Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography, by J G Ballard

Miracles of Life cvr

That this is not a particularly full autobiography, nor particularly revealing about J G Ballard’s career as a writer, and is generally rather sketchy in places, can partly, but not I suspect completely, be attributed to the fact that he was terminally ill with cancer while writing it (he died the year after its publication).  Managing to finish the book is a testament to his willpower and professionalism, but the result is the book of two parts indicated by the subtitle, and the first, covering a period of his life that is better known already, is superior to the second.

In the first part he describes his childhood in Shanghai, the life of privilege enjoyed by the ex-pats in the International Settlement contrasting with the deteriorating conditions during their internment by the Japanese in Lunghua Camp.  This is a story familiar because of the publicity that surrounded Empire of the Sun, particularly Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation (a difference was that in real life Ballard remained with his parents; this is telling as Miracles of Life shows how he drifted apart from them even when they were all closely confined, finding their attitudes alien – it is significant that he mentions his mother’s belief that Empire of the Sun was about her).

On the other hand it is always worth being reminded of the terrible poverty many ordinary Chinese had to endure before the war, and of the brutality then heaped on them by the Japanese invaders.  The European civilians by comparison were not badly treated (with exceptions) as much as neglected, and it was a surprise to learn that families of pregnant women were removed to a camp closer to the city’s hospitals.  Conditions were hard, and malnutrition rife, especially towards the end, but it was not Tenko, and young Ballard generally enjoyed his experiences there despite his dubious diet.  These included knowing Peter Wyngarde (who, like the fictional Jim in Empire of the Sun, was separated from his family), already dreaming of the actor’s life.

The second, longer, section deals with Ballard’s post-war life and is less satisfying.  It begins with what was left of his schooling, at the Leys in Cambridge, and his numerous false starts – medical student at King’s College, Cambridge for two years, dissecting cadavers; English student at Queen Mary College, which he left after a year allegedly on the grounds that modern fiction was not on the syllabus (did he not check beforehand?  There may have been more going on here) and a desire to be independent financially from his parents; a year or so in the RAF training to be a pilot, part of it in snow-bound Saskatchewan where he spent much of his leisure reading science fiction magazines; before beginning to make his mark as a writer.  This is the point at which Ballard becomes schematic, just when the reader interested in Ballard as a writer wants to hear about the writing, giving merely selected highlights from his personal and professional life.  Chief among these is the death of his first wife Mary on holiday in southern Spain, which must have been devastating for both him and their three small children.

As far as his long and productive career as an author is concerned, however, we hear about a few of the books, notably The Drowned World, Empire of the Sun and Crash, some of his friendships, and about his involvement in films, but it is rather bland.  He tells us about Shanghai, the exhaustion of post-war England (where, he says, hope was rationed along with the food), then the gradual restoration of confidence, his views on cultural changes in the fifties and sixties that informed his own work, and a final return to Shanghai in 1991 where he was struck by how effectively the European presence, so dominant before the war, had been entirely effaced; but there is a superficiality that fails to delve rigorously into what really made him tick as a writer.

He talks about his interest in inner space as the focus of his fiction, and repeatedly about the influence that surrealism and Freud had on him, but he is not particularly introspective.  One feels that there is a lot left out, perhaps out of respect for his daughters, whom he adored – his son Jim seems to have been something of a disappointment, reading between the lines, and his sister is dealt with perfunctorily.  He is surprisingly sentimental when it comes to his own family, contrasting his relaxed parenting, ahead of its time, to the rigid approach taken by his parents and grandparents, and the book’s title refers to his children.  Unlike other writers he did not see the presence of children as a problem – indeed he reverses Cyril Connolly’s observation, considering the pram in the hallway not an enemy of promise but its ally.  He is even-handed about friends such as Kingsley Amis and Eduardo Paolozzi, scathing about B. S Johnson, possibly a reflection of his dislike of formalism, and he is repeatedly scathing about modernism, hinting at a narrowness of vision.

Even with that caveat he is still a fine writer, though Miracles of Life could have done with a final polish editorially.  He certainly has an eye for a gruesome detail: a rickshaw coolie suddenly stopping, dropping his trousers and ‘defecating a torrent of yellow liquid at the roadside’ which would then be tracked by pedestrians, ‘bearing dysentery or cholera into every factory, shop and office’; seeing bodies left lying in the gutters as he cycled around the city; eating maggots with relish at Lunghua, and his prolapsed rectum; the strangulation of a Chinese peasant by Japanese soldiers at a railway station as the war was already ending; pressing back Mary’s ‘large and bursting piles’ during childbirth.

His unsparing but compassionately honest approach to life, exhibited too in his account of his Cambridge anatomy classes, must have had their roots in Shanghai.  Yet having had such profound experiences so early seems to have left him with something of an anti-climax at war’s end, Shanghai representing a kind of hyper-reality in his mind that England could not match.  It is odd that he stayed in England at all, a country that he repeatedly characterises in terms of smallness, lack of imagination and paucity of expectations.  One wonders how he might have turned out if he had not had that deep well from his first fifteen years to draw on in the rest of his career because it is unlikely that England alone would have provided the necessary stimulation.

Such speculations remind one that reading Ballard is never dull.  Turning Miracles of Life’s pages feels like sitting with Jim over a glass of his favourite whisky as he chats away, but it is no substitute for a proper biography, and it is to be hoped that his children will authorise a candid study of their father that will properly illuminate his life and enrich our understanding of his work.

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