Wednesday 18 June 2008

Joy without mawkishness

Miracles of Life - Shanghai to Shepperton: an autobiography, by JG Ballard (Fourth Estate)

Sex and death, drugs and destruction, all have been staple ingredients in the dystopian diet which JG Ballard has served-up for the past five decades. Now, this short autobiography shows us why he’s chosen to feed us in this disturbingly satisfying way.

As the book’s blurb reminds us, Ballard is the author of Empire of the Sun, a novel based on his experiences during the Second World War, and the autobiography launches us into the world of pre-war Shanghai, where he was born in 1930 and where his father was a prominent businessman. The contrasts between the lifestyle of the expats and the conditions – sickness, starvation, unemployment and crime – endured by the poverty-stricken Chinese are recounted in a matter-of-fact way which, seemingly callous, emphasise the way such a disparity was seemingly taken for granted by the Europeans, if not the Chinese. Then comes the entry of Japan into the war, the fall of Singapore in 1942, and the internment of the Ballard family, along with some 2000 other Allied civilians, at Shanghai’s Lunghua Camp in 1943. Here the young Ballard was given the opportunity to meet a range of adults, such as ‘devious and unscrupulous characters who were very good company’ (in later life he would consider that he chose to live in Shepperton because of the raffish air of its film studios) and from whom his middle-class upbringing had shielded him, and to see human behaviour – among both guards and internees – and its most base. Ballard exhibits – almost – a sense of adventure when dealing with the internment years. But from his description near the end of this book of his feelings during the filming of Empire, and of his return visit to Shanghai in1991, it’s obvious that the psychological impact of the experience was immense.

After the war, to resume his education, Ballard came to a dispirited Britain that was victorious yet full of low expectations. Discovering Freud and the Surrealists, Ballard wanted to be a psychiatrist to find out what – in the light of his wartime experiences and the revelations of the Holocaust – made human beings tick. He saw that ‘the business of psychiatry was as much with the sane as the insane’. Reading medicine (a prerequisite for psychiatry) at Cambridge reinforced his sense of an out-of touch Britain. He discovered the faculties (where work took place) and the colleges (residential clubs where the food and teaching were equally poor): ‘I was very happy with the first and bored stiff by the latter’. The existence of this nostalgic way of life depended on the American Air Force units outside the city. But winning a short story competition in the student weekly newspaper, Varsity, in 1951 steered him from medicine towards writing – and he wanted to be the sort of writer ‘devoted to predicting and, if possible, provoking change’. For a year, Ballard read English at Queen Mary College, living in a London, where ‘no one cared about property values or redecorating their flats…but brought their clothes in Bond Street’. A short period with the Royal Air Force followed, involving flight training in Canada, where Ballard – already a devotee of American film noir – discovered sci-fi magazines from over the border which seemed to show a genre of writing which gave scope for a disturbing dissection of modern life, an approach lacking in more celebrated forms of literature (‘No one in a novel by Virginia Woolf ever filled up the petrol tank of her car.’) Returning to London, Ballard slaved on various trade magazines, including Chemistry and Industry and – encouraged by his wife, Mary – worked at his writing, achieving success with The Drowned World in 1963.

Ballard achieved from his writing critical acclaim but obtained from it a vocation he could pursue at home – an advantage of critical importance after the death in Spain of his wife (‘I can still hear the sound of the iron-wheeled cart carrying the coffin across the stony ground’). Ballard had to be both mother and father to his three children, and his description of their family life is a mini masterpiece of joy without mawkishness. With his writing he also managed to identify change and cause provocation in so doing. He’s pleased that he lives in suburban west London, with its shopping malls, industrial estates and ubiquitous CCTV cameras, for this is modern-day England – the England of the foreseeable future, too – however unpleasant many people find it. He recounts with quiet triumph the exhibition of wrecked cars – and the outrage it provoked because of the psychological links between sex, death and celebrity which it exposed – that he organised at London’s Arts Lab and which led him to write his novel Crash (David Cronenberg’s 1996 film of which would be banned by some local councils).

His most recent novels – Millennium People and Kingdom Come – have dealt, respectively, with a breakdown in law and order among the middle-classes and racist riots in West London. In the latter, a mob attacks a public library, trashing the books but sparing the DVDs, giving an all-too-accurate take on public taste that educational policy-makers might want to consider. Some might disagree with his estimate of the value of Anthony Powell’s novel (in an age of spin and doctrine-lite politics Powell’s creation, Widmerpool – lacking convictions, oleaginous and on the political make – is surely ripe for reappraisal). But more would probably agree with his assertion that arts funding by the state has helped to create an artistic ‘dependent class…whose chief mission in life is to get their grants renewed’, whilst reducing ‘the “arts community” to a docile herd’. The ethos and ‘preposterous overconfidence’ of the movie industry also come in for criticism. ‘Films based on my novels were lunched, but never launched’.

Unsurprisingly, political correctness doesn’t even flicker on Ballard’s mental compass. He supports the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945, ‘saving millions of Chinese lives, as well as our own’ and that one of the reasons he wrote Empire was because few English people of later generations were aware of the war against the Japanese. He happily recount his basic training for the RAF, including weapons training with rifles, revolvers and machine guns – ‘I turned out to be a fairly good shot’ – lessons in officers mess etiquette and learning to diagnose the first symptoms of VD. Feminists pieties leave him unmoved: speaking of female interviewers who spotted dust in unfrequented corners of his house, he suspects ‘that the sight of a man bringing up apparently happy children (to which they never refer) alerts a reflex of rather old-fashioned alarm. If women aren’t needed to do the dusting, what hope is there left?’

The books has the same clear, almost nonchalant, feel to it the characterises Ballard’s writing, for he always writes to tell us that this – however discomfiting ‘this’ may be – is the way it is. But it’s been written under immense pressure, and in the final chapter we discover why: its author has cancer of the prostate. But, as he comes to the end of his life Ballard can reflect that his books – ultimately designed to dispel the shadows of Shanghai and the empire of the sun’s malignant rays – remain to help shine a necessary, if disturbing, light into the dark sides of the human condition.


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