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An Evening with J.G. BallardAuthor: Ben Austwick • Sep 20th, 2006 •
JG Ballard. Photo: Paul Murphy.
On 14 September 2006 JG Ballard gave a reading from his new novel, Kingdom Come, and talked to Robert McCrum of the Observer at the Institute of Education, London — the evening was presented by Blackwell. Looking rather dapper and displaying a sharpness and wit that puts people half his age to shame, Ballard talked about his childhood and influences before touching on some of the big questions of our age: consumerism, Islamic terrorism and the communications revolution.
STOP PRESS: Rattling Other People’s Cages, Ballardian’s new interview with J.G. Ballard, is now online.
ROBERT McCRUM: Your books are very funny.
JG BALLARD: I tend to be a bit on the deadpan side I think, to put it mildly. The surrealists use a sort of serious humour, and I flatter myself to think I’m in that area too. But it’s a dangerous area to be in. Americans in particular find my stuff very confusing: “What, is he serious?”
There’s one passage in Kingdom Come about a hostage siege in the Metro Centre. This must have been informed in part by your experiences of the war. Do your experiences of China and Shanghai in the Second World War still resonate in your work?
Well, they probably do, even though it was a long time ago. People do get over unhappy experiences in their childhood. War is a terrific revelation, there’s no doubt about it, whether you’re a civilian or a combatant. In many ways I think it’s more of a revelation if you’re a civilian because you’re so powerless.
I had the most comfortable, ex-pat life in the Far East then abruptly woke up one morning — the morning of Pearl Harbour — and everything had changed. Seeing my parents frightened was an education in its own right, and being interned in the camps made such an impression. It’s something very few children know in the West. It separated those who could cope from those who couldn’t. People were sort of boiled down to their reduced essence: meanness, courage, generosity, eccentricity. I think the whole idea of life as a sort of stage set, which it is, registered itself forever in my brain.
‘I feel like I’ve stepped into a time capsule…’
JG Ballard, on his return to Shanghai (still from the BBC documentary ‘Shanghai Jim’, 1991)
At that point, at the age of eleven or twelve, did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I did. But I was writing even before the war, in the late 1930s.
My mother based her whole life as far as I know on playing bridge and drinking large martinis. She died at the age of 93, a wonderful advertisement for the misspent life. I mentioned the two-martini lunch to her and she said, “Two martinis? Five martinis”. She never worked, of course — I don’t think the idea ever entered her mind. Her job was to run the home and arrange dinner parties.
She spent an enormous amount of time playing bridge and gossiping, real character assassinations, whilst passing this small child around. I didn’t know who the heck they were talking about, but was fascinated by the game and its bidding system — two hearts, three no-trumps and so on — and I thought, ‘what on earth does all this mean?’ It was a sort of code and I wanted to figure it out. So I asked my mother to explain the conventions. She did and I thought ‘my God!’ I was so inspired that I actually wrote a little book on how to play contract bridge. I think the gigantic moralistic strain in my fiction that everyone comments on probably stems from that first effort to set the world to rights.
And when you were that age, what was the young JG Ballard reading?
I was reading everything.
To come back to Kingdom Come, for those of you haven’t read it yet, in a way it’s in the genre of the detective story.
Detective novels are a genre I’ve never really read. I’ve read Raymond Chandler, but I never read all the classic Agatha Christie novels that were published at the time I was growing up.
What did you read at the time?
I read children’s versions of Robinson Crusoe, Alice in Wonderland and so on. I read boy’s annuals and Boy’s Own paperbacks. I read American best sellers: extraordinary books like All this and Heaven Too, which most of this audience will be too young to have read, but is an amazing, emotional novel. Even at the age of nine I could see that. I read American comics. I devoured magazines: Time, Life, the Saturday Evening Post. I was a real magpie.
Some writers have said — I’m thinking of VS Naipul here, and there are a number of others — that when one has grown up in the British Empire, one knows England through pictures, through books, and the extraordinary shock of coming to London and seeing the city which they’d read about, which they’ve seen through the eyes of Dickens or whoever it may be. When you came to England, was it a shock?
Yes, it was. It was a huge shock. From reading the Just William books and Winnie the Pooh I thought everybody lived in Kensington. But there was something wrong: not only had three quarters of the population never even been referred to, but large parts of the place had been bombed to the ground. I found it extremely difficult to cope, frankly.
I’m going to quote back to you something you wrote in Kingdom Come: “Like English life as a whole, nothing in Brooklands can be taken at face value”.
Oh, that’s true. Everything — when I arrived, and to some extent now — was coded. It was all a matter of private languages and house rules. It didn’t matter where you were, there was a way of paying a bill, a way of ordering a meal in a restaurant, a way of buying tickets at a ticket office. Everything was calculated to convey a message of some sort — social status, generally speaking.
You were figuring out how to live here.
Still am, still am.
Let me just say at this point, it’s the 50th anniversary today of the publishing of Jim’s first story, ‘Prima Belladonna’, in 1956 in a magazine called Science Fantasy.
I didn’t know!
How did you get to the point where you writing stories like ‘Prima Belladonna’?
I read medicine at Cambridge University, working with cadavers and so on, which was a very important experience. It gave my imagination a huge repertoire of images that have sustained my fiction.
But I knew I was going to become a writer. The problem was in those days it was very difficult to make a start. I wasn’t anywhere near ready to write a novel. I had all this extraordinary experience from the war, but I wasn’t anywhere near making sense of it all.
I read Horizon, which was a very serious literary journal. I read New Statesman, the Observer, and I thought this was what writing was about. You doffed your cap to the grand practitioners of modernism: James Joyce, Kafka. I thought a writer, a serious writer, was someone who wrote within that sort of context. The problem was, when I wrote in that sort of way it wasn’t very good, or original, and I couldn’t get it published.
When I was in the RAF, based in Canada, at about 24 years old, I came across a science fiction magazine — lurid cover, a space monster grappling with a half-naked blonde — and when I turned the pages, inside I found the stories were far more serious than you might think. These were the sort of stories that Kingsley Amis, to his credit, realised constituted a kind of invisible literature. I felt a sort of jolt of recognition. Here’s a fiction about the present day that owed nothing to aping past models. It had vitality, endless vitality, which was absent from the then British literary scene. The serious writers I admired, Lawrence Durrell, Graham Greene, later Anthony Burgess, all lived abroad, and I sort of understood why.
Here was a fiction about advertising, the media landscape, television, the threat of nuclear war, and I thought, ‘this is something I’ll have a go at’. I thought there’s endless possibilities with this fiction — something can be done with it, and this is my job. For the first ten to fifteen years of my career I couldn’t believe I was seen as being a science-fiction writer, because in the science-fiction field I wasn’t that at all –they loathed me. I was a virus that had entered their immaculate cell, infiltrating their cellular machinery to create this cancerous monster. I was Public Enemy Number One. I went to one or two science fiction conventions and was almost physically assaulted.
In one of the editions of Crash, you write, “The fiction is already there. It is up to us to invent the reality”.
I think that is pretty true on one level. We live in a world of entertainment culture that’s informed by relentless television, hundreds of channels, by advertising, by politics conducted as a branch of advertising, by consumerism as a whole. It’s seen as a reality because people are quite serious about it, but it’s completely devoid of real elements.
My father as a young man, or my grandfather as a young man, or my grandmother, would have recognised reality. They had a clear understanding that reality was work. That isn’t true any more. The whole thing is a huge fiction. This is why we’ve sort of lost our direction as a nation. We assume that everyday reality is as real as in our grandparents’ time. I think even our present Prime Minister is to some extent a prisoner of his own fantasy world, who doesn’t realise it and has started to believe his own fictions.
I don’t think it can be reversed — the other world, the reality, has become so fictionalised. Any points of reality we have are in our own heads. Our obsessions. Nodes of anger, greed, hope, the need to remythologise our lives — these are the only realities we have. To my father’s and grandfather’s generation all that was just nonsense. ‘You’re dreaming boy. Go to work. Wake up’. There’s been a sort of switch of polarities.
I want to ask how important your writing style is. Is it something you’re aware of?
I don’t give much thought to style, which is probably a fault.
The message seems to be much more important than character.
Yes. I’m not really interested in characterisation, I’m much more interested in psychological roles.
It’s something you’ve been criticised for.
Yes, and it’s probably too late to change. I’ve always loved case histories. The sort of things you get in textbooks, you know: ‘Mrs Ash was sitting on a train from Potter’s Bar to Paddington, when she noticed that God was sitting opposite her’. The textbook takes this very seriously. It’s governed by the situation. Her basic situation, the psychological role this woman finds herself in, is very interesting. There’s nothing about her mother in law, or her role in the Women’s Institute, because she’s seen God! That’s what’s interesting about this woman: a psychological revelation. That’s much more interesting than any trivia about where she buys her shoes.
We actually know very little about the characters in our lives, the people we deal with. Every husband in the land I’m sure has woken up next to his wife after five years and thought, ‘I hardly know her and I share a bed with her’. But they’re very happily married. We can be very close to people and know next to nothing about them. Character doesn’t reveal itself that obviously. To create a fully rounded character takes an enormous amount of time. It’s not a matter of just a few little flicks of the wrist.
You’re always described as the Seer of Shepperton.
Well, that’s a joke.
In 1967 you wrote a story called “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”, in which you predicted the Reagan presidency. And of course there’s Crash which predicts all kinds of things, so you have foreseen a few things.
I don’t know. I haven’t done a count. I see myself as a weatherman. I look at the sky, read the weather — that’s all I think I’m doing actually. I can see a storm coming. I think we live in frightening times.
Going back to your last book, Millennium People, which deals with a kind of terrorism, when you were writing it were you tempted at all to write about the War on Terror, or even allude to it?
The thing about the War on Terror and Islamic terrorism is that so far — thank God — it’s had a very limited scope. Whereas there’s a strange, cultural shift that I’ve been watching over the last 45 years since I came to England: the airport culture, the motorway culture, CCTV cameras, all the rest of it. People like alienation, curiously enough. They like disposability. Friendships that last half an hour. Things have changed, and one can’t help but notice.
Here and there in the novel I talk about inner London, what I call heritage London, by which I don’t just mean Bloomsbury, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey — I mean Muswell Hill, Holland Park. A middle-class London held together by dinner-party culture. I admit I’ve been part of it. It sustains a view of England as a place of Georgian rectories and so on. It is not. If you want to see the real England, go out to the M25 motorway towns, where it’s almost impossible to buy a book, say a prayer. The old civic virtues have gone and we have a throwaway, disposable culture — which is prone to takeover, frankly. There’s been a sort of shift.
‘Every car had a St George’s flag’. Photo by Simon Crubellier.
The takeover would be what you call soft fascism?
Yes. It could happen. I live in Shepperton, a small town. There’s about forty or fifty shops on the high street. During the World Cup every one of them had a large St George’s flag in the window; every car had a St George’s flag flowing from it. One of my neighbours erected a flagpole. I looked out of my bedroom window and I saw a flagpole! Where do you get a flagpole? I wouldn’t know where to start.
I thought, ‘something’s happening here’. I’ve speculated that the white working class is tribalising itself. Waves of immigration have been coming here for the last forty or fifty years — black, Asian, Kosovan, Polish — and the white working class are saying, ‘remember us’. I don’t think it’s racist — not yet. But there’s something going on, and sport could be a catalyst.
There are references in Kingdom Come to Goebbels, the Fuhrer, etc. It seems that the message in Kingdom Come has been conditioned by your childhood.
I’ve never taken the view that the two huge totalitarian systems that dominated the twentieth century, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, just arrived out of the sky and after leaving tens of millions of people dead just vanished. I think there’s something uniquely dangerous about human beings. We’re the only animal species that in its ordinary, everyday condition is mad. We aren’t overrun by mad alligators or mad squirrels. I think we’re a very dangerous species.
We should take some questions from the audience now.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Could you expand on what you said about Tony Blair not living in the real world?
I wasn’t making a political point. I just think that he is a rather sad and deeply unhappy man. Something’s gone seriously wrong. He’s a person who needs to be liked, and that’s part of his strength. I go along with the general view that his big mistake was to get too close to the American president and enter the Iraq war. The problem is we don’t trust him any more. We see him as a bit of a fantasist. Whether we’re going to be happy with his successor is a different matter.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What happens next for a consumerist society? Will there be a post-consumerist phase that you anticipate?
Well, I wouldn’t know. There are some very strange movements afoot. Religious revivalism for one, in the States in particular. There was a graph in the Times a couple of days ago that showed that something like 98% of Americans believe in God. One shouldn’t interpret that too literally — at least I hope not — but there are some very strange currents in society. The problem is, modern technology allows change to take place at an enormously fast pace. A suspicious substance is found in a bungalow in Bishop Stortford, and the next day the entire airline system of the West is more or less shut down. Everything’s so volatile. I hope my wildest dreams don’t come true.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’d like to ask what inspired The Drowned World.
I think there’s no doubt that The Drowned World, my first novel, was unconsciously inspired — though it took me a long time to realise it — by Shanghai during the annual spring floods, when the Yangtze overflowed and the streets of Shanghai were a foot deep in water. As a boy I thought, ‘this is a bit weird’.
English novelists over the past two or three hundred years have made a specialty of stories of world destruction — cataclysmic novels. It’s never been that popular in America but it’s intensely popular here. English novelists have destroyed London by every conceivable means. It’s an interesting strain in our character. If you put too many rats in what they call a rat universe, the rats after a while separate off into little clubs, then they start attacking each other — then they start attacking themselves. Maybe there’s something about overcrowding here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: In some of your novels you talk about random acts of meaningless violence making us feel more I alive. I was wondering how you’d apply this to the July 7 attacks in London?
In many ways that wasn’t an act of meaningless violence. The people who perpetrated it knew what they were doing. Suicide bombing is a sign of despair. The men who crashed planes into the World Trade Centre knew they’d never defeat America. The Chechnyan terrorists know they’ll never beat Russia. I’ve got a feeling that many of these young Islamic terrorists know that Islam is too deeply rooted in the past to defeat the West, and it’s a tragedy of gigantic proportions. I fear huge numbers of people are going to die before there’s any resolution because these people are absolutely desperate — they don’t see any way in which Islam is going to be reconciled, so they retreat into fantasies of violence that tragically kill large numbers of people. It’s something we have to live with.
At the end of the last century, people would ring me up and ask me my views about the future. I said I can sum up the future in one word — it’s going to be boring. Vast suburbs that extend around the planet: utter boredom, broken by acts of unpredictable violence. The man in the supermarket who opens fire with a machine gun. And the suicide bomber, a man who has nothing, setting off a bomb in a desperate way to prove himself. The idea of meaningless violence, which I looked at in my previous novel Millennium People, has a huge appeal. I can understand that. It’s in the roots of one’s childhood — all children smash their toys. The trouble, of course, is that people get killed.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Is your work a critique of modernism?
I think modernism shot its bolt. There’s something about modernism that’s too self-immersed and neurotic. I think people prefer confusion.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You talked about 50s science fiction as having great vitality. Where do you see that same vitality now? Is it in internet culture, or is it still fiction?
I think internet culture does have that vitality, from what I see over my partner’s shoulder 18 hours a day. She retrieves the most extraordinary things from the internet. I think internet culture is the most vital culture today. I don’t think there’s anything remotely rivalling it. It’s so democratic. Where it’ll go I don’t know. I’ve got a terrible fear that big corporations will start blocking off larger and larger areas of it. But that hasn’t happened yet as far as I know. I think it’s a wonderful force.
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