Dissecting John Baxter's
JG Ballard Bile-ography:
"Nasty Spin on a Nasty Spin"
Everyone on the Yahoo JG Ballard chat group had for months been keenly anticipating the arrival of John Baxter’s biography of J.G. Ballard, scheduled to be officially published on 8 September 2011. Books have a way of arriving early, however, and initial reports from the field were not encouraging. When the Sunday Times published an article based on the book it set off the following discussion on August 21, 2011…
Today's Sunday Times contains an article based on John Baxter's biography, with the lurid headline "Author Ballard 'beat' his girlfriend".
Here’s a few quotes:
“According to his biographer, ‘Claire would appear at parties with facial bruises, usually hidden behind sunglasses. It was no secret that they had terrible fights. Most people took it for a sign less of sadism than of his obsessive devotion and a concomitant jealousy directed at anyone who seemed to rival him for Claire's affections, or in whom she evinced an interest.’
“Baxter also writes of a specific party at the home of Michael Moorcock, the sci-fi novelist. ‘Claire arrived claiming that Jim [JG Ballard] had pushed her out of a car following an argument. After she appeared at some social events in tears or with dark glasses to disguise a black eye, Moorcock confronted Ballard about the abuse.’ But Baxter states that, according to Moorcock, Ballard did not respond. It ended Ballard's friendship with Moorcock for many years.
“Baxter also tells of a ‘well-oiled London party where Ballard confided to Charles Platt [another sci-fi writer] that he planned to stage a car crash with Claire as the star. It would be an act of love, he explained, or at least of passion.’
“Ballard placed his palms on his girlfriend's cheeks and said: ‘Look at this beautiful face. Can't you just imagine the shape of a radiator grille superimposed.’ He asked Platt to be the driver. Platt even imagined it as a luxury American convertible -- a Cadillac Eldorado… “Walsh herself declined to talk about the accusations in the book, except to say they were ‘bizarre’. She added, however, that Baxter had approached Ballard during his lifetime asking if he could write his biography, but had been rejected. Walsh has not collaborated with Baxter's unofficial biography, to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, nor have Ballard's children.”
Oh, lord, I feared this would happen.
The Charles Platt anecdote about JGB fantasizing about Claire in a car crash at a late 1960s party has, of course, been in the public domain for years, since Platt's autobiographical article was published. No one noticed, or chose to make anything of it.
Watch out for a flood of sensationalism in coming weeks.
Actually, there's one good thing in that Sunday Times piece; this... "This weekend Tennant spoke of her own fling with Ballard. 'He was always extremely affectionate and old-fashioned in his ways. Never any hint of any violence,' she said."
That's a relief, because Emma Tennant had been silent about JGB since his death in 2009. She made no comment (that I'm aware of) at the time, and she wasn't at the Tate Modern memorial event.
That article really is awful, though. It gets its facts wrong, for example: "... he had an affair with Emma Tennant, the novelist daughter of Lord Glenconner. She had just ended a relationship with Ted Hughes." No, Emma's affair with JGB was before her infatuation with Ted Hughes. This is eminently clear to anyone who has read her book Burnt Diaries.
The piece also smears by unspoken suggestion: "... Ballard's relationship with Claire Walsh... whom he met in the late 1960s after the sudden death of his wife, Mary."
That's the only mention of Mary, and no explanation is given for her "sudden death". To the average, uninformed reader, it's made to sound as though there was something fishy about Mary's death -- all part of a pattern, you see, eh? Nudge nudge... As for the evidence on which the article's (i.e. Baxter's) claims are based, it seems to consist mainly of anecdotes retailed by Mike Moorcock (again, not new) and that Charles Platt piece which appeared in the New York Review of SF about two years ago and elicited little comment at the time.
Bah. What worries me is what's it going to be like when the downmarket, tabloid press gives its versions? Meanwhile, I'm exchanging e-mails with Charles Platt about the Sunday Times article and a copycat one in the Daily Mail, since he's prominently quoted. He's not best pleased with the tone of these articles, and the way his quote has been used. Something he wrote for the New York Review of SF a couple of years ago is being twisted out of context and splashed around the British tabloid press!
What Charles Platt originally wrote in his autobiographical article a couple of years back was this:
Like any good fiction writer Ballard was emotionally involved in his work. This involvement became a major obsession as he started writing his novel, Crash (subsequently filmed rather inadequately by David Cronenberg)...
During one of the many parties at Mike Moorcock's house... he told me he was planning to stage the ultimate crash featuring his girlfriend, Claire Walsh. In the context of his obsessions, this would be an act of love, or at least passion. "Look at this beautiful face," he exclaimed, holding her cheeks between his palms. "Can't you just imagine the shape of a radiator grille superimposed?" He turned to me. "I want you to be the driver. What kind of car should it be?"
"Cadillac Eldorado?" I suggested.
He became more excited. "Yes, exactly!"
When the party ended we spilled out and watched as Ballard, now somewhat drunk, escorted Claire down the front steps. He helped her into his Ford Zephyr, then walked around, got in on the driver's side, started the car, and disappeared into the night.
But Charles Platt tells me that piece he had in the NYRSF two years ago was written for an audience who would understand what a drunken party at an SF gathering was like -- in the late 1960s, yet! -- and the anecdote was never meant by him to be used in this way.
There was quite a lot of violence and bad behaviour going on in the New Worlds circle generally in the mid-to-late 1960s. Moorcock's own behaviour was sometimes very wild. Ballard's mistreatment of Claire has to be seen in the context of a time and a place which Platt has described to me as "dysfunctional" (by latter-day standards). It also has to be seen in the context of Ballard's own private life, the sudden loss of his much-loved wife, and so on. Drink also had a lot to do with it -- and not just on JGB's part.
There's also now a statement about Baxter's JGB biography from Hilary Bailey. It's on Charles Platt's page at Facebook, responding to Charles's reaction to the Sunday Times article which he has placed there: "Hilary Bailey Moorcock -- The author is getting pre-publicity. I got an email from him asking me for an interview but it was too soon after the funeral and had the smell of hidden agendas so I did not respond. In general replying to press coverage just means that people who never read the thing in the first place get to hear about it, so you're helping out whoever wants to sell the book. It's not fair -- a biography should be written by a clever person with intellectual ability and this is what JGB deserves. But the world is full of Hyenas…"
That's valuable, as was the brief statement from Emma Tennant that the Sunday Times printed yesterday. To the best of my knowledge, neither woman had said anything in public since JGB died -- until now.
Where did Baxter's reference to Claire having black eyes come from? Is it just completely made up?
No, it's not completely made up, sadly. Moorcock did not specifically mention black eyes in his comments to Hari Kunzru that were published in the Guardian (and which Baxter pointed to as his main published "source"); but he probably mentioned them to Baxter in the interview/conversation they had.
I can't remember when I first heard the story about Claire occasionally turning up to New Worlds parties in the late 1960s with dark glasses on, but it must have been a good few years ago.
It looks as though other newspapers, apart from the copycat Daily Mail, have not yet leapt upon what's said in that Sunday Times article and made anything of it. Maybe they're all waiting to see the finished book. I don't think review copies had gone out as of yesterday... The Sunday Times journalist must have had an advance peek at the text, somehow. So we'll see in due course what people will make of it.
But you've got to remember the world has changed enormously since the 1960s (and earlier). It all depends on how Baxter contextualizes what he says -- what historical perspective he puts on things; or whether he plays it all up for sensational effect. It's the latter possibility that's got me, and other people, worried.
In the 1960s (and earlier) I'm afraid it was almost a norm for husbands, or male partners, to hit their wives or girlfriends -- which is not to say it happened all the time. But the law in those days regarded it as almost a conjugal right, if kept within reasonable limits, in a way that's hard to imagine now. Things began to change in the 1970s, with the arrival of neo-feminism and a whole new language of phrases like "male chauvinist pig."
Children were hit a good deal too, remember. Boys at school were strapped, caned, flogged, "slippered" and whatnot. It was regarded as normal discipline. You don't have to go back to Victorian times; it was still like that in the 1960s.
I well remember from my childhood and teen years there was a standard scene in many films and TV dramas where a woman would go hysterical and the hero (or some other “good" male) would slap her face, quite hard, to "make her calm down" -- which always seemed to work, in such cliché fictions. You don't see that scene in films and TV now -- or, at any rate, when you see something like it, it's definitely portrayed as violent abuse rather than as mere sensible chastisement.
If Ballard did strike Claire when they argued during the late 1960s, I wouldn't want to defend it. It was wrong, even then. But you've got to remember the "norms" of the times. Besides, the evidence is still thin -- old rumours of dark glasses at parties, etc.
You've also got to bear in mind JGB's own personal circumstances. He was in a strange, unhappy situation following the sudden death of his wife from pneumonia in 1964; and he was drinking too much as a consequence. Not excuses, but explanations, to some degree...
Brian Aldiss said, years ago in his autobiography, when he briefly mentioned Mary Ballard's death: "It unhinged Jimmy for some while." Brian didn't enlarge on that, but it's a sentence to bear in mind.
More from Mike Moorcock on his forum: "The story is nasty spin on nasty spin. JGB was never a wife beater and, as I've said many times, was a wonderful father who was never violent towards his family. This is hurtful to everyone. One instance turned into a habit. JGB was a brilliant, complex man going through a terrible time in 1966, perhaps more confused than ever and we were all young, learning how to become decent human beings, but our falling out at that time was for a few months and of course I said nothing about clams."
Thanks for the latest Moorcock comments, which are a bit confusing. I think this is the main "offending" paragraph from Baxter's book: "These reverses pushed Jim into further drinking, which in turn affected his relationship with Claire, who turned up at the Moorcocks' door one night, claiming he had pushed her out of the car following an argument. After she appeared at some social events in tears, or with dark glasses to disguise a black eye, Moorcock confronted him about his abuse. 'Jimmy was knocking Claire about,' he said, 'and I had to speak to him about it.' Ballard's reaction was expectable. 'I pretty much knew how it would run. What do you call a clam with both parts of its shell duct-taped together? This being Jimmy, he withdrew completely -- bingo, I wasn't there any more.' The two old friends didn't speak for years." (Baxter, The Inner Man, Chapter 36, p229.)
You'll probably recognize that as partly taken from Hari Kunzru's interview with Mike Moorcock.
The trouble, though, is where Baxter has positioned this in his biography. He seems to suggest that Mike Moorcock's having-words with Ballard, and their subsequent falling-out, happened in 1972. Chapter 36 of the bio deals with Doubleday's pulping of The Atrocity Exhibition in 1970 and Grove Press's later publishing of it as Love & Napalm in 1972. Baxter refers to a rotten review of the Grove Press edition that Paul Theroux wrote for the New York Times. These are the "reverses" that Baxter mentions in his first sentence I've quoted above.
In short, he seems to attribute Ballard's renewed drinking and his hitting of Claire, and the quarrel with Mike Moorcock, to disappointments JGB suffered over the American reception of his books in the early 1970s!
Which is, of course, a total nonsense. The falling-out between MM and JGB -- which didn't last "for years" but maybe for less than nine months -- took place in 1967, as you and I have already worked out from various clues. I've now discussed this with Mike Moorcock and he agrees with us. It was definitely 1967 when this happened, and JGB's "mistreatement" of Claire, which MM alluded to darkly in the Kunzru interview (and which Baxter is now enlarging upon) took place before that falling-out, in 1967.
I'm homing in on September 1967 as the likely date of the beginning of the quarrel. Mike Moorcock was on his first trip to America in August 1967, and JGB was probably on his holidays too then, so it can hardly have been in that month. I think it must have been once Mike got back from the States, in September, that he had his argument with JGB. The October issue of NW was published at the end of that month, and it was the last to carry Claire Walsh's name as the advertising person (she was replaced in the November issue by one Elizabeth Blethen, who only lasted for a single month). I think Claire's banishment from the masthead was occasioned by her evident decision to stand by JGB in his quarrel with MM. And JGB wrote his stinky review of New Worlds for the Guardian in December '67, saying the magazine was moribund, had no real editorial policy any more, etc, etc.
But, as we know, the two guys seem to have patched things up by the following spring, possibly in April 1968. They were together again, happily enough, at the Brighton Arts Festival in early May '68.
So, by placing his version of these events in 1972, and tying them in with American publishing setbacks for JGB, Baxter is very wide of the mark. He's five years adrift; and that matters because, according to MM's account, Ballard's misbehaviour, his heavy drinking and so on, was all to do with the loss of Mary in 1964 -- a loss he was still feeling three years later in 1967. Baxter's placing of these things in 1972 is eight years after Mary's death, an implausibly long time.
By stringing out his third-hand anecdotes throughout the book, and giving the impression that they happened over many years, Baxter does tend to present a static, unchanging picture of Ballard as a kind of low-level psychotic. He was "always that way" is the impression the unwary reader will get.
Again taken from Mike Moorcock's forum: "Here's the draft of my letter to The Sunday Times. There's no suggestion that JGB was given to generally violent behaviour nor did his children have anything but a very happy childhood. He went through a couple of bad patches, once after Mary died and once in the 70s, but the time I spoke to him about this was in 1966 and we were back on good terms by early 1967.
With reference to your piece about J.G. Ballard in The Sunday Times (21 August) I would like to say that Ballard and I were friends for some fifty years and that, while he went through a brief bad patch akin to a nervous breakdown after his wife died suddenly, leaving him with three small children, he had no reputation as a 'wife beater', though he did drink too much and make hideous jokes. After he met Claire Walsh he eventually returned to his old, generally affable self. As someone said recently of him in another context, if he wished to wound he could do it very successfully with words. That he rarely wounded is surely a sign that he was not, in his normal behaviour, any sort of beater. Indeed, his tendency was always to suppress his anger when some of us thought he had every right to let it out. I do hope you will find space to publish this letter, particularly since your story has caused considerable distress to Ballard's friends and family.
Thanks for forwarding that. I've now e-mailed Mike Moorcock to tell him that his letter to the Sunday Times reads well and is probably the best he can do in the circumstances.
Then, Unfavourable Newspaper Reviews Appear
Having published its "shock, horror" story the other week, today's Sunday Times has a review of John Baxter's biography by Ian Thompson. It's a review which gives Baxter a right going-over for glib, unsubstantiated claims, and for ignoring Ballard as a writer. Here's the last paragraph: "Ballard, who worked briefly for a London advertising agency in the early 1950s after abandoning medicine, had something of the 'ad man's ability' to promote himself, says Baxter, as well as the copywriter's gift for phrase-making. Sadly one cannot say the same for Baxter, whose prose groans under ill-chosen adverbs and conceits. To meet, Ballard was a generous, charming man with a ready wit, but one would hardly know it from this salacious and slipshod biography. For all its claim to authority, The Inner Man reads like a rushed job. Ballard deserved so much better than this."
Thanks for telling us of that review. So, it looks as though the verdict is in.
I take it the reviewer is Ian Thomson -- without a "p"? The guy who wrote the travel book about Haiti that JGB praised? He also interviewed JGB at least once. Another book that I'm reading at the moment, James Hamilton-Paterson's Empire of the Clouds, has a commendation from Ian Thomson on its back cover.
Yes, sorry, it is "Thomson" without a "p". He notes that Baxter's book is "unofficial" and that Claire and the children declined to co-operate; then at the end of the review we learn that "Ian Thomson's books include a biography of Primo Levi" (see http://tinyurl.com/423utye). So maybe this is a job application.
Any sign of Mike Moorcock's letter in today's Sunday Times?
Yes, it's there, with the heading "The JG Ballard I knew was no woman-beater", and slightly different from Mike M's original draft: Your article about JG Ballard 'Author of Crash "beat" his girlfriend' (News, August 21) has caused considerable distress to many people who cared about a fine, loving parent and friend. Ballard and I were friends for some 50 years. He was a complex and brilliant man, and in the 1960s his wife died suddenly, leaving him to raise the three children he loved. He had in this period something that seemed very much like a breakdown but it was short-lived. At the time he did drink too much and make lousy black jokes, but people who cared about him had a clear idea what was happening. After he met Claire Walsh he eventually returned to his old, generally affable self. He was certainly not the man characterised in your article. As someone said recently of him in another context, if he wished to wound he could do it very successfully with words. That he rarely wounded is surely a sign that he was not, in his normal behaviour, any sort of beater. Indeed, his tendency was always to suppress his anger when some of us thought he had every right to let it out.
I'd suggest you pen a review or two yourself, David...
As per your request, reviews in two papers:
Whether or not Ballard was an exemplary bourgeois, what seems undeniable is that his writing could be extraordinary. But you would never know it from reading this unimpressive and mealy-mouthed biography.
In every other respect, Baxter is either out of his depth, or waving frantically for attention, or both.
So the reviews have started appearing -- in the Independent on Sunday and The Guardian. Congratulations on being the first to point them out. It was the early hours of the morning here in the UK when you sent your message. Not so good, are they? They chime with Ian Thomson's Sunday Times review, on the whole.
I'd suggest you pen a review or two, David
Well, I'd been waiting for at least a few of you to get hold of your own copies of the book. Besides, where to begin...? Here's a "review" of just the first two paragraphs: http://www.jgballard.ca/criticism/pringle_baxter_review.html
A Closer Look At The Book
My copy arrived in the post on Saturday morning, but I've only just found the time to look at the first 30 pages or so. The first thing that struck me was that Baxter seemed not have liked Ballard at all. Everything said about him so far is negative. From the fact that the term "inner space" had been used by others before Ballard used it, to the fact that he got his parents' dates of birth wrong by a year in Miracles of Life, and that a number of his friends didn't realize that he had a younger sister. These are all indicative of the most appalling character traits...
My favourite example so far is on p. 27, where Baxter mentions Ballard's liking for the American cars that he had seen in Shanghai, to which he adds: "Yet even when he became rich, he never bought such a car, always driving mid-level British saloons... he preferred to nurse a resentment of childhood loss rather than do something to redress it." The man has the psychological insight of an ostrich!
There are also wild claims, such as that Ballard's childhood left him with "an enduring racism". The evidence that Baxter gives for this is that Ballard didn't learn a foreign language, that all his characters are white except for a few villains, and that "in adulthood his few friends were entirely Anglo-Saxon." That's on pp. 10-11, but on p. 31 we learn that at Leys School he befriended "Dhun Robin Chand, an Anglo-Indian" (i.e. mixed English and Indian parentage) presumably that’s why Baxter carefully added the words “in adulthood”.
Aha! Robin Chand, unmasked at last! (The New Worlds Profile in the December 1956 issue referred to "the expressionist Robin Chand," and you may remember a certain amount of fruitless effort and speculation directed towards placing him, including my suggestion that maybe it had started out as "Robichaud" before Carnell's proofreading got to it.)
Well spotted. Yes, that's one of the few things I learned from Baxter's research -- and it made me clap my forehead too. Baxter had been to The Leys, or at least been in touch with someone there, and had obtained the names of the three boys Ballard referred to in Miracles of Life: Despite my efforts to fit in, I think I was a bit of a misfit at school... I had a few close friends, an Anglo-Indian boy who went up to Trinity a year ahead of me to study medicine, and an American exchange student. There was also a boy called Frank who was an Auschwitz survivor and had his number prominently tattooed on his arm. He was adopted after the war by an emigre Cambridge physicist and his wife, and attended The Leys as a day boy. To begin with, he spoke no English, but he was well-liked. I was drawn to all of them because they were foreigners. (Ballard, Miracles, p 135.)
The "Anglo-Indian boy" was Robin Chand; the "American exchange student" was Brian Helliwell; and the "boy called Frank" was Reinhard Frank. A half-Indian, a Yank, and a German Jew...
I've been researching the three of them since, and in fact Ballard got several details wrong in his all-too-brief descriptions of them -- e.g. Chand may have been Anglo-Indian in that his father was an Indian doctor, but he was born and raised in Nottingham, England, with an English mother -- so scarcely "foreign" at all.
And nor was Helliwell really a Yank. He'd spent time over there, and hence spoke with an American accent when JGB knew him, but in fact he too was born and bred in England. Only Reinhard Frank was really a foreigner, in that he could scarcely speak English when he arrived at The Leys, but he soon fitted in well enough. And I pointed out to Baxter when I read his draft that there are in fact a few sympathetic non-whites in JGB's novels and stories -- e.g. Mr Jordan in The Drought, Oldsmobile in "The Ultimate City," and, almost certainly the protagonist, Johnson, in the 1990 short story "Dream Cargoes." Also, isn't Noon in a sense the heroine of The Day of Creation? But Baxter ignored my comments on the matter.
On to Cambridge University. Baxter sets out JGB's "transcendental take" on his experiences in the dissecting room, evoking "abattoir and nightclub". He then says that JGB only once deviated from his "romantic evocation" of the dissecting room, in a 1999 interview, and he gives a long quote, starting "There were 20 tables, each with a cadaver lying on it" (p. 44).
He suggests that the reason why in this instance JGB abandoned the "grisly glamour" in his descriptions for a more straightforward account was that his mother had died the year before, ending the emotional link to the female corpse that he'd dissected, a surrogate for his mother whose body he'd broken up like a junked car.
Interesting, I thought. But then I looked at that 1999 interview (The Sunday Times, 7 Mar 1999) and that first sentence isn't as Baxter quotes it but "You walked into this huge room, which was a cross between a butcher's shop and a nightclub, with rather eerie overhead lighting, and there were 20 tables, each with a cadaver lying on it." So the grisly glamour was there after all! Baxter has doctored the quote to make it appear otherwise.
A minor point on pp. 4-5, but something that David raised a couple of months ago when it was mentioned in Iain Sinclair's Ghost Milk -- the suggestion that JGB used an audiotypist rather than type a novel himself.
Here's what Baxter says: "Having completed a paragraph by hand, he would type a copy and read it to himself, making more corrections. Once he could afford them, he used audio typists, taping his texts and sending them out to be transcribed -- anything to preserve that distinctive voice. The technique explains the simplicity of his sentences, their brevity and understatement, the lack of extraneous adjectives, and their special euphony. He isn't writing the story. He's telling it."
The suggestion here is that dictation became central to Ballard's creative process: "He's telling it". However, the archive at the BL contains autograph (i.e. hand-written) manuscripts for every novel from Hello America to Kingdom Come, so Baxter's suggestion here appears to be wrong.
I believe JGB when he said in a letter to Vale that he used the services of an audio-typist just once, and didn't much like the experience and so went back to typing everything himself for all later books. That was for The Day of Creation, which he was finalizing in 1986, just when he was also sitting for his portrait by Brigid Marlin.
Baxter, for some odd reason, seems to want to believe that Ballard dictated everything into a tape recorder from about the time of Empire of the Sun onwards. It wasn't so, in my opinion.
He has this bad habit, does Baxter, of seizing on little things which seem to have struck him like "eureka moments" when he was reading JGB's letters or interviews -- moments when he thought he saw "the truth" about Ballard -- and then remaining unbudgeable on these matters when presented with contradictory evidence, qualifications, etc.
One of the annoying things about The Inner Man is that, although there's an acknowledgements section at the back, there are no references at all -- so unless we engage in some detective work, we've no idea where Baxter picked up his "facts". Even many of the quotes from other people are unattributed -- though having reached p. 60 I see that he's stared crediting some of them to the likes of Mike Moorcock and Malcolm Edwards.
One such factoid is that, although Ballard said he dreamt prodigiously and to remember each dream, "The Watch Towers" is the only story to incorporate material from his dreams. Try as I might I can't find any mention of this previously -- David, any ideas?
I agree with you that the lack of notes and consistent attributions is intensely annoying, and very unprofessional. Academics will throw up their hands in horror at the Baxter bio. I can, however, locate most of the sources he quotes from -- because of my specialist knowledge. Most readers, though, will be all at sea, unless, like thee and me, they've got large databases of Ballardiana on their computers, accumulated over many years...
The bit about "The Watch-Towers" being based on a dream is in fact something I can identify. It comes from the brief story notes JGB wrote for the Italian translator Riccardo Valla in 1967. I wangled a copy of those notes from Riccardo a couple of years ago, and it was me who sent the scan on to Baxter for his use (in exchange for him sending me scans of, e.g., that Ballard/Jannick Storm letter of 1970 that he refers to in his opening paragraph.
All of relevance that Ballard said about "The Watch-Towers" in those notes was: "This, one of my own favourite stories, came to me in a dream..." As usual, though, Baxter gets it wrong when he says "The Watch-Towers" was the only story to incorporate material from JGB's dreams. He's ignoring, or most likely doesn't know about, a much later story note JGB wrote: "Report on an Unidentified Space Station is one of the very few stories that I have written to be set in that happy hunting ground of traditional science fiction -- outer space. Out of some hundred or more of my short stories, which fill some ten volumes, this is only the third to take place in deep space. Perhaps the silence of those infinite spaces, which so terrified Pascal, has at last begun to get through to me. However, readers of the story will see that this is, after all, a special kind of space, far closer to terra firma than it might seem at first, and even perhaps to inner space itself. The story is also one of the very few of mine to be directly inspired by a dream -- in this case, a nightmare of extreme anguish, though I like to think that the mood of the story is one of serenity and peace, part of the difference, it may be, between dream and imagination." (Ballard, introduction to the story, Top Fantasy: The Authors' Choice ed. Josh Pachter, London: Dent, 1985.)
It's a bit of a stretch to go from the fact that “The Watch-Towers” was based on a dream to the claim that it was the only JGB story based on a dream! I suspect something similar in his statement that JGB named Wyndham Lewis as one of his favourite writers when he hadn't actually read him, only listened to a radio serialisation of The Human Age (p. 46). I can trace JGB's comment about the radio broadcasts, but that doesn't mean he hadn't read the books.
Ah, I can tell you that Baxter got that notion from Mike Moorcock. It was Mike who commissioned Ballard's review of the "Human Age" trilogy for New Worlds in 1966, and it was he, according to Baxter, who expressed some doubt, in conversation with Baxter, as to whether JGB had ever actually read the books.
To set against that, though, we must remember that Mike Moorcock was the guy who made the crack about Ballard only ever owning two novels -- Ulysses and Moby-Dick -- and he only had the latter on his shelves "because Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay."
Compared to Moorcock, whose appetite (and capacity for intelligent speed-reading?) was gargantuan, it's true that JGB was not a great reader of novels. He probably only read a fraction of what Mike read, and never got around to George Meredith and the like at all -- but then he spent a lot of time going round art galleries and browsing through art books and exhibition catalogues (Riccardo Valla sent him a number of such items from Italy, and JGB expressed great gratitude and asked for more). He also spent a lot of time reading Time and Life and other periodical matter, including his famous "invisible literature." At one point, as he stated in a couple of interviews, he was even a subscriber to the journal Psychological Abstracts. (People ought to take a look at the latter, especially for the period 1967-1970, if they want to see the prime "source" for JGB's short prose satires at the back of The Atrocity Exhibition.) However, I expect Ballard did read at least some of Wyndham Lewis's work, having been impressed by the BBC radio serialization in 1955.
Thanks, David. I looked at Ballard's 1966 review of the "Human Age" books, and it certainly didn't look like he'd pulled it from his memory of a radio series 10 years before.
Having heard Claire's comment at the Ballardian Architecture conference, that JGB was "a terrific tease; he really, really liked to keep everyone guessing", I can just imagine the conversation between Moorcock and Ballard:
"Christ, Jimmy, you've made another mistake here - it wasn't Pullman who did that, it was Satters!"
"Oh, was it? Just change it, then."
"Bloody hell, haven't you even read these books?"
"Of course not, Mike. I heard the radio broadcasts years ago. Why would I bother with the books?"
Baxter makes an interesting comment about Ballard's ability to write a novel: "His truculence [about naturalistic fiction] could be an aspect of his psychopathology, since it echoes the hostility of someone trying to hide a physical or psychological dysfunction - epilepsy, dyslexia, illiteracy. Perhaps he didn't have the patience to stick with a narrative and a collection of characters long enough to complete a conventional novel. This is borne out by the limp conclusions of his late 'thrillers' Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, which lose momentum a third of the way from the end. Jim wrote in flashes of a delusional, often manic vividness... This is not the timber of which the well-constructed novel is made." (pp. 97-98)
It's often been said that Ballard's short stories are better than his novels, but he actually took great pains over plotting and narrative. That's why, he has said, he always wrote a detailed synopsis for each novel. Certainly that's the case with the synopsis of High-Rise that I've been looking at in the British Library -- as well as the basic ideas to be explored in the book, it sets out the "action" of the novel: who does what, where and when they do it, with whom they do it, and so on. The characters sometimes have a number in brackets after their names, as if there was a separate piece of paper on which JGB had noted further details about them. And the "World versus America" notepads are primarily jottings about the plot, rather than the ideas -- a pity, as I would have found the latter more interesting.
Baxter does mention that Ballard did try and take an interest in narrative, "taking it apart like a broken toy, examining each component like a naturally gifted but unschooled handyman who can't understand the manual". But all Baxter actually refers to is the word collages that formed Project for a New Novel. Actually, I think that Ballard did too much plotting. Several of the novels have periods when the reader's interest wanes, and these are usually where the narrative consists of a series of encounters between different permutations of the characters. I'm thinking, for example, of much of the first half of The Drought, the chapters in The Drowned World after Strangman appears, the middle of High-Rise, and rather too much of Cocaine Nights. I don't believe JGB was uninterested in narrative structure, or didn't have the stamina for it, I think he just wasn't especially good at it!
And returning to Baxter's comments - is a "well-constructed" piece of work what we really look for from our poets and seers?
Baxter claims that "Jim's paramount skill was his ad man's ability to remarket himself" (p. 125). Maybe JGB would not have disagreed: "Any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it" (Telegraph, 2004).
Baxter grossly exaggerates Ballard's career as an ad-man. JGB told me in 1981: "I went to work for an advertising agency called Digby Wills Ltd, where I wrote copy, for lemon juice among other things. I was there for three or four months." (Ballard, Pringle interview, 1981.)
That's all we know about JGB's time at Digby Wills. Three or four months. Wrote copy for lemon juice among other products. I estimated this was probably in 1953. He'd been a student at Queen Mary College, Univ. of London, in 1951-52. He would join the RAF as a trainee pilot in 1954-1955. His brief advertising career came somewhere in between those things, probably in '53.
Online, in something called the History of Advertising Trust website, I found this: "Digby Wills Ltd had been established in 1951 in two small rooms in High Holborn, London. At first only a copy and art service was offered but by the end of 1966, when the agency was sold to Norman Craig & Kummel, it had built up a substantial client list. Their big break came when they started handling advertising for PLJ (Pure Lemon Juice, in a bottle), aiming at the health and beauty market. The campaign was so successful that the product went from a turnover of £30,000 in 1954 to £1,300,000 in 1959."
Evidently Baxter found that too, because he quotes those figures for the increase in sales of Pure Lemon Juice -- and then he claims that Ballard was responsible for it! He was an advertising genius, says Baxter -- the success of Digby Wills's ad campaign, and the increase in sales of PLJ, was all down to JGB. As a junior member of staff who spent three or four months in the agency, I rather doubt that Ballard deserves as much credit as Baxter gives him. But anything for a good story...
Baxter runs with the legend of Ballard, genius ad-man -- all based on the above "evidence" and no more.
Stunning! Even the HAT story says they sold just £30,000 in 1954, a year after JG left... he wasn't even around for the successful campaigns. And unless Digby Wills was decades ahead of its competitors in the meritocracy game, a junior copywriter in 1953 wasn't going to make much of a splash because the senior copywriters simply absorb their work...
It's interesting to note Digby Wills was then what is now called a "creative boutique" -- copy and art only -- without offering marketing or media services... less financially risky for startups... so maybe they were small (and hungry) enough to share the glory. If you want to think of JG as a genius adman what really matters is not the copy -- not even the headline & art -- but if he came up with the concept of linking an acidic citron juice to female beauty... once that concept has been made, then ads simply represent it.
So... did JG make the killer connection in 1953 and then leave before his concept bore fruit? Seeing as the campaign kicked best butt in 1959 and JG had been back in the UK since 1956, you'd think he may have commented or something on how well his early idea paid off... Heck, it might have convinced him to write more stories with ad themes (and subliminal man is not about advertising).
There's more! Go to Part Two