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.


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.

The Hundred Day Project Day 91: Stars and a Nautical Mobile

The stars in the title are those that shine down on the Italian countryside, watching over people dining at long wooden tables, beneath vines and bougainvillea (yes, I know the photo is clematis but it’s the nearest I can manage in my Fulham garden). This is the image Under a Dancing Star by Laura Wood conjures up. Set in 1933 it opens with Beatrice, the seventeen-year-old star of the book, up to her knees in mud. She is studying glow worms but this is not suitable behaviour for a young lady. She lives at Langton Hall, ‘a crumbling Gothic monstrosity’ and her parents are desperate that she should ‘marry well’ so the family home can be saved. But Beatrice has other ideas; she is passionately interested in science and would love to explore the world and even get a job (remember this is 1933) rather than simply be married off to the nearest available rich young man.

In an attempt to tame their daughter, her parents send her to spend the summer with Uncle Leo in Italy. The last time they saw him he was a strict, formal man, married to Aunt Thea, upright, formidable and very correct. Aunt Thea has died but he is about to marry a respectable widow. What they don’t realise is that Filomena, the respectable widow, is a delightfully free-thinking sculptress who has brought out the bohemian side of Leo and filled the house with writers and artists, including Ben, one of the most charming young men in fiction. Bea blossoms in the unconventional atmosphere, learning to mix her beloved science with an understanding of art and an appreciation of life in general. It’s a funny, moving book that takes a lot of inspiration from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and is an ideal read for a warm summer’s evening.

I’m only a third of the way through but this was perfect as almost the last book I’m going to buy ‘for some time’. It is a combination of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, three of my favourite books. I just need to ensure that Hatchards has a plentiful supply of Under a Dancing Star and buy Laura Wood’s earlier book, A Sky Painted Gold.   

Boats eleven to sixteen have become a mobile. I’d like to have lots of boats hanging round the house gently wafting in the breeze (this will work well even in winter as the windows don’t fit very well). The success of the plan will depend slightly on what Matilda the cat thinks of them. She has a tendency to launch herself at interesting-looking objects with little thought for the consequences, which could be unfortunate both for her and the boats.


These books should be easily available at ‘all good bookshops’, please buy them there, if you can, rather than from a characterless online site.

The Hundred Day Project Day 90: Japanese Gardens and Boats

Monty Don is one of my favourite writers. Long before he graced our tellies I bought The Observer every Sunday, purely because he wrote a weekly column. Even now a friend saves the articles in the Daily Mail for me. I have read all his books except, inexplicably, the ones about visiting gardens around the world. Great Gardens of Italy, Paradise Gardens and, now, Japanese Gardens sit on my shelves unread. I even have two books from his telly series: Around the World in Eighty Gardens and Extraordinary Gardens of the World, both largely unread. There is no logic to this. I buy the books keenly, look at the pictures, leave the book on the ‘soon to be read’ pile on the kitchen table and then put them on the shelf when I need the table for eating, or cooking, or more books.

Having resolved that for the next year I shall read or reread books I already have, I decided to read Japanese Gardens properly. I should have known that this would be much more than a simple description of gardens. There is a fascinating piece on the importance of space, which the Japanese divide into ma (significant space) and mu (empty space). Years ago an inspired pottery tutor told me that in drawing, the spaces in between are as important as the objects themselves. I followed what he said without quite understanding what he meant, until now: ‘A tree that is beautifully pruned holds the sky in its branches like a pose’ (Monty Don). As a bonus from reading this book I may now be able to draw a bit better.

There are descriptions of making stone lanterns and English Japanese Gardens (Tatton Park). I am now also closer to being able to appreciate the point of Japanese gardens – whereas in many Western gardens the aim is for the garden to look as natural as possible while appearing to do very little (wild gardens are actually surprisingly hard work), Japanese gardens are manicured within an inch of their lives to appear ‘natural’. It’s as if nature doesn’t know what it should be doing and needs to be helped to a better naturalism. And, to a certain extent, it works; many of the pictures here show stunningly beautiful gardens which use the ‘borrowed views’ beyond in a seamless display. Many of the gardens use moss as ground cover and actually moss doesn’t do scruffy well in the same way that long grass and meadows do. Towards the end of the book I found myself scrutinising the pictures and inwardly tutting if there were too many stray leaves on the otherwise pristine mossy surfaces.

The point of this book is not to act as a guide to the gardens (although it does this extremely well) but to enable the reader to understand and appreciate a system of garden design and gardening that is so different to our own. At one point Monty Don goes to a house to be taught how to make kokedama, moss balls which support miniature house plants for people who live in tiny, immaculate houses with no gardens. He describes himself as a feeling like a muddy, over-excited Labrador, who needs to be kept away from the furniture and made to sit quietly. I have always imagined that is how I’d feel if I visited Japan – too big, too bouncy and too unpredictable. Consequently Japan has always been fairly far down the list of places I’d like to visit but, thanks to this book it has now notched its way a bit further up the list.

Boat 16.


Monty Don & Derry Moore, Japanese Gardens, hardback, £35. As always please order or buy it when the time comes from your local bookshop. You’d miss it if it closed.

The Hundred Day Project Day 89: Dust and a Boat

My book for today is The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman. It is the second volume of The Book of Dust and the full contents are a closely-guarded secret at the moment. This is actually a good thing as the catalogue will be largely finished by then – this will be another book for which everything stops.

Lyra is now a young woman, having jumped from the baby in La Belle Sauvage and the girl of His Dark Materials. In the little (much too little) sample that it being handed out, Lyra is in a narrow boat, headed towards the fens. She seems to have gained more magical powers, which is perhaps not surprising but, shockingly, Pan is not there and Lyra describes him as ‘a traitor’. It will be a long wait till October but, as part of my rereading plan, I’d like to reread Once Upon a Time in the North, the three volumes of His Dark Materials and Lyra’s Oxford. That way, when the new one is published, I’d have read everything in chronological order. 

Boat 15.


Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth will be published on 3rd October, hardback, £20. As always please order or buy it when the time comes from your local bookshop. You’d miss it if it closed.

The Hundred Day Project Day 88: Unruly Costumes and a Boat

This is another discovery from the Hatchards Children’s Department. As so often, I was seduced by the pretty jacket. Midnight at Moonstone, written by Lara Flecker and illustrated by Trisha Krauss, is a very beautiful book. The pages are edged with lace, the expressions on the faces of the costumes on the front cover give you an idea of what is to come and the flaps (it is a posh paperback) are lovely. In every way the story lives up to one’s expectations.

Kit has a world-famous father and an older brother and sister who are both high achievers. In a family of talented people she seems . . . ordinary. When she fails to get into the school her father is set on she takes matters into her own hands and goes to stay with her grandfather at Moonstone. The curmudgeonly old man is anything but welcoming, his mind occupied by the impending closure of his costume museum. This is the point at which Kit, and the costumes, come to life. The story manages to be both hilarious and nail-biting with rivalries between the costumes and the ever-present threat of a particularly unpleasant developer. 

Lara Flecker trained as a costume maker and the book even has a section at the end where the costumes are described. Inspired by costumes in museums around the world, it is fascinating and my only (very minor) quibble with the book is that I wish I’d know it was there at the beginning.

Boat 14.


Lara Flecker, Midnight at Moonstone is available in paperback, £6.99. As always please order or buy it from your local bookshop. You’d miss it if it closed.

The Hundred Day Project Day 87: An Umbrella and a Boat

The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher tells the wonderful story of a mouse who joins the Resistance in France during the Second World War. Pip and her parents live in an umbrella in Mr Smith’s shop in London. When a bomb falls her family are killed and her home destroyed but Pip is determined to reach the Umbrella Museum at Gignese in Italy, where her relatives live. With the help of Dickin, a rescue dog, a Hans, a rat who has escaped from Germany, she manages to cross the Channel with the umbrella, which she refuses to leave behind. But this is 1944 and crossing France is no easy matter for a small mouse carrying a full-sized brolly. Based on real animals and people the story now tells of her adventures with Noah’s Ark, the little-known arm of the Resistance led by a hedgehog.

Boat 13.


Anna Fargher, The Umbrella Mouse is available in paperback, £6.99. As always please order or buy it from your local bookshop. You’d miss it if it closed.

The Hundred Day Project Day 86: A Circus and a Boat

In a way, it is The Night Circus, Erin Morganstern’s first novel, which has caused the present disruption. I read it eight years ago but it has remained one of my favourite books and I have probably recommended it to customers at Hatchards more than any other book. I obviously could not delay reading her second book, and now I also want to reread this one.


The beautiful and magical Cirque des Rèves has black and white stripey tents and is only open at night. Contortionists, illusionists and acrobatic kittens, all black and white, perform during the hours of darkness.

This is the stage on which Celia and Marco, two young magicians, must compete for supremacy, in a contest neither fully understands. A magical love story set in an enchanted circus; what more could you want?

Boat 12


Erin Morganstern, The Night Circus is available in a choice of paperback editions, £8.99. As always please order or buy it from your local bookshop. You’d miss it if it closed.

The Hundred Day Project Day 85: Books and Boats

At the moment I am looking after the Children’s Department at Hatchards and starting to write the shop’s Christmas catalogue. I have filled the children’s tables with books I like, a mixture of old favourites and new discoveries. For the catalogue I am being sent lots of new exciting books which will be published in the autumn. Everything was under control until the arrival of a proof copy of The Starless Sea, Erin Morganstern’s new novel.

Her previous book, The Night Circus, was published in 2011 and is one of my favourite books. When I opened the package containing The Starless Sea, I knew everything else was going to have to go on hold. I wanted to read this, regardless of what I should be doing. Emails, book proposals, poetry research and even boats were pushed to one side. This week’s posts will be books and boats, combined.

In The Starless Sea there are doors in this world which lead to another below, with limitless layers extending deep into the earth. Here space does not behave normally; in the Harbor upon the shores of the Starless Sea there is a seemingly endless library of tunnels and rooms in which stories are stored. Old and new, some are in books, others buried so deep that they are left ‘loose and wild’. This world descends deeper and deeper below the surface of the earth, with the Sea rising and falling between the layers and the Harbor adjusting its position accordingly. The characters move between the layers and worlds, their stories meeting and merging in a way which is complicated yet magically logical (if such a thing is possible). A story, a sword and man are lost. The book concerns the quest to find them but there is much more: love, death, excitement and, above all, wonder.  The story and its setting match perfectly.  

Having just finished reading it, more than anything, I would like to turn back to the beginning and read this book again. But I can’t, I’m already behind with everything else. Last week a child came into Hatchards with a paperback Harry Potter, I think it was The Deathly Hallows. Clutched in her hand it was bent and battered, having obviously been read several times. I have often thought I would like to set aside a year just to reread books. The Starless Sea would be one of the first I’d go back to; I feel I’ve missed much which a slower reading (and a little hindsight) would reveal. Perhaps one day.

The Starless Sea is published on 5th November – the perfect time to sit by the fire immersed in a book. Buy it or borrow it, read it slowly and enter an enchanting world.   

And here is a boat, Number 11.


Erin Morganstern, The Starless Sea will be published on 5th November, as a beautiful hardback, £14.99. As always please order or buy it, when the time comes, from your local bookshop. You’d miss it if it closed.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Twelve: The Clockwork Crow, Catherine Fisher

As many readers will know, I work at Hatchards Bookshop as The Shop Scribe. In December I revert to my original position in the shop and go back to being a children’s bookseller. This is a delightful time of year in the shop and I have the pleasure of ensuring that as many children as possible wake up on Christmas morning with the books I like (Emma Chichester Clark, Bears Don’t Read, Quentin Blake, Cockatoos, Anna James, Tilly & the Bookwanderers and Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials trilogy, since you asked). The Clockwork Crow was in a pile of books to put away and I realised I hadn’t seen it before. Nothing particularly surprising in that as I’m only in the shop one day a week for most of the year but I was captivated by the jacket – yes, of course I judge a book by its cover.

The story opens on a deserted railway station, with a layer of frost covering everything and a distinctly Victorian feel. A solitary girl waits for a train. I was captivated. The train is meant to be taking her to a wonderful new life in Wales with her godfather Captain James, his wife Lady Mair and their son Tomas, far away from the (slightly predictable) orphanage. The story continues and she is given a mysterious parcel and arrives at the house to find that all is not well. As I read, much seemed reminiscent of other books – the atmosphere in the house was straight from The Secret Garden, the Clockwork Crow was so like the Phoenix from The Phoenix and the Carpet that they could have been cousins, the housekeeper belonged in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and even the parcel and the railway station had echoes of The Box of Delights. That said, this is a very good story, and none of the similarities really annoyed me; perhaps there are only seven plots and everything else has to be recycled. There was a perfect balance of magic, mystery and adventure and, if you liked E. Nesbit’s Phoenix or Wizard Howl from Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, you’ll love the Crow. I leave you with this delightful image as Seren, our heroine, creeps through the house at night: ‘Snow-glimmer lit ceilings and odd corners with a reflected whiteness; the clocks seemed to tick louder and the eyes in the portraits on the walls watched them pass beneath. She felt as if the books and the furniture and the mirrors were all alive and interested’. And just in case you are wondering, it earns its place on this list because the action takes place on the night of Christmas Eve.


As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.