The Observer, 15 September 1991

Riverside demons

Andrew Billen talks to J. G. Ballard about grief, England, Shanghai and the sequel to "Empire of the Sun"

It is difficult now to recall that before "Empire of the Sun" was published in 1985 [sic], novelist J. G. Ballard's inspiration was assumed to be firmly located in Sixties Shepperton, not wartime Shanghai. This dull town, lost in a U-bend of the Thames, would often re-emerge, almost childishly, as settings for what were misleadingly called his science fictions.

In his books "Crash" and "The Unlimited Dream Company", he wreaked vengeance on its placidity. In the first, Shepperton's residents are killed in blood and semen-stained car crashes; in the second, a pilot who has crash-landed determines to invade the homes of its account executives and insurance brokers and "copulate at the foot of their beds with their night-sweet wives and daughters".

Talking now in his scruffy, peeling, unbookish home, where he has spent almost half his 60 years, Jim Ballard, a completed Times crossword beside him, still enjoys inventing whimsical meanings for where he finally fell to earth after a childhood so extraordinary that he felt he had "come from another planet". Compared to his semi-detached, the neighbouring soundstages of Shepperton Film Studios seem rather limited dream companies.

The house - which, neatly, is the same age as Ballard - was not, however, just his workshop. Here, having been widowed at 34, he raised two daughters and a son. "Life was pretty free and easy," he says. "A big factor was that I rejected English middle-class life the moment I set foot on English soil in 1946. I didn't like what I saw: I thought it was excessively in-bred; the class system was strangling the nation. Rejecting all that meant I could live in a tumbled-down house like this in a very informal way. Some of the middle-class houses my children would visit were as formal as museums. I wanted a large, untidy, loving nest."

His new novel, "The Kindness of Women", is as much a revelation as Ballard's home. Another "auto-biographical novel", this is the sequel to "Empire of the Sun". Beginning before "Empire", it shows that violence already marked Jim's life years before Pearl Harbour: cycling through Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese war, seven-year-old Jim witnesses a bomb on the Great World Amusement Park kill a thousand civilians. The book recapitulates his internment in a Japanese prison camp and then follows Jim's enrolment as a medical student at Cambridge. Giving up, he trains as an RAF pilot in Canada, spends his Friday nights in whore houses, and returns to England in time for the Sixties, a decade he recounts with mounting horror.

The big news for readers of any of his 10 previous novels or 10 volumes of short stories is the degree of emotional engagement this new narrator allows himself. Typically, Ballard's heroes view the world pitilessly and humourlessly, scarcely crooking an eyebrow as magic rivers materialise, cars collide and antlers sprout from their skulls. As Ballard admits, his "predictive parables", as he prefers to classify most of his fiction, rely on their self-confidence remaining unquestioned.

Terrible grief, however, tears through the narrative of "The Kindness of Women", most unforgettably in the death of his young wife on a family holiday on the Costa Brava. "Her death was the one thing I couldn't describe absolutely faithfully. Even 25 years afterwards I couldn't bring myself to write it." Jim's wife, Miriam, falls and smashes her head; Mary, Ballard's wife, contracted "galloping pneumonia". Emotionally, he says, the account is completely honest.

It 1969 [sic] Ballard mounted an exhibition of crashed ears at the Camden Arts Lab. "The Kindness of Women" presents it as a paradigm for the Sixties. He says now: "We were under bombardment from sensational imagery that emerged from our TV screens: Vietnam, the Congo, the Kennedy assassination. Everything was being reduced to pure sensation. It was a condition I described in "The Atrocity Exhibition" as the "death of affect". The death of feeling was running rampant by the end. In a way I realised that Shanghai was a preview of the media cities of the Sixties and Seventies, a cross between Las Vegas and ancient Babylon."

"It is often said by readers that I use the same recurrent images," says Ballard, "drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels, crashed cars. Yet I've never thought twice about it. They've just been images that crowded into my mind without any invitation."

In "The Kindness of Women" the metaphors are rediscovered in their original contexts, yet they also organise the narrative. To take the most obvious example, there are at least half-a-dozen drowning scenes in the book, from the aquatic graves of Chinese soldiers in the early pages to, very near the end, the resuscitation of a child rescued from the Thames. Ballard seems truly surprised when the sequence is pointed out to him. "If there is that strand, that strand has been part of my life."

"The Kindness of Women" taken as an iconography of his oeuvre will foster other misreadings. One reviewer has already falsely concluded that the description of a terrifying LSD trip refers to the inspiration for "The Crystal World": Ballard in fact did not take the deadly sugar lump until three years after writing "The Crystal World".

"The Kindness of Women" ends with Jim still declining to revisit China, In July, however, Ballard did return to his old family house (now a technical library) and the camp (now a school), courtesy of BBC 2's "Bookmark" programme, whose documentary will be shown on 25 September. He says he felt elation. "I rediscovered a lot of lost self. Usually memories, especially childhood memories, play you false; everything seems smaller. In fact everything seemed larger. I could sense being 15 again." Far from having exorcised the demons that goaded and tormented J. G. Ballard into his extraordinary writing career, it seems Shanghai has re-agitated them.