198 – JG Ballard and the Madness of the Arcachon Basin

I’ve never lived on a beach before. Not that living on a beach is any better than anywhere else. It was just a thought as I wandered down to the sea this morning to breathe in the ion-charged air that blows off the bay and was purported in the 19th century to cure madness.

It’s an unusual place the Arcachon Basin, I’ll give it that. Whether suffering from madness or not. Some days it feels like the seaside, some days a desert, some days a swamp, other days the Fenlands of Norfolk.

Yesterday evening for example, it was in the guise of a dried up flood plain. This morning, a beach on the south coast of England. Gentle waves lapping up against the low stone wall that separates my house from the ocean.

Of course, this is all down to the tides (I have a GCSE in geography!). One minute it’s like Weymouth in Dorset with choppy seas, wind breakers, ice creams and candy floss. The next (or six hours later at least) it’s like the salt plains of Utah. Nothing in sight except some mad Englishman who’s overdosed on ionic winds wandering into the expanse ahead.

These are the scenes I see most days and they remind me of The Drowned World and The Burning World, two of my favourite JG Ballard novels from the 1960s.

Yesterday evening the Arcachon Basin was that burnt out husk of a planet dying of thirst represented in The Burning World. This morning, a world on the verge of flooding – The Drowned World. Each book being a superb example of Ballard’s visionary genius, issuing bulletins about climate change long before the Lexis Hybrid driving urban-green-yuppies got in on the scene.

It’s pretty wet and cold here at the moment. When I came here at the end of October to be interviewed for the post of gardiennage, I remember feeling like I had walked into a sun lamp.

‘It’s like standing on the surface of the sun,’ I told the owner of the villa as we stepped out onto the beach from the gate at the bottom of the garden.

‘You should come here in summer,’ he replied wiping sweat from his brow.

‘I will,’ I said firmly and smiled. Which pretty much wrapped up the interview and I started mentally packing my trunks and snorkel.

I may have stumbled upon a part of France that’s actually better in winter than in summer. Because apart from a dredger over by the jetty at Betey 1km away and a few geese arguing among themselves on the shoreline, there’s no sound. I rarely see a human or a dog or a car. The setting really is like that of the Ballard novels I mentioned earlier.

The Last Human on Earth?

The Last Human on Earth?


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