From the Daily Telegraph Magazine, 9 November 1991. The interview appears to be one of a series with the title "The House Where I Grew Up"; the interviewer is Elizabeth Dunn.
The House Where I Grew Up
J. G. Ballard: Shanghai
There can be few people who read J. G. Ballard's loosely autobiographical novel, "Empire of the Sun", without holding their breath in fear for the safety of its hero, Jim, a war orphan adrift in Shanghai during the Second World War. The story and its sequel, "The Kindness of Women", was for Jim Ballard a rummage around in a strangely paradoxical past: "I can't quite call it an autopsy because I'm not dead yet."
No. 31 Amherst Avenue, situated about 200 yards outside what was once the International Settlement in Shanghai, was home to Ballard until his internment at the age of 11 in the Lunghua camp, some miles to the south of the city. When Steven Spielberg travelled to Shanghai to film Ballard's book, the house was derelict and could not be used as a set, but it came as little surprise to Ballard that a perfect stand-in was found in Sunningdale.
"Our house was like a typical piece of stockbroker's Tudor, with half-timbered upper floors and gables. It had a very English exterior but inside it was an American house, with five bathrooms, air conditioning and a squash-court-sized kitchen and pantry. Attached to it were the servants' quarters -- a two-storey house, rather larger than the one I live in here at Shepperton. I was struck by that when I went back. In some respects I'm a downward social migrant."
Ballard's life at Amherst Avenue seems to have followed the pattern of some minor princeling's, though he says that would misleadingly suggest a lot of money sloshing about. His father owned a cotton mill; his mother maintained a rich and varied social diary. Ballard was seven when his sister was born and, throughout his young life, behaved like an only child.
"I spent a lot of time alone in the house," he remembers, "with about nine servants, all Chinese, except for the White Russian nanny. It's a shocking thing to say now but, apart from the nanny, the servants were invisible. I would play my elaborate childhood games, oblivious to them in a way I wouldn't have been if they had been English. They just faded into the panelling."
When out and about in Shanghai, Jim was always chauffeur-driven in his father's American car, and accompanied by the nanny, to ward off kidnappers: "Shanghai was indeed the Paris of the orient. It was also an extremely dangerous city. You took for granted that you saw burnt-out buildings and bullet-riddled cars and that you might find dead bodies lying around.
"If you fainted from hunger on the streets of Shanghai, you lay there until you died. The municipal authorities had a fleet of trucks whose sole job was to collect the bodies of people who died during the night. It was all part of a background of civil unrest, long before the Japanese came. Parents had to be very careful about their children."
Nevertheless, in his adventurous pre-teen years, Ballard, having told his mother he was visiting a friend in Amherst Avenue, would cycle -- as did the hero of "Empire of the Sun" -- alone about the city, savouring its glamour and its violence.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese, who had occupied Shanghai in 1937, began to intern foreign nationals, but for a year the Ballards continued to live in Amherst Avenue: "Our cars were surrendered and we moved around on bicycles. Adults had to wear red armbands with numbers on them. There were no visits to the cinema, no gymkhanas, no military tattoos, no hell drivers -- they were Americans who used to crash cars spectacularly on the racecourse. We had to stop at a checkpoint on the way to school. But on the whole, it was still a very comfortable life. Then, of course, we were interned."
And here we come to the central paradox of Ballard's life: the privilege of his cushioned world was exchanged for a small room in a prison camp at Lunghua, and imprisonment released his soul. "It was absolutely the reverse of everything that I had ever known. I was part of a huge family of 2,000 people, to whom I had instant and easy access, and I spent all my time making the most of it."
In the interest of what he describes as psychological truth, Ballard has written his parents out of his wartime experiences: "Of course they were protective. They went to great lengths to look after my sister and me, but I think the important experiences took place outside our family room, when I was running around on my own. It was a huge city, where teenage boys ran wild. And I was one of them.
"Life in Shanghai before the war was a very busy social life, but it was very restricted. It seems ridiculous, but I never carried money. Entire strata of Shanghai society were closed to me. We were surrounded by millions of Chinese and I never met any of them. In the camp, it was the first time I had a sense of community, in a curious way."
Today Lunghua is a boarding school for Chinese children, though the Ballards' room in G block remains as it was. On his return to Shanghai earlier this year, Ballard found it was not Amherst Avenue but Lunghua that felt like home.
The house at Amherst Avenue, now known as Xinhua lu, is an electronics library and information centre. It still has all its bathrooms in place, though the pipes have been disconnected. "Life was incredibly formal here," Ballard reflects. "I never saw my father without a tie, even in the Fifties, when he and my mother moved to England after the Communists had taken over."
Today, at 60, with the sequel to "Empire of the Sun" in the bookshops, Ballard inspects his past with absorbed detachment: "Writing 'Empire of the Sun' opened the window on to my past and I'm looking more and more through that window. In your 20s and 30s, you think you can shape your own personality, you think you have the freedom radically to change your life. At my age, you realize you have no freedom -- and probably never had much in the first place -- to change anything. It's very odd, that."