Monday, October 26, 2009


The imprint of the experimental rotating loop, Orford Ness

August 5. Found the man Traven. A strange derelict figure, hiding in a bunker in the deserted interior of the island. He is suffering from severe exposure and malnutrition, but is unaware of this or, for that matter, of any other events in the world around in. He maintains that he came to the island to carry out some scientific project - unstated - but I suspect that he understands his real motives and the unique role of the island... In some way its landscape seems to be involved with certain unconscious notions of time, and in particular with those that may be a repressed premonition of our own deaths. The attractions and dangers of such an architecture, as the past has shown, need no stressing.

August 6. He has the eyes of the possessed. I would guess that he is neither the first, nor the last, to visit the island.

- from Dr C. Osborne, 'Eniwetok Diary'

- J.G. Ballard, "The terminal beach," 1964.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


In an interview with an architecture magazine in 1997, J.G. Ballard recalled his attachment to airports and airfields during his time as a medical student at King’s College:

I would flee all that fossilised Gothic self-immersion and ride a borrowed motorcycle to the American airbases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath, happy to stare through the wire at the lines of silver bombers and transport planes. Airports then were places where America arrived to greet us, where the world of tomorrow touched down in Europe.

Ballard was not alone in being seduced by the glamour of the American military complex. A new and modish item of swimwear had recently been named after the Pacific island group where more than 20 tests of atomic bombs were carried out between 1946 and 1958. The fall-out from one such test – the detonation of a bomb 1,200 times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – poisons inhabitants of the atoll to this day.

It was the imposition of the future (the USA) onto the past (historic sites along the coast of a Britain in the depths of austerity) that fuelled this seduction. The prime site in England for the testing of atomic weapons (as well as earlier experiments into radar and bomb trajectories) was Orford Ness, a long shingle spit etched by centuries of longshore drift.

Watched over by the keep of a castle built by Henry the Second, Orford Ness is made up of fossils of the near-past: the foundations of a prisoner of war camp; a tower for measuring the projectiles and explosions of bombs; reinforced huts used to test detonators for nuclear missiles; the monument to a failed Cold War mission to detect long-range aircraft and missiles; shrapnel and unexploded ordnance.

Here lay what Ballard calls “the contents of a special kind of forensic inquisition,” where detritus and ruins, connected only by shingle trails and disused railway lines, can be deciphered and decoded. What is revealed is a hidden reality of life today, a reality which we mistake for the past, since we are told it no longer exists. But the way we perceive the world today is still defined by the structure – ideological, technological and cultural – of the Cold War.

Exhibit A: Donald Rumsfeld, 1976

By the mid-1970s, the American intelligence community had concluded that the Soviet Union’s strategic weapons programmes were broadly defensive in nature, and adhered to the SALT 1 agreements of 1974. This era of detente did not suit a group of influential neoconservatives led by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, who persuaded President Gerald Ford that the CIA had underestimated the aims and potential of Soviet military policy. This clique named themselves Team B, and they claimed that the Soviets were secretly building up a “missiles gap,” and that an overly casual US administration was allowing them to do so.

Adam Curtis’s suggestion that everything Team B claimed was a fiction is now accepted by virtually everybody outside of the Team. Anne Hessing Cahn, an intelligence officer during the Carter and Reagan Administrations, has said that “if you go through most of Team B's specific allegations about weapons systems, and you just examine them one by one, they were all wrong.” Their predictions that the Soviet Union had the capability and the intention to produce 500 bombers by 1984 proved to be awesomely wild of the mark; their estimates of Soviet GDP were similarly exaggerated; George Bush, who was then the Director of the CIA, admitted that Team B instigated “a process that lends itself to manipulation.”

How were Team B allowed to fabricate intelligence information, and how were they subsequently so successful in setting Ronald Reagan’s defence agenda during the 1980s? Rumsfeld’s simulation of a threat that never existed is entirely in keeping with the general progress of the Cold War, a war which never happened (except via sub-contracted assaults outside of the US and USSR). Rumsfeld’s press statement does not respond to any Soviet threat, but instead creates one. It is implausible to conceive that Team B really believed that the CIA was being careless; rather, their frustration at the thawing of enemy danger compelled them to make a fictional case for a Soviet military boom, in order that the fiction became fact. As Baudrillard states,

Just as wealth is no longer measured by the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital, so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract, electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves.

Baudrillard’s comparison between war and capital is pertinent, for the military technologies of the Cold War coincided with the development of other tools, used in advertising and popular culture, which took images and turned them into propaganda which transformed human beings into consumers. In the introduction to the French edition of Crash, Ballard wrote that “thermonuclear weapons systems and soft drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudoevents, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia.” This constant stream of images, whether of the Bikini Atoll or the bikini model, returns to us to an age of Idealism, an era of paranoia and superstition. As we shall see, Orford Ness reveals the fossils and fictions of a hyperrealism which continues to shape our lives.

Exhibit B: Cobra Mist

Earlier this summer, DV and I walked from Thorpeness to Aldeburgh, where we ate our sandwiches on the beach, and then continued south past the Martello tower at Slaughden to see how far we could go. Before very long, we came upon one of many lines of demarcation in this area: a metal gate holding a notice warning of unexploded ordnance. We must go no further; and this was the nearest we got to Orford Ness from the north.

In the distance, five kilometres away, stand the masts of the BBC World Service’s transmitters. They surround a huge, grey opaque structure which used to house a long-range aircraft detection system, once codenamed System 441A, but more commonly known as Cobra Mist. Cobra Mist was designed to use radar technology to detect and track Soviet aircraft, missiles and satellite vehicles.

In the 1960s, when the US Air Force was looking for sites near to the Soviet Union to build a detection system, the Turkish authorities refused them permission. The British government agreed for a system to be built on Lantern Marshes near Orford Ness, ideal for its remote position and inherent security. The Cobra Mist complex, designed by the Royal College of Architects, was completed in 1971, and after a period of local tests, long-range tracking was due to begin in July 1972. But almost immediately, scientists noticed a strange tapping noise which interfered with its detection capabilities. No explanation was ever found for the noise, and an Anglo-American Scientific Assessment Committee recommended its closure in June 1973. Up to $150 million had been spent on a system which was never used.

Some ufologists believe that Cobra Mist was a cover for the production of weapons which could manipulate a victim’s senses, making them believe they had heard or seen something that never existed. It is implied that the UFO sighting at Rendlesham Forest was the product of low-level electromagnetic pulses being transmitted from Orford. English Heretic suggests that the interfering tapping noise – the “cosmic tinnitus” of Cobra Mist – was also the synaesthetic effect of psychotronic weaponry:

A curious feature of UFO encounters is the accompanying sonic phenomena, often described as being like the humming of bees. The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft suggested that the ululations of certain insects heralded the proximity of the Great Old Ones. This raises an interesting question. Could it be that the project was closed down because, rather than failing in its purpose, it had actually succeeded in its real aim – that of achieving rapport with ancient alien forces?

Exhibit C: radar masts

We could only see Cobra Mist from a distance. The imposition of barriers which separate permitted places from prohibited places is what gives Orford Ness its unique claustrophobia. The Ness can only be reached by ferry or trespassing, and what lie beyond these limits are empty spaces, drained beaches of the sort that are found in the short stories of Ballard or the paintings of Dali.

We visited the Ness last month, taking a short ferry ride from Orford Quay to the jetty on the edge of the spit. On landing, we walked through sticky, pestilent air on a path beside a First World War prisoner of war camp, whose inmates were cut down by a flu pandemic and buried in Orford churchyard. The scorched earth resembled human skin infected by impetigo, and there was a light drone in the air, though we couldn’t be sure if this was caused by dragonflies or the alien forces contacted via Cobra Mist (Brian Eno’s track “Lantern Marsh,” from On Land, buzzes with insectoid interference).

We passed the receiver and transmitter buildings used by Robert Watson Watt and his team of female workers to develop radar. Between these stand the bases of two steel transmitter masts, a ruined sick quarters (where only a cracked ceramic lavatory bowl remains) and a smashed-up Nissen Hut, used to test the aerodynamics of primitive atomic weapons and re-entry vehicles.

We read notices and surveyed maps inside an information point, but could not escape the truth that much of the Ness’s activities were secret, and remain so. The development of radar points up two themes of Suffolk: the coastal bombardment it confronts (both military and biological), and the edgy fictions and folklores created by the land and what man has chosen to build on it. We see it at Felixstowe, at Shingle Street, at Cobra Mist, at Blythburgh, at Rendlesham, and it is never more acute than near the radar testing sites at Orford and Bawdsey, where Watt and his team were later transferred. For many years, Suffolk transport workers claimed that their buses, which stopped at Orford or Bawdsey and refused to go any further, were subject to the “death ray”.

Exhibit D: Pagodas

Emily Richardson's (magnificent) film, Cobra Mist

We walked over the bridge that crosses Stony Ditch and connects King’s Marshes with the shingle-covered testing-range of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. Here one is put in the position of the Norse hero Hadingus (or so claims English Heretic), who crossed a bridge over a river filled with ordnance and saw noble lords engaged in war-games on a glittering plain. The shingle stretch of Orford Ness (which certainly does glitter) is deeply reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s short story “The Terminal Beach,” and the sci-fi cadences of its towers and observation points conjure up a world of human and object forms which we have yet to assume. The path across this cosmological space takes the visitor from one ominous junction to another.

The Bomb Ballistics Building was “the nerve centre of the new experimental bombing range” and was used to anticipate the trajectories of atomic weapons.

The Orford Ness Lighthouse – the most likely source of the light which RAF Woodbridge men confused as UFO beams – was blacked out during the two World Wars, and is now sinking inexorably into the sea.

The Black Beacon housed an experimental ‘rotating loop’ navigation beacon, or missile guiding system.

Suffolk, still a predominantly rural economy, has never felt the full impact of industrialisation. The RAF bases, nuclear power stations and military testing complexes which are dotted between the Deben and the Blyth represent the imposition of the Twentieth Century onto the landscape. Nevertheless, they have transformed the coastline – always a brutal, unforgiving terrain – into a place of nightmares and paranoia. Here is Milton’s and Blake’s vision of hell writ large, albeit in a somewhat different form from the factories of Manchester or the vast smelting plants of Shropshire.

As with the Brutalism of the cities, the raw concrete fortresses at RAF Woodbridge and Orford Ness were explicitly informed by the prospects or realities of war in the middle of the last century. At Orford, 600 local people, who had grown up on the land, were sent to the Ness to work at testing nuclear weapons and bomb ballistics inside rough, obdurate buildings which spoke to both a primitivism and a futurism.

Reading Owen Hatherley’s thrilling Militant Modernism, it is useful to be reminded that industrialisation was the road taken by the English after the failure of the Republic and the dismissal of the Diggers’ and Levellers’ demands for rural communism. The years of the Civil War can be seen as a somewhat late conclusion to the Middle Ages – an age before pre-Modern England emerged. The witch-trials of the 1640s (see Michael Reeves’s 1968 film Witchfinder General, whose nihilistic ending takes place in Orford Castle) require a separate post, but the violent punishments meted out to women whose repressed desires returned to haunt them remind us that secrecy, obsession and brutality loomed over Suffolk long before the Twentieth Century.

Leaving the tower, the visitor is now on that desolate path envisioned by Allen Holub; on the way to the nightmare denouement of Orford Ness.” We are now at Laboratory 1, in which AWRE researchers carried out tests on Britain’s first atomic bomb, Blue Danube. Extreme temperatures and ‘g’ forces were thrust at the bomb to test its time-delay fuses, and its light aluminium roof was designed to blow off in the event of an explosion. Nearby are the most famous test labs, their obscene pagoda roofs visible from miles around. The Pagodas had heavy reinforced concrete roofs to absorb a vertical blast and any objects thrown out by an explosion. The first major test on an atomic weapon on Orford Ness took place in Laboratory 1 on August Bank Holiday 1956.

Here, amongst the tight passageways, crushed concrete and dank puddles of Laboratory 1, lies the graveyard of the Twentieth Century. Here lies the Trinity Site, Bikini Atoll, Eniwetok, Guam – all places where we might ponder the junctures of speed, aggression, violence and desire. Here are the bones which may anticipate our future...

After climbing the concrete incline, he reached the top of the embankment. The flat, endless terrain stretched away on all sides ... Here, in this terminal hut, he began to piece together some sort of existence. Inside the hut he found a set of psychological tests. Although he had no means of checking them, his answers seemed to establish an identity. He went off to forage, and came back to the hut with some documents and a coke bottle.

- J.G. Ballard, "The assassination weapon" from The Atrocity Exhibition