A Vicious Sea of Moving Steel: J.G. Ballard and the Soft Estate

Concrete Island?

C James Fagan explores the mystery and power of our motorway landscapes on the eve of The Bluecoat’s new Ballard-inspired exhibition, Soft Estate…

When J.G Ballard, the Sage of Shepperton, turned his attention to a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, he did not banish his castaway to a distant island on some undiscovered sea. His castaway was stranded on a much more contemporary but no less exotic isle.

The titular Concrete Island (1974) is created not by millennia of tectonic pressures but by decades of construction; Maitland (Ballard’s castaway) is marooned on a space surrounded by a vicious sea of moving steel. No earthly materials form this enclave; it is formed from rusting car wrecks and indifference. It’s exoticism comes not from a collection of incredible flora and fauna never seen, but rather from the familiar; just a slight change of perspective and the world becomes transformed.

From the other side of the crash barrier, the world of on-going traffic appears to be a series of hermetically sealed alien worlds. Despite being tantalisingly close, the world Maitland once belonged to is now as mentally distant as any desert island.

There’s something in this landscape created by concrete, steel and speed I recognise. Having grown up in a place where the soft drone of traffic (on the M56) provides a constant whirring reminder of the wider world. It serves as a reminder that the world is going on without you; that out there, beyond your immediate experience, the endless activities of humankind are being undertaken.

They are people in transit, their motivations somehow unknowable; you can guess but you can never be sure. It shouldn’t be that difficult to recognise patterns of behaviour — after all, we share some form of common experiences. But by not being on the motorway, of not being in automotive motion, I find myself alienated from this transitional populace.


Where am I witnessing this phenomenon? As I said, I know a ‘soft estate’; a place that is only a few meters away from the M56, behind a barrier of foliage. I can’t decide whether it’s there to hide the motorway from this piece of ‘nature’ or vice versa. Here  you can watch buzzards whirl and rabbits scamper, unfazed by the traffic’s elongated tones or by the differences between grass and bitumen.

Maybe there’s something within the presence of these hinterlands, the patches of wild land that appear in the corner of the eye. That in being, these spaces serve to touch something primal in the mind. They act like surrealist juxtapositions; we see two opposing sides. On one side, we have an apparently rational world of the flyover produced by the means of science and culture, which is represented by the motorway; the other is the organic world of nature, living by its own rules, growing unchecked and unbound for its own mysterious motivations.

We somehow suspect that given the chance, or through a lack of vigilance, these patches of greenery would grow, and begin to infest the concrete of the motorways. These innocent pieces of nature can crumble the mighty system of roads we have put in place, bringing it all crashing down. Somewhere in our dreaming minds we see this as the possible return to the savagery of a unremembered past. It’s an indication of the delicate hold we have on this planet, despite our handiness with tools and technology.

You could also speculate that these soft estates are a reminder of the primal power contained in each of us.

Equally, you could speculate that we also fear the possibilities that would occur if the savagery of the verges were to merge with the savage future offered by the motorway.

Ultimately, it is unknowable, as both the motorways and soft estates are not destinations; they are the passage ways to somewhere over the horizon. Where we might find a magnificent and terrible future built on grass and concrete.

Until then, these are the environments that define us, and like Ballard’s castawa,y we will eventually find the shores where we belong.

C James Fagan

Soft Estate the exhibition opens 7pm tonight at the Bluecoat, until 23 February 2014

Gallery open 10am-6pm daily

Read more… In the Company of Ghosts: The Poetics of the Motorway, written by main exhibition artist Edward Chell

Posted on 05/12/2013 by thedoublenegative