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R.I.P. JGB: Tributes from the Ballardosphere, part 3

Author: • Apr 22nd, 2009 •

Category: Ballardosphere, R.I.P. JGB

Ballardian: R.I.P. J.G. Ballard

Photo by Simon Durrant.


+ Share your tributes and memories of JGB.



TIM CHAPMAN, WRITER

I first read JG Ballard when I was 12 or so, after picking up Crash (with that lurid orange Chris Foss cover) at a village hall jumble sale. I occasionally wonder to what degree this might have affected my development.

Over the next decade or so, I picked up a few other titles, but none hit me with quite the same force. I just wasn’t struck by that intensity, that outrageous lucidity, which radiated from that battered paperback. But I gradually started to appreciate the subtler qualities of the writing, the humour, and the semi-detached perception. Gradually, his books started to just make sense to me. By the time I was living in a tiny flat in the dullest part of south London, barely writing a first novel and trying to find that elusive first job in journalism, I was a devotee.

So sometime round autumn 1996, I was thinking Ballardian thoughts as I trundled through the South Croydon wastelands towards an interview at some obscure trade journal. At the interview, the editor noted that, according to my desperately padded CV, I was working on a novel. ‘Oh yeah,’ he said. ‘JG Ballard used to work here.’ I got the job.

That’s basically my Ballardian claim to fame — I used to do JG Ballard’s old job at Chemistry & Industry. Well, more or less — he was deputy editor, a role that didn’t exist in my time, while I was production assistant and reporter. The magazine was still at the same premises on Belgrave Square, surrounded by the same pubs and curved balconies of concrete hotels, and my desk was certainly old enough to pre-date the 1950s. I felt a certain kinship.

The one time I met the man himself was in February 1998 at the ICA, where he was talking about movies with David Leland. Afterwards, Ballard stayed on stage to chat with anyone who wanted to jump up and say hello, even as the ICA staff tried to clear the room for the next event. I said I was doing his old job and showed him my business card. He briefly reminisced about his own time there, and seemed genuinely pleased and interested to hear how things were going, some four decades after.

My plan to follow in his footsteps by rapidly finishing an acclaimed novel or two, then quitting work to write in creative seclusion, never quite worked out. But he remained an inspiration, in work and life. That long-unfinished first novel definitely bears his influence (along with Norman Mailer, another recent loss), though possibly not in ways detectable to anyone else. As an intensely visual writer, he’s also a constant presence when I’m out taking photographs. Whether in stories or pictures, that influence comes from his unique way of seeing — that forensic examination of the landscapes of the late 20th century, the disasters and psychopathologies, the art and the technology. That medically-trained analysis of the nature of the catastrophe, and the acceptance of it all.

Ballard’s also proved a near-infallible guide to a parallel world of literature (though, personally, I still can’t be bothered with Self or Amis Jr). Any book I might find while scavenging secondhand shops which carries an adulatory blurb from the man gets added to the pile. Equally, I’ve found various writers (from Nathanael West to John Gray) by other routes and been greatly impressed by them, only later finding that they’re also favourites of Ballard’s. And of course you could build a library out of the many other writers, artists, musicians and film-makers who’ve acknowledged their deep debts to the man.

Unlike many of the other folk adding their tributes here, I’m not a literary critic or academic (nor, to be honest, would I wish to be). I’m a fan, though I wish there was another word for that. And through my developing fascination with the man’s work, I’ve been privileged to meet, drink, and make friends with a whole bunch of fantastically creative and intelligent people, of all ages and professions, from as near as Sheffield to as far as Australia, who’ve all been equally enthused in their own idiosyncratic ways.

Apart from the infinitely explorable mass of his writing, I think maybe that’s the legacy of JG Ballard — the dispersed generations of people who might call themselves, in whatever sense, Ballardians. The readers for whom his writing and his vision just made sense. The saddest realisation is that there’ll be no more.

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ ‘When in doubt, quote Ballard’: An interview with Iain Sinclair



RICK McGRATH, WRITER & JGB ARCHIVIST

JG Ballard was inexplicably kind to me, even though I’ve long thought he perceived me in a sort of Mr Burns & Homer Simpson way, never really recognizing this perhaps mad chap from Toronto who insists on breaking the peace with odd correspondence. I first wrote JG in 2001, having finally tracked down his address, with questions about my copy of the Doubleday Atrocity Exhibition. His response, on two postcards, included the phrase “thought police”, and I was hooked on these phonics, and in the hope of receiving more sayings from the seer I tended to whisk off letters until the fall of 2008, when I received my last postcard on November 22, the same day as Kennedy was killed.

During the intervening years JG conversed on a wide range of topics, such as the production of ice wine in Ontario, my take on Kingdom Come from an advertising perspective, new information on the “Project for a New Novel”, the seven CBC plays of his short stories, and, perhaps most interestingly, about my trip to Shanghai in 2007 to visit his Amherst Avenue house and Lunghua camp home. He was both funny and instructive in his advice, suggesting he hoped “it was a McDonald’s or KFC” to my news that the Amherst mansion had been turned into a restaurant, and frugally advising I take a bus rather than a cab the seven miles from the house to Lunghua. One of his more charming gestures was to draw me a plan of the main floor of Amherst Avenue. Granted, he had once returned to view it in 1991, but I’m sure he did this plan from childhood memory, and it was not surprising when I arrived and wandered through the place to find his layout correct not only in position but in proportion. He was keenly interested in the pictures I sent him and probably less excited about my “report”, which he simply deemed “interesting”, no doubt because it was rife with ballardian figures of speech. The photos he studied “like a deranged estate agent”, and after pointing out the changes made to the original admitted to finally being relieved that the past had gone, that these cyphers of yesterday were now only preserved in his and a few other memories.

The trip to Shanghai had as strong an impact on me as reading, say, The Drowned World for the first time. It gave a real location to so much of the imagined landscapes, a focal point for the big bang of imagination that was to follow. It was almost voyeuristic to stand in JG’s childhood bedroom and try to imagine a well-dressed kid playing alone, but I soon discovered the temporal flux of Empire was located in the old untouched stairwells, a place where it was very easy to descend into memory and merge into Ballard’s formative past.

The child that became the man is still in a few memories. In 2008 I talked with fellow Lunghua child internee Irene Duguid Kilpatrick, and she still firmly remembers “young Jimmy” running with his gang of boys, and telling “outrageous stories” about “flying with the Japanese pilots” at nearby Lunghua Airport. In essence, she was outlining Ballard’s modus operandi: blend a great imagination with a proclivity to shock. Sound like a plan? Shanghai is where JG learned to love being a storyteller, and that child’s desire – and attention-compelling technique — stayed with him his entire career.

Tomorrow I go down to Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, where Cronenberg shot the moving car scenes in Crash. I’ll have a flask of scotch with me, and I’ll drink a wee dram to the pleasure and influence JG has on my life. Thanks, kind man. Thanks for everything.

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ ‘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



SOLVEIG NORDLUND, director of Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (based on JGB’s ‘Low-Flying Aircraft’)

I got the news about Jim’s death from a radio journalist who wanted me to comment on the loss. Loss? I have an excerpt of my interview with Jim on YouTube. During the night and the following day comments didn’t stop dropping in: RIP JGB, and, as an echo, RIP JGB.

It was like Voices of Time, an anonymous collective mourning in cyberspace.

Loss? JGB and his work is an enormous gift that will live forever.

Thank You, JGB

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ ‘Like Alice in Wonderland’: Solveig Nordlund on J.G. Ballard



DAN O’HARA, ACADEMIC/TRANSLATOR

I first read Ballard’s short stories when I was 8 or 9, an age young enough to care about the story alone, but too young to care about the author. Only later, perhaps when I was in my twenties, did I re-read Ballard with an uncanny sensation of recognition: these worlds, I knew; I had met these characters before. But then maybe that sense of recognition is common to all of Ballard’s readers, whether they’ve read him before or not. His fictions are universal, and his characteristic landscapes and motifs speak directly to an atavistic, Jungian collective unconscious.

So often does he describe an ethereal, transcendental aspect of the everyday world, demonstrating a kind of anarchic faith in the abstract, that there’s a thrilling sense of vicarious exploration in reading his stories; yet it’s a very specific exploration not into the unknown but into a structured, abstract world which exists beyond human perception. Perhaps Martin Amis put it best when he said that Ballard “seems to address a different — a disused — part of the reader’s brain”. In stories such as ‘The Terminal Beach’ or ‘The Overloaded Man’, Ballard comes closer to a coherent and original literary-philosophical statement than any English writer since Coleridge.

Lately, I’ve found that what keeps me reading Ballard is his style, that most ephemeral of all writerly qualities. I do not believe that he will find posterity solely for his ideas, though he has dissected the political, social, and psycho(patho)logical ambiguities of the West with more imagination than we deserve, and with more acuity than any other English novelist. I believe that we will come to value his consummate control of language, rather than his cathexis of car-crashes, or his ironic praise of shopping malls and airports as secular cathedrals. When automobiles and suburbs and all the tawdry grey concrete sprawl of the 20th and 21st centuries are forgotten, we will still read Ballard for his translucent, crystalline prose.

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ ‘Le passé composé de J. G. Ballard’: JGB on Empire of the Sun
+ ‘Content in their little prisons’: J.G. Ballard on ‘The Towers’
+ ‘Violence without end’: An Interview with J.G. Ballard
+ ‘I really would not want to fuck George W. Bush!’: A Conversation with J.G. Ballard
+ ‘Der Visionär des Phantastischen’: An Interview with J.G. Ballard
+ ‘It would be a mistake to write about the future’: J.G. Ballard in Conversation with Jörg Krichbaum and Rein A. Zondergeld
+ Munich Round-Up: Interview with J.G. Ballard
+ ‘You are Hochhaus!’: Ballard in Berlin



DOMINIKA ORAMUS, ACADEMIC

For many years now in Poland J.G. Ballard has been considered one of the most important contemporary British writers. It is significant that his texts started to be translated and published in this country in the days of communism, well before the world-wide success of Empire of the Sun. His early stories were published in science fiction magazines, and he made his name as an author of complex and beautiful studies of inner space. His texts that were translated into Polish in the late 1970s and early 1980s drew their inspiration from surrealism, and were full of dense similes and allusions to visual art. The first of his books to be published in Poland, a short story collection prepared by his translators and entitled Ogród czasu (“Garden of Time”), was very well received. For Polish readers Ballard became synonymous with the literary avant-garde and psychoanalysis-inspired phantasmagorias. He was also recognized as a writer for having elevated the disaster story tradition to the level of great art. When Empire of the Sun (both the novel and the movie) appeared, readers and the critics considered this war epic to reveal the “sources” of Ballard’s predilection for catastrophes.

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the “iron curtain”, most of his works were translated into Polish and his position as a writer of contemporary classics was established for good. Yet he was primarily considered a war novelist and an autobiographical writer, an opinion which is much too narrow. Only in recent years – following David Cronenberg’s film version of Crash, and with growing interest in Jean Baudrillard’s theories in Polish Academia — were Ballard’s other texts re-read and re-considered. The first studies of Ballard’s oeuvre have now been published and he is very popular today with both undergraduate and postgraduate students interested in mediascape and the culture of simulacra. J.G. Ballard, together with Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, are the most important English-language science fiction writers of the twentieth century.

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ Grave New World: Introduction



RICK POYNOR, AUTHOR & CULTURAL CRITIC

Like so many other Ballard admirers, I found him as a teenager. The Disaster Area came first and then, two or three volumes later, The Atrocity Exhibition, a book rigged for maximum mental havoc, like a stainless steel mind trap. I was obsessed with the surrealists then (still am) and here was a novelist citing Ernst’s Robing of the Bride, Tanguy’s Indefinite Divisibility, Dalí’s Impressions of Africa, as though the reader would, naturally enough, know these pictures already. The library hardback had a bizarre Dalí drawer-woman on the cover. I was half visual, half literary, torn between wanting to make images myself and wanting to write, and Ballard was the perfect author, a writer who loved art and wanted to be an artist, a hypnotic stylist who endlessly reverted to a private lexicon of visual themes, reworking them exactly like a painter.

No other contemporary writer has meant as much to me. Books by other novelists might excite for a while only to fade in time, but Ballard’s routines and rhythms, his terminal visions, pitched camp in my head and never moved on. It wasn’t just the luminescence of the writing; it was the example of the man: The violently productive imagination able to operate in the most ordinary domestic setting, transcribing the unthinkable in longhand, while taking care of the kids. The self-exile in suburbia that revealed, more than anything, his unwavering seriousness of purpose. The politely contemptuous distance he maintained from the careerism and managerialism that now dominate the arts. The rejection of honours bestowed by an outmoded system he declined to support. The likeable, almost garrulous good humour that underpinned the lethal accuracy of the social observations, psychological insights and provocations that he spun out to interviewers with effortless wit and style. The way he subverted his own educated virtues of reason, self-control and civic-mindedness with a readiness to pursue an idea to the outer limits, however alarming or offensive, and revel in it: a surrealist to the end. Above all, though, it was his ability to paint the mind’s canvas with ineluctable images of strangeness, disturbance and wonder, his world becoming ours.

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ Collapsing Bulkheads: The Covers of Crash



DAVID PRINGLE, WRITER/EDITOR & JGB ARCHIVIST

I interviewed Jim Ballard seven times, each occasion involving a visit to his house in Shepperton, over a period of 21 years, from 1975 to 1996. He was always most welcoming, very affable, and perfectly happy to give hours of his time. He loved talking, I think.

When I and a bunch of other people started Interzone magazine in 1982 he was very supportive — he promptly took out a subscription, and agreed to write us a story (“Memories of the Space Age”). He always renewed his subscription, for the next 22 years, and never failed to write an encouraging note to me on his renewal slip. He was a great supporter of the magazine all round, and gave us a couple of very nice quotes which we used in our publicity. Whenever I pestered him for permission to reprint something of his from an obscure source (“What I Believe,” “Project for a Glossary of the 20th Century,” etc) he always said “yes” and never asked for payment — although of course we did pay him for the original stories he wrote for us.

He was a kindly, generous man — which perhaps not many people realize fully.

I also met him on a number of occasions at publishers’ parties and other events in London. Most memorable, for me, were the launch parties Gollancz gave for Empire of the Sun in 1984, and for The Day of Creation in 1987. The guest-lists of those parties were pretty amazing, and, along with Ballard, I met a host of people there from Kingsley Amis to Kathy Acker. So many gone now — Angela Carter too.

I also met Jim Ballard’s partner Claire Walsh at some of those functions, and at this difficult time I think we should remember her especially: she must have had a nigh-unendurable few months.

It’s a devastating fact that he has gone. I’m surprised the world hasn’t blinked out of existence — like the tree that falls in the forest, how can it carry on without him to observe it (sardonically, of course)?

— David Pringle (writing on Day One of the Post-Ballard Era — a bleaker age)



SIMON SELLARS, WRITER/EDITOR, PUBLISHER BALLARDIAN.COM (This is the full version of a tribute written for the Evening Standard)

J.G. Ballard taught me about hyperreality long before Baudrillard — what is the motorway system in Crash if not the ultimate simulacrum? He taught me how to be ‘punk’, and of the jouissance of well-bred anarchy way before the Pistols — ‘I want to fuck Ronald Reagan’, he wrote, and so did I (I didn’t take him literally). He explained to me the implications of our wraparound media landscape with more daring and less sentimentality than McLuhan — The Atrocity Exhibition remains The Anarchist Cookbook for making dirty bombs in the mind. He demonstrated semiotics and the veiled reality of advertising to me with more verve than even Barthes — look to ‘The Subliminal Man’ for the purest explication. He opened my eyes to our apocalyptic surveillance/reality TV culture with more humour than Virilio — most explosively in ‘The Intensive Care Unit’, the darkest energy at the heart of the sun. He taught me that architecture, if done badly, is not just a machine for living in, it’s a cell block locked up in our connivance — High-Rise is the manifesto for breaking free.

Then he taught me to love the circular boredom of motorways — strength through repetition, a holistic recycling of memory that forms the model for a total program of resistance to capitalism…

…to love/fear malls, gated communities, feeder roads, micro-societies — anywhere that slips between the gaps, with the ambivalent emotion forever playing on the borderzones, crucial to keeping the mind free and agile.

He gave me a philosophy and a worldview that has sustained the darkest times, both internal and external…

…by teaching me to believe in myself and my addled imagination: always preserving the sovereignty of inner space, infinitely more preferable to the governances of madmen.

Thank you, JGB.

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ Index of Simon Sellars’s posts



SUPERVERT, PUBLISHER OF BURROUGHS SITE REALITY STUDIO

Given the “false,” “alternate,” and “conceptual” deaths envisioned in his most experimental work, The Atrocity Exhibition, it is difficult to accept the banality of J.G. Ballard’s demise. Biographically, it would have been satisfying to contemplate an alternate Ballard killed in the automobile accident he suffered two weeks after completing the text of Crash. “If I had died,” wrote Ballard in his memoir Miracles of Life, “the accident might well have been judged deliberate, at least on the unconscious level.” Instead, Ballard succumbed to prostate cancer — a sort of kick in the nuts for the writer who, imagining “sexual stimulation by newsreel atrocity films,” blithely described how the films were “shown to both disturbed children and terminal cancer patients with useful results.” Did he remember writing that on the day he received his diagnosis?

Whether Ballard is remembered as a novelist, a visionary, a stylist, or a philosopher (the “sage of Shepperton”), one thing is certain: his anatomist’s gaze was scalpel sharp. Ballard remained lucid even in the difficult art of self-analysis. He recognized, for example, that his era had drastically transformed the role of the writer. “The balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly,” he wrote in the introduction to a French edition of Crash. “We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind… We live inside an enormous novel.” For William Burroughs, the antidote was to “cut word lines.” For Ballard, “the fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.” How so? “He offers the reader the contents of his own head, a set of options and imaginative alternatives.”

Sadly, to contemplate Ballard’s death is to realize that the “options and imaginative alternatives” disappear with him. What new role would he have envisioned for the writer in a world where everyone seems to write — or at least to blog, comment, tweet, and send “text messages?” Would he have offered up a startling insight in interview? Composed one of his brilliant conceptual efforts? One imagines a short story with a title something like “Deleting the Facebook Account of the Last Writer in the World.” The protagonist, named Jim, decides that, in an age in which everybody “writes,” the true writer is he who erases (in much the same spirit as Robert Rauschenberg once created an artwork by erasing a Willem de Kooning drawing). He tries to delete every trace he ever left on the internet. He hunts down the subscribers of Ambit in order to torch their houses and thereby rid the world of every printed magazine containing his name…

But ultimately he discovers that there is one account, such as a Facebook profile, that he cannot delete. It’s bureaucracy. We’ve all run up against such inane dilemmas. “What do you mean I can’t delete myself?” But then, on another level, it’s parable. Ballard may be dead, but we refuse to grant him permission to delete the account he created with literature.



V. VALE, WRITER & FOUNDER OF RE/SEARCH PUBLICATIONS


I particularly hate it when “rebels” die — there are already so few of them/us. Sometimes it seems like virtually everyone you meet these days in the world is a slave to the profit motive/capitalist imperative: “What’s the meaning of life?” “To make money!” J.G. Ballard, and another of my relatively recently deceased role models, W.S. Burroughs, both refused to prostitute their writing, and they both refused to shmooze and “network” merely to further their “careers.” Both had a hatred of bourgeois hypocrisy and phony politeness, while at the same time being deeply polite and courteous, almost to a fault …

But for now, let us think of ways to publicly mourn one of the greatest thinkers and poets of the past century. By some irony, “The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard” is reportedly soon to be published in the United States, complete with two additional stories not included in the U.K. edition. Short stories, more than novels, may appropriately suit the trend of the increasingly shorter attention span of the human populace, who demand more flash ads, tiny videos and music quotations as they read their two-minute, two-page articles on the Internet. I suggest that for the next month (or year), readers shut out everything else and read ONLY J.G. Ballard novels, short stories, essays, interviews and reviews. Your mind, language, and outlook are guaranteed to be permanently altered…

“Death always presents the face of surprised recognition,” wrote William S. Burroughs. He also advised all of us to “Stay out of hospitals,” and “Avoid Doctors.” Well, even though I had been concerned about J.G. Ballard’s health after hearing two years ago that he had been diagnosed with “advanced” prostate cancer, I still felt a kind of unthinking complacency mixed with my concern: “Almost every humane male has prostate cancer when he dies; it acts very slowly and can take decades to kill a man.” To be honest, having seen him recently in October 2008, I really didn’t think he would die THIS SOON. And when I found out he had died — I had arrived home from a 9-hour bus trip today to hear the news on our answering machine — well, my first thought was, “There’s no thinker left alive that I can totally trust. They’re all dead.”

For the past two or more years Ballard had been undergoing state-of-the-art, high-tech treatment from a young doctor who reportedly was trying every new medical breakthrough remedy or procedure which promised “hope” for Ballard’s condition. Recently, however, Ballard had been rushed to a hospital, and after sustained care there had returned to the home to his longtime (40-plus years) companion, Claire Walsh. The latest word was that he had recently required around-the-clock care by visiting professional nurses, which sounded somewhat alarming. Still, I maintained calm. Now I wish I had tried to telephone him and talk one last time, even if just for a minute. I think I expected Ballard to live at least as long as Burroughs, who reached the age of 83, even after having been “a junkie” for years of his life. By a strange logic, I felt that since Ballard hadn’t been a junkie, he should live even longer than 83. Well, I was wrong. And now the world will miss his unique, witty, and sometimes acerbic commentaries on itself. We miss him and are grateful for his dark sense of humor and generous output.


..:: More Ballardosphere tributes:
+ Part 1: Ben Noys, Chris Nakashima-Brown & Mark Dery
+ Part 2: Michael Moorcock
+ Part 4: Jeannette Baxter, Mike Bonsall, Mark Fisher, Owen Hatherley, Mike Holliday and Nina Power

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4 Responses »

  1. Oh, lovely stuff from you all. I wish I could write as well of how Ballard reached me personally. Bravo — Ballardianism is not dead!

  2. A lovely lovely man, whose work , thoughts and dreams will live on forever .
    On Friday night I will take out in to my garden a large double Black Label Scotch ,I’ll then raise a toast in the sky to all those passing “Sputniks” and thank this ,man for sharing his thoughts

    To a Soul Serenader
    Goodbye

  3. Dan, thanks for saying that. I agree — his art is in his relentless technique, his unique style… JG could rewrite a recipe for boiling water and make it ballardian.

  4. The man is dead but his ideas and books will continue to inspire; we will be discussing how forward thinking he was for years to come.

    I feel a sense of great loss.

    Goodbye Jim

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