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J.G. Ballard's Experiment in Chemical Living

Author: • Aug 1st, 2007 •

Category: advertising, features, invisible literature, Michael Moorcock, New Worlds, Shepperton, William Burroughs

by Mike Bonsall

Ballardian: Chemical Living

J.G. Ballard in 1960. In the background is a poster of his ‘Project for a new novel’, made two years earlier.

Chemistry & Industry … was a good place to work because, of course, the office of any scientific magazine is the most wonderful mail drop. It’s the ultimate information crossroads. Most of it went straight into the wastepaper basket, but en route I was filtering it like some sort of sea creature sailing with jaws open through a great sea of delicious plankton. I was filtering all this extraordinary material.”

J.G. Ballard, ‘Shanghai Jim’ (BBC documentary, dir. James Runcie, 1990).

From 1958 to 1964, J.G. Ballard worked as deputy editor and part-time writer at Chemistry & Industry, the journal of the Society of Chemical Industry. When he started he was also a struggling, disillusioned writer of science fiction; by the time he left C&I he was a successful full-time novelist. MIKE BONSALL discovers exactly how that transition occurred, as he delves into the archives at C&I to uncover ultrarare Ballardiana, including Ballard’s earliest non-fiction reviews, the text of which we present here in full — never before seen outside the magazine itself. As Mike argues, what happened at C&I codified the tropes Ballard was to return to throughout his career — the scientific, technical and imaginative motifs that shape the very essence of what we’ve come to know and love as ‘Ballardian’.

J.G. BALLARD’s grim war experiences were followed by grim experiences in post-war Britain. He dropped out of medical school after two years, then dropped out of English after a year; he quit his flying career similarly. After that came a succession of short-lived, low-level jobs: encyclopaedia salesman, porter and copywriter.

Ballard married in 1955, and his first child in 1956 was followed by two more soon after; he was under serious financial pressure and help was given only stintingly by his disapproving parents. During this time he had sold a couple of short stories to Ted Carnell, who must have twisted his arm to come to the World SF Convention in London, in 1957 — the year of Sputnik, the apogee of space opera. Carnell himself was Chair of the convention and John W Campbell was guest of honour and prize speaker. It was the height of ‘hard SF’ and Campbell was the champion of Space Opera, and therefore the scourge of the New Wave — and Ballard. As JGB later said about the convention, ‘That shattered me, and then I dried up for about a year. For over a year I didn’t write any SF at all. I was disillusioned and demoralized.’ But Ballard would find a host of new ideas, new techniques and new ways of creating within the stuffy confines of Chemistry and Industry.

Ballardian: Chemical Living
LEFT: Cover of C&I, 12/7/58. When Ballard began his tenure there, it was a fairly dour journal, still mired in the post-war years.

C&I was an ideal place for Ballard to make a new start: the hours were lax and he was even able to do some creative writing there. Ballard later said, ‘One of the reasons my fiction of the early 60s has a high science content is because I was immersed in scientific papers of all kinds continually’.

The editor of the journal was a chemist rather than a journalist, so, as Ballard later recounted, ‘I did all the basic subbing, marking copy up for the typesetter … doing make-up and paste-up … I used to go on works visits, visits to laboratories and research institutes. I wrote a few articles — scientific reporting — and I reviewed scientific books.’ Ballard’s time at C&I is key to his development as a writer: he learned new skills, was given the freedom to experiment, and had time to shake off the feeling that hard SF was the only kind of speculative fiction that was acceptable.

Ballardian: Chemical Living

    The C&I Offices in Belgrave Square (photo by Tim Chapman, who held Ballard’s former job in the 1990s and may even have inherited Ballard’s desk!).

In 1958 Ballard made a series of photocopied collages — ‘Project for a new novel’ — that were, he says, ‘sample pages of a new kind of novel, entirely consisting of magazine-style headlines and layouts, with a deliberately meaningless text, the idea being that the imaginative content could be carried by the headlines and overall design, so making obsolete the need for a traditional text except for virtually decorative purposes.’

The few pages he did actually produce are obviously influenced by his new-found skills in layout work:

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Detail from Ballard’s ‘Project for a new novel’ (1958).

Ballard has said he was inspired by the bold typography of C&I’s sister journal, Chemistry and Engineering News (C+EN), the journal of the American Chemical Society, and that he used text from this journal as ‘filler’ in his collages.

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Detail from Ballard’s ‘Project for a new novel’ (1958).

I was fascinated by the possibility of disassembling these Burroughsian ‘cut-ups’ into their original forms, and by the possibility of seeing the roots of some of Ballard’s earliest and most lasting obsessions.

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Detail from ‘Project for a new novel’ (1958).

Although influenced by C+EN, Ballard’s typography seems rather to prefigure advertising from a later C&I (2/6/62):

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Detail from ‘Project for a new novel’ (1958).

Ballard later said, ‘I was very proud of those pages. Moorcock published them in New Worlds three or four years ago. They were like chromosomes in a way, because so many of the subsequent ideas and themes of mine appeared in those pages. Kline, Coma, Xero — they’re all there. I don’t know. I used to make these things up!’

The pages were in fact published in a special New Worlds edition of mostly visual material in summer 1978, where they are described as ‘displays’. (Interestingly the middle two pages are transposed in New Worlds compared to the photograph of the hoarding at the start of this article.)

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Detail from ‘Project for a new novel’ (1958).

Sadly, despite a thorough search, and although the body text of the pieces is obviously taken from an American chemical journal, I was unable to find any evidence of them in back editions of C+EN from that time.

About this ‘filler’ text, Ballard later said, ‘Curiously enough, far from being meaningless, the science news stories somehow became fictionalised by the headings around them.’ This is the kind of technique Ballard was to return to repeatedly, for example in his ‘plastic surgery’ pieces [collected in RE/Search's reprint of The Atrocity Exhibition], where the insertion of a celebrity name transforms the banal medical text, or his short fictions which masquerade as psychiatric reports [eg 'Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan'] or war journalism [eg 'Theatre of War'].

I have always been a voracious reader of what I call invisible literatures — scientific journals, technical manuals, pharmaceutical company brochures, think-tank internal documents, PR company position papers — part of that universe of published material to which most literate people have scarcely any access but which provides the most potent compost for the imagination … ‘

J.G. Ballard. ‘The Pleasures of Reading’.

And there is potent compost indeed in C+EN. The erotic beauty of the tail fin, for example, is much in evidence:

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Advertisement from C+EN, 14/4/58.

And there is a near car-crash:

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Advertisement from C+EN 14/7/58.

Did Mr F start out as Hydrogen Fluoride, which forms the most corrosive of acids?

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Advertisement from C+EN 14/7/58; plus detail from Ballard’s ‘Project for a new novel’ (1958).

Could the name ‘Kline’, a recurring Ballard character, be taken from Smith, Kline and French, as suggested by Tim Chapman?

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Advertisement from C+EN 27/1/58.

Or is he part of the electromagnetic spectrum? In ‘You and Me and the Continuum’, from The Atrocity Exhibition, one of the objects mentioned is a ‘spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium':

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Advertisement from C+EN 6/10/58.

There is also an appearance of that most enigmatic island, Eniwetok, a recurring motif in Ballard’s work. The ‘pace of missile firings quickens’ must have speeded Ballard’s pulse:

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Advertisement from C+EN 4/11/57.

Eventually he would abandon the task, and sit down in the dust, watching the shadows emerge from their crevices at the foot of the blocks. For some reason he invariably arranged to be trapped when the sun was at zenith — on Eniwetok, the thermo-nuclear noon.”

J.G. Ballard. ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964).

As Catherine Austin walked around the converted gymnasium these bizarre images, with their fusion of Eniwetok and Luna Park, Freud and Elizabeth Taylor, reminded her of the slides of exposed spinal levels in Travis’s office.”

J.G. Ballard. ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ (ch. 1), in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

Some of the C&I adverts from Ballard’s time are also worth noting, as copywriters were looking forward a decade to the fashions of the 60s:

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Advertisement from C&I 28/2/59.

Some of the advertising took a slightly surreal turn in Ballard’s later years at the journal, like this example, featuring an oddly disturbing schoolgirl’s biochemical interventions:

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Advertisement from C&I c.1962.

Here’s an earlier ad from Chemical & Engineering:

Ballardian: Chemical Living

C+EN 19/05/1958.

Desperately trying to make chemicals interesting… ‘Here comes the Managing Director. Anybody want a bloodstained copywriter — immediate delivery?’ (shades of Super-Cannes?):

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Advertisement from C&I 30/5/59.

In the second half of his employment at C&I, JGB went part-time and one of his duties was to write short book reviews. Most are factual — short, dry reviews of long, dry technical reference works that seem little more than fillers. But one stands out and is worth quoting in full. Ballard’s review of The Science of Dreams is his longest and most enthusiastic by far:

The Science of Dreams. By Edwin Diamond. pp. 246. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode Ltd. 1962. 21s.

The universal experience of dreams, and the conviction that they conceal part of man’s essential image of himself, have made them a subject of unfading interest throughout history, to the most primitive societies and the most sophisticated. One of the oldest written documents in existence, a papyrus of the 12th Dynasty, is an Egyptian book of dream interpretations, and to Freud, in the present century, the dream was “the royal road to the unconscious.” Within the last 20 years the orthodox Freudian view generally accepted in Europe and America has been amplified by work carried out by experimental psychologists in the United States. A popular account of this work is given in “The Science of Dreams.”

The hypothesis that the rapid eye movements observed at intervals throughout sleep might indicate the occurrence of a dream was apparently confirmed by the ability of subjects roused during these periods to recount their dreams with remarkable clarity and detail; this occurred in the case of persons who claimed they had never previously dreamed. Subsequent work suggested that everyone has an average of five dreams per night, each lasting 20 minutes; that contrary to popular belief digestive or emotional upsets do not affect the length or intensity of dreams, but only the ease with which they are recalled; that the majority of dreams are unpleasant and grow more so with increasing age; that even intense professional and domestic anxieties play little part in the subject matter of dreams; and that the congenitally blind experience “tactile” dreams. A curious discovery was that the deliberate deprivation of normal dreaming produced tension and irritability, even during an otherwise adequate period of sleep, and that hallucinations and psychotic collapse eventually resulted.

Despite the ingenuity and patience of the experimenters, the nature of the mechanisms generating dreams remains as elusive as ever. If anything, these studies suggest that for all its beguiling mystery the dream is merely a low-level psychic activity of little significance, perhaps similar to certain types of childhood play, and that its content, although cast in dramatic form, is of less importance than the act itself. Only where marked aberrations occur is a careful analysis of individual dreams of value to the physician. Even here, as in the experiments described, the role of the observer remains profoundly equivocal.

In view of the vast number of dreams experienced during a single lifetime, the catalogue of dreams which have furnished any major scientific revelation remains remarkably meagre; Kekulé’s vision of the benzene ring is among the few examples. Undeterred, however, the author offers his readers a simple conundrum (complete the series O, T, T, F, F,-,-) by which they can test the deductive powers of their own sleeping intelligences. No more than 15 minutes immediately before and after sleep should be devoted to the problem. Evidently some 80% of subjects tested dreamed of the problem, and a few even solved it during their dreams.

Those readers who fail to solve it may be interested to know that the Abundavita Corporation of America offers a $395 hypnopaedic “package” consisting of a gramophone, speaker and a 25-lesson course on such topics as “Money–What It Is and How to Have Plenty of It.”

J.G.B.

This appeared on 9th February 1963 and has echoes of JGB’s short story ‘Manhole 69′, published six years earlier, in which a group of volunteers have their ability to sleep removed and slowly descend into madness. Even Papa Freud gets a mention in this review. The article is unusually light and jokey, and the very appearance of a book on dreams is unusual — surely it would never have been sent for review to a journal of industrial chemistry? Was it given to Ballard by his friend Dr Christopher Evans, whose ‘computer memory-purging’ theory of dreaming also seems to make an appearance in the review? After this effort, JGB’s reviews begin to appear more sporadically and eventually petered out altogether. Did this unusual review lead to him having his freedom curtailed?

(See the appendix for the full text of Ballard’s initialled reviews).

A particularly significant article appeared in C&I on 1 June 1963, a lovingly illustrated, nine-page article about the brand new Road Research Laboratory:

Ballardian: Chemical Living

C&I article, 1/6/63.

Ballard spoke of writing some C&I articles — did he have a hand in writing or subbing this one? While authorship was credited to the laboratory’s then director, Sir William Glanville, Ballard would certainly have seen the article, as there is one of his less-interesting book reviews in the same issue. Was the young Ballard given the perk of a trip out to Crowthorne to see the Road Research Laboratory for himself? Only a few miles west of London, it would not have been out of his way.

With its Observation Towers, Underground Laboratory, Gatehouse, Control Building, banked bend and even a ‘Terminal Area’, the test track at Crowthorne is a gloriously Ballardian territory:

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Taken from the C&I article on Road Research Laboratory, 1/6/63.

And the laboratory certainly keeps rearing its head in Ballard’s fiction:

The Impact Zone. At dusk Talbot drove around the deserted circuit of the research laboratory test track. Grass grew waist high through the untended concrete, wheel-less cars rusted in the undergrowth along the verge. Overhead the helicopter moved across the trees, its fans churning up a storm of leaves and cigarette cartons. Talbot steered the car among the broken tyres and oil drums. Beside him the young woman leaned against his shoulder, her grey eyes surveying Talbot with an almost minatory calm. He turned on to a concrete track between the trees. The collision course ran forwards through the dim light, crushed cars shackled to steel gondolas above a catapult. Plastic mannequins spilled through the burst doors and panels. As they walked along the catapult rails Talbot was aware of the young woman pacing out the triangle of approach roads. Her face contained the geometry of the plaza. He worked until dawn, towing the wrecks into the semblance of a motorcade.’

J.G. Ballard. ‘The University of Death’ (ch.2), The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

Surely Vaughan himself would have attached himself to the ‘team of experts’ in this extract:

Ballardian: Chemical Living

Taken from the C&I article on the Road Research Laboratory, 1/6/63.

Through Vaughan I discovered the true significance of the automobile crash, the meaning of whiplash injuries and roll-over, the ecstasies of head-on collisions. Together we visited the Road Research Laboratory twenty miles to the west of London, and watched the calibrated vehicles crashing into the concrete target blocks. Later, in his apartment, Vaughan screened slow-motion films of test collisions that he had photographed with his cinecamera. Sitting in the darkness on the floor cushions, we watched the silent impacts flicker on the wall above our heads. The repeated sequences of crashing cars first calmed and then aroused me. Cruising alone on the motorway under the yellow glare of the sodium lights, I thought of myself at the controls of these impacting vehicles.”

J.G. Ballard, Crash (1973).

Ballard would have had a good excuse to ask for the Crowthorne job — it’s practically on the way home. In this Google map, the upper right blue flag is the C&I offices, the middle flag is Ballard’s home in Shepperton and the upper flag at bottom left is the Road Research Laboratory:

Ballardian: Chemical Living

As an interesting aside, what bizarre ley line must exist in Berkshire to have three ‘total institutions’ in a line within a few miles of each other? The three flags on the left are: the Road Research Laboratory, Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane (which also features in Ballard’s work), and Sandhurst Royal Military Academy – all richly Ballardian territories.

But I digress. I hope this article has shed some light on the mass of ‘invisible literature’ and ‘delicious plankton’ that passed before Ballard, the embryonic writer, and helped form the obsessions that were to feed his imagination and stay with him throughout his life. I think the materials and the new journalistic skills that Ballard discovered at C&I gave him an escape route from the impossibility of writing straight SF and suggested new outlets for his burgeoning creativity.


Mike Bonsall, July 2007.

Thanks to Alex and Will Knight, Tim Chapman, Simon Sellars and other members of the JGB Yahoo group for help with research.


..:: REFERENCES
+ Ballard, J.G. (1997), ‘The Pleasures of Reading’ in A User’s Guide to the Millennium.
+ Pringle, D. (ed.) and Ballard, J.G. (1982). ‘From Shanghai to Shepperton’, in RE/Search 8/9: J.G. Ballard (eds. Vale and Andrea Juno). pp. 112-124.

..:: APPENDIX
+ Complete text of Ballard’s book reviews for C&I.

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12 Responses »

  1. Fabulous, fascinating piece. Bravo.

  2. Where to begin with vetting the creepiness of Exon 654? Maybe the upper left-hand corner, where the two dolls appear to be discussing something. Surely (pun intended), not an accident. The engineer didn’t just walk into the “Temple temple” and put on his ah! my children! soon you shall be in the world! face, with all of the doll heads cocked just so. The photographer put some thought into the mise-en-scene.

    and this is a wonderful article. thank you.

  3. Interesting piece and more evidence of cut-ups.

  4. “Did this unusual review lead to him having his freedom curtailed?”

    If so, it wouldn’t be a unique event in the history of C&I. After I reviewed a book titled ‘The chemistry of mind-altering drugs’ while working as a reporter there, there was a ban imposed (from the SCI general secretary, I was told) on reviews by current members of the editorial staff. The review’s archived here – http://www.2ubh.com/reviews/perrine.html

  5. Outstanding, Mike! Superb piece of detecto scholarship… love those wacky ads… and ya know, if Simon collects a few more winners like this eye-popping presentation, it may start looking book-size. Hello? HarperCollins?

  6. Great stuff, although that sinister picture of a schoolgirl talking about ethylene glycol is going to give me nightmares.

  7. This explains everything: “The major danger from ethylene glycol is following ingestion. Due to its sweet taste, children and animals will sometimes consume large quantities of it if given access to antifreeze.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethylene_glycol

    The Bacardi Breezer of its day…

  8. Nice one Tim. I remember being taught that the only really successful treatment for ethylene glycol poisoning was to get the patient roaring drunk for at least 24 hrs and that occasionally alcoholics would deliberately drink antifreeze to get a free bender.

  9. [...] Ballardian: the World of J.G. Ballard » J.G. Ballard’s Experiment in Chemical Living, a fascinating look at Ballard’s stint (1958-1964) as deputy editor and part-time writer for [...]

  10. [...] Mike Bonsall: J.G. Ballard’s Experiment in Chemical Living [...]

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