RIP JG Ballard, Historian of the Future: Interview (2007)
[This is a transcript of an interview that took place at Claire Walsh’s flat on the Goldhawk Road 31st October 2007. A cat plays on the sofa, another under the table. The nominal reason for me being there is the publication of Ballard’s memoir Miracles of Life. I am to write a piece for Waterstones Books Quarterly.]
JGB: A beautiful animal. British blue.
HK: I heard that when you declined requests to speak or be interviewed, you used to send pictures of your cat.
JGB: Did I do that? Maybe. Claire gave me lots of photos of her cats, so I suppose I must have used them.
HK: It was seen as very significant by the person I spoke to.
HK: What’s the relationship between Miracles of Life and the two novels based on your early life, Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women. I read those books at the time as if they were quite straightforwardly autobiographical.
JGB: Of course those two books are novels. I never pretended everything in them was literally true. Quite the opposite. They are novels that draw on my life without in any way trying to be a literal account of what I had for breakfast in 1935. At the time Empire of the Sun came out I went to great lengths to point out there were substantial differences between my life and the life of Jim. The obvious one is that my parents were not in the camp. I justified that by saying that in a way it was psychologically truer. There was a sort of estrangement between myself and my parents, just as I say in this new book that there’s an estrangement in any large slum, bidonville whatever you want to call it, cardboard shacks, between teenage boys and their parents for the reasons I set out. Parents have no control of any kind. They can offer no treats. And so on.
HK: They have no stake in society, even if it’s the society of the camp. As a teenage boy you’re just floating around, you’re an outsider.
JGB: Absolutely. In any slum it’s the teenage boys who run wild, who have the greatest freedom. And who have the energy too. Where I got the energy from I don’t know.
HK: The pleasure you mentioned is, I suppose, most surprising to the reader. You relished a lot of your experiences there.
JGB: Yes I did . I think if children - and I was a child – that if children are in the presence of other adults they know they don’t have any fear. There are amazing accounts of children in the Nazi extermination camps who were happily playing cowboys and Indians - if as a child you’re with your parents you feel a sort of security. I think also by leaving my parents out of Empire of the Sun I was trying to mythologize my own younger self and I think in a way leaving Jim on his own in the camp was true to what was going on there. The events in Miracles of Life are drawn as I remember them. It’s not a work of fiction in any way.
HK: What made you want to set this series of reminiscences down now? It seems you’re sort of opening up your box of tricks.
JGB: I hope not - well, yes I probably am.
HK: You’ve resisted interpretations of your work that say it all stems from experiences in Shanghai, but in Miracles of Life you seem to be noticing things like empty swimming pools, things you see as significant to your later work. I was very struck by your description of climbing into the derelict casino with your father - the ruins of a previously highly organised social space which has been suddenly and catastrophically evacuated. The image seems to be a fairly obvious key to understanding your work.
JGB: We’re all shaped by our childhoods.
HK: I’m not saying you can read it off in any simple way.
JGB: We’re all shaped by our childhoods, but if your childhood takes place during war, enemy occupation or for that matter civil war, famine, drought - you can imagine the experiences of a twelve year old boy in New Orleans during the flooding - you’d be marked forever by that, not in a bad way necessarily, but it would be a reference point throughout your future life.
HK: And a reference point in a very particular way - with regard to the casino you write “reality itself was a stage set which can be dismantled at any moment.”
JGB: I think that’s something the war taught me. The adult world always has enormous prestige for a child, parents are respected, their friends are respected, teachers, doctors all the rest of it, and when the adult world is radically undermined even demolished, this has a huge effect on one’s - on the way one sees reality. The fact is that Shanghai was a stage set.
HK: Even before the catastrophe of the war?
JGB: Yes I think it was. There was so much space given over to vast advertising displays, stunts of various kinds - I give several examples in Miracles of Life - one that sticks in my mind is the fifty hunchbacks that the management of the Grand Theatre hired to form an honour guard – Chinese hunchbacks recruited from the backstreets and slums of Shanghai – I can’t remember whether they were dressed up in seventeenth or eighteenth century costumes or whatever. There were all these stunts going on. Shanghai was a vast engine of illusions of various kinds. Venture capitalism going full blast twenty four hours a day. And that sort of city is very easy to switch off, because there’s no fall-back position. If you take away the skywriting aeroplanes and the hunchbacks -
HK: And the generative motor of capital that’s driving it -
JGB: Then there’s nothing left.
HK: It’s very striking throughout your work, this sense of the thinness of the social, and the fragility of convention. To me that makes you strikingly un-English as a writer.
JGB: That’s very sweet of you. I think that’s a huge compliment.
HK: At certain points you mention your dislocation from the notion of Englishness, and that seems to be at the heart of it, for me. One would traditionally think of the English novel as a mining of this infinitely thick layer of social sediment – but for you it can always be swept away at any point, and there’s the skull beneath the skin, the psychopathology that underlies this thin veneer.
HK: So what is your relationship to Englishness? You talk about it in very disparaging terms.
JGB: The England I’m very disparaging about is the one I came to in 1946 which is whatever it is - 60 years ago – and the country has changed enormously. That England was absolutely dominated by its class system. I’d been misled by all those Chums annuals and Boys Own Paper annuals, by Just William books and AA Milne - even Peter Pan – giving the impression that the whole of England was based in Knightsbridge and South Ken, with one or two offshoots like Godalming and St. James’s park, and the confident attitude that went with all of that – it didn’t take more than five minutes to realise this was a huge self-delusion and the people who were being deluded were not outsiders like myself but middle class English who believed that this was the true nature of the realm. They didn’t really accept that in those days 80% of the population was working class, very poorly educated, very poorly housed, very poorly paid, and really being exploited in the most ruthless way - in the way that the Chinese workforce in Shanghai was exploited. I just found it impossible to come to terms with.after the reality of previous years. It just seemed preposterous to maintain this huge body of largely nostalgic illusions about what England was. We hadn’t even got our basic facts right - most people thought we had won the war with a little help, sometimes more of a hindrance, from the Americans and the Russians. In fact that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s no doubt that England changed over the next twenty or thirty years. The consumer society arrived and a post-war Labour government instituted the National Health Service, huge programs of public housing, better education and so on which did change the character of the nation – I don’t know if economics lies at the heart of everything, sometimes I think it does, but as the working class became better paid, they became freer.
HK: Your work returns again and again to this middle class social world and it seems to hover between a kind of wish to sweep away this ridiculous edifice and show what lies beneath it, all the libidinal desires and a sense that these social conventions are all that’s holding back some sort of deluge of sex and death. Do you have a set moral position with regard to that? Is there something that you see that is valuable in these social conventions, or you just in the business of tearing them down so something else can be put in their place?
JGB The social conventions of?
HK: Of the middle class, the consumerised middle class of the last thirty or forty years.
JGB: I write about middle class people because they’re the people I know. I’ve no experience of working on a factory floor. I’ve no experience of living among really poor people. I’ve never lived on a sink estate. The last fifty years or whatever it is I’ve lived in a quiet suburb, Shepperton. Most of the characters in my fiction are middle class.
HK I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that the fragility of those conventions – you’re writing in the name of some sort of decency, there’s a strong sense of disgust at things like inequality and exploitation running through your work but at the same time there is always rising up from underneath - you quite like opening the vent to let the psychopathology bubble up.
JGB: My thoughts about psychopathology are not specifically related to life in England. They’re related to my feelings about human beings in general.
HK: Are they bound up with class?
JGB. Bound up with class? I don’t think so. I think it’s the nature of the beast. Human beings do have huge reserves of psychopathology which are repressed – thank god – by the forces of Law and Order. By social conventions – some of them self-seeking. I tend to pick middle class characters in my novels because a) they’re the people I know best and b) the middle classes have more discretionary spending power. It’s no accident that so many of the post-war cultural trends like television ownership, video recorder ownership, the transformation of the home into a sort of film studio with all the latest gadgets, it’s no coincidence that this has taken place in the suburbs. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones came from suburbs. People have more money to spend. They can indulge whims. They can play games. I remember years ago, probably about thirty years ago, some British mercenaries were at work for one of the local warlords in the Congo or somewhere and they were put on trial and they were all dressed in sort of chinos and cotton jackets and this was all shown on television. I remember maybe a day later I was walking through Walton on Thames and I saw a whole load of young men with shaven heads wearing these Chino outfits and big military boots and this was the mercenary look which became quite fashionable out in the suburbs, taken straight from the tv screen. I remember there was a little bit of a scandal in the local newspaper when some young men got hold of an American car and painted it to look like an LAPD squad car with shields on the black and white doors and flickering lights. They used to drive around Walton in this and the police stopped them on the grounds that they were impersonating a police vehicle or something, Well I don’t think a big Chevrolet with LAPD on the side is going to remind anyone of a little Ford Mondeo.
HK: Fantasy America in the suburbs - in the British suburbs there’s always been an injection of Americana.
JGB: People have got more money there. They can indulge themselves. So that’s why I’ve tended to set a lot of my fiction in the suburbs. I’m not that interested in class in the English sense of the term, in the sense that it intrigued Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis.
HK: You’re not interested in dissecting fine distinctions in class.
JGB: No. I’m much more interested in what lies inside the animal. I think human beings are rather dangerous and they do have reserves of psychopathic behaviour which they call on at certain times, but there we are.
HK: In Miracles of Life you talk quite a lot about your discovery of psychoanalysis and surrealism and I wonder whether you could say a bit about how that mapped onto what had happened to you previously – it seemed to have the character of a recognition.
JGB: The thing about my wartime experiences, and indeed my whole experience of Shanghai which itself was a war zone really from 1937 onwards, was that it left me when I came to England with a lot of questions - about who are we, what’s the nature of reality, also who am I? I was well aware during the internment years that I was wrapped up in the war in ways that most other people weren’t. Teenage boys are always looking for someone to hero worship. I think I did admire the Japanese for reasons I wouldn’t feel today.
HK: Because they were powerful?
JGB: They were brave. And that’s very important to a twelve year old. The way they defeated the British army, an army three times the strength of theirs at Singapore, the way the sunk the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, which had been sent out without any air cover ‘to teach those little nips a lesson’ - I can hear those voices to this day. I rather looked down on British valour and rather admired the Japanese, but of course as the war moved on I found new heroes to worship, in particular the US airforce, but that was childhood – I was aware at the time that I was more involved with some of the less - some of the more dubious aspects of the war. Your motives become tremendously confused. To some extent I wanted the war to continue, partly because I knew we were safe as long as the Japanese were guarding the camp, and partly because the war released certain feelings that aren’t visible in peacetime, feelings in my own – the war clearly touched my imagination in a way. I needed answers, so to go back to your question, some of those answers seemed to be provided by surrealism and psychoanalysis.
HK: Is there any particular surrealist work that was very important to you at that time
JGB: I remember reading Civilisation and its Discontents. This was when I was at school in England at the age of sixteen or seventeen. It has that wonderful last paragraph where Freud speculates whether having come to terms with the sexual instinct, we would be able to cope with the death instinct. This seemed to me very profound. And the Surrealists of course duplicated in their paintings so many of the scenes I’d seen in Shanghai during the war. War is rather surrealist. You see photos of the blitz in London. Buses on the tops of blocks of flats. Incredible juxtapositions. Also they weren’t conformist. They were revolutionary, really, in spirit, which is something I wanted to see.
HK: you wanted to see a revolution?
JGB: In England, in particular. Yes. In a way it came in the sixties.
HK: It certainly seems you found kindred spirits in the avant garde in the sixties. You talk about meeting Martin Bax and the Ambit people and you write very warmly about Michael Moorcock as well. Would you say you found an intellectual community that hadn’t existed for you before?
JGB: Yes I think I did. Bax of course was a doctor, whereas Moorcock was editing a science fiction magazine, but there was a commonality of interest. Because after all underpinning science fiction is science and in many ways medical science – after astronautics – was the dominant science in SF. Ah, but all that seems so long ago. It is long ago.
HK: Talk to me about SF and the opposition you draw between outer space and inner space.
JGB: As I say in the autobiography I was unusual amongst science fiction writers in not really having read any when I started writing SF in my mid twenties. I’d read Wells, novels and short stories, but not much else. I was very attracted to science fiction because it had huge vitality. Meeting British and American SF writers of the sixties I felt a sort of ferment of ideas and possibilities which I never had meeting mainstream English novelists. All they induced was a kind of overpowering headache and a wish to leave for the South Seas.
HK: Do you still have the same passion for science fiction?
JGB: No because I think it’s changed. I think probably science fiction has come to an end. It’s simply because the world that science fiction envisaged is already here in many respects. We’re not interested in the future any more in general. In the nineteen thirties, I can remember the cyclopaedias and magazines, adult magazines that I read then - Life, Time, Colliers, all these, Picture Post - all of them obsessed with the future because so much was changing – new antibiotics, new forms of mass travel, the jet engine, a whole new attitude towards leisure and the possibilities of life, and so on and so forth, enormous changes taking place, underpinned by scientific discoveries of one kind or another. That was all tremendously exciting, particularly as there was a new kind of psychology emerging, a new kind of people were being born from the airports and hospitals and the first giant supermarkets, and of course our roads because mass car ownership arrived in the sixties and really changed people’s lives in a radical way. I think science fiction’s future is already our past and I think it’s very difficult to recapture our excitement about change, because that’s what science fiction thrives on, change, and whether science fiction can discover a new future, I don’t know, somehow I doubt it. It’s rather like Surrealism. A small number of science fiction writers mostly British and American, created this new world and a new world view, just as a very small number of Surrealist painters, no more than half a dozen, created what we think of as modern Surrealism. And in way you can almost compare it to Hollywood. Its greatest period was probably the forties and fifties, when entertainment cinema was discovering itself, what it could do. Maybe these are all one generation movements.
HK: It seems to me that you managed to produce something new in your work of the late sixties and early seventies by fusing pop art consumerism with this, I suppose, psychoanalytically derived or surrealist material, and this very medical - this quasi pornographic medical terminology for the body. You write about The Atrocity Exhibition as an attempt to find a new kind of emotional language that would incorporate personal feelings and things going on in the culture - do you see that as a key work in your career?
JGB: Yes I think it was, without any doubt. I was terribly wounded by my wife’s death, leaving me with these very young children, and I felt that a crime had been committed by nature against this young woman - and her children - and I was searching desperately for an explanation, something that would justify this awful event. To some extent The Atrocity Exhibition is an attempt to explain all the terrible violence that I saw around me in the early sixties. It wasn’t just the Kennedy assassination, which I think was a catalyst for the sixties – a young prince had been murdered, died on his wife’s lap in full gaze of hundreds of millions of people, a terrible crime had been committed against Kennedy - but I think I was trying to look for a kind of new logic that would explain all these events. I think the appalling atrocities carried out during the second world war and the absolute waste of human life and then the Vietnam war in particular, all these made me wonder what sort of human beings we are. Is it in our nature to be violent and cruel? Can one salvage anything from what we have? The Atrocity Exhibition was my small attempt to make sense.
HK: Can you draw out the elements of the logic that you applied, or discovered?
JGB: Difficult to do. I’m not sure Waterstones [Books monthly] is the place.
HK: Waterstones is merely an excuse…
JGB: It’s a middle brow audience, I think.
HK: They can get into the stuff about the cats.
JGB: Cats, very important.
HK: Apologies, another un-Waterstones question. I was interested to read about This is Tomorrow [the seminal pop art show at the Whitechapel Gallery] and I wonder if you could say more about that show and what British Pop Art meant to you at the time, and why you felt it was such a breakthrough.
JGB: That was 1956,and my first short story was published in a magazine. I’d written other stories, but this was the first to be published. There are a lot of science fiction elements in the show - Richard Hamilton had Robbie the robot from Forbidden Planet. Hamilton and Paolozzi were both very interested in science fiction for the sort of reasons I was interested. But what that show did was to redefine the subject matter, the rightful subject matter of a painter or a sculptor or novelist. The kind of obsessions with social class and the nuances of social behaviour that you found in Anthony Powell and his school of novelists, even in the novels of Kingsley Amis -what This is Tomorrow did was to redefine the subject matter - we were living in a world made up of advertising, supermarkets, the whole consumer landscape, and this didn’t really enter the fiction of most novelists. I think I say somewhere in Miracles of Life that no one in a novel by Virginia Woolf ever fills up a petrol tank – someone will probably prove me wrong – I wanted, just as the pop artists wanted, Hamilton and Paolozzi and their American counterparts – Oldenburg said he wanted a “7 Up” art, a Coca Cola art. All these artists wanted the everyday world, which was very exciting then – consumerism has enormous vitality – that’s something I always admired in early science fiction, that vitality, which is something you don’t get in most English novels, I’m sorry to say - it was a completely new subject matter, a completely new approach to writing a novel about the present day, or set in the present day. This is Tomorrow confirmed me in my hopes. I felt, right, I’m not alone, there are others who also feel the same way. In due course I met Paolozzi with whom I became a lifelong friend, and Richard Hamilton, Allen Jones, and I felt, I never knew him well, but I met Bacon a number of times, he was a close friend of William Burroughs who I did know quite well, a typical scene, a typical mise en scene in a Bacon painting is those sort of shabby tv hospitality rooms with a naked light bulb, the sort of emotions you feel in a tv hospitality room - God what am I doing here? Let me out! How did I ever allow myself to be drawn into this ludicrous program - his paintings carry that. There’s a new kind of private space – all the bits of chromium, chromium furniture, there was so much, the real world. That’s what I’ve tried to find, or tried to write about in all my novels and in this autobiography, trying to find the real world.
HK That’s a good place to leave it. Thank you
JGB: It’s been a pleasure. Keep it low brow, for Waterstones…