J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island has always been one of my favourite books, and so I was recently pleased to come across a copy of the Jonathan Cape first edition of the novel, originally published in 1974, and with its stylish dust jacket, designed by Bill Botten.
It must be over 25 years since I last read Concrete Island but, as a book to reread during Lockdown, the subject matter could not be more appropriate.
It is whilst driving through west London that the novel’s protagonist, Robert Maitland, crashes his car on a small traffic island, and finds himself trapped on this concrete triangular isthmus, hemmed in on all sides by busy, major roadways, which he is unable to cross. Like an urban castaway, Maitland must come to terms with the reduced circumstances of his new territory; conquer his surroundings; and reassess what is important in his life.
For many, the necessary restrictions of Lockdown are akin to being an urban castaway: long hours confined to one location; limited opportunities for social interaction; homes becoming concrete islands.
The best-guess location for the ‘real’ Concrete Island, based on Ballard’s descriptions in the book, is a small open space at the convergence of the Westway roundabout and the two southern spurs of the West Cross Route. Mike Bonsall goes into more detail about the discovery of the site in his excellent article in the Ballardian. It is within sight of White City to the west; Grenfell Tower to the east; and Imperial College London’s new ThinkSpace to the northwest. Now a major traveller site, here is an intersection of major road arteries, soaring concrete flyovers, and neglected urban wilderness, which fired Ballard’s dark imagination to create a city dystopia.
It will be interesting to see if the current Lockdown provides inspiration for similarly visionary writing in the future.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow inhabits his own Concrete Island.
If you enjoy reading Dystopian fiction, you may enjoy the new series of novels by Rowan Edmonds: