JG Ballard's archive - and a "lost" New Statesman interview

The visionary author's papers have been acquired by the British Library.

He has remarkable ability and general knowledge. With greater concentration, his work could be even better.

That was the verdict of J G Ballard's fifth-form English teacher on a school report for the spring term of 1947. It is just one of the thousands of papers belonging to the visionary author that have just been acquired by the British Library. Plenty of others have explained just what made Ballard's contribution to literature so important - all I'll add on that note is that you can read John Gray's appreciation of the author here.

Despite declaring in 1982 that there were "no archives", when Ballard died in April last year, he left behind 15 large storage boxes packed with manuscripts, notebooks, letters and photographs that cover the full range of Ballard's output from The Drowned World (1962) to Miracles of Life (2008).

This morning, journalists were given a look at a small but revealing selection from the archive, which has been acquired under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. (The culture minister Ed Vaizey said he hoped the scheme would be extended to allow authors to donate papers during their lifetimes, and thus prevent so many literary archives being bought for large sums by US universities.)

Shanghai

J G Ballard Archive Empire of the Sun, f. 1 

One of the most striking items was the stack of yellowing loose-leaf pages that make up the first draft of Ballard's 1984 novel Empire of the Sun. (You can see the first page of this manuscript above, credit: the Estate of J G Ballard.) The novel was based on Ballard's experiences growing up in Shanghai's International Settlement and his family's internment by the Japanese during the Second World War.

In the 1970s, Ballard acquired a stack of documents relating to the internment. One, on display today, is a graph that plots the calorie count for rations distributed to prisoners in 1943, 44 and 45. There are two lines, marked "official rations" and "reserve rice". Both decline as the war nears its end. You can see a blueprint of the camp below (credit: the Estate of J G Ballard).

J G Ballard Archive Camp Blueprint 

A "lost" interview

Up until his death, Ballard declined to use a computer, or email, preferring to submit copy on typed manuscripts. This included his journalistic work, and the NS has a mini Ballard archive of its own. It includes this (once again topical) reflection on the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup, in which he describes the ubiquitous St George's flags as signs of "a failed insurrection".

More of a mystery is the interview we have reproduced below. According to our subscriptions manager and general NS expert Stephen Brasher, it was conducted at some point in the mid-1990s, for a long-defunct feature called "Influences". We have Ballard's answers, but not the questions! If anyone has any suggestions to what they might have been (particularly the unsettling response to number 10), please add your comment below.

Replies to Influences Questionnaire

1. Orwell's 1984 convinced me, rightly or wrongly, that Marxism was only a quantum leap away from tyranny. By contrast, Huxley's Brave New World suggested that the totalitarian systems of the future might be subservient and ingratiating.

2. Film. E. Klimov's Come and See, about partisans fighting the Germans in Byelorussia, is the greatest anti-war film ever made.

Book: The Neiman-Marcus catalogue, to illustrate the bounties of consumer capitalism.

Play: Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, a brilliant cabaret set in the presidential shooting gallery that is the American psyche.

Poem: Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress", the wisest words ever written, as all men will agree.

Song: "The Star Spangled Banner". If we're all going to become Americans we might as well be enfranchised ones.

3. The cadavers I dissected in the Anatomy School at Cambridge. Almost all were of doctors who donated their bodies to the next generation of medical students. A great tribute to their spirit.

4. The dropping of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bomb, which brought World War 2 to a sudden end and almost certainly saved my life.

5. Franklin Roosevelt, for launching the new Deal and bringing the USA into the war.

6. Gettysburg, 19 November 1863, as Abraham Lincoln delivered his Address, a masterpiece of English prose and an exact statement of the democratic ideal.

7. The enlightened bureaucratic state, determined to do what is best for us, and already watching our every move on its CCTV and speed-check cameras.

8. My girl-friend Claire. We have disagreed amicably for years, but she is generally right.

9. Arthur Scargill, the only socialist with sufficient will to have abolished the monarchy, House of Lords, inherited titles and the public schools in a full-scale assault on the world's largest fossil - the English class system.

10. I would nationalise Elizabeth Hurley and allow each of us to claim our share.

 

 

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era