Monday, February 18, 2008

From Shanghai to Shepperton with J G Ballard

At 77, J G Ballard has written the most powerful English memoir of the age.

Nicholas Shakespeare reviews Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton
What a wonderful book this is. If there's a better memoir by a contemporary English writer, I don't know it. Written in his 77th year under the clarifying shadow of cancer, the story of J G Ballard is also the story of the end of a way of life.

J G Ballard Ballard, was born and grew up in Shanghai, where his father ran a cotton mill. Until he was 16, he enjoyed a ringside view of Britain's disintegrating empire. He lived in a large, servant-infested house on the perimeter - his natural vantage point - and learnt to gaze with a small boy's awe at the city around him, "a magical place" that he explored on his bicycle and likens to a stage set.

Death was everywhere outside his warm bedroom, and Ballard felt a childish responsibility for it. Yards away, he watched an old man die under a quilt of snow. He visited a battlefield, with its "bright gold of spent cartridges", and saw the legs of dead soldiers stir in the water. "My main effort as a boy was to find the real in all this make-believe."
With the Japanese invasion of 1937, and then Pearl Harbour, old Shanghai abruptly ceased. Roles reversed. His family was packed into a single room in G Block in the Lunghua internment camp, where his father worked as a stoker in the kitchen.
Squatting outside the kitchen furnace and rummaging for a small piece of coke, Ballard resembled one of the beggar boys in the Nanjing Road, running after the family Buick and tapping its windows, crying: "No mama, no papa, no whisky soda..."

Ballard omitted his parents from the fictional recasting of Lunghua camp in Empire of the Sun. Here, he writes of their growing estrangement - the sight of "adults under stress" providing an education "that replaced Latin unseen".
From his Lancashire father, he inherited his optimism, his agnosticism and his enthusiasm for things scientific and American; from his mother, a taste for alcohol and a certain peremptoriness.
But in the camp the aridity of their lives was laid bare. When, after the war, Ballard boards ship for England and his father waves him off from the pier, "for some reason I have never understood I decided not to wave back".
By contrast, Ballard thrived in the camp, befriending American sailors and fraternising with the Japanese guards, and on one occasion - after his father lends him some metal-studded golf shoes - even sounding like the enemy. Prison taught him the porousness of borders. He was eternally ducking through barbed-wire fences to retrieve a ball, or to sit in the cockpit of a derelict Chinese fighter plane.
One harrowing scene occurs after Japan's surrender. Prefiguring Max Hastings's entry into Port Stanley, Ballard walks five miles into Shanghai and interrupts Japanese soldiers strangling to death a young Chinese person. Ballard resolves to "treat the grim event taking place as if it were a private matter that did not involve me".
By the time he left China, in 1947, Ballard was as fatalistic about death, poverty and hunger as the Chinese. Even so, there is something "thwarted", as Cordelia says of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, about his portrait of himself as a young onlooker.

For the full review.........

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