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.)
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).
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.