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Venus Smiled: Tribute to Claire Walsh

Author: • Oct 21st, 2014 •

Category: advertising, Ambit magazine, architecture, Barcelona, biography, Claire Churchill, features, invisible literature, Lead Story, Michael Moorcock, New Worlds, visual art, Will Self

claire churchill

Claire Walsh at the J.G. Ballard Memorial Service, London, 2009. Photo: Rick McGrath.

Two weeks ago, Claire Walsh died after battling cancer. Walsh was an editor and literary publicist, and J.G. Ballard’s ‘long-time companion’ (according to The Guardian’s obituary), although in interviews Ballard referred to her almost exclusively as his ‘girlfriend’ from their first meeting in the late 60s until his death in 2009.

I met Claire once, in Barcelona in 2008. We were both guests of the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB), which hosted Jordi Costa’s amazing exhibition, J.G. Ballard: Autopsy of the New Millennium. At lunch one day, Claire introduced herself to me and I was thrilled. I already considered her a legendary figure based on her mysterious appearance in Ballard’s ‘conceptual advertising’ artworks from the 60s. To my delight, Claire told me she loved ballardian.com, that she had introduced the site to JGB, and that he liked it, too.

The next day, after I appeared on a panel to talk about Ballard with Jordi, Bruce Sterling and V. Vale, I wandered off into the crowd. Two days later, in my hotel room, I checked email on my laptop. Rain poured down outside and the wi-fi connection was terrible, dropping in and out. Emails wouldn’t download and websites were half formed, and it felt like Sisyphus tuning a cheap radio during a severe electrical storm. Finally, an email from Claire drifted in; she’d asked someone from the exhibition for my address. To my regret, she said she looked for me after the panel to invite me to dinner with her, some other exhibition guests and Bea, JGB’s daughter, but I was nowhere to be found.

I never met her again, although after my return to Australia, we continued to correspond via email, and Claie continued to encourage my research into Ballard’s work while offering her own unique insights into his cultural influence. Then at some point during the last couple of years, our correspondence stopped; I learnt from others of her illness. Ever since I received that initial email in that Barcelona hotel, I could never shake the association between Claire and stormy weather. Sometimes her signal was strong, sometimes it ebbed, then it weakened until it was gone.

I remember Claire’s warm smile, her extremely sharp intellect and her generosity. The advice and help she gave to me with my research was also extended to others working in the Ballardosphere.

I remember the first time I saw her, years ago, in Ballard’s radical ‘advertisements’ reprinted in Vale’s Ballard-dedicated RE/Search book. I recall the first time I saw that fantastic, lovely smile in one ad (‘Homage to Claire Churchill‘), and her unearthly, yet elegant pose in another (‘Venus Smiles‘).

Detail: ‘Homage to Claire Churchill’ (left) and ‘Venus Smiles’ (right).

I remember that bizarre juxtaposition with her physicality and Ballard’s weird, clipped incantations:

‘At what point does the plane of intersection of these eyes generate a valid image of the simulated auto-disaster?’ (‘Homage to Claire Churchill’).

‘He worked endlessly at the photographs: left breasts, the grimaces of filling station personnel, wound areas, catalogues of Japanese erotic films’ (‘Venus Smiles’).

Who was Claire Churchill? The text gave no clues, made her seem as distant (despite that smile) as she was attractive.

Claire was attuned to Ballard’s work and its themes and obsessions. Here, she eloquently explains Ballard’s fascination with Le Corbusier, modernist architecture and the Heathrow Hilton. ‘Ballardian Architecture: Inner and Outer Space‘, RA Architecture Programme, London, Saturday 15 May 2010.

Later, I learnt she was better known as Claire Walsh; ‘Churchill’ was her maiden name. I also began to understand what she meant to Ballard. Claire’s intellect matched his and ushered him into new territories. An early adopter of the internet, she introduced Ballard to a panoply of online psychodramas (he, famously, never used the net), the after effects of which found their way into the fabric of his later novels. As her obituary states, ‘It was Claire who discovered the French technology park Sophia Antipolis, south-west of Nice, and its substantial expat community; she and Ballard then visited the gated community on one of their regular holidays to the south of France. This became the basis of his late tetralogy of novels, beginning with Super-Cannes [sic].’

To illustrate their symbiotic relationship, I’ve collected quotes from Ballard and Claire and from articles published on The Ballardian and beyond.

Vale, Claire. And thank you.

Claire Walsh: 1941–2014.


claire walsh

Jim and Claire, Paris, 1985. They were visiting for the launch of the French translation of Empire of the Sun. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Rush. Image via.

Claire Walsh, who has died of cancer aged 73, was a well-known figure in the London literary and artistic world of the 1960s and 70s. She was the long-time companion of the writer JG Ballard, and a valuable support throughout much of his writing life. According to Jenny, her daughter from a previous relationship: “[Ballard] explored ideas long before he got to the plot for a novel or short story, and my mother was the ideal intellectual sounding board to tease out his thoughts. She was voraciously curious with a gift for research; this fed Jimmy’s imagination.”

… the last time I visited her at home, she was propped up in bed, surrounded by books and newspapers, with both radio and laptop on, still acting as a lightning conductor for the sort of information that might once have been incorporated into Ballard’s oeuvre.

Will Self, ‘Claire Walsh obituary‘, The Guardian, Wednesday 15 October 2014.

homage to claire

J.G. Ballard, ‘Homage to Claire Churchill’, Ambit, #32, Summer 1967.
Text: “Homage to Claire Churchill, Abraham Zapruder and Ralph Nader. At what point does the plane of intersection of these eyes generate a valid image of the simulated auto-disaster, the alternate deaths of Dealey Plaza and the Mekong Delta. The first of a series advertising: (1) Claire Churchill; (2) The angle between two walls; (3) A neural interval; (4) The left axillary fossa of Princess Margaret; (5) The transliterated pudenda of Ralph Nader. A J.G. BALLARD PRODUCTION.”

Back in the late 60s I produced a series of advertisements which I placed in various publications (Ambit, New Worlds, Ark and various continental alternative magazines), doing the art work myself and arranging for the blockmaking, and then delivering the block to the particular journal just as would a commercial advertiser. Of course I was advertising my own conceptual ideas, but I wanted to do so within the formal circumstances of classic commercial advertising – I wanted ads that would look in place in Vogue, Paris Match, Newsweek, etc. To maintain the integrity of the project I paid the commercial rate for the page, even in the case of Ambit, of which I was and still am Prose Editor. I would liked to have branched out into Vogue and Newsweek, but cost alone stopped me…

Claire Churchill (by the way, the subject of the first ad, was my then girlfriend, and still is) is also the subject of the fifth ad, which shows her, after swimming in the sea off Brighton, sitting naked in the front seat of my car covered with thousands of specks of seaweed – so outraged was she by my sneak photography that she stole my only copy of the ad, but she has agreed in the interests of Art and Literature to have it published.

From Ballard’s notes on his five advertiser’s announcements. Published in RE/Search 8/9: J.G. Ballard, editors V. Vale and Andrea Juno, August 1984.

[‘Homage to Claire Churchill’] seems to have roots in the chapter entitled ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’… with Ballard’s advertisement almost an extension of that story’s section, ‘The Enormous Face’, with Ms Churchill replacing Elizabeth Taylor as the object of Ballard’s ‘private and public fantasy’ — this ad supplying the ‘public’ part. One can barely miss the concept at work here: ‘In some way Travis would attempt to relate his wife’s body, with its familiar geometry, to that of the film actress, quantifying their identities to the point where they became fused with the elements of time and landscape.’ Substitute Ballard for Travis, and Ms Churchill for the actress, and it appears this is a poster disguised as an advertisement that is really a love letter.

The emphasis on the eyes, and the rhetorical question that follows (‘At what point does the plane of intersection of these eyes generate a valid image of the simulated auto-disaster, the alternate deaths of Dealey Plaza and the Mekong Delta’) admits Ms Churchill to the conceptual world where she provides ‘a set of operating formulae’ for Ballard’s ‘passage through consciousness’. But just what might these operating formulae be? And is there anything to be made from the fact ‘The Death Module’ was renamed ‘Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown’ based on a suggestion by Ms Churchill?

Rick McGrath, ‘What exactly is he trying to sell?: J.G. Ballard’s Adventures in Advertising‘, Ballardian, 4 May, 2009.

venus smiles

J.G. Ballard, ‘Venus Smiles’, Ambit, #46, Winter 1970/1971.
Text: “He worked endlessly at the photographs: left breasts, the grimaces of filling station personnel, wound areas, catalogues of Japanese erotic films. By contrast their own relationship was marked by an almost seraphic tenderness, transits of touch and feeling as serene as the movements of a dune. A J.G. BALLARD PRODUCTION.”

The final ad, “Venus Smiles,” is another homage, of sorts, to Claire Walsh, a candid snap taken by Ballard after she emerged from a swim in the sea speckled with seaweed, as he later revealed. This information (Ballard was clearly besotted) normalizes an image that could easily seem abject in atmosphere. In each case, Ballard’s compressed texts add layers of complication to already ambiguous pictures.

Rick Poynor, ‘The Conceptual Advertising of J.G. Ballard‘, Design Observer, 17 April 2014.

I was so impressed by Claire’s beauty that I made her the centrepiece of two of my ‘advertisements’, which were published in Ambit, Ark and elsewhere in the late 1960s. I was advertising abstract notions largely taken from The Atrocity Exhibition… I reasoned that most novels could dispense with almost all their text and reduce themselves to a single evocative slogan. I outlined my proposal in an application to the Arts Council, but they rather solemnly refused to award me a grant, on the surprising grounds that my application was frivolous. This disappointed me, as I was completely serious, and the Arts Council awarded tens of thousands of pounds to fund activities that, unconsciously or not, were clearly jokes — Ambit itself could fall into that category, along with the London Magazine, the New Review and countless poetry magazines and little presses.

… Still, what the Arts Council saw as a prank at least put Claire’s beautiful face into the Evening Standard.

Ballard, Miracles of Life, 2008.

He was always very interested in the visual arts and he did things that now you take for granted, almost, in conceptual art – but were completely unknown then. He took out advertisements in literary magazines, and he tried to put an advertisement in the Sunday Times. But this was long before Dan Graham did it. They advertised Princess Margaret’s armpit, an angle between two walls, me — my face — and all sorts of things, and they were absolutely abstract. Quite extraordinary.

Claire Walsh, ‘JG Ballard discusses Millennium People with Philip Dodd‘, Night Waves, BBC Radio 3, October, 2003.

love claire court

Love: A Print-Out for Claire Churchill, Ambit, #37, Autumn 1968.

[Ballard’s] concrete poem ‘Love: A Print-out…’ is explicitly personalised — it’s ‘for Claire Churchill’. It deals with the everyday facets of sex and love — ‘hair’, ‘fuck’, ‘girl’, ‘suck’… this is sexuality, or the perception of the female by a male, on the level of everyday life.

Mike Holliday, ‘Three levels of reality: J.G. Ballard’s Court Circular‘, Ballardian, 11 January , 2009.

kindness US 1st

I’m afraid all the characters are completely made up. There are no real prototypes of the women or the other characters. Except, of course, my wife and the children. And my girlfriend Claire Walsh (née Churchill) who becomes Cleo Churchill. I hope to convey my affection for her.

Ballard interviewed by Paul Pickering (regarding Ballard’s novel The Kindness of Women and its semi-autobiographical elements), Sunday Times, 22 September 1991.

Cleo stood in front of the camera, using the screen as a mirror as she checked the wine stains on the sleeves of her dress. The electronic colours had separated slightly, and reminded me of my acid vision when I had seen Cleo robed in a train of light as she strolled through the trees beside the river. My Moreau princess, who turned the starlings into peacocks and calmed the air with her graceful hands. I wanted to invite her to Shepperton again, drawn by her intelligence and forthright mind.

… I drew her beside me, kissing her thighs and hips. With her firm hands she pressed my shoulders to the pillows and knelt astride me, long hair falling across my chest. I lay back, happy to share Cleo with the mirrors, but she stretched Out and kicked the wardrobe door with her heel. The house of glass vanished into the cupboard, a collapsing concertina of light. ‘Just you and me, Jim . . . I think that’s all we can manage now…’

… I held Cleo tightly, trying to fuse the scent of her body into my skin. One day we would find the key to the mirror, and enter it together.

Ballard, The Kindness of Women, 1991.

Since Claire lives on the Net, whenever I’m with her at her home, she’s very keen that I become a kind of “Net person,” too. I’m resisting this to some extent – I mean, you’re talking to a man who writes his novels in longhand! Still, you can’t help but be amazed by the sort of transaction speed – the Internet is like that “Democracy Wall” in Peking ten years ago, where anybody can post up anything. It’s quite extraordinary.

Ballard interviewed by V. Vale in 2003, published in J. G. Ballard: Conversations, RE/Search Publications, 2005.

It seems that the “invisible literature” that he has written about, and which acts as compost for the mind, increasingly comes from the internet. Ballard doesn’t have a PC himself but his girlfriend, he says, supplies him with sites that might interest him: “She is a keen Net surfer, she’s constantly giving me fascinating stuff that she’s printed off. Extraordinary articles. Some really poetic, touching stuff… It lets another dimension into your life.”

Ballard interviewed by Chris Hall, Spike magazine, 1 November 2000.

moorballwalsh

Michael Moorcock, Jim and Claire, September, 2006 (photo courtesy Linda Moorcock).

The most important person I met in the late 1960s was Claire Walsh, who has been my partner, inspiration and life-companion for forty years. We met at a Michael Moorcock party, when Claire was in her early twenties, and I was struck immediately by her beauty and high intelligence… Claire is passionate, principled, argumentative and highly loyal, both to me and to her many friends. She has a wide-ranging mind, utterly free of cant, and has been very generous to my children and grandchildren.

Life with Claire has always been interesting — we have often driven together across half of Europe and never once stopped talking. We share a huge number of interests, in painting and architecture, wine, foreign travel, politics (she is keenly left-wing and impatient with my middle-of-the-roadism), the cinema and, most important of all, good food. For many years we have eaten out twice a week, and Claire is an expert judge of restaurants, frequently finding a superb new place long before the critics discover it. She is a great reader of newspapers and magazines, has completely mastered the internet and is always supplying me with news stories that she knows will appeal to me. She is a great cook, and over the years has educated my palate. She has very gamely put up with my lack of interest in music and the theatre. Above all, she has been a staunch supporter of my writing, and the best friend that I have had.

When I first met Claire I was dazzled by her great beauty, naturally blonde hair and elegant profile… Together we have travelled all over Europe and America, to film festivals and premieres, where she has looked after me and kept up my spirits. At the time we met, Claire was working as the publicity manager for a publisher of art books, and she went onto be publicity manager of Gollancz, Michael Joseph and Allen Lane. Her knowledge of publishing, and many of the devious and likeable personalities involved, has been invaluable.

Looking back, I realise that there is scarcely a city, museum or beach in Europe that I don’t associate with Claire. We have spent thousands of the happiest hours with our children (she has a daughter Jennifer) on beaches and under poolside umbrellas, in hotels and restaurants, walking around cathedrals from Chartres to Rome and Seville. Claire is a speed-reader of guidebooks, and always finds some interesting side chapel, or points out the special symbolism of this or that saint in a Van Eyck. She had a Catholic upbringing, and lived in a flat not far from Westminster Cathedral, whose nave was virtually her childhood playground. Whenever we find ourselves in Victoria she casually points out a stone lion or Peabody building where she and her friends played hide-and-seek.

… And, last but not least, she introduced me to the magic of cats.

Ballard, Miracles of Life.

For Claire Walsh, the manuscripts of Crash [at the British Library] are the highlights (she objected to her name being used in a first draft and Ballard changed it to Catherine). “The feeling of it being written when it was red-hot in his mind,” she says, “and the handwritten changes, I think are absolutely fascinating.”

… Walsh was delighted to find the notebooks, but is glad they are not all here (he destroyed almost of all of them after each novel was published). “Jimmy kept the early thoughts and false starts private. He wanted to keep his magic,” she says. “In between delivering one book and starting another, he used to talk through ideas with me, thinking aloud about where he might go next. Reading the few notebooks in the archive is a moving reminder of this.”

… It’s hardly surprising that Ballard, this least nostalgic of writers, famously interested in “the next five minutes” as he put it, felt ambivalent about an archive. But then, as Walsh says: “Anyone hoping to find ‘the man’ from the archive will be disappointed. That was deliberate. He always covered his tracks.”

Chris Hall, ‘JG Ballard: relics of a red-hot mind‘, The Guardian, Thursday 4 August 2011.

claire 1990

Claire in 1990. Photo from Miracles of Life.

In all of these tributes [after his death], Ballard’s life with Claire Walsh has hardly figured, but it was the thing, you guess, that kept him close to sane, and that, along with his children and grandchildren, gave him purpose. They first met in 1969, five years after Ballard’s wife had died, introduced by Ballard’s closest friend, the writer Michael Moorcock. “I knew it was a blind date,” Walsh recalls, “but Jimmy didn’t.”

To begin with it was electricity. “We were so excited by each other; for a long time in Shepperton, he didn’t like it if I left the room even. After that, in those first years, it was always very up and down, volatile. And then it just happened that little by little we melded into a terrific contentment.”

She was also his muse. As Ballard admitted once, Catherine, the fantasy emerging from the car wrecks of Crash, was entirely based on an idea of Walsh. “She was even originally called Claire in the book,” Walsh recalls. “And had I really been a cross between Mother Teresa and Marilyn Monroe, as the portrait suggested, I might have been keen for that to go ahead. But I persuaded him to change the name in the end. He would use other things, too. I almost drowned once going into the sea after a rock concert wearing a long dress and wellington boots. That cropped up.

… Before I go, I wonder of all the memories, how she imagines she will picture him most often.

Two things, she says. “During the illness he developed a taste for very good vanilla ice cream, and we would sit in bed next to each other and eat the ice cream with mint tea and talk. It was lovely. But mostly I think I will think of us going away. I would always wait for him in the terminal at Heathrow. He liked me to be there first because he would worry. And seeing him arrive with his suitcase, always smiling, ready for anything, that was wonderful.” She imagines the scene. “Jimmy was very special in that way.”

Claire Walsh interviewed by Tim Adams, The Observer, Sunday 26 April 2009.

I would like to thank and pay tribute to Claire Walsh – my father’s partner of over 40 years. Claire knew both the man and the writer intimately, and has an exceptionally sharp appreciation of his work, and of its history. I find her wise counsel of enormous help.

Beatrice Ballard. ‘In memory of Crash, by Beatrice and Fay Ballard‘, 3 July 2014.

claire london 2

Claire at the J.G. Ballard Memorial Service, London, 2009. Photo: Rick McGrath.

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11 Responses »

  1. Behind every great man, there is a great woman. Not that she was ever much in the background in Ballard’s work, her presence no doubt animating many of the strong, imaginative women found on every other page.

    I was unaware she’d died. But it’s important to mark her passing.

  2. Great piece Simon, thanks.

  3. That’s a good tribute piece, Simon. I have a couple of small corrections on dates: the photo of JGB and Claire together was not taken in 1984, but in late April 1985 when they were in France together for the launch of the French translation of Empire of the Sun. The notes you quote from JGB about his five “Advertiser’s Announcements,” which you’ve attributed thus — “J.G. Ballard interviewed by Graeme Revell, 1983, from RE/Search 8/9” — have nothing to do with Revell’s interview and were in fact written directly for Re/Search 8/9, presumably at Vale’s request (section headed “Collages,” beginning page 147), and published in August 1984.

  4. Yikes. Thanks David. I’ll correct when I get a chance.

  5. A wonderful tribute!

  6. As Claire’s brother I have to correct a statement that ‘she had a Catholic upbringing.’ As chance would have it,we were brought up in a dark,damp basement flat in Carlisle Place opposite a Convent for Westminster Cathedral. Our mother took us to the convent primary school because it was ‘just across the road’, Big mistake! We were both picked on for being Protestants,(which we were) ,and having the surname Churchill made matters worse as the irish nuns and school children had no love of the man,despite the war! It was in this dark basement flat that I first met JGB. Claire had brought him in to meet my mother. As chance would have it I was playing a record by Edgar Varese ‘Arcana’. Great blocks of dissonance and rhythm…American new world music. When he came into the room I turned the music down,. But J,G was fascinated,and wanted to hear it again at full volume! This is not the usual line about Jim’s dislike of music!

  7. It’s fascinating to hear your reminiscences, John Churchill. By all means, tell us more. When Claire brought JGB to your mother’s basement flat, were you still living there? Would this have been in the 1960s, soon after they’d met? As for JG’s lack of interest in music, he did perhaps exaggerate it. He had a sneaky liking for opera, especially Puccini, but claimed once that Claire disapproved of his vulgar taste.

  8. Wonderful tribute. Thank you so much. Love your website.

  9. Lovely tribute!

    Re music, in my Paris Review interview Ballard made clear that what he hated was background music, that if music was being played, one should actually listen to it (which he claimed to do at parties to the mystification of others).

    I’d like to know more about Ms. Walsh/Churchill’s actual work as “editor and literary publicist.”

  10. Hi, Tom Frick! A quote for you and John Churchill:

    “My tastes are wide, from Mozart to Satie and Schoenberg. I adore Puccini, whom I have to listen to in secret, since my high minded lady-friend does not regard him as intellectually respectable.”

    (Ballard, fax to Filippo La Porta, who was interviewing him for _Musica Repubblica_, 21 January 2000.)

    JGB’s original faxes can be found in the British Library Ballard archive. So he goes from having a tin ear to “my tastes are wide” — a puzzle!

  11. Great symbiotic relation, – and nice and touching tribute.

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