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R.I.P. JGB: Tributes from the Ballardosphere, part 2Author: Ballardian • Apr 21st, 2009 •
Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Claire Walsh in September, 2006 (photo courtesy Linda Moorcock).
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MICHAEL MOORCOCK, AUTHOR
‘Jimmy’ to an early generation of friends, JG Ballard was as stoical in dealing with his painful cancer (which began with asymptomatic prostate cancer already widely spread by the time it was detected) as he had been when dealing with the sudden early death of his wife Mary. The telegram my then-wife Hilary and I received the day Mary died was typically laconic: MARY DIED TODAY OF PNEUMONIA. GREAT HEART. LOVE, JIMMY. I remember how, shortly after his return to England, he said he had to keep pulling to the side of the road on the long drive back from Spain when he began to cry; one of the few occasions he ever directly referred in conversation to his grief. Of course, he discovered that stoicism in the Japanese camp where he was interned as a boy and this tendency to redirect conversation away from his own problems remained with him all his life, even when he suffered from the cancer which eventually killed him.
Like many great visionaries, he had an enormous store of common sense and ordinary wisdom, which enabled him to raise the children and, as Fay, his daughter, said, always have the sheets washed on time, even if the baked bean was one of their almost daily dishes. In private he was a generous, affectionate, humorous friend who, even when he had very little money, would phone me if he heard I was broke and offer to lend me his last hundred pounds.
A couple of years after Mary’s death I was able to introduce him to Claire Walsh, who remained his companion for over forty years and selflessly nursed him through the final staqes of his very painful illness. His capacity for kindness and understanding is reflected in his moving and very honest memoir — Miracles of Life — which remains one of the very best books of its kind. I knew him casually in the late fifties and we became close friends from about 1960 on when we attended a conference of sf writers and, together with Barry Bayley, became very disappointed with what we regarded as the boring and rather commercial interests of our fellow writers. We discovered that we had a common interest in using the conventions of sf to write a kind of fiction which addressed what we perceived as the specific experience of post-war life, which the conventions of the modernist social novel singularly failed to address. We did not have much of an interest, except incidentally, in improving the sf genre as such, but of putting certain sf tropes to our own uses.
In this, we were inspired by the work of William Burroughs to whom I introduced him in the early 60s. His first evident break with the sf genre came when E.J.Carnell published ‘The Terminal Beach’. Carnell was reluctant to publish the story until Bayley and I insisted on it, just as Carnell published my own ‘breakthrough’ story The Deep Fix only when Jimmy persuaded him to run it. When I became editor of New Worlds in 1964, he wrote one of our two ‘manifestoes’ in the first issue I produced. That issue also carried the opening episode of his serial Equinox, which became The Crystal World, but I was keen to get him to do work closer to ‘The Terminal Beach’ and while ‘You:Coma:Marilyn Monroe’ was the first of these to appear in our companion magazine Science Fantasy, it was ‘The Assassination Weapon’, written, as I recall, a little earlier, which helped define the character of the kind of fiction we were to run increasingly, making a clear break with generic science fiction. These ‘condensed novels’ reflected a theory we had developed whereby iconographic figures, with their own dense stories, helped us carry many narratives in a very small space.
Jimmy produced a number of these narratives within a relatively short time during the mid-sixties, placing others with Ambit, a literary magazine run by Martin Bax whom we met at one of sf writer John Brunner’s parties and for which he became prose editor, commissioning me in turn! Others appeared in IT and Transatlantic Review, with whom we also had a relationship. They were collected in The Atrocity Exhibition published by Cape under the editorship of Tom Maschler, who had also been encouraged to publish Philip K. Dick after reading what New Worlds had to say about him. New Worlds also ran such stories as ‘The Assassination of John F Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’, an homage to Jarry, who was another of our enthusiasms. Our friend Bill Butler also ran his story ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’, famously prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Jimmy did not appear at the trial because he was asked to defend himself against charges of obscenity. He claimed that the story was intentionally obscene. This collection also featured the short version of Crash! which would later become the novel, and ‘A Plan for the Assassination of Jaqueline Kennedy’, the specific story which caused Nelson Doubleday, boss of the American publisher Doubleday, to order the US edition pulped. In the eyes of many, including me, this book contains Ballard’s finest and most innovative work. Together with Empire of the Sun, his autobiographical novel, it remains perhaps his best single work.
Although the literary press was quick to minimise his years as an sf writer, he made no effort to divorce himself from his sf roots, though preferring to call himself first a ‘speculative’ and later an ‘apocalyptic’ writer. His influence was seen in the work of several of his admirers including Martin Amis, Will Self, Iain Sinclair, M. John Harrison and Christopher Priest. Tending, in those early years, to rely on me to introduce him to fellow spirits, like Burroughs, Chris Evans, Eduardo Paolozzi and even his companion Claire Walsh, Jimmy remained a private, modest and rather shy man, a loyal friend who, in spite of being admired by some of our best known literary writers, avoided what he called ‘the literary crowd’ even more than sf conventions, living quietly at home in Shepperton which famously remained unchanged since the mid-60s, with his typewriter in one corner of the room and commissioned copies of lost Delvaux masterpieces in another, while a unicycle stood in his hallway.
At one time his back garden served as a pit in which he burned review copies (I remember him phoning me to complain bitterly that Fahrenheit 451 was NOT the temperature at which book paper burned) or as a jungle of sunflowers, which he had seeded. While unreliable sources, such as Lynn Barber, claimed he regularly took LSD, the only tab he ever dropped he obtained from me. I gave him some important advice about how best to take it which, somewhat typically, he completely ignored. The subsequent trip was so horrific, he never took another. Like many men of his generation, his drug of choice remained alcohol. It can fairly be argued that his vivid and intense imagination scarcely needed acid stimulus. Devoted to his children and becoming almost mystical when he described their births, he believed that the art of raising his three was to have a glue gun and a staple gun handy at all times, for running repairs and alterations.
While we by no means shared all the same enthusiasms, we remained close friends for fifty years, only very occasionally having our differences, and I shall miss him enormously.
..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ Angry Old Men: Michael Moorcock on J.G. Ballard
..:: More Ballardosphere tributes:
+ Part 1: Ben Noys, Chris Nakashima-Brown & Mark Dery.
+ Part 3: Tim Chapman, Rick McGrath, Solveig Nordlund, Dan O’Hara, Dominika Oramus, Rick Poynor, David Pringle, Simon Sellars, Supervert and V. Vale.
+ Part 4: Jeannette Baxter, Mike Bonsall, Mark Fisher, Owen Hatherley, Mike Holliday and Nina Power.
Newer: R.I.P. JGB: Tributes from the Ballardosphere, part 3 »