Before I went to university I taught English abroad with a youth organisation. I was invited to their selection course on a remote island in the Hebrides, where their headquarters was based in a modernised castle. It was an unusual set-up, run by an ex-army officer who wore a kilt and liked to be called Major.
I stayed in a local guesthouse owned by an old sailor. I still remember his name and (for some reason) that he didn’t like onions. Robert put me to work cleaning the toilets and moving bicycles from one hut to another. Down at the castle there were aptitude tests, light physical tasks and canteen food before orienteering exercises at night.
This selection process was designed to find ‘capable’ western youth to teach ‘developing’ nations. The Major believed there was parity between the two. All the teenagers thought the whole thing was deeply strange but it’s only in retrospect that I can place it as a part of an older empire, still developing.
I read a lot, before the internet and intense work came along. Any 90s Grammar school kid interested in art knew about JG Ballard. Along with Burroughs and Pynchon he was one of the three wise, white men of the popular, literary avant garde. I’d certainly read Naked Lunch by then, maybe also Crash. In Robert’s guesthouse I looked through the second-hand books in the wire-frame carousel and picked out a copy of The Atrocity Exhibition, a viper squirming amongst the faded westerns and well thumbed Mills & Boons.
This copy—my copy—is a Panther paperback published in 1972, five years before I was born. I don’t know how long it was waiting in the Hebrides for me. The cover shows a bandaged person holding a goblet of red liquid. Wine perhaps, maybe blood: perhaps they are the same thing? The text is written in oblique and brutal prose organised under headed paragraphs (‘condensed novels’) that document the relationship between power, media and the psyche. It’s the sort of book you squint at and jump through, non-linear style.
I finally read it cover to cover, in a straight line, a year later, sweating under a mosquito net in a wooden bedroom lit by a fluorescent strip. By now it was 1995, I was eighteen and teaching at Watchara Wittaya, a school in Kamphaeng Phet, a river town known for its ancient temples. My wooden, turquoise house was situated near the night market that serviced the nearby motorway traffic.
In that year I felt everything pivot. Thailand didn’t need my youthful western vigour. Everything turned concrete and glass without me as KFC, McDonalds and cineplexes were erected through the old towns. I hitched my own ride: got a girlfriend, started smoking, lost my virginity and in a particularly Ballardian episode, touched a bloody corpse, the victim of a high-speed motorcycle crash. Certainly when I got back, the UK had changed. I went to university and received my first email address. I still remember that name too: mjc50.
It was through The Atrocity Exhibition that I learnt about my unimportance. In my youthful confidence and enthusiasm I tried to understand the book, to comprehend and capture it. It took me a long time to appreciate how the book—and its subjects—captured me. The task remains (especially now, as I write for the School of English blog, situated in the complex real estate of the University of Sheffield, a world of multiplying web pages and glassy atriums): how to come to terms with that capture?