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Collecting "The Violent Noon" and other assorted Ballardiana

Author: • Feb 5th, 2007 •

Category: Ballardosphere, media landscape, politics, Shanghai, short stories

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Violent Noon Left: Ballard’s author pic from the Varsity student newspaper (image & PDF courtesy Rick McGrath).

Mike Holliday has uploaded J.G. Ballard — A Collector’s Guide, an in-depth information resource designed “as a ‘helping hand’ to anyone interested in collecting books, stories, and other material by the British author J. G. Ballard”. There’s a lot of detail here for those interested in tracking every filament of Ballard’s work, including what I consider to be one of the most fascinating periods of JGB’s career: the “miscellaneous media” he produced during the late 1960s, including a series of collages (termed “advertiser’s announcements”) for Ambit magazine that continue to exert a strange power over me. (This blend of experimental prose poetry and conceptual art is true slipstream “fiction” and there’s nowhere near enough discourse on it; with that in mind, I’ll be posting more on Ballard’s miscellaneous media at some vague point in the future.)

Mike also notes that Ballard’s first published story, “The Violent Noon” (1951) has been onlined by Rick McGrath, just about the only place you’ll find this ultra-rare twig of the tree. The piece, written by the 20-year-old medical student “J. Graham Ballard”, was the winner in a crime-story competition run by Cambridge University’s student newspaper, Varsity, where it was published. It’s a “Hemingwayesque pastiche written to please the jury” (according to Wikipedia), and takes place during the Malayan Emergency, when the guerrilla forces of the Malayan National Liberation Army battled British, Malayan and Commonwealth forces from 1948 to 1960. It’s worth reviewing, considering that JGB has said that winning this competition was just the impetus he needed to give full-time writing a proper go.

“The Violent Noon” describes a sneak “terrorist attack” on a British officer, Michael Allison, and his wife and child. The attack is described in gory detail, with Allison dying “in a foam of blood that bubbled out of his mouth and the wound in his face”, while Mrs Allison looks up “blankly from the pulped face of her baby”. It’s interesting to note that even then Ballard had an eye for surrealistic imagery embedded in violent death, a type of suspended animation that he has continued to refine in story after story, novel after novel. After the insurgents take off, Mrs Allison, her front teeth knocked out, kneels on the seat of the car alongside another officer, Hargreaves, with her dead husband beside them:

Mrs Allison was … calmly peering out through the rear window … quiet and composed. Neither of them made any attempt to move the bodies in the front seat. They just sat there, in the shambles of the chaos that had exploded about them … Mrs Allison watching out of the window, until a lorry passed by half an hour later.”

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J.G. Ballard. “The Violent Noon” (1951).
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Reading this passage, I was struck by the similarities with the scene in Crash where Helen Remington loses her husband in a car crash with the narrator, “James Ballard”:

Apart from a bruised upper jawbone and several loosened teeth, she was unharmed. … We looked at each other through the fractured windshields, neither of us able to move. [She] sat behind her steering wheel, staring at me in a curiously formal way, as if unsure what had brought us together.”

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J.G. Ballard. Crash (1973).
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This “curious formality” of violence and death — this dispassionate narrative effect that’s a feature of Ballard’s airless worlds, and the media landscape that “factors death out of our lives” — of course derives from Ballard’s childhood in Shanghai, as has been well documented, where he witnessed the horrors of war first hand. “The Violent Noon” adds more fuel to that fire, with its bitter description of “Chinese gangsters and gun-happy roughnecks, no-goods from the villages, hopped up by agitators from the slums of Canton and Shanghai, promising prosperity to the people and then threatening them and pillaging their homes, slashing the rubber trees, madly shooting harmless women and children, filling the streets with frantic gunflame and death.”

As Ballard has said of his time at medical school:

The experience of war is deeply corrupting. Anybody who witnesses years of brutality can’t help but lose a sense of the tragedy and mystery of death. I’m sure that happened to me. The 16-year-old who came to England after the war carried this freight of ‘matter-of-factness about death’. So spending two years dissecting cadavers was a way of reminding me of the reality of death itself, and gave me back a respect for life.”

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J.G. Ballard, “Raising the Dead”, excerpted in J.G. Ballard: Quotes
(RE/Search Publications, 2006).

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“The Violent Noon”, written just four years after “the 16-year-old came to England” is a fascinating Polaroid of the young JGB’s mindset, before the cadavers had reset his emotional circuitry.

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NOTES:

1) Here’s Varsity’s blurb, worth regurgitating for the fact that it effectively contains Ballard’s first published interview as an author…

“J. Graham Ballard who shares the first prize of ten pounds with D. S. Birley in the “Varsity” Crime Story Competition is now in his second year at King’s and immersed in the less literary process of reading medicine.

He admitted to our reporter yesterday that he had in fact entered the competition more for the prize than anything else, although he had been encouraged to go on writing because of his success.

The idea for his short story which deals with the problem of Malayan terrorism, he informs us, he had been thinking over for some time before hearing of the competition.

He had, in addition to writing short stories, also planned “mammoth novels” which “never get beyond the first page.”

2) The publication of “The Violent Noon” also led to (effectively) Ballard’s first review. Varsity promised that “the summing up by the judges…will…be available next week on this page”. And so in the June 2, 1951 edition, we find, as David Pringle informs me:

“an unsigned summary of the judges’ reasons for picking the two winners, ‘The Violent Noon’ by J. G. Ballard and ‘Seance’ by D. S. Birley. Of Ballard’s tale, they say: ‘… ‘Violent Noon’ was the most mature story; it contains patches of high tension, the characters come to life, and the ending is brilliant in its cynicism. The author should, however, avoid a tendency to preach.”

Considering what came after — a body of work with politics that could perhaps best be described as “ambivalent” — we can only surmise that JGB heeded the advice to cut the preaching. I do wonder what became of D.S. Birley, though…
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8 Responses »

  1. I read somewhere that The Violent Noon was a Hemingway pastiche, and I know he loves Papa’s early stories.

  2. yeah, i covered that one in the post with a link to wikipedia, which claims “violent noon” is a “hemingwayesque pastiche”. i guess there are similar themes to papa: warfare, loss, death, disillusionment etc…

  3. We’ve located the original, pre-Wikipedia reference: David Pringle’s interview with Ballard, ‘From Shanghai to Shepperton’, published in RE/Search no. 8/9, 1984:

    ” ‘The Violent Noon’ … was done as almost a pastiche of a certain kind of Hemingwayesque short story. It certainly wasn’t typical of the other material I was writing at the time. I wanted to win the competition, actually: that was my intention, but I knew that I wouldn’t win unless I wrote a story of that kind.”

    I haven’t read the RE/Search volume in years, so the reference completely eluded me this time around.

  4. Your PDF link to the “better” version doesn’t work for me… just my computer?

  5. It’s four pages of apparent blankness for me too. Should I hold my screen over a flame, or rub on lemon juice?

  6. eh? i don’t know what’s going on — it appears to work for me. but try rick’s link. he says he’s uploaded a high-res version now.

  7. I’ve heard ‘Hemingwayesque’ defined as any story that starts: ‘It was hot.’

    What do we have here? ‘Rank and turgid, the morning sweltered in the sunlight.’ The sentiment’s there, if not the pared-down language.

    Hargreaves’ comment on the economic foundations of empire is interesting – compare with Ballard’s comments in the ‘rattling cages’ interview here: “The British Empire was lost a long time ago, and most British people didn’t benefit directly from Empire. In fact, there are economic historians who claim we made a loss from the British Empire — that it cost more than we gained from it.”

  8. […] J.G. Ballard helped pick the young Bale for the role because he saw a strong resemblance to himself as a […]

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