From The Telegraph, 1996:
JG Ballard: Surrealist of Suburbia
Everything about the novelist J. G. Ballard has the appearance of being normal, except when it comes to his imagination. His fictions, from the perverse and violent “Crash”, now a controversial film, to his latest novel, a chilly look at the leisure society, are unsettling predictions of the shape of things to come. Interview by Mick Brown.
In 1969 [sic] the author J. G. Ballard staged an exhibition at the Arts Lab in London on the theme of “crashed cars”. The exhibition consisted simply of three cars, towed from the wrecker's yard and placed under spotlights; no text, no accompanying photographs, no explanations. “I wanted to confirm my suspicions,” Ballard says, “that there was something about the car crash that had never been looked at before.” The effect, he says, was electrifying.
“No one would have noticed these cars had they been parked on the street outside. But everybody who walked in gave a sort of nervous start and burst into laughter. I had an opening night party. Deliberately to provoke the guests, I had hired a young woman to wander around the room naked, interviewing the guests on closed-circuit TV.
“When she arrived and saw the cars she immediately said to me, “I will not appear naked, only topless.” I thought, now that's a curious response …” Ballard gleams with amusement at the memory.
“Everyone got enormously drunk; the young woman was nearly raped in the back seat of the Pontiac; it was as if all the circuits were closed, sparks were just flickering everywhere. The exhibition was on for a month, and during that time the cars were constantly attacked and vandalised, Placing them under a spotlight and asking people to really look at them elicited this huge outburst of nervousness, anger and so on. And this was a green light to me; I thought, you're on to something ...”
What Ballard was on to was the mysterious conjunction of car crashes and sexual reverie. In 1973, Ballard published “Crash”, a book that jump-starts in explicit and harrowing detail the connection between car crashes and sexual arousal. It caused a scandal. And it has done so all over again.
“Crash” has now been made into a film by David Cronenberg, the Canadian director of “Dead Ringers” and “The Naked Lunch”. When it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the effect was, once again, electrifying. While it was awarded a special jury Prize for “originality, daring and audacity”, the screening was greeted with screams of horror, nervous laughter and distraught people fleeing for the exits. Normally hardened movie critics have excoriated the film, not least Alexander Walker, the respected critic of the Evening Standard, who has described it as “movie pornography” that will “tax public tolerance to the limits, and maybe beyond them”.
“I'm rather surprised at that,” says Ballard evenly. “I always thought Walker was quite a liberal sort of chap.”
Those who are familiar with J.G. Ballard only through “Empire of the Sun”, his bestselling book based on his childhood experiences in Shanghai and in a Japanese internment camp, may be surprised to find him standing accused of being a conspirator in pornography. “Well, it's ridiculous,” he says with a sigh. “Yes, the book is violent and it is explicitly sexual. But that was necessary. I was deliberately confronting the reader with his or her worst nightmares. But it's not a violent film at all, actually, and there is comparatively little sex in it. People leave it believing they’ve seen this hard-core violent pornographic film, but they haven't. Where they've seen it is on that screen inside their heads, because their reaction associates sex and car crashes. Their reaction confirms my thesis; that's the bizarre thing.” The point that J. G. Ballard set out to prove more than 20 years ago at the Arts Lab has been proved all over again.
Ballard lives in a Thirties semi-detached house in Shepperton, Middlesex. You squeeze past a large, and noticeably unkempt, silver Ford Granada skewed in the drive, and knock at a front door that is gasping for a lick of paint.
“Whisky and soda?” he asks, as soon as I step through the door. It is 11am. Ballard himself used to start drinking at 9 in the morning. Nowadays he waits for nightfall, but is ever ready to afford visitors the opportunity of an early start. He is a tall, heavily-built man, dressed in white trousers and a striped shirt; his grey hair is in need of a trim. He is extraordinarily courteous, plumping up the cushions for me to sit down.
No sooner have we sat down, however, than the telephone rings. “We'll ignore it,” he barks. It continues ringing. He stirs restlessly in his chair. “It's impossible to talk over a ringing telephone...” he says with a sigh. But now we're trapped. We sit listening to it, almost furtively, it seems. “It's not for you, is it?” he asks, as if it would be the most normal and acceptable thing in the world for me to receive telephone calls at his house. Finally it stops and we both breathe a sigh of relief.
Ballard has lived here for more than 35 years. It is where he brought up his three children following the death of his wife in 1964, and where he has lived alone since they left home. But now he is talking of moving. He and his girlfriend of some 30 years, Claire, a journalist, have plans to resettle on the Mediterranean in Spain.
In one sense this would be a pity. The pilgrimage to the Ballard home has become a treat for journalists, moved to comment on its shambolic, stained, museum-like aspect; its air of arrested time and decay. The antiquated light fittings, the sagging Habitat sofas, the fatigued kitchen fittings all amount to a sort of parody of a suburban home, circa 1964, that has gone to seed.
A curious garnish is added to this scene by an arresting surrealist picture of three nude women (a copy of a Paul Delvaux, destroyed in the Blitz, which Ballard commissioned from surviving photographs) propped against the mantelpiece in the lounge, too big to hang on the wall: that and a unicycle, which was standing in a corner in the hall the last time I visited, three years ago, and is still there, a mystery prop.
These incongruities seem like a potent metaphor for Ballard and his work; the apparently normal, even mundane, surface of his outer life, and the Technicolor turmoil of his inner one. Look closely at the stolidly bourgeois figure of Ballard, and you can almost see the thoughts bursting against the inner skin of his temples, struggling to get out.
Ballad is not, strictly speaking, a science fiction writer, although that is how he has been described. He is a surrealist, less interested in the hardware of technology than its transforming effects on the per-sonal imagination -- or, as he puts it, “the way in which the technological dimensions of our lives have begun to penetrate our mental air-space”.
“Empire of the Sun” ends with the young Jim Ballard watching the flash of nuclear light over Hiroshima, “that spectral mushroom cloud”, as Ballard puts it, that portends both Jim's own freedom and the shadow of fear that would be cast over the world for the next 50 years. It is a powerful symbol of the thrill and the dread of the technological age that has shaped Ballard's fiction for the past 36 years.
Ballard says that he has always felt a “naive utopian” fascination with the modern world; the elegant geometry of motorway flyovers, airports and high rises (his favourite piece of architecture is the Hilton Hotel at Heathrow - “just by Terminal 4. You can't miss it”). He loves all this; but at the same time, he sees its dangers.
The modern urban landscape of business parks, shopping malls and microwave radio towers may be rigorously functional, but it is injurious to the human spirit. These are landscapes of alienation, he suggests, which have dispensed with emotions -- dispensed with our emotions -- leading to “the suburbanisation of the soul” and a “death of feeling”, a world in which humanity has been dispensed with.
This “death of feeling” is a favourite theme of Ballard's, and one to which he returns in his new novel, “Cocaine Nights”. This is a curious fable about Estrella de Mar, an idyllic retirement community on the Costa del Sol where an English journalist arrives to investigate a mysterious fire in which seven people have died. Ballard uses the convention of the mystery thriller to explore the idea of the new leisure society, where the social interactions, constraints and conventions generated by work are completely absent.
The symbols of this, he suggests, are manifest around the world, in the walled security compounds where the wealthy live, insulated from the outside world by security alarms and surveillance cameras, sedated by cocktails and satellite TV. Ballard locates his fable on the Costa del Sol, which he has visited regularly over the years, watching it grow from a collection of tiny fishing villages to one long, urbanised strip, running from the French border to Gibraltar - “a linear beach city, utterly devoted to leisure”. But, as he says, the story could equally apply to any of the walled, “fortress communities” to be found in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and increasingly in Britain, where the wealthy eke out their leisurely lives -- the new social terrain that Ballard describes as the “Fourth World”.
“The old notion of the city designed around the dream of free civic interaction, with the evening strolls along the ramblas, street festivals, pedestrianised areas where people can rediscover the pleasures of a Renaissance city -- all that's been abandoned now,” he says.
“That’s the last thing our new town planners want. They want to reassure the prospective buyer that what you're getting is security: tele-surveillance, direct links to police stations, private security forces and isolation. The interaction on a person-to-person basis that leads to clubs and groups, the pursuit of pastimes that make up a national culture, are lost. People are sitting behind their triple-alarmed locks and retreating inwards. These are places where time has slopped. And that's a dangerous state of affairs for human beings. Change is essential. So I was interested in what underpins the leisure societies of the future; how can they energise themselves.”
In “Cocaine Nights”, Estrella de Mar has been galvanised into a bustling hive of social clubs, operatic societies, civic and cultural activity. The improbable catalyst for this re-awakening of the dormant spirit has been an outbreak of petty crime and transgressive behaviour -- motor theft, housewife prostitution and drug dealing -- orchestrated by a charismatic pied piper named Crawford.
“Insecurity,” argues Crawford in the novel, “forces you to cherish whatever moral strengths you have, just as political prisoners memorise Dostoevsky's “House of the Dead”, the dying play Bach and rediscover their faith, parents mourning a dead child do voluntary work at a hospice ...”
So is J. G. Ballard suggesting that it is the grit of social disorder in the oyster that creates the pearl of a civilised society?
“That's it exactly,” he says. “There is a very complex system of checks and balances that are needed to bring a community to its fullest potential. We can see the extreme example in war; there's no doubt that although war is the worst possible human experience, it does nonetheless force a community to summon its greatest strengths.
“And it may be that transgressive acts, crimes, do act as a stimulus for social cohesion. That doesn't mean I'm recommending that people should go out and take up housebreaking in order to stimulate the arts in their local communities; I’m just offering a cautionary tale.”
Cautionary tales are Ballard's stock-in-trade, which makes the renewed furore around “Crash” all the more ironic. He actually believes himself to be the most moral of writers: “All my fiction is driven by… I wouldn't say a social conscience, exactly, but I'm highly critical of what I see as dangerous trends developing around us. A lot of my fiction consists of warning signs.”
Thus “Crash”, with its fearful juxtaposition of crumpled chrome and lacerated flesh, mechanised destruction and sexual reverie, is a “cautionary tale” about what he calls “the death of affect”, and how in an alienated world people who are desperate for human contact will find it in the most desperate ways.
The novelist Emma Tennant, an old friend, believes that the key to understanding J. G. Ballard is that he has always regarded Britain “as if he were a stranger”. He was born in Shanghai, the only son of a wealthy British businessman, and grew up in the pampered environs of the expatriate community until, at the outbreak of war, he was interned with his family by the Japanese in a detention camp, where he lived for almost three years, between the ages of 12 and 15. Anyone who has read, or seen the film of “Empire of the Sun”, would conclude that this was the most formative experience in Ballard's life.
“Well, those are very formative years -- perhaps the most formative years. I went in as a child and emerged as the beginning of an adult. I've said to people that I very much enjoyed my time in camp, and they're either amazed, horrified, or they think I'm being ironic. But I'm not. The camp was really a huge slum, like a shanty town, and the people who have the most exciting time in a shanty town are the teenage boys, because they can run wild. My parents had very little control over me, because they had none of the levers of power. They couldn’t deny me treats or give me rewards, because there were none to give or withhold.
“And living in close proximity to 2,000 people of all social backgrounds was a unique education in a way. I watched adults under great strain, and that teaches one a great deal about the human character, its strengths and its limits. It teaches one not to be judgmental, because we're all made of the same bruised flesh.”
Above all, he says, his war-time experiences taught him that everything is provisional. Civilians, Ballard believes, have a much sharper view of war than combatants do, “because you do see these colossal displacements. One minute you can be living in a grand house with nine servants, being taken to school in a chauffeur-driven car; and then a few days later, as it were, find yourself living in a glorified broom-cupboard. That's what happened to me.
“That teaches you to trust in the solidity of nothing. Nothing will endure. And that's a very important lesson to learn, and a very difficult one.”
Ballard came to Britain in 1946 and read medicine at Cambridge, but left after two years, having already made up his mind to be a writer. He worked as a copywriter and a Covent Garden porter, trained as an RAF pilot in Canada, then returned to Britain to pursue his writing career in earnest.
His first novel, “The Drowned World”, was published in 1960 [sic], to immediate acclaim, establishing his theme of what Ballard would term “apocalyptic” novels, exploring the post-technological landscape. It is no exaggeration to describe him as one of Britain's greatest imaginative writers, but he has always occupied his own peculiar niche, just beyond the margins of the literary world - “Thank God”, he sighs.
In the Sixties, he was more often to be found at science fiction conventions than literary festivals, an indefatigable supporter of small, “alternative” magazines, whose friends included the likes of Michael Moorcock and the artists Lucian Freud and Eduardo Paolozzi. Ballard looks back on the Sixties with affection. The threat of nuclear annihilation cast its shadow of fear, he says, but it also stirred an enormous vitality, a flowering in the arts, music, and literature -- further corroboration, perhaps, of the ideas explored in “Cocaine Nights”.
“Then you had the drug culture, of course, which in the first place I think was about exploring larger mental horizons, and setting out a new kind of community based on mutual warmth and pleasure. But that couldn't last, sadly. Maybe I’m speaking as an old whisky-and-soda man, but I think that has turned out to have tragic social consequences.”
He took LSD once - “a huge mistake. The classic bad trip,” he says, shuddering at the memory. “From then on I've never been tempted to take so much as a baby Disprin.” But for the most part he claims to have “watched the Sixties on television”, his own circumstances transformed by tragedy when his wife died suddenly of pneumonia on a family holiday in Spain. Ballard was left to bring up his three children, then aged four, five and seven, alone.
“Well actually”, he says, “I think they brought me up. To some extent, I was enjoying the childhood I never had myself. The world I was brought up in before the war was extremely formal. I don't think I ever saw my father when he didn't wear a tie and jacket. I was alone for most of the time in the house will nine servants, all Chinese. My sister was seven years younger than me. So I didn't have an intimate family life. But with my own children, we were wonderfully close, and have remained so.”
“It was an extremely happy childhood,” Ballard's daughter, Faye, remembers. “Daddy sacrificed everything to bring us up. We had a lady -- Mrs Sears -- who came in to change and wash the sheets every Friday, but apart from that he did everything, and he did it absolutely brilliantly. Our home was a nest -- a lovely, warm family nest.
“Compared to my friends’ childhoods, it was unconventional. I remember Sunday afternoons at Michael Moorcock's house in Ladbroke Grove, with Daddy upstairs with Michael playing Hawkwind; and I remember Daddy thinking it would be nice to sunbathe naked in the garden and the neighbours being really shocked. But it all seemed perfectly normal. He instilled very strong moral values in us, but within a fairly liberal structure.”
The oddity here is thinking of Ballard, the loving and attentive father, waking his children, pouring their cornflakes, packing them off to school and then sitting down to write a book as shockingly transgressive and violent as “Crash”.
“Yes, well, it surprises me. But there are writers whose imaginations remain completely distinct from their ordinary lives. Scott Fitzgerald might have danced on the roofs of taxis. But my life and my imagination have been completely separate.” Ballard suggests that his life is as quiet and ordered as could be imagined; spending time with his children, grandchild, and his girlfriend Claire; dinners with friends, reading, “doing all the normal things that people do”.
Throughout his career, until the success of “Empire Of The Sun”, Ballard says his earnings exactly matched those of a GP. After “Empire of the Sun” “they rose to that of a consultant”. He celebrated by commissioning the Delvaux copy that stands in the living-room, but other than that it is difficult to see what he spends his money on. “I live very modestly,” he agrees. Which brings us back to the subject of his home. Ballard is only too aware that visitors find it odd that he should live in the way he does. He has always explained away his refusal to move to more glamorous surroundings -- or at least to dust the window-ledges -- as a matter of “inertia”, but one senses that it has now become almost a statement of defiance.
“People are so bourgeois these days,” he sighs. “In Europe people don't define themselves by the house or flat they live in; here we are obsessed with it. I think it's a reflection of the fact that the opportunities are so limited in this country that the only way people can express themselves is by ripping out their kitchen and putting another one in at enormous expense.”
But you've never felt tempted? “Absolutely not.” He brightens. “Actually, I'm rather pleased that people are mystified by the way I live. If you can make a mystery out of a suburban semi-detached house, that's quite an achievement.”
As the prosaic Ford Granada parked in his drive suggests, Ballard is not particularly interested in cars as pieces of engineering, or icons of style, but he is interested in the way the car has shaped and transfigured our imaginations and behaviour.
Cars, as he points out, are “an extension of our home and personal space” and “a major site of sexual activity” (he admits to having made love in cars “many times” himself). “And if you look at the famous people who've died in car crashes -- James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, even John F. Kennedy, which I think was a special kind of car accident, those deaths have a greater resonance than death by hotel fire or plane crash. The reason, of course, is that we all drive cars, and we are all aware of the possibility of violent death that exists, literally, at our fingertips.”
In “Crash”, Ballard’s theories about the “death of feeling”, and the need of people to make some emotional connection, are taken to their ultimate conclusion. After being involved in a car crash, in which the other driver is killed, the narrator, “Ballard”, a television producer, is drawn into an hyper-neurotic triangle with the driver's widow and Vaughan, a photographer obsessed with the erotic possibilities of car crashes. Along the motorways, slip-roads and service stations around Heathrow airport, the three protagonists tilt dangerously towards the ultimate expression of sexual excitement -- the fatal car accident. It is a book that brings a new meaning to the term “auto-eroticism”.
“None of these people is mad,” says Ballard, “but that psychopathic circuitry -- these dreams of some strange, violent sexuality mediated through the crashing of cars -- provides the imagination with a charge that isn't available in their ordinary lives.” Ballard has been in a car crash himself, when a tyre blew out on the approach to Chiswick Bridge. It was not, he is quick to point out, in any way a sexual experience.
“What I’m saying in the book is that the idea of car crashes is sexually exciting. Now that's a very different message, and in a way that's much more sobering and unsettling. But it's so obvious from the entertainment culture we inhabit today, where films and television are fixated on the car crash.”
There is no question that the book is strong meat. David Cronenberg says that when he first started reading “Crash” ten years ago he was unable to finish it. “I found it very difficult, very disturbing.” It was only when he picked it up again some years later that he knew he wanted to make a film of it.
Cronenberg describes his film as “a philosophical exploration. To me it's very much an existentialist drama, because it bases itself on the understanding that there are no ethics, no morality in the universe, except as we invent them and reinvent them constantly. For these people the old forms of love, sexuality and morality are dead forms, and so they reinvent these things through the strange libido liberated by the car crash.
“But I think the film goes further than the book. The psychopathology of the near future that Jim is positing, instead of being resisted and struggled against by the characters, as it is in the book, is embraced wholeheartedly by them. It is seen as something that, however grotesque it seems to us, might be the only way to reconnect with feeling and meaning; that the only way to have love is to go that far.”
It has been difficult to find a distributor for “Crash” in Britain a consequence, Cronenberg believes, of the furore at Cannes and the film is unlikely to be screened here for some time, if at all. “I do hope we get a chance to see it in this country,” says Ballard. “It’s a brilliant film; a masterpiece.”
If “Crash” is a dangerous story, J. G. Ballard says, it is because we live in dangerous times. “The world is such a volatile place now. All the old institutions have crumbled; the nation state has gone; politics is regarded as a sleazy game. People were never more prosperous than they are now, but their inner lives have never been more empty.
“You see it in the entertainment culture, with the underlying violence of all these Stallone and Schwarzenegger movies; they're the circuses that distract people from the fact that their lives are increasingly empty.” This, Ballard's tone suggests, is the true pornography of the age.
“If you see the 20th century as a sort of party, I think we're now in the morning after the night before, surrounded by this debris, and suffering an awful headache.”
If this makes Ballard sounds like a pessimist, that would not be entirely true, he says. He is a humanist. And the double-edged message of the nuclear light above Hiroshima remains fresh in his mind; just as man has the capacity to destroy himself with technology, so he has the capacity to free himself too.
“In a sense, this is a very exciting time. One can see a new world emerging from the closing acts of the 20th century, and I'm very keen to carry on writing about that. All the debris needs to be cleared away and then a new day can start, 20 or 30 years down the road.
“But I doubt that I’ll be here to see it. And, I'm sorry about that.”