THE MAGUS OF SHEPPERTON: Some thoughts on J.G. Ballard

By: Albert Hall

jballardJ.G. Ballard, who died in April 2009, at the age of seventy eight, was one of the most brilliant and imaginative writers of modern times.

His formative experience occurred in China. He was brought up in a comfortable middle class household in Shanghai, where his father was the manager of a textile factory. But that comfortable world came to a crashing halt with the Japanese invasion, and Ballard found himself, along with the rest of the expat European community, confined, for the duration of the war, in a Japanese internment camp. Though typically, Ballard said that he had the time of his life there.

He witnessed, at first hand, how cheap life was in wartime China. And he saw Chinese coolies being beaten to death, by bored Japanese soldiers, just for the hell of it. That experience convinced Ballard that what we call normality can be as insubstantial as a stage set. And that seismic events, seemingly beyond human control – such as wars or economic recessions – can literally blow entire social worlds away. Indeed the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and their consequences, have reminded us of that grim truism.

Having had such an exotic, and dangerous, early experience, it was inevitable that when at length he arrived in Post War England, he saw it with a strangers eyes. Indeed, after his youthful years spent in the Orient, Post War, austerity London, seemed to him a drab, grey place in comparison. But he was soon to liven things up a bit.

He believed that what we call ‘reality’ was itself as fictitious as anything that a satirist or magical realist could conjure up; and that the world of advertisement driven consumerism was itself a strange psychodrama, with its own dreams, deliriums, fixations and confusions. It didn’t surprise him at all that Hollywood actors like Ronald Reagan and the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, could end up as Presidents and Governors. He once wrote that you needed to be a ham actor, like Tony Blair, in order to qualify for office; and that Gordon Brown could have done with spending a few months at RADA. He knew that politics, particularly in a media age, was also a form of show business, where image and spin were as important as, sometimes even more so, than substance.

It was a strangely spiritual world he created, where material things reflect mental states. It was the polar opposite of the arid, banal materialism you find in some conventional science fiction tales and dramas, where it is all about technology and the latest scientific gizmos, but where the people seem positively robotic and machine-like themselves. Not for him the standard clichés of science fiction; bug eyed aliens, extra-terrestrial civilisations, and the rest. He didn’t have to go, in space crafts, to far flung galaxies and nebulas, to describe distant wonders and marvels; he described instead the wonders and marvels of the present, on our own planet.

He saw the future, in the present, not in some antiseptic, science fiction fantasy world. He showed us how strange, exotic, and even surreal, are many of the things we take for granted in the modern world – shopping malls, motorways, gated communities, high rise flats, suburbs, condominiums, holiday resort complexes; and our obsession with fame and celebrity. To J.G. Ballard the earth was the alien planet. He was bigger, deeper, and more profound, than the literary genres he happened to work in.
He always thought that manned space exploration, which is a mainstay of conventional science fiction, was a dead end; that was motivated primarily by Cold War propaganda. And events seem to have borne him out on this. Though he wrote some evocative and atmospheric stories about the abandoned gantries and launch pads of the Space Race. It wasn’t rockets and time-warps that inspired him, but the unexplored hinterlands of the human psyche.
Nothing is ever as it seems in Ballard’s world. There is always something lurking in the shadows. There is always more to things than meets the eye. You could say that the subconscious is the central character in Ballard’s literature.
Like Kafka and Dickens, he created his own inimitable literary world, peopled by his gallery of haunted dropouts, monomaniacs, fanatics, loners, compulsives and misfits. So that we now have the entirely apposite term of Ballardian to describe it.
There were no limits to his imagination. He was the Shakespeare of speculative fiction. Almost anything can happen in Ballard’s novels and stories. In one of his novels the world drowns. In another there is a universal drought. In another book the jungles of Africa start to crystallise. Luxury high rise blocks can descend into anarchy and civil war. Spontaneous insurrections, against the torpor of normality, can reduce well-heeled middle class suburbs to Third World slums. In one novel a man finds himself trapped, like the castaway Robinson Crusoe, on a concrete island surrounded by a baffling motorway complex. In one story a drogue space station expands into an endless, infinite complex of concourses and mezzanines. In another story a befuddled and geriatric Ronald Reagan, presides, without realising it, over a third world war. In one tale the disappearance of a patient from an over-bureaucratised mental institute, leads to the speculation that he might never have existed in the first place, and that he may have been an entirely fictitious entity created out of reports and case notes. In another tale a man turns his back on the world and disappears into the interior of his own house, in order to explore his own disturbed psyche, while the house in turn takes on a weird, hallucinatory character, in accord with his own mental condition. In one of his last novels, a luxury holiday complex in the South of France is afflicted by a strange series of inexplicable murders, assaults and break ins, without any apparent motive or purpose. It’s small wonder that he admired the great surrealist artists like Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst.
He was the outstanding, literary fabulist of modern times. Though there is nothing sloppy or sentimental in Ballard’s world. He brought a chillingly detailed, forensic imagination to his visions of the future. He was also a brilliant satirist, with a dark, mordant sense of humour.
I think Martin Amis is quite correct when he said that J.G. Ballard was the most significant British Post War writer. He was also that rare thing, a brilliant short story writer as well as novelist. He has left a substantial legacy, in novels, short stories, articles and essays; and almost all of it of an extraordinary high quality. Though it tells us something of the paucity, and lack of imagination, of our modern TV and cinema culture, that so few of his brilliant novels and stories have been dramatised. (Though there has been a recent movie adaptation of his novel High-Rise). Instead of Ballard’s inimitable super-reality, we have had the formulaic so called reality TV, dished out to the jaded, watching public, by the broadcasting networks.
He had an extraordinary imagination. Yet in his private life he was an ordinary, down to earth guy. A quiet, self-deprecating family man. There wasn’t a hint of vanity, self-importance, bluster or conceit about him. He lived in the same modest, Shepperton semi his whole adult life. A celebrity lifestyle – with penthouses, luxury hotels and yachts – had no appeal for him. It was his imagination, which was exotic, evocative, haunting and surreal, not his external life.
He has left behind a literary goldmine, that will enthuse and inspire generations to come. He was indeed, as he was labelled in his own lifetime, the Magus of Shepperton. And we won’t see his like again.

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