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Ballard, James Grahamfree

(1930–2009)
  • Will Self

James Graham Ballard (1930–2009)

by Fay Godwin, 1970s

Ballard, James Graham (1930–2009), novelist and short story writer, was born on 15 November 1930 in Shanghai, China, the son of James Ballard (1901–1966), managing director of the China Printing and Finishing Company (a subsidiary of the Manchester-based Calico Printers Association), and his wife, Edna, née Johnstone (1905–1998). He had a younger sister, Margaret (b. 1937). Known as Jamie as a child, later as Jim, Ballard was brought up in a mock-Tudor house at 31 Amherst Avenue (now 508 Panyu Lu, with its former front entrance off Xinhua Road) and went to the Cathedral School in Shanghai.

Shanghai to Shepperton

Ballard was eleven when the Japanese army occupied the Shanghai International Settlement, and twelve when he and his family were interned at the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre. Ballard said in interviews—of which he gave many: they were his favoured form of self-mythologizing—that he didn't think of the two years he spent in the camp, and the events surrounding his and his family's internment, until years later when he began work on Empire of the Sun (1984), the semi-autobiographical novel for which he became best known. But beside this repression—if it existed—was a relentless recycling of wartime imagery in his fiction: the Ballard mise en scène is never complete without an abandoned swimming pool, a huddling of fugitives, and the detritus of those who have already fled—which is usually employed by Ballard's protagonists as a means of forensically determining their psychological state.

Ballard's attitude towards his time in the camp remained profoundly ambivalent until his death. In a late conversation he spoke of how:

The Japanese guards at the camp had a horrible habit of getting a rickshaw boy to pull them back to the camp from Shanghai—which was six or seven miles—and then, if he protested, they'd beat him up, smash up his rickshaw—which was his only means of making a living—and finally kill him. I remember wondering why my parents and the other adults didn't intervene—but they couldn't. There would've been terrible and immediate reprisals. No food for weeks—and worse.

Commander of the M25, GQ Magazine, 2006

But at other times he hymned the liberty the camp afforded him: 'We children were playing a hundred and one games all the time' (From Shanghai to Shepperton, 112). He even extolled the élan of the Japanese guards, and recounted his childhood admiration for them—just one of the myriad examples in his work and life of how Ballard always sought to épater the bourgeoisie of a native land he never felt himself to be a native of.

The camp was liberated after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Later the same year Ballard and his mother and sister moved to England, near Plymouth. His mother and sister subsequently returned to Shanghai, leaving Ballard to attend boarding school, then university, while spending holidays with his grandparents. Ballard's father remained in China until a year after the revolution. Ballard spoke of standing on the deck of the ship in Southampton and seeing what he thought were prams or possibly mobile coal scuttles parked along the sides of the road—and only latterly realizing they were cars. The cars in Shanghai had been enormous six-cylinder American ones, while the signage of the buildings along the Bund had been brilliantly lit in neon. Comprehension of Ballard's work—which can be gnomic at times—is enormously helped by understanding that his return to England after the war was experienced by the writer as a form of exile from the future itself.

Ballard was sent to the Leys School, Cambridge, from where he went to King's College, Cambridge, to study medicine. His experiences in the dissecting room were beautifully hymned in his other semi-autobiographical novel, The Kindness of Women (1991); but although his combination of forensic detachment and visceral compassion would have seemed ideal for a medical doctor Ballard said many times that if he had qualified he would have become a psychiatrist, and that his first patient 'would have been myself'.

In 1951 Ballard's short story 'The Violent Noon' won a competition and was published in Varsity. Realizing that he would rather pursue a career as a writer than a doctor he left Cambridge that year, and enrolled at Queen Mary College, University of London, to read English. He left without taking a degree, and worked briefly as a copywriter for an advertising agency and an encyclopaedia salesman before joining the RAF. Much of his time in the RAF was spent in Moose Jaw, Canada, where he discovered science fiction through reading American magazines. He wrote 'Passport to Eternity' as a pastiche of the science fiction stories he encountered in them.

Ballard often spoke of his decision to write science fiction as being a calculated one; a function of how what interested him most was 'the next five minutes' What I Believe, Interzone, 8, Summer 1984. He also, on numerous occasions, berated the English literary world in the 1950s as both profoundly parochial and hopelessly resistant to modernism and all forms of innovation. Whether or not this was the case the ascription ‘science fiction writer’ was certainly one he bridled under as the years went by and his work became increasingly preoccupied not with the Promethean and interstellar fantasies of his colleagues, but with his own chosen realm of what he termed 'inner space', which can be characterized as a zone of intersection between eros, thanatos, mass media, and emergent technologies.

On 26 September 1955, having left the RAF, and already describing himself on the marriage certificate as a 'writer', Ballard married (Helen) Mary Nance Matthews (1930–1964), daughter of John Arthur Jefferies Matthews. They had a son, Jim (b. 1956), and two daughters, Fay (b. 1957) and Bea (b. 1959). In 1959 the family moved to a semi-detached house in Charlton Road, Shepperton, where Ballard would remain for the next fifty years. Shepperton—which Ballard described as the Hollywood of London, on the somewhat tenuous basis of the nearby film studios and the echoic presence of Heathrow Airport—furnished much of the texture of his mature fiction: its juxtaposition between routine suburbia and imaginative flight, between intense rootedness and equally extreme anomie. In this landscape of raised giant reservoirs and sodium-lit thoroughfares Ballard typed away his days in a pocket-sized three-bedroom semi-detached house, which, in later years, after his children had left home, came to be dominated by an atmosphere of carefully willed stasis and almost ironic desuetude.

Early fiction

Ballard's début as a science fiction writer came with the publication of his short story 'Escapement' in the December 1956 issue of New Worlds, a magazine which would go on to publish many of his early short stories. From 1957 to 1962 he combined short story writing with working as an assistant editor on the journal Chemistry and Industry. In 1962 he scored a modest commercial success with his first novel, The Wind from Nowhere, which he later omitted from lists of his works. When asked about this he conceded that it wasn't so much the quality of the prose that bothered him, as the fact that he had hammered the book out in a matter of weeks for a cash advance. Later books, such as The Drowned World (1962), had the cachet of being produced for art's sake. Perhaps non-coincidentally Ballard was also by this time beginning to mix in avant-garde artistic circles, and became close to Eduardo Paolozzi, among others.

Throughout the early 1960s Ballard continued to be a prolific short story writer; many of these tales appeared in New Worlds, initially edited by John Carnell, but then from 1964 by Ballard's friend Michael Moorcock, under whose stewardship the title became not only the cynosure for science fiction per se, but more importantly a locus of the emergent 'new wave' of science fiction, which included such writers as Brian Aldiss and Thomas Disch alongside Moorcock and Ballard. Ballard's first short story collection, The Voices of Time and Other Stories (1962), was followed by subsequent collections including The 4-Dimensional Nightmare (1963) and The Terminal Beach (1964).

If his experiences during the Second World War had taught Ballard the frailty of all authority figures—including his parents—1964 was a further staging post on his journey towards a sense of the world as at once minatory and purposeless. While on a Spanish holiday in September 1964 Ballard's young wife died suddenly of pneumonia. After driving the bereft children back to England, Ballard—although family and friends initially tried to dissuade him from such an unusual course of action for the time—committed himself to bringing them up alone. He later said of this aspect of his life:

Some fathers make good mothers and I hope I was one of them, though most of the women who know me would say that I made a very slatternly mother … too often to be found with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other—in short, the kind of mother … of whom the social services deeply disapprove.

Miracles of Life, 227

But his daughter Bea later described the home as 'a very happy nest—there was a sense of warm chaos that was hugely liberating' (Sunday Times, 26 April 2009).

The truth about this may never be known. Ballard's mental state during these years—if the fiction he produced is anything to go by—was certainly very dark. Later he spoke of how his young wife's death had come as a shattering blow, convincing him that there was not even a residuum of providence in the universe. His drinking was also, self-confessedly, prodigious: starting with whisky, the first glass added to a cup of tea at 9 a.m., shortly after the children had been deposited at school, subsequent ones tippled slowly throughout the writing day. At one point Ballard lost his driving licence, but such was his inertial state that he did not leave the environs of Shepperton for an entire year, preferring to walk everywhere.

But the word rate remained as prodigious as the alcohol consumption, and if anything Ballard was still more prolific after Mary's death—despite composition being effected with 'one hand on the typewriter while the other tied the laces of a school shoe' (personal knowledge). In 1965 Ballard met Martin Bax and became the prose editor of Ambit magazine. They collaborated on a number of projects, including a competition for poetry composed under the influence of drugs, a series of abstract/spoof advertisements that he tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade the Arts Council to fund (on the grounds that advertising was an important form of twentieth-century art), and which he subsequently placed in various mainstream magazines, and a show in which scientific papers were read aloud, accompanied by a striptease act. Ballard's forays into this area long antedated the work of American conceptual artists. His novels in the 1960s (a decade he said he largely experienced by watching it on television, referring in particular to the assassination of President Kennedy and the Vietnam war) included The Burning World (1964, reissued as The Drought, 1965) and The Crystal World (1966), both further excavations of the apocalyptic vein opened by The Wind from Nowhere and The Drowned World. He also published no fewer than three short story collections in 1967 alone: The Overloaded Man, The Disaster Area, and The Day of Forever. His short stories—many of which take as their starting point extreme reversals of the natural order—were avant-garde enough; but in 1969 he broke out from the ghetto of the science fiction genre with what many consider to be his chef d'oeuvre, The Atrocity Exhibition.

Later works

Written in a series of circumlocutory gobbets, clearly influenced by the 'cut-up' and 'fold-in' methods pioneered by the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, and brought into English by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin (Burroughs, briefly, had been a friend of Ballard's during his sojourn in London, but Ballard later said that he found the older writer to be 'genuinely paranoid—really quite mad': personal knowledge). The Atrocity Exhibition became, like Burroughs's Naked Lunch, the object of censure: in this case by its American publisher, Nelson Doubleday, who, on reading through some of its contents, ordered the destruction of the original print run. If Ballard's novels and stories heretofore had shown a prescient understanding of the impact of technology on the biota, and the collective unconscious, with The Atrocity Exhibition he limned the contours of the celebrity obsession already emerging in the 1960s. Such sections as 'Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan'—which also circulated as a pamphlet—and 'The Assassination of John F Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race' pointed towards the conflation of the realms of entertainment and politics that was to dominate subsequent decades.

In 1970 Ballard staged an exhibition at the New Arts Laboratory in London entitled ‘Crashed Cars’, which was just that. The exhibition garnered outraged criticism, but this paled in comparison with the content of its novel-form sequel, Crash (1973), in which Ballard's mounting preoccupation with the dysfunctional relationship between humans and technology reached a sort of orgasmic crescendo in a paean to the delirious psychosexuality of celebrity car crashes. With fitting punctuation, Ballard himself survived a serious car crash shortly after completing the novel. While excoriated by some, others—such as the philosopher Jean Baudrillard—praised Crash as the first great novel of the universe of simulation. It was filmed in 1996 by David Cronenberg, and even twenty-three years after the novel's publication this adaptation was banned by Westminster council, while the Daily Mail campaigned to have it banned nationwide.

During the 1970s Ballard continued to produce regular short story collections, including Vermilion Sands (1973, cited by Ballard as his favourite collection), Low-Flying Aircraft (1976), and Myths of the Near Future (1982). He also published novels, among them Concrete Island (1974), High Rise (1975), and The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), which cast his affection for his home of Shepperton in a distinctly surreal light. But it wasn't until the publication of Empire of the Sun (1984) that Ballard was hailed wholeheartedly by the avatars of the literary mainstream—luminaries that he described in one of his last conversations as 'the enemy' (personal knowledge). Loosely based on his experiences at Lunghua internment camp, the novel was awarded both the Guardian fiction prize and the James Tait Black memorial prize, and was filmed in 1987 by Steven Spielberg. Ballard estimated that he made £500,000 in royalties from the book, and quipped that while before he had had the income of an English doctor afterwards he had that of an American one.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s Ballard's works combined the eco-fantastical—such as The Day of Creation (1987) and Rushing to Paradise (1994)—with a strain of grittier (albeit equally strange) social commentary. In Running Wild (1988), he first proposed a thesis about the mounting ennui of Western consumerist culture—an ennui that he saw inevitably leading to the anomie of recreational violence—that he continued to develop in his late tetrarch of novels: Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006). The Kindness of Women (1991) stands somewhat aslant of this, as his most nakedly emotional work before his valedictory memoir Miracles of Life (2008). During this period he also published a further short story collection, War Fever (1990), as well as a book of essays, A User's Guide to the Millennium (1996), and an annotated edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, which has to be the first reference point for any serious student of his writing.

The Ballardian world-view

Ballard's mature writing style exhibited a curious uniting of hyperbolic and poetical fancy with often quite workaday plotting and characterization. At times his prose achieved a level of aesthetic perfection matched by few of his peers; at other times it could descend (usually via clunky dialogue) into bathos. But this is simply the shadow play behind which Ballard's corpus flexes, and mutates: ostensibly a novelist of ideas (a rarity in the English-speaking world), Ballard was concerned to create an entire series of parallel worlds that flank the commonsensical one usually described by more conventional, naturalistic, or realist writers. That at certain key points these alternative worlds touched, or irrupted into the real one, was the cause of the widespread perception that Ballard was preternaturally prescient about the course of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century social, political, and cultural developments, both in Britain and the wider world. It was undoubtedly this quality of prescience that contributed to the adjectival form of his name 'Ballardian' being in common usage long before his death; and indeed to its having to some extent replaced that earlier catch-all for contemporary dystopia, ‘Kafkaesque’. Collins English Dictionary defined 'Ballardian' as: 'resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard's novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments'. Although this is a workaday catch-all it fails entirely to capture the vigorous strangeness of his finest writing, and its avowedly philosophical cast.

Ballard seldom spoke about any literary influences, preferring to cite the surrealists—in particular Paul Delvaux and Dalí—as influencing his creative consciousness. Undoubtedly, this desire to be seen in literary terms as sui generis was part and parcel of a willed creation of his own persona that was as evident in his life as it was in his art. In fact many literary influences—from the absurdist 'pataphysician' Alfred Jarry, through Kafka and Joyce, then on to Burroughs—are evident in his work, although this should not in any way detract from its wholly original response to the convulsions of the latter part of the twentieth century, and in particular to late capitalism.

As to Ballard's own influence, this was considerable, and continued to grow. He was long seen in Britain as a significant if eccentric figure, and in the immediate aftermath of his death there was a widespread acknowledgement that English letters had lost probably its most original and important post-war writer. The list of both popular cultural figures and writers who were influenced by him is lengthy—perhaps inexhaustible. Indeed it is difficult to think of anyone in the early twenty-first-century literary avant-garde—such as it still existed in Britain and the USA—who wouldn't have cited Ballard as a primary influence. In part his lack of assimilation to the amorphous and stifling British establishment is the reason why he was not more lauded during his lifetime; understanding that for writers honours are always infra dig, he declined the CBE he was offered in 2003, describing the whole system as 'a Ruritanian charade that helps to prop up our top-heavy monarchy' (The Guardian, 22 June 2004).

Ballard's partner for the last forty years of his life was the journalist Claire Walsh (1941–2014). He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in June 2006. He lived to write and see published his memoir, Miracles of Life (the title referring to his three children). He spent the last year of his life at Claire Walsh's home at 166 Goldhawk Road, Shepherd's Bush, London, and died there on 19 April 2009. His remains were cremated. He was survived by Claire and his children.

Sources

  • J. G. Ballard, ‘From Shanghai to Shepperton’, RE/Search, 8/9 (1982), 112–24
  • J. G. Ballard, Miracles of life: Shanghai to Shepperton (2008)
  • New York Times (21 April 2009)
  • Sunday Times (26 April 2009)
  • The Observer (26 April 2009)
  • Time Out (30 April 2009)
  • Evening Standard (21 April 2009)
  • Daily Mail (18 June 2011)
  • www.jgballard.ca, 3 Aug 2012
  • WW (2009)
  • personal knowledge (2013)
  • private information (2013)
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • BL, papers, c.1931–2010

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, ‘J. G. Ballard with Matthew Hoffman’, 1985
  • BFI NFTVA, ‘Shanghai Jim’, J. Runcie (producer), BBC, 25 Sept 1991
  • BFI NFTVA, ‘The next five minutes literature and history’, T. Coe (producer), 1991
  • BFI NFTVA, ‘Motorways (the thing is…)’, B. Bee (director), Channel 4, 6 May 1992
  • BFI NFTVA, Memento, 29 April 1993
  • BFI NFTVA, ‘The Guardian interview: David Cronenberg and J. G. Ballard’, BFI TV, 10 Nov 1996
  • BFI NFTVA, ‘J. G. Ballard’, BBC4, 6 Oct 2003
  • BFI NFTVA, documentary footage
  • BFI NFTVA, light entertainment footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, current affairs recording
  • BL NSA, interview recordings
  • BL NSA, performance recordings

Likenesses

  • F. Godwin, bromide prints, 1970–79, NPG, London [see illus.]
  • S. Shipman, photographs, 1986, Camera Press, London
  • B. Marlin, oil and tempera on board, 1987, NPG, London
  • C. Clunn, bromide fibre prints, 1992, NPG, London
  • C. Clunn, colour print, 1992, NPG, London
  • V. Straub, photographs, 2003, Camera Press, London
  • E. McCabe, photographs, 2007, Camera Press, London
  • M. Gerson, photographs, Camera Press, London
  • J. Wildgoose, photograph, Camera Press, London
  • obituary photographs

Wealth at Death

£4,019,809: administration, 31 Dec 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Podcast

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