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‘Marinaded in war and violence’: Philip Dodd interviews J.G. Ballard

Author: • Feb 7th, 2008 •

Category: alternate worlds, archival, autobiography, consumerism, interviews, Shanghai, Shepperton, WWII

Ballardian: Miracles of Life

Photo by Jennie Middlemiss.

Enormous thanks to Mike Bonsall, who once again has transcribed a Ballard interview from the BBC’s latest round of Miracles of Life promotions. From the Nightwaves program on Radio 3, it’s my favourite from this latest batch. The interviewer, Philip Dodd, engages JGB in such a way that a different spin is applied to the familiar elements from Ballard’s life. But he’s also wise enough to avoid the ‘Ballardian cliches’ that we know so well from Empire of the Sun, instead focusing on the really interesting strata of the autobiography where new and revealing information can be found.


Here are Mike’s notes on the transcription:

Mike B: ‘This was enormously rewarding — a truly revealing and moving interview. Not being an Eng Lit sort of person I had to do some research on the questions myself. Philip Dodd is obviously a clever bloke with a China bent.

His reference, “‘The skull beneath the skin’ as Eliot said of Webster…”, is to Eliot’s poem Whispers of Immortality that starts:

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

…Webster being the gruesome Jacobean playwright of The Duchess of Malfi (who I only know from ‘Shakespeare in Love!).

I originally thought PD was saying that Walter Benjamin had written an essay called ‘The German Jew’, but that’s a description of him. The idea of the Angel of History comes from his essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Which does sound suitably Ballardian!

Finally, the reference to ‘the growing good of the world’ is in Middlemarch by George Eliot. Sorry if you already know all that, but I’ve learned a lot!’


Philip Dodd: …Just two riveting writers on tonight’s programme, first Martin Amis ‘a man with acid in his inkwell’, to quote the New York Times, and second, JG Ballard — in my view, Britain’s greatest living novelist — who’s written a mesmeric autobiography:

J.G. Ballard: I was born in Shanghai General Hospital on the 15th of November 1930, after a difficult delivery that my mother, who was slightly built and slim hipped, liked to describe to me in later years, as if this revealed something about the larger thoughtlessness of the world. Over dinner she would often tell me that my head was badly deformed during birth, and I feel that for her this partly explained my wayward character as a teenager and young man (though doctor friends say that there is nothing remarkable about such a birth).

PD: …Now if Martin Amis, who was born in 1949, knows war and violence at second hand, It’s arguable that JG Ballard was marinaded in them. In his novel, Empire of the Sun, he wrote a fictional account of his childhood days living in Shanghai under Japanese occupation. Now he’s written his memoir, Miracles of Life, which offers an extraordinary account of the daily killing that the young Jim Ballard witnessed during the occupation, when for a time he was interned with his family. Reading Miracles of Life, it’s clear that those Shanghai years were the defining ones for the novelist’s imagination. It’s there that he first encountered a disintegrating city, an image that’s become such a powerful part of his iconography in novels such as The Drowned World, about a city dying into a beautiful lagoon. Miracles of Life is subtitled ‘Shanghai to Shepperton’, and it takes in not only his childhood years in Shanghai, but also the shock of coming to live in England in the late 40s, his time as a medical student at Cambridge — his description of the pathology class is worth the price of the book alone — his life as a door-to-door salesman, and in the RAF in Canada. But the book also includes very personally painful subjects, from his alienation from his mother and father, to the death of his young wife. When we met in a wonderfully noisy flat, I suggested that Shanghai, and his experiences there, clearly provided the stage for what would become his preoccupations; spectacle, sex, violence and death.

JGB: Death was everywhere, in a way that’s almost impossible to imagine. We lived in a suburban house — beggars died on our doorstep. And it’s impossible to imagine, living in Shepperton for example, or Tunbridge Wells in a comfortable house with nine or ten servants, and some elderly beggar, leaning against the wall in a drive and quietly dying, without anyone coming to his aid. Unbelievable, here, but it was all too believable then, I mean, it was routine.

PD: Was it because they were Chinese who were dying that your parents, in a sense, just took their dying for granted?

JGB: Yes, I think the fact that they were Chinese played a large part in it. Firstly of course there were so many Chinese; there had been civil wars from the 1920s onwards. From ’37 onwards there was the Japanese invasion of China. Millions of Chinese, destitute peasants for the most part, were struggling to get into Shanghai; why I don’t know because there was nothing there for them, nothing at all. Tens of thousands died on the streets every year; cholera, smallpox, typhoid were rife. I mean it was a place that sort of challenged every conceivable assumption that we now make about what constitutes civilised life.

PD: There’s this small boy, you, Jim Ballard, cycling his way, kind of, round the city and, you know, in this book you’re very tender towards your own children — after all the book is called Miracles of Life in response to your sense of the importance of children — and yet you as a child kinda face this and, the way you write about it, as if it’s just the wind blowing through the streets. This death, this boy – you — the younger self just kind of — just like rain.

JGB: I’d never known anything else; one has to bear that in mind. As far as my parents were concerned, they must have been shocked to the core when they first arrived in Shanghai in, whatever it was, 1929. I was never really able to draw from either of my parents any sort of answer to the question: Why didn’t we help that old beggar who was dying on our doorstep? What Shanghai proved was that kindness, which we place a huge value on — there, things were completely different. It’s very hard to convey — a kind of terminal world where all human values really have ceased to function. Every conceivable kind of, you know, entrepreneurial venture capitalism going full-blast. It’s very difficult to visualise a world were, sort of pity, didn’t really exist. Kindness didn’t exist, and could be dangerous. I think that’s something I learned very early on as a boy, to place too much reliance on kindness is a big error because it’s such an intangible thing, and the supply of kindness is finite and can be switched off.

PD: One of the things that’s very powerful in the book, and I think one of the things that binds together Shanghai and Shepperton is the sense that the world is a stage. Shanghai is this extraordinary stage that gets destroyed through the war and Shepperton, this blessed English suburb is a place where films are made, and this sense that actually beneath this staging is just that violence and to put it in the most blunt sense, just death.

JGB: I don’t want to give the wrong impression of the book but I think coming to terms with death is one of the main themes of the book. I mean, the death all around me; as a boy, in Shanghai, the death of Chinese, countless Chinese at the hands of the Japanese military, during the war itself, personal tragedy that brutally crossed my own life, the death of my wife, but also the experience of say, dissecting cadavers when I was a medical student in Cambridge, a very important phase of my life in fact, where I think I was trying to carry out my own work, a sort of — I don’t know how to describe it — a sort of restorative pathology. I was trying to sort of, analyse, what had happened to all the dead Chinese I’d seen, and used the cadavers in the dissecting room as, sort of, exploratory vehicles almost.

PD: ‘The skull beneath the skin’ as Eliot said of Webster…

JGB: Webster, yes.

PD: …is something very powerful in this book,

JGB: You know war is — a world war — is so dislocating, it shatters everything. Also one has to accept that violence in many ways is quite seductive, particularly when you’re in your teens. It’s not the glamour of violence that you see in Hollywood films. Violence — very clearly defines itself. The brutality of, say, Japanese soldiers towards Chinese civilians was really a matter of routine, you knew exactly what was going to happen. A couple of bored Japanese sergeants ride a rickshaw all the way from Shanghai, quite a journey, and then decide they don’t want to pay; more than that, they decide they’ll have a little fun, kick the poor rickshaw coolie’s only source of livelihood into matchwood and then they turn on him, kick him to death. I witnessed such an event. I mean, I think I knew exactly what was going to happen and everybody else did. Violence is very — it’s almost settling — there is no disputing it. It’s seductive in that it has a logic of its own — one almost misses it when it’s gone — a terrible thing to say, but there is an element of truth in that. One tries to recreate episodes of violence because they do tell a kind of truth — a final truth — about human beings and what we are.

PD: When you came to England, you register very well in the book, the kind of cataclysmic or non-cataclysmic shock of arriving in this place. The word that keeps coming up in the book is ‘it needed to change’ was that something you palpably and viscerally felt then?

JGB: Absolutely, I mean, I was so shocked when I arrived. You’ve got to remember that I was brought up on a huge and extremely potent mythology, the mythology of Chums annuals, of the Just William Books, AA Milne, Peter Pan, to some extent, the image of a middle-class England. I think there was a sense that this country had collectively decided to believe these nostalgic fantasies about itself, that shook me. Why on earth would anyone want to believe all this nonsense? Slowly, change arrived, actually I think it came across the Atlantic; supermarkets and motorways, it really didn’t change in a really radical way until the 60s.

PD: The word change now being polluted by a kind of a — Whig liberalism — a slow incremental change for the good; what George Eliot rather wonderfully once called ‘the growing good of the world’. I can’t think of anybody less, who believes in that than you, and one of the things — reading this book — I felt was that you want change and you’re future oriented, but actually you’re like the angel of history, Walter Benjamin’s great essay, the German Jew, who said actually that the angel of history is blown towards the future, but looking towards the past.

JGB: I think past and future were just so entangled in the minds of the English after the war. I don’t think they knew really which way they were facing. Some people can cope with nostalgia, I think the French, for example, do it very well, I think the Americans do. I think we, the English, do not cope well with nostalgia; it is used and exploited to buttress the class system.

PD: But somehow you’ve been formed, haven’t you, by the past, it’s not something you can let go of; you’re not a Whig historian who can just forget the past.

JGB: The past sits astride me like a — like a sort of crashed aircraft straddling a railway line, or a tank that’s sort of thrown one of its treads, the crew can rotate the turret, but not much more. I think I knew that change would eventually arrive. Because I’d been brought up in this ultra-modern city; I’d seen American cars, I’d seen modernity, whether in the form of art Deco architecture, cinemas, nightclubs and the like. I’d seen consumerism in Shanghai, going full blast, and I knew that it would arrive sooner or later. I remember going to see the This is Tomorrow show at the Whitechapel Gallery in, I think, 1956. That had an enormous effect on me. I’d just begun writing science fiction and Hamilton and Paolozzi’s exhibits in particular at the Whitechapel firmed the direction that I felt my own writing should take. They were celebrating consumerism — they were celebrating the art of the street — neon canopies over cinemas and the like.

PD: But that’s only half the truth of you because — I’m going to reach into a bag — where I’ve brought a book, which is an early book of yours, called Disaster Area, mid-60s book, rather wonderful book from mid-60s, but on the front is a charnel house on top of which are sat a few of Edgar Allan Poe’s ravens — there’s a darkness in you…

JGB: I didn’t pick that picture.

PD: …No, no I’m sure, but it’s a fair reflection of what the book’s about — there’s a dark side to you isn’t there?

JGB: Well, I mean a large part of my fiction has been an exploration of, you know, the dark side of the sun. Consumerism, you know, lights up the world — but it has its dark side. You know a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to show what happens at midnight, when the lights go out and a different set of lights — rather more lurid — come on. My more recent novels, over the last ten years, I’ve looked hard at what I see as the, sort of, the psychopathology of the city and the sort of social structures, the big office complexes and the like that, you know, that we now inhabit.

PD: There’s another book inside Miracles of Life, we’ve spoken very much about your — what I call the ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. But there is another book which is the book of two families. There’s the family you grew up in, and there’s the family that you had, your own children. And the early part of the Shanghai is an extraordinary kind of Proustian Remembrance of Things Past and then there’s a bluntness about your account of your parents that I found quite shocking.

JGB: I try to explain it in the book. I try to suggest that a lot of what seems to be callousness in my parents actually reflected a different, sort of different role, that childhood played then. Childhood was a gamble; it was a gamble for the child, but it was a gamble for the parents. So many children died in the era before antibiotics, so many children died without ever leaving childhood. Whereas today we tend to measure our success as human beings by our success as parents, parents felt, I think, to some extent detached. Parents felt towards their children in many ways — though it sounds bizarre — the way people would feel towards domestic pets. You love your Labrador dearly, but if it catches some ghastly, dog disease, and dies, you don’t blame yourself.

PD: I suppose the reason I ask that, I often think you’ve spent a lot of your writing life — flirting with confessional. I mean in Crash, 1973, you call a character after yourself; in Empire of the Sun the boy is called Jim. You’ve sort of outed yourself, at this late stage of your career; and even the cover of the autobiography there’s the picture of you, and a picture of you and your children on the back cover. What’s kind of compelled this revelatory, because you’ve always been the most frugal of people it strikes me with information about yourself?

JGB: I’m not sure if that’s altogether true. I think there’s no doubt that my ordinary, everyday life — my children have played an absolutely central role and have been much more important to me than being a writer really.

PD: You really believe that?

JGB: Yes, because whenever there’s been as a choice between the two, family life came first. You know, if they wanted me to watch Blue Peter, I watched Blue Peter — willingly; I wanted to watch it with them, even if that meant that I wouldn’t be able to type out a short story I was working on. I felt a commitment to my children once my wife had died that dominated everything. You know we’re all mysteries to ourselves, most of us have only a hazy notion of who we are we really are. Writing the particular sort of imaginative fiction that I write does tend to expose you to all kinds of hazards, you know, very easy to slip off the edge of the sidewalk and find yourself in the gutter. It’s very hard to understand, and I remember my wife — and I had a happy marriage — but I remember my wife reading some of my early short stories, and saying, ‘Why are there all these tormented marriages, with these strange and rather unappealing women – where do they come from?’ Poor husband sort of would hide behind his typewriter and say: ‘Errrr – well, you’ve got to understand; I’m not a realistic writer.’ But it is a point, you know — where do they come from? I wrote this Miracles of Life when I was 76, quite an advanced age, you know, I realised the very strange currents that make up a life.

PD: You could have ended the book other than you did, I mean, you’ve even shared with the reader that you’re ill, that you’ve got cancer and I kept trying to just work out — what had possessed you to do that — and I was thinking of Philip Larkin who didn’t even want to be told he’d got cancer.

JGB: People who’ve watched me sort of evolve as a writer know that my fiction is full of drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels that, you know, are highly significant elements in what makes up my world. I only wrote the autobiography because I knew I had advanced cancer. In fact my consultant, who looks after me, urged me to write. Once I’d embarked on telling the story of my life I had to press on until, sort of, the final chapter, and there was no point in hiding, hiding behind vague hopes of the future, because basically I hadn’t got a future. I think I discovered things about myself which I might not have done otherwise, particularly in my relationships with my parents. I think I have to face the fact that I didn’t really like them very much. I tried in my earlier fiction — and in my earlier life — I mean, to maintain a kind of neutral stance, particularly towards my mother. I mean it is perfectly possible she wasn’t a very nice human being, I don’t think she was. I don’t think either of them had that big an influence on me, one habit I’d learned from the the war, was that I’d have to look after myself. You couldn’t really rely on other people. One of the huge sustaining myths is that you can rely on your parents in a time of crisis, WWII showed me that this isn’t the case. I think that I was right to be honest, there would have been an element of deceit if I’d not mentioned it. After all, the final chapter is only two pages long, and it places everything in its proper position.

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14 Responses »

  1. Thanks Mike,

  2. Excellent. Can’t wait to read this book!

  3. The comments about his parents really struck me. I had a similar kind of upbringing. I’ve decided that my parents were not unkind…they just found it hard to show affection. Something to do with their own upbringing no doubt.

  4. Wow, that’s a great interview. His comments about kindness through the title of “Kindness of Women” in a whole different light for me.

  5. Thanks. It’s all about truth. And dreaming. He is the man.

  6. Thank you THANK YOU!!! As an American who was lucky enough to start reading and seeking out Ballard VERY heavily early in his SF career and in my adolescence (I’m in my 50s now) and trying to keep the absolutely unique Ballardian flame going over here in the USA, I was devastated that I had no shortwave and thought I would miss this fantastic BeeB interview. JGB is a National Treasure of Britain and every word he has to say now (news of his diagnosis struck me like a body blow- to be denied him in the future is unthinkable to me) is absolutely crucial. He has MUCH more of a following here than he may think – (ask Bruce Sterling) and his books as they evolved were a MAJOR axis (dare I say obsession?) of my own intellectual and literary development as an incessant reader. Our own literary scene, much like Britain’s, has deadened horribly – WITH HIS SHINING EXCEPTION! Thanks again for all the work of the transcription and as always, to Simon!

  7. Everyone, you can download an mp3 of the interview here:


    The file will only be available for a short while, though, so get it now while you can.

  8. superb. many thanks simon.

    how is it that there is no US edition for this book?

  9. actually, it’s mike bonsall you should be thanking…

    as for the US edition, well that’s the same old vexed question isn’t it? no US editions for ballard’s last 4, 5 books…

  10. the bit about him dropping everything — even a story — to watch telly with his kids, after his wife died, was devastating and also beautiful.

    it’s the most revealing snippet I’ve come across that goes toward jgb being a good man as well as, of course, an extraordinary writer.

  11. actually, it’s mike bonsall you should be thanking…

    and esp philip dodd

  12. Thanks everyone for appreciation of these transcripts. It’s a joyously painful task. Great to be able to share his words with more people…


  13. I hope I don’t offend Mike Bonsall, but if you want to listen to the audio of the interview, and you missed the conversation on the Yahoo! Ballard mailing list, it’s possible to download in MP3 format:


    There are a couple of other folders on Sendspace for Ballard including some video interviews:


  14. A word of warning regarding SendSpace.com if you’re intending to download the files. Unless you pay to sign up, you can only download one file at a time. Attempting to download a second file concurrently, will automatically cancel the first.

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