Calling Time by Stefan Slater

A Note on Ballard’s Burnt Books 

Readers moved to explore further the relationship between alcohol and literature would be served well by consulting Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking (2013). Explaining the sleepwalk from heavy drinking to alcoholism, Laing quotes psychiatrist Dr Petros Levounis: ‘it seems they engrave the addiction at the more primitive part of the brain, the mesolimbic system, and from that point on the addiction tends to have a life of its own, to a large extent independent of the forces that set it in motion to begin with.’ ‘Calling Time’ is an evocation of this state of mind. And a tribute to the greats. 

1 The Midnight Bell

  • The title is borrowed from Patrick Hamilton’s The Midnight Bell (1929).
  • ‘skeleton of a laptop’ cf. Denis Johnson’s ‘The Veil’ (1987):

As drink gave way to drink, the slow

unfathomable voices of luncheon made

a window of ultraviolet light in the mind,

through which one at last saw the skeleton

of everything, stripped of any sense or consequence,

freed of geography and absolutely devoid

of charm…

  • ‘Pride long … nightmares of alcohol’ blends of Jack London, John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs (1913), 88, William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990), 43 and Alan Ginsberg, Howl (1956), 9.
  • ‘wishing it was vodka’, Charles Bukowski, Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983), 250.
  • ‘The emptiness of the air filled with whispers.’ Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano (1947), 140.


2 Locked In

  • ‘Ballard bent … morning alone?’ Lowry, Volcano, 294, 338.
  • ‘Hungry clouds swag on the deep.’ William Blake, ‘The Argument’, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93):

Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burden’d air,

Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

  • ‘Abdicating flesh’, William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959), 9.
  • ‘The storm now abroad in all its wrath.’ Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, (1840), 245.

3 Darkness Visible

  • ‘clouds that shape themselves and go’, Tennyson, In Memoriam (1849), section 123:

The hills are shadows, and they flow

From form to form, and nothing stands;

They melt like mist, the solid lands,

Like clouds that shape themselves and go.

  • ‘fake healer … laughing’, Lowry, Volcano, 45 and Hubert Selby Jr, Requiem for a Dream (1979), 29.
  • Ballard’s hallucination of the speaking woman is from the First Delirium of Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell (1873). These words are prefaced with: ‘I used to see clearly all the trappings that he hung up in his imagination’.
  • ‘retreated deeper inside his own skull’, J.G. Ballard, Crash (1973), 10.
  • ‘The stars unbeholden’, Henry Longfellow’s 1867 translation of Dante’s Inferno, 16: 82-84:

Therefore, if thou escape from these dark places,

And come to rebehold the beauteous stars,

When it shall pleasure thee to say, I was.

  • Ballard’s distraction derives from Aldous Huxley’s (mescalin induced) interpretation of a fragment from the Tibetan Book of the Dead: ‘That was the problem – to remain undistracted. Undistracted by the memory of past sins, by imagined pleasures, by the bitter aftertaste of old wrongs and humiliations, by all the fears and hates and cravings that ordinarily eclipse the light.’ Doors of Perception (1954), 35.
  • ‘like a picture turned to face the wall’, Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), 175.
  • ‘timeless … home of knowledgeable shadows’, mixes Bill Morgan (ed.), The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats (2017), 208, Irvine Welsh, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2007), 94, Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight (1939), 87, Bukowski, Madness, 194 and e.e. cummings, ‘unlove’s the heavenless hell and the homeless home’, Poetry (1952).
  • ‘un’, Ballard’s reduction – unhappy, unfulfilled, uncertain – see John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs (1963), no. 45:

He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back.

He thought they were old friends.

But he noted now that: they were not old friends.

He did not know this one.

This one was a stranger, come back to make amends.

for all the imposters, and to make it stick.

Henry nodded, un -.

  • ‘You could have … jumped right off.’ J.P Donleavy, A Fairy Tale of New York (1973), 77.
  • ‘The bottle … That’s all there is to it.’ Charles Jackson, The Lost Weekend (1944), 93, 224.
  • ‘forgotten that they were alive’, Aldous Huxley, Heaven and Hell (1956), 122.
  • ‘accomplices masquerading as friends’, Albert Camus, The Fall (1956), 46.
  • For the significance of the thunder see Charles Sisson’s 1980 translation of Inferno, 4:1-9:

There broke upon the deep sleep in my head

A solemn thunder, so that I started

Like someone who is wakened violently;

And so I cast my rested eyes around me,

And having stood up, I looked fixedly

To see what sort of place I was in.

The truth is, I was on the outer edge

of the valleys of the sorrowful abyss

which echoes with infinite lamentations.

  • ‘suicide revisiting the scene of his crime’, J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962), 127.

4 The Morning After

  • ‘a glass darkly … dying in him’, comprises a cocktail of 1 Corinthians 13:12, John Cheever, ‘Boy in Rome’ (1960), Collected Stories (2010), 581-82 and Jim Thompson, The Alcoholics (1953), 93.
  • ‘nerves raw … vainly for air.’ Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 172 and Edward St Aubyn, Bad News (1992), 11.
  • ‘lice’, Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (1934), 11: ‘People are like lice – they get under your skin and bury themselves there. You scratch and scratch until the blood comes, but you can’t get permanently deloused.’
  • ‘hot and cold blasts of the swinging furnace gates’, William S. Burroughs, Junky (1953), 23.
  • ‘stupor … stalled breakdown’, John Berryman, Recovery (1973), 181 and Jackson, Lost Weekend, 176.
  • ‘To sleep …wake.’ Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3, 1:72-76:

To die, to sleep –

To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause.

5 Eternal Return

  • ‘Alive to … sweat’, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night (1934), 260.
  • ‘a day without yesterday’, John Farrell, The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology (2005).
  • ‘the white of the tomb … any of the words’, throws together Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957), 95-96, Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926), 151, Saul Bellow, Seize the Day (1956), 13,
  • ‘Poisoned …black’, see Allen Mandelbaum’s (1980) translation of Dante’s description of the first ring of the seventh circle of Hell (Inferno, 13: 4-12), the region reserved for suicides:

No green leaves in that forest, only black;

no branches straight and smooth, but knotted, gnarled:

no fruits were there, but briers bearing poison.

Even those savage beasts that roam between

Cecina and Corneto, beasts that hate

tilled land, do not have holts so harsh and dense.

This is the nesting place of the foul Harpies,

who chased the Trojans from the Strophes

with sad foretelling of their future trials.

  • ‘drowned man … with the dark’, William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), 75 and Thomas Mann, ‘Little Herr Friedemann’ (1897), in Death in Venice and Other Stories (1998), 22.
  • ‘swallowed down … cigarette ashes and sadness’, Welsh, Bedroom Secrets, 41, Miller, Tropic of Cancer, 275, Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969), 141.
  • ‘living to fail’, Berryman, Dream Songs, no. 67:

I don’t operate often. When I do,

persons take note.

Nurses look amazed. They pale.

The patient is brought back to life, or so.

The reason I don’t do this more (I quote)

Is: I have a living to fail.

I am obliged to perform in complete darkness

operations of great delicacy

on my self.

  • ‘discoloured teeth’, Charles Bukowski, Women (1978), 219.
  • ‘live fish … hands’, J.P. Donleavy, The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentlemen (1977), 70.
  • The final line was inspired by a phrase (my copy no longer exists) from Gerald Kersh’s lowlife tale Night and the City (1938).

Stefan Slater

Notes on Calling Time