Ir al contenido principal

Tragedies Marking J.G. Ballard's Life

James Graham Ballard was born on 15 November 1930 in Shanghai, China, the son of James Ballard (1901–1966), managing director of the China Printing and Finishing Company (a subsidiary of the Manchester-based Calico Printers Association), and his wife, Edna, née Johnstone (1905–1998). He had a younger sister, Margaret (b. 1937). Known as Jamie as a child, later as Jim, Ballard was brought up in a mock-Tudor house at 31 Amherst Avenue (now 508 Panyu Lu, with its former front entrance off Xinhua Road) and went to the Cathedral School in Shanghai.

Ballard was eleven when the Japanese army occupied the Shanghai International Settlement, and twelve when he and his family were interned at the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre, Japanese prison camp. He drew on the experience for the semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), , which Steven Spielberg made into a film in 1987, Ballard’s protagonist, Jim, who is separated from his parents at the outbreak of World War II, spends three years in a Japanese prison camp. There the boy’s contacts to his old world (already a bizarre amalgam of Chinese environment overlaid with more typically European lifestyles) occur through magazines and the warplanes the United States sends to the Far East. In a touching scene, Jim clips out the photograph of a couple from an advertisement in Life magazine because of its likeness to his parents. It is not difficult to see how Ballard’s fiction came to be obsessed with the icons of America and why it centered on war, disaster, and imprisonment.

Ballard said in interviews—of which he gave many: they were his favoured form of self-mythologizing—that he didn't think of the two years he spent in the camp, and the events surrounding his and his family's internment, until years later when he began work on Empire of the Sun. Ballard's attitude towards his time in the camp remained profoundly ambivalent until his death. In a late conversation he spoke of how:
The Japanese guards at the camp had a horrible habit of getting a rickshaw boy to pull them back to the camp from Shanghai—which was six or seven miles—and then, if he protested, they'd beat him up, smash up his rickshaw—which was his only means of making a living—and finally kill him. I remember wondering why my parents and the other adults didn't intervene—but they couldn't. There would've been terrible and immediate reprisals. No food for weeks—and worse. (‘Commander of the M25’, GQ Magazine, 2006)
The camp was liberated after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Later the same year Ballard and his mother and sister moved to England, near Plymouth. His mother and sister subsequently returned to Shanghai, leaving Ballard to attend boarding school, then university, while spending holidays with his grandparents. Ballard's father remained in China until a year after the revolution.
Ballard was sent to the Leys School, Cambridge, from where he went to King's College, Cambridge, to study medicine to become a Psychiatrist. During this time he wrote extensively inspired by psychoanalysts and painters. In 1951, which was his second year at King’s College he wrote his first short story titled ‘The Violent Noon’. It got published in the newspaper magazine ‘Varsity’ and also won a competition.

On winning a short story competition, moved to study English at Queen Mary, University of London. Having left without completing his degree, he worked briefly as a copywriter for an advertising agency and as an encyclopaedia salesman before joining the RAF, where he underwent pilot training in Canada. Much of his time in the RAF was spent in Moose Jaw, Canada, where he discovered science fiction through reading American magazines.
Back in England, he worked as a science editor and on 26 September 1955, already describing himself on the marriage certificate as a ‘writer’, Ballard married (Helen) Mary Nance Matthews (1930–1964), daughter of John Arthur Jefferies Matthews. They had a son, Jim (b. 1956), and two daughters, Fay (b. 1957) and Bea (b. 1959). In 1959 the family moved to a semi-detached house in Charlton Road, Shepperton, where Ballard would remain for the next fifty years.
1964 was a year of grief for Ballard: while on a Spanish holiday in September 1964 Ballard's young wife died suddenly of pneumonia. After driving the children back to England, Ballard—although family and friends initially tried to dissuade him from such an unusual course of action for the time—committed himself to bringing them up alone. He later said of this aspect of his life:
Some fathers make good mothers and I hope I was one of them, though most of the women who know me would say that I made a very slatternly mother … too often to be found with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other—in short, the kind of mother … of whom the social services deeply disapprove. (Miracles of Life, 227)

But his daughter Bea later described the home as ‘a very happy nest—there was a sense of warm chaos that was hugely liberating’ (Sunday Times, 26 April 2009).

The truth about this may never be known. Ballard's mental state during these years—if the fiction he produced is anything to go by—was certainly very dark. Later he spoke of how his young wife's death had come as a shattering blow, convincing him that there was not even a residuum of providence in the universe. His drinking was also, self-confessedly, prodigious: starting with whisky, the first glass added to a cup of tea at 9 a.m., shortly after the children had been deposited at school, subsequent ones tippled slowly throughout the writing day. At one point Ballard lost his driving licence, but such was his inertial state that he did not leave the environs of Shepperton for an entire year, preferring to walk everywhere.
I remember my mother dying, quite vividly, and afterwards sitting in the car – a big old Armstrong Siddeley I think – and I was in the passenger seat and Daddy just cried and cried. After that, we moved forward – that was it." Fay Ballard, daughter of JG Ballard, is describing what happened when her mother, Mary, died of pneumonia, aged 34, on a family holiday in Alicante, Spain. After the burial, her father drove Fay, her sister, Bea, and brother, Jim, home to England. Fay was seven years old.
She recalls a doctor visiting their holiday apartment and her mother's fight to breathe with the aid of an oxygen cylinder; and, finally, her father emerging from the bedroom, holding his children tightly and saying, "She's dead."

"My father was the most wonderful, loving, brilliant father," she says, "but we never talked about our mother. Not once. We couldn't discuss her with the wider family either. I never discussed her with Bea or Jim. I felt very awkward if her name ever came up. I buried the trauma deep inside of me."
His other daughter Bea once said:
My father had two extreme experiences in his life – his internment as a young child in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, where he saw horrible cruelty , and the terrible tragedy of my mother’s sudden death. He knew how difficult life could be, but he showed courage and gave us a loving, happy and secure environment. He didn’t fall apart, as is suggested, and he was a brilliant example to me when my husband died and later when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. He was a great survivor, and so am I.”
But before all that had happened, they had a few happy years together as a family. In 1956 Ballard's first short story, “Escapement”, was published in the magazine New Worlds; second “Prima Belladonna” to Science Fantasy. His first novel ‘The Wind from Nowhere’ came out in 1962 (which he later omitted from lists of his works ) and thus this became the means for his financial support from then onwards. The same year ‘The Drowned World’ got published, launching Ballard as a key figure in the ‘New Wave’ movement.

For a long time he was dismissed as a lowly science fiction writer, and of a pessimistic dystopian kind that was far distant from the shiny futurism and expansive space operas of Flash Gordon or Star Wars. In the 1960s Ballard was associated with the British avant garde ‘New Wave’ grouping that rejected outer space for the investigation of ‘inner space’. He evoked landscapes in the aftermath of global disasters as the subjective dream-worlds of the haunted central characters.
In the 60s he word rate remained as prodigious as the alcohol consumption, and if anything Ballard was still more prolific after Mary's death. In 1965 Ballard met Martin Bax and became the prose editor of Ambit magazine. They collaborated on a number of projects, including a competition for poetry composed under the influence of drugs, a series of abstract/spoof advertisements that he tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade the Arts Council to fund and a show in which scientific papers were read aloud, accompanied by a striptease act.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) became, like Burroughs's Naked Lunch, the object of censure: in this case by its American publisher, Nelson Doubleday, who, on reading through some of its contents, ordered the destruction of the original print run.
In 1970 Ballard staged an exhibition at the New Arts Laboratory in London entitled ‘Crashed Cars’, which was just that. The exhibition garnered outraged criticism, but this paled in comparison with the content of its novel-form sequel, Crash (1973), in which Ballard's mounting preoccupation with the dysfunctional relationship between humans and technology reached a sort of orgasmic crescendo in a paean to the delirious psychosexuality of celebrity car crashes. With fitting punctuation, Ballard himself survived a serious car crash shortly after completing the novel. While excoriated by some, others—such as the philosopher Jean Baudrillard—praised Crash as the first great novel of the universe of simulation. It was filmed in 1996 by David Cronenberg, and even twenty-three years after the novel's publication this adaptation was banned by Westminster council, while the Daily Mail campaigned to have it banned nationwide.

It wasn't until the publication of Empire of the Sun (1984) that Ballard was hailed wholeheartedly by the avatars of the literary mainstream. Loosely based on his experiences at Lunghua internment camp, the novel was awarded both the Guardian fiction prize and the James Tait Black memorial prize, and was filmed in 1987 by Steven Spielberg. Ballard estimated that he made £500,000 in royalties from the book.
After this mainstream success, his work became valued as a significant record of successive post-war transformations and their traumatic effect on the Western psyche. His fiction has had a huge impact on other writers (as Martin Amis, Will Self, William Gibson and Hari Kunzru have testified), and his commentary on modern life was given ample space in newspapers.
Ballard's partner for the last forty years of his life was the journalist Claire Walsh (1941–2014). He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in June 2006. He lived to write and see published his memoir, Miracles of Life (the title referring to his three children). He spent the last year of his life at Claire Walsh's home at 166 Goldhawk Road, Shepherd's Bush, London, and died there on 19 April 2009. His remains were cremated. He was survived by Claire and his children.

In his first biography, Baxter, the author accused him of having a violent and abusive relationship with Ballard's long-term partner, Claire Walsh, and affairs with many women, including Emma Tennant. Hilariously, he describes Ms Tennant as "a novelist manqué and journalist for magazines such as Vogue", when in fact she was a recognized British novelist. That sensationalism was widely criticized not only by Ballards family and friends, but also by many people from the publishing industry who never met them.