J.G. Ballard: The Bard of Shepperton
On Sunday there was a gathering of J.G. Ballad’s family, friends and admirers at Tate Modern. We came to celebrate the life and work of an English prophet, a man held in affectionate veneration by a generation of younger writers upon whom the impact of his poetic apocalypse is becoming increasingly evident: “uniquely unique”, Martin Amis proclaimed; “a touchstone of authentic genius”, Will Self contended: Ballard was his “single most important mentor and influence”.
By 11 o’clock a crowd gathered in the Tate’s top floor corridor pressing up against glass walls that frame the giant breast of St Pauls, the elegant lines of the Millennium Bridge, and the muck brown Father Thames. Among the throng were Peter and Solange, Jim’s next-door-neighbours-but-one. He wouldn’t let you across the threshold of his house, they tell me, but he liked to stop and talk in the street. And as casual descriptions often can, this turns out to be the image that holds throughout the morning.
Rather than the violent catastrophies associated with Ballard in the public mind, it is the picture of his English home on a suburban street in Shepperton that resonates in our imagination, the place of which he was so protective, that was at the core of what he did each day: wrapping his arms around his children and the “nest” he built for them. The kids, a little wild and indulged, Michael Moorcock thought, as any would be who’d lost a mother so young (Ballard’s wife, Mary, died suddenly of pneumonia when they were still little). But the house was full of love and talk, and in equal Blakean parts, or so it seemed from the testimony of his two girls, of energy and order.
Both daughters, Fay and Bea, who spoke also on behalf of their brother, Jim, remembered “gender roles” weren’t much observed at home: Jim the younger, a dab hand in the kitchen, while Jim the elder was, Fay thought, a “mummy-daddy”. Bea said he’d described himself , domestically, as rather “slatternly”, but she’d seen through this disguise and understood, in fact, how organised he was: he had to be. Later Moorcock, one of a handful of intimates, introduced him to Claire Walsh who became his partner for the next forty years, and the family expanded at holiday time to include Claire and her daughter. But he remained a single Dad to his three children, quite a rare bird in the 1960s.
Fay spoke first, telling us how in the hustle and bustle of family life the house remained unchanged. It was the unmoved things that were most remarkable and moving (perhaps because they had not been dislodged, had endured against the odds, allowing them the illusion of holding on to the past): a desiccated lemon found on a mantelpiece remaining untouched for forty years; a flipper, a remnant of some early holiday, still propping open a door. Afterwards I asked her what would happen to the house? She had worked in museums herself. Would their gloriously untouched 1933 semi, with all its original tones and fittings, become one? She and her dad had discussed the possibility once and he’d said, don’t you dare.
Fay and Bea shared a collage of family memories: the clacking typewriter and accompanying whisky glass, Jim painting in the fashion of the surrealists, watching Double Indemnity in the dark together, discussing Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents after-school trips to the movies, their father’s smiling face and bear hugs whenever he greeted them, and endless Chinese dinners with great plates of lobster and noodles. He encouraged all their enthusiasms, had been serious about education, hadn’t wanted them to waste any creative talent. His loss was incalculable for all, but particularly stinging for Bea, who had lost her own husband, and now Jim’s support and understanding of what she was going through. He was the most loving of fathers, their best friend and counsel, always warning them of “what was ahead in the road”.
The road turned out to be a ruling metaphor and feature of the life, as well as of the fiction. Victoria Barnsley his publisher at HarperCollins remembered this gentlemanly, but hugely professional writer announcing: “My job is to stand in the bend of the road holding a sign saying: Danger Ahead!” And Jeremy Thomas, who produced the film of Crash, recalled a Ferrari ride with Jim caressing the dashboard. He recognised in him another petrol-head, someone who shared his secret love of car magazines – “the equivalent of centrefolds in Penthouse”. While Moorcock, propping himself up with a walking stick and hunching over the podium, remembered Jim trying to sell him his falling-apart old Armstrong Siddeley – a “pantomime” car, whose windscreen wipers were always having to be retrieved when they fell off in the roadside.
But the memories he treasured most from their long comradeship, were from the early days when they were drawn together by domestic concerns as much as literary ones. Moorcock too, was an untraditional father, both of them, he claimed, “handy with the frying pan and the staple gun” (it saved on stitching). They’d meet to eat, wives at one end of the table, the men at the other, forever arguing. “Cobblers!”, Moorcock’s wife would object; “You know that’s not true, Jim”, Mary would chime in. Their dinner conversations made them seem like “a cadre taking over the world of SF”, and yet they never agreed on anything. Except that they had both freed themselves from “genre identification”.
Their lives became intertwined: Moorcock helping to nurse Jim through the shock of his wife’s sudden death (“he closed down”), coaxing from him the early writing for New Worlds, which he was by then at the helm of, and introducing Claire, the woman he felt was “the best possible choice for Jim”. They wrote constantly to one another, became one another’s editors. And Jim developed a liking for vicarious travel, endlessly pressing new brochures on him, suggesting places he might visit, suggestions he had had to work hard to resist.
A 2004 BBC documentary reminded us of the early experiences that shaped Ballard’s life, taking took him back to Shanghai, to the house they lived in on Amherst Avenue, and to the camp where he and his family were interned during the war. This was “the most important place in my life. I came close to an adult mind in this camp”, Ballard reflected. Dreams of it nurtured him throughout his time in England, where he had “never really been at home”. It was the place he referred to in his imagination, and which finally gave birth, in 1984, to his greatest work, Empire of the Sun, described eloquently by Barnsley as “a slow bruise that took forty years to come to the surface”.
Steven Spielberg, who directed the film adaptation, was summoned to the proceedings electronically (as was Martin Amis). Sitting with his producers in Hollywood he recollected how enlightening Ballard had been: he helped with “dimensionalising” the book, and with “colouring in” the story – this said, as perhaps only a filmmaker can, as if something was missing from the page, as if it needed fleshing out. But the warm feeling for the man was unmistakable, a feeling engendered, perhaps, in part by Ballard’s own abiding and knowledgeable interest in cinema.
His attitude to his film adapters, Thomas thought, was unusually generous: he was interested to see what they would make of his books, which parts of Crash, would Cronenberg choose to put on the screen? What Thomas remembered most, though, was how “animated in adversity” Jim had been. One of the best meals he’d ever had, eaten with the greatest relish, was on the beach in Cannes after philistine film critics – Alexander Walker leading the pack – attacked Crash at a press conference. This kind of resilience, even perverse delight, was also noted by Barnsley, who remembered his response to the infamous readers report on Crash, finding the mind behind the book psychotic: it was a “vindication”, he thought.
An avant-garde publisher from California, V. Vale, confessed to us he had “spent his whole life preparing to meet J. G. Ballard”. He interviewed him first alongside William Burroughs for his magazine, Search and Destroy (at the time Ballard was “sympathetic to punk rock”). Later a girlfriend renamed herself Vermilion Sands. But his finest moment came when he discovered The Atrocity Exhibition had fallen out of print in America. Ballard sent him four new stories and a set of annotations for the beautifully illustrated and designed edition he produced, and ever since he has been working on ‘Ballardania’. Perhaps we didn’t understand in England, he chided us, but, for him, Ballard was quite simply “the Shakespeare of the Twentieth Century, the bard of Shepperton”.
As it transpired, the bard’s last friendship was with a man of medicine – fitting for a quondam medical student who dropped out to write fictions with character Types, most often a doctor. Professor Jonathan Waxman was Claire’s oncologist and became Jim’s when he developed prostate cancer. Bea said her father was happy his last days were “spent under the care of such a strong-minded, kind and wise physician.” When Claire had first come to Waxman’s office, he was impressed by the quality of Jim’s support for her “in his mind and in his hands”. And then when Jim became ill he had seen this returned in loving abundance. Jim was of a generation that didn’t talk about their illnesses and when Waxman asked about his state of health he’d mutter something like, oh alright, and then: ‘“And how are you doing?’ This is how he dealt with it.”
Will Self, on the other hand, recalled him saying that chemotherapy was like “continually eating bad oysters”. And that if he had qualified as a psychiatrist he would have been his own first patient. Self also drew attention to the breadth of Ballard’s oeuvre, and the consistency of the warning note sounded throughout, from the early ruined worlds (planetary death by drowning, drought and crystallisation) to the last quartet of novels about wealthy Westerners, living gated and sanitised lives, “considering violence as an antidote to millenarian boredom”.
He opened though, with a letter written sixteen years ago in Ballard’s “legible and anarchic hand”, replying to a tentative suggestion from the ambitious younger man that he be allowed to write the screenplay for Crash. The letter didn’t dwell on this, but did recommend a book of Black Box recordings. These cockpit transcripts, happenings of disaster, were not at all voyeuristic he thought, nor particularly violent. However if that was what Self was after he knew where they could be found.
It was Self who came nearest to imitating Ballard, catching something of his particular cadences with their eccentrically pitched emphases. On winning a PEN award four months before his death, he warned Self about the ‘tweedy’ literati: ‘“It’s very good of them to give me the award, but we must always remember’, his voice dropped conspiratorially, ‘they are the enemy’.”