The Guardian, Sunday, 7 August 1994
The Billen Interview
Andrew Billen visits author JG Ballard in his peeling semi to discuss class, feminism and the material world
Perhaps the best thing about visiting JG Ballard is getting a chance to marvel at his house, a peeling semi-detached in Shepperton with a yellow front door blistered from the 30 summers he has lived there. It makes no concessions to celebrity, fashion, cleanliness, the money he made out of the film of Empire Of The Sun or, indeed, anything else. It is utterly true to its owner, who, at 63, is not only the same age as it but judging by his gappy, stained grin is wearing about as well.
Behind net curtains the colour of used tea bags, his front room boasts an exercise bike and a pile of shoes. In the living room, an orange sofa is engrossed in a slow self-evisceration; a cassette recorder has hauled itself on to a bookshelf to die. Inexplicably, a unicycle is propped against a hall wall. Fay, one of Ballard's two grown-up daughters, has remarked that some of the house's objects have literally not moved for 20 years.
'It is a political statement,' Jim Ballard says of his home. He moved into it after the second great emotional dislocation of his life, the death of his wife from 'galloping pneumonia' on a family holiday when he was 34. Left to bring up three young children the best he could, all he knew was that their childhoods had better not resemble his own: obviously they would be spared the trauma of his war-time confinement in a Japanese internment camp (his first deracination) but he did not want to imitate his quasi-colonial childhood in pre-war Shanghai either.
'It is difficult to remember just how formal middle-class life was in the 1930s and 40s,' he says in his fluting, public school voice. 'I wore a suit and tie at home from the age of 18. One dressed for breakfast. One lived in a very formal way and emotions were not paraded. And my childhood was not unusual.'
He compares his first impressions of Britain in 1946 with the Arcadia of community values currently being recalled by politicians. 'After the war there was a sense of community imposed by the NHS and enlightened social legislation, but it was a bitterly class-divided society. It has fluctuated since then.
During the 60s, class distinction didn't matter. But by 1972 I remember hearing on TV someone use the phrase 'working class' and thinking: 'Here we go, back to the old class-bound England.' And this house, this 'warm, loving nest' that refused to score social points with its decor, did it ensure his escape from the class system? 'Hardly. I am a middle-class professional. How many working-class friends do I have? None. And that's bad.'
Ballard is not being pious and he is, anyway, in little danger of being damned as politically correct. In 1973, when he was still thought of as a science fiction writer, he published Crash, a novel celebrating the eroticism of car smashes. The kinkiness of Crash, and of some of his other works (one, featuring the Kennedy assassinations, is called The Atrocity Exhibition), reminds me of a fairly weird interview I once conducted with the actor Peter Wyngarde. The one-time Jason King had talked about his preference for 'sadistic' sex. I am reminded because Wyngarde and Ballard were in the same internment camp.
'Oh,' Ballard says when I mention it, 'I don't think that sort of thing affects your sex life. I'd have thought it needed to be much more personal than that, but then I don't have any strain of S&M in me, so I wouldn't know.' Is it true, as Lynn Barber wrote, that he used to show off photographs of his girlfriend's car-crash injuries at dinner parties? 'Of course it isn't,' he says.
This month Ballard publishes Rushing To Paradise (Flamingo, £14.99), a dystopia about a Pacific island overrun by a band of environmentalists and their leader, a fanatical female separatist called Dr Rafferty. After The Kindness Of Women in 1991, it could almost be called The Unkindness Of Women. Ballard promises he is as pro-woman as ever but jokes that the book may yet make him the first subject of a feminist fatwa (he believes, incidentally, that some disgruntled British Muslim will get Rushdie in the end ' but then, as an assassination junkie, he would).
'I actually agree with a lot of what Dr Rafferty says,' he insists. 'The problem with the world is, as she says: not that there are too few pandas but that there are too many men. I agree with her that women are a lot stronger than men one saw that in the camp as a child and that a lot of that strength has been domesticated out of them. But, of course, I am not putting Dr Rafferty forward as a role model and the book touches on some of the notions of the more extreme feminists, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, who are extremely hostile to men.
Now, Camille Paglia's view of women I would endorse 100 per cent, that they are dangerous, passionate, potentially quite cruel and more than a match for any man. I think there is a common female fantasy about cutting the throats of all the men in the world. The novel gives eco-feminism a hard time. I assume he did not support the Greenham Common women's attempts to soothe the missile base by linking arms around the perimeter fence. 'I suppose it could be seen as some kind of poetic flight,' he says. 'But, on the other hand, a side of me says: 'Absolute damn nonsense!' Anyway, I was on the side of cruise missiles. They were defending us, weren't they? I approved of the atom bomb.' I half suspect, judging by the excitable Hiroshima imagery of his novels, that he approved of it for aesthetic reasons.
'Oh, for goodness sake, don't say that,' he says and puts his finger over his lips.
Does he actually give a damn about the environment? 'Yes, I care about preserving the wildlife on the planet.' Doesn't environmentalism get in the way of progress? 'In the way of all that concrete? Well, the concrete is looking after itself. The entire planet is going to be covered in the stuff. But I do welcome the modern world: high-rise blocks, motorways, all that sort of thing. I don't flinch from the late 20th century. My ideal building is the Heathrow Hilton by Michael Manser. Stunning: pure white geometry.' The curious thing is that, while Ballard may not flinch from the late 20th century, his house does. It is not even low-tech: its light switches probably date from the first generation of light switches: hardened teats peek-a-booing from Bakelite cups.
The paradox may be explained, I think, by realising that the 20th century Ballard rejoices in is not the 20th century the rest of us know but some private version. Ballard is a surrealist who, while being perfectly clear minded, is simply not very interested in everyday reality. Clearly a deeply decent man, he is not inspired by moral issues at all. He condemns attacks on pornography, for instance, as 'attacks on the sexual imagination itself': 'Morality covers our conduct, not what goes on inside our heads,' he rules. His house is less a political statement than another symptom of his lack of interest in the material world. 'There are some people,' he says, 'who place enormous value on their home and feel that it defines them, that a stain on the carpet is a personal defilement. There are others, and I think I am one of them, who are entirely indifferent to where they live.' It almost comes as a disappointment to hear that, if David Cronenberg's long-planned film of Crash actually goes ahead, Ballard plans to use the spoils to abandon Shepperton and set up home with his long-time partner, Claire, in central London.
Yet perhaps a move would be healthy. His semi has the poignant feel of an abandoned family home. The 'Dear daddy and Claire' postcards, the family snapshots that clutter the bookcases hark back rather than look forward, transgressing his sacred code. As for his work, there is no need to worry that an eastward migration will have the slightest effect on his unique fictions. JG Ballard spends far too much time restlessly living in his head to be enervated by anything so peripheral as a comfortable life in South Ken.