From the Sunday Times Magazine's feature "Relative Values", 20 March 1988 - JG Ballard and daughter Fay talk about each other:
Free Association: The novelist J.G. Ballard and his daughter Fay talk to Anthony Denselow.
J.G. Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930 and was interned by the Japanese during the war. His powerful narratives have often reflected an interest in the future and in the powers of nature. "Empire of the Sun", a story touching on his own childhood experiences, was shortlisted for the Booker prize and has been turned into a film by Stephen Spielberg, opening tomorrow. His most recent book is "The Day of Creation". He has three children, Jim, 31, Fay, 30, and Bea, 28. Their mother died in 1964. Fay studied history of art at Sussex University. She has worked at the Museum of London and for Greater London Arts and is now press officer at the Royal Academy of Arts.
J.G. Ballard: I was present at the birth of my two daughters, who were both born at home. My son was born in hospital in the days, sadly, when fathers were not allowed to be there. Not only was I present when the girls were born but I practically elbowed the midwife aside and delivered them myself. I remember Fay's head emerging into daylight; it was an extraordinary moment. Most people imagine that a newborn child is very young, as young as a human being can be, but in fact for the first few seconds I had the sense she was immensely old. She had the whole of the human race behind her, she looked like something from Egyptian sculpture, streamlined by time. Within a few seconds she was suddenly very young.
I published my first story in 1957 [sic], the year my son was born, so my output as a writer has come within the hurly-burly of family life. Not only were there three children, but a golden retriever, a family cat, Bea's pet rat and an assortment of hamsters and gerbils, most of which got free and probably set up little colonies of their own everywhere. Along with all the children's friends it was like Waterloo station at rush hour.
Their mother died when they were still very young. Because I was a writer I could look after them. Had I been an architect or lawyer then somebody else would have brought them up. As it was I was constantly with them. I don't think I could have physically spent more time with my children than I did.
We formed a very close group and did everything together. In many ways they brought me up and I realise now that I often did what they suggested. Back in the Sixties we travelled abroad each summer, often with my girlfriend Claire and her daughter Jennifer. Entering Barcelona or Athens it was always the children who decided where to stay. I remember my daughters cutting swathes through Greek and Spanish waiters. Looking back, I think we were the first football hooligans.
They haven't altered much since they were three or four. It seems as though their characters were almost set by then. I have always felt very close to each of them in turn and, apart from the one great tragedy of their mother's death, which they seemed to recover from in a few years, there have been no serious stresses at all. They seem to be happy adults who live their lives intelligently and who have found the right outlets for their talents.
There was a tremendous vacuum when they all grew up and left home to go to university, a vacuum which has never been filled. Nature hasn't provided a contingency plan for dealing with that vacuum, or rather, nature's contingency plan is death. Whether it's thanks to the miracles of modern medicine or to will power, I've managed to avoid that so far.
We had a very informal family life - in other words the place was a complete mess all the time. It was a total free-for-all. When I visited the homes of their friends they appeared like Versailles: formal and lavish. We'd flee back to this tumbledown place like raffish friends of Toad of Toad Hall. I found this emotional compost heap a rich source of stimulation. All three children were a stimulation because they had such strong imaginations.
Fay always had a great sense for the fine arts. She used to design the most fabulous fancy dress costumes and make them from odd bits and pieces from the back of the wardrobe. All three of them, I thought, had great potential talent as artists. Each of them could draw in the most vivid and original way. I am an unfulfilled painter myself. It's what I've always wanted to do but have had no talent. When I discovered that they had the talent I lacked, I may have come on too strongly in trying to urge them to become artists. That mistake is my one regret.
I think they benefited from living in a huge, untidy nest. Their childhoods were completely different from my own. I grew up in a formal British way in Shanghai with a house full of servants. As is evident to those who come to my home I don't care about the way I live, which is fortunate. For if I had wanted something more formal it would have been a problem to bring up the children and it would have been so much more restricting. In a way the division between children and parent dissolved in the scrummage of our lives together.
I've thought about writing about domestic life but it is a difficult subject to dramatise. Americans have no problem: Chapter One we buy a ski lodge in Vermont; Chapter Two we go to Las Vegas and Deirdre becomes a go-go dancer. Our high point was when we went to the Costa Brava and somebody fell off a pedalo.
Fay Ballard: He was both daddy and mummy to me. He did everything: cooked, washed, took us to and from school and helped with our homework. He has always been amazingly loving and supportive. We have been a very close family, always the best of friends.
He is a great believer in the equality of the sexes. We all mucked in together, there was no division in the household, which is still unusual. He was rarely cross-tempered and wasn't strict but he did instil in me great principles about the way I should conduct my life and which I've followed very closely. He showed me that it is essential to be well educated, to achieve your ambitions in a career and be independent. He also taught me humility and patience. Actually, he didn't teach me, I learnt these things from watching him.
My first memory is of Daddy taking me to the Thames during a thunderstorm; I remember feeling protected by his presence. We were brought up in a suburban Thirties house in Shepperton where Daddy still lives. He likes the privacy and he enjoys writing in a fairly anonymous environment. He will never leave and it will never change. It's like a museum and I joke that one day I'll turn it into one. Objects have not moved for twenty years. There is still a revolting rose ornament on the stairs, a blue flipper from an old summer holiday holds a door open, a peeled orange on the mantelpiece in the nursery has been there for at least 15 years.
It was a colourful upbringing, unconventional in the way it operated and unusual in that he is so interested in popular culture and in contemporary life of the future. There was little in the way of a generation gap between us, like we could all listen to "Top of the Pops" in the evening. I remember some old neighbours telling him off for nude sunbathing; we all thought that was very funny.
I remember as a teenager going round to friends' houses and watching their parents bicker. I'd never seen that before, it saddened me and came as a real warning against marriage. Having a strong father bringing me up has made me hesitant about sharing my life with anybody else. In a way Daddy is not male, he is just a person. I never felt that I couldn't
talk to him about anything, be it boyfriends, clothes or make-up. He has no barriers at all.
I think that my friends saw him as a very different person from other parents. They thought that he was something of a playboy. He'd chat with them, offer them a drink and he'd always compliment my female friends on the way they dressed.
I didn't start reading his novels until recently. I wasn't that curious. At first it felt like going through his love letters or his personal letters to friends, it was a strange experience for me. He has never been a great intellectual, literary figure. He never said that I should be reading certain things. Once, when I was doing English O-level, he told me he'd never read Dickens. I wasn't surprised by the ideas I found, I was used to them in conversation, but I was stunned by his prose and by the beauty of his writing.
But Daddy has the ability to see life in a very wicked way. He can always throw open another side in your way of looking at things. He is very wise, original and creative. He is also extremely disciplined. I'm amazed that he could write while we made such a racket next door.
My interest in art must have come from him. I remember knocking on his door for drawing paper, and I loved looking at his art books.
Although the Royal Academy is the most exciting gallery to work for, I still feel I've only just started my career. My upbringing has coloured my attitude. Daddy taught me that anything is possible and that you should never close your mind to any avenue or experience in life.
Success has not changed him. He may have a few more books and a surrealist painting, but the grill still doesn't work. He is at peace with himself and doesn't need gimmicks around him; all the excitement and flavour of life is in his mind. He is totally self-sufficient.
I went to see Spielberg's film version of "Empire of the Sun" and it was strange to watch something of his past on the screen. He rarely talks about the past. I thought the experience was quite fitting, quite surreal, to learn about your father with 500 strangers in a cinema.