Whisky and Soda Man

Thomas Jones

  • Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton – An Autobiography by J.G. Ballard
    Fourth Estate, 278 pp, £14.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 00 727072 9

When I was 12, I read a story by J.G. Ballard about a boy who has lived all his life in a vast city. One day, he decides to take a train out of the metropolis, to find a wide open space where he can fly a kite. But after many days on the train, he starts to recognise landmarks from the window that he has seen earlier in the journey: he has travelled all the way around the world without leaving the city. There are no wide open spaces left.

When J.G. Ballard was 12, he was interned by the Imperial Japanese Army in an abandoned teacher training college on the outskirts of Shanghai. ‘The camp lay over a substantial area,’ he writes in his autobiography, Miracles of Life, ‘ringed by a barbed-wire fence through which I often climbed to retrieve a ball or kite. Japanese soldiers patrolled the wire in a rather casual way, and once I had to hide in the long grass outside the fence when I was searching for a lost baseball and the other children warned me that the guards were approaching.’ His general account of life in Lunghua Camp, and many of the particular details, will be recognisable to anyone who’s read Empire of the Sun, Ballard’s best-selling (and most conventional) novel, or for that matter to anyone who’s seen Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of it: the cramped and crowded living quarters, the lack of food, the cold, the squalor, the disease; but also the freedom that the camp gave to a teenage boy, the stripping away of the hierarchies and restrictions of expat life. He had long conversations over games of chess with adults who under other circumstances would have completely ignored him, begged old copies of Life and Popular Mechanics from American merchant seamen, flirted with teenage English girls, fenced against teenage Japanese guards with wooden swords.

There are also, of course, many significant differences between Ballard’s own experience and that of the hero of his novel. Well, I say ‘of course’, though as the fall of Shanghai approached in Miracles of Life, I found myself waiting for the moment when Ballard would be separated from his parents, as Jim is in Empire of the Sun. It never came. On the contrary: ‘For me,’ Ballard writes, ‘the most important consequence of internment was that for the first time in my life I was extremely close to my parents. I slept, ate, read, dressed and undressed within a few feet of them in the same small room.’ Yet with this physical proximity came the beginning of a ‘gradual estrangement’. Ballard ‘thought hard’ about the decision ‘to make “Jim” effectively a war orphan’ in his novel, but in the end ‘felt’ that it was ‘closer to the psychological and emotional truth of events’. And there’s no question that it was the right choice for the novel: separating Jim from his parents is a neat way to convey to more cosseted readers the strange combination of deprivations and freedoms that life in the camp consisted of.

There were many children who were interned in Lunghua without their parents. Ballard describes one of them, Bobby Henderson, in Miracles of Life:

Bobby was a close friend, though I never really liked him, and found something threatening about his tough and self-reliant mind … He allowed me to tag along with him, but regarded my endless curiosity and roaming around the camp as a waste of time and energy … His parents were interned in Peking, but he never spoke about them, which baffled me at the time, and I suspect that he had forgotten what they were like. Thinking of him now, I realise that part of him had died, and I hope that he never went on to have children of his own.

This is a contradictory and confusing summing-up of a person and a relationship, though perhaps that’s only to be expected when the person and the relationship were themselves contradictory and confusing. A much clearer sense of both emerges a few pages later, when Ballard abandons analysis for storytelling.

One night, he and Bobby steal some coal from the storehouse behind the kitchen. Using a broken and discarded Chinese bayonet he had found and gradually sharpened to a point, Ballard scraped away enough mortar to remove two bricks from the coalhouse wall and ‘drew out several handfuls of coal, which I divided between us’. Ballard used his share to light a makeshift stove and brew some hot tea for his mother, who was ill in bed. ‘As the glowing coals warmed my hands, I wondered what Henderson would do with his share of the coal. Later I saw him in the darkness, hurling the pieces into the deep pond beyond the perimeter fence.’ The difference and the distance between the boy in the camp with his parents and the boy without are perfectly compressed into this anecdote.

Fiction is by definition writing about what is not in order to describe what is. For Empire of the Sun to work – to tell ‘the psychological and emotional truth’ – it was necessary for Jim to be temporarily orphaned. But the truth that the novel tells is at one remove from the truth it purports to tell. As the story of Bobby Henderson shows, ‘Jim’ is not a true portrait of a boy in Lunghua without his parents. In his memoir, Ballard is telling a different, and in some ways a simpler kind of truth. Time travel, in various guises, crops up again and again in Ballard’s fiction. And the way that his writing has, over the years, travelled backwards towards the events of his childhood can be seen as one more instance of it: an unwinding, first through Empire of the Sun and now in Miracles of Life, of the processes that transformed those events into the science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s.

It seems likely that Miracles of Life will be Ballard’s last book. In the brief concluding chapter, little more than a page long, he says that in June 2006 he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer that had spread to his bones. He made the decision to write his autobiography early in 2007, and finished the book in September. He has always worked quickly, and the pace sometimes shows here, but that’s no bad thing. There is an off-the-cuff, unadorned, mellow tone to the book, which is occasionally repetitive but never dull. The raconteur always has a few more stories in him to tell.

This story begins at the beginning (‘I was born in Shanghai General Hospital on 15 November 1930’), goes on until it reaches the present, and then stops. Ballard’s father ran the Chinese division of the Manchester-based Calico Printers Association. The family lived in a large Western-style detached house in the International Settlement, with a bathroom for every bedroom and ten servants. James and Edna’s social life seems to have consisted of the grim expat cliché of endless rounds of bridge and too much gin. Their lives hardly intersected with those of Shanghai’s millions of Chinese inhabitants. Ballard’s attempts to befriend the son of the cook, a boy his age, got nowhere.

But still, he could gaze out of the window of his parents’ big American car as the chauffeur drove him and his nanny through the city, marvelling at the ‘bright but bloody kaleidoscope’ outside: ‘the prosperous Chinese businessmen pausing in the Bubbling Well Road to savour a thimble of blood tapped from the neck of a vicious goose tethered to a telephone pole; young Chinese gangsters in American suits beating up a shopkeeper; beggars fighting over their pitches; beautiful White Russian bar-girls smiling at passers-by’. It struck him as ‘a magical place, a self-generating fantasy that left my own little mind far behind’. Later, after the Japanese invasion of 1937 but before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the internment of American and European civilians in 1943, he would ride his bike for hours around the city. ‘Even as a ten-year-old who had known nothing else, the extreme poverty of the Chinese, the deaths and disease and orphans left to starve in doorways, unsettled me as it must have unsettled my parents.’ It is almost too obvious to need saying that the seeds of Ballard’s science fiction, of all his dystopian futures, were planted during his childhood in Shanghai. When Empire of the Sun was published in 1984, ‘sympathetic readers of my earlier novels and short stories were quick to spot echoes … the drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels and nightclubs, deserted runways and flooded rivers.’

After the war, Ballard took a boat to Southampton with his mother and younger sister. In 1947, Edna and Margaret rejoined Ballard’s father in Shanghai, while he remained in England, boarding at The Leys School in Cambridge and spending the holidays with his maternal grandparents in West Bromwich. He hated it. ‘England seemed derelict, dark and half-ruined … Looking at the English people around me, it was impossible to believe that they had won the war. They behaved like a defeated population … The only hope came from Hollywood films, and long queues, often four abreast, formed outside the immense Odeons and Gaumonts that had survived the bombing.’ Ballard joined those queues, going to see every European arthouse film and Hollywood B-movie that was showing. Meanwhile, amid the grimness of ‘home’ and the fantasies of abroad, he was reading Freud and writing short stories. The seeds of his science fiction may have been sown in wartime Shanghai, but they germinated in postwar England.

His early adult life could almost be a blueprint for the struggling young writer of the mid-20th century: two years of reading medicine at Cambridge before dropping out and going to London to study English literature at Queen Mary College, before dropping out of there, too, to become an advertising copywriter. He enjoyed London, inevitably, ‘particularly the Chelsea area, with its lesbian pubs and rich friends of friends who took me to expensive nightclubs’. He also went to art galleries, where he was especially entranced by the paintings of the Surrealists. It’s hard to miss the teleology in this part of the story: the artist as a young man absorbs his major influences – Shanghai, London, psychoanalysis, Surrealism – and all he needs now is a form that will enable him to channel them into his writing.

Tiring of the ‘grey and overcrowded’ capital, he signed up for a short service commission in the RAF. The flight training was in Canada, at an isolated airbase in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. In his spare time – and he had a lot of it – he wrote stories, and read. Reading matter at Moose Jaw was limited to what was available on the magazine racks at one of the two filling stations or the bus depot: either local newspapers that contained nothing but reports of ice hockey matches, or magazines like Astounding Science Fiction, Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction. ‘These I seized on and began to devour. Here was a form of fiction that was actually about the present day, and often as elliptical and ambiguous as Kafka … I decided that this was a field I should enter.’ He has said elsewhere that his stories aren’t set in the future so much as in ‘a kind of visionary present’. This insight – that good science fiction is an urgent way of writing about the present – shouldn’t need repeating, though there’s a lingering literary prejudice which means that it does. Another way of putting it would be to say that good science fiction tells a number of particular untruths in order to reveal a more general truth, which is to say that it is in essence no different from any other kind of good fiction.

Ballard writes interestingly about the genre, but has a few blindspots. He says, for instance, that ‘science fiction went into a steep decline in the United States’ after the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, ‘from which it didn’t recover until the advent of Star Wars decades later.’ This is, bizarrely, to dismiss or ignore most of the career of Philip K. Dick; perhaps Ballard’s dystopian fictions have too much in common with Dick’s for him to be able to look him in the eye. He doesn’t think there’s much around now that’s any good, either, which is to overlook not only the work of such writers as William Gibson and Jonathan Lethem, but also Ronald Moore’s remake of Battlestar Galactica, a TV series that’s as intelligent, nuanced and unflinching an examination of the United States’ post-9/11 militarism, foreign policy and relation to the un-American other as you are likely to find.

Having had his SF epiphany, ‘staring at the silent airfield, with its empty runways that stretched into a snow-blanched infinity’, Ballard resigned his commission and returned to London, to the hotel in Notting Hill where he’d been living before he went to Canada. Notting Hill in the 1950s was ‘a warren of shabby boarding houses and one-room flats occupied by jobless ex-servicemen, part-time prostitutes, divorcees with small children living on handouts from their relatives’, though ‘young professionals’ like Ballard ‘were already beginning to infiltrate the area’, attracted by its ‘general raffishness and unexpected delights’. Another of the residents at the Stanley Crescent Hotel was Mary Matthews, a secretary at the Daily Express, whom Ballard had met and fallen in love with shortly before joining the RAF.

‘In due course Mary became pregnant,’ and they got married in September 1955. Not long afterwards, Ballard’s first stories were published. ‘Prima Belladonna’ and ‘Escapement’ appeared in the December 1956 issues of Science Fantasy and New Worlds respectively, both of which were edited by E.J. Carnell, ‘a thoughtful and likeable man who worked in a pleasant basement office near the Strand’. But writing for the pulps didn’t earn Ballard enough to pay the rent and support his wife and son, so Carnell got him a job on a trade journal in the same publishing stable. Six months later he moved to Chemistry & Industry, where he remained until The Drowned World was published by Victor Gollancz in 1962.

Mary had two more children, daughters, in 1957 and 1959. They lived in a series of flats in south-west London before settling in a small house with a garden in Shepperton in 1960. Ballard still lives there, on the face of it a remarkable commitment to sedentariness after the restlessness of his early years. It seems less remarkable when you learn that Mary died of pneumonia in the middle of a family holiday to Spain in the summer of 1964: some stability was necessary. He may also have felt by then that he had done enough wandering about the world for one lifetime.

The next few years were mostly taken up with childcare, writing and drinking. ‘A short story, or a chapter of a novel, would be written in the time between ironing a school tie, serving up the sausage and mash, and watching Blue Peter.’ Still, he also found time to go to a few parties, try LSD once (‘a disastrous blunder that opened a vent of hell, and confirmed me as a long-standing whisky drinker’) and get involved in various avant-garde art projects. The book, perhaps inevitably, loses much of its momentum in these sections. His attempt to persuade the Arts Council to pay for him to place advertisements for abstract ideas in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar still holds a certain mischievous appeal. But it’s difficult now, in the era of Peter Stringfellow, to get excited about such interventions as arranging for a woman – her nom de guerre was Euphoria Bliss – to ‘perform a striptease to the reading of a scientific paper’ at the ICA. ‘The 1960s were a far more revolutionary time than younger people now realise,’ Ballard says in his pre-emptive defence. (It’s difficult, too, to follow with much enthusiasm the stories of literary camaraderie or infighting. Ballard must have his reasons for dismissing Ian Hamilton, without deigning to name him, as a ‘self-important Soho idler’ who didn’t deserve Arts Council funding for the New Review, but the book would be more attractive without such spasms of sourness.)

Ballard describes himself as an anti-establishment outsider – how many people think of themselves as comfortably entrenched insiders? – but this doesn’t entirely square with his being published by Gollancz, then Jonathan Cape and now Fourth Estate; his friendship with Kingsley Amis; or the quotes on the inside back flap describing him as ‘Britain’s number one living novelist’, ‘the most important contemporary British writer’ and a ‘national treasure’. He may not be a member of the establishment, quite, but he has without doubt for many years now been a very well established writer.

Miracles of Life is full of such contradictions: Ballard’s simultaneous love of and scorn for England, which is at once his home and still a foreign country; his artistic radicalism and political ‘middle-of-the-roadism’, as he calls it, which often veers off towards the kerb of conservativism. He says at one point that marriage is ‘part of the huge price we pay to control the male sex’. Admittedly, this is a throwaway remark made in the course of defending his decision to bring up his three children as a single father – rare now, even rarer in the 1960s. But you don’t need to be Andrea Dworkin to see that, anthropologically, historically, sociologically and – why not – objectively speaking, there’s a syllable missing from that sentence. On the one hand he calls himself ‘a writer devoted to predicting and, if possible, provoking change’; on the other, he is a lifelong ‘whisky and soda man’, who like his father and grandfather before him called his first-born ‘James’, and has lived for fifty years in the same house in the suburbs of south-west London – all of which implies a fairly deep-seated commitment to continuity. The tension between these competing instincts is surely one of the sources of the power of his fiction.

It may also go some way to explaining why Ballard’s considerable creative intelligence isn’t always matched by his powers of analysis, a kind of thinking with which he anyway shows a certain amount of impatience: he’s proudly anti-academic. But he is also unquestionably a novelist of ideas – one implication of which is that he would rather explore ideas through narrative than through argument. Before stealing the coal from the storehouse behind the kitchen in Lunghua, he scavenged for unburnt scraps of charcoal. ‘I squatted on the still-warm ash-tips, poking with a bent piece of wire through the dust and clinkers, and thinking of the Chinese beggar boys who picked over the Avenue Joffre ash-tips. I remember reflecting on this without comment, and I make no comment now.’ Even better not to comment on his lack of comment.

Crash, Ballard’s most controversial and second most famous book, explores the idea that there is ‘a strong connection between sexuality and the car crash, a fusion largely driven by the cult of celebrity’: just think of James Dean, Grace Kelly, Mark Bolan, President Kennedy (‘a special kind of car crash’) or Princess Diana. In 1970, shortly before he began writing the novel, Ballard decided to ‘test my hypothesis about the unconscious links between sex and the car crash by putting on an exhibition of crashed cars’. On the opening night ‘there was a huge tension in the air, as if everyone felt threatened by some inner alarm that had started to ring.’ People got drunk and behaved badly, and over the following weeks further acts of vandalism were inflicted on the exhibits. Ballard’s ‘suspicions had been confirmed about the unconscious links that my novel would explore’. The hostile responses that the book provoked when it was published, and which David Cronenberg’s film version reanimated 25 years later, are on this view further evidence of its deep ‘psychological and emotional truth’. The only possible explanation for such fiercely negative reactions, Ballard says, is denial: it’s the classic Freudian ‘no means yes’ defence.

There is an altogether more superficial problem with Crash, however. It’s not all that hard to accept that in the postmodern world there is a strong and complex connection between cars, sex and death, if only because cars are forever being both advertised and interpreted as extensions and expressions of their owners’ libidos; car accidents are by far the most common cause of injury and violent death in the West; and we don’t need Freud to tell us that we’re all deeply confused about sex, death and whatever it is that they may or may not have in common. It’s not the general truth of Crash that’s the problem, then, so much as the particular untruths; not the tenor of the metaphor, but – sorry – the vehicle. Before Ballard introduced readers in Miracles of Life to Bobby Henderson, few would have thought to doubt the authenticity of Jim’s parentlessness in Empire of the Sun. But Crash doesn’t even seem to have persuaded the novel’s own characters that car accidents could be a turn-on. Despite all the bodily fluids spurted and smeared onto wrecked dashboards, the problem isn’t that it’s too pornographic but that it isn’t pornographic enough: the novel is too conscious of the deeper meaning of the sex and violence for the sex and violence to work as elements in themselves. As Baudrillard put it in his celebrated 1976 essay on the novel (translated into English by Arthur Evans in 1991), ‘gone are the “erogenous zones”: everything becomes a hole for reflex discharges.’

For Baudrillard, however, this wasn’t a problem but one of many reasons to admire the novel. Summing up his enthusiasm for it, he writes:

This mutating and commutating world of simulation and death, this violently sexualised world totally lacking in desire, full of violent and violated bodies but curiously neutered, this chromatic and intensely metallic world empty of the sensorial, a world of hyper-technology without finality – is it good or bad? We can’t say. It is simply fascinating, without this fascination implying any kind of value judgment whatsoever. And this is the miracle of Crash. The moral gaze – the critical judgmentalism that is still a part of the old world’s functionality – cannot touch it. Crash is hypercritical, in the sense of being beyond the critical.

Ballard disagrees with Baudrillard’s reading, as do many other critics, who insist, for example, on the novel’s moral dimension. But ‘Ballard’s Crash’ is altogether more provocative, persuasive and fascinating than Ballard’s Crash. The fragments quoted in Baudrillard’s essay sparkle with promise; as a whole, the novel is tedious and overblown. It’s terrific material for iridescent criticism, but dull in the raw: a heap of unsmelted iron ore to Baudrillard’s glistening steel.

A similar difficulty dogs some of the later novels, too, of which the clearest example is probably Cocaine Nights (1996). It’s hard to argue with the novel’s thesis that capitalism depends on violence and violent crime to sustain itself and thrive; it’s harder to accept that the thesis still holds when the society it applies to is reduced to an exclusive expat retirement community on the Spanish riviera. Perhaps the problem is that the books are novels rather than short stories. In a story, you can fire an outrageous proposition into the air – car crashes are sexy! – and then scarper while the audience is still dazzled by the bright explosive audacity of it, whereas a novel gives readers time to poke around in the undergrowth and catch you fiddling away trying to light the next fuse.

Such (very short) stories as ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’ (1966) or ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ (1968), both of which can be seen as among the preparatory sketches for Crash (along with the chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition called ‘Crash!’), have a casual, insouciant brilliance that’s lacking in the more ponderous novels. In ‘The 60 Minute Zoom’ (1976), a man makes a film of his wife committing adultery in their hotel room on the Costa Brava from a rented apartment 300 yards away along the beach. As the hour passes and the camera steadily zooms in from maximum field to extreme close-up, the narrator’s role shifts disconcertingly between those of film-maker, audience and actor in his perverted drama. Cocaine Nights explores similar terrain more fully, but less intensely.

The other day, after an interval of twenty years, I reread ‘The Concentration City’. The details of the story are not quite as I remembered them: the hero is a student, not a schoolboy; he wants to find a wide open space not in order to fly a kite but so that he can test a ‘flying machine’ he’s invented in a world where flight isn’t considered possible; he travels not merely all the way around the world without leaving the city, but far enough for his journey to be affected by the curvature of space-time, so he ends up not only where he started but when, too. The sense of claustrophobia, however, the hero’s yearning and over-reaching and disappointment – that is to say, ‘the psychological and emotional truth’ of the story – were instantly, unforgettably the same.