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Appreciation: J G Ballard

His writings were a lifelong experiment in imaginative alchemy, the transmutation of senseless dross

When I first met J G Ballard, not long after reviewing Iain Sinclair’s book Crash: David Cronenberg’s Post-Mortem on J G Ballard’s “Trajectory of Fate” in the New Statesman ten years ago, the first thing that struck me about him was his palpable decency, generosity and good humour. That does not mean his conversation was in any way bland – quite the contrary, it always left me stirred and enriched. After each meeting with him my view of the world around me was more Ballardian – a tribute not only to the force of his personality, but even more to the exactitude of his vision. Having lived through extreme situations, Ballard was able to portray the extremity of late 20th-century life in a way no other writer has done. What was so impressive in the man was that this disturbing clairvoyance coexisted with a powerful affirmation of life.

These two sides of Ballard, I came to think, were not unrelated. His depictions of desolate cityscapes have often been seen as encoded autobiography – cipher versions of his early life in Shanghai and the time in the Japanese prison camp that followed. It is true that after experiencing the sudden disappearance of conventional existence he was never able to take the pretensions of civilised humanity terribly seriously, but, as a result, his work is often exultantly lyrical and often contains a streak of macabre comedy.

Besides the brilliant galleries of surreal images, there is a deadpan commentary on the recurrent disappearance of organised society and the socialised self that runs through Hello America (1981) – one of Ballard’s more neglected books. This imagines a post-climate-change Los Angeles, with a tribe of garrulous monkeys sitting in the old beach furniture around the stagnant pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel, “gibbering and quarrelling with each other like a crowd of producers”, while elegant birds stand on the ends of diving boards, “waiting for some talent scout to film them as they stared nonchalantly at the overgrown gardens of the abandoned mansions”.

It is hard to read these and similar passages without thinking that they are based on Ballard’s experiences in Shanghai. Yet if Shanghai formed Ballard’s view of the world, it is no less true that Ballard’s vision of the city was his own. He used his experiences there to show how the collapse of normalcy can open our eyes, disclosing a world that is not only quite different from the semi-fictional one that we live in, but, in some ways, more satisfying. In another of his under-appreciated books, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), he reimagines the quiet London suburb of Shepperton, in Surrey, where he lived until moving to be with his partner Claire Walsh in the last months of his illness, magically transformed into a tropical paradise where the townspeople can fly and where the dead return from the grave. Here as throughout his writings, the transformative energy of the imagination is at work, turning brute reality into something joyful and lovely.

Although he began his career writing science fiction, Ballard always maintained that his subject was the present rather than the future. His work first reached a wide public after the appearance of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Empire of the Sun (1984), a novel some have seen as the peak of his career. It is a rich and many-layered book, but it would be perverse to rank it above the rest of his work. With its fragmented experimental style and intrepid exploration of some of the darkest zones of experience, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) may be his most original and subversive book: that nearly the whole of its US print run was destroyed after the publisher chanced to glance through a copy supports this judgement. The better-known Crash (1973) is a kind of addendum, a cool study in affectless frenzy that Cronenberg’s adaptation faithfully captures. The notoriety that ensued enabled Ballard’s dystopian portrayals of urban alienation in Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975) to be better appreciated. Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000) showed him taking up the crime thriller, only to subvert it as he had earlier subverted science fiction.

For me Ballard’s best and most characteristic work is in his early novels and short stories, and his memoir Miracles of Life (2008). He writes somewhere that there are many perfect short stories but few, if any, perfect novels, and yet some of his best short stories are in fact perfect short novels. The stories in Vermilion Sands (1971) take place in an idealised Palm Springs where the disciplines of work have been left behind and time slips by in the company of sonic sculptures and singing plants. His first major novel, The Drowned World (1962), features a prototypical Ballard character seeking re-entry into the archaic cosmos that existed before memory. In Memories of the Space Age (1988), an exquisite distillation of his central themes, it becomes clear that escape from personal time is the quest on which he was engaged in much of his writing. It is not by accident that Ballard wanted to be a painter, or that the painters he most admired, such as Delvaux and de Chirico, were masters of a radiant kind of still life.

It is in his last book that the two sides of Ballard seem to me to come together. Miracles of Life shows him retrieving the memories that shaped his fiction, and going on to record the happiness he found in his family. The casual cruelty he witnessed in Shanghai, and the tragic early death of his wife Mary in 1964, revealed a world devoid of human meaning. The challenge Ballard faced was to show how fulfilment could be found in such conditions. His writings were the result, a lifelong experiment in imaginative alchemy, the transmutation of senseless dross into visions of beauty.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek

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Puffins in peril

Britain’s best-loved seabird is vulnerable to global extinction.

The boatmen helped us scramble ashore and soon there were 50 people wandering on an uninhab­ited slab of sea-battered dolerite called Staple Island. It is one of the National Trust-owned Farne Islands in Northumberland and among England’s most spectacular wildlife locations. There are 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds here and they were everywhere: at our feet, overhead, across every rock face. The stench of guano was overwhelming.

While the birds seemed to be boundless, the human beings converged on the grassy knoll where the local star attraction resides. It’s the creature that adorns the boat company’s publicity and is emblazoned on the National Trust’s website for the island, the bird that possesses what the poet Norman MacCaig called the “mad, clever clown’s beak”: the pint-sized, parrot-faced puffin.

The British love for this creature is so intense that it is, in essence, the robin redbreast of the sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies around our coast are tourist attractions. Just across the water, along the shore from Staple Island, is the town of Amble, which holds an annual festival devoted to the puffin. From Lundy in Devon and Skomer in Pembrokeshire to the Isle of May off the Fife coast, or Fair Isle in the Shetlands, trips to puffin colonies are frequent, sometimes daily, events.

“Every tourist shop on these islands sells puffin merchandise – knitwear patterns, tumblers, carvings, coasters, cuddly toys, clothes and, of course, puffin hats,” Helen Moncrieff, the area manager in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told me.

While the love affair is unquestionable, what seems in doubt is our ability to help the bird now that it is in trouble. Fair Isle once supported a puffin colony of 20,000 birds. In less than three decades, that number has halved. Similar declines have been reported at Britain’s most important puffin site on St Kilda, Scotland, where millions are said to have bred. Now there are fewer than 130,000 pairs, half the total recorded as recently as the 1970s.

The national picture is alarming but the news from elsewhere is even worse. Continental Europe holds more than 90 per cent – five million pairs – of the global total of Atlantic puffins but they are shared primarily between three countries: Denmark (the Faroe Islands), Iceland and Norway. Across this subarctic region, losses have been estimated at 33 per cent since 1979, when monitoring began. But the most striking figure comes from a colony on Røst, Norway, where there has been a fall over this period from nearly 1.5 million pairs to 285,000.

The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland hold a substantial proportion of the country’s puffins. Since 2005, breeding success there has been almost nil, and a similar failure has recurred on the Faroe Islands for more than a decade. In both places, where hunting puffins was once a staple of cultural life, catchers today have initiated a self-imposed moratorium.

Puffins are long-lived species and a life­span of between 20 and 30 years is not unusual, yet Euan Dunn, principal marine adviser to the RSPB, explains the implications of persistent breeding failure. “Puffins on Shetland or the Westmans may go on attempting to breed for years, even decades, but eventually all those old adult birds will die off and, if they haven’t reproduced, then the numbers will start to plunge.”

BirdLife International, a conservation network that classifies the status of birds worldwide, has reached the same conclusion. It judges that the Atlantic puffin is likely to decline by between 50 and 79 per cent by 2065. The nation’s most beloved seabird has been declared a species that is vulnerable to global extinction.

To unpick the story of puffin losses, marine ecologists have examined the bird’s oceanic ecosystem and looked particularly at changes in the status of a cold-water zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus. This seemingly insignificant, shrimp-like organism plays a crucial role in North Atlantic biodiversity and has experienced a huge decline as sea temperatures have risen steadily since the 1980s. While the decline of the finmarchicus coincided with swelling numbers of a close relative, this other zooplankton species is less abundant and nutritious.

As the finmarchicus has suffered, so, too, has one of its main predators, the lesser sand eel. And it is this formerly superabundant fish that is the staple food of puffins in many areas of the Atlantic. At the root of the disruption to marine life are the hydra-headed effects of climate change.

Though no one disputes that an important shift is under way in the sea areas of northern Britain and beyond, not everyone agrees that the present puffin situation is a crisis. A leading British expert, Mike Harris, thinks it is premature to designate the bird an endangered species. There are still millions of puffins and, he says, “We need numbers to plummet before we even start to assume that things are terminal.”

Similarly, Bergur Olsen, one of the foremost biologists studying puffins in the Faroe Islands, believes that the talk of extinction is over the top. “The food situation may change and puffins may well adapt to new prey, and then their numbers will stabilise and perhaps increase,” he says.

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On Staple Island, the extinction designation does appear bizarre. The Farne Island puffin population has increased by 8 per cent since 2008 and there are now 40,000 pairs. This success mirrors a wider stability among puffin colonies of the North and Irish Seas. The distinction in feeding ecology which may explain the birds’ varying fortunes is that, in the southern parts of the range, puffins can prey on sprats when sand eels are scarce. Sprats appear to have suffered none of the disruption that assails the other fish.

But Dunn says it is important to look at the whole picture. “It’s fantastic that puffins are doing well in places like the Farnes, but remember: Britain holds less than 10 per cent of the world total. Also, the declines that have beset puffins in Shetland and St Kilda are even worse for other seabirds.”

The numbers of a silver-winged gull called the kittiwake have fallen by 90 per cent in Shetland and St Kilda since 2000 and by 80 per cent in the Orkneys in just ten years. Shetland’s guillemot numbers have also halved, and the shag, a relative of the cormorant, has experienced falls of over 80 per cent on many islands since the 1970s – 98 per cent, on Foula. Most troubling is the fate of the Arctic skua, which feeds mainly on fish it steals from other seabirds and is reliant on their successes. Its declines are so severe that Dunn fears its eventual loss as a breeding species in Britain.

While there is disagreement about what to call the puffin predicament, there is unanimity on one issue: much of the data that informs the discussion in Britain is out of date. All of these seabirds, which are of global importance, have been monitored decade by decade since the 1970s. Yet the most recent big audit of our cliffs and offshore islands was concluded in 2000. The full census data is now 16 years old. The organisation that underwrites this work is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; it is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has suffered deep budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. There is no certainty that another comprehensive census will be mounted any time soon.

“Much is made on wildlife television of how special these islands are for wildlife and how much we care about it,” Dunn says. “In the case of our seabirds, one of those claims is indisputably true. Britain holds populations of some species that are of worldwide significance. But if we lack even basic information on those birds and how they’re faring, especially at a time when our seas are in such flux, what message does that send about how much this country cares? And how can we ever act effectively?”

The plight of the puffin is shedding light on the fortunes of our marine wildlife generally and the shifting condition of our oceans as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels. Now, puffin politics is also starting to show
this government’s indifference to nature.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue