorially in a tone that he hoped would show his son that, one day, the two of them could be friends. ‘She had a climber’s body but alpine tits’”. Also disturbing is Don’s use of the Personal Instrument, a self-built device for the focusing of consciousness, as an initiation for the commune’s children into adulthood – he inflicts this modified motorcycle helmet on Albert as a desperate and futile attempt at control. At times the larger-than-life Don threatens to dominate the book to the detriment of its wider themes.

Dunthorne creates sympathetic adolescent characters. Kate’s alienation from the commune reaches a crisis point, and she leaves to stay with her boyfriend Geraint and his nice, average suburban family – local television news producer dad, devoted and supportive mum. Having grown up on a diet of films depicting bourgeois life as a repository of hidden dysfunction, Kate expects dark secrets amid the mown lawns and plasma screens, and some of Dunthorne’s most acute humour exposes the limits of Kate’s apparently clear-eyed world-view. There are some false steps – a long expository section dips into Sunday supplement generalizations (“Black Monday revealed the vulnerability of the stocks markets; the Happy Mondays revealed the quality of drugs coming from the continent”) and the final rave seems set up for a sentimental resolution. Fortunately, a powerful last scene is able to reconcile Kate’s new maturity, the altered dynamics of the Riley family, and even Albert’s millennial anxieties, and Wild Abandon comes to a satisfying close.