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.

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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