South China Morning Post, September 21, 2003

The world according to Ballard

At 73, J.G. Ballard is showing no signs of slowing down. He tells David Wilson about the rumblings of the disaffected middle-class and how China is poised to take over the world

Dinginess prevails beyond the battered front door painted a friendly shade of yellow. In the first room a visitor sees, which could be a study or a lounge, a yucca plant sprawls across the table, looking as if it were poisoned. The wallpaper is peeling.

The terraced house in Shepperton, just beyond the farthest reaches of west London, hardly advertises itself as the home of one of the biggest living names in literature.

The 73-year-old owner self-deprecatingly likens the house to his own appearance -- "how all old men look". Speaking with such casual indifference, J.G. Ballard reminds us of how he survived internment in a Japanese prison camp near Shanghai, where he was born, from 1942 to 1945. It was an ordeal recounted in his 1984 fictionalised memoir, Empire Of The Sun, which became the Steven Spielberg film.

Ballard is surprisingly positive about imprisonment, describing it in his refined, silky accent as "an eye-opener". He adds that the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre taught him to look at life sceptically.

"I realised that you couldn't really trust anything if it disappeared tomorrow. A few tanks come down the street and everything changes. Most people here don't realise that."

For a boy the change entailed excitement. Being so young, he failed to notice the shortage of food and that half the 3,000 interns suffered from malaria.

Ballard says he felt safe sharing a tiny room in the camp with his parents, who had run a cotton business. He "ran wild and had a wonderful time". Only as an adult did he appreciate the threat. "I look back now and think: God, the things that went on there."

He recalls the danger he placed himself in through "trivial" exploits such as slithering under barbed wire to fetch a ball, then hiding in the grass as the guards walked by.

Towards the end of the war his captors started behaving cruelly in "outbursts" without provocation, Ballard explains. But he raises his hand in a stop sign when asked to detail the extent of the atrocities, saying only: "They could be very brutal. There is no doubt about it."

Escapees were treated particularly badly. "We never saw them again," he says.

Gradually opening up after a short silence, Ballard adds: "They had a habit, the Japanese guards, of tormenting the Chinese."

Again he declines to provide details. But he was quoted in a 2001 Observer newspaper interview as saying that Chinese soldiers were decapitated. He attributes the butchery to traditional hostility. The Japanese looked down on their geographical neighbours -- "a big mistake", Ballard says.

He describes the Chinese as "very superior people". "The Chinese are going to take over the world -- I haven't the slightest doubt. I have always felt that."

The reason, he says, is that Chinese people think in the long-term and are highly intelligent and industrious. When complete economic freedom comes to China, Ballard believes it will become the ultimate economic powerhouse, manufacturing the world's cheapest cars, electrical goods and pharmaceuticals.

After the war, the Ballards headed back to Britain, whose days as an industrial powerhouse were already long gone. "I hated it. It was so dark, so grey, so exhausted, because in many ways England had lost the war."

James Graham Ballard went on to study medicine at King's College, Cambridge. "I loved it. It all means so much. I studied anatomy, dissection of the human cadaver and that is a fascinating experience. You couldn't get closer to a human being."

But after two years he quit to become a writer because he realised his future lay in observing people rather than healing them.

Ballard is notorious for Crash, a meditation on the supposed link between lust, cars and bloodshed. Published in 1973, it was filmed 23 years later by Canadian director David Cronenberg, sparking heated debates over censorship and obscenity before the British Board of Film Classification passed it for British distribution in 1997.

After Crash came novels such as Concrete Island and High Rise which show 20th-century middle-class people sliding into savagery.

His newly released 17th novel, Millennium People, looks at what happens when the middle-class grow dissatisfied and organise a revolution. He says two things inspired the tale. The first is that doctors, lawyers, accountants, middle managers and the like are growing restless in Britain because the cost of living is almost "astronomical", he says, widening his eyes.

Ballard, whose wife died in 1964, leaving him to bring up their three children, adds that, even if her husband is employed, the average working woman with two kids spends most of her money on a nanny. "And then if you want to send your children to private schools, the fees are just astronomical."

The second factor he pinpoints is job insecurity. "Some multinational with its headquarters in Tokyo or Hong Kong could decide, 'We are going to move our manufacturing base from London to Calcutta, and everyone is out of a job'. That sort of insecurity and the whole feeling of the kind of middle class way of life is under threat."

He says he sympathises with the well-heeled refusniks who fight back in Millennium People. He is adamant, too, that the idea of a middle-class revolution is more than sci-fi, citing violent protests against vivisection, GM crops and globalisation.

A revolutionary leader has yet to emerge, Ballard admits. "It could happen," the eccentric visionary insists. "If the economy hits a downturn -- and it might -- that's when real dissatisfaction will emerge. And it could take a violent form."