Will Self BBC4 program on JG Ballard

Will Self. Photo by Jerry Bauer

Self on Ballard

Title: Archive on 4: Self On Ballard
Broadcast Info: Saturday 26 Sep 09, 20:00 (60 mins)
Channels: BBC Radio 4

Description: Will Self explores the imagination and work of writer JG Ballard, who he came to know in his final years, drawing on the many telling interviews that he gave throughout his working life and on Self's own tapes of his encounters..."

Announcer: Archive on 4 enters inner space as writer Will Self celebrates the extraordinary imagination and work of the Shepperton surrealist JG Ballard, who died earlier this year.  In Self on Ballard we hear extracts from the writer famed for his work containing strong images of sex, violence, and a disturbing and dystopian future.

JGB: No no, I'm deeply moral.  I'm on a one-man safari, pushing through the jungle.

Reader (Anna Massey): He had almost ceased to breathe.  Here, at the centre of the space ground, he could feel time rapidly engorging itself.  The infinite pasts and future of the forest had fused together.  A jewelled snake hung from a bough, gathering to it all the embroidered skins it had once shed.

Actor1: You don't have to stay here, you just climb into my sleeping cylinder and you can be free!

Actor2: Free, what does that mean, neither of us is free, this is our world and these are our people.

JGB: If we're going to be truthful about our real natures, and that we are rather violent creatures -- who enjoy violence -- it might be necessary to administer small doses, of, not just violence, but of psychopathic behaviour, very small doses; rather like the very small doses of strychnine in a nerve tonic, they stimulate the system.

Reader: Wilder helped himself to the last of the small cat that had been barbecued above the fire.  His teeth pulled at the stringy meat, the still warm fat almost intoxicating him as he sucked at the skewer.

JGB (reading): Sitting together, we were washed by the light flowing in every direction across the landscape.  Together we showed our wounds to each other, exposing the scars on our chests and hands to the beckoning injury sites on the interior of the car.  In our wounds we celebrated the re birth of the traffic-slain dead, the deaths and injuries of those we had seen dying by the roadside and the imaginary wounds and postures of the millions yet to die.

JGB: I've prophesied, many times -- in interviews and so on -- that I saw the future as a sort of vast, endless, suburb of boredom, interrupted by acts of totally unpredictable violence.

Reader: Caliban, asleep across a mirror smeared with vomit.

Actor3: It should be a very interesting experiment.

Actor4: What experiment, Abel? What is the object?

Actor3: To wipe out all your memories of earth, your knowledge of outside, if there is anything outside.

Reader: I wish you were here, it's a world the surrealists might have invented.

Self: Some lines from Ballard's 1982 story, Myths of the Near Future.  His unique perspective was also of a world the surrealists might have invented, a world in which time was rapidly engorging itself.  The strangest thing though, was that this world and our own world converged throughout the writer's life.  Almost as if Ballard himself were a hierophantic figure, a drowned butterfly opening his harlequin wings.  He may have settled on the privet, but he was always an alien species.  

JGB: I think I have spent all my life looking forward to being shipwrecked on a desert island.  To some extent it's a sort of extended version of the situation in which I found myself now, I'm sort of marooned on the British Isles.  And I've lived like a castaway -- many people would say looking at my ramshackle home -- I've lived like a castaway all these years, I enjoy it very much.

Sue Lawley: So there you are, on the island, and you've got the wind-up gramophone and you turn the handle hard and you put the first record on it, what is it?

JGB: I like the Teddy Bears' Picnic.  When I was a small child in Shanghai in the 1930s, I was given a windup gramophone of the kind that most people have never seen; no electric wires, you just turned a little handle and out came this creaky but magical sound.  And I had one record, the Teddy Bears' Picnic, which I played hundreds of times, so much that when I was in my 20s and 30s, I detested it, I couldn't bear to hear it.  Curious thing is, about 10 years ago, I began to like it again and now I can hear it forever.

Singer: If you go down in the woods today
You're sure of a big surprise.
If you go down in the woods today
You'd better go in disguise.
For ev'ry bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.

Self (Reading):
'Beneath the trees where nobody sees
They hide and seek as much as they please'

The superficially innocuous but deeply creepy words of Teddy Bears' Picnic remain the perfect introduction to the sylvan world of the writer JG Ballard, who died in April of this year.  He lived for almost half a century in the effortlessly dull, Surrey dormitory town of Shepperton; cultivated a superficially innocuous public image.  But beneath the suburban groves of silver birch and ash, there lay a jungle of the id, teeming with minatory premonitions of a future in which, according to Ballard, we would be visited with the nightmare marriage of sex, death and technology, with the mass media, acting as officiant.  The writer began mapping this overlit realm when he moved to Shepperton in 1960.  Some might say that we all now inhabit it.  

The autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, which was published, fittingly, in 1984, brought Ballard a much wider readership.  It was filmed by Steven Spielberg and in one scene of a pre-war cocktail party, at his own parents house in Shanghai, Ballard himself makes an appearance, as a guest, visiting his own past.  Ballard said that until he wrote Empire, he had no real idea where the gothic furniture of his early apocalyptic writings came from.  That he had suppressed his memories of the death and destruction he had witnessed as a boy in China, under the Japanese occupation.  However, in the last three decades of Ballard's life, the infinite pasts and futures of the forest had indeed fused together.

For those of you who are not well acquainted with Ballard's literary oeuvre, the extensive newspaper coverage following his death may have been perplexing.  Here was someone who began as a genre writer churning out sci-fi stories for New Worlds magazine.  Then went on in the late 1960s to produce such shocking and genuinely avant-garde works as The Atrocity Exhibition; the subject of an obscenity trial at which the publisher's lawyer was unable to call the writer as a witness, because Ballard agreed wholeheartedly that the work was, in fact, and intentionally, obscene.  Yet this same man was now being hailed as possibly England's most significant and influential post-war writer.  How had this transformation been wrought?  My view, for its worth, is that ingesting Ballard is, to quote his sometime friend William Burroughs' most infamous novel title, always a Naked Lunch.  If there's one thing the British don't like, it's seeing what's on the end of their forks.  

Ballard underwent that potentially deadening transformation into being an adjectival form, during his own lifetime.  My dictionary defines Ballardian as: 'resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard's novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.'  However, it wasn't until the man himself was safely out of the way that we were able to recognize the shear, penetrating power of his vision, at once prophetic and playfully ironic; the philosophic range of his thought, nor the passionate intensity and even beauty of his prose.  It was Ballard himself who said: 'for a writer, death is always a career move.'  For James Graham Ballard, the career move has been to a position of fully acknowledged greatness.  

JGB: I have been to a number of malls, particularly in America, but one that's really inspired, is where you'll find, at this very moment, the three giant teddy bears, who move to music.  And there's something very unsettling, to watch the huge crowd in the atrium, swaying to the rhythm of these bears, as if they're hypnotised by them.  And I notice that sometimes when I've been there, I find that my head sways too, I'm not in anyway superior from the rest of the consumers, I'm one of them.

Self: Ballard, in a late interview, talking about the real-life inspiration for the shopping mall in his final, 2007 novel Kingdom Come.  In this amorality tale the writer returned to a schema that had morphed through many of his narratives.  A hermetically sealed social system, weather a shopping mall, housing development or resort colony, becomes cut off from the outside world and its inhabitants almost joyfully ascend into savagery and barbarism.  The paradigms for this was undoubtedly Ballard's childhood in Shanghai.  The privileged child of wealthy British expatriate parents.  He grew up, in the 1930s, in a white European enclave but made forays into a dangerous city that, far from terrifying, exhilarated him.  

JGB: Shanghai was really created by Americans and Western Europeans in its modern form in the 20s and 30s, and it was advanced in every conceivable way.  The house we had, that wasn't a particularly spectacular house, had air-conditioning and double-glazing and huge, American-style, kitchens and bathrooms and all this sort of thing.  Everybody owned American cars, as a matter of course, and of course, there were absolutely no restraints on life in Shanghai.  I think at one stage, in the 30s, there were something like 400 nightclubs in the city.  It was described as the wickedest city in the world, the Paris of the Orient.  It was unlimited entrepreneurial venture capitalism, carried to the nth point.  And I adored it.  I thought it was exciting, and a collision of all these different cultures.  Which is why I've always believed in, you know, in multiracial societies and the hottest possible ethnic mix.  I think it produces excitement.  From a very early age I was quite, sort of, devious, and I used to tell my nanny, or my mother, at the age of 7 or 8 -- this is in the late 30s -- that I was popping round the corner to see some friends of mine who lived further up Amherst Avenue.  And instead I would get on my bike, a small half-sized little, little bike, and set off for downtown Shanghai, through this maelstrom of trams and trucks and huge American cars, thousands of rickshaws and pedestrians, a place full of gangsters and pickpockets, beggars on the sidewalk . . .

Sue Lawley: And full of danger, for the boy of a rich man.

JGB: Yes it was, it was a miracle, there were a lot of kidnappings.  My father kept an automatic pistol among his shirts in the wardrobe in his bedroom, which I used to enjoy playing with from an early age when my parents went out in the evening.  A miracle I didn't shoot myself.  It was a violent place, dead Chinese, were commonplace on the streets of Shanghai.  Most had died from disease, and famine, of course, but it was a tremendously brutal place.

Self: The young Ballard, strikes me as an ebullient character, defined as much by his enthusiasms as his emotions.  However, unlike most people, he retained these enthusiasms into adulthood.  It impossible not to thrill to the note of glee in Ballard's voice when he hymns Shanghai.  Its modernity, its arms outspread to joyfully embrace the American century.  Yet his childhood was also an almost comical throwback to 19th-century upper-middle-class British mores: the big house, the servants, the prep school.

JGB: I went to Cathedral school in Shanghai and we had this fierce disciplinarian, who was the headmaster, a Church of England clergyman.  And he used to set enormous numbers of lines from smallest infraction, for looking out of the window, you'd get 500 lines.  And you were expected to copy out great chunks of GA Henty, who wrote very morally uplifting Victorian adventure stories for boys.  And I was painfully writing out the tenth page of one of these and I suddenly thought, I'll make it up, it's faster and I don't have to look at Henty's text.  Which I started doing until, one day, the headmaster looked at me and said: 'Next time you copy out your lines, don't pick some trashy adventure story.'  Well, I was set for life.

Self: Ballard speaking on radio 2 in 2006 and describing his eureka moment.  So a self-confessedly devious child, who felt a degree of distance from those around him and whose imagination was already burgeoning.  Characteristics that might well have made him a writer, whatever his surroundings, but then . . .  

JGB: My first intact memories really date from 1937, when the Japanese invaded China, and all of Shanghai, except for the International Settlement, and there was tremendously bitter fighting in and around the city.  I don't ever remember being frightened, I think it was because we lived very protected lives, as the children of westerners in Shanghai.  If I was moving round the city, as it were -- officially -- I travelled everywhere in my parent's car with a chauffer.  

Self: Ballard talking on a Bookmark Special, Shanghai Jim in 1991.  But after the Japanese took Shanghai, there was no more chauffeur, only a period of confusion and anarchy, before Ballard and his family, together with thousands of others, found themselves loaded onto trucks, then driven out to the hinterland of Shanghai, where they were interned in camps.  There the westerners would wait out the remainder of the war or else, sicken, languish, and then die.  

JGB (at Lunghua): This room was the room that my mother and father, sister and I shared for nearly three years.  It was so crowded in fact that, during the day, my father, who slept there, raised his mattress against the wall so that we had a little space where we could put up a card-table and eat our meals.  Otherwise there was just a door's width between the beds.  I slept over there, my mother there and my sister there.  

In many ways this was the most important place in my life, there's no question about it, I came to puberty here.  I came to something -- I left the camp when I was about 15 -- and I came to something close to an adult mind in this camp.  I saw, of course, adults under a great deal of stress, which was an education in itself.  This little room, is in fact, probably as close as I'll ever come to home, surprisingly.  
JGB (elsewhere): So many of the moments in my novels and short stories, only made sense if they were seen in terms of an attempt to, sort of, recreate Shanghai.

Self: An uncharacteristically emotional Ballard, standing in the tiny cubicle where he lived throughout the war.  His normally bluff and genial manner, like a guard, dropping to reveal the distressed, disoriented and traumatised boy.  The boy who, to some extent, he must always have remained.  How else to explain the way that this outwardly peaceable man was able so effectively to realise the psychopathology of violence in his fiction.  The scenes Ballard witnessed during the Japanese occupation of China were seared into its psyche, and he returned to them again and again.  In 2006, he told me about the Chinese coolie he had seen beaten to death by Japanese soldiers in front of his eyes, and those of his parents.  But it was a horrordote I was already familiar with; from Empire of the Sun, from The Kindness of Women, and it would make another reappearance in his memoir, Miracles of Life, published last year.  Here's the 1984 version.  

Reader: The soldiers began to saunter around the upended rickshaw.  Private Kimura kicked its wheels, shattering the spokes.  The others stamped on the wooden handles and snapped the shafts.  Together they threw the vehicle on to its back, scattering the cushions.

The coolie knelt on the ground, laughing to himself.  In the silence Jim could hear the strange sing-song that the Chinese made when they knew they were about to be killed.  Around the parade ground the hundreds of prisoners watched without moving.  Men and women sat in makeshift deck-chairs outside the barrack huts, or stood on the steps of the dormitory blocks.  The Lunghua Players paused in their rehearsal.  None of them spoke as the Japanese soldiers strolled around the rickshaw, kicking its seats and framework into matchwood.  From the locker below the seat fell a bundle of rags, a tin pail, a cotton bag filled with rice, and a Chinese newspaper, the entire worldly possessions of the illiterate coolie.  He sat among the grains of rice scattered on the ground, and began to sing at a higher note, raising his face to the sky.

Jim smoothed the pages of the Reader's Digest, wondering whether to read an article about Winston Churchill.  He would have liked to leave, but all around him the prisoners were motionless as they watched the parade ground.  The Japanese turned their attention to the coolie.  Raising their staves, they each struck him a blow on the head, and then strolled away as if deep in thought.  Breathlessly now, the coolie sang to himself as the blood ran from his back and formed a pool around his knees.

Self: When Empire of the Sun came out, there were those who had been interned with Ballard who questioned the veracity of his account.  He had, they said, been with his parents.  And yet his fictional alter ego, Jim, was alone in the camp.  To me, Ballard said that he had seen his parents afraid and powerless in Lunghua, and that this was tantamount to their absence.  Another profound estrangement came after the war, when Ballard returned to his alleged homeland.  The island which he would be cast away on for the remainder of his life.  

JGB: We docked at Southampton, we'd come in a former refrigerated meat vessel, called the Arawa, which had been converted into a troopship during the war.  And we docked at Southampton, and I remember looking down at this, very, very grey light, and these tired little streets, which were unlike anything I'd ever seen before.  I think when you move from a northern latitude to a southern, or from a southern to a northern, you immediately notice the difference in light.  Everything seemed very gray, and these little side- streets were lined with strange, sort of, black perambulators, which I thought were some sort of mobile coal-scuttle used for bunkering ships.  In fact, they were English cars.  I went to school in Cambridge as well, and then I went on to the University, to become a medical student.  I don't know -- there's no doubt that Cambridge was, and is still, a great university, with great strengths of course in scientific research.  At the same time I felt the University with a kind of, gothic pageant, it was a theme park before its day, nostalgia, and a dream of English life that had gone forever.  

JGB (elsewhere): Originally I wanted to become a psychiatrist.  And I think it was a case, really, of 'physician heal thyself'.  Psychiatry seemed one way of coming to terms, and maybe understanding, what all this was.  And to become a psychiatrist, I had first to become a doctor.  So I spent two years as a medical student, cutting up cadavers.  I think every medical student can remember the first moment, walking into the dissecting room; a sort of strange cross between a butcher's shop and a nightclub.  It was quite jolting, even though I'd seen a great number of dead bodies.  To see them actually laid out under this strange light, in this rather theatrical way, on these glass tables.  In those days they were a faintly green colour as a result of the formalin.  The strange thing to me is, and I think this is true, they don't actually look like the dead, they look like visitors from another planet.  As you began the process of dissection, you enter, literally and, mentally, and imaginatively, into the bodies of these dead men and women.

Reader:  As the four student teams began to dissect this unknown woman, opening flaps of skin in her limbs, neck and abdomen, she seemed to undress in a last act of self-revelation, unpacking herself of all the mortal elements in her life.  Sitting beside her, I pared back the skin of her shoulder, dividing the muscles and exposing the nerves of her brachial plexus, the strings that had once moved her arms as she caressed her husband, brushed her hair, cradled her child.  I tried to read her character in the scars beneath her chin, traces perhaps of a car accident, the once broken bridge of her strong nose, and the mole on her right temple which she may have disguised with a handsome blonde wave.  Pretending to read my Cunningham, the dissection handbook whose pages were now stained by the dead woman's skin, I stared at her matronly hips, and at the callouses on her left fingers, those of an amateur cellist ...? As we opened the doors of her body, students and demonstrators working on other cadavers would pause behind us, drawn to this solitary woman among the dead men.  She alone was treated to none of the lewd dissecting room humour.

Self: Ballard once described his fictional method to me as essentially forensic; that he would locate an object, say a sheet, then observe the human trace on it, a lipstick or a semen stain; then try to imagine the events that had caused it.  But his writing was a form of dissection, as much as detection.  And while he abandoned his medical studies to train as a pilot, Ballard's prose, although capable of poetic flights, always remained rooted in the bodily and the visceral.  

JGB: While I accept the idea that flight is a, sort of, symbol of escape, but I think more than escape, of transcendence.  It's played a very large role in my fiction, my characters are forever dreaming of runways and looking into those skies where they can transcend themselves.  From which of course, in the mid- and late-twentieth century, life, and death, come, in terms of nuclear weapons.  I think I'm assembling a kind of mythology for myself.

Reader: At dusk Sheppard was still sitting in the cockpit of the stranded aircraft, unconcerned by the evening tide that advanced towards him across the beach.  Tirelessly, the dark night-water sluiced its luminous foam at the Florida shoreline, as if trying to rouse the spectral tenants of the abandoned bars and motels.  But Sheppard sat calmly at the controls, thinking of Elaine his dead wife and all the drained swimming pools of Cocoa Beach.  

Self: For me, one of the most inspiring aspects of JG Ballard's work -- and I count him as a major literary influence -- was that while other post-war English writers remained interned in their Hampstead camp, putting on amateur dramatics about adulterous affairs, Ballard embraced the most significant technological changes of the 20th century, radical surgery and powered flight, with the same reckless abandon with which he had embraced Shanghai as a small boy.  He said that the 1960s was: 'a fascinating decade that I mostly watched on television.'  But back in the 1950s, he'd already seen the naked truth of the emergent world, bathing in the greenish glow of atomic anxiety.  

JGB: I felt that the so-called mainstream novel, in the mid-1950s, when I was beginning to become a writer, simply didn't reflect the world that I saw around myself.  I mean, the blueprint for the world we live in now in the 90s was laid down in the 1950s; jet-travel, the consumer society, the TV landscape.  And I saw none of this apparent in the fiction of, you know, Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis and CP snow: I didn't see a single motorway, I didn't see a single airport, I didn't see a single high-tech hospital, I didn't see a single computer, and they were just coming in then.  What I saw around me -- in the London, and the England, and the Western Europe, and the North America that I visited in the mid-1950s -- was change, enormous change was taking place around science and technology, and I thought any fiction, that is about the present day, must reflect this powerful engine that was transforming everything.  And the only form of fiction that seemed to have a halfway decent chance of doing this was science fiction, most of which I detested because it was all set in the far future or on the other side of the galaxy.  I wanted a science fiction set in the present day.  

Self: It was during a stint in Canada, learning to fly with the RAF, that Ballard first absorbed the new American science fiction writing.  And when he returned to London, he became the editor of a small scientific journal.  He also began to write his own science fiction stories.  Paradoxically, this time of imaginative adventure was counterbalanced by the first real domesticity he had experienced since childhood,

JGB: I think I was looking for peace in a way, not that young married life was very peaceful.  But I think I realised that if I was to become a writer, I needed to sort of settle myself down.  And I needed to measure my own past, and my own imagination against the sort of basic yardsticks of marriage, human emotions, and relationships, children, childbirth.  

Reader: Miriam frowned at the headboard, concentrating as she waited for the next contraction.  Panting, she clenched her fists. 'God Jesus! My piles are killing me ...!'  I knelt down and placed my hand between her buttocks, pressing my fingers against her swollen anus.  The bloated lining of her rectum ballooned outwards, and I pushed the spongy cushion into her anus, then held it there as the last contractions came.

'One last push, it's coming now, another push for the head ...'  Miriam's vulva had expanded and the crown of a minute head had appeared between her legs.  The black hairs were moist and neatly parted, as if a thoughtful nature had groomed the child for its first appearance in this world.  'Push now, we're almost there ...'  The whole face had emerged, a high forehead, miniature nose and mouth, and closed eyes, streamlined as if by time, by the aeons that had preceded this child down the biological kingdom.  Waking into the deep dream of life, it seemed not young but infinitely old, millions of years entrained in the pharaoh-like smoothness of its cheeks and its ancient eyelids and nostrils.  Its lips were composed, as if it had patiently endured the immense journey across the universe to this modest house with its waiting mother.

Self: It's permissible, I think, to harbour a little scepticism about exactly how self-consciously Ballard sought the solidity of family life as a necessary anchor for his fictional wanderings at that time.  But there's no disputing that brilliance with which he wrote about the essential human experiences in later years, as that excerpt from The Kindness of Women demonstrates.  What Ballard couldn't possibly have anticipated, was how brutally the newly fitted carpet was to be yanked from beneath his feet, and those of his children.  

Sue Lawley: It was when your children were, I think, aged 7, 5 and 4, and you were 34, that your wife died very suddenly, what happened exactly?

JGB: We were on holiday in Spain, she caught a rare form of pneumonia and died within about 24 hours.  It was a completely unexpected tragedy, that absolutely bowled me for six.  

Self: While Ballard's early science fiction writing was by no means stereotypic, there was a sense in which it had yet to be fully achieved.  Significantly, he always omitted his first novel, The Wind From Nowhere, published in 1962, from his list of works.  But the death of his wife acted as a ghastly catalyst.  

JGB: I felt at the time that nature had committed a terrible crime against my wife and my children.  I think the death of my wife, provided me with a sort of renewed impetus to make sense of the arbitrary cruelty of the world.

Self: This sense of nature as malevolent, a biota like an Old Testament Jehovah, resonated throughout Ballard's stories and novels in the 1960s, such as The Drowned World, and The Drought, culminating in one of his acknowledged masterpieces, The Atrocity Exhibition.  

Reader: Entering the exhibition, Travis sees the atrocities of Vietnam and the Congo mimetized in the 'alternate' death of Elizabeth Taylor; he tends the dying film star, eroticizing her punctured bronchus in the over-ventilated verandas of the London Hilton; he dreams of Max Ernst, superior of the birds; 'Europe after the Rain'; the human race -- Caliban asleep across a mirror smeared with vomit.

Self: The atrocity exhibition with its elegant restatement of the modernist aesthetic for a postmodern and postlapsarian world, gained Ballard a more literary reputation.  He seemed to have grasped an essential truth about the cultural revolutions of the 1960s that was utterly denied to anyone with flowers in their hair.  If there was anything wreathed in Ballard's hair, it was barbed wire.  

JGB: A lot of the machine-like alienated sex that takes place in books like Crash or High-Rise, is a reflection of my own, sort of, despair after the death of my wife and the, sort of, peculiar affectless quality that life in the late 60s began to have, when I think I all began to come apart at the seams.  Sensation ruled the late 60s, nothing mattered unless it -- it was like firing an electric current into the leg of a dead frog.  All you were looking for was a larger and larger kick.  And this kick could be provided by drugs, or films of car-crashes, or pure sensation transmitted through television.  People worry about the sort of violence shown on television now, obviously have forgotten the sort of commonplace scenes of dreadful violence that were shown on British television during say the civil war in the Congo and the Vietnam war.  And all this had a sort of deadening of the emotions.  It seemed to be one needed to perhaps embrace this world, to see what would happen, 'immerse oneself in the most destructive element', in Conrad's words, and see if one could swim in this new realm.

Self: Ballard's own coinage to describe the zeitgeist of this craven new world, was 'the death of affect'.  And in the early 1970s, his writing sought out zones of sensation as remorselessly as a toothache sufferer's tongue probes painful cavities.  The writer had by now extended the parameters of his methodology, at first through fake adverts which he produced for the magazine Ambit, and then, in 1970, he staged an exhibition of crashed cars at the New Art laboratory in London, that almost resulted in a riot.  

In his novel Crash, Ballard's alter ego, James Ballard, cruises the flyovers and motorways of the London periphery, becoming an initiate of a bizarre cult dedicated to exploring the sexual potential of car accidents.  Ballard said his aim in writing the novel was not to arouse, but: 'to rub the reader's face in his own vomit'.  The first publisher's report on Crash suggested that the writer was mentally ill, and certainly at the time Ballard wrote the book he was skating the margin between despair and revelation.  

Reader: She turned her face towards me, making no effort now to hide the scar-line on her face.  I was well aware of the strong undertow of hostility moving towards me.  The traffic stream reached the Stanwell intersection.  I followed the queue of cars, already thinking of how she would behave during sexual intercourse.  I tried to visualize her broad mouth around her husband's penis, sharp fingers between his buttocks searching out his prostate.  She touched the yellow hull of a fuel tanker beside us, its massive rear wheels only six inches from her elbow.  As she read the fire instructions on the tank I stared at her firm calves and thighs.  Had she any notion of the man, or woman, with whom her next sex act would take place? I felt my penis stirring as the lights changed.  I moved from the fast into the slow lane, taking up my position in front of the fuel tanker.

The arch of the flyover rose against the skyline, its northern ramp shielded by the white rectangle of a plastics factory.  The untouched, rectilinear volumes of this building fused in my mind with the contours of her calves and thighs pressed against the vinyl seating.  Clearly unaware that we were moving towards our original meeting ground, Helen Remington crossed and uncrossed her legs, shifting these white volumes as the front elevations of the plastics factory moved past.

Self: But as this reading shows, Ballard's obsession with autogeddon wasn't just sexual, he understood the way that the built environment was itself becoming an actor in the tragedy of social disintegration.  And in 1975's High-Rise, he imagined a war breaking out between the inhabitants of a residential building, a skyscraper that Ballard had, prophetically, sited on the Isle of Dogs, precisely where the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf would lance upwards a decade later.  

Reader: Wilder helped himself to the last of the small cat that had been barbecued above the fire.  His teeth pulled at the stringy meat, the still warm fat almost intoxicating him as he sucked at the skewer.

The young woman leaned affably against him, content to have Wilder's strong arm around her shoulders.  The fresh smell of her body surprised him -- the higher up the apartment building he moved the cleaner were the women.  Wilder looked down at her unmarked face, as open and amiable as a domestic animal's.  She seemed to have been totally untouched by events within the high-rise, as if waiting in some kind of insulated chamber for Wilder to appear.  He tried to speak to her, but found himself grunting, unable to form the words with his broken teeth and scarred tongue.

Pleasantly high on the meat, he lay back against the young woman, playing with the silver handbag pistol.  Without thinking, he opened the front of her suede jacket and loosened her breasts.  He placed his hands over the small nipples and settled himself against her.  He felt drowsy, murmuring to the young woman while she stroked the painted stripes on his chest and shoulders, her fingers moving endlessly across his skin as if writing a message to him.

Self: The paradox was, that all of these disturbing possible dystopias were being conjured into being in between doing the actual school run and helping with actual homework.  For, after the death of his wife, Ballard worked at the most unusual of his several careers, that are being a single parent, and a home-maker.

JGB: Of course in the mid-60s, when I found myself as a single parent, with these young children, people were much less tolerant of the idea of fathers being single parents than they are now.  It was very, very rare in those days for a man to bring up three children, and it was made absolutely clear to me by all kinds of people that I shouldn't really be doing it.  People quite seriously told me in no uncertain terms, that my children had suffered an immeasurable loss from the death of their mother and no father could ever take the place.  Of course, I didn't bring up my children, they really brought me up.

Fay Ballard: I think part of Daddy's writing is all about how normal everything looks, but actually under the surface it's not at all normal.  

Bea Ballard: I remember him doing the odd strange thing, like I remember he sprayed his shoes silver, with silver paint one day, and then strolled around Shepperton, and Shepperton being a very kind of bourgeois, boring town, you know, all the local residents, you can imagine, were looking and thinking: 'how weird'.

Fay Ballard: When it was hot, I remember Daddy once stripping off and walking around the garden naked, which he thought was quite normal, but of course the neighbours all started looking and thinking: 'Gosh, who's that crazy guy next door?'

I remember one particular point, which was he obviously remembered the very, very bright light in Shanghai, because even on a really hot, beautiful summer day he would have all the electric lights on in the house.  And I sometimes used to say: 'We don't need the light on', and he said: 'Oh, yes we do, it's got to be brighter.'

Ballard's daughters Fay and Bea, describing what it was like to be raised by the writer, for Bookmark.  It may be, given Ballard's own admission, that it was the three children who really brought him up, but like many parents there were actually rather unaware of what he got up to when they weren't looking.  

JGB: I'm not a drug user myself, I once took LSD, which was a big mistake.  I had a sort of classic bad trip in fact, a sort of psychotic episode that made me feel that literally I was losing my mind for a day.  LSD relies on tilting or damaging the sensory apparatus so that all colours begin to sort of separate.  It's like you look at the world as if through a prism.  The colours of the spectrum begin to float apart, time slows down.  The interiors of things like trees, or settees, begin to migrate to their surfaces.  My imagination works in a completely different way so that LSD was really not the right drug for me.  I think my drug is probably alcohol, which has been a good friend to writers since time immemorial.  

Self: Ballard may have only taken one bad acid trip, and disavowed the impact of it on his imagination, but it was difficult for his countercultural readers to believe this, especially when they sopped up passages like this one, from Myths of the Near Future.  

Reader: Sheppard hesitated by the water's edge, and then stepped on to its hard surface.  He felt the brittle corrugations under his feet, as if he were walking across frosted glass.  He'd almost ceased to breathe.  Here, at the centre of the space ground, he could feel time rapidly engorging itself.  The infinite pasts and future of the forest had fused together.  A jewelled snake hung from a bough, gathering to it all the embroidered skins it had once shed.  Sheppard stepped ashore and walked up the slope.  A giant butterfly spread its harlequin wings against the air, halted in midflight.

Self: No wonder, that as the 1970s progressed, increasing numbers of starry-eyed pilgrims made their way to Shepperton, expecting to find some Magus in a psychedelic robe.  Instead, they discovered a rather conventional looking man, shorthaired, sports jacketed, who, while he may have later admitted to a very close friendship with alcohol -- Ballard famously began drinking when he sat down at the typewriter in the morning, pouring himself a Scotch every hour, on the hour -- none the less confined the vast majority of his aberrant behaviour to the page.  He was the greatest English exemplar of Flaubert's dictum that an artist should be: 'a bourgeois in his life, a revolutionary in his dreams'.  

Reader: It was now twenty years since the earliest symptoms of the so-called 'space sickness' had made their appearance.  At first touching only a small minority of the population, it took root like a lingering disease in the interstices of its victims' lives, in the slightest changes of habit and behaviour.  Invariably there was the same reluctance to go out of doors, the abandonment of job, family and friends.  Almost without exception, the victims became convinced that they'd once been astronauts.  Thousands of sufferers lay in their darkened hospital wards, or in the seedy bedrooms of back-street hotels, unaware of the world around them but certain that they'd once travelled through space to Mars and Venus, walked beside Armstrong on the Moon.  All of them, in their last seconds of consciousness, became calm and serene, and murmured like drowsy passengers at the start of a new voyage, their journey home to the sun.

JGB: The American space program, and that triumphant landing on the moon, a miracle of human courage, ingenuity, and technology.  The total failure to ignite the popular imagination is one of the great mysteries I think of the last 30 or 40 years.  Its extraordinary that this remarkable event which must rate with Columbus's discovery of the Americas, or Marco Polo's journey to China, has had no comparable effect on the human imagination.  People were bored by it within a very short time, within a year or two of the first landings.

Interviewer: How do you explain that?

JGB: Partly because science fiction got there first.  I think it took the fun out of it, it took the mystery out of it.

Reader: Elaine smiled brightly at him from her anonymous cot, a white hand trying to draw him on to her pillow.  'Roger, we're going away soon.  We're leaving together ...'  What Elaine and the other victims were trying to do was to explore space, using their illness as an extreme metaphor with which to construct a space vehicle.  This space sickness was really about time, not space, like all the Apollo flights.  We think of it as a kind of madness, but in fact it may be a contingency plan laid down millions of years ago, a real space programme, a chance to escape into a world beyond time.

Self: The revolutionary character of Ballard's dreams was evinced by his sheer productivity as much as anything else: eighteen novels, twenty collections of shorter fiction, a volume of memoirs, another of essays, forty books in all.  Other writers who blasted off into science fiction in the 1950s, got lost out there or ended up trapped in orbit around planets that were obvious simulacrums of earth itself.  But in setting his course for what he termed inner space, Ballard was able to slip under the English empiricists early warning system, and infiltrate the culture.  He had snatched the body of a bourgeois, but really, he was an alien and defiantly philosophic novelist.  

I take for granted that eventually virtual reality systems will be available to us, which create a simulated reality that is more convincing than that which our central nervous systems create.  One must remember the brain is itself a virtual reality machine, the illusion we have of the real world: of factories, and streets, and office blocks, and other people talking to us, is itself a virtual reality simulation generated by our brains.  I think when the first true virtual reality systems become available and contain more visual information and are more visually convincing than ordinary reality, the temptation for the human race will be to enter this virtual reality system and close the door behind it.  I think there's a danger there because one really will be able to enter into a fantasy world which, unlike all fantasies in the past, will be more convincing than everyday reality, beyond the sort of bounds of conventional morality altogether, and one would be morally free to play with one's own psychopathology as a game.  That's rather dangerous I think, putting it mildly.  

Self: I first encountered JG Ballard in East Finchley library in the early 1970s.  His were just some of the bright yellow Gollancz SF titles, that I toted home to read by flashlight under my own suburban covers.  It's hard to say how it was that I divined something different about his work at that impressionable age.  But when I came to re-read Ballard in my late teens and early 20s, I saw that he was one of the handful of English-language writers who dared to assay the bigger picture

JGB: There's something missing from the world that we all inhabit.  I think most people realise the gods have died.  We've lost our faith in the far future, and that we're living in a commodified world where everything has a price-tag.  A world filled with dreams that money can buy, but dreams that soon pall.  Life is probably meaningless, that we're an accident of fate, biologically.  And that societies that we inhabit -- far from being social structures that reflect deep, enduring needs -- are in fact Gimcrack, almost extemporised, sets of rules that someone in charge of a lifeboat might impose on the survivors sitting around him: so many biscuits per day and half a pint of water.  And that society is just a set of opportunistic conventions that we accept in order to facilitate ordinary life, just as we accept that we drive in this country on the left side of the road, and we all know that that doesn't reflect some sort of deep pre-existing meaning within our lives.  I think most people realise that, for all its complexity, contemporary society is an artificial construct that can be moved offstage at a moment's notice, as people find at times of war.  As I found during the Second World War as a child in Shanghai.  You know, reality is just a stage set that can be pushed aside and a very different set of rules can then apply.  Given the hollowness of existence, I think people are beginning to wonder what does life really offer us, in terms of its possibilities?  Some people reach out to bizarre cults, others move into drugs, but these are all rather desperate remedies and I don't think they touch the truth.  

Reader: Think of the universe as a simultaneous structure.  Everything that's ever happened, all the events that will happen, are taking place together.  We can die, and yet still live, at the same time.

Self: In 1994, like so many others before me, I went to Shepperton.  If I was in awe of Ballard the writer, I found Ballard the man almost overpoweringly congenial.  We talked non-stop for three hours.  He had read and approved of my work, and although I ventured to suggest we might meet up again, he told me, gently, that the real commerce between us was at a textual level.  

Over the next decade or so we corresponded fitfully, his missives, always postcards, usually of the destroyed paintings of the Surrealist Delvaux, which he had recommissioned with some of his Empire of the Sun film money.  When I eventually returned to Shepperton, Jim, as I then began to address him, was effusive.  'Why don't you ever come and see me?', he cried.  Over the next couple of years, until his death, we dined together occasionally.  

Ballard was cheerfully anti-establishment to the end.  I remember in the late conversation asking him if he had ever been offered an honour and he conceded that there had been noises about a CBE.  'I asked them,' Jim said, 'if I could style myself Commander Ballard, and when they said no, that was the end of it for me.  Besides, what bloody Empire?'  It was his own imaginative empire that he was commander of.  And in the weeks before his death, Ballard was planning further conquests, outlining another book that was provisionally entitled: Conversations with my Oncologist.  

Penultimately, here's the earliest recording of Ballard we've found, from a 1970 programme with the splendid title: Is an Elite Really Necessary?  How cheery he sounds, as a writer prematurely forecasting the death of the medium he has chosen to work in himself.

JGB: I would say that the novelist no longer leads, he follows.  I mean the environment is already absolutely overloaded with fiction, enormous fictional structures of every kind: it doesn't matter whether it's the decor of an airline, or a presidential candidate.  I mean, how on earth could one sit down to write a serious novel let's say about the last presidential election, when the chief character himself is a fiction already created by somebody else?  One's role already becomes second hand, therefore the task of the writer it seems to me is much more that of selection, of trying to work out, like a -- almost like a scientist -- what the reality behind this fictional mix is.  What points of intersection are there, which really explain what is going on in this huge novel that we're living in?  Any writer worth his salt has got to look hard at these changes and be honest with himself.  He's inherited this beautiful tool, the 19th-century novel, if you like, capable of enormous sophistication and range and breadth of spirit and imagination and so on.  But it may be as glorious, and as out of date as the steam locomotive, the continents no longer exist for this beast to cross.

Self: And finally, Myths of the Near Future.  Ballard, the dream weaver, plaits together all the strange strands of time, of imagining, and of his own traumatised memories.

Reader: '... I wish you could be here, this forest is filled with a deep marine light, I feel sure now that I shall never leave here.  Crossing the garden yesterday, I found that I was dressed in light, a sheath of golden scales that fell from my skin on to the glowing grass.  I'm really certain that there's a new kind of time here, every leaf and every flower, even the pen in my hand and these lines I'm writing to you are surrounded by haloes of themselves.  I wish you were here, it's a world the surrealists might have invented.  I keep thinking that I will meet you somewhere ...'

[Teddy Bears Picnic music overlaid with sound of bomber]


Will Self on JG Ballard: radio review
Jod Mitchell reviews Archive on 4: Self on Ballard, British Steel and Poetry Slam 
Published: 12:03AM BST 29 Sep 2009

By Jod Mitchell

There are occasions when Archive on 4 just works. Saturday night's Self on Ballard (Radio 4) was one. In the programme, Will Self reviewed the life and work of JG Ballard with both intellect and feeling. The men were friends until Ballard's death last April. Self presented snippets of interviews with Ballard recorded at various stages of his life, together with judiciously selected readings of his works.

Ballard, who created some of the most provocative, avant-garde science fiction of the last century (even if he is best known for Empire of the Sun), had the darkest of imaginations. His life, we learned, was tinged with horror and violence. As a boy, he witnessed a fatal beating in a Japanese POW camp.

Later, as a medical student he revelled in "cutting up cadavers".  With the launch in 1973 of his novel, Crash, which explored the sexual potential of car accidents, he staged an exhibition of mangled vehicles. His stated aim was "to rub the reader's face in his own vomit". He described life as "a vast, endless suburb of boredom, broken only by violence".

As well as illuminating the origins of Ballard's vision, we learned quite a bit about Self's own influences. His inheritance from Ballard is direct and evident in his fiction. Self's protagonists are often trapped in distinctly Ballardian predicaments - motorway gridlocks, office blocks and industrially polluted landscapes. The writers' prose is comparable - blunt and concise, sometimes to the point of brutality.

On the evidence of this revealing programme, their spoken manners are similar, too. They can both sound smug, as if pleased with their articulateness and their power to shock. This was no objective assessment of Ballard - the men are too compatible for that - but it was no less listenable for that fact.