'There must be more to England than this!'... JG Ballard at home in Shepperton. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe
This article appeared in the Guardian on Saturday, June 14, 2008 on p12 of the Features & Reviews section.
'I embraced surrealism - like a lover - and psychoanalysis, which closely abutted surrealism. Together, they represented what I wanted to do'. JG Ballard talks to James Campbell
Visitors to JG Ballard's semi-detached domain in Shepperton, beyond the far reaches of suburban west London, experience a sense of stepping through the looking glass. As a writer, Ballard is the ultimate urbanist, the master blender of technology and desire. In his front room, seated at a large oak table that supports a typewriter, he rhapsodises "the motorway, this road with no light that says STOP, the view through the windshield, the cross-patterns of chromium and glass that beckon you towards a better world..."
As a housekeeper, however, Ballard, who lives alone, resides in the era before the term "mod con" was invented. A 20-year-old Ford Granada of indistinct hue slumps on the narrow driveway, jammed up against the front entrance. Indoors, the curtains, neither open nor closed, are held in limbo by a giant dehydrated plant that has collapsed on to the table, blocking all but the most determined approach. Lost amid the mini-jungle of its dried-up fronds is a dust-covered Collins Dictionary. Ballard's electrical fixtures would interest the curator of the Design Museum. On a cold day, the rooms are warmed by small heaters positioned in the middle of the floor. The sleek stylist of western consumerism never got round to installing central heating.
"I came to live in Shepperton in 1960. I thought: the future isn't in the metropolitan areas of London. I want to go out to the new suburbs, near the film studios. This was the England I wanted to write about, because this was the new world that was emerging. No one in a novel by Virginia Woolf ever filled up the petrol tank of their car." The proximity of Shepperton film studios was important. "They were why I picked this place. The entertainment medium of film is particularly tuned to the present imaginations of people at large. A lot of fiction is intensely nostalgic."
Ballard claims that he has "always treated England as a strange fiction". The real world, in which he was formed, was Shanghai, where he was born in 1930 and brought up as a typical privileged expatriate boy in the city's International Settlement, without learning Chinese or tasting a morsel of native cuisine. "I didn't have a Chinese meal until I returned to England." In 1943, his world flipped upside down when he was incarcerated with his parents in the Lunghua detention camp. In his collection of memoirs, Miracles of Life, published earlier this year, Ballard writes that he was "largely happy" in Lunghua, finding there "a relaxed and easygoing world" that he had not known in everyday life. He claims that he thrived during his two and a half years in detention, "even when food rations fell to near zero, skin infections covered my legs, malnutrition had prolapsed my rectum, and many of the adults had lost heart".
James Graham Ballard is a large man with mischief in his eye and the social manner of a retired civil servant. At 77, he is portly, with grey hair curling on to his shirt collar. He has a full-on way with a good chablis - "More! More!" - but is considerate enough to inquire of his guest: "Do you have a motor car out there? We don't want you to be killed." Propped on the mantelpiece is a large, colourful painting by the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux. It shows a formally attired woman regarding her naked self in a mirror. In fact, both this picture and its equally striking companion in the adjoining room are specially commissioned copies, painted from black-and-white photographs. The originals were destroyed in the Blitz. "They represent everything I'm about, and I don't care who knows it." The discrepancy does nothing to dim his pleasure in the works. "In a sense, fakes are the only authenticity remaining to us."
Until the early 1980s, there were two JG Ballards: one wrote science fiction, including The Drowned World, his first novel, published in 1962, and the short stories contained in The Terminal Beach (1964). The other produced intense, tightly focused narratives of apocalyptic realism, such as High-Rise, which examines "a well-to-do proletariat" jammed into a block of luxury flats in what has since become Canary Wharf. The novel traces the residents' descent into a moral cannibalism reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. His most outrageously imaginative book, Crash, belongs in this group. It positions the bisexual "James Ballard" (a fictional character) in counterpoint with the psychopathic Vaughan, who plans an orgasmic collision with Elizabeth Taylor's limousine as it emerges from Shepperton film studios, but dies in the attempt. In Concrete Island, another tour de force of the urban highway, the architect Maitland overturns his Jaguar and is stranded for weeks on an embankment beside the Westway in Shepherd's Bush. These novels, written in quick succession between 1973 and 1975 and considered by many to be Ballard's best, are all set in present time and are futurological only in prophetic terms.
Science fiction was a "chance discovery. It touched a spark, but I never wrote the kind of SF that was typical of the time." The novelist M. John Harrison, who was part of the editorial team of New Worlds, the magazine that published many of Ballard's most controversial stories in the 60s, points out that he was "never well received by generic SF readers and activists. His work is too clearly poetic, satirical, metaphorical - all of which discourages suspension of disbelief and the immersive experience of the exotic on which SF pivots." Dinah Birch, professor of English at Liverpool University, who has written widely on science fiction, says that Ballard was nevertheless "one of the most significant figures in the 60s New Wave. His bleak dystopias were very powerful and influenced both readers and writers. It's true, though, that he did not go in for the clichés of the genre at that time - rayguns and tentacled aliens and so on." To Harrison, he is "a science-fiction novelist in the way that Orwell and Huxley are".
With the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1984, a third literary persona emerged: Jim Ballard, writing in a detailed, naturalistic manner, without recourse to crystallising trees or exhausted water supplies or visions of mutilated genitalia on the Heathrow approach road. In this autobiographical novel, his longest to date, Ballard renounced the urge to fantasise: the story of young Jim having a high old time in the Lunghua camp while death stalked the perimeter was outlandish enough. Ballard had held back for 40 years before tackling his own exotic history, and he has told the tale again, in yet plainer fashion, in Miracles of Life, which is subtitled "Shanghai to Shepperton".
"I've often asked myself why I waited so long. People who've been involved in war do wait. Robert Graves let 10 years go by before writing Goodbye to All That, which seemed quite a long time. In the course of adjusting to the strangeness of English life, I'd made this vast effort of fatalistically switching off my memories of wartime China. I never spoke about it to anyone, including my wife or children or any of my friends." He was aware, however, of "an unconscious ferment going on, the knocking on the floorboards, the past under my feet saying: we haven't gone away". When he did at last confront the subject - "I thought, I've got to get all this down, before I forget" - he realised that the diet of war and detention, the killings he witnessed and the ruthless Japanese guards who excited his adolescent admiration "mapped out the blueprint for most of my fiction". The writer Iain Sinclair, who "first read Ballard in the New Worlds days", regards "the Chinese aspect" as the key: "the colonial gentleman more English than the English, growing up in a parodic stockbroker belt, with deep memories of a country he had never known. And then the camp: the ultimate English public school."
Sinclair has no difficulty in linking the style of a novel such as Crash with that of Empire of the Sun. "With Ballard, as with any writer who sustains a long and productive career, there is a single vitalising imagination. The coordinates are fixed. Psychopathology chooses to reveal itself in different ways. There is no 'invention' in this trajectory, just recognition, another strategy, another beginning." As M. John Harrison sees it, Empire of the Sun "handles the images of his early life as the elements of autobiographical fiction; books like Crash or a short story such as 'You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe' manipulate the same sorts of images and experiences into a personal poetics or mythology". Empire of the Sun has been Ballard's only large commercial success, "outselling all my previous books put together". The novel was turned into a film by Steven Spielberg in 1987, with Christian Bale in the role of Jim.
Liberated from the detention camp in 1945, Ballard returned with his parents to England, where he became a boarder at the Leys School, Cambridge. "Out of one institution, into another." Between 1949 and 1951, he studied medicine at King's College, Cambridge. Whereas Lunghua inspires happy memories, the recollection of university makes him "shudder". Cambridge in the early 50s "was so introverted, all the little rules and rituals. All that Gothic architecture - some of it is real, that's the frightening thing. If it was all fake, one could kind of accept it." He has never been back. "Things have changed now. But I remember thinking: there must be more to England than this! There's something wrong. I never met a working-class person unless they were putting a plate in front of me, laden with food."
He regards the time spent dissecting cadavers as "among the most important of my life". As a child in Shanghai, he had observed a lot of death and dereliction. "Now, only a few years later, I was conducting my own autopsy on all those dead Chinese I had seen lying by the roadside as I set off for school." In spite of "superb tuition", he gave up his medical studies. "Once you become a junior doctor, there's a great pressure of work, and I'd never have found the time to write." For five years, he worked full time on the scientific journal Chemistry & Industry. When he started writing short stories in the mid-1950s, by which time he had married Mary Matthews, he felt that realism was not capacious enough to contain his "overlit" imagination. "I needed something more charged. I embraced surrealism - like a lover - and psychoanalysis, which closely abutted surrealism. Together, they represented what I wanted to do."
The SF label has stuck to him - "It has some pretty powerful adhesive" - which irritates his subversive side. "Even today I see High-Rise and The Atrocity Exhibition referred to as science fiction. It's partly shorthand, but it's also a way of defusing the threat. By calling a novel like Crash science fiction, you isolate the book and you don't think about what it is. You can forget about it." His literary lineage runs closer to extreme satirical fabulists such as William Burroughs and Jonathan Swift than to Arthur C. Clarke. Ballard encountered Burroughs, whom he greatly admires as a writer, on a number of occasions. "A very strange chap." Sinclair feels that "the two men, respectful and appreciative, never quite understood each other when they met. Both were set so deep in their visions. Other figures are aliens or rivals."
In Miracles of Life, Ballard describes how he and Mary came to Shepperton via the then bedsit land of Notting Hill. Three children were born in quick succession: James in 1956, Fay the following year, and Beatrice in 1959; both daughters are married with children, while James is, Ballard says, a "confirmed bachelor". Mary, who came from "a world of prosperous farmers, lavish dances and several very dashing suitors", encouraged him when he sought to make a career of writing, and his recollections of domestic life suggest an appealing chaos. The family was struck by tragedy during a holiday in Spain in 1964, when Mary developed pneumonia and died suddenly. In the memoirs, Ballard describes his mostly cheerful struggle to raise three young children singlehandedly (he has a longstanding partner, Claire, who lives in west London). "Alcohol was a close friend and confidant in the early days; I usually had a strong Scotch and soda when I had driven the children to school and sat down to write after nine. In those days I finished drinking at about the time today that I start. A friendly microclimate unfurled itself from the bottle of Johnnie Walker and encouraged my imagination to emerge from its burrow." At the end of the book, Ballard reveals that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006, but even this subject he approaches with resolute good spirits. Iain Sinclair regards Miracles of Life as "warmer, more generous than anything we have seen before. At last, the writer is able to be kind to his wounded former selves."
Ballard's grief at his wife's early death appears too deep for elaboration in writing. "I felt that nature had committed a dreadful crime against Mary and her children. Why? There was no answer to the question, which obsessed me for decades." Their children are the "miracles of life" of the title, and it is hard not to think that the house to which the widower returned after burying Mary in the Protestant cemetery in Alicante in 1964 has been preserved in a state close to that in which she left it.
One loyal colleague in those days was Kingsley Amis, whom he liked immensely "before he became a professional curmudgeon". Martin he met "when he was 14 - like many of us, at heart, unchanged by the decades". The younger Amis became an admirer early on, saying that Ballard's novels "could not be written, could not even be guessed at, by anyone else". He keeps himself remote from the present-day book world; the few enthusiasms mentioned in print - Martin Amis, Will Self, Sinclair - are notably among the nation's most enthusiastic Ballardians. More than once in conversation he recoils at casual use of the term "literary" - "Oh, oh, oh: I hear a sinister word" - and claims not to have attended a publishing party for more than 40 years.
"With all due respect to Kingsley Amis and others, I didn't feel that the angry young men were responding to what was really important about society. The same goes for John Osborne's plays. The laying down of the M1 was much more important than anything Jimmy Porter's father-in-law thought about this or that. The motorway system had a much bigger influence on freedom and possibility." For Ballard, 1956 is not the year of Look Back in Anger, as for many of his generation, but of "the wonderful exhibition This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery, which marked the birth of pop art". The show contained Richard Hamilton's painting Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?, as well as an installation by Peter and Alison Smithson based on what a person would need to survive after a nuclear war. "I thought: here is a fiction for the present day. I wasn't interested in the far future, spaceships and all that. Forget it. I was interested in the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television - that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here."
The Whitechapel exhibition marked the changing of the avant-garde, the moment at which Hamilton and other pop artists overthrew Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland. Ballard refers to the latter group, a touch severely perhaps, as "artists in favour with the Arts Council and the British Council" - one of several swipes he takes in the direction of subsidising art by "the taxes of people on modest incomes".
Ballard's conversation, like his writing, is regularly punctuated with inventories of the liberating spirit of technology. But with scarcely a twitch to indicate a change of direction, he explains that his most recent novel, Kingdom Come (2006), "posed the question: could consumerism turn into fascism? The underlying psychologies aren't all that far removed from one another. If you go into a huge shopping mall and you're looking down the parade, it's the same theatrical aspect: these disciplined ranks of merchandise, all glittering like fascist uniforms. When you enter a mall, you are taking part in a ceremony of affirmation, which you endorse just by your presence." Consumerism "has to a large extent replaced art and culture in this country. The principal entertainment industry nowadays is soccer which, with its marching supporters' groups, is not that far removed from fascism."
These diagnoses of the contemporary condition roll off the tongue with an easy delivery - half schoolmasterly lesson, half the retort of his impish pupil. Ballard surprised some of his counterculture admirers in the 80s by expressing respect for Margaret Thatcher, and supporting her attempts to "Americanise" British life. As long ago as 1965, in his novel The Drought, he was describing a planet choked by chronic water shortages; yet in his more recent annotated updating of The Atrocity Exhibition, he takes a hearty swipe at "eco puritans", promotes pornography as "a powerful catalyst for social change" and expresses gratitude for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, to which he attributes his survival.
Seated before his reconstituted Delvaux, Ballard is at home with his paradoxes. "Just because you're right, it doesn't mean you shouldn't be viewed with great suspicion." The gifts of modern life, the "mod cons" that have brought a kind of freedom to the inhabitants of the western world, "are gifts that come in poisonous wrapping paper. One has to handle them very carefully. But that's true of most of the valuable things in life."
Ballard on Ballard
What happens if you regard the whole of reality as a vast video game? I suspect you find yourself in an overheated realm rather close to The Atrocity Exhibition... Like its most notorious chapter, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan", it all seemed more than a little far-fetched, but now, in 2008, we call it everyday reality. At the time, 1976, Reagan seemed a vital key to what was going wrong, both with America and the worldwide media landscape. He had become governor of California, but I was convinced he would make it to the presidency. Today only bad actors can lead a nation, as Reagan and Blair showed. Poor Gordon Brown needs six months at Rada and a tryout at the Old Vic.
"Reagan's personality. The profound anality of the presidential contender may be expected to dominate the United States in the coming years. By contrast the late JF Kennedy remained the prototype of the oral object, usually conceived in pre-pubertal terms. In further studies sadistic psychopaths were given the task of devising sex fantasies involving Reagan. Results confirm the probability of presidential figures being perceived primarily in genital terms; the face of LB Johnson is clearly genital in significant appearance - the nasal prepuce, scrotal jaw etc. Faces were seen as either circumcised (JFK, Khrushchev) or uncircumcised (LBJ, Adenauer). In assembly kit tests Reagan's face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection. Patients were encouraged to devise the optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan.