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Rick McGrath’s Letter From London: The JG Ballard MemorialAuthor: Rick McGrath • Nov 30th, 2009 •
Category: Ambit magazine, Chris Petit, features, film, Iain Sinclair, Lead Story, Michael Moorcock, New Worlds, R.I.P. JGB, Shanghai, Shepperton, Solveig Nordlund, Steven Spielberg, time travel, Toby Litt, Will Self, William Burroughs
Rick McGrath’s Letter From London: The JG Ballard Memorial
All photography by Rick McGrath.
Sunday, November 15, 2009, 3:45pm, The Founders Pub, London.
Greetings from London! Hope all is well with you. I’ve just attended the long-anticipated JG Ballard Memorial celebration at the Tate Modern and now I’m catching my breath — and a few beers — at a nearby Thames-side pub with fellow Ballardians David Pringle, Mike Holliday, Vale, Marian Wallace and Gee Vaucher. We’re having a wonderful time — wish you were here.
Left: Toby Litt.
But let’s start at the beginning. We have time to order some Alsatian off the barbie. For the first two days in London I actually wondered if somebody’s god was sending us a message, as the elements did their best to batter us with the kind of weather that resembled a vicious blend of The Drowned World and The Wind From Nowhere. Running from doorway to doorway in search of a tube entrance, I kept stumbling through the usual detritus: soggy cigarette ends, broken umbrellas, empty condom packs. I kept wondering where JG might have visited to inspire The Drought. Certainly nowhere in the UK.
The day of the Memorial, however, broke bright and sunny and warm — a good sign and a fitting description of the events to follow.
The plan was for everyone to meet at the Tate Modern at 11am for an 11:30 start. I overtook a walking Toby Litt about a block away and together we made our way to the top floor of the Tate’s east wing where a substantial crowd had already gathered, spritzers in hand, strung out along a glass and steel corridor that emptied to a large anteroom with a commanding view of old London to the north and the high tech security guards of Canary Wharf to the east. I kept looking down to the Thames, though, hoping to see a bit of wing floating by from a light airplane. Not today. The venue might also have reminded some of Royal’s penthouse suite in High-Rise, but regardless of the number of people fighting their way up the stairs it was an appropriately Ballardian venue, made even more so by the Tate’s current show of “Pop Life: Art in a Material World”, featuring Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Synchronicity? Perhaps.
It was in this enormous space the 100 or so celebrants convened for the Memorial – tributes to The Man from JG’s family, friends, colleagues and admirers on what would have been his 79th birthday. The area was liquid with light and the format was a simple stage and microphone with flanking video screens. We sat in chairs that fanned in a wide arc along the length of the room. Our mistress of ceremonies was Bea Ballard, and after thanking the event’s organizers — her sister Fay, Claire Walsh and JG’s agent, Maggie Hanbury — away we went.
Our speakers — 13 in all, four reporting in by video — gave us a wonderfully Ballardian triad of facts, stories and myths about JG, and I couldn’t help thinking that once again Life is reflecting Art, unconsciously reproducing his Atrocity Exhibition structure of the public, the personal, and the symbolic. His work, his life, and his myth were the topics we wanted to hear about, and Simon, no one was disappointed.
Hold on. We’ve just had a discussion here at the pub, and Mike has suggested that this three-part structure may also be the most appropriate for this re-telling. Vale? Dave? You agree? OK. Planes do intersect.
The celebration of JG’s work is also the celebration of his deep impact and the shock waves he sent through the literary community, emphasis on the later generations. And then there was that second wave of carpet bombing in the 1970s, the one that resonated with punk, with the abandoned, with RE/Search, with architecture, with the whole explosion of everyone’s quantification and eroticism of the “outer world of reality”. Unfortunately, Simon, the room held mostly literary types, so JG’s influence on the Ballardian arts was not addressed. Never mind. What was missing in breadth was made up in breath. “A touchstone of authentic genius,” Will Self intoned in his best British boom, “my single most important mentor and influence.” Will also commented about the length and consistency of JG’s oeuvre (pronounced as if it had 14 syllables), and how JG rarely left the road he most preferred, the one where he was caught in the wet headlights ironically waving a warning flag to a population already asleep at the wheel. He’s been at it, Will said, from his early changing planet stories to his last four novels of wacky westerners, that quartet or warnings about the dangers of boredom associated with living behind gated minds and programmed lives.
Not to be outdone, but still a tad cagey about it, Martin Amis beamed in on video to announce JG was “uniquely unique”, and spoke at length about JG’s art and his high place in the pantheon of imaginative writers. He was the only speaker who basically concentrated on JG the writer, rather than the man, and it was good to have him there even in video, although the final effect was a bit Intensive Care Unit, if you know what I mean.
JG’s life story has long been part of the public domain, and The Man did make an appearance, appearing onscreen in segments from the BBC documentary of his 1991 return to Shanghai. We see an obviously emotional JG standing in the yard of his family home on Amherst Avenue, wandering through the rooms, wondering about that second life he might have had if the war had not occurred and he stayed in the terrible city. Then the famous scene at Lunghua where he stands in the cramped room in G Block his family of four called home for three years. This is the closest thing to what I call home, JG told us, “I came close to an adult mind” here. We were treated to one other bit of Ballard before the day was over: the organizers had obtained a video of the What I Believe light display shown at Barcelona, and once again we were all reassured the power of the imagination can remake the world. In a way, that’s why we were there.
Here’s the heart of the matter. The angles between the walls. Let’s start with the daughters, Fay and Bea. Both talked exclusively about their relationship with ‘Daddy’ and their rather envious home life among the muck, movies and manuscripts. Fay, the artist, spoke first, and I was amazed and amused when she announced she would simply read out a series of thoughts, a verbal collage of unstructured memories. Perfect, I thought. It’ll be just like an Atrocity Exhibition list. And it was. Bea, also, offered up her remembrances, but took a more organized approach, mixing the humour with tales of darker times, such as the passing of her husband, and how she relied on JG’s help and experience from his own tragedy, and now even that support is gone. Sobering. And from Bea we have another inkling of JG’s self-deprecatory nature when he described himself as domestically “slattern”, when in reality the organisation level was probably at full Lunghua. “You can clean a house in five minutes if you don’t make a fetish of it”, JG once told her. I got the feeling the regimen was simply an extension of JG’s life: work hard, play hard.
Other Jimbits? JG never or rarely replaced or updated anything in the house. Nor did he throw much out, viz a peeled orange that had stood on the mantelpiece for 40 years. The daughters remember the clacking old typewriter and JG perched over it, speaking aloud the words he’s typing. Spending an entire summer naked in his back yard. Watching a tape of Double Indemnity together on TV, all the lights out, and talking about Civilization and Its Discontents. JG doing surrealist paintings! Constant encouragement for all their enthusiasms. Acceptance of a menagerie of pets, including Bea’s rat. Chinese dinners with — get this, Simon — lobster and noodles. A serious approach to education. Bear hugs. The unicycle. Trips to the movies after school. Ahh, memories.
Mike Moorcock stayed on this plane for his presentation, too, after he managed with some difficulty to negotiate passage to the stage with his crutches, and then actually alight it. Mike stayed Mike, fumbling thru masses of folded paper to find his notes, and then regaling us with stories of domesticity rather than literary appreciation and New Worlds gossip. It was very interesting to hear stories of JG’s early days, and nowadays Mike treasures most his memories of their times in restaurants, pubs and kitchens, wives at one end, Mike and Jim at the other, with all “forever arguing”. Mike had to put up with “cobblers” from his wife, JG with “you know that’s not true, Jim” from Mary. If you were eavesdropping you might think they were plotting the overthrow of SF, except nothing happened because no one could agree. Alpha males, no? When Mary died Mike was there for JG, not only helping him out of his “closed down” fugue, but ultimately introducing him to Claire — “the best possible choice for Jim” — and finally becoming each other’s editors — “logrolling”.
By far the most famous of the name-brand personalities to attend was Steven Spielberg — I got to sit right beside him! Ha, just kidding. Steve and the two Empire producers also attended, albeit in pixilated form, and gave an obviously glowing, but also somewhat underwhelming appreciation of their brief time together. They liked having JG around to help in the “dimensionalizing” of the book, whatever that means, and, of course, they had lots of fun shooting him in the Shanghai party scene, even if that clip was cut.
Steve’s warm memories of JG were also shared by Crash producer Jeremy Thomas, who recalled JG was unusually generous to his film adaptors. His memories involved food and cars, the former being a meal he enjoyed with JG in Cannes after Crash was panned, or should we say skewered? The latter involves a ride he gave JG in a Ferrari, and The Man reaching out to fondle the dashboard leather. A fellow “petrol-head” Jeremy called JG, a secret connoisseur of car magazines, “the equivalent of centerfolds in Penthouse”. I think he’s confusing the author and character here a wee bit, no?
Thomas made way for the enthusiastic and entertaining V Vale, who flew in from his RE/Search offices in San Francisco to breathlessly relate his stories of how he first became aware of JG and his immense appreciation for The Man: “He’s the Shakespeare of the Twentieth Century, the bard of Shepperton”, Vale pronounced, much to the glee of the audience. I’m toasting Vale right now, Simon, for that great line! Dressed in his trademark all black (as he still is), Vale began by confessing he started off as a Burroughs man, and first became aware of JG in 1974 when someone told him Bill had written a preface to a book called Love & Napalm: Export USA. He read it and experienced a life-changing moment. In 1978 Vale interviewed both Bs for the 10th issue of his seminal punkpaper, Search and Destroy. He then realized he had “spent his entire life preparing to meet JG Ballard”, and Burroughs slipped to second place. Cheers, Vale, and thanks for pointing out the obvious to the locals.
Left: V. Vale. Right: Bea Ballard.
After Vale the long, lean and lanky body of Will Self undulated itself to the microphone, and Will amused us all by reading out a handwritten letter –- actually, two of JG’s ubiquitous postcards — he received 16 years ago. Will had written JG, tentatively suggesting he might be the man to write a screenplay for Crash. The reply was short on encouragement, but long on suggestions: JG recommended Will immediately go out and buy a book called The Black Box, which featured the final recordings of crews involved in aircraft crashes. “I’m thinking of writing a novel based entirely on black box recordings,” JG enthusiastically wrote, then suggested it might be a technique Will might try. “He was always suggesting story ideas to me,” Will intoned in a lazy, eccentric drawl oddly reminiscent of JG’s dulcet tones. “I knew it was because he had already thought about it and had abandoned the concept”. Much laughter. Will also revealed a bit of JG’s horror of all things literary and fête. When JG won a PEN Award four months before his passing, it was Will who accepted on JG’s behalf. When he delivered the award, JG took pains to warn Will about the “tweedy” side of the literary world — “It’s very good of them to give me the award but we must always remember” (here, Will’s voice drops conspiratorially) “they are the enemy”.
Left: Jonathan Waxman. Centre: Chris Petit. Right: James Ballard, Jnr.
A very interesting speaker was Professor Jonathan Waxman, JG’s oncologist, who movingly re-emphasized JG’s stoicism and bravery, usually expressed as endless concern for others rather than himself. I kept wondering if this Doctor was anything at all like the endless Doctors who passed through JG’s fiction. He didn’t look like he’d ever been to Africa, though. We learned of the closeness between JG and Claire near the end, although even these emotional moments were subject to JG’s wicked one-liners, such as the time Jonathan called up to see how things were going. “Claire’s been absolutely magnificent,” JG replied, “but then I have to say that, as she’s sitting opposite me cradling a Luger in her lap”. Or his description of chemotherapy being akin to “continually eating bad oysters”.
Left: Bill Spencer.
This is where these planes intersect, and images are born. Or, in this case, reinforced, as blending the public and private in JG is essentially the basis of his creative technique. JG has said himself his greatest story is his life, and the image I think we all will carry forward is of a bifurcated genius — generous family man on the one hand, hard-drinking shockwave rider of a writer on the other. Unique, to paraphrase Amis. My takeaway image was the vid of JG at Lunghua, white hat, white suit, looking suspiciously like someone who firmly expects to see their 14-year-old self appear around a corner. When I got home I patted my brick from G Block.
And that was basically it for the tributes, although they might have gone on all afternoon given the guest list, which included Iain Sinclair, Chris Petit, Toby Litt, Tom Sutcliffe, Maggie Hanbury, Marian Wallace, Joan Bakewell, Solveig Nordlund, Peter York, and JG’s friend from his Cambridge days at the Copper Kettle, Bill Spencer, looking sharp in a hot pink bow tie. Yowsers!
Direct family members who were in attendance but didn’t speak included James Ballard, Jr. — who shares many physical similarities with JG — and JG’s sister Margaret.
Absent or unable to attend were Brian Aldiss, Emma Tennant from Bananas, Hilary Bailey, Martin Bax and Michael Foreman from Ambit, and academics such as Roger Luckhurst, Jeanette Baxter and you.
Left: Iain Sinclair.
What else did I find out during the informal chit-chat afterwards? A few items you may find interesting. Remember all those stories about JG taking his manuscripts out to his back yard and burning them after the book was published? I asked Bea Ballard about this, and she looked at me like I had been in the care of Dr Nathan. No, they haven’t been burned — the girls have all that stuff. Good news. Toby Litt was saying he’s heard the ICA is negotiating with the CCCB in Barcelona in an attempt to get the Autopsy exhibition in London. Their space is quite a bit less than the 90,000 square feet the CCCB lavished, so we’ll see what transpires. I was also approached by Claire Walsh and Gee Vaucher regarding another proposed Ballard exhibition the ladies are planning for a subterranean exhibition at Waterloo. So, perhaps things are picking up in the UK after all.
The memorial ended as these events normally do, Simon, with a sort of time trickle of people down to the remaining few — us, of course — followed by a vote to repair to the nearest bar to discuss the experience, which we’re now doing. Interestingly enough, all of us at the table agree the event was also a sort of Rubicon, a boundary we have now crossed which marks the end of mourning JG’s passing to celebrating his extraordinary life, his loving and generous personality, and, of course, his amazing legacy of work.
It was a helluva day. I’m glad I was there.
..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ ‘What exactly is he trying to sell?’: J.G. Ballard’s Adventures in Advertising
+ ‘Like Alice in Wonderland’: Solveig Nordlund on J.G. Ballard
+ Rick McGrath’s Letter from Barcelona: The Exquisite Corpse, An Autopsy of the New Millennium
+ Review: Grave New World
+ It’s An Ad, Ad, Ad World
+ ‘Woefully Underconceptualised’: Rick McGrath on J.G. Ballard’s Cover Art
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