"Talking to J. G. Ballard about King's" by Alison Carter, in King's Parade [newsletter for former students of King's College, Cambridge] (Autumn 2000): 12. Brief interview, conducted by telephone, on Ballard's memories of his time at Cambridge.
Talking to J. G. Ballard about King's.
"You're welcome to ring me about my memories of King's -- though to be honest those memories are probably more hostile than the usual bland tosh published in the King's College magazine," Ballard wrote in reply to my letter. "I didn't enjoy my time there and thought the whole place deeply provincial and second rate. I hope the place has changed, though I doubt it -- it sounds like the same very twee middle-class finishing school, deeply flattering to all those state-school entrants deluded into thinking that they've cracked the system. And from what I've seen, Cambridge itself is a vast science park with a pseudo-gothic heritage centre crammed with mystified Japanese tourists." Vintage Ballard. But his last line was the real incentive to make the call. "You're welcome to use the above, and save yourself the trouble of phoning me."
Born in 1930 in Shanghai, where his father was a businessman, he and his family were placed in a civilian prison camp after the attack on Pearl Harbour. His 1984 novel about his childhood experiences in China, Empire of the Sun, won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was later filmed by Steven Spielberg. His controversial 1973 novel Crash has been made into a film, directed by David Cronenberg. His other books include The Kindness of Women and Cocaine Nights. He came to King's in 1949 to study medicine, leaving after two years to work as a copywriter and Covent Garden porter before joining the RAF.
In fact he seemed quite happy to talk, critically and at length, about Cambridge and King's in the early 50s, and warmed rapidly to the theme -- or should that be theme-park? Asking him to expand on what he meant by "deeply provincial and second-rate", the picture he etched was of an institution hopelessly out of touch with the new ideas coming from America and continental Europe; dons in King's "laughed at psychoanalysis" and existentialism was derided. He sounded very cross still, but perhaps writers need to keep faith with their memories despite the passing of time and the changing world.
What about the personal side, had he made good friends? Yes, yes. With an audible nod to his own lack of political correctness and in almost confessional tone he said, "of course, the place was packed with pederasts". When he smuggled his girlfriends in, fellow students backed away alarmed. "I hated the Chapel", he added, and I detected almost fresh loathing for what he bundled together as "all that jugged hare -- and grace." There were other contributors to the antiquated atmosphere; "that old writer", he said only half-jokingly, and the Provost, whom he thought a ridiculous tottering figure. So he "took a chance" and left, considering it a lucky escape. He could not subscribe to a future measured by the conventional yardsticks of the time; there would be no "slaving away in ministries". He could hardly wait to leave then, and I was, sadly, not convinced that I had persuaded him to come back now.