Zombies, punks & immigrants: What J.G. Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ says about Britain in 2015
It’s there if you look for it, snaking like mist around the tower blocks of West London, from Acton to Ladbroke Grove. An atmosphere. A message for us, maybe.
This part of London was the inspiration and setting for JG Ballard as he wrote his 1975 dystopian novel High Rise.
In the book, life for residents of a luxury high-rise development degenerates as they turn inwards, shutting off the world outside. Soon, the usual (1970s) assortment of malfunctioning elevators, power cuts, small annoyances, neighbourhood frictions, and petty tiffs spiral into terrifying violence along class and block floor lines. As factions develop and amplify, the block tumbles into savagery and eventually, cannibalism and total isolation.
So what? High Rise is a dystopian novel; one from 40 years ago. That’s what they were like. What has it got to do with reality? And more to the point, what does it have to do with us?
The ’70s was a time of huge anxiety around social cohesion. In Britain, it was the heyday of Class War, Punk, the National Front, and heightened paranoia about immigration, domestic and international terrorism and Britain’s relationship with Europe. Fear of Armageddon was measured by the Doomsday Clock’s minutes-to-midnight time. The Left, with the Labour Party having seemed so powerful, with a charismatic, modernising leader (for Tony Blair, read Harold Wilson) until so recently, was fragmenting, running out of steam, and turning on itself.
Across the developed West, recession and stagnation combined with high rates of urbanisation and urban development (all those high rises) to put fear of urban crime at an all time high. Ballard’s Britain in the early 1970s was beset by power cuts, strikes, and shortages of everything from bread to water. Industrial action caused backlogs of refuse (striking binmen) and cadavers (striking cemetery workers). In 1975, New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy – so close that emergency services faced the prospect of paralysis. Public blocks went unrepaired, living conditions degenerated. The following year, West London saw the second wave of Notting Hill race riots. By 1977, New York had descended into lawlessness amid a blackout. The same summer saw the Battle of Lewisham, with National Front, locals and antifascists in pitched battles across South east London.
The social fabric, the contract we made with each other, seemed to be letting us down just when we needed it to protect and comfort us.
To those who remembered it a decade on, it must have seemed that Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” was less a credo than a statement of fact. The masses were fundamentally hostile; or at least, they were in competition with us, for whatever we wanted to take for ourselves and our family. They were everywhere, and they wanted to raid our pockets: communists pushing redistribution of wealth at home; criminals on our streets; strikers on the shop floor; immigrants at the gates; Europeans around the negotiating table.
In this context, the Conservatives’ famous Saatchi & Saatchi-produced 1979 General Election campaign poster, with its advancing, shuffling queue, looks very different.
This fear of the hordes, the masses – the Other, who looks like us but means us harm – was also behind the high 1970s’ other big cultural explosion: the zombie movie.
A slow trickle had started a few years before against a backdrop of student riots, assassinations and impending anarchy with Night of the Living Dead (1968). But with the high ’70s, the flood broke. Zombies were everywhere. Suddenly, they were overrunning shopping malls, rural farms, homes, city streets. Unintelligible, irreducible, shambling and inelegant, ragged but unstoppable, they were the perfect metaphor for the invasive, alien masses Mr & Mrs Average saw moaning at the gates. In just under a century, those “poor… huddled masses” had gone from being beckoned by the Statue of Liberty to being decapitated by full-blood American heartlanders with shovels.
(The zombie movie explosion arrived in perfect sync with its twin, the other great, quintessentially 1970s American cinema phenomenon. Blaxploitation movies attempted to deal with precisely the same anxieties of lone citizens standing alone against a rising tide of violent and degenerate Other, only from the other side. We can read in Shaft‘s urbanity and Superfly‘s threads an analogue to the British Mods’ emphasis on style as an outward expression of ‘clean living under difficult circumstances‘.)
No wonder politics got so beleaguered and panicky. No wonder Reagan’s winning 1980 manifesto was called ‘Morning In America’.
The mid-1970s was a dream from which it seemed we were trying to awake. A dystopia, narrowly averted. As Ballard wrote High Rise, he channeled this feeling. The block was a metaphor for society, its tribal split by floor – upper, middle and lower – mirroring the strata outside. But others were picking up on the mood too.
Think about that mood. Zombies – immigrants, the poor, the Other – were all over popular culture. Terror and immigration were all over the news. Urban high-density development was driving out residents. Atavism as politics, driven by a deep anxiety about the future, and about securing what we have. It was all very 1970s.
And in its own way, it’s all very 2010s, too. It’s no surprise that High Rise is being made into a film by Kill List director Ben Wheatley. So what does the rise of that old hysteria, those old anxieties mean? What do The Walking Dead, World War Z, I Am Legend and Zombie Apocalypse say about us? Who are our shambling, malevolent hordes, in ragged clothes, destroying the brains of young people and advancing on our gates?
And just as importantly, who are the people promising us easy answers, this time around? Answers that involve barricades, and turning inwards, and everyone for themselves? Or even turning our guns on these “unstoppable cockroaches” and crying “show me the dead bodies”?
And if we know that, then might we begin to change what happens next, in our very own luxury fortress-like High Rise?