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Miracles of Life extract & interviewAuthor: Simon Sellars • Jan 20th, 2008 •
The Times is featuring an extract from J.G. Ballard’s forthcoming autobiography, Miracles of Life. There’s also an accompanying interview, in which it’s revealed that Ballard has been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer:
Ballard is courteous and genial in a slightly donnish way. At 77, he takes his time assembling his thoughts, but they remain unflinching and provocative, expressed with the verbal tics of his colonial background. But time, the malleable stuff of his science fiction, is running out. After being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2006, he sat down at his electric typewriter – “The computer age came too late for me” – and rapidly wrote his autobiography.
Here’s a sample of the extract:
THE Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, the American naval base near Honolulu, took place on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941. In Shanghai, across the International Date Line, it was already Monday, December 8 and I was lying in bed reading when my father burst into my bedroom. He ordered me to get dressed and told me that Japan had declared war.
“But I have to go to school,” I protested. “Exams start today.”
He then uttered the greatest words a schoolboy can ever hear: “There’ll be no more school and no more exams.”
From that point the old Shanghai ceased to exist. The Japanese army aggressively enforced its presence throughout the Settlement and street executions of Chinese were common. All foreign cars were confiscated and my father bought a bicycle to take him to his office.
By March 1943, with the war in the Pacific turning against the Japanese, they decided to intern British and other allied nationals in Lunghua – my last real childhood home, where I would spend the next 2½ years. It resembled a half-ruined college campus. Families with small children were sent to G block, a two-storey building that held some 40 small rooms. I remember how my mother and father sat together on one of the beds with my younger sister, Margaret, staring at this tiny space, as small as the rooms in the servants’ quarters at Amherst Avenue.
My first impression was of how relaxed the internees seemed. I had known a Shanghai where the men wore suits and ties, but here they were dressed in cotton shorts and shirtsleeves. Many of the younger women, among them the rather formal mothers of boys at school, were in beachwear. On the observation roof of F block a group of music lovers listened to a classical symphony on a wind-up gramophone. On the steps of the assembly hall the Lunghua Players rehearsed a scene from The Pirates of Penzance. I enjoyed my years in Lunghua, made a huge number of friends of all ages (far more than I did in adult life) and on the whole felt buoyant and optimistic, even when the food rations fell to near zero, skin infections covered my legs, malnutrition had prolapsed my rectum and many of the adults had lost heart.
For the first time in my life I was extremely close to my parents. At home we had had our own bedrooms and bathrooms. I had never seen my parents naked or in bed together. Now I slept, ate, read, dressed and undressed within a few feet of them in the same small room. I revelled in this closeness. Lying in bed at night I could, if I wanted to, reach out and take my mother’s hand, though I never did.
In the early days when there was still electric power my mother would read late into the night, hidden inside her mosquito net. One night a Japanese officer burst in, drew his sword and slashed away the mosquito net above her head, thrashed the light bulb into fragments and vanished without a word. I remember the strange silence of people woken in the nearby rooms, listening to his footsteps as he disappeared into the night.
I think the years together in that very small room had a profound effect on me and the way I brought up my own children. Perhaps the reason why I have lived in the same house in Shepperton for nearly 50 years, and to the despair of everyone have always preferred make-do-and-mend to buying anew, even when I could easily afford it, is that my small and untidy house reminds me of our family room in Lunghua.
I made friendships of a kind with several young Japanese guards. When they were off duty they would allow me to sit in their hot tubs and then wear their kendo armour. After handing me a duelling sword, a fearsome weapon of long wooden segments loosely strung together, they would encourage me to fence with them. Each bout would last 20 seconds and involved me being repeatedly struck about the helmet and face mask, which I could scarcely see through, every dizzying blow being greeted with friendly cheers from the watching Japanese.
They too were bored, only a few years older than me, and had little hope of seeing their families again soon, if ever. I knew they could be viciously brutal, especially when acting under the orders of their NCOs, but individually they were easy-going and likeable. Their military formality and never-surrender ethos were very impressive to a 13-year-old looking for heroes to worship.
In the last 18 months of the war our rations fell steeply. As we sat in our room one day, pushing what my mother called “the weevils” to the rim of our plates of congee (pulped rice), my father decided that from then on we should eat them – we needed the protein. They were small white slugs and perhaps were maggots, a word my mother preferred to avoid. I regularly counted them before tucking in lustily – a hundred or so was my usual score, forming a double perimeter around my plate.
Despite the food shortages, the bitterly cold winters and the uncertainties, I was happier in the camp than I was until my marriage and children. At the same time I felt slightly apart from my parents by the time the war ended. One reason for our estrangement was that their parenting became passive rather than active – they had none of the usual levers to pull, no presents or treats, no say in what we ate, no power over how we lived or ability to shape events.
There was never any friction or antagonism and they did their best to look after me and my sister; but there is no doubt that a gradual estrangement began there and it lasted to the end of their lives. THE first American air raids began in the summer of 1944. Squadrons of fighters, Mustangs and Lightnings, attacked nearby Lunghua airfield. Waves of B-29 bombers followed. I spent every spare moment watching the sky.
© JG Ballard 2008
Extracted from Miracles of Life by JG Ballard, to be published by Fourth Estate on February 4 at £14.99. Copies can be ordered for £13.49 including postage from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585
More at the Times.
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