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‘Genius eye for the killer detail’: Parsons, Harris & Myerson on Ballard

Author: • Feb 14th, 2008 •

Category: archival, autobiography, celebrity culture, interviews, Shanghai, Shepperton, Steven Spielberg, WWII

Ballardian: Miracles of Life

Newsnight Review: Tony Parsons, Kirsty Wark, Julie Myerson and John Harris.

More Miracles discussion… Here’s a transcript of the Newsnight Review segment on BBC 2. Not as revealing as the interviews, and having Tony Parsons say that Empire is ‘possibly the great novel of the 20th century’ isn’t necessarily a good thing. Still, all publicity is good…

Mike Bonsall


Kirsty Wark: The writer JG Ballard responded to the diagnosis of advanced cancer in 2006 by writing his autobiography. He says Miracles of Life is the last story he will ever tell, and it’s one of early sensory overload, beginning in Shanghai, the place of his birth in 1930, and his home until the age of fifteen. Shanghai fuelled his imagination for novels, starting with sci-fi, to more modern dystopias. His time in a Japanese internment camp was the inspiration for his two semi-biographical novels; Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women; with death as a part of his life in occupied Shanghai. His preoccupation with violent sex and death resulted in his 1970 novel Crash, later to be one of the most controversial films of all time. Miracles of Life: from Shanghai to Shepperton, is the key to JG Ballard’s extraordinary life.

Reader: In Shanghai the fantastic, which for most people lies inside their heads, lay all around me, and I think now that my main effort as a boy was to find the real in all this make-believe. In some ways I went on doing this when I came to England after the War, a world that was almost too real. As a writer I’ve treated England as if it were a strange fiction, and my task has been to elicit the truth, just as my childhood self did when faced with honour guards of hunchbacks and temples without doors.

KW: Tony, I think I’m right in saying that, for a long time he said he wasn’t going to write an autobiography and he has, for you, did it illuminate his writing more?

Tony Parsons: Well it did, I mean, if you love Ballard, as I love Ballard, then you’ve certainly read Empire of the Sun, and you’ve seen the Spielberg film, and you’ve almost certainly read The Kindness of Women. So, when I was reading the early part, and the Shanghai years, there were so many images that seemed incredibly familiar to me; the beggar expiring at the gate of the family home, the young Chinese peasant who’s being tortured by Japanese soldiers at the end of the war, the boy, the English schoolboy who’s never been to England, riding round Shanghai on his bicycle. And I did have a sinking feeling, you know, I was worried that I was going to be disappointed, that so much of this stuff was familiar to me, but the glory of it is, it fills in the gaps, between what he is — you know his parents were with him in the prisoner-of-war camp — and he’s very illuminating round around about why he left his parents out of Empire of the Sun, but they were actually there. And when he gets back to England, it’s always — it’s a life that’s permanently dislocated, it’s always out of step, you know, he loses his wife at a tragically young age, he becomes a single father — at a time when there are no single mums around — and just does — I mean he’s a genius, and he’s got the genius eye for the killer detail, after his wife dies, he sees a happy couple embracing in the car in front of him and he sounds his horn with anger.

Ballardian: Miracles of Life

Newsnight Review: Julie Myerson and John Harris.

John Harris: Um, Ballard’s writing style, and I sort of had to remind myself of this by going back to the books of his that I own; I’ve read Empire of the Sun, Super-Cannes and um, another, name of which I’ve forgotten…

TP: Crash?

JH: … No, it’s the other piece with that. Anyway, very, very dry and dispassionately he writes, but the imaginative conceit behind what he writes is, what, kind of, enlivens it and renders it spectacular. Clearly, in the case of his real life, large parts of it are so spectacular that the same thing happens but it is written fantastically dryly and dispassionately and there are occasions when you start to think that it was written under duress and in a hurry, he does, he does race through. I mean he could have written his autobiography about twice as long; a good example is the early death of his wife which is dealt with in a matter of paragraphs, but you have to take into account that it was written under duress and in a hurry because he’s very seriously ill; once that’s happened, I’ll cut him all the slack in the world because I can’t think of anybody who’s had as interesting a life as him.

KW: There are some extraordinary scenes aren’t there, in Shanghai?

Julie Myerson: Oh yes, so many. I haven’t read any of his novels and this makes me want to read them; obviously I have an awareness of what his novels are. I came to it, sort of, not knowing about his novels and also, actually not knowing about the cancer diagnosis, so when I got to the end, having really got to know and like this extremely likeable man. It really took me by surprise, that did. I didn’t know his wife was going to die either and he does deal with these things with great economy and he’s not at all self-indulgent and he’s had the most extraordinary life, so, lots of things, first of all Shanghai but also, becoming a single parent. I think he’s writing Crash, looking after three young children, making bangers and mash, between bangers and mash and Blue Peter he’ll write a chapter and as a writer you so identify with that and he said ‘my greatest ally was the pram in the hall’.

TP: That’s an incredible line, that’s an unbelievable line…

JM: There is a warmth to him, he’s passionate about family and children, and what I love best about this book, even, not having read any of his books, is that it’s the story of someone who had quite an undernourished childhood and found huge artistic fulfilment through writing, but also found joy and fulfilment through family life, despite his wife dying, he’s really got something from family.

KW: And I suppose what happened was, that he had this extraordinary childhood that almost gave him enough in his bag to write for the rest of his life without having to do other extraordinary things.

Ballardian: Miracles of Life

Newsnight Review: Tony Parsons and Kirsty Wark.

TP: And it’s extraordinary too that I think it wasn’t uncommon for people to come back from China, or India, or Hong Kong, in their mid-teens, never having seen this place — and this is home — you’re home — you’re home now, and then moving from, I mean, you know, he had both extremes in Shanghai, he was in a prisoner of war camp and he also had armies of servants indulging him and so he’s always been dislocated, he’s always been out of step. I would urge you, and I would urge anybody, to read Empire of the Sun because I think it’s really, it’s possibly the great novel of the twentieth century.

KW: You talk about him writing very dispassionately but what he writes about is the most extraordinary — for example the Buick is going through — the families go out of the international settlement, and go through the old battlefields and there’s bodies lying here — and he’s only ten.

JH: The best illustration — Cocaine Nights was the book, I forgot — the best illustration of why dry and dispassionate writing often serves its subject matter well, is the occasion when he gets out of the prisoner of war camp and he goes to find Shanghai again and he’s on a railway platform, and he watches a party of Japanese soldiers slowly murdering a Chinese man — and he’s not florid — he doesn’t have to ladle on metaphor, he just says I was, what, nine or ten years old and this is what I saw, that’s so powerful…

TP: That’s one of the key scenes of Empire of the Sun and when I was reading this — and that’s when I thought — am I going to get the same stuff all over again but it’s…

JM: One of the most amazing things about the book is the way his experience in Shanghai, the way it comes back through his life in unexpected ways, so it isn’t till when he’s cutting up dead bodies as a medical student in Cambridge that he realises he’s embarking on a kind of moral and emotional journey to deal with that.

TP: He loves Shanghai, despite all the horror and death, he calls it the magical place, he calls it.

KW: Well, Miracles of Life by JG Ballard is published by Fourth Estate.

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6 Responses »

  1. Can’t stomach any of the above ‘critics’, nor Newsnight Review. I’m pleased for JGB and his family if he sells loads of Miracles and then reissues because of the publicity, but this is the programme that had Germaine Greer on saying that surrealism was an art movement directed largely at the service of nothing.

  2. well, i’m in australia (germaine’s alma mater) and i barely know of these people (i know of parsons a bit but not much and i know what’s become of him since the NME).

    but i feel your pain. i just don’t get what these people add to a discussion of ballard. i mean, has parsons ever come out as a fan or a critic of ballard in the past? you tell me — you’re in england — and i’d really like to know, because i don’t think him or the other two have much to say. myerson even admits she doesn’t know of his novels, and harris forgets the name of the ballard book that supposedly made a big impact on him.

    really, what’s the point?

  3. I wonder if this goes some way to explaining Parson’s gushing:

    ‘…the research for his new novel, My Favourite Wife, took him away on endless trips to Shanghai.

    Of late, family time has actually been pretty limited and this is before an international book tour begins. Yuriko, 15 years his junior, used to be a translator. Now, fortunately, as Parsons puts it, “What she does is, like, the home and the kid.” Though Parsons is given a clear run to bring in the bacon, you do feel he’d give it all up if Yuriko, who was born in Japan, wanted a lifestyle change. “I love living in London,” he says, “but if she said what we really need is to move, I’d do it. I’d go. We could make that work.”…

    …But it’s worth sticking around for, just as it’s worth reading his novels, especially the latest, because it’s almost impossible to believe that someone can be quite so emotionally open about love, sex and death, heavily bracketed by fidelity and infidelity. Parsons should be minister of state for family. Despite his rock’*’roll past, those years as an NME gunslinger, coupled up with screechy Julie Burchill, and the subsequent decade as a struggling single dad (looking after their son Bobby) and serious lad about town, what makes Parsons’ heart tick louder than ever, and what has made his novels so successful, is his all-consuming belief in the power of family and familial love, and especially loyalty to one’s children.’

    Whole article: http://www.independent.co.uk/extras/sunday-review/arts-and-books/tony-parsons-does-his-writing-still-have-emotional-resonance-782227.html

    So does Parsons see himself as the heir to Shanghai Jim?

  4. Despite being the poor-man’s Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons always surprises me as being one of the more inteligent commentators on this programme – although that’s not saying much! Julie Myerson’s a fairly middlebrow author who usually comes across as a bit of a ditz. John Harris is your typical pretentious music journo – I’m assuming he started reading Ballard with Cocaine Nights, thinking it would be a drugs-based novel.

  5. I had a very interesting discussion with JGB himself about this programme. Back in the nineties, a cretin called Paulin as well as the grotesquely overrrated Greer had dissed Supercannes. The appalling Paulin acccused JGB of being anti-European. He kept repeating the mantra like a mindless parrot.
    JGB, quite rightly regarded the programme as a “Muppet Show” I could only concurr.
    Nothing in the intervening period has changed.It is still a complete waste of the license fee.

  6. Newsnight review had knowlegable critics compared to those appearing on

    FIrst Tusday (www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday)

    An insult to have Judith Lucy attemting a critique on Ballards perhaps final work.

    There appeared to be no appreciation of previous output and the comments simplistic and uninformed.

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