Years ago – 1991 it were, the year before my stepson's birth and therefore ranking somewhere between the invention of the Spinning Jenny and the Ravelling Nancy – I wrote an article for Vector on J.G. Ballard's The Wind from Nowhere. This was Ballard's first published novel, though he subsequently disowned it and always referred to The Drowned World as his first.
I actually quite liked it – more than I liked any of his other works. By this time I had also read The Drowned World, The Crystal World, High Rise, Concrete Island, Hello America, The Day of Creation, Empire of the Sun and – of course – Crash (never did get round to The Atrocity Exhibition, for some reason), so I did know vaguely what I was talking about.
I was feeling naughty and provocative because I couldn't see the big deal and had probably just read yet another adulatory editorial in Interzone or the TLS on "science fiction’s consummate stylist" or whatever they were calling him that week and wanted to know why he was getting published and I wasn't. So I wanted to stick something into the ant nest and stir. As it was I did get a letter from no. 1 fan David Pringle – sent to me personally rather than to the letters column of Vector, and giving me the editorial equivalent of a pat on the head and a tolerant smile – but that was about all the reaction it drew.
My main bone of contention, which I still stand by, was that Ballard suffered from the literary writer's inability to trust the imagination of the audience to fill in the gaps. It had to be spelt out, and spelt out again, and then on the way out someone gave you a nudge and spelt it again just to make sure you got it. Instance: Vaughan in Crash has an obsession with the actress Elizabeth Taylor. (Or maybe it's "the movie star Elizabeth Taylor"? Let's say actress for the sake of convenience.) And this we are told time and time again. And it's never just Elizabeth Taylor or Taylor or "her" or "she". Every time Mrs Todd-Fisher-Burton-Twice shows up in the text it's "the actress Elizabeth Taylor". It gets so bloody tedious, and hence my reference in the article to it being "apparently in the contract that no copy editor should come within a mile of a Ballard manuscript".
Eighteen years later he goes and dies, much mourned and missed, and I surprised myself by feeling there was a hole in the world too. I hadn't read anything by him since that article, except for anything that popped up in Interzone in the meantime, but suddenly I was feeling I understood what he was about. Maybe it was because I've now lived out in the real world much longer than I had in 1991, and what he was telling me had time to sink in. Maybe it's just because the world has got so much more – let's say it – Ballardian. He wouldn't have been remotely surprised by the predominance of reality TV or the Jade Goody saga. He would probably have wondered what took it so long.
And so I resolved to read his autobiography, Miracles of Life.
Okay, I think I understand him more now. A little. I certainly like him much more than I did. He seems to have been a genuinely nice bloke, warm hearted and friendly and extremely moral. I'm amazed that, coming from utterly respectable middle class stock, he could always remain so apparently respectably middle class yet be so profoundly unrespectable in outlook and views. Michael Moorcock and the rest of the New Worlds crowd went hirsute and yeti-like in the sixties, yet in all the pictures our man is a slightly tweedy figure in jacket or v-neck and tie. His experiences with drugs just reminded him why he preferred whisky and soda. He lived in a happy family home in suburban Shepperton and turned out tales like Crash about the sexual fetishisation of car crashes.
He had the advantage of living at a time when a journal editor's salary could support a family of five on top of the purchase of the family home and a daily commute into London. I laugh a hollow laugh. Yet then his wife died suddenly he was stranded with three small children who he managed to raise single handedly – no mean feat today, yet alone in the early sixties.
Ballard as any fule no was born in the International Settlement in Shanghai in 1930, where he lived until his late teens, which included two and a half years of internment under the Japanese. (The experience wasn't quite as harsh as depicted in Empire of the Sun: he stayed with his parents and they could live in their own home for over a year after Japanese occupation. On the other hand there are throwaway lines like the one about about his rectum prolapsing due to malnutrition, so it was no picnic.) I get the impression he would have turned out much as he did even without the internment bit. His experiences in the camp just confirmed what he was already coming to see. Shanghai was even more artificial than most cities, constructed for the sole purposes of trade and treated as a fantasy land by the many expatriate communities living there. Where obscene wealth and obscene poverty can co-exist within a few feet you must start to feel that reality isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Maybe we as a race have always been outmassed by the world we live in, but until comparatively recently there was always the illusion that we could shape our destinies. Ballard's experiences taught him that the modern world is a massive artificial construct that we created but which now dominates. It dictates, we follow. Individuals can swim against the stream but even the flow of the stream is affected by forces beyond us.
I should also add that Miracles of Life was an eye-opener for the sheer clarity and openness of the writing. See, he could do it after all. I will also accept a mild tap on the wrist for one of my other gripes in the article – the fact that the characters in his books very rarely do what any sane person would do and get the hell out of whatever catastrophe they've ended up in. But that was the point, of course, the same way Ballard couldn't get out of Shanghai because it was just too big. At one point he mentions a fellow writer with a "Victorian" ideal of writing – strong characters, plausible dialogue, logical plots. I would say that's not just Victorian, that's latter-day-neo-Elizabethan too, because how dare a writer just write a book and assume everyone will want to carry on reading past the first page? But when you're separated by such a gulf in your basic premises, there's not a lot of point trying to make comparisons. That's probably why I liked The Wind from Nowhere, whereas his one reference to it is, disparagingly, "my only piece of commercial fiction".
I used to think Ballard got his reputation the same way the original Star Trek and Dr Who became cult favourites. It's the difference between what you see and what you take away. Everyone saw the dodgy sets, iffy actors and questionable scripts, but after they turned the TV off the cognoscenti remembered epic tales of time and space and speculative thought. However, that's not quite fair, or indeed true. I'll now concede that Ballard got his reputation by absolutely mastering his chosen field. Easy.
Miracles of Life also confirms my favourite Ballard tale that I've heard from other sources, or at least some of it: that when The Atrocity Exhibition was published by Doubleday in the US, Mr Doubleday had no idea it contained a story called "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan". When he did find out, he ordered the entire run to be pulped. Ballard confirms this part but not the best bit: that he sent one of the surviving author's copies to the then Governor of California with a note saying "I think you ought to see the kind of filth Doubleday are publishing about you."