‘I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel, in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel, watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.’
The drug-addled, leather-faced rock star from Detroit, Iggy Pop — né James Newell Osterberg — whose contribution to the canon of modern popular verse includes ‘Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, once wrote and performed a song called ‘I’m a Conservative’. Most of the lyrics to this number are incoherent psychotic drivel, but there was a certain force to the title refrain, repeated over and over again in a characteristically vehement and snarling manner. The music press thoroughly enjoyed this chunk of satire from one of rock’s most nihilistic and extreme performers, until Iggy — a mite confused — put them right. No, it’s not satire at all, he said. I really am a conservative. A true conservative. Just recently Mr Pop has been doing voiceovers for Donald Rumsfeld and starring in big corporate tv ads: maybe now they’ll believe him. Truth is I don’t think the Right wanted James Newell Osterberg any more than the counter-culture Left wanted to give him up.
The perplexing and somewhat uncomfortable quote at the beginning of this article is not from Iggy, but from the writer J.G. Ballard, who died this week at the age of 78. There was a period between about 1978 and 1989 when the most unexpected cultural luminaries on both sides of the Atlantic swung sharply to the right, captured, one supposes, by the Reagan-Thatcher revolution. Indeed, the more strongly these luminaries had been previously associated with what was considered a leftist counter-culture, the more likely they were to begin espousing free-market economics and/or ‘traditional’ values: Bob Dylan suddenly resurrecting as a born-again Christian; the ultimate peace-nik Neil Young expressing a preference for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter (and later pledging support for Ross Perot) and writing gung-ho songs about the American hostages in Tehran. John Updike, a lifelong registered Democrat of a moderate hue, taking sly digs at feminism and multiculturalism; Saul Bellow expressing his disquiet at life on the Chicago frontline; even Lou Reed, who once described himself as a liberal fascist, outraging public opinion with the somewhat un-PC anthem ‘I Wanna Be Black’ (the lyrics to which cannot, in all good conscience, be reprinted here) and later sticking it good and proper to the emerging Democratic party firebrand Jesse Jackson.
Over here, our two most inventive, imaginative and brilliant novelists since the second world war, and maybe beyond — J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess — nailed their colours very firmly to the mast. Burgess, we had always known, was further to the right than a soup spoon — but just in case we doubted it he produced the fairly crude, if prescient, chunk of pro-Thatcherite dystopic propaganda, 1985.
Ballard, though, was more intriguing and far more surprising (to those who might not have read his stuff properly, or at all). It seemed, on the surface, unlikely that someone who wrote books about people ejaculating over car crashes would find himself in the same camp as, say, Geoffrey Howe or Keith Joseph. But Ballard, more than any of the others, was absolutely explicit. He announced, in the manner of a rightish Republican presidential candidate, that the best form of government was always the least form of government and expressed unconfined admiration for Margaret Thatcher, who, he said, exerted a ‘powerful sexual spell’ over all men. He likened her to Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci: ‘She took me to her elfin grot/ and there she gazed and sighed full sore/ and there I shut her wild, wild eyes/ with kisses four.’ I cannot think of many situations more potentially disturbing than being taken to an elfin grot by Mrs Thatcher, but each to his own, I suppose. Just in case the message hadn’t struck home, he claimed in an interview in 1986 that he and Margaret Thatcher were ‘alone in the country’ in supporting the US air raids on Libya and expressed a fervent wish to have American nuclear missiles stationed at the bottom of his garden in Shepperton. Asked for his views on the then American president, Ballard renounced his earlier position laid out in the essay ‘Why I Want to F*** Ronald Reagan’ and said that the great communicator now seemed a lot ‘nicer’ than he had done back in the 1960s, when the essay had been written. And then there is that quote at the beginning of the article — Mrs Thatcher being touched up in a Holiday Inn by an Argie while a man with a bad cough looks on.
You can see why the British Right did not reach out to Ballard and return his warm (and at times, er, moist) embrace. But beyond the weirdo sex stuff, you can put much of it down to the avowed anti-intellectualism of British conservatism at the time. A time when, ironically enough, Britain’s intellectuals queued up to pledge their support for the Right. Not just Ballard and Burgess but, one by one, all of those writers who had previously been afforded the status of angry young men back in the late 1950s and were therefore assumed to be captives of the Left. John Osborne, John Wain, Colin Wilson and the great, criminally underrated David Storey had become, if anything, even more splenetically conservative. And our two most eminent poets of the time, Philip Larkin and Sir John Betjeman, could both be placed, fairly comfortably, in contrasting wings of the Tory party. Today you look around at our most prominent writers and you see, with very few exceptions, an unvarying shade of pale pink, a gentle and endlessly accommodating liberalism.
Ballard’s innate conservatism was always there to be seen, despite the occasional red herrings of people getting sexually aroused over car crashes or eating dogs in tower blocks. Or, rather, they are not red herrings at all; Ballard was always, pace Hobbes, a little pessimistic about the human condition — the traditional disposition of the thinking conservative. I wonder if we will ever see a British writer with such a breadth of imagination again?