"Mail on Sunday" ("You" magazine), 10 April 1988:
Whatever Became of Jim?
That's what cinemagoers wonder as the credits roll for "Empire of the Sun". The answer lies in Shepperton, where a lonely author is haunted by the past.
Report By Jeannette Kupfermann
The house was the first thing to surprise me. I simply had not pictured James Graham Ballard, the creator of the new Spielberg film "Empire of the Sun", living in a small semi with a bright yellow front door in Shepperton. Not that there was anything cosy or particularly suburban about it; the garden was untended, the lawn uncut, and, inside, it appeared black, sparsely furnished and slightly neglected, as if no female hand had touched it for years.
But inside there was an immediate, overwhelmingly female, presence: a huge surrealist canvas dominating the small back room where Ballard works. It was a copy of a Paul Delvaux painting of three massive nude women, with another, smaller, spread-eagled nude in the background. The women had a harsh, striking voluptuousness reminiscent of Ballard's own images.
I had glimpsed another Delvaux in the front room - a clothed woman reflected nude in a mirror, which, I suggested to Ballard, was more than a little voyeuristic. He recoiled at the idea.
"I'm amazed at that word - that's just a kind of silly feminism or puritanism. The nude has been very much part of the Western artistic tradition for years - think of Rubens or Velasquez and so many others. Anyway, it's not their nudity that appeals to me: it's their stateliness - the amount of calm they radiate. And," he added mysteriously, "I may go and live in those paintings."
And it was obvious that he did very much live in these paintings for I glimpsed little else around, apart from some liquor bottles on top of the fridge in the bare kitchen, that seemed to express the writer's extraordinary imagination.
"Women have always been a very powerful force and I much prefer their company to that of men," he said. "They've shaped my life and imagination almost totally, going all the way through to my daughters Fay and Bea. I think all women, whatever their age, are beautiful in some way." He lost his wife in 1964 and has lived in the same house ever since. I asked why he had never remarried.
"All my proposals were turned down," he laughed. If the romantic force is a very powerful one in his life, so too is what appears to be an obsession with the decrepit, putrid, rotting and at times grotesque. Where does this stem from?
In "Empire of the Sun", which is based on his own experiences, we see a young boy survive war-torn Shanghai and a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. But, he explained, it was the China he grew up in, even before the war, a cruel world full of poverty, disease and corpses by roadsides which he just took for granted.
"Shanghai was a very rough and brutal city, and it was all I'd ever known in my childhood. I'd witnessed plenty of brutality before the war - the Chinese were extremely cruel to each other, and there were people living on the streets like Calcutta. Remember, too, I was living in a world before antibiotics, and China was swept by famine and disease. It was commonplace to see bodies lying in the streets: there were coffins by the roadside.
"When I used to go to school, I'd sit in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven car and look through the windows at it all, often with a governess beside me to prevent kidnapping. The sense that nothing could be taken for granted was instilled in me at a very early age."
"Empire of the Sun" tells of a young boy separated from his parents after 1937 when the Japanese invaded China and finally, after years spent living by his wits in a prisoner-of-war camp, being reunited with them. This was not, in fact, what happened to Ballard himself, as he was never separated from his parents in the camp.
"From a very early age I was exposed to the idea that things could change very rapidly. You could visit a friend's apartment house and 15 minutes later the place was just empty, windows swinging in the wind ..." He had thus not found it particularly difficult to assume "normal" life again after the war in the comfortable Shanghai house, but coming to England in 1946 was something else.
"It seemed a very old, exhausted place - dark, cold and grey. Going to an English public school [the Leys] was stranger still. They were pretty primitive places - but I'd seen so much strangeness. I was able to cope even with that. By then I was 15-plus, and plenty of boys get separated from their parents by then."
He studied medicine with a view to becoming a psychiatrist ("It was a case of wanting to cure myself") but never practised medicine - although King's College Medical School gave him another perspective on death, and particularly on the human body, that was to influence his later work just as much as his early exposure to violence, disease and rotting corpses.
"Once you've dissected cadavers it does two things. It demystifies: to start off with a complete human being and to dissect it over a year, portion by portion - you'd spend a term each on the arms, legs, chest or whatever - and to see that human being transform itself into nothing but a few strands of gristle and bone; on the one hand, it demystifies the mystery of human existence, but on the other, it's a great tribute to the integrity of the human spirit - the courage of the doctors who donated their bodies to a later generation of young doctors who were learning their craft on their flesh."
Talking to Ballard is like reading his fiction: you're never quite sure of the ground you're on. The voice is plummy - the voice of an actor. He's both congenial and strangely guarded; he appears open and easy-going yet gives nothing away.
He appears buoyant, but just occasionally the voice trails off into wistfulness. Even his attitude towards the media is not entirely clear-cut. He appears on television, but not on "Wogan". "If you're not on 'Wogan' you don't exist," he agreed. "OK - I don't exist." On the other hand he has nothing but praise for Spielberg's version of his novel (though he agreed with me that the "celestial music" throughout was a little excessive), but then this kind of commercial success has now given him the freedom to travel and made it possible for him to move from Shepperton into something grander if he so desires.
He talks of the redeeming quality of love - yet I tell him that his characters often appear bleak and loveless. This seems to bother him.
"All my characters," he says, "are in the grip of powerful obsessions. They regard life like the explorers of old, enduring any hardship to find their El Dorado. It's not that they're devoid of emotion, but that they've got too much human feeling."
You are left with the feeling that he has never quite come home; that, in fact, the only home is that extraordinary imagination that "steps into the paintings - into the dream". He admits to not knowing where the dream ends and imagination begins - nowhere more so than when he did a two-day stint as an extra in the film of "Empire the Sun".
"Most of the filming was done in Shanghai or Spain, but some was done in Sunningdale or Manchester. All the original houses had long gone to rack and ruin with multiple occupancy. It was uncanny because the art director had put in 30s telephones, 30s copies of Life magazine, 30s furniture ... At a signal, we had to go into the drive where there was a great circle of Buicks and Packards drawn up ready to take us away, with uniformed Chinese chauffeurs standing beside them. I had this feeling we were all going to get into these cars and be driven back to war-time Shanghai."
Throughout all Ballard's work you get a strong feeling that he believes the film image has greatly determined our view of reality, whether it's the Africa of "The Day of Creation", which people seem to know best through films like "African Queen", or our view of nature, which we know increasingly at second hand through television documentaries. No wonder he calls Los Angeles his "spiritual home" as he describes another odd experience he had when invited there for the premiere of the film in December.
"A stretch limo picked me up at LA airport and as I was going down Santa Monica Boulevard I was looking out at this landscape and thinking, there's nothing that surprises me about it, because it's presented so thoroughly through thousands of films, except for one thing: as I look up there's this giant billboard the size of a tennis court - 'EMPIRE OF THE SUN'. I thought, my God - what's happening!
"As we sped along there was another one of those giant billboards - they were all over the rooftops. When I got to the hotel and switched on the TV, out came a commercial for 'Empire of the Sun', and I looked out of the hotel window at another giant hoarding. It was as if a monster was moving across the rooftops of LA, as if this book had broken free from my mind, like a genie escaping from a bottle."
One feels very much that he's a man who's had to be self-reliant from a very early age, because of the chaotic changing world around him. He confesses that his favourite recreation these days is "pulling the cork out of a bottle of Scotch" but adds that he hopes that, as a woman, I am "never tempted to drink alone".
"Men can drink alone, but I don't think women should: they go downhill very rapidly. There are still some differences between the sexes.
"A lot of people, myself included, when their children grow up, feel a huge vacuum. Nature's contingency plan is death - it has provided no other. When you live alone, however many close friends or love affairs one has, you still feel a sense of emptiness."
It's this sense of loneliness that I feel as I go out of the yellow front door and leave Ballard's stark surrealist world behind.