HEATHROW'S WHITE CATHEDRAL

~ Posted by Robert Butler, November 7th 2012

I was following some tweets by @ballardian and saw that he was an academic in Australia who had co-edited a book of interviews with J.G. Ballard, published this year. Curious, I ordered "Extreme Metaphors" and spent the weekend reading 500 pages of interviews from 1967 to 2008. In his introduction, @ballardian (or Dr Simon Sellars) says that when he was young he was convinced "that Ballard's interviews were superior to his novels". It's understandable enough—for sheer unexpectedness, Ballard is a gift of an interviewee. There are remarks on page after page of my copy that have now been underlined.

"Extreme Metaphors" makes the reader impatient to get hold of other books too: Ballard's novels, of course, but also the books that Ballard read. A frequent point he makes is that almost every aspect of our lives has been invaded by "fictions of one kind or another" and this clearly spurs his fascination with seemingly factual books: "The Warren Commission Report" on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, for instance ("an amazing book"), or the medical textbook "Gray's Anatomy" ("the greatest novel of the 20th century") or "Crash Injuries" ("my bible").

But it's not just books: he points the reader towards pictures by Magritte, Dalí and Delvaux; movies such as "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior", "Them!" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still"; and stretches of road like the Westway in London. He even has a kind word for Damien Hirst—not the work itself ("very badly put together"), but the titles ("poetic").

What surprised me most was his favourite building in London, which I'd never seen. So yesterday morning I took the tube to Heathrow airport, got out at Terminal 4, went to the departures level and walked six minutes along a chilly covered walkway to the front entrance. From the outside, the Heathrow Hilton resembles an aircraft hangar. Go inside the revolving door—even the plants revolve—and there are glass walkways, huge windows and level after level of rooms looking out onto the restaurants and cafés below. Ballard compares the vast atrium to a "high-tech medical centre" and "a white cathedral". Air hostesses were eating continental breakfast, businessmen were hunched over computers, couples were reading the papers. Ballard says:

Most hotels are residential structures, but rightly the Heathrow Hilton plays down this role, accepting the total transience that is its essence, and instead turns itself into a huge departure lounge... 

The concierge told me that next week several hundred oil executives are turning up to a business conference here. Let's hope they know what they're in for. Ballard says, "Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being".

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life