Month: August 2019

J G Ballard’s “Vermilion Sands”, A Trumpian Dystopia?

Although more readers have probably encountered Ballard’s “Empire of the Sun” than his science fiction, the latter genre arguably contains his best and most interesting work of which many peoples’ favourite is “Vermilion Sands”. First published as a whole in 1971, the book is a collection of short stories, written over the previous two decades.  All are set in the eponymous fictional beach resort, (which might have certain similarities to Palm Springs), filled with futuristic technologies and weirdly decadent characters of great wealth and very limited merits. The use of the word “vermilion” in the title, incidentally, is most unlikely to be accidental (Ballard was scientifically trained, had studied medicine at Cambridge and worked for a period as assistant editor of a chemistry magazine), rather referencing the traditional artists’ pigment, made from lethally poisonous mercuric sulphide, whose manufacture and use cost the lives of many involved in the process.

Run down and isolated after an undefined ten year “recess”, the surrounding deserts of red sand are gradually encroaching on the fading buildings and failing lives of the inhabitants, many of whom, including the narrators of every tale,  are in some way “artistic” without having any very great artistic merit. They are abetted in their mediocrity by technologies such as singing plants, poetry-writing machines and light-responsive paints all of which allow previously inert or insensitive materials to respond to the moods and feelings of the humans (or it is sometimes suggested “mutants”) with whom they come into contact, often with disastrous consequences. There are no heroes in these stories, simply a collection of narcissistic and deeply damaged film starlets, singers, trust fund heirs and artists, together with their freakish servants and self-serving suppliers, all of whom are further harmed and often die as a result of their interaction with the strange technologies the stories reveal.

In “Prima Belladonna”, for example, the narrator owns a business, Parker’s Choro-Flora, supplying genetically modified, and highly temperamental singing plants and especially orchids, to customers throughout the world. These require constant tuning like a horde of unruly pianos, using a range of acid and alkaline media applied to their control tanks and taking their lead from the valuable Khan-Arachnid orchid that has  a vocal range of twenty four octaves and is Parker’s prize stock item. When a travelling singer, Jane Ciracylides, with a “good deal of mutant in her”, her golden skin and “insect eyes”, arrives in town she both starts an affair with the narrator and appears on the verge of carrying on another with the orchid. In Ballard’s words “The Arachnid had grown to three times its size. It towered nine feet high out of the shattered lid of its control tank, leaves tumid and inflamed, its calyx as large as a bucket, raging insanely. Arched forward into it, her head thrown back was Jane.” She appears to escape, at the least disappears, and the next day the orchid is found dead. Nothing in these stories ends well.

Ballard has managed to imagine many of the worst effects of digitisation, data transfer and genetic engineering some seventy years before these begin to be generally viable. The real art of course lies in Ballard’s writing and the curiously painterly and surreal quality of his descriptions of settings which seem to mirror Dali or de Chirico. Describing driving through a a particularly sinister piece of desert in “The Screen Game” Ballard writes “The hanging galleries of the reefs were more convoluted and sinister, like the tortured demons of medieval cathedrals. Massive towers of obsidian reared over the roadway like stone gallows, their cornices streaked with iron-red dust. The light seemed duller, unlike the rest of the desert, occasionally flaring into a sepulchral glow as if some subterranean fire-cloud had boiled to the surface of the rocks. The surrounding peaks and spires shut out the desert plain, ….” He continues “Abruptly, around a steep bend the reefs and peaks vanished and the wide expanse of an inland sand-lake lay before us… The tyres cut softly through the cerise sand and soon we were over-running what appeared to be the edge of an immense chessboard of black and white marble squares. More statues appeared, some buried to their heads, others toppled from their plinths by the drifting dunes. Looking out at them this afternoon, I felt, not for the first time, that the whole landscape was compounded of illusion, the hulks of fabulous dreams drifting across it like derelict galleons.”

One couldn’t possibly describe the world of Vermilion Sands as in any way normal or pleasant, but it is deeply fascinating and a most captivating construct. Somehow one just wonders whether this imaginary extension of an entertainment centre for shady people in sunny places may represent the future for a technology obsessed USA in locations such as Donald Trump’s Mar a Lago or Jeffery Epstein’s strange mansion. Whatever, it’s an excellent read, however weird. If you want to buy, try your local independent book shop first, because without your support it may just not be there next time you need it.


More From Life

Herewith a couple of drawings using printing ink and collaged newspaper as well as charcoals and coloured chalks to add a bit more life to Maria, standing patiently with one foot on a stack of chairs. Nothing special, but they all added to our experience of life drawing and even thinking what a picture might be about.





Each Month in my Garden: July

July seems a long way away. Partly because it is a long way away but also because I’ve done a lot in the garden this month, which has rather blocked out what happened in July. Luckily I have photos. I have never taken photos of the garden consciously each month and it is interesting how much it changes in character as the year progresses.

So, briefly; the self-seeded evening primroses in the front garden were (and still are) amazing. A colony has established itself and there are already plenty of rosettes forming which will be next year’s flowers. This is undoubtedly due to the hose as the whole area gets well-watered on a regular basis. There is a particularly fine group where the hose doesn’t fit onto the tap properly and drips. Also in the front my new David Austin rose, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ flowered; it will look stunning once it grows round the front door.

I finished the patchwork cover for the extremely-pretty-but-staggeringly-uncomfortable-bench and I now have five seating areas in my very small garden: wooden bench by the kitchen door for elevenses in the sun (shared with a sundial and basil), blue and white round and Provencal rectangular tables for meals in the sun or shade, as required, the summer house for writing, painting, reading, sitting with the cat on my lap and now a delightfully secluded and almost comfortable bench for reading and admiring the flowers.

For the first time the buddleia flowered; I moved its pot into the sun and it is clearly grateful. The blueberries and mulberry are still thinking about whether to fruit. Clearly none of them have read their labels which specified fruiting quite early in their lives. But the Japanese wineberries provided a long harvest of deliciously tart berries which are the perfect accompaniment to my morning porridge. And the long evenings were perfect for suppers in the garden.


Life Studies at a Lightning Pace

How quick can you be and still produce something vaguely human? We had about ten minutes to do each of these A1 sheets of newsprint from a live model using brush and ink. What they lost in accuracy they may possibly have gained in fluency.

The top one has two reasonable images followed by a really bad one, with rubbish head and shoulders, on the right hand side. No time to make corrections.

The lower one showed the consequences of doing what we were told: overlapping the images to explore space in the picture plane. A very useful exercise even if  a very uneven result.




More Drawing, Both Still and From Life.

Since I have a good stock of images from Heatherley’s, have even organised them into physical and online portfolios and am naturally lazy it seems sensible to post them over the coming days. Any improvement is entirely due to the school while the faults remain conspicuously my own.

We started out drawing things that didn’t move and the results here, images of flowers and polystyrene cups, were done in charcoals and coloured chalks on A1 cartridge paper.


Summer Drawing Course at Heatherley’s

Those of you who followed the One Hundred Days of Making earlier this year may have noticed that the standard of my life drawing was somewhere between bad and very indifferent.

Aware of this, I enrolled for a week’s summer school at Heatherley’s in Chelsea ( which is a proper art college situated in the Lots Road and run on traditional, but certainly not rigid, lines. The results were what the doctors call “a worthwhile improvement”, and I would be happy to recommend the courses there to anyone who’s willing to put in the necessary effort and work steadily. 

Over the coming couple of weeks I’ll add to this post and put up one or two images from the results of the week each time. The one below was done in cheap chalks on equally cheap sugar paper and we were given about ten minutes for the two images. It’s worth pointing out though that we were working on full A1 size paper and standing at proper easels. We also had a very good model.


Making Week 3: Six More Boats & a Bit More Structure

Boats 17-22, so I am heading in the right direction.

I have realised though that it is one thing to merrily say I’ll put up a Making post each week, it is quite another to set aside the time now the daily structure has gone. I then remembered a book I read before I started the Hundred Day Project: The Creative Habit: Learn it & Use it for Life by Twyla Tharp. It’s not the sort of book I usually read but Ann Wood had recommended it, so I gave it a go. I’m sure a lot of what she says is obvious to a lot of people but much of it was new to me – I took twenty-two pages of notes. Okay, twenty-two pages of a fairly small note book with drawings interspersed but it was for more interesting and useful than I had anticipated and I didn’t want to forget what I read. One of her most important points is that creativity is a habit, one which can be learned. I tend to think ‘I’ll make something when I feel creative’ but that is quite likely to happen when I have to do something else and then the moment passes. If you get into the habit of setting aside time on a regular basis (and there are other tricks such as developing a routine or ritual, creating the right environment and committing whole-heartedly to the project) then, the chances are, you will be already set up when the creative urge strikes. She says a great many other interesting things on the balances between creativity and craft, passion and skill but, for the moment, what I need is the basic habit. One day a week will now be devoted to Making – given a capital M so it takes priority over pottering in the garden and is on a par with work.


Oh, and do buy the book, but from a real bookshop please.