Michael Foreman Remembers JG Ballard. Sorta. "It was the 60s..."
This all started out innocently enough. I was emailing with the nice people at Ambit Magazine about buying some back issues, and I happened to ask offhandedly if Michael Foreman, Ambit Art Editor during the JGB years, was still around. Kate Pemberton, the efficient and friendly Ambit Assistant Editor, said yes, Michael was still at the office, and she would forward my request for an interview. A few days later this arrived:
Feb 28, 2007
Kate has forwarded your email to me and, although I haven't had contact with Jim Ballard for several years, you are welcome to fire some questions at me and I will endeavour to answer to the best of my recollection.
Wow! This is great. As well as for his work in Ambit, Michael Foreman is best known among Ballardians for his 13 line art illustrations for the trashed Doubleday edition of The Atrocity Exhibition. This would be a rare opportunity to talk with The Man who hung with JG during the wacky late 1960s. I was quick to respond:
February 29, 2007
Thank you very much for agreeing to share some of your memories... I appreciate this a lot.
There are a number of us in cyberspace keenly interested in your work and your times with JGB, and because of this rare opportunity to talk with you I've decided to "pass the hat" in terms of questions. I've received responses from David Pringle (whom I'm sure you either know, or know of...), and Michael Holliday, a Londoner and avid book collector. And me.
So I've combined all the queries into these few thousand questions...
Which I duly sent off to him. After wondering if anything was going to happen (he's a busy guy -- still), this arrived:
Michael Foreman & friend, 2001
April 18, 2007
My reticence in replying is due to a reluctance to disappoint. I have no good JG stories or anecdotes to relate. The Ambit editorial team never meet! I don't go to the 'office'.
I do meet with the editor, Martin Bax, at the birth of each issue when the text is sent to me and I decide which artists to involve. Martin and I meet at the Chelsea Arts Club when the art has been completed and sent to me, and we decide what goes where over a bottle of wine. It has been thus for forty years. Ambit's looseness is its strength.
I don't go to Ambit launch parties and only once went to JG's house many years ago. This was to discuss a proposed children's book which we were to do together. It was called The Next Rocket to the Moon. I subsequently did several pictures and a cover but the book never happened.
Now, to your questions:
You were already the Art Editor for Ambit when JG first appeared in that magazine in 1965. How and when did you join the Ambit editorial board?
MF: I met Martin Bax when we were both waiting for our first sons to be born in 1961. They were born in beds next to one another in Hampstead Maternity Hospital. Martin said he was editing a little mag and, as I was an art student, would I do some drawings? Still doing it and still haven't received a penny.
Do you remember the first time you met JG? Where and when? Did you come away with any specific impressions?
MF: No. Probably at an Ambit launch party.
Do you remember the series of "ads" JG did for Ambit? Impressions?
MF: No comment...
Did you ever get the feeling, given those times, that JG was artistically working out his own demons?
MF: To some extent, but we all do...
How did you get the gig of illustrating the Doubleday edition of Atrocity Exhibition? Do you remember your deadline?
MF: It was a natural development from the work in Ambit, obviously JG liked the Ambit pictures and convinced Doubleday.
Your AE drawings seem to have a restrained feel to them... can you remember why you came to illustrate the book in that style?
MF: I haven't seen a copy for many years and barely remember the work.
How was the illustration chosen for the cover? Where you happy with it?
MF: Sorry, I don't remember.
Does your original art still exist?
MF: Most of it, maybe all in my archive somewhere.
Do you have any AE art you didn't use?
What did you think of the AE stories?
MF: Great stuff.
Do you own a copy of the Doubleday edition?
MF: I'm afraid not.
What do you think of the book after all these years?
MF: I haven't seen it for many years.
Where you at JG's "Crashed Cars" exhibit in 1970? If yes, did you smash anything? Did JG ever do anything at these parties?
MF: I was and I didn't. He was always quiet.
Any cool stories you might pass on about those crazy Ambit parties with Euphoria Bliss? Pix above: Euphoria far left; Michael Foreman far right. Date: late 1960s.
MF: Don't remember - just a purple haze. That Euphoria Bliss photograph was taken at the Royal Academy of Art in front of a Paolozzi sculpture being exhibited at the time. I think it was taken for the Sunday Times to commemorate an Ambit anniversary. Which anniversary I cannot remember.
How did the relationship work between Martin Bax, JG, and you... in terms of dealing with submissions, suggesting to people that they submit work to Ambit, deciding what sort of work they wanted or didn't want, and so on? Was it loose, or did you just deal within your own speciality? Did you actually meet that often?
MF: Very loose, virtually no meetings. I just had to find images from artists who would work for nothing.
Your son, Mark, did three covers for JG at Gollancz, and your only cover treatment was pulped. I note from your British Council website that, in fact, you almost exclusively did illustrations. Any reason you didn't go after cover commissions?
MF: I had forgotten that Mark did those covers. I did scores of covers in my early days.
You're a prolific, popular and very successful writer/ designer/ artist with an almost never-ending bibliography... what's your take on the "concept" of book covers these days? By that I mean the general tone: optimistic, garish, subdued, hard-sell, dark, sexy...
MF: Garish and without class.
Have you ever done any work for advertising agencies? If so, any specific campaigns?
MF: Many in my early days in the UK, Europe and the USA. The most regular client was Mobil.
Were you in JG's back garden that day in 1968 when Ann Quinn received her £40 prize from him for winning Ambit's "drugged writers" competition?
MF: Yes but, again, blurred memories. It was the sixties ...
What's with that little cement lawn sculpture JG made and has in his back yard? Any idea what inspired that?
MF: I don't know it.
Your book, War Boy Country Childhood, (congrats on the Medal) has been described as a "delightful story of a boy's experience of W.W. II" -- do you feel any empathy with JG's wartime experiences? Did the two of you ever discuss JG's time in the Japanese camp? Was he reticent to talk about it?
MF: We didn't talk about it but, obviously, I feel empathy.
Is there anything else you and JGB worked on with, or for, that we might not know about?
MF: Only, The Next Rocket to the Moon.
Very interesting. When was this book project proposed?
Was there a publisher interested?
MF: Yes, Harper Collins
Did you or JG suggest the project?
MF: I did.
Was the story completely written?
MF: Pretty much complete. It was to be a picture book so Jim's text was short. I did a cover and a dummy and several pictures plus a complete layout.
You said "the book never happened"... lack of interest?
MF: It was about an old astronaut living in an overgrown and neglected Cape Canaveral. The book was on the launch pad but countdown never happened. Don't remember why. Jim went onto bigger and better things I guess. So, Dave Pringle's memory is pretty much correct.
What Dave remembers: In 1979 I got to know JGB's then agent, John Wolfers, and I visited his office several times in 1979-1980. This was when I was doing the JGB bibliography for G. K. Hall & Company. Wolfers kindly let me look at various papers, and one thing I caught a glimpse of was what appeared to be the manuscript of a children's short story by JGB. Or perhaps it was a sample Chapter One of a children's novel. It seemed to open at Cape Canaveral, and was a bit like "The Cage of Sand" or "The Dead Astronaut" rewritten for kids. Or that's the extremely brief impression I got just from glancing at the first sentence or two. Unfortunately, John Wolfers saw me looking at it and took it away from me at that point, saying it was confidential.
Any anecdotes or yarns you remember about a memorable moment with JG?
There, I did say that it would be disappointing! But I hope it helps.
Thank You, Michael!