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J G Ballard: Millennium People

Reading a book like this makes you understand why Ballard is the foremost British writer of the late 20th/early 21st centuries. For he is one of the few writers to fully understand the problems of the future and where our current obsession are taking us. Not for him, discussions of Islamic terrorism, the proletariat or even the using-up of resources. As he has shown us in his earlier novels, the problem is the middle class, be it their repressed sexuality or their need for something meaningful in their life beyond the latest electronic toy, the cottage in the country and the holiday abroad. For this novel is about the middle class revolution, the attack both on their enemies – the police, the mortgage lenders, the property capitalists, liberal governments – and on their symbols – travel agencies, video stores and private schools. The next revolution, Ballard points out, with only a touch of irony, will be about parking.

The story is about David Markham, who is preparing to go to Heathrow airport and is watching the news with his second wife, Sally, when he sees the results of a bomb going off at Heathrow and recognises one of the victims as his first wife, Laura. He hurries off to Heathrow but Laura is already dead. He is determined to find out who committed the crime and soon finds himself linked with a group of middle class revolutionaries, living in a middle-class community called Chelsea Marina (which, of course, is actually in Fulham) and where the owners are having difficulty meeting their mortgage payments and paying their maintenance fees. Someone has been fomenting them to revolt and they do. Part of the revolt is random attacks – a cat show, the National Film Theatre, a video store – and part is against the forces that make them the new proletariat, particularly the owners of the Chelsea Marina.

Markham soon comes across the key players. Firstly, there is the leader of the Chelsea Marina group, Kay Churchill, a film lecturer, who is out on the barricades and who has an affair with Markham. Behind her, however, are a few shadowy figures. Firstly, there is Dr Richard Gould, who runs a hospital for children who are so severely ill that they will soon die. He has seen that the Chelsea Marina attack is worthless and wants to extend the revolution and it is he that encourages the random acts of violence. Secondly, there is the Reverend Stephen Dexter, who may or may not be involved. He is assisted by Joan Chang, who gets blown up in an attempt on the Tate Modern and by Vera Blackburn, a shadowy figure, who is an expert bomb maker. Not only are they responsible for fictitious attacks but are also responsible for the murder of a BBC presenter, whose case looks very similar to the Jill Dando murder. There are also references to the Michael Ryan killings.

Of course, Markham does find out who is responsible for the killings and the price is paid. The revolution peters out and all is inexplicably returned to normal, as no-one, least of all the government, wants a middle class revolt. But Ballard leaves us in no doubt that the violence we should fear will come not from the Middle East but from our middle class.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by HarperCollins