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J.G. Ballard offers fascinating memoir of odyssey from Shanghai to Shepperton

J.G. Ballard’s autobiography, “Miracles of Life,” is a splendid remembrance of his journey – from Shanghai to Shepperton - written with intense scrutiny, mordant humor, a touch of pathos and a dash of regret.

As a boy in the early and mid-1930s, he lived with his family in the tony International Settlement of Shanghai that English expats, as well as Germans, White Russians, eastern European Jews – and political refugees who needed no visas – sought when they entered that city.

What passed for close family life in Shanghai? Not much. Here is how he writes about what he observed: “Summers were spent in the northern beach resort of Tsingtao, away from the ferocious heat and stench of Shanghai. Husbands were left behind, and the young wives had a great time with the Royal Navy officers on shore leave from their ships. There is a photograph of a dozen dressed-up wives each sitting in a wicker chair with a suntanned, handsomely smiling officer behind her. Who were the hunters, and who the trophies?”

Sickness was everywhere else in the city. Ballard writes, “In the Bubbling Well Road our car had to halt when the rickshaw coolie in front of us suddenly stopped, lowered his cotton trousers and leant forward over his shafts, defecating a torrent of yellow liquid at the roadside, to be stepped in by the passing crowds and carried all over Shanghai, bearing dysentery or cholera into every factory, shop and office.”

Ballard was driven to the Cathedral School for boys by the family chauffeur. It was run on English lines with Latin and scripture classes. He wrote, “The masters were English, and we were made to work surprisingly hard,” given the nightclub and dinner-party ethos that ruled the parents’ lives. In charge was a Church of England clergyman named Matthews “a sadist who was free not only with his cane but with his fists, brutally slapping quite small boys.”

Even as an 11-year-old, Ballard noticed in Shanghai that British adults were losing power and that no number of patriotic newsreels “would put the Union Jack jigsaw together again.” This decline was chillingly confirmed in 1937, when Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China. Eventually, broad swaths of Shanghai were leveled by Japanese bombing and naval bombardment. Chungking, 900 miles west, became the new national capital.

I particularly admire one of Ballard’s word pictures of the decay of the Del Monte casino and nightclub, which catered to the wealthy in Shanghai:

“Gilded statues propped up the canopy of the bars… and on the floor ornate chandeliers cut down from the ceiling tilted among the debris of bottles and old newspapers. …it held a deeper meaning for me, the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside in the debris of the past.”

Ballard notes that by the age of 14, he had become as fatalistic about death, poverty and hunger as the Chinese. “I knew that kindness alone would feed few mouths and save no lives.”

As the war progressed, the Japanese took over the Ballards’ country club, and, Ballard’s mother told him “in tones of great indignation that they had stabled their horses in the squash courts.”

Ballard and his family were interned by the Japanese. They were put in the Lunghua Camp, formerly an old teacher-training college, from 1943–1945. This episode, later described in a novel and a partly fictional film, “Empire of the Sun,” were among the best and worst times of his life.

Young Ballard enjoyed the relative freedom of the camp, playing chess and cadging American magazines like Life and Popular Mechanics from American sailors. At that time Lunghua was overseen by a benign commandant named Hyashi. Later, when the war turned against the Japanese, Hyashi was replaced and the Japanese turned against their detainees. Ballard endured skin infections, malnutrition and a prolapsed rectum.

About war he observed, “I don’t think you can go through the experience of war without one’s perceptions of the world being forever changed.” That is certainly an understatement. But Ballard’s last testament equally comes across as plain-spoken and sincere.

Ballard returned to England in 1946, to a country foreign to him. There was a drabness to the landscape and the people that made him wonder if the English hadn’t lost the war. After a month of disagreeable living with his rigid grandparents, he entered The Leys School in Cambridge as a boarder and later attended King’s College, Cambridge.

There, Ballard found it hard to accommodate his hard-won overseas toughness to English deference. One had to kowtow to one’s elders, try never being too keen about anything and learn to “take it on the chin,” about life’s inequities, English-style, as he put it. In short, people continued to tie themselves in class-induced knots that for generations held them fast.

So Ballard escaped these realities by writing short stories, taking an interest in films and reading up on the work of Freud and the surrealists, enduring subjects for him. Even into old age Ballard that psychoanalysis and surrealism were keys to human personality and self-knowledge.

Of particular enjoyment to him were American noir films like “Double Indemnity” and “ultra-low-budget crime and gangster movies…often more interesting than the star … “ And, “Out of the simplest materials – two cars, a cheap motel, a gun and a tired brunette – they conjured up a hard and unsentimental image of the primeval city…”

Ballard tried medicine for a couple of years, dissecting bodies, which he enjoyed, before dropping out, to his parents’ chagrin. He took a low pay copywriter’s job in London, then a crack at NATO pilot flying training where he was seconded by the RAF to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Ultimately this didn’t appeal to him either. But he picked up the notion while in Moose Jaw – from reading while bad weather made flying impossible – that s-f, “science fiction stories” might be his métier.

American magazines didn’t give his “s-f” stories a tumble. But on returning to London but he met up again with a woman who later became his wife, Mary Matthews. He and Mary married with a first child already on the way.

Mary’s encouragement and that of an editor, E.J. Carnell, gave him confidence. Carnell urged him to concentrate “on what I termed ‘inner space’, psychological tales close to the surrealists.” He began selling short stories to English science magazines Science Fantasy and New Worlds in 1956, a late but good start. Despite his start, science fiction went into a steep decline in America and didn’t recover until Star Wars decades later. Ballard countered with his own blockbuster novels, the dystopian “Crash” and “Empire of the Sun”, years later.

“Miracles of Life”? The title refers to the birth of Jim, born in 1956 and daughters, Fay and Beatrice, born in 1957 and 1959. So much death and decay rescued by birth and growth in a small home and garden purchased in Shepperton in 1960! He reminisces that “I thought of my children then, and still think of them, as miracles of life.”

Mary died unexpectedly, of an infection, while on holiday in Spain in 1963. Ballard tried raising his children alone He made many friends who were helpful to him, including Martin Bax, a pediatrician who published a quarterly poetry magazine called Ambit; Chris Evans, a scientist who influenced him greatly; Michael Moorcock, editor of the leading British science fiction magazine, New Worlds; the British artist, Eduardo Paolozzi; and the redoubtable Kingsley Amis, whose generous and kindly side Ballard says he saw before Amis became “a professional curmudgeon.”

Ballard pays tribute too, to Claire Walsh, his partner of the last 40 years.. Ballard’s final testament is a bright ending to a life that had its trials.

Miracles of Life

By J.G. Ballard


288 pages, $25.95

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Michael D. Langan, a retired U.S. Treasury official, reviewed J.G. Ballard’s “Cocaine Nights” in 1998 for The Buffalo News.