"Ballard at his Best" by Edward Docx, in Daily Express (September 23, 2000). Short interview to mark Ballard's receipt of the Express London Award, "an accolade decided by his fellow writers," at the opening of the second London Festival of Literature (September 22, 2000).
Ballard At His Best.
J G Ballard is nearly 70 years old. He lives in a ramshackle and dilapidated semi-detached house in the unspectacular London suburb of Shepperton where he has been writing his novels for nearly 40 years. Though long loved by his millions of readers, he has in more recent times come to be recognised -- albeit informally -- as one of Britain's best living authors by his fellow professionals. It is fitting, therefore, that he has won the prestigious Express London Award for Literature, as this goes some way towards an official confirmation of his status.
"I am absolutely thrilled and delighted to have won it -- even more so because this prize is voted on by my fellow writers, which is something special," he says. "I haven't won that many awards and so it's a new experience really. Writing is a rather solitary business and you don't spend all that much time in the limelight. I feel a bit like a chef who has been finally been called up out of the kitchen and thanked for his latest dish."
Ballard's "latest dish", it should be said, is truly superb. Indeed, Super-Cannes (published earlier this month) is being hailed by many as the best book he has written. Detailing events in Eden-Olympia, a giant business park in France, the story achieves the optimum balance of perfectly wrought lucid thriller writing with the formidable and pervasive intelligence of implied commentary.
Obviously, Ballard himself is pleased but he is also genuinely surprised: "You can never predict how the public will react, or the critics, there are too many elements involved in producing a book. Writing fiction is more like taking shots in the dark than anything else. But the good news is that I can now tell you that the film rights to Super-Cannes have just been sold to Jeremy Thomas, the producer of The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky and Crash."
It is probably true that a significant number of Ballard's younger readers have come to his books through film. Crash, for example, which was first published in 1973, did not get made for the big screen until 1996 (by David Cronenberg) when it won the Jury Prize at Cannes before going on to cause an inordinate amount of controversy - dealing as it does with the intersection of car accidents and sex - with the censorship lobby back here in Britain. (In passing and on the subject of the recent fuel crises, Ballard proclaims: "I think there should be more roads, it's obvious, people want to use their cars more, therefore there should be wider, bigger, longer roads.") But it was probably his decision to write about his own childhood experiences in China in his 1984 book, Empire Of The Sun, that brought him his widest audience - "I really believe that it is Spielberg's best film and very faithful to the book. I even had a small part in it myself."
As a young boy, Ballard lived for a while amidst the unruly, quasi-colonial mayhem of Shanghai, where he saw more brutality and violence than is strictly good for children. He was then incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp for the war - more death, torture and atrocity - before he finally came to Britain in 1946. The second major trauma in his life occurred in 1964, when Ballard was only 34 and his wife, Mary, died of pneumonia while they were on holiday in Spain and he was left to bring up his three children alone.
Ballard's underlying preoccupation is not, however, the tragic or the arbitrary or, indeed, the collision between technology and eroticism. It has more to do with the relationship between boredom and violence, between the relative security of the every day and a craving for the dramatic or the dangerous. It is no accident that he writes such electrifying books from a small desk at the back of a shabby semi which is situated on the most soporific street in London's least interesting suburb; nor should it come as a surprise to find that Wilder Penrose, the psychologist in Super-Cannes, decides that the seemingly have-it-all residents of Eden-Olympia need to travel to nearby towns to commit crime: vandalism, assaults, robbery etc.
"My next book," Ballard ventures, "is about urban terrorism. I have just started it. Things like the Soho bomb and the bombing of the MI6 building are very disturbing. Everywhere you look, you see meaningless acts of vandalism. The population feels to me to be peculiarly unsettled at the moment -- waves of hysteria surge over the country and there is a tendency to over-react, like with this fuel thing or, before, with Diana's death.
"And then, beneath it all, there seems to be an underlying obsessive boredom. Big Brother, for example, was really all about boredom -- for the viewers and for the contestants. Nothing was allowed to be interesting in any way. And yet reactions were hysterical. It was fascinating." JG Ballard talks to John Walsh at The Underglobe Theatre, tonight, 6.45pm as part of the London Festival Of Literature (see right). Tickets GBP 9, but bring a copy of today's Daily Express and get two for one.