"Self-destruction as a way of redefining oneself is very, very strong."

JG Ballard discusses Super-Cannes with Harriett Gilbert.

First broadcast on Meridian Masterpiece, BBC World Service, 14 February 2002

Transcribed by Mike Bonsall

Original BBC press-release:

Meridian Masterpiece

February 2002

If you've been listening to David Suchet reading Super Cannes on Off the Shelf this week and you want to know more about its author, then tune into the next edition of Meridian Masterpiece. Harriett Gilbert will be grappling with the complex themes of the novel with its author JG Ballard.

Ballard is best known for his autobiographical novel 'Empire of The Sun' which tells the story of his childhood experiences in Shanghai and then his imprisonment in a Japanese camp during the second world war.

Though he has been labelled a science fiction writer, he is perhaps more of a future surrealist, poking and prodding into the dark recesses of the human psyche. He'll be talking about his curious obsession with suburbia and swimming pools, his childhood memories of Shanghai and of bringing up three children on his own.

When I came here, Paul, I thought Eden-Olympia was the anteroom to paradise. 'But things go wrong?' Too much work. Work dominates life in Eden Olympia, it drives out everything else. My first breakthrough came when I realised that these highly-disciplined professionals had very strange dreams. Fantasies filled with suppressed yearnings for violence. Despair was screaming through the bars of the corporate cage.''They wanted more violence in their lives?' More violence and cruelty.

BBC: From the sinister thriller Super-Cannes, currently being read on the BBC World Service by the actor David Suchet. You may already be caught up in its ever-tightening plot. But what about the author of Super-Cannes — and indeed of 15 earlier novels — all a-tingle with that sense of a strange, socially catastrophic near future. JG Ballard was born to British parents in Shanghai in 1930. In the Second World War, at the age of 12, he was interned for three years in a Japanese camp. Since arriving in Britain, he's built up a passionate, ever-growing readership, perhaps especially for Empire of the Sun, a fictionalised account of his childhood made into a film by Steven Spielberg. But also for more mysterious novels, such as: The Drowned World, Crash, Cocaine Nights, and Super-Cannes — described by one critic as the first essential novel of the 21st century. JG Ballard lives in an incongruously ordinary-seeming London suburb, all semi-detached houses and light industry, and when I went there to speak with him, I asked him first: why choose to live here?

JGB: I've lived here, in this quiet suburb near London Airport, to the west of London, for over 40 years now and I think that has been important to me because I always felt that out in these suburbs one found the real England — not the Inner-London England of St Paul's Cathedral and the Tower and Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus — which is a sort of tourist London. But the real England as people live it, the England of change, the England of airports and business parks and industrial estates and executive housing — which is really taking over the whole world in a way. I like change, I think England needs a lot of change. I think the English obsession with the past is a real sign of English failure in many ways, a failure to grapple with the future. Change is taking place, really out here — the, sort of, take-away and video rental culture began out in the suburbs. People are better off out in the suburbs here, you know, their imaginations can follow their money.

BBC: Because of your willingness to grapple with the future, as you put it, you have been described, quite lazily, as a science-fiction writer. But you yourself have said of your fiction, that what it is doing, centrally, is picturing the psychology of the future. Would you explain what you mean by that?

JGB: By the psychology of the future, I mean the way people are going to think, and dream, and make love to each other, and re-imagine their lives. Many people these days aren't wholly satisfied with themselves, and they have the opportunity to, sort of, change and remake themselves in what they think of as a more positive way. There's a huge literature of, sort of, self-transformation books around. I think people in the near future — the near future, really, is the same thing as the present — people want to make something different, and better, and more interesting, and more fulfilling of themselves. And I'm interested in the way this happens, and why, and what form it takes.

BBC: There's a sense of you wanting, not merely to write about them and explore them for yourself, but also to warn us about the dangers inherent in the present/near future. I'm thinking specifically of your two most recent novels, Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, which — although different in key ways — are both set in enclosed, slightly futuristic, communities. One is a kind of retirement resort on the Costa del Sol in Spain. The other is a business park — a high-tech business park — in the South of France, but they are both enclosed communities, filled with the fairly, or very, wealthy of a whole lot of different nations, and they are both utterly stagnant, depressed places are they not?

JGB: I wouldn't agree that they are depressed places. They aren't stagnant either, in many ways — certainly not the business park in Super-Cannes — there's nothing stagnant about that, it's extremely dynamic. The world's greatest companies are all represented at the business park of Eden Olympia — not far from Cannes, in the South of France. What I'm interested in is the peculiar psychology that springs up within these closed communities. My fear is that, in a totally sane society — madness is the only freedom. So the danger is that you get these huge suburbs extending around our major cities in the world. Very calm, very peaceful — and then suddenly disrupted by totally inexplicable acts of violence. You know, the man with the Kalashnikov who walks into a MacDonald's in a suburb of San Diego in California, and machine guns 15 people to death for no apparent reason. These outbreaks of meaningless violence are something we can't protect ourselves against.

BBC: Something very interesting — and I think it may be one of the reasons why people become so mesmerised by your writing. When you write about various kinds of apocalypse, whether it be an environmental one, a political one, a military one, or something — there's a sense that you're not some old Testament prophet saying: beware, beware, if you don't mend your ways these ghastly things are going to happen, you must do this and do that. It's that you're saying: these ghastly things are going to happen and actually there is something quite exhilarating, and there's a sense that you would be slightly disappointed if you thought we could avoid it all.

JGB: That's true, of course, I would say I'm 'half in love with easeful death'. But there's nothing I enjoy as much as a jolly catastrophe! What I'm really writing about is the human capacity for self-destruction. People become impatient with the existing order of things. You see it in any housewife, exhausted by a dull husband, who begins to throw crockery around. You see it among nations when wars break out.

BBC: Are you saying, we court — just by our natures — we court disaster and self-destruction out of boredom?

JGB: There's an element of that yes, I think there is an element of that. It's not so much boredom as a need for change, there's a, sort of a hunger, at some low-level crisis which persists for too long — needs to be brought to a head. And the latent hostilities — the latent need for destruction hidden within us — emerges into the daylight and that urge for self-destruction as a way of redefining oneself is very, very strong. I think, in part, I'm writing about that, and I'm writing about, you know, the connections between sex, eroticism and death — these are very tightly bound together.

BBC: You've proposed many radical notions in your time, but one that caused perhaps more outrage than many, was in your novel Crash, recently filmed by David Cronenberg. In which you drew a strong connection between car crashes — the violence and horror of car crashes — and sexual delight. You said that, in effect, we are all aroused by car crashes. Now, many people, myself included, would say: Oi! Not all of us, actually.

JGB: I really never ever said all people are excited by car crashes. I've been in a car crash and I can assure you it did nothing for my libido! It's the idea of car crashes that some people find sexually exciting. And that's demonstrated by film and television, where car crashes — particularly in film — you know, are part of the staple diet of the cinema. There is something about car crashes that touch people's imaginations in a way that, say, train crashes don't. I mean, all we remember about Jayne Mansfield, the Hollywood actress, is that she died in a car crash. We drive cars, we know our ambiguous motives as we: overtake, decide to jump an amber light, exceed the speed limit, lose our tempers with other drivers. We know that elements of aggression, and, to some extent, a sort of sexual frisson, are involved in driving a car. And these feed into our imaginations, so that the whole ambiguous world involved in the car — on which advertisers have been playing for nearly 100 years — and all the sort of ambiguities of human motives, are something we fully understand.

BBC: This interconnectedness of arousal, delight — not even necessarily even sexual — but feeling alive with violence, and danger, and horror, just threads throughout your fiction. And I wonder how much it is to do with the fact that as a child, there you were, living in Shanghai, in a nice little, sort of, protected cantonment with Europeans. And then, one day at the age of 12, suddenly you were being dragged off to a Japanese internment camp, where you lived for three years.

JGB: I think it's probably true to some extent. Of course, people who've read Empire of the Sun, have often said to me: what a strange life, how unusual. And I say to them: actually the life I led in Shanghai, before and during the Second World War, was not strange, it wasn't unusual. The majority of people on this planet today, and for most of this century — and in fact previous centuries — have always lived lives much closer to the way I lived, than to, say, you know, the comfortable suburbs of Western Europe and North America. It's they — here — where I live now, today — which is very strange by world standards. Civil war, war, famine, flood, drought, poverty, disease, are the norm of human experience. So there's nothing strange or odd about being influenced by what I saw as a child, no more than it would be for an Indian or African boy, say, 50 years ago.

BBC: When you first arrived in Britain then, in 1946, your sense of alienation from what was happening in Britain must of been compounded by two things, one is the fact that, in the Britain of the 50s and 60s, the sort of people you would have been mixing with — which is to say, the intellectual, artistic, left-ish leaning people — would have been utterly opposed to the development of the atom bomb, whereas for you — having had your life saved, in effect, by the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at the ending of the war in the Pacific — must have felt alienated from them. And, in 1964, your wife died suddenly, leaving you with three children, and in the very odd position of being a single father, which didn't often happen then. Did these things, in some way, compound the sense of being outside what was going on around you?

JGB: Yes, they probably did. As you say, I didn't feel much sympathy with the English intelligentsia's view about the role of nuclear weapons in the post-war world — a time of great danger. I was sympathetic to America, and I knew that it was American power that was defending us from the threat from the Soviet Union. At the same time, I didn't feel any sympathy for the excessively class-bound England of the time. I would have happily abolished the public schools, all titles, the House of Lords, the monarchy itself. Hoped, you know, that a much more egalitarian, a much fairer society, would emerge — to some extent it has.

And at the same time, as you say, being a single parent, was — of three children, small children — was an unusual thing in the mid-60s. Most of the people I met had never known a father bring up his own children. And in fact, had I not been a writer, I wouldn't have been able to, I would have seen my children late at night, when I came home. Being a writer I was with them all the time, and of course it was a wonderfully fulfilling experience.

BBC: Well I was going to say, there's a conventional belief, which is that having to look after children is not conducive to writing. In fact it's often used as a reason why women don't write as much, or as successfully, as men — or are alleged not to do. I wonder though whether bringing up your three small children didn't contribute something to the writing.

JGB: I'm sure it did...

BBC: Do you know what?

JGB: ...absolutely certain it did. Umm, well it gave me a much richer understanding of the sort of human beings we are. Children — they're changing all the time, they've a very, very lively sense of fantasy — powerful imaginations which play on everything in their world. And also I learned a lot about myself, because bringing up children is quite a strain, not a physical strain, it's a mental strain. I mean, you have to put yourself into their minds, all the time, in order to anticipate what they're next going to do. Particularly when you travel abroad, you know, on a cross-channel ferry, you look round for your gin and tonic, and the next thing they're climbing over the side. So there's this deep involvement with them, at every level, every hour of the day. Did it go into my fiction? In an obvious sense, no, since there are very, very few children in my fiction — there didn't need to be, I was living with them all the time. I mean, my children — until very recently, have never read anything of mine — that didn't worry me. I mean, my daughters used to say: daddy we live with you! They didn't need to read my novels to find out what I was like, they knew.

BBC: If I could just return to Empire of the Sun, because as well as being novel it obviously is — as you have long admitted — very closely based on your own experience. The penultimate image in that novel is very strange, very interesting. Outside the Shanghai club — peace has come — some American and British sailors are coming out of the clubhouse and there's a whole lot of Chinese people — they've just ended their time of being occupied by Japan — here are the so-called liberators. The sailors get a bit, sort of, embarrassed at all these people looking at them, and they're drunk, and they start jeering and shouting at the Chinese people. And then they unbutton their trousers and start urinating down the steps of the club, a really daft, and the same time, insulting gesture. And you write — Jim thinks, you, the narrator, write — 'One day China would punish the rest of the world, and take a frightening revenge'. Do you still believe that?

JGB: Yes, I do, I think that's likely to happen. I think once China begins to industrialise on a very large scale and ceases to be peasant society, I think the West is in for a big surprise, because the Chinese are a very superior people. They look down on the rest of the world, they particularly look down on Europeans, the English and Americans, they really regard us as barbarians. I can well imagine that, unless China is drawn into — whatever you like to call it — the brotherhood of nations, and locked in to the world — in the way that, say, Germany has been locked in Europe over the last 40 years — trouble might, you know — on a vast global scale — might break out. I hope it doesn't.

BBC: Can I just change to something rather different, which is to do with one motif in your fiction, which everybody has commented on — but they could hardly fail to — which the presence, in so many of your stories and novels — of empty, or largely empty, swimming pools.

JGB: I'm never happier than when writing about drained swimming pools. There's something about them that touches a deep nerve. It may derive from my wartime experiences, as the Europeans abandoned their houses in Shanghai the swimming pools began to drain, and many were emptied during the war. I used to go round these empty houses after the war, and really there is a certain sort of melancholy beauty about these huge, empty pools. There's something about a drained swimming pool that suggests the end of an epoch, the end of a season. I think I thought of water really as a medium of, you know, of transformation. I mean, as every child who's played at the seaside knows — or played in a swimming pool — immerse an object in the water, a wine glass, a tennis ball, and it becomes a different object. There's something strange about a pair of sunglasses lying on the floor of a swimming pool, as you float above it. It has a magic and a mystery, it seems to belong to an internal world, somewhere inside the mind, it's close to the dream. An obsession is enormously precious, to a writer, it's like a jewel that has to be clasped and protected. I'm a bit wary of, sort of, submitting myself to a kind of, you know, auto-psychoanalysis, because god knows what I might throw up!

BBC: It's an odd tension in you this — on the one hand your evident love of mutability, things that can change, of things changing — and on the other hand, your, entirely understandable, wish to cling to your obsessions, because they are so fertile for you.

JGB: Yes, my obsessions, of course, have changed over the years. If I'd been stuck with the same obsession: oh my god, I've got to write another novel about car-crashes! And then after that: oh, another novel! I think I would definitely see a psychoanalyst and say, please rid me of this obsession. I've changed enormously, as we all do, over the span of 40 or 50 years. It's curious how new obsessions keep surfacing in the mind. I see it as I write, I mean, I'm very interested, in my last few books — particularly in Super-Cannes — in the idea of, sort of, gated communities. It's a very odd, sort of, obsession to have, I often think: why, what is this?

BBC: Is that how it happens then, that what you are writing about emerges to you, as you're writing, rather than you've plotted it out beforehand?

JGB: Actually, I do a very careful, sort of, development of a novel, long before I start to write it. I've virtually written it in synopsis before I start. I have actually written at least one novel were the synopsis was longer than the finished book. And by synopsis I don't mean a first draft, I mean something written in — you know, the dialogue all in reported speech like the — the account of a dream that you scribble down when you wake up in the morning if it's particularly strange and arresting. So I'm very well prepared, in a sense, I'm sort of aware there are these, sort of, glowing underwater volcanic vents that are bubbling away and I shape what I'm writing around them. Because I've always — I feel I can trust my obsessions, I've always relied on them and I think they've never let me down — some would disagree.